Watchers

Spectral shoppers and vintage underwear, in Beverley.

wednesday-market-snow

I got the keys for the shop two weeks before Christmas. The landlord trod out his cigarette on the frosty pavement and gave me the tour.  I’d already had a look round with the agent, and since the back room was still full of all the old fittings, I explained again that I’d need this space for stock, boxes and so on.  He said if I wanted any of those old units to let him know.   He’d get the rest taken away and stored.  Since my first visit I had hoped some of the cabinets and shelves might work for my jewellery and ornaments.  Most of my capital was tied up in stock, so I was sharp-eyed for potential savings.

Long ago this place had been a drapery and haberdashery.  The shop was L-shaped, originally having been two separate businesses owned by the same man.  The insurance broker on the corner of the Saturday Market was unconnected, but they had bought the frontage after that first owner sold up in the early 1970s.  Afterwards the place had sold dressmaking and knitting supplies, finally standing empty for over a year until I took over.  The landlord left me there and I stood a quiet moment, alone in the premises of my business – for now.  I needed customers, and fast.  There was a lot of hard work ahead, and I could have done with getting in a week earlier, but now I had to get open in time for Christmas.

On the Sunday night, after a weekend spent kitting out the shop with my fittings and half of the old ones, I met up for a pint with Bryan at the Moulders Arms.  Work was getting worse, he said, although he had to admit he was grateful enough still to be working at all.  I told him about the shape of the shop and my security concerns, how I was going to need a camera or two, even if they only looked the part.  He said he’d get his son to call round.  Jamie worked for a security firm.  Then Bryan remembered the story, or at least that there was one.

‘Fellow who owned those shops was obsessed with the woman from the smaller place.  Thought she was in love with him, although she was happily married.  It was a local scandal at the time, but I don’t know how it all came out.’  He finished his drink.  ‘I’ll ask my dad when he comes for Christmas dinner.’

I smiled, having in recent weeks become gently obsessed with a woman myself.  The house that backed onto mine had been to let for some time until one evening I noticed the lights on.  Over the following weeks I found the lady of the house to be fonder of lights than curtains or blinds.  I’m barely middle-aged, but I felt like a dirty old man as I let myself watch her, although it was more a case of taking an opportunity, being grateful for what was offered.  I didn’t even know her name, let alone whether she knew or cared that I was peering from the darkness of the spare room.  Maybe I wasn’t the only watcher.  I couldn’t see into the houses either side of me.  But it looked as though she lived alone, because I never saw a husband or lover, nothing to inspire envy.  She was a quick dresser, and quicker at undressing, as though the house was cold.  Maybe she should have spent more on heating than light, but I wasn’t complaining.  Her taste in clothing was what you might call retro, and I’m pleased to say she saw that through to the level of underwear.  This made me think perhaps she did it on purpose, was an exhibitionist or whatever it’s called.  Do modern women wear suspenders and stockings unselfconsciously, not with an eye on the attention they’ll attract?  Karen never had.  But this lady took them off as I watched, removing next the big white laceless bra and deep hip-hugging knickers, before bedtime or her bath.  Her hair was pinned up and unfussy, probably shoulder-length if she let it down.

She was of old-fashioned stature, with a proper bust and hips, not the boyish ideal of recent years.  There’s no glamour to skinny, no allure for me.  And yet that was how Karen had tried to make herself during the last years, running every night, even after the gym.  I could understand her wanting to be fit, but the more she did the more she hated how she looked, it was never enough.  And when I told her she was fine already she looked at me with contempt.  I wasn’t lying, but at some point her new life stopped involving me, so what I thought didn’t matter.  She left me for a man she met at the gym.  He was divorced and owned a business.  Well, now so did I.  Admittedly a lot smaller, but it was mine, and all that remained was to get ready and open.

With half my redundancy money standing idle around me I needed to get the stock out on show and the door open as quickly as possible.  Jamie had fixed me up with two empty cameras – he did a lot of those, apparently – and by the afternoon of the Friday before Christmas I was moving stock around to find the best place for everything, resisting the urge to overload the shelves.

