Friday, 2 November 2012

The friendly ghosts

Draw up a chair and let’s talk about ghosts. After all, it’s the week of Hallowe’en and All Souls’ Day, making it one of those times of the year when our thoughts traditionally turn to departed spirits. Hallowe’en is said to be the day of the year in which the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, thereby allowing the two worlds a greater chance of contacting one another. All Souls’ Day falls on 2 November and is the day in the Christian calendar when prayers are said for the souls of ‘the faithful departed’. Many of us hope that those souls are resting peacefully, but we can’t always be sure that they are.
No wonder our thoughts can turn to dank churchyards, shadowy figures and a sense of creeping horror during these early November days. We enjoy scaring ourselves with ghost stories, safe in the knowledge that they’re only fiction. They aren’t true. We can switch on the lights and chase those phantoms away. Can’t we?
It depends on whether you have a natural affinity for ghosts and other spirits. Are you one of those people who has had several uncanny experiences over the years, experiences that you can’t explain away as being a trick of the mind? Perhaps these were corroborated by other people, making you even more convinced that you saw or heard or touched something that wasn’t of this world. Or are you someone who longs to meet a ghost but has never managed it, no matter how often you seek out haunted houses or hang around churchyards at dusk? Maybe you don’t believe in such things at all, assuring yourself that there is no scientific proof that they exist. Perhaps you’re right, or perhaps you’re simply whistling in the dark to make those unnerving shadows melt away.
As for me, I’ve had some very strange encounters with what I am absolutely certain are ghosts. Such things have happened to me, on and off, throughout my life. And I had a good start, growing up in a house that was haunted by the ghost of a little girl who enjoyed playing tricks on us all. Not only was every member of the household (four adults and two young children) aware of this ghost because of her endless pranks, but people in the neighbouring houses used to see her in our garden and ask who she was. Has she gone away? Apparently not. I was told recently that she is still seen in that garden from time to time.
Such corroboration is helpful when deciding whether what you’ve seen or heard is a truly a ghost or if there is a more pragmatic but less dramatic explanation. Because – especially if you’re of a susceptible and imaginative disposition, or you’ve spent the day scaring yourself out of your wits with the help of M R James – it’s very tempting to tell yourself that any odd noise or peculiar trick of the light has a supernatural origin. Essentially, it is wise to adopt the policy of Sherlock Holmes and examine every logical explanation for what has happened, so that ‘whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth’. And, where possible, to compare notes with other people who have witnessed the same thing. Well, when I say ‘people’, perhaps it would be better to say ‘living creatures’, because ghostly experiences don’t only happen to humans.
Some years ago, I and my husband wanted to move home and spent months searching for the perfect place. Finally, one Sunday lunchtime, we knew we’d found it. It was a very pretty 17th-century house with a wonderfully welcoming atmosphere. The couple who owned it showed us into the sitting room. I was admiring the inglenook fireplace when something by the door caught my eye. A dark-haired young woman was looking at me in an inquisitive but affable fashion. And then she simply wasn’t there any longer. I wondered if I’d imagined the whole thing, but suspected I hadn’t. Anyway, we bought the house and moved in. The previous owners had left several pieces of furniture behind, including a nice rocking chair in the sitting room. A couple of days later, three of our friends came over to supper, bringing two dogs. These are the sweetest and most well behaved dogs you could ever wish to meet, yet the moment they went into the sitting room they began to bark and growl at the rocking chair. We’d put it in the corner between the inglenook and the door. The dogs weren’t bothered by any other part of the house, but that corner really worried them.
Then several members of my family came to lunch. It was a hot day and we ate in the garden. My niece went indoors and when she came back she told me she’d seen a ghost. I asked her to show me where this ghost was. She led me straight into the sitting room and pointed at the rocking chair. Had she seen a man or a woman? A woman, she told me.
We lived in that house for three years. Sometimes I would be woken at night by the sound of a woman singing contentedly. We only felt her presence in the big upstairs bedroom and in the sitting room, but she wasn’t frightening. She simply felt like another member of the household. And the house retained its happy, welcoming atmosphere.
Unfortunately, we had to sell the house. Several people wanted to buy it but each time the sale fell through. It was almost as though the house was waiting for the right owner to come along. One afternoon, a couple arrived to view it, and it was clear from the enchanted looks on their faces that they’d fallen in love with the house just as we had. They made an offer that same day, and we were confident that this time the sale would take place. When they returned a few days later to have another look at the house, the husband asked me outright about the ghost. He had sensed her on his first visit – and there was no doubt in his mind that she was female. When I asked him if he was aware of her throughout the house, he said he could only sense her in the big upstairs bedroom and in the sitting room. He also said he wanted her to stay. He liked her. 
We liked her, too. She was a friendly soul. And most of the ghosts I’ve encountered over the years have been equally benign. Although not all of them. But theirs is a story for another time.