Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
John Watkins warmed himself by the fire crackling in the grate. Orange embers scuttled over the logs, clutched at the brick, stole away like a timid lover. He listened to the low hum of the men talking. It was soothing to hear the murmuring in the low-lit drawing room, as gentle laughter and the clink of ice against whiskey tumblers lulled him into calm.
John looked at his own glass, swirling the last of the murky liquid round the base. His vision blurred a little as he watched it ripple – he was drunk. And yet he’d promised Sarah he wouldn’t get drunk tonight, not again. She loathed his late nights out here in his countryside retreat, when he’d come home stinking of spirits, climb under the covers and tug at her sleeping form, seizing bunches of her nightdress in his hand. Sometimes she would wake, but more often she would stay asleep, unconsciously brushing away his advances the way she brushed crumbs from the kitchen floor.
Perhaps she thought he was having an affair.
Maybe she was suspect of his late nights, his heavy drinking, his aloofness – how he wished he could take her here and prove it to her that he wasn’t! He wouldn’t be surprised if she followed him sometimes. Got in her little Ford Fiesta and tailed him across the coiling country roads, through the thick wood, up to the clubhouse. It wouldn’t shock him at all to turn around and see her peeping in at a dark window, her little elfin face screwed up with the passionate concentration it requires to catch out one’s spouse. She’d done it before, after all. Followed him to his office after hours. That time, though, he really had been screwing around – literally.
He supposed, standing in solitude by the fireplace, that she was right to be suspicious. After all, he did cheat on her, lots of times. But these days he hired women – none of the ones worth having looked twice at him now, with his folding skin and pouch of a stomach. Far easier to hire someone for the night – that way you got exactly what you paid for. But still, he did not cheat when he came here. No women allowed – that was the only rule. Anything else goes.
‘You must be joking man! We can’t really be having this conversation!’
Regan Hinchcliffe’s voice trailing above the others, as usual. Bouncing off walls like a tennis ball. Regan was younger than most of them there, in his mid-thirties; a tall man with striking, angular features which more often than not were twisted into a look of derision. He was always exquisitely dressed, and his voice had a way of carrying through buildings. He was a loan shark of some description – but a semi-respectable one, in an office. John did not particularly care for him. He was splayed out on a sofa facing away from the fireplace, and John could only see a large blonde head and arms gesticulating wildly.
‘I am most certainly not joking.’
The reply was uttered by Alan Mitchell, a quiet man with beady eyes and glasses, not usually the centre of controversy, who owned a successful agricultural business in the north east.
‘Well then, I think you’re a fool.’
Hinchcliffe swigged his drink, signalling that this was the end. Mitchell blinked his beady eyes, clearly debating the merits of defending himself against such a character.
‘Watkins!’ Hinchcliffe suddenly turned 360 to face John, bringing in the cavalry. His face was rosy with the warmth of whiskey. ‘Come and have a seat. You look like you’re enjoying yourself far too much over there.’
John didn’t much want to, but acquiesced nonetheless, for, if he didn’t, Regan would almost certainly come and stand beside him instead.
Sitting with him was Noah Simmons in an armchair; a grave, elderly man who’d been in the club before most of them were born, his eyes shut such was his engagement in the conversation, and Maximillian Nichols, an academic from Oxford who came out to the country on weekends to get extremely drunk and illuminate his companions on topics of which they knew nothing and he knew everything. Opposite them was Mitchell in a loveseat, earnestly blinking his beady eyes. John noticed a lot of the other men had moved away from this little crowd and had formed pockets in the darker corners of the room, avoiding the company of the eccentrics. He sighed, listening longingly to the far-off sounds of a pool table and roars of laughter taunting him from another room.
‘I’m surprised that you of all people would be so quick to dismiss such a phenomenon, Hinchcliffe,’ Mitchell said in a low voice.
Regan turned his sharp nose toward the armchair. They had returned to a subject he had wordlessly already put to bed, and he was incapable of hiding the fact that it irked him.
‘Me of all people?’ he asked. ‘Why?’
