The Joy Club member Elsa Browne shares an atmospheric ghost story set on Christmas eve…
Lucia Martinelli carefully picked a thread from the lapel of her smart navy jacket. It was pitch-black outside, cold and damp and she was satisfied that all the guests in the small country hotel were tucked up in their rooms after the evening meal – probably happily watching one of the streaming services available, perhaps already fast asleep. The kitchen staff had left in the shuttle bus and all was beautifully quiet. The current bunch of guests were unlikely to cause any problems tonight, time for a breather. She looked at the clock on the far side of the room. She still had an hour or two left on her reception shift before the handover to Ben, the Night Manager, who had sent a text to say he was running late.
Lost in thought, she rubbed at the empty spot on her finger where her Bisnonna’s ring usually sat. She had been very upset when a few weeks ago she had lost the beautiful enamelled pearl ring that had belonged to her beloved great-grandmother, whose name she carried.
With a small sigh, she turned the Christmas playlist down and left her post behind the counter to straighten an ornament on the imposing Christmas tree in the lobby, decorated with gleaming tinsel and many lights in stark contrast to the wintery scene outside. As a new staff member at the Raven’s Nest Inn, she was aware of the need to make a good impression.
She turned, startled, when a cold wind whirled into the room, causing the Christmas tree to ruffle before settling again, as if it had absorbed the unexpected icy blast of air. A young man had entered the foyer, and now moved purposefully towards the counter. With a few quick steps, Lucia was back at her reception post, a professional smile offered in greeting. “I’m sorry” she said “I don’t think we are expecting any more guests tonight, the hotel is full”. The man looked at her and spoke very quietly in his language, which she understood as “My room is waiting”. “Oh” replied Lucia “I’m new here, perhaps the staff forgot to mention it – which room would that be?” Pointing to a key hanging beside the rack he simply inclined his head, his face pale under the yellow lights. Lucia vaguely remembered that it was the key belonging to a room that stood alone in the grounds, a round, thatched hut that she was told in passing had been built by Italian prisoners-of-war in 1946.
She hesitantly handed over the key as he seemed so resolute and was surprised to feel a sensation of heat coming off his upturned palm, his grey eyes locked on hers. A feeling of great tenderness and love enveloped her for a moment. She tore her gaze away, at the same time as she felt something being pressed into her hand. Flustered, she closed her fingers around it, looked for a pen on the desk and reached for the written register. By the time she looked up again, he had swiftly slipped out through the front door just as soundlessly as he had entered. Lucia noted with a frown that he appeared to have no luggage, but at least his big overcoat was good for the weather on this freezing, cold night. But no gloves? Although the encounter had been disquieting, she did not feel afraid, just slightly unsettled by the experience. She felt flushed, warm. And was it her imagination or had the lights on the Christmas Tree become brighter? And what had he pressed into her hand? She unfurled her tightly clutched fingers and there in her palm was the ring she had lost.
Amazed, she left the desk and crossed quickly to the front door and peered out into the night with questions on her lips – how, where, had he found it? The shadows had swallowed up all movement, there was no recently parked car in the gloom, all was still. She would have to find out in the morning.
For now, she would ask Ben as soon as he arrived what he knew of this unusual latecomer. And she would alert the night porter. She picked up the internal phone but it emitted a high-pitched tone no matter how many times she pressed the button. Her mobile phone too had no signal. She decided to use the hotel computer to check the bookings, but the Wi-fi was down. She wrote it down on her notepad instead, feeling foolish for not even having a name to record.
Lucia slipped the ring back on her finger and momentarily wrapped one hand in the other, clutching them to her breast. She heard a click as the Wifi returned and the music came on. She turned the music up and busied herself with completing handover tasks. She was relieved when she heard the soft throb of Ben’s motorbike and the sound of boots on the gravel outside. He came in and shook the cold off his large, reassuring frame, stamping his feet on the mat. He placed his helmet behind the desk and smiled at her. “A night to remember, eh?” he said “it is so misty out there, quite spooky. Let’s do this handover so you can get to bed”.
“A really weird thing just happened” Lucia jumped straight in and animatedly told him about the late arrival, pointing at her note. Ben went very quiet. “That’s really strange” he said slowly. “We never book anyone into that room for a very good reason”. His gaze shifted to the floor and then to the door.
“We should have warned you because when we do hear about it, it is always on Christmas Eve, but very few people have actually seen anything, so we figure sometimes it’s best not to frighten the new staff. That room …” he went on “we stopped using it for guests some time ago when we had repeated reports of strange goings on. The guests always experienced the same thing – they would be fast asleep in the early hours of the morning, when they would be awoken by the sensation of a weight on the foot of the bed, as if someone had sat down, causing the mattress to sink so significantly, that it would wake them instantly. At the same time, the room would become icy cold and the lights would flicker. Alarmed and of course wide awake, they would check for anything that might have caused it – a resident cat, some thought? But all of them would say that the room was completely sealed, closed up, door locked and there was no way that anyone or anything could have come into the room”. Lucia gaped at him “What do you mean?” her voice was a squeak.
He carried on: “We’ve had guests leave in a hurry in the middle of the night, or they would spend the rest of the night sleepless and terrified. There were regular refund requests and how do you qualify that? Luckily, there were never any reports of anyone being harmed. Excepting, once” he pulled a face “I was in the room trying to placate a particularly upset guest who was shouting at me, when the heavy lid on the wooden chest in the corner was lifted and dropped, as if in warning. It even scared me and the guest joined me in a dash for the door. It was freaky!” He lifted his eyebrows in emphasis. “That was when we stopped booking that room”.
“Actually” he continued “I believe all of this has to do with the faint writing in Italian on one of the walls, I’ve got a pic of it on my phone” and he picked up his phone and scrolled through the images folder. He stopped to read hesitantly Ti amo e non ti lascerò mai”. Beside him, Lucia whispered the translation she had learnt as a child “I love you, and will never leave you”. He smiled broadly at her, his eyes twinkling in the lights of the tree. “Your Italian isn’t half bad, eh? But right now, it’s past midnight! Best we pick up on it tomorrow. A very Merry Christmas to you. Is it okay to give you a hug?”