A Ghost Story for Christmas

Malcolm Timperley

 To be honest, I’m not sure if you’d call it a ghost story, though perhaps it is…

“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, thank you. Yes, well, I suppose it’s something of a cliché, isn’t it, a ghost story at Christmas? Actually, I was really rather hoping that my name wouldn’t be pulled out of the hat, but since I’ve had an excellent meal, not to mention some first-class wine, I feel duty-bound to accept the challenge. I have to warn you that, unlike some club members here tonight, I’m not much of a raconteur, though I do have a story. To be honest, I’m not sure if you’d call it a ghost story, though perhaps it is. Either way, it’s something I’m quite unable to explain, so I’ll tell it anyway, not least because it involves our friend James, who’s sat over there.

“Now, as most of you probably know, earlier this month James and I were involved in a rather nasty car accident. I got off fairly lightly, but James wound up in hospital. I’m sure I speak for all of us here when I say how good it is to see him back with us at the club, especially for our Christmas dinner. My tale doesn’t say much about the accident itself though. What I do hope, and I’m addressing this primarily to you James, is that, however bizarre it sounds, it might account for why, despite our long friendship, I never visited you in hospital. The last thing I’d want you to think is that I didn’t care enough to come and see you there. The thing is, as I’ll explain, I was simply unable to.

“It was a little after eleven o’clock, and we were heading home from the theatre in Inverness, at the end of what had been a fine evening. I’d agreed to drive, so I’d limited myself to a single dram in the bar an hour or so earlier. I only mention this because I believe that I was fit to be behind the wheel. It was a still, frosty night and I decided on a short cut along the back road through Gruamach. If you’ve ever been that way you’ll know that it’s a single track road through a dense pine forest, narrow and twisting, but in fair condition. The car was behaving normally, in fact I’d had it serviced only a fortnight or so previously, so I was surprised when, with no warning whatsoever, the lights failed completely. Total darkness. But only for a second. Then they came on again. Even now I still can’t quite believe what I saw.

“Right in the middle of the road, probably only ten yards ahead, and white as a sheet in the headlights, stood a man, pointing straight at us. I haven’t the faintest idea where he came from, he just appeared. Very tall, with long, greasy-looking hair, and in a full length coat as I recall. Mind you, I didn’t get much of a look at him as I immediately swerved the car over to one side. Instantly it started to spin, and I lost control. Black ice, I suppose. Trees flashed past the windscreen, then we lurched off the road, into a hole and down, smashing into a tree trunk. The lights went out again and then I was smothered by the airbag pinning me back against the seat.

“When we came to rest it felt as though the car was balancing on an edge of some sort. It was pitch dark and the only things I was aware of were James’ laboured breathing to my left, a creaking noise whenever the car moved, and a terrible pain in my chest from the airbag. I remember gingerly unclipping the seatbelt, then finding the door was stuck. Using my shoulder I gave it a hefty shove, it burst open and I fell out and landed on my hands and knees. Luckily, I wasn’t seriously hurt; the worst pain was from dozens of pine needles that stabbed into my hands. But now I could see that the car was in a sort of ditch, with its nose against a tree and the rear wheels in the air. I crawled round to the passenger side and reached up for the door. It creaked open, the light came on and there was James, pinned to his seat by an airbag. There was a trickle of blood down his cheek, and when I shook him he made a faint moan. Moving him again would only make things worse, and it was clear that he needed an ambulance, and soon.

“My fingers were cold and wet, so I fumbled getting the phone out of my pocket. It slid through my hands and skittered away, down into the ditch and out of sight. In the half-light I crawled around, patting the ground frantically for it, eventually finding it half-submerged in a puddle. Wiping off the mud and pine needles I shook it and pressed some buttons, but nothing happened. I wiped it on my sleeve and tried again, but still nothing; no sound and a blank screen. I threw it into the trees, cursing. I realized what a stupid thing I’d done when James began gasping. It sounded dreadful, I had to get some help. Which meant finding someone or somewhere with a working phone.

“It surprised me how hard it was to stand. Holding onto the open door I tried to pull myself up but when I did the car lurched towards me with a creak. Not knowing what it was balanced on, and scared of pulling it down on top of myself, I let go and fell back into the wet. Getting to my feet unaided was even harder, and once I was upright I had to stand still for a few moments to let the dizziness pass off. I told James I was going for help and then shut the door to keep him warmer, but that put the light out. I’ve no idea how long I stood there, shivering and waiting for some night vision. But gradually I was able to make out the road curving off through the trees in the moonlight, and our tyre marks on the frosty tarmac. We hadn’t driven past any buildings, so I walked in the direction we’d been heading in the hope of finding somewhere. Or someone. And then I remembered the man in the headlights. Where the hell had he come from? And more to the point, where was he now?

