Monday 31 October 2016

Happy Halloween From The Yellow Lady

Unfortunately, this post is late to join the official Halloween festivities, but its shiny new key art (and a bonus version after the story) and light edit pass (well that was the original intention, but a hefty line edit and rewrite in a few sections would be more accurate) means that it's a decent improvement upon the published version and as there are at least 7 billion people who haven't read it yet it's worth sharing :-)

. . .

The Yellow Lady is a ghost story from my first short story anthology - An Odd Quartet (details of the book are after the story). It was based on a ghost story I heard as a young lad on a camping trip and sleeping yards away from the graveyard where the poor woman was buried.


The Yellow Lady

I’d first visited the grave of the Yellow Lady many years before. Behind the screen of threadbare trees, I’d camped on the rough field beside the vast lake. Well, it had seemed vast to me as a child and not so imposing now with older eyes. Time had brought changes to its surroundings, with the once sparse camping site developed into a more commercial and admittedly colourful enterprise.

No modern touch to this small ancient church and attached graveyard, except for a few pale headstones and memorials. Their newness marked them as oddities here. My lack of fear and increased vulnerability to the damp freezing air separated me from the young boy that had nearly wet himself that night almost 30 years ago. The fear might have vanished but a certain fascination remained as I stared down at it.

The grave looked the same as I remembered. Neatly kept with its unusual marker (No proper headstone permitted here - being buried in consecrated ground wasn't through grace, but through grim and determined expediency) worn smooth by the ages, The stout iron cage remained the top poking through the grass as if ornamentation, but according to legend it kept the occupant bound and unable to leave her grave except for one special night per year.

Did the locals still cast fearful glances at the grave and its guardian chapel? Unlike the iron prison, the Chapel wore its age with ill grace. It sagged under the weight of the centuries, the stone of its walls and roof splotches by moss, lichen and neglect. The news of the chapel's abandonment provided the sign I didn't realise I'd been waiting for, to return.

Thirty years ago I’d just turned 11 and had camped here with dozens of other boys my age as part of a youth camp associated with the church we attended as a family. The field where we camped nestled between the stacked stone wall of the graveyard and the pike-infested lake. The tent I shared with three other boys lay within spitting distance of the infamous grave. Although a few days would pass before we learned of that horrifying legend.

The camp followed a familiar design of the time to allow troublesome kids from poor families a glimpse of the world beyond the rough estates for one week out of the year. To my surprise I loved it. The filth-ridden streets, vandalised playgrounds, derelict shops and warehouses provided the usual tableau of my life,  and the surprise of this week in the countryside revealed an aspect of the world I’d previously only read about.

Throughout the day the camp volunteers (as a religious camp these were all brothers from a local monastery, but these monks were a lot more fun than our dour Irish parish priest!) kept us entertained with games. Unless the weather was truly atrocious these physical games always knackered us out. Those running the camp believed that tired children caused fewer problems and to be fair I guess they had the right of it.

We also enjoyed a mostly fun variety of activities, most of which involved the neighbouring lake. The vast lake (as it seemed to us - apart from the sea most of us hadn't bodies of water we couldn't throw a stone or half brick across) drained into an even larger marsh. The marsh was considered even more dangerous than the lake, but its constant fetid odour discouraged us enough to avoid it. Even though we avoided it when the wind turned the sickly scent drifted through the camp.

In the lake, we swam, although only in the designated safe area fenced off by nets. Having never encountered pike (or living fish generally) we joked that there must be a real monster in that lake somewhere for the adults to be concerned. That attitude lasted barely a morning after sneaking away from the group to an unsupervised part of the shore. There we fished with small nets on thin bamboo poles for whatever lurked in this water. I cried out with excitement as I managed to catch a small fish and then fell on my arse as a streamlined and massive shape snatched the fish, net and pole from my grasp.

I gained some wisdom in that moment but never got my net back.

