The ghosts of my Irish childhood always seemed to elude me. Growing up, I soon dismissed them as simply superstitious nonsense. But then I went to stay with friends who owned a Tudor home in Surrey. It was snowing when I arrived and the house, with its pretty leaded windows and its ancient oak front door, looked enchanting in the dusk. Reunited with my friends, Paul and Gilly Wheeler and their four children, I met the parrot, cats and dogs and the new Chihuahua puppy.
In the morning, Gilly and her daughter Norah set off to buy food in Farnham leaving me alone at home. In my bedroom I’d found an aged tape recorder and a box of music tapes, including early Beatles’ hits. I’d brought the puppy up with me. Chihuahuas come from Mexico: in the 16th century the Conquistadors used them as hot water bottles, rather as I did myself when he curled up on my lap.
‘Love Me, Do’ was blaring out when I heard footsteps on the stairs. Thinking that my friends were back, I checked, but there was no-one on the landing. Strange, I thought – and went back to work again, not registering that it was strange to hear any other sounds above the level of the music. Yet I heard those steps again, not just once but several times.
And then the Beatles’ tape ran out. The person who had made that tape had eclectic taste in music, recording on the other side a selection of Beethoven’s most famous piano sonatas. Delighted by this second find, I settled down to work again. At once the puppy turned ice-cold and began to have convulsions. He’s going to die, I thought in horror – what will Gill and Norah say ? I wrapped him in a blanket and took him downstairs to the kitchen. There, to my relief and joy, he recovered instantly – so instantly that I was puzzled. I thought – what happened to him in the bedroom ? Or did I imagine it ? But I knew that I did not.
At last I heard the Wheelers’ car. They came in loaded down with shopping. ‘Were you all right alone ?’ said Norah. ‘You see, we forgot to tell you that you might encounter the Grey Lady. She’s a ghost. She haunts this house. You’ll hear her footsteps on the stairs. You needn’t worry – she is gentle. She likes to listen to classical music and… You look startled. What’s the matter ?’
I was. But writers are acquisitive. I held onto the Grey Lady and took her back to Ireland with me. You will meet her in my novel Seeking Clemency where she wanders round the lake shore looking for her long-lost lover.
As for me: do I believe in ghosts or not ?Well, I’m no longer so dismissive. And reverting back to childhood, I see the ruins of a house with ivy growing over it and although there’s no-one there I sense that I’m with other children.
Next week: Knockalisheen House, Cnoc an Lisin – ‘The Hill of the Little Fairy Fort.’