A Welsh Horror Story
My niece Alison was always a strange girl. My brother, before he died, called her otherworldly, and when he’d gone, I felt a responsibility for her. She had too many tragedies too young — losing her mother and now her father at such an age. My wife, Laura, felt sorry for her but never actually liked her — even when she was tiny. She said there was something about Alison that unnerved her, though she could never explain exactly why.
Alison and I always got along well, though. We were both into spiritual things, and I used to take her to the Buddhist place up past Langholm on meditation courses. We even went to the spiritualist church four or five times. She got messages from the dead, but I didn’t. All that stuff used to drive Laura nuts. She used to say, ‘I don’t even know why you go,’ and I’d reply, ‘Because I want to know the answer.’
‘The answer to what?’
I knew she’d think me stupid, but I said, ‘The answer to what happens after you die.’
Laura just rolled her eyes and told me it was tea-time.
The years rolled on. Against my better judgment, Alison went a long way away to University. I wasn’t sure she was emotionally tough enough to go where she knew no one, but she insisted. She went to study Fine Art at Aberystwyth, and I heard nothing from her until the end of October just before Halloween.
The phone call came late at night — just before midnight. I was up reading. Phones that ring in the middle of the night usually bring bad news, so I was relieved when Alison said, “It’s me, Uncle David.”
Her voice sounded very distant. She wished me a belated happy birthday and apologised for not sending a card. Her problem was that she was moving from the town to a farmhouse she had rented, and she had no car; would I come and help her move?
It was about two hundred miles away and a difficult time of year but, as I said, we had always got on. I arranged to travel down the last week in October. Laura wasn’t happy. I asked her whether she wanted to come down with me — joking that maybe we could have a rainy break in Wales.
She said, “We live in Cumbria, David. We have sheep, mountains, lakes and rain here. Why would I want to go to Wales?”
I set off on 30th October from Penrith. I have a big estate car, and I took very little so there would be more room for Alison’s things. I drove down the M6. The rain on the motorway was terrible — large trucks spraying water across my windscreen. My only comfort when overtaking blind was that I was relatively sure there wouldn’t be any traffic coming towards me.
I stopped for a sandwich near Manchester. Just short of an hour after that, I crossed the border, passing the Welcome to Wales sign and heading down through Mid Wales to Llanidloes. Quick to describe but long to drive in the unfriendly weather.
The landscape all around was a washed-out green. I drove past woods stripped bare by the oncoming winter. Small towns sped past. Having my foot always on the accelerator gave me cramp. I found somewhere to park, got out, stretched and strolled over to get an organic coffee and some hummus on toast in the Great Oak Café, which was the only place open.
And after that, going through the Cambrian Mountains the weather was appalling — worse than it had been. I feared the mountain streams tumbling down the hillsides would break their banks and wash away the road. I was prepared at any time to run into floods as I headed west along the A44. My windscreen wipers could hardly keep the rain off. Not surprisingly, there was little traffic.
The day was dark, and the light faded early. Soon, all I had was the sinuous road snaking through the bare hills, cats-eyes in the road glinting with my reflected headlights, asphalt shining in the rain. Occasionally another vehicle came in the opposite direction. But they were few and far between.
After what seemed a long time peering forward into the receding dark, I reached the Nant yr Arian forest centre and found it was closed for the winter break. There being nowhere else to stop, I went on and began to descend gradually towards to coast.
I had Alison’s address, and I had written out rudimentary directions from the map I studied before I set off. We didn’t have Google Maps in those days. It was very remote. Basically, I had to go all the way into Aberystwyth and then back up into the mountains. It would have been shorter as the crow flew from where I was, but there were no crows flying that night.
I arrived at Aberystwyth quickly enough on the main carriageway and made my way slightly north to Penrhyncoch. Then I got lost. The roads were tiny from here, the landscape dark and unbothered by lights. As I peered through the darkness, it seemed there were no people about at all.
I got onto a narrow mountain track. The wind blew wildly, juddering the car, and I worried I would get swept off into some dark ravine. Where there were signs, the names were strange to me — the Welsh words danced before my eyes as I stopped and strained to read them in the headlights. At one point, I came across some sheep sheltering behind a stone wall. I was glad I was not them.
I turned a corner, and the road pitched steeply down. Before I knew it, I ran into a flood. In a moment’s panic, I thought it would mount up and drown the engine, but the car spluttered and ploughed through. I imagined breaking down in that place and wished I had had the vehicle serviced as it should have been.
