A Reassuring Cross Channel 'Ghost' Story
My Dad's been back a few times since he passed away...
So...there were to be no blasts of light, no celestial corridors bathed in an irridescent glow... but, strangely, a warmth - and an experience which, in retrospect, I now regard as a heart warming interlude. The following and other 'happenings' are very much tied in with owning 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 three quarters of an acre. All of these things are 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 Ober-groupen Fuhrer etc., for the RSPB. He'd become 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...here he was 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, a couple of times a year - there he'd be, 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 (the heart of a farm) with an acre of its land left around the courtyard, with two barns, a well and a dinky little bread oven building with the oven on the ground floor and 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. I even had a word with his consultant on his behalf....He gave me very short shrift... telling me that there was a time for everything and in his mind that time had not come... yet! My dad 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, Margaret Slade (neé Lamplough) ‘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... driving from our house in Worthing to Portsmouth... 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 diesel etc., and eventually, 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 very 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 in our minds...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 house 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 how 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 and beyond toward St Malo...
The night passed without further surprises and then - all ashore, that 90 minute drive from St Malo to the house on the cold & crisp (windows freezing up on both sides) 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 concerned. The silver dusting on the trees and landscape as well as the cloudy breath of commuters opening their 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 - on every trip - 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 (housing estate) in the field behind” which must surely have been planned before we happened 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... the opening of 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, at least, 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 was there in studied satisfaction of a job well done, perched next to 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 to me/us that Margaret and Bud Slade were back together again at last!
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 there, 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; and it had been seven years before my dad passed away - 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 itself) 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 finally 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 in Brittany!