Colin Alcock

It's not just the books.

SHORT STORIES • POETRY & RHYME • FLASH FICTION • PHOTOS • VIDEOS • LINKS TO NOVELS

No personal information is recorded from this website, but Google Analytics will record your visit. Only quantitive and location information is viewed and data is automatically deleted after 14 months

Privacy

JUST ME

Jack of all trades, master of some. That's my own assessment of a life where I've tried many things, done well in a few, failed in a few, but generally kept my head above water in this fast flowing river of life.

Now, I'm in calmer waters, having joined that band of retirees who can choose when to get up in the morning. Most days, anyway.

This website showcases some of my writing and some of my images and is a fluid selection, changed at the occasional whim to provide new works or older, but previously unseen material.

So, more may be added, a few items may disappear and maybe the style will change as it grows organically; for that's the serendipitous way I tend to do things.

I hope you enjoy what you find.

As for my background, click the button below for a brief resumé.

Stacks Image 65
Paul Hewitt believed he had found the perfect partner in Giules Franciotti, unaware of the missions that she and her feisty sister, Maria, kept secret from him - until he, too, was drawn into one, with a disastrous result.

As a consequence, all three lives are threatened before a disastrous finale exposes the truth.

A dark plot, but a light read.
Stacks Image 67
When Anne Grant invited her son to a Christmas Lunch at Arden Ash, without telling Edna Gray, all she had intended was to show an independence of spirit and less need for the constant guidance offered by her self-appointed mentor.

She didn’t expect the kind of interest his introduction would arouse – or that a train of events among her new acquaintances would lead to such tragic consequences.

For those who like a good page-turner.
Stacks Image 69
Some see the dandelion as an evil weed, others recall the beauty of a wildflower spread across a sunlit field.

Whichever your point of view, this compilation provides a varied collection of prose, poetry and rhyme to match many a mood.

A book that you can dip into at random.

What's new this month?

A longish short story just right for reading at
HALLOWEEN.

(Click here) to read "Alfred's Well" or download a PDF.

Plus flash fiction new to this website.
(Click here)

Autumn manger

Autumn manger

Stacks Image 114
The Spider Man – Now Published

Can you guess what drives The Spider Man? What atrocity will he perpetrate next? And will he ever be caught?

Will an innocent teenage girl be found in time and returned to her distraught parents.

If you don't read the book, you'll never find out!

But beware! If you're scared of spiders, you won't want to read this tale, just before bedtime.


This new novel is now available from Amazon in Paperback and Kindle eBook.

The Clock Ticks

The clock ticks away on the mantelpiece.

But in the womb, I don’t hear the ticks of each second that lead to birth and new life.

Then, through the years every tick beats a second closer to understanding, to maturity, to achievement, living the life I choose: through joy, through heartache, the gains and losses of a life well lived. But still looking for understanding.

Every second is savoured through children, through grandchildren; through colleagues and friends, through city life, through countryside, through nature: the whole panorama of existence.

And still, I don’t understand why.

Every second the clock ticks, I am wiser, but no wiser.

Every second the clock ticks, a second closer to death.

And I reflect on the high points of my life. And the low.

Until the clock stops. For me. But still ticks away on the mantelpiece.

Alfred
Download PDF of "Alfred's Well" (ZIP)
0
   Download EPUB of "Alfred's Well"  
0

Alfred’s Well

As I hoed around the old rose bed, the soil moved. Not where I was hoeing, but rippling beneath my feet. I stood back and the trickle of soil followed me, so I stepped forward over the widening bowl of shifting earth, turned and knelt down to take a closer look. Where I’d uprooted a couple of old roses that had both looked dead to me, I could see the movement gaining pace.

The cottage I had bought and moved into just a two months ago, was old, bow walled and in need of much care and attention. That was the beauty of it. I had already started on a few urgent repairs, but the main restoration was still to come. This was to be a dream cottage that would be a dream to live in. The garden was overgrown and I’d scythed much of the long grass and weeds, but I was keen to preserve some decent looking, country garden roses, perennials and shrubby plants. Hence the hoeing around the base of the roses, tracing out the pattern of a pentagram as I reached the borders of the bed in which they’d been planted.

It was just a little off-centre where the dry, grainy, soil was now disappearing down a small, but widening hole. A whiff of stale, foetid air assaulted my nose. I must have disturbed something there that had been previously blocked in, but was it just something that had rotted away or was there a small void beneath where I had been standing. When I later found out the truth of it, I shivered. Any carelessness could have been the death of me.
Expecting the soil to resettle, I gathered up the weeds, old plants and roots I’d chopped from the ground and tossed them on to the barrow, before carting them off to the far corner of the garden, beyond its small, mixed fruit, orchard, where I had temporarily piled an assortment of rubbish from my workings on the cottage and its unkempt plot. My first aim was to clear a decent area for establishing a new lawn, a couple of herbaceous borders, for next year, and a small plot for winter vegetables.

Returning to the rose bed, I immediately saw that the small hole had now become two bricks wide and gaped a black smile at me, urging me to take a look. I fetched a spade from the shiplap timber garage that came with the property, which stood slightly apart from it at the end of a short, green-weed and buff-gravel drive that crunched under my wellie clad feet. Treading carefully, my first thought was to level the soil and fill the hole. So, I drew earth across to fill the mouth of the gaping fissure, which greedily sucked it down with an ever-widening smile. This needed a different approach. I then stood on the other side of the rose bed and drove the spade in near the centre, thinking to get a good spade full and throw it forward, but it struck something hard a little over half a spit down. I explored.

Scraping back the earth revealed a flat stone that extended back under my feet. Lifting off a full layer of soil showed it to be of pentagonal shape, about a metre across, faintly inscribed, and aligned in opposition to the points of the star polygon border. Carefully pushing away soil from around the edges I could see that it sat on old brickwork, which had become frost damaged after an exceptionally hard winter. Two bricks had been knocked backwards by the rough actions of my rooting and hoeing. Time for a torch, so back into the kitchen, where I picked up one of three placed handily around the cottage: power cuts were likely, whenever there was stormy weather.

Peering into the void left by the departing soil, I could see that within the pentagonal rim of the edges, the bricks funnelled shallowly into a circular shaft, into which the loosened material had slithered down. What could be down there? Was it a well? Or an old ventilation shaft from a mine or a tunnel? There was certainly no mention of wells or mines in the sales particulars or the deeds and the nearest railway line and canal were both over two miles away. What’s more, the cottage was near the top of a steep hill. Beautiful panoramic views, but hardly a place to find much water. The stone lid had to come off, for me to discover more.

