“The Red Cap Of Old Hobb Mill” by Neil Willcox

So there I was sitting at the kitchen table with my old friend John Tattersail, my new acquaintance Mrs. Macalister and an eldritch being from God knows where! If I say that it was the most curious and uncanny experience of my life… well. I’ll tell you this, it is not my normal habit to have a brandy chaser with my pint, but tonight I think I deserve it.

No, you’re right, I should start from the beginning. How did we end up there, and who are those people—Tattersail, who is well known around here, the Macalisters who are newcomers to town, and the wight that haunted us? Let me get another drink and I will tell you the curious tale.

I was taking my afternoon constitutional about the old town wall when I came across Mr. Tattersail trailing a vast white cloud from his vape pen. “Hello Hello!” I declared, gesticulating with my walking stick, my bad hand preventing me waving normally.

“Ah, Benson,” he said. It is very gratifying in this informal age to meet a younger person who does not attempt to be over-familiar with one’s given name. “Did you know this town was once the capital of England?”

I had thought myself fairly well acquainted with the history of this part of the country. “Was it really?” I said, though Tattersail, a serious man, is not given to making jests.

“Oh quite so, though only temporarily.” He waved his mist producer, indicating I should join him. We walked on together.

“Before the estuary silted up Strandbridge was a seaport,” he said. “And still is technically, for the small boats that…”

“I think you have forgotten that I am a commissioner for the Strandbridge port and haven,” I said.

“Just so,” said Tattersail. “Well then, a thousand years ago, give or take, Cnut was King of England, and of Denmark and Norway. When he sailed from one kingdom to another, before heading up or down the channel, his fleet would rendezvous here, gathering in the sheltered harbor and running up onto the beach.”

“Or mud bank,” I said as we approached the Fisher Gate and caught sight of what remained of the grey river at low tide.

“Yes,” said Tattersail. We went down the steps from the wall that conveniently led directly to the pub. “If the weather scattered the fleet then they might be here for weeks. And the business of the kingdom did not stop. So Cnut held court here, perhaps in this very establishment.” He put his vape pen away and opened the door, courteously holding it for me.

I could not allow Mr. Tattersail to get away with this. I too knew some local history. “The New Inn is indeed the oldest pub in town, though documentary evidence only goes back to the 1750s.” An advertisement for a sale to be held there in fact. “And of course the building itself has been replaced several times, most recently after being destroyed by a bomb in the war. Time and tide wait for no man you might say.”

Why yes, it was this pub that we are now sitting in. If you had been here at the time you could have seen me buying two pints of Sweynsson’s Best Bitter. It is a curious feature of Mr. Tattersail; he is the most generous of men when it comes to time and effort. On many an occasion he has learned of someone ill or infirm and happily mowed their lawns, trimmed their hedges, painted a room or fixed a tap, gone to the shops or taken them to a hospital appointment in his disreputable Mini. Yet when it comes to paying for a drink at the bar he is the most backward of fellows.

It was his generosity that led to us sitting there in the darkened kitchen, feeling a creeping shiver of terror even as the flames from the stove lit up the face of the strange being that sat with us…

But I am getting ahead of myself. I had just asked Charleston, the landlord here, to get Tattersail whatever he wanted.

“Did you say Tattersail?” said a lady sitting in the corner nursing a glass of white wine. She was alone in the snug.

“Indeed,” I said. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Hubert Benson and this is my friend John Tattersail.”

She rose and approached, shaking Tattersail’s hand. He was quite surprised at this. “Then you are the man I’m looking for,” she said. “Please let me get those drinks for you.”

Obviously I turned down this offer and while she insisted I took stock of her. A young woman, dressed in dark slacks and a grey blouse, a blue cardigan sitting folded on her table next to a copiously sized handbag. Her hair gleamed black, her skin was olive, her nose sharp as a knife.

In the end I could not refuse her so Tattersail picked up our glasses and we joined her at her table.

“Mr. Tattersail, my name is Zora Macalister and I have a very unusual problem. When I asked some of the mothers from nursery they suggested I speak to you.”

This was a surprise to me; I did not think Tattersail so popular with the ladies.

