Aphelion Issue 214, Volume 21
February 2017
 
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Ghost Walk

by Anil Balan




Jennifer did not know who she blamed more for her present predicament: Professor Hodge for making that oblique comment about her essays on English Medieval History "lacking sufficient empathy," her best friend Gillian for suggesting that she do an interview with a guide from one of the city's infamous ghost tours to gain the said empathy, or herself for listening to either of them.

"Hear spine-chilling stories from Oxford's past!" proclaimed the lurid red on black letters on the sign in front of Trinity College. Jennifer saw a figure, presumably the tour guide that she was supposed to be meeting, dressed distinctively in a top hat and flowing black robes like a Victorian undertaker standing on Broad Street just outside the famous blue gates and railings of Trinity -- an attempt to heighten the eerie atmosphere she guessed. Wishing that she could be just about anywhere else in the world at that moment but realising that it was probably too late to back out of this now, Jennifer approached the guide with caution.

"Hi, I'm Jennifer. . . from BNC?"

The guide turned and looked at her suspiciously. Close up, Jennifer saw that he was wearing a considerable quantity of make-up that had turned his face as white as that of a Parisian street mime. In an attempt to maintain an appearance of polite courtesy, Jennifer tried not to look too closely to determine whether the guide was also wearing mascara and lipstick, as the unnatural colour of his eyes and lips seemed to suggest.

"BNC?" said the guide with a scowl.

"Brasenose College. You may remember that we spoke on the telephone about me doing an interview -- you are Steve aren't you?"

"Oh yes, that's me. Steve Partridge," he said and took her hand with a grin, moving up close to reveal his mottled yellow teeth and unwittingly giving her a taste of his halitosis. Jennifer had preferred it when he had scowled at her. It was also clear close up that beneath the clown make-up the guide was considerably older than he had first appeared.

"Well, where would you prefer to do this?" Jennifer looked around and saw a couple of suitable meeting places -- there was a cosy coffee shop just opposite, and the convivial White Horse Tavern was also only a few yards away from where they were standing. For a brief hopeful moment, given their location, Jennifer wondered whether Steve was somehow connected with Trinity College. With its famous gardens, just visible through the splendid wrought-iron gates, Trinity was one of the prettiest colleges in Oxford with lawns and trees that would do credit to the finest country house. Conducting the interview in such peaceful and secluded environs might actually make the whole experience half-bearable. Her nascent optimism was quickly dashed by Steve's next words however.

"Oh no, we can't go anywhere now. It's almost six o'clock," he said, tapping his wristwatch and pointing at the sign behind him. Following his finger Jennifer read with a sinking heart the words which were underneath the title that she had seen earlier: "Guided Tours Start at 6.00 pm every week day - 12 Adults, 8 Children/Concessions."

"But, the interview. . ." she started, her voice forlorn.

'"This is it." Steve said, flashing her what he presumably thought was a winning smile, wider and hence even more yellow that the previous one. Jennifer mentally kicked herself for not realising as soon as she saw that he was in costume that Steve was about to start a ghost tour. Seized with a sudden panic (What if anyone she knew saw her? She would never live down the embarrassment!), Jennifer tried to make her getaway.

"I can see that you're busy Steve -- that is, Mr Partridge -- perhaps another time. . . ."

"Nonsense, I'm an expert at multi-tasking. Anyway, it's too late to back out now -- here comes the rest of the group."

Jennifer turned to see a crowd of about a dozen people of varying ages approaching. From their cameras and belt-bags, as well as their leisurely gait and wide-eyed appreciation of their surroundings, she immediately identified them as foreign tourists. Before she even heard their accents close up she guessed that they were from the USA or Canada. It was obvious from the fact that they were wearing shorts and t-shirts in early March as well as from their red faces and bulging waistlines. There might have been healthy and toned tourists from North America, of course, but Jennifer had never come across any of them in Oxford. It was an uncharitable thought, she knew, but it reflected her mood at that moment.

As soon as they spied Steve, the tourists eagerly formed a semi-circle around him. His expression turned sombre as they did so, as if he was getting into the dour character of the undertaker that he was portraying. From the slight twitching at the corners of his mouth, however, Jennifer could tell that he was relishing every second of this.