‘Considering the legend, and considering your past history…’
‘My past history?’
A shadow passed over Regan Hinchcliffe’s face. John’s curiosity, despite itself, was peaked.
‘May I ask, gentlemen, what you are actually talking about?’
All the heads flashed towards him. Mitchell and Hinchcliffe were glaring at each other, so Maximillian Nichols nobly took it upon himself to fill him in.
‘They’re talking about the Grey Lady of Westwick.’
‘The Grey Lady of Westwick. It’s a local legend.’
‘Who is that?’
Maximillian puffed himself out like a blowfish, the way he always did when he was about to enlighten the rest of the room with a nugget of stimulating information.
‘Local legend around here states that if you drive down the forest road after midnight then you might see the Grey Lady of Westwick. She is, according to folklore, a witch who seeks vengeance on men-’
‘In the version I’ve heard, she’s a vampire,’ chimed in Mitchell, until Nichols shot him a look which silenced him.
‘-and,’ continued Nichols, ‘she only seeks such vengeance on men who have wronged women.’
‘Yes. You know, wife beaters, serial killers, adulterers, that sort of thing.’
‘You can’t seriously lump in adulterers with serial killers!’ Regan protested.
‘I wasn’t,’ Nichols continued. ‘She does. She’s said to have no preference.’
‘What a load of complete and utter bollocks,’ said Regan. ‘And I’m surprised at you two for believing in it.’
‘I don’t believe in it,’ Nichols disputed. ‘I’m just interested in local folklore. It’s been a story since the 1600s, when a man who’d killed three women in the area was allegedly set upon by the Grey Lady as he walked down the forest road. He lived to tell the tale – and in so doing was scared so thoroughly that he confessed to his crimes – but very few afterwards have survived an encounter.’
‘So how do you know if you come across this supposed Grey Lady?’ asked John, intrigued despite himself. He’d driven through the forest road a thousand times after nights at the club – he’d never heard any talk of a Grey Lady. Yet, in this ancient dark room, with the fire burning in the grate, he couldn’t help but be absorbed by the ridiculous story.
‘Well, Mitchell and I have obviously heard different accounts. But she is said to take many forms. Think of mermaids luring sailors to their death – she has a magical allure which entices men to her. But you’ll know it’s her, because obviously she’ll be wearing grey and, in every tale I’ve heard, her teeth are yellow and rotting.’
‘Because once she’s killed her victims, she feasts on them.’
There was silence for a minute. Then, Regan burst out laughing.
‘And you really believe this Mitchell?’ he asked between guffaws. ‘You really believe that down the forest road – that verdant area where I take my family for Sunday hikes – you really believe that there lurks an immortal cannibal-vampire intent on seeking revenge on those of us that might have occasionally looked twice at our secretaries?’
His laughter was uncontrollable now; it seeped into the crevices of the room. John found himself smirking a little.
‘I didn’t say I believed it exactly. But Joseph Wickham went missing three weeks ago, and his phone was found in a ditch on the side of that road. Nothing else of his has been found, not even his car.’
John furrowed his brow. He remembered Joseph Wickham – a greasy fellow who looked like a car salesman, who rarely came to the gatherings at the club. John had never spoken to him.
‘Joseph Wickham’s missing?’ John asked.
‘Yes. He was here three weekends ago,’ said Mitchell. ‘He stayed Friday and Saturday night, and he went back late Sunday evening as he had an early morning meeting. He’d been drinking all day, so he didn’t get to leave until after midnight. A few days later I got a call from the police – his wife says he never made it home. After an extensive search, all they found was his phone in a ditch and nothing else.’
‘Joseph Wickham’s disappearance is not a mystery,’ Regan declared, topping up his glass. In the process, he topped up John’s as well. He knew he was drunk enough, but he did not protest. ‘He’s been shagging his PA for three years now, and he’s a confessed gambling addict in a shedload of debt. Christ, is there anyone here that he hasn’t asked for money? It’s pretty clear that he wanted to disappear before the wife found out about the PA and before either of them discovered that he couldn’t afford to buy them Tiffany bracelets anymore. Case closed.’
