IN A way this story begins with me standing by the window of my London flat on Boxing Day with a cricket bat in my hands, seriously considering smashing every bloody fucking pane of glass in the bloody fucking flat into bloody fucking shards. The thing that stopped me, in the end, was the handle of the bloody bat, wrapped in a fraying green grip. The end of the grip was peeling up, and that tiny imperfection, that little spike of lighter green, by being out of place, threatened to tear open the whole grip. Staring at it, I realized that I didn’t know whether the bat was mine or Danny’s.
Well, fuck, I thought. You’ll have to excuse the paucity of my vocabulary at this point in the story. Obviously I was drunk as the proverbial skunk, and several of its cousins as well, and I never was much good at talking about my (bloody fucking) feelings.
The bat could have been mine. For two brief summers as a gangling teenager, I had been a proud but somewhat unlikely member of my school’s second eleven. It hadn’t lasted, and I couldn’t remember if I’d kept any of that once treasured kit or whether it was in Mum and Dad’s loft with the other detritus of our childhoods.
Danny, on the other hand, was keen on every sport going: cricket, rugby, tennis, golf, football, anything that can be discussed in arcane and passionate depth with complete strangers —or as he used to put it, I like anything with a nice set of balls. And there was the dilemma. If this was Danny’s bat and I damaged it by using it on the windows…. It was unthinkable. What if he came home and found out I’d wrecked his stuff and so turned back round and walked away again?
Of course, by then I was 90% convinced that Danny was never coming home. He’d been missing for almost a decade, after all.
And that was why I didn’t break any windows. Instead I put the bat down, poured myself another drink, and decided to get the fuck out of London.
And by “another drink,” I mean the rest of the bloody pack, obviously.
Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best place to start this story, because I’m pretty sure right now you’re just thinking about what a sad and lonely fuckup this loser narrator is. Was. I’ve changed. Honest. Of course, I’ve no idea who “you” are. Who the fuck am I even writing this down for? I know what happened. I remember every moment of it. The only reason I’m trying to write this is because Jay thinks I’m clinging onto it a little too hard.
“Ten years ago, now,” he said to me yesterday, calmly challenging in that way only Jay can be. “You’re okay. Maybe, y’know, let it go? Let her go.”
“She is gone,” I reminded him. Of that, at least, I’m sure.
“Not if she’s still in your head.” He propped his chin up on his fist and looked at me, calm, steady, and analytical. (I still think of it as his “army face,” though I never knew him while he was still on active duty.)
“I hardly ever think about it.”
He smiled at me, wry and knowing. “Yeah? How many times this month have you slept with the light on?”
“Fuck off. Hardly any.”
“Twelve. I know because I’m in the bed with you.”
Hard to argue with that. “I can’t just switch bad dreams off.”
“You’re not going to be that guy.”
“Never gets over seeing a ghost. Sits there in the old people’s home trying to scare all the nurses. I’m not letting you.”
“What am I supposed to do about it, then?”
“Get it out of your system,” he said and shrugged. “Write it down. Lock it away somewhere and stop thinking about her.”
I’m not convinced it’s going to work, but Jay asked, and since he did, I suppose I have to try. He doesn’t ask me for much. So I suppose I’m my own audience, or perhaps I’ll do the traditional thing and one day pass on a flaking and dusty, well, Word document to some eager young great-nephew.
Jay has just leaned over my shoulder and asked why I’m writing about hypothetical nephews. Fair question, though he blatantly knows the answer as well as I do.
I do like the smell of procrastination in the morning.
Also coffee. I like coffee. Perhaps I need to make some to help me get started. Mmm, coffee. Or tea. A whole pot, brewed from the leaf, slowly strained and served with Rich Tea biscuits. I don’t think we have any Rich Teas. I could just pop out to—
Okay, and that was the point where Jay took my tablet away and made disappointed faces at me. No more procrastinating. I’ll be good.
I don’t want to write about her. What if it brings her back?
My husband is now trying to bribe me with filthy promises. Cheater.
