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  • Writer's pictureGrahame Peace

The Mystery at Winterburn Manor (The Ghost from the Molly-House)

Here is the first chapter from my new book The Mystery at Winterburn Manor, which should be out late June worldwide on Amazon.

THe Mystery At Winterburn Manor

Chapter 1

For those of you who don’t know us here at ‘The Psychic Agency’, we’re a group of psychic investigators. We’re a young, small, dynamic team which consists of the beautiful psychic, Portia Winterman, Gerard Monterey, a noted historian, empath, and floppy-haired dandy, the earth mother and white witch Kate Greville, the muscular, tech and computer expert Orlando Johnson, and me, a time-travelling ghost, although the four of them have no idea I’m a ghost, I’m not allowed to tell them. I work with the agency on and off, I’m just sent as and when needed, I’m never told why, but it eventually becomes clear. The Agency’s dusty old premises are situated in Gough Square just off Fleet Street in London, a name often associated with the printing and publishing world. Although we aren’t there today, we are on our way to Winterburn Manor in Chippenham, Wiltshire, England. We hadn’t had much time to prepare, and we were travelling in Gerard’s very smart gun-metal-grey Range Rover Autobiography, which, to me at least, seemed to have every car gadget imaginable; I was surprised it couldn’t fly or travel underwater!

‘Not far now,’ said Gerard scratching the tip of his nose and adjusting his expensive horn-rimmed glasses. ‘I’m pleased we chose to travel on a Sunday, there is far less traffic on the roads.’

‘Do you think we’re going to find a derelict ruin?’ asked Kate finishing her third banana, she liked her food, but was a devout vegetarian. Although I’d noticed she wasn’t averse to a bacon sandwich when put under a lot of stress!

‘Well, Elspeth Potter is renovating the Manor, and according to her all the problems started soon after she’d moved into the house five months ago,’ said Gerard. ‘The house has a history going back to the Anglo-Saxon period, but the Manor is primarily 17th century.’

‘Could you turn the music down a little bit Gerard, please? I can’t hear you.’ I said. Gerard always insisted we listen to classical music and today's offering was Vivaldi’s concerto for two violins in A minor!

‘Is that a new tattoo?’ Orlando asked, looking at Kate’s right arm. I’m surprised he’d even noticed because she had so many arm tattoos, she was her own work of art. These days, young people seemed to have an obsession with them, but back in my day, they were largely associated with sailors and the lower or even criminal class.

Kate nodded, ‘Yes, do you like it?’ she asked, proudly, holding out her arm. ‘It’s the Triquetra, or Celtic Shield it’s used as a protective symbol. The three-cornered knot represents the Triple Goddess or Holy Trinity; the interwoven knot stands for protection that cannot be broken. The circle is also a symbol of eternity.’

‘Um, I see,’ said Orlando not looking convinced, ‘but I suppose in our line of work we need all the protection we can get.’

I know what he meant, but I didn’t say anything.

‘Anyway, what sort of problems at the Manor?’ I asked, trying to get the conversation back on track, although I suddenly had an awful sense of dread.

‘The usual thing,’ said Portia, turning to face me with a smile tucking her long blond hair behind her ears. ‘You know disturbing noises in the night, doors banging, rooms suddenly going glacially cold, whispers in corridors, doors opening and closing on their own, things being moved around.’ She picked up her expensive bottle of water, unscrewed the lid and took a sip.

‘Um, I see,’ I said, wrinkling my nose. ‘Do you know anything about the house’s history and its past occupants?’

‘Gerard’s been waiting for someone to ask that very question,’ said Orlando with a smile rubbing his hand over his shaved head.

Although Orlando had been preoccupied throughout our journey, checking his messages on his mobile phone, he was obsessed with technology, and the interweb or whatever it was called!

Gerard gave a slight sneer, ‘I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, but the house has an interesting history… Get out of the road man! Did you see that?’ he asked, turning to Portia who was sat in the front passenger seat half terrified. ‘He just walked straight out into the road, does the silly idiot have a death wish?... What’s the matter with everyone these days? I don’t know, people today, what’s happening to the world?... Anyway, where were we?’

‘Winterburn Manor.’ I said with a weary sigh, Gerard was easily distracted.

‘Do you think you need to slow down, Gerard?’ asked Portia clutching onto the side of her leather seat, her lovely blue eyes were almost popping out of her pretty head. ‘I’m sure this is a thirty mile an hour area.’

‘The sat nav says it’s forty,’ said Gerard with a note of irritation creeping into his voice.

‘Well you’re doing over fifty,’ said Portia.

‘Am I? Oh, yes, how careless of me,’ he said, slowing down quickly and setting his cruise control.

