This story is by Will Smeaton and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
This is an account of total humiliation – my own. It reveals how, over a few days in the Autumn of 2008, my armour of cynicism was fractured.
Concerning all matters paranormal. I was the absolute and confident sceptic, which also made me a hypocritical, a snake-oil pedlar because, on retiring from my proper career, I accepted the position of ‘Ghost Tour Guide’ at the’most haunted’ castle in the North of England.
This castle stood scant miles from the Scottish border and had been owned for a millennium by the Norman family de Gris, now the Earls Grey. My hours of work were from whenever darkness fell until four hours later, usually well beyond midnight. History reveals that the location’s reputation for hauntings is well-earned; it was a place of betrayal, violent death and imaginative, if obscene, methods of torture. Despite this, I had never experienced anything remotely strange (except the present owner, perhaps), in three years of wandering around alone in the dimmest of flickering candlelight. I did sometimes fantasize about which of the available medieval weapons I might use to stop the next fool who asked if I’d seen any ghosts.
On an ordinary night, after my tour ended, I reverse-walked the route, extinguishing candles and securing the exits. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t assailed by hordes of the unhappy or angry departed. “So much for ‘spook central’!” I thought. As I finally emerged through the iron-studded doors, I was pleased to encounter a pleasant, rather chilly morning, with a light mist. Visibility was good, due to the waning ‘hunters’ moon. I walked, a bit footsore, to my car. As I passed some ancient yew trees, I suddenly felt icy cold, to the bone. The feeling passed; I reached the car and set off on the five-mile journey home.
On the first stretch of straight road, feeling a little drowsy, I rolled down the window to allow in some cool air and picked up some speed. At the end of the straight, the road turns sharply left into a steep descent, called Weetwood Bank, so I reduced speed accordingly.
The headlamp beams suddenly revealed the figure of the girl, standing in the road, hands raised to shield her eyes. I braked, skidded and ‘fishtailed’ a little – and stopped, relieved, a few yards from her. Opening the passenger-side door, I called “Get in if you want help!” She did so but, as she hadn’t closed the door, I leaned across and pulled it shut. Feeling the cold emanating from her, I grabbed my waxed-cotton jacket from the back seat and put it on her lap. “You’d better cover up..” I said, “..you’re very chilled”. I asked where she wanted to go and she made no reply. After I repeated the question, she uttered, in a near-whisper, an address, which was in the village, where I was already bound, so I set off again. My enquiries about her identity and what had happened to her went unanswered; I thought it must be shock or distress, so I let her be.
On the way, there stands a bridge, over the little river which skirts the village and, because it is narrow and ‘blind’, my habit is to stop, before proceeding onto its single track. This proved prudent on that night, because a motorcycle came at speed towards us, full headlamp beams and sounding like a jack-hammer. Allowing my eyes to accommodate after those headlamps, I then turned to reassure the girl that she’d be home soon… but she wasn’t there – and neither was my jacket!
I couldn’t think how she could have left unobserved, although I rationalised about the lights and the noise of the’bike’. The low level of light from the streetlamps frustrated my attempts to see which way the girl had fled. I drove uphill into the village, towards the address she had given. There was nobody on the streets, no house lights – and all was quiet. Feeling fatigued and thinking that a knock on any doors would be most unwelcome at this time, there was nothing for me to do but go home to bed, although I didn’t anticipate a restful night.
The following day, I was prevented from action by an expected delivery, which remained, annoyingly, on the ‘expected’ list until late afternoon, so the shadows were lengthening by the time I arrived at the address given by the girl. The house showed no pride of ownership, being reluctantly maintained. I stood at the door, which was adjacent to the footpath, and listened; the street was hushed, but I thought I could hear a low-pitched sound from within, as though someone – or maybe a pet – was distressed. Trying the old, rustic handle, I pushed open the door, calling out. The voice from inside said only “What is it?”, in a broad, Northumbrian growl. The daylight was fading but I could see a man of forty-odd, sitting at a small table. I apologised for intruding and began to give an account of the previous night’s events, but before I could finish, he held up his hand and motioned me toward a kitchen chair.
“You will want to ask questions…” he began, …”but please listen until I finish my story, no matter how hard it may be to accept my words. From your story, I believe you met my late daughter, Emma.” “Late daughter?” my brain shouted, but I managed to stay quiet. He continued, “Ten years ago, coming home from a party, to celebrate her eighteenth birthday, she lost control of her little car and couldn’t negotiate the sharp bend at the top of Weetwood bank. The car rolled and continued down the steep glen and ended in the river. They say she died from injuries, she didn’t drown, trapped and alone; that’s something, I suppose.”
I began to say I was sorry for his loss but he interrupted, with “I asked you not to say anything until I was done; you haven’t heard it all. The shock and grief caused her mother, my Barbara, to suffer a ‘stroke’ shortly afterwards, so I lost her, too. They’re together in the church burial ground at the north end of the village. Now you’ll understand, maybe, why I keep to myself and I don’t relish company, so be so good as to leave me in peace, now that you’ve learned about last night.”
My mind was a maelstrom; I’d heard his story – but some sliver of my rational self was trying to deny the implications; I resolved to check out the supposed graves and I drove to the churchyard.
It was now fully dark, but I always carry a lantern (tool of the trade); I slipped into ‘intrepid ghost guide’ mode and walked into the churchyard, pausing briefly under the lych-gate to gather my chaotic thoughts. There were many memorial stones, of various ages, some barely legible under layers of lichen. My search proved to be easy, however, because I saw my own jacket, draped over a grave marker. On the neighbouring stone, I read the corroborative evidence. In the usual ‘Here lies…’ format, the writing confirmed the interment, just about ten years earlier, of ‘Emma Forester, beloved daughter of’ and ‘Barbara, dearly loved wife of Alfred Forester’.
Thus began the dissolution of my cloak of scepticism. I grabbed my jacket and turned away – but was arrested by a glimpse of the neighbouring gravestone. In emotional limbo, I stood and read the words. This was the grave of ‘Alfred Forester, beloved husband of Barbara and father of Emma’. He had been interred less than three months after his wife’s death. The man I had met less than two hours before had died almost ten years ago! I ran to the car.
When I had recovered sufficient confidence and self-esteem, I went to local archives to seek more information. The road traffic accident was as Alfred Forester had described it; he, who had seemed so dignified and composed while relating his tragedy, had been overcome with grief and hanged himself, at home. As for that house, it has had several occupiers in the last decade, none of whom remained for long; no-one felt comfortable there – and some stated that their sleep was disturbed by the low sound of weeping.
The Ghost Tours became a different undertaking for me; I had become sensitive and receptive to the atmosphere of the castle and unexplained occurrences to trouble me. One morning, as I was closing up, a heavy, brass candle-holder, with no-one near it, tipped over and rolled off its table in the Elizabethan Great Hall, making a huge din, I finally admitted to myself that I was scared – and shortly afterwards, I resigned from my role. I still ponder how solid objects can be moved by entities who are supposed to be without physical substance. I shall embark on some serious investigation on the matter, now that I’m a believer!