Young William had never wanted to move, to lose all his friends, and to have to seek out new ones. Arriving at their new home, a cottage his parents had rented in the wilderness just outside of Swindon, his heart sank. The only other property to be seen for miles was an old derelict bungalow they had passed a little way up the road. Friends? It was plain to this thirteen-year-old there would be no friends around here!
It was August and the school holidays were in full swing, so there was not yet even the chance of striking up new friendships at the school he would be joining in the town, and September seemed such a long way off. The move was a double tragedy too, for at the cottage there was not even a telephone line. They were told it might take up to a year before a line could be installed along their lane. Country lanes were not a priority, so he could not even contact the friends he had made on the Internet. He was all alone.
That Wednesday morning his father left early for work — it was a new job and he didn’t want to be late — and at nine o’clock his mother asked him if he wanted to go with her to shop at one of the large supermarkets on the outskirts of the town. She said it would relieve his boredom, but William had suffered shopping with his mother before, and on far too many occasions when he was younger. It was not a pleasurable experience, and so he declined the offer.
Sat on the grass verge, daydreaming, alone with his thoughts, William jumped when he heard a timid voice say, “Hello. You’re new around here, aren’t you?”
Looking up, he saw a young lad about his own age grinning down at him. That is to say he looked the same age, but he was still dressed in short grey flannelette trousers — an embarrassment William had thankfully shed for the past four years.
Jumping up, he returned the greeting and asked, “Who are you? Where did you come from? I thought nobody lived around here for miles.”
“I’m Toby,” the youngster told him. “It’s only miles if you follow the roads. I’ve come from one of the houses across the field beyond the copse behind you. It’s not far, and there is a footpath.”
“That’s good,” William said, hoping that they could be friends. “So what do you do with yourself around here? What is there to do?”
“Not a lot,” the youngster confessed. “Sometimes we play around in the old bungalow up the road. It’s more than a bit spooky, but it’s a lot of fun.”
“We? There are other kids around here?”
“Oh, yes. There’s Malcolm and Jacob. They come from the other two houses alongside mine. They’re only ten and eleven though, a bit too young for me. I’m thirteen.”
“Me too. I’m thirteen.”
“That’s good. We can be mates. Do you want to see inside the bungalow?”
“Alright then, I’ll just leave my mother a note, lock the doors, and then I’ll be right with you.”
William shuddered and spluttered the spiders’ webs out of his mouth as he followed his new friend through the overgrown bushes and shrubbery, around to the back door of the boarded-up bungalow. Toby pulled on one of the planks covering the door and it swung to one side allowing them enough room to squeeze through, emerging in the kitchen-come-diner.
“Wow! Everything’s still in here,” William stated. “It looks like someone still lives here.”
“I know,” Toby replied. “The last owner was an artist. He had to leave in a hurry.”
“Why was that?”
“He had his reasons.”
“Come on, the best is to come. Follow me into the study.”
They passed through the hallway and into the room opposite where paintings were stacked all around the walls, facing away from them. The room was dark, as was the whole bungalow, but enough light spilled through the gaps between the planks boarding up the windows to allow them to see.
An old oak table stood centrepiece for the room. It was surrounded by four matching chairs, and on the table was an old-fashioned looking Ouija board.
“Hey!” William shouted, thumbing through some of the pictures. “There’s paintings of you here!”
“I know. He used to paint us.”
“It’s only art. It’s not rude.”
“They’d lock him up for it!”
“They can’t. He’s dead.”
“He committed suicide. The police thought he was abusing us, so he topped himself.”
“And was he?” William asked cautiously.
“Yes, but he paid us well for it. It was only a bit of fun, and we didn’t mind so long as he coughed up. Would you like to talk to him?”
“What? You said he was dead!”
“He talks to us through the Ouija board now. Come on, let’s see if he’s at home.”
“Come on, don’t be such a wuss! He can’t hurt you if he’s dead, can he? Do you want me to tell the others you were frightened? Malcolm would love that! He’d tell everyone. It would be all round the school in no time. And you just going to start there next term!”
“I’m not frightened,” William lied.
