A ghost story for Christmas

The Heysham Chronicle

Mike Rickett

(Published on mikes-fiction.com)

Anthony Slim has always had a liking for local museums. They are usually quirky and full of curiosities that you would not find in the big city museums. He is wandering around a small museum in just three rooms in the village of Heysham on the Lancashire coast, probably best known for its port offering sailings to Ireland and the Isle of Mann.

   His visit is entirely unplanned. It is December and Hope University in Liverpool, where he is a senior lecturer in the Arts Faculty, is winding down for the Christmas break. He has a free day and the prospect of a trip to the coast was attractive. Anthony was brought up in the country and has never entirely signed up to city life, so he has made it his mission to seek out rural delights close to the big cities of Liverpool and Manchester.

   Heysham was chosen for a visit because in the 1790s British landscape painter JMW Turner painted Heysham with its spectacular Lakeland backdrop and so part of his mission is to find Turner’s viewpoint. He has brought with him a guide which tells him that the village dates back to the Stone Age and Heysham is home to one of the finest Anglo-Viking sites in the North-West and even hosts an annual Viking festival!

   He is walking through its historic old centre, full of winding lanes and picturesque cottages. It is strange but he has a distinct feeling he has been here before. He cannot explain it because he knows he has not. He continues his walk and comes across an 8th century chapel – St Patrick’s – and iconic rock hewn graves on the dramatic headlands overlooking the Bay which, he reads, were featured in Black Sabbath music videos!  He walks through the ruins of the chapel featuring a Viking-era doorway with a rounded arch, and a stone with a socket for an outdoor preaching cross. Next to the ruined chapel are some of the finest relics of early Christianity to be found in the northwest of England.

    He comes across the village museum which duplicates the guidebook history on one of its walls but with the added information that Heysham had been a quiet farming and fishing community until 1904 when the Port opened, and the influx of travellers transformed the ancient village overnight.

   He moves on and comes across another tableaux, this time celebrating St Michael’s Church, one of the oldest churches in the UK. He notices it is close by and decides to pay it a visit next. He is about to leave when he notices a painting nearby. It is of the church, on a modest canvas, painted in oils by the look of it and showing the church bathed in sunlight with a path leading through a graveyard to a lychgate. There is no artist’s signature and no description. There may be a signature on the back; not all artists sign on the front.

   There is something pleasing about it. Perhaps it is the brushwork, or the shading or the colours which are gentle, almost water colours in their intensity. He decides to take a picture with his phone and to do some research when he gets home.

   It is just a short walk to St Michael’s. It is a cold day, but the sun is shining, casting a golden glow over the ancient stones of the church and sharp shadows from the headstones in the churchyard. He reaches the church door and shivers involuntarily. He suddenly feels very cold. He is in the shadow of the church and puts it down to that. The door is unlocked, and he pushes it open. It takes a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. The cold intensifies inside, and he shivers and pulls his collar up.

   It is not a large church. Beyond the choir screen is the chancel with its choirstalls and the altar. He notices what looks like an elaborate memorial stone and ornate raised stone catafalque set in the West wall. He walks over to read it.

Here lies the mortal remains

 of Hugh Mortmaine Slim.

May he rest in the Lord’s eternal salvation.

 1811 -1876

   He stares at it. Can it be a coincidence that he has a relative he has never heard of in a church he never even knew existed only a day ago. There are no other clues explaining who Hugh Mortmaine Slim was or where he lived. Slim is not a common surname so is it possible that there was a family connection back then in the 19th century?

   ‘Welcome back,’ says a sibilant voice behind him. He jumps, startled, and turns to see a figure dressed like a monk in a hooded scapular, his face partly obscured by a hood drawn over the top part of his face.

   ‘I’m sorry, I had no idea there was anybody else here,’ he stutters.

   ‘We have been expecting you Mr. Slim,’ says the figure. Slim stares stupefied. Why would ‘they’ be expecting him, whoever ‘they’ are and how do ‘they’ know his name?

   ‘You can’t have expected me. I didn’t know I was coming until yesterday. Who are you?’

   There is no reply. Instead, the figure walks to the memorial and stares at it. ‘A great wrong was perpetrated in this place, and the man buried here is a murderer, an imposter.’ The final word echoes around the church sonorously, reverberating off the walls.’

   The figure turns and faces him and the hood lifts and to his horror, Slim sees that there is no face inside.  ‘His brother lies outside, and he will be avenged,’ the words are loud and close to his right ear. A skeletal hand appears from one of the sleeves and a bony finger appears inviting him to step forward. Instead, he staggers back.

