Lori adjusted her bustle, raised her spook-on-a-stick and waited for her ‘guests’ to roll up. She liked to dress in Victorian style for the ghost tour, and the spook-on-a-stick was a cut out of a classic white sheet ghost stuck to the top of a six foot long pole. It helped the audience to follow her and marked her rallying point.
She had ten pre-booked guests, but there were always a few who just turned up at the appointed hour, and sometimes passersby decided to join the tour. She took money from those who had not already paid online, and at the start time, began her tour.
‘First,’ she said, ‘let me remind you that I won’t be talking about the Shuckleigh Horror. There is a separate tour for that on Saturday evenings, hosted by my friend Maxwell, who is a real expert on the subject, so I do recommend you give it a go.’
‘Well, let’s begin. We are outside Shuckleigh railway station which was rebuilt in this beautiful Art Deco style in 1936. While the station was being rebuilt workmen often heard a guard’s whistle, when there were no trains due, followed by the sound of a fast locomotive and the screaming of brakes. This is thought to be an echo of the rail crash of 1897 when a speeding loco overshot the station and crashed on a bend a quarter of a mile down the line. Only the driver was killed, and no-one knows why he failed to slow and stop. Perhaps he now relives the crash over and over again. This still happens today, whenever there are any kind of works or disturbance at the station.’
She elaborated for a while on the possibilities of why the train did not stop, and while she did, noticed someone at the back of the crowd behind the paying customers. She recognised the homeless man who always hung around at the station. Sometimes she had bought him a coffee or slipped him a couple of pounds, though that had not helped, of course. How pale he looked.
She led her audience away from the station, down the hill, past the shops, and came to a halt outside the town’s only cinema.
‘The famous Bjiou Cinema, which also dates from the 1930s and still miraculously survives, probably because this town isn’t big enough for a chain cinema. If you have been to see a film here, you may have noticed that the aisle seat in the right hand back row is always reserved. That was the preferred seat of Roger Wright, who came to the cinema every week from the day it opened until the day he died of a heart attack while watching Lawrence of Arabia. That didn’t stop him though. At least once a week, part way through the evening showing, there will be a creak as Roger’s seat folds down and he takes his place.’
‘What happens if you sit in his spot?’ asked a young man, who may have been considering just that.
‘I’m told that he sits down anyway, right where you are. I am also told that it is a very unpleasant sensation.’
Everybody laughed, and shivered too. The homeless man was still there, but not laughing. This was the first time he had ever followed her tour, and he did not seem to be enjoying himself. She set off for the next location, followed by her crowd.
‘Here we are at the Black Dog Inn, great for a pint of real ale, but also home to at least four ghosts. Of the Shuckleigh Horror we will not speak, as I have said, but there were many other events in this pub’s long history. Back in the sixteenth century an argument turned very nasty, knives were drawn, and within a few moments William Bennett and Andrew Morgan were both dead or dying from their mutually inflicted wounds. There was no winner in that fight. No-one knows what started it, but sometimes they can be heard fighting in the main bar even today. On several occasions, bar stools have been thrown across the room and glasses broken. Still they can’t resolve their argument.
‘A gentler ghost haunts the Snug Bar. You may be quietly enjoying your drink when a light touch brushes your cheek or ruffles your hair. Staff at the Black Dog think that it is Marian, a barmaid who died thirty years ago when a beer keg fell on her in the basement.
‘Room four upstairs is also said to be haunted. Guests are woken at three in the morning by something jumping onto the bed. Perhaps it’s the ghost of Ginger the pub cat, who lived here for nine years. He died peacefully, but maybe he doesn’t want to leave.
‘After the tour, why don’t you come back and see if Marian will brush your cheek or ruffle your hair? She’d be glad to see you, I’m sure.’
Lori led on, noticing that the homeless man was still there at the back of the crowd. He looked as unhappy as before, so she began to direct her performance at him, trying to get a smile or any kind of reaction. She knew he had a surprisingly bright smile, because she had seen it once, when, after a particularly profitable tour, she gave him five pounds. It would be nice to see it again.
They went past St. Mary’s Church, where she talked at some length about the haunted well, and also about the many occasions on which occultists had broken into the crypt to perform their ceremonies. Those stories always went down very well.
They walked back to the centre of the town with brief stops to mention poltergeists and other domestic hauntings. The tour took an hour around the town, returning to the start point, and everyone seemed well pleased. Quite a few bought copies of her ‘Haunted Shuckleigh’ booklet. The crown dispersed, Lori lowered her ghost stick and began to walk home, eager to get out of the tight-fitting Victorian gown. As she walked, she became aware that someone was following her. It was still early evening, but there were not too many people about, so she sped up her pace and arranged her house keys in her fist so that if she had to hit anyone she would do some damage. Also, maybe she could beat them off with the spook-on-a-stick.
Lori did not look back until she reached her front door, next to the Floating Heaven restaurant. She lived in the flat upstairs. As she put her key in the door, she looked over her shoulder and saw that her follower was the homeless man. He came closer, hesitantly, and she could see how insubstantial he was, really quite transparent. So sad he looked, and cold.
She opened the door, and did what she never would have done while he was alive.
‘Do you want to come in?’ she asked. ‘The whole place smells of Chinese food in the evening, but if you don’t mind that…’
The homeless ghost drifted up the stairs ahead of her. By the time they reached the top his form had dissipated like smoke a windy day, but the sense of a presence remained, and the impression of a smile.