When I was very young my family lived in on a council estate in South Yorkshire. My father worked in a factory and had done since he left school, mum never worked, they had married straight from school and she had fallen into the role of home maker. My older brother came along after a couple of years then me.
It was a reasonable enough estate, mostly people from the local factories, lots of young families and a few bungalows where there lived the retired folks who trundled around the estate while the children were at school and their parents in the factories. Some of them spent the day in the community centre, some at the allotment and if neither of them seemed enough there was a library right in the centre of the estate. As I grew up I gradually found my way around and knew almost every place a young boy could wish to play. When I went to secondary school my mum decided it was time to go to work. She had decided it was time we had a few luxuries. A few of my friends had got video recorders and we had all gone round to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark and the prospect of having one of our own was just too exciting. It was also very exciting that I now had the freedom of my own house key and the opportunity to roam a little more.
The summer holidays were long and free and filled with adventures and one or two incidents I was very fortunate my mother never found out about but with no money in my pocket I was limited to what I could do. To this end I offered myself around the bungalows as the perfect lawn mower, window cleaner, dustbin mover and general dogsbody. I made a few quid here and there and it was by doing this that I came across Mr Douglas.
Derek Douglas was a former steelworker who lived in one of the bungalows right at the front end of the estate. He’d been there nearly a decade since he had retired from the mills and moved down from Sheffield. Since then he had spent most of his time tending to his allotment and looking after his housebound wife Freda. They had specifically chosen their bungalow as it looked out onto the allotment site that had been created in place of the old tram depot which had been pulled down many years before but had given the estate its name of Tramways.
Derek would prepare Freda’s breakfast and head across to the allotment making sure to wave back across to her every hour on the hour. He returned to prepare lunch and then back to the allotment for another couple of hours before dinner, a game of bridge then a little television before bed. He was devoted to her and when he pushed her around the estate to the local Methodist Church on a Sunday Morning you could see the real affection between the two. Despite only getting out only once a week Freda was well known for her quick wit and unique hybridised South Yorkshire/Central European accent. She was very popular around the estate and her death was a real moment of shock for everyone. Her funeral was well attended and the wake in the community centre was even more so. In fact my mother went and I didn’t know she knew her.
Mr Douglas kept up his routine for months after Freda’s death, even continuing to wave back at the house. Despite being out and active he was clearly struggling to adjust and isolated himself from people. He would sit at the back of the church on his own on a Sunday, retire into his shed if one of the owners of a neighbouring allotment was around and he rarely found himself anywhere other than the church, his home or his allotment. it was known by the local kids that you didn’t lose your ball in his garden or go near his door because ‘eed ave ya’! It went on for sometime until completely out of the blue he appeared at the Community Centre one Thursday afternoon for the over 60s afternoon tea dance.
From the stories I have since heard, after Derek’s initial unexpected arrival at the dance he didn’t get involved for weeks, just sat at his own table, drank a cup of tea and then left. It seems it was a matter of months before he interacted with anyone. Supposedly a regular named Mrs Wesley made the effort to sit with him and they chatted for a while before she leapt up and left the building in an unnatural hurry. It became something of a joke that when a woman tried to pass the time with Derek he would upset them so much they would leave and never return.
I never really saw it in him. I got to know him reasonably well, probably better than most. I was wandering around one day near the allotments and mistakenly thought he was waving at me so I went over to se what he wanted. Of course he was waving towards his home and not me, but he was actually in need of help moving a large bag of compost and I had nothing better to do. I think he was lonely and also beginning to find the work on his plot quite hard going as he offered to pay me to help him out a couple of days a week.
I really enjoyed it, he always brought down sandwiches and biscuits and we had plenty of breaks with tea made on his old paraffin stove. He was quite talkative too, he’d been a soldier during the Second World War and had seen huge amounts of Europe. Some days he would tell me about what it was like in Holland and Belgium in the Summer of 1945 as he made his way back home across the continent, the stories were always colourful and more often than not had a funny twist. He mentioned that he had met Freda during his time in the army and she had eventually followed him home. Other days he told me about what it was like heading across Europe the other way. He never left anything out, the stories were dark, grim and often brutal.
