Sunday, May 21, 2006

My ghost story

(C) 2006 Carrie Sheppard

Lying upon the large brass framed bed, which stands in the centre of the room, high and proud and unyielding, is a small child. Three years old, a girl in flannel pyjamas. The thick, comfortable mattress of horsehair did not warm her as she lay there, her rasping breath sending small white clouds into the air.

She couldn’t breathe… not easily. Breathing in her thin chest rattled and hardly rose; but breathing out was worse - a struggle, a cough, a wheeze and tears of panic came to her eyes. She could not cry out, could not catch enough of that precious air to shout for her mother and father who were downstairs, oblivious to her distress.

Clutching her candlewick bedspread close to her chin, the desolate feeling of incomprehension and abandonment only served to shorten her breath further. Stick-like arms bent sharply, she pushes her head heavily down into the striped ticking, feather filled pillow.

Feathers: deep within their rough cloth bag, sucking in dust, a safe harbour. Horsehair, flattened and ageing, clings to the years of detritus that have seeped, microscopically, into their substance. Old and cold, damp and dust-ridden, despite the layers of clean sheet, the bed exudes a musty odour. The fire has gone out. The room is chilly as the spring night dampens the world with its dew.

The house has no electricity, not like at home. Only gas light downstairs and candles upstairs – candles whose dim light is set to offer comfort to a small child who feels alone upstairs in this high old house.

She is starting to sweat in panic, thinks about getting up, going downstairs and daring to disobey the command to remain in bed and not disturb the parents. The fear of anger, the fear of touching the candle to light her way from the room, keep her still.

“Calm down child,” and a gentle hand brushes her hot forehead. She looks up, and sees, dancing in the candle’s shadows, the outline of an elderly lady. The woman, she can see, is dressed in a long brown dress, and looks at the child with kindly eyes. Eyes that are hidden, yet comforting. The lady wears her long grey hair in two tight buns. They sit on either side of her head light plaited earmuffs and their oddness makes the child smile. The child’s wheezing slows as she relaxes, no longer alone, and she turns her head on the pillow to see another lady, like the first, standing on the opposite side of the bed.

Candlelight offers brief detail. Spidery hands, blue veins, bony fingers that bear no rings but show calluses on their underside. The two women stand solicitously over the child. “Who are you?” the child asks in her innocence.
“We used to live here,” said the one who had calmed her.
“This was our house.” The child, accepting, feels no fear. She is breathing a little better now, but the loud wheeze and painful cough, are still distressing. Tears squeeze from the corners of her eyes.
“I don’t feel well” the child says, at last able to confide.

“Hush now, all will be well.”
She is calmed, soothed by the gentle voices that sound soft, distant and unfamiliar in their cadence. She coughs and coughs again and sits up, feeling that her chest is so tight it is pulling her over. Her shoulders hunch and the candlewick duck adorning her bedspread distorts as she clutches it closer still to her spare frame. Her coughing gets worse, the wheezing louder and a low, mournful wail escapes in between the spasms.

Rushing hastily up the stairs, two at a time, heavy footsteps echo through the old house. Another light comes into the room, and beloved father’s face is there. The candlelight flickers as he hurries in to his child, his young daughter.
“Are you alright?” he asks of the small thing lying there, wheezing and coughing with tears sliding down her pale cheeks.
“Yes daddy, these two nice old ladies have been looking after me.”
He looks around; though the light is dim he can see they are alone.
“What ladies, sweetheart?” she sees they have gone too.
“They used to live here,” she says. He asks no more, aware that with each word the child struggles for breath.

He wraps her in his warm jumper, takes her downstairs and they all sit together by the fire, warming her, calming her, soothing her. She feels safe in her father’s arms and falls asleep. Tomorrow they will go to the doctor. Tomorrow she will learn the words and the routines that will accompany her new-found lifetime companion – asthma.


In those first days of her illness, she was too young to understand what was happening and how the dust in the room was her nemesis. Her father, Anthony was always concerned, always carrying her when she was tired, always there for her when she needed him. He would not have been cross, had she come downstairs that night, but how is a child to know?

Who was it that had cared for her that night of her first asthma attack? Who was it that had calmed her and kept her breathing steady until her father appeared? It was a question that begged answers. The house was old, and carried it’s own stories. Anthony loved the house, though it had so few conveniences. He loved the open fire, the gaslight and the great kitchen table that bore the knife marks of butchery from more than a century of farming. He loved the open fields surrounding it, the clear sound of the larks in the morning, and the high piled stacks of hay. The shout of the pheasant, the bark of the fox – these were sounds he craved and escaped from London to hear. He asked the farmer about the house and its history.
“It was always part of the farm,” he was told. “Before the current owners it was empty for a long time.” And before that, Anthony asked?
“Before that I think it was my grandfather’s sisters who lived there, two old spinsters together.”

How could a child imagine so clearly, and retell in such detail, the two women who had stood by her bed that night? How could she have known that less than a lifetime ago those two women had lived in that house, in that big farmer’s Lodge? The memory faded quickly for the child –perhaps she wanted to forget the panic of being unable to breathe – that simple action which should be so easy for us all. The asthma attack was the first of many and she spent months in hospital, her severe condition requiring treatment that, in the 1960’s, was still in its infancy. Inhalers and medicines, injections and hospital stays, the small frail child grew into a taller, equally frail child. But she slowly grew stronger and as time progressed, so did medical knowledge. Her treatments improved and so did her health. But of that night when she was three years old, she remembers nothing. Her parents provide her with the reconstructed memory of the event – and she fills in the gaps with those memories that she does hold dear. Eight years later she was still visiting the house, but she never saw anyone she did not know.

At fourteen years old her father is gone. Her mother is a widow and the world changes. But she can believe that, though there may be no life after death, there is love.

No part of this story may be reproduced or broadcast without the express permission of the author.

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