‘Winterburn Manor anyone,’ I said again. Although I was slightly distracted myself by the beautiful countryside, it was a perfect summer’s day, with cloudless blue skies. The trees were all a lush green groaning under the weight of all their foliage, and the passing fields all shared the same blanket of vivid green bathed in comforting warm sunlight.

‘Historically the house is most interesting,’ said Gerard, ‘the medieval settlement of Sheldon was first mentioned in 803, but no longer exists having been deserted by 1582. However, its remains lie near to the west and rear of the Manor, which itself stands on the site of an older habitation known as "The Gateway".’

‘Why the gateway?’ I asked, looking puzzled, but hearing alarm bells ringing in surround sound stereo.

‘Good question,’ said Gerard, ‘But I’m afraid I don’t know the answer, the Manor is now within the civil parish of Chippenham. The earliest parts of the structure are thought to be a window on the west side of the house and the porch, which date back to the late 13th century. Most of the main structure, consisting of two and a half storeys, is of rubble stone with a stone-tiled roof, it dates back to 1659 when it was built for a Mr Evesham. I understand that later additions date to around 1911.’

Portia turned to face me, ‘There is also a small stone chapel and graveyard in the grounds, believed to date to about 1450.’

‘A church and graveyard?’ I said, thinking to myself that was never a good omen, all those ghosts from the past. ‘Do you know why it’s called Winterburn Manor?’

‘Yes, it’s something to do with old traditions,’ said Gerard, ‘apparently, there was a custom of burning herbs there throughout the winter months, they believed it offered protection from evil and warded of diseases, like the plague, and over the years the house became known as Winterburn, and the name somehow stuck.’

‘Um, I see, but what kind of evil exactly?’ I asked hesitantly.

‘Who knows,’ said Gerard, ‘silly superstitions have been rife throughout history.’

‘Yes, it makes sense, I suppose.’ But I wasn’t convinced.

‘Now during the Second World War the Manor was tenanted and afterwards fell into decay. It was reoccupied a several years later in the early 1950s and fully restored, however, from the early-90s the Manor stood empty until Elspeth purchased it in 2015 and set about restoring it. I understand the Manor shows evidence of various building phases that took place from 1300, all the way through to 1911. Its irregular south front, which overlooks the enclosed front garden, is characterised by the porch of 1300. The north front, built in the early part of the 19th-century, has paired gables, with a staircase gable from the 17th-century in the north-east corner.’

‘I see, it sounds like we might be spoilt for choice ghost wise with a house and church with such a long history,’ I said. ‘Let alone what might have been on the site before the house was even built. What do you know about Elspeth?’

‘Elspeth? Oh, she’s one of the ‘Potters’,’ said Portia turning to face me. ‘They made their money in the iron industry. Elspeth’s a bit of a free spirit; she likes to commune with nature.’

‘Oh god,’ said Orlando looking at Kate letting out a long sigh, ‘Not another one, I hope she won’t be dancing around a tree naked scattering daisy petals everywhere.’

Everyone laughed, apart from Kate, who threw him a withering look, giving him the evil eye.

‘How old is she?’ I asked.

‘Around thirty-two, I would say,’ said Portia. ‘Elspeth’s a tad on the eccentric side,’ she smiled. ‘But I don’t think she’ll be dancing around a tree naked or anything like that.

She’s quite famous for her water-colour paintings of landscapes and wildflowers; she’s had exhibitions in some of the major galleries all over the world. I think her pictures sell for a lot of money, well, certainly more than I could afford.’

‘Does she live at the house alone?’ asked Kate rubbing her arm, the one with the new tattoo.

Portia shrugged, ‘Well, yes I think so, but she must have help, you know with the house, gardens, and grounds, and she’s renovating the place so I would imagine it’s crawling with builders, electricians, and plumbers.’

‘You say she moved in five months ago?’ I asked, looking at Gerard.

He nodded, ‘Yes, I think it’s taken a long time to get the Manor into a habitable state. The house is a grade I listed building, so she’s had to use specialist craftsmen, builders, and joiners, which are not easy to find these days.’ He looked disillusioned, ‘It’s yet another example in the decline of standards in this country. I think there’s still a lot to do, but Elspeth’s the type who doesn’t need to be surrounded by luxury and all the modern conveniences.’

Orlando let out another long sigh like he’d been holding his breath for a long time, ‘Crikey, don’t tell me she’s cooking over a camp stove, getting water from a water well, and bathing in a stream.’

‘Good lord, I hope not,’ said Gerard looking appalled. ‘She assured me she could accommodate us all quite comfortably.’

Gerard was not the sort of person who could survive without all the modern basics; he liked all the finer things in life; he was a typical Taurean.

