A ghost story set during the First World War
The hospital was in a large Georgian manor house, surrounded by criminally unkempt grounds. Ancient ash and elm trees hid the house from the road, while in the backyard wild rose bushes and bracken looked as unapproachable as razor-wire. The house itself lacked any idyllic charm of the countryside manor. It was a square three-story box, one would expect to find somewhere in London stuffed among identical boxes. Its only noticeable feature was a small portico over the main doors with badly molded Doric columns. And despite being miles away from London the house had the same grey, unhealthy look buildings in the city acquire after years of exposure to soot and smoke. Even ivy, abundant everywhere else on the grounds did not grew on it; only withered remains clung to the side of the house like a network of dead veins on discolored walls.
Inside it was just as bleak and lifeless. Previous occupant was a solitary gentleman, who eventually closed off almost all of the rooms, when he could no longer maintain them, until his living space shrunk to the library, which became his living room and eventually bedroom. Plus the kitchen where a cook, as derelict as the owner himself, prepared his meals.
This was not what Elisabeth envisioned when she left her busy nursing post in London to come here. In her mind a convalescent hospital was a nice countryside house with clean, airy rooms filled with warm sunshine and recovering patients. But this old house, despite the fact that the rooms were cleared of clutter, old furniture and derelict carpets, still held an impression of an old man trapped here, like some sort of premature burial.
There were other things that troubled her: an odd smell lingered in this house: a barely noticeable odor that persisted even when the windows were wide open and rooms aired. It was a sweet, sickly smell, one would expect in the operating theater or a dressing station, but not in a convalescence hospital, many miles away from the frontline. This bothered Elisabeth, more than she cared to admit, especially the oddness with which the smell would appear in most unexpected places: sometimes she felt it inside the linen cupboard, or on the wide creaky staircase, but mostly it lingered in the wards, where it persisted despite whitewashed walls and fresh linen.
Other nurses noticed it as well but dismissed it. ‘It's just the mold’, they would say, or ‘old floorboards’. By some unspoken agreement they all consented that this was just how old houses were, full of funny smells or noises. The patients noticed it as well. Although few complained or even mentioned the smell, Elisabeth knew it bothered the soldiers. They, more than Elisabeth, more than anybody else in the house: doctors, cooks, cleaners, were familiar scent of death and decay. Many, despite months they spent in hospital slept uneasily, tossing and turning in their beds, muttering to themselves, lost on some remote battlefield in their dreams. Elisabeth remembered one officer who awoke during the night, shouting orders and demanding reports, refusing to believe that he was back home in England. Elisabeth knew it was very difficult for him adjust, as he just like all soldiers in their care was blind.
Elisabeth would never admit such thing to anyone, but those soldiers frightened her. There was something incredibly cruel and unnatural to see those confident young men march into the battle and come back diminished, lacking one of the most essential of human senses. With time most adapted to their circumstances, their wounds healed and Elisabeth was relieved to hear them talking about going back to their loved ones and getting their lives back together. But there were always fresh soldiers arriving from the front. Confused and disorientated, they were startled by every noise, awkward and unsure of their surrounding. Some of those poor men were terrible look upon: burnt by the gas or scarred by mines or shrapnel. But more than their looks Elisabeth dreaded the vacant stare of their unseeing eyes. She felt ashamed of her fear and did her best to hide it by being as helpful and friendly as possible. Despite that, sometimes she fancied that she felt their vacant eyes following her, filled with silent accusation.
One cold, misty morning in late October Elisabeth stood outside under the cracked columns wondering if this war was going to go on forever, and those scarred, lost men will be filling their wards in a never-ending procession. Five more were due to arrive today and she already spotted the coach making its way through the morning fog. One of the new arrivals caught Elisabeth’s attention: he staggered out of the coach with difficulty, and she went over to help. The soldier was very young and painfully thin: looking like a scarecrow in his oversized military clothes. Elisabeth helped him up the stairs holding his arm carefully as if he was made of porcelain.
‘Is this the place?’, the young soldier asked concerned, unaccustomed to his diminished senses. ‘God, its so quiet here’, he turned to Elisabeth. ‘Too quiet.’
