A SPOOOOOOOKY story about a bus. Get ready for TERROR.
As lorry drivers slept in graffiti’d lay-bys, the mutterings of drowned villages glugged from Longdendale reservoir. The dams, little more than clover-covered banks by day, stood in the moonlight as stark as funeral barrows. Occasional flashes of lightning scorched the western hilltops, accompanied by thudding, thumping thunder, but the ground was dry – at least in this particular patch of scrubland outside Tintwistle.
Two men were scrambling over a dry-stone wall in the shadow of gargantuan pylons. One carried a heavy black canvas bag which weighed him down like a lead block and threatened to pull them off balance, while the other just carried an umbrella.
“Come on, come on, we’re going to miss it!” The man carefully, carefully lowered the bag to the ground, and then threw down a tripod after it.
“Don’t be daft, you know well as I do it’s not due for twenty minutes yet.”
With a plud, the first man dropped down from the wall and landed in an awkward squat on the gravel. “I know, but… hurry up Trev!”
“Hold your horses,” Trev muttered. He’d last done this nearly thirty years ago, and he could have sworn the wall hadn’t been half as high back then. As he stepped gingerly down, stone by stone, he felt his corduroys tear on a protruding piece of slate. “You’re bloody lucky I’m bringing you along at all, you know. No-one but me’s ever seen the Parliamentary before.”
“Give over!” The other man paused, looking down the beck towards the still waters of the res. “God’s honest truth?”
“Truer than true,” Trev said. With a sigh of relief, one foot touched the ground. He picked up his bag and tripod, and began towards a long concrete oblong not too far away. Shapes quickly resolved out of the bluish night – ramps, a concrete hut, the portal of a tunnel.
“Why’d we go over the fence? We’re not trespassing are we?”
“No, no, this is all public land. Look, there’s the cycle path! It’s just that, well, if you go in through the gate, it don’t work. Listen, I’ve spent thirty years working this out. We have to use the old path, down the hill and over the stream.”
“I don’t know why I trusted you, I bloody don’t. I’m in the pub, minding my own business, and then you come swanning in, pissed as a fruit bat. ‘Oh, Sam, do you want to see a 76?’ Well, who doesn’t? If I’d have known you were dragging me out here to tell ghost stories, I wouldn’t have downed my pint.”
“It’s not a story. It’s not. I saw it, with my own two eyes.” Trev pointed to his varifocals. “The 76 will come, you mark my words. Watch yoursen, we’re crossing the stream.”
The stream spattered and screamed as it coursed over jagged rocks – a ten foot chasm spanned by a wooden footbridge.
“If it doesn’t come, you owe me a pint,” Sam muttered.
They stepped out onto the bridge, and with each step, the roar of the water seemed to grow louder and louder. Then, as abruptly as switching off a radio, the sound cut out, and there was silence.
“Trev… didn’t they lift the tracks through Woodhead in the eighties?”
“That they did, that they did…”
Four strips of iron shone in the moonlight, stretched out beneath an absurd folly of a building, a Gothic castle in miniature.
“Bloody hell!” Sam ran, stumbling down the rough embankment to the station. “Bloody hell, bloody hell, bloody bleeding hell!”
“What was that you said about a pint?” Trev shouted. Everything was as he had remembered it, down to the little lantern-style lampposts on the platform. But the platforms had been… not busy, exactly, but there had been people on them. Tonight, they were deserted, and no light shone from the Victorian lamps.
“It’s spooky, isn’t it?” Sam shouted, and his echo backed him up a second later. “No pun intended!” He walked out onto the crossing between the tracks and stared into the tunnel mouth. “Cor, you can see right in! No gates or owt!”
“Get off the damn tracks!” Trev shouted.
Laughing out loud, Sam stretched out his arms and bellowed down the line. “Come on ghost trains, do your worst.”
“You idiot! Get off the tracks before you get run down! A ghost train’ll knock you just as flat as a real one!”
Sam scurried back to the platform. “Alright, alright. Where do we want to stand?”
“For the photos! The videos!”
“Good lord, you’re not still going on about your photos are you?”
“Uh, yeah.” He pointed at the tripod and the camera sack which hung from his shoulder. “What do you call this, Scotch mist?”
“It’s night-time, in case you hadn’t noticed, and drivers don’t exactly like camera flashes.”
At least, Sam suddenly looked oddly excited, as if he was a schoolboy who’d just been given a particularly mischievous dare.
“Oh, I’m ready for that. I do night shots all the time for freight and empties and that. I’ve got night-vision, infrared, starlight lenses…” He pulled out his camera to show off the night-vision – a foot of black plastic covered in buttons and sensors between the chassis and the lens.
