The Frost of a Cold Candle by Barry McCann

It was the first of Christmases for young Rachel and her even younger brother, though for all the wrong reasons. Their first not spent in the little terrace by the railway that had been home, their first without the warmth of a parent.

Their mother had passes with pneumonia two years previously when Rachel was but ten and Sam eight, leaving the girl to quickly develop a mature head and become the nest maker. Father worked hard to ensure their lot a comfortable one, until the accident four months ago which took him from them and the only life they knew.

It seems an odd thing to say at this stage, but they did have blessings to count in that their father worked on the railway where he sadly met his Waterloo, so to speak. This qualified them for the Webb Orphanage, an establishment set up during 1912 from a generous legacy left by Francis Webb for the welfare of the Crewe railway workers and their families. At least they were spared the horrors of the workhouse or being separated except for the segregation of dormitories.

In fact the orphanage was a good, warm place. They were clothed, well fed and schooled by staff who showed genuine kindness for their charges. Even the local picture house granted the orphans free admission to the flickers on Saturday afternoons. But there was just one fly in the ointment and he came by the name of Tommy.

Though not quite turned fourteen, being older and bigger than the other children convinced Tommy this qualified him to throw his weight around. His bullying was more verbal than physical, usually mocking the others, making fun of their weaknesses and taking pleasure in undermining them.

Of course, he was good as gold in front of the staff, pretending to be the protective big brother to the smaller charges. In reality it was Rachel who was the defensive one, often standing up between the bullying boy and those he picked on. Life had equipped her with that skill at least.

The morning of Christmas Eve had been spent decorating the dorms and the main hall, followed by a feast of toasted crumpets by the crackling fire under the upstairs gallery, while the house matron entertained them with festive tales.

‘Now,’ she concluded, ‘Father Christmas will be coming after lights out, and if you have been good he will leave you a present under the tree.’ She pointed at the decorated fir tree put up at the other end of the hall.

An excited Sam cried out ‘Will he know me and Rachel are here?’ Sat at the edge of the huddled group, Tommy pulled a sneering face as Matron replied ‘Yes, as long as you don’t peek. You must be fast asleep when he comes.’

Rachel put a loving arm around her brother, delighted to see him so happy after the miseries they had endured. She, of course, was past believing, but Sam’s joy was a Christmas present enough. Then Tommy had to stick his oar in.

‘And we know what happens to kids who aren’t good, don’t we Matron?’

She looked at him quizzically. ‘And what is that, Thomas?’

‘The Krampus comes for them, and takes them away, and does wicked things with them.’

The children looked horrified, Rachel angrily dismayed and Matron gave an indulgent smile.

‘Don’t tease like that, I’m surprised at you,’ she scolded. No when else was surprised, mind.

Turning back to the assembled orphans, she added ‘Take no notice, our Thomas is of an age for not believing.’ Looking back at him, she added ‘And he won’t get anything if he is not careful.’

It was after supper that Tommy made a beeline for Rachel and Sam as they prepared to retire to their respective dorms, and made his address directly at the young boy.

‘There’s no such thing as Father Christmas, you know, so don’t get any hopes up of him coming.’

Rachel was about to respond angrily when Sam decided to stand up to the bully himself, asserting ‘Yes there is, and yes he will!

‘Come on,’ he retorted and looked at Rachel. ‘Your sister doesn’t believe it, I can tell. So isn’t it time you told him?’

She came back with a different tact. ‘If there are presents under the tree tomorrow, who else would have put them there?’

‘One of the staff, it’s obvious. They’re all charity stuff.’

‘Don’t listen to him,’ she muttered into Sam’s ear, determined his happy illusion should not be shattered.

‘Right mother hen, you are,’ Tommy mocked and shuffled himself off to the senior dorm.

Rachel took her brother by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes. ‘Now don’t let him upset you, he is a bad ‘un.’

‘I know,’ Sam assured. ‘I know Father Christmas will come tonight, he won’t let us down.’

She smiled down on him. ‘And what would you like Father Christmas to bring you?’

‘Dad back, of course.’

It was in the dark small hours of Christmas morning when Rachel was awakened by her brother, stood by the side of her bed in his dressing gown. Rubbing her eyes, she whispered ‘What are you doing here? you’re not supposed to come into the girl’s dorm.’

‘He’s here!’ Sam said excitedly.


‘Father Christmas, he’s in the great hall. Just saw him going to the tree with his sack.’

‘Oh, you’ve been dreaming.’

‘No, I wasn’t in bed. I went to peep through the door to the gallery and he came in. Come and see if you don’t believe me.’

Reluctantly, his sister quietly got up and put on her gown, Sam then taking her by the hand as they snuck out the dorm and leading her up the stairs to the gallery door which had been left ajar. Indicating she should look through the gap, Rachel carefully pushed the door further open and looked down in surprise.

Sure enough she could see the back of a red cloaked and hooded figure pulling out one parcel after another from his sack, adding to a large pile already surrounding the tree. The question that occurred to her was how could he have produced them all from that one sack?

‘What are you two doing?’ They both turned to find the sharp whisper came from Tommy who stood before them.

‘I’ll report you both. You know wandering around after lights out is punishable.’

‘Quiet!’ Sam piped up. ‘Father Christmas is here, he’ll hear you.’

‘Oh, that fairy story won’t spare you,’ the boy responded before noticing the look on Rachel’s face was more than that of immediate concern.

‘Take a look for yourself,’ she said indicating to the partially open door.

They both stepped aside as Tommy did as suggested, putting his head around the door for a few seconds and turning back with his customary reptilian smile.

‘That’ll be Mr. Blakely dressed up in case if any of you were peeping.’ He was referring to the caretaker.

‘Bet it isn’t!’ said Sam in a raised whisper.

‘All right, you two stop here and watch.’

Tommy headed down the stairs and they guessed his intention. Concealing themselves behind the partially open door with heads peering around it, they watched as Tommy approached the figure from behind and then spoke.

‘That you then, Mr. Blakely?’

The figure stopped, remaining still for a moment and then turned. The face within the hood was that of a benign looking rotund man with a fuzzy white beard which looked silently down on Tommy.

‘Oh, maybe it’s you then, Matron?’ the boy chuckled.

Even from where they stood, Rachel and Sam could see the man’s eyes turning black and malevolent, his beard sharpening and expression fierce. Tommy instinctively turned and began running, but the figure reached out an arm which rapidly lengthened like a telescope, a claw like hand grabbing the boy by his neck.

Tommy screamed as the arm retracted, dragging him back to the waiting open mouth of the sack. He was tumbled in headfirst, the sack seemingly swallowing him like a huge gullet, his kicking feet being the last of him to disappear. The figure then twisted the sack shut and threw it over his shoulder.

Rachel and Sam froze as the figure began making its way in the direction of a now cold fireplace, the sack alive with kicking and struggling as if containing unwanted kittens. But before disappearing from view, the figure stopped and looked up in the direction of the two children, Rachel quickly putting her hand over Sam’s mouth and praying the gallery area was took dark for them to be detected from down there.

Whether satisfied or not, the figure lowered its head again and made its way out by whatever means brought it there.

Once the pair got a hold of themselves, a quick minded Rachel briefed her brother to keep quiet for now. They awakened the night matron with a knock on her door and Rachel claimed Sam had come to her shaken after a bad dream. They were allowed to spend the remainder of the night in the sickroom.

The festivities of the day were marred by the news Tommy had disappeared from his bed, maybe absconded for whatever reason. Marred for the staff, that is, for as far as the other orphans were concerned his absence was the best Christmas present of all.

Rachel and Sam kept up a semblance of cheerfulness and it was only during the preparations for Christmas dinner she managed to get him alone having had time to think the situation through.

‘We should tell them,’ her brother pleaded.

‘No! That’s the very thing we should never do!’

‘You think they won’t believe us, is that it?’

‘Yes, and something else. Sam, whoever that was I think he knew we were watching.’

‘Then why didn’t he put us in his sack?’

She shrugged ‘Maybe he knows we won’t tell. So if we do, he may come back.’

Sam’s eyes rolled down. He knew she was right. ‘And even if we did, there’s nothing they can do I suppose.’

‘No, and nothing we can do. So we must swear never to speak of this again, not even to each another. It was just a bad dream, you understand?’

The boy nodded his head. ‘All right, but just one thing. What do you think he’s done with Tommy?’

‘Perhaps turned him into one of his little helpers,’ she said with wishful thinking.


Never is the Only Time by Barry McCann

One certainty in life is reality only exists when it is being observed. Even those brief insights into the underworld of the mind that dreaming uncovers are the realities of their moments, and dreams are the most containable of portals. For conscious and unconscious to directly calibrate would be worlds colliding.

So what of a dream that is not mine at all, but the nightmare of another into which I have somehow stepped? One I can only watch replay again and again, night after night, but from which I am detached and helpless. Exactly whose mindscape am I witnessing, and why does it summon mine to do so?

