I used to enjoy the ghost stories of M.R. James, but I’ve never actually seen a ghost or even believed that ghosts existed. I have visited many allegedly haunted houses in my life but no scary apparition has ever crossed my path. The old house in which my grandparents lived in Lanarkshire was such a place (its ghost, like so many others around Britain, was supposed to be a ‘grey lady’), but I stayed there year after year untroubled by spirits, though the portraits of my puritan Scottish ancestors were sometimes frightening enough. I have always thought that people who claimed to see ghosts suffered from hallucinations or had especially sensitive peripheral vision.
However, I feel sure that my tenant in Northamptonshire, the man who rents the Coach House at Stoke Park near Towcester where I live, has no such illusions. He is no impressionable dreamer but a down-to-earth businessman with interests in the United States and Australia as well as Britain. He is not the sort of person to be troubled by the spirits of the dead. Yet he has been having strange experiences in the Coach House lately. There have been weird noises — creaks and clanks and bangs — and objects have been moving around, apparently of their own accord. The remote control of the television, for example, left its usual place by the set for some hours, only to return there later. My tenant had been alone in the house, the whole time, and he swears he never moved anything.
He sought advice from a friend — somebody with royal connections you’d be aware of, but whose name I will not reveal — and was told that there was clearly a ghost at work here, and one that he should confront and challenge. So armed with this advice, he returned to the Coach House and addressed the invisible intruder out loud. ‘Do you want me to stay here?’ he asked, ‘Or do you want me to leave? If the former, please will you make a sound.’ At which point the smoke alarm gave a reassuring beep.
This was a great relief to me. The man is very nice and an excellent tenant, whose departure I would have much regretted. So the ghost, if there was one, did me a notable favour. And if indeed there was a ghost, there is really only one person it could have been, and that is my brother John, who died in the house just over a year ago, having lived there for the last two and a half years of his life. He never met the present tenant, who took up residence there several months after his death, so I can think of no reason why he would have wanted to haunt him. But at least, if he did, he ended by encouraging him to stay there rather than leave.
I think that John, being a Roman Catholic whose transgressions might well have been in need of atonement, and someone increasingly interested in religion as he grew old, might have quite liked the idea of going to Purgatory and appearing as a ghost to the living to beg them to pray for him. But somehow I don’t think he did; and anyway, making ugly noises and mucking about with the television remote control would have been a strange way of doing it. It seems more likely to me that he is resting somewhere in peace, and the tenant is suffering from a temporary delusion induced by his adviser friend.
If there were to be any ghosts at Stoke Park, I would like them to include Sir Isaac Newton and King Charles I, both of whom once stayed there. More probably they would appear in the form of poultry, since many of my chickens and my ducks have been brutally murdered and might like to return as revenants seeking revenge against their killers.
These are, of course, foxes, which seem to prosper and multiply at Stoke Park, despite it being in the country of the Grafton Hunt. But I am glad to report that my poultry is now much safer. The local farmer, Geoffrey Smart, went out one day last week on a night shoot in the park and managed to kill seven foxes before bedtime. These foxes might return as revenants too, with Mr Smart as their target, but I don’t think so. I still don’t believe in ghosts, and Stoke Park feels decidedly unspooky.