SCUBA editor, Simon Rogerson, provides us with a spooky scuba short story to entertain you this Halloween. Grab a candle, a blanket and some popcorn and dive in...
Even today, there are places where the distant past casts a shadow on the present, and in doing so becomes something tangible. Superficially these areas appear mundane, but modern streets and houses give way to the timeless canvas of fields and woodland, where secrets endure. You don’t have to wander far before finding yourself in a world where history roils below the surface, looking for a way to break through.
Such locations are not wholly protected from the indignities of the 21st Century. Sometimes they come to the attention of men such as the sports publicist and property speculator Marcus Knight, whose mastery of social media had propelled him to minor celebrity, and a not-so-minor fortune. It was during one of his publicity-driven triathlon events that Knight cycled through a certain village in the North Wessex Downs, realising instinctively its potential for exploitation.
It may have been a nondescript parish, but Knight had identified an amenable planning committee and demand for the type of utilitarian housing that turns a profit. Soon after that first visit, he put in an offer on a 17th Century manor house just outside the village, together with 100 acres of associated land and a lake.
His plan was to divide the house into apartments, then build his housing estate on the adjacent hillside. It was a sweet deal, the only sour note being a clause that obliged him to hire a local family who had supposedly tended the land for generations. Knight disliked obligations of this sort, preferring to hire his own people. However, the inconvenience amounted to little, given the profits that beckoned.
A week after the purchase was confirmed, Knight drove to the country to survey his acquisition and move a few personal items into the house. He planned to use the place as his personal country retreat until work began in earnest, and looked forward to playing Lord of the Manor.
It was, however, with an air of unease that he strode out to take stock of the property. The estate was drenched after a spell of relentless rain; heavy clouds still hung low over the countryside. He made his way along an avenue of sodden lawn that led from the house to an expanse of slate grey water – the manor’s less than ornamental, reed-choked lake.
Two figures were waiting by the water’s edge, regarding him impassively as he approached. “Welcome to the manor sir,” the smaller man said, without sounding especially welcoming. “You’ll find we won’t be troubling you much. We know this land well. Been looking after it a long time.”
As they spoke, Knight registered an acrid smell that seemed to be coming from the lake. He hoped it would quickly fade, but the longer he stood there exchanging bland pleasantries, the more pungent it became. Eventually, he felt compelled to mention it.
“Don’t smell anything myself sir,” the man commented, sniffing the air with comic exaggeration while his silent colleague frowned dismissively. “Suppose we’re used to everything 'round here. Lots of odd smells in the country, sir.”
The air was still, but as Knight glanced across the water he saw a shimmer on the far side, as if a shoal of fish were being harried by some unseen predator. The silent wave traversed the lake in seconds, heading towards the jetty where Knight and the men were standing. He felt a flash of searing energy as the ripples hit the bank, as if the water itself had screamed at him. Determined not to show weakness, Knight gathered his senses and gestured at the lake, trying to deflect his unease. “Are there fish in there?” he managed to blurt.
“Some chub and tench, sir. Saw a big ol’ pike once. That’s all. It’s not really a place for living things.”
As afternoon bled into evening, Knight dwelled on the exchange, unsettled by his new employees and their sly insolence. He returned to the lake, only to find the pair of them lingering there, making a bonfire of their day’s clearing. The stench was still coming from the lake, but when he asked them again there was the same routine – shrugged shoulders, blank looks, denial.
The issue was still troubling him as he drove into town to sign some insurance papers with the local lawyer, Shona Chatterton, a tweedy, academic type in her sixties, but undeniably knowledgeable on estate matters.
“The lake in the upper field? Oh, I wouldn’t go anywhere near that,” she said, peering over her glasses. “You’ll find it’s quite practical, in terms of irrigation and so forth. But the locals won’t brook any tampering with it. That part of the estate was common land back in the 17th Century. The villagers used to water their cattle and sheep there, and it never ran dry – not even during the most severe droughts.”
“All very well for medieval times, but today it stinks,” said Knight. “If we’re going to build on this land it needs to be drained. As a feature, it has no redeeming features. Are there even any fish in there? The water’s so dark I can’t tell.”
“I don’t know about fish,” Chatterton said. “But I do know that a witch – or at least someone accused of witchcraft – was drowned there in the 1650s.” Knight let out a derisive snort, which the lawyer ignored with the stoical calm of one who is being paid for her time. Nevertheless, she had his attention.
