The Crime Readers' Association

The Yacht Trip by Fiona Veitch Smith

A spooky ghost story to make your spine tingle

It was the silken sand slipping through my sandals. It was the cloud-filtered sun caressing my back. It was the heavy breathing of the North Sea surf. It was every summer holiday and every dream of every winter’s night. It was déjà vu.

My notebook was sweating leather against my palm. It was like Dad’s wallet clutched in my hand while I waited in line for the ice-cream van – newly painted a brilliant white.          “Are you coming on the yacht trip?” said a soft voice behind me.

I turned, half expecting to see my little sister devouring a Choc 99 with gap-toothed glee. But instead I saw a grey child wrapped in the shadows of a basalt cliff. Her short curly hair was a shineless brown, springing from under a felt beret. A matching grey double-breasted coat was unbuttoned, showing a baby-doll pinafore in gingham fawn. The only concessions to the balmy weather were white cotton bobby socks, peeking over black Shirley Temple shoes.  She reminded me of an old photograph of my grandma and her school pals in the 1930s – strange garb for a twenty-first century child.

“Are you coming on the yacht trip?” she asked again, pointing to a sleek white boat, moored at the end of the jetty.

“No, but I’m here to find out about one.”

“Who you going to ask?” she probed suspiciously.

“Jennifer Foster.”

“She’s my grandmother,” said the child, without expression. “It’s her birthday today. We’re having a party.”

“A 1930s party?” I asked, still worrying about the clothes.

“Of course,” said the child, smiling curiously. My breathing settled. And for the first time I saw that she was pretty, that fawn-grey girl, with eyes the colour of a Northumberland sky on the brightest of August days.

“Can you take me to her?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the girl, then turned and scampered up a staircase hewn out of the cliff. I followed as quickly as I could but not as quickly as the child would have liked. “You’ll have to hurry, we’re getting ready for the yacht trip, remember?”

“I remember,” I panted, trying to get my 40-year-old legs to keep pace with the little mountain goat. With barely a breath to spare we summitted the cliff onto an immaculately kept lawn. It was as smooth as a bowling green, with vertical lines mowed from the cliff edge to a Victorian-built house. As a child, I would have been tempted to race my brother and sister in make-believe Olympics, each of us in our own lane. But I doubted if any child, particularly the one beside me, was permitted to frolic on that pristine surface.

The sun was still bright when I entered that garden and a warm breeze was blowing off the sea. But with each step closer to the neo-gothic structure, a cold chill crept under the hem of my blouse and settled itself on either side of my spine. The three-storey house, built from the same rock as the cliff, was taller than it was wide. The slate roof was heavy with blackened moss. Two towers bracketed a vaulted central hall. An arched doorway, that almost reached to the second storey, gaped, open-mouthed, with a tongue of steps unfurling to the edge of the path. A dozen windows stared omnisciently across the lawn.

“You can see the Island from here,” said the girl at my side.

“Really?” I asked, grateful for a reason to turn my back on the house.

“Yes. Over there,” she said, pointing to the north-east.

And she was right. I could. Lindisfarne, like a misshapen, upside-down saucer, rose gently out of the North Sea. The tide was in and the causeway covered, separating Holy Island from the rest of the world.

“Do you get lonely?” I asked the little girl beside me, although I wasn’t sure why the question occurred to me.

She turned her sky-blue gaze from the ocean to the house behind us and said: “Sometimes.”

Suddenly, at a window on the second floor, a figure appeared, staring right at us. It was an elderly woman, yet she stood as tall and erect as the house itself.

“Is that your grandmother?”

“Yes,” said the girl, “that’s Jennifer Foster.”

“And what’s your name?” I asked.

“The same. But they call me Jenny.”

I looked again to the window, but the woman was gone.

As I stepped over the threshold my toe caught the edge of a newspaper on the doormat. I picked it up and gave it to Jenny. She tossed it onto a table with some other post. And then the headline caught my eye: ‘An Olive Branch for Herr Hitler’, with a picture of the Fuhrer saluting the parading athletes at the Berlin Olympics.

“Good heavens, Jenny, that’s a very valuable newspaper. It’s historic; it shouldn’t just be lying around.”

