The Accident

New Ghost Stories Case no. 282

One thing I’ve learnt from life: no matter how bad things are, get ready. Because they can always get worse.

What I wanted to do that night was just to go home. I wanted to have dinner and relax in front of the television. Not too much to ask, you would think.

We were in the midst of management restructuring. I was spending my afternoons in meeting rooms deciding who would go and who would stay. While at the same time, in another meeting room, my superiors were deciding who amongst my pay grade would get the axe.  

Because it doesn’t matter if you’re a good earner. That doesn’t make you safe. There’s always someone ahead of you who doesn’t want you to be too good. Someone who’s going to be pleased to press you down, stop you from getting above yourself and nipping at their heels.

End of the day, it’s dog eat dog. And everyone gets bitten eventually.

It was a rough time. A bad time. I had a lot on my mind. The last thing I needed was some silly girl causing a crisis. 

When I finally returned home, Rebecca was still doing the cooking. I was reading the paper in the living room. Arnold was with me playing with his blocks when the phone rang. He used to like answering the phone, and as it kept him quiet, I didn’t mind him doing it. But he runs back and says there’s someone talking with a funny voice who wants to speak to me.

I didn’t realise who it was right away, but when I did, I almost hit the roof. She had no business calling the house. I’d specifically told her not to. I don’t even know how she got her hands on the number.

I’d have given her a real telling off, but the phone is just next to the kitchen. And she’s hysterical; saying she’s going to hurt herself if she doesn’t see me. Rebecca’s just standing a few feet away! I couldn’t calm her down. I was afraid to even speak to her with Rebecca right there.

Last thing I wanted to do was drive over there at that hour in the evening. It was getting dark already. There was stormy weather on the way. Huge black clouds on the horizon. You could feel it in the air. This was a bad night to go out.  

But she left me with no damn choice. I couldn’t have the silly girl hurting herself. How would that look?

I had to make some excuse to leave. I told Rebecca there was a break in at the office and that I needed to meet the police there. Not one of my best excuses; she seemed to believe at the time, but all she had to do was mention it to one of her friends, who’d know nothing about it, to find me out. You know how they gossip, women. I knew I’d have to think of something else to say by the time I got home.

I had plenty of time to think of something. Magda lived more than 30 miles away. And she wonders why I don’t get over and see her more often. Didn’t she know I worked for a living?

It was nothing but country roads to get to her village. Twists and turns and narrow passes. I could hear thunder crashing in the distance. The more I heard it the more put I my foot down. I wanted to outdrive it. Get out ahead of the downpour.

The clouds burst just as I parked the car. It was torrential by the time I got to her door, about eight o’clock that night. She lived above a Chinese takeaway. I wasn’t dressed for the weather; I’d just taken my blazer with me. I was getting soaked.

The door gets answered by this pushy woman I’ve never seen before. I tell her I want to see Magda. She says she doesn’t want to see me.

Doesn’t want to see me! I’ve driven across the bloody county to get here. I want to see her. I want to see her now!

She slams the door and goes away. I’m standing there, getting soaked to my skin waiting for her. And that’s if she’s coming back. I don’t know that she is. I’m just waiting and waiting and getting wetter and wetter and wetter.

I bang on the door again. The people in the Chinese restaurant are starting to stare at me.

She comes back eventually and tells me Magda says it’s over. She doesn’t want to see me ever again.

And I say “Fine! I don’t want to see her either. And tell her not to call the house ever again. She can’t ever call the house.”

The woman shrugs her shoulders at me then shuts the door in my face.

I’m fuming. I get back in my car; I’m drenched head to toe. I’m so angry I can hardly drive. I stop off at a pub and try to calm myself down. I knew the place; I’d been there with my father years ago. He used to live in the area years back.

I had a drink or two and dried off in front of the fire. Talked war stories with the barman. I had to have something to eat or else I couldn’t make it through the evening. But not too much or else I wouldn’t be able to eat Rebecca’s dinner back at home.

But the weather just gets worse and worse. I didn’t want to drive in that downpour. I had a few more drinks. Put a few quid in the fruit machine. Read another newspaper.

It got to 10 o’clock. The rain was still coming down in buckets. It was flowing down the road like a river. But I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had to get back home.

It wasn’t such a nanny state in those days. You could drive and have a few drinks and no one would make such a great big bloody fuss about it. You could have a cigarette too without being called a fascist.

But the weather was so bad anyone would’ve had trouble. The rain was falling so hard the wipers would push it off and the windscreen would just be covered again in an instant. There wasn’t any thunder now. Just the sound of the wipers beating back and forth and the rain pounding on the roof.

I wasn’t reckless. I was careful. I had the lights on. I took each corner and each stretch of road cautiously. There weren’t many people driving. But I could see them coming. The lights worked well enough in any weather. They’d see me, I’d see them. I’d slow down, let them by, and drive on. I took each stretch carefully, deliberately, slowly.

I wasn’t the problem. I saw this great light coming at me. Right away, I knew something was wrong. It was large, moving incredibly fast. It was just one light. Not two. One strong beam. Growing and growing.

I pulled to the left, but it was coming so quick; I didn’t know what it was. Some juggernaut? Some carrier lorry? It filled the windscreen. I couldn’t get out of its way. I could hardly see anything else. It was coming straight at me. No swerving. No turning. It was going to be a head-on collision.

I didn’t have any choice. I threw the car to the left and put it right through a hedgerow.

There was no crash barrier, just a thin wire fence my car snapped through. I plunged down a steepish-slope. I was worried I might spin or skid out of control if I put the brakes on hard. I gripped the wheel tight to keep it straight.

When the slope started to level, I slammed the brakes on. The car skidded into the mud, burying the wheels in sludge. I smacked my head on the steering wheel.

I sat back in my seat. My head was pounding and so was my chest. It had all happened in just a few seconds.

I felt claustrophobic and hemmed in. I had to get myself out of the car. I needed air. I needed space.

I opened the car door and got myself out. But soon as I was on my feet, dizziness set in. I couldn’t walk straight. I slipped over and landed in the wet grass.

I had to stay down there for a moment to get my head straight. I turned over and lay on my back and let the rain fall on me.

What the hell was that thing? The more I thought about it, the less it made sense. You can hear cars. This thing had to be enormous. But thinking about it, I couldn’t remember hearing anything.

I get up and look at the car; damn thing has been brutalised. The wheels are deep in the mud. There’s no clearance. The windscreen is cracked. There’s bits of bush in the grille, and that’s battered out of shape.

I’m in a spot. I can’t get the car moving. And I can’t get up the bank. Maybe on a dry day, but it’s wet and muddy, and I slip when I try. I’m still dizzy. And what can I do if I get up there? There’s no traffic. Who’s going to see me? It’s dark and wet. I’d probably get myself killed. I hadn’t seen or heard a single car pass by since I’d crashed.

I needed to call the AA. Call Rebecca. Find someone to get me out of this. And it’s so dark. But in the distance I can see something. An old farmhouse, downhill from here. In a kind of valley between the hills. There are lights in the windows, and maybe a car parked outside.

It was the only option. The only thing. So I set off downhill. The fields were waterlogged. I needed wellies, not shoes. There were fences and gates to climb on the way. My head was pounding with every step. It was still raining. It just wouldn’t stop.

I had no idea how I was going to square this with the wife. And all because of some stupid bloody girl.

When I reach the gravel yard in front of the house, all prospects look pretty bleak. The car is a rust bucket. I’d have been surprised if it had gone anywhere in about ten years. There’s a barn but the roof has fallen in and it’s all rusty. The place is in a real mess.

But I’ve no other options. So I knock on the door. There’s one of those old big brass knockers. Loud at least; I’m going to get someone’s attention.

I see the curtains twitch. A voice shouts from behind the door: “What do you want?”

I could understand why she was jumpy. It was late, I was soaked through; mud up to my knees. I must’ve looked a total state.

“I’ve been in an accident,” I said.

“We’ve got no money here. I don’t have a penny to give you.”

“No, no, I’m not after money. I need help. To call the AA.”

“To call the what?”

“The AA. I crashed my car.”

She didn’t answer. I knock on the door again. “Can you help me? I’m soaked through to the skin.”

The door unlocks. She opens it on the chain, just slightly, so she can see me and look me up and down.

“Have you had an accident?”

“Bloody car drove me off the road. It’s buried in the mud now. I shalln’t be able to move it, or get it started.”

“My husband’s out. He’ll be back soon. I don’t have a car.”

“If I can just use your phone. I’ll call for…” The pounding in my head gets intense, and it’s overpowering. I can’t hold myself up. I fall against the door.

The door slams shut. I think for a second I’ve frightened the woman off. That she thought I was going to force my way in.

I black out, just for a moment. When I come round, she’s helping me inside. She’s helping me into a chair and I’m thanking her, but barely making any sense.

