Chapter 1 by Lois Harbinson
The storm breaks just before midnight. Nick's face has been punched by hot, angry gusts of wind since he turned off the main road on his way back from a party and now thunder echoes round the hills. He is unfamiliar with the dark of country roads and the tiny speck of light from the torch on his key ring died ten minutes ago. The sky cracks open with a vicious light and slow, heavy rain falls, then gathers speed and weight until he feels hammered to the ground, hair plastered to his head, shirt fused to his body. He is no longer sure where he is. The next flash lights the earth for several seconds of stuttering neon and illuminates glistening roof tiles through the trees. He turns up a wide track, hoping for shelter. The track, deeply rutted and running with water, brings him to a five-bar gate and then to a small white one set in low railings. He pushes it and walks up a flagstone path towards a large building. The neon flares again and briefly lights the squat tower of a church, seemingly in the middle of a field. Balls of lightning ricochet round the churchyard, hovering and flickering over tilted tombstones. The porch gapes bleakly but at least offers sanctuary. Nick creeps inside and leans shivering against the wall.
A voice comes out of the blackness.
"Ah, you'm come then."
Nick spins round and steps quickly back into the rain. He grips the cold stone and peers into the dark.
"Allus a good place to shelter, a church porch," the voice continues calmly. "Plenty o' room inside."
Nick resumes his position.
"You were caught out too," he says, struggling to speak steadily.
"No, I got here first. I knew she were comin'."
A match sparks at the back of the porch and Nick sees a lined, weathered face and sharp eyes glinting under the brim of a baseball cap. The match goes out.
"You want to wait awhiles," the man advises. "She's some energy in 'er yet."
"Right," says Nick, "I'm not sure where I am anyway."
"Hornblotton Church," the man informs him. "You'm not far from home."
Nick wonders how he knows.
"I don't fancy going out there anyway at the moment. The lightning seems trapped between the gravestones."
"No," the man replies. "It's Punkies."
"What?" Nick laughs.
"Punkies," the man repeats. "They do say as how they're the souls of unbaptised children, wandering till Doomsday. Mostly you'll see them on Midsummer's Eve, and sometimes during a storm."
"Right," says Nick politely, "and what do they look like?"
"Who knows? I've heard they'm like great white moths."
Nick lets it go and stands silently watching the rain bounce off the graves.
At last it slackens and the rumbles of thunder fade into the distance.
"You can go now," the man says, dismissing him. "Down to the end of the track, then left and follow yer nose. 'Tis just five minutes."
Nick, unnerved by the man's uncanny knowledge, murmurs his thanks and dives out of the porch. He swerves to avoid the ball of light that is, apparently, a Punky, catches his foot on a knot of grass and crashes in to the sludge of a grave, his head narrowly missing the stone cross. His mobile, clutched as always in his left hand, slips from his grasp. He is immediately lifted and set on his feet. Yet the man stands no higher than Nick's shoulder, his face shadowed by the cap.
"There's a pity," he says, wiping the mobile on the inside of his long coat and handing it back. "I think it's gone inside. You'll have to watch that. Be seeing yer."
He walks off and vanishes behind a yew tree.