Granddad

Allow me to travel back beyond the realm of my twenties for a moment; for it is necessary to step back further than usual in this memory.  I forget the year, but I am a little child and my grandfather, Brian Gardner, is taking his dog Bess, my younger brother Danny and I for a walk in the Somerset countryside one summer morning.  He and my grandmother have recently found their lasting dream home in the idyllic village of Chard, after decades of odd jobs and memories as working class Londoners.  For my brother and I, it is the first of many visits to the South-Western countryside; an area that is right now completely alien to us urban children (I believe children’s TV shows such as Rosie & Jim and The Animals of Farthing Wood had hitherto presented me with the extent of my understanding of Pastoral living).

While Granddad’s prime directive on this occasion is to allow Bess to do her doggy business, he also wants to show us something standing alone out there in the scruffy reeds.  It’s a standing stone; perhaps twice the height of my brother and I, with a single name inscribed upon it.  To my chagrin, I have forgotten the name entirely, but my child self is told that I am looking at the gravestone of a horse; beloved by a local farmhand of yore, who buried his animal in this field that hosts no other departed creature.  The gravestone is all the more affecting to me in its isolation than those standing in crowded cemeteries, and it is the first time I garner an essence of loneliness in death.  In effect we all die alone; even if we are surrounded by loved ones the journey of death itself – the esoteric moment that follows the final moment – is one we can only take by ourselves.  I first realise this as a child beholding the lonely horse’s headstone.

I was no stranger to Somerset as the years went by, and throughout these visits my Granddad – whether intentionally or not – began to gradually inform what those close to me recognise as my ‘morbid side’ – inherited by my ghost-obsessed dad who also had a hand in instilling it within me.  Granddad often used to recite a sinister little rhyme to me, which I believe he worded intentionally wrong, but it began with the lines “There’s a green-eyed, yellow monster to the north of Kathmandu”.  I didn’t know where Kathmandu was, but knowing there were monsters anywhere in the world was enough to swell something of an obsession with them.  Later stories involved mysteriously moving chairs in the attic of his father’s old house and then of course there was the obligatory passing of Bess in my teenage years.  I’d known family dogs to die before of course, but Bess to me was always part and parcel of Somerset Summer holidays, so I began to associate Chard with a sense of the morbid, the funereal, upon visits following the death of Bess (as my Nan herself put it on one such occasion, “It’s horrible here without the dog, ain’t it?”).  It later proved to be, tragically and inevitably, an association that kept on giving.

As I hit my twenties, where these memoirs are principally concerned, I became a bit rubbish at visiting my grandparents in Somerset.  Nan would often and with some hope enquire as to when I’d be popping down to visit again, and that my girlfriend (whoever she was at the time) would be welcome too.  I’d say I intended to, but the intention never gained fruition.  I was too distracted, too idol, too busy doing things I thought were important but which the passage of time has since revealed as not important at all.

However, some time around 2013, news of Granddad’s failing health started to do the rounds, and I knew I couldn’t be a rubbish grandchild anymore.  It struck me that our meetings were to become extremely finite now, and there was that solemn association with Somerset rearing its head yet again.  My brother and I took the National Express to Somerset in frosty February, and when we weren’t on a snow-trudging crawl around the village pubs (including Most Haunted’s former conquest The Chuffs, a haunted tavern which boasted a hulking, sinister fireplace), we sat up until the small hours whilst Granddad imparted more anecdotes from his long life than he ever had before.  We all knew why this was.  He sat in his usual tableside chair pouring whiskey and amicably revealing why the past was all the more magical than the present without expressly saying such a thing.

When the time came to go home, Granddad dropped us to the coach depot and as we shook hands it occurred to me that this was my first goodbye to him wherein I actually wondered if I’d ever see him again; this tertiary father-figure who had been there unquestionably for my entire life.  Who used to tell me stories to ensure I’d one day grow to love telling my own.  To me, who had made it to my twenties without losing any close loved-ones, the only life I knew went; pets die, relatives don’t.  Although change was now unequivocally on the cards, I felt mature enough to approach it with readiness.

As it turns out, I did see him again.  Although illness forbade him from attending my nan’s birthday in December of 2014, I, along with Danny and his girlfriend, managed to get down to Somerset in February of the following year.  All concerned had surmised that Granddad may now have been in his final year, but he was every bit himself.  He still reeled off the life stories, drove us to the local cider mill for a visit and a few free samples and shared his stalwart bottle of whiskey with us of an evening.

During the visit we felt the nostalgic urge to take a walk to the nearby field in which Granddad had shown us the horse’s grave years ago on our first visit to Somerset; but the grave was no longer there.  A Google search yielded no word on the grave or its removal (being unable to recall the name of the horse certainly didn’t help either) and, following a pub quiz and a few beers later that evening, a word with several locals also proved fruitless.  We’d assumed that the bulk of Chard-folk would be au fait with this local landmark, but apparently not.  Granddad couldn’t recall the horse’s name either.  Lost to the merciless ticking of time, it seems.  I do still wonder if there’s a single soul in Somerset who knows of that old horse.

On our final evening in Chard we sat up at the dining room table until late, drinking whiskey as per usual.  But this conversation was markedly different.  Towards its end he had begun speaking in the past tense, wrapping things up.  He said he’d had a great life, and if anyone had told his younger self that he’d live to be 86 he’d have laughed them out of the room.  He capped it off with an urge for me to keep up the writing, and he shook my hand before I headed off to bed, knowing just as well as he did that we’d just had our final conversation.

