Nightmares from the grav.., p.1
Nightmares from the Graveyard, p.1John Clewarth / Young Adult / Horror
Nightmares from the Graveyard
Copyright ©John Clewarth 2013
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No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted,
in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author.
All characters and events in this publication are purely fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved
Written in English (UK)
Nightmares from the Graveyard
Chapter 1 – Circle of Ash
Blacklow Cemetery shimmered in the evening mist of October; Halloween, the night when restless spirits, witches, ghosts and all manner of unearthly things roam abroad. Jake and Danny had been out trick-or-treating and were laden with bags full of sweets and chocolate. They should have been home by now, but for the bet…
‘Still think I’m gonna back out, huh?’ Danny’s tone was full of bravado that barely hid his trepidation.
‘Up to you,’ Jake smirked, ‘But if you don’t do it, you owe me ten quid!’ He rubbed his hands together gleefully, certain in his mind that this would be the easiest cash he’d ever make.
Danny looked out over the vast expanse of headstones, broken plaster angels, tombs and crosses; the land of the dead. It was the blurred silhouette at the top of the hill that chilled his blood most of all. Blacklow had the largest graveyard for miles around and its crowning glory was the Circle of Ash. There in the crest of the highest mound, nestled a circular construction made up of conjoined mausoleums; a kind of terraced housing for the dead of the wealthier families of Blacklow.
‘You’ll give me a leg-up, yeah?’ queried Danny.
‘Sure. I’ll boost you up the wall, then you gotta jump down into the middle and climb the old tree.’ The ‘old tree’ was an ancient Ash that spread, ghost-like, in the centre of the ring of mausoleums.
‘Then when I get to the top of the tree, I hang up this stupid mask, and I’m outta there,’ grumbled Danny, brandishing the rubber skull mask he’d been wearing earlier, before stuffing it back into the plastic carrier bag.
‘Yep, that’s it,’ grinned Jake. ‘Or are you chicken?’ He strutted along in a zigzag, doing a second-rate impression of a domestic fowl, whilst emitting clucking noises.
‘Shut up, donut,’ hissed Danny, ‘and get your ten quid ready!’
The night had become quiet, in stark contrast to the shrieking and giggling of the trick-or-treaters of the earlier evening, as the boys reached the gothic structure at the top of the hill. The imposing, spooky colossus was made up of twenty sunken tombs built around the roots of an ageing and ancient Ash tree, from which the Circle earned its name. Nobody knew how long the Ash had been there, just that it was certain the tree predated the cemetery. Danny couldn’t help but wonder whether the enclosing walls were designed to protect the catacombs from vandals and prying eyes, or whether they were built to protect the outside world from what lurked within.
Each of the family vaults, a dozen in total, was fronted by a large dark door, above which was an ornate ridge of stone which would be ideal for a young boy to grab on to, if his friend were to give him the initial hoist up… Half a metre more of stone, led to the rounded rim of the stone circle of the dead. Danny walked as boldly as he could and put a hand on the cold, pock-marked masonry; he felt like he’d just touched a corpse, and Jake could see, even in the moonlight, that his friend’s face had paled, as if being drained by an unseen power…
‘Hey, you wanna back out, I won’t tell anyone.’ His heart quickened and his stomach lurched without logical reason; something instinctive told him they should not proceed, that they shouldn’t have even come this far. ‘Come on, Danny, forget the tenner. Let’s just head home.’
Danny, his hand still pressed against the stone, turned to look at Jake. Deep down, Danny just wanted to run, to get the Hell out of there and pig out on the candy they’d scrounged earlier… But this was a bet. No – more than that – it was a dare. And no matter how much Jake promised he wouldn’t bring the subject up, Danny knew he’d spread it all round school on Monday and he’d be the butt of endless chicken jokes. ‘Come on, wussie, get me up there,’ Danny laughed, but it did little to hide his nervousness. He lifted his right foot and, once Jake’s cupped hands were in place, the two boys pushed together and Danny scrabbled for a handhold above the nearest shadowy doorway. His heels almost kicked Jake in the head, as they cycled in midair, but Danny had grasped the high ledge with both hands and, arm muscles straining fit to burst, the boy managed to haul himself up. It reminded him of the time he’d fallen into the reservoir fully clothed and had to pull himself out with his arms, his body like a sodden, dead weight. He’d been given both barrels when he got home; ‘Pranking around with Jake again! Don’t you ever learn?’ his father had chided. Nope, Danny didn’t learn – or if he did, it was usually the hard way.
