Under the Lamplight – an excerpt from Oranges and Lemons

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In Chapter 4, Jess, the heroine, responds to a call from Adeline, the ghost of the little Victorian of Mulberry Hall. It's the middle of the night and, with Jupiter, her pet rat, nestling in her shoulder bag for company, Jess follows the ghost into the woods then beyond, into the dark city. By the time she reaches Stonegate, where Mulberry Hall is, the ghost has disappeared and Jess doesn't know what to do. Then she meets Tom. . .

***

I glanced both ways on Church Road, the street that separated our suburb from the city proper. It was as dead as I’d expected. I peered at my watch under the glow of the street lamps. One fifty. The pubs and takeaways would be long shut and all the shops would be dark and desolate.

As I drew near the oldest part of the city, it was like stepping back in time. I saw the town I had always taken for granted in a new way. There was this invisible line of change beyond which the ancient buildings jostled together like a huddle of schoolchildren trying to protect one of their own from the new modern constructions of the wider city outside. Passing the Minster, solid and silent, its Gothic beauty out of reach in the darkness, I went down the narrow alley of wonky old houses and entered Stonegate. A weird feeling, like a sad thrill, came over me. What was wrong with me? Should I go back?

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I whispered to myself. My logical brain was trying to reassure me that the story of the little ghost was nothing but folklore, but I’d seen and heard things that left no doubt in my mind: that little girl was real.

I looked towards the half-timbered Tudor building which housed the china shop. As I approached, I imagined it lit from within as if it were daytime. I stared between the stands of crockery and saw a woman standing at a counter using a cash register. There, beside her, stood a small girl in indistinct dress, her hand on the woman’s arm. I watched the woman glance down at the girl, then the image, formed from a combination of my imagination and what I’d seen recently, faded. I’d heard the stories. Everyone in York had. How, in the shops of Stonegate, a ghost-child was said to tug at shop assistants’ clothing or to sit on shop counters while staff worked the tills. I stood right up against one of the large windows. A face stared back at me making me gasp but I soon saw the familiarity of my own pale skin and strands of my straight black hair escaping my clip. My dark eyes were wide and my expression looked haunted. I shuddered and turned to face the street. No one about.

Jupiter was restless again. His pink nose poked out of the bag.

“Hey, Joopy,” I whispered. He began squeaking and fidgeting. He must have sensed my unease. I looked around. Not a soul to be seen. I walked past all the windows of Mulberry Hall and wondered where the child had gone. Had she really wanted me to come here? I gazed into the inky depths of the shop. I knew I’d get a fright if she appeared in front of me suddenly, but nothing happened and nothing changed.

Joopy’s squeaking became more frantic. This wasn’t fair. Something was upsetting him. Perhaps it was just the lingering smell of the busker’s dog who sat here with his master every day. Even so, this was plain weird. I began to feel the rising fizz of uncertainty in my tummy. Time to go home.

I turned away from the shop. I’d only gone a few steps when I heard a voice calling.

“Miss?”

I spun round, expecting to see a police officer. Perhaps he’d cut through Mulberry Lane. My eyes widened.

A boy, about fourteen, like me, was waving. Was this the lad I’d seen with the girl last night? He wore old-fashioned clothing, with a white-spotted neckerchief and clumpy boots. He seemed to think he knew me. Light from the street lamp caught his eyes, which sparkled. His face was wide and cheerful. Then, I noticed the petal-like stain seeping through his jacket. Was it blood? It looked more black than red, but it was spreading. He looked down, then looked back at me and smiled. I grimaced.

“You need help,” I called. “You’re bleeding!”

“Ah, just an argument with a scythe on t’ farm,” he said, as if he was talking about a scratch on his hand.

I glanced down because Jupiter’s agitation was making my bag bounce. When I looked back at the boy, he’d vanished. I checked all around the dark street, but he was nowhere to be seen.

Suddenly, I felt exhausted. My feet felt as if they contained magnets, pulled by an underground force; my legs felt as if they’d been filled with concrete. With enormous effort, I shuffled away from Stonegate, only picking up speed as I crossed Church Road. By the time I reached Lock Woods, I couldn’t help questioning what I’d seen and heard. Did that really just happen? Did I just speak to a ghost boy? Am I going crazy? I’d always had a vivid imagination; even Mrs Fortiver, my English teacher, had remarked on it. But I knew it. This was no imagination. This was real.

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