Updated: Aug 19, 2020
A handprint – right in the middle of Johnathon’s freshly painted front door. It might not have seemed much but, for him, it was the final straw.
It was fair to say that it had been a tough year for Johnathon. After 20 years of loyal service and hard work, he’d been made redundant from his job, and had moved to the village of Darling when he could no longer afford his flat in the city. He’d only been there for a few weeks and was still settling into the small cottage.
It was one of 12 black and white timber framed cottages in the village. Although a modest property, with only a few small rooms, he’d been captivated by the thatched roofs, smoking chimneys and immaculately kept gardens. Most of his time had been spent decorating, which included painting the front door. It had taken him a long time to choose a colour but, eventually, he’d fallen in love with a vivid shade of red called Lusty Cabaret. Less than a day after he’d finished painting, though, and a thoughtless local had vandalised it. All because of some ridiculous superstition that Johnathon refused to get swept up in.
On the day of his arrival, Johnathon had found the local residences doing something extremely unusual. At each of the twelve households along the narrow street, someone was painting. In of itself, the unison struck Johnathon as odd, but not nearly as much as the colour. Every door on the street was tar black. And as if that wasn’t enough, the windows had been painted, too.
According to Rosemary White, Johnathon’s nearest neighbour and the local doctor, it was a tradition that had lasted for over four decades. When she asked if he would be joining, he’d politely declined, opting instead for a more pleasing finish on his door. He hadn’t given the matter another moment’s thought, until residents started discussing it with him.
“I think you ought to do it, Mr Palmer” said James Jones, mechanic and handyman when he came to help Johnathon fix some faulty wiring in the kitchen.
“I should think you’ll be wanting to borrow some paint, then?” asked Creely, the landlord at the local pub as he handed Johnathon a pint of bitter.
“It is most unwise to defy tradition, however unusual it might appear” said Yvonne Cummings, headmistress at the local school. But it was the message from the local vicar, Prudence Goodchild, that Johnathon found most unsettling.
“Do it” she’d said anxiously. “Don’t ask why. Just do it. In his name, please, just do it”
Despite pressure from almost everyone in the village, Johnathon had decided not to follow tradition. After all, nobody would tell him how the bizarre custom had come to be. As he was new to the village, he’d wanted to get past the issue as quickly and quietly as possible, so had simply painted over the handprint that evening. The paint didn’t quite match but he was sure it would fade in the next few days. He’d thought that would be the last of it. But then, he found the mug in his kitchen.
At first, he thought it was part of the design but, upon closer inspection, he’d realised it was a dirty handprint. And it wasn’t the only one. Plates, bowls and cutlery had been soiled as well. Incensed, he marched to the local pub, the Huntsman, and gave the residents a piece of his mind. When he burst into the cosy pub, brandishing his grubby mug, the patrons recoiled in terror.
“Who was it? Come on, own up. I want to know who it was. This is bloody trespassing, this is. And for what? Some ridiculous superstition. Well, I’m warning you now; if I find any more of your bloody paint on my property, I shall be pressing charges.” he said. When nobody replied, he cursed loudly and left.
The following morning, Johnathon awoke feeling a little guilty. Although he was angry, and had every right to be, perhaps he had overreacted. Rosemary had mentioned that many of the residents left their doors unlocked at night, letting their neighbours come and go as they pleased. Whilst this seemed unusual to Johnathon, who was born and raised in the city, he realised it wasn’t his place to comment on the village’s ways. He intended to go to each house and apologise for what he’d said but would first go for a walk to clear his head.
First, he headed along the narrow street to the old stone bridge, and then followed the stream into a shallow valley. He passed the church, which had been built by Saxon settlers, and continued until he came to a crumbling ruin. It was a tall structure of steel girders surrounded by the skeletal remains of two large warehouses. Johnathon would have liked to explore it but, as there were signs and fences prohibiting entry, he turned back and went to look around the church instead.
For such a small village, the graveyard was unusually crowded. Johnathon was unsettled to find that most of the graves had the same date; 29th October 1935. As it was already mid-October, Johnathon began to suspect he’d stumbled across the origin of the black paint, which made him feel much worse for what he’d said.
