Somewhere in Sheffield, some time around 2005, I walked across the charred floor of the Stamp Works.
It wasn’t called that, of course. I’ll pretend I won’t name it for legal reasons, although actually it’s because I’ve forgotten its name. It was a typical site, a derelict factory complex. I was there with three other archaeologists, sent to record the works before it was demolished.
The room in question was on the first storey. We had come to it on our way through the site which, like most factories of its age, had developed organically until it was a jumbled labyrinth of sheds, offices and workshops. In order to enter the next set of buildings we needed to climb a set of stairs, cross a room, and descend the other side.
The problem was the floor. It was a sagging timber funnel centred on a black hole. Joist stumps stuck out of the edges of the break where the fire had come through. At the weight of a footfall, the whole thing bounced like a boat in choppy water.
The two senior members of our team, experienced in this kind of situation, weighed it up and decided we’d walk round the edge of the room, sticking to the walls where the joists were most secure. The first time I did this was very, very scary. By the end of a week on site, however, I wouldn’t think twice about nipping back over the same floor to pick up another roll of film. In my story, it’s fear that leads the narrator into a dangerous situation. In real life, it’s familiarity that’s the real hazard.
I worked for five years as an historic buildings archaeologist. Almost all of the buildings I worked on were industrial, from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Forget Time Team: what most archaeologists in the country do is work commercially, which means they’re paid by developers to fulfil the legal obligation to record remains before they’re destroyed or altered.
When it comes to buildings, those remains are rarely anything very pretty. They’ve probably not been in use for ten or twenty years, often longer. The pigeons will have moved in. If you’re unlucky the squatters will have found a way in too. Like ghosts, they flit through the buildings, following complex routes (out through a first-floor window, across a lean-to roof, into a yard) which have nothing to do with the shuttered doors.
Once, in the middle of an entire block of abandoned houses in a blighted Lancashire town, I left my rucksack in the next room and returned to find my bank cards stolen. For four streets there was nothing but wasteland, and yet we were not alone. On the same site, I was busy drawing inside a vacant shop when my partner came running in, alarmed. ‘Did you see him?’ she said. I’d seen no-one. Whoever he was, he had walked behind me and out of the back of the building. We didn’t know where he came from. We didn’t know where he went. He was leading a parallel life to ours, seeing a different world, walking invisibly along secret paths. And what is that if not a haunting?It was as a result of all of this that I conceived the idea of writing a ghost story set in an abandoned factory. As a keen fan of MR James, I loved stories of uncanny places with supernatural guardians. The old works I had seen seemed like the natural modern location for a slightly old-fashioned chilling ghost story: monumental, decaying, full of Gothic horror and adventure. It was a few years before I got round to actually getting it down on paper, but the result was ‘The Stamp Works’.
The description of the works itself came quickly: I’ve been to all of it. Not in the same place, or at the same time, but it’s all real. The stories that the narrator tells, too, are all real. They really did used to hang wallpaper with animal glue, and when the rain gets in, the resultant mushrooms really are a perfect yellow. In fact, the only thing in the Stamp Works that I’ve never encountered is the ghost.
When I came to write it, the story emerged rapidly, almost fully formed. I suspect that it had been sitting in my subconscious, incubating, for a few years. Though I didn’t direct its development – I certainly don’t recall plotting it – I can pinpoint the moment when I first thought of the idea of a ghost in a decaying factory.
The site was an old cutlery works. There were two of us sent to record it. It was a tortuous place, with only one entrance at the very end of a long, meandering series of boarded workshops. The doors were offset, so that within a few rooms of the entrance we totally lost sight of daylight. We picked our way through the dust, debris and bird corpses, lighting our way with a single torch, until my partner stopped abruptly and made an annoyed noise.
‘What’s up?’ I said.
‘I forgot the extension cable,’ he said. ‘If you stay here I’ll head back and get it now.’
He turned and wound his way back across the workshop, the bobbing light of the torch receding until, abruptly, it passed through a doorway and was extinguished.
I stood rooted to the spot, trying to stay calm. It was five minutes to the entrance, so ten at least until he came back. The darkness was complete. To the left of me, I heard a stealthy rustling, just on the edge of audibility.
‘It’s just birds,’ I said to myself, as I strained my eyes for the returning light. ‘Just birds.’
— Alex Clark
Read ‘The Stamp Works’ in our anthology There Was Once a Place, out now in paperback and ebook editions.