She tried to choke her favourite dolly in her sleep
As I walk through the pandemonium of Petticoat Lane Market, the racket is deafening. People are moving around me like a great river of humanity, but beneath the gloomy surface of their faces, there’s not a single smile amongst them.
Weaving my way through the gaps between the shoppers, I spot the strange figure of a woman, dressed in a long treacle coloured coat and a red headscarf, in front of me. Observing her purse fall from her coat pocket, I scramble forward and pick it up. With the well-worn brown leather purse in my grasp, I stand to find she’s vanished. Speeding up my pace, I spot her bobbing red scarf ten yards in front of me, but again she vanishes from view.
Out of breath and frustrated, I turn into a side street away from the teeming market. Loitering in the tiny street, I feel like a thief on the run. Opening the purse to see if there’s any form of ID enclosed. I stagger backwards against the black iron railings stunned when I discover a black-and-white picture of my missing daughter Lucy staring back at me. My brain stutters and every part of my body goes on pause while my thoughts catch up. There’s nothing else in the purse except a piece of crumpled, yellowing paper.
Unfolding it. It reads, ‘School House, Gun Street, Spitalfields, London.’ At a pace, I type Gun Street into Google maps and re-enter the market. For me, London has always been a city of entrances, enticing curiosity and suspicion. Forking into the distance are two narrow, rambling streets. I head to the street on the left. A red-letter box, standing as if on sentry duty, is guarding the top of the narrow street. Halfway down, I had never realised London could fall so quietly. The monotonous drone of traffic now seems a distant memory. The raucous chatter of passers-by had all but vanished. In recent years, Spitalfields has faced a surge of bleak corporate development spreading from the west, exacting ugly steel and glass blocks that are entirely at odds with the narrow streets of old brick buildings. But, I am surprised when I turn into Gun Street to find it’s a graceful street of early eighteenth-century houses with white marble porticoes, dark-red brick and black railings.
The deserted street is resting in silence. I find number the address on the right-hand side. The old house must have been magnificent in its heyday. But now it looked for all the world like someone had sat on the roof, for it drooped terribly. Time had performed irreversible deeds upon the once-proud mansion. The once-grand house is now just a rotting heap, bowing down subservient to the elements. I grip the carved brass door-knocker and bang twice. To my amazement, the door retreats from view. I try to walk away, but it was as if an unknown force was controlling me. I enter and find the house is a warren of corridors and staircases.
The floors lay hopefully as if wishing for one last pair of shoes to walk on them. Shivers rush down my spine as spiders scurry in dark corners, their webs flapping in the dusty silence, clinging to the walls with their ghostly fingers. The mullioned windows are wooden, and large flakes of white paint are lying like dandruff on the floor below them. White dust lays over every surface, including a pristine layer, on the ancient wooden floor, but there’s not a footprint to be seen. Which is weird because there’s a coal fire ablaze in the grate? A crumbled beauty of an era long past. I wonder when and why was it abandoned? The old house now belonged in a horror film. Arriving home, I’m shaking. I keep asking myself, did that really happen or did I imagine the whole thing, but it must be true. I have the photo of Lucy in my hand. In the living room, I sink into an armchair and pick up my book. But my thoughts blur the words. Stirring my tea, I think about what I had experienced and the weird things that have happened since we moved into our present home. Our house in Aldersgate, London, was passed down to me by a distant relative many years ago.
The eight bedroomed property was built in the 1860s by a successful brewery owner, who ended up killing himself in 1899 after the youngest of his four daughters died in a fire at the house. I suspected something was wrong from the outset. Things would disappear and then turn up in other parts of the house. Radios would turn on and off all by themselves. Strange creaks and groans emanated from rooms on the upper floors. Invisible footsteps seemed to skip across the floors above. In the evenings, loud knocks echoed at the front door, but when I rushed to answer it, there was never anybody there. When I inherited the house, we didn’t know the nature of what came with it. Deep into the far reaches of the house, there was a bedroom that held an ominous air. The bedroom had stayed padlocked for years. People who visited the house forgot it was there. But I didn’t. When our daughter Lucy reached six years of age, she acted strangely.
The first time she disappeared for an hour. Once she returned, she told me about visiting another world. We tore the room apart to find out where she could’ve hidden for that long. But found nothing. The second time she disappeared, after she came back, her behaviour was different. Her eyes were darker, and that night she tried to choke her favourite dolly in her sleep. We should have taken her to a psychiatrist and moved out of the house. But for a reason unknown to us, we didn’t. The third time and last time Lucy disappeared, we spent hours looking for her. It was getting dark, and from out of nowhere, a young girl appeared in the middle of the room. With her eyes as black as night, she had a sinister smile on her face. And a knife in her hand. It was my husband who closed the door and locked it. ‘That’s not our daughter,’ he screamed.
I fought and struggled with him to open the door, but he repeatedly told me, ‘She’s gone, let it go.’ The police arrived fifteen minutes later and searched the room and the rest of the house, but the girl was gone, as was our daughter. For over five years, I’ve been haunted by the choice to lock away the monster inside the room and possibly our daughter. For over five years, I have refused to move out of the house, because deep down, I believe my daughter is still here. For over five years, I’ve left the room locked because my husband believed it was best. After what happened that day, I didn’t know what I’d find if I opened the door. But I’m tired of being a ghost in my house. There were times when I felt guilty. I’d take the key to the padlock from the wardrobe and head for the room. But Mike, my husband, would stop me. Reminding me, there was no hope. I would then put the key back and move on with my life. Until the next time, I heard the screaming coming from inside the room. I remember the man my husband used to be. So strong and loving. Now, he’s more like the ghost that haunts our house than the man I married.
