Wooden stairs leading to a dark basement. Credit: Shutterstock / Vladimir Batishchev

Satis House

A frightening basement hides an impossible find

Saga Exceptional short story competition

This story is one of the shortlist for Saga Exceptional’s inaugural short story competition – there are four to choose from, and the winner will be the one that gets the most votes from our readers.

See all the stories and submit your vote.

During the final week of September, I’d moved into a rented house on the outskirts of the Kent town of Rochester. Apart from an outdated kitchen, its five bedrooms, three large reception rooms, and basement gave me everything I’d been seeking. Being somewhat lazy, instead of making the journey from where I lived on the Welsh border to see its location and exactly what the house would provide, I was relying entirely on the detailed information provided by the rental agency on its website. As an author of three published ghost stories, I convinced myself that a change of location would re-awaken my creative mojo and allow me to come up with a believable storyline for another ghost story that both my agent and publisher were pushing for.

On moving in, I discovered some of the interior required more of a makeover than I’d bargained for. I listed the jobs considered essential, obtained agreement from the owner via the agency to undertake the work, and found a local handyman whose quote and timescale I could live with. The basement was entered via a door that opened inwards from the kitchen. I’d ventured through that door just once, going no further than to the third step of its wooden stairs. That once deterred me sufficiently to not want to go down there again. I certainly had no intention to return there until I might need to take the handyman down there for him to determine what, if anything, might require his professional attention. In my defence, I hadn’t taken a torch and found that the light switch at the top of the stairs hadn’t worked. I don’t think I was actually frightened, but its eerie emptiness proved sufficiently off-putting. It was simply that feeling that comes over you, but which you can’t rationally explain.

A loud bang in the early hours of the first Saturday morning roused me instantly. Although I was not fully awake, I believed the sound had come from somewhere downstairs. I quickly dressed, grabbed the small torch kept on my bedside table, and commenced searching the house. With every light in the upper and ground floor lit I no longer needed the torchlight. Having ensured myself that nothing had been found that could account for the noise heard, I found myself standing outside that basement door. I became instantly transfixed, morbid fear suddenly overcoming my need to know what had caused the bang. I urged myself to accept that if the sound had indeed come from inside the house, the basement was now the one remaining room to look in. With a few deep breaths, I slowly turned the handle and pulled open the door. The light from the kitchen initially illuminated the top of the stairway and the room’s upper ceiling. Removing my hand from the inner door handle as I stepped forward, the hinges creaked as the basement door slowly closed, pitching me, the stairs, and room into an ink-black darkness. Knowing the basement light didn’t work I managed to stop my hand sufficiently to switch on the torch. I again hesitated, trying to convince this writer of ghost stories that there were no such things.

I slowly descended the steps with the beam of my flashlight moving back and fore over the room.  Apart from the few spiders that scurried into the darkness to hide from the light, I again found nothing that could explain the noise I’d heard. A sudden movement startled me and in the torch beam I saw a small rodent run for cover behind one of the three wooden, free-standing shelves placed against the far wall. Regathering my composure, in the torch light I saw that a wooden, solid, single door was built into the outer wall. After again controlling my hands from shaking, I gripped the rusted key which remained in the lock. After some effort, and with a deep metallic click, the key slowly turned and the door instantly sprang open, knocking the torch from my grasp. Daylight immediately flooded into the basement, making the room appear and feel less sinister.

Edging through the doorway, I stepped not into my darkened rear garden as I’d anticipated, but into an unfamiliar lane. Either side, its neatly coppiced hedging bordered an unmade, wheel-rutted track. I now stood in bright sunshine, with not a single cloud to be seen in the azure-coloured sky, convincing me that somehow, late autumn had turned back into summer. Peering through the hedging on one side of the lane I saw a field of maturing barley, their whiskered heads bending gently in the slight breeze. On the opposite side were row upon row of ripening wheat, its burnt umber ears standing soldier erect. High above me, a hawk circled a small coppice in which numbers of nests were balanced precariously on the upper branches of the taller trees. I watched as the hawk became harassed by two crows that had flown from the trees to protect the nests and whatever they contained. Keeping themselves flying constantly above the predator, they continued harassing him until he gave up and flew off. Suddenly there was an abundance of small birds, their chirruping uninterrupted in this lane by the normal drone of aircraft, nearby traffic, and radios.