Granddad became too unwell to remain at home shortly after that visit, and he passed away in October 2015.  I’d just arrived home from what eventually proved to be a successful job interview, an overdue chance to begin a new chapter in my life ready to see off my twenties, when my dad phoned me with this news.  Doors are closed as often as they are opened.

Granddad’s funeral was held in Somerset two weeks later.  My oldest brother Carl drove us there and we stopped at Stonehenge along the way.  Stonehenge was always the mysterious highlight on the otherwise tedious car journeys to Nanny and Granddad’s house as a child, but this was the first time I’d actually stopped there and gotten out of the car to look at it properly.  Although modern archaeological wisdom suggests the Megalithic Stone Circle is not of Druid origin, as it is far older than that Pagan order, it is said to still have links with Pagan practices and the belief is that ‘Proto-Druids’ built their homes from wood, because life is temporary, and their monuments to the dead out of stone, because death is eternal.  Although there is rebirth where the consciousness is renewed in another being, death is never forgotten (that is until the stones are removed and all those that remember the horse have gone away).

I was a pall bearer for the first time.  Despite the celebrant informing me that Granddad would be reasonably light, the coffin weighed so heavily on my shoulder I thought it was going to take my arm off.  But, accompanied by the rugged voice of Johnny Cash crooning ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, I got there before long and took my seat among the other mourners.  It was as joyous a ceremony as a funeral is able to be.  I was quoted at the start, “He set the bar for how I wanted to live my life” (a lover of whiskey, stories and the countryside – I’ve certainly made a start), then my uncle read a superb, life-spanning eulogy and even managed to find room to give my recently released ghost story The Creeping Seawall (which takes place during and following a familial funeral) a shout-out.  At the end of the service a poem was read.  Though I remember none other from him than the one about the Green-eyed Yellow Monster, It was said that Granddad often recalled this poem;

It was a year ago, September
a day I well remember
I was walking up and down
in drunken pride
when my knees began to flutter
and I fell down in the gutter
and a pig came by and lay down by my side

As I lay there in the gutter
thinking thoughts I could not utter
I thought I heard a passing lady say,
“You can tell a man who boozes
by the company he chooses…”
And with that, the pig got up and walked away

Following the recital, uncle Rob placed a bottle of whiskey and a single glass tumbler on top of the coffin, the curtains closed and Granddad was gone.  We stood up and were led out into the sunlight and to a wake in Nan and Granddad’s bowls club which, as is the wont of the Gardners, drunkenly spilled out into The Chuff’s, and that’s where this memory ends.

Loss defines our beings; when the years pass and the pillars of our memories are set, the memory of having something falls under the shadow of the memory of losing it.  The best we can do is gain and keep hold of as much as possible, so that when we reach the end of our days, we can go out with a heady supply of good things that we did not lose in life beset by these sombre memories.  I firmly believed this was Brian Gardner’s final achievement, as evidenced by some of his last words;
“No regrets.”

Ghosts of Edinburgh

Since the summer of 2012 I have been clutching the ragged metal bars of a restricted corner of a Scottish cemetery; staring longingly over a crooked, grassy concourse of which I am forbidden to enter, hoping to see something move.  There has been no avail in these last four years.

Of course I haven’t really been there all that time.  I’ve done one or two other things, but the obtusely sunny spring of 2016 marks my third visit to Edinburgh, and my third intention to be allowed into that locked-off graveyard; the Covenanters Prison in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard.  I will do it this time.

I first came to Edinburgh in 2012 because Jade had gotten a Fringe Festival job as musical director of Les Miserables and was to be away for the entire month of August that year.  It was the longest we’d ever been apart at that point in our relationship so, coupled with the desirable notion of a free place to stay in a city I’d hitherto never seen, I made sure to visit her midway through the run.  I sat on the floor for the entirety of the four-hour train journey because I neither booked ahead nor managed to comprehend the absolute droves of visitors to the Edinburgh Fringe, clogging up the carriages and possessing forethought enough to actually reserve a seat.  I didn’t mind so much; I found a comfy nook and read Grimm’s fairy tales and the journey flew by.  On the first evening of that visit, I stumbled into Greyfriars during a city stroll and first noticed that restricted prison; its padlocked gates adorned with naught but a sinister, hanging sign reading ‘COVENANTERS PRISON’.  Curiosity and a subsequent Wikipedia session told me all I needed to know about that place.

During the reign of King Charles I, the people of Scotland were being pressured into adopting more English practices of worship by the Church in England.  The militant few who were most particularly opposed to this idea were known as The Covenanters and formed a resistance group, based in the church at Greyfriars, Edinburgh, where in 1638 the Covenant was signed to maintain traditional practices of worship.  However, during the upheaval of the Civil War, the rise and fall of Oliver Cromwell and the eventual restoration of King Charles II, some years later, the Scottish Royalists gradually turned against and overthrew the Covenanters and, under the charge of a nobleman called George MacKenzie, more than a thousand Covenanters were taken hostage, rounded up and imprisoned in a walled-off field (that which would become the Covenanters Prison) to the North of Greyfriars Cemetery.  Once here, the brutal MacKenzie chose to allow the natural elements be his weapon of torture, as the Covenanters were tied up and laid face down in the snow, where they were left for a devastatingly long time.  Those that survived were forced to dig a pit for the dead, and that pit remains buried beneath the Covenanters Prison.

