Hugh Paxton’s Blog is pleased to present another short ghost story I found in my forgotten file folder. It had been typed on heat sensitive paper and was very faded but I managed to make out the words. Another few months languishing in the cobwebs the text would have completely vanished. Another story, written at about the same time, was, with the exception of the title, totally gone. A bit sad.
A JANUARY SOUND
When summer comes to Cumbria it does it very well. The fells and moors shine with warm colour. Dry stone walls, the brooding miseries of a wet winter, throw off their greys and dress instead in lichens. The lakes glint, the skies are huge and the long evenings last forever. Same then that summer is so shy.
Winter has its moments ; becks in cold snow, icicles on old gnarled apple trees, the comfortable glow of log fires…yes, winter has its moments, especially if it still holds the promise of Christmas, but in the January of this story, Christmas is done and the summer seems a year away.
In the village of Skalton two children are preparing to go out. It is a long sprawling village that follows a sloping valley road that leads down to the sea. The houses are neat and made of local stone with slate roofs and small but lovely gardens. In the cold months smoke rises wistfully from the chimneys and warm lights shine from windows and porches. The road to the sea is narrow, winding and makes many dips and rises and crosses several small and mysterious bridges before finally spilling out of hazel wood and into the clear flat lowland of the estuary. For a short distance the road continues indecisively , meandering uncertainly out into the tussocks of marsh grass looping through the pools and channels of a sea bound stream before finally stopping at a gate. The gate is brown with rust and will not open.
Beside it are the bones of an impossibly ancient engine; heavy and dead, with grass in its gears and the white streaked signatures of gulls splashed on its cowling. Lumped cogs and flaking wheels peer out of the ground around it like dismal, timid satellites and from the main hulk rises a peculiar, jointed funnel. The children have talked and talked about this engine. They have wondered what it did, and how it came to die by the gate. On nights when the air is still, and the thick sea mist has crept in, they have even heard it working –humming and clanking and throbbing, faint in the distance. They plan to stalk it and catch it, and see it shuddering and firing sparks from its stack up into the darkness but they have been too timid to try so far.
Beyond the gate and its guardian engine is the estuary proper; a broad, barren, muddy place, cold as the cry of gulls.
The estuary is dangerous, too. Channels change overnight and in places there is quicksand. There have been too many warnings for the children to take it lightly, though the summer tourists always do and each year a life is lost. It is has many stories. The night of the war when the drone of an engine faltered and ended and a man, big and strange, wearing flying goggles, came wading to shore to be caught by farmer Harold with a pitchfork, jailed in a barn and in the morning gone. And the plane gone, too. Taken by the sand or tide perhaps, or were they both ghosts? The last wolf in England died nearby, jumping from a cliff and the hounds. There was the night of the great storm and when it cleared there were whales, two of them, huge and dead on the sand and the sea was so far away that nobody could even see it, just smell it, salt heavy in the air. Those whales! Shiny back islands, white spotted with gulls and the village children went in groups to wonder and stare while the teacher watched and said “Not too close!”
When the tide turns, the moan of the bore siren rises and falls from Arnside over the water. The bore, where incoming tide meets out-flowing river, is a single wave floating up the estuary. From a distance it seems to move slowly but that is illusion. The bore wave is fast and, during high tides, deadly.
Now though the tide is out and this suits the children. Today they are going to fish. They will fish with their naked feet, tread the soft sand feeling for the squirm of flounders beneath their toes. They won’t fish for long – it’s too cold – and strictly speaking they should not be fishing at all. Their mother forbids floundering till summer. But perhaps by fishing they can hurry summer on its way and after they’ve done they’ll look for driftwood and whales.
As they make their way along the beach they can see the grey sheen of water channeled in the mud. Two oyster catchers scurry and duck, scurry and duck. As always there is a profound sense of loneliness; too much mud and too much sky and there is a flatness to them both. For as far as they can see there is emptiness. A great distance away they see the Arnside viaduct and the spike of a signal box but there is no train. From up close the viaduct is huge, bricked and awesome, as it rises on its shell crusted pillars above the sand but from where the children stand it might be a toy or a painting, it is so insubstantial.
The children have walked a mile and have found no flounders when they reach the bay. It is an inlet really, flanked by two spurs of land and is less than a quarter of a mile across, but to their eyes it is a bay. The solid weight of Skalton Fell throws complex shadow patterns over the sand making it appear to ripple and shift.
They have just begun to skirt it when they hear the noise. For a moment they do not even know they hear it, and stand uncertain, dwarfs in a winter landscape. Their smiles fade and they move closer together, instinctively linking their hands. The noise continues – a soft, bitter sobbing. Though they’ve both cried before, they know they’ve never wept like this. The sound is without hope; it is loss and loneliness and terrible sorrow and it will not stop. The mud, elsewhere gently shelved and sculpted by the twice daily tide, patterned and rippled by wind, changes here. It sinks in on itself, flat as still water, smooth as glue. There are no birds, no pools or channels, no smears of drying kelp; there is only the slick, still mud and, in the centre, a small dark crumpled shape. The sobbing continues. It is strangely muffled and bleak as wind. The children stand in silence, faces pale, eyes restless and searching.
“Who is crying?” the girl asks.
“Where are they?” says her brother.
The spurs of rock hide no-one. The black thing is teased by a breeze and it flutters a little.
“What is it?”
They make guesses but it’s too far, too small for them. They talk about walking out to it, over the mud, but their voices are thin and unsteady. The wind strengthens and becomes cold. It hurts their eyes and noses. The mud suddenly wobbles as if alive. The children turn and hurry away. They do not look back and the sounds fall away and are swallowed in the silence.
Later in the warmth of their kitchen they eat toast and tell their mother.
“There was someone crying under the mud…a woman…a child…crying and crying…”
Their mother half listens and tells them that it might be a good idea if they didn’t go back to that place. Not if it upsets them.