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Rodney Franklin was a happy man. Thirty years out of the Marine Corps, he kept to himself except for a Friday night beer in the nearest bar, ran his farm single handed when he could and hired in some help for the jobs he couldn’t manage. When he first bought the farm in ’72 some of the locals laughed that he always hired in help to slaughter his livestock rather than doing it himself, but once he told a few people he’d seen enough death in Vietnam and would see no more, the story got round and people stopped laughing.

He was checking the foundations for a new hog pen when he was disturbed from his work by a voice from the past.

‘Well hello Mr Franklin. How are you today?’

Rodney turned slowly, knowing yet still dreading who he was going to see.

‘Lenny Bertrand. Back again?’

‘Why yes Mr Franklin. I think it’s about time you made me a small gift, don’t you?’

‘I paid you, Lenny. I paid you ten years ago and almost every year since. Why am I still paying you?’

‘Because you really don’t want Sherriff Hunter to know what you did with Mrs Hunter at the barn dance all those years ago, now do you? I’ve kept my end of the bargain. I left town with the money you gave me then, I only come back when I need a top up and no one ever knows I’ve been. Unless you tell them?’

‘I don’t tell nobody nothin’ Lenny. But I don’t see why I should keep paying you year after year for one fumble in my truck. Anyhow, Elaine Hunter’s been dead these last five years.

‘You think the Sherriff cares about that? You think he wants her memory spoiled? I don’t want much Mr Franklin, just enough to see me south and set up for the winter.’

‘Now that’s all you want. But you’ll be back. Again and again. You’re going to keep coming until I die aren’t you?’

‘Or until the Sherriff dies I guess, yes.’

Or until you die The thought popped into Rodney’s head.

‘Wait there. I’ll get your money, you bloodsucker.’ He said, and made to walk towards the farm house. Lenny turned, even he had the decency to give the man he was blackmailing some privacy. That’s why he didn’t see Rodney sneak up behind him and hit him over the back of the head with a shovel. He fell in to the open trench. Rodney looked over, saw the unmoving body and, realising what he’d done, retched up his lunch.

He ran to the house, thinking of different excuses he could give to the Sherriff for finding the dead tramp. He considered throwing the body to the hogs, he knew they would eat almost anything. In the end he decided to simply cover up the body. He couldn’t bring himself to look at it again, so he started up his digger and half filled the trench with hard core to form the foundation of his new hog pen.

 *

Rodney’s success continued. For five more years he lived on his farm. His hogs thrived, he made enough money and carried on living his simple life. He drove his truck to the nearest bar one night a week as he had always done, drank a couple of beers and drove home again. If anyone had known him well enough they may have noticed that he had something on his mind most of the time, but everyone had their own worries and anyway no one was that close to him, so no one noticed.

 *

But something was playing on Rodney’s mind. He’d read Poe. He could hear Lenny’s heart beat every time he went to the hog pen. He knew that one day he would have to move the body or go mad. Finally the day came. He could stand it no longer. Rodney let loose the hogs and drove his digger through the pen walls. Then he dug. He dug down to where the body should have been and saw nothing. He dug further, and still no body. He got out of the digger and dug with a shovel. Still nothing. Finally he started scraping at the ground with his bare hands. He was on his hands and knees when the trench collapsed in on him. If anyone had been there they would have seen a filthy, crying man shouting over and over again ‘She wasn’t worth this! She wasn’t worth this!’

 *

The Sherriff arrived a couple of hours later. Someone had called him after seeing hogs loose on the highway. Sherriff Hunter recognised that they were Rodney’s. He saw the damaged pens and re-opened foundations but could not work out why Rodney would have done that much damage. He assumed some sort of accident or vandalism. Worried, he went looking for Rodney. When he couldn’t find him around the farm he eventually called for some help and dug down in to the reopened trench. That’s where they found his body.

No one in town ever worked out what happened or why. The only man who might have known saw a news report of the mysterious death while nursing a sandwich and coffee in a Salvation Army hostel two towns away. Lenny Bertrand rubbed the scar on the back of his head, hidden by his long greasy hair. Yet again he thanked his lucky stars that the one farmer who tried to kill him was probably the only one on the country too squeamish to check he was dead before leaving him alone in the trench with enough time to climb out and slip away.

(c) Chris Johnson 2019

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The following story is a guest post, written by Meg Johnson. It was inspired by this Writing prompt from Pinterest.

Meg has co-authored a book ‘Rose Scar’ which is due to be published soon.

 

 

Mr Henry Brookwood was reading the newspaper for the tenth time that day.

‘Absolute rubbish. They make me out to be a fool!’ He shouted. He scrunched up the paper and threw it across the room. ‘I saw them. Why don’t they believe me?’

His secretary entered the room, picked it up with a sigh and put it back on his desk.