When MacKenzie eventually passed away, he was buried in a looming, grandiose tomb a mere few feet away from the Covenanters Prison.  As for the Prison itself, it inevitably became part of the already overcrowded cemetery, with rows of mausoleums and tombs built on top of a site of mass slaughter.  In 1998, a drunkard seeking shelter from the rain broke into MacKenzie’s tomb and disturbed the coffins of his family.  It didn’t take long, following this disruption, for reports of violent paranormal activity to come flooding in from myriad directions.  Focused predominantly in the Covenanters Prison; where MacKenzie’s bloody legacy was set, visitors complained of unexplained scratches, bruises and nausea.  Some even collapsed.  An exorcist came to the Covenanters Prison in a failed attempt to purge the poltergeist, but his work was unfinished and he died of a heart attack weeks later.  Duly, access to the Covenanters Prison was restricted by Edinburgh council.  Nowadays, one may only enter the Prison under the supervision of a ‘City of the Dead’ tour guide.

The relentless theatrics of the Edinburgh Festival never allowed me an evening to take this tour.  There was too much else to see that, unlike the ghost tour, wouldn’t be there forever.  I went again the following year, and still failed to get into that graveyard (the evening I had set aside for it was usurped by an invite to see something called Snakes on a Plane: The Musical, and I was hardly going to miss that).  My curiosity inflated as the years went by; my imagination infested by an elusive ghost that has dogged a hefty portion of my twenties.

Third time lucky.  I took a jet there this time, with my two best friends Danny and Ellie, who are spiritually-minded and justly open to the possibilities of ethereal otherworlds.  It was April; there wasn’t an arts festival in sight.  I was finally going to see beautiful Edinburgh in its natural state.  Our plane descended gracefully over the glistening sea and touched down on the green outskirts of the old, awe-inspiring city, which has touched a million poetic souls under the twin shadows of the breathtaking Castle and the rugged mount of Arthur’s Seat.

We didn’t take the tour on the first night; we’d been up since 3am and we wanted to give the ghosts our full attention.  But we did take a precursory walk into Greyfriars – Danny, being particularly sensitive to malevolent spirits, had to prime himself by seeing the place first.  Fair enough on him.  So there we stood, clutching those old bars in nervous anticipation as I had been, here and there, for nearly four years now.

On the second evening, following a trip around Edinburgh Castle and some Dutch courage at an old pub, the time finally came.  We were greeted at the site of the tour’s departure by a young but misanthropic looking chap in a long leather coat.  His introduction was intense and enthusiastic, with an obtuse bent and a slight quirk of the Doctor from Doctor Who about him.  As he waxed foreboding about the ghosts we were heading towards, his eyes lit up and the veins of his neck throbbed.  He was an actor, of course, but he was no skeptic.

Our first stop was the underground vaults beneath Edinburgh, in which the dispossessed and destitute took refuge centuries ago.  Here we were regaled with grim tales of murder, child-abduction and disease.  We’d arrogantly brushed off the vault section of the tour as a mere starter to the main event of the Covenanters Prison; but make no mistake we were scared here.  As we were told of a previous tour-attendee’s run-in with the spirit of a young woman who tried to take her unborn baby by sliding her ghostly fingers into her sides, we were then led into the room where it happened.  After informing us of the real villain in this room – a wasted-faced man who pokes and pulls his victims – our guide had us each take a step further back into the darkness before blowing out the candles and turning off his torch.  An incongruous cough, that seemed to come more from the walls than any of our fellow tour-goers, welcomed us into the pitch darkness.  I placed my petrified hand on Danny’s shoulder and later told him ‘That wasn’t for your benefit, it was for mine.’  It was official:  I was more terrified than him.  But we came out alive and our next stop was Greyfriars and the Covenanters Prison.

They say ghosts that roam the Earth have unfinished business, thus they cannot move on.  It seemed appropriate that I was then taking this long-awaited tour at the end of my journey through the stormy twenties; this ghost was my unfinished business.  Ghosts – be they real or metaphorical, be they of my own creation or of my unwilling dreams – have been possessing me for a decade now and I was finally ready to tackle the one ghost who has persistently raised its malevolent head above the rest.  I could finish my business and, unlike him, move on to the next plain.

‘This, ladies and gents, is where even I start to get nervous.’  The guide was impeccable in his storytelling – despite knowing the backstory of the prison I was captivated in his rendition of it.  I felt sick looking through the gates; not curious as I had been before now.  The air felt pungent, like wading through mud as we finally passed into the thick of it.  My heart started to sting as soon as I crossed the threshold and the stinging ceased the moment I exited (spoiler; I made it out).  Is that natural?  Either way, despite being just one corner of a place literally built on a mound of corpses, it felt particularly dead in here.  As the guide put it, we were standing on the site of Scotland’s first and only concentration camp, and I’d never set foot in a concentration camp before.

‘Most of the poltergeist activity has occurred in what we call the Black Mausoleum,’ said our guide.  ‘And guess where we’re going now.’  Ellie and I had already remarked what a particularly evil place a certain mausoleum looked.  Unfathomably dark within, with a stark, low doorway bidding all to keep away, that turned out to be exactly the place to be on this tour.  What a coincidence.

And this is where one of us saw him.

