Once Upon A Time…

I know I’d promised to talk about toilets this week – (!) but I’m doing last minute proofreading and panic-tidying/tweaking of The Thief of St Martins: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 5 at the moment, ahead of its release on the 30th November. I needed to think of something quick so I didn’t ignore my blog altogether, but without it throwing my schedule off the rails.

So I thought I’d tell you a story: it’s not a very new one, some regular readers might have seen it before, but hopefully it’s interesting enough to get your attention. It’s a short story loosely based on a real news report (!) from a local paper a few years back. In fact it made the nationals. When the old hospital in the village of Shardlow was demolished, workmen reported strange goings-on and a paranormal specialist was called in to investigate. Yes really! It’s just occurred to me I should have put this on at Hallowe’en. Epic fail.

The story is called:

Leaving Shardlow.

Henry was puking into a sink. The world around him rocked and dipped. He gripped the edge of the sink, closing his eyes, afraid to let go. Bile rose in his throat and he bent to puke again, strings of mucus dragging from his chin to the backs of his white-knuckled hands. He retched again then again.

‘I’m not well, you know.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ said a voice behind him. ‘This is obviously a terrible shock. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling. But if you don’t take my advice and Cross Over, then I’m afraid I just don’t know what else to suggest.’

‘I love Shardlow. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve been in this hospital for years, it’s like a home to me. I know every nook and cranny.’ Henry took a few deep breaths to steady himself, trying to breathe through his mouth so he wouldn’t catch too much of his own stench. He wiped his face on his sleeve and turned stiffly to face the man.

‘You’re the bloody psychic. If you can’t help me, who can?’

The man had been about to speak but was pre-empted by a third person, a workman in faded overalls.

‘What’s he saying now? Tell me what’s going on!’

The psychic fought the urge to roll his eyes heavenward and kept his voice polite.

‘Well, Henry’s still being ill, and he wants to know what we can do to help him.’ He resisted the urge to add, duh! The workman kept touching his cigarette as if to check it was still there behind his ear. Clearly he felt it was time for a short break.

There was a knock on the door and another workman, twenty years slimmer, put his head around the door.

‘Here, Guv, that bird from the paper’s here with a photographer.’

‘All right, Kendall, show them in.’

The journalist marched into the room. She wore a dark power suit and smart blouse, and her high-heels tapped loudly as she took a turn about the room looking around carefully for several minutes before she finally looked at the two men she could see.

‘Hmm. Are any of Them in here right now?’

‘Yes, over there, in the corner. He’s by a sink, keeps being sick, poor chap. I can see him, though you probably… He’s wearing pyjamas, obviously, as he’s a patient in the hospital, and a dressing gown and slippers.’

‘Can’t see anything myself.’ She gestured the cameraman forward. ‘Just do a general pan across the room, and then close in on that corner—apparently there’s supposed to be something going on there.’ She turned a brittle smile on the older workman. ‘So you think there is actually something to these rumours, then?’

The workman bristled a little, shuffled his feet and reassured himself that his cigarette was lit.

‘Well, we’re just ordinary blokes, been on lots of jobs like this, demolitions, rebuilds, the like, and never had anything like this. Noises and cold mists and whatnot. Tools flying through the air. We’re just ordinary chaps, not a fanciful bunch, not much call for imagination in the demolition business…’

‘In my experience there’s nothing so suggestible as a bunch of hairy-arsed workmen with barely one GCSE between them. A couple of pints at lunchtime, and you’re all seeing fairies at the bottom of the garden. Please tell me there’s more to this than someone feeling a bit queasy and a couple of strange noises. No? God! Why would they want to stay in this hole anyway? I mean it’s cold, dirty and—forgive me for stating the obvious but they are dead aren’t they—why does it matter where they—er—live?’

The workman grew a little red in the face, and the psychic stepped forward, just in case. But just as the workman was about to express his views in a forthright manner, Claire slid through the wall and came over to Henry and his precious sink.

