That walks through walls and doors
It haunts people without merit
And chases cads and boors
Number 227 is the introduction to a ghost story I wrote for creative writing. I already wrote a poem about this (which can be found here) and then another poem in response to the criticism I received about the first poem. One fellow student was fascinated by my imagery here. I'm still not sure what she meant.
“I don’t believe in ghosts. But that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in me.”
- Harry Houdini1
- Harry Houdini1
I wake to silence. The electric hum from the fridge is missing. No traffic is moving on the A5 outside my window. The pipes have stopped their constant vibration.
The room is barely lit by a red glow from the clock. When I look, it tells me the time is 88:88.
I breathe in, the sound worryingly loud in the shadowy room. The noise is swallowed by the hollow emptiness.
I hate travelling for work, and I hate these hotels. Soulless cubical blocks decorated in garish colours, set by busy roads with just enough soundproofing to muffle the noise, but not enough to make it comfortable. I have stayed in many of them, and this was the first time one was so quiet.
I feel something watching me. I reach for the light, but to no surprise it is not working. Pulling aside the curtain a beam from the streetlamp shines on an object on the desk.
It is a key. It has eyes. They stare, unblinking in the orange glow.
I climb out of the soft bed. The key does not move. The eyes are crystals. Perhaps this is not so strange. Just a power cut, a lull in traffic and a trinket left behind by another guest all wrapped up in my just-woken disorientation.
I see a door. It was not there before. It is in the outer wall, leading to nowhere. It is large and dark and wooden, bound with iron. It belongs in a castle, not an anonymous chain hotel. I can hear something, voices coming from behind it.
The key is in the door. I turn it. It opens.
A cold draught makes me shiver in my pyjamas. There are candles and a fireplace. Two figures sit in chairs. One of them speaks.
“To sail with the wind is to follow the course of nature, so sails of any shape work well. But to sail against the wind requires the help of the Almighty. That is why jibs and staysails are triangular, the three sides honouring the Father, the Son and the Holy...”
He is interrupted by the arrival of another figure. “Please sir, can you come? The mistress wishes to speak with you.”
The voice, so confident before, stumbles in his reply. “Is it... is it over?”
“You have a son sir. But the mistress... can you come sir?”
The door shuts. The key turns. I blink.
The bedside light comes on as the fridge shudders into life. A sunbeam from the dawn comes through the window. The clock radio clicks on to a serious sounding voice introducing the Today programme as a lorry races past the window.
I get dressed in a hurry, throw everything into my case and head for the exit. As I look back, the new door – old door – is gone. On instinct I check the desk. The key is there, although it seems drained of purpose. Before I change my mind I take it with me.
Of course I tried to find out more. The staff, mostly Polish, could tell me nothing of the site. The acting manager (“The manager left on maternity, and the area manager is at a corporate retreat”), a helpful and friendly 23 year-old woman from Brisbane, knew the hotel was built in 1991, but no more.
I went to the Sports Centre, had a swim, took a shower and put on my work suit. I had breakfast in the snack bar. The young man behind the counter told me the hotel had been there for as long as he had lived in town – five years.
I got to my meeting on time. It went well. Afterwards I asked the people there if they knew anything about the site of the hotel. The boss – a silver-haired American brought in by the Japanese owners to oversee this subsidiary – held forth on the Romans, and Watling Street, and how amazing it is to drive every day on two thousand years of history. No one else knew anything about it either.
At the council offices I found that the records depository had been bombed in the war, and there was nothing official from earlier than 1956. The oldest notes suggested it had been an abandoned blacksmith shop before being bought up by a speculator who went bankrupt.
I made one last effort. I went to the darkest, dingiest, most old-fashioned pub, had a disappointing dinner and asked the landlord who I should speak to about the history of the area. He couldn’t help me himself, as he only came here in 1997 when his wife inherited the pub. Unfortunately they were separated so I couldn’t ask her.
Mrs Bea used to be a regular, but she’d gone to live with her daughter in Newcastle. The Major had had a stroke and didn’t get out any more. Old Tom was my best bet – he had worked in the library for years before retiring.
Old Tom didn’t come in that night. At last I had to leave, down the A5 past the hotel, racing towards home.
It was after midnight when I got there, and the children were asleep. I told Jackie my story in whispers as I watched them. The key, so solid as evidence in the morning, seemed strangely insubstantial now. I put it safely away.
 This is probably not an authentic Harry Houdini quote.