The fourth chapter of my ghost story, ‘Keeping Time.’ Last chapter next week!
…at least, I thought I saw him. Even to this day, I can’t quite be sure of what or who it was that had slipped past the door as I opened it. I caught a blur of pale skin, a crop of wiry, dark brown hair, what might have been a white, woollen sweater. The head turned to me as I peered in: eyes deep set, questioning, surprised; the lips blood red, almost effeminate, pursed as if on the verge of speech. And then it was gone – passing across the porch and into the main hall.
The breath stalled in my throat. And part of me – the rational ten percent – thought, damn. A hosteller. On a day like this. Must have sneaked in somehow. I stepped inside. The hostel smelt damp and earthy, like a dog after a wet walk. But there was something else, another scent – more exotic, brighter, reminding me of olive trees and the sea and the holidays we’d taken at Lid’s Dad’s place in Spain.
I closed the door quietly behind me, my thoughts feverish and buzzing like a nest of angry wasps. When I looked into the hall, there was no one there – no water on the floor or soaked rucksack to indicate a walker in search of a hot mug of tea, or a warm bed for the night.
“Hello?” I called out to the air. No response – just the continual pounding of the rain against the windows and from somewhere in the office, the steady tick of my watch, which had clearly sprung back into life again.
“Hello?” I stumbled back towards the office, willing Lid to come down. But then, crossing the threshold, I froze. For the watch now lay in the very middle of the desk. And around it, as if flung from a jack-in-the-box, papers lay discarded, crumpled, in some places torn. Edging forwards, I stifled a moan. The watch hands were ticking round. Backwards.
Once again, a door slammed on the floor above. This time, it slapped against its frame several times with violent thuds. I pocketed the watch. Why, I can’t say. Perhaps I thought that, left alone down there by itself in the office, it might somehow unleash more damage. It sounds stupid, I know. It was a watch: a useless bundle of cogs and metal strips. But then, common sense was never my strongest asset.
The great hall at Clayre is long and draughty, opening onto a kind of lounge for guests with a spiral oaken flight of stairs to its left. These I now climbed, my fingers tracing the whitewashed walls as if to reassure myself they were real, until I reached the first floor. Here, the long gallery had been converted into washrooms and then a series of dormitories, each still floored with gnarled wooden boards and panelled walls, only the skeletons of bunk beds and wardrobes indicating how time and necessity had altered the building.
I passed through the first room, aware of the watch ticking patiently in the pocket of my shorts, and of that light aroma of sunshine and olives, so incongruous on such a day as this. There was no sign that anyone had passed this way, and the doors were all wide open.
“Hello?” I asked again, this time in a half-whisper. Nothing.
My stomach burned. I sensed my pulse racing ahead of the watch’s ticking hands. “Hello?” Again, no reply. And why should there be? No one was here! Lid would have walked straight through, snorting at my hopelessness. Instead, I crept through the second dorm before halting outside the third, pushing at the grainy timber of its door and then stepping inside. Again, nothing. Nothing but the wind’s whistle, the rain’s hiss, the ticking watch. And in a corner, a steady drip, drip, drip of water into the plastic bucket that Lid had set beneath the ceiling.
I stared up at the engraved border of vines and flowers which had already begun to yellow around the crack, as rain worked its way through centuries of ancient plasterwork, surprised at how little I cared. Helen Winters: a woman who, from childhood had always obsessed over wrecks of bricks and mortar, over time-stained books, rusty suits of armour or fading, paint-peeled portraits. They were an echo of lives long lost; the residue of attitudes and beliefs now washed away by technology, by politics, wars, emotions or mere chance. But when I stared at that crack in the ceiling, I suddenly felt in a strange way that time was perhaps more porous than I had imagined; that the past was shaping us, that we in our turn shape the past, that at any moment those boundaries might crumble, break and come crashing down.
I glanced once more around the room to reassure myself, taking in the beds with their peeled-back quilts, a moth eaten old rug stretched across the floorboards, and in the corner a washstand. I caught my reflection in the mirror above it: my green waterproof still dripping, wet, lank strands of hair plastered to my forehead, my eyes shadowy and drained. I stared and stared, imagining it dissolve, how I might slip my hand through it like Alice and step into another world.
There was a sudden crack, like the sound a frozen puddle makes when you step on it. A fault line had split the glass, running just below my reflected forehead. Then another crack opened up, severing one eye from my head. As if in a dream, when you want to run but find yourself glued to the ground, I found that I couldn’t look away as the mirror splintered, my face fragmenting into a thousand shining pieces, before the whole thing dropped, shattering to the floor.
For a brief moment I crouched, arms folded around my head as shards of glass resembling shrapnel or crystal bullets ricocheted off the walls, skidded across floorboards. Then there was only the ring of silence and the continued clatter of the rain. I rose, turned and ran, just as the door slammed shut in my face.
I grabbed the wooden handle and pulled. It wouldn’t budge. Breathless, I seized it again, dragging it back an inch, before something on the other side tugged it away from me. One foot on the wall, I tore at the door, screaming for Lid and aware, in the intervals when I drew breath, of someone or something walking in steady, unhurried steps around the dormitory on the other side.
The world had contracted into this single room, with its bare walls and glass strewn floor. It was spinning, pulsing as if alive, as if it were real and I an intruder it wished to expel. Exhausted, my grip on the door handle weakening, I slid downwards to the floor, arms knitted around my knees, my face wet with rain and tears, my voice hoarse from screaming.
The door flew open. I screwed shut my eyes, buried my head in the folds of my coat, refusing to look, to have to respond in some way to whatever was now in the room with me.
“Helen?” It was Lid’s hands which peeled away the layers of waterproof. She crouched opposite me, pushing a few stray locks of hair from my eyes. “Helen, what happened?”
“There was something here.”
“What?” She gestured towards the bright square of paint on the wall where the mirror had hung, the floor now shining with broken glass. “Helen, don’t tell me you’re tipping back again, darling. Because…I don’t think I could handle that.”
She pivoted around to sit beside me, our backs resting against the wall, and we sat in silence for a few moments. I fought back a swelling tide of memory: of glass breaking at another time and in another place, of screams, flashing lights and the wail of sirens.
“It’s not that,” I said at last. “I’m better now.”
“You do remember why we came here, don’t you? Why I gave up working in Mum’s restaurant…so you could get out of London? Recover?”
“I said I’m better! I saw…I saw someone.” I struggled to my feet, biting back tears.
“Who, Helen? Who did you see? There’s no one here. Who…who broke that mirror? Was it you?”
“No!” I shouted then. “No! Of course I didn’t do it.”
I stopped there. I knew she wouldn’t believe me. Lid, so rational; so strong. Lid who’d spent a night at A&E waiting to be told I was still alive. Why would she believe me, now?
“Look…” I rubbed away tears and stretched out a hand. She was shaking, I felt it. “I’m still here.” I dragged her into my arms. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not slipping back again. And there is something here, I swear. But I know you don’t believe me. So just…just have a little faith. Alright?”
She held me at arm’s length and studied my face. “Alright, Winters.” Her smile was crooked. She sighed. “You’re on probation. We’ll clean this mess up later. Doesn’t really matter, given the devastation downstairs anyway. Right now, I need to speak to Nigel. Are you coming?”
I nodded, and let her lead me from the room.