We've all scared ourselves half silly with the news that Hugo, our latest colonial itinerant has seen a ghost. Well it is Halloween, or Hugoween. It's all rediculous but we're nevertheless aghast and willing it to be true in equal measure. When he tells me the full story of how he encountered the mystery woman in the dry stores after returning from a smoke outside I ask him what exactly he was smoking. Maybe it's more akin to Hugogate.
To be truthful, I have never seen a ghost, but, not very long after we moved into Augill, we did have a once and once only (thank goodness) ghostly experience.
It’s not long after we bought the castle. We have got in to a routine of leaving our restaurant in London late on a Friday night and driving up to Cumbria in time to start on a weekend’s renovations on Saturday morning.
We crash in to bed at about 3am and, having piled every piece of clothing and bedding on top of ourselves to keep warm (we had no spare cash for frivolities such as heating) fall into a fitful slumber.
Our room is at the far end of the main first floor corridor and the farthest door bangs. It’s loud enough to wake me but could easily be the wind or mum, who is living with us, having sold her own house to help us buy the castle and now doesn’t have a spare bean to her name either. Then the second door on the corridor bangs shut. It can’t be the wind as the two open in opposite directions. It is odd that mum should be coming in our direction and we wait to see if it is her. The third door and fourth doors bang, I call out to see who is there. It’s a sort of loud stage whisper as I want to know if there anyone there, but I’m so spooked I don’t really want an answer. There is no answer.
If it is someone, they are now right outside the bedroom door. I want to wake Wendy and tell her what’s happening but I’m too frightened to move.
After what seems minutes but is likely just seconds, a strong aroma of fresh cigarette smoke mingled with Yves St Laurent Rive Gauche perfume fills the room. I know who it is because Wendy has told me many times about her mum who smoked relentlessly and wore far too much Rive Gauche. She’s been gone now for some fourteen years.
I am frozen stiff with fear, and spend the rest of the night lying rigid and motionless. In the morning I turn to Wendy and begin to tell her about the experience but she’s beaten me to it as she was also awake, paralysed with fright and we had both experienced the same thing, not wanting to disturb each other, although what we really both wanted to do is jump into each other’s arms like Scooby Doo and Shaggy (make up your own mind who is who). Yikes!
We check with mum over breakfast that she was not wandering about in the middle of the night having a sneaky puff but she only wants to know who on earth was slamming doors at 4am!
Since then, we have not had another supernatural experience and are happy for that. So imagine our reaction when we are contacted by a group of ghost hunters who want to conduct a ‘Most Haunted’ style overnight vigil in the castle. I am clearly overcome by some dark force which as manipulated my mind because before I know what I’m saying, I have agreed. A date is set and the ghostbusters are on their way.
We are all at a loss as to what to expect as the day of the ghost hunt draws nearer. Most of the staff are adamant that they don’t want anything to do with it. Mum is convinced that we are going to summon up the devil himself. She is actually very agitated about the whole idea and I think she has visions of the castle being engulfed into a fiery hole, consumed by the very flames of hell itself and is relieved that she no longer lives with us. She is not, however, concerned enough to offer to take the children to safety for the night. I’m trying to take a more pragmatic line, thinking up likely PR angles and possible photo opportunities.
It is a Friday afternoon in February when the ghost hunters arrive. I’m disappointed that they have arrived in a Ford Focus and a Vauxhall Astra estate. Where’s the Scooby Doo mystery machine? They could have at least come in a VW camper van for effect. As the two cars disgorge their passengers I can also se that useable photo opportunities are going to be pretty thin on the ground, at least until it gets dark.
Ralph (I doubt this is his real name and guess he looks much more like a Bernard) is wearing a spotty red cravatte, has long grey hair tied back in a pony tail and a salt and pepper beard which I fancy might be as dishevelled as it is in order to conceal a secret beard-cam. He is about fifty, has the air of someone who has seen a lot of life and is now pretty weary of the whole thing, and is clearly in charge.
With him are Graham, a graduate in something way outside my sphere of understanding and the sort of person who wears hiking boots all the time, Serena who, in green pockety combats, a baggy sweatshirt, hobnail boots and with no make up whatsoever, looks nothing like her name would suggest. (Wendy has told me that I must keep further thoughts about Serena to myself since just last week I almost enraged a castle full of half term mummies by exclaiming too loudly from the kitchen my delight at the quality delivery of breast we had received that afternoon. I was referring to the pigeon we were serving for dinner but apparently others thought differently). Finally, there is Art who is the most presentable of the four but is let down by the most hideous set of teeth which make him look like he bottled it half way through the making of Extreme Makeover at the point where his old teeth had been chiselled out ready for the new ones to go in. Surely any half decent ghost isn’t going to come out for this bunch of misfits.
Wendy merely turns to me and says in a very mouthy half whisper, ‘what the hell have you got us into?’. It takes about an hour to haul all the equipment into the castle and while we are helping with this, Ralph is surveying the castle for possible spectral hotspots or some such thing. I mention light heartedly that we have various WiFi hotspots but he is less than amused. I decide to go and make supper which, in deference to the company should probably involve mung beans and tofu but is going to be far more elaborate since we do also have some regular guests staying. They had been forewarned and are very excited about the prospect of contact with the other side.
Equipment assembled, it is decided that the vigil should begin at around 11.30. We are all told we should go about the business of the castle as if everything is normal. This is, of course, a ridiculous suggestion, not least because we are completely entangled in cables at every turn and are agog to know whether we have been sharing the castle with The Others.
The rest of our guests do take Ralph’s advice to behave normally and are getting happily plastered on their own spirit quest in the bar. Wendy has been agitated all evening and has taken something 'medicinal' to settle her stomach and gone to bed. I finish off the little that is left of the bottle to calm my own nerves.
A couple of hours later, there has still been no spectral activity, our guests have either retired or passed out and another bottle of wine has done wonders for my stomach but not much for my head. I bid the ghost hunters good night, remind them where they can find the coffee and go to bed.
It must be about three in the morning when there is a sudden commotion and a piercing scream. Either Ralph has made an ill-advised early morning move on Serena or somebody has spotted a ghost. It’s a difficult call as to which is the more unlikely scenario.
Of course, everyone wants to know what is happening and we’re soon all assembled at the top of the stairs in various states of undress. Was it a child searching for answers about the unexplained death of its mother, a servant doomed to eternal exploration of the back passage after being ill-treated by her master or a poltergeist angry at being disturbed?
It seems Serena dozed off and was woken with a start by Harry the cat who jumped into her lap. Ralph got over excited, and in trying to switch on the spectral mass illuminator thingy pulled the whole thing over, frightening Harry who dug his claws into Serena’s breast.
Wendy looks at me and turns to go back to bed, muttering, ‘bloody idiots.’ I ask if she’d like anything to help her get back to sleep but she doesn’t look as if she’s going to have any trouble on that score.
At breakfast Ralph, whom I am now convinced is really Bernard, tells us that the vigil wound up after the Harry incident as any spirits would have been disturbed. I get a strong sense that everyone around the table is thinking it’s not the spirits who are disturbed. I refrain from offering Ralph and the gang Scooby snacks for the journey and thank them for not finding any ghosts. I politely enquire after Serena’s left breast which I notice is sporting a Greenpeace badge but she is too busy packing up the Astra to acknowledge me.