After this strange statement, Etheridge took in a huge lungful of air. I suggested we pause, have a
pipe perhaps or take some brandy. But the man insisted on proceeding.
‘John, you must listen to me. It wasn’t the child. It wasn’t any child. It was a woman. She was moving
across the floor towards me. But – and this is the most diabolical thing – she was moving backwards. Her legs were buckled and twisted so that her feet seemed to be leading her whole body. Her head, I could see by the horrible angle of her back, was being dragged along behind her. And her feet were soaking wet and wrapped with water-weeds and algae!
‘I noticed at once, to my horror, that the chair in which I sat was blocking the spectre-woman’s path!
She approached steadily but did not relent. I was petrified where I sat; unable to move; unable to scream or signal for help at all!
‘As the monstrous, twisted woman approached my feet she stopped. I was glad for this small mercy. But then, in a moment, she began climbing up my legs. Still in reverse, she made her impossible ascent up onto my lap. Her feet and legs were deathly cold. She began to twist and thrash until the bloated, white flesh of her face was directly in front of my own. Her matted, yellow hair was pasted across parts of her face, but the cruelty in her gaze was unmistakable.
‘It was a death’s head, John! A corpse stared back at me. Devoid of life. Swollen and terrible. And –
oh God! – she spoke to me!’
I asked – I had to ask – what the apparition had said to Etheridge. He took a moment to respond. And
when he did, he almost yelped the words like a wounded animal.
‘She said – no, she screamed – “YOU HAVE ONLY ONE CHANCE WITH HER!”’
At this moment, Etheridge said, he regained some of his strength. The terror that had been
summoned from within gave him the might to force the apparition off him. He made for the door, allowing himself a brief glance over his shoulder. He saw the woman, now bent into a most gruesome pose in the centre of the rug, which, even in the gloom of the early morning light, he could see was completely sodden.
Etheridge calmed eventually. Though, his breathing remained shallow and addled for some time.
‘So,’ he said. ‘As you can see, we must never again go in there! Never! Never, never never!”
It was some minutes before Etheridge was able to contain himself entirely. When he was able, the
strained smile returned. ‘And now,’ he said, loudly. ‘I must attend to my darling niece. What an angel she is. Oh yes, you can be sure of that.’ Off he skipped, leaving me standing, a folder of our mutual business in my arm.
* * *
A few weeks after this singular encounter, I was sitting with my dear friend and retired colleague,
Gregory Pickford, in his warm and homely kitchen. Before old Etheridge, a young family lived in Norton House and Gregory was a legal advisor of sorts to them. We had met, Greg and I, at one or two professional functions and had become friendly. We had much in common and our world views chimed with one another. It was him who, in the first place, had referred me to Etheridge once he was settled in the house.
On this particular evening, we were chatting over a mug of cocoa, discussing our business plans and
personal affairs for Christmas and the New Year, when the conversation turned to Norton House.
On-topic, I recounted Etheridge’s outlandish tale with, I should confess, both mirth and derision. Yet
Gregory did not smile once. In fact the more I laughed at the silly old man and his silly old story, the more unsettled Gregory became. After I had finished my tale, my friend looked at the oak table at which we sat. When he looked up again I saw that there were tears in his eyes. I was most confused and I asked him what on earth the matter was.
‘Oh, John,’ he began. ‘There’s more truth in the old man’s story than you may ever realise. Before
Etheridge, as you know, Norton House was owned by the Miltons. A wonderfully happy couple with a beautiful daughter. On her twelfth birthday, after some disagreement about one thing or another, the girl was drawn into a terrible, lengthy row with her mother. I never knew – nor asked – what the content of the argument was. All I know is that, as a result of that set-to, the girl ran away.
‘The couple searched the house and the surrounding acres. They ventured into the village and
handed out notices to the locals. They scoured the land for three days straight and found nothing.
‘Four days after the argument…’ Once more, Greg’s eyes filled with tears. ‘…the child’s body was
discovered on the banks of the lake at the foot of Norton Fields.
‘Her mother, who blamed herself entirely, became very poorly indeed. She isolated herself in a single room of the house where she and her daughter used to read to one another whilst warming by the fire.
‘Eventually, she became so ill that Milton – a wreck himself – gave up his work to take care of her. A
terribly sad affair, as I say.
‘The mother began to talk in riddles. She stared through the living and her thoughts were dominated
by her lost child. She would stalk out, each evening, down the fields to the lakeside. She would stand on the marshy banks and shout her beloved daughter’s name into the mist; calling her home. Sometimes, unknown to her husband, she would spend the whole night out there. And then, when dawn began to break, she would stumble up to the house again.
‘The cold got to her. Her skin became chapped and broken and, soon afterwards, she contracted an
ailment so aggressive that it seemed to buckle her whole frame. It raged through her. A horrible tragedy. Milton attempted to keep her locked up in the safety of the house. He made a makeshift bed for her in … one of the ground-floor rooms; that same room where she and her daughter had passed so many hours of happiness together. But she would not be kept inside. She always found a way out.
‘Though her condition worsened, still she struggled to the lakeside. Each and every evening.
Somehow. By the end, Milton told me, she was practically crawling there. And back.’
Gregory swallowed back a sob.
‘Milton found her one morning. He felt sure she must have fallen or waded into the water. Her dress
was still soaked from the lake. Clogged with moss and lake plants. There she lay. In that room, John. That same room. Stone dead on the floor. She was twisted into a gruesome, impossible form on the hearth rug. Her feet were blue and blackened from the cold.
‘The rug, Milton told me, was sodden.’
Adam Z. Robinson is a writer of theatre, short fiction and film. You can see him perform The Book of Darkness & Light, along with musician Ben Styles, at the Hallowe’en Happening at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, TONIGHT. For tickets visit: www.thelbt.org/Halloween-Happening-1
Adam also runs creative writing workshops for schools and other groups. For more information, please visit:www.adamzrobinson.wordpress.com
An audio version of this story originally appeared as part of the Tales from the Red Barn: http://talesfromtheredbarn.wordpress.com
Max Dorey is a theatre set designer and illustrator. You can see more of his design and illustration work on his website: www.maxdorey.com and instagram: @maxmakesstuff