Taking The Red Way

You may be interested to learn that I’ve been working on a project over the last couple of years: an MA in creative writing with the OU. For my final assignment, I’ve drawn together some of the material from the experiences I’ve talked about here, and have a written a collection of short stories about the darker side of Milton Keynes. I’m currently working on publishing these but in the meantime, here’s an except from ‘The Abbey Bones’ …

The late October wind caught the boys in its teeth as they left the main path and crossed the muddy track to where the abbey grounds began. A handful of leaves skirled past until the breeze dropped them into one of the many deep puddles that lay ahead. Justin had tried to follow Damon’s advice of wearing only dark clothes so they would blend into the shadows better but his wardrobe of horror t-shirts and jeans didn’t offer much in the way of protection against the elements. He’d managed to find a long-sleeved hoodie printed with a picture of the dark-haired ghost from The Ring, and a pair of artfully tattered black combat trousers, but the cold bit straight through them and he was soon shivering. Damon’s fleece with its capacious pockets and deep hood was much more appropriate. A sudden barrage of early fireworks on the other side of town stitched bright lines up into a starless sky before fading to sparks and echoes. Damon rummaged in his pockets and brought out the torch he used to take exploring, thumbing the switch to turn on a muted red glow. Red light was harder to see from a distance and helped to conserve your night vision, making it easier to see in low light. The dim beam turned the puddles into bottomless crimson pools that started to shimmer as drizzle thickened into rain.

“How much further?” Damon whispered.

“Not far. We carry on along here for a bit, and then there’s a gate just up ahead – “

They both froze as a low moan rolled out of the darkness ahead of them, sounding anguished and urgent. Damon swallowed hard, and swung the torch around to try and see where it was coming from, but they still had the track to themselves. The noise swelled louder before fading away, leaving only the rushing of the wind through the trees and the pounding of their hearts. 

“What the hell was that?!” 

Justin shook his head, his eyes wide and startled. “Search me. Perhaps it was the monk. It did sound a bit – well – hungry, didn’t it?” 

“Cut that out! What was it?!”

“I told you. No idea. The last time I was here we were on a trip with primary school, you’re the one who likes to go wandering around in the dark.” 

“If you’ve set something up to freak me out – “

“Like what?!” 

“I don’t know! But seriously, Justin, if you’ve got one of the lads from school to hide out here and prank me, I’m never talking to you again.” 

“As if I’d ask any of those wankers to do that! Trust me, D – that was nothing to do with me.” 

Damon hadn’t thought it was very likely, but at that moment he would have preferred being the target of a practical joke to being stuck out here in the dark with something that could make that sort of sound. 

“Fine, fine. I believe you. Come on, let’s get this over with…”

They walked in silence up to the gate, glancing nervously into the thick shadows the torch threw alongside the track. Damon had hoped to find the way ahead blocked by a locked gate too tall for them to scale so he could head home with some pride intact, but the gate they found was low, wooden and swung open easily when he pushed at the latch. It opened onto a gravel path that curved away into the darkness. Justin nodded. 

“Yeah, this is right. Mind out – there’s a bit of a drop off to your left where the priory used to be. They’ve built up this path so you can get a good view of the old foundations – well, in the daytime…” He trailed off as the moaning swelled again, closer this time. Damon held the light up higher and could just see the bulk of the chapel up ahead but still couldn’t see anyone who could be making such a noise. This time, Justin jogged past him in the direction of the sound, and he reluctantly followed along. As they got closer to the chapel, Damon could make out the scaffolding that bristled from the old walls, clad with tattered tarpaulin coverings that caught the wind and billowed as though the building itself was breathing. The moan grew to an almost deafening volume, but it still wasn’t loud enough to cover the sound of Justin giggling. 

“So much for the Black Monk,“ he gasped. “It’s just the wind in those sheets. Look!” 

He was right. As soon as the wind dropped and the protective shroud fell back against the chapel walls, the moaning faded away. Another strong gust, and it started up again. Damon could feel himself blushing and was glad of the red light.

“Really!? That’s all?!” 

“Yeah. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone!” Justin’s laughter was tinged with hysterical relief, and Damon was tempted to point out that they’d both been equally spooked when they’d heard it out on the track, but decided it was best to let it drop. He was supposed to be cool with this, after all. He shook his head in mock resignation and joined in with a half-hearted laugh of his own.

“Yeah, yeah, very funny. So, are we going to have a look inside or not?” 

The main door to the chapel had long been sealed shut, and although the boards were old and the nails rusty, it was too solid for them to pry even a corner loose. Undeterred, they slipped inside the tarps to look for an easier way in. They found themselves in a damp no-mans land formed between the chapel walls and flapping covers, filled with the echoing tapping of the falling rain. Damon thought there was something oddly familiar about the noise of the rain mixed with the scent of crushed grass underfoot, and realised he was thinking back to family camping holidays. The memory of summers gone by felt incongruously cosy in this dark place. The chapel windows were tall and narrow, with leaded panes and wooden frames set deep into the brick. Unlike the door, no-one had taken the time to protect these, with vandalism and neglect taking their toll. Many of the panes were cracked, and several were actually shattered. They skirted the chapel until they found one where the broken pane was close to the ground, and decided this was the best way to try to get inside. Damon was back on familiar ground now, and the memories of those late-night Norfolk explorations came back with a rush. He boosted himself easily onto the window ledge, rummaged again in his pockets and found a pair of pliers to pry the shards from the rotten frame. Once he had made a reasonably sized gap, he swung his legs over and dropped down inside, remembering to brace against the possibility of a hard landing. He got lucky, landing on a wooden floor with a hollow, echoing thump. He called out to Justin: 

“It’s fine in here, come on in!” 

Justin scrambled to follow him, landing safely but without grace. Damon switched the torch into its floodlight mode and wedged it on the window ledge. Bright as it was, it could only light up the part where they were standing, leaving the far corners thick with shadow. The main body of the chapel was a single tall space, long since cleared of any furniture. Their footsteps echoed in the bare space as they looked around. Regularly spaced dark patches on the wooden floor showed where the pews used to stand, all angled towards a stained glass window in the far wall. It might have been beautiful in daylight but the shrouding outside robbed it of any colour. Justin pulled out his phone and started taking pictures, occasional bursts from his flash turning the unbroken window panes into silvery mirrors. Damon tried to imagine what it must have been like before it fell into disrepair, picturing cowled monks shuffling in to prayer. The windblown leaves from uncountable autumns had piled up in shadowy corners, and the rafters were thick with dusty cobwebs that swayed and shivered up above. Rainwater had pooled underneath the broken windows and dripped down from the ceiling, and the space smelled of dead leaves with an undercurrent of rotting wood. Damon wrinkled his nose at the stale smell, the trademark scent of somewhere long neglected. None of this was new to him, but Justin seemed fascinated by every derelict detail. He poked at curls of paint that were peeling off the rough walls, sending a shower of grey flakes down to the floor. 

“This is so cool! I can’t believe we’re actually in here!” He prowled further into the far shadows and beamed the phone’s dim screen light into the corners. He called back to Damon: 

“Hey! There’s a door back here!” 

Damon grabbed the torch, making the shadows bounce and dance. Justin was right, a plain wooden door was set in the back wall. 

“That must be the way down to the crypt… shall we?” 

To be continued… 

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