It was a bitter day in November when I found myself being asked if I believed in ghosts.
‘Ghosts?’ I replied, regretting having let this pale, nervous man sit down in my office.
I had only recently moved to the area; Hortley, a picturesque seaside town with a long history as the target of smugglers, pirates and now, tourists. It was for this last horde that I had been hired as the new town archivist. I was to update the museum, and provide a little education before the obligatory tea-room. So, I came as an outsider – British-born, but not necessarily ‘British-looking’ – still warmly welcomed by the residents as they tried to navigate my name, and untactfully asked about my unmarried status. And despite any initial reservations, I was enjoying the slower pace of life – the cool drink of sea air, amongst cobbled streets and ivy-ed cottages. And, of course, the eccentric characters, of which this young gentleman appeared to be one – ‘young’ for the town, I should say, meant under forty-five. Now, how to tell him ghosts were not part of my job description?
He’d introduced himself as Patrick Stafford, when he knocked on my door and asked for help. Tall, thin and angular, he was still waiting for a more substantial reply.
‘I’m afraid I don’t have much experience with ghosts, Mr Stafford.’
‘Neither do I! That’s why I need some help!’ Seeing my confusion, he sighed, and tried again. ‘I moved to Hortley several months ago to take over Ackroyd’s Books on Mermaid Street. It belonged to my uncle, Rupert Ackroyd, until he passed away last year.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ I said.
‘Don’t be.’ Patrick rubbed his tired face. ‘He was awful – truculent and stubborn. He owned the bookshop for decades, but the fact he sold anything was remarkable. He was a snob, you see. Towards the books he sold, and the people he sold them to. It was an absurd business model, but orders from older customers who had been deemed ‘worthy’ meant it miraculously kept surviving… until, well, he didn’t.’
I wasn’t used to such frankness about the recently deceased. ‘How did you come to take over the shop?’ I asked.
‘That was a surprise, actually. Uncle and I didn’t have the best relationship. He called me a ‘feckless ass’ who didn’t know a day’s work. Unfair, I thought. I am a writer, after all.’
‘And I’m published. Mainly columns in niche trade publications, though. Have you read Button-Maker Monthly?’.
‘No… most haven’t. Anyway, it kept me solvent while I worked on my novel. Well, years passed and the charm of chasing commissions from Cable Tie Newsletter began to fade. The thought of a more reliable income appealed – with a little time to write on the side, of course. So, after the initial shock when I found out Uncle Rupert had left me the bookshop, it seemed like the perfect new start. When I arrived there was a lot to change about the place. Stuffy interiors; out-of-date stock; nesting birds in the chimney. I worked hard to modernise it, to make it inviting, somewhere families could sit together and read. It wouldn’t have been to Uncle Rupert’s taste, but I’m not a snob about these things. I wanted the bookshop to thrive.
But then the… strangeness started. Three days ago, I arrived to open up, and found the Christmas display in disarray. I was surprised, but perhaps, I reasoned, I hadn’t balanced them properly. I put them back carefully and thought nothing more of it. But the next morning, the books were scattered even further, as if thrown. Maybe an animal was sneaking in and but there were no signs of entry.
Then last night, I decided to settle the matter. I set up camp in the stock room, determined to catch whatever was causing this chaos. At two o’clock in the morning there was a sudden thud next door, followed by the sounds of books sliding and tumbling. But there was something else, like the rumble of a man’s voice. I couldn’t make out its words, or whether it was even alone, so I launched myself at the door, grabbing the nearest thing in self-defence – a stapler. However, once through that door, I was left staring breathlessly at a very empty shop, with books scattered everywhere.’
It was a few moments before I realised he had finished, and was waiting for a response.
‘Oh! That sounds very… odd,’ I finished lamely.
He stood up, his frustration bubbling as he paced the room. ‘I know it sounds ridiculous, but what else could it be?’
‘Mr. Stafford, I believe that you believe it is a ghost. But I’m sure there’s another explanation although I don’t know why it is you think I can help.’
‘Well, you’re the historian, aren’t you? Do you know if there has been any history of ghosts or apparitions at that address?’
‘I can’t really say. I could do some research of course, but even if I found anything it wouldn’t necessarily explain-’
‘I wouldn’t put it past a ghost to be too scared of Uncle Rupert to make an appearance. What did you say? That you’d look into it?’ He stared at me with wide, appealing eyes.
I hesitated, before nodding. This really wasn’t my line of work, but after three days on council records arguing over the ownership of a stream, I supposed I could be excused a small diversion.
Two days later Patrick returned to my office, more agitated than before. He looked miserable as I told him the results of my research. ‘Nothing?!’
‘Sorry. No history at the property of any disturbances. No strange crimes, violent deaths, or mysterious fires. I have to say I was disappointed too.’
‘But that’s impossible! The books are still being disturbed. I woke up this morning to find all the Christmas releases scattered – the cookbooks, the Churchill biographies, the memoirs of reality stars. Jeremy Clarkson’s latest was behind the radiator! And I swear it feels… odd. Like I’m never quite alone.’ He dropped into the chair, face cupped in hands.
‘Well, just because I didn’t find anything doesn’t mean nothing happened. I just couldn’t find anything about it. History only tells the stories of what was left behind.’
He didn’t seem comforted. I watched with pity, as he stared at the floor. Beyond that though, was another feeling – the irresistible pull of the unknown – and before I knew what I was saying: ‘We could try again to catch – whatever it is.’
He looked up. ‘We?’
