A Ghost Story for Anyone who has had to Fight for Love
Blackdog Castle overlooks the North Sea. Massy, dark, brooding, part-ruined, part-restored, the stone buildings sit hunched around a courtyard. The inner windows are larger and lighter, like blank eyes that stare at each other without expression. The windows facing the sea are narrow and impassive. Weather has worn away the sharp angles of the stone into a blunt face.
An S-bend road leads from the castle to the village that is now a tourist attraction and was once a fishing port. The wild strength of the place is its charm. Built in 1360, it is no longer a fortification. The castle is marketed as an ‘experience’. Cook in the medieval kitchen! Dance in a kilt! Return to the 18th century! Man the Big Guns in the Battle of the Skies! Get Married!
Blackdog Castle is a wedding venue. Stevie and Amy are getting married here on Friday.
Most of our guests arrived with us on Wednesday. Our celebration is a three-day affair. The castle is remote. Anyone travelling this far deserves a drink. All of us went out to the only pub that night. On foot. Winding down the roaming road or roaming down the winding road, to drink whisky in a little low-roofed coaching inn, had a romance of its own. No-one wanted to leave the big bright fire warming the panelled room set with wooden chairs, tables, and a candle on every table. The landlord had promised us a story. There’s always a story, isn’t there? A story of somebody drowned, somebody murdered, somebody who died for love.
‘Oh, mine is a love story,’ said the barman, ‘indeed it is! Like Romeo and Juliet.’
The barman was filling up our whisky glasses from an oak cask. No bottles. No measures. His forearms were the size of ox haunches. He wore an earring that glinted above his beard.
‘Aye, but mind you, my story is a sad story. When did love stories start to have happy endings? Can you tell me that?’
He has a point. Lancelot and Guinevere. Tristan and Isolde. Dido and Aeneas. Medea. Anna Karenina. Cathy and Heathcliff. Poor Oscar Wilde…
‘I prefer the sad ones,’ said the barman. ‘The tale I have to tell has a haunting in it for you, too, unless you fear ghosts?’
As he said this, the wind rattled at the window, and everyone laughed.
‘Na fear then, that’s guid,’ said the barman.
He turned down the lights. He leaned forward. He raised his hand.
‘At Blackdog Castle, in the Keep, you will find an inscription on the wall. You may see it for yourself with your own eyes. It’s from the Bible. It says, (he paused to be sure of our attention,)
Love is strong as Death.
‘Now, why would someone scrape that into the wall, with a knife, the night after a murder?’
I didn’t stay to find out. Unnoticed, I slipped away, a dark shadow on a dark night. Weddings are not solitary occasions, but I am a solitary person. I like to see my friends happy and together. And then I slip away.
Are you afraid of the dark? Not me. It’s a relief from electric light. From the relentlessness of our lives. Out here, I can hear the roaring of the sea. The sky above is like a black beach set with shining stones.
Two stars. Are they shooting stars? Brighter than the rest, holding my gaze. They should be dropping and disappearing now, but they are not. Perhaps they are satellites.
I returned to the castle. A single figure in a single space.
Amy and I had separate rooms. An old-fashioned custom and a good one. We would create the space where we longed to be, and then find it, on our wedding night.
My room was in the oldest part of Blackdog Castle. The stone walls were hung with long, thick tapestries. A single electric light overhead had little effect on the resolute blackness that tenanted the room. I switched on the bedside lamp, an ugly iron thing, so heavy I could barely shuffle it nearer to my book. I put on my pyjamas and got into bed. Mercifully, the bed was warm, and soon I was reading A History of Scottish Ghosts.
Blackdog Castle boasted the expected list of clankers and chain-rattlers, disembodied sporrans and floating bonnets. There was a monk, a priest, a maiden, a warrior, and the story of two lovers who had perished in the sea on their wedding night.Nothing about a murder. The barman, it seemed, had an eye for business.
Then I heard it
‘Go through and never come back!’
A man’s voice. Nearby. Outside.
I got out of bed and went into the bathroom that overlooks the road to the village. I pushed open the narrow window and leaned out. Wind. Cold. The sound of the sea. Far down on the track were two wavering lights making their way towards the castle. Two of our guests coming home from the pub.
