I paused at the second landing, adjusting my grip on the splitting cardboard box. If I wasn’t careful sheets of paper would cascade onto the bare wooden steps. I felt for the stair with my foot. There was an exposed knot of brown, cord-covered flex running along the skirting on this floor. I wasn’t worried about being electrocuted, the wires had ceased to carry any power sometime around the Second World War according to the contractors, but if I caught a heel I’d topple forward and there was no one around to call an ambulance if I broke my neck.
Since the start of renovations at 12 Cardon Square, workmen had been finding oddly touching things as they ripped through the building. Pages from Edwardian newspapers, orphaned sheets from letters, gaudy Twenties cigarette packets, marbles, hairpins, desiccated mice embalmed in shredded nests of faded wrapping paper – little ghosts of long ago lives.
My favourite discovery, a tin soldier, now stood on the mantelpiece opposite my desk in the attic. The room had once been a nursery so it seemed appropriate. Although the red paint on the little man’s jacket had almost flaked away, years ago a small boy had painted a drooping moustache on his face and dotted his eyes with wonky splots of black giving him an appealingly rakish expression.
The works were nearly complete now except for the basement and the ‘death trap’ stairwell. That’s what Jervis our senior clerk called it. Jervis wore an air of perpetual gloom like a comforting shawl, but he had a point. Dead wires were everywhere, coiling from deep gashes in the ruptured skirting.
Cardon Chambers was housed in a tall, handsome building – mainly Georgian, I supposed. When it was a grand family house the residents stored wine in the warren of arched tunnels leading out under the pavement. Now it was our archive.
I could just hear the bells of St Thomas’s across the square. I counted – nine, ten, eleven, twelve. It was Saturday morning, officially Christmas Eve, and I was still at work.
Not for much longer. Tomorrow, (no, today) I’d be decorating the tree at my sister’s house with Archie. His excitement was usually infectious, but this year it would be a bittersweet reminder of the baby. Jamie had insisted on coming to collect me as soon as I finished up – “whatever the time”. I’d called 10 minutes ago and he was on the way. “Next year will be different, Em.” He kept reassuring me. “You’ll see.” I knew he watched me when he thought I wasn’t aware. There was a furrow etched between his eyebrows now that hadn’t been as marked before I lost her. Before we lost her.
Work was a distraction – I simply went through the motions. When I smiled I actually calculated how far to stretch my lips, but I couldn’t hide here any longer tonight. I’d found what I needed in the Pearson v Nicholls file. It was time to face Christmas.
I bumped down the last flight, put the box down, turned the key in the lock and pushed the metal door. The smell of old paper and the musty sharpness of mouse hit me along with the cold. I really should speak to Jervis about the mice, I thought.
The overhead lights thrummed for a second before flushing the whitewashed bricks with a greenish glow. ‘P’ was three rows down to the left. I bent to retrieve the box.
My heels echoed on stone as I passed the arched passages. It was so cold down here I could see my breath. I turned into row P. The box came from the middle shelf at the end; I could see the gap and the marks of Jervis’s fingers in the dust where he’d collected it. He shouldn’t be carrying heavy boxes up six flights of stairs at his age I thought. I pushed the box back into place.
Immediately the bulb overhead blazed, buzzed and died.
Then, like toppling dominoes, one by one all the lights in the archive went out. In the space of five seconds I was in total darkness. I remembered the builders saying that the electrics down here were shot. I reached for the metal shelf, guided myself to the end of row P and paused, confused. I thought I’d left the door leading out to the stairs half open. There should be some light, but there was nothing at all.
Extending a hand, I walked towards the invisible door, stopping when the tips of my fingers made contact with the metal. I felt for the handle and pulled.
The door didn’t budge.
I yanked the handle down and pulled harder. Under my shirt I could feel my heart beating faster as I tried again. I ran my hands over the metal telling myself not to panic. Perhaps Jervis had come back late to make sure the building was locked up? Yes, that was it. With the Christmas weekend ahead he’d want to make sure everything was secure.
I called out. “I’m still here. I’ve only just finished for the night. I brought the Pearson file back.”
I jerked the handle again. “It’s me, Emma. Are you there Mr Jervis?”
The handle shot up in my hands and now there was a resistance. It sounds odd, but I knew someone was out there holding the handle and listening. The metal burned cold in my fingers. I dropped it and took a step back.
“Who’s there?” I tried to smother the tremor in my voice.
The handle rattled.
The hairs on my arms prickled as the clatter came again. And then I heard something else – laughter, a child’s laughter, oddly muffled – a naughty sound, not threatening. But all the same…
There were no children at 12 Cardon Square. There hadn’t been for a hundred years.
I dug my nails into the palms of my hands as laughter bubbled beyond the metal. The handle jiggled again. It felt like a game – like one of the endless sessions of hide and seek I played with Archie. I thought of his tree present in the bag under my desk upstairs – a sonic screwdriver. The irony of that wasn’t lost on me.
Then I had the oddest thought.
“Hello,” I said, part of my rational, legal mind telling me that this was impossible, there was no way I could be standing here bargaining with a ghost.
“It’s Christmas Eve.”
Instantly, noises stopped. “I’ve promised to decorate the tree with my nephew, Archie, today. He’s eight… how old are you?”
I continued, “Archie likes games too. Listen, please will you let me out. I’ve got a present for him. It’s upstairs. Do you like presents?”
12 Cardon Square paused. I actually felt the building wait, considering the reply. Everything was suspended in an infinite moment that lasted four, perhaps five seconds.
I heard scraping on stone as the metal door swung open into the blackness of the lobby at the bottom of the stairwell. Without thinking I blundered through and groped wildly for the banister ahead, but I felt something else – small fingers brushed my palm.
I cried out and instantly all the lights came on. Somewhere overhead a door slammed.
Locking my shaking hands together, I stared up the empty light-flooded stairwell twisting to the floors above.
I waited down there for 10 minutes before going to collect my things. I’m not sure why exactly. Fear, I suppose, partly, but something else too, something like awe.
When I rounded the last flight and came out onto the landing outside my office the bells at St Thomas’s church sounded the quarter. I took a deep breath and walked into the brightly lit room. It was just as I had left it, except for one thing – the tin soldier on the mantelpiece was gone.
In his place stood a small, old-fashioned Christmas bauble, the sort that sells for a fortune in vintage shops. The translucent globe was painted with a garland of holly and above the delicate decoration the words, ‘Wishing you joy at Christmas’ were etched into the milky glass.
For the first time in a long while I smiled, properly.
Kate Griffin's Kitty Peck And The Music Hall Murders (Faber & Faber, £7.99) is out now in paperback and ebook