I wrote this haunted house short story a while time ago. It’s now the basis for a new novel ‘Langley Hall’, currently with my literary agent, John Jarrold.
Peggy Joint’s gnarled hand fumbled with the latch before entering the garden of Langley Hall. Soon after, the ritual commenced. Her shrivelled lips mouthed ancient words that she and her mother used each year at the same spot. As she struggled with the weight of the stone, a movement caught her eye.
“Someone in the hall at last. Now we’ll see.” Peggy narrowed her eyes at the outline of a woman silhouetted against one of the bedroom windows. The Autumn wind blew chill.
Laura stared down into the unkempt garden. “David, someone’s there. An old woman dressed in black. She’s just standing by the gate and looking at me.”
Her new husband pulled his jacket around himself and shivered. “It’s just a nosy local, then. Why did your grandmother leave you this place, anyway? You haven’t seen her for years.”
Much as Laura loved him, David knew how to rile her. “I saw her when I could. It’s not easy getting to Dartmoor from London. I seem to recall that you were always too busy with your rehearsals when I suggested it.”
He chuckled. “You’re here now. No crowds and no pressure. Just what the doctor ordered.”
She could see his breath cloud the air. The damp made her bones ache.
David pointed to the large rectangular outline above the marble fireplace. “The previous occupants certainly stripped the place bare.”
“There was an old painting of a man and woman. It used to creep me out… I wonder what happened to it. I’m glad it’s not there.”
He pulled her to him – for warmth, she suspected. “It’s funny how we remember odd details, isn’t it.”
Laura barely heard him. “The house feels so familiar, somehow. I can’t have been here more than once or twice.”
“Mmm.” His not-interested sound.
“David, you’re shivering – once our stuff arrives and the house heats up, it’ll be really snug, you’ll see.”
He grinned. “There’s only one place we can get warm quickly, Laura. You can share my sleeping bag tonight.”
It was the first time that they’d made love for some while.
The next morning, Laura lay in bed watching the pallid sun rise through bare branches and listening to the silence. Her husband’s voice, berating an unfortunate member of his orchestra down the phone, destroyed the moment. She gripped the sleeping bag tightly and willed herself to relax.
When David reappeared, Laura was standing by the window wrapped in a blanket. “I can’t leave them for a single day, Laura. They’re worse than-“
She hated the anger in his voice and how quick he could change. “You promised not to do that here, remember?”
“Okay, you’re right, honey. It’s just that we’re only two weeks away from the recording session.”
He put his arms around her, resting his chin on her shoulder, and then a silence developed as he chose the words. Taking her hand, he looked at her using his sincere face. “Laura – look, something’s come up. I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go back to London today. Will you be all right here?”
She looked at him quizzically. “I’ll have to be, won’t I? You know I’ve got an interview at Buckfastleigh library, David. And before you make a joke of it, the job’s important to me.”
He said with reluctance, “If you want me to stay, I can rearrange…”
“No, no. I’m happy to be alone here. I feel wanted. Don’t you feel it too?”
He shook his head. “Not really. It’s cold, and I keep cracking my head on the sodding beams.”
Over breakfast, David talked animatedly about his latest project, and how perfect Miranda was for the lead. The body of a dancer. Such a clear voice and perfect pitch. Laura would fall in love her, should she come to stay. She would be a good friend. Laura felt relieved when the Mercedes finally drove out of the gates. David’s restless energy would have soon turned to irritability.
Miranda. Laura dared not dwell on the image created by that name for a moment longer. She knew that it was only her anxiety. The same primordial force that had made her fail as a university lecturer and forced her away from the city. Langley would help David’s composing, and there was plenty of room in the house for his music studio or his colleagues, come to that. Feeling more positive, Laura donned her walking gear. She would spend the morning on the moors, exploring the old silver mines.
Fog was already beginning to fill the valley as she entered the garden, but the brown back of Holne Moor rose above it, reminding her of a surfacing whale. Gnarled fruit trees reached above the greyness and the silence pressed down. Laura felt the breath catch in her throat. A child was standing in the garden, staring at her. Laura stifled the urge to cry out. The little girl seemed unreal. Laura began to speak, but as the fog wreathed about her the child faded to an outline.
She felt sick. She dared not tell David that she was imagining things again – not after what she had put him through these last few months. Summoning her courage, Laura walked forwards, intent on challenging the illusion until she stubbed her foot painfully. She knelt, carefully parting the tangled grass stems to uncover an ancient headstone, cracked by frost. It had fallen on top of a square black rock. She pulled the headstone clear. The name and dates had been weathered away. She rolled the black stone away with some difficulty, but it revealed no more about the occupant. Laura shivered involuntarily as the damp wind chilled her, before heading to the house. When a fox shrieked behind her, she ran.