Then the road climbed again. It was a single track with grass growing in the middle, grass blasted and bent by the wind and rain, but managing somehow to survive in that wild, empty place. The single track split. Going off to the right was a stony trail, hardly fit for motor vehicles. But a wooden sign said Pant y Garreg Hir. That was Alison’s house. Taking a minute to steel myself, but realising I had no option for I didn’t relish retracing my steps; I turned the wheel and attacked the slope. The wet stones slipped and jumped under my wheels, the engine roared, but I wasn’t getting anywhere, and then suddenly there was traction. The car sped up the incline and then down into a depression — ahead of me, I could see the cold, wet shape of a dark house.
There were no lights on. I looked at my watch and saw it was 9:20 pm. The journey from Aberystwyth had taken hours. My phone had no signal. I was hungry and disappointed that Alison wasn’t home. I opened the car, and the elements swept in — threatening to tear off the door and blowing the cold and rain in with me. I closed the car door behind me and walked up to the front door. The house was obviously empty, but I knocked anyway. I even knocked twice, but there was no reply. On the glass in the door was a sticker, like a car bumper sticker, that said: “Witches do it on Broomsticks.”
I shone the torch I’d taken from my car into the window. Through the window, I saw the kitchen had a table and some chairs. Otherwise, the place looked like a house that was awaiting a new tenant. I could see a card on the table that I could partially read and then guess enough of the rest to work out it said, “Welcome to Your New Home”.
The wind got wilder. I went back to the car and waited. And I lingered, and no one came, and I knew that in that weather no one was going to appear. I half decided to go back to Aberystwyth then I imagined the roads even more flooded than before, the full wild streams, the endless buffeting wind. It was stupid to take the risk in the dark. I huddled in my car. Unexpectedly, I slept.
In the middle of the night, something rapped at my car window.
I woke in sheer terror, my heart hammering. I slapped down the door locks and peered out. It was still raining, and I could hardly see; the windows streaming outside and misted with condensation inside. Looking at my watch, I saw it was 2 am. I wondered if a neighbour had seen my car, and come to check what I was doing there. But I’d not seen any houses nearby and who would go walking at that time, in that weather?
Then I wondered maybe it was a branch, broken and blown from the trees that clustered around the house. That must have been it. Ridiculously, I wanted to leave right then. I was frightened of the wind. My rational brain told me not to be stupid. It told me to wait for Alison, or morning — whichever came first.
I slept again, and I woke to a grey morning. Not raining but with broken clouds streaming from the sea to the west. I got out of the car and stretched. The wind, though weaker, still took my breath away. I looked around for any broken branch that might have stuck my window but could see no obvious candidate. Then I went up to the house again. It was unchanged. The card still sat on the table in the otherwise empty kitchen. I walked around the back, and for the first time, I noticed an ancient-looking standing stone. I guessed it was something from the Bronze Age or earlier. I rubbed my fingers along it, but it was featureless rough stone. Its only decorations were small growths of moss in indentations and grooves.
I then walked out of the depression where the house lay to get a better view of the barren hills that stretched all around. They inclined higher behind and dipped lower towards the coastal strip. A few farmhouses dotted the moors far and away with odd stands of trees, but otherwise, the landscape was empty. I was starving hungry, and I had no phone signal — neither was there any sign of Alison, so I decided to head back into Aberystwyth.
The town was pleasant — by the sea — full of students. I had my brunch at a beautiful pizza place where they hand made the dough in front of me. I washed the vegetarian pizza down with elderflower cordial. The shops and cafes were festooned with the usual Halloween stuff; pumpkin lanterns in the windows, cut-outs of witches and spooks in coloured paper on the doors. The bookshop had a section on local Welsh folklore and Halloween customs.
I should’ve liked to have a more extended look around the town — at the Castle and the Old College — but the rain started up again. The wind whipped the tops off the waves and drenched me in saltwater, making me hurry indoors. Not wishing to go back to that bleak house just yet, I spent some time in one of the bookshops, then in a café, rang Laura and told her about my adventure.
“Well, where is she?” she said.
“I don’t know. Alison doesn’t have a mobile phone, so I was counting on meeting her there.” I grimaced. “I’m sure she’ll turn up. I’m going to head on back up there soon, after taking the precaution of booking a B&B for tonight here in town.”
“Take care and hurry home soon. The silly girl doesn’t deserve your help”.
“Aww, come on, Laura. You know I’m all she’s got.”
She could never forgive Alison. “She’s got no sense of responsibility.”
I sighed. “I’ll be back home tomorrow, whatever happens.”
“Love you, David, hurry home.”
When I got back to Pant y Garreg Hir, there was a removal van parked outside. Three men sat in the cab at the front — one of them reading a paper. They didn’t open the window immediately. I tapped on it. One of them wound it down and said, “Yes?”
I wondered what he thought I was doing there, but I asked him if they had furniture for Alison Bragg.
“Are you her dad?” he said.