Here goes, in proper ghost story style:
The professor first went down to E—— Hall on the 27th December 20—. At the time when he boarded the train at Waterloo, he had little apprehension that—
No, can’t do it. Bit too much of the M. R. James in that, and I never liked old Monty much. Too much prose, too little action, and far too many phobias of damp and hairy things lurking under the bed, poor closeted git.
Truth is, I wasn’t in a fit state to be apprehending anything that day, because I was as hungover as one of those aforementioned skunks would have been if they tried to sleep it off in the bottom of a hop kiln. It was late afternoon by the time I got to the station, and I had to wait ages for a train. I’d managed to stumble over to my estate-agent sister’s that morning, timing it for while Mum and Dad were out taking their Day After Boxing Day stroll across the common, and I’d tossed my key at Katie before I could change my mind. I’d told her to go ahead and do what she’d been begging me to do for years: shove my crap and Danny’s into storage and put the flat on the market.
I’d finally had enough of waiting.
I was regretting it bitterly by the time I got to Waterloo, but I resisted the urge to phone Katie and tell her I’d changed my mind. Enough was enough.
If Danny came back while Katie was there, she’d make sure he stayed around long enough for me to rush back up to town. I trusted her, even though it galled me to ask my little sister to clean up the mess that was my life.
I had enough self-awareness to know I couldn’t do it without help, though.
I actually had a good reason to be leaving London. “Professor” is a bit of a stretch, but I was already steadily on the academic career path. I was a Junior Research Fellow at one of the lesser-known London colleges, specializing in the nineteenth-century development of the British Army. I’d done a lot of work with military archives before, and my PhD supervisor, now my boss, had done considerably more.
At the time I went to Eelmoor Hall, the Army was in a state of quiet upheaval. After seventy years, it had just been announced that they would be withdrawing British troops from Germany. By the end of 2016, the Army claimed at the time, 11,000 troops and 17,000 support staff and family members stationed overseas would be back in the UK. To house them, there needed to be a vast reorganization of British Army bases. Barracks that had long stood empty were being spruced up, and regiments and organizations were being relocated all over the country.
One of the many changes underway was the relocation of the Royal Military School of Medicine from its traditional home in North Hampshire to a cheaper and more modern campus in the northeast. The RMSM had been housed in Eelmoor Hall, between the towns of Fleet and Aldershot, since 1923, and as part of the move, their CO had written to my supervisor to ask if he could recommend a keen young chap who might be interested in spending a few weeks cataloging and organizing their archives and small museum in preparation for the move. They were offering a decent wage, it would get me out of London for a few weeks, and they were putting me up for free in the now empty hall itself.
Jay says I’m waffling again, bloody backseat driver that he is.
Well, that got rid of him, though I’ll have to offer makeup sex later. So, where was I?
It was dusk by the time the taxi drew up at the gates, the sort of dull winter dusk that is only the steady fading of a gray day into true darkness. There was supposed to be an on-site caretaker, one Sergeant McBride, who would let me in the gate. I climbed out of the taxi to hit the buzzer on the intercom and started to shiver. The air here was noticeably crisper than it had been in London, and my breath immediately rose in clouds.
Sergeant McBride took his time answering and was curt when he told me to wait until the gate opened. I shoved my hands into my pockets and took another breath of that cold air. It tasted cleaner than London air, and I squinted through the gates to see the grounds of Eelmoor Hall. There were lawns on this side, and a long drive running towards a pillared frontage. The old house had two wings that stretched back from the main front so the hall was longer than it was wide, and I knew there were a number of modern buildings in the grounds behind it—offices, accommodation and teaching rooms—as well as several assault courses and firing ranges. The archive was in the library, in the east wing of the old hall.
Standing there, gazing up at the stark lines of the hall, it looked as dark and tired as I felt, its redbrick frontage turned brown by the fading light. The windows were dark, but I could easily imagine that someone was standing in there, hidden behind the heavy curtains and watching my approach.
The gate whirred open, and I scrambled back into the taxi. When we finally drew up on the front drive, a man was waiting by the front entrance, leaning back against the base of the right oriel window with his arms crossed. He wore a khaki jacket and had a woolen cap pulled down low, although a few fair curls escaped around the back. He didn’t say anything as I paid the driver and lugged my case up the low steps. Only when I put it down at the top did he nod to me. “Dr. Alcott, I presume?”
