Old Man Whitcham

Old Man Whitcham

In Short Story by Scott Aaron Tait

Henry stayed at the back peddling as much as he could but the others were too fast. Each in line with the other, they sped across the iron bridge in perfect synchronicity. Gravel grumbled under the frantic motion of spinning tyres. There were five boys in total, well, four and one girl called Sam but she was just one of the lads. She held the record for a front wheelie, which had earned her much respect in the group. Henry however was the runt of the litter. His freckled face and messy orange hair made him a target for the others to poke fun at.

“He’s so slow, let’s just keep going,” winged Sam.

“No, Sam! I have a challenge for him,” exclaimed Mark. Sam’s eyes flooded with excitement, glowing like cat’s eyes in moonlight.

“What you gonna’ get him to do? Pull a wheelie? Climb something?” asked Sam, shaking Mark’s arm in anticipation.

“He’d fall off,” laughed one of the other boys.

A menacing grin filled Mark’s face. His plan was so good that the others would make him their official leader, he thought. He imagined himself with war medals pinned to his school blazer, marching along an orderly line of troops poised for full military inspection. Mark dreamt of the authority he would possess. A high-pitched wheezing sound awoke him from his daydream, as a sluggish Henry appeared. His hands slumped over the blue handlebars whilst he gasped for air. Shaking his inhaler in his hand he squeezed the nozzle, letting a tiny hissing sound, into his mouth. He held his breath then let it out slowly. His muddy copper hair drenched with the stagnant sweat from his brow.

“Henry mate, you made it at last,” Mark smirked. “How’d you like to play a game?”

“A game?” winced Henry.

“Yeah! It’ll be loads of fun.” The others giggled as Mark put a reassuring hand around Henry’s neck, dragging him reluctantly away from his bike. Stretching out a lean arm, Mark pointed across the street.

“You know what that place is, Henry?”

Henry nodded slowly without taking his eyes off it. “It’s old Whitcham Manor.”

“Go inside.”

“What?” Henry gasped. The others fell silent.

“Mark, you know that place is haunted, right? Like, no one has been in there for nearly a hundred years,” said Sam.

“I heard it was only thirty,” contested one of the boys.

“No, my Dad said that old man Whitcham died a hundred years ago and everyone’s too afraid to buy the place or tear it down, cause his ghost still haunts it. Kids have gone exploring before and gone missing in there,” Sam insisted with a nervous glance at Henry, as he held his inhaler firmly between his lips.

Mark didn’t believe in ghosts or any of that hocus-pocus stuff. Observing Henry closely, he waited for the meek boy to cry or run off scared.

“So, Henry, all you gotta’ do is go inside and steal something to prove you’ve had a good look around. What you say mate, you in?” urged Mark.

Henry remained silent trying to keep his breathing steady. He’d heard too many stories about that house, much like the one Sam had told; no one who ventured into Whitcham Manor was ever seen again. He could feel tiny beads of perspiration clinging to his pale flesh. Hanging his head, he stared at the cracked paving stone under his feet whilst pondering his next move. He couldn’t just go inside Whitcham Manor, but then if he ran off they’d surely give him a good beating just for fun.

“Well, what’s it to be?” demanded Mark.

Henry placed the cap on his inhaler defiantly as he crossed the road. Either way they’d still bully him he thought, so why not take the challenge. Surely the ghost of old Whitcham would be better company than his so called ‘friends’.