Besides the monsters and physical contests with the monks, we tried scaring each other in the evenings. By the campfire, we munched burned burgers, drank cheap supermarket pop (soda to my American friends) and told ghost stories. Our stories amused the volunteers. As we regained our energy with food and rest our boisterousness increased and they had the thankless task of keeping us in order. They'd developed a routine over time and let us fool around mocking each other's tall tales. The sun long departed and the air chilled we slowed and one of the few monks (only many years later I learned he was no ordinary monk and instead his duties lay with the small chapel on the other side of the stone wall) with a full long beard seized the moment.  He appeared like a shorter Brian Blessed and his voice maintained that impression as he spoke.

"The Yellow Lady had been buried in the small cemetery well beyond the safe glow of that fire. At first, they buried her in a pauper’s grave and outside the consecrated plot." He paused for a moment the fire dancing shadows across his face. "Not anymore. Now she lies encased in an iron casket, with iron spikes driven through the coffin and secured to an iron cage to prevent her from moving. She received no headstone instead her marker was formed from iron in the Celtic form. Iron spikes ornamented the cross."

He paused, waiting until the first of us fidgeted and with a deeper growl in his voice stated, "Her marker was a warning, not a remembrance."

“Why?” We wondered.

Again he paused and softer in tone continued. "No one knows her real name now. Great efforts were made to erase it from history. Even the page including her birth registry was torn out and burned. But that came later. After the trouble that left us with a monster that still haunts us to this day."

I swear if someone had made a noise I would have shat myself.

"The local Lord, Lord Samuel Perrington inherited an estate buried in debt thanks to the many sins of his father. Without tangible assets and not wanting to part with his title - which he believed to be his God-given right." He snorted in amusement as if the many tellings had not diminished his disdain for this self-indulgent foolishness. "Lord Samuel learned of one of the local businessmen (Arthur Taylor - a self-made man earning his fortune through textiles and shrewd investment) who sought to bring his family above their station.

While the new young Lord escaped the scourge of his father's vices (for the most part) he still possessed the underserved arrogance of a title, but he wasn't stupid. The money was his immediate need and this marriage presented the only realistic option to prevent the debt collectors from tearing away his home and possessions. The young lady would gain nothing from this transaction, but her father would gain not only aristocratic patronage and assumed influence but also the possibility of a grandchild - preferably a boy - inheriting the title.

But she didn’t love the Lord, she already loved another. She loved a woodsman and he loved her in return. Even after the marriage ceremony, she continued to meet her true love in secret.

We didn’t care for that part of the story. At ten (or maybe eleven?) years old I hadn’t yet acquired the taste for girls. The old man’s voice carried the story well, and despite the smoochy bit, we remained captivated.

"Inevitably the Lord discovered his wife’s infidelity. And so, on a night like this almost exactly 400 years ago she visited the woodsman’s hut. She found him purple-faced and hanging from the thickest branch. His hands and feet had been cut off and then placed in a basket.

She rushed to her lover’s dangling corpse and screamed to the sky in her grief. The yellow dress that reminded him of summer blossomed with dark stains. She didn't hear the rustle of the ground litter as her husband stepped into view. Silver moonlight accented the expression of purest rage as he battered her to the ground. He ignored the pain of small bones fracturing in his fist as he kept punching her until her pleas for mercy became choking gasps for air.

Above the violence, the woodsman swayed gently in the evening breeze. With a final effort, she looked at her lover's distorted face and allowed herself to fall into eyes now freed from suffering. The slight movement of her head and peace smoothing the past minutes of torture angered the husband further. Snatching the broad dagger from his belt he plunged it deep into her chest unfazed by the splash of warm blood upon his face. Panting with the effort of cutting through her flesh and bone he then cried out with diabolical triumph her heat from the ragged hole in her chest. With rough iron nails and heavy dagger he nailed the cooling heart to the tree and all the while he muttered curses and cruel promises to the Devil himself. 