   ‘What does all this have to do with me,’ he cries.

   ‘He shall visit the iniquity of the father on to the children, to the third and the fourth generations,’ says the voice in his ear. At the same time there is a hammering on the church door which gets louder and louder.

   Slim comes to by the altar. He is lying in front and against it. He has no idea how he got there. He sits up. Sunlight is streaming through the windows. A man is kneeling in front of him. He is wearing a clerical collar.

   ‘Are you alright?’ he asks, a concerned expression giving way to relief as Slim sits up.

   ‘You must have fainted. Shall I call an ambulance?’

   Slim shakes his head. ‘I’m sorry vicar. I don’t know what came over me. I’m sorry if I caused you concern. I will get out of your way.’

   The vicar stares after him as he hurries out of the church. He doesn’t stop to study the memorial, nor does he stop to study the gravestones outside. He hurries to his car and drives to the car park in the centre of the village. He needs a coffee.

*

‘Are you sure you didn’t imagine it?’  asks Hugh Lamont, Slim’s friend and colleague from the Arts Campus as they sit in Slim’s apartment in fashionable Allerton in south Liverpool.

   Slim treats him to a withering look. ‘No, I bloody didn’t, and before you ask, I had not been drinking nor had I been partaking of other substances.’ He stops and sighs. ‘It was really weird. I was getting déjà vu the moment I arrived in the village, but I know I had never been there before. It is a really interesting place with a really good local museum.’

   He stops and exclaims. ‘The church. There was a painting of the church there. I took a picture of it. I transferred it to my desktop when I got home.’ He walks quickly to his computer desk and while it is booting up, he turns to Hugh. ‘It was a really nice painting, shades of Turner or Richard Wilson, I would have thought. It showed the church in bright sunlight.’

   He finds the file and stares at it. Lamont looks over his shoulder. ‘I thought you said it was in sunlight,’ he says in a puzzled voice. ‘That’s a night scene. Why would anyone paint a picture at night?’

   ‘The picture I saw was of the church in sunlight,’ Slim says quietly. ‘How could it have changed?’ Lamont turns the screen towards him to get a better look.

   ‘What’s that in the corner, by a gravestone?’ he says, pointing to a small area almost concealed by the darkness. They both stare to get a better look.

   ‘It looks like some sort of figure,’ says Lamont. In front of a headstone and on top of a grave is a small hunched black figure. It is difficult to make out any detail because there is so little light.

    ‘Very mysterious,’ says Lamont. ‘A painting that mysteriously changes from day to night.’

   ‘You think I’m going mad, don’t you?’ says Slim.

   ‘You’ve had a lot on your plate lately mate,’ he responds. ‘Why don’t you ask the Dean if you can take a break?’

   Slim frowns. ‘I’m not going mad, and I don’t need a break. I just need to try and understand what is going on. Let’s Google Hugh Mortmaine Slim and see what comes up.’

   There is a Wikipedia entry:

Hugh Mortmaine Slim

1811 -1876

Inherited the Manor of Heysham in Lancashire in 1790 after the death of his brother John who was the rightful heir of the title. Largely regarded as despotic and cruel, Hugh Mortmaine was responsible for the deaths of sundry yeoman with whom he was in dispute over land rights.

The death of his brother John was examined by the magistrate and coroner because of local rumours and the unusual circumstances surrounding the death in which he was found drowned in a local pond despite him being a renowned and capable swimmer. A verdict of accidental death was eventually recorded because of the lack of evidence to the contrary.

Hugh Mortmaine Slim was estranged by his wife Martha who had two children, Rebecca and Arthur. Neither child acknowledged their father, and the family were reputed to have lived in straightened circumstances. His brother John had become a Benedictine monk a year before his death.

‘I know of Arthur Slim. He was my great grandfather. It is beginning to make sense,’ says Slim quietly.

   ‘What a history,’ remarks Lamont. ‘He sounds like an evil old bugger. What are you going to do about the picture old chap?’

   ‘I’m going to delete it,’ he answers. ‘And that will be the end of it.’

   Slim has a disturbed sleep that night. Visions of the monk and his faceless hood repeatedly swim before his closed eyes and at some point, he awakes, certain he can hear footsteps in the sitting room next door. He decides to ignore them, but sleep eludes him and by morning he feels bleary and ill. He rings the faculty and tells them he is ill and that he will ring tomorrow if he is still unwell.

