The Shadow Garden
1 The Story
In the old days they used to tell stories like this in winter, with night and frost black and white in the windows, and a cold wind moaning in the tops of the chimney pots. This is the sort of story that makes people turn on more lights to chase the shadows from dark corners. It's my story.
It happened a long time ago when I was young and not shrivelled up like an old apple as I am now. The world was different then, slower. There were no televisions or radios; a car was a rare sight and a rattling, clattering sound.
Here's a photograph taken outside the schoolhouse in Little Harding, the village where I was born and brought up. There I am, first on the left in the back row – Matilda Brand. Only no one ever called me "Matilda", I've always been "Matty". If you look closely, you can make out my wide eyes, turned-up nose and mousey hair. I'm not tall or short, not fat or thin, not pretty or plain – ordinary, that's me. The woman on the end there, with a face like she's got something that smells bad stuck to her top lip, is the teacher, Mrs. Ellerby. She wasn't nearly as stern as the photograph makes her seem.
I remember the day it was taken; I remember lots of things. In many ways the past is clearer to me now than the present is, especially on nights when the dreams come.
The dreams are making me tell the story. I hope that once it's told, the dreams will stop.
2 The Gift
I've always seen things that other people can't see. Ma once told me it was because I was born on a Sunday when decent folk were at church, but I think it's something older than churches, something as old as stone, that looks out at the world through my eyes. Of course, at first I thought I was the same as everybody else.
If I ever talked about the things that I'd seen, people would laugh and say it was no more than childish nonsense. But when I was six, I discovered that I was different, and I began to understand what I was seeing.
That summer on a baking hot day, Ma and I were walking through the village. I can't remember where we were going, but I remember the way we went – along Brook Lane, and onto Church Road, past St. Stephen's. It was hot and the air shivered so that the stones in the churchyard wall seemed to be dancing. I heard someone chanting, turned my head to look and saw a small group of people gathered around a freshly dug grave. Reverend Turlip was doing the chanting, and he held an opened prayer book in his hands.
"What are those people doing?" I asked Ma.
"That's poor Sammy Byers's funeral," Ma said in a low voice.
I frowned. "Sammy from down Mill Way?"
Ma nodded. "He took a fever the doctor couldn't do nothing for, and they're burying him today."
A laugh came shooting out of me like sparks flying up from a bonfire.
Ma's eyes went wide and round. "What are you laughing at, Matty, you wicked girl?" she demanded.
It was hard to laugh and talk at the same time. My voice gurgled as I said, "Sammy's playing a trick. He can't be buried because he's not dead!"
There was thunder in Ma's face, and it rolled away my laughter. She caught me by the arm and said, "What d'you mean, he's not dead?"
"He's standing over there," I said, pointing. I could see him plain as plain, standing in the shadow of the big yew tree near the churchyard gate. His straw-coloured hair stuck out all over the place and his face was pale. He wrung his hands together and hopped from foot to foot as if he needed to pee. Then he noticed that I was staring at him, and he stared back. The darkness of his eyes made me shudder and a weariness crept over me, as if my strength was running out through my feet.
"Are you sure it's Sammy?" said Ma.
"Certain sure!" I said.
By now I was frightened. The tightness of Ma's grip on my arm told me that I was in trouble, though I didn't know what for, and I was so tired I thought I might drop down in a faint.
"Don't you ever tell no one you saw him, hear me?" said Ma, hissing like a cat. "Not ever!" She yanked my arm and dragged me down Church Road.
"What is it, Ma?" I wailed. "Why are you so vexed with me?"
Ma said nothing until we were well clear of
St. Stephen's. She marched me to the wooden bench at the edge of the Green, plonked me down and sat beside me. I felt better now that I'd left Sammy behind me, and resting on the bench soon brought my energy back.
"You've got a thing that makes you special, Matty," Ma said, "but you'd best keep it a secret."
"What thing?" I said.
"It's what you did when you saw Sammy in the churchyard," said Ma. "Not many see the way you do, and most people would be scared of you if they knew you could do it."
