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David Mortimer
The Charity Shop Basement

Tony had been working at the charity shop for a good six months before he found out that it had a basement.

     Tony was a volunteer. He worked one day a week at the shop, normally Tuesday unless there was some reason for him to do a different day, which usually there wasn't.

     He worked on the entertainment section, which was the CDs, DVDs, records, and computer games. He didn't do the books, though. There was someone else that came in and did the books. The book volunteer came in on Thursdays. Tony had never met him.

     Every Tuesday, Tony sorted through the donations that had come in during the week, priced them all up, and made sure that the shelves out on the shop floor were fully stocked. If something had been out on the floor for two weeks without being sold, he reduced it. Normally this meant reducing it from £1 to 50p. If something had been reduced for a week and it still hadn't sold, he rotated it back to the stock room and put something else out in its place. Most of the stuff sold, though. Plenty of people were still buying CDs and DVDs, especially for 50p.

     Tony spent most of his time at the shop in the stock room, sorting and pricing donations. He covered on the till if he had to, but mostly he tried to avoid it, because he didn't really like it.

     The time always seemed to drag when he was on the till. Sometimes, he'd try telling jokes to the customers or the other staff to make the time pass a bit easier. If a situation cropped up that reminded him of a joke he'd heard, or if something funny just came to him, he'd crack the joke and see if it made the time go a bit quicker.

     One day, when Tony was on the till, one of the other volunteers found a snail crawling up the front of the counter. Tony scooped up the snail with a leaflet from the counter display, took it out the front door to the pavement, and let it go. When he came back into the shop, he said, "I used to have a pet snail when I was a kid. I got fed up with how slow it was, though, so I took its shell off to see if it would make it go any faster."

<  2  >

     "Really?" said the other volunteer.

     "Yeah. It didn't make it go any faster, though," said Tony. "If anything, it made it more sluggish."

     "Oh," said the other volunteer. Tony couldn't tell if the other volunteer had gotten the joke or not, so he just went back behind the till.

     Tony was getting on a bit, but he was always happy to help with any manual work around the shop. Things always needed lifting, moving, and carrying, and Tony was always willing to help out with that sort of thing, especially if it kept him off the till.

     Anyway, when Tony had been there about six months, his manager, Kelly, asked him if he could go down and get something from the basement. Usually, Kelly did even more of the manual work than Tony, but she had fractured her toe, and she had her foot in a protective boot, and she couldn't move about very easily. So, there was even more manual work for Tony to do, which was okay with him.

     "Tony, could you nip down to the basement and get the Easter stuff up?" she said.

     Tony looked up from his pile of CDs.

     "The basement?" he said.

     "Yeah, we just need the Easter stuff up for the window display."

     Tony was surprised.

     "I didn't even know we had a basement," he said.

     "Really?" said Kelly. "You've never been down in the basement?"

     "No," said Tony. He looked around the stock room at the grey carpet floor. There was no entrance to any basement that he could see. Just the usual bits of rubbish and fluff. "Where is it?"

     "Ohoho," said Kelly, smiling. "You're in for a treat."

     Kelly took Tony out to the shop floor. It turned out that the basement was at the front of the shop, not the back. The entrance to the basement was a trapdoor in the laminate flooring; the door was about five feet long and three feet wide. Tony had seen the trapdoor before, but he had never really given it much thought. He had assumed it just opened onto some kind of recessed part of the floor, maybe with an electricity meter or something underneath it. He'd never imagined there was a basement down there.

<  3  >

     Kelly explained to him how getting down into the basement was a bit awkward while the shop was open. As long as the trapdoor was lifted up, there was a hole in the shop floor, so if someone was going down there, they either needed a second member of staff to hold the door open and stand guard, keeping the customers from falling into the hole, or they needed to close the door behind them when they went down, and then bang on it when they wanted to come out.

     As it was Tony's first time going down to the basement, Kelly sat on a stool, keeping the weight off her toe, and held the trapdoor open for him.

     Tony walked gingerly down the wooden staircase into the darkness. He felt a twinge of seasickness as he went down: the stairs were solid enough, but it felt weird seeing the shop floor going up past his eyes.

     "The light switch is on a rafter on the right," said Kelly.

     Tony stepped off the bottom stair, turned to the right, and smacked his forehead on the rafter.

     "The rafter is a bit low," said Kelly.

     "Okay," said Tony.

     "Careful you don't bump your head."


     Tony found the light switch and turned it on. The tube lights on the ceiling blinked and flickered into life, illuminating the basement.

