by Rafe McGregor
I was thinking about drowning when the child stepped out from behind the ‘enforcement cameras’ sign.
I slammed on the brakes.
Even though I was only crawling along, the car sluiced across the motorway-turned-river, straight for him.
I closed my eyes at the last instant, but when the impact came it was from behind, not in front. As I’d expected – or hoped.
I should be used to this shit by now.
I pulled over to the hard shoulder, tried to calm my nerves, and stepped out into the unrelenting rain. The good news was that the car was a monster SUV, so I hadn’t done any damage with my little MX5. The bad news was that the driver was almost as big as his car, a skinhead with a boxer’s nose and rugby player’s ears. I thought he was going to rip my head off, but I’m at the stage where I really couldn’t care less, so I joined him in the space between our vehicles.
I was right: no damage to his, a big dent in my rear end. I told him a dog had run out across the motorway, and he bought it. We exchanged details in the downpour and he asked me if my car would be all right to drive. I said yes to get rid of him. I returned to the convertible, watched him pull back out into the traffic, and chucked his details out the window.
Obviously, I’m not going to claim this one on the insurance either.
I waited for the Big Friendly Giant to disappear into the cataract, and resumed my journey east. It’s Friday the twenty-ninth of October, East Yorkshire is saturated, and one of my editors has sent me to cover Halloween at Dane’s Dyke. Dane’s Dyke is a forest near Flamborough Head, which forms the northern part of Bridlington Bay. It’s become a big occult centre since a BBC news piece unwittingly featured evidence of a haunting during a broadcast in the late eighties. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in money, and money always follows a good story. Word is that this year, the Satanists are going to provide one by descending on Dane’s Dyke en masse and doing…whatever Satanists do. I think it’s a recognised religion these days, so I’m not expecting human sacrifice, but whatever they get up to, I’ll be there to watch.
Howden was a diversion courtesy of the booklet lying on my passenger seat: 13 Horror Stories from Holderness. It was the last thing Gwen gave me. She must have bought it a while ago, because even though we haven’t spoken in five months, it arrived in the post on my birthday. I wasn’t surprised. Gwen can be unspeakably kind and delightfully cruel – and often at the same time. All thirteen tales are traditional ghost stories set in what was once known as Holderness, the Yorkshire coast from Flamborough Head to Spurn Point. In Roman times, Holderness extended three miles east of today’s shore, but the coastline has been submerged over the years as the sea gradually eroded and inundated the soft rock. The idea of the thirty-odd settlements now lying so close under the water disturbs me, but I think there might be a story in the city of Lod, which was not only the biggest of the drowned towns, but also had the most dramatic end.
I found the right junction and followed the signs to the small market town. Once upon a time, Howden must have been a lot more important than it is now, because it still sports a great big thirteenth-century gothic cathedral in the style of York and Beverley Minsters. I should have gone straight to Flamborough to start nosing about for some back-story on the Satanists, but I’d decided on two stops en route. The Evening Post might be paying for Dane’s Dyke, but when you’re freelance, you’ve got to try and make the most of your research. I can give the Post their story and do a piece on Lod for something a little more highbrow, maybe the Express or Mail.
I parked in the centre of the town, the spires of the minster looming ominously above. The rain had eased to a drizzle, so I took my little Nikon along, stuffing it in one pocket and 13 Horror Stories in another.
I turned the corner to enter the grounds of the Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul, and stopped dead: the huge chancel was in ruins.
This couldn’t be right. I’d Googled Howden Minster yesterday; it was a fully-functioning church. I had a sudden fear that I’d lost the ability to tell what was real and what was imagined. I suppose it wasn’t really sudden, because it’s something I’ve been thinking about more and more of late. I’m not going to get into that now…
I walked further into the churchyard. The colour of the stone changed from beige to bone and I remembered the minster was constructed with limestone. To my relief, I discovered that the nave was intact, but the dark, decorative arches supporting nothing and leading nowhere were eerie, like the shadow of a cathedral. A distant, decaying memory of better days.
