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Ghost Stories

Chapter Text

The flat was in a very old house. The rent was suspiciously cheap, but he supposed that it came of the remote location and a probably very dodgy boiler. The young couple who owned the place seemed normal enough over Skype and were willing to write him a short-term lease, which suited his purpose just fine. They’d only recently inherited the ancestral pile—Button House, it was called, because of course it had a name—and seemed a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing. It had come fully-equipped with tenants, some of whom had been there for a long time and were apparently unbothered by the house’s state of general dishabille. Cold showers and questionable DIY didn’t particularly bother him, at this stage in his life. He signed the lease with minimal trepidation and was subsequently texted a photo of the particular flowerpot his keys were stashed under in the event that the couple—Michael and Alison Cooper, he must remember—weren’t at home when he arrived.

Wonderful, thank you, he texted back.

no prob :), came the reply.

*

The appointed day was cold and drizzly, with those odd billowing clouds of fog that clung shyly to whatever they could. He drove down early, his pot plant vibrating in the seat next to him as he found the turnoff and began bumping down the lane. It was lined with trees and the occasional hedgerow; it was hard to say, in the fog, but there seemed to be dog-shaped…well, dogs…frolicking about just beyond his eyesight.

He came around a bend and through a narrow brick-columned gate whose colourful array of paint marks suggested that many a driver had overestimated its width. The house opened up before him: it was a Tudor-era monstrosity, all red brick and swooping wings and what felt like dozens of windows watching him like curious eyes. Ivy clung to the sides and there was a definite air of dilapidation about the place—must watch for woodworm damage and mould, he thought—but it had a certain… something. A wild variety of cars were parked in the drive: a Range Rover sat next to an ancient Morris Minor with a massive dent in the back; a yellow VW Bug was parked far too close to a sensible red Volkswagen. 

It turned out he was being watched, which wasn’t wholly a surprise given the impossibility of a stealthy approach on gravel. The moment he parked, the front door was flung open and an entire cast of characters burst forth; he had a moment of horror that he had read the lease papers all wrong and inadvertently stumbled into some cooperative living situation before sternly reminding himself that he’d read them thrice and was ever-vigilant for delusions.

“It’s the Captain!” came a breathless woman’s voice.

“Not anymore, he isn’t,” said an old woman sourly.

“Oh hush,” said another voice; there was more clamouring as a throng of bodies tried to fit through the door simultaneously. Then the eight of them stood arrayed before him: three women and five men in various stages of smoothing themselves down post-scuffle. Not taking his eyes off them, he bent to retrieve the keys from under the appointed flowerpot and racked his brains trying to remember what Michael and Allison had told him; six flats, was it? Seven?

“Hello!” came a cheery man’s voice. Northern, though southern living was doing its best to beat the accent into submission. Leeds or Halifax, perhaps. There had been a man in his unit, once— “Welcome to Button House! You must be the Captain.”

A derisive noise issued forth from the same pensioner as before, who was revealed to be a woman of middle height who was fond of long, flowing scarves and the sorts of trainers designed to fit bulky orthotics and a lifestyle that unironically contained the word Jazzercise.

“Now, Fanny,” said the Northerner reprovingly. He turned back to the matter at hand. “I’m Pat Butcher! Flat number 6.”

“Pleasure,” the Captain said dryly, shaking Patrick’s proffered hand. The man was fortyish and short—five foot five, at a guess—bearded, blue-eyed, and looking altogether too keen on life. He wore a cosy jumper and sort of jeans that dads wore to children’s football matches of a weekend. He was a bit nasal and a lot Northern but not bad, all things considered.

Patrick turned to the crowd. “Ah, and this lot of hooligans. Let’s see—you’ve already heard from Fanny. She’s in Number 6—that’s the one in the east wing on the first floor. The we’ve got Robin in Number 1 on the ground floor. He and his dogs have been here since the dawn of time—” at the word dogs, a veritable pack of them burst around the side of the house, wet with dew and slobbering furiously. The Captain took a step back instinctively.

“Not fond?” asked Pat as the dogs sat down at Robin’s feet, tails wagging and eyes fixed adoringly on their human. The Captain thought he counted six, but they were moving rather too fast to be sure.

“Ah, just used to them in a working context,” said the Captain mildly, watching them. Robin looked up and grunted a hello. He was either twenty-five or sixty and the Captain didn’t have the faintest clue which it was. It was something to do with the beard and the ratty but sturdy fashion sense.

“Professional dogs, nice,” said Pat congenially. The Captain was beginning to suspect that the man’s mouth ran on autopilot without actually consulting his brain.

