sjhstrangetales

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A simple, but interestingly different one to do, as it requires no butter/margarine or flour.   They are also nice and light, a bit like fortune-cookies, but without the messages inside.

INGREDIENTS

2 egg whites

100g icing sugar, sifted

100g ground almonds

100g desiccated coconut

75g chopped glace cherries

METHOD

  1.  Preheat oven to 150degsC/300degsF/Gas2.  Grease and line 2 baking trays with baking paper.
  2. Whisk the egg whites until stiff.
  3. Fold in the icing-sugar, then fold in the ground almonds and coconut.  Finally fold in the chopped glace cherries.
  4. Using a teaspoon, put the dough mixture onto the baking trays, moulding them into little round shapes (this part is very sticky).  Bake for 25 minutes, or until they are pale golden in colour.  Cool in the baking trays for a few minutes, and then transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.  It’s supposed to make about 20, but I suppose that depends on how big or little you make them.

 

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Dictionary definition: dystopia – an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad

 

 “Do you need a sanitary towel or a tampon?” the guard asked.

 “What??” Martha exclaimed, shaking her head as if to try and dislodge the confusion that was within “W-what are you talking about?”

 “It’s regulation”, said the guard “We have to ask you this before we lock the doors for the night”.

 “No I don’t need a tampon”, said Martha, impatiently “I need to know what I’m doing here!  I have no idea why I’m here!”

 “They all say that”, said the guard, tonelessly, slamming the door closed behind her.  

 “Damnit!” Martha shouted at the resolutely shut metal door.

 She turned and threw the pillowcase containing the few possessions she was allowed to keep on the hard mattress.  

 Martha stood in the middle of the tiny, whitewashed cell and looked around her in despair.  It was claustrophobically small.  A metal bedframe and mattress took up most of one wall, with a sink barely larger than a soup-bowl at the bottom.  Against the opposite wall was a table and chair, and next to it was a lavatory, with a push-button set in the wall for the flush.  Directly opposite the door was a window, set high up into the wall.  To see out she would have to stand on the chair and raise herself on tiptoe.  Martha decided to leave that little treat until daylight hours, when she might at least be able to see something.  

 For the past couple of hours she had been kept sitting on a wooden bench in a waiting-room, along with about half-a-dozen other equally bewildered women.  Some were so shocked by what had happened to them, that they literally couldn’t speak.  

 One by one the women had been processed through the Entry System.  Martha had been told to go into a cubicle and strip completely, and don the grim regulation bath-robe which had been left in there.  She was given a cursory medical, which consisted of her being weighed, having her blood pressure taken, and then a doctor barking various questions at her about her medical history.  Directly from there she had been hustled into a communal shower area, where she was brusquely ordered to wash her hair as well.  

 From there she was sent, wet-haired, to a counter in front of some shelves, and given her new clothes.  Some unspeakably horrific underwear in a scratchy, coarse material, which looked as if it should belong to a Victorian workhouse matron, a shapeless navy blue dress, with an equally shapeless navy blue cardigan, some woolly tights and brown, clodhopping shoes.   Martha could have cried with despair at these items alone.  She had also been handed a long white nightgown in a thick linen material, and a face-towel and soap.  The possessions she had arrived with, such as her jewellery, and the contents of her handbag, had all been taken away and stuffed into a large jiffy-bag.  The only personal things she had been allowed to hang onto were her hairbrush and her electric toothbrush.  

 From there they had been escorted into the main part of what Martha could only assume was a prison.  The central atrium was huge, with a domed glass ceiling far above her head.  Three walkways, edged by numerous doors leading to other tiny cells, circled round.  Netting was erected between each floor, presumably to stop desperate women from hurling themselves over the railings.  

 Martha was sensible enough to know that nothing was going to change tonight.  Whether she liked it or not she was going to have to spend the night in this grim little cell, but come the morning she would demand answers.  A wave of homesickness spread over her that almost felled her.  She had been given no way of contacting anyone back home.  Her mobile phone had been taken away from her almost immediately this nightmare had begun.

 On the table was a pamphlet detailing the rules and regulations of the prison, and a small notepad with a cheap pen.  “You are allowed to send out one letter per week”, the pamphlet decreed.  There was no mention at all of how many she would be allowed to receive in return.   FEMALE HOLDING AREA No. 3594 were the words on the cover of the pamphlet.  No. 3594? Thought Martha, was that the number of this cell, or the number of the prison?  Holding Area??  

 Reluctantly Martha changed into the long, baggy nightdress and lay down on the mattress.  There were no sheets or a duvet on the bed, only a fawn-coloured blanket to pull over herself.  Martha tried to go over what had happened before she had found herself being bundled into a windowless van by some faceless guards wearing helmets with full-face visors, and flak jackets, and brandishing truncheons.  

 All she could remember was that she had been spending the night with Jerry in a city centre hotel.  They had been having fun snapping silly pictures of each other on their mobiles, as they had romped together in the en-suite bathroom.  “Don’t you DARE put this on your Facebook page!” Martha had laughed at one point.  

 She couldn’t remember anything after that.  Anything at all.

 

 Somehow she had managed to snatch a few hours sleep.  It had taken her a moment, on waking, to get her bearings, and for one optimistic moment she had hoped that the whole thing had been a dream.  Unfortunately it wasn’t.  Martha reached out and touched the bare wall.  It was solid.  The whole bastard thing was real.  

 A bell rang out loudly, and the overhead light snapped on, blazing into her eyes.  There was movement beyond the metal door.  She could hear footsteps tramping rhythmically along the metal walkway.  It was daytime.  Good, I might get some answers, she thought.  

 Suddenly a hatchway, set into the bottom of the door, shot up, and a bowl was shoved unceremoniously through it, skidding slightly along the bare concrete floor.  It contained a vile-looking grey mush, which was presumably meant to be porridge.  

 “Hey!” Martha ran across the room and hammered on the door “When do I get to see someone?  You can’t keep me in here all the time!”

 “The Governor will see you later this morning, now pipe down”, came a disembodied voice from the other side of the door.  

 The food in the bowl was disgusting.  It tasted and smelt every bit as unpleasant as it looked.  Martha prodded at it with the plastic spoon she had been allocated, but couldn’t bring herself to eat any of it.  

 “I guess I’ll have to go hungry for now”, she said, putting the bowl on the table.  Her appetite was non-existent anyway.  The prospect of getting up any urge to eat in her current worried state was remote.

 For the next couple of hours she sat at the table and tried to compose a letter to her parents, but the whole thing felt ridiculously surreal.  She had no idea where she was, or why she was there.  She also had little confidence that the letter would reach them.  She listened out for the noises surrounding her, hoping that it would give her some clue as to what was going on.  At one point she heard a woman sobbing nearby, who was quickly silenced by one of the guards shouting “quiet in there!”

 Finally there came the rattle of a key in the lock.  Martha leapt to her feet.  One of the guards appeared in the doorway and gestured for her to come out.  

 Martha was led along the walkway to the stairs.  There were other women also tramping along the metal floor, all of them with their eyes cast down, as if desperate not to catch anybody’s eye.  Martha noticed that all of them, like her, were fairly young.  There didn’t seem to be any over the age of 40.  

 At the bottom of the stairs she was led to a wooden bench in a side corridor which led off the main atrium.  She found herself sitting with 4 other women, who were all instructed not to speak at all.

 “Inmate 594, Governor”, said the Officer who showed her into an office.

 “Come in 594”, came a grinding, emotionless voice.

 “My name is Martha Chartley”, said Martha, having to adjust her eyes to the brightness of the desk light.  

 It seemed to have been deliberately fitted that way to disconcert visitors, a trick Martha had seen done in old gangster movies.  

 “You are now Inmate 594”, came the voice again “You left your name behind when you entered the main gates”.

 “You make it sound as if I entered voluntarily!” Martha protested “I don’t even know why I’m here!  What have I been charged with?  The last I remember I was in a hotel with my boyfriend, and now suddenly I’m in prison?!  None of this makes sense!”

 “Try not to get excited 594”, said the Governor.

 “But please tell me why I’m here!” said Martha “I have a right to know!  I may not be an expert on the Law, but I do know I am entitled to know what I have been charged with, and I am entitled to make a phone call!”

 “These aren’t normal circumstances 594”, the Governor leaned forward on her desk, and Martha almost recoiled.  She had never seen someone so ugly and desiccated in all her life.  The Governor was gaunt to the point of emaciation, and her skin seemed to have been pulled back tightly, and resembled aged parchment in texture.  By contrast her teeth seemed too large for her face, like a mummified skeleton.  Her hair though was thick and dark, and piled on her head like a badly-fitting wig.  

