‘Twas a midsummer day in England, 2012. My friends and I were wandering through Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birth place.
Same as every year, we had taken a trip with our university’s classmates to see The Bard’s plays in London before coming to rest in the gorgeous countryside town that had seen him grow.
Same as every year, we had visited the witchcraft and wizardry shop that used to be up Henley Street, taken an ice-cold ginger beer on the terrace of the Dirty Duck, talked to the actors after their performance at the RSC theatre and read poetry at tea time in the Shakespeare Hostelrie conference room.
Same as every year, we’d passed in front of the old house on Sheep Street that attracted and frightened us at the same time. It advertised as The Falstaff’s Experience, the most haunted house in town.
Now, my friends and I were all about vampires, werewolves, witchcraft and haunted things – in theory. But we had to admit to ourselves, every time we walked past that house, that we weren’t quite sure we wanted to take our theories into practice.
That year, however, we screwed our courage to the sticking place and made an appointment. We went in with gut-wrenching apprehension, because we could sense this was the real deal.
The mansion was in a back alley, so its facade had not been kept as neatly as the typical 17th century timbering house showing off on the street. The walls were crumbling, the casement windows were dirty and covered in cobwebs. We realized soon enough we couldn’t hear the street noises anymore. In fact, we couldn’t hear anything apart from our increasingly fast breathing.
We tried to rationalize everything. After all, they sold an experience, so there was bound to be man-made tricks and effects. Besides, the people working there were still alive and sane enough, so the house couldn’t be that haunted, or they’d have fled long ago.
However, I couldn’t explain how they could make the floor give way under my feet as I passed the threshold into this low-ceilinged, wood-creaking, foul-smelling place. I almost fell over before I realized the floor had not disappeared, but merely moved.
“Oh, you felt that I see,” said the tour guide with a grin. “It’s the first event that sets the tone for the rest of the journey. Not everyone gets to experience it, and two persons won’t feel it the same way.” He stared at me with intent. “You’re going to have fun here, lady, I’ll say!”
I gave out a nervous laugh and followed him, holding both my friends by the hand. They had perceived it too, like a tremor they said. But I had felt the floor open underneath me, as though it wanted to swallow me whole.
We moved up the old, musty stairs, into dim-lit rooms after dim-lit rooms, the low ceilings oppressing us, various earthy and unearthly odors harassing our nostrils, whispers and far-off wails tickling our eardrums, wax statues scaring us with their manners frozen in time and space. I rationalized once more, to keep my heart from beating out of my chest: the 21st century held many clever devices to create such an atmosphere, right?
Then we stopped at a threshold between two parts of the building that had been built in different periods. As the guide talked about English architecture, I let my guard down for a second. That’s when someone took my hand. I turned around to see that my acolytes both had their arms crossed, and the spot next to me was empty. Still, a tiny palm was pressing against my own and nimble fingers played with the rings on my fingers.
The guide sensed my turmoil. “Oh, I think one of our resident ghosts has found a new friend!” Everyone turned to me in awe, and the guide resumed. “Do you have rings on your fingers, miss?”
“Yes, I do. And it’s playing with them.”
“See, there’s a mischievous lad coming and going, who likes shiny things. Be careful now, he’s a great pick-pocket!”
I looked to my right, to the empty spot, and replied. “I don’t think it’s a man though. It feels like a little girl. The hand is too small and she seems to search for reassurance.”
My friends were speechless. They knew of my abilities to sense weird stuff, but they’d never seen me at work. The other people on the tour with us swayed between awe and disbelief, while the guide’s face went from surprise to dread, and settled on keen interest.
“My, that’s impressive, that is.” He dared not move, but glanced towards my hand and its vicinities. “Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have been graced by the presence of dearest Lucy. She’s our town’s most beloved ghost, a little girl departed much too young, who would not leave her parents alone in grief, so she remained among us. She doesn’t usually come here, because she doesn’t like the other ghosts, although she’s friend with our thieving lad. Ans she seems to like you a lot, miss!”
I turned to the empty spot. To say that I saw her there and then would be a lie. But she sent me an image, of a lovely little blonde girl smiling at life in her 19th century Victorian white dress.
I smiled and squeezed her little ghost hand as my eyes welled up with tears.
We finished the tour and stepped back into the light of present day and onto Sheep Street and its lot of cars, bikes and lively people. All the while, Lucy held my hand and nudged at my hips from time to time.
As we set to cross the road however, gentle Lucy pulled once to make me look “at” her and signified me that our paths were to separate here. I thanked her a blew her a kiss, and she disappeared in the light.
That night, livened up by our encounters with ghosts, my friends and I felt adventurous enough to roam the streets of Old Town in the search for Holy Trinity Church and its old graves. We ventured on the ground with our smartphones for only light, when suddenly I stopped.
Something in the back of my head pulled my attention to the ground and the path we were on. Huge stones paved the way through the churchyard, big enough to look like gravestones, and sure enough, some were engraved with the names of the diseased who hadn’t had enough money to get a proper burial.
As I looked closer at the one on which I was standing, the light of my phone playing tricks with the wet surface of the rock, I read the name. There were no dates, no epitaphs, just a name: Lucy Hurdes. The little girl popped right in front of me in a giggle, blew me a kiss, and disappeared again.
I made some research later, and the only Lucy I could find in the local legends was this 14-year-old thief who got murdered by her uncle in room 203 at the Shakespeare Hostelerie. My Lucy was about 8, and the tour guide insisted she was not the thief he’d first talked about. So, whether stories got mixed up, or whether it was all in my head, we will never know. But that was my encounter with one of the ghosts of Stratford-upon-Avon, a lovely little girl whose memory still makes the palm of my hand tingle.
International author born in Switzerland of a Dutch mother and a Romanian father, Jude Cocaigne finds her calling after binge reading all of Terry Pratchett's work. Fantasy is her realm, with dashes of romance and a bit of horror at times. Her first published piece, the short story The Girl with the Red Hood, is a retelling of a retelling of the Red Riding Hood by Angela Carter. Drawing on Carter's original idea, but adding gruesome details and an even deeper twist, Jude Cocaigne unleashed her talents and her voice. Her next published piece, a novella called The Elf Girl and the Prince (in the limited edition boxed set Once Upon Another World, out on October 6, 2020), is a dab at romance and fairy tales of another kind, and introduces Ze World, a planet in which many more adventures will take place in the near future, as a Fantasy series is already in the making.
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S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”