“Luke,” I corrected him and held out my hand. “You must be Sergeant Mc—”
“Jay. Not in the Army much longer.” His voice was flat. “Was expecting you a little earlier.”
That explained his bad mood. In the emotional tumult, I’d forgotten to phone and let him know I was running several hours late. “Shit, I’m so sorry. It’s been a day, man. I didn’t mean to—”
“Library key,” he cut over me, handing an old brass key over. “Master key for bedrooms and kitchens, passcode for the gate and external doors, which changes on Saturday. You’re in Room 221. The corridor can be accessed from the main stairs or the library gallery. Crates and packing material are in the ground floor store cupboard by the main library door. If you get lost or need something, I’m on extension 445, unless I’m at work.”
“I’m at work. This isn’t my main job.”
“Then I’m even more sorry to have screwed with your day. Don’t the Army pay a proper wage for this?”
He lifted one shoulder in a slow shrug. “They just don’t want the place to sit here empty. I live here and keep an eye on things, and they don’t charge me rent.”
“Oh, the property-guardian thing. Couple of my grad students do that. Always thought it sounded like a bit of a scam, but this looks like a nice setup.” I was babbling, thrown by his grim, unresponsive face. He was handsome, now I looked properly, and that just made me want to talk more. “I mean, it must be good to have a whole bloody mansion to call your own. Or the Army’s own, I suppose, though—” I made a conscious effort to stem the word-dribble. “Um. So. I should be getting inside.”
He didn’t move, but a faint hint of amusement around his eyes salted the grimness. He had an accent, faintly underlaying everything he said with that peculiarly Ulster combination of musicality and muscle. “If you like.”
He clearly wasn’t going to come with me, and I bit back a little irritation of my own. Okay, so I’d inconvenienced him, but he didn’t have to be rude. “Point me in the right direction?”
“East,” he said and pointed. “Thataway.”
“Cheers,” I said and lugged my case inside. I glanced back to see him still leaning against the wall, scowling out over the now shadowy line of the drive where it curled back towards the gates and the lodge.
Look, I never claimed it was love at first sight.
Inside, the foyer had that odd mixture of institutional function and faded grandeur that seems to characterize old schools and posh hotels. It was dark, but lights came on as I moved forward, triggered by some motion sensor somewhere, and I was able to follow signs to the library, the lights rising and fading as I walked. I stopped for a moment at the bottom of a stairway, wondering whether it was a shortcut to my room or whether I should just carry straight on and find the way through the library.
I must have stood still too long for the motion sensors, because the lights went off. It was dark—country dark, not London dark—with no lights outside to shine through the windows, and suddenly the big house seemed even vaster and colder. I could hear a faint rattling in the wall, a distant electronic hum from somewhere, a creak of floorboards upstairs, all the normal sounds of an old and empty building.
And, as you sometimes do in old buildings, I suddenly felt that I wasn’t alone. I thought that someone else was there in the darkness, breathing in perfect time with me, so close that I could have reached out and touched them. I startled, and the lights came back on.
I was alone, of course, in an empty hallway filled with blank notice boards. It had just been my imagination.
I made my way to the library, and once I was there, I forgot all about the creepy hallway and Sergeant Arsehole McBride and got caught up in the work. They had records in there going back to the founding of the school, and the last catalog had been done back in the eighties, when they’d actually employed a part-time archivist and librarian. His neat little cabinet of index cards was still there, although one glance showed me they were hopelessly muddled. Some of the newer material had been added, but that effort seemed to fizzle out in the mid-nineties. There was a computer, a PC old enough that it still had a floppy disk drive and a dial-up modem. A faded Post-it note on the front told me that it was available for half-hourly slots only (“Please do not abuse your extranet privileges”).
So the first step would be to find out exactly what I had in here.
I’ll spare you the details. I find them fascinating, but in the end they’re not what this story is all about. What I do need to explain is what I was thinking about that first night in the library. Jay reckons, and I agree, albeit reluctantly, that if I had been any other type of miserable, I probably wouldn’t have caught her attention in the way I did.