The Crime Readers' Association

Out of Time by Dea Parkin

Classic ghost story, based on a true event

It was a small tour group, the first of the day. Just one family, a youngish couple with two children, both aged under ten, I guessed. We’d moved from the dark hall downstairs with the smoky fire – a hole in the roof was all they had as a chimney in medieval times. Now we were in the Elizabethan gallery, and I was talking about the handsome fireplace. The quartet stood in front of me, Mum and Dad behind the children.

Suddenly, as I was talking, the little girl jumped and turned round to her parents.

‘Did you do that?’

She sounded panicked.

Dad was puzzled. ‘Do what?’

‘Put your hand on my shoulder!’

‘We didn’t touch you.’

They hadn’t, either. I’d have seen. But no denying the girl looked scared. Her face was white, and although her brother teased her we all knew she wasn’t kidding. It was then that I caught sight of the hourglass on the tallboy. The sand was moving; a pale little heap had formed in the bottom bulb. At first it didn’t hit me, then my stomach clenched.

Looking at the children, and pointing at the hourglass, I asked, ‘Has anyone set the timer going?’

They said no, and anyway, we’d not yet crossed to the tallboy side of the room. We’d all come into the room together and they’d not wandered away from me. I made light of it, and no one said anything more on the subject. Soon we were downstairs on the stone flags of the Victorian kitchen, and the family visibly relaxed.

After the tour finished, I checked with Charlie, the Old Hall’s manager, who went over the site before the public arrived. He’d not turned the hourglass, he’d not even gone up to the gallery. Nothing for him to do up there. So – who?


My name is Christa and I am eight years old. Today, everything is madness. My mother is getting married again and there are people absolutely everywhere. I don’t like the noise, don’t like the laughter. It reaches after me no matter where I try to hide. Loud voices, lewd jokes. Most of all, I don’t like my new father. He is a big man, with burly red arms and a voice to match. Much of the time he ignores me, and I prefer it that way. Other times he yells at me, and, unless I’m lucky and my mother is there to intervene, he catches me a clout with his shovel-hands. At first I thought it was my fault, and maybe I am a lazy child, or a rebellious one, and Mother had never noticed. Now I know I am simply in his way.

I have never seen the Hall like it is today. There are beautiful hangings covering every part of the walls, and tables stand across the floor, laden with silver plate, elegant with white damask. The dogs have been put out, but then with the food-making that is going on in the kitchen across the way, and the meat slowly cooking on the huge spits in the courtyard beyond, they are constantly nosing round for what they can pilfer. So much noise. I go up to the solar in search of solitude.

My new father’s eldest son had the same idea. I turn to go, but he grabs my hands, swings me round, a precursor for the dancing that will follow the meal. The flagon at his side confirms that Cecil has been sampling the ale.

‘We must celebrate, Christa!’ he shouts, flinging me about. ‘Our families are united! It means great things, great things for my father and for us!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘We no longer want for money! My father can make a home that properly befits his position, and my brothers and I will be able to make our way in the world!’

I escaped his clutching hands, and took myself off. The Hall had never yielded riches in my father’s day. Why should it do so now?

Stepfather’s new quarry, it seemed, was the answer to that. Over the next months, the Hall began to change. The courtyard outside was paved, the open way to the kitchen enclosed. Mullioned glass appeared in widened window spaces. Most exciting of all, we were to have chimneys.

‘No more stifling in here while the smoke smarts our throats,’ boomed my new father. ‘We will breathe clean air, and the Hall will be known for it. People will point to me as the squire who ain’t afraid to embrace the latest thinking, and who has the money to do it, bigod!’

He was right, too. His new quarry made good money. As a result, my home was a constant hurly-burly of activity. Not only in creating the chimneys and windows. A whole new wing was added, so the Hall was almost unrecognisable from how it had looked in my father’s day, and for that matter a hundred and fifty years before that. We slept in chambers created in the new wing, and the solar upstairs was to be transformed into a long gallery, where Mother and I would do our sewing and the boys would play their games.


After I’d taken round my last tour of the day, I joined Charlie in a cuppa. He was intrigued by my tale of the invisible hand, and of the hourglass starting without me.

‘There’s always been rumours,’ he said with a sniff. ‘When they were doing all the alterations to the Hall, you know, before it was opened to the public, the workmen didn’t like being upstairs. Said they could hear a young girl, crying and calling out.’

‘Spooky,’ I said, shivers thrilling down my back, despite the hot tea. ‘Has anyone done any research?’

‘Oh aye, but nothing’s turned up. Still, this winter, there’s a team of archaeologists from the university coming to nose around. Who knows what they’ll find?’


