The year was 1953 and it was a cold September day. The caretaker had arrived early, as he always did on a morning. Every day, the same routine. He would walk through the big wrought iron gates into the park, and glance over to the ruins of St Mary’s, before ascending the steps to the side door entrance of the museum. He loved the way it looked on a morning, when it was quiet and still. Before all the visitors had woken up, before all the morning commuters would cut through the park, there was a moment where the park would be his.
On warmer days, he would take a moment to enjoy that peace, usually on the bench overlooking the water. He would sit down with a moan, his arthritis and bad back from years of manual labour making him aware of his own mortality. There, on that bench he would dig out his thermos filled with tea that his wife would leave on the kitchen counter for him every morning with some biscuits and a note, “don’t eat all of them before you have your sandwiches!”
As he sipped his tea, and ate all his biscuits, occasionally Chippy would join him and he would happily share. Chippy was a bushy, bright-tailed and curious squirrel that had no qualms with eating out of his hand.
This morning however, as the cold fog rolled in over the path he could barely see the outline of the ruins ahead of him. It was cold, bitterly cold, he thought to himself as he hurried in to the museum to start his day.
He walked through the long dark corridor, as he had many times before, trying to shake off the outside cold. As he approached the cleaning cupboard, he heard a noise coming from further in the building. He knew the building very well, it was his job as the caretaker to know the building very well and he didn’t take his responsibilities lightly. Throughout his 27 years of working there, he had established a strong and profound relationship with the building, a respect for its history and grand appearance. He knew her well both inside and out. He knew exactly where every leak, crack and chip was. He knew which floorboard made a noise under the weight of human feet and he knew which pipes banged and clanged. This noise however, was not one he was familiar with, at least not at this hour. He leaned his hand on the half-open cupboard door and listened. He could hear pacing, coming from the library. That’s strange, he thought to himself, there shouldn’t be anyone else in the building, not this early.
The only other person with a key was Mr Hendricks, the caretaker’s boss, and he liked to saunter in just before lunch, yell and scream some directions at everyone and thereafter excuse himself, “because he is famished from all this hard work!”. He would bellow out a laugh and rub his big belly as he wandered off. The caretaker clenched his jaw at the thought of his horrible boss, closed the cupboard door and thought it best to examine the noises.
As he approached the library he could clearly see an old man in a frock coat pacing back and forth down the aisles of the books. His clothes looked like that of an upper-class gentleman, only very outdated. The man was muttering under his breath, paying no attention to the caretaker as he walked in to the room. He was frantically searching for something, pacing back and forth, back and forth. Now that the caretaker was closer, he could distinguish the words the older man muttered, “I must find it, I must find it”.
The caretaker slowly approached, and cleared his throat. “Excuse me sir, I’m afraid we are closed, you really shouldn’t be in here.” As the words fell out of his mouth the gentleman had vanished. The caretaker stared blindly at the spot where the man had stood, baffled and confused. He stood very still, as if standing still would help him understand what had just happened. He searched the room, every aisle, every corner. By the time other people started entering the building, the caretaker had searched through every single room of the property, including the attic.
Mildred, the cleaner entered the staff room, tried to brush the wind-swept hair from her face, hurriedly unwrapping from her scarf and coat as she noticed Howard looking rather distraught. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost”, she exclaimed with her broad northern accent. The caretaker looked at her blankly and shared with her his morning experience.
Mildred didn’t take much notice to it, she wasn’t the type of woman to believe in spirits or ghosts. What you see is what you get, her mother always told her. She shrugged his story off thinking he was just an old fool that was losing his marbles. Until four weeks later, she too experienced a visit from the gentleman in his frock. She was scrubbing the floors when a man walked past her, and as she glanced up she saw the man walk through the locked doors straight into the library. She was so taken aback by what she had witnessed, she ran straight out of the building refusing to even return for her coat.
The only way Mr Hendrick’s could convince her to stay and continue her work duties was to promise to investigate further. He couldn’t bear the thought of having to try and find a new cleaner. He had made a comment under his breath about Mildred’s paranoia, believing it to be nonsensical when the elderly caretaker had rushed to her defense. He too, admitted that the spirit had visited him. “What on earth is the matter with these folk”? He thought to himself but realised he would have a mutiny on his hands if he didn’t investigate further.
That night, he called for his friend, Mr Needle, a solicitor that had helped Mr Hendrick get out of a rather unsettling legal situation a few years back. Mr Needle and Hendrick’s had bonded over their love of women and port wine. As Mr Hendricks had finished telling the solicitor his story, he leaned back and rolled his eyes at the foolishness of his staff. Mr Needle nodded delicately and suggested they bring forth a panel of professionals from different fields to investigate the matter. Surely this would calm everyone down. They discussed between themselves whom would be suitable for this make-shift investigative panel and settled for a priest, a doctor, and a judge. Of course, Mr Hendrick and the solicitor would also be present, to document the findings.
What the team found that night would have each and every one of them questioning the boundaries between the living and the dead. Although the gentleman in the frock did not appear before their eyes, to their disbelief they witnessed a book fly across the room and land face up below the window. The doctor was the first to dare approach the book as it lay in disarray on the floor. The book with the title, “ Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church”, had landed nearly seven foot from the shelf. The doctor, as well as the others, couldn’t help but notice the temperature had drastically fallen in the room.
Further investigation revealed the book had been donated by the late Alderman Edward Wooler, a solicitor from Darlington that had passed away in 1921. Today, the old library is now the gift shop, so perhaps when you visit the museum you too might see Mr Wooler searching for his book.