“The Folly”

Gordon shivered. His hands closed to fists and the urge to retreat rose in his gut. Winter winds, early for the time of year brushed his prickling skin and plumed his breath. But it was not the coming harshness of an Atlantic chill that froze the caretaker. It was the footprints in the snow.

He preferred isolation, took the job watching the manor for peace and quiet, though he was now thankful for Rufus’ company. The big Bassett nuzzled his leg silently demanding to leave this place and the Folly behind.

Gordon looked to the grand structure, a tower, forty feet high with windows at cardinal points and a door set ten feet up. As if its purpose was defence, protection. It was built according to the agent in the late eighteenth century to give the poor something to do. Victorians did not believe in handouts. The poor had to work, to build follies, vast garden ornaments on the master’s land. This one stood sentinel on a small rise overlooking the manor with lawns between and a deep wood behind.

The footprints in the snow ran a circle around the folly. Gordon could make out individual toes, he could see patterns as if the makers whirled or danced, and had that been all he might have laughed at the absurdity of the thing. But he was cut short by a salient fact. The prints ran around the folly, but none led to the building. It was as if the makers just appeared and disappeared after.

“It must be teens,” Gordon said under his breath, “hmm?” he patted the dogs head letting his hand linger. “Must be.”

As he made his way back to the two-room hovel that was his winter home he decided to check fences in the morning, patch whatever holes the teens or coursers used to get in.

Rufus held back a moment. His attention on the folly’s snow-capped door. Then with a huff, he retreated too.

That evening, Gordon ate slowly. He took no joy in his broth or the warmth it brought. His mind was fixed on the tower and what to do about it. He decided to wait up and see the visitors for himself. He let the fire die out early to give the impression he was asleep. And as a pale cloud wreathed moon took its ascendancy, he sat and waited.

By midnight, sleep beckoned and her call was sweet and tempting. The choice between risking sleep and scaring off the visitors was no choice at all though. Gordon led Rufus to the bathroom by his broad red collar and closed him in before, shrugging on his overcoat and taking his cigarette makings, he slipped out the front door. At first, he felt no cold, his skin numbing to the still icy air. Then his fingers burned making the action of rolling his smoke difficult.

Inside, Rufus began to bark. The tobacco of the poorly made smoke drifted to the earth. And the moon casts an eldritch glow silhouetting the folly.

It is as Gordon lifts the smoke to his lips that he sees the lights. They burn brightly in the follies windows, golden and hot and alien.

In his bed later, with the night all around and the snow falling in matted clumps outside, Gordon dreamt of the lights. He saw the follies windows clearly and fancied that within the fire lit interior, he could see dancers.

Gordon remained indoors all the next day. He told Rufus that the weather was going to worsen and he would get little done. He let the dog out before darkness descended, to mark territory and whatever else was necessary. But when Rufus ventured north, toward the tower, Gordon called him back.

The manor and its grounds were sullied in the caretaker’s mind now because now he had neighbours, now he had visitors and his peace and isolation were broken

As soon as light peered over the eastern horizon, Gordon ventured out into the thick drift. Tired, he made a ring of the manor and its grounds checking every high fence and stout gate. He found all secure and intact.

Just after noon, as he sipped coffee from a heavy plain mug the man asked to no one, “how are they getting in?” and with that, he had an idea that made him sweat. What if they are already in?

Gordon almost ran to the manor. He passed through its oak clad door and raced along its halls checking every room twice and finding the same thing, nothing. From the master bedroom, he could see the tower stabbing from the white blanketed earth like a spear. Sullied, he thought again.

Before leaving the manor, Gordon took something. It was precautionary he told himself. Better I have it than some yahoo find. He tucked the shotgun under his arm as he made his way home, its weight a comfort.

That night, Gordon cleaned the gun to the best of his ability and with dawn, he took it on his rounds. By the edge of the wood, he test fired the thing and found great satisfaction in its deafening roar.

Not meaning to, he turned to the folly. Was he expecting a retort from it? It crossed his mind and anxiety turned to frustration. He started to march north.

There again he found the footprints. But he had expected as much. What he found next, however, turned his blood to ice.

Organising some loose stone and a large urn into a makeshift ladder, the caretaker climbed up until he could reach the latch on the follies door. He turned it, pensive at first and then swung it open wildly. His breath caught in his throat. Beyond the door was stone. And from here he could see that the same lay behind each window.

In his hovel, Gordon brooded. The fear and uncertainty rising and infecting his every thought like a fever. He tried sleep but dreamt of dancers. He cleaned the gun but his hands shook. Eventually, when he could stand it no more, he pulled the curtains from his window and dumped the heavy material to the ground. Outside was white, pristine and silent. The face of the folly was blank. The air carried no music. Exhausted he lay on his bed and let sleep carry him away to nothingness.

The fear returned the next morning the moment he opened his front door. There in the snow, he saw tracks, a line of bare footprints leading from the folly to his own window.

Stumbling back, Gordon shut the door with a crash, only stopping when his back met wall. The prints hovered in his vision, burned into his retinas by the bright glistening snow and his own terror.

He stood there, fearing to move, fearing to make a sound and dreading to glance at the naked window for fear he his eyes would be met by Another’s.