I try to open my eyes. But I can’t see straight. I guess I’m in a kitchen, but the place is spinning. I keep my eyes closed. I can hear her pacing around. She doesn’t know what to do. She’s so nervous and anxious she won’t keep still. I guess I can’t blame her. Me, in my state, showing up on the doorstep.  

“I’ll get you some water,” she says. A moment later, I’m sipping from an old mug. My head is clearing a little. My vision is a little better, but things are still rather blurry. The whole room won’t stay still. I can just about see her. She’s cowering in the corner.

“I’m sorry,” I say to her. “I hit my head.”

“Was the accident bad?” she says.

“Maniac forced me off the road. Car’s a wreck. Maybe salvageable, but in very bad shape.”

“I don’t know nothing about cars,” she says. “My husband drives, but he’s out down the pub. He’ll be back soon.

“Let me do something for your head.”

She rinses a rag in cold water; gives it to me to rest on my forehead. The kitchen was coming into focus – it was like something from another time. I had it better when I was growing up. I know there’s no real money in farming, but still. It was a real pigsty.

My eyes were playing tricks on me, but my other senses still worked well enough. I could smell cold gravy. There looked to be food waiting on the hob; a big metal pot sitting on a battered antique stove. I got the impression the husband had not come home for his supper.

The woman had retreated back to her corner. She was such a tiny, thin thing. She was smoking a cigarette; her tiny hands were trembling. She hadn’t wanted to bring me in and now she didn’t know what to do with me.

“Do you think your husband could help me tow the car?”

“At this time of night? I don’t know. I don’t think he’ll be in the mind to do that. Not now.”

“Then can I use your phone?”

“We don’t have one. Not out here.”

“You don’t have a phone?”

There was a sudden cry. There was a baby in the house. When she heard it, she looked all of a panic.

“Oh God, not again,” she said. “And he’ll be back any moment.”

She took herself out of the kitchen, leaving me with my pounding head and wondering what house in this day and age doesn’t have a telephone? There was no such thing as a mobile when I was in my prime. But everyone had a landline.

I felt a cold streak of water run down my neck. The place was so bad it was letting in water. I managed to stand up. I wasn’t so dizzy, but my vision was still jittery. The crying got louder. The woman came back to the kitchen. She was holding the baby, trying desperately to soothe it by bouncing it up and down.

“Why can’t you settle down? For just one night; not cause me any trouble.”

For the first time I could see her straight. She looked tired and drawn. She had a black eye and bruises. She’d taken a beating.

“God, why can’t you shut up,” she pleaded. The crying was getting to me too. I clutched my ears. There was something strange about it. It was getting under my skin, like nails on a blackboard. Making me feel sick.

“Oh you’ve done it now; he’s back. He’s home and you’re screaming.”

I turned around to the kitchen window and saw the beam of car headlights shine through. The lights came together into one bright light. It grew dramatically. For a moment it blocked out everything else. I had to close my eyes because it was too bright. I flashed back to earlier and the light that forced me off the road. I felt terror across my body. I had to run and get out of it’s way once again.

I turned around and was blinded by another blazing light. A flash of heat passed over me. The sound of screaming, mother and child, together, filled my ears.

The whole kitchen was on fire. The whole place was suddenly consumed. It was burning from floor to ceiling. Every part of it, tables, cabinets, counters – they were engulfed. Fire was tearing across every surface, distorting destroying, ripping everything part.

The woman and child had vanished, but their screams were deafening. I could hear a man now too. They were screaming, shouting at each other, while all around them was burning.

 I didn’t know what to do. I was stood in the middle of a blazing inferno. It happened so suddenly I had no time to react to it. I was frozen in shock, for what was probably only just a second or two, but it felt much longer. I was transfixed by it, until I started to feel it. I was on fire. Like a knife pushed in slowly, the shocking pain overtook me gradually. I felt my jaw fall open and an agonising scream rise from my belly. I felt my whole body crying out in agony.

I was screaming and screeching and bending double. Even when I awoke in the field. You see, I wasn’t in any house. I wasn’t in any inferno. I was face down in the grass. Soaking wet and shrieking. Two policemen were standing over me, shining a torch in my face. And they didn’t know what to think. 

I took some calming down. They’d parked their car on the road where I’d gone through the hedges. One was calling an ambulance. I thought I was still burning. I was trying to pat myself down. I was rolling about in the grass.

When I finally realised I wasn’t on fire, I sprung to my feet and pointed to the house, yelling about the woman and child who were burning to death. But there was no sign of the house. Then I fell back down on the ground.

I was out for another spell. When I woke again they were rolling me up the hillside on a trolley.

I remember looking down the valley. There was a house there. I could just about make it out. Some kind of ruin.

One of the ambulance men told me I had a concussion. I remember not saying much. The whole experience had the strangest effect on me. I knew straight away that this was no mere dream. That there was something unpleasant and uncanny about what I’d seen. Something absolutely horrible had happened once. And somehow I’d become a witness to it.

I couldn’t just make this all up in my head? Why? Where would these ideas even have come from? That house. That woman. The fire. It wasn’t like a nightmare; it ran straight from start to finish. There was none of the bizarre, weirdness of a dream. Until the blaze, everything had happened normally as if it were real.

And it felt real. I felt I could still hear her scream in the back of my head. That can’t just have been some concussion.

And why did it feel like I’d been there before? I couldn’t remember ever being there. But part of me was telling me I was no stranger. So oddly familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time.

They made me just spend the one night in hospital. The car was a write-off. That thing had cost me a fortune. And I had to pay for it to be towed.

Didn’t matter anyway. The bastards took my license for drink driving. Suspended for 6 months. Forced to get taxied around by Rebecca or wait for the bloody bus.

Her face was no joy first thing every morning, I can tell you. Rebecca cottoned on pretty quickly that the whole break-in story wasn’t genuine. I cooked up some tale about gambling at bridge and owing some money and someone getting all shirty about it. It wasn’t bad for quick thinking on my part. But she knew what it was really about.  

After I was out of hospital, I was sleeping on the sofa for a week. That’s sympathy for you. But maybe it was best her not sleeping next to me. Every night after I was being haunted by nightmares.

I kept dreaming images of the fire. I dreamt I was trying to find my way through the inferno. I was running through the house room after room. Choking on the smoke, feeling my body burning. Treading on broken glass. I’d find her and I’d see her reach out to me. But as she took hold of my hand, someone else grabbed the other. I was being pulled back and forth between the two. The person behind would win. The woman would scream. And then the whole house would start to cave in and I’d wake up sweating. Gasping for air, as if I’d actually been choking on smoke.

Weeks after, I was still waking up in hot sweats. Being home at all hours was giving me cabin fever. I didn’t know what to tell Rebecca about the house. The whole event was still plaguing me. But I was too confused to even put it into words.

I was drinking a lot. I still wasn’t sure what was happening with my job; it was a bad time to be taking time off and showing your face at the office with your wife behind the wheel.

I got so drunk I even tried to call Magda a couple of times. But she never bloody answered. 

I knew I’d have to go back there. To the house I mean. Track the place down. Try to make some sense of it all. That was the only place where I could get any answers.

One night while Rebecca was out with her friends, I stole her car. I was stone-cold sober and I started to drive back to the road where I’d had the accident. Even being there made my heart pound. It was still bright, the sun was only just starting to go down. And I made a promise to myself not to be there when it went dark. Besides, I had to be back before Rebecca noticed I was gone.

I looked through the hole I made in the hedge, down the slope to where the house had stood. I could see the ruin now. The skeleton of a building. Some of its walls survived. But the roof had caved in long ago. No sign of the barn or anything else. The whole place had been conquered by grass and weeds.

I sat in my car with my map and worked out the way to drive down there. It didn’t take so long to figure out the roads. I had to travel a distance ahead, and then come back on myself via a different route to get across to the hills on the other side of the valley.

Getting to the farm was tougher. I travelled down crumbling roads, barely big enough for a car. And then when those roads ran out, I was left to travel across abandoned dirt tracks where the paving stones were so buried under the wildlife it would’ve been hard to even walk across them.

I drove until I couldn’t drive any further. I needed a plough, not a Vauxhall Cavalier.

Carrying on, on foot, I arrived at a wide gate. It had been chained shut, but the chains and the gate were so rusty whoever owned the key couldn’t have used it. I climbed over and landed on to a driveway that was just about visible under moss and creeping vines.

The frame of a two-story house was there. Some of the roof supports were still up. But the upstairs was mostly gone. The walls looked like they’d collapsed inwards.  

I could see black char on the brickwork. I hadn’t dreamt up the fire. It was real. Generations ago this place had burnt almost to the ground.

I had seen some flashback to the past. It would make sense of the ancient kitchen and there being no landline. I thought about how far back all this went. How ancient was this house? And how far back had I seen?

I felt very tense walking through the open doorway. I was certain now, more than before, that I’d seen something very real. I just didn’t know how or why.

Pushing my way through the weeds, I got into what used to be the kitchen. I could barely recognise this as a home. I could look up and see right up into the sky. The ruin was clearly popular with birds. Their droppings coated every wall that still stood.

