Page in preparation, September 2023
Something over There
and other uncanny tales
Return to home page
Suddenly I was
Alive in dead action
Being a part of another.
These tales were originally written on and off over many years of my adult life. The first was in the late 1960s, the last in the early 2000s. Though set in several different countries with many different backdrops the manner of their perception was often the same.
Crafting them was a relaxing contrast to work on my books of poetry, historical research and prose writing on New Guinea and other subjects.
The tales were collected and revised in 2020/2021. Other stories still wait to be written!
Anne McCosker 2021
Something over there
We never discovered what it was.
At first we were not aware of anything. Having experienced so much distress selling our previous house was that surprising? Our buyers at the last moment forced us to take thousands of pounds less than that originally agreed, gazundering it is called. Trouble with the movers, articles lost, china broken, all that sort of thing. Almost everything that could go wrong in a move did, in one move! Afterwards I wondered if perhaps some one, or some thing, was trying to warn us, warn us not to buy.
The property was in a Class A area of natural beauty, surrounded by commons, woods and fields, an idyllic spot far from noise and general pollution. Such properties seldom came on the market. How could anyone imagine unpleasantness in such a place?
Did I feel a vague unease after my first night there, perhaps: but nothing actually formed itself in my consciousness for several months. We moved in early May, that most glorious time of the year. The garden and surrounding fields were energetic with colour and bird song. Forest ponies and their foals ambled the lanes, wandering in amongst the spiky yellow furze of the common, slurping water from streams and ponds. Donkeys nibbled at tasty morsels over garden fences, lambs appeared in a few sheltered fields. And we might see at dawn or dusk, fox and deer, a badger. How I revelled in this nature surrounding us. Still, looking back, something had almost certainly registered in my unconscious from the beginning. Nothing tangible, you understand, a cobweb crease about my happiness.
Strangely it was the silence, the silence that by making itself so obvious, forced me to think. That would have been about six months after we moved. We had more or less settled in by then, so much needed to be done about the smallholding, but we were settled in. Our previous house had also been in the country, if on the edge of a small market town, so we were used to countryside living away from the cry and hubbub of humanity. Having lived in the countryside before, we were familiar with the usual countryside silence, broken only when one heard the joyous thrush in Spring, an orchestra of storm in autumn trees, or the myriad tiny sounds that make up an English high summer. Even in winter the stillness had character. But in our new home the silence was of a different order altogether. The silence was empty, but somehow alive. And it waited.
As time went on I found myself longing for sound, even on occasions sharp noise, anything almost to break up this suffocating boundlessness. Then one day with a sudden quick shiver about the base of my spine I realized that even when the tractor chugged noisily up and down our field cutting grass for animal feed, my husband chopped wood with his chain saw, or our neighbour across the valley crawled his way up and down a sloping lawn with a sit-on mower, the silence remained. All that noise, any noise, seemed only to add itself for its duration on to the silence; it never actually altered or replaced it.
By the first anniversary of our move, I was sure there was something going on, or would it be better to say, not going on. No single event or happening decided me, it was more a gradual awareness or feeling that if one added together many small incidents, each of little consequence in itself, the result was disturbing.
There were days when I sat content within the summer's haze, watching mirages dance among the branches, making each shadow light, alive as if with eyes of green, and curl from flicking leaves outlines in the air. Then, sometimes in those high summer days when the heat, it could be very hot in the forest, stifling breath and pressing mind to skull, horse and deer and donkey - the animals - appeared and disappeared as if drawn about by some magician. In and out of fields they went, strange patterns endlessly re-forming. Yes, some days I would sit watching, exhausted, a human out of place.
Wishing to discover the cause of this peculiar sense of discomfort in our lovely home I began reading our area's history, concentrating my research at first on our smallholding. Gradually finding nothing untoward there, the search widened until it covered an area of several miles around us.
Certainly about the edge of the small enclosed woods we could see on the skyline from some of our cottage windows, the Romans had slaughtered hundreds, thousands perhaps, of local civilians as they tried to escape from those vengeful legions. Already in those days small, prosperous settlements had been established along the banks of the river bordering the Great Forest. This fine river emptied itself into the English Channel, and was the site of an important safe anchorage, well used by all would be conquerors of England. It has been written too that locals, then mainly of Celtic descent were butchered all along the valley we lived in, some probably near our cottage, overtaken before they reached even the first trees of what were then large areas of dark, uninhabited forest. There were several farms and houses much closer to the modern day woods than our smallholding though , and none of these people seemed, outwardly at least, affected by anything odd about their environment. Of course we did not know them well. We were told though they had lived there a very long time - many of our neighbours were long established residents.
