Authors: David Castleton
© David Castleton 2015
by Steel String Books
characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the
public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or
dead, is purely coincidental.
In the wet weather,
when it had been raining for many weeks – gossamer curtains of rain then
thudding downpours of rain – a pond would form itself outside the gate of our
school. It was a dirty thing, a sullen brown disc. There it would stand, not
far from our low redbrick school building, as around lay the low marshy fields:
all sulky bogs, shivering hedges, the melancholy of black ploughed earth, the
deep green conservatism of the ground that was unturned.
As I grip my pen,
as I look back across the vault of so many years, I see myself leaving the
school one late September afternoon, I see myself walking towards a bunch of
lads gathered by the pond. There were six; I drifted up to the little group.
The day was clammy, but there was no rain; lazy clouds of mist hung around the
fields, floated from the boys’ mouths as they chattered. I reached the group’s
edge – the boys’ faces acknowledged I was there: a twitch of cheeks, a flick of
the eyes. I just stood and listened as the stench of deep sludge and rotten
matter wafted up from the pool. One kid – a brown-haired lad with glasses and
an infuriating face called Dennis Stubbs – was instructing the others. His arm
was back, his elbow bent. He held a stone in his raised hand.
‘You watch!’ Stubbs
was saying. ‘Watch how I chuck it. I’ll teach you all to skim.’
‘You can’t skim a
stone, Stubbsy,’ a lad called Richard Johnson said. ‘You can’t do owt right,
can you? That’s what Mr Weirton told us.’
‘I don’t care what
he said,’ Stubbs replied. ‘Just watch me do it.’
peeped above the murky, almost suspicious waters of the pond. There were tin
cans, half a football, the upturned wing and bulbous undercarriage of a toy
plastic aeroplane – a prize I wouldn’t have minded rescuing from that dark
water and slime, if it were not for some vague fear of sinking mud, of visions
of my last bubbles of breath breaking on the pond’s surface.
towards the plane, eyes narrowing. Before anyone could stop him, he flung his
stone. A flat blade, it spun over the water. Gravity made it dip; it hit the
stagnant pool, sent up two reluctant waves of heavy liquid and sped on towards
its target. Two more bounces, two more resentful splashes and the stone struck
the hull of the plane. The flying machine shifted, flopped onto its back and –
with a gurgle – disappeared under the water.
‘Stubbsy,’ a kid
said, ‘be careful! Weirton’s still in the school – he might see us!’
At the mention of
that name, my heart knocked an extra beat; worry tinted all our faces. Neck
muscles tightened; lips were pulled back; eyes protruded. Dennis Stubbs soon
‘Look how scared
you all are!’ he said, high voice mocking. ‘You’re just a bunch of scardy
‘We’re not scared!’
said Richard Johnson. ‘But Weirton could come out dead easily! And someone
might see us from the pub and tell him.’
The pub, another
low redbrick building on the pond’s other side, was a mysterious citadel, a fortress
of the adults. Fumes of beer were breathed out by the occasional swing of its
door – an enticing earthily sour smell. Lights and laughter would stampede out
with them, before turning and rushing in with the door’s backward sweep. Could
adult eyes from the pub spy, betray us?
‘There’s no one in,’
Stubbs knowledgeably said, tossing another flat stone in his hand. ‘It’s
closed. And Weirton’s doing his marking or he’s on the bog or something – won’t
be out for another ten minutes.’
We all laughed at
the wickedness and irreverence of Stubbs’s words, our imagined reactions of
Weirton to them. Stubbs whisked his arm, let go of his stone. It bounced over
the pond, pinged off a rusty can. The impact uprooted it from its grave in the
sludge. It tottered, tipped, filled with water, sank. Stubbs’s confident
display inspired the boys.
‘Let’s have a go!
Let’s have a go!’
The lads flapped
and bounced, searched the ground for pebbles, snatched up flat stones, barged
and pushed one another. Richard Johnson got one, hurled it over the water. It
hit the football – in a lethargic roll it heaved up its muddy side, flopped a
few inches farther from the bank. Shoved to the edge of the scrum, I hadn’t got
a stone. But a bombardment of skimming objects soon flew across the water,
ricocheting off cans, directing the football around the filthy circle.
shouted. ‘What about Marcus?’
Hands froze; stones
were dropped; all the boys gasped; dismay scrunched faces – how could we have
‘Do you … think
he’ll … be alright?’ Johnson asked.
‘After all that, I
doubt it,’ Stubbs said with a sneer.
‘Are you sure it’s
true?’ another boy said.
Browning’s brother says it is!’ I chipped in. ‘He says he’s seen him!’
‘You can’t trust
those Brownings.’ Another boy turned to face me. ‘They’re a bad lot my mum says
– a bit like you Watsons.’