The rest of the day is a blur. He completed his chores. He cleaned the gun and rehung the curtain, going so far as to tack the dark material to the wall. But his attempts failed. It was just too heavy for his improvised rod and time after time the curtain slumped to the hovel floor allowing the outside in.

Gordon let Rufus out to do his business at about four of the clock. The hound bounded free from the doorway and reaching the prints it sniffed and then moved off in a different direction. Gordon understood why.

He took to his chair and rolled a cigarette. He didn’t want it but his bones ached for the need of something. He sucked in the acrid cigarette smoke keeping his attention on the door. That was safer, the other option was to look beyond his window and see the accusing tower.

It is ten in the morning when Gordon wakes. The door is still open but there is no sign of Rufus. His neck and back are stiff. A small dark crater marks the wood by his feet where the smoke from last night fell and burned out. Frost coats his boots. He wants a fire but a dread lurks in his mind between the tower and Rufus’ whereabouts.

Taking up the old double barrelled shotgun, Gordon abandons the shelter of the hovel and starts outside into heavy falling snow and a growling wind.

After three hours in which he fell often and almost lost a boot to the packed snow, Gordon returned home without his companion. Heart heavy and shaking hard the man started a fire.

He tried to focus on kindling and matches but couldn’t. He’ll be back in no time. Found some foxes tracks I bet and is off investigating.

But he understood somewhere deep in his mind that that was wrong. A gust banged his door startling him. He reached for the shotgun and only managed to knock it onto the ground. It was pointless. He left town, left people to find security. Now, here, in the middle of a blank space on the map, he found exhaustion and something far more sinister.

The door bangs again and it is as if a summer breeze has cleared Gordon’s mind. A solution to at least one of his problems becomes apparent.

Grabbing some firewood, the long pieces, some tacks and a few nails from a drawer, the caretaker takes to the gathering storm and pushes north.

These will do, he decides as snow covers his shoulders and eyelids. They must do. Without losing pace, the caretaker scours the follies wall for a loose brick. Once found, about six inches long with curiously rounded edges. He ascends the makeshift ladder as before. It shakes beneath his weight but he is unperturbed and board by board he blocks the bottom half of the follies door. He strikes the nails and tacks with the stone like a troglodytes hammer until they are all attached. Finally, he reaches for the latch as he did on his first investigation here and pulls. But the door is stuck tight. He pulls harder. The door remains shut but the pile of debris beneath his feet crumbles and he is cast down.

For the first time in his life, Gordon is glad of the snow. Like a thick blanket, it protects him from the rough ground beneath. A single stone, however, has cut his left temple and the warmth flowing there tells him he is bleeding. But it is done.

“Now what” he whispers to the folly, “now who is imprisoned?”

As Gordon starts to get up marvelling that nothing is broken his hand finds something in the snow. It jingles as he brings it close to his face, and he knows it’s Rufus’ broad red collar before his eyes see it.

Gordon left the folly and the collar. He wouldn’t bring the thing into his home. Or at least his home for tonight because regardless of the weather. Regardless of the roads or the distance needed to travel, Gordon was returning to humanity and sanity with dawns first light.

Once inside the dim hovel, Gordon begins to fill his pockets with shotgun shells. He bolts the door and throws wood onto the small dying flame in the hearth. He lifts the weighty weapon from its perch by his bed and turns his chair to face the door. Blood runs down his cheek. He can hear it tip tapping onto the wooden floor. He feels dizzy. He feels the room grow and falls rather than sits in the chair making it creak. Darkness follows.

At first, he thought to tell Rufus to quieten. The dog almost always made a fuss first thing in the morning but as his senses returned he heard the noise for what it was and his eyes opened.

The handle of his door turned slowly.

By instinct, powered by a combination of loathing and terror, Gordon levelled the gun at the door and emptied both barrels. The thing thundered, it thumped into his gut and caused bile to rise burning his throat. The gunshots effect was evident on the door. A hole the size of a human head with raggedy edges had replaced the handle.

For a moment, all was still. The caretaker noticed only the cold and then the frosted windows, steamed as if by breath. And then he realised as the sound of a jingling collar rose that he could hear a call, like the one he used to get Rufus to heel. With the low clicking and jingling a new sight appeared beyond the hole in the door. It was Rufus’ collar. And the hand that bore it was long fingered and almost blue.

Gordon screamed and struggled with the shotgun. He realised it needed to be reloaded just as his door burst open. A wave of snow filled the space blocking his view and then coating his eyes. But he felt the hands, not a pair but many. They took the gun and pawed at his face. His scream turned to a shriek as the hands grabbed him and lifted him from the chair, bearing him north, into the snow and on to the tower.


A Little Extra

A few years back, I was cycling in the very early morning during a brief winter snow flurry. I passed a large and old building that was once the local hospital.

Big hissing halogen lamps coated the building in an eerie orange glow while creating deep shadows all around the grounds and behind the windows.

I wondered if I stayed long enough, outside this ancient structure, would I see a face at one of those windows. A face, drained of colour by the halogen lamps, and by time?

I love a good ghost story. But a story that has all the markings of a ghostly tale without ghosts… that’s my jam.