Sarah-Jane Smith parked her lime green Figaro in a shadowy alleyway behind Rani's red Fiat 500 and Luke's new car, a classic Mini Cooper with Italian Job style racing stripes. The fact that everyone had arrived in their own cars instead of her being designated driver was a sign of the times. It wouldn't be long now before even Sky would be taking driving lessons.
The kids were growing up and she qualified for a Transport for London free pass at her last birthday.
"I'm not old. I'm not past it," she told herself. "Come on, Sky, give me a hand with K9."
Sky helped her to get the robot dog out of the back seat of the two-door car. He was wrapped in a PVC barbecue cover to avoid comment about him in public. Sarah-Jane fastened him to a fold out luggage carrier while Sky retrieved their real overnight bags from the boot.
"This is most undignified, Mistress," K9 complained.
"I know, but there is enough silliness in this place without news of a robot dog hitting Instagram within five minutes of our arrival."
"The most haunted building in Great Britain," Sky commented. "I should think if half the things said about this place are true K9 would be pretty unremarkable. He is just a portable computer, really."
K9 made an indignant comment about being referred to in that way, but Sarah-Jane just laughed.
"You ARE a portable computer. That's why you're here. I can't bring Mr Smith, so I need your technology to help get to the bottom of this 'haunted house' business. Rani wants an article for her newspaper. I'm reporting to UNIT about whether they need to take any action and Luke and Pieter are using some high tech gadgets from Cambridge to see if there are any scientific explanation for the reputation the place has. I'm here because I thought I might do a piece for Metropolitan, keeping my hand in. I won't be stepping on Rani's toes. Our viewpoints will be different."
"You're obviously the sceptic," Sky noted as she caught her mother's expression. "Rani thinks there might be something in it."
"I've seen too many things explained by science to be anything other than sceptical about the 'paranormal'," Sarah-Jane answered. "Where is the front door of this place?"
They had walked from the parking space at the side of the building along a narrow pavement between a busy road and what Sarah-Jane had assumed to be the front of the 'most haunted house in Great Britain'. In a spot brightened by a street lamp on the opposite pavement she looked up at a gable of dark black beams and yellow-white plaster with a window made up of several small panes each of which could easily have fallen out of their leading at any moment. This wing gave way to a long wall covered in elderly whitewash and climbing weeds. The wall supported a ramshackle roof with moss growing amongst the tiles. There were some small windows, but still no door.
The ramshackle house wall in its turn gave way to an equally ramshackle wall holding back a few scrubby trees and a tangle of brambles.
Still no door. They turned around, eliciting complaints from K9 as he was bumped against the kerb and returned to where the cars were parked. It was only then that Sarah-Jane realised the dark alley led to a sort of L-shaped courtyard that she had missed. Here, at the back of the building, a door with flaking old paint was open, and there were voices within – ordinary human voices, not anything from beyond the grave.
Rani came to the doorway and invited them in with a cheerful grin.
"Welcome to the Ancient Ram Inn," she said. "With the emphasis on the 'Ancient'."
Sarah-Jane stepped into a kitchen that came out of a bygone age. She wasn't sure which one. It had a wooden tub on a stool for a sink and practically nothing else. There was no cooker of any sort. The very idea of modern appliances like a microwave or electric kettle didn't seem to have been entertained in this room. The walls were thinly whitewashed stone with no decoration of any sort.
All of this, at eight o'clock on the last day of October, a week after the clocks went back, was illuminated by a camping gas lamp that cast rather mobile shadows. Anyone with a fertile imagination could already start to get ideas that wouldn't be engendered in bright, steady electric light.
In the centre of the room, a large wooden table was piled high with bottled water, two cool boxes, sterilised milk and bulk packs of hand sanitiser and moist wipes.
"There's no electricity or running water?" she queried.
"What about…." Sky asked.
"There's an 'outhouse'," Rani mentioned. "A really ANCIENT outhouse operating on the principle called 'night soil'."
"My grandmother used to talk about that," Sarah-Jane remarked without enthusiasm.
"Yes, that's why Pieter installed a chemical loo in one of the upstairs rooms. There is a legend about a man who hanged himself from the doorway of that particular room, but after the pub down the road closes it’s the best option."