David didn’t call that night.
The removal van arrived the next morning. Laura left the two men unpacking whilst she went to her interview and when she returned, they had already taken all that she possessed inside. It seemed to make little impact on the enormous house, but now it was undoubtedly home. Laura took some leftovers outside for the fox. Despite the hill fog, there was no mistaking the figure standing near the grave.
“Why are you here again?” Laura faltered.
It wasn’t a child this time. The old woman walked over to Laura and held out her crooked hand. When Laura took it, she found herself looking into an ancient face with young eyes.
“It were you that moved the black stone.” The old woman sounded angry.
Laura was taken aback. “It’s my house and my garden. I own Langley.”
The bony hand gripped tightly. “Listen to me, girl. You be in danger. Take great care.”
Laura felt angry. “David and I can take care of ourselves…”
“Not him. No, not him at all.”
Laura freed her hand with difficulty. “I don’t want you in my garden. Who are you, anyway?”
“my name’s Peggy Joint. You will find me when you needs me.”
The old woman hobbled back up the garden towards the gate, leaning heavily on a black stick. Laura followed, and watched her leave before returning to the house, the expedition forgotten. She focused on the forthcoming interview, forcing the unpleasantness from her mind.
That evening, Laura was seated beside a comforting log fire when her mobile rang. “Hi, how did it go today?” said David’s distant voice.
“I’ve got the job –I had to go by taxi, but I think I could cycle there in future. All our things arrived, so that just leaves twenty boxes to unpack. How about you? When will you be home?”
An awkward pause. “Ah. Listen, I can’t come back until the weekend. I’m sorry but it’s out of my hands.”
Before she could stop the words, Laura asked, “and how’s Miranda getting along?”
Another pause. “She’s fine, Laura. I’ve invited her to Langley so you can meet her. I’m sure you’ll become friends.”
Laura felt her skin prickle. “I’m sure we shall.”
It was Laura’s second night alone. She slept in her tracksuit, duvet pulled over her head. As sleep came she heard the cattle lowing on the moor and her fox barked close by. However, she did not sleep well and awoke from a dream, damp with sweat. Only when she was unpacking books the next day did the dream snap into focus, and it made her gasp.
She walked to the Green Man pub for lunch. Whilst the barman poured her cider, Laura caught sight of herself in the mirror over the bar, framed by two bottles of scotch. Blond hair framed wide-set green eyes, a passionate mouth veiled by humour. Maybe a worry line or two. Pretty enough. Why should she worry about Miranda?
“New ‘ere?” The old barman held the glass he was polishing glass up to the pale light.
Laura sipped her red wine. “Yes. I’m Laura. I own Langley now.”
He blew his nose noisily. “Ah. So you’re a Mortlock, are you?”
She smiled. “Yes, that’s right. I was left the house by Alice when she died. Did you know the family?”
“I certainly knew Eden, your grandmother. She were a character all right. I can even remember her mother, Agatha, although she was quite different.”
She took another sip of the wine. “How d’you mean?”
“Nervous, like. Eden and me were at school together, in Scorriton. After John died, Agatha moved to the Scilly Isles with Eden and rented out the house.”
She absorbed the information. “Right.”
He extended his hand. “my name’s Abe Carter.”
Laura shook hands. “Why’s there a grave in the garden?”
Abe’s eyes widened. “I remembers now. That be where John Mortlock were buried. Your great grandfather, in fact. I’d forgotten all about that.”
Laura was intrigued. “You have to tell me more,” she said.
Abe laughed. “Am I teasing you? I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you much. I were just a boy at the time, and there was a lot of kids’ tales. He made his money making false teeth.”
She laughed at that. “Really?”
He nodded seriously. “Aye, for folks in London, they says.”
She wondered if he was pulling her leg. “Go on.”
“The story went that he were a bad lot. Womanising and gambling. He did something very bad, a murder – and God punished him for it. He were burned to death. I suppose that the villagers felt that he shouldn’t be buried in the family crypt after that.”
Laura remembered the woman in the fog. “Is the house haunted?” She tried to sound casual.
He looked at her seriously. “They say that a giant black hound comes down from the moor at full moon.”
Laura detected a twinkle. “I’ll remember to get you one back,” she laughed.
