BY BRENDA BARRY
When, one summer, Ma, Da, little brother and I were on
holiday in my grandparents’ house, I saw a ghost.
I didn’t know at the time that I was looking at a ghost. I was about four years old and terrified of the dark. My grandparents’ house was a Victorian redbrick on the South Circular Road in Dublin. My impression of Victorian houses is that they were always dark. And it was a long way from the dining room to the kitchen.
On the day in question, we were eating our dinner in the dining room. Dinner time was one p.m., always. My brother and I were the only children around the table. I think there were about six adults present. I never enjoyed eating in that room. I don’t know if it was because it was dark, or because my grandmother’s policy was that small children shouldn’t be acknowledged: seen and not heard.
There came a blessed diversion: my grandad, who we called Pa, spilled gravy on the white, linen tablecloth. I loved Pa dearly. He was a very entertaining man—an engineer, who invented things. He was also a brilliant rat catcher. Pa would set the traps, designed by himself, show me where they should go, and after a few days, take me along to check the situation. I particularly remember one day when I followed him into the sitting room.
Pa went over to the top left-hand corner of the room. He lifted the carpet, then listened carefully. Finally, he whispered
‘We’ll have a look.’ Lifting a floorboard, he took out a trap. ‘Look at that! Mammy, Daddy and ten babies!’ I was surprised at the number of babies but the trap was designed to catch as many as possible.
I followed him through the house again as he triumphantly carried his prize out to the shed at the end of the garden.
My hero! However, my grandmother wasn’t as happy as I was. And now, Pa was entertaining me by spilling gravy on the snow white, starched, linen tablecloth.
Granny changed the mood very effectively, by ordering me to the kitchen for a wet dishcloth, in order to mop up the gravy. At the time, I felt that Pa should get it, but I was also worried about having to go alone down the hall, down a silent flight of stairs, down across into the lower hall. And no window to lighten the gloom. And I was never allowed switch on the light.
But on this day, when I reached the lower hall, I could see someone—a stranger—in the kitchen. I knew he wasn’t a family member. I had never seen anyone like him. He looked just like my soft toy doll*, given to me in 1944, the days when you couldn’t get toys. In my eyes, he was a six-foot tall version, with the same tall bristly black hair. And he had the smartest, polished black boots, that I had ever seen.
What was he doing? He was washing dishes. The sink was under the window and he was, very calmly, wiping plates then drying them. I watched as he walked across the kitchen to the dresser where he carefully placed them on the shelves. I had never seen anything like this before.
I don’t know if he saw me or not, but he didn’t stop his dishwashing. As I said, he was extremely tall and wore a strange, furry helmet on his head. He wore a red jacket and black trousers. And of course the shiny, black boots. He didn’t frighten me but I wasn’t very comfortable with his presence. I turned and hardly daring to breathe, made my way back up to the dining room. I hoped I could slide in next to my mother without being noticed. No such luck.
Granny, as serious as Pa was entertaining, turned towards me. ‘Did you bring the cloth Brenda?’ I managed to shake my head and tried to get closer to my mother. Granny looked at Ma and remarked, ‘You’re going to have to do something with that girl.’
My grandfather winked at me and started cleaning up with his table napkin. After the meal was over, the table cleared and everything put away, Ma asked me what happened. I told her as best I could about the man in the kitchen and how I just couldn’t go in there. My mother didn’t seem too surprised.
‘Nothing in this house would amaze me,’ she replied. And that was the end of the story… Or so it seemed!
About ten years later, I came in from school and checked that day’s post. In our house, letters and cards were always left on the kitchen window sill. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was a postcard of a guardsman in front of Buckingham Palace. In those days there was no television and very few photographs in the newspapers, so there was no way I could recognise a British guardsman.
Very excitedly, I told my mother. She clearly remembered the day of the spilled gravy and suggested I should go back to the house on South Circular Road and talk to my Auntie May, who was still living there. So off I went, after school one day and told my story.
My Aunt was very interested. She was able to tell me that the family who had lived in that house before them, had two sons. When these boys were about eighteen and twenty years old, the First World War broke out. Both boys joined an Irish Regiment and went off with the British Army, to fight. They never returned…
Ghost stories are supposed to be sad. However, the ghost I saw wasn’t sad. I think he was happy, back in his childhood home. I didn’t feel sad when I saw him, and I could see how good he felt to be back in his mother’s kitchen.
I was glad that he decided it was me who should see him. My Aunt was thrilled to bits that he had come home. We talked about him over tea and scones and decided that he must have been a thoughtful, caring son. He was doing the dishes after all. And you can’t do a nicer thing for your mother.
* The Chambers’ dictionary definition is: ‘a child’s soft doll with a black face, bristling hair and bright clothes.’ A doll like this dictionary definition featured in certain American children’s books; the first of which was illustrated by Florence Upton and was published in 1895.
I own a similar soft toy doll now, although it’s not really mine. It was my husband’s. Before he got it, some of his older cousins had it. They always said that it came to them from someone else. My daughter, now aged forty- six, had it when she was little. And then three of her four children did—the youngest one wasn’t interested. I imagine he must be almost a hundred years old now. But that’s not the one I had as a little girl. That one, my brother threw into the sea.