Tom’s flashlight beam flicked and skittered around the roof beams of the church. A grey layer of dust covered every surface and the pews, which would once have faced the altar in orderly rows, were scattered as if a great wind had blown them into crooked piles. I closed the massive wooden door behind me and explored the columns and carvings with my torch beam. The church smelled of dust and old wood with an undertone of decay. A sick feeling settled in the pit of my stomach.
Broken glass glittered among the dust on the floor and the distorted ruin of the stained glass windows let a sharp draught run through the building, shifting the cobwebs. Tom brought out a box of candles and a lighter and started to put the candles on the ends of pews and in stone niches, sticking them down with their own wax. The flames stammered in the draughts and more than one was extinguished the moment he turned away from it.
I walked to the west end of the nave, underneath the tower. There were two doors; one in the south side of the tower and one in the north wall. The font was a crude stone thing in the centre of the space below the tower and I couldn’t tell, in the flickering light of candles and torches, whether it was very roughly made or was once more intricate but had been vandalised. A line of rodent footprints scrabbled through the dust on the wooden lid which I lifted and peered into the empty curved stone basin. I dropped the lid back into place.
‘Hey Serena,’ Tom called from somewhere out of sight.
The church had a north aisle that ran the whole length of the building alongside the nave and a wooden screen divided off the east end into a separate chapel. Tom’s voice came from beyond the screen and I followed it. Two tombs sat square and dark in the centre; they were the sort that have a sculpted figure on the top with arms crossed and eyes open in blank piety. Tom had stuck a candle on each figure’s nose and groin.
‘Look.’ He gestured as if displaying a prize. A moulded brickwork fireplace had been built in the outer wall to warm the toes of priests praying for the immortal souls of the entombed.
‘We shouldn’t light a fire. Where will we get the wood?’
‘We can use the broken up old pews,’ he said and then in answer to my look, ‘Don’t be so scandalised, half of them are firewood already.’
The temptation of warmth and light was strong. I didn’t really want to be in the church and being warm would make it less of an ordeal. ‘I suppose it can’t hurt.’ As I said the words I heard a noise and cocked my head.
Tom was busy peering up the chimney and I strained my ears for a repeat of the sound. I was not sure what I had heard. A scraping, clanking maybe but it was over before I could focus on it properly.
I walked back to the font and examined the two doors I had glanced at earlier. Both were low and narrow, pointed at the top, and made of thick wood with large and ungainly keyholes. I tried the South door as it seemed to go up into the tower but it was locked. Behind me I heard the noise, closer this time, a scraping metallic sound. I spun round and the door handle of the other door settled back into place. My breath solidified in my chest and my eyes fixed on the door ahead of me. I forced my breath out and took another as I stepped sideways, keeping my eyes on the door.
‘Tom!’ I called. There was no answer. ‘Tom!’ As I yelled there was a crash and I looked down the church, eyes strained.
Tom stood among the debris of a broken pew. He held up a piece he had just broken off and grinned. The smile faded as he saw my face and then widened again. ‘Did I make you jump?’
‘I just saw that door handle move!’ I pointed at the door ahead of me.
He dropped the wood and sauntered up the aisle, frowning. ‘What?’
‘That door handle moved.’
He walked up to the door and rattled the handle, turned it and let it fall. It made the familiar scraping and clanking sound. ‘Locked.’ He put his ear to the door. ‘I wonder where it goes.’
I shrugged. ‘It’s like a section was added on to the end of the north aisle, or walled off from it.’
‘I bet it was just movement in the building or something. You know what old buildings are like.’
I frowned. ‘I definitely saw that handle move. Like properly turn. It didn’t just wobble.’
‘God, you’re so patronising!’ I said.
‘Well there can’t be anyone else here can there? I’m going to get the fire going.’ He stamped off down the aisle and started to bash pieces of wood around.
I was just about to follow him and gather up some of the already broken pieces when there was another noise. It was a gentle scratching. Scritch scritch scritch. Then it disappeared behind a mass of Tom’s banging but when he stopped it was still there. Scritch scritch scritch. It was coming from the font and it sounded like a small animal.
Scritch scritch scritch.
It was probably just a trapped mouse and I ought to lift the lid and check. I glanced down the aisle towards Tom. He was gathering an armful of wood and scowling and so I stepped towards the font.
Scritch scritch scritch.
I dropped the lid and it crashed to the floor as I was transfixed by the sight in the font. I tried to yell but all that escaped from my mouth was a dry croak. Crammed into the font were the corpses of rats in various states of decay. Maggots writhed among blood encrusted bones, making the remains of dusty fur and leathery skin shift and heave. The smell of decay took hold of my throat and I retched.