     Tony looked around. The basement was as wide and as long as the whole of the shop floor, and it was filled with stuff. There were mannequins, clothes rails, hangers, boxes of hooks and prongs, boxes of leaflets and rolled-up posters, stacks of empty plastic tubs, bits of old furniture, wire baskets, spinner racks; there was all sorts of stuff down there, all kinds of shop paraphernalia, and it had all been jammed in wherever it would fit. The place was a mess.

<  4  >

     "Can you see the Easter box?" Kelly called down. "It should be at the back, on the top shelf."

     Tony turned to face the back of the basement. A sagging shelf unit was against the wall, jammed with as much stuff as it could hold. The top shelf was lined with cardboard boxes. Each of the boxes had its contents written on it, in marker pen: Valentine's, St Patrick's, Easter, Halloween, Christmas.

     "Can you see it?" called Kelly.

     "Yep," Tony called back.

     He made his way to the shelf unit, picking his way over the various bits and pieces on the floor, and pulled the Easter box down. He stood there for a moment, looking at all the things that had been jammed into the shelf unit. There was all sorts of stuff. He could still hear the noise from the shop at the top of the stairs, but it was muffled. There was a quietness in the basement and a sort of thickness. The air tasted different down there, too. It was old and stale.

     Tony turned back round.

     He dropped the Easter box. He dropped it because his hands had flown open in surprise at what he saw.

     Right in front of him, no more than ten paces away, a unit of Roman soldiers was marching across the basement.

     Tony's mouth dropped open.

     The soldiers were ghosts. He knew it straight away.

     "Are you okay?" Kelly called down, from the top of the stairs. Some of the things had spilled out from the Easter box as it hit the floor, making a noise. Tony didn't say anything. He stood there, stock still, watching the soldiers.

     The ghosts were marching from right to left across the basement, right in front of him. They were unquestionably Romans. They were carrying spears, and curved red shields with feathered wings and thunderbolt designs painted onto them. They had the distinctive helmets and shoulder armour of the legions, and deep red cloaks.

<  5  >

     They were moving in silence. Not one sound emitted from the men, or from any of their armour or equipment, as they moved across the basement.

     "Tony?" called Kelly.

     The soldiers were marching four abreast. Each group of four appeared at the right-hand side of the basement, marched for the half-dozen paces it took to reach the opposite wall, and then faded away. Not one of the men looked at Tony.

     The ghosts appeared to be solid. They were not transparent, like Tony might have expected from ghosts, nor were their colours muted or desaturated at all. There was, however, a kind of fuzz around the men: they looked hazy as if lit by bright sunlight.

     Tony watched the soldiers marching past in their rows of four. When about ten rows had passed in front of him, the last row faded away and was not replaced. They were gone.


     The basement was still.

     Tony picked up the things that had spilled out of the Easter box and put them back in. He didn't really know what else to do.

     He flipped the light switch off and carried the box back up the wooden staircase.


     Days went by. To begin with, Tony was worried. He couldn't think about anything else. All he could think about was the ghosts he had seen in the basement. He lay awake at night, unable to sleep, thinking about the ghostly Roman soldiers.

     Then, one night, as he was lying awake in bed, a new thought occurred to him. Suddenly, he found himself wondering if he could have imagined the whole encounter. He wondered if he could have been hallucinating. He remembered that he had bumped his head just before he'd seen the ghosts: he'd smacked it on the rafter while he was looking for the light switch. He started to wonder if he could have imagined the whole thing.

<  6  >

     Tuesday came round again. Tony went into the shop. He sorted and priced the donations, reduced, rotated, and stocked up. He didn't go down into the basement.

     He didn't mention what he'd seen. He didn't say anything about the ghosts to Kelly or any of the other staff or volunteers. And nobody said anything about it to him. Nobody mentioned anything about the basement, or Roman soldiers, or anything like that. Nobody asked him any weird questions. It was just a normal day at the shop.

     Tony did his work and went home.

     More time went by, and Tony became less worried. The more he thought about the ghosts, the more confident he became that he had been hallucinating and that he'd imagined the entire incident. He stopped lying awake at night. He still thought about the ghosts he'd seen, but he didn't lie awake at night worrying about them.

     Tuesday came around again. It was a slow day, and Tony was on the till: one of the paid staff was on holiday, and Tony was covering.

     Hardly any customers were coming in, and the time was dragging.

     There were no customers for ages, and then someone came in and looked around the whole shop. It was an older guy, around the same age as Tony, and he walked around the whole shop, looking at everything. Every now and then, he stopped and picked something up and asked Tony a question about it, like, "What size is this?" or, "How much is this?" or, "What's this?" and Tony tried to answer as best as he could.

     The customer got to the bric-a-brac section and started looking through all the items. He picked a few things up, looked at them, and put them down. Then he picked something up, looked at it, and held it up to Tony.

