The Haunting of Highgrove
“Hey, Steph.” The whisper came from behind me. “Fancy going up the Highgrove tonight?”
I turned. “What?” Sparx stood there, a strange sort of grin on his face. For a moment I wasn't sure that I'd heard him right. We were in the canteen, and the noise generated by five hundred kids sitting down to lunch, standing up, clattering trays, and arguing, well it tended to drown out ordinary conversation more than a little.
Sparx pulled up a chair beside me, glanced round conspiratorially, and repeated the question, his eyes glinting mischievously. “The Highgrove, I said. Wanna go up there with me tonight?”
“What for?” I said, turning back to my meal. “It's dangerous up there - you know that.” Sparx shrugged, sitting forward and reached for his coffee can. He twisted the top and popped open the lid with a click; the contents began to bubble and steam began to rise. I waited patiently while he leant over and peered into the can, sniffing. Finally he deigned to look at me again. “I don't mean the Factory, Steph. I mean the Highgrove itself.”
That stopped me; stopped me dead. I sat there, fork half-way to mouth, and looked at him. “There? Why?”
He shrugged noncommittally. “Oh, I dunno. You just keep hearing about the place, and well, I just felt like going up there and having a gog, you know?”
I put down my fork and pushed my tray away; all of a sudden I didn't feel like eating anymore.
Officially “The Highgrove” referred to the automated factory complex out beyond the edge of town; one of the major food-yeast processing plants in East Anglia, the Factory straddled the old canal, using it as a free cooling system. Totally automated, the Factory was reputed to be absurdly easy to break into. Kids, however, were warned never to try it; the machines in the plant weren't programmed to recognise humans, and you could end up as part of a yeastburger...
Still, people did occasionally break into the plant; for what reasons, no-one knew. Fascination? Dares? Whatever, their remains were usually found further downstream in the canal, jamming up the old lockgates. And that was the Highgrove.
The Highgrove Sparx meant was a different kettle of fish, something altogether more sinister. For one thing, it was reputed to be haunted...
My family had moved to ICL Newtown a year ago, when I was sixteen, and I had been at the College less than two months before I began hearing whispers about the Highgrove. Nobody would tell me much more than hearsay, so I had decided to pay a visit to the Library floor, to look up the history of the Highgrove for myself.
The Librarian had been amused to hear my request; apparently the Highgrove had held a certain fascination for the local kids for decades - longer than I had imagined. He smiled indulgently. “I was brought up around here you know. We were always hearing stories about that place when I was a kid.” He tapped a few keys on his screen and a map appeared on the holo. I leaned closer. It was the local OS for the area. The Librarian nodded at the screen.
“Now this is the 2061 survey, the latest. Recognise anything?” He pointed at an area in the holo. I nodded. It was the Factory, a monstrous building a full kilometre square, squatting over the old canal.
“And this…” he pointed to a cluster of cubes nestling in a copse, just outside the Factory walls. “…is the remains of the original Highgrove Estate, from where the Factory derives its name. Now then, let's go back a bit...” He tapped more keys, and the holo flickered and changed.
“This is the same area, thirty years ago. It looks odd, but that's because it's a reconstruction from a good old-fashioned flat map.”
I leaned forward, peering into the holo. The basic geography was still the same, only...“There's no Factory!”
The Librarian chuckled. “Don't sound so surprised. It wasn't always there, you know.” He indicated the Factory site on the map; the whole area was a sprawl of small buildings clustered along the edge of the canal. “Those buildings comprised the former Highgrove Municipal Housing Development. It was one of those 20th Century attempts to create the beginnings of a Newtown out on the edge of the green belt, but less than twenty years later it had turned into what they used to call a “slum development”. The Librarian shook his head. “We didn't like to mix with kids from the Highgrove Estate. They were...unpleasant characters.” He paused, peering into the holo, lost in thought. I cleared my throat. “So...what happened to the place?”
The Librarian blinked, seeming to notice me for the first time. “What happened? Oh, well...” he leaned forward and jabbed a finger at the holo. “See this little group of houses here, one...two...yes, ten of them...well, it doesn't tell you here, but in fact they were derelict even then. This is as far back as the holos go, I'm afraid the rest are flat maps. I could show you where to look in the microfilm section...”
