Greetings everyone and the very best of the season to you all! In keeping with a much-loved tradition which I have mentioned before, I have written a seasonal Ghost Story to give you thrills and chills at this most wonderful and atmospheric time of the year.
I will be posting The Highwayman in 5 sections from 20th – 24th Dec. Please find part 1 below. We meet the protagonist, Eleanor, her best friend and find out a little of the dark history of her new home.
Sincerely hope you enjoy!
The air was full with the smells of new paint and shaved wood, punctuated by the sharp tang of the evergreens Eleanor had picked that morning. Every surface was pristine, the furnishings new and spotless, the equipment gleaming and ready to go. As she wondered from room to room she breathed it all in along with the feel of the future.
The restoration had cost tens of thousands. The installation of the recording studio and performance space had cost even more. But even with the new wood, wiring, brick and plastic, computer screens, sound baffles, miles of cables and forests of microphones, the building still had…something old about it. Something aged, like long-buried bones, that couldn’t be painted over.
She put her hand on a door frame, part of the original building they’d been able to salvage, and told herself it was a good thing. She’d bought the Annex for a reason. She didn’t want another soulless, purpose-built concrete box. She wanted somewhere with character, where inspiration was woven into the very walls.
She peered through the lead-paned window into the gathering night. Chill bled through the old glass. Flecks of snow were beginning to swirl in the light from the hall and from the windows of the Highwayman next door. It lifted her spirits. A white Christmas. That was surely a good omen.
She moved downstairs, shutting lights off as she went, adjusting the holly and ivy hung from the wooden beams and banisters. She pause in the lobby and looked around. The reception desk, made to order from reclaimed oak, was decorated with plaited evergreen branches, laden with red holly berries, filling the air with the smells of wild and winter. Fairy lights sparkled in the windows and along the beams in the ceiling. A real Christmas tree, decorated with custom ornaments from a local craft market, glowed in the corner opposite the deep, sky-blue couches arranged around a newly-installed log burner.
She made herself smile. It was perfect. It really was.
Then why did she feel so nervous?
She shook her head and let herself through the side door to her private rooms. If anything it was even colder. She turned up the heating before gathering her handbag, keys, phone. She checked her hair in the mirror and froze, spun round. There was nothing there. She slowly turned back to the mirror. She saw only her face, slightly pale, and the coat rack behind her. It must have been the coats. That was all. One of the coats hanging in a way to make it look like…
She stared over her shoulder in the mirror, wondering why she couldn’t look away. There was a draught from somewhere. She became aware of a sound, so low she felt it rather than heard it.
She swore when her phone shattered the silence.
“Hey, it’s me.”
Eleanor let out a breath. “Abbie. Hi.”
“Are you ok?”
“I’m fine. The phone made me jump.”
Abbie paused a moment. “Is that all it is?”
“There hasn’t been more letters?”
Eleanor turned away from the mirror and grabbed her coat. “You worry too much. There hasn’t been a letter for over a week.”
“What did the police say?”
Eleanor took a breath. “I didn’t go to the police.”
“Eleanor – ”
“I told you, it’s just some local crackpot who doesn’t like what I’ve done to the Annex. As soon as they see I won’t be frightened off they’ll give up. May have given up already.”
“If you say so.”
Eleanor fought a sigh. “Look, I know you’d rather I’d kept the company in London – ”
“It’s not that, El,” Abbie put in. “I’m just concerned you’re too invested in this escape-to-the-country thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“Running away doesn’t always leave your problems behind.”
Eleanor did sigh this time. “I haven’t run away, Abbie.” She closed her eyes a second. “Megan hurt me. She did. But I’ve not left London because of her. I’ve left London because it’s London.”
“El – ”
“Abbie,” Eleanor cut her off. “I needed this. I already feel better. More myself.”
“You don’t sound much like yourself.”
Eleanor glanced around the hall, thick with shadows even with all the lights on. The night had darkened to black outside. The old building groaned and cracked as the central heating warmed its cold corners. “I’m just nervous about the open day, that’s all.”
“Ok,” Abbie said, in a softer tone. “Well I’m just phoning to confirm I’ve got the Air BNB until at least Christmas Eve, so I’ll be there for the carol service.”
Eleanor smiled. “That’s great. Is Jack coming too?”
“His dad’s got him for Christmas this year.”
Eleanor winced. “I forgot. You ok?”