"Remind me to tell you about a fourteenth century castle I was in once," Sarah-Jane remarked grimly. "You'll feel better about a chemical toilet, even one with a resident ghost after that. But essentially, we're here in a supposedly haunted house but definitely old and with insidious damp under the smell of recent whitewash with only the resources we brought with us?"
Rani finished making instant coffee from a kettle boiled on a camping stove.
"Let's go through to the 'drawing room' and talk," she said.
The speech marks inserted themselves verbally and Sarah-Jane soon realised why. The 'drawing room' was similarly devoid of comforts apart from a very old sofa and some camping chairs occupied by Clyde, Luke and Pieter. A long camping table was occupied by a monitor running on a car battery and displaying whitewashed rooms with leaded windows and not much else that had to be the upstairs bedrooms, scenes of most of the alleged hauntings.
Two of the rooms had beds in them. From the camera angles they looked like modern beds with clean linen on them, but it didn't look like they were going to be used tonight. There were three folding camp beds and ä bundle of sleeping bags and camping pillows in the far corner of the room.
A small folding table made a base for the coffee tray and everyone helped themselves gratefully as Luke explained that they were avoiding the bedrooms in order to prevent any interference in the scientific experiments.
"What is THAT?" Sky asked, noticing a white cloth draped on the wall. It looked something like a traditional Halloween ghost floating in mid-air.
"It's covering a horrible mummified, possibly 'Ancient' rams head," Rani answered. "The only décor in the room and its revolting."
Sky decided not to look. She helped herself to biscuits with the coffee.
"K9," Luke said, opening up his laptop that was balanced on top of his rucksack. "Give us a wi-fi hotspot."
Since K9 had his own internet system he could do that, but he was decidedly miffed about being used in such a base way.
"You're needed for a lot more," Luke assured him soothingly. "For a start, I need you to monitor electromagnetic frequencies in the building." He waved a gadget something like a very early television remote control – something of the era only Sarah-Jane could actually remember. "This is supposed to be the best EMF monitor on the market, but the only thing it is picking up is cars going by on the road outside. Hopefully there will be less traffic after midnight and I can screen it out, but K9 can give me a comparative reading."
K9 proudly indicated that he could certainly monitor any EMF activity in the building AND tell it apart from traffic.
"Since I was only called to join you yesterday evening I've not done much research," Sarah-Jane pointed out. "I just know this place has a reputation. So give me a quick rundown of the story."
"The Ancient Ram Inn was built in 1145," Luke read from a website. "Early in its history priests used the inn as a keeping house for slaves and workers who helped construct the St. Mary Church…."
"Slaves?" Rani echoed. "Kept by priests? To build a church?"
That didn't make much sense in anyone's understanding of Christian history. They briefly debated whether these slaves would have been captured pagans, or political prisoners, perhaps people from other countries brought here as spoils of war. Without any more information they reluctantly let it pass for now, but the idea of such forced occupation of the property was unsettling to all the group.
Though not necessarily pointing to any evidence of hauntings.
"The land where the inn is built is on the intersection of two Ley Lines," Luke continued reading. "These are places which people believe to have high spiritual energy. When you use a map, you can trace the lines all the way through the centre of Stonehenge."
"Ley lines?" Sky queried. "I've heard of those. Spooky things happen on them like magnets going wrong and compasses pointing the wrong way."
"All right, stop there," Sarah-Jane instructed. "Let's deal with that nonsense right away. K9, project a map of Britain centred on Stonehenge."
K9 did so, his hologram map lighting up across the old stone floor of the room.
"Now show lines through the centre of Stonehenge that cross the position of the Ancient Ram Inn."
K9 did so. Sky was triumphant. They DID link the Inn with Stonehenge.
"Now project Ley lines from Stonehenge to my front door, to the Houses of Parliament, Birmingham City football club, Tesco in Glasgow…."
She named several more random places. Lines spread out across the map until it looked like a broken mirror.
"Any point on the planet can be linked by lines projecting from Stonehenge. Which, by the way, don't intersect anywhere. Projecting lines get further away from each other. Whoever wrote that website got it wrong. You would need another set of lines from some other mysterious old monument to get intersecting lines, but K9 has better things to do than virtual macramé. Ley lines are the biggest red herring of them all. Put it to bed right now. What else is there in the way of actual historical 'spookiness' about this place?"
