A Ghost Story for Christmas
It was Angie – or ‘Angelique’ as she now styled herself – who first figured out that the old watch house on the Spit would make a great venue for a Christmas party. An early adapter to acid house, she loved beach parties in the summer and warehouse parties in the winter. This year, she had combined the two concepts and talked the local bikers into lending her a generator. ‘It’ll be awesome,’ she’d scrawled on her Christmas card invitation, not to mention ‘rad’ and even ‘groovy’. I was at university by then and had been half-considering staying up there over the holidays to catch up on my reading, but just as it had always been since we were kids, when Angie called, I came running.
I would never have got out of visiting my parents, anyway. As it was, my mother was less than pleased when I told her I was disappearing on Christmas Eve ‘to see friends’, and would likely be back late, if at all. I promised I’d be home for Christmas Day and made my escape. It was going to be a long day.
Mum knew where I was going, or more specifically who I was going to see when I got there, but she kept her opinions to herself. She had a love/hate relationship with Angie, a muddle of fond memories of the precocious but angelic friend I’d had since preschool and managed to hang onto through puberty, and the ‘bad influence’ she had subsequently become, at least as far as my mother was concerned. My father was much more easily charmed by a pretty face, and Angie had known how to play him since she was five. That said, there was certainly a collective sigh of parental relief when I surprised myself and my teachers with stellar ‘A’ level grades and landed myself a place at Manchester. ‘That’ll get him away from her,’ I heard Mum tell Dad one night, when they both thought I was in my room listening to music. If they’d known why I’d really come back, Christmas dinner was going to get pretty awkward.
It was still early when I left the bungalow where I grew up and walked the easy mile to the front. Though fortified against the cold by one of Mum’s epic ‘holiday’ breakfasts, Army and Navy gloves, and the lined Belstaff they’d bought me when I moved up north, it was still a bracing journey. Barely above freezing, a blanket of void-like cloud had formed, sucking the colour out of everything. The tide was out, but instead of picking among sea wrack and rockpools, the gulls screamed inland anticipating snow. The locals clearly felt the same, because there wasn’t as much as a last-minute shopper or a dogwalker in sight. The arcades were closed, the car parks were empty, and the cafes were dark. The pub wasn’t open yet and only the Tesco Metro had its lights on. Angie worked the tills there, but I already knew she’d turned down overtime and started her holiday today. We’d arranged to meet early at the watch house.
I walked out of town along the cliffs, noting that the derelict church had finally been eaten by the sea. Warning tape whipped by the offshore breeze strained at the metal stays driven into the sand around what was left of the main building. Only its roofless tower remained, along with a few headstones from a long disused graveyard lining up to hurl themselves after the rest during the next storm. After two or three tries, I managed to light a fag for company and kept slogging through the hard safety of the dunes, back from the treacherous comfort of the cliff path. To my left, marshy sandbanks stretched away for miles to the grey and waveless sea, to my right the fields were equally flat and endless. Eventually, the cliff began to recede into scrubby dunes spilling out onto the broad sand and shingle of the ‘Spit’, a small peninsular in the middle of rural nowhere largely neglected by holidaymakers in the summer and as dead as the moon in winter. Incongruous amid the desolation, the watch house stood defiantly on a rocky bank that jutted out across the sand like a burnt rib, so far keeping it away from the hungry sea. It was a large, square, grey Victorian building, with a tall flagpole still set in front of it. Until the end of the war, it was manned by coastguards who signalled to the lifeboat in town if there was a ship in distress. The whole operation had been modernised and moved away in the fifties and the house left to fall into the sea. When we were kids, it was the subject of legend, of smugglers and pirates and ghosts. Later it was a place to smoke weed, for those in the know, and much less disgusting than the abandoned coastal defences which tramps and drunks used as toilets. Eventually, the council got wind of this and padlocked the door and screwed metal grills over all the windows. Looking down at it now, I could see a black flag flying with a yellow smiley face over crossed bones on the flagstaff, and a huge driftwood bonfire got up on the beach, waiting like a beacon to be lit. Finally, it felt good to be home.