It begins outside a theatre, the doors of which open of their own accord as I enter. Alone in the foyer, I pick up a program with a bizarre looking cover. A surreal couple coloured pattern in which I detected the shape of an animal’s head, though I was not too sure.

I then make my way into an auditorium, deserted and musky, surrounded by gothic balconies that hang empty and quiet as a crypt. I take my seat in the front row and only then does the feeling of isolation take hold, a chill rushing down my spine like a dagger.

I look around the empty theatre feeling sure there was some presence here, I could feel it now. It may be a thousand unseen eyes watching, or the forbidding presence could be my own self. God, how vulnerable I felt.

Then the curtain lifts, revealing a set representing a longue comprising of a television set, are wooden chair and a large three piece suite. In front of it a small girl sits on the floor, aged about six or seven, playing with paper dolls. With matted light brown hair and a very plain face, she was dressed in a blue frock with a yellow flower pattern embodied on its pockets, and upon her head a large, floppy blue hat that hung over her eyes.

She plays for what seems like a number of minutes and then a stirring from behind the couch. A long skinny brown hairy leg appears over it from behind, obviously not human. This was confirmed by being followed by another and another until eight in all, as they rise up the body of a huge, six foot long spider. It’s six or seven deep black eyes are fixed on the girl as it slowly crawls over the couch.

Lost in her playing she fails to notice the approaching creature. I try shouting at her to run, but my voice is lost and I am unable to move. I can only watch helplessly as the monster draws nearer, saliva dribbling down its great fangs.

Suddenly it leaps upon the girl, enclosing its four middle legs around her, and then using its four remaining ones to drag itself back to the couch. Within the cocoon of its legs, the girl is barely visible and does not make a sound. I feel violently sick as it disappears with her behind the couch from where it came. And there the moment ends.

Each time I then awaken it is with that same feeling of nausea, and an uncannily detailed recollection of what I experienced. The memory of dreams usually fades quickly once awake, another reason to surmise this is not my dream at all. So the question remained as to who it actually belonged to.

A shrink would have a field day with this, which was another good reason to keep it to myself. For the past four years I have been working for a very hush-hush section of the Department for Internal Security. Originally recruited from Cheltenham, I foolishly accepted as it offered the chance to be trained in firearms. What I let myself in for was more John Le Carre than James Bond, and not even as glamourous as that. Licensed to carry, yes, but most of my assignments were routine follow ups of old cases. Little did I know the mysterious dream was the opener to such a case which, I am now convinced, was waiting for me.

The file left on my desk was stamped “Open” which meant it was either unresolved and due for review, or resurrected because of new evidence. One glance at the last entry confirmed the former, so I started reading and a complicated affair it unfolded before me.

The central player was Dr. Bruce Markov, a specialist in genetics. The son of a former Soviet defector and Polish immigrant mother, he graduated from Bath University and became involved in research into cell replication technology and DNA. He married an Italian called Mary Pacino and spent seven years happy but childless, until a tragedy happened.

The couple was involved in a motorway car smash which he, miraculously, survived intact except for some fractures. Mary lost a leg above her knee and her arm was left limp. Invalided, she needed caring for thereafter at their country home by a resident nurse while he continued working in a private laboratory he had installed on his estate. The nature of his project was highly classified and its details not recorded.

But then, in the couple of years that followed, she somehow got better. There were two further photos of her attached. One of her in a wheelchair left leg missing and arm hanging down. Then another labelled as taken two years later, and on which she is stood with two legs and apparently mobile arm. The report confirmed that movement did return to her arm, and Markov obtained an artificial leg so advanced it appeared natural.

A year following this photograph, Mary became pregnant and had a baby girl, Anna. Unfortunately, unspecified complications occurred and she died giving birth. The child was raised at his house initially by a nanny and later a governess, while he continued with whatever project he was engaged.

Six years following this tragedy, a Markov endured a third and more terrible blow. Police had been called to his house when the governess, Georgina Watkins, was found dead. Her skull was cracked and body covered in savage bites with flesh missing as if attacked. Markov claimed he must have been in his lab when it happened and heard nothing. Neither had Anna who had been playing in another room and raised the alarm after finding the woman prostrate in her own blood.

It was only days after this that Anna disappeared. Markov alerted the police when finding her bed empty one morning and a search of the area was immediately organised. Her father reasoned that the trauma of discovering her mutilated governess must have driven her to run away and he may well have been right. But no trace of her was found and this suggested another possibility.

Our department became involved immediately with the security implications. Whatever Markov was working on, it was classified so highly even Whitehall was denied access. It may have been his daughter may was kidnapped and being held hostage with a view to blackmailing him. The governess had probably stumbled on a previous attempt and was murdered to remove any witness, the wounding a cover for the real motivation. But Markov denied being contacted by anyone with any clues as to her well-being.

Then I saw the photograph of Anna, one taken shortly before her disappearance. Dressed in a blue frock with yellow flowers on its pockets, she had matted light brown hair and a plain face. I sat back in my chair and breathed out heavily. It was the girl from my dream.

A couple of mornings later I pulled up outside the Markov home, a large house in its own grounds and driveway. I had accepted the assignment because it seemed fated, with the dream turning out so precognitive. But a later detail in the report stood out as curious, and intuition suggested it a possible lead as yet not investigated.

‘Doctor Markov? Steve Roebuck, we spoke on the phone.’

‘Yes, I had not forgotten. Come in.’

I entered the hallway as he closed the door. I got the strong feeling of not exactly being welcome, which Markov’s frankness was quick to confirm.

‘Look, I thought that whole business was finished with ages ago, unless you have uncovered something.’

‘No, Dr. Markov. All I know is your daughter is still missing and the identity of whoever killed Georgina Watkins remains a mystery. Until we resolve both those questions, the case remains open and has to be reviewed every so often, even if it seems futile after all this time.’

‘Well, I still haven’t been contacted or blackmailed by anyone, except for occasional journalists hoping for a new lead. Of course, you only have my word for that.’

‘You think my department is skeptical?’

‘Your department has given me cause to think that, yes.’

‘Well, I can assure you of our objectivity, but we cannot leave any stone unturned in our investigations. As a research scientist, I’m sure you appreciate that.’

He guffawed ‘Good call, Mr. Roebuck. Come along, let’s go into the parlour.

Any other person would have been surprised, but I wasn’t. His parlour was an exact match for the one in the dream, something I must have been unconsciously expecting. I sat down while he remained standing. ‘I would offer you something, but being a host never interested me, good or otherwise.’

Noticing a portrait on the mantle, I gestured towards it ‘Your Anna?’

He looked at it quietly nodding and I moved onto the question on my mind.

‘Dr. Markov, three months after Anna’s disappearance, you had your wife’s body exhumed and brought to your private lab.’

‘Yes, I’m aware that is in your file, though I don’t see what bearing it has on this or what business of your department.’

‘It may not on either count but, not knowing your reasons, it does appear odd.’

‘As I stated in the exhumation order, it was to run further tests to ascertain a possible genetic cause of the symptoms that lead to her death, which they were unable to pin down at the time. Research breakthroughs I had achieved since indicated we could extrapolate the necessary information from her DNA.’

‘Were these breakthroughs achieved prior to Anna’s disappearance?’

‘I don’t see the relevance, but yes. I didn’t feel much like working after.’

‘Not until you finally decide to run tests on your wife’s remains, which could have been done previously?’

‘Let’s just say losing Anna finally prompted me to find out why exactly I lost Mary. Does that sound so odd?’

I nodded ‘No that sounds right, actually. Did you find anything?’

He considered for a moment. ‘Nothing concrete, but certainly more than the coroner recorded.’

‘Which, you’re not going to tell me?’

‘No, it is part of the ongoing development program I am engaged on, as sanctioned by the Department of Scientific Research. I’m afraid even your clearance isn’t high enough.’

‘All right, but may I ask if her death was related to the accident suffered earlier.’

His tone turned abrupt. ‘I think you better leave.’ I didn’t argue, his reaction had answered my question.

I left my contact details more as a hook to reel Markov in. Intuition told me he was holding something back, and catalyst of my visit just may create the uncertainty of being able to keep it back much longer. He would do one of two things. Either retreat behind a further barrier or decide to share the burden of his secret. A couple of days later my gambit paid off.

I returned to Markov’s house at his invitation. He rang out of the blue, apologising for his abruptness and inviting me to come back and see him. ‘It will be in your interest,’ he said guardedly, yet uncomfortable like someone in a confessional booth. ‘But I will take you into confidence and you alone. You will understand why.’

He was similarly ill at ease when opening the door and inviting me in. Once in the hall, he came straight to the point.

‘There is a detail I have not told anyone, and I get the strongest feeling you sense that.’

‘I sense you are holding something back, but not what. I also sense you are troubled and not simply by what happened in the past’

He nodded ‘You are correct but if I divulge it remains between you and me, at least for now.’

‘I have already agreed to that.’

‘Indeed, come this way.’

He led me through to the back of the house and into the extension which I knew contained his laboratory. What I did not know about was the elevator secreted within a walk in cupboard door, which he opened and bad I entered first. Following me in, he pressed a button which not only activated the door shut but started the lift downwards.