And that is how I found myself at two o’clock in the morning, rubbing cramp from my leg in a draughty stock room, and feeling a deep sense of regret. Since Patrick and I had taken up our watch, there had been nothing in the shop beyond ourselves. I comforted myself with the thought that, at least after this, I would perhaps be slightly less of a mug. As night drew on, I began to let my eyes rest, and at the point where my mind teetered on the edge of sleep, I heard the thump. My eyes snapped open, and I looked across the room to see Patrick’s eyes widen in terror. The thumps and bangs continued, and the low guttural sound of a voice was unmistakeable. Hearts thumping, we nodded to each other quietly opened the door.
Patrick jerked back, as a paperback flew past his head and hit the door frame. Pushing the door further open, we saw in a beaten, leather armchair, an apparition seeming of silver smoke. A spectre of an elderly man, bald, with a pair of spectacles perched on a sharp nose. He hadn’t noticed us, preoccupied as he was working through a pile of books, flipping through each, before throwing it across the room in disgust.
Then Patrick spoke. ‘Uncle!’
My mouth was already hanging open in disbelief as I turned to look at Patrick.
‘Patrick?’ The ghost was now peering at us over its spectacles.
‘What are you – how are you – is that you?’ Patrick stammered.
‘Unfortunately for you, my boy, it is! What have you been doing to my shop?’
‘You’re a ghost!’ he whimpered.
‘Well, if I wasn’t, I’d pretty angry about the funeral,’ the ghost snapped back.
‘Wh- what are you doing here?’
‘Who’s this young woman?’ The spectre was looking at me.
I felt as though my stomach had been nailed to the floor. ‘I, I, I… I’m a historian. Nice to meet you,’ I gasped.
Patrick snapped out of his stupor and looked at the carnage. ‘What have you done to my shop?’ he exclaimed in horror.
‘What have you done to my shop?’ retorted the ghost. ‘Filling it with rubbish? What is this?’ He began to read from the covers of the books. Smugge – The Finnish Art of Organising Drawers. Let’s Get Quizzical – another quiz book for someone unable to get over the fact they’ve never got on Eggheads, I suppose? A sticker book for adults?? How dare you put this waste of firewood in my shop!’
‘Uncle, it’s my shop now! You’re supposed to be dead!’
‘I knew I couldn’t trust you to run the shop, and I was right! What happened to my bridge section?’
‘I thought a whole section dedicated to a card game was a bit excessive, Uncle.’
‘So speaks a non-bridge player.’
‘Why are you so stubborn? You couldn’t even stay deceased!’
At this the ghost snorted, and began again launching his literary missiles. We watched him gleefully bounce books off shelves and walls, while proclaiming, ‘How could a twenty-year old be on the third volume of their biography?’
Patrick, meanwhile, quietly glowered.
I could watch no more. ‘Uncle Rupert, you can’t do this’ I stepped forward, snatching the next projectile from his translucent hands. ‘Whether you like it not, it’s Patrick’s shop now; and if you continue this, he’ll have no business and he’ll be forced to close it. And then it’ll be gone – just another empty shop’
The ghost peered at Patrick. ‘You wouldn’t.’
‘I absolutely would!’ he snapped. ‘Maybe I’ll sell it on! Imagine what it could be! A greeting card shop, perhaps! Or fancy dress!’ Patrick leaned forward, a glint in his eye. ‘It could sell home furnishings.’
‘Alright, you’ve made your point!’ barked Rupert. He turned pointedly to me. ‘What do you think we should do?’
‘Well… a compromise. I know you’ll just cause trouble if Patrick carries on as before. But whether you like it not he will still need to sell commercial books if the shop is going to survive. Plus, it’s rather wonderful he wants it to be somewhere children and families can come, don’t you agree?’
Uncle Rupert murmured noncommittally.
‘And in return, Patrick will perhaps be a little more… selective in what he chooses to stock, including the classics. And a thriving second-hand section.’
Patrick frowned at this, but eventually nodded.
‘And you won’t be forgotten either. He will move your chair into a corner somewhere, and surround it with your beloved Austen and Hardy for when the shop is closed. Agreed?’
Patrick let out a small exclamation, quieting after a stern look from me.
Rupert looked slowly from me to Patrick, frowning in thought. Eventually, though, he nodded.
The arrangement began tentatively, and after a few missteps such as memoirs of failed politicians still disappearing behind the radiator, things began to run smoothly.
It was in the thick of December, with the full swing of Christmas season underway, that I visited to see how things were going at Ackroyd’s Books. The cold biting at my skin, I was glad to enter the festively decorated shop, a delicate bell announcing my arrival. Patrick looked up from the counter beaming, and hurried over to help with my coat. ‘It’s good to see you! Thank you for coming,’ he said, rather breathlessly.
‘No problem,’ I smiled. ‘Are things going well?’
‘Yes! Very well. Uncle Rupert has been behaving himself during opening hours.’ He paused. We nervously glanced around the shop, but nothing occurred.
‘Thank you again for your help,’ Patrick continued. ‘It’s not exactly what I had imagined when I took over, but it’s working quite well. And it wouldn’t have happened without you. I – I just wanted to say… ‘
The air became quite strange and awkward between us.
Then a book pushed itself from the shelf next to us and fell to the floor. We both looked. Love poetry. When I looked back up, Patrick was blushing.
Ana Basu is a writer and musician, working in public health in London. She has had opinion pieces published in broadsheets, fiction published in The Purple Breakfast Review, and even a couple of jokes on Radio 4 Extra. She loves comedy and is a member of London Comedy Writers, and so delighted to appear on Funny Pearls, she frequently needs to lie down from the excitement. Silliness, and Bake-Off and Archers tweets may be found @modernskirt.