Once again we’ve been inundated with entries for our Christmas ghost story competition. In the run-up to Christmas we’re featuring the winners and runners-up in the 15-and-under and 16-and-over categories. Today it’s The Woman In White by 16-and-over runner-up Elizabeth Walter, 39, from Portchester.
It couldn’t have been a colder night.
That was what Lucy would tell them later when they asked her what had happened.
Arctic winds had blown south and everything in Portsmouth was covered with the icy sparkles of frost.
During December it had become a rite of passage for teenagers to break into the most haunted house in Portsmouth and take a selfie on the stairs, a bit like the bottle flip craze or the ALS water challenge.
Everyone had to do it. Now it was Lucy’s turn.
She had boasted at school earlier that she was going to do it tonight, mainly because Billy was listening and she wanted to impress him.
Enough people had heard – including Billy – that if she didn’t get the selfie up on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by tomorrow morning, she might as well not show her face again this side of Halloween.
Lucy’s feet crunched on the icy gravel as she approached the house.
Once, it had stood in the middle of a great estate.
Now it was hemmed in by council houses and looked wildly out of place.
The house was meant to be riddled with ghosts from its 600-year history.
Lucy’s cousin used to terrify her when she babysat with tales of the woman in white who shut her young lovers in a priest hole, where they would scratch at the walls as they tried to claw their way out.
Her cousin would then run her nails down the wall, making Lucy scream in terror.
At the back of the house there was a boarded-up window which was how everyone was getting in. All you had to do was ease the board out at the bottom.
That was what Lucy did, steeling her courage as she squeezed through.
She paused inside the house as her boots made contact with a kitchen counter.
She listened. Nothing.
Climbing down from the counter, she flicked on her torch.
Her heart thudded and her mouth felt dry.
There was a nervous knot of tension in her stomach.
There was an unnatural silence about the place, as if the house was listening to her, waiting to see what she did.
It was too dark, even with her dad’s torch.
She shouldn’t have come alone. She shouldn’t have come at all.
Something soft caressed her face. She froze.
A gust of cold air met her cheek and as she put her hand to it, she realised the caress was nothing more than an old cobweb floating on the draught.
Slowly, her breath making dragon smoke, she stepped forward, edging bit by bit. Every movement echoed and caused the house to creak and sigh.
The stairs groaned as she began to climb, easing her weight gingerly on to the ancient wood.
She tucked the torch under her arm and pulled off her gloves.
Her hands were shaking.
They were still shaking as she set the phone to the front camera.
To get enough light, she had to hold both the torch and the phone, one in each hand.
Satisfied, she posed and pressed to take the photo.
The phone screen went black as it took the shot.
Lucy froze. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled against her skin.
Someone was there. She swallowed.
Holding her breath, she listened.
She could almost feel another presence; she knew she was not alone.
‘I’m coming for you!’ a voice cried.
She tried to scream, but it caught raggedly in her throat.
The torch fell from her hands and began to roll down the stairs, making a zoetrope of the hallway as it went.
It landed with a thud that echoed through the building like a drum.
Lucy scrambled down the steps half-blind. She missed the last one, tripped and flew across the floor.
Getting to her feet, she grabbed the torch and swept a shaky beam across the room.
As the light found a figure, Lucy jumped backwards.
‘You complete…’ she said, approaching Billy and walloping him on the arm with the torch.
Billy stifled his laughter. ‘That was hilarious!
‘Yeah, for you. I should’ve known there were no ghosts here.’
‘I couldn’t resist. Make it up to you with a McDonald’s?’
Lucy looked around the dark house and shivered. ‘You’re on.’
In the kitchen, Lucy climbed on to the counter first.
‘Don’t forget to upload your photo,’ he said.
‘You want it geotagged here as extra proof.’
Lucy passed him her phone.
‘You do it whilst I get this open.’
As she pushed open the board, the hairs on the back of her neck prickled again.
‘Lucy,’ Billy whispered, ‘there’s someone else in your photo…’
Lucy turned slowly. The glow of the phone was making Billy’s face look pale. Almost as pale as the deathly face of the woman behind him.
Lucy opened her mouth, but nothing would come out.
Ignorant, Billy held up the phone to show Lucy her photo.
The woman in white was behind Lucy just as she was behind Billy now.
As she saw the pale woman begin to reach out her icicle fingers for him, Lucy screamed and darted through the window.
Getting to her feet, she ran, ran away into the icy night until her lungs were full of fire and she could run no longer.
In the days that had followed, she told them to search the house, to find the priest hole, but it was days before they humoured her and made a search for it.
Of course, by then it was too late.
They tried to tell her Billy had hidden himself, in fear or as a prank, and then tried to claw his way out of the priest hole that could only be opened from the outside.
Some said he had died of fright, others of suffocation, but Lucy knew.
She knew the woman in white had claimed her last victim on that icy night when the Arctic winds were blowing.