Extract

 

Two things happened on my fourteenth birthday. I had a massive row with Dad – and I died.

It started around dusk. We were having a week’s holiday in Totnes – big mistake. Don’t get me wrong. I like Totnes. We often used to go there for little breaks when Dad and Mum were together. It was good to get away from London and we liked to go somewhere different.

And Totnes is different. I don’t know what it is about the place. It’s like nowhere you’ve ever been. You feel like you’re walking through the present and the past at the same time. We used to go there a lot as a family.

But that was in the days before Mum met Mr Perfect and walked out on us, and then Dad met Angela. Everything’s gone wrong since then. It’s not that I blame him for going out with someone else. The problem is I don’t like her.

She smiles too much and she keeps trying to be matey with me. I wish she wouldn’t. And she’s got bad skin. I mean, I know it’s not her fault and she’s always putting cream on and stuff, but she doesn’t look good, not the way Mum did.

Anyway, there we were in this grotty guesthouse called Maudlin Lodge. It was in a street that climbed up towards the Kingsbridge Arms, not a part of Totnes I knew at all.

There was no one else staying there – what a surprise – and it was run by this loopy woman called Mrs Capstick. She looked like she had one foot in this world and one foot in some other. And her husband didn’t look much better.

We arrived in the late afternoon and within five minutes I was so bored and fed up I wanted to scream.

Then Dad and I had this row. It was all about Angela, of course. She’d bought me this CD collection for my birthday. I suppose she wasn’t to know Mum got me the same collection last year, but she should have checked with Dad first.

Anyway, I snapped at her. Dad told me off, so I snapped at him. We let rip at each other for a few minutes. Then I stomped out.

I was fuming. I tramped up the hill, hardly looking where I was going. Yet even in my anger, I could feel something else. Something that should have warned me.

It was a feeling I’d had before, a feeling that I’m walking into trouble and that if I turn away, I can avoid it. Only I never do. It’s a pride thing, I suppose. I tell myself I’ve got a right to go wherever I want.

Like the time I sensed Kenny and his mates were round the corner of the school gym and I had a chance to turn back. Only I went on and there they were. And I got beaten up.

Or the time I knew I shouldn’t follow Joel into the camera shop. He hadn’t said what he was going to do but I sensed he was going to nick something and probably get caught.

I didn’t have to go in with him. I’d even told him I had to get home, and he was OK about it. But I went in. I ignored my hunch, like I always do. And Joel got caught. And guess who else got into trouble?

And here was another hunch. It told me to stop and go back to Maudlin Lodge. So of course I carried on up the hill. I thought, why the hell shouldn’t I go this way if I want to?

Then I saw this funny little lane to my right. I stopped and looked it over. It was more of an alleyway really, tucked into the pavement. It had high walls on either side and all I could see was a dark passageway dipping for a few yards before twisting away out of sight. What lay beyond I had no idea.

I stared at it. I was still fuming and ready to bite the head off anyone who came by. In fact, I was practically hoping someone would come by so I could do just that. But there was that feeling again. That hunch.

Turn away, it said. Go back to the guesthouse. Make your peace with Dad and Angela.

No way.

I headed down the alleyway with my fists clenched, and before I’d gone more than a few yards I heard the sound of running water.

I stopped and listened. It was so unexpected it was almost magical. I stood there and let it wash over me. Perhaps if I’d stayed there a bit longer, it would have washed away my anger.

But anger doesn’t work like that. Not with me anyway. Sometimes I want to hold onto it, and this was one of those times.

I carried on down the alleyway, staring up at the high stone walls on either side. Then suddenly I came out into a sort of triangular yard bordered by walls. Two further alleyways led off it, one climbing on up the hill, the other dipping away to my right.

To my left was the weirdest sight.

It was some kind of spring or well. But it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was quite large and it was roughly rectangular with high stone walls on three sides. The fourth side opened onto the little space where I was standing.

Water trickled out from some point on the far wall but I couldn’t see where from. This was partly because the light was fading but also because my view was blocked by a scruffy old man.

He had his back to me and he was lying in the spring itself. I didn’t like the look of him. But he seemed harmless and obviously didn’t know I was there. I could creep forward and have a closer look and still have time to run for it if he turned round.

Again I felt that hunch. Turn away. Get out of here. Again I ignored it.

I stole forward until I was just a few feet from the spring. I could see it much more clearly now, even in the dusk.