On his way home, he knocked at several doors along the way, but no one answered. The pub was closed, too, so he would have to apologise to everyone another time. That night, whilst lying in bed and thinking about the awful things he’d said to the villagers, his temper was aroused once again by the unmistakable sound of footsteps in the hallway. Outraged, he rushed to confront the intruder, but found there was nobody there. He searched the cottage from top to bottom, checking every door and window, but found no signs of forced entry. Suspecting that he might have imagined the sound, he returned to bed.
After an icy cold shower in the morning, which was his preference, Johnathon dressed in his finest shirt and tie, ready to apologise to everyone. As his eyes fell on the handprints that stretched from one end of the hallway to the other, though, all thoughts of making peace were lost.
“I swear, if I catch you in my bloody house, I shan’t be held responsible for my actions” he yelled from the front door. James the mechanic was alone on the street, and so took the full brunt of Johnathon’s anger.
It took hours to scrub the dirt from the plasterwork and, once he’d finished, he was in no mood to answer the knock at the door. But the caller was insistent and, eventually, Johnathon was forced to acknowledge.
“Please, Mr Palmer, I have to speak to you” said the Prudence the vicar. Although furious, he thought it highly unlikely that the vicar was his tormentor, and so stepped back to let her inside.
“How can I help?” Johnathon asked as the vicar took a seat in the living room.
“Actually, I’m here to help you” she said. “I want to tell you a story from our past. Many years ago, the village had a prosperous mine. It was bought by a man named William Darling, who renamed the village after his family. Unfortunately, the mine yielded less and less profit. In his desperation, William ordered the miners to dig elsewhere in search of fresh ore. The locals advised against the site he chose because, sometimes, the area flooded. William ignored them. That year, the stream burst its banks. The shift was changing, so every miner from the village was below ground when the water came. None survived”
“29th October 1975” he said. The vicar nodded hurriedly, clearly anxious. “I saw the graves in the church yard. Forgive me, but I’m not sure why you’re telling me this”
“I know this is strange to you. And I understand if you think us mad, but I must ask you to paint your doors and windows. Before it’s too late”
“You’re not serious?” Johnathon replied, not knowing whether to laugh or shout. “This is a ghost story”
“Call it what you will”
The vicar had left without another word. It was a personal like of the vicar that prompted Johnathon’s brush. The locals came by to thank him for embracing their custom, which he took as politely as he could. In the end, he couldn’t bring himself to paint the door, though, and left it red.
That night, he slept fitfully, dreaming of the damned miners watching helplessly as water from the stream rose around them. The frosty water of his morning shower brought thoughts of the flood back to his mind. He couldn’t suppress an uncharacteristic shudder. He was so tired that he made a second cup of tea at breakfast, which was also out of sorts. Once he’d eaten, he went upstairs to dress and make his bed. That was when he saw a single handprint, towards the corner of his bedsheet.
Understandably, his initial reaction was surprise, rapidly followed by alarm. It was bad enough when they were rummaging through his kitchen cupboards, but this was much more unsettling. Somehow, they’d made it into his bedroom and applied the mark without waking him, begging the question; what else might they be inclined to do to his sleeping body?
That thought drove him to the street, still wearing his dressing gown and slippers. Enraged, he pounded on Rosemary’s door, so loudly that he spooked her fluffy white cat, Priscilla. When she didn’t answer, he headed to the next door, and then the next. Nobody answered.
“Come out, you bloody cowards. We’ll sort this the old-fashioned way. Queensberry rules” he roared, brandishing his fists. Although he was usually quite sedentary, there was a time in his youth when he’d boxed at county level.
He spent another 20 minutes yelling and banging on doors, but his challenge went unanswered. Eventually, he went back to the cottage, heading straight to the small shed at the end of his garden to retrieve a hammer and some nails. The rest of his day was spent in something of a frenzy, fixing boards over the windows and barricading the back door shut. In the interest of safety, he left the front door unsealed, but resolved to seat himself in an armchair to prevent it from opening.
After securing the cottage, he dragged a seat from the living room and rested it against the door. Armed with a poker from the fireplace, plus a bottle of fine brandy, he sat as a sentry, although he wasn’t a very good one. Every creak and groan the old timber cottage gave made him flinch. It didn’t help that the lights in the cottage were dim and so left patches of shadow around the edges of the small rooms. By the time his head slumped limply on his shoulder, he’d drank almost two thirds of the liquor to cope with his anxiety.
