"The Haunted Man" by A.M. Shine / Winner of the Bookers Corner October Writing Prize

The patient’s manacled hands were steady. He slouched in the iron chair as though in its rigid shape he had divined some comfort. Perhaps he truly was mad. With a cool indifference he glanced around the cell. Its four walls were plated with square tiles. Thick composites of grime had gathered in their recesses. Behind the man was fastened a mirror. Upon it a fog of filth cried out to be cleaned. Like the many feeble pleas which echoed through the corridors of Alderwitch Asylum it was dutifully ignored. The psychiatrist’s chair scraped across the concrete as he seated himself at the far end of the table; his smile seemed out of place. In Coldwood County, happiness was often found in the strangest places; for those incarcerated in Alderwitch it was rarely found at all

“Tell me, Anthony,” the doctor asked with a smile, “do you still believe in ghosts?” The man was clearly thrilled to talk down to one older than he. One once so respected.

“I do not,” the patient replied; his voice soft and slow, “I am of the opinion that I was but the victim of an overwrought imagination. My eyes may well be failing me, doctor, but my mind has never before enjoyed such clarity.”

“Then please, in your own time,” he said, “relate to me in deserved detail the events which led you to be under our care here at Alderwitch. Honesty, as I am sure you know, Anthony, is the key to certifying one’s sanity. Lies and subterfuge are the tools of the wicked.”

“The only tool I have want or need for in this life is a pen, doctor,” he returned, “I wish only to be rid of this place and to resume my writing.”

“I am familiar with your work,” said the man with a grimace, “I do, however, lend little worth to fiction. In my profession we deal only in fact, and that is what I wish to hear from you today.”

Anthony sat forward in his chair. Though he despised the fiend seated before him he suppressed all his anger, all ill-feeling, into a single purpose – to disprove his madness. Only then could he escape the prison which held custody over his life. Hell on earth did indeed exist. He had found it in Coldwood County.

“Before my internment here at Alderwitch,” the patient began, “I lived alone in Broke Bell Lane. Not many people know of it. I found the appearance of Coldwood’s town nauseating to the eye. As I am sure you are aware, its black stone snares no light. It simply shimmers like some viscous oil. Its cobbles are so ill set and poorly-selected that every street is a mass of cumbersome stepping stones. The land rises and falls at intervals and angles which forgo explanation, whilst all architecture appears askew and poorly constructed as though the whole damnable place was built in a hasty hour to conceal some foul secret. For these reasons and more I settled in Broke Bell Lane. It is a small and mostly forgotten little alleyway on the outskirts of the town where old masonry and hollow warehouses await to again be of some use to those who abandoned them. For a time I was the area’s only resident, and from this blissful solitude I found the peace requisite to good writing.

“I learned a long time ago that my creativity waxed most fervently by the nightly hours. The moon was my muse and I was its loyal votary. My desk was placed by a window on the first floor, and here I would sit by the light of a lonely candle and pen my next fictive venture. The dank street below was habitually deserted save for the regular scatter of cats and vermin. I never interfered with their timeless contest and they in-turn paid little heed to my presence. This implicit harmony was, however, like most joys in this life fated to end. After close to a year of easeful living in a street I deemed my own, a gentleman – a stranger to my eyes – settled into the building directly across from my own.

“We experienced a particular cold winter that year. The snow had gathered like a fat frost on my window’s ledge. Its flakes cascaded down endlessly from the starry sky like some heavenly gift. No cat or rat dared step out into the bitter chill, and all was calm. As I sat, silently pondering the ins and outs of some cavernous plotline, I was alerted to the sound of footfalls crunching softly in the blanket of snow below. Indulging my curiosity I wiped the damp from the pane and peered into the street. A portly chap I recognised as my landlord was rifling through a ring of keys whilst a tall man attired entirely in black stood patiently beside him, the snow settling fast on his shoulders. In time, when the elusive key was found, they both made their way upstairs. You may well imagine my surprise when they appeared in the window facing my own. We were to live side by side, divided by a single street – a distance too far to converse politely but close enough to pry into each other’s business.

“I was intrigued to find that the stranger’s apartment bore remarkable similarities to my own. Even the layout of its room mirrored my humble study. I watched as my landlord – Fitzgerald was his name – pointed out the chamber’s meagre assets to the man. The new tenant seemed disinterested in any and all palaver as he hoisted his travelling case onto the desk and began sorting through his belongings, never once acknowledging Fitzgerald with so much as a nod or an utterance. I do not believe he saw me, or if he had then he had taken equal measures to ignore me as he did our landlord. On the pale cobbles outside a black cat manifested from the shadows. It would seem we both shared an interest in our new neighbour; a man whose arrival was to mark the end of a peaceful and productive time of my life; one which I am keen to reclaim, doctor.”

