An original ghost story by P.M.R. Cooper
For a small market town nestled along the banks of the River Test, the old stories found in Romsey are disproportionately wealthy. No doubt its position as a coaching stop at the epicentre of trade routes between cities like Southampton, Salisbury and Winchester earned it a tapestry of lore, and besides the great, more cathedral-like Norman abbey whose square spire greets the visitor as they descend onto the town when approaching from the west, the bulk of these stories can be found in the Town Hall.
The Victorian-era building looms large over the market square, and while the houses, roads and décor of this plaza have shifted with each generation, the vast brick edifice and tall arched windows remain unchanged, to the local historian’s delight. On the first floor, the grand council chamber overlooks the streets below, and even while the town changes with the times, the record of all Romsey’s mayors pays record to each individual’s time long after they have left this mortal coil. The faded names of men from the 17th century, the scribing the colour of dusty earth, gradually increases in clarity and splendour as the most recent incumbents names appear in startling gold.
But while a story as told is eternal, a story in material nonetheless requires upkeep, and this was a task assisted by the brother of a friend of mine, which would have been some 40 years ago now if my recollection is correct. Steven Cartwright, a young man of just 19 at the time, had recently left school and like many of his peers, was unsure exactly of where to go next. His position as an assistant steward at the Hall – menial tasks such as cleaning, arranging furniture, assisting caterers at functions – was part-time in hours and he intended for it to be short-term in contract too. Yet while he was intrigued by the idea of university as some of his peers had gone on to do, it wasn’t his first priority.
But work was work, and it kept the cash stable enough to enjoy a comfortable life at home for the meantime. Given his shifts were mostly in the afternoon and he had started at the turn of Autumn, by November he was working often alone into the hours of darkness (as the only other staff was his supervisor the town clerk, who was oft too busy with administration duties). It would be his task to close up the great high-ceilinged rooms, to leave them lit only by slithers of an orange-glow from the street lights outside. To those of a more paranoid disposition, the echoing sound of one’s footsteps in the council chamber alone in the dark, or the lingering stares from the occupants of the portraits in the old court room, would understandably put one at unease. Yet Cartwright was the pragmatic sort, recognising the eerie moments for what they were, while continuing to whistle along to his walkman and mentally tick off the next task in his head. And anyway, they provided good fodder to spook his friends with in the pub when all the work was done.
His companions regularly brought up one particular story on those beer-soaked evenings for its grim zeal. Not long after Cartwright started and he was picking out the broom and mop to clear the council chamber, the clerk knocked on the door with a look of sympathetic disgust on her face. “When you go up there, you might want to put these on,” she said, handing him a pair of latex gloves and a bin-bag. “A man on the street told me he saw a pigeon fly onto the windowsill of the council chamber and, well, you can imagine what’s there. I’d do it myself but can’t stand the sight of blood – I hope it’s not too gory…”
Giving her a wry smile and sighing, he took the gloves and went up the stairs to get it over with. Sure enough, from the other side of the chamber he could make out a small grey shape on the windowsill, absolutely motionless. The pigeon had decided this ledge was to be the perfect roost for the evening, without noticing the fine, five-inch metal spikes that had been laid out to deter its kin from ‘defaming’ the fine architecture.
Feeling a cold chill hit his face as he slided the windowpane up, Cartwright winced at the sight of the poor bird impaled almost too neatly on three spikes through the breast. It was at least not as gory as the clerk had imagined, with no more than a small trickle of blood around each entry wound. Making sure the gloves were on tight, as he gently pulled up its limp body, he was struck by just how warm it still felt in his hand. Yet with its head lolloped and rolling backwards like a stopwatch, it was as if it had always been as inanimate as the spikes that killed it; a few minutes was all it took to ensure that the idea this was something once imbued with life was already a distant memory.
