A Ghost of a Chance
I screamed when my mobile phone rang. I would have preferred a more manly response - a bellow or a roar, perhaps - but at five in the morning, in a dark, deserted graveyard, a scream somehow came naturally. Especially with the company I was keeping. I jerked the phone free of my pocket and looked round warily. My scream had been loud enough to wake the dead. It didnt appear to have done so. Yet.
Hello? I whispered.
Your wake-up call, a familiar voice said, loud despite the poor reception.
Bridget, I wasnt exactly asleep.
Pleased to hear it, replied my best friend in journalism - make that my only friend in journalism. Why are you whispering?
Im in a graveyard. And Im not alone.
Bridget was silent for a moment - a new record for her. Then she said stiffly:
The whole point of this article is that youre in a haunted place on your own.. She sighed. Who is she? That long-legged PR from the Film Festival? I hope you were a gentleman and let her go on top. Doing it on gravestones at this time of year is just asking for piles.
Its not like that, I said. I looked at the man in front of me. Im with a dead man, actually.
She barked a quick laugh.
Ive had dates like that. Put him on, then.
Im pleased youre taking your brief to communicate with the dead so seriously, although I didnt actually specify gay necrophilia. But let me hear what he has to say.
Not a lot, I said, ignoring the rest of her - frankly rather cheap - remarks. I must say you dont seem very surprised.
A dead man in a graveyard - that should surprise me, should it, sweetheart?
You dont believe me, do you? I said indignantly. Thats because youre missing the point. This man isnt a corpse.
Whats the difference between a corpse and a dead man?
She had me there. I shone my torch on my companion again.
Dont distract me, I said eventually. What I mean is hes not dead and buried. Well, not buried. Hes not in a grave or a coffin.
More council cutbacks, I suppose. Okay, Ill go along with this. Where is he, Nick?
Hes hanging upside down from a tree by his right leg.
Tory MP is he? Bin liner over his head, drug-impregnated orange stuck in his mouth?
Ha ha. Hes hanging by his ankle, not his neck.
Maybe hes a beginner. Or just incompetent. Youre sure hes dead? Have you tried the kiss of life?
Yuk. You must be joking. Even supposing I knew how to do it theres some gunge on his face.
So cut him down and wipe it off.
And disturb evidence of a crime?
Nick, what was your drug of choice last night? The guy has hanged himself. Theres no crime in that. What are you up to?
Im not up to anything. Im being serious, Bridget.
There was another silence down the line.
You really are sitting there with a dead man, she said in a puzzled tone. Are you okay?
Im being very brave.
Doubtless. Well, you really should try and see if hes dead.
Hes dead, believe me. I touched his face earlier. It was very cold.
What do you think killed him?
Strangulation. The rope goes down his back and round his neck. Hes trussed up with a really complicated series of knots.
So the police should start looking for a deranged boy scout. Have you called them yet?
Im going over to Ashcombe Manor to phone them now.
Why dont you just use your mobile?
Because, dear heart, my battery is about done - I can hardly hear you. Plus, Im not hanging around here any longer than I need to. This has been a very strange night.
Nick, I understand how upset you must be. But try to take the long view.
You could be on to a great story.
Id reached Ashcombe Manor originally by a more circuitous route than the one I took now. My chum, Bridget Frost, the Bitch of the Broadsheets, had recently switched from poacher to gamekeeper and taken a job as editor of a Saturday magazine for one of the nationals.
The publishers didnt care whether she took it downmarket to compete with the Mirror and the Sun or upmarket to compete with The Guardian, The Times and The Telegraph just so long as she didnt leave it in the middle market, where it was being trounced by The Mail and The Express.
Shed told them it would take two years and an extra £2 million on the budget to turn it around. They offered her a six-month contract and whatever money she could save by sacking people. She didnt intend to sack anybody, but she accepted the offer for the hell of it and to see how much of their money she could pass on to her freelance friends in commissions before she was fired, as she inevitably would be.
