The Visit – Chapter Five – 2003

This story features a volunteer working with the Parents Association at The Old Palace during the holidays.

———————————————————————————Margaret enjoyed volunteering with the Friends Association. During school holidays she helped out with teas on the guided tours. One Thursday afternoon she was in the dining room when she felt a shiver run through her, even though it was warm outside. Heat rarely penetrated the thick, whitewashed walls of the Norman undercroft where refreshments were included half way round on the tours of the historic buildings of the Palace.

They hadn’t had many visitors that day, just a few couples and a cluster of what she assumed to be Old Girls judging by the photos and ‘do you remembers’ coming from their end of the long table. Oh and the old biddy sitting by herself in the hat shaped like an upside down plant-pot. Having made sure that they all had plenty of tea and cake she checked her phone for messages. Mobile phones were new to her, and it often took her five minutes to turn the silly thing on, but her daughter Lisa had begged her to get one so they could stay in contact more easily:

‘Mum r u still ok 2 collect the kids from pathfinders at 4.30? Thanks cu at 6ish xx’

Sometimes she wished Lisa had got a job in teaching like her friend Jo, then she could look after her own kids during the holidays! Not that this doting grandma really minded babysitting. The boys were happy enough kicking a football at her geraniums, and as long as there were plenty of videos by the television then Nemo was no trouble. She’d promised they could make some cakes before mum came home from work, so she must remember to pick up some more eggs on the way home. Just to explain, ‘Nemo’ wasn’t her youngest grandchild’s real name, it was just that she was currently obsessed with the film ‘Finding Nemo’ and had been refusing to answer to anything else for six months now. Thank God she didn’t like SpongeBob!

She was roused out of her inactivity by two well-dressed women gliding down the stairs. One was tall and blonde, followed by a friend with a sleek red bob. Smartly dressed, from their sunglasses perched on top of their heads down to their feet, stretching into pastel-coloured loafers, bearing perfect tans.

‘We’d like two cappuccinos.’ Said the blonde.

‘I’m sorry, Madam’ answered Margaret. ‘As you can see we only serve tea.’ gesturing towards the teapots and milk jugs. I can probably rustle up a jar of instant?’

‘Tea’s fine.’ drawled the woman, rolling her eyes at her friend.

‘Take a seat; I’ll bring a pot right over.’ said Margaret smiling sweetly. ‘Just hope they don’t expect me to curtsey!’ she thought to herself grimly.

She grabbed a tray and loaded it with a silver teapot, two cups, a milk jug and several cakes, then took it over to the table.

‘This all looks good,’ said the blonde one smiling up at her, ‘I didn’t realise there was cake!’

‘Hmmm… unexpected,’ thought Maggie; ‘maybe she’s not as bad as I thought. It’s probably the shoes making her feet ache.’

‘After all those creaky stairs and dark corridors I always think you’ve have earned a treat.’ She smiled. Both women nodded in agreement. ‘I’ve forgotten the spoons,’ she said, ‘won’t be a moment.’ Margaret was just returning to the table when she overheard the women’s conversation.

‘Of course I never believed in the ghost stories – I mean, haven’t they got anything better to do than waft around old staircases? If it was me I’d haunt Starbucks!’ said the redhead.

‘Ah, you’ve been told the polite version I take it?’ Margaret couldn’t resist saying. Two pairs of eyes snapped back in her direction. ‘What do you mean?’ They asked in unison.

‘Our resident ghost? Well, the real story’s a bit more – disturbing than the one they tell on the tour’ she confided in a conspiratorial whisper.

‘Do tell!’ They whispered back, so she pulled up a stool at the table and they sat huddled together like three old friends rather than relative strangers.

‘Back in the eighties, there was a young teacher working here, I’m godmother to one of her boys. Well, she was an amateur historian and she started researching the stories from Tudor times, mainly looking for interesting anecdotes for the guided tours.

Because everyone is interested in the history of Queen Elizabeth’s Room – the lovely little paneled room overlooking the lawn at the front? Well she found a nice story about a girl who married a soldier, and one about a lady in waiting who got caught in a compromising position, and the story she dug up about one of the Grooms of the Privy chamber is probably best forgotten! But it was the story of a jilted bride that got her interested because nobody’s sure what really happened. You’ll have been told the legend of “The Lady in the Elizabethan Ruff”? I take it? Nodding.

Ladies, I trust neither of you are of a delicate disposition…? It turns out there were several women working here in the sixteenth century all romantically attached to a young soldier. Put it about a bit by all accounts until he met his true love, but for one of his conquests; things took a slightly …sinister turn, if you know what I mean.’ Resting their chins on their hands both women were clearly riveted.

‘She thinks he’s madly in love with her, and then he spoils it all by going off with someone else! By all accounts it sent her demented! She’s convinced he’s still coming back for her so she prepares for her wedding. Turns out to get the money together she was blackmailing quite a lot of people and they all found out. So she gets thrown out, but then they couldn’t get rid of her. Stayed at the kitchen gate in filthy clothes scrounging bits of food.

Then one night she snuck past the guards into the corridor leading to the chapel – you went along it – the one with the staircase – all dark spooky panelling? Now this is the mysterious bit. Next day they find her at the foot of the stairs in her long, white dress with tatty old bits of silver lace in her hair. Her neck…broken! Maybe she did throw herself down the stairs like the guide says. Maybe she did just slip. But if you ask me I think she was pushed! Plenty of people could have sneaked up behind her, and lots of them had motive. Guess we’ll never really know!’

‘So why was she wearing the Elizabethan Ruff?’ asked the blonde.

‘To stop her licking her stitches!’ snorted her friend, and all three women creased up, earning a disapproving glance from the old dear in the hat. Bidding the women farewell as they returned to the tour, Maggie got back to her clearing up.

It’s been said: ‘History is a myth men have made up and agreed to believe.’

‘It could have been true!’ she chuckled to herself. Walking back through the school to pick up her handbag, she didn’t take her usual short-cut through the back of the chapel. The place suddenly gave her the creeps now and she really didn’t want to imagine who might be watching her from any staircases.

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