Although a one-off incident, his friends reminded him about it with increasing regularity, as more time was spent down the pub with the coming of Christmas. This also meant more time at the town hall however, with function after function meaning more time spent hosting guests and then clearing the leftovers much later into the night – yet even the odd shift going past midnight didn’t buckle his lack of unease when working solo in the old, cold building.
Once the busy festive season was over however, the clerk saw to it that the New Year was to begin with an overhaul of the old courtroom. There was a busy couple of weeks where Cartwright was back and forth assisting contractors with fitting new lights, redoing wallpaper and carpets, and finally, restoring some of the old décor that had been put away in storage some years before. Of particular interest to the clerk was a portrait so large that Cartwright and a contractor had to carry it out of the cellar together.
Once they had lifted and hooked the frame into careful position above the fireplace, Cartwright finally got to chance to see it properly away from the cellar’s gloom. It was an oil painting typical of others he’d dusted down in the hall of 17th or 18th century origin, a figure looming large and bright over a rolling pastoral background that got steadily darker towards the horizon. The figure was dressed in dark armour; with one hand clenching a musket leant on the ground, and the other holding a helmet close to his chest. His face had been painted with quiet severity; while his mouth remained tight-lipped, his eyes and brows were fixated aggressively on the viewer. Walking from one end to the room to the other, Cartwright found the expression about eyes that follow were most certainly true here.
The Clerk meanwhile was stood in the centre of the room, gazing at the portrait with wide eyes and muttering quiet appreciations to herself. “Who’s that meant to be when he’s at home then?” Cartwright asked her while wiping the sweat of the effort from his forehead. “Now that would be Robert Ashcroft. He was a local Roundhead general during the civil war, who was leased land to the south of Broadlands once it was over.” She explained.
“He had a reputation for being quite the, er, character, with a fierce temper. During the war he was rumoured to have lead the division that shot musket-holes into the wall of the abbey, which you can still see today. To the parliamentarians he was seen as a hero, though accordingly the royalists thought quite the opposite.”
“Bit weird to give him such a nice picture then? Sounds like a bit of a wa- erm, idiot.”
“Well, he played an important part in the town’s history nonetheless. And the portrait is of historical importance too, because let me tell you there’s been a fair few historians showing great interest in its restoration. A shame to have been put down below in the first place, but needless to say you’ve done an excellent job in putting it back to its rightful place.”
And so Cartwright went about his regular duties, but this time under the firm gaze of General Ashcroft whenever he was in the courtroom. Yet despite his unphased tolerance of the lonely, dark and increasingly chilly winter evenings he worked, for the first time he found himself looking over his shoulder while he was stationed in that room. A barely perceivable feeling nagged at him, like an itch under the skin, that he was being studied.
Cartwright rationally enough put it down to the way those fierce eyes had been painted, and the overworking mind’s paranoid interpretation of it. But what unsettled him was that he felt it even when he was away from Ashcroft’s gaze – even in the council chamber, one floor above.
About a week later, while Cartwright was polishing candleholders in the office, he overheard a furious voice bellowing from the corridor outside. Peering round the door, he saw a short old man dressed in tweed, slight in frame yet with a voice far louder than you would have expected from appearances. The target of his anger was the Clerk, whose attempts at measured responses for diplomacy appeared to go ignored.
“Did you not stop to think why that portrait was stored away? Having been town clerk a damn while longer than you’ve clocked in so far, I would have at least thought you’d have the damn foresight to consult me first!”
“Please, there’s no need to be rude about it, Henry.” The Clerk pleaded. “But the town council had all agreed upon the decision that the restoration of the courtroom was in best historical interest, portrait of General Ashcroft included-“
“I don’t CARE what the bloody council thinks! We put it away in my day for good reason. That man was a devil in life in Cromwell’s time, and he deserves no place in this hall for all to see in ours. You’re bloody well lucky I came by today, if only so you can get it down as quick you can!”
