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Fantasy Mystery Historical Fiction

The Haunting of Haddon Hall

“Does the hotel have a ghost?” an old lady asks hopefully.

I listen with interest. Haddon Hall is a beautiful building that used to be a family home back in the Victorian era. It’s only recently been turned into a hotel after spending years in a state of disrepair.

The tour guide consults her notes. She’s a severe looking woman with hair scraped back into a tight bun and spiky shoes that clatter on the restored parquet floor of the large reception hall.

“Well, you know we can’t promise any actual sightings ...” she begins, laughing nervously, “but there was quite a tragedy here fifty years ago – one of the daughters of the house fell downstairs and broke her neck. She died almost instantly.”

There is a sharp intake of breath from the assembled crowd. Meanwhile, I feel a prickle of fear begin to creep up my spine.

“And,” the guide lowers her voice conspiratorially, “her ghost is said to wander round the house every year on the anniversary of her death.” She pauses for dramatic effect. “And that date just happens to be today ...”

*

I don’t know why the tour guide’s story about that girl dying affected me so much, but I’m still unsettled hours later. Janine, the guide, seems pretty well informed about the family that used to live here. I overhear one of the younger guests, a man with spiky hair and a loudly patterned shirt, explaining to his female companion that he’s been on one of these tours before. Apparently, Janine books people into a range of different historically-themed hotels where they can experience five distinctive decades over the course of their holiday. “We were lucky to get places on this one,” his voice carries across the room. “They sell out within hours of being announced.”

I decide to reserve judgement until I’ve had time to hear more of Janine’s spiel.

*

After a tour of the servants’ quarters so we can “see how the other half lived”, lunch is served in the stately dining room. Despite the size of the coach party – which must number more than thirty – everyone fits around the enormous, highly polished oak table with ease. I think the menu is supposed to reflect the dining habits of the 1860s – which means the vegetarians have plenty to complain about, faced as they are with brown Windsor soup, saddle of lamb and bread-and-butter pudding.

Over the meal, the talk turns back to the story of the girl who died. Once more, I feel uncomfortable, although the eager faces around me are obviously relishing the tale.

“She was only nineteen,” Janine declares, this time without the aid of any notes. “It was her first grown up ball – technically, she wouldn’t be ‘coming out’ until she was twenty-one.” As before, she pauses for dramatic effect, her soup spoon halfway to her mouth. “Of course, her parents were broken-hearted, but there was nothing they could have done. She was dead by the time the doctor arrived.”

I feel a lump in my throat as I imagine their tears, their heartache.

“After lunch,” Janine slurps the rest of her soup noisily, “I’ll show you the bedroom where Catherine used to sleep. Her dresses are still hanging in the wardrobe – the room’s basically been left untouched for the past fifty years. The hotel chain decided it would add more value to keep it as it was and make it part of the Haddon Hall experience.”

It doesn’t seem right that people should be making money out of a family tragedy, keeping the sorrow alive by marketing it to nosey tourists; nevertheless, I follow the crowd as they make their way up the sweeping staircase after lunch, as eager as any of the others to see the abandoned boudoir.

It's quite a crush as bodies mill around, each one fighting for the best possible view. The bed’s been roped off, as have the wardrobe and dressing table – “That’s to stop visitors helping themselves to mementoes,” Janine tells us. “Apparently, the first day the hall opened as a hotel, half the knick-knacks in the room ‘disappeared’ – perfume bottles, lace handkerchiefs – that sort of thing.”

Again, I feel a sense of sadness. “How would they like it if people started walking off with their things?” I mutter; but no one seems to hear me.

A minute or two later, a middle-aged woman with far too much rouge and bright yellow hair asks if it’s possible to upgrade her room for the night to this one.

Janine answers in the negative. “I know you’re all thinking it would be fun to sleep in a haunted bedroom,” she says jovially, “but this room is one of the official exhibits. You wouldn’t expect to sleep in Charlotte Brontë’s bedroom, would you? Or Jane Austen’s?”

“But we can still take photos, right?” another guest interrupts.

Janine smiles benignly. “Of course. And don’t forget, the rooms you’re booked into are much more luxurious than this one: you’ve all got Sky TV, a coffee machine and a mini-bar – not to mention the jacuzzi bath for those of you lucky enough to be staying in the executive suite.”

Her words wash over me as she drones on about the different rooms. Meanwhile, there are clicks a-plenty from the chattering crowd as they shuffle into groups and stare pointedly at whoever seems to be pressing the little button. It’s not long before Janine starts to move them on to the next room in the tour, but something makes me linger for a moment after they’ve gone. It’s as if something is beckoning, urging me to stay.

I turn and gaze once more at the dressing table with its ornately carved mirror and tiny little drawers. A crocheted lace doily covers the table’s surface and I wonder how they have kept it so clean and whether the drawers still contain rings and bracelets as they would have done years ago.

