Over the years – in my 20s and 30s mostly – I used to get work, as a kitchen porter, in remote hotels, under mountains and beside lakes and lochs. They were easy jobs to pick up: just a quick browse through Gumtree’s job section brought up dozens of vacancies. I’d send out a handful of good humoured applications and could pretty much guarantee there would be a job offer by noon the next day.
The fringe benefit of these jobs was that they were live-in. Back in my 20s, this was free, but later – due to some bullshit government directive – we’d get charged maybe £40-per-week, but it was still a great deal. You’d get your own room, generally, then meals on shift – and when you’re doing split shifts most days, that meant breakfast, lunch and dinner – and most places, especially the more remote ones, let you wander in on your days off and get something to eat when you needed it.
One of the jobs I took… I think it was early 2002 – 9/11 was still fresh in our thoughts, and that in itself was rather terrifying…
… but this job… the room I was given, at the top of a four-story building in Ambleside, Cumbria… it was strange from the very first night, before I started work at the hotel – about a mile away – the next morning.
It was the first time in a long time that I had to share a room, with an ex-Army guy in his late 30s. There was a huge curtain separating our sleeping areas, but it was still ‘awkward’. I don’t like sharing. I don’t get enraged by being ‘forced’ to share, but I like my own privacy – because, you know… single man… tiddy-winks…
Anyway, the first night… I just couldn’t sleep. I went to bed early, because I had to be up early, but I just lay there, most of the night, trying my best to let go and fall into dreams… but it just didn’t happen. I think I nodded off a few times, but I’d wake up and see from the led lights of my alarm clock that maybe five or ten minutes had passed.
It went on all night and by about 6am, I just got out of bed, to get ready for work. As tired as I was, I knew there was no point trying to snooze for another hour until the alarm clock went off.
My first day went really well; though, to be honest, on my first day at any new job, I must seem like some care in the community employment placement. I am a rather shy person, until I get to know people, so lots of new people to meet at the same time is a bit of a challenge. And I apologise a lot (too much) for things I shouldn’t apologise for… but when I’m asking the waiting staff for the third time where the motherloving ramekins go… well…
When the working day was over and walked back up the road on that winter’s night, I felt a great deal of relief… and there was a little magic in seeing the silhouettes of nearby mountains in the frosty, starry sky.
I was – as we say here in the UK – knackered by the time I got back to the staff accommodation, and I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep – chalking the previous night’s insomnia attack with the anxiety of starting this new job.
My room-mate was away, since he was having his days off (he’d been working a couple of weeks solid, with no R&R, until I arrived), so I had the place to myself. Yes, I may have had a gentleman’s handshake to celebrate my privacy, but all the better for tiring me out before I hit the sack… and then I went to bed.
It just wasn’t happening. Same as the night before. And, I swear, the day before I arrived at that place, when I was back ‘home’ at my Mum’s place, I was sleeping like a baby (not pooing myself or anything like that… and I know some babies just scream all the time… but… you know what I mean!)
I started to panic a bit when it got to around 3am, and also probably felt a bit whiney, because I knew – even if I got to sleep right then – four hours sleep was really not enough when I was doing a 10-hour split-shift.
Some of you may not have a high opinion of kitchen porters, but we work damn hard, and it really is true that we’re at the core of a good kitchen. If the pots and pans and plates and bowls and all that fucking cutlery (sorry – I had a flashback) aren’t scrubbed and washed and back in their places in good time, the rest of the machine starts to creak and slow down. We’re on our feet for all our shifts, getting sloshed with water, covered in grease and gunk, often getting jabbed by steak knives… and, because I’m 6’4” and these old hotels were built for Hobbits, I had the extra disadvantage of regularly concussing myself on low ceilings I hadn’t yet mentally mapped in order to duck.
When it got to 4am, I think I just got up and did some writing, because I knew I just wasn’t getting any sleep that night. Later, I got ready for work and headed in a little early so I could gorge on coffee and pretend I was awake for the rest of the day.
It went well. I got a better grip on where all the things went, so I wasn’t bumbling around so much, asking: “Where this go? Where this go, too? And this, chef?”
And I started to open up a bit and talk to people, which was cool, because when you’re working in a live-in situation, it really is the people that make the job – and I could already tell there were a lot of good folk there.
During my split shift, I dropped into the chemist and bought a packet of ‘Nytol’… over-the-counter diphenhydramine, which I’ve used before when battling previous bouts of insomnia.
That night… room-mate still away… I took a couple of tablets, saluted to the flag, then settled back, ready for the tablets to kick in, so I could get some very, very needed sleep.
These damn tablets were clearly broken and I was a bit furious with Nytol, that night, to be quite honest.
When I got to about 2am, after taking another tablet, I just sat on my bed and cried. I was physically and mentally exhausted and I knew that I was going to be wrecked at work, the next day. I had no idea what was going on… like I said, I’d had times of insomnia before, but nothing as brutal as this, and Nytol has always knocked me out, before – at least for a little while.
