In late 2020, my nan sent me a letter containing the opening to a short story, which she had written during lockdown. She doesn't usual...

In late 2020, my nan sent me a letter containing the opening to a short story, which she had written during lockdown. She doesn't usually write fiction, but she told me this had just come to her one day, so she had written it down and sent it to me, hoping that one day I'd be able to turn it into a full story for her.

I was thrilled. I had spent 2020 trying to write, but finding that whenever I sat down to do so, my inspiration well was completely dry; so perhaps this would be the perfect thing to jolt me out of that dissatisfying cycle. I love my nan (obviously), I wanted to make her proud, and I had always wanted to write a murder mystery - which seemed like the perfect kind of plot to follow the opening she'd given me. It was, surely, the ideal recipe for a visit from the Muse.

But every attempt ended in failure. I wanted to get the story done by Christmas 2020, but I missed it; then I wanted to finish it by November 2021, but by then I had only written a couple of hundred words, and I hated every one of them. By mid-2022, I had pretty much given up on ever finishing it, and I hated myself for it. I was a bad grandson, a bad writer, a let down in every way. It's no exaggeration to say I thought about it nerly every day.

And then, when I had nearly given up hope, a different idea hit me. Yes, my nan had written something that leant itself well to a murder mystery ... but it didn't have to be. There was something else there, something closer to the kind of story I would normally write. I could do it, I reckoned, if I just let myself walk down that more familiar road, instead of trying to be the kind of writer I wasn't, at a time when being a writer at all was hard enough.

From then on, it wasn't exactly like the tap had been turned back on, but some inspiration was definitely starting to flow. There was a trickle, at least. And despite missing the November 5th deadline I originally set myself, I managed to finish the story by Christmas, and give it to my nan at the great big Heinemann get together. I might still be a bad writer and a let down in every other way, but at least I'm not that bad a grandson anymore.

The story I wrote follows. The bold text at the beginning is the intro my nan wrote. Enjoy.

