‘The whispering in my house was more persistent tonight.’ – from The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral by M.R. James.
I used to live in a haunted house. Apparently. I never experienced anything. It was a tall, narrow house in Brockley, that much-bombed hinterland where London begins its slow creep into Kent. Friends and lodgers told me – independently – that they were spooked by a spot on the lower ground floor, a location that they described as ‘sad’ or ‘cold’. It was at the bottom of a staircase that descended from the hall to the kitchen, and one friend told me that, one night, when ascending to the hallway after a helping himself to another glass of wine from the fridge, he had a sensation as if something was trying to catch his foot on his way up the stairs. But I never felt anything like that. I do have queasy memories of encountering rodents down there in the middle of the night – and, on more than one occasion, weeping girlfriends belonging to one particular lodger – but nothing that falls into the purlieu of the uncanny. In fact, I have never had any experiences that would qualify as an engagement with the inexplicable; perhaps that’s why I am so interested to hear stories from those who have stories to tell.
One of the people who noticed the eeriness at the bottom of my staircase was my then girlfriend, who has an impressive array of unsettling sightings to recount. One of these, ironically, also occurred in Brockley, twenty years beforehand, in another Victorian terraced house in one of the streets that swarm over Telegraph Hill. My girlfriend (I will call her Katy, although her real name is Dolores Vanderbilt) had been staying over after a party, sleeping on a small sofa in a room off the kitchen. Around three-ish – the North Pole of any given 24-hour period – she awoke to see a greenish shape in a corner of the room. The shape had the appearance of an emaciated woman and it was moving with a repetitive urgency. Katy describes it as resembling someone ironing clothes, but with in a manner that suggested rage. As she watched the shape grew larger but more diffuse, until it evaporated in a sort of haze. What is especially interesting is the connection between the activity the apparition seemed to suggest – laundry drudgery – and the location of the sighting: Katy was sleeping in what would have been the scullery. The next morning, Katy mentioned it to her host who blithely said, ‘Oh other people say they’ve seen that.’ She, like myself, clearly had not.
One of the most vivid stories of this type I ever heard was from a TV producer I met just once, at his office. (This is another indication of how these stories seize the imagination: a brightly-lit media suite is the last place one would expect to hear an unnerving story.) A club in Shoreditch was the setting for this one: a large Victorian pub converted into a throbbing gay nightspot. The dance floor was in a large cellar that was always cold, resisting all attempts to raise the temperature. The landlord’s dog wouldn’t go down there, obviously. The person telling this tale had worked there as a barman whilst at college, so he was obliged to spend time in the basement. He said that on one occasion he heard, very distinctly, very close to his ear, a voice saying: ‘This one’s not afraid to be down here on his own.’ One night a distressed clubber collared bar staff because he’d followed a man into the gents only to see his quarry disappear into a blank wall. As the chap telling the story dryly noted, ‘On some nights you weren’t sure how many punters down there were dead or alive.’ (I should point out, however, that the detail about the disembodied voice in someone’s ear appears to be straight out of the M.R. James story quoted at the top of the page.)
Interestingly, many of the stories I’ve heard have been told by people who were recounting an episode from their youth, or from a time of deep personal trauma. My younger sister recalls an incident from her teens, on a summer afternoon in our parents’ house in the Surrey hills. Dozing on a sofa in the heat of a hot day, she awoke to see a pink cloud emerge from a doorway and move across the room before disappearing into a wall. My brother described an experience he had in the same house: in his case, he was woken in the middle of the night by sounds of a cocktail party coming from downstairs. He went down and stood outside the closed door to the drawing room (the same room where my sister’s pink cloud materialised) and listened to the sounds of a jolly party coming from within: the tinkling of glasses, a buzz of conversation, polite laughter … He steeled himself and opened the door; the room was, of course, empty. Both those stories may be no more than waking dreams; we’ve all had those. But a friend told me a more unsettling story. She had just moved to the UK from Ireland and was trying to make a life for herself in London; and her first job, weirdly, was as a security guard. Her initial assignment was to spend an afternoon guarding a deserted maternity hospital near Archway; and during her shift she became increasingly convinced that there was a presence following her on her patrols of the building. It turned out that every security guard got the creeps working that shift, and she’d been lumbered with it because she was a newbie. (This story that came to mind when watching the recent British film Ghost Stories, which contained an episode so close to my friend’s anecdote that I wondered if the film-makers had heard it directly from her.) Another person I know had some distressing and inexplicable experiences that coincided with a very traumatic episode in her life; but she still finds it hard to revisit that period so I have decided not to include her story here. In any case, it’s the one story of its kind that I am wary of recounting; and I don’t even believe in ghosts.
‘The sequel to this may perhaps be reckoned highly conventional; but a sequel there is and so it must be produced.’ (M.R.James: A School Story.)
Regarding my old house, I later learned that it suffered bombing in WW2. The admirable site Flying Bombs And Rockets details all the bombsites in the greater London area, and it transpires that my street in Brockley had been hit by a V1 rocket in 1944. It totally demolished six houses, damaged a further forty-five houses and killed nine people. My house was clearly the one they could save: it was the last house in the Victorian terrace but had not been designed as such, and was conspicuously shored up with post-war concrete. I am not, as a rule, a superstitious person – but my sister’s comment about feeling that there was someone ‘trapped’ at the bottom of my staircase is too suggestive for comfort.