Henry felt small as he craned his neck upwards. It was a strange looking building, constructed of red stock brick with parts clad in decorative terracotta tiles. Steps led up to a grand wooden door, above which a carved stone relief depicted two wise owls and the peculiar words ‘ex libris’. The bricks climbed upwards into a pitched roof with a tall chimney stack next to it and a curved front with boarded up windows below. Looking back over his shoulder, Henry saw the others on the grass, all with similar expressions of astonishment. Whilst the prospect of breaking into a haunted house terrified Henry, something in him yearned to discover what was inside. It felt like a hunt for buried treasure. Without looking back again, he fought through overgrown bushes at the right of the building, quickly disappearing out of sight. The rear of the building was more matter of fact and less decorative than the gaudy front. The windows above became smaller as he marched around its circumference. There were no more terracotta tiles, just the plain brick engulfed by long tentacles of ivy spreading upwards towards the late summer sun. From what he could tell all the windows were firmly boarded up or too high for him to reach. He doubled back on himself hoping to find something he’d missed. Sure enough, after a good five minutes of scrutinizing the cold building, he spied the corner of a window sill at ground level. Henry went in for a closer inspection. Ivy covered the majority but the rotten timber was clearly visible along with a small cracked square of glass.

“I found a way in, guys. I need some help though,” he squeaked. Henry waited for a response but heard only the placid hum of traffic in the distance.

“Mark, you there?” he paused. “Come on guys stop fooling around, I need help,” Henry barked whilst climbing back through the bushes, avoiding a bee-infested buddleia, to a now deserted street.

Henry’s lonely bike lay on the ground as the last rays of sunlight began to dim behind approaching charcoal clouds. Henry wasn’t that surprised that they’d left him. Perhaps he should just go home, he could easily lie and say he’d been inside; he could even pinch something from his Aunt as proof he’d been inside, a trinket or something. Crossing the street, Henry picked up his bike off the damp grass and looked back at the old neglected building once more. Henry wondered what treasures might lie inside waiting to be discovered. He would be like an Egyptologist discovering a forgotten tomb of some obscure Pharaoh. The walls decorated with hieroglyphs and the room adorned with all manner of jewels and gold. Such a discovery would surely be important, whilst it may not be as glamourous as the unearthing of Tutankhamun’s Tomb, he would be the first person to step foot inside the Manor for generations.

That was it, decision made, he thought with a determined mumble as he crossed the street. He propped his BMX against the crumbled tiled wall and climbed back through the thicket of bushes to reach the window he’d discovered. Rolling the sleeve of his jumper down he brushed the ivy to one side along with a clump of stringy cobwebs. He tried to push the window down but it wouldn’t budge, then he tried to pull it up, and much to his delight it inched upwards just a fraction. Wrapping both his hands into outstretched jumper sleeves he slid them into the small opening and with all the might he could summon heaved the window up enough to squeeze through. The excitement of discovery outweighed any apprehension he had previously felt for breaking in or the risk that ghosts waited for him inside. Without taking a moment longer to consider it, he slipped his legs into the opening and flung himself inside, landing with a gentle plop onto a hard wooden floor below.

Inside was musty, as one would expect from years of neglect. A sweet scent similar to pungent lilies at a funeral filled the room, whilst particles of dust floated gently through the air. The final rays of sunlight came through the open window behind him but apart from that he stood in an eerie darkness of dancing shadows. Sliding his hands along the dusty wall behind him, he felt around for a light switch. It felt like smooth wood to the touch but with a greasy texture like that of oil. Bumping into unknown objects and stumping his toe, too many times to count, Henry finally felt something on the smooth panelling. This was it, he thought, the moment of truth, when archaeologists shine their torches into a tomb of gold or treasure hunters dig deep enough that their spades hit the firm lid of a wooden chest. With a little flick of his forefinger the switch clicked. Nothing. No light. Of course not, he scowled at himself, why would the lights work after all these years. He mocked himself, swearing under his breath, there in the lonely darkness, readying himself to climb back out the window. Then a gradual groaning noise echoed from within the shadows. Henry’s freckled face drained of colour. Beads of sweat dripped down his back as an icy chill wrapped its elongated bony fingers around his neck. The groan became a roar filling the dusty space, his legs refused to move, he remained still as the groaning grew closer; then one by one lights flickered into existence. Henry let out a sigh of relief.

