My Personal Ghost Story

Not too long ago, admitting you had a personal ghost story was apt to get you pitying looks or that ‘drinking-her-lunch-again’ gesture behind your back. But ghost stories have gone mainstream, judging by the proliferation of cable reality shows such as ‘Celebrity Ghost Stories,’ ‘My Ghost Story’ and the like.

In honor of October 31, I hereby chime in with my very own, very true and very personal ghost story.

My grad school friend and I had traveled from California to Haworth village in Yorkshire, England for the annual Bronte festival.

Accommodations in the small village were limited to small family-run bed-and-breakfasts, and relatively few of those. The event drew large crowds every year and competition for those few rooms was fierce.

Trudi and I had booked far ahead of time and had our confirmation in hand. Nevertheless when we arrived at the doorstep of the tidy terraced house, the landlady told us she had expected us the night before and had given our room away.

We must have looked a sight: jetlagged, rumpled from long train rides and the lengthy wait on a windswept platform for the transfer to the Lilliputian local train. ‘I can call my neighbor down the road,’ she said. ‘He may still have a room.’

Within moments she returned. ‘He has a room for you if you go right now.’ The landlady gave us the house number and pointed.

Off we trotted. In the line of trim housefronts with their shining windows, this house sagged, gray and dejected. Even the ‘Bed and Breakfast’ sign in the window looked halfhearted.

Trudi and I exchanged looks. Behind us the narrow street hummed with the cars of incoming festivalgoers. We turned back to the door and rang the bell.

‘You the ones who called?’ The landlord loomed over us, huge and hairy, moth-eaten cardigan gaping across a grimy singlet. He took our nods as assent and pulled back the door.

The determined gloom allowed only impressions of the interior. The blinds of the front windows in the lounge were tightly shut against the late afternoon sun. Even in the semidarkness I could see vast numbers of tennis shoes scattered across the floor. But not in pairs, not new as if he were a flea market trader. No, the floor was littered with individual shoes. Old, grotty shoes.

A compressed sofa hulked against one wall. A light patch in the rear wall allowed a peak into a tiny kitchen. Even from a distance we could see piles of dishes and pans on the counters and in the sink. The whole smelled of dirty feet, smoke and squalor.

Not that the landlord gave us much time to look around as he chivvied us to the foot of the stairs. ‘I’ll show you your room.’

‘A lot of people like to sit in here,’ he gestured with a massive arm, ‘and watch the telly.’

Voluntarily? I wondered.

‘And that’s the kitchen where I’ll be making your breakfast.’

My stomach lurched at the thought.

Up two flights we climbed, then around the landing and onto a third flight.  These stairs were so narrow we had to edge up sideways, backs against the wall, holding our duffle bags ahead and behind us with outstretched arms. The top landing was floored in worn lino. There was a gable window ahead of us set into the roofline, and a stout oak door to our right. The landlord took out a key, unlocked the door and pushed it open.

At first glance the room was unobjectionable: at least by the standards of the rest of that house. It was plainly furnished with three single beds and nightstands lining the walls. The coverlets were thin and worn but looked clean enough. One narrow window was set in the roofline, the twin to the window on the landing. It allowed in only a weak light.

It occurred to me that generations of servant girls had lived most of their lives in garret rooms just like this one. I could survive one night here.

So why was every instinct telling me to get out—no, run out, right now?

‘I’ll go make you a nice pot of tea and bring it up to you girls while you’re unpacking,’ the landlord broke into my thoughts.

We watched him close the door behind him. Shutting us in.

Wordlessly Trudi and I exchanged glances. We waited until his heavy steps descended the stairs before we moved. I tiptoed to the door and tested the knob. It turned freely; I eased it open a crack, just to check. A tiny portion of panic receded: at least we weren’t locked in.

Trudi was standing on the bed looking out the window. I joined her, only to find the house was set at the edge of a steep ledge overlooking open fields. Far below us, not only the four storeys of the house but the additional drop of the ledge, ran a dirt path. The window we were looking out was made of thick panes, the whole painted shut.

‘Even if we could get the window open, no one could hear us. And if we climbed out, we’d probably fall,’ I whispered to Trudi.

‘Did you see that lounge?’ Trudi whispered back. ‘He’s not right.’

‘Nobody knows we’re here. We need to get out. Now.’

‘Do you think we should tell him?’

‘He’ll figure it out.’ My words were clipped; I could hardly force them out around the panic that gripped my throat and burned in my chest.

We crept down the stairs, testing each tread with our toes for any squeaks that would betray our escape.

In the narrow entryway we paused. Tinkling sounds of tea making told us the landlord was still occupied in the kitchen but nothing was more than a few short feet away in the confined space of the little row house. If he looked up he would see us.

Each hair of my head felt like an antenna, quivering, testing, anticipating the moment that walking nightmare would see us, try to stop us. It was the waking version of a nightmare of being chased, straining ahead of an unseen predator, arching like a bow against the moment the icy fingertips reach, touch, catch…

I eased the front door open just wide enough for us to slip through, trying to limit the beacon of light from outside. Trudi and I passed one at a time into the sunlight and freedom.

We ran down the street, shaking with silent giggles of relief and release, until we turned the corner. A little common area, a red-paned phone box, shoppers passing, dull, blessed normalcy: what had we been thinking? He was a slovenly man in a dirty old house. Why had we let our imaginations run away with us? ‘But still, that lounge—all those shoes!’ ‘I would have poured the tea down the drain. Can you imagine eating anything that came out of that kitchen?’

Ever-resourceful Trudi made short work of finding us a room in a semidetached home on the edge of the village. The place was filled with sunlight and the owners’ children and dogs. We were assigned a grand, ornately furnished room with a marble fireplace and sets of floor-to-ceiling windows. They all opened. I checked.

Several days later we were walking back to our lodgings along a footpath that skirted the village. ‘Look,’ Trudi stopped me. “There’s that house.’

I followed her gaze, up the bare rock ledge, over the antique stone foundations appearing as if they had grown from the native rock, to the long line of four storey houses perched high above us. Whitewashed, slate roofed, little windows reflecting the sun, individual houses were difficult to pick out of the long line.

Except for one that hulked, dingy and blind windowed, amidst its neighbors. ‘That was our window,’ Trudi pointed.

A cloud passed and the light dimmed. For just a moment I could see through the window, glimpse the face that looked out. Thin, feminine, surrounded by long blond hair, a face I recognized, mouth open as if calling.

Or screaming.

Before I could do more than suck in a breath, the face winked out of existence. The sun reappeared and turned the windows back into mirrors.

‘What?’ Trudi asked.

‘I’m just glad we didn’t stay.’

We passed on down the path, talking of other things. I could not tell my friend, and I never told anyone else, until now, about what I saw in that moment. For who would believe me?

Who would believe I had seen, not the ghost of what happened but the ghost of what might have been? For it was my own ghost I had seen, trapped high above, pleading silently for help that would never come, in some other reality that had not happened and would never end.

Photo Credit: PhotoPin

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One Comment

  1. Marla S.
    Posted November 2, 2012 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    Thanks for creeping me out at 12:45 a.m. When I saw the title I should have decided to wait until morning to read this post. Lol!

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