   He switches on his PC and looks at his photos folder with trepidation. He is afraid of what he will find, but also knows he has to find out.

   He opens it and yelps, pushing his chair backwards. The photo is still there. How can that be? He definitely deleted it yesterday. He opens the file, and the picture is still of an ominous night scene with the moon’s harsh light glinting off the church’s roof and casting stygian shadows on the gravestones.

   His eyes are magnetically drawn to the bottom left corner. The strange figure has is still there but is now crouched next to the grave and is no longer facing the church. Instead, it is halfway up the path leading to the church but is almost obscured by a deep shadow cast by the church tower so he can only make out a vague shape.

   Slim has no doubt that there is something evil about it. And then the image of the faceless monk in the church returns to haunt him. He covers his eyes, and he hears again the words that seared through his brain:  

‘He shall visit the iniquity of the father on to the children, to the third and the fourth generations.’

   He backs away from the PC. Are the picture and the monk somehow connected? How can they be? He had never heard of Mortmaine until he visited the church, still less did he have any knowledge of the crimes he may have committed.

   On an impulse he rushes back to the PC and deletes the file again. He also decides to look up the museum and ask about the picture and try and find out what its history is. The museum must have a curator somewhere; all museums, large and small, have curators, don’t they?

   He switches on his internet browser and finds out that the museum is called Heysham Heritage Centre and there is a phone number.  He taps it into his phone and a voice answers. He asks to speak to the curator or manager of the heritage centre. There is a slight pause, and the voice says he is the nearest thing to that. He says his name is Richards.

   ‘Thank you, Mr. Richards. I want to ask you about a painting I noticed when I was at the Centre a few days ago. It was on the wall quite near the door and it depicted St Michael’s church. I wonder if you could give me any information about it?’

   There is a long pause. ‘I’m afraid I can’t place the picture you’re talking about,’ he says. ‘Did you say it was hanging on the wall near the door.’

   ‘Yes, on the left. There was no description or caption. I just wondered who painted it and when.’

   ‘I will go and look,’ says Richards in a puzzled voice.

   Five minutes later he is back. ‘I have just had a look. I knew there was no picture of a church. There is a picture on the wall in the space you mentioned, but it is not of a church.’

   ‘There has to be,’ retorts Slim. ‘I was there. I saw it, St Michael’s bathed in sunlight. I took a picture on my phone. I still have it.’

   There is another silence. ‘You must have taken the photograph elsewhere Sir. There is definitely no painting of St Michael’s, just a picture of a local landowner and squire with a short biography underneath.’

   Slim pauses as he feels the beginnings of panic rising in his chest. ‘What is his name?’ he whispers.

   ‘Hugh Mortmaine Slim,’ comes the reply. ‘Have you heard of him?’

   Slim lets out a cry and ends the call. He collapses on to a sofa and nurses his head in his hands.

   He sends a text to Lamont. ‘I am going mad. The painting has vanished from the museum. The curator has just told me it was never there. I must be imagining things.’

   ‘I have a couple of lectures this afternoon. I will come round after that,’ says Lamont. ‘Take it easy, you aren’t going mad.’

   It is almost 4.00pm when Lamont arrives, and it is getting dark already. The sky is cloudless heralding a silver bright moon and certain frost by morning. Slim lets him in and points at his PC. ‘I’m afraid to look,’ he says.

   ‘Before we do that, are you quite certain it was in the museum you took the photo and not somewhere else? It’s easily done when you’re in a new place. The painting might have been hanging somewhere else and you just got confused.’

   Slim shakes his head wearily. ‘Hugh, I am not bloody confused. I only visited two places. One was the museum and the other was the church and after that I had a coffee and then drove home. The painting was there. I know it. I saw it.’

   ‘OK, OK. Let’s take a look and see if it is still deleted. Would you like me to look?’

   Slim nods and turns away. He hears clicks as Lamont calls up his photo folder. Then there is a sharp intake of breath.

   ‘I think you had better look at this,’ he says.

   ‘So, it is back?’

   ‘Yes, I’m afraid it is.’

   Slim reluctantly turns around and leans over Lamont’s shoulder. The painting is back, showing a night scene once again, only this time the moon’s gleaming rays fall on a black figure which has now moved to the church door. It is stooped low and is wearing what looks like a monk’s hooded scapular. No face is visible but emerging from a sleeve are skeletal fingers.

   Slim lets out a strangled cry and backs away from the computer table. A white-faced Lamont stares at it. ‘I would not have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. Right, it’s time to put paid to this nonsense once and for all.’