To this day it is said that you can put your ear against the old weathered tree and hear the heartbeat of the murdered woman. You'll find out for yourselves on our little ghost tour later on."

Fuck that! None of us felt brave enough to test the truth of this and the broad grin across the Monk's face offered little comfort. But the story wasn't quite finished.

"Next the Lord severed her head from her body. It's no easy task cutting a head off a body with only a short blade, but he managed it although it was far from a clean cut. 

He cast the head into the marsh – never to be found. The woman’s body was buried in a pauper’s grave in the grave one hundred yards from where we sat.
A year passed. The Lord found himself a new wife, and with great ceremony they were married. Both merry from the celebrations they took to their bed together for the first and last time.

They were both found dead the next morning by the servants, with a yellow handprint upon their faces.

The next night the parish priest reported seeing the apparition of the Yellow Lady leaving the graveyard and heading towards the marsh, searching for the corpse of her lover. He naturally made the connection with the deaths from the previous night.

However the hand marks had faded with the rising sun. Only he and the servants who summoned him witnessed the prints with their own eyes. So everyone ignored his warnings. Their attitude changed rapidly when more people from the village witnessed the ghost for themselves.

With no natural heirs the Crown appointed a new Lord who duly arrived and was found dead on his first day break. This time people listened to the priest and luckily for them he had a plan.

They exhumed her body and bound her in a coffin made from iron and blessed by the priest himself. The blacksmith then drove iron spikes through the coffin and constructed the formidable metal cross to bind her to the grave. Only on the anniversary of her death could she wander, continuing her search for her head and her lover’s body.

And you know what? The anniversary coincided with the week I stayed at the camp. I remember it being the scariest night of my young life. At every rustle I lay rigid, my eyes frantically scanning the foggy gloom. But of course I lived to see the next day. Although a few of the boys claimed they’d seen the ghost heading towards the lake.

A passing car broke my fixation from the grave, and back to why I'd returned after so long.

Well the story I was told all those years ago contained some truth, but was missing one interesting and valuable fact. The body was buried with what was described as a finely crafted gold and diamond locket. The locket was of a type highly prized at the time, but very rare now. And rare meant valuable.

And valuable was good. It’s how I earned my living.

Many years ago I got myself into a bit of trouble. I owed the wrong people more money than I could lay my hands on. Whilst drowning my sorrows in anticipation of one or both legs being broken I met a funeral director, also trying to drown his sorrows.

From this drunken man I learnt something interesting. Even in these modern times people are often buried with valuables or a treasured item. Usually it’s junk, but often it’s worth fencing.

Wherever possible I focussed on tombs. They’re usually owned by rich people and while they’re not more likely to leave a memento, it is more likely to be worth something.

The other advantage of course is that tombs are generally less effort to get into than digging into a grave. The obituary columns in local newspapers and on the Internet provided me with likely targets. After a while I developed a sense for spotting a target from how the obituaries were written.

I’d known about the locket for years, but I’d kept it safe in case of a rainy day. The regular pickings had been slim for the past couple of months, so the rainy day now arrived.

To dig up a grave requires a lot of effort. This graveyard was secluded, but not enough to make it safe to use a mechanical digger. That left me with the shovel. At least the work helped to keep me warm in the chill air. As the night turned into morning the fog rolled across the graveyard.

The scene reminded me of cheap horror films. I wasn’t spooked. I’ve robbed graves for many years without encountering any ghosts or ghouls. Still the air was cold, colder than I expected.

Thankfully I only had to dig up part of the grave. If I had to dig up the whole grave I would have still have been digging a hole when the sun rose. I only needed to dig enough space to access the coffin. Then I would cut into the coffin and use a flexible grabber to retrieve what I needed.


My spade struck the coffin with a dull clang. I scraped the soil away; the dirt stained red as if soaked in blood. In the thin torch beam I noticed the coffin was rusted. I nodded to myself. I’d hoped that would be the case. Retrieving a cold chisel and hammer from my bag of tools I struck a hole into the coffin.