‘But he says he’s
seen him!’ I insisted. ‘He’s seen his head all muddy – sticking up above the
Eyes darted; mouths
fell; faces looked down.
‘Do you think he’s …
he’s really in there?’ someone asked.
‘Where else could
he be!?’ Stubbs said. ‘He disappeared suddenly and we haven’t seen him anywhere
else, have we? And the grown-ups always tell us not to go near the pond in case
This convinced the
lads. Poor Marcus now dwelled in the pond’s depths. We stood silent, thoughtful
for some seconds.
‘What about our
skimming game?’ a lad asked.
Richard, ‘he’s deep down in the pool. He won’t stick his head up if he’s got
any sense. If we just skim on the surface, it should be OK.’
The shore came
alive with the motion of bodies and soon we were all chucking. Boys took up
sideways stances like classical athletes, unleashed the discuses of their
stones, but they were not under any Olympian blue sky – a low slab of tombstone
grey hung in the English heavens. The stones whizzed and splashed. Then Stubbs
strained to lift a huge rock, almost a boulder. Like a shot putter he held his
weapon against his neck, performed an anxious shimmy with his feet and heaved
his stone over the pool. It spun in a heavy arc before it dropped in a curve
and landed on top of the football. A crown of water was hurled up – spikes and
jewels of liquid dirt – and both stone and football vanished. The water slopped
back down, but several bubbles appeared on its swaying skin – bubbles I guessed
spiralled up from the pond’s bed.
‘It’s Marcus!’ a
lad shouted. ‘Look – he’s breathing!’
breathed a gasp, stood with down-stretched arms, frozen feet ready to run. A
few more spheres of air gurgled up. The water shifted and rippled.
‘Look at that!’
The pond’s surface
was punctured. A head appeared, anointed with mud and green slime.
‘It’s him! It’s
We sprinted past
the pub, its beery curiosity now forgotten. A few lads hived off who lived on
that building’s other side. The rest of us powered down our patch of town’s
main street. I ran, catching gulps of fear with my juddering breath, not daring
to look back, but driving my legs forward. My heart bashed my ribcage. On I
dashed, as grateful companions on either side reached the sanctuary of their
houses, beyond whose thresholds no outer malevolence, however powerful, could
pass. But I lived right on the edge of our district, which itself lay on the
edge of our small town, Emberfield. I laboured past the smart semis, the neat
front gardens, past the garden gnomes – lurking around concrete toadstools or
fishing in ornamental ponds, past the fake wishing wells my parents had to stop
me casting money into. On I ran – a stitch ached and spread, but I forced my
feet, throat spasming at the thought of slimy mud-drenched arms grasping my
ankles. At last, right on the edge of town, I made it to my home.
I stare at my room’s
white walls, hoping those clear spaces can provide an answer, supply some
clarity my mind lacks as my pen twitches over my page. Cars hum; noises float
up from the city street; they joggle something in my brain; set loose a cascade
of recollections. I see it now, remember how the next day I dawdled along to
school in the rain – gawping at the clear jewels of drops on the leaves, the
puddles on the pavement. Where the way was rougher and less paved, the puddles
were tea-coloured. I imagined them as lakes and muddy oceans – the stones
around their rim a circle of jagged mountains, those sticking up from the water
rocky islets. I pictured nations around their shores – their borders marked by
pavement cracks or the slithering streams of rainwater my mind turned into
mighty rivers. I was soon busy weaving legends of wars and great kings, of
ancient navies battling on those rivers and seas with booming cannons,
fluttering flags. I wished I had some coloured pencils in my satchel, wished I
could sit down and draw those amazing scenes. But, floating back to reality, I
quickened my trudge through that dull chilly morning, my breath in front of me
a tugging cloud, raw hands poking from my blue waterproof, my kagool’s hood
done up tight, leaving just the circle of my red face to peer out. I turned off
the direct road to school, into a smaller street. I strode past the redbrick
houses, their wet gardens, dripping fences, their plaster gnomes merrily
fishing. I wondered if the circles spreading across their little pools were
caused by raindrops or cunning evasive fish. This reminded me of Marcus and a
jolt of fear shook me. Was he still angry at the crash of Stubbs’s rock, at our
stones splintering his pool’s restful surface? I shivered – knowing that
morning I’d have to walk past him to get to school. I imagined him glowering
and vengeful in his murky depths. My heart began to thud, briskly jerking my walk.