I walked further into the house, into what I thought must be a living room. An old place like this probably didn’t even have an inside toilet. Imagine raising a child here?

It crossed my mind that they must not have survived. No one could have lived through that fire. That meant somewhere there must be a grave. There must be someone who knew what had happened. There would probably be something more I could learn, look up somewhere. If I wanted to.

I saw through one of the windows that it was close to sunset. It had taken longer than I thought to find my way. I could feel my heartbeat growing. I decided to leave. But before I left, I stepped on something that went crack under my foot.

I had trodden on an object stuck under the weeds. I was able to pull some of them away with my hands and found a dark rectangle shape trapped beneath a scorched plank of wood. I could see light reflect off shards of glass scattered around it. I grabbed the wood to lift it; but I just pulled large rotten chunks of it away. Too many creeping vines were holding it down. Yet I managed to lift it up just enough to slide the object from underneath it.

 I had found a picture frame; I could see the table stand on the back. It was damp and distorted by rainwater. All I had to do was turn it over to see the picture inside.

I felt cold. I was trembling. My heartbeat was getting even stronger. I was afraid of what I might see. I didn’t know why. Something deep within me was causing my insides to turn around and upside down. I was telling myself to be afraid of what was in the picture.

I lifted it up, still leaving it face down. And when I turned it over… I found nothing. Just a cracked frame. Whatever picture had been inside had rotted a long time ago. There were woodlice crawling around in there. I dropped the thing, feeling like a fool.

It was time to go. I walked through the grass back into the kitchen. I remember noticing how strangely quiet it all was. As I looked around the ruin one last time, something caught my eye.

Out of the window, in the distance, there was a small woodland. There was a ball of light moving through the trees.

I got out of the house and stood in the driveway. It seemed to move slowly at first. A little flashing light moving along, veering left and right. Dancing amongst the tree trunks.

 It was growing, and getting gradually closer. Steadily, it was moving towards the front of the woodland.

I stood frozen, watching, mesmerised by the strange thing. I couldn’t feel my heartbeat any more. For a second, it was as if the whole world had come to a standstill.

I watched it dance for a few moments more. Then it broke from the woodland and tore down the hillside. A blazing ball of fire, leaving a scorched path across the landscape. Getting faster. Plummeting towards the house.

I turned and I ran. I could hear the screaming again. I made for the gate. I tried to bolt it, but I didn’t quite make it. I tumbled over the top and landed on my back on the other side.

As I got up, I looked behind me. The light was by the house. I caught just a glimpse of her, the woman on fire. Coming towards me. Chasing after me. Screaming out my name.

I got back to my feet. I dug my hand into my pocket to reach for my car keys, but I caught my foot under a long root and fell flat on my face. The keys slid out of my hand and into the grass.

I could feel the heat on my back. She was right behind me. I scrambled on all fours to where the keys had landed. As I reached to scoop them up, her scream roared louder than ever before.

Her hand grabbed hold of my ankle. I felt a thundering shock of excruciating, burning pain. I cried out, but I could barely hear myself.

The sudden jolt made me kick out with my other foot. That push forward – it got my ankle free of her grasp.

I madly scrambled ahead, pushing myself up, getting back to my feet.

 She howled like a banshee. Stumbling, hopping, limping, I made it to my car. I slammed the door and got the keys into the ignition as the bright light poured in through the windows.

I threw it into reverse. In a feat of sheer driving skill, I swung the car around in a swift 180, in just this tiny, overgrown space. As the horrible light was close to blinding me, I slammed my foot down on the accelerator, sending mud and weeds flying behind me.

I gripped the steering wheel as if my life depended on it. The car bounced and bashed its way through the rocky, rough, grass-covered roads. As I made it onto real tarmac the light dimmed and the roar of her voice faded into the distance.

I was back driving on real road. There was nothing in my rear view mirror now. My burnt ankle was agonisingly painful, and my whole body was battered and bruised.

I tried to keep my mind on the road. But as night fell, I found I just couldn’t let my foot off the pedal. My adrenaline was too high; my heart was thumping too hard.

I just kept seeing these flashes across my vision. The woman running. Burning. Her arms stretched out wide. Reaching for me. Crying out my name. Trying to take me away with her.

To burn with her, in the fire.  

New Ghost Stories Volume 3 is out in early 2021. You can view previous New Ghost Stories books here and download free New Ghost Stories here.

New Ghost Stories Podcast Ep3 - Knock Down Ginger

  
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It’s often the case that people who experience a supernatural event are already haunted by some trauma or turmoil. Some personal strain, past or present, that made their experience all the more accute and painful.

It could be that it’s this strain that makes them more susceptible to a mental delusion. Or it could be that this moment of crisis allows them to comprehend that which otherwise would go unseen. Opinions obvously vary.

And yet supernatural experiences also happen to normal people who are just going about their daily lives with simple, everyday concerns.

What happens to the subject in Knock Down Ginger is hard to unravel. You’ll find clues in this account; this haunting may go back many years. It may have impacted the life of a relative for some time. Or equally their eccentricities may have been completely unrelated, we can only guess.

What is clear is that the subject had little to gain from speaking to me of her experiences. It was a traumatic event, but it was just a few days in her life. She has overcome it, moved on from it. She has no demons to speak of.

And yet, for those few short days, she was faced with something that became truly terifying.

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New Ghost Stories Volume 3 is out in 2021. You can read a simple story here and check out previous volumes here.

New Ghost Stories Q&A 2 | Interview & research tecnniques

Each New Ghost Story is created using hours of witness interviews and extensive background research.

In this second Q&A, I’m focusing on the work I do with subjects and how I fact check and scrutinise their accounts.

Why do you think people want to be interviewed for New Ghost Stories?

There’s no single reason, but often people just want to get things off their chest. Most of us are natural sharers. And with traumatic events, sharing is even more important; it’s part of the healing process. But if you’re afraid to tell anyone what happened, you’re denied that opportunity.

So there’s definitely a closure aspect. I think subjects like the idea of a confidential confession. They want their side of the story to get out somehow.

There’s also a small category who like the infamy and attention – they’re excited to get their story in a book and will want to boast to others. Although the confidentiality agreement stays in place regardless.

How do you decide which people to interview?

As I mentioned last time, there has to be a real story. There’s just not much to write about if someone has simply caught a glimpse of a ghostly figure.

If someone contacts me with something more expansive, I’ll ask them to write a summary of their experiences, around 300 words. I’ll also provide them with full details of what the whole process is going to entail – multiple interviews, producing corroborative evidence, and an investigation of their claims.

I mention the process because people are often put off by the amount of work required, so I often don’t hear back. Those who do return a summary, I’ll likely choose to interview.

Do you interview subjects in person?

I will try to meet people face to face; it helps build a rapport, which is essential if a subject finds the conversation difficult and needs reassurance. I also get to see their body language, which is invaluable in getting a sense of who they are and whether I can rely them.

Sometimes it’s not possible, but I won’t pursue a case without at least a phone or Skype call. Written accounts are useful – especially to check against – but I need to ask questions in real time so I can assess the responses.  

How do you make sure subjects are telling the truth?

Because I get multiple verbal or written accounts from each subject, I’m able to compare notes and see if their story changes between each telling. I can then make further enquiries based on any discrepancies.  

Small discrepancies are understandable, but larger diversions will sound alarm bells. Exaggeration is an obvious thing that’s called out by this process. If details become distorted, it’s clear the subject isn’t reliable. If the story isn’t consistent and I’m not able to confirm details through corroborating evidence, I’ll bring the case to a close.

How much research do you do yourself?

I want to stress-test the subject’s account. Ideally I’ll visit the locations where it took place, see if their account makes sense in terms of geography and the timeline of events - how long’s it take to get from A to B; can you see that location from this location, etc.

I’ll pretty much check any detail of their account that I can, that can include examining train timetables, bank transactions, weather reports... anything that will help me have more confidence in their statements.

Do you interview other witnesses?

Sometimes, but it can present challenges. Subjects typically don’t confide their experiences to others for obvious reasons. Sometimes more than one living person is involved, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll want to open up or talk to me.

There are conflicts and tragedy at the heart of many of these stories. In some cases people have been accused of crimes, in others they’ve confessed to crimes (Case 246 Prince of Foxes comes to mind). It’s contradictory on the one hand to offer confidentiality, yet on the other, put subjects at risk by stoking old conflicts and risking revealing damaging information.

I therefore only interview witnesses who the subject agrees it’s appropriate for me to contact. This does mean stories are biased towards one person’s perspective, but I’ve always been clear that each case is one person’s account only.

Couldn’t someone still get around your method and trick you?

It’s possible someone could go to the trouble of memorising a story, basing it around real locations and working out the logistics correctly. They could put together a fake paper trail of evidence and put on a really good performance when we speak. But that’d be a lot of work for little reward.

