They pushed me in the direction of the open cellar door and handed me a torch.
“Go on,” said the girl called Suzanna. “They’re on the top shelf.”
I stood on the edge of the steps and peered down. It was blacker than a mine shaft at the bottom. The harsh strip lighting from the cafe filtered down, briefly battled with the darkness of the cellar, and gave up at about stair number six. A cold draught brought with it the inviting scent of damp mixed with yeast and rotting vegetables.
I flicked the torch on and gritted my teeth. The other waitresses were suddenly very interested in my task of retrieving a jar of pickle from the cellar. This was obviously a test. An initiation.
“Come on, new girl.”
Trial by pickle.
My first day had started well enough because the tearoom manager, Grace, was there. The cafe was empty of customers, clean and calm before the Saturday storm. The scones were baking away in the oven, filling the air with warm, homely smells. One of the girls was grinding up a ready supply of aromatic coffee beans. Grace gathered her waitresses together, drawing me towards her with an arm around my shoulders.
“Let’s all welcome the new Saturday girl to our happy family,” she announced, and you could tell she was nice by the warmth in her eyes, and lines on her face that were all in the right place.
It was all a bit too tree-huggy for me, but I smiled at the gaggle of girls anyway. They all smiled back, and Grace squeezed my shoulder, satisfied. To the untrained eye, and probably also to their boss, they were like puppy dogs, all cute and friendly. I went to school with them. They were not puppy dogs. They could turn into a pack of wolves at the slightest whiff of weakness… or when their manager popped out to the shops for more supplies.
First – always first – there was the Alpha Female, Suzanna.
SUZANNA: A tall goddess fashioned from sculpted, bronze flesh and crowned with sleek, flowing locks in three different, yet highly complementary, tones. Hobbies included superiority and disdain of lesser beings.
At her right hand was Ella…
ELLA: Adoring servant of Suzanna with long hair in exactly the same tones as her master, but not quite as sleek. Hobbies included bowing and scraping to Suzanna, and adopting all her thoughts and opinions.
Always on her left was Pippa…
PIPPA: The sort of girl who would make an excellent spy due to her ability to look like so many other people, but nobody of consequence. Instantly forgettable. Pippa = pip = something you spat out of an apple because it was surplus to requirements.
And finally there was me….
NEW GIRL: Otherwise known as ‘Carrie’. Though no one would deign to remember my name until Suzanna’s boyfriend later likened me to the Stephen King girl. You know – the girl who bleeds in the shower and moves things with her mind, and has a crazy mother. My mother is not crazy. She is the sanest person I know.
I was the only one with a name that didn’t end in ‘a’.
The jars of pickle were kept at the back of the cellar. Of course. They wouldn’t be conveniently positioned at the bottom of the stairs. That would be far too easy. I’d already heard the jokes about the ghost. The one nobody ever saw, but everyone had heard.
“You know – heavy-breathing – like the guys who ring you up and ask what colour your knickers are,” Suzanna told me with a giggle.
Nobody like that ever rang me, but I nodded anyway. If you didn’t agree with Suzanna, she didn’t like it.
Three steps down, and I found myself listening intently, trying to hear through the low hum of chatter and clashing crockery coming from the cafe above. Every fibre of my existence was concentrated in my ringing ears. It was dark and musty, but I had expected that. What I hadn’t expected was the feeling of pressure. As if the darkness was heavy. I half wanted to use my hands to part the atmosphere as I kept going down the stairs.
The torchlight took on a life of its own as it moved over the objects in the cellar. A rack of sharp hooks hanging from the ceiling, a stone table that looked like the sacrificial altar from a satanic film scene. Everywhere, there were boxes and packages full of cafe essentials – long life fruit juice, catering tins of coffee, six pack tins of tuna. The torchlight caressed them all with varying dilations depending on their distance and shape.
“The torch is shaking,” I heard Ella giggle from the top of the stairs.
She sounded so far away that I looked back just in time to see the square of light above me disappear with a slam of the door. My breathing stopped automatically, until I talked sternly to myself. I had, after all, expected this too.
They’re just messing with you, Carrie. They’ll open it again in a second. Ignore them. You still have the torch. Find the pickle jars.
But then, the key turned in the lock with a sharp click.
The dense, black shadows around me prickled and shifted.
