Category Archives: ghosts

Torrie Banks …

In this shambolic township perched on the edge of the sea wall, the cottages along the waterfront are garlanded with prayer flags and windchimes and studded with mosaics made of shells. Tess thinks the cottages probably started as holiday shacks, but now they are homes for the dreamers, the hippies, the artists and the others who are running from somewhere else and are starting again. Tess is none of these things, but she and Bill retired a year ago and bought one of the cottages on a whim whilst visiting. It is small and white, and a street away from the Esplanade. Because they had never before taken risks or done anything particularly impulsive, Tess still can’t believe they are actually here.

Tess walks along the sea wall most evenings. The breeze from the ocean cools her skin where the sweat of the day has dried and itches and irritates. She likes these cottages; the imperfection of them, the way some of the foundations sink into the ground as if being reclaimed. Dust to dust, and all the rest of it. She likes the tin rooves pocked with rustholes and the overgrown gardens. Too hot to do anything. She and Bill renovated madly for the first few months, until the weather became steamy and intolerable. They sit on their verandah to make the most of the breeze and wait out the wet season. The locals sit along the sea wall with glasses of wine at the end of the day. They wave at Tess and raise their glasses and smile.

Halfway along the Esplanade, there is the house Tess calls the Time Warp House. Not very original, she knows – but what else is there to say? At first, she supposes it is abandoned. Its symmetrical facade is made of peeling, horizontal boards and there are two sets of French doors nailed over with plywood sheets. Against cyclones and thieves, maybe – sealed tight as a drum. Along the front, a narrow verandah runs the width. There are three wooden steps down to the front garden. No lawn, just weeds and a jumble of pebbles and shells and broken paving stones. There is a strange silence in front of the Time Warp House. The ocean hisses and foams beneath the sea wall, but the air seems closed like a vacuum.

One evening when Tess is walking, she is stopped dead in her tracks. She can smell, inexplicably, lemon delicious. Did people still make lemon delicious? She is standing in front of the Time Warp House and the French doors are open like the front of a doll’s house, the rooms inside laid bare. The kitchen has apple-green paintwork and ancient cabinetry. Tess sees battered wooden chairs and a table on which an orange woollen tea-cosy covers, presumably, a teapot. An elderly lady stands by the stove. She wears an apron with a bright paisley pattern and her hair is a fluff of white perm. Her husband is sitting at the table with a newspaper and teacup. The old people look out at Tess. They wave and smile.

.oOo.

There are drifts of dried leaves under Tess’s dining table because there are no insect screens on the windows of the little white house.  Bill says screens would stop the sea breeze. Tess used to mind, but doesn’t now. She loves the house fiercely, even the bathroom and toilet which they haven’t got around to renovating yet, and which are outside on the back verandah. At nights during the monsoon, the rain blows in under the corner of the verandah, and Tess goes back to bed with wet feet after a nocturnal visit. It isn’t like the house they used to have, in which they’d lived for over 30 years with an ensuite bathroom within a few steps of the bed. This house is not new, like their first home. This house breathes with other people’s lives.

.oOo.

The night following the lemon delicious, the old lady is cooking a beef stew. Tess stands on the sea wall and somehow knows there are also dumplings. It reminds her of her childhood, and the smell of the school dining hall when she was five. The rest of the houses along the Esplanade smell of lemongrass and curries and oriental spices.  The old man rests his hands on his newspaper and nods at Tess. The orange tea-cosy has a bobble on top, and zigzag stripes in Hunter green around its girth. Tess also knows the biscuits in the glass jar will be homemade. She raises her hand and the old man smiles.

She doesn’t see the old people again after that. The next night, and afterwards, the Time Warp house is closed up tight. Although Tess always hopes, the two symmetrical French doors remain boarded tight as a drum.

.oOo.

There is a garage sale at the end of the Esplanade. Trestle tables in the driveway hold piles of ragged books and dented kitchenware. There is a box of LP records and an old rug laid on the grass with some rusty tools and fishing reels. A middle-aged woman in a batik skirt sits on a garden chair with a coffee mug in her lap.

‘Hiya,’ she says to Tess. ‘Nice day for it.’

Tess smiles and sorts through the books. The usual offerings. Stephen King and Harold Robbins and children’s books with Bible stories. She finds a tattered cookbook with a picture of lemon delicious on the cover. It seems to tingle in her hands as she holds it. The woman on the garden chair inclines her head.

‘She used to live here, you know. The woman who wrote that.’

‘Really?’ Without her glasses, Tess cannot make out the author’s name.

‘Torrie Banks,’ the woman says helpfully. ‘They lived down the Esplanade further, at Number 302. She was pretty well known back in the day. For writing cookbooks. But the house is all boarded up now.’

