Water Babies: a short story

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Revenge is a dish best served well chilled. Industrial archaeologist Peter Randell discovers much more than he set out to when research for a new book takes him into the High Moorland ... and a nightmare.

Horror / Mystery
Malcolm Twigg
5.0 2 reviews
Age Rating:

Water Babies

Philip Randall drew into the car park of ‘The Regency Inn’ with relief and shivered as he stepped into the foul weather.The Inn took up one side of the square, a small Chapel the other.The rest of the village snaked away either side until the cottages petered out into moorland; squat, dressed granite structures that hugged the ground as though cowed by the lowering November sky. There was nothing else in the street but him, the car, and the wind that whipped from side to side like icy butchers’ knives stropping frozen sparks from the rain-slicked walls of the cottages. He pulled his coat tighter around him and hurried into the bar.

Inside, the contrast could hardly have been greater. A log fire, bigger than the room warranted, pumped warmth into the tiny bar and the air smelt deliciously of pine, beer and years. The few customers looked up inquisitively as he entered, and the buzz of conversation faltered, then picked up again. Randall nodded pleasantly to a couple of pensioners on a settle by the fire and dumped his overnight bag on the bar. A jowled head peered out at him briefly from the back of a fretworked screen. “Be with you in a minute, sir,” it said, disappearing again, “just putting a new barrel on.”

Randall took off his glasses and polished the fog from the lenses.Everything swam pleasantly out of focus, melding with the warmth, the fug, the hum of conversation and the pop and crackle of the spitting logs.

The landlord appeared from behind the screen wiping his hands on a teatowel. “Mr. Randall, is it?” he said, spotting the overnight bag. “Sorry we can’t offer you better weather but they do say it might turn come tomorrow.”

Randall grimaced.“I don’t suppose it can get much worse.”

“Don’t you believe it, sir. Last year we were snow-bound for a month. What can I get you?”

“I’ll have a pint of the local please, then I’ll get settled in and, something to eat?”

The landlord nodded at the blackboard opposite the fire. “Anything on there. I expect you’ll be needing something warm to keep the cold out. What was it you’re here for again. Archaeology?”

Randall took a pull of his pint. “Industrial archaelogy. Not as glamorous, but it’s a living. I’m doing some preliminary research for a book.”

“Well, now. There’s something. You goin’ to make us all famous, then?”

Randall laughed. “Hardly. Unless you can call half a chapter on quarrying on the high moorland famous.”

“You’ll be off down to the old workings, then. Mind how you go. There’s some deep water out there. It takes all sorts - I know where I’d rather be of a Saturday in November.”

Randall raised his glass. “Needs must when the publisher’s signing the pay-cheque.”

“Publishers. Well I never. The old Regency’s certainly coming up in the world. Tell you what. You look old Fred Janner up. He lives just by the old track to the workings. Knows the place like the back of his hand does old Fred. Always poking about round there. Likes his own company, mind you, but you tell him as how Arthur from the Regency sent you and you’ll be all right.”

Randall finished his pint.“Right. I might do that,” he said, picking his bag up.“The room?”

The landlord passed a key over. “You can’t miss it.Top of the stairs. You come down and have a quick bite when you want.”

The quick bite turned out to be rather more substantial than he had envisaged and an afternoon’s note preparation turned – pleasantly enough - into an afternoon nap.When he awoke it was dark, so he went down to the bar again.

“Bless me, sir. You just missed old Fred Janner!” the landlord said. “I told him you’d be poking around the old workings tomorrow, just in case you wanted to call on him. Didn’t look too pleased, but we expect that of old Fred. Don’t you take no heed of him, sir.”

Randall took his pint over to a corner by the fire and settled down with the pile of newspapers that had accumulated. He could have been reading any pile of newspapers anywhere:the usual run of terrorist bombings, sleaze, political posturing, another kid gone missing, the local W.I. winter fete. Industrial archaeology was a world apart. Randall was glad of that, sometimes.