“Macalister,” said Tattersail thoughtfully, for now ignoring the glass and packet of nuts in front of him. “You moved into the town last year. The cottage at Old Hob Mill? A house with a curious history. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What seems to be the problem?”

We had planned to remove the fireplace, have the chimney lined and a wood burning stove fitted, but Evans has a waiting list as long as your arm said Mrs. Macalister. Then, the day after Jerry left for a, a long business trip, the girl in the office rang and said they’d had a cancellation and they could start immediately.

Well a lot of fuss and bother it was, for them and for me. Seems their first try to put the lining up the chimney just went on and on, until it should have been out the top and halfway to next door, and still the man on the roof couldn’t find it. Joe Evans himself came out to take a look and went away scratching his head. Eventually they managed it, but in the meantime the whole kitchen was unusable; I moved out for a week for the sake of my boy Ollie.

Finally they were done and I went back in, cleared out the cellar, and ordered in some wood. The men brought it and stacked it nicely down in the cellar and it was all I could do to stop Ollie from trying to help them.

Of course it’s summer now so we hardly need the fire. But we’ve had that cold snap and yesterday evening I lit the fire and put a guard in place so Ollie wouldn’t try and touch it. I was sitting at the table doing some accounts on my tablet—well, that and looking at Instagram—and Ollie was playing with some stickers.

I must have drifted off because the next thing I heard was him singing with someone else.

Hoppity hoppity mortal child
Stickering things so meek and mild
Let loose your courage and go wild
Kiss the fairy, be beguiled

Well that was peculiar, I’d never heard that rhyme before.

I opened my eyes and I knew I must have been dreaming because beside Ollie was another child. The lights had gone out so there were just the flickering flames from the wood burner window. It seemed to be a little girl, with long silver hair and a red hat on top.

“Peppy Peg,” said Ollie when they finished singing and he slapped a sticker down.

“Titania of the Fey,” said the girl in, well, her accent was a bit rough. And she put a sticker down.

“Hey, I don’t know that one redcap,” said Ollie and then he took another sticker and slapped it on her forehead. “Ha ha!”

The girl cried out and then the wood burner door opened up. A voice came from it, deep and loud and it seemed to fill me up, overwhelm me.

“Who is it that is hurting you?”

I didn’t wait for any reply, I jumped up, grabbed Ollie, my shoes and my handbag and ran out the door. I haven’t been back since.

What’s that? A story in a story? I suppose it is a bit Arabian Nights when you put it like that. This is a proper English story, though, no nonsense about having to keep the audience in suspense to avoid being executed.

Well yes, I suppose I am keeping you in suspense. Maybe there is something to the threat of execution.

At that moment I would not have suspected anything uncanny. My opinion would have been that those ham-handed fools that work for Joe Evans had fitted the wood burner improperly. Her kitchen had no doubt been filling up with noxious vapors, causing nightmarish hallucinations.

Tattersail had his own thoughts.

“Mrs. Macalister, I suggest demolishing the kitchen, having the bricks and stones crushed into rubble, burned in a furnace, and the destroyed remnants carried to the four corners of the kingdom.”

“You can’t be serious,” I said. “That cottage is seventeenth century! Even if it isn’t a listed building, it’s in the town conservation zone. To destroy it would be an act of vandalism.”

He carried on as though I had not spoken. “Of course the river is tidal and the house built on silt. We might plausibly declare it part of the sea’s domain, and therefore take the rubble out of sight of land and drown it there. That would be simpler.”

Mrs. Macalister looked at him for a moment, then drank the rest of her wine. “You are serious,” she said faintly.

“I am the most serious of men,” said Tattersail, “and when it comes to supernatural occurrences I never joke. An eldritch being dwells within your home. It is unsafe to live there, especially with a child. Your instincts served you well when you left.”

“But surely there must be an alternative,” I said. “Demolish a house over some ghost or goblin? Why, half the town would be in ruins.”

“Perhaps it should be,” said Tattersail. “But I admit it is a problem. There are alternatives, though not without risk.”

I make no claims to be a brave man, but I hope I have my share of English fortitude. In any case I volunteered. “I will gladly assist this young lady in her hour of need.”

