As I’ve told you my interest in the supernatural began because of my love for old buildings. This is one of those curious jobs that unsettled me in the early days, before I began to make psychic investigations myself. It made me wonder, do the dead really have some influence over the living?
What do you think?
“Well done, excellent, it’s a wonderful thing you’re doing!”
I had never seen Rex Broom, the Conservation Officer for Canterbury District Council look so happy before, as he shook hands warmly with Walter Needlove, multi-millionaire owner of the TRAVELLER’S REST chain of luxury hotels.
The three of us were standing in the hallway of derelict Massingham Hall on a rainy November afternoon, when the daylight was fading faster than my spirits. I sincerely wished I was somewhere else.
I didn’t like Walter, and I liked oily Rex even less. Officer Broom was a self-important little jobsworth, who enjoyed his sense of power that enabled him to strut around telling people what building work they could or couldn’t do to the listed buildings that they owned.
In its heyday Massingham Hall had been a beautiful Georgian mansion, but its succession of owners since then had allowed it to fall into ruins, literally. Faced with a Compulsory Purchase Order by the council, the last owners had allowed the bureaucrats to take it off their hands. But with budget cuts, the council were only too delighted when the property magnate owner of the hotel chain had taken an interest, and had offered to buy it for a nominal sum. Taking it on would mean he was legally obliged to rebuild it according to its listed building status, and the vast project would clearly cost millions rather than thousands.
As a keen member of the local history society, I’d been part of a group that had created a ‘Save Massingham Hall Trust’ that had tried to get hold of the Hall with a view to pooling our spare time and resources to rebuild the place, utilising the various government and local grants that might be available, so that we could eventually open it to the public. Negotiations with the council had been going well, until the TRAVELLER’S REST consortium had made a much more generous offer, and were not even asking for any grants.
Yet to me, something, somehow, didn’t quite ring true.
And today, as I watched Walter’s mean little eyes behind the huge spectacles, narrow shoulders hunched within his expensive overcoat, sucking on a large cigar and lapping up all the compliments, I knew I was right.
I was there because Walter Needlove wanted to use my expertise as an ‘ancient buildings architect’ – he wanted me to draw up plans for the necessary repairs, the kind of work I’ve done plenty of. Old buildings are a passion of mine. I love them all, I really do.
The other love of my working life is lighting, and I’m a professional lighting designer. Lighting, to me, is a form of controllable magic. You can transform every room in even an ordinary house into something special by putting in uplighters, downlighters, skirting lights, spots, there are a million variations and possibilities, and that’s what makes it so exciting. Not only moods, atmosphere, colours, but also the entire feeling of a space can be brought to life by the imaginative and creative use of the different forms of lighting.
Maybe my interest in old buildings and lighting is also linked to the fact that I saw my first ghost when I was ten and, ever since, I’ve been a believer in visitations from the afterlife and investigated such things on the rare occasions they occur. I’m not physic, like some people are, and I daresay that just like everyone else I don’t see 99% of the spirits that surround us all the time. But occasionally I do get a welcome glimpse into the spirit world.
Amid a lot of bluff laughter and handshaking, the posturing idiot Rex Broom had finally gone, leaving Walter and me in the hallway of the ancient building. A wind had whipped up, whistling through the holes in the roof and the gaps where the walls had partly collapsed, while the drizzle strengthened, soaking into my battered leather jacket.
“So, Jamie, you reckon you can put together a scheme that’ll keep that fussy little bastard on the council happy?” he asked me.
“Yes. But do you realise it’s going to cost a fortune?” I told the straight-talking northern businessman. “We have to use the materials the conservation officer specifies, bring in craftsmen who charge premium rates, there’s no leeway for altering the windows or the room sizes, it has to be put back exactly as it once was.”
“So it’ll be a money pit, doesn’t worry me. I’ll treat is as a tax loss, eh?”
“And you do know, I hope, that there’s no way on earth it can be adapted to use as a hotel. The council would never give permission for the fire escapes and all the other things you’d need.”
“Naturally not. Jamie, lad, believe me I’m not thinking of making money here! I want to restore this old place for posterity, to give something back to future generations in return for all the good luck I’ve had in my life. To make all those folk who thought old Walter’s just a moneymaking philistine, think again.”
We wandered around the ground floor: huge drawing rooms, a vast kitchen area and the gardens. Outside, squinting into the wind and rain, he pointed to the stone building in the distance. “What’s that?” he asked.
“The first Lord Henry Massingham had a mausoleum built in the grounds in 1650. Him and several members of his family are in it.”
“Bugger.” Walter’s already wrinkled forehead crinkled even more, and his eyes narrowed. The spark of cheery good humour had vanished faster than a snowflake on a red-hot coal. “What’s to be done about it then? Do we get lawyers and such to have the old bones moved?”
“I’ve never come across the problem before,” I confessed. “But since you can’t use the place as a hotel, and you want to restore it for the nation, surely there’s no harm in leaving them where they are? After all this was their home, and it was their wish to remain here.”
“I don’t know as I like the idea of that. Oh dear me, no.” He shivered in the rain.
“Bodies in a mausoleum? That’s downright morbid. No, no I’m not having that, I’ll get my lawyers onto it, soon as I can, shift the bloody things somewhere else.”
We went back inside. My revulsion at the idea of working for such an appalling man was tempered by the challenge of doing such an interesting job. It was the kind of project that comes up once in a lifetime.
