Encaulled by Steven French

There was a place, it was said, where if you held still, stopped your breath, waited, waited … you could see the ghostly funeral processions pass. Down the long road from the old mansion house, now a nursing home. The family, long since gone, had had the privilege, when one of them died, of having the coffin carried down the long road at midnight. Down through the fields, now housing estates, across the streams and becks, now paved over, past the stores and warehouses, now coffee houses and apartment complexes. If anyone were about, doing god knows what, out with cause, or not, they would turn aside, or step back into the shadows, eyes down, letting the procession step slowly by. Down towards the river, down through the town to the parish church. There to pause, to request admittance, a soft glove against the door, the slow creak as it opened and the priest stepping to one side. The service, brief with few hymns, a short summary of a life, sometimes long, more often not. The crypt opened, the smell of old bones released into the air.

Years and years since that knock was heard, that crypt opened. All dust now, the names long forgotten. But the church still stood and the roads still led down and if you stood in just the right place, it was said, and waited, quiet, unmoving, you’d maybe see between the shadows and the streetlights, that sad procession.

Or so Julie had read in the books and blogs of local history that had drawn her in and down, through layers of tales and legends, until she felt safely tucked away. Far from her job at the call centre with its quotas and cubicles and changing shifts that left her unmoored and unable to give some shape to her daily life. Away from Beth who she saw less and less and when she did, all they had the energy to do was bicker and snipe. Caught in the static, the ties that had bound them loosened by the day.

And here she was. On the corner of that long road, in the rain, at midnight. She’d had a late shift that, truth be told, was no worse on the surface than most others, the customer calls routine, for the most part, typically resentful with bubbles of anger, with only the occasional one or two thankful for her help. Which made it all so much worse because those were the ones that would lift her spirits just a little, only for the next furious customer to slap them down again. And so she’d arrived home, tired and hungry and Beth, not the best of cooks and having had a hard day at the medical practice, had picked up take away but instead of their usual Indian or Thai, some vibrantly coloured mush that tasted of nothing but chilli heat from one of those generic ‘Indian-Pizza-Fried-Chicken’ places on the way home. And then Beth had brought up her brother again and how he just needed somewhere to stay for a few nights and Julie had reminded her of the last time he’d stayed with them and the way he had seemed to push her to the margins of Beth’s life and even of the flat itself, by his physical presence.

So, they had argued and Beth, not shouting or stomping off, just declared she was too tired for ‘this’ and had gone to bed. Leaving Julie wondering about the scope of ‘this’ as the heating switched off and the room cooled. She could’ve followed and cuddled and made up. Or slept on the sofa again. Instead, she put on her coat and left, taking care not to slam the door or make any noise going down the stairs.

And here she stood. Cold and tired with that static running through her head. Behind her one of the street-lights flickered, not quite catching, the wet tarmac jumping between light and shadow. Every now and again a car would pass, windscreen wipers flicking water from side to side. That feeling of being unmoored had grown the further she’d walked, until she’d ended up here and couldn’t go forward or back.

At first she thought it was just the glimmering light, reflected off the puddles, creating shapes out of shadows, but then those shadows coalesced and sharpened around the edges. She could see the men in long black coats and top hats, carrying the coffin, behind them, women and children, some veiled, some wringing their hands. The buzz of the streetlight crystallised into a low sobbing as the procession marched, oblivious to its surroundings, down the middle of the road. She waited for a car to drive past, and through, scattering the apparitions, snapping her out of the vision but none appeared. Instead, as the short column passed by, an old woman near the end turned her face Julie’s way and beckoned.

Without a second’s thought or any at all really, she stepped off the kerb, feeling a brief pressure, as if she were pushing through a thin skin, and then she joined the slow procession at the end. She looked back to where she’d been standing, half expecting to see her body sprawled across the pavement, but there was just the rain and the intermittent streetlight. In front of her was another young woman, head bowed, dressed in a thin jacket and long skirt. As they walked slowly in step, keeping to some barely heard beat, not a word was said as they marched down across the big junction at the edge of town, through the silent city streets, alongside what used to be a beck feeding the mills, skirting the multi-story car park where the biggest of those mills used to stand, until they reached the parish church. There they stopped and some transaction seemed to take place with the priest, standing by the door. After a minute, it opened and the coffin was carried through and the column started moving forwards again.

But when the young woman in front of her reached that door the grim-faced priest put out his hand and shook his head. The young woman leant forward and placed her hand on his arm but he shook her off and tilted his head to the side. She stood unmoving for a few seconds then turned and stepped away, to the side of the church. Julie watched her go and when she turned back to the church door, found it already shut in her face. She made to knock then lowered her fist and followed the young woman through the church yard and across the Calls road that ran parallel to the river and Julie could hear the water rushing and tumbling over the caul that gave the street its name, a flickering white line of foam marking the weir, stretching out into the darkness. She saw a figure disappear between what used to be a couple of warehouses but by the time Julie got to the river steps the young woman was gone.

For a brief moment Julie felt the pull of the river herself, felt her legs begin to be dragged from under her. Then she straightened and took hold of the railing and hauled herself back into the street. She set off along the wet pavement, lit up by the sign of the Red Cross charity shop and at some point that feeling of pulling against shifted into of one pushing through. She found herself breathing hard as she set her shoulders and leant into it. And then, suddenly, it felt as if some sort of membrane had split apart and she almost tumbled forward into the gutter. There was a last squall of rain and then the moon broke through above the hotel that used to be the corn exchange. People appeared as the night shift and cleaners headed home and the first of the day workers came in. A couple walking past, steered clear and looked sideways at her. Julie smiled and nodded and then, looking around, realised she was opposite the bus station. With no thoughts about what she was leaving behind, she stepped off the kerb, crossed the road and got on the first bus she came to. As it drove past the church the shadows by the door seemed to fill out and separate. The old woman who had beckoned her over looked up and raised her hand, as the bus carried Julie away.

Steven French is semi-retired and lives in Leeds, West Yorkshire. He’s had stories appear at eastoftheweb, Bewildering Stories, Land Beyond the World, Liquid Imagination, 365Tomorrows, Literally Stories and now Idle Ink!

Twitter: @StevenFrench4