There was, on a roadside verge, a simple memorial. People laid flowers in memory of a young man who died there when his car crashed. The police and the coroner were baffled as to what caused this accident. His dead face was twisted with fright, but no one could say what had scared him. Up until the crash the driver had been healthy and his car in good working order. This tragedy occured late at night so no one saw it happen. All the victim's family could do was cry bitter tears.
The crash happened on a country road. This was minimalist countryside with hills and open fields all around. They were enclosed by dry stone walls. Soils were thin and poor. The mouth of a steep sided valley lay near the crash site. Limestone cliffs hemmed it in. Just inside that valley, a tall pinnacle of rock jutted from its green floor. It had sheer white sides and a pointed top capped with turf. During the eighteenth century people had been executed at its foot. It still went by the name of Hangman's Rock.
If you followed that road it lead to a small town. There were Georgian buildings of local stone in its centre. Further out lay twentieth century houses. Most of its people were in lock down due to the Covid-19 virus.
Andrew Whiteley held his phone and waited for someone to answer, but no one did. His arm began to ache and he struggled to control his impatience.
His wife looked across the sitting room. "Why don't you ring off and try later?" she asked.
"I've tried that Kirsty," he replied, "but nobody answers even then."
She saw fear in his eyes as well as impatience and a terrible feeling of helplessness washed over her. Looking round their family photos and pictures on the walls, she wondered if they would loose their home. Her tea turned over in her stomach, like a trout wriggling in a net. Andrew owned a cafe on the high street and he had been forced to close it. The government had promised support for businesses in this position, but helplines and websites had been overwhelmed and many people found it hard to claim anything. His right arm started quivering. Kirsty lowered it, took the phone off him and switched it off. It felt hot and sticky. Had it been her business Kirsty would've lost her temper by now, but he had more patience than she.
"W-where did I go wrong?" he asked.
"You didn't, no one could've sen this coming." She paused, then added "we're better off than my clients; hold onto that."
"Of course, you're right." Furrows in his forehead disappeared, though she knew they would return. She hadn't seen him like this in ten years of marriage. Normally he had a smile and a cheery wave for his staff and customers, but not now.
"I've got to go," said Kirsty, "see you later. Stay strong darling."
Her job was to care for elderly and disabled people in their homes, so she was allowed out when most people were not. One of her colleagues had gone into self isolation and so Kirsty was helping some of her clients. That evening she needed to see a Mr and Mrs Fenner for the first time. While passing through her entrance hall, she passed a silver cup that she had won playing darts. Kirsty wondered when she would be able to play again. Perhaps never if she caught Covid-19. Fear gripped the carer. She made herself stop thinking like that and left the house.
Kirsty drove out of town, heading for a nearby village. Normally there would've been other cars and also lorries on the road. This evening there were very few. She passed the point where flowers had been left in memory of the young man. "What happened to him?" she wondered. An uneasy feeling came over her. Andrew would've said "maybe he saw a ghost," but she would've scoffed at that idea. She drove on, past dry stone walls on either side of bumpy tarmac, past one field containing sheep and another holding cattle. Branches on a thorn tree spread out and rose up like a candelabra.
Kirsty arrived in the village and stopped at the Fenner's cottage. It was built of grey stone and moss mottled the roof tiles. Rose bushes in the garden were still bare. Mr Fenner answered the doorbell. As Kirsty entered heat rose like a wall. Kirsty found Mrs Fenner in bed, which was where she spent most of her time due to brittle bones and poor eyesight. The carer greeted her warmly, then set about helping her, as she had many others before. Kirsty donned a clinical mask and protective clothing. She wondered how long supplies would last for demand was soaring. She worried about the virus but didn't show it. After a couple of hours of hard work, Mr Fenner thanked her and showed her out. Just before Kirsty left he asked "how long will this pandemic last?"
"I don't know," she answered. "No one does. Stay safe. I'll be back tomorrow."
She walked back to the car and set off for home. Mr Fenner's face lodged in her memory. Dread showed in his eyes.
Darkness had fallen and she switched on her headlights. A little later a short legged badger shuffled across road markings and onto the lumpy verge. Old cottages lay behind her and rolling hills ahead. There were no other cars to be seen. Bunches of flowers appeared in her headlights, roses, lillys and carnations. Hangman's Rock was in darkness but it must've been close by.