“I’m fine,” Abbie said in a voice that told Eleanor she wasn’t but wasn’t in the mood to discuss it. “I’ll be with you by about 10 tomorrow. I’ll bring some of Alberto’s coffee.”
Eleanor’s spirits brightened. “Cheers. The last batch you got me is about to run out. It’s the only thing I miss.”
“I’ll bring as much as I can carry.” The smile was back in her voice. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Thought I’d pop next door for a drink. Meet some of the locals.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
Eleanor pulled on her coat, not quite able to suppress and impatient noise. “It’s a county pub, Abbie. Not a mob den.”
“I’m just saying, there’s clearly some bad feeling in the village.”
“One crazy person sent a couple of letters,” Eleanor insisted, wrapping her scarf round her neck. “It’s not like the population of Crossways is outside my door with pitchforks.”
“And what about the stories?”
Eleanor pinched the bridge of her nose and reminded herself how long Abbie had been her solicitor and family friend. “What stories?”
“You do know that’s the inn don’t you?” Her voice was different all of a sudden. “The one from The Highwayman?”
Eleanor snorted. “That’s a poem. And Noyes wrote it a million miles away from here.”
“It’s based on a true story. And the website says all sorts of unexplained things go on there. It’s bad luck to cross the threshold with a guilty heart.”
Eleanor paused with her hand on the door handle. “I know you believe this sort of thing Abbie, but, honestly. These stories are just a 300-year old promotional campaign. Besides, I don’t have a guilty heart.”
“I don’t literally believe these things,” Abbie went on in a lower voice. “They just often have a root in the truth. Sometimes a truth we can’t always explain.”
“Abbie. It’s a lovely pub. We’ll go for dinner tomorrow.”
Eleanor’s took a moment to control her voice. “Can you just try and be happy for me?”
“I’m sorry, El,” she said, and she did sound it, though perhaps not in the way she meant. “I am happy for you, really. I’m just not done being worried about you yet.”
“You’re such a mum. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Eleanor hung up before her friend could say anything else. The wind was biting cold outside and the snow had fattened to coin-sized flakes that spiralled in the air like confetti. Eleanor breathed the cold air deep into her lungs. It seemed to brighten parts of her that she had never realised had been dark. It was so nice not to smell fumes and refuse with every inhale. She locked the door behind her and didn’t let herself think too hard about why she found it hard to glance up at the darkened windows.
She turned her back on the Annex and made for the warm lights of the Highwayman. The windows glowed in the gloom and the smell of wood smoke was rich in the air.
The smell was stronger inside, but almost swamped by the aroma of drying coats, pub chips and spilled beer. The low-ceilinged room was packed with tables and chairs, crowded with people bent over glasses and games of dominoes and draughts, laughing and talking loudly to try and be heard over the two-piece acoustic act playing on the tiny stage in the corner. Eleanor recognised the tune, an old seasonal folk ditty, stitching its way through the air like the scent of mulled cider. People swayed in time and clapped along. Eleanor spotted a few locals, two who had occupied the same space at the end of the bar every time she’d been in, but also made out plenty of tourists in designer winter wear, wolfing down plates of pie and pints of local ale, pausing only to applaud as the tune came to its end. She heard a couple of American accents echoing through from the snug.
“Busy night,” she said 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 the night. What can I get ye?”
Eleanor ordered a gin and tonic whilst eyeing the guests. “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 recording 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 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 almost impulse. Bess’s bedchamber changes every time, 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 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. “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 step in to help out the guests from time to time. When the need arises.”
“Andrew must be grateful.”
The smile twitched again. “In his way. Yes. 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 Andrew told me just how many local acts there are.”
“Musicians are drawn here,” John said, eyes on the duo on the stage who had started something slow and sad. “It’s the moors, I think. And the hills, the sea. The land seems to make its own music.” Eleanor examined him again 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. “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, approving. 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. It’s being recorded 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, then wove back into the crowd. Eleanor finished her drink and ordered another, allowing herself to feel reassured.
Andrew served her and they finally talked business – drinks deals for the attendees of the open day and the carol service, ticket sales and Gift Aid.
The band were just closing their set and Eleanor was fighting the sneaking reluctance to return to the Annex alone, when someone, with the cold from outside still clinging to their clothing, elbowed past her and slapped a gnarled hand down on the bar. Andrew’s face went carefully blank. The man, all wild grey hair and old, stained overcoat, gave Eleanor a sharp look from the corner of his green, watering eyes then turned his attention to the landlord.
