I was cranky and on edge. The wind had always had this effect on me. I could feel the building shake as I worked at my pc in my top-floor flat, engaged in some local history research.
When I bought the place, I didn’t consider that the location was particularly exposed, and the name Mill Road, which my street joins fifty yards down from my building, gave me no clues: until a neighbour showed me a 100-year-old photograph of a windmill, standing almost directly across the street from my location, next to the junction. It looked better than the depot now filling the space.
The wind brought water, too: gustfuls of it; challenging my window seals better than any double-glazing test facility.
I jumped as I heard the bathroom door slam. Jenny was out, on a night shift at the hospital. Had I left the window open? Not likely. I went to investigate, my hand shaking as I reached for the door handle. A trickle of cold sweat ran down the back of my neck as the door swung open. The window was closed, but the light coming on showed me that the plug was in the bath, holding in about four inches of brown water. I raised my eyes to the ceiling. No holes or drips. Not knowing why, I dipped my fingers in the water and tasted it. Brackish water. As I released the mess, swirling, into the waste, a small part of my sanity went with it.
I was wishing that Jenny hadn’t taken this extra shift – I really could have done with her company, even if she would have been nodding off halfway through one of her favourite tv programmes. I checked all the windows and the door, and bravely put my head through the ceiling hatch in the hall, shining my torch around the cold roof space; but I detected no breaches.
I put on the most in-your-face music I could think of – ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ by the Sex Pistols – and dosed myself with several cups of strong coffee. The music was loud, but still didn’t completely attenuate the elemental racket outside my walls and windows. After a while, I had shuffled the bizarre event to the back of my mind for when Jenny returned in the morning, and got back on my computer.
Halfway through ‘Pretty Vacant’, all-at-once the music stopped, the lights briefly went out, and my pc died. Even in the shock of my sudden, dark isolation, I realised that the battering outside had ceased too.
Before the lights came back on, and my pc restarted, I was on my feet, throwing myself backwards against the wall, arms out in front of me. I hadn’t imagined that desperate male voice; but there was nobody there, as I slid, trembling, into a foetus shape in the corner. I heard a long, loud moan that I knew must have been from within me.
I don’t know if I sat there shaking for two minutes or for an hour, but the emotion of fear had gradually given way to one of an unknown urgency. No time to waste . . . no time to waste . . . no time to waste . . .
I put on my walking boots, a thick jumper and fleece, and dug out my waterproofs from my camping kitbag: the hiatus in the weather’s assault had been as brief as the power cut.
The wind tried to push me back along the street, dousing me with its salty spray as I thrust my inclined head against it; but I proved to be the stronger. As I descended onto the lower road that leads along the estuary, my progress was quicker, as there were more buildings to break up the relentless barrage.
I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew where I had to go; pushing on – no time to waste . . . no time to waste . . . I passed the lido, the cream and blue 1930s architecture looking incongruous amid the sodium-lit industrial landscape with its redundant gasometers, then dropped down to the shoreline, where the industry began to give way to the rural wilderness of the Riverside Park.
A few minutes later, I saw him; a failing, bedraggled heap, lodged in the glutinous, black mud, just a few yards away. The tide was coming in, and frothy water was lapping against his chest. “Hey!” I called. His lolling head jerked up, and turned towards me, his eyes wide with hope of salvation. “Oh, help me, mate, please help me!” he cried into the wind and rain.
I scanned around urgently, looking for one of the rescue points that I knew were positioned regularly along the waterfront. Luckily, one was close by, and I yanked off the life ring and threw it with surprising accuracy, to land just to the left side of the sinking man. He held onto it as if it were his first-born, and I hauled on the rope with all my force, battling the elements as well as the dead weight. Although I am physically strong, I am not a big person, and wasn’t making any progress. I took the rope around a metal railing, and managed to brace my feet against a concrete kerb. Eventually, my insistent pulling – probably helped by the inrush of water – brought sluggish movement in the rope, and the man’s desperate sobbing became cries of hope and encouragement.
Within a couple of minutes, he was on dry land; a shocking, mud-caked spectacle, standing staring at me with an expression of gratitude. And fear. “Who are you?” he asked. I told him my name. “How about you?” “Tommy. Tommy Farrer!” he blurted, then gave a loud wail, and took off as fast as his weak legs, and 20 pounds of mud, would allow.
So much for gratitude, I thought.
The going was easier with the wind at my back, and I was safely home in less than half an hour. It was 1:30, but I wasn’t going to bed that night. I sank into an easy chair, and sat for about an hour, mind and body numb from the night’s strange events.
I began to feel better. ‘Your last browsing session closed unexpectedly. Would you like to restore your last session?’ I clicked ‘yes’, and carried on with my research. I was reading a piece in the Kentish Gazette of March 1937, when I scrolled down to see an article that put a shiver down my spine for not the first time that night:
‘Gillingham man claims rescued by ghost. A Gillingham dockyard worker claims that he was rescued by a ghost when he became stuck in the mud of the River Medway, off Danes Hill. Mr Thomas Farrer, 23, of Corporation Road, said that he was walking home from the Man of Kent public house in Rainham, after an evening’s drinking, when he wandered off the path and became stuck in the mud. Mr Farrer claims that he was dragged from the mud by a man who asked him his name, then promptly disappeared’.
“Hello! Wake up! Didn’t you go to bed?” I had fallen asleep, and Jenny was back from her shift. “You’re never going to believe this: they brought in a poor man last night who had been pulled from the river. He didn’t make it, I’m afraid. But the funny thing was, he had the same name as you . . . ”