In The Long Hot Summer by Daniel Brown is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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IN THE LONG HOT SUMMER
By Daniel Brown
Most people have a spooky story to tell, something that happened to them that they can’t quite explain. For the most part they are all much of a muchness, thinking about their great aunt Mabel who they haven’t seen in years an instant before the phone call informing them that she just died; smelling their fathers aftershave around the house two days after the funeral. All very normal and all very easily explained, coincidence or grief, sometimes just mistaking something perfectly normal and their own mind filling in the blanks to make it something weirder than it really was. None of this explains what happened to me back in nineteen ninety five, although I sometimes wish it did, maybe then I would be able sleep properly. I might even be able to enjoy summertime again, but perhaps that season has been permanently tainted in my memory. The only reason I haven’t spoken about this, or put it down on paper before is the certainty that no-one, not even my wife or closest family would believe what I’m about write. I only ask that if you see me in the street or get involved in correspondence with me please, don’t bring it up. I’m only telling once and what I tell you is exactly what happened.
The summer of ninety-five was a hot one, and up until august one of the best of my life. I had finally found a girlfriend, I was due to start college in September and my parents’ financial troubles had finally cleared up, meaning I was no longer the poor kid relying on his mates to fund any recreational substances to while away the long summer evenings. The days were long and boring, but we made up for it by letting the nights roll past in a haze of joint smoke, snakebites and some really heavy petting with our girlfriends. If some kids from one of the other council estates near ours wandered past and felt like starting a fistfight well, we wouldn’t want to disappoint them. Bad for the image you see.
Now before I go any further, I need to set one thing absolutely straight. On this particular night I hadn’t taken any drugs at all and I had only drunk one can of cider all day, on account of my girlfriend coming over from Pegswood and me having always been prone to brewer’s (or smoker’s) droop. We had spent the afternoon in a friend of mine’s back yard; let’s call him Malcolm, I’m telling what happened but the other people involved might not appreciate me throwing their names around; we had been doing what we did most afternoons, listening to reggae music at tooth shaking volume and talking bullshit, claiming to have screwed this or that girl when all we had actually done was finger her through –not in- her knickers; claiming that a friend (usually non-existent) who the others didn’t know had set us up with this amazing dope (also, sadly, fictional), no throat burn and trips like you’ve dropped an acid tab, you know the sort of thing.
Somehow the conversation got around to the primary school we had all gone to, how much we had enjoyed it and how secondary and high schools were hell holes compared to the place, so that by the time we were finished talking about it, in our heads the school was heaven on earth and the teachers were one step removed from sainthood. It wasn’t of course, the teachers were as lazy and incompetent as others we’d had at later schools and the place was falling down around the pupils ears, but nostalgic talk on a hot summer afternoon with the strains of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” in the background, that can make anything seem brighter and more like perfect than it really was. To cut an already long story slightly shorter, we decided that as it got later we would break into the place and have a look around, think about the old days and raise a can of special brew to good times gone forever. The irony of sixteen year olds toasting the old days passed us by completely, teenagers always taking themselves and what they say so seriously.
As the day wore on the feeling of pleasant expectation wore off, its place being taken by a sense of edgy tension. Looking back it’s easy to say it was foreboding, but none of us were flighty enough to even think about that sort of thing. A more likely explanation was the fact that we knew we would be breaking the law properly. Despite the booze, drugs and fighting none of us were serious criminal types. If some idiot left a push-bike hanging around unsecured we wouldn’t hesitate to nick it, but breaking into somewhere was a different thing entirely; if we got caught doing this there would be some heavy repercussions and we all knew it.
The good natured banter was beginning to pick up more than a hint of nastiness, we were all starting to square our shoulders and waiting to see if we would be the first one to swing a punch or get head butted. The girls couldn’t have timed their arrival better if they had tried to. For the only time I can remember we were all coupled up, five lads and five girls, no one playing gooseberry and, amazingly considering how old we were, there was no one trying to get off with someone else’s partner or any of that crap. Suddenly instead of five nervous lads trying to out-macho each other, it was five lads full of bravado trying to convince their girlfriends to come along for the ride, telling them what a laugh it would be and what a great story it would make when we all went off to work or college or whatever. (For most of us, including myself for long periods, it turned out to be the dole queue.)
