There were no drinkers in The Swan when Leah Grittleton arrived to start her shift, but that was no surprise. Tuesday evenings were always dead, and when you factored in the time of year and how cold it was outside there seemed a good chance she’d be spending the next six hours playing patience on the bar top whilst Alan, the landlord, grumbled and wondered out loud why he’d bothered opening up.
“It’s always quiet Tuesdays,” she imagined herself telling him. To which he might reply as he sometimes did: “It’s Tuesday night every night now, Leah. The best thing I can do, let me tell you, is burn this place down for the insurance money. Now the factories are gone, this whole town’s dying.”
Leah sometimes wondered if Alan said things like this to scare her, knowing as he did how much she relied on her job at The Swan. Hadenchurch’s only other pub, The King’s Arms, had closed its doors two years ago and now stood like a relic with windows boarded over by the side of Carr Pitt Road. Graffiti covered the front of the building, including in big white letters the words: GIVE US BACK OUR SONS. Bartending was the only thing Leah knew how to do, the only thing she could do, at least around here. And she considered herself too old to learn new skills.
But perhaps she was being unkind to Alan; he couldn’t be so sadistic, surely? Maybe thinking that he said these things to frighten her was preferable to facing the facts. To accepting that he was right. To seeing the truth: that Hadenchurch was dying.
Leah banged her hands together and stamped her feet, trying to work some feeling back into them.
“God, I miss my car,” she said. “That lovely little heater it had.”
Alan was setting out glasses at the far end of the bar. He half-turned to look at her. “Cold out?” he asked without real interest. He knew the answer already. “Anyway, walking’s good for you.”
“Aye. And I’ll freeze to death one of these nights.”
Leah noticed as she took off her coat that he hadn’t yet taken down the Christmas decorations. Wasn’t it bad luck to keep them up after Epiphany? The tree, at least, should have been boxed up a week ago. Perhaps Alan thought he could extend the season and rake in a few extra takings before the January lull set it. If that was the case, and judging by this evening’s turn out, he’d failed.
Things picked up around seven when Rob McKinnon arrived and shook off his parka, followed shortly after by Ken Cromack and Chris Stubbington. Rob perched on a stool at the bar and ordered a Carlsberg, as he usually did, whilst the old men took their ales to the table closest to the hearth. Rob would spend the next few hours sipping that one lager and trying to engage Leah in conversation. Lately, he always had an arsenal of odd facts to regale her with. What had it been yesterday? Something about the way dolphins sleep. Shutting down one half of their brains at a time. She could remember him telling her: “One half goes to sleep and the other half stays awake. That’s so they can keep swimming.”
"I do that all the time, Rob,” she’d joked with him. “Been doing it for years. Haven’t you noticed?”
Occasionally, Rob liked to remind her about the time they’d kissed when they were both in the second year at St Mary’s, more than three decades ago; an incident Leah couldn’t even remember. Alan had told her that now Rob no longer had a job he spent his days sitting around reading old copies of National Geographic; and seeing her every evening in The Swan was the only thing he had to look forward to.
“Me?” Leah had said. “Don’t be daft.”
“He’s always had a thing for you. Why do you think he comes in here every night nursing that one beer all evening? He was gutted when you married Joel. He still carries a torch.”
Leah, pointing a finger at her face: “Seriously, Alan? Who would carry a torch for this?”
“Ah, but you were a stunner in your time, Leah Grittleton.”
When Rob started with his strange facts this evening – going on now about sleep again, but not dolphins this time, now it was how scientists thought dreaming was a psychotic state, how when we dream we actually go mad – Leah humoured him with smiles and tried to look busy, focusing instead on the conversation Ken and Chris were having.
“Cold out there,” Ken said, gazing towards the pub’s front window: a large rectangle of black. “Cold enough for The White Lady to put in an appearance, I’d say.”
Leah tensed. Her mind became suddenly alert, as if she’d been hit by a shock of cold water. Not wanting the men to know she was paying attention to them, she looked towards the Christmas tree. The coloured lights seemed to sharpen into focus, to sparkle. In her mind she was back there again. That night when she’d last seen Joel. A night black and cold. Freezing cold. Spats of snow twisting through her car headlights as she drove along Carr Pitt Road towards home. A Saturday. Six, seven years ago? Her shift just ended. Alan had kept The Swan open late for a few regulars who were celebrating something. A birthday maybe. Said he would pay her double time.
She looked up.
“Here we go again,” she heard Chris say. “The White Lady of Hadenchurch.”