Tom noticed me gag and came up the aisle to join me. He looked in the font and grimaced. ‘That’s gross.’ He picked up the lid and dropped it into place to hide the decaying mess.
‘It wasn’t there a few minutes ago,’ I said.
He looked at me with disbelief in his face.
‘I took off the lid a while ago and the font was empty. Absolutely empty.’ My voice rose as I saw doubt on his face.
‘Well, you don’t believe me. What? Am I lying? Do you think I’m lying?’
‘No of course–,’
A loud bang from the ceiling above us made us duck. We looked up as dust sprinkled around us.
‘What the hell?’ Tom looked at me, his eyes wide.
I brushed the dust from my shoulders and clenched my guts. I swallowed again. ‘I don’t know. Let’s just go home.’
‘No. Someone’s messing with us, I want to see who it is.’
‘Does it matter? I just want to go.’
‘They can’t leave without passing us,’ he ignored my protest, stepped over to the door and tried the handle.
‘That door is solid,’ I said. He rattled it and then started looking round the walls and in the window recesses and niches. ‘What are you looking for?’ I asked.
‘Sometimes they keep the tower key somewhere nearby. Somewhere out of the way on a hook or a ledge.’ He reached above the door surround, said ‘See?’ and brought down an old iron key.
He put the key in the lock, turned it with a grinding noise and pulled the door open. He raised an eyebrow at me. I didn’t want to go up, but I didn’t want to stay alone down in the church either so I gave a tight nod. He turned and, shining his torch ahead of him, started up the spiral of steps. I followed behind him. As I stepped through the doorway my back prickled and I felt that someone was behind me, someone whose eyes were boring into my back. I turned and shone my torch around. Nothing. I continued up the steps and after a moment I heard the crunch of a footstep behind me. Again I turned and my torch illuminated the crumbling plaster of the staircase walls but nothing else. Tom was out of sight just above me and I hurried up the stairs, still hearing steps behind me.
I emerged into the tower room, turned and shone my torch at the empty doorway. ‘I swear I heard steps behind me.’ I said.
He snorted. ‘Echo.’
I was sure he was wrong. The crunch of the step on the plaster strewn treads of the stairs hadn’t sounded like an echo to me.
‘They must be up on the next level,’ he said.
I shone my torch upwards to crisscrossing rafters and the cavernous mouths of two bells. Bell ropes hung down through the room we were in and disappeared down to the ground floor through holes. A doorway opened onto the tower staircase above us to allow access along the rafters to the bells. I caught the flicker of a pale face in the dark and then it was gone.
‘Hey, I think I saw someone,’ I said.
‘Let’s see.’ He headed to the stair case and hopped up them two at a time. ‘Oh,’ his voice drifted down to me and a moment later he joined me, ‘It’s bricked up.’ He frowned. My skin chilled and tightened under my clothes.
‘Fuck it, let’s go light the fire and open the booze,’ he said.
The candles in the chapel had blown out in the breezes that criss-crossed the church like spider webs. I moved the candles to more sheltered corners, relit them, then wrapped myself in a sleeping bag and watched while Tom lit a fire in the old fireplace. I opened the bottle of cheap wine and he brought out a pack of supermarket sausage rolls and a huge bag of Doritos. We wrapped ourselves up in the sleeping bags and ate and drank in silence. The food and drink sat heavily in my stomach and we curled up in the sleeping bags with all our clothes on. Tom’s back was to the fire and I spooned up against him, my face out towards the church and my phone in my palm. I couldn’t imagine that I would sleep, but I did.
I woke suddenly. My right arm was fuzzy with pain from being under me on such a hard surface and I sat up to stretch it. Tom grumbled something in his sleep. The church was dark. All but one of the candles in the chapel had gone out and the fire had collapsed into pale ashes with a red glow. I could hear that it had begun to rain. I reached behind Tom for the wood and put a couple of pieces on the remains of the fire and watched as they started to burn, before lying back down and snuggling back into Tom’s chest. Then I wondered; what woke me? Was it the pain in my arm or a noise? I strained my ears. A memory of the scraping clank of the door handle came back to me. Was I just remembering the sound from earlier in the evening?
Tom mumbled something and pulled me further into his arms. I closed my eyes and tried not to listen. I was warm and comfortable snuggled in the sleeping bags and blankets with Tom and the fire behind me. I was just drifting back to sleep when I heard the noise again and my face was chilled by a cold breeze. I raised myself on one arm and listened.
‘Tom.’ I reached behind me and shook him.
He woke bleary and irritated. ‘What?’
‘I heard something.’
‘It’ll be your imagination. Again.’