It was heavy. Very heavy. I could have done with some assistance, but with several attempts and by lifting an edge and shuffling it to one side it cleared the shaft far enough that I could peer down. After about ten feet of meticulously laid brick, all quickly faded to a deep black. I shone the torch down – it was my most powerful one ¬– to see more neat layers of perfect brickwork and still the dark persisted deep down. I picked up a half-hand sized stone and dropped it down, counting the seconds to the splash of water or the dull thud of earth. Nothing. If this was a well it was, indeed, deep and dry; perhaps just muddy at the bottom, or why no sound? And why, after a winter of heavy snow and rain followed by a wet summer, until the last baking month or so, would it be dry? Perhaps the stone lid would give a clue.

I laughed in disbelief when, using an old scrubbing brush, I finally swept away the grime of years to reveal the inscription, still faint in the flat light of day, but clearly once sharply chiselled in. It was difficult to read, in an ancient hand, all long tailed ‘s’ and ‘f’ characters and other curlicues that obscured the flow of small, if precise, text. It read “
Beware! Here lie the lost souls and evils of this parish, exorcised by the V. Rev. Wilfred Huffton on the 30th Day of October in the Year of Our Lord 1334.” There were more words inscribed around the deep outside edge: “May this this stone forever trap all evil in the inglorious bowels of Mother Earth and a curse on any man who ventures to remove it.

I suppose, at the time, I did wonder about the curse bit, but as I didn’t fall down dead within the next thirty minutes, it slipped from my mind. I’d partially removed the stone and it was too late to do much about it – and I certainly did not have enough energy left to slide it back across. Not without help. I took another look into the void before going indoors, noticing that there was a slight updraft of stale air, slightly sulphurous and warmer than the air around me.
That night the power failed. Not for the first time. I’d been warned and I’d resolved to have a word with the power company before winter, to see if something could be done. Usually it came back on after forty minutes to an hour, I’d been told, but this time it stayed off all night. A dark, moonless night, stars shrouded by dense cloud.

A mid-morning call to the utility distributor told me that there had been no reports from the village below nor any of the three properties on the hill, just below mine, and suggested I call an electrician to check my own wiring. I did that myself; I had the skills, and found nothing wrong in the house, but outside, where the cable entered the cottage, it had come adrift. Back to the power company, who sent an engineer – eventually. I resolved to get a generator, before winter set in.

It was a dry, crisp, day and, since I couldn’t use any power tools until the mains cable was re-attached, I decided to fix those bricks at the well top, so that I could slide the stone back for safety. Later, I would build a raised, wishing well, feature at the centre of the rose bed. But, the first of those two tasks had already been done. Had I dreamt removing it? No: you could see the scrape marks in the soil to where I slid it, the re-centred top was still brushed clean and the inscription seemed even more legible, more forbidding, in the bright sunlight. Soil was drawn up close to the rim, where it had been escaping, with no sign of loss down the void below. Now this was no child’s prank, the stone was too heavy for a youngster, or even two or three of them, to move without adult help. The surrounding soil was as I’d left it: well hoed. And, when I looked around the patch, I could see no boot-marks that weren’t mine.
I was perplexed. There’d been no storm in the night, no earth tremors to shake and slide the stone pentagon back over the well and though the slight slope of loose soil might just allow gravity to slowly shift it downwards, how come it had ended up so perfectly positioned over the wellhead? I found that impossibly spooky, totally unbelievable. I could understand the mediaeval beliefs behind such a memorial to banished evil and strange tricks being played, but in the twenty-first century? There had to be a rational explanation.

As I toiled away at clearing the ground for a new lawn, I kept looking back at the well, wondering if I should cover it back up with soil or leave the dip in the middle of the rose bed, ready to build a new well top. I decided to leave it. It would save me digging it up again, later.

That night, despite being tired from digging out roots and levelling the ground, I slept fitfully. Dreams of crumbling cottages and church ruins were interspersed with ghostly apparitions, mischievous gremlins and mad priests waving giant crucifixes, shouting Latin incantations (so I presumed – I don’t actually know any Latin). I awoke more exhausted than when I retired to bed. It was time to ask the neighbours if they knew that there was a well on my property. The answer was a positive negative from all of them, but one suggested I speak to the librarian and local historian, in the small town just three miles away. I did. And she piqued my interest, in more ways than one.

The librarian was not the tight-bunned, spinsterish figure with a frown and heavy glasses that ran the library where I had come from. This one was a slim, natural blonde with bright and clear, deep blue, eyes and a soft, pink-lipped, smile. As she turned pages of archival records, not yet digitised, her long fingers – tipped with blue nail varnish and not overly long – were now in white cotton gloves, with the mound of her broad wedding ring showing through as they moved delicately across copperplate script and mediaeval scrawl. Luckily the library was quiet and she was able to sit with me at one of the study tables usually populated by students with laptops, guiding me through the historic records and pointing out which might have the most information.

When left on my own, I found the volume of information daunting, much of it having little direct relevance to my cottage or the other cottages on the hill. I was beginning to think it all a waste of good renovation time, when I found a page in a Victorian gazetteer, alongside a district map that showed the isolated cottages on the hill had once been a small hamlet of several more buildings. Its name: Alswel. The descriptive text read, “deserted stone cottages, mostly in disrepair, being former tied properties of the Fawdrell Estate, which sold off land to reduce its boundaries, supposedly because of debt, in the fourteenth century. Rumoured to be the location of the ‘Forbidden Well’, believed to be a legendary “pit of evil” by the nearby townsfolk. Also known as Alf’s Well.”

I had only told the librarian that I was researching the cottage and had not mentioned the well incident. I still didn’t. When she came over to see how I was doing, I showed her the gazetteer entry and her eyes brightened. She disappeared in to the back office and ten minutes later came back with several photocopied sheets, saying the originals were too valuable to be released and that even these sheets were third generation copies.

One referred to the demolition of five cottages deemed unsafe and too close to the road at Alswel, when it had been widened from little more than a farm track. Two other properties were deemed unfit for human habitation and three had been left standing down long drives. One other property remained at the top of the hill, but both the council inspectors and the demolition contractors refused to visit it. It was situated down a short, green lane leading from the main byway and posed no hazard to road users. That property was now mine. Its name, at the time, was Pentacre Cottage. The name on the sales particulars, I was given, was shown as “Shadowrose Cottage, set in a five-sided acre of land…” and, as I had discovered on viewing, contained a pentagram shaped rose bed as a central feature.

The next sheet down showed an almost illegible ancient document that looked like a diary page. At the bottom was a typed translation in modern English: “T
he Lord of the Manor at Causton Major, Sir Eldred Fawdrell, following the loss of thirteen cattle on the Southern Tor Pasture this summer, the loss of thirteen ewes in lamb, in the winter, and coupled with the sharp decline of game birds and rabbits, has declared the land invaded by spirits. The V. Rev. Wilfred Huffton has been summoned from the Abbey at Causton Vale to perform his exalted Rights of Exorcism to cleanse the land and all properties that are contained within the pastures on Tafton Tor of all evil and to draw out the satanic possession of one tenant, Mr Alfred Headbow, well builder, residing at Top Cottage, Alswel, Tafton Tor.