As there were still a few minutes left before the communion service finished, I decided to see if I couldn’t find what I was after by myself. According to 13 Horror Stories, the only remaining evidence of Lod is the market cross, which was saved and removed to the churchyard of Howden. The graveyard ran along the southern side of the minster, with the headstones ordered in neat lines amidst overgrown vegetation. I wandered down the aisles searching for anything dating back to the fourteenth century, though I wasn’t sure how much of the cross would be left after six hundred years or more of exposure to the elements. I squelched through the puddles and mud, but couldn’t find anything more than two hundred years old.
Presently, I saw a few people leave the minster by a pair of wooden doors under a trio of vertical stained glass windows. I smiled at a couple of more elderly parishioners and entered the transept. A large clergyman, looking like a blonde Brian Blessed, was talking to three old ladies. To my right, a recess housed a chapel commemorating the war dead. On my left, various pamphlets, leaflets, and booklets were arranged on a table. I flicked through Howden Minster, A Guide Book, and was just finishing a paragraph on the collapse of the chancel roof in 1758, when I was disturbed by a grating cough.
Brian Blessed and I were alone.
“Hello, Reverend Slaughter, I’m Grant Markham.” The Reverend Cedric Slaughter chose to regard me with disdain instead of taking my extended hand. He was almost as big as the skinhead, and a lot fiercer. I dropped my hand and continued. “I’m a journalist doing a story on the lost towns of Holderness. I read that the market cross from Lod is in your churchyard?” When he failed to reply, I tried the direct approach: “Is it here?”
His eyes darted to a grey stone pillar lying on the floor next to the chapel. “I think you need to go back and do your research properly, Mr Markham. Nothing remains of Lod, or Ravenser Odd, but there’s a cross commemorating the arrival of King Henry IV in Ravenser in 1399. Ravenser also lies under the water now, and the cross is in Kilnsea.” He moved closer, ushering me towards the door.
I held my ground. “What’s that?” I pointed at the pillar on the flagstones.
He was very close, one great arm encircling – but not quite touching – me. “If you would like a guided tour of the minster, I suggest you make an appointment with the sexton.” He moved further forward, so his face was only inches from mine.
I stepped to the side, away from him and the door. “I don’t want a guided tour, Mr Slaughter. I want to know what that stone is.”
His cold blue eyes held mine for a few seconds, and then he obviously decided it would be easier to humour me. “It’s from the original Norman church.”
“So it dates back to the thirteenth century?”
“Before that – long before that. The minster is closed, Mr Markham, I’d like you to leave.” He raised his arm again, indicating the doorway.
As I walked out into the rain, the door slammed shut behind me. I was retracing my steps past the ruined chancel when my mobile rang. I stopped in the graveyard. “Hello?”
“Grant…” A woman’s voice; it sounded as if she was crying.
“Gwen? Gwen, is that you? It’s me. Talk to me!”
Whoever it was put the phone down.
I checked the last incoming call and saw ‘number withheld’. Could it have been her? She hadn’t spoken to me since she left, but she did send me the booklet, so I knew I wasn’t forgotten. I put the phone back in my pocket, and walked out into Market Place.
The deluge had resumed and it seemed as if the whole of East Yorkshire was drowning. No wonder all these Ravensers disappeared. 13 Horror Stories was written by Rethuel Scarcig – one of those randomly-generated pen names if ever I’ve seen one – and published by The Preceptory Players, of 5-7 Vicar Lane, Howden. I found the narrow, Georgian alley easily, then the right house number, belonging to the Howden Bookshop. The premises had both sets of windows boarded up – which was strange, because I’d phoned to check their hours of business only two days ago.
* * *
Saturday the thirtieth of October. I’m sitting on a rock at the foot of a dune on the eastern shore of the Spurn Peninsula as I dictate this, looking out to Lod in what I’m sure will be a short interruption of service in the downpour.
I spent the rest of yesterday driving through the rivers of Babylon – AKA the roads around Hull – to Kilnsea. New Kilnsea actually, as Old Kilnsea is under the sea like the rest of the county will be if this rain continues. Everything took longer than it should have, and on top of it all, there’s no cross there, either. I asked some local halfwit and he told me he’d never heard of Ravenser – Odd, or any other – or Lod. Waste of time. I stayed in a shitty B&B in another little dump called Easington, and overslept.