“Look, I don’t think we should take photos of this. It would be… wrong. Like, I don’t know, having a picnic in a churchyard or summat.”
“But we’d be killing two birds with one stone!” With a practised sweep of his arm, Sam swung the tripod and its legs popped open like a flower. “We could prove that ghosts are real and get a picture of a 76!”
Trev shook his head. “First, if the ghosts wanted people to know they were real, they’d have shown themselves already. They’re happy as they are, and we shouldn’t be mithering them.” He stole a glance at his watch before continuing. “Second, you’ve already seen a bloody 76! They’ve got one at York, remember?”
“Aye, but that doesn’t count! It’s a corpse, locked up in a museum, with its shiny black paint job and its perfectly polished brass. I don’t want to see that! I want to see one alive, with its engine roaring and its panto sparking. That’d be…”
Eyes wide, Trev and Sam turned to the end of the platform. A young woman was standing in an isolated patch of light at the ramp, her bags resting on a pallet of empty milk churns. She wore a small white cap and was smartly dressed in a tweed cardigan and matching skirt, but her hair, where it escaped the confines of the hat, was lank and straggly, like pondweed. She blinked, and suddenly it was clear that the light was the soft phosphorous glow of her eyes. Sam screamed and dropped his camera, which fell on its lens with a crunch.
“I’m sorry, miss,” Sam spluttered, snatching it up. “You scared us! Err… shocked us! You shocked us!” He tilted the camera, trying to examine it for cracks in the thin moonlight, but he was unable to take his eyes off the woman.
“Tha’s not waiting for the Sheffield train, are tha?”
Tapping the brim of his hat, Trev began to walk slowly towards her glow so he wouldn’t have to shout across the station. “That we are.”
“Hasn’t tha heard? Train’s not running tonight!”
All things considered, it was surprising that Sam didn’t drop his camera a second time.
“They’re doing some sort of repairs on the track, they said.” Seeing how distraught Sam looked, she quickly added, “Don’t worry, they’ve laid a bus on!”
“I don’t care about a bloody bus!” Sam shouted. “I came here for the 76!”
“Mind your language!” The woman’s veins flashed, and for a moment she was a figure engraved in lightning on their retinas.
“I’m sorry about my friend,” Trev said, as Sam whimpered. “Where is the bus stop?”
“Just through the car park. But… how’d yer both get here, if not by bus?”
“We drove,” Sam replied as he speedily packed away his camera equipment.
“Yer drove? To the railway station? Why?”
The interval between lightning and thunder was growing shorter. Soon the storm would be upon them.
Trev stood alongside the woman as they waited for Sam. “Well… Look, it’s… Do you mind if I ask your name, miss…”
“Grimshaw. Miss Grimshaw.”
“Miss Grimshaw, touch my hand.”
“Well, I hardly think that’s something tha ought to say to an unaccompanied lass on an empty platform!”
“Just try it. No gloves,” he added.
Keeping her eyes fixed on him, she slipped off a woolly glove and tapped two fingers against his wrist. He cringed and tried to fight the primal aversion to cold, bloodless flesh.
“Warmth… Tha’s not alive, are tha?” She stepped back in surprise. “Well knock me down! A live one riding the Parliamentary! Are yer trainspotters?”
“Guilty as charged,” Trev replied. Sam had caught up with them. He stared at Miss Grimshaw, trying to work out if he was just imagining her glow. In a certain cloudy light, he thought she looked gorgeous – round face, dark hair, eyes that were literally bright. But then the moon reappeared from behind a cloudbank and its harsh, angular white light revealed the angles of her face. The right cheek was sunken, and from the jaw to the temple, triangular shards shifted under her skin.
“Well isn’t that just the way, eh? One night in the year when tha can cross to the other side, and the train’s not running!” She laughed and patted him on the hand; her skin was chilly like damp autumn leaves, with something both chitinous and chthonic scratching and skittering just below the skin. He’d been steadying himself for this moment for three decades, but this time when it when the dead flesh touched him, it took him by surprise. Cold fear poured through his body. Reflex took over, and his arm jerked back as he stumbled over, screaming for help through alternating prayers and curses.
“Oh lor, I’m sorry!” Miss Grimshaw stepped back, her body crunching and squelching as her weight shifted.
“Does that happen a lot?” Sam breathed. “You forget you’re dead?”
“Tha never forgets tha’s dead,” she replied firmly. “Never.”