I shook my head. “No, that's okay.” Ploughing through microfilm on the old Multicom was murder, I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I'd done it myself once for a school project. Never again!
The Librarian chuckled. “I was hoping you'd say that. Anyway, all you would find out is that the Estate was built almost a century ago, round about the mid-1970s.” He frowned. “You know, these ten houses were never inhabited for very long.”
“Why was that?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Who knows? In those days they didn't have total environment control in private dwellings, like you do at home, so perhaps these houses were damp, or draughty, something like that...or perhaps all the old tales were true - they were haunted!”
He prodded the controls, the holo flickered once more, and the Factory reappeared. “They relocated the tenants back in the ‘forties, then demolished the old estate and built the Factory.”
“So why didn't they knock down those few houses, then?” I asked.
The Librarian settled back in his chair, folding his hands across his ample belly. “Frankly, I've no idea. Perhaps someone somewhere thought they were worth preserving.” He tapped keys and peered as characters flickered across the screen. “Well, they're not listed buildings, so your guess is as good as mine.” He shrugged. “Maybe they fulfilled somebody's idea of picturesque 20th Century ruins. It's quite overgrown now, so maybe they were right; as long as you steer clear of the Factory, it's quite a nice walk. In the daytime.”
In the daytime. Why did no-one want to go up there at night? No-one except Sparx...
I looked at Sparx as he downed the contents of his coffee can. “So why don't you just go up there on your ownsome then?” I asked.
He grimaced at the last mouthful of coffee went down. “Christ, this stuff goes cold so quick!”
Sparx shrugged. “I dunno. Just thought you might like to come too.”
I looked down at the congealed remains of my lunch; cold and unappealing. I looked back at him. “Sparx-”
“Doesn't the idea, well...scare you?”
He snorted. “Jeez, Steph! 'Course not! I'm nearly eighteen fergodsake!” He grinned. “Well, okay. Maybe just a bit.”
I smiled too, despite myself. “Good. At least it's not just me.” I sighed. “Okay, what the hell. I've never seen the Factory by night.”
“Great!” He stood up, scrunching the coffee can in his fist. “See you on the Ped about eight then. Bring a torch!”
“Okay, but I'm not going too near the Factory, you know.”
“Nar, sod the Factory. Let's see if we can flush out some spooks instead!”
The siren for afternoon classes went at that moment, and Sparx's last words were drowned out by the sound of five hundred chairs being scraped back. He winked at me over his shoulder as he elbowed his way through the herd of students.
I stood, hefted my bag onto my shoulder, and set off for my afternoon lectures in a thoughtful mood.
There was a hunter's moon riding high in the sky as I stepped out of the droptube. I walked down the narrow path between the condo's well-tended gardens; there was a slight breeze rustling through the trees, though the night itself was quite warm.
As I reached the local Pedway I glanced back at the lights of Melbourne Villas. Ugly name, but a nice place to live. If you studied the tower blocks in the immediate vicinity, you could tell right off that Melbourne was where the money was. Twenty floors, sixty apartments (none with broken windows), and the best-kept gardens in the neighbourhood. The only ones with real trees as well - as my father kept on reminding me when he was in one of his 'you should be glad you live in a nice condo like this' moods.
I stepped onto the Ped and made my way over onto the Fast Lane; soon the blocks were flying past as I headed towards our rendezvous. Within only a few minutes Sparx's condo was in sight - Thatcher House, with its plain grass verge, not as well off as Melbourne Villas.
There was no sign of Sparx anywhere near the Pedway though. I was just starting to think about how I would have to carry on round the Loop until he arrived, when I caught sight of him, hurrying out of the droptube at the bottom of Thatcher House. I made my way back to the Slow Lane to give him a chance to catch up, but he was still panting by the time he reached me.
“Sorry!” he gasped. “They nearly didn't let me out tonight. Dad's a bit too perceptive at times. The old sod smelled a rat. I almost think he had an idea where I was going. Your folks say anything?”
I shook my head. “Dad's at a seminar in Norwich. Something to do with his promotion. Mum's fallen asleep in front of the holo. I left a note to say I'd gone to the Sensies.”
“What if they ask you what was on?”
“My folks aren't like that. They aren't as...suspicious as yours.” I paused, feeling a little maudlin. “I guess your folks care more about you than mine do, if they always hassle you when you want to go out.”
