Note: Edited to reflect new information. Now contains spoilers all the way through the end of series 2, episode 8.

Thursday, 2 November 2007

The gate squeaked as Barbara pushed it open. It always did. She'd been coming here for thirty years, and no one, in all that time, had bothered to oil those hinges. Maybe the staff thought it added atmosphere to have a creaky gate in a graveyard. Who knew?

It was Paul she came to see, Paul, her adored eldest brother, who had been killed in a motorbike accident when he was at university and she was in secondary school. She didn't visit his grave as often as she used to, but she still came two or three times a year, and always for his birthday in November. On summer visits, she brought pink roses from her own garden because they smelled the sweetest to her. Today her arms were full of the other kind of roses: out-of-season blooms that had been grown in a hothouse and kept fresh in water at the flower shop. They'd do, though. Honestly, she wasn't sure anymore whether Paul had even cared for flowers. So much about him had been lost in the passage of time: all she really had left were a few photos and one or two of his things - and this place, of course. A grave was one thing you could always be certain of.

Barb made her way along old paths laid with worn, mossy stones that deadened her footsteps, and then crossed into the newer section of the graveyard, where the heels of her boots clicked crisply on poured concrete. At last she reached the right place, and brushed dead leaves away from the marker before laying the roses at its base. There was a bench just to the side, and she sat down on it with a little sigh to think about Paul. He would have been fifty tomorrow, perhaps a father with grown children, no doubt greying a bit - not the dark, handsome young man whom half her friends had been in love with. She'd hated the idea of growing old when she was that age, but the older she got, the more it seemed like a blessing to have the opportunity. There were too many who hadn't, too many like her brother. Like Robert.

A gust of wind came along just then, and shivering, she got up and slung her bag over her shoulder. It was always too cold to stay very long at this time of year, and anyway, she ought to get started on the road home before dark. She walked back along the rows, glancing at gravestones as she went: John Arnold Jones, 1954; Rupert B. Halliburton, 1939; Elsie Mae Strickland, 1921; Mary Katherine Blythe, 1897 - all unknown, but all familiar as names from her own family tree.

She was halfway back to the gate already, and coming up on her left was a grave she'd always wondered about. It stood off to one side, nearly hugging the wrought-iron fence, with just a small, roughly cut hump of stone to mark its head. In the summer it was a faint, slightly sunken outline in the grass, but now the leaves were piled up so thickly on it that there was hardly anything to be seen. It looked awfully lonely there in the cold November afternoon, off by itself with nothing else around it and that blanket of leaves lying undisturbed, as if even the caretaker didn't bother to look after it.

God, that's sad, she thought. Whoever was in there had surely been someone's brother or sister, someone's husband or wife, hadn't they? She'd hate for Paul to end up like that one day, or to end up like that herself, for that matter.

On impulse, she turned, walked back to Paul's grave and picked up one of the long-stemmed roses she'd left there. Paul wouldn't mind; of course he wouldn't. The brother who had taken his little sister out for ice-cream and let her borrow his records would never have begrudged a single flower to some poor, forgotten person in a graveyard. Carrying the rose in a gloved hand, she went past John Arnold and Rupert B. and Elsie Mae and Mary Katherine again, turned at the end of the row, and bent over to put the rose on the mystery grave.

"There you are," she said. Another gust of wind blew past, making the leaves swirl and settle, and she wrinkled up her nose; it smelt very peculiar in this area, like standing water and mould and decay. Maybe the ground had got wet underneath the leaves last time it rained.

"I've got to go now," she said to no one in particular. She wasn't sure why. There was a sort of expectancy in the air, as if someone were waiting for her to do or say something more, and how stupid was it to think that? She came to visit Paul and even talked to him sometimes, but it was really for her, not for him: he was gone, whoever was buried in this grave was gone, and there was no one within these walls who could hear her. Still, she blathered on: "It's getting late, and I've got work tomorrow, so I've got to hurry up and go."

Only the faint rustle of the leaves answered her. She sniffed; there was the smell again, vague but unpleasant.

Barb didn't think she wanted to find out what it was. She'd done her good deed for the day and it was time to leave. Without looking at the grave again, she hurried out through the squeaky gate and to her car.

