The Lady in the Glass

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“WOOOAH!”

“STOP!”

“GETOUTOFITT YOU RAVING PILLOCK!”

The huge jaws of the truck’s grab stopped moving an inch from my hard-hat as I dived down underneath them.

I was on site there with my client, American actor Hardy Nicolls, who was having this house demolished, so as to rebuild another one according to his own design, for which I was preparing the plans. When I noticed the sun’s rays reflected off a glass item in amongst the broken bricks, smashed timbers and rubble, I knew instinctively it was something precious that shouldn’t be destroyed.

“Oh boy, Jamie, you sure like taking risks,” Hardy joked as the truck driver who’d been operating the grab called me a “blanking blanker, who deserved to have his blanketty-blank head smashed in” because I’d inadvisably ducked under the dangerous machinery.

“I had to,” I explained to Hardy, carefully sifting through the rubble to locate the object that had drawn my attention, finally extracting it carefully.

It was a piece of glass, about a foot square, on which there was what appeared to be a photograph. The lady in the portrait was in Victorian clothing, that I estimated to make the date around 1850. A small crowd of the building workers had gathered round to see what I held.

 

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Joe Weston, the amiable chief demolition contractor, was craning closer to look. “That’s quite a find, Jamie,” he said enthusiastically. “I’ve never seen such a thing before, but I’ve read that in the very earliest days of photography, they used all kinds of mediums to print their pictures on. I think they’re called Colloidal photographs, and I know that a Serbian man called Johann Pucher invented a method of printing photographs on glass plates. I’d say we’re looking at one of the very earliest photographs.”

“Is it worth anything?” asked jug-eared Toby, one of the demolition crew, sniffing a dewdrop of snot back up his nose.

“I haven’t a clue,” said Joe. “It’s obviously got rarity value. I bet a museum of photography would love it.”

“Trouble is,” I went on, “my guess is that the photo was in the loft of the house—obviously some previous owner forgot to take it. So the chances are it’s a picture of someone’s ancestor. The right thing is to try and return it to them.”

“Yeah?” jeered Toby, the sharp-eyed demolition worker. “So how on earth are you going to do that, mate?” He glared around with a smirk. “And if it’s worth a few quid, why bother?”

“Anyway,” I ignored him, looking at Hardy. “This belongs to you, it was on your property.”

“The heck it is!” Hardy beamed at me, clapping me on the back and laughing. “Jamie, if you hadn’t risked your neck just now, that thing would be in a million pieces. You have it with my blessing—if it’s worth a few dollars I guess you’ve earned it, and if you want to find its rightful owner you go right ahead. How would you do it anyway?”

“Land Registry records I suppose,” I thought aloud. “Get a list of previous owners of the house.”

“Blimey, you’d have more chance of finding a needle in a knocking shop!” declared Toby, belching and kicking a broken brick a few yards, and thrusting out his lower lip. “All right for some. You wouldn’t catch me turning my nose up at a few quid.”

Clearly the chances of finding the descendant of the lady in the glass was a longshot, but, as I looked down at her, something in her kind, eloquent expression moved me. She was middle aged, with long dark hair, and an elaborate looking dress. I felt an instinctive affection for her, whoever she was, as if she’d wanted me to find her.

Tony, the grab operator who’d abused me earlier, apologised for his outburst as I was leaving the site: “Sorry for mouthing off at you Jamie, mate, my nerves is right on edge. On the way in I saw this terrible car crash on the road—this young girl on a stretcher, she looked in a bad way, same age as my daughter she was, it really upset me. . .”

Next day I asked a private detective friend, Peter, to do the research for me. He found me five names to follow up, each of whom had at some stage in the last forty years lived in the house which we’d just demolished.

So over the next days I phoned the people and after the usual delays and left-messages, four of them got back to me, and all were certain that the lady in the glass was no relation to them, nor had they put such an item in the loft of their erstwhile home.

The fifth names, Mr and Mrs Chambers, appeared to be impossible to contact by phone or email. A few days later, as I was driving home, I realised I wasn’t too far from their address, so decided, as a last ditch attempt, I’d try knocking on the door.

There was a long wait after I heard the door chime. Just as I turned to leave it opened, and a small lady peered back at me through the narrow crack. “Yes?” she snapped angrily. “What do you want?”

My heart skipped a beat! There in front of me was the same expression as I could see in the eyes of the lady in the glass. Same eyes, even though this lady’s expression was anxious and wary. She looked as if she’d been crying.

I gabbled on with my explanations, and, since she seemed keen to get rid of me, I immediately unwrapped the photograph and showed it to her.

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She gaped at it as if mesmerised. “Gracious,” she stared at it, blinking her reddened, strained eyes. “I think that’s my great great grandmother, Phillippa Subatov. We lost this lovely photo of her when we moved! She was Serbian you know, she was supposed to be a white witch or something, she could heal people, my father once said. Oh this is amazing!”

She was crying. I didn’t know what to do, or why she was so upset, but I followed as she stepped back into the hallway, still staring at it.

“Please, I’m sorry, do excuse me.” She couldn’t stop her tears, dabbing her nose and eyes with a handkerchief. “You see my daughter’s in hospital. She was in a terrible car accident last week and she’s been in a coma ever since. My husband’s still there, we take it in turns to sit with her. We’ve hardly been at home at all. It’s amazing you caught me. Ordinarily I’d be over the moon to have found this portrait, but as you can imagine nothing matters but—”

I heard the sound of a ringing phone and she rushed away to answer it.

Since Mrs Chambers obviously wanted to be left alone, I carefully knelt down and propped the glass photograph against the wall and left by the front door, regretting having intruded at such a terrible time.

I’d got halfway down the front drive when I heard her footsteps behind me, her hand on my arm, clutching the photograph in the other.

“Please, please, I haven’t thanked you!” She was smiling for the first time, a real smile, gloriously shining through her tears. “That was my husband on the phone. Our daughter’s woken up, and they say she’ll make a full recovery! It’s silly, but it’s almost as if seeing that photograph of great great grandmother Philippa made the difference. As if she was actually trying to tell me that everything was going to be all right! As I told you she was supposed to be a witch.”

