The walls seemed to be closing in around her, the room getting smaller by the hour. In the hallway the striped wallpaper appeared to move, upwards then downwards in a continuous slow crawl. The radio and television broadcast non-stop bad news; claustrophobia and misery threatened to overwhelm her. Not stopping to put a coat on, pull on boots or even lock the door behind her, Josie walked quickly away from the house into the cold evening. At first she relished the chilly breeze on her cheeks, the crunch of frost under her feet and the scent of winter fires in her nostrils.
She walked briskly, drawn towards the edge of the village and away from the lights of home. Tarmac gave way to gravel, gravel gave way to tracks. She was heading towards the earthworks where she had played as a child. She knew they were Neolithic and that the ruined church in the centre of the henge was Norman; she also knew that the site was reputed to be haunted, and she’d always hoped to see a ghost there. That winter’s evening she walked the couple of miles towards the earthworks, pulled irresistibly through the dark. The going was difficult; muddy ruts were frozen solid and even by the light of the moon she couldn’t see where to put her feet. In flimsy shoes her ankles turned and the cold seeped into her feet. Wishing she’d at least put on a coat and better still some boots, Josie stopped to take stock, knowing she ought to turn round, go home and get warm.
A giggle made her start. She wasn’t alone. In the dark she couldn’t make out any shape that wasn’t a tree or a fence. Tentatively she called out ‘Who’s there?’
No reply. Too late she realised how vulnerable she was. Alone and half frozen in the darkness, she was a long way from home and no one had any idea where she was. Then she saw the lights; in her nervous state she thought they were lights on the Christmas tree, bobbing and dancing on the village green. But the cold reminded her where she was, and the lights were all around her. Another giggle, then a man’s laughter and the lights disappeared.
Her phone! She always had it with her. She’d ring for help. In her freezing hand the sparkly phone presented a link to reality, to warmth and safety. She pressed the button to make a call; no response, the battery was flat. Terror such as she’d never experienced before overwhelmed her. Too petrified to cry, too cold to move she sank to her knees clutching her arms around her shaking body.
On both her elbows she felt a hand, two hands she realised, lifting her up. There were clearly two people looking at her with consternation, but she couldn’t tell whether they were men or women, old or young, tall or short. ‘Thank you, who are you?’ She had to ask something. She heard a sigh by way of an answer and realised to her surprise that she was running across the field, no longer cold and frightened but exhilarated in the company of the people who seemed as nebulous as the chilly mist settling over the frozen, water-logged ground.
She was guided to a bank beside a row of yew trees. The lights flickered around the trees, danced around her. She could not tell where the lights began and the shadowy people ended; the two seemed to coalesce into pictures and shapes. She saw what she assumed were roundhouses, dwellings made of mud, smoke curling through a hole in the centre of the deep thatched roofs. As fast as the scene appeared it dissembled, vanishing with the smoke from the fires in the huts. From the mist writhing around her feet she realised other structures were forming: wooden framed, low roofed and as far as she could see no windows. There were lots of animals wandering around the houses: sheep, pigs, dogs and what she took to be an ox. The smell of livestock and wood fires made her eyes water. Josie rubbed her eyes and turned round to see the ruins of the church, ivy growing over the dilapidated walls and an elder tree thrusting through the remains of a round arch. She was aware of a funeral service being held, conscious of mourners shuffling past her, of a child crying, of a rough wooden coffin being carried from the church. She just remembered waking up in her own bed.
When Josie told me about this I was sceptical. ‘Ok, so how did you get home?’
‘I’ve no idea.’ She paused, looking out of the window as if she was expecting someone. ‘I suppose I must’ve walked, my shoes were wrecked, they went straight into the bin. I just remember waking up in my bed feeling warm and comfortable, and happier than I’ve been for a long time.’
‘Do you think you might need to talk to somebody about this?’
Josie laughed. ‘D’you mean a therapist? A doctor? A counsellor? The Rev Lisa? No, I know what I saw. The thing is, people have lived around here for thousands of years. Generations have come and gone, lived and died and left their mark. I was lucky to be there when the curtain between our world and theirs was briefly drawn back. I can’t explain it, maybe it was an hallucination caused by the cold and fear, I don’t know. But I do know I have this.’ She showed me a bone, bleached by years in the sun and smoothed by the passage of time. It was probably from a kid or a lamb. ‘I picked this up that night.’ She looked uncomfortable, her fingers playing with the bone, ‘I want to go back one night, look over the edge of time into the past. I wonder if…’
‘What do you wonder?’
‘Nothing… Let’s put the kettle on.’
It was midsummer before the police, forensic teams, rescue teams, dog handlers, even psychics, had left the area. No one could find any trace of Josie, she had simply vanished. I told them about the experience she had told me about, but no one took much notice of it. In fact one police officer suggested I should have a chat with my GP as the disappearance of my friend might have upset my understanding of reality!
The slow twilight of a summer’s evening lingered long after the sun had dipped below the western horizon. I parked my car in a layby near the ruined church and walked around the banks and fields surrounding it. A barn owl flew across the meadows, silently hunting for its supper, and a gentle breeze wafted through the tall grass of midsummer. On the bank by the line of yew trees I settled down to watch the evening close in around me. The yew trees behind me moved ever so slightly in the breeze, their dense branches rubbing together sounding like a footstep. Josie was standing beside me. I know it was her although I could not discern her features, even her shape. She was simply an ethereal presence in the dim light. I turned towards her and she was gone. The wind dropped completely, the grass unmoved in the now almost total darkness. I was aware for the first time of the moon, serene and full, lighting the way back to my car. I stood up to go and my eye was caught by something gleaming in the grass just where I had seen the apparition of Josie.
There, by my feet, was the desiccated animal bone that had enchanted her all those months ago. I picked it up and walked slowly back to the layby.