Repeating his motif in the vaults, the guide gave us a brief warning and instruction to stay quiet and respect the poltergeist, then left us to our own devices in the dark.  I could barely breathe.  Nobody in our twenty-strong group attempted a jovial ‘Woo’ or sneaky prod in the back.  I don’t know how many non-believers there were among us, but each and every one of us did exactly as the guide had said.  I could feel a tangible evil envelope me in that dank mausoleum.  But things came to an end; and as I stepped out of the Covenanters Prison, I realised that I had conquered something that had been brewing for nearly four years.  A meagre victory to many, I’m sure, but a mountain to me.  As the comparative brightness of the moonlit night relit our pale faces, Danny groaned ‘I fucking saw it man.’

He had turned around to see if Ellie, who was stood at the back of the room, was doing okay during the endurance test in the mausoleum.  Behind her he saw an oblique, tall shape; most definitely humanoid, which stood taller than any member of the group and promptly vanished as Danny began to comprehend what it could be.  My skin went cold as he recounted this experience, and we stepped out of Greyfriars into a billowing, biting air of omnipotent evil.  We had walked and stood in the depths of the unknown, on the very brink of what our mortal species believes to be the outermost barrier of our welcome realm, and we knew we’d each be forever changed by it.  Later that night, drunk and invigorated by intrepid inebriation, we three went back into that graveyard, stared into the tomb of MacKenzie and clawed at the locked gates of the Covenanters Prison.  What were we trying to achieve on this second excursion?  Were we tempting fate or paying respect?

But on the following day the sun bared-down so warm, obstructed by no cloud, and we climbed the greenest mountain – the mighty Arthur’s Seat – and looked over two worlds; nature’s and man’s.  We decided we loved both.  Upon this realisation I fell elated down onto the grass and held a hand up toward the deep blue sky as my body connected with the pinnacle of planet Earth and I pondered the next journey.  There was no evil here, I was wrong.

arthurs seat

The Man Who Told The World

When I was a little boy my mum used to play a game with my younger brother and I.  The game went by the not-particularly-inventive title of ‘Guess The Singer’ and would consist of the aforesaid parent playing two or three seconds of an old song and pitting her youngest sons head to head to see who would be the first to  – believe it or not – guess the singer.  It was probably the defining ember within the flame that ignited my passion for music, and it also formed my earliest memory of developing an interest in David Bowie.  Who was this strange, angelic man regaling me with tales of life among the stars?  Where did he come from?  Why were his eyes different colours?

As the years went by, Bowie stayed with me and, alongside Lennon and Cobain, gradually urged me to go into the spare room and pick up an old acoustic guitar, purchased by my father during a creative mood and subsequently neglected in favour of work and parenthood.  I was destined to be a musician from then on, thanks to those three.  Fast forward a few decades and Bowie has become the last of that artistic trinity to travel on to the next life.

I awoke to the news via a tearful Shaun Keaveny, struggling through his BBC Radio 6 morning show, and gradually got to grips with the utter shock working on the 72nd floor of Western Europe’s tallest building, gazing upon beams of light as they shone down through the clouds over South London.  To my shame, I used to consider myself an atheist.  But on that day I was thankful to be well and truly past that immature little hiccup of spiritual judgment.  Bowie hasn’t disappeared, he has moved on.

Today I made the necessary pilgrimage to Brixton, to pay my respects and add my little hand-drawn tribute to the plethora of trinkets and vegetation surrounding his iconic aspect.  It didn’t, at that moment, matter that I’d never met the man.  The artist and his art have been beside me since early childhood, sculpting my philosophy, creativity and cosmic outlook.  He means far more to me than many individuals that have passed through my twenty-nine years and failed to do anything memorable with the benefit of spatial proximity.  Justly, I wept.  Eighteen months prior, I had a sudden esoteric desire to ‘marathon’ Bowie’s entire back catalogue in order of release.  It can’t have been pure coincidence that that was around the same time he was surreptitiously diagnosed with the fatal illness which would eventually take him.  David wouldn’t have seen it that way, that’s for sure.

I don’t care that this eulogy is latecoming and that the following has already been said a million times; he was a genius of the highest order.  It is seldom that such a thing can be said without hyperbole, and I am thankful to have lived in a time wherein that genius continued to create and prove itself.  This is a man who played so deftly with his immortal persona, whose pervading and emanating aura of indestructibility was such that he could put out a video of himself quite literally lying in a hospital bed and saying ‘I’m dying’ yet not one of us so much as clocked that he might be unwell.  He told the world, the world just didn’t listen.  He was an innovator right to the end and beyond, not letting death get in the way of his artistic prowess.  He left us a secret goodbye that could only be decoded by hindsight, and how inspirational is that?  I can never be as groundbreaking, as talented, as handsome or as timeless as David Bowie.  Whatever I do.  I’ll never write something as beautiful as ‘Life on Mars’.  That is not self-deprecation, it is common sense.  But I can continue to be inspired to try.  Therein is his foremost beauty:  While he was one of very few who made it to the top of the mountain, he still urged us all to climb it.  David Robert Jones; Ziggy Stardust; Jareth The Goblin King; whoever you’ve been, I say this as I would to anyone who has touched my life and kept me safe from creative dissonance:  I will miss you.  But not forever, for I know you haven’t disappeared; you’re just waiting in the sky.

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The Creeping Seawall: A Halloween Teaser

FRIGHTFUL Festive Felicitations to one and all!  With the dual celebratory honour of yet another impending All Hallow’s Eve and the release of my first horror novel The Creeping Seawall, I’d like to share with you this Halloween treat.  It’s a chilling, malevolent excerpt from my book – the only one the viciously omnipotent Demon-Shepherd would let me share, being as the shaded ghoul does reside within the text, bleeding out where possible to torment me and my readers.

