Tha Ghaist o Snout Hall
From Issue nine of Lumpen
By Jennifer Heron
Mrs Bistle didn’t believe her. Twice Grim had seen it. In the drawing room polishing Rihanna’s bust. In the kitchen, after she’d descaled the articulated tap.
‘It wasnae nateral. I cud feel it,’ said Grim.
Mrs Bistle rolled her eyes. Hot yoga started in half an hour. It was the wrong time to tell her, but Grim couldn’t wait. ‘Whut we goin tae dae aboot it?’
Mrs Bistle lifted her exercise mat. ‘Cyril and I talked on the phone last night, Grim. Work has become taxing for you. Thirty years at Snout Hall, isn’t it?’
‘Forty-two.’ Grim passed Mrs Bistle her hydro flask and towel.
‘We’ll discuss this when I get back. Guru Ram doesn’t like lateness.’
Grim flopped on the wingback chair by the fireplace. Maybe it was time to go. Things hadn’t felt right since it happened. Twenty-five. The lad was only twenty-five.
A shriek from the hall. Grim ran out.
Mrs Bistle cowered behind her yoga mat. ‘Oh my god. I saw it.’
Grim helped Mrs Bistle to her feet. ‘It’s whut I bin tryin tae tell ye missus.’
‘It was blurred – but definitely a ghost. This is … ’
‘Fantastic. Snout Hall has a ghost. Four hundred years of ancestral heritage, and we’re officially haunted. Think what this’ll do for our Insta.’
Mrs Bistle pulled her phone from her pocket. ‘Allegra, hi. Did you order a psychic for Catrina’s hen do? Yes? Well, I need you to organise a séance. When? Tonight, of course.’
Grim was sent out with a shopping list. She purchased every tealight Home Bargains had in stock. The trek to M&S would take too long, so Grim bought the snacks from Asda. Mrs Bistle would never know, and it’s not like she ate anything anyhow.
The next job—create the right atmosphere in the drawing-room. The fire was lit, the candles set out, and the curtains pulled. The walnut coffee table was loaded with nibbles and bottles of Beaujolais. Grim resurrected the large Georgian drop leaf for the summoning. Silk scarves were draped over lamps. Lilies and chrysanthemums, the flowers of funerals, placed in Lalique vases.
Mrs Bistle loved it. ‘This’ll look amazeballs on our socials. The first-ever séance at Snout Hall. I bet we book more tours after this.’
Business on the estate was doing well, but it could always be better. Snout Hall, the ancestral seat of the Bistle family, was built by the Earl of Snout in the seventeenth century. But as many of the landed gentry discovered, inherited wealth was not an unlimited pot. So, the Bistles adapted.
Snout Hall was now the top tourist attraction in the county. It had a tearoom, a gift shop, an organic farm, and a walled garden. A weekly tour took place every Saturday at 2 p.m. You could even get married in the Great Hall. Or hire a glamping pod in the Forest of Snout. The Bistles kept their fingers greased in many posh pies.
On the other end of the leash was Grim. Like all the women in her family, she had started in the kitchens when she finished school—and never left. Generations of Grims had watched multiple earls grow up. The current one was nice enough if you did your job properly and didn’t bother him. Not that Grim saw him much these days. Business in London was the official response to his extended absence.
Mrs Bistle’s guests came at 11 p.m., the medium closer to midnight. Grim greeted her at the door and took her to the drawing room. She wore frayed jeans, a grey hoodie, and a pink beanie. Her trainers were grubby and well worn.
‘Gosh, you don’t look like a psychic.’ Mrs Bistle eyeballed the visitor with suspicion. ‘Tell me you have a mystical nom de plume. Madame Marissa? Oracle Athena?’
‘Louise.’ The medium sat at the table. ‘Will we start?’
Mrs Bistle and her friends cavorted, taking selfies by candlelight. The psychic sighed and pulled a crystal ball from her rucksack. Grim sat in the corner with her knitting and a mug of Horlicks. She tried not to grunt as the women discussed which ancient and prestigious Bistle the ghost would be.
Cousin Horace had slipped in mastiff poo on the marble staircase in 1703. Uncle Sheridan choked on a duck egg on Easter Sunday, 1845. Then, great-aunt Edwina suffocated in her bedroom when the chimney blew out in 1902. Grim’s granny said it took two days to wash the soot from Edwina’s crevices.
‘It could be a recent spectre,’ said Mrs Bistle. ‘Cyril wouldn’t like me sharing this, but I can trust you ladies. Can’t I?’
The coven nodded with confidence.
‘Cyril’s aunt, Bunny Bistle, jumped from the roof a few decades ago. She was pregnant with some rogue’s spawn. The local butcher’s boy, I think.’