Yes, that’s right. I smiled to myself.
It’s so quiet here that noises carry far. They must be joshing each other. It’s horseplay, tipsy revellers, perhaps re-telling the story they just heard. I must find out the gory version in the morning. I wonder if Amy is in her room yet? I padded back into my bedroom to look across the courtyard towards her low light shining behind the curtains. Yes, she’s there. There’s nothing to fear.
A terrific crash made me cry out. The room went dark. I heard glass breaking. As I turned around, I saw the bathroom window, open under the moon, like a cut in the night. The wind had funnelled itself through the sullen gap with enough force to bowl over the iron lamp. I moved slowly forward, banging my body against the wall in an effort to find the single main switch.
That’s when I saw it – in a moment of moonlight – the outline of – what’s that?
A figure? In the bedroom? With me?
Footsteps in the corridor. The footsteps halt at my bedroom door. My bedroom door is opening. An inch. A chink. Wider. My heart is beating like a trapped rabbit. Coming in, slow, unsteady…lit up, a tall, thin shape.
There’s a burst of laughter. It’s Tommy. Drunk Tommy, whose room is next to mine. ‘Stevie! Why are you standing in the dark in your pyjamas?’
‘Oh! You arse!’
‘Sorry! Wrong room!’
Tommy is wearing a head torch. He comes in. We close the window. Between us we right the lamp. The bulb is broken – that’s all. Everything all right? Thanks Tommy, just the wind. Good time? He hugs me, leaning heavily on my shoulder. Better get some sleep. Next door, I hear him fall on the bed. These bed springs are like accordions. My heart is nearly steady now. My eyes are closing. Only faintly do I imagine the sound of a pistol.
‘How was your night?’
I am in Amy’s room, sitting up in her bed, drinking scalding tea. The weather is squally. The sun is barely risen. I had woken early, and made my way to her, in my pyjamas, carrying biscuits.
Amy said, ‘Someone came into my room last night.’
‘It wasn’t me!’
‘The rain woke me. I think it was the rain. But then, someone was sitting on the edge of my bed, looking at me.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘We all know when we are being looked at.’
‘It was dark.’
‘No – it wasn’t. It should have been dark, but it wasn’t. That’s what was strange. In the dark there was an impression.’
‘An impression of what?’
‘Tommy came crashing into my room last night. Frightened the life out of me. He was drunk.’
‘I was drunk,’ said Amy, ‘but not when I woke up.’
‘Did you go back to sleep?’
‘Yes, but as I turned over, my foot pushed against a solid weight.’
‘Your handbag on the bed?’
‘There was someone in the room. I am sure.’
I put my tea down and my arms round her. ‘We didn’t come here to be frightened. Was it the story the barman told you?’ Amy looked at me. ‘Let’s go and see the inscription. In the Keep.’
‘What now? Don’t you want to stay here with me?’
‘I want you to come with me. Go and get dressed.’
She kissed me. Her eyes are grey, like the sky over the sea today, and behind them, not always visible, but always there, is the sun.
I went back to my room. No-one else is awake. Quick shower. Go in the bathroom. It’s fully light now, and I notice what I didn’t notice an hour ago; on the floor there’s a brass button. A button from a uniform. It’s dirty, pitted, like it’s been buried. I’ll clean it when we get back.
Amy and I walked hand in hand through the courtyard arch and towards the castle Keep. Seabirds wheeled overhead, their lonely cries like voices in the air. ‘They are guillemots,’ said Amy. She likes birds. We are walking in step. I know her so well, yet I don’t want to get used to her. I don’t want to lose her to habit. She squeezes my mind as if she reads my thoughts.
Love is strong as Death.
There it is. There’s the inscription.
We traced the letters with our fingers as though the message had been written in Braille. The letters, some deep, some shallow, were not the work of time and leisure, but done quickly, like graffiti, like anger. That’s what I felt; anger.
‘I’m cold,’ said Amy. I put my arm around her.