The next morning, he awoke to a headache that felt like a hot iron driving through his temples. His neck was stiff from sleeping in the chair and his gut was churning enthusiastically. As he stood, still unsteady with the effects of drink, he noted that the front of his dressing gown was soaked. A little ashamed, he staggered to the bathroom to shower. As he removed his sodden clothing, his eyes fell on the handprint below his knee.
At first, he simply stared, too stunned to move or even think about what he was seeing. Then, he noticed the pool of liquid that had dripped from his dressing gown. It was tinged black, as if soiled with dirt or earth. The relief he should have felt – he hadn’t wet himself in a drunken stupor – was overwhelmed by a wave of all-consuming terror.
When he came to his senses, he raced to his bedroom to dress, all thoughts of showering forgotten. Wearing nothing but trousers and a knitted jumper, he rushed downstairs, threw the armchair aside and tumbled onto the gravel path that led to the street. Scrambling to his feet, he sprinted away from the house, only slowing when he arrived at the church.
“For the love of God, open the door” he cried, slamming his fists against the ancient oak door.
“Mr Palmer?” the vicar said anxiously. Not waiting for an invitation, Johnathon forced his way past, almost knocking the vicar to the ground. Troubled by his urgency, the vicar asked Johnathon what was wrong.
“You have to help me” he whimpered, cowering in the pews.
As he drew up his trouser leg, the vicar was briefly shocked. When she saw the handprint, her expression quickly turned to horror. Johnathon pleaded, begged her help. But she remained silent.
“For Christ’s sake, you have to help me” he cried. “Who’s doing this? Why?”
For a long time, she simply stared, but eventually, she muttered a single word. Go. Perturbed, Johnathon repeated himself. The vicar shook her head, eyes wild with fright.
“There’s nothing I, nor anyone, can do for you now” she whispered. “You must leave. Get away from this place. And pray they don’t follow”
Ignoring Johnathon’s deluge of follow-up questions, the vicar began mumbling hurriedly. Although Johnathon wasn’t a practicing Christian, he recognised the words of the Lord’s Prayer from his school days. The vicar crossed herself, which seemed to remove all hope of his salvation. Realising that help wouldn’t be provided, Johnathon dashed to the door.
Although it was now midmorning, the street was still totally deserted. Even Rosemary’s cat, which was usually roaming around the neatly tended gardens, was nowhere to be seen. His hands were shaking so much that he couldn’t get them in the lock of his Ford Cortina. In his haste, he scratched the Highland Green paintwork, but didn’t care about that. Nor did he care about his belongings in the cottage. He wouldn’t spend another second in Darling.
The tyres screamed as he sped away, spitting dust and gravel into the air. Despite having no destination in mind, his foot remained firmly pressed against the accelerator long after Darling had disappeared in the hills and valleys behind him. Heart pounding, he reached for the radio but, unfortunately, the area was remote, and no stations were available. To calm his nerves, he tunelessly hummed a melody. Vaguely, he recalled it as a hymn he’d sung at school, the words to which he’d long since forgotten.
When he crossed into the next county, he pulled to the side of the road, resting his head on the steering wheel and breathing deeply. Minutes passed before he looked up, chuckling softly under his breath. The ridiculousness of the situation had begun to sink in. Ghosts of drowned miners; how absurd. This was almost certainly the work of aggrieved locals in retaliation for their imagined slights from Johnathon. Well, if that was how the wanted to play this, he’d be happy to tell the constabulary all about it.
Swinging the car round, he started driving back to Darling. As the sun sank beneath the murky horizon, a thin vale of fog crept across the rolling hills. Fat droplets of rain splattered on the windscreen. It all made for quite a foreboding scene, and Johnathon might have been unsettled by it, if not for his rage at the villagers.
The road rose to a high ridge, before zigzagging down into the village. He was roughly halfway down the hillside, when the car juddered and, inexplicably, stalled. Luckily, there was a patch of gravel beside the road, which slowed him to a relatively comfortable halt. Cursing his poor fortune, Johnathon stepped out of the car and went to investigate under the bonnet. The two handprints stood out clearly on the paintwork.
Panicking, he staggered away from the car, stepping back onto the grassy bank. He barely made it two steps before his feet caught. His first thought was that he’d sunk into the soft earth but when he looked down, he saw grimy hands clawing at his shoes. He’d already sunk to his waist when he found his voice. All too quickly, his scream vanished as he was dragged beneath the earth. He continued to sink, until all that was left was his grubby hands, bloody fingernails scratching the ground as he was consumed by the dirt.