A short story
There is something about the hallway when I first step through the door, something I can’t quite put my finger on, something brooding, almost as though it is studying me. I feel unsettled and ill-at ease which is not how you are supposed to feel at the start of a holiday.
I have just arrived with my wife, baby boy and in-laws at what at first glance appears to be a picturesque cottage at Pembroke Ferry in Southwest Wales, a short drive from Milford Haven on the River Avon before it becomes the Bristol Channel.
It is just a hamlet really. On one side of the narrow road is a group of cottages with just fields on the other and at the end is a wharf and a pub with a small shop and that’s it!
Nobody else appears to notice the melancholy atmosphere in the hallway. They are oblivious and just all pile in with our luggage and set about exploring the place which takes a bit of explaining.
When you open the front door, you enter a corridor which has no windows, just three doors opening onto two bedrooms and a bathroom. Leading off the corridor is a staircase which leads down to a sitting room with a third bedroom at the back with just one small window at pavement level. From the sitting room at the other end is a kitchen with door to a sprawling garden and the river with gorgeous views of Milford Haven. So, while you are technically in the basement in the sitting room and kitchen, you are actually level with the river. You get the picture, I’m sure.
There is no way I am going to sleep in one of the bedrooms upstairs because of the prospect of having to creep around in that hallway or landing, lit by just one rather dim shaded bulb, so I insist on saying that my wife Brenda and I will sleep in the downstairs room. I say, by way of an explanation, that it has more room for the baby, and it is not far to go to organise his feeds. It also has an en-suite bathroom and a toilet. There is no cot but there is a large antique chest of drawers and I pull one out and we decide to use it as a cot!
I decide to put my ‘feelings’ to the back of my mind and to forget about the landing as we get on with the business of organising ourselves and exploring the possibilities of the kitchen. I tell myself that I am being foolish. It is just a landing. There is nothing there. Just the two doors and the stairs and that’s it.
We decide to go to the pub for our evening meal. We will have to go to Pembroke Dock in the morning to do a shop. There are certain to be supermarkets somewhere there.
I should explain that I am Michael Wells, an ambitious 28-year-old journalist, married to 26-year-old Brenda, a teacher and we have a nine-month-old son Sam with us on our first holiday as a family. True, we do have our in-laws with us but as in-laws go, they are OK. There is Brenda’s dad Charles and her mother Lorna who is inclined to fuss over me, which is quite nice because there has been little of that in my largely troubled upbringing due to my dad deserting my mother almost as soon as I was born. It meant that I had a rather lonely childhood but one benefit of that was to make me independent at an early age. For a journalist that is a positive thing in that I am not dependent on anyone else.
I don’t think Brenda quite knew what to make of me when we first met. She comes from a quite a large family – a brother and a sister – so has never had to deal with a loner like me.
But all that is forgotten as we stroll along the lane to the pub at the end of the road. It’s a very welcoming place, obviously well accustomed to tourists, there being few locals in the handful of cottages that makes up the community.
My father-in-law, Charles, is inclined to be avuncular in social situations and within minutes he is chatting to the landlord as though he had known him for years.
‘So, you are in number nine, are you?’ says the landlord, eyeing us up, referring to our cottage. ‘You have a grand view of the river out the back as I daresay you have seen already. Old Sian Roberts used to sit out in the back garden for hours. It was her place before she died,’ he says by way of explanation.
‘When was that?’ asks Charles.
‘Just last year,’ he replies. ‘She was found in the river at the end of the garden.’ He begins pulling a couple of pints for Charles and me. Brenda and Lorna already have their large glasses of white wine.
‘That’s awful,’ says Charles. ‘How sad. Poor woman. How did it happen?’
‘Nobody really knows,’ says the landlord. ‘It was all a bit strange, but you don’t want to be thinking about all that. You came here to enjoy yourselves. I daresay you are going to explore. There’s plenty see around here.’ He hands four menus to Charles and we sit silently seeing what is on offer. It’s a limited menu which in my opinion is a particularly good thing because it invariably means that local ingredients have been used and everything is cooked fresh. Beware restaurants with vast menus. Little Sam is blissfully asleep in his buggy.