“Nar! I just keep 'em off each other's backs, is all. I don't mind. Way I figure it, if they're moaning at me they can't moan at each other! Anyway - you brought a torch?” I nodded, reaching into my jacket and producing my father's rubber-clad flashlight. Sparx raised an eyebrow.
“Christ! How long does that take to charge?”
"It's got a bubble circuit, only about fifteen minutes. What sort did you bring?”
Sparx pulled out a battered lion-cell torch from his jacket. “Dad's had it lying round the garage for years; all I could get. Like I said, he's dead suspicious.”
“Never mind, it'll do. Hey-!” I noticed we were coming up to the Expressway pretty fast. “Quick, or we'll have to go all the way round again!”
We hastily made our way across into the Slow Lane. Stepping off the Local onto the slipwalk, we stood for a moment looking behind us. Back the way we'd come the town lights twinkled in the twilight, like a misplaced constellation; while ahead the Local curved sharply to the right and disappeared into the darkness, to reappear on the east side of the town.
Below us, the Expressway plunged into a tunnel under the Local. A wide escalator ramp led down from where we stood, while the Expressway itself arrowed off into the night.
Sparx glanced sideways at me. “You coming then?”
“Yeah, sure. I'm not turning back now.” We stepped onto the escalator and were borne swiftly downwards.
“Pretty empty tonight.” muttered Sparx as we stepped onto the Northbound Slow Lane. Apart from two lonely figures about half a kilometre ahead in the Fast Lane, we were the only ones on the Ped.
We made our way across and were soon speeding through the night. Signs whipped by overhead, telling us we were such and such a distance from Kings Lynn, Norwich, and other such nowhere places, and I was struck by a sudden thought.
“Hey, how do we get off?”
“No probs.” Sparx smirked, tapping his head. “Old brain-boy here checked the largest scale map he could find; there's an old road that cuts across the Ped route - one of those old-style automobile roads. Runs right past the Factory. All we do is jump off the Slow Lane at the right point and we'll be there.”
“Oh yeah? And just how do we know when we get to this...road?” I pointed out into the night. “It's pitch black out there, case you hadn't noticed.”
Sparx sighed and rolled his eyes heavenwards. “Oh ye of little faith. It's exactly half a klick past the roundabout is how I know.”
“Oh. Okay.” I thought for a second. “Which roundabout?”
“This one! Come on!” Grabbing my arm, Sparx hustled me across the lanes. I looked ahead, and sure enough, there was the roundabout - the outer lane curved away to the left and swept downwards, to vanish into a tunnel beneath the Ped. It would loop back and rejoin the Southbound lanes heading back to town. As it shot by beneath us, an identical section curved up from below and rejoined our lanes.
“Okay,” said Sparx. “Keep your eyes peached. Half a klick to go.”
I nodded and peered intently into the dark as we stepped onto the Slow lane. My eyes had become accustomed to the sodium glare of the Pedway lights, but they gradually adjusted to the darkness and I could see vague shapes slipping past us - trees, hedgerows, ponds and ditches glinting in the moonlight.
Suddenly Sparx pointed up ahead. “There! Get ready!”
Sweeping towards us at a casual five klicks per hour was the black strip of an old-fashioned road, perpendicular to the Ped.
“Now! Jump!” yelled Sparx, and we jumped, and as I rolled down the embankment, the thought entered my head: how are we going to get back?
Living all your life in towns you forget just how utterly dark the countryside is at night (okay, ICL Newtown's not that big, but it's pretty brightly-lit, and I used to live in London!). There we were, leaving behind the well-lit Pedway and walking into...into what?
“This is one of those 'main roads' isn't it?” I shone my torch down as we walked, and picked out a sort of crumbling black surface, with weeds shooting up through the cracks.
“It was called tarmac, “ muttered Sparx. “Used to stretch for miles back that way.” He waved his arm in a vague northerly direction. “Dad says they tore up all the old roads ages ago, for the chemicals. Must've missed this bit, even though no-one uses it anymore.”
“What about the Factory? Wouldn't they need to get supplies or...mechanics or something?”
“Nar.” Sparx shook his head. “Think about it. Either they fly things in, or they drive a float-tanker across the fields. They don't need a road anymore.”
