By Chris Wilson
The old man liked Thursdays. He enjoyed ghost tours, and he had a soft spot for Samantha, so it was good that all three came together on the same day. She was the tour guide every Thursday. With her soft Scottish Melrose accent, she took the old man back to his childhood in the Scottish borders, where many of his pre-adolescent memories and dreams lay. It was 5 pm; the tour would be starting shortly, so pulling himself up from the park bench where he had been sitting, he scurried away. His wife would join him later, and he began to anticipate the evening to come. What would the group be like tonight, he wondered, would they see any ghosts, and, if lucky enough to do so, what message might such ghosts bring?
Samantha McFadden slammed the front door of her rundown bedsit, swept her long black trench coat around her, and swore at the landlord’s tomcat. The cat arched its back, hissed and spat in return. She was late, she strode towards the cathedral where her Thursday night City Ghost Tour would begin. She was feeling homesick, the cat had swiped her dinner, and her landlord told her that her rent was both increasing and overdue. He had to make a living, but she wasn’t making much money, and her room was in need of urgent repair. She wished a few ghosts would visit him, so he and his greedy fat flea bag of a cat might be frightened away.
The sooner the tour was done the better, for she was hungry. In her bedsit a hamper of luxury Scottish Nibbles and a bottle of 18yr old Lagavulin from her parents in Kelso lay waiting, but she still had a job to do. She saw her tour group waiting by the Cathedral entrance, and put on her most ingratiating smile.
“Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Samantha, and I’m your tour guide this evening. On behalf of City Ghost tours, and all the ghosts, ghoulies, and wee timorous beasties that await you; may I welcome you to our tour. Be afraid, be very afraid. The night is young, but dusk has fallen, and our ghosts are about to come out and play!”
What a waste of time, Samantha thought to herself, as they just looked at her in silence. Yet the sonorous Cathedral bells had stopped pealing, the tour was late starting. Guiding her group away from the creamy-white walls of the 13th century chapter house, she began to make up for lost time.
The old man watched Samantha carefully. She was well into the tour now and normally she would have lingered at all the sites they had so far visited. Her performance tonight was almost bad tempered and perfunctory, and he couldn’t help but wonder why. She whisked past the old jail and the execution yard, she flicked a casual hand towards the plague memorial plaque on the wall of the old hospital, and gave a cursory nod to the 16th century market place town gibbet which, ghost ridden and blood stained, eerily creaked in the breeze.
Now she was settling down however. A smile was back on her face, there was warmth within her commentary. so he relaxed as she carried on with her tour.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we stand in the oldest part of the city, and we approach the peak of our spectral tour. I advise you to stop, look and listen, and hear the echoes of everything that has happened over the years. This city is soaked in blood, and savaged by villainy, treachery, monastic abuse, greed and highway robbery. Feel the pain that is imprinted in the buildings; sense the blood which has seeped beneath the cobble stones. Life and death are calling out to you, the ghosts of centuries past want to talk to you. Can you hear them as they call out your name?”
Still no response from the group. They should have been enjoying themselves, but they were like a bale of moribund tortoises. They yawned and blankly looked back at her. Maybe they were hibernating; possibly they had overstuffed themselves with lettuce leaves, but Samantha, with their money in her handbag, was paid to churn out her commentary, so up until she came to the next location, she really didn’t care.
The tour came to the 18th century pauper’s orphanage. This was the high spot of the evening. This is where the tour got serious. For the old man and Samantha, the atmosphere, and the importance of the ghost tour, dramatically changed.
High walled, grim, and foreboding, despite is soft-white limestone construction, this site was special for Samantha, as within its bleak and empty walls, children, poor malnourished and neglected children, had suffered and at times died in each other’s arms.
