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Authors: James Herbert

The Ghosts of Sleath

BOOK: The Ghosts of Sleath
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James Herbert
The Ghosts of Sleath

BROUGHT TO YOU BY KeVkRaY

Dedication

For Eileen without whom …

Epigraph

It’s hard to dance with
the devil on your back

SYDNEY CARTER

Contents

1

THERE WAS A STILLNESS about the meadows. Insects stole nectar…

2

DAVID ASH UTTERED a soft groan as he shifted position.

3

YOU LOOK AS IF you’ve had a bad night.’ Kate…

4

IT WAS GOOD to get away from the city, even…

5

HE CAUGHT GLIMPSES of the village through the trees as…

6

HE STEPPED OUT into the sunshine and looked right, and…

7

SHE WORE A WHITE unbuttoned shirt over a T-shirt and…

8

KNIT ONE, PURL ONE, knit one, purl one …

9

THE REVEREND EDMUND LOCKWOOD’S physical stature was diminished somewhat by…

10

I’M SO SORRY.’

11

RUTH CAULDWELL CALLED goodbye to Tom Ginty behind the bar…

12

GRACE LOCKWOOD KNOCKED once more on the yellow-painted door while…

13

DANNY MARSH SLUMPED on the scarred wooden bench facing the…

14

‘KATE, IT’S DAVID.’

15

THE RESTAURANT ROOM of the Black Boar Inn was not…

16

HOLDING THE BRIGHT flower-patterned curtain to one side, the gamekeeper…

17

THE RUSHING WATERS close over his head and unseen forces…

18

GRACE LOCKWOOD’S EYES snapped open.

19

SHE KNEW IT WAS David before she even opened the…

20

GRASS AND WEEDS grew between the broad steps leading up…

21

AH NOW, SO THIS is the place. Pleasant. No, more…

22

ASH DREW UP outside Ellen Preddle’s tiny terraced cottage, pulled…

23

THERE WERE FEW LIGHTS on in the village. Most people…

24

DAVID ASH SLIPPED on his shirt and buttoned it, looking…

25

GRACE ENTERED the empty classroom and went to the table…

26

HE PULLED UP in front of the lychgate and turned…

27

ASH STUDIED the painting of Lockwood Hall and decided Grace…

28

ASH GRABBED HOLD of Grace’s arm as she made for…

29

IT WAS GOOD TO BE OUT in the open air,…

30

MICKEY DUNN WIPED his sleeve across his face, spreading the…

31

ASH PAUSED BENEATH the hanging sign of the Black Boar…

32

THE IRISHMAN’S SHADOW was cast long and black across the…

33

THE TRANSITION FROM sleep to wakefulness was abrupt. One moment…

34

ST GILES’ HAD BEEN EMPTY.

35

KATE MCCARRICK CHECKED the signpost through the window of her…

36

THE RIVER WAS SLUGGISH, yet it pushed against the millwheel…

37

MORE THAN ONCE Grace rushed ahead of him, forcing Ash…

38

THEY HAD OBSERVED the warm flush emanating from a breach…

39

THEY ALL HEARD IT.

40

TINY EXPLOSIONS RUPTURED the river’s surface as the dark, mountainous…

41

THE SUN DREW VAPOURS of steam from the earth, its…

T
HERE WAS A STILLNESS
about the meadows. Insects stole nectar from flowers in the hedgerows, but their drone was subdued, their movement lazy. Cows grouped together in shady places although the morning sun was not yet full-blown; they chewed early-morning grass while their tails listlessly flicked at horseflies. Yellow and black caterpillars plagued the ragwort and here and there the cinnabar moth sleepily stretched its wings of cerise and black. Honeysuckle sprayed from wooded areas into the sunlight, its roots back among the trees where the soil was dark and moist, and the muted song of the warbler came from the deeper shadows inside the woods.

The sky, an intense blue, seemed to hang low over the distant Chiltern Hills.

Spiders weaved webs among the hedges of a lane and a carrion crow skimmed low along its dusty length. The bird abruptly soared above the treetops, then swooped down again to perch on a tilted gravestone in the cemetery beyond. It cocked its head to one side as if curious about the gathering of people there, their garb as black as its own.

An ancient church, its stonework scarred and worn by centuries of inclement weather but brightened this day by unhindered sunlight, rose high over the proceedings; uneven buttresses strengthened the square tower, and dark lancet
windows within the tower’s walls seemed to watch the assembly with the crow.