Gazing around in wonder at his discovery, Henry ventured further into the cluttered room. There were shelves and filing cabinets dotted around the expanse with a handful of tables covered in loose yellowing papers the shade of builder’s English tea. Henry shuffled his feet farther into the forgotten space that he knew as Whitcham Manor. It seemed strange for a home to have such a large room like this. It looked more like an office or archive for documents. Curiously, Henry reached out a hand to the handle of one of the cabinets and pulled. Dirt flew up from the open cabinet like a cloud of magical pixie dust pushing a deep wheezing noise out of the curious freckled explorer. It was full of folders filled with all sorts of documents; birth certificates, marriages and deaths, some old photos of gaunt Victorians with vacant stares and some illegible notes scribbled in italics on loose paper.

“Aunt Gwendoline researched our family tree once,” Henry thought out loud. “I guess that Mr. Whitcham must have been something of an amateur historian himself,” Henry proudly smiled to himself. He quite enjoyed playing the explorer and discovering these forgotten histories.

With a newfound excitement, he continued to explore the vast room. It was simple with mahogany wood panelling along the walls and a few small windows, similar to the one he’d entered via along the top of the room. Though these were boarded over with heavy construction panelling. Thick brick columns supported the ceiling above and off in the distance a short set of stairs led up to the next floor. He must have been in the basement for it was somewhat damp and riddled with cobwebs in every conceivable nook and cranny. Loosely running a hand across the indexed filing cabinets, Henry made his way to the stairs to explore further. He was aware of the uncomfortable silence which clung to the air as his shuffling footsteps echoed uneasily around the forgotten room. Occasionally he hummed a tune hoping it would put himself, and any ghosts, at ease. He approached the door apprehensively with that thought of ghosts still fresh in his mind. Holding out a fidgety hand to the brass doorknob, he waited with hesitation. Taking a slow and calm breath, he turned the handle and pushed open the door.

“Woah…this is way better than King Tut’s tomb, the guys are never going to believe this,” he exclaimed, whilst shuffling further forward.

He looked upwards at a series of strangely rounded lights that flickered gradually into a bright glow. The switch in the basement must have illuminated the entire Manor. Only it wasn’t a Manor or a home at all. Henry was quite proud with his archaeological efforts in this excavation of sorts; from where he stood he noted every detail, slowly positioning himself in the centre of the grand room. Bookshelves adorned every possible scrap of available wall space. Toward the front of the room, which must be the curved part of the exterior, resided a circular counter covered in a thick layer of grime, much like the entire building. The room was entirely palatial in its scale; rectangular shape with a number of shelves positioned at angles in the open centre of its majestic acropolis. Further bookcases were tucked away under a mezzanine level that rested on ornate wrought iron columns with a decorative trim of metal, crafted with the appearance of ivy. A spiral metal staircase granted access up to this level, which sat around the entire circumference of the building and then another level sat above this with even more books to discover. Above that sat the most beautiful glass roof, invisible from outside as it was recessed within the pitched brickwork. The roof consisted of 3 tiers of slightly curved glass resembling a Victorian botanical greenhouse. Henry closed his eyes; the late evening sun had been replaced with a dark ashen cloud of rain, which he listened to contently as it pattered off the ornate glass panels. Henry loved reading on rainy days as it gave him a profound feeling of serenity.

Henry scurried from shelf to shelf discovering all that he could with more excitement than he’d ever known possible. This place was his sanctuary away from the world. He plucked books of all shapes and sizes from their comfortable resting places and flung them onto the floor to read later. Toward the rear of the building was a small room filled with children’s books, much too young for his reading abilities, but nonetheless this room boasted its own chest of jewels in the form of an antique train set. The vintage tracks nestled high above on the bookcases. Climbing a brass ladder attached to the bookcase, he reached for the switchboard, with a click of a button and a turn of a dial the vintage railway was reopened to critical acclaim. Henry ran around the library following the train set from the children’s room all the way to the front counter as it weaved across the expanse over his head. Sitting down at last, he began to read. His imagination ran wild all night long as he delved through centuries of fantastical literature.