We walked awhile in silence. The roadway was about ten metres wide (was that wide for a road back then? I didn't know) and lined with trees and dense undergrowth. I peered through the thick bushes as we passed, hoping to catch a glimpse of my town, less than ten klicks away, but I was unsuccessful.
“How much further?” I asked.
Sparx stopped and pointed ahead of him. “See that?”
I looked, not sure what for, and then I saw it. It towered over the trees at the edge of the roadway some hundred metres ahead; a huge square of blackness eclipsing the stars.
“That's it? The Factory?”
Sparx chuckled. “Yeah. That's it.”
“I expected it to be better lit.”
“What for? Only machines there. Hey, look at this!”
He led me over to the edge of the roadway, where we could see a path had been worn through the grass and into the hedgerow. Apparently we were not the first to come this way. We plunged through.
After a few minutes, the undergrowth thinned out, and we emerged on the other side. By now our eyes were accustomed to the moonlight, and we could see a broad meadow stretching away in front of us, right up to the featureless walls of the Factory itself.
“See that?” Sparx pointed. “That wall, that's the edge of the old canal. And there...” he indicated a grove of trees between us and the Factory, and grinned at me, “...there is the old Highgrove!”
As we stood there, the words seemed to echo inside my head: The old Highgrove...the old Highgrove...and for the first time that evening I wondered what on earth I was doing there. What made me come? Here we were, at this time of night, in the middle of nowhere, cheerfully walking towards a group of houses locally reputed to be 'haunted'!
And then, just as suddenly, the feeling vanished. Of course we were here. Why shouldn't we be? There was nothing strange about it. Nothing wrong.
I grinned at Sparx.
“Alright, we've come this far. Let's not stop now!”
And so we set off across the meadow. As we drew nearer, I could faintly hear the wind blowing through the trees, and above that the constant thrumming of the Factory, and that was it. No other sounds. Surely the countryside wasn't usually this quiet?
We stopped at the edge of the trees, and there it was. The Highgrove.
For once, Sparx was speechless; we both just stood there and stared. Ten houses, the Librarian had said, that had stood here, derelict, for almost a century. Well, looking through the trees we could see that he was right, and he was wrong. There might have been ten houses once, but now there was only one still standing; the rest were little more than weathered ruins. I looked at Sparx, and he nodded at me.
For a second or two, I heard that small voice inside my head, telling me that I should be very scared, that I should turn and run now, if I wanted to stay alive...and then we stepped forward and entered a different world, and there was silence.
“Look,” Sparx played his torch beam across the tangled ivy underfoot, then crouched down and pulled them aside.
“Paving slabs! We're actually walking on paving slabs! This is old-style concrete!”
I nodded absently, looking around.
“I still don't get it, you know.”
“Don't get what?” asked Sparx, looking back at me.
“Why they left this part.” I said. “How come no-one pulled it down, cleared it all away?”
Sparx shrugged. “I dunno. Conservation maybe? Come on.”
He strode off eagerly, and I followed. As I walked, I could still make out the faint contours of the old road we were following, buried as it was beneath the thick carpet of ivy. To either side, low moss-covered mounds of rubble lined our way. Leading us onward. Towards the house.
The Highgrove... the voice tried to whisper in my head, but I felt distant, uninterested. I just kept walking.
“Hey, weird!” breathed Sparx. “I mean, how they used to live back then, in the last century! You bought your own separate house and that was it- no condos!”
“Yeah, weird.” some part of me said, as we stopped, directly in front of the house.
“Jeez!” whistled Sparx, “Fancy having to live in one of these!”
I looked up at the empty glassless windows, and the feeling tried to rise again, the urge to turn and run. And something - I can't say now if it was me or not - dampened the feeling down once more.
It was an odd building - it had a ground floor and an upper storey, and was very flat-fronted, just like a big box. There were two large windows in each floor, and a strange sort of lean-to affair round the single front door.
Sparx walked gingerly up to the house and stroked the tarnished silvery-grey framework around the doorway.
“It's aluminium.” he muttered.
“Is it?” I found myself saying. He nodded. “They used to use it a lot in those days. This is what they used to call 'the porsh', I think.,”
I walked slowly up behind him and looked in through one of the ground-floor windows. “Strange,” I said. The word seemed to come from nowhere, floating onto the surface of my mind.
“What's that?” asked Sparx, turning from his inspection of the 'porsh'.
