Patricia McBride - Runner up

Competition: Paranormal short story competition

Patricia has long experience of writing non-fiction and wrote her first novel three years ago. Wanting to improve her fiction writing she has recently completed the Masters in Professional Writing at Falmouth University. This is her first competition success.


Patricia McBride

Freeze Frame

I riffled through years worth of photos, my frown deepening. There, in every single photo of family events for over sixty years, was the same man. He was always wearing the same outfit; a tired brown suit and a trilby hat, yet no-one was ever looking at him. And he never got any older. Sometimes he’d be standing on his own and at other times, I could just make out his trilby over someone’s shoulder.
Clearing out a house is one of the many sad things you have to do when someone dies. Mum died ten years ago so I was the only one to help Dad with the chore. I’d sorted all Gramp’s belongings into piles, one for things to throw away, another for the charity shop. The smell of his Imperial Leather soap drifted up and I had to keep stopping to dry my eyes. Who said that real men don’t cry?
Going through his stuff felt like a violation of the man I knew and loved all my life. Mind you, he wasn’t perfect. Usually so kind and patient, he could suddenly flare up and terrify everyone around him. He’d lift a hand as if to strike the nearest person, but always stopped himself just in time. Perhaps our look of fear bought him to his senses. Often the anger appeared without cause. Maybe he had some brain damage or post traumatic stress from his military service.
When all the clothes from his wardrobe had been removed, I spotted a red box pushed in the back of the shelf above the hanging rail. As I reached for it, a cold draft surrounded me and dust motes swirled crazily, making me sneeze. I stopped and looked around, thinking I must have left a window open. The weather had changed while I’d been there and towering charcoal clouds dragged across the sky, while fingers of faint sunlight fanned between them like an old testament painting warning of God’s wrath.
The window was closed tight.
Baffled, I went to the door and looked over the banister, but the front door was closed and I knew I hadn’t unlocked the back door.
Pulling my sweatshirt closer round me I went back to the wardrobe and pulled the box towards me. It grated on the old wooden shelf like fingernails scraping a coffin lid. The box was unexpectedly heavy and I dropped it, the contents scattering all over the threadbare carpet. The noise was deafening in the still room.
I sat on the floor and began to pick up the photos to put them back in the box. They didn’t seem to be in any sort of order; photos of significant family events were jumbled with snaps of long forgotten scenery and pets. Many of the photos were yellow with age or blurred. Some had negatives with them, others not. A few pieces of paper had drifted under the bed and I reached under it to retrieve them, illogically snatching my hand back as quickly as I could.
As I stood up, I noticed something I’d never seen before; a sampler over the bed.
‘God’s Forgiveness is Merciful.’
A wooden cross stood on the bedside table. Strange, I’d always thought Gramps was a non-believer.
There were plenty of photos of Gramps. John Edward Robinson, the back of his photos proclaimed in an old fashioned hand. I realised I’d probably never know who wrote on them. That was another strange thing. There were photos of family weddings, funerals, picnics and parties, and on the back of each one someone had meticulously written the dates and names of everyone in the photos.
Everyone except Trilby Man.
Puzzled, I called Dad and arranged to go round with the photos. He’d been named after Gramps, but was known as Jack to avoid confusion. I’d been christened John too, but was known by my middle name of David, three generations called John would have been just too difficult. I realised looking at the photos that Dad was a double for Gramps. My earliest memories of Gramps were of him wrinkled and bald so I’d never spotted the likeness before. But people often commented on how alike Dad and I were. So that meant I must look like Gramps too. It’s like the female genes were missing in our looks altogether.
We sat at his dining table and spread the photos around; they covered the whole surface.
‘So what’s the problem, Dave?’ Dad asked, sipping a beer.
I pointed to Trilby Man in the most recent photo, although it was five years. ‘Do you know who that is?’
He peered at the photo closely.
‘No idea. I expect someone invited him though. Looks a bit old fashioned, doesn’t he?’
‘Look again dad, he’s in every single photo and he’s not named on any of them.’
He looked through about a dozen of the photos, then looked again.
‘That’s impossible. Everyone else has different clothes and got older. How can he be just the same? Could someone have messed about with the photos? People can do that now, can’t they?’
‘They can, but I’m sure these are original. Look how they’ve aged.’
Finding a negative strip that matched one of the Trilby Man photos I held it up to the light. I had a moment of brain freeze. I looked again and again between the photo and the negative. Then the hairs on the back of my neck rose as if someone ran a hand across my skin.
‘What is it?’ Dad asked.
I handed the photo and negative over. ‘Look, he’s on the photos, but not on the negative.’
‘Don’t be daft, boy!’ he said as he held them up to the light. But he soon repeated my actions, looking from one to the other, his eyes narrowing. He picked up a couple of other photos and studied them too.
‘I don’t understand it. He’s not in any of them.’
We spend an hour puzzling over the identify of Trilby Man but were no nearer an answer. Picking up the box I returned home, planning an early morning start next day to clearing the rest of Gramp’s stuff. But before I turned in I poured myself a whiskey and opened the box again. I remembered the bits of paper under the bed. There was a receipt for the hire of his wedding suit. There were a couple of postcards from my Aunt Gillian, dead years since. And there were two newspaper cuttings about a murder. Twenty three year old Tommy Grant had been stabbed and killed in a pub brawl. Police were looking for the murderer. The second cutting briefly said that the police were searching for the knife, believed to be a kitchen knife, but still no arrest was mentioned. I put them back in the box with the photos and headed for bed.
My dreams were fractured - stabbings, coffins and pecking crows invaded my sleeping brain, and I woke up several times in the night cold with sweat.
After breakfast I returned to my grandfather’s house. It stood forlorn, grass already forcing its way between the paving slabs. Creepers snaked towards the sky and the windows like soulless eyes staring unblinking as I got the key out of my pocket.
Carrying the red box, I went into the living room, then turned to go to the kitchen to make coffee. But a sound upstairs made me catch my breath. It sounded like a creaking floorboard, yet it wasn’t repeated so I put it down to a sleepless night and an overactive imagination. I made the coffee and was walking back through the hallway when the noise was repeated, louder this time. The cup shook in my hand, spilling coffee in to the saucer. I looked up and a shower of curling, browning newspaper cuttings drifted down the stairs.
I dumped the coffee down and grabbed a brass candlestick from the sideboard.
‘Hello!’ I called up the stairs, calling myself all sorts of fool. Any intruder was hardly likely to want to make conversation. I listened again. The creaking sounded higher up this time. I could feel sweat trickling down my back as I took the first stair.
Each step seemed like a mountain, the air thin as on Everest. Making myself take a deep breath, I crept up the stairs, walking on the edge of each step.
I searched the bedrooms and bathroom, but they were empty as a bird’s nest in winter. Then the sound came again, a loud creak definitely from the attic.
Or maybe it was a groan.
Tiptoeing along the landing, I pulled down the loft ladder.
‘Hello, anyone there?’
The only answer was another groan.
My heart beat like a runaway train. I climbed the ladder slowly, peering up at every step. Nothing.
Pulling myself onto the attic floor, I looked around. There was the usual remains of a long life spent in one house. All was quiet apart from the muffled rumble of traffic outside. Then, without warning, my grandmother’s old treadle sewing machine started up, the sound loud as an explosion. I jumped so violently I almost fell down the hatch. Breathing heavily, I made to step back on the ladder to escape, but just then a fierce gust of wind ran through the room, and a cloth was pulled off a full length mirror as if by an invisible hand.
Slowly, as if savouring the moment, a figure stepped out of the mirror. His shabby suit and trilby hat hadn't aged at all. And neither had he. The kitchen knife in his hand glinted although there was no sunlight in the room.
‘Hello, John,’ he said with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes, ‘Remember me, your old mate Tommy? I’ve been waiting such a long time for you. An eye for an eye is what I’ve always said.’
And knife held high, he lunged towards me.