There was a flight of stone stairs in the Keep that seemed to lead to a door. I went up, rattled the handle. The door wouldn’t open. Returning, it seemed oppressive to me, this place. Claustrophobic. Too small for itself. Where was Amy?
I went out and stepped through the tough high grass to find her. She was looking upwards. There was the door – the other side of the door, that led to nothing. To a sheer drop down the cliff. It was fenced off. But what was it? A door that leads nowhere?
‘Go through and never come back!’
‘What was that?’ Amy was looking at me oddly. ‘What did you say?’
‘Nothing. I said nothing.’
‘I heard you. Stop trying to frighten me! You’re supposed to love me!’
I was bewildered. ‘I do love you.’
‘Then fight for me! Fight for me!’
Amy was the one confused now. ‘I don’t know why I said that.’
I took her hand. ‘What is it?’
She said, ‘Perhaps it was the story. She was a young girl from a wealthy family. He was a soldier. Poor, young and handsome. She was expected to marry the local landowner. Instead, they fell in love when she met him here, by chance, at the garrison. They planned to run away together, but they were caught and killed.’
‘It says in my book of Scottish ghost stories that they jumped off the cliff together – for love.’
‘Rory says they were murdered.’
‘The barman! He says it’s a gruesome tale of murder. Their spirits will haunt this place till wrong is made right.’
‘MUURDAH! That’s how he says it, with two “U”s , a rolling “R” and the “DAH” like a stabbing.’
‘Are you trying to cheer me up?’
‘Yes! He must tell that story every week of the year.’
‘I know… It’s that door. It’s horrible. The door that leads nowhere.’
‘Whatever happened, it was a long time ago. Maybe, that’s what haunting is: time in the wrong place.’
‘Are we being haunted?’
‘No! We’re getting married. Come on! Shall we go and get breakfast?’
The rain came then, suddenly and heavily, out of nowhere. We had no choice but to return to the Keep for shelter. Coastal weather is unexpected. I could see how fast the clouds were moving. Soon we could go and find toast and kippers and more hot tea. I put my arms round Amy. She rested her head on my shoulder. I was looking inwards, towards the staircase, towards the door. Does the door open when we are born, to let us into this life? We won’t notice it again until we are done, until it’s there at the top of the stairs, waiting for us, our entrance then, our exit now.
Amy, you and I are real. We are here now. For this brief time in the world. But if you go first, I won’t be able to find you, I’ll run my hands over the wall where the door used to be, as I used to run my hands over your body, the openness of you, the door you opened for me, so unexpected and welcome. The door into the sun.
Stay for me there…
You said, ‘I like your hands on my hip-bones.’
I felt a chill run through me when she said that. I had moved my arms from her body to my sides, because I sensed a movement behind me. Then, distinctly, into my shoulder-blades, I felt the pressure of a head. Someone was leaning on me from behind. Leaning on me and resting their hands on Amy’s hips. I kept still as a hunted animal, my mouth dry with fear.
Then Amy said, ‘Look! The rain has stopped.’
She pulled away gently. She seemed not to know what had just happened. What had just happened? As we walked into the weak sunlight, I made myself look back. There was nothing there. Nothing, of course not, and what did I expect to see?
After breakfast, Amy had an appointment with the priest who is marrying us. Amy is not religious in a church-going way; she is spiritual. We agreed to meet later in the day.
I went back to my room, hanging up my jacket – it’s a tan woollen peacoat, double breasted with a yoke across the shoulders. I wear it a lot but it’s new.
As I took it off, I saw that the brown lining inside, where the yoke sits, had faded to beige, patchy beige, like the coat had lain outdoors for too long. The fading was strange. The only way I can describe it is to say, well, I suppose it was head-shaped.
It looked like what happens to a coffin lining as the head releases fluid.
That’s why crimson linings were popular in the nineteenth century. The custom of the open coffin for three days – sometimes longer – could be problematic unless fluids and blood were drained from the body, and that took time, skill, and money. It was easier to line the coffin in a colour that didn’t register the speed of decay.
This makes me sound creepy. I am a medical doctor.
I examined my coat. There were no marks on the outside. As I rubbed at the staining with my fingers, the lining fell away. Crumbled. Dust.