There’s no payment for stories and no credits offered. And there’s no guarantee I’ll publish the story anyway. Someone would have to be very determined. No doubt there’s a ‘debunker’ somewhere who’ll try one day. I shall looked forward to the challenge.

Do you publish any story you can’t find a hole in – even the outlandish ones?

For the most part, yes. If the subject takes it seriously and invests the time to go through the process, I will usually publish.

There are wild stories in the archive – Glass Eye and Master of Spiders stand out. But as I’ve said before, it matters less to me that the story itself is true, only that the subject honestly believes that it’s true.

Do you stay in touch with your interviewees?

I think most are sick of hearing from me by the end! This isn’t really intended to be an ongoing dialogue.

I let people read the story I’ve created from their accounts to see if they have any comments, and I’ll consider those before publishing. Mostly (but not always) we part on good terms afterwards.

That said, recently a couple of old cases have had new developments which I may follow up in future stories. So watch this space…

New Ghost Stories Volume 3 is out in 2021. You can order previous volumes here, and a volume of free stories here.

Coming Home

New Ghost Stories case no.301

I felt nervous putting the key in the lock. I’d been away for over a year. I was sweating, but that was probably from dragging the suitcases downstairs.

Nothing seemed to be wrong. I could see inside the flat by peering through the frosted glass windows. They blurred things, obviously, but you could still see quite a lot. Like whether you had clothes on or not in the hall. I’ve always been glad that the postie leaves the mail upstairs.

I turned the key. It turned smoothly with a few familiar clicks. So I pushed the door open.

The air wasn’t the same. It was a bit stale. You know how you never notice the smell of you in your own home, but you can always smell someone else in theirs? The flat smelt like someone else. It smelt musty; it was a man’s smell.

I moved my suitcases into the hall and closed the door behind me. I took a look around, trying to see if anything was different. What state had they left the place in?

They’d lived here for 18 months; there was going to be some new wear and tear. It’s amazing all the little things you remember. I could recall little dents to the skirting board and scuffs along the walls that had been there from before. And I could easily spot the ones that were new.

We probably weren’t going to go after their deposit. Not unless there was really something wrong. Nothing jumped out at me straight away. It looked like they’d made a decent job of leaving the place clean. There was a little dust, but they’d been gone a couple of days now, so that was forgivable.

The bedroom looked fine. There were no sheets on the bed, but the mattress protector was still there. One of my little suggestions; I was not going to sleep on other people’s stains and dead skin.

I opened up the closets; just the hangers were there. They clanged about as I slid the doors open. Parked up in the back were Pedro’s golf clubs; the one thing we couldn’t fit in the garage. The one thing I wouldn’t have minded disappearing.

It was cold and very quiet. I moved into the living room and noticed the new carpet. Not so new now: about a month after they’d moved in, we’d had an email to say they’d broken a bottle of wine and basically ruined it. They apologised and said they’d pay for a replacement.

We agreed, but it made us kind of nervous, them screwing up so soon. They didn’t really have any references; they were first-time travellers from Australia. We got on pretty well and decided to take a chance on them.

They sent us pictures of carpet samples to approve, then paid to have it fitted. Nothing else happened after that, which was a big relief.

It looked darker now I was seeing it in person. We’d rather have had hard floors anyway; we just didn’t have the money yet.

It’s a one-bed basement flat. The living room is long, so we have the sofa and TV at one end and the dining area at the other. I sat on the sofa and bounced up and down. It seemed ok. Comfy and familiar

There was a ring on the dining table that definitely wasn’t there before. I think we’ll forgive them for that. It’s a cheap table anyway. We spent more on the sofa.

They’d given the kitchen a basic clean. The oven was filthy; was that too much to ask? Probably not, but I didn’t want to be vindictive. And I couldn’t remember if we’d cleaned it before they moved in.

My phone vibrated. Pedro was calling.

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“Fine, thanks. I just got back.”

“How’s it looking?”

“It’s… fine…”

“You don’t sound so sure.”

“It’s good. I mean, nothing’s really changed. It just feels different. You know?”

“How so?”

“Just doesn’t feel like our home.”

“We’ve been gone a long time.”

“Yeah. But it’s, like, the atmosphere. I want to air the place out. It’s all stale. And smells a bit like man.”

“You don’t like man smell?”

“Only when deodorised. Not their actual smell. You guys stink too much.”

“Well when I’m back next week, I’ll run around a bit for you. Get a sweat on and get out my Old Spice. How’s that sound?”

“Super gross, but thanks.”

“How’s the weather.”

“Frickin’ cold.”

“It’s only September.”

“It’s almost October. It’s England. It’s like 12 degrees. That’s the problem with airing the place out.”

“That’s not cold.”

“You’re close to the equator. You don’t know what cold is now. If I can stand it, I’ll open the windows for 20 minutes. Then put the heating on.”

“You want to put the heating on in September?”

“Yes-I’m-going-to-put-the-heating-on-in-September. It’s freezing. I’m not big and hairy like you.”

“Well you know how much I appreciate that, right?”

“Yeah, you better.”

“So you remember how to set the dial on the boiler?”

“Yes, I remember.”

“I’m just asking.”

“I can handle the boiler, thank you.”

Pedro is very technical. A real nerd. He knows how everything works. So he thinks I don’t know how anything works. This gets on my nerves real bad.

“What time is it in Thailand?”

“Almost 4am.”

“You didn’t need to call me.”

“I just wanted to make sure you’re safe.”

“I’m only flying back to England; I can manage.”

It’s nice that he cares and wants to look after me. But it bugs me. I texted him to say I’d arrived. What else did he need to know?

I told him to get off the phone and get some sleep. All my winter clothes are in the garage. I wonder if I can pull some out without shifting tons of boxes.

I open up the windows and go outside. It takes a while to move things around in the garage to get to my clothes. I pull out a bag of winter coats and carry them inside before freezing my ass off. 

I set the boiler all by myself and close the windows. Wrapping myself up warm, I head out to our favourite pizza place. But I was gutted to find out it was gone. It was a Thai place now, ironically. I was pretty sure Thai food was never going to taste as good outside Thailand. Exhaustion was catching up with me. I went to the supermarket and got a microwave curry and a few other supplies.

It was nice and warm when I got back. I didn’t stay up long. I ate my Chicken Tikka and caught up with British TV. I sent my sister a text; I was looking forward to catching up and meeting my baby nephew.

I thought I’d crash out pretty fast, but I couldn’t really sleep. It might’ve been the jetlag. But you know that relief you get when you return home from a long journey? I wasn’t getting that. Maybe it was because I’d been away so long. Somewhere else had started to feel like home.

It could’ve been because the flat was still empty of stuff. The atmosphere is different; your voice bounces off the walls. And that smell was still there. And it was still cold. I had to go back to the thermostat in the middle of the night.

I guess it was just going to take time for me to get used to things here again.

Things were in different places than they were before, and some things were missing. When I wanted to make coffee in the morning, I couldn’t find where they’d put the kettle. The teaspoons were mixed in with the other spoons. Then I couldn’t find my favourite cereal bowl. I have a big bowl, because I’m always starving when I wake up. Bastards.

The cupboard where we used to keep the cups now had saucepans in it. Which didn’t make any sense – you have your cups where your kettle is, right? But they’d put the kettle away, so maybe they didn’t like hot drinks. Weirdos.

I solved the cup and pan situation by quickly doing a swap, then I had my breakfast. Two bowls of Rice Crispies; they must’ve broken my favourite bowl and thrown it away.

The broadband was disconnected – also really annoying. Couldn’t they have transferred it to us instead of cutting it off? I don’t know. It was just one more thing to sort out. I was liking them less now. 

It was a classic overcast British day. I headed into town to sort out a new contract for my phone. I could tether that to my laptop to get online for now.

Things had changed more than I expected. There were always parts that were rundown, but there were even more shops covered in shutters and more businesses catering for the immigrant population. Nothing really wrong with that, I just wasn’t sure we needed more shops selling halal meat and shiny furniture.

Making it look worse by comparison were the new builds springing up. There were fancy flats and this thing called a box park. This was some kind of trend where you built shops inside of shipping crates, I guess because it was too expensive to run a normal shop now. If I ever wanted vegan sherbet or a Hello Kitty dreamcatcher, I knew where to go.

It was like one part of town was waiting to swallow the other. The new part would rise, the old part would die. Walking by an estate agent, I noticed how much house prices had shot up. That would make Pedro happy; he said this was a good place to invest. I hadn’t really wanted to move around here, because it was a bit of a dive. But everywhere gets to make a comeback I suppose. Pedro was right again.

I knew Pedro wanted kids eventually. I wasn’t sold on the idea, at least not yet. Getting a one-bedroom basement apartment made it seem like he wasn’t in any rush. I figured now we were both moving back, he might start asking again. He’d get misty-eyed over pictures of Maxie’s baby. How long before the conversation was going to come up again?

I checked the mail when I got back. There were a few letters for our old tenants in the cubby. I had no idea if we had their forwarding address. I wondered what had happened to our post. We must’ve had some while we were away.

