Ghost Walk

Helen and Clive were not terribly impressed so far with this so-called ‘ghost walk’, of the sort several friends of theirs had recently participated in and described as wonderfully atmospheric and creepy, and were thankful that the website advertising this particular walk had assured punters that no money would be requested up front and that they would merely be asked for whatever they felt like giving at the end. It was taking place in Whitechapel and focussed, inevitably, on the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders. Perhaps the website itself, which had featured animated .gifs, text in a bewildering array of fonts, sizes and colours and was apparently optimized to run under Internet Explorer 4, should have been warning enough.

“…and this is where the body of the sixth victim, Elizabeth Stride, was found…”, continued their guide, who had introduced himself as Barry, “just at the junc-”

“Fifth victim, you mean. She was killed before Catherine Eddowes, that’s very clear from the crime reports”, Clive corrected him. Clive was something of an amateur buff of historical crime and, perhaps not unconnected with this, something of a professional pedantic dick. Helen, who was beginning to feel almost sorry for Barry, nudged her husband and gave him a small sh! out of the side of her mouth.

“Oh, er, of course, yes, the fifth victim, is what I meant”, Barry finished lamely, looking desperately from one of his punters to the other. “Fifth victim. Right. And she was found just here -“, indicating the minor crossroads just ahead of them, “- at the junction of Fairclough Street and Henriques Street, with her throat cut from left to -”

“Henriques Street, then known as Berner Street“, said Clive, cutting Barry off in mid-sentence again while gazing at a spot a few feet above the guide’s Victorian-style peaked cap as if reciting from a script, which he might as well have been.

Barry’s half-apologetic, half-defiant “Um, yes, I was just coming to that!” and Helen’s hissed “Fucksake Clive, can’t you give him a break?” were uttered simultaneously. Clive thrust his hands into his pockets and looked away from both of them while exhaling through his teeth. When he looked back, Barry appeared more flustered than ever: a short, portly gentleman in late middle age, a few strands of lank-looking hair escaping from beneath his tatty cap, a shiny red drinker’s nose that spoke more of habitual despair than merriment and a general look of anxiety combined with the naff and rather frayed velvet frock coat, waistcoat, too-tight trousers and scuffed boots to give an overall impression of desperation and personal decrepitude. The couple who made up the totality of his custom this evening had both detected the odour of cheap whisky on his breath.

The guide appeared to rally momentarily, having seemingly decided that the only way out of this was to seize the initiative. “Well if you’d like to follow me around the corner onto Berner-Street-as-it-was-then-called,” – a quick glance at Clive, as rude-looking as he dared – “I think you’ll be pleased to find something you won’t have seen in the history books or online”, Barry announced in a tone suggesting he was about to play an ace he’d been saving up all evening, before he marched off at a quick trot and disappeared around the corner to the left, heading northward along Henriques-then-known-as-Berner Street.

Clive and Helen didn’t say anything but exchanged exasperated glances as they picked up the pace to follow Barry. Just as they turned the corner they had to stop very suddenly in order to avoid colliding with a tall woman in her 40s with blonde hair tied back into a ponytail, wearing a cap and other clothing not dissimilar in style from Barry’s except feminine in cut and in infinitely better repair, who was marching smartly towards them at the head of a group of a dozen or so people in normal winter clothes. The woman had been talking to her little group with her head turned back towards them and had snapped around to look ahead of her only just in time to likewise stop rather smartly. There was an awkward moment’s pause in which Clive and Helen craned their necks over the heads of the people in front of them, expecting to see Barry trudging on obliviously up the street. But he was not to be seen either in that direction or any other. Perhaps he’d already decided to cut his losses and scarper to avoid any further self-embarrassment or torment from Clive?

The blonde woman was in the process of excusing herself and was about to lead her party around the couple when Helen cut in: “Uh, excuse me, have you seen our guide? We were on a walking tour too and he just turned the corner and vanished.”

“I beg your pardon?” replied the tour leader rather curtly, evidently annoyed at having her patter interrupted.

“We were on a ‘ghost walk’ tour, same as you are by the look of it, but then our guide turned the corner and must have, I dunno, run off, I guess. Barry, he said his name was – I mean, you must know him, right? He said he’d been doing ghost walks around Whitechapel for years and years.”

It was clear by now that they had the woman’s full attention. She had apparently forgotten all about her own group, who were now crowding around her and the other two and listening intently to the exchange.

“Look, either you’re winding me up or someone’s been winding you two up. You mean Barry Shields, right? Shortish bloke, about sixty, a bit…shabby-looking?”

“That’s him down to a T”, said Clive. “It’s not like he’s ripped us off as we hadn’t actually given him any money, it’s just a bit…weird…”

“I’m sorry”, the woman repeated, “but you must be mistaken. Barry no longer conducts these walks. I suppose that terrible website of his must still be up. Whoever was leading you around, he wasn’t Barry Shields.”

“But how can you be sure? Maybe he’d, I dunno, come out of retirement?”

The woman’s demeanour softened, and she sighed. “Look, Barry’s business had been bad for a long time and he’d started drinking heavily. He died three weeks ago. Fell under a bus. Well, that’s the official line – to be honest I think he probably jumped in front of it. Anyway, the poor sod had no family or friends that could be traced, and I was the first person who’d known him that the police could get in touch with, so it was left to me to… ID his body. He’s quite definitely dead.”

The tour guide’s own customers were paying closer attention to her words than they had at any point during the evening. Clive’s jaw was mechanically working up and down and he was making a moronic muh-muh-muh sound, while Helen found herself tightly crossing her legs and making a superhuman effort not to urinate freely.

Later, over beer and mulled wine in the Hoop & Grapes, the tour group agreed that it had been the best ghost walk they’d ever been on, and that the bit near the end with those two excellent actors and the story about the dead tour guide had been particularly clever and effective. But Clive and Helen never spoke of that evening, either to each other or to anyone else.

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