“Then we’ve got Kitty and Mary in Number 4, which is the massive one in the west wing—” the breathless woman and her middle-aged, leather-jacket-and-flowing-skirt-wearing flatmate (flatmate? or…hmm. He’d have to check with Patrick)— “Thomas in Number 5”—a wisp of a man in skinny jeans and woolly hat who stared mournfully about him— “Humphrey in Number 2, and, ah—oh dear. Where’s Julian gone off too? He’s in Number 7.”

Robin let out a cough that sounded suspiciously like “Probably wanking.” Humphrey, a goateed sort in rather too much velvet for the time of day, gave him a fist bump.

“Now, Robin,” Patrick admonished, but he left the matter there.

 The Captain’s eyes swept over them all. An incongruent lot, they were—he’d rather expected a house full of pensioners.

“What should we call you?” piped up Katherine. She was young—twenty-two or twenty-three, at a guess—and wearing a very sparkly caftan.

He felt himself smile, just a little quirk of the corner of his mouth. “The Captain will suffice.”

“International man of mystery,” said Pat approvingly at the same moment Humphrey muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “it’s the bloody Sound of Music, innit?” “Shall I give you the tour?” He bounced on his heels and adjusted his glasses.

The Captain tossed the keys from hand to hand and debated the wisdom of telling a future neighbour to sod off and leave him in peace. “Certainly, Patrick. Lead on.”

*

Mercifully, the tour didn’t extend into the actual flats—the Captain’s skin crawled at the thought of his neighbours bursting into his own whenever the whimsy took them. Patrick began on the ground floor. The original foyer had been left intact, as had the parlour surrounding it. It was massive, with green portrait-studded walls, a fireplace, and honest-to-goodness columns holding the ceiling up. It was furnished thoroughly with what the Captain could only assume were the castoffs of six centuries of manorial living. It was eclectic to be sure; the walls were peeling in a vaguely aesthetic way, though he could be doing without the taxidermied dog. The lava lamp was a nice touch, however.

“Right this way,” Patrick chirped, gesturing him past the grand staircase and towards the back of the house. “I thought we’d start with the communal areas.”

There were, it turned out, a lot of them—in wildly varied states of repair and usefulness. Only some of the house could be easily converted to discrete flats; the rest, a veritable Hogwarts of historical fuckery from the Tudor period onward, was left more or less as it was. There was a well-stocked (if out-of-date) library, a drawing room, upstairs and downstairs ballrooms, and a few odd hallways and passages that seemed to lead nowhere in particular. There was so much stuff, too, hundreds of years of residential flotsam. It sat around on stairways and disused bathrooms and was stuffed under disintegrating couches with centuries of bumprints worn into them. The house was a bit gross, in a way that old places are but is permissible because the age of it all makes it charming, somehow. Archaeological rather than dirty, he supposed. He tried to leave mental breadcrumbs to track the various turnings and promptly couldn’t for the life of him figure out where they were.

Patrick took the opportunity of having a captive and completely lost audience to fill him in on all the details: Robin was a groundskeeper at the adjoining estate and also did the upkeep on Button House’s grounds in exchange for a substantial reduction in his rent; Humphrey was a vaguely aristocratic and very sassy sort whose ex-wife had apparently got the manor in the divorce. Katherine was a recent university graduate who was ‘figuring it out’ while working in a café in the village; Mary was a creative type who did something unspecified in television.  

“Is there anything, ah… going on there?” the Captain couldn’t help but ask when they paused in a vast red-walled drawing room on the first floor. The age difference seemed, if not substantial, prone to raising a few eyebrows.

Pat laughed. “Nobody knows, mate. I suspect that relationship defies categorisation, but I think it’s platonic.” He opened another door. “Though there has been speculation about Mary and Robin in the past. They do smoke a lot of weed together, it has to be said. Don’t get Mary started on the subject, though… she’ll give you an earful about natural remedies and how women’s knowledge and wisdom has been subjugated for far too long. Third parlour, that one.” Dustcloth-covered furniture hulked in the dim light. Patrick shut the door behind them and led the Captain back down a narrow corridor whose windows were hung in drapes that slumped like musty velvet snowdrifts over half the floor.

Thomas Thorne was a perpetually-lovelorn graduate student in literature at Cambridge who’d ‘retired to the country to seek his muse.’ Patrick said this with the most aggressive of air quotes and a fair bit of eye-rolling as they thumped down yet another set of stairs of uncertain location. The Captain suspected they were once a service staircase leading to the kitchen; now they were the main means of accessing Humphrey’s and Julian’s flats, which looked out onto the back garden.

“Now Julian,” said Pat as they stepped out into the kitchen garden (the Captain was right about the service staircase, ha!). “Is a bit of a touchy subject.”