In the morning the rain had stopped, but clouds the colour of a bad dream massed on the horizon down in the valley and the air smelt saturated as Randall stepped out of the pub, equipped for a day’s exploration.Two small boys, zipped into thick anoraks, were playing a desultory game of football in the car park.Randall side-footed a stray ball to them and set off downhill to find the track.

It doubled back on itself, passing below the village. The shrill cries of the young footballers drifted down from the pub car park and Randall hitched his pack tighter on his shoulders and strode out. The sun was vainly trying to break through the overcast and he felt that the day was not going to be wasted after all. It would have been nice to have waited for the Spring but with publication looming there was little choice but to press on.

Soon, as Randall climbed to the high moorland, the heritage of the early industrial revolution began to unfold around him: collapsed buildings, unnatural declivities in the ground that suggested human activity. Once, Congreston had been at the heart of the quarrying industry for this part of the North. Then came the discovery of the clay and coal deposits down in the valley, and the growth of the building brick industry, and Congreston’s decline had been so abrupt that it was one of the industrial revolution’s most spectacular, if little-known, casualties. That was what Randall was here to explore and the evidence was all around, particularly the series of lakes that had formed in the quarry workings, and the failed attempts, some years later, to harness the power of that water with sluice gates and leats running down to the valley. There was any amount of information here for the industrial archaeologist.

Despite the sun there was a keen wind blowing and Randall hunched into it - and failed to see the figure that swung into his path.

“You that archaeologist fella, is it?”

Randall jumped and halted.The man was thick-set and belted into a heavy coat, with a pugnacious set to his jaw. “You don’t want to go poking around down there,” he said abruptly. “It’s dangerous for them as don’t know.”

Randall recovered.“You must be Fred Janner?”

“Thas’ right. Fred Janner. Arthur said as how you was sniffing around.”

“I wouldn’t call it sniffing around, Mr. Janner.”

“Don’t matter what you call it. All amounts to the same thing. There ain’t no need for it.”

Randall bridled.“I'm sorry, but I don’t see what call you’ve got to question what I do, Mr. Janner. This isn’t private land as far as I know.”

“It may not be private, but it ain’t safe. Even the kids don’t come up here. There’s holes and all sorts.I’m the only one around here who knows this place. Anyone will tell you.I look out for it. Well, you coming then?”


“You ain’t poking around down there on your own. Like it or not I’m coming with you. There’s enough tourists breaks their legs in summer in these moors without damn fool visitors in winter”. With that the big man turned on his heel and walked off down the track impatiently motioning Randall to follow.

All heart, Randall thought, but followed nevertheless, grateful for the local knowledge no matter how grudgingly given.

After the initial exchange Janner was monosyllabic, answering questions with a grunt.The track up to this point had been on the level, traversing the slope of a steep scarp but, at the point where it passed a dilapidated shack built out over the slope, it forked to join another footpath that led from the top of the scarp above down to the leaden-coloured water below. A more desolate spot Randall had never seen.He paused at the rotted door. “So, what’s this place, Janner?”

“Nothin’,” he replied, shortly. “We ain’t got no time to go pokin’ around every scrap as we find. That weather’s goin’ to break soon.”

Again Randall bridled but decided to leave it. The weather did certainly have an edge to it. He scrambled down the incline after Janner. At the bottom, where the path levelled off again and ran along the side of one of the water-filled quarrying holes Janner turned to him.

“I’m only telling you this for your own good. Keep to the path. And don’t go anywhere without telling me first. This whole place should be fenced off. "He looked around him, almost proprietarily and said, half to himself.“This is my place, this.”

Randall raised his hands in resignation.“Okay.I believe you. Now, tell me what you know.”

Janner glared at him menacingly.“What d’you mean ‘what I know’? I don’t know nothing.I told them.”

Randall looked nonplussed.“Them?”