By the time she got home, it was long past dark and beginning to rain. As usual on wet nights, there was no place to park anywhere near her house, but she did the best she could and walked quickly, with her head down and her hands stuffed in her coat pockets. As she pulled out her keys, she noticed a few rose petals clinging to the knitted cuff of her glove; they must have been hanging on since the graveyard, or else found their way into her pocket and got stuck on the glove when she reached in there. She shook them off onto the mat and unlocked her front door before any more rain could run down the back of her neck.

Inside, she tossed her keys and bag onto the little table she kept in the entrance hall, and started to hang up her coat as well, but then decided to leave it on for now; it was almost colder in here than it had been outside. She'd go see what was wrong with the heat in just a moment. As she passed the phone, she pressed the button to hear her messages: one from her mother, asking if she'd remembered Paul's birthday (yes), one from her friend Jane asking if she wanted to go for a drink tonight (not really), and one from an automated voice wanting to tell her that she might already have won a valuable prize (delete).

The heat must have been out all day, she thought as she walked into the front room. It was really beyond cold; she could have hung a side of beef from the hook in the ceiling that was meant to hold a lamp. Stripping off a glove, she knelt and held a hand near the radiator - and was astonished to feel warm air coming out of it. She pulled her hand back: cold. She stretched it out again: warm. The warmth was quite strong near the radiator, but it extended no further than two fingers' breadth above it. There was a clear line of demarcation, as if there were an invisible bubble beyond which heat could not go.

Barb paused there, with one glove off and one glove on, and frowned. This made no sense. Warm air rose, and as far as she knew, it kept rising as long as there was no physical barrier. It didn't rise and then stop for no reason. But it was doing that, and damned if the rest of the room wasn't getting colder every second. She huffed out a frustrated breath and realised that she could actually see it, a vague white cloud in front of her face. Her body was beginning to ache from being held rigid against the chill.

"What the hell?" she said in a near-whisper.

She stood up, and as she did, the smell from the graveyard suddenly assaulted her, forcing its way into her nostrils and down her throat like a sort of olfactory rape. For an instant, she told herself that it had clung to her clothes the way the rose petals had clung to her gloves, and she was only catching a lingering whiff of it now - but it was a hundred, a thousand times worse than it had been before. It was hideous, like wet earth and slimy rotten leaves and dead animals festering in hidden places, like a newly emptied grave yawning wide open to trap her inside.

Nearly choking, Barb clapped her still-gloved hand over her mouth and nose and breathed through it, hoping she wasn't going to get sick. The temperature plummeted again - a big, noticeable drop this time - and then came yet another sensation she couldn't explain. It was like the expectant waiting she'd felt in the graveyard, but stronger, the way the smell was stronger, and it carried with it a sense of watching, as if invisible eyes were fixed upon her. Dimly, she remembered Robert telling her long ago that he had felt a "negative energy" in a supposedly haunted place, and what had she said to him? Oh yes, that it was crap.

That's right, she told herself. Utter crap. Suggestibility. Hysteria. You've been at the graveyard; you've been thinking about Paul and Robert and people dying young; you're tired and not clear in the head ...

But that smell, God, that smell! And the cold!

No, the cold was just cold; maybe she'd left a window open somewhere, and there had to be a reason the warm air from the radiator wasn't getting out into the room - a cross-current or something, like the jet stream. And the smell - the smell was all in her head. Wasn't it?

Experimentally, she took her hand away from her face, and then slapped it back again , gagging, as the horrible odour surged.

It's nothing, a mouse died in the wall, that's all, you know how bad they can get, it's only a mouse and there is nothing, I said NOTHING odd about that!

Well. Even if it was a mouse, she didn't have to stay here and smell it, did she? She could leave for a bit and come back later, couldn't she? Of course she could.

She wanted to run, but forced herself to walk quickly back through the room and to the front door, where she discovered to her amazement and dread that the door and its knob were covered with a thin, white sheet of ice. It crackled and broke when she touched it, but the knob wouldn't turn; something inside the lock itself had frozen.

Oh please, oh please ... She rattled the knob harder, feeling real panic beginning to build. There was a back door, but to get to it she'd have to go through the entire ground floor, through the cold and the stench, and if she could get outside she would be in the back garden, penned up in the dark. The icy surface of the knob was making her ungloved hand ache, sending bolts of numbing pain all the way up to her elbow, and she couldn't feel her fingers any longer. The sensation of being watched was growing stronger every moment; it was nearly at an intolerable pitch now, and in desperation, she grasped the doorknob with both hands and yanked it so hard that the door burst inward, nearly knocking her over. In an instant, she was through the gap and stumbling down the front path, fat, freezing raindrops pelting her head and shoulders.