Once up on the very top, Danny shakily stood up and looked down at the now diminutive form of his friend. He felt suddenly very brave – he’d made it! Danny strutted along the circular ridge, posing like a body-builder. ‘Who’s the daddy?!’ he yelled down at Jake, grinning from ear to ear. ‘Never bet against Danny boy!’ he taunted.
‘Just get on with it!’ Jake’s voice gave away the fact that he was seriously hacked off by his friend’s success and the loss of the bet. But secretly, Jake admired the devil-may-care attitude that Danny had to life in general. He knew there was no way that Danny could have persuaded him to take that bet.
‘Okay. Keep your wig on,’ Danny teased, and turned around to face to interior of the circle, and the ancient Ash at its heart. Its tangled old branches sprawled, laced, reached out and thrashed in the suddenly gathering wind, and its grey murkiness seemed mesmerising to Danny. His attention, however, was diverted by something else, as he poised himself to make the jump to the boughs of the Ash. Down there, in the gloom, he thought he saw something moving. Something other than the tree… A ghostly figure?
An owl screeched somewhere off to the right, urgently and unexpectedly – and in a reflexive action, Danny leapt forward. Stretching out his arms, his fingers closed around fresh air, as he plummeted to the mossy earth below, with a thumping, painful impact.
Chapter 2 – Ovidiu Fraxinus
The world spun for Danny, as he lay flat on his back in the dim interior of the stone-built structure. He blinked rapidly and swallowed hard, attempting to regain his equilibrium. Gradually, his revolving surroundings began to settle, slowly, slowly, slowly… Until the world again was still, save for the branches of the tree, animated by the strong wind. The upper branches thrashed like crazed dancers, yet Danny felt barely a breeze. As he raised himself to his elbows, he realised why. The inner walls of the mausoleum circle acted as ugly windbreaks; grey, cracked, scabrous and mossy with neglect – like no human had either seen or cared for them for decades.
Danny’s stomach lurched and he felt, for a moment, that he might be sick. He shuffled backwards and sat with his back resting against the trunk of the Ash. He closed his eyes, inhaling deeply until the nausea subsided. The living wood of the tree felt cool and soothing. His leg throbbed a little from his unplanned landing on the uneven ground but other than that, Danny had escaped lightly. Born lucky, his dad always said. He smiled. Opened his eyes. And the smile vanished. He yelled out in fright.
‘Calm yourself, Daniel,’ said the figure standing before him. ‘You are quite safe; I mean you no harm.’ The man was tall and thin and slightly stooped, as if with age. A long grey coat covered him from shoulders to feet and his hands were tucked deep into his pockets. His face was shrouded in shadow, the gaping full moon being behind him. At first glance, he appeared very old to Danny.
‘How do you know my name?’ Danny bunched his hands into fists, more to hide his unease than to consider punching the man.
‘Your friend. He was calling for you from the other side of the wall and now he has gone for help.’ The man spoke reassuringly, seating himself on the ground several metres from Danny, his own back, pressed against the mausoleum wall. Danny still could not see his face and that made him nervous. But he felt it was better to keep the man at a distance, trapped as he was in this strange stone circle.
‘How did you get in here?’ asked Danny suspiciously.
‘Let me see to your comfort,’ the shadowy stranger replied, as though he hadn’t even heard. ‘Your leg, if it still hurts, I can examine it. I have knowledge of medicine.’
Danny didn’t want the man anywhere near him – all he wanted was to be out of there. ‘No thanks, I’m fine, it’s just a bit bruised, that’s all, from the fall.’ He paused, then rather nervously repeated his question: ‘So how did you get in here?’