“I couldn’t see anyone or any sign of anyone, not even a footprint. It was as though he’d only existed for two or three seconds. When I shouted, the only reply was my own “Hello” coming back from the trees two or three times. I soon stopped that, the echoes made me feel very small. Which meant I had no alternative other than to walk on and hope I could find help somewhere or maybe flag down a passing driver, not that we’d seen another vehicle for miles. So, still shaking from the cold, and from the shock too probably, I staggered off, slipping every so often on the ice.

“A mile or so down the road I smelled wood smoke. At first I thought that was good – smoke meant fire and fire meant people. I rounded a bend and there was a house, a small squat affair, painted white. One of those old cottages where the upstairs windows are dormered into the roof so the place seems to be crouching. It stood out against the trees, glowed almost. Smoke crawled out of the chimney, and in the still air it hung around the building in a cloud. I tried to convince myself that that was why the house seemed so out of place and that it was alright, really it was. The part of me that wasn’t convinced got the distinct impression that it was waiting for someone.

“The window by the door showed a sort of yellowy light, so this place had to be my best chance of finding help, but, to tell the truth, I felt that I just didn’t want to be there. In any other situation, I would’ve just walked on, but James needed a hospital, so I took hold of the cold brass knocker and rapped three times. It made a peculiar, flat sound like a nail being driven into a box. The echo was remarkably delayed, it made me wonder just how big the room on the other side of the door was. That unconvinced part of me wanted to walk on rather than knock again, but the decision was made for me. A shadow moved behind the curtain, followed by a flat click, then the door groaned open. The part of me that was hoping it was all OK wanted to be greeted by some jovial, red-faced forester, but it was disappointed. There was no one. The feeling that the house was waiting for someone returned.

“I entered what I first assumed was a hallway, but soon realized was actually the beginning of an endless-looking corridor. Now, I’ve never considered myself a brave man. My first instinct was to run. But I knew that if anything happened to James and I hadn’t done all I could to help I’d never forgive myself. So I walked on, but only as far as the first open door. I looked around then dashed into the room and slammed the door behind me. Shutting whoever it was out. And shutting myself in. I turned the key then fumbled around for a light switch. There wasn’t one. As my eyes began to adjust to the dark I grabbed a chair from somewhere and wedged it under the doorknob. Then, leaning against the wall, I spent a minute or two trying to get my breathing under control. Eventually, I relaxed a little, especially after convincing myself that actually I hadn’t heard footsteps outside, and even if I had, they were moving away.

“The room was vast. Along one wall there were half a dozen leaded windows. The moonlight revealed a dozen or so person-shaped Things. I doubt if I’ll ever know quite what they were exactly. Things on pedestals, hidden under dusty canvas shrouds, like pieces from some abandoned chess game. I hoped they were statues. As I tiptoed closer I could see that there were three smaller Things nearest the windows. Unoccupied plinths. For some reason, I recalled that as children we used to pretend to be ghosts by draping sheets over ourselves.

“There were various pieces of furniture along the wall at the far end – a sideboard, bookcases and, in the corner, an antique writing desk with a small leather-backed chair. And on the desk, a black Bakelite telephone. It was years since I’d seen a rotary dial phone, let alone used one. I sat down and picked up the dusty receiver. It surprised me how heavy it was in my hand and how cold it was against my ear. At first, all I could hear was my pulse but then, incredibly, a dial tone sounded, faint but definitely there. The wheel turned freely, nine, nine, nine. The operator was reassuring and helpful. Which emergency service did I want? Where exactly was the car? Could I please stay with the patient? I gabbled on about ice and accidents and being in a house somewhere and that James was alone. I thanked her and thanked her, too many times I think, because eventually, she hung up.

“I felt vulnerable facing the wall and swivelled the chair around. While my back had been turned the room had become colder. One of the windows had been opened, and, on the floor below it, a small puddle had appeared. I walked over to investigate. Only two plinths were unoccupied now. The sheets over the objects rippled in the slight draught from the window, just as they’d done when we used to dress up in ghost costumes.

“Even if the operator had told me to stay by the phone, I knew I had to get out. I hauled myself up, squeezed through the open window, then dropped to the ground for the second time that night. This time I landed on soft soil, but my chest hurt like hell. Dreadful drawn-out dragging noises came from behind. God knows what they were, I didn’t look back, I’d lost my nerve, I just ran. Well, as much as my chest would let me. My coat snagged on brambles or something and I panicked, thrashing around until it tore. Suddenly free, I staggered on, then cut through a gap in a wall and found myself back on the road.

