Thursday, October 16, 2003

The Spirits of a Christmas past

The rain told cold stories in soft voices and the breeze sliced through the walls themselves that night. The rickety wood panels were shivering. The fan was shifting ungainly, the lights were flickering. On the couch facing a TV that had just turned itself off, sat me, and my two flat mates with trembling paunches, and we were all shaking in our boots.

In fairness, not one of us had lived in a haunted house before.

We pulled on our winter socks and snuggled up, too afraid to go to our separate bedrooms. The pitter-pattering rain had now become a hard pelting rain. Bizarre scraping sounds, like claws scraping metal, could be heard screeching far below and the rafters creaked just above. Shadows danced. I could hear faint groans. An out of sync banging. Suddenly our telephone started ringing but when I picked it up nobody was on the other end. Our computer turned itself on. The internet connected itself. Doors slammed. The kettle steamed. None of us remembered filling it with water. The door on the balcony swung open and the wicked wind swept across the lake though the room chilling us to our bones.

“Jesus,” said myself.
“Perhaps, Si, you shouldn’t have been sleeping in the altar room.” said Jacob with a tremor in his voice.
“Yeah, well you two tip your fag ash in the libation cup,” Si retorted.
“That’s not technically a libation cup…” said I.
“And you burn incense in the toilet to get rid of the smell…” added Si.
“That’s not good?” said Jacob now with bulging eyes.
“No! It’s sacred!” said Si slapping his head.
“The toilet?”
“No!" said Si standing up and walking across the room to shut the windows. "Jesus!”

Just then the bushes rustled, the trees shook and as a whipping wind passed the house, then silence. Then we noticed we couldn't hear the normally ever-present croaks of the filthy frogs from the lake. Only our beating hearts seemed to be audible.

“Do you really think there’s a ghost?” asked Jacob.
“Well we’re not versed in the local laws of ancestor worship, are we?” moaned Si. “It’s hardly unlikely that we could have disturbed the spirits of the house. We sleep in the altar, piss and smoke in the pots and have absolutely no respect for their family.”
“Well”, I rationalised, “If there is a ghost he seems to be alright, all he does is turn things on and off. Maybe it’s the ghost of a remote control.”

Again lights flickered, a rattling of pipes trundled above us, distant groans could be heard and then the creaking came, this time, from below. Once again a sequence of clicks danced around us. The kettle boiled. The computer turned off. The TV went on back on and the door on the balcony closed. That was no remote control.

“Cup of tea?”

Then as clear as day to night there were slapping footsteps. Stomping up, as bold as brass. Faster and faster. (Well, if there is a ghost we supposed, it’s his house. Why shouldn’t he make himself at home?)

We were cowering in the blue light shining from the TV. The Spirit’s footsteps were right by the door. The handle turned. The door stood tantalisingly ajar. The dark thick air seemed foreboding from outside. A pale white hand came into sight and pushed it open.
"Mother of God..."

“Merry Christmas!” shouted our landlord grinning like a loon. He was drunk and swaying with a bottle of whisky and some glasses: “Drink! Scotland!”

We gasped in relief. Lit cigarettes. We sat him down and he opened the bottle. I tried to explain in Vietnamese how we were afraid that we had disturbed the spirits of his ancestors.

“No!” he chuckled. “My family from country! Here new home. No ancestors! No spirits.”

He sat grinning like a child pouring the twelve year old scotch, the one we’d given him, to the brim of the glasses.

“Oh, so did you build this house?” asked Jacob, still with an inquisitive tremor in his voice. “Perhaps... there are spirits from another family?”
“No,” said the landlord with a shake of his head, wincing from knocking back his whisky in one. “It used to be a brothel! Nothing but happy spirits! Down the hatch!”

We sat for a moment taking this in. The landlord swigged back Si's whisky, filled it and skulled that one, too.

As Jacob tried to explain how one is to sip and savour 12 year-old scotch, my thoughts went back to the day our neighbours unveiled a plaque back in Dublin saying ‘Ernest Shakleton lived here: 1880-1887’.

My father stood in the crowd as the bearded Shakletonites toasted their idol and compared exploits from varying trips they had themselves taken around Iceland, to van Dieman's Land and back, around the Cape of Good hope and so on.

My father, out of curiosity to see his reaction, took the city council official aside, and asked if anyone famous had lived in our house, perhaps out of jealously, why can't we have a plaque? The answer was no although the council man told him that our house had been a brothel. My father went back, straight to the shed, whittled up a little plaque and wrote on it: 'Ernest Shackleton shagged here: 1880-1887' and hung it on the inside of the door.

By the time I finished my memory our landlord had finished all the whisky in our glasses and now was just swigging from the bottle. I managed to procure a wee dram informing the landlord I would like to make a toast.

“To the ladies of the house!” I said with a grin.
“Yeah, and the ghosts of a Christmas past!” said Si.
“Cool bananas," said Jacob.
“Tee-hee-hee," tittered the landlord, "hee-hee-hee."

He was drunk, I could see, and as I poured him another whisky I could see him gazing around the room, his thoughts as clear as cartoon-thought bubbles above his mischievous little head, if this was a brothel, and there were ghosts, he was thinking that this could be a ghost story with a good old happy ending.