Dealing With Ghosts
Now I am one of the most cynical people you could happen to meet. Unless I see something with my own eyes, or experience it myself then I treat much of what I am told with a large pinch of salt. I found this to be a particularly useful yardstick in Thailand,
as I have found that what Thais consider to be reality is not always the same as what a Westerner considers to be reality. So having said that, I am convinced that everything that I am about to relate, actually happened, because I experienced
Now the Thai attitude to ghosts and spirits seems to be universal. If you bring up the subject with anyone, a taxi driver, a housewife, a university professor, the reaction is almost invariably one of unease and discomfort. Across the spectrum of society you will find an irrational fear of the spirits lurking on the threshold of the netherworld. Superstitious beliefs run deeply, whether it be royal appointments scheduled according to auspicious times and dates, as happened with the recent opening of the underground subway system; or whether it be the lottery ticket buyer paying monks for the right set of numbers. As a Westerner I tend to scoff at their beliefs. If you want to convince me then show me the proof, is all I ask. Western logic over Eastern superstition. But of course, faith often has little grounding in scientific fact – otherwise it wouldn't be called faith.
I had been living in Luxembourg with my Thai wife, Kitty, for just over four years when a good offer to work in Belgium came up. Luxembourg is a little village, and like all villages everybody soon knows everybody’s business. The Thai community in the Principality was small and insular, so after four years we were ready for a change. The next few weekends were spent travelling up and down the motorway, looking for a suitable home to rent in Brussels. Every place that we saw, didn't meet Kitty's approval. What does a Thai look for when choosing somewhere to live? For me it had to be close to schools, and shops, and affordable. For the Thai, much of it was about face. Most houses were too small for her, or too far out in the Belgium countryside that nobody would come to visit her. Else they were inner city apartments without the prestige of a garden or garage. We did find one great place that came with a swimming pool. For me it was perfect, and I was imaging spending summers by the pool. The Italian owner had to leave quickly to Rome on business and offered the place for a song, if we could move in quickly. But would a Thai lady want to spend time in the sun, darkening her skin? No way. So that handsome dwelling was struck off the list.
By this time my Brussels job had started, and we had moved into an apartment hotel while the wife continued the hunt for a place that would give her enough face. She found it a few weeks later, in a large town just outside the city, near to a British kindergarten, which satisfied my requirements for our three-year old, Katie. When I first saw it, I immediately had reservations. The house was post-modernist; all squares, rectangles and cubes. Straight-line architecture, not a single smooth curve in the whole of the building. It had obviously been built just before the first petroleum crisis of the early nineteen-seventies, because the rooms were huge, high-ceilinged, flat-roofed with a single storey living room. It must have been somebody's dream house at the time it was built. A massive hallway, split-level led down into a huge living room, so big that Kitty and I used to play tennis inside it for the first three weeks after we moved in and before we bought any furniture. Giant sliding glass windows looked out onto a garden of oak and beach trees. Sure, a Thai would have a lot of face living in a big, beautiful house like this. The rent was the same as we paid for a small apartment in Luxembourg. Kitty said this was the one. "But it will cost a fortune to heat," I grumbled, eyeing up the huge rooms. "Belgium is bloody cold and wet, we will freeze to death in winter."
But she liked it, we were desperate to get out of the cramped studio apartment and I was fed up with tramping around looking at houses with faded wallpaper and fingerprinted walls. We signed up there and then.
Despite my misgivings, we soon settled in comfortably. It was early June and the weather warm and pleasant. In one corner of the living room the owner had built a bar. It was big and sturdy enough for half a dozen Nana gogo dancers to jump up and dance upon it. Indeed, sometime later an ex-BG on a visit actually did climb onto the bar and go into her routine for old time sakes.
There was enough space for me to put my desktop computer behind the bar and several evenings a week, perched on my little stool, I would be tap, tap, tapping away while Kitty improved her English by watching the soaps on TV. We made friends in the local Thai community in Brussels and Antwerp; and old friends from Luxembourg used to drive down for weekends of som tam and cold beer. We found a place for Katie in the English kindergarten and life settled down into domestic routine. Once our daughter started school, both Kitty and Katie retired to bed early leaving me downstairs to work on the computer.