“Sorry, I didn’t know,” said the girl with a shrug.

With the original 1936 newspaper in a safer place, I took in the rest of my surroundings. We were in a dimly lit foyer, which was dominated by an enormous chandelier that looked like it hadn’t been serviced since the 1930s. A stained glass window, of some or other coat of arms, filtered light down the first flight of stairs. The walls were darkly panelled in teak.

I heard muted voices coming from a closed door to my left. I turned towards them.

“That’s the library,” said Jenny. “My parents are there and my aunt and uncle and cousins. But Grandma will be upstairs.”

Suddenly, a gust of wind was sucked into the foyer. The post on the table scattered like loose leaves and the heavy oak door slammed shut. Silence, like dust, settled all around us.

“The wind’s getting up.”

“Yes,” agreed Jenny, in barely a whisper, then she led me up the stairs. Watchful eyes monitored our ascent: a series of portraits; all of them of women, unsmiling women.

“Grandma’s mother and grandmother and aunt and great-aunt and cousin and sister and great-grandmother,” Jenny recited as we approached the second floor.

“Have you brought her?” A sharp voice sliced through the child’s thin tones.

“Yes, Grandma,” said Jenny and pushed open a door at the top of the stairs.

She stepped back to reveal an austere reception room – all port leather and green velvet. Two high-back, winged armchairs flanked a cold fireplace overhung by a life-size portrait of a severe young woman in Victorian garb. The chill blue eyes stared disapprovingly above my head.

“May I help you?” said a voice as cool as the painted eyes. It was the same woman I had seen looking at us on the lawn. In keeping with the 1930s theme, she wore a charcoal jacket over an ash-silk blouse and a straight, ankle-length skirt. Her hair was a streaky grey, finger-waved and firmly set. She reminded me of an ageing Wallis Simpson.

She looked at me with a pair of pale blue eyes, then her bloodless lips parted and repeated the question: “May I help you?”

“I’m Martha Stiles from the Historical Society. I rang yesterday…”

“You rang?”

“Yes. About the yacht trip.”

“I’m afraid it’s a private party.”

“No, not this one. Seventy years ago. When all your family were killed…”

There was a sharp intake of breath. “I don’t know what you are talking about and I would prefer not to waste any more time on it.”

“But you said yesterday …”

Miss Foster pulled back her bony shoulders, jutted out her chin and fixed her ice-cold eyes on me: “I don’t know what your game is, young woman, but I must ask you to leave.

“I’m sorry, Miss Foster, but when we spoke on the phone…”

“I’m sorry, Miss Stiles, but we did not. Good day.” Her hand reached for an ornate brass telephone on a roll-top desk. “I shall summon the constabulary…”

“There’s no need, Miss Foster, I’m going,” I said and shook my head in anger and pity.

I retreated under the disapproving stares of Miss Foster’s female ancestors, crossed the sepulchral foyer and, accompanied by a faint rustle of voices from the library, opened the heavy oak door.  I bounded down the steps two at a time and took in huge gulps of summer air.

Fifteen minutes later I had rounded the base of the cliff and was halfway up the grassy hill on the way back to Bamburgh. The sea breeze was turning chill and I wished I’d brought a cardigan on that fruitless outing. I rubbed my arms to keep warm and picked up the pace. I wondered if I would have enough material without Jennifer Foster’s input. The Historical Society’s archives would certainly help, but my proposed research paper would be a lot thinner without the eyewitness account.

Jennifer Foster was the only survivor of a famous yachting tragedy in 1936. She was accidentally left behind when her family set sail on a pleasure cruise around the Farne Islands. It had been a beautiful summer’s day; much like this one, and no one expected the sudden squall. The yacht’s radio wasn’t working, so by the time a passing fishing boat alerted the coastguard that the vessel was in trouble, it had capsized, drowning three generations of Fosters.

But without Miss Foster’s input all I had were the copies of contemporary newspapers and the notes in my leather-bound book.