“Few men of sound mind would volunteer to live amongst stray cats and rodents,” the psychiatrist sneered, “but then the world is home to a great many oddities, and writers by their very nature are a curious breed. Do tell me, Anthony, how did this man in black so influence your life?”

“Quite indirectly, doctor,” he replied, “and yet had he never come to live in Broke Bell Lane then I believe we would not be sat here having this conversation. I rue the day I ever laid eyes on him.

“The following evening I went about my discipline as best I could. I found the absence of darkness in the opposing building awfully distracting. I admit that my senses had attuned far too much so to the familiar, and the stranger’s presence was anything but ordinary to me. Fortunately, by approximately the night’s ninth hour he extinguished his candle’s flame and set out into the streets of Coldwood. I knew not where he went and I cared even less, and so I returned to my writing, safe in the mind that if only for a few hours Broke Bell Lane was mine once again. But I was not the only soul in attendance that night. There was another, and she had left no footprint in the snow nor had she snared the attention of any judicious feline.

“As both windows were perfectly aligned, the light of my candle was transposed quite faithfully onto the other’s pane; and as I sat, immersed in my own thoughts, it was there that my eyes did idly fall. As you know, even when one’s mind strays into fanciful realms the eyes remain ever astute, and in the shadows of the stranger’s home they did mark some movement. Someone stirred amidst its shadows – a woman dressed, it would seem, in a white nightdress. To say the least I was instantly dragged back to reality by sheer embarrassment, for what if the lady should erroneously accuse me of spying on her. I dampened my candle’s wick and lowered my head out of sight like a villain evading persecution. Her appearance had, however, irked my curiosity as I had yet to see her leave or enter via the apartment’s only doorway on the street below.

“From the shadows and safely out of sight I watched as the woman drifted through the room, seemingly without purpose. She did not touch any of the man’s effects. In fact, she tendered little time to anything. The darkness of the chamber concealed her features, but there can be no denying her presence; and no sooner had I begun to speculate her relationship to the man in black when she vanished, dissolving into the shadows as though she had never existed.

“During the two nights that followed I observed the same routine. The gentleman always departed around the ninth bell and in his absence the woman would appear. Never were they seen together. Both individuals seemed ignorant of the other’s existence. As you may well imagine, doctor, at this stage I was eager to learn something – anything – about them.”

“It is a poor caste of character who cannot mind his own business,” the psychiatrist interjected, “I fail to see how this couple’s domestic arrangement came to beg your interference. Would you not yourself take offence if another took to spying on you in your private hours?”

“Hear me out,” Anthony snapped back, “before you judge me too harshly, doctor. The next afternoon I took a rare trot through the town in search of Fitzgerald – my landlord. The man’s haunts were not unknown to me. He is, like many of us, a creature of habit and all too fond of a swift mid-day porter. I found him stationed in a dusty corner of Morton’s tavern. He assumed that I had hunted him down to air some grievance, and so when I requested no more than a friendly chat he was open to answering my questions regarding his latest tenants if only to be rid of me so that he could enjoy his pint in peace.

“The man in black, he told me, went by the name of Spencer – Charles W. Spencer. Of his past and personal life he knew little, only that he was of sufficient wealth to secure the dwelling up front for six months. To a landlord, I assume, this was all that mattered. I enquired after the young lady and who she was to Spencer, but Fitzgerald stared at me blankly. He knew nothing of her nor did he care. The apartment was paid for and Spencer was permitted to house a guest should he wish to do so. At this stage my landlord’s patience was beginning to fray and so I left him to his drink and bid him a good day. Now, however, more than before, a wealth of wild conjectures occupied my mind. Who was this woman, and was Spencer privy to her presence? Did she reside in another part of the building and enjoy unwarranted access to the man’s apartment? If this was the case then what sinister motives would drive her to do so?

“My writing was decorously adjourned until some explanation presented itself. I had yet to make Spencer’s acquaintance, but I felt morally obliged to vouchsafe his well-being. Should any harm have befallen the man then my conscience would not have withstood it, and so I decreed to prolong my nightly surveillance of his home. Yes, I know that it is uncouth to meddle into the life of another, but there are times when we must do something bad if only to prevent something worse, if you understand me, doctor?”