‘What’s happening?’ she asked him.

Henry gestured towards the journalist.

‘She’s from The Daily Sceptic and she’s just upset Banksey by suggesting he imagined us, and that’s the photographer—he’s hoping to capture us on film, which will be a miracle because he sure as hell can’t see us with his eyes.’

‘Right! Normal Monday morning then! I see old Smelly Feet is still here.’

‘Yes, I am,’ said the psychic, ‘and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m the one who is trying to help you as well as being the only one that can see—and hear—you!’

‘Ah!’ she fell silent, then changed the subject. ‘Henry, Mrs Jarvis wanted me to let you know that the vicar’s here with his holy water and stuff. Mr Jarvis is keeping an eye on everything from the Castle North Ward staircase. Apparently we’re expecting a medium, a rabbi and a man from the environmental health. Must get back, I do so love a party.’

She vanished through the wall once again whilst Henry, feeling unwell, abruptly turned back to his sink. The psychic turned to tell everyone what was happening. The journalist and the photographer rushed off to welcome the new arrivals, and Banksey came to lean on the same piece of wall as the psychic. He took down his cigarette and turned it over between his fingers.

‘So what effect will that lot have then? A vicar, a rabbi and a bloke from the environmental? Sounds like the start of a joke like we used to tell before everyone got all PC.’

The psychic smiled then sighed as he thought it over. He shook his head.

‘I don’t know to be honest. I mean usually the only ones who take this kind of thing seriously are blokes like you and me. What do you think, Henry? Will they be wasting their breath, or does it spell disaster? Henry?’

But Henry wasn’t there. He was halfway down the main stairs, and when he reached the ninth step, he passed right through the man from the environmental health. The man halted on the tread, looked about him and pulled up the collar of his jacket, remarking to the chap in the dog-collar that it was a bit parky in these old, empty buildings. The man in the dog-collar frowned at him thoughtfully but said nothing.

By the time Henry had found the Jarvises, Claire, old Mr Wainwright and Miss Siddals, the man in the dog-collar was unscrewing the lid of a small bottle and smiling complacently at the psychic.

‘Really, Malcolm, I don’t know why you look so perturbed. I thought you didn’t believe in this sort of thing, or so you said on Richard and Judy. I thought you put your faith in psychic energy and channelling.’

‘I do,’ the psychic snapped. ‘But that doesn’t mean I don’t have any feelings about your inquisitorial methods.’ He would have said more, but at that moment the door was opened and a tall thin young man in a smart dark suit came in, followed by the journalist and the photographer. It opened again and they were joined by Banksey and Kendall. The tall young man turned out to be the rabbi, and he apologised for being a little late.

‘Two poltergeists in Matlock and a tree spirit out at Chesterfield already this morning. Don’t you just hate Mondays!’ The man from the environmental health made the introductions then they all looked at each other to see whose turn it was to go first. The vicar stepped forward and spread a pale pink fluffy bathmat on the floor.

‘What does that do?’ the journalist queried. The vicar looked at her as if she was daft.

‘It stops my trousers getting dusty,’ he said and hitching them at the thighs, knelt down carefully, and closed his eyes and put his hands neatly together.

The psychic found another convenient wall to lean against, and with an inward sigh, settled back arms folded, to see what would happen. Banksey was still fondling his yearned-for cigarette, whilst Kendall was trying to position himself so that if the journalist moved he could see either up her skirt or down her blouse. The photographer was searching his pockets and holdall for a spare camera battery, and swearing a good deal under his breath, unaware of the vicar glaring at him with Anglican tolerance. The journalist was trying to straighten her hair, smooth down her skirt, lick a smidge of lipstick from her teeth and find a notebook, and the rabbi, looking a little battle-weary, stationed himself by the window facing into the room. The environmental man, caught uncertainly between the roles of Master of Ceremonies and chief coat-holder at a duel, hovered by the door.