Guy Fawkes night, November 5th. The evening was still and quiet, except for the occasional hiss of a rocket as it rose into the night sky before bursting into a spray of stars and dropping to earth, or the bang of an exploding squib. The smell of smoke from bonfires still lingered in the air. The festivities were nearing their end.
   The cat moved silently and stealthily through the churchyard, eyes alert for any movement in the long grass between the ancient tombstones – their names and inscriptions long since forgotten – that would denote a tiny field mouse or vole which would provide a tasty meal.
   Suddenly, the night air was shattered by a blood-curdling scream, which seemed to come from the spire of the ancient church, which had stood in the village for over three hundred years.
   The cat bolted, all thoughts of hunting for rodents – tasty or otherwise – banished from its panicking mind. It weaved in and out of the stones like it would know the route with its eyes closed, barely touching the ground; and the only close call it made as it exited the church grounds was with the vicar’s legs, between which it dived so quickly that the vicar was nearly knocked over by the surprise.
   ‘I’m so sorry, Mrs Moody,’ the vicar said, gently touching the arm of the squat woman in front of him, ‘but I’m going to have to go and see what that noise was. We can continue this conversation tomorrow – please do come see me. Though, as I say, I really don’t think I’ll have the authority to order the rotary club to reduce the volume of the fireworks. Now, must dash.’
   He returned to the church at a nervous jog, pretending not to hear Mrs Moody’s further complaints.
   Entering through the main doors, he walked down the aisle cautiously, checking between each pew as if he expected an attacker to be hiding between each row. Why there would be a lethal assailant in this small church in this sleepy old village, he did not know; but from the sound of that scream, he could not think of many other conclusions to draw.
   ‘Katherine?’ He called into the half-lit hall. ‘Katherine, are you here?’
   Receiving no answer from his wife, he proceeded into the hallway at the back and toward his office, the door to which was closed for the first time in… well, as long as he could remember.
   ‘Katherine?’ He called again, turning the handle.
   Locked. His heart missed a couple of beats, before attempting to correct the error by doubling its previous rate.
   ‘Katherine,’ he repeated, his voice cracking, while he fished his keys from his pocket, ‘are you in there?’
   Fumbling with the keychain, all fingers and thumbs, he struggled to unlock the door for much longer than he should have, and when he finally did manage it, he burst through it as if trying to break it free from its frame; but he was stopped just as quickly, by the sight of his wife, shaking like a drenched puppy, staring at the air in front of her as if he was not even there.
   ‘Katherine, I was calling,’ he said, approaching her slowly. ‘Didn’t you hear me?’
   Katherine continued to stare at nothing for a few seconds, before eventually replying: ‘Hm?’
   Her skin was as pale as the moon outside.
   ‘Katherine, what’s wrong? What happened in here?’
   Finally, Katherine’s eyes moved, and she allowed them to meet her husband’s, as she twisted her lips into a thoroughly unconvincing smile.
   ‘Sorry, Vernon,’ she said slowly. ‘I just had a bit of a fright, that’s all.’
   ‘What do you mean, “a bit of a fright”? You look like you were petrified. What happened? Did someone break in? Was it those kids trying to get at the iPads again?’
   Katherine seemed to be spending a lot of energy on re-entering the room, and she straightened her skirt and tried to add warmth to her smile as she said, ‘No, no. Nothing like that. Don’t worry darling, I’m fine now.’
   She tried to rise from the wheely office chair, but Vernon pushed her back down into it, which seemed to jolt her out of her robotic cover-up routine for just a second. She looked up at him with an expression that was at once pleading, fearful and confused.
   ‘No,’ said Vernon, his resolve cracking slightly under the weight of his wife’s stare. He squatted down next to his wife, placing his hand gently on her knee, and looked up into her frightened eyes. ‘You’re to tell me what happened, so I can help. You can’t shut me out again.’
   Not after the last year. Her father, organising the funeral, sorting his estate. The mess she had been in, having idolised him her whole life. And, let’s face it, it was his fault she bottled all her emotions up – after all, you don’t get to own half the real estate in this village, and a third of each of the three nearest villages, by showing weakness. Vernon had heard him say words to that effect more times than he could remember.
   Something about her husband’s tone of voice must have made Katherine understand, because she seemed to soften. ‘It’s just… so silly,’ she sighed.
   ‘I don’t mind. Tell me anyway. Please.’
   She thought for a long time, her eyes fixed on her wringing hands and her brows furrowed. Vernon could see her fighting the urge to keep it all in, to play it down and try to brush it off, so he squeezed her knees tighter, to let her know her husband was right in front of her and waiting to be let in.
Eventually, she came to a decision.
   ‘I was going to come and fetch you so we could lock up for the night, and I’d tidied up in here and all that, but when I went out into the hallway there was this… thing… standing at the end of it, just staring at me. It scared me, that’s all.’
   ‘Thing? What kind of thing?’
   ‘It was…’ Katherine sighed again, rolled her eyes. ‘It was a straw man in a tattered old suit. Taller that you, really tall, probably seven feet. Just standing there, straight as a statue and dead still.’
Vernon looked over his shoulder out of the door to the hallway. ‘Straw man? As in, someone in fancy dress?’
   ‘No. A man completely made of straw. Like a Guy.’
   ‘But… he must have been human, or…’
   ‘Look, it was just my imagination. It must have been, or you would have passed him going out, wouldn’t you? I must just be tired or something. So come on, let’s go.’
   Katherine stood, shook herself off, massaged her cheeks with her hands, and began to gather her things. There would be no more talk of what had happened tonight, that much was clear.
   ‘Yes,’ said Vernon, still struggling to take it all in. ‘Let’s get you home.’
   He put his arm around her, and they left the church together.

