David McVey, 6/13/2016
Current Occupation: Lecturer
Former Occupation: Tax Officer, Grouse Beater, Stocktaker (one night only), Learning Materials Developer
Contact Information: David McVey lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire in Scotland. He has published over 100 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors and which ranges from academic papers to light, humorous material. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching TV, and supporting his home-town football (soccer) team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.
The Door to Room 108
On one side of the campus building there was an ornamental loch. The council had intended it to be the focal point of a dramatic civic space that would bring together students and the wider community and which would be enhanced by swans and ducks and other serene wildfowl. Over the years, however, it had become neglected and the mouldering benches were only ever occupied by anti-social drinkers in giggling or argumentative groups. There were no ducks on the water, just the previous day’s cans and bottles bobbing gently in the breeze. Those white things on the surface weren’t swans, but discarded plastic bags from the supermarket which squatted in the middle of a vast windy car park on the far side of the loch.
The campus had never really imposed itself on the town. Built about ten years before, it was a striking and attractive modern building, an outpost, in this post-industrial Dunbartonshire town, of a larger college some miles away. The new campus struggled to fill courses and the building often felt empty. The vision of crowds of happy motivated students spilling out on sunny days to gather by the loch, bringing an air of culture and learning to the town, had long gone.
I taught a Core Skills class for a group of beauticians there on Tuesday afternoons, in a stuffy room crammed with whirring and purring PCs. But if the teaching rooms were functional, the public areas of the campus building were near-inspirational – high-ceilinged and spacious with huge windows that let in all the light that even a grudging December day could supply. Yet there was a sadness too; voices echoed and were lost and disappeared. There simply weren’t enough people to give the building life, to make it buzz.
One Tuesday I arrived early to set up Room 106 for my beauticians. I collected the room key from Louise at reception and climbed the stairs to the first floor. I paused at the landing window to watch the glinting midwinter light on the stagnant loch. Then, when I opened the door of 106, I felt myself almost physically blown back as an eruption of stifling hot air burst from the room.
I switched on the light, squirmed out of my coat and jacket, and sped over to the window and threw it open. I was already so hot that once I had it wide open I hung out of the window sucking in the cool winter air and again looked out over the deserted loch to the distant supermarket.
When I had recovered, I checked the radiator; not surprisingly, it was on full and was still churning out heat. I turned it off, went back to the window and opened it out as far as I dared, and then wedged the door to the corridor open, too. One more thing occurred to me; there was a door that led through to Room 108, near the window. I went over to it and tried to open it, but it seemed to be locked. Not long afterwards, the first beauticians began to arrive; even with the radiator off and the window open, the room had something of a sauna about it. ‘You trying tae stew us tae death?’ asked one student.
Outside, the light faded and gathering clouds hastened the dusk. The room cooled only slowly and at around half-past three I decided the students had had enough. They printed out their work and were filing over to my desk to hand it to me when there was a dull thud and the door to 108 flew open and banged against the wall.
‘Ha!’ one of the girls said, ‘It’s a ghost!’
I peeked into the darkness of Room 108 but there was no one there. I closed the door again and looked out of the window; it was dark and gloomy but there seemed to be little wind. Some freak draught must have blown the door open, though. Mind you, I’d been sure it was locked when I checked it before class. Perhaps in the heat it had expanded and stuck.
The girls had all gone. I closed the door to the corridor and sat at the tutor PC to catch up with the online register, with paperwork and with emails. By the time I was ready to leave, it was nearly twenty past four and quite dark outside, the northern winter obliterating all. I checked that all of the PCs were switched off and switched off the lights.
As I handed over to the keys to Louise, I mentioned the heating being on full blast. ‘That’s funny,’ she said, ‘no one’s used that room since Monday morning. Shouldn’t have been anything amiss.’
‘Maybe one of the cleaners left it on?’ I suggested, and immediately a hoarse voice sounded behind me, ‘Naw, one of the cleaners didnae leave it on.’ It was Janice, a venerable cleaner that we all knew. ‘If the heating’s left on at the end of the day we turn it down just enough to keep aff the frost. So there!’
‘Sorry, Janice, didn’t mean to cause offence.’
‘Nane taken. We know who left the heating on, eh, Louise?’ And the two women exchanged a knowing look.
Just before I headed out, I paused to study how the darkness seemed to invade around the building. The vast amount of exterior glass admitted light during the day, but in the evening it seemed to bring the dark closer. Louise was clearing up behind the reception desk, Janice and another cleaner were unravelling the cords of their vacuum cleaners, and a couple of dedicated students were tapping away at PCs in the library. There were other people around, of course; some blocks of offices in the building were leased out to the council and to government organisations, but they kept themselves to themselves and usually exited en masse on the point of quarter to five. I was struck by the quiet and the peace and the forlorn sense of empty space. Then I wrapped up and went into the cold outside. In the light from the streetlamps, the loch was like a sheet of dirty glass.
I taught classes in the main campus on Wednesdays. At lunchtime, when I was in the Core Skills staff base, I mentioned the heating and door incidents of the previous day to the other lecturers. ‘Must be some flaws in the building,’ I said.
Graham, a grizzled old social scientist, exchanged a look with Sally, a young Communications lecturer. I was fairly new to my part-time post but I was learning that exchanged looks were quite a thing in this college.
‘Have you heard the stories about Craigwell Campus, Jimmy?’ Graham asked me.
‘I don’t know what you believe about these things,’ Graham went on, ‘but there’s a lot of talk, from a lot of folk, about a ghost…’
The casual remark of one of my beauticians came back to me, but then I said ‘Come on – it’s a new building, we’re intelligent people, who would believe…’ As I spoke, Graham turned and looked pointedly at Sally.