Oddly, the heavy door was still padlocked. I was sure I could hear someone moving around inside though, so I hammered on it, eager to see my friend and get out of the cold. ‘Come on, Ange, it’s me,’ I shouted through a broken window, then stood back to look at the house. It was covered in salt-blasted graffiti but otherwise positively Dickensian in its dark solidity, a huge cube made out of rock. The roof looked intact, and the upper storey windows were unbroken. I thought I saw a shadow behind one of them and called out again. No one responded but I had a sense I was being watched. ‘Are you stoned already?’ I shouted. ‘Let me in, I’m dying of f—ing exposure out here!’
The house regarded me silently. I huddled down by the door and rolled another cigarette. I could still hear the odd shuffle and scratch inside, but I’d decided it was wildlife, maybe rats or a stray cat. Angie finally rolled up on a hoop framed bicycle around eleven, which was an hour after we’d agreed. As soon as I saw her, I forgot to be annoyed.
She dropped the bike and ran over, flinging her arms around me. I hugged her back, enjoying her warmth and the smell of her hair. She broke off first, stepping back and saying, ‘Hello, stranger.’
We caught up while she unlocked the padlock. ‘Clever, eh?’ she said. ‘Animal cut the council one off for me and I just fitted another. I don’t think they’ll ever notice.’
‘Animal’ had been Mark Druid when we were at school. Nowadays he affected an outlaw biker persona, though the last time I saw him there were still L-plates on his Bantam. Jealousy hit me as hard as if a tile had just blown off the roof. Life and relationships here were now going on without me. It wasn’t a nice feeling. ‘See a lot of him?’ I finally managed.
‘Nah,’ she said, ushering me into the dim hallway. ‘His mob are just helping me with this place. Their glorious leader, Tedge – you remember him, rides a Matchless something-or-other – is sweet on my sister and I’m exploiting his good nature. Did you see the genny round the back? That’s his.’
I hadn’t, but I was impressed. I was also feeling slightly less threatened by the local cavemen. I’d always got on with them to be honest. They were more motorised hippies than proper bikers, and their mobility was a key factor in holding together the loose alternative scene stretched out along the little coastal villages where we’d all grown up; school in North Walsham having brought us all together in the first place, drugs and unemployment subsequently maintaining the union. I’d been the first to move on. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. The real Hell’s Angels I’d seen at gigs in Manchester would’ve eaten ‘Animal’ and his lot alive. I communicated this sentiment to my friend.
‘Oh, big city boy now, are we?’ she teased. ‘Been to the Haçienda yet?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘It’s brilliant; saw New Order there, the Mary Chain and Primal Scream, and The Fall a couple of times. You should come.’
She dodged my veiled and desperate invitation. ‘We saw the Mary Chain at UEA’, she said (who ‘we’ were was not clarified), ‘The Sisters, too.’ She opened her leather jacket and flashed a Sisters of Mercy tour sweatshirt with ‘Utterly Bastard Groovy’ printed on it.
‘Come on,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you the guided.’
She was not otherwise gothed up today, preferring jeans, docs, a shemagh, and a heavy leather. Her dyed black hair was tied back casually, and she wasn’t wearing jewellery or make-up. She was here ‘to get her hands dirty’ she explained, she’d ‘doll herself up’ for the evening. I thought she looked beautiful but was too shy to say it.
The house was basically four big rooms, two-up, two-down, with a long hall and staircase splitting it up the middle, and a small bathroom off the kitchen. ‘There’s no power, but the water’s still on,’ she was saying. ‘Isn’t that amazing?’ I stuck my head through the door and noted the bath was full of water, cooling bottles of beer, coke, and alcopops. The toilet looked remarkably clean. ‘That works too,’ she said proudly.
‘Weren’t you worried about someone nicking the booze?’
‘Not at all. You saw how sturdy the door is and there’s no other way in. Plus, the word’s out the biker boys are keeping an eye on the place.’
To show I’d not turned up empty-handed, I pulled a half-bottle of decent whiskey out of a huge map pocket.
‘Awesome!’ she said. ‘We’ll save that for later. The other stuff’s just for the plebs. I’ve been stocking it up from work since the Halloween bash – which you didn’t come to,’ she added.