As far as Elisabeth was concerned the hospital was full of usual noises, people walking to and fro, the beads creaking, nurses talking to the patients or chattering among themselves. She took the young man to the ward, telling him a little about the hospital schedule and visiting times. Apart from his eyes he had no other injuries, but seemed so ill, he struggled even to walk.
‘It's too quiet here’, he lamented, as she helped him to his bed, ‘And this smell, I cannot stand it!'
‘It's alright’, she told him, ‘You will feel better once you rested, you had a long journey’.
‘Don’t leave me, the soldier said alarmed, grasped her arm with his thin, claw like hand ‘if you go, he will come for me...’
‘I must tend to the other patients, Elisabeth protested, his grip made her shiver, his hand felt cold and clammy, like a hand of a corpse, ‘but I will be back soon, I promise.’
She left the young soldier sitting at the edge of the bed in the corner of the ward looking frightened and pitiful. She wondered if that odd smell could have distressed him so much. But she did not dwell on it for too long as other chores of the day quickly occupied her mind.
Only at the end of her shift she remembered the young soldier. Elisabeth felt sorry for him; he was so frightened and confused. She decided to check on him to make sure that he was resting.
The house did indeed grew very quiet as the night fell. Apart from the gentle creaking of the floorboards under her feet, Elisabeth could hear nothing at all as she walked through the long corridor leading to the stairs. Corridors were yet to be rigged with lights and she had to rely on the light left in the nurses’ station to reach the stairs. Only a tiny glimmer of light reached the main staircase and Elizabeth never liked coming down those stairs at night. With all the lights off downstairs it felt like she was descending into some huge cellar, where unseen things moved quietly in the dark.
With those troubled thoughts she paused outside the ward. It looked so different at night: Lit by the dim moonlight coming through large Georgian windows it was still and silent. The scene reminded Elisabeth of a black and white etching from a Gothic novel. She could see no movements beneath the blankets, all patients were unusually still. She felt weary of their stillness it was unnatural, so she stood at the threshold of the ward waiting for one of them to toss and turn, reassuring her that they were living men. Suddenly that obnoxious smell hit her senses. It was so strong this time she gasped, breathing in with her mouth, her face twisted in disgust. The patients must have felt it too, they began to toss and turn affected as she was. Elisabeth saw the young soldier she came to see, throwing himself about in his bed as if locked in a life and death struggle. Fearing that he might injure himself Elisabeth rushed across the ward towards him.
The soldier whirled and turned as if trying to push off an unseen attacker. His eyes were wide open staring at something across the ward.
‘The ticking’, he gasped, ‘the ticking!’ His hands clawed the air madly colliding with Elisabeth’s arm as she leaned over him.
‘He has found me’, he shouted as his fingers dug into her flesh, ‘he is here.’
Elisabeth gasped and tried to pull away, as she did, she sensed something behind her: a patch of extremely cold air, it made the hair on the back of her neck stand on ends. She could have sworn it felt like somebody's breath, cold as ice, on her back. Freeing herself from the soldier’s grip she turned around finding herself facing the same dark corner the young soldier was starring at. Did she just saw something moving in the shadows?
By now other patients in the ward were awake. Some shouted angrily, others sat up confused, calling for nurses. The nurse on duty rushed into the ward switching on the electric lights and dispersing the shadows. The young soldier fell back onto this bed exhausted.
‘The ticking, he kept repeating ‘the ticking.’
Next day the patients were unusually quiet. They barely talked among themselves and many felt the need to leave their wards to sit outside in the overgrown garden, despite the inclement weather. The same mood affected the nursing staff and even the doctors. They went about their duties exchanging only basic greetings. Affected as the rest Elisabeth preformed her chores with only fraction of her usual enthusiasm. She was out on the terrace handing out blankets to the men outside, when she spotted that young soldier sitting by himself at the far end of the terrace. He looked worse than the day before, his pale skin acquiring an unhealthy grey shade, even his hair seemed to be thinner and greyer than yesterday. Elisabeth frowned as she remembered what transpired last night. She had an idea what could have upset him: it was her watch, a tiny, silver-plated thing that hung from her pocket. Perhaps that was the ticking he heard, but why was he so terrified of it?