With all that his wife had suffered over the last year, the vicar wanted her to be able to forget the events of Guy Fawkes night, so he had not asked about it again. And although she had her moments when she seemed distant or worried and was not able or willing to explain why, Katherine did not have another episode like it. The whole incident might have faded completely into the past, had it not been for the Christmas Bazaar at the beginning of December.
   They were greeting guests, making small talk, when Nicole Barker approached, carrying a box so filled with cupcakes that it looked like they might be multiplying in there, and soon overflow onto the floor around her. ‘Morning!’ She sang, her voice as warm and jolly as ever.
   Katherine grinned. They had become friends with Nicole under the most awful circumstances, when her husband had died suddenly a few years prior and she had come to Vernon for help dealing with the grief; but God giveth just as much as God taketh away, and out of that tragedy emerged a lifelong friendship of the sort that made Katherine feel like the years before they had known each other had almost been wasted.
   ‘You didn’t need to make all these,’ said Katherine, taking the box out of Nicole’s hands and placing it on one of the tables. ‘They look amazing. You sweet thing.’
   Nicole waved the compliment away. ‘Oh, I didn’t make them all,’ she said. ‘I only made one batch, and the other went wrong, so I popped over to Waitrose on the way. They sold me the better-looking ones.’
   Katherine giggled. She was never quite sure how seriously to take Nicole – which was another thing she liked about her.
   ‘Morning vicar,’ said Nicole, nodding with mock solemnity, before winking cheekily. Vernon smiled a toothy smile back at her.
   ‘So, how have you been?’ Katherine asked. ‘Feels like I haven’t seen you in ages.’
   ‘I’ve had my nephews staying the past few nights. My brother had a flood at his house, so it was my place or the Travelodge their insurance company offered. I told him I’d take the kids and he could have the Travelodge! No way I’m living with my brother again. His kids are such good boys, but they don’t half make a racket. I’ve come here for a bit of quiet.’
   ‘A flood! That’s terrible.’
   Nicole shrugged. ‘Yeah, it’s all getting sorted though. They’ll end up getting a brand-new kitchen out of it. My brother could fall in a sewer and come out with a ham sandwich, bless him.’
   ‘Oh, that’s good. How old are the boys?’
   ‘Archie is seven and George is ten. Can’t get George off his PlayStation, but Archie is a real little chatterbox. Says the weirdest things, but they always crease me up. Yesterday he was telling me that next November, I’ll have to invite him over for Fireworks Night, because this town must have the best display in all of England. I was like, “Why?”, and he said it’s because this is where all the bits of Guy Fawkes must come together. Little weirdo.’
   Vernon had been explaining to Greta Humphreys why the tombola didn’t have a cash prize jackpot, but hearing this had pricked his ears, and he turned back to the conversation to find Katherine stiff as a board, standing so straight and tight that she looked like someone who had been tasered but had not yet had enough time to fall to the ground in a shaking heap.
   ‘Oh?’ She said, her voice trembling. ‘What did he mean, all the bits of Guy Fawkes?’
   Nicole seemed blissfully unaware of Katherine’s sudden tension. She stood with crossed arms and tapping foot, surveying the village hall as if scoping the place for the best stalls to hit, while she recited her nephew’s crazy theory.
   ‘He reckons that when Guy Fawkes was quartered – and don’t ask me how he knows this – his body was distributed to “the four corners of the kingdom,” to deter other traitors from following in his footsteps. But that didn’t mean the four corners, literally; it meant the four most major cities, to achieve maximum publicity. He actually said the phrase maximum publicity. And he got his little tablet thing out, and showed me a map with the four most major cities in England at the time marked, and he’d drawn lines between them, all of which converged right here. He is such a little nutter, I love it.’
   ‘That’s… interesting,’ Katherine said, her voice barely louder than a whisper.
   Nicole continued. ‘Well, it wasn’t right here, it was in the car park of the big Tesco off the motorway; but I got his point.’
   But Katherine had disappeared before she had even finished the sentence, marching across the hall and out of the door like someone on a mission to get to the toilet before their stomach evacuated. Nicole was left shocked, staring at Vernon like she did not quite believe what had happened.
   ‘Did I say something wrong?’ She asked, after a time.
   Vernon just smiled, placing his hand on her arm.