‘Go home Miss Berling, and take that rubbish with you.’

‘Thank you, sir. Good night.’ As she got her coat and hat she glanced at the story that had so enraged her employer.

Once again last night the wealthy Mr Henry Brookwood from Brookwood and Sons contacted this newspaper and the police. He claims that is late wife, Clara, and two sons, Charles and Samuel, are still alive and walking the streets at night although they were found dead in the Brookwood household only five days ago by the maid. The police are investigating their murder. Mr Henry Brookwood has declined to be interviewed by this newspaper, but has sent regular letters.

 

Henry worked late into the night. Every time his thoughts turned to home he found something else to do. No point in going back to that empty house, or worse, a house full of grieving friends and relatives all after tittle tattle! He convinced himself. Finally, with clocks striking midnight across the city, he packed away his papers. He placed on his coat and his top hat, grabbed his cane and left his office at Brookwood and sons locking the door behind him. No one would be around this late at night he thought. No need to speak to anyone.

It was a cold and blustery winter’s evening with a typical London fog. As he walked his mind started wandering. It drifted to thoughts of his wife and sons from years before when Samuel was just a baby and Charles was a young boy starting at school. As the happy thoughts came back to him Henry saw the fog clear for a moment in the wind. On the street ahead of him he saw his young wife and holding the hand of a young boy, and pushing a pram. He shouted and walked a little faster but as he got towards them the fog moved again and they disappeared.

Henry’s shoulders sagged as he walked the next few streets slower than before. His eyes moistened, making it even more difficult to see. His mind wandered again and he thought of the times he’d spent teaching his teenage sons about his business and that they would one day takeover after him. His thoughts were disturbed as he heard his name being called. It was the voice of Clara calling out to him, he was convinced. He stopped and looked around him, blinking to clear his vision. At first he could see nothing, but then he heard his name again, this time from across the street. As he looked the fog drifted away and he saw his wife and teenage sons. But by the time he ran across the road to them they were no longer there. Henry turned and in despair walked the rest of the way home as fast as he could. He tried to shut out all thoughts by singing hymns to himself.

When Henry finally got home he got the keys from his coat pocket to open the door. At first, hands shaking, he fumbled the key into the lock but couldn’t turn it. He realised that it was already unlocked. Strange he thought the maid should have already have gone to her rest by this hour. I will need to speak to her about that. he thought as he walked to the drawing room, planning to take a small brandy and cigar to try and help him sleep. But as he opened to door he saw four police constables standing, hats in hands looking down at the floor and the police commissioner standing by the fire.

‘Henry Brookwood I am arresting you on suspicion of murder of your wife, Clara and your sons, Charles and Samuel.’ The Commissioner stated calmly, adding, more quietly, ‘I’m sorry Brookwood, old man. I can’t stop this, so thought it was better to do it myself.’

But Henry had stopped listening. All he could her was the cries of his sons shouting Father, you’re home! and his wife patently telling them to stop shouting. They sounded so real to him that he was smiling as he was handcuffed and led away.

 

(c) Meg Johnson 2016

 

Horses gallop across a field, their riders in red trumpeting and hooting, jumping over aeons old dry-stone walls and churning the ground to mud. Ranks of men, women and children line up against a wall. Sickles, scythes, knives and rusty shovels at the ready. Blood mud and carnage as they meet. Unearthly sounds break the day, screams from horses, men and ravens waiting their meals. Walls destroyed allow cows and sheep to stand sentinel to the madness, witness to the carnage but too afraid to get any closer. Hours later survivors pick over the corpses looking for their loved ones, their sons, husbands, lovers, or filching clothes and valuables from the bodies while Valkyries circle, waiting their moment to swoop.

In London the presses run the headlines. ‘The revolution has begun’

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2016

I found an audio file recently on a memory card I bought 2nd hand from ‘NorthPoleMan’. I’ve transcribed it here. What could it mean?

Muffled cursing and chair scraping.

‘Is this thing on? I think it is. Ok, here we go.

‘Here is my confession. I hate Christmas. Well, not hate, that’s hyperbole. I just dislike it. And I find myself constantly having to explain why. Well, not constantly, that’s hyperbole too. Just regularly. Well regularly from early November onwards. Actually it’s the hyperbole I don’t like.

‘I’m not making a very good job of this am I? Let me start again.’

Sounds of a pen scratching notes, paper being torn and scrunched up followed by muffled swearing. Eventually:

‘Right. So I don’t like Christmas. It’s so stressful. Buying presents, working out what some people want, “surprise me” they say. Thanks for nothing! Making lists, checking them, and checking them again. Queuing for the ‘must have’ toy for kids. There’s always someone whose list is full of things that are so expensive I end up maxing out my cards. Then they all need to be wrapped. And delivered. And who defines naughty and nice? Over what timescale? And then I have to work all through the holidays, not like some people who have two weeks off. And don’t get me started on the traffic. And the weather.