‘Sorry.’ I’d been struggling with an essay on Heart of Darkness that weekend, but I felt like a wanker explaining that, so instead I mumbled something about ‘having to work’.
‘Well, you’re here now,’ she said, flashing a nuclear smile and a cute overbite. ‘Most of the décor’s from Halloween. It’s very me, so I didn’t think there was much point in changing it.’
The walls were certainly colourful. Ancient wallpaper had been ripped away wherever it had been sagging, and this and the uneven plaster had long ago been graffitied to the point of illegibility. A lot of the band logos went back to prog rock and early punk, which in turn were overwritten by acid house, goth, and heavy metal tags. This formed a kind of frame for Angie’s collection of art prints and film posters, randomly pasted up, she explained, Blu-tack having completely failed to stick in the damp. There were a lot of treasures on display here, but she was never much bothered by material stuff. If an original Dawn of the Dead or Re-Animator poster looked good, then paste it up she did. And cultural artefacts like this were then padded out by cheap Athena prints from the German Romantic School, and vast magazine collages. There were coloured fairy lights hanging from hooks hammered into the walls of every room and up and down the stairs. Someone had also sprayed a huge pentagram on the ceiling of the main downstairs room, and every remaining surface – wall shelves, windowsills, mantelpieces – had a disconcertingly realistic skull sitting on it, spray-painted gold or silver, with a large candle stuck on it or in it. A big, decorated Christmas tree stood in the corner of the main room in a large bucket of earth.
‘To tell you the truth, I don’t really have much to do now,’ she admitted. ‘I just like it here, it’s quiet.’
I nodded, remembering her tiny council flat, her grumpy unemployed stepfather, her careworn mother, and her toddler half-brother. I wouldn’t want to spend much time there either.
In fact, she had a room upstairs. This was the only interior door with a padlock on it. She had turned this one into a squatted bedsit. There was a burst sofa opposite an ornate tiled fireplace, and a single mattress made up as a bed under the window. ‘My improvised futon!’ she announced. There was a camping stove and a couple of oil lamps, and it all looked very self-contained. The sound system was in there as well, with wires snaking off through roughly drilled holes in walls to power speakers in every room. There were a couple of boxes of records next to it, and loose cassette tapes were strewn across the floor.
She filled a kettle from a bottle of water and fired up the stove to make black coffee. Then she got up a driftwood fire that burned blue with salt. Satisfied, she selected an album, sat down on the sofa, and started rolling a joint on the cover. I flicked through the records. There were a lot of goth twelve inches, including the Alien Sex Fiend Christmas song, the usual Sisters of Mercy stuff, The Damned, Killing Joke, The Cramps and what-not, along with some Talking Heads, Iggy, Alice, Bowie, Syd Barrett, and a bunch of house music and reggae I didn’t recognise. She had some good sixties stuff in there too, and I pulled out her White Album and said, ‘I remember this!’ with nostalgic joy. We had found it in a second-hand shop during our Beatles phase at school. The poster and the photos were missing, but we bought it anyway, for 75p, and played it to death.
‘Put it on,’ she said.
‘I can’t, not since Lennon got shot.’ We were sixteen then. Our many bullies at school all teased us something rotten. They had seemed quite pleased he was dead.
‘Put something else on, then…’ She paused. ‘Hang on, the genny’s not on anyway. Find a tape — there’s new batteries in the gateaux blaster.’
I found the Phil Spector Christmas Album.
‘Perfect,’ she said, lighting up and taking a deep drag on the spliff.
There was another skull on the mantlepiece. I picked it up and two things happened. The first was that I disturbed the biggest house spider I had ever seen and jumped back swearing. She put the joint in an ashtray and saved me, picking the hairy monstrosity up and caressing it like a pet before running downstairs and supposedly putting it outside. I doubted she’d done this, but I appreciated her moving it to another part of the building. The other thing that happened was that I realised the matt black skull was real.
‘Jesus,’ I said, once she’d come back, ‘are they all like this? I thought they were those old Aurora model kits…’
‘Neat, aren’t they? I wish I’d had these for Halloween. These are new.’