‘Where are we going?’

‘Into the basement, though cellar is probably more apt.’

‘Which is not in the plans for this building?’

‘You certainly do your homework. This was discreetly installed when I had the lab built. Good idea to have a secret storage area.’

‘So is this what you wanted to share with me?’

The lift came to an abrupt halt. ‘No, something much deeper.’

The doors opened to reveal a dimly lit corridor. There was nothing but the sound of our own footsteps as I silently followed him. At the stood a door and light switched on automatically as we entered the room behind it. It was his laboratory, complete with workbench and the usual paraphernalia. Against one wall were small cages, some containing rabbits. However my attention was dominated by the glass partition behind which was a partially lit cavern evidently carved out of the subterranean earth, itself pockmarked by smaller pot holes.

He went to one of the cages, extracting a large brown rabbit and carrying it over to the partition. Crouching down, he slid open a small door, just big enough to push the animal through. Sliding it shut, he got up. ‘Come closer,’ his finger waved and pointed to the area within, as I approached the glass.

We both watched as the rabbit explored its new terrain. Then I began to notice small bones scattered around the floor and alarm bells began to ring.’

‘So what else is in there?’

Grimly, he pointed again. ‘Look.’

At the far end of the cavern wall was an opening at its base, from which something stirred. Long spider like fingers crawled from the shadow of its mouth, a hand then followed by an arm. It looked human with grey crinkly flesh resembling the texture of a dead leaf. An identical hand followed and the fingers of both dug into the earth, arms levering to pull forward the body from which they protruded.

The first think I could make out was a mane of long matted hair. Then a body dressed in what appeared to be a ragged gown, the type issued to hospital patients. Bare legs pushed out from behind with talon like feet. It was only when the figure raised its head up I realised it was a woman. One whose eyes were slanted pools of white, with only black pinpricks for pupils. And both fixed on the rabbit.

The animal seemed unaware as she crawled towards it, her mouth opening to reveal rows of sharpened teeth, dominated by a pair of lengthy incisors. With saliva dripping down the sides of her mouth, the hunter’s intent was clear.

My stomach jumped as she suddenly leapt onto the rabbit, her fangs sinking into its helpless neck. She then withdrew, letting the animal go and crawling backwards into a cross legged position, eyes remaining on her victim who remained still in apparent shock. I turned to Markov.

‘Who or what in God’s name is that!’

‘You are looking at the killer of Georgina Watkins.’ Yes, it had to be. The woman’s teeth and radius of her mouth did seem to correspond with the wounds found on Miss Watkins, which led to my next question.

‘And your daughter?’

‘Haven’t you guessed? You’re looking at her as well.’

I gazed back at the woman. Her size would denote somebody in her teens, but Anna would be no more than nine by now. Markov solemnly shook his head. ‘It is what she has become, my poor Anna.’

As she began to move in on her still prey with vorous intent, Makrov signaled we should leave. ‘Let’s spare ourselves the sight of her devouring.’

Stepping out the lab, he ushered me into a smaller room consisting of a small table and two chairs either side. We sat and faced one another, silently at first as I had no idea of where to begin.

‘You can now understand why I insisted on your promise of keeping quiet.’

I nodded ‘So where does all this begin?’

‘Initially with me, Mr. Roebuck. As a Geneticist my life work has been into the cultivation of artificial cell growth through methods of cloning and DNA manipulation. My goal was the revitalisation of dead cells and the reversal of physical decay. Re growing parts of the body that have failed, maybe even an entire body.’

‘You mean bringing back the dead?’

‘There could be that implication, but I was primarily concerned with renewal of the living not the raising of the dead. For my research I focused on species themselves capable of physical regeneration, whether localised or bodily. There are reptiles that can grow new limbs to replace any lost, snakes that shed old skin for new. And tarantulas that do both.


‘As with all arthropods, their skin is actually an exoskeleton with they shed in a process of ecdysis, or molting. This is because arthropods grow over time, but the exoskeleton does not. A new exoskeleton grows from underneath, including new limbs.

‘Which brings me to the second part? After our accident, Mary was left shattered with a leg missing and arm that no longer functioned. She had no quality of life so, for me, it seemed a risk worth exploring. To take the results from my experiments, and apply them through the splicing of DNA. In time, power slowly returned to her arm and a new limb grew until a perfect match for the old.’

‘Good God!’

‘Yes, I thought I had him to thank, especially when as an added bonus Mary was fertile again, and soon pregnant. But God was actually angry at my messing with nature, Mr. Roebuck. She died giving life to Anna, the third factor in this tragedy.’

‘I take it she has inherited the arthropod elements you introduced to her mother.’

‘Yes. There was no sign at first, but as she physically grew her DNA evolved the characteristics of Mary’s donors. I had no reason to suspect until it manifested very suddenly.’

‘The governess, Georgina?’

‘I found her body, and then found Anna crouched in a corner with blood around her mouth. She seemed mentally possessed but it didn’t last. She soon came round with no memory of what had happened. As far as she was aware, she had been in the parlour playing with paper dolls. And that is what she told the police when I finally sent for them.

‘So when you reported her missing?’

‘The process had begun to accelerate. She took to attacking animals in frenzies of sudden hunger. Then the fangs grew, from which she was able to infect them with her own venom.’

I shuddered. ‘Just like a spider.’

‘Not quite. The venom of a spider is an acidic substance that initially paralyses the victim then dissolves their insides into liquid form, as spiders ingest their prey externally. Anna still digests flesh internally and hers is an acid of a different kind. One that shuts down the conscious mind, or rather diverts it into the unconscious. Not physical paralysis but a hallucinogenic one. Her victims appear unaware they are being eaten alive.’

‘My head sank into my hand. ‘Christ almighty! So you have kept her down here ever since.’

‘While I’ve tried to find a way of arresting and neutralising the alien effect, or even reverse it.’

‘With no success I take it?’

‘Not so far. I’ve been working on another approach, which I’m nearly ready to implement.’

‘Then why keep this secret? Why didn’t you inform us, or bring in the Department of Scientific Research? They could have helped.’

‘More likely have her on a dissecting bench. What else do you do with the result of an experiment gone horribly wrong? She is a genetically impure creature and they would never risk that getting into a reproductive chain.’

‘You don’t know that.’

‘You don’t know how we work. Not when we are out of the prying eyes of public opinion, or Whitehall.’

I sat back and thought for a moment. ‘Look, you can’t expect me to keep quiet about this.’

‘I know. I needed to unburden myself and you are the first I felt to be the right one.’

‘You said something about another approach?’

‘Yes, I should be ready to apply in the next few days. Could you at least wait until then? After that and depending on the result, we can reevaluate the situation.’

‘Do you need help?’

‘I’ve managed on my own so far.’

‘If it doesn’t work, would you agree then would be the right time to inform the Department?’

‘To be honest with you, I think never is the only time.’

Seventy two hours passed with no word from Markov and I began to wonder if he was stalling. Conversely this latest treatment he was trying may be taking time. I could not imagine any result would be overnight, but early signs of response? So I took it upon myself to phone him, several times during the course of the day and evening, only to be answered by a voicemail with which I left repeated requests to contact me. This left one recourse.

Unsurprisingly, there was no answer to the doorbell or knocker. He could be down in his lab, of course, but a feeling nagged at me. I went around the exterior of the house to find another way in. Fortunately, I came across a small side window slightly open on the latch. Enough for me to prize open with a crowbar I kept in the car, and a frame just big enough to squeeze through.

Once inside, I checked through the rooms of the house, shouting Markov’s name. There was no sign of life, except for some unwashed dishes in the kitchen sink. There was only one place he could be. Sure enough, when I opened the door to the secret lift, it was down on basement level. I pressed the button to summon it back up.

Stepping out in the dimly corridor, this time only the sound of my footsteps sounding as I headed straight for the lab, before shouting ‘Markov? It’s Roebuck, you in there?’ I stopped just short of a door that was ominously ajar. Pushing it open, I found him immediately behind it. Face down, on the floor in a pool of blood. As I stood over him, my eyes glanced further and I saw her.

She sat in front of the glass partition, cross legged and seemingly waiting. It was in reflex rather than judgement that I reached into my jacket and produced a gun from its holster. I took aim, but she neither moved, nor even appeared to see me.

‘I don’t know if you can hear or understand. If you can, could you acknowledge in some way?’

She remained still. With gun still pointing, I carefully stepped towards her, ready to either duck or open fire at the slightest movement, yet still there was nothing. Surely her spider heritage would sense movement, even the slightest vibration. But as I got nearer, I sensed there something different. Standing right before her, I realised her eyes were missing altogether, nothing but empty sockets. I bent down just enough to brush her face with the tip of my gun, and it crumbled inwards as an empty husk would.