The image of the woman with the cruel smile haunted Laura as she walked back to the house. Later, as she reached into the first packing case, she froze. Floorboards creaked somewhere upstairs. Feeling strangely detached, she walked to the foot of the stairs and looked up. She started to climb. When she saw the swinging cord that dangled from the attic trapdoor, fear rose in her throat.
“What in God’s name are you doing?” she whispered to herself.
She reached up and pulled down the trapdoor and the retractable ladder, then went up as in a dream. It took what little courage that she possessed to look into the attic. She could see that it was empty from the faint light thrown from a small gable window. Her legs felt weak as she stood in the middle of the attic. Dense swathes of cobwebs hung around her and thick dust was underfoot. A dark rectangular shape sat in the far corner.
Laura groped her way to it, snatching cobwebs from her hair and discovered several dusty paintings covered with sacking. Instinctively, she picked one out and something brushed past her face. She screamed then scrambled down the ladder, shaking but strangely triumphant.
As night fell, Laura lit the log fire and settled back comfortably. She sipped her sherry and contemplated the picture above the fireplace. It had fitted perfectly into the rectangle of clean wallpaper and now the man and woman looked back at her. She wondered why it had bothered her so as a child. The couple wore dowdy Victorian clothing. She was beautiful and smiled warmly but her eyes were sad. A little girl held her hand. He stood proudly, one foot planted victoriously upon a chair, hand on hip. He had a thin mouth that turned down at the corners and he looked at the others possessively. Laura did not like him, and even as she studied his face the forgotten dream switched back on.
“Don’t hurt me, please don’t. I can’t see.” Then came the blue flash and the huge noise. it made her ears sing.
Car headlights swept the room, breaking the thread of her thoughts and the memory died. She opened the door expectantly as David walked towards her. The slim silhouette of a girl was behind him. Laura put her arms around his neck and kissed him warmly, but she felt him pull away.
“This is Miranda.” Miranda.
Laura took Miranda’s small, cold hand. “You’re freezing. Come in, sit by the fire.” She managed a smile.
Whilst David brought in the suitcases, Laura led the girl to the sitting room and settled her by the fire. “Let me get you a drink. What would you like?”
Miranda rubbed her small hands together. “Anything with alcohol, Laura. No, make it a brandy.”
Laura studied Miranda as she sipped the brandy, noting the dangerously sultry brown eyes, perfect skin and pearly teeth. Miranda had everything. Pert breasts pushing against her alpaca sweater, short tight skirt, slim legs, sexy boots. Laura glanced at herself. Baggy old slippers, shapeless tracksuit trousers and top, no make-up.
“Excuse me a minute, I need to smarten up.”
“No need on my behalf, Laura. You look lovely.” Liar.
Laura chose her outfit carefully, not wanting to reveal her feelings about Miranda, but acutely aware of them.
Over dinner, which Miranda did not help prepare, Laura watched her husband. She was wearing a tight-fitting outfit that fell open to reveal her thigh. Her gold hair was piled up showing the smooth curve of her neck. However, his eyes were pulled back to Miranda’s sexuality. It was as if he could smell her animal attraction. The way she stroked the stem of her glass. Catching her bottom lip in her pearly teeth when he spoke. Practised. confident. Fucking annoying, basically.
“How long are you staying here for, Miranda?” asked Laura. She tried to sound relaxed.
“David and I have to go back on Sunday night, don’t we?” She had the nerve to put out her hand and touch David’s cheek.
David leaned away imperceptibly. “Yes, next week’s the dress rehearsal. Why don’t you come back with us, Laura?”
Laura felt like the odd one out. “It’s my first week at work. Otherwise I’d love to. Perhaps I’ll take a day off. When is it?”
“Thursday,” David answered.
The next morning, David took Miranda on a tour of the garden whilst his wife peeled potatoes. She watched them through the kitchen window. Miranda even looked sexy in outdoor gear. Then she took David by the arm and pulled herself into him. He glanced back at the house guiltily and waved when he saw Laura watching. Laura did not wave back. She left the kitchen and went to the bedroom, but could not see them anymore. Then she looked at the grave of John Mortlock, purveyor of false teeth, and realised that he was the man in the painting. The man with a murderer’s face. For a crazy moment, Laura wondered if she had inherited a haunted house.
Later that day, Laura told David and Miranda about the grave and the painting. When they finally left for London, Laura sat alone in front of the painting with a sense of foreboding that grew steadily worse as the evening passed. Some trick of the light made it seem as if John Mortlock was watching her. Laura became aware of her isolation, and the rising wind moaned down the chimney like a voice. She put the fireguard in place and went to bed.