She passed me the joint. ‘Explain,’ I said. ‘I thought real bones were incredibly expensive. Don’t medical students have to buy them or something?’
She laughed. ‘They’re free round here,’ she said. ‘Did you not see the church when you walked down?’
‘Deadly, darling,’ she said, accepting the joint back. ‘There was a big storm a few days ago and the whole cliff went. Everyone was talking about it in the shop so when the tide went out, I had a look.’
‘Dangerous,’ I said.
‘But productive,’ she replied. ‘There were huge chunks of masonry on the beach, and even headstones, but those bloody things weigh about half a ton, and I couldn’t shift any. They made a sort of sea henge, it’s amazing. All the way up the cliff you could see bones and bits of coffins sticking out of the sand like tree roots. There were bones scattered all over the beach. I came back later and grabbed as many skulls as I could find.’
‘Isn’t that illegal?’
‘Not if you don’t get caught,’ she said, offering that sensual crooked smile of hers. ‘Came in handy actually,’ she went on. ‘I swapped one with Tedge for the use of the genny. He stuck it on the front of his Matchless, which looked cool, a bit Mad Max, you know? But then the silly sod went and crashed it. He’s in hospital in Norwich now. Tina reckons he’ll live, but he’s pretty banged up. The bike’s a write-off as well.’
‘See?’ I said. ‘They’re unlucky.’
‘They’re awesome,’ she said, ‘and you are superstitious.’
‘That’s rich coming from a goth.’
‘Dude, please,’ she said, ‘I like horror films. I don’t pretend it’s all real. I’m just in it for the style and the purple underwear, man!’
I didn’t have an answer to that, and anyway I was trying to stop my hands shaking at the thought of Angie in her underwear while I rolled the next joint. From the mantlepiece, the black skull looked on implacably.
It was a great party. There must have been fifty of sixty people there in the end, hippies, bikers, ravers, punks, goths, and a few civilians. I reckon I knew about half of them. Before it kicked off, aside from a slog back to the front to buy chips for an early dinner and a bunch of cheap nibbles from Tesco’s, we’d spent the afternoon getting high, listening to music, and talking shit. I had something serious to say as well, but I was saving that for later, it having been agreed that I was staying over once the last of the revellers had bailed. Her expectation was that the event would be intense but short. ‘No one wants to do Christmas with a hangover,’ she had said. ‘This won’t be an all-nighter.’
As it had begun to get dark, I had been chased out of her room to light candles while ‘Angie’ became ‘Angelique’. Like her servant or familiar, I was left to open the door to early guests. I knew most of them, so grabbed a beer, spliffed up, and started socialising. Some of them even got their bikes onto the beach and started dragging up and down it and drawing donuts in the sand. The generator was gassed up and running and the fairy lights made the whole place magical.
Tina, Angie’s sister, arrived, sans her boyfriend, who was presently in traction. She was a bit more disco than her younger sibling, all lycra and slap. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ she said when I opened the door. ‘Back to break her heart again, are you?’
‘This is for you, you stupid c—,’ she said. ‘Don’t you get it? This is all for you.’
When there were enough guests to impress with an entrance, Angelique appeared at the top of the stairs and descended like a vintage movie star. She looked stunning in a long black dress, all lacey and silky, pulled in by a leather corset. Tall black boots over dark fishnets added a couple of inches to her height and accentuated her curves in all the right places. She wasn’t one for hairspray, and let her long, black hair cascade down naturally. She was chandelier with silver jewellery and piercings, vampire white with Theda Bara eyes. Almost reverently, she was carrying the black skull.
When she finally came over to me after greeting her guests as if they were adoring fans – which several of the men clearly were – I picked my jaw up off the floor and whispered, ‘You look magnificent.’