There was a crash from the tower. Tom scrambled out of his sleeping bag and jumped up. ‘Oh whoever is doing this is going to get a kicking.’ He grabbed his torch and ran out of the chapel.
I muttered, ‘Right. So I’m imagining things and, at the same time, someone’s messing with us.’ For a moment irritation swept away the fear but it seeped back as I stood in the chapel chilled without the blanket and Tom’s warmth. The light from the fire flickered across the impassive faces of the knight and his wife lying on their tombs. I took my torch and went into the main aisle of the church. Tom was standing by the font. His torch beam flicked around me and then up into the rafters before settling on the wooden beams above him. The silence tightened.
The crash from the floor above was so loud that it seemed that the beams had all jumped together. Tom ducked, dust rained down around him and he coughed, waving his hand in front of his face as he stood up again. He flung open the tower door yelling, ‘I’m coming up you arseholes.’
I heard him run up the stairs and onto the floor above and then there was silence. The atmosphere solidified and every one of my nerves was at full stretch. A cold breeze whipped through me and still the silence hung.
I took a step towards the tower door. ‘Tom,’ I called. The silence started to ring in my ears and then it tore as a crash reverberated around the church. ‘Tom!’ I yelled and ran towards the door but I was stopped by a series of crashes from above me and then Tom’s voice shouted wordlessly in pain. My eyes were fixed in horror on the ceiling above me as another great crash sounded and then the silence descended again.
I ran to the tower and up the stairs. The tower room was empty although the debris and dust had been scuffed about and the roof door hung open, banging in the wind. As I emerged onto the roof I was slapped in the face by a gust of wind and rain.
‘Tom!’ I called out but the only sounds were the rain pelting down and my own ragged breaths. The sky was thick with clouds which gleamed like tarnished pewter as moonlight filtered through.
There was a lead gulley around the central roof of the church and I moved around it, leaning into the tiles. The crenelated brickwork that prevented anyone falling down into the graveyard was just knee high and I half crawled along the precarious path calling Tom’s name. As I came alongside the lead roof of the north aisle I could see a dark patch out on the pale grey surface. I scrambled onto the flat roof and went over to it. It was his knitted hat, soaked. I picked it up and it left a dark stain behind it on the lead.
‘Tom!’ I shouted against the wind and rain. Although I shouted at the top of my voice the sound was muffled and flung away by the wind. I pushed the soaked hat into my pocket and walked to the edge of the roof to peer down into the graveyard. My torch showed me the teeming rain and the black shapes of the graves as I swept the beam among the bushes and tombs. The smell of damp earth and grass came up from the churchyard.
A movement caught my eye and I swung my torch round. My foot slipped on the wet lead and I fell to my knee, grabbing the brickwork in front of me. I tipped forwards, landing hard with my gut on the brickwork, my breath knocked out of me and I just managed to save myself from overbalancing by dropping my torch and holding on with both hands. The torch bounced down the outside wall of the church and disappeared into the undergrowth and I collapsed in a heap behind the low brickwork. Sobs caught themselves in my breathing and I struggled to calm myself.
After a few minutes I reached to my back pocket for my phone but it wasn’t there; I must have left it by the fire. I stared into the darkness for a moment and tried to smother my swelling panic. A drip ran down the back of my neck from my plastered hair taking a shiver with it. My jeans were soaked and I was starting to feel numb and stiff and I realised I needed to get to my phone and the fire.
I felt my way back to the main roof and clambered over the parapet, bashing my sore ribs in the process. The handle to the tower door turned easily and the door swung inwards; the blackness inside the room was solid and malevolent. The charcoal smudge of light from the cloud huddled moon reached no more than a foot into the room. I stepped into the room with my left hand out against the wall and shuffled my way around the floor, feeling forwards with my foot at each step, leaning into the solidity of the wall. The darkness pressed painfully against my eyes which strained to see although there was nothing visible.
Halfway across the room I reached my foot forward and it nudged something soft but firm. I clung to the wall and gathered myself to bend down and touch whatever lay in front of me. I nudged it again with my foot and it gave a little but didn’t move. I bent, reached out and touched it with my hands; fabric, jeans, a leg inside the jeans.
‘Tom!’ I said out loud, shaking the leg. ‘Tom are you ok? We’ve got to get out of here.’ I moved up his body. ‘We should never have come.’ Something hard slid under my knee and I picked it up, square, plastic, Tom’s phone.
The leg moved a little and I sighed in relief but the air froze on my lips as a voice came out of the darkness. My voice. It said ‘Tom! Are you ok? We’ve got to get out of here.’ And then closer to me, ‘We should never have come.’ The voice had a flat tone which was nothing like the scared, shaking voice in which I had spoken. I scrabbled backwards away from the sound and touched the phone’s power button.
