There is a superstition that walking over a grave will awaken its occupant, while sitting on the headstone invites them to follow you home. When he stumbled across the italicised name Cromlech on an antiquated map, Jim Atkinson was unaware he had just done both.
The history room at Lancaster library yielded the find during preparatory research into the Wyre, a section of countryside bordering the Irish Sea and resistant to outside intrusion. Major roads bypassed the area completely with only lanes linking its small, isolated communities. A world in its own stratum, out of sight from those unaware of it.
Jim was to survey the area for a university project and had assumed the list of main settlements already compiled to be complete, but Cromlech did not appear on more recent maps. He showed it to the librarian who promptly checked local government records on her computer.
‘Yes, there is a Cromlech,’ she verified. ‘Comprises twelve terraces, a pub called The Vesta and a church with closed cemetery, though doesn’t say what denomination.’
‘Wonder why it’s not on other maps?’ Jim mused.
She shrugged ‘Dunno. There is no other info, and looking at that map it’s tucked out of the way. You going to try finding the place?’
‘I will be now, though I had better photocopy this map and pray the roads have not changed since it was printed.’
Following an overnight stay in Glasson Dock, Jim penetrated the Wyre’s bleak coastal countryside, an unholy union of landscape and psychology. Half hidden, half glimpsed horizons spoke hidden depths of mind and soul, the tides of the coastline itself driving this mindscape with its undercurrents. And the miles of anonymous lanes he had driven in search of a place not signposted.
But the old map delivered him there. A row grey slab terraces came into view, followed by a stone built church at the end, all seemingly deserted. There was no sign to identify the village, but he noticed the one attached to a building opposite the church. The Vesta depicted the image of a woman with a crown of garland, medusa like and staring out with glaring eyes. Her narrow, unsmiling mouth looked forbidding, but the open door of the building hinted invitation. He left the sanctuary of his car and entered.
Footsteps announced themselves on the stone floor of an empty taproom as he approached the bar, and were reciprocated by another set of steps from a room behind it. A portly middle age woman appeared with a slightly surprised expression on her face.
‘Good afternoon, sir.’
‘Oh, yes, just quiet as usual. You arrived in that car?’
‘Indeed. I could do with pint.’ He indicated to one of the best bitters on offer. As she picked up a glass and pulled the hand pump, he continued. ‘This is Cromlech, isn’t it?’
‘It is,’ announced a voice from behind. He turned to find it belonged to a bearded man who had evidently walked in without a sound. Joining Jim at the bar, he nodded to the woman ‘I’ll have one too’ before offering his hand. ‘George Woodruff.’
‘And what brings you here, Jim Atkinson?’
‘Well I found the name on an old map, but not on any others.’
‘Not a place that wants to be found these days. What got you curious?’
‘Well, I’m touring the Wyre for a couple of days, uncovering histories and taking photographs for the University of Cumbria.’
‘Ah, you want to speak to Mrs. Sykes, her family goes back here generations. Got a whole archive at her place.’
‘Is she near?’
‘Lives in one of the houses across the way, I can take you over when she gets home. Are you okay to hang around until evening?’
‘Guess so. Is there any accommodation nearby I could book in?’
Woodruff called ‘Elsa!’ and the woman re appeared. ‘Our friend here needs a room tonight.’
‘I’ve a couple,’ she said. ‘I do bed and breakfast when the occasion arises.’
Finishing his drink, Jim fetched his belongings and the landlady showed him up to the room. It was basic with a shared bathroom but would do for a night or two. As she showed him how to open its old-fashioned window frame, something caught his eye in the near distance.
‘You have a railway run through here?’ He gestured to the signal box surrounded by an overgrowth of trees.’
‘We did, until the Beeching cuts. Apparently, this was quite a bustling village but losing the rail practically cut us off from the rest of the world.’
‘Nothing, just stands empty.’
‘Surprised it’s not been converted, like they do with old barns. I guess British Rail still owns it?’
