“The two most crucial things you have to remember in this business are 1) atmosphere; that’s what customers are paying for. They don’t pay to go around dark alleyways in Brighton to be bored. They can do that for free. And 2) not every toilet was haunted by a Jack the Ripper suspect. Nobody buys that shit. Now, which one do you want?”
John dusted off a series of elaborate, verging on cartoonish, Victorian top hats in shades of burgundy and black, sitting in a row on a high shelf. I told him I’d take whatever fitted and didn’t look too egregious next to my clearly Regency-era frock coat which had seen better days; an item of clothing he had already taken great effort to explain to me was wrong.
“Look here my boy, I don’t know how they do things at RADA these days, but in my day costume accuracy was important. Atmosphere, remember? It’s no use us trying to sell the idea we’re taking our guests back to the great age of Victorian England if you’re bumbling about like a Tesco Value Beau Brummel.”
I thought better than to provide a retort as he was clearly the kind of failed actor whose only joy in life was clinging on to whatever vague sense of superiority he perceived he had in front of anyone he considered a potential threat. Instead, I smiled wryly to humour him. He seemed satisfied with that.
“So here’s the plan. The punters will arrive outside the Druid’s Head for 7.30 pm sharp. We must be there for 7.10ish to humour the early birds… Americans usually, you can spot them a mile off. Then at 7.30, I will give my brief introduction, talk about the rise of the town as a tourist destination, taking the waters and what have you. The Prince Regent, the Pavillion, the balls, the various mistresses and all that usual tourist fodder. Then we’ll move on to the crimes, set off through the Lanes, avoiding that hideous eyesore Dolphin Square, past the Bath Arms, past the poncy small plates restaurant and that tacky cocktail bar, stop outside the Cricketers to try and flog them a drink because we get a cheeky backhander, same with the Northern Lights after we stop at the town hall, back round past all the prayer chair and portraiture types, then back to the Druid’s Head. Should take about an hour. Is that clear?”
“Ish”, I said. Truth be told, I hadn’t been listening. I was transfixed by my surroundings in this pokey little office in the tourism building just off the seafront. The woodchip wallpaper clinging on for dear life, yellowed with smoke and a lack of cleaning, a stack of Brighton tourism brochures dating back god knows how long supporting a rather sad looking computer monitor, which made the most distracting whirring noise known to man. The shelf on which the hats sat buckled in the centre, weighed down by a box full of posters that had been both bleached by the sun and warped by damp. Underneath the shelf was a fabric zip wardrobe full of the costumes worn by the various guides of the Ghost Walk of the Lanes since its inception in the 90s. John, a curly-moustached am-dram type, was it’s most renowned and had become somewhat of a local celebrity. The kind you might see switching on the odd Christmas lights if no one else was available.
He rolled his eyes, took a ring binder out of the desk drawer and opened it to a close-up map of the Lanes and asked me to point to the pub in question. “The Druid’s Head, not the Sussex!” he tutted impatiently, pointing a centimetre away from where I was pointing. “Jane said you knew the area! How do you propose to take tours in the high tourist season on your own if you can’t even get the blimmin right pub?” This was frustrating. The pubs were mere meters from each other and I could see the sign, I told him. If I was outside the wrong pub at 7.10, I would simply walk across the square to the right one. He huffed, was silent for a moment, and then continued.
“So the stories we’ll be doing tonight will be the nun who was bricked up into a wall alive on Meeting House Lane — that’s a good one, always shits people up. The prison cells under the town hall where the man hung himself and you see the ghost on the main stairs is another good one. Of course Martha Gunn, our lady of the baths; the stable boy, the lady in white and the soldiers from when the Pavilion was used as a military hospital for Indian troops. There’s a few about servants in the grand houses that are of varying quality and I’ll improvise with which one I’ll go with at the time…”
“What about the one about the footman?” I asked.
“Footman? I don’t know that one. Don’t start thinking you can just riff off any old story in the middle of my tour, young man, I’ve been working on this for years! It’s one of the city’s highest-rated attractions!”
“That’s odd. I thought the footman was fairly well-known.”
“Well, it isn’t! I’ve been doing this tour for over 20 years and I’ve never heard it,” he bristled.