At midday, stuck on the narrow road between Easington and Kilnsea, I realised the folly of this Gwen-inspired diversion. Up ahead, there were temporary traffic lights, and the northbound lane was blocked. It was raining harder than ever and the road was completely flooded. As I inched closer, I saw a mains pipe had burst and water was gushing out from the roadside while workmen waded around in wellies. The drainage ditches on the side of the road were full, and pools of water covered the fields.
I had the feeling that if I continued making for Spurn, I’d be cut off from the rest of England, and either slide into the sea, or disappear under floodwaters.
The light ahead turned green and I drove carefully through the overflow. At Kilnsea, I took Spurn Road and drove to the entrance of Spurn Point Nature Reserve. I left my car at the warden’s lodge and set off on foot. The reserve covers the last three miles of coastline, a skinny peninsula called Spurn Head. The strip of land curves back west like the tail of a ‘y’ and the very end is known as Spurn Point. Instead of walking to Spurn Point, I headed for the beach on the eastern side, armed with an Ordnance Survey map, a printed download and a compass.
Lod existed between 1200 and 1360, growing until it rivalled Kingston-upon-Hull by the beginning of the fourteenth century. Rivalling what is now considered England’s worst city doesn’t sound very impressive, but Hull was the country’s second biggest port until about 1600. First syphilis, and then the Luftwaffe, made it what it is today. Unlike the other towns and villages along the Yorkshire coast, the inundation of Lod happened quickly, while people were still living there. The last days were also faithfully recorded by the monks, and Abbot Burton of Meaux wrote: ‘by its wicked works and piracies, it provoked the wrath of God against itself beyond measure.’ Although the town had been losing ground to the water for several years, the abbot described scenes of panic and flight as the last part of the city was claimed by the sea in a flood of biblical proportions circa 1360.
A strong northeasterly wind was blowing the rain into my face, but it had at least eased off to a drizzle again. I marched onto the wet sand and stared at the great mass of water beyond. The North Sea: cold, treacherous, inhospitable; fatal to seafarers and landsmen alike. I read that storm surges have claimed over two hundred thousand lives since records began in the twelfth century. If you’re Dutch or German, you don’t even have to go swimming to drown – the sea comes to you.
Up the coast, I could see a rocky outcrop. I fished out the compass and the OS map, and worked out it must be the remainder of the Second World War coastal defences – also partly submerged. I couldn’t see very far south because of the curve of the spit. The exact location of Lod is a mile and a half southeast of Spurn Point. Or rather, where Spurn Point was in the fourteenth century. While the coastline is retreating steadily westward, Spurn Point erodes and rebuilds itself every 250 years. Something about longshore drift, apparently. I scrutinised the second map, which I’d printed from a website called yorkshirehistory.com. It gave estimates of the positions of Spurn Point from 600 AD onwards and – after referring back to the OS map – I decided Lod was further south.
I’d just stashed the maps back under my cagoule when my mobile rang again.
“Hello. Gwen, is that you?”
All I could hear was the sound of the sea, and wind over water.
“Gwen! Is it you?”
There was a strange sibilance to her speech, but it was definitely Gwen. I should know. “Where are you?”
She put the phone down again.
For the first time since she left, my hopes are real rather than…spurious. I don’t want to use the word imagined. Two phone calls in two days. She changed her number so I couldn’t talk to her, and then changed her address so I couldn’t find her, but now she’s trying to reach me. I’d hoped 13 Horror Stories was a message. Now I know it is.
I first set eyes on Gwen in a pub in Lenton nearly three years ago. She was singing with her band, Land Locked, and she was…wonderful. Sheryl Crow meets Alanis Morissette with an English accent, weaving her magic in a lacy, pink floral dress, her long, blonde hair offset by a black choker. As soon as they’d finished their set, I bought all three of them a drink, and began a relationship more powerful, fluctuating and painful than I’d ever imagined possible. There was no equator or mean, only the polar extremes of ecstasy and torment.
