My time with IPP wasn’t all mediums and ghostly children, although if you’re expecting a lot of diversity, you’ll only be disappointed.
Late nights weren’t unusual, either were early mornings, or even weekends in some cases. Due to the nature of the research there were times when regular work hours weren’t observed, like in the case of St Mary’s primary school.
Ghosts rarely work to the timetables of the living, and the incidents at St Mary’s were no exception. I found myself waiting outside of the old school building early on a Saturday morning a month or two into my PhD. A bitterly cold wind blew threw me like a bad virus, worming between the strands of my gloves until my fingers were frozen to the bone. The coffee in my hand did little to keep the chill at bay. The school building itself was made of red brick, but as I stood in its shadow there was something ominous about it. Three stories high, with long thin windows covered in dirt and grime, it should’ve been welcoming, friendly, but perhaps because I knew the reason I was waiting outside everything looked worse than it was. The school itself had been closed for a year or two by the time we visited. Enrolment had been low, so the council had decided to relocate the pupils elsewhere and sell off the land.
Beside the school was an explosion of construction work. Where the children’s playground used to be was now a car park for the workers and developers. The church that was across the playground from the school was undergoing renovation to turn it into flats, whilst the remaining land would be underground parking for future residents. From where I stood in front I caught a glimpse of a small house, almost attached to the back of the school itself, but I just assumed it was vacant. It was a weekend and the construction site was empty, which only added to the eerie atmosphere of the place.
Of the requests and reports we’d received about paranormal events Strother had chosen this one, deciding that it would be our first on-site investigation. I was the first to arrive, but Ken appeared soon after. Whilst making polite chitchat and having an informal check-in Strother and Steph appeared in the van that was to be used for outside investigations. It’s just as you imagine it, complete with sliding side door, decked out inside with small TV screens, microphones and headphones. Think of every police drama you’ve ever seen where they sit in a van for hours on end monitoring TVs.
If the rest of the team found St Mary’s as creepy as I did then they didn’t admit it aloud. It was just a building, and not all abandoned ones are haunted. The reason we were there was due to screaming that people had reported coming from inside. On the opposite side of the road, facing the school, were more new flats. The reports to the police of screaming had been going on for years, so long the community newspaper had written a small article about it. But, as was the way, it had been dismissed as teenagers up to no good during the wee hours of the night. Whatever it was, teenagers or something less mundane, I distinctly remember feeling a tingling at the back of my neck when I looked up at the old school building.
Since I was the first one there Strother threw me the keys to unlock the front door. The red wooden door showed its age by the gouges and dents in the grain of the wood, painted numerous times over the years until its current incarnation of post box red. I fumbled with the keys through my gloves before eventually managing to wiggle the right one into the stiff lock.
“What do you think you’re doing?” A voice demanded from my side.
I was already a wee bit on edge by this point so I jumped out of my skin when I heard it. The voice wasn’t one I recognised, and it was laden with hostility. It belonged to a small elderly man with ash grey hair and brown eyes that were narrowed in my direction. I explained that I was there with the team from the university to investigate the screaming and then asked who he was. He answered that he was the caretaker of the school, and that we weren’t welcome.
I reminded him that the building’s owner had given us permission and that we’d informed him of the day and time of our arrival well in advance. He said I was being disrespectful and wished for a word with my employer. He couldn’t have known he’d receive even less respect from Strother. What ensued was what I can only describe as a vicious attack on the old man, later identified as Mr Huntingdon, who lived in the house I’d seen at the back of the school with his wife. It turned out that he’d refused all offers to buy his house, an accusation Strother threw at him during their bickering. Insulted, and red in the face with anger, Mr Huntingdon stormed off.
For some reason I ran after him, and I can’t seem to remember why. I remember apologising for the way I’d spoken, and for what Strother had said, the first of many apologies I’d make over the years on his behalf. The caretaker wasn’t interested in my request for forgiveness and moved to get past me, but stubbornly I blocked his way.