Other sheets made references to Alswel being within a small but thriving community, until the mid-fourteenth century and afterwards a habitancy of the most lowly and despised members of society. Well, that put me in my place: and my closest neighbours! But it was the final sheet that was the most interesting. This was a record from the registers of the Abbey at Causton Vale. It was a list of religious rites and secular duties carried out within the local diocese and included the following two entries on a page headed October 1334:

“2
9th | V. Rev. W. Huffton despatched to meet with Sir E. Fawdrell regarding exorcism of land at Tafton Tor and also a gentleman disposed of ill will, thought to be caused by demonic possession.

30th | It having been decided that action must be taken before All Souls, which being the following day, the exorcism of fields was carried out in the hours after noon and all evil driven towards the nearest deep well which happened on the property of Mr Alfred Headbow, the subject for further exorcism about this man and all his family, deemed locally to be in league with spirits of the Devil and worshippers of the same. A crucifix was secured to the top of the well and is to be left in place until such time as the well can be sealed by stone, blessed in the Name of the Lord.

It all added up to why there was a sealed well on my property and I can imagine that a man who could divine water and descend deep shafts into the Earth and return unharmed would be considered to have more than earthly powers. I can also imagine that a man spending so much time living like a mole would adopt strange ways in the light above and, maybe, shy away from regular society, staying close within his family. Mediaeval nonsense, of course, but you have to allow for the beliefs of the time.

Time had passed long enough for my cottage and three others, no doubt rebuilt more than once since the exorcism, to be inhabited by rational thinking folk who had turned them into fully modernised, luxury living, with magnificent views across the valley. Well, the other three had: mine was very much a work in progress and the previous occupants, having been a series of elderly couples and one, lone gentleman, according to the deeds, had chosen to reside in abject squalor. The librarian had returned and smiled down at me before joining me at the table again. I told her what I had found out about my property and that although the present building seemed to date from the seventeenth century, it had origins – perhaps even foundations, going back to mediaeval times. I thanked her for her help and stood up to leave. That’s when she looked at me curiously and asked had I found Alf’s Well, as if she knew it was up there, behind my cottage. Without admitting I had, I just queried whether it wold actually be on my plot or one of the other cottages. She gave me a gentle, but knowing, smile and a hand gesture of maybe, who knows?

Back up the hill, I was pleased I had found the origins of the stone lid to the well, realised that Christian exorcism had been fortified by the pagan mysticism of folklore, but still remained puzzled at the overnight resettlement of the stone on the well top. The only spirits I usually believed in came out of optics at the pub or the standby bottle in my kitchen cupboard. Nevertheless, after a night of deep, dreamless sleep, I prodded around the garden to check what else might be hidden beneath the soil. Doing that, I found the pentagram of the rose bed was enclosed by a circle of rectangular stones, all neatly laid in the section I excavated. That of course completed a pentacle, a mystic symbol from the past. That and exorcism: the mediaeval community had certainly hedged its bets. I covered the stones back over. I wasn’t going to tell anyone what I’d found: I’d have half the archaeological world and a horde of paranormal investigators descending on my patch, if I did, when all I had come here for was a little peace and quiet, well away from my former, frenetic, city life.

Heavy rain came the next day, so there was to be no gardening. A small circular moat formed around the exposed well-head and rose to form a small pond across the centre of the rose bed, covering the capping stone. Nothing seemed to be leaking away down the shaft of the well, suggesting a perfect seal around the top. I looked at the muddy water and after the rain stopped there was not a ripple of movement in it. I had plenty of to do inside, so getting alterations and restoration work done kept me busy, with just the occasional glance outside. As the evening light faded to a grey, autumnal dusk, I cooked myself a simple supper of linguine with asparagus and egg, washed down with a glass or two of Sauvignon Blanc. A stark contrast to my lunchtime labourer’s lunch: Hard cheese, red onion and Branston pickle, in a thick wedge of crusty bread, with an oversized mug of well brewed Yorkshire tea.

The mini pond was still there when I climbed into bed. Dreams that night were few, but one was vivid: as I struggled in quicksand on a strange tropical shore, a high sun relentlessly beating down on me. I awoke covered in perspiration, not knowing if I ever got out. I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I went to the window and pulled back the curtains to be greeted by the first light of dawn creeping across the sky, the hedgerow in front of the cottage still in deep shadow. I padded down to the kitchen, filled the kettle and switched it on, pulled a mug from its undershelf hook, shook in a guessed amount of instant coffee, straight from the jar and sluiced a used teaspoon under the tap as the water began to bubble its noisy way to boiling. Without really focussing my eyes, I looked out of the kitchen window, proud of the amount of clearing I had already done in the garden. Then the rose bed caught my attention. The water had subsided, the soil had levelled so that the top of the well was, once again, hidden from view.

Had I dreamt everything? No. It was all too clear in my mind. I had the photocopied documents, the dead roses I had pulled up were still missing, you could still see a circle of prodded earth and the weed-less rose bed showed that the earth had been recently hoed over. But still I had to satisfy any doubts. As soon as I was dressed, I went out, collected the spade from the garage and walked over to the centre of the pentacle. I drove the spade down and heard the clunk of steel on stone. A stone: or the stone. I slid the spade forward, scraped up a spit-full of damp soil and looked down at part of an inscription “
… lost souls and evils …”.

For now, I covered my intrusion back up. It seemed what was wanted. Nevertheless, I still intended to build an extension to the well-head and feature the stone lid as a talking point for the few visitors that might come my way. And that was now a priority in my plans, before the sharp Autumn frosts came. It was already mid-October. I had done enough on the cottage to winterproof it and most of the remaining work was on internal modifications and cosmetic improvement. Broadband was slow out here in the sticks, though 4G reception on my smartphone was really good, most times. But, as I had a landline and had opened an account with a builder’s merchant, I ordered a pallet of reclaimed red bricks, which would be a suitably weather-worn match to the age of the cottage, together with extra blue ones, for the base and capping, and a quantity of pre-mixed lime mortar, all to be delivered the next day.

There was a chill in the morning air, so I decided to light the wood burner. It was slow to take hold, but once the kindling flames charred the logs, the flame brightened and steamy wisps started to rise. I opened the door to push the top log firmly into the flame and suddenly I was enveloped in a cloud of thick acrid black smoke. I slammed it shut and watched smoke still escaping by the hinges and air vent as the flames quickly died. That shouldn’t have happened: the wood burner had always behaved itself before. The flue had been fully lined, right up the chimney, so the cause couldn’t be a blockage and it was far too late for some wily old bird to build a nest up on the chimney pot. But that wasn’t the only mystery. When I opened up the wood burner again, I could feel a strong current of icy cold air being blown downwards from the flue outlet. Chimneys don’t work like that, especially on a calm day. Anyone who has ever sent Santa a letter knows that the draw floats them up the chimney.