"Welcome one and all, welcome to Oxford, home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties!"

Jennifer saw one of the female tourists nudge the man standing next to her, and heard her whisper, "Didn't I tell you Chad, in Oxford everyone's so clever that even the tour guides are poets!" Jennifer rolled her eyes and, in an even lighter whisper, said, "I think that he's got Matthew Arnold to thank for that one."

"The ghoulish manifestations of countless ghastly acts wander the streets of Oxford and in the next hour I shall take you to the scenes of some of the darkest, bloodiest and most unspeakable events in the city's long and gory history. But first, you must all experience what for many is the most frightening part of the tour, the moment that has even reduced many grown men to tears. . ."

At his words Jennifer saw a mixture of reactions on the faces in the group. A small boy who looked to be no older than seven was staring at Steve, his eyes wide in rapt attention, while the woman holding his hand, presumably his mother, frowned slightly, perhaps wondering suddenly whether the tour was too scary for her child. A couple of the male tourists had knowing smiles on their faces while a little girl hid behind another of the young women in the group, her face buried in the woman's skirt. Jennifer herself was barely moved, however, as she had a good idea what Steve was building up to next.

". . . This is the moment when I must ask for your money!" he finished with a flourish.

There was laughter and even a couple of cheers from the crowd, as well as some audible sighs of relief. Then everyone was busy digging around in their pockets, wallets and purses for notes and coins to hand over to Steve. All of the money tendered went into a large black pouch which then disappeared somewhere inside the undertaker's cloak before he turned to address his audience.

"I'm Steve," he said, beaming at the group. "Just remember that name, as last week one tourist thought my name was Geede!"

Steve pointed at the "Guide" badge on his lapel, prompting another round of laughter, and even some clapping this time. Jennifer gritted her teeth at the thought of the hour ahead. For her, it appeared that the horror of the tour had only just begun.

It came as a pleasant surprise to Jennifer, then, to find that the early focus of the tour was on history rather than the paranormal. Steve told how Broad Street, where the tour started, had formerly been the Oxford city ditch and was also the exact spot where the bishop martyrs Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury; Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester; and Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London were all burnt at the stake for heresy towards the Crown during the reign of Bloody Mary. Just as Jennifer was about to grudgingly give Steve credit for being better informed than she might have expected the guide of a ghost tour to be, he ruined the effect by standing on a manhole in the middle of the street and loudly proclaiming that it was the exact spot where the burnings had taken place, as was evidenced by the scorch marks that were still visible there to this day, and the screams of the unfortunate victims, which could apparently sometimes still be heard early in the morning. As a pair of passing students, overhearing this, giggled loudly and a couple of shaven-headed local teenagers loitering nearby said "ugh, tourists," in audible whispers, Jennifer reflected that Oxford hospitality did not appear to have improved since the time of the bishop martyrs.

Steve then mercifully led Jennifer and the rest of the group away from Broad Street and into the old part of Oxford, walking past the Bodleian Library, past St Mary's Church and up to Merton College, via the Examination Schools (for Jennifer the scariest part of the tour so far). Along the way he continued to keep up a steady stream of facts and anecdotes about Oxford and its many ghosts, so many in fact that Jennifer began to wonder if she was in the minority of people who had passed through the city in all the centuries that it had stood there without actually seeing a phantom, spook or spectre. Steve seemed quite keen to draw distinctions between the various categories of ghost (Jennifer had never known that there were quite so many). For example, as they passed St John's College, Steve regaled the group with the tale of the headless ghost of Archbishop Laud, who, since going under the axe at the Tower of London in 1645 for his belief in the Church against Parliament, had been known for bowling his head towards the feet of anyone unlucky enough to meet him in the college library. Although unconventional and no doubt spectacular to those who had come across it, the ghost of Archbishop Laud was apparently, according to Steve, a quite different and far less frightening phenomenon than "The Thing" in Trinity Chapel, which was not a mere ghost but a phantom. Steve did not elaborate further on this distinction but it appeared that a few of the other tourists appreciated this all too well from the worried looks which appeared on their faces at this news. It was not the only time during that long hour that Jennifer was to feel as if she was missing out on something.

