Rachel sat under the kitchen table, and watched feet crossing the room. They were all that was visible under the edge of the tablecloth, which had holly and candles and things embroidered on it. Scuffing brown slipper feet under baggy navy trouser legs – Gramps. Pale blue Ugg boots over skinny jeans – Granny. Four skinny white legs – the big dog. And the little dog was sitting next to her, so that was the house accounted for.
New legs appeared, heeled black boots with the pointed toes just appearing under black trousers. They advanced on the table, and the owner crouched down.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” Rachel said.
“You okay here?”
“I don’t want to stay here, Mum. I want to go to the library with you.”
Her mother sighed, and pushed heavy brown hair – the same as Rachel’s – back from her face. “I know. But your dad’s – not here, and there’s the library Christmas party, and the council one -” She shook her head. “If you behaved better for babysitters, you could’ve stayed home.”
“It’s not my fault they’re stupid.”
“Last time Mrs Glencomb sat for you, you made her son use the Ouija board, then claimed you were possessed by a demon and were going to eat his soul. That goes a bit beyond someone just being gullible.”
“He really is stupid, though.”
Her mum opened her mouth to argue, then just sighed. “Can you just be good for Granny and Gramps? I’ll be back on Friday, then we’ll all have Christmas together.”
“What about Dad?”
Her mother looked left and slightly up – Rachel knew what that was. She’d read about it. It was called a tell, and it meant she was about to lie. “He wants to, Rach.”
“Whatever.” She picked up her book and pulled it into her lap – Practical Spells for Beginners. Not very scientific, but it was all she’d found on the shelves here. She could try them out and debunk them, anyway. It’d be her research until she could get to a library and find some proper ghost-hunting books.
Her mother crawled under the table, kissed the top of her head, and left. She heard some muttered conversation with her granny, probably something about not letting her read all night. It was the holidays – that’s what they were for, surely? Not that it mattered. She’d made sure she had a good supply of batteries for her torch. Giving her an e-reader without a built-in light was such an obvious ploy.
The day was clear and cold, the sky pale above the snow-dusted fells. Rachel watched her breath making shapes in the still air, purple hat pulled down firmly over her ears. She was under instructions to get a bottle of milk from the village shop, and six eggs from the honesty box at the other end of the road, and “You could wander around,” her granny had said, waving vaguely. “It’s a pretty day.”
Rachel took that to mean that there was no rush on either milk or eggs, and she had decided to see if she could spot any houses that looked like they might be haunted. The village was so old it had a Domesday Book plaque, so there should be at least one good haunted house. Because while finding the library ghost had been cool, he never said anything other than “the lizards are anxious”, which meant her investigation into the world of hauntings had rather stalled.
Now she paused in the middle of a small footbridge that spanned a fast, shallow stream, peering down at it with her gloved hands resting on the low stone wall. The water was clear and desperately cold-looking, rattling over rocks and through reeds on its way from wherever it had come from to wherever it was going. She looked around carefully, making sure no one was watching. It wouldn’t do much for her Ghost Hunter reputation if she were seen. But the village squatted peacefully in the folds of the hills, smoke drifting from grey stone chimneys, cars snoozing in driveways and paths empty. So she ran to the bank, collected a handful of twigs, and ran back to the centre of the bridge, giggling to herself as she leaned over the water and started a solitary game of Poohsticks.
The novelty wore off after the first two twigs never reappeared, only one each of the next two pairs, and when she finally managed to get both twigs in the centre of the stream, she couldn’t tell which was which when they reappeared on the other side. She sighed, and chucked the rest of the sticks into the water together.
“This game’s stupid.”
“Ow,” someone said, and she looked around, startled.
“What’s that?” There was no answer, and she frowned. “Someone said ow.” Still nothing, and she thought about it for a moment. There hadn’t been anyone around a moment ago, so maybe the bridge was haunted. It didn’t look like the sort of bridge that anyone could die building, and you certainly couldn’t die falling off it, but maybe someone had had a heart attack on it. Or was stabbed by a highwayman! Yes, that seemed the most likely.
She took her phone out, started the video, gave her name, the date, and her location (because if she was to be a professional Ghost Hunter, all encounters needed to be logged properly), then picked up a stone, bouncing it in one hand.
“I hype – hypth – hypthesise – I think that there is a ghost haunting this bridge,” she told the camera. “And it’s possible my Pooh sti- I mean, my preliminary investigation with twigs may have provoked him.” She leaned over the bridge wall, making sure the camera was trained on the stone arch beneath her, and threw the stone.
