The Upstairs Flat
Jimmy stood outside the house, a grey Edwardian semi with a front garden that had been turned into parking spaces when it had been converted into flats.
This story was a vast improvement on the stuff he usually covered. The life of a local reporter had never been a terribly glamorous one, but these days, it mostly sucked. He did have the consolation, at least, of being on staff: everyone else had been laid-off years ago. Apart from him and the editor, freelancers did everything; they didn’t even have a copyeditor or proofreader, anymore. Rob had wanted this specific story and had a particular slant in mind and Jimmy was glad to have it. It beat the usual parochial nonsense and the alchemy of transforming press releases into copy.
The house was supposed to be haunted. It didn’t exactly look haunted, more forlorn than frightful, but he reasoned that, in black and white, a photo could make it seem quite spooky. Not that he believed in ghosts and things like that. Well, he liked to think he was open-minded, but he wasn’t convinced. But, still, it was an interesting story, with the air of scientific authenticity, thanks to the involvement of a parapsychologist, who was due to meet him inside the property.
All three flats were empty, giving it an air of neglect.
He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to knock or just go straight in. Jimmy pushed the door and it swung open.
He leaned in through the door into the shadowy interior and looked up the stairs.
“Doctor Lamont, you there?”
There was a door to his right to the ground-floor flat and he guessed the layout was replicated on the two upper floors.
“Up here,” came the reply. The voice was from upstairs and had a soft Scottish accent.
Jimmy headed up the stairs. They creaked alarmingly and seemed to sag underfoot.
“Never mind ghostliness,” he said as he neared the top floor and saw Lamont, “I’d skip out if I had to put up with these stairs.”
“Some folk have little choice,” said Doctor Lamont. The parapsychologist was a little shorter than average and stocky. His round face had a friendly smile and was framed by a beard below and a high forehead above. He was sitting on the top step, fiddling with a camcorder.
“You’ve timed your arrival well,” he added as Jimmy joined him.
“I’ve just seen it.”
“The ghost. I saw it. Not five minutes ago. And...”
“And, I caught it on camera.” Lamont stood. “Let’s go inside.” He nodded at the door to the top-floor flat. “There’s no power, but I took the liberty of buying a couple of coffees on the way here. I trust you like an Americano with milk and sugar? If not, I’ve got a cappuccino.”
“The Americano would do me great,” Jimmy said following him into the flat. “You say you saw the ghost?”
“Filmed it, too,” Lamont reminded him as he handed him the drink.
The flat was small, but felt spacious, being empty of furniture other than the kitchen fittings. The walls were painted an unpleasant yellowish-beige and the place smelt of damp. There were no curtains, the sunlight adding to the sense of space.
“History in the making,” he said, holding the camcorder up. “When people see this, they’ll know ghosts are real.”
Jimmy took a sip of coffee and said, “But, there have been photos and films of ghosts before now and people aren’t convinced, are they?”
Lamont chuckled in the manner of someone who had heard the same thing many times. “That’s true, that’s certainly true, but you have to remember that a lot of those photos and films are faked and the rest are too poor quality or ambiguous, or both, to resolve the issue one way or the other: people see what they want to see, the believers believing and the doubters doubting.”
“But, your film is different?” Jimmy had taken his phone out and was recording their conversation. That last quote, he thought, was a good one, whatever the man had found.
“Exactly. It’s the game changer. I filmed the ghost and there was nothing poor quality or ambiguous about it. It was on the stairs, just out there; the light’s pretty good, without being dazzling, and it was perfectly clear: the semi-transparent figure of an old-woman climbing the stairs to the upstairs flat.”
“To this flat?” Jimmy asked with a shiver.
“To this flat.” Lamont nodded.
“And, is that how the story goes?”
“Yes, more or less. The story is that she was an alcoholic. She struggled home with a bag filled with vodka, collapsed on the landing and impaled herself on the shattered glass of the bottles, bleeding to death.
“Nobody much cared, of course,” he went on, “but, soon after, people started saying they saw her on the stairs, both inside and through the window. That was about thirty years ago. The man who moved in after he death moved out pretty quickly; the next chap soon after that. They found it almost impossible to keep someone in this flat and harder and harder in those downstairs, until, for the last eighteen months or so, the entire house has been left empty.”
