This is a semi-autobiographical piece, shared as part of my daily blogging project.
The first time I saw a ghost I was six years old. Whether it was sparked off by my great uncle dying after a year of oxygen tanks (when I had a verruca), or my mum always playing Elvis on a Sunday (and all I knew about Elvis is that he was newly dead), I couldn’t say.
My ghost came at night, around 9 o’clock, when I was supposed to be in bed but instead spent time sitting on the bedroom windowsill looking out at the garages. My ghost rode a motorbike with a windshield, and goggles, and didn’t speak or anything, just used to ride around the walls of the bedroom, which were covered with rabbit wallpaper and pin ups of the Man From Atlantis and the Six Million Dollar Man.
I first found out I could speak to my ghost (in mute) during a night of an electric storm when my parents stayed up beyond News at Ten and the garage outside our back gate burned down. He seemed friendly and I thought he must be a nice ghost to have around in a crisis. He didn’t take his goggles off but he was a good looking biker, rather like the ones we saw around going past the Manor House to church on Sunday evenings.
There’s a story in this, somewhere, the bikers and the church and my ghost, but first I want to tell you about the church. It’s knocked down now, but when it was standing and we used to go there, it was a big old place, a small Methodist chapel with a choir gallery thought to be unsafe, but which we used to climb up to using the blue jumping mats from the gym class. Up there was lots of clutter, Nativity stuff, costumes, dried flowers, broken chairs, and you could look down to the pulpit where Mr Dew used to captivate us in Sunday School.
Behind was the old church schoolrooms, with their thick wood benches and tilted desks with yawning inkwells stained with years of black writing. The windows looked out onto the quarry and the Roman road which is now recognised and protected – then it was overgrown and a dumping ground for old burnt-out cars, washing-up bottles from the landfill site for the new comprehensive, and free newspapers the boys didn’t want to deliver. Sunday School was mainly for boys, so we did war heroes and tales of combat.
Into this quiet existence came my ghost. He first appeared outside the house the second time I had to catch the Blackpool coach with my parents, outside the Welcome Pub. Near here was the Clough, where a girl had been strangled once and people were warned against. The Moors Murders were still in people’s minds as fairly fresh and little children had to be safe from strangers. My ghost wasn’t a stranger. I found he had died in a war in his twenties and was doomed to ride his bike from coast to coast for the rest of the natural life of the world. That seemed unthinkable to a six year old who couldn’t imagine being ten, never mind life eternal.
I thought my ghost would come on the coach, but he just rode alongside, now and then swerving gracefully over the middle lines of the motorway lane, dipping like a star into the drying puddles of rain. When we got to the coach station at Central, he disappeared, but I saw him again after we’d seen Russ Abbot’s show on the North Pier, just watching from the steps leading to the flooded beach, his arms folded.
The connection with the other world came when we got our first cat, when I was nine. Twinkle was an exceptionally stupid cat – when you put him in the yard he’d stay in the same spot, rain or shine; he fell out of our attic, and off the windowsill, and he liked salmon sandwiches and bacon and egg at weekends. I had a bond with Twinkle and with my ghost, because I think he saw him too, and they could talk to each other. Then Twinkle spread the word to other cats that a higher being was around, and they came to watch and listen. I always thought that was why our kitchen was a popular meeting place for strange cats.
An electric storm lost me my cat and my ghost. Neither ever came back.
Approaching puberty I started to be aware of events before they happened. My other great uncle’s death, the night before the phone rang to tell us. My best friend’s suicide, ten years before it happened. A good friend from next door dying from his only illness two months after I dreamed it. And getting the gift to write from within and without, from special spiritual friends about.
My great-aunt’s ability to contact everyone from my grandad and his faithful dog, Blackie, to a lost great-grandfather dead by drowning in the Mill Lodge at sixty, to a mad aunt who gave birth under the bed like a cat hides away to bring her kittens forth, to the cousin blown up in the Second World War due to government incompetence hiding a minefield (and his wife who had a broken heart). Telling me I had a gift for seeing past and future, and the burden of losing the gift of being surprised.
Is this a story? I wanted to tell you about the bikers and the church but all there is to say is that they rode through and got lost in the hills. Three of them froze and the rest fell. I watched all this from the Hawthorn window, where our class went sketching the countryside once, chalk paintings and charcoal sketches. I couldn’t tell anyone because it never happened in our time – I was seeing shadows of the past, and my ghost riding full pelt to join his comrades once again.
Three months later I changed from child to woman, that first painful stage. So there is a metaphor there, the riders and the visions, the growth and the storm. In Blackpool again I watched the illuminations snap and crash through thunder and lightning and the biggest storm I ever saw. And I never saw anyone riding round my bedroom walls again.
(c) Louise Penn