It always starts at just this moment, when the dying sun has breathed its last and slips away from the world. That’s when the Man in the Lane stirs and takes his first step back into the mortal world.
Will never knew where the stories he told really came from. They just seemed to trip off his tongue as though they'd already been written. But when his new girlfriend Lara asks him to tell her a ghost story, Will starts to realise the true power of his words, revealing a darkness that threatens his entire world.
A chilling short story from James Laurence Wood.
Lara did smile, but she lowered her head and brushed her hair back over her ear in that way she did when someone asked her a difficult question, or worse, gave her a compliment.
‘Come on, I’ve got plenty of pictures of the top of your head, now I’d kind of like one of your pretty face.’
‘Stop it, I’ll go red,’ she protested. She was right. She lifted her face towards my camera, shuffling her feet round so the sunlight coming off the water’s surface didn’t dazzle her. Her shoulders were tense and her posture was awkward, but the smile she gave me could have melted glaciers.
‘Come on, Will, put it away. There are far lovelier things to be looking at than me.’
‘Not even close.’
Lara turned towards the cliff edge and slipped her hand into mine. The salt breeze made her hair dance and she closed her eyes, losing herself in the the breath of the ocean.
‘Will it do?’ I asked, giving her hand a squeeze. She grinned, her eyes still closed. She had asked me the same question on our first date, all of five weeks ago, about her choice of dinner venue. She had asked me the same thing again before our second date, about her choice of outfit. Now it was a thing.
She laid her head against my shoulder. ‘You’ll do.’
‘I do love your smile, by the way,’ I tried to say, but I tripped over the word ‘love’. It was surely harmless in the context, but it still felt like a big step. Lara picked up on my dilemma and just squeezed my hand with a silent, desperate intimacy that we wouldn’t be able to put into words for a good while yet.
‘Used to come to a place just like this with my dad,’ Lara said after a few peaceful moments. ‘He loved the coast so much. Cliffs in particular; he had a real crush on them. After mum went, all our holidays were coast walks and coast cottages and coast camping.’ She rolled her head against my shoulder to look up at me. At that moment she looked very young. ‘He’d have liked you. He was a storyteller too. He was never happier than when he had people wrapped up in a story. Didn’t matter if they were true or not. And most weren’t.’
‘What was your favourite?’ I asked, watching the sun make its final descent onto the horizon.
‘I liked the scary ones. He told a mean ghost story. He called them his campfire tales. Can’t remember us ever actually having a campfire, mind you. A little gas stove heating the beans was about as rustic as we got. Couldn’t count the times I had to sleep with the light on after one of our campfire outings.’
‘I used to have a dream where I was telling ghost stories to my kids. But Carol never wanted them. That was another dream she took from me.’ I was too late to stop myself. ‘Oh sorry, what a stupid thing to go on about. Hope I haven’t ruined it.’
‘It’s alright, I understand,’ Lara said gently, wrapping her arms around my waist. ‘It’s still raw. Relationships mess us all up.’
‘Until the one that doesn’t,’ I said, turning her head so I could plant a kiss on her lips. She smiled again, not the girlish embarrassed grin now but something altogether calmer, something deeper and more content. She slowly let her head sink back onto my chest, turning her eyes back to the sun setting over the calm grey ocean.
‘So tell me a ghost story.’ The sun began to melt into the horizon.
‘Hmm, okay, give me a minute.’ I gazed around the countryside, seeking inspiration. My eyes came to rest on our holiday cottage, sat alone at the edge of the farmland that stretched up almost to the cliff edge. A narrow shingle road was the only access, a winding pathway that lead a mile and a half inland to the main road. ‘Well,’ I began, ‘there is in fact a notorious ghost that haunts this very stretch of coast.’
‘I had a feeling there might be,’ Lara said.
‘Oh, have you heard this one before?’ I asked.
‘No, because you’re just making it up right now,’ she said, digging her fingers into my waist in the way she knew tickled me uncontrollably. I fought the urge to shriek like a little girl.
‘Truth or fiction,’ I replied, ‘what’s the difference, really?’
‘But in this case it’s very, very true.’
‘So, as I was saying, there are whispered tales of a spirit that wanders these very cliffs. A man once, so they say, but death has burned everything from him except burning malice. Nobody knows if he performed horrendous acts in life, or whether some atrocious act of injustice has turned an innocent soul into a creature of hate and vengeance. Nobody even knows his name. They can only call him the Man in the Lane.’
The sun sank below the horizon, starving the last of the warm orange from the clouds. The cold turquoises and blues of dusk advanced across the sky.
‘It always starts at just this moment,’ I continued, ‘when the dying sun has breathed its last and slips away from the world, as night begins its march across the heavens, bringing darkness to every corner of the land. That’s when the Man in the Lane stirs and takes his first step back into the mortal world. He’s there in the first chill of night you feel on the back of your neck. He’s there in the sudden silence just after sundown, when the birds cease their calls and the distant sounds of humanity fade into nothingness. He’s there in your urge to shutter your windows against the oncoming dark.’