And someone breathed. Hiss… sigh…
I swung the torch around wildly, conscious of a whimpering noise issueing from my own mouth without my permission. The light found containers of soup mix, huge bags of flour and icing sugar, a sack of baking potatoes the size a fairytale giant might buy. Everything that should be in a busy cafe cellar, and nothing that shouldn’t. Yet still there came the rhythmic swish of breath that wasn’t my own.
“Who’s there?” I whispered the words, unwilling to alert my captors of my fear. However scared I was, my desire for Suzanna not to win was stronger.
There was no answer, but my flailing torchlight suddenly picked out the pickle jars. Right there on the top shelf, just an arms stretch away. I kept my back to the rest of the room for the arm stretch, reaching behind me with one hand and shining the torch everywhere else with the other. Something soft brushed my fingers when I had been expecting the cold solidity of a glass jar. I couldn’t help the shriek and was punished with a collective snigger from upstairs. But it had simply been a miscalculation, and behind the jars the torchlight revealed a thick, black curtain. I eased it to one side and daylight seeped in.
The cellar window was a thin horizontal slit at pavement level, slightly open. It was mottled with mildew and cobwebs but beyond, past iron railings, I could see next-door’s patio, a tub of bright marigolds, teatowels hanging on a washing line. A wheelchair, an old man, and a bright red oxygen tank by his side.
Hiss… sigh… hiss… sigh.
Breathing. (Apparently just like someone who wanted to know what colour your knickers were.)
The man had his eyelids closed above his oxygen mask, but they fluttered open at the sound of my laugh – a relieved laugh, a thank-god-for-that laugh. He locked eyes with me and, still hissing and sighing, raised an old, wrinkled hand in a wave. I waved in return and let the curtain fall back down.
Grasping a jar of pickle from the shelf, I turned back to face the cellar. The sound of breathing was still loud – hiss… sigh… – but the menace was gone. It was just a room; a cold, damp, dark hole of a room, but a room all the same. And I was the only one in it.
My trusty torch showed me the stairs, and I even whistled on the way up, bashing the door with my elbow at the top because my hands were full of torch and pickle.
“I have the jar,” I called, my voice even and cheery, devoid of fear.
The key turned in the lock and the door swung open.
“That was very funny,” I said, clicking the torch off. “Thanks for…”
I stopped. The woman at the top of the stairs wasn’t Suzanna, Ella or Pippa. Or even Grace.
“Stop that bloody noise or you’ll feel the back of my hand,” she said, folding her arms tightly across a handknitted, brown cardigan.
I stepped back in surprise. “What? Sorry, they locked me in. I had to…”
“Your dad will be back soon. Do you want me to tell him you’ve been bad again?”
“What are you talking about?”
She didn’t move aside, and I realised she wasn’t even looking at me, but past me, down the stairs. The lines on her face were all in the wrong place.
I followed her glare to the bottom of the stairs. There was a little boy sitting on the last step, his soot-stained face running with tears. He couldn’t have been more than four years old. As he heaved in his breaths too quickly, he began to cough – a cough that rattled through his ribcage.
He hadn’t been there before. I hadn’t stepped over him on the way up the stairs; I would have fallen right over him. He must have sneaked into the cellar before I came down, and hidden while his mother was having tea in the cafe. I felt a protective surge and turned back to the woman. “Hey, leave the poor kid alone.”
She ignored me, pursing her lips at the boy instead. And behind her, there was a wall where the cafe kitchen should have been. A tall standard lamp I hadn’t seen before threw a muted light across faded flowers scattered over the wallpaper. Close by, another door opened and banged shut again. A fleeting look of panic crossed the women’s face, and then she leaned forward until we were almost nose to nose. her eyes black hollows in the shadows.
The awful realisation that she was completely unaware of my existence came with an intense wave of cold fear cascading along my nerve endings. The fear fixed me to the spot and stopped my breath. My fight or flight mechanism was clearly broken.
“Your dad’s home,” the woman hissed in my face. I could feel her breath. It smelt like apples.” Please stop that wheezing, Henry. You know how much he hates it. You’ll only have yourself to blame.”
