Updated: Jan 13
Winner of the Crowvus Ghost Story competition 2020
Jane met Archie in late November, a year to the day since the death of her husband. Although she’d never considered herself sentimental about dates and anniversaries, it had hit her hard. She found herself staring through the window as she washed the morning dishes, remembering how Geoff loved that view of the woodland. Minutes went by as she stood, quite motionless, tears cooling on her cheeks.
The day was frosty and still, and Jane decided a brisk walk might shake off the melancholy. She strode along the sunken green lane behind the pub, a solitary figure in winter coat and boots. At the end, in no mood to return home, she took the footpath cutting up through the stubbly fields, empty now of the sentry-like corn which had flourished in the summer.
Before cancer bent him double, she and Geoff had loved to explore the countryside around here, particularly the old church beyond the rows of yews and skeletal oaks. She’d avoided going there without him—it seemed wrong somehow. Today, by contrast, Jane felt oddly drawn to the place, as though something compelled her to take a look.
Shadowed by the trees, she inched along a path overgrown with bracken and bramble. She squeezed through the gate, which stood rotting on its hinges. The church itself had long since fallen into decay, and only a couple of tumbledown granite walls remained. Fragments of slate from the roof littered the ground. The air smelled of damp leaves, and the yews seemed to watch silently, unstirred by the slightest ruffle of breeze.
Ascending three stone steps, a noise made her pause, instantly alert. Quiet sobbing, coming from behind the tallest wall. This place was so remote, Jane shouldn’t investigate alone, but no way could she turn her back on those plaintive cries. She crept further, ignoring the quickening in her chest, the tingling at the nape of her neck. The sound grew louder. It wasn’t sobbing—she could tell that now. More like the whimper of an animal.
Behind the moss-covered wall, a dog stood tied to a pillar. Fur totally black, ears pointed like a fox’s. Secured by a string threaded through a tatty collar. A dirty plastic bowl lay overturned, just out of reach.
The dog stopped whimpering and raised sad, droopy eyes. The thin tail gave a slight movement, as though the dog wanted to greet her, but was too dejected or weak to give a full wag.
Jane’s surprise turned to anger. Who could leave a dog in this isolated place? How long had the poor thing been here? From the skinny ribs showing through matted black fur, it might have been days.
She moved forward slowly, holding out her hand.
“It’s all right,” she whispered.
The dog remained motionless, staring into her eyes. Didn’t seem afraid, just exhausted, and glad to see a soul. She bent down and the dog sniffed her fingers. She stroked its neck, hot to the touch. Then she noticed a scrap of paper tucked into the collar. She tugged it out, unfolded it and read the spidery message.
Please look after Archie. Things have taken a bad turn for me. Can’t look after him anymore.
Jane frowned, then dropped to her knees beside the dog and gave him a gentle hug. He leaned into her, quivering slightly.
Jane untied the string and walked the dog home with her. He moved slowly, panting with the effort. Every now and then he paused to catch his breath, holding her gaze as though anxious she’d go on without him.
Inside the warm cottage, the first thing she did was put down a bowl of water. Archie lapped it up, licking the bowl dry. Next, she made a round of pilchard sandwiches and put one, broken into pieces, on a plate in front of him. Archie stared, then sniffed, and in a moment the food was gone. Jane felt encouraged. It had to be a good sign that he could eat and drink. While he ate, he seemed visibly to gain in strength, which led Jane to offer another fish.
Although she’d always loved dogs, Jane had never had one of her own, partly due to Geoff’s allergy to fur, partly to their love of travel, not wanting to be tied down. Strange how things change, she thought. Nowadays she had so few ties, she feared she might float away, and there’d be no one to pull her back.
She ought to contact a local animal shelter, or even try to track down the owner, who sounded in need of help. But even as she thought it, she realized how difficult that would be. She hated the thought of Archie being reunited with someone who clearly couldn’t cope with him. Worse still, she’d heard terrible stories of people claiming dogs who weren’t theirs, in order to sell them. Archie didn’t look like an expensive pedigree, definitely a crossbreed, she’d have said, but all the same …
Archie crouched and watched her, paws outstretched, tail gently beating the floor. The look in his brown eyes was clearly one of adoration. It wouldn’t hurt to keep him for a while, would it? While she worked out what to do?
By the time Christmas came round, all thoughts of finding Archie a home had vanished from Jane’s mind. His paws were well and truly under the table, and she wondered how she’d ever managed without him. He kept her fit, forcing her out for walks in all weathers. Best of all he loved her in the selfless, unconditional way of dogs, which few humans have mastered.
She’d had him checked by the vet and he’d been declared under-nourished, but essentially sound. He flourished under her care, and the gentle tail jerks of the first day were soon replaced by thumping great wags of approval, and barks of delight whenever Jane arrived home from a trip out. The only concern Jane had was a curious expression that came into his eyes occasionally. A worried look, maybe wistful, as though something played on his mind.
On Christmas Eve, for the first time since Geoff had died, Jane made preparations for a Yuletide feast for herself and Archie. Nothing too fattening—she didn’t want to ruin Archie’s new-found health, but there was a free range chicken to share, and he’d also be having carrots and peas, a roast potato or two.