We both looked down at the photograph. And I swear it looked as if the lady’s expression had fractionally changed, as if her quiet smile had somehow become wider.

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Haunting of Bassett Hall

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As the huge oak door swung inwards, I stumbled and fell flat on my face in the hallway. The lovely aroma of freshly applied paint and new wood shavings didn’t alleviate the pain of my bruised shoulder and leg.

I’d driven down from Scotland to Bassett Hall, the big manor house on the Norfolk Coast, and was suffering the worst bout of flu I could remember, alternately shivering with cold and feeling boiling hot, all the time fighting an agonising ache in my shoulders and a thundering headache and sore throat.

As I stumbled to my feet and switched on the light, the mobile in my pocket vibrated, and I managed to hold it up to my throbbing head.

“Is all the work done?” pestered the anxious voice of movie director Paul. “’Cos we’re coming down to Bassett Hall in the morning with all the props and some of the actors, and we’ll probably start shooting later in the day.”

“I promised it would be ready, didn’t I?” I answered wearily.

“If I had a quid for every broken promise I’d be a rich man. Honestly Jamie, if there’s still work to do on the house I’ll be in big trouble—”

“Don’t worry Paul, the lads have finished everything,” I managed to croak, my throat on fire. “I’ve just this moment arrived here to check that it’s all hunky dory. Don’t worry.”

“Don’t worry? There’s a heck of a lot of money riding on this, and it’s my neck on the line…”

I let him ramble on, scarcely caring. In fact I don’t mind admitting to you that I wasn’t as confident as I was saying, but as the architect in charge of the renovations, it was all part of my job to sweet-talk my temperamental scaredy-cat employer, who’d pestered me constantly ever since I’d started this wretched job.

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You’ve probably heard of Bassett Hall. It’s a large Victorian-built stately home on the Norfolk coast, and during the Second World War it was used for the secret meetings of a band of aristocrats nicknamed the ‘Bassett Set’. Owner of Bassett, Sir Alistair Josling, and his well-to-do friends were Nazi sympathisers, and met regularly to discuss ways of making England capitulate to Nazi Germany, and the glittering rewards for them personally in a Hitler-run England. Some of his fellow traitors and co-conspirators were in high positions in the civil service and the military, and there was even one member of parliament. All had attended the meeting amid utter secrecy.

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But by a delightful twist of fate, Bassett Hall had been bombed by a German aircraft on that one fateful night in 1942 when all the traitors were assembled there. The pilot, who had been searching for a likely target on which to ‘unload’ the bombs he hadn’t been able to drop on London, happened to notice the large house near the coast and let fly.

I’m glad to say that Sir Alistair and his co-conspirators were all killed.

Only part of the building had been lost, and after the war, the Hall was rebuilt, and its current owner had recently rented it out to my employers, a movie production company, who wanted to make a film about the events of that night at the actual location. I’d been hired to make a few structural changes to the building so that it looked as close as possible to how it must have done on the night it had been bombed.

The last clear memory I have of that night of my arrival was staggering up the stairs, getting into bed and falling asleep.

When I next woke up it was night-time again—presumably I’d slept all through the following day. I looked out of the window to see the back of the house lit up, and several extremely well preserved vintage cars were parked in the rear courtyard.

I got up and put on my dressing gown and walked out onto the landing. Down below I could see a lot of 1940s-style furniture in place, what’s more, most of the actors seemed to have arrived: men in period evening dress, and ladies with wartime evening wear, dripping diamonds and sporting the hair fashions of those Spartan days, reminding me of those old films with Rita Hayworth and Bing Crosby. I heard snatches of conversation, and it was hard to tell if the actors were just mooching around the set or were actually taking part in filming. The good thing from my viewpoint was that Paul obviously hadn’t felt the need to seek me out to complain about anything.

My attention was caught by a very young actress with black hair cut in a bob, who was dressed as a maid. Even from above I could see the large dark birthmark on her wrist which seemed to be heart-shaped, as she held the tray of drinks, pointedly ignored by all the other actors. She looked up at me and gave me a huge smile, then she glanced disparagingly at the actors who weren’t taking any notice of her. She scowled, then, for my benefit, she stuck her tongue out at the other rude thespians. I smiled back, responding to the mischief in her eyes, the lovely dimples in her cheeks and her contagious sense of fun.

The next moment I felt myself shivering so badly that my teeth were chattering, so, rather than getting dressed and going down to find Paul, I tiptoed back to bedroom and locked the door, hoping that no one but the young actress had noticed me, and that she wouldn’t tell anyone. The pernickety bugger would assume I’d found everything okay and had gone home sometime yesterday.

The next time I got up I felt much better. It was daylight at last. The fever had abated, and I felt tremendously hungry, realising I hadn’t eaten for over a day.

But oddly enough, after I’d dressed and stepped out onto the landing, it seemed as if I was completely alone in the house. I found my phone, and noticed the new text message from Paul, apologising for not meeting me there the day before, but saying that there had been an unexpected problem, and he was planning to come the next day, meaning by my reckoning, any time now.

Just as I was reading it I looked out of the landing window to see the first vehicles came onto the front drive—practically an army of cars, vans and trailers and caravans. Doors were slamming. I could hear loud conversations, laughter, coughing, footsteps on gravel. The rattle of the front door swinging open.

I met Paul in the hallway, wondering quite what was happening to me.

Where were all the people I’d seen in the house the night before? In that moment I realised that my fevered brain must have concocted a very realistic dream, based on my knowledge of the dark end of the notorious Bassett Set. I’d heard that if you have a high fever this kind of thing can happen. Presumably I had walked in my sleep and then had some bizarre kind of waking dream.

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“This is Rose,” Paul said, as a very old lady in a wheelchair was being pushed in our direction. Paul introduced me to her, and she smiled up at me. As I looked into her bright eyes there was something that triggered a memory, but I couldn’t work out what it was, or where I’d seen her before.