The Clerk tried, as politely to possible, to clarify she understood his views but that ultimately the portrait would stay up for its historic interest. Her retired predecessor simply huffed a retort Cartwright had trouble making out, and marched back to the door onto the market place. Before he left, he turned to make one last statement – “and should you need my advice, don’t think I’ll step back in here till that damn thing’s down!” – before slamming the door behind him.
“In that case I shall keep the portrait up as long as I can. Miserable old man.” Cartwright overheard the Clerk mutter under her breath as she walked briskly back into the office.
This dramatic event, at least for his job’s standards, would soon override the impaled pigeon as the top pub story for Cartwright’s friends. While there was playful debate over what General Ashcroft had done in life to make him so delectable, the general agreement was that the old Clerk was probably heading in his own direction to senility. Cartwright would smile and go along with it all, but since the old man’s appearance he had never felt right in the gut when working in the Hall at night. He never dwelled longer than he had to in the courtroom now, where those fierce eyes skewered their way into his soul.
One night, when he had locked the doors, switched off the lights and was just checking the alarm system was still working before he left for home, he could have sworn to have seen a shadow, a shadow of what was at least an adult, moving swiftly through a shaft of streetlight at the other end of the corridor. He rationalised it must have been cast by a passer-by in the street, but where he was stood was close to the door and he had not seen anyone outside in that time – and indeed, when he peered to the side of it he could see no potential culprits walking away from the Hall in either direction. He thought about investigating further, but all he could see was darkness in the corridor, and the thought of the General staring down at him. He decided against it.
As is typical of the early months of the year, the days and nights of winter continued with relentless chill and no sign of letting up, and for several days the cold and grey was joined by thick mists that embroiled the town centre in a white blindness by day, and an amber murk at night. Trying to turn his thoughts towards warmer times, Cartwright was already mentally planning what other job opportunities there may be by the spring, something that the increasing unease of working late in the Hall had only helped stir on. But there was a flurry of large functions to be hosted for the council before the winter was out, and while the hours were longer the pay was good, as the Clerk had insisted with salesperson zeal to him.
One such event was on the night of precipitous gales, and even though he was comfortably indoors for the remainder, Cartwright may as well have been sitting outside for the second-hand drenching he received from taking the waterlogged jackets of the guests to the cloakroom. “Just a little bit wet out!” or words to that effect would be jested by them as Cartwright took each sodden anorak. The Town Hall was a bustle of talk and chinking glasses, and with virtually every light bulb lit and a constant array of tasks to do, for once the young steward didn’t even notice the stare from the General’s portrait.
But the event was long, and by the time all the guests had left and Cartwright was assisting the caterers pack up, it was long past 11pm. This did not bother him, and even after they left the Clerk and her husband stayed back to help pack up the last few tables. Close to midnight, she asked if Cartwright could possibly close up. “You know exactly what you’re doing anyway.” She confided in him. Cartwright agreed, but gazed grimly towards the courtroom at the other end of the corridor. He was going to ensure that was the last place he would switch off the lights.
Once the Clerk and her husband had left, Cartwright started the close from the great council chamber upstairs and working his way down. The paradox of how a building could be so exuberant with the lives that chattered and drunk in it merely a couple of hours before, to now become as desolate and foreboding as a lonely hillside! Perhaps because Cartwright had been so used to it as an empty or near-so place, the contrast was too jolting, and he set his mind to his tasks without looking to gaze at the sole company he now had in the portraits on the wall. When he got to the courtroom, he gave the briefest of glances to the General. He almost expected him to blink back, but it was oil on canvas. An uncomfortable stare it was true, one that seemed to send the old Clerk into a rage, but one crafted by hand with exceptional detail and nothing more. He switched off the light, and walked towards the front door in darkness, grabbing his coat and preparing to check the alarm system before locking up.
