Written by: Ian Storer (Medieval History, 1998)
He had frowned at the girl across the post-seminar buffet. "You’ve got to be kidding!"
Yet now, as the evening mist rolled across the surface of the lake, Paul Cross’ ardent scepticism of the metaphysical seemed dampened by the autumnal chill. They crossed the stepping stones in silence, the only sound the rush of the ornamental fountain. "So what exactly are we looking for?"
The dark haired girl glanced over her shoulder and he felt sure he saw a mischievous smile.
"Come on, we’ve got to get to Cripps."
He sighed. This was not at all what he had envisaged when the enigmatic MA student he’d met at The Victorian Supernatural conference had suggested they go for a walk by the willow shrouded lake, nor was the subsequent twenty minutes spent scrutinizing every dark hollow what he had imagined.
"Well I must admit I’m mildly freaked out now," he quipped as they left the lake behind. She made no reply.
I just want to get to the bottom of what’s going on, she had said lightly, think of it as a post-seminar practical…
She turned to him, her freckle-dappled features composed into a teasing smile.
He looked at her levelly.
There’s been talk of strange sightings on campus for a month now, shadowy figures and eerie music...
Shadows flitted across the landscaped lawns as they passed the Hallward Library, the gloom seeming to deepen noticeably as dusk took hold.
He chose to ignore her comment.
"Did you know that Wollaton Park was a common spot for fairy sightings?" She continued glancing at the distant treeline above Lincoln Hall. He looked at her in disbelief, was she seriously searching for…
She shot him a grin. "And did you also know fairy sightings declined just as UFO sightings began in the 30’s?"
He smiled and looked at her directly.
"What are you up to?"
"I’ve always been interested in the unexplained," she shrugged, "and I’m kind of on a research trip…for my supervisor Dr Speedwell…" The name rang no bells.
"Where did you say you studied again?"
She looked away.
"Actually, that was a bit of a fib, I work for a museum in London…"
"So you’re not doing an MA in folklore studies?"
They were threading their way between shadowy walls now, overlooked by the regular sash windows of Cripps Hall.
Paul sighed, allowing his gaze to linger on her slender figure, her ponytail bobbing rhythmically in the gathering gloom. Who on earth was she? She certainly wasn’t the history graduate who’d met his gaze across the nibbles. She paused and frowned, her breath misting. Across the darkening road lay the ornamental rock garden: a picturesque jumble of boulders topped by a squat oriental folly.
"Apparently no-one knows who commissioned it," she noted, her gaze lingering on the gleaming white pagoda, "it predates the campus by at least seventy years."
She regarded it for a moment then turned her attention to the road ahead. A weeping willow stood to their right down a steep bank and they descended to it with brisk jogging steps.
"So what exactly are you looking for?" he panted as she peered into the space she had parted between the branches, "ghosts - or fairies?"
"A door," she frowned distractedly then straightened pushing a strand of hair back from her face. They were standing close together and she shot him an awkward smile. "Perhaps up there," she mused with a brisk glance towards the pagoda then turned away.
If it hadn’t have been for the quickening of his pulse he would have sworn the place was now wreathed in impenetrable shadow.
He shook the thought away.
The moon broke through the scudding clouds as they crossed the deserted road, the girl’s shadow stark against the tarmac as he followed her to the seldom-frequented garden; he found his gaze drawn inextricably to the moonlit pagoda as they ascended the circuitous path. It seemed suddenly too much to hope that she had enacted this whole charade to find the perfect gothic location for a moment alone; there was a tension in her face, a very real fear.
"What’s going on?" he whispered.
She swallowed nervously. "Have you ever considered the nature of time," she replied slowly, "how sometimes it races and at others stands still." He frowned. "We think of time as a straight line, running endlessly forwards…"
He felt his heart sink - he had not been expecting this. "But what if it’s more like a knotted string," she continued, "an endless tangle in which there are places the fabric of time rubs so closely…"
"Sorry," he said apologetically, "I don’t…"
She bit her lip.
"No, I’m sorry, I was stupid to bring you – look, Paul, go home - it’s not safe..."
"So you’re looking for spirits," he blurted sensing he’d blown it, "echoes of the past?"
She made as if to speak then glanced nervously at the windowless shelter.
"No," she said firmly, "– something more tangible…you’ve got to go."
The shadows seemed to deepen, a diaphanous mist curling around the oriental structure.
"Dr Speedwell has made a discovery…a breech in time…"
It was not his mind playing tricks: a thick mist had begun to swirl around the opening, swelling to fill the empty space within. His mouth went dry.
"Run," she said in a hoarse whisper, "…forget you ever met me!"
He stared. The mist seemed alive with an almost electric energy.
"Go!" the girl hissed pushing him backwards as she lunged to block the doorway. Light pierced the gloom and for a second he felt sure he heard the hubbub of a Victorian fairground before the mist rushed inwards in an almost implosive flow.
She was gone.
He sat heavily, his hands trembling, deafened by the emptiness of the October night.
What the hell had just happened?
He pulled his phone from his pocket and began to google the one hard fact she had given him. A single name: Dr Speedwell.