The March Special Guest is Ramsey Campbell
Please feel free to visit Ramsey at: http://www.ramseycampbell.com/
We wanted to be scared on Halloween, but not like that. We never meant anything to happen to Andrew. We only wanted him not to be so useless and show us he could do something he was scared of doing. I know I was scared the night I went to the allotments when Mr Gray was still alive.
We used to watch him from Colin’s window in the tenements, me and Andrew and Colin and Colin’s little sister Jill. Sometimes he worked in his allotment until midnight, my mum once said. The big lamps on the paths through the estate made his face look like a big white candle with a long nose that was melting. Jill kept shouting “Mr Toad” and shutting the window quick, but he never looked up. Only he must have known it was us and that’s why he said we took his apples when kids from the other end of the estate did really.
He took our mums and dads to see how they’d broken his hedge because he’d locked his gate. “If Harry says he didn’t do it, then he didn’t,” my dad went and Colin’s, who was a wrestler, went “If I find out who’s been up to no good they’ll be walking funny for a while.” But Andrew’s mum only went “I just hope you weren’t mixed up in this, Andrew.” His dad and mum were like that, they were teachers and tried to make him friends at our school they taught at, boys who didn’t like getting dirty and always had combs and handkerchiefs. So then whenever we were cycling round the paths by the allotments and Mr Gray saw us he said things like “There are the children who can’t keep their hands off other people’s property” to anyone who was passing. So one night Colin pinched four apples off his tree, and then it was my turn.
I had to wait for a night my mum sent me to the shop. The woman isn’t supposed to sell kids cigarettes, but she does because she knows my mum. I came back past the allotments, and when I got to Mr Grays’s I ducked down behind the hedge. The lamps that were supposed to stop people being mugged turned everything grey in the allotments and made Mr Gray’s windows look as though they had metal shutters on. I could hear my heart jumping. I went to where the hedge was low and climbed over.
He’d put broken glass under the hedge. I managed to land on tiptoe in between the bits of glass. I hated him then, and I didn’t even bother taking apples from where he mightn’t notice, I just pulled some off and threw them over the hedge for the worms to eat. We wouldn’t have eaten them, all his apples tasted old and bitter. I gave my mum her cigarettes and went up to Colin’s and told Andrew “Your turn next.”
He started hugging himself. “I can’t. My parents might know.”
“They said we were stealing, as good as said it,” Jill went. “They probably thought you were. My dad said he’d pull their heads off and stick them you know where if he thought that’s what they meant about us.”
“You’ve got to go,” Colin went. “Harry went and he’s not even eleven. Go now if you like, before my mum and dad come back from the pub.”
Andrew might have thought Colin meant to make him, because he started shaking and going “No I won’t,” and then there was a stain on the front of his trousers. “Look at the baby weeing himself,” Colin and Jill went.
I felt sorry for him. “Maybe he doesn’t feel well. He can go another night.”
“I’ll go if he won’t,” Jill went.
“You wouldn’t let a girl go, would you?” Colin went to Andrew, but then their mum and dad came back. Andrew ran upstairs and Colin went to Jill “You really would have gone too, wouldn’t you?”
“I’m still going.” She was so cross she went red. “I’m just as brave as you two, braver.” And we couldn’t stop her the next night, when her mum was watching Jill’s dad at work being the Hooded Gouger.
I thought she’d be safe. There’d been a storm in the night and the wind could have blown down the apples. But I was scared when I saw how small she looked down there on the path under the lamps, and I’d never noticed how long it took to walk to the allotments, all that way she might have to run back. Her shadow kept disappearing as if something was squashing it and then it jumped in front of her. We couldn’t see in Mr Gray’s windows for the lamps.
He’d got a pair of garden shears. He grinned when he saw Jill, because even all that far away we could see his teeth. He ran round to where the hedge was low. He couldn’t really run, it was like a fat old white dog trying, but there wasn’t anywhere else for Jill to climb the hedge. Colin ran out, and I was going to open the window and shout at Mr Gray when he climbed over the hedge to get Jill.