I remember well that Sunday evening my husband, a scientist who believed only in what he could measure and quantify, said "Can you hear anything?” We were sitting in silence under the apple trees. I immediately stood up and moved towards the house. It seemed the best thing to do. One did not know who might be eavesdropping. Certainly by then the cobweb crease I had felt so soon after we moved in was real.
It was about that time too we had trouble with the gypsies. Suddenly we were embroiled in a spiraling whirlwind of tension that began in a silly way and ended by being so serious I wondered if they would try and burn our cottage down, they were fascinated with fire. Was that their chosen weapon to ward off shrouds?
Really I rather liked them, at first we had no problems. The ones we knew best were real gypsies whose ancestors had roamed the Great Forest for centuries. I had some excellent conversations with several of them about gypsy lore and I tentatively asked a few of the older ones if they knew any stories or had any personal experiences of ghosts or grizzly goings on in this district. I asked them too if they had any knowledge of strange yet powerful superstitions or ancient rituals - good or bad - still practiced in the Great Forest. Gnarled old Jim for one shook his head, and even older Mary gazed with her still keen black eyes across the fields and said nothing, unusual for her. Neither of them laughed though. One occasion I had a conversation with Mary in which we both seemed to talk in riddles and understand the other. And once or twice Jim when on his own dropped a word here and there that seemed out of context unless one was speaking in terms of intangible things that yet held life.
And there never seemed time to talk to any of our neighbours about the past history, legends - old or modern - of the area or their personal experiences of living in this valley.
There was of course, the unnerving incident regarding the pictures I took of a couple of the younger gypsies: two brothers. It was when we were having those problems with one branch of the family. One gypsy was trespassing on our land, probably trying to take our cut up firewood, while the other sat in their ramshackle van on the road outside our gate. I saw what was happening from the window, rushed for my camera - I still used an old fashioned one - went outside and took several good pictures, I thought, of the younger chap ‘caught in the act’. The one in the van shouted a warning to his brother, who darted back to the van. Off they drove. I did not mind especially - there were my pictures. A few photos of the garden finished the reel.
Some days later I took the developed snaps out of their envelope, flicked through them until coming to four photos, developed, but with no image on them. After a few seconds thought I realized these were the four photos of the two gypsies. They were blank! All the rest of the reel was fine including the ones I took after the gypsies’ pictures.
In spite of that experience the gypsies were really very much in this world, surely too substantial to be part of the silent something living over there. The permanent state of edginess, now part of my daily existence, the sense of fighting some force beyond myself was not of their making. Perhaps though they had some idea of what caused this stagnant silence. Should we have asked them?
Our trouble with the gypsies died away. Perhaps in many ways we had much in common despite our very different appearances. Most of the genuine gypsies did conform, more or less, to their stereotype image, dark hair, dark eyes; their complexion and colouring the very opposite of mine. I did though usually dress like them in a jumble of clothes. And we all loved to be about the woods and fields, free under the open sky.
By the third year in this idyllic place, I realized that sound, any sound, only made matters worse. The silence absorbed any noise into its self, as if it was feeding on it. No sound altered the silence. It stayed there, waiting.
Was it our fault? Had we done something wrong. But what? I and my husband tried so hard to work in partnership with all around us. We had carefully re-laid the hedgerows, kept the rowan tree by the front door, let the adders bask undisturbed in the sun, made sure the pond remained pleasant for frogs, toads and newts, kept the tumbled down rockery for the sand-lizards, even given them balconies of crumbled stone to sun on. We had planted wild flower seeds, kept rough grass patches in the field for the orchids. We had not built on monstrous extensions or altered in any way the character of our property. And yet there it was something over there, always there in the silence, within the silence, part of the silence, watching, waiting.
I would sit under the apple trees my back leaning against a tree trunk, or lie amongst the long grass, and listen. Attempts were made to read or write but my ears were always alert. I had no idea what I was listening for, what could anyone hear in silence! Yes, there were cuckoo and robin, black bird and thrush and the knock, knock, of woodpecker. One could hear the lapwing and curlew haunting the sky with cry of rain-washed freedom, yet all were enfolded in silence. Did the birds feel it too, know what it was? I wish I did. I would stay there, hours floating about my limbs, eyes shut into silence. How many afternoons I spent thus by the 4th year, a woman trapped somehow in a snare of silence.
We had made a terrace overlooking the pond, French windows opened from the lounge onto it. Nothing very grand you understand we did not wish to upset any thing, and there we would entertain sometimes. One lovely summer's day a guest remarked loudly, she had not been to our cottage before: '' this silence hurts.'' I did not reply, knowing exactly what she meant, yes the silence hurt. But why was it so painful? Obviously that particular guest had no desire to find out, she never visited us again.
