It’s almost midnight. Sky and sea are faded to indigo, as though there is nothing beyond. A moon just past full wallows in the sky. The church is the highest point on the coast. It’s spire is a beacon on the landscape, visible from sea or land from miles distant. A violet blush illuminates its windows from within, hinting at something taking place inside. At this time of night on a Saturday, the coast isn’t quiet. Revellers weave along the sea front, making their way home from a night out. Cars pull up in the car park, their owners greeting one another before pumping away along the coast road. Soon they will all be gone, leaving this domain to the gulls and the crows once more, but first, I have an appointment with some ghosts.
Tonight is the launch of Cold Iron, an anthology of 21st Century ghost stories, in which my story The Last Bus Home appears. The launch is part of the Iron in the Soul festival, a series of literary events taking place across the town of Cullercoats. Cullercoats has a history as a cultural centre. Founded in 1539 to support fishing, coal and salt mining, it is little more than a small village, perched above a crescent shaped beach surrounded by caves. But from 1870 to 1920, it was an artists’ colony and Winslow Homer lived here for two years, painting the fishwives as they worked on the beach.
The launch takes place at St George’s Church, a large, French Gothic church built in1884 by the Duke of Northumberland in memory of his father. Inside, the church soars on sandstone arches, with high windows. There is a sense of height and narrowness, the curves drawing your eye up to the ceiling. Most of the church is in darkness, but there is a purple cast to the apse and three sanctuary lamps burn red before the altar. As we enter, the organ soars. It is considered one of the best church organs in the country and fills the space with deep, rich notes.
I’ve always been interested in ghosts. I like their magic and their mystery, though I don’t know whether I believe they are the spirits of departed souls. My story is set on a bus, the last bus home of the title. There is something lonely and eerie about an empty bus, travelling through the darkness, particularly on a rainy night. The drone of the engine, the gentle movement, transporting you to another place. There is something about a bus that encourages reverie. A bus is full of anonymous people thrown together by their need to get somewhere. You don’t know what their story is or who – or what – they are.
The readings introduce us to a variety of ghosts, all in modern settings. In between, we drink hot chocolate and listen to the moan of the organ music. When we emerge into the night, the revellers have gone and the coast is quiet. The sound of the organ still vibrates, along with the gentle roar of the sea. We have listened to their stories and now we leave the night to its ghosts.