Her friends replied with oohs and ahhs.
‘I wonder if he had a big sausage,’ said Mrs Bistle.
The women cackled.
‘Sssssh,’ said the medium. ‘We’re not alone.’
Grim dropped her needles. The candles flickered as an icy chill swept through the room. The psychic ordered the women to join hands, asking the spirit to send a sign it was there. The coals crackled in the hearth. A draught rippled the heavy crimson curtains. The party held their breath.
A thud hit the window outside. The squeeze of a sponge. The drip of water. Then, a squeaky slide scraping across the window.
‘God, Grim,’ said Mrs Bistle. ‘Is someone washing the windows?’
Grim rose, her ball of chocolate yarn skipped across the floor. ‘It’s him. I knowed it!’
The candles blew out, and the party plunged into darkness. The meagre light of the dying fire spluttered, casting shadows across the room.
Mrs Bistle yelled. ‘Look there. At the window.’
The women gasped as the apparition revealed itself. He was a young man, tall and handsome. He wore navy overalls and held a yellow squeegee.
Mrs Bistle collapsed. ‘Oh my God! It’s a … it’s a …’
‘Ghaist?’ replied Grim.
‘A window cleaner!’
Mrs Bistle put her head in her hands. The women surrounded her, patting her back and offering words of condolences.
The medium laughed. ‘You’re mad your ghost’s a window cleaner?’
Mrs Bistle downed her Beaujolais. ‘He’s not family,’ she replied. ‘He doesn’t deserve to haunt Snout Hall.’
The party took out their phones and deleted their posts about the séance.
‘Whoever heard of a stately home haunted by a working-class ghost? He must go. Tell him. Tell him, now.’
The psychic placed her palms on the table and closed her eyes. ‘What do you want, spirit? Why are you here?’
Her eyelids flickered; her head jerked from side to side.
‘There’s a message coming through …’
‘What is it? What is it?’ repeated Mrs Bistle.
‘He said … why would he haunt his bedsit when he can have more fun at your house.’
Mrs Bistle screamed. Grim turned the lights on and smacked the door with her palms. ‘Wud ye wise up. I knowed the lad’s brither. I’ll taak to him. Meybe he cud pit him oot.’
‘How do you know his brother?’ asked Mrs Bistle.
‘Hae ye forgotten already? Mine tha lad, Joe McCloy, wha fell aff tha ladder last month? Well, that’s his ghaist. His brither wus wi him whan they wus clainin tha windaes. Lee this tae me.’
Jeff McCloy was summoned to Snout Hall the next day. He wasn’t surprised to learn his brother’s ghost was haunting the estate. ‘It was his favourite job. Joe had it in his heid he was meant to live here. Dunno where he got it from.’
Jeff and his brother washed the Hall’s windows at the end of every month. It was a mammoth job, but one they enjoyed. ‘It was guid to get oot here in the fresh air an the nice scenery. He hadnae an easy time o it. A car accident when he was sixteen broke his back. But he kept on. He’s got a wee lad, you know. He’s three now. Lives wi his mum in Brickside.’
Grim didn’t know. It made the tragedy harder to bear. Joe was cleaning the drawing room windows when he fell. His back spasmed, and his legs seized up. ‘He never should’ve been up thon ladders. But whut other work can ye get these days?’
Then there was the delicate matter of the haunting to address. Grim tackled it softly. ‘Wud he no wan tae be wi his ain yins?’ She poured Jeff a fresh cup of tea. ‘He’s fearin tha life clain oot o Mrs Bistle. Cud ye no get him tae gae?’
Jeff shook his head. If Snout Hall was the place his brother chose to haunt, so be it. ‘He loved it here. I dinnae blame him fur wantin tae stay. I’ll no ask him tae dae somethin he disnae want tae dae.’
Mrs Bistle was raging. She cursed the McCloys up and down the halls of Snout. The ghost appeared, laughing and juggling his sponges. Mrs Bistle threw a Crown Derby plate at his head. It whizzed through him like a frisbee.
‘At least change your clothes.’ Mrs Bistle shook her fists at the ghost. ‘What if someone sees you?’
Mrs Bistle pushed Grim towards the spectre. ‘Tell him, Grim. Tell him he can wear any of Cyril’s suits he likes. We can at least pretend he’s of nobility. What if the crew from Haunted Happenings turn up? They’ve already PM’dd me on Insta, thanks to those bloody séance posts.’
Joe walked towards the window, rubbing dirt with his sponge. Grim tapped his shoulder. It felt cold and thick, like fog. ‘Mister, wud ye like to wear wan o Earl Bistle’s fancy suits? Micht maak ye fit in mair wi the place, son.’