And so the years went on. The trees and shrubs, some we had planted ourselves, grew ever higher around the cottage. Perhaps I read too many stories by Algernon Blackwood and M.R. James but it looked sometimes as if several of the trees, particularly the ash were nearer the house. On stormy nights now in summer its leaves tapped the bedroom windows, and in winter it seemed the whole tree slapped about the glass. Curiously too, I thought the oak had shifted further away, was blocking out the sun in the early afternoon.
At one time my cousin was very ill and as no one else was available to look after her, I left our small holding for a couple of weeks. It took a great deal of determined energy but I finally managed to leave about a week after planning to.
The first night after my return my husband casually remarked that he and Ted, the dog, had spent almost every evening standing in the dining room, backs to the old Jacobean side board gazing in to the centre of the room. He did not know why they stood thus, nothing ever happened but there they stood man and dog together. After that Ted often disappeared somewhere for the day, and towards the end, the night too.
Perhaps he was just hunting rabbits.
The shrubs grew quickly in the short time I was away, maybe my absence just made me notice more. One dining room window was now framed by a pyracantha, good to look at it, especially when the flowers and then in autumn, the berries covered it.
It must have been about then, after coming back from my cousin, I rechecked - like a water diviner - the whole of our smallholding - field and garden, cottage, wood and pond. I realized soon after we arrived that the only place in the whole property where one did not feel as if one was struggling in a void of beauty was the far right hand corner of our field, under several ancient oaks, a corner above the rest of the land. During our first year here we had placed a large, round log from an oak trunk on the ground and used it as a seat, there I felt safe. And so it still was. Only here could that constricting silence, unknown and yet by then so well known, be stilled. But even there, on occasion, as the hours of twilight lingered, the surrounding fields and commons crowded and gathered around till I was breathing in a vacuum.
A few years ago, I'm not now certain how long ago, I knew the ash had moved. Its leaves in summer came into the window when I opened it, which I often did. I would lie on the bed and watch the light running up and down the spine of the leaves, running around the silence. I think too other trees moved - during the hours of darkness. Not every night you understand, but often enough to make any observer of the scene aware of their wanderings. Sometimes if one rose early there was a glimpse of green edging itself back by the roots, and on those increasingly rare occasions when I went visiting or walking and returned at dusk or after dark I felt most surely the shuffle of trees settling back into position through a sullen silence. It reminded me of my theatre days, a curtain going up a few seconds too soon and the cast caught off guard.
By then I seldom, if ever, went out even into the garden at night, as I once had loved to do, to look at Night with its stars and moon. And I most certainly did not go out when the moon was clear and sharp. One saw too much - things one did not want to see. In fact we never went out anywhere much by then, day or night. Even to go shopping took so much energy it seemed hardly worth it, easier not to bother. We used to order food by phone, pay by card and get it delivered.
That gave me more time to just sit in the field, under the apple trees, or by the pond, listen and try to see. Originally I thought if one could see one would understand, understand the silence. I think by then though I stopped bothering to listen to the shriek of nothingness, or really wanted to understand. The sky bent down towards the water, the leaves moved very softly across my face, that was ALL. It was easier to accept this un-peaceful peace.
Yet after Ted died, on the advice of our doctor, we put the property on the market.
We had just ended another winter in the place. It was bad that year. Fog lumped itself about for days on end, a damp drizzling fog that drifted on the spot in the stark branches of skeletonal trees. Everything was damp: even the silence. It was a soggy sepulchre.
We had no trouble getting a buyer for this beautiful place in a Class A area, properties such as ours seldom came on the market - nothing around here for decades and decades.. The night before we signed the final contract of sale I went outside. We would soon be moving. And yes the trees were watching me, and waiting. They were calmly watching me, rowan and oak, apple and ash, hazel, beech and willow.
There was talk amongst them. Were they discussing me? I was not sure if they were aware we were going soon, unsure too whether they would be pleased or not. Nothing was said, I couldn't talk their language very well, even after all those years. I just gave them a quick nod of recognition and tried not to think much about our sale in case they picked up my thoughts.
I remember pausing for a few more seconds to look at the night, and feeling a thick shiver of cold about my body, a shiver that touched my heart and eyes, suspended itself over my mind. I turned, went inside and locked the door.
That was about a year ago. We are still here. I often sit out at night now. The trees are growing and moving whenever they choose. The ash is hanging right over the roof. It moves about with the others. I sit and watch them, watch and wait. Nothing else has changed. The silence is busy all around. Is the silence coming from the trees, or does the silence control the trees? Do I care any more? My husband spends most of his day in the study looking out of the window, looking across the field to the dark shadow of woods. He says he is writing a book. The shrubs about the study windows are growing very well.
No, we have not found out what is over there, around us, here, in the silence. Perhaps soon I will know more about it all, discover where the silence comes from. Does it come from anywhere? Do I care? I have grown so tired of the struggle. The silence is very close tonight, and amongst the leaves of the ash something is forming.