SECOND HONORABLE MENTION, SUMMER 2017
The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
Leslie Lawrenson “Gothic Sky”
BY AILSA THOM
I’ve never believed in ghosts. I’ve always had faith in science—which is a bit of a prerequisite when it comes to working as a lab technician in the forensics department at the university. But it was a combination of these two things which led me to become a presenter for Ghost Gumshoes on the telly. My co-presenter is Colin, someone who wholeheartedly believes in ghosts. It was, the producers said, the perfect combination. The woman of science and the man of imagination—turning previous formats on their head, reinventing the genre, they said.
It had been a mutual friend, Andy—Colin’s agent—who suggested that I become a consultant on the show.
“A consultant what?” I’d asked.
A consultant who could help explain paranormal activity through science, he’d said. I’d be perfect for it. I was ready to say no, until I realised that the fee he quoted me for just one show would pay the mortgage for several months.
Having looked at my screen test, the director thought that I had some kind of chemistry with Colin, and he offered me a contract as co-presenter for the series. It was a more prominent profile than I’d envisaged, but my boss agreed to my taking unpaid leave from the lab for a few months.
You’ve probably seen the program. Each week, Colin starts with a “piece-to-camera” (I’ve learned the jargon) about some sighting of a ghostly presence in a picturesque setting. Sometimes we show a blurry image in a photograph. Sometimes, there’s a punter telling the story of the time a picture flew off the wall, or something brushed against their leg when they were the only person in the room. Or the story about the lady in old-fashioned clothes who smiled, but didn’t say a word. Colin then shares some of the information that the researchers have given us—the history of the building, who used to live there, any unfortunate happenings like a death or murder—that kind of thing. We then cut to the live results of the lie detector test which we put all the punters through. I’m not allowed to say that of course they will pass the test—they do actually believe what they saw was real, after all. The lie detector can’t pick up on foolishness.
Colin then asks me about the architecture of the house, and I use this time to explain the likely causes for their experiences—ventilation drafts, changes in ambient temperature, distortions within the camera itself, and so on—and then he asks me about the tests and experiments I will be running this week.
These are tests which usually involve setting up a series of infra-red cameras, some thermal imaging equipment, and very sensitive microphones which can pick up even the slightest of noises. Colin gets really excited at this part as it also means that we take the decision to stay in the “haunted house” overnight. I mean, we do it every week, and it’s even written into our contracts, but from the way he reacts, you’d think that this was news to him each time. And he’s not even acting. Colin is a believer. Believes in ghosts, spirits, fairies, demons, poltergeists, witches, and werewolves. OK, I’ve never actually asked him about the werewolves, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he did. Colin believes whatever nonsense he is told, and can scream, shriek and hyperventilate like a Victorian heroine. The fact that he’s 6’3″ with a rugby player’s physique apparently makes it all the more believable television.
But I believe the science. There’s always a rational explanation for things—even if we can’t work out what it is at the time. Although we have good equipment, it’s not state-of-the-art—not on this cable channel. And while I believe the science, I’m not so blinkered that I don’t take arcane things like ley lines and electromagnetic fields into consideration. Just because we can’t see them, it doesn’t mean that they don’t influence the outcome—they are still part of the science.
Take that last episode we filmed. We were in the most haunted castle in Ireland. (No one seemed to remember that the second episode of the series had been in another castle, also reputed to be the most haunted in Ireland.) This one was all rickety turrets and crow-inhabited battlements. Local lore had it that, hundreds of years ago, two sisters had been in love with the same man. Cad that he was, he dallied with them both in a very obvious manner. Soon the sisters began to hate each other, but the object of their affection only seemed to revel in this. Eventually the sisters’ father put his foot down and demanded that the choice be made. The suitor said that he would do so at the ball on the following Friday. However, no one knows which sister he would have chosen, as when the ball was in full swing, the younger one fell down the grand staircase to the ballroom below and broke her neck. No one could prove that the surviving sister had anything to do with this, but people began to say that she was a witch. Her father used his money and influence to get her away on the next boat to America, and she was never heard of again. History doesn’t say what became of the suitor.
The staircase was blocked off with thick tapestries and no longer used. The family eventually sold the castle and, over the years, other owners lost their wealth and grew too impoverished to maintain it. Now it is a ruin of a place. Not so ruined that the roof has fallen in, but decayed and diminished inside. The floors are cracked, mold speckles the walls, and little trees have taken root in the stone work. Local youths had long dared each other to take a walk down what had become to be known as “the haunted staircase,” but when one of them fell down it and broke his back, the Council bricked it up, and handed the owners a notice of demolition.
I was never sure if we had actual permission to film inside, but as most of our work takes place after dark, it is probable that no one knew. In his piece-to-camera, Colin made a lot of the fact that this was the anniversary of that very first ball, when the sister had been killed and the “curse” began, over three centuries before.