Henry appeared with his entourage just as the vicar began to whisper confidentially to his fingers, his eyes screwed shut in earnest concentration.

‘It’s started,’ Mr Jarvis pointed out, somewhat unnecessarily. They stood by the wall, watching and waiting. Henry, ignoring a growling in his stomach that indicated it would be better to find himself a nice sink, whisked across the room to the psychic’s side.

‘Shardlow is such a nice little village. Even the gravel pit’s quite pretty now. Fifty-nine houses they’re going to build here, you know.’

‘I know.’

‘It’s not a very big plot.’

‘No, not especially.’

‘So they won’t be very big houses.’

‘No I don’t suppose they will.’

‘I hate all these pokey little modern places, tiny little rooms, no garden to speak of. And the developers make a fortune. We got here first, we should have some rights, at least. You know, like squatters.’

‘You did say you didn’t want to cross over. So there wasn’t much else I could do. I told you they wouldn’t let matters rest.’

‘I didn’t have time to think it over. If you could just buy us some time—I mean, this is all a bit drastic.’

‘I agree, but it’s out of my hands now. Sorry, Henry.’

Do you Mind!’ thundered the voice of the Reverend Milward. The psychic muttered an apology, his face reddening.

‘What’s he going to do then?’

The psychic didn’t reply, afraid of further censure.

‘Ooh, I feel all queer!’ Mrs Jarvis wailed, and her husband took her arm and lowered her into a chair that was no longer there.

‘Don’t you take any notice, Hetty, my girl, just pretend it’s a Sunday service. Just remember not to say Amen as that’s effectively agreeing to whatever demands he makes.’

‘You ought to do something to stop him.’ Henry said, ‘I mean it’s just not fair! That’s what you’re here for isn’t it?’

‘Actually I’m here to advise the company how to get rid of you, not to stick up for you. After all this place has been condemned, you know.’

Before Henry could reply, the rabbi prostrated himself on the floor careless of his beautiful suit, and began to worship loudly. The man from the environmental unrolled a large wodge of paper and began to read out statutes and by-laws, and the photographer, out of battery packs, swore viciously and threw his camera on the floor as the journalist turned on her little tape recorder and bent to hold it close to the rabbi, causing Kendall to see quite a lot of naked thigh and in all this commotion Banksey accidentally squashed his last cigarette.

‘Bugger this for a game of soldiers,’ said Henry, ‘come on you lot, there’s no point in going on with this—we can’t win this one. Let’s call it a day and move on.’

‘But where will we go?’ Claire was wringing her hands in distress. ‘I’ve been here so long, Shardlow’s all I know!’

‘I know, Duck, but face it—this lot’ll have us turfed out in no time, so we might as well jump as be pushed.’

The ghosts stood in the centre of the room, frightened and upset. Henry was paler than usual and shaking, but his resolve held and so did the contents of his stomach. He patted Claire’s arm awkwardly.

‘Come on, Old Girl, brace up. We’ll think of something.’

The psychic came to a decision, and took a step forward.

‘You can all come back to my place. It might be a bit of a squash in the van though.’

They left before the rabbi could dust off his knees.

 

Six months later.

 

‘Hurry up, Henry, the Ghost Whisperer is on!’

‘Ooh goody, I like her, she’s so sweet!’

There was the sound of a toilet flushing and moments later, they heard gargling. Claire and Mr and Mrs Jarvis were wedged in comfortably on one sofa, and on an adjacent sofa, Henry rushed in to flop down between Miss Siddals and Malcolm the psychic. Mr Wainwright had an armchair all to himself.

‘Turn it up, Malcolm, we can’t hear!’ Mrs Jarvis complained.

‘Pass the biscuits,’ Henry said.

‘Shh! Shh, it’s starting!’

Henry fidgeted a bit more to get comfortable. He sighed.

‘It’s the perfect night in,’ he said.

 

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