Bundoran Shore: A new ghost story by John Walsh

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I begged him to haunt me. Just do it, darling, I said. Come to me in the night. I won't mind. You have my complete permission.

Three months after his death, I couldn't settle. For 23 years, we'd done everything together, and now I felt I'd been cut in half, like I'd lost my Siamese twin. At home in the evening, I'd watch television and swivel round on the sofa at every noise, wondering why he wasn't back yet. What's that Joni Mitchell line?

"The bed's too big, the frying pan's too wide"? I could never remember to buy chicken breasts for one, or pre-cut runner beans for one. And the loaf of bread would be stale by Wednesday. They don't sell anything for one in Tesco's.

After the funeral, weeping like a waterfall, I packed his clothes away. I locked them away in a cupboard, to stay there until the house is sold. I couldn't stand the pathos of seeing them all the time. But I found his tweed jacket on the back of the canvas chair in the shed last week, and had to hug it, for his unmistakeable smell of hair gel and Old Holborn. After a while I couldn't stand that, either. I couldn't bear the giant, palpable absence.

I wanted him back. Just a sign would do. Some sign that he was thinking about me. Even some sign that he was there, nearby.

As I packed the red suitcase for the flight, I hoped he'd forgive me for going off, for running away from Dublin and the louring autumn days, the awfulness of the lights coming on at four in the afternoon. At least, I told him silently, I was escaping to one of our great old haunts, here on the Donegal coast, and he could haunt me there, in the night, at his leisure.

Me and Teddy came here a dozen times, oh donkey's years ago, and always to the Enniskillen Lodge. In its stolid, grey-stoned bleakness, it was a typical old Irish mansion, but it concealed a rosy glow of welcome. In late summer, it was just perfect for us and the children. They ran and played on Bundoran Strand, miles and miles of it stretching flat and shiny as though they were running across a giant, gleaming mirror, while we organised the picnic and read the papers.

The screaming and the crying you get on every beach would bother us now and again, but we ignored it, the way you do. Teddy and I would talk and talk, still finding new things to say to each other, after all the years. So the hours would glide by, and the hot sun gradually decline.

The hotel evenings, with the children bathed and in bed, would be hectic: a three-course dinner of oxtail soup, grouse and potatoes with turnips and a big jelly trifle at the end, the whole lot washed down by some lovely German wine, fruity and not too sour. Then all the chatter – Mr Loughery, the owner, was a great storyteller – would grow to such a pitch you could hardly hear yourself think, and Mrs L would suggest we go over by the fire and they'd hand round coffee and tea and little half-slices of candied orange and lemon, and open a box of Terry's All Gold.

Mr Loughery wasn't a great singer himself but he was marvellous at getting others to sing "The Star of the County Down" and "The Wild Rover". If the company asked me to sing "Teddy O'Neill", what with my husband's name, I'd sometimes sing it, even though it often made me cry. But then Teddy would laugh at my soft heart and we'd leave the company to their noise, and go up to bed.

And now all around is so sad and so dreary, as the song goes. The outside of Enniskillen Lodge is just as grey and forbidding, only now there's not the same flame of welcome. Literally. They don't bother with a real fire any more, and will not light one until October starts. Dinner is at individual tables now, instead of the one great long table with Mr Loughery and the shouty conversations we used to enjoy, 20 years ago. Too many couples now sit in bored silence, or have their children still with them for dinner, and there's much whining and smacking. One lonesome soul sits with an iPod plugged into his ears, as he works away at the duck breast with cherries. His head never moves to any rhythm. I suspect he may be listening to nothing, just trying to keep company away.

Afterwards, some dull folk from Cavan gathered around the unlit fire, to drink pints and converse about house prices in Dalkey and government tribunals. I tried to join in, but they weren't my sort. When 10 o'clock came, I went up to bed, brushed my teeth and lay with my head on the soft pillows, with an expanse of nothing on my left, thinking: Please come for me, Teddy. I can't stand it without you. I don't want to be alone like this.

Give me a sign, I whispered to him through the darkness. Show me you haven't left me alone. You've my permission. Come through this portal, and I will take care of you.