“She’s real,” Ken said. “There’s plenty that have seen her.” In her peripheral vision, Leah saw him turn his head to glance at her. Wiping the bar over for the hundredth time that evening, she pretended not to notice. Ken lowered his voice, so that she had to strain to hear what he said next. “The Grittleton lad, for one.”
Leah’s jaw tightened. Bastards. Leave him out of it.
“What happened to Matt Grittleton was nothing to do with any White Lady,” Chris said, he too now speaking in a hushed voice. “Besides, there haven’t been any sightings in years.”
“Because of all these mild winters we’ve had,” Ken said. “But don’t forget the winter of ’93. It was minus ten some nights and the boating lake froze solid. Four men disappeared that January.” Again, Leah noticed Ken craning to look at her. “And in ‘98, a particularly cold winter when there was snow on the hills for weeks, three feet deep. A local man got drunk and couldn’t find his way home in the blizzard. Never seen again. Check the town records – it’s all there.”
Leah, sensing her thoughts returning there again, returning to that night seven years ago, or however long ago it was, looked around for something to distract herself with. But even Rob had fallen silent, his glazed eyes fixed on the array of bottles behind the bar. She placed her hands over her face, as if that would stop her from remembering.
Black night. A sky full of stars. Little pinpricks of light. Joel was supposed to have been home with the boys, but instead he’d been drinking all evening at The King’s Arms. There he was, head down, stumbling home. Stumbling all over the road. And she had thought – it pained her to remember, but she had thought it, she had thought it – she had thought to turn the wheel, just a little, to swerve, could almost feel her hands moving. Swerve and hit him. She’d been so angry. Furious. Bastard. Drunk again. Should’ve been home with the boys. Taking care of them. Being a father to them. Not out here. Shit-faced. Pissing away the money she earned. Not him. Not anymore. Her. She earned it. It was hers. Her money. And who would know? Who would know it was her? What was he doing stumbling around out here in the dark? Wasn’t it his own fault? His own fault if someone ran into him, someone, anyone, even his own wife?
After she’d passed him…
With a shiver, she came to her senses. She pushed the recollections from her mind. A tree, that’s all that thing had been. That thing she’d seen after she’d passed Joel. A tree. A broken tree.
Leah realised she was close to tears. Ken and Chris were still talking in muted tones.
“Remember when we were kids and they found all those skulls inside the trees at Hackfall Woods?” Ken was saying now. “Men’s skulls. Said some of them had been there for decades. They’d been pushed inside the hollows of the trees. Couldn’t be identified. Never any idea of who put them there or why.”
Leah wanted to yell at them, throw something. Shut up, you stupid old sods. Shut up with your White Lady of Hadenchurch. Shut up with your bloody nonsense. Shut up shut up.
“You’re remembering it wrong,” Chris said. “It was only the one skull they found.”
Ken shook his head. “No they found dozens. Said there could be dozens more they hadn’t found.”
Leah could feel a scream rising in her. She drew a deep breath, trying to keep it inside.
But it was Alan who came to her rescue, appearing around the corner of the bar and calling out to the old men half-jokingly: “None of that superstitious claptrap tonight, thank you, gentlemen.”
Ken and Chris laughed and fell silent.
Leah titled her head back. She drew in a long breath then released it slowly.
Shifting her eyes to the side, she saw that Rob McKinnon watched her from under his brow. For a moment his eyes held hers. His face showed sympathy. Concern. And something else. Something like query. As if he knew, as if he were asking: What happened to him? What happened really? What happened to Joel?
And then she was thinking about that night again. The last time she’d seen her husband. How she’d thought about ploughing the car into his worthless drunken arse. But then she’d passed him and there was that other thing. That she could see too, in her mind’s eye. Stark in her car’s headlights. A tree. That’s all it had been. A broken tree. A tree that had been hit by lightning. Splintered and blackened. But upright in the middle of the road? What was it doing there? In the middle of the road so that she had had to swerve to avoid hitting it? A tree? Was it? Just a tree?
What she didn’t want to remember was that in that brief moment, as she swerved, it had swung around. That tree. That thing. Whatever it was. And it’d had a face. A beautiful woman’s face. It’d had eyes.
And with those eyes it had looked right at her.
Ken and Chris sank one more pint apiece then left. Leah had noticed how they’d hesitated at the door. She wondered: Was it the cold, or the blackness of the night that had given them pause? Or was it something else? Rob remained, swilling the last of his Carlsberg around the bottom of the glass and occasionally casting searching glances at Leah as if he had something he wanted to say to her. But he stayed silent until finally draining those dregs in one decisive gulp and reaching for his coat. Once he was gone, Alan told Leah she’d better go too. She flicked her eyes to the clock hung on the wall above the hearth.
“But it’s not even ten.”