Janner appeared momentarily flustered.“Oh, you mean the workings. I know where they are, what they are, what’s safe and what’s not safe.What more d’you want?”

“That’ll do for a start.” Randall could see he wasn’t going to be rid of the man, so he may as well humour him. This was only a preliminary trip: there would be others.

Janner hunched his shoulders and forged on ahead. “Don’t you hang about. I’ll show you what’s safe and what you ain’t got no business poking around in. What you do after that’s your affair so long as you don’t go stickin’ your nose where it ain’t welcome. "He paused and looked back.“An’ don’t think as I shan’t know.”

“Now, look here Janner!” Randall snapped, stepping off the path to get around him. “What the hell gives you the right to talk to - aaaggh!” As he stepped off the track the earth gave way under his foot and he pitched forward, only just saving himself from a jarring fall by bracing himself on his stick which dug itself into the rain-soaked ground. The rattle of stones falling down a hidden declivity came from beneath his sunken boot, and he sprawled there, temporarily immobile, while Janner looked back at him with a contemptuous scowl.

Randall thought he was going to leave him there to struggle out himself but, with a heaved breath of disdain the big man extended a brawny arm and hauled him out. “I told you to watch your step,” he said, angrily. “It’s a good two mile back to the village an’ I don’t fancy draggin’ a cripple back there. You can break a leg as soon as blink around here.”

Randall thanked him, slightly shaken, and tested his ankle. His stout walking shoes had saved him from any serious damage, however, and he hurried after Janner as he walked on without a further word. “What was that, Janner?” he asked. “Some sort of air-shaft? I didn’t even know there was any mining around here.”

Janner grunted. “There’s a good deal you don’t know about The Bottoms.The place is littered with them. Not big enough to fall down - except maybe the odd lamb - but enough to turn an ankle in. "He waved an expansive hand at the hillside above. “All over the place, they are. Nothin’ industrial about them as far as I know. You find the odd big one from time to time, but you’ve got to be really unlucky to do it by mistake.” He nodded back down the track. “I didn’t know that were there myself an’ I been walking this track for years. I should do as I were told if I was you.”

Janner rounded a bend in the track where the lake slopped right up to the path and stopped, gesturing. “This path slips right off into the pool an’ if you’re not careful you find yourself slippin’ right off into it an’ all. An’ they ain’t called the Bottoms for nothin’. There’s some deep water out there, an’ it goes down straight from the sides in places.” He looked at Randall meaningfully. “You go in there without anyone else around, and you ain’t never comin’ out again.”

Randall hugged the side of the hill as he edged around the path. “Yes.Okay.You’ve made your point Janner.”

“Good. So long as we understand one another.”He edged aside to let Randall pass. “I suppose this is what you want to see.”

Once around the bend the hillside opened out into a concave bowl, obviously carved from the rock by the hand of man. On the flat bed, jumbled ruins lay like a giant’s building blocks left to moulder amongst the brambles and heather. Janner nodded towards them. “You run off and play. You can’t come to no harm in there. I’m goin’ to sit and wait.” He moved off purposefully to sit on an old and patched rudimentary jetty that jutted into the lake.

Randall unhitched his camera and spent the next half-hour recording the layout from every angle while Janner watched him dourly. When he had finished, Janner immediately rose and made to move off again. “You ready, then? I suppose you’ll want to be seeing the sluices now.”

“Hang on, what about this?” Randall asked, indicating the jetty.

“Never you mind about that,” Janner snapped. “You ain’t goin’ to be interested in that. That’s only somethin’ some lads from the village threw together. Used it for a rowing boat for fishing till they upended it an’ almost drowned.”

Randall shrugged.“If you say so, but there are some old timbers there.”

“I do say so. There’s lots of old timbers everywhere,” Janner growled. “Probably picked ’em up hereabouts and used ’em again. Look, you interested in these sluices or not?”