Brenda and I decide on local brown trout and Charles goes for the steak and kidney pie while Lorna goes for a vegetarian option.
While we wait, we discuss plans for tomorrow which includes a visit to Tenby and some sunbathing on the beach.
The meals are superb. Fresh in-season vegetables and trout which was baked whole and which just fell apart. The time flew by and another two pints later, it is time to return to the cottage.
Brenda settles Sam down for the night in his drawer and we decide to have a few drinks and play a few hands of whist. We leave the door open just in case he gets fractious.
It is getting on for 11.00 pm when we decide to turn in. Brenda and I don’t have far to go, just a few feet away to our bedroom door. I decide to have a read for a while and leave my bedside light on, but Brenda turns hers off and is asleep almost immediately.
I must have been reading longer than I intended because I hear the chimes of a clock striking midnight. They are faint but quite distinct as though in another room. I think it a bit odd because I don’t recall seeing a chiming clock anywhere. I decide it may be in the kitchen or one of the bedrooms and switch my light off.
Sleep, however, evades me. I toss and turn and half expect Brenda to complain but she is in a deep slumber. I try to think of the universe which usually does the trick, but instead I see a horrible, contorted face leering at me. I sit up and look around. A shaft of moonlight is shining through the window above our heads onto the wall opposite. I am tempted to get out of bed but then I hear the clock chiming 1.00 am. This is ridiculous, I think, I am going to be wasted tomorrow if I don’t get some sleep.
I must have dozed off, but I am awake again in time to hear the clock strike 2.00 am. I must finally have fallen into a deep sleep because Brenda is shaking me, telling me it is 8.30am and the baby needs feeding.
I rub my eyes and mutter something about needing a shower. There is one in our bathroom, just about. It is a rudimentary affair with rubber pipes attached to the taps, but I don’t care. I need something to erase the disturbing image of the face which is beginning to fade like photo-sensitive paper exposed to the light.
Over breakfast, I casually ask if anyone heard the chimes of a clock last night. They look at each other and shake their heads.
‘Too much booze,’ laughs Charles. ‘You’ll be seeing little green men next.’
‘You did knock it back a bit,’ says Brenda reprovingly. ‘It’s a fallacy that alcohol gives you a good night’s sleep. It doesn’t. It’s to do with enzymes in your liver becoming activated and making you toss and turn.’
I decide it is probably not a good idea to mention the tortured face I saw. While the breakfast dishes are being washed, I decide to go into every room in the house to see if I can see a clock. There is no sign of one anywhere downstairs, so I venture up to the landing which makes me feel ill-at-ease as soon as I reach the top of the stairs. Its gloom has a menacing feel to it now, so I open a bedroom door to let light into the space. I quickly go into both bedrooms and the bathroom and there is no sign of a clock, large or small, anywhere.
The day passes uneventfully and enjoyably. The weather is sunny and warm and we spend it on the beach with a little swimming, a little sunbathing followed by a really good pub lunch. Charles was driving so I did not have to worry about alcohol. The clock was not mentioned and I managed to put it to the back of my mind.
It was only when we returned to the cottage that it returns like a bad dream. Our next-door neighbour, a matronly woman in her sixties I would guess, is cleaning her windows as we climb out of the car and walk to the front door. We exchange greetings cheerily and then, just as I am about to follow everyone else in, I pause and say to her in an enquiring tone: ‘Do you happen to know if anyone in these cottages has a chiming clock?’
She stares at me warily and says in a heavily Welsh accent: ‘There are no such clocks here. Mae’n lwc drwg clywed cywion.’ And with that she disappears into her cottage, closing the door firmly behind her. It is much later when I find a Welsh dictionary on a shelf that I discover what that means. A rough translation would be: ‘It’s bad luck to hear chimes.’ Why did she say that? It implies that she somehow knew I had heard chimes. It is all very strange.