‘I’m not open yet,’ I called to the man who appeared inside the door as I bent behind the counter.  ‘But if you see anything you like I can let you have it.’  He made no reply, so I rose to face him, catching a tweedy glimpse of suit and waistcoat before looking into his moustached face.  The dark of his pupils spread rapidly under my gaze, and he was gone, vanished into nothing.

I held on to the counter, thinking I must have stood up too quickly, been working too hard.  Skipped lunch, should have eaten.  And it couldn’t have been anyone, or I’d have heard the old bell when the door opened.  People passed the window and their pale winter shadows crossed the wall inside.  That must have been it, just someone looking in.  I told myself I’d do another hour, and then tomorrow I would open.

Back at home I ordered a pizza delivery and opened a beer.  Along with the old shop fittings in the back room I had found some old box files whose possibly interesting contents I would investigate this evening to the sound of the radio in the living room.  I would also keep a lookout for the cherished moment when the lights went on over the fence.  The first file contained several copies of the Hull Daily Mail from the 1960s which I put to one side, and a number of photographs taken inside the shop years ago.  I saw the glass-topped counter that now housed my jewellery, and behind it rows of little drawers for buttons and things.  I was using those for storage in the back.  The same balding man frowned from most of the photographs, but one showed a dark-haired woman in a crocheted dress standing in front of a different counter.  As I stared the pizza boy rang the doorbell, and I put the pictures in a little pile.  I’m a tidy sort of person.

As I ate, keeping my greasy fingers away from the old prints, I decided to buy a few frames, put up the pictures as talking points in the shop.  Then perhaps if someone was interested they’d tell others, who might stop by for a look and leave with a purchase.  As the beer and pizza went down I indulged in dreams of the shop’s success, allowing myself to become locally celebrated, but drawing the line at having Karen back.  I closed the empty box and with immaculate timing the lights came on opposite.  Another beer from the fridge, and I took myself upstairs to watch.

At nine in the morning I opened and saw brisk trade at the stalls on the Saturday Market for half an hour before my first customer came in.  He browsed without buying, avoiding my eye, and leaving as I attended to a cheery man who spent over a hundred pounds, testing my new card-machine skills whilst obliging me to keep an idiot grin off my face.  And it carried on in much the same way until half past four or so, when things slackened off.  But what a start!  I would have to order more stock on Monday, but had enough in the back and at home to keep trading until it arrived.  I hadn’t planned to open on Sunday, but revised this in the light of today’s takings and the season.  I’d get a couple of days off soon enough, and afterwards they’d all be looking for sale bargains.  I had anticipated this and bought in some pieces for the purpose.

On Saturday night I ordered a curry and looked through the rest of the box files, whose contents included empty bobbins, patterns, and a great many catalogues.  Catalogues for wool, for buttons, and – to my joy – a whole box full of fifties and sixties lingerie brochures.  These vintage items could fetch a pretty penny from the right sort of buyer, but I was going to have a good long look myself first, if I didn’t keep them.  I told you I was partial to the way women used to dress, and this whole experience stirred such childhood memories.  My mother would take me to shops like mine had been, and I breathed in the rich aroma of the places, saw the haughty elegance of the mannequins, then as now at odds with the shapes of real women.  Crouching in my shorts, I would touch the plate glass between little me and the contents of the cabinets.  Now I had the keys to some of those cabinets, but I still spent longing hours peering through glass at the object of my desire.

Christmas was on Thursday, so once I’d converted another few hundred pounds of stock into cash on Sunday I was optimistic for the short week ahead, and resolved to order even more stock tomorrow.  Outside in the dark afternoon I locked the door and was reaching up for the shutter when I saw a young woman standing inside the shop.  Like a fool, I had and shut the place up with a customer still browsing.  Hoping she’d see the funny side, I fumbled open the door and strode into the shop, making all sorts of apologies, to where she stood at the end of the counter.  She was short, petite and gloved. I couldn’t say how old, because her hat covered most of her hair and the shop was in darkness.  She said nothing, but raised her head, looked into my eyes, and disappeared, just like the man had done.  This wasn’t a shadow, unless it was my own, cast by the street lights outside.  But I didn’t believe that.  Nor did I believe that people could just fade away like that, or appear real if they weren’t.  The mind had greater depths than science had plumbed, I was sure, and so that’s what I told myself.  To everyone else I said nothing.

