“Oh no, it’s a ghost!” Andy said for the twentieth time, breaking a chunk of stone off the wall and flicking it at the back of Tony’s head. Jean had been giggling so much during the last hour that Tony was honestly surprised she hadn’t suffocated.
The first thing they were going to film was the segment they were using as exposition for the episode: the team’s guided tour of the house. Rhonda, a former tour guide that the producer had managed to dredge up, had arrived a couple of minutes ago and was preparing for her big TV appearance by applying a tenth coat of magenta lipstick.
“Oh my God! A ghost! Run!” yelled Andy, flicking more stones.
“Cut it out, Andy,” Tony said without turning round. He shook his head from side to side, and a fine shower of dust fell out of his hair and onto the floor.
“Mind my shoes!” Jean squealed, gingerly lifting each foot up to remove the fallen dust. As she set her right foot back down on the uneven floor, she wobbled slightly and clutched at Andy, who pushed her away without saying a word. Tony wondered if they’d had another argument.
“Ok,” said Gerry, “we’re rolling in 3, 2, 1...”
Rhonda shoved her lipstick and compact mirror into her pocket. Andy grabbed his notebook and pen. Jean folded her arms and stepped further away from Andy. Tony shifted from foot to foot, wringing his hands.
“Rhonda, hi! Nice to meet you!” trilled Jean, shaking Rhonda’s hand. Tony gave an awkward little wave, even though he knew he probably wasn’t even in frame.
“Hello,” Rhonda said in a rehearsed voice.” Welcome to Lansfield Hall! I hope you’re ready to see some ghosts!”
“Yes, definitely!” said Andy. “Lead the way!”
“Come on, then, let’s start in the hallway,” said the tour guide, turning and leading them into the next room. Tony traipsed in last, followed by the cameraman.
“So, this is the Lansfield great hallway, or what’s left of it!” Rhonda gave a pink shiny grin. Tony tried to muster a fake laugh along with the rest of the group, thinking that this woman was likely a better actor than Andy.
“You can still see the family crest painted on the floor, and obviously the staircase is off to the left. Follow me!” Rhonda began to climb the stairs, using the yellow police tape as a banister.
At the top of the staircase, they turned left into a room with no windowpane in the empty frame and a huge hole in the ceiling, through which the rotting wooden beams could be seen.
“So this used to be Henry and Martha’s room; they passed away in September 1822. Martha actually died in this room, in the very spot where you’re standing-” (she pointed to Andy, who stepped smartly to one side) “after her husband cut off her head with an axe.”
Jean gasped quietly, holding a hand to her mouth, and Tony was surprised when he realised she wasn’t faking her surprise.
“Now,” continued Rhonda, “to see where Henry passed away we just have to look out of this window, down to what many of our visitors call the Hanging Tree.” Gerry brought his camera over to the empty window frame and pointed it down, panning back up slowly to fit the entire tree in the frame. Upon seeing the dead tree for the second time that day, Tony sucked in his breath sharply as he felt a small twinge in his wrist; he tried to ignore the stinging pain, but it became more difficult to do so after Gerry panned round to capture his ‘reaction’ on tape. Trying to avoid making eye contact with the camera, Tony attempted to subdue the pain by shaking his wrist, but needles stabbed at his skin with every movement he made and eventually he gave up.
Meanwhile, Andy was earnestly making notes in his notebook, but as Tony peered round he could see that the writing on the page was just a list of fruits. Andy struck a pose of contemplation for the camera’s benefit before writing down ‘lettuce’.
After Gerry had focused the camera back on Rhonda, she said, “Ok, let’s head down to the kitchen.”
Tony followed Rhonda and the rest of the group down the stairs, taking each step agonisingly slowly. Disregarding the fact that his legs were trembling, he dragged his feet more and more, as if trying to delay his arrival in the kitchen.
At the bottom of the staircase, Rhonda led them through another door into what was apparently the Lansfield kitchen; the group was forced to stop in the same place that the house did. The few walls that were still upright were a deep dusty brownish-grey, and a thin carpet of soot covered the worn flagstones of the floor as well. All that remained of the other half of the kitchen was a thick blackened square of stone on the ground outside, underneath the pile of bricks and debris that had been visible from the driveway.
A placid wave of uncomfortable heat suddenly rushed into the room to surround Tony, and he noted the faint but sharp smell of smoke. He saw that Andy had wrinkled his nose, probably noticing the smell as well, but the sensation dissipated as swiftly as it had materialised and the silence remained unbroken.
“Ok, so we can’t go any further due to health and safety restrictions related to all this debris,” Rhonda said eventually, turning to face the three of them again. “This kitchen was actually badly burned twice; the first fire in 1819 killed the Lansfields’ daughter Mary-Ann, and her ghost is seen and heard most frequently right here. Most of this debris is actually the ruins of her bedroom which was above the kitchen. Sometimes visitors report hearing screaming coming from the kitchen, and even smelling burning and feeling the heat of the flames, despite the kitchen having been rebuilt following the first fire.”
Andy and Tony exchanged glances. Andy looked away and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, pretending not to have noticed.
“The second fire occurred the same night as the deaths of Henry and Martha. Nobody knows how it started, and they couldn’t put it out before the entire house was ruined. That’s how you see the house today!” Rhonda’s sunny smile didn’t fit with her morbid monologue.
After they had returned to the hallway where they’d started, Rhonda asked if anybody had any questions.