Trev took a deep breath and stood up. The lightning was so close that the ridge above was now a strobing field of stark-white light. But the rain still hadn’t come. “You shouldn’t be the one to apologise. You heard me turning the air blue back there. Just… don’t apologise for being… that way.”
“Yer both sure yer want to do this?” Miss Grimshaw asked. “If yer think one ghost is bad, yer don’t want to see what’s on that bus.”
Sam quailed. “Mebbe she’s right. Mebbey we should leave it this year and come back… another time. When we’re-”
A flare of lightning interrupted Sam, so bright that it turned the iron rails into one-dimensional suns. Trev blinked – four long mauve streaks crossed his vision.
“Look at us twittering away. The bus is almost here!” Miss Grimshaw pointed up. Somehow the lightning was coming from in front of the hill. “Fancy a run, lads?”
When Miss Grimshaw ran, her feet didn’t touch the ground. She moved unbelievably fast, but there was no visible evidence of motion, beyond the pumping of her crooked legs. Her hair didn’t flap or swing, her skirt didn’t billow out. She didn’t tire, nor did she seem to put in any effort. At one moment she was in the station, the next she was standing by the road a hundred yards away. In between, who could say? She didn’t need to move her feet to walk – her gait seemed to be just a long-dormant reflex from life.
Sam and Trev caught up with her about twenty seconds later. For a moment, running from the station had felt like an escape from the world of ghosts, back to the land of living. But the bus stop was away from the stream, on the other side of the track where the road passed over the tunnel mouth and dropped down to the level of the station.
Without the crest of the hill in the way, the source – or more accurately, the target – of the lightning was suddenly obvious. Rivers of plasma scored their way through the darkness from every direction, all meeting at a point at the end of a trolleypole. At its base, hanging from the lightning almost like a bauble from a ribbon, a bus rattled casually, its headlights flickering with the intensity of the lightning. Faces were visible at the window. Sam shuddered and tried not to make out their twisted features.
The bus came squeaking, squealing to a stop at the gate beside a pallet of milk churns. The lightning eased off, and everything became so dark that the overcast night sky was a riot of light behind the silhouetted mountains.
There were no doors, just an open platform at the back. Without light, the step up was treacherous. Trev pulled himself aboard, and muttered to Sam, “Health and safety would never allow this these days.”
Miss Grimshaw pointed into the gloom, where presumably the spiral staircase to the top deck was. “Upstairs or down?”
Trev could see Sam’s face as he tried to decide – miss out on the chance to ride top-deck on an in-service trolleybus, or risk breaking his neck on the pitch-black, ladder-narrow stairs. “Downstairs, I think,” he said with a reluctant sigh.
The saloon, thankfully, was lit by a pale glow, and the two managed to avoid stubbing their toes or banging their shins on the projecting metal bench legs. Somewhere deep down, they knew where that light was coming from, but they managed to detach themselves from their surroundings long enough to make it to a seat. They both stared straight out of the window, ignoring the phosphorescent bodies fore and aft.
Miss Grimshaw sat on the adjacent seat, with her handbag clutched primly on her lap. Without the fresh air and racing valley winds to carry away the smell, there was an unmistakeable dankness to her. Not like stagnant water, but like damp linen, lukewarm and forgotten.
The lights flickered back on, and the bus began to move, revealing that nearly every seat was taken.
“Well, it’s rather crowded in here tonight, isn’t it?” she said, moving in her seat. The squishing sound of her body was somehow amplified by the confines of the bus.
“Tha’s not wrong there, Mary!” The man in the seat in front of Sam and Trev turned around. He wore a farmer’s cap and coat, beige-grey wool from head to toe. His collar was turned up and stiff with blood – a gory bite wound gaped on his chin. Sam pressed his face to the window and cupped his hands around his temples to block any possible view. “Thirty years now and British Rail’s still a shambles. Repair works! On the one night of the year when we need the tunnel! What wazzock thought that one up, eh?”
Miss Grimshaw nodded. “Oh, I know. Two live ‘uns came along just to the train, and knock me down if they weren’t disappointed.” She gestured to Sam and Trev. Trev nodded.
The couple behind them leaned over the metal-pipe headrests. “I told you Jan! I told you I didn’t recognise them!” Trev glanced round. They were a young pair, if rather anachronistic with their feathered mid-eighties hair, both in hospital gowns. Unlike Miss Grimshaw and the farmer, they had no visible injuries, which somehow made their appearance more uncanny, not less. The farmer was at least visibly dead – the couple were just pale, horribly pale, lightning-streaked with black veins.