The Creeping Seawall is a macabre, modern take on the classic English ghost story, in the vein of M.R James and Susan Hill, but with a hefty dose of my skewed, psychologically traumatic vision of a narcotic-laced, inebriated Britain.  We follow young Mickey, an arrogant but damaged paranormal enthusiast as he travels to the coast for a relative’s funeral.  Beset by his own personal demons and accompanied by his reticent, drug-addict of a best friend Mickey sets about investigating a local ghost story.  He’ll be sorry he did, because he’s about to learn that some evils are far closer to home than we think…

Enjoy this little Autumnal Teaser, in which Mickey stops by the village pub for a tipple and a terror.  If this whets your spectral appetite and you’d like more seaside scares, you can buy the novel through a link provided at the end of this chunk.  Enjoy!  Stay scared!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sunday afternoon by the sea.  Post-brunch, pre-roast.  Where else would one want to be but the Sea View pub in the peaceful but spooky village of Birchington-on-Sea?  That’s certainly where I was, sitting with my Dad and my best friend Patricia, sipping cold beer and listening to Dad regale us with haunted stories from his own coastal cottage.  True or not, Patricial and I were captivated.  Before long, so was Lucy, the Sea View’s barmaid who’d been living and working in this little town for years and who’d crept up from her work to join in our ghostly little chat.
‘I was just saying,’ said Dad to Lucy.  ‘I always thought my house was haunted.  Do you believe in that sort of thing, Luce?’
Lucy looked around the room for a moment then leant over the bar.
‘Do you know the story of the Creeping Seawall?’ she asked us, lowering her voice.
Dad shook his head, I followed suit.
‘What’s that?’ Dad asked.
Lucy looked about again.
‘Roger!’ she yelled. ‘Roger!’
After a moment. a tall, stocky man who looked a similar age to Lucy appeared from around the same corner. I presumed that he was the fabled and sought-after Roger.
‘Yes, love?’ said Roger.
‘Cover the bar a minute will you?’ Lucy replied.
She turned away and left the bar, before approaching our table and taking a seat between me and Dad.
‘I can’t believe you ain’t heard the story,’ she said to Dad. ‘How long have you lived here now?’
‘About a year,’ Dad replied.
‘Fair enough. Anyway, it’s a bit of a local legend. See what you make of it.’
Lucy commenced with the legend of the Creeping Seawall, and the more she spoke, the colder I began to feel.

‘I’ve lived round here for about twenty years. Anyway, not long after I moved over from Southend, there was this tragedy what happened on Smuggler’s Way, just round the corner from where you live. Horrible stuff, it was all any of us talked about for weeks. Front page of the Thanet Extra and everything. That’s for the whole region, mind. Not just this town.
‘The Donovans were a lovely family. They’d always lived here, and Horace Donovan’s parents and grandparents too. Thanet born and bred he was, proper local. So one day during the summer holidays, Horace and his wife Maggie took their three kids down to Epple Bay for the afternoon. They weren’t too well off, see, so they never went on fancy holidays or anything. Like a lot of us, he just always thought, ‘why go somewhere dear when there’s a nice beach on me doorstep?’
‘Epple was a lot nicer back then, it’s been a bit neglected lately what with the decline in tourism round Thanet. But back then people used to come here in the summer. Here, Margate, Broadstairs. It was a good place to have your holidays, not like now.
‘So Horace and Maggie spent all day sitting on the sand, eating hot donuts and fish and chips while their kids mucked about in and out the sea and whatnot. Lovely day. The kids were having a whale of a time. Only then it started to rain, bloody typical. So they decide they have to go home. Kids are right upset, they don’t care if it’s raining or snowing so long as they’re having fun.
‘So, trying to settle them down as they’re leaving, Horace goes over to the old seawall and picks up a bit of the chalk that always gathers from the cliffs. Then he writes his name on the wall and hands the chalk to Maggie. She does the same, the kids like this and they all write their names. Now all their names are up on the wall. Horace, Maggie, Jenny (she was ten), Freddie (seven) and Bob (three). Horace draws a little picture of all of them below their names – matchstick men with smiley faces, nothing fancy – and writes the date over it. He tells his kids that this was their special day and takes a photo of the wall so they can always remember what a lovely time they had.
‘Anyway. They all go home and have a nice evening. They get a takeaway and watch a Disney film and then put the kids to bed.
‘However, the kids have been in bed maybe half an hour tops when little Freddie turns up in the living room while Horace and Maggie are watching the telly. Horace asks what’s the matter and Freddie says there’s a man in his bedroom. Obviously this freaks Dad out, as you’d imagine. So Horace legs it into Freddie’s room to see what he’s on about. He sees that there ain’t no man in there, after checking the whole room out, then makes sure his son knows it was just a bad dream and puts him to bed.
‘So a little bit later Freddie comes back downstairs. This time Horace and Maggie are about ready for bed themselves. Little Freddie says the man is still there and that he won’t go away. Horace says it’s a nightmare but Freddie says he ain’t even been to sleep yet. Horace checks the bedroom again and still there ain’t no man anywhere.
‘Anyway, Horace and Maggie let Freddie sleep in their bed that night. They all go asleep and then there’s a loud knock and their bedroom door creaks open. Horace wakes up and guess what? Now Jenny is standing there. She says she was woken up by a man coming into her room, just like Freddie. This time Horace don’t want to get up and go nosing around in her bedroom so he lets Jenny sleep in the bed with him and Maggie as well. He does find this a bit odd though, obviously.
‘Horace goes back to sleep, only then he wakes up to a noise from the next room. Would you believe it? It’s only little Bob crying his eyes out from his bedroom. So Horace gets out of bed and goes to see Bob. Bob’s only little so he can’t really explain what’s wrong. He just says “man, man,” over and over again and points at the door. Now, Horace has started to think his kids have all got too over excited playing on the beach and they’re just having him on, conspiring to aggravate him, you know, like kids do. He puts the night light on for Bob, tells him to go asleep and then goes back into his bedroom.
‘But when he goes in, the first thing he sees is someone tall and dark across the room, like a man but all shadow, looming over his bed where his wife and kids are sleeping. Obviously, Horace loses his marbles at this point and switches the light on. Now there’s nobody there. But he can’t deny that he saw something. It’s late and his kids have been up and down all night whinging at him, so he decides he imagined it, not to take it too seriously. But I’ll tell you what, he was in here the next day having a pint and telling us all about it and he looked more unnerved than anyone had ever seen him.
‘Day after that, they all go down to the beach again because the weather’s cleared up. Jenny wants to have a look at their little mural on the seawall but it ain’t there no more. Maggie tells the kids that the chalk washes off when the tide hits the wall at night but at least they’ll have the picture of it when it’s developed. The kids play again while the parents relax and then Bob scrambles over to his Dad and starts tugging his shirt.