 “What’s happened?” said Martha, who felt close to tears “Can I at least telephone my parents?  They will be worried sick if they don’t hear from me soon”.

 “It is in your best interests to accept your new life 594”, said the Governor “Try and go with the flow as much as you can.  Keep your head down.  Any rebellion or infringement of the rules whatsoever will result in severe punishment, and may even entail you being taken up to Level 9”.

 “Level 9?” said Martha “What the hell is Level 9?  You make it sound like a computer game!”

 “It is not a game, I can assure you”, said the Governor “Very far from it.  This is your reality now, 594, and as I said, it is better for you to accept it”.

 “But at least tell me why I’m here!” Martha shouted “You owe me that much at least!”

 “I owe you nothing, 594”, said the Governor “Take her out, Officer”.

 “Very good, Governor”, said the uniformed officer, who tapped Martha on the arm and indicated the doorway.

 “What happens to me now?” said Martha, when they had got back out in the corridor.

 “For the time being you will spend most of the day in your cell”, said the Officer “Apart from two 30-minute periods, in the morning and the afternoon, when you will be allowed to go out into the exercise yard”.

 “How long am I here for?” said Martha “No one’s even told me that!”

 “That hasn’t been decided yet”, said the Officer.   

 

 Back in her cell, Martha stood in the middle of the room and chewed on her fingers.  The thought did cross her mind that she had died and gone to Hell.  Although she couldn’t imagine what she had done in her short 22 years on Earth to merit this level of punishment.   And in any case, Hell didn’t exist.  It was only complete religious nutters who believed in it these days.  

 After another disgusting meal had been shoved through the door – this time a kind of watery stew, in which floated gristle and mashed potato – Martha was summoned out for afternoon exercise.  She had a hope that with this she at least might be able to communicate with some of the other inmates.  

 The exercise yard was a small walled area off the ground floor.  There was a wooden canopy for when the weather was bad, but otherwise most of the women walked around in a desultory circle.  Martha scanned the grey sky looking for signs of normality, such as the contrail of a plane going over, but it was hard to see anything other than the grey clouds.  

 She noticed a girl standing towards the edge of the yard.  She had a dyed pink streak in her hair, and Martha gravitated towards her.  Nobody had mentioned a rule about No Talking, and she thought that someone who had put a pink streak in their hair might have something more of a spark to them.  

 “My name’s Martha”, she said, when she got near her.  

 The girl looked at her with a “so what?” expression.  

 “What’s your name?” asked Martha.

 “Amber”, the girl mumbled.  

 “Look I know this is going to sound really dumb”, said Martha “But I have no idea where I am or why I’m here!  I was hoping you could help me”.

 “None of us know why we’re here”, said Amber.  

 “You mean you have no memory of getting here either??  How long have you been here?”

 “A few days … I think.  It’s hard to keep track of time here.  Each day’s exactly the same, it all rolls into one”.  

 “Why is everyone so damn dopey all the time?” said Martha “Everyone seems to just be accepting it!”

 “No one’s accepting it”, Amber spat “You think any of us want to be here?  If we’re dopey, as you put it, it’s because They haul you off to Level 9 for the slightest thing”.

 “What’s so bad about that place?” asked Martha.

 “I don’t know”, Amber shrugged “All I know is nobody ever comes back from it”.

 

 Martha tried not to torment herself with thoughts of home.  Every time she thought of her parents, Jerry, her friends, her pet cat Delilah, she felt swamped by grief so acute that it was physically painful.  Did they have any idea where she was?  What was happening to them?  Was this some weird, nightmare new world?  She had come across scenario’s like this in books and films, of a grim new era, where people were treated callously, like cattle, by a brutal totalitarian system, but it was the stuff of imagination, of fantasy.  How on earth was a person supposed to function, when they didn’t know if this was only going to last for a time, or if she was condemned to it forever?

 And what kind of a prison was it that only had young women in it?  Where were the old lags?  Oh God, I’m not in some kind of alien breeding farm am I?  But as the days rolled by, nobody came to hassle her for anything.  She was left sitting perched on the edge of her bed, staring up at the sky through the window of her cell, and wondering what the hell was going on.

 

 She had left her letter to her parents in the designated slot outside her cell door one morning.  When she had returned from the exercise period it had gone.  Deep down she had no confidence that it would reach them though.  But she had no other way of letting out her feelings, so she sat down and wrote one to Jerry as well.

 Dear Jerry, I have no idea where I am.  Did they get you too?  Are you in a men’s prison somewhere?  I’ve tried standing on a chair in my cell here and looking out through the window, but all I can see are the grey roofs of the rest of the prison.  I don’t know what happened.  I seem to have some kind of amnesia about  how I got here.  I’ve tried going over and over it in my mind, to try and bring it all back, but I can only remember a bit about some guards hustling me into a van, and before that, being in the bathroom with you.  This is all so awful.  There is no one I can talk to here, apart from a girl I meet sometimes during Exercise, and we have to be very careful how often we’re seen talking together.  We’re allowed no TV, no Internet, no radio, no newspapers, so I have no idea what’s going on.  They tell me NOTHING ….

 She had to force herself to break off there.  She didn’t want to use up all the paper in the flimsy notepad, and the pen seemed the sort that would run out in no time at all.  She resumed her usual stance of staring at the patch of sky through the window.

 

 Perhaps it’s some kind of Reality TV game-show?  She thought, desperately.  Perhaps there are hidden cameras everywhere, spying on me, relaying my long, boring hours to people sitting at home with nothing better to do?  But no.  No one I know would be cruel enough to put me through this as a joke, and anyway, there must be laws against doing it to people without their permission.  The TV company would have the arse sued off them if they did this to people in the form of Entertainment.  

 

 Trying to keep clean was becoming a priority.  Apart from the tiny basin in her cell, Martha had no means of attending to personal hygiene.  Her hair was starting to bother her greatly.  She wore it long and wavy, and was used to washing it in a hot shower every day.  She had tried rinsing it in the sink, but it had only been able to dab at parts of it.  Her electric toothbrush was running out of power, and there was no way to recharge it.  Martha had to resort to rubbing her teeth with her finger instead.  Worst of all was the fact that the one small roll of toilet-paper, which had been left on the floor in her cell, had run out, and no one had replaced it, even though she had asked the guard several times.  

 

 Amber was leaning against the wall in the exercise yard, absently poking at the brickwork with her fingers.  She seemed even more lethargic than ever, and when Martha approached her, her eyes widened with a “don’t speak to me, They won’t like it” expression.  But Martha was desperate for some form of human communication which didn’t involve a uniformed drone giving non-committal answers.

 “What did you do on the Outside?” asked Martha.  

 “I was a chef”, Amber mumbled.

 “Cool!” said Martha, who was genuinely impressed.

 “It was no big deal”, Amber shrugged “It was just in some grotty chain pub.  The hours were awful.  But I had plans.  I wanted to have my own place one day, but I guess all chefs have those kind of dreams”.

 “Can you remember anything about how you got here?”

 Amber shook her head.

 “Nothing”, she said “The last thing I can remember was I was setting off for work one morning.  I remember stuffing my chef’s whites into my kit-bag, and leaving a note on the kitchen table that I had to ring Mum when I got home.  She’s not been well lately.  I can’t remember anything after that.  The next thing I knew … watch out”.

 Two of the guards, standing on the other side of the yard, suddenly seemed to be showing a lot of interest in them.

 “We’d better split up”, said Amber, and she set off for a zombie-like stroll around the area.

 Martha felt a spasm of rage.  Goddammnit!  How did They expect people to live without any form of communication whatsoever?  Even as prisoners they were entitled to some basic Human Rights surely?  There were laws about this sort of thing.  

 

 She wasn’t terribly surprised when Amber didn’t appear at the next Exercise Period.  Martha had a feeling They would try and punish her this way.  By now she knew better than to try and ask anyone what had happened to her, and for all she knew, she might accidentally make it worse for Amber just by asking.  

 The daily life (if it could be called that) in the prison had that effect on you in the end.  It sucked all the life out of you, and left you utterly listless and defeated.  

 

 They came for her in the middle of the night.  She had feeling that this was Their favourite modus-operandi too.  Occasionally she had heard muffled noises during the nocturnal hours, which had suggested some kind of clandestine activity was afoot.  