He was clicking the shears. I could see the blades flash. Andrew wet himself and ran upstairs, and I couldn’t open the window or even move. Jill jumped off the tree and hurt her ankles, and when she tried to get away from him she was nearly as slow as he was. But she ran to the gate and tried to climb it, only it fell over. Mr Gray ran after her waving the shears when she tried to crawl away, and then he grabbed his chest like they do in films when they’re shot, and fell into the hedge.
Colin ran to Jill and brought her back, and all that time Mr Gray didn’t move. Jill was shaking but she never cried, only shouted through the window at Mr Gray. “That’ll teach you,” she shouted, even when Colin went “I think he’s dead.” We were glad until we remembered Jill’s coat was down there on the glass.
I went down though my chest was hurting. Mr Gray was leaning over the hedge with his hands hanging down as if he was trying to reach the shears that had fallen standing up in the earth. His eyes were open with the lamps in them and looking straight at Jill’s coat. He looked as if he’d gone bad somehow, as if he’d go all out of shape if you poked him. I grabbed Jill’s coat, and just then the hedge creaked and he leaned forward as if he was trying to reach me. I ran away and didn’t look back, because I was sure that even though he was leaning further his head was up so he could keep watching me.
I didn’t sleep much that night and I don’t think the others did. I kept getting up to see if he’d moved, because I kept thinking he was creeping up on the tenements. He was always still in the hedge, until I fell asleep, and when I looked again he wasn’t there. The ambulance must have taken him away, but I couldn’t get to sleep for thinking I could hear him on the stairs.
Next night my mum and dad were talking about how some woman found him dead in the hedge and the police went into his house. My mum said the police found a whole bedroom full of rotten fruit, and some books in his room about kids. Maybe he didn’t like kids because he was afraid of what he might do to them, she said, but that was all she’d say.
Colin and me dared each other to look in his windows and Jill went too. All we could see was rooms with nothing in them now except sunlight making them look dusty. I could smell rotten fruit, and I kept thinking Mr Gray was going to open one of the doors and show us his face gone bad. We went to see how many apples were left on his tree, only we didn’t go in the allotment because when I looked at the house I saw a patch on one of the windows as if someone had wiped it clean to watch us. Jill said it hadn’t been there before we’d gone to the hedge. We stayed away after that, and every night when I looked out of my room the patch was like a white face watching from his window.
Then someone else moved into his house and by the time the clocks went back and it got dark an hour earlier, we’d forgotten about Mr Gray, at least Colin and Jill and me had. It was nearly Halloween and then a week to Guy Fawkes Night. Colin was going to get some zombie videos to watch on Halloween because his mum and dad would be at the wrestling, but then Andrew’s mum found out. Andrew came and told us he was having a Halloween party instead. “If you don’t come there won’t be anyone,” he went.
“All right, we’ll come,” Coin went, but Jill went “Andrew’s just too scared to watch the zombies. I expect they make him think of Mr Toad. He’s scared of Mr Toad even now he’s dead.”
Andrew got red and stamped his foot. “You wait,” he went.
The day before Halloween, I saw him hanging round near Mr Gray’s allotment when it was getting dark. He turned away when I saw him, pretending he wasn’t there. Later I heard him go upstairs slowly as if he was carrying something, and I nearly ran out to catch him and make him go red.
I watched telly until my mum told me to go to bed three times. Andrew always went to bed as soon as his mum came home from night school. I went to draw my curtains and I saw someone in Mr Gray’s allotment, bending down under the apple tree as if he was looking for something. He was bending down so far I thought he was digging his face in the earth. When he got up his face looked too white under the lamps, except for his mouth that was messy and black. I pulled the curtains and jumped into bed in case he saw me, but I think he was looking at Andrew’s window.
Next day at school Andrew bought Colin and Jill and me sweets. He must have been making sure we went to his party. “Where’d you get all that money?” Jill wanted to know.
“Mum gave it to me to buy apples,” Andrew went and started looking round as if he was scared someone could hear him.