Within a matter of days she was sending her mates on freebies to posh restaurants and upmarket health spas and on travel jaunts all over the world. Not all her mates, mind. She invited this mate to spend a night in a haunted place and live to tell the tale. And she didnt even make living to tell the tale an urgent priority.
Perhaps you could make notes all the time youre there, she said when she gave me the commission. In case anything, you know, happens to you.
Bridget smirked as I looked sourly at the lavish travel brochures scattered across her desk. She picked up a book called The Haunted Houses of Britain and pitched enthusiastically into the task of finding somewhere really gruesome for me to go. A smoking cigarette clamped in the corner of her mouth, she riffed the pages, telling me the history of each place with gleeful relish: who went mad in this one, who had a seizure in that.
I interrupted her:
Bridget, have I offended you in some way?
She tilted back her chair and stuck her feet up on the desk, her skirt riding somewhere up around her hips. She had good legs - a good figure all the way round, come to that - but I hardly glanced at them. Wed been friends for years and I was probably closer to her than almost anyone else but we never thought of each other sexually. Or if we did, we never did anything about it.
She exhaled smoke.
Heres one. Ashcombe Manor, an Elizabethan great house in Sussex.
I hate Elizabethan ghosts. Guys in tights with their heads under their arms, white ladies floating through walls looking droopy. If Im going to do this I want a ghost with a bit of spirit, you know? Isnt there a medieval ghost clanking around in full armour anywhere, gore dripping off his cuirass - if youll pardon the expression?
Cuirass. Skip it.
She scanned the page. Ashcombe Manor has a lot going for it. Haunted neolithic graves nearby. John Dee, the Elizabethan astrologer and black magician, performed scrying - whatever that is - there. Then, in the twenties, Aleister Crowley, The Great Beast, lived in the house and performed black masses there. Its even got a lake where they presumably disposed of all the sacrificed virgins.
Same to you with nobs on.
Scrying is seeing things in crystal balls. Dees crystal ball is in the British Museum. And Aleister Crowley - Ive heard of him. He was a member of the Golden Dawn with W B Yeats.
That old cricketer?
That was W G Grace. Even you must have heard of Yeats. Hes a great poet.
A poet? she said, in a tone of voice she usually reserved for paedophiles, white slave traders or boyfriends whod done her wrong. She sniffed. Says here Crowley was a demonologist, necromancer, drug fiend and sexual pervert - sounds right up your street, Nick. He and his friends tried to raise the Devil on The South Downs near Ditchling Beacon.
Daemonologist, I corrected her. On The Downs? I thought that was all National Trust. Couldnt he find anywhere less prosaic?
She gave me one of her looks, the kind that make grown men quiver. I quivered.
Daemonologist? she said. Anywhere less prosaic? You talk like a real poncy pillock sometimes, Nick. She threw the book on the desk. Do you want this commission or not?
Of course I do. Im perfect for it. I know all about this stuff. I grew up not far from Pendle Hill.
Im thrilled for you.
Its witch country. Its where five hundred years ago the Lancashire witches lived, turned their neighbours into toads and died. Every Halloween as teenagers my mates and I camped out all night on Pendle in the hope of seeing witches fly by on broomsticks. Mad, I know, but we were going through puberty - its a tricky time for a lad. Years later I took part in the Bloksberg Tryst, a 15th century magical ceremony for turning a goat into a handsome young man. It wasnt altogether successful. Its a real problem getting shoes to fit me.
Bridget laughed. Politely. Then: Dont witches have orgies at their Sabbats? Youll probably like that.
I blushed. I frequently do, which is a bit embarrassing for a man in his early thirties. Quivering and blushing all in one morning.
No, thanks, I said. The Devil always wants to join in and hes well known for having really bad breath and ice-cold hands. Plus, everybody has to kiss his bum.
I didnt realise the Devil was just another bloody editor.
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