That evening, Brenda and Lorna decide they are going to make a meal. We had bought a chicken and some fresh vegetables from a market on the way back together with fresh strawberries and ice cream. While they are doing that Charles and I decide to go to the pub with strict instructions to be back by 7.00pm.
The landlord, whose name it turns out is Marty, gave us the hale fellow, well met, treatment again. We sit on stools at the bar and share a couple of packets of crisps while comparing the comparative fortunes of Liverpool and Everton football clubs.
I should perhaps have said earlier that we all live in Liverpool and in that city, you are either ‘red’ or ‘blue’. I had decided when I first met Charles that I would be ‘blue’ meaning an Everton supporter, just to be perverse because he is an ardent ‘red’. It has given rise to many arguments, usually in pubs, ever since.
It gets to about 6.40pm when we are finishing our third pint when we decide to call it a day. Charles has vanished in the direction of the toilets and I have just taken a final gulp when a thought occurs.
‘I don’t suppose you happen to know if anyone near our cottage has a chiming clock?’ I ask Marty. He was in the process of wiping glasses and suddenly stops, his back to me.
‘Why do you ask that?’ he says.
‘I thought I heard chimes coming from something like a grandfather clock last night,’ I say.
He turns around with an odd look on his face, the bonhomie completely absent. ‘You must have been mistaken. There is nothing like that around here. The countryside is full of strange sounds of a night. You city dwellers have police sirens and cars. We have owls, ferrets and foxes. Have you ever heard a fox scream? It would turn your blood cold.’
Just then, Charles returns and we thank him and head for the door. Just as I am walking out, I glance behind and see him staring at me.
The rest of the evening passes predictably with a game of cards. By 10.00pm I announce that I have had enough and that I am going to turn in. They all decide to watch a little TV, so I go to our bedroom and I fall into a deep, dreamless, sleep almost immediately.
I have no idea why I am awake, but I am suddenly sharply alert. I was not aware of Brenda coming to bed, but she is gently snoring by my side so it must have been a while ago. I look at my watch on the bedside table and it is 11.55pm. There are no shafts of moonlight tonight, just vague ochre shadows on the wall opposite from the streetlight outside the cottage.
I turn on my side and try my usual trick of trying to visualise the eternity of the universe; the multitude of galaxies stretching out into infinity. It doesn’t work and then, suddenly, I hear it. The first chime of midnight, quite clearly, but distant. I wait until it strikes five and then I get out of bed, find a torch on the shelf of my bedside table and pad soundlessly to the bedroom door and open it.
The sixth chime is a little louder and coming from upstairs. I walk over to the door leading to the stairs and open it. There is no doubt; it is coming from the landing. I pause with the door open and stare at the gloom of the stairs and the darkness of the landing above. Is it my imagination or can I see a shadow moving? Despite my fear I know I must find out why I have been selected to hear the chimes. As the seventh chime sounds, my beathing becomes shallower and I feel dread taking hold in the pit of my stomach.
Another chime, the eighth, and I slowly begin mounting the stairs shining the torch ahead of me. I have taken three steps and then the ninth sounds, louder, the circle of the torch’s beam ahead of me picking out the bare walls. Another three steps and then the tenth, sounding much nearer. I am near the top now and then the eleventh sounds. I finally reach the top in time to hear the twelfth, this time almost deafening, as if right next to me. I jump and drop the torch which clatters down the stairs. It has become cold. Very cold. I am in a stygian blackness. I feel for the banister to steady myself and stand still attempting to get my bearings. I can’t remember where the light switch is. I know that one wrong step in this shroud-like darkness and I could be at the bottom of the stairs with a broken neck.
As I stare into the blackness. Am I imagining a faint clock face? I am frozen where I stand. It seems to be showing 4.15 but it also has a face within it, a contorted woman’s face full of contempt and then it fades from view. And then there is a pregnant stillness as though something is expected of me.