“Doubt there’s going to be any coach parties pulling up tonight,” Alan said. “Think I might close up early.”
“You go on. It’s freezing out, and you’ve got a long walk ahead of you.”
The chill hit her as soon as she stepped out of the pub doors and she couldn’t help remembering Ken Cromack saying: Cold enough for The White Lady to put in an appearance, I’d say.
Idiot. Stupid old fuck.
She pulled the zip of her parka all the way up to her chin. The moon was big and bright in the sky, like a pale beacon. Frost sparkled on the concrete steps. In the road outside the pub, a man stood with his back to her, at the edge of the light cast from the lamps above the door. Not until he turned did she realise that it was Rob McKinnon. He flicked one hand and orange sparks flew off the tarmac.
Hands in pockets, already walking, she said over her shoulder to him: “I thought you’d be long gone by now, Rob.”
He came up behind her. “Mind if I walk with you?”
Part of her did mind. She wasn’t in the mood for more of his National Geographic titbits tonight; nor for that matter any further talk about their school days, which seemed to Leah so long ago that it was as if they’d happened to somebody else. But another part of her was relieved. Walking home alone every evening always seemed risky.
“So long as you can keep up,” she told him, over her shoulder. “Too cold to hang about.”
Rob drew up beside her. “What happened to your car?”
“Had to sell it.”
“Oh. That’s a shame. And the boys. How are they? Thought I saw Liam the other day, hanging around the high street with a few of his mates.”
“Up to no good, was he?” Leah glanced into Rob’s face. His expression was all the answer she needed. She sighed. “Gone off the rails. Won’t listen to me anymore, that one. He’ll get himself in some real trouble one of these days.”
“He probably just misses his dad.”
They had reached the bottom of Scapegoat Hill — Rob matching her quick strides but noticeable out of breath already — and had turned the corner to face the long dark stretch of Carr Pitt Road. On one side, the road looked out over the moor. In daylight you could see the ruins of the factories on the far side: hollowed out buildings and half demolished chimney stacks. Now, there was only a great stretch of darkness. It was this part of the walk Leah dreaded the most. She especially hated passing in front of the derelict King’s Arms.
“And Matt? Haven’t seen him for a while? How’s he these days?”
Leah thought about her eldest son. Probably he was at home now sat in front of the TV. But he wouldn’t be watching anything. He’d just sit and stare, as he did most nights. Sometimes he would get up and go into the kitchen, or to the front door, and stand there rubbing his forehead with one hand as if he’d forgotten what he went there for.
“He’s not himself. Hasn’t been for a while.”
Ha! That was an understatement. This boy, her eldest son, who had once been so full of plans and schemes, who’d talked about getting away, going to University, was now a near-speechless and befuddled adult. It made no sense to Leah.
“Since his Dad…” Rob left it hanging.
“No. It was those weeks he was away last year. He wasn’t the same when he came back.”
“Yes, I remember. Police were out looking for him, weren’t they? Where did he go?”
“Won’t say. Or can’t. To be honest, he doesn’t say much anymore. He’s gone inside himself. Doctors don’t even know what’s the matter with him.”
She held back from telling Rob about the time she’d been woken up in the middle of the night by a loud repetitive banging, only to find Matt, wild-eyed with fear, hammering fat roofing nails into the hallway floorboards just inside the front door. God knew where he’d got them from. He was distraught. When she asked him what the hell he was doing all he kept saying was ‘got to keep her out, keep her out’ over and over again.
Or she could have told Rob about how Matt would sometimes obsessively draw trees on his own skin, one time completely covering all the parts of himself he could reach, even his face, with sinewy branches and leaves so that she had screamed when she saw him. Sometimes he woke up in the night, shouting. Said he’d dreamed of vines and branches bursting up through his mattress and wrapping around him, entwining him, pulling him under.
Instead, she gave Rob a sharp glance to cut off anything he might say next. “You know, I heard them in there. Ken bloody Cromack and Chris Stubbington. Is that what people are saying? That my Matthew was taken by The White Lady, and somehow he got away from her, and found his way back home?”
“It’s happened before,” Rob said, after a pause. “Some men do come back. But they’re never…I mean they never…not for long–”
She glared at him. “Rob? Seriously?”
“I wonder what she looks like. They say she sings and does a dance for you. To draw you in. Kind of a sensual dance. And they say she always faces you, because from the back she’s all hollow. Looks kind of like an old–”
“Jesus.” Leah halted, forcing Rob to do the same. “Rob McKinnon, don’t tell me you believe all that rubbish about The White Lady of Hadenchurch.”