Nothing sits on the doily now apart from a solid-looking brush and comb set. My hand glides over the silver backed hairbrush as I relive the excitement of a young girl getting ready for her first grown up party. For a moment, I’m tempted to sit down on the little upholstered chair and pretend I’m back in time and primping and preening ready for the ball; and then I catch sight of a shadowy figure in the glass in front of me and turn, startled. It’s another group of visitors – time I rejoined my own crowd.

“You can tell this was her room, can’t you?” one of them says as I sidle out. “There’s a sort of presence in here – I felt cold as soon as I came in.”

*

The others have reached the library by the time I catch up with them. They’re gazing with awe at the walls, shelved from floor to ceiling with warm, mellow oak and crammed with an eclectic assortment of books: poetry, plays, novels; fat medical dictionaries; volumes of science and philosophy ...

“Do you think any of these were ever read?” one guest asks curiously. “Or were they just for show?”

“People definitely read more in the 1800s,” Janine begins, somewhat patronisingly. “After all, there was no internet back then. That complete set of Dickens you see in front of you was probably the Victorian equivalent of a box set of ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Killing Eve’.”

A ripple of polite laughter greets her remark, although I don’t recognise either of the titles she’s mentioned. Someone else has another question but I’m not listening, feeling the same strange pull that I did in the bedroom. The sense of the house’s former occupants is so strong that I could swear I can see flames in the fireplace, smell the sweet scent of pipe tobacco.

Impulsively, I step forward, ignoring the ropes that surround the dark green leather chesterfields. I’m obviously not the only one aware of something because the woman beside me gives an involuntary shudder. “Did anyone else feel that?” she demands of no one in particular. “Something just brushed against me: something I couldn’t see.”

I glance over my shoulder, hoping to catch sight of whatever ghost might be lingering in the room, but the echo of the past is already fading, and the stench of stale sweat is now all my nostrils detect.

*

We whizz our way around several more rooms before Janine takes pity on us and allows us to stop for afternoon tea in the drawing room. For once, there are no restrictive ropes, but that’s because the room has been “sympathetically restored” using modern wallpaper and furniture that resemble the original furnishings – or so Janine tells us. While everyone else stuffs their mouths full of dainty sandwiches and petits fours, I prowl the room, the almost imperceptible trace of yesteryear still tugging at me. How is it that no one else feels it? I think incredulously. The sensation I had before, in the bedroom, is now stronger than ever. Am I the only member of the party who is psychically aware?

The more I gaze about me, the more convinced I become that I am here for a reason. Is it something to do with the dead girl? I wonder. Is she trying to tell me something?

*

Tea is done and so, it seems, is the official tour. The rest of the afternoon is ours, to spend as we choose. I follow a small knot of women who are making their way excitedly towards the conservatory, which is apparently now a gift shop. I watch amazed as they “ooh!” and “ah!” over embroidered cushions and picture postcards, noting as I do that still more are clutching handfuls of tiny boxes marked ‘Haddon Hall fudge’.

Despite all this, I can’t ignore the niggling feeling that I should be somewhere else. Outside, the sky is already taking on a crepuscular tint as evening begins to make its presence felt. There’s an ominous atmosphere which has nothing at all to do with the fact that it’s All Hallow’s Eve, traditionally a time for ghosts and goblins. My pulse quickens as I realise where I need to be and hurriedly start to make my way back towards the grand staircase in the entrance hall.

Once there, the sense of dread intensifies as I stand and wait, knowing that something momentous is about to happen. For just a moment, it is as if time has turned backwards and I am watching as the blushing eighteen-year-old arrives at the top of the stairs, the virginal whiteness of her gown in stark contrast to the crimson roses arranged in the bowl behind her.

Nervously, she begins to descend, her foot catching in the hem of her skirt. As if in slow motion, she topples forwards, an endless moment stretching further still as her body skims the stairs then lands with a shocking thud in a heap at the bottom. Tears form in my eyes as I am hit by the irony of the tragedy. “Poor girl!” I murmur. “Her first and last dance ...” And then time begins to flow again as shocked family members gather around the lifeless body that is no longer an eager young debutante but a twisted mass of broken bones.

Is this happening now, or am I merely seeing a reflection of the past? I’m momentarily confused, caught up in feelings so strong, so powerful that they threaten to overwhelm me.

Footsteps behind me tell me I’m not the only one to be drawn here inexplicably. How many of us have felt the irresistible urge to witness Catherine’s fatal fall?

I turn to speak to this newcomer, but she’s staring straight through me, her eyes wide with horror. “No!” she croaks at last. “You’re not real! You can’t be!”

I put out a reassuring hand, attempting to stroke her shoulder, but my fingers glide without touching.

And in that moment, I remember why I’m here.


October 29, 2019 07:26

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2 comments

Chloe Smith
20:11 Nov 26, 2019

Hi! I really enjoyed this, I like how the main character isn't just one of the tourist crazy ghost hunters :)

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Jane Andrews
07:29 Aug 04, 2020

Thanks, Chloe. I tried to put in hints for the reader that would make more sense the second time around.

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