 There was a lost cat poster on the wall. I didn’t even know pets were allowed in the building. As I was reading it, the Puerto Rican lady who lives in the flat above walked by. She and Pedro would chat in Spanish sometimes. I was going to say hello, but she passed right by. Perhaps she didn’t notice me?

I started to unpack in the afternoon and got back online, messaging friends and arranging catch-ups. Pedro called in the evening. He was staying five days more to finish his contract.

“Everything working?”

“Seems to be.”

“Did you master the boiler?”

“It’s working fine,” I lied. “Did Adam and Katie leave a forwarding address?”

“Yeah, I think so. I’ll forward you the email.”

“Looks like they got some bills. Hope they paid for everything.”

“They remembered to cancel the internet; I think they’ll have taken care of them.”

“No thanks to them for that. The 4G down here’s terrible. I sent you some price comparison stuff to look at by the way.”

There’s no way Pedro would let me choose broadband on my own. He actually reads small print. He’s literally the only person who ticks the little box and is being totally honest.

“What else you been up to?”

“Unpacking.”

“You been into the garage?”

“Just for some clothes.”

“Going to let me do all the heavy lifting?”

He also has this thing about me leaving all the hard stuff to him. As if he’d let me do it anyway.

“No, I’ll start bringing things in.”

“You sure? Don’t strain yourself.”

“First you don’t want me to leave you all the work, now you want me to wait. Make your mind up Pedro.”

“I’m not trying to make you do anything. Do what you can and we’ll take care of the rest together.”

“Maxie just emailed me. Looks like she can get away tomorrow night.”

“Get away? Don’t you want to spend time with baby?”

“Yeah, of course. But I’m sure she’s sick of the sight of him. Probably dying for a night out.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Babies are noisy, poopy, screamy. And they have absolutely no banter.”

“But so cute.”

I was saved from talking about it more when the signal dropped out and didn’t come back. I text him goodnight and got myself ready for bed.

 I had trouble sleeping again. It wasn’t just jetlag; I’d forgotten how noisy it was in the city. I could hear police sirens, drunks in the street and people coming in and out of the building. The town outside Bangkok was peaceful in comparison.

I kept hearing what I thought were footsteps. They didn’t sound like they were coming from the stairs though – they were soft, and there’s no carpet there. Could they be coming from the hall?

I didn’t really think anyone was there. But I couldn’t sleep, and it was distracting me. I went to check. I looked up and down the hall, and saw nothing, like I expected. It must be old building noise.

 I went to use the bathroom. After I closed the door, I heard the footsteps again. They were louder, like someone running on tiptoes. I pulled the door open, but saw nothing. I turned on all the lights and checked the living room and bedroom. I was completely alone. I had to be.

I was so tired, maybe I couldn’t trust my senses. It all seemed very strange. I normally leave the bedroom door open, but I felt better closing it this time.

It was freezing again in the morning. The boiler was off; the timer had been wiped and the thermostat was way too low. What would make it reset like that?

The weather was still terrible, but I got to work on bringing in things from the garage anyway, starting with the rest of my winter clothes.

One thing I found while I was shifting Pedro’s computer junk out the way, was the big Matisse print we’d bought together. I’d totally forgotten about that. On our first ever date we’d gone to Tate Modern and there’d been an exhibition of his cut-out work. After we got engaged, we’d passed an antique store and seen an old print we remembered from the exhibit. So we bought it and replaced the frame. We were going to hang it in the living room, but somewhere along the way we decided to work abroad, so it never got hung up.

I decided to surprise Pedro. Show him I could complete all kinds of simple tasks without his help. I figured I just had enough time before going out to meet Maxie.

It was pretty easy really. I got the picture wire and spirit level from his toolbox, used the tape measure to find the exact middle of the wall. It was heavy, so it was tough to get on the hook. But it wasn’t that hard, and it looked really good. I text him a picture to show off my hard work before I headed out.

It was so great catching up with my sister. For some reason I thought she might not want to talk much about the baby, as she was with him all the time. But actually, that’s all new parents want to talk about. Because there’s literally nothing else going on with them.

Yes, I got to hold him and touch his tiny nose and hold his tiny hands. He was very baby like. A good old-fashioned baby in every way.

It was so weird seeing Maxie all settled down. Who knew she wanted all this domestic stuff? I mean, good for her. I just wasn’t sure it was very much for me.

And she had to ask didn’t she? “When are you and Pedro going to have kids?” Because as soon as one person has a kid, everyone has to have one. Is it less special if you have children and everyone else doesn’t? Maybe it’s like getting drunk; it doesn’t seem a terrible mistake if everyone does it.

Once we got past that, it was a pretty good night. Not a rough night; Maxie was as tired as I was. We called it just after eleven.

I was a bit tipsy, but not very drunk. And then I arrived home…

I’d been robbed. I opened the door and I could see things scattered throughout the hall. The flat had been trashed.

Someone had gone through every cupboard, drawer, box, container. My clothes were all over the bedroom; some of them had been ripped up. My make-up was all over the bathroom floor. My books had been thrown across the living room. My laptop lay smashed by the dining table.

And the picture I’d hung up just that afternoon was face down on the floor. I could see broken glass under it. They’d left the TV alone; I suppose that was lucky.

I walked back outside and phoned the police. It was like, if I went out and then back in again, it might somehow not be as bad as it looked. Maybe I’d made some terrible mistake and it wouldn’t be my flat after all.

The police arrived – a man and a woman. They asked me if anything was missing. I hadn’t thought to check; I’d just seen the carnage and panicked. They said to think about anything really valuable.

I had my engagement ring on. I had no other expensive jewellery, and none of the rest seemed to be missing. My laptop was still there; the back was hanging off, but it still turned on.

The police said they might not have found what they were looking for. But they hadn’t just searched the place; they’d destroyed it. There were footprints on the back of the picture frame. Someone had literally jumped up and down on it.

“Someone small,” said the male cop. The prints were really small, they must’ve had tiny feet.

“Did you leave the door unlocked?” asked the female cop.

“No, I had to unlock it to let myself in.”

“There’s no sign of forced entry.” We checked it together; there was no damage. There was no damage to the windows either.

“Anyone else have a key?”

I shook my head, but then thought twice. What had happened to Adam and Katie’s keys? Had they sent them back to us? I didn’t have them, and I hadn’t seen them in the flat. Could they have given them to someone else?

The male cop said that if Adam and Katie had expensive things, someone might’ve broken in to rob them, not us. They were trying to think of a reason why we’d been targeted.

“If they had a key, they might just’ve thought, why not?” said the female cop. They could’ve trashed the place to make sure nothing valuable was hidden. But destroying books and pictures was just vindictive. And why not take my laptop or the TV?

It didn’t make sense. Adam and Katie wouldn’t just hand the keys over to anyone. They wouldn’t be stupid like that. Or would they? How much did we really know about them?   

I called Pedro; I knew he’d be asleep, I just hoped he might not be. I left him a message.  

The cops found no fingerprints or other clues. They said that wasn’t unusual; most burglars know what they’re doing. They left me with some paperwork and that was it. They recommended getting in touch with Adam and Katie. They said people desperate for money would try anything. Were they desperate?

I started cleaning things up, even though I was exhausted. I began with my clothes, getting them off the floor and back on to hangers. A dress I really loved had been ripped almost in half. Under that, I found my signed Maya Angelou book, that Pedro got me for Valentine’s Day, torn up. I started to cry. Why would someone do this? If you want to steal something, just steal it. Why be so fucking vicious?

When I cut my hand on broken glass, I knew I had to stop. I downloaded a meditation to relax me before bed, but I was too upset. Someone had been into my home, touched my things, attacked my belongings. And maybe they had a key.

When I thought of that, I got up and I dragged the drawers from my bedroom down the hall at three in the morning to block the door.

The thought that they might come back… would they try again? No, it made no sense to try again. I was just shaken up, afraid.

I could hear footsteps in the night again. I was going to ignore them. I knew they were nothing. I heard a crack in the living room – something being stepped on.

I was out of bed so fast; I flipped on the light and looked across the horrible mess. My eyes hurt, but no one was there again.

I barely slept a wink. Pedro rang me at 9 o’clock on the dot.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. It’s shaken me up that’s all.”

“Yeah, sure you are. Did they take anything?”

“No, that’s what’s so fucked up about it. They only trashed the place.”

“Maybe they were looking for something.”

“That’s what the police seemed to think. Maybe they didn’t know I’d moved back in.”

“You think they were after Adam and Katie?”

“Well why would they target me? I don’t have any valuable jewellery?” The police said jewellery was a better return for burglars than anything else.

“Did Katie have a lot of jewellery?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Burglars don’t pick a house at random. They choose their targets.”

“Unless they’re opportunists. Did you leave any windows open?”

“In this weather?”

“Well how did they get in?”

“That’s the other fucked up thing; there’s no sign of a break in. They must’ve come in through the front door.”

