Low Lane: a ghost story
by Barendina Smedley
For quite some time, perhaps a year or more, Ada had been in the habit of going for an early morning walk, more or less every day, from her house up towards Harrow Hill.
The house where she lived with her husband and children was near the church. From there, a track led down to Low Lane, a narrow stretch of road that passed through arable fields before rising up again suddenly, twisting around a curve and crossing the top of Harrow Hill. The path then dropped down again toward a pig farm before rising as it approached another hamlet and then, eventually, the local market town.
Ada, though, generally walked to the top of the hill before turning around and walking back again.
The walk took her about forty minutes, all told.
The route of the walk was, it must be said, very ordinary. The fields were generally drilled with crops like sugar beet, oilseed or winter wheat. The one cottage that lay along the route was a low prefab, clad long ago in brick and inhabited by the elderly widow related to the the local farming family.
There were only two things that were even potentially interesting about the walk. Although there were two common stories about how Harrow Hill had got its name — either from something to do with agricultural activity, or possibly from the academic backstory of one of the farmer’s ancestors — in fact neither story was accurate. The name was actually based on the Old English ‘hearg’, denoting a spot that had once been a pre-Christian site of worship. These days, though, there was nothing on top of the hill except a Site of Special Scientific Interest, which in practice consisted of some gravel outcrops and a huge amount of bracken.
The other potentially interesting thing was that the lane was said to be frequented by Old Shuck, the legendary black demon-dog who is a central cliché of East Anglian folklore. In fairness, though, the same is said of pretty much every long stretch of lonely lane anywhere in Norfolk or Suffolk. Certainly Ada didn’t know anyone who had experienced anything notable anywhere on Low Lane. And she had never seen Old Shuck, either.
Ada was an early riser. In part, she had learned, as most busy parents eventually do, that the hours between four and six in the morning were less subject to interruptions from her near and dear than any most other times of the day. But it was also true that she had always loved early mornings — the solitude, the stillness, the unblemished promise — as well as the ordinary every-day miracle of seeing darkness give way first to dawn then daylight. These walks were, finally, a chance to clear her mind. Ada could, at times, be a bit of a worrier.
At high summer, of course, walking at 5 am meant walking in daylight, at least in her part of Norfolk, where it was light well before 4 am. But as autumn turned to winter, walking even at 5.30 am meant walking in the dark, with only the promise of a brightening sky by the time she turned back up the track towards their plain little farmhouse, the chaos of breakfast and lost socks and random squabbles, all the demands of another busy day.
Ada did not mind this. She liked walking in the dark. She enjoyed the strangeness of it. She enjoyed the way that darkness heightened her sense of smell, her hearing, her alertness to currents of air or variations in the road surface under her feet — preventing her, in effect, from thinking about anything else. She liked hearing the owls in the old pine planation calling to the owls up on Harrow Hill. She liked being able to walk in the middle of the lane, quite fast, not held back by having to keep pace with anyone else, having to take account of anyone else’s needs or demands on her. And at 5 or 5.30 am, there was rarely any traffic.
Admittedly, now and again a car would pass her. If it did, however, Ada could always hear it long before it approached, so still were those early mornings — and she could see the headlamps too, tracing out the edges of the hedgerow far in front of her. Being sensible and safety-conscious, she wore one of those hi-viz tabard things with reflective strips on it, so that any passing car could easily see her, too. The lane was narrow, so when a vehicle passed, she had to step off onto the verge. Sometimes this was difficult, as there were a few points at which the lane passed between rather high hedges, the verge was raised above the roadway, and sometimes overgrown with weeds and very damp with the dew, but in general it was easy.
Admittedly, it always felt a bit strange, standing out there alone at the edge of the road, in that dark and empty landscape, highly visible in her tabard and yet, because of the way lights work, totally unable to see the drivers of the vehicles that passed her — often speeding by, far too quickly, but sometimes slowing down almost to a crawl, so that she had a moment to wonder what face to adopt to meet these unseen spectators and critics — a polite half-smile? Or a discouraging stare into some imagined middle distance?
Very occasionally, on her way back, she ran into two neighbours whom she knew by sight if not by name, both young mothers, who also enjoyed an early morning walk, together with their various dogs, a collie and a terrier and some other nondescript little thing. ‘You’re out early!’ they would invariably exclaim, cheerfully, to which Ada would reply with some relevant comment along the lines of ‘Beautiful morning, though!’ — or, if it was not a beautiful morning, ‘Awful weather, though — why do we do this?’ It was all very merry and neighbourly, although the various dogs, which the two women kept on leads because of those occasional passing vehicles, would sometimes growl or even bark at her, causing the women to exclaim ‘Really, Lupin, I don’t know what’s got into you today!’, or words to that effect.