After the Christmas Bazaar, Katherine seemed to begin a slow decline which seemed like it could not have been stopped, even if Vernon knew how. She started to sink into herself, became despondent and jittery, jumping at the quietest sounds. She could no longer hold a conversation with her husband – rarely uttering more than a grunt in response to his questions, and never asking a single one in return. She would go to bed late, and sleep in until late morning. Just like she had been when her father died.
   Sometimes, Vernon would wake to find her sitting up in bed next to him, furiously biting her nails and scrolling through websites he could never read before she’d turn off her screen and tell him to go back to sleep. When he found her tablet one day, lying on the kitchen counter, he tried to look at her Internet history; but she had wiped it.
   It seemed so strange to him that this darkness had been brought on by just two small events, two or three minutes out of the thousands that they had lived through since November. He knew that that was how these things worked – that all it took was a seed to be planted in the mind and it could grow out of control just like that – but it baffled him that there seemed to be no way of stopping it, now it had taken root. Katherine seemed to be overtaken by it now, and whenever he tried to bring it up, even as gently as he could, to help her talk it out, she shut him down forcefully and immediately. She was convinced that her life was now marked, that she was the target of some sinister shenanigans (supernatural shenanigans was implied, but never spoken out loud), and nothing would persuade her otherwise. To attempt to distract her was not a kindness, it was an insult, and one which would more likely put her in danger than make her feel safer.
   So, as his wife slipped into a kind of dark depression that he could not find the words to coax her out of, Vernon found himself getting up earlier than usual, and taking long walks around the village, just to get out of that stifling house and breathe in the fresh, wintry air.
   ‘You seen that hole in the roof, vicar?’ Dougie Tomlinson asked one morning, from his fencepost.
   The vicar had not seen him there, as he walked past the entrance to the Tomlinson farm, so deep had he been in thought; but now that he thought about it, he hardly saw Tomlinson anywhere else than leaning against his fencepost. Hardly ever saw him at church, anyway.
   ‘Dougie,’ said the vicar, jovially. ‘How’s Susan? Doing any better?’
   The farmer sighed. ‘She’s alright. Still a bit winky, bless her. But she’s on the mend, and none of the others have caught it off her, so there’s that.’
   ‘Oh, that’s good to hear.’
   ‘I don’t like to let em know I got favourites, but I was whispering it to her before the doc came. Thought it might help her fight it, y’know? To know someone was rooting for her.’
   ‘Oh. That’s nice. I’m sure that helped her.’
   ‘I think it did, vicar. I think it did. She looked at me with those big eyes, even with one of em filled up with gunk and that, and I knew she was gunna fight it off good an proper, just so she could see me again.’
   Vernon smiled, nodded. ‘What was it again? Conjunctivitis?’
   Dougie nodded solemnly. ‘Pinkeye, vicar.’
   ‘Is that often fatal in cows?’
   ‘Not this time,’ the farmer replied, his voice almost cracking, as if holding back tears. ‘Not this time.’
   The men stood in silence for a few uncomfortable moments, while Dougie Tomlinson silently regained his composure, and the vicar built up the courage to leave.
   Finally, Vernon began, ‘Well, I’d best be…’
   But he was interrupted.
   ‘How’s the lovely wife?’
   ‘Oh, she’s alright,’ the vicar nodded, before at length deciding not to leave it there. He picked up a stray piece of hay that was stuck to a cobweb on the fence and began to play with it, turning it in his fingers and running his skin along its dry edges. ‘She’s just been a bit all over the place, lately. Doesn’t know if she’s coming or going. The other day she thought there was someone in the church with her when she was locking up. Frightened the life out of her. But there was no one there; never had been. Hasn’t been the same since.’
   Dougie nodded sagely. ‘Still getting over her dad passing.’
   ‘Yes, I thought that too. She just hasn’t been the same since he went. Can’t believe it’s been nearly a year. I just hoped it would have got easier by now, not harder.’
   ‘Been four years since I lost old Betsy, and I still think about her every day.’