I wondered how Marcus had got in there – had it just been an accident or
something more sinister? I pictured strong hands pushing his head under those waters,
or maybe not even hands but some sort of
shoving or sucking him
down. But then I noticed how the rain was playing its pattering symphony:
drumming on cars, on rooftops, the pavement, the road, my hood, the tops of the
false wishing wells. Each drop made its unique and final sound, each rapping
out a different tone from the thing it struck. It was a rhythmic poem of
splatters, drips and plops. Before I reached the road’s end, I was once more
dawdling, trying to catch each note. I drifted to the street’s last house,
which stood next to a clump of trees that skulked behind barbed wire. I bunched
my fingers into a fist, banged on the door’s varnished wood – each beat a
sacrifice of pain. There was a shuffling of carpeted footsteps; the door swung
open; a woman stood in the hall.
‘Is Jonathon in?’ I
asked, tilting my head back to peer at her face far above.
Jonathon’s mother said, ‘he’s still upstairs, absorbed again in one of his
set-outs. You’d better hurry him up or you’ll both be late, and you know what
might happen then!’
I’d only recently
got into the habit of calling on Jonathon Browning. Not knowing what a set-out
was, and thinking that perhaps I should, I didn’t say anything, but just
clambered up the stairs. Mrs Browning walked after me with an impatient tread
that made me stumble as I soaked up her nervousness. As I reached to push
Jonathon’s door, the adult behind me bashed her fist on it, making the wood
leap and shudder. My hand slipped, I missed my footing and staggered into his
shouted. ‘Ryan’s already here! You’d better get a move on – you know what Mr
Weirton does to boys who are late!’
I steadied myself
and gasped. A city spread across the bedroom floor: walled by battlements and
towers; guarded by stern plastic inch-high soldiers, by their guns and tanks,
axes, horses and swords. Starting from the turreted gatehouse, my eyes followed
a broad straight road, upon whose side rose great halls, houses and shops:
ingeniously constructed from toys, building blocks, Lego. Off this grand avenue
were side-streets through which my vision wandered: some also straight, others
allowed to wind – packed with horses, carts, cars, buses and trucks. In fact,
the main thoroughfare and one other split the settlement in a sort of cross,
and in each quarter were mazes of streets from which rose buildings, towers,
chimneys. Amazed, my eyes meandered through the spirals of those roads until
they came – over on the set-out’s other side, where the city ended near
Jonathon’s window – to a great port. The blue of the carpet acted as the ocean.
Ships were in the harbour – both wind and motor-powered – attended to by
cranes, lorries, horses and busy working men. In the city’s centre, where the
two major streets met, was a kind of island. On it, a gorgeous building rose,
like a cathedral or temple, a stately pile of blocks, windows, pillars and
statues. My gaze followed it up as it rose in ornate layers like the tiers of a
cake – tiers which narrowed as they moved skywards. On the pedestal of the
uppermost platform soared a tower, which climbed above the city for many
storeys, and crowning this structure was a statue of a squirrel. Yes, a brown
squirrel with green glinting eyes, a porcelain bush for a tail, clutching a
stone nut to nibble on. This statue appeared almost like something to pray to,
a woodland god strange to see in such an urban setting. For silent seconds, my
eyes roved over Jonathon’s set-out, sucking in more and more details.
‘Whoah!’ I let out
my captured breath. ‘You did all that!?’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs
Browning, who had walked into the room behind me, ‘he’d cover the whole
bloomin’ house with his toys if I let him. He’s only allowed to do it in his
room, and that causes me enough bother, especially with the cleaning. Perhaps
he thinks one day he’ll be a famous town planner! Maybe he thinks he’ll be
getting medals off the Queen!’
Mrs Browning gave a
laugh – jarring and high-pitched, it struggled from her throat, suggesting
perhaps we should also struggle to picture such things, but I just went on
admiring Jonathon’s architecture. Jonathon was on his knees, about to balance a
building block on some high structure, his eyes fixed on that delicate task.
Our words shook him from his concentration; he glanced up, saw his mother and
‘Aye, he’ll be
ruining our country with awful modern buildings and daft trendy ideas. You’d
better hurry, son!’ Like her laugher, Mrs Browning’s voice was now high and
grating. ‘Your brother left five minutes ago! You know what happens to boys who
thumb and two fingertips, the block hung in mid-air. His mouth fell, and –
though a shiver crossed his face – he looked at his mum imploringly. We indeed
knew what happened to such boys yet the block continued to hover, and
Jonathon’s big eyes went on staring at his mum. Then – their flickers of
obsession outshining those of fear – he turned those eyes back to his
unfinished tower. He began to lower his brick.
mother shouted. ‘I’d like to see what your father would say about such cheek,
never mind Mr Weirton! And don’t you come crying to me if Mr Weirton gives you
such a –’
The hand clasping
the brick shook. The brick knocked the tower it had been meant to crown. A line
of air-strung blocks – colourful and curved, bulging in its middle – held its
form for a second. Those blocks toppled, smashed into other structures. Three
other towers, a couple of houses tumbled, crashed down and were soon no more
than piles of random rubble. Jonathon’s face wobbled then his eyes flitted to
me. He smiled, though his smile for a moment quivered. He pushed himself up
from the floor.
