Friday, 26 October 2012

A Cross Channel 'Ghost' Story...

My dad's been back a few times since he passed away.
The first time was on the day he died...on the night boat to St Malo...

Maybe it’s these shortening, colder days, more rapidly darkening evenings that, at this time of year bring, for me, an air of spirituality. Maybe it's also that we are on a trip to Brittany as I write this. There is a smattering of the mystical at our house in Brittany that puts me in mind of what some people might regard as psychic experiences, whereas I think of it as just - seeing my dad again!

No blasts of light, no celestial corridors bathed in irridescent light... but, strangely, most of what I now regard as heart warming happenings, are tied in with our house in Brittany.

My parents have both passed on; my mum, Margaret, 3 years before we bought our house in France and my dad in 2003. We had bought Le Ros in 1999. My dad had been very quick to accept an invitation to visit and, looking back, our trip with him was quite a spit and sawdust affair. It was before we had done many of the things that now help to make it feel that it has the comforts of home. But he loved it even as it was and wandered around planting hundreds of Daffodils and shrubs across the land. All, now, reassuring reminders that he was once there in the flesh.

My old man, a native of Withernsea on the East Yorkshire Coast, was, for a good few years, a warden, the local Obergroupen Fuhrer etc., for the RSPB and he'd been known locally as 'the birdman'. Neighbours, friends and local kids, if they found a bird that needed a helping hand, would nip round to Bud's place with it... So it wasn't unusual to see him in the local paper...with him hand feeding a Kingfisher or sat with a Barn Owl on his shoulder... Lesser species didn't necessarily make the cut... but rare stuff like that, then a couple of times a year - he'd be there grinning out from the local news pages!

As far as Brittany was concerned... well, we always thought that someone must have made a hideous mistake to allow a couple of Brits to wander in and pick up an 18th century corps de ferme, with an acre of its land left around the courtyard, with two barns, a well and a dinky little bread oven with a loft above. Brilliant! All for 12 Grand! Nonsense, surely? Yes certainly, but that's how it was over there at that time. Overspill cats and visiting dogs from the neighbouring old linen merchant’s house (to which our house had been the ‘home’ farm) made us feel doubly at home. And, sure enough - a Barn Owl right there in our very own rickety barn! That was an enormous bonus; sitting up in the ‘A’ frames of the building opposite the house. So, the first thing we would do on our arrival (6 times a year) kind of religiously, would be to see if she was still there. We even hesitated over doing anything noisy such as using power tools nearby or sawing wood inside the building, for fear of frightening her away. Only occasionally would we be treated, at dusk, to seeing her launch from one of the barn window openings and cruise the length of the courtyard before rising above the walls of the ruined school building at the end on her way to her night’s hunt for small mammals; the ones whose remains we might find the following day on the barn floor after her conversion of them to pellet form. We also always thought that our very own Barn Owl was a special gift; they are such private individuals. What a piece of luck! We wondered too why there was no husband or boyfriend alongside her. After his visit my old man would enthuse about every trip we made. He always wanted a blow by blow on what we had been up to, a 2nd hand report on our renovation antics and he would find any excuse to buy us presents. When we protested that he was too generous he would say that it wasn’t for us anyway - “It’s for the house!” We couldn’t really argue with that could we?

Bud (that was my pa’s adopted name from the age of 13) died at 6.30am on a stone cold February day. We had known he wouldn’t last long as they phased him out with morphine after a three month tussle with cancer, although the death certificate said pneumonia. He had, at times suffered great pain and asked on a number of occasions why the medics couldn’t just give him a shot to take him out of it. He had also said that the only reason he couldn’t take his own life was because (of his faith) he knew that if he did he wouldn’t see my mum ‘on the other side’.

For a couple or three weeks we had been shuffling the booking for our next trip to St Malo backwards - not really knowing - or at least refusing to admit why we were doing it. Bud feigned exasperation on one visit to his bedside and said “Don’t keep cancelling your trip. They’ve told me I am improving, so you go and get some work done on the house”. So, it had been early morning when he died and, by sailing time that very night, we had paid our respects, registered his passing with the registrar’s, had a word with the vicar, contacted the undertaker and torn Bud’s address book in half... each section to be ‘dealt with’ between my brother and me.
The drive to Portsmouth was a quiet affair... peppered with reminiscences, recriminations and moans about how callously Bud had been discharged over the Christmas break, back to his nursing home, unable to partake of the Christmas festivities he so loved, especially the food... as he hadn’t had a solid meal since his birthday back in November. We went through the motions of check in, driving through the marshalling yard, the lottery of would customs wave us into the search area for a chat about the chainsaw, the Bowie knife and the spare can of deisel etc., and so, we arrived outside our cabin door with overnight bags, laptop bag et al and, on the green light, opened the door. The atmosphere and aroma inside was not the usual and lingering Jeyes fluid coolness that is common at this point, but the warm, one might say ‘snug’ and comfortable feeling, with attendant slightly sweaty, brilliantined eau de ‘old bloke’ of my dad’s room at the nursing home in Storrington. Absolutely no doubt that he was 'with us'.

