SUPERNATURAL: EILEEN BATTERSBYhas had a lifelong interest in ghosts, but she wasn't expecting to encounter one in her own home – a house she was warned against buying, and eventually moved out of due to unexplained events, eerie happenings, and things that went bang in the night
IT WAS AS if the flesh was lifting off my bones. I heard a small gasp. It was mine. My eyes seemed to swell; I feared they would bulge out on stalks and become circles of white with a pulsating black dot in the middle – the way it happens in cartoons when characters get the fright of their lives.
Most of all though, it was the chill, the absolute cold; so cold my skin hurt. I wanted to run but I could only stare. She looked at me, through me. Her face was thin, stern, yet the expression was sorrowful, it conveyed utter sadness. Outside, out in the other world of light and colour, the sun was still bright. It was shortly after eight o’clock on an evening in early September, the sixth or seventh of the month. Why is the date so important? It was the day we began to move into a house that so many had urged me not to buy. I had even had a dream about being trapped in one of the rooms, under the floor boards, as rats ate my hands. But I did complete the deal because I had given my word.
Standing on the thick stone floor in the basement kitchen, the tall bushes swaying against the windows, I knew I wasn’t dreaming. I had come in to light a fire, not for the heat, just for the effect. There was a stack of logs outside, beautiful logs, the fire would bring the 18th century room to life. Once the flames were high I would boil milk on the modern electric cooker, already concealed in the small pantry. But the chocolate was in the car. The old walled garden was overgrown but wonderful, well stocked with period plants, roses of all shapes. The scene needed ladies in long dresses to complete the sense of long ago.
My daughter was picking flowers, talking to my two dogs, perhaps she was singing. For her, it was still an adventure. She thought the house was “just like something in a story book, may be there is a princess? Or a ghost?” Actually she was only interested in the possibility of liberating a sleeping princess waiting to be freed from a plump peony rose. The ghost was my idea, I was the ghost hunter, the one who sought out churchyards and haunted places. Now, it seemed I had met one and my famous curiosity had been undermined by knee-knocking terror.
I was ready to run up three flights of stairs, over one landing to the heavy front door and on to the parked car, to fetch the chocolate. But I couldn’t move. The figure was standing just to the left of the kitchen door, under the row of bells that had once summoned servants. It was a woman; she was small, very old with white hair. She was wearing a short jacket. I remember it so clearly, black, white and yellow check. Beneath all that patterned fabric was a jumble of lace descending from a high collar. Her arms were stretched out towards me. I was suddenly weary, tired from years of watching her, but it only lasted seconds.
Clear as life she stared at me through pale eyes in a lined, narrow face and then her form began to fade, dissolving. Her face and upper body were still visible but she had no feet, no lower body at all. The image faded as if it were being bleached away by acid. I edged by, negotiating a band of frozen space. Unable to swallow, I crashed up the stairs, taking six steps at a time, fighting my way out as if pursued by furies. I yanked open the side passage door and ran into the garden, gagging. It had taken years and yet only a couple of frenzied seconds.
Outside in the sun I shivered and became angry at my reaction. I was panting as if I had run five miles; my legs were unable to support me. Was I going to fall down? There was an old garden chair, a fancy ironwork seat that must have been overlooked by the vendors. Later I realised it had been hidden in the riot of the neglected garden. I squeezed the back of the chair, gripping it so hard that flakes of blistered paint drifted down on to the lawn. My heart was pounding. Down the garden my daughter and the dogs continued exploring. I glanced back at the kitchen and realised there had been a smell of vanilla and baking, but I had got no further than setting the fire. I felt that I had run through a wall of ice.
All of my life I have been fascinated with ghosts. I had promised my younger brother that should he fail to give me the incredible sit-on and drive giant-sized toy fire engine Santa Claus had, in fact, intended for me, not him, that my ghost would return and eat his liver.
My family had driven through Missouri one Halloween night and I had urged my father to slow down so that I could scan both sides of the high banks along the country road as I was convinced that the ghosts of Jesse James and his brother Frank would appear, riding phantom horses. We travelled to some of the great battlefields of the American Civil War, through Tennessee and Georgia, convinced that maimed soldiers continued to stumble through the landscape. I wanted to see the route taken by Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman. Vampires have become ridiculous, but tormented spirits are fascinating. What kind of energy? What level of anger keeps the dead on the prowl?
London remains heaven for a ghost hunter. I had memorised the works of Edgar Allan Poe and volumes of Victorian ghost stories which I could recite in a creepy whisper. I walked through Hampton Court silently willing any or all of its alleged 31 troubled spectres to reveal themselves to me. None did. At the Tower of London I peered at the ravens but saw no ghost. In a forgotten church yard in Kent I kept watch by a gravestone dated 1703 and simply inscribed “My Love”. Ireland, I was warned, was complicated, was I looking for The Little People, moving statues or just ghosts? It seemed safer to stick with ghosts.
There is a ruined castle on a hill in Co Wicklow, across the road from an ancient church yard of dense trees. On Halloween night a girl, jilted by her lover, is believed to retake the suicide leap she first took more than 400 years ago. I staked out the church yard, the moon was ideal; large and diseased looking. The vigil began but it was difficult to eat any of the food I had brought with me as the constant noise in the undergrowth suggested rats were waiting to pounce. Midnight approached; suddenly the bright yellow moon was concealed by black clouds. The silence became unbearable as I waited for her ghostly scream, but then the rain thundered down.
Various ghost-busting expeditions, including eerie pre-dawn strolls over the area of the Battle of the Boyne, raced through my thoughts as I gripped the iron frame of the garden seat at my house. Later, having casually asked the neighbouring farmer’s wife to describe the old woman who had lived in the house I had bought, I realised that I had seen her. She had died there and had been well known as a gifted, if reclusive baker – hence the scent of the vanilla. But it got worse; it was impossible to sleep in that house, footsteps were heard in the early hours, the sounds of things being dragged up and down the many wooden steps. The sighs. The thuds. Dogs and cats would rise abruptly from sleep, their coats standing like spikes and they would stare at nothing – the cats would arch their backs and hiss and strike out at the apparently empty air.
Time passed. Eventually, after endless weird happenings and sensations – the sound of water pouring from a faucet that was turned off – we abandoned the house, unsold. It was subsequently vandalised and is currently derelict.
But before that, a spiritual healer had been consulted. He found it difficult to walk over the threshold and said that he was feeling nauseous. He closed his eyes and spoke of seeing a woman being pushed down the stairs. According to him, a previous owner had been pulled limb from limb on the door step during 1798, a pregnant girl had killed herself, two children had drowned in the river that had once flown through the lower garden, explaining why it had been redirected. A groom had hung himself in the stables as a fire raged, killing all the horses. When the healer arrived at the door of the kitchen, he had stopped and began to push against the air. “I can’t get in,” he exclaimed. I said nothing, but I knew what was happening, he was battling that same wall of ice.