I shook my head. “Uncle.”
“Well, we’ve got her stuff. But she was supposed to be here. We have waited, but it’s a good job you turned up, or we would have just unloaded it.”
The men got out of the van, and two of them opened up the back. They spoke to each other in Welsh. The leader came with me and said, “You got a key?”
Again I shook my head. “I was expecting to meet her here. She said she wanted me to help move her stuff. But she obviously hired you too.”
“Yes, we went to her old place, and her landlord opened it up. I know him anyway — Euros Morris; went to school with him.”
“But how will we get in?”
He tapped his nose then went over to the plastic rubbish bin to the left of the front door and pulled it off the flat slate it rested on. He lifted the stone and picked up a door key. “People always leave them in places like this.”
“I must admit I’m beginning to get a bit worried about where she is,” I said.
He laughed and opened the door. “You go first in case she’s dead in there!” Then he looked serious like he might have offended me, and said, “No offence.”
I stepped into the quiet house. It was cold and felt damp. If she had been here at all, it hadn’t been for long. Behind me, the men started to bring Alison’s furniture in.
“Where do you want it?” They asked.
“I don’t know. Wherever there’s space.”
“We’ll put the bedroom things in the bedrooms, the bathroom things in the bathroom. You get the idea,” said the leader.
The day was darkening already. As I stepped inside, I switched on the light. It was a gloomy 60-watt bulb, but at least there was electricity. I saw there was an open hearth and beside it some chopped logs, matches and kindling wood. I knelt down and began to make a fire. Soon it was roaring and filling the kitchen with warmth.
“It’s a spooky old place,” said the removal man. “Have you seen the standing stone in the garden?”
“That’s what the name means — Pant y Garreg Hir — ‘Hollow of the Standing Stone.’ I wouldn’t like to stay the night here. Just saying. On Halloween too!”
“Thanks,” I grinned trying to be light-hearted.
“And you’ve got your own well too. But you have to be careful with the water up here — there’s lots of old lead spoil around from the mines. Best stick to the tap.”
“Thanks for that advice,” I said.
“Well, we’re about done now.” He reached out to shake my hand. “Geraint Jenkins by the way. Removals. If you ever need anything shifted.”
“I’m not from round here. I live up in Cumbria.”
“Just rain and sheep and hills up there from what I’ve heard,” said Geraint smiling.
I grinned back. “That’s about right.”
He paused. It took me an instant to realise what he wanted. “How much was it again?” I said.
“We agreed £150, the girl and me.”
Embarrassed, I reached for my wallet. “I don’t have that much cash on me.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll take a cheque. You seem an honest man.”
He waited while I wrote out a cheque.
“I can see why she hasn’t turned up now,” he laughed.
I was puzzled.
“So’s you’d pay, good boy! Don’t worry; I’m sure she’ll be back soon.”
Then they drove away, leaving me to the wind and the old house.
But she wasn’t back soon. Alison had clearly been in the house because there was some food in the cupboards, and one bed had a duvet and pillows on it. There was enough wood to stoke the fire to keep me warm while I made a rudimentary meal out of some pasta and a can of tomatoes with herbs. I had brought a book with me, and I sat by the fire reading until I felt my eyes beginning to close. It wasn’t late, but I was tired.
I woke later. It was dark. Still, Alison wasn’t back. I considered driving down to Aberystwyth to the B&B, but the weather had closed in again, and the trees thrashed like crazy things in the wind and rain. The wind whistled around the house, and it felt like the roof might lift off. I couldn’t face the journey on those dark windswept roads, but I couldn’t phone the B&B to cancel. I would just pay tomorrow and apologise about not letting them know.
I got ready to go to bed. I pulled the iron fireguard around the dying fire and made my way up the slate stairs to the bedroom. I went into the room that had the duvet. I guessed it was Alison’s room, but she wasn’t here, and there were no bedclothes in the other bedroom. The room was cold, and I took off my shoes but slept in my shirt and pullover. I lay there for a long time listening to the storm outside and thinking how far I was from anyone who knew me, and how distant I was from anyone who could help. But then I wondered what I needed help for.
I had an awful dream. As I lay there in the bed, I dreamed that I heard someone coming up the stairs. In my nightmare, the door was pushed open. I sat up in fear and silhouetted against the open door; I saw a young woman. She was dripping wet.
“Alison!” I shouted in my dream.
“Hello, Uncle David,” she said. “I’m glad you’ve come.”
“Alison — have you been out in the rain?”
She ignored my question and instead came walking towards me. The water dripped from her. She was so cold and white. I pressed my back against the headboard, but she kept on coming. And when she was close, she leaned into me. I felt the water dripping off her hair onto my face. She came close to my ear and whispered. “Uncle, do you want to know a secret?”