With a small crowbar I widened the hole. This is the part I preferred old graves to fresher ones. They didn’t smell as bad and were less messy once you delved inside. Someone must have been smiling down on me; I’d dug up the right end. Dropping a chemlight into the hole I spotted the sparkle of the necklace. Exactly what I hoped to see. Within minutes I packed up my tools and was driving my dirty white van back towards London.

* * *

The next day I went to see Tony. He was one of my fences. Over the years I’d learnt it was wise to know a range of contacts. Tony specialised in antiquities, I’d receive a much better price for the locket from him. The others would give me scrap value at best. A shame for a piece like this.

Tony showed excitement when he held the piece. That in itself was unusual. He peered at the locket through his magnifying glass.

“Beautiful workmanship. Sixteenth century I’d say.”

The piece did look pretty. Delicate engravings ornamented the surface. I tried opening the locket, but didn’t find a clasp or opening of any kind. The front surface appeared branded with a Celtic cross.

“It appears to be fused shut. I wonder what’s inside.”

Tony delicately probed at the edges with a tiny tool. I waited impatiently as he worked. I knew he wouldn’t offer a price until he completed his examination. Hurrying him would only reduce the price.
After thirty minutes of his careful ministration the locket revealed its secret. A small lock of dark hair. He pulled the lock free and smiled.

“Love is a grand thing. However this isn’t worth anything.” He cast the hair into the waste bin by his workbench. “This however is worth some money. I’ll give you six grand for it.”

I smiled. We played this game many times before. “I see you still have your sense of humour. Twelve.”

He laughed and the bargaining continued. As expected we agreed on nine thousand. I pocketed the cash and left. I agreed to return later for drinks after I had attended to more immediate business.

* * *

After paying my more immediate debts I returned to Tony’s as promised. I bought a fine bottle of scotch for the drink he wanted. I found him still examining the locket. Even as we sat into the night drinking and chatting he seemed distracted. Finally I gave in and asked him what the problem was.

“It’s the locket.” He answered. “When I first looked at it I sensed something. After I opened it that feeling changed.”


“I don’t know. It felt wrong somehow.”

This was too much for me. I’ve never been one for reflection. I rob graves for a living; it’s not something that would help. I changed the subject and we discussed the ongoing poor fortunes of our football team.

We approached the mellow state that good whisky in good company can bring. The earlier uncomfortable moment was now forgotten. I thought I heard a church bell ring. Strange, the local church hadn’t rung its bells for years.

“Can you feel that?” Tony asked.

“What?” But I understood what he meant. The sudden chill air pressed against my skin.

I smelled something. A stench I’d often encountered. The stink of an open grave. My senses seemed clouded, probably just the drink.

Tony cried out. I looked at his shocked face and then to where he stared. For a moment she entranced me with her ethereal beauty. She wore a plain yellow dress. The dress glowed, casting a pale yellow light across her skin. I had never seen a more beautiful woman.

Her gaze focussed completely on Tony as she drifted towards him. I remained frozen. I didn’t know what to do. As she neared Tony I threw my nearly empty glass at her.

The glass flew straight through her and smashed against the wall. She didn’t appear to notice.
She placed one hand on Tony’s face and he shrieked. I didn’t know a man could make noises like that. I had to do something, so I charged at her. I shouted as loud as I could, trying to distract her.
My arm passed through her. I gasped with the sudden cold.

His shrieks stopped before I turned around. The young woman looked at me and then faded from sight. I rushed to Tony. The yellow handprint on his face, already starting to fade. I checked for signs of life and found none.

How I didn’t panic I don’t know, but somehow I managed to keep my head together. I couldn’t stay here. I wanted to call for an ambulance, but I realised it was too late. He deserved better, but I had to think of my own fate.