I tried again. I used a few meditation tricks I knew, to block out my thoughts and invite the Sandman… but nope…
When I got to work in the morning, I was like a zombie. If any of you have ever gone any great length of time without sleep (perhaps if you were a 1990s raver and recreational drug user?), you’ll know how it starts messing with your mind.
One of the chefs I was just getting to know, a Scottish guy, noticed I was looking particularly rough and asked me what was up.
I told him, I just couldn’t get any sleep and I was really struggling – that it had been three nights in a row and I was starting to feel actual despair about it.
He asked me which room I was in, at the staff accommodation. I told him I was on the top floor – the shared room.
He said to me something like: “Ahhh! That’ll be the ghost, then!”
I was a bit puzzled, as you can imagine, but I asked him what he meant, and he said quite a few people had reported ‘things’ when they’d lived in the same room, and he was referencing over the years he’d worked there.
He told me: “Talk to it. And hey… get it a drink… get a bottle of something, open it and leave it out for it. Wish it good health and it’ll leave you alone.”
Bullshit, obviously… buuuuuut, I did pick up a bottle of beer to take back to the accommodation that night. It was the last night before my KP colleague returned (being that he had a clump of days off together, to make up for sacrificing them when the hotel needed him to work those two weeks without a break), so I sat on my bed and actually had a chat with ‘him’… I didn’t like to think of the ghostie as an ‘it’… even though I didn’t believe, of course…
I said I’d bought him a beer and I knew he probably couldn’t drink it, being a ghost (I didn’t make any spirits jokes!), but I hope he appreciated the sentiment.
I told him I was sad that he was here, and asked if there was anything I could do to help him move on?
I have to say, bullshit or not, I did actually get some sleep that night. Not a great deal, but I did sleep for maybe an hour or so before suddenly startling awake again… but the same, a few times, over the course of the night. I was asleep, too, when my alarm clock went off. I actually felt a real sense of joy – getting up and ready – that my zombie fugue has cleared. I may only have got four or so hours, but damn, I could work with that!
The bottle was there, still… and yeah, he hadn’t drank it… but maybe, just maybe, he’d liked the fact that someone had talked to him for once, and shared a drink with him?
I actually did thank him for helping me sleep. Bullshit, obviously, but – you know – this world has a lot of mystery to it, so… maybe?
Work was so much easier that day. I was getting used to the kitchen systems, getting faster, getting more confidence to talk to people, and I really liked them, too. The head chef was a really great guy, from Merseyside, and he had me cracking up so often. A head chef with a good sense of humour and a chilled attitude is a very rare thing in the catering industry, as any of you who have worked in the catering industry will likely attest to! I was starting to feel very lucky that I’d got the job there.
When my day was over and I got back to my room, I opened another bottle for Casper (I didn’t call him that, then) and then noticed something peculiar…
I had put my change, from various shopping transactions, on my bedside cabinet for the past few days of working there. I’d just drop it there.
But that night, all my change was in a stack, with largest coins at the bottom and five pence pieces on top – and the stack was about seven or eight inches high.
(Women Reader’s Voice: “If he says eight inches, it’s probably no more than five!”)
I looked behind the curtain to see if my room-mate was back, but I couldn’t see his bags. I’d wondered if he’d done it… maybe he had OCD and just couldn’t stand to see all that chaos on my table top?
I scooted down to the ground floor where a few of my other workmates were chilling out with French cigarettes and a Playstation 2. I asked them if the other KP had got back, yet, but they told me he’d phoned and said he couldn’t get back until morning.
Then, I worried that someone had been in my room. Not that I had a great deal of possessions with me, and none very valuable, but I was a bit pissed off that someone could do that. There was a solid lock on the door.
I didn’t relate it at all to Casper until I went back upstairs, opened his bottle and had a chat with him before I hit the hay, then got into bed.
I asked him if he’d done that?
No reply, thankfully, or I’d have freaked out big style.
I wished him goodnight, saying again – and as I did every night since being told about him – I hope there was some way I could help him move on.
Things were okay for a couple of weeks. I really settled in at work and I was starting to have a lot of fun. I wasn’t getting loads of sleep each night, but enough to get me through another day of kitchen portering.
I had three days off together, from the confluence of two weeks’ shift patterns, so I headed back to my Mum’s house for a couple of days, to see her and, of course, my beautiful kitties – Scratchy, Titan & Orion – who I always missed like a big sap whenever I was away from them.
The first night, I slept for 12-hours straight. Perfect sleep. Totally refreshed when I woke up. It was like a miracle. Perhaps it was just being back at ‘home’ and getting all that kitty love and big hugs from my little Mum, but whatever… it was so damn welcome.
The next night, too – eight hours or so, and that was all I needed then. I woke up invigorated and actually feeling very happy. Titan sang me the song of his people when I went downstairs, in the morning, and all was well in the world.
