The Riddle of Stanbridge Hall

by Cate Haynes. Shortlistee of the Best Novel Opening for Children or Young Adults competition 2021

This was the sixty-two thousand, eight hundred and twenty-third time Tom had died. Sighing, he tumbled by the same gnarly old tree roots, thinking perhaps he wouldn’t mind so much if only it varied from time to time. But no, the sky was dark as ever, the hill just as steep and there he was, hurtling past the exact same, sharp rocks as usual.

Same, boring, same. In fact, the only change over the years was that one time he surprised a rabbit. How long ago was that? Ninety years? A hundred? Still pondering, he arrived at the bottom with a dull-sounding thud to his head.

Around him, the wood held its breath, waiting. Brushing himself down, Tom stood − or rather, his ghost did – and glared at the wooden chest he had last been able to touch 172 years before. ‘You must think it’s funny, watching me fall down that hill every night,’ he said, his voice dusty from under-use. He kicked the chest, but it just sat there, its brass clasp curving in a leering grin while his leg passed straight through and out the other side. Turning his back on it, he pinched his lips together.

His hands flickered like a candle flame as though they couldn’t make up their minds whether they were there or not. His ghost was always most visible in the first moments after he popped back into existence, but lately, the amount of time he had before he was extinguished for the day was becoming shorter and shorter.

‘I wonder how long a ghost can last without fading for good?’ he murmured to himself. ‘One day, I’ll disappear forever and who will tell the truth of it then?’