Every Christmas I attempt writing fiction, and most specifically a short Christmas ghost story. I think my best so far is Ethel, which I wrote last year. This year I tried something slightly different – and something I think very hard. I have attempted to write a realistic ghost story. That is, I have tried to tell the kind of story I often hear when interviewing people who claim to have experienced paranormal phenomena. Therefore I am afraid you will find little of the usual spine chilling stuff; no Victorian ladies spectres walk through walls, no headless corpses rise from unquiet graves to seek ghastly vengeance on the living, and no strange curses are muttered on moonlit moors. Instead, my story is rather mundane, and rather modern. It could happen in any home. Your home even. Tonight.
I hope despite all this, a few of you enjoy it. It is not finished yet, if it ever will be, but perhaps I will continue tomorrow if the writing frenzy befalls me again. Oh and one last thing — it is fiction, and never happened: but the central phenomena are based loosely on a real case I once investigated, many, many years ago.
Now I’ll let the narrator take up the story.
OK, so it’s 1982. Thursday evening, the day before Christmas Eve, and I’m walking home in crisp white snow, humming “Hymn” by Ultravox. I stop to look at some mysterious footprints, surely those of a giant panther or wolf in the crisp frozen snow? and then turn away as three older kids on BMX’s wobble unsteadily by. I want a BMX – but no way will I get one, not this Christmas. (Or the electronic Tron home arcade game I’d seen on TV). Nope, I’m due to get a “sensible bike”, but that will do me I guess. I was walking back from the Scout’s carol service, and no one had asked me to sing, but then at 12 your voice can go any time. Some of my mates, like Paul, well he already has a voice like Darth Vader. My voice, it’s more Minnie Mouse.
As I approach the house, the church bells loose off another thunderous peal, the bell ringers hurling defiance at the sodium orange tinted clouds overhead. Tea time, but seems to have been dark for hours, yet the open curtains of our little house – “our house in the middle of the street” – Madness are still in the Top Ten with that – anyway the windows cast bright squares of light on the thin crust of snow turned to ice.
Now the house is the hero of my story, so I’ll introduce it. Built a long time ago, it is exactly the same as all the other houses in the street. Like all of them it has been done up, and the little icy path to the loo at the bottom of the garden is redundant these days, replaced when I was little more than a toddler by the new brick built extension where the old kitchen was, with a modern bathroom and indoor loo. About 74, maybe 75? I have dim memories of sprinting freezing cold past the rhododendron bush and over the mossy path slick with slug trails to the icy confines of the loo up there, and the crisp feel of medicated toilet paper, horrid stuff but did not get damp no matter how bad the roof leaked. The privy in the garden, well it’s a tool shed these days – dad keeps his junk in there, when mum forces it out of the ‘dining room.’ Not often in winter; but right now the bits of radio, lawnmower, model aeroplanes and of course his illicit CB radios. Many a night he is in there, working on some US kit, sawing down aerials or doing whatever he does, if not busy talking in numbers to bored farm hands and passing lorry drivers. He tried ham radio, but the illegality of CB remains the thrill for a bored rebel like my dad.
Oh yeah the house. Well like many other houses – kitchen filled to the bursting with Christmas food we were forbidden to touch as the great day was not yet upon us, a tiny parlour with a turkey to big for the fridge sitting in a bowl of icy water, over which mum cooed and ah’d like it was a newborn, the front room where I tried to watch Top of the Pops if mum went to bingo that night, and enjoyed Terry & June if she didn’t, and the dining room which was really dad’s lair filled with his gadgets, machinery and rubbish. Upstairs three bedrooms, one quite bare and empty – I used to hurry past the open door at night, and slam it shut without looking in to the darkness. Mum said she heard someone died in there, a former tenant, but now it holds are racks and racks of old shirts, pullovers and spare bedlinen. Still gives me the creeps. My room and my parents: and the ‘new’ bathroom, all olive green fittings and deep blue walls slick with the steam of the piping hot bath water (if someone had remembered to turn the immersion heater an hour before at least).
