Greetings all and the very best of the budding season to you.
Those of you that have followed me for a while know I like ghost stories at all times of year, but even more when the nights are drawing in and especially at Christmas. Christmas has a long been a popular time for ghost stories and they are one of the many Yuletide traditions I revel in (along with copious amounts of mulled wine and mince pies, of course).
I dig out the M. R. James, Susan Hill, Dickens, Collins, turn down the lights and let the authors and firelight take me to the dark, spooky and chilling places that are especially atmospheric at this time of year.
This year, I’m writing my own Seasonal Spookfest, The Highwayman, which I will be sharing in the run up to the big day. To whet your whistle (and I’ll come to you), please find a teaser below.
Elanor Cruz left London to set up a recording studio in the folk-music-rich community of Crossways, a remote village on the edge of the wide, dark moors. She has found inspiration again after so many years and longs to capture the voice of region and give herself a fresh start.
However, not all the villagers are happy with her purchase and conversion of The Annex – a near-derelict section of the local pub, The Highwayman where, legend has it, a pair of fated lovers met their grisly end hundreds of years ago. When strange things start to happen Eleanor begins to wonder whether they really are just stories for the tourists.
“Busy night,” Eleanor observed as she rested her elbows on the stained rosewood bar.
“Aye,” Andrew, the hairy-knuckled landlord replied as he pulled a pint of IPA (without the sparkler) for a thin customer in expensive, unsoiled walking gear. “Got a coach load from the Yuletide Coast Tour staying over. What can I get ye?”
Eleanor ordered a gin and tonic whilst eyeing the festive gathering. “Do you think they’ll come to the open day tomorrow?”
“They’re here at least ’til lunch, so maybe.” Andrew sloshed gin into a large tumbler, squirted on some tonic and topped it with a slice of lime. “How you settling in?”
Eleanor examined what she could see of his lined face over his black hedge of beard, trying to figure out if he was actually interested. “Good. It’s wonderful. So quiet.”
“The walls are so thick. I can’t even hear the pub.”
“So you’ve heard nothing…inside?”
Eleanor frowned, steadfastly ignoring the cold finger working its way up her spine. “Like what?”
“Footsteps on the stairs?” Andrew waggled his bushy eyebrows. “Shouts in the night?”
Eleanor gave him a wry look over the top of her glass. “Save the stories for the coach parties, Andrew.”
He planted his elbows on the counter. “If you say so, Miss Cruz. Just thought you might find it interesting to know that the room that’s now your…studio…” His eyebrows lifted, crinkling his forehead into deep lines. “That was Bess’s bedchamber.”
“The landlord’s daughter,” Andrew went on. “The one what shot herself to warn the highwayman of the ambush. That’s the room where she died.”
Eleanor took another swallow of her drink. “Is that right?”
“It’s said you can sometimes hear things, is all. When the moon is full. When he tries to return to her but she has to warn him off all over again. Coming,” he called down the bar, gave Eleanor a wink. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn ye.” He shambled to the walking party that had just crowded in with dripping coats and shivering dogs.
“Pay no notice,” came a pleasant voice over her shoulder. She jumped, the second time that day, and turned to see a young man stood just behind her. He had a tea towel over his shoulder and a tray of empty glasses in his hand. “He’s been telling the stories for so long now it’s become habit. Bess’s bedchamber changes depending on who he’s telling the story to, too. John,” he said, setting down the tray on the bar and holding out a hand.
“Eleanor,” she said, shaking his hand. “I’ve bought next door – ”
“Oh I know who you are,” he said, his smile widening. He had a pleasant face, dark hair, the nut-coloured skin of someone who’s spent most of year outside. His eyes were very brown, like the oak timbers over their heads and she could tell he was young, though found it hard to guess how young. “The whole village knows who you are, Miss Cruz.”
“Eleanor’s fine,” she said, a little firmly. “Infamous already, am I?”
His smile twitched. “Take no notice of the gossip. Villages are like tides. When there’s change everything gets stirred up. But it all settles eventually and everyone forgets there ever was a problem. Besides, they like to have something to talk about. You could say you’ve given them the best Christmas present they’ve had in years.”
Eleanor smiled, feeling something warm inside her that she hadn’t let herself admit had been cold for days. “Thanks. John, was it?”
“You work here?”
He shrugged a shoulder, brown eyes scanning the room with a distant sort of air. “Not officially. I help out the guests from time to time..”
“Andrew must be grateful.”
The smile twitched again. “In his way. What made you choose Crossways? Hardly the first place someone might think of to set up a recording studio.”
Eleanor examined him closely, but there seemed to be nothing but honest curiosity in his eyes. “I overnighted here on my way up to Edinburgh this time last year,” she said, looking round the close, dimly-lit room wreathed with fairy lights and cheap tinsel. “I heard the choir. They’re very talented.”
“They’re just local lads and lasses. But the choirmaster at All Saints has always been a prestigious position.”
“I’d heard that. Then I heard them sing. And there was a folk festival on here that same night,” she nodded round the room. “Some real talent, too. Then I found out just how many local acts there are.”
“Musicians are drawn here,” John said, eyes on the fiddler and guitarist who had started something slow and sad. “It’s the moors, I think. And the hills, the sea. They land seems to make its own music.” Eleanor watched him as his eyes went far away. Then he blinked and the melancholy look on his face vanished. “So you thought they deserved their own studio?”
“I know talent,” Eleanor said. “I’ve been working with chart-topping artists in London for over ten years. But when I heard that choir well…I knew this place had a voice. I wanted to give the rest of the world a chance to hear it.”
John nodded, almost in approval. Eleanor felt she should be nettled by someone so much younger than her presuming to judge her at all, even in a good light. But she found she wasn’t.
“I wish you the best of luck with it.”
“There’s an open day,” she put in before he moved away. “Tomorrow. And I’m putting on a carol service in the performance space on Christmas Eve. Recording it for charity.”
He smiled again. “Sounds great. I’ll stop by, if I can.” He looked back over his shoulder as if hearing something, nodded to her once more, eyes lingering on hers, then wove back into the crowd. Eleanor finished her drink and ordered another, allowing herself to feel reassured by his words.
The Highwayman will be posted (possibly in sections) fully in the run up to Christmas Day 2018. Stay tuned!