The Written Word

SHALL I TELL YOU A GHOST STORY?     Tap

This was told to me many years ago. I have heard countless ghost stories but this one stuck in my mind because it is one about which I am convinced of its truth. Because . . .? Well, I’ll tell you and see what you think. It was told by a speaker who was giving a talk  about her collection of antique dolls. Somehow, during the audience’s question time, conversation drifted right off the subject and got around to ghosts. The speaker, I’ll refer to her as Margaret though that wasn’t her name, said that she once had such an experience and proceeded to relate the following account.

Margaret and her husband and two young sons moved house. This was in the UK. Their home was new to them, although there had been at least one, perhaps more previous owners. It was a very ordinary house, in a suburban street of similar homes and families, built between the wars, with three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs and a living room, a dining room and kitchen downstairs. They made themselves comfortable, the boys attending the local school, her husband enjoying his new job. All seemed well and they were a happy family settling into their new life style with the exception of one thing. The boys, both separately and together, complained about a man they were encountering on the upstairs landing.

They said he was an old chap, grey haired and whiskery, and described his clothing and tartan “granddad” slippers. They said he insisted they stay out of the bathroom and that he was getting really cross about it. He was no one the family recognised, not a friend or relative or even a neighbour. The front door was kept locked at all times so it was highly unlikely that he had wandered in off the street. Neither Margaret nor her husband saw him, only the boys, and she would have put it down to a joke on their part except that the old man was becoming increasingly agitated and angry and the boys were becoming distressed. Still, it’s not unusual for children to end up frightening themselves with games they have, themselves, invented.

Margaret naturally became curious about the house and its history. Had the previous occupants ever seen this man? Or had they experienced any problems with the bathroom?  There was certainly nothing wrong with it as far as she could tell. She contacted the woman, let’s call her Mrs Smith, from whom they had made the purchase, the Smith  family having moved into a larger house in the same area, and was invited round for the inevitable cup of tea. Margaret was made welcome and they talked about their respective new homes. Encouraged by Mrs Smith’s openness Margaret broached the subject of the man on the stairs. At first she appeared both puzzled and amused, and said she knew nothing about it. But when Margaret went on to describe the man in detail, Mrs Smith appeared quite shocked.

‘That sounds just like my Dad!’ she said. ‘At least that’s how he looked. George, his name was, and he did live with us for a short while before he went into hospital.’

‘And is he still there?’ asked Margaret.

‘No, he died. His heart, you know. That was before we moved. He left us some money and with the sale of the house we were able to buy this place.’

‘So . . .  If it is him, why would he be angry?’

‘I’ve no idea. He was a lovely man and he adored kids. I’ve never known him to behave like that.’

So, the mystery deepened and George still appeared on the landing and continued to threaten Margaret’s boys.

‘You keep out of the bathroom.’ He kept telling them. He even took to standing in front of the bathroom door to block their way. Or so they claimed.

It was becoming quite a problem and Margaret and her husband were at a loss as to what to do.

One evening, a few months after her visit to Mrs. Smith, Margaret and her husband were due to go out together to a quite formal social gathering. Appearance was important and her husband was to wear his best suit which required a clean white shirt. The shirt needed ironing so Margaret said she would do that while he was in the bath. Now, this sequence of events is important. Husband went upstairs, ran his bath and got in it. While he was soaking, Margaret set up the ironing board in the downstairs dining room, which was below the bathroom. She plugged the iron into the socket, switched it on, smoothed over the shirt, then switched off the socket and unplugged the iron. As time was getting on, she thought she had better go upstairs and chivvy her husband out of the bath.  She found him still in the water – and quite dead.

Of course ambulance, doctor and police were summoned. A formal inquest took place and the verdict was death by misadventure. Apparently what had happened was this. Margaret routinely did the ironing during the day while husband and children were out at work and school. She always did it in the dining room, plugging the iron into that particular socket. She was not aware of any of the family using that socket at all. This was the only time that she used the iron while someone was in the bath. It was found that the electrical circuit that fed that socket had been earthed through the pipes that carried the bath water. As soon as Margaret switched on the iron, the water her husband was lying in became live.