“We’re very lucky,” Paul explained, hovering above the old lady, and indeed treating her with great kindness and respect. “Rose here is an absolute treasure. She was a parlourmaid here in this actual house on the night it was bombed—she’s advising us on all the period detail.”

“Yes, I still remember the night it happened as if it was yesterday,” the old lady took up her story, preening in Paul’s flattery. “I was taken on temporary like, just for the one evening, and what a horrible lot they were, treated me like dirt—I wasn’t surprised afterwards when it turned out they were all ruddy traitors. They sent me down to the cellar to get a special bottle of wine, just before the bomb hit, and I reckon that fancy bottle of wine saved my life. It’s a funny thing, young man,” she changed tack, turning towards me and leaning forwards to stare at my face. “I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before.”

“Yes, you look familiar to me too.”

It was true. However, the familiarity seemed ephemeral, utterly elusive. There for a second, and then gone in a flash, like a part-remembered dream.

“Funny, I never forget a face,” Rose went on, “It’ll come back to me, where I saw you, it always does in the end. Because I distinctly remember seeing you, clear as day.”

As Rose went on, I noticed her smile, and, despite the wrinkles in her cheeks, there were sudden dimples that seemed strangely familiar too. And then she lifted her skeletal, liver-spotted hand from her knees.

And as the limp material of her sleeve fell away I saw a birthmark there on the back of her wrist.

It was in the shape of a heart.

 

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Time after Time

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Have you ever forgotten where you parked your car after shopping in the supermarket?

This is an interesting story from a friend of mine, Tim, who had a very strange experience when he worked in a supermarket.

Tim’s story:
When I saw the old lady wandering around the top-storey car park of the supermarket where I’d only been working for a month, I wondered just what I should do.

It was 6 o’clock on a freezing cold winter’s afternoon, my shift about to finish. I was worrying about the scaffolding and building work going on at the neighbouring office block above us that seemed to be threatening the safety of our customers. Just this morning a bricklayer had accidentally dropped his trowel from 20 feet above, and it could easily have hit a customer or damaged a car.

The wandering lady appeared to be mid 80s, perhaps, shy, bespectacled, wistful looking, hardly aware of the supermarket bag she was carrying.

“Excuse me madam,” I said, walking up to her. “Can I help you?”

“Oh yes please,” she looked up at me with eyes that were moist with tears. “I’ve lost my car. I think it’s been stolen. I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said, “I really—”

“—Come down to our office,” I coaxed, taking the carrier bag from her. “We can take a look at the CCTV of the car park.

“It’s very valuable, you see,” her voice was anxious. “A Mercedes. My husband bought it new, not long ago. A month before he died, in fact.” The smoke from our breath funnelled up into the sky, and I noticed she was shivering as well as on the brink of tears.

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“That’s why I came here this afternoon,” she concluded, wiping her eyes with a tissue as we sat in the office, watching the screen. “We used to come here every Saturday, my husband Clive and I. And we would always buy a bottle of your own brand Celebration Champagne. That’s the only thing I bought today. I wanted to take it home and drink it all on my own. And think about Clive and try to remember what our life was like. Just for tonight I wanted to try and recapture the past.”

She was crying so much that I didn’t know what to do. Then I remembered the whisky bottle in the bottom drawer of my desk, left there by my predecessor. When she was sitting there oppostie me, I found a glass and poured her a drink. She took it without a word, and sipped. “You’re kind,” she said to me.  “And I think you’ve got problems of your own, haven’t you?”

She was a sweet kind old lady, so sympathetic that I found myself telling her about the job I had as a publisher’s editor that I’d lost, and how I’d taken the job in the supermarket, thinking I’d get used to it, but couldn’t seem to get on top of the work, no matter how hard I tried. And how my wife had left me and I’d lost my flat and how lonely I sometimes felt.

“I think things will work out for you, young man,” she told me.  “I’ve got a feeling your luck is going to change for the better. Something good is just around the corner.”

And do you know what?  I had the feeling that she was right, and in her kind eyes I could see compassion, and felt that I might have a bright future after all.

Then, it was the weirdest feeling. As I looked up again at the cars on the CCTV screen, in all the different parts of the car park, I suddenly realised that they were different cars to the ones I’d seen just now, when we were walking around up there.

I asked her to wait a moment, then dashed back upstairs.

It was just like before!

No new Datsun in the far corner, as it had been on the CCTV. The elderly Vauxhall I remembered from earlier on was there now in its place.

And then, to my amazement, I saw it! The Mercedes, the car the lady had been looking for! I walked up to it, stood beside the passenger’s side door and looked inside.

Then, reflected in the window glass, I saw the lady herself, standing beside the car park’s parapet wall twenty yards away. Her arms were held out to the night sky. I ran headlong towards her, and it was right then that I heard the crash of the collapsing masonry wall above. The landslide of bricks and rubble was everywhere, knocking me flat, sending me sprawling, a vast cloud of debris rising up and swallowing up everything in sight.

I remember a lot of shouting, people running everywhere, and assuring Sean, my young assistant, that I was okay, that I’d moved out of the way just in time to avoid being killed by the vast heap of broken masonry.

The first thing I did when I could walk was make my way over to the parapet wall where I’d seen her about to jump, aiming to haul myself up to look over the top. But I couldn’t do it.

No one could.

The wall rose up sheer for 12 feet, and it would have been impossible for even a professional climber to scale it without a rope. And the Mercedes? It wasn’t there either.

I assumed that both the car and the jumping lady, even the different cars I thought I’d seen, must have been some kind of a hallucination, bought on by stress and worry. That was the only possible explanation.

However, as I joined the men sifting through the rubbish, just before we were all told by the emergency services to keep back, I found a carrier bag. I took it away and shook off the dust and debris, then looked inside at the shards of glass that had once been a bottle. One section of the gold coloured label said Celebration Champagne. And underneath that it said Safeway’s own brand.

Safeways? That had been the name of the original store here, yet for 10 years now, it had been named Morrisons, as were all the erstwhile Safeways stores around the country. I looked at the carrier bag. It was a Safeways bag – the familiar red logo on clear plastic that was no more.

Next day I talked to my boss about what had happened.