     "What's this, then?"

     Tony walked over and took the item from the customer. He had a look at it. It was a universal remote control.

<  7  >

     "It's a universal remote control," said Tony. "You can use it to control any kind of TV."

     "Oh, right," said the customer.

     "You can use it to control your other electrical things too, like your DVD player or your CD player."


     Tony handed it back to the customer. The customer stood there looking at it.

     "They were a big deal when they first came out, those universal remotes," said Tony. "I remember the first time I saw one. I thought, 'This changes everything.'"

     The customer didn't say anything. He put the remote control back on the shelf and walked out of the shop. Tony went back behind the till.

     Some more time went by. The time was still dragging.

     Then Kelly came out to the shop floor, carrying a cardboard box. It was the Easter box. Easter had come and gone, and all the decorations had been packed away back into the box.

     "Tony, could you do me a favour, while it's quiet?" said Kelly. "Could you take this back down to the basement?"

     "Errrrrm," said Tony. He turned his head slowly to look at the trapdoor in the floor. He couldn't find anything else to say. He just stood there, looking at the trapdoor that led down to the basement.

     "I can take it down if you'd rather not," said Kelly when a few seconds had passed.

     "No, it's okay," said Tony, finding his voice. He turned back to look at Kelly, who still had her foot in the protective boot. "I'll do it."

     Kelly told him that as he wasn't going to be down there for very long, she would stay by the trapdoor and hold it open.

     Tony pulled the trapdoor open, took the cardboard box, and swallowed. His heart was pumping.

<  8  >

     "Everything okay?" said Kelly.

     "Yep," said Tony.

     Slowly, carefully, he walked down the wooden staircase into the basement. It was pitch black. He felt for the light switch and turned it on. The lights blinked on.

     Tony stared.

     There was nothing there.

     The basement was full of junk, the same junk as before; but there were no ghosts.

     Tony took a deep breath and let it out. He picked his way to the back wall, reached up to the top of the shelf unit, and pushed the Easter box back into its place. He smiled and shook his head, laughing quietly to himself.

     He turned back around, and the smile melted from his face. His eyes sprang wide open.

     The ghosts were there.

     Tony felt himself go weak. He clutched out at a mannequin to steady himself.

     It was the same as before. The ghosts were appearing out of the right hand wall of the basement, marching across to the left hand wall, and then disappearing, all without making a sound. Tony closed his eyes, squeezing them tight. He opened them. The ghosts were still there.

     Breathing heavily, Tony stood and watched. As before, none of the Roman soldiers were paying him the slightest attention, though he stood only a few feet away. He gazed at the legionaries as they marched across the floor in front of him, appearing and disappearing in their rows of four, surrounded by a kind of haze as if lit by summer sunlight.

     As he looked, he noticed for the first time the expressions on the soldiers' faces. To a man, the Romans looked melancholy and defeated, and some were visibly tearful.

     The soldiers were still appearing from the wall, but Tony had had enough. He decided it was time to leave. Trying his hardest not to make a sound, he walked quickly to the bottom of the wooden staircase and reached up to the rafter to turn off the light.

<  9  >

     Before he flicked the switch, he turned his head for a last look at the ghosts.

     And just then, he saw something else. Something new.

     A bird flew out of the wall.

     It was a crow. It flew out of the right-hand wall of the basement, flapped silently over the heads of the marching soldiers, and then disappeared.

     The crow was a ghost, hazy and shimmering like the Romans.

     Tony flicked off the light and walked shakily back up the stairs.

     He hadn't been hallucinating this time. At least, he didn't think so.

     His heart was beating quickly again.


     More time went by. Tony went about his life as usual, but he could think of nothing else. All he could think about was the ghosts. He thought about them all day and all night, and he dreamed about them, too. They were real. He knew it now.

     He kept on thinking of the expressions on the ghosts' faces. He couldn't stop thinking about how sad the soldiers had looked.

     He wanted to see them again.

     He started to find excuses to go down into the basement.

     "I think I might pop down to the basement and tidy it up a bit," he said to Kelly one day when he had finished all of his tasks at the shop and had nothing else to do.

     "Er, okay," said Kelly, slightly taken aback. "Do you want me to hold the trapdoor open?"

     "No, I'll be fine. I'll probably be down there for a while. I'll bang on the door when I'm ready to come up."

     He didn't see anything. There was no sign of the Roman soldiers, or the crow, or any other ghosts.

<  10  >

     Tony stayed in the basement for about half an hour. He tidied up. Then he banged on the trapdoor and came out.

     Next Tuesday, he went down there again. Again, he saw nothing.