‘Cheers, babe!’ she said. She pecked me on the cheek and then hit the dancefloor to ‘This Corrosion’. She was the host, so I left her to it and got in a huddle with some of the more interesting bikers. At some point I scored a bit of speed to facilitate the drinking process and had a few mushrooms as well, just to take the edge off. Angelique, meanwhile, dropped some acid. We found ourselves together outside after someone remembered to light the bonfire. There was no bother about attracting the attention of the law. With only one police car covering the entire East Coast, they were going to have bigger problems than a beach party on Christmas Eve. The tide had come in and the winter waves crashed along the shore, competing with the sound system, playing eclectic homemade tapes that had started with goth, punk, and metal, then morphed into cheesy Christmas music, and was now booming out hypnotic dance mixes. I saw Animal lurch past in a check shirt and a denim cut bellowing, ‘Techno! Techno! Techno!’ but I couldn’t tell whether or not he was being ironic. Then it started to snow, big thick flakes that sizzled in the huge bonfire, and if you looked up it felt like you were flying through space, stars shooting by. I felt her hand take mine, and we just stood there watching the blue flames lick the night.
Baz was always the last one to leave, I remembered from bitter experience. He was a proper biker who had rode down from Liverpool for the Albion Fayres and never left. Lanky and a bit older than the rest of us, he had a BSA with a big sidecar on it. I figured that’d keep him upright on the ride home. There were only the three of us left, retired to Angie’s room, still smoking, drinking coffee now, wool-gathering, and listening to something a bit more chilled.
I figured the best strategy was to just tell him the truth. ‘Look, bro,’ I said, when Angie had nipped to the loo, ‘I need to get this woman alone, you know what I’m saying?’
‘I could crash out downstairs,’ he suggested.
I almost gave in, but then thought it through. ‘What’ll it take?’ I said instead.
‘Got anything good?’
I remembered the whiskey. I doubted we were going to need it, and I was pretty sure there was still some supermarket vodka and a bit of red kicking around. In an emergency, these would do.
‘Single malt,’ he said approvingly.
‘Yes, it is. Now f— off. I’ll see you after Christmas.’
He pocketed the bottle and started gearing up as Angie returned, pulling on a huge army greatcoat over a rotting leather. ‘Are you leaving?’ she said hopefully.
‘Yeah, it’s getting on a bit.’
‘Good to see you then!’ I said enthusiastically, standing up unsteadily and steering him towards the stairs before he changed his mind or started talking again.
We heard him trying to start the Beezer, which – I had learned, at length, that evening – was a 600cc side valve twin built in 1939. There was a lot of kicking over but no bang.
‘Should we ask him back in?’ said Angie.
‘No,’ I said.
Eventually, the bloody thing started, and we heard him chug off into the distance. The record finished, and the only sounds were the hiss of the waves and the hum of the generator.
‘Thank god for that,’ I said.
She laughed, then stretched her arms out like a cat; a provocative wave of perfume, perspiration, red wine, and woodsmoke hit me full in the face. ‘Are you tired yet?’ she said.
‘Then come here…’
I woke with a start sometime around three. The lights were out because neither of us had remembered to top up the generator, but that wasn’t it. I was sure I’d heard the door go. We’d both been too stoned to consider shutting it properly after Baz left, if that was even possible, given the only functional locking mechanism was on the outside.
It had woken Angie up too. ‘Was that bloody Baz again?’ she said in a stage whisper.
‘Might be. Maybe his bike packed up. Depending on where he broke down, it might be closer to come back here,’ I agreed, though the uneasy feeling creeping into my gut argued against this. We were both in the tiny bed, me chivalrously jammed up against the freezing outside wall under the window. I climbed over her and scrabbled about for my lighter and a candle. There was definitely someone moving around downstairs. ‘I better have a look,’ I said.
I pulled on some clothes and looked for the heaviest thing I could find. There was a dusty champagne bottle with a candle stuck in it on the mantlepiece, so I grabbed that. Reassured by the weight of my improvised club, I went quietly to the door, which creaked open like an old man’s lungs. The noise downstairs stopped. I swore under my breath and hit the stairs, Angie behind me. ‘What are you doing?’ I hissed.
‘I’m not staying in there by myself,’ she whispered.
‘Stay behind me, then.’
We both jumped as the front door banged violently.
‘Do you think they’ve gone?’ she said.
‘I hope so.’