Betsy was another of Dougie’s cows. Vernon could not quite remember her cause of death – it certainly had not been pinkeye.
   ‘So you should,’ said the vicar, smiling politely. ‘She was a lovely girl. Now, I must be…’
   ‘Have you seen that hole in the church roof, vicar?’
   Vernon did not allow his eyes to follow the farmer’s finger, no matter how tempting it was to check whether the hole could be seen from here. You couldn’t even see the church from here – you could just make out the ancient spire over the roof of the little post office.
   ‘Yes,’ he said, trying not to let impatience creep into his tone, ‘it’s been there a long time, unfortunately. We’ve been fundraising, as I’m sure you’ve seen, but times are tight for everyone at the moment. But we’ll get there, eventually. Until then, I’ll just be filling up the buckets whenever it rains. But for now, Dougie, I must be off, so I’ll see you next time you’re at church, shall I?’ He waved his hay at the farmer, and began to walk away before he could receive a reply.
   He tried to forget his conversation with Dougie, but his walk had already been ruined, and it couldn’t be taken back. The hole in the roof wasn’t the only problem with the church: there was rising damp in the office; a substantial stretch of fence was sitting at a 45-degree angle, after having been blown over in a storm in the summer; and something – mice, he suspected – had chewed through the wiring of the outside security lights three years ago. With everyday expenses constantly rising and fundraising efforts bringing in less and less money, he didn’t know how he would ever be able to make the repairs this old church so desperately needed.
   Having stewed on this for the rest of the walk, he arrived home in a miserable mood. He threw his coat at the hangers by the front door and walked on without checking it had landed on a hook, then prodded the power lever on the kettle as if he were stabbing the very heart of all his problems. He stood and watched the frosty garden out of the back window, while the kettle boiled and the first sounds of his wife stirring upstairs began to thud through the ceiling.
   The beauty of his ice-whitened olive tree swaying in the gentle breeze, and the size of the hydrangea in the flower bed that just kept growing larger and looking healthier every year despite his almost criminal neglect, began to calm him. Maybe everything would be okay, after all.
   But then there was a scream. A shrill scream, so loud that it sounded not like it had come from one particular location, but was a sound that had simply erupted throughout the house. He ducked out of some danger-dodging instinct, then ran out into the hallway, to find his wife.
   She was standing on the stairs, as white as the frost-bitten plants outside, staring at the floor of the hallway as if it were made of hissing, bubbling lava that would burn her up on contact.
   ‘What’s wrong? What’s happened?’ Vernon asked, following her gaze to the floor. There, he found something he had not been expecting: a small puddle of dropped hay blades under his coat, and a thinner scattering of hay from there to the kitchen. He looked back up at his wife, still trembling and staring at the strewn grass, and had to think much longer than he should have before he made the connection.
   ‘Oh!’ He said, stepping toward his wife to put his hand on hers on the banister. ‘This was me. It was me, don’t worry. I’ve walked this in. Must have been on my shoes, or on my coat, or something. I got talking to Dougie, leaned against his fence, you know…’
   Katherine lowered herself to sit on a step, and pulled her hand away from his so that she could put her head in it. She was shaking violently.
   Vernon stepped up a couple of stairs and put his hands on her trembling shoulders. He stroked her softly. ‘It’s just hay from Dougie’s fence or path. It’s nothing to be scared of, honestly…’
   But she would not be reassured. She sat curled up in a ball, rocking softly and breathing heavily, until Vernon gave up trying to lull her out of it, and went to make her a cup of tea instead.
   And as he did, he wondered: how deep had these delusions of ghostly Guys burrowed into her, while he had been trying to ignore them until they went away? How was it that she had become so obsessed with this idea that now it only took some scattered hay on the hallway floor to make her believe that Guy Fawkes had come back from the dead to come and inflict violence on her, for completely unknown reasons? What had started this, and what could be done about it?