Not wanting to disturb the soldier she greeted him as she approached, putting away her watch first.
'Would you like a blanket?' she asked him gently.
'No, I am not cold', he replied in a hazily, then recognising her voice he lifted his head towards her.
'You were there last night', he paused, 'did you hear it? That horrible ticking?' His voice sounded so desperate Elizabeth was at lost what to say.
'It's must have been my watch', she tried to reassure him. 'There', she placed it in the soldier's skeletal hand, 'it's just a watch, nothing more'.
'No it's not it!', the soldier shook his head angrily clenching the watch in his fist, 'I would not confuse that infernal noise with anything else. No, no, that sound is like beating of huge black wings, like the last beats of your heart... You will never forget it once you hear it.'
'I heard nothing', Elizabeth sat down next to him, 'there are no clocks in the wards, but I have known soldiers who heard strange noises as a result of their injuries.'
'If only it was so', the soldier sighed. 'But I know it was there, the ticking of that hellish watch!' He was about to say more but stopped himself. Suddenly he looked as if he aged ten years, just as they were talking.
'Please', Elizabeth placed her hand onto his, 'if there is anything I can do to help...'
'If I talk, you will think me mad', he paused, 'perhaps I am mad, I have seen so many horrible things happening around me. Perhaps being mad is a blessing. There is nothing sane about the war.'
He hesitated and Elizabeth waited patiently for him to talk again.
'It was back in Belgium, he finally started, the Germans made a breach in our lines, and we were ordered to counterattack. They used gas that day, but we did not know it then, all we saw were yellow-grey clouds drifting through the no-man's land. Mercifully the wind kept them away from us as we advanced. For a long time it was quiet, I remember marching along with the men from my regiment, noting the absence of the enemy, we did not know that it was the gas that kept them away. The eerie silence continued as we approached the first line of the German trenches, there was nothing but razor wire and empty artillery shells to greet us. The trenches were abandoned. We stood there unsure if we should advance or hold our position.
That was when the shelling began.
The noise was horrible... Like a thousands thunderstorms happening all around, the ground shook as if it was about to split open and swallow us. The shells forced whole hills up into the air, rearranging the landscape right before our eyes, making the battlefield as treacherous and as unpredictable as the sea. I run towards the trenches, hoping to shelter there. Soon there were screams all around me. I saw a soldier torn apart just so, that you could not tell where his body ended and the scorched earth began. Others fell to the ground unable to go on through this hell. I continued to run, in my distress I neglected to look beneath my feet and tumbled head first into the enemy trench. I was not sure if this second line of trenches was abandoned as well, they looked freshly dug, but empty. I crawled down the trench as the shells exploded above my head, expecting the ‘Hun’ to jump at me at any second. The trench turned, leading to an older, heavily reinforced underground section, I knew that German trenches went deep underground, like some medieval catacombs and was hesitant to enter. Then a shell that exploded just to my left covering me with mud, that made up my mind. Still crouching I turned the corner and began my descend underground. I did not get far when I saw someone lying on the ground, cautiously I approached, trying not to block what little light was coming from the outside. It was a German officer, a young man; he could not have been much older than myself. I thought that he was just shell shocked but then I saw that he wasn’t, not with his stomach opened up like that.'
The young solder coughed, and blushed. 'I didn't meant to frighten you', he said to Elisabeth, 'but that how he was.'
Elisabeth gave his hand a reassuring squeeze, she had seen worse in the London's hospital. Not that she could ever get used to it.
'I wanted to go around him when I saw it, just in the palm of his hand, a fog watch. It was the most beautiful fog watch I've ever seen, my father was a watch maker, you see, so I know a good craftsmanship when I see one', he said with pride.
'Could see, before this', he waved his hand in front of his face. 'I don't know what came over me, but as I saw that watch, I had to have it. Yes, it's was wrong to steal from the dead, but he was an enemy, and he would not be needing it any longer. Besides other fellows were taking all sorts of souvenirs from the battle, so I thought, why not, and when I get out of this it will be quite a story to tell.'
