It was dark in the lane.
It was always dark when Tommy arrived home from school in winter, but he didn't mind. He liked winter, especially the fog. That was full of mystery. The fog was like a filmy curtain spread over the countryside that made everything so still and quiet and sleepy.
And with the fog came the magic. Dragons and stuff like that. He'd never seen a dragon. Even so, they were there.
It was full of ghosts too, but only at night. They didn't have to wait for the fog, they were there all year round. The boy didn't know why they only came at night time. Maybe they were scared of the dragons.
But the fog wouldn't come tonight. It never came when it was windy.
Tommy had puzzled about fogs for a long time. Once he'd asked his teacher where the fog came from, but all she had said was, 'It's the time of the year.'
He didn't think she knew about fog at all. She didn't know anything interesting.
Tonight he'd been to Scouts' and he had got his knots' badge. Now he was looking forward to his tea. They had no lights in the lane, but the night was clear and the half moon was bright, so he could see where he was going. He broke into a trot.
At the bend before the dingle he hesitated. He had never liked this part of the lane at night. The trees blocked the moonlight and the shadows could be hiding all sorts of scary things.
Tommy walked slowly across the bridge so that his clogs made less noise on the wooden planks. He didn't want to wake up the ghosts. Some people said they didn't exist, but he knew they were real. He'd seen one.
It was three weeks ago. It had surprised him as he as he'd started to cross the bridge before the dingle and he stopped, wondering what he should do.
For a while he had stood watching where it had gone, waiting to see if it would come back, but it didn't. After he'd crossed the bridge he still had to go through the dingle. He could have gone through the fields, but it had been raining so they were muddy.
It was ages before he decided to run for it. His clogs had made a right racket. The ghost must have heard him charging past, but he'd been lucky. It didn't come after him.
He didn't stop until he reached home.
Uncle Freddie had been in the kitchen when he had burst in out of breath.
'What's up with thee, lad?' Uncle Freddie asked.
'I saw a ghost.'
'Don't be daft.'
Tommy could tell by the sound of his voice that Uncle Freddie thought he was being silly. Uncle Freddie was one of those people who didn't believe in ghosts. But… that didn't mean they weren't there.
'I did see it.'
'It's just your imagination.'
'But I did see it. It was in the dingle. By the bridge. It ran across the road in front of me. I don't think it saw me. It just went into the trees.'
'You were dreaming, lad.'
'I wasn't. It was bright, like new whitewash.'
'There is something wrong,' Mum said. 'Just look at his face.'
'I did see a ghost, Mum. It came out from the trees at the side of the stream and floated over the bridge. It went into the other trees, near where the stream comes out from the ground. '
'What was it like then?' Mum asked. She crouched down, her face close to his.
'A sort of white sheet. Just like they are in the Beano. Only, I couldn't see its eyes. It must have been looking the other way.'
'What did it do?' Mum asked.
'Nothing. It just went into the trees.'
'We'd best go and have a look then. Hadn't we?' Uncle Freddie said. 'Come on. You can show me where it went.'
When they reached the bridge Uncle Freddie said, 'Now, where did it go?'
'That way.' Tommy pointed. 'Into those bushes by that silver birch.'
The beam of Uncle Freddie's torch lit up a white shape. 'Is that it?'
'It was bigger than that,' the boy said.
'We'll have a look all the same.'
It was a piece of newspaper caught in the branches and fluttering in the breeze. Tommy was disappointed. He'd have liked to have seen the ghost again. Now that Uncle Freddie was with him he wasn't scared.
'That's all it was, young un. Newspaper,' Uncle Freddie said and dug him in the ribs. 'Nowt to be afraid of.'
'I wasn't afraid. But, that's not it.'
Uncle Freddie leant forwards and peered more closely at the paper. 'Hey, it's the obituary column.'
'What's an obituary column, Uncle?'
'Nowt you need to worry about for a while yet,' Uncle Freddie said, screwing his eyes up and pursing his lips. He always did that when he was thinking.
It wasn't an answer, but when Uncle Freddie was looking thoughtful Tommy knew he wouldn't say any more.
The dingle was just ahead. It was where the stream came out of the ground and flowed under the bridge.
That was a mystery too. No one could tell him where the stream came from or where it went under the ground in the first place…
Most of the grown-up he asked just said, "Don't ask silly questions." Uncle Freddie didn't say it was silly. He just said he didn't know. Tommy guessed that the others didn't know either.
He'd thought a lot about the ghost in the last three weeks. It must have seen him coming back from scouts every week.
Tommy reached the bridge and stopped. He peered into the trees, trying to make out if there was anything in the shadows, but a cloud was crossing the moon. He couldn't even see the stream and that was only four feet below.
He was about to move on when the cloud passed and moonlight flooded the bare branches to illuminate three white shapes close to where the old newspaper was. Three ghosts, the smallest one about the same size as him. Instinctively he knew it was the one he'd seen before. They rippled in the breeze, all of them staring at the sheet of newspaper.
The moon was bright now through the naked trees and the little ghost turned. For a moment it stared at him, then a smile spread across its face. It waved the corner of its sheet.
Tommy waved back. 'Hello, ghost. I can't stay. Mum will have my tea ready. I'll get a roasting if I'm late.'
The ghost waved again. It wasn't frightening at all.
'Bye,' Tommy called, wondering why he had ever been afraid. He struck the iron of his clog on a stone set and watched the sparks sprinkle ahead along the lane.
So it had been a ghost. There was a whole family of them. They must live in the Dingle and had left that sheet of newspaper in the trees to fool the grown-ups.
'Hi, Mum,' he called as he slammed the door behind him. 'What's for tea? I'm clammed.'
'Lamb chop and mashed potatoes. Wash your hands and sit down.'
It was just him and Mum and he told her about the ghosts. She didn't say he was daft. As she cleared the plates he asked, 'Can I have today's paper?'
'What do you want the paper for, Tommy?'
'I want to give it to the ghosts. They must be fed up reading the same thing over and over.'
'Really?' Mum raised her eyebrows. 'What makes you think that ghosts can read?'
'They must be able to. Why else would they have had that newspaper?'
© Jim Ditchfield 2010