Old Wives' Tale

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

A young couple find a new home

“She’s said to have taken them all in their sleep. Only the boys mind. They just disappeared.” 

The landlord of the Red Lion looked conspiratorially at David as he and Ellie were leaving the inn. About half a mile up the lane was the house that they’d come to see. “You can’t get in there. You wouldn’t want to. Been boarded up over twenty years now,” the landlord had said. “Some say they’re still up there and that on some nights, you can still hear the boys screaming.”

The landlord’s words rang in David’s head as he and Ellie set out for Oak Cottage. They both carried a torch and held each other’s free hand. The pub was closing and the voices of the other patrons grew quieter as they each made their way home in the opposite direction.

Earlier that day, David and Ellie had walked around the village that the Red Lion seemed to be the social centre of. There was a village shop that doubled as a Post Office, a small playground in a state of disrepair, and then there was the Red Lion. There’d been a small group of elderly ladies chatting among themselves in the shop and a similar sized group of old gents playing dominoes in the pub. It seemed a very insular village, where everyone kept themselves to themselves and didn’t expect strangers to be passing through. The landlord had been friendly enough but it occurred to David as they walked up the lane that he’d not thought to introduce himself. They’d get used to he and Ellie in time, he thought.

The lane was pitch dark, more like a tunnel with the canopy of trees above, and barely wide enough for the two of them to walk side by side, the trees seemingly having not been cut back for decades. The fine mist that blew in the cold night air had penetrated the canopy but they were protected from the freezing wind.

The landlord’s story of the old woman that had lived in Oak Cottage described a lonely spinster who took in orphans and gave them somewhere nicer than the workhouse to sleep. Her apparent inability to marry had bred in her a hatred of men, and therefore boys and the workhouse provided her with a constant supply of the opposite sex to wreak her revenge upon. Although flawed, it was a classic urban legend and one that the landlord had no doubt recounted many times in order to discourage newcomers.

Emerging from the natural tunnel, Ellie tripped on something solid. She steadied herself and gripped David’s hand tightly as they stood in an open space. There were trees but no canopy. Rising up in front of them, only twenty or so feet away, was Oak Cottage. They shone their torches around and surveyed their surroundings. They were in the front garden of the cottage. The trees behind them obscured the front of what remained of the garden wall and continued around the sides, embracing the building. The two upstairs and two downstairs windows were boarded with planks, the ground around their feet was scattered with broken pieces of slate and the roof had holes where those same pieces of slate had once been tiles. The green that was the lichen and moss that covered the front of the cottage occasionally gave up the grey rag stone underneath, from which the building was built. The front door was made of wood beneath the mildew and the knocker and handle were rusted.

“Shall we go in?” David asked, raising the beam of his torch to illuminate his face.

“Let’s.” Ellie copied David and held her torch under her chin. She was smiling and breathing excitedly, the mist of her breath lit yellow by the torch. David smiled back and as he fumbled in his pocket he remembered the pub landlord’s words: ”You can’t get in there. You wouldn’t want to.” Well they could, because they had the keys. And they did want to get into the house that was to be their first home.

David fished out the keys and they walked to the door. Closing the door behind them and shining their torches around, they could make out that they were in the living room. There was a stone staircase leading up to their right and the living room looked as it must have done twenty or so years earlier. Dust-covered sheets draped the sparse furnishings and cobwebs spanned the ceiling. They looked like fine silk sheets being thrown onto a bed as they undulated in the light breeze that blew through the room from upstairs. “Wow!” exclaimed Ellie as she took it all in.

“Let’s go upstairs,” said David, smiling.

“But we’ve only just got here!”

“Just for a look!” he said as he took hold of Ellie’s hand and led the way.

At the top of the stairs was a small, square landing with a doorway on each side. David shone his torch through each in turn. In front of them was a bedroom with four single beds, neatly made but covered in dust and mildew, evenly spaced along the back wall beneath a boarded up window. To their left was the bathroom, both the toilet and washbasin were still in place. To the right was another bedroom, containing a single bed, neatly made like the others and pushed against the left-hand wall.

“It’s cold up here. Let’s go back down,” said Ellie with a shiver. There was a draught coming from above them and as David shone his torch up, he could make out the loft, empty as far as he could tell, through the hole where once there was a trap door. A steady whistling noise occasionally became a howl as the wind squeezed then rushed through the holes in the roof. The sound was dissipated now and again as a drop of rain hit bare floorboards.

“Well, there’s nothing up here to get excited about,” he said in agreement and led the way back downstairs.

Back in the living room, the carpet was threadbare beneath a layer of dust. The floorboards beneath it creaked as they walked across the room and then gave way to bare concrete through the doorway that led into the kitchen. The kitchen was bare apart from a rusty sink and draining board. The window above the sink, like the others at the front of the house and upstairs, had no glass and was boarded up with planks of wood, as was the space where the back door had been. Returning to the living room, Ellie sheepishly lowered herself into the chair. It creaked but it held her slight frame. The floorboards creaked beneath David as he stooped down and shone his torch around the room. “Well, it’s got potential,” he said, with more than a hint of sarcasm.

