This story is taken from Phil Ryan’s autobiography ‘Random Moments’
One of my favourite plays is The Woman in Black, a very old-fashioned ghost story. Ever since I was young I liked ghost stories, delighting in the creepy tales of haunted ancient ruins and phantom horsemen who rode the midnight trails. As I grew older I began to subscribe to the simple theory that humans are basically energy which by the law of physics is impossible to destroy. If you can’t destroy it you can only convert it. But convert it into what. When we die what is left? Hm the what is the nub of the argument. Some believe it to be a kind of fading electrical residue that is absorbed into buildings and ground. A kind of constant low level radiation that fades over time. Others believe this to be the stuff of spirits and ghosts.
At one point I even visited a few places listed in a book detailing the most haunted places in Britain, but I’m sad to say I didn’t see anything. I suppose that if you turn up with a tour party covered in cameras and videos that clatter about shushing each other it’s not surprising that any self respecting spirit stays put. And like my friends on the tour we thought that the ancient castles and monasteries we’d read so much about were the only place you’d meet the ghosts of those long passed.
But I was wrong.
I was feeling very good. I had written a children’s book in my late twenties and now a small production company were thinking of making it into a television series. And I was incredibly excited about the prospect. Jo the lady who ran the company was an amazing woman. She’d been in television years, although primarily a set designer, and now she was going to achieve her life’s ambition to create her own television show. Months passed and I wrote and re-wrote scripts and stories and she set up finance meetings and in general the project seemed to be going along nicely.
One day Jo asked me if I’d like to come to dinner at her house with my girlfriend Fiona. I said I’d be delighted and realised that throughout the entire six months we’d worked together I didn’t even know where she lived. Luckily it turned out that it wasn’t that far from where we lived it being just a forty five-minute drive. We duly arrived and as we parked outside we were a bit disappointed. It wasn’t the house we’d been expecting. It looked like a very drab old fashioned bungalow and walking up the path we knocked on the door. Jo delightedly greeted us and invited us in and that was when we got the surprise. It was fantastic. The interior was outrageous. Her years as a set designer were highly evident.
The walls were a soft brushed gold, with painted ceilings and frescoes everywhere. Marble columns lined the corridors to the rooms and not a detail had been missed. It was like walking into a sultan’s palace. She gave us a guided tour and we oohed and aaahed our way around much to her delight until finally we walked into the lounge and sat down. The place might have been boring from the outside but inside the whole place was like a rich treasure chest. The best description I can think of is fantasy opulent.
We ate our dinner and she talked candidly about the TV project and then even more candidly about her private life and we learned that she lived with a partner but things were not going well. Slightly to our discomfort at one point she volunteered the information that he was sometimes violent towards her but she had learned to cope with it. But somehow the conversation moved along and we chattered on and the evening passed pleasantly. The lounge was beautiful. It was like sitting in a roman temple. The walls were painted with murals depicting a garden spreading out in all directions, and through the use of clever lighting and huge wooden and marble columns it gave you the impression of being in a much larger space. Huge swathes of purple velvet trimmed with gold hung from the ceiling like drapes and to complete the cosy picture a stone fireplace stood at the centre of the back wall.
It had one of those gas fires with real flames in it and it finished the room perfectly, sending flickering shadows dancing off the low-lit walls. We both sat on the sofa while she lay propped up on one elbow on a huge snowy white sheepskin rug that lay before the fireplace. After a while she got up and went to make some tea and I commented that I wish I wasn’t wearing a polo necked jumper and Fiona commiserated and said her jumper was too warm as well. I was absolutely boiling, so much so that I could feel sweat begin to prickle under my arms. But the room looked so lovely with the fire licking through the wood so I said at least we’d maybe get her to turn it down a bit, but not completely off. It looked so cosy.