There were clear crisp mornings, gently rainy mornings but also mornings of sudden, surprising mists and fog. In one place in particular along Low Lane the mist tended to thicken and linger. People in the village said there had once been a stream here that had run down through the fields towards the river. There were times when it felt as if the mist remembered that stream, and followed its old course. At that particular point the lane was bounded by a shallow ditch, while further back, just at the edge of the field, there was an abandoned tin-roofed shed, overgrown with elder and ivy, falling to bits in a picturesque sort of way. On really foggy mornings, though, the shed simply loomed like some large dark inexplicable presence, a bit shapeless and inchoate.
There was really only one vehicle that Ada encountered on more or less every morning walk. It was a Luton van, adorned with the livery of a well-known commercial bakery. It would drive past her, coming from the direction of Harrow Hill, going towards the village. Ada had always assumed, given the livery, that it was involved in delivery baked goods to the village shop. Occasionally, albeit more rarely, it would also pass her the other way, coming back along from the village as she herself was on her way down the hill, returning home. But of course, because she was walking in the dark and always caught in the van’s headlamps, effectively blinded by them, she could never see the face of the driver.
Let’s get to the point. The morning in question was dark, but not so dark that, as Ada came off the track into Low Lane, she couldn’t see, in the light of the lone streetlamp back towards the village, a thick band of fog squatting across the lane just where the stream used to run. She didn’t mind this, though. She was used to walking in the dark, and she wasn’t bothered by the fog, either. She knew that stepping into it would feel like stepping into a different sort of dark entirely — colder, damper, even darker, if such a thing were possible — but that once she came out of it as the lane rose up towards the hill, things would seem more normal again. And so it proved.
As she passed that little lone cottage, a light was on at the window. But that, too, was entirely normal. The farmer’s widow, like Ada, rose early. The light cast by that one illuminated window revealed, in a weak and wavering way, the rough grass and overgrown weeds — the dry husks of alexanders, burdock and hogweed — bordering the other side of the lane. Over to the east, the faintest blush of rose had started to bleed into the darkness. And up on Harrow Hill, Ada could hear the owls calling.
Ada listened to the steady report of her own footsteps as she continued up the lane. One of her feet hurt, and she concentrated on the more careful placement of her own toe and heel — something she rarely had the leisure to do at other times of the day. She ran through a list of entirely uninteresting tasks — ringing a plumber, updating an online shopping delivery, a video call with one of her children’s teachers which she wasn’t anticipating with any particular pleasure, buying yet more school shoes — and noticed that, despite the fog that had encircled her until a moment ago, she could now again see one or two late stars in the sky.
Up in the field to the right of her, behind the high hedge, some farm labourers were harvesting salad greens. They always did this by hand, using the light of some sort of farm vehicle, very early in the morning. They were quite far away, but now and again she could hear their voices across the rolling ground. Ada found this strangely companionable. It was nice that there were people around, but people for whom she had no responsibility, and whose existence had no very direct implications for her. Her mind went back to the school shoes, and then moved on to a question of timing relating to a sports fixture.
And then she worried for a moment, just a moment, about her own mortality, and the passing of time, and the health and safety of those she loved. Sometimes she thought about these things on her morning walks, if only because during the rest of a normal day there was so little time to think about them. She had always been a bit of a worrier, Ada. Sometimes these morning walks felt a bit like a way to outrun those worries, or a sort of ritual means of exorcising them.
She heard the owls again. In the summer, up on Harrow Hill, she sometimes heard skylarks — even, once or twice, a nightingale.
And then, up in the distance, up past Harrow Hill, she could hear a vehicle approaching, and she saw some lights. It was, she imagined, the Luton van, bringing bread to the village. She actually slowed down at this point, because there was a flat bit of ground where she could easily stand by the edge of the lane, whereas a dozen or so yards ahead of her the bank was far more steep. So she stood to one side, and the vehicle passed her, all blazing lights and the rush of cold air and earthy smells as it displaced the leaves that lay by the roadside. And then, gradually, as she had expected it would, its sound vanished into the distance.
Ada reached the top of the hill and the farm gate which marked the terminal point of her normal daily walk. It was only just possible to see the white ‘Old Barn Farm’ sign — not the words, just the white square on which they were painted — in the beginnings of the dawn. She turned around and set off back down the hill.
