Archive for March, 2017

A Cold Calling – a boy-meets-ghoul story

March 30, 2017

Have you ever met a ghoul? Well, no, of course you haven’t. But it’s a term we use so loosely these days that we think we know what it means. Those faces, the ones in the cars crawling past a recent road accident, peering out, goggle-eyed, at the scene of death and devastation on the other side of the road. They’re the ghouls of our modern world.

But I have met a ghoul. Can I tell you about it? Because I have to tell someone. I really do.

I was at the cemetery, clearing away the dead flowers on my Aunt Elsa’s grave. She is – was – actually my great aunt, and she took me in when my parents died. She was, as they say, like a mother to me, and I was, as she said, the son she never had. When she died, two years ago, the main thing she left me was the house. It’s there I go home to every night, after work at the call centre. I sell insurance – cold calling, they call it. It’s a very dispiriting job, to be honest.

So, anyway, I was at the cemetery. I like it there. I imagine all the little ghosts flitting about the place. Aunt Elsa’s too. She perches on top of her gravestone, cup of tea in one hand, cigarette in the other. I tell her about my day, such as it is. It’s an interesting place, too, because, as well as the usual headstones, there are these big old tombs and mausoleums round the edge. Just like the ones in Buffy. I love Buffy. I could watch it over and over. In fact that’s what I do most evenings at home, watch my boxed sets. I don’t have much of a life, frankly. Can you tell?

This particular afternoon, I was there, as I say, tidying the dead flowers and potting up a nice chrysanthemum I’d bought. Reckoned it would last through the frosts as far as Christmas. The sun was really low, and the gravestones were casting long, long shadows over the grass between the graves.

And then one of them moved. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I looked round, and there she was. Well, I thought she was a she, it was hard to tell. Hunched to the ground, a little way behind me. So pale and small, that’s why I mistook her for a headstone shadow.

I straightened up and walked over to her. I didn’t realize then what she was. Fragile and thin, with fine, colourless hair, she stared up at me with huge eyes like milky opals. But she wasn’t scared.

She just kept gnawing away at something that looked very much like a human metatarsal, like we would a KFC wing. Her fingernails (if you could call them that, it isn’t quite the right word) were filthy, and that made me rather think it was. She was wearing an odd assortment of tattered, filthy clothes – a man’s pinstriped suit jacket, a stained gingham blouse, some kind of lacy ballet skirt – but her feet were bare and very thin and long.

Her eyes never left mine as she spat a knob of cartilage from the corner of her mouth. It ricocheted off a copper urn of faded silk flowers on the next grave.

I knelt down beside her. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” I said.

She said “Gaarngruisheckle,” or something like that. Her voice was very high and faint, and kind of rasping.

I pointed at myself and said “Kevin. KEVIN.”

She looked blankly at me, with those pale eyes.

I tried again. “Me” (point) “Kevin. You?” (point).


I don’t know if she meant that was her name. But I decided to run with it.

“Me” (point) “Kevin. You” (point) “Laarna. Where. Are. You. From? Me – from here.” I gestured around me.

And then, to my surprise, she pointed upwards. I hadn’t noticed until then that the sun had set. I could see the faint constellation she was pointing to. “Aaaal-goool-zet.”

I had no real frame of reference for how to deal with what I kind of knew she was. They don’t have ghouls in Buffy. (I think they are in some computer games, but not the ones I have.) So I was still pondering what to do when, next thing I knew, she was off, bounding on those long feet, and had vanished into the woods on the edge of the cemetery, leaving me on my own in the darkness.

I went home, and did a bit of Googling. I was worried about her. Does that sound strange? I wasn’t thrilled when I read about her diet, because it was pretty much what I thought.

I went back the next day, and she was there again, emerging from the trees as soon as she saw me. I won’t tell you what she was carrying, because you wouldn’t want to know. And so it went on like that, for some time.

I began buying the cheapest chickens I could find in the supermarket, and leaving them in the house for days, so that they started to, well, get to a state where she might like them. I can’t describe the smell, and the flies were a bit of a problem. First time I took her a couple of them, she didn’t look best pleased. Picked at them, frankly. But she got used to them. Pretty much wolfed them down after a while. I was glad, because I didn’t want her looking hungrily at Aunt Elsa’s plot, or anybody else’s.