Tattersail nodded in appreciation and even gave me a sly wink which may not have been truly appropriate to the situation. It does, I hope, illustrate the strength of our friendship. Mrs. Macalister was focused on the practical.

“What can we do? Demolish the house… well. As a last resort to keep Ollie safe… I would need to talk to my husband. I suppose we could sell it but we had hoped to put down roots here.” She thought for a moment. “And it would hardly be a good thing to sell a haunted house to someone unsuspecting.”

I smiled at this fine display of morality. “The solution is obvious. We should go down to Joe Evans’ office and demand that he put right the situation. It was clearly he and his men who disturbed whatever this was, so it is up to them to fix it.”

Tattersail disagreed. “In the matter of boots, defer to the bootmaker, and on the matter of wood burners to the, ah, fitter. For the preternatural, well, there can be no such thing as an expert as it is a topic beyond human comprehension. But I flatter myself that I have some understanding.”

“If you say so,” I said, and perhaps I had some residual distaste for the time Joe Evans and his men spent a month digging up next door’s driveway, disturbing my enjoyment of the garden and continually blocking in my Alfa Romeo with their van. “If I can be of any assistance then please just say.” Remembering the packet of nuts, I opened them and offered them around.

“It seems to me that the best way to get to the bottom of it is to investigate it ourselves. What do you say, Benson, shall we spend tonight in Mrs. Macalister’s kitchen?”

I had nothing planned myself for the evening other than a lamb chop and mash while watching the latest episode of A Country Accountant. This seemed much more interesting. A good deed too, helping an old friend and perhaps a new one. So I agreed and despite my suggestion that a mother’s place was with her child, Mrs. Macalister insisted on joining us too. After seeing to one or two things I arrived at Old Hobb Mill just before sunset and discovered Tattersail there, polluting the atmosphere with his vape pen.

“Good show, Benson,” he said. “I have an important task for you.”

“You can count on me,” I said.

He put the vape pen away and brought out an envelope, holding onto it in an uncharacteristically indecisive way. “If something goes wrong in there then you must get Mrs. Macalister out. Nothing else matters more.”

“You can depend on me,” I said redundantly.

He nodded pensively then tried to hand me the envelope. I transferred my stick to my bad hand and took it. “If things go wrong and you have to leave me…” he held up his hand as I tried to interrupt. “No, Benson, if that happens, then take Mrs. Macalister out and do not re-enter until after sunrise. Then open the envelope and follow the instructions.”

“Demolish the cottage, burn it in a furnace and so forth,” I said trying to lighten the mood.

“Just so,” he said, humoring me. “And there’s the key to my house, if you could see that Rachel gets fed? My cat.”

“Until you get back,” I said, for I am not in love with the feline species. He gave me a dark look and I moderated my jovial tone. “Shall we?”

The door was low and the passage narrow, but inside the kitchen was spacious, high-ceilinged, and modern. Perhaps it had been redesigned to make it more attractive to buyers. It seemed to have worked as it had not been on the market long before it was bought by the Macalisters. Mrs. Macalister offered us tea, and I accepted. Irish Breakfast, a perfectly respectable blend at any time of day. Tattersail took water.

The light was fading as the sun vanished. Tattersail put some kindling into the notorious stove. Before lighting it he spoke.

“Here are the rules for the evening. Firstly, try not to speak or interact with anyone who comes in if at all possible. If you must speak, then on your life do not use any proper names.”

“Tat… that seems straightforward if a little awkward,” I said.

Mrs. Macalister gave me a look and I concentrated on the tea.

“Secondly, if anything goes wrong, or you feel especially uneasy, then leave. And no matter what you see or hear, do not return until after sunrise.”

He struck a match and lit the paper, letting the kindling catch.

“Is that all?” I asked before remembering rule one again.

The fire caught and he put a log or two in before closing the windowed door. A merry blaze lit up the room. Tattersail then put his hand in his pocket and handed out a nail to each of us. “Cold iron, sovereign against the fair folk. If in doubt, hold this in your hand.”

Ah, a talisman against evil. I smiled at this; a transparent attempt to reassure Mrs. Macalister with a meaningless token. I would rather have had a horseshoe. With one of those in my good hand I would gladly give some ‘goblin’ creeper what for.