‘Well, let’s hope she has electricity, running water, and a flushing toilet,’ said Orlando, and he wasn’t joking.

Gerard winced suddenly looking worried; it hadn’t occurred to him that the house may not have all the modern conveniences.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Kate with a grin, ‘I love nothing more than sleeping under a starlit night sky or a full moon and being at one with nature.’

Gerard took a deep breath, ‘If Elspeth doesn’t have all the modern utilities, I for one will be booking into the nearest hotel and sending her the bill.’

The car came to a sudden halt, ‘Now, I think this must be the entrance,’ said Gerard peering over the top of his glasses.

‘It looks very grand,’ said Kate, ‘like the gated entrance to a stately home, or royal palace.’

‘Indeed,’ said Gerard hopefully, looking a little brighter.

He drove through the imposing open gates which were flanked by two ashlar gate piers with large ball finials in the rubble-stone wall, passed a small lodge and up a drive flanked by ancient mature trees and shrubs to the entrance porch of the Manor. The Manor had lawns in the gardens of its upper and lower terraces which were bisected by a stone-paved path leading to the porch. There looked to be other gardens and orchards, along with active beehives, a barn, and outbuildings. It did look a bit like a building site, but you couldn’t deny the Manor’s splendour and perfect setting, all illuminated in the golden summer sunlight warming the tone of the honey-coloured stone.

Gerard brought the car to a halt about 10 yards from the house’s ancient porch and main entrance, and we all slowly climbed out of the car and into the warm sunshine. You could hear the sounds of the countryside, and the call of birds as they were flying in and out of various bushes, shrubs and trees; the grounds were alive with nature. Hens were wandering around seemingly anywhere they wanted, and a cockerel was crowing and sounded most disgruntled. A battered looking Land Rover which had seen better days was parked by an old water well. And in the welcoming light breeze blossom blew in the air, and I could smell the rich odour of roses and lilac, and I was sure I caught the honey-sweet smell of laburnum, I could also hear the murmur of those busy bees.

‘I do hope they’re not getting their water from that well, but oh, it’s so nice to be able to stretch one’s legs,’ said Gerard, lifting his arms in the air having a good stretch, he was quite tall and very lean. He then proceeded to adjust his expensive silk tie and retrieved his grey Saville Row suit jacket out of the boot of the car, which was groaning with his expensive vintage Louis Vuitton luggage. We all stood for a long moment admiring the Manor, its aspect, and lovely setting.

‘What a beautiful place,’ said Kate, taking a deep breath while putting on her sunglasses. ‘Ah, smell that air, it’s so pure, that’s not London air, this place is absolutely idyllic.’ She started coughing loudly, ‘I must say I was expecting more of a building site, but it looks almost complete, a least from the outside… Elspeth must be very rich to own and live in a place like this; she’s a very fortunate lady.’

Gerard put on his jacket, ‘Yes, but I’m not sure she’d agree with you just now, given all the mysterious events that have been happening here. I think she feels like an unwanted guest in her own home.’

My eyes quickly scanned the area, ‘Do any of you sense anything?’ I asked, ‘you know anything spiritual or sinister.’

They all paused for a long moment, concentrating, trying to pick up any vibrations, emotions, or spiritual presences.

Portia shook her head, ‘No, not a thing.’ She looked at Kate and Gerard, ‘what about you two?’

Kate wrinkled her nose, shaking her head, ‘No, nothing.’

‘I’m not picking up anything yet,’ said Gerard looking at me over the top of his glasses. ‘Were you expecting some sort of welcoming spiritual party or ghostly mutiny?’ he asked, smiling.

I shrugged, ‘Well, I don’t know what I was expecting, that’s the thing with the spirit world. Unfortunately, you never know what’s waiting for you or might be around the next corner, but often it’s not good.’

‘Ah there you are, what perfect timing, you’re just in time for afternoon tea,’ said a lady wearing a large straw sunhat and elegant below-knee apricot coloured floral-patterned chiffon dress walking from the porch.

‘Elspeth my dear, we’ve only just arrived, how are you? And how charming you look,’ said Gerard with a twinkle.

‘I’m fine thank you, and this?’ she replied, referring to her dress. ‘It’s one of my mother’s old Balenciaga’s; she adored his clothes. I suppose today you’d call it vintage.’ She grinned.

Gerard smiled approvingly and turned to the four of us, ‘let me introduce you to my colleagues; of course, you know Portia, and this is Kate, Orlando, and Jasper.’

Elspeth gave a warm, welcoming smile and shook all our hands, ‘Lovely to meet you all,’ she said in her perfect Queens’ English. ‘Thank you so much for coming; I hope you’ve not had a troublesome journey, I’m afraid the roads around here were not built for all the traffic these days.’

