Welcome dear friends to the festive fireside of the Great Library of Dreams!
Well it is Christmas Eve, and outside a damp and misty night awaits. There’s a wet chill in the air but we still hold onto the hope of the temperature dropping a little further and delivering if not snow then at least a Christmas whitened by a glimmer of frost. However with the ghost of a fog hazing the streetlamps and tangling itself in the wet black dripping branches of the dead trees, it’s still a fine night to draw close to the fire and share an eerie tale.
Indeed it was upon a night not unlike this one - wet,cold and just before Christmas - that I first heard this tale. I had gone to meet my father for drinks, and had discovered the town to be unusually quiet for a night so close to Christmas. As it was, this suited both of us just fine, as it meant quick service at the bar and the pick of the best seats in the house. Our chosen venue was a little pub just off the market square, an old fashioned pub now long gone sadly.
It’s fortunes had wavered when the brewery in their infinite wisdom has gutted the place; ripping out all the old dark wood and brass fittings and replacing it with chrome and neon, effectively driving away the clientele had had been drinking there for generations in pursuit of a young and trendy crowd who wanted a yuppified watering hole. Perhaps it is needless to say that in a quiet northern market town, this punted for crowd in the end proved to be entirely imaginary. A few short and unprofitable years later, they ripped out all the now pitifully dated modern features and refurbished it once again, ironically putting back all brass fittings and traditional pub decor. Or rather what they put back was some idiot designer’s idea of what a traditional pub looked like. It was, of course, absolutely horrible. The smoking ban a few years later finally closed its doors, when all those shrill voices who claimed smoking kept them out of pubs blatantly failed to drop by for a pint. Since then it has been a skate shop, a mobile phone store, and a nail bar. It is currently closed now but I fully expect it to re-open as a vape shop in the near future and no doubt continue to sail the perilous seas of high street fads in the coming years too. I am sure there is some sort of parable for our times in there somewhere...
But to return to that night at the close of the ‘90s, not so long ago but now seemingly lost in an earlier age, the old place was then still in rude health, and capable of turning a decent profit even on a damp Tuesday evening. We had dropped in, as was our wont, to take part in the pub quiz, drawn by a decent prospect of winning and the free food that followed after. We had managed to come in third that night, only stumbling over some soap related questions, but the pasties, chicken drumsticks and mince pies afterwards had softened the blow considerably. We had bagged a couple of the comfier seats by the fire and were enjoying that special cosiness only possible on dark winter evenings in England in earlier, happier times. Soft lighting further smudged by smoke, the flashing lights of the one armed bandits dancing off the garlands of tinsel, the blessed absence of some big screen TVs pumping out satellite idiocy, and a jukebox happily running through its repertoire of ‘60s and ‘70s hits, still blissfully unaware of that the ‘80s, nevermind the ‘90s, had happened.
Now we had been joined in our quizzing endeavours by an old friend of my father’s. He was a big bearded man, imagine perhaps a slimmer Brian Blessed, but one with the volume turned down to a respectable level, but the same roguish twinkle in his eye. Indeed for the purposes of this tale, I shall call him Brian. He and Dad had known each other for years and there was a covert pleasure for me whenever he joined us, for after a few pints of best bitter had been sunk, there was every chance of an old and possibly mildly scandalous story from my Dad’s youth being aired, with Brian often proving that he was, as my mother had always alleged, a “bad influence” on my father. He himself had had something of a colourful career, and had dozens of often hilarious tales to tell of his various adventures in a variety of different professions.
Anyway on this particular evening - and thanks to several fine ales I cannot remember exactly how - the conservation turned to the strangest things we had ever encountered when working. Naturally having a somewhat shall we say interesting CV, Brian had several entertaining contributions to share. However these were, as it turned out, merely preambles to the main event. And that proved to be a story of a somewhat different nature to the jovial misadventures he had previous recounted. I shall endeavour to relay it as he told it to us that dark December night…
“Now the weirdest thing that ever happened, came when I was working as a property inspector. It was a few years ago now, and was a job I’d seen in the paper - it asked for little in the way of qualifications or experience, and the money was good. Very generous in fact. I never thought I’d get it, but at the interview, the head honcho, an odd little bloke called Mr Elwyn - I still to this day don’t know his first name - seemed to take a shine to me. He was a dapper chappie, very posh and decked out in a tailored three piece suit and always came to work with the full rolled umbrella, patent leather briefcase and bowler hat routine.
“When I walked in for the interview, I immediately thought I had no chance, but as I was wearing a tailored suit myself - a trophy from my time working in Saville Row - that seemed to break the ice."
(And I should point out this was true - at one point Brian had gone to London, and worked in a proper old school gentleman’s outfitters, as well as a youth club leader, a bus conductor, tourist guide, mime artist, and tube train driver. Well, I did say he had a colourful past. But I digress...)