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‘Horace looks up and Bob’s crying “Man! Man!”, over and over again and pointing at the seawall where they wrote their names the day before. But once again there ain’t no man. But… and this is what he told us by the way, I ain’t making it up, he said that when he looked at the wall, he thought he saw something move. Not a man, but something, like the stone started shifting for a moment.
‘See, Horace used to drink here a lot. He worked in the garage down the road and always popped in after his shift for a pint of Spitfire. The kids came in too and that afternoon they were all in here. Maggie was sat right here with the kids while Horace was sat over there at that bar, telling us what he saw. He weren’t ever really into ghosts or nothing, but that day you’d never know it.
‘This is where it gets a bit nasty, sorry. They all go home and Maggie puts dinner on. Roast chicken ‘cause it was Sunday. She leaves the kitchen for a bit to have a quick fag outside and then Horace turns up in the garden asking where Bob is. He ain’t seen him in a while, and he ain’t in the living room or his bedroom. Maggie don’t know either so she puts her fag out and they both go back in to look for Bob. He ain’t in the toilet, he ain’t in the living room, he ain’t in the kitchen, he ain’t in any of the kids’ rooms and he ain’t tall enough to open the front door, so he can’t have gotten out. They start panicking, because there’s nowhere else he could possibly be. The other kids start crying their eyes out when they see how frantic their parents are getting.
‘They ring the police and Maggie goes back in the kitchen to turn off the roast in case they have to go out. But when she goes to the oven, she sees something inside. There ain’t just the chicken in there now, there’s something else. Something bigger all clogged inside. It’s weird because the oven door is shut tight. So she opens it.
‘The next thing Horace hears from the living room is his wife screaming louder than he’s ever heard her. So, in a flash he runs into the kitchen and Maggie’s coiled on the floor in tears, pointing at the wide open oven.
‘There’s a little pair of feet dangling out over the grill. Horace don’t need to see no more to work out what’s happened.
‘Now, have you ever heard of an oven that can be closed from the inside? However that poor little boy managed to get in there, there ain’t no way he could have shut it. And you could never convince me that Horace or Maggie would do that to one of their kids. I’m just saying.
After Bob’s funeral, poor Horace decides to get those pictures developed, anyway. He’s flicking through all them photos of his family having a lovely summer, little Bob laughing and playing without a care in his tiny little heart. Horace is bawling his eyes out and then he comes to the picture of all their names on the wall. There’s something wrong with it. There’s his shadow, obviously because he’s the one who took it, but then there’s another shadow next to him. Taller, sort of leaning in towards Horace. Maggie’s as short as they come. Smoking, it stunts your growth, you see. So it can’t be her. When he sees this he drops the photo on the floor, nearly has a nervous breakdown.
‘Horace comes in here again. It’s horrible. None of us behind the bar knows what to say or do. He just leans over the bar with his head in his hands, pale as they come. Doesn’t touch his beer for a good hour. Then he looks up at Vinnie (he’s the old landlord) and says “look at this”, and gets that photo out. Obviously Vinnie takes the photo and looks at it, but he don’t know what to say. Horace gets up and sort of just meanders out the pub like a zombie, leaving his pint untouched.
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‘That’s the last time any of us saw Horace. Couple of days later Vinnie was on the morning shift and he tells us he could see smoke coming up on the horizon from Smuggler’s Way. Course, day after that the Thanet Extra comes out and it turns out Horace’s house burnt down. Nobody survived. Horace, Maggie, little Freddie and Jenny. All burned alive inside that house. Poor souls. Never knew a nicer family in all the time I’ve lived here and that’s how it ended for them. Horrible.
‘They had a wake for the Donovans in this pub. Worst day of Vinnie’s life, that was. Him and Horace were good mates you see. So, he steps out the back for a bit of a cry and then seconds later runs back inside, white as a sheet.
‘I ask him what’s wrong and he says he’s just seen Horace in the garden, smiling at him from the shadows behind the trees. Couple of weeks later Vinnie ups and leaves, then the company leaves the pub to me and Roger. As far as I know Vinnie ain’t been back to this town since.
‘And do you know what? It was that wall. It was them writing their names on that seawall that done it. A few people have died too young over the years round here, under suspicious circumstances, and every single one of them was on that beach the night before they died. I’ve told this story God knows how many times now, and people believe it. That’s why Epple Bay is always deserted these days. People believe it. Write your name on that wall, and as soon as the sea washes it away, you’ll be dead in no time. Mark my words.’
‘Why is that?’ I asked, my voice shaking as I began piecing things together.
Lucy shrugged.
‘Beats me. We’ve all got our theories. I reckon this place is a sort of ferry port to the afterlife, and writing your name on the wall means you’re signing up, gets you there quicker. Roger thinks that this is an old town with a nasty past. Vikings used to come here you know. He says places don’t forget things like that.’
‘Well, the Romans came through Kent on their first attempts to conquer England,’ I said. ‘There would have been a lot of bloodshed around here.’
‘There is that,’ said Lucy.
‘I’m going with your theory,’ said Patricia to Lucy. ‘Sort of explains why there are so many pensioners here.’
Lucy smiled.
‘Here, hang about,’ she said, getting out of her seat.
We three sat in silence for a while as Lucy made her way back to the bar and rummaged through a drawer behind it. When she returned she was clutching an old, rectangular photograph, browning at the edges. She handed it to me with a trite, sickly grin.
There it was, the photo she’d described. There were the five names written in chalk on the wall. Horace, Maggie, Jenny, Freddie and Bob. Bob’s was bigger and messier than the others, likely because of his young age. And there was the stick figure drawing of the family, all holding hands and smiling cartoon smiles at me. And there, of course, were the two shadows.
I placed the photo delicately on the table and looked away, not wishing to behold it any longer. It was quite awful to see, knowing what shortly became of the people who’d written those words, and knowing (as I did) what that taller, second shadow was, and what unearhtly evil it truly belonged to.