 She had been lying in her bunk.  The overhead light had been off for hours, so it must have been very late.  The metal door was suddenly flung open, and two guards, both with scarves tied over their faces as if they were fearing infection, appeared.

 “Get your clothes on 594”, one of them barked “You’re coming with us”.

 Martha knew better than to argue, or to expect any answers.  She had to suffer the humiliation of stripping off her nightdress in front of them, and scrambling into her clothes.

 “Get a move on, 594!” said the second guard, sounding almost panicky.

 

 In the dead of night they escorted Martha through the slumbering prison.  She was taken down to the ground floor, and then along a corridor, a different one to when she had visited the Governor’s office.  At the far end was a large service lift.  The guards accompanied her inside, and one of them jabbed at the buttons on the wall.

 “Level 9, huh?” said Martha.

 “Be quiet, 594”, said the other guard, with monotonous predictability.

 Curiously, Martha didn’t feel afraid at all.  In fact, she felt stimulated, her curiosity aroused.  She had no idea at all what was on Level 9, but she found it hard to believe that it could be any worse than the four walls of that tiny, claustrophobic cell.  

 When they emerged from the lift, Martha could hear a sound like a large clock ticking nearby, and the squeaky creak of wheels going round.

 “Are we in a bell-tower?” asked Martha.

 “We’re below the main part of the bell-tower”, said a guard.

 Martha was more astonished that one of them had actually answered her than anything else.

 “In here”, said the guard, shoving her through an archway on the left hand side of the corridor.

 To Martha’s joy she found herself facing a row of shower cubicles.  

 “Wash yourself thoroughly, including your hair”, said the guard.

 Martha didn’t need telling twice.  She pulled off her clothes and dashed into one of the cubicles.  She turned on the taps and steaming, hot water poured out.  She stood underneath the shower head and luxuriated in the feel of the water rinsing all the grease out of her hair.  The shower was basic to say the least, with just one slither of soap and a threadbare towel, but after what she had had lately, it made her feel like a Hollywood movie star.

 “Don’t take all day, 594”, said one of the guards, her voice muffled by the scarf.

 “You’ve no idea what it feels like”, said Martha “To be clean again!”

 When she had dried herself off and put her clothes back on, the guards ushered her back out into the corridor.  Martha noticed that there were doors on both sides of the passageway, and at the end a short flight of steps led up to another one.   She was taken to the one next to the shower room.  The door was thick and solid, with a turning-wheel on the outside, like the sort you find in bank vaults.  

 She was shown into a large room, which had six human-sized cages arrayed around the outside, two to each wall (the fourth wall was largely kept free for the door).  In the middle of the room was desk and a chair, resembling a nurse’s station in a hospital ward.  In each cage was a bunk, a basin and another push-button flush lavatory.  To Martha’s surprise there was a man in one of the cages.  She hadn’t seen a man since she had been in this place.  All the inmates and the guards had been women.  The man, who seemed to be in his 30s, with several days growth of beard on his face, jumped off his bunk and clung to the bars of his cage, staring at her open-mouthed.  

 “A pretty one”, he said, approvingly.

 The guard who appeared to be in charge of the room got up from her chair and stared at Martha in surprise.

 “Are you sure she’s supposed to be in here?” she asked one of the escorting officers “She looks as if she should be a solo effort straight off”.

 “No, she’s for this room”, said the Officer “Anyway, we haven’t dealt with 526 yet.  The solo cell is already taken”.

 “Mm”, said the guard, signing a slip of paper “We’ll put her in the corner”.

 Martha was taken to an empty cage on the left-hand side of the room, and locked in for the rest of the night.

*

 

 So far Level 9 felt like a holiday compared to what she had known in the main part of the prison.  In fact, at times it felt almost luxurious by comparison.  She wasn’t completely alone for a start.  The cage doors meant she could watch what was going on around her.  Fraternisation between the inmates was still strictly discouraged, but at least she could see and hear them.  She wasn’t holed up in that bleak little cell all by herself.   There was also a thawing in the guards.  They weren’t exactly friendly and chatty, but there did seem to be marginally more warmth in their voices when they spoke to her.  

 Also this part of the prison felt more modern.  The furniture seemed newer.  The walls were painted Magnolia, not starkly whitewashed, and the general lighting seemed softer.  The food still left a lot to be desired, but they were occasionally allowed treats, such as fruit, or a candy bar.  They only got these on the strict understanding that they gave no trouble whatsoever.  She was also given a different set of clothes.  These were lighter, more comfortable, and resembled the scrub outfits medical staff wore.

 Martha also found the constant noise of the clock overhead vaguely comforting.  It was like a mechanical heartbeat.  

 Best of all was that first thing every morning they were all led into the shower room for daily ablutions.  Martha didn’t even mind having the man from the other cage present during this.  He never gave her, or any of the other women any trouble, and Martha got the distinct impression his life wouldn’t have been worth living if he had.  Once a day, just before the lunch-time meal, they were all taken up the steps to an outdoor area.  It was larger than the exercise yard she had known on the ground floor, and even had wooden benches set around the edge.  The walls were far too high to see over, and Martha assumed they must be very high up, as the wind seemed to whistle around them constantly.  Conversation was still discouraged, and they spent most of their time simply strolling around, or sitting on one of the benches staring up at the sky.  

 

 Through all this Martha felt extremely calm.  It was like being a baby again.  Someone else was taking care of all her basic needs.  She didn’t have to do anything for herself or think about anything.  After the trauma, the loneliness, the fear, the confusion, and the homesickness she had felt in the main part of the prison, this felt like being cocooned.  Wrapped in a pair of strong arms.  

 Before, thoughts of her loved ones had dominated her mind.  Now she found memories of them were receding fast, like random recall from a past life.  They were fading into the distance.  When she did think of her parents or Jerry, it was with a strange numbness.  As if she was viewing them from the other side of a thick, frosted window.  It took her a while to realise that Amber wasn’t there.  She had assumed that Amber had been carted off to Level 9, but so far she had seen no sign of her.  

 She had been there a while before she realised they weren’t the only prisoners along the corridor.  They were returning from Exercise one day, when she noticed that one of the nearby doors was standing open.  She glanced in and saw a good-looking blonde-haired woman standing there, wearing a silk dressing-gown.  On the table behind her stood a pile of books, a bag of make-up, and a bowl of strawberries. When the blonde noticed Martha, her eyes widened in fear, and she shook her head urgently, as if to say “you haven’t seen me”.

 Martha waited until the following day, at the next Exercise Period, when she could ask Eunice, one of the other caged prisoners about it.  Eunice was a very chatty woman, and was constantly being rebuked for trying to engage the guards in conversation, although somehow she never seemed to be harshly punished for it.  

 “Who’s the blonde in the other room?” Martha asked, as they stood on the far side of the Exercise Yard.

 “You’ve seen her?” said Eunice “Probably best not to let on about that, or we might lose our Exercise privileges”.

 “OK, but who is she?”

 “What they call The Solo Inmate.  She’s in there all by herself”.

 “She seems to have a lot of privileges”, said Martha.  

 “Hm maybe”, said Eunice, dubiously “But I don’t think I’d want to be in that cell”.

 “Why?” said Martha “What happens in there?”

 One of the guards blew a whistle to motion that Exercise Period was over.  

 “If you ever see the door open again”, said Eunice “Don’t let on that you have, pretend you haven’t seen anything, ok?”

 “OK”, said Martha, reluctantly.

 

 During the night the lights were dimmed in the room, apart from the desk lamp used by the guard on duty.  Even the clock seemed muffled during these hours, and instead Martha often imagined she could hear the heart of the building pumping away.  Normally it all helped lull Martha into a state of somnolence very easily, but tonight she was finding it very hard to chase sleep.  Occasionally the guard got up and paced around the room.  When she neared Martha’s cell, Martha would close her eyes, facing the wall, like a child trying to fool a grown-up.

 One thought kept piercing her brain in a way that it hadn’t since she had been in the main part of the prison.  “What am I doing here?  Why am I here?  Why are any of us here?  Where is this place?  What’s happened on the outside?”  She tried to imagine doing a prison-break, but it seemed impossible.  The whole place was sealed up tighter than a drum.  They seemed to be near the top of a very tall tower, the only entrance to which was the service lift she had come up in.  Even if she managed to get into that and back to the ground floor, she would still have to find her way out of the main part of the prison, without being detected by anyone.

 Were her parents still alive?  What had happened to Jerry when she was abducted and bundled into the van?  Were they trying to look for her?  Had she simply become another Missing Person statistic?  A place this size must be noticeable to the outside world, did people not wonder what went on in here, or did they just regard it as another Maximum Security prison?  