The temperature fell and goosebumps rose on Kirsty's arms. This was odd as the evening was mild for March. Her first thought was "something's wrong with this car's heating." Her attention was focused on a bend up ahead, so she didn't look to her left immediately.
When she next looked left, Kirsty's jaw dropped and her eyes popped. Panic sent her her heartbeat into overdrive. Someone - or something - sat in the passenger seat. It had the outline of a man but no obvious features. It was dark grey all over. "I must be mistaken," she thought. "If I look ahead, then left again, it'll be gone, won't it?" She did so and, when she looked once more, the shape was still there. Kirsty screamed and cold sweat drenched her forehead. Her only thought was to get home at any cost. She slammed her foot down on the accelerator. Sounds of her engine ripped through that evening, louder than a roaring lioness. Smells of exhaust fumes filled the road. She went over the speed limit but didn't care. Still she was alone.
On the final stretch of the road home she gave all her attention to what lay ahead, not daring to look at the passenger seat. Surely that... that thing would leave her when she reached town? The temperature dropped even further; it was like sitting in a freezer. Her teeth chattered with both fear and cold.
Of course, nobody else would be out because of the lock down! Streets that would normally be lit and bustling were dark and deserted. Familiar road signs offered little comfort now. Kirsty nearly hit a bollard on a road island. She swerved in panic and just avoided it. To her right, the windows of a pub were all in darkness. Brick build semis with small front gardens lay ahead. Some had bay windows, others jutting porches. She continued driving faster than she should have.
Then a family of three emerged from their home, stood on their driveway and started clapping. Two people came out of the house opposite and joined in. This was a show of support for doctors, nurses and other essential workers as they battled the pandemic. As Kirsty drove by, more families did likewise until most people on the road stood outside and clapped. Her car warmed up rapidly. She peered left and at last the shape had gone! She let out a loud sigh of relief and slowed to within the speed limit. A child's yellow fleece glowed in a street light. One man stood by a lawn covered in dandelions, another clapped in a manicured garden with perfect flowerbeds, but tonight they stood together. Loud and sharp, sounds of palm on palm were heard everywhere. They helped Kirtsy to begin getting over her fright.
She arrived home and stumbled through the front doorway. Andrew saw her expression and his brow furrowed with concern.
"What's wrong honey?" he asked as he hugged her.
She sat down and told him what she had seen. Her voice quivered in some sentences. At one point she had to stop and bury her face in her hands. He put an arm round her, then fetched her some red wine. She took a few sips, then continued. They were reflected in an oval mirror that hung over their fireplace. His face turned pale as her story unfolded.
When she had finished Andrew said "Kirsty, I don't know what you saw but I believe every word you said. Some would say it was a ghost, other people think a tragedy can leave... oh, how shall I put it? an impression in th-the stones or the atmosphere, a bit like information on a disk or a microchip. Whatever it was you're safe now, I promise."
She drank what remained of her wine, autumn on her taste buds. He squeezed her hand, then kissed her tenderly.
Both of them slept badly that night, troubled by bad dreams. What had once seemed rock solid now blew about like ashes in the wind. Next morning they rose later than usual. Both of them had headaches brought on by stress.
Kirsty thought of her self-isolated workmate. To think that she ought to be skydiving for charity. Kirsty had sponsored her but declined to take part as she was afraid of heights. Thankfully the girl was on the mend.
As they ate breakfast Kirsty said "I'm so glad all those people came out clapping last night. I'm sure they made that thing go away."
Andrew swallowed toast then replied "if its a conscious being, maybe it didn't like a surge of love and kindness. If it was a record of something bad, perhaps that surge cancelled it out."
Their T.V. flickered in a corner but they ignored it for now. Kirsty said "I'm sure the man who crashed his car at Hangman's Rock saw what I did."
"That's possible but why havn't you or I seen it before? Why didn't it kill you?"
"Normally there are other drivers around when we go past," his wife explained, "but last night there weren't any because of the lock down. The boy who died was out later than we usually are; it said on the news that no one witnessed the crash. As to why I survived, this is a guess but I'd say because I'm a more experienced driver than he was."
Andrew nodded, then got up to make some coffee.
Kirsty Whitleley continued to support those in need, including the Fenners, but from then on she took a different route to their house. As far as I know she's had no more paranormal experiences. Stay safe Kirsty. Thank you for all your hard work.