I’ve only ever seen one ghost. I was too young to remember that one myself though, although my parents took great delight in telling me about it later on. It was an everyday kind of ghost; the lost spirit of an old lady who’d been the previous owner. Not much of a story to tell really.
What I’m going to tell you now is definitely not a ghost story. I saw no ghost. I felt no ghost. There was nothing about what happened that made me believe that a ghost was ever present. And yet.
When I was thirteen, my family rented a house in Northumberland for a week in the summer holidays. It had been a long, hot summer, of prickly days and sweltering nights. My sister and I had squabbled and argued, fought and whined our way into the second week of August, and now we had found ourselves plonked into a small – ‘twee’ according to mum – house with little diversion and even less ventilation.
The majority of the house was firmly within the ordinary and made no noteworthy impression upon my teenage self. What I did take notice of, however, was that I was to have two choices: to share a twin bedroom with my younger sister, or to take the attic room. Now, I didn’t share a room with my sister at home, and there was little chance of me doing so there if I had another option.
The top floor of the house felt older than the rest of it. There was a door on the upstairs landing which led to a staircase. Not quite a spiral staircase, but one with enough of a turn in it to make it feel like I was suddenly in a much–older cottage. At the top of the staircase was a small landing which led to two rooms: a single bedroom and a smaller room housing an old-fashioned cot and very little else.
If I’m honest, that cot gave me the creeps. Years later, when I went to see The Woman in Black on stage, the realisation that the mysterious creaking was actually a swinging cot, made me so scared that I was almost sick; too petrified to move out of my seat at the intermission. Cots should not be associated with death or anything unnatural, only loveliness and the angelic form of a sleeping baby. Anyway, I digress.
The bedroom itself was unremarkable. It had the sloping ceiling of the other attic rooms I’d encountered. The bed was almost wedged underneath one of these slopes but was covered in a pretty yellow and blue duvet. I think that there were exposed beams on the whitewashed ceiling but I’m prepared to accept that I may be romanticising that bit. I liked the room enormously and was grateful to have my own little retreat for the week.
If I’d not been so keen on being apart from my sister, I would have been wise to share her twin room. After all, it was the middle of a particularly hot summer, and attic rooms are not known for their coolness. In short, it was stifling up there. There was a small window next to my bed, but some rather careless decorator – or generations of them – had unhelpfully sealed the window shut with layers of paint. I assumed that this room may have once belonged to a small child, and that there may then have been more worry to be gained from having an open window rather than one which was permanently shut.
Did I try to open the window? Of course I did. And when I couldn’t, I asked my dad to have a go. Even when he ‘put his back into it’, that window would not shift.
“Are you sure that you couldn’t possibly cope with sharing a room with Laura?” he asked, already knowing full well that I would rather boil than have to share.
The mule in me would not back down. I liked this quaint little room with its pretty bedspread. I liked having my own space. If I was in a room with my sister, I wouldn’t get any peace. I’d have to get changed in the bathroom. I wouldn’t be able to have the bedside light on for reading.
I went up to my bed that night, just as the sun was finally beginning to give way to the darkness, and pulled the curtains shut. Annoyingly, the bedside lamp didn’t work, so I ended up reading yet another instalment of Sweet Valley High lying on my belly under the ‘big light’.
It was hot, and I was tired, so after about an hour of catching up on Elizabeth and Jessica’s latest trials and tribulations, I switched the ceiling light off, put my head on the pillow and fell into a clammy and restless sleep.
It must have been at about four in the morning when I was awoken to the sound of birds beginning their dawn chorus. It was a pleasant, inoffensive chirping but I should not have been able to bear witness to it.
I opened my eyes, disorientated at first by the unfamiliar surroundings. And then I saw that something was wrong. The window, which had been firmly shut the night before was now wide upon, the parted curtains letting in the faint early morning light as a slight breeze cooled the room. The bedside lamp, which had been so stubbornly and definitely not working, was now very obviously turned on, and was declaring its health by shining brightly on the floor.
And in the room opposite, the cot was creaking rhythmically, as if being swung by an invisible hand.