There remains just one more thing- the loo. Olive green to match the bath – but who wants to hear about our toilet? Yet I’m afraid it is the toilet, this modern comfortable convenience, that is the heart of my story. Not the grim cold little privy long disused at the bottom of the garden, but this most convenient of all, well, modern conveniences. It was upon this very throne that five years ago on Christmas night Uncle Roger had passed in to eternity, just four months after Elvis met a similarly tragic fate.
Now I can’t recall much of that night, apart from the cheery ambulancemen wishing us all “a very Merry Christmas” as they wheeled out Uncle Roger’s corpse. What a way to go! Roger was my mothers brother, a kind jovial plump chap, who we all liked. We are far less keen on his wife, the rather glamorous Aunt Gladys. She hailed from somewhere in Surrey, and from a ‘good family’ I’m told, and they never really forgave her for marrying Roger; a provincial librarian was not what they had planned for a woman who was I am told in her day a prominent society type. I know Gladys as a women of decidedly uncertain complexion and very forthright views, who makes disapproval an art form. The thing she most disapproves of most in the world is my mother; dad however comes a close second, with the dog and I vying for third. Her (extremely infrequent) visits are ordeals, inspections, perhaps even inquisitions? She seems to take delight in being disappointed, and I had never known her to spend a single night under our roof. When Gladys and Roger came, it meant picking them up from the hotel, and not even a small sherry for dad till they were safely back in the Station Arms, where Gladys had made herself the least popular guest in that worthy establishments history. She likes like to criticize, does Gladys, and the staff take umbrage at her extremely honest (and lengthy) descriptions of her failings.
Enough! I must speed up this story, or I will be here all night. On getting in and tramping slush and ice over the carpet of the hall, I saw Dad in a state of wild agitation. He was carrying a milk crate stuffed with motor parts, bookies forms, long dead chequebooks and jam jars full of valves, defunct batteries and odd bits of wiring. No word was necessary; he as off to the outside privy, to put away as much as he could, and tomorrow he would drive to the skip to abandon three years cherished treasures. He was clearing the dining room; for the first time in 36 months, and only the second since we lost Uncle Roger, Gladys must be coming to visit, and last time had been a fleeting and unwelcome visit on legal matters. Gladys, or Mrs Broome-Verall, as I must not desperately attempt to remember to call her. The hour was at end, and the innocence of youth was gone, Christmas was no longer a time of cheer and goodwill, but a time of sterile manners and terrified politeness, amidst the hostile stilted chatter of my elders, and the long silences. Silence, because Mrs Broome-Verall as Gladys shall be henceforth, well she does not like the TV on. Television is a vulgar medium, as she is fond of saying.
OK, OK. This is supposed to be a ghost story, and I can tell by the look on your face you are bored with it already. Let’s cut to the chase…
It’s midnight now, Christmas Eve creeping in as the clock ticks on closer to Gladys and a Christmas ruined. Dad is furiously scrubbing something, mum shouting at the dog as she re-hoovers the front room for the fifth time– lucky old Mrs Siddons next door is deaf as a post, and I can faintly smell emulsion as dad has tried to make the dining room look respectable, OK, less shabby. I’m reading my mothers copy of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, which adults have raved about for weeks and I just can’t see the humour in. Then it happens: a sharp, persistent rapping, loud enough to reverberate throughout the house.
The hoover instantly cuts out, and Dad lets slip a word I’ve never heard him use before, even after a dozen pints at one of his roisterous CB eyeballs at The Thorn. Debbie the Dog lets loose the most ghastly, unearthly howling. It’s like a game of freeze tag. We all stop, frozen by a dreadful realization – Gladys has come early. Even know she is standing outside, her prim pointy little nose doubtless growing icicles as her mood becomes more icy than the weather. For a moment the whole house seems to crouch in terror, the painful expectancy building. And then a sudden flurry of agitated violent raps breaks the calm, and I hear dad steeling himself for the horror to come stride manfully over and throw open the door. The whole world waits juddering in pace for a second; then anticlimax. No Gladys, no polite but frigid hugs, no sound of machine gun tutting as she enters. Just mum and dad laughing, and the sound of dad bouncing up the stairs, shouting down “well we know she is not here till three tomorrow” with a kind of wild joy. He does not bother to knock, but hurls open my door, and shouts at me “what’s with all the banging? You’ll wake the neighbours.”
