I don’t expect that you believe in ghosts. I do, but I’m not interested in convincing anyone. However, you don’t have to believe in ghosts to believe in haunting. It’s something that has interested me for many years. I thought that by writing my book, The Haunting Of Nathaniel Wolfe, I might have put it out of my mind but apparently not.
A few years ago I went to see a friend of mine called Margaret who lives in County Mayo in Ireland. She was working as a home help for a number of old people who lived locally. On the day I visited her she had to make a call on one of her clients. ‘Why don’t you come with me?’ she suggested. ‘I think you’ll find him an interesting character.’
On the way there she told me that Dennis, her client, was in his seventies, that he had been a good-looking and popular man in his youth but that something had gone wrong with him when he was in his twenties. ‘Some sort of mental illness, though no one diagnosed it at the time.’
‘What form did his illness take?’ I asked.
‘Well maybe he’ll tell you about it himself,’ she suggested.
We arrived at Dennis’ house a few minutes later. It was an old stone cottage in very poor repair. When we knocked on the door there was a very long pause before it was opened. The man who appeared before us had obviously been tall and strong when he was younger. Now he was bent over, with white hair that stood up in all directions and very bloodshot eyes. My friend introduced me and he invited us in, shuffling across the room in front of us with the aid of a stick.
The first thing I noticed was how hot it was. There was a huge fire in the grate though it was a warm day outside. I sat down, as Dennis suggested, and immediately began peeling off my sweater.
‘Is it too hot for you?’ Dennis asked.
‘I’m afraid it is,’ I replied.
‘I’m frozen,’ Dennis told me.
‘You can’t be frozen,’ I said. ‘It’s like an oven in here.’
‘I haven’t been warm in fifty years,’ Dennis went on.
‘You haven’t been warm in fifty years! Why ever not?’
Dennis gave me an unreadable look. Then he said, ‘You know why.’
‘No I don’t,’ I told him. ‘Why haven’t you been warm in fifty years?’
‘Because of them,’ he said. Then he turned away from me and stared into the fire as if that was the end of the conversation.
‘Because of who?’ I said.
He cleared his throat and spat into the fire. ‘You know who,’ he insisted.
‘I don’t know who,’ I told him. ‘Is it because of your neighbours?’
‘Neighbours be damned!’ he said. ‘It’s because of them that shouldn’t be here.’
‘Them that shouldn’t be here?’ I said. ‘Who are they, then?’
He leaned towards me and in a hoarse whisper said, ‘the dead.’
That took me by surprise. ‘The dead?’ I said. ‘Are you talking about ghosts?
‘If that’s what you want to call them.’
‘Tell me,’ I said, after thinking about this for a little while, ‘what are they like, these ghosts?’
‘You don’t want to know,’ he replied.
‘But I do. I’m curious.’
Dennis thumped on the ground with his stick. ‘Don’t be curious!’ he said angrily. ‘Isn’t that what has me the way I am. It's just the same as inviting them in! And if you do that, you’ll never see the back of them.’
He wouldn’t say any more after that and it took a great deal of sweet-talking from Margaret before he calmed down enough for us to leave him.
In the car on the way back, Margaret said she shouldn’t have brought me. ‘He doesn’t normally get worked up like that,’ she said. ‘I just thought he might enjoy having a visitor.’
‘I think he has enough visitors as it is,’ I said.
‘Poor Dennis!’ she agreed. ‘The trouble is he won’t let a doctor near him. It’s an awful pity he didn’t get the proper treatment when he was young.’
‘Isn’t it?’ I replied but all the way back to Margaret’s house I kept thinking, what if he wasn’t ill?