Next day, after breakfast, I walked around Bundoran. The sun was struggling to appear, and few people were abroad, as I strolled past the distressed-looking Astoria ballroom (now renamed The Shag), the listless arcades and the new surfer-bum shops on the esplanade. It wasn't a happy excursion. How you would've made it an adventure or a lark, my darling, if only ... I tried not to think of you, to be positive and look to the future, but a malignant sadness settled on me.

Worse than that, I felt an odd sensation that I was being followed. In my peripheral vision, small figures flickered in and out, as though darting from a doorway, then darting back inside. Or as if they danced briefly round a wall, only to retreat. If I looked round, I found nothing there – just the memory of tiny figures on the edges of my sight, suddenly there and quickly gone.

I walked on to Bundoran Beach, removed my shoes (the air was sun-warmed and soft on my face and legs) and began to walk. The sand was as flat as I recalled from years of visits, and though it lacked the mirror-harsh reflection of sunlight that all visitors remember, it glowed with light. I walked on – the sea itself seemed miles off. The sun at noon was harsh now, blinding my eyes as though a torch were shining right inside them.

I closed my eyes and turned my head aside, putting a hand up to my brow. After a moment, I opened one eye, experimentally.

An alarming child, a skinny young boy, was standing 20 yards away, staring at me. The harsh sunlight struck his right cheek, revealed haggard skin as if its owner has been brutalised; but his left stayed in shadow. His eyes were huge, bright and accusing and they stared insolently, right into my face.

I wondered if his horrible gaze was directed at someone behind me; I turned my head, and was blinded once more by the sun. When I opened them once more, the boy had gone. I confess I was relieved. I am good with children – having two of my own, thoroughly reared and matured – but not with those of the urchin or ragamuffin sort. I cannot comfort those who have no wish to be comforted.

I was tired, sun-blinded and my eyes were playing tricks. I returned to the hotel for lunch, a little nap and some light reading. Later on, I decided, I will make friends with the other guests; but I'll take my book to dinner as a safeguard, in case they won't make an effort.

At the meal, there was a great crowd in, for it was Saturday evening and visitors had arrived in groups of six or eight. By the time they took their places, it was obvious that many pints had been floored in O'Hagan's Bar prior to the repast, for the men shouted sporting pleasantries to each other over the heads of the ladies, and rudely seized the arms of the waitresses to demand more helpings of pork belly and champ mash and, later, Irish coffees.

I sat with my William Trevor novel open on the tablecloth, and, between courses, tried to catch the eye of the young pair at the next table, to maybe initiate a conversation; but they seemed to avoid my gaze, like I was an embarrassment amid the jolly throng. By 10pm, the noise was like a steam-hammer in a fairground. I've never felt so alone. I finished my crumble, wiped my lips with the napkin, took my book and escaped. Unwilling to go to bed, I tried the lounge with the big fire, but it was full of couples, canoodling over Jameson's.

"Oh God, it's the mater dolorosa with the feckin' buke," I heard someone mutter. Did I look so tragic? Ah Teddy, if only you'd been there. We'd have insisted they built up a fire, and shoved up on the sofa and got some proper company going.

I went looking for solitude and found a small room, laid for games of chess and cards, the Family Room they called it. It was empty, but there was a plump Parker Knoll armchair in the corner against the curtained window, with a standard lamp beside it, and though the room was cheerless, I welcomed the solitude. I shut the door. The sounds of stupid people's conversation died. I switched on the lamp. I plumped the cushions, sat in the chair and opened my book.

Did I doze? Was I asleep? For as the words, about Ireland long ago, grew blurry, I thought I heard a sound behind me.

It was hardly more than a rustle, a light crunch like an unexpected wave on shingle, behind the curtain, behind the window. And then a tiny voice, no more than a breath, but it reached into the inner chambers of my ears and into my innermost heart.

"Oh please," it said. "Oh please ..."

I had hoped, I suppose, to hear Teddy's voice. But instead, it was the voice of a little girl, six or seven, begging for a treat. But there was an awful, gaping-mouthed, pleading quality to it, a kind of mortal desperation.

My skin froze.

"What?" I said aloud. "Who's there?"

There was silence, then it came again.

"Oh pleeeeeeeese," it softly keened. I could imagine its head lolling on one side, abandoned to grief.

