Monday, 7 September 2015

The Phantom of Elswick Hall

“I feel like a fourteen year old, waiting for my older mate to come back from the corner shop with a bottle of Vodka.” I told Rachel, as we sat in front of a candle in room 62 of Elswick Hall. The wicker chair I was sat in was worryingly close to the candle. I had a creeping paranoia that the chair might set in fire, and the white material of the duvet behind us was probably a fire hazard too.
“Shut up, Gabriel.” She laughed. “We’re hardly fourteen years old.”
“And the guy getting the Vodka isn’t one of my mates.” I said. 
“No.” Rachel said. “He’s my boss and he’s desperate to meet you.”
“Drinking around a candle in a luxury hotel is certainly an orthodox place to meet up.”
“What can I say about Tom? He does things in style.”
The door opened and the man called Tom rushed in. Despite the gloom of the non-candle lit doorway, I could tell plenty by his silhouette. He was middle aged, balding and swollen around his middle. My deductive abilities told me a load of nonsense that wasn’t probably true. Hopefully.
“How’s whiskey?” He asked, grabbing three shot glasses from his desk and waddling over to join us. He pulled up a chair on the other side of the candle and smiled. “Hope you’re thirsty, it’s a big bottle.”
“Now you’re talking my language.” I said, smiling. “It’s an honour to finally meet you. Rachel’s said a lot.”
“Nothing too bad, I hope.” He laughed.
I rolled my eyes. This was turning into one of the most cliched conversations of my life. 
“And Rachel,” he said, “a pleasure to see you again.” He kissed her hand.
I’m surprised my eyes weren’t in the back of my head, I’d rolled them that much! “So, what does the head of governmental scientific research do?” I asked.
“Things that I certainly won’t be telling a journalist.” He laughed. “Although, you’re hardly just a journalist, are you? I’d say more of a detective.”
“I dabble.” I said. 
“Don’t be so modest! You’re an excellent detective, one of Scotland’s finest, I’d say. Greenhouse Spectres, now there was a case! Absolutely cracking.”
“I’ve always thought it was a bit far fetched.” I said.
“No, not at all. It’s an excellent story because it proves that something, no matter how strange, can be simply proved with logic.”
“And a handy stroll to the pub opposite the church.” Rachel said. 
We all laughed and toasted such a revelation. Once he’d emptied his cup, in one sip, Tom said, “Mr Rathbone, do you consider yourself a ghost buster?”
“I’m not wearing a proton pack.” I said.
Tom laughed. “Very funny. Mr Rathbone, Gabriel, would you like to hear a ghost story?”
I nodded in the candle light, leaning forwards, enticed. As my mentor, Amelia McCardle, had once said, always listen to a person’s story. It tells you a lot about the person.
Tom poured himself another glass of whiskey, watching it rise to the brim of the glass. His eyes darted from one side of the room, the mirror above the coffee table, the lounge near the flat screen television. When they finally returned to me, a brand new trail of wax had solidified down the candle’s shaft. He looked at me. “Have you ever heard of the Phantom of Elswick Hall?”
“No.” I said.
“Of course not. It’s a story that the staff here at Elswick Hall want to keep very secret. I doubt the general public would want to stay at a haunted hotel, after all.”
I nodded. It was perfectly understandable.
“The story goes that a man once stayed in the hotel when it first opened. Nobody knows his name; his records can’t be found. Hence the element of fiction to this story. The legend states the man was trying to recover from his divorce from a famous baroness, that he’d fallen completely from grace. Whether this is actually true or not, I don’t know. It’s what happens next that counts.” He took his shot glass and drained it in one gulp. He poured himself another glass. “They say he’d spend every evening in the bar, gulping every liquor and alcohol in the entire hotel.”
“You sound as if you’d get on.” I said.
Tom put down his empty shot glass and smiled. “You’re very witty, Mr Rathbone.”
“Go on with the story.”
“The man got so drunk one day that he was told he would have to leave. Angry, he wandered out into the night, a bottle of gin clutched in one hand. The rain was lashing that night, forks of lightning spiking through the air. The trees rustled and the ground squelched under his feet. The man decided to go for a run. As he jogged, his shoes squelched in the mud. As he got further and further away from the hotel, his ankles squelched in the mud. As he passed through a short burst of trees, leaving the enticing glow of the hotel, he felt himself wading through the mud up to his knees. He ventured out, further and further, until eventually his legs were taking him through the marshes. I’m sure you’ve experienced them?”
I nodded. They’d almost been the death of my poor land rover. 
“It is said that he died in those marshes, drowning in mud. The sludge poured from his nose and his throat as he said goodbye to his mortal form.”
I grimaced. 
“Perhaps I have over emphasised the details. I do apologise. But still, on with the story. The story goes that now, the ghost of the man stalks Elswick Hall, forever in search of drink or anyone who looks like his beloved baroness. And everywhere he goes are a trail of muddy, abandoned footprints.”
He paused for dramatic effect and finished off his fourth glass of whiskey. One gulp later, he placed it down and said, “So, Mr Rathbone, what do you think?”
I looked at him. “It’s certainly an interesting story. I will go to sleep on it and I’ll tell you my conclusion tomorrow. It’s getting rather late.”

