A very personal ghost story

Now that Halloween has passed, I can publish this tale of a personal experience, something that happened to me in the late 1980s. If I had posted it on this blog yesterday, it would surely have been regarded as little more than a seasonal spoof. I can assure you that it is not.

I have never really believed in the supernatural. Ghosts, apparitions, reincarnation, life after death, and all things associated with these. Not that I wouldn’t have liked to, it just didn’t seem plausible. Psychics can often appear to be very accurate. They claim to know things about you, even to be communicating with a family member, long since dead. Unfortunately, their ‘gifts’ are very easily debunked, and like most of these things, it has to come down to simple belief. And I don’t believe it.

My paternal grandmother was a great character. She had a very dark complexion, black hair, and a gravelly voice. Mother to three sons and two daughters, she had to fend for herself for much of her adult life, as my grandfather deserted the family home when I was a small child. When she was still a young mother, before the second world war, she was run over and seriously injured. Trapped under the vehicle, her leg had to be amputated at the scene. I remember being somewhat fascinated by her false leg when I was a child. It often stood in a corner of a room, as she was able to get around surprisingly well without it. Once she was going out, she would always wear this prosthesis, and other than a stiffness to her gait, you would be unaware that she had only one leg. She was a houseproud lady, and her home was usually neat and tidy. The step outside her front door was dark red, and she would clean this with a red polish, called ‘Cardinal’. This had a very distinctive smell, and on occasion, it would stain her fingers red, as she did not wear rubber gloves. We would often visit her on a Sunday, and she would accompany us on family holidays to the seaside, where we would go in a large group. On one of these holidays, she once showed me the stump of her thigh, and I remember feeling most uncomfortable having to look at it.

Much later on, after my Mum and Dad split up in the 1970s, I lost touch with my grandmother. Family differences made it very hard to keep in contact, and visiting her had to be arranged in advance, so as not to bump into my Dad, with his new ‘lady friend’. We made the trip a couple of times, and I was pleased to see that she hadn’t changed a bit, though she was no longer in good health. She was always happy to see us, and we tried as much as possible not to waste time discussing the problems we faced, as a result of the unexpected separation. By the late 1980s, other than exchanging Christmas and birthday cards, I hadn’t seen her for a long time. I was living in a small house in Surrey Docks, with my then girlfriend. I got a telephone call from my uncle, my Dad’s youngest brother. He informed me that my grandmother was in hospital. She had serious liver problems, and was not expected to live. I told my Mum, and we arranged to make the trip almost into Kent to see her. We checked that it would not clash with a visit from my Dad, to avoid any nastiness. On the agreed date, we struggled through the rush-hour traffic to the suburbs on the border with Kent. Caught up in delays, we arrived after the official end of visiting time. When we explained the situation to the nurse in charge, she was more than happy to allow us to spend some time.

It was a sad visit. We tried to look upbeat and casual, as we gazed down on this frail lady, yellow with jaundice, trying for her part to be cheerful, and obviously delighted to see us. We talked over old times, and about other members of our extended family, never once mentioning the advanced state of her illness, or her gloomy prognosis. After a while, she finally raised the subject of my Dad leaving us, and told my Mum how much she had missed seeing us both. She asked after my wife too, and I decided not to mention that we had split up, and that I had since met someone else. I wanted her to die thinking that all was well in my world. We said our final farewells, avoiding comments such as ‘see you again soon.’ We all knew that this was the last time we would see her.

I dropped my Mum off on the way home, and went back to tell my girlfriend, who had never met her, about the last visit to my beloved Nan. There were no tears, just fond memories; and frustration about the years lost, due to petty squabbles. We went to bed quite late, and I went straight off to sleep. In the early hours before dawn, I was awakened by an unusual noise. It seemed to be coming up the staircase from the room downstairs, as if someone was dragging something up, one step at a time. As my eyes opened, I was overwhelmed by an all-pervading smell. I recognised it immediately, it was Cardinal polish. Still sitting up in bed, I watched as my Nan’s head appeared at the top of the stairs, level with the bedroom door. She looked at me and smiled, continuing the difficult process of walking upstairs with a heavy false leg. She was dressed as I remembered her, and wearing an apron over her clothes. She walked into the bedroom, and sat down heavily on the bed, right next to me. Street lighting outside was enough to provide sufficient illumination, so I could see her clearly. She reached for my hand, and held it in both of hers, high up, near her shoulder. I could feel the roughness of her palms. She said one thing, ‘It will be alright’, and she was gone.

