Once again we’ve been inundated with entries for our Christmas ghost story competition. In the run-up to Christmas we’re featuring the winners and runners-up in the 15-and-under and 16-and-over categories. Today we feature From The Mists Of Time by 16-and-over winner Jim Forrest, 69, of Hill Head.
He was there again,’ Norman said, grunting a bit as he bent down to unlace his trainers.
Margaret didn’t look up from her paper as she reached for a slice of toast.
‘I’ve poured your coffee, sit down and drink it before it gets cold.’
‘The nude swimmer, I told you about him. Well, I hope he’d been swimming, catch his death if he doesn’t keep moving. He was certainly dripping wet.’
‘Oh yes, you said yesterday. He can’t have been naked though, not in this weather.
‘It’ll be some kind of flesh-coloured wetsuit.’
‘Naked as the day he was born, I promise you.
‘You wouldn’t be in in any doubt if you came down and saw him.’
‘I’ll spare myself that treat. I don’t know why you want to go down there in the cold and the dark, before you’ve even had any breakfast.
‘You could just as easily take your walk in daylight.’
Norman levered himself on to a kitchen stool.
‘I like it when there’s a thick fog on the beach.
‘All the light and the sound deadened, it’s as if you’re all alone in the world. Primeval.’
The word came back to Norman as he trudged through the shingle early next morning.
The cold, clinging fog seemed to soak up all sounds other than the sombre, deep bass foghorn of a container ship feeling its way down the channel.
In the flat calm, even the sea was unnaturally silent. Once or twice he only realised he was approaching the water’s edge when the soft crunch of the pebbles beneath his feet began to shift to a sibilant squelch.
The man loomed out of the fog, his bare feet making no sound as he crossed Norman’s path just a few feet in front of him.
Even in the wan early dawn light, he could see water running from his matted, shoulder-length hair and trickling through the dark pelt that covered most of his body and legs.
‘Bit cold for a dip,’ Norman called out.
‘You must be hardy.’
The man turned his head, an almost animal challenge in his eyes.
Norman raised a placatory palm and the man turned away and continued his silent lope across the beach.
Something in his gait reminded Norman that traces had been found in the Solent shingle banks of the Stone Age people who had lived there when the Isle of Wight was still part of the mainland.
Flint axeheads, something like that.
‘Primeval,’ he said to himself, shivering as a cold gust tugged at the mist.
‘The beach huts were all padlocked,’ Norman told Margaret.
‘He must have left his clothes and towel in a car, or maybe he lives nearby.’
‘So he’s running naked round the street as well as the beach,’ said Margaret.
‘Do you think we should report it?’
‘Where’s the harm?’ he asked.
‘The school’s a mile away, there’s no kids around at this time.’
‘Paper rounds,’ said Margaret.
‘And in this weather he’s likely to be harming himself.
‘You said yourself he looked a bit crazy. Maybe he’s in care somewhere. Call it in if you see him again.’
‘I thought they’d just send round a PCSO on a bike,’ said Norman a few mornings later, ‘but it was like The Sweeney down there.
‘Blue lights all along the shore road, at least half-a-dozen cars and even a minibus, bobbies piling out of it to sweep-search the beach.
‘And a helicopter, clattering round in circles for ages, searchlight peering into every corner of the cliff-edge.’
‘I suppose they have to pull out all the stops if they think somebody might drown,’ said Margaret.
‘Maybe so, but I’ll think twice about phoning if I see him again. We don’t need all that hullabaloo.’
The naked man seemed to agree. As his pale, spectral body glided out from behind the undercliff shrubs, Norman instinctively reached for his phone, then thought better of using it.
But the man had seen the glow of the screen.
Rage contorted his face behind the matted beard as he lunged forward, reaching for the phone.
Norman raised his arms to push the man away... and they pushed at nothing except the swirling fog.
He stepped back slowly from the bushes, tensed to turn and run if the man should spring at him again. But he was alone once more.
The temperature dropped still further as he walked home. He pulled up the hood of his fleece against the sharp chill in the nape of his neck.
The fog was thicker than ever next day, the dawn slower to arrive.
Norman was surprisingly late back from his walk, and Margaret went outside to put out the wheely bin herself.
She frowned, puzzled at a footprint-like pattern of wet smudges on the paving.It was far too early for the postman.
In the middle of the largest of the damp patches lay a large flint, sharp-edged and grooved around its centre.
She picked it up to throw it back into the rockery and gasped at its coldness.
She feared her skin would stick to it, like the metal rails of ships she’d read of in Arctic waters.
The coffee was stewed and stone-cold by now.
She tried Norman’s mobile, and felt a twinge of anxiety as she heard the robotic message ‘the number is unavailable just now’.
Margaret overheard the pathologist as she waited weeks later to be called into the stark lab to identify her husband.
‘Straightforward drowning, as far as I can tell, but it’s difficult when a body’s been in the water for so long.
‘There’s a bad gash on the back of his head, but he could have passed out and fallen backwards, or even been dashed against a rock by the waves.
‘Must have been some wave, though, to break the skull like that.
‘Almost like an axe blow.’