I begin backing slowly down the stairs until I reach the bottom step, then I sit on it and bury my head in my hands. I feel around and find the torch. I am surprised the sound of it clattering down the stairs hasn’t woken the others.
I climb into bed and am asleep almost immediately. The following morning, I decide not to mention my nocturnal activities and nobody appears to have been woken by the torch thank goodness. I shiver as I recall the horror of the face in the clock. What was the significance of the time it showed, I wonder – 4.15? There is no way of no way of knowing whether that was AM or PM.
It is overcast outside with black clouds scudding overhead promising rain, or at the very least showers. We decide to go to Pembroke Dock, the nearest town of any size and do a little shopping. There is certain to be a large supermarket there somewhere. As I clear the breakfast dishes away, I walk past a rectangle on the carpet in the sitting room. It is lighter than the surrounding carpet as though something had been there for some time and then moved. I haven’t seen many grandfather clocks, but I somehow know that this is where it would have stood. But then, why are the chimes coming from the landing? Another puzzle.
The rest the day passes happily enough. After shopping we visit the fading glamour of the old Dockyard buildings, medieval towers and historic buildings that are everywhere. Then after lunch we wander along the waterfront with its gun towers on Front Street and also Fort Road that have resisted the waters of Milford Haven for nearly two hundred years.
Back at our cottage, Charles and Lorna decide they are going to visit friends and Brenda is busy with Sam so I decide to go to the pub to see if I can extract more information from Marty.
He greets me cheerily enough and for a while we talk about Liverpool; it seems his parents live there and he was brought up in the city. It was while he was pulling my second pint that he asks, almost jokily, if I have heard any bells lately.
I tell him I heard them last night and that there seems to be some significance in the time of 4.15. That stops him in his tracks. He stares at me and then he leans over the counter and tells me that it was the time she died according to the coroner.
I ask him what sort of lady she was.
‘Sian Roberts was a kindly soul,’ he says rather sadly. ‘We are a very close-knit community here and she was popular with everyone. That’s why I was a bit suspicious when I heard you asking about her. She was immensely proud of her grandfather clock. It had been handed down through the generations and she spent hours cleaning and polishing it.’
‘Do you happen to know where she kept it?’ I ask.
‘In her sitting room. That’s where I saw it when I went round with a meal for her one time when she was ill.’ That explains the space I saw on the carpet.
‘I wonder why I keep hearing it on the landing then,’ I say, puzzled.
He leans over the bar, lowering his voice. ‘That was her son, a local councillor. He had it moved there for some reason. Nobody knows why, especially since Sian hardly ever went upstairs. She slept in the downstairs bedroom.’
‘That’s where my wife and I are sleeping,’ I say. ‘She must have been upset by that if she couldn’t be near her clock.’ He nods in affirmation and goes to serve other customers. When he returns, I ask him what happened to it when Sian died.
‘He lost no time in flogging it,’ he says. ‘An antique dealer in the Dock bought it. He must have got a few thousand for it I would have thought.’
I am back at the cottage. Brenda is watching something on TV, so I get my laptop out and type in ‘Sian Roberts’ on the search feed on the South Wales Echo website. Two stories come up. One is an announcement about her body being found in the river and the second is an inquest at which an Open Verdict is recorded because a post-mortem could not establish a definite cause of death because animals had nibbled at her body, especially her face and neck. It was said, however, that it was unlikely she had drowned.
I close my laptop and give my little son a cuddle and we both settle him down in his drawer. We decide not to wait up for Charles and Lorna and we decide to have a cuddle ourselves while peace and quiet reigns.
I fall asleep almost immediately and wake up at 7:00 am completely refreshed. There had been no chimes during the night, or if there had, I had not heard them. I wonder why? Brenda is still asleep, so I walk to the kitchen and make myself a cup of tea. I look out at the garden. It’s somewhat overgrown but I can imagine Sian Roberts sitting out in the sun enjoying the view over Milford Haven. My thoughts turn again to the clock and why her son moved it to the landing. It appears to be a spiteful thing to have done considering how much the old lady enjoyed having it near her.