‘Come on, Ryan,’ he
said, ‘we’d better get a shift on – you know what Mr Weirton’s like!’
As we headed for
the bedroom door, Mrs Browning yelled after us, wagged a finger.
know what he’s like – you should take all your brother’s run-ins with him
as good lessons! Won’t stand for any nonsense, won’t Mr Weirton! Oh, you’d
better get a move on!’
Soon we were
outside on the wet road. We marched down Jonathon’s close, and turned onto the
main street. Up in the distance bobbed the satchels and bright kagools –
orange, yellow, red – of other tramping children.
‘We’d better try to
catch them,’ I said, breathing hasty clouds of fog. ‘You heard what your mum
said – don’t fancy facing Weirton if we’re late!’
Soon our legs were
gobbling the street. As we strode, I looked across at my friend.
something dead weird happened yesterday.’
‘You know the
legend of Marcus in the pond?’
‘Course … not sure
if I believe it.’
‘What?’ I said. ‘How
can you not believe it? Marcus disappeared all of a sudden, and no one knew
where he went, did they?’
‘Doesn’t prove he’s
in the pond –’
‘No, but listen! We
‘We were skimming
stones over the pond. Then Dennis lobbed a
one in! There was a
huge splash and … Marcus’s head came up, all muddy and covered in slime!’
Jonathon bit his
lip; the lip trembled; he breathed more quickly.
‘I never said I
believe it! I just wasn’t sure. Trust Stubbs though!’
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘he
always gets us in trouble … Jonathon, how do you think Marcus got into the
‘Yeah, but do you
reckon it was just an accident or did someone do it on purpose?’
‘Who could have
done it on purpose?’
‘Dunno …maybe some
adult. Or maybe it was a ghost or some magic.’
‘Reckon he just
drowned,’ said Jonathon. ‘Sort of thing that could happen easily.’
We marched on in
silence. I pondered the mystery of Marcus for a while, but soon other thoughts
crowded into my mind, not the least of which was the need to hurry. But then we
came towards a cluster of houses within sight of the pub. I turned to Jonathon.
‘Do you think we’ve
got time to look at the witch’s hand?’
‘Do you really
think it’s a witch’s hand?’ he said.
‘Course it is –
what else could it be?’
‘It could be just
another of Stubbs’s lies!’
‘I reckon you’re
‘I’m not scared!’
Jonathon said, before moving his shoulders in a shrug. ‘We can have a look if
that’s what you want.’
We crept up to that
huddle of buildings. Between the walls of two of the houses was a narrow space.
My heart started to bang. Bodies arched and stiffening, we sneaked up to that
gap, lifting our feet carefully to keep them silent.
nothing there,’ Jonathon whispered, unable to keep a quaver from his voice.
‘There is!’ I
hissed. ‘I’m telling you, it’s down there! We just have to look.’
‘You first then!’
We edged closer,
pushing and scrabbling, each trying to shove the other ahead, the scrapes of
our trainers on the pavement now defeating our desire to stay quiet. We stopped
our struggles, looked at each other and came to an unspoken compromise. Heads
together, at the same time, we peered down into that dark space.
‘Can’t see anything
yet,’ I said.
I tried to make my
voice casual while wondering if Jonathon could feel me trembling through our
pressed-together heads or if he was jolted by the shudders from my heart.
‘Looks like Stubbs
lied again!’ said Jonathon.
‘But it’s magic,
isn’t it?’ I said. ‘Sometimes you can see it, and sometimes you can’t. It’s
probably better for us if we can’t.’
We went on staring
into that space. My eyes getting used to the gloom, I could make out cobwebs,
bits of flaking paint, but nothing more frightening.
‘It’s not there,’
Jonathon said. ‘Stubbs has been lying and you’re stupid enough to believe him!’
‘Let’s look a
‘Nah, let’s go.’
‘Just one more
Whatever we said,
we kept our heads shoved up against that crack. The sky was cloudy, but rather
than the glowering slab of the day before, it was made up of shifting banks of
grey and piles of floating black boulders. As we gaped into that space, the
crest of the sun appeared from behind one of those bulbous stacks. More of the
sun emerged; it shot a ray downwards. That sunbeam cut into the gap and it
illuminated – two thirds of the way down – the outline of a human hand.
‘Ahhh!’ I shouted.
We sprinted from
that fire-tinged, five-fingered shape. My breath jerked as my legs powered.
What hexes, spells, curses could it fling upon us if our heels weren’t fast
enough? We pelted down the road, my bashing heart labouring. We flew past those
kagools and bobbing satchels that had seemed so distant just moments earlier.
As we hurtled towards the pub, we passed Jonathon’s brother who strode
confidently with a crowd of his mates.