I became aware of an approaching noise that reminded me of metal rimmed wheels trundling over an uneven surface.  Moments later, a chestnut-coloured shire horse lazily clip-clopped into view. Harnessed behind was a colourfully painted, wooden wagon on which a group of people were sitting on straw bales. The passengers were four elderly women; three elderly men, one of whom played a fiddle and another a small accordion; three young men; and two girls; with the driver of the cart casually holding the horse’s reins. Although I recognised the tune being sung to the fiddlers and accordion player’s accompaniment, I could not recall its words. The scene was reminiscent of a well-executed country painting, with the ladies in their brightly coloured and patterned dresses, each with a straw-coloured, flower-adorned bonnet pinned to their hair. The three elderly men wore dark dress coats, each having a small, white, floral spray on the left lapel. Two of the young men wore breeches to which were attached their leather braces laid over open-necked, coloured shirts, whilst the third wore a dark jacket similar to that worn by the men, with a small, brightly coloured floral spray on his lapel. The young girls were resplendent in their floral dresses with patterned overskirts, and they too wore floral bonnets. Each of them was either singing or talking. It appeared all so dreamlike. However, realising that having been woken by whatever had made that noise, I’d spent at least 15 to 20 minutes making a thorough search of the house, from top to bottom, and too much time had passed to explain what I was seeing as some sort of bizarre dream.

The older man driving the cart smoked a clay pipe and as the cart passed me, the smell of old-fashion tobacco filled the lane. The older men wore their hair short, with neatly trimmed beards and mutton-chop sideburns. From their tanned complexion, I believed them to be working men and although their clothes were neat and tidy, they appeared hand-made rather than bought. It was obvious from the scene that all were attending some local celebration, probably a local marriage. I pressed myself against the hedgerow to allow the cart and its passengers to pass, but they appeared unaware or even oblivious of my presence. I decided to follow the cart, having become somewhat mesmerised by the increasing exuberance of the travelling group. I followed until the party reached a large house with Tudor-style herringbone brickwork, its six ornate chimneys rising from the roof, and the whole set within large surrounding grounds. Above the roof were the pinnacles of what I believed to be three oast houses. A plate on the house’s outer gatepost bore the engraved name ‘SATIS HOUSE’, which stirred a memory of that name given to Miss Havisham’s house in Charles Dickens’s superbly crafted novel, ‘Great Expectations’. 

I quickly followed as the cart manoeuvred through the ornate open gateway of that house, coming to a halt in the large side yard and alongside the front garden. The playing and singing instantly ceased and the passengers eased themselves from the straw bales to drop to the ground before disappearing into the house through an open, side entrance door. I watched the cart driver tap out the contents of his clay pipe before he too disappeared through the same door. Brightly-coloured ribboning had been threaded across the tall wall and front railings of the two-storey mansion. Its front gardens, laid either side of a winding flagstone path, appeared manicured to perfection. The porticoed main entrance was similarly decked with an array of coloured ribbons. Two young ladies dressed in starched white dresses and aprons, who I assumed to be maids, appeared from the side entrance, and ran into a separate single-storey building set at the end of the short driveway. Within moments they re-appeared, laden with plates, crockery, glasses, watched over by a tall, elegantly dressed footman. 

No one stopped me, or even paid any attention to me as I walked into the driveway. Sounds of laughter filtered out of the open front door and shortly after a fiddle and accordion again struck up a tune, and voices began singing a song, its tune and words both unknown to me. To the left of the main entrance, a large double-fronted window provided an opportunity for me to peer inside. A number of people had collected in the room, some sitting, others standing around a long and beautifully-crafted table, extended by its additional four sections. In pride of place at the table’s centre had been placed a three-tiered, iced decorated cake with two figures, one male and one female, placed at the centre of the upper tier, and all delicately balanced on a magnificent silver stand. Beautiful upholstered and crafted wooden chairs were placed evenly around the table, each in line with their monogrammed white porcelain plates alongside which silver cutlery and fine crystal glasses had been arranged. Large four-arm candelabras graced the middle of the second and fifth leaves, whilst four carafes filled with what appeared to be red wine or ruby-red port were settling between the ornate flower arrangements on either side of the wedding cake. The six spans of the beautiful circular cut-glass chandelier looked down on the table centre and the tiered cake.