‘More like disowned it. They even left part of the track rusting away in the undergrowth.’
‘No one tried taking it for scrap iron?’
‘Nobody wants to know. Now, is there anything else?’
‘No, that will be fine.’
She left him alone and he looked back out the window as a forgotten memory crept up from the depths of his mind. As a child he grew up near a wasteland that had been a railway before the track was closed and taken up. And in the middle of this emptiness an old signal box stood alone. He recalled approaching and contemplating the desolate building, its windows staring down at him like a multitude of eyes. He never plucked up the courage to enter, the inactivity of the once active evoking an implicit life of its own. Then, one day, it was gone altogether, the ground it stood now serving as a car park.
Later that day, Woodruff took Jim over to meet Mrs. Sykes and he was not disappointed. She not only revelled in vivid memories of a Cromlech more alive but had documents and photographs stretching back a century which Jim enthusiastically recorded on his camera. One photo from the 1900’s was the old railway station that stood outside the village with both platform master and signalman posing proudly in their uniforms.
‘The station building is now a bungalow,’ she explained.
‘I saw the old signal box from my room. Probably take a closer look later.’
She glanced at a twilight window. ‘I would wait until morning. Not safe poking around there after dark.’
‘It’s dangerously decrepit, should have been knocked down years ago. Now, if you want to come back tomorrow, I’ll dig out some more stuff from the loft. Hope you have plenty of film for your camera.’
‘It’s digital,’ he smiled.
Jim returned to the Inn and enjoyed a pint and sandwich supper by the open fire. This time he was served by the landlady’s teenage daughter who spoke little and smiled even less. Collecting his empty plate, she said ‘Anything else, Mister Jim?’
‘Just Jim will do,’ he tried by way of conversation. ‘So, what do they call you?’
‘They call me Fly, same as I call me.’
‘She was actually given the name Gaynor.’ The landlady walked into the conversation. ‘But answers to Fly, don’t you?’
The girl went uncomfortably self-conscious and exited with the empty plate.
‘Don’t mind her, not used to folk she doesn’t know. Now, can I tempt you to peaches and cream?’
Retiring to his room, Jim prepared for bed with only an old radio for company. It struck him as strange he had not seen one television set since arriving in Cromlech, not even an ariel. Then he noticed something else.
Closing the curtains, he spotted a light within the dimness of the signal box. It flickered, suggesting a burning ember. He watched in curiosity as it wisped a lonely, distant life, like a candle. It could be kids on a dare, though he had not seen any since arriving apart from Fly. In fact, many people at all apart from the four spoken with.
He continued to watch, his gaze his held by the ghostly momentum that infused the building with supraliminal life, pulsed like a flickering octave.
Jim’s almost trance was sharply interrupted by a knock on the door, breaking the light’s enchantment. Shaking his head, he opened it to find Elsa stood before him in a silk dressing gown, opened to reveal a scarlet negligee and very pronounced cleavage.
‘Just checking you’re settled in all right.’
‘Yes, I am. Thank you for asking.’
‘Well, if there’s anything you want my room is at the end.’ She nodded in its direction,
‘Thanks, I’ll bear that in mind. Good night.’ He slowly closed the door, enough to watch the back of Elsa’s gown slink down the corridor like a bride floating up the aisle.
A cooked breakfast was waiting for him at the agreed time and Elsa remained absent as he ate it. She finally appeared when he finished to clear his dishes.
‘You sleep well?’ She asked politely.
‘I did thanks. And you?’
He decided this was a good time to divert the subject. ‘By the way, there was someone in that signal box last night.’
‘There was a light coming from inside.’
‘Well, whoever they were, they want to keep away from there. One wrong footing on those rickety stairs…’
‘Be okay for me to have a look, before I go see Mrs. Sykes?’
‘As long as you don’t go up or inside, steps and floorboards are so rotted they could give way at any time. So, you be staying another night?’