‘It’s not like it was in the old days. Not so long ago kids were happy with a new toy or warm clothes. Parents just wanted a day off work and maybe a good meal and a drink. None of this months of anticipation followed by days or weeks of excess. I mean, basically it’s just a midwinter festival, right? Celebrate that we survived this far into the winter. Celebrate that the days are getting lighter and we may make it through to the spring.’

Sound of a drink being poured, swallowed and a glass being put down followed by a voice in the distance “Don’t you drink too much, beardy, you need to be off to work soon!”

‘It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for my job. In those days my job was much easier. Now, pah! I’m lucky if I get a day or two off between finishing one year and starting the next. And people really believed in me then. I was much stronger. Not now. I’m just a face on a card or a TV advert.

‘Nostalgia, eh? Memories of easier times. Not that everything was easier. Winter could be brutal. I’m way too hot in my work clothes now. Chalk that one up to global warming I suppose.

‘Oh well, I best get off, it’s time to go to work.

‘Oh, and for the record, I hate sherry ok? And would it kill you to leave a bacon sandwich instead of mince pies?

Sound of boots walking away followed by a faint ‘Oi, Rudolph, get yourself over here. Sleigh’s loaded. It’s time to go! Ho! Ho! Ho!’

 

Author’s note: I don’t hate Christmas really. I hope all my readers and followers have a peaceful Christmas (or winter festival of your choice) and prosperous New Year.

© Chris Johnson 2015

The Station Master – A ghost story

‘Station 20151207_161537Master! Station Master!’

The messenger banged on the door until the Station Master opened it dressed in his pyjamas and great coat. The messenger barely held in a laugh at how the man, who was an absolute tartar when working, looked so silly. He gabbled out his message.

‘German ships off the coast, Station Master. Heading this way. We have to stop the trains here, turn back any we can.’

‘Slow down boy. Tell me again.’

‘It’s the Hun. They’re coming up the coast. We’ve got to stop all of the trains, turn back any we can.’

‘Ok boy. You get on to Whitby, I’ll get organised here.’

The Station Master, being a kindly man if somewhat of a hard task master, sent his wife, children, maid and the station porter inland away from any danger. By the early hours of 16 December 1914 he was on the platform, still dressed in his pyjamas, coat and slippers, holding a red lamp out over the line. There were no trains due until 06:42 but war had played hell with timetables and there were often unscheduled trains through to and from the harbour. So the Station Master paced his platform, waving a red lamp. Soon he was standing, shivering and soaked through, at the end of the platform waving the lamp on the end of a long pole across the line.

The night was cold and wet. But he knew that the lives of anyone on any train passing through could depend on him so he carried on swinging the lantern through the cold. He carried on when the wind blew the rain sideways and drove it in to his uniform, chilling him to the core. He carried on when even though the wind blew so hard that he had to lean in to it to keep him upright. He knew that he could not move, even to go for a dry coat. And he’d sent away the only people who could take a turn or bring him dry clothes. So he stood there, swung the lantern, and waited.

The 06:42 was about two hours late. So the Station Master had been out for the best part of seven hours in the worst weather for a generation when it arrived. The driver saw the lantern swinging and stopped just short of the platform end. The Station Master stayed where he was, swinging the lantern. The driver and engineer shouted to ask what was wrong. When they didn’t get a response they finally climbed down from the warmth and relative dryness of the cab and walked over to where he stood. When they got there he was still waving the lamp. The driver touched him on the shoulder. He was dead. He had frozen in place and the lamp was only swinging because of the wind.

Sometimes, on December nights, especially when it’s windy, he can still be seen on the platform swinging his lantern.

 

 

In December 2015 I spent some time in the Station House at Ruswarp with a group of friends. This is one of the stories inspired by that visit – on a very windy night I sat and worked up the first draft, which was later amended to introduce the 1914 bombardment of the East coast in to the story.

Photograph and words (C) Chris Johnson 2015

I remember when this frame was new, shiny, silver plated. It had pride of place on the fireplace. My mother would take it down and polish off the nicotine and dust at least once a week. More often if someone was coming round. She bought it for her favourite picture of me. Taken at my cousin’s wedding in June 1950, I was wearing my first ever suit, a new hat, highly polished shoes. I’d been allowed to stand at the bar with the grown up men for the first time, allowed to smoke cigarettes and drink beer with them. Bitter tasting, warm and flat, it tasted like nectar to my seventeen year old self. It explains the crooked smile. My mother thought I looked grown up. I thought I looked drunk. We were both right.