“Did you leave it unlocked?”

“No, I didn’t leave it unlocked.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes! I had to unlock it to let myself in.”

“How else could they get in?”

“If you’ll let me finish a fucking thought Pedro, I’ll tell you how I think they got in.”

“Ok, ok. I’m listening.”

“What did Adam and Katie do with their keys to the place?”

“They said they’d post them when they left.”

“I haven’t seen them.”

“Are you sure?”

If he asked that again, I was going to lose it. “They weren’t here when I got back.”

“Did you check the mail?”

“Of course I checked the mail.”

“Doesn’t make sense, why would they come back? Why trash our place?”

“Maybe it’s not them. Maybe somebody stole the keys from them.”

“Why?”

“Because they thought we had something worth stealing. Christ Pedro, I don’t fucking know.”

“I’m going to change my flight.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I’m worried. I want to be there with you.”

“Pedro, I don’t need you to come to my rescue. This is a shitty thing to happen. But I can take care of it.”

“I can catch an early flight; it’s not a problem.”

“You’re only there four more days. Just wait, ok. If you want to help, find Adam and Katie’s number and ask what they did with the spare key.”

“I have their emails. We must have their number somewhere.”

“Phone, email, just find out, ok?”

I promised Pedro I’d call a locksmith. Maybe this had nothing to do with Adam and Katie’s key; lots of people had lived in the flat before it was ours. Perhaps one of them had a key and took a chance on finding something to steal. It was as good an answer as any.

I went to make myself a tea before jumping in the shower. As the kettle started to boil, I opened the cupboard to grab a mug.

It was full of saucepans.

I remember just staring at them. For quite a long time. I was so confused.

This was wrong. I’d moved the saucepans into the cupboard under the sink and I’d put the mugs back in the cupboard above the kettle.

I hadn’t imagined this. I’d done this less than 48 hours ago. How the fuck had the cups ended up back under the sink and the saucepans in the cupboard above the kettle?

I made the switch again, righting the wrong while the kettle went cold. Maybe I’d just thought to do it and hadn’t actually done it.

I needed my shower. Standing in hot water would make me feel better and soothe my aching head. I could handle this. Whatever the fuck it was that was going on.

After ten calming minutes, I stepped out the shower. I wrapped myself in a towel, then stepped on some lipsticks. They slid from under my foot and I fell hard – full legs up, arms in the air, hard. My right foot kicked the door frame; it was so painful.

I had, like… a real moment there, where I just… I had to let myself lose it. For a few minutes, I let myself scream and cry. I could’ve tidied the bathroom floor up last night, but didn’t. I was just shit out of luck.

When I was done, I sat up. I stared at my foot, wiggled my toes. Nothing was broken; it was just going to swell up and hurt like hell.

I could imagine the silent judgement on Pedro’s face. It was a look that said: ‘you should’ve picked those things up already, shouldn’t you?’

Well I picked myself up and I hopped myself about. I put on my pyjamas, made that cup of tea, sat on the sofa and sandwiched my foot between a bag of ice and frozen green beans.

I was desperate to tidy up all the fucking mess, but there was just nothing I could do for now. I had to try and relax. I let the TV play whatever crap was on for a couple of hours.

My laptop was working, but the Wi-Fi was fucked. Finding a locksmith was not easy on my phone. Their websites – not great on mobile. Why was everything such a fucking nightmare?

Calling them out fast would cost a fortune. And I didn’t even have a job yet. When was I even going to get around to that?

What would Pedro do? Would he spend the money on getting one fast, or would he wait?

It was unlikely they’d come back having already found nothing. So I made the appointment for a few days’ time. The second thoughts came straight away. I could keep blocking the door, leave the key in the lock. But I wouldn’t be here all the time. What about when I was out? Could I even drag the drawers back to the door with my ankle in such a state?

To hell with it; I’d decided now. Pedro would be back soon anyway. Not that I needed him to look after me.

It would just be nice not to be alone.

I went on Facebook. I was trying to make plans to meet up with people. I thought that after a year away, my friends might be excited to see me. But everyone was busy. They’d all got plans already, or lived far away, or they’d got kids to look after now. So many baby photos in my feed…

I thought about messaging Maxie to let her know what had happened. But there was nothing she could really do. She had enough on her plate. And I was going to be fine.

I decided to look up Adam and Katie. I was wondering if they were the people we thought they were. What if they were druggies who’d come back hoping to find money. That would explain a lot. Aussies like to live large.

I couldn’t find Katie at all. Adam’s feed was pretty empty. It just had things shared with him by friends; memes and stuff.

There was one thing from a few months ago: a picture of the two of them on a bright day in the park. They were holding hands with a little girl and lifting her up off the ground. Everyone was grinning, having a great old time.

The picture had a few likes, from members of his family, judging by the names. The girl wasn’t tagged; she was maybe six or seven.

There was something a little off about the photo. She looked a bit weird. Like the flash had gone off too close to her. Except that it was sunny, so they wouldn’t have used flash, unless by accident.

 She couldn’t have been their kid. They’d have mentioned that, right? Plus she looked mixed-race and Adam and Katie are both white.

The picture stuck in my head enough to ask Pedro about it.

“I’m pretty sure they’d have said if they had kids.”

“But they didn’t say for definite that they didn’t have kids,” I said.

“Yes, but no one would come to you and say: ‘Hi, nice to meet you, me and my partner don’t have children.’ That would be weird. Besides, they would have to have told us because of the contract.”

“But… the picture is really weird. And I just remembered something. You know I texted you about putting the Matisse print up? That was pulled off the wall and someone jumped on the back. You can see tiny footprints there.”

“You think kids did this?”

“A kid, maybe. I don’t know.”

“I thought you said this girl was really young.”

“Yeah. I guess it doesn’t make sense that a kid or kids could do this on their own.”

“Have you seen Home Alone?”

He was poking fun at me and I didn’t like it. And I got the feeling he was doing it because there was something he wanted to say but couldn’t spit it out.  

“Are you still there?” I asked.

“I was just thinking something...”

“… And?”

“Are you sure you didn’t just leave the door unlocked?”

I felt my fist clench: “I told you. I didn’t leave the door unlocked.”

“It would just make sense.”

“None of this makes sense. Why target us in the first place?”

“It’s opportunism. If you leave the door unlocked…”

I got ready to let rip.

“You do sometimes forget to do things,” he continued.

“I told you, I let myself in through the front door and it was locked.”

“Are you sure you’re remembering things right?”

“Yes! I remember perfectly.”

“Because this whole thing with the cupboard. You said you weren’t sure about that either.”

“The thing with the cupboard is…” I felt myself start to tear up. “Really fucking weird. I can’t remember what I did and didn’t do with that. But I know the door was locked. I have never gone out and left the door unlocked. Ever. Not once.”

My voice was cracking.

“Maybe I should just come home early.”

“I said no.”

“I’ve looked at the tickets; the prices for tomorrow aren’t so bad.”

“That’s not the point. I don’t need you to come here and help me out. You think I’m so helpless, but you’re wrong. I don’t know what happened. But it’s not my fault.”

“I didn’t say it was.”

“Basically you did. You said I left the door unlocked. You don’t have any faith in me.”

“I do have faith in you.”

“Then fucking trust me. I may not be good at programming boilers or fixing computers, but I can look after myself. I don’t need you to fly in like some superhero. I could look after myself before you showed up in my life, and I can still look after myself now. I don’t need you Pedro.”

He went silent for a moment. Maybe I went too far.

“If you say so. But I’m looking at Adam’s Facebook now and there’s no sign of any picture of them with a child.”

“I am not making this up. It was from a few months ago.”

“I have his feed open right now and there’s no picture.”

“They were both in the photo. All three of them.”

“Check if you don’t believe me.”

“I don’t believe you and I am going to check.”

The conversation ended. I scrolled like crazy on my phone trying to find the picture. I checked my search history; I got so frustrated. I almost threw my phone at the wall. There was no picture. Pedro had another reason to think I was losing it.

Pedro had heard nothing back from Adam or Katie. Didn’t they want their deposit back? On impulse, I sent a message to Adam via Messenger. I wrote, “Hi, we need to talk. Ping me when you get this message, thanks.”

You’d expect someone to get back to you quickly with a message like that.

I limped to the bedroom for a blanket; there was one in the wardrobe. I’d given up on the heating; every time I set the timer, it reset again.

Somehow Pedro’s golf clubs had survived the burglary untouched, despite being probably the priciest thing in the flat. I thought about bashing them out of shape. I could blame it on the burglary.

I messaged Maxie after all. I sent her a message just saying ‘Hi, how’s your head?’ but she didn’t message me back.

I fell asleep on the sofa in the afternoon; I’d hardly slept for days. When I woke up it was dark. There were no lights on in the flat. I lifted up my phone to check the time, but the battery was dead.

My head was groggy and my neck was stiff. But I knew something wasn’t right; there was some light coming from somewhere.