With him away on business, I am determined to pay a visit to the room. I climb the stairs to the fourth floor. Each step I take is met by a harsh shriek from the rotting floorboards. Moving along the dark corridor, moulting paint and green wallpaper are strewn across the floor in front of me. The floor gets dustier, and floorboards get creakier. As I near the locked door, a cold draught blew across my face and chills the tips of my bones. After releasing the padlock, the door is heavy and creaks and groans when I try to open it. It will not budge, and the laughter behind it is not happy, more sniggering and triumphant. I am about to try again when I hear someone knocking on the front door. Re locking the room, I rush along the darkened corridor and descend the wooden staircase to the hall. It’s my mum. Sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea, my mum asks, ‘I suppose he’s away again?’
‘Yes, mum, he’s on business.’
‘You two need to get some help. You can’t keep living like this.’
‘There’s nothing I can do, Mum. It’s his job.’
Mum sensed something was wrong and took my hand and looked me in the eye. ‘Lucy’s gone, sweetheart,’ she said in a soft voice. ‘I can’t imagine the pain of knowing she was kidnapped all those years ago. But you owe it to her memory to live and not be a walking corpse.’ I sigh when she asks, ‘Why haven’t you had any more children?’ It was a topic I’d avoided with everyone since Lucy went missing ‘You’re still young, sweetheart,’ she told me. ‘Move on.’
‘Mum, Mike doesn’t want to have more children. And I’m not sure I do either.’ I wanted to tell mum the truth for so long, but how would she react? How would Mike respond to someone knowing the truth?
‘She wasn’t kidnapped, Mum.’
‘What do you mean?’
I pull the key from my pocket; I’d grabbed from the wardrobe earlier. ‘I need to show you something.’ As we neared the door, I heard the faint sound of screams behind the door. The look in my mum’s eyes told me she’d heard it as well. ‘What the hell is going on?’ Apprehension filling her voice. ‘Is Lucy in there?’
Removing the padlock, I place the key into the lock and turn it. I am amazed when the door opens with the slightest of pushes. We both stare at each other as the sound of whispers fills the room. When we enter, before I could scream, my mouth sealed shut. Fear anchors my feet in the darkness when I see a young girl in a rocking chair, dressed in a white pinafore and black shoes on the right side of the room. With the left-hand side of the room in complete darkness. I see eyes appearing in the blackness with no form. The apparition of a small girl appears around them. She’s glowing, smiling, and rubbing her hands together. Clutching at a rag doll, the girl whimpers. Her eyes brim with silver tears that glow in the darkness. She was burnt, no hair, no eyebrows, her features melted and raw. Levitating off the rotting floor, the pearly-white translucent girl shimmers surrounded with a hazy bright blue. Pools of misty yellow light are casting an ethereal glow around the room. Her long-tangled hair blows about her face, obscuring the layer of grime that’s only broken by her tears. A swirling, blinding light spills around the room. I rub my eyes, and the light fades. The girl in the rocking chair changes to Lucy, but she wasn’t a little girl anymore. Somehow, over five years had passed for her. She was smiling, and her eyes were the brightest blue. She gets down from the rocking chair, steps forward and hugs me. But I feel nothing as her hands and arms pass straight through me, and she disappears. From behind me I hear her whisper, ‘daddy killed me, mummy, daddy killed me.’ The hairs on my neck jump and I freeze. The last thing we see is the burnt girl, now splattered with blood, crying in the corner. Before she melts into the wall. Looking to my left-hand side, mum has her mouth wide open in a voiceless scream. We leave the room, speechless and shocked to the core. Entering the lounge, mum reaches for the bottle of brandy standing on the drinks cabinet. Sitting in silence, sipping our drinks. We jump in unison when there’s a loud knock on the door. Opening the door, a police officer attempts to smile. ‘Are you Grace James?’
‘Yes, I am. How can I help?’
‘Could I come in and have a chat?’ I knew it would not be good news. The young police officer stutters and asks me, ‘Is your husband Michael James?’
Worried, I reply, ‘Yes, why do you ask?’
‘I’m sorry, Mrs James, I have some terrible news. Your husband was killed at Euston Station today.’
I slump back down onto the sofa. ‘Killed. How?’
‘Mike was pushed under a train, coming into the station.’
‘My God, who by?’
‘All we know is a witness saw two young girls dressed in strange attire running away from the scene, but so far, the girls have not been located.’
‘What do you mean by strange attire?’ ‘A witness told us one girl was clutching a rag doll and looked like she had burns all over her face. He also told us the girl called out to the other girl to run.’
Sobbing, I ask, ‘What did she call this other girl?’
‘She called her Lucy, Mrs James.’
About the author
I share a special love for London, both new and old. I began writing fiction at 40, with most of my books and stories set in London.
MY WRITING WILL MAKE YOU LAUGH, CRY, AND HAVE YOU GRIPPED THROUGHOUT.