As Rachel and I walked back to our room, hand in hand, I asked, “What did you think?”
“Surely I should be asking you?” She replied.
“Hey, you’re the scientist. I’m merely a humble journalist.”
She shook her head and grinned. “I think it was the biggest load of nonsense I’ve ever heard. Just like Tom to fill his head with rubbish to disguise from his massive intellect. You?”
“I thought he was a good storyteller.” I said. “But as for whether I believed it or not... Well, let’s just say sceptical would be a polite word.”

The Next Evening. I’d told Tom my findings at lunch earlier that day. He was sat at another table, away from us, with a woman that Rachel told me had been assigned to make sure he didn’t drink himself to death. My arms stretched across the table, either side of another candle, my hands holding her’s as we waited for our meals to be delivered. I blew the candle out.
“Well, that’s romantic.” She said.
I shook my head, sighing. “I have a phobia of candles at romantic dinners.” (See Memory Lane)
“And this is the very definition of romantic.” She said.
“You’re looking exceptionally beautiful today.” I smiled.
“You’ve saved this dinner.” She told me.
On another table, a business man was laughing with a group of other men. They looked the sort who’d go game shooting at the weekends, or would alternatively play rugby on a Thursday. I don’t know if I was imagining it or not but I could have sworn one of them was called Diggers. 
A group of women were picking at their low calorie meals, wishing they could have the freedom of old age that the couple on the next table had. One of them was practically drooling over the old woman’s chocolate cake. I didn’t blame her; it looked delicious.
On the next table were Tom and his alcoholic councillor. He sighed, shaking his head and pushing her his sixth glass of gin. “I can’t face another glass.” He said. “You have it.”
The woman shrugged and took a deep sip of the gin. There was none left on the table now. 
At another table, a little boy was having a perfectly innocent conversation with his teddy bear whilst his parents exchanged glances at each other. Little Alfie will be beaten up at Eton if he keeps doing that, one glance said.
Should I call Mr Nailor? Another asked.
The child psychologist? 
No, the hair dresser. Of course the psychologist! 
He did such an excellent job with Octavia, I guess it would only be a good idea.
“Gabriel!” Rachel snapped. I looked at her, snapping out of my people watching trance.
“Sorry, my dear?” I replied.
“Sometimes, I think you’re more interested in other people than me.” She said, acting with a sense of narcissism I’d never seen in her before.
My shoulder stung a bit as I moved my hands to hold her’s a little tighter. “Rachel, I couldn’t love you more.”
She leant forwards and kissed me on the lips. She moved back, flushing with an embarrassed red, when the waitress came over. “A rack of ribs and chips?”
I raised my hand and she placed it in front of me, placing Rachel’s prawn pasta in front of her. 
“Good job I blew out the candle.” I said. “Otherwise, you would have set yourself on fire when you went to do that.”
“Shut up.” She smiled, and speared a prawn on her fork.
The rolling boom of thunder reverberated outside, threatening clouds blocking out the purported half moon. Rain lashed against the French Doors, grand echoing booms with each splash. A fork of lightning carved through the darkness. As it boomed, there was a sudden scream. We all turned to see it’s source. Tom.
Opposite him was the corpse of his alcoholic councillor.
“Oh for crying aloud!” I cried. “Can’t we ever have just a bloody holiday?”

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