Elspeth had natural charm; she was tall and willowy with delicate features and high cheekbones, I thought she looked like a female character from an F Scott Fitzgerald novel. In my world, I’d attended several of his lecture tours; they were all doing them writers, artists, fashion designers, film stars etc. I’d found him fascinating, he would have liked Elspeth, but I digress, that’s another story.

‘I think Gerard is smitten,’ said Orlando in a whisper turning to Kate with a mischievous smile.

Kate nodded, raising an eyebrow looking at Gerard and Elspeth together, ‘Um, I think you could be right,’ she whispered back. ‘I’ve never seen him so smiley and animated; mind you, she is a beautiful woman and so elegant, just Gerard’s type.’ Kate moved over to Gerard’s car, looking at herself in the wing mirror, adjusting her auburn curls, ‘She makes me feel like a total frump.’

‘Oh, I don’t think you look that bad,’ said Orlando looking Kate up and down. ‘You just need a full MOT and a respray, and you can look quite good in a certain light, but you’re at your best in the dark.’ He smiled innocently.

Kate raised her hand as if she was going to slap him and said with a sneer, ‘I’ll deal with you later, but don’t be surprised if you wake up tomorrow morning as the toad you are, remember I’m a witch, don’t underestimate my powers.’

‘Is everything all right over there?’ asked Elspeth looking in Orlando and Kate’s direction with a smile.

‘Kate smiled back, ‘Yes fine; I thought I’d spotted a mosquito,’ she looked at Orlando. ‘I was about to swat it. Unfortunately, they love me, although the feeling isn’t mutual, but that’s the countryside for you and it’s a small price to pay after the hustle and bustle of London.’

‘Yes, Mosquitos can be a terrible bother at this time of year. Shall we all go inside, and I’ll get the tea?’ asked Elspeth. ‘You must all be gasping after such a long journey in this heat; I’ve some liquid refreshments if you don’t want tea.’ Meaning strong alcohol. ‘Anyway, do come on in, you can bring all your things in later, they’ll be completely safe, and we’re quite informal here.’

Which suited the others, but not Gerard, he liked formality. It was clear as we entered the dim hallway that the house had a wealth of period charm and character, being totally unspoilt, with large open fireplaces. I could see a Tudor style in the dining room and an open inglenook in one of the sitting rooms. The house had flagstone floors, with exposed beams and unusually high ceilings for the period creating a beautiful living space. Elspeth said the house still had the original bread oven in what she still called the scullery, which made me feel at home. The large entrance hall had a tiled floor and a lovely oak staircase up to the first floor and bedrooms. Yes, I felt at home here; it was my period, not that I’d ever lived in such splendour and luxury.

The house had a mixture of smells, from drying plasterwork to newly cut wood, along with smells only centuries can create, a bit like you’d just stepped into a very old library, along with other “woody,” “smoky” and “earthy” smells; dust particles could be seen shimmering in the sunlight. Money had clearly been spent, and although the place wasn’t finished, it was perfectly habitable. Not that it bothered me of course, as a ghost I hardly need the creature comforts, but I was sure the others would be relieved not to find, to use Kate’s words, ‘a derelict ruin’.

We were taken into the drawing room, which was comfortable and dominated by a large carved wooden fireplace which had an elaborate clock on its mantel, which had a satisfying ticktock, the room had a heavily beamed ceiling. The furniture was expensive but had a lived-in look, some of it had seen better days. Elspeth’s water-colour paintings graced some of the walls, and the room was flooded with sunlight from several windows, which were draped by heavy velvet fringed curtains in a dark amber colour.

‘Do please sit down and make yourselves at home,’ said Elspeth, ‘I’ll go and make some tea.’ She gestured to a trolley full of spirits, ‘If you want something stronger? Please help yourselves, and I have some lager and beer in the fridge from a local independent brewery. Is tea alright for everyone?’

‘Tea would be delightful,’ said Gerard still twinkling. ‘If you have any earl grey all the better?’

‘Yes, of course,’ said Elspeth with an accommodating smile taking off her sun hat to reveal her long shiny copper coloured hair, which she ran her hand over ‘I’ll do both, now make yourselves comfortable, I won’t be a moment, the kettles already on.’

Gerard watched Elspeth admiringly as she left the room.

Kate was stood by one of the windows gazing out over the large gardens, she let out a long envious sigh, ‘What a lovely place, it has such a tranquil homely feel, and the aspect is perfect. I could move in here immediately; I can’t wait to see and explore the rest of the place, it’s like something from one of those glossy housing magazines, or a TV programme about historic houses.’