He was feeling really spooked, he said to me later in bed at the hotel as we took a nap before the evening filming started. No one knew that we were sleeping together, as we’d mutually agreed that it was probably unprofessional. I laughed, and reminded him that a few bumps in the night meant for better viewing figures, and that if we did a good episode this time, perhaps it would be picked up by one of the larger networks. I had already decided that I didn’t want to go back to working in the lab.
We returned to the castle about 9 pm to find that workmen had already knocked down the Council’s wall at the top of the staircase. There was a lot of brick dust in the air which I knew would make for weird images and luminosities on camera. With this, and the full moon shining through the windows, I felt that my job tonight would be all too easy. The tech guys had already set up the cameras and infra-red lights, and we were warned to watch out for the cables. Colin had to do his piece-to-camera eight times as he was so nervy he kept forgetting the script. In the end, the director decided that this authenticity would actually add to the atmosphere.
As the lighting guys were setting up the next shot, Colin and I took a wander through the empty, decaying rooms.
“Imagine living here,” he said as he flashed the torch around the walls of a bedroom. “I mean, when it was in its glory. When I was lord of the castle,” and he bowed to me, “and you were my lady.” I did a mock curtsey and giggled as he slipped his arms around me, pulling me close.
“I like your perfume,” he murmured. “Gardenias? Very old-fashioned of you.”
I kissed him to stop his nervous chatter. I wasn’t wearing any perfume.
“Hey, stop messing with my hair!” he complained. “Continuity will have a fit.”
“I’m not touching your hair,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “I know not to touch the hair!”
“You did so. And you just did it again. Look, stop it!”
I took a step back from him, and squeezed my hands where they had been all along—on each side of his waist.
Colin swore. “Let’s get out of here. There was definitely someone touching my hair.” He shivered dramatically. “I can feel a presence.”
“It was probably a cobweb, or something falling from the ceiling,” I said, following him. “Or maybe the ghost fancies you! Hey, hands off, ghost, he’s mine, all mine!” And I cackled a laugh as I waved the torch around the room.
Colin jogged quickly back to the hubbub of the cameras and attached himself to the side of the director.
I did my own piece-to-camera, and didn’t fail to mention Colin’s experience, reassuring both him and the audience that there was a scientific explanation.
Colin then had to walk down the grand staircase, speaking to the camera that was being lowered on the jib in front of him. I could see that he was petrified—more scared than I’d ever seen him before. What a waste of energy; I’d tease him about it later. But the audience would love that tremble in his voice and the way his eyes gleamed as wide black pools in the moonlight.
This part of the filming over, the crew went to set up in the ballroom below. We were to spend the night in there and record any sounds or movement in the room. On camera, it would look like it was just Colin and me, but in reality the whole crew would be there, just out of eye-line of the cameras.
Somehow, I found myself alone. Everyone had gone downstairs, and for a few minutes there was peace and quiet. I actually quite like being in these old places, looking at the craftsmanship and architecture, and picturing them as busy, lived-in homes. I may be a scientist, but I’m not without imagination.
I could hear my name being called, and decided that by using the grand staircase I could show Colin that there was nothing to be scared of. As I walked toward it, the scent of something floral caught me unawares—gardenias perhaps, after all. But of course, in reality it would just be some chemical reaction, perhaps an emanation from the damp, old wallpaper. As I began descending the stairs it felt like something tapped my shoulder, but I must have just caught my foot in a cable someone had forgotten to remove, because I found myself falling down the stairs, the world tipping and tumbling in disorientating explosions of light and color. I slammed down onto the marble floor of the ballroom, hurting, the breath knocked out of me.
I possibly passed out for a moment, hallucinated even, as blue flashes throbbed in front of my eyes and a cacophony of noises swam around me. Then the light stopped flashing, and grew whiter and brighter. One of the arc lights, I imagined. But when I opened my eyes, there was nothing there. I mean nothing at all. The silent ballroom was empty of people and equipment, lit only by the full moon. The director must have had a last minute change of plan and set up in another room.
Cautiously I got to my feet, but nothing seemed to be broken. Right at the moment I needed a cup of tea with a shot of brandy, and a reassuring hug from Colin.
I hurried from room to room, using the moonlight to find my way. I even climbed to the battlements, shouting Colin’s name as I went, but the castle was completely empty. There was no evidence of the crew having even been there. Perplexed, I wandered along the corridors wondering what to do next, and when I came to the top of the grand staircase again, I paused. That floral scent was particularly strong here. Then I saw the moon shining onto a bunch of drooping flowers tied to the bannister—pink roses, my favorite. I was sure that they hadn’t been there earlier. As I leaned in to smell them, I saw a small card amongst the faded blooms. By moonlight, I read the message:
Miss you forever. I know you’ll be a happy ghost—I will wait for your sign. All my love, Colin.xx
Like I said, I always have faith in the science. There is a rational explanation for this, and I know that, in time, I will work out just what it is.