A ghost story for Halloween…
‘If there is an afterlife,’ I remember my mother saying one day, ‘then how come people always look so sad when they die?’
Back then, I wasn’t in a position to answer. To be honest, I didn’t want to know. I was already regretting raising the issue with her at all. It had come up again at school, and all the teachers there just seemed to take it for granted. I thought it sounded reassuring, especially as my Dad was already there, wherever ‘there’ was. Mum, though, was having none of it. Radicalised by the sixties, she didn’t approve of RE classes or Christian assemblies, and it was only because Grandad had convinced her it would cause me a lot of bother if she stormed up there and demanded I be exempted that saved me from humiliation. ‘Go and talk to the old man about it, if you must,’ she advised, returning to the washing up. ‘He believes in all that old bollocks.’
Grandad lived in a big wooden shed at the bottom of the garden that had been there when we moved in. There was more than enough room for him in our council place, but he seemed happier in his own space, venturing in only for meals, the loo, and the occasional bath. I said he should come and watch telly with us, but he wasn’t interested in what he called ‘All that ignorant chatter.’ He was happy enough with a battery-powered radio and his paperbacks, which he read by lamp or candlelight, there being no electricity in his hut. I wouldn’t say he and Mum were exactly close, but without his free childminding services she’d not have been able to work when I was little. I loved that place and I loved him. Hidden amongst ashes, elders and a fair few brambles, it had been a castle and a pirate ship and anything else I wanted it to be as a boy. Grandad didn’t mind sharing. He might even join in for a bit if his horse had come in and he’d had a few beers. It was as much my den as his he used to say. Nowadays, we’d sit outside of an afternoon, weather permitting, on mismatched dining chairs around a liberated pub table and shoot the breeze over strong tea and, in his case, pipe and a drop of the creature, ‘Just to keep the cold out me bones.’
When I asked him about God and all that, I learned that he was raised a Methodist but didn’t pay it much mind nowadays. This was news to me, but my mother’s disdain for religion was so deep she’d erased all trace of it from her life before I came along. Grandad, however, came from a vanished world where things were more fluid. When I admitted I was thinking about it, he just laughed, but he quickly qualified it by adding, ‘Not that I’m sayin’ there ain’t nothing, boy. I’m not sayin’ that.’
He looked serious, so I nodded in vigorous agreement.
‘I gave up on God at Dunkirk,’ he continued, ‘but I ain’t saying’ there’s no Devil. What I do know though, is there’s another world out there, a dark world, running alongside of our own. And sometimes, for whatever reason, some folks get a glimpse of it through being ill, or mad, or pissed, or just unlucky. And if they can see into that world well, stands to reason, what’s hidin’ in there – I won’t call it livin’ – can see them.’
That got my attention. ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘You mean ghosts?’
He took a drag on his pipe, coughed and spat on the wild grass that grew around the front of the hut. Then he took another, as if that might be the one that didn’t make him cough. ‘Christ and all his holy angels,’ he said to himself, then got on with his story. ‘I know about that dark world,’ he said, looking around as if checking for eavesdroppers, ‘because when I was a boy, younger than you are now, I saw right into it. So, life after death, you say? I reckon there is, not that it looked much like bloody heaven to me.’ He laughed mirthlessly, took a battered leatherbound hipflask from his pocket and cooled his tea. ‘How old are you now?’ he said.
‘Fourteen,’ I reminded him.
‘Want some?’ he said, waving the flask at me.
‘Go on, then.’ He topped off my tea with an injunction not to tell my mother. It tasted like burning mud. He raised his mug and smiled. I tried to look like I was enjoying it.
‘When I was a lad,’ he began, ‘before the war, back in the old village, we lived next door to this fella name of Billy Borrow. These was farm cottages at the bottom of a little lane, and they weren’t no one else live down there but us. He was a good lookin’ young man and he knew it, fancied hisself, he did. He had really thick black hair, all wild like, and the darkest eyes I ever seen. Folks said there was gypsy in him. He didn’t work on the land like the rest of them down there, he were a sort o’ handyman, could turn his hand to anything. There was many the bored housewife round there what broke a tap or knocked off a few tiles just to have him around the place for a day. He did work for my Dad sometimes as well. Your great grandad he was a chippy, see, he didn’t like that ol’ farm work neither. So the pair of ’em would disappear off on carpentry jobs all over the shop, even as far as Norwich sometimes, what they’d bicycle to in all weathers, coming home God knows when.
‘One time, they were working on some big posh house up the city and he comes back one evening and says to me, “Jackie-boy, I’m in love.”
