It was the end of a long, long day, and Christine was more weary than usual because of Holly the new girl’s mishap. While cleaning the upstairs Pamper Suite, the clumsy young thing had managed to upset one of the masseuse’s trolleys. The full range of expensive essential oils it had contained tumbled to the tile floor, entirely covering it with shattered glass and staining oils and filling the room with an unbalanced, nauseating blend of odour that was more stink than scent. The damage stretched to several hundred pounds, while also rendering the whole room unusable.
Christine had sent the weeping girl home and, short staffed and with the spa fully booked for the day, had shut the Pamper Suite down, offering gift vouchers and a free Turkish Bath session to the three disappointed clients who turned up for pre-booked aromatherapy massages. It would need a full deep clean before it could once more accept bare-footed, sensitive-nosed customers.
She called Holly later in the day to check that she was all right. Having spent so many years at the baths – as both patron and employee – Christine had come to view the place and the people who worked in it as a second home and family. It was her duty of care to ensure that the poor girl wasn’t too upset or beating herself up. The oils and any damage, after all, were covered by the salon’s insurance.
Even though she was so worn out, Christine had sent all the other staff home as soon as they had finished the scrub down after the evening session, rather than, as was normal practice, everyone staying until she had made her final check. The reason for her kindness was that it was a freezing night, with heavy snow forecast for later, and, mother hen that she was, she liked the thought of the four young women who had worked the shift with her safely back home before it really set in. ‘Anything iffy we can sort out in the morning,’ she told them. ‘Along with the deep clean of the Pamper Suite.’
In her flip-flops and light work overall, she began her closing-down tour of the building, turning lights off as she went. As usual, she worked in reverse to the route a bather would use to visit the warm rooms, checking the Laconium, Calidarium and Tepidarium from hot to cold.
It was a comforting job. The rooms rarely cooled completely, the old tiles working like a storage heater, retaining the heat until the morning, when the boilers kicked off again with their distinctive sigh, rattle and clang.
Christine liked the rare occasions she could be in the baths when everyone else had gone home, when she was on her own with the lingering heat and the impressions – both physical and otherwise – made by over a century of bodies passing through, healing, relaxing, restoring. She often said to the girls that when it was her turn, she’d come back and haunt the place, she loved it so much.
Thinking about this, she worked her way through the changing rooms, drawing each red curtain aside and checking inside each dark-wood cubicle. As she stooped to pick up a stray sock from the floor – and how could anyone not notice that they had forgotten a sock, for goodness sake? – she suddenly had a blinding sense that tonight she was far from on her own. There was someone – or something – in the building with her.
‘Hello?’ she called into the Frigidarium, whose relaxation beds, draped with fresh towels for the following day’s session, glowed eerily in the moonlight from the glazed dome above them. The ornate patterns on the terrazzo floor – lain when the building was first erected by itinerant Italian craftsmen using a method so esoteric that they insisted on working in secret – seemed to dance underneath the Moorish arches, making Christine feel dizzy.
As well as being put on edge by this sense of another presence, she was also excited. A couple of the girls claimed to have seen a ghostly white figure flitting around the building. This made Christine secretly a little jealous. As far as she knew, she was more intimately connected with Harrogate Turkish Baths than any other person living or dead, and it seemed unfair – disappointing, even – that she had not yet, to date, been visited.
But perhaps this was her chance, finally, to meet The Ghost.
She stopped and peered into the recesses of the Frigidarium. Was the water in the plunge pool at the end of the hall moving more than usual? It was never entirely still, thanks to the filtration system, but it seemed to Christine that the lunar reflections it was casting on the dark-tiled back wall were far busier than they should be.
‘Hello?’ she called again. She grabbed a mop and, holding it before her like a weapon, advanced slowly into the Frigidarium and through into the areas she had not yet checked.
Perhaps it wasn’t a ghost, though. Perhaps it was a person.
It was one of her nightmares, that. Locking up the baths while a customer was left inside. It had never happened, and it was highly unlikely – if not impossible – but nevertheless, Christine still dreaded it.
