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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

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

11898940_10153633488311095_2218785026502278564_nThe candle guttered as the breeze from the open window blew across the flame. The room was otherwise dark and silent, Charlie and Evie long having run out of conversation and retreated to their own thoughts. Charlie assumed that Evie was composing a poem. He had always envied her ability to ‘write’ in her head and only later commit to paper. He needed to see words on a page, to see what they looked like and to capture them before they were lost. He was thinking about money. Or lack of money. Hence the Friday night blackout. It saved on electricity. At least that was what Evie said. ‘With what we save on a Friday we can go out or have a take away on a Saturday, and anyway it’s a great way to come up with ideas and work on them’. Except it never seemed to end up that there was enough money left for a night out and he never came up with ideas that he could remember long enough to use.

Charlie knew that Evie was by far the better writer of the two of them. She seemed to turn her hand to any genre, sold articles and fake agony aunt letters and responses to the local papers and even had some interest from an agent for her unfinished novel. Not that they ever had any money, even with his part time wages and the money he managed to get from selling by the inch filler pieces on local clubs and societies to the local free papers, they still struggled.

A moth flew in and started to circle the candle. Charlie watched as it flew close to the flame, then further away only to be drawn back again. Evie gasped as it flew straight through the flame and trailed smoke as it circled a little wider for a while before, inevitably, being drawn back. Charlie just knew she was composing some deep meaningful poem. He tried to come up with some ideas himself. He could write about pilots in a dog fight. Something meaningful about how the pilots had more in common with each other than with the politicians who sent them to fight. He reached for the ever present notebook and pen, then realised that he couldn’t see well enough to write and Evie would never allow a light. Even so, he stared at the flame and started to plot the story even though he knew he would never remember it, hoping that something useful would remain somewhere in his subconscious.

Time passed. The moth continued to flirt with the flame and somehow just avoid being burned alive.

“Bed time.” Evie said. “Have you come up with any ideas?”

“A few” he lied.

“I’ve got a poem on the go. That moth was a brilliant inspiration, don’t you think?”

“I suppose.”

“Are you ok?”

“Yes, of course I am. Always.”

Evie went to bed. Charlie blew out the candle and closed the window before he followed her up. As he got into bed Evie recited some of the poem she’d ‘written’. She was using the moth circling the flame as a metaphor for a destructive relationship, subverting what appeared to be a love poem into something really quite dark in the final verse. It was genius. Charlie was devastated. Again.

Charlie dreamed. He was a moth and Evie was the flame he was circling. Every time he tried to get away she drew him back. But whenever he got too close he got burned. He woke with a start. Realising he would not get back to sleep he quietly got out of bed and went downstairs. The candle sat where it had been the night before. The moth was dead, its body preserved in the re-hardened wax. Before Evie woke he had packed and gone. Out into the darkness.

 

 

Photograph (c) Karen Downs-Barton 2015. Thanks to Karen for the writing prompt and kind permission to use her photograph. You can find her at: http://karendownsbarton.blogspot.co.uk/

Words (c) Chris Johnson 2015

 

She parks the van in a different place every night. At least once a week she’ll find a campsite and shower. In between times pull ins, car parks and quiet roadsides will do. Bathing in rivers and drinking from her carefully rationed wine stores. She sleeps with the doors double locked, the windows closed and the phone off. Avoids the radio, hides from the newspapers and hasn’t seen a TV, let alone watched one, for weeks. There’s a lap top hidden in the van somewhere, but she’s not looking for it.

No one knows her, her anonymity is closely guarded. Last week she tried to stay for two nights in one place and someone tried to make friends. That’s not the plan. She needs some time being no one and be nowhere.

All too soon she’ll be back. All too soon she’ll be Miss Brown, the art teacher. But not yet.

Author’s note: This story is part of a work in progress, a series  stories inspired by the people and places of the Peak District National Park.

(c) Chris Johnson 2015

“Enjoy your walk, you’ve got a lovely day for it.”

“Thank you.” Isla replied, having just picked up a selection of picnic food from the nearest shop to their destination she walked outside to where her companion, Eric, stood with a guitar case slung over his back. He was smoking a cigarette and had a face like thunder.

“Why do we have to walk to this place? Can’t we take the car? Why are we going anyway?”

Isla rolled her eyes.

“You said that you would do this for me and with me. It’s important. You know it has to do with the husband that I lost. I need to close that chapter before I can move on.”