“What exactly had she done, this woman? Game of Quidditch over the vicarage, was it?”
“It was rather an extreme sanction for such an unremarkable little parish,” Chatterton conceded. “Still, the historical record shows a systematic failure of crops, an unaccountable rise in mortality and... there were other phenomena. Children born with abnormalities; there was talk of a shadow that walked the village at night. That sort of thing.”
Despite himself, Knight was intrigued. “How did this woman end up in the lake?”
“By the time the matter concluded the parish was much depleted, many souls having moved to larger towns or simply disappeared,” Chatterton continued. “Finally, a forester said he had spied a woman praying to a dark figure in the woods. The villagers seized her and searched her house, finding the sort of paraphernalia typically associated with magic, dark or otherwise. Poor woman was probably just a healer. Every village had one in those days and their knowledge of herbs and natural remedies was valued by those who couldn’t afford a doctor.
“At any rate, there was no trial. Led by the local cleric, they dragged her to the upper field and cast her into the lake, but she returned to the surface amid what witnesses described as ‘a great disturbance of the water’ and floated there for some time, cursing the mob until they managed to get hold of her again. Heavy rocks were found, hastily inscribed with holy scripture and other writings. These were tied to the woman as the sun began to set. Then she was pitched into the lake a final time, weighed down with this makeshift net. That time she did not resurface.”
Knight grimaced. “Surely at some stage her body was retrieved from the water, what with the animals drinking there?”
“There is no record of the body ever being found. After a while, the land was incorporated into the private estate, but by then the villagers were staying well away from the lake. Its only subsequent mention on record was from the early 1960s, when it was cleared of weed and the contractor reported the presence of various rocks on an otherwise muddy lake bed. The site manager was visited by a delegation of locals who asked him not to remove the items, and he agreed. The feeling at the time was that there was little to be gained by provoking local sensibilities.”
For Knight, provoking local sensibilities sounded like good sport, and on his return from the solicitor’s office he began making plans to do just that.
He had been using the manor house to store his sports equipment, and of course, there were a few sets of scuba gear in there. He would dive into that lake himself to see if it was worth the effort of conserving, and if he found those stones he’d bring them to surface. The locals would despise him for it, but he wanted them to understand they were finally entering the modern world. With any luck, they may even quit their jobs.
Six days later, Knight was ready. His scuba kit had been carted to the wooden jetty by the unsmiling estate staff, while he made his way to the lake wearing a swimmer’s wetsuit, barefoot on the moist grass.
Knight’s need for a captive audience had resulted in the lawyer, Chatterton, being instructed to attend alongside the two men. She radiated matronly frustration as her client knelt to check his equipment. “Mr Knight, I recognise that your mind is set, however, I must advise that you abandon this needless stunt. There are longstanding sensibilities at play, and in any case, it is dangerous to enter the water alone. There are all manner of hazards below the surface.”
Knight looked back the fading baroque facade of the house, then at the line of trees either side of the grass avenue, their upper branches reddened by the afternoon sunlight. He had considered the issue of diving without a partner but decided that there was no-one with whom he was willing to share the limelight.
Nevertheless, he had contrived a safety device, in the form of a long coil of rope. The two men listened as Knight set out his improvised safety plan. Having explained the system three times to a reception of blank looks, Knight decided a truncated version would serve best. “Look, just keep feeding out the line and if you feel a series of sharp tugs on the rope, get me out of there – right?” They turned to look at each other, nodded their assent.
The sudden cold on entering the water came as a shock, though Knight had anticipated his thin-but-photogenic triathlon wetsuit would offer scant protection. He turned around to signal that all was well to the three figures watching from the jetty, but couldn’t discern any response other than the lawyer shrugging her shoulders. He was on his own.
He descended, the chill tightening its grip. If anything, the water was clearer than he had anticipated, but devoid of light below the first few metres. He turned on his torch and a powerful beam issued from it, fading into nothing after a couple of metres. Then, the bottom appeared; dull and silty with a thin layer of dead leaves.
Knight panned the light across what he took to be the remains of previous jetties, each left to rot at the bottom whenever a new one was constructed. Then, a flicker of shadow just beyond the torch beam, and Knight knew he was not alone. The lake really did support life, in the form of the pike the estate worker had mentioned. Two of the monstrous fish patrolled around Knight like guard dogs, keeping their distance while fixing him with a steely gaze. For a while he followed them with his torch until their forms receded into the darkness and he was alone again.
