When a house is fifty or more years old it has many secrets locked within its structure. There are happy times, births, new babies, children’s voices, family gatherings, laughter, dinners, general everyday living and celebrations of good news. Inevitably there are also sad times, accidents, sicknesses, losses, commiseration of bad news and deaths. Each event is absorbed into the fabric of the house; into the walls and doors, into the stair treads and risers, into the newel posts, into the floor and roof beams, and even into the window frames and glass. At night, when every-day events of the present are hushed, the astute awake insomniac may hear whisperings of these memories; a door slams shut, a stair creaks, a strange noise emanates from the attic, a shadow flits across the glass, the musty smell of age morphs into the odor of fresh bread wafting from the kitchen. In this respect, the house, named Hilltop, was no different; so that when Lilly and her family bought it in 1955 they had no false expectations. Indeed Lilly privately thought that what the house lacked in aesthetics might be made up for by ample stored character. She was un-phased, indeed fascinated by the occult, and longed to discover Hilltop’s secrets.
Lilly’s desire was unspoken and she, along with the rest of the family of five professed to be drawn to the house because of its size which trumped its lack of beauty. The size was impressive, spread between two high-ceiling floors and an attic, it had five bedrooms, one-and-a-half bathrooms, and five main floor ‘living rooms’. These spaces were neatly encased in an almost featureless red brick cube, which, contrary to its name, was not on the top of the hill. When it had been built it probably had been the highest structure in the area, but over the years every available space on the hill was sub-divided into lots, so that houses sprang up to quietly make a mockery of Hilltop’s name. Hilltop scorned the newcomers, luxuriating in expansive gardens which unfurled down the hillside and in a magnificent view across the valley to Durham Cathedral.
The seller told Lilly that Hilltop had been built, in 1901, by a builder for himself. Although the builder must have been able to see the beauty of the Cathedral’s architecture he, being immersed in construction, was more interested in its longevity and stability. He had the materials at hand and so he made the house’s exterior walls in fifteen inch solid masonry, and the roof and floor timbers from six-inch wide lumber with depths varying up to twenty-four inches.
Lilly and her family moved-in in late December. The house groaned with an impenetrable icy cold. The little family discovered that walls without insulation, even walls of fifteen inch solid masonry are not good insulators. Lilly had the coal cellar stocked with local coal and built fires in the fireplaces, happy that there was one in all the major rooms. Over Christmas they began to redecorate the interior. In one of the front rooms, which they planned make their library, they found five layers of wallpaper, a layer for each decade of the house’s existence. When they exposed the original plaster they found a name and date scribbled on the surface. In two lines it read:
Lilly’s family was delighted, each child asking permission to add their inscriptions, which they did. Each added their age, starting with the oldest:
Lilly and her husband added theirs, although Lilly, always coy about her age, only thought that she inscribed:
The next day when the painters arrived, and Lilly showed them the wall, she was astonished to see that all the names now had ages after them starting with:
And ending with herself:
No-one in the family admitted to having touched the wall since their initial signing session, so Lilly eventually became convinced that perhaps she had, in a rash moment, included her age. In her rationalization she thought that she could have been mistaken about Joe’s inscription; she just wasn’t sure what she wanted to believe. When she inspected the writing she was almost thought that she could see a faint 45 below the 100. It didn’t escape her that the original 45 plus the intervening 55 gives 100. Could this inscription be part of the house’s stored history or was Lilly merely forgetful and overly imaginative? She instructed the painters to paint the wall and the mysterious notations were rapidly covered by light green paint.
Neighbors came to call to welcome the newcomers. Lilly struck up a friendship with Helen who lived in a house further up the hill and directly across the street. In addition to her welcoming role Helen was on a mission. She was heavily involved in a number of philanthropic enterprises. She dearly wished to recruit Lilly. There were many options, ranging from, ‘Meals on Wheels’, hospital and prison visits, to a ‘Big Brother’ youth program. Lilly selected ‘Meals on Wheels’ and also undertook to ‘adopt’ an old person to visit in the old people’s home / hospital. Every time that the women met Helen talked of the many needs that she was trying to meet. She was especially proud on Julian, an eleven year-old youth whom she had befriended and who spent occasional weekends at their home. Each time that the subject was raised Lilly demurred on getting involved with youth; after all she pointed out, she had three children of her own to worry about.