   ‘What are you going to do?’ asks Slim querulously.

   ‘I am going to delete it and then I am going to empty your recycle bin. After that, there is no way it can re-appear.’ There follows a couple of clicks. Lamont slaps his hands together. ‘There. You will not be troubled any more. The file no longer exists.’

   ‘I hope you’re right,’ says Slim staring at his PC with a nervous uncertainty. Lamont pats his shoulder reassuringly: ‘Now go and get some sleep. You look as though you need it.’

*

Slim did indeed have a largely untroubled sleep . . . until around 4.00am when he awoke, conscious of being extremely thirsty. He realised he must have been sleeping with his mouth open which is dry and feels like parchment, but then he hears a scratching at his bedroom window. He sits in bed just listening, thinking it must be a bird; there are a lot of crows around but still it is a bit odd for one to sit on his window ledge scratching at this time of morning. His flat is on the second floor and if birds are going to perch anywhere, it is in the eaves. He decides to get up and take a look.

   Slim doesn’t switch his bedside light on; he just tiptoes to the window and draws open one of the curtains which were slightly open because he does not like to sleep in total darkness.

   At first, he cannot see anything. There is just a blackness outside, slightly relieved by a dim streetlight up the road. There is no sign of a bird but then when he takes a closer look, he realises there is a deeper blackness close to the glass. As he steps closer, he is filled with horror as he realises, he is looking at a monk’s hood. The tapping becomes louder and louder. Slim screams and rapidly draws the curtains together and then switches on every light he can find.

   He goes to the kitchen and switches that light on as well and then the kettle. He opens the kitchen window, which is next to his bedroom window and peeps outside. There is nothing there. He sighs, relieved and decides to do some work. He has a pile of dissertations to mark so he might as well make a start on them.

   Three hours later he has reduced the pile by half and is a little bleary-eyed from staring at his computer screen. He decides to make himself a coffee. As he returns, he glances in the direction of his desk and is stopped in his tracks. The screen of his PC is glowing with a strange green light. He stares at it fearfully. He had left it connected to the arts faculty website where there is nothing that would generate an odd light like that.

   He approaches it cautiously and sits in his chair. He clicks the delete button, but nothing happens, then the green dissolves and is replaced by a black circle which slowly expands to fill the screen and then begins to form a shape.

   Slim emits a strangled cry as the shape begins to define itself into the head and shoulders of a monk which then begins to grow larger until all that can be seen is the empty void of the hood. He shuts the PC down and sends a text to Lamont:

‘I am doomed. There is no escape from it. It has taken over my computer now. God help me.’

   It several hours later that Lamont rings him and tells him he is busy discussing retakes with students and will call round at lunchtime.

   When he arrives, he finds Slim in a pitiable state. He is visibly trembling. ‘It was outside last night, tapping on the window,’ he says hoarsely. ‘It was the monk again. He wants to be let in.’

   Lamont is thoughtful. ‘Do you remember the Wikipedia entry on Hugh Mortmaine Slim,’ he says pensively. ‘Right at the end, it said his brother became a monk not long before his death. I wonder if it his him who is trying to contact you.’

   Slim stares at him angrily. ‘Of course its him. He wants to take me to some hellish purgatory no doubt in revenge for what happened to him. How the bloody hell do I stop him. Do I have to cover the windows with garlic and crucifixes or something?’

   ‘Have you looked at the painting lately,’ Lamont asks.

   There is a bitter laugh from Slim. ‘Are you kidding.’

   ‘Let’s have a look,’ says Lamont clicking on the picture folder and calling up the painting. It shows the church in daylight with no sign of the sinister figure.

   ‘Interesting,’ mutters Lamont, summoning Slim over to look. ‘The figure appears to have vanished.’

   Slim leans over. ‘The church door is wide open,’ he says. ‘It has never been open before. ‘What does that mean Hugh?’

   ‘I have no idea. Perhaps the figure is inside the church and that will be an end to it. I shouldn’t worry. Why don’t you go for a walk. You look like you could do with some fresh air.’

   Slim walks to Calderstones Park, not far from his flat. He is wrapped up well because there is a piercing wind blowing from the North and the sky has the promise of snow later. The cold air clears his head and dispels the images that have been haunting him. He walks along a wooded pathway with flower beds on either side. He breathes deeply and can feel himself relaxing. Perhaps Hugh is right. He should not take it all so seriously. He strides out and glances around. He is alone; there is nobody else on the path. He smiles and looks around at the smattering of frost on the trees. Winter has it all in its grip. He glances at the way he has come. He was wrong. There is somebody else on the path, a lone figure some distance behind him. He can’t make it out, still less see a face. It is too far away.