“This could be so nice babe,” Ellie enthused. “There’s quite a lot to be done but we can make it ours.”

“Quite a lot? Now there’s an understatement.”

“But we can, can’t we?”

“Well, once the trees are cleared, the roof’s repaired, the place is wired and plumbed, doors and windows replaced and the rot treated…”

“But we’d be making it our home.”

“…re-carpeted, re-painted, decorated, move the furniture in.” David paused. “Shall we stay the night?”

“What?” He’d caught Ellie by surprise.

“Let’s stay here tonight.”

“You mean sleep here?”

“Well, yeah. Then tomorrow we can get started on clearing the place up.” Just then, a noise came from the top of the stairs. A muffled, squawking sound carried by the whistle of the wind. Ellie was startled and looked to the bottom of the stairs behind David.

“What was that?” she said.

“It sounded like a bird. Don’t worry about it.”

“It sounded like a scream David.” Ellie’s breathing quickened.

“It was probably a crow or something.” Ellie frowned. “Can’t we see if the Red Lion has a room and come back in the morning?”

“It’ll be closed.” David paused and thought. “That daft old landlord hasn’t got you sold on his story has he?” Ellie didn’t reply. She was looking down at the ground between her feet. “Ellie?” She shook her head gently. “It’s an old wives tale; an urban legend.”

“I know.”

“So what is it?” David said gently and put his hand on her knee.

“Nothing. It’s just a bit, well, spooky.”

“It’s dark and it’s cold but it’s not spooky. Look, there’s nowhere else to go so let’s push two of those old beds together and take our minds off of things.” He squeezed Ellie’s knee and she looked up at him and nodded, then smiled.

***

David lay behind Ellie as she slept and pulled her towards him, burying his nose in her neck, the sweet smell of her perfume a respite from the musty sheets. He went through a mental list of things that they needed to do to the house, totting up the cost as he did so and assigning press-ganged friends to help with various tasks. He kept losing his tally of costs and started over and over again before giving up. It had been a long day and he was tired. He squeezed Ellie gently in his arms and slowly drifted off to join her in sleep.

***

David’s nose was overwhelmed by the musty smell of the sheets. He tried to push them off but he couldn’t. It was as though they were stuck to him. He could taste a hundred years of stagnation as the sheets covered his mouth and he breathed in their mildew. Harder he pushed against the unseen force bearing down on him until for a second it gave. He managed to lift the sheet from his face, then froze. Staring down at him from the side of the bed was an old lady, small but sinewy and wearing just a sleeveless red pinafore dress. Her lips were dry and tight and her eyes bloodshot. Her grey hair was matted and stuck in clumps to her forehead. Her bony hand gripped the sheet below David’s chin and he grabbed her wrist. Her strength was overwhelming though as she cupped the sheet in her hand over David’s mouth and nose. He caught the merest gasp of air as he shook his head from side to side and found a gap at the side of his gag but the pressure bore down with still greater force and pushed the back of his head deep into the pillow. His head felt as though it was gripped in a vice. He began to lose consciousness and blackness enveloped him.

***

David sat bolt upright in bed, gasping for breath. The sheet, gripped tightly to his chest was soaked in his sweat. He looked around but there was no one in the room apart from Ellie, still asleep beside him. He loosened his grip on the sheet and pushed it aside before slowly swinging his legs around to the edge of the bed and standing up. He walked to the bathroom and was surprised that the tap worked. The pipes ground and knocked and a splutter of sand spilled from the spout. More creaking and then water flowed. He lowered his head and took a drink.

“David?” He must have woken Ellie, who was calling from the bedroom.

“I’m in the bathroom,” he called back but there was no reply. With the tap still running, he cupped his hands under it, filled them with water and splashed it across his face.

“David?” Ellie was standing on the landing.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“David?” She hadn’t heard him and was calling more loudly.

“I’m here babe.” He walked towards her. Still she didn’t respond, even though she was looking straight at him. Suddenly, as he got near her, Ellie turned and ran down the stairs. What the hell’s going on here, he thought. Is she sleepwalking? He went to follow her but was suddenly gripped by an overwhelming fear at the top of the stairs. He teetered on the top step and couldn’t move. He felt nauseous and had to step back. He leaned against the bedroom doorway as Ellie appeared again at the bottom of the stairs, still calling his name as she ran up them. He lunged forward as she reached the top and it was as though someone placed their hands tightly over his ears as she passed through him and he fell to the floor.

David screamed.

Ellie froze.

 

(C) Steve Laker 2003


Submitted: November 08, 2014

© Copyright 2021 Stevelaker. All rights reserved.

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