Sample 6. HARDRADA. Short Fiction. Subject: Ghost Story

A sample from ‘HARDRADA’ by Ashley Stokes

From the trig point on Ditching Heights, the town was a grey eye open in yellow fields. Beyond its outer suburbs, across the barren countryside, the ancient outlines had again risen. Sunken rooms, burial chambers, mineshafts and underground galleries, long-gone walls and fortifications stood out like the letters of a lost alphabet. The tombs at Rixall glowed under the dead grass near the abandoned railway station. It was here that we’d seen Carter Thatch hazed in drifting dust and orange daylight.

We could not keep this secret. We would rouse the old warhorse George Nunes from his drowsy dreams.

Down in the streets, it was, if anything, hotter than the last summer the old structures had appeared, the summer the reservoir steamed into the sky and the warhorse George Nunes drove Carter Thatch out of town at Rixall. In Jubilee Crescent, months of high heat had bleached the lawns the colour of bone. The squat brick houses throbbed beneath a birdless sky. Nothing moved but us. No one stirred. Nothing was out, no dogs or cats or children. The Swan with Two Necks, the flat-roofed pub, loomed above the camber of the road, its windows barred, the creature on its sign scuffed and faded.

We found him hunched under the triangular flags that festooned the bar. He’d always been tall and broad, a man you wouldn’t mess with or jibe, but he was pale and battered now, veteran of his many deeds. He gripped a straight pint glass with both hands, peered into it as if something grinned back from the drink. Maybe she still shimmied for him in there, winked in and out when the light slanted a certain way.

When we first came to the Two Necks in the summer of ’76, Nunes was the new wind. The year before, he’d taken over the pub after making the landlord Arthur Tull a bad offer only a fool would brush off. A fool, Tull drowned in Smee’s Bourne, in two inches of muddy water.

After Nunes added the pub to his bakery and his ironmongers, many of the regulars stayed away. Local legend describes how, to woo them back, Nunes hired a stripper called Nola Stone, an artiste who performed as All the Rage. On a makeshift stage – pink satin sheets draped over bales of hay – All the Rage would sidle and pout in a blonde afro wig to Walk on the Wild Side. Throughout that long hot summer, factory lads and lead smelters would jitter and brood on her crimson lips and thighs as tight as an acrobat’s. Nunes and Thatch, friends then, comrades in arms, sat together at the bar, cigarettes smouldering at their knuckles, shirts unbuttoned. They would swig their Double Diamonds in that filthy heat, as she slipped things off that both would like to slip off for her. Neither could confide in the other the story he was telling himself, the home movies that played behind his eyes. Both of them, we knew, were only quiet men on the outside.

The stage had gone. The Two Necks was otherwise unchanged. The same furniture. The same sticky floor. The same grey, ashtray light. The same barman, Fat Huxtable, sat at the corner and scratched at a tabloid crossword with a betting pencil.

We gathered in around the old warhorse, George Nunes. He remembered who we were, judging by the way he tried to wave us away, make out he had other things on his mind. He probably did.

We told him it was good to see him, that he was looking well. You’re looking good, George. Years? Yes, it’s been years. No, we don’t get out much now. We don’t want anything, thanks. We thought you’d want to know. He’s back. Carter Thatch. Seen him with our own eyes, strutting the field at Rixall, prowling the platform at the station they shut down after the lead works folded. This was never meant to happen, not after what he did. Supposed to be gone for good, isn’t he? Never to return. Not ever. You made that very clear. You couldn’t have made that clearer, not after what he did to her. It was a crazy summer. They were crazy times. We all went a little crazy, but to do that … to her … you don’t live among decent people when you’ve done something like that. He’s taking the piss, George. Taking the piss out of you. We thought you’d want to know, that’s all.

He gulped back the dregs of his drink and slammed the glass on the counter with a crack.

Fat Huxtable dropped his newspaper. His pencil made a tinny, tinkling sound as it rolled across the floor.

George Nunes didn’t ask if we were coming. We followed anyway.