‘I know what it sounds like,’ said Sally, seriously, ‘but I was in a class in Room 108 last semester. I had a folder of marking that I was about to give to the students. I was on my own in front of the class, and the folder was wrenched, wrenched, away from me and landed on the floor with all the work spilling out.’
‘It wasn’t a…’
‘No, it wasn’t a student acting the fool. No one was near me. I just told the students I’d dropped them, but they knew something funny had happened.’
‘And then there was the lady – what was her name? – that was on reception before Louise,’ Graham went on. ‘She saw something, someone, a woman, she said, in old Victorian clothes, but poor people’s clothes. None of your Downton Abbey.’
‘Where was this?’
‘Just in the space in front of the reception desk. Next time she looked the thing was gone.’
We were silent for a while.
‘What was on the site before?’ I asked.
‘Iron foundry,’ said Tricia, who would know, as history was her subject, ‘it shut down during Thatcherism.’
What appeal could a cleared industrial site that now housed a bright, modern building have for a traditional ghost? I said no more but remained convinced that there must be natural, physical explanations for the things people had experienced. Perhaps oddities in the heating system had caused the door to blow open, perhaps an involuntary muscle spasm had caused Sally to lose her folder…
And the figure Louise’s predecessor had seen? Well, difficult to know without knowing the person. Perhaps she was imaginative, easily spooked, prone to seeing things, perhaps had to leave for that very reason. The subject lapsed, and soon we all left for our afternoon classes.
Next Tuesday I was back at Craigwell Campus for my beauticians at 2pm. It was the last week before we broke up for Christmas. The day was cold but cloudy, a still settled gloom; just the sort of day for gathering round a roaring fire in an Oxbridge college while someone read an MR James ghost story. I arrived at the campus and the door swished aside ahead of me and I signed in and started chatting with Louise.
I collected the key for Room 106, climbed the stairs, turned the key in the lock and was pleased not to be thrown back by a blast of hot air. In fact it was quite chilly so I turned the radiator up a little. I tried the door leading to 108 and it opened easily. No one was next door; the room was in darkness, blinds drawn, with just the occasional winking of lights on PCs.
The students arrived, noisy and boisterous, one or two of them wearing Santa hats. They had some work to submit before Christmas so I told them to finish it, print out a copy for me, after which they could go. They booted their PCs up and were soon tapping away and chatting quietly. I sat at the tutor PC and went online. I knew that the National Library website had a wide range of digital historical maps, so that you could gradually go back or forward in time to see how a particular town or site had developed. First, I found a large-scale pre-war Ordnance Survey map of the area. A huge square on the site of the supermarket, car park, loch and campus was shown as ‘Works’ – this was the famous iron foundry. As I went further back, I learned that the foundry had been there as early as 1880, though smaller in extent.
The printer sang into life and there were footsteps behind me. ‘I’m finished, Jimmy.’
The student handed me her work and I wished her a good Christmas. As the other students worked on, I checked even older maps, going right back to Roy and Blaeu and Pont. Before the foundry the site was some distance from the main settlement of the town, but a few little dots appeared there on some 18th century maps, probably indicating cottages, or, at least, buildings of some sort.
Room 106 had an awkward layout, so that when I was intent on my PC, the students were all behind me. There was a succession of episodes where the printer whirred and shortly afterwards a student coughed apologetically behind me before presenting their work. Several times I became so caught up in this historical research – not really my field – that only a sense of being watched, an awareness of a presence behind me, alerted me to the fact that another student had finished her work and was waiting impatiently to be released for the Christmas break.
And then the time came when the last student was done. I added her work to the pile on the desk before me and wished her the best for the season. By then I had found an academic history website and was trying to find some resources about the town and its past. There was nothing about any small settlements that existed before the foundry. The latest map I’d found from before the building of the foundry, dating from 1865, did still show buildings on the site. Had people lost their homes to make way for the foundry?
Again I felt that sense that there were eyes fixed on me, that someone was waiting behind me. I was about to wheel round in my seat to face another student when I remembered that they had all gone.
The sense of someone else remained. There was silence but for the gentle bleeps and clicks that characterise any room with PCs. Neither the light nor the temperature had changed, but I was being watched, there was someone in the room with me and yet for some reason I couldn’t turn round. I’d found nothing to account for the supposed hauntings in the historical or cartographic record. But, now, I knew something was in the room, that cold eyes were fixed on me.
I sat frozen and admitted to myself that I was terrified. I still couldn’t turn round, but running over in my mind were all the other incidents I had experienced or heard about. And then the hairs on the back of my neck grew rigid because I heard soft footsteps, right behind me…
‘Jimmy, sorry, I forgot my scarf.’ Donna, one of the last students to leave, had returned and crept in the wedged-open door. ‘You all right, Jimmy? You look…’
‘No, Donna, nothing. Tell me, did you see anyone else in here when you came back in?’
‘Eh, no, everybody’s away. You sure you’re all right?’
It was quite dark outside when I shut the blinds, checked that all the PCs were off, switched off the lights and closed the door. Back at reception, I wished Louise a happy Christmas and said that I’d see her after the break. Already I was convincing myself that my imagination alone had created some creeping horror just out of my sight.
I stepped out into the chill of the evening. By the shore of the loch, I turned to look back at the building.
The light was on in Room 106. And was that a faint human figure visible just back from the window?
It was probably the cleaner, I told myself. Who else could it be? I turned back to face the loch and followed the path that led to the bus stop. I had to get home as there was still some prep to do for my classes later in the week.