“Funny, it was ten years ago to the day that this old lady jumped off the roof,” he told me. “Really weird, you know I saw her just before she jumped, but I couldn’t get to her in time. And I swear she wasn’t on her own. There was a man with her. Man of about her own age.”

“What happened to him?”

“Who knows mate? Must have been a hallucination.”

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A week later I went for an interview for a car sales job – a Mercedes dealership as it happens – and the moment I met the owner I knew I’d landed on my feet. It was a small family firm, and I liked them all. I got the job and loved it, not only that but I fell in love with the secretary who worked there – we were like one big happy family.

And I often think about that old lady.

And the day my luck changed.

The Gallows Tree

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“What’s wrong with living in a house called Hangman’s Cottage?” demanded Connor O’Sullivan.

His wife Maureen, tired of constantly arguing with him, gave in, as she always did eventually.

“Okay, but don’t expect me to like it,” she grumbled in her mouse-like nervous whisper. “It’s d-downright creepy—that’s why it’s in such a hell of a mess, and been unoccupied for so many years. And w-what about the ‘Gallows Tree’ in the front garden?”

“So it’s been used to hang people a couple of hundred years ago. Who cares? Are you expecting a pack of ghosts to swarm in through the window?” he jeered at her, sniggering at her expense as he so often did. “Don’t be so bloody daft, woman! I’m going to have the damned thing cut down anyway—it cuts out all the daylight.”

I was sitting in Maureen’s kitchen in the old cottage, as she outlined to me how they’d come to buy the semi-derelict building that she wanted me to organise the renovations for. Maureen was a dark-haired attractive woman in her thirties, whose nervous manner and scared eyes suggested deep unhappiness and years of domestic abuse. I noticed big bruises on her arms, and a hunted, wary look in her eyes, and felt very sorry for her.

“The thing is, Jamie, now you’ve explained what we can do, I can see it could be a nice house,” Maureen admitted in her timid, child-like voice. “I just hate the thought that a hangman lived here. And that so many people died on the Gallows Tree outside.”

“But the council will let you cut it down, won’t they?”

“I hope so. Jamie?” She stared at me imploringly. “You’re so kind and easy to talk to, I want to tell you something. The fact is, I’m scared of my husband—I suppose I always have been. When we were first married, I loved his macho, dominating ways until I found out what he was really like. You know, he puts me down all the time, and sometimes he hits me.” She hiccupped and covered her mouth with her hand. I’d seen her drink four glasses of whisky in the short time I’d been there, and she was clearly on the wrong side of sobriety, which was obviously why she was sharing her secrets with a total stranger. “We’ve been on the point of divorce more than once, and him insisting on buying this damned place is the last straw for me. I’m determined to leave him, but I’m terrified of what he might do.”

Connor O’Sullivan owns a string of betting shops, and he’s known for his shady business practices, and barely legal moneylending operations. There’s some mystery about how he got the money for his first ‘Betwad’ branch in London. Someone told me that his first wife had been very rich, and she’d died in distinctly strange circumstances. Presumably the fact that he’d inherited so much money after a particularly short marriage, had been why the police suspected him of arranging her very convenient death, and had even arrested him, but had been forced to release him for lack of evidence.

“Trouble is,” Maureen went on, “he refuses to divorce me. I’ve tried to leave him before, but he always catches up with me. He says that if I leave him again, he’ll deal with me in the same way as he dealt with his first wife. Make of that what you will!” She hiccupped again. “Knowing him as I do now, I reckon he killed her, the bastard! If there was any justice in the world he’d be in prison … I’m so afraid sometimes, Jamie. One day I’m sure he’s going to kill me too.”

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As if to emphasize Maureen’s gloom, the large tree outside the window waved its branches miserably in the wind. In addition to its grizzly associations, the Gallows Tree was indeed a large, ugly monstrosity.

Of course I wanted to help her, but what could I do? The fact is that she was drunk, and so could have been lying or exaggerating her situation. And you can never know what goes on between a husband and wife, for which reason you can never interfere. All I could hope was that if he really was abusing her, she’d go to the police, as I advised her to do.

At the pub the following evening I was discussing the Gallows Tree with my friend Mike, a reporter on the local paper.

“That old oak tree used to be at the crossroads as tradition dictates for a gallows, before the new road was built, and the old highways became disused,” he explained. “It’s funny, it’s all very well to view that tree as a ghastly terrible instrument of death, but you could always look at it another way. Sure, people were hanged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for what we’d consider minor offences, but in fact most of those petty criminals were given lesser punishments. In those days, the vast majority of people who were hanged actually deserved it, I reckon. They were mostly murderers, cutthroats, men who would kill and rape without conscience. What’s wrong with protecting society from scum like that? Getting rid of a killer, so he can never kill again, makes a lot of sense in my book.”

“So you reckon the Gallows Tree did a good job?” I asked in amazement.

“If someone’s truly evil, and he kills a relative of yours, or a child, and you know he’s going to go on killing innocent people, wouldn’t you like him to be destroyed? Or would you rather he was sent to prison for eight years so he could be released and do it again? I know which I’d prefer. The Gallows Tree probably saved a lot of innocent lives in the long run.”

The work progressed on Hangman’s Cottage slowly, and after a battle, finally the council agreed to let Connor O’Sullivan cut down the Gallows Tree. And sadly, despite what she’d said to me, Maureen never did walk out on her husband.

The morning the tree surgeon arrived was dark and cloudy—evidently a storm was brewing. As the man touched his roaring chainsaw to the main trunk, the chain snapped and flew up, smashing into his face and lacerating his chest—unfortunately, he hadn’t been wearing his safety vest or protective mask.

After he’d departed in the ambulance, Connor returned home. As Maureen told me:

“Bloody hell, what an idiot!” Connor had fumed at his hapless wife, who’d witnessed the incident and was tearful and shaky. “You say he wasn’t wearing his safety equipment? Thank God for that at least.” He smirked to himself. “It means he can’t make any claims against me for the accident.”

“Is that all you care about?” Maureen yelled, still crying. “That poor man’s in hospital, he might lose his sight! He might have been killed!”