"Scared of me?" I said. "But I'm only a pennyworth of nothing!"
Ma shook her head. "You see the departed, Matty," she said. "Them as is waiting to cross over to the other side."
"The other side of what?"
"Life and death," Ma said. "When someone dies sudden-like, there's a part of them that doesn't want to leave this life. They walk about where they used to walk, pretending there's nothing wrong."
"Like...ghosts?" I whispered, and saying it sent a shiver through my blood.
"Just like ghosts," said Ma. "You've got the gift of seeing them and you must keep it to yourself – unless you want to be called a witch."
"I'm no witch!" I spluttered.
"Ah, you may know that and I may know it, but others don't," said Ma.
I glanced down at my shadow on the ground and wiggled my fingers to make my shadow wave at me. "Can ghosts hurt me?" I said.
"Do no harm to them, and they'll do no harm to you," said Ma.
I'm sure that Ma really believed this and I believed it too, but in time I discovered that the relationship between the living and the dead wasn't quite so simple.
That wasn't the last I saw of Sammy Byers, not by a long chalk. Night after night I heard him sobbing outside our cottage. If I kneeled up in bed and peeped out of the window, I could see him looking at me with his lost eyes, whimpering and grizzling. At first I felt sorry for him, but as time went on he became a blessed nuisance. He wasn't the Sammy Byers that I'd known, just that part of a person that Ma had told me about, all hungry and lonely and not belonging anywhere. He couldn't hurt me, just like Ma had told me, but he made me tired. It was as if his spirit took strength from me so that he could stay in this world for a bit longer.
But my childish strength wasn't enough, and in the end Sammy wore out. He grew as thin and faint as the head of a king on an old coin, and one night he just wasn't there any more. I guessed that he'd crossed over and I was glad, glad for myself as well as him, because I could sleep in peace again.
So I learned to live with my seeing, and to keep my mouth shut about it. Ma had called it "the gift", but it seemed a funny sort of gift to me, one I hadn't asked for, and one that wouldn't work the way I wanted it to. For there was one ghost I longed to see but couldn't, no matter how hard I tried.
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Matty Brand can see the spirits of the dead, and when she moves to Tagram House with her mother, her psychic powers reveal that two murdered children haunt the house. Matty realises that she must untangle the mystery of their deaths, in order to prevent another murder from being committed. Matty's sixth sense tells her that Tagram House harbours a dark secret. Her fears lead her to the eerie Shadow Garden ... Like cold fingers reaching from the grave, a chilling atmosphere of mystery and suspense seeps through this haunting ghost story. Inspired by the classic ghost stories of M. R. James, "The Shadow Garden" is a compelling tale by a critically acclaimed author.
“I could hardly put it down!”
Ashley Mora (14) Sunday Herald
Read the following reviews or write one of your own.
This is definitely one amazing book, I have recommended it to so many people. I loved it, so so much.
“Matty can see ghosts, though her mother asks her to keep quiet about this particular talent, and she is haunted by two Italian children who lived in the house at one time. Were they killed? Is Catherine in danger? The nines-plus will enjoy this ghostly tale.”
Caroline Franklin, Newbury Weekly News
“I would highly recommend The Shadow Garden to anyone (girls in particular) as it is a very enjoyable read. In fact, I could hardly put it down!”
Ashley Mora (14), Sunday Herald
“Told in retrospect by Matty, the ghost story has a sense of sinister uneasiness from the outset. Matty's likeable character appeals to the reader and helps to draw them into the story. A loosely historical setting and the book's format with spooky writing, make this a classic ghost tale to entertain an older reader.”
Sarah Cheetham, Write Away!
“This is a highly atmospheric novel, firmly in the canon of the English ghost story tradition: a satisfying, gripping read with a truly alarming climax which would make a real coup de theatre on stage or screen and reminded me of another memorable scene in a novel, this time Bleak House. I thought it was great! ”
Dennis Hamley, School Librarian Journal