Then one evening, about six months after we had moved in, something strange happened. I was working alone. My girls had gone to bed, all the lights in the house were turned off, except for a small light under the bar, where I sat at the computer. I had been working away quietly for a couple of hours when I suddenly felt very cold. My initial reservations when we moved in had turned out to be correct. It was a cold house, especially at night when all the heat escaped though the flat roof and the big glass windows. But this cold I was feeling was much more than I had ever felt before. I touched the radiator beside my legs; it was churning out the heat as best it could. Then, as I worked, I had the strange feeling that someone was standing right behind me. It is true that you can often feel the presence of someone in the room without even seeing them. Even when someone is totally silent your senses pick up changes in air movements and discern noises that normally remain inaudible and I guessed that Kitty had come downstairs and was looking over my shoulder to see what I was doing on the computer. I turned round to look. But no one was there. Besides, the lights were off and she would not walk around in the darkness, I think Thais are too scared for that. They don't like quiet places, they don't like the dark. So I got up, turned on the light and looked around – sure enough, nothing was there.
I dismissed this as my imagination, so went back to working. Then a few minutes later, I felt the same thing. Someone was definitely standing just a few paces behind me. Even though my back was turned to them, I just knew that someone was there. I turned around, and just as the first time the room was empty. Now Thais like to have sanuk and Kitty enjoyed to play tricks, such as hiding in the cupboard or under the table when I come home from work to scare me. The funny part about this is that my toddler is in on the trick, but she could not keep the secret and would point out if her Mum was hiding behind a door whenever I came home. I play along with the game and allow myself to be caught unawares. Every time I say I am 'dok chay' or shocked and it causes great amusement. On this particular night, I assumed they were up to some trick, so I planned to out-bluff them, by creeping upstairs to check that their beds were empty. Then I would figure out where they were hiding from the direction muffled giggles, and position myself to be caught.
But when I opened the bedroom door, they were both sound asleep.
It was late; I was tired and another gruelling day at the office threatened. So I dismissed the incident as a little bit weird and went to bed, soon drifting off into a deep and peaceful sleep.
The next day was wet and windy, a typical grey autumn day in northern Europe. The kind of day when your mind drifts back to the last trip to Thailand; the tropical beaches, the surf, the warm blue water. That morning, the traffic onto the Brussels ring road was heavy but my thoughts were of the previous night. In the cold light of day, I still felt that I had not been alone in the room. Here I was, the big cynic who has to see something to believe it, couldn't put what he'd felt into perspective. It was nothing more than intuition but it felt as real as the traffic around me. I resolved not to say anything to Kitty, however. Thai people are nervous around the subject of the superstitions and there was no point in upsetting the family needlessly. Besides, I was supposed to be the big, strong protector of the two girls, so how could I show any feelings of uneasiness. And as I thought about it, they were the same feelings of uneasiness that I had felt all those months back when we first looked around the house.
I kept my resolution and didn't say anything to a soul. Kitty watched TV in the evenings and around 8pm, she put Katie into bed. I continued to work at the computer hidden away behind the bar. And sure enough, a few evenings later the same sense of unease returned. There definitely was somebody behind me. I could feel them looking directly looking at me as I worked. I checked the reflection in the big glass windows but as before, there was nothing unusual except for the cold.
Now in the centre of the living room was a big stone fireplace. And one winter's day I suggested to Kitty that we make a fire up. There were plenty of chopped up logs out the back and a nice log fire would make the place feel warm and cosy. I don't think Thais are comfortable with the idea of an open fire in the middle of their home. It sure gets mighty chilly up in Chiang Mai during the winter months, but a fire inside a house was an alien concept to my Thai wife. In the end I persuaded her to give it a try, but from the moment we lit up, she was terrified that we'd burn the house down. When she went up to bed that evening, she made me promise to make sure that the fire was well and truly extinguished before I followed her up. I watched TV instead of sitting at the computer that night. I enjoyed sitting before the fire. When we were kids most homes had an open fire and we'd watch the flames lick across dry wood and red embers burn and glow in the dark. From the sofa I could see the whole of the living room, up the three steps to the hall and beyond into the kitchen. The fire still glowed red and I sat watching the occasional spark shoot up from the ash. The house was quiet, I had turned the sound on the TV down low so as not to disturb the girls' sleep.