Like a flickering shadow she leapt from behind the bench, teeth sinking straight into my wrist. Yelping, I attempted punching her head with my fist but she held fast before suddenly releasing and pulling back. My affected arm fell, the gun dropping from my hand. Head dizzy, I stumbled backwards before the room seemed to tilt ninety degrees and I hit the floor.

I managed to rise into an upright position resting on my hand, and the room had elongated liked it had been stretched, the glass partition now further away. And there she sat where the husk had been, cross legged and grinning at a prey that walked straight into her trap.

However, I could see the gun. On the floor it must have been several feet in front, but appeared to be pulled further away along with the room. I hoisted myself up further and began to shuffle towards it. Anna, or whatever she was, did make a move suggesting she did now know the significance of the weapon. But while I had that on my side, the speed of the venom was working against me.

The room suddenly flipped around almost 180 degrees and I instinctively tried to clutch the floor, even though there was nothing to grip. But I didn’t fall or slide, I was still at one with the room. Only now it began to disintegrate.

The solid room around me melted away into blackness, one dotted with lights. Then there were larger orbs of different sizes and colours, one with rings circling around it. My world had been pulled from under me and I drifted in space, among millions of planets stretching out forever. And I was becoming lost in their infinity?

There was a white star becoming more prominent as it grew, or got closer it was hard to tell. And within its glow a figure became increasingly visible. A figure sat cross legged and grinned out at me.

A hand within my mind opened its fingers, and then gripped tightly as it tugged at my last semblance of reason. The image of Anna Markov was the only porthole of reality in this lost pocket of time and space, a reality waiting to kill me. My only salvation lay between me and her.

I reclaimed the memory of the room I was still inside, despite what my mind was telling me. And the gun that slid out in front of me, my only hope of salvation. I reached out into the seemingly emptiness of space and felt the hardness of a floor, which my senses alerted I was still sat upon. Crawling forward slightly, my hand swept from side to side in increasing urgency. Then it hit something, an object of cold metal.

The gun became visible as I scooped it up and wrapped my finger around the trigger. Heart pounding, I took aim at the bright star and Anna was already raising herself up, ready to pounce. It was with the third shot I passed out.

By my reckoning I must have been unconscious several hours before my eyes opened, revealing the laboratory I had apparently left. Raising my trigger hand first, it was still wrapped around the handle of my gun. I lifted myself upright and there she was, crumpled on the floor in her own blood. Not a discarded shell this time, but the end of a life lost ages ago

I have no count of how many months have since passed, isolated inside an observation unit whose location I cannot guess. There is no hope of being allowed free, at least for the time being. I have had the fluid of a mutation flow through my veins, and the only living being to survive the experience. Could the seed planted in Mary Pacino have now passed to me?

Midnight is My Mistress by Barry McCann

All we see, and all we seem, are but a dream. A dream within a dream.
Edgar Allen Poe

I put my hand all on her knee
She says to me do you want to see
Gently Johnny – Paul Giovanni

Is there a prologue to dreaming? Even when recollected in detail, dreams elude an opening chapter. They grow from an infinity of beginnings, or revisit an ongoing drama into which the sleeping mind penetratingly fades. For Jon Buchanan, this was a question further complicated by his night journeys being more lucid than most. Either that or he was actually experiencing visitations to another state of being.

During early childhood, Jon lived a recurring dream of finding himself in the dark hall outside his bedroom with no recollection of arriving there. Alone and with not a sound in the air, he sensed the entire house to be empty and not his home at all, but a shadow he had penetrated. A shade grown structure he felt was watching, from all directions.

Nimbly he descended the stairs, but never reached bottom. Each time, a tube like cord suddenly thrust down from the recess of the dark, its sucker mouth connecting with his abdomen. There was no pain, no feeling at all, just the sensation of being pulled up in the air. And that is where the nocturnal wandering ended, the next thing he knew being the reassurance of the familiar bedroom greeting his freshly wakened eyes.

In his childish three year old way, Jon had struggled to explain the nightly experience to his parents, who shrugged it off as ‘Just a dream.’ Then one day he shared it with his grandmother who accepted the account. ‘You were born at the chime hour’ she told him, ‘which blesses you with a gift so rare, and from that a gift ever rarer.’ Stroking his head, she added, ‘The astral path is yours to walk but care never to stray.’

Being a young age he had little understanding of grandmother’s words, but they stayed with him and their meaning became clearer later in life. The night journey’s actually ceased soon after and Jon forgot about them. But the call of the astral path proved to be paroxysmal, momentarily returning at different junctures in his life.

They recurred during adolescence and then accompanied the breakup of his first relationship, traumas through which his nocturnal wanderings were spent traversing a shadowy world that darkly mirrored the environment of his waking self at the time. Then they stopped again and years passed by without so much as a lucid dream. However, the astral highway never forgets its chosen.

Jon moved to the Cornish port town of Falmouth and took up a job down at the quayside, working with the Harbour Master. The duties were general in nature but he enjoyed being out in the fresh air, bantering with the fishermen and other boating folk. He accessed the quay each morning via a descending alleyway from the town’s main high street. A boulevard bearing numerous tourist gift shops, and many road names that changed with the turning of each corner. The alleyway stood between a pub and one of the souvenir emporiums, and daily familiarity had him barely noticing either building. Until the night journeys began.

It was the same each time. Jon would find himself on the shadow wraith of a deserted high street with the pub and shops closed, their frontages empty. Only the illumination from the kerbside lighting suggested any emanation of life, though a trace without pulse. Instinctively, he walked the usual route, down the plunging alleyway into darkness that quickly enveloped around him, bringing an even stronger sense of isolation. However this was a passing threshold and he was soon on the quayside, admiring the beauty of the small night lights that belonged to the many anchored boats but, again, no sign of life.

And then he turned to look up at a bay window that overlooked the view. It was at the back of the building that housed the souvenir shop and upstairs a level and within its glassed frame a face, flanked with shoulder length silvery grey hair. It belonged to a woman, staring out across the bay. No sooner was he focused on her, he then woke up. And with a distinct cloud of sadness still clinging from that other world.

Jon began taking more notice of the real life bay window during his waking hours but there was nobody to be seen due permanently drawn white curtains. Nevertheless he stopped and checked every morning, the dream journey itself persisting the night before. Then one late afternoon he decided to pay a visit to the shop at the front of the building and chance his arm.

An old fashioned bell sounded as he entered the premises, alerting the woman behind the till. Her husband barely took notice as he busily arranged maritime gifts on one of the shelves. Jon walked straight up to the counter and chose his words carefully.

‘Hi. I’m not sure how to put this, so I hope you don’t mind me asking. I’m curious about your upstairs.’ The husband stopped what he was doing and the couple looked at one another, before she spoke. ‘Our upstairs?’

‘Yes… Look, this is going to sound barmy but I keep having a recurring dream where I’m on the harbour, round the back of your place. Each time I look up at the top window and there is this silver haired woman, sat there looking out.’ He paused before continuing. ‘I know how crazy this sounds, but when I have lucid dreams they tend to ring true. So, I wondered if there is such a lady living up there?’

The husband shrugged his shoulders. ‘Well, if there is, that’s news to us. We’ve had this shop seven years now and the upstairs flat has stood empty all that while. At least as far as we know.’

‘Don’t you go up there?’

‘No, it’s a separate apartment. The entrance is down the passage.’ Jon recalled the door that indeed stood at the side of the building, a door he had never seen open. ‘Oh, do you know who owns the upstairs?’

‘Same person we lease this place from.’

‘But why leave it empty? Place like that with view of the harbour, think of the rent it could get.’

‘We asked about it ourselves once,’ the wife interjected. ‘Be handy to live over the shop. But we were told the owner wanted it kept unoccupied.’

‘Have you not met the owner?’

‘No,’ the husband replied. ‘We deal with a solicitor down the Strand. We don’t even know who the owner is. Did ask once, only to be told he values privacy and wants to stay anonymous.’

‘She!’ His wife interrupted. ‘I distinctly remember him saying she valued her privacy.’

‘Ah,’ the husband smiled. ‘Maybe that’s your mysterious woman, taking up residence after dark.’

Jon got the feeling the man was humouring him, but his wife seemed more sympathetic as she continued. ‘She’ll be the only one with access to the place, so maybe she pops in to enjoy the evening view from time to time. And you have, somehow, managed to see her through your dreaming.’

‘So you believe me. I was afraid you’d both think I was off my head.’ The woman shook her head. ‘I’ve heard too many tales like yours to disbelieve. Were you born at midnight by any chance?’

‘Yes, how did you guess?’

‘We sell books on folklore. I read that Midnight’s Child inherits the third eye.’ Her husband quickly interrupted ‘Well at least that’s maybe why the flat stays empty. Keeping it to herself, amazed she don’t move in permanently.’

Jon nodded, ‘Well, that’s another mystery, but thanks for speaking with me about it. Sorry to have bothered you.’

‘No bother,’ the shopkeeper smiled. ‘If you have any more weird dreams, feel free to pop in and share.’ Jon nodded and turned to leave the shop. As he opened the door, the woman suddenly piped up ‘Hey! Just in case it is her you’re seeing… What’s she like?’ He paused and mused for a moment before replying ‘Like a lost soul.’