‘We used to talk a lot, over the gate, like, and share a ciggie when my mum weren’t about. He didn’t have no family. His dad and brothers was killed in the last war and his mum was carried off by the flu what came after, so I reckon he saw me as a little brother. It was the daughter of the bloke they was working for what he fell for. Landlord he was, not proper rich, not a toff or nothing, but well off for all that, a self-made man, the bastard, done well out the last war I’ll be bound. Anyway, he’d married late and just had the one kid, Phoebe. She and Billy had clapped eyes on each other and the way he told it they was straightaways in love.
‘“She’s beautiful,” he was sayin’, “delicate, like a fine piece of art – pale as the moon, eyes like the sea, hair as red as blood. She’s clever too, and loyal, I reckon. She’s the one, Jackie-boy, I can feel it.”
‘And he go on like this, evening after evening, all spoony like, counting the hours till he could get back to that big old house and woo her some more.
‘My dad, on the other hand, was not so keen on all of this. I could hear him and mum talking some nights. Our place was small, just two tiny bedrooms upstairs, a kitchen and a parlour downstairs, not like these palaces you all live in now.’ He waved his pipe towards our council box with the gas fire, a bath and an inside toilet and snorted. ‘Walls were thicker back then though,’ he added, ‘you couldn’t hear everything like you can now. Any road, my dad was what you might call backwards in comin’ forward. He didn’t much like upsetting anyone. What I heard was the landlord wasn’t too happy about Billy and his daughter when he found out and was blaming my dad for bringing the charmer into his home.
‘“He said if I didn’t do something about it,” I heard him telling Mum one night, “then I’ll get no more work on any of his properties nor nothing from anyone else he knows either.”
‘I could tell my dad was beside himself. He was always a worrier and without the steady maintenance jobs even I knew the family’d go under. Mum’d have to go back in service, I heard her say, my blood running cold at the thought of it. I’d be taken out of school and put to work in the fields. I remember I was scared that night, too old to cry myself to sleep, just cold and frightened.
‘“You’ll just have to tell him,” said Mum, and I reckon that’s what he did cos the next day Dad went to work in Norwich, but I saw Billy chopping wood in his back garden.
‘By that point he fancied me a close friend, and he was a nice fella, too, he didn’t bear no grudges, so we soon enough fell back to chatting at the end of the day. Mum’d give me a bit of food to take round for him, or we’d just bump into each other out the back. There weren’t nothing but a low wire fence between our two scraps of garden.
‘One day he says, “They’ve banned me, Jackie-boy, I can’t go anywhere near my Phoebe now, but I can write to her. I got pally with her maid when I was working there, and I reckon if I writes to her, she can pass the letter on to my girl. And when she come of age, we can get married and the rest of ’em be blowed. We don’t need her dad’s money. I own this little place here, see, inherited it from my parents. We’ll just live in our little cottage and make some babies.” An’ he gave me a big soppy grin.
‘I was impressed. We just rented our place. No wonder he weren’t too bothered about losing the work. And as far as I could tell, the letter writing went well, for a start. Dad kept working so he was happy, I kept going to school and Mum was still at home so that was alright. Don’t think she didn’t work though, mind. She took in washing and sewing, and she did something else with this old woman what lived outside the village, midwifery an’ all that. I didn’t like her very much. Kids in the village reckoned she was a witch.
‘Then one day, we heard the scream. I ain’t never heard a human being make a noise like that before or since. It was a sheer, desolate howl, followed by swearing and the sound of stuff breaking, all coming from Billy’s cottage. Dad was at work, so Mum ordered me to stay indoors and went to see what was up. I peered through the front window, watching her knock at his door then go inside. The loud noises had turned into weeping now, and I could hear them talking but not what was said. She looked shaken when she came back and had me get the kettle on. I could see she was wondering what she should tell me cos what I’d heard earlier weren’t easily explained away. Once she had a brew, she made up her mind to tell me, for Billy not for me I think, so I wouldn’t say something stupid to him later.
‘“His girl’s died, the poor man,” she finally said, putting her cup aside and straightening her hair. “He got a letter this morning. Funeral’s already happened, apparently.” She tutted at this and muttered something under her breath that wasn’t at all her. “Be kind to him,” she said, “but give him room. He won’t be himself for a bit.” I nodded, and with that she was back to normal and getting dinner ready. When dad got in and she told him he turned white as a drowned man.