When she reached the pavement, she couldn't help herself any longer and ran, ran till her side started to hurt and she had to stop, leaning against a lamppost and gasping for breath. Far down the road, she could see a faint light that she thought must be spilling through her open front door. Dear God, had the thing inside left the same way she had? Had it followed her out into the night?

"There is no thing!" she told herself in a shrill, weepy-sounding voice. The moment she said it, she thought she smelled that horrible decaying odour again, just for an instant, and it was more than she could bear. She doubled over and was sick at the foot of some unknown neighbour's nicely trimmed hedge, choking and heaving until she was on the verge of blacking out. At last she managed to stop, and sat right down on the rain-soaked pavement while she pulled herself together. If the thing wanted her, it would have to come and get her. She couldn't move to save her life.

When she felt a bit better - "better," in this case, being a relative term that meant "not likely to vomit again just yet" - she started thinking about phoning someone for help. She couldn't remember what she'd done with her mobile and for a dreadful minute, was certain she had left it on the table with her keys. If so, it was going to stay there, because she wouldn't go back into the house alone if someone walked up and offered her the entire Premium Bonds jackpot to do it. But when she stuck her hand into her coat pocket, her fingers brushed the phone's familiar rounded case.

She fished it out, pressed Talk, and then stopped. Whom did you call in a situation like this? The police? The fire department? MI5?

Ghostbusters, she thought, and felt mad laughter bubble up in her chest. She squashed it down again and told herself not to be stupid. There really was only one person she could phone, wasn't there? Only one person who would not tell her that she was altered and delusional and needed immediate hospitalisation and a course of drugs - not that she was entirely sure she didn't. Now that she was out of the house and away from ... whatever it had been, it was all too easy to tell herself that it hadn't been real, that she was developing some sort of late-onset schizophrenia, as if that would be preferable somehow.

She'd thought she was all right, but as soon as Alison said "Hello?" she lost all semblance of calm and started to cry in big, humiliating sobs. There was just no end to the indignities of this night. Chased out of her home by something she couldn't see and might have imagined, left sitting in the rain next to a puddle of sick like some sort of alcoholic tramp, and now bawling down the phone to a woman who most likely loathed her, unable even to explain what was wrong.

"Who is this?" Alison's voice was weary, but not surprised. Probably, Barb thought, hysterical nighttime phone calls were business as usual for her.

"It's Barbara S-Sinyard," she managed. "I worked with Robert -"

"Oh." Now Alison sounded perplexed and a little suspicious. "What's this all about, then?"

Barb felt her throat constrict with the threat of more tears, and put her hand over the phone for a moment, struggling for control.

"I, ah, I'm at home - well, not exactly - I'm up the road and, and, and I need to talk to you."

"All right, I'm listening, what do you want to talk about?"

"Not on the phone," said Barb. "In person. Can you come here?"

There was a long silence on the other end of the line. Then Alison said, "Not right away, if that's what you're asking. I don't drive and the bus takes ages. Can't this wait until morning?"

"No, I don't think it can," said Barb, looking back down the road at the light from her house. "What if you call a taxi? I'll pay for it - oh, God, I haven't got any money with me - I'll pay you back."

Alison sighed. "I suppose I could come round for a bit. Where do you live?"

Barb told her.

"Oh, very nice," said Alison dryly. "But you said you weren't at home, didn't you? You said you were up the road. What exactly does that mean? Are you at a neighbour's?"

"No, I'm outside, I don't know whose house. I'll walk down and meet you when you get here. Just come. Please."

"Fine. Twenty minutes, half an hour at the most," said Alison, and rang off, leaving Barb alone on the deserted street without even a voice for company. She supposed she'd deserved every drop of unfriendliness in Alison's demeanour; they hadn't spoken since the day Robert had died last year, and she hadn't been very kind to Alison then. She hadn't meant it really, but she'd been hurting, already grieving for Robert before he'd even gone, and the sight of Alison had brought out the absolute worst in her. But Alison would come; she'd said she would. Alison would be here soon, and then whatever else happened, Barb thought, at least she wouldn't have to face that awful coldness on her own. Relief brought tears to her eyes again, and clutching the dead phone against her chest with both hands, she sat in the wet dark and waited.