That night, Jon’s astral self materialised on the empty, semi lit high street of his dreamscape and he began the descent down the sloping alleyway. This time he just stopped short of crossing its dark layer and instead turned to the side door that the shopkeeper had alerted him to. Next thing, he was stood in a small hallway, having apparently this time crossed a very different threshold. The interior of the door was to his side and, before him, a set of bare wooden stairs going up.

Slowly he began to climb, while getting the uneasy feeling of being watched. As he observed the wall other side of the banister more closely, the source of that unease became apparent. Four human shadows lay flat against the ascending wall, from bottom to top but with no sources present to cast them and heads slowly turning as they followed his progress. Reaching the final step, he turned to look back down at the solitary figures which appeared to be looking back up at him. He turned his attention to the door now reached and entered through it.

The room was still and cast by the illumination of shade. Furnishing was sparse, with an antique two seat settee and a grandfather clock that ticked with a quiet heartbeat. But there was another sound, the snapping of dealt cards. It came from a small table by the window, and there she sat with eyes down. The woman, engaged in turning cards from the deck in front of her, and from the layout the game was evidently solitaire.

He quietly moved around to the side of the seated figure to get a closer look at the face beneath the silver hair. Her skin was smooth and spared from the lines that come with age. But it was also free of any glow, her eyes similarly lacking sparkle with two grey moats emptied of colour.

The woman remained oblivious to his presence and continued dealing the cards until turning over the two of hearts. Then she emerged from her trance like attitude and looked straight at him, lips smiling but eyes that did not. Jon realised she was not smiling at all, but the wideness of her mouth created the mask of a smile.

‘I’m sorry to intrude like this,’ he explained. ‘But I keep seeing you at the window and… I became curious.’

Her lips slowly parted and a smoky voice intoned ‘Yes’ with a sense of expectation.

‘Are you all alone?’ he glanced around the room. ‘You’re like Miss Havisham in here.’

Her face turned quizzical and he continued ‘Great Expectations?’

She shook her head. ‘No expectations, only waiting.’

‘Waiting for what?’

She stood up and brushed the back of her hand up along his cheek. ‘You come a calling. You are a gentleman, aren’t you?’ Taking both his hands into hers, he felt the rhythm of her words reverberate with greater pronunciation. ‘You are going to be a gentleman, aren’t you!’

Jon shook his head. ‘What do you mean?’

Her eyes narrowed. ‘The scent found you.’

‘Found me?’

‘You have the birth formation.’

The woman’s eyes widened again and the lips that formed her carved smile released a whisper. ‘Wake me, chime child.’

She released one hand, but gripped the other more firmly and led him over to a door. Gently pushing it open, it revealed a large four poster bed waiting with sheets partly turned down in anticipation. Squeezing his hand, she looked at him with eyes of intense expectation.

‘Look, I came because I was curious. I was told no one lived here.’ She leaned forward, baring her teeth and pushing her wide eyed face into his.

‘It runs deeper than that, deep, deep waters.’ Licking her upper lip, she quietly lullabied ‘Visit this night, my lonely laddie. And live the waters with me.’ Breathing more affectingly, the astral mist of her eyes danced with his. ‘Taste their colour.’

His hesitation was arrested by the invitation of astral lovemaking, surely the gift ever rarer his grandmother had promised would be his? And there was a strange poetry to the woman’s ageless looks, a moment of solitary sensuality caught and kept outside time. With hoarse frost breath she whispered ‘Eyes nonplussed and through my burnt lips I pass to thee,’ before leading him by the hand and adding ‘revenant lover!’

Things were blank until his vision stirred awake, but remained blurred as he raised himself up. Sight clearing, Jon found himself not in his own bed still in the four poster. There was no sign of the woman, apart from a turned corner of the sheet on her side. The atmosphere in the grey room felt even emptier, the windows still looking out on a dark world outside. This was certainly the first time he had fallen asleep within a dream and awoke to find himself still in it. Or still on an astral journey, whatever was actually happening.

He got up and dressed while wondering how long he had been unconscious, assuming time had any relevance in this environment. Minutes, hours, days, it may have been even longer. He went into the parlour to find her chair empty and the deck fully laid out in a game now complete. And the silence was now total. The clock no longer ticked, its hand fixed at the twelfth hour. The time had come to leave and return to the waking world.

He descended the stairs, the shadowy figures on the wall still lighting his way. Arriving at the door, he turned and looked back up the stairs. The four silhouettes were now five, with the extra figure cast at the top of the stairs. The heads appeared to be looking down upon him but, with no discernible features, it has hard to tell whether that was just a feeling.

Jon stepped out of the door and back into the more familiar alleyway. Ascending back to his starting point, Jon expected to then awake in his own bed. But awakening did not follow. Instead, he stood alone on the shadowy, partly lit street, and immediately noticed something different. The usual modern kerbside lights were no longer present, and illumination now came from Victorian gas lamps. The road itself was cobble stoned and the shops fronted with Georgian windows. He could feel his breath sharply intake. This was a deviation from previous astral trips, but so was encountering the woman. He had come away treading the wrong path.

He went back down the alley and tried the door several times but it felt fused with the wall around it. Knowing he had to get back to the physical plane and wake up, he desperately ran down to the back of the house and looked up at the window to see if she had returned. But the curtains were drawn, as they were during the day with no sign of life.

No longer feeling alone he turned around to find four other men standing before him, silent as the night air. Their collective gaze locked in the resignation of those who answered the scent and fed its hunger, for which Jon now shared this twilight existence.

In the Dark Backward by Barry McCann

‘Apparently there used to be a drawbridge here.’ Dorothy mused over the small stone bridge while her companion continued like she was delivering a history class. ‘The house was surrounded by a moat, like it was on its own little island.’ The moat had long since dried up, leaving an indented scar around the historic cross shaped structure.

A huge oak door opened as the two women approached it and the smile of a grey haired lady in glasses quietly greeted them. ‘Mrs. Howarth? I’m Samantha Cathcart from the Lancashire Archives, and this is Dorothy Southworth who is in the area uncovering her ancestry.’

‘And which Samantha is kindly helping me with,’ Dorothy added.

‘Indeed. I thought she would appreciate seeing Chingle so thanks you for agreeing to our visit.’

Mrs. Howarth ushered them in. ‘My pleasure, and better you came today while we’re closed to the public.’ Closing the door, she continued. ‘Interesting name you have. There was a Dorothea Southworth at Salmesbury Hall in the 16th century. Are you a descendant?’

Dorothy shook her head. ‘I don’t think so. Besides, she died childless. But I have traced the Southworth line to that area, as far back as the 1600’s. And as they were catholic, Samantha suggested a possible link with the De Singletons or the Walls.’ She was referring to the families that occupied Chingle Hall before the Howarths.

‘Well, I’m not aware of any direct connection,’ Mrs. Howarth said. ‘But who knows. A lot of details have become lost in time. Even the circumstances surrounding your namesake are a much steeped in myth as fact.’

Showing the women in, Mrs. Howarth went straight into her usual guided tour while Dorothy produced a notepad and scribbled down nuggets of information possibly relevant to her research. Aware the woman was on a factual quest, Mrs. Howarth confined herself to the priest holes and political history of the estate, leaving out the aspect that visitors were usually more interested in. However, it touched Dorothy all the same

Entering the second bedroom, she immediately observed it to be larger than the one they had just explored, its total absence of furniture adding an extra dimension. She sniffed as her nostrils detected a distinctive smell, and her senses felt themselves cloaked by something more oppressive.

‘That’s lavender you can smell,’ Mrs. Howarth confirmed. ‘A lot of people do in here.’

‘Yes… But that’s not all I’m picking up. There is sadness in this room, quite overwhelming.’

Mrs. Howarth gave Samantha a knowing look but said nothing. This was a tale she had heard before.

Dorothy noted down her sensations before asking ‘So where is the lavender coming from. Have you been keeping some in here?’

‘Not for a long time,’ she replied without a word of a lie. ‘Now, do you both fancy a cup of tea? I’m sure you must be thirsty.’

They followed their host down the steep staircase and into the more modern lounge, where they were invited to sit down while the kettle was put on. It was then Dorothy demonstrably began frisking herself and claiming ‘Think I dropped my pen in that last room. I’ll just pop up and find it.

She had to go back there. And a primal sense told her to go alone. Lavender and sadness, a marriage so melancholic it touched her deep inside. Stepping back into the empty chamber, it seemed different again. Longer warped in length and darker despite the clear daylight from the leaded window, to which her back became turned as she crept across the creaking floorboards. Then she stopped as another alteration began to manifest.

A shadow emerged from the darkest corner of the room, seemingly gliding into the dusky twilight from the window and into fuller definition. The figure became a young woman, half lit with a crescent moon face. She remained partly within the gloom, seemingly maintaining a distance. Her clothing was of another time and Dorothy reasoned she must be one of the guides in period character, especially when the woman spoke ‘Who art thou?’

