Monday 30 January 2023

The Manor House by Gill James, strong black coffee

 "So what is this?" Tony looked at the photo Dave had given him. Sure, he recognised the hall. It was the Old Manor House, now turned into a five-star restaurant. "Some sort of re-enactment?"

"Look closer. Can't you see who's sitting at the table?"

Tony looked a bit more carefully at the picture. Now he could see Gina in that lovely floaty blue dress. At Brendon's leaving do. "It's us." 

"That's right." 

"So who are all these other guys? I don't remember them being there." He pointed to the rather robust man who looked just like Henry VIII. Next to him was a woman in a long flowing gown. Only she looked more medieval. "Is it some sort of costume party? And why are they crashing our do? Is it a double exposure?" He remembered something similar happening last year when he'd taken holiday snaps on his father's old analogue camera. Only that didn't happen with digital cameras, did it?

Dave shook his head. "It's not the first time this has happened." 

"What do you mean?" 

"Well, you see, Maggie said she felt funny when we were there. She said she could feel a presence."

"She could feel a presence?"

Dave nodded. "She's got a bit of a gift."

"What do you mean, she's got a bit of a gift?"

"Clairvoyance. You know. She's a kind of medium."

Tony couldn't believe what he was hearing. This was Dave talking. Dave the scientist, who didn't believe in God or fairies, let alone presences or ghosts or whatever you wanted to call them.

"You say this has happened before?"

Dave nodded. "Quite a lot actually. Look, I'll send you the link so you can show Gina."

"Have you got any pictures without our extra friends on?"

"Yes I have. You’ll be able to see them all and you can make up your own mind about them."  


"That's a nice one." Gina was pointing at the photo of the two of them sitting at the bar before they were shown to their table. 

"Of course it is. You're in it."

"Now now. Flattery will get you everywhere."

"Look at this though." There was Brendon, Dave and Maggie. Next to Brendon was a lady in a crinoline dress. Maggie seemed to be staring at her.

"Did she say she could see them?" Gina asked.

"Maggie wasn't there and Dave didn't say."

"Well she's always been a bit weird."

"Do you think so?"

"Yes, that time we went to auction rooms at Sibley she wouldn't stay in the room. She said she thought something dreadful had happened there."         

"It's a strange place, that's for sure." Tony frowned. There was something chipping away at the corner of his mind. Yes that was it. "Something bad did happen there. Do you remember? They found the bodies of those twin girls who’d been missing. Stuffed in an old cupboard."

Gina nodded. "Yes that's right. They did, didn't they?" She flicked through a few more of the photos. "That's funny though."

"What is?"

"Well Maggie's in all of the photos where we have our extra friends."

"So what would that mean?"

"No idea. Except I suppose it might all be part of the plan. Do you know what I reckon?"


"She's just attention-seeking. And she's got clever with Photoshop."    


The following week was busy for Tony and he didn't have any more time to dwell on the strange photos. At last Friday came around and he had just one more story to cover. This would be easy. It was about the opening of the new extension to the library. He would go over there just after lunch, do the interview with the chief librarian and then he could go home, write up his report, whizz it across to Harry and he would be done for the week. He could then look forward to a nice relaxing weekend with Gina.

"So what's going to be housed in the extension?" he asked the librarian.

"All the local history archives. They've made a start. There will also be some exhibitions of interesting places. There's one up and running now. Take a look."

"I just might do that." Perhaps he’d be able to find something there to add a bit of colour to his report.

"Help yourself."

"Is it all right to take photos?"

The librarian nodded. "Everything's a copy so it will do no harm."

He wandered through the double doors and was amazed to see a display all about the Manor House. So, that building had been there since about 1300. The oldest part at least and they knew that there had been a building there since 1200. It was a favourite venue for ghost-hunters. There were reports of ghosts who had haunted later occupants. Including a Henry VIII lookalike and a medieval lady. When the place was first turned into a restaurant the manager had reported seeing a lady in a crinoline dress.

That must be where Maggie had got her ideas from. Pity she wasn't on duty today. He would have been able to confront her about it.

He went back to the main part of the library.

"Will Maggie Sutton be in tomorrow?" he asked the librarian.

"I think so." She consulted her tablet. "Yes, she's here from 9.30 until 12.00. Why do you ask?"

"Oh she's a friend of the family. I'm sure if I've overlooked something she'll be able to set me straight."

The librarian nodded.

"Thank you for your time and your help."           


He was later getting home that he'd intended. He'd stayed longer at the library than he'd meant to, then there was an accident on the by-pass and he'd had to queue for an hour. Gina was already home when he got in but she was clearly still working. She was hunched over her laptop. 

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"I'm putting together an article about faking photos with Photoshop. There's a lot of it about."

Why hadn't he thought of that? Mind you his editor wanted him to stick to local news.

"So, have you found out a lot?"

"Oh yes.  And of course it isn't just Photoshop. Ordinary photographers used to do it. It wasn't as easy then though. Do you remember the Cottingley fairies?"

It rang a bell but he couldn't remember the details.