It was a chastening moment with ‘dawning’ looks darting between us which indicated that we both experienced the same thing...  and that it was Bud creating the change in atmosphere and not the collective imagination of either of us on the ‘living side of this triangle.
In amazed silence we left our bags and walked up the corridor toward two pints of lager and the ‘posh’ meal please. We almost always treat ourselves to a meal in the 'posh' restaurant on deck 7 when we’ve made a sale and this was still in the days when houses in Brittany were flying off the ‘shelves’ of our website so, on each trip we were virtually guaranteed the smoked salmon and prawn buffet 'with knobs on' followed by the “Voila” main course, as the starched waiters (avec le charme) flourished to unveil the d’agneu gargantuan and the like. ‘Bon Aptit monsieurdame’... was nowhere in it as we marvelled throughout our meal at Bud’s newly discovered talent for grand entrances from the 'other side'. I think I always knew he would be able to do this kind of thing. After dinner we made our way tentatively back to the cabin and, I think, we were in part a little disappointed that the atmosphere and ambience within had returned to cool, clean and sharp as opposed to ‘cosy nursing home’. But this experience had given us a sense of what, if this was just ‘day one’ what Bud might be capable of in the future. And, before any of you sceptics out there make the obvious comments about maybe the room hadn't been valeted when we arrived... the cleaning crew had already done their job and were long gone... all ashore before the ship had weighed anchor and made it’s way down toward the Solent.

The night passed without further surprises and the 90 minute drive from St Malo to the house on the
following morning was unremarkable except for the odd patch of black ice that would catch out those
drivers not quite on their toes as far as careful braking was concerend. The silver dusting on the trees and landscape as well as the cloudy breath of commuters opening car windows to compensate for the biting cold, even freezing the inside of their windscreens, told the story of how February can often be the coldest month.

For us there is always an air of expectation (and sometimes suppressed grins and occasionally giggles too) as we approach Le Ros. It is that feeling of coming home mixed with “is it still there, burnt down... or, have the footings been put in yet for the lotissement in the field behind” which must surely have been planned before we happend along... else why were we able to pick this place up for such a song? And the ‘glad to be here feeling’ persists way beyond until we have beaten the bounds; checked that all appears still to be locked up and intact. And then, before even unlocking the front door... opening the barn doors to see if ‘she’ is still in residence. On stepping inside and waiting for adjustment to ‘dim interior vision’... on that morning I thought I must have suffered a blow to the head or be having a problem with my varifocals... There were two barn owls... side by side. Count again...It was definitely not one but two owls blinking back at us. Bud, it seems, had arrived ahead of us... and, the usual bird in residence... The new arrival did one of those ‘I’m in charge’ rapid 270 degree head swivels that Owls do so well. And the one who had been there since we 'moved in'... Content! It seems that Le Ros and Bud were both living up to their reputation... Spooked and Spooking. Well, you can think what you like, but for me it was an indication that Margaret and Bud Slade were back together again!

Call me barmy... but, as far as our house in Brittany is concerned... family members are not the only
phantoms.  We are accompanied at various times by nuns who used to live in our house and run a school, the ruin of which sits at the end of our courtyard.  All very friendly and, so far, we share the space amicably. Bud has also made several other appearances... On the back seat of a bus as it crossed over traffic lights in front of us... and he waved! Shuffling along on a pavement skirting Wimbledon Common as we were held up in traffic. He's a very resourceful spook!

Interesting epilogue... (well, for me at least)... It was only after this experience that I actually put two and two together and recalled that only three months after my mum had passed away; it had been seven years earlier and way before we bought Le Roz, that Micki and I had taken a cottage, belonging to a good friend of my parents for a week... at Blakeney on the Norfolk coast. What has now become clearly significant was that on one warm October day when we were heading back to the rented house (with some very spooky historical tales) with our bikes strapped to the rack on the back, after an afternoon of exploring off road and little used tracks... and after some windy lanes and back on a very straight stretch of ‘B’ road, streaming past a rushing, blurred hedge, suddenly as if filmed on a steady-cam, we were tracked for a half a mile or more by a majestic Barn Owl... If only we’d been able to capture that half minute in time! It just fits! That poignant, playful attitude that was Bud Slade (and Margaret too) because, of course, he could have already had a word with her and he'd been planning it all along! I love Barn Owls... and now - my Mum & Dad live in our barn!