Luke gave up reading the website and gave an instant digest of events surrounding the building over some eight or nine hundred years.
"In the sixteenth century a woman accused of witchcraft sought refuge in the Inn. She was captured and later burnt at the stake. Her ghost is said to haunt the Witches Room – one of the bedrooms upstairs."
"That doesn't sound right to me," Clyde remarked. "Don't people haunt where they died, not where they last slept?"
"Assuming we believe in ghosts at all," Pieter interjected. He looked up from his tablet where he had been looking at other source material. "I cannot find a name for this alleged witch, nor a more exact date of her execution than the sixteenth century… which is a century in which many people were executed for many unjust reasons throughout Europe."
"Pieter is quite correct," Sarah-Jane confirmed. "The rise of Protestantism, the Spanish inquisition, people killed for being heretics or papists, let alone the whole witch hunting mania. The fact that they don't have a name or date for this witch makes it a bit dodgy. Usually there's plenty of detail to those kind of stories. I covered the five hundredth anniversary of the Pendle witch trial in 2012. The names, ages of the accused, the houses they lived in, the date of their execution is well known. But even serious research comes up with nothing, here."
"The Witches Room is supposed to give people unsettling dreams if they sleep in there, but….."
Luke stooped talking as a loud knocking reverberated through the room. Sky looked around nervously. Clyde laughed and stood up.
"Guess how hard it is to persuade a pizza delivery service to come to a haunted house on Halloween night," he said, going to the back door. A few minutes later he returned with a stack of boxes. Everyone set to eating the most ordinary, down to earth and modern food possible while listening to Luke's rundown of what else had tainted the reputation of this nine hundred year old house.
"The 'Bishop's Room' is supposedly the most haunted part of the whole building. Sightings in the room include spectral monks, as well as the plumber who came face-to-face with the ghost of a mounted centurion….."
Sarah-Jane stopped him again and complained about the bad sentence structure.
"They surely mean that the plumber saw the centurion, not that he actually is one of the ghosts.""
Luke re-read the paragraph carefully and then agreed with his mother. There was not a ghostly plumber in the house. But there was a report of a cavalier who regularly walked across the room and a young woman hanging from the ceiling beams as well as the ghastly screams of a man who at some time in the history of the building was killed by having his head thrust into the fireplace.
"Centurions and cavaliers are rather banal," Pieter commented. "That sort of thing turns up in nearly every haunted house legend. We even have Teutonic Knights from the Northern Crusade allegedly wandering the east wing of our castle. But the hanged woman and the man murdered in the fire are specific to this location."
"Except again nobody has a name or a date when these things happened," Clyde pointed out. "I got the local Parish records online this afternoon. Somebody spent years typing them up onto a big database. And serving girls seemed to be hanging themselves all over the place in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. I found twenty-two death certificates for them. Eight of them were pregnant, making it even more tragic and probably explaining why they did it. But none of them died in this house. As for the murder… you'd think THAT would stand out in a boring list of births, deaths and marriages, but not a sausage."
"That doesn't mean those things didn't happen, though, surely?" Sky asked.
"Well…. It kind of does," Rani answered. "It does seem suspicious that the witch, the suicide and the murdered man can't be named. No death records, no graves in the local churchyards. As a journalist, I'd want more evidence that something actually happened if I was going to write it up."
"Witches and suicides were never buried in churchyards," Luke said, something that they all realised to be true once they thought about it. "But the point still stands. The most complete stories other than vague figures in uniforms don't actually seem to hold up. But what IS true is the finding of human bones under the floor of THIS room….."
"What?" Sky looked rather alarmed and having made herself comfortable on a floor cushion changed her position to a camping chair, pulling her legs up under her to avoid touching the floor.
Before Luke could go on, there was a knock at the big gable window and whispered voices that had something of an ethereal tone. Clyde got up from the sofa and grabbed a bulging tote bag before going outside. His voice was heard briefly outside the window before he returned.