And I knew it was the secret of what happens after you die.
When I woke, all I could hear was the wind howling outside, knocking the window, threatening to break in. I got up and went and pushed a chair against the door. I know it was irrational.
I went back to bed and lay there trying to sleep, but the cold terror of nightmare still lay heavy like bitter liquor in my veins. The dawn seemed a long time away.
Minutes ticked by, maybe hours while the dark lay heavy on the house. I don’t know what time it was. Not yet dawn.
And then, as I lay there, I heard someone downstairs.
I leapt out of bed, my breath coming in gasps while I went to listen at the door, holding the chair ready to stop anyone coming into the room. Someone was moving down there.
As I listened, not daring to breathe, I heard them mount the stairs.
Whoever it was, came up a step at a time, slowly, slowly, but not pausing. Inexorable. Like they couldn’t be stopped.
The wind howled outside, my heart thumped in my throat as I listened to the sound of those cold dragging footsteps.
There was nothing in that house. Nothing at all. There was no reason for the footsteps to come upstairs, except for me.
I thought of opening the door and challenging whoever it was. I thought of going out, brandishing the chair in front of me.
But I didn’t. Fear held me fast.
And then whoever it was, whatever it was, stopped outside the door. My skin prickled and I dared not breathe. I just stood, hearing the silence of someone waiting.
My hands shook. I put all my weight on the wedged chair so they couldn’t open the door. But still, I heard nothing. And then I told myself I’d imagined the whole thing: imagined the sound of someone climbing the stairs; imagined those slow dragging footsteps.
I told myself that it was only the wind; that it was only the creaking of an old Welsh house. I told myself it was only imagination. I convinced myself there was no one out there.
No one waiting.
No one standing behind the door.
No one at all.
Only the sound of the wind scouring the empty moors.
There could be no one there. I had the house key. The only key. Unless Alison had hidden a second key as casually as the first. A key easy for anyone to find. Easy for anyone to pick up, unlock the door, and come in.
I knew I should open the door from my room. I would open the door just to calm my nerves, see no one. Then I would sleep until the morning. I would drive to Aberystwyth, go to the Police and report Alison as a missing person. And so, I finally convinced myself and kicked the door of my room wide open.
There was no one.
At first, I was relieved. I laughed at my stupidity, my voice echoing in the empty house.
And then I stopped laughing.
Soaking wet footprints led down the stairs into the kitchen. I pushed the door suddenly closed and lodged the chair hard against it. I shoved my back to the door, panicking, my eyes wide with fear. I looked around the room, looking for I don’t know what. As if by opening it the door, I had let something in — something invisible. Something that would lurk in the shadows, waiting for me to sleep.
Of course, I couldn’t sleep. Not even when the dawn light made everything visible and ordinary: the dusty pictures of old women in Welsh stove-pipe hats on the walls, the rumpled duvet on the bed — my discarded book.
Before it was properly day, I hurried out to the car and drove down to Aberystwyth. As I drove away from Pant y Garreg Hir, I did not look in the mirror.
I found the Police Station. There I filed a missing person’s report. The sergeant wanted to accompany me back to Pant y Garreg Hir. He said, “My grandparents lived in Cwmsymlog nearby. I’ve never been in that house. It’s supposed to be haunted by a girl who drowned in the well. I always wanted a nosey inside,” he laughed.
I put my hand to my throat. “I don’t really want to go back there.”
“It’s up to you, but I could do with getting some of her things — for the dogs if we do a search.”
And so out of obligation, I agreed to go back to the house with him. And I thought — at least he had his radio. The journey up in the Police 4x4 was more comfortable. We got out of the car, outside the house. “I haven’t been up here for years,” he said. “It’s a bleak place. Hardly anyone lives in these hills anymore: just hippies and mad old farmers too crazy to give up.”
He wandered around the back to look at the standing stone. He tapped it and strolled over to a circle of stone mostly overgrown with bleached mountain grass. “And here,” he said, “is the well.”
I didn’t go over. I just stood there while the policeman looked down.
I saw it on his face before he spoke. He came and took my arm and led me to the car. Then he spoke into the police radio rapidly in Welsh. He turned to me. “I’m really sorry.”
“She’s in there?”
Alison was found drowned in the well. At the inquest, the Coroner recorded a verdict of misadventure, but the papers said she’d killed herself.
Most of the time, I am all right. I sleep moderately well when I forget about those footsteps. But sometimes I lie awake while Laura sleeps. I’m too frightened to close my eyes in case I hear Alison coming up the stairs, coming to tell me what I’ve always wanted to know.
What she promised to tell me in my dream: the secret of what happens when you die.