A light one this week, a quick extract from one of my Non fiction things, Setting Tripwires for Granny and other Tall Family Tales. I hope you enjoy it.
The Pool-eyed Lady
Every family has its ghost story and it seems mine is no exception. Indeed, just to be enthusiastic we have two but they are about the same ghost. This one comes from my maternal grandfather’s side of the family so it was great grandfather Castle. The story happened in a house called Woodbines which was in Kingston Upon Thames and which was haunted, sporadically, by what we British call ‘a grey lady’. Basically this is a Puritan lady from the time of the English Civil War. The first story about her comes from my Uncle.
One day Great Grandfather Castle fell gravely ill. The doctor was called and he told Great Grandmother Castle that she should employ a nurse to watch over him. But Great Grandfather was the family breadwinner, the illness looked as if it would take a fair time and all the while he wasn’t earning. The family were civil engineers at the time and so earnings peaked and troughed enough already. With the family breadwinner ill and possibly about to die, Great Granny was worried that there wasn’t the cash in the kitty for a nurse.
A few days later the doctor called again but the patient was asleep so after a quick peep in, he went downstairs to wait until Great Grandfather Castle woke up. He congratulated Great Grandmother Castle on taking his advice to employ a nurse.
‘But I haven’t employed anyone,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ said the Doctor, ‘then, who was the woman sitting by his bed?’
The second story is from my Mum. Great Grandpa Castle had recovered from his illness and enjoyed a return to robust good health. He was outside playing croquet with a friend on the lawn. As they played they were having a debate about cricket. I do not know what they were discussing, batting averages, test scores, who knows, but they disagreed and each of them was adamant that he was right. Eventually, Great Grandpa Castle suggested he go get a copy of Wisden, the Cricketer’s Almanac, from the house so they could look it up and settle the dispute once and for all. In the library, to his immense surprise, he happened upon a lady whom he’d never met. She was wearing an old fashioned grey dress and her face was drawn, her eyes so sunken that in the light it was as if she had nothing but dark pools where they should be.
‘Ah,’ said Great Grandpa Castle quietly and then he got over her strangely old fashioned dress and apparent absence of actual eyes. ‘Hello there, can I help you?’
She said nothing but just smiled at him.
‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ asked Great Grandpa Castle again.
‘Ah. Right. Then, if you’ll excuse me a moment, I just have to get a book.’
She smiled and inclined her head.
He flashed her a nervous smile back.
‘Just a moment,’ he said.
He turned and went to the shelf to get the volume that he wanted.
‘Now then,’ he said as he turned back to face his unknown visitor, book in hand, ‘there really must be some way I can h—’
The lady in the grey dress had gone.
Later, I’m not sure when, but probably in the late eighteen hundreds or early twentieth century, the house was demolished. The demolition company got in touch with Great Grandpa Castle who was one of the last owners, I believe. Apparently the wrecking ball had uncovered a secret room. For a split second the workman wielding it had seen a seventeenth century gentleman in fine clothes; a cavalier. He was sitting at a table, slumped forwards with his head on his arms, as if sleeping, or, perhaps, in despair.
Apparently, this sort of thing happens from time to time, usually, the body has decomposed but the lack of draughts means the dust into which the object has dissolved just kind of sits in the position it was in when it was part of something else. The minute the smallest draught hits it, it collapses but in this case, as in many others, it stayed together just long enough to catch a glimpse. Obviously, the demolition was halted while the workmen searched the rubble for a body. Nothing could be found of the man but they did find the tin breastplate he’d been wearing.
Clearly someone had secreted him away to hide him in a secret room, an old priest’s hole perhaps? He’d either died from lack of oxygen or dehydration. How long had he sat, trapped in the room, unable to escape? How long had it been before he realised that those who loved him and had hidden him to preserve his life were not going to return? What must he have felt as he sat there, all hope fading, waiting to die? And who had put him there? Was it a relative? A lover?
Was it the puritan maid who had sat by Great Grandpa Castle’s bed and whom he had met later in the library? Is that why she was there? Was he her brother, or a cousin, her son? Or had she returned to release her long lost love? What happened that meant she was unable to free him at the time?
Had the Cromwellian troops commandeered the house and forced the family to leave? Had someone realised the family were hiding a Royalist, arrested them and carted them away. Was she killed? Is that why she never came back? Or was our Grey Lady’s father some tub-thumping puritan elder who knew something was going on and kept her under lock and key, too tightly monitored to escape and free her lover. She was a woman, she would have had little control of her destiny in those days. Was she married off and whisked away? And if she wasn’t killed, she must have had to go through the rest of her life knowing that she had left a man, possibly a close relative, her son, her brother or even the man she loved, to die, how horrible for her that must have been. Imagine her, unable to act, thinking of him suffocating, or dying of thirst while she fretted and pined, with no way of reaching him, no way to apologise, no way to explain.
These people are not my relatives, the house wasn’t in my family for that long, but even I can feel the tragedy of it. How sad it is. We don’t even know their names. They’re just another pair of anonymous casualties in one of the most uncivil of wars.