I love Halloween, all the fun of decorating the place, treacle toffee, trick and treatng, the kids dressed up and happy, jack ‘o’ lanterns, and none of the expectations and pressures of other holidays. Of course you are supposed to scare yourself silly, watch scary movies and read about creatures from the other side. Last year I decided I wanted to write a traditional ghost story and after a couple of false starts I came up with FOOTPRINTS, a tale of snow set in rural Devon. Those nice people at What The Dicken’s? Magazine were kind enough to publish it and if you would like to help them create a print version of their magazine please follow the link to watch their fundraiser film (I am in it and so too is Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville – so there!) So, here for your Halloween delight is the story in full.
FOOTPRINTS by Erinna Mettler
The blizzard resulted in a lock-in. The Druid’s Head was at the edge of the village, a good half a mile away from the first houses. At eleven Ryan, its landlord, looked out of the window at the thickly falling snow and declared we’d all freeze to death if we tried to walk home. Settled by the fire with freshly poured pints, someone said we should pass the time telling ghost stories. And so, as the blizzard rattled at the windows, five grown men set about trying to scare each other silly.
Most of the tales were bad movies re-located to the surrounding Devon countryside, deaths foreseen, cannibal farmers, The Honiton Witch Project and Ryan’s nonsense about the poltergeist that drinks all his profits. No-one was in the slightest bit frightened, but it was fun and even as the snow stopped, we lingered. Alex, our local teacher, went last, seemingly reluctant to join in when normally you couldn’t shut him up.
‘There is one story I could tell,’ he said, ‘it happened right here in this pub, well outside anyhow.’ He looked over at Ryan who was tidying the bar. ‘Years before you took it over.’
‘Go on then Alex,’ said Ryan sceptically, ‘do your worst.’
Alex put down his pint and began his tale with an earnest expression.
‘I was eighteen. I worked here then for the owners, Marianne and Valentin Fomitch. They were a bit weird. He was Russian, if you can believe it, and she was a hippy. He always wore purple – cords and a poncho usually – and he had piercing green eyes, long grey hair and a pentagram tattooed on his neck. His wife Marianne floated around him in diaphanous dresses and hardly spoke. Valentin was so brusque he quickly pissed off a lot of people in the village. He refused to pay bills for honest work, barred regular customers and was generally as rude as he could be, so hardly anyone came in here in those days. They probably didn’t need me here at all but Valentin was always taking off for days at a time and said he wanted a man around.’
‘But you’d do, eh?’ interrupted Ryan.
We shushed him crossly, eager for Alex to go on, for as you can see he had a way of telling tales.
‘There was a lot of gossip about where Valentin went and what he did when he got there. My brother Denny, who was prone to a little night wandering himself, said he’d seen Valentin in the woods carrying out some sort of naked ritual with a dead deer and a hunting knife. It creeped him out so much he didn’t go poaching again for months – not until he was sure he wouldn’t run into our Russian friend again.
This one night, Valentin came back almost as soon as he’d set off because a blizzard had suddenly blown up, much like this one. At 10 o’clock, when the snow had stopped and there still weren’t any customers he said I could go. As I went to the door it crashed open and a man rushed inside. He ran up to the bar and looked over his shoulder as if he expected someone to follow him, but all that came in was the wind and a cloud of powdery snow. He was young man, trendy and not at all dressed for a blizzard, wearing only a thin suit jacket, jeans and sneakers. He was soaked through, snow clinging to his clothes, and he was jittery; when I shut the door he nearly jumped out of his skin. His upper-class voice shook as he spoke to Valentin.
‘Do you have a phone? Damn car’s broken down – a couple of miles back. Completely dead.’
Valentin nodded tersely at the pay phone by the window but when the man saw what he meant, he hesitated.
‘Don’t suppose I could have a drink first?’ he said glancing nervously at the door. ‘Had a bit of a shock, need something to steady the nerves.’
Valentin made no attempt to serve him so I went back behind the bar and poured him a brandy. He downed it in one, his hand quivering as he put down the glass.
‘What happened,’ I asked, ‘did you hit something?’
I figured he must have run over an animal in the snow.
He shook his head.
‘Damnedest thing. I’m lost. Must’ve taken a wrong turn and then couldn’t I find my way back to the main road, drove through the snow for an hour at least. The car gave out in the middle of a wood.’
Marianne moved over to Valentin and hung onto his arm, pale and wide-eyed like a frightened child.
Our guest went on, words rattling from him like hailstones.
‘Everything died instantly. Engine. Lights. Radio. The snow had stopped so I decided to walk up the road, thought I must be near a village, or a house at least, and that I’d freeze if I stayed in the car. City boy you see, no food or blanket in the boot. The clouds had cleared and moon was bright so I knew I’d be able to see the way. I stepped out onto snow a foot deep and started walking.