As he set the codes, he could hear the bells of the Abbey chime their way over the rattling and the whooshing of the gales outside, announcing the fall of midnight. Yet as the eighth or ninth bell tolled, he could have sworn to hear footsteps on the staircase just to his right. He stopped what he was doing and let the bells finish their chimes, assuming it was just a mishearing as their echoes mingled with the sound of the gales. But, quite distinctly from the wind, he could hear deep footsteps carrying on up the stairs. They were slow but methodical, and didn’t sound like someone ambling around lost. Perhaps the Clerk, or one of the caterers, had left something upstairs and had come in through the back door to collect it? He was surprised they didn’t acknowledge him as they passed by, unless they didn’t want to startle him in the dark? Or had a guest somehow managed to lock themselves in? Whoever they belonged to, they couldn’t stay here, and Cartwright followed, singing one of his favourite songs under his breath for comfort if anything else.
Climbing the stairs and moving along the corridor to the council chamber, he called out, but no one replied. But he could now clearly hear someone in the chamber, the sound of foot on timber reverberating around the dark room like water-drops in a cavern.
He unlocked the door into the council chamber – and saw no one. And heard no one.
He called again, the fear now quite obviously cracking his voice, and just he was prepared to shut – no, slam the door – and turn back the way he came, a grimly familiar sight caught his vision. In the high windows at the other end, just visible on the sill overlooking the sheets of rain that whipped the buildings of the market place into blurred half-vision, was another pigeon skewered on the spikes.
Perhaps it was merely the strong winds, but from the other side of the room Cartwright was sure he could see it twitching – as if still throbbing with just an inch of life, and not just loose feathers caught in the air. No matter how little he wanted to stay up here, he couldn’t let a creature suffer, regardless of whether he would be able to let it live or not. Taking a deep breath, he walked forwards with as much confidence as he could muster. Even though his footsteps were loud, he noted no others were joining him.
He pulled up the windowpane, and immediately felt the icy blast grip his cheeks, the inanimate force of the gale wailing and whipping rain against his skin with a discerning malevolence. He looked down at the pigeon, gazing hard at the soaked and matted feathers, trying to work out which spikes it had landed on and how to safely remove it.
But looking closer, Cartwright realised it wasn’t sodden feathers that were twitching and flittering in the gale after all. It was hair. Waterlogged, but long and silver, uncannily like that painted on the head of General Robert Ashcroft.
He wanted to scream, but barely a sound could come out. He wanted to run, but suddenly felt paralysed to the spot.
And then the hair began to move.
Like a speared hog roasting over a fire, it rotated slowly and precisely around towards Cartwright as if the metal spikes weren’t even there. And the wet hair gave way to a face, if that is what it could still be called. The earthy skin was wrapped tight to the skull so that it was practically mummified, and the eye sockets, empty and ink-black, could still somehow stare right through the terrified Cartwright’s soul.
And its mouth creaked open, and as the gales hollered harder, through those rotted teeth a shriek from beyond the realm of either man or beast rose at first with, and then above it. He tried to turn and run, but suddenly his shoulders were seized by a freezing and unbelievably strong grip.
Cartwright felt himself lifted up by who – or what – had snared him. And as he was flung out the window, the sight of the screaming skull was replaced by the ground of the market square outside.
* * *
I can confirm at the least that Steven Cartwright survived that fall – else I would have no story to tell. But it was incredibly close, and had a chance motorist not passed by some minutes later, I suspect the exposure would’ve assisted the shock and physical injury in finishing him off. He was unconscious for several days and luckily, if you could describe it as such, the majority of his injury was in his legs. So that, alas, while he could no longer walk again, he could at least live.
But the young man was never the same after that night – a being completely changed to his core in the space of a minute. I have it on good authority that when he did come around, the doctors were startled by the life that jolted into him, as if he had been surged with adrenaline. Apparently he screamed, followed by a single, clear demand. “Take it down! For christ’s sake, take that painting down!”
Whether this reached the town clerk I am not sure, but needless to say you can no longer see the painting of Robert Ashcroft at Romsey Town Hall. But as to its current whereabouts – whether it was moved back to storage, sent elsewhere, or destroyed – I am completely uncertain.
Copyright © Pete Cooper 2019