Jennifer began to have mixed feelings about Steve and his tour as it went on. On one hand, although there were several interesting tales that the guide told about Oxford, many of which she had never heard before, they were often of dubious historical or academic value. On the other hand, however, Jennifer should perhaps have expected nothing more from a ghost tour and it was hard to deny that she was enjoying herself a little (perhaps more than a little). Steve's entertainment value was not lessened by his predictability. Whenever he was asked a question by one of the tour group that he clearly did not have an immediate and full answer to, he would hide gaps in his knowledge with vague replies and divert attention by describing wraithlike shapes and eerie sounds that seemingly could be seen and heard across Oxford virtually all the time. Jennifer found it quite disturbing that most of the spectres and screams that Steve described seemed to belong to the "Gown" part of Oxford (i.e. students and dons) rather than the locals which constituted the "Town" element. This might simply have been to cater to the tastes of the tourists, who were after all there to see and hear more about the city's ancient university, but Jennifer could not help wondering if there was more to it than that. Being obviously intelligent and well-spoken, Steve presented the image of being an academic who was down on his luck rather than a career tourist guide. Jennifer speculated that he had somehow fallen out with the university, and now took relish in describing the various ways in which its members had met sticky ends over the centuries, leading to afterlives of torment haunting the same city in which he too was somehow trapped.

Her mind having taken this somewhat poetic turn, Jennifer was surprised to notice that the tour had come to a halt around her. They were standing at the crossroads immediately before the Westgate Shopping Centre, where Pembroke Street met St Ebbe's Street. Nearby, the gothic church which was the latter street's namesake presented a neat contrast to the more modern buildings surrounding it which included a large Marks & Spencer as well as a couple of rather rough-looking townie pubs on either side of the road.

Jennifer overheard one of the tourists whispering to another, "Why have we stopped here? I don't see any colleges nearby and it's not exactly the prettiest location in Oxford." She shared their confusion not being aware of anything more historic than the opening of a department store having taken place in this spot, but she didn't voice her query aloud.

It wasn't clear whether or not Steve had overheard his audience's rumblings, but it didn't take long for him to answer their questions, spoken and unspoken.

"This is regarded as one of the unluckiest sites in Oxford," he said, waving his arms expansively to seemingly take in everything around them, "There have been a number of businesses here over the last few decades, none of which have succeeded. A few years ago, a Harry Ramsden's fish and chip restaurant achieved the unique accolade of closing within eighteen months of opening here, an unusual event indeed for such a popular restaurant brand. Two pub chains have also leased the same buildings since then -- both have failed."

"Was it a ghost?" One of the children squeaked, before being cuffed by his mother for speaking out of turn.

Clearly not happy at having been interrupted while he was trying to build up the atmosphere, Steve continued in a slightly louder voice. "There are no written records of the tale that you are about to hear, which comes to me entirely by word of mouth. The origins of the tale are misty, its protagonists unnamed and its exact location uncertain. Yet of all of the tales that I have heard in my time cataloguing the multitude of supernatural events that have taken place in this city, this is undoubtedly the most gruesome and chilling."

Scary stuff, thought Jennifer, although having stumbled around in roughly this area on a number of occasions herself after dark, she had heard nothing more frightening than the frying of kebab a nearby van and people subsequently vomiting it all up. Although in all likelihood that would probably scare the tourists about as much.

"The events I am about to describe are more recent than the source of most of the hauntings which have taken place in Oxford. It all started less than a century ago when complaints at the pub next door to St Ebbe's -- this is the Royal Blenheim Hotel now, but at the time it was called the Horse and Chair -- were made concerning a decaying stench which apparently emanated from the Church. Despite the protests of the vicar at the time, for no dead bodies had been interred there for several years, a search was made of the crypt of St Ebbe's for signs that it was the source of the unpleasant smell."

At these words Jennifer could not help flicking her eyes over to look at the Church. She was sure that it was her imagination, stoked by Steve's stream of supernatural anecdotes, that lent an ominous cast to the steep spire of St Ebbe's as it rose darkly before her in the rapidly deepening evening gloom. There were no signs of life or activity within the Church, no light or sounds, yet it still seemed to be somehow awake, almost expectant, as if it was as eager as the little tour group for Steve to finish his tale.