The freshly dug grave was small, cut from the earth for a child’s coffin, and the mourners’ faces reflected that special grief. A woman stood apart from the others and closer to the grave itself, her head bowed, her shoulders hunched; it was as if the pain of sorrow were a physical load to bear - and perhaps it was, for Ellen Preddle’s body felt weakened, her muscles shrivelled within their skin, the suffering too oppressive. She wept, but her weeping was in silence: the heartbreak was nothing new, just more cruel than ever before.

The vicar, a tall but stooped figure, glanced at her from time to time over his prayer book, anxious that the ceremony should not be interrupted by unseemly hysteria and aware that Ellen Preddle was near to breaking point. The death of her husband barely a year ago had not affected her in this way - in truth, he had been a worthless individual - but the son had always been the focus of her life. They were devoted to one another, mother and child, the lost father’s wickedness soon forgotten by them, quickly erased from their thoughts and their conversation. George Preddle’s death had been horrific and the vicar wondered how widow and son - the son himself now deceased - had come to terms with it. Particularly as the child had been witness. The vicar felt no shame for his less-than-godly attitude towards the late George Preddle, for the farm-worker had been too despicable to elicit sympathy even from a man of the cloth; nevertheless he did feel guilt, but this was of another kind. He returned his attention to the book of prayer, his gnarled hands trembling.

The coffin was gently lowered into the pit and for one dreadful moment the vicar thought the bereaved woman might throw herself after it. She swayed perilously over the graveside as if in a faint. Fortunately, one of the mourners stepped forward - a relative or friend, someone certainly not from the village - and took Ellen by the elbow, to pull her gently away from the open earth. She went without protest, almost as though there
was no will left in her. She tucked her chin further into her chest as the man patted her back.

Soon the funeral was over and Ellen Preddle, her body even more bent than before, was led away down the thin path between the gravestones and through the lychgate to the waiting vehicles. The vicar was surprised when she climbed into the first one alone, saying something briefly to her comforter before closing the door. The black car slowly drove off, leaving the other mourners standing in a group looking after it, surprise on their faces. The man to whom Ellen had spoken shrugged his shoulders and the rest shook their heads in pity, then made towards the remaining vehicles.

 

I have to be on my own, Ellen told herself as the black Volvo drove the short distance to her cottage. No need for anyone else. They don’t understand. They
couldn’t
understand what it was like to lose your only child, the only person who could love you blindly in return for your own devotion, who never questioned your words, who was never bad, was never mischievous like other children. Simon was all she had after George had gone and had his silly accident. Just Simon and her. And that was all they needed. Just one another and no one else. Oh Simon, Simon. Why you? Why did the Almighty take you from me? As punishment for the things I did with - the things I did
for
- George, those dirty things, things you could never tell another living soul, things to be ashamed of till the day you died, shameful, horrible things. Was this the punishment? Oh Lord, he made me do them. I didn’t enjoy it. But I did them for you, don’t you see? Oh send my boy back, dear God, give him back to me, don’t take my precious away. I’ll do anything, dear Lord. Just give Simon back to me. Please. Please.
Please
.

The moan finally escaped her, a sound she had held in check all morning. She could contain the grief no longer. Ellen sobbed, and the sob became a howling.

The driver of the funeral car watched her in the rearview mirror and even his eyes, eyes that had witnessed twenty-odd years of bereavement pain, misted over just a little. Poor woman, he thought to himself, poor, pitiful old thing. No wake after the service, no sharing of the misery. Back to her own place to mourn alone. It wasn’t the way, not the way at all. Now was the time to talk, for comfort - and a few stiffeners. A moderate amount of alcohol was no bad thing after such a tragedy, even if the deceased was a child. In fact,
especially
if it was a child. Numb the senses a bit, turn heartbreak into sentiment for a short while. Poor, poor woman.

Villagers about their business on that sunny morning paused to stare after the sombre black vehicle as it glided down the narrow lane, the older men removing their hats in respect, several of the women crossing themselves, and vicariously feeling the tiniest piece of Ellen Preddle’s pain. Once the car had driven past with its lonely passenger, they resumed their routines, the sadness lingering, but shifted to one side by their own requirements. Poor Mrs Preddle, a good woman, but an ill-used one. And now a pathetically unlucky one. Death was no friend, but to some neither was life.

