A short ghost story
|The Gallows Bridge at Dusk
Charles had been jumpy and distracted all day, and I'd had just about enough of it.
'What on earth's the matter with you?' I snapped. 'You're acting like a skittish child. It's setting my nerves on edge.'
'Don't talk to me of nerves,' he replied sourly, 'for mine are quite shot.'
'What do you mean? What's happened to bring you so low?'
He poured a generous measure of brandy from a decanter on the sideboard and gave me a doleful look.
'Oh very well, I suppose it can't do any harm to tell you, although I'm not at all sure you'll believe me. You know,' he began, settling back into the chair, 'that I visited my sister at the weekend?'
'Yes, down in Somerset, wasn't it?'
'That's right, a village called Dunster. It's charming enough, I suppose, or at least I used to think so. Now I'm not so sure.' He paused and stared morosely into the fire for a long moment. 'The weather had been foul - you know how it can be in October - but it had brightened up by Saturday and so we spent the afternoon exploring the castle.'
'There's a castle?' I enquired.
‘Yes,’ he said with a nod, ‘and a rather grand one at that.’
‘Did you see something that spooked you?’ I asked, only half-joking.
‘No, not at all. We had a pretty nice time of it actually, but by late afternoon there was a mist coming in and we decided to head back. It was just after five ‘clock: I remember, because I heard the church bell chiming. It was growing dark and Verity and James went on ahead, but I thought it might be nice to walk along the river bank, just for half an hour or so.’
‘And was it?’
‘At first, yes. The mist was hanging over the water as I made my way down towards the Gallox Bridge. It was growing colder as dusk fell, and the air smelt of wood smoke. It was …’ He paused and shuddered. ‘It was atmospheric, I suppose, and quite lovely.’
‘So what happened?’ I prompted.
‘I reached the bridge - it’s a medieval packhorse bridge, 15th Century I believe, that arches over the river - and I stopped for a moment to smoke a cigarette and take in the view. It was all very picturesque, you know, and I remember wishing I had a camera with me. Now I’m glad I didn’t, because that’s when I saw it.’
He didn’t answer for several seconds, and I began to think he wasn’t going to at all.
‘I thought,’ he began at length, ‘that it was just a bundle of rags laying in the path, on the other side of the bridge. I was only half paying attention but, as I stepped on to the bridge, it started moving. Well, that made me stop short. I began to feel a … I don’t know, a creeping sense of dread. There was something so horrible about it that I began to feel quite frightened. And then – ‘ He broke off, and covered his face with his hands.
He looked up at me, his face pale in the lamplight.
‘It lifted its head. It was some distance from me and I couldn’t make out its features clearly, but I can tell you this much: it didn’t have any eyes. There was nothing there, just black holes. It waved its head around, and I realised that it was sniffing the air. It was trying to catch my scent!’’
I let out a short, incredulous laugh.
‘Oh please! You were mistaken, surely?’
‘I wish I had been! I’m certain it could sense my presence, even though it couldn’t possibly see me. It let out a long, horrible wail. I can’t describe how awful it sounded – high and thin, like a keening animal. It wasn’t human. I think perhaps it might have been once, but it wasn’t anymore. I had to get away, but …’ He shrugged helplessly. ‘You hear about people being frozen with terror, don’t you, but you never think it will happen to you. Well, I tell you I couldn’t move, not until it started to crawl towards me. Its movements … they were wrong, all disjointed and broken, like none of its limbs fitted together properly. It reached the middle of the bridge and I stumbled to life and got the hell out of there as fast as I could. I raced back to Verity’s and locked myself in my bedroom, feigning a migraine. But I heard it wailing sporadically, throughout the night. I believe it was searching for me.’
I felt my flesh begin to crawl as he hurriedly gulped down the rest of his brandy.
‘But why?’ I asked in a hushed voice.
‘Because I saw it. I think perhaps it’s always there, just waiting for someone who can see it. And when they do …’
He shook his head wordlessly.
‘So what did you do?’
‘I sat up all night in a state of terror, then made my excuses and left at first light. I could tell poor Verity was hurt, but I couldn’t stay there a moment a longer.’
‘No, well I can quite understand that.’ I hesitated, watching his face carefully. ‘And you’re quite certain about what you saw? You couldn’t have been mistaken?’
Charles didn’t reply, but the look he gave me was ghastly.
Did I believe him? I’m not sure, but the next day I did a little research into the history of Dunster. I don’t know if it has any bearing on what happened to Charles, but I discovered that the Gallox Bridge was originally referred to as the Gallows Bridge. Whether some unfortunate criminal has decided to linger at the scene of his death is a matter of conjecture, but I decided not to broach the subject again, for the sake of his nerves, if not mine.