Rubbing his eyes, Henry ventured toward the counter curious to discover more about this place. The counter was built out of dark wood with the same familiar scent of lilies as the basement. It was a tidy counter with nothing much on it bar some paper bookmarks, leaflets and a sign obscured by a thicket of dust. Henry rolled his sleeve and wiped it clean revealing, much to his surprise, the name he’d become so familiar with: Whitcham.

In full it read:

Mr. Giles Whitcham

Head Librarian.

 

Henry placed it down and looked at one of the leaflets. The bold title stated: ‘A short history of Holy Beck Public Library’ with an accompanying picture of the building looking almost new. A small rabble of people stood on the steps out front but there was one man who seemed to jump from the photo. A man with thin hair, bowtie and tweed standing proudly at the front of the others. Placing the leaflet securely in its holder, Henry ventured back to his books.

Thumbing through the yellowed pages, he continued to read and discover the majesty of his imagination as rain continued to fall heavily upon the glass roof of this literary palace. Soon sleep filled his excited eyes as he laid his head against the pages of Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’. He drifted through magnificent dreams of the old library imagining it in its heyday with people bustling around, studying and reading quietly to themselves. He looked to the counter where he saw the benevolent face of Mr. Whitcham, from the photo, not a terrifying ghost but a friendly looking man dressed in shirt and bowtie with the gold chain of a watch dangling from his pocket. He dreamt for hours as time lost all meaning in that regal place.

Squinting with difficulty, Henry opened his eyes to the bright morning sunshine, which pierced through the grime of the lavish roof. In daylight the old library looked even more glorious. Although his dreams had passed and the room was lonesome once more, he knew he’d see it restored one day. Smiling to himself, Henry stacked the books into neat piles taking the leather bound copy of Stevenson under his arm. He felt as though he had Whitcham’s permission to borrow the book for a short while having seen him in his dream.

The door rattled. It couldn’t be a ghost Henry thought to himself knowing that any ghosts would surely have been inside with him. Having now discovered the truth of Whitcham Manor and seeing it as a place of sanctuary, Henry felt more anxious about going back outside than he did about the ghosts inside. Slipping quickly behind the counter, he found a tidy key rack neatly labelled. Picking up the clunky key, which read main door, he hurried across, turned the key in the lock and pushed it open to the frantic cries of Aunt Gwendoline carried on a fresh morning breeze.

“Where on earth have you been,” screeched his Aunt with concern.

“Just reading,” replied Henry.

“Reading?” exclaimed one of the boys.

“But what about the ghost of old man Whitcham?” demanded Sam.

“There is no ghost. Least not one I met, it’s not even a manor, it’s just an old library. I discovered all these cool books inside, and a train set that still works and …” said Henry eagerly before being rudely interrupted.

“Whoa there…! Now slow down bonny lad,” said a perplexed looking policeman. “You’re telling me you’ve just been in here reading all night?”

“Yes, Sir,” replied Henry politely.

“Reading what?” Mark asked disgruntledly.

“Everything,” said Henry looking back, with delight, at the old library.

About the Author

Scott Aaron Tait

Scott Aaron Tait is an emerging writer from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. Having worked various jobs over the years, from cinema usher to bookseller, he now works part-time as an Ebay Listing Creator for the British Heart Foundation.

He graduated from Leeds Beckett University with a BA Hons in Fine Art, before pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at Newcastle University, graduating in 2014.

Scott was recently shortlisted for a Theatre Cloud 2016 short story award for his story ‘Mr Hardcastle’s Accidental Revolution’. He often writes short stories and is currently working towards the completion of his first novel entitled; ‘The Paper Prince’.

He currently lives in the picturesque market town of Bingley in West Yorkshire, England with his partner Chris.