The dark man tilted his head slightly, replying, ‘That is of no matter; your safety and well-being are paramount. Your friend will return shortly.’
Weird answer, thought Danny, but he decided not to pursue the question further yet; his thoughts returned again to Jake. ‘How long has he been gone?’ His feelings of unease heightened, as he looked at his wristwatch, ‘It’s nearly eleven already.’
‘Then his return is, as I have said, imminent.’ Deep and foreign-sounding, the voice did nothing to reassure Danny. The youngster peered across the void between himself and the stranger, trying to make out some detail of his face, but it was as if the man was constructed of shadows. Danny mentally reprimanded himself for spooking himself with such silly thoughts. ‘You’re not from around here, are you? What’s your name?’
‘Fraxinus – Ovidiu Fraxinus. My ancestry is from Romania.’
Danny thought he remembered stories about vampires and the like, from Romania – and before he could stop himself, he asked, ‘Isn’t that where Dracula was from?’
A dry, throaty laugh emitted from the man who was shadows and he replied, ‘No, my young friend. Dracula came from Transylvania, and it is only a story; so there is no need to worry.’
‘I’m not worried. Not scared either,’ Danny lied.
‘No? That is good,’ Mr Fraxinus purred. ‘You are a brave boy, especially on a night like tonight.’
Danny felt anything but brave, but for some instinctive reason he did his best to conceal the fact from the mysterious old gentleman. ‘Halloween doesn’t scare me,’ fronted Danny, ‘or my mate, Jake. He’ll be back soon… Won’t he?’ He realised he almost sounded desperate with that last question, so he added, ‘Anyway, he owes me ten quid, ‘cos he said I daren’t come in here.’
The man merely gazed at Danny and a silence descended. The gloomy interior of the mausoleum-ring was dominated by the huge old Ash, and Danny didn’t know whether to shy away from it, or seek its protection. He chose the latter, and remained firmly pressed against its bark. The silence, which seemed to last an age, was suddenly and shockingly broken by a loud and terrible, unearthly scream from outside the walls, as if the tormented dead were up and lamenting. Danny jumped, banging his head against the tree trunk, and yelling out loud in alarm.
‘Hush, child, hush!’ Mr Fraxinus said, though there was no attempt at reassurance in his tone, as he watched the boy’s head twisting and wild eyes darting around. ‘It is merely a dog fox, outside in the cemetery.’
Danny breathed fast and hard, willing his heart rate to settle down. ‘Are you sure? It sounded like someone was hurt.’
‘Quite sure. It is the noise that foxes make when they communicate – just as you and I talk to one another.’
Danny’s pulse steadied a little, but he checked his watch again only to discover that time was crawling past; just after eleven o’clock now.
‘Relax,’ the old man chuckled. ‘You are in a graveyard on Halloween – how cool is that?’ The phrase sounded decidedly odd, spoken as it was in the strange accent and, despite his uncertainty, a short laugh escaped from Danny.
‘I have an idea,’ Mr Fraxinus spoke in a low, conspiratorial tone. ‘Why don’t we make your friend jealous, by telling – how do you say, spooky – stories, to pass the time until he comes back? Not only does he lose the bet, but he misses out on the fun, too!’
Danny hesitated. ‘I don’t know any spooky stories,’ he responded.
‘That isn’t problematic – I know plenty.’ He reached inside the folds of the heavy coat and his hand emerged from an inner pocket with a crumpled sheaf of papers. ‘Or are you too scared, Daniel?’ The throaty voice delivered the words like a childish challenge, and allowed the words to just hang in the silence that followed.
Danny’s mind raced. There was nowhere to run. No chance of escape until Jake returned with adult help. He made the decision that it would be better not to get into a conflict with the old man. Perhaps he was crazy. Maybe just lonely. But if all he wanted to do was to tell a story, then at least Danny would be safe until assistance arrived. He tried his best to sound as if he couldn’t care less, as he said, ‘No, I’m not scared. I like spooky stories.’ Then he again betrayed his ill-ease by adding: ‘You are sure that was a fox out there, aren’t you?’ He had no sooner said it than he wished he had kept the question in his head. What a wuss!