There must be an explanation. The dry cleaner? I had it cleaned before we left. I didn’t check it. I just put it on. There’s no other explanation. There is no other explanation that is acceptable to me.
That’s my phone ringing. More guests arriving. This is a happy time. Nothing else matters.
It was after lunch that I saw Amy walking back towards the castle. At her side was someone I didn’t recognise, wearing a red coat and long boots.
‘Who was that?’
‘I had lunch with Sarah.’
‘The young man walking beside you as you came towards the castle.’
‘There was no-one, Stevie. Stop it!’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘I don’t know. I feel uneasy.’
‘About getting married?’
‘No. No! I want to marry you – I feel like I have forgotten something…’
‘Does it matter?’
‘It’s not that I have forgotten, it’s more like I am trying to remember something. Something I never knew. Until now.’
‘Oh, let’s have a drink. It’s the party tonight!’
She kissed me.
We went to my room and I gave her a whisky.
‘I found this,’ I said.
I showed her the brass button. She looked at it intently.
‘Where was it?’
‘In the bathroom – no idea how it got there. I meant to clean it.’
Amy went to the tap. I could hear her with the hot water and nail brush. She came back into the bedroom, drying the button on some loo paper. We sat together on the bed, the accordion springs playing a tune. ‘I don’t think this is the right bed for a wedding night…’ I said. I wanted to lighten things up.
Amy was frowning. ‘A guillemot’
‘I don’t know. The bird is flying away. Do you mind if I keep it?’
‘Keep it! Think of it as our first wedding present.’
That night the whole castle was lit up. We had booked a band called The DeLoreans – something about going back to the future. They were a great 7-piecer with a brass section. Everyone was dancing, drinking, all the things you do before a wedding. Tomorrow I would marry Amy.
Where was she?
We had danced and I had gone to get water, leaving her spinning round with a couple of our girlfriends. Now I was looking for her, not finding her, and I felt nervous. Wedding nerves, that’s all.
The ballroom had wide windows that opened into the courtyard – a courtyard lit with lanterns and flares. Maybe she had gone to cool off. As I went out there, I saw him again. I saw the figure in the red knee-length coat and long boots. He was standing still by the arch that leads outside the castle.
There was Amy. He turned. She was following him.
Is this someone she used to know?
There are stories, aren’t there, and they don’t have happy endings? Stories of a past that only one person in the couple knows anything about.
We’d only been together a year. He was with her this afternoon. She had denied it. Am I a fool?
I began to run to follow them.
Outside the courtyard the land was dark. Behind me were lights, warmth, safety. In front of me…what?
I could see the two of them, but they weren’t walking together. He was ahead. He moved so quickly. I kept my pace at a steady jog, near enough to see, not too near for attention.
He went inside the Keep. Amy was standing, hesitating, uncertain.
I caught up with her. I was defensive. ‘What’s going on?’
She shook her head. She didn’t speak. Her eyes were glazed over – as if she was in a trance. I snapped my fingers. ‘Amy?’
She didn’t answer. She walked into the Keep.
The Keep was lit with flares. Fat dripped down the walls. The young man in the red coat was looking wildly around. He didn’t seem to see us. He came towards me, then moved his hand as though he felt a rush of air against his face.
We’re ghosts, I thought. We’re not here at all.
The cold I felt was not the weather or the temperature.
A small, slight woman in a cloak and hood ran into the Keep.
The young man’s face changed as he saw her enter. There was no mistaking the love. They embraced.
‘It is too dangerous,’ said the young man. ‘Leave me.’
Kate kissed him on the mouth. ‘I will never leave you! If you love me, fight for me!’
He took out a ring and put it on her finger. They kneeled and began to recite their wedding vows…
With this ring, I thee wed. With my body I thee worship…
I glanced at Amy. Her eyes still had the same glazed look.
Before the young people could conclude, a posse of men burst into the Keep. The boy reached for his pistol, but he was overpowered.
‘Run!’ he shouted to Kate.
She did not run.