“Why was the house never rebuilt?” asked Jean, much to Tony’s surprise. Andy turned round and looked at her questioningly, but she ignored him and didn’t neutralise her sober expression.
“Well, the house was allegedly built on a mass grave for victims of the Black Death, so in Henry Lansfield’s time there was a lot of superstition that the site was cursed. There were even people who claimed that the family was doomed to eternal bad luck, especially after the death of Mary-Ann. The house was never rebuilt because of all the superstition surrounding its mysterious destruction.”
Tony couldn’t help himself. “You’ve been working here for a while. Have you ever experienced any paranormal activity?”
Rhonda’s smile vanished for a second, and then it returned. “Yes. Yes, I have. Many times.”
There was a long pause, during which time Tony tried to decide whether she was lying for the camera or not.
“Well, Rhonda, thank you very much for your time,” said Andy, shaking her hand.
“You’re welcome! Hope you have an eventful night!” Rhonda replied, walking towards the door. The moment she was out of frame, her mysterious smile dropped from her face and she lit a cigarette, leaning against the empty doorframe to smoke it. Tony, who was standing closest to her, heard her whisper, “I hate this place.”
Andy jumped up, managing to break a piece of plaster from the edge of a gaping hole in the ceiling.
“Oh, holy crap, you guys, it’s a ghost!” he said, snapping it in half and flicking one piece at Tony, the other at Jean.
“It’s weird, but I swear I smelled burning in that kitchen,” Jean muttered. “I suddenly felt really hot and sweaty, too, like there was a fire.”
“You’re such a bimbo, Jean,” Andy said, putting an arm round her. She tried to twist away from him, but he held her fast.
Confused, Tony decided to leave them alone and walked past Rhonda, out onto the driveway where the camera crew were working. The producer was conducting the cameramen like an orchestra, yelling at one of them to film the hanging tree, another one to film the house, and a third one to go and film a close-up of the ruined kitchen. Obviously, there was no third cameraman; Gerry was still inside, but he came hurrying outside almost as soon as Tony had arrived.
Dave appeared around the corner, balancing two large cardboard boxes. One dangerously balanced tripod kept falling out of the uppermost box, and the fifth or sixth time Dave had to bend to pick it up the pile overbalanced and thousands of pounds’ worth of photography equipment spilled out onto the driveway. Tony sighed half-heartedly and went to help him, trying to stay out of one of the cameramen’s shots of the front of the house.
“I think Jean’s realised there’s something weird going on,” said Tony as he picked up the last camera stand and handed it to Dave.
“Oh, really?” Dave asked without looking up. “What about Andy?”
“Nah, he’s still behaving like a toddler on holiday,” replied Tony. “Wait, what’s that on your arm?”
Reluctantly, Dave turned his arm over. On his forearm was a patch of deep pink, mottled skin, like a burn mark. The area around the injury had deepened in colour as well, but Tony could still make out a circular patch enfolded by five individual appendages. Dave’s wound was, indisputably, a handprint.
“Haven’t you got one too?” Dave asked, rubbing his arm and wincing. Tony rolled up his sleeve and was shocked to see an identical mark on his own arm, right where he’d felt the hand grasp him next to the dead tree. He felt sick at the sight of the wound, but he swallowed hard before looking up in the thin hope that Dave wouldn’t read it on his face.
“Has anything else happened?” Tony asked, hardly wanting to know the answer.
“Yeah, a few hours ago I saw a face at the, um... the window on the upper floor.”
“What, the one with no glass? No, that’s the room we were in,” Tony rolled his sleeve back down to hide the swollen part of his arm. “It was probably just me or Gerry.”
“Not that window.” said Dave. “There.” He pointed to a spot above the kitchen, where Mary-Ann’s bedroom had once been before the house collapsed.
“But...” Tony trailed off.
“But there’s no window there. I know. I swear I saw someone up there.”
Tony didn’t reply.
Suddenly, the sound of a door slamming echoed into the sky and a set of footsteps could be heard drawing closer before Jean appeared. She was running around the corner of the destroyed kitchen and tripping at every second step in her high heels, and then she stumbled on a loose stone and fell flat on her face. Tony rolled his eyes and Dave let out a shrill splutter of laughter at the sight, but their expressions sobered once they realised she was sobbing. Jean’s eyes were wild, her hair was chaotically tangled across her face and she looked more terrified than Tony had ever seen her.
“Jean, what the hell are you doing?” yelled the producer, stumping down the driveway towards her, but Tony and Dave got there first.
“Are you all right?” Dave asked tentatively as Tony helped haul her to her feet.
“Is it Andy? What’s going on with you guys?” Tony asked.
“Don’t talk to me about Andy, Tony. I was trying to get away from him,” said Jean as tears, tinted black with her eyeliner, continued to fall down her cheeks.
“Oh, so you were just running away from Andy,” said Dave, grinning weakly at Tony.
“No, you twerp,” said Jean. “I got away from the porch into the hallway. I was going to go upstairs; I was pretty sure Andy wouldn’t follow me there.”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
“Because that room we went into, well... he told me it scared the crap out of him. Anyway, I was running upstairs, and... I saw ... a woman ... standing in the doorway... wearing a white dress...” She gulped. “With no head!”
Jean burst into fresh tears. Tony glanced towards Dave, but Dave looked away from him, so he found himself reaching automatically for the burn on his wrist as the producer arrived and shoved him out of the way.