MID-WEEK MUSINGS 3
More personal encounters with unexplained events
This one begins with a cellar.
In the mid-90s, I bought a derelict house in London. There were such things back then. The house is in Spitalfields, so called because originally there was a leper hospital built on the site opposite, though that site later became London’s fruit and veg market. Covent Garden used to be flowers, Smithfield, was and still is, the meat market, Billingsgate, fish, and so on. Times have changed. The market has gone. Ghosts take longer to relocate.
The house was built in the mid-1780s, before the French Revolution, and not long after the American Declaration of Independence.
An old house has a history.
My house started selling fruit and veg from the ground floor and basement in 1805, during the Napoleonic wars. That layout has remained. I use the upper floors as an apartment and I let out the shop.
It took me 2 years to restore the house. The front wall was collapsing. The roof was shattered. There was no electricity connected. My friends, who lived next door at the time, drilled a hole through the party wall and passed through a single electric socket. Water came from a stand-pipe in the basement.
As we dug out the basement, we opened up a vault that was older than the house. We knew from the size of the small hand-made bricks that we were looking into the 1600s. We didn’t dig deeper down in that part of the cellar because Spitalfields, (in the London borough of Stepney), is well-known to be a plague-pit area. The plagues of 1664-1666 were ended by the Great Fire of London that swept through the city, cleansing it, as well as destroying the timber-framed buildings of the medieval city.
When the house was more or less habitable, I let some friends of my mine, with small children, use the upper floors for a few months, while they were waiting to move into their new place. I was happy with a makeshift kitchen on the ground floor and a bedroom in the basement. The vault area was used for storage only, and had its own door, always closed.
I liked sleeping in the basement because it was below ground, with the only light coming from light wells set in the pavement. So it was quiet and dark. It was also warm, carpeted, cosy, and not at all spooky. Apart from the vault. A single, short, flight of new, and painted, stairs ran up to the ground floor. The ground floor was sealed from the rest of the house during the restoration, as I intended to start using it as a shop again. So my part, and the upper floors, had separate entrances from the street.
One night, when I had been reading until late, and fallen asleep, I was awakened by the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs. The footsteps were brisk and clattery. Shoes on wood. I lay in the bed, eyes open, staring into the dark, groggily wondering if I had dreamed it, as there was now no sound. My arm was out of the duvet, loose over the edge of the bed, pointing towards the vault.
I felt a cold hand take my wrist, its fingers in a line, as when a doctor takes your pulse.
I could hear breathing. Out-of-breath breathing.
For some reason, I said, out-loud, I AM ALIVE
Instantly, my wrist was released. A few seconds later I heard the same brisk footsteps clattering back up the wooden stairs. No door opened, or closed, onto the street.
I lay still for a while, then I turned on the bedside light, and went upstairs. The ground floor was empty. The double front doors to the shop space were locked. Nothing had been disturbed. My purse was on the counter.
The following day I asked my friend, who was using the upper floors, if she had let herself in during the night.
You know the answer….
I discussed the events of the night with architectural historian, Dan Cruickshank, who had advised me on the restoration of the house. I believe that old buildings should be respected, not gutted. Dan’s view was that the visitation might have been a doctor, from the years of the London plague, checking on the living and the dead. When I said, (why did I say it?) I AM ALIVE, the doctor left me.
Had we disturbed something or someone when we excavated the basement?
Whatever the truth of it - and I don’t believe it was a dream, the doctor never came back. The house though, is never quite free of its own past, and that’s something I have to live with, as long as I am there. Yes, I am still there, nearly 30years later. Here is the house, on the corner, though none of us can see what lies beneath