“What a confounded nuisance it is,” Connor rejoined, hardly listening to her. “Let’s hope the next ruddy cowboy I employ knows his arse from his elbow.”

Maureen was so furious that she stumbled out of the house in tears, leaving him alone there.

It was very lucky that she did.

For an hour later Connor’s tree problem was solved in a way he could never have imagined.

The storm began and a bolt of lightning struck the Gallows Tree and brought it down, flattening the house in the process. The same surge of electricity apparently passed through the phone line that was being used, and set Connor’s head on fire, just before his body was crushed to a pulp by falling masonry.

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“You know, Jamie, I always used to hate that tree,” Maureen told me afterwards, smiling for the first time since I’d met her, and looking ten years younger. “I’m quite fond of it now.”

 

All Tied Up

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The rain lashed down on the horrible craggy frontage of Ranley Down psychiatric hospital, highlighting the blackened bricks, the peeling paintwork and the sheer desolate gloom of the place.

What had I got myself into?

My friend, architectural salvage dealer Archie Stanhope, was climbing down from his big truck, parked in the front drive of the ghastly Victorian building. He stood beside me, his 83-year-old eyes, more used to staring at distant horizons from onboard a ship, were staring upwards at the unfriendly broken windows, that seemed to be glaring down at us, willing us to leave.

The wretched place had been a derelict and festering eyesore on the edge of town for three years now, since the last patient left its miserable shadow-filled entrance vestibule.

I’d got the call yesterday morning. An excitable Archie Stanhope had said to me, “Can you spare a day to help me Jamie? I’ve just been told on the quiet that Ranley Down’s just been bought by a developer, and they’re bringing it down the day after tomorrow.”

“That’s a bit sudden isn’t it?”

“Way of the world these days—in property development, time is money. They take possession at eight in the morning, when the trucks arrive, and it’s a pile of rubble by teatime.”

“So where do you come in?”

“The demolition guy is a mate of mine. He’s told us when his gang are starting, and he knows I’d love to get my hands on those lovely old fireplaces and floorboards and other bits and pieces. I just need a fella who know how to be discreet to help me strip them out and get them away from there tomorrow—we’ve got to do it all in one day.”

“Is it legal?” I asked.

“Come on, Jamie! Why quibble about details.”

I was intrigued, and of course I trusted dear old Archie, so I agreed, thought I felt a bit wary of doing such a crazy, obviously illegal thing.

And now It was dawn—the time of day I hated most. Coupled with a tiredness headache, the teeming rain and the prospect of backbreaking manual work, I was beginning to regret my rash decision. But Archie was a good friend, and I couldn’t let him down.

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It was a gothic building, straight out of a horror film, with the full works: peculiar little turrets built out at funny angles, carved stonework window cills, and peeling paintwork. Inside the dark hallway the wooden wall panelling looked black, and the sweeping staircase with broken banisters, led up to a cold shadow-filled emptiness beyond the dim natural daylight. The place smelt of dampness, ancient urine and the deep dank hopelessness of human misery.

“Course you know they only sent the really bad patients here, don’t you?” Archie told me matter-of-factly as we unpacked the tools.

“How do you mean ‘the really bad ones’?” I asked him.

“Arsonists, violent schizophrenics, seriously disturbed manic depressives, folks who were one step away from being vicious murderers,” Archie commented cheerfully. “I wouldn’t like to think about the people who’ve been within these walls. Number of them topped themselves, so I heard.”

So all morning we worked hard, dismantling and removing fireplaces, door handles, floorboards and doors. Then, after a quick snack, we investigated the rest of the building.

On an upper floor we crow-barred open a door to a room that looked as if had been locked up for years.

Inside was a large solid-looking leather covered chair, with huge leather straps on the arms and the legs. Beside it were other chairs and a desk, covered in what appeared to be ancient electrical equipment, old wiring and cables crisscrossing everywhere.

Archie sucked breath through his teeth as he picked up a peculiar kind of helmet that had wires attached.

“Electro Convulsive Therapy,” he said, holding the helmet above the head of an invisible inhabitant of the chair. “They used to practise it here in the old days. Strapped the poor bugger to this chair, jammed this helmet on his head, then fried his brain with thousands of volts.”

“Did it ever cure anyone?” I asked in amazement.

“They claimed it did,” he answered, “but in them days the poor patients were just at the doctors’ mercy. If they made mistakes no one knew or cared about it. God, Jamie, think of the misery and suffering there must have been in this room alone.”

“Not to mention the rest of the bloody place. I’m glad they’re knocking it down.”

“Hey Jamie, I’ve just realised this chair is just the job for that conversion you’re doing isn’t it? Why not take it?”

Archie was right. I was in the middle of doing a conversion job of a warehouse in Canterbury for an unpleasant character who was turning out to be the client from hell. In the face of much local opposition, Geoff Parsons was opening up a sex club. There was to be a ‘dungeon’ there for aficionados of bondage and sado masochism, and he had specially asked for a ‘punishment chair’ just like this, to feature in it, and getting this one would save me having one made to order. To my astonishment, he’d told me that the sex club’s clients were prepared to pay lots of money to be strapped down and tortured.

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It was all a mystery to me, and frankly it struck me as about as repulsive as my oily reptile-like client, Geoffrey Parsons. Penny-pinching Parsons, had been a bastard to deal with from the start, and so far had only paid my initial fee, and was threatening to renege on our deal when it came to the final payment.

Ranley Down was demolished next day, and I finished my ill-starred conversion job on the following week, and, the sex club opened a month later, the ‘punishment chair’ in pride of place in the club’s much advertised ‘dungeon’. And, just as I’d expected, that swine Geoff Parsons had refused to pay the final tranche of the money, gloating, and telling me I’d have to sue him to get it.

A few weeks later, I almost missed the article in the local paper:

After much local objections when it opened recently , the ‘Adults Please, Sex Club’ has closed its doors for the last time. Last night it burned to the ground, but fortunately only the owner, Geoff Parsons, was on the premises. It seems he was alone there, strapped to the so-called ‘punishment chair’ to test it out when the fire began in another part of the building. Fire investigators have so far been unable to find what caused the blaze.