‘I know it’s hard to believe, but as Gerard said earlier, it can’t feel that homely,’ said Portia walking over to Kate to take in the garden and far reaching views. ‘Or Elspeth wouldn’t have called for our services, something must be wrong here, although I don’t sense anything right now.’

‘Well, that’s what we aim to find out,’ said Gerard standing up taking off his jacket and adjusting his tie. ‘I only hope we can help dear Elspeth; you never know what you’re going to find at these historic houses,’ he said, sitting down.

Um, often something not good, I thought to myself, nine times out of ten a restless spirit or spirits means trouble in my experience, and anyway, there must be a problem, or I wouldn’t have been sent here. If only I knew what it was!

Orlando was admiring the water-colour paintings, ‘Elspeth is certainly a talented artist, I’m not an art lover or expert by any means, but the attention to detail in these landscapes is amazing.’

Gerard stood up and walked over to Orlando, they both stood admiring several of Elspeth’s paintings, ‘Well, of course, Elspeth is internationally known for her work. Apparently, she’s very good at painting trees,’ said Gerard like he was an expert. ‘And what better place to get inspiration than a place like this, she must surely be spoilt for choice. Although I think she has a place with a studio in the South of France where she does some of her paintings.’

‘I thought artists were supposed to live a tortured existence, never having any money.’ I said.

Gerard looked at me over the top of his glasses clearing his throat, ‘Indeed, many do, but art is one of those professions in that if you make it, there’s big money to be made. Although Elspeth, has her own fortune from the family business, she’s most fortunate; I think she sees her painting more as a demanding hobby.’

‘How lovely,’ said Orlando with a thoughtful smile, ‘having a hobby that pays mega bucks, I wish.’

The door opened, and Elspeth came in carrying a huge tray followed by a heavy-set middle-aged lady with pale skin and white hair severely scraped off her face in a tight bun, carrying another tray with more tea, and it was piled high with sandwiches, cakes, and biscuits.

‘Just put it down on the coffee table by the fire will you please Mildred,’ said Elspeth a little breathlessly. ‘This is Mildred everyone; you’ll see her around the house during your stay. She’s my right-hand woman; I don’t know what I’d do without her, if you need anything and I’m not around just ask Mildred.’

Mildred gave an embarrassed smile looking at the five of us; she held her gaze slightly longer when looking at me, as though she was looking through me, ‘Lovely to meet you all,’ she said. ‘I don’t live here at the house, but at the lodge in the grounds, you’ll have passed it on your way up to the Manor, so if Elspeth isn’t here and you need me, you’ll know where to find me. My husband Herbert, he deals with the grounds and gardens, he’ll be able to help as well if needed, that is if you can find him, I know I never can.’ She smiled, ‘But that’s men for you, present company excepted of course.’

Elspeth put her arm lightly around Mildred's shoulders, ‘I’m sure you’ll find Mildred far more useful and helpful than me. Anyway, thank you, you get off home, and I’ll see you tomorrow.’

Mildred nodded, ‘Very good, are you sure you don’t need me? I don’t mind stopping and I’ve prepared everything for dinner.’

‘I’m certain; I’ll be absolutely fine; you never stop, now get off home and take a well-earned rest, put your feet up.’

Mildred smiled again, rubbing her hands on her apron, ‘Well, very nice to meet you all; I’ve no doubt I’ll see you all tomorrow.’ She looked at Elspeth, ‘I’ll be in early around eight o'clock.’ And with that, she left, carefully closing the door behind her.

Elspeth sat down near the fire in a large well-used armchair covered in worn tapestry fabric, moving various expensive looking silk cushions out of the way. ‘Shall I be mother? And do help yourselves to some sandwiches.’ She started pouring tea for everyone. ‘Help yourself to the earl grey Gerard,’ she gestured to the other tray and elegant china teapot.

‘Tea, Jasper?’ she asked, looking at me.

I hesitated, ‘No, thank you, I’m fine, I never have much appetite, and I’m not a big tea drinker.’

‘Oh well I could get you coffee if you’d prefer or a soft drink, I’ve some homemade elderflower cordial, which I pride myself on, it’s no trouble.’

‘That’s most kind,’ I said with a smile, ‘but honestly, I’m fine.’

Tea was poured into elegant, expensive looking china cups with matching saucers and mismatched china plates were passed around with white linen napkins as everyone helped themselves to various sandwiches and finger food, Kate only having anything vegetarian of course and on wholemeal bread. Once everyone was finally settled and had arranged themselves on the sofas or chairs, we began discussing events at the house.

‘Mm, I never thought an egg sandwich could taste so good,’ said Kate with her mouthful, eating her third.