For a year or so, it was great, despite the lows that inevitably followed the highs. She was finishing her degree at university; I was still finding my feet as a freelancer, but the work suited me because I’m a nosy, pushy bastard at the best of times. I sold a few articles to the Express, Sun, and Guardian, then a few features to some glossy magazines, and Gwen and I moved in together in a house in West Bridgford. I didn’t want to be with her; I wanted to possess her. Her mind, her body, her soul.
Then, last year – her final year of legal apprenticeship – something changed. She changed. Matured, blossomed, I don’t know. She was inducted into a club called the Order of Dagon through someone at work. I don’t know if it was the club that changed her, or if she joined the club because she’d changed. Maybe it was both. She wouldn’t say much about it, but she never took off the ring they gave her. She wore it on the middle finger of her right hand: a plain band of striking, luminous gold. I guessed Dagon was a branch of Freemasonry or like Scientology for solicitors.
I tried to drown her with my love, smother her with more and more attention. But the more I tried to make her mine, the more distant she became. It’s called the ‘diving reflex’ in physiology. Immersion in water causes the body to protect itself by switching to energy-saving mode. It’s an automatic action that takes place in both conscious and unconscious drowning victims, and it was exactly what she did. Whether she knew it or not, she withdrew from me. Although on the surface, things seemed unchanged, I knew she was saving energy, marking time until she could draw breath and take her next step.
This is the first time I’ve spoken aloud about Gwen since she left. The first time I’ve had the strength to, because of the phone calls.
I walked south for several hundred metres. When I lost sight of the remains of the Battery, I crossed the dune to the dirt track that goes all the way to Spurn Point. I made good time on the road, which runs very close to the western edge of the spit. I wondered if the marshy flatland on this side was permanent, or if the tide was just out. After about a mile, I took a path to my left, back up the dune and down onto the beach again. A few metres to the south, there was a row of about a dozen wooden pillars extending from the beach into the sea. The tallest was only a few centimetres above the sand and I realised it must have been a pier or groyne of some sort, now under water.
I took out both maps as the rain resumed play, really pissing it down. I’d no idea I was going to be caught in East Yorkshire’s next cataclysm, but at least I’d had the sense to cover the maps in clear plastic. Between the lighthouse at the end of the spit and my compass, I could work out my position with a fair degree of accuracy. I estimated another couple of hundred metres down the beach before I’d be directly in line with the submarine city.
I trudged on until I came across something surreal: half a dozen square stones leading into the sea like steps, in a similar fashion to the wooden pillars. They looked like some kind of ineffectual sea defence, although that made no sense. I couldn’t tell what size the stones – which appeared to be flint – were, because I could only see their tops protruding from sand and sea. When I reached them, I noticed a completely-uncovered flintstone square sitting at the foot of the grassy dune that bordered the beach. Despite a distance of at least twenty metres between the square stone and the first of the buried stones, it was perfectly in line with them, and stood about chest high. I clambered onto it, and stared out to sea.
I’m still here now.
So is Lod, a mile or so to the east.
Inundated, drowned, dead.
* * *
Saturday the thirtieth of October; later. It was then, on that rock, that the sense of faceless, inevitable doom descended along with the torrent. Twelve hours later, I can’t shake it. Perhaps it’s the unforgiving devastation of the waters that engulfed Lod, or perhaps I’ve been unnerved by the county itself. It’s a ghostly, ghastly place. There’s Lod and the drowned villages and towns, Dane’s Dyke, and the Whitby Gothic Weekend, all within a few dozen miles of each other. Or maybe I’m just drowning along with the rest of Yorkshire, the few millimetres that disappear each day accelerated by the flood. Maybe that’s why I’m still in Easington in this B&B. I know I should’ve left for Flamborough, but I don’t really need to be at Dane’s Dyke until tomorrow night.
In case my fears are justified in some way, and someone other than me should listen to this recording, I’d probably better explain about the child and the HPPD.