We communicated, talked, as best we could. She seemed to make out more of what I was saying than vice versa. I just chatted away to her, really, told her about me, and my life, because it was nice to have someone who listened. I never did work out how she got here, or why, or if there were more like her around, though I think she tried to tell me.

Here’s how it ended. It was winter, and I was already tucked up in bed when I was woken by a horrendous noise from out the front of the house. I pulled back the curtain and looked out. There she was, Laarna, crouching on the lawn, looking up at me. And she raised her head, stretched open her mouth so, so wide, and gave this immense, long, deafening howl. Right at me, her breath billowing up at me on the frosty air. Quite a different kind of cold calling from what I’m used to, I can tell you. I saw lights go on in nearby houses. Mr Wheatley leaned out from opposite, but he didn’t see her. He looked across at me and called out “Bloody foxes!”, waved cheerily, and shut the window.

I looked down at Laarna. She looked up at me. I know, I think, what she wanted. I think she wanted me to go with her. I think she might have fallen a little bit in love with me. That’s what her howl told me, anyway. Just my luck, first time someone shows any interest, and it’s a ghoul. She raised her head and called again, but it was a more querulous howl this time.

And I’m ashamed to say that I was scared. I pulled the curtains closed, got back into bed, and turned out the light. Lay there staring into the darkness, hating myself, to be honest. Hours later, when I crept back over to the window, she was gone.

I went back to the cemetery the next day but she wasn’t there or, if she was, she didn’t show herself. I went again and again, but I knew really that she had gone for good. I don’t know where. Home, I hope. If not, then I hope she found someone else to give her chickens. Because it’s not good, that eating dead people thing.

So my life is back to normal now. The smell has gone from the house. I bought the West Wing boxed set – I’d had enough of Buffy and all that stuff. I’ve taken in a rescue kitten, a white one, with pale blue eyes. I call her Laarna. She likes tuna. Which is good.

Oh, and, I got a promotion at work. So now I’m not cold calling any more.

This was published in The Ghastling: Book One in 2014. To my delight there was also a print copy that I only found out about in 2017, and it’s available from


In response to the prompt “Whom Do I Admire” from Thanet Creative Writers

March 30, 2017

It was her cursive script handwriting I most admired to begin with. That curly, looping thing it seems that only Americans do. Sitting at the next desk to the new girl, I watched in awe as her exercise book filled up with fat, confident blue swirls, while mine was the scratchy, angular, backward-leaning smudge of a left-hander who never (to this day) mastered the art of the fountain pen.

Her dad was on a year’s secondment with the US Embassy. That was the only life she knew, she said, once we had got to the stage of sharing pink milkshakes in the arcade after school. Last year Dusseldorf; the year before, Buenos Aires. Always, until now, an International School, amongst her peers. But this year, in suburban Surrey, it had been deemed a good idea that she should attend the local girls’ Grammar, where she appeared like a vision in the desk next to me, all sun-blond hair and straight white teeth. The rest of us – frizzy fringes, pimples, NHS dentistry – hovered around like giddy moths to her pure flame, but it was me she chose.

Evenings supposedly sharing homework tasks were spent reading her collection of Judy Blume and S E Hinton paperbacks together and, later, raiding her mother’s bedside table for the shocking sexiness of Jacqueline Susann. We began to write our own stories, swapping after each paragraph like some kind of hormone-soaked game of consequences. I not only learned to copy her handwriting, I absorbed her voice. Witty, quick-paced, entertaining – my clunky dialogue and lumpen descriptions evolved, base metal into gold. By the end of the year, a casual reader could not have spotted any difference between the two authors of “Betrayal in Bora-Bora – a Romance by Shelly Marx and Valerie Boothby”.

There was just that one year. By the start of the new school year she was gone. Helsinki this time. I was entrusted with a box containing the many fat notebooks that made up BiBB, but I think my mum threw it out when I went off to Uni. (I hope she didn’t read them – if she did, she never said.)

We always stayed in touch by letter, and that cursive script on an envelope remained as familiar as my own hand. I’ve still got the photo of her and her handsome husband and their two boys on the beach at Bora-Bora, with “I finally made it!” written on the back. That was the year before the cancer came so fast and took her away with it.

I never married, never had a family, never made it to Bora-Bora, but my novels have been Booker shortlisted twice, among their other prizes, and sell well enough to keep me in comfort for the rest of my days. When people say of my writing, “it’s a gift” I smile and nod. You ask “whom do I admire?” It was the girl who gave this gift to me.

This is my entry for the competition.