The next thing I was aware of was my girlfriend talking to me. She seemed confused. ‘Who were you talking to?’ She asked me. ‘Why are you holding your arm up, does it hurt?’ She continued. Then finally, ‘And what is that smell?’ The following day, my uncle rang me, to tell me that my grandmother had died during the night. ‘I know’, I replied.

I still don’t believe in ghosts. I suspect that it was a vivid dream, having just had the emotional experience of going to see my Nan, and knowing that she was dying. I can rationalise most of it to my satisfaction, but one thing has always been a mystery, and remains unexplained to this day. Why did my girlfriend smell the polish?

 

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52 thoughts on “A very personal ghost story

  1. This story is truly wonderful. It’s amazing how the sheer Will of a Person can reach out to the living. Chills indeed.. But, I do believe such things are possible.. similar have happened to me without explaining it away.. Great post my friend.. Take care, Laura

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    1. Thanks, Laura. I have always felt that this story had more impact because it actually happened, and happened to me. It is an event that I still recall very often. I am pleased that you enjoyed reading it.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well observed and written, kept my attention right to the very end and I had a shiver down my spine. I also don’t believe in such things as ghosts, visits etc but your story reminded me of events that happened many, many years ago.

    I was maybe sixteen going on seventeen, living with my grandmother, my mother had left us when I was about four and a half and my father had died when I was thirteen. We had a coal fire and because we were dirt poor we often stacked it up with logs that I would find or even old bits of furniture. It was gloriously hot and lively often spitting out and burning the carpet. One night I had to sleep on the settee and I stayed awake for a long time into the night just watching the embers cast shadows along the walls.

    I woke up as somebody was pulling my blanket down, the room was now quite dark, the fire no more than grey ash. Nobody was there.

    The pulling became stronger and stronger. I couldn’t pull the blanket back. Then I felt hands creeping up the blanket towards me.

    But there was no one there. Then as suddenly as it had started it stopped. Another night it was different.

    I was very much falling into a deep sleep when some one sat on my legs. Again, no one was there.

    I just lay there for what seemed like forever then it got up and went. No sound, no shadows, nothing.

    I have no explanation. All I know is it happened.

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    1. Many people have similar personal stories, Gary. Mine was the only one that ever happened to me, and it was vivid indeed. Like yours, it stays in my memory, even though it never convinced me to believe in ghosts.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  3. Thanks for reblogging this, I hadn’t read it. I totally believe it was your grandmother, I have had similar experiences myself. I know it could be explained away as a dream, but as you said, how did your girlfriend know to ask about the smell?

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  4. I had to read this again! I have never seen anything but there have been occasions when I’ve woken up suddenly and been sure that a relation has died at that moment and been proved right in the morning. Who knows whether it’s hallucinations, dreams or ghosts, it remains a fascinating phenomenon.

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  5. I had missed this the first time around. I’m no great believer either (although enjoy works of fiction about it), but it’s true that there are things very difficult to understand.

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  6. What a spine-tingling story! My human Mom Liz had a similar experience. She says there are just some things we can’t explain. I think your visit from your beloved Nan falls into that category. Nan wanted you to know things were going to be OK and not to grieve after she passed. I hope you took that comfort she gave you. How absolutely wonderful that she came to check on you one last time. Woof! Love, Maggie

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  7. Reblogged this on beetleypete and commented:

    I don’t like Halloween. I don’t celebrate it, and find it tacky and commercialised. But I have decided to re-post this personal-and true- ghost story, in the spirit of the season. Many of you will have read it before, so this is for the new followers and readers only.

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  8. Like the others I had goosebumps reading this post. My question is why is it so implausible that it didn’t happen? I’ve never had a paranormal experience but I had other experiences that have led me to believe that there is an afterlife. She visited you, your girlfriend confirmed it. I wish those who left before me would have done the same.