He wouldn’t walk home past Mr Gray’s. He didn’t know I wasn’t going very near after what I’d seen in the allotment. He went the long way round behind the tenements. I got worried when I didn’t hear him come in and I went down in case some big kids had done him. He was hiding under the bonfire we’d all built behind the tenements for Guy Fawkes Night. He wouldn’t tell me who he was hiding from. He nearly screamed when I looked in at him in the tunnel he’d made under there.
“Don’t go if you don’t want to,” my mum went because I took so long over my tea. “I better had,” I went, but I waited until Andrew came to find out if we were ever going, then we all went up together. It wasn’t his party we minded so much as his mum and dad telling us what to do.
The first thing his dad said when we went in was “Wipe your feet,” though we hadn’t come from outside. It was only him there, because Andrew’s mum was going to come back soon so he could go to a meeting. Then he started talking in the kind of voice teachers put on just before the holidays to make you forget they’re teachers. “I expect your friends would like a Halloween treat,” he went and got some baked potatoes out of the oven, but only Andrew had much. I’d just eaten and besides the smell of apples kept getting into the taste of the potatoes and making me feel funny.
There were apples hanging from a rope across the room and floating in a washing-up bowl full of water on some towels on the floor. “If that’s the best your friends can do with my Halloween cuisine I think it’s about time for games,” Andrew’s dad went and took our plates away, grousing like a school dinner lady. When he came back, Andrew went “Please may you tie my hands.”
“I don’t know about that, son.” But Andrew gave him a handkerchief to tie them and looked as if he was going to cry, so his dad went “Hold them out, then.”
“No, behind my back.”
“I don’t think your mother would permit that.” Then he must have seen how Andrew wanted to be brave in front of us, so he made a face and tied them. “I hope your friends have handkerchiefs too,” he went.
He tied our hands behind our backs, wrinkling his nose at Jill’s handkerchief, and we let him for Andrew’s sake. “Now the point of the game is to bring down an apple by biting it,” he went, as if we couldn’t see why the apples were hanging up. Only I wished he wouldn’t go on about it because talking about them seemed to make the smell stronger.
Jill couldn’t quite reach. When he held her up she kept bumping the apple with her nose and said a bad word when the apple came back and hit her. He put her down then quick and Colin had a go. His mouth was almost as big as one of the apples, and he took a bite first time, then he spat it out on the floor. “What on earth do you think you’re doing? Would you do that at home?” Andrew’s dad shouted, back to being a teacher again, and went to get a dustpan and a mop.
“Where did you get them apples?” Colin went to Andrew. Andrew looked at him to beg him not to ask in front of his dad, and we all knew. I remembered noticing there weren’t any apples on Mr Gray’s tree any more. We could see Andrew was trying to show us he wasn’t scared, only he had to wait until his mum or dad was there. When his dad finished clearing up after Colin, Andrew went “Let’s have duck-apples now.”
He knelt down by the bowl of water and leaned his head in. He kept his face in the water so long I thought he was looking at something and his dad went to him in case he couldn’t get up. He pulled his face out spluttering and I went next, though I didn’t like how nervous he looked now.
I wished I hadn’t. The water smelled stale and tasted worse. Whenever I tried to pick up an apple with just my mouth without biting into it, it sank and then bobbed up, and I couldn’t see it properly. I didn’t like not being able to see the bottom of the bowl. I had another go at an apple so I could get away, but Andrew’s dad or someone must have stood over me, because the water got darker and I thought the apple bobbing up was bigger than my head and looking at me. I felt as if someone was holding my head down in the water and I couldn’t breathe. I tried to knock the bowl over and spilled a bit of water on the towels. Andrew’s dad hauled me out of the bowl as if I was a dog. “I think we’ll dispense with the duck-apples,” he went, and then the doorbell rang.
“That must be your mother without her keys again,” he told Andrew, sounding relieved. “Just don’t touch anything until one of us is here.” He went down and we heard the door slam and then someone coming up. It wasn’t him, the footsteps were too slow and loud. I kept tasting the appley water and feeling I was going to be sick. The footsteps took so long I thought I wouldn’t be able to look when they came in. The door opened and Jill screamed, because there was someone wearing a dirty sheet and a skull for a face. “It’s only Mummy,” Andrew went, laughing at Jill for being scared. “She said she might dress up.”
