An exclusive Halloween short story by Wendy Holden
I’m in the spook business Not a spy, you understand. There’s nothing George Smiley about me. Although quite a lot of cloak and dagger.
I don’t actually carry a dagger. But I do wear a cloak. As well as a black hat. And I’ve got a lot of time for graveyards. Can you guess what it is I do?
I’m not an undertaker. I don’t deal with real life dead bodies, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Mine’s the realm of the spiritual. The restless soul trapped on earth. I’m part actor, part guide. There. That was a really good clue.
No, I don’t do telly programmes. I don’t crouch in haunted houses with night-vision cameras, tapping walls and saying ‘Is that you, Margery?’
I’ll tell you, as I don’t think you’re going to get it.
I’m a ghost walker.
I can see you are none the wiser. You obviously don’t live in one of our old cathedral cities, where people in top hats and black cloaks are regularly to be seen in the summer evenings. Leading parties of tourists through ancient wynds while spinning yarns about local spooks.
Well that, in a nutshell is what I do. Every night in summer, and weekends during the winter. The tours last about an hour depending on how slow people walk. You get an average of fifty, mostly paying a fiver each. Cash.
The money’s good and I work for myself. No-one asks me any questions. My colleagues are the best imaginable. Quiet, reliable and don’t need paying. They’ve all been dead for centuries!
Back at my desk after a wonderful holiday We did and saw so much that describing it all would take all day but highlights (in Scotland) included seeing friends in Aberdeen, where we spotted celebrity psychedelic knitter Kaffe Fasset in the art gallery and danced all night to my friend’s brilliant band Funk Connection. I had no idea, at nearly 50, that I was still capable of such feats and I still ache now.
On the Attadale Estate which is a West Coast wonderland of mountains and lochs and a beautiful garden. We have stayed in their lovely holiday cottages for years. I went sailing for the first time in a proper yacht on beautiful Loch Carron. This was a bit different from rowing up and down the river Derwent, and amazing. Loch Carron was a vision of silvery blue and we were surrounded at one stage by curious seals, so close you could see their expressions. Apparently they can sleep on their backs, floating in the water. This sounds like fun, but not so much fun as disembarking, as we did, at Plockton and enjoying a great pile of langoustines in garlic butter. My friends Mhoira and David Murray, whose boat, the Mhojo, we were on, gave me this brilliant little sign which will hopefully be appearing on all my email/Facebook from now on.
Up in Caithness, right at the top of the country, we swung by the Castle of Mey, where the Queen Mother used to live. I was struck by the steep and twisty mediaeval stairs which presumably she tackled at 100-plus, and, scarcely less, the impressive cocktail cabinet and large champagne flute by her plate in the dining room. All the beds were single, the bathrooms were festivals of candlewick and the telly had videos (remember those?) of Dad’s Army and Open All Hours on top of it. It conjured up a strange picture of a distant castle full of elderly queens, equerries and ladies-in-waiting all one over the eight and cackling at David Jason and Private Pike.
Our trip to Cornwall, like Scotland, took place in unexpectedly felicitous meteorological circumstances. My parents-in-law live just outside Penzance, a faded glory of Georgian buildings, winding streets and moody passages overlooking spectacular Mount’s Bay. From the sheer number of cars on the road it was obvious that the tourist slump of recent years is over. Sennen beach, usually wide, windswept and reliably sparsely-populated, had become a shanty town of parasols and small tents covering almost all visible sand. The air fairly shook with the thump of mallets into windbreaks.
Next day we headed for our other favourite beach, Porthminster at St Ives. We arrived first thing but were soon surrounded; one group had brought with them no less than three windbreaks, 10 folding chairs, three sunloungers, one giant inflatable bed, one table, one swingball tennis game and a great heap of wetsuits, coolboxes, bags and towels, the whole lot topped off with two huge, rippling Confederate flags featuring grinning skulls. Compared to which our mere two deckchairs and parasols hired from the shop on the beach seemed either woefully inadequate or beautifully minimalist, depending on the size of your car boot.
But at least these incursions were harmless. A few years ago, on this very same, then-entirely-empty beach, the children were swimming close to shore in their wetsuits. Reading on the sand, I looked up at a shout from my husband. He was down on the foreshore, beckoning the children out. A mako shark had slid into view just behind them and was evincing close interest in the two small, plump, black-clad creatures. Did it think they were seals? We didn’t stop to find out!