"The vicar led a group of local men, including the landlord of the pub, into the crypt. It was pretty dusty, full of cobwebs and the like as if nobody had been there for years. They had to get candles because it was as dark as night down there. The landlord wanted in particular to investigate the older part of the of the Church, which stretched towards his pub, so they made their way over there and found a door which was hanging half open. The funny thing was that this door was not covered in dust like the rest of the crypt, but instead it looked like it was in regular use."

Steve took a deep breath before carrying on. Here comes the punch line, thought Jennifer.

"When they pushed open the door they found another bit of the crypt on the other side and, despite the vicar's statement that no dead bodies had been interred in the Church for many years, there were two coffins within, one of them with its lid off. None of the men, not even the vicar, wanted to approach any further but eventually it was the landlord, at whose instigation they had gone down there in the first place, who took his candle over and had a look inside the coffin. Although its lid was off the coffin was not empty -- there was a dead man inside it and he looked as fresh as the day he died. No rot, no smell, skin as good as a living man's and hair and clothes neat and tidy as could be. It wasn't natural of course and at first light the very next day all of the men came back, got the coffin out of the crypt and threw it, corpse and all, onto a great fire in the middle of the street. Although that was the end of the affair as far as they were concerned, the entire area has borne the taint of what took place here ever since then and in my mind there is no doubt -- this is the most haunted spot in Oxford."

Jennifer and the rest of the group had not more than a moment to digest the conclusion of this macabre tale before there was a sudden bloodcurdling scream. Afterwards Jennifer was ashamed to admit that she almost screamed herself and several other members of the group jumped half a foot in the air at the disturbing noise which did not even sound human. Soon, however, Steve with a sheepish look pulled a small audio device out of his cape.

"Pre-recorded," he said.

Jennifer sighed with relief, mainly because she was sure that the tour was now over. Gillian, she felt, owed her a pint down in the college bar for this one. Just as she was about to turn around and head back to Brasenose, however, she felt a hand on her arm. It belonged to the mother of the seven year old boy, whose discomfort Jennifer had noticed earlier on, although her son was no longer with her.

"Please Miss," she said, and Jennifer noticed from her northern accent that unlike the other tourists she was English, "It's my son Jamie, I let go of his hand for a just a second and when I turned around he had gone. You haven't seen him have you?"

Jennifer shook her head, no. The anxious mother moved off and asked the other members of the group, as well as their guide, the same question. None of them, she noticed, appeared to have seen Jamie either.

Steve raised his voice again and summoned the rest of the group around him.

"Ladies and gentleman, your attention please," he said, almost sounding as if this was another part of the tour, "I'm sure that he hasn't gone far, but it appears that this lady's young son has wandered off. Could I ask all of you to have a quick look around to see if you can find him?"

Jamie's mother, who introduced herself to the group as Carol, mumbled her apologies and thanks to everyone, saying again and again that normally he was a good boy and that this was nothing like him.

"He knows not to go off on his own. I don't know what he was thinking or where he can have got to."

Jennifer gave Carol's shoulder a squeeze in encouragement and then joined the search. They spread out in all four directions from the crossroads, some of them going down St Ebbe's Street, others down Pembroke Street all the way to St Aldate's, while she and a couple of the Americans covered the Westgate Shopping Centre. Steve stayed with Carol at the crossroads in case the boy returned. After fifteen minutes of searching they all came back, none of them having had any luck at all. At this Carol's brave face finally cracked and she started to cry, for it was now getting late and dark.

"How about checking the Church?" asked one of the Canadians.

Several members of the group nodded approvingly at this idea but Steve, Jennifer noted with interest, looked none too enthusiastic at the suggestion. In fact, Jennifer realised, ever since the boy had gone missing their tour guide had looked increasingly uncomfortable. Partly this was explained by what had happened, but there seemed to be a deeper fear emanating from Steve, especially at the mention of the Church. Jennifer wondered if he was party to some knowledge of which the rest of them were unaware.

"That sounds like a good idea," said one of the other tourists and then another added, "But how do we get in?"

The group turned to look at Steve but he simply shook his head wordlessly. Jennifer was unsure what the guide was struggling with but she could help with this much at least.

"The vicar leaves the doors open until about eight o'clock in the evening for late worship so we should have a few minutes more."

