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The Veil


A village history in West Sussex

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By James Woodcock

Jason Tanner had tried to talk to Matron about what had been happening to him, to explain to her the evil that had plagued him night after night. She told him that it was just a bad dream, and he should forget about it. But the evil still appeared at his bedside every night, taunting him for being a coward. He couldn't take any more.

Shaking with fear and sobbing with guilt, Jason slowly placed the rope around his skinny neck and pulled it tight.

Then he stepped off the chair.

The stone walls that surrounded Westbourne workhouse stood over ten feet tall. It was like a prison. But even though you weren't held captive you still wouldn't leave. At least inside the workhouse you were given food to eat and water to drink. Some of the inmates didn't even have that on the outside. For them, living in the workhouse was a matter of life or death.

The dinner hall was packed today. The mouldy smell of yesterday’s gruel hung thick in the air. Fourteen year-old Danny Johnstone joined the queue of boys pushing and shoving for a place to sit. The desperation on the children’s faces matched the grey sack-cloth uniform they all wore. Each boy picked up an empty bowl and found a seat, Danny didn't mind waiting he was in no rush.

Danny sat down and gazed at the bowl of colourless slop before him. It looked like vomit. He pushed his bowl away in disgust. “I’m getting sick of this bloody food.”

“Don’t you want yours then mate?” Jack replied.

“Don’t you dare.”

“Alright Danny, calm down I was only joking.”

Danny checked his food again. It hadn’t changed into a piece of steak but his stomach still rumbled painfully in anticipation. Resentfully, Danny dipped his chunk of stale bread into the gruel and shoved it in his mouth. He grimaced. It had absolutely no taste at all.

“If I don't get some meat in me soon, Jack, I'll starve to death.”

A large boy called Grub sat opposite stood up and grabbed at his crotch. “I got some meat for ya Danny boy.”

“Silence in the dinner hall!”

It was Ferndale.

Master Ferndale was a huge barrel of a man. His black beard and long red coat gave him the appearance of a pirate, and his rum-stained breath only added to the image. Ferndale had ruled the workhouse under a cloud of violence for nearly ten years. He was a man you didn't mess with, unless you fancied a beating that is.

“I’m telling ya,” Danny whispered. “I’m gonna smack that Grub one of these days.”

Grub stood up. “I fucking heard that!”

The hall went silent. Master Ferndale marched down the dinner hall towards the three boys, his cane raised in the air ready to strike.

“I will have no swearing in my dinner hall!” Ferndale smacked the cane down hard across the back of Grub's neck.

Danny winced.

But Grub didn’t even flinch. He stood up and locked eyes with Ferndale, a slight grin across his face.

Ferndale drew his cane back again.

“Go on then, do it!” Grub said.

The cane remained frozen in mid air. Then slowly Ferndale brought it back down. Then he pulled a bottle of brandy from his coat pocket, took a huge swig and stomped out of the hall.

Grub smiled, sat back down and finished his food.

The stench in the bone shed was overwhelming this morning. It was so bad it made Danny retch. The meat left on the bones would rot, making the place smell like an abattoir on a hot day. The finely ground bone dust got all over your clothes and in your hair, making you smell like a dead pig. Danny hated working the bones. “I’ve been on this job all week,” he said.

“What do they do with this stuff anyway?”

“God knows, mate,” a small boy called Shane answered.

Danny grabbed a large bone from the pile and examined it up close. “I thought these were supposed to be animal bones?”

“Let’s have a look.”

“This one’s well suspect; look at the size of it.”

“Hmm, it is pretty big.”

“That’s a human leg bone, that is,” Danny said.

“Nah, I reckon it must be an horses leg or something. There aint no human bones in here.”

“I dunno, Shane. Ferndale’s an evil bastard, I wouldn't put anything past him.”

Danny chucked the bone back on the pile and got back to work. He only had another ten hours to go, and then he could finally get some rest.

The sleeping quarters in the workhouse were horrible. Iron beds lined the outside of each dormitory and each bed was covered with a hard, lumpy mattress. Sometimes you could even see bedbugs crawling from underneath the stained sheets.

Danny couldn’t sleep. He lay in his bed watching Matron Ferndale. She was a kind lady, always there to help you if you needed a hug or something. She reminded him of his mum. Danny hadn’t seen his mum in ages. Fresh tears welled up in his eyes. He called out to the Matron but she had already left.

Danny lay back down and closed his eyes, desperate for sleep to take him away, but every time he felt himself drifting off something would wake him. He clenched his teeth and curled himself into a ball, said a prayer and closed his eyes.

Danny awoke with a start. Had he actually been asleep? He pulled his sheet back over himself, and it wasn’t long before he felt the warm touch of sleep begging him to return.

He jolted awake.

His sheet had been yanked from his bed and dumped on the floor. “Go back to bed, Jack,” Danny moaned.

He lay back down and got comfortable.

The sheet was pulled off again. “I mean it now, whoever keeps--

“Hello Danny.”