By about nine-thirty we had all of the girls convinced, a few snakebites having worked wonders for their sense of adventure, and we set off for the school. Carl, my closest friend at the time, told us to walk ahead and he would catch us up. He had gone to convince his older brother David who, unlike us, was a serious criminal type to help us get into the building without tripping the alarm. David and Carl caught up with us before we had even gotten around the corner, David being keen to keep me on his good side since my older sister was quite a looker and he was always asking me to put a good word in for him. I never had the heart to tell him he had no chance, imagine a bald chimp with chronic acne and yellow teeth and you have a perfect mental image of him back then. Add thirty pounds or so around the gut and you have him as he is now.
Is it just me or am I rambling a bit? Even now twelve years and several miles away, sitting alone and putting the words on paper instead of speaking aloud to people who might call me mad, a liar or both I still find myself hesitating. By now you must be anxious to know what the hell has me so shaken up? OK, but you won’t like what I tell you.
We reached the school in good order, having a lot of fun boosting a bunch of girls in short summer skirts over the playground wall as we went. David let us into the building as the last of the true daylight gave way to dusk, before scuttling away like a scalded dog. His last words before he left still ring in my ears now.
“Better you lot than me, old Scranner Bill’s supposed to wander around the place after dark. You’ll not catch me going in for love nor money.” With that he was back over the wall and pelting home as fast as legs would carry him. The four girls from Ashington shuddered and the lads, including me, tried hard to pretend that the mention of the name hadn’t bothered us in the slightest. My girlfriend Cheryl, being from Pegswood, didn’t know the local legends, but the looks that had passed between everyone else were enough to have her worried. She looked up at me, her eyes full of questions and being a horny sixteen year old I was happy to give them, a scared girl being that much more willing to cuddle up. I leaned into her and lowered my voice to provide just the right pitch.
“Do you want know about Scranner Bill?” she nodded slightly, obviously unnerved but like any teenager always ready for a scary tale. I looked at the others and they all nodded as well. I shrugged my shoulders, as if to say, -On your own heads, be it- and paused to light a cigarette for dramatic effect. I then told the old story exactly as it was told to me.
“Scranner Bill lived in one of the houses next to the Pavilion bingo hall just down there.” I nodded towards the large bingo hall that was separated from the school yard by a narrow alleyway and a not very high brick wall. “This was way back in the twenties, maybe even before that. Bill was a bit weird, didn’t leave the house very much, he never used to get washed or change his clothes, he looked like a right scranner so everyone took to calling him Scranner Bill and the name stuck. Ashington people were really proud back then you see, largest mining village in the world and everything, so someone who walked around like that stood out a bit. Bill had a wife at first but she ran off with the milkman or the tickie-man or someone. Well Scranner still had needs you know, but none of the women would go anywhere near him. There was no porn films or anything like that all those years ago, so Bill just found himself getting randier and randier. Eventually he must have thought to himself that if a woman wouldn’t go with him willingly, then maybe he could take what he wanted by force, because he took to hanging around the Hirst park and jumping out on women taking a short cut and grabbing a feel of whatever he could get hold of.
“Naturally, he couldn’t carry on like that for long before he got caught; then sure enough one night he jumped out on a lass to do his pervy thing and it turned out the lassies boyfriend was walking twenty yards behind her to catch the twat who had been harassing women on a night time. Scranner tried to make a run for it but the lass held onto his arm while her bloke caught up and old Bill got the shit kicked out of him. Supposedly he was in hospital for months, he got most of his teeth knocked out or broken and back then there wasn’t an N.H.S. so he couldn’t get falsies or the broken ones fixed.