Her cat had taken up residence in my lap (animals just love me I have no idea why – maybe it’s because I love them) and we both tickled its tummy as it stretched and luxuriated in our attention. This was a very happy cat. Jo re-appeared with the tea and as we handed the cups around I noticed the temperature begin to drop. The cat slowly dug its claws into my leg and suddenly it stiffened and froze and in a blur of fur it leapt from my lap and skittered away out the door in a clatter of claws on wood. It seemed odd to me. He’d been so happy. But we carried on talking and I realised that the temperature was suddenly now turning very cold and Fiona hunched her shoulders as she tried to stay warm. The fire was still burning brightly but now I could clearly feel a chill and my skin was covered in goose bumps. Fiona moved closer to me and pressed her legs against me in attempt to gain some heat and I said to Jo “Has the heating gone off” and she simply looked at me and then around the room and smiled faintly. “No it’s all right they’re here” and I felt Fiona’s fingers tighten around my arm. “They’re here” sounded creepy beyond belief, as specially as she said it so matter of factly. Who were they?
A few minutes passed and it was now absolutely freezing cold but it was impossible. We looked at each other and I couldn’t think of what to say. My face was icy and I felt Fiona’s hand like ice in mine. This wasn’t right. Not three feet away a fire blazed but I couldn’t feel any heat and suddenly Jo smiled again and said “Ah they’re gone” and as she spoke the temperature flicked back to what it had been before and I felt hot again. It was as if a switch had been flicked but no heating system could have achieved such a rapid rise and fall in temperature, it was physically impossible. Jo looked at us. “Sorry about that I didn’t know whether they’d come, sometimes they don’t when I’ve got visitors”. We were amazed. Who the hell were they? She seemed to act as if this were a perfectly normal occurrence and we both huddled a little closer as she spoke.
She told us that shortly after she’d moved in she’d been in her bedroom when she’d caught a sense of someone else being in the room. But it didn’t frighten her. She felt very calm instead. A nice feeling. Then she’d seen them. Just a shadowy outline, but clearly a young couple dressed in an old fashioned set of clothes too shapeless to fix a date to. We listened open mouthed. This was crazy. But she calmly continued and said the house was built on top of another house that had burned down many years before. She couldn’t be sure of the date, maybe a hundred years or something, but she felt they might have perished in the blaze, it wasn’t clear. According to her research in the parish records, a young newly married couple had lived in a house there that had burned down shortly after they had moved in. All she knew for certain was that the temperature fell away whenever they entered a room, she didn’t always see them but she could feel them.
The one thing she was clear about is that she strongly felt that they didn’t harbour any ill intentions towards her but they did towards her partner. In fact once when he’d tried to physically restrain her in their bedroom he’d been flung to the other side of the room by some invisible force. And as a result of that one incident he now spent very little time there which suited her down to the ground.
What do you say to somebody who tells you something like that? It was unbelievable but we had clearly both felt something strange. But Jo talked about it as if were a perfectly normal thing to talk about. It was quite unsettling. We had some more tea and the conversation eventually returned to our TV project. But I felt like I was still slightly in shock from what we had both experienced. We talked a bit more and then noting that the time was late we got our coats, said our goodnights and drove home.
Of course there was only one topic of conversation. The ghosts! Fiona and I had both felt the chilling cold, the slow drop in temperature, seen the behaviour of the cat, the sudden return of the heat and of course Jo’s very calm and rational explanation. We were terrified, bemused and amazed all at the same time. Sadly the project came to an end as all too often happens in the entertainment business, and the TV show never got made and shortly after that I lost contact with Jo.
So I never got to return to her house, although to be honest I’m not sure that I would have wanted to. And no matter how I try to rationalise what happened, something strange had occurred and whatever you believe I know that I had felt an extraordinary physical sensation I couldn’t explain. Faulty heating, I don’t think so. Maybe Jo’s story was to comfort herself that some benign supernatural force was protecting her, but she really seemed just too down to earth for that. I’d seen her do business and she was very smart and shrewd. Which still leaves me with the impossible thought of two long passed people. Bound to where they had died. Newly married. Looking forward to a future together. A future that never happened. But are there such things as ghosts? Can someone leave behind some kind of undissipated energy? A presence. And that evening something happened. And I simply can’t explain it.
I know what I believe.