Once upon a time in a lonely old house...

An hour after lights out, I was awoken by a sound. Near the end of my bed, someone was breathing

It is probably not a sensible idea for those of us who have been contacted from beyond the grave to make too much of the fact. Inevitably, there will be misunderstandings. Sceptics assume that you are emotionally vulnerable or mentally frail; nutters will take you to be one of them. Sooner or later you'll end up on a Kilroy "Do ghosts really exist?" programme, sitting between Dr Colin Wilson, the polo-necked existentialist who wrote The Outsider under a bush on Hampstead Heath and who is now an expert on the paranormal, and a career academic who has just "proved" it is all nonsense.

On the other hand, if truth is one's mistress, there are times when the existence of Another Place cannot and should not be denied.

This week one of those stories that normally appear during the August silly season surfaced in the British Journal of Psychology. A group of researchers from the University of Hertfordshire have left measuring devices in the Haunted Gallery of Hampton Court Palace and in Edinburgh's South Bridge Vaults, where many spooky experiences have been reported. The organiser of the experiment, Dr Richard Wiseman - whom The New Yorker magazine has described as "Britain's most recognisable psychologist", his website tells us - has concluded that all these encounters were in fact caused by draughts or the effects of the magnetic field.

Of course they were. Even those who are not "sensitives"- and academics are notoriously insensitive - will surely understand that spirits are not interested in celebrity. A spot on Breakfast with Lorraine Kelly means nothing to them. Bashful to the point of invisibility, they would rather die (again) than appear to gawping tourists or bearded academics bearing thermometers.

If my own brief encounter with the paranormal is anything to go by, ghosts are more subtle in their approach. They like to frighten, of course - it is part of their nature - but they are not motivated by casual cruelty, nor by a needy, wimpish desire to communicate with the living. Most frequently, they are irritated by the fact that strangers are occupying a place that they believe rightfully to be theirs.

It was quite a few years back now, when my mother, my brother Philip, myself and a girl groom, Janet, were staying in a large, beautiful but ramshackle Georgian house, deep in the countryside of Northern Ireland. There were no other houses within a mile or so and no mains electricity, so we depended upon a generator. Every night, the last person to bed was obliged to descend to the cellar, switch off the machine, and return to bed with a torch or candle.

One night, an hour or so after lights-out, I was awoken by a sound. Nearby, at the end of my bed, someone was breathing. Or, to be more precise, exhaling. Once every two or three minutes, a low, long rasping sigh would fill the room. When it stopped, silence returned until the next sad and weary exhalation of breath began.

Over the next half an hour or so, I discovered what the term "frozen with terror" means. Unable to move, I lay in bed, trying to think of a reason for the sound. An owl on the roof? Too loud. Some kind of mammal outside? Too close. My brother playing a practical joke? I called out to the adjoining room, where he slept. There was no reply. Eventually, the breathing stopped and I fell asleep.

The next morning, when I came down to breakfast, Philip and Janet were discussing how they had been awoken by a similar sound, at the end of their beds, in different parts of the house. The place, undoubtedly, was haunted. One night, my mother saw a shadowy figure looking down on my brother as he lay asleep. Alone, on her last night in the house, she experienced the nastiest shock of all. As she entered the hall, a sudden, inexplicable gust made a carpet fly up and over her head.

After we had gone, we asked about the house. It was said that two priests had lived there, one Catholic, the other Protestant, and there had been a murder. Although, later, this seemed too like the set-up for a novel by Patrick MacGrath or John Banville to be true, it made sense at the time.

Like many sensitives, I have no particular problem with ghosts. The existence of things beyond the scientifically measurable adds, rather reassuringly, to the richness and complexity of life in the material world. I have always assumed that, once the house was again empty of living inhabitants, its resident ghost gave up its carpet tricks and breathing exercises.

And, if Britain's most recognisable psychologist wishes to take his measuring devices to Northern Ireland, he will be out of luck. A few years after our stay, the owners of the house decided, for reasons that were never explained, to have it demolished.

That is the way it is with ghosts. They get their own way in the end. After all, they have time on their side.

terblacker@aol.com

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