In the middle of August 2021 Herat and Mazar fell to the Taliban.

Shortly following this, Jalalabad and Kabul fell. These are places where people already struggled to survive, where justice and fairness were fought for with words and courage rather than weapons.

Already, journalistic freedom has been curtailed, the engagement of women in public life expunged, and there are harrowing witness testimonies of minorities tortured and executed. People will not quickly forget what they had achieved, especially the ones left behind.

Speaking or writing about crisis when in the midst of it risks coming across like Howard Beale in the film Network. Often in time, with hindsight it is possible to make those same rantings sound like a completely rational response to a world which we feel is coming apart at the seams. It is sometimes difficult to identify the exact origin of the crisis, the single event which triggered it.

In my mind, it is like a cold (probably a poor comparison at present, but it will do). You work and are under stress, but when the pressure is removed, your body temperature drops and you are prone to infection. Perhaps the mind is similarly affected. Similarly infected. When there is no work, then what happens to you? All that accumulated baggage, the cinema ticket stubs and photographic negatives in boxes and drawers conspire against you. They jog your mind into places it should not go. So, it goes. What is the cause of the crisis – the lack of work or the cinema ticket stub?

Think about a new experience you have when alone. It is something so good that you immediately want to share it. You must share it. You pick up the receiver and dial. Who is on the other end? Now imagine that you’ve forgotten that they’re no longer around (for whatever reason). That’s the person you will miss, whose absence will have the greatest affect on your stability. It might not be the person you imagined it would be. Perhaps that’s the person who you’re reminded of by the cinema ticket or the booking slip from the Battersea Arts Centre darkroom that you held onto in a moment of emotional hoarding.

If you choose to do something alone for an extended period then it’s inevitable that the conversations you have with yourself offer the potential for your mind to go places you had never intended. As a younger person you might have chosen something easier, a more immediate self-harm. Perhaps age brings with it a more measured response, a chance to talk yourself down, a drawn-out penance. Like, for example, a long-distance walk with something heavy. It gives you time to doubt your worth, time to question alliances, time to focus on the ones that are no longer there. You may even be joined by someone who should not be there, perhaps the one you might have called to tell them about the day you’d had.

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
But who is that on the other side of you?
- T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Perhaps it is catharsis rather than harm. The question is whether you feel better when it's all over. You probably will, you know.

I’ve always been a fan of James. Not that one, the other one. The ghost stories of Montague Rhodes James had three crucial elements. First, a setting in a village, seaside town, country estate, ancient town, abbey or university. Second, a nondescript, reserved and naive protagonist. Third, the discovery of an old object that attracts the unwelcome attention of a supernatural force. This is not always the case. I included one story in Any Porth in a Storm which reflected my paranoia at the time. I had recognised the name Worbarrow Bay on the map I had been given at the information office in Lulworth Cove, and realised I was walking alongside the site of one of James’s stories, Wailing Well. This horror was associated only with a place, not an object. It did, however, lead to a disturbing end for the trespasser.

So it was that I visited, with my wife, another seaside town (which for reasons of embarrassment, trespass, incarceration, etc., will remain unnamed). On our final day – which, as it happened, was wet – we decided to visit the church of St Barnabas. The outside of the nave was all flint as though a mediaeval concrete aggregator had thrown fist-sized pebble dashing against the wall thinking it to be fashionable. The blue sign outside read in screaming caps “YOU ARE ALWAYS WELCOME” as though someone, or something, wanted us to go inside. We went inside.

To our right a woman had her back to us (we never saw her face) and was entering a side room, possibly a library of ecclesiastical tomes. We entered the nave and began to take in the oldness of the pews and stained glass.

Mags searched, as is her habit, for a place to set light to something. Not as a deliberate act of arson, you understand, but as a tribute to her father and to my mother. It doesn’t have to be a Catholic church, it could be Greek orthodox or a Zoroastrian centre as long as there was something flammable, preferably a candle, with which to create her little shrine. She wasn’t fussy. Observing my Australian code of camping, Rule #4: no unprotected fires, she sought to furnish the ancient place with her little incendiary in a place reserved for that purpose.

Meanwhile I looked at the brasses and tombs, then checked out their copy of the Bible on the eagle-shaped lectern. Adolf Hitler would have felt happy speaking from such a stand. They had a nice copy of the book, and being of a curious disposition I read a few lines from the open page:

‘And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the LORD for his sin which he hath sinned, a female from the flock, a lamb or a kid of the goats, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for him concerning his sin.’ Leviticus 5:6. An offering. I shivered and returned to Mags, realising I didn’t want to be in there any longer. She had been unable to find matches and had given up improvising. Health and safety gone mad, we noted simultaneously. We opened the large wooden door to the atrium and reached for the outer door.

‘It’s a bit stiff,’ I said raising the catch and pulling on the door. ‘Actually, it’s a bit locked.’

‘What do you mean, “a bit locked?”’ Mags looked up at me in the way our pet Yorkshire terrier did when the family was gathered at the door and she wanted to go with us, but we were actually all going to a restaurant and were intent on leaving her behind.