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    1. You are right to suggest that I should happily accept that this was indeed a ‘visitation’. My girlfriend didn’t see her of course, though she was aware of the smell of the polish. The problem is, one experience in a long life, makes it hard to overturn ideas and convictions that have always been there.
      In my head, I like to think that it is true.
      Thanks very much for your comment. Pete.

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  9. A well told story, Pete…and very suspenseful towards the end. Like you, I am sceptical of the paranormal but these types of tale make me almost change my mind. And I recall Cardinal Polish, one of my grandmothers used it

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    1. We have to be of a ‘certain age’ to get the Cardinal connection Sue! I am glad that you enjoyed it. Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction, as the old saying goes..
      Best wishes, Pete. (Sorry for the delay, your comment had slipped in to the spam folder. No idea why)

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Pete, this short story is a true masterpiece. When you first mentioned the Cardinal polish, I focused on the fact that it was red, and thought perhaps blood (assuming the detail was not superfluous) would play a role (symbolic or real) in what I obviously knew was a ghost story. I’d almost forgotten about the polish by the time its “all-pervading smell” entered into the narrative. Already, I had the chills, imagining your grandmother dragging her false leg up the staircase, but figured that the polish reference, which was quite effective, had run its course. My focus now was on your grandmother’s entrance into the bedroom, and her subsequent sitting down on the bed beside you. The polish was the furthest thing from my mind at this point .And then came the clincher, namely, your girlfriend asking, ‘And what is that smell?’ Without using the word “polish,” you subtly, and quite beautifully, foreshadowed the story’s conclusion.

    Your final paragraph reminded me of 19th Century storytelling. It was designed to clarify that you are a rational and skeptical person, but that a single detail (in this case, the smell of Cardinal polish) can quickly cast doubt on any real world explanations of paranormal phenomena. In fact, to end the story with the key word “polish” (which elicited a “Whoa!” from me, despite the foreshadowing, or perhaps because of it) is to honor a classic literary device. In short, Pete, even if this were not a true story, it would be a masterful piece of storytelling in the vein of Poe, Maupassant, and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. I am not exaggerating when I say that this story is a literary gem. It most definitely deserves to be read in print.

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    1. High praise indeed David, and greatly appreciated.
      Like most of my posts, there was no prior construction. I just sat down and wrote it, only correcting spelling and punctuation when I had finished. As it was not fictional, I had no need to think about it beforehand. The relevance of the polish is that my girlfriend, who was 14 years younger than me at the time, (35/21) was too young to remember this product, would almost certainly never have had previous experience of it, and of course had never met my grandmother.
      Without intention, I see that my innocent sequencing led the involved reader down a certain path. It worked very well, I believe.
      Very best wishes, Pete.

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      1. Ani Manjikian (author of the soon-to-be-published book, Spirit of the Lone Horse) and I had a discussion yesterday about whether good writing can be attributed to skill acquisition or natural talent, or both. We believe that while skill acquisition is essential, skill alone does not guarantee that one can write a good story. We think that the “inner voice” that good writers hear in their heads stems from a natural talent that resides in the subconscious. I believe you have this talent.

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        1. I believe Pete has this natural talent also. It’s also true that ‘voice’ of a writer is no more than an expression of the ‘inner voice’ you talk about. And both are anchored in three dimensional reality by THE TELLING of Story rather than Story in itself. Not many people have such a talent and those that do, can spend many years perfecting it.

          I used to run workshops for companies with problems that needed solving quickly. I found that people are good at solving problems (95%) but poor at creativity. About 5% of the people were truly creative and sadly they were often sidelined by the ‘problem solvers. This is true in publishing.

          There are more people living off writers than writers living off their innate talent.

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          1. Thanks, Gary, that is very kind of you to say. I have many fictional stories in my ‘Fiction’ category, including one posted today. However, I personally feel that this particular story benefited from being a genuine personal experience.
            Regards, Pete.

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  11. What a touching post Pete, you’re Grandmother sounds like a wonderful character. These things are hard to explain and maybe they just need to be accepted and appreciated as maybe it was your Nan saying goodbye. Very best wishes Jane x

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    1. Thanks very much Jane. If it hadn’t been for the unusual smell of that polish, I could have passed it off as a dream. Still not sure what to make of it, all these years later.
      Very best wishes, Pete. x

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