The clouds hid the moon. The only light in the garden came from the muted glow of the street lamps above and outside the high walls that enclosed the grounds. Their rays cast an eerie, pyrotechnical tinge on the tips of the Victorian iron spears that crowned the brickwork. A cool night breeze rustled the spring buds on the trees, and rattled the skeletons of the dead leaves deep in the undergrowth that had escaped the gardener’s rake.
Buildings loomed, a massive Gothic silhouette surrounded by rectangular blocks of ebony; black cut-outs in a world of grey shadows. Occasionally, a pencil-thin line of light glimmered from beneath a blind and at the end of long rows of gleaming blank panes, squares of soft amber shone in kitchens, bathrooms and ward offices, testimony to those who had to work through the hours of darkness.
A phantom rippled through the garden. Softly, stealthily, it floated within the shadows that fell from the trees and the encircling wall. Occasionally it paused, but always close to a tree, or in the shelter of bushes that masked its presence. Its spine was curved into a hunchback. The shade it cast, malformed, a swollen mass crowning gangly legs. It continued to drift, bush to bush, tree to tree and when it was motionless, there was a sense of ears and senses strained to their utmost.
A clock struck, its chimes crashing raucously, disturbing the rustles of field mice and voles. A barn owl swooped low, screeching when it missed its prey. A dog barked somewhere on the suburban estate outside the wall, that sprawled on what had, until recently, been hospital land.
A car engine roared on the road outside the wall followed by the siren of a police car. The phantom crouched in the undergrowth, waiting for the clamour to die. Later – much later – it inched forward, faltering on the outskirts of a patch of gleaming lawn. A low hillock of soil loomed to the left. In front of it, the lip of a puddle, blacker than any ink, wavered as wind blown trees swayed above it.
Hesitation, caution, then a quick scurrying movement. The hunchback stood poised. It leaned forward, bent double, and was hunchback no longer. It stood tall and broad on the skyline. The stencil of a shovel protruded from the mound of earth. The phantom stooped, took it, and began to transfer the earth from the hill into the pit, with steady, rhythmic movements.
Silver light bathed the scene in frigid wintry beauty when the moon edged out from behind soft, grey billowing clouds. The phantom worked faster, pausing only to pass its left arm across its brow. The mound began to diminish at the right-hand edge, and still the figure worked. Ever alert, ever watchful. Pausing between each load, listening and waiting.
The bottom of the pit was dark, damp, and colder than ice.
The air stank with the mouldy reek of rot and decay. A figure bound rigidly in a sheet, resembling more giant chrysalis than human, stared relentlessly upwards. Only its eyes remained within control. It was a strain to keep them unblinking and open, gazing at the oblong of textured blue night sky, misted by clouds and punctured by the pinpricks of a million tiny stars. In the left-hand corner shone a brilliant segment of silver light. Pitted and scarred it had to be the moon. To the left Orion shone down, recognised from schooldays and the one astronomy lesson that had graced the entire geography course.
Cold – and something else – paralysed. No matter how strenuously the brain willed limbs to move, they remained limp and leaden; log-like appendages to a lifeless body where only the mind roamed free, painfully and acutely alive. All strength and power that remained was focused, concentrated desperately, but in vain. The paralysis that reigned supreme denied the body even the dubious comfort of shivering.
The mind worked feverishly as the eyes stared upwards, collecting thoughts, arranging them in a logical, coherent order. The last memory was of walking from the consulting room to the gate. Feet sinking into fresh, glutinous tarmac; the smell had come too late to give warning. Newly laid, and softened by the spring sunshine, the sticky black substance had ruined brand new green leather shoes. But, as well as anger over the spoiled shoes, there had been exhilaration.
The final appointment had come and gone. The gate symbolised freedom. The walk ahead was towards liberty and independence. The depression that had resulted in incarceration, if not totally cured, could be dealt with while life was lived in the outside world.
Walking towards the gate – a shout – a cry… iron-tinged, icy darkness. Confinement by something other than paralysis and constricting cloth. Blazes of light, pinpricks that hurt overly sensitive skin, darkness… more darkness… then sky. Exquisitely beautiful, crystal-clear night sky.
A shower of earth fell, dry, dusty, powdery, rattling against the taut, drawn cloth. The sound triggered a single, devastating flash of realisation – and panic. Another shower came. There was a fierce struggle to force open glued lips, to formulate a scream; but the lips, gummed tightly shut, refused to obey, and no sound was born in the throat, not even a whimper.
The frantic effort, conceived in the mind, withered and died. Terror crawled, dry, insidious, and foul-tasting. Snakes of fear slithered from the spine, saturated with the certainty of impending death.
This pit had to be somewhere! Perhaps people were close by. People who couldn't see the hole, but would hear a cry.
Force, concentration – skin ripping noisily, agonisingly, from raw lips. The pain diminished with the realisation that the body had finally succeeded. The mouth opened. A large damp clod fell into it, weighing heavy on the tongue. There was no more thought of sounds, only a frenzied struggle to draw breath. Tongue and teeth heaving to spit out chunks of earth. Lungs burning, bursting, with the need for air. But dirt lay crushing, choking, against the back of the throat.
Had to remain calm – had to fight – stay calm – live. Hysteria subsided as air inflated scorching lungs: air that travelled in through the dirt beginning to pack the nostrils. Another shower of fine dust was followed by yet more moisture-laden clods, they blanketed one eye, stinging, searing – filled the nose – dry – suffocating…
Someone would come. They had to. If only they would hurry. There was no air, no breath… couldn’t breathe… couldn’t…
Then a silhouette. Tall, wide, wielding a spade, it blocked out the light and the stars. Blackness hovered in the pit, darker than any night; its depths wavering with a rich red glow, smouldering with an intensity that scoured ineffective lungs.
The figure moved back. Another shower followed – and another – and another –
For the first time since that walk along the newly tarmacked path, there came warmth. Warmth and comfort. There was no more fight for air – for anything. Only a quiet drifting. Floating on a soft grey cloud of down that gently caressed and enveloped. Carrying the whole body downwards into deep, relaxing sleep.
The spade once again stood upright in the earth. The mound had lessened but not so much that a careless glance would notice, particularly the glance of a disinterested trainee. A few scuffs of the shoe, a few pats to loosen and spread the drier topsoil over what was left of the mound. One more studied glance down into the pit. There was only darkness, stillness and silence. No gleam of white betrayed the sheet that lay hidden beneath the earth.
The phantom flowed back towards the trees. A triangle of light shone briefly across the lawn, dimming when the door that had been opened closed in a room in the nearest block. Its glow had burned only for an instant, but it had been long enough to outline the figure of a woman. A woman who stood stiff and straight, hands planted on the glass pane before her, one on either side of her head. The phantom in the garden looked up, and saw.
As did the woman. And even when the light faded behind her, the white lace nightgown could still be seen by someone who knew she was there.
An unseen hand pulled down the blind. It was easy to imagine the nurse gently leading the protesting patient back to bed. A patient who had seen – how much? All? Enough to talk? Enough to – the phantom smiled as it once again retreated into the shadows. Who would believe the woman? Or any other patient who reported seeing strange happenings in the night.
Psychiatric nurses and doctors were obliged to listen to their patients. They were paid to. But sooner or later they learned to ignore the inmates. Patients who resided in Compton Castle frequently had difficulty in distinguishing between reality and fantasy.
Even if that particular woman hadn't claimed to have seen visions and apparitions before, there was always a first time. After all, she was mad. And who'd believe anything that a mad woman had to say?