I entered the house through the front entrance to find the room which I’d observed from outside. Liveried butlers positioned either side of the two inner doors stood watch over the assembled guests. A group of men and women circled a beautiful young woman, probably in her early twenties, wearing an ankle-length white wedding dress with a matching veil of what appeared to be made of the finest silk and lace. Alongside, a bridesmaid was fussing with the bride’s exquisitely-made dress. I heard the name Ann used when people addressed her and although I could not recall reading the Christian name of the bride in the story, I was now certain she was the young Miss Havisham from ‘Great Expectations’. The mood within this room remained that of high excitement and eager expectation for what they believed was to follow.  

Each of the women wore a slightly different, colourful dress that tightly hugged their upper bodies and appeared in complete contrast to the enormous bell-shaped, hooped, floor length of their skirts. The men were dressed in either an unbuttoned single or double breasted, dark frock coat with a short purple waistcoat beneath, across which a bright gold or silver watch chain drooped perfectly before disappearing into the garment’s lower, left -hand pocket. Their ensemble was completed with light-coloured, tight-fitting, straight trousers, with ribboned edging that met the tops of their highly polished, laced, black boots. With a few exceptions, the men wore shirts with high, stiff collars and dark neckties. I gathered from the conversation taking place that the young man who hovered beside Miss Havisham was named Arthur, who I remembered was the bride’s devious stepbrother. He wore his splendid wedding attire most uncomfortably. A number of guests confided to Ann that her parents would have been so proud of her, and from this I was assured that both had died.

Undisturbed, I left the room, passing numbers of other resplendently dressed guests who wandered the ground floor of the house. I also saw some of those who had travelled on the wagon, and they appeared to be acting as hired hands. I paused at the doorway of the large, busy kitchen to watch as two female cooks, wearing what must have started as spotless aprons, painstakingly preparing the wedding breakfast. A calendar, proclaiming it to be 1853, hung from a wall peg, on which the date, Saturday 15th July, had been heavily circled in red.  As I continued to watch, other young female helpers came back and forth, carrying from the kitchen into the main wedding room and then immediately returning for more items. Suddenly, the clock above the kitchen range chimed once, and almost immediately the older of the cooks, grabbed a metal ladle in her right hand, bringing it hard down on the wooden table-top, and commenced shouting to no-one in particular.

“Now hurry along everyone. It’s eight fifteen. We’ve less than three hours to complete the mistress’s wedding breakfast, so look lively all of you.” Her speech concluded, she replaced the ladle onto the worktop and returned to stirring whatever ingredients her large earthenware bowl held.

I left the house to return to the outer driveway and was just in time to see a black-coated, middle-aged rider dismount hurriedly from a sweating grey mare. He ran into the main entrance, his face ashen, declaring to those who saw him arrive, that all was not well and so I followed him. He entered the house, shouting for whoever was named, ‘Stephens’.  A tall, elegantly dressed butler swiftly appeared, and following a short conversation with the rider, whom he addressed as “Mr Jaggers”, the two quickly entered the banquet room. Instantly the guests gathered there were asked to leave the room, and this was quickly achieved. The man named Jaggers then spoke quietly with Miss Havisham and her stepbrother. I listened as he told them he brought a letter from someone he called, Compeyson.  Jaggers removed a sealed envelope from the inside pocket of his riding jacket, ignoring the outstretched hand of Arthur, to deliver it straight into Miss Havisham gloved right palm.  With the opening of the envelope and its one-page letter removed and held upright by Miss Havisham, I could make out that whatever its message, it had been neatly hand-written in black ink. Although her hand shook, she grasped firmly the page and commenced to silently read what was written. Within moments, Miss Havisham burst into uncontrollable sobbing, and through tears, I heard her ask Jaggers to read aloud its message to Arthur. After pausing briefly, Jaggers began to read: 

Dear Miss Havisham, 

I trust Jaggers has now delivered this letter to you on Saturday morning. I write to tell you that I have left England for France, and so the wedding you hoped and planned for today will not go ahead.  In truth I never intended to marry you.  My intentions over these past months were merely deceptions to gain your trust in order that you would agree to place under my control the monies you inherited upon your father’s death.  I did not act alone and although I will not reveal to you the identity of my accomplice, suffice it for me to warn that you should be very careful of someone to whom you have placed your trust”.

Poor, you. Yes, I mean to write, POOR YOU! For you even agreed to trust me explicitly in spite of Jaggers’ contrary advice.  Of course, he was correct, but by your undeterred financial foolishness I am now able to make a new life in France for myself and for my dearest wife, the lady you never suspected I had already married.