 Suddenly she heard a wail of despair go up in a nearby room, a woman had let out a cry of “no-o-o!  No-o-o-o!”  There was a rush of feet in the corridor outside, a scuffling noise, and the jangle of keys.  She then heard some muffled voices, and a stern hiss of “Quiet 526!  Accept it, it will be better for you that way!”

  1.  The blonde woman in the nearby cell.  The one they called the Solo Inmate.  What were they doing to her in there?  Martha couldn’t stand it anymore.  She jumped out of bed and ran to the bars of her cell, clinging onto them as she shouted “What are you doing to her?  What are you doing?”

 The on-duty guard, who had been watching the scuffling in the corridor, rushed over to her, and rapped her knuckles with the short truncheon she carried.

 “Stop it!” she ordered “Be quiet!  Are you insane??

 “Who are you?” Martha demanded to know “You must have been human once!  Who are you, what are any of us doing here?”

 The guard returned to her desk and rummaged around for a small container which was kept in a top drawer.  Martha knew what was coming next.  Soon she would feel the sharp stab of a hypodermic needle in her arm, and oblivion would claim her.  

 

 She lay in a drugged state for several hours, floating in and out of consciousness.  Most of the time she was in a deep, coma-like slumber, but occasionally she would float to the surface of awareness, feeling as if she was underwater.  On one occasion it felt as though the clock seemed louder than ever, and she vaguely heard one of the guards say “it’s nearly time”.   When she awoke again the prison seemed the quietest she had ever known it.  A very profound form of silence, the sort that – back in her normal life – she had only ever known during a power-cut, when all the electrical items were out of action.  Martha slipped back into unconsciousness again.

 

 When she finally came back to awareness again, she noticed a ray of sunlight pouring through a window high in the wall opposite her bunk.  For one giddy moment she thought she was back home, in her own bed, and that the whole ghastly thing had been nothing more than a rotten dream.  Then to her dismay she noticed that her surroundings were most definitely not her own little apartment.  

 At the foot of the bed was a wooden wardrobe.  In the middle of the room was a table and two chairs, and hanging on the back of the door was the pale green silk dressing-gown she had seen the blonde prisoner, No.526, wearing.  It was decorated with tiny butterflies.

 “No, no!” Martha sat up in the bed in alarm.  She knew what had happened … she had replaced 526.  

 Two guards came running in from the next room, and hastened to settle her back into the bunk.

 “What’s happened to 526?” Martha demanded to know.

 “Her time had come”, said one of the guards “No one stays in here for very long”.

 “Where has she gone?” said Martha.

 The other guard nodded at a door in the wall facing the window.  Martha noticed that it was handleless, as though it could only be operated from the other side.

 “W-what happens in there?” said Martha.

 “You will find out soon enough”, said the guard.

 And then the realisation dawned on her.  She was in a condemned cell.  She had seen a play about someone on trial once, in the old days when Britain still had the death penalty, and it was set in a room very like this one, and at the end they taken the prisoner through the door with no handle … to face the hangman’s noose.

 “No-o-o!” Martha screamed “You can’t do this!  This is Britain in the 21st century!  You can’t do this!”

 “Calm down 594”, said one of the guards “It’s in your own interests to be as calm as possible”.

 “How can I be calm?” said Martha, almost frozen with panic “And stop calling me 594!  My name is Martha Chartley.  I work in a solicitor’s office.  My parents are called Bill and Jennifer.  I have my own apartment.  My boyfriend is called Jerry, he’s a fitness instructor…”

 “I urge you to be calm, 594”, the guard almost sounded beseeching “If you show fear it only strengthens Them.  It’s what They want.  Try and meet your fate calmly, it will help deprive Them of Their ultimate pleasure, please …”

 The other guard nudged her warningly.  The door in the other room had opened, and the strange prison Governor had appeared.  This time her decayed, paper-like skin had a bloated feel about it, as if she had just been gorging on a meal.

 “Is there something wrong here, Officer?” she asked, gravitating to the doorway which separated the cell from the outer room.

 “No Governor”, said the guard “The inmate is just getting acclimatized to her new surroundings”.

 “You bitch!” Martha yelled at the Governor “You ugly old bitch!  You won’t get away with this!”

 A sickly smirk spread across the Governor’s thin lips.

 “This is going to be one of our best ones yet”, she said to the attending officer, who had to turn away to hide her disgust.

 Martha screamed and ran to the far side of the room.  By now she had lost control of herself completely, and she began to smash her head against the whitewashed wall, repeatedly.

 

*

 

 “This is another dream”, said Martha, groggily.  The pain in her head was horrendous.  “Another cruel dream.  They do this to me.  There is no cruelty they won’t try”.

 “You’re not dreaming, lovey”, her mother put her hand on Martha’s arm and gently squeezed it “Here, feel that, I’m real.  You’re not dreaming”.

 Martha’s focus was blurry, but she could make out that she was in another small whitewashed room.  The only difference was that this time her mother was sitting in a chair, pulled up close to the bed.  In the near distance she could hear the bustling sounds of a normal, everyday hospital.

 “You’re in hospital”, said her Mum “Just for observation, to make sure there are no serious side-effects, but they think you’ll be able to come home very soon.  I expect they’ll want the bed anyway.  They’ve put you in a very nice little side room …”

 “How did I get here?” asked Martha.

 “A lorry-driver found you wandering along the marsh road near Rainbow Farm”, her Mum explained “Very early this morning.  You were in a terrible state.  All disorientated, wearing only a flimsy little nightie.  Your poor little face was all bruised.  He bundled you into his cab and drove you to the police station in town.  They knew who you were the minute you appeared.  Everybody’s been looking for you for weeks.  It’s been quite a big story round here, in all the local papers.  A police officer wants to take a statement from you later, when you’ve had some rest, just to see if they can establish where you’ve been.  Whoever did this to you needs to be caught”.

 “Where was I last seen?”

 “Jerry says he woke up in the hotel room early that morning and found you’d got dressed and gone.  He thought at first that you’d decided to go home.  He wondered if he’d upset you in some way, but he said it was very unlike you not to leave a message or anything.  He’s been almost out of his mind with worry, we all have”.

 “Did anyone see me leave the hotel?”

 “The receptionist on duty said you walked out very purposefully, as if you had an appointment somewhere.  There’s some CCTV footage of you walking out of the main entrance, and then you just vanished.  It’s as if you fell off the side of the Earth.  We’ve tried everything to find you.  Put it all over your Facebook page.  Your friends have been very helpful, spreading the word.  There’s been no trace of you at all ….”

 “I got dressed and walked out?” said Martha, perplexed.

 “You must have done”, said her Mum “And taken your handbag with you”.

 “They won’t find that again!”

 “It doesn’t matter.  Possessions can be replaced.  We’ll get you a new phone.  People can’t be replaced though.  You’ve no idea what it felt like when we got that call from the police this morning, saying you had turned up.  Oh Martha, my poor baby, what happened to you?”

 Martha tried to explain everything that had occurred, but it sounded utterly bizarre to her own ears, as if she was trying to explain a long, rambling and disjointed dream.  

 “They just kept you locked up?” said her Mum.

 “I wasn’t harmed, in the sense that I wasn’t raped or anything …”

 “Oh Marti”, her Mum almost instinctively put her hands over her own ears.  

 “But I think they were going to kill me”, said Martha.

 “Oh!” her Mum gave a wail of anguish “The police will get those evil bastards.  You must tell them everything you’ve told me.  A big building like that can’t be hard to find.  It must stick out like a sore thumb wherever it is”.

 “They won’t find it”, said Martha, with a deadening realisation “I don’t think it exists in this dimension”.

 “W-what do you mean?” said Mum “You sound like one of those strange books Jerry reads, all that wacky Conspiracy Theory stuff”.

 “I think I was taken someplace else”, said Martha “Somewhere that can’t be accessed easily.  It’s not some place that’s Real, not in the here and now anyway.  I realise that all sounds bizarre”.

 “After everything that’s happened over the past few weeks”, said Mum “I think I could believe anything!  Jerry’s been doing a lot of digging around of his own.  Apparently this isn’t the first time that something like this has happened at that hotel.  A couple of years ago a young Spanish girl vanished from there.  A student, over here on an exchange visit”.

 “She disappeared?”