“How noble of you, Anthony,” he replied with a wry smile, “I understand your reasoning, though I do little appreciate it. Such sentiments can be employed to excuse any manner of sin. Bad deeds are all too easily justified by those who commit them. This is why institutes such as Alderwitch exist.”

“Do not twist my words,” Anthony said to him, “You and I both know that I do not belong here. If you will allow me to finish then you shall soon revoke your poor opinion of me.

“The following night Spencer’s moonlit movements were repeated as I had expected. The darkness was my ally and so no candle was gifted life. I sat patiently by my window, awaiting the woman’s appearance, eager to steal a glimpse of her countenance. The wind whistled harrowingly through the bones of my home. Here and there the walls did creak. Perhaps the rats had fallen for my ruse and fancied that I was not at home. To the world outside I did not exist. I sat patiently in the shadows with my eyes set on the chamber beyond the cobbles of Broke Bell Lane. I knew the room well for it was identical to my own.

“Eventually she strayed into sight. I jolted forward – apparently caught off guard by the expected – and watched her gown waft slowly through the darkness. I strained my eyes, but alas they are not as sharp as they once were. My face was practically pressed against the cold pane. Suddenly, I thought she made an approach towards the window and so I sank my head into the darkness. I would not have been surprised if she had seen me; so conspicuous was my presence. On the floor I counted the minutes until I deemed it safe to recommence my investigation. Exercising the utmost caution I raised my eyes above the ledge and there, standing before her window – staring directly at me – stood the ghastly, cadaverous mien of the woman in white. Her unblinking black eyes were fixed on my own and I collapsed to my knees in a fearful sweat.

“My wildest nightmares could not have conjured up so horrific a visage. By the moon’s light her skin shimmered like some limpid mineral. Her raven black hair carried traces of silver and swirled about her shoulders without need for touch or breeze. Her eyes trapped no light and burned with a bleak and ancient menace. But it was the mouth. Dear God, the mouth. Seconds passed, but time was stricken by a mystifying lethargy, and I could but watch as her lips parted into a hideous smile populated with ranks of rotted teeth. All of what I have described to you is accurate. I could scarcely believe it myself. Perhaps I simply did not want to. Regardless, when my strength recovered and I glanced over to Spencer’s apartment she was gone. Nothing in the chamber had been disturbed.”

“So this is the infamous ghost?” the psychiatrist laughed, “A touch cliché for a writer of fiction, I must say. Please, Anthony, do continue.”

“I resolved to arrest Spencer’s attention upon his return and warn him of the phantom who haunted his home. Too fearful was I, however, to leave the safety of my study. The mere sight of her had fleeced my soul of courage, and so I waited. The darkness, once my accomplice, now turned against me. The air itself seemed threatening. Each hour passed like the longest day until I was alerted by a glow from beyond the pane – the light of a candle. The man had arrived home.

“Climbing to my feet, I cast my own wick alight and essayed to save Spencer from the evil which stalked him. He was stood by his desk with his body facing me, examining a piece of parchment. I called to him – oh, how I roared – but he could not hear me. The wind carried my cries elsewhere. Then I saw her! That ghastly woman manifested as if from nowhere and was now standing directly behind him. Her sickening mouth was practically breathing down the man’s neck. Then, by sweet fortune’s aid, Spencer saw me. With my hands I gestured – nay, I ordered – him to turn around. With all the ingenuity I could muster I signalled that there was someone behind him. The man looked utterly confused. To my dismay, instead of doing that which I besought him to do, he began to mimic my actions. He started to point over my shoulder. Why ever was the man doing this? Suddenly, it dawned on me. His window – aligned so acutely with mine – presented me with a reflection of my chamber. I was staring not upon his apartment, but a mirror image of my own.”

The psychiatrist did not respond immediately. There could be no doubting the truth in his patient’s voice.

“How would you best explain what you experienced?” he asked.

“I was mentally exhausted, doctor,” Anthony replied, “Too many restless nights. Too many hours lost in my own imagination. I know now, all that I suffered was the result of an excitable fancy. But you have my word, as I sit before you today my mind has never been stronger.”

“Your honesty is appreciated,” he said, no longer smiling, “There may be hope for you yet.”

Without another word the psychiatrist departed, leaving his patient alone to await his verdict. Anthony rose to his feet and stepped gingerly over towards the mirror. He wiped the grime from it with his sleeve and there he stood, staring not at his own reflection, rather his eyes were fixed on the empty space behind him.

“How long have you haunted me?” he cried softly so that only she could hear him, “Why won’t you leave me be?”