It is 7:30 am and I take a cup of tea to Brenda who has just woken up. She peers at me blearily and hoists herself up in bed. She sips and looks concerned. ‘I thought I heard mum crying last night,’ she says quietly. ‘Did you hear it?’ I shake my head. ‘I will have a word with her later and ask if everything is alright,’ she says.
We decide to visit the Talyllyn Railway today and make a day of it. It’s a bit of a drive up the coast and I will share the driving with Charles. It is when we stop for coffee half-way there that I get an opportunity to ask Brenda if she managed to have a word with Lorna. She tells me she did but that she too heard weeping and thought it was her! So that’s another mystery. In a way I’m glad that other people have heard something supernatural because I was beginning to think it was just me. True, Sian’s spirit – if that is what it was – does appear to have selected me for some reason. I have never thought of myself as being psychic, although I do occasionally ‘see’ things that are about to happen. I think they call it precognition. It takes the form of a flash for a fraction of a second and then it is gone. Indeed, there are times when I think I have just imagined it.
We are back at the cottage now. Talyllyn was fun and it was an enjoyable day, if I long one, so we decide to have a pub meal. We are all a bit too tired to cook.
We all decide to have an early night. The two women are still disconcerted by the sounds of weeping last night after they discovered it was neither of them. I tell Brenda to wake me up if she hears it again. Mind you, I’m not sure what I could do about it other than comfort and reassure her.
I am suddenly awake. I am lying on my left side and I can feel a cold hand on my right shoulder. I open my eyes gradually thinking it is Brenda, but she is in front of me in bed so it cannot possibly be her. I feel the first trickling of fear creeping down my spine. I am afraid to turn over, but I know I must. I slowly sit up. The feeling of the hand has gone. There is a shaft of moonlight from the window above our bed gleaming onto the wall opposite. I stare at it and slowly, a shadow is silhouetted. It is the shadow of a woman, slightly stooped, and it is moving from left to right towards the door and as it does, a strange luminescent light appears under the door. The shadow turns towards me, and the door opens slowly and silently to reveal an unearthly luminosity in the sitting room. At first, I think it is the moon shining from the kitchen but that is impossible because it is shining from the opposite side of the house.
I am obviously intended to walk through. I try to wake Brenda but despite me shaking her, she does not stir. I am trembling but something is compelling me to walk to the door. It is as if I am no longer able to control my limbs.
I am standing in the doorway and staring at a room I do not recognise. There is a big Victorian armchair in front of a blazing fire with a coal scuttle in front of it and to one side a small dining table with three chairs arranged around it. Then, with a start, I see taking pride of place on the opposite wall, a tall grandfather clock exactly in the empty place I had noticed earlier.
I slowly walk into the room. I am cold. Very cold, despite the blazing fire. I head slowly to the clock which is showing the time of 4.15. As I stare at it bemused, a panel opens near the bottom of the casing. I look inside and see papers. I stoop down and take them out. They appear to show figures.
The light in the room fades and I am back in the present with just the moonlight from our bedroom shining through the door. I see a movement out of the corner of my eye and turn to face the kitchen door. The shadow has returned and as I look, it turns to face me as the kitchen door slowly opens. The light in the kitchen is dim but I can make out the figure of a tall man. He is in his shirt sleeves and is standing in the middle of the room grasping a serrated knife. It is covered in blood which is dripping onto the floor. He stares at it and drops it on the tiles by his feet and turns to look behind him at the outside door which is wide open.
He walks outside and I follow. A short distance away is what looks like a body. He bends down and gathers it up in his arms and carries on walking until he reaches the river. He wades in and drops it into the water. It makes hardly any sound. Just a few ripples as though it is welcoming a newcomer. He stares at it for a while and then heads back to the kitchen. I go to the edge of the water. A face is looking up at me, dead eyes staring back through the water and lit by the moon. It is the face of an elderly lady and as I look, tears roll down her cheeks. How can that be? I find myself thinking. How can there be tears under water?
