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  • Philip Bryer



Some years ago we bought a 200-year-old cottage. The previous owners left us an envelope which contained all sorts of deeds, and details of the history of the place. One of these documents from the 1850’s named the owner as one Cinderella Bawden. For a while the sound of unexplained night-time bumps and household creaks led us to joke that Cinderella was upset about something.

Shortly after we moved in I awoke one night at about 2AM. Wide awake, not dreaming and not (as some have suggested, quite unbelievably) having been on the toot. I should point out that I speak as a solid sceptic about the whole ghostly business, but I can’t explain what I saw that night.

Sitting at the side of the bed, a grey-haired lady, her hair – with a centre parting – tied back in a bun. She was dressed in a simple, dark, smock-like dress with a white collar, and her head was bowed as she concentrated on what looked like some sort of needlework, but I couldn’t quite see. I watched her for a while, she didn’t look at me and I felt no sense of threat or fear, I simply drifted off back to sleep.

A few weeks later, Sandra was away and I was reading in bed late on a Sunday night when a storm hit the place and knocked out the power. We had a notoriously touchy trip-switch which was liable to cut us off on a whim so I had to go downstairs to investigate. As I searched in the inky blackness of the study for a lighter and then the bathroom for a candle, I could hear the rain belting onto the roof, the rumbling of thunder growing ever louder, ever closer, while the flashes of lightning became brighter, more frequent. Halfway down the stairs and a crack of thunder as if from a cannon was accompanied by a blinding bolt of light and I froze on the step, illuminated by the forked lightning, the wavering shadows cast by the candle held in my trembling hand danced across the landing, and another bang and a flash came so soon that I felt I’d been lined up in its sights, and, oh man, now, now I was scared. Scared of the grey lady and the storm and my own petrified shadow. No jokes about Cinderella tonight.

For the next few years there were no further curious goings-on. Not until I spent 2 weeks in hospital, and number 2 son Rob came down to lend support. At 3AM one night he heard voices from his billet in the spare room. Urgent, babbling voices emanating from our room and, thinking Sandra had gone to sleep with the TV on, he went to investigate – yet found only darkness, silence, and Mrs Bryer in the depths of a peaceful snooze. During the same fortnight Sandra heard someone noisily going through the bathroom cabinet, repeatedly opening the doors, riffling through the contents, and banging them shut. She imagined Rob had indigestion or a headache and went to help. But there was nobody to be seen, and Rob had not stirred. It was as if my absence and the sudden presence of another had triggered a burst of interest and activity about the house. There were also the times when the bedroom TV switched itself on, but that was probably an electrical fault, right?

On a couple of years, and in the middle of the night and intent on my regular middle-aged-middle-of-the-night pee, I waited on the landing for Sandra to emerge from the bathroom, gazing out of the window for an age until at last she flitted past me.

“I thought you were in the bathroom for good last night,” I remarked, the following morning.

“Bathroom?” she replied, “I wasn’t in the bathroom.”

I never actually saw her, you see, I saw a shape, a human shape perhaps, in my peripheral vision, but whatever it was, apparently it wasn’t my wife.

Which brings me to our latest incident.

In December, and it was the night before Sandra was to undergo a procedure in hospital. A routine procedure, but one not without its risks. Indeed, in undergoing the same examination a few weeks previously her heart had stopped. Although she was awake for the majority of the proceedings she can’t report on what happened next as she had ‘croaked’, so we’ll have to imagine the smooth operations of the operating theatre being rudely upended as a sense of urgency, even a pinch of panic, barged rudely in. The deployment of the paddles, the ‘stand clear’, the ‘1,2,3’, and the KAPOW! as she was invited back to join the rest of us in this vale of tears. Quite a spiritual moment then? Having popped over, ever so briefly to the other side, how did she greet her concerned fellows on her return?

“Where the fuck am I?”

That’s how.

Understandably then, we felt the need to talk things through before the second half.

“If I don’t make it, promise me you’ll still go to Australia,” (we had a trip planned for Xmas and New Year)

“OK. I mean, you’ll make it, the doctor said it was a rare occurrence, but one they’re always prepared for.”

“Promise me?”

“I promise.”

“Also, if I don’t make it, take the family to Sorrento, stay at La Minervetta and chuck my ashes into the sea.”

“OK, will do. Nothing’s going to go wrong though.”

At that moment a shadow, a large, very dark shadow which ran from the floor to just beyond the angle of the ceiling, flew across our living room and vanished as swiftly as it had appeared.

Neither of us spoke. We both had a sip of wine. Our eyes met.

“Er, did you see that?” we said, as one.

Now the question, has it – whatever it is – come to collect, or come to reassure?

I am delighted to report that Sandra came through with no snags, we went to Australia together, and I haven’t had to book any Italian holidays or get an urn full of ashes through customs – a problem England captain Joe Root is also unaffected by. But I would say this, if you can read this, or if you’re listening, next time you feel the need to offer welcome reassurance, perhaps show us something other than a doom-laden big black shadow?

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