Her eyes flicked back towards the corridor as she straightened up and quietly closed the door, plunging the cellar back into darkness. I stood rooted to the top step. Where was the boy? Was he still there? The torch was heavy in my hand, but I didn’t want to turn it on for fear that he was… and fear that he wasn’t.
I was thrown into action by the rattling doorknob, followed by a huge crash against the cellar door. The door creaked with the weight and the boy started crying again. Of course he did… his father was home and trying to get into the cellar to thrash him.
“It’s okay. I won’t let him hurt you.” I told him. “Stay right there. He’ll have to come through me.”
I lifted the torch in my hand, pleased with its weight, and held it ready as a weapon. The door shuddered again with another blow, but did not give. And now there was the cracking noise of wood giving way to metal as the lock broke. I staggered down three steps, torch aloft, to avoid the door as it swung open and bashed into the wall beside me. Dust cascaded down from the ceiling.
“Carrie? Jesus, are you okay?” Grace stood there with a crowbar and three worried waitresses peering over her shoulder. Behind them, the flowered wallpaper and standard lamp were replaced by the cafe kitchen in all its linoleum and MDF glory.
“What the…?” I began.
I swung round to find the child but, just like the standard lamp, he was no longer there.
“The lock was jammed,” Grace said. She turned to frown at the trio of red-faced waitresses. “I don’t know whose bright idea it was to lock you in.”
She reached out to take the torch from me. I was gripping it so tightly, she had to prize it from my fingers.
“I’m okay,” I lied, distracted by the absence of the boy as I stepped into the kitchen. “Wasn’t in there for long.”
“Not long? Only an hour! It’s a good job I came back when I did.” Grace turned to her girls again. “Suzanna, make a cup of tea. Ella, get her some cake – something sticky and sweet. Pippa, find her a chair.”
An hour? I shook my head, dumb. A rogue thought posed the question of whether I would be paid wages for that hour.
Pippa took my clammy hand and led me to a table in the corner of the cafe covered with a white lace tablecloth and the remnants of somebody’s afternoon tea. There was hardly anyone there; the lunch rush was over, but all remaining eyes were on me. I sat down.
“I’m so sorry,” Pippa said and, to her credit, she looked sorry too. “We had no idea the lock was all rusted up.”
Grace came over and placed a mug of tea and an eccles cake in front of me. She took the opposite chair, shooing Pippa back to the kitchen with the dirty plates. “Are you alright? It’s a bit scary in the cellar. I don’t go down there unless I really have to.”
I argued with myself internally, wondering whether to tell her about the boy and his mother. But Grace had to work here, and often stayed late doing the baking. It would freak her out if I told her, and I didn’t want to freak her out. She was nice.
Grace watched me closely and reached over to touch my arm. “Carrie, you don’t look great. Did you… did you see something?”
I cradled the mug in my hands and took a sip – It was good – two spoons of sugar – and decided to tell her the bare minimum. “Well, I figured out where the heavy breathing is coming from.”
“Yes, the old guy next door sitting on the patio. Didn’t look very well. He has an oxygen tank and that’s what you can hear.”
Grace’s face suddenly turned the same colour as the tablecloth. She nodded slowly, her face even, but I could see she was trying hard not to react. “Okay.”
“What?” I prompted.
“That was… that must have been… Henry,” she said, and hesitated for the time it took me to drain my sweet tea. Only when I had placed my china cup safely back into its place on the saucer did she carry on. “There’s no easy way to tell you this. Henry died three weeks ago.”
“Erm, no,” I said, so sure of what I’d seen. “He was right there. He smiled at me. I waved.”
Grace shook her head and pressed her lips together. Tears sprung into her eyes. “Henry was lovely. He always had a smile and a wave for you. Always cheerful, despite being ill since he was a little boy.”
I stared at my untouched eccles cake, thinking of the child on the stairs, his soot-stained face and wheezing breath. Grace’s hand reached out and took hold of mine.
“He used to live here, you know. Before it became a cafe. This is where he was born.”
In the kitchen the other waitresses were subdued, getting on with their tasks with barely a word. Pippa shook chocolate powder across three cappuccinos. Ella loaded the dishwasher. And Suzanna spread a slice of bread with pickle from the pickle jar.
(Readers of ‘The Curtain-Twitcher’s Handbook’ may have spotted Daisy May’s mum in this little ghost story. As you will know, Grace is well used to ghosts...)