As I pondered my latest puzzle, I heard the rattle and clatter of an old diesel engine and a dark green Land Rover passed my front window, stopping just beyond my gate. The driver stepped down, panned her eyes across the front of the cottage and then seemed to peer inquisitively across the drive towards the garden at the rear, before coming around to the back door. That’s the traditional way of entry, down here. The front door’s for weddings and funerals… and the taxman. It was the librarian, in battledress. To explain, she wore tee-shirt and close-fitting slacks, in a camouflage pattern, matching baseball cap, with a pony tail of long blonde hair pulled out over the back strap and a green-cum-khaki bomber jacket. On her feet, brown Doc Martens, something I would have thought passé on anyone else. Her whole ensemble was definitely designer fashion and not army surplus. She didn’t have to knock twice.
I’m sure the smile on my face betrayed more than a questioning welcome. Why was she here? Her deep blue eyes and cream smooth skin positively shone against the muted tones of what she wore, just as if there was some inner radiance waiting to burst forth. We sat in the kitchen, with a cafetière of coffee and she asked how the renovations were going. I offered to show her what I had done downstairs: the bedrooms were still off limits to visitors – any visitors. As we walked around she noticed the blackened glass on the wood burner. ‘Chimney trouble?’ she asked, and I explained that morning’s catastrophe. ‘That’ll soon clean up. Hand me a rag or some kitchen towel, then go and find a good dry log.’

I thought I heard her murmuring something, but never asked what, as I went out to fetch a log from the bottom of the pile I’d stacked inside the garage, knowing that they had been drying out the longest. She set it in place of the one that was partially charred, telling me to throw that one into the nearest ditch. ‘That one will never be any good,’ she said, as she added some fresh kindling, relit the fire and seemed to whisper to the flames as they roared upwards, sending sparks and clean white smoke up and out through the flu. ‘You’ll have no more trouble,’ she concluded with a smile and before I had time to question why, quickly asked about the garden.

I explained the layout of the garden as I imagined it would be by the next year and said I was trying to keep the atmosphere of a cottage garden, but with a little more clear space. I didn’t want it to feel too enclosed but to reach out to the panorama of fields, hills and woodlands that stretched out down the green valley. She agreed that was good. ‘And the rose bed?’ she asked. I told her I was keeping it and replacing the two rose I had grubbed up. She nodded approval. ‘Best not to disturb the pentacle,’ she said. ‘Or the well. You did right to keep it covered.’ I said nothing. I hadn’t yet mentioned that I’d found the well. Yet she just seemed to know. And she’d also used the word pentacle, not pentagram, as if she knew there was a circle of buried stones. Or was my brain just working overtime?

I’d learnt earlier, over the coffee, that her name was Ruth and that she was born only a few miles away, was educated at the local school and after a brief spell of higher education in Norfolk, she had returned as a librarian, getting the job as much on her interest in (and knowledge of) local history, as on library management skills. She moved around the garden as if she belonged there as much as any of the plants, usefully pointing out ones that needed protection, come winter, to encourage early blooming. At the rose bed, she reached out her hand to turn a late, soft pink rose bloom towards her and sample the strong fragrance. ‘René d’Anjou,’ she said, ‘one of the true old roses.’ With her arm outstretched, I noticed a tattoo on her upper arm of interlocking arcs and circles. Without turning her head, she continued, ‘It’s a daisy wheel. There’s one on the front of the cottage, above the door lintel. Hadn’t you noticed? It’s a symbol of protection found on many old buildings. You’ll only have bad luck if you bring it in yourself – like that sour log you used this morning.’ We walked around to the front and there it was, faint with age, lightly hand carved, a little unevenly, into the stone.

I asked Ruth if she believed in old superstitions, like that one, and she smiled back, saying that there is a fine line between superstition and mysteries we don’t yet understand. Then, she thanked me for the coffee and house tour, and marched smartly off to her Landy, calling out, as she drove away, ‘I’ll be back next week, to see how you’re getting on with all this,’ waving her hand in the general direction of the cottage. ‘I might have something for you.’
Over coffee, I’d noticed that her wedding ring was engraved with what looked like a vine pattern and small stars. Five pointed stars. Or were they pentagrams, I wondered later? She also had two silver rings on her right hand, both engraved with some strange markings I couldn’t quite make out. I looked down at my own plain band of gold. I still wore it then.
It was over five years since Laura lost her brave battle with leukaemia. A determined fight that had drained her body, but never her personality. It was her resolve, in those last few weeks, that provided me with strength in the following months. The illness robbed us both of so much, yet beyond her pain she carried a radiance that belied it, an insistence that I never look back with anger or despair and that I live the life she knew she could never share, with a brightness of spirit. I honoured her memory in what I have achieved, as faithful to her in my heart, as when she was alive. The only promise I had yet to keep was her insistence that I don’t die alone; that, in time, I find a soulmate to share what she could not. But there has been no other Laura. No one for me to choose.

Once the initial grief had passed, I ploughed all my energies into the luxury mobile home business we had set up together. Laura’s design skills and my marketing flair had proved a powerful combination. After she died, her brother came on board, bringing a different style, but equally successful, design element and, as we both enjoyed decent mechanical skills, our small workforce was encouraged to achieve enviable capabilities. So much so that our market penetrated the most demanding areas of America, the Middle East and Europe. Demanding on time and energy, too, but very lucrative; which is why I had time and funds to take a year’s sabbatical on the cottage renovation. It was also my gift to Laura’s memory: the getaway we had always planned and which, I know, she would still have wanted me to enjoy.

The wood burner was still blazing cleanly and steadily, the warmth spreading comfort in my short period of recollection. Ruth’s visit had been unannounced, but welcome, and stirred feelings long suppressed. For the first time I felt vulnerable to loneliness and I began to wonder if the challenge of the cottage had blinded me to the isolation it could also bring. Work had been my one soulmate, the cottage restoration another, but maybe they alone were no longer enough.

The rest of the day I spent indoors, working on the staircase, which had several split treads that needed replacing before any one put their foot through. If my visitor did return the next week, that might amplify the risk, should she wish to see more of the cottage. The modernised bathroom was almost complete and all the sanitary ware packaging and plumbing gear would be coming out of the spare bedroom. Although unfinished, upstairs would at least be made tidy in the following few days.