‘If that’s all right, reckon I’ll be a while with Mrs. Sykes today.’
‘Yes, why I asked. Reckon you will, knowing her,’ she laughed. ‘But you can stay as long as you like, refreshing to have an outsider for a change.’ She then headed back to the kitchen, her closing choice of words not lost on him.
Later, Jim made his way to the building, negotiating his way along a footpath carpeted by decades of moss and scrub before reaching the base of a now barren structure. The wooden steps were indeed splintered, leading up to a door hanging from its rusted hinges, while surrounding windows were smashed and left unboarded.
He walked around to the other side and found the forgotten track Mrs. Sykes had mentioned. Once a lifeline to the outside world, it lay beneath the scrub like an amputated limb discarded and abandoned.
He took out his camera and began shooting the desolate landscape. Turning his lense back onto the trail he had just followed, the scene froze as a figure came into view. Beneath a fringe of long, unkempt hair, her eyes focused on him with a sharp frown. He lowered the camera.
‘Fly? You okay?’
‘What you doing?’
He walked closer to her, stopping several feet short as her expression cautioned any closer contact. ‘I’m taking photographs. Local history is a subject of mine.’
‘Past is gone, why bother?’
‘Well, by uncovering the past we learn where we’ve come from, and how we got to where we are now.’
‘Past may be covered for a reason.’
‘Then it’s my job to find out what that reason is.’
Her countenance took on a deeper intensity. ‘I wouldn’t.’
She began to turn away but Jim prompted her to stop. ‘Fly? Can I ask if you were in that old signal box last night?’ She looked back, her pupils apparently blackening. ‘Why?’
‘I saw some activity from my room. But your mother says no one goes there.’
‘No.’ She broke gaze and hurriedly disappeared into the direction of the Inn, leaving Jim to ponder if she meant no she wasn’t or, no, nobody ever does.
Jim spent another afternoon with Mrs. Sykes, covering the village’s earliest roots as an agricultural settlement, still the sole industry of the surrounding area if a now struggling one.
‘Everyone who lives here is either retired or works the local farms,’ she explained. ‘Another reason it is so quiet these days, not like when I was a little girl.’
‘Yes, as you have shown me. I wonder if there is any way of regenerating Cromlech? Your collection could be a visitor attraction for a start if a museum could be set up.’
‘It’s a lovely thought, but I think there are places that just have their day. Boom towns so easily become ghost towns when purpose is served.’
‘But if a new purpose could be found?’
‘New blood is what is needed, Mr. Atkinson. Everyone who lives here grew here, neighbours marrying neighbours. Cromlech is an incestuous place in a manner of speaking.’ That explains a lot, he thought to himself.
Jim later returned to The Vesta and found Woodruff sat by the fire with two full pint glasses on the table.
‘Spotted you heading back from Mrs. Sykes, figured you’d welcome a drink.’
‘Thank you,’ he replied, sitting down to join him.
‘So, did you get what you want?’
‘More than I anticipated. Quite a horde she’s got.’
‘Fly said you were exploring the old signal box.’
‘Yes, got the impression she did not like me doing that. I’ve always been drawn to abandoned old buildings, but that one has a remoteness of its own which fascinates me.’
‘They can also have a deceptiveness of their own. I understand you reported a light coming from there last night.’
‘Do you know anything about it?’
His eyebrows shrugged. ‘What we know and what we perceive doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand. But I’d steer clear of that building, not safe.’
‘Oh, I didn’t go inside, looks ready to collapse for my liking.’
Woodruff downed his pint. ‘Good, put it out of your mind.’ He stood up, adding ‘If I don’t see you before you go, have a good journey tomorrow.’
As he began to leave Elsa suddenly appeared behind the bar and Woodruff diverted over to her. Jim pretended to be pre-occupied as he heard the woman quietly say ‘She’s confined to her room.’
‘Leave her so,’ Woodruff nodded and left.
