I have heard that you are collecting stories for your Haunted England series, and are now concerning yourself with Norfolk and Suffolk, so I thought you might be interested in hearing what happened to us.
Read what follows, and use the story in your anthology if you see fit. You may feel that you need to rewrite it a little, if you find its literary quality somewhat wanting, however the story is a true one, if there be such a commodity as truth.
Some 20 years ago we bought our house near Bungay, on the outskirts of a widely spread village whose exact boundaries we have never really determined.
It is a community of post-war bungalows, thatched cottages, well-proportioned Georgian boxes, low farm houses and the usual ramshackle barns and derelict dairies.
Some 20 years ago we bought our house near Bungay, on the outskirts of a widely spread village whose exact boundaries we have never really determined
The lanes are very narrow, and one dreads meeting any traffic coming the other way. I have never been very skilled at reversing over any distance, and have to hand the wheel over to my wife.
You would describe the landscape as flat, until you acquired a bicycle, whereupon you would discover that the hills may not be steep, but they are very long.
This is an old landscape, and the place reverberates with legend. You may well have heard of the hellhound, Black Shuck.
Just near my house is the site of the gibbet at Hellsgate, where many a poor soul was strangled at the end of a hempen rope. There is a mound where the gibbet was set, just by the crossroad, in Deadmans Field.
A dozen royalists were executed there during the Civil War, and it is said that they sang the Miserere as they were marched to their death.
Cromwell’s men smashed the stained glass windows, defaced the medieval paintings, stabled their horses, shot at the tombs, and hacked the carvings from the pews in the village church.
When my wife Sandra and I moved here just before the New Year all those years ago, we had no fear of the past. It is an old house that has been added to in a fairly haphazard way over the passage of the years, and the most ancient part might even be medieval.
In front, surrounded by a low hedge, is a deep pond, murky and sinister in winter, but in summer rippling with golden rudd as they jump for flies. At the time of our moving in, our daughter Agnes was but one month old.
She had been a good sleeper, and had given us only one bad night during her month of life. We put her cot in the bedroom next to ours, with the door open, of course.
This is an old landscape, and the place reverberates with legend. You may well have heard of the hellhound, Black Shuck
We put her to bed at 7.30, and went to bed ourselves at about 10, as I had to rise early to catch the train to Norwich from Diss. Imagine our dismay when she began to cry the moment that Sandra turned off the light in our room.
I said: ‘Just leave her. She’ll probably fall asleep in a minute.’
But she didn’t. After ten minutes, my wife got up and went to check on her, only to find her fast asleep. The crying had stopped the moment that Sandra had gone into the room.
She came back to bed and, within a few minutes, the crying resumed. When Sandra entered the room, once again, the wailing immediately ceased. We lost a whole night in this ridiculous manner, and then another, and then another.
In the end, I set up an inflatable mattress for myself in Agnes’ room, and then there was no more wailing of any kind. We all slept peacefully.
As I said, it was very near the end of the year, and one night a severe frost set in.
It must have been -6c at the least, and, as always seems to happen, our boiler celebrated the occasion by conking out. Sandra and I piled on the duvets and took Agnes into bed with us.
Of course you know what happened. Of course you do. Within a few minutes, there came the cries of a baby from the neighbour room.
‘Oh, my God,’ said Sandra softly. ‘Oh my God.’
I played the dutiful and fearless husband and went into the room to find it silent and empty.
A strange instinct impelled me to part the curtains and look out. The night sparkled with frost in the brilliant moonlight, and an owl whooped nearby.
‘Poor birds, on a night like this,’ I thought. ‘They’ll be frozen to the boughs.’ Then something moved.
Of course you know what happened. Of course you do. Within a few minutes, there came the cries of a baby from the neighbour room
Casting my eyes down I saw a figure forming itself out of the light vapour that swirled on the surface of the pond.
It was a young woman, hardly more than a girl, creating itself in front of my eyes from mist and moonlight, clothed in a flowing garment that I realised later must have been a shroud.
I called my wife, and, hearing the urgency in my voice, she came to my side.
The girl stood on the ice, a wild and pleading look in her eyes, mimed the cradling of a baby in her arms, and then she held up her arms imploringly.
‘She wants us to give her her baby,’ said my wife.
‘How are we supposed to do that?’ I asked.
A cloud passed across the moon, there was a moment of shadow, and when it cleared the girl was gone. Behind us a baby cried, and coughed.
The odd thing is, neither my wife nor I were in the least bit frightened. We felt merely a deep sadness, a sympathy for the perplexity and sorrow of the bereft, childless girl.
In the morning I went to the pond’s edge, the frozen grass crunching beneath my feet. There were two mallards and a moorhen standing forlornly on the ice. The trees hung with hoar frost and icicles, exquisitely ornate, glistening and beautiful.
The cold stung my flesh even through my coat, gloves, scarves and Russian hat. I shivered. I looked down and momentarily thought I saw a wide-eyed pallid face beneath the ice.
Beside that transitory countenance I saw, scrawled into the frost on the surface of the ice, the word ‘Deborah’. It might have been done with a stick.
I telephoned the previous owner of my house, who had lived there only for two years. She denied all knowledge, much too vehemently, feigning anger and offence when I questioned her further.
She had moved, she said, to be closer to her ageing mother. She put the phone down on me, without even the pleasantry of a customary goodbye.