At home I had the comfort of my alluring neighbour opposite, now the one constant in my life.  How I might get onto friendly terms with her remained uncertain, yet I was increasingly sure that with our shared taste in ladieswear (mine stoked daily by the glossy-thick pages of those engrossing catalogues) we could share far more together.  First, I needed to get through three days of trading without being driven insane by vanishing figures.  They did their best.  I put down the telephone after placing my order on Monday morning and rushed to help an old woman reaching for a lead crystal vase on a high shelf.

‘Allow me,’ I said, and startled, she looked at me.  I heard her draw breath, I swear, but she was gone.  I placed the vase on a lower shelf and put the kettle on.  Trade was slower that day, but picked up on Tuesday when I supposed more people were off work.  My delivery arrived mid-morning by which time things were so busy that only with difficulty could I restock the empty shelves, between customers.  Lots of cash, for some reason – I had to shut for ten minutes in the afternoon, to visit the bank.  When I returned, to a shop of whose emptiness I had assured myself before leaving, a middle aged man in an apron was sitting behind the counter in my place.  This time I didn’t look in his eyes, glanced around him, watched his balding head turn to follow me into the shop and back again past him, saw the big fabric scissors in his right hand and there in his left a Gossard catalogue from 1965, exactly the same as the one back at home in the box.  I looked at his face and he left me, his lost mirror image, the keys in my left hand, the paying-in book in my right.

At about ten on Wednesday morning, Christmas Eve, just as I was closing the till, a policeman put his gloves on the counter – I saw them clearly – only to dematerialise when I looked up.  This time it was different, because I wasn’t alone.  There were two customers in the shop, a mother and daughter by the look of them, and as the solid dependable copper atomised into nothing before me I saw them behind him, through the space where he had been, and the daughter was looking at me as though nothing had happened.  Possibly I stared back too hard, as she expressed a desire to leave, but happily not before her mother had spent sixty pounds on her card.

After work I called in at the packed Cornerhouse for a standing drink with Bryan, who told me what his wife Sandra had remembered about the story of my shop.

‘The woman went missing,’ he said, ‘after complaining to her husband about unwanted attentions from the shop owner.  The police had him in for questioning, but there was never a body and he denied everything, so they had to let him go.  It broke him though, and he died soon afterwards.’  My face must have saddened at this, because Bryan asked what I was doing tomorrow, said if I was on my own I could come to theirs.

‘Looking forward to a rest,’ I told him.  ‘Been working hard.’  He didn’t know how hard.  Today had proved that I alone could see the vanishing figures, but at least I saw them only at the shop.  After Bryan went home I stayed and had another.  Thus encouraged I went via Tesco, having decided to introduce myself with a bottle of wine.  No idea what I was getting, hardly drank wine myself, but I tried to get something nice, spent ages thinking.  Women like white wine, don’t they?  But white needs to be cold, and there was no time to put it in the fridge.  Red, then.  Paid nearly ten quid, it must be love.  Happy, I sang to myself as I walked home.

As soon as the lights went on I set off round to her house.  Only took a couple of minutes, even though I had to go back for the wine.  There was no answer when I knocked on the front door, and from this side all was dark.  I noticed the To Let board was still up, an oversight presumably.  Never really came down this road.  Between the houses I could see the light escaping around the blind in my kitchen as I walked down the side passageway to the back garden.  Untended for months, this was a bit of a state, but the lawn was lit through the open curtains and I strode, taking my moment.

The living room was empty – literally empty apart from the carpet, curtains wide at the patio doors.  Nobody there.  Next along was the kitchen, with a door half-windowed in frosted glass, and the window.  I saw her standing there in a green mini-dress, reaching to open and close a cupboard door, taking out nothing, putting nothing back.  The white kitchen surfaces were bare under the glare of the bulb.  As I raised my hand to knock she walked through to the living room and I moved back that way to see her cross the carpet and touch something that wasn’t there against the far wall.  It was feeling very cold out here now.  She turned again, walked the length of the opposite wall and smiled against the window, looking past me.  I stepped out, holding up the wine bottle and grinning back, but still she stared, clearly seeing something I couldn’t.  Every inch real, with a shadow and everything, not like those others, the watchers, the things I’d imagined, believed.  I could see the shape of her underwear through her skirt, and a place where the paint on her toenails had chipped.  She was there before me, just glass in between.  I could have watched her forever, but that wasn’t enough.