His irksomeness amused me. He looked pathetic. There’s something about men at a certain age where they assume they are the keepers of all knowledge and that anything outside of what they know is either irrelevant or a lie. I decided to toy with him. “You must’ve heard it at least! A young man was sent to work here from the country as a footman. It was after the town had become fashionable and all and sundry of society types were desperate to live in the grand seafront houses and get the benefits of the sea air. So this young man, probably in his mid-20s or so, comes to work here. His family thinks it’s cleaner than London and the earthly temptations of gambling and drinking and what have you, although still there, are less in number. He takes a job at a house in the then newly built Regency Square that’s owned by a cotton merchant where he lives with his wife and 3 children. Is everything quite alright?” I paused as John squinted at me as if my head was on backwards.
“It’s not ringing any bells. I’m hoping for your sake you’re not wasting my time.”
I smiled. “I’m sorry, I’ll be quick. So this merchant, he has the largest house on the square; if you’ll excuse the flowery language, he is somewhat braggadocious and loves nothing more than to flaunt his wealth in a manner that verges on vulgar. He has more servants than any other house on the square and is fortunately very generous to those he employs. So the young man makes a good living, sends money home to his mother each week as was expected, but also manages to pocket a little for himself.”
“One day, the merchant took a holiday, family in tow, leaving the house empty, and so a contingent of the servants decide to have an evening out. They go to the Black Lion in the Lanes and the footman joins them. He is not accustomed to heavy drinking, certainly not as raucously as his cohorts, and very quickly becomes intoxicated. In the course of events, he spends an enormous amount of his savings on ale and gin to the point he can barely stand and becomes separated from his group. He comes across a table of wealthier looking gentlemen playing a game of faro. Amused by his inebriation, the men taunt the footman into a game which he has never once played and strip him of all of his remaining money, laughing and jeering all the while.”
“Bewildered, drunk and unable to find the other members of the household, nor able to recall the exact journey home, the footman pleads with tears in his eyes for the men to give him back his money as the pub closes. A wild and wicked smirk spreads across one of the men’s faces; he says he will give him back what he put into the game if he is able to settle a bet between him and his fellow gamblers. The footman agrees without hesitation and the men ferry him through the Lanes to a lively boarding house on Ship Street, right around here in fact. There, before he can collect himself, they push the footman into a large leather trunk, shut the lid and lock it, still laughing as if it was all a game.”
“The footman falls asleep in a drunken stupor and awakens the next morning still trapped inside. He screams and screams, yet no one comes to his aid. It’s said that he remained for 3 weeks before he finally died, screaming at the top of his lungs. The trunk and the body were discovered by a maid in the cellar after the lady of the house received complaints from the guests of an unpleasant smell, goodness knows how long after he succumbed. The cellar wasn’t in use you see as it was prone to flooding in bad weather due to its close proximity to the seafront and so no one had cause to go down there. They say his fingers were broken bloody stumps from clawing at the inside of the trunk and his face so twisted in fear and desperation he couldn’t be identified. The men were never caught of course and, as the body was never identified, it was deposited out at sea as was customary as there was no one to pay for a burial plot. They say the young man’s ghost can be seen walking around the old houses looking for help. Are you sure you haven’t heard this one?”
John scoffed. “No, and it was absolute tosh. Really, I don’t know where you got that from but your delivery was just awful; flat, lifeless. No one is going to believe you with such a lack of gravitas.”
He got up from behind the desk, walked over to a large filing cabinet and started rifling angrily through papers. “Honestly, I can’t believe they teach acting to lack such theatricality these days. It’s all kitchen sink drama realness, no panache. Very very sad indeed.”
“That’s a pity”, I said. I decided to ingratiate him a little, telling him maybe he could teach me a thing or two whilst I was shadowing him. He sighed impatiently. The phone rang. He walked to the desk to answer it, turning his back to me in annoyance.
“What is it, Jane?… Yes, the young man about the extra summer tours… What on earth do you mean?… But he’s already here now, I’ve been bloody talking to him for the last half an hour, how could he possibly have just arrived?!”
As soon as the words left his lips, John turned back around to face me, and the colour bled from his face when he saw I was no longer there. I’d had my fun; it was time for me to go.