'I reached out for the watch and took it from his hand.'
The young soldier stopped abruptly burring his face in his hands. After what seemed like ages he continued, talking fast, and shaking with fear.
'As I held it in my hand it felt warm, not hot, but warm, like a fresh loaf of bread out of the oven. But in an instant the warmth was gone and the watch was just a cold lump of metal resting in my hand. I marveled at its superb craftsmanship, happy with my find until I heard it tick. It wasn’t ticking before, the hands were still as it lay in the dead mans hand. I looked on mesmerised as the watch counted seconds, then minutes; gold, delicate hands making their relentless progress underneath the cracked glass. And despite the noise of the shells above me, I heard that watch tick loud and clear. While I stared at the watch, there was a gentle shuffling sound, as if someone moved under a heavy blanket. I looked up but saw nothing moving, except...I looked down at the dead man... He was lying where he was his head turned towards the low muddy roof of the trench yet something wasn't right. My heart began to pound as fear took over my body. Right now I was more terrified than I was up there with artillery turning my comrades into bloody carcasses. The dead man's hand was clenched into a fist. How could that be? Just a moment ago I took the watch from his hand. I shivered. A shell exploded nearby shaking the trench and covering me with loose earth. The wooden support beams above me creaked. A terrifying thought accrued to me, that the trench may collapse and I will end up buried here with nothing but the corpse for company. Another explosion shook ground and I clenched the watch in my fist, it's ticking began to sound oddly irregular, like a beating of a heart. Suddenly I saw a movement in the corner of my eye and turned towards the corpse. His eyes were open, they were blank and white, like a belly of a fish, and he was looking at me. I screamed and backed away on all fours as the dead man stared at me with a hateful expression. It was as if the corpse knew that I took something of his and he wanted it back. Out of the dugout I scrambled onto my feet, and run towards the trench wall, ignoring the artillery. I crawled up the slippery mud daring not to look behind me, and expecting the dead man's hand to close on my ankle at any second.
Finally I was out of the trench and running as fast as I could. The watch, that I still held began to feel warm again, and, I swear, it was pulsing with every tick like a living being. I threw it into the mud and continued to run.'
The solder paused.
'Somewhere along the way, I must have wandered through the cloud of gas and ended up like this. I don't know how I made it back to our trenches. Damn that watch!' He shouted 'I wish I never laid my eyes on it. Now he is tormenting me with it', he buried his face in his hands, 'that horrid ticking!
His distress so strong that Elisabeth felt a slight shiver running down her spine, as if she herself heard the ticking of that watch. In the light of day such things as dead man waiting for you in the shadows should have been easy to dismiss as delusions and yet her unease remained.
'You must think me mad', the soldier guessed her thoughts.
'To be honest I don't know what to think. Elisabeth confessed, 'Every soldier I spoke to told me that this war is like no other, they say it's relentless and cruel, and I believe that. I heard many soldiers say that they have seen angels appearing on the battlefield; perhaps those were not angels but ghosts of their dead comrades.
The soldier seemed to ponder that for a moment. 'Yes even the dead are taking sides in this war. And I know he is coming for me.'
'If you are frightened, let me stay with you tonight' Elisabeth suggested. But the soldier protested quite adamantly, making Elisabeth realise that she must have hurt his pride suggesting that he was afraid. She felt sorry for him, but at the same time relieved at not having to spend a night in that dark ward filled with broken men, each with their own ghosts tormenting them.
For a few days she was busy with her patients on the first floor and did not see the young soldier. It was only at the end of the week that she saw him on the staircase. She almost did not recognised him: his hair had gone completely grey and he was so emaciated, he almost looked like a ghost himself. She called out to him, but he did not seem to hear her. He struggled up the staircase muttering to himself:
'The ticking, that infernal ticking, it never stops.'
Worried that he might fall Elisabeth took him down the stairs, where another nurse, Rose waited for him.
'Come along' she said cheerfully, 'lets get you into bed.'
Isn't he in the main ward? Elisabeth asked as they walked past it.