I got right in front of her before she straightened and put her head on one side, all mute.  I could hear no sound from inside, and very little out here, until I tapped the glass and she jumped like a waking sleeper.  With a look of horror she stared into my eyes, then the blackness spread, the lights went off, and I was alone in the dark.

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The Stoat

First published in the 2013 Spooky Tales anthology of competition winners from What The Dickens magazine.

Minster 1

On the morning of Christmas Eve, Fiona packed her things and left me. She’d done it before and come back, but with fewer things each time.  Given the date and her awareness of train times from Beverley to Hull and on to Leeds, some advance planning had been done.  So I didn’t plead with her like all the other times, just watched her fill two bags and a case, and then gave her a lift to the station.  There are only so many times someone can leave before you lose interest in whether they’re coming back.  I’d done that last time, in late summer, when she walked out for a fortnight.  She returned almost before I could feel the change, but it was done.  Fiona could feel it too, although she’s more bloody-minded than me and stayed on for four more months.  She couldn’t hurt me now, and that really got on her nerves.  We used to have grand pot-smashing rows, so now she had them on her own.  I couldn’t even be bothered to argue.  Perhaps she was frightened, because I was starting to hurt her with my indifference.  There was no option but for her to leave, and as I drove back alone I was happier than any time since the summer.  It was almost Christmas, I wasn’t back at work until the second of January, and there was snow on the ground.

Not much snow, just the weekend’s smattering, but late December had been cold and dry so the frosty fields around the town were white as I set out to buy myself a Christmas present.  I knew what I wanted, and how things were going to change.  One pair of Hunters later I walked home with a big cardboard box gift-wrapped in a bag under my arm.  The dog could wait until January.  I wouldn’t have trusted anyone who might sell me one on Christmas Eve.

Back at home I planned my Christmas.  No visits to Fiona’s shallow friends, none of whom she was going to miss back at her parents’ house.  No waiting up for her to return from an ostensibly work-related evening at three or four o’clock in the morning, and no rows.  I’d play music, drink wine, ring the friends I’d neglected for her, and maybe drive down to see my own family, between Christmas and New Year, having pretended all was as normal until then.  No point upsetting my mother, even though like most people she didn’t exactly get on with Fiona.  There was too much food for me to eat tomorrow, so I thought about cooking the lot and taking the excess to Brian and Cynthia across the road.  They struggled, but kept struggling, and reminded me of my grandparents.  Of course Fiona thought they were imbeciles and resented my helping them out, but – you know what? – I’d spent enough time thinking about that selfish young lady and right now, right now I fancied a beer.  It was six o’clock.  Dark, but still early.  I had a shower, took a second shave like I used to years ago, chose a shirt and some decent jeans.

I walked out onto Norwood and made my way into town.  Before leaving I had called Jamie to ask if everyone was going for the customary Christmas Eve drink.  I’d not been to the last three of these, and this year he hadn’t bothered inviting me.  Sounded a bit awkward at first, but said he’d be in Nellie’s with Phil and Steve at about half seven.  That gave me half an hour for a pint in the Durham Ox after which I’d meet them.  There were some regulars in the Ox and I ended up staying for another half, but if Jamie was running to form they’d be late anyhow and either way I’d catch them at Nellie’s.  Lots of people were out, dressed bright and colourful, tinsel in hair and laughter cracking across from the bus station as I crossed to Ladygate and entered the gaslit pub.  Should have mentioned that.  Everyone calls it Nellie’s although it’s really called the White Horse, which is another story.

Back in this one Nellie’s was jammed.  I wriggled through the rooms upstairs and down, in the back, out in the yard, by the real fires and under the gas mantles.  No sign of them.  I looked at my phone: ten to eight.  Maybe I’d missed them.  The battery was also under half way.  Too late now, should have charged that.  Stood outside in the crisp air and called Jamie.  He answered, distorted through pubchatter, saying full, gone to King’s Head, see you in the – I think he said the Angel, before it cut out.

