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Hilary Fannin: We shared a rickety cottage by the sea with a ghost — a real one, with a beautiful neck

My mother, sensing she was not alone in the kitchen, saw a young woman drift through the hall

The still tiny, still magnificently black cat is fearless. We’ve had her for 14 months now and it probably took her less than half that time to assert her dominance over our lives.

She tolerates being held when she’s soaking wet, preferably if you’ve got her pink towel handy. She likes when there’s football on the telly, following the action up and down the pitch with her mad green eyes. She’s suspicious of the piano, unregulated affection and the hoover. She scoffs at Labradors. Sometimes she likes to stretch out in an empty bath.

She chooses to sleep on my bed, but has no truck with the inconvenient limbs of other bed users. Her expression when she has to move an inch or two to the right or left seems to suggest that if we could unscrew our legs and stack them in the corner it would be entirely more satisfactory.

It probably sounds odd to say that we just accepted our ghost

We love her, of course, pathetically, predictably, more so maybe because of the simplicity of her needs in this uncertain and bellicose world.


“You want to watch yourself this weekend,” I said to her. “It’s Halloween, hunting season for little black cats.”

She was sitting, tail curled neatly, on a shiny promotional leaflet from the supermarket that had come through the letterbox, looking at me through her lantern-like peepers. I could tell she was straining to hear the words “dinner time” or maybe “kick off at eight” coming out of my mouth.

“You’re staying in for a couple of nights,” I continued. “It’s for your own good. Human beings are notoriously unpredictable.”

She stormed upstairs, slammed the bedroom door.

The night sky was chalky; electricity crackled in the air. I picked up the supermarket missive, waited for a gap in the lightning strikes and brought it outside to the recycling bin. The leaflet was advertising witches’ hats and monkey nuts, lurid marshmallows and shiny pumpkins, jellies resembling eyeballs and the kind of sugary worms that small children like to stick up their nostrils.

Around me in this quiet suburb (where, to be fair, disappearing cats are an anomaly), the garden hedges were strewn with shimmery ghouls. The wet grass in front of neighbouring houses sprouted the protruding bones of plastic skeletons. Windows up and down the still road were decorated with paper ghosts and fluffy spiders.

On Halloween night, small children with painted faces will knock on my door, and I’ll dutifully dispense handfuls of tooth-rot and reassurance of their scariness, then retreat to the grown-up world of a glass of red wine in front of the truly terrifying television news.

As a teenager I lived in a rickety cottage by the sea that my parents rented for many years. We had a ghost there; not a paper ghost, or a plastic ghost, or a ghost purchased for Halloween alongside plonk and lollipops. Our ghost was the real deal, replete with a history, who appeared to few. It was an idiosyncratic house, a former stable, with a window in the kitchen that looked on to an interior hallway.

Not long after the start of our tenancy, my mother, unpacking saucepans in the kitchen, felt she was not alone. Looking through the oddly placed window, she saw a young woman drifting through the hallway. Struck initially not by the way the figure moved or how the light didn’t seem quite right around her, my mother noticed first the spectre’s beautiful neck, long and elegant.

“We have a ghost,” she announced that evening. “A ghost with a beautiful neck.”

In a world that favours proof and validation, where facts are searched mid-conversation on a mobile phone, it probably sounds odd to say that we just accepted our ghost and encompassed her. Occasionally, visitors would encounter her moving along the hallway; once or twice, overnight guests, sleeping on the couch in the livingroom, woke to see her watching them. A former tenant and friend had discovered a little of the ghost’s possible history. She may have had a lover in the stable; may have been killed by a jealous husband. I never saw her, but I sensed her presence. She was a patient ghost, waiting for someone or something, I don’t know who or what.

Binning the supermarket mailshot with its half-price fakery, I looked around the neatly appointed street. There was a clap of thunder.

I’d love to have seen our delicate ghost under that night’s turbulent sky, and others, now departed, who’d accepted her into their lives; generous spirits themselves who understood that the dead sometimes need the company of the living.