Eric shrugged, and set off to follow a pace behind. He was smarting slightly that in the two months they’d been dating she’d never let him get as physical as he would have liked. But she was perfect in every other way, and way out of his class, so he’d decided that he was prepared to wait. Then she’d suggested this walking trip, and hinted at more if he supported her visit to a place that had some relevance to the husband she’d lost two years earlier. He’d agreed reluctantly and was beginning to regret it.

***

They walked for about at hour, first on a flat path then picking their way across some fields and up hill to a dense patch of trees. Finally, having followed Isla in to the trees and around in circles looking at half a dozen places that all looked alike to Eric, she spoke again.

“This is the place”, Isla said, “this is where we have our picnic.”

“Why among all these trees when we could sit over there and admire the view?” Eric asked.

“Because amongst these trees we’re hidden from everyone else, dummy!” she replied, giving him a wink.

Like a shot Eric dumped the guitar and started fumbling with her shirt buttons.

“Not yet, we eat first.” She said, batting his hand away. She took a blanket from her rucksack and spread out the food. “Come on, stop sulking and eat.” She popped open a can of lager and handeed it to him. Eric sat down across from her. “Not there, come and sit here, next to me.”

He drank down the first can in two gulps, thirsty from the climb.

“Did you bring any more?” he asked.

“There’s four. I don’t want one, so they’re all yours.” She turned her back on him to get another can from her pack, pooped the top and very carefully poured in to the lager a small amount of white powder. Eric drank, again taking almost half of the can with his first drink.

Isla picked up her guitar, and checked the tuning. “Eat something,” she said to Eric, “I just want to play a little while before I eat.”

Eric felt drowsy, putting it down to the walk up the hill and drinking too quickly he started in on the sandwiches. Isla was playing a soft song, and had started singing. He didn’t recognise the words. He found himself closing his eyes and lying back trying to make some sense of the song. Before long he was fast asleep. Isla carried on playing. The tune becoming quicker and the words, ones she’d learned from a dusty book found in a library basement, became simpler and simpler as if the song were regressing through language back to the very earliest forms of communication.

A mist started to rise. It crept over Eric; soon Isla could barely see his sleeping body. As she continued to sing and play she could make out what looked like tiny people dancing to her song in the mist. In her nightmares these people were very real, with pointed teeth and tiny swords the size of toothpicks. In her waking hours she told herself that all she could really see were eddies in the mist. But if that were true, her conscience asked, why are you here?

She carried on playing. Tears formed in her eyes and made it even harder to see through the mist as the tiny dancers worked themselves to a frenzy. The words ended, her last syllable echoing as the dancers in the mist all held that note for slightly longer than she did. Still she played, the music getting simpler and simpler until finally she was just tapping a rhythm on the guitar body. And then she stopped. Reluctantly she drank a small mouthful of the lager, lay down and slept.

***

She woke an hour later. The mist had cleared. Eric had gone. She sat up with a start, consulted a notebook and then shouted a few syllables similar to those in the song she had played earlier. A few seconds later a voice replied, this time in English.

“This time we accept.”

Isla started to cry again. From among the trees a man staggered towards her, as if drunk. He was not unlike Eric; tall, good looking with dark hair. But this man was not Eric.

“Tom! Isla shouted, “It’s me, over here.”

The man called Tom staggered over.

“Wow, sorry, I must have fallen asleep while you were playing. That wine we brought for our picnic is stronger than I thought.”

“Did you have any strange dreams, Tom?” Isla asked.

“Yes, I did.”

“Let’s get our gear together and get back to the car, you can tell me your strange dream on the way and I can tell you mine.”

Isla packed the guitar carefully into its case and gave it to Tom to carry. She turned her back on the blanket and food. An observant person may have noticed the rotting remains of another, similar, blanket close by. Careful examination may have suggested a third. Forensic examination would have found two more.

As she turned to leave the copse for the last time Isla smiled her first true smile in two years.

Author’s note: This story is part of a work in progress, a series  stories inspired by the people and places of the Peak District National Park. The Low was particularly inspired by a picture I first saw in The Rook, Hartington. The picture is not there now, it’s hanging up at my home. The Rook is still there, and I heartily recommend it to anyone in the area for food, drinks and snacks and some beautiful art.

There are a number of ‘Lows’ across the Peak District. All of them have some mythical stories attached. This story was not written with any specific one in mind.

(C) Chris Johnson 2015

“Hey, wake up. I’ve got a story for you.”

“Hmpff, get off, I’m asleep.”

“No, it’s great, there’s this character from one of your stories story who keeps complaining you’re writing her parts too one dimensional.”

