The third chapter of my ghost story, Keeping Time
By next morning the storm had passed over, but left in its wake rain that was so intense as to feel solid. It gushed down gutters and tore rifts in the lane to the hostel which were then clogged with gravel and broken branches. Dressed in sodden sandals, shorts and waterproofs, we trudged over to Clayre Hall, fractious and ill-tempered after the disturbances of the night.
As the power was still out, I brewed up water in a pan on the gas hob for tea while Lid explored. She returned grimfaced some minutes later, with news of the flooded games room and the ceiling leaking in the third dorm.
“Well what do we do now?”
“I don’t bloody know, do I Helen?” she snapped. “Advertise our new indoor swimming facilities?”
“I said we should have checked the place during the night.”
“And what good would that have done? It’s not in our remit to hold back the fucking forces of nature, is it?”
Too tired to argue, I huffed off with my mug of tea to the office, slid a sly glance back through to the kitchen and then opened a drawer. There lay the watch, its hands no longer ticking through the hours but rather stammering through them: flicking back and forth, moth-like. Swallowing hard, I slammed the drawer. Clearly the storm had wrung havoc with my nerves. The watch had been here all along. And the footsteps? Perhaps, after all, I’d drifted off while lying on the sofa.
“We’ll have to call Nigel now.” Lid entered the office, nursing her tea. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing.” I picked up the receiver and put it to my ear. No buzzing or pips – just pointless silence. “Landline’s down, too.”
Her expression grew even sourer. “Great. We’ll have to use the mobile. Come on. Let’s call Señor Nigel.”
There was no reception in the valley. It was only possible to make a call by clambering up a wet slope at the front of the hostel and waving the handset around as if divining for water. This we now did, accompanied by the disgruntled bleats of damp sheep; Clayre Hall somewhere below us, obscured by rain.
“Perhaps we should call the contractors directly,” I yelled to Lid as she performed a mad dance around the field, an ancient Nokia raised to the heavens. “We need to deal with it now before more damage is done.”
“Well you can explain to Nigel why we didn’t consult him first in that case,” she snarled back.
Nigel Tenford: our first and only point of contact with that band of bigots, Clayre Hall Trust. Nigel, who had employed us two years previously with the reluctance of a man staring down the barrel of a discrimination claim.
“But you stated in your job ad that you required a couple to run the hostel,” I’d protested.
So we did. So we did indeed.” He’d run nervous, nicotine stained fingers through a finely maintained comb-over, his eyes brewing behind thick-rimmed glasses with contempt and alarm. “But we were thinking along the lines of…”
“What were you thinking, Mr. Tenford?” Lid had leaned forwards, one eyebrow raised in pointed question. He rolled his loose, blubberish lips together and backed away.
“I’m a very liberal guy.” He stammered the word ‘guy’ as if for the first time: as if he’d learned it for precisely this occasion. “But other members of the Trust might…”
“Might what? Might not welcome a pair of lesbians running Clayre Hall?” Lid suppressed a snort. “Let me remind you of what your advertisement states, Mr. Tenford. It says that you need someone with good management skills. I’ve spent the last three years helping my mother to run Micah’s restaurant in London.”
“The Micah’s?” He folded his arms over the chest of his grey, knitted sweater.
“Yes. Which means I also happen to be an excellent cook. A skill also requested in your advert.”
“And I’m – I was – a history teacher,” I cut in. “And you also indicate that you need someone with a passion for the subject.”
“And you stated a couple,” Lid reminded him again before I could show off my recently acquired knowledge of Clayre Hall. “I’d say we’re a bit over qualified, quite frankly. At least, I’m sure that’s how equal opportunities will see it.”
His round, conceited face fell. “The matter is out of my hands, ladies,” he blustered. “It’s for the Trust to decide.”
“And as we understand it, Mr. Tenford, the only way for Clayre to remain in the Trust’s hands is to convert it into a tourist facility. Hence your hostel.”
He nodded sullenly, a tiny speck of spit flecking his fat lower lip.
“And a hostel requires wardens. Do you have any other interested couples with our level of competency?”
“I’ll be in touch.”
I knew we’d won. Lid and I went back to London, packed our few belongings and waited. Three days later, the ‘phone rang: Nigel.
“I, er, I talked the Trust round, Helen.”
“Did you, Mr. Tenford? That’s good of you.” I blew a smoke ring at Lid and winked at her. She screamed, running five laps of our flat in delight.
“Yes,” he continued. “I, er, I told them that you and Lidia were good friends.”
“You did what?’
Lid froze, mid cartwheel, and stared.
“Helen, you and Lidia are more than suited to managing Clayre Hall. But you know, the Trust….”
Yes, I knew the Trust. Or at least I imagined I did, with their blue rinses and their green wellingtons, their Range Rovers and their sense of entitlement.
“Well, Nigel,” I said, deciding then and there that there would be no more Mr. Tenford, “we’ll take the job. Just make sure you lock up your daughters.” And with that, I hung up.
So here we now were, in a field in the middle of Shropshire, half drowning and trying to make contact with Nigel. Or at least, Lid was. I was attempting to roll a dry cigarette.
“Yes. Yes, Nigel, it’s me. Lidia. Yes. We’re alright, except…no. No, Nigel. It’s not alright. The games room is flooded, and the ceiling in dorm three is leaking. No….no we couldn’t have done anything. What did you expect us to do? Walk around with our mouths open to catch the rain?…No…I’m not being facetious, but really. Nigel…fuck…Nigel!”
She almost dropped the phone in rage, plucked the cigarette from my mouth, took a drag and blew a vicious stream of smoke into the wet air. “He hung up.”
“I got that impression.”
“Yes. The self-righteous provincial little prick. He hung up the fucking phone!”
“Well what now?” I sank down onto the wet grass and realised I’d squashed my Rizlas.
“We’ll have to take a trip down into Chenton,” she said, waving the cig around with murderous intent. “Because if he wants to see his precious seventeenth century stucco again, he’d better do something about it.”
We trudged back down to the hall, fingers and toes now purple with cold, teeth chattering.
“I’ll lock up,” I said trembling. “You fire up old blue.”
Old blue, our twenty-year-old joke of a Fiat Uno was prone to fits of serious unreliability. Particularly at times when its services were most required.
“Fine.” She stormed off in the direction of the cottage while I squelched my way along the moat, climbed up the bank and crossed the footbridge, keys at the ready.
And that was when I saw him.