The dim blue light showed the room was empty. There was no body in the middle of the floor. My head span with confusion. None of the debris in the room could have felt like a leg in jeans, even confused and desperate in the dark. I flicked the light around into the corners, into the stairwell, up into the belfry above. There was nothing but dust, cobwebs and a sense of waiting.
I opened the door onto the stairs and found that they were not in darkness. Someone had stuck a single candle in the narrow, dust filled window ledge. The tiny rectangular window was made of a few small panes of leaded glass opaque with grime and there was one of these windows at each revolution of the stair. In brighter times they’d give a scrap of daylight and as I went down I found that each of the niches had a candle.
As I emerged from the tower firelight spilled from the chapel out into the church. The orange, flickering light winked and shimmered from the broken shards of glass still in the windows. I walked to the chapel entrance. The fire cracked and spat in the grate and as I came round the tomb of the old knight I saw a figure curled under our blanket, facing the fire.
‘Tom!’ I rushed to him and he lay still, curled tightly around himself. I shook him and he straightened arms and legs and then grabbed hold of me, screaming. I screamed and screamed and through my cries I realised that he was crying with laughter, not with pain. He was shaking and convulsing but with cries of laughter.
‘Oh we got you so good. You should have seen your face!’ Tears of laughter ran down his cheeks, shining in the firelight. I slapped him hard across the face.
‘Ow!’ he raised his hand to his face but couldn’t stop laughing.
‘You utter shit,’ I said and start to gather my stuff together, rage and embarrassment burning me up.
‘Oh come on,’ he said. ‘It was just a bit of fun.’
‘I thought you were dead!’ This elicited another guffaw from him and so I added ‘I wish you fucking well were.’ With that I closed my bag and slung it onto my shoulder.
He tried to stop himself laughing. ‘Ok look, I’m sorry.’ He coughed to hide another laugh that bubbled up, ruining his attempt at a sincere look. ‘But you’ve got to admit that the rats; that was classic horror.’
My anger turned icy cold. ‘So the rats were you, the turning handle, the banging?’
‘Well, not all me, Sian and Michael are here.’
‘Really.’ I narrowed my eyes. ‘And that bit with the body upstairs and my voice.’
‘When I was in the tower room; the body that disappeared, my voice repeating my words back to me?’
‘Sounds awesome but I didn’t plan it, they must have been improvising or some shit. Cool. Let’s go see them.’
He seemed to have taken my sudden coolness as an improvement on incandescent rage and he led the way over to the locked door next to the tower.
‘Ta da!’ he said and swung the door inwards. Leaning against the back wall were two figures, their legs straight along the tiled floor in front of them, their heads tilted to one side. For a moment I didn’t recognise Sian and Michael. Their faces were white in Tom’s torchlight and the light from my phone, their eyes were wide and dark and their mouths hanging open. The smell of carrion was in the air and my stomach twisted.
Tom looked into the room and gave a short shout of laughter. ‘Cool set up guys.’ He stepped down a couple of steps. A cold tendril of fear had loosened from my anger and was working its way up my neck. I stood fixed to the top step.
To the left of the narrow room was a bricked up doorway that must once have opened out onto the churchyard, opposite it were three steps down to a door which was wide open. This doorway had a wide, rounded top, older than any other doorway I’d seen in the church. Steps continued down beyond the door and a dusty, earthy smell seeped up into the room.
Tom ignored the open door and walked past it, stepped up to Sian and shook her shoulder. ‘Sian!’ he said. She slid sideways onto the floor leaving a dark stain on the whitewashed wall behind her.
‘Fuck!’ Tom stepped back. He looked back at me, confusion and fear on his face and then turned back to her. ‘Quit messing, babe.’ He shook her again and then he shook Michael, calling for them both to wake up, stop messing him around, the joke’s over now.
He started to cry in small, whining sobs as he tried to feel for Sian’s pulse. I watched him, remembering my own fear a short while ago. I should have felt sympathy but the icy rage was still tight under my skin. The key to the room laid on the top step and I bent and picked it up. The cold iron chilled my skin.
The doorway to the right was dark and I could no longer see anything beyond the doorway; no brickwork or downwards stairs just a thick blackness. The darkness began to seep over the door step behind Tom, it gathered and swirled in tendrils and brought a deep sense of hatred and fear. I watched, held my breath, waited. Tom turned and saw the darkness gathered between us and then beyond it he saw me in the doorway holding the key in my hand. His eyes widened.
I slammed the door shut, turned the key in the lock, and ran.
Copyright © Elizabeth Cutts October 2014