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Thanks for reading!  The Creeping Seawall is out now priced just £2.99 on Kindle or £7.99 paperback.

Happy Halloween x

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Happy Birthday CHILDREN’S HOSPICE

On the 1st of October 2014 I released Children’s Hospice – a “Nightmare Novella” that formed the compounded end-result of a tumultuous year and prophecised the would-be grisly end of a slowly decomposing relationship, based loosely on the relationship I saw severed suddenly earlier that year.  In a fluidly fantastical-realist world that is both our own and that of our most primal, childish nightmares, a woman is arrested and imprisoned for the death of her baby boy – whom she accidentally, fatally injured in an attempt to fight off her violent husband.  What follows is a kaleidoscopic, visceral descent into madness and a slow, dirge-led march into heaven or hell, replete with demonic children, babbling monster-men and thunder-clapped, rain-drenched black towers.  It is also a Christmas story, an urbane retelling of the Nativity recoloured with victim-blaming, bullying patriarchs and a talking dog.  At 100 pages, Children’s Hospice perfectly encapsulates a snapshot of my addled mind as it was at the time of writing.  I was haunted by the story, waking at 4am in cold sweats and leaping desperately to my laptop lest the demon of procrastination issue me a searing tongue-lash for not rounding off a chapter.  I also began to hear the gurgling laughs of dead children in the twilight of my Soho attic, and I saw the bulbous silhouette of the baby’s cold, hairless head whenever I closed my eyes.  It really got under my skin, that one.  I’m all better now, but Children’s Hospice is now one year old and birthdays are a time of reflection.

As such, in honour of my little nightmare reaching the toddling age, Children’s Hospice will be absolutely free all this week, on Amazon Kindle, from today until Saturday.

It’s a nifty Halloween present to yourself if I do say so, and also, as mentioned, works as a twisted Christmas story, so nab it while it’s free and keep it on your reading list until the festive period rolls around.  I’m proud of it, and it’s also my first fairly long horror story, serving as a mini precursor to my first published novel, The Creeping Seawall, available in a few weeks’ time.

“All Children Die.  Even the lucky ones.”
– Children’s Hospice, 01/10/14

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Why I’m a Proud Lightweight

Folks.  I owe you an apology.  Or at least an explanation.  Or I owe you nothing in which case go away.  That all depends on whether you are au fait with a recent-ish development in my drinking habits, are vaguely aware of it or have no idea about it at all (go away).  In any case, I feel I should explain.

At the end of May I decided to give up drinking.  It was, unlike last time, a quiet and unceremonious decision.  I simply had a few beers, felt a bit bloated and groggy and said to myself that I don’t need this any more.  I decided to become teetotal again, this time forever.  For the following two months, a personal record, I didn’t touch a drop.

But this isn’t an admission to defeat; this is simply a broadening of detail.  In August, during a holiday in Tampere, Finland, I had three beers.  Three.  These were procured and administered in one afternoon, the day after a wedding which offered untold free alcohol, and yet during which I remained sober all day and all night long thank you very much.  The wedding day was innocently raucous and pure fun, and the following day one of my fellow guests, on our way back to the city, expressed a wish to visit a pub.  I’m a fond traveller and was suddenly keen to try some Finnish beer, so I did.  And that was that.