As the chimney grew, I loitered around the workmen, even though I was forbidden, amazed at how the new edifice would hold the fire and channel smoke. I am afraid I aroused Stepfather’s wrath on more than one occasion. At last, it was finished. As well as a vast fireplace in the Hall downstairs, there was one slightly smaller in the gallery, before the whole structure exploded from the roof in a profusion of fancy brickwork chimneys. It did look grand, Mother and I had to confess.

Indeed, it fascinates me still. A week after all work is completed, leaving the gallery strangely silent and echoing, I decide to examine the fireplace alone. It is days since my new father roared at me for peeking inside, and as the June sun shines brightly, the gallery is empty, and no fire has yet been lit!

I stand in the fireplace and gaze up, up. The chimney twists and turns and while I can make out gleaming quartz in the stone, disappointingly I can’t see daylight. I turn to face back into the gallery, and extend my hands to touch the stone all around me, as far and as high as I can reach.  Smooth, cold – oh! A jagged piece of rock grazes my hand. I stretch towards it, struggling to see in the dim light. It is a big chunk of stone, set into the wall at about my head height. It would easily be big enough to take my foot… I drag a stool in from the gallery. A moment’s scrambling and I am perched on the stone. I reach upwards, and – there is another stone, just within reach. Climbing up a ladder of step-stones, I find myself kneeling on a wide ledge, some way up in the chimney. Is this why my new father doesn’t want me playing here? I cautiously move along. First I encounter a big square rock, a great heavy thing, stood on its end. Beyond that…the chimney wall yields to dark nothingness. I explore with my arms. A cavity, a large hidey-hole. How exciting! Maybe I can store my treasures here – but no, Stepfather will no doubt be entrusting his gold to this space and he will not want to share. The thought of his anger makes me hasten to descend to the fireplace before I am missed. My hair I know will be unbound, and my face no doubt grubbier than usual. I need the ewer in my bedchamber. I jump down from the stool, and start as I feel a fierce grip on my shoulder. Yelping in pain, I am turned towards my stepfather’s furious face.

‘I told you not to play in the fireplace, did I not!’ he shouts. ‘And now you have found what I wanted to remain secret! You are a heedless, unruly child!’

He propels me across the room, and I expect a whipping, but suddenly he stops, his hands still on my shoulders.

‘No,’ he says, ‘I know a better way for you to learn obedience. You are so anxious to spy in the dark, well then, you shall find a fitting master in yon chimney.’ And though I kick and shriek, he pulls me back towards the fireplace. Wrapping his brawny arm around me, he spares his other hand to reach the hourglass that sits on the chest beneath the window and sets it in motion. ‘I shall release you when the sands have run out, not before. By then you will be a more compliant girl, I trust!’

Bundling me before him up the chimney step-stones, he roughly pushes me along the ledge and into the hideous black opening. I am beginning to think I shall soon escape as he can hardly hold me here for an hour, when I hear the screech of heavy stone pushed along the ledge. The darkness becomes complete as the stone plug traps me in the hole, and I scream and shout, but to no avail. The rock is so thick I can’t even hear Stepfather’s descent back into the gallery, and I know from the first moment of heaving my shoulder against the stone that I won’t be able to shift it, though I continue to try, clawing and crying. It is so very dark.

And airless. I stop my crying when I realise I am short of breath. I try to stay calm: an hour, now somewhat less; it is not too long. Yet the air is diminishing, I fear, faster than the sands. When faintness assaults me, I resolve to push again at the stone, but the darkness is so clagging I no longer know in which direction it lies. My courage fails and I weep anew. I wonder, does my stepfather understand that I am running out of air? Will he come to my aid? Before my time runs out? For surely, the sands will be too late. What will he say to my mother? When he finds he has killed me? Or will he keep his secret hidden? Her sorrow. My terror. I cry without ceasing…


When the archaeologists come to the Old Hall at the end of the season, I make it my business to hang around. Nothing else has happened on any of my tours, but I haven’t forgotten the fear on that little girl’s face. I’m intrigued to see the team’s explorations.

And so I am in the room when a ledge is discovered high in the chimney of the upstairs fireplace, and when a tiny chamber is found – and its grisly contents. The skeleton of a young child, hundreds of years old. There is much excitement, consternation, people yelling, people dashing about. So it could have been anyone who knocked over the old hourglass. I spot it on the floorboards, the glass broken, its sands spilling free.




For more about Dea Parkin, Secretary of the CWA, see this page.

View all stories

Join the CRA

Joining the CRA is FREE. There are no lengthy forms to fill out and we need nothing but your email. You will receive a regular newsletter but no spam.