‘I have my own hens,’ said Elspeth, ‘you’ll have seen them, they just wander anywhere they want, happy hens make happy eggs I find,’ she smiled. ‘My most prolific egg layer is Henrietta, she’s very nosey and such a character, I’m sure she’ll be making herself know to you all.

‘Well these are delicious,’ agreed Kate again leaning forward and taking two more.

‘You must all try Mildred’s honey cake, I have my own bees, and their honey is delicious. The bees benefit from all the wildflowers around here, I swear by their honey.’

Kate nodded, eyeing the tempting golden slices of cake.

‘So, Elspeth,’ said Gerard delicately wiping his mouth on his linen napkin, ‘I know we talked at length on the phone, but tell us what’s been happening here since you moved in.’

Elspeth carefully put down her china cup and saucer and prepared herself for her story, taking a deep breath, ‘Well, it’s like I told you, it’s really all quite unbelievable, strange banging, whisperings, moans, things in the house being moved… At first, I thought I must be stressed and tired, but it’s gradually become much worse… It’s hard to describe, several times I’ve had the feeling there was someone or something behind me, I swear I could hear breathing, but when I’ve turned, there’s nothing there. The builders have said they won’t come back until things are resolved; all the renovations have come to a complete standstill.’

I was stood by one of the windows, I could see my reflection looking back at me; it looked out over an orchard of apple and pear trees, I turned slowly looking at Elspeth, ‘What’s happened to the builders?’

She thought for a moment and took another deep breath, ‘Well, accidents really, and the workmen are convinced they weren’t accidental.’

‘Um, I see,’ I said, thinking. ‘What sort of accidents?’

‘Oh, trips, falls, some of them quite nasty, people said they’d been pushed, by an unknown force or presence. People have fallen down the stairs, off the roof, off ladders and scaffolding, we’ve had to call for the doctor and an ambulance several times.’

‘Sounds like typical poltergeist activity to me,’ said Kate with her mouth still full of egg and cress sandwich.

‘Poltergeist activity!’ exclaimed Elspeth.

Kate nodded, ‘Yes, they’re a type of ghost or spirit responsible for physical disturbances, such as loud noises and objects being moved or destroyed. They are capable of pinching, biting, hitting, and tripping people. Most accounts of poltergeists describe the movement or levitation of objects such as furniture and cutlery, or noises such as knocking on doors. They are troublesome spirits who haunt particular places or a person.’

Elspeth looked shocked and took a sip of her tea to comfort herself. Tea I thought, it’s the panacea for everything.

‘You mentioned noises,’ said Portia, ‘has anyone else heard them?’

‘Well, as you know, I live here alone, and the sounds tend to occur on an evening or at night,’ Elspeth paused, recalling her fear. ‘You know there really is nothing worse than hearing strange noises at night when one is alone; it really does make you feel incredibly vulnerable, particularly in a big house like this. I must confess that some nights, I’ve even taken a kitchen knife to bed with me.’ She shuddered. ‘But Mildred has witnessed rooms being rearranged, although not as it actually happened of course.’

‘Um, I see, tell us Elspeth, what do you know about the Manor?’ asked Portia taking a delicious looking cream and jam scone.

Elspeth stood up, taking her tea and moved in front of the large fireplace, ‘The Manor? Well, it has a long history, and I’m not by any means an expert; it’s partly what attracted me to the place, its history. It was built for the Evesham’s, who were a noted aristocratic family in the area for many years, they made their money from their many plantations in the West Indies. It passed down their family for generations but fell out of their hands in the late 1930s just before the start of the second world war. I think someone in the family had a severe gambling habit, and there were mounting debts... After that, it was rented out to several tenants, then it stood empty for around ten years and was bought by the noted writer Edmund Williams in the late 1940s or early 50s, he fully restored the place.

Apparently, he spent a fortune on it, and after he died in the early 1990s, it fell into disrepair again until silly me decided to take it on.’

Gerard, Portia, and Kate all looked at each other.

‘What, the Edmund Williams, the famous horror fiction writer?’ asked Portia looking uneasy.

Elspeth nodded, ‘Yes, I have all of his books here in the library; they came with the house, not that I’ve read any of them, horror isn’t my thing, all those graveyards and isolated houses in the middle of nowhere,’ she laughed. ‘Rather like here, I suppose.’

‘Yes, just like here,’ said Orlando thinking out loud.

There was an awkward silence.

‘Wasn’t he supposed to be quite mad?’ asked Gerard, looking to the others for confirmation.

‘There was that rumour I believe,’ said Elspeth scratching the back of her neck, ‘Oh, I think I’ve been bitten… but I’ve heard it said that it was something he himself encouraged, although I think he was a bit of what we might call an eccentric.’