We sat in silence, half uncomfortable, half companionably. The only noise was the cheerful crackle from the wood stove, the occasional creak from the house, and the slowly quieting sounds from the garden outside the window. The light slowly faded. Mrs. Macalister sat hunched over her tea, occasionally glancing at her phone. She had told us the only call she might expect was from the friend who was looking after her son.

For myself I watched the flickering flames, only turning to glance about the room when the hypnotic fire threatened to turn my dream-like self-absorption into comatose rest. It certainly warmed the room; after a while I considered loosening my collar or even taking off my jacket.

While contemplating, the shadows seemed to breathe in and the stillness increased. I could hear my own heart beat in my ears and when I realized I was holding my breath, my cautious exhalation sounded like a jet engine. The warm room seemed cool again.

A sturdy mature man appeared in the doorway to the cellar where the wood was stored. He had a handsome face and bright green eyes visible despite the gloom. On his head was a red scarf, tying back his long silver hair.

He stepped quietly forward and sat beside Mrs. Macalister.

“All right,” he declared in very low-class tones. “So ‘ere we all are, sittin’ at the table. A good time being ‘ad by all. What’s your name, love?”

Mrs. Macalister shuddered slightly but remembering the rules kept her mouth shut. It was Mr. Tattersail who answered. “Her name is Nanna.” Her given name was Zoe or Zara, something exotic like that; Tattersail had a ruse. “Nanna Your Business. And what’s your name red-topped sir?”

Not taking his eyes off Mrs. Macalister the man said. “Me? I am Myself. And I’m gaspin’ for a drink, love. Any chance of some whiskey?”

Mr. Tattersail took up a cup and poured some of the tea from the cooling pot into it. “Here you go, a wee dram.”

“Thank you very much, Nanna Your Business,” he said unctuously. He nodded to Mrs. Macalister, taking Tattersail as her servant, and drank it greedily. Then he spat it out. “Poisoned!” he gasped.

The door of the woodburning stove swung open and a voice spoke, one so dark and powerful that it shook my very bones. “Who has dared poisoned you?” it asked.

“Nanna Your Business,” declared the red-scarfed gentleman, clutching his throat.

There was a pregnant pause. “No one of that name is in Strandbridge tonight,” it declared in rich tones. “An’ lucky for them as we would have taken a dire revenge upon them, you and I.”

It slammed shut and I shook myself. When I looked up I was astonished. Where the red-bandana wearing gentleman had sat was now an extraordinarily beautiful woman, with piercing green eyes and a lock of silver hair escaping from under a scarlet beret. She moved her seat around the table to sit by me. “Hello there,” she breathed. “And who are you?”

I opened my mouth to give a polite reply, but as I shifted I felt the nail turn in my bad hand, digging into the flesh of my palm, a worse pain than I had felt there for years. Of course. The first rule. Who knew what this exquisite creature really looked like, if we could strip the glamour from her, unveiling her bare flesh…

“His name is Lee.” This time I was unsurprised at the inaccurate nomenclature. “Lee Me Alone. And who are you, red-hatted miss?”

“Pleased to meet you, Lee Me Alone. And it’s quite a coincidence for I am Me as well. And I am also quite hungry. Is there any cake?”

Mr. Tattersail looked about and saw on top of a wooden box by the draining board the dry, stale ends of a loaf, left out the night before. He stood and fetched them, putting them onto a saucer. “There you do, some lemon drizzle cake, nice and moist.”

“Thank you,” she said with emphasis and bit into the crust. “My mouth! It’s been cut! I’ve been fed broken glass!”

Again the door to the stove popped open and the voice returned, as cold and enormous as the winter sky. “Who is it that has hurt you? Who has poured broken glass down your throat?”

The red-hatted lady snapped out, looking at me. “It was Lee Me Alone.”

There was a long and pregnant pause. “In all the Kingdom of England there is no one with the name Lee Me Alone,” it said in words as dry as the desert. “‘An’ fortunate it is as their fate would have been a cruel one.” The door slammed shut. I rubbed my eyes.