The base was more or less flat and it had three stone baths, each with a spout above it. I could see water trickling out of one of them.

The floor was covered with stones, many arranged in intricate patterns. On the far wall there was an open grate and a stone ledge with little ornaments that people had left there. I could even see a love-heart made from wood and some words scrawled on it.

But the old man wasn’t interested in any of these things. His attention was on a small, dirty-looking object which he had wedged under the running spout and was cleaning as the water splashed onto it.

He appeared to be having some difficulty holding it in place and the water was splashing over him too. But he seemed unconcerned about this. All he cared about was cleaning the thing, whatever it was.

I looked him over. He was certainly a freaky character. He had a long coat with a hood, though this was down over the back of his neck, and the whole thing was so sodden it clung to him.

I could see the outline of a gaunt, wasted body underneath. His hair was scrawny and unkempt, and as wet as the rest of him. I couldn’t see his face at all.

Then he turned and I saw a revolting sight. If Angela’s skin was bad, this man’s was a thousand times worse.

His face was covered in sores. But that wasn’t all. His eyes were sunken. His forehead was unnaturally high. He had no teeth.

He was hideous.

He squinted up at me, then spoke in a high, quavering voice.

‘Who’s that?’

‘None of your business,’ I said.

‘Eh?’

‘None of your business!’

He sniffed.

‘Friendly type,’ he muttered.

I said nothing. He went on squinting up at me. It was obvious he was half-blind as well as half-deaf. I stared back at him, determined to show no fear.

‘So you haven’t got a name?’ he said.

‘I’ve got a name,’ I answered. ‘But I’m not telling you what it is.’

The man took the object he was washing away from the spout and rested it on the floor behind him. I tried again to make out what it was but the man’s body blocked it. He twisted himself painfully round.

I found the look in his eyes unsettling but I managed to glare back at him.

‘My name’s Stevie,’ I said.

I don’t know why I told him. I suppose it was just defiance. The old man sniffed again.

‘Ah,’ he mused. ‘Stephen.’

‘Not Stephen!’ I snapped. ‘Stevie!’

‘There was a Stephen in the Bible,’ the old man went on, in the same musing voice. ‘They stoned him to death.’

I felt suddenly cold. The old man moved and I took a step back. He looked up at me.

‘Help me stand up, Stephen.’

I kept well back. I wasn’t going near this guy.

I saw a hand reaching towards me.

‘I need your help, Stephen.’

‘Get away from me!’

‘Please, Stephen.’

‘No!’ I stared at him with revulsion. ‘You got in by yourself. You can get out by yourself.’

The old man’s hand stretched closer. I looked down at it and recoiled.

He had no fingers.

‘Get away!’ I shouted. ‘You’re disgusting!’

He drew his hand back without a word. I watched in horror as he tried to push himself up from the floor of the spring. I could see even from here that the other hand was fingerless too.

I looked quickly down at his feet. They were bare – and toeless.

I felt another wave of revulsion.

The old man struggled to his feet. I shouted at him, trying to sound more confident than I felt.

‘You see? You didn’t need my help at all!’

The old man stood there, swaying. I could hear the heavy sound of his breathing against the trickle of the water. He was watching me again but it was hard to see his expression now that darkness was closing around us.

He lurched towards the edge of the spring. I took a few steps towards the alleyway I had come down.

But the old man had no further interest in me. He struggled out of the spring and stood there for a moment. Then, without a glance in my direction, he shuffled off towards the alleyway that led down the hill.

A moment later he was gone.

I breathed out with relief. He might not have been dangerous but he was creepy. I turned to run back to the guesthouse, then suddenly noticed that the object the old man had been washing was still in the spring. I jumped down and picked it up.

It was a small, metal bell.

I shook it but no sound came out. It appeared to be broken.

I glanced over my shoulder for the old man. There was no sign of him. I held the bell up. Even in the darkness it gave off a dull glint. I climbed out of the spring and stood there, kicking some of the water from my shoes.

Then I felt another hunch. A really strong one.

Put the bell down, it said. Leave it where it was.

I gripped it tightly in my hand.

Put it down. Walk away. Do it now.

I squeezed the bell more tightly than ever and set off with it up the alleyway.

As I did so, something cold brushed against my legs.

I shivered and looked down.

There was nothing there. Just water dripping from my trousers onto the stony ground. I walked on and this time felt nothing more.

But something was wrong; and I needed no hunch to tell me what it was.

I was being followed.