The book! I didn’t have it! Come to think of it, I didn’t remember feeling the soft leather in my palm since leaving Foster Cove. I headed back down the hill towards the beach, just in time to see the yacht pulling away from the jetty. I rounded the cliff and scoured the sand but couldn’t see the book anywhere. I sighed again, and looked at the cliff shrouded in shadow.

By the time I negotiated the summit without having found the book, I was extremely frustrated. The last thing I wanted was to have to wait until the Fosters returned from their trip. And while I had chosen to walk the scenic route to the isolated cove, the charm had soon worn off. I would cut through the gardens and go out the front gate to the road. I wasn’t sure if any buses came that far out, otherwise I would have to walk back to Bamburgh. Assuming I got home safely, I would telephone tomorrow to enquire about my book then drive over and pick it up.

Then suddenly, the great oak door opened and a bright young girl in a sunflower T-shirt and orange shorts skipped down the steps and cartwheeled across the forbidden lawn. I stopped and watched the whirling child with her cascade of glossy brown hair. She flopped to a dizzy stop, tossed her hair back and turned her beautiful young face to the sky. It was Jenny. She’d changed out of her dreary fancy dress and discarded her sombre demeanour.

“Jenny!” I said and walked towards her.

“It’s Jenna.” She laughed and pulled her hair back into a loose ponytail, looking at me enquiringly.

“The notebook. I forgot my notebook.”

Her sky-lit eyes widened and her little chin dropped in shock. “Martha? You’re Martha?” she asked, incredulously.

“Of course. I’ve lost my notebook. Have you seen it?”

“You bet!” she said and grabbed my hand, dragging me towards the house. Relieved, I followed the girl up the steps and into the foyer. But it was different from half an hour earlier – someone had opened the curtains and the tomb-like space was flooded with light. And there were flowers, too: freshly picked roses and lavender, crammed into vases on windowsills. The library door was now open and I could see Jenny’s family chatting happily. Two women were facing each other on a sea-coloured sofa while their men stood conversing near an open window. Two boys, a few years younger than Jenny, were playing rough ‘n’ tumble on a brightly woven rug.

“You didn’t go on the yacht trip?” I asked.

“Of course not, silly!” said Jenny (or was it Jenna?), and then bounded halfway up the stairs. “Grandma! Grandma! Come quickly, it’s Martha!”

“Martha? You’re Martha Stiles?” asked one of the women from the library.

“Yes, I’m sorry I didn’t meet you earlier.”

“It’s Martha!” said the woman to her companions. “Mum said she would come back. And today of all days!” The whole family leapt up and hurried into the foyer. The woman who first spoke put her arm around me and turned me towards the stairs.

And then I saw her. Jennifer Foster. She too had changed out of her fancy dress and was wearing loose slacks, comfortable sandals and a fresh white blouse. She’d brushed out her dark grey hair and it fell flatteringly around her distinctively boned face.  She walked down the stairs, past her unsmiling female ancestors, and came to a stop in a pool of sunlight. She was holding my notebook in both hands, like a missal; the leather was cracked and brittle. She was shaking slightly and her lips, now painted a soft pink, quivered uncontrollably.

“Miss Foster?”

“Please, call me Jenny,” she said gently, and her eyes, wet with tears, looked longingly into mine. “I knew you’d come. Someday. But part of me knew it would always be today. My grandmother’s birthday.”

“When I rang yesterday…”

“I’d been expecting your call. The family didn’t believe me, did you?”

“No, Mum, we didn’t,” said one of the men. “But you were right.”

Jenny held out the book to me. “Take it. It’s yours. I’ve looked after it well.”

“Where did you find it?” I asked, wonderingly.

“On the beach. Near the jetty. We were already on board. Then I saw it. I jumped off quickly to get it, just in case the tide took it. But by then they’d started pulling off. My grandma was very cross and told my dad to sail on. She told me to go home and wait for her. I did, but she never came back. None of them did.” She reached out and laid her papery hand on my notebook. “It was only when I read this that I realised you’d been sent, somehow, to warn us.”

I felt a small hand creep into mine. It was Jenna. She smiled a gap-toothed smile and said: “Come and have ice cream with us. I’m having a Choc 99.”



Find out more about author Fiona Veitch Smith here.

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