No point buying a drink at Nellie’s, so I walked through the illuminated town to the Angel.  Rather less rooms here, but again no sign of the lads.  Never mind, I was having a drink.  They’d get here.  The guest ales were nothing special, but I was determined to have a decent time even alone, and ordered a pint of the Elven Ale.

‘You sure?’ asked the barman.  ‘Not selling much of this.  They say it’s fairy’s beer.’  Told him I’d have a pint anyhow.  Nearly five per cent, half an hour since my last drink.  Two blokes left and I took one of their stools, my coat on the other, telling the askers the truth: I was waiting for my mates.  Who didn’t turn up.  I was getting the message, but it was Christmas Eve and I knew plenty more people in Beverley, even if I hadn’t seen anyone familiar since the Durham Ox.  I nursed the drink, very nice for ‘fairy’s beer’ – tarry and warming.  I hoped I’d find something similar in the next pub, wherever my feet took me.

They took me to Wednesday Market, but a DJ yelled over the music in the Queen’s Head.  I stood at the roadside: Highgate and the Monks Walk, or Eastgate and the Oddfellows Arms?  Well, there was a name for me tonight.  The Oddfellows was half-full, and I was delighted to find the Elven Ale on offer again.  As I ordered a man standing nearby tapped my shoulder.

‘Good choice!’ he boomed, bearded and stout.  ‘It’s on capital form!’  Pleased to find I wasn’t the only fan, I paid and turned but he was gone.  Moved faster than he looked, I chuckled to myself, settling into an easy conversation about overspending, waste, debt and the rest.  Of course we all knew better, us strangers talking in a pub on Christmas Eve.  I left when they suggested a game of pool.  The beer was nice, but I wanted to try the Sun Inn, which was my local when I first moved to Beverley.  Since then I’d been promoted, bought a house, done everything except settle down properly.  But now I would settle down into myself, and if the lady came along so be it.  If not, just me and the dog.  I held open the door of the Sun for two leavers and worked my way inside.  Waited at the bar long enough for one of the barrels to be changed.  Folk musicians played and people were singing along.  Served at last, I asked what they had that was dark and strong.

‘Hang on,’ said the barman, labelling the new pump with Elven Ale.

‘Pint of that please,’ I said, and watched him pull it.  Beside the window I spotted the large bluff chap from the Oddfellows, waving from his table.  He pointed to the seat opposite and I joined him, buying him a pint of the Elven on the way.

‘Very kind,’ he said.  ‘An acquired taste perhaps, but once you’ve had two or three of these nothing else measures up.’

‘Where’s it from?’  I asked, not having noticed the name of the brewery.

‘Not sure,’ he admitted, ‘but they have it all the time out at the Stoat.  I’d never heard of a pub called the Stoat at all, let alone in Beverley.  ‘It’s on Long Lane,’ he said, pointing past the Minster.  I thought my way along the country road and shook my head.  ‘It’s easily missed,’ he confided, ‘like a lot of sweet things.  But away from the town there’s still a warm welcome, for those who enjoy one.’  He described the place in such detail that I was resolved to go there even before he stood to take his leave at the end of the pint.

‘Bound for the Stoat?’ I asked.

‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘but in case I don’t see you I’ll leave you the price of another drink.  Don’t want to be in your debt.’  I protested, he insisted, he left.  I finished another half and set off on Long Lane, which was well-named.  A few coy corners, and then one stretch of gently veering unlit narrow countryside that had me singing to myself for company as I approached the light ahead, half a mile past the last house – or what I would call half a mile, being a country lad.  More like a mile to a townsman.  This must be the Stoat.  The cold bit my face, numbed within from the Elven Ale, and I hoped there’d be a seat close to the open fire my new friend had described.  I wasn’t afraid of the dark, but jumped as the white shree of a barn owl sounded nearby.  I looked but couldn’t see the bird.  What I could see ahead was the Stoat, clearly visible now as I came the last two hundred yards.  Outside and in, it was more like a farmhouse than a pub, but as described: a great log fire with benches around it, figures seated and standing, and warmth in the flagstones underfoot.  Voices welcomed as I stamped my feet inside the door, and a rich, familiar speaker sounded from the fireside.