Danny scrambled up to his headboard, pushing himself away from the dark, hooded figure that towered over him. It had no face and it stunk like rank fruit. “Please don’t hurt me.”

“I’m not going to hurt you, Danny.”

“Who are you? What do you want?”

“You called for help--” the dark shape opened its arms “--so here I am.”

“I didn’t call anyone,” Danny cried. “Just go away, and leave me alone.”

“If that’s what you want Danny.” The hooded figure turned and walked away.

Or did it float?

Just before the figure reached the door it turned back. “I’ll just tell your poor mother that you didn’t even want to see her.”

Danny sat up. “What do you know about my mum?”

The figure glided closer. “I know that she’s alive Danny and if you want to see her again I suggest you start listening.”

“Okay I’ll listen.”

The figure moved closer still.

“I want souls, Danny.”

Danny woke up the next morning feeling better than he had in ages. The morning sun had washed the fear he had felt last night and an optimistic glow warmed his empty belly. Things were going to change soon; he could feel it in his bones. Finally he was going to see his mum and he couldn’t wait.

But there was something else. A single word spun round inside Danny’s head and every now and then it would creep out of his subconscious and take a bite out of his good mood.


The bell sounded for the start of breakfast and Danny joined the crowd of boys stampeding down to the dinner hall, hungry and desperate for their paltry meal.

“You’re looking chirpy today, Danny,” Jack said, joining the queue.

“Yeah, I feel great.”

“Why? What’s happened?”

“I can’t say, Jack.”

“What do you mean, you can’t say?”

“Look I’m sorry. I just can’t”

Jack picked up an empty bowl. “Come on, Danny. I thought we were mates?”

Danny stopped. “All right, but if you dare tell anyone…”

“I’m gonna see my mum.”

The serving lady plunged her ladle into the massive pot of gruel--it made a sucking sound as she scooped it up and slopped it into Jack’s bowl.

“Sausage, bacon and egg’s please,” Danny said.

The tall woman slapped the mess into Danny’s bowl and told him to move along.

The two boys walked to the dinner table. “I haven’t seen her before,” Danny said. “What’s happened to Matron?”

“Dunno mate, maybe she’s ill.”

After they ate breakfast, the whole room filed out for roll call. Each boy would be given a job to do. Some of them were lucky and got to pick ropes or work with the tailor, others...

“Daniel Johnstone... Bone yard!”

“For God’s sake!” Danny shouted. “Why do I always have to do the bones? I done it yesterday, I don’t see why I should”

“Just do as you’re told, Danny.” It was Matron Ferndale.

Danny felt a wave of happiness and relief wash over him. He smiled and turned around. “Hello Miss--

His smile faded. The matron’s face was a mess. Her lips were swollen, her eyes blackened, and Danny was sure he could see dry blood in her hair.

“What happened, Miss?” Danny said. “Are you okay?” “It’s none of your business. Just go to work.” “Who did this to you?” “Danny! I won't tell you again. Now get to work!” “But Miss--

“Please Danny, if Master Ferndale sees you arguing, he'll cane you till you bleed.” She touched Danny’s cheek. “Just go to work.”

Danny walked away. His blood felt like a raging fire, longing to erupt out of his skin. He couldn’t breathe. Danny fell to the floor. People crowded around him. He looked up but all he could see were blurred faces, mouths opening and closing in silent terror. He couldn’t take it anymore. An almighty scream ripped from Danny’s throat, echoing round the hallway. He stood up. The people surrounding him backed away; he stared at each face in turn.

Were they ... scared of him?

The bone yard was extra rank today. The sickly sweet smell of rotting flesh was overpowering, and to make things worse, Danny had to put up with Grub’s shit all day.

“So when are you and Jack getting married then?” Grub said.

“Very funny.”

Grub smiled. “I’m a funny man.”

Danny wasn’t in the mood. Matron Ferndale’s battered face kept flashing into his mind. How could someone do such a thing? It was obviously Ferndale. Why she even married him in the first place--

Grub shoved Danny in the back.

“Oi, stop slacking and do some work.”

Danny lifted up the iron bone crusher and let it swing back down with a heavy thud. He repeated the motion over and over again until all that was left was a fine powder. “So what’s this I hear about you seeing your mum?”

Danny froze. Jack just couldn’t keep his mouth shut could he? “Yeah, and what’s it got to do with you?”

“You’re not going anywhere, mate,” Grub laughed. “You’re stuck here forever, just like the rest of us.”

“No I’m not. I gonna see my mum soon, you just wait.”

“I doubt it,” Grub said. “She’s probably dead.”

Danny felt his body go rigid. He tightened his hands into fists. His breathing became shallow. He was losing control again.

“Ahh... little Danny lost his mum.”