“Anyhow we ended up talking about suits for a bit and before I knew it I had the job. Must admit I was both pleased and worried as I still wasn’t entirely sure what the position entailed. The outfit was called Panoptes Properties, and the job itself turned out to be something of a doodle, if a bit suspect. Basically I was now a property inspector. Every fortnight, I got a list of properties to go and visit, each one with its own file to be updated. It was entirely up to me to arrange in what order and when they were inspected, and once you’d done your lot, your time was your own pretty much. At least until the next batch came in. Naturally most of the blokes endeavoured to zip around the area as fast as possible and then effectively have a week off on full pay for nowt. “And that was more than possible - as the inspections weren’t exactly difficult. Basically you turned up, checked the properties were as they were described i.e. right number of rooms and what have you, take some pictures with a camera they issued you, and then update the file to say that yes, it was all present and correct. At first I thought I’d be fiddling about checking electrics, fire alarms and security systems and stuff, but no, it was just a case of seeing the place was still there it seemed.
“And here’s where things are a bit odd. To start with Elwyn had in his office a big old mahogany desk with three phones on it. One black, one white, and one red. I have no idea why - because according to the girls in the office, he never called anyone on them, and what’s more, those phones never rang once either. Secondly, nobody seemed to have the faintest idea why we were inspecting these properties or for who. There were plenty of theories of course. Most reckoned Panoptes must be a contractor for an insurance firm, while others thought - mainly on the basis that Elwyn wore a pinstripe suit - that we were actually a covert operation for the tax man. Certainly on some occasions I had been to visit a property that turned out to be an empty lot on an industrial park, so we may well have been some sort of operation to check if people were falsely declaring property assets. However, while over a few pints in the local, the guys would occasionally float wilder theories that we were stooges for industrial espionage or a secret police sting operation, at the end of the day no one questioned anything too much as the work was easy and the pay was good.
“However the possibly shady set-up of the business, isn’t what I have to tell you about. It’s about one of the inspections I had to make. It wasn’t a big thing, and you’ll probably laugh, but it fair rattled me at the time all the same. Funnily enough it happened around this time of year, last week of December. Or rather should I say last week of work before Christmas. Now I’d cleared my list for the fortnight, and done all the far flung trips first, and all I had left was one job that I’d deliberately left ‘til last as it was local. A job lot of two properties used as office space just a little way out of the town centre. According to the records they looked pretty small and therefore I could tick them off them quickly, knock off, and get into town and do some Christmas shopping.
“Now I bet none of you are that familiar with Cotters Lane are you? Even though you’ve lived here all your lives. That was one of the things I really liked about that job was the fact it took you to interesting places you never knew existed. Anyhow, Cotters Lane is about halfway up off North Road, and is tucked away in the scuzzy bit that’s full of garages, grotty furniture stores and old workshops. There’s lots of back streets and alleys, quite slummy really, and there’s not many houses there as the railway line runs through there. Well, not many you’d want to live in anyways.
“However if you go down one of those alleys, after you get passed some delectict terraces, the road suddenly opens up and there is a little street that looks totally out of place. Old fashioned cobbled road, original cast iron street lamps, and about ten or so big old Victorian houses. Really fancy ones too, three storeys, wrought iron gates, gardens with gazebos, trees screening long gravel driveways up the houses. Not at all what you’d expect at all in that area. I found out later they’d been built by the big knobs of the town back in the heyday of the railways, all owned by train magnates and mill owners. Seems funny now, but they built their fancy homes there to be near their business you see! Very different to today!
“Anyhow the places I was too see over were 15a and 15b, which turned out to be two houses on the same lot - 15a being the large main residence and 15b, a smaller but still quite plush house a little way next door. As both were built at the end of a long gravel driveway that looped round between two gates in the high stone wall that ran round the border of the property, I would guess that perhaps the smaller house had been servants quarters originally.
“As was the usual procedure, I snapped some pictures of the exteriors first. I had got here about 2 o’clock but it was already getting dark being a somewhat overcast day to start with, and I could see that 15a looked busy. Or at least all the lights were on. In 15b there was but a single lamp shining in an upper window. And so with the preliminary snaps done, I wandered up to 15a first. The main front door was stood open, leading into a small vestibule, with another door and a bell. A sign attached to the glass pane of the inner door proclaimed it to be the home of Pathways and bade visitors to ring for assistance. And so I did.
“A moment later, a curly haired head popped round the door and asked what I wanted. It was a bit unusual but I’d dealt with less friendly welcomes. I did the usual spiel - here for the inspection blah blah, we wrote you last week blah blah and this rather weird guy opened the door and ushered me in, muttering as he did so, and then wandered off. I presumed to get hold of someone in charge. So I waited. No one came.
