In a Halloween special, Maureen Telfer writes a samhain (Celtic for the ‘darker season’ of the year ) story about a supposedly haunted cottage…
Hampshire, September 1980
It’s a hot, late summer day. My hair is sticking to my neck and there’s a trickle of sweat running down by back.
Up on the Downs, the fulsome ears of wheat are completely still, blazing in brilliant sunlight.
I step into the hallway of the flint cottage. The tiny beads of sweat on my neck freeze and cause my hair to stand on end.
“Bit chilly in here!”
“It’s old. 17th century. Thick walls.” The letting agent remarks.
The cottage is idyllic, situated just a fraction beyond the furthest reach of the village, itself picture perfect. Thatched cottages, a local Bobby and a pub at its centre.
“Freshly decorated. Newly furnished.”
“Very Laura Ashley,” I observe.
The letting agent points to the end of the hall. “Bathroom. Two bedrooms upstairs. Door on the left here leads into the living space. I’ll leave you to look around.”
He’s keen to get back outside.
The bedrooms are charmingly chintzy. The bathroom fresh and functional. I open the door to the living space.
A kitchen table faces me. Next to that, a door.
I walk forward and open it, curiously.
A stream of icy air rushes out, as if anxious to be free.
An old fashioned pantry. There’s no freezer in the kitchen. ‘No need,’ I think.
I turn back to the kitchen, closing the pantry door behind me. There’s a window opening on to a south facing garden and, tucked around dog-leg, a lovely snug.
It’s perfect for my daughter Lizzi and I. And it’s affordable. We move in a week later. 28 September 1980.
I’m laying the table for supper. Knives, forks, salt and pepper.
Salt. Not on the table. I’m sure I left it there, along with the pepper. I open the pantry door. Cold rushes into the kitchen, taking away the heat of the oven.
And there it is. The salt cellar is sitting on a shelf where I do not believe I put it. I grab it and close the door, hurriedly.
“Mum, have you seen my Eric Clapton tape? I left it beside the cassette player. Have you moved it?”
“No! Why would I move your tape? Maybe you lent it to someone?”
“I did NOT!”
She leaves, bad-temperedly, for school.
I walk to the garden to hang the washing out.
As I fold the sheets over the line, I have a sense that there’s something out of place, something which does not belong here. I turn around. Underneath the rose bush, glinting, as if to catch my attention, is a small, black object. A cassette tape.
Hesitantly, I pick it up. How could it have got there? Did Lizzi put it there? But why would she?
That night, I hand Lizzi the tape and tell her where I found it. “That’s weird mum. Why would I throw my best tape into the garden? I LOVE Clapton!”
I cannot explain it.
When I arrive home from work, I go into the kitchen and throw my bag onto the kitchen table, along with the jotters I have to mark this evening.
On the table is a bottle of ketchup. This time, there is no doubt at all in my mind. That bottle was not on the table this morning. We had cereal for breakfast and pasta last night.
I know where the bottle was.
It was in the pantry.
I sit down. I’m a little surprised to find myself shaking slightly. And I cannot bring myself to open the door to the pantry to put the bottle back.
I say nothing to Lizzi, but start to watch her for any signal that she too thinks there’s something very odd in this house.
A fine, early autumn day. Before leaving for school, I go round to the garden to hang out the laundry. It’s peaceful there so I sit for a few minutes, enjoying the sunshine and observing the hint of change colouring the leaves.
That evening, before going inside, I walk round to the garden to fetch the washing.
Every single item has been removed from the line and tossed onto the grass. Each peg is exactly where I placed it on the washing line.
I search for explanations. Is someone coming into the house? Is someone trying to frighten me? A local person perhaps? Someone who wanted the cottage? A pupil from school?
One thing I am sure about. It’s a person who wants me to know they are there.
Lizzi asks if she can stay over with a friend.
It might be good to have some me time so I don’t object.
I run a bath and lie back with my book and a glass of wine.