‘Um, and you say he encouraged the idea he was mad?’ I asked, looking mystified.

Elspeth nodded, ‘Yes, so I believe, he said it helped to sell his books; you know, people have morbid fascinations, wanting to dip into the mind of a supposed madman.’

‘Ah, yes I see, how very macabre,’ I said, ‘it’s true what they say in Yorkshire and Lancashire.’

‘Oh yes, and what’s that?’ asked Elspeth looking at me puzzled.

‘There’s nowt so queer as folk,’ I said raising an eyebrow.

‘Yes, but quite ingenious,’ said Gerard with a knowing smile. ‘He made a lot of money from his writing and books.’

‘Do you know how Edmund died?’ I asked.

Elspeth suddenly started sneezing, pulling a tissue from her pocket and wiping her nose, ‘Oh, sorry about that; I suffer terribly from hay fever at this time of year… As far as I know, Edmund Williams was quite elderly when he died, certainly in his ninety’s, so I assume he died of old age or an age-related condition, but I don’t know for sure.’ She looked at me questioningly. ‘Why is it important?’

I pursed my lips, ‘It might be,’ I said. ‘Do you have any idea what was here before the house was built?’

She hesitated, ‘Goodness, you’re asking me something now, but there are believed to have been settlements in this area since well before Roman times.’

Elspeth put her cup and saucer down and moved over to one of her pictures and straightened it, stepping back to admire it. ‘There, that’s much better; I can’t abide crooked pictures, now, where was I?’

‘You were talking about settlements which predate Roman times,’ I said.

‘Oh yes, well the town is believed to have been founded by Anglo-Saxons around AD 600 and became part of a Royal Forest, the King had a country house or hunting lodge here. The Domesday Book listed Chippenham as "Cepen", with a population of 600 to 700 in 1086. In Norman times it was known as the manor of Sheldon, it was eventually deserted in the 16th century because it was devastated by plague; this house is built on what would have been part of Sheldon.’

‘Um, I see most interesting, the question is, where do we start given the area’s rich history?’ I said, scratching my head looking for inspiration.

Elspeth picked up her cup and took a sip of tea; she winced, ‘Yuk, that’s gone cold.’ She moved to the tray picking up the teapot and topped up her tea and took a sip. ‘Ah, that’s better. Yes, this area has a rich history, in the Middle Ages, the wool trade thrived here. The footprint of the medieval village of Sheldon is, in fact, still well preserved.’

She paused as the mantal clock started chiming.

‘You see the area doesn’t appear to have been ploughed since the village disappeared, helped of course by Sheldon Wood. This area hasn’t been touched by modern agriculture as it’s land used for pasture.’

‘How rare that must be these days,’ said Gerard taking off his glasses to clean the lenses with his monogrammed handkerchief.

‘Looking at this from a completely different and more logical perspective,’ said Orlando seriously. ‘Do you think anyone might want to scare you away from here?’

Elspeth thought for a moment biting her lip and shaking her head, ‘Interesting question, but no, I can honestly say that I can’t think of anyone, this place had stood empty for quite a while, and I think the owners were pleased someone was finally taking it off their hands.’

‘Who were the previous owners?’ asked Kate picking up her second iced bun and eyeing the honey cake.

Elspeth sat back down in her worn tapestry chair, ‘Oh, you’ll smile, this house belonged to a cat charity.’

‘A cat charity!’ exclaimed Kate with her mouthful of iced bun.

Elspeth nodded, ‘Yes, apparently Edmund Williams, the last person to live here was a cat lover, he had no family and left the house and most of his money to the cat charity. The problem was the trustees of the cat charity couldn’t agree on what to do with the house, and they argued with each other for years, allowing the house to get into quite a state.’

‘Does the cat charity have a name?’ I asked.

Elspeth thought for a moment, ‘Yes, yes it does, it’s a strange name, or at least I thought so. Oh, what is it… ah, I have it; it’s called the Gesta Regum Cat Society.’

‘Yes, you’re right, that is a strange name,’ said Gerard, ‘yet it sounds vaguely familiar.’

‘Um, I wonder if Edmund could have returned?’ I said to myself.

‘What was that?’ asked Portia brushing her hair off her face.

‘I said I wonder if Edmund could have returned? Many old properties have ghosts, there could have been ghosts here for years, most are quite docile, but it sounds like your ghost or ghosts are troubled. The problem is there is no one still alive who lived here in the past for us to ask.’

‘Well not that we know of,’ said Gerard trying to sound optimistic.

‘Um, I suppose we could hold a séance,’ I said, thinking out loud again.