‘They’re back,’ Tess tells her. She holds the book tightly against her chest. ‘I know the house you mean. I saw the lady and her husband – they were there last week.’

‘Nup, that couldn’t have been Mrs Banks.’ The woman shakes her head. ‘She died when I was a kid, but I remember her coming round and having a cuppa with Mum. Funny …’ she tilts her head. ‘They’d sit right about here, where I’m sitting now. Mrs Banks used to bring ginger biscuits in a tin. I remember that, because my brother hated ginger biscuits and used to chuck them over the fence into next door’s pond.’ She smiled fondly. ‘The bugger.’

‘It must have been a relative, then,’ Tess says. ‘The old lady I saw. I saw them two nights running, a lady and man. She was cooking, and he was sitting at the table. ’

The woman shook her head again. ‘Not in that house, love. It’s been boarded up for … geez, probably more than 50 years. Mrs Banks and Harry didn’t have any kids, so Harry lived there by himself for a while after she passed, then I think he went to a retirement home. We thought the house would go up for sale, but it never did. Weird, really.’

‘How much is the book?’ Tess holds it out. ‘I don’t have any money on me at the moment, but I’ll bring it tomorrow.’

‘No worries,’ the woman says. ‘Two dollars? The recipes aren’t very modern. Nobody cooks that kind of stuff anymore. It’s all Jamie Oliver and Nigella, eh?’

.oOo.

It is possible, Tess thinks, that the garage sale woman is talking about a different house. But she isn’t surprised to see the number on the mailbox of the Time Warp House is 302. Still clutching the book to her chest, where she feels her own heart beating against it, she pushes the wire gate open and walks up the path.

Down the left-hand side of the house, Tess picks her way through weeds to a bank of dusty louvres. She puts the book down in order to pile three bricks up and stand on them. She scrubs at the dirty glass with the bottom of her T-shirt and presses her face to the window.

The apple-green cabinetry is covered in dust and the table and chairs can be picked out through dust motes and gloom. Tess sees that the tea- cosy, which had been such a bright orange, is faded and tired and swathed in cobwebs. There is a yellowed newspaper beside it, and a glass biscuit jar. Tess knows the house has not been lived in for a very long time.

Out on the waterfront, the sea is crashing against the sea wall with a relentless beat. Birds wheel overhead, over the rustling palm fronds. Tess sits on a bench with the book in her lap and watches the Time Warp House for a long time, until the day starts to fade away.

It is going to rain. The air smells of ozone and treacle tart and warm custard.

…oOo…

Boo …

Rocco’s mother goes walking outside  in the night. Not with a swirly black cloak and fangs – though this wouldn’t surprise anybody – but she makes sure she turns her iPod up loud enough that she can’t hear the footsteps coming up behind. Footsteps of whom, you may well ask? Who knows. There are things out there. You just have to make sure they don’t know you’re there.

The first time Rocco’s mother remembers having seen something for sure was a few weeks after she’d married the Hunter Gatherer and they’d moved into a little old rented fibro house with two bedrooms and no mod cons at all. There were so few mod cons that washing was done in a tub – and there wasn’t any television. There wasn’t a bed, either – so Rocco’s mother and the HG had a mattress on the floor in a bedroom which led from the little living room. The bedroom had a rickety old wardrobe and an ancient dressing table with a large mirror. If you were sitting on mattress  in bed, you could look in the mirror and see the reflection of the creepy little corner fireplace in the living room. This was what Rocco’s mother was doing one evening – while the HG was out at a football presentation – when she looked up from her book and saw Sailor Lad.

Sailor Lad was standing in front of the fireplace. He was looking through the bedroom door and straight into the mirror. He saw Rocco’s mother – and Rocco’s mother saw him. It is hard to determine which of them was more aghast. Rocco’s mother remembers making some kind of noise. Her heart was hammering in her chest. She got an impression of Sailor Lad’s white trousers and loose, white tunic. She wondered how he had broken into her home. It took only seconds for her to leap (as she was fitter in those days), from mattress to floor and into the living room – which was inexplicably empty. The front door was locked. The back door was also locked. There was nobody in the house, and not a sound except the tock-tock-tock of Rocco’s mother’s Black Forest cuckoo clock, which had been a birthday present from her parents and which, apart from a few tons of books and a bright blue potato peeler, was practically the only thing she had brought to the marriage. It hit Rocco’s mother that perhaps she and Sailor Lad were not existing in the same time frame. Much later, she wondered whether Sailor Lad had told his nearest and dearest he’d seen a wild-haired, 70s housewife crap herself in horror at the sight of him.