“I’m asleep”

“You’re awake now. You might as well listen. Get your note book out, it’s a great story.”

“A story about a character, that is someone I made up, that doesn’t think I’m telling her whole story…I guess it’ll keep my therapist happy if no-one else!”

“Yeah, be cynical. It’s a great story – a series of stories actually – she’s a recurring character, comes across as a real hero, saves the day, the lot. Only really she’s horrible, really nasty, not just an anti-hero – actually a real bitch.”

“What?”

“And she wants you to tell her all of her story your next comic. With the extra plates, the ones showing her torturing and killing.”

“Hang on, I can understand the challenge that I’m making characters in short stories pretty one dimensional. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed. I can accept the challenge that I’m only telling part of a character’s story, I’m writing flash fiction not epic novels. But now I’m being accused by one of my characters of not making her a big enough bitch in a story I’ve never written, in a form I don’t write?!”

“But it’s a great story…hang on, what do you mean you don’t write comics and you don’t recognise your characters? What day is it? Isn’t it full moon?”

“No”

“Ah, my bad. As you were.”

“I’m awake now!”

“Sorry. You know how it is, cut backs, there aren’t enough muses to go around so we have to double up. I must have just opened the wrong link on my browser. Brought you someone else’s inspiration, as it were.”

“So that’s why I have days on end when one story sticks in my head and won’t let any others out – you’ve got me on some sort of muse holding service!”

“Err, yes, it’s like an answering machine message – you know, work on this one until I can get back to you. Anyway, I’d better take this story where it belongs.”

“Wait, don’t be so hasty. How does this character feel about being a pulp fiction heroine? I think I have an idea!”

“Oh dear, I’m in trouble now…”

(C) Chris Johnson 2014

I saw the shadow pass across the frosted window in my door three times before it finally stopped outside. I heard a knock.

‘Come in!’ I shouted, and got up, closing the lid of my lap top and sliding it in to a drawer of my desk.

I met my visitor at the door and looked her up and down. Tall, long red curls. A looker too. I didn’t recognise her, wondered how she’d found me. She’d been crying, her green eyes were blood shot. I offered her a seat, and a drink.

‘You got any scotch?’ She asked. She looked at me, looked round my office and added, ‘or, based on the look of this place maybe I should ask for bourbon? What is this, a film set?’

I smiled, pouring us each a Black Jack. ‘I often got asked that question or a variation of it when people came to visit me for the first time.’

‘You’ve got this place done out like a cliché of a 1930’s New York private detective. Come to think of it, you’re dressed like one too. You for real?’

I handed her a bourbon, took a drink of mine.

‘I like it. I find it helps me to concentrate, Miss?’

I left it hanging. So did she.

‘Does this impress clients, or scare them off?’

‘Clients?’

‘Yeah, whatever, I’ve got a job for you and I need someone below the radar. You took some finding, I had to ask around, so I suspect you’re not well known? And no doubt you’re either very cheap or very expensive?’

‘Sorry, I didn’t catch your name and I have no idea what it is that you want? Can we rewind a little?’

‘You can call me Scarlett. It’s close enough. I need a detective.’

‘I’m not…’

‘I don’t care how busy you are, or how expensive you are, I haven’t got time to find anyone else.’

‘Haven’t got time?’

‘I have to get this pen drive,’ she pulled a USB stick out of her bag and placed it in my hand, ‘to the right people within the next 24 hours. They’ll pay me well for it.’

‘So what’s on it?’

‘Some files that I stole from work.’

‘I’m not getting involved in anything illegal!’

‘Call it whistle blowing then. I need you to find the right people, deliver this and bring back the money. Simple.’

‘Scarlett, you need a courier not a detective, and certainly not…’

She banged her glass down on my antique desk.

‘I don’t have a name and address you idiot, just a place and time to meet with someone. I don’t know if I can trust them so I want to send someone who can help, maybe follow them if need’s be. I need a private detective. That’s you.’

‘You don’t seem to understand, or you don’t want to hear…’

‘I understand, you’re a bit odd with all this ‘30’s noir stuff, but you’re it. I haven’t got time to go looking for anyone else.’

‘Please listen to me. This 30’s noir stuff is a movie set. Well, set dressing anyway. I’m not a detective, I’m a writer. I write detective novels set in 30’s New York. This stuff helps me write. If you need help, call the police. Or a real private detective. I’m not who you’re looking for.’

She burst into tears again.

(C) Chris Johnson 2013