I told him I had some questions he could perhaps answer. Immediately he derided the so-called screaming ghost people had reported. Mr Huntingdon claimed there was no such thing as ghosts, and that if we were allowed to investigate St Mary’s we’d attract phony mediums and psychics from all over the country and he and his wife wouldn’t get a moment’s peace. I pointed out that since ghosts weren’t real our team wouldn’t find anything and nothing like that would happen. He wasn’t convinced but agreed, begrudgingly, to answer my questions.
I asked him where he thought the screaming came from, to which he claimed it was people’s imaginations running away from them, and that he’d never heard anything like it. I inquired if his wife had perhaps heard something. Mrs Huntingdon, according to her husband, was a highly-strung woman whom he wouldn’t trouble with something so silly and superstitious. Noticing that he was evading my questions I decided to change tactics and asked him if he’d ever seen anything. He hesitated. It was just for a moment, between one breath and the next, but I’d seen it, along with the worry that had swept across his face at the question. Of course, the answer was a firm refusal, after which he dismissed me harshly and stalked off back to his house, which I could see from where I stood.
After my encounter with the caretaker I re-joined the rest of the team who were beginning to set up the equipment inside. I don’t know what it was but there was something disturbing about being in an empty school. There were desks littering the hallways and classrooms, pieces of crinkled, discoloured paper masked the yellowing linoleum floor. Bits of children’s work and various announcements still hung from walls and noticeboards as reminders of the past.
We hadn’t come equipped light to St Mary’s. In the back of the van were boxes of cameras, audio recorders, thermometers, laser grids, motion detectors, amongst other things I couldn’t identify. It took hours to set everything up to Strother’s precise specifications. We put cameras, normal and night vision, in every room, along with an audio recorder and thermometer. One laser grid was placed on each floor on the main corridor.
Let me go into the history of St Mary’s, which is an important piece of any ghostly investigation.
St Mary’s was commissioned by the city council in the late 19th century. It was given to a group of nuns who taught at a successful catholic school a few towns over with the hopes that they’d repeat their success. It soon cultivated a good reputation and became a teaching college as well, securing enough money to buy the church that sat across the playground, the one that was being made into flats. Their success lasted until the 60s and 70s when it began to decline, until the year before our visit it had closed. The only articles and pieces of information we could find in our preliminary searches were nothing but announcements that the teachers and pupils had won various awards or been accepted into prestigious universities. There was nothing gruesome, but it was difficult to search for information in the first place as a lot of it hadn’t been digitised, and none of us were volunteering to visit the cities’ archives.
Inside the school wasn’t very modern, as is the case with a lot of educational establishments. It looked very similar to the school I attended with wide corridors, green everywhere, and blackboards on the walls, although some had been replaced with projectors and whiteboards. A single staircase joined all of the floors. Each floor forked in two directions, one went straight ahead, and the other led to an extension that had been built in the 50s. The classrooms were cavernous, with tall windows and even higher ceilings, it would’ve been difficult to get warm. Despite the general feel of abandonment, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. It may be because I was focused on setting up the mountain of equipment we’d brought with us, or perhaps if a ghost was there it was frightened by Strother barking commands at us when we didn’t do something his way.
It was only when we moved up the stairs to the first floor that the tingling at the back of my neck began again. The entire building had a chill, but the staircase was colder than the classrooms had been. It was like I’d gone outside rather than up the stairs. My vision began to blur with every step, the world tilting on its axis, as though I were looking through someone else’s glasses, everything became disjointed and fractured. Then it all stopped as soon as I reached the first floor.
The strange episode had me unsettled, but when I turned around to look back down the stairs there was nothing there, not even a shadow. My sight had returned to normal, but I was blind to whatever had caused it. Ken noticed my puzzled stare and asked if anything was wrong. I lied and said I thought I’d forgotten something. Lying would become second nature to me during my time on the study.