I am a practical woman. "Child," I said, "please do not frighten me. Whatever harm afflicts you, I can do nothing about it."

"But you said," whispered the voice. "But you said..."

"I'm sorry for you, whoever you are," I said, my blood suddenly like ice, from my heart to my fingers' ends. "But I can do nothing for you."

I listened. There was silence. I listened to a silence that was full of chilly despair. In the distance, I could hear the soft crash of the breakers on Bundoran Strand, for the waves had at last come to the shore.

I could read no more. Up in my room, in bed, I begged for sleep, and mercifully it came. I was awakened only once, by the sound of a cat that mewed outside my room door. It was a comforting, domestic noise.

In the morning, having no appetite for breakfast after the unsettling events of the night before, I went to Mass, and took communion, the tiny, papery wafer melting on my tongue my only sustenance.

This is my body, given up for you. This is my blood ...

Christ's words from my convent catechism came into my mind and were a comfort. I prayed to Jesus to bring comfort to whatever miserable little ghost lurked outside the Enniskillen Lodge, asking to be let in to join the company by the fire, and the roast pork and mashed spuds.

By noon, I was starving, and had recourse to one of the appetite suppressants that form part of my dietary regimen. It didn't help. In the hotel, I put on my bathing costume, reasoning that a dip in the cold ocean would rid me of my pursuit by whispering, flickering children.

The air still carried the warmth of late summer, and the long, wide beach was deserted. There was no sign, thank God, of bedraggled urchins. I practically ran to the sea, across half a mile of glassy, mirrored strand, and greeted the shallows with relief.

It took five more minutes of wading to find the sea bed sloping down, and I swam and floated and splashed. I ducked my head under the salt Atlantic and felt cleansed, reborn. The sun shone above me, a hard, glittering mirror-ball of light. I looked back at Bundoran, its funfair and dancehall, and felt glad to be rid of the modern world, glad to be here in the first element that is water ...

Then I felt a horrible thing. Small fingers suddenly clenched around both my ankles, fingers colder than the sea, and pulled at me. I cried out, but even as I tried to reach down and brush them away, more fingers settled on me, as far up as my thigh, many, perhaps a dozen, bony, cold fingers, like ghastly talons with nails that poked into my flesh and would not let go. It was a ghostly army of hands, trying to pull me down to some hellish pandemonium, to join them ...

I thrashed in the water. My screaming mouth filled with gouts of salty ocean. Above me, the pitiless sun glared accusingly down. Below, a dozen hands and ghastly, prehensile fingers pulled and scraped and tore at my legs. My face went below the water, and I opened my eyes to see, through the blurry foam of my thrashing ...

Nothing. There was nothing there. Only some bladdery fronds, and long sea-ferns extending a couple of feet from the sea floor. I jerked my poor, brutalised body around under the water, straining to see my myriad assailants, but they were gone. No human agents were touching me, or perhaps ever had. Everything was as calm as the waters around the wrecked Titanic.

Crying and gasping, I reached the shore, but there was nobody on the deserted strand to tell my story to. I found my towel, dried myself, still shaking, and stumbled my way homeward. I remember nothing of my journey back across the mirrored beach, except feeling that my head was on fire, and my stomach tearing itself inside out with a hunger I'd never experienced before.

My hotel room was a blessed haven. Weak as a mole, I rang room service and ordered two toasted club sandwiches, devoured them when they came like a starving wretch, and laid myself down to sleep in the dead afternoon.

Teddy, I thought, as sleep overwhelmed me. Is this you, sending me a sign? A sign that I'm in danger? When I told you to come through the portal from the other world, this is not what I dreamt of.

I slept but lightly, and woke to a tiny noise. It was only the mewing of the hotel cat, but now it was inside the darkened room.

It's fine, I told myself. I must have left the room door open. There's no harm in a blessed cat.

Then it was on the bed – it must have jumped up silently – and its paws pushed at me through the bedclothes, creeping silently over the counterpane, up my arm, up to my shoulder.

It was right beside me head. If I turned my face, I would look into its hard little feline eyes ...

I stretched out my hand and found the switch of the bedside lamp. "Kitty," I said, "You have some bloody cheek to ..."