‘Billy kept himself to himself after that and the year kept on going without him. He must’ve worked in that time, but I don’t know at what. Sometimes I heard him out the back at night, when I was supposed to be sleeping, shuffling to the outhouse at the bottom of his garden. Autumn come on, the nights grew long, and the air filled with woodsmoke. My birthday came and went without my mate next door to help me celebrate. I missed him, but I understood. I’d had pets and older relatives die. Even as a kid I knew what grief tasted like. To be honest, I couldn’t have handled him if he had wanted to talk. If Mum found him a bit of something to eat, she took it round herself.
‘Then, one day, nice clear afternoon it was, I was idling back from school and there he was, leaning over the front gate beaming at me and smoking. He looked a bit thin, but he was clean-shaven, and his clothes were fresh. “Alright, Jackie-boy?” says he.
‘“I’m fair to middlin’” I tells him, “what about you?”
‘“Oh, I’m much better,” he says, and he looked it. Then he told me why. According to him, a few nights before his Phoebe had turned up on his doorstep. “She ain’t dead,” he tells me, all starry eyed and spoony again, “that was just some story her father cooked up to keep me away. He got wind o’ those letters and sacked the maid, then got his housekeeper to write to me saying Phoebe had died. He’s been keeping her under lock and key ever since but she’s clever, my Phoebe, like I told you, and she found a way out. She’s got herself a little place just outside Diss and she comes to see me every night. She can’t stay yet cos people’ll talk, but we’re fixin’ to be married afore Christmas.”
‘I was so pleased for him. It sounded like a plot out of one of them old books my mother loved, all wicked old men locking up their wives and daughters. “Good for you, mate,” said I, looking forward to all the treats that came with a country wedding.
‘“If you was a bit older, I’d ask you to be my best man,” he said over his shoulder, wandering back to his front door. “But I reckon I better ask your dad.”
‘“You do that,” I said, going home myself with as much of a spring in my step as he had.
‘He came over later to talk to my parents about the wedding. My mum looked serious; my dad looked sick. “Run along to your room, Jack,” says my mum, “I’ll bring you up some cocoa later.”
‘“But it’s only seven,” I argued but my dad shut me up with a look.
‘“Get to bed,” he said sternly, and I did.
‘I took a candle up with me and sat trying to read but I could hear ’em down below, going in and out, sometimes too quiet to hear, sometimes not. My mum was talking calmly, Billy and my dad not so much.
‘“You’re not well,” Mum was saying.
‘“You’re not well!” he snapped back. “I’m better’n I’ve been for months. You just don’t want me rockin’ the boat for your old man.”
‘I heard my dad swear but then my mother shut him up and the talk went quiet again. I could hear her moving, cupboards opening and closing, the sounds of cups or glasses being set down, then more murmured conversation. Billy said something, I don’t know what, and then there was a hell of a bang and my dad yelled, “For Christ’s sake, she killed herself!”
‘My mother started shouting and Billy was clearly leaving. The front door rattled, and I heard him call from outside, “You’re just fuckin’ wrong!” and then my parents started whispering again. Eventually, I fell asleep.
‘A noise woke me up. It was my folks moving around but it was late, very still, very dark. I strained to hear ’em talkin’, fearful of what might take them from their beds before dawn. I couldn’t smell smoke or nothing and when I called out “Mum?” all nervous like she just stuck her head round the door and bade me go back to sleep.
‘Then I hear my dad say, “It’s her.”
‘I knew who he meant straight away. My bed was jammed up against the window, which looked out over Billy’s cottage. There was still a bit of moon, and I could see the path to his front door quite well. There was a pretty young woman there, smartly dressed but no coat which was odd cos you could see the frost on the ground. Her hair was long and loose and dark. There was whispering from the next room, so my parents were watching her too. Billy’s door opened, and in the light from inside I saw her hair was the colour of blood, so I knew it had to be Phoebe. “Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” I heard my dad say.
‘“What are we going to do?” said my mum.
‘The next day was Sunday and after chapel – Billy never went to that – my mum got on her bike and went to see the old woman what she worked with sometimes. Dad was edgy, but he wouldn’t say nothing to me. He kept looking in the direction of Billy’s cottage and smoking one fag after another. He did us dinner too, which he never did, cos mum was still out, which she never was. It was horrible. I tell you, that man could’ve burnt a bloody salad.’
Grandad paused just long enough for me to get a word in edgeways ‘Hang on,’ I said, ‘if your family went to church, how come you didn’t ask the vicar for help?’
‘Don’t be daft,’ he said, his grizzled expression a fascinating muddle of sympathy and contempt. ‘What the hell could that idiot have done?’
I shut my hole.
‘Anyway,’ he continued, ‘when my mother comes back, they shushed me off to bed again. “This ain’t for your ears, boy,” said my dad. But I knew this weren’t no ordinary grown-up stuff, so I listened in at the door this time. What I heard made my hair stand up, but I kept listening anyway. By that time, I reckoned it’d be worse not knowin’ the rest than knowin’ it.