Having been driven to distraction by those questions for a few days, and eventually reached the conclusion that he would never be able to answer them himself, he finally decided to ask Katherine to seek professional help. Had it been anyone else, he might have offered his own counselling, just as he had done for Nicole Barker and a handful of others in the village who had been through tough times; but he was too close to Katherine to see the issue clearly, too partial to give her unweighted advice. Having discreetly discussed the matter with a few friends, he knew now that this was the only way.
   So, as gently as he could, he told her that he understood her pain and he was not judging her fears, but he thought that they were getting out of control, and that the best thing for everyone would be speaking to someone about them before they destroyed both her and her husband’s life.
   ‘How would my fears ever destroy your life?’ She asked, spite in her tone. ‘You don’t care about me, you just think I’m going mad. You’re probably just annoyed I haven’t gone mad enough yet to give you all my dad’s money to fix your precious church.’
   Vernon sighed, frustratedly. While it was true that her mental state had not been his only concern over the past few days, and they had had yet another of their arguments about her father’s fortune in the meantime (which mainly consisted of Vernon explaining how much could be done to help the church if only she would donate a tiny portion of her family money, and Katherine arguing that her father’s money needed to be protected, as if he would be coming back to reclaim it any day now), it angered him to hear her accuse him so brazenly, with so much venom. ‘I don’t care about the money,’ he bit back, lying, ‘and I don’t think you’re going mad. I just think you don’t feel well, and I want you to feel well again.’
   ‘Yes, well whatever, Vernon. You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said about this since the beginning. Someone is after me, whether they’re… alive… or not.’ She cringed a little at her own suggestion, but remained steadfast.
   ‘Maybe they are,’ said Vernon, attempting to meet her in the middle, ‘but I just don’t think we have enough evidence to know that yet. And until we do, you can’t let it take over your life like this. It’s not healthy; it’s eating you up, I can see it. I want my old wife back.’
   He put his hand on hers, but she did not allow it to sit there for long before pulling away. ‘You just want me to be quiet,’ she muttered, ‘and waste my dad’s money on your crumbling building like a good little wife.’
   But she had, eventually, relented, and agreed to see someone, even if only for a couple of sessions. But she would choose the therapist herself, and she would not discuss the content of her therapy with him under any circumstances. Of course, he had said. Anything you say – I just want to see you smile again.
   And it was during one of her counsellor research sessions, while she sat at the breakfast bar staring at her tablet screen as if it, just like her husband, was conspiring against her, that the next twist in the tale unfolded.
   Vernon had been making sandwiches for them both as an early lunch before he went over to the church for an afternoon’s work, when he had glanced up at the front door and noticed a letter hanging from the letterbox. Wondering how the postman could have delivered something without their creaky old letter slot making its usual rusty wail and snap, he went to pick up the mail, eating a slice of cheese on the way.
   But it had not been the postman. It was an unmarked envelope, yellowed and rough-feeling as if it had been posted decades or centuries earlier and had been lost in the postal system until just now. It even seemed to smell a little earthy, unless that was just Vernon’s imagination. He opened the front door to see who had posted it, but there was no one there – no one on the street at all – and the freezing air that rushed in forced him to end his search without too much more delay.
   He opened the envelope as he walked back to the kitchen, and stopped in his tracks when he read its contents.
   It was a note, on paper just as old and discoloured as the envelope in which it had arrived, with just one sentence scrawled on it:


