For Hallowe'en — Susan Price

 A week to Hallowe'en— party night for ghosties, ghoulies and witches.

I don't believe in ghosts. Of course I don't. I'm far too rational. I just write about them.

My parents didn't believe in them either. They were adamant about that. "There's no such thing as ghosts. Go to sleep."

Except my mother would sometimes tell me about the house where I was born, which she hated. It had no water indoors and no bathroom. You had to go over 'the track' to the wash-house for water and walk to the end of the row for the toilets. No electricity in the house either, though it did have gas. But none of these were her reasons for hating it. She'd never lived in a house that was any better equipped.

She hated it because it was haunted. My Dad often worked late, so Mom spent many evenings alone. She'd always loved reading, so she'd curl up in a corner of their third-hand sofa, with her library book, and her cat, Tiny, purring on her lap. The room was lit by a parafin lamp, which she tried to remember to keep filled but, inevitably, the lamp would run out, go out and— darkness.

That wouldn't have been too bad. Candles and matches were always kept to hand and she could grope her way to them. What unnerved her was the cat, Tiny. While the lamp was alight, Tiny lay happily on Mum's lap, washing her ears with one paw and purring. As soon as the light went out, Tiny leapt down and ran under the sideboard. Once a candle was lit, Tiny would be discovered pressed right against the wall, right at the back of the sideboard's space. She wouldn't come out for a long time, not for any persuasion or bribery.

A cat afraid of the dark? That seemed unlikely. But, afraid of something in the dark?

Mum also told me that, after I was born, I slept in a cot placed beside my parents' bed. One night, when she was again alone because my Dad was working, she bent over my cot to check on me. I was fast asleep. As she looked down, she saw me open one eye, and close it, and then open the other eye, and close it.

She snatched me out of the cot, jumped into her own bed, and pulled the covers over both of our heads— bed-clothes being a well known protective against ghosts. The reason for her fright, she explained to me, was that I was only a few months old and far too young to be able to wink like that. It reminded her of the many times she'd seen women pull a baby's eyelids back, to see what colour their eyes were. And neighbours had thoughtfully told her of an old woman who had lived and died in that house.

I don't believe in ghosts, of course I don't. Yet there is that family story from the 1930s...

Emily was a great-aunt of mine, although I never met her. She was one of my grandfather's sisters.

In a neighbouring house lived some of my grandmother's family, Doris among them. Doris was one of my grandmother's nieces.

Emily was a young wife, and heavily pregnant. Doris was a little younger and unmarried. Despite, or because of, these differences, the two were close friends. Doris spent more time in Emily's house than she did in her own. She was worried about her friend, as Emily had suffered miscarriages and had also given birth to a sickly baby who had soon died. Doris assured her friend that, this time, all would go well. Both she and Emily were looking forward to holding the baby.

It was winter and coughs, colds, bronchitis and pleurisy were common in the damp. ill-ventilated slum housing. Doris fell ill. No one took any notice at first. Every winter brought barking coughs. But Doris became worse. Even when she wasn't coughing, she found it hard to draw a breath. She was feverish. Soon, she was so ill that she went to bed— something unheard of in my family who attitude to illness is: 'Ignore it and it'll go away.' 

Doris was so sick that her mother and some of her sisters sat by her bedside. They were probably telling her that if she stopped 'making so much of it' her fever would magically vanish. That if she'd just 'stop putting it on' she'd feel much better.

But, somehow, she didn't.

While Doris was sick, Emily gave birth, prematurely. The baby was alive, but very poorly. It was decided not to tell Doris this. It was never spoken of 'above stairs' in the room where Doris lay feverishly in bed.

Shaking with fever, Doris began asking for the window to be opened. Her request was ignored, both because Black Country air in the 1930s was thick with smoke and dirt, and also because it was cold. But again and again Doris demanded that the window be opened. When her request was ignored, she struggled to get out of bed, to open it herself. "Open it! Let her in! She wants to come in!"