“Even without lights, the car was easy to find. Reflective tape was strung between the door handles and the nearest trees (“Police Line – Do Not Cross”) and there was a sticker on the back window (“Police Aware”), but no sign of James. When I’d left him he’d been in no fit state to do anything, so I could only hope that someone had taken him to the nearest hospital, wherever that was. Inverness probably, where we’d come from, so off I went. In any case, no way was I heading back towards that house.

“You know, I walked along that forest road for ages. Never saw a living thing, apart from when a deer shot out in front of me and almost gave me a heart attack. Eventually, I reached the main road at the end of the lane and then, a bit further on, a lay-by with an emergency phone. Trying to explain things to the voice at the other end was hopeless. I was pretty much all in, so I couldn’t have made much sense. After a promise of help, the line went dead. Not long afterwards, a police car pulled up. I fell into it. I doubt if I said two words between there and the police station.

“The desk sergeant said that, yes, an ambulance had taken the injured man to A&E, about five hours ago. He even phoned the hospital to check, although he said they told him very little – confidentiality and all that. But he did tell me that they’d checked the computer and confirmed that there was no one called James Simpson in A&E or on any of the wards. Which he said was good news, it meant that James hadn’t needed to be admitted. And since there was nothing more to be done right now, going home, getting some sleep, and sorting out the loose ends in the morning was what he recommended. Recommended in the way that policemen do, so I didn’t have a choice really. Especially as he insisted on providing a driver to make sure I got there. To be fair, since I was covered in mud, exhausted and half-deranged, I could see his point.

“Daylight was starting to show by the time I got home. I washed, fell into bed, and slept for hours, until late afternoon in fact, and it would’ve been even later but for the phone. It was a local garage. The police had given them my number and could we arrange a time to go out with their driver in the breakdown truck to retrieve my car? And would I bring the keys too? We agreed on the next day and I fell asleep again.

“In daylight, the crash scene looked smaller somehow. The car didn’t seem to have suffered too badly and Dave the mechanic had no trouble winching it onto the truck. He gave me some police tape as a souvenir. Considering I’d only been there once before, and in the dark, it surprised me how well I remembered the road, and my mouth dried up as we rounded the bend before the house. And then, there it was. A collapsed ruin, mossy and roofless. A building that can’t have been lived in for years, or, more likely, decades. Dave agreed to stop, just for a minute you understand, he didn’t do overtime.

“I’m not sure quite how I’d describe the way I felt as I looked around the place. Numb, maybe, or perhaps dazed might be a better word. I picked my way between the stones, and into what I suppose might once have been a garden. My eye was caught by something fluttering – a strip of cloth caught on some thorns. It matched the piece torn from my coat, right down to the missing button.

“So there you have it. That’s my story, make of it what you will. As I said, I’m not sure if it’s a ghost story or not, but either way, I can’t account for it. And James, my friend, I can only repeat what I said earlier. I hope it explains why I left you alone like that. I can’t tell you how good it is to see you again, it was a dreadful night for both of us.”

“Thank you. You’re right, it was a terrible night, and I’m sure it’ll be some time before either of us is fully over it. But no hard feelings. Please don’t worry, I know you well enough to be sure that you did the best you could. And to be frank, I believe that if you were going to invent some excuse for disappearing into the dark, you’d hardly have concocted a tale as strange as that one, would you?”

 “That’s kind of you, James. Actually, no, I don’t think I’ve got the imagination to make up something like that, even allowing for the fact that we’re supposed to be having an evening telling ghost stories. That said, perhaps you’ve got an even stranger tale to tell us?”

“Well, yes and no. Yes, as it happens, I do have a ghost story, but no, to be honest, I’d rather pass and let someone else speak instead. I assure you, you won’t lose out for not hearing it, if anything quite the reverse. I have to say that it’s nowhere near as elaborate nor as entertaining as yours, in fact, its only redeeming feature is that it’s short. And even though it’s short, I’m afraid that it might leave you all feeling rather unsettled. So I really don’t think you’d want to hear it.”

“Nonsense! James my friend, in all the years I’ve known you, you’ve never said anything to me that I’ve regretted hearing. And I’m quite sure that the others here would all say the same. And after all, isn’t the point of a good ghost story to make you feel just that bit unnerved? Please, tell us.”

“Very well then, if you insist, here it is. I didn’t survive the accident.”

Malcolm Timperley studied medicine at Liverpool University, spent more years than he likes to remember as a psychiatrist, and is now a writer and heritage steam railway signalman, living in the Highlands of Scotland. He has published non-fiction (railway history), comedy (he was short-listed at the 2020 Edinburgh International Flash Fiction Awards), and horror (most recently in Horla).

Also in this issue by Malcolm Timperley: Slateley

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