Mark has had three novels published by Bloomsbury, and more recently two by Salt - TENDER and THE LAST WORD, which was shortlisted for the Portico Prize. His short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, and he was shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize. Mark’s also had three radio plays broadcast, and has written extensively for TV – including episodes of EastEnders, The Bill, Peak Practice and Emmerdale. He wrote the screenplay for Before Dawn, which won the Best Screenplay award at the Bram Stoker International Film Festival.
Mark’s now writing YA fiction. THE IMPOSSIBLE won a Northern Writers Award in 2015 and was published by Quercus in 2017. A sequel is due in 2018.
Mark has run many workshops at Arvon, in universities and schools and in Broadmoor secure hospital. He has given readings at festivals around the country, including Edinburgh and Cheltenham. He lives in West Yorkshire with his wife and two children and is now working on a new YA novel.
More than 100 episodes of Emmerdale, 8.98 – 10.13 (including Emmerdale’s BAFTA-winning year.)
REVENGE, the Emmerdale 1998 Christmas video, a 90 minute feature.
The screenplay for BEFORE DAWN, winner of Best Screenplay award at the Bram Stoker International Film Festival.
Afternoon plays on Radio 4:
KIN (02, co-written with Paula Cunningham)
WAR AND FISH (05)
THE BOOK OF LOVE (06)
Books, Childrens writing, Film, Radio, Short story, Television
It was the end of the summer holidays, my room stank of unwashed clothes and bacon, I was feeling lethargic and restless, which shouldn’t even be possible at the same time, and I was thinking about school, not wanting to think about school, when my brother barged in.
‘You’re supposed to knock.’
‘Want to break into Max’s house?’
In fact, I didn’t particularly want to break into Max’s house, he was my best mate and it would feel a bit weird, but I was pleased Jason wanted to include me in something, and I was delighted to get out of my room.
We were out of the house three minutes later, and walking up Horngate. ‘We’re not going to trash the place though, right?’ Half a mile uphill, then we took a turning on Crook Lane, headed down towards the river. ‘And we’re not going to steal anything?’ Jason in big boots, chinos, suede jacket; me in jeans and a Batman T shirt. Him with almost a quiff bouncing on his forehead, me with, basically, a short back and sides. ‘Jason? Hello?’ There’s four years between us, and we’ve grown apart.
A fat bee buzzed near my shoulder, there was a frayed white cloud in the sky, the earth was dry and dishevelled and smelt like baking. Jason wasn’t talking to me because he was suddenly in a mood, but apart from that it was like a kids’ storybook.
Max’s house up ahead. It was new, new-ish, made out of stone the colour of honey, it was boxy, with a cheerful red door and big windows with bright red frames. (This is a brightly coloured memory, it shines unnaturally.) Four bedrooms, posh kitchen, the river gurgling at the bottom of the garden.
The house was all on its own. That was the only slightly odd thing about the whole picture. There’d been some complicated problem involving the ownership of the land – they were planning to build a little estate, a cluster of homes, but they only ever built one, and then they stopped. That’s how things often happen in Gilpin – high hopes evaporate because of bad planning, accidents, disasters that no one saw coming.
The trees were drooping, heavy with leaves, like they were weary. Even the river was sluggish, dark, peaty water shrugging over rocks, dragging itself along between shaggy banks. There was a stony little beach there, and once we would have stopped and skimmed pebbles, seen who could hit the old stump on the other side. Not today. Today, my bad-tempered big brother and I were heading straight for the deserted house.
We thought it was deserted. I’d texted and called Max a few times in the last fortnight and got no answer. My messages had got increasingly impatient. You going to call back, or what? And then, two days ago, I’d heard Mrs Sutcliffe in the Post Office queue complain that his mum had never shown up for something or other they’d arranged, and Mr Lumb behind the counter told her, in a whisper like it was confidential, that they weren’t opening the door to pick up their Amazon parcels, and there was a load of post on their front-door mat. He’d never said he was going away. For the last two weeks I’d been wondering what had happened to him.
The end of the summer holidays, time was as sluggish as the river, and so were we. We were bored. Really bored. ‘Hey Jase, want to skim some stones?’ No answer. He strode on, expecting me to follow. And I followed. I had nothing better to do. The boredom was like the heat, all around you and not exactly oppressive but inescapable.
Plus, I had GCSE year to worry about and Jason had, well, the rest of his life. A gap year he’d made no plans for and then, maybe, university. So when he said let’s go to Max’s house and break in, I didn’t say Don’t be stupid, I said OK.
I was sure he wasn’t intending to trash the place, or steal anything. We were just going to snoop around, see if there was anything good to eat. Max’s parents had Sky and Netflix so there was bound to be something decent to watch on TV.
I’ve given this a lot of thought and I’m pretty certain that if we hadn’t done it, if we’d stayed home, or gone for a swim like Mum suggested or gone to a film, which was what I wanted to do, then things wouldn’t have been very different. Maybe it would have delayed everything that happened, but that germ of chaos in Max’s house would still have spread, would still have infected my town. And people would still have died.
