Friday 31 October 2014

A Ghost Story for Hallowe'en

(This works best if you imagine it being read aloud by someone like Derek Jacobi)

Although the events I am about to relate took place nearly thirty years ago, I can remember them as clearly as if it had been last week. I was but twenty-one years of age, and not given to thinking about, let alone believing in, the supernatural, until one particular night in the cold winter of '86/87 changed that forever...

At that time I was earning my living as an assistant warden at Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory, on the Kent coast. I should say at the start that if you have visited that establishment in recent times, the thoroughly modern Field Centre which now occupies the site is a far cry from the building which stood there in my day, and where I lived for a whole year in conditions which might not unreasonably be described as 'squalid'.

This, the original Observatory building, comprised several low huts, interconnected by corridors, such as would once have been found on many a wartime airfield. Indeed, these particular huts had once been used as officers' quarters, a circumstance which, as shall be seen, has a most pertinent bearing on what follows.

It was the regular custom of the dozen or so inhabitants of the Observatory at that time to repair of an evening once or twice a week to one of several local inns once work was finished for the day, and there to while away a few pleasant hours imbibing the excellent Kentish ales, playing pool or darts, and generally relaxing in convivial company. Our most regular watering hole was undoubtedly the Fleur de Lis in Sandwich (since converted into a 'bar' and restaurant, but in those days a good old-fashioned drinking pub); on other occasions the St Crispin or The Blue Pigeons in Worth would be patronised.

On the night in question we were returning from the first-mentioned hostelry, in good spirits (no pun intended), but I must stress to the reader that, though I cannot vouch for the others, I myself was certainly not so inebriated that the following experience can be attributed to any kind of alcohol-induced hallucination. This is most important to bear in mind.

It so happened that, on this particular occasion, I was the first to enter the building, and it thus fell to me to turn on the lights. In order to get to the light switches, I had to walk a short distance across the hall in darkness, passing as I did so a corridor on my left, which led to the dormitories. As I crossed this, something made me pause and look down the corridor. To my great surprise, for I had supposed the building to be empty, there was a figure, no more than a dark shape, but still clearly a figure, moving (as I was to recall later, almost gliding rather than walking) away from me. I saw it most clearly, especially as it passed a window through which the moon was shining brightly.

Puzzled, I turned to my companions, who were now following me through the door. "Who was that walking down the corridor?" I asked. "I thought everyone was out this evening."

There was an uneasy pause, then someone, I forget who, spoke: "Ah, that'll be Jake."

"Jake? Who's Jake?"

Another pause.

"The Obs Ghost."

"A ghost? Nonsense. I don't believe in ghosts."

"Plenty of people have seen Jake, whether they believe in him or not."

In the Common Room, with the lights comfortingly on and a fire blazing in the hearth, the stories started to come out. 'Jake' had been an airman killed in the First War, and had been billeted in this very building. The place he frequented was the corridor down which I'd just seen a shadowy figure move, and it seemed to be an unwritten rule that he was never mentioned to newcomers until they encountered him for themselves.

Almost everyone living at the Observatory had either seen something, or heard footsteps in that corridor. A former warden, who had lived in the building on his own for months at a time in the sixties and seventies, said he got so used to hearing footsteps outside his room at night that he stopped worrying about it and just accepted that it was Jake going about his nightly business.

Another warden had had a small dog, a normally placid animal, which one night had suddenly jumped up and started barking furiously at a corner of the Common Room adjacent to the corridor, for all the world as if an invisible person were standing there.

I didn't know what to make of all this. I hadn't given ghosts or the supernatural a moment's thought since I was a child, and had come to believe (or perhaps been indoctrinated to believe) that such things were unscientific nonsense, no more worthy of serious consideration than astrology or homeopathy. But now I had seen something inexplicable for myself. There could not possibly have been any living person in that corridor at the time I saw the figure, and yet I had seen someone, or something. My experience could not even be explained away by the power of suggestion, as I had never heard of the occurrence of a ghost in that particular corridor, or indeed anywhere else in the building. The thought of the place being 'haunted' had simply never entered my mind.

But further research has taught me that this is often the way with ghosts, whatever they may be. Those who actively seek them rarely find them, yet time and again they appear to those least expecting them, those who had previously dismissed them. It is almost as if they wish to challenge our lack of belief.

I had one further encounter with Jake that winter, on this occasion auditory rather than visual. One night myself and another warden were alone in the building, having opted for a night in rather than yet another night in the Fleur. We were in the Common Room, pursuing some of the tedious, but necessary clerical work generated by the work of a bird observatory. It was a remarkably still night, with not a breath of wind outside. Winter Moths fluttered at the windows. Around nine o'clock we heard the distinct sound of the inner fire door (between 'Jake's  corridor' and the outer entrance hall) opening and closing. This was strange, as we had not heard the familiar rattle of the outer door opening, but maybe whoever had come in had somehow managed to open and close that door quietly. We looked up and waited a moment, expecting someone to come into the Common Room, then when no-one appeared I went out to see who was there. But there was no-one there. The outer door was still firmly closed. We searched the entire building, but we were the only two people in it. A spring-loaded fire door had, without any doubt, opened and closed itself.

It is safe to say that those two incidents, and other people's experiences of 'Jake' at least opened my mind to the possibility of things beyond our immediate understanding. I still wouldn't say that I believe in ghosts, at least not in the sense of them being the spirits of the dead, but neither would I totally dismiss reports of them out of hand. There are stranger things in Heaven and Earth...

Post Script

I would be very interested to hear of anyone else's experiences or stories of Jake, the Sandwich Bay ghost, and also to learn what happened to him when the old building was demolished. Did he disappear forever, or has he moved into the altogether more salubrious accommodation of the new Field Centre?

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