I heard the front door creak.

I jumped to my feet, and almost fell over – my fucking ankle.

I got into the hall, trying to ignore the pain. The light was coming from the corridor outside. The front door was wide open.

I shot a look from side-to-side, from the kitchen to the bedroom. Was someone here? Had they left? Had I really left the fucking door unlocked this time? Had it fallen open?

I couldn’t see anyone. And I couldn’t see any new carnage.

That just left the bathroom to check. I took a deep breath and hopped over. I grabbed on to the doorframe and looked inside.

It was empty too.

I looked down the hall and out the front door. I could hear muffled noises from somewhere.

“Hello?” I asked. No one answered.

I limped further, right up to the doorway. I stuck my head around and looked down the corridor. I still couldn’t see anyone. The light was motion sensitive; someone must’ve come in or out the building in the last few minutes.

I hopped out. I looked up the stairs, looking for someone, anyone. There was the faint sound of people somewhere higher up in the building.

The door slammed shut behind me. Before I could reach for the handle, I heard the click of the lock.

“No. No. No!” I banged on the door. Hopelessly twisted the handle. It wouldn’t budge.

Through the panes of frozen glass; I watched a figure slowly stand and show their face. For a silent moment, I stared into the eyes of a little girl. Her head was bent up from the neck as she tried to make herself taller. I could see dark long hair, but the rest of her features were blurred.

“Let me in!” I pleaded. I banged on the windows, on the frame.

She watched me until I stopped. Then she turned away and walked down the hall.

“Who are you?” I shouted. “What are you doing?” I kicked the door and regretted it. I shrieked in pain and stumbled back against the wall opposite.

I slid to the floor and put my head between my legs. I started to cry.

The motion sensitive light went out, leaving me in the dark.

I was locked out, with no phone, no way to reach anyone. Tricked by some psycho school child who somehow had keys to my flat. How did she get here? What was she doing? Did she really think she could keep me out?

What was I going to do? I was in my fucking pyjamas. I could break a pane of glass, but I couldn’t unlock the door unless she’d left the key in the lock. And that’s if I could reach down far enough. Realistically I either had to start knocking on doors and beg for help, or limp outside to find a phone box. The first option was just about better, assuming anyone was home.

I heard the clunk sound of the building’s front door open. The lights came back on. I got myself up and tried to shout out, but the pain of putting weight on my foot cut me short.

Their footsteps were moving quickly. I stumbled to the stairs and shouted, “Hey, hello!”

I heard shopping bags being dropped to the ground. I grabbed on to the stair handrail and dragged myself up one step at a time. I loudly, desperately shouted “Help me!”

The footsteps sped up. They were heading towards me. I pulled myself onto the landing, sliding myself across the floor as I let go of the handrail.

It was the Puerto Rican lady I used to know. She bent down to me saying; “My goodness, what happened?”

“I locked myself out. I hurt my foot.” Tears were running down my face.

“Oh poor thing.” She said. She bent down and helped lift me on to my good foot.

“It looks swollen bad.”

“I kicked a door. It really hurts.” I felt like a child pleading with my mum.

“You come with me. I can help you.”

I managed to thank her between the sobs. She walked me to her front door; thankfully on the ground floor.

“I didn’t know you had come back. You’ve been gone a long while.”

I nodded: “We’ve been teaching abroad”.

There was a complex shifting of limbs as she reached for her keys and unlocked the door, while trying to keep me upright. We went into her kitchen. She sat me down by her breakfast table and got down to her knees to check my ankle. She was a nurse; I’d forgotten.

“Can you wiggle your toes?”

I nodded and sniffled.

“You poor thing,” she said. She passed me some kitchen roll so I could blow my nose. “What happened to you?”

What could I say about the girl and the burglary and all the other strange shit? And what wouldn’t open a whole can of follow up questions and make me sound like I was fucking crazy?

I just said that “The door closed behind me.” Something in my gut was making me doubt some ordinary kid could be in my home. Sure, she could be real. She could be some evil genius who knew where we lived, had the keys and kept finding her way in. But did that make any sense? Did anything of this?

I was saved from saying anything else when a cat pounced on the table. Curious, he walked right to the edge and sized me up.

“Alfie, you’re not supposed to be on the table.” My neighbour scooped him up. “He’s not trained yet.”

“That’s ok.”

“He’s very naughty, aren’t you?”

She placed him in his basket. He defiantly leapt right out and darted down the hall. It gave me something to smile about.

“How long have you been back?”

“Just a few days.”

“And what happened to those two who were there? I forgot their names?”

“Adam and Katie.”

“They were nice people.”

I didn’t respond. “Did you talk to them much?” I asked.

“I saw them around. They helped me look for my cat when he went missing.”

“Oh, did he disappear?”

She saw me glancing down the hall for Alfie. “Oh no, Alfie’s my new one. We never found Buddy. He just disappeared. I don’t know what happened,” she said sadly.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” I remembered the poster by the post cubbies.

“Worse things happen. Maybe he’s happy somewhere,” she said. “Would you like some water?”

“Yes, please.” Then I asked: “Did you see Adam and Katie with a child at all?”

“Hmmm?”

“A kid. Did they ever have a child with them?”

“Oh yes, yes. They had that little girl. What was her name? They said she was their cousin. She was a precious thing.”

“Did you see her a lot?”

“A few times, yes. She was with them a long time I think. So shy. I thought maybe she was a bit special. When I said hello, she wouldn’t even look at me.”

“Did they leave a mess behind?”

“Oh no, it’s just that me and Pedro didn’t know that they had someone staying with them. They should’ve said but didn’t.”

She passed me a mug of tap water. “How is Pedro?” she asked, beaming.

“He’s fine thanks.” Obviously a fan.

“Look at me. Talking and Talking. We need to find you some help. I guess we can find a lock person online?”

“Yes, thank you. If you have a computer or a phone, I can call someone.”

“Such a nightmare. We have to do it quick though. I’m on the late shift. I need to go quite soon.”

“What time is it?” I had absolutely no idea.

“It’s after 10pm. I just came back with the shopping and to feed Alfie. Oh and I left it outside.” She went outside to fetch it in.

 I tried to think things through; a little girl who was shy and liked to hide… Although she wasn’t being quiet anymore. Now she was being vicious and vindictive.

I suddenly understood why the TV and Pedro’s stupid golf clubs had survived the flat trashing. They were in the flat when Adam and Katie lived there. Only the new things I’d brought in were destroyed. And it’s why I had saucepans back in the cupboard for cups. She was putting things back to how they were. Getting back at me for coming back to my own home.

I started to tremble. It was obvious she was no ordinary girl. She couldn’t be. I could imagine Pedro rolling his eyes: ‘You can’t be serious? You think we have a ghost?’.

Well just you fucking try and explain what’s going on Pedro. You have a real good go, because I am all out of ideas. You don’t just leave a girl behind in a flat when you move out. And she’s been there the whole time. All those times I’d heard footsteps in the night. She was probably fucking with the thermostat too, just to piss me off. 

My neighbour came back in. “Let me get these things in the freezer and we can find help for you.”

She put the down the bags, then reached for something under her arm.

“I grabbed your post for you,” she said, dropping a jiffy bag on the table in front of me.

The bag landed on the table with a little metallic thud. Just from that, I guessed what it might be. I tore off the top; the spare keys slid right out.

“Where did they come from?” she asked.

“They posted them back after all,” I said. There was nothing else in the packet.

The stamp on the envelope was second class. It must’ve been in the post for days. The girl really had been in the flat the whole time.

I should’ve been over the moon. But I was afraid to go back inside. I hadn’t expected to have to do it so soon. I didn’t know what was waiting for me. And I didn’t want to do it alone.

“Will you help me back downstairs?” I asked.

If she saw I was scared, she didn’t mention it. She walked me down the stairs right up to the door.

I was worried the girl might have left the key in the lock to stop me. But the spare slid right in and turned just as expected.

I opened the door and stood waiting for her. Nothing happened.  

“Well there, all’s well. You put that foot back on ice; it’ll get better soon.”

My neighbour was already heading up the stairs.

“When’s your shift over?” I asked quickly.

“Oh, 7 o’clock. It’s the worst one.”

“Hope it goes quick,” I said, lump in my throat.

I took a deep breath and limped inside.

I closed the door gently. “Are you there,” I said. “I’m not here to hurt you. I just…” What was I going to say: ‘Tough luck, this is my home now. Get the hell out’?

I turned on the lights to every room. I checked each one for signs of her. She must’ve gone back into hiding.

I went to the living room. I was feeling a little relieved, until I saw one of my sketch pads open on the dining room table.

My colour pencils were scattered across the tabletop. She’d made me a sketch. It was a childish picture of a bedroom. There was a man and a woman standing by the door; their faces were blank with no features. There was a very long bed, with someone lying down on it. A little girl was on top of them. She had a big grin – she was smothering them with a pillow.