The girls had scrubbed down, though, and it wasn’t as if the baths had lots of hiding places. Of course there wouldn’t be anyone there. The only potential danger spot she could think of was the steam room. When they had renovated the baths they had put a wooden door on it just like the old one, but being made of younger wood it had swollen and developed a tendency to jam. It had never got to the point of someone getting stuck inside, but they had to put the steam room out of use for a while until the wooden door was replaced with something far more functional but less authentic made of sandblasted glass.
Christine crept past the rippling waters of the plunge pool. She felt like a cautious cat who knew that someone – or something – had somehow strayed into her territory. If she had been covered in fur, it would have been standing on end.
Cautiously, she swung the steam room door open, and a great cloud of vapour poured out – far more than she would have expected that long after the mechanism had been turned off.
Then, coming out of nowhere into the silence of the empty rooms, a large gurgle and hiss made Christine’s face prickle and her vision swim. But then the eucalyptus scent hit her nostrils and she realised that it was just that the steam generator was still on. The problem was simply that one of the girls had forgotten to turn it off.
Christine allowed her imaginary fur to settle back down as she closed the glass door and reached up for the isolator switch to turn it off. Slightly disappointed, she set off back again through the Frigidarium, towards the stairs which led to the upper changing rooms and Pamper Suite.
But as she put her foot on the bottom step, she was, once again, hit with the certainty of another presence in the building.
‘Hello?’ she called into the dimly lit area above her. Grabbing the mop again, she climbed the steps. Then she stopped and frowned. Was that sobbing she heard?
An itch on her skin, she checked each of the upstairs cubicles, but they were all empty. Edging towards the Pamper Suite – the one room no-one had gone into that night, because it was awaiting its deep clean the following morning – she felt her heart fluttering in her chest. The strange wailing sound seemed to be coming from behind its door.
Was she about to meet The Ghost?
Fearing she might faint with the fear and the excitement, Christine forcefully pushed the door open. What she actually saw, though, shocked her more than any ghost.
As her brain adjusted to the onslaught of an injudicious mixture of fifty different highly concentrated oils, she saw that the lights were turned fully on, all the furniture was pushed to the edges of the room and there, in the middle of the floor, squatted with her face to the tiles, a pair of tweezers in her fingers, was Holly.
The sobbing was coming from Holly, who should have been back at home.
‘What on earth are you doing here, love?’ Christine said, trying to make her voice sound gentle through the shock.
‘I’m so sorry, Christine.’ Holly raised her tear-stained, snot-blotched face to look at her boss. ‘I didn’t mean to be found out. I really mucked up with my clumsy galumphing around and I didn’t want the Pamper Room to be closed tomorrow, on my account, so I thought I’d hide and get on with the clean tonight when everyone had gone home. I thought everyone had gone home. Please don’t tell on me Christine. I only wanted to undo the bad I’d done.’
‘Oh, love,’ Christine said, all fear displaced by compassion for the wretched girl. ‘What are you doing with them tweezers?’
‘I’m picking out the glass. There’s so much of it.’
Christine helped Holly up. ‘But look at your knees, pet,’ she said. Blood was soaking into the girl’s tights where she had kneeled on the broken glass. ‘It’s only stuff, love. It’s you I’m more worried about. Thank goodness I found you before I set the burglar alarm.’
‘There’s a burglar alarm?’
‘Course there is, you daft ninny. It’d have brought the police round and there would’ve been a right to-do. Come on. I’ll fix them knees and make us both a cup of tea.’
All ghostly ambition put aside, Christine led poor Holly through the downstairs changing room, towards the little staff kitchen. But before she left the baths area, something made her turn to take one last look back down the Frigidarium.
It was unmistakable.
In the thick silence, a white shape, like a woman in underskirts, darted across the corner of her eye, leapt – impossibly – onto the ledge of the plunge pool and disappeared into the water, leaving not even a ripple.
‘Did you see that?’ Christine said, her mouth wide open.
‘See what?’ Holly said.
‘Oh, never mind.’ Grateful and pleased beyond all measure, Christine smiled and put her arm around the girl. ‘Now, how about that cup of tea?’