“Okay, so let’s take a look at the film, then, see what you got.”
Lamont fetched a laptop, opened it up, and plugged the camcorder into it.
“Here we go,” he said, switching it on.
A picture appeared. It was, as he had said, a clear one.
“I just heard footsteps on the stairs,” came Lamont’s voice as the image on the screen swung around and upward, followed by footsteps as he climbed the stairs.
“Here it comes,” said Lamont and they both leaned in closer to the screen.
“Look!” came Lamont’s voice. “Look! There it is!”
There was nothing on the screen, except the empty stairs.
“But, I don’t understand,” said Lamont, rubbing his beard. “I saw it so clearly! It should be right there...” He paused. “Maybe they have a purely psychic component and don’t show up on film at all.” Then, he sighed. “More likely, I was hallucinating. Still, I guess I can tell you about my research and some of the spookier reports, so it’s not a completely wasted trip for you.”
“Sure,” nodded Jimmy. “My editor would appreciate it. People love a good yarn, regardless of the evidence.” And, he thought, it was still better than what he usually had to write.
Jimmy was back in the office, trying to put the afternoon into words. Perhaps it was Lamont’s disappointment, but he just couldn’t make it work how Rob wanted it.
It didn’t help that Lamont’s ghost stories had spooked him. It was silly, really; he hadn’t felt spooked at the flat, not really, despite it being dingy and damp. Maybe it had just been too sunny to believe in ghosts there. But, even with the fluorescent tube lighting the space, the side office seemed dark and shadowy. He hadn’t even played back their conversation, yet, avoiding hearing again his tales of ghosts. Sitting with his back to the door of the small room only heightened his sense of unease: he felt as if something might slip in behind him at any moment; he kept glancing over his shoulder, just in case. Of what, he didn’t like to think.
It had been different back in the day, before the lay-offs. Then, there would’ve been others working late, company, banter. Instead, with Rob having gone home already, he was alone. He could’ve gone home himself, but he never quite felt as if he was really working there. Too many distractions. The lure of the internet was bad enough.
His phone rang. Landline. Jimmy jumped, startled by the sudden noise. He fumbled for the receiver, wondering if it might be something juicy. They never seemed to get any interest tips these days.
“Hi, this is Jimmy Smith speaking.”
It was Doctor Lamont’s secretary. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve been trying to reach you all afternoon, but I couldn’t get through on your mobile and nobody was answering this phone.” She sounded upset.
Typical of Rob not to be in the office all afternoon, but it was odd about his phone; coverage must be poor around that house.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“Oh, nothing. I just wanted to let you know why Doctor Lamont didn’t meet with you.”
“It’s terrible news...” Her voice was choked.
“I don’t understand. What’s wrong?”
“It was a car crash. Happened about ten, this morning. They say he died instantly. Something we can be thankful for, I guess. He was a good man; I’d hate for him to have suffered.”
“I don’t understand. He’s dead?”
“Yes. I’m sorry you were inconvenienced...”
“No, it’s not that...”
“I have to go. Sorry. Goodbye.” She hung up.
Jimmy stared stupidly at the receiver.
Dead? This morning? It wasn’t possible...
He reached for his phone, but the battery was dead.
Jimmy put it on to charge and picked up the receiver of the landline again, called a contact of his at the hospital. He confirmed the time of death of Lamont. It was true. Yet, it couldn’t be...
He tried his phone. Hit playback on the recording of their conversation.
“...you have to remember that a lot of those photos and films are faked,” he heard Lamont saying. “People see what they want to see, the believers believing and the doubters doubting.”
Then, his voice saying, “But, your film...” and the recording cut out. Obviously, the moment his battery had died.
It was definitely Lamont’s voice that he’d caught a few seconds of, yet it was totally impossible.
He wasn’t sure if it people would believe it – as Lamont had said, the believers would believe and the doubters would doubt, but he would count himself fully on the side of the believers from now on.
Jimmy shivered, then smiled as he realised Lamont had obtained the proof he sought. He hoped that, somewhere, he was smiling, too.