We went to see the rector, a thin dark man, who, were it not for his blue clerical shirt and dog collar, might easily have been mistaken for a bank robber.
It was a young woman, hardly more than a girl, creating itself in front of my eyes from mist and moonlight, clothed in a flowing garment that I realised later must have been a shroud
We sat opposite him in his office, drinking lukewarm, over-stewed tea from cracked, tide-marked mugs and told him of our experience of the night before.
‘Would you like the telephone number of the diocesan exorcist?’ he asked. ‘Of course, we don’t call him that. He’s called The Deliverance Team.’
‘No,’ said my wife. ‘I think exorcism might be a bit brutal. And it wouldn’t give her what she wants.’
‘Why don’t you look in the graveyard?’ he suggested. ‘There might be a Deborah. If we could identify her, it might help a bit.’
We found nothing. Many of the stones were flaked, and her family might well have been too poor to afford a stone, her wooden cross disappearing long since.
There were whole families of Cattermoles, Catchpoles, Revells. Fairheads, Tubbies and Winters, but we found no grave of a Deborah amongst them.
‘Poor Deborah,’ said Sandra. ‘We’ll never know what happened to her.’
But we do know. At least, we think we do. They say that apparitions come only to those to whom they wish to appear, and Deborah chose to appear to us.
Two nights before New Year’s Day my wife and I stood side by side at the window, the invisible baby crying and coughing piteously behind us, watching the girl skate back and forth on the ice of the still frozen pond.
She was wrapped in winter clothes now, moving confidently, her fingers entwined behind her back, describing figures of eight, and even doing them backwards.
Sandra and I forgot for a moment how extraordinary this all was. We merely stood at the window, smiling at her enjoyment.
Suddenly, she stopped in the middle of the pond and looked up at us with her wide, fearful eyes. Just as abruptly she plunged feet first, vertically downwards and disappeared.
Sandra put her hand to her mouth and gasped. Of one mind, we ran downstairs and out into the freezing night, halting at the brink of the pond. The owls hooted nearby, and of course the ice was unbroken.
Two nights before New Year’s Day my wife and I stood side by side at the window, the invisible baby crying and coughing piteously behind us, watching the girl skate back and forth
The name ‘Deborah’ was still clearly lisible on the frosted surface, but her skates had left no tracks.
Sandra and I had the same thought at the same moment. Deborah had died beneath the ice, leaving her sickly baby behind. Out in the cold, our breath congealing into clouds, we could hear the coughing of the infant that was not ours.
What had been a dry cough had imperceptibly become a series of short sharp coughs following one another rapidly, at the end of which was a long deep, crowing inspiration. My wife looked up at me and said: ‘Whooping cough. That’s what that is, it’s whooping cough.’
‘Was it fatal?’ I asked, and she nodded. ‘It can turn into pneumonia. It used to kill a lot of babies.’
That night, despite the extreme cold, I slept again in the same room as the invisible child, wrapped up in a duvet on the inflatable mattress. My presence magically created silence, and Agnes and my wife were able to sleep in peace next door, in our comfortable double bed.
On New Year’s Eve itself the coughing was even worse, coming in terrible paroxysms that it wrenched the heart to hear, until suddenly there came the most agonising fit of all, followed by silence. Sandra said to me: ‘Can it be that ghosts die?’
‘This one must have died a hundred times,’ I said.
We went upstairs and to the window. The wind had switched from East to West, the ice had begun to melt, and it was dank outside. Water was dripping from the branches and the eaves, but the moonlight was still strong.
‘I wonder where she is,’ Sandra said. ‘She’s there,’ I said, pointing.
Deborah was coming in through the gate. She walked to the centre of the grass beneath our window. She was still a creature of mist and moonlight, luminous, almost transparent. Once again she mimed the cradling of a baby and held out her arms.
‘What shall we do?’ I said, feeling utterly helpless. ‘Let’s invite her in,’ said my wife.
She was still a creature of mist and moonlight, luminous, almost transparent. Once again she mimed the cradling of a baby and held out her arms
We opened the sashes, my wife at one side and me at the other, and beckoned. Naive as I was, I expected her to take to the cold air and float upwards towards us, coming in through the window. Instead, she walked to the front door and rapped on it soundlessly.
‘You or me?’ said Sandra, gripping my arm. I went down and opened the door. I saw nothing, but felt the brush of her sleeve and smelled the rosemary perfume of her hair as she hurtled past.
Up in the bedroom my wife also saw nothing, but heard the rustling of sheets and blankets, the creaking and rocking of a cot, the sob as the child was taken up and carried away, the footsteps.
I was still on the stairs coming up when I felt her squeeze past me again. We saw no more of her that night. It had become cloudy and it occurred to us that perhaps she was only ever visible when the moon had made her so.
On New Year’s Day, just before midnight, we returned to the window and there was the silvery Deborah, in a pinafore and mob cap, walking up and down the garden in the moonlight, her baby cradled in her arms.
I say ‘walking’ but it was more of a stroll. She had her forefinger in the child’s mouth, to appease it, and she was singing. I didn’t hear it with my ears; I heard it somehow with an inner sense…
Lullay lullay thou little tiny child
Bye bye lullay lullay
She paused, looked up at us, smiled, and resumed her strolling.
Agnes was returned to the cot in her room, the inflatable mattress was folded away and my wife and I slept again in the same bed.
The following September our second daughter was born. I am sure you can guess what we named her, and why we named her as we did.