My mother died in 1965. The frame went into a box. It was, lost, forgotten. No one wanted it any more. Not until one day in 1968 when my nephew, John, in bell bottom jeans and a tie-dyed shirt, found it while he was looking for inspiration for a university assignment. He wrote the assignment, passed and so kept the frame and my picture in his bedsit as a lucky charm. The room that was always full of loud music, the smell of pot, sweat and cheap beer. The silver plate got black in the thick smoke, the glass got covered with dust.

The frame moved around with John for another ten years. From his bedsit until his first divorce he kept it on display. In the early seventies cigar smoke replaced pot smoke, dinner party conversation and playing children replaced the loud music. By the late seventies his marriage had broken down and the sounds of arguments and screaming adults took over. The silver plate flaked. The picture faded. Eventually Amy issued the ultimatum and John took the easy route. He packed a bag and walked away. She dumped the rest of his belongings on the street. All but the picture frame. It sat, forgotten again, on the top shelf of a book case full of unread Dickens, Shakespeare and Chaucer along with a hundred Mills and Boone romances with broken spines and loose pages. A witness through her days of tears, sadness and endless David Soul ballads. Right through to the day when Amy started dating again. It was the new boyfriend who noticed it.

‘Hey, Amy, who’s this bloke?’

‘I don’t know. It’s one of John’s family I think. I’d forgotten it was there.’

‘He looks drunk. Shame this frame’s not real silver, it would have been worth something.’

‘It’s just a cheap thing. I’ll give it back to John.’

She put the frame face down on a telephone table in the hall. It stayed there for three months. Dark, dusty and ignored until John saw it one day when he was collecting the kids and Amy told him to take it.

John passed the frame on to his nephew, Julian. He was real eighties success story, a young millionaire trader in the city with a blonde girlfriend sharing his converted warehouse apartment. It sat on a shelf in the bathroom because Julian thought it was funny to talk to his Grandad, who told endless stories of austerity, while he was literally pissing away a fortune in overpriced champagne. During one of his parties someone thought it would be a good idea to snort cocaine off the glass. The party went on for days. The conversation fast and meaningless. The smoke as thick as it was in the sixties, the drug of choice and the price of the alcohol massively different. Then the market crashed, and so did Julian. The frame was taken from his repossessed apartment in the mid nineties and sold in a job lot to a second hand furniture dealer. Where it stayed. For two decades. It got moved from time to time. Picked up, dusted, put back somewhere new. But no one wanted to spend six pounds on a faded picture of a stranger in his first suit on his way to his first hangover in a battered frame with few patches of silver plate left.

At one of those dinner parties in the seventies one of John’s friends drunkenly joked that there was a tribe in Peru that believed that having their picture taken stole part of their soul. He found it hilarious. But it’s true. I’ve looked out from this frame for fifty five years. I’ve seen so much. And I’m ready for another change of scenery now. Please.

(c) Chris Johnson 2015

I can smell the wild garlic, the mown grass, the scent of a late summer. Mile after mile seems effortless as I run in the light of the full moon. Running is freedom, running is life, running because, not for, not to.

At least usually. Tonight I can hear them following. Sometimes they gain, mostly they drop behind. But never far enough. Tonight I’m running for, not because. And I’m not sure where to.

A cloud passes across the moon. I break out into the open, hoping for cover while it is darker. Sheep scatter. Bleating loud, they might as well be a siren call to my pursuers.

I hear the shouts behind. They’re forming into a pack. Getting clever. Soon one or two will try to outflank me. Then I’m done for.

I smell it before I hear it or see or hear it. A music festival. God knows why. It’s in the middle of nowhere. Still, a God send for me. Lights, people, smells, noise. And only about a mile away. I redouble my speed and head for the horizon.

Too late I realise that staring at the lights has ruined my might vision. I run flat out into a barbed wire fence. I land heavily, grunt. Cut and bruised. Blood trickles. Not good. I get back up and running, ignoring the pain, but I’ve given them another chance to catch up and now I’m leaving a trail.
Suddenly I’m there. I slink through the crowds. They’re concentrating on the stage, ignore me. I find a quiet spot. Hide behind a kebab van. Drooling with hunger, panting from the exertion and yes, I admit, shivering with fear.

I listen carefully, but there’s no sign of them following me. It’s not likely. Not into this noise, light, smells and number of people. They’ll wait until everyone’s gone. If I play my cards right I can follow the crowds back into the nearest town.

I eat, then change.

So the cycle starts again. I’ll be with people until they find out, then with wolves again until they smell me out.

A werewolf is never welcome anywhere. Not for long anyway.

Author’s note. The Y Not? Festival took place in Pike Hall, Derbyshire, on the same weekend as the blue moon on 31 July 2015. Which got me thinking… I took one liberty with this story, I’m pretty sure there are no wolves in the Peak District. Werewolves however; well, who knows?

(c) Story Chris Johnson 2015

(C) Picture Chris Johnson 2018