“Then come on. Sit down and say hello to Arnold Carter.”
William sat down at the table and hoped upon hope that nothing would happen. He tried to convince himself that should the glass tumbler on the board move it would only be because his friend was pushing it. It could not really happen.
The boys each placed a forefinger lightly on the glass.
“Are you there, Arnold?” Toby enquired.
The glass slid towards the ‘Yes’ near to the top left-hand corner. William tried not to appear frightened. Toby, to the right of him, could easily have pushed the glass in that direction. He would never have noticed; such little effort would be needed to push the glass away from him.
“I’ve got a new friend, Arnold. He’s called William. He doesn’t have to be frightened of you, does he?” Toby was speaking to the board.
The glass moved, heading towards the top right-hand corner and the location of the ‘No’ selection. William knew he wasn’t pushing it, he was attempting to hold it back, but it continued onwards in that direction. He could plainly see that Toby’s finger was only resting lightly on the glass — the end of it wasn’t squashed down as it would have been were he to be pulling on the glass. William went cold.
“Have you got anything to say to William?” asked Toby.
Rapidly the glass shot around the board picking out the letters: ‘T-H-E-R-E I-S S-O-M-E-T-H-I-N-G I W-O-U-L-D L-I-K-E H-I-M T-O S-E-E U-N-D-E-R T-H-E R-H-O-D-O-D-E-N-D-R-O-N B-U-S-H-E-S. I-T I-S M-Y S-E-C-R-E-T.’
“Okay,” said Toby, taking his finger off the glass, “Bye for now, Arnold.”
William was not keen on going, but his friend goaded him into exploring the rhododendrons at the bottom of the garden. Large and wild, the flowers had died off for the year, but many still clung to the bushes. It was eerily quiet, and with each movement producing crispy crackling noises as a shrivelled dead flower or a twig crunched under his feet.
Something glistened through the branches in the deadness under one of the bushes. William stepped forward, ducking down under the branches for a closer look, and the ground beneath his feet gave way. Plummeting downwards he had fallen to quite some depth when he hit the water.
Splashing around, frantically trying to grab hold of something to drag himself up out of the water with, proved fruitless — there was nothing at all to grab. Above him he could hardly see the small circle of daylight, it was interrupted by the branches of the bush and the overgrowing weeds that hid the old well from sight. It was a long way up to the top, and he knew it would be impossible for him to climb that far even if he managed to escape the water. He screamed out, desperately calling up the shaft for his friend to go and fetch some help — he couldn’t tread the water forever!
“I’m so pleased I’ve got a friend my own age,” Toby’s voice said quietly in his ear, as something touched his shoulder. “This is Malcolm, and that’s Jacob. They like you too.”
William turned to see the three skeletons. One of them, the largest, had its bony hand resting on his shoulder.
The blue flashing lights lit up the whole of the surrounding countryside. Up the road, by the derelict bungalow, more blue lights rhythmically flashed and several policemen feverishly searched the area, the powerful beams from their torches stabbing into the darkness of the night.
“I’m afraid it’s very unlikely that we’ll find him,” the inspector had to tell William’s distraught parents, as a woman police officer tried to comfort them. “Of course we’ll keep searching, we’ll search for days, but he will be the fourth child to have disappeared from around these parts in ten years. None of the others have ever been found.
“There’s three empty houses, farm workers’ cottages, a little way behind you across the fields. Each one of them lost a child. No-one will live in those places now. In fact, no-one will live anywhere near this place, not for miles they won’t.
“I really can’t understand how you came to rent this cottage. Nobody owns it at the moment. It’s been empty for years. It used to belong to an artist fellow who lived in the bungalow up the road, but he committed suicide years ago — shot himself before we could arrest him for abusing the local kids. Who did you say you are renting it from?”
“Someone called Arnold Carter,” the mother sobbed. “It was all done over the telephone, we never met the man.”
The inspector and the woman police officer looked at each other, exchanging knowing glances. Leaving her to continue pacifying the parents, the inspector walked slowly along the lane to call off the search for the night.
Copyright ©Michael Knell 2006.