A signpost pointed to “Slateley 7 miles”, so I followed it, thinking that anywhere important enough to merit a sign seven miles away must have something. As it turned out it did.
Before I went there I’d never heard of Slateley, and I doubt you have either. In fact, I’ve never spoken to anyone who has. Actually, I’m still not quite sure exactly where it is. Somewhere in the North, but that doesn’t really narrow it down much, does it? I mean, that’s the thing about the North, there’s such a lot of it. Anyway, it was December about twenty years ago, the Solstice in fact, and I was on the motorway, driving home. After a whole day ploughing through rain, snow, and traffic jams, I was tired and hungry, it was getting dark and I still had miles to go. When I saw the sign “Roadworks in 5 Miles”, that was it, the final straw, I took the slip road at the next exit. Anywhere that’d sell me a meal, a couple of drinks, and eight hours in bed would do. A signpost pointed to “Slateley 7 miles”, so I followed it, thinking that anywhere important enough to merit a sign seven miles away must have something. As it turned out it did.
It was only a small village – a church, a few stone cottages and another, taller building, the only one showing a light. It was a pub. And that was where I spent the night. The room was adequate, the food was good and the beer was excellent. But the only person I saw was the landlord. I’m sure he must’ve done at some point, but, do you know, I’ve no memory of him speaking a word the whole time I was there. If I needed something, he’d materialize from somewhere, do whatever, say nothing, then disappear. After a meal and a second pint it seemed pointless just sitting in an empty bar, so, even though it wasn’t that late, I decided to turn in. Getting back to my room seemed to take forever. All the doors I walked past were open. The contents of every room were draped with white sheets as if the place had been uninhabited and unused for a very long time indeed. Mine was the only room without shrouded… things. That was when I started to feel that there was something very wrong with Slateley.
I slept, but badly and not for very long. The moon woke me up, shining through the gap where I hadn’t been able to close the curtains completely, so I got up to make another attempt at shutting out the light. As I did, I looked outside. In the winter moonlight, pall bearers were leading shrouded mourners on a slow trudge towards the church. In complete silence. At the lychgate, they stopped and one of them turned his head. He looked straight up at me. I couldn’t see a face under the cowl, and I know this must sound ridiculous, but I felt as though I was recognizing someone I hadn’t actually met yet. Then he turned back and they moved off through the lychgate and disappeared into the churchyard. Feeling… cold, I retreated to bed. Further sleep was hopeless, and, in truth, I didn’t relish the prospect of what it might bring. Eventually, daylight came, so I got dressed and headed back downstairs. The doors I’d passed previously were all closed now. I called and rang but no one came. Breakfast had been laid out for me though, together with my bill. I ate, stuck a cheque under the teacup, and left.
It was frosty and the sun was starting to work on thick mist. Slateley was silent. There wasn’t even a cat wandering about or a bird on a wire. In the mist, I could just make out the silhouette of the church beyond the lychgate. I was attracted and repelled at the same time. Have you ever felt that? It’s a strange thing – you’re drawn to go and investigate something, but held back by fear of what you might find. Curiosity won, but only just; as I passed through the lychgate it struck me that I was holding my breath. Letting go, I relaxed a bit and, feeling braver, I started walking round the churchyard. The sun in the mist looked peaceful and convinced me that nothing terrible was going to happen, at least not there and then. In fact, what with that and the frost sparkling in the sunlight I forgot all about the spooky stuff. It looked so good that I even retrieved my camera from the car and had some fun taking pictures. I only stopped when I ran out of film, that wouldn’t happen nowadays, would it? Not with digital, you’d just keep on and on, clicking away. So I gave up on the camera and just wandered round the place for a bit. Now, have you ever noticed that when you’re walking through a graveyard, for some unknown reason you’re drawn to particular graves? Of course, usually, they’re the ones with the kitschy statues or something, but not always. Sometimes you just find yourself attracted to completely ordinary gravestones. And that morning it was to a row of new ones. I read the inscriptions. The last one, the one at the far end, had no details, no dates, just a name. My name.
Shock, fear, confusion, and god knows what else. I don’t remember anything about leaving Slateley, how long it took to get home or which way I went. Of course, I kept telling myself that, though I’m not John Smith, there must be hundreds of other folk with the same name as mine. So, obviously, it was all just an incredible coincidence. After a few days I stopped dreaming of Slateley and its silent inhabitants. I forgot. Well, mostly. Now and then something would bring it all back. The first time was when the lab sent a note back with my pictures; your photographs are all fogged, did you forget to remove the lens cap? No, sorry, not with an SLR camera I didn’t. And again, when I noticed that the cheque I’d left at the pub was never cashed. And of course, the time years ago when you and I first met, at that dreadful dinner party. God, the embarrassment when we were introduced and I just stood there, open-mouthed. You said I looked like I’d seen a ghost, remember? You see, the fact is, I was too rattled to tell you at the time, but the landlord in Slateley was the spitting image of you. Well, an older version of you as you looked back then. But at that moment it felt as though I was seeing him again. So now, years too late I’m afraid, I want to say that I’m sorry. Truly.
You see, yesterday I found an envelope on the doormat. Inside was a black-edged card, informing me that next week a funeral will be held. In Slateley. My attendance is required. So, once again I’m dreaming of the wintry village with its empty pub and its silent landlord. And of the funeral procession passing through the lychgate. And of the strangely familiar, shrouded mourner. And of the line of gravestones. And of the one at the end of the line bearing my name.
And, most vividly of all, of the gravestone next to that with your name on it.
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: “A Ghost Story for Christmas”