Did I mope home and decide I’d failed in my task?  Did I heck.  See, cold turkey has failed me on numerous occasions.  With retroactively hilarious optimism, I wrote a blog in October 2014 declaring that I would never drink again.  I lasted five weeks and hit the bottle harder than the Prime Minister’s bollocks hit a pig’s chin in the former’s salad days.  This time around, since my impromptu indulgence on Scandinavian Lager in the Finnish summer sun, I have permitted myself the occasional drop here and then to placate an honestly waning need and rejuvenate what is still, by and large, abstinence.  All told, in five months I’ve had about seven pints, which is roughly less than what I was supping a week this time last year.  And all of these “Slip Ups” were on holidays and at festivals.  Forgive me if I don’t feel like a failure.

But anyhow, today I experienced a formidable development in my quest.  I had a hangover.  No, seriously.  Last night, after a day spent helping to build my best friends’ house, I went to the pub and had not one, not seventeen, but two pints.  Count ’em.  At the time of writing, it is 17:30, I’ve been up since 9am and I’m still feeling rotten.  After two beers.  This is fantastic news.

Doesn’t sound like it, does it?  Well it is.  In bygone times, I could sink pints in double figures and still feel a billion bucks the following day.  So where was the incentive to stop?  This ridiculous hangover, which I can hear my former self laughing at, quite possibly marks the end of a psychological and financial problem that has dogged me for my entire adult life.  Alcohol has nearly killed me, several times.  Whether it has pulled me into the path of violent prowlers eager to crush bones, or given me mistaken conviction that suicide is the best course of action this evening, after fourteen years I’ve only the lasting realisation that booze is nothing more than an expensive illness, and pubs are prisons that we near-bankrupt ourselves to be incarcerated in.  Seeing as I’m not a teenager, being seen as a “heavyweight” is of no concern to me.  I’m not ashamed that two beers now knock me out for the day.  It’s a good thing because I’m no longer physically equipped to handle alcohol, which is motive one for not indulging.  I now have the biological authority to call myself a non-drinker, and this means that I can really outlast the endurance this time.  Or at worst I can go out to the pub, buy one pint the entire evening and deem that satisfactory enough.  Without this hindrance to my well-being (and, let’s be honest, yours if you know me), I can focus my energy on accomplishing more important things (like writing this blog).

Laugh if you will, you underdeveloped cretins.  I’m a lightweight now and I’m fucking proud of it.  Somebody get this man a ginger tea, he’s earned it.

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A Brief Account of Life in Soho

Of course, the only reason I get to live in Soho is because I must work silly hours at the pub which accomodates me, running meat-plates to tourists and yelling over the guffaws of besuited wankers and Saturday out-of-town racists.  My time is not as free or as decadent as this memoir may imply, but really the memories that last are the fun ones, not the dull ones.  While I can lucidly recall most of what we got up to when not working, I struggle to remember anything that happened while on shift at the Spice.
The Spice is, of course, the hub of our frequent, spiralling crawls.  Most days and nights begin and/or end there, as most of us live above and we’ll always be served first, often for free.  But a short corner-turn takes us to the consciously bourgoise Cafe Boheme for a jug of lager and an Old Compton Street people-watching session.  It is here that I am erroneously told, by my boss’s little brother, that the best way to initiate conversation with a woman is to ask her if she would rather have lobster claws for hands or hoofs for feet.  If bestial-anthropomorphism and people-watching aren’t your thing, a couple of doors down there is the more raucous and garish Bar Soho, a mainstay of visiting louts and a favourite of evermore-laddish Joe P’s, wherein a lovely young lady once spent the night clinging promisingly to my arm and suggesting more and more shots before disappearing without a trace, lavishly intoxicated by a hefty portion of my wages where I was indebted and alone.  Get out of Bar Soho as soon as you can – go instead to Frith Street and The Art’s Theatre Club, an underground speakeasy, former haunt of the Krays and a place that halted in the 1950s.  Absinthe shots and cocktails served in teapots are the drinks of choice here.  But the (admittedly good) music is too loud, and if you want a place to chat I’d recommend the backyard of Garlic and Shots right over the road; a Swedish death-metal bar that is gloomy, ghoulish and loud within but strangely tranquil and unmetropolitan without, or the Angel in St. Giles, formerly an ale-house frequented by condemned men en route to the gallows – today the most village-esque old man pub in Central London for my money, and just a few feet from the famous Denmark Street.  When the Angel’s cheerful old landlady rings its last bell then you can pop down the road to the 12 Bar, our grimy home-from-home.  The staff know us and forego us the entry fee, the late licence outdoes the rest of the area, the place looks like a New York City dive and there are pooltables and quiz machines aplenty.  Get hammered on mysterious moonshine, tiptoe over streams of errant piss in the mouldy toilets, play around in the neo-Dickensian back alley beer garden or just take in the place’s fantastic musical history.  It is the best and worst place in Soho, but it is destined to be dust.  The approach of the unstoppable, ravenous monster-mountain known as CrossRail – an imperial train station intent on swallowing half of London, has Denmark Street nestled in its hungry path and can not be stopped.  The spot on which 12 Bar stands would be better off as a ticket booth or W.H Smith, the government has decided.  Soho as we now know it is soon to be misshapen and vanquished by this corporate behemoth, but here and now, through our arm-in-arm, shouty drunken haze, under thunderous crowd-rabble and the smog-stifled moonlight, it seems to be, like us, indestructible.

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