‘Locked as in locked and bolted. Where’s that woman?’ We looked at the door to our left which was now also locked. We were able to see through the keyhole but there was nobody there, just books. She was long gone.

‘You don’t suppose,’ began Mags, ‘that she didn’t realise we were in there? Perhaps the church was shut and we just came in while her back was turned.’

‘Clearly it wasn’t shut. We walked in. Perhaps she intentionally locked us in. How could she not hear us? Was she deaf? These doors could wake the dead.’ We looked about us at the old walls. ‘Perhaps she’s still in here with us.’

I recalled the woman’s bony hand on the doorknob and the visible side of her head, the ageing translucent skin taut over a sharp cheekbone. Her hair was white, her coat like grey sackcloth. It gradually dawned on us that we were trapped in an ancient building with metre-wide walls and reinforced oak doors with someone or something in here with us. We ran around the church looking for an alternative exit but all doors were locked except one leading to the crypt which neither of us wanted to open. A creaking sound came from the back of the church.

‘It’s just the wind.’

‘Do you suppose there will be an evening service?’ Mags asked hopefully.

‘If we can hold out that long. In any case, how would we explain our presence? We should stay together. It’s when people separate that bad things happen.’

Thinking that there might be a telephone number to call, we searched the walls for fire signs and liquor licences but finding none we sat on a pew in despair.

‘Leaflets! Churches love leaflets,’ said Mags so we hurried to the front of the church where there was the most passing trade.

‘Here. A village in Malawi needs chickens, clean water and toilets,’ I said, picking up a flyer.

‘Oh I wish you hadn’t mentioned that.’

‘You need to go?’

‘I didn’t. I do now.’ She crossed her legs and looked a little sad. It was odd how she was reminding me more and more of our late dog.

‘Right. Let’s find a number quickly.’

‘Here’s one. A woman called Mrs Angela Dodd is a caretaker in a different church.’ We had our mobile phones so Mags dialled the number while I searched the other pamphlets. ‘Nothing. Not even an answering machine.’

‘Perhaps she’s only a casual worker. She was fairly casual when she locked us in. We can’t find our way out of a church on the English coast but we can contribute towards the construction of one in Benin. Wait. Here’s another. What did you say that woman’s name was?’

‘Angela Dodd.’

‘There’s a number for her and it mentions Friends of St Barnabas’s.’ We checked the number with the one Mags had tried and they were different, so I tried the second number.

‘Hellooo?’ came the cautious greeting of an ageing woman.

‘Hello, are you in any way connected to St Barnabas’s church?’

‘I am. Is there a problem with it?’

‘No, the church is fine. Beautiful windows.’

‘Oh, thank goodness. I’m always expecting someone to say it’s flooded or on fire.’

‘No, there’s little chance of a fire in here.’

In here?’

‘Yes. We came in to make some brass rubbings.’ Mags looked at me as though I had lost my mind but I simply shrugged back. I had to give some reason for being in there for an inordinately long time. ‘We found your number on a leaflet. There was a woman in here with us but she left, and we seem to be locked in.’

‘Was she wearing grey?’

I repeated the question to Mags, who nodded. ‘Yes, she was. Why?’ I felt the blood drain from me. We had trespassed upon the domain of the grey lady of St Barnabas and she would be seeking vengeance.

‘That was me. Oh dear, I’m so sorry, I didn’t hear you go in. I just popped in to return a book. Look, I’m out of town now and won’t be back for some hours.’

It seemed an unlikely excuse but I repeated this for Mags who was by now bent double from holding her bladder, her eyes bulging with desperation. She darted a look at the font. Even I would have thought twice about that, simply from a public health perspective, but I wasn’t in that extremity yet so I tried not to be judgmental.

‘No, Mags, we might need the water later.’

‘What was that?’ asked Angela Dodd.

‘Nothing, Angela.’ I don’t know why we were on first name terms as she had imprisoned us and had left us for dead.

‘Listen to me carefully,’ Angela said, suddenly sounding like a WWII resistance fighter. ‘Go to the left-hand side and you’ll find an oak partition.’

‘The left? Yours or mine?’

‘As you’re facing the high altar from the entrance. Go through and you will see the entrance to the crypt on the right.’

‘Right. We saw that. The crypt.’ Mags now looked as though she might pass out.

‘Whatever you do, don’t go down there. You’ll never get back. The door is weighted. Turn back on yourself and you’ll see a small newer door hidden behind the partition. Go through and there is another exit with a Yale lock that will let you leave the church. Make sure you pull it shut or we’ll have foxes in, or worse. And I’m really sorry. Good luck.’

We checked that we had all our things, took the pamphlet just in case we found ourselves entombed in any of the other town’s sites, and located the crypt. We turned back on ourselves and located the door. As I pushed on it, Mags let out a little squeal. To the right was the exit, but ahead, slightly ajar, was another room.

‘Look,’ she said. ‘A toilet. I love this church.’