We spent the rest of the day setting up the equipment until almost every square inch of St Mary’s was being recorded in some way. I was on my own in one of the third-floor classrooms when my attention was snatched by someone getting into their car across the road. What pulled me was the clear sound of the car door slam as the driver got in. It got me thinking. If I could hear that sound clearly from the third floor and across a road, how did Mr Huntingdon claim not to be able to hear screaming from inside the school when he lived right beside it? I knew he’d kept something from me when we’d spoken before, it was the reason why that made me uneasy.
Strother and Steph took the first watch. By watch I mean stayed up half the night in the van outside the school. When ken had asked why we needed to be there at all when most of the equipment was remotely controlled, Strother had stated us being there was more thorough, and also in case of malfunction. That was the reason I appeared outside the van at 1am with no coffee. Ken and I switched with Strother and Steph, and his parting gift to us was a warning not to fall asleep. I’m pretty sure he aimed it more at me than Ken.
Despite the heaters in the van, the cold still lingered in the air, and not long into our shift my fingers and toes began to lose all feeling. The screens were empty, not even a particle of dust floated past for the first hour. Ken began to snore beside me from 2am onwards. I dared not give Strother an excuse to treat me like an idiot so I was determined to remain awake.
It was during one of the moments when my mind was drifting between consciousness and sleep that I heard it. A single, piercing scream. I’ve only ever heard a sound like that twice in my life. The first was from my mum just after my Dad’s funeral, when she thought no one was around to hear. The second was from St Mary’s. It was a shriek of despair, curdling and loud so it was the only thing I could hear. Frantically I searched the screens in front of us, jumping from one camera to the next, but I couldn’t see anything. None of the laser grids or motion sensor cameras had been activated.
So, I left the van and ran into the school. I’d made sure to memorise where we’d put everything so I wouldn’t set everything off, but being caught on the cameras was something I couldn’t avoid. I’d come up with an excuse later. There was nothing on the ground floor, in any of the classrooms, or on any of the upper floors. I was the only one in that school, in the dark, but the scream lingered like an echo. I could still hear it ringing in my ears. There was no ghost, no anything. Disappointed, I started to leave but accidently crossed one of the laser grids. Holding my breath, expecting it to cast an offensively bright green light everywhere, I was surprised to find it didn’t activate. Bending down I inspected it and found the battery had been disconnected. Following a hunch, I checked all of the equipment we’d set out and found that the ones on the ground floor had either had their batteries disconnected, or had been set to not record. I wasn’t a ghost expert, but even I knew this wasn’t a ghost’s doing.
I went to the café yesterday, the one Strother had a standing appointment at. I asked the staff and they pointed out the owner. Luck was on my side that day. He’d managed the café back then, and now owned it. I asked him about Strother, even showed him a picture, and he remembered him.
It turns out Strother used to meet a woman there, every week without fail. They reserved the same table, and had the same meal. The owner admitted to me that seeing them made him want to treat his own wife better. I don’t think I need to tell you that Strother wasn’t married. But to be honest the owner’s impression of Strother was a lot different from the one I had. He used words such as friendly, polite, amicable, words which I’d never heard in the same sentence as his name.
Thankfully for me the owner appeared to almost be friends with them, unsurprising since they visited so often. He told me the woman’s name was Katherine Phillips and she worked at the university. He couldn’t remember what department, or even what she did, but all I needed was a name.
It didn’t take me long to find her on the staff pages. She still works there. I won’t divulge what department she’s in, or what she does, as I believe in people’s right to privacy. Katherine Philips isn’t her real name, in case you haven’t guessed.
I’ve already emailed her asking if she’ll meet up to talk with me, but haven’t heard a reply. I’ll need to decide how far I’m going with this, how many people I’m going to drag in. But I need to find out if she knows anything. Considering I spent 3 years not knowing who she was, I’m pretty sure she’ll know more about Strother than I or his family do.