“When he got out of hospital, the word had got around what a creep he was and all the windows of his house had been put out and the women used to cross the road when they saw him. Blokes would ignore him completely or swing a kick at him as he passed. He certainly wasn’t getting any action now, willing or otherwise and he started to twist even further when the kids in the area picked up on the name Scranner Bill and started chanting it at him when he went out for his shopping. The grown ups all hated him as well so no one used to give the young ‘uns wrong when they would go to his house and throw stones or rotten fruit and veg at his windows. After a little while he decided to kill two birds with one stone and solve his randiness and get some revenge on the kids all at once.” I pointed towards the ramshackle outbuilding at the bottom of the school yard, joining onto the wall nearest the bingo hall. “That used to be the school toilets, there not being any indoor toilets for poor people back then. If you wanted to use the netty back then you walked all the way to the end of the playground, a hundred yards away from the nearest teacher, then go into gloomy, unlit stalls and do your business as quick as you could. Can you guess what dirty old Scranner’s next trick was?” Cheryl’s eyes widened in shock. Before she could say anything I leaped in with the final twists in the sick little tale.
“That’s right. He took to lurking in the stalls in the girls end, with a cut-throat razor in his hand. When a little lassie opened his stall he would grab her and put his hands over her mouth before the poor little soul could even scream. He would show the terrified little mite the razor and tell her that if she told anyone what happened he would come to her house and cut her and her mammy and daddies throats in their beds. The little girls kept their mouths shut of course, so he was able to do this to a lot of kids before the teachers figured out anything was going on. It wasn’t until the older kids, eight or nine years old, started wetting themselves rather than go down to the toilets that the grown ups clicked that anything was wrong.
“One day one of the teachers sent the janitor, a big bloke who’d fought in world war one, down to the toilets to find out why the girls were so terrified of going there, so he took a big stick with him expecting to find a rat’s nest or something. He went through the stalls one by one, until he reached the one second from last. As he opened the door Scranner lunged out expecting to find a little girl who would freeze with shock. Instead he finds a burly janitor with a bloody great stick in his hands and Scranner runs for it. In his panic Scranner runs into the main building instead of out through the main gates. The janitor’s right on his heels so he panics further and pelts up the stairs to the top floor. When he gets there he hasn’t got a clue what to do next so he bursts into the library and sees a little lass there picking a book. He grabs the little lass around the shoulders and puts the razor to the kids’ throat screaming at the janitor to get away or he’ll cut her open. The janitor backs off and starts yelling for someone to get the police.
“When he hears the police mentioned old Scranner really panics. Child molesters have a life of hell in jail now, but back then the guards didn’t keep them in separate cells or anything like that to protect the bastards from the other inmates. He knocks the little lass down and puts the razor to his own throat. Before he cuts it though he screams at the top of his voice that no child will ever be safe in that building because he’ll walk the halls forever after, even death won’t stop him having his fun” Cheryl had gone as white as a sheet and even the others, who all knew the story were looking a little apprehensive. I drew my finger rapidly across my throat in a cutting motion. Everyone jumped, Cheryl and Carl’s girlfriend Tracy screamed. The tension was broken and we all laughed, even I couldn’t keep up my dramatic storytelling face. I was still smiling when I told them the final lines of the legend. “They say that Scranner Bill still haunts the place, his ghost wandering up and down the corridors looking for another little girl to molest. It’s a load of crap, mind.” Cheryl looked slightly more relaxed but still a touch nervous, just the right side of scared for snuggling under my arm as we poked around inside the school.
“David believed it though. He ran like the clappers after fixing the alarm.” Cheryl said.
“Aye, but he’s a pillock.” I told her. She still looked a little nervous, so God help me I encouraged her. “If he really believed anything was in there, would he have let his little brother come in after dark? He fancies my sister as well, so letting me put myself in danger isn’t the best way to win her over, is it? He was just trying to make us scared. That’s the sort of shit big brothers and sisters do.” She nodded her head, convinced by my perfectly sensible arguments. “Besides, I’m here to look after you aren’t I?” We all took one last look at the outside of the building, a redbrick Victorian monstrosity, its shabbiness matched only by its ugliness and stepped inside.
