It is important to distinguish the dog from the cat for the dog is not a ghost. Benji is an Airedale terrier, a little neurotic perhaps, hyper intelligent and never happy at Magpie Cottage. He doesn’t exactly refuse to enter nor will he settle, disliking being left alone when the family go out for an evening, which they rarely do. Nights they hear him howl in his sleep, a sound so mournful and echoing that his wolf ancestors who once prowled the land must surely raise their heads.
Yet, it started with the cat. Nadia could not have told you the colour of the cat that walked across the bed, nor its size, could not have described the length of its fur, whether it was sleek or mangy, skinny or fat. It was not a visible cat but an imprint of cat, a visceral recording of cat-ness, a light pressure of paws across the quilt, a purring sound close to the ear. In truth it was not their own bed, but a bed which the last owner of the house had left behind.
‘Downsizing. No room.’ he said, before driving away forever.
In time she would become so used to this ghostly feline that she would worry and lie awake at night if she did not hear it purring.
Is the cat OK do you think?
Mmm. I’m sure it … her husband says, asleep again immediately.
Magpie Cottage. No doubt some previous resident with overly romantic ideas about those black and white bringers of fortune, good and ill, of boys and girls, of silver and gold, had named the property not realising that magpies prefer the easy pickings of urban life to the deep, limitless dark of the ancient forest in which the house stands. The forest is called ‘new’. It was called new in the Domesday Book.
As the years start to pass, she keeps a record of the strange sounds and occurrences in the house, checking them off against her copy of Miss Prism’s Almanac of Disturbed Spirits and Unexplained Events.
Miss Prism is an acknowledged expert on all matters relating to the unknown and inexplicable, the supernatural – at least that what the blurb says when Nadia finds the book in a sale box in the last bookshop in town. For many years the shop’s owner, one Mr. Iolo Williams, had stood guard over his collections ancient maps and leather- bound tomes, first editions and last editions, teetering on an unreliable ladder to find things hidden on high shelves. As Miss Prism is slightly foxed, they agree a price of £3.75.
For such a modest sum, the book helpfully identifies a checklist of occurrences in the ‘unexplained’ section: Nadia makes a mental note of those which apply.
Sounds of whispering on entering a room. Check.
Pictures falling from wall. Check.
Coughs and knocking sounds. Check
Unexplained gusts of wind on a temperate day. Check
Cold spots. Check
Disembodied voices. Check
It seems that hardly has Nadia had a chance to find a place for Miss Prism on her bookshelf, than a beautiful girl child appears with blue eyes and translucent skin, like a spirit only more insistent. She dances a lot and grows up frighteningly fast. Then two wonderful boys follow, slightly less spiritual and noisier, playing computer games, needing food, clothing, friends, education and not insubstantial amounts of money. Magpie Cottage is busy. The ghosts have to take a back seat. Which they do.
And if a few books get flung across a room occasionally, or a satsuma leaves the fruit bowl of its own accord and rolls disconsolately across the floor, well that is just life. Or a version of it in that other realm. The spirits have their summer when old willow loans his shade and listens wistfully to the sound of human laughter beneath. The spirits have their autumn when, guests gone, they gather round like bored children who have been told that they must turn off the TV.
The day of the black butterfly is the day her old schoolfriend Ros had been staying, so Nadia is not the only one who sees it as it hovers by the kitchen window before entering briefly, leaving. Ros says it is very rare. A black butterfly, she says, is a very rare thing.
Is there literary precedent for a haunted bathroom? Of course. This is where Nadia hears the ringing bell – the sound of a handbell of a type once widely used in schools a sonorous, collective memory, klaxon to a million scholastic routines. One day in the future in this same spot, she will hear Benji downstairs bark and rush through the garden to remonstrate with wild ponies gathering outside the gate. Although by the time Nadia hears this, Benji will have been dead for two years.
Perhaps the trees record everything while they can. Is it something to do with the interconnectedness of things like the Buddhist fable of Indra’s jewelled net, pull one thread and all the others move? Is it something to do with the membrane between past, present and future, stretching, growing thinner? The ghosts are stubbornly silent on the matter. She checks Miss Prism.
Miss Prism isn’t sure either.
Years pass, the children leave. Then scratch marks suddenly appear on the wooden sill in the bedroom as if made by claws. It is enough. A long time – far too long – to wander alone purring at shadows. She prays for the happiness and peace of the cat. Her prayers work, the cat says goodbye, the time of purring draws to a close. She is happy for the little creature, but feels more alone than ever.
They think about selling. With the children gone, you know. They call in an agent who exclaims at the singular beauty of the spot and mentions an eye wateringly silly price. Strangers come to look.
That year is the year of the wasps. A tiny, virulent army of poisoners finds gaps that no-one knew existed. She is allergic so the house becomes dangerous to her. The wasp man says he has never known anything like it and he’s been in the business for decades. They deal with the wasps, but take the house off the market.
Nadia forgets entirely the matter of the spectral school bell. Then one day, she is invited to take tea with her very elderly neighbour Joan who has lived 50 years in the same neighbouring cottage with its views of fields, telegraph poles and house martins. Joan has a son, Simon – a man now in his sixties with children and grandchildren of his own. Joan likes to recount stories about Simon as a young child and Nadia nods absently, while nibbling on biscuits and sipping tea, she has heard it all before. But not so. Today’s story holds a vital clue. Miss Prism sits bolt upright.
Simon as a child, like the famous boy with his famous bear, would be allowed to play in the forest, but in the glory of his tree climbing days he would forget to return for meals.
“I used to keep a school bell” Joan told her. “I’d ring it when I wanted Simon to come back to the house. I don’t have it any more of course. Donated it to the summer fete decades ago.”
So that was the answer to the ringing bell, Nadia thought, a tea time alarm call for a child from next door, heard fifty years after the event. Is that all? Somehow it should have been more, although more what she isn’t sure.
This is what she fears. That she will become like them. More than that, she fears she will become one of them, a thing of air and light and atmosphere and loneliness, trailing spectral fingers through the hair of some human emissary from the future, momentarily to feel earthed once more like electricity.