By this point we were at the foot of the stairs, looking into the shadows, the front door ahead of us, the doors to the two downstairs rooms either side. The bonfire was still flaring, casting an eerie light through the barred and broken windows. The front door banged again, admitting a frozen draft so solid I felt it almost push past me. I heard Angie gasp behind me.
‘Oh my God!’ she cried, throwing her left arm up across her face and punching out with her right while scrabbling back up the stairs, fighting something I could not see.
I dropped the bottle and took hold of her while she wrestled with shadows. ‘Calm down,’ I was saying, ‘it’s just the acid. There’s nothing there.’
I drew her to me, and she began to relax, trembling in my arms and gasping raggedly.
‘Deep breaths,’ I said, ‘calm blue oceans…’ I’d dealt with her freaking out before.
I steered her back to her room, then lit one of the oil lamps and went back downstairs. It wasn’t that I felt particularly brave; there just wasn’t anyone else to look for me. Besides which, I was reasonably certain all we’d heard was the door swinging in the wind. It wasn’t Baz, or burglars, or f—ing Santa, and I doubted there was a living body for miles in any direction. I retrieved my bottle and did a sweep. Nothing. Then I went outside and refilled the genny. It was covered with snow and a bitch to start but I got there in the end. The house lit up like a Christmas tree. I went back inside and barricaded the front door as best I could with an armchair. At least that should stop it banging.
Angie was sitting up in bed in her Sister’s sweatshirt smoking and shivering. I relit the fire as best I could and joined her. As sleep seemed unlikely, and she certainly needed distracting, I decided to tell her my news. I backed this up by giving her the Christmas present I’d been sitting on all evening. Inexpertly wrapped in black, naturally, it was a big silver bat pendant on a heavy silver chain.
‘Very Lily Munster,’ she said, putting it on and grinning.
‘I saw it and thought of you.’
‘I didn’t get you anything,’ she said miserably.
‘Course you did,’ I told her and gave her a squeeze. I was committed now, so I ploughed on. ‘The thing is, Angie, I didn’t just “see this and think of you”; I think of you all the time. I never stop…’
She put her hands in mine and looked shattered but encouraging. With her make-up smudged, her hair all over the place, and pupils the size of saucers, she was the most beautiful thing I had ever laid eyes on.
‘…I miss you, Angie,’ I continued. ‘I can’t leave you again. I’m done. F— university, I’m coming home. I need you more than a useless degree in English Literature.’
She sniffed, and smiled, and I think she wiped some tears out of her eyes, though that might have just been smoke. That fireplace wasn’t all that well ventilated.
‘I love you, Angie,’ I finished, ‘and I always have.’
I felt stupid after that and reached for a cig. She stopped my hands and kissed me instead. ‘Me too,’ was all she said.
Somewhere along the line, after planning ahead, smoking, fooling around some more, and mithering about how my parents were going to react to me dropping out, we fell asleep. The next time I woke up, I was alone. In the dark before the dawn, I realised that the bloody generator had stopped again.
I lie there for a bit thinking happy thoughts, assuming she’d gone to the bathroom. But the house was quiet, and she didn’t come back. It began to dawn on me that something was wrong.
I got dressed and went looking.
I quickly established that she wasn’t in the house. The armchair had been pulled away from the door, so she had to be outside, maybe by the fire. I walked outside into thickly fallen snow and an arctic silence, as if all sound itself had frozen too. Not one solitary seabird called out to greet the new day. In the dawn light, I could see a string of footprints leading away from the front door, past the dregs of the fire, and towards the sea. There seemed to be two sets. Distended toe marks made it distressingly clear that Angie was in bare feet, but alongside her footprints was another set that looked equally human but sharper, more narrow, birdlike even, as if more bone than flesh.
A roaring gust of wind broke the silence, coming in off the sea all of a sudden with the force of a rocket. It moaned and wailed around me, whipping my long hair back, tugging and pulling. I looked out to sea desperately. The tide was out, and in the growing light I could just about make out a figure in the distance. It was definitely her. Alone. I leaned into the rising gale and started to run.