I shrieked. Where the cat's face should have been was the face of a maddened child, a little girl with huge, staring eyes, looking into mine from inches away, staring, eyes distended and bloodshot, staring into mine as if she would kill me, devour me, tear me flesh from bone. The whites, above and below her pupils, were flecked with savage blood.

I swept the cat away with sudden violence, and sat upright, rigid with terror.

There was a crowd of people in the room. They stood in a dismal row, their clothes in tatters, their long skinny limbs surmounted by long defeated faces. Even in my blind panic, I counted nine of them – two adults and seven children, evidently a family, ragged and woebegone, looking at me. For a mad second, I felt like Goldilocks, the domestic usurper, awakening to the three bears.

There was a dreadful silence.

"Who are you?" I said.

"We are the Mannions," said the tallest apparition.

"What do you want from me?"

"Food," said the tall apparition. "For years we have gazed in through the windows of this place, looking for one who would give us food, we who were starving."

"But who ... but why?"

"When the Famine came in the third year," said the apparition, "boats took our neighbours from Donegal to the new place of plenty across the ocean. But we never found our way to the boats. We were that weak, from eating the weeds by the roadside, and the bark off the trees, we had no feeling in our limbs to walk to the harbour. The boats went without us."

"Oh my God," I said. By the window of the room, I recognised the skinny youth I'd seen on the beach the day before, his head bowed in anguish. "My God, the famine ..."

"Up at the Lodge, they said, the English quality do be feasting nightly on swans and pigs and big healthy cabbages. If only we could beg their attention, they said, they will surely share some of their bounty with you. But never did they come to the window, however hard we knocked."

His face, and the face of his sallow, ugly wife, glared down on me in my warm, pillowed bed.

"I'm terribly, terribly sorry," I said.

"Until at last," said the apparition, "we knew there was no hope. So we joined hands with the children, and walked off into the sea that would take us to America."

My skin was goose-pimpled.

"You ... drowned the children?"

"Sure, what else was there for us to do," he mused, "else watch them starve into little ghosts?"

I lay back on the pillows. I felt the smaller apparitions draw near to the bed, as if they were curious to see what a well-fed Irishwoman felt like.

I felt small fingers touch my naked arms, my feet, my thighs. For a mad moment, I felt like offering the young ones my breasts to suck for sustenance – absurdly, given the drift of years since I ever suckled a baby.

But then I felt the teeth of a child on my thigh.

Oh Teddy, I thought, this is my way back to you. This is my portal home to your arms.

This is my body, I said, as the apparitions closed in around the bed. This is my blood. Take, eat, I said.

And they did.

Five classic ghost stories

by John Walsh

Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad

by MR James

Crusty, sceptical Oxford Professor Parkins comes to the Suffolk coast to improve his golf. In an ancient Knights Templar churchyard he finds buried there an old whistle inscribed with the Latin for "Who is it that is coming?". And he blows it. It turns out to be a terrible idea, though told with a gleeful sprightliness of tone.

The Signal-Man

by Charles Dickens

A railway signalman tells a stranger he's been getting phantom warnings of danger on the telegraph wire, followed by ghostly apparitions that come true – of a fatal crash, a beautiful woman dying on a train, and of his own death. Dickens wrote this in 1866 after being involved in the Staplehurst rail crash a year earlier.

Sredni Vashtar

by Saki

Deeply weird story by the master of gothic whimsy, about 10-year-old Conradin who lives with his bossy guardian, Mrs De Ropp. To escape her, he visits a ferret in the tool-shed and worships it as a god. When the guardian goes to clean out the shed, Conradin says: "Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar..."

The Furnished Room

by O Henry

Bleakly atmospheric story of urban transience, about a young man renting a room in which his sweetheart recently gassed herself. He ransacks drawers and crevices in search of her and detects a characteristic smell. The smell of romance? The smell of love? It doesn't end happily.

The Mark of the Beast

by Rudyard Kipling

A cautionary tale about not insulting deities, it concerns the doltish Fleete, a colonial boor just arrived in India, who gets drunk on New Year's Eve and insults Hanuman the ape-god by stubbing out a cigar on his statue. He is attacked by a leprous "Silver Man" and starts gradually to change into a wild creature, eating raw meat. Let that be a lesson, etc. .........