There it stood, just as described in so many gothic novels and scary movies : the bleak, unwelcoming, massive square bulk of the house, at the end of a long, winding avenue in the midst of the wild northwest of Ireland.
The eighteenth century – my favourite – had produced so many graceful houses, such comfortable neoclassical environments; this was the rare exception. Without exactly breaking the aesthetic rules, the proportions were somehow forbidding, the windows looking small in comparison to the expanse of masonry. The big house seemed to sit impassively, hunched against the chill weather of the November evening. Even the name sounded uncompromising – Brown Hall. It felt like the opening chapter of an Emily Bronte novel. It did not look inviting.
But invited I had been – to the twenty-first birthday celebration of a college friend’s brother, to be exact. So after seven hours in a bus, here I was, about to meet my hosts.
My friend ushered me into the drawing room, a large and cheerful space, lined with family portraits. A roaring fire offered comfort after the chill outside. I was greeted by my friend’s father, the master of the house. A short, friendly man, with twinkling eyes and a slightly mischievous air, he heartily bade me welcome. A chatty man, over drinks he began to tell me the stories to which the house was heir, some dating back centuries.
There was a young woman who married into the family around the time of the French Revolution. I was shown a watercolour portrait of her in which she looked frail and sad. The marriage was unhappy; she pined away and died. Her ghost was often seen in what used to be her bedroom, the same room, my host gleefully informed me, in which I would be staying. The room was also notable for strange disappearances, albeit temporary ones. Two maiden aunts came to stay once and were unpacking in the haunted room. One decided to continue unpacking, while the other went down to the drawing room for tea. After some time, she decided to go back up again to the bedroom. To her surprise, her sister was nowhere to be found. Later on, the sister appeared in the drawing room. On being asked where she had gone, she said she had never left the bedroom the whole time. I sipped my gin and tonic, wondering if I had strayed into an episode of The Twilight Zone. My cheerful host, seeing my bemusement, felt encouraged to tell me more about the house and its unusual character.
His wife, he told me, once planted flowers at the front of the house, only to find the following morning that they had been replanted at the back.
Once when alone in the house, she had been terrified by the sounds of groans and rattling chains growing more and more insistent; she had been about to flee when her husband returned home, just at the moment when she was about to run out into the night. On another occasion, while his wife was showing the house to guests who had stopped in for tea before embarking on a journey, they were followed from room to room by the smell of candles and incense. Later that day, the same guests were killed in a road accident. I downed the rest of my drink – my stay now seemed to be entering the realm of a danger that might be more than just ghostly. My friend shot me looks of sympathy along with imprecations to her father not to be such a tease, but it was too late – the damage had been done. I was good and scared. The smiles of the ancestors who looked down at me from their portraits on the walls seemed complicit with my host – I was on my own, and would have to face a night in the four-post bed alone.
The bedroom was large and furnished exactly as it would have been in the previous century, even to the washbasin and ewer that stood on a dressing table in the embrasure of a window; comforts were sparse but perfectly adequate. The only hint of modernity was the addition of electricity, for which I was deeply thankful, as it provided me with a small bedside lamp. I got into the large bed, protected (from what?) by its canopy supported by four posts, and waited. I decided that if the pale lady were to pay me a nocturnal visit, I would at least have the comfort of electricity in the form of my brave little lamp – which I could not bring myself to switch off – by my bedside.
Perhaps I slept, but I don’t remember doing so. It seems to me that I spent the night in wakeful watchfulness for what may come. Dawn eventually came, and feeling much bolder now, I got up to see what view the windows offered. To my delight, the countryside was covered with snow – a white landscape greeted me, its brightness making my lamplight redundant. Une nuit blanche, as the French say, in both senses, both white and sleepless. Someone came to light the fire – an old fashioned and delightful touch, and I felt that my stay might not be so bad after all.
The following night, after all the festivities, with a house full of guests, I was again in my large canopied bed, but this time I was sharing the room with several others who were stretched out on the floor in sleeping bags. I no longer felt scared; there is safety in numbers. The light was switched off, the others were asleep, and I had no fear. I was not even thinking of ghosts when suddenly and for no reason, the bedroom door burst open with a bang.
Nobody stirred; perhaps they had drunk too much to be easily awoken. I felt excited – what would happen next? I was ready for anything, surrounded by all these people, and I was actually hoping something interesting would follow. But nothing did. I had been allowed one tantalising, and apparently exclusive, as I was the only one awake, glimpse of the supernatural. For that – and for the fact that I had not been alone when it happened – I was grateful.