“It…” Looking embarrassed, Rob lowered his gaze. But then his head picked up and with knit brow he stared into the dark beyond the road. Leah too looked that way, but all she saw was the deep darkness.
“What is it?”
“Thought I heard something. Sounded like–”
They went on walking. For a few minutes Rob didn’t say anything, which suited her. He kept looking past her over the dark moor. But then he said:
“You know they say it’ll be like some giant airport one day.”
An icy wind was blowing hard off the moor. Leah pulled at the hood of her coat. “What will?”
Rob pointed upwards. “The moon. One day it won’t be the object of our journey, it’ll just be some stopover place on the way to somewhere else.”
“Really? That’s interesting.”
He fell silent again. Then:
“What about Joel?”
“What about him?”
“You must miss him. You must get lonely without him.”
“Nah. Better off.”
“What do you mean?”
“Joel was a loser, Rob. A drunk. Better off without him.”
“But…but you loved him. Didn’t you?”
“Love?” Leah gave a little snort of laughter. “Love is strictly for the songs and the movies, Rob. It’s just a lie they sell you. It has nothing to do with reality. Nothing all all.”
“But…” Rob said. “I love someone.”
“Good for you.”
He reached out, took her by the shoulders and forced her to stop. Their breaths fogged, the two plumes mingling as they faced each other. She didn’t like the look on his face.
“Rob, what’re you doing? It’s too cold to be messing around.”
“I need to tell you something, Leah.”
Over his shoulder, she saw the façade of The King’s Arms lit by the bright moonlight. GIVE US BACK OUR SONS. She didn’t want to be here, linger here. Not here.
“What? Spit it out.”
“I get lonely. I get lonely, Leah.”
“Rob. Don’t. Just…not now, eh?” She shrugged off his hands, and started walking.
He pursued her, caught her again, and forced her to face him. “I love someone, Leah. You. I love you. I’ve loved you for absolutely ages.”
“No, you—” She tried to escape, but his hands tightened on her arms. He moved forward so that his paunch pressed against her ribs. There was a smell off him too. Rancid. Stale sweat. “You don’t want me, Rob. Honestly. You want someone else – that…that girl you remember from way back. Back at the school. I’m not her anymore. Look at me. Look at this face.”
Realising that he intended to kiss her, she wrenched herself free and started to sprint. A little way down the road she ran out of steam. She stopped and bent forward, hands on her knees, gasping for breath. Tired. She felt tired. Old and tired. Cold like this could suck the will right out of you. She could surrender to it. Yes. Surrender. Lay down right here in the road. Wouldn’t that be nice? No more worries. Come White Lady of Hadenchurch, and have me. Have me.
Then, remembering that she wasn’t alone, she righted herself, turned around, and peered into the dark.
It had started to snow. Thin drifts spiralling out of the dark. But it would get heavier.
Shouldn’t leave him.
She began walking back the way she’d come. “Rob?” she called, more to reassure herself with the sound of her own voice. “Rob? Rob?”
She’d reached The King’s Arms. She shivered, imagining it was full of ghosts. There they were, behind those boards, the ghosts of all the men who’d disappeared from the town over the years. There they were, drinks in hand, her husband among them.
Bloody idiot. Where is he?
She screamed the name: “Rob! Rob!”
No answer. The cold was getting to her now. Her legs felt numb and her hands were blocks of ice. It made her feel light-headed, sleepy. The snow had begun to fall faster out of the sky.
“Rob, for Christ’s sake!”
Fuck him. Stupid sod.
She had to get home. Get home to her sons. She span around and started walking quickly away from the pub. The cold made her moan now. Her teeth chattered. She couldn’t help it. She had not gone far when she heard something, a low humming, from somewhere behind her. She looked. There was a shape there, at the edge of the road. Squinting, she could just make it out in the moonlight.
But it was nothing. Just an old broken tree. Putting her back to it, Leah set off at a fast walk. She didn’t look back, and she didn’t stop until she reached her own front door.
It stood wide open.
What the hell?
Inside the lights were on in the living room. The TV blared away. Graham Norton. Smug as always. But Matthew was not in the room. Nor was he in the kitchen.
“Son,” she shouted up the stairs. “You up there? Matthew? Matt? Liam? Anyone?”
She didn’t want to go up there. Didn’t want to find their beds empty. Still made up.
She waited. There was no reply.
Tim Jeffreys' short fiction has appeared in Weirdbook, Not One of Us, The Alchemy Press Book of Horrors 2, and Nightscript, among various other publications, and his latest collection of horror stories and strange tales ‘You Will Never Lose Me’ is available now. He lives in Bristol, England, with his partner and two children. Follow his progress at www.timjeffreys.blogspot.co.uk.