“Children have been murdered here.”She told the tour group. “Innocent, poor, trusting infants who, dragged out of their homes, had no mother or father. Beaten, starved, and with no expectations for the future except the whip or the cane, they have cried, died, and screamed within these walls. Listen carefully, you may hear their screams to this day. We are lucky, we all have warm homes or plush hotel rooms to go to, but how would we feel if we had to step it their shoes? Imagine our pain and anguish as our flesh was sliced to the bone. Many such bones lie beneath the floorboards Ladies and Gentlemen, and to this day skeletons can be found incarcerated within these walls!”
For Samantha the time for acting had now come to an end, but the group showed little interest or empathy with the children. They only gave her a torpid stare.
There was only one person that listened to her. An old man, standing at the back of the group. She had seen him before, but quiet, chestnut haired, and with warm deep hazel eyes, he never approached her, only giving her a reassuring smile. He reminded her of her favourite Teddy bear, which she still clung onto from her childhood. The old man was calm, cuddly, and comforting, and with sympathetic wisdom radiating from his eyes, she knew that at least one person understood her, and was on her side. She wanted to chat; to cuddle and curl up to him. She wanted him to read her a story, but her thoughts rapidly returned to the children, as in some small way she wanted to relieve their pain.
Sadly this had proved impossible, for despite her fine words she had never seen or heard them. She wanted to comfort and reassure them, but despite the fact she kept looking and trying to contact them, she didn’t know how they could be found.
A member of the group coughed irritably. The cough was a clarion call that dragged her back to reality. She still had more sites to cover; so she hurried her little group away. She didn’t notice that the old man had stayed behind.
Standing in front of the orphanage, and looking in through a window the old man could see two boys. They were in rags and emaciated but, smiling and giggling they were playing pick-up-sticks. A bedraggled heap of thin splintered sticks lay between them. A miserly pile, pulled off from a rotten board by their side.
He felt a tap on his shoulder. He glanced behind him, and smiled. His wife had joined him, but she was pointing towards the children. A deep sadness lay in her eyes, and he fearfully looked back into the room.
The children had stopped playing. They were huddled together, and they stared at a now open door. A dark mist hung menacingly in the doorway; a dense ominous mist, which, filling the whole doorway, finally grew into a man. Tall, heavily built, and powerful, he glared over to where the two boys now cowered in a corner. His eyes sparkled and he grinned maliciously as he marched across the room. A long, gleaming, gold, black leathered, handled whip lay tightly gripped in his hand. He raised his whip, and laughed mercilessly. The two boys couldn’t escape their tormentor, and, wide eyed with terror, their mouths opened as if to scream.
There was no sound though, and no relief for the children. As the old couple looked on despairingly, the children, and the man who towered above them, slowly, all too slowly, melted away.
The old man wanted to rush into the room and save them, but his wife pulled him away.
“We can’t help the children.” She pleaded with him. “It’s too late, they can’t see us. They are from a different time, and we have to move on!”
The tour finished, Samantha sat on the bench and rubbed the old remembrance plaque that nudged her in the back, just below her shoulders.
“To Elsie, from her Albert, who loved her, and who always sat by her side”
She’d sat here before, but had never noticed the verdigris copper plaque, and now she wondered who Albert and Elsie might have been. Did they marry, did they have any children, and did their love survive after they had died? The park was empty, her malt whisky and goodies were calling, but a warm blanket of air settled around her like a winter duvet. She closed her eyes, leant back against the park seat, and began to dream.
In her dream she saw the old man, but now an old woman had joined him. They smiled at her, and put an arm around her shoulder. For one brief moment she wanted to speak to both of them, but it was only a dream, and now she was too tired, and too comfortable to care.
Albert and Elsie sat on the seat beside Samantha. They were very old now, and this bench, once theirs, up until 25 years ago,was now for the living, but they still put their arms around her. To Albert and Elsie, Samantha represented the daughter that, through a late miscarriage, had been cruelly and painfully snatched from them. They loved Samantha, as if she was their daughter. As they held her, they prayed she might feel their warmth and love; and realise that they were there. Sadly, they had to leave, they needed their rest now. They got up, smiled at Samantha, embraced and kissed each other softly, then walked through the park seat, before gradually, and silently, fading away.