The ghost I met as a girl

The spirit was a young woman. She appeared monochrome. She defiantly floated rather than walked


November already. I like this month. It’s like that interregnum before a party, when one or two people are hanging out in the kitchen, putting things in bowls and sitting on the draining board eating peanuts. You just know that any minute now December is going to burst through the door in a party frock and stilettos and you’re going to have to crank up the music and paint a smile on your mush.

Tomorrow is All Souls’ Day, when we commemorate the faithful departed, a largely peaceful bunch who don’t stub out their fags in your potted chrysanthemums or drink your cooking sherry. And wasn’t November the Catholic Church’s transfer window for all those souls trapped in purgatory? A time when we were supposed to pray like billyo to free them? Remember purgatory? The place where those souls that are not perfectly cleansed from venial sins, or have not fully atoned for past transgressions, are debarred from “the Beatific Vision”?

When I was a little girl in a grey beret and a gabardine two sizes too big for me, with the strange lexicon of Catholicism revolving around in my head, I used to worry terribly about the souls in limbo, the babies who wouldn’t have had the foggiest idea what they were doing in that no-man’s land between cold, blue death and eternal rest. All those lonely little ghosts up there in that empty warehouse waiting for our Hail Marys to float up, so they could store them in the pockets of their ghostly nighties, and exchange them for a berth in heaven.

I’m not sure what spurred Pope Benedict’s decision, in 2007, to close down the limbo stopover for unbaptised babies and redirect all their souls to the boarding queue for paradise, but the volte-face was a little too late for my peace of mind.

When I was growing up, my family moved around a bit, renting a series of small houses where proximity to the sea made up for being skint and peripatetic. In my late teens we rented a cottage that had formerly been a stable or byre, a gently haphazard place with a narrow bath close to the kitchen and two bedrooms overhead beneath low sloping ceilings; it had once been servants’ quarters, part of the big house across the courtyard.

Our landlord was a gardener and the grounds around the cottage were home to long swaying plants that loomed over our heads like aliens. Everything felt alive, fecund; the force of the plant life was so ferocious it was consoling. By the time you reached your own front door you were in no doubt about your frailty and inconsequentiality in nature’s great prolific armoury. It was freeing to feel small in that big wet jungle, in that pagan place.

Not alone in the house
We moved into the cottage in late summer; by autumn we knew that we weren’t its only inhabitants.

My parents had largely abandoned religiosity (although in the years to come my mother did attempt to baptise a few heathen grandchildren over the kitchen sink), but they were not immune to the occasional invasion from the spirit world. However, any previous whispers from the beyond, such as the ghostly nun in the abandoned convent window my mother saw (whose rheumy eyes she couldn’t meet) or the white cats that followed her from place to place, reminding her of her restive green-eyed grandmother, were no preparation for the delicate ghost in that house we moved into.

The spirit was a young woman, who floated down the hallway and out through the front door on a rainy afternoon soon after we moved into the house. My mother was unpacking boxes, the afternoon was dark and still; she looked up, and the girl was in front of her. She had short dark hair and a long, delicate neck, wore a white shift dress and was barefoot. She appeared monochrome; she defiantly floated rather than walked.

Over the years that we lived there the ghost girl occasionally revisited the house. Sometimes she sat in the dark living room, sometimes she waited on the twist of the stairs. She appeared more abandoned than restless. Other people saw her, not many, but those who did were always cautious and a little confused, describing a woman not quite there but somehow entirely present. I used to sense, once in a while, the gentle weight of someone sitting down on my bed in the night.

I won’t be praying for the dead on All Souls’ Day, but I’ll look out for the shadows of those restive souls who stay behind, the ones who can’t quite leave this wintry garden.

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