Just then the doorbell rang again and made us all jump. Andrew’s mum closed the door of the flat as if the bell wasn’t even ringing. “It must be children,” Andrew went, looking proud of himself because he was talking for his mother. Jill was mad at him for laughing at her. “I want to duck for apples,” she went even though the smell was stronger and rottener. “I didn’t have a go.”
Andrew’s mum nodded and went round making sure our hands were tied properly, then she pushed Jill to the bowl without taking her hands from under the sheet. Jill looked at her to tell her she didn’t care if she wanted to pretend that much, Jill wasn’t scared. The bell rang again for a long time but we all ignored it. Jill bent over the bowl and Andrew’s mum leaned over her. The way she was leaning I thought she was going to hold Jill down, except Jill dodged out of the way. “There’s something in there,” she went.
“They’re only apples,” Andrew went. “I didn’t think you’d be scared.” Jill looked as if she’d have hit him if she’d been able to get her hands from behind her back. “I want to try the apples hanging up again,” she went. “I didn’t have a proper go.”
She went under the rope and tried to jump high enough to get an apple, and then something tapped on the window. She nearly fell down, and even Colin looked scared. I know I was, because I thought someone had climbed up to the third floor to knock on the window. I thought Mr Gray had. But Andrew grinned at us because his mum was there and went “It’s just those children again throwing stones.”
His mum picked Jill up and Jill got the apple first time. She bit into it just as more stones hit the window, and then we heard Andrew’s dad shouting outside. “It’s me, Andrew. Let me in. Some damn fool locked me out when I went down.”
Jill made a noise as if she was trying to scream. She’d spat out the apple and goggled at it on the floor. Something was squirming in it. I couldn’t move and Colin couldn’t either, because Andrew’s mum’s hands had come out from under the sheet to hold Jill. Only they were white and dirty, and they didn’t look like any woman’s hands. They didn’t look much like hands at all.
Then both the arms came worming out from under the sheet to hold Jill so she couldn’t move any more than Colin and me could, and the head started shaking to get the mask off. I’d have done anything rather than see underneath, the arms looked melted enough. All we could hear was the rubber mask creaking and something flopping round inside it, and the drip on the carpet from Andrew wetting himself. But suddenly Andrew squeaked, the best he could do for talking. “You leave her alone. She didn’t take your apples, I did. You come and get me.”
The mask slipped as if him under the sheet was putting his head on one side, then the arms dropped Jill and reached out for Andrew. Andrew ran to the door and we saw he’d got his hands free. He ran onto the stairs going “Come on, you fat old toad, try and catch me.”
Him under the sheet went after him and we heard them running down, Andrew’s footsteps and the others that sounded bare and squelchy. Me and Colin ran to Jill when we could move to see if she was all right apart from being sick on the carpet. When I saw she was, I ran down fast so that I wouldn’t think about it, to find Andrew.
Living in England, Ramsey Campbell is perhaps the world's most decorated author of horror, terror, suspense, dark fantasy, and supernatural fiction.
He has won four World Fantasy Awards, ten
Ramsey Campbell’s work is notable for both its focus and its breadth. His novels, short fiction, and even nonfiction always seem to address emotions. Characteristic themes weave throughout Campbell’s works: the uncertain nature of reality, the dangers of repressed fears and desires, and the reactions of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Douglas E. Winter praises Campbell’s “stylish
S.T. Joshi, in which his book Ramsey Campbell and Modern Horror Fiction (2001) studies the writer, says: “Ramsey Campbell is worthy of study both because of the intrinsic merit of his work and because of the place he occupies in the historical progression of this literary mode.” Joshi went on to say: “Future generations will regard him as the leading horror writer of our generation, every bit the equal of Lovecraft or Blackwood.”
Ramsey Campbell is the prolific author of thirty novels, twenty books of short stories, two chapbooks, and two non-fiction books. He has edited fifteen anthologies, and has had one or more of his stories appear in 132 multiple-author collections.
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