‘Wickham would never have disappeared voluntarily,’ Mitchell insisted, ‘He was working on his gambling problem; going to meetings. He wasn’t financially destitute, not in the least.’
‘So logically your only assumption is that he was murdered by the Grey Lady of Westwick.’
‘No. But I’d say there’s more to this than any of us realise. Wickham loved his wife – he adored his little boy. He wouldn’t choose to disappear. Laugh all you want Hinchcliffe – there’s something suspicious about his disappearance.’
A silence descended over the group. Nobody was really sure what to say, and so, in his usually frank manner, Regan started a new topic of conversation about a new experimental restaurant opening in London where diners were blindfolded and subjected to an unknown taste test. The Grey Lady – and the disappearance of Mitchell’s friend – were swiftly forgotten about, as other men drifted into the circle to debate the merits of such a restaurant.
John found himself contributing, but couldn’t help glancing at Mitchell every now and then. He said nothing, staring forlornly at the fire, maybe wondering why, in this comradery of brothers, nobody seemed to care about the whereabouts of his friend. Perhaps, by extension, nobody would care if half the club went missing – it was a secretive place, and the men rarely admitted to their membership out in the public sphere. If they came across each other in a work setting they would nod, perhaps even smile – but to acknowledge each other in a friendly way was unheard of. In a way, it made sense that nobody cared about Mitchell’s pal. It happened outside these walls; in another world entirely to that of the devil-may-care, cigar smoking, booze quaffing debauchery of the club. John decided not to be concerned with it any longer. What was the man to him, after all?
Eventually, the evening began to draw to a close.
One by one, the men yawned, rose from the sleepy fireside, stretched their limbs, and disappeared into the shadows. Most were staying the night, and John began to wish he had secured a room. Usually, he preferred to go home and sleep in his own bed – he was one of the lucky members who only lived a few miles away – but tonight he felt compelled by the fire, enticed by the dancing flames in the grate. It was warm here. A four-poster bed, away from his wife, seemed just the ticket.
But the house was booked full, and he sighed. He would have to brave the roads.
By midnight, the only men left in the drawing room were John, Hinchcliffe, Mitchell and Noah Simmons, who seemed to have spent most of the night drifting in and out of consciousness. Regan was holding court, but as the embers started to dim and even John’s eyes began to flicker, Hinchcliffe seemed to sense that there was more fun to be had elsewhere, and made a move to leave.
‘I’m heading up, all,’ he said. He glanced at Noah Simmons, dozing. ‘Should we wake him?’
‘Best not,’ said John, ‘he hates to be stirred.’
‘I do hope you and I are past our quarrel,’ Hinchcliffe patted Mitchell on the shoulder.
‘Of course,’ Mitchell replied. Hinchcliffe seemed to be assured this was the case and went off merrily to bed, but any other man would realise he wasn’t being sincere.
‘I’m sorry about your friend, old chap,’ John offered his condolences to Mitchell. It was only polite, after all, even if he wasn’t.
Mitchell turned to him, looking, suddenly, rather desperate. ‘You believe me, don’t you?’ he said, staring at John with a fierce intensity John was only used to seeing in his wife. ‘I know there’s a part of you that believes me. You didn’t deride me, like the others did. I know you do.’
‘Mitchell, I know you’re upset. But we can’t do anything about your friend…’
‘I know you believe me, John. She’s out there. She’s out there waiting. Wickham’s death was foul play. I know it was! He was my friend, and nobody cares what’s happened to him. Wickham’s been murdered!’
As he uttered ‘murdered’ – almost shrieking, at this point – Noah Simmons was jolted from his slumber. He coughed, blinked two sleepy eyes, wiped a spot of dribble from his chin. Mitchell was breathless, his face scarlet. John had no idea what to say.
‘Are we the only survivors?’ Simmons observed the empty room.
‘I believe we are,’ John said levelly. Mitchell was staring at his hands.
‘Well, good for us,’ Simmons said. ‘Anybody care for a game of cards?’