‘Evenella!  Drink for our young friend.’  There sat the bearded man last seen in the Sun, beaming in the firelight.  I sat opposite him and Evenella brought me beer in a straight-sided glass.  I tasted and stared.  She was a strange, regally beautiful woman.  Hard to guess her age, but not more than thirty and probably younger.  White blonde to the eyebrows and lashes, face narrowing under her mouth.  Lips a little thin perhaps, but –

Oh yes, I was still staring.  She smiled, eyes and teeth bright in the flamelight, and took my coat.

‘She’s a special lady,’ said my stout companion, ‘and I see you’re quite taken.’  Before I could deny it he called out ‘A toast to the Stoat!  The one becomes the other!’

‘The Stoat!’ answered the others, and we drank.

We drank.  Soon I could take no more beer, although I felt anything but drunk.

‘Is there anything else?’ I asked.  ‘Spirits maybe, or something to eat?’  There was laughter in the room and Evenella touched my shoulder at the neck, fingers gently squeezing.

‘Would you like something warmer?’ she asked, and I rose to follow her through the door at the back of the room.  The men cheered behind us.

I woke, painfully cold and on hard ground in the coming light. There was sky above me, clouded slate-grey, and damp brickwork at my side.  Stiff to the joints, I tried to stand, and hessian sacking fell away.  I was fully dressed, coat, boots, hat and gloves.  Surely now the hangover would stoop from above and finish me, but nothing came.  Only cold, crystal cold in my face, feet and hands and a damper cold beyond shuddering deeper inside.  I stood swaying in what must have been a stable or something.  Ahead the main building was a ruin, with Dangerous Structure – Keep Out signs and corrugated iron to discourage the unwary.  I walked around the house, surely never a pub, and got out through a gap in the fencing, snagging my jeans.  On Long Lane I could see the Minster rise from the mist and started my aching way for home, looking back only once at the Stoat.  Clear head notwithstanding, I must have drunk far more than I remembered, given all the other things I thought had happened.  Was I still drunk, or was there something in the Elven Ale?

The town was deserted, curtains still closed and only a few lights showing.  At the end of Walkergate I passed a rough sleeper in his waking stupor on the bench.  Feeling his pain, I reached for my wallet to give him something.  I had spent nothing at the Stoat, but the memories ran over me.  I handed him a tenner, then another.  He stared at the notes, smelled them and I walked away, sensing now, and more strongly back at home, that I stank.  An animal scent, pungent as fox or cat, but neither.  Everything I wore ended up in the bin.

The bath was very hot, but I needed it and lay remembering.  The fireside, the nuttysweet beer and the bed in the back room with Evenella.  Her voice, high and cool as we undressed, and I noticed she was not entirely blonde.  Quite black, that little tuft.  I lay in the steaming water, exhausted, bewildered and grateful.  The bells of St. Mary’s were ringing and in the bedroom I could hear my charging mobile pulling down missed messages as I fought the urge to sink through my dreams into sleep.

I haven’t seen the bearded man since then, or been offered Elven Ale, but I walk past the house on Long Lane with Ellie, my spaniel. Someone bought the house and started doing it up, yet until recently I never saw anyone as we passed.  Then one clear October morning there was a woman with short red hair and a baby girl at her shoulder in the doorway.  I looked where she stood, and there were the old worn flagstones.

‘It’s a lot of work,’ she said, smiling as the infant settled, ‘but it’ll be worth it.’

‘Yes,’ I nodded, wondering if she meant the house or the baby, probably both.  ‘Are you by yourselves?’  I asked.  She was.

‘My father helps when he can, but he’s very busy,’ she told me.  ‘We’ll get there.’

‘Well,’ I found myself saying, ‘if you need any help just ask.  I walk past here often.’

‘I know,’ she said, and we left it at that, although since then I’ve looked for her each time and seen her often, speaking sometimes.  The work is almost finished, but thus far she has resisted my invitations to visit my home, much as I have resisted asking more about her situation.

This morning, a year after the story started, there was a card through the door, handwritten and unstamped, with no postcode.  A woman’s hand, wilful and spirited.  Inside a winter landscape blank of festive message, but with an invitation.

See you again this year?

E x