‘The gist of it was that Phoebe really was dead. At first, it had just been a lie to keep Billy away but then she’d gone and slit her wrists, silly cow. Poor old Billy was in love with a ghost. Until he understood that, there was no helping him, so Dad was going to have to show him. He knew where she was buried, he still did work for her old man. That “little place just outside Diss” were her grave. The plan was that Dad should try and get Billy out for a drink, go along with all the wedding talk, and steer them towards the cemetery after a couple of pints. While Billy was out Mum was going to protect his cottage with these spells the old woman had given her. I didn’t know what these were, but my dad called ’em “blasphemous”.
‘I crept upstairs then and took station at my window. I heard Dad go out and saw him talkin’ to Billy on his doorstep. They shook hands and Billy got his coat, then they both got their bikes out and headed off. Billy was never a man to turn down a free drink. It was getting dark by this time. I saw Mum go over to the cottage next and start pinning these little squares of paper to the doors back and front and the frames of all the windows. She even pulled our ladder out and did the upstairs ones. Then she come back in and made us tea. I knew better’n to ask what was going on to her face but when she was cleaning up, I saw a few of those little pieces of paper sticking out of her coat pocket so I ’ad a look. They were pages torn out of a bible with some strange signs scrawled on ’em, like old writing, really old. I dunno what the ink was but if’n I had to guess I’d say it were blood. I didn’t argue about going to bed early, but I snuck up a bottle of cold tea to keep myself awake and kept watch.
‘When the men got back Billy looked sick but not from drink. He looked at the paper on his door and started crying. He was hunched over, and all the life seemed to go out of him. My dad patted him on the back, and they exchanged a few words, then Billy went in alone and Dad came home to whisper with my mother. They’d visited the grave. Billy understood.
‘I had some tea and kept watching. The wind was getting up in the trees and after a while it was a sound I could’ve well done without. Then it began to snow, thick flakes that settled easily on the frozen ground. When the clouds passed away our little lane seemed to glow in the starlight. It was bitter cold in my room. I could tell my parents were still awake and watchin’ too. You could feel the tension in the air. No one could’ve slept that night.
‘Around midnight she came. As soon as she touched the door, she drew her hand away as if burned, then threw her head back and wailed. She didn’t look so pretty this time. Instead of a face there was just holes, still framed by the blood-red hair, all straggly now and sliding off her scalp, just like her posh clothes were rotting off what was left of her body. Billy must’ve seen her too, up close, through his front window, cos his scream were louder than hers. My parents were whimpering in their room, and it weren’t the cold that was making me shake so violently. It was horrible to watch but more frightening not to, the way you want to keep a big old spider in sight until you can get it under a glass or just squash the bastard. It’s worst not knowing where it is. Phoebe, or what used to be Phoebe, started walking round Billy’s cottage, trying all the downstairs windows. I lost sight of her round the back, but I could still hear her moving, crushing fresh snow under dead feet. She was talking too, gentle like, pleading with Billy to let her in. I heard him begging her to go away but she paced around that bloody cottage until almost dawn. Eventually, she shuffled round the back, and I saw and heard no more of her. There was just her muddy tracks in the snow about the house. Thankfully, the winter sun come up and, school or no, I finally went to sleep.’
My grandfather stopped talking then and gazed out across our garden, absentmindedly filling his pipe. I caught his eye, more than a little troubled by the turn his story had taken. ‘Was that it?’ I demanded. ‘Did she go away for good?’
He lit his pipe and pulled out his flask again. This time he took a long pull straight out of it and offered it to me. Gratefully, I had a swig of the warming liquid and this time it tasted good.
‘Nah,’ he said finally. ‘She kept coming back. Night after night, through the rain and fog and snow. We all slept in the same room together during the day. Dad stopped going to work and Billy started to waste away from the stress of it all. We couldn’t leave, you see, we had nowhere else to go. No family close, no money for hotels or boarding houses, and once the word got out in the village no friends were gonna take us in. And there was no point Billy going anywhere else – the ghost would’ve just followed him. We all of us had to put up with it. Mum took to praying, Dad mostly drank, any cheap shit he could get hold of. I started to read a lot then – Mum had a lot of old books – anything to take my mind off what was coming at midnight. And when she came, we drew the curtains and tried to ignore her, not that you could, all whispering and rustling and scraping about in the dark. Mum had told Billy not to talk to her. He just hid in his house with the lights off, blocking his ears as best he could. But the spells, they held. She couldn’t get in.