Laura awoke with a start. It was first light and a blackbird was singing. A vague memory was diminishing, and she focused on it. Part of a dream, it was the woman from the painting. What did she say? Laura could not recall. For a moment there was an image of an attractive face with worried eyes, and a feeling that she should remember something – a warning of some kind, maybe. Laura shook her head, frustrated.
She enjoyed the first day at work. The staff were friendly and made her feel welcome. Then she visited Dr Jameson.
The young Scot studied her. “Laura, sit down. You look well.”
“I wish it were true, doctor. I still feel sick all the time. I’m sure I should still take Prozac or something.”
He took her hand, kindly. “Now listen, Laura. You can’t have any more medication.”
She was given a lift back to Langley by Theresa Bailey, a trainee therapist.
“So why did you kiss Doctor Jameson? And what was it like?”
Laura laughed. “It wasn’t like that, Theresa. I’m pregnant. It’s just perfect, isn’t it?” It was the key to her future.
As Theresa said goodbye to Laura, she added, “It’s going to be a bad one tonight. I should oil those old shutters if I was you.”
Laura unlocked the front door, happy to be home. She went through to the kitchen, looking forward to telling David the news when he arrived back. Without warning, a bag was pulled over her head and something was clamped over her nose and mouth. Then consciousness faded away and she fell to the floor, her last thoughts about her baby. When she came to, she felt nauseous. She tried to move her hands to protect herself, but they were tied behind her back. It was dark. Laura was inside the boot of a car. Tears came at that point – from fear, not self pity. Laura thought that she would wet herself with fear, and every nerve in her body was on fire with anticipation.
After what seemed like hours, the car stopped abruptly and Laura’s head cracked so hard on the spare wheel that she felt blood trickle down her face. Footsteps approached and when the boot was opened, the wind came in with a roar. Laura was pulled out roughly and stood unsteadily, teeth chattering as cold rain hammered onto her head.
“Who are you? What – what do you want?” she screamed into the wind.
She knew the female voice that answered. “The house. We want Langley, without you in it.”
Anger seared through Laura. “Let me see you.”
Hands fumbled at her neck and the bag was pulled off. David looked ashen but determined. Miranda licked her top lip and smiled a cruel smile.
She said, “Look at you. You’re so boring. Especially in bed.”
“You’re crazy. David, you can’t want to do this. You love me.”
It didn’t make any sense. Laura kept thinking the same words.
The car was parked by an electricity pylon and the lip of the quarry was only a few yards away. Laura became fully aware of her predicament. The power cables sang mournfully in the wind.
“When you don’t turn up for work, they’ll try to find you but it’ll take a day or two. They’ll assume that you went for a walk, and fell,” Miranda shouted into the wind.
“You can’t do this. David, please-”
“Kneel down, Laura.”
Miranda pushed Laura to her knees as David walked back from the car, holding a tyre iron. he looked like he would throw up.
“David, listen to me. We’re having a baby. Please don’t hurt me,” Laura pleaded.
Miranda laughed, and held out her hand for the iron. “She’s lying to save herself. Give it to me.”
Laura stared at David. His eyes met hers and he hesitated. For a moment, Laura thought she saw someone else looking out from his eyes. He began to speak when Laura was blinded by a blue flash so bright that it made her cry out. A dazzling arc of lightning played on top of the electricity pylon and showers of white-hot sparks cascaded around them. A power cable jerked free and whipped through the air. Miranda’s head flew into the darkness of the quarry, and in the same instant the cable stabbed into David’s neck. He jerked convulsively and erupted into flames.
Laura was still kneeling when Peggy found her at first light.
With Peggy’s help over the following weeks, Laura managed to recover from the trauma. She asked Peggy to live in Langley with her to help with the baby. One summer evening, when the baby had settled, she walked in the garden with the old lady. They stopped by the grave.
“Peggy, what really happened to John Mortlock?”
“Does you want to know, Laura?”
“He were an evil man, Laura. He had a mistress in London. She were called Kitty, I think. They planned to kill Agatha and Eden for the house. They took them to the quarry during a terrible storm, but John were killed by a lightning strike and Kitty were no match for Agatha. She escaped but were caught making her way back to London.”
“What happened to Kitty?” asked Laura.
“She were sent to Princeton jail and executed. Decapitated, so the story goes. But she were buried here, with him.”
Laura looked at the grave. “What’s the black stone for, Peggy?”
The old woman tapped it with her stick. “It’s a devil stone, dear, to keep him there, and Kitty too. You shouldn’t move a devil stone. Not never.”