Then once again, the feeling of being watched returned. Only this time I did not have my back to the room. But with the lights on, I could see everywhere. The feelings came from the same spot, just at the top of the three little steps that led to the hall. Then I saw something for the first time. In fact, with my eyes I glimpsed it, a slight white shadow, more of a flicker than anything of real substance. But it was with some inner sense that I could experience and describe it more accurately. It was a little girl, probably about four to seven years old. I am a poor judge of people's ages, so I couldn't be more accurate than that. But she stood there at the top of the three steps, just looking into the living room. The figure wore a long, white night dress, and had blonde curly hair. I might have mistaken her for my own daughter, except that Katie, being half-Thai has black hair and Asian eyes. This little girl had a round, white European face. Then she just turned and walked down the hall and into the kitchen. It was weird. As far as I was concerned, there were just the five senses of touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing. A sixth sense was bullshit. But I could describe clearly my experience as an inner sense coupled with a fleeting visual impression. WTF?
Now it was getting more serious; this figure appeared on several more occasions and I still resolved not to say anything to my wife. For one thing, this apparition caused no bother. I had heard all the ghost stories before, seen all the horror movies, and according to them I should be a nervous wreck by now. But in truth, I didn't feel any different from normal. After a while I began to accept these increasingly frequent appearances, and pretty much cam to ignore them. Was I going crazy? Possibly, but I wasn't running around with a hatchet chopping up old ladies in the middle of the night, and furthermore didn't have the desire to do so, so I guess my sanity was still intact. Every time the little girl appeared in the hallway, she stood looking into the room for a few moments and then walked off to the kitchen. At first, I followed her, to see where she went, but each time she just vanished, and in the end I just left her to get on with it.
By now we had been living in the house for almost a year and the landlord was due to show up and inform us of the annual rent increase. We hadn't seen the guy since the day we moved in, which didn't bother me so much. We paid the rent on time, took care of his house and there was nothing that needed fixing. The small jobs I took care of myself even though strictly speaking I could have called up the landlord and required him to carry out the jobs. But it was nice to have our own privacy instead of having some guy snooping around the place, so I was reasonably happy with the arrangement. However, I sat down with Kitty and said I wanted to discuss with her about moving on. The house was way too big for the three of us and we'd be better off somewhere smaller. I didn't remind her that I'd warned her in the beginning how cold such a big house would be. There's no need for point scoring in a marriage. Kitty didn't argue. She liked the house and enjoyed inviting her Thai friends over for small parties, card schools, and all the usual Thai stuff. Her friends were impressed with the place. I must be a very rich farang in their opinion. I didn't tell them that the monthly rent was way cheaper than what they were paying on their city apartments. But at the same time I guess it was a big effort to take care of the place, even though she never complained about it. So when the landlord showed up, I would tell him that we planned to move.
The landlord didn't show up. Fair enough, I thought. If he doesn't appear, he doesn't jack up the rent. And that was just the way it was. On the other hand, it meant I didn't inform him that we were planning to move, but I kept my little secret to myself. Inertia plays a big part in my life. And so we stayed another year. The little girl made her appearances, but she was no bother, so I let her stay there while I tapped away on the keyboard or sprawled over the sofa in front of the TV. To me, it was like having another small child in the house. The second year came and went, and no landlord ever appeared. I never missed a payment and I guess that's why he stayed away. Perhaps he came by when we were out, perhaps checked over the place while we were away. But a second year passed by, no rent increase, and so more there was incentive to stay put and not move on to another house.
Shortly after the second year of our stay, I came home from work as usual and Kitty met me at the front door. She looked concerned; her usual cheerful demeanour was clouded by a deep frown. I asked her "What's up?"
"It's Katie, she said. "Something a little bit odd happened today.
I asked her what it was.
"Well, Katie came home from primary school as usual, had her snack and then went upstairs to play in her bedroom. Same she does each day, waiting for you to come home so we can have dinner together."
"So why does that bother you so much?"
"Because when she went upstairs, I heard her chatting away to someone."
I laughed. "She was probably playing with her Barbie dolls."
"That's what I thought. So I went upstairs and carefully opened the door to peep inside."
"Katie sat on the floor, and she was chatting away to herself. Then she saw me at the door, and waved, and said Hi Mom!"
"What's so unusual about that?"
"I asked her what was she chatting about. And Katie said she was chatting to her friend. I said what friend? And she said the little girl