That night the cottage seemed quieter than it had been since I moved in. Almost as if it was resigned to being brought up to modern day living. There seemed to be less creaks and groans from the expansion and contraction of old wood and strained joints. Perhaps having the wood burner going all day had helped warm the old structure right through. Whatever, I had the best night’s sleep since moving in.

Dawn promised another dry, clear day and, with the early arrival of bricks and mortar, my thoughts returned to the well. I’d build my centrepiece to follow the pentagon of the well-head: it would be more practical, in fact easier, than trying to form a true circle. But first, I had to remove the heavy stone, on my own, again.

I thought back to all the archaeological theories for moving standing stones by using rollers and remembered some of the junk I’d removed from the cottage, which included three rolling pins. I fetched them from where I’d dumped them, together with a stout timber about four feet long. I cleared the soil from the top of the engraved stone, from around the base brickwork and, after removing a couple of roses and heeling them in to one side, I dug a level trench along the vacated space, just a bit wider than the stone. With effort, I was able to shuffle the stone slightly towards the trench and, with the timber, lever that side up far enough to slide in the first rolling pin. That made it easier to slide the stone across a little more by lifting and pushing (still with difficulty) from the opposite side. The second rolling pin went in and once the balance was weighted across the two pins the stone moved relatively easily onto the third roller and could be manoeuvred along the trench and out of the way.

It was almost dusk by the time I’d finished the brickwork and I was pleased how it looked – and even more pleased I hadn’t dropped one brick (or my trowel) down the well. The initial putrid smell, when I moved the stone, suggested there was something nasty down there and I was glad I couldn’t see to the bottom. It faded after a while, but there was a sense of something sulphurous that pervaded the air all the time I was working. I covered the structure with a large sheet of polythene and held it down with a cruciform of wood that had come from a partition wall in the cottage, which I’d removed to create more of an open plan layout between the old lounge and dining room. Once the mortar had cured I’d have to find a way of lifting the top onto the plinth. As the well appeared to be dry (and smelly) there was no reason to leave it uncapped. It was the inscription that would add interest to the feature and a strip of gravel across the rose bed was going to give access, close up.

I left the well for a couple of days and concentrated on the upstairs rooms. There was less work to do than I had originally imagined from the clutter and grime of my first viewing, with the estate agent. Although the whole cottage had to be rewired and re-plumbed, so every wall needed decorating, the ceilings had proved sound enough for just skimming with plaster and all the timber doors proved rot and worm free, with strong metal latches and smooth working, tinplate mortice locks. The bedrooms were well proportioned and needed no structural work and the floorboards looked original, but were still surprisingly sound. Once cleared out, the remainder of the work upstairs was just basic decorating. And, that done, there was just the attic, which in the long term would be turned into an extra bedroom, but, for now, was a dark and forbidding void. No heat was reaching it, for when I had inspected it, there was an icy chill far cooler than the day. An unnatural chill, some would have said.

Back in the garden after those couple of days I worked out my lid fitting routine. I needed leverage and movement. A small crane would have been the easiest way, but one was not in my armoury of, mostly, hand tools. But I did have some stout lengths of timber in the garage, ready for the eventual loft conversion, some old tree stumps, ready for log chopping, some metal brackets and rope. Plus, several large, empty, emulsion paint tubs. I stacked the old stumps to give me height and cut a shallow groove in the top one. I fixed a metal bracket around each of the five straight edges of the stone, tied to a rope web that I’d attached to one end of the beam, which was lain across the grooved stump, shorter on the stone side and longer on the other, to act as a lever.

I filled three emulsion tubs with some large stones borrowed off a small rockery to act as a counterweight and found I could now lift and pivot the inscribed stone quite easily. After a couple of dry runs, I could manoeuvre it quite accurately over my building work, so I trowelled on a layer of mortar and swung the stone over, ready to lower it gently into position. I hesitated as the edges were not quite in line with my construction, then felt a sudden rush of air, as if the well had become a giant vacuum cleaner, and everything was pulled towards it, even the rose bushes leaning in and almost uprooted, as the stone slammed down. Perfectly aligned and sealed tight, mortar already gripping it. My temporary hoist was thrown sideways and I was trapped under the beam. And, perhaps luckily, that was how Ruth found me. Muddied, bloodied and extremely embarrassed at my predicament.

My gentle lady librarian just laughed, before crossing the garden to lift the beam off me as if it were a matchstick. More embarrassment, after my struggles. She helped me limp into the kitchen and cleaned all the parts of me she was allowed to reach, before making coffee, without even asking where I kept everything. She must have remembered from when I made coffee before. Or did she just know? There was a certain aura about her, beyond her physical attractiveness. Was I becoming bewitched?

She now knew for certain, of course, that I had found Alf’s Well, but she didn’t seem very pleased. Her first question was how long I had left it open and I told her the whole story of originally finding it, the stone sliding back on of its own accord and the sudden closure onto my handiwork. For a moment she seemed perplexed. ‘So, the circle of stone is still there’, she said. ‘Best expose it now. The pentacle is doing its best to protect you. You shouldn’t have meddled. You were lucky that you used a wood from the cottage to hold down your protective sheet. This cottage and the garden are thrice blessed.’

I asked her what she meant, wondering if her elegant exterior might be harbouring some delusional mental state deep within. She withdrew a small piece of folded paper from her pocket. It was another photocopy; this time of a very old newspaper cutting, dated 3rd November 1746. It described a series of events that happened in the depopulated hamlet of Alswel on the night of Halloween. Strange noises, glowing lights and the sudden death of the tenant in a hillside cottage known as Pentacre. It was understood that the tenant had removed a heavy cover from an old dry well that had been sealed for safety and his death was reported as due to the exertion being too much for him and causing his heart to fail. The well had ben resealed with its cover and in order to stay rumours from local inhabitants the well and the cottage had been blessed by the local vicar, followed by a blessing from a small group practising pagan rights and a third blessing and spell casting by a woman regarded as a beneficent witch.

Without me saying a word on reading it, Ruth read my mind. ‘You don’t believe: you think it all superstitious nonsense. But if you uncover the circle of stones you will find one inscribed with the date 1746. The woman mentioned has a direct line of descent to modern times, too. Me. Like her, I am a white witch.’

I was nonplussed. I couldn’t bring words to my lips. I didn’t believe in witchcraft or pagan rights and my Christian belief was little more than a tentative acceptance that there must be some reason for living, beyond self-aggrandisement. In my silence, Ruth continued. ‘You saw for yourself that the stone was drawn back over the well to seal in what lies below. The pentacle aided that, but some impish evil may still have escaped. The log that smoked your fire so heavily was possessed and reversed the flow of your chimney, but I remedied that while you found another log. More might have escaped when you left the well open but by chance you placed two timbers from a blessed house over the well, in the form of a cross, strengthening the power of the pentacle. The sudden closure today came from counter action to a gathering of lost souls rising in the well. I sensed it at the gate. I had to act fast and it was my power added to the weight of the stone that forced a pressure down the well so sharply. I’m sorry you came to grief because if it, but it had to be done. You should have taken heed of the inscription. I know you read it all.’