Inside the school we all travelled packed closely together at first, the legend still close to the front of our minds. Gradually we began to loosen up as we reminisced about the teachers we had known, marvelled at how tiny the chairs and desks were and generally lost ourselves in nostalgia. We looked in the assembly hall, stared at the tiny moveable platform where I had made my stage début in a school play of the Three Little Pigs. Cheryl laughed and made “aww” noises when I told her about my big bad wolf costume, which had floppy ears like a rabbit and a perky, curled up tail like a Labrador puppy.
After looking at how minuscule the toilets were Cheryl asked me to show her upstairs. Everyone else had found a quiet corner to amuse each other in, so I agreed thinking that a little privacy wouldn’t go amiss. Halfway up the stairs we stopped on the little landing where the headmasters’ office was. I couldn’t help myself; I had never liked the headmaster of the place so I forced the door of the office and marched over to sit on the swivel chair behind his desk. Cheryl walked over, sat on my lap and- well let’s say hands wandered. After a few extremely pleasant moments had passed we left the office and walked up the last few flights of the twisting staircase.
The upstairs cloakroom was exactly as I remembered it, although the coat hooks had seemed higher to me when I used them as a child. I kissed Cheryl and told her to look around while I used the urinal in the boys’ toilet. She asked me where the library was and I pointed her through the heavy fire door, into the long narrow corridor which bisected the upper floor of the building and told her it was the first door on the left. I went into the toilets and chuckled when I had to squat so that I could pee into the trough.
As I emptied my bladder, an odd sensation crept over me. The feeling that I wasn’t alone. I glanced over my shoulder and of course there was no one else in the room, yet the feeling wouldn’t leave. Memories began to seep back into my mind, not the warm glow of nostalgia, but of lonely, terrifying walks down a seemingly endless corridor to use the bathroom; all the while a sinister presence lingered behind me. An oppressive weight hanging in the air as the all pervading sense of being watched and somehow mocked followed me from classroom to bathroom and back.
My urine dried up midstream as memories of countless terrified visits to these very toilets filled me completely, the horrified knowledge that this was only half of the ordeal finished and that to get back to class I would have to walk once again past the library where he could be lurking waiting to leap out and grab me, press his razor to my throat and- CHERYL! I couldn’t even fasten my fly as I leaped towards the door. Still the sensation of being watched hung over me as I grabbed the handle and pulled the door. It wouldn’t budge, not even an inch as I heaved and wrenched with every ounce of muscle that I had. Cold breath pricked against the back of my neck and the feeling of being mocked once again hung heavy in the air, I pummelled the door and screamed for Cheryl, telling her to get out, to run like hell.
No sooner had the first syllable passed my lips when the urinals cleaning cycle kicked in with a screech from the plumbing. I turned to see what the noise was and still the presence was behind me, despite the door being pressed into my back. Even as I registered what was happening with the urinals, the long chains from the wall mounted cisterns in the stalls began to descend on their own one after another and the taps in all the sinks spun round to full pressure. The sound of all the rushing water and groaning from the pipes drowned out my shouts completely. I turned back to the door, feeling the presence shift so as to be behind me all the time and once more began to wrench at the handle.
After what felt like an eternity, yet couldn’t have been more than a minute the water noises subsided. I took a deep breath and bunched myself to yell as loudly as I had ever done before when suddenly the force holding the door closed vanished and the heavy wooden handle flew back towards me, striking me hard on the chin. I collapsed to the floor, momentarily stunned, as the door swung open ahead of me. The sensation of otherness vanished as suddenly as it came and I jumped to my feet, shaking my head to clear it as I lunged for the door before it closed again. Then I heard Cheryl scream, long and loud, the most blood-curdling sound I have ever heard a human being make.