   ‘What is it?’ Called Katherine, from the breakfast bar.
   ‘Um,’ replied Vernon, stalling while he tried to establish the best way to approach the situation.
   ‘Show me.’
   The vicar looked up to see his wife standing in the doorway to the kitchen, holding her hand out. He could not cajole his mind into thinking straight under such pressure, so he handed her the note, and watched the blood drain from her face in the second it took her to read it.
   Her whole body seemed to be spasming, dancing on the spot to avoid imploding or giving up completely. She looked like she might throw up, scream, do both at once. Eventually, all she could do was whimper, before dropping to her knees and tossing the note to the floor, as if throwing it away might extinguish it forever, or open up a portal into which she could vanish.
   ‘Katherine,’ the vicar said, kneeling by her and placing his hand on her shoulder. She felt cold, hard, like a statue, all tensed muscle and intense terror.
   ‘Katherine,’ he repeated. She did not move – not even a twitch to acknowledge that she had heard his voice.
   He knelt for a long time, watching his wife quiver with fear, struggling to work out how best to ask her the question he had in his head. After a very long time, he just let it come out as it was.
   ‘Did you write this note yourself?’
   As soon as he asked it, he knew it was the wrong thing to say.

Katherine never saw a therapist. After the incident with the note and the hysterical, vicious argument that followed, in which both of them said things they would later regret and made accusations with barely any basis, she locked herself in their bedroom most of the time, leaving the rest of the house to her husband for most of the day and the spare bedroom for him to sleep in each night. She came out only occasionally, and the rare glimpses he caught of her were of a shell of a woman, haggard and unwashed, twitchy and agitated. Not someone he knew, but an imposter, an unreachable and unreasonable spectre who had possessed the body of the woman he had married.
   And after three weeks of this, and dozens of conversations with members of his congregation who wondered where his wife had disappeared to, he gave up trying to save her himself. He asked Nicole, her best friend, to come over and try to lure his wife out of her room, try to talk some sense into her and bring her back to the land of the living, the land of the sane. If she could.
   If anyone could.
   ‘Katherine,’ Nicole said, knocking softly on the bedroom door. ‘Please come out. I’m not here to tell you what to think or how to act. I’m not judging you or thinking you’re crazy, I swear. I just want to see my friend.’
   No answer.
   Vernon sat at the bottom of the staircase, listening to every sound from upstairs with his face in his hands.
   ‘Katherine, I just want to help you,’ Nicole said, her voice shaking a little, ‘like you and Vernon helped me when Kevin… when he…’
   A long time passed in silence, as Vernon listened out for his wife’s voice and wondered if Nicole was crying. She had certainly sounded like she was about to. Guilt weighed on his shoulders like an iron overcoat.
   But then, the bedroom door creaked softly, and he heard footsteps on the landing. Then, the soft, cloth-brushing sounds of two women embracing. He stood and went into the lounge, so that when they came downstairs to talk in the kitchen, he would not be there to infuriate his wife. He wanted to be here to hear the result of his plan, but could not risk its success by being seen prematurely.
   Katherine kept her eyes to the ground as she descended the stairs, arm in arm with her friend. Having spent the last few weeks only eating when Vernon was out, and even then having no appetite to speak of, the house felt unfamiliar and her stick-thin legs felt weak.
   She let Nicole lead her to the kitchen, and sat at the breakfast bar staring at nothing in particular while Nicole prepared a hot drink. Nicole was speaking, saying supportive and reassuring things in a soft and friendly voice; but Katherine was not listening. She wanted more than anything to be able to talk openly with her friend, let off all the steam that had been building up in her head while she shut herself away over the last few weeks, but she did not want to be called insane again. Because on some level, despite her resolve that something strange was happening and nobody but her was taking it seriously enough, she suspected – or rather, feared – that she might be. Saying nothing, for now, was better than hearing the last person she trusted tell her that she had lost her mind.
   Katherine sighed, stood, and walked to the French doors to look at the garden.
   What she saw there hit her like a punch, right in the middle of the chest.
   At the end of the garden, there stood a straw man in a tattered suit. Not the same man she had seen in the church, all those months ago; but a similar sort of figure. Something that should never be in her garden, or anywhere near her house.
   Nicole was still chatting away. ‘…and I said to him, “You can’t be sending people stuff like that by text, unless they ask for it,” but you know what 95-year-olds are like. He won’t take any orders from me. I’ll let him suffer the consequences if he does it again… What’s up?’
   Katherine was backing away from the back doors, trying to catch her breath. Gasping, clawing at the air as if choking on the thickness of it.
   ‘Katherine? Katherine, what’s going on?!’
   The vicar’s wife pointed at the garden. ‘There he is,’ she managed, hoarsely. ‘He’s coming.’
   Nicole ran over to join her friend, and looked out the window with her. ‘There’s nobody there,’ she said. ‘I can’t see anyone there.’
   Katherine shook her head. The way she looked at Nicole made it seem like Nicole had been her very last hope, and had betrayed her out of pure spite. Like she had taken a sledgehammer to all that trust they had built up over their years of friendship, and knocked it down with a single sentence. She turned, and marched out of the kitchen.
   But in the hallway, she was knocked back a step by something else: all the picture frames contained pictures of straw men. Where there had once been a wedding photo, a picture of her father, one of Vernon’s parents… there were now only pictures of straw men, with scraggy straw hairstyles, in damaged scarecrow hats. She ripped them from the walls, screaming at them, cursing the ghoul that was out to destroy her. She stamped on the frames, wailing swear words she had never said in her life, pushing at the walls as if they were closing in on her.
   Nicole grabbed her from behind, tried to hold her back from causing any more damage to the picture frames she knew Katherine loved. Vernon emerged from the living room and attempted to help subdue his wife, but she broke free from them both, lashing and writhing and punching Nicole in the ear to get away.
   She burst through the front door and out into the street, screaming ‘HELP! HELP! HE’S COMING!’
   Vernon and Nicole came out of the house to pursue her, but she ran, screaming and crying and staggering in a zig-zag up the road. A crowd of onlookers and nosy neighbours gathered along the pavements, but nobody approached her out of fear of being attacked by the crazy woman.
   One neighbour covered her children’s eyes, as if to protect them from the sight of such unmitigated insanity.
   ‘HELP!’ she cried. ‘HELP ME, PLEASE!’
   It wasn’t until the police and the ambulance arrived that Katherine finally calmed down.