I cautiously led the way upstairs, but some steps were missing, and it seemed fairly hazardous, especially at the upper landing, where there was no protective rail. Walter remained down below.
“I’ll not come up there lad,” he told me, “doesn’t look safe to me. Never liked heights me, especially when you can see the drop. I’ll stick to the ground floor. I’ll get off now, then Jamie, you know what you’re doing. I’ll leave you to measure up.”
“Surely you’ve got some ideas of what you want?” I went on. “Of course the fabric of the place has to be put back as it was, but we can make a few alterations here and there.”
“No, no, I’ll leave it all up to you,” he said, anxious to leave, clearly uncomfortable. He made a big show of drawing back the cuff of his cashmere overcoat and looking at his Rolex. “Best be off, got to be in Manchester in four hours.”
When I was alone in the place I began the laborious task of measuring the rooms and recording all the dimensions on my laptop. After a while the light had practically gone, so I called it a day, and wandered into the grounds of the estate, and walked all the way down to the mausoleum. It was a rather beautiful small rectangular stone building with a plaque with the word ‘Massingham’ carved into the stonework, the M with elaborate swirls and scrolls surrounding it. The tiled roof was broken, leaving holes in a couple of places, and I couldn’t resist peering inside. All I could see was dust and cobwebs, a glimpse of a slab of stone.
I moved closer, had the momentary idea of taking a flash photo of the mausoleum’s interior, through the gap, using my mobile phone. As I held it there a chill breeze sprang up out of nowhere. I tripped against something and accidentally dropped the phone through the gap. I heard the clunk as it fell into the cavity and met some hard object.
Gritting my teeth and steeling myself to do it, I put my hand into the gap and felt around, hoping against hope I could locate the expensive phone. Then all of a sudden I felt a keen awareness that somehow I wasn’t alone. For the briefest, merest second, I saw, or thought I saw, a figure flit past me back into the house. Then I felt the plastic of my phone, reached in a bit further, clasped my fingers around it and pulled it out.
From my research, I knew that the last Lord Henry Massingham had died in the Hall in 1770. Allegedly he’d inherited a fortune from his father who had died relatively young, and had frittered away his fortune on hedonistic living, drink, gambling and womanising, and he’d died under strange circumstances in his 35th year. He was rumoured to have been a member of the notorious ‘Hellfire Club’ in London, where Satanism, witchcraft and drug-fuelled orgies were said to have taken place.
Somewhere in a museum I remember seeing a portrait of Lord Henry, his thin face and raffish good looks belied by a vicious debauched puffiness around his piggy eyes. He was said to be known for taking justice into his own hands, and had once allegedly broken a man’s neck for some perceived insult. Lord Henry had apparently loved Massingham Hall, he’d been the one who’d built extensions and supervised the laying out of the grounds. And if memory serves me right, he was the last Massingham to be laid to rest in the mausoleum. Perhaps my own fingers had been within inches of his skull?
It was a sobering thought.
That’s when I remembered I’d left my camera in one of the upstairs rooms of the Hall. It wasn’t quite dark yet and I climbed the stairs cautiously and made my way to the bedroom, found my way in and discovered the camera then came back down. But in my haste to get home I missed my footing.
Momentarily, I was falling through the sheer drop to the stone floor below. But I managed to stop myself just in time. Then, to my horror, I thought I saw the body of Walter Needlove below me on the stone floor, his neck twisted at an impossible angle and his sightless dead eyes staring upwards, blood seeping from the wound in his head into the grey expanse.
Blinking and swaying with the shock of it all, everything eventually came back to normal and I knew I was alone, and my vision had to have been a hallucination.
I breathed a sigh of relief once I was back in my Range Rover. I heard the hands-free phone ringing and answered it.
“Jamie?” the voice asked. “Jamie Dark?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“This is Tony Lepanzo, from the Massingham Hall Trust.”
“Hello Tony. I thought our Trust had been disbanded since TRAVELLER’S REST bought the Hall.”
“Of course, so it has,” Tony went on gloomily, “force of habit.”
I thought of Tony, his short silver hair and bushy white moustache and friendly eyes.
“Listen Jamie, I’ve just heard something pretty shocking. A mate of mine works for the TRAVELLER’S REST Hotels group. Don’t ask me how he’s heard, but according to him, there’s a rumour that Walter Needlove is planning to fix an explosion in the Hall. Work out some plausible explanation for the cause of it, thus destroying what’s left of it so the council agree it can be demolished, then, with permission for a single dwelling already, he’s bound to wangle permission for erecting a new hotel, or if not a luxury house he can sell at a profit.”
“That fits,” I agreed. “Ideal location on the way to Canterbury, fantastic views all around. I had the feeling he didn’t seriously want me to draw up any plans, that he was just going through the motions. Come to think of it there are old mine workings underneath it, he could claim there was a build-up of underground gas or something.”
“So what are we going to do?” Tony asked.
“Goodness knows. I’ll sleep on it.”
A couple of days later Walter Needlove was found dead on the hallway floor of Massingham Hall. He’d apparently fallen from the upper mezzanine floor, through the gap left by the missing banister rail.
I thought back to my vision, and shivered at the memory of what I’d seen two days before it had actually happened.
The directors of the TRAVELLER’S REST agreed to sell the derelict hall to our Trust for a very fair price, and of course I was glad to do the drawings and help with the building work for nothing.
One thing we’d all agreed on: the residents of the mausoleum should stay where they were.