“Yes, okay. Lead the way for Christ’s sake!”

Janner swung onto the track and strode out. Randall followed, feeling more and more ill at ease. Behind them the lake washed against the ramshackle jetty. Wisps of mist fingered their way across the water and the sky took on an ominous tinge of grey.

The track rose higher up the slope once past the quarry workings until there was an almost vertical drop of some 20 feet. To the front Randall could see the remains of a series of structures breaking the surface of the lake. “That the sluices?” he called to Janner.

Janner grunted. “Can’t reach ’em without a boat.The leat’s just beyond, but that’s all silted up. Ground around it’s all marsh now. You could sink there without trace. "He suddenly stopped.“Look.That’s as far as I’m goin’. I shown you what you wanted to see.This weather’s goin’ to break soon. We’re goin’ back.”

Randall looked up at the sky and, for once, was not inclined to argue. The sky was a peculiar shade of slate grey that threatened a deluge any moment, and the wisps of mist snaking across the lake were getting thicker.“Okay, Janner, I suppose you’re right.” He looked regretfully at the sluices in the distance. “I can catch those tomorrow.” Janner grunted and shouldered past.

“One thing, Janner,” said Randall, as the big man strode away. “I can’t get over how clear this water is. I’d expect it to be thick with peat, but you can see the bottom.”

“Clear? What you talkin’ about?” Janner turned round .“That water’s thick as sedge an’ always has been.”

Randall pointed. “Well, look for yourself. Straight down. There’s a boulder as big as a house and a patch of weeds ...” he moved aside to let the big man edge past “... and there, see that patch of white? Oh my God! That looks like ...!”

Janner had seen it too, and was staring, while the colour drained from his face.

“God, Janner!” Randall, gasped. “Can you see that? That looks like a body! There! Wrapped in the weeds.” He pointed his stick at the white shape in the weeds bobbing and curtsying with the current. It looked as if it was crouched in the weeds, arms and hair ribboning out in front of it. Randall stared in aghast fascination whilst, beside him, Janner’s breathing was a laboured panting. Then the big man let out a hoarse moan that seemed to rise from the ground and took off back down the track, screaming. Gaping, Randall watched him go. Then a small movement below caught his eye and he turned back.

Slowly, in the water below, the figure began to turn its head.

Randall watched, horrified. The head continued to turn out and up until it transfixed him with its sightless eyes.It bobbed in the current. Then it seemed to jerk violently and broke free from the weeds ... and started to drift across the rocks. And scrabble towards the shore.

Randall stood rooted to the spot then, as the head broke surface streaming water, let out a harsh cry and stumbled off down the track after Janner. Not daring to look back he slipped and stumbled over his own feet in his haste to escape the unbelievable.

The rain started to lash down then, cutting visibility down to a few yards, and Janner’s wildly retreating figure was lost to view, leaving Randall alone with the wind and the rain - and the fear. Behind him he could hear the wet slap of bare feet on mud, stumbling, sliding, recovering ... and something else!Staggering through the ruined quarry workings and the abandoned jetty, he heard the thrash of water and the splash and slither of things sliding out and across the grass and onto the track and the wet slap of bare feet on mud stumbling and sliding and slithering and joining the slap and slither of the other until there was a flat drumming of feet, drawing closer and closer and closer.

The track turned and drove off up the hillside and Randall groaned as he clawed his way up, his lungs a seething mass of fire, breath coming in ragged gasps that racked his body. Clods of turf and scree rained down from above as Janner scrambled up, on hands and knees, his screams now dulled to a low keening, scarcely human.

Randall risked a look behind, but the wall of water streaming out of the sky intermittently masked everything, except the relentless slap and slither of naked feet - and something clawing at the ground, underfoot, pushing and heaving and breaking surface and scrabbling out like a wet, grey mole and pulling itself to its feet and adding its stumbling rhythm to the pad and slap of the dimly-seen pursuers.