“About five minutes later, a girl in a baggy sweater and jeans with a punky hair-do - one of those one that look like a mad parrot, all shaved on one side - wandered through the hallway, and I waved and said hello. She looked nervous, and mumbled something and then shuffled off too. However thankfully this time, she did come back with a shorted bearded man in shorts in tow. He bounded over, shook my hand, and apologised for my wait. Before I knew it I had been whisked off down a corridor to his office and coffee was being made. He introduced himself as Tim Talbot, the project leader, explained to me what Pathways was, and all became clear.
“Apparently this was a drop-in centre for folks with disabilities and mental health issues. They did counselling, gave advice, ran workshops and all sort of little activities. Now I’m a bit familiar with this kind of thing from my days in youth work, and generally these places are ran by two sorts of people - one are those types to thought it would be a cushy option and are now somewhat sullen and bitter, and then there’s the other sort - hard-working, and tirelessly caring. Tim instantly struck me as a type two, and as he showed me round, I could see he was doing a great job with very little funding.
“Now I knew from my files that both properties were owned by a Smithson and Riddle, an old firm of lawyers. And apparently thanks to a bequest from the original Mr Riddle, Pathways had leased both properties for an absurdly small peppercorn rent. However I was less than impressed to hear from Tim that the current Mr Smithson, a young chap just taking over from his father, was apparently less than keen with this arrangement and there muttering from on high that the new blood wanted to shake things up a bit. And what’s more this new broom was keen to see off - and I quote - “those bloody nutters” and put the properties to more profitable use, arguing that seventy or so years of charity was quite enough. In true cold-blooded fashion, this unofficial news had been kindly leaked down to Tim just the other week. Merry bloody Christmas eh!
“I was worried that my visit may well be aiding and abetting this, and keen to change the subject, I asked about 15b. ‘Oh we just use it for storage really’ said Tim. I raised a quizzical eyebrow - surely an operation needed as much space as it could lay its hands on. ‘Well, it’s partly down to a lack of funds to have enough staff to utilise it, but also because… well...’ Tim grinned somewhat mischievously, ‘Well, it has a certain reputation as being ...erm… an unquiet house...’
“Now I thought that this was some kind of legal euphemism for a knocking shop, and before I could stop myself, said as much ‘What? Like the one Cynthia Payne used to run?’
Thankfully Tim laughed, ‘No, God no! I mean, it’s supposed to be haunted!’
‘Yes, so the story goes… Well, if you can call it a story. Look, I took this place over about five years ago, and the old boy who’d been running it since the mid-Sixties told me that it was better just to use it for filing and storage. He said it’s not that big anyway, and you’re doubling your bills if you do, and the clients don’t like it either. Now being young and daft, I didn’t put much stock in his words, but when I went over there with a couple of strong lads who use the centre, they both were distinctly spooked - really did not like the place in any way, shape or form. Something about the place that seemed to rubbed them up the wrong way. I never saw or heard anything, mind you. But the next time I went over to fetch some stuff, again with a client in tow, she had a major meltdown after being in there just a couple of minutes. So I thought again on what he said, and nixed any plans to use the space for ‘owt else. And, at the end of the day, he was right about the bills, which conveniently deals with any awkward questions…’
He shrugged ‘Some places just don’t have a healthy atmosphere I guess, and three freakouts were enough for me. Anyhow, I'll take you over there now…’
“And so, with a bunch of rattling keys on one of those big old iron rings, Tim led the way across, and unlocked the big old front door, which swung open with a creak. . ‘Keep meaning to get some WD40 on that,’ said Tim absentmindedly ‘Anyway, the door’s on one of them old fashioned latches,’ he said ‘and I’ve got an appointment coming up so, I’ll leave you to it. Just shut the door when you’re done and it’ll lock itself! You know where to find me if you need me!’
‘Okey dokey,’ I replied and hung up my coat on the bannister post.
‘Oh by the way,’ said Tim, popping his head back round the door ‘There’s no electricity on, so watch your step! Hope your camera’s got a good flash!’
‘Oh yes, don’t worry about that’ I called cheerily.
“It was only after he’d gone, I thought to ask about the light I’d seen on in here earlier. But I had to crack on, what little daylight there was now was fading away. But thankfully it wasn’t a big place to photograph - just nine rooms, plus the hallway.
“It was nice and tidy though. They might not use it for anything other than a glorified stock cupboard, but it was spotless. Even all the junk mail and free papers were all stacked up nicely on a little table just under the coat rack in the hall. I very quickly whipped through the house, snapping as I went. The pictures may well turn out a bit murky, but it wasn’t high art that was required. And I was no Lord Lichfield. But high art wasn’t required. Just proof I’d been there and what I’d seen.