Danny swung his fist into Grub’s face, knocking him back against the wall. Then he took hold of Grub’s head and butted him in the face. Grub fell to floor pleading. But Danny wasn’t listening. He stared at the bone crusher, then looked back at Grub’s broken face. Danny smiled. He placed his arm around Grub’s neck and dragged him across the dusty yard towards the crusher. A single word pulsed in his head.

Danny slammed Grub's head into the crusher, lifted up the large machine as high as he could.

He stopped. A wave of clarity washed over him. What am I doing? A cold voice drifted into his head. ‘You can do this, Danny. Remember, your mum is waiting for you.’

Danny let the crusher fall. The iron tool slammed down, shattering Grub’s skull like a melon. He stood back and stared at Grub’s lifeless form. “What the hell have I done?”

“You did well, Danny.”

Danny looked round to see the dark man, looming in the corner of the yard.

“Leave me alone!”

“I entrusted you with an important task Danny, and you have succeeded.”

Danny kept his face hidden. “I want to see my mum now.”

“You will see her soon enough.” The dark figure hesitated. “I just need one more.”

“No! I can’t do it again. I’ll get taken away and put in prison. Then I'll never see my mum again.”

“I won’t let it happen Danny. I have the power to stop these people. But I need your help.” The veiled form walked away.

“Just one more soul, Danny boy.”

Alison Ferndale burst out of her office.

“Everything all right, Matron?”

“Miss Reid, I want you to contact the police immediately.”

“The police? What’s happened?”

Alison ran off down the corridor. “Just do it!” She burst through the wooden gates into the bone yard and instantly recoiled. There was blood everywhere. It covered the floor, the walls and there was a large pool under the crushing machine.

Alison saw a body. “Danny?”

She moved over to the corpse.

Peter Grub lay in a crumpled heap, his head crushed to a pulp. Blood and grey matter seeped from a huge crack in the side of his skull. Alison vomited.

Then she heard a whimper. “Danny? Is that you?”

The crying stopped.


Daniel Johnstone slowly rose from behind a large wooden box. “I didn’t mean to do it, Miss.”

“It’s okay, Danny. Just tell me what happened.”

“He made me do it.”

Alison’s heart sank. “Who made you?”

Danny looked away. “I can’t say, Miss.”

“Please Danny, just tell me who made you do this.”

Danny looked behind him. “The Dark One.”

She’d heard this name before. A long time ago, a young boy, one of their first residents, had terrible nightmares. He spoke of a dark man coming to him in the night. No one believed him. Not even her.

The boy killed himself in the laundry room.

“Danny it was just a dream. He isn’t real.”

“But he said he I could see my mum.”

Alison went cold. “I’m so sorry, Danny,” she said. “But your mother is dead.”

Danny shook his head. “You’re lying.”

“Your mother died about a month ago,” Alison said, trying to hold back her tears. “I should have told you, Danny, but Master Ferndale--

“You’re lying.”

“I'm sorry, Danny.”

Danny moved towards her. She backed away. “No, Danny, I--

“You're all liars!”

He grabbed her round the throat.

“Please, Danny, don’t do this.”

“You're the last soul!”

Alison tried to scream for help but she had no breath.

The Dark One never returned to Danny after that violent day in the bone yard. In fact, Danny wasn’t sure that he had existed at all. Later that day the police came and took Danny away. He’d put up a good struggle but the police soon overpowered him. He had screamed and screamed to see his mum, but no one listened.

Why doesn’t anyone ever listen?

The police confirmed to him that his mum had died, but he refused to believe them. In the end they had to show him the death certificate as proof. Danny was devastated. It had all been a lie. He didn’t bother trying to explain to the police why he had killed those innocent people. There was no point. No one would believe him. He didn’t even believe himself.

Alone in his cell, Danny stood on a chair and threw the makeshift rope over the rafter. He’d tied a strong knot, but he gave it a sharp tug just in case.

Alone in his cell, Danny stood on a chair and threw the makeshift rope over the rafter. He’d tied a strong knot, but he gave it a sharp tug just in case.

Shaking with fear and sobbing with guilt, Danny placed the rope around his skinny neck.

“Goodbye, mum.”

He stepped off the chair.

John Ferndale sat in his office.

It was his wife’s funeral today, but he wasn’t sure he could face it, to see everyone staring at him. Accusing him.

There was a knock at the door. “Come in.”

Miss Reid entered the room. “Master Ferndale, the funeral car is here.”

John took a deep breath. “I won’t be long. I just need to get my coat.”

John Ferndale stood up and walked over to his private wardrobe. He pulled out a set of keys from his suit pocket, unlocked the large padlock and opened the doors.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, he thought.

Inside the wardrobe hung a long black cowl, complete with a black mask, made of finest silk. The veiled costume seemed so innocent in the dark confines of the closet.

He reached in and took out the silken mask. It felt so soft in his hands. John Ferndale raised the mask to his face and pressed its smooth texture across his skin. He walked over to the fireplace and laid the costume in the empty grate. Then he took out a box of matches and struck one.

John Ferndale watched the flame burn down slowly.

Then he blew it out.  

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