The limousine moved smoothly on, its speed in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion.

Why had it happened?
Ellen asked herself over and over again. She had only popped out for five minutes - all right, perhaps ten minutes - to buy a stamp and post a letter at the post office and Simon was safe in his bath, playing happily, like so many other times, the tub not even half full. A few moments of the day, a few brief minutes to post the letter and yes, yes, a chat, a little gossip with Mrs Smedley, the postmistress, just a small exchange, less than three minutes -
three terrible minutes when Simon was drowning in his bath
- and then straight back to the house. But she had known something was wrong the moment she set foot on the short path to the front door; something had stirred within her, a sensing, a cold touch of fear jabbing at her heart. But he was eleven years old, for
heaven’s sake, old enough to take a bath on his own! Everybody admitted to that. Even at the inquest, the coroner went out of his way to say no blame could be attached to Ellen (although his words had been dour, with no softness, no kindness to them), and everyone had agreed. An accident, a terrible accident. There were no marks on his body, no indication that he had slipped - nor any that he had been held under water. The coroner had surmised that the boy had either fallen asleep in the bath, sedated by the water’s warmth, or that he had been playing a game, holding his breath too long beneath the surface and involuntarily swallowing too much water when his breath had suddenly given out. Perhaps that explained his open-mouthed horror.

That had been the official verdict. Death by misadventure. Why then could she, herself, not believe it?

The funeral car was drawing to a halt outside a row of three slate-roofed cottages, but it was only when the driver applied the handbrake and turned towards her that Ellen realized she was home.

‘Can I help you inside, Mrs Preddle?’ the driver asked.

‘No,’ she replied. Nothing else, just a spiritless ‘no’.

Fine with him. Peculiar that she’d insisted on returning home alone, though, no relatives or friends invited back to offer comfort, no wafer-thin paté sandwiches, no tiny cakes, tea or coffee, perhaps a little sherry or something stronger, no ritual to help the bereaved accept the passing. No doubt the other mourners would find their way to the Black Boar to cheer themselves a bit. Only natural. People needed it. But apparently, not this one. Insisted on being on her own. So be it, the choice was hers. Foolish though, not healthy; you needed people around you at times like this. The driver left the car and opened the passenger door.

Her head bowed again, Ellen stepped out onto the kerbless road. A curtain twitched in the end cottage, her neighbour concerned rather than curious. Ellen hardly noticed.

She opened the gate, oddly registering that the hinges
needed oiling, their screech jarring the stillness of the day. She went through, then paused halfway up the short, paved path. On either side peonies, lilacs and primroses spread in cheerful array, flowers she and Simon had lovingly tended together, making their tiny garden the prettiest among the three joined cottages. The black car behind her stole away.

Ellen peered up at the small window over the front door, the window that belonged to the bathroom where Simon … She stopped the thought.
Where Simon
… It persisted and she drove it from her mind. She continued to look at the window though.

A peculiar sensation startled her; it was as if an icy bead of sweat had trickled down her spine.

She walked forward, her steps forced, and her gaze only left the little bathroom window when she had to search in her handbag for the door key. The chill at her back had now spread into the rest of her body so that her muscles felt tight and awkward. Fitting the key into the lock took some concentration.

The key turned, but Ellen did not push the door open straight away; instead she drew in a breath to steady herself, confused by the tenseness that had subjugated her distress. A different feeling welled inside her and she could not understand it. It was a kind of expectancy, and made no sense at all. Ellen knew there was no hope, that everything that was precious to her had been taken. There was nothing left, no joy, no future. Nothing …

With a neat, embroidered handkerchief she dabbed the moisture from her cheeks. Then, her eyes alight with a strange anticipation, she pushed open the door.

There was no hallway, for the front door opened immediately into the cluttered living room, with its low ceiling and stout beams inlaid on white uneven walls. A crooked staircase of worn oak led up to the bedrooms and bathroom.

There were wet patches on the stairs.

But it was the small naked figure sitting in an old lumpy armchair before the empty fireplace that she was drawn
towards. The boy’s hair was still damp, plastered shiny and flat against his scalp and forehead, and droplets of water stippled his pale shivering body.

There was a great sadness in Simon’s eyes as he watched his mother from across the room.

BOOK: The Ghosts of Sleath
3.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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