It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, this is a lie. It was a clear, windy, and typically Northern-Scottish-Autumn night, with the moon shining through the sloped window in my attic bedroom. I had no blind or curtain, not a problem in winter, but at this latitude summers are light, all night.
We had moved to our third (and final, it would turn out) house in Orkney in order to spread. I now had five younger sisters and space had become a premium. I loved this house, built in the eighteenth century, allegedly by wreckers. Those men and women who lured passing ships onto knives of rock and stole the cargo. The house was squat, stone and smelled of the earth, of old places.
We had our first visitations immediately. I believe the correct term may be “odour experience”, in the parlance of the modern ghost-hunter. We thought they were simply scents trapped in the floor, in the walls. One corner would smell of fresh pipe smoke, one room of wet dog, cooking scents would tantalise, yet nothing was on the hob. And always the smell of the sea.
This last is not especially surprising. We were the last house before Norway, the end of the road and then some. The track up to the house was bleached, dusted by the salt in the spray.
The bed I slept in was a marvel. It had been made in the attic, the ancient structure simply too large to be lifted down through the hatch, or out through the window. The mattress was old too; horsehair would occasionally escape and tickle me through the sheets. It sufficed for a time, before we decided to cut it up and burn it. This act of cultural vandalism was justified; the mattress stayed damp, no matter how often we attempted to coax the moisture from its depths. I would often think of those who had slept in that bed.
One night I awoke suddenly. This in itself was not surprising; I have always been a light sleeper and often wake at odd times. I glanced at the clock; illuminated by the moon I read four. I turned over and closed my eyes, then I swiftly reopened them – something was different. Something I had missed in the brief moment I had my eyelids parted.
I found my gaze drift to the foot of the bed, past the footboard to the woman kneeling there. She was wearing a shawl, pulled up over her head as I had seen wizened Orcadian great-great-grandmothers do, thick coarse wool keeping heat in, wind out. She was facing away from me and I was not scared.
This last point bears repeating. I had awoken in my own room to find someone kneeling at the foot of my bed, and I was not scared. The figure silently turned and I could see she was hunched over something cradled in her arms. A baby. There was a woman in a shawl, carrying a baby, at the foot of my bed. And I was not scared.
Her head lifted to look at me, and in the bright moonlight I could easily see the smile that also lit her face. Here was a woman, wrinkles as deep as time, expressing the joy of a child. I could see my chair beyond her, through her. But I was not scared.
I felt a deep calm. As I returned my head to the pillow, the last I remember seeing was this beshawled Grandmother raising an arm, then slowly fading, slowly…
* * *
When I awoke I felt as though I had slept the sleep of the dead, rested beyond any sense I can transfer into words. I found myself smiling at the memory of my visitation. I should have been, but I was not scared.
Over breakfast I told my Mum what had happened. When I came to the part about the ease the old woman turned, her face became ashen. She pointed to the wall.
‘That was the original level of the floor; she wouldn’t have been kneeling, she would have been standing.’
Ice drifted down my back. And, for the first time, I was scared.