Guy Fawkes night, November 5th. The evening was still and quiet, except for the occasional hiss of a rocket as it rose into the night sky before bursting into a spray of stars and dropping to earth, or the bang of an exploding squib. The smell of smoke from bonfires still lingered in the air. The festivities were nearing their end.
   There was no cat among the tombstones this year – Mrs Moody’s moggy had had a close call with a Ford Focus in September, so she kept it indoors now to keep it safe from harm. The mice and voles twitched and nibbled under the long grass, free from danger of predators, on this unusually warm autumn evening.
   Vernon was just about to shut his computer down and lock up, when his phone vibrated in his pocket. He reached for it distractedly with one hand, while he clicked Send on the e-mail he had been typing with the other.
   The e-mail had been an acceptance of a quote for the roof repairs, which was the last of the repairs he would need to make the church perfect again, and restore it to its former glory. It had been a long time coming and more difficult than he would have liked, but now he had his father-in-law’s money to work with, he could finally give this little village the house of worship it deserved.
   ‘Hello beautiful,’ he said, answering the phone. ‘I’m just locking up. Be home in ten.’
   Receiving his answer, he smiled, and ended the call.
   In the quiet of his office, as the computer shut down, he took a moment to reflect on the year that had passed. How strange it had been, and how he never could have predicted how any of it had gone down.
   He was not proud of everything he had done – especially the scarecrow in the garden or the picture frames thing. Much more theatrical than he would have liked. And some of it had taken a lot of orchestrating, like making sure she had her meltdown in public, and sowing the seeds of her madness in all their friends’ heads. But even now, he could not see any other way to reach this necessary end. It had been horrible to live through, even worse to put someone else through; but didn’t this end justify those terrible means? Katherine was happier now, more comfortable, getting all the help she needed; the church was in the process of a thorough refurbishment that would bring it up-to-date and back to standard; and his father-in-law’s fortune was being put to good use, instead of rotting in a bank where no one could benefit from it. All’s well that ends well, as they say.
   And to think that all of this had just fallen into his lap, because someone in fancy dress had wandered into the church last year.
   He wished he knew who it was that had appeared here, to start the whole thing off and give him the idea. Not that he would thank them – he couldn’t risk anyone knowing that he had taken advantage of such a thing, just to drive his wife out of the picture and gain access to all her money – but it would be nice to know who had given him that gift.
   But the computer was off now, so he was ready to leave. He switched it off at the wall, picked up his bag, and prepared to go home to Nicole. She was preparing toad in the hole for dinner – his favourite.
   As he locked up the office, he saw something out of the corner of his eye that seemed out of place. He looked up to see a man standing at the end of the hall in a dark blue suit, staring at him in the darkness of the half-lit corridor.
   He was easily seven feet tall, and from here it looked like his skin was not skin at all, but straw. Dry, pale-yellow straw with nothing underneath.
   No bones, no organs, no mouth or nose or eyeballs, just hay.
   Vernon gasped, dropped the keys. He looked away involuntarily, shielding himself from the sight with his hand, before doubting himself and looking again. It couldn’t be what he thought he saw, his mind must have been playing tricks on him.
   When he looked again, the hallway was empty.
   There was nobody there.

It has been almost three years since I last posted to this blog, so you'd be forgiven for thinking I'd given up on it. I will even f...

It has been almost three years since I last posted to this blog, so you'd be forgiven for thinking I'd given up on it. I will even forgive you if you've given up on reading it. But only this time - give up on me again and you're off my Christmas card list.

Anyway, in the meantime, I've been working on a bookish podcast called Agony Art, in which my friends and I step into the ill-fitting shoes of agony aunts, solving listeners' problems using examples from books, films and music. It has been a lot of fun, and I'm at least 33% sure that strangers would enjoy it too, if we were brave enough to promote it properly.

But we're not, so the best I can do is promote it here, on my blog which almost no one reads. As of today, the series 3 finale of Agony Art is available wherever you get your podcasts, or on our website. Why not give it a listen, and see if it makes you giggle?

Alright, that's my job done. I'll crawl back into my hole now.