You should remember always that having been bitten once, you must remain constantly vigilant so that you never allow yourself to be duped by anyone like me again, although as a now very poor, single woman, I suspect few future suitors will have the desire to call on you.

I warn you not to search for me as you will waste both time and the little capital you now have available.  I further tell you that I shall not ever miss your feigning and boring company, nor will I miss visiting that heartless and soulless edifice that you call home, there in Kent, and which for me, became a stifling mausoleum stuffed with so many sad memories of your departed parents who, I am certain, would turn in their graves if they knew of your recklessness.

I end by not using the ‘au revoir’ of the language of my new Country, but by declaring, ‘a farewell and good riddance’ in the crude tongue of the Country to which I shall never return.

Yours without regret, 

Benjamin Compeyson.’ 

Miss Havisham remained uncontrollably grief-stricken and so I gently eased myself from that now saddened room, closing the door silently as I left. I edged into the over-crowded hallway. There, the news of the receipt of the letter and of its content had somehow begun to circulate. The mood of the assembled guests turned instantly from that of joy to absolute bewilderment and shock when hearing of the deliberate, uncaring and callous words Benjamin Compeyson had chosen to write. With their desire to comfort their relation or dearest friend denied, their collective anger became centred exclusively upon Compeyson, who they now referred to as, ‘that rogue and bounder of a fiancé’. 

Devastated and heartbroken, as indeed she had instantly become, Miss Havisham remained in that forsaken wedding room for the whole time I remained at Satis House, accompanied probably in silence by her falsely fawning brother-in-law Arthur, who himself would have been equally devastated by the content of Compeyson’s letter, and the occasional utterance of carefully chosen, legally couched words from Mr Jaggers, that I concluded Miss Havisham would not wish to hear or action. I was also certain that, faced with the same circumstances, a real-life Miss Havisham would have remained in that room until the last guest had left. In her later years, Dickens chose to make that foolish and besotted young woman into the older spinster, who, continually cocooned in her ageing wedding dress, and venomously spiteful, would later choose for company the young Estella, her equally beautiful, and heartless ward. 

Passing the kitchen door, I noticed the now distraught cooks had ceased their food preparation. Above where they sat, the hands on the kitchen clock declared silently the time on that fateful Saturday morning to be 20 minutes to nine o’clock. 

Returning along the now silent and deserted lane, I re-entered the still open door of the basement. My thoughts turned again to Dickens’s novel. I tried to bring to mind some of the images created as I’d long ago read Pip’s descriptions of that same wedding room he’d seen on his occasional visits to Satis House. As far as I could recall, he saw only the detritus. For him, the very room, the table, its magnificent settings, and entire furnishings were hidden beneath the mildew, dirt, and the debris of years past. My view of that room had been distinctly different. I saw it arranged at its pristine best, with its furnishing and settings all vibrant. The characters I encountered – staff, family and guests – had, until the revelation in Compeyson’s letter, been most joyous, excited and all wonderfully dressed. I told myself that even Arthur and Jaggers’ appearances required a more rounded view than those which Dickens had provided. However, of greater concern was the question of why Dickens had not concerned himself with the actual morning of the wedding. Following my visit to Satis House, I considered that the jilting of Miss Havisham by Compeyson had made Dickens concentrate much of the story’s attention on the devastation caused to Miss Havisham, and from her to Estelle, and by both characters to the young Pip. But who was I to challenge such an accomplished author?

Locking the basement door, I climbed the stairs totally exhilarated by what had been provided by my visit to what I realised was the house’s most special room. I knew then that what I’d seen throughout my morning’s visit to Satis House was exactly what I had been seeking as an idea for my fourth ghost novel. 

A story in which the hands of every clock encountered never moved past 20 minutes to nine o’clock.   


Saga Exceptional short story competition

This story is one of the shortlist for Saga Exceptional’s inaugural short story competition – there are four to choose from, and the winner will be the one that gets the most votes from our readers.

See all the stories and submit your vote.


Written by Alan Roberts


Also is an almost 80 year old, former police officer who, following retirement has spent many happy hours penning fictional and factual stories and poems simply for the pleasure of writing. He’s learned much from attending creative writing classes at Tenby, initially under the tutelage of the author, Judith Barrow. It’s now a self-running group comprising a dozen like minded, wonderfully talented writers.