"We've had 'trick or treaters' since it got dark," he explained to Sky and Sarah-Jane. "I mean…. You live in the village with the Most Haunted House in Britain, and news has got around that people are staying the night on Halloween….."
"Makes sense," Sarah-Jane agreed.
"That ought to be the last," Luke said. "It's getting near bedtime. I just hope nobody gets stupid around pub closing time."
"Anyone over fifteen isn't getting treats," Clyde affirmed. "And any 'tricks' I'll set K9 on them."
"Maybe not a great idea," Sarah-Jane replied. "But let's get back to these human bones…."
"In 2003 a group of 'Ghostbusters' were allowed to dig under the concrete floor in a place they said was a paranormal hotspot, and they actually found the bones of a woman and child along with some shards of iron. Serious people from Bristol university said that the victims might have been ritually murdered, but even they couldn't say WHEN it happened or who the woman and child were. But there actually were bones."
"That's absolutely ghastly," Sarah-Jane said. "But the bodies were removed. Sky, there is no reason why you can't put your feet on the floor. We've ALL travelled by Crossrail over the place where they found a plague cemetery from the Black Death. Standing where old bodies have lain isn't going to harm anyone."
Clyde went out to treat another group of youngsters and Rani took the empty pizza boxes to the kitchen. Sky tiptoed across the room bringing the coffee tray. They returned with refills before analysing the 'evidence' between themselves.
"The 'reputation' basically comes from quite recent tales of people being spooked in the night when this place was an actual bed and breakfast establishment."
"Recent?" Rani queried. "The nineteen-sixties and seventies…. That's not recent."
She caught Sarah-Jane's expression.
"I mean… you know….."
"I know," Sarah-Jane answered her. "The seventies don't seem so ancient to me. I can sing the lyrics to nearly everything from back then, but I couldn't sing anything in this week's Top Ten."
"I'm not sure that's about getting old or the rubbish lyrics in a lot of modern music," Rani admitted.
"Thank you for that," Sarah-Jane told her. "The point is, do the stories of centurions and cavaliers, hanged girls, burnt witches and the rest start before the guests got nightmares and ran out of their rooms or afterwards?"
"Well… it does seem like there was a bit of a reputation," Luke confirmed. "But mostly in the last thirty years or so, and a lot of it AFTER some of the TV programmes came here. Most of the TripAdvisor posts are in the last ten years…."
"That's because TripAdvisor has only been around that long," Sarah-Jane pointed out.
"The entries on that site go both ways," Pieter added. "Some of them say there is something, some say it’s a big con. A few in the middle think there's nothing but a damp smell. That must be before the whitewash was put on the walls."
"But elsewhere there are accounts of people running out of the bedrooms in the middle of the night, screaming in terror. Bad nightmares, feeling as if something evil is sitting on them, being dragged from the bed by an unnatural force.
"I'm not sure I accept the provenance of those other accounts," Sarah-Jane said.
"Neither do I," Clyde added. "They mostly come from a former owner of the place who gave guided tours for money."
"Well, exactly," Sarah-Jane said. "Even if any of that is true, it's probably just power of suggestion. Who wouldn't have nightmares after listening to stories like that?”
“Well, I’m not going to,” Clyde decided. “I was an ‘undecided’, but the lack of actual historical people to kick off the hauntings decided me. I think it’s a big pile of nonsense that got going before Google and Wikipedia and TripAdvisor were around to verify anything. One person started a story. Somebody else added to it, and there was only their word for it. No real evidence."
"Chinese whispers, rumour, silliness," Pieter agreed. "Much like the Teutonic Knights in our castle. I never believed in those."
Luke was remaining neutral. He was scientific at heart, but that very scientific mind meant he had to look at both sides of the argument.
"We're not here to measure nightmares," he reminded them all. "If we wanted to do that we would need a control group who know nothing about the history of the place. We're measuring whether the building has anything going on in it. That's why K9 is monitoring EMF, and Pieter has the cameras that can pick up infra-red and other light frequencies. There are motion sensors to catch anything unusual, and temperature gauges to detect cold and hot spots in the rooms. We're going to scientifically prove or disprove the existence of ghosts. And that's the proper way to go about it, ready for the data to go either way, not like those TV programmes where 'ghost hunters' go on about 'sensing an aura' or 'feeling the presence of evil’ and have preconceived ideas."