After his release Mr Parsons was shouting and screaming incoherently, having apparently lost his senses, and was unable to say who had strapped him there. Since that time he has been incarcerated in a secure psychiatric hospital, unable to communicate with anyone.

 

 

 

 

Someone Like You

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“I’ve lost it, that’s the truth. I can’t write songs any more. But it’s a deadly secret. I’m trusting you not to tell anyone Jamie. I mean it.”

You’re bound to have heard of Samantha. You haven’t? Maybe you never watch TV or listen to pop songs on the radio. Samantha – she only ever uses that name – produces pop songs that are so catchy and simple you’re convinced you could write them yourself, only you know that you couldn’t. Remember Katie Perry’s I kissed a girl, how incredibly memorable it was? Some singer songwriters have this uncanny gift of creating something special and different and interesting that you love listening to and you can’t forget. Adele is another. Find me one person who doesn’t like Someone like you, and they’re probably deaf.

So when I got a call from Samantha’s agent, then the star herself, telling me that she’d bought ‘Fireflies’, once the seaside home of the deceased thirties singer/songwriter, Phyllis Dexter, and wanted me to arrange some renovations, I was delighted.

Phyllis Dexter was the ‘Adele’ of her day, the 1930s. She was thought of in the same way as Edith Piaf, Billie Holliday and others, a woman with phenomenal charisma in her performances as a singer, who was also a gifted songwriter. And her beautiful house ‘Fireflies’, high up on a cliff on the Suffolk Cost, was where she had composed many of her iconic hits.

“The thing is, that I’ve always loved Phyllis,” Samantha went on, talking in a sad desultory way as she sat across the table in the North London café where we’d arranged to meet. “And I thought that maybe living in her house, might help me to get close to her. It was all my lovely boyfriend Hamish’s idea – he bought it as a surprise, telling me he hoped I might regain my muse, by absorbing the atmosphere of the place.”

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I met ‘lovely’ Hamish a few days later, in the main sitting room of Fireflies. He was very tall and slim, dressed in a pure white suit, and had a habit of avoiding your eyes when he spoke to you. Samantha wasn’t there, was in London on business. I hadn’t been invited to sit down, and he was standing in front of the grand piano, idly picking out a tune as we spoke.

“Look, Mr Dark,” Hamish said, after boasting about his prestigious job in international finance for ten minutes. “I picked you as the architect for a reason.”

“A reason?”

“Yes.” He turned to face me. “ I wanted you, because I heard you’re interested in ghosts, psychic phenomena, nonsense like that.”

“What’s that got to do with my abilities as a conservation architect?”

“Ah well, I gather Samantha’s told you about her big problem? Her inability to write songs anymore? Well I’ve found a professional singer who gives performances as a Phyllis Dexter lookalike, and she’s agreed to give a performance at Fireflies one night. She’s going to dress as Phyllis and sing in the half light, so we can hopefully persuade Samantha that her spirit ‘lives on’ here. I think if she ‘saw’ her heroine Phyllis as a ghost, it just might kick-start her creative juices.”

Do you cringe, as I do, when somebody says ‘creative juices’?

“This is Phyllis’s piano,” he went on. “We managed to get it at auction in the States. I bought it as a surprise for Samantha when we move in next week.” He paused for me to gush with admiration. “So Jamie, can you give me any tips on how we should stage our ghost? Entrances and exits, lighting effects, how long she should sit there and sing, that kind of thing?”

“Sorry. Of course I hope that Samantha regains her song-writing ability. But trying to ‘stage’ the appearance of a ghost is a ridiculous idea that won’t work.”

“So you won’t help me?”

“No.”

“Right, forget it then. There are plenty of other architects.”

I walked out of the house without another word. I was disappointed, of course, for I’d loved Fireflies on sight, and Samantha had seemed as if she’d be a very nice person to work with. But if making a fool of her, by falling in with Hamish’s crazy embarrassing idea, was part of the deal, then I was having nothing to do with it.

A month later I got a call from Samantha. She invited me round to Fireflies to discuss the renovation work, as if my row with her boyfriend hadn’t happened.

She was like a different woman from the diffident unhappy soul I’d talked to in London. Now she seemed to be on top of the world, smiling and welcoming, inviting me into that same lovely huge sitting room that overlooked the sea.

“It’s come back!” she told me, sitting in front of the grand piano, while I sat on the sofa nearby. “Honestly Jamie, it’s wonderful! I think Phyllis’s spirit actually does live on here! I came down one night,  just after we’d moved in. I was on my own here, I couldn’t sleep, and when I came into this room, I saw her! I saw Phyllis sitting right here, playing the piano and singing to herself quietly, just for a few seconds, and then she disappeared. But in that moment I felt a real connection with her spirit, as if she knew what I was going through. I felt a sort of love coming from her to me, I really did! And in the morning, when I sat in the same place, a melody came into my head. And suddenly it was just like it used to be, one melody after another came flooding out, words and music came together and I can write songs again! Just like that! It’s wonderful!”

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So it seemed that Hamish’s grand plan had worked.

Samantha was brimming with ideas about what she wanted to do with the house, and I spent the rest of the morning going through the plans with her and arranging what was to be done.

Next day I had a call from Hamish.

“Hello Jamie. Listen, I’m awfully sorry we fell out the other day. Samantha likes you, and we had quite a row about it. And she insisted you were the best man for the job, and I realised that when I told you to push off that I was just angry with you because you hated my idea. No hard feelings, eh?”

“No, of course not.” I remembered that Hamish, an international banker, only lived with Samantha at weekends, since his heavy work schedule took him all over the world.

“And isn’t it great news that she’s writing songs again?” he continued enthusiastically. “She told me yesterday on the phone, I can’t wait to see her. And Jamie, look, I have to apologise to you.”

“Apologise?”

“Yes. You were quite right. After talking to you I realised how ridiculous my idea of faking Phyllis’s spirit was, so I abandoned it. After all, no one really believes in ghosts, do they?”