“OW!” There was a splash below her.
“Come out, ghost,” she called. “I’m a trained Ghost Hunter. You have nothing to fear.”
“I’m not a ghost,” the voice grumbled. “And I’m not coming out.”
“Do you prefer the term spirit?”
“No! I’m not dead.”
“Oh.” Rachel leaned over a little further, trying to see into the arch. “What’re you doing down there, then?”
“I live down here.”
“Here! Under the bridge! Stop with the questions.” Whatever the owner of the voice was, they sounded very grumpy.
“I’m coming down.”
“No! No, go away. Stupid girl.”
“I’m not stupid.”
“You are if you come down here.”
“You’re the one living down there.” Silence greeted that, and Rachel padded over to the bank and started picking her way down.
“What are you doing? I said go away!”
“I’m a Ghost Hunter. I have to investigate all possible sightings.”
“I’m not a ghost.”
“Well, let me see then-” Rachel’s voice became a squeak as her boots slipped on the frozen ground, and she came down hard on her back. She dug her hands in and scrabbled wildly at the rocks, but she couldn’t get a grip, and she was still sliding downwards, the water suddenly looking deeper and faster than it had from the bridge. She managed to roll over, her breath stuttering in her throat, losing her grip on her phone and giving a little shriek of fright. There were frozen leaves and sticks scratching her belly as her jacket slid up, and it was so cold, and she couldn’t stop, she was going in the water, and no one knew where she was, and her granny’d be doing exercise videos and her gramps’d be smoking his funny cigarettes in his workshop, and no one would know and she’d be a ghost –
Hands big enough to meet around her waist picked her up, then she was swinging in the air like a little kid for a moment before being deposited on her feet back on the top of the bridge. She promptly fell over face-first, but this time she at least stayed where she landed.
“I said not to come down,” an aggrieved voice said behind her.
“Thank you,” she mumbled into the stone, alarmed to find that she was shaking horribly.
“Whatever. Just stay away, okay?”
She lay where she was for a moment or so, then got up and sprinted home without looking back, milk and eggs forgotten.
Rachel managed to pretend she’d forgotten to charge her phone when her mum called the house that night. Her mother was unimpressed, but she didn’t question it. Rachel might be inventive, but she didn’t lie. Not about things like that, anyway.
And the next day she went out to the bridge again.
“Hello?” she called from the safety of the stone span. There was no sign of her phone anywhere she could see, not lying down by the water or on the bank where she’d fallen. It didn’t mean someone hadn’t come along later and picked it up, of course, but she had an idea where it might actually be. “Are you there?”
There was no answer.
“I dropped my phone. I guess I’m going to have to come down and look for it.”
There was a long-suffering sigh from under the bridge. “Did you learn nothing from yesterday?”
“I learned it was silly to try climbing down river banks without being properly prepared. I brought some rope today.” She dangled an end of the coil over the bridge and swung it back and forth enticingly.
“You could still fall. Or get wet.”
“Worse’ll happen if I lose my phone. I only got it for my birthday, which was last month. I turned nine.” She reeled the rope back in and sat down to try and remember the best way to tie it around her waist. She’d found a knot book in the library, and she figured knowing good knots would be handy for tying up criminals pretending to be ghosts. In the future, of course. She was too young for tackling criminals just yet.
She tugged experimentally at the knot, and it unwound itself obligingly. She sighed and started again.
“Look, if I give you your phone will you go away?”
“You have it?” She got up, rope forgotten, and leaned over the bridge, dangerously far out.
“Yes, I have it. Please don’t do that.”
“You can see me? Where are you?”
“I’m hiding. Seriously, kid, if I give you the phone will you leave me alone?”
She thought about it, and crossed her fingers behind her back. “Yes.”
Her phone had some new scratches on the case, but otherwise was working fine once she charged it. Whoever – or whatever – lived under the bridge had taken good care of it. Just as they’d taken good care of her when she fell, catching her before she hit the water. She noted these observations down in her notebook, then went to the village shop, bypassing the footbridge. She bought a tin of Quality Street and a thank you card, which seemed rather impersonal, but she didn’t know anything about the resident of the bridge other than the fact that they wanted to be left alone. She also didn’t have enough pocket money for anything else, which was a shame, because there was a copy of Ghost Hunters’ Monthly in the magazine stand that she hadn’t read yet.
At home, she found wrapping paper in the cupboard in the hall, and tape and scissors in the kitchen.