John left the two of them to it, wanting to get out of there as quickly as possible.
He’d always hated rash displays of sentiment; to show any sort of emotion was, in John’s book, a terrible weakness. He understood Mitchell’s concern, but for God’s sake – the man had only been gone three weeks! From the sounds of it, he was a shady character too. Whatever his friend wanted to think, there was ample evidence to make the case for a voluntary disappearance.
John found his car in the grounds, smoothing his suit as he slid onto the cold leather, slickly switching on the ignition and feeling it purr into existence. Maybe he should have refused Regan’s replenishments of whiskey – he wasn’t fit to drive, really. But it was very late and tomorrow Sarah’s parents were coming for brunch – God help him – so he needed to get back and spend a decent night in his own bed.
As he set off down the drive in the cold night air, he wondered idly if he could entice his wife into making love to him when he got back. Somehow this was doubtful. Sarah barricaded herself at night – literally and mentally, often insisting their young son slept in with them, or putting up a wall of pillows as she complained he rolled into her – and John was usually left either unsatisfied or forced to go down to the computer, furtively huddled over pixels at eleven o’clock at night. After she discovered his affair a couple of years back, things went from bad to worse. Instead of addressing their biggest issue – ‘Why do you think I’ve gone after someone else?’ he’d bellowed at her in a row, ‘I have to get it somewhere!’ – she’d shut herself up even further, almost closing off that part of their life completely.
This was why it was easier to hire companions. Sex was something which John felt he could deal with efficiently and without any interference from his spouse. Wives – at this stage in his life – were there more in a nursing or maid-like capacity; desire had become entirely irrelevant.
He considered this revelation as he drove out of Westwick village and was embraced by the thick foliage. It was late autumn, starting to grow cold, and the bones of the trees looked spindly and old as the ground claimed their flesh. The road, in comparison, seemed overstuffed; armies of leaves marched along with the car, dancing like flappers in front of John’s headlights.
John loved the forest road at this time of night. It was deserted, and he could think. Usually he turned the radio off so it was just him and the dark of the lane, cruising round the twists and turns as though he were on a racetrack.
That was when he saw her.
The shock of it, at first, nearly made him skid off the road – but then he realised how foolish he was for letting his friends’ fancies take hold of him: she was just a girl.
Shivering beside a battered Mini Cooper on the side of the road, she seemed, in the glow of John’s lights, to be little more than seventeen or eighteen. She was huddled in a large mustard coat, a scarf wound her so thick that her chin dissolved into it. Her eyes were big ovals – John was reminded of the expression deer caught in the headlights – and her black hair was cropped short in a pixie cut. She looked fearful, but she was waving him down nonetheless.
‘Excuse me!’ she waved a thin arm like a conductor. John was struck, again, by how young she looked. ‘Could you help me?’
He parked his car in front of hers and wound down his window.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked.
‘My car’s broken down!’
Her eyes filled with tears as John climbed out of the car, feeling a little like a predator encroaching on its lunch.
‘You poor thing. Do you want me to have a look at it?’
‘It’s completely dead.’
Her accent was soft, with a local lilt. The words oozed from big bow lips; John felt a mad urge to reach out and touch them.
‘Have you rung anyone for help?’ He was hovering by his own car, not trusting himself to go any further.
‘My phone’s dead too!’
Tears spilled from her eyes down her cheeks.
‘Oh, look, don’t be upset. Where do you need to go? Do you live round here?’
‘Yes. Well, sort of. About twenty minutes away. Near Highbury?’
‘Well, that’s a perfect coincidence. I myself live five minutes from Highbury.’
At this, she glowed, smiling for the first time. ‘Oh wow, really? Is there any chance – I know this is really cheeky – is there any chance I could snag a lift?’
‘Of course. How about you leave your car here, and then you can come and pick it up in the morning. Do you live with…anyone who might be able to give you a lift here tomorrow?’
He was hinting to see if she had a boyfriend.
‘I live in a house share. So yeah, I’m sure one of my roommates could take me.’