'Oh no, this one here is getting a whole room to himself' Rose leaned over the young soldier who allowed himself to be led down the corridor without protesting.
'He was disturbing others, Rose explained briskly as she helped the soldier to his bed. 'Not going to last long this one', she muttered to Elisabeth, 'off his food and hardly sleeping. They should never send him here, they should never set up a hospital here. This place is too unhealthy for the poor souls, so awfully draughty, and the smell...'
The new room certainly confirmed those. It was on odd L shaped space left perhaps when they divided rooms into wards. One small window overlooked two beds and long narrow corridor that lead to the door. It was cold here, colder than it was in the wards and a lone electric bulb did not work.
As Rose left, Elizabeth heaved more blankets at the foot of the soldier's bed, in case he was cold.
'He comes for me', she heard the solder whisper, 'he comes at night, I can hear the ticking, of his watch. Tick-tok tick-tok.'
'It's alright', Elisabeth took his hand in hers, ‘I’ll come back soon.'
'He will come tonight', the solder said. His face was blank and his hands were cold as ice.
Elisabeth left him promising to herself that she will return after her shift to make sure that he was all right.
Darkness came very quickly this time of the year. The daylight was gone by five and the rest of the long evening was spent under the hash electric light. Elisabeth found herself working late. Few nurses staid overnight and as the daily chores were done the house fell quiet. Finishing up in the nurses station, with older nurse Margaret already dozing off, over her romances book, Elizabeth had the same feeling she had on that night she came to visit downstairs ward: eerie unnatural silence was taking over the house. She glanced into the unlit corridor; the main staircase was hidden in unwelcoming darkness. She did not wanted to venture out there, away from the comforting light. But she reminded herself that she promised to the young soldier that she would return. So she had to go.
Elisabeth could not get used to how quiet it was. Even the stairs that creaked ceaselessly during the day did not utter a sound as she descended. This disconcerting silence made even simple sounds seem unnatural and amplified. The ticking of her watch seemed as loud as her footsteps. She paused, yes, the watch; it will upset the soldier to hear it. Elisabeth took the watch off and stopped the mechanism. She continued on her way, but stopped abruptly after a few steps, the watch, it still ticked. Gingerly she glanced at it again but the handles were still and as she placed it next to her ear it made no sound. Yet the ticking continued, it was from the corridor ahead.
And what a horrible sound it was, like scratching of rats behind the wall, like a door handle slowly turning to let in some unwelcome guest. Elisabeth walked past the main ward and down the corridor towards the room where they took the young soldier. That ticking it was coming from there. She approached the room, noting that the door was slightly ajar and glanced inside. There outlined by the moonlight were the two beds one occupied by the young soldier, the other empty.
To her surprise the soldier was perfectly still, undisturbed by that unnatural sound. Elisabeth walked into the room slowly. The near she got the solder's bed, the louder that horrid ticking become. And then she saw it lying on the bedside table in a small pool of moonlight: an old fog watch, it must have been a beautiful watch now but now it looked dented and battered.
‘How did it get here?’ Elisabeth wondered. And why the young soldier no longer cared about its ticking? She glanced at him gasping in shock. His eyes were wide open, like two large marbles, staring at the watch, his mouth twisted in a horrid grimace, the jaws locked in rigor mortis as if his final moments were so horrifying his scream continued even after his death.
Elisabeth backed away from the bed until she was against the wall of the ward; the watch continued its horrid ticking as if the mechanism was laughing at her fright.
It was then that Elisabeth released that there was someone else in the room. A figure was standing in the in the opposite corner of the room, where the moonlight did not reach. It stepped towards her reeking unmistakably of death and decay. It was a pale man in a long grey overcoat. His eyes sunk so deep into their sockets that they were just tiny circles reflecting the moonlight. His lips were thin dried strips of skin exposing long yellowish teeth. Those teeth clinked in time with the watch: tick-tock, tick-tock.
Blackest horror seized her as the specter approached. It reached out, not for Elizabeth but for the fog watch, its skeletal hand closed over the watch and for a moment it stopped. That brief pause gave Elisabeth strength to run out of the room into the dark corridor perused by the echo of that hideous ticking.