“Is that for your mum?” her granny asked. She was wearing a cropped sweatshirt and leggings with unicorns on them. “I’m not sure chocolate’s the best thing for her. She eats enough rubbish as it is.”
“It’s for – a friend,” Rachel said. She was having some issues with the wrapping. She hadn’t considered that round tins were quite difficult to wrap.
“Oh, well. That’s all right then.” Granny took a smoothie jug out of the fridge. “Would you like some kale, broccoli and apple smoothie?”
Rachel managed not to make a face. “No thanks.”
“Suit yourself.” Granny glooped some into a large glass, added a generous measure of something from a bottle in the freezer, and went into the living room. A moment later Rachel heard someone on the TV start shouting about moving booties.
Rachel shook her head and went back to the fiddly job of wrapping a round tin.
The next day was Wednesday, and it was raining. It was a nasty, cold, half-frozen rain, sludging down the windows and melting in the gutter, not committed enough to be snow. The village hunkered down under it, windows lit against the greyness, feeling small and isolated and lost under the heavy press of cloud and unfriendly sky. Rachel decided it was not a day for delivering presents, and instead pulled her jacket and wellies on and splashed down the damp path to the mellow-lit workshop at the bottom of the garden. Her gramps saw her coming and opened the door, ushering her in with a grunt and pointing to the mat where his own boots stood. She took hers off obediently and sat down on the floor next to the dogs. One of them licked her. She didn’t mind – they were okay. Not as smart or useful as Laetitia, the library cat, of course, but nice enough.
There was a pot-bellied stove belching out heat in the corner, and her gramps took a blackened kettle off it, filled a mug, added a few spoons of hot chocolate and some milk, handed it to her, then sat down in his chair again. She wrapped both hands around it and savoured the warmth. Gramps picked his tablet up and tapped it. The dogs snored, and the rain splattered petulantly against the windows.
“Gramps,” she said, when her hot chocolate was cool enough to drink, “What lives under bridges?”
He didn’t look up. “Spiders.”
“Bigger than that. Human-size. Maybe even bigger than that.”
He huffed, whether at his tablet or her she wasn’t sure. “Trolls.”
“Yeah.” He looked up at her finally, long hair curling over his collar. “Don’t talk to trolls.”
“No.” He went back to his tablet, and she supposed there was no point asking him anything else, but she did anyway.
“Are trolls real?”
He huffed again, and this time it was definitely at her. “Sure. Trolls, ghosts, vampires. Unicorns.” He crossed his legs and raised the tablet in front of his face, leaving her alone with the dogs.
Rachel went back to her hot chocolate and wondered what the scientific method was, when you have proof of one mythical creature. Does that prove the existence of others, or is each one a separate case? It would need looking into.
Rachel leaned over the bridge. “Morning,” she called.
There was only the chatter of the swollen stream in response. Frost lay thick on the bridge and on the banks of the little waterway, and the sky was heavy and fat with the promise of more rain. Maybe even snow.
“It’s me. The girl you stopped from falling into the river.” Still nothing. Maybe he? she? it? was asleep. “I brought you some things. Just as a thank you. Because otherwise I’d’ve got hypo- hypoter – hypothermia, and mum would have killed me. You know, if the hypothermia didn’t.”
Still no response, but she heard something that sounded like a snort, as if someone was at least a little amused.
Encouraged, she called out, “My name’s Rachel. And thank you for giving my phone back, too. That was really cool. Although I suppose you can’t exactly charge it down there.”
“I’m a Ghost Hunter,” she told the stream. “I mean, I’m still in training, but I’m going to be a professional one when I grow up. Not hunting them to hurt them or anything. Just to find out about them.”
Only silence came back, but she kept talking until she ran out of things to say, then stood staring at the water with the haphazardly wrapped tin pressed into her chest.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll go, then. I’ll just leave these here. You know, if you want them.”
No answer, and she set the present down then left with a measured pace, not looking back. If it was a troll, it was a very shy one. All the stories she’d read on-line yesterday had said they ate billy goats and demanded tolls for bridges. This one just wanted to be ignored.
