Here’s a ghost story that happened to me. Or is it? The thing with ‘real’ ghost stories is that they rarely match the narrative of fictional ghosts; they’re more likely to be along the lines of, ‘I don’t know whether this is anything, but there was this one time …’ True ghost stories have explanations yet defy explanation; they don’t end neatly; most times you’re not sure whether it is a ghost story or not. Anyway, here’s mine.
I grew up in a small Lincolnshire town. Our house was a late Victorian townhouse, long and narrow. From outside it looked very small, but when you went in you realised it went up and up and back and back. It had high ceilings and heavy plaster mouldings, the ceiling roses blurry with layer after layer of paint. I should point out that the house didn’t have a creepy atmosphere at all. It was light and warm and welcoming, but odd things happened. A cat would rub round the backs of your legs, and when you bent to stroke it, there was no cat there. Cats jumped on the beds, and again weren’t there. All of us in my family experienced these things, and all of us discounted them as tricks of the mind. We had two cats in the house and assumed that we’d imagined them jumping up or rubbing round. It was only much, much later that we found out we were all experiencing exactly the same tricks of the mind.
One day, as I walked across the landing, I happened to glance down into the hall. At the bottom of the stairs was an elderly woman wearing a brown coat and hat. When I glanced again, she was gone. I was not at all frightened when I saw her; I assumed she was someone who’d come to visit my parents. When she disappeared, I put it down to my eyes playing tricks.
I forgot about the old lady in brown until one Christmas Eve when my family was invited round to drink sherry with our next door neighbours. It was quite boring as a child to sit there sipping orange squash and listening to the grown-ups talking about whatever tedious things grown-ups talk about. Then our neighbour suddenly said, “I was sorting through some old photos the other day and found something I think you’ll like.”
He fetched a packet of old black and white photographs, explaining that about thirty years before, long before my family had moved into our house, a lorry had got stuck under a railway bridge in the town, and he had gone out to photograph it. He had a few snaps left, and just to finish off the film, he’d photographed the outside of our house. There in an upstairs window was a cat - our cat, Timmy, photographed twenty-five years before we’d moved there.
This strange coincidence sparked discussion of other strange things and one by one we related how we’d all felt cats rubbing round our legs and jumping on the beds, when no cat was there.
My dad added, “Talking of strange things, the other day I saw a woman come through our front gate and up the path to the front door. I got up to open the door before she rang the bell, and there was no one there, but I was convinced I’d seen her.”
“What did she look like?” I asked.
“She was an old lady, in a brown coat and hat.”
Was this a ghost, or had both of us experienced the same trick of the light? And how to explain the photograph of our cat, taken years and years before we lived in that house?
To me, the mystery isn’t in the invisible cats, the time travelling cat, or the woman in brown; it’s in the house itself. You see, I told you a lie at the beginning of this piece, when I said the house was warm and light and welcoming, and not at all creepy. At the time, it was warm and welcoming, but for the past thirty years I’ve had dreams about that house, and every time I do, I wake up screaming.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.