On Saturday night I went to Charlie’s 69th birthday party. What a gaff he’s got. The rather snooty description of the Grade II listing sums the place up as ‘a slightly provincial but nonetheless interesting example of an early to mid 18th-century gentleman’s house which has a remarkably complete interior and has not suffered from any extreme 20th-century modernisation’. The writer is quite correct: inside the house, apart from the telly and the odd iPad lying about, George I might still be on the throne, poaching a capital offence, and John Wesley fervently preaching to multitudes in a field just outside the parish bounds. You can look out of any window and the views are the same as then, too.
I peaked early and was sick on his gravel drive at about 11 o’clock. Four massive gins, goodness knows how many glasses of red wine, new potatoes, and a leg of duck. But after that I got my second wind and come the end I was one of the diehards sitting around a 19th-century table in his 18th-century kitchen drinking last year’s brandy.
One of the company (I was told later) had been shot in the back of the neck by a sniper and the bullet had exited via his mouth. After that he had dealt in antiques. He seems to have suffered no ill effects from the incident. So there was a conversation about antiques. It was all far above my head, but I was included in it because my alcoholic paralysis was mistaken for absorbed interest. And then there was a conversation about the supernatural, particularly the unexplained events that have been occurring for years in the rooms above our heads. Something uncanny has occurred in virtually every upstairs room in the house. Room by room, our hostess described the most dramatic and the most recent of these events, and while she was at it she told us which of us was to sleep where.
In one of the bedrooms the ghostly weeping of two small children has been frequently heard. In another, guests have reported being patted about the head and face by unseen hands. Much to my relief, the chap who’d been shot in the neck and the bullet had come out of his mouth, he was allocated that room. Another bedroom could turn suddenly ice-cold. And in yet another room was once heard an almighty crash, followed by a thundering sound. Our hostess said it sounded as if a heavy cannonball had fallen from a great height and gone crashing through the floor. When they all ran upstairs to investigate, the room showed no sign of damage. This room she allocated to me.
It was on the third floor. I tottered in and looked around, half-expecting to be greeted by the smoke-blackened, grinning face of a powder monkey from the Napoleonic war. The ceiling was low, the sash window was slid halfway down to let in the cool night air. There was a double bed, a pedestal sink, a dressing table and mirror, horse tack dangling from a hook on the wall and a huge doll’s house. The floor was carpeted. Paddington bear was sitting on the deep windowsill gazing wistfully out of the window, fondly remembering his home in Peru no doubt. Everything looked terribly homely and temporal. Fully clothed, I dropped headlong on the bed like a felled tree and was asleep in an instant.
Some time later, I was woken by what sounded like a Keith Moon drum solo. Sitting bolt-upright and looking around me, it took a second or two to remember where I was, and then to remember that the room was possibly haunted by falling cannonballs. I’d left the sidelight on and quickly identified the racket as the ancient plumbing system having a violent attack of indigestion, causing the pipes behind the sink to rattle dementedly and fruity burping noises to issue from the plughole. My palpitations subsided, I fell back on the pillows and fell asleep again.
The next time I woke the sun was just up, illuminating the fields and overgrown hedges on the far side of the valley. The sky was cloudless, the air perfectly still. I was witness to the very beginning of another hot summer’s day. There was absolute silence, both inside the house and out. An 18th-century silence, I imagined. A silence so peculiarly thick and unnatural that I wondered if I wasn’t being subjected to an unusually subtle kind of haunting. And then I could hear someone banging about downstairs in the kitchen. Still in suit and tie, I went downstairs. It was Charlie. He doesn’t sleep so well these days. ‘What about these ghosts, Charlie,’ I said, accepting a mug of Darjeeling. ‘Load of bollocks,’ he said testily, exactly as I’d expected.
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