The underwater light, supposedly the best available, seemed to be losing its battle with the inky water. Far from brutally lighting a wide area, as it had on his tropical dives, the light only cut a few metres into the oppressive darkness. Increasingly, his attention was drawn to that same blackness; it seemed as if something was constantly waiting to be found just beyond the meagre arc of light. He couldn’t decide if the shapes he was seeing were shadows of the old jetties, or patterns conjured by his imagination. His thoughts zoomed in and out like a lens with nothing to focus on, save the cold and the unimaginable void beyond the slowly failing light.
Knight tried to ground himself by focussing on his senses, embracing the cold in the hope that any input would lift him from the miasma. He looked up, trying to make sense of the crazy backscatter thrown up by his wayward fins. It was like driving in thick fog, his light reflected back at him by a myriad tiny points of light.
He could hear his regulator rasping as he gulped down gas without looking at his gauge to see how much remained. He had worse things to worry about. Eyes wide behind his mask, he became aware of a shadow forming in the water, a barely definable presence. It wasn’t clear whether the thing was masked by the darkness, or part of it. For a moment, Knight was transfixed, too scared to move. The apparition was shadow within shadow, a being that could be sensed, but not seen by any sane mind.
Somehow, he gathered his senses and swam away as fast as he could, back towards the jetty. After a while, his breathing began to settle and he made a decision to ascend – something had stopped him from trying to go up previously, as if being mid-water would make him more vulnerable. He would let the workers enjoy their little victory, but later he would have the lake drained and filled in with concrete; he would move back to London and stay there forever. Forget the triathlons; he was done with swimming in lakes.
But then, his torch chanced on a grouping of stones on the lake bed, just beyond the fallen stanchions. There were about a dozen of the rocks, mostly the size of house bricks, save for one that was significantly larger. Knight moved over to the large stone and rubbed away some of the obscuring debris.
The stone itself was the sort of rock you’d find in any ploughed field, though it seemed unusually smooth, as if it had come from a river. More unusual were the inscriptions it bore, a series of indecipherable glyphs and runic figures.
Something terrible had happened here, tainting the water with a presence he couldn’t rationalise. Still, his discovery was surely important. All he had to do was get the stone to the surface. He cursed his lack of foresight in failing to bring a lifting bag, and decided that the only way he could get that rock to the surface was by ditching his fins and carrying it through the silt to the shallows, like a diver in standard dress.
He bent down, checking the safety rope was still secure around his midriff, cupping the rock with both hands. It was heavier than it looked, and Knight’s feet began to sink into the substrate as he struggled to gain purchase. Clammy mud began to envelop his ankles, but finally, the rock parted, causing a curtain of particles to explode into the water.
For a moment, the swirling debris looked strangely beautiful, like a storm in miniature. But everything was wrong – instead of starting to settle, the dance of particles and bubbles grew increasingly chaotic and enveloped Knight in its vortex. The lake was alive around him, a predator that had not fed for centuries. Now it was awake, and it was hungry.
It was as if a thousand little rat eyes were leering at him through the blizzard of particles. Knight could feel a terrible gravity, and knew no force on Earth would ever allow him to rise those precious few metres to the surface. Something was escaping the lake, and he had been chosen to take its place.
Still, there was a final hope. Summoning his ragged senses, he took hold of the rope and pulled at it in desperation, hoping the men would drag him to safety. He looked up through layers of water and he could make out the end of the jetty through the shimmering window of the surface. Perhaps it was a distortion caused by the water, but Knight was convinced he could see four figures gazing down at him.
He clutched the rope to send a second plea for extraction, but his attention was caught by a serpentine motion nearby. Panic gave way to horror as Knight realised he was looking at the length of the safety rope forming coils as it gathered on the seabed, discarded. The faces looked down a moment longer, then disappeared. At last, Knight understood that he was becoming a part of the cursed water. He was trapped in liquid limbo, in an unremarkable part of the English countryside where, from time to time, the past invades the present.
The final vestiges of sentience were escaping him as he glimpsed the side of the rock that had been hidden in the silt. There, in letters as legible as the day they were carved, were the words: ‘Hic requiem in nomine Domini’. And here he would rest, finally Lord of the Manor.
Underwater fact or fiction? Enter to win!
Throughout 2020, SCUBA has been running a creative writing competition for the chance to win an O'Three drysuit! They are looking for a 350-400 word story, fact or fiction, that involves diving and/or the underwater world. Has this story inspired you? Find out how to enter online!