 “The last anyone saw of her was some CCTV footage of her getting into the lift, to go up to her room on the 4th floor, but she was never seen again.  There’s never been any trace of her since.  I feel so sorry for her family, at least we’ve got you back”.

 “I think I must have got back by banging my head on the wall”, said Martha “Somehow that shot me back into this dimension”.

 Martha thought of all the young women she had seen in the prison.  Had they all just vanished whilst going about their daily lives?  Were there some kind of portal areas where the barriers between the worlds was thin enough to slip over?  She thought of Amber.  I must try and find out about her, she thought.  There can’t be many young chefs called Amber who have vanished, I must try and find out all that I can.

 “I’m frightened, Mum”, said Martha “I’m frightened that somehow They’ll get me back there”.

 “Oh now they won’t”, said Mum, squeezing her hand “We’ll see to that.  Who do you think those people could have been though?”

 “I don’t know”, said Martha “But I think They fed on fear.  It was like food and drink to Them.  I think we were all like a farm of cattle, or battery chickens I suppose is a better analogy.  They kept us all cooped up, lonely, confused and afraid, until They could go for the ultimate thrill”.

 Mum shook her head as if trying to process it.  She was relieved when they heard a conflab of male voices outside in the corridor.

 “That’ll be your Dad and Jerry”, said Mum “Now you relax, and let us look after you.  You mustn’t be afraid”.

 “No, I mustn’t”, said Martha.

 

THE END

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As it’s Halloween season, and just for a bit of fun (hey! remember that concept??) I thought I’d compile a list of places around the world that I have found particularly intriguing.  This isn’t limited to haunted places, or places that are regarded as UFO portal areas etc, they are simply places that have a degree of oddness to them which I find fascinating.   I haven’t been to all the places on this list – it would be a bit tricky for me to get to Bouvet Island for instance – but I have been to some.  Anyway, here is a short round-up of some truly strange places.

  1.  ALDWYCH UNDERGROUND STATION

I think there is something particularly eerie about Tube stations.  Perhaps it’s all that descending down into the depths of the earth, the dark tunnels, the bustling anonymity of busy stations, and the echoing creepiness of quiet ones, but they do generate a distinct Atmosphere about them.  The London Underground System and the New York Subway system have both accumulated a huge amount of strange stories over the years, with spooky tales of ghosts haunting the tunnels and stations, and of encounters with mysterious people.  Aldwych is one of a number of now defunct London stations, although the last I heard there were plans to open it as a museum.  It has also been used as a filming location for various movies and TV programmes.  Aldwych has a particularly imaginative Urban Legend attached to it in the form of the hairy cannibal Neanderthals, which some would have us believe lurk in the dark tunnels.  Vintage horror movie buffs will instantly shout Death Line, as in that film cannibalistic subterranean neanderthals prey on lonely commuters.  It’s a great Urban Myth and it still crops up from time to time.

2.   BOUVET ISLAND

Bouvet Island is one of the most remote islands on Planet Earth.   Owned by the Norwegians, it is about 1600 miles off the coast of South Africa.  Completely uninhabited, it is one of the most forbidding locations it is possible to imagine.   The temperature rarely gets more than a couple of degrees above freezing.  It has an intriguing mystery in that a rowing-boat was found washed up on the island in the mid-20th century, with no sign of any passengers or who it belonged to.  But for me though, the island itself is quite fascinating enough, without the need for any added puzzles.

3.   CALVADOS CASTLE

The haunting attached to this Normandy castle was one of the first true-life paranormal events I ever read about, and it stayed with me for years.  The haunting only covered a few months during the Autumn and Winter of 1875/76, and yet – if true –  is one of the most unsettling ever recorded.  We know about it due to the diary kept by the anonymous lady of the house at this time.   The family were subjected to poltergeist activity, violent pounding noises, and even the sound of a ghostly woman wailing in the garden.   The haunting ended as abruptly as it had begun at the end of January, and to the best of my knowledge, no subsequent residents have reported anything like it.

4.   DOWNING STREET

OK this one really is just a bit of fun.  10 Downing Street is the official home of the British Prime Minister, and has been used as such since the 18th century.   Curiously, given the huge number of historic events this classic London town-house has witnessed, it doesn’t seem to have much in the way of a haunting to it.   Legend has it that a ghostly gentleman in 18th century costume is said to haunt the garden, but he only appears during a time of national crisis … which makes me want to joke that these days he must be putting in an appearance all the time.   Horror author Amy Cross recently wrote a novella called The Vampire Of Downing Street, which has a weird ghoulish creature inhabiting the basement of No.10, and each Prime Minister is let into the secret of its existence.   Well Theresa May does look somewhat haunted these days ….

5.   ERDSTALL TUNNELS

I only came across this one fairly recently.  The Erdstall Tunnels are a network of subterranean passages which cross Europe from Scotland down to Turkey, with much of them concentrated in Bavaria and Austria.  The tunnels are thought to date from about a 1000 years ago.  The mystery is as to why they were built.   Many theories have been espoused, from hideaways to storage to religious rites.  The problem is that the tunnels are so narrow and small in places that none of these ideas seems practical.  Even allowing for the fact that people were a lot smaller in those days, these would have been a tight-fit.

6.   FLANNAN ISLES LIGHTHOUSE

I’ve written over 200 blog pieces over the years, and Flannan has consistently remained my most popular subject.  This doesn’t surprise me.  As a mystery it is up there with the most intriguing, and its romantic location, stuck out in the north Atlantic ocean, gets under people’s skin.  The enigma is that in December 1900 3 lighthouse-keepers vanished without trace on the island.  Many solutions have been posited as to what happened to them, but so far nothing conclusive has been proved.  The fate of the 3 gentlemen still remains a mystery to us, and continues to inspire writers, poets and musicians to this day.

7.   GLAMIS CASTLE

I cannot think of any castle which can surpass Glamis in terms of both history and horrific, bloodcurdling events.  Since Medieval times Glamis, in Angus, Scotland, has witnessed murders, cannibalism, vampirism (I’m starting to sound like Roddy McDowell in The Legend Of Hell House), Earl Beardie selling his soul to the Devil, and a legend of a monstrous, deformed Earl walled up in a remote part of the building!  There are even rumours of a monster lurking in Loch Calder nearby.  It is a truly fantastic place, in that old usage of the word.   On a more genteel note Glamis was also the childhood home of the Queen Mother, and it is here that she gave birth to Princess Margaret during a violent thunderstorm in August 1930.  Some of Glamis’s gothic quality must have rubbed off on Margaret, as bizarre rumours circulated during her early years that she was being kept hidden away because she was deformed, or a deaf mute.   In Penelope Mortimer’s biography of the Queen Mother, she remarks that in the early 1960s the then Countess of Strathmore was being plagued by poltergeist activity at the castle.   Nothing would surprise me.

8.   HAMPTON COURT PALACE

A beautiful historic building, which should be a must-visit for anyone with a love of history, particularly if it’s the Tudor period which fascinates you.   The Palace, naturally, is awash with ghosts, from King Edward VI’s nursemaid, who roams the corridors carrying a guttering candle, to Cardinal Wolsey spotted watching an outdoor concert one evening, to duelling cavaliers in the garden.  The most famous ghost though is that of Katherine Howard, King Henry VIII’s 5th wife, who was beheaded for adultery in February 1542.   Katherine, on hearing of her arrest, ran down the gallery leading to the royal chapel, trying to get to Henry so that she could plead for mercy.  She was apprehended before she could reach him, and her hysterical screams are said to still haunt the area on November days.   It is now named the Haunted Gallery.

9.   ISLE OF IONA

Heck, this is all getting to be very long!  Anyway, moving on.  Scottish islands are a rich source of mysteries for the Unexplained enthusiast.  We’ve already had Flannan.  Eynhallow off the North Coast is a mystic place, which has an odd tale of two passengers on a tourist boat vanishing without trace on one trip in August 1990.  No one seems to know who these people were, and other passengers said they seemed to keep themselves apart from everyone else.   Iona, in the Inner Hebrides, has a long association with spiritual matters.  It was here, in November 1929, that Netta Fornario, a visitor to the island, and student of Occult matters, died in mysterious circumstances.  Her naked body was found lying on a cross which she had dug out from a peat mound, a look of terror on her face.  Some believe that Netta was the victim of a fatal psychic attack, that she had got embroiled in matters which were too dangerous for her.