No car in the drive. The lawn needed mowing. We went straight up the crazy paving path to the front door. A bird was practising scales somewhere, like a ring-tone. Jason nodded at me, so I rang the bell.
We waited a few seconds, then rang again. Nothing. I called Max’s mobile, and got voicemail.
‘I don’t get it,’ I said. ‘Where are they? Why isn’t he answering?’
Jason lifted the knocker and rapped it against the door three times. Nothing. He stepped back, looked up at the house. I knew what he was doing. He was looking for a way in.
‘Movies,’ I sing-songed. I was nervous suddenly. I didn’t want to break into my mate’s house. Why not go to the cinema instead? ‘Cheap afternoon show. Screen as big as a bus.’
Jason pointed upwards. ‘There.’
He was indicating a small, open window on the first floor. I laughed. ‘Right, first,’ I said, ‘can’t reach.’ I stretched my arm up towards the window to prove it. ‘And second, it’s way too small.’
Jason was already heading for the garage. ‘He’ll have a ladder.’
He did have a ladder. Max’s dad was a handyman, he’d patch your roof for you, fix a broken sash, knock up some free-standing shelves to fit an alcove.
So that’s how it happened. That’s how I came to be thirty feet up, with a cloud of midges round my face and in my hair, peering into Max’s bathroom. Because it wasn’t only Jason. It was his stupid idea, but the truth is, I might have been gripping the ladder with white knuckles, my heart might have been thumping in my chest like a trapped bird, but I was up for it too. It beat seeing some superhero movie for the second time, or swimming up and down in Halifax pool, or lying on my bed with a fat book that was about two hundred pages too long.
It was one of those little windows, a small rectangle, definitely too small. Almost definitely. I squashed my hands together, palms outwards to compress my shoulders, and squirmed them through the gap first, then my arms, then I laid my head on one side and squeezed that through. First I was on tip-toe on the ladder, then I gingerly lifted one foot on to the window-sill, and then the other. As my second foot rested on the sill, I sensed something below me, a whoosh of movement, and then I heard a loud rattling thud. It was the ladder. I couldn’t see, because my head was in the bathroom, buried between my biceps, but I knew the ladder had crashed to the ground thirty feet below.
And then I slipped.
My feet slid off the sill.
I was falling.
My stomach leapt up towards my mouth. My arms raked out of the window, and I desperately yanked them back, used my elbows to jam myself against the glass, let out a panicked shout, actually a scream, and whacked my head as I jerked it up, straining my neck to help brake my fall.
‘Oh God, oh God, oh God!’
I stopped myself with a jolt, but I still thought I was going to die, crash to the ground and break my neck and die, or at least end up tetraplegic and too disabled to even make it to the Paralympics. The only things stopping me dying or being tetraplegic were the back of my head and my elbows, both rammed up against the inside of the window.
I was hanging there helplessly like some strange decoration. What was I going to do next?
That was Jason. Thanks, Jason, helpful. Why hadn’t he been holding on to the ladder? Did he get distracted by something shiny?
I moved, lifted up a foot, searching blindly for the sill, trying to keep calm, measured. Failing. I kicked and scrabbled at the wall.
Found it. Found the sill. Thank God.
Lifted the other foot, got it up there too, then straightened my bent legs and pushed as hard as I could, giving in to a little bit of panic again, pushed and wriggled until my feet lifted up off the sill and I sort of swam forwards in thin air, my arms now doing breast-stroke in Max’s bathroom. I gave a shake and a shimmy to get my hips through, grazing and scraping my ribs and thighs, and falling again, but falling forwards this time, hands first on to the tiled floor bringing a bottle, a cup of tooth-brushes and a basket of make-up crashing down with me with a noise like a set of cymbals crashing to the floor.
I lay there a while, taking breaths. Fast breaths at first, then slower ones. I felt like I deserved a rest.
The tiled floor was cold and hard and one of the things I’d knocked over was TCP. As well as grazing and scraping myself, I’d bruised my knee, and my left forearm tingled like someone had found my funny bone and was pressing it and wouldn’t let go, and I smelt that high-pitched, yellowy smell. I felt rubbish, basically. Got up on my hands and knees, slowly, put a hand on the loo to help lift myself, sat down on the loo. I didn’t feel like raiding a biscuit tin and watching Sky or Netflix, I felt like going home.
Eventually I limped downstairs, found the dish where they piled all their keys, let Jason in, sliding all the post on the doormat to one side.
My voice was annoyingly high-pitched. ‘Why weren’t you holding the ladder?’
He pushed past me. ‘Got a text.’
I stood in the open front door a few moments, looking out at the untidy lawn washed in sunlight, the crazy-paving path that I could easily walk down, leaving Jason alone.
Then I closed the door and followed him into the kitchen.
‘They left the fridge open,’ Jason said. ‘How dumb is that?’
