“Caroline, all the keys have gone!”
“What! They can’t have.”
“Pull back the curtain on the door. Can you see anyone?”
“There’s nobody there,” she said and rushed back to me.
Then we heard the clinking of metal on metal, getting louder, followed by footsteps. I felt Lizzo stir in my pocket, so I lifted her out. Her eyes were sleepy and her colour was almost black.
Then I knew. The chill was nothing to do with the weather even if it was blowing a gale out there. Something wasn’t right about Saints and Sinners. Lizzo’s colour brightened a little as the heat from my hands warmed her. Her left eyelid opened wide and she blinked then swivelled her eye towards the door.
Then she drifted back to sleep and her skin darkened again. I returned her to my pocket.
“Jess, everything’s changing,” Caroline said, her voice shaking. “I don’t like it.” I was about to agree with her when my phone vibrated in my other pocket.
“It’s Aunt Ruby,” I said, relieved. But it wasn’t good. “Oh. She’s decided to stay with Douglas and Jane tonight; she says she’ll see us at breakfast before the train.”
Caroline’s face twisted.
“Come on,” I said. I pulled Caroline close and we made for the stairs.
The doorknob rattled behind us, echoing through the lobby. We reached the stairwell and gasped. The carpet, which had been smart vertical stripes in black and white, had vanished. Instead, the stairs were cold grey stone and, where the wooden bannister had been, stood severe iron railings. The piercing voices of frightened children clattered in the stairwell and all we could see was darkness and shadows.
“Dinna hit me! I didnae dae it.”
We raced upstairs and heard a woman’s voice screeching:
“Yer getting’ locked in the basement an’ tonight’s the night the deid souls come oot. An’ yer all for the strap.”
When we reached our floor and pushed through a door into the corridor, it was pitch black but the noise was terrible: screeching and yelling and crying.
“How will we find our room?” I whispered, clinging to Caroline. Without thinking, I lifted Lizzo from my pocket both for my reassurance and hers. But a ghastly shriek suddenly split through the wall next to us and I dropped her in fright.
“No! I’ve dropped Lizzo,” I wailed.
“Here. I’ll put my torch on,” said Caroline. The thin beam shook with the trembling of her hand but we spotted Lizzo scrambling along where grey wall met grey floor.
We went after her and stopped when she stopped. She was crunching something and I wondered how she could eat with all the shrieking going on. I stooped and lifted her clumsily and my fingers caught on a door handle. The torchlight fell on Lizzo’s mouth. Spiky black legs protruded, undulating like rats’ tails.
“Urgh, Lizzo, a cockroach. Really?” I said, shuddering, as Caroline turned the beam on the door and unbelievably, there was the number 67. I grabbed our big key from Caroline’s pocket and clunked it into the lock.
We hurried in and slammed the door, shutting out all but the worst shrieking and pleading. But still, the angry woman’s caterwaul and the most distressed of the children’s voices continued. And the slapping of leather on bare skin echoed beyond our door. It was awful.
The lights wouldn’t work so we huddled together in the dark under our blankets with Lizzo moving slowly from my hand to Caroline’s and back to mine. Our body heat would help stop her getting chilled. The rain was still thrashing the window and the wind was charging at the building like a demon.
“Now I understand why it was so cheap to stay,” I said. “They know this place is haunted.”
“Well, I wish I’d never mentioned Halloween the other day,” Caroline moaned.
We stayed huddled together and watched the hours tick by.
At one point someone started banging on the door and we both practically leapt off the bed. We clung tightly to one another and after a while the banging stopped.
Eventually, leaning together and upright, we gave in to sleep. I woke with a jolt at twelve-seventeen. The radiator was clicking and I listened to it for a while, eventually sliding out from under the blanket to investigate. The metal was scalding and I realised it was 1 November: no longer Halloween.
I pulled back the curtain and a streetlamp cast a pole of light into the room. I lifted Lizzo back into her cage and she scuttled straight towards her favourite dark branch.
I slid back under the blanket next to Caroline and soon fell fast asleep.
Oh, not the banging again! Please leave us alone, I thought. I opened my eyes and saw that Caroline had gone. I heard the key rattle in the lock.
“No! Caroline! Don’t open the door.”
“Oh, Caroline, are you all right, sweetheart? You look a bit peaky.” It was Aunt Ruby.
“I’m. . . I’m fine.”
I was off the bed in a flash.
“Aunt Ruby, come in, come in, quickly. We had a hellish night.”
And we told her everything. First about the cold and then the receptionist leaving; the child at the door, the crying and yelling and Lizzo helping us find our way back to our room and the banging on our door.
After showers, we went down for breakfast and everything was back to normal and our memories of last night, though sharp, seemed unreal. Aunt Ruby said we should tell the hotel staff about it but we couldn’t face it. We just wanted to leave.
On the train back to York, Aunt Ruby revealed she’d spoken to the staff herself.
“They’ve given me a full refund,” she said. “They were so apologetic. And so am I. I feel dreadful for leaving you like that.”
It turned out that the hotel had once been a poor house. Sometimes children had been turned away due to overcrowding. And hygiene had been terrible with children sharing ten to a bed. There’d been reports of cruelty and outbreaks of cholera and many, many deaths. The place had been condemned in the early twentieth century.
Apparently, the hotel always offered excellent rates for Halloween and sometimes people came especially for ghost hunting. Yet, the place was never staffed after nine at night on the 31 October. All the other guests last night had been a block booking for a big event at Edinburgh Castle which hadn’t finished until the early hours. The receptionist thought we’d gone out with Aunt Ruby and had just forgotten to hand in our key.
“Well, one thing’s for certain,” Caroline said. “I’ll be coming back to Edinburgh but I’ll never stay at Saints and Sinners again.”
“Me neither,” I said. “No matter how good the rates are!”
Thank you to the following from Pexels:
Stairwell with railings: Photo by Octoptimist from Pexels
Basement at bottom of stairs: Photo by Ave Calvar Martinez from Pexels
Radiator: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
Barred window: pexels-pixabay
Edinburgh: Photo by John Smith from Pexels