The Hunter Gatherer was/is not the type of person to indulge in flights of fancy, so Rocco’s mother wondered at his likely reaction when she told him what had occurred. If he’d laughed, that would have been fine. Had he mocked and jeered, there would have been a sense of relief, and the incident might have been tucked behind the mirror, so to speak, and discounted as some kind of weird, non-alcoholic hallucination.  To Rocco’s mother’s dismay, the HG frowned and told her he’d had the feeling they ‘weren’t alone in the house’. Naturellement, this was exactly what Rocco’s mother wanted to hear. Not. It’s bad enough having a new husband seeing what you look like first thing in the morning – far worse to be scrutinised by someone who may or may not exist. And Rocco’s mother lived in fear of bumping into Sailor Lad in the middle of the night whilst making a lavatorial visit – which meant trekking through two rooms in the dark, around three, all-concealing corners.

The house Rocco’s mother and the HG moved into a few months later – and indeed, in which they still live – was new at the time, and thankfully, Sailor Lad didn’t follow Rocco’s mother there. Indeed, he didn’t make another appearance at the other house, either. There have been different phenomena over the years – a strange indent which appears in the middle of the bed, often several times a day – even though Rocco’s mother smooths the covers each time she walks past. Some days, it doesn’t happen at all. Some days, the sound of footsteps coming down the hall can be heard when Rocco’s mother is in the back garden – but when she goes up the back stairs to see who’s come home, there’s nobody there. And the most frightening thing happened one night when she was coming out of the ensuite bathroom in the early hours. Rocco’s mother walked slap-bang into a dense, black mass in the doorway – which she assumed was the HG coming in. Then, with mounting horror,  she saw him – still fast asleep and oblivious – lying in bed two metres away.

It’s impossible to believe there’s nothing out there. Naturally, Rocco’s mother still likes to have the sheet over her face in the darkness. Maybe then, nothing will know that she’s there …

.oOo.

Mopknocker plays to incontinent audience …

When we were kids, which was a very long time ago, my brother and I were taken to Nightcliff Drive-In on Friday nights in the back of the Holden stationwagon. The back seats were folded down and we had blankets and pillows in case we wanted to sleep – and we’d be treated, over our parents’ shoulders, to such classics as The Magnificent Seven, A Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Idiot who forgot to put the speaker back on the pole and drove off with it still attached to the car window. We would have liked horror flicks if they’d had any then – but it seemed to be either westerns or James Bond. Nevertheless, it was great fun altogether and I wish the Hunter Gatherer and I could have taken our own children to a drive-in when they were little. Unlike Dad and the Warrior Queen, we have four children, so the thrills of being hit in the back of the head by soggy chips and errant Maltesers would have been excitingly doubled.

To make up for the fact we didn’t have Freddy Krueger in those days, Dad happily obliged when we got home, staging his very own version of Creepshow for our entertainment and edification.

There were three favourites you might reasonably expect to encounter. Mopknocker, Underbed Fred, or the silent and deadly Curtain Zombie. There was no clue as to what you’d be getting, so complacency was not an option. Lying in bed minding your own business, you’d have just about forgotten there was any imminent danger. Then you’d hear it. A faint tap, tap, tap on the window and there, etched on the other side of the flyscreen, would be a gruesome and frightful visage, leering from beneath its tattered grey, crypt-cobwebbed hair.  Okay, I’m well aware mopheads can’t leer. But you would have had to have been there.

After you’d practically crapped yourself with fear and the Warrior Queen had confiscated the mop from our hilarious and evil pater and told him he was going to bed without any gruel, you could finally go to sleep in the happy knowledge the postman never knocked twice.

Naturally, we’d always be on the alert to Dad’s whereabouts when we returned home from the drive-in – but he got the better of us every time. And just as you were dozing, thinking maybe this time he’d forgotten, there’d be the hideous creak of bedsprings and you’d feel something horrible pushing the mattress up underneath you. Underbed Fred. Or the heavy curtains covering the built-in wardrobe would start to ripple and bulge. The Curtain Zombie was behind them … and ready to emerge and hurl you into the depths of the River Styx.

Years later, the Hunter Gatherer and I were visiting Dad and the WQ. The WQ and I were chatting happily in the kitchen, stuffing ourselves indiscriminately with one sort of foodstuff or another, when we suddenly became aware of faint music. Dad had a large organ (of the Wurlitzer variety), but he and the HG were safely in the living room and there was nobody else in the house but us chickens. An organ was definitely being played, so the WQ and I crept down the darkened hallway to the accompanying strains of a Bach fugue. From the organ’s lair, a pale, ghostly light leaked under the door over the hall carpet.

It was the WQ who pushed open the door. And there it was. Its grey, tattered, crypt-cobwebbed hair fell over its leering face, the arms of its putrid shroud were draped artistically on the keyboard. Undoubtedly, it was readying itself to turn its head and stultify us with its evil, shiteating grin. Mopknocker, in all his glory, was playing Bach.