I returned to Ambleside later in the day, feeling much lighter and merrier. I reckoned I’d had a reset and maybe the past few weeks had just been the product of nervousness and getting used to this new world I was in.
That night, I opened the bottle for Casper, had a little chat (my KP colleague was downstairs, playing Grand Theft Auto III with the chefs) and wished him goodnight. I sent my regards to Spiderman and lay down to sleep.
My flat-mate came up at about 2am and I was still awake. I was getting a little emotional, at that point. After sleeping so well the previous two nights, it was a real bummer to be having this insomnia issue again. My colleague seemed to get off to sleep very quickly, judging by the snores, though he had been injecting vodka for a good portion of the evening, it seemed.
It went on all night, again. By morning, I was shattered. I got back to work, after my mini-holiday, and I felt awful… really, really drained, but I got through the day.
That night… a bottle for Casper and a chat… I wished him well and asked him if he could help me sleep that night?
All night, the same.
The next night, the same.
I was really on edge by then… literally bursting into tears, at times (or did I use literally wrong there? Sod it!) I was having a hard time of things.
Then… that night… my room-mate was off again, so went back to wherever he went on his days off.
I left a bottle open for Casper and I was pretty much on the edge of despair. Bullshit or not, I asked him for his help, to get to sleep, like he had done before. I had a bit of a chat and wished him well, then got into bed, desperately hoping I could get a good night’s sleep.
… there was a noise… something weird and not right… and I sat up in bed to see what it was.
A face appeared in the darkness. It was familiar but not at the same time… and it just looked at me for a while… then it came closer, just watching me.
All of a sudden, with a forlorn rage, it shouted at me:
“YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT ME!”
The shock of his voice woke me up from the dream. Yep, I’d been asleep and I’d dreamt it.
But as I gathered my wits and looked around, in the darkness, I realised that I was actually sitting up… sitting on the edge of my bed, looking into the same pitch black that I had been, in the dream.
Now, I didn’t actually shit my pants, but I got a real feel of what that meant. I was, actually, petrified.
This. Was. Not. Right.
I put on all the lights I could. The room light, my bedside table lamp. I went out into the stairwell and turned the lights on there, too.
It was about 4am, so I couldn’t even head down to work for three more hours, but I wasn’t going to leave the flat, because it was dark and nobody would be around and, you know, there were actual fucking ghosts now, too.
I had my bags packed by 6am. Another night of total exhaustion, plus the single most terrifying event in my life (so far, at that point)… no, I couldn’t go on with this. Something was really, really wrong here, and I just couldn’t hack it any more.
At 7am, I shambled like a pack horse, with three heavy bags, down the road to work. I had a chat with the breakfast chef, then the duty manager, and gave my apologies, but said I was going to have to quit.
To say that they were pissed off with me was a bit of an understatement, because that meant they had no KP at all that day… but I was resolute. I honestly couldn’t have worked through that day, anyway, because I was so beaten down.
When I eventually got back home to my Mum’s place, I felt like an idiot. I mean, it was a great job – as kitchen portering jobs go – with great people, and, I think, if I’d just been able to get some damn sleep, I would have been just fine there.
And you know what, too? I felt really sad that I hadn’t been able to help Casper. Bullshit be damned… and I don’t know if any of that was real – because, like I said, I saw him in a dream… but waking up in the exact same position, sitting on my bed… that was bone-chilling. That was scary as fuck.
That night, back home in my comfy bed, with visits from my legendary kitties, I slept so peacefully, all night long.
Whatever happened at that place… it had simply never happened to me before, and I can tell you that it hasn’t happened to me since – in the fifteen years that have passed since I was there. I’ve had bought of insomnia, but nothing even remotely as bad as I did back in Ambleside.
And what’s more, when I have had problems sleeping, over the years, I didn’t have ghosts howling at me in the brief periods I nodded off.
This whole story really is true. I may have had to bridge a few gaps in my memory, but from the sleepless nights to the coins, to the face in my dream – it all went down like that.
All these years later… I don’t know. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. I wonder if I was just having some manic episode, years before any of the people at the comfortable hospital told me I was bipolar? Had I been masking some deep anxiety of working at that place? I just don’t know…
… but sometimes, I think about Casper. I can still remember that cry, in my dream, as if it was last night… the fusion of anger and sorrow… and I wonder… is that poor bastard still trapped there?
Maybe I should try to arrange to go back there for a few more nights? Take him a few bottles of beer and tell him… “I do care about you. Really. And I’m sorry I took so long to get back and tell you this. Now, let’s have a few beers and go over a few ideas I’ve had. An exorcist? Were you a Catholic? Maybe I can look through the town’s records at the library and find out who you really are?”
If I was so lost as that, I’d want someone to find me, to show they cared… to help me through and point me in the right direction for home.
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