"How did you know that?" someone asked.

"I came here for the advent service last term," Jennifer said. There was probably no need for further explanation but she felt the need to add, "I'm a student," as if that ensured her veracity.

The group entered the Church as one. Although most of them seemed genuinely concerned with assisting Carol, Jennifer was disappointed to note that a couple of the younger men had their cameras out. If they were after any impressive holiday snaps, however, then they were out of luck; the interior of the Church did not match its striking gothic exterior. As she remembered from the advent service, St Ebbe's was plain and unadorned within, like many of the later Anglican churches, with columns evenly spaced along its length leading up to a simple altar. Before the altar a small shape crouched as if in prayer.

Carol cried out at the sight of Jamie and ran down the aisle to take him in her arms before many members of the group had even seen him. The boy appeared well, blissfully unaware of the fuss he had caused and puzzled by his mother's tears and concern. At that point, the tour group might have broken up and gone in their separate directions had it not been for Jamie's next words.

"But mummy, you were the one who left me here."

"What do you mean, boy?" asked Steve.

Jamie's story came out slowly, punctuated by hugs and sobs from his mother and more questions from Steve. At the start of the guide's story about St Ebbe's, Carol had offered to take her son into the Church itself. Jamie had leaped at the chance and together they had entered St Ebbe's, at which point Carol had left Jamie, promising to come back shortly. Jamie's mother had asked him not to make any noise or call out for her, no matter how long it took her to come back. But as time had passed and there had been no sign of Carol, Jamie had become scared. All alone in the dark Church, he had gone to the altar where the only light emanated softly from a candelabrum. There he had waited until the rest of the group had turned up.

All the blood drained out of Carol's face at this story.

"But. . . it wasn't me," she stammered, "It couldn't have been."

Jennifer, who had been standing next to Carol the whole time while Steve had told his story, concurred that she had gone nowhere.

"But mummy, you were holding my hand the whole time," Jamie said.

"I know, darling," said Carol. "You were holding my hand as well until right at the end when I let go for an instant. That's when I noticed you were gone."

"But that couldn't have been me, Mummy, I never heard the end of the man's story."

The tour group broke up as everyone departed with what seemed like unseemly haste. Steve received no tips, even from the normally generous Americans, and he cut a forlorn figure on his own outside the door of St Ebbe's. His dejected demeanour cheered up only slightly when Jennifer approached him with all sorts of questions. Unfortunately, however, he had few answers.

"This tour has been cursed almost from the moment I started doing it. Children, and adults, have gone missing, and although they always turn up eventually, I feel like I'm being warned. You know -- keep doing this and one day we'll take them for good."

"Who do you think is responsible?" asked Jennifer. "Pranksters?"

Steve shrugged. "They're bloody good at it if it's pranks. And organised -- I've started varying where the tour starts to avoid being followed."

Jennifer very carefully did not ask Steve to elaborate on who he thought was responsible if it was not a practical joker.

"Why do you think they're doing it?"

"I don't know, perhaps it's because of the hammy way I do the tour. You know, I like to keep things slightly tongue-in-cheek to avoid scaring the kiddies too much. There are some," he stopped, perhaps catching himself about to say something he might regret, before continuing, "who might perhaps want me to be more serious about the hauntings in Oxford, to get people to take the ghosts more seriously, treat them with the respect they deserve perhaps. But that's just not me, I don't want to turn this into a dry history tour. That's why I left academia in the first place."

Jennifer winced, remembering her first reaction to the ghost tour.

"If this carries on though," said Steve, "I might just have to pack it all in."

Jennifer thought back to the events of the past couple of hours by turns comic, scary and informative, and decided that for all that had happened she was glad that she had taken Gillian's advice after all.

She put a comforting hand on Steve's shoulder and led him to a nearby pub.

"We should talk," she said, and when the guide turned to look at her questioningly, she asked, "Have you ever thought of taking on an assistant?"


THE END


2016 Anil Balan

Bio: Anil Balan is a blogger and short story writer whose work can be found at www.anilbalan.com. He has previously appeared in Cygnus, the Journal of Speculative Fiction; and The Cynic Online Magazine. Anil's last Aphelion appearance was First Date in our May 2012 issue.

E-mail: Anil Balan

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