“Have I ever told you, dear – ” the elderly lady leans towards me and I get a whiff of Eau de Cologne, a smell from the past “ – about the time I saw a ghost?”
“Er, yes, actually – ”
“Well, I didn’t just see a ghost, I knew a ghost. I saw him several times, over a period of several months. It’s sad that I never knew his name though, because he never spoke to me, you see.”
I have heard this story more than once before, but as I only see her occasionally, it seems heartless to refuse to listen to it again.
“Yes, it was down in the village wasn’t it?” I encourage her. “In the old vicarage?”
“That’s right, it’s not there any more; they knocked it down, of course. But for a long time, there was the big old vicarage standing empty next to the new one they built, and of course it was right near the church and the graveyard. I used to go there and creep into the old vicarage garden, because there were guinea pigs living wild under the bushes and I would feed them blackberries and bits of stale bread.”
“So how old were you then?” I ask, as ever avoiding using any sort of name when I address her. I used to call her ‘Aunt’ but this lapsed long ago, when I realised she was no such thing, just an old family friend. It’s not that I’m not fond of her, but she’s – well, difficult.
“Oh, I was about fourteen or fifteen, and really bored at home and looking for adventure. The old vicarage garden became my secret, special place – and that was even before I met HIM.”
I give her a smile and try to keep all trace of boredom and scepticism out of my face.
“It was one evening, as I sat on the old bench listening to the birds singing, and looking up at the swallows sweeping about overhead – they nested in the old church you know, every year without fail, right under the doorway. Well, suddenly there was someone standing there with me in the garden. I don’t know where he’d come from; I hadn’t heard any footsteps or doors closing in the old building. And there had been no rustling from the hole in the hedge which was my own way in to this secret place.
“He was just standing there, across the overgrown lawn, looking at me. But for some reason I wasn’t afraid. I always knew he wasn’t a real person, somehow. Right from the first time I saw him. And I always knew he wouldn’t hurt me. It’s difficult to explain, but I wasn’t scared at all. I just smiled at him, and we looked at each other for a long while.
“Then I glanced up at the swallows for a moment, and when I looked back again he was gone. It was rather mysterious and I waited a while to see if anything further would happen, but it didn’t so I set off home before it started to get dark, and got scolded for being late for dinner. I didn’t tell my parents or my brothers, or even my few friends, when I saw them the next day. It was as if I knew this was something I should keep secret.
“But the next day I went back at the same time, and he was there again, and this time he came and sat next to me on the bench, and watched me feed the guinea pigs, and smiled at me, though he didn’t say a word when I tried to ask him his name. His clothes were very strange – short, tight trousers and a green velvety jacket, and he had a cap on his head of a type I’d never seen before. He had a little beard, and grey eyes – I can picture them to this day, they seemed so deep and sad, even though he was a young man, an attractive young man.
“Well, I wasn’t entirely a child at that time, I was a young woman, and there was a fine young lad who worked on a farm who had caught my eye, and who ended up courting me, before he went away, that is. But with the strange young man in the garden, I didn’t feel like that at all. I felt more like – well, once I went with my father to the woods and we found a baby deer, and it came to feed out of our hands, all hesitant and tender and curious. With the man in the green jacket, it was like he was a wild animal, daring to come and sit beside me, daring to glance into my eyes. And I didn’t feel at all like he was one of the lads in the village. He was something special and different – and of course it was because he was really a ghost, who had probably died a long time ago but for some reason could not rest in his grave in the cemetery but wandered around in the old vicarage garden, as if he had once lived there, maybe, or had some other connection to it.
“At the time I didn’t think of him as a ghost. I was sort of waiting to see what would happen, or if he would explain himself to me. But in fact he never spoke, though in the end I would speak to him a lot, telling him all about my days at school or helping my mother in the laundry – and even telling him about the boy I liked. And he would walk about on the grass, or sit beside me, leaning back, with his eyes closed, and it seemed like he listened to what I had to say, and was interested.
“Now I know ghosts are supposed to be troubled and have something they want to say or need to do, but I think this was a happy ghost. A ghost who was just resting and passing the time, waiting calmly and patiently for the time when he had to move on. He wasn’t always there, when I went to the garden, and I think it was something to do with the weather. He was there when it was still and warm and sunny, but not when it was windy and cold and raining. Maybe he was inside the vicarage then, I don’t know – I never quite dared go in there on my own.
“But then my parents became suspicious of where I was going and my mother followed me one time, and heard me talking to my ghostly friend as we sat on the bench in the garden. Of course she only heard me talking to myself, but she must have thought that was strange enough, for she dragged me away from there and refused to let me out of the house for several days.
“I only saw the ghost once more, a few weeks later when I managed to get away for a while on my own. This time he stood in front of me and held his hands out, but I was too scared to try to touch him, so I’ll never know whether that would have been possible or not. He nodded his head at me, and afterwards I realised it must have been a goodbye.
“But it was only after several months had passed, and I had never seen him again in all my occasional visits to the vicarage, that I accepted that he must have gone for good. And also that – although I hadn’t been interested in him in the same way as in the farmer’s boy – I had formed some sort of emotional attachment with him. He was a special being, an apparition of some sort, who had engaged with me from whatever other world it was he came from. And then he was gone, and I missed him for many, many years, and I miss him to this day.
“And now when I tell people about him, of course they don’t believe me. They say he must have been a real boy, a gypsy maybe. Or that he didn’t exist at all and it was all a dream. But he was real to me, he was my friend the ghost, and I bet he’s somewhere now, looking down on me and remembering the old vicarage garden with its broken bench and wild guinea pigs. Yes, he is, no doubt about it.”
She drifts off, her eyes dreamy.
We sit a little longer and watch the sky get dark out of her dining room window. I get a little shudder at the thought of supernatural beings peering in on us, and get up to draw the curtains.
Whether the silent young man in the green jacket was a real person, a figment of a teenage girl’s (or maybe an old lady’s) imagination, or truly a friendly ghost, I’ll never be entirely sure.
But Aunt Mabel certainly is.