White witch. Magic powers. Evil spirits. Lost souls. It was all too much to believe, but I sensed that Ruth did. A surprise, to me, from an obviously highly intelligent librarian who must see that everything has to have a rational explanation. Or does it? Questions popped into my mind as if they had been put there. Why, with the vast knowledge of today’s brilliant scientists, all the global computing power of our era and all the philosophical and creative brains around us, does so much still remain to be discovered? Why should life exist only on our earthly plain, bonded to everyday human experience? What lies out in that vast Universe of ours and what is there within our own sphere that we know little of; and understand even less?

‘Use your eyes, use your ears, use your power of perception,’ Ruth had turned her deep blue eyes to penetrate mine. ‘You are right to question what you’re told, but take time to analyse the answers. Are they trite and what you want to hear or are they unequivocally proven?’

I just couldn’t believe I had become attracted to a witch. Had she cast a spell over me? And, if so, why? No, that was the stuff of fairy tales, even though the incidents she mentioned had certainly been very real. Gradually, the turmoil in my brain cleared. You don’t have to prove, you don’t have to believe, you just have to accept what comes your way.

Ruth told me that as long as I didn’t disturb Alf’s Well, all should be fine and with my thrice blessed ace of land and cottage. Preserving the rose garden should keep my future rosy. I forgave her the pun. Nevertheless, she said that she felt something threatening in the air, possibly in the garden, but might be trapped in the eaves, so to be wary at night, especially around Halloween. I thought she was joking and, perhaps, as a newcomer, I was due a visit by ‘trick-or-treaters’, in a few days’ time. She assured me that nobody from nearby would venture near the cottage on the eve of All Saints day.

Apparently, she had used the local bus to get to the cottage, which is why I hadn’t heard her arrival. Her Landy was in the garage for its MOT. But before walking off down the green lane to the main road to catch a bus back (even though I offered to drive her), she left me with one last tale of the past.

As legend goes, it appears, the reason that Old Alf was thought to be in league with the spirits, was because of the depth of the well. To get down to water from so near the hill top meant Alfred Headbow had to take his construction so deep he disappeared underground for seven days and seven nights, his wife and four children sending down materials, food and drink in a large bucket and hauling up the spoil the same way. Something that took the strength of at least two of them and was sometimes aided by help from neighbours. Each day a note came up from Alfred, telling them what he wanted for the next day and it was to everyone’s surprise that the last note asked for a crucifix and seven candles to be waiting for him at the top. He was coming up.

On climbing out at the top, although grimy and mud stained, Alfred looked as pale as a ghost. His eyes looked wide with horror and he could barely speak, as he motioned for the crucifix and candles to be brought to him. He pushed the seven candles into the soil around the wellhead and lit them, then holding the crucifix over the gaping aperture that led down so deep, he muttered the Lord’s Prayer, an act of contrition and then asked, now in a recovered voice, everyone to repeat the Lord’s Prayer and pray for their own souls. He told them there were devils down there, but barely a drop of water. As soon as he dug down to a decent pool, it disappeared before his eyes bubbling like a boiling kettle, yet the air around him felt as cold as ice. There were sparks of light of many colours and his head spun around so that he seemed to be looking backwards one minutes, forwards the next. That was when he decided to come up, leaving just a small puddle at the bottom, but enough to be drawn with the smaller, old metal bucket that was kept in the kitchen. Finally, he asked for someone to fetch the pastor to give the well an official blessing.

In the following few weeks Alfred complained of nauseous headaches and seeing the lights of spirits, after drawing water from his well and the family suffered several bad turns and bouts of sickness, until there was a tremendous thunderstorm that signalled the end of a dry summer and filled the becks and rivers to overflowing. The well water became sweeter and the family’s health better, except for Old Alf, who continued to see the spirit lights, from time to time. During the storm, thirteen of Sir Eldred Fawdrell’s grazing cattle had been slain by a lightning strike on his Southern Tor Pasture. The following events I had already seen documented.

Locally dubbed, Alf’s Well, the hamlet gained a degree of notoriety and families started to leave the area, with only a few incomers taking their place. The local vicar, a year or two later, seeing his congregation depleting, decided to bless the hamlet and declared to all present, ‘It is all blessed: now all’s well,’ leading to the contraction Alswel.
An interesting story, I thought. If Ruth believed it and all the mystic nonsense, so be it. However, I put down Alfred’s visions down to being in the deep earth too long, probably without proper sustenance and definitely working in stale air. Who wouldn’t be pale after seven days in the dark; bubbling water suggested he’d hit some sort of gas pocket, probably noxious, and the head-spinning and coloured lights would most likely a be migraine – and after his personal fright, that might well persist on days he felt low.

Nevertheless, my white witch still bewitched me. After all she had fixed that smoke bomb of a wood burner and whether by magic or better practice in lighting fires, I wasn’t really worried. Even if it was beyond my belief, she certainly knew her subject. And she wasn’t married.

In another moment of perception, she had answered my question about that, without me voicing it. She explained that the runic symbols on one of her silver rings spelt out the positives of life and on the other one were the negatives. Her life was forever in balance and she had the dual guards against too much optimism and abject pessimism. The wedding ring was not given to her by any man. She was wedded to her craft: the one she practised outside of her work at the library.

She had slipped off the ring and asked me to hold it. It looked a good weight of gold, but felt light in my hand, yet I couldn’t imagine it hollow. I was right about the pentagrams on the outside, sitting between a twisted vine, but there were more markings on the inside of the ring, sharply engraved, with no sign of rubbing, as I would have expected for one permanently worn. Those markings, she told me, were apotropaic signs of protection and included, I noted, the daisy wheel she had pointed to on the cottage. Before replacing the ring on her finger, she took my hand and traced a pentagram on the palm, the five points reached in one continuous line, followed by her soft smooth touch tracing a surrounding circle, completing the pentacle. Should I have felt honoured? I don’t know, but my own thoughts were not on anything other-worldly: perhaps she really could read my mind and that’s why she hastened her exit.

The next couple of days seemed unusually peaceful. I replace the grubbed-up roses with old varieties, as befitted the others in the bed, laid a narrow gravel path up to the well top and noted that the everything was perfectly sealed, with no sign of escaping putridity – or disappearing soil. Work inside the cottage proceeded smoothly with none of the usual aggravations of spilled paint, lost screws, and splintering wood that normally plague my efforts. And so I settled into a quiet routine, while wondering when to make a visit to the library.

