Wednesday, November 2, 2011
My Burford Ghost
Ghost story time, now that it’s October/November again. On this Day of the Dead, I’ll tell one of mine, from the time when I was a teenager, traveling with my mother in England.
We arrived in the beautiful Cotswold town of Burford in her new green Morris Minor station wagon, heavily loaded with what we would soon come to realize was all our remaining earthly possessions. We entered an old hotel (I think it was The Bull) right on the main street. The place had actually had been there since 1658, and we drove our car in under an ancient stone-clad arch into a courtyard.
There’s a particular color to Cotswold villages. All the stone has a gray-gold cast, as if you’ve entered a dreamtime of the past. (Of course, 1658 is pretty “young” by UK standards, but you’d have to be on the east coast in New England in the States to find any building near that age.)
I ended by myself in a room on the third floor, something of a paradise for an introverted teen. It was still summer and high tourist season, so the hotel was full. This floor was not well lit and creaky and full of heavy walnut stained furniture both clumsy looking and authentically ancient. There was a smell too, of old wood, mold and furniture polish. The loo was down the hall, but I loved the room and the huge heavy headboard of the bed. I planned to have supper with Mom, walk up and down the high street while there was still light and soak in the atmosphere, then retreat to the room to read and sleep. Best to leave Mom to her inevitable saloon bar revels.
The hallway floor had plentiful creaks, so I managed to time my last visit to the loo when no other guest was about. Then, locking the door, I climbed into the high bed and cheered myself up with the thought that I was – as I’d so often imagined – in England, in a stately sleeping chamber of the past, like a privileged lady in the historical novels I loved. Outside, people came and went more or less quietly. I went to sleep.
Next thing I knew, I was standing in the hall, a few steps beyond my door. The light had apparently gone out because it was pitch black. I was in my flannel nightgown. It was confusing, because I didn’t know how I’d got there, and besides, it was uncomfortably cold.
That was when I saw him, a gentleman with a moustache and beard, wearing a hat with a flowing plume and dressed in Restoration-over-the-top garb. Weirdly, he was visible only to the shin. He bowed, removed his hat, and greeted me, saying that he was an ancestor who had been waiting there in Burford to see me for quite a long time.
I shivered. The ghost hadn’t threatened, but it was so dark and so other and the man I was looking at had a sort of glow beneath his colorful threads. I’d slipped, I think, through a crack in time.
I was ready to run, but then, like a skipping track on a CD, I was standing next to the modern day drab wallpaper, in a hallway inadequately illuminated by that one yellowish bulb. Yes, I was in my nightgown; yes, it was icy cold, but my visitor was gone. I dashed back to my room, slammed the door and locked it, then jumped into bed and pulled the covers over my head. I thought I’d never go to sleep again, but I did.
The next morning I washed my face, got dressed and went downstairs. The hallway looked a bit brighter now with daylight coming through the distant street side window. Mom was already at breakfast, which was a sign she hadn’t stayed up too late or gotten into any kind of trouble. I joined her, hardly waiting till I sat down to tell her about my encounter. She loved this sort of thing, although she claimed to be too hard headed to have ever encountered anything otherworldly.
The host, who had been on the other side of the room, stopped what he'd been doing and came hurrying over. Drawing a chair up to sit with us he directed, “Please whisper! He hasn’t been up there for months, but he’s not good for business, so I don’t want it to get around that he’s back.” (Some different from the 21st Century, huh?) The host asked me to go back to the beginning of my story and then nodded as I told it, muttering, “Yes, yes. That’s him, just as I’ve seen him myself.”
He seemed particularly interested when I mentioned the apparition’s missing feet. “That’s because he’s standing on the old floor,” he explained. “Ever since we redid third story and covered the old warped floor, he’s been chopped off like that.” He also thought it was odd that the ghost had claimed to be an ancestor, because “Usually he doesn’t speak.”
And so that’s my Burford ghost story. I never did see the Restoration gentleman again, although we stayed there for several days more, touring round the Hobbit village perfection that is the Cotswolds.