There was just enough light to see that mist was now puddled amongst the low fields, huddled in their gradual folds, and that the sky above was turning to rose with slate-grey band of stern cloud above it. But then all that was lost beyond a hedge again. There was something flapping in the road, but as Ada came closer to it, half-willing herself not to look, she could see that it was only a discarded plastic bag. The stars in the sky were no longer visible. The owls had gone quiet.
As she passed the lonely little house she could see a bit further ahead, though, and it made her realise that something out of the ordinary was happening a bit further down the road, where the mist had been lying so deep earlier, near the rotting tin shed and its shroud of ivy and elder. Ada couldn’t quite see what was happening, though. She felt her heart beating a bit faster, so that she could hear it as clearly as she could hear her own footsteps.
That was another thing that worried Ada sometimes — her heart, how she could hear it sometimes, whether it would always beat like that, the fact that someday it would stop, that everything would stop, that someday there would be an end to all of this. Yes, she was a worrier, although she knew this was silly. In fact she was very lucky — people were always telling her so, how lucky she was to live in such a beautiful place, with such a lovely family, and she knew she was far better off than most — so she tried her best to put those worries aside, or at least, not to bother other people with them.
Eventually, there ahead in what was left of the mist — because that part of Low Lane, just by the ruined shed, was always the last bit to clear — she could hear voices. Two of them were her neighbours. The other she didn’t recognise.
She drew nearer. Now she could make sense of what had happened. It was the Luton van. It had gone over and was lying on its side in the ditch, next to the tin shed. There was a man beside it, talking to the two youngish women who were standing there with their dogs, the whole company exhilarated with that strange sense of self-importance that accompanies the sort of minor accidents in which, thankfully, no one is badly hurt.
‘What happened? How awful — is everyone all right?’ Ada addressed her neighbours and also the unknown man whom she assumed to be the van driver. He was dark-haired, perhaps in his 50s, not bad looking — but the main thing she’d remember about him later was the absolute incandescent fury with which he addressed her.
‘I’m minding my language, just, but it was that effing dog of yours! It isn’t the first time either. Why don’t you keep him on a lead? I could have been killed, I could.’
‘But I don’t have a dog’ protested Ada, baffled.
‘What do you mean you don’t have a dog? Don’t you go being funny with me. I see you here on this road here every morning and you’ve always got that dog with you. You just don’t keep him on a lead like you should.’
‘What are you talking about? I don’t own a dog. I have never gone walking here with a dog.’
The man was shaking his head in anger and disbelief, and looking to the two other women as if expecting them to share his disgust at what he clearly saw as Ada’s obvious and irresponsible untruths — just as Ada looked to them to bear out her own innocence.
The women, in turn, simply looked agitated and uncomfortable. ‘We always thought it was your dog’ said one of them, after a little pause. ‘But I guess maybe it’s just a stray?’
Ada simply could not understand what was going on. It was getting properly light, now, and in the distance they could all see a police car approaching, presumably to deal with the situation.
Ada felt light-headed. She could hear her own voice shaking a little. She was almost pleading with the delivery man who was still glaring at her, shaking his head.
‘Look, I’m sorry. I know I see you every day. I do walk here every day, up to the hill. That’s true. But I don’t have a dog, I’ve never had a dog, and none of this is my fault. Please don’t say it’s my fault. I don’t understand and I don’t have a dog. I’m sorry. Please.’
They were all looking at her. Then somehow the driver’s tone softened just slightly.
‘Okay, I’m sorry, it’s a company van, otherwise I wouldn’t mind so much. It’s not like I’m hurt or nothing because I ain’t. And maybe what those two say is right and it’s a stray and nothing to do with you. But I swear to God, every time I seen you these past months, there’s been a dog following you. I can see it there in the headlamps, as bright as day lit up it is. Big old thing, shaggy, dark, big old ears. Almost like a wolf but really big, really dark. Big eyes! And sometimes it’s right by you, sometimes it’s following behind at more of a distance, like. Big ugly old thing. And today, it was that far back, and it ran right cross the road in front of me, and I swerved so as not to hit it — and not to hit you in case you were there with it too, because I know you always walk with it. But if it ain’t your dog, then, this thing I seen every day all these months, what is it then?’
And they all looked at each other and because it was cold, standing out there in Low Lane in that one last pocket of fog, Ada found herself shivering.