"Look." She showed him the image on her screen. It was convincing. "I actually think they did a better job than 21st century people do with the resources they have. It's too easy. One sister admitted that it was fake but the other didn't. She insisted that they really saw and photographed fairies."

"Why do you say they made a better job than modern photographers?"

"Well look at this. The girl in the cornfield and the boxer are from different pictures. Can you see how flat the background is?"

"So what about Maggie's pictures?"

"They're convincing. You haven't got that flatness there."

She was right. "But hasn't Maggie studied photography? Perhaps she's pretty skilled at that."

"I thought it was fine art she had a degree in." Gina snapped the laptop shut. "You know what? We should go to the Manor House again and take some photos."

He nodded. "And I'll pop along to the library tomorrow and confront her."              


Maggie was sitting at the main desk when he arrived at the library the next day. Things hadn't quite gone according to plan. They'd not managed to get a table at the Manor. They did have one for this evening. But it would have been better if they'd been there and taken some photos- ones without ghosts or whatever they were.

Maggie beamed at him. She was wearing a bright pink sparkly top. There were wings attached to the back. He had to suppress the urge to chuckle.

"Oh don't mind me," she said. "Its story time in twenty minutes and it's all about fairies. I have to look the part."

He suspected that wasn't the only reason. She loved dressing up. And she never minded making a fool of herself.

"So, how did the article go?"

"The article?"

"Gwen said you were in yesterday about the new extension."

"Yes, yes. All done and dusted." Why was he here actually? Then he spotted her laptop. Could he get her out of the way and have a look?

"So, how can I help you?"

Think. Think. "Well, my boss has commissioned another article now. All about the Manor House and the people who lived there. I wondered if I could access some of the archive material?"

"No problem. I've just got time to go down there and find a few bits and pieces before the kids arrive. You saw my photos? Here, take another look."

Even better.

She opened the file with them on. 

He sat down at the desk. Yes, they were convincing. But she must have cheated. Quickly he started looking through some of the other folders on the device. Ah yes. There you had it. Photos of historical figures.  Henry's double. The two women. He'd got her.

"What on earth are you doing?" said Maggie when she came back with half a dozen dusty-looking folders.

"Proving that you're an absolute fraud. You Photoshopped it all didn't you?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You pasted those images into the photos you took the other evening?"

"I most certainly did not." Her face was bright red now and her eyes were flashing. "Because if you look...." She clicked a couple of times on the keyboard. "My ghosts are dressed in completely different clothes."

"Well they're Photoshopped as well."

"No they're not."

"Would you mind keeping the noise down? This is a library you know." It was a rather stuffy-looking older man Tony had never seen before.

At that moment a group of giggling little girls and their parents wondered in.

"So, do you want these documents or not?"

"I don't think so. I've got my new story now."                    


The meal at the Manor House was superb as usual.

"Are you going to have a dessert?" Tony asked.

"I can't. I'm stuffed. But I will take a couple more photos or maybe we can get the waiter to?"

The young man obliged.

"So, what are you going to do? How are you going to frame your article?"

"Well, I'll include these photos and then I'll Photoshop some ghosts in and explain how easy it all was."

"Sounds like a plan. At least we haven't seen any real ones yet."


It was after midnight when they got back. They were late getting up the next morning as well and had only just finished breakfast when the doorbell rang. It was Maggie and Dave.

"Hi guys. Yes, I'm here to confess," said Maggie. "You were right. It was all a trick. Anyway I thought I might help you with your article. Show you how I did it."

"It's Gina's article actually. I should apologise as well. It was rude of me to go looking at your laptop. And I shouldn't have shouted at you."

Maggie grinned. "You know it was almost worth it to see old Jeffers get all agitated.”


"Jeffrey Smythe-Brown. He's a real dinosaur. Thinks libraries aren't for youngsters and that you should be silent all the time in them. He can be a pain at times."

"Coffee?" asked Gina.

"That would be great," said Dave.

"We took some photos you know," said Tony. "Would you like to have a look?"

"Yes please."

"I'll put them on the big screen so we can all see them at once." He plugged his phone into the computer and started opening the photo files. What he saw made his mouth go dry. There was a thudding noise in his ears.

“What’s the matter?” asked Dave.

“Look. Oh my God. They weren't there when we took them. Nor when we looked at them on the phone."

The first one was of him and Gina in the bar. Standing behind them was the Henry VIII lookalike. The second one was of them eating the first course and the medieval lady was sitting with them. Another one had the lady in the crinoline dress standing at the side of the table. The final one that the waiter had taken for them showed all three standing behind them and behind those were some more rather indistinct figures.

“Where did you get those photos, Maggie? Have you been messing about again?” Dave was frowning. 

"I got them from the archives. They were from portraits that used to hang on the walls at the Manor." Maggie had gone quite white. “It’s unbelievable.” 

"What's unbelievable?" Gina came in with the coffee.

Tony turned to her. "I think your article has just been scuppered but I think I've got one now: all about the Manor House ghosts."           

About the author

Gill James is published by The Red Telephone, Butterfly and Chapeltown. She edits CafeLit and writes for the online community news magazine: Talking About My Generation She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative and Critical Writing 


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