That was the story Margaret related to me and many others, regarding the death of her husband. I have no reason to think she made this up. The physical facts surrounding this tragedy would be too easily verified or refuted by police and medical officials. Nor do I believe that anyone would be likely to invent such a ghost story, not when it involved the death of her husband. Then what does this say about George? Was he something from the children’s imagination?  A fanciful tale to cover a widow’s grief?  Or was he a ghost? If so, was he simply a “replay” of some event in the history of the house, as many spectres are believed to be? But the events seem to imply that he somehow knew about the electrical danger and was trying to warn and protect the children. In which case, whatever remained of George was consciously aware of the present and was acting autonomously.

Well, what do you think?

THE CELTIC CONNECTION.

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It started with the music. Folk clubs and pubs where session musicians gather to play the jigs and the reels. You can’t help but move with it. It begins in the feet but in no time you find your shoulders doing their own dance, your hands slapping your thighs.  Soon your fingers are itching for an instrument. The bodhran –  the Irish drum – looked the easiest to take up the rhythm and I bought one, second hand, but a good instrument and I still have it. Of course the bodhran is the obvious choice for people with no musical talent. Therefore untutored bodhran players are not generally popular at informal sessions as they tend to make a sound like a sledge hammer hitting a biscuit tin. However, it turned out that I had some ability in that area, not only to hit the thing but to hit it at the right time, and I soon found myself as a member of a ceilidh band. The cream of our local folk club, we played out at dances most Saturday nights. But I wanted more than to play the drum and my clarinet just didn’t sound right. So I traded it in for a silver flute. And that’s how I got to be Celtic musician.

There was definitely some sort of enchantment in that music that distinguished it from any other. I listened and thought deeper. The typical structure is regular. An eight bar melody, repeat it. That’s part A. Change to another eight bar phrase and repeat that. Part B. Then part A again. Then part B.  No stopping, no pause  A solid, driving beat like a express train – difficult to hold back the tempo -and once aboard the tune it is difficult to jump off. Round and round like the chanting of a mantra. A mantra! That’s what it was. The secret of Irish music is that it is mantric.

Listening to it is great, but the real experience is in the playing.  All absorbing, it transports the player, physically, emotionally and spiritually. One cannot resist being drawn into it, each individual creating their own variation and ornamentation, extemporising along with the regular chant.  Until someone – usually the musician who started the tune – gives the signal, a raised foot, perhaps, or a lifted pipe. Then, at the end of that section, everyone resolves on the same sustained note.  As if magically drawn back into the room, we surface, gasping for air, laughing and reaching for our pint of Guinness and await the start of the next tune.

Of course Irish music is related to Scottish and Breton etc. all having the same Celtic roots.  But although I have listened and played to other Celtic traditions, it is only the Irish music that works in that meditational form, and results in that particular effect. No wonder the Church disapproved of it. It was not unknown, in the old days, for Catholic priests to turn up at a ceilidh, confiscate the instruments and punish the dancers. The arrogance of those sanctimonious bullies is beyond belief! God knows the peoples’ lives were made miserable enough without a little singing and dancing being condemned as work of the devil.

Anyway, it was the music that drew me to Ireland – the narrow streets of Galway, the late night sessions in the pubs. But of course there was the spiritual history – the fairie legends (yes that is the correct spelling) , the Druids who were the real priesthood and the magic of the ancient kings. And of course there were the pre-Christian monuments, the standing stones. We tried to make a tour of them once, attempting to visit all the ancient stone circles, but of course there were far too many. But it was a valiant effort and a mind expanding experience.

Of course there are stone circles all over  the UK and Europe. I keep safe the memory of standing in the centre of Castlerig circle (Cumbria). It was just after dawn, the grass ankle deep and wet with dew. The stones were ranked around me with a circle of distant hills forming a natural amphitheatre.  I could almost see Druid priests leading the people in procession, the horns and drums playing to welcome up the sun and I felt I had always been a part of it. It was these memories and the stories that were told about the ancient burial sites that inspired the plot for Miriam’s Talisman, the first book I wrote, (though not the first published).

But the old Southern Ireland is disappearing fast. Even the Ireland I knew twenty, thirty years ago has dissolved into the morning mists, courtesy of the European dollar. And in some respects that is only right. No-one should live in poverty and religious restriction, especially for the pleasure of tourists. Perhaps all that is left now is in the ancient stories of hero kings and fairie enchantments, the old superstitions that refuse to die. And of course history is in  the ancient chants, remnants of which survive in the music which is now known all over the world. At least, I like to believe that is so.

 

 

 

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