‘Then one night she came to us instead. When we heard the knocking at midnight, we all knew it were her. Dad couldn’t handle it and hid by the fire in the parlour, hands over his ears. Mum went to the door, and I looked on from the kitchen. She didn’t open it, but they talked through the wood for a while until Phoebe apparently left. “What happened, Mum?” I said when she came back, but she didn’t answer and didn’t say nothing to Dad either. She just put the kettle on the fire and took one of his cigarettes then sat at the table smoking and staring at the window.
‘She came again the next night and once more my mother went to the door. This time they argued, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what was said. It was obvious though, wasn’t it? Phoebe wanted Mum to take the spells down. Dad was losing it now an’ all. I reckon he was more scared than me and Mum put together and now the money was running out. He needed to go to work, but none of us really slept anymore and no one would have nothing to do with us. He’d talked to Billy at the start, but now he’d gone to ground. He was still moving about in his cottage but even during the day he never come outside. We’d see a candle burning early evening downstairs but that was always out when she came.
‘The visits to us went on for about a month – the longest month o’ my fuckin’ life I can tell you – and every night my mother would talk to Phoebe through the door before she staggered off to badger Billy till sunrise. In the morning, Mum would boil the kettle over and over and wash the stink off the step or try to at any rate. We’d all pretend to sleep then it would all start up again. By the end of the month, they seemed to reach an accord, and Phoebe went away early. As always, Mum said nothing about it to me and Dad.
‘After that, we didn’t see her no more. Billy was keeping his head down too, but after a clear couple of days Dad decided to try and coax him out. “It’s over,” he said, with more confidence than I felt, and Mum said yes with her eyes, it is.
‘But it weren’t over o’ course. Not quite. The next thing I knew of it, Dad was screaming blue murder from next door and Mum was up out of her chair and off to help him. “Stay here,” she told me, but like an idiot I didn’t listen. I mean, Billy was my mate too. So I gave it a few seconds and then followed her.
‘It was a damp morning, and the air had that sort of rotten smell, you know? The lane was all mud and wet slimy leaves and Billy’s garden looked like a ploughed field, that bloody woman had churned it up so much circling like a hungry fox. Them little bits of paper Mum had pinned up were still over all the windows but the one on the back door was gone. It was open, and I could hear Mum and Dad talking inside, so’s I let myself in and followed their voices upstairs. It was cold in there, colder than outside, and the place stank like a cellar what the black mould’s got into. You know that smell? Like a tomb. I climbed the stairs and found them in his bedroom. I only needed the one look, and I was out of there faster than a fuckin’ lamplighter. It took Mum hours to calm me down.
‘One look was enough though. I ain’t never forgot it. And I saw all kinds of death in the war later but never like this. He was there, ol’ Billy, in the bed with her, a look of absolute horror on his face, his eyes wide open and his lips pulled back from his teeth. She was holding onto him, her skeleton arms around his neck and he looked to be trying to claw his way up the bed away from her. Her face was wet parchment, a big hank of that bloody red hair fell across her head and over his chest. Dad was puking his guts up in the corner. Mum was crying. “I’m sorry,” she was saying, over and over again.’
Grandad sat back in his chair and blew smoke out across the rickety table. I was aware suddenly that it was cold and that it was getting dark. ‘The police what come reckoned that Billy had gone mad with grief and dug her up,’ he said, ‘but we knew better o’ course, not that we was gonna tell anyone. In the end, people took to seeing it as quite romantic, in a twisted sort of way, and I don’t think she really meant him any harm either. I’ve thought about it a lot since. He looked scared and disgusted, but I swear she was just holding him, gentle like. I’ve had many a woman lie their head on my chest like that. I feel better thinking about it that way. They’re sleeping together now, in any event, in that little graveyard outside Diss. Thing is, no good’ll come o’ lovin’ a ghost. There’s a reason people runs when they see one. Our world ain’t meant to mix with theirs, not until… well, you know, like you Dad.’
I nodded glumly.
‘You mum working tonight?’ he said.
‘Better stay here then, ’eh?’
‘Okay,’ I said.
So, he cooked bacon and eggs on his little primus stove, and we played cards and listened to the radio and drank some more of his ‘winter tea’. It would have been an adventure when I was a kid, in the castle, the pirate ship, whatever, but now his hut just felt small and cold and very dark. That said, there was nothing that would’ve got me staying in the house by myself that night and I slept with the lights on for a while after as well.
Grandad’s long gone now, bless him, and my mother will probably be joining him soon. And when she does, if my own kid asks me about the afterlife, I’ll give him a hug and tell him there’s no such thing.
Photo by Carlos Santos