Rest in peace? Today's spooks don't have the ghost of a chance

Some take the view that spectral infestation is as serious a problem as blocked drains. They may well be right

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ARE YOU sitting comfortably? No? Good. Because I want to tell you a ghost story. Only, this isn't a story; it's really true. I heard it from The Daily Telegraph.

Once upon a time in 1993 in the county of Derbyshire, a joiner called Andrew Smith, his wife Josie and their children, moved into a beautiful country cottage, in the village of Upper Mayfield, for which they paid pounds 44,000. At first the Smiths were very happy. They spent a lot on decorating Lowes Cottage (that was its name) and were very pleased with the results.

But then things started to go wrong. The Smiths began to feel that there was someone in the house besides themselves. Objects moved around of their own accord. Mr Smith became aware of an "evil presence". Then, one dark night, Mrs Smith awoke to find herself being throttled by invisible hands.

Since then there have been periods when the temperature has suddenly dropped, there are inexplicable putrid smells, and the parent Smiths feel themselves to be "touched" in the night. All of which are, of course, also symptoms of a gastric flu outbreak in a young family. Or, more likely, thought the Smiths, of the existence of unquiet spirits.

This feeling was vindicated when the afflicted joiner made enquiries among older villagers. What he discovered made him both angry and frightened. The house had a terrible history indeed. A milkmaid had apparently died after being locked in the cellar (a terrible fate, but one alarmingly common in the 16th and 17th centuries according to ghost watchers). And a young boy had - it was reputed - hanged himself from the rafters.

It was obvious to Andrew and Josie that Nelly and Satchaverel (as I like to think of them) were doomed to roam the scene of their deaths, revenging themselves on the living. It also occurred to the haunted couple that someone could - someone should - have warned them about the dangers of Lowes Cottage.

They sought advice from their solicitor, Stephen Savage. His advice was unequivocal. "The principle is familiar," he said. "It's the same as if the vendor did not declare faulty central heating or drain. If the Smiths had known about the cottage's history, they would not have bought it." This week a county court judge granted the Smiths leave to pursue a civil claim for the return of their money.

Actually, of course, this is not so much a ghost story as a parallel universe story. The Smiths claim to believe in a world in which an estate agents blurb might run thus: "Delightfully aspected sttng rm. Sunny, s facing gdn. 2 ambient ghsts, 1 p.geist (upstrs only), lge bthrm w bth, shwr and wraith. Guest cloakrm with hngng chld apprtn. Reduced because of dry-rot and curse imposed by warlock from Buxton." And in which house vendors hang over half-doors, look prospective buyers in the eye and mutter "don' ee come here, young master! Nelly be restless with young 'uns about!"

The local council is not sympathetic, refusing to rehouse the Smiths. "The official told us that in the council's eyes a house is not unfit for habitation just because there is a ghost in it," Angie told the Telegraph.

So could the Smiths actually win their case? (I bet their lawyer won't take it on a no win, no fee basis.) Well, it depends on how many others dwell on their parallel plane. For a start they've got a vicar on their side, the Rev Peter Mockford, who has visited the cottage on a number of occasions to bless its rooms ("2nd bdrm, 11x5, crcfx & grlc hook, blssd by chch"). He was so alarmed that he advised the Smiths to leave Lowes Cottage over Halloween for fear of "evil forces building up".

And is it so impossible that they might find themselves in front of a parallel jury, 12 good persons and true, who watch and believe every word of Carol Vorderman's Mysteries on BBC1 and or Strange But True on ITV? Folk who nod at the mention of the word "poltergeist" and whose only question is "what kind: silent or moaning?" They may well take the view that spectral infestation is as real and as urgent a problem as blocked drains (which, from the Smith's description, it so much resembles). In fact many of them might prefer the drains.

A parallel judge may preside (after all, if you accept Masonic ritual, does the idea of moving ectoplasm seem so far fetched?). Evidence could be given by the small army of psychic investigators, geopathic imagers, Feng Shuists, theosophists, new age vicars, crystal strokers, astrologers, druids, Ufologists, necromancers, dowsers and aromatherapists who now stalk Britain, seeking the spiritual dimension. Witnesses galore could be found to testify to the ghostly atmosphere of Lowes Cottage, and - if necessary - to recount their own tales of alien abduction, communion with the dead and previous incarnations.

So, is it so unbelievable that the Smiths might indeed win their claim, and get back the pounds 41,000 they paid to Susan Melbourne, who sold Lowes Cottage, and who claims that she grew up there without experiencing any moaning milkmaids or pendant lads? I mean, who could believe that?

Nobody perhaps. But the reader -whichever of the two universes he or she inhabits - might care to reflect on this: Before the Smiths brought their case, they were themselves - by strange coincidence - being sued by Mrs Melbourne. You see, the original price of the house was pounds 44,000. But the Smiths have still not paid pounds 3,000 of this. Four years after having moved in. Spooky, eh?

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