I didn’t always hate Jason. We shared a bedroom when we lived in Hebden Bridge, his soldiers attacked my Lego fortresses, his Game of Thrones poster stared over at my Dr Who poster, he’d chuck books on my bed and say ‘Read this, you’ll like it.’ And I would read it, because Jason was four years older than me and I trusted him, wanted to be him to be honest, with his hair and his cool clothes, and he was almost always right - I’d read it and I would like it. There were nights in that bedroom when he’d say something or, more rarely, I’d say something, and we’d be crying with laughter, my pillow would actually be wet, and Mum or Dad would have to come in and tell us to ‘For goodness’ sake go to sleep.’
I think back then he mostly enjoyed being my big brother. Maybe if there’d only been a year between us it would have been different, there might have been more rivalry, it might have been rattier, but he accepted my admiration generously, didn’t draw attention to it, didn’t use it against me.
We got our own bedrooms when we moved to Gilpin, but we were still mates for a while, still got on fine. And then, something slowly happened. Puberty happened obviously, but it was more than that, he went through a different door and once he was through it he didn’t look back. No more Lego, no Mario Kart, no Dr Who, no shared jokes. His life was a different shape, and if I fitted into it at all it was in some fenced off, little-visited dusty area away to one side marked Family, or perhaps simply The Past. It wasn’t that he disliked me, but I became irrelevant.
Still, there we were. There we were at the end of summer, with me going back to school soon, Year 11, and Jason standing on the edge of the rest of his life, and both of us trespassing in Max’s kitchen, looking at the fridge buzzing and pumping out cold air like a radiator in reverse. I closed it.
‘Strange,’ I said. ‘Max reckons his dad’s really careful. Hardly puts the heat on in winter, and he’s always turning lights off. D’you think they’re alright?’
‘No,’ Jason was already walking out of the kitchen. ‘I think they’re lying in their beds upstairs, dead. Pools of blood, flies, maggots probably. Suicide pact.’
He went upstairs. I hesitated. I’d thought I was up for this but I wasn’t really, my heart was still fluttery, my knee ached and my arm tingled. I hesitated, rubbed my arm, flexed my knee, but I followed him, not because I thought for a minute we were going to find dead bodies, but since he’d put the image in my head I did want to rule it out.
No corpses. In Max’s parents’ bedroom, there was half a cup of tea on one bedside table, and a tipped over mug on the other, with a dark stain like a tongue underneath it. The radio was on, someone was chatting quietly about food. I found Jason in Max’s room. His bed was unmade, there was a plate with a half-eaten piece of toast on it on a chair, clothes on the floor, his laptop open on his desk.
‘They left everything,’ Jason whispered. ‘They left everything, and they just ran.’
I couldn’t tell if he was trying to spook me or if he was genuinely unnerved. In Max’s little sister’s room, there was a diary lying on her pink duvet, under a pale blue plush unicorn. We opened the diary of course. The last entry was only three words, written in girly loopy handwriting.
I’m so scared.
This was a house where I’d watched TV with Max many times, played on his Xbox and eaten fish-fingers and oven chips. I’d never heard a raised voice in this house, but now it was vibrating with fear, the house itself was quivering like a frightened animal. And so was I.
I looked at Jason. He was trying to smile, trying to come up with some casual response, but his lips were pursed and he just looked anxious.
And that’s when we heard the noises.
A drum-beat of fists on a door.
A harsh, grating howl.
I gasped and my skin shrank. I couldn’t move, my skin was too tight. Silence a moment, apart from Jason’s trembling breaths, then the door rattled angrily again and we heard that wailing throat-noise, like someone being throttled. It was coming from downstairs.
‘Jason? Jason, what was that?’
For a moment, he was my big brother again. I could rely on him, he’d sort it out. But when he turned to me his eyes were wide and his lips were twitching, as if he was having trouble making words.
‘Let’s get out of here.’
We ran down the stairs, but as we raced through the hall to the front door it happened a third time. The tortured growl, and the banging and shuddering of the door. We skidded, stumbled, stopped. Because there was a little room to the left as you came in, a room where Max’s family hung coats and left shoes, and the noise was coming from there.
We looked at each other. It was a glass-panelled door and it was ajar, and whatever was making the noise was on the other side of it.
Jason glared at me like he was angry with me, but somehow we both knew what we had to do. He took a sudden swift couple of strides and banged the door open, stepping in to the room, his whole body tense.
He took a step in and I followed. And then I saw it. It was another door, the door to the cellar, and they’d pushed the freezer in front of it to block it off. Max’s dad, the handyman, had nailed a couple of planks of wood across it. We stared, horrified, and as we stared it suddenly shook as if someone had thrown themselves against it and that sound, that horrible grating, throaty sound roared from behind it.
Someone, or something, desperately wanted to get out.
I ran backwards out of the little cloakroom. Jason pushed me and I fell over, sprawled on the floor, and Jason tried to run right over me but he stumbled over my body. It was like some crazy slapstick comedy, except we were both terrified. We jumped to our feet. Jason ran out of the front door first and I followed, slamming it shut behind me.
We sprinted down the path, back down Crook Lane and away, as if the thing in the cellar, the unknown thing with a death-rattle for a voice, the thing that had terrified Max’s family, or devoured them, as if it was slithering and shambling right behind us, right on our tails, and was reaching out a blood-smeared claw, or a tentacle, and was about to catch us.