‘I’m Dorothy. What’s your name?’

‘To friends I am Nell, though I have not known friends since confinement.’

‘Confinement? What, here?’ The girl nodded silently.

‘How long have you been here?’ The girl shook her head. ‘I know not. Within these walls Time’s viola plays no haste. Outside day begets weeks, which beget years, beget lifetimes.’

Assuming the woman was keeping up a performance, Dorothy continued to play along. ‘Then… Why do you stay?’

‘Thou spake as I have choice.’

‘Of course you have a choice.’ She gestured to the open door. ‘You can walk straight out now.’

‘Ney, door be barred to me.’

‘But it’s wide open. Look.’

The girl’s head remained still and her stare fixed. She did not acknowledge the door even existed, or was seemingly unable to, and Dorothy became uneasy. This was no performance.

‘Movement comes freely to thee. Thy kind cannot see the bonds that bind mine.’

‘My kind?’

‘Aye, thee being spectre.’

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘Many ghosts pass through these walls and I know them by the strangeness of their attire, as yours. Sometimes they attend me by knowing my presence, as you. For most, they are tormentor.’

‘How do they torment you?’

‘By my being invisible to their eyes. They look through me like the glass in that window and then leave silently, as you shall.’

The girl was clearly disturbed and Dorothy tried raising a reassuring hand to pat her on the arm. But her hand stopped short as she got the sudden feeling the girl could not be touched, as if an invisible barrier had been drawn between them. She decided to fetch Mrs. Howarth.

‘Look… I have to go for a minute, but I will be back.’

‘Your minute be another year.’

‘I won’t be long, honestly. I’m going to get help.’

The girl lowered her head. ‘There is but one help for which I pray.’

‘What is that?… Please, tell me.’

The girl looked up at her again. ‘Dear spectre, thy can freely walk this house?’

‘Of course.’

The woman’s eyes pleaded along with her words. ‘Find my child, bring her back to me.’

‘Your child? You have a missing child?’

‘Aye, they took her but moments she entered this world.’

‘But… Why would anyone do that?’

‘Of whom her father is.’ With that, the young woman stepped backwards into the dark recess of the corner from which she emerged and her form dissolved leaving nothing. Dorothy’s entire frame shook coldly at the realisation she had been in the presence of a ghost.

Mrs. Howarth was sat with Samantha and pouring tea when an ashen faced Dorothy appeared in the lounge. The two women looked up as she came straight to the point ‘Mrs. Howarth, who is the young woman up there? In the room with the lavender.’

She put the teapot down before replying ‘You’ve seen her?’

‘I just spoke with her…’ Dorothy clasped a hand across her mouth as emotion erupted to the surface and sobbed the words ‘She’s so unhappy. Where’s her baby!’

Mrs. Howarth stood up and gently manoeuvred Dorothy into sitting on the couch next to a bewildered Samantha, and then sat herself beside her. With knees bent and their host holding her hand, Dorothy was able to compose herself. ‘She called herself Nell.’ Mrs. Howarth gave an affirming nod. ‘Lady Eleanor de Singleton.’

Samantha’s jaw dropped at the name. It was one she knew, and something of the story behind it, which Mrs. Howarth related.

‘She was orphaned very young and brought up by her two uncles. They confined her to that room claiming she was afflicted by madness.’

‘Was she?’

‘If she wasn’t to begin with, I imagine she was after being kept in there all those years.’

‘Then, how did she come to have a baby.’

‘Said to be the child of one of the uncles, hence why they wanted it out of the way. Some say she died shortly after, others that she was taken while giving birth.’ She gripped Dorothy’s hand. ‘Now, I think you need something stronger than tea.’

It was later that Mr. Howarth showed her two guests out through the front door and, as they turned to say goodbye, Dorothy plucked up courage to ask the question. ‘Mrs. Howarth, what would have happened to the child?’

‘The story goes they had it killed, but I suspect that to be myth playing up to melodrama. Even those so wicked as to ruin life won’t necessarily take it, as long as it could be quietly removed.’

‘Could they have had it adopted?’

‘Very likely, and a deal done in secret. Not uncommon back then.’

‘And being catholic, they would have chosen a catholic family? The Southworth’s of Salmesbury perhaps?’

Mrs. Howarth smiled at the inference. ‘I think that will be for you to discover. Do call again, both of you. There is always a welcome here.’ With that she closed the door.

Samantha raised her eyebrows ‘Well, is that the next line of enquiry?’ Dorothy shook her head. ‘Perhaps we should leave the drawbridge raised.’

As the pair crossed the small stone bridge and headed to Samantha’s car, a sudden feeling of being watched stopped Dorothy in her tracks. She turned and instinctively looked up at the window of Lady Eleanor’s chamber. It looked down on her with an empty eye.

A Walk on the Wyreside


Like any renaissance chappie, I pride myself as a person of varying creative outlets. Feature writer, author, speaker, lecturer, performer and even photographer.  But one thing I have never aspired to is writing poetry. I like a good poem, and value poetry as a medium; from the O level days of studying the works of John Keats and his various odes, to A level and the jolly stanzas of Phillip Larkin…. though This Be the Verse was conspicuously absent from our reading list. Well, it was a college run by nuns.

As a speaker/teacher of creative writing, one does appreciate how poetry works in its rhythm and metre, to rhyme or not to rhyme, the importance of structure and economy of words. Just not that interested in being a poet myself.

Last year I was asked by Adele Robinson of the Lancashire Dead Good Poets Society about taking photographs for a poetry based project called Walking on Wyre, which was being financed by the Arts Council England and Left Coast. The River Wyre runs through north Lancashire from the estuary of Fleetwood and Knott End, and then 28 miles inland to the Forest of Bowland. My initial job was to photograph various locations along and around the river, which would be used in the published anthology.

But where would the poems come from? Adele set up a number of writers’ workshops at various locations around Wyre country, tutored mainly by writers from the Fylde coast. She also suggested that perhaps I would like to attend some of these and have a go, to which I thought “why not?”

The first was a full day at Wyre Estuary Nature Reserve, which was tutored by poet Sarah Hymas. We were given a tour of the area by a local historian who informed us it had been a working port in centuries gone by and a farewell point for passengers migrating to the Americas. Back at the tutorial, my thoughts pondered this history of the now silted up mudflats as an echo of the ghostly past. That resulted an eight line stanza entitled We Sailed, the second half of which concludes

The fading echo hailing

Lone ferry to cross bank

The photo sepia

The memory vivid.

My next workshop was evening more intriguing. Rossall Point is a coastal watchtower near Fleetwood open to the public and with a commanding view of the sea, which was fairly rough the day we attended. I actually arrived before the others and got chatting to one of the volunteers there. As we spoke, he suddenly pointed me to the crashing waves and the black head of a seal bobbing up and down, the only time I have seen one in the wild outside of California. He informed me that the drawn out baying of a seal sounds remarkably like a wolf. That information, coupled with the sight of isolated sandbanks and knowledge that sacred sites of pagan worship lay along this part of the coast, invoked a two stanza piece I called Release the Sea, the second of which reads

Alone on a sandbank

The sea witch casts circle

Sirens rising to her summons

A seal baying to the moon

So having had a go at the medium of poetry, what lessons did I take from it?

  1. Keep it tight and ensure a consistency of rhythm. This is especially important with blank verse.
  2. Be economic with language and resist the temptation to over enrich. Opulence can work if handled sparingly, but can just as easily spill into the verbose. Spare a thought for your poor reader.
  3. Similarly, a good image can save an awful lot of description, and is far more memorable. It’s important to catch the reader’s attention in order to engage them with the poem, and a striking image will do that. Over descriptive detail is likely to have the opposite effect.

But those are just my conclusions. Other writers and editors may think differently.

Walking on Wyre was published in the form of a fold out map containing over three dozen specially composed poems by various writers and is available from to purchase from Amazon. And will I try my hand again? Maybe once I have Ode to the Taxman sorted out.

Eva’s Song

My first contribution to Lancashire Archive’s Tide & Time project, based in Morecambe. It is based on the case of Eva Wilcox to drowned herself in Morecambe bay after seeing her estranged boyfriend for the last time. Thank you to Vicci McCann for encouraging me to take part, and Sarah Hymas for her help and advice.

Eva’s Song

Eva’s Lover

She just turned up on the doorstep, like a memory come back to haunt. We had been an item, but she were back in Sheffield and I were here. Then I get the letter saying it would be better if she got a boy in her own town. I felt the same way and didn’t even reply. She were a chapter closed and my life turned a new page.

So I walked her back to her digs in Morecambe and things were fine enough. Met her next day on the prom and we spent a few hours. Then day after, she reappears as words. A note suggesting suicide. But her last letter had not resulted in the new boyfriend it promised, so I didn’t heed the heartbeat of this one. I never thought she’d really do it.