“Are you really dead?” Jan asked, and unbidden, pressed her fingers to his carotid. They were horribly cold, felt colder than they could possibly have really been, but at least they felt like fingers. “Lor, you are!”
“It’s… it’s true…” He tried to carry on conversation, but he couldn’t take his eyes away from the massive laceration on the farmer’s neck. As he tried to straighten out his thoughts, teeth marks became visible in the pale glowing skin. “I’m sorry, Mr…”
“Looking at my bite, eh?” He turned down the coat collar. The crumbly, dry sound of the fabric peeling away from the old wound was unbearable. “Daisy gave me that one, didn’t tha girl?” He reached down into the footwell and pulled his dog up onto the seat. A collie-mutt with big, odd-coloured eyes, she stared at Trev with blood running down her white chin. “Didn’t mean to of course, did tha girl? – no tha didn’t! – but that didn’t make it any the less deadly, I’m afraid to say.”
“What… I mean, what happened, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Oh, it’s a daft old thing. Daisy got into a scrap with Meg from down t’road and I tried to pull ‘em apart, and Daisy nipped me right on the neck! Didn’t you, you silly dog?” He patted Daisy on the head. She panted and licked him right on the wound. Sam had turned back, briefly, when he’d heard the dog – now he was staring back through the windows, humming loudly to himself.
“But you… aren’t angry at her?” Trev asked. “You know, for killing you?” He looked at Daisy as she grinned in her owner’s arms. Was that wild-eyed stare devotion, or was it a taste for blood?
“Dogs’ll be dogs!” The farmer patted Daisy on the head. From some unseen corner of the bus came the cry of the conductor; “Get that dog off the seat!” With a sigh, he lifted Daisy’s front legs and steered her back onto the floor. “Of course, when tha wake up and tha’s a ghost, tha’ll allus be a bit mardy. But I weren’t even cold before the police dragged poor Daisy off t’vet to be gassed. ‘Dangerous dog’ they called her! I ask tha, is there owt dangerous about her?”
Trev remembered the mad, staring, blood-stained dog, and decided to hedge his replies with a non-committal “Mmm.”
“She didn’t even start it, did she?” Miss Grimshaw added to prod the conversation along. She’d heard the story before, probably every year. The bus had stopped again, and the saloon fell dark.
“Ey, tha’s right there! I allus told the Shipleys to keep their bleeding dogs – pardon my French – under control. Terrors, they were! Always leaping t’walls and riling up t’sheep!”
The lights came back. The sudden flash startled Sam. He peeled himself away from the window and forced himself to look at the farmer. The wound still emanated primal horror – why didn’t he wash the blood off? Could ghosts wash? – but if he blocked that out, he could imagine the farmer as another human being. “That’s… I mean… Didn’t Daisy…”
“That’s different, that were an accident! Daisy’s just a bit of a rascal, Meg were t’devil herself!”
The conductor slipped past, gauzy and faceless, but nonetheless well turned out in a smart blazer and cap. As Miss Grimshaw paid, Trev reached into his pocket and pulled out a few old pence, carefully collected for the job.
“Fares please,” the conductor mumbled. Trev handed over the coins. They slipped straight through the conductor’s hand and scattered on the linoleum. “Oy, you can’t pay with these!”
“I’m sorry, I…”
“He’s alive,” the farmer whispered by way of explanation.
“Oh, well that’s alright then, is it?” The conductor bent down and tried futilely to pick up a sixpence. “Doesn’t have to pay just because he’s breathing? Well, isn’t that cushy!”
“Look, I’ll pay for them.” Miss Grimshaw pulled her purse back out and passed over a shilling.
The conductor tipped his hat. “Many thanks, miss.” He passed two pieces of green card to Trev and Sam. “Next time, bring some proper money.” He walked on, leaving the coins on the floor. Trev bent down to pick them. Sam glanced back out of the window. The bus was leaping through the mountains, skipping out of place like the images in a scratched video. Already, the lights of Sheffield were surrounding them.
“Sorry about that. Spirims get so touchy.”
“Thanks, Miss.” He proffered the coins on his outstretched palm. “Here, take these.”
“Oh, I can’t.”
“Please, I’m just paying you back!”
“No, I mean, I can’t.” She reached into his palm. He could feel her cold fingers solid against his skin, yet the tips passed through the money like steam through a sieve. “What tha dies with, tha’s stuck with.”
“Hence the blood,” the farmer added, pointing redundantly to the heavy stain on his collar.
“I’ll always have four and eight in my purse, because that’s what I had when the car hit me.”
Sam’s face fell. “It was a car what did it?”