10.   LORD CREWE ARMS

One thing Britain is not short of, and that’s haunted pubs.  You can’t move for them.  Every town, village and remote rural spot has them.   I’ve stayed in plenty over the years, but the one which stands out as being genuinely intriguing – as well as a fantastic building – is the Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland, a remote part of Northumbria.  The Lord Crewe is very old, parts of it go back a thousand years.   It is a wonderful building, and there’s even a chimney where you can peer up and see an old hidey-hole, where priests were hidden away centuries ago.   We’ve stayed in the top floor room of the tower – which suitably enough overlooks a graveyard – on several occasions now, and I have to say it can be very spooky.  My husband, who is a scientist, so not exactly overly-fanciful, once woke up in the night to hear something moving around in the bathroom.  The following morning I overheard a guy on a nearby table asking his companions “did one of you come into my room last night?”  Everyone denied that they had, to which he said quietly “this place is haunted isn’t it?”  One of the ghosts is a Lady Dorothy, who haunts the lounge area on the first floor.   From what I remember you can see her portrait in there.

11.   MOTHERS OF DARKNESS CASTLE

This is one for the ardent conspiracy theorists.  The Chateaux des Amerois, aka the Mothers of Darkness Castle, is on the Belgian border with Luxemborg and France.   It is famous (infamous?) in conspiracy circles for being the playground headquarters of the Illuminati, where the upper echelons of the same gather for general depravity and Satanic rites.  Its appearance lives up to its grim name and reputation, with its Victorian gothic turrets.  There are some very dark tales about this place, which you can read for yourself by Googling.

12.   NORTH SENTINEL ISLAND

It’s very easy to assume these days that there is little we don’t know about Planet Earth, that everywhere has been thoroughly mapped and documented.  And yet some locations remain stubbornly out of reach of most of the world’s population.   North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal has reputedly been home to the same tribe for 60,000 years, and they’re not a sociable crowd.  The island is surrounded by coral reefs and has no natural harbours, making it very difficult to access.  Attempts to take helicopters over the island have resulted in the island’s natives running out and hurling spears skywards.   Most of the interior of the island has very densely-packed vegetation, making it nigh-on impossible to see how the natives live.  It is thought that they have never adopted farming, and instead live by fishing and the natural produce of the island.  It really isn’t advisable to try and get too close to the Sentinelese.  As recently as 2006 two crab fishermen were killed by the islanders for drifting too close to the island.  It is said that North Sentinel remained remarkably unscathed by the catastrophic 2004 earthquake and tsunami.

13.   PLAS PREN

In its heyday Plas Pren, sitting atop the Denbigh Moors in North Wales, must have been an impressive sight.  It was built as a late Victorian hunting-lodge, for the nobs to gather for shooting-parties.   Its size and its isolation though didn’t make it very practical for the post WW1 20th century, and the house soon became abandoned.  No one ever lived in it afterwards, apart from perhaps the odd shepherd or farmer who needed somewhere to bivouac for the night.  Over recent years rough weather has reduced the house to a mere shadow of its former self, and yet, when I first saw it in the early 1990s, it was still an impressive sight, and you could see it from miles away across the moors.   I’ve included it here because its location, and its late Victorian architecture during its heyday, made it seem the very epitome of a haunted house.

14.   ROADS IN THE UK

No this isn’t an out-of-place rant about the state of roads in the UK, but simply a short piece about just how many haunted highways and byways we have here.  We seem to have almost as many haunted roads as we have haunted pubs.  There’s the legendary Bluebell Hill Phantom Hitch-hiker in Kent, the very haunted Stocksbridge By-Pass (which I’ve blogged about) in Yorkshire, and the M6 motorway has more than its fair share of mysterious oddities.   My favourite one of the lot though concerns a truck-driver called Laurie Newman, who had a terrifying experience late one night, when he was driving along the A4 from Chippenham to Bath.  As he approached Corsham – which in itself has some strange tales about it – he noticed a nun-like figure trudging along on the side of the road.  Mr Newman slowed down to pass her, only for the figure to leap up and hang onto the side of his truck.  Mr Newman found himself staring into the face of a grinning skull!  Quite understandably, he was traumatised for some while afterwards.  I came across a blog piece which says this happened in the 1990s, but I first read about it many years before that, and it is thought to have happened in the early 1960s.  It is one of my favourite true life ghost stories, and became the inspiration for my short story B-Road Incident.

15.   SNAKE ISLAND

If you have a snake phobia, then please scroll past.  Ilha da Queimada Grande off the coast of Brazil, is completely out of bound to most of the world’s population, and for a very good reason.  It is completely over-run by deadly snakes.  It is thought that the snakes became trapped on the island when it split off from the mainland back in ancient times.  It is home to the extremely venomous golden lancehead pit viper.   There is a lighthouse on the island (now fully automated), built in 1909 to keep ships away from the island, and there is a tale that the last lighthouse keeper and his family perished when the snakes got into their home.  I don’t know how true that is, but it makes for quite a story.

16.  TOWER OF LONDON

Nearly at the end now.  I couldn’t put together a list like this without including the Tower of London, often reputed to be the most haunted location in the entire world.  It is rife with mysteries, most famously that of the nephews of King Richard III, who disappeared whilst staying in the Tower in 1483.  Their fate remains a matter of much speculation and debate to this day.   The most famous ghostly inhabitant is Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII, who was executed at the Tower on most-certainly trumped-up charges of adultery and treason on 19 May 1536.  Anne’s ghost is one of the most famous in England.  In the early part of the 19th century a soldier on sentry-duty here was court-martialled for fainting on the job, when he said he saw Anne’s ghost coming towards him.  Under her bonnet was simply an empty space where her head should have been.

17.  WEST WYCOMBE

And finally …. the Hellfire Caves in the small Buckinghamshire village of West Wycombe are a fascinating place to visit.  They were used in the 18th century as a gathering for various toffs and celebs of the day to meet and indulge in debauched high-jinks.   They acquired a sort of Dennis Wheatley-ish reputation for dubious practices, although I suspect it was more booze and sex that were on the agenda, than anything truly Satanic.  The caves are most famously haunted by a young girl called Suki.  She was a barmaid at the village inn, who was lured to the caves by some young louts, who deceived her into thinking she was going to meet her boyfriend there.   A fight broke out, and Suki was struck on the head with a rock.  She died from her injuries.  Since then her tragic, wailing spectre is said to haunt both the caves and the pub.   Many years ago, I did hear an unnerving screaming sound whilst staying at the George & Dragon in the village, but I expect it was just a screech-owl.  Probably.

 

 

When an eccentric recluse, Margaret Clement, disappeared without trace in 1952 she became one of Australia’s most enduring, unsolved mysteries.  At first sight her story appears almost impossibly sad, a classic case of riches-to-rags, and yet was it?  Could it be that in her own way she achieved a strange sort of happiness?  Whatever the truth, her final fate remains a mystery to tantalise armchair detectives to this day.

Margaret Clement was born on 8 March 1881, in Prospect, Victoria, the third of 6 children. She was the daughter of a self-made man, Peter Clement, who had emigrated from Scotland at the height of the mid-19th century Australian gold-rush.  Peter Snr went from being a bullock-driver to one of the richest men in Australia, accruing a fortune of £50,000, not exactly an inconsiderable sum in those days.

Peter Clement died in 1890, and for several years his family were able to enjoy the fruits of his labours.  Margaret, her sisters, and their mother Jane embarked on a European tour.   It is said they were even introduced to royalty at Buckingham Palace.  They also travelled in the Far East.

In 1907 Margaret and one of her sisters, Jeannie, bought the 17-room Tullaree Mansion in South Gippsland, using their inheritance from their father.  Set amongst 2000 acres of reclaimed swampland, the property already had a reputation for being difficult to manage.   It had been abandoned by a previous owner at the end of the 19th century.  For a few years the estate was managed by their brother Peter Jnr, who seems to have made a competent job of it.   For a short time they were also joined by their by their youngest sister Anna.  Anna was notoriously spoilt, with what we would call these days, a huge sense of entitlement.   She once held up the departure of a steamer because she couldn’t be bothered to go up on deck for inspection!  When she was told she was holding everybody up, Anna retorted along the lines of “to the Devil with it, I’ll come when I’m ready!”  Fortunately Anna married and moved out.  It is said that her husband deserted her, and she would subsequently describe herself as a widow.

The family lived in quite some style.  They employed a staff of 10 people, and would drive into town in a horse-and-gig, which later became a car-and-chauffeur, where they would be treated like royalty.  Store-keepers would bring out their goods, so that the sisters could examine them without all the hassle of having to leave their vehicle.  The girls must have lapped all this up.   Reality was about to come crashing in on them with a vengeance though.