Mr Fraxinus repeated his previous response, ‘Quite sure.’ Then he riffled through the papers in his hands, as if searching for something. Seconds later, he sighed contentedly, ‘Aah, yes, I have just the story for this occasion. It concerns a fox, you see?’
Danny still could not focus on any of the old man’s features; just when he thought he could make out some detail, the shadows would eclipse them again. He could think of nothing to say, other than, ‘Okay.’
‘Excellent,’ the old man said, in a silky-slithery voice. ‘It is written in the words of a young schoolmaster; one who encounters something very strange indeed...’ He raised the topmost sheet of wrinkled paper and began to read.
Chapter 3 – Master of the Hunt
On the night that I first encountered Edward Massingham, the air was gripped by freezing temperatures. Snow helter-skeltered in frenzied flurries, creating miniature snow-drifts around the corners of my window.
I had long since consigned the boys to their beds, under order of silence until their alarm call at 7.30 the following morning. I was sitting in “the Housemaster’s hovel”, the bedroom-cum-study allocated for my comfort and convenience by the Headmaster of Rashville Preparatory School; slashing the immature scripts of thirteen-year-olds with bloody red ink.
When I say I “encountered” Mr Massingham, I didn’t actually see him. I heard him though. Heavy footfalls on hard bare wood. Footsteps on the ascent. Climbing a short flight of steps. Overhead.
The only room above mine was the attic space of the school. I had been up once only. And once had been enough. Here was stored the collected junk memorabilia of a hundred years of schooling; rusted cups and shields, flaking portraits of long-dead masters, broken tennis racquets, badly painted stage scenery, and the like. Incongruous amongst all this was the stuffed fox, whose glass eyes glimmered with an eeriness all their own.
Yes, once was enough.
But now someone was climbing the short set of wooden steps and, of course, I was obliged to investigate. It had to be one of the boys. Apart from myself, they were the only living souls in the building. I put down my pen and capped the bottle of ink. As I went to the door my eyes fell upon the curved-handled cane reclining against the wall, my thoughts determining that the young reprobate’s rear-end would be stinging from it before the night was out.
Upon leaving my room, however, and walking the few feet along the corridor to the small door that led to the steps, I experienced a creeping sense of malaise and uncertainty. Whether this was connected to the phantom-like shadows that my candle cast in animation around the walls and ceiling, or something still more sinister, I did not know. Nor did I want to.
As I opened the door, the sight was one of complete blackness, barely pierced by my flickering flame. But more unnerving than that, as I began my clambering, was the sudden and quite noticeable plummet in the already freezing temperatures. As I reached the top of the steps though, there was nothing different to be seen. The usual bric-a-brac. And the fox with its menacing dead stare. This defied all reason. I had clearly not imagined the footsteps on the stairs; I am not one given readily to flights of fancy. Yet here I stood in the only entrance to the attic. And the only exit.
Shivering, not solely from the sepulchral temperatures, I descended the steps and returned to my room. I did no further marking that night, rather I consumed three parts of a bottle of brandy; the fervid bite of the alcohol doing little to relieve the chill which seemed to reach to the very core of my being.
# # # # #
The second time that I encountered Edward Massingham had been the last. He had been the Housemaster in post before myself, so I had been well acquainted with the story of his untimely death. Rashville being a school for the sons of the gentry, it was traditional for the Housemaster to be invited onto the local hunts. Massingham had joined them with relish; accompanying them long and often after his first blooding. His ardent practising of the blood sport had proved to be his undoing.
On the May Day hunt last year he had been thrown from his mount and might well have survived had he not been impaled upon the lethal point of a wooden fence post.
After his death at the hunt it had been considered tasteless to keep his prize trophy in its case in the library, so the stuffed fox had been removed to the upper limit of the school; the attic.
I am more compassionate than superstitious and it had not been long before I had all but forgotten the ethereal footsteps on the attic stairs. It was also my compassion that prevented me from partaking of a pastime that sought nothing more than the exhaustion and tearing apart of one of God’s creatures. Or as Wilde put it, “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”.
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