The WQ says she didn’t pee herself, and I’m not admitting anything myself at this stage. The reason Dad thought it would be funny to drape the mop in his dressing gown and set the Wurlitzer to autoplay was never explained. There was actually not much chance of him giving an explanation, because some of us are still not speaking to him. But the incident has left its legacy. To this day, I can’t walk past the mop section of Food-o-rama without hearing a Bach fugue faintly in the back of my mind and overriding the Barry Manilow musak track. And we don’t have mops in our house. They were banned long ago.

Any relative of Mopknocker is not a friend of mine …

.oOo.

Please let me come with you next time, Nigel …

            This is really a thank you to Jonathan Boakes – a writer of computer games which are so brilliant and so frightening you get the feeling  it’s never going to be safe to sit your arse in front of a computer again. The latest of these is a ghosthunting adventure, in which your new bestie, Nigel, is going to have to solve some spooky derring-do which is going down in a charming Cornish fishing village.

            Nigel is just lovely. He has suitably shambolic clothing, with the hems of his jeans  authentically scuffed – and he wears glasses. I like a man who wears glasses. (Will he make more passes?)  I especially like Nigel because he has no intention of listening to me when I beg him not to go somewhere. He has steel and determination. I like that in a man, too.

            When Nigel arrives in the aforementioned village and finds the only available accommodation (surprise!) is a derelict waterfront cottage, anybody with less steel and determination would have gone home. Especially as villagers were making cryptic comments such as; ‘ooh, the fens, lad!’ and suggesting Nigel’s new place of residence might be a bit suss altogether. Because Nigel didn’t seem fazed by any of this, I attempted walking him back through the fens t’railway … but the bugger wouldn’t go. He informed me he had ‘things to do in the village’.  He also kept shrugging and saying, ‘Nothing ventured …’ Well, Nigel – if you really must.

             I generally like to have the lights off when I play creepy stuff on the computer. Mistake. If you don’t mind crapping yourself, be my guest – but I’m ashamed to say I had to do a dash through the house flicking on every available light and making sure the doors were double-locked. Even kicked the fridge a few times to make it hum.  When I got back to the computer, wouldn’t you know it, Nige was patiently standing there waiting for me. He suggested we might like to do a recce of the museum at night. Excuse me? Could we not just go to bed? I tried double-clicking him onto his bed, but no cigar. Nige insisted he couldn’t possibly sleep until he’d stuck his nose into some more awful stuff which really wasn’t any of his business. Oh, okay then. Let’s break into the museum, virtually crap ourselves, and THEN can we go home to bed? Oh no we don’t. After the museum thing, Nige decided we really ought to take our sorry arses to the cemetery. As you do. *sigh* Nothing ventured …

            All this was pretty horrifying and heart-hammeringly ghastly – but there was far worse to come. I finally managed to double-click Nige to sleep (he had the most gorgeous eyelashes) – and was rather hoping that would be the end of it and we’d somehow get through until morning without further unpleasantness. Ah … no. I don’t think Nige got much sleep before he was awakened by a terrible thumping coming from downstairs. I clicked like mad, trying to make him stay put and just ignore it. But my man of steel and determination (with glasses) was having none of that, either. We had to creep down the darkened stairs, into the darkened passage, where the bathroom door (which had previously been open), was now closed. This is where the thumping was coming from – and naturally, my man couldn’t stay away! He informed me he was going to look through the keyhole. THAT was when I crapped myself. And having seen something ghastly pass across the room on the other side, naturally Nige then had to go in. With moi, of course. I can’t begin to describe how horrible it was. That would be telling.

            A nice part of the game (it’s always about the food) was that Nigel’s landlady felt pretty crap about making him stay in a horrible, haunted cottage with an unusable kitchen – and had organised with a local cafe for him to eat there whenever he pleased. Naturally (because it IS all about the food), I made Nige go in and out of the cafe as often as possible just so’s I could click in his inventory to see what he’d scored. Sometimes there was excellent booty, such as big wodges of chicken and mushroom pie. Or nice iced cakes. Or vegetarian samosas, even! After a while (or a few whiles, anyway), Nige only managed to score a stale lump of bread. (That’s when I realised I was seriously pissing him off, and I’d better let him get back to the ghostbusting.)

            So, PLEASE, Mr Boakes, can Nige go on another incredible adventure soonest? And can I come too? That game was the most fun I’ve ever had on a computer without a credit card and the Gluttons-R-Us website open in front of me. I can hardly wait for the next time!

            What was that, Nigel? Yeah, I know. Nothing ventured …

.oOo.