They tried to calm her, but it was no use. "She wants to be with me! Let her in!"

It was useless to point out that the bedroom window was on the first floor. How could anyone be outside it? Doris, in her delerium, knew what she saw. "She's outside. She wants to come in to me. Let her in."

"Who's outside, Dorrie?"

"The baby," Doris said. "She wants to come in and be with me. Let her in!"

Her mother and sisters looked at each other. They had all promised that they wouldn't mention the baby's birth. Who had told Doris that the baby was a girl? The sisters shook their heads. They hadn't said anything.

For hours, Doris begged for the window to be opened. Many times, until she became too weak, she tried to get up and open it. They had to pull her back to bed and cover her again, while saying, "Lie down and I'll open it in a minute." That worked for a while. Doris would lie down and seem to doze.

Then she'd wake and say, "She's crying outside the window. She wants to come in." It would all start again. When Doris became too hoarse to speak, she put all the energy she had into getting out of bed to open the window.

So they thought it best to open the window, even though it was cold. Once Doris could see that the window was open, and left open, she calmed. She fell into a sleep; or a coma.

Two days later, she died. They left the window open until after the body had been removed, even though the cold spread through the house. They feared what they might shut inside if they closed it.

A day after Doris died, Emily's sickly baby girl died too.

Overheard in a Graveyard

Everyone who visited Doris, or sat with her, swore that they had never talked about the birth of Emily's baby in her hearing. Why would they, when she was so ill, and they knew it would upset her?

So how had Doris known about the baby, known it was a girl?

"It would have been on Doris' mind," said my aunt, who told me this story. "Emily never had a baby that lived more than a couple of days. So it's easily explained."

But this sensible attitude never seemed to banish the cold grue this story brought on.

 HAUNTINGS can be bought at Amazon, or on several other platforms here  
NIGHTCOMERS can be bought at Amazon, but also be bought here

 OVERHEARD IN A GRAVEYARD can be bought at Amazon,  


Peter Leyland said…
That's a fascinating family story Susan, pulling me away from today's grim tales in newspapers and newsfeeds. I was really struck by your use of the word grue in the last paragraph which I misread the first time. When I looked it up, it opened up a whole lot of references. Thanks for a gripping read.
Not sure about ghosts, however all kinds of weird stuff definitely happens that we just can't explain by the science we currently know.

Like when my mum was cooking lunch over the electric cooker in our old house. She claimed she saw something black moving at the side of the kitchen out of the corner of her eye... so she stepped away from the cooker to investigate, and just then one of the electric rings exploded. If she'd stayed where she was, it would have exploded into her face maybe blinding her... but since she'd moved just in time, she was unhurt. So what was the black thing? We never found out, but she reported feeling really cold at the time.

And I think I once lived in a haunted house. I was there about a year, during which time I had several nightmares about a well-dressed Victorian gentleman trying to drag me out of it, and every photograph I took in the living room had strange lights/orbs in it. Some of the time it felt quite normal, but other times really cold and unwelcoming. It was once part of an old Workhouse, so maybe as-yet-unexplained energies hang around in certain places? I am convinced that eventually there will be a scientific breakthrough to prove this! Meanwhile, we have some wonderfully creepy fiction like yours...

Umberto Tosi said…
Fascinating ghost story, and beyond, you share vividly the gritty hardships and courage of your working-class family in that era. Thank you.
Susan Price said…
Thanks, each!
'Grue' is a great word, isn't it, Peter? Just one of those ancient, Old English words that survive in my own Black Country dialect and in my partner's La'land Scots.
And Katherine -- I love the story of your mother's narrow escape. It sounds like you could tell us some good ghost stories!
This was a great post even without the ghosts. My grandmother lived in a flat with the wash-house and row of toilets outside, and that was where my mother was born and grew up. But I always remember it as a sunny, happy place.

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