And then it happened again. A short staccato burst of machine gun raps, sparking off Debbie’s howling again, and echoing clearly from along the passage. Dad actually jumped, as did I, so unexpected was it. In his jubilation at discovering Gladys was not already at the door, he had forgotten the violent knocking he had taken as an omen of this doom. Now he decided it was an omen of failing plumbing, and rejuvenated by the prospect of dismantling the hot water system shot off downstairs to find a spanner.
I wasn’t so sure, but the hour was late, and I needed the loo. I walked along the passage, and saw the basted door to the “haunted” room had swung open again, so averted my eyes and tugged it shut as I made the leap for safety in to the bathroom. Well nearly, even as I was barging in, a sudden flurry of deafening raps send me skidding backwards, the light snapping off in my hand as I fell on to the lino, and nearly wetting myself in terror, crawled back towards the sanctuary of my bedroom. That was how dad found me, clad only in Y fronts, crawling like a thing possessed away from the bathroom, waving the light cord like a trophy. I don’t think he knew whether to howl with rage, tears or laughter, but he chose the latter.
A while passed, the banging now seemingly over. Dad fixed the light cord with a quick knot, and set about dismantling the immersion, muttering about air blocks and lime scale build up but happy to have an excuse to take apart the whole system, however unnecessarily. In the meantime I discard Adrian and quickly dressed, as I hear mum calling with a certain urgency. Turns out all she wants is for me to pop next door and check old Mrs Siddons is alright. “After all dear, it would be awful if she had had a fall, and is lying there banging on the walls trying to get us to hear, and we did nothing – it being Christmas and all.” Biting back the urge to ask if it would be better if we left her to die slowly at Whitsun or Easter, I pulled on my old parka that no longer fits properly, and scrambled off on my errand of mercy.
On arriving at Mrs Siddon’s front door however I was rather lost. All the lights were off, and I could hardly knock till she awakened if she was safely asleep. Even if she did not mind me woken after midnight, and she is always up at 5am sharp to go get her morning paper, even if I she doesn’t mind, the noise it would take such a deaf old woman to come down would wake the rest of the street. And if she had fallen, and was lying somewhere in the darkness upstairs rapping on the wall for help, how was she meant to answer the door even if she heard me? I decided I’d best see if the back offered any more possibilities. I slipped back through our house, and heard mum saying in a hollow tone “and the stupid bitch still believes I poisoned him. I should have done to put him out of his misery with her, would have been be a mercy I tell you”. Even now Gladys arrival overshadowed everything it seems.
I tried to call the dog to follow me to the back garden, but Debbie was clearly upset. She had retreated in to the parlour, squeezing herself behind the beer crates and boxes of never used silver wedding gifts. Always does that if there is a row in the house, and spends most of her time there when Gladys is in the house,but just as well as Gladys can’t abide dogs. I nose out in to the garden, the sky still the colour of a muted electric fire from the myriads of street lamps. Then I recall mum’s dream.
It was just a few weeks after Uncle Roger had passed from us; mum had woken suddenly, having trouble sleeping. The funeral had not been a success, and the missing will and almost open hostility of Gladys to us all had really upset mum. I wasn’t meant to know about the dream, but I have heard her tell other story when she thinks I’m not listening. Maybe a dozen or more times now, and always in those hushed tones she adopts when talking of sad or strange things. On the night in question she had awakened, and heard a voice calling her name. She did not wake my father, but went to her bedroom window, and looked out, and there was real as life was Uncle Roger, deathly pale and clearly a corpse, staring up at her from by the rhododendron bush. She had really liked, indeed loved her brother, but in that instant she said she felt a chill of utter pure evil, and she threw herself backwards on to the bed, awakening herself and my father instantly. (I can still recall the muffled screams from them both – I just wondered what the hell they were up to, and deciding better not to ask, went back to bed. There are some things we are not meant to know, at least when it comes to your parents bedroom pursuits.)