Above him, Janner also looked back. He was gibbering now, wild-eyed and inhuman and what he saw made him redouble his efforts to escape. He passed the derelict shack and continued on up the hill, slipping and sliding as his feet missed their purchase on the grass. Randall could climb no more.He staggered onto the level path, leaving Janner to make his own escape.

The contour of the hill momentarily hid Randall’s view below and he paused a moment to catch his breath. But the inexorable slap and slither of approaching feet urged him on again. He swung onto the path, gasping, but his ankle turned on the slope and he pitched against the rotten door of the shack. It gave way beneath his weight and he fell through, collapsing onto the floor, sobbing. His legs refused to hold him and he crawled, half fainting from fear, into the corner and hid his head beneath his coat like a child.

Slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap.Randall tried to hold his breath, shoulders heaving, as he listened to the footsteps pounding up the hill alongside.Then they stopped.

The remains of the door creaked. Randall felt a wave of cold flood through and his skin crawled. There was a shuffle of feet, and more feet. In his terror Randall sensed at least three ...things ... slowly shuffling over to his corner. A foetid smell preceded them, a smell compounded of wet, decay and rot that set Randall’s senses screaming. He felt them pause in front of him and his world became a living nightmare as his coat was ripped away.

He cowered in the corner with his hands cupped over his head, bodily functions failing. And then, they left. Randall caught his breath, not daring to hope, and squinted out from his foetal position. He was just in time to see two tiny pairs of legs disappear out of the door and the ‘slap, slap, slap’ of feet began again, taking the path up the hill.

He pulled himself to his feet and staggered over to the door to hear the slap of feet fading away up the hill. With a harsh sob, he lurched out of the door his fear a solid block of ice around his heart and scrabbled away from the track, cutting across the hillside oblivious to any hidden dangers until he again found the path towards the village.

Far above him there was a choking, screaming, bubbling cry, and then silence.

His legs gave out just before the track turned into the village and he collapsed into the mud, breath rasping into his lungs like icicles of fire. He lay there, spent, his mind refusing to believe what he had just seen and then, in the distance he heard the steady slap, slap, of feet splashing through the mud towards him, getting closer and louder. The last thing he saw before he lost consciousness was two pairs of small legs skirting around him.

When he awoke again there was the spit and crackle of flames in his ear and a confused medley of sound and smells - Pine, beer, and the sweet, sweet sense of normality. He opened his eyes and found he was wrapped in a coarse blanket, lying on the settle by the fire in ‘The Regency Arms’, with Arthur’s wife fussing over him.

“Glory be, he’s come round,” she said.“Good heavens, you did give us a scare, Mr. Randall.A nd the things you’ve been sayin’. We had to shoo young Mickey Parfitt and his friend out. It was them as found you. If they hadn’t kicked that football of theirs over the wall you might have been lying there all night." She clasped her hand to her throat.“Now just you lie there and take it easy. Ambulance is on its way.”

Randall sank back onto the settle and wondered whether it had all been a dream, but then he remembered those screams. “Janner!” he gasped.“Find Janner.”

He must have lost consciousness again, then, because the next time he came to he was in a clean, white, bed with the smell of antiseptic in the air - and a policeman sitting patiently by the side.

Janner, they told him, had disappeared and left his van behind. But disappearing wasn’t unusual. He often did that, sometimes for weeks at a time. But he never went anywhere without that van.

Randall’s delirious ramblings had met with a great deal of cynicism, but they dragged the Bottoms as a matter of routine. What they had found there made the nape of Randall’s neck quiver: three tiny bodies, bound, gagged and weighted down with rocks. And, more to the point, a search of Janner’s cottage had revealed a dossier of hidden newspaper clippings of missing children from miles around. Janner was now a wanted man.

An icy finger traced its way down Randall’s spine. Far from being a wanted man, Janner had been a wanted man.

That want had been fulfilled.

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