“Fawcett?” asked the Captain suddenly. “The sex scandal one?”

“The very same,” said Pat solemnly, then bent down to show the Captain some cherry tomatoes in one of the vast planting beds.

“So he’s out of Parliament, then?”

“Resigned his seat in disgrace,” said Patrick.

“Good lord.” The Captain took the proffered tomato and then held it awkwardly between his thumb and index finger for lack of any better ideas.

“And his wife kicked him out of the house, and it turns out he was a bit broke anyway. He got this on short notice right before Heather Button passed—she wasn’t much up on the news, towards the end, and then there were a few months where we were left to our own devices while the solicitors tracked down the heir. Alison and Mike were of a half a mind to sell this old pile when the solicitor finally found them, but then they came and had a look around and met all of us, and, well…now they live here too.” Patrick grinned broadly, ate his own tomato, and spread his hands as if to indicate the whole of his domain.

“Ah.”

“Greenhouse is just on your left—avoid that back right corner if you’ve delicate sensibilities about certain crops.” Patrick waggled his eyebrows.

“Good lord.”

“Toolshed just ahead, and then around the other side is a massively overgrown tangle of rubbish nobody bothers to go into.”

“Noted.”

“There’s one other flat,” said Patrick in a slightly ominous tone, leaning close. “The basement one. It doesn’t have a number; they just call it Lower.”

“Who’s in that one?”

“A whole flock of engineering students. We’re not sure how many; they seem to come and go. Years ago, they managed to arrange a massively long lease with Heather with the option to switch the master tenant every year and poor Mike and Alison have no choice but to honour it. The place is a tip and they’ve got no sense of hygiene, but they do throw good parties. You won’t see them much otherwise. Back in we go!” He said, leaving the Captain to chew on that one.

They climbed a winding set of stairs in the back of the house that wailed in protest with every step.

“And this is you,” pronounced Patrick, pointing at the door at the top. There was an ‘8’ stencilled at eye height. “Attic. Might be dreadfully cold come winter.”

“I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it,” said the Captain absently, looking down at the keys in his hand. And then he realised that Pat was staring at him expectantly, so he fitted the one for the flat into the lock and turned.

“Got to give it a bit of a hip-check,” said Pat sagely, watching him struggle. The Captain did as advised and tumbled into the room.

It was big. Michael and Alison had given him the dimensions and sent photos, but it had been hard to conceptualise. Even then, he had known the rent was cheap for what he was getting, but now…

“You’ve got a blooming fireplace!” said Patrick enviously.

He had, a monstrous thing set in the narrow wall at what must be the end of the house. His bones practically wept in relief at the thought of not icing over in the winter. Patrick had gone off on a tangent about how the process of making these big old houses into individual flats always shortchanged whichever flat didn’t get the original kitchen on account of difficulties of running gas lines and ensuring appropriate ventilation. As Patrick happily nattered on, the Captain paced the floor, noting the bits that squealed underfoot. He checked the gas in the kitchen area— ‘studio flat’ didn’t quite describe the state of things, but the attic was certainly open-plan; closer to London it would be getting billed as an artisan loft—and the water in the loo. The countertops had been done in a crazy quilt of whatever tile the workmen could get their hands from, likely harvested discreetly from around the house at large. He then walked over to the window and looked down at the grounds as Pat switched into an exhaustive overview of the house’s plumbing system. Apparently this flat was the only one in the attic; the rest of it was given over to storage of six hundred years’ worth of detritus.

“What’s your job, then?” Pat asked, temporarily diverted from the joys of valves.

“Teaching. Geography.”

“Really?”

“Don’t look so surprised. A comprehensive in Battersea lost its teacher to a rather bad scandal and I am to take his place. Year 7 through A-level.”

“I’m not surprised, I just—” Pat spluttered a bit before regaining his composure. “How’d you manage that one?”  

“I had a bit of a head start in knowing I’d be leaving the army. I took it upon myself to… make arrangements for the future. Chief among them a teaching qualification.”

Pat whistled. “Smart man, you are.” He paused. “If you don’t mind me asking why…”

“I do,” said the Captain shortly.

“Right, then,” said Pat. “Well, here’s my number if you run into any trouble or just fancy a chat.” He held out a business card. The Captain took it—Patrick A. Butcher, Civil Engineer, Farnaby & Baynton. There was an office address in Southwark, a work email, a landline, and a mobile number.

“Thank you, Patrick,” said the Captain, pocketing it.

He did not offer his own.