Eva’s Witness

Just before ten, was on my way home along Marine Road when I saw her. She was stood on the landing stage by clock tower with her hat off and holding it in her hand. She seemed somewhere else. Like a ghost. I knew she couldn’t be going for a walk on the beach, not with tide in. But then she suddenly jumped into the water, in her clothes. I got nearer and could see her head above the water. Being such a warm evening, I reckoned she were bathing and modesty prevented her from undressing first, so I walked on and left her to it. Did wonder what happened to her hat, though.

Eva’s Father

There was no warning, not even hint. On the day she went, she was full of her usual spirit. Did chores as normal, even spoke of joining the W.A.A.C.

Then she went out and never came back. And I hear nothing for three days. Then the letter arrives, postmark Morecambe. It’s signed by her but from someone else. Someone troubled. Not my Eva.

Suddenly, constable turns up. As soon as I opened the door to him, I knew it were trouble. They’re like lawyers, always bearing bad news, especially when they take their helmets off. Quiet chat, consoling cups of tea. Then I follow Eva to Morecambe. And the next time I see her, is the last time.


You had expectations of me, Dad, as any father would. However, truth was, there were two of me. There was dutiful Eva, the one I let you see. The one you cherished. But beneath her ran deeper waters, an Eva with desires elsewhere. And that elsewhere was George, who drifted beyond my reach.

I thought releasing him would be my release, but the longing became more and more. So I made a pact with myself and swam after my George, even if this meant the way back would no longer be open. In the end, I had to let him go forever and the promise of a future was broken. A crossroads where I could only bury my heart.

You see, Dad, there could be no return to the life we had. George had changed everything, and that changed me. And the change in me, changed you in my eyes. So, I surrender to the sea and drift away with the outgoing tide. A siren without a song.

Barry McCann

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Though Palaces Do Slope

Resorts come, and resorts go. Some find news ways of maintaining their glory days, while others eventually lapse into a somnambulist existence, trading on the grey pound and memories of what they once where. Torenton was a semi sleepy former spa town, grown on the back of Victorian bathes and water cures. Not a commercial attraction like Blackpool, but a more graceful alternative that appealed to residents and visitors who preferred a more sedate time. However, as holidaying fashions changed with cheaper flights to sunnier Spain, the place gradually retired from the tourist industry and, itself, became more of a retirement destination. However, things had not been so quiet of late, with the town’s populace now split in the biggest controversy they had known. And it was all over the former Palace Theatre.
Built in 1934, the Palace was originally an art deco theatre which, over the next 30 years, became known as the Grand Old Lady of Torenton. And this was a lady who boasted a fine array of leading players with many of the top names in the acting and entertainment world treading its hallowed boards, while still finding room to accommodate local talent shows and amateur dramatics. For decades, it was the heartbeat of the community. But by the late 1950s this heart was beginning to falter.
It proved a dream not destined to last and, in 1964, it shut its doors to the performing arts for the last time. Audiences had steadily dwindled, lured away by the burgeoning medium of television. Hopes of it adapting into a cinema evaporated when none of the major chains showed an interest, themselves struggling against the one eyed monster that had done for the theatre. However, fears this would mean losing the beloved building altogether were dispelled when a leisure firm took over and reopened it as a Bingo Hall. At least this ensured the building be preserved and the hope it may return to its original purpose in better times.
However, this life support had now itself run out of time. Bingo began going the way of the theatre, with membership numbers dropping badly as the pastime became unfashionable with a younger generation more interested in on line gaming. The management tried initiating some ambitious promotions to attract new punters in but, while this brought some second wind, the downward curve persisted and the writing was on the wall. Eventually, The Palace closed its doors for the second time, and were boarded up while its fate was decided.
It had been closed barely two days when the local paper revealed the council were considering a planning application from the European retail chain, Nosfra, to demolish the Grand Old Lady and replace it with a modern supermarket. The plan was championed by Councillor Doris Fletcher, who issued a statement claiming “Torenton is currently only served by a small retail outlets. Residents deserve a wider choice and Nosfra will deliver that.”
The claim was met with puzzlement by locals, as there was already a supermarket just a couple of hundred yards up the road, delivering pretty well the same sort of range Nosfra promised. But the councillor maintained a blind spot to this little detail, avoiding the question altogether. She stayed guarded as public knowledge of Nosfra’s discreet dealings with both her and several others in strategic places could very well jeopardise the project.
A barrage of letters began to appear in the local pages, protesting at the council even considering the destruction of the “iconic” building, and demanding it be re opened as performance and exhibition space run by a charitable trust. Doris quickly attempted to deflate the point with a reply claiming “The Palace is not an iconic building. It had its use, but has now outgrown it. I understand some people are upset about the impending demolition of the building, but that is progress. Live theatre ceased paying years ago and the current structure is no longer of use. I suggest they get over it and allow this town to get on.”
Her provocative words were blasted by local historians, demanding to know what qualified the councillor to declare the building as “not iconic.” A group called “Save the Palace” was formed, and quickly set about an internet campaign against the development, declaring “The show ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” The councillor retorted with the statement “It’s this lady who will be singing when the show is over.” Her lips remained tight in the fall out that caused, confident they would not guess the existence of a hidden agenda. And it was motivating enough for Doris, and her associates, to get the application approved by one of the most unpopular council meetings in Torenton’s history. Once it was rubber stamped, she discreetly exited the chamber via the back to avoid an angry crowd and went home gloating in triumph.
It was a gloat continued when the local press office unexpectedly phoned Councillor Fletcher and offered her a photo opportunity. One of her taking the first sledgehammer to the Palace building in a symbolic gesture of laying it to rest, and making way for the new development. It was an irresistible proposition, as this would seal her last word over those who tried to tried to stand in her way, and an extra piece of free publicity for her public profile.
The morning came and Councillor Doris Fletcher arrived at the site, delighted to see the building fenced off for demolition. Donning a hard hat, she was introduced to both the site manager and the press photographer, as well as being re acquainted with the area manager of Nosfra with whom she had been dealing. It was then explained what was to happen. “I’ll get a shot of you holding the sledgehammer, as if ready to deliver the first blow” the photographer proposed. “And then do I get to blow the place up?” Doris laughed. “Not in an area like this” the demolition manager explained. “Men are on the roof, ready to dismantle as soon you have done your bit. They will manually take down the exterior and then we will bulldoze the structure.” The area manager then chimed in with “As soon as the site is cleared, you can come back and lay the foundation stone.”
“Yes” the photographer added. “Another publicity shot for you.”
The posed photo was taken and the manager got onto his megaphone, ordering his men to start work. The photographer left for his next assignment, while Doris and the demolition manager stepped back to look up at the activity on the roof, the banging and crashing almost causing the area to vibrate. The councillor’s eyes glanced down the length of the building and caught sight of something in one of the upstairs windows. A shadowy figure looking straight down at her from behind dirty glass, or at least that is how it seemed to her. Strangely, while no face was visible, she could sense eyes straight at her, almost burrowing into hers. Then the shadow moved, as if walking away from the window and out of sight. She turned and shouted to the manager. “Should any of your men be inside?” He looked back at her, quizzically. “No, its not safe.”
“There’s someone in there. Just saw him through the window.” The manager looked up, asking “Where?” She strolled across and stood below the window in question, her hand pointing up and shouting “There!” That became her last word.
The vibration from the sledgehammers erupted into a rumble. Both figures on the ground looked around to see what was causing it when, suddenly, part of the side of the building came crashing down in an avalanche of bricks and concrete. The manager instinctively dived to the ground, covering his head until the deafening sound stopped. When it did he cautiously lifted his head and, through the thick fog of dust, could just make out a large pile of rubble where the councillor had been standing.
The emergency services arrived and, with the aid of the demolition crew, dug out the body that had once been Doris Fletcher. Mercifully, the coroner reported she had been killed in an instant and probably not known what hit her. An inquiry took place into the incident, but no one could explain why that section of the building should suddenly give way as it did. With no other conclusion arrived at, a verdict of accidental death was recorded.
It was a terrible tragedy for the town and tributes were paid from all sides, regardless of what they had thought of her personally. However, some opponents of the development whom Doris had alienated did secretly muse on her fate as poetic justice. But for those who were privy to the councillor’s last moments, and words, there was possibly something deeper at work. For her final performance, the Grand Old Lady of Torenton had sung the final song.

Originally appeared in the Lancashire Evening Post May 3 2014)

The Shadow Inside

Golden mile

There is nothing but the sound of my own footsteps brushing the ground of an empty promenade. Where colour once met laughter, buildings now lie shuttered and cries of seagulls echo in the breeze. A town has closed shop for season’s change and the Golden Mile is haunted by absence.

I pass Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, its loudspeaker invitation to roll up now, mercifully, silent. Once, I did step inside and didn’t believe a word. But I do know the plastic façade that is the museum’s frontage masks a building‘s secret. A past hidden from the outside. Cross that threshold into within and walk through a living memory of window bays with no view. Nothing to look out to but a plywood cocoon. The lonely soul of a house that once was.