Things took a marked decline when Peter Jnr went off to fight in World War One.  The estate was left in the hands of unscrupulous farm managers who took the girls for a ride. In their innocence they were prime targets.  Oblivious, the women carried on living the high life as before, blissfully unaware that their fortune was being dramatically eroded. Things came to a head in 1916 when a bank statement alerted them to the truth of the matter.  Panicking, the sisters sold off some of the land, and sacked their staff, but flatly refused to move out of the mansion.

Peter Jnr came back from the War a changed man, possibly suffering with shell-shock.  He was never to fully recover.  He went to live on a farm at Wurruk, where, in 1944 he was found injured, suffering a gunshot wound to the head.  He died in hospital without ever regaining consciousness.

The sisters meanwhile became something of a local legend.  The house slowly decayed around them.  They became increasingly reclusive, except for 3 times a week, when they would hitch up their skirts and wade through the cold swamp water to get to the shops, where they would stock up on bread and tins of baked beans, which they ate cold (ugh). They had no electricity, no running water and no sewage.   They couldn’t afford to pay anyone to work the land, so it fell out of use, and was reclaimed by the swamp.  The house often became infested with snakes and rats.  They were heavily reliant on the occasional pound note and box of groceries sent by Anna, now living, with her son Clem, in a flat in Melbourne.   The women were intensely proud.  They refused help from the locals so often that people simply stopped offering.

Inevitably, the women, once known for their beauty, fell into decay as much as their house did.  They hacked off their now greying auburn hair with blunt scissors.  Some of Margaret’s teeth had broken from their stumps, and she walked with a noticeable stoop.  Jeannie’s legs were swollen, and her eyesight became so faded that Margaret had to read to her.

They lived this way for decades, cocooned in their own gothic little swamp world.  When devastating bush fires hit the area in January 1939, the women at least were safe, surrounded as they were by water.  They sat out on their veranda, watching the orange glow from the fires in the sky.   I can’t help thinking of the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, which showed the reclusive squalor of the Beale women, who were relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Jeannie died in 1950, and it was then that the full impact of the sisters poverty was seen by the outside world.  Police and undertakers had to wade through the swamp to remove her body.  The mansion was surrounded by house-high blackberry bushes, and the house was full of old discarded food tins.   Margaret mourned the loss of her “dear companion”, but stubbornly refused to leave her home.

It was around this time that Margaret was befriended by her new neighbours, Stanley and Esme Livingstone.  They offered to buy the mansion, and said they would build her a small cottage on the estate.  Margaret seemed to acquiesce to this idea.  “I will stay in my house with my books and my dog for the rest of my life”, she told a reporter.  Her little dog was called Dingo.  She had rescued him when she had seen a cattleman at a neighbouring house, kicking him.  Dingo had followed her home, wading through the cold swamp water.  Margaret now occupied her time, accompanied by Dingo, reading mystery novels by the light of a kerosene lamp.

In March 1952 Dingo died in appalling circumstances.  He had been found bitten, with his throat cut out.  His devoted mistress would soon meet an equally puzzling fate.  Margaret was last seen on Thursday 22 May.   Her neighbour, Stanley Livingstone, was the last person to see her alive.  When he hadn’t seen her for 3 days, he alerted the authorities on 25 May.    The local rumour-mill immediately went into operation, and the Livingstones became the prime suspects.  Stanley, a former footballer, was well-known for his physical strength.  His wife Esme, who was known to have suffered beatings at his hands, claimed that Stanley would intimidate Margaret by standing over her as she signed documents.

The house and surrounding area were scoured and searched for months afterwards, but no trace of Margaret was ever found.  All that was left behind was her walking-stick.  Margaret never left the house without it.  It seemed as though Margaret had vanished into thin air.  Without any shred of proof as to what had happened to her, there was nothing that could be used to charge Stanley or anyone else.

Stanley Livingstone restored the mansion, and sold it a few years later, in 1964, at 10 times the price he had acquired for it.  He became a millionaire, and died from a heart-attack in 1993.

Perhaps Margaret, who got so much pleasure from mystery novels, might have darkly enjoyed the fact that her fate became one of Australia’s most puzzling unsolved crimes.  She never seems to have courted sympathy – she was probably horrified by the idea – and in fact claimed that she was happy to live the way she did.  She said: “A person has but one life and I am living and enjoying mine.  It is the way I want to live.  Whether other people agree with it or not doesn’t matter”.

Sandy Island in the south Pacific Ocean does not exist (perhaps I should add “allegedly does not exist” there), and yet for many decades a lot of people claimed that it did, and it even appeared on maps.   Situated 1000 miles North-East of Brisbane, Australia, it was reputed to be 15 miles long and 3 miles wide, and often described as even bigger than Manhattan.

It was first noted in September 1772, when Captain James Cook recorded passing it in his journal.  The subsequent map, “Chart Of Discoveries Made In The South Pacific Ocean”, was published in 1776.  It was also sighted in 1772 by Joseph de Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, a French navigator.   Sandy was still being recorded on British and German maps in the late 19th century, and was listed in the Times Atlas as Sable Island.   In 1876 the British whaling ship Velocity described heavy breakers smashing against the island.   The Velocity recorded it as “sandy islets”.  In 2012 the Telegraph reported that the Velocity may simply have mistaken the breakers, or a low-lying reef, for an island.

The legend of Sandy Island understandably became fascinating for travellers in the area.  Some claimed that perhaps it could only be seen at certain times,  which reminds me of the mythical Scottish village Brigadoon, from the musical of the same name, which only appears once every 100 years.   Some have compared it with the hit American TV series Lost.  In 2000 a bunch of Australian radio-hams decided that Sandy would be an ideal place to transmit from, and accordingly set out to find out.  The island proved very elusive.   A few years later, in November 2012, the Australian surveying ship, RN Southern Surveyor, found no trace of it in the area.  The crew recorded depths of no more than 4,300 feet, which ruled out any submerged mountains in the area.  It became accepted that Sandy had never existed at all.

In recent years it has been stricken from modern maps.  Wikipedia stoutly refers to it as “a non-existent island”.  Google Earth displayed it until 2012, although conspiracy theorists have pointed out that it was suspiciously blanked out by black pixels.   In the words of scientist Maria Seton it was depicted as “a big black blob”.

There are many theories as to how Sandy came to appear and disappear.  The most obvious one is that early travellers and map-makers simply made a mistake.  No one’s infallible.   Another is that it was a coral reef which broke apart, or that the island simply became completely eroded by the ocean over a long period of time.  I still prefer the Brigadoon theory myself ….

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A beautiful mid-19th century castle in the north-east of Italy may be responsible for cursing an entire European dynasty, and may even be held indirectly responsible for the start of World War One.   The Curse has it that anyone who sleeps in the place will die a violent death in a far country, and that was the grim fate which befell many of its occupants.

The Victorian era was a notable one for extravagant building projects.  It wasn’t unknown for aristocrats and tycoons to build grandiose dwelling-places for themselves, usually in a style which harkened back to a romanticised view of the Middle Ages or an elusive Arthurian era.  Those stern, forbidding Victorians were keen romantics at heart, and the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was no exception.

It is said that Ferdinand fell in love with the area, near Trieste, after sheltering there during a storm.  He chose to build a beautiful castellated castle on the rocky spur, overlooking the sparkling Adriatic Sea, and dedicate it as a monument of love to his wife, Charlotte of Belgium.  Building works were begun in 1856 and continued for another 4 years.  The couple couldn’t wait to move in, and inhabited the ground floor whilst the building work was in progress.

The couple were to enjoy their romantic idyll for only a few short years.  In 1864 he and Charlotte sailed to Mexico, to take up his new role of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, an idea encouraged by Napoleon III of France who wanted a monarchist ally in the New World.   Their short 3-year sojourn in Mexico was a disaster.  Maximilian was a conservative in outlook, whereas his new subjects were liberal.  There was also the problem of the American Civil War, which was just coming to a close, and the Americans’ objections to any European meddling in the affairs of the New World.   Things came to a head in 1866 when Maximilian refused to pull out of Mexico, in spite of Napoleon III urging him to do so.   Charlotte sailed back to Europe, to desperately drum up support for her husband.  But it was to no avail.  After trying to hold out in a siege, Maximilian was executed by firing squad on the morning of 19 June 1867.

Poor old Charlotte, whose mind was already in meltdown due to an acute (and probably justified) persecution mania, suffered a complete mental collapse.  She spent the rest of her days in seclusion, at Bouchout Castle in Belgium, still deeply in love with Maximilian right until she passed away in 1927, at the age of 86.

