Tuesday, 12 April 2016
Short tory published in the Canal Boating Times - April 2016
If you’d like to see your waterways-inspired tale in print, email firstname.lastname@example.org or send it to First ‘Draught’, Canal Boating Times, 151 Station Street, Burton-on-Trent DE14 1BG. Unfortunately, we cannot return submissions so please make sure you retain the original copy of your manuscript.
A STRANGE ENCOUNTER
Mick could tell Jill was excited just by the way she was chatting more than usual; commenting on the weather, how she liked her tea and that she preferred wholemeal rather than white bread toast. Normally she would get up and be deep in thought, planning the cruising day ahead and what she was going to do – she rarely spoke until her second coffee. Today was different though, she was chirpy and chatty and quite looking forward to reverting back to a past life – albeit for only a few hours.
The couple owned a narrowboat called Matilda and had been continuous cruisers for almost three years. They had spent most of the last few weeks heading south along the Trent & Mersey Canal. It was winter time, when canals can be very quiet with few boats passing and not much communication with anyone unless you’re moored up at one of the many friendly pubs. But they still loved the freedom, the changing scenery and being close to nature.
Jill came out of the cabin and did a twirl in front of Mick; it had been ages since she had worn a skirt, most of the time she was dressed in jeans and thick jumpers or unflattering waterproofs and wellies, so she appreciated wearing something a little more feminine. Mick lifted his head up from his book, smiled and gave a nod which informed Jill that he liked what he saw. Her two friends would be at the bridge in ten minutes – they were going shopping. The plan was for Jill to spend a day in retail therapy with her old friends while Mick would take the boat a few miles down the canal to the Mucky Duck pub where he would join them for a drink or two. He waved from the tiller as Jill made her way towards the bridge to meet her friends, trying to avoid the numerous muddy puddles. Mick loved Jill, she was his best friend, his soul mate. Living in a confined space can often become quite claustrophobic and trying for even the most solid of relationships but, if anything, they had grown closer since taking early retirement – having no more work to stress over allowed more time for each other. Even so, a few hours apart was going to do them both good!
It was about 11.30am when Matilda finally started to move smoothly off the mooring, with Mick steadying her as she started the journey to the Mucky Duck. Boating the inland waterways was Mick and Jill’s passion and they felt very lucky they could now live
aboard their boat permanently. They loved the lifestyle and enjoyed both the countryside and industrial landscapes they encountered along the way.
Mick started to slow down the boat in readiness for the first lock. He had been through this one before and did not like it very much; it was dark with an old lock-keeper’s cottage close by. He tied the boat up along the towpath and was soon winding the paddles of the gate to fill the chamber with water. It seemed much colder near to the lock, yet there was no breeze. Mick supposed it was to due to the overhanging trees effectively blocking out the sunlight. He tightened his scarf and rubbed his gloved hands together
both actions making little difference. There was a total lack of noise other than the gushing of water as the lock filled; no birds singing, no rustling of the trees or bushes and no distant road noise – it was quite unusual and unnerving. For some reason he also found he couldn’t stop looking towards the lock-keeper’s house, which was run down and apparently empty. The windows were filthy but through them he could just make out the dirty, ripped curtains the other side, some of which had partly fallen off their rails. Of the dark rooms beyond he could make out nothing at all. He had never paid much attention to the house before, but then Jill usually prepared the locks.
Soon he was gliding Matilda slowly past the gate, concentrating on steering a straight course and avoiding looking at the cottage. Once in the lock he put the boat on tick-over and got off to close the single gate. It was only then that he heard the faint whispering. “Where’s it coming from?” he thought, looking round to confirm he was definitely alone. He tried to listen more closely but couldn’t make out what was being said; he rubbed his ears, but it was still there. Mick tried to think logically – there were always weird sounds around water, especially the strange gurgles and hiccups it sometimes made around locks. Doing his best to ignore it, he concentrated on closing the gate as fast as he could. He moved to the other end of the lock, lifted the paddles on both gates and waited, uneasily, for the chamber to empty. He couldn’t wait to get away from there.
Once the level had dropped sufficiently, he heaved open the gates and started down the lock ladder to his boat below. It was a deep chamber, and halfway down his blood chilled to hear the whispering start back up. With each rung it seemed to grow louder, and this time he could decipher some of the menacing words: “You’re staying here, you’re going nowhere.” His heart was beating so fast that he could hear it pumping. Surely his mind was playing games? He tried to make sense of it, but where was this sound coming from? He concluded someone must be playing a joke on him, maybe some local youths. Once he was safely back on the boat he looked upwards and shouted: “Is someone there? What do you want? Stop mucking around.” There was no reply, no one was around. He was on his own.
Suddenly Mick found his right arm being pulled upwards, as if a whirlwind had taken hold of it. He was being dragged back up the ladder and the whispering became louder and louder, spinning him into a vortex of terror. He tried to shake off the invisible hands hauling him up, but their grip was too strong. His scarf whipped around his face as he was being lifted. For a split second he managed to pull himself backwards before the fingers clutched hold of him again with much more violence. Luckily his knee knocked into the boat accelerator and, as he was dragged upwards, Matilda lunged forward at full throttle, smoke billowing from the exhaust. The boat moved fast through the lock gates. Mick could still feel himself being pulled, but as he and the vessel fully exited the lock the mysterious hold abated.
A few seconds passed before Mick could compose himself, steady the boat and slow it down. He turned to see both lock gates slam violently shut of their own accord. “What on earth just happened?” Mick thought, delving into his pocket for a much-needed cigarette. As he lit up, his hands were shaking and he felt nauseous. The following two locks were fortunately manned by volunteers, not that Mick took any notice of this – he was still in a daze from the strange encounter. He avoided being drawn into any conversation, kept his head down and focussed on getting to the pub to see Jill.
Stopping outside the Mucky Duck, Mick quickly secured the boat from the centre line. He urgently needed a drink so decided to return to the boat when he had calmed down. He entered the bar and requested a large whisky, which he gulped down in one go. Ordering his second, he jumped to feel a hand on his shoulder and spun round, only to see Jill standing there. Her smile disappeared immediately when she saw the look on Mick’s face. Unable to talk he gestured to her to give him a moment and drained his glass again.
It was only then that he could launch into his lock chamber horror story. In the telling his voice grew louder, his expression more animated, and soon the whole pub was listening in. After he had finished, a man who had been following the tale from the other end of the bar put down his pint and made his way over. Apologising for eavesdropping, he drew the couple to one side and quietly explained this wasn’t the first supernatural encounter he’d heard originate from that lock. Similar experiences had been reported on many occasions, he stressed, usually by lone boaters and usually men. As his conversation continued, Mick and Jill were appalled to learn the lock had been the site of a brutal murder more than a century ago – the victim was the lock-keeper’s daughter, whose body had been found floating face down in the chamber. Her assailant was never captured. Her parents, grief-stricken, moved away soon after. Subsequent occupants never inhabited the house for longer than a year. It garnered a reputation for being haunted and had been empty since the ‘70s.
Jill clenched Mick’s hand in support as they both ordered another beverage. He turned round to thank the local for explaining the day’s events and offer him a drink but he was nowhere to be seen.