‘This is a true story…’ Right. Only this time, it really is. There are no wails, whistling winds or taps on window panes, so you may find it a trifle prosaic, but because my tale has none of the traditional accoutrements that may make it all the more chilling. Stay with me.
In June this year we had two cars, a Vauxhall Antara and a Volkswagen Tiguan, and it was in the Antara that we set off to the Cotswolds, from where my partner would continue to London for an event requiring evening clothes — which she had left behind in the house. By wondrous chance, we were passing a shopping centre, into which she dashed for a substitute outfit, taking her phone because she was expecting an important call. She returned to the car sans phone. The shop people searched the place, we retraced her steps, ransacked the car, including — and this is important — both door pockets several times. Hope was abandoned and the following week, she replaced her phone (and this is where I want you to follow me closely, Jeeves) with a different model.
Three months later, the Antara died, and went to an auction of extinct motors, which are scoured for personal effects, bought for spare parts, and then crushed. No phone was found. The certificate of sale and subsequent destruction arrived, as did a new car — a different model. And there, for the moment, the story rests.
In late September, not to be outdone, I lost my own phone, hunted everywhere, including every inch of my car, including the door pockets several times.
No phone. I didn’t replace it, because my motto is ‘It’ll turn up.’
Little did I know.
Several weeks went by. Then I had to go to London, where I need a phone, so on Sunday the hunt resumed. I looked everywhere, including the door pockets in both cars. Nothing. Late that night, I couldn’t rest until I had searched once more. ‘Let me go,’ said my partner kindly. ‘I’ll pull the seats right out.’
As I said, there are no mists, half-glimpsed figures or other ghostly manifestations in this story. The reality is — was — far more chilling.
She did not find my phone but when she returned she asked if I had looked in the car door pockets again?
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I ran my hand along inside them and they were both empty, except for a packet of mints.’
‘Well, your phone wasn’t there. This was.’
And she held out her own old phone, the one she had lost somewhere near Kettering three months earlier, when we had been in the Vauxhall Antara, the car we had turned inside out several times before it had broken down terminally, gone to auction, and was now the size of a baked bean tin. We stared, hairs rising on our necks, at her phone. At each other. At the phone. This was simply not possible. No one could have obtained our address from it, and even if they had, who would have brought it from Northampton-shire to Norfolk, only to leave it in the car door and disappear?
Besides, for what it’s worth, our cars had been locked, they always are — for careless people, we are meticulous about it, and as a result of our conscientiousness we occasionally lose the keys and have to break into the cars.
No, there is no rational explanation for what happened to her phone that holds any water.
Stick with me, though, ghostly apparitions or not, because this tale is about to get spookier.
By midnight, still completely baffled, I was back to fretting about my own lost phone, so my partner went out to the cars again, this time to take up all the floor mats.
She returned, phone aloft.
‘Was it under the mats?’
‘No. It was in the passenger door pocket, easily visible.’
‘But … it wasn’t there earlier, or yesterday. It just wasn’t.’
If none of this makes you shiver, maybe the postscript will. This too is hand-on-heart true. That same weekend, during hospital crises with a sick child, a nephew lost his wallet, which contained a vital top-security pass. Searches were up to MI5 level, every millimetre of his car was gone over. No wallet.
It was found much later, in his car door, easily visible.
Then he lost his keys. By now, searches were hysterical as well as extensive. The keys were found, yes, you guessed, in the door compartment — but of his wife’s car, which he never ever drives and had not even touched for weeks.
They asked for a spooky story but I tell you what — I couldn’t make it up.
Susan Hill is the author of the celebrated ghost story The Woman in Black.