The men tied his hands, shoving him towards the stairs. One of the thugs undid the boy’s hair, mussing it with his hands. He ripped open his red coat. I saw a button fall to the floor. Then it was his shirt that was torn off him, to reveal a bound chest.
They soon had those bandages off too.
‘Pretty little miss, ain’t you, sir?’
Hair down, breasts naked, the boy who’s a girl aimed a kick at her accuser. It landed. He doubled over in pain, then lunged out in anger. Kate ran forward, but they knocked her back, one of them pinning her arms, as they marched her lover up the stairs. Kate was shouting, ‘Death will not part us! Love is strong as…’
A single gunshot to the head. They pushed the boy-girl through the door that opens into time. I could smell gunpowder, acrid and smoky. ‘Go through and never come back!’
And then it was done. The flares went out. The Keep was plunged into darkness.
‘You saw them, didn’t you?’
A voice. A flashlight. Rory, the barman. ‘I knew you would.’
At his voice, Amy seemed to come to herself. She was blinking and shaking her head. I saw beads of sweat on her forehead, in spite of the cold.
Rory took a hipflask from his pocket and passed it amongst us to swig. When we had done, he put it away, his hands in his pockets.
‘The stories are not always told,’ he said. ‘That boy – born a girl - ran away to be a soldier, and nobody knew the truth about him, not till he fell in love with Kate. Kate didn’t care. How it was all found out, I don’t know. That never came to light.’
‘What happened to Kate?’ asked Amy.
‘Kate was kept here for the night, in the cold and the dark, to come to her senses. Oh aye, they imagined she would be ready to behave herself by the next morning. It was during the night she carved that inscription with her knife.’
‘And then what?’
‘The next day, they came, and she seemed quiet enough. She asked to look out over the sea – to say goodbye. “Will ye not give me leave to say goodbye?”
‘They let her up there, they did, thinking it was a kindness. She flew off the side of the Keep like a black guillemot, her dark hair spread out behind her like the sea. Her heart flew to his spirit. Her body broke on the rocks below.’
‘Why have we seen this?’
Rory shrugged. ‘You two are getting married tomorrow.’
‘Lots of people get married here.’
‘Aye. They do. Yet you are the first two women ever to marry at Blackdog Castle…since the first two who tried and were killed for it.’
‘I wish we could change the past,’ I said, ‘but most people wish that.’
‘You could invite them to your wedding,’ said Rory.
‘That never stopped anyone,’ said Rory.
We walked back towards our party. Amy was quiet. She had no memory of leaving the party to go to the Keep.
‘There’s a theory about memory,’ I said, ‘that a memory is cognitive information imprinted on neural tissue. A memory is retrieved when some outside stimulus causes the neuron-set to fire. A memory isn’t in a particular neuron – like a file in a drawer. Memory is interactive. It’s a network. It seems to me as if you were retrieving a memory – except that it wasn’t your own memory.’
‘Is the memory itself in the Keep? Haunted places are memory stores, maybe,’ said Amy.
‘But I don’t believe in haunted places. And that would make memory what it isn’t – something stored in a drawer. The haunted place holding the memory – static.’
‘Except that not everyone has a haunted experience even in the most haunted places,’ Amy said. ‘So, there is an interaction. It depends on who is there, as well as the place.’
‘You mean a haunting is a networked experience? Like memory?’
‘Yes. You said to Rory, plenty of people get married here. We are the ones who saw this.’
‘In fact, you are the one who saw it,’ I said. ‘I think you were a projector, and I saw it because you did.’
The following morning Amy and I were married.
Our friends stood in a circle around us. She and I were facing each other. Over her shoulder, standing behind her, I could see the soldier in the red coat. I almost turned my head to look behind me, but Amy nodded, meeting my eyes, telling me what I knew; the woman with her dark hair spread out like the sea.
We walked that night out to the Keep and Amy threw the brass button into the sea. What was strange is how far it travelled. Away and away. The guillemot.
In bed together, later, we knew we were alone.
Oh my. What a haunting and transcendent story to read this morning. I am reminded of how lucky I was to be born in a time and place where and when I could marry my wife.
I love this ending so much.And the memory network you put forward is so interesting!