Sarah-Jane nodded approvingly, and very proudly. She thought the best scientist she knew – The Doctor – would be proud, too.
Rani and Sky were still on the 'undecided' line, while leaning a bit towards believing. They found it difficult to dismiss as many stories as there were surrounding this building.
But as the evening turned into night and midnight approached the only disturbances anywhere were outside among those people who had stayed in the pubs until closing time. Some of them, as Clyde predicted, made a point of being especially silly as they passed the ramshackle old inn and perhaps noticed the camping gas lamps lighting up the big window.
When the werewolf howls and tapping at the window had settled down, it went quiet again. Rani made cocoa on the camping stove and opened another tin of biscuits.
Midnight and the first hour after it drifted by in quiet talk and regular examinations of the scientific instruments. K9 reported no EMF activity. The less sentient equipment was similarly negative.
Sky tried out the old sofa and found it comfortable. Despite wanting to stay awake and see if anything was going to happen, she drifted to sleep.
"We can put up a camp bed for you," Pieter offered. "If you feel you would like to lie down."
He was looking at Sarah-Jane. She gave him an indulgent smile.
"If you think I'm too old and decrepit to stay up all night…."
Pieter quickly assured her he thought no such thing. Nor did he imagine either Sarah-Jane or Rani couldn't stay awake because they were female.
He wouldn't dare.
"I think I might try one of the camp beds," Clyde suggested. "We don't all need to be awake to watch the monitors. I'll get some kip and take over in a couple of hours."
Putting up the camp bed proved its own twenty minutes of slapstick comedy, filmed by Rani on her mobile phone to be used as evidence any time a man questioned any woman's practical skills. Eventually, Clyde was able to lie down inside a sleeping bag and drift to sleep.
Rani put up another camp bed with much less trouble and sat on it since Sky was fully occupying the sofa. Sarah-Jane proved the older generation were just as well experienced at such things and set up her own bed.
Rani and Sarah-Jane talked about journalism for a long time, comparing the experiences in the nineteen-seventies when a lady journalist was supposed to cover flower shows and royal weddings, not the hard-hitting stories about crime and worse that Sarah-Jane was known for. with the supposedly more enlightened era that Rani was working in.
When Rani's part of the conversation started to sound disjointed and she eventually mentioned investigating a Zygon base under Stonehenge with a Sontaran photographer she knew that her younger counterpart had fallen asleep. Sarah-Jane put a camping blanket over her.
"She has been up and down ever since we got here," Luke pointed out. "She helped Pieter install the cameras and then she made coffee… then more coffee and a lot of things we probably shouldn't have left to her, really. We don't want to look sexist or anything. But she can't really do her job until there's something to write about."
"I understand," Sarah-Jane assured him. "You know… there's something else I totally understand. I know I'm not meant to… my generation aren't known for it. But when I was at UNIT with The Doctor, it was obvious to everyone that Captain Yates…. Well… you know, he talked about dating girls, but it never really worked, not even with Jo Grant. So… I DO get it. And… if you want to talk about it… either of you…."
"I know, mum," Luke answered. "I've always known I can come to you. At the moment, there's nothing to worry about in that direction. We're all ok."
"I'm glad to hear it," Sarah-Jane responded. She wasn't sure if this conversation ought to be longer, but at least it was easier than she had expected.
"There hasn't been any activity on any of the monitors," Pieter noted. "No changes in temperature except those you might expect on a cold night in November. No hotspots. Nothing on any light frequency. Nothing picked up on any microphone… and we have dozens of them around the building."
"K9 has detected no EMF activity," Luke added. "Nor has the detector the university supplied."
"Does that mean…." Sarah-Jane began.
"It doesn't mean anything. I'm not even sure if EMF activity is proof of ghosts. We're TOLD it is. But it could be something perfectly natural… something to do with the geology beneath all these so-called haunted places. In fact, I've got half a mind to explore that as a serious possibility."
"Except you HAVE no EMF readings for this haunted house. Doesn't that mess up your theory?"
"Quite possibly," Luke admitted. "At any rate, a few 'believers' back at the university are going to be disappointed if a ghost or two don’t show up before morning."