*

Owing to the impossibility of determining who was using what percentage of the utilities, they were included in the rent, as was the Wi-Fi—the existence of which came as a pleasant surprise given that Heather Button had been ninety-nine when she died the previous year. Apparently Robin had many hidden talents where the internet was concerned. All of this meant that the Captain, in spite of having no furniture yet, could sit down on the floor with his laptop and work out how on God’s green earth one teaches A-Level geography. There was a brief break to haul a load of stuff in from his car—primarily things that were breakable and/or important, though also including several changes of clothes on the not-unlikely-chance that the movers managed to dump the rest of his possessions in the Thames. As if to confirm his suspicions, he got a text from the movers at 13:00 saying that they’d be at least another two hours, so he abandoned his laptop and opened his gym bag.  

The Ordnance Survey was his first great love and his point of reference. He’d been known on occasion to trawl charity shops for old ones and was fond enough of his collection that he’d driven the box down with him rather than entrust it to Schrödinger’s moving van. He couldn’t say why he liked them, necessarily. But it was thrilling to add them to the collection: a literal paper trail of the places he’d been and the way that those who came before him navigated. It was a way to build the world around himself. Grounding, he supposed. Literally.

He unfolded the local map and left it lying open on the floor to study while he changed his clothes (with small breaks to, e.g., get his t-shirt over his head without crashing to the floor in a heap). The house was right at the edge of prime hillwalking territory; tracks wended their way all around the area and from the edge of the property, one could go straight up into the North Downs on public rights-of-way alone. This may or may not have been a deciding factor in signing the lease, he had to admit.

He’d sat back down and was halfway through getting his socks on when there was a knock at the door.

“Enter!” he called, rather than disgrace himself by trying to stand and falling over again.

“Hey,” said Michael, sticking his head round the door. “We just got in and the others told us that you’d got here this morning.”

The Captain nodded and finished putting on his socks. “Patrick was kind enough to give me the tour.”

“Oh, great,” said Michael. He was a likely-looking young man, thirtyish and possessed of an enviable air of unbotheredness. He gazed inquisitively around the barren flat, his eyes finally coming to rest on the little island on the floor comprising the Captain, his duffel bag, and his laptop.  

“The movers are delayed,” the Captain said by way of explanation.

“Classic. Well, you’re welcome to sleep anywhere in the house that isn’t someone else’s flat. There’s a really comfy sofa on the first floor in that odd corner room with the telly.”

“Thank you,” said the Captain, who couldn’t think of many things he wanted to do less than sleep in plain view.

“Well, Alison and I are in Heather’s old rooms in the back of the house if you need anything. The door’s unmarked, but it’s that blue one off the parlour with the weird taxidermy in it. If you walk into the huge kitchen with the bush growing through the window, you’ve accidentally stumbled into it.”

“Right, thank you.”

“When do you start work?"

“Tomorrow.”

Tomorrow?” Michael looked around the flat.

“I don’t mind it,” said the Captain, taking his trainers out of his duffel bag.

“I’m beginning to see that,” said Michael. “Well, that’s me off. The lights in the library are going funny, so I’m going to try to fix them.”

“Don’t you need a license for that?”

Michael made an evasive noise and scampered.

*

The grounds were extensive and surprisingly varied—evidently Robin kept busy. There was a meadow and a series of kitchen gardens; a very symmetrical pond and some topiaries vaguely recognisable as bunny rabbits; copses and a series of paths that definitely weren’t on the Ordnance Survey map. Owing perhaps to an act of divine mercy, the grounds were easier to navigate than the house itself; he was already dreading the process of finding his own flat again. He trotted round them at a jog for a while before thinking about striking out towards the village. He crossed a small stream accessed via a rapidly-eroding path, and then—

“Boo!”

He whirled, stopping himself at the last moment from crushing the windpipe of his unexpected company. Robin grinned up at him. There was a huge streak of dirt on his face and he was swinging a brace of dead pheasant.  

“Found the holloway yet?”

“The—sorry, the what?”

Robin beckoned. The Captain, having nothing better to do and genuinely curious to see if this would lead to attempted murder, followed.

It did not lead to attempted murder. It led down a steep embankment into--

“It’s a footpath,” said Robin, who apparently never said two words when one would suffice. “Worn down over a very long time.”

“How long?” asked the Captain. They stood at the centre of it, gazing at the trees arching overhead.

Robin shrugged. “Long.”

The holloway was about the width of a narrow lane and nearly two metres deep. Its sloped sides were held in place by the roots of the trees that lined it. It was a tunnel; it was a cradle, rocked down to its depth by people walking to and fro. It was almost astonishing, to think about the innumerable people that had trod along it over the millennia to wear it down to its current depth.

“Thank you,” he said to Robin. Robin offered him what the Captain believed to be a rare smile; the condition of his teeth wasn’t stellar. “And…er… how do I get back to the house?”