A few yards along the lane, I realised there was another set of prints beside me. I don’t mean that someone had walked up the lane before I had – I mean another set of footprints was being made as I walked. I could see the snow depress as my feet sank into it just as if someone was walking next to me – but there was no one there.’
He shook his head again and frowned.
‘I stopped and they stopped. There was nothing there. It’s hard to explain. There was nothing special about them. They looked like human footprints; a man’s shoes but with a long pointed toe. I looked behind me and saw that they started by the car as if someone else had got out of it when I did. I stood for a while trying to make sense of it and then I heard the breathing – quick, and in time with my own but very definitely not mine.
Well, I didn’t hang about, practically ran the all the way here, fell over a few times – that’s why I’m covered in snow. My ‘companion’ matched my pace right up to your door.’
At this point Ryan knocked over a half empty glass, splattering its contents onto the stone floor. We all turned to him and tutted, but he just laughed and came to our side of the bar with a mop and started to dab away at the mess.
‘If I may?’ said Alex.
‘Don’t mind me,’ said Ryan squelching the tiles with the mop.
Alex sighed and carried on.
‘I poured the stranger another drink and this time he sipped it. Valentin and Marianne didn’t move.
The man laughed softly. ‘Must have snow fever,’ he said.
Warmed and fortified by the brandy he called the AA from the payphone, taking care not to look out of the window while he talked.
They took a couple of hours to reach us. I sat with him while he waited. He was a nice chap. His name was Sebastian and he was a record producer down to work at some pop star’s country house. I was in a band back then so we talked about music. By the end of the wait we’d decided his mind must’ve been playing tricks on him, that logically there couldn’t have been another set of footprints, that the woods and the snow must have worked their magic on his imagination. I even went outside to look, just to make sure; there was only one set of prints. Sebastian seemed to relax after that, put the whole incident down to tiredness and the effects of the blizzard. I told him I was going to study in London the following year and he gave me his number; said he’d show me around his studio when I got there.
Valentin and Marianne didn’t speak to him once. Barely even looked at him. But they didn’t go to bed either – just sat in a booth away from the fire whispering to each other.
The AA phoned back and said they were waiting by Sebastian’s car. I left with him and Valentin bolted the door behind us. As the door closed I thought I’d heard Marianne say,
‘Valentin, for pity’s sake.’
I shook Sebastian’s hand in farewell, as I was going right into the village and he was going in the other direction – towards the woods.
I wondered if I should go with him, but it would have been silly to walk him to his car and then to have to walk all the way back again. I looked over my shoulder at him when he was on his way, and for a second I could’ve sworn I saw another set of footprints beside his own and heard the double creak of decompressing snow.’
Ryan rubbed a glass quickly with his tea-towel so it squeaked and everyone looked in his direction and laughed nervously.
‘What happened to Valentin and Marianne?’
‘Never saw them again – did a moon-light flit. The pub was locked up for months until the new owners arrived. They say there was all sorts of weird stuff left in here, black candles and voodoo dolls, symbols drawn on the floor. Funny,’ he said looking at Ryan, ‘but people don’t seem to stay here long – maybe there’s something in your poltergeist story after all.’
We looked at each other as they clock ticked loudly and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.
‘What about the guy, Sebastian? Was he okay?
‘As far as I know he met the AA and went back to London. They didn’t fix the car though; my brother saw it the next day and it stayed by the roadside for a week before someone took it away. It was odd but there was nothing in the papers about it so after a while I just forgot about it.’
‘You called him though, when you got to London?’
‘No, I didn’t. I never dared to.’
‘Even though he was a record producer and you were in a band?’
‘I thought about it a lot but was I scared, in case I called and found out he was missing, last seen in Devon! But I have always wondered…’ he swigged at his beer, ‘if there was another set of footprints in the snow, what kind of being was it that could have made them?’
Everyone was silent for a while, the only noise the spitting of the fire and the wind shaking the windows.
Clyde, the policeman, spoke first. He quickly finished his drink and said, ‘that’s me done.’
‘Yeah, me too.’
And in a flurry of coats and downed drinks we all said goodnight to Ryan – who bolted the door behind us – and were soon standing outside on the thick glistening snow as the wind wailed up the lane. We turned right to walk into the village and I pulled my coat around me, surreptitiously looking back over my shoulder so the boys wouldn’t see me do it and take the piss. What I saw stopped me in my tracks. I pulled at Clyde’s sleeve and we all stood and watched them moving through the snow – footprints with no owner.