Drifting off, I hear footsteps climbing the stairs next to the bathroom. It’s a heavy tread, someone dragging their feet.
The hairs on my neck bristle and I shiver in spite of the hot bath.
Both the porch door and the hall door are locked. I had heard neither a key turn nor a door open.
“Lizzi? Lizzi, is that you?”
I climb out of the bath, my heart racing. A sour taste invades my mouth. I’m alone with no near neighbour.
The telephone is in the snug. I’d need to cross the hall to get there.
All out of options, I wrap a towel around myself, open the bathroom door and turn left onto the stair.
I climb, calling “Lizzi?”’ with every step. Nothing.
At the top of the stairs, I stand facing the hallway.
My voice was tense.
I creep along the hall and gently push the door to Lizzi’s bedroom.
Dark and empty.
I inch along to the room at the end of the hall.
I push heavily on the door. It bangs against the chest of drawers which is behind it and swings back to me.
A small scream escapes as I push the door again, more gently this time and reach for the light switch.
I jump into the room.
No-one is there.
‘What is WRONG with me?’
That night I sleep in the snug. Next to the telephone.
“Mum, did you come into my room last night?” Lizzi looks at me quizzically.
“Nothing. I just thought I felt someone sit on my bed, stroking my hair. Must have been dreaming.”
For the first time, I consider speaking to the village policeman. But what can I say? The doors are locked before we go to bed. They’re still locked in the morning. Do I say ‘I think there’s a ghost in the house. Can you arrest him please?’
Lizzi and I are at home, together. It’s a wild night. Thunder is being chased around the valley by a powerful wind. Lightning forks viciously. But we have thick walls and a log fire burning. It’s almost comfortable.
31 October, 10.00pm
We lose our TV signal. I check the phone. Dead. Lines must be down. Lizzi and I agree that there’s nothing else for it but to retreat to bed.
“Mum, I know this is seriously not cool and maybe a bit weird, but can I sleep with you tonight? This house is a bit creepy.”
‘Tell me about it’, I think. “Of course you can. Tell you the truth, I’m not so keen on the house myself!”
The wind is still gathering force. Trees are creaking all around the garden. The thunder crashes with the wrath of a furious god and the lightning illuminates both the outside and inside of the cottage with a frenzied intensity.
Lizzi snuggles into my back and we drift in and out of an almost sleep.
31 October, midnight
My bedroom door crashes open, explodes against the chest of drawers. I jolt upright, colour falling from my face. Lightning flares. I see the room as clearly as I do in daylight.
“Mum?” Your voice is small.
“It’s just the wind Lizzi. It’s an old house. Tell you what, let’s move the chest of drawers in front of the door. It won’t bang open again.”
We climb back into bed and flounder into a doze.
31 October, 2.00am
A suggestion of air on my face. It’s freezing. I open my eyes. Another glaring bolt of lightning and I see my bedroom door is open. The chest of drawers is in its usual place.
Then I see him. Standing next to my bed. Between me and the door. I can’t get out without walking past him. But it seems I can’t move anyway.
“What, what do you want?” My voice is weak, croaky.
He does not move and does not answer.
I force myself to look at him. He’s old but not old. He has dark hair. A beard? He’s wearing brown. What is it? A cloak of some kind? His eyes are cold but there is pain in them.
He’s not wet. He hasn’t been outside…
“What do you want?”
Behind me, there is violent movement. It’s Lizzi. She’s rushing to the window, opening it.
“No, Lizzi!” My first thought is that she is going to jump out.
She doesn’t. She screams. A scream of terror.
I turn around, back to where he was standing.
There is no one there.
We leave the cottage on 1 November.
I learn from some teaching colleagues that the cottage had been a plague cottage, a place where, 300 years ago, infected people had been banished to die. For years, it was shunned but had been cleared out about 10 years ago. Locals would not live there. Nor, it seems, will Lizzi and I.
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