This is a story I have never told in print for fear that I would sound mad. It is the version of events as I remember them, so that the tale told by another member of my family might differ slightly in order or timing. But it is a true story, none the less. It happened, despite our collective reluctance to admit it, and my reluctance now both to tell it and to own it as mine. And before you ask, no, I don’t believe in ghosts. Only, as I say, this happened.
I was 16 when, one June, my family moved to a lofty Victorian villa in the Midlands: ivy-strewn, hidden behind trees, high-ceilinged and replete with corridors. This sudden gift of space was not before time. When people asked how many siblings I had, I tended to chirp “we are too menny” à la Jude the Obscure, or “we are legion” à la biblical possession. Ours, in fact, was the perfect situation for a horror story: three girls of 16, 15 and nine, a boy of 11 and one of barely four.
To be sure, our new house had a degree of notoriety. Local gossip held that it boasted three “presences”: a woman who stalked the ground floor, an elderly doctor forever racing up its stairs searching for a dying grandson and, in its upper reaches, the victim of an argument that had spilled over into murder. There was even what appeared to be the requisite bloodstain that could not be removed, since covered with carpet.
The more credulous would not step inside it. We were not so naive. And yet, there was something unsettling about our new home, a personality, a sense that we were installing ourselves in a place already occupied. It never felt quite empty. Doors would shut of their own volition, footsteps would sound. It felt as if we were being watched, assessed.
Very soon, this phoney-war period became the subject of nostalgia. For, when the house kicked off, it kicked off in epic style. Every night at 4am, someone – something – would tear up its stairs, rattling, then forcing open, the doors in its wake (all of which required proper turning and thrusting), until it reached my mother’s room, entering in a furious, door-slamming blast. Once – comically, but in ghastly, unequivocal fashion – it even seemed to relieve its excess energy with a few strokes on her rowing machine.
This may sound like nothing, but I cannot tell you the uncanny monotony of its nightly repetitions. We refused to recognise it, of course, being sane, a family of atheists and, above all, British. One night, my furious doctor father, up book-writing in the early hours, bellowed: “Whoever’s charging up and down the stairs, will they stop?”
His wife and children rallied indignant: “Well, it’s not bloody us.”
One night, emboldened by drink, I roared: “Shut the ---- up” and it did, briefly, before recommencing with still more emphatic zeal. (There was a silver lining to this episode: my little sister, then nine, recently alluded to my big-sister bravery with the line: “Hannah shouts at ghosts.”)
Back then, we didn’t use the G-word. In fact, we strove not to use any word at all – not to acknowledge our summer haunting, certainly not to discuss it. And so the house tried harder, with what, I imagine, would be referred to as classic poltergeist activity. We would return home to find the taps turned on full-force, requiring wrenching back into inaction. An oven, on the third floor, would have its rings switched to red hot, making the house’s already airless attics crackle dangerously with heat. After the second time it happened, we had it disconnected. It happened again. (And, believe me, as I write this, I too think it is mad.)
Matters became worse. One night, the boarded-over fireplace in my room ripped open with a clamour. I wrenched my pillow over my ears, telling myself it must be a trapped bird. In the daylight, I investigated. Behind the fireplace, crammed up the chimney, were Victorian newspapers recording the house’s murder. I couldn’t read them.
My mother started behaving oddly – pensive, distracted. We eldest and Nanny Williams, our beloved summer-holiday addition, interrogated her. Finally, she cracked. Waking in the night, she had seen a dead child. This is how she described it – not a ghost, but a dead child dressed in Victorian clothing, visible from the knees up. It had a certain logic: a child appearing to a mother. I became determined not to see any such thing. Sounds could be denied; but sights would be too appalling.
But my mother was not the only person to be so affected. The house’s most oppressive room, overlooking the garden, we still do not venture into. It is colder than the rest of the house, now a repository for our old toys, which adds a certain Gothic element.
Back then, however, my four-year-old brother occupied it. Like all youngest offspring, he was a golden child: charming, vivacious. That summer he changed: rendered quiet, hollow-eyed, with the air of a tiny old man. Asked why he was so exhausted as he sat yawning one morning, he answered: “Every night, it’s the same: the lady with the big bottom [a bustle? I wonder] and the two men fighting over my bed, then one man hurts the other and the lady screams.” From then on, he slept in my mother’s room.
My grandmother bedded down there next, innocent of that summer’s events, then refused to ever again. My mother braved it to prove her wrong. Next morning, the room was locked. When we quizzed her, she refused to divulge what had happened, saying only that it was “something to do with time”. Somehow this was – and remains – the most horrifying thing I had ever heard.
Still, the part of the narrative that brings most fear to the few friends in whom I’ve confided it is this. One bright August day, drinking tea in the kitchen, we elders – me, my sister, Nanny and mother – finally admitted that something was happening. We laughed and teased each other but, my God, it was a relief.
Suddenly, a mirror sprang off the wall and shattered. On the back of its glass, in an old-fashioned script, the numbers 666 were repeatedly etched, along with the message: “I’m going to ------- kill you all.” I know you won’t believe this – I don’t believe it. But it happened.
Like you, I am wary of ghost stories: their linear march and relentless building to a crescendo. This is a story with no denouement. Over time, a year or two, events gradually petered out. Again, I am told that this is standard form: ghosts (I can barely type the word) act up with newcomers, then they – and you – adjust. Plus, I like to think that Bettses are far more terrifying.
Today, I love my parents’ house with its greenery and servants’ bells. It is our home. Yet still it has the capacity to act up. Our neighbour’s new cleaner recently informed him that she would not be returning, having seen a woman walk through a wall (our buildings were once joined). On another occasion, one brother’s girlfriend remarked that everything in her room had shaken at 4am. Was there some sort of quake?
“Some sort of quake,” we replied.
Coming Shortly .... Reader`s own ghost stories!