Where now reside two headed sheep and men with four eyeballs, landladies ruled over troops of servants. Breakfasts and dinners were cooked, linen washed and beds changed. Guests home by 10.30 before the bolt went on the door. The Friday changeover as old residents were traded for new.

They say ghosts still stalk these floorboards like ripples across a pool of time. But, no, the building is a ghost. One that sleeps beneath the modern sideshow layer. And would Mr. Ripley’s clientele believe that… Or not?

Written and narrated by the Barry McCann for a sound sculpture created by Lucy Stevens, December 2011. Broadcast Grundy Art Gallery 2012 for the launch of  ther Walls Have Ears anthology by Blackpool Heritage.

Whisper in the Night

If legends be true, tis a rare old lane in Lancashire that boasts neither a boggart or some other queer doings. Indeed, during the dawn of the 1800s, there were tales of a particular pathway troubled by an apparition that local folk referred to as Dobbie. Connecting Clarke Hall to Holker House, the lane was narrow with high hedges that overhung with claw like menace. Even on a summers day it breathed a melancholic air of tunnel like gloom.

Clarke House was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Stockdale and their quartet of servants. The housekeeper, Cook, Tom the page boy and scullery maid, Nola, the most recent arrival below stairs. Aged between 15 and 17 years, the girl had no knowledge of a birthday, her only history being a written reference from the orphanage from which she came. Nola was lowest in the pecking order of servants, something Cook was forever taunting her about. Consequently, the girl was meek in manner and tended to carry herself with head slightly bowed. While the other staff had their own rooms in the houses attic, Nola was confined to an outhouse at the end of the back yard, facing the old lane and cut off from human company.

Not that Nolas lot was all bad. Mrs. Stockdale had taken to schooling the girl in reading and writing for an hour every mid morning, which she practised during the evenings in the sanctuary of her room. The others did at least encourage her in this self betterment, except Cook who professed Nola to be as dim as a smouldering candle and that educating her was like teaching a dog to perform tricks. She never said these things in front of the mistress, of course, and confined any bullying or beating of the scullery maid to the kitchen when they were alone.

It was early one autumn evening that Mr. Stockdale sent Tom across to Holker House to deliver some newspapers, a task he performed once every week. The boy was usually back before dusk, but this time seemed to be taking longer than usual. Nola had just finished putting away the dried dishes and asked Cook if she could now be excused to practise her lesson.

Suppose so, the woman shrugged, being more concerned about what was keeping Tom now the night was drawing in. Nola took her leave and Cook busied herself preparing the breakfasts for next morning, while the housekeeper caught up on her sewing. Later, as the clock chimed eight bells, the two women were startled as the kitchen door burst open and Tom ran in like a man possessed by a thousand devils. Coming to a halt in the middle of the kitchen, he tried to speak and then promptly passed out, crumpling to the floor.

The housekeeper and Cook were attending the unconscious boy when Nola came running in through the same door, exclaiming

I saw him racing from lane like a fox hunted. Is he right? The sight of the boys current state answered her question, as Cook ordered Dont just stand there! Go fetch the Mr. And Mrs! As Nola made haste, the housekeeper then turned to Cook, suggesting Hartshorne and burnt feathers be the best restorative for this lad.

By the time Nola returned with Mr. and Mrs. Stockdale, the boy had been applied with the remedy and was stirring awake. Mr. Stockdale crouched down to take a closer look, when Tom suddenly shot upright, yelling Dobbie! The Master grabbed the boys shoulders, saying Take it steady, lad. Having been calmed, Tom was sat up on a chair to relate his story. I usually set off home before dark, but master at Holker House insisted I stayed a while and shared libation with him. Couldnt say no.Quite right, lad, Stockdale interjected. So what happened.Was nearly home, when I heard whispering behind me. Looked around and there was this great white ball, glowing and following. Then whisper became singing and in ball I could see sprite dancing round in circle fashion. She then came at me faster, laughing horribly. So I ran and darent look back. It were Dobbie, I know it. His master looked doubtful. Are you sure about all that?I swear it, sir! The housekeeper then testified Toms not one for spinning yarns. Hes an honest lad. Stockdale patted the boys arm, commenting I dare say you saw something. But maybe not as it were meant to be seen. Dark nights and lanes with strange tales can do much to deceive the eyes and ears.

Tom sighed, realising he was not going to be fully believed. Nola leapt to his defence with Ive heard notorious happenings regarding Dobbie Lane, sir. Tis said that is where Jack OLantern tricked the devil. Stockdale laughed I had that tale as a boy. And it be not of our parish, but of our Irish cousins.Take no heed of her, sir, Cook insisted. Girls head is full of fancies and she probably filled Tom with them. No wonder he took frightI never, she began to protest but the Cook cut her short. Speak not to your betters with such a tongue! Ill fetch wooden spoon. She bowed her head in quiet submission, having once again been reminded of her place. Then Mr. Stockdale made his announcement. Tell you what. This very evening I shall walk the lane there and back. Maybe I will get to the bottom of what menaced you so, Tom. All present agreed this to be a satisfactory course of action, except Nola who continued to look downwards in resignation.

Mr. Stockdale was as good as his word. As the sun began to set, he took to the lane confident that the whole business would be resolved. The staff busied themselves with chores, except Nola who suggested she wait in her outhouse to watch for the master returning. The housekeeper agreed a lookout was a good idea, even if Cook opinionated this to be a ploy to skip chores, concluding Girls not as daft as she seems.

Night fell and all those present in Clarke Hall began to wonder what had become of Mr. Stockdale. Then as the eighth hour approached, Nola came running through the kitchen door announcing Masters back! And he look fair troubled! She jumped out of the way as Stockdale ran in behind her, breathless and distraught. He ordered the housekeeper to assemble the others while Cook fetched him a brandy.

The housekeeper returned with Tom and Mrs. Stockdale, whose husband was now sat on a chair with the consoling glass in his hand. He waved Tom over with a Come ere, lad and gripped the boy by the hand. Forgive me for ever doubting you. Its just as you told. The whispering, the singing, the glowing sprite. It followed me back too. Tom looked down on his master with relief, while the others looked at each other in disbelief. After taking another swig, Mr. Stockdale stood up and proclaimed Tomorrow word shall be put around. The lane is henceforth closed once dusk sets in. No Christian soul should traverse it after dark. With that, he dismissed the staff and then returned upstairs with his wife.

Cook looked at Nola whose head was held in its usual forward tilt, but with eyes silently looking straight up at the woman. You neednt expect apology from me, girl! It were Willo the Wisp master saw, not your Jack OLantern.May I be excused? Nola asked politely. Aye, away to your lesson with yer. For what its worth, Cook sneered. She then added Careful Dobbie dont come for you, out there in your little shack. All alone. And with that, the woman laughed as Nola picked up a lit candle and nervously made her way out across the yard to the only place she could call home. Entering the outhouse, she closed the door and sat by her window, watching through the curtain and waiting.

An hour passed before she was confident that all in Clarke Hall had retired to bed. Blowing out the light, Nola turned away from the curtain and stood up straight, raising her head high in a change of countenance. She pulled off her bonnet and threw it to the floor, her raven hair falling shoulder length. She then removed the servants garb, revealing a silk dress underneath that shimmered with a white glow. The girls face opened up a powerful smile of satisfaction and she swung right around in a pirouette. Nolas hair and flesh now radiated the same white glow as her dress, her figure illuminating like a brightly burning candle. Raising her arms upwards, she gave a reverberating laugh of triumph. The Lane was hers. And now, hers alone. Opening the door, she left the quarters of the human self and twirled into the night, dancing her infernal dance. And making mischievous plans for Cook.

Originally published in the Lancashire Everning Post March 1st 2014

The Spider’s Song


Photo by Tuesday Hathor

The vibration told her that a visitor was calling. The strand that pulled signalled the direction and she quickly scrambled across her webbed tapestry. Sure enough, another fly was entangled and struggling to escape. And, sensing its host’s presence, it struggled and screamed even more.

She rounded about her panicking guest and calmly tried to reassure it. ‘I’m sorry, little fly. I have to devour you for that is my lot in life. But I will be gentle, my friend. I promise.’ To steady its quivering body, she began to wrap the fly in her own silk, while singing the lullaby she always sang to comfort her prey.

Be still my little friend

Don’t you cry

Let me nurse you now

My little fly.

Be silent now

Don’t you weep

The day is closing

Time to sleep.

Even within its silk corset, her guest continued to struggle in vain. She gently crawled around to the back of its head, with the soothing sound of ‘Shhhhhh, now.’ Her fangs penetrated and the venom entered like a mother’s milk, while she continued to hum her song. Why do they fear this so? She pondered to herself. My husbands all loved it.

Withdrawing her fangs, she said ‘There. That was not so bad, was it. And now you shall never again feel any pain, any fear. Never starve, never be hunted. You will join the others who came here, within me. And there you will be at peace.’

The struggling stopped and she backed away, watching as her guest stiffened with paralysis, its insides beginning to change. ‘Soon, my little friend,’ she gently soothed. ‘Soon.’

Barry McCann