So no live-in boyfriend, then. And a house share suggested she was older than she looked. All good news.
‘Well, I’m happy to take you,’ he said.
‘Thank you very much.’
She stepped towards him; John stepped back, instinctively.
‘I’m Mona, by the way.’
‘Adam. King.’ (Best to give a fake name: King implied power, Adam had strong biblical connotations. John had done this before).
‘Nice to meet you, Adam.’
As she slid into the passenger seat next to him, John caught the smell of sweet peas; her perfume. He wondered if she’d ever been schooled on stranger danger – she didn’t seem to be at all fazed at the prospect of hitching a lift with a man she’d never met on a dark country road. Still, John reasoned, there was no need for her to be afraid of him. Was there?
They set off down the track, and John switched on the radio – Classic FM. Tinkling notes of a nocturne drifted into the dark of the car.
‘So, where are you from?’ he asked her.
‘Lived round here all my life,’ she said. She was smiling at him; he could see her in the mirror. ‘I’ve been out visiting a friend at Westwick, and I stayed a little bit longer than I intended.’
‘Why was that?’
(Who was her friend?)
‘Oh, she’s just a bit upset because she’s been dumped. I told her that single life is by far the better option. She seemed to cheer up then.’
It was like she was spoon-feeding him the information he wanted.
‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ she asked.
‘Of course not.’
He did mind, rather – this was a brand new car – but he rolled down her window and she courteously lent out of it, rings of smoke curling into the darkness. The trees bowed over them as they passed. John felt invincible from the cold air, the pretty girl, the glow of alcohol. He felt too invincible.
He’d moved his hand to her thigh.
He hardly realised it himself until it happened; his hand was resting calmly on her leg. Yet, she did not flinch. Another good sign.
‘You know,’ said John, pushing himself further, ‘we could always stop for a bit…if you wanted. There are some nice walks round here.’
‘That sounds lovely,’ she said.
John was astounded – he had not expected that. The last girl he’d propositioned like this – a young sales assistant on the floor below his – had threatened him with a restraining order. This was wonderful news.
‘Do you know these roads well, Mona?’ he asked. His hand was still on her bony thigh, peeling into the flesh. She was wearing tights, like a schoolgirl.
‘Oh yes. I’ve been down these roads hundreds of times.’
‘Well, it will be nice to have a bit of a stroll in the night air.’
‘It’s a bit hot in here, Adam,’ she said. ‘Do you mind if I take off my jacket?’
Christ, it got better and better. The window was down – it certainly wasn’t hot.
He tried not to sound too delighted as she peeled off her scarf and shimmied out of her heavy coat. Underneath was the curve of perky breasts, covered by the wool of a dress that clung to her slim frame like cling film.
‘I like your dress,’ John said.
‘We’ll stop in a minute.’
He wanted to find the right place – somewhere dark and secluded. Yet, something was stopping him from pulling over the car. Something was niggling at him. He couldn’t work out what it was.
‘So Adam,’ the girl said, winding up the window. ‘Are you married?’
He couldn’t very well lie. He’d been an arse and forgotten to remove his wedding ring. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But it’s an unhappy marriage, I’m afraid. We barely communicate.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘I’m not that sorry. My wife and I…we don’t have the kind of relationship we used to. So, when I meet a pretty girl, I’m afraid I get a bit…’
She was smiling again, coquettishly. Yet, there was something off about her. John couldn’t think what. A minute ago, he had been looking for a secluded spot to have his way with her. Now…now he felt uneasy. It was that stupid story Maximillian had told him. Absurd! An old hag who spends her time luring men into a trap – how ridiculous.
(Had he said the Grey Lady of Westwick was an old hag?)
Suddenly, John felt queasy. He could feel the warmth of the girl next to him – was she stroking his leg? He looked down. Yes. This sort of thing didn’t happen. It didn’t happen! It was all too easy. Was it?
He thought of Sarah, waiting for him back home. He liked to pursue women, of course he did. But half the time they weren’t interested in pursuing him back – he always went for the younger ones, the pretty ones, the ones who wouldn’t have him. Surely a man could be forgiven? Surely…surely nothing could be out there, waiting for him? Seeking vengeance?