“That it was. My youngest sister, she ran out in t’road. I ran after her, and that were that.”
“I’m sorry,” Sam said. He took a deep breath, reached over Trev, and put a hand on Miss Grimshaw’s arm.
“Don’t be! I saved her, that’s what matters.” She patted Sam’s hand – her palm was oddly damp. He shivered and recoiled, yanking his hand back. There were droplets on the back of his fingers – Sam wiped them off on the back of his seat.
“Oh Lor, sorry about that! They knocked down my house twenty year back to build a new channel for the reservoirs. Now every morning, I wake up in the water where my bed used to be. Go to sleep where I like, but still I wake up in the stream.”
The bus stopped again, at Neepsend. Just one more stop to go. As the lights came back on, Trev had a sudden realisation.
“Hang about. I’m here for fun… but what do you all need to take the bus for?”
“Well, cos the trains weren’t running,” the farmer replied.
“No, I mean, why are you going to Sheffield?”
“For the market!” the farmer replied. “I like to watch the dogs, and see the sheep. You know, modern sheep aren’t half what they were in my day. The wool’s too thin, no oil to it. Proper wool needs oil…”
“And you, Miss Grimshaw?”
“Why, to meet my sister of course!”
The bus swung round the corner, and with a final crackle of lightning it came to a stop outside the abandoned Sheffield Victoria station. Miss Grimshaw leapt up from her seat. “Hooray! Here at last!”
Being corporeal proved to be a disadvantage when it came to fighting their way off the bus. Trev and Sam shuffled one foot at a time in near-total darkness while Miss Grimshaw flickered and flitted to the platform.
When they eventually way out, the station forecourt was a riot of noise, as ghosts met up, chatted, and discussed the latest gossip from half a century ago. In the middle of it all stood a grey haired woman, squat with age, wearing glasses that shrunk her eyes into grains of black sand.
“Mary!” she shouted suddenly.
“Joan!” Miss Grimshaw before her in a blink. They hugged, and then Miss Grimshaw beckoned the pair over. “Oh sister, tha’ll never imagine what happened today. I met two living people on the bus!”
“Living? Oh my!” She adjusted her glasses. “Two handsome young men! Tha’s wicked, Mary!”
“I’d have to argue with “handsome” and “young”,” Trev replied, rubbing his greying beard. “But thank you. It’s lovely to meet you.”
The crowd of ghosts was thinning now, and the pinking sky was visible through gaps in the cloud.
“So, how did you die?” Sam asked.
“Excuse me, young man!?” Joan looked taken aback.
Trev leaned over to whispered into Sam’s ear. “Tonight, the living and the dead can speak. I don’t think she’s… you know.”
“Same time next year?” Mary Grimshaw asked loudly, to push conversation on once more.
“You can count on it,” Trev said. “I still have to ride through the tunnel!”
“Then I’ll see yer both then. Goodbye, and thank you for the company.” She shook his hand, and then turned and walked away with her hand at her sister’s elbow.
When they were gone, Trev fell to the ground, trembling. The cold, clammy touch of her skin was still with him, creeping down his arm. He took a couple of deep breaths, but he couldn’t steady himself. The sense of death was still on him.
“Trev, are you alright?” Sam shook Trev’s shoulder. Feeling warmth against his skin was unexpected.
The slamming of a door shook him. He glanced up to see the young driver getting out of the cab.
“Morning lads. ‘ave a good Halloween last night?” He looked down at Trev, shaking and exhausted on the ground. “Looks like it!” He checked the time on his phone. “Bloody waste of my night, that. You know, you two were the only passengers I ‘ad! Some bloke from the depot rings at midnight, telling me they need a driver for some rail-replacement service thing. I didn’t know trains even ran this late, and if I’d known no-one’d show up, I wouldn’t have bothered.”
Sam smiled. “Well, we’re glad you bothered.” “
So, it was a totally normal night?” Trev asked.
“Well, like I said, it was dead quiet.”
“But you didn’t see anything odd?”
“Of course I did, it’s Halloween! Vampires and zombies and the Joker and all that.”
“But your bus, it’s…”
“I know, so old fashioned! Don’t know why they pulled this one out of the scrapheap. Quiet as a whisper though, I give it that! Good traction on the hills too. Anyway, I need a coffee. Mind how you go.”
The driver began towards an all-night greasy spoon parked on the corner. Before he walked away he glanced back at the pair. “Actually, there is one thing. Was there a girl with you?”
“No,” Sam replied.
“I could have sworn… No, never mind. Have a good night lads.”