Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters! Me and Poltergeists
I’ve been skipping down Memory Lane a lot lately; probably a sign of middle age if not worse. A good deal of the events in my books have their roots in real experiences, and real heart-break too. Some have their roots firmly in events that would have most of us humming the tune from the Twilight Zone or possibly reaching for a rosary.
I lived in a Victorian terraced house as a student in Liverpool; it had been divided into four neat bedsits of varying size (each with a fourth share in the bathroom and hot water). During the two years I lived there, I occupied three of the four bedsits. I started in the ground floor front bedsit, moved to the back of the house on the ground floor six weeks later (it was a temporary occupancy) and a year later, following two break-ins that had made me feel unsafe, I moved to the upstairs back bedsit. Like most student digs it was down at heel and scruffy but it was extremely cheap to rent and my landlady was a decent sort. The other girls I shared the house with didn’t give me much cause for complaint (one is a good friend to this day) and given the issues many faced with damp, dangerous properties and uncongenial flat-mates, I was on to a winner.
Except for one thing.
The house had certain problems that are very hard to explain. Things as nebulous as atmosphere are notoriously easy to dismiss as being either figments of imagination (I have quite a good imagination) or the result of old, poorly maintained houses rife with damp and draughts. Small items within each self-contained flat-let went missing, only to reappear in places it was improbable if not impossible for them to have ended up. On one occasion, my door keys vanished from my kitchen table, only to reappear on a shelf so high I had to stand on a chair to reach. If you have read Away With The Fairies, you’ll know the kind of weirdness I am talking about. Had it just been me, I could accept it might have been a sequence of coincidences or imagination, but over the two years, all the other girls mentioned odd things happening. Lights would dip and electrical things would falter; you might hear footsteps and there was no one there. Eerie but not terrifying. Counter to what you might expect, I wasn’t that bothered about any of it, though missing items did make me get very cross.
Until one morning when things took a turn for the worse.
It was about eightish and I’d just woken from the alarm clock and was lying there thinking about getting up and making some tea. I’ve always needed plants and green things around me, so I had a few potted spider plants and that year I’d grown a hyacinth bulb. The flower was splendid that morning, emitting one of my favourite scents at that time. It was growing in one of those glass pots shaped so you can grow the bulb without soil; the reservoir is filled with water and the roots grow into it. I’d put the thing on the chest of drawers across the room from the bed.
Without warning, the plant, glass pot and all, rose up and hurled itself across the room at me, missing my head and hitting the pillow, drenching me with water. I lay there stunned (and wet) and was unable to move. I lived entirely alone in that tiny flat; my fiance lived a few streets away and visited most evenings but went home to bed.
The room felt unusually cold and not just because I was soaked with hyacinth water. Something sort of clicked and I leaped out of bed, dressed rapidly and exited the flat at high speed. I was so spooked, I didn’t stop for a cup of tea or breakfast or even a wash. All I wanted was to get out of the building and among other people. I stood and shook at the bus stop and eventually, a bus arrived and took me in to the university. Over the course of the day, I went through every rational possibility that could perhaps explain what had happened, and nothing worked. In the end, I concluded that something of supernatural origin had hurled that hyacinth at me. Later research suggested a poltergeist; I simply don’t know. We were all slightly too old to be triggering classic poltergeist activity. I was at that time the youngest in the house, and was around twenty one at the time.
Some years later, I saw something that defied explanation. A shop in Guisborough (a small market town in North Yorkshire) had weird things going on; the owner was a pal of mine and she was genuinely worried by it all. Candles that lit themselves at night are causes for worry. I was in the shop one day; my friend’s youngest son was at the till. We had been chatting when he went white and pointed to a shelf near where I was standing. The shelf held a selection of china oil burners; one at the back of the shelf had risen in the air, all by itself, and hovered for a second before hurtling across the room at the lad, only deviating at the last moment to smash on a wall rather than on his head. I can promise there were no fishing wires or booby traps.
You may wonder what I did about my flat. I did nothing. I went back that evening, and carried on as normal. I was unnerved for a few days, slept with a light on and a crucifix under my pillow. I’ve always been a pragmatist and scary as it sounds (and indeed was) it wasn’t scary enough to make me quit a decent flat where I paid around half the rent usual for such a place. But I have often wondered whether the girls who lived there in the years after I left ever had the same sort of uncanny goings-on.
There is one coda, though. It took me about two decades before I ever grew hyacinths from bulbs again. I didn’t want to take any chances.