Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters! Me and Poltergeists

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.

Seminar

I decide to ease my mind by writing a short story and it kind of took a life of its own….

Seminar

 

The blue blinds billow silently as the breeze catches them, and a snatch of giggling emerges from the room within.

 

I sigh. I had a feeling already that this was going to be one of those hours of my life, stolen away by goblins and lost forever. Giggling goblins at that, the worst sort.

 

Most of those at the gathering are human, or enough so to qualify for the title, though an experienced goblin hunter knows enough to realise looks aren’t everything.

 

I mean, the chief goblin actually looks far more like an elf with a problem with self-esteem and personal hygiene. Take away the  facial piercings and the mantis-like figure and she’d almost pass for human. In the dim light of a nightclub, with your beer goggles on, she’d pass for all right for an off-night.

 

They don’t know who I am, of course. They think they do, but they’ve gotten careless in recent years and while it’s taken me a few years to track down this nest, I’m here now and they trust me. They think I’m a nice doormat of a teacher who is painfully eager to please and a pushover for other staff to manipulate. They can’t deny I’m a good teacher, but I still never get my dues and I get passed over for more popular newcomers for the plum jobs.

 

It’s a good cover and no one in the chief goblin’s coterie has the faintest idea of what’s coming. Actually, nor have I. I haven’t finalised my plan yet, but I’ve got my little bottle of Holy water in my pocket, just in case. I’ve been biding my time for the last two or so years, sometimes forgetting myself just who I am and what I am doing here.

 

I slip in, trying to be unobtrusive but a colleague accosts me for a hug. I’m not sure exactly what he is but I smile warmly but distractedly before seeking a seat at the very back. These briefings, so pretentiously designated as “Staff seminars” are utterly tedious but I can feel the tension coming off the newcomers like sweat in a Turkish bath. Some of them even clutch pens to take notes.

 

The usual format of introductions trickles by, glacially slow, and then the real meat begins.

I switch off. I’ve heard it all before. I filter it all out and just watch as the chief goblin cavorts manically, her face twisting into grotesque imitation of smiles. She can’t resist mangling language, turning innocuous words into parodies of themselves by adding extra letters. It’s supposed to be funny but it’s painful, or it would be if she were actually human. If she were human she’d be ashamed of the crimes she’s committed tonight against the English language. As it is, I can see the rough line of her spine emerging from her tunic, and the typical goblin scales and knobs are almost fully visible tonight. To a human she just looks mildly anorexic, and without any sense of sartorial style.

 

I’ve not been certain before tonight but it seems now that the boss is not a goblin at all but a human enchanted, enthralled by this creature and manipulated to her bidding. Well, that’s good. There are two more goblins, young ones, present, as far as I can see, and a few others I’m not certain of. With the chief goblin dealt with, the two youngsters will flee, and any others will retreat, I think. That is, if I do anything. But I don’t think I will. Not tonight.

 

The young one is speaking now and I feel a rush of sudden anger. A whole host of options fill my mind. I want to shout and protest at this gross imposition of extra, unpaid work, all because a few individuals want to put on a show. The humans have no idea how much work they’re imposing, but the goblins have calculated it to the nth degree. They go so far as the next-to-last straw that breaks the camel’s back, and then stop. It’s a form of torture they’re very good at. There’s no fun if people realise what’s going on and say no. But like frogs in hot water we just accept and accept and accept until our flesh falls away and we become soup for goblins. Of course, this is all a metaphor. Goblins haven’t eaten humans in millennia, except for a few rare cases that have been poorly documented.

 

The humans are sitting there smiling and I can see the magic dust twinkling in the evening sunlight. Every time the chief goblin moves clouds of it stream off her like dandruff and it pacifies everyone. I can hear a few dissenting thoughts but no one voices any concerns.

 

The hour is up and a minion, who is probably a goblin goes off to get drinks ready and like the good little slave I am I go through to help. Enough is enough. While her back is turned I add Holy Water to the bowl of fruity punch and to the wine. It won’t harm the humans but it’s going to be interesting what it does to the goblins. It’s been a long time since I did this and I’ll be glad to get it over with. I’ve had to breathe through an inhaler daily to survive the dust, though everyone thinks it’s Ventolin, and I’d like to breathe properly again.

 

“Here’s to the new term!” says the chief goblin, raising her glass of punch and clinking it with that of the goblin minion next to her. I can see her skin throwing off yet more dust and an artificial joviality fills the room like the office Christmas party, fuelled by cheap wine and white lines. Goblin magic is more subtle these days than it used to be but it IS effective.

 

She slings the whole glass down her throat and as I watch, she starts to shrink, her loud voice crying out shrill but diminishing rapidly as she dwindles from almost six feet tall to a speck on the carpet.

The curious thing is that no one notices her vanish; I guess it must be the magic. Minds simply edit her out of the story and restore it to where it might have been if she’d not been there

 

The two young goblins stare at where she was, their eyes full of horror and their mouths still full of juice. There’s a dilemma going on here: spit or swallow?

 

In the end, they spit, but discreetly into a pot plant. When they come back I can see their magic has faded almost to nothing just from having it in their mouths and know they are no danger to me, or anyone for many years. You can’t kill a goblin but you can make their lives very unpleasant.

 

“Why don’t you two go and wash the glasses?” I suggest with a smile.

 

“Yes, Boss,” they chorus and as they walk away, trying not to abase themselves and as they creep past me, a faint mosquito whine rises from the carpet.

 

It’s going to be decades before she comes back from that one.