As she came into view, I became aware of her movements. Was she sleepwalking? (Did she do that?) I cursed whoever gave her that bloody LSD. She was undressed apart from her sweatshirt and her purple knickers. Her legs were blue with cold. It’s difficult to describe, and you probably won’t believe me anyway, but she was moving stiffly, like as puppet, as if something else was awkwardly controlling her limbs. She was lurching robotically towards the waves now, her legs jerking out in front of her, her body leaning at impossible angles. I dashed forward and caught hold of her, or tried to… There was someone else there. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it, and I could smell it. A foul miasma of salt and decay hit me in the face, as if whatever it was had turned and breathed its pestilence all over me. I lashed out in panic and hit something. It was difficult to get hold of, cold, slimy, and hard, a surface like old leather slipping on wet wood. I could see Angie was conscious now. Her eyes stared in desperate horror, her mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out. A great clawing force pushed me back, and I fell in the snow. Released from my pitiful intervention, Angie stepped into the freezing surf.
Already soaked from spray and slipping on shingle, I ditched my coat and followed her in, fighting against the drag and the cold. A wave knocked me on my arse, and I was rewarded with a mouth full of salt as the retreating sea sucked me over again. It was impossibly cold. My hands were instantly numb. I scrambled to my feet in time to see her about ten feet ahead of me, chest-deep in darkening water. I launched myself at her and started swimming. This time when I caught up, I didn’t let go.
I was just about keeping my feet on the bottom, but I was taller than her; she was fast disappearing, only her hair visible, swirling on the unruly surface. I dimly remember shouting something stupid like, ‘F— off!’ and wrenching her backwards while locking my hands under her arms and around her chest. Her head shot up out of the water and thank Christ she was still breathing. Whatever had hold of her was wriggling like some enormous, stinking slug, butting and biting. Human teeth marks appeared on my bare arms and a wrecking ball hit me in the face. I tried to keep my head back and away and started dragging her out of the water. It was marginally easier than moving a piano. The low winter sun began to rise and then, suddenly, it, whatever it was, was gone.
As quick as it had come, the wind dropped. We scrambled out of the water together, me still holding onto her. She was crying, spluttering, and shivering violently. I wrapped her in my discarded jacket, lifted her up, and carried her back towards the house. Even soaking wet she was as light as a feather. Above us, the gulls were back and going mental.
Inside, I revived the fire and got a coffee on then changed her clothes. She still wasn’t talking. I dried mine as best I could in front of the fireplace, noticing that the black skull was missing. When we’d warmed up and Angie was restored to something like coherence, we grabbed what we could and got the hell out of there, using her bicycle to prop us up on the long walk back into the village. Mum thought we’d been mugged, and Dad insisted on driving us to the nearest Casualty unit. Someone there called the cops.
The official version of all this is that neither of us were of sound mind that night and had whipped each other into a state of near hysteria over some sort of imagined supernatural incursion while high on a cocktail of illegal drugs. Some said that Angie was also guilty about removing the skulls from the ruined graveyard, but the police dismissed that as apocryphal given that no human remains, included painted skulls, were ever found in or near the watch house. It further came to light that Angie had been suffering from depression for some time, as corroborated by her sister, and that she might have become suicidal. Counselling was advised.
No charges were pressed in the end. All we’d done was trespass in a building nobody cared about. As to our stash, it was so minimal it wasn’t worth the paperwork, apparently.
‘Besides,’ said the investigating officer, ‘it’s Christmas.’
He didn’t give it back though.
Thankfully, while all this was going on, just before the council changed the lock, the bikers snuck back to the watch house on Boxing Day and rescued their genny, the sound system, and Angie’s records.
My parents were not impressed, but they got over it. I wasn’t letting Angie out of my sight again. We moved into Norwich, got crappy jobs, and rented a flat. After a couple of years, we both did one of the new Access courses and got university places in Leeds, marrying after graduation. Almost thirty years later, we’re still doing alright. We have two kids, with the first grandchild on the way, and every Christmas, the clans gather at our house because Angie still loves to throw a party. Even Tina doesn’t mind me now.
Angie never told me what she saw that night and I never asked. Let’s just say she wasn’t quite so gothic after that. We both packed in the psychedelics too. And as for our childhood home, we have never been back there, or anywhere near it, ever again.