Over the next years Lilly occasionally noticed strange unexplained nocturnal noises; a rustle in the attic, a creak of the stairs, a moan of wind around the eaves, or was it the wind? One 1960 autumn Sunday morning, her attention was grabbed in a new way, for she came downstairs to the distinct smell of smoke wafting from the library. As an ex-smoker she determined that it was a not the smell of coal burning but the distinctive odor of cigarette. She breathed in deeply to savor its hidden pleasure, and waited for her husband to come down ready for work. When he did she calmly approached him:
“John, do you smell cigarette in the library?”
He gave her an odd look and went into the library, “It does smell of cigarette,” he agreed. “But it’s not me.” His rejoinder was emphatic as he shook his head. A moment later he paled and turned to face his wife, “The smell is one thing, but now I suggest that something very odd is going on for my drink cabinet door is ajar and,” he reached and opened the cabinet, “and, yes it almost looks as though someone has been taking a swig of my whisky. The cap is off.” His hand trembled as he reached and screwed on the cap, “I never leave the cap off.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes I’m sure.’ Then, seeing his wife’s amazed, almost frightened stare he added, “Well, perhaps I did leave the cap off last night, very odd, it would be a first.”
“Let’s check to see if someone could have got in – a loose window an unlocked door.”
They checked but found nothing unusual so they gently approached their children and their cleaning lady. After a few days they became convinced that the whole thing was reasonably explained by natural events.
A Sunday morning three weeks later they again smelt cigarette smoke, this time accompanied by a cigarette butt in the grate and a dirty whisky glass on the mantel. They both suspected an intruder but the doors and windows were all secure and why would someone merely smoke and drink and not steal anything? This was when Lilly voiced her growing private concern,
“Do you think? Do you think, that maybe, well maybe, our nocturnal visitor is some-one from Hilltop’s past?”
“Are you suggesting a ghost? Surely you aren’t suggesting that are you?’ John looked quizzical and then added, “It can’t be a ghost; for surely ghosts don’t drink or smoke. I thought that they, if they exist, are ethereal – like smoke themselves.”
“Well who knows, maybe this one does smoke and drink. Certainly he seems harmless enough, but I don’t like the thought that, even if he is harmless, he is in here drinking and smoking while you and I and the children are upstairs asleep. And then there is the issue of the writing on the wall. I’ve never been fully convinced that someone or something didn’t change the wall overnight.”
‘Well, do you want to stay up and watch?”
“No not really, but I suppose that we ought to.”
Over the next two weeks Lilly and John took turns sitting in the great reading chair in the library watching overnight. They saw nothing. Everything remained peaceful. Eventually fatigue and realism checked in and they abandoned their wake, to return to their normal routine. On the Saturday morning after their abandoned watch John was in his garden pruning dead-heads off the roses. Over the fence he watched Helen escorting a young man into their house. She had her arm around his shoulders. John mentioned his almost scandalized observation to Lilly. She responded with an explanation that the young man was not Helen’s lover but an ‘at risk’ youth whom she had befriended through the ‘Big Brother’ program. He occasionally spent the weekend at Helen’s.
The following Sunday morning they came downstairs to a library which had obviously been used by someone during the night. There were several cigarette butts in the grate, an empty whisky glass on the mantel and a couple of automobile magazines lying on the floor. As usual there was no evidence of forced entry. This time Lilly called the police. They arrived in two squad cars and powdered surfaces to take finger-prints. Lily said nothing although she privately wondered whether ghosts leave fingerprints. In this case there was an ample supply of good ones. The police suggested that they change the lock on the front door to a dead bolt. The existing lock, they explained, could be easily bypassed by anyone using a plastic card.
During a follow-up interview with the police John had an epiphany.
“Haven’t all our visitations been on Saturday nights?’ he asked.
“Well, yes, it has always been Sunday mornings when we found things amiss. You are right it is always on Saturday nights. So?”
“So, don’t you see? Helen’s troubled youth visits on occasional weekends spending Saturday night in their home – or maybe, more accurately, a large part of Saturday night in ours.
© Jane Stansfeld March 2015