The day I chose was, by chance, Halloween. Ruth hadn’t seemed at all surprised to see me. Had she magically summoned me? It was close to lunch and, once she had dealt with a young student, asking about a biography of some artist I’d never heard of, she walked over and just said, ‘Yes, you can take me to lunch. I suggest ‘The White Swallow’. I’ll drive. You might not find it too easily, as it is half hidden by a roadside line of rowans, down a narrow lane in the valley. It used to be ‘The Black Bull’ until, one year, a rare albino swallow took up residence. They don’t normally survive to adulthood and nest. It was thought a good omen.’

By way of casual conversation, over game pie and chips for me and a prawn salad for her, I asked Ruth if her witchcraft services were much called upon on Halloween. In a slightly scolding tone, she told me not to make light of her craft, which was just as valid as any other; whether I was a believer or not. The power of good over evil may be easily dismissed in the current way of the world: that’s what lets the dark side in, which we see in the conflicts all around us. But it will never be beaten as long as there are those to light the flame of integrity and strike out against injustice and malpractice. Not by magic spells, although they do have their uses, but by righteous action.

By the time we set back, I felt much closer to Ruth, willing to accept her ways, her beliefs, but unsure of how she felt about me, even though she told me she wanted me always to stay safe and that we should always be there for each other. Then she gave her warning that she still felt an unsettling aura around the cottage and, because of it, especially that night, I should stay within its walls. She repeated what she had told me before, in slightly different words, ‘you’ll only suffer evil, if you take it in there yourself.' I joked that I wouldn’t let any trick-or-treat folk cross my threshold and she assured me again that there was no chance of that. No villager or townie would dare come up here on Halloween.

I had come to terms with living on my own, after losing Laura, though it took a long time, but when I arrived back at the cottage, a wave of loneliness passed over me. There was a longing for company. I felt adrift of the world, an emptiness in me as deep as Alfred Headbow’s well. Maybe Ruth could fill that void, in time, but my unease at that moment was more profound. A measure of loss compounded by the need to move forward without dishonouring Laura’s memory.

As evening drew its dark veil across the sky and mounds of grey cloud grew mountainous above the horizon, I lit the wood burner to fight the autumn chill. Soon flames flickered cheerily behind the glass door, casting dancing glints over the brass fire irons. My tensions subsided and I settled back into the moquette easy chair that had come with a few other furnishings that belonged to the cottage and I hadn’t the heart to replace. They lived there before I did and fitted in perfectly with my renovation ideas that were meant to combine modern convenience with old world charm.

I lived a life without television – I was on the wrong side of the hill for clear reception – but caught up with all I needed via the mostly good 4G Internet, on my smartphone and iPad. I had a radio and regularly restocked my several shelves of good books. And on the odd occasion I resorted to Kindle: good in its way, but there is nothing better than the tactile page turning of smooth paper between your fingers, as you trace the storyline, chapter by chapter, through the thickness held by its spine, to the thinness of those few, crucial, last pages.

That Halloween night, I didn’t get time to read. As I listened to the news on the radio and prepared a light meal of pan-roasted lamb fillet and green beans, to enjoy with the bottle of Pauillac I had bought, while in town, the light’s flickered and died. I hoped the power cut wasn’t going to last all night again and cursed myself for not getting an emergency generator, yet. The glow from the wood burner gave me enough light to move around, once my eyes adjusted to the low light, and I safely put the fillets to one side and turned off the gas burner. Finding one of the torches, I went outside and checked the cable that had come adrift before, but all seemed secure. As I came back in, I felt a chill of air rush through the kitchen door, making me shiver uncontrollably for a few moments.

I fetched half-a-dozen candles from one of the base cupboards in the kitchen and placed them around to spread some light. Just as I lit the last one, the power came back on. Panic over, I thought, but I left the candles burning in case the respite was temporary.

Sitting down in the easy chair, after eating my meal in the kitchen, I opened up the notebook that contained my plans for the cottage and turned to the page for the small orchard, where I had noted what fruit trees were worth saving. I was distracted by a flash of light like distant lightning, but there was no rumble of thunder. Then, as I turned my eyes back to the notebook there was an explosive crack so close to the cottage the walls shook and two pictures fell to the floor, sending shards of glass in all directions. I jumped and looked out of the window into the garden. My well top had exploded, bricks scattered everywhere and the stone top lay shattered in two pieces about six feet from a gaping hole from which shot a vicious tongue of flame that arced itself into a fireball, hovered for a moment then dispersed in a million tiny sparks, to leave the night black and dark. So dark, I realised the power had failed again, the wood burner had died down and, once I’d stumbled around to find the torch, I saw the candles had rapidly burnt down to leave just a sliver of wax and thin blue smoke curling up from the stub of each wick.

You don’t have to be a believer in things paranormal to be scared. I phoned Ruth. That’s when the old four branch light fitting fell from the ceiling catching my shoulder, followed by a gush of water. Running upstairs, I found all the taps in the bathroom turned fully on, the plugs rammed tight in the overflowing basin and bath. I turned them off and ran downstairs to the kitchen, to find the sink tap in full flow and then discovered the same in the downstairs cloakroom. I relayed this to Ruth and told her about the exploding well. I don’t know quite what I expected: just sympathy, or how to counter this strange magic around me. All I got was a curt ‘Where did you get those bricks from?’
‘Oh, don’t tell me: I’ve bought Satanic bricks,’ I countered in frustration. ‘Off a normal builder’s merchant, second-hand ones. Why?’

‘Then they may have come from a church. A building designed to save souls. You should have had them re-blessed by an exorcist. They will have weakened the bond that kept the well secure, for there might be wrongly adjudged souls down there amongst the many evils, deserving to be saved. That V. Rev. Huffton wasn’t too particular about the proof folk presented to him. Much of it was about as accurate as a ducking stool. Stay in the house. I’m coming over… and be prepared to, leave by the front door, if I say so.’

I was in two minds. Staying put meant shivering in the dark with an unknown force around me and making a run for it meant risking worse if evil really had escaped the well. But that was ridiculous. There must be a rational explanation I thought. And as much as I thought, I couldn’t find one. Then the wood burner sprang back into life, its vivid flame casting a flicker of light across walls and ceiling. Suddenly, the window began to glow, brighter and brighter until, with a mighty roar, two white eyes pierced the outer darkness: the headlights of Ruth’s Landy. She left them shining through, as I sighed with relief that I was no longer alone and my mobile screen flicked on at her call. She asked which room I was in and said she would first check out the garden.