He glanced across at Mona. She was a tiny thing – just a slip of a girl.
Pull yourself together, man. Stop being so ridiculous.
‘When shall we stop?’ she asked brightly. She licked her lips. John was torn between the desire to touch her and the desire to get out of the woods and away from his thoughts.
‘Er, are you sure you want to stop?’
Her face fell a little.
‘I thought you did.’
She had a striking, heart-shaped face. Desire won out. John pulled over the car; shaking off his silly imaginings. He turned to her. Her face was white in the glow of the moon; she was as flawless as a painting.
‘You’re very beautiful, you know,’ he said.
The compliment took her off guard. Instead of smiling with closed lips, as she had been, she smiled properly – showing a row of pearly teeth.
But – no. Her teeth were not pearly. Her teeth were yellow. And crooked. Almost like the teeth of…
‘What? What is it?’
And suddenly, having been so blinded by her beauty, he noticed the colour of her dress. It was grey.
There, in that shady spot under the trees, the true nature of the woman opposite him dawned on John Watkins.
‘You’re her, aren’t you?’ his voice quivered in terror. ‘You’re the Grey Lady. You’re the witch!’
‘I don’t know what you mean, John.’
The awful teeth glinted at him. He hadn’t told her his name was John.
‘I’m getting out of here…’ he turned to the handle of the car. But then she was on him, faster than a cat, faster than a bullet out of a gun.
‘You’re going nowhere,’ she hissed in his ear. In her hand, John realised, with horror, was the glint of a kitchen knife. It was all too quick; quicker than a flame catching alight.
He didn’t even get the chance to scream.
She came to meet her down a lonely track, just as the clock in her car struck three a.m.
‘Is it done?’
The girl was leaning up against a stile, smoking.
‘Yes. Do you want to see the body?’
‘No.’ The woman shivered. It was terribly cold now.
‘Do you have the rest of the money?’ the girl asked, business as usual. Her voice was thicker than when the woman had last met her.
‘Yes, yes of course.’
The woman handed over the next instalment of the cash. She’d put it in a sack – her son’s trick or treating bag – like a robber. She still couldn’t believe any of this was real.
‘Did he…did he suffer?’
She wanted to know, yet she didn’t.
‘Do you care?’
The girl sighed, hopping off the stile. Far away, in another place, a wolf howled at the moon.
‘What was it he did again? I lose track. Affair, was it?’
‘Yes, at first. Then it was prostitutes. Lots of them. He had a whole other bank account…’ she felt tears prick, hot like fire. She forced them away.
‘He tried it on with me.’
The woman’s heart thudded. She wasn’t surprised – she’d hired the girl with that in mind, of course, knowing from his search history that he liked the younger ones – but still, it ached to be told that in his final minutes he was yet again betraying his marriage vows.
‘Do you really care if he suffered?’ the girl repeated the question.
The woman considered this.
‘No. No, I suppose I don’t.’
The girl pulled out another cigarette; the golden light was startling in the dark lane.
‘Smoking will kill you, you know.’
‘Oh, I know. It’s wrecked my teeth. Dentist’s nightmare.’ She flashed a set of yellow tombstones at the woman. ‘I’m getting dentures soon.’
She blew smoke into the air. It really was very late.
‘So, if that will be all…’
‘I’ll get my team to dispose of it.’
‘Right. Yes. Of course. Thank you.’
‘Good riddance to him, I say. He was piece of shit. Don’t you shed a tear over him.’
With that platitude, the two parted ways, like the dispersing of a coven.
The woman walked back to her car feeling – feeling what, exactly? Guilt? No. He’d had it coming. He’d had it coming for a very long time.
She turned back and watched the girl’s grey form disappearing into the blackness, already on her phone – probably making plans for someone to collect John’s body and do whatever they needed to do with it.
No, Sarah Watkins realised as she walked back to her car on the forest road. I do not feel guilty.
I feel light.
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