The hunt for a great story will take the desperate writer anywhere.
Some travel the world far and wide. They stopover in places ranging from turbulent war zones to isolated wastelands of solitude.
Others travel far back in time through the annals of history. They often include their own personal or familial history to make things a little bit more interesting.
But the best writers know that you don’t have to travel too far to get the juicy story you need. Often is the case that it has been there waiting for you right under your nose.
I still laugh at how I stumbled across a great story one nameless night in the pub around the corner from my own home.
It was a week night and the crowd was small. When I walked in first there was no acknowledgement of my presence but this was not unusual. This was a sleepy old pub in a sleepy old town and people here were used to waiting for their bartenders.
It was quite some time before the barman eventually came over from the hushed whispers of a corner. By then I had firmly settled into the stuffy and silent warmth of the snug and so I began a rhythm of nodded pint orders and newspaper page turns.
Life inside the bar was grossly at odds to the bitter, scratching wind hiding outside. Reading yesterday’s news in an old newspaper brought a strange comforting end to a busy day. The crackling fire in the corner lulled everything around it into a dreamlike haze.
I am not sure when he came in at but I remember suddenly becoming aware of a damp smell beside me. At my shoulder sat a new customer hunched over the bar and desperate for a nightcap. I remember taking a solemn oath not to speak to him unless I was spoken to. It was a bit of a surprise then when I found myself falling into conversation with this unsettled elderly man.
He told me that he was a local and that this was his first night out in ages. He mentioned that he was living alone and that he found nights like this hard to get through. He explained that the electricity had gone, his cat was out for the night and so he said he would go out too. He had originally planned for just a simple breath of fresh air but when he found himself in this part of town he couldn’t resist a drink.
I exchanged my own brief biography and we got talking about many other trivialities including the comfort of having people, sometimes even strangers, around you. Internally I had to disagree with this concept. Before this man’s arrival, I had been quite comfortable sitting and reading by myself. Now I began to feel that he was almost clinging to my companionship.
Maybe he sensed my growing disinterest because he suddenly started to develop a clawing desperation to hold my interest. It was in this manner that he turned the conversation in a sinister direction. Almost at once, a barrage of unlikely questions seemed to jolt from his mouth immediately spurring me into active concentration.
“Do you believe in ghosts and that sort of thing? Negative Energies?
What I mean is the past haunting the present? Like past events leaving their mark on a building or place?”
Dumbfounded, this line of enquiry knocked me slightly off balance. He must have sensed my sudden curiosity because without giving me a chance to answer any of his questions he began a story that I would never forget.
“I bought my first house at the height of a depression, but never did I think that it would lead to my own great depression.
When I moved in first, I lived alone. The neighbour drove me stone mad with stories of men lifting patio doors with shovels and opening back windows with crowbars. Of course, I didn’t help my nerves by reading late into the night and drinking far too many brandies. But back then the things that went bump in the night didn’t scare me half as much as my own concept of self did. Although I will admit that the cats screeching late into the night right under my window did test my brittle nerves.
After a year of this, I eventually sorted myself out and if the truth was told I was quite the catch. The ladies couldn’t quite believe their luck when they realised that I was a single lad with a house in town. Many came back but few ever stayed. Again, I put it down to myself and I endeavoured once more to clean up my act.
I tidied the house, gave it a couple of licks of paint and returned to town regularly every Saturday night in search of a good woman. I was rewarded with the company of a lovely little thing from down the country, who taught down the road and knew her way around the inside of a saucepan. Long story short, a few months later her bags were packed and she was crossing my threshold for he foreseeable future.
It’s funny how moving in with someone can affect you in unexpected ways. Things start to disappear and reappear, cups are put into the press upside down and you seem to gain a different awareness of space around you. All of these feeling were perfectly normal of course but the two of us weren’t banking on having uninvited company.
At first, she laughed off the funny quirks of my home. The hots and the colds, the creaks and the cracks and the screaming cats were all a joke to her. The falling ceramic lampshade did throw her off a bit but she put that down to a wrong place wrong time kind of thing. Then the clock radio started to turn itself off and on for brief snippets of song lyrics. This usually happened when I was out and I think faulty electrics got the blame for that in the end.
We both knew something was not right when her sleep was practically destroyed by the most awful bad dreams that you could imagine. That finally convinced her that something was not quite right. She never got a decent night’s sleep in my home no matter what she did. I did everything I could to put her at ease. We stopped drinking late night cups of tea. We unplugged bedside lamps. We put up new curtains, we bought a new bed and we even blessed the rooms but despite all this nothing seemed to change. It got so bad that she began to dread going to bed.
I remember holding her tight one night and feeling her cling to me in her sleep. She was literally clutching me in fear despite her unconscious nature and I could feel this huge uneasiness both inside and all around her. I remember making a random decision to send a loud and clear prayer-like message. Leave her alone I said. If you want to torment someone then torment me.
You have to understand that I really did care for this woman and I was willing to do anything to comfort her. Looking back I now know that that was worst thing I ever could have done.
Almost to the second that my challenge was sent out into the darkness, I felt my own existence come under the microscope. The room seemed to go another shade blacker and everything else became a little more silent. It felt like the room was swallowing me up whole while my missus lay there right beside me in my arms. I was afraid to speak, afraid to move, even afraid to look around.
We are not talking about your average Joe Soap ghost here, I instantly knew that there was a whole gang of Joe Soaps and Josephinas standing around me in that moment. They surrounded the bed silent and watchful, judging and sizing me up for the torment to come.”
When the old man stopped talking I realised that I had almost stopped breathing. I was completely under his spell and had forgotten where I was. Somewhere down the bar a woman laughed. I blinked hard and asked him to go on, to tell me what happened and what did he do.
“I left. I sold the place. Told the woman go and sent her distraught and packing back down the country to her parents. I bought one of those small one-roomed bungalow terraces up town and have been living off the profit ever since. Yes, that place has a presence too but we’re at peace with each other. Sure doesn’t ever patch of land have a piece of history buried deep beneath its soil, there’s no escaping that. I’d only recommend that you find the patch with the least worse patch of history.”
I couldn’t resist asking what happened to the house that he sold.
“Oh a young one bought it after me and hung herself from the light fitting in the bedroom. I think a family lives there now. They probably don’t know about the history of the place, sure what kind of neighbour relays a story like that to a new homeowner. Better leave sleeping dogs lie and all that…”
There was a confused scuffle as the barman suddenly turned off the lights and ushered the remaining patrons out the door into the night. The wind had died down by now and the only sound that could be heard was the buzzing of the streetlamps. In the confusion of trying to find my coat and settle my bill, I lost the old man. I remember standing there looking up and down the street but he was nowhere to be seen.
I never thought to ask him in which part of town his old home was in.
As I walked home that night up the estate every house seemed to loom out at me. My mind was ablaze with childish fears and imaginings. I calmly noted that the top windows of each house were now following me like eyes and the front doors were opening their mouths wide in a chorus of foreboding moans. I copped myself on and walked on. But a thought kept niggling at me.
Any of these houses could be the one that the old man talked about.
When I got to my own home, a horrific thought began to imbed itself in my mind.
I thought of my children asleep in their beds and my wife dozing with a book in her lap.
I thought of the mysterious two year emptiness that the landlord brushed past when describing the house’s previous tenants.
I thought of the shy neighbours who limited themselves to nods and long range greetings.
I thought of my marital bed and the lamp above it.
As I turned the key in the front door, I imagined that lamp swinging from side to side as I slept obliviously below each night.