On Montague Road.
There was a man dwelt by a churchyard. He was, it could be said (and often was), something of a recluse, not much given to chat and the normal social interactions. He lived alone in a small house, once part of the church grounds and once, in its time, the cottage of the sexton. It was made of solid, thick stone, of the type which never warms in even the fullest sunlight and that takes the heat from any hand that touches it for too long. It was old stone, and dark, and studded with tiny windows, broken up into yet smaller panes, and each of these was quite black with accumulated dirt and gloom. It was a house that hunched, if such a word can be used, upon the ground.
The church itself was at the farthest end of Montague Road, which had, over the most recent years, become quite huddled with shops and other businesses of the type. At the time of this story, it was draped in decorations for the Christmas period, though they were insufficient to the task of lightening the dread pall that always covered the road on which the church resided. Streetlamps were forever dim here, and the sun seemed only to strike the roofs of buildings, never managing to cast its light upon the walls and paving below. The festive decorations shone brightly, yet without effect, for no surface reflected their light, rather seeming to drink it up.
Indeed, if one were to stand at the farthest end of the road from the church, to place oneself in the middle of the road and to gaze intently along its length, the church’s windows, lit for evening service and hundreds of yards distant, would remain the brightest lights to be seen.
It was on just such an evening as this, in the few hours before Christmas Eve, that Mr. James, for such was the name of the man who lived in the cottage by the church, left his house and took a walk down Montague Road. He carried no baggage, though he was dressed in a woollen coat and decked with hat and scarf, for it was also a chill evening, drenched in mist of the sort that stirs about one like a liquid and leaves every surface it moves upon quite damp.
The road itself had quieted considerably since the earlier bustle of shoppers which the day had witnessed. Shops were beginning to close up as the last of the crowds moved away.
Yet, as Mr. James made his slow and methodical way along the road, more and more people seemed to throng the darkened street. They were all dressed darkly and seemed to move effortlessly, wending their way through the banks of mist. Each and every one followed in the wake of Mr. James, and they moved in and out of the scant light afforded by the streetlamps and fairy lights, so that each appeared like something only glimpsed from the corner of the eye.
The old man only visited some two or three shops along his way, buying for himself supplies for a modest Christmas lunch and a book to wile away the hours and a small bunch of flowers, the last available in the florist’s. He nodded to the few people with whom he was faintly acquainted, and tipped his hat to all of the older ladies that he passed.
All along the road, the dark figures followed Mr. James as he bustled back towards his home, his purchases tucked safely underneath one arm. Many other villagers abroad that evening tutted at the unforeseen crowds, some apologised as they almost bumped into them, others exclaimed sharply when surprised at unexpectedly finding another so close at hand. For the length of Montague Road, shoppers weaved between the shadowy pedestrians, brows were furrowed in consternation and many later exclaimed to their families at how the Christmas crowds seemed to get worse with every year.
Eventually, his meagre errands achieved, Mr. James headed homewards and the streets grew less populous. The last few shoppers looked around in small surprise at the deserted street, and the lights seemed to glow barely brighter for a while.
Mr. James reached his front door, opening it with a brass key, and entered into the warmth of his blazing hearth. He shut the door behind him and locked it again as the crowds of followers reached his doorstep and deviated around the squat cottage likes waves breaking upon a boulder on a beach.
They walked on, in their strange and listless way, past the house and into the churchyard beyond. Some walked in front of the brightly-lit church windows and dissipated there; others passed behind tombs and mausoleums, yet did not emerge from the other side; yet more seemed almost to sink into the misted ground, as if there might be a hidden staircase leading down into the depths, or that they stood stock still upon the deck of a sinking ship.
So it went on, this thinning of the crowd, until one lone figure was left quite alone, to stand outside a back window of the cottage. The strange shape did not move, but remained there, staring quite blankly into the darkened room.
Mr. James placed his book upon the arm of a chair beside the fireplace, then went into the kitchen to store his groceries. This done, he removed his coat and scarf and laid them neatly across the back of a dining chair, with his hat on top. The small bunch of flowers he took into his bedroom and placed into a vase prepared there, on a dresser beneath the window. Also upon the dresser was a candle, and this he lit with a single match. His reflection in the window glass looked down at him as he did so. This done, Mr. James looked up at his reflection, which wavered in the fluttering light of the candle flame. Despite the chill which he knew was outside, he reached across and undid the window catch and pushed open the window to the night.
In tales of this sort there is traditionally a need for melodrama and resolution, or a twist of some kind, but this tale must be reported, and ended, as truthfully as it happened, without authorial embellishment of any sort.
The way it is told is that Mr. James opened the window to the churchyard and there was nothing outside but dark, and mist, and the dismal chill of the evening air.
And then, after the candle guttered and was extinguished in a sudden and unforeseen breeze from the graveyard, a breeze that may well have sounded like the breath of a sigh, what may happen afterwards is for you to decide as you must.