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The Ghost House
Cartoon-style house
The agreement was vacant possession, or was it?

My mother bought the house in 1949 as both a residence and an investment. Compared to the smaller homes the family was used to, it was quite an imposing building. Surrounded by landscaped gardens, it took pride of place on a corner block, a towering three-storey example of South London opulence in what was then a desirable location. My mother's idea was to turn it into a guest house, and the property was well-suited. Part of a deceased estate, it had been run as a clinic by the previous owner, a surgeon whose ancestry was French. These facts were irrelevant at the time, but would later help to explain some rather unusual and mysterious occurrences. For the moment, however, it was just regarded by us as a move to a new home.

Over the next few years the business side became well-established and the house developed a relatively happy atmosphere. The visitors contributed to this, many using it as a base for their London holiday, while some who were boarding for longer periods were adopted as extended family. These included student nurses, doctors and artists, musicians, and even the family of a middle-eastern oil magnate. The diverse mix seemed to work well. I remember them as joyous times and, for a young boy such as myself, the house held no fears or mystery other than those I created in my own imagination. Not until I was older did my mother relate incidents that were, to say the least, strange and a little creepy.

The first concerned an Irish lady who turned up on the doorstep seeking a room for a few days. Not every guest booked in advance, so there was nothing unusual in that, yet my mother confessed to feeling uneasy about taking her in. A couple of days later, she was cleaning the lady's room and happened to replace a clothes hanger in the wardrobe. There, propped in one corner she noticed an object wrapped in newspaper which looked and felt like a rifle. Putting two and two together to make five, Mum immediately deduced that the woman was something to do with the IRA and needed to have her gone. This wouldn't be easy for someone with a generous heart who would give even the most obnoxious the benefit of the doubt and a second chance. So she left taking any action for another day. The suspicion was still present, though, and when the opportunity arose, Mum went up to check on the room. She experienced a certain amount of relief on discovering that the "rifle" was no longer there, but the shattered remains of a glass ashtray in the waste basket rekindled her determination to confront the woman and issue her marching orders. In effect, the problem resolved itself when the Irish lady came rushing in and announced in a rather agitated tone that she was leaving immediately. She could not, she said, stay in a room where bizarre things happened. Something, she claimed, hadn't liked her from the start and last night it had thrown an ashtray at her! Mum was happy to let her go and wear the cost of the breakage. As for the woman's story, she dismissed it as alcohol-induced nonsense.

Some time later, a young man in insurance arrived, transferred from the North of England by his company and needing temporary accommodation while he settled into the new posting. He was quietly unassuming and, although somewhat naive, was not the kind of person prone to fantasy. So, a passing comment he made one morning took my mother aback. "Thank you for that cup of tea last night," he said. Mum was puzzled and asked what he meant. Steve explained that he had not been sleeping well and was pleasantly surprised when she had brought the beverage to his room, especially considering it was during the early hours. My mother knew nothing of this. In fact, she was adamant that not only didn't she provide room service, but also that it certainly wouldn't be delivered to the top floor at two o'clock in the morning! Steve, however, was un-phased and remained convinced it had happened. He even remembered what she was wearing - a black, full-length dress with a white apron. "I thought it a bit strange," he added, "Because it was old-fashioned and not your style." Mum assumed he had been dreaming. There was no other explanation.... except for the fact that the room he was renting was the same one the Irish woman had stayed in!

Apart from this, the incidents seemed unrelated, and as no-one else in the house reported any strange happenings, the matter was forgotten. That is, until the electrical wiring started to play up. Ron, a friend who was an electrician, was engaged to renew some of the worst-affected. He was on the top floor right opposite Steve's old room in a small kitchen provided for the use of those residents unable to afford full board and lodging. Ron's idea was to save time and money by running a cable through the skirting board into the front bedroom and he had drilled a hole to achieve this. Having pushed sufficient wire through the hole, he went into the room, but was unable to see either the cable or the hole. Following some pertinent measurements, he went to my mother and reported that something wasn't quite right. It had always been assumed that the large front room extended across the entire width of the house; but, according to Ron's calculations, it was considerably shorter. From this, he deduced that there was a large cavity at the end, the same width as the kitchen wall, and which for some reason had been bricked up. Mother's answer was simple: "Let's have a look. Knock a hole in the wall." Against his better judgement, Ron did and discovered another room beyond. It was unfurnished, bore no obvious signs of previous habitation and was rather small; but it was just the kind of room at the top of a large house where a junior maid-servant might have been expected to sleep. The puzzle of the room opposite was beginning to take shape.

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