“I can’t honestly say I felt anything untowards at all. So much for the haunting I thought. Perhaps if I was taking my time and not madly racing to beat the fading daylight I might have gotten a little more spooked. After all, there is something eerie about being alone in an empty house. But right then I was more scared of ending up in an unfamiliar place in the dark and tripping and breaking my neck than any ghosties or ghoulies.
“Anyhow I got the snaps in the bag in record time, and headed back down stairs ready to whip into town and grab some presents and maybe a nice relaxing pint. However when I got down to the hallway, I found my coat was no longer on the bannister post. For a moment I wondered if someone else had been in the house and made off with it.
“Panic hit me like a train, as my wallet and car keys were in the pocket! I was about to run out in a mad lather to find a phone and ring the police, the bank, the RAC and what have you, when I suddenly stopped dead. Relief hit me like a shower of manna from heaven - my coat wasn’t gone! It was still in the hallway, but now it was hung up neatly on the coat rack. I retrieved it and put it on, and it was only when I reached for the latch that a wave of fear hit me. The door was still locked. No one, unless they had a key, could get in.
“Well, I didn’t know what was going on, but I wasn’t keen to hang around and find out. I swung open the door, which once again let out a loud creak. And that just freaked me out more. As there was no way, anyone, even someone with a key, could have gotten in without me hearing that. And I knew full well the back door was inaccessible - mainly because it was blockaded with six ton of old boxes of paperwork.
“I don’t mind admitting that I dashed out of that place like my coat tails were on fire, eager to put as much distance between me and that place as possible. And to get to a pub. Bollocks to presents!
“And my flight was only broken when I almost collided with a wee lad on a bike coming up to the front door. He was a little fella, ginger and with one of those birthmarks they used to call a port stain on his left cheek. It really did look like someone had splashed him with red ink. For a second I thought I had hit him and busted his nose.
‘Where the hell are you going lad!’ I shouted at the poor little sod, mainly out of panic than real anger.
‘I’m delivering the papers ain’t I!’ he replied sounding hurt.
‘Yeah’ I said, feeling foolish - I must have been in a right spin not to have seen the massive fluorescent yellow bag of newspapers he was toting. ‘Sorry son, my fault. I shouldn't have shouted. Look here’s a couple quid…’ and I fumbled in my pockets for some change. ‘Anyway I can save you a trip lad,’ I said as I hunted for the coins; No one lives in there anyway’
“The boy looked at me like I was daft but took the money all the same. ‘Thanks mister,’ he replied ‘But you’re wrong there. The old boy loves reading the local rag.’ and he nodded to Number 15b.I was about to reply that he must be wrong but when I followed his gaze I saw a light come on in the upstairs window. I could even see the lamp the light came from. A big old brass job with a domed shade of multi-coloured Tiffany glass. And I knew full well that there was no such lamp in that room...
“I don’t think anyone has ever run 100 meters faster. I was in my car and off back down the lane faster than, well, the fastest thing you can think off. And I sincerely hoped Cotters Lane would not feature in my properties in the future. And it didn’t either. Even though all the photos I took turned out completely black. But Mr Elwyn said that as the property was changing hands in the New Year, there was no need for a return trip.
“As it was, Elwyn and Panoptes weren’t around much longer either. In March the following year, he informed us we were shutting up shop, and that was that. I was sorry to see the job go - it had been a good number. But I was relieved all the same that I would never have to make another trip to Cotters Lane…”
And so that was his tale. It certainly drew a few gasps by the end, for during its telling Brian had gathered a few more listeners from nearby tables. Of course, there was suspicions that Brian had been playing to the crowd, but it was a good tale nevertheless, so no one asked too many questions.
However I never forgot it, and I can provide a sequel of sorts. In the last few years, the internet has made the researcher’s job far easier, and recently I thought to have a little hunt to see if I could turn up anything else. But I found no tabloid tales of a haunted house, nor even any dark deeds or horrible deaths - those usual seeds for a ghost - in Cotter’s Lane’s history. However there were several items in the local paper that are of interest. Two of which appeared in the year following Brian’s visit to Number 15b, and third that appeared just recently. Indeed it was my catching sight of this latest article that prompted me to do a little digging in the first place.
Firstly, there was a brief story about a newspaper boy who had made a remarkable find - on his round he had come across a very rare coin. It was a sovereign struck to commemorate the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign. Sadly I could find no full-up article, but my research uncovered that another of these coins sold for in excess of £80 000 a few years ago. No wonder the little chap with a birthmark was beaming so widely in the accompanying picture. Not a bad tip I wager…
Secondly, the obituaries noted that a Mr Alex Smithson had died suddenly and tragically, in an accident involving a flight of stairs and a broken neck, while inspecting a new property he had earmarked for development.
Finally I can add that recently a Mr Tim Talbot was honoured with the keys to the town and a medal and other such hoopla for his outstanding years of service in local mental health services. And I understand that under his watchful eye, Pathways is still doing its good works on Cotters Lane...