My mother was not right for a few days after that, and she kept shaking. Dad told her Roger was probably still alive, having faked his own death and was doubtless hiding out from Aunt Gladys in the potting shed, but no, for once she failed to see the funny side. The “ghost” had really really upset her. However I could tell dad was worried, and a few days later he took mum off to see the doctor, who I think gave her “something for her nerves”. After that, normality slowly returned.
Anyhows as I walked through the frozen night garden, past that rhododendron bush, I shivered and I’m not sure it was entirely the cold. Then my blood ran – well not exactly cold, as it was freezing in my veins from being out there in the night, but the thumping in my ears told me it was doing something. From the privy I heard the phantom rattling of chains! After a second or two I realised, it was just the chain on the cistern blowing in the wind. Spooks! What rot! I steeled my nerves again, and climbed over the fence in to the inky blackness of Mrs Siddon’s yard.
Suffice to say this proved no more useful than the front; and actually I did not try very hard to find her, for there propped against the wall I discovered a shiny new bike, a 5 green gear racer, still firmly wrapped in Halford’s plastic. So this was where my Christmas present was concealed! When I finally got back in, there had been no more knocking, and mum and dad were demolishing the Christmas port and lemon. Given we had no central heating, not even storage heaters, I left them to their drinks and scurried off to my welcome bed, head racing with thoughts of what five gears could achieve on a downhill run.
Christmas Eve dawned with the frost staining my window in a fantastical pattern of faerie ferns. I jumped down the stairs, hoping my parents inevitable hangover from last night had not precluded them getting up and putting the electric fire on, to be greeted by the reassuring smell of toast and frying bacon. And I’m afraid nothing of interest happened for hours, not till maybe eleven, by which time the house was once again a whirling kaleidoscope of frenzied tidying, panicked squealing and near hysteric dusting. Only a few hours till the doom that is Gladys needs picking up from the station, and the lucky old hotel staff stand inspection for the first of her tirade of complaints. Soon after that, our turn! What that, isn’t this a ghost story? OK OK, I’ll move on…
It was just before noon it started up again. Mum and dad were arguing downstairs, in fact shouting quite loudly. I did not need to ask what about. I was upstairs, arranging the linen in airing cupboard. It was the banging again, clear, sharp, raps, and close by. In fact this time they seemed to be getting faster, indeed building in speed and momentum, until finally there was a tremendous rapidfire volley of sharp short cracks. And then I realised it was coming from the bathroom.
OK, it took a moment for that to sink in, and in that moment my parents stopped shouting, and the banging ended. I wandered in to the bathroom, and looked suspiciously at the taps, and dad started to come up stairs to see what was going on. Mum wasn’t having that – she had to get the last word in, and so she did, and as they started shouting again, I began to carefully inspect the plughole. Snap! Snap! Right behind me, causing me to yelp in sheer shock, the air knocked out of my lungs by the unexpected rapping. And then I saw the ghost.
You look relieved that I have finally got to the ghost, but I suspect you won’t be. What I saw was no misty apparition, not even a figure like mum’s dream of Uncle Roger: nope what I saw was the plastic toilet seat on our loo banging up and down, up and down, seemingly as if slammed with real venom, hatred even, by an invisible hand. I’m not a brave person – not even a strong willed one; but the effect was both so odd and so ridiculous I could do nothing but stand and stare, and then giggle, and finally laugh. The more I laughed, the harder it slammed, as if my jollity in the face of this unnatural phenomena, this sanitary convenience from the other side, was somehow annoying it. I must have laughed a good thirty seconds, and all the time the lid slammed with greater speed, until I heard both my parents running up the stairs. I cared not: I wanted them to see this. And then suddenly, a tremendous gurgling built up, and a strange watery voice issued forth from the cistern, crying “GET OUT!!!” I fled for my life down the passage, knocking my mother flying, and causing dad to pirouette in to the wall and fall clutching a long string of shiny tacky tinsel.
OK, time to leave this for tonight. I’ll finish the story later if anyone cares.