She came back the next day with a slightly moth-eaten woolly hat she’d found in the cupboard in her room, and a floral blanket that looked like someone had spilled tea on it. She set them on the bridge and said, “My mum’s coming tonight. It’s Christmas Eve. Tomorrow we’ll open presents, and Granny will try and make a healthy Christmas dinner, and Mum will argue with her and say she wants a normal Christmas dinner, with gravy and Yorkshire puds, and Gramps will try to go down to his workshed but Granny will shout at him and say he can’t, and he’ll sulk because he never shouts, and they’ll all drink too much, and it’ll be really, really rubbish.” She stopped, startled to find herself close to tears. “When Dad was here we’d play games, just the two of us, and place bets on whether Gramps would fall asleep before Granny started belly dancing, and Mum would tell us off but she’d be laughing, really.” She sniffed fiercely, and wiped her nose on the back of her glove. The clouds hadn’t moved, and she felt squished under them, trapped and bug-like. “But now it’s just us, and it’d be okay if it was just Mum and me for Christmas, that’d be alright, but she says we need to spend it with Gramps and Granny, and I’m just – it just -” she looked up at the heavy sky and stopped. There were tears in her eyes, she could feel them, but she wasn’t crying. She was a Ghost Hunter.
“Anyway. I hope you got the chocolates, and some dog didn’t find them. They’re poisonous for dogs, you know. Not just those chocolates. Any chocolates. Oh. But if you have them and haven’t unwrapped them, then you didn’t know what they were, so ignore that.” She shoved her hands into her pocket. “I better go. Merry Christmas, or whatever.”
She stomped off through the snow, her face feeling tight and hot, as if she was getting sick. This sucked. The whole year had been pretty rubbish, but this – she’d go back, and Granny’d be doing aerobics with her special smoothie, and Gramps’d be hiding in his shed, and then they’d have some weird rice-type thing with a name she couldn’t pronounce for lunch, and then there’d be a whole long, horrible afternoon of trying to pretend everything was okay so no one would think she was being Difficult, then her mum’d get there just in time for dinner, but that’d be sprouted something or other too, and –
“Merry Christmas,” a surprisingly small voice called from behind her, and she stopped. “Thank you for the blanket.”
She turned around slowly. There was a – a creature on the bridge. It had thick heavy legs the colour of stone, a broad chest and long, muscled arms. Its ears were protuberant and lopsided, and its mouth was a twisted split in its face filled with broken and unfriendly teeth. It certainly looked like it ate little billy goats. Other than the moth-eaten purple hat perched on its knobbly head.
“Do you want a chocolate?” the troll asked. “I was going to open them tomorrow, because I heard that’s what you do with Christmas presents, but now I know what they are – well, d’you want one?”
Rachel took a careful step forward. The troll was even taller than Gramps, and he was the tallest person she knew. “You heard?” she said. “Don’t trolls celebrate Christmas?”
The troll shrugged. “There’s just me here.”
Rachel wiped her cheeks. They were embarrassingly damp. “That must be lonely.”
They regarded each other warily for a moment, then Rachel said, “Yes please. I’d love a chocolate.”
It snowed in the night, big heavy drifts that whispered around the hills and piled up against the trees, soft and bright and forgiving. Rachel leaned her forehead against the window, looking at the rounded hump of Gramps’ workshop and the mysterious shapes of bushes and plants, all surrounded by the small cross-hatchings of bird footprints. The house was still around her, full of the small (and not so small) noises of sleeping things. She was the first one up, and the day was entirely hers. She tiptoed away from the window and headed for the stairs.
Five minutes later she was running down the path to the bridge with her pyjamas tucked into her boots and an orange in each gloved hand, her breath streaming behind her like she was a small, blue-clad dragon.
The troll was sitting on the edge of the bridge, swinging its legs gloomily. It looked up, startled, as she came around the corner, skidding on the snow.
“Careful,” it said. “You’ll fall again.”
Rachel held out an orange. “I brought this for you.”
The troll took it and sniffed it suspiciously as she climbed onto the wall.
“You peel them,” she said, demonstrating on her own. The troll watched for a moment, then took a bite of the unpeeled orange, splattering them both with juice. Rachel giggled.
“Not bad,” the troll said, and they sat in companionable silence for a little, eating their oranges as lights began to come on and chimneys began to puff in the village.
“I should go back,” Rachel said finally, wiping her sticky hands in the snow.
“You should,” the troll agreed. “Thank you for the orange, though.”
“That’s okay.” She hesitated, then asked, “Are you lonely?”
“Not so much, now,” the troll said, and handed her a stone, worn smooth by the passage of waters and flecked with minerals that made it glitter in the low light. “Are you sad?”
Rachel ran her fingers wonderingly over the stone. “Not so much, now,” she said.
They smiled at each other, the girl in the blue coat and the troll in the motheaten purple hat, and all around them the world was, for the moment, full of wonderful things, some possible, some impossible, and that was exactly as it should be.
You can read about about Rachel’s encounter with the library ghost here, if you haven’t already. Enjoy!