Their closing conversation obviously referred to the girl, given her absence that evening. Jim had already conceded from her odd behaviour she was a girl with issues, unsurprising if she was the only youngster in an isolated community of adults.
Sitting on his bed with late night radio and whiskey for company, Jim pondered how quiet the building was given it had a teenager living there, and then concentrated on reviewing the photographs and notes he amassed that day. He also deliberately ignored the signal box, the curtains already drawn.
Finishing his drink, then reached to the bedside draw and pulled it open to retrieve his sleeping tablets, and was surprised to find an envelope in their addressed to “Mister Jim” in scrawny handwriting. He opened it to find a note bearing the message “You saw Signal serenade – Run!”
Instinct drew him to the curtains and he carefully folded one back. Within the dusky edges of the signal box the sprite light flickered again, only with greater width and edges merging with the gloom. And within it a dark shape emerged into view, steeping forward from behind the light. It was human in form with arms, torso and a head of long hair looking out in the direction of his window.
He grabbed his camera and used the telephoto lense to zoom in on the apparition. The figure was still in silhouette, apparently female. Though no face was discernible he still had the uneasy feeling it was focused on him, aware he was watching. And then a thought occurred.
Elsa was locking up for the night when he came running down the stairs. ‘Where’s your daughter?’ She appeared affronted by his question.
‘Where she should be, what’s it got to do with you?’
‘I think I’ve just seen her in the signal box, or at least someone like her!’
‘Forget the signal box, you’ve been told.’
‘Why? I get the impression something’s there you all want to keep from me. And I intend to find out what.’
He pushed past her and unlocked the door as she pleaded ‘I’m telling you, leave it!’ As he opened it, she grabbed his arm ‘Please! Stay here, with me. Stay with me.’ He brushed her off and followed his purpose.
Outside he was surprised to find Woodruff, Mrs. Sykes and others gathered in the street, apparently waiting. He walked straight over to the man, the truth now beginning to shine through in his eyes.
‘Then you do know what’s going on!’
Woodruff nodded. ‘Yes, and we hold vigil until it passes. Get back inside, please don’t involve yourself.’
Jim pointed in the direction of the signal box. ‘I take it that’s Fly in there. Is she alone or being abused?’
Woodruff shook his head. ‘You don’t understand, get back indoors and pray this night passes without incident.’
‘Oh, no, I overheard you and her mother. An autistic girl in some archaic, superstitious village? Christ, I hope the thought I’m jumping to is wrong!’
Jim turned heels and made for the overgrown trail he had taken earlier that day. Mrs. Sykes piped up ‘Don’t, come back please!’ but her words fell on deaf ears. She then squared up to Woodruff demanding ‘Why don’t you stop him!’ and he raised a hand in caution. ‘It’s no use, Rachel. We tried dissuading him, but he was found a long time ago. That’s how he found here.’
They watched the back of Jim Atkinson slowly shrink with increasing distance and swallowed into the image of the signal box. Other eyes emerged from surrounding houses to observe the visitor reach the base of the stairs, and they remained silent as he carefully scaled them and reached the door, into which he then disappeared. Eyes closed as the hysterical scream echoed seconds later. They opened to witness the light within the window diminished to nothing, leaving a barren darkness.
Woodruff turned to Elsa, who was now stood directly behind him, her face resigned. ‘I tried. Honestly George, I tried to stop him.’
The man nodded gently. ‘I know. Dispose of his belongings. I’ll get rid of the car.’
‘He mentioned a librarian.’
‘Then if anyone comes looking, you know the story.’ He glanced at the rest of the ensemble, affirming ‘We all know the story.’ It was one they had told before.
Elsa’s daughter known as Fly stepped out from the Inn and joined the gathering, her face and voice impassive as she addressed Woodruff.
‘Is it done? Will Signal sing again?’
He glanced back at the silent building. ‘Not in my lifetime, I hope.’