‘The Phantom Staircase’
A ghost story by Harry Riley
(This is fiction and resemblance to anyone living or dead is coincidental)
A short while ago William Smithurst, a salesman friend of mine was passing through the West - Country on business and looking for a place to stay. It was to be a regular journey for him and he was seeking a base where he might stop over for a few days or a week at a time. As he drove into a pleasant rural village called Lower Grafton he saw the sign in the window of a pretty little, ancient stone cottage.
It read simply ‘Lilac cottage (holiday-let) Contact Ashton agency. Main Street. Lower Grafton.’ The cottage possessed a sturdy thatched roof typical of the area and had a small, somewhat neglected garden complete with Lilac tree in bloom surrounded by a low white painted picket fence. Purely on instinct he pulled over and parked up in a lay – bye, walking back to obtain a closer view. ‘Yes this looked promising with its Clematis twisting around the solid oak door.’ The place seemed empty and there was a short gravelled area off the road to park his car. Looking through the front bay window that reached almost to ground level he saw it was furnished in a pleasant manner. All exposed beams and inglenook open fire. This had probably been built as a dwelling for an agricultural worker and family. The open staircase came down into the room. The cottage seemed to be welcoming him, ‘saying come inside why don’t you?’ He went around the back and peered in through the small kitchen window and all the main amenities seemed to be present, with a butler sink and gas hob. ‘Yes, if the price suited his budget this could be his home from home, and better still there was a quaint village pub across the road. He could have a drink and practically fall right into bed.’
Visiting the agency shop in the village he saw a middle-aged woman typing at a desk who seemed genuinely surprised he was enquiring about Lilac cottage, just down the road.
“Surely you don’t want to stay there? Nobody ever does.”
“Why on earth not? Is it too costly?”
The woman shrugged ignoring his question and became more businesslike, asking him to wait while she consulted her list.
“It’s £300 for a short break and £500 by the week and we don’t allow pets.”
“Okay!” He made up his mind on the spot. “Okay I’ll take it for a trial of one week please.”
The agent seemed incredulous, “Eh, oh well, if you say so, it’s your funeral!”
She handed over the keys with a dry mirthless smile and a cryptic warning: “Sleep well!”
And sleep well he did for the first four nights anyway. The tranquil location suited him down to the ground and he rang his wife to say he thought it would be an ideal place for them to stay for a family holiday. He was getting to know the area quite well as he drove around and the landlord of the ‘Pig and Whistle’ public house just across the road was a very amiable chap and was providing superb, low cost evening meals. All in all, this cottage was turning out to be an inspired choice in spite of the agency woman’s comments. If only he had known what was in store for him!
He had a few drinks in the pub after his Vegan curry and was feeling quite mellow as he fell into bed on the fifth night. It must have been about two o’clock in the morning when he awoke in a sweat. ‘Was it the curry?’ You know how deathly quiet it can be in the country during the dark hours, well as he gazed around the room he realised with a shock that the bedroom light was on. He was certain he had switched it off before turning in. As he listened for the usual silence, something was different. He could hear voices, a man and woman quarrelling violently. Then without warning the light went out again. He lay there for a moment or two hardly daring to breath. He was not a coward but like many people he was nervous of things that seemed to have no logical foundation. The voices could still be heard and now they were just outside his door. The woman was screaming in anger and the man sounded drunk as he lumbered up the stairs. William was puzzled and scared but his hand located the torch on the bedside table and he switched it on, not caring to try the light switch that was obviously faulty. Opening the bedroom door he shone the light on a scene that almost drove him mad. A young woman in a long white nightdress was haranguing a man outside his door. William shouted out in alarm but they ignored him and with a frenzied rush the woman thrust a large kitchen knife into the man’s chest just as he mounted the top step. His eyes opened wide in amazement and he fell backwards down the stairs. But there was something strange. The staircase was in the wrong place! Just to the side of William’s bedroom door should have been a short landing with the other bedroom leading off and where had the bathroom door gone? There was something else; the two protagonists hadn’t seen him…they didn’t know he was there. Their clothes looked so old fashioned. The young woman was wearing a strange lace hat and the man, presumably her husband or partner was wearing a waistcoat and collarless shirt. The woman had collapsed in a heap on the floor by William’s side, moaning softly to herself. He reached out to comfort her but his hand passed right through her shoulder. He could see the bottom stair where the drunken man lay dead or dying. A big pool of blood was leaking across his stomach and onto the plain floorboards, but William was powerless to go to help. It seemed his feet were glued to the spot. He knew he wasn’t dreaming but he also knew this was an unnatural occurrence. He ran back inside his bedroom and climbed into bed. He awoke the next day with the memory still bright and clear. It was as he sat in the pub that evening, relating his strange experience that the publican shook his head and said William had just solved a 200 year old murder that had been haunting folk for generations. They all knew the story of the death house called Lilac Cottage. But nobody had been able to say how it really happened.
Until William came along no one had dared to stay and find out. The story goes that the wife claimed she was away at her sister’s when it happened and a burglar must have done the dreadful deed. Folk never locked their homes in those days. Another couple eventually bought the house and changed the layout, moving the staircase to create an upstairs bathroom. One day they ran away screaming and were never seen again.End.