Before I could scream, I heard the toilet flush. I went fast as I could to the bathroom. Then I screamed – my phone was in the toilet.

I tried to rescue it. It was stuck at the bottom; too large to get around the u-bend. I pulled it out, dripping wet, but that wasn’t the worse part. The back had come off: the SIM and battery were gone. All my phone numbers were gone.

She was cutting me off. First the internet, now my phone.

I heard the click of the lock on the front door.

I went to the hall. She was there, locking the door. Locking me in. She turned to face me.

Normal little girls don’t look like that. Her eyes were empty black. Her face stretched, shifting, contorting. She let out a scream that I felt in every bone of my body.

I ran for the bedroom. She dived at me; grabbed hold of my pyjama bottoms. She pulled them down as she dropped to the floor, tripping me up and bringing me down with her. I pulled my legs out of them and leapt on all fours through the bedroom doorway. I swivelled on my butt and slammed the door shut behind me.

Wincing in pain, I put my back up against it. She hammered on the door with her fists, kicking and screaming. I put my fingers in my ears, but I could still hear her: “Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out!” Over and over. She wasn’t giving up. She wasn’t stopping. She wasn’t getting tired.

 She screeched and kicked and yelled for so long. I had to start screaming just to block out the noise. I don’t know how long this went on for.

 I was screaming my throat raw before I realised she’d stopped. I coughed and wretched for a time after. What I would have given to drink something. But I didn’t dare move. I was trapped with no way out. And no way to get help. She had all the keys now.

Could I make it through the window? We were in the basement. The windows didn’t open out far, and even if I could crawl out, a wire mesh covered the alcoves at ground level. I’d have to be away from the door for longer than I dared. And I couldn’t even walk properly.

I heard things crashing and breaking. She was going crazy, taking apart anything and everything she hadn’t already destroyed. I covered my ears again.

You’d think someone from the building would come down and check what was going on. Somebody must be hearing all this? You’d come and check, right? What was wrong with people?

I had my head between my legs until all the noise stopped. After that, I lay on my side. I was too afraid to move. I lay there for hours, waiting, scared to allow the door to open an inch.

I listened so carefully for sounds of where she was. How quietly could I move? Could I make it over to Pedro’s golf clubs before she realised I wasn’t by the door? Was she listening carefully for any sound of me moving? Were they a good enough weapon?

I had to do something. I slowly let the pressure off the door. There was no sound, no change. I crawled on all fours across the carpet to the closet. I opened it, stood up and pulled out a club with a heavy but pointed head.

I tiptoed painfully back to the door and listened carefully. There were no new sounds.

By now it was almost sunrise; the sky was turning pale yellow. That made me feel safer. Ghosts in the daylight? Had I seen or heard anything from her during the day? But we were in the basement. It never really got a lot of light.

I needed to drink something so badly. I gave it a little longer, letting some more daylight pour in. I slowly pushed down the door handle, letting it pop open. I looked through the crack, ready to slam it shut in an instant.

I could see into the living room. She’d torn the dining room table apart and smashed all the chairs. Nothing had escaped her wrath this time.

I pulled the door open further, clutching the golf club tightly. I limped slowly into the hall. Still safe – no sign down the hall or in the kitchen. I hopped to the bathroom; she looked to be gone for now.

In the living room, the TV was face-down on the floor. She’d torn up the couch as well; chunks of white stuffing were everywhere. I started to look around for the keys, but it seemed hopeless. They could be anywhere.

Even the carpet had taken a shredding. Snapped pieces of the dining chairs had torn into the surface, making rips short and long.

There was a big tear where the carpet touched the metal divider in the doorway. The corner of the tear was folded over.

I could see something under there.

I got on my knees and lifted the flap all the way over, tearing it back even further. Something was painted under it, on the floorboards. There were jagged lines scratched into the wood.

After downing pints of water, I got to work. I slid my swollen foot in a slipper to make it easier to put weight on it. I dragged things across the living room, piling everything up on one side of the room. With everything broken into pieces, it was an easy job. And it was too late to care about damaging anything.

The sun came up and I was breaking a sweat, even though the flat was colder than ever. I was more exhausted than ever. I wondered if I was hallucinating the whole thing.

I pulled up the carpet, going along each wall, ripping it back from under the skirting. An odour rose from the floorboards. I knew that smell; it was that same musty scent I’d noticed when I moved back in.

I lifted the carpet over the broken furniture pile, revealing just over half of the floorboards.

I was standing in the middle of some kind of circle. Something occult.

The circles were drawn in a dark ink. They were as wide as the room. There were two outer circles, one inside the other, with a small gap between the two. Two long lines crossed the circle, going from north to south, east to west. Where they crossed in the middle, was a third small circle; it was like the centre of a target.

Between the two outer circles, there was an insane amount of scratched, jagged lines cut into the floor. It looked frantic; there was no pattern to them. I looked closely at them and saw what looked like words or symbols underneath. I don’t think I could’ve read them even if I could’ve made them out. There were no letters I recognised.

In the centre, in that small circle, the was a dark patch, some kind of stain dried into the wood. I had the terrible feeling it was not red wine.

The whole room stunk. What the fuck had they done? Whatever they’d brought back, they hadn’t been able to control it. Or get rid of it. They’d tried to destroy the words, but the spirit had stayed. They’d just covered up their work and run away. Leaving me with whatever was here now.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. She was right behind me. She cast no shadow, but I knew she was there.

The golf club was just inches away, leaning against the wall. I made for it. I swung it around and smashed the wedge against her eye socket.

Flecks of blood hit my cheek. The blow lifted her off her feet. She flew back and slid across the floor like a doll.

I stood holding the club up, waiting for her to come at me. She just lay there, doing nothing.

Fear overwhelmed me. She was a child. What had I done?

I dropped the club and went to her, getting down and leaning over her body.

She looked so normal now. A tiny, ordinary girl. With an eye bleeding horribly.

I was about to shake her awake, say sorry, beg forgiveness. Her unmarked eye sprung open. Her mouth opened: she shrieked, lashed out with her left hand and clawed her fingers across my cheek.

She dug her hands into me, tearing and ripping at my top. I put my hands around her neck and closed them tight. I gripped hard and pressed down. I felt her shake and struggle under me. She scratched and pulled at my hands and arms. Dug her nails in.

But I didn’t stop. I pressed down. I tightened my grip; made it harder and harder. I was all rage. Blinded by anger.

I was so lost, for a moment, I wasn’t even there. I was somewhere else. There was no daylight. It was nearly pitch black. And I wasn’t strangling her. I was clutching a pillow, forcing it down on her face.

I felt her body stop twitching. Her hands fell to her sides. She was no longer struggling.

I was back in the room. But I didn’t let go. I kept on, even as her face went blue and I could feel no resistance from her muscles or bones.

Only when the smell changed did I snap out of it and look up. The signs on the floor were disappearing. They dissolved into a fine dust, rising into the air. The circles were gone.

I looked beneath me. There was no little girl. Just another large, dark stain on the floorboards.  

I picked up the golf club and stood up. My torn pyjama top was barely hanging on me; I tore it off. When it landed on the floor, I saw Pedro staring at me from the doorway, his suitcases parked by him. Despite what I’d said, he’d come back early.

I stood there, in my underwear, scratches across my face, holding a golf club dripping with blood, surrounded by broken furniture, a torn-up carpet, standing on a scratched-up floor stained with two pools of dried blood.

And I shouted to him: “Fuck off Pedro. I know you would’ve done everything differently. But I fucking handled this myself, ok?”

Coming Home will appear in New Ghost Stories Volume Three, which will arrive in 2021. You can checl out previous volumes of New Ghost Stories here. And you can download free New Ghost Stories here.

Don’t forget to check out the New Ghost Stories Podcast.

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New Ghost Stories Podcast Ep 2 - Wrong Number

  
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In each episode of the New Ghost Stories Podcast we revisit a case from the New Ghost Stories archive. Wrong Number was my 47th case and came at a moment when I was starting to lose faith in the project.

Approaching 50 cases, I was starting to fear that the work was no longer feasible. Despite many hours spent on research and following up leads, I had so far only one story which I felt was really ready for publication. I was close to giving up and moving on.

Fortunately, this case bore fruit quite quickly. Because this story involved a much reported on case of murder, there were plenty of recorded facts that gave weight to the subject’s account. That, added to the consistency and clarity of their story, convinced me that I finally did have a real story here that needed to be told.

It’s a strange and fascinating story too. A tale of broken hearts, tortured souls, love, loss and tragedy. It’s one of a small number of New Ghost Stories that has a somewhat happy ending. Not that everything is neatly resolved by the end of course.

It’s strange to think now that had I not heard this tale, I might well have missed out on hearing so many more. In a strange way I’m grateful for it, which feels perverse. I’m sure all involved would rather life had turned out much differently.

If you enjoy the New Ghost Stories Podcast, don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review.

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New Ghost Stories Volume 3 is out in 2021. You can read a simple story here and check out previous volumes here.

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