Wednesday, January 09, 2013

A ghost in the tale

I received a DVD box-set of MarchLands for Christmas. It's a ghost story set over three time periods and if you haven't seen it, I'd recommend you get yourself a copy and enjoy a great tale, one which is well told and acted.

But you don't believe in ghosts, do you? That the spirit of someone who has died can come back and interact with the living by haunting them? Are you older than twelve?

I have never seen a ghost. But I have a ghost story to tell you. A good one. And like all good ghost stories this is true. The fact that I am an author and make my living by telling believable lies should not influence how unsettling you find this. Truth, as it is said, is scarier than fiction.

In the mid-Eighties I was employed as a service engineer for a company which provided electronic security for libraries. Most of the work involved keeping our systems around the country up and running, but once in a while we would get to replace or install another one. Because of the nature of this aspect of the work – the holes needed for the bolts supporting the portioning barriers to guide people in the right direction usually had to be drilled into concrete – we either did this job in the evening, or during a Bank Holiday.

But the one we go to in early June of '86 is different. For some reason that our boss never gives us, we have to begin work late on a Friday afternoon. At one of their busiest times. While I am here for the electrical work, a father in his sixties and his son of twenty-one are to put up the barriers, with the son assisting me when necessary. Which is practically as soon as we walk through the door. 

It is an old building. And, like in so many other old buildings we have worked in before, it soon becomes something of a minor quest to find a power outlet I can dedicate to our equipment. As I peer around and behind the counters which the librarians are using to deal which the unusually high influx of customers, I ask one of the staff what is behind a nearby door.

"Just the storeroom on the floor below, dear" she says. "Where we keep the overflow."

I open the door and peer into the dark. I fumble around and find a light switch. When I switch it on, I find a set of stairs. I am about to go down to continue my search, when the son approaches me.

"There's no way the manager is going to let us start drilling," he says. "Anything I can do?"

I send him down into the cellar, while I continue delving in amongst the woman's legs – which isn't allowed to pass without comment. Filthy comment at that. The sort I shouldn't expect from librarians. But which I am nevertheless glad to hear because it satisfies all those naughty stereotypical expectations.

I find an unused socket, just as the son emerges, shaking his head.

"Only a couple at the far end," he says. "It'll take ages to run a cable."

"That's okay," I say. "I've found one here."

I reach past him to switch off the light and close the door. He gives me a funny look, but doesn't say anything more as his father has just negotiated new terms with the manager, an understanding apparently involving guile and the use of his silver-grey persona to flatter her.

Or so he tells us much later in the evening as we sit in the librarian's office and tea-room, re-assessing with the caretaker how long it is going to take us to finish and instead ending up with us talking about anything to put off the inevitable departure to our rather suspect overnight accommodation.

"Any ghosts here?" the father says, before taking final a slug of tea. "I bet a building this old must have some."

The caretaker shrugs.

"There's a cold spot on the stairs," he says. "Gives most people a cheap thrill. As does the old guy in the basement."

As the caretaker goes to explain how most of the staff has seen the apparition of an old man down in the cellar storeroom, I see the colour drain from the son's face. And I do mean drain. I have heard it described, but I have never witnessed someone's complexion go from rude health to absolute pale anaemia in the space of a few seconds. Even people who were going to vomit.

I lean back as he tries to light a cigarette, his hands shaking so much that I have to reluctantly reach out with my own lighter to help him. 

"There was someone down there," he says to me. "They were moving the shelves along, you know, those sort they have on wheels. I didn't really pay it any mind until you turned off the light after I came out. That's when I became worried something was wrong. No-one complained, you see. No-one shouted when the light went out."

The caretaker laughs.

"Chalk up another one to the kid from down south. You've joined the club, boy. The girls call him Bert. Looks as though he was forgotten about sometime during the war, or even from earlier. Hey, you look like you're going to piss yourself. Watch the carpet. I just cleaned it."

I don't know about the son, but I know I want to use the toilet. It could have been me down there!

Of course, the lavatory is up the stairs. Just past the cold spot.

I summon every I-am-a-grown-man attitude I can and walk as causally as possible to the door. When I go through however, I catch a movement in the corner of my eye and turn to see a bearded man looking at me. He looks as startled as I am. Which isn't surprising, as I find I am looking into a full-length mirror the librarians have secreted at the end of a short passage.

I try to laugh, but only end up choking.  So I put on a brave face instead and take my full bladder upstairs.

There is indeed a cold spot.

And I have never urinated so fast.   

But you don't believe in ghosts, do you? That the spirit of someone who has died can come back and interact with the living by haunting them? Are you older than twelve?

I was twenty-seven. And I still don't have any explanation. I'm just glad it wasn't me that went down there.


Don't do stupid – it's just not clever.

Total recorded cycled miles this year: 217



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