"Mmm." Sarah-Jane responded, suddenly feeling too tired for any wider comment. "You know, I'm a little bored waiting for them. I think I might lie down and close my eyes for a bit. Wake me if anyone interesting turns up."
Luke laughed softly. He watched as his mother succumbed to tiredness and fell asleep then he quietly went to the kitchen and made more coffee. He sat with Pieter and idly watched the monitors showing nothing of interest. They didn't talk. Most of the things they might want to talk about had been said before. Even their thoughts about the existence of ghosts in general or those supposedly haunting this place had already been thrashed out before now.
About four o'clock Clyde woke and, as promised, took over watching the monitors. Luke and Pieter stretched out on a double bed-sized inflatable mattress and didn't take long going to sleep.
An hour later, when he was starting to nod a little out of pure boredom, Clyde was pleasantly surprised when Rani rose and stretched and went to make hot drinks.
"No ghosts, then?" she asked as they sat together in the quiet room where the soft breathing of their sleeping friends was the only disturbance.
"Not a sign," Clyde answered. "But did we really expect any?"
"I kind of expected aliens pretending to be ghosts," Rani suggested. "If there is nothing here, then it means that all the fuss was just made up to get money out of gullible people. I think I'd prefer SOMETHING other than a scam."
"Maybe there are just too many of us sceptics here tonight," Clyde suggested. "We scared the ghosts off."
"Or maybe its because its Halloween. Perhaps it’s the one night ghosts take off. All those daft people out haunting each other, they can take a break."
They both laughed softly at two theories that wouldn't be going into Luke's scientific paper. Rani thought she might make it the basis of her article 'The Night the Ghosts Stayed in Bed' or something.
"It's all a bit of an anti-climax, really," she admitted. "All that stuff on websites about centurions and cavaliers, witches, hanged girls… and I haven't even felt a shiver down my spine that wasn't just the draughty kitchen."
"It'd make a really rubbish episode of 'Most Haunted'," Clyde noted.
"Or the most realistic one," Rani countered. "I've always thought those programmes fake it."
In the dark of a November night their talk faltered as ghosts failed to make their presence known on any spectrum. They sat together and watched the sky outside the window get just a little paler. It was almost morning.
It was about six o'clock when the EMF monitor actually registered something. So did the motion sensors in the upstairs rooms. But there was nothing sinister afoot.
"What was that?" Sky asked sleepily, pulling herself up from the sofa.
"The morning milk tanker passing along the road outside," Clyde answered. K9 confirmed that the vibrations had been merely traffic related. "If you ask me this village needs a by-pass. I'd hate to be woken by that every morning, even if it is only half an hour before my alarm goes off anyway."
Everyone had been shaken awake by the traffic noise and there was a general noise of yawning and stretching.
"Were there ANY ghosts?" Sky asked.
"Not a sausage," Clyde answered her.
"Oh… don't talk about hot food," Luke complained. "When all we have for breakfast is muesli and sterilised milk."
"There is a café just down the road that serves breakfasts from seven," Pieter observed. "By the time we've all visited the 'facilities' and combed our hair we'll just be in time."
"Good idea," Sarah-Jane agreed. "Then afterwards, let's pack all this stuff up and check into a Travelodge with en-suite bathrooms and some REAL sleep. I'm not driving back to London after a night on a camp bed."
That idea appealed to everyone. Luke and Pieter turned off and dismantled most of the electronics while waiting their turn for the 'facilities'. Soon everyone had wiped sleep from their eyes with moist tissues and were presentable to the outside world. They put on coats and stepped out into a cold drizzle and walked along the pavement, passed by early commuters with indicator lights still bright against the half daylight. The café with warm lights and the smell of 'Full English' cooking was a blissful haven.
"Funny thing," Rani said as they were served their hot breakfast. "As we were crossing the courtyard, I looked back… and I'm sure I saw something in one of the upstairs windows… a movement…."
"A bit of a draught blowing the old curtain?" Clyde suggested.
"A brief flash of light from passing traffic…."
"Just your imagination…."
"Yeah, probably one of those things," Rani agreed.
Or was it?
Rani attacked her breakfast and suppressed even the tiniest doubt.
There were no such things as ghosts.