     He made it a habit. Every Tuesday, he went down into the basement and tidied up. He varied the times that he went down there in case the ghosts only appeared at a certain time of day. Still, he saw nothing.

     The other staff began to wonder what was going on, but they didn't say anything. One Wednesday, when Tony wasn't working, a couple of them went down to the basement. They looked around to see if they could find anything out of the ordinary, anything that might explain why Tony was spending so much time down there. They didn't find anything. It definitely looked a lot tidier down there, though. They both agreed on that.

     And then, one day, Tony was in the basement, tidying up, and he saw them: without a sound, the ghosts appeared from the wall.

     He had never seen the first row of soldiers appear before. His jaw hung open as he watched them materialise from the brick wall, shimmering in the light of a sun that he could not see. At the head of the column, there marched a soldier with a crest of red feathers standing from his helmet and a wolf pelt draped over his shoulders; he was clearly a commander or an officer of some kind. Tony stood motionless and watched as the soldiers poured out of the wall, rank after rank.

     Again he found himself drawn to the sadness on the soldiers' faces. He wondered what could have happened. He wondered where they were going; and what they were leaving behind.

     All of a sudden, Tony felt an urge to speak.

     "Hello," he said, not having anything else to say.

     The soldiers continued to march. None of them looked at him or paid him any notice.

<  11  >

     "Hello?" he said again.

     Still nothing.

     Then, a thought occurred to him. He stood for a few moments, trying to remember some Latin.

     "Ave," he said, not entirely sure it was the appropriate greeting.

     Still, none of the soldiers reacted.

     "Ave," he tried again, slightly louder.

     And, just at that moment, the crow appeared. The ghost of the crow flew out of the wall, and it turned its head to face Tony.

     "Ave yourself," it said.

     The crow flapped over the heads of the soldiers and vanished into the far wall. Stunned, Tony watched the remainder of the ghosts march past, until they were gone.


     Tony kept on going down to the basement. Every Tuesday, he went down and watched for the ghosts. The other staff still wondered what he was getting up to down there, but they didn't say anything; the place was getting tidier and more organised by the week.

     And Tony saw the ghosts: sometimes he saw the soldiers and the crow together, sometimes it was just the soldiers, and sometimes just the crow. He spent a lot of time on his own, waiting, but it usually paid off.

     As much as he tried, he found that he could not interact with the soldiers. They remained oblivious to his presence. The crow, however, could see, hear, and understand him. Tony greeted the crow whenever he saw it, and, more often than not, the crow returned his greeting.

     And then, one day, intrigued, Tony flagged the crow down.

     It had appeared by itself; there was no sign of the soldiers.

     "Hey!" called Tony, gesticulating, waving his arms. "Hey!"

     The crow arrested its flight across the basement and flapped back around towards Tony. Just like the soldiers, the crow was surrounded by a haze of light, and its big black wings shimmered and flickered in the air as it flew toward him. It flapped around Tony's head, its wingbeats creating no movement in the air, before coming to rest on top of a nearby mannequin. It perched there on top of the dummy's head, illuminated by the invisible sun like an actor in a spotlight, and looked down at Tony.

<  12  >

     "Yeah?" said the crow.

     "Um… who are you?" said Tony.

     "What do you mean? I'm a crow."

     "Yes, but… how come I can speak to you and not to the others? The soldiers?"

     The crow shrugged.

     "Don't ask me."

     "And how can you talk to me, anyway?" said Tony. "How can you speak English?"

     "Mate, it's just as strange for me as it is for you."

     "Right…" said Tony. He gathered his thoughts. "Can you speak to the soldiers?"

     "Yeah," said the crow. "Of course. I'm a ghost."

     "Could you ask them some questions for me? If I told you what I wanted to say, would you be able to… erm… translate?"

     The crow cocked its head and peered down at Tony with one beady, black eye. Despite having no expression that Tony could read, he nevertheless got the impression that the bird was suspicious.

     "I suppose so," said the crow.

     "Great!" said Tony. "Are they going to appear today?"

     "How should I know?"

     So Tony sat and waited. He couldn't do any more tidying up; there was too much on his mind, too many questions he wanted to ask. So he turned a plastic bucket upside down and sat down on it.

     "Do you know who they are?" said Tony. "The soldiers?"

     "They're Romans," said the crow. "Roman legionaries."

     "Yes, but… do you know anything about them? Do you know what happened to them?"

     "Nah," said the crow. "All I know is they're shades. They're wanderers. Searchers in the grey places. Whatever it is they're looking for, they'll have to keep marching until they find it."

<  13  >

     "I see," said Tony.

     He sat on the bucket, waiting.

     "I suppose you could say," he said, after a while, "they're a roamin' legion."

     The crow didn't say anything.

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