Portia looked at me critically, ‘Only as a last resort, a séance can sometimes create more problems, and that’s the last thing we need.’

I nodded. ‘Do you know if Edmund left money to any other organisations or societies?’ I asked.

Elspeth shook her head, ‘I’ve absolutely no idea, but I suppose we could find out.’

‘Oh Jasper, you’re not thinking about secret societies again, are you?’ asked Gerard dismissively waving his napkin.

I looked at everyone, ‘Well, we can’t rule anything out, it could be a clue to what’s going on here.’

‘Anyway,’ said Elspeth, ‘after you’ve all finished your tea, I’ll show you to your rooms, and you can bring all your things in from the car. Now, not all the rooms are en-suite I’m afraid, but we have two family bathrooms, and there’s no shortage of hot water. If you need anything, extra towels, bedding anything like that, don’t hesitate to ask. And I understand you’re a vegetarian Kate, so we’ll try our best food wise.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about me,’ said Kate smiling, taking the last of the cream scones. ‘I can cook for myself or for all of us. I enjoy cooking.’

Yes, I thought to myself, she certainly enjoyed her food, I’ve never known anyone so controlled by their stomach, but she looked well on it.

‘I might take you up on that,’ said Elspeth smiling, ‘I must confess that I’m not the world’s greatest cook, I rely on Mildred, she’s marvellous in the kitchen, I keep telling her she should write a cookery book. Although she always dismisses the idea, she’s quite modest. Mind you, Mildred’s very critical of many of those TV cooks; she was brought up on Fanny.’

We all looked at each other, Gerard coughed and cleared his throat.

‘Fanny!’ exclaimed Orlando trying hard not to laugh.

‘Yes, that’s Fanny Craddock,’ said Elspeth, ‘probably long before your time, she was an English restaurant critic, television celebrity chef, and cookery writer frequently appearing on television, at cookery demonstrations and of course, in print. Fanny advocated bringing Escoffier-standard food into the British home and gave every recipe a French name. She had a love for the piping bag and vegetable dyes and frequently wore vast couture chiffon ballgowns on screen while stuffing vol-au-vents.’

‘Yes, I know who you mean now,’ said Gerard, ‘she was very famous and one of the first British celebrity TV cooks, wasn’t her husband called Johnnie, and a wine expert?’

Elspeth nodded, ‘Mind you, Mildred’s a big fan of Delia Smith and Mary Berry, she says you can always tell a good home cook by their tea towels. Apparently, Delia’s and Mary’s are spotless.’

The phone rang in the hall.

Elspeth jumped, ‘Oh… oh do please excuse me for a moment, I’m expecting a call from Mr Simpson, he’s been overseeing all the building work here.’ She stood up and quickly moved out into the hall, closing the door behind her.

After she’d gone, Gerard turned to us all, ‘Well, that’s a turn up for the books.’

‘What Fanny Craddock?’ asked Orlando checking his mobile phone for messages.

Gerard raised an eyebrow and gave Orlando a disapproving look, ‘No, the fact that this house belonged to Edmund Williams, don’t you think that’s strange?’

‘It gives us a line of enquiry,’ said Kate picking up another slice of honey cake. ‘Although personally, I don’t know anything about him, I’ve no time for horror fiction, I’ve had far too much experience dealing with the real thing.’

‘That’s just it,’ said Gerard, ‘I don’t think anyone did know anything about him, other than his books, he was a very private person.’

‘Have any of you read any of them, his books?’ I asked.

They all shook their heads.

‘I think they’re quite dark,’ said Portia, ‘full of gore, he was noted for it. I think some of his books were made into horror films.’ She shuddered.

‘Um, I’ll have to look at them, I bet they’re full of castles, blood, vampires, and Victorian graveyards,’ I said thoughtfully. ‘But let’s not get sidetracked.’

‘Sounds to me like you’ve been watching too many old horror films,’ said Orlando.

‘And B movies at that,’ agreed Gerard with a disapproving tut in his voice. ‘I like a film that challenges one’s intellect in many areas of the literary and performing arts.’

Orlando, Kate, and Portia looked at each other rolling their eyes.

We were all bouncing ideas around regarding the Manor history when the door opened, and Elspeth came back into the room sitting down in her chair.

‘Sorry about that, like I said it was my builder, I was hoping to persuade him to get everyone to return to finish the Manor, but he’s still adamant they’re not coming back until things have been investigated, and hopefully resolved. He says he can’t risk his accident cover and insurance.’ She let out a long weary sigh. ‘Although I’ve no idea how I’ll ever convince him, even if we get to the bottom of what’s going on here… anyway,’ she stood up, ‘let me show you all to your rooms.’

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