Now the woman had changed again. They were still young, but their gender indeterminate, androgynous as we fogies say. The green eyes and silver hair remained, and the red hat was a long cap. They were still beautiful but to me this was now an academic description, not one I felt to the marrow in my old bones. They moved around the table next to Mr. Tattersail.

“Well well, ‘ere we are. ‘Ere we are indeed. What’s your name, sunshine?”

For the first time I felt some threat from the person, an air of menace rather than suspense. Mr. Tattersail merely gave a thin smile. “I am Alex. Alex Plain,” he said. “And you gentle redcap, what do they call you?”

The red cap shook their head. “I am I, that I am. Is there any chance you might stir up the fire? It’s brass monkeys where I’m sittin’.”

“I would be glad to,” said Mr. Tattersail, turning to the stove. He opened up the door, took up a poker and stirred it. As the red-capped person leaned in a spark leapt out and struck them, full in the face.

“My eye! My face! I’m blinded! I’m disfigured! Oh my beautiful face is destroyed!”

The door already open, the voice seemed to swallow the room, condemning us to the deepest depths of the belly of the beast. “Who has done this to us? Who has dared?”

“It was Alex Plain!” And now the red-capped creature looked at Mr. Tattersail, face gleaming in triumph.

For a long, cold moment there was silence. “In all the wide world there is no one with that name. So it cannot have been Alex Plain. If it were they would already have felt our vengeance. And so it must have been you your own self who has been doing these things.” With these words a tremendously long and thin arm reached out from the door, and grabbed the person by the tail of their red cap, and pulled them kicking into the stove, though it seemed that there was no way they could fit. Then Mr. Tattersail tossed a handful of dust through the gap as the door closed. There was a hiss and sparks and a long, dreadful howl. The fire died back down.

Mr. Tattersail brushed his hands. “Iron filings,” he said. “And I think that takes care of that.”

Well that wasn’t quite it but I could feel the absence; there had been a sense of foreboding over the place which was now lifted, the cottage now a mere building of brick and stone. Eventually even Mrs. Macalister agreed and left to retrieve little Ollie.

As we stood outside, me with my walking stick and Tattersail with his vape pen exuding noxious fumes, I checked my watch. “Good lord,” I said. “It’s only just gone ten o’clock. The pub will still be open. I think we deserve a drink after this.”

“That is the most sensible thing you’ve said today, Benson,” said Tattersail, and beaming at this compliment I led the way into the snug of the New Inn.

You were here when we arrived so I don’t need to tell you what happened next.

Oh, why am I the one at the bar telling this story while John Tattersail is absent? Perhaps I am not quite done yet. Let’s see. Charleston was just serving a harassed-looking man a large whiskey; he nodded at us to show that he knew we were waiting. “Carry on, sir,” he said. “I know what these gentlemen will want.”

“Well it was quite the thing, Charlie,” the man said. “There I was out in the car park having a smoke, and up on the high wall at the back were two cats. Now I know it can’t have been the case, but I could have sworn that I heard them talking.”

It seemed my appetite for unlikely tales had not been sated by our adventure of the evening. “Pardon me for overhearing,” I said as Charleston poured a pint of Forkbeard. “But I can’t help wondering. What exactly did they say?”

“It made no sense so I can only think I made it up. You know, pareidolia, imposing an order that isn’t there on meaningless sounds. But I thought the tabby said to the black cat, Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum’s dead.”

Tattersail came out of the brown study he had been in and stood up straight. “Oh. Oh. Well apologies, Benson, I just remembered I can’t stay. Dinner’s waiting for me at home and I’d be in trouble if I stay out any longer.” And he swirled out of the pub.

And that was the most curious thing of all, for not only was that the first time I had ever seen him turn down a drink when someone else was paying, but everyone in town knows John Tattersail is a confirmed bachelor and that, other than Rachel his cat, he lives entirely alone.

Neil Willcox lives in South East England in a house that is not ancient, haunted, or cursed, making it unique for the area. He has recently had stories published in Sword and Sorcery Magazine and Voidspace, and poems in Pink Plastic House. He can be found on Twitter @neil_will, and at his blog nightofthehats.blogspot.com.