Only when I reached one of my bolt holes did it sink in that my friend had been killed by a ghost.

* * *

She came for me the following night about halfway through a bottle of cheaper whisky. The room turning cold gave me some warning, so I was on my feet when she appeared in the room.

I noticed something different about her. Her glow looked more pronounced. She also appeared more solid and around her neck something glittered. The locket. It looked real, not an apparition. It was obviously important to her. I wondered if it would give me some leverage. As she drifted towards me I leapt to one side and snatched the locket from her throat. My hand passed through her, but my fingers caught the locket’s chain.

Then I ran.

* * *

I ran all night, I kept moving hoping to lose her. When dawn finally broke I felt a bit safer.
Tired but alive. I now needed to decide what to do next. I remembered the locket, it had to possess some power over her, and she hadn’t appeared until after the locket had been opened.

The lock of hair. It must mean something.

I made my way across London, when I reached Tony’s place a group of press and curious bystanders were being held back by a handful of uniformed police. Tony’s body had evidently been discovered. I couldn’t get into the building until the police had left.

The day passed slowly. I walked and stopped in every coffee shop trying to stay awake. My head ached with fatigue.

Finally as the afternoon drew to a close the excitement began to die down. The sky had darkened before it looked safe enough to enter the building. Getting in was easy. The police locked the door, but didn’t activate the other security devices. I picked the lock and let myself in.

Naturally she appeared as I rummaged through the waste bin looking for the lock of hair.

Her chill breath brushed my neck. For a second I froze. Do I keep looking and hope to find it in the few seconds it would take for her to reach me? Or do I run?

I ran.

I ran with the bin held tightly. As I fled I continued searching through the trash. She followed me into the empty street. I kept running. The dread chill kept pace with me.

Finally I found the lock of hair. With a cry of triumph I placed the hair into the locket and snapped it shut. Triumphantly I turned, expecting her to be gone.

Unfortunately she remained. But now she stood motionless. Curious. No longer afraid I took the hair from the locket and the moment I did she charged me. Quickly I put the hair back and as I did so she stopped moving.

Now that was an interesting discovery.

* * *

Of course I considered doing the right thing. The correct thing. Now I had this ghost on a leash I could easily return her to her iron coffin and bind her spirit where she belonged. I even started driving down into Surrey.

But a thought stopped me.

An interesting thought. A speculative thought.

How much would a ghost be worth? Then another thought. How much would people pay to look at, or even touch a real ghost?

I turned the van around and headed back into London. After visiting Tony’s place again I helped myself to some choice pieces of jewellery. I only received scrap value for them, but the money provided enough to buy a bigger van. I made sure I bought one where the back opened up onto a flat space I could use as a stage.

And that was how I gave up grave robbing. Most nights I give the opening banter on the stage and then people, young and old, give me a tenner each to see the ghost of the Yellow Lady.
Every night in a different town, but the same in each. Hundreds of people flock to see her. Each of them with a tenner in their hand.

I’ve struck the big time I can tell you. And the sceptics are the best. They keep coming back trying to prove it’s a fake. Every viewing costs them ten pounds. I let them try whatever they want.
They even reported me to the Police, but they found no proof of a fake and provided great advertising for me as well.

Times have never been better.

How does she like it you ask? How would I know? She’s a ghost, not a real person. You can find out for yourself it you want. It will only cost you ten pounds.

. . .

One of the fun aspects of playing with tools like Midjourney is taking advantage of its iterative nature to see some random versions when you're battling with the prompt to get the perfect result. Sometimes a better technique, when you're frustrated and struggling to crafty the correct expression, is to just keep hitting the remaster or regenerate controls.

And that's how this Yellow Lady appeared. While it didn't match the tone I wanted and had some obvious problems it caught my eye. Maybe it will suit a future project, but in the meantime, it still deserved to be seen by a wider world.

Find out more about An Odd Quartet here: 

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