For all the laughter of the lighter stories it was the harsher combat tales I found the most compelling. His stories of D Day were filled with guns, sand and blood. He told me about refugees, about murder and mutilation. The stories about the war I had been told at school were nothing like Derek’s war. His was one of depravity and wickedness replaced by freedom and incredible joy. If I’m honest his tales were payment enough but I did enjoy having money in my pocket.
I got to know his moods from the kind of story he told. If he was in a good mood it was a post war story, if something had irked him, most notably if someone turned up at his house unannounced while he was at the allotment, his stories took a dark tone. There were tales of finding resistance fighters burned alive, collaborators dragged behind cars and a group of German nuns tied to their chairs in a convent and left to starve to death. It was a strange but wonderful experience.
When the summer came to an end and I went back to school I helped him out on a Saturday and we listened to the football on his old radio. We prepared to harvest his autumn crop in between sandwiches, tea and waves to his empty house. It was on one of these afternoons I happened to be standing close to Derek when he waved and I looked up at his house. Just for a moment I was certain I saw someone there sat looking back at us. It was fleeting and even though I knew Freda had been gone some time I was sure I saw her.
I never saw her again, but I was haunted by the thought I had seen her. I’d never really contemplated ghosts before but with my earnings I borrowed Poltergeist, Amityville and the Exorcist, I also went to the library and pored through their small collection of supernatural books. I couldn’t explain what I had seen but it felt better that I wasn’t on my own. The one person I should probably have told was Derek but I didn’t want to upset him.
We continued most of September into October getting the last few things out and preparing for the Winter. We had some really impressive crops and there was extra for me to take home. I always offered to help him carry his haul home but he always refused, and usually in quite an aggressive way. The last Saturday of October was cold and wet and when I arrived at the allotment unusually Mr Douglas was not there. I waited for half an hour and then decided to go to his house to check all was well.
I was nervous as I approached his front door, the thought of seeing a ghost was less of a worry than the concern of an angry Mr Douglas. This changed to something else when I reached the door and found it unlocked. I pushed it open and stepped in, the house was dark, cold and quiet. I shouted for him but my voice echoed around the empty bungalow.
I took careful steps onto the house and into the sitting room. For a house he had lived in for so long it was sterile. A television, a single armchair and a small table. No pictures or ornaments, no sign that anyone had ever sat in the room before I arrived other than a battered old postcard propped up on the mantelpiece. On it was a crude hand drawing of what looked like a church. It had “Waasen Abbey and Convent” written on it but nothing on the reverse. I turned and left the room and moved into the kitchen. Like the sitting room it was spotless not even a cup on the draining board. The counter tops were clear and the shelves empty.
I heard a creak from behind me and I span on the ball of my foot to look back down the hallway towards the front door. There was nothing there but I instinctively slammed my hand onto the light switch and the fluorescent light tube flickered loudly into life casting an odd sickly yellow out ahead of me. From there I noticed the door for the one bedroom in the bungalow slightly opened. I grabbed the handle and opened the it slowly. The room was completely dark, the curtains were pulled tightly shut.
I remember the moment before I switched the light on incredibly well. That was the moment before my life changed. I flicked the light switch and the darkness was gone. I was now faced with another immaculate room, no ornaments, no photographs or pictures, just a bed a wardrobe, chest of drawers and a mirror. What made this room so different from the rest was that sat on chairs around the bed, like an audience were the bodies of several women tied to the chairs their lifeless eyes trained on the neatly made bedclothes. They were dressed in their best clothes, as if they had just come from an event of some kind. They were in different stages of decay and the smell began to overpower me. Although not long enough for me to ignore what I found lying in the middle of his bed. It was Derek, facedown across the bed with a large kitchen knife in his back, right between the shoulder blades.
I turned and ran.
I called the police from the phone box at the corner of the street. They asked me some questions but it was clear that I wasn’t ever anything other than the person who discovered it. The conclusion the police came to was he had been finding women at the tea dance who he then kept at home tied to a chair before suffocating them. They decided that one of his victims had escaped and stabbed him before running away, they firmly believed she would eventually show up. Which she never did. The biggest mystery though, was why the only fingerprints on the knife were those of Freda Douglas.