“I wants a ticket, Andrew. For the Christmas Eve Carols.”
“Mr Roberts – ”
“A ticket,” the man insisted, voice raising a notch so heads started to turn toward the bar. “Sam at post office wouldn’t do me one.”
“There’s a reason for that, Glen,” Andrew said folding his arms
“I gots just as much a right as any bugger else,” Roberts retorted, turning his sour look on Eleanor. “Don’t I gets to see the wrecking of Crossways too?”
“Glen – ” Andrew raised a hand.
“I’ve not wrecked anything,” Eleanor said, drawing herself up. The old man’s face twisted but she bulled on. “I’ve saved the Annex. The place was falling to pieces.”
“Ye don’t care about Crossways or the Annex,” he growled, pointing a twisted finger in her face. “Ye’ve torn it to pieces, and for what? To drag in more strangers, more tourists to shit in our home.”
“Glen,” Andrew’s face had grown dark. “That’ll be enough outta you. Don’t make me bar ye again.”
“Yer just as bad,” Roberts barked at the landlord. “Pandering to the interlopers and the passers-through, thinking no further than yer own pockets.” Spittle flew from his red mouth as he spoke and people began to edge away down the bar. A family that had just entered steered their kids back out into the dark with wary looks over their shoulders.
“Yer stuck in the past, you stupid old man,” Andrew growled, stalking out from behind the bar. “Ye change or ye die. Them’s the breaks. Now git. Out, now, before I call police.”
“Traitors,” Roberts gritted, eyes flaming. “All of ye. Happy to see Crossways ripped apart. This village had been ‘ere since middle ages and now the likes of you turn up and destory it overnight. No good will come of it, mark me.” He spat on the floor at Andrew’s feet, causing the large man to swear roundly and impressively before manhandling the old man out the door.
The locals went straight back to their beer. The tourists gawked at the door. The musicians, who had paused in the act of packing up, resumed fastening their instrument cases with mumbled comments.
Eleanor stared at the door a long time after Andrew had come back in. He tried to tempt her to another gin, on the house, but her mind already felt fogged, her emotions muggy. Her heart was slugging against her ribs but she plastered on a calm smile for Andrew and left, but stopped to ensure the car park was empty before crossing it back to her front door.
She told herself it really couldn’t be as cold inside as she thought. She was tired, had skipped dinner, again, and the gin was going to her head. And whether she wanted to admit it or not, the old man had shaken her. She thought of the threatening letters she’d hidden in the bottom of her desk – she’d wanted to burn them but had stopped herself, hearing Abbie’s voice in her head. Roberts’s speech reminded her of those bitter words, dripping with venom.
She was used to competitors, bossy clients, infuriated media bosses. But something so…personal. So viscous.
She blinked at herself in the hall mirror, the shadows under her eyes, the dull look in them. Her grey roots were showing and she hadn’t worn makeup in days. She didn’t recognise herself. For one instant she let herself wonder whether Abbie had been right. But then she shook the thought away.
When she opened her eyes, a shape had formed in the dark over her shoulder. She span. Only the coats on the coat stand. She sucked in deep breaths, willed her heart to calm. She clenched her eyes shut.
“Stop being stupid.”
She opened her eyes. No one in the hall or the mirror but her. She chewed her lip, staring up the stairs that led to her little apartment. She could hear the dull humming that had to be the central heating, the wind in the chimney, the clanking of old wood. She shrugged out of her coat and stomped up the stairs. She would not be intimidated, by stories, by truculent locals or by facing the future alone. She just wouldn’t.
That’s the room where she died.
She showered in her brand new bathroom, under the chrome waterfall shower, turning the heat up to almost max. She drew the thick bedroom curtains over the sight of the emptying car park and climbed into the new bed and breathed in the smells of clean linen and lavender. She stared up at the whitewashed ceiling, bathed amber in the light from her lamp. Her skin was still thrumming, her mind whirling and the low humming was still in the back of her awareness. She tried to blame the gin.
She refused to think about it. She refused to think of Roberts or Andrew or Megan.
I wish you the best of luck with it.
She allowed the young man, John’s, words in and focussed on them. They soothed the other jabbering enough to allow her to turn out the light.