Do you believe in ghosts?
I had never thought much about this question – until one night in 1968.
I was a young policeman on a lonely country beat. That’s me in the photo; the big guy, end of the row, right. And that’s the whole team at the village police station in a rural part of Essex, England, where I was sent after my basic police training.
I had visions of fighting crime on mean city streets; a bit like ‘Dragnet’ on the television then. But my bosses had other ideas – and thought me more of your plodding country bobby, than a streetwise cop. The ‘patch’ was big – and boring. Fields, cows; more cows, and more fields; perhaps a few sheep to give some variety to the scene. Attractive and peaceful it was, which was great if you are a law-abiding citizen, but not so hot if you are 21 and itching for some action and excitement in your life.
Emergency calls, such as there were, were dealt with by the guys in patrol cars from regional HQs. But the police station team dealt with all the non-emergency stuff. For this we had a police motorcycle between us to get to distant parts of the beat, but we had to share this among four of us. And I, as the newest recruit, tended to be allocated a pedal cycle to get anywhere – or walk.
I was on night duty. The sergeant told me to patrol the top end of the patch – lots of fields, woods and scattered lonely houses.
“I want you to check on Ivy Cottage, ” he told me. The old lady who had lived there had died and a relative was disposing of the property and its contents. ” He’s worried someone will break in and steal her stuff before he can sell it off. And someone passing by the other night has heard, what sounded like music, coming from the front room.”
I knew the cottage and I knew the old lady who had died. In the last years of her life she would often be seen wandering the lane near her home, muttering to herself and shaking her head. Neighbours were wary of her, because if confronted she would stare and sometimes shriek at them. She was undoubtedly suffering from a form of dementia, but this condition tended to be less understood then, so her behaviour was just plain scary to many people.
The cottage had fallen in disrepair long before her death, with an overgrown garden that crept to the windows and invaded the sides and roof. Ivy hung in thick bunches and crowded the windows from all sides, with tendrils reaching out to each other across the glass.
The place gave me the creeps.
But I had to check it out. After the pubs had all turned out and people had gone home – peacefully – to their beds, I cycled up Daws Heath Road toward the cottage. It was very dark, with no street lighting, and the lamp of my bike cast a thin beam onto the road ahead. A cold wind was blowing in from across the fields. In those days we had no personal radio, relying instead on checking into the police office every few hours from telephone boxes across the district.
I arrived at Ivy Cottage; it was about 11.50. The cottage was set back from the road – a property built in the 1920s, but now forlorn and empty. My feet scrunched up the gravel drive as I shone my torch around. Nothing.
The wind blew and shook the trees encircling the cottage. If someone wanted to break in it would be easy – there were panes missing in the glass of some windows and paper used to cover the holes had dried and shrivelled. Anyone could push these aside; the ends were already flapping in the wind away from the frame.
I pushed aside the ivy from the glass and shone my torch inside the main room. The beam picked out old-fashioned furniture, thick with dust now; a piano, keyboard open, was in the corner. Nothing in there. I moved away with relief from the window and started to walk back along the drive when the keyboard sounded: three loud jangling notes.
The sound pierced me. Was I imagining things? I listened – and heard the notes reverberating into silence. I noticed the silence now, all around me; it was overwhelming and suddenly menacing.
I did not want to turn around to face the cottage, and was tempted to cycle to the nearest telephone box to request back-up. But what if someone was in the room? It was my job to deal with it. I was a policeman. They paid me to keep calm and investigate. Perhaps I had imagined it? My nerves were on edge, and my imagination was playing tricks on me? Yes, that was it.
Slowly I turned back to face the cottage. More slowly, I approached the window. My reflection grew larger. I shone my torch into the room. Empty. The beam travelled across the walls, and glinted on a framed sepia print of a deer at bay, its frightened eyes looking back at me.
I felt my heart thumping in my chest and my legs shivering. Suddenly the beam from my torch caught something moving in the corner. It sped in a black blur across the room through the open door. I couldn’t make out what it was.
In the Light of Day
What I saw was not human. It was too small to be human. For that reason I didn’t call for backup.
But later at the police station I told the sergeant what had happened. “A fox,” he said dismissively, “or a local cat”. He was probably right.
But I never went near that cottage again