The ghost unzipped his overalls. They fell to the floor. He bent over and pulled down his boxers. Two white cheeks jerked as he mooned both women. Then he vanished.
‘I dinnae think he wants tae wear yer suits, missus.’
Everything was Grim’s fault. She employed the men. She couldn’t get rid of the ghost. ‘One last chance,’ said Mrs Bistle. Or Grim would get the boot. ‘Don’t let me down again.’
The Reverend Rimes could do something. Grim was sure of it. She had watched The Exorcist as a girl. Although she wasn’t Catholic, she was sure their local Presbyterian minister could manage an exorcism.
Grim explained the situation over Bourbon Creams and a pot of Punjana.
‘I don’t know what you expect me to do, Ms Grim.’ Reverend Rimes was three biscuits in at this point. ‘The lad wasn’t Christian. The only time he came to church was to clean its windows.’
Grim brought out the KitKats. ‘Cud ye no tell him tha pooer o Christ compels ye tae get oot or suchlike?’
The reverend snapped a KitKat in two and gobbled the left finger. ‘I’ll try. But he might not be compelled by Christ. Snout has become very cosmopolitan, you know. We’ve at least five Jews and one Buddhist. There are ripples of a mosque in the next village.’
‘Try any god ye like,’ replied Grim. ‘Just get him oot.’
Grim escorted the reverend to the drawing room. The ghost was cleaning the windows with his squeegee. The reverend didn’t falter, and bravely approached him. There’s fire in thaim KitKats, thought Grim.
‘Lad, wouldn’t it be better if you went to God’s kingdom? You’ll find peace there.’
The ghost blew on the window. With his foggy digit, he fingered a sentence in the condensation.
‘This is my kingdom.’ Then he disappeared.
Grim wasn’t given any notice. She must leave immediately.
‘What about my pension?’
‘You have your State Pension, Grim,’ replied Mrs Bistle. ‘What more do you want?’
‘Does ma loyalty mean nothin? I’ve dun iveriethin ye ast. Gaen ma best yeirs tae ye.’
Mrs Bistle grabbed her exercise mat. Hot yoga started in half an hour. ‘You were well paid for it. It’d be easier if you were gone before I’m back.’
Grim flopped down in the wingback chair. The decision had been made for her. She sank into the cushions, hoping they would swallow her completely. But a strange buoyancy moved her from the slump.
The ghost stood in front of her, offering its hand. He ushered her to the corner of the drawing room, where he pointed to a floorboard, encouraging her to pull it up. It came off easily. Underneath, she unearthed a wooden chest filled with papers. As Grim rifled through its contents, she knew exactly what to do.
Grim sat in silence. Mrs Bistle either could not or would not speak. Grim allowed her a few moments to take it in. But the facts were the facts. And Grim had the paper trail to prove it.
‘Dinnae blame yersel, dear. I warked here at tha time an I didnae knowed she’d haed tha wain ether. But they snuck him oot in the midst o tha nicht. A wee local wumman brocht him up hersel. She didnae knowed wha he wus. He’d be twenty-five noo.’
Mrs Bistle still didn’t speak.
‘They makd Bunny Bistle gee him up. Drove hir tae hir deeth. I didnae knowed it wus hir heir who wus set to get tha estate. No yer hubby – though he wus nixt in line efter hir. But ye knowed that bit, didnae ye?’
Mrs Bistle swatted the papers in front of her. ‘His father was the butcher’s boy. Illegitimates have no claim here.’
Grim smiled. ‘We dinnae live in the dairk ages noo, love. He’s as much richt to it as ye. Just a sin he didnae knowed afore he fell aff tha ladder.’
Mrs Bistle paced the room. ‘Well, he’s gone now. What difference does it make?’
‘It’ll maak a diffrence tae his wain. He’s three noo, ye know. He’s goin tae love a big hoose like this tae spoart in.’
Mrs Bistle howled. ‘I’ll do anything, Grim. Please don’t tell. Name it, and I’ll do it.’
Grim pulled navy overalls and a squeegee from behind the sofa. ‘Ye can start wi the windaes. Go an, on oot ye go.’
Mrs Bistle took the overalls and left.
The ghost reappeared. ‘Can I cum wi ye whan ye tell ma wee man an his mammy?’
‘Sure ye can, pet. We’ll just gi madam a taste o hir ain medicine afore we heid aff.’ Grim put the papers back in the wooden box and closed the lid. ‘She’ll hae tae get uist tae it anyhoo. Cos she’ll be clainin hir ain bloody windaes frae noo on.’