And then she slowly fades from view, and I am standing in the darkness in my pyjamas at the edge of the river. I walk back to the kitchen which is in darkness. I look at the place where he had dropped the knife on to a tile which looks different to the others. I decide to take another look in the morning. With a start, I realise I am still holding papers in my right hand. I had forgotten about them. How could that be? How can I be holding papers from a clock that isn’t there? I shake my head. Nobody is going to believe any of this. I get into bed. I am freezing and Brenda moves away from me muttering in her sleep.
I say nothing at breakfast, not even when Brenda asks me, a little irritably, if I had got out of bed in the middle of the night. I lie and say I had to go to the loo. We decide we are going to have a stay-at-home day and go for walks locally later. Charles goes up the lane to the little shop by the pub and arrives back with a couple of newspapers.
Back in the bedroom. I look at my bedside table and there are two sheets of crumpled paper there. I am startled. They are still there. I really hadn’t imagined it all. I smooth them out and study them. The handwriting is in blue ink and shaky. I have no doubt written by the lady whose body I ‘saw’ last night.
It is a list of numbers with occasional pound signs and each one has two letters after it – the same two letters. Could they be initials I wonder? I decide to call up the inquest again on my laptop and there, in the South Wales Echo, is a picture of a tall, gaunt, man who the accompanying story reveals is Idris Roberts, the son of Sian Roberts. I stare at the photo. It is the man I ‘saw’ last night and his initials are the ones on the paper after each of the figures. I add up the amounts and it comes to over £10,000. Was the old lady really murdered for her money and by her own son? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
I decide to go to the kitchen. The Terracotta tiles are quite large and one looks cleaner than the rest. It looks like it may have been recently moved. I find a screwdriver in a drawer and begin to loosen it, finally lifting it to reveal loose gravel underneath. I dig into it with the screwdriver and unearth a serrated knife. I am careful not to touch it but find a plastic bag in a drawer and ease it out. It is dirty but underneath part of it is a rusty looking substance on the blade. It looks like it might be dried blood.
I return to the bedroom and sit on the side of the bed. What should I do? Brenda comes in and sits beside me, staring wide-eyed at the knife in the bag. I decide to come clean and tell her about the events of last night. I show her the sheets of paper. She shakes her head looking from the papers to the knife. She says that if it weren’t for them, she would think I had lost the plot. She says I must go the police at Pembroke Dock. We decide I must leave out the supernatural part and simply say that these were found accidentally.
South Wales Echo
A man has appeared in court charged with the murder of a woman in Pembrokeshire. He is Idris Roberts, 52, who appeared in Swansea Crown Court charged with the wilful murder of Sian Roberts, 79, of Pembroke Ferry in October last year. He pleaded guilty.
The body of Sian Roberts was discovered in the River Cleddau near the garden of her cottage in Pembroke Ferry.
The court was told that Roberts, a solicitor and Pembroke councillor, also admitted to stealing cash from his mother, estimated to be in excess of £10,000.
An earlier inquest had recorded an Open Verdict on Sian Robert’s death due to the lack of evidence concerning the cause of death.
New evidence was presented to police which pointed to Sian having been fatally stabbed and then dumped in the river.
Judge Iorwerth Hughes passed down a sentence of 25 years telling Roberts that he had acted despicably and that his evil deeds had been motivated purely by greed. He said that he would serve 25 years as a minimum term.
I drop the newspaper down on the table. At last, justice has been done and the old lady will be happy that at long last people will know how and why she died in such terrible circumstances. I glance at the wall opposite where the grandfather clock stands.
I found it at an antique shop in Pembroke Ferry and just ‘knew’ it was Sian’s. It cost me £1,500 which I could not really afford. Brenda thought I had lost my marbles, but I don’t care. I know it sounds strange, but it seems to emanate a feeling of good will and wellbeing and I like having it in the room. I find myself talking to it occasionally.
It chimes every hour, especially at night, but I don’t mind. It is somehow comforting.
It is 4.15.