I pointed at the fragments of glass adhering to the window frame. “It looks like they had two sheets of glass - one on the inside and one on the outside.”
“Oh yeah, we did that in Domestic History. They called it 'double-glassing' or something. Supposed to make the house warmer in Winter.” He directed his torch in through the window. “Jeez, what a mess!”
I peered over his shoulder. The room was ankle-deep in dead leaves, with the skeleton of a sofa in one corner and three battered and mold-encrusted packing cases scattered about the floor, while the walls were streaked with damp. There was also an unpleasant odour, as though something had recently died.
Sparx moved to the doorwayy. “Come on, let's go inside”
Let's go inside....inside...the words reverberated round my head. And that small part of me whispered no...no...
“Yeah, alright.” I said.
Sparx scrambled through the doorway, and I followed. The floor was more concrete, crumbling and dusty. We stepped carefully along the narrow entrance hall, shuffling through the weeds that had sprouted up through the flooring.
All the internal doors were long gone, and strands of frayed electrical wiring poked out from holes in the walls. Here and there our torch beams illuminated broken bottles, empty syringes, and fragments of splintered furniture. I still felt calm, but for some reason my mouth felt dry and choked in the musty air. Sparx seemed oblivious, pointing to this, exclaiming over that. Eventually he paused at the end of the long hallway, where another empty doorway gave onto a large back room.
A sudden gust of fetid air seemed to waft out of the doorway; I swayed, blinking.
“Jeez! What a guff!” Sparx coughed, and leaned on the door frame, shining his torch into the room. “Hey, this one's got the windows boarded up!”
What happened next, happened very very fast.
Sparx turned to face me, his mouth open as though about to speak, and then a tall figure stepped smartly into the doorway behind him. Where it came from I don't know, or why Sparx hadn't seen it as he looked into the room, but I caught my breath as I moved my torch up and shone it in the newcomer's face.
“What-?” said Sparx, and turned round.
It was a nightmare. As I stood there, my torch beam illuminating the travesty of a face, I really did want to scream, cry, move...anything but look at those bone-white features, with their dark red, almost black eyes, and the huge grinning mouth with impossibly long eye-teeth.
Sparx got one good look at what was standing in the doorway, and took a half-step back, before a pair of claw-like hands flashed out and grasped his shoulders, spinning him round to face me once more.
He moaned faintly, and I heard the creature chuckle; a low, disgusting sound. And then as I watched, the thing pulled Sparx to itself - easily, as though he were nothing but a large rag doll - and bent its head swiftly over his shoulder to his neck.
Sparx dropped his torch; it cracked against the concrete floor and went out. I stood, trembling, as the thing fastened onto him with a loud sucking sound. His arms flailed weakly and ineffectually, then suddenly dropped to his sides. At that same instant, the creature's head snapped up and fixed me with its gaze.
It continued to grin as it held onto Sparx's limp body, his head lolling to one side, and slowly one eye winked at me. Its face was now flushed, and there was blood on its teeth, dripping onto Sparx's neck. For a few seconds we stood there, staring into each other's eyes, and suddenly I knew. Knew why we had come here. Knew why everyone else had come here. Knew what had been silently calling people to this spot for almost a century...
I snapped out of it - I still don't know how - turned, and ran. Somewhere I lost the torch, but I can't remember where. Nor can I recall running out of that house, through the trees, along the moonlit grass, and down the crumbling and ancient road towards the Pedway. I don't remember much really; even to this day I can't really say just what it was that I saw.
Rubbish! I know damn well what I saw. I also know that whatever it was...it let me go.
I tried to tell them, after they found me, exhausted and hysterical, screaming my lungs out on the Pedway on the outskirts of Norwich; but of course they just think we got into the Factory. No, they're positive we did. Why? Because they found Sparx - what was left of him - in the old canal a week later...
That was over a year ago now. We've been living in Manchester for almost six months, and I'm still having treatment. They plug me into a Psycom at night, but it doesn't help much. I still wake up screaming, with my nails drawing blood as they dig into my palms. And the thing is, it's always the same dream...
I see him standing there. With his white, white face, and his long black hair parted in the centre. His torn and rotted green velvet jacket with the ridiculously wide lapels. A stained orange shirt. Wide, luridly-patterned tie. Ragged patchwork jeans with huge flares...not to mention the platform boots.
And those teeth...