Despite being spoiled rotten all day, Archie wasn’t himself. Instead of curling up beside Jane on the sofa to snooze after his walk, he paced the lounge, restless, looking round at her and letting out a faint whine. Jane hoped he wasn’t ill. He seemed fine otherwise, so she decided to see how things went. If he was the same by the end of the holidays, she’d take him to the vet’s.
During the night, Jane awoke from a troubled sleep. Had she heard something downstairs, coming from the kitchen, where Archie liked to sleep? Heart racing, she remained still and listened, eyes wide in the dark.
There it was again. Scratching. She must stay calm. Archie needed to go out, that was all. She scolded herself for being a fool, sensing danger in every creak and rustle. Usually Archie slept right through, but there were bound to be exceptions.
As she slipped out of bed, the scraping sounded again, and this time she heard a muffled whimper, too.
She hastened down to the kitchen and switched on the lamp. Archie stood by the back door, scratching at the wood, whining. He turned and stared, then renewed his clawing.
“You want to go out?” Jane felt puzzled by his unaccustomed behaviour, the alert expression in his eyes.
The moment she opened the door, Archie bolted down the path and disappeared among the shrubs at the bottom of the garden. Jane stood in the doorway, shivering, scanning the frosty grass. Normally, Archie ambled quietly around the lawn and borders, never venturing beyond the bushes. Where was he headed with such a sense of purpose?
No breath of wind stirred the silence. Jane waited, her skin prickling. There was a gap in the hedge beyond that dense foliage, and she’d been meaning to block it off for some time. Since Archie hated to be parted from her for even half an hour, it hadn’t been a problem until now.
Jane grabbed a coat from the door hook, slipped her bare feet into cold shoes and hurried along the path. Pulling the coat close, she forced her way between berberis and holly, fighting a growing sense of dread. The thought of losing Archie now was unbearable.
Beyond the shrubs, she glanced left into darkness, then turned right, moving between more large shrubs. She stopped, her breath catching in her throat.
Archie stood in a clearing by the hedge, a few paces ahead. There was someone with him, crouched at his side, arms around his neck. She opened her mouth to cry out, alarmed in case the stranger meant him harm. It was immediately clear, however, from their stillness, the way they leaned together, that Archie wasn’t distressed.
The man didn’t appear to have heard her. He knelt in shadow, but a sliver of moon revealed his face, upturned to the sky. A young, bearded face, lean and pale.
Jane stepped back, unsure what to do. She must intervene, in case this man wanted to make off with Archie, but she also realized how unwise it was to accost a stranger in the middle of the night. He might have a knife on him, or worse.
Her love for Archie gave her courage. She backtracked quietly for a few steps, then moved forward again, rustling branches and calling Archie’s name. Rounding the bushes, she found the two still embracing.
Archie turned his head and twitched his tail. The man looked at her. The moon vanished behind clouds, casting his face into shadow.
“He’s yours, isn’t he?” Jane said dully.
He shook his head. “No, you belong to each other. I gave up that right when I chose the next fix, the next bottle.”
“The bad turn,” Jane said, remembering the note in Archie’s collar. Things have taken a bad turn for me.
“So you don’t want to take him?” Jane cursed herself for even asking. There was no way she’d give Archie up without a fight.
“Don’t worry.” The man—scarcely more than a boy—smiled. “I had to make sure he’d found a good home, that’s all.” He tousled Archie’s fur and dropped a kiss onto his head. “I was so out of things when I left him, I don’t even remember where it was. I just hoped to God someone would come. Someone like you.”
Jane sighed. “Come inside. You look cold. Are you hungry? Come and have something to eat.”
“No, I’m going now. I just wanted to see, to make sure.”
“Things are better for you now?” Jane asked, reluctant to let him go.
“Oh, yes. Much.”
He released Archie, who, tail wagging, ran up to Jane. She hugged him and told him what a good boy he was. By the time she raised her head, the stranger had gone. Only then did she wonder how he’d found them.
Jane spent the rest of the night on the sofa, unwilling to be parted from Archie for even a second. On Christmas Day, they feasted on chicken with all the trimmings. She thanked Providence that she had him with her, safe and sound. She asked herself if she ought to do something about the man she’d found at the bottom of her garden, but had no idea what.
That evening, curled up with Archie, his head in her lap, she picked up a local newspaper she’d been meaning to read for several days. Leafing through, her gaze fell on a photo.
She gasped. The photo showed the man she’d seen, she was sure of it. There was no mistaking that thin, bearded face, those haunted eyes. The article alongside concerned homelessness. People were having to be turned away from overflowing hostels, it said, even at Christmas, even in a countryside area like this.
Her heart pounded as she studied the photo again. The young man had been found on a remote lane, dead from an overdose.
“But that can’t be right,” Jane said aloud. The newspaper was dated mid-December, and the boy was said to have died in November.
She looked at Archie, who watched her with soft, devoted eyes. All day he’d seemed puffed up with joy, as though something had been settled in his mind.
“It can’t be …” said Jane, half to herself. There must be some mistake. Some explanation. She remembered the young man’s unearthly pallor. She remembered his words. I had to make sure he’d found a good home.
Had he come back, somehow, to check up on the dog he’d let down so badly?
Archie thumped his tail, and Jane went to fetch his lead.