Judges Comments

The idea of long-buried family secrets being brought (horribly) to life is at the centre of Patricia McBride's Freeze Frame, the runner up in our Paranormal Short Story competition. Patricia introduces her theme, and the story's mystery, in the first paragraph: who is the man in the trilby who keeps appearing in the photos, and what does this mean for our story? In the manner of the best thrillers, all the key questions have been raised, and the success of Freeze Frame is in the chiling tale that Patricia lays before her readers.

The discovery of a box of old photos while the narrator is clearing out his dead grandfather's house is an excellent device to bring home one of Patricia's themes: that we may be completely unaware of aspects of the lives of those closest to us. The repeated appearance of the unknown man in the photographs, coupled with the fact that three generations of Johns all look remarkly similar, gives the story its hint of the uncanny, and Patricia skilfully merges the elements of her story to create a very effective paranormal thriller.

With one key exception, all the elements of the story are well-judged and well-placed, so that the tension mounts with each convincing beat. It's well thought out and very well plotted, with the overall effect, leading up the reveal, being one of gathering suspense and the dawning realisation of the horrible backstory behind the motif of the recurring man in the photos.

The exception to this, and the element that slightly weakens what is otherwise a terrific piece of paranormal suspense, is the end of the story, where it's spelled out what the man in the trilby said and did. Although the words and images are highly coloured, the overall effect of the last two lines is to undermine the drama and tension of the story by making things obvious, and it might have been more creepily effective to cut it after the line 'I've been waiting for such a long time for you,' and leave the reader to imagine the full horror of what this implies.

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