Keeping the phone open, she walked around and said there was good and evil out there, telling me to leave by the front and jump straight in the Land Rover. As I went out, Ruth slipped inside and shut the door, behind me, locking me out. A few hasty paces and I was sitting in the passenger seat of her Landy. It looked as if the house itself was breathing, walls bowing then relaxing four or five times, before she came out again, a tense expression on her face as if in deep concentration. Finally, she smiled, walked over and jumped into the driver’s seat, saying ‘Let’s get the hell out of here and leave the souls and the spirits to fight it out without us. I’ve done all I can.’ She then held a finger to her lips to silence any questions from me.

I thought (and hoped) that she was driving me back to her house, but she drove right to the top of the hill and stopped. There she gave her mystical explanation of what I’d experienced.
I looked across at her. Her pallor was paler than parchment, virtually white, her brow furrowed, her eyes distant, her lips tight. I wanted to kiss them. ‘Don’t even try.’ She’d read my mind, again. ‘I don’t seek your consolation. Your kind is not enough. Though I truly welcome your good intentions to comfort me, embrace me and look after me, it can never be.’

After an hour of mostly silence, Ruth turned toward me, her eyes now wide and glowing, a blush of colour back in her face and she smiled. ‘It’s safe to go back now.’ She didn’t wait for me to speak again, but turned the ignition key to bring a rattling roar of life back to the Landy’s engine and then we set off back down the farm track from the very top of the hill, down to the road.

The moon was breaking through misty cloud as we arrived back at Shadowrose Cottage and there was a glint off still damp slates. A thin curl of white smoke from the chimney showed the wood burner was still alight and the lights were on, downstairs. The scene had a welcoming, chocolate box, serenity after the scare earlier. We walked through the garden and passed close to the well. There were bricks strewn about the rose bed, but the roses seemed undamaged and the cover back in place. Inspection the following morning showed no sign of where it had been split in two.

Once inside, all seemed normal except for the light fitting that had fallen from the ceiling and the two shattered pictures. The wood burner gave out a soft glow as one remaining, half consumed, log sat in a flicker of small flames. Ruth took my hands and leant in to give me a soft kiss on the lips, then turned away, a finger across her’s again. ‘Move the bricks away from the well. All is done that I can do. Your life here should remain charmed, but I must go back to where I belong. Where the spirits are calmed and I can restore myself. In time, you will understand.’

She left by the back door, in the usual way, and I watched through the front window as the old Landy rattled away back to the road and down to the town. There was a calm about the place that she had promised me, up on the hill, which transcended even the peace I had found when I first moved in.

It was the early hours of the morning. Now, All Saints Day, of course, and all the evil sent away. Did I really believe that? I had no sleep in me, so I put another couple of logs in the wood burner and sat back in the easy chair to think. Ruth’s theory had been simple: almost believable. When I first opened the gate to Hell, by removing the well cap, something had escaped and followed me into the cottage, causing the icy downdraught that dowsed the fire in the wood burner and filled the room with acrid black smoke. She had used her powers to expel the spirit into the charred log she had asked me to throw out. Or was it just an old sour log and a sudden eddy of wind that sent the flue into reverse?

Then there was the first sliding back of the well top, overnight. A property of the thrice blessed and pentacle protected ground or some natural vibration and a bit of luck in it settling back so evenly? The recent weather and sudden change from persistent rain to desert dry could account for some underground shrinkage and earth movement. Though I admit the stone top was precisely positioned and perfectly sealed.

My exploding well top. Was that really good and bad forces reacting? Ruth thought that my original interference had disturbed spirits and souls, some good, but mostly evil, way down in the depths, beyond sight and beyond where man or woman should venture. But which Alfred had reached. The bricks I had used held no blessed strength. Whatever lay down deep exploited that weakness to break free. Yet the evil was countered by the good souls, wrongly exorcised by the V. Rev. Huffton and after the initial turmoil of countering forces, she had arrived to add power to the good side and send evil spinning back down to its hellish domain. Except what I had let into the cottage, during that Halloween night, when I ventured out to see if the power cable had come adrift. She had expunged that, too, which is why she was left drained of energy. While we waited at the top of the hill, the thrice blessed cottage restored itself and the pentacle rose bed pulled back together the protective seal on Alf’s Well.

No, that was too much. I remembered the noxious aroma when I was working on the well top. Not especially pungent, but gas of some sort; maybe from decomposition or a leakage from a pocket of gas trapped for aeons at the bottom depth of the well. A sudden surge would blow out my brickwork and a chance spark as stone and metal corner ties collided would have set off the huge flame, sucked the oxygen from around it, dampened the fire in the wood burner and the force of the explosion would have rocked the cottage causing the weak ceiling lamp fixings to give way and the pictures to fall. Now, that was more rational. I felt happier with that – until I thought on, who turned on all those taps? Even an earthquake wouldn’t likely do that.

It was close on dawn when I finally lay on my bed to rest, my head still spinning with conflicting thoughts of mystic phenomena and reality. When I awoke, still dressed, it was mid-afternoon.

A bowl of oat cereal was all I could stomach, washed down with strong black coffee. Had it all been a nightmare? No. The light fitting was still on the floor, propped against a wall with the pictures, though I had swept up the shards of picture glass. The garden was orderly, but the bricks I had so carefully mortared together were arrayed haphazardly across the rose bed and lawn. I needed to see Ruth.

I drove down to the town and, feeling unnaturally nervous, walked into the library. Behind the desk was a little grey-haired lady, with a beaming smile, talking to a group of three children. When she had finished she beamed across at me. ‘If it was “The Gruffalo” you wanted, I’m afraid those children have just taken it out.’ Her brown eyes had an impish glow about them. I asked if Ruth was about. She told me there was no Ruth there. ‘Oh, that might have been the girl before me, I think. She left without notice last year. They had to close the library from the first of November for two weeks until I was able to start here. And I’ve been off sick for the last three weeks. That’s why it’s been closed again until we reopened today. Then, if you’re not local, you wouldn’t have known about that. How can I help you?’

I asked if she had any books on witchcraft. She gave me two. I returned them, two days later, unread.

I completed my renovations and built a barbecue in one of the plot’s five corners, using the re-salvaged bricks from my well top. The well and its cover I re-buried and placed a stone birdbath in the centre of the rose bed, above it. I hoped the pentacle will keep the birds safe from the two feral cats that frequently appear. Especially the evil looking black one that walks around the rose bed meowing, but never sets foot on it.

The tortoiseshell and white one seems much tamer and has unusual deep blue eyes. She comes up to be stroked and welcomes the handful of dry cat food I offer her. I keep some by all the time, now, and even buy that special cat milk, which she laps up delightedly, purring loudly, like an old diesel engine, when she’s finished. She’ll come into the cottage, but she’ll never stay long. That’s a shame, because I feel less lonely when she’s there. More at peace. My soft-furred soulmate. I don’t know where she goes at night.

That’s another mystery I’ll probably never solve.