If that isn’t enough romantic tragedy, there is then the legendary Mayerling Incident.   The castle had passed into the hands of the Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elisabeth of Austria.   On the morning of 30 January 1889 their only son, 30-year-old Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria – who was married to Princess Stephanie of Belgium – was found shot dead, alongside the body of his young mistress, 17-year-old Baroness Mary Vetsera, at the royal hunting lodge of Mayerling, deep in the Vienna Woods.   The incident, thought to have been a suicide pact, caused an enormous scandal and political ructions, and has since spawned numerous films, radio plays, operas, ballets, not to mention conspiracy theories.

The Curse doesn’t stop there.  Oh no.  It would next strike Rudolf’s mother, the Empress Elisabeth.   I think it’s fair to say that the Empress – who went by the nickname Sisi – was the Princess Diana of her day.  She was very tall (for a woman), beautiful, a fashion icon, was beloved for her charitable works, and hugely popular with the public.   Her beauty regime became the stuff of legend.  It was said that she would spend 3 hours every morning simply tending to her long, lustrous hair, and she kept her slender figure due to a rigorous exercise regime.  She also seems to have been plagued with an eating disorder though.  At times of extreme stress she would stop eating for days on end.   At the age of 30 she decided that she would sit for no more official portraits, as she wanted to be remembered for being young and beautiful.

She loved travelling, and in 1898 the 60-year-old Sisi travelled to Geneva, with her lady-in-waiting, Countess Irma Sztaray de Sztara et Nagymihaly.  One morning the two ladies left their hotel on foot to catch a steamer.  Unfortunately, a young Italian anarchist, by the name of Lucheni, was also in town.  He made it clear he had come to Geneva “to kill a sovereign”.  It didn’t matter which one.  The victim was irrelevant.  The statement was all that mattered.  Poor Sisi came into his firing-line.  He ducked under her parasol to get a look at her, and stabbed her in the chest with a sharpened needle file.  Sisi manged to walk onto the steamer, but she died less than hour later.  On her death she had willed it that her jewellery collection was to be auctioned off, and the proceeds donated to her religious and charitable organisations.   Her death would see an outpouring of public grief which would be reflected nearly a 100 years later, with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.  As for Lucheni, he was declared sane and sentenced to life imprisonment.  He would hang himself with his own belt 10 years later.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was said to have laughed at the idea of any curse on the castle.  This probably wasn’t a wise move.  His death would prove to be the most infamous of all.  His assassination, along with his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in the streets of Sarajevo, in June 1914, would light the blue touch-paper which would spark the world into a horrifying global conflict.   There is a wild rumour that a fortune-teller had told Ferdinand that he would one day “let loose a world war”.  Some have voiced scepticism of this one, and admittedly it does have a feel of All Wise After The Event about it, but it is also said that Ferdinand told friends, only a month beforehand, that “I know I shall soon be murdered”.

There is also yet another wild rumour that Ferdinand had shot a white stag on a recent hunting-trip, which was considered spectacularly unlucky.  This isn’t as famous as the Urban Legend about Ferdinand and Sophie’s cursed car though.  It seems the Habsburg family are awash with curses.  Much that has been written about the cursed car seems to have been total fantasy, most particularly the one that it was destroyed in a World War 2 air-raid.  From what I can gather, the car is still on public display – complete with bullet holes – in a Viennese museum.

At the end of World War One, the area of Trieste, including the castle, was handed to Italy.  The next occupant became Prince Amedeo, Duke d’Aosta.   During his tenure the Duke extensively restyled and modernised the castle, installing running water, central heating, telephone lines and even a couple of lifts.  He was a supporter of Mussolini, and became Governor-General of Ethiopia in 1937.   He died, possibly from complications from TB and malaria, in a British-run Prisoner Of War camp in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1942.

A Wartime occupant of the Castle was said to have been Austrian Nazi Fredrich Rainer.  Although he was reputedly sentenced to death, for crimes against humanity in 1947,  and a copy of his death certificate was sent to his widow, there are some rumours that he was never executed, and was still alive in the 1950s, working for the Yugoslavian Department of State Security.   They are just rumours though, and somehow I doubt the Curse let him fall through the net.

Up until 1954 the Castle was occupied by British and then American military.   I’ve even seen a fatal heart-attack suffered by one American general, in 1951, blamed on the Curse, although he was taking part in the Korean War at the time, but hey, who knows?   Finally, in 1955, it was restored to its former glory and opened to the public.  Since then it has become a popular tourist attraction, and I can only hope that the fee-paying public, who clearly very much appreciate the stunning beauty of this waterside castle, have finally laid the abominable Curse to rest.

Several years ago, back in the 1990s, I was contacted by a reader of one of my ghost books, asking if I’d heard of the Wantage Monster.  By then I’d been living near Wantage, in south Oxfordshire, for a few years, but I had to confess I’d never heard of this strange character.  My correspondent sent me some fascinating old press cuttings about the case, dating back to the early 1970s, which were certainly an eyebrow-raiser.   It would seem that sleepy old Wantage had had its very own Yeti, or Mothman!

Anyway, life rumbled on, and I didn’t come across any mention of the Monster again until I read about it in one of John Hanson’s Haunted Skies books.   So I did a bit more digging around, and I came across a local news article from 2014, in which a journalist was trying to trace the eyewitnesses to the creature, but whether he had any success I couldn’t discover.  Forty years is a long time after all.  I even quizzed my elderly neighbour about it, who has lived in the area for over 50 years, but she said she’d never heard of it.

Here then are the few known facts about this intriguing case:

At 5:30 AM on the morning of 25 September 1971 Herbert Halstead of the newly-built Stockham Park housing estate, on the outskirts of the town, was driving to work, when his car headlights picked out a strange creature.  He described as having “a big white head which appeared to have two large eyes”.

This weird thing was also seen by 18-year-old Linda Milne, who said she saw a tall hairy creature with broad shoulders and large glowing red eyes, going into the woods near the old Wantage canal.  She said it moved very quickly.  Linda was quoted as saying she had no idea what it could have been, only that it had left her feeling very frightened.

A more detailed sighting was made by two 14-year-old boys, who said they were chased by it on the Stockham Park estate.  They described it as “8 ft tall, off-white in colour with furry skin, large eyes a foot apart and with horns and a pointed beard”.  The boys scaled a fence and the creature did likewise.  One boy, Derek Bull, said he was so frightened by the thing that he crashed his bike into a tree.   The police searched the area but found nothing.

To add even more strangeness to the case, the boys added that they had seen a disc-shaped object take off from a nearby field.  Apparently there were many reports of UFOs in the area.   Scrolling through a list of of UFO sightings for that year, I found a very intriguing case from around this time in Banbury, north Oxfordshire.

On 27 September, 2 days after the sightings of the Wantage Monster,  Len Delman, a lorry driver, was driving onto the new Bodycote flyover, when he saw what he thought was a man in a white suit, standing in the road directly ahead of his vehicle.  He hit the brakes, coming to a halt, fearing he may have run over the man.  He jumped out and went behind his lorry, but found no one there. Coming back around the front, he saw in the headlights what he described as a “spaceman”, 7-8ft tall, with big, staring eyes, and a pack on his back from which two tubes led to the head.

Len sounded his horn repeatedly, and the strange apparition jumped 3ft in the air, ran across the road, and leapt over the hedge.  Two other lorry drivers arrived upon the scene, and Delman watched a disc-shaped object take off from the field where the figure had disappeared.

There is a mysterious epilogue to this story, because Len Delman disappeared.  Police attempted to find him, but with no luck. His flat was left abandoned with everything in it, and his lorry was parked in the company bay with his personal items still in it.  He was never seen again, and his family speculated that he had been taken by aliens.  Though a local news story I read simply recorded him as having “gone underground” – possibly to escape journalists and UFO investigators.

When I read compendiums of British paranormal happenings, Oxfordshire tends to get dominated by Oxford University ghosts (ad nauseum), and yet it has plenty of other weird happenings.  The problem is that Oxfordshire can be a bit of a tight-lipped county, and they don’t get recorded that much.  The Wantage Monster is a case in point.   And yet, when I recently did a YouTube search for the area where I live (which is only a mile-or-two from Wantage), one of the first vids to come up …  was about a UFO sighted in the sky here in January 2012.  I hope it didn’t bash into any of the military helicopters which we have constantly circling around.

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