  He makes his way to the Allerton Oak, Liverpool’s most famous tree that has been standing for 1,000 years. The sprawling tree is so big it has to be propped up with special supports to prevent it from buckling under its own weight. Its trunk was split when the merchant ship Lottie Sleigh, carrying 11 tonnes of gunpowder, exploded in 1864 on the River Mersey, some three miles away.

   He stands and admires the ancient tree. The split in the trunk is so wide you can stand in it. He chuckles and climbs inside, peering out. At the edge of the field is that figure he saw on the path; it doesn’t appear to have got any nearer although it looks like it is walking vigorously. Very strange he thinks.

   It is quite cosy standing in the tree and judging by the detritus inside he is not the only one to hide in there. He peeps outside and the walking figure has vanished; there is no sign of it anywhere. He sighs in relief.

   He is about step out of the tree when a skeletal hand with bits of dried skin hanging from it slowly grasps the side of the trunk in front of him. Slim stares at it horrified, gives out a terrified yell and bursts out, running like has never run before until he reaches the road. He stands on the kerb, panting, glancing behind him. There is nothing following him. He walks quickly back to his block of flats and closes the door behind him. He leans his back against it, and then goes to his vegetable rack and finds two bulbs of garlic. He splits them into cloves and places them on windowsills in every room and under the outside door.

   He makes himself a simple evening meal and switches on the TV. He is alert to every sound, mostly traffic outside; doors closing; occasional voices. He goes into every room, but everything is as it should be.

   It is the week before Christmas and it is dark by 4.00pm. Slim looks searchingly through every window. There is just the occasional car passing by and the odd walker. Everything is reassuringly normal; his computer is switched off at the mains and he has also shut down the router. There shouldn’t be any problem with that, he thinks.

   By 9.00pm he is ready for bed. He reads for a while and decides it is time turn in when he feels his eyes burning. He puts his book on the bedside table and listens intently. There is just silence, so he switches off his bedside light.

   He is woken at 2.00am by a noise. It is a rustling, scraping sound coming from his sitting room. There is also a strange green light under his bedroom door. Did he switch everything off? He decides he must have forgotten to switch off the TV and climbs out of bed. As soon as he opens his bedroom door, he sees it is not his TV; it is his PC. How can that be? It was completely switched off.

   It is the PC screen that is emitting the strange light. He is about to check the power switch when the screen changes to a black shape. He stops, fear suddenly gripping him as the blackness coalesces into the shape of a monk. It grows larger and then begins to slither out of the screen onto his desk and then the floor. It becomes more solid and the scapular falls back to reveal a grinning skull that is half decayed with the remains of skin on parts of the face. The hollow eye sockets stare at Slim and he once again hears the dreaded words:

‘He shall visit the iniquity of the father on to the children, to the third and the fourth generations.’

   The apparition begins to slither along the floor, skeleton hands reaching out towards him. Slim backs away until there is just the wall behind him, his bloodshot eyes wide and full of terror. He opens his mouth and screams and screams, but no sounds are uttered by his constricted throat.

*

Hugh Lamont decides to call on Slim the following morning; he has heard nothing from him and decides that whatever was troubling him may have finally disappeared.

   He takes the lift the to the second floor and reaches Slim’s door. He is about to ring the bell when he notices it is very slightly open. He doesn’t like that. He enters, full of trepidation and opens the door to the sitting room. He puts his hand to his mouth at the horrific scene that greets him. Slim is lying on the floor and against the wall, a look of abject terror on his face and his throat ripped out. There is blood everywhere.

   Lamont looks at the PC. It appears to be switched off. He turns it on at the mains and boots it up. He opens Slim’s picture folder. He searches the files.

   The picture of St Michael’s church has vanished.

-the end-

Published by pod1942

I am a cereer journalist having worked for the London Dail Mail, Reuters and latterly the Liverpool Daily Post on Merseyside as well as the journalists’ leader in the region. I have experience as a crime reporter, feature writer, business editor and latterly, a senior sub-editor. My qualifications include a BA (Hons) English, from the University of Liverpool; a BA (Hons) Fine Art and an MA in Creative Practice both from Liverpool Hope University. I now divide my time between art and writing. I will shortly be publishing my first full-length novel, The Poseidon Files and as a taster I have written a short story which features the same central female character in which she talks about her world and her life. It is, however, essentially a ghost story.

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