I didn’t really see a child step from behind the road sign on the M62. What I actually saw was the sign collapse or melt into a small, humanoid shape. The black-and-white square became the head, the metal frame the shoulders, and the sandbags the feet. Then the road sign walked out across in front of me. I was pretty sure I was hallucinating, but I couldn’t be a hundred percent certain in the rain, and I couldn’t afford to take the chance. About a quarter of LSD users experience flashbacks, and about a fifth of those develop Hallucinogen Persisting Deception Disorder. What that means is that I’m one of a lucky five percent of hallucinogen users who trips on a weekly basis, sometimes more, even though I haven’t had any of the shit for seven years – phone!
That was another call from Gwen, which went like this:
She said nothing, but I could hear the wash of waves.
“Gwen, talk to me.”
“Are you all right?” Perhaps it was just the sea in the background, but her speech still sounded unnatural, like a hiss.
She hung up.
Her voice slipped through my fingers as easily as she’d slipped out of my life. I couldn’t hold her then, and I couldn’t keep her on the phone now. I tried to drown her, but it was me that drowned.
When she moved out, the HPPD got worse. I went from a couple of mild visual distortions a month to half a dozen full-blown bad trips. The irony is I only got into LSD because I thought I was going to be the next Jack Kerouac, a Jim Morrison of journalism. I wasn’t and I’m not. What I am is half-mad from years and years of seeing patterns, halos, and faces where they aren’t; stationary objects swaying or sliding across the floor; things growing to giant dimensions or shrinking, like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
Truth to tell, I’m fucking sick of it.
* * *
Sunday the thirty-first of October. It’s dusk now and I’ve been sitting on this flintstone block since noon, waiting for Gwen to call. I’m soaked through, but I don’t care. While I waited, I’ve been watching the sea, looking for signs of Lod. I’ve worked out exactly where it is. It’s a mile and a half east-southeast of where I am, under the water, submarine and breathless. These stones form a direct line to it, an arrow from Spurn Head to Lod, less than half an hour’s walk away. I’ve been looking for Lod and thinking about Lot. Lot’s wife. She turned into a pillar of salt when she disobeyed the angel’s command: do not look behind you.
Do not play back the tape.
I played back the tape.
I don’t know why, but I listened to the recording I dictated last night. The thing is – the part when the phone rang – it isn’t on the tape. I heard myself say phone, but I couldn’t hear the ringtone. So I checked the log of incoming calls for the last three days. I think I must have deleted them by accident, because I can’t find them. I know I didn’t imagine those phone calls. I can’t have imagined them, because all my hallucinations are visual. That’s how I can always tell what’s real and what’s imagined if I don’t panic; the imagined stuff is never accompanied by a soundtrack.
I know I didn’t imagine those three calls.
I haven’t – I mean I have – spoken to Gwen, but she hasn’t called to tell me where she is. It’s okay, she doesn’t need to. It’s no coincidence she sent me that book. It was a message, one of those games she liked to play. She knew I would come here when I read the book, so this is where she must be. And if she isn’t on Spurn Head, then she must be in Lod. I’m confused and I’m not really sure what’s going on, but I know she’s waiting for me in Lod.
The only problem I have is the breathing reflex. An unavoidable instinct of self-preservation that results in a human being fighting to draw breath regardless of how strong the desire to stay submerged is. Something to do with the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood. Half an hour ago, I took all the prescription tranquillizers I’ve got for the HPPD. I haven’t used them for ages, but I always carry a box with me – just in case things get out of hand. As soon as I swallowed the last one, I was flooded with a sense of peace. Seven hundred and fifty years ago, there were men in Lod who didn’t panic and flee when the waters came. There were men who knew they were at the end of all things, men who were tired of their lives and loves, and just stayed put.
They’re probably still there.
A few minutes ago, a sliver of sun slid through the clouds and bathed a strip of ocean in yellow light. It was exactly a mile and a half away in exactly the direction of the stone steps in front of me now.
I’m going to walk down them.
Down to Lod.
Where Gwen is.
Rafe McGregor is a crime fiction author who spends far too much of his time rereading the work of H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James. He lives with his wife in the historic city of York, in England. His first novel, The Architect of Murder, was published in February 2009. More information can be found on his blog at: www.rafemcgregor.blogspot.com.