Despite being only ten or twelve paces away through a fire door, the journey to the library was the longest I have ever made. Cheryl’s scream was still echoing in my ears as I burst into the library to find my girlfriend and get her out of this nightmare, but the sight awaiting me was almost more than I could bear. Cheryl was floating at least three feet off the ground and pinned against the wall, her short denim skirt was pushed up past her navel and despite her struggling to hold them her knickers were being stretched away from her body by a force I couldn’t see. As I moved forward to reach her, the air in front of her shimmered and I could see her attacker clearly. A man was pinioning her shoulders and pressing her into the wall, but his feet were also floating above the ground. I stepped to my left to get a better angle for grabbing him when the air shimmered again and the floating man was gone and in his place an identical figure standing halfway in and halfway out of the floor wrenching at Cheryl’s underwear. Cheryl saw me and recognition flared in her eyes, recognition and hope. Hope that her boyfriend would make it all stop, make it all OK again. Her attacker saw that look too, his head twitched in my direction and then it happened.
He moved without moving; a sort of flickering, like a piece of film with several frames missing; travelling from one place to another without crossing the space in-between. As he turned towards me I could see everything clearly for the first time. It wasn’t more than one attacker, but one attacker in more than one place. I looked at the man, now in three different places at the same time and struggled to hold my mind together as realization dawned. His head began rising towards my own and I saw the lank, matted hair; the broken and rotted teeth and smelled a foul stench, like rotting meat and sulphur. It was him, Scranner Bill and he was coming towards me. His head rose fully and as I met his gaze his eyes blazed red, like hot coals when air blows across them. He grinned and raised his right arm above his head; I saw a glimmer of light playing on the steel of a cut-throat razor and I broke, utterly. I ran.
I ran like a madman, with no direction or destination in mind, I simply had to escape from the terror in front of me. Cheryl’s anguished scream was the last thing I remember hearing clearly that night as I leapt down the twisting staircase four steps at a time. It was a miracle that I didn’t break my neck and sometimes, when I lie awake at night trying desperately not to remember, I wish that I had. I ran for what felt like hours, so panicked and half crazed with fear that I didn’t even end up at home, not far at all from the school.
Instead the next thing I remember is standing at Church Point in Newbiggin, convinced that I was about to die of a heart attack and as I recalled why I was standing there hoping that I would. I thought about just walking into the sea, letting the current wash me offshore and dying of hypothermia, but I lacked the courage for that as well.
Well, there it is. Is it what you were expecting? I didn’t think it would be. Do you want to know what happened next? Nothing. That’s real life for you, though isn’t it? No happy endings, no neat conclusions tying up loose ends, just weak human beings dealing with the consequences of their actions, every single day. I should tell you what happened to Cheryl, you’ve come this far so I owe you that much.
About a month after the incident I saw her on Ashington high street. She walked up to me, reached out as if to touch my arm then pulled away. She looked me in the eye and said in a voice so gentle it breaks my heart even now to think of it,
“I understand, you know. You couldn’t stop it, I’m- I’m sorry.” That was the last time I saw her. She went to live with a relative in Ireland not long after that. I understand she’s married with a couple of kids now, I still see her parents around Pegswood occasionally and they tell me news about her. I can only assume they don’t know what happened. As for the rest of the group from that night, I don’t see them any more; I mean who still has the same friends as when they were in high school anyway? That’s what I always tell people anyway and sometimes I even believe it myself.
By the way if you ever get the fucking stupid urge to go the school yourself, it’s too late thank God. It was pulled down a few years ago and a new one was built on what used to be the sports field. I don’t know what stands where the old building was, I don’t go to that part of town any more. The bingo hall is still there, although it’s a Gala bingo these days, my wife plays there occasionally. I’ve done a little historical research though and I don’t think he ever lived in those houses on the side, so please, don’t bother the people who live there and, if you have any soul at all don’t bother me. I’ve said all I will about ghosts, and I won’t be speaking of the subject again as long as I live.
– END –