SHORT STORY FOR THE WEEKEND: Southsea Castle by Irene Strange
Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers' Hub.
Southsea Castle stood as majestic as ever in the autumn late afternoon sunlight, just as the warm sunshine was beginning to cast awesome shadows on the outer thick walls of the castle itself.
It was still not too late to view the inner sanctum of the courtyard and the hewn stone buildings, turrets and stone steps leading up to the gun positions on the upper inner parapets.
Around the courtyards the entrances to some of the inner halls and rooms were being used as small arts and craft shops, selling souvenirs for the many visitors that were milling around, taking photos, thoroughly taking in the ambience of the ancient castle mystique, and enjoying a cup of tea being served at the small array of tables on the cobbled stonework.
Enjoying my duties as a Southsea town councillor, we were there at the castle to view and inspect the brickwork in the tunnels that lay just beneath the castle buildings.
The town council had been granted a discretionary grant to spend a certain amount of money on Southsea buildings, and a request had come through for this to be spent towards the deterioration and updating of the interior red brick walls in the tunnels which lay beneath the castle, which were sadly disintegrating.
In order to sanction the spending of this grant, we had decided to take advantage of this opportunity to see and view the state of affairs for ourselves.
Having made previous official arrangements, we arrived at the footbridge and were welcomed by the castle guide and the Cumberland Guard, smart in their colourful uniforms.
Taken to a special doorway, the guide unlocked the heavy door with a large wrought-iron key and we were shown down the stone steps opening out into a quite large tunnel, the evening sunlight peeking in from lower open old gun turrets.
Trickling droplets of damp dripped upon us from overhead and the eerie atmosphere and awesome silence seemed to hold us in a trance.
The tunnel seemed much longer than we had been anticipating and seemed to curl around to the right under another part of the castle.
The tones of the guide seemed to fade into the distance as the others walked ahead with him and kept within the glow of his flashlight. It was not really dark, just dusk from the enclosed brickwork all around.
Underfoot the muddy stones and gravel added to the scrunching sounds as ears overstretched into near-tinnitus.
Wearing flat shoes, my trouser bottoms were becoming wet and I stumbled over a protruding pebble accidentally kicking it out of place.
Stooping down to turn up my trouser bottoms I picked up the pebble and as I straightened up I bumped up against the flowing black skirt of a woman also stooping, appearing to be searching for something.
‘Oh! Sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t see you there.’
I gazed at the nipped-in waist of her skirt and black laced bodice, the long sleeves of her ensemble, gathered in at the wrist.
I looked up expecting to exchange a pleasant smile with her but I couldn’t believe my staring eyes as I suddenly realized she did not have a head...
With a swoosh she vanished through the wall of the tunnel.
Momentarily I felt suspended in time but shook out of it as my friend from the group ahead called out my name. Breathlessly, I hurried towards her.
‘You look as though you’ve seen a ghost’, she quaffed.
‘I did, I just did,’ I replied, almost collapsing up against her, still clutching the muddy pebble I had picked up and revealing to all in my chatter the experience I had just encountered.
‘You’re cold all over, a nice cup a tea is what you need,’ my friend said. ‘Let’s get you back to the Courtyard!’
We retraced our steps back along the tunnel towards the entrance, the guide leading the way.
As we approached the straight part of the tunnel I pointed out the place where the headless black-skirted woman had disappeared through the wall. The others jesting and chiding and keeping up their disbelieving chatter.
The tunnel guide, in politeness, flashed his torch in the direction of the wall and to our astonishment an archway of a different coloured textured stone could clearly be seen with a different type of brick filling the archway.
The very spot where the woman had floated through the wall.
The guide explained that in the year 1759 an accidental explosion blew up part of the castle nearly demolishing it.
It was left in that state until 1814 when the castle was completely renovated. At that time many of the offside tunnels were filled in to give more support to the castle buildings overhead – the very tunnel the ghost of the headless woman had disappeared through.
We hurried out of the tunnel, now all needing a cup of hot tea to revive our senses.
Sitting around the table in the courtyard café within the castle walls, sipping our hot cuppas, a call went out for us to pay for our tea.
Slipping my hand into my pocket I felt the muddy pebble I had tripped over earlier. I was wiping away the mud to reveal the stone beneath when to the astonishment and amazement of us all the mud revealed a large, shiny jet black button. We were all in awe.
Had the ghost of the headless woman in black appeared back to look for her lost jet button? We will never know...
Irene Strange is a former Southsea town councillor from 2001-2009. As well as a keen writer, Irene is a locally renowned artist.
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