To see this on Wattpad go to:  https://embed.wattpad.com/story/61225485

Lord Peter’s Folly

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My client, John Barleycorn, ran out into the road at the level crossing, right in front of my car. As my screaming locked wheels sent a cloud of burning rubber into the sky, I knew that there was no way that I could stop in time.

The last thing I remember is the slam crack of impact as the car behind smashed into me, just before I ploughed into something ahead.

What a tragedy.

Especially when John Barleycorn had been one of the nicest men I had ever met, a month ago now.

When I’d first met the old man I’d discovered that he was bonhomie personified, from his large white beard and avuncular smile, to the big floppy hat he habitually wore and the shabby old jacket and flannels. Long retired from full time work, he’d been a struggling writer of children’s books all his early life until, at the age of 45, he’d written that first ‘Marmaduke the Wonder Cat’ adventure, and become famous overnight. The ‘Marmaduke’ books sold all over the world, and he made money too from ‘merchandising’, that is selling the right to use the logo of Marmaduke’s furry face, that was applied to all manner of children’s toys, clothes, sportswear, and even a brand of coffee.

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“You see,” John explained to me as we chatted, “all my life I’ve been a timid sort of fellow, scared of my own shadow. But secretly I always longed to be a hero—the kind of character who goes around rescuing people from danger, diving into trouble. I’ve always loved cats, and Marmaduke is based on my last wonderful black-and-white moggy, who used to sleep on my lap for hours while I sat at my desk working. Hence ‘Marmaduke the Wonder Cat’, who goes around the world helping people out of trouble, saving children from harm, and doing it with his own dash and flair.” As we sat together on the sofa, he looked downwards, smiling wistfully. “Do you know Jamie, I would absolutely love to do something heroic—just for once in my life. To be able to save someone’s life would be such a wonderful thing, wouldn’t it?”

“But how many people get to save someone’s life?” I asked. “Even for doctors it must be quite a rare event.”

After his wife died, he’d decided to sell up his London penthouse flat and buy ‘a project’ as he called it.

That’s where I came in: John had bought the Stavely Estate, a Victorian built ‘gothic’ castle in its own capacious grounds, constructed by the eccentric Lord Peter Hathersage in 1860, near to the Kent cost. The house itself was fine, what John really needed my services for was the wonderful tower, famous throughout Kent and Sussex as ‘Lord Peter’s Folly’.

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Built of brick and 300 metres in height, it served no practical purpose whatsoever except as a peculiar kind of landmark. It was just about large enough to allow the spiral staircase within it to reach the top, and its flat roof allowed space for a couple of chairs, so you had space to sit out and see far and wide across the county. On a clear day you could even see the Millennium Wheel in London in one direction and the sea in the other. Absolutely breath-taking views. And a great place to sit with a friend and talk, as I had done with John several times now, chatting away and watching the world go by.

But unfortunately Lord Peter’s Folly was on the point of collapse, and I’d called in a civil engineer friend to help decide on our best course of action for saving it.

That afternoon, I’d been at the top of the tower with John to give him the bad news, warning him that it could collapse literally at any moment, and the best thing to do would be to not enter it again until the repairs were done. He pointed out that since it was on his own land, if it fell it wouldn’t hurt anyone on the public road, so he alone would be killed, and the view was so wonderful, he’d take his chances.

“Because I just love it up here,” he’d told me, beaming. “I doze off, and sometimes I feel as if dear old Marmaduke is asleep in my lap, just like he used to be. Sometimes I wake up and for a moment and it’s almost as if I can see him and touch him, the dear old boy. . .”

So when my car smashed into his body, all I was aware of was my failure to stop in time. The next moment there was the crash of the level-crossing gate smashing into the front of my car, making the airbag explode, crushing up against my chest. Then there was the astonishing sight of the windows of the express train careering within an inch of my car, the rattling roaring scream nearly deafening me.

After a minute or two, as I tried to fight my way out from the exploded airbag, I struggled to work out what had happened.

For some reason it seemed that the train’s arrival had not automatically triggered the level-crossing gate to close and the traffic lights to stop the traffic.

And if John Barleycorn hadn’t jumped in front of my car, I would never have stopped in time.

But where was his body?

I couldn’t understand what had happened to it, for when I got out of my car and looked around, it was nowhere in sight.

An hour later I found out that Lord Peter’s Tower had collapsed a few minutes before my accident. And in doing so it had destroyed an electricity substation, which had happened to be powering the controls for the level crossing, which was why the traffic wasn’t stopped. John Barleycorn’s body, I had been told, had been seen somewhere inside the pile of rubble that had once been the tower.

No way could he possibly have jumped out onto the road in front of me.

Yet I’d seen him.

Hadn’t I?

And when I walked across to see what was left of the tower there was a black-and-white cat walking slowly across the rubble.

Moving On

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?

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

Uncle Bill

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Here’s a personal story I’d like to share with you.

UNCLE BILL

I had always loved my Uncle Bill.

My earliest memories are of being in his workshop, watching him tinker with old cars, a hobby I went on to enjoy throughout my life. Looking back on it I can see I must have been a nuisance to him, but he had never once made me feel rejected, indeed he spent a lot of time encouraging me to get involved. The day ‘we’ rebuilt an engine when I was about ten, and I heard it start for the first time, is one of the happiest memories of my life.

Which was why I was so upset when I heard he’d died suddenly at his home in Yorkshire. Auntie Alice had two lovely daughters, agreeable sons-in-law and several grandchildren, so she wasn’t alone, but I knew that she’d be in pieces.

The day I drove up from Kent for the funeral was in cold October, the sky as grey as gunmetal and my gloom exacerbated by a constant drizzle.

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As we stood around the graveside and each tossed in a handful of soil, I became aware of the powerful smell of Uncle Bill’s pipe smoke, a rich tobacco scent that I always associated with him. I looked around. There were no fires, no one was smoking a pipe nearby, so I knew it had to be some kind of memory trick, for smells can evoke memories like nothing else.

In the house afterwards, Auntie Alice took me into the living room, away from the others, and handed over a large box.

“There you are Jamie love, you have it. Bill brought this fancy car radio to replace the one in his old Jaguar, but he never got round to fitting it. He’d want you to have it.”

“That’s really kind,” I protested, “but what about—”

“No, you and Bill had this thing for cars, he’d have wanted you to have that, and all his tools too. The boys in my family aren’t interested in mechanics. My Bill thought the world of you, lad, he’d have wanted you to have them.”

So I packed all Bill’s ancient wrenches, jacks and goodness knows what else into my Range Rover and drove home later that evening. I’d decided to make a start, then stop at a motorway motel, and finish the journey in the morning.

Funnily enough, my own car radio was broken, and on a long journey a radio is company that I’d really missed. So before setting out, I took Bill’s new radio from the box, and, to my delight, found that taking out my old one and replacing it was only the work of half an hour or so.
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Speeding along the motorway, the fog came down suddenly, making it hard to see ahead. I slowed right down and switched on my fog lights.

I’d been listening to a news programme, when it was suddenly interrupted:

This is an important newsflash. There has been a serious pile up on the M1 motorway near to junction 35, involving a number of vehicles and the motorway has been closed. Anyone travelling in a southerly direction will be directed to leave at junction 36 and take another route. Police are on the scene…

Bugger, I thought. Then I considered the poor people involved in the accident: perhaps there’d been fatalities, so my inconvenience was nothing compared to what they were suffering.

It was strange. The announcement had come just before the nine o’clock news, and I was past junction 37, yet I couldn’t see any lights ahead, indicating police presence, or emergency warning signs, telling me that the motorway was closing.

And when I reached junction 36 there were still no warning signs, but I turned off, reaching another road, then parked in the first parking lay-by I came to, so I could look at the map and work out my new route. But tiredness had taken its toll, and, once I’d parked, I fell asleep almost instantly, forgetting to switch the radio off.

Much later I work up abruptly. For some unaccountable reason I felt a frisson of fear. I shivered. Then an announcement came from the radio:

There has been a serious accident on the M1 motorway with several fatalities and a number of vehicles involved. It happened at around 9.20 this evening, and the motorway has just been closed…

The same announcement that I’d heard an hour ago – I looked at my watch and the car clock. They both said 10 o’clock.

But I’d heard the exact same announcement at nine o’clock. Yet the announcer had just said the accident had happened at 9.20, twenty minutes after I’d heard about it.
I shivered again. Then smelt the familiar scent of Uncle Bill’s tobacco.

And I knew he was sitting right there beside me.

My Lost Friends

I was in the pub one evening and John came over to chat to me, knowing that I’m interested in the supernatural.  He was quiet and shy, not the kind of person to want to shout about his experiences, he just wanted to chat and ask what I thought.

Here’s his story:

MY LOST FRIENDS

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I died when my motor bike crashed into the wall and I was thrown under the wheels of the bus.
One second I was riding along, the next, a screech of brakes and then…

What?

I was in a big open space. All around me there were people standing around, looking as bemused as I felt. I remember a young black guy in an army uniform, he was talking in a language I couldn’t understand. There was an old man with wispy white hair in an open necked shirt and old trousers, and in one hand he had pruning shears, as if he’d been gardening. There was a young woman, looking surprised, dressed in her night-dress. A little child, a girl, was wandering around everywhere, her eyes wide with amazement.

But what I remember most is how it felt. You know when you see something like, I don’t know, a sunset over the sea, or a view from a mountain across hills and fields on a sunny day? Or when a piece of music moves you to tears? That rush of sheer unadulterated joy that lasts maybe a split second and then disappears? Well, that’s what it felt like.

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Except that this feeling of joy went on and on.

And somehow it felt as if we were all united in some way. When I caught someone’s eye they were smiling, really smiling, you know? I felt that I loved them all, and they loved me. I’ve only known that feeling of utter companionship with more than one person once in my life: I was eighteen and I had about six really close friends at university, and we were all out one night, and I felt, yeah, this is me, I was really at one with those people. But when I was with my friends that time, that feeling lasted only momentarily, and was gone, never to return.

Until now.

There was nothing at all sexual about it, for it was like the love you might feel for your mum or dad or a pet you adore, or the love they tell me that parents feel for their children.

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And I can truly tell you that I’ve never felt so happy as I did in those few moments. The black guy and the old gentleman walked towards me, and without words we all knew we were all embarking on something really special together, something wonderful and exiting. I noticed that the young woman was bending down talking to the little girl, and they were both smiling and happy too as they came towards us.

Then?

Suddenly above me was an ugly face close up against mine: I remember the smudge on the man’s spectacles, the hairs in his nose, the unshaven whisker on his chin. And the agonising pain in my chest as I felt someone bashing me hard.

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“He’s back!” I heard the man’s loud voice yell.

Then all the other things: the hairy wrist with a gold watch, the slender little brown hand with a sparking ring on a finger and pink-painted nails. Noises of echoes, the ping ping of some machine, the hot smells of antiseptic and hot rubber.

The pain.

Afraid? I was terrified.

How I longed to go back to be with my new friends. My eyes were streaming with tears at the thought that I’d never ever see them again. And I did so want to see them. I longed to see them more than anything.

After I recovered I wondered if it had all been a dream. For they told me that during those moments I had been technically ‘dead’ with no heartbeat. But if it had been some quirk to do with the brain shutting down, how come I’d dreamt about people I’d never in my life seen before, and seen them in such incredible panoramic detail?

Who were they?

I even thought of trying to somehow get a list of people who’d died at that moment, in case I could somehow recognise a newly deceased person amongst my lost friends. But how do you get a list like that? If they were people who’d just died, they could have been living anywhere in the world, and without even names I had no way of tracing them. I had this idea that if I could contract one of their relatives, I could reassure them so much: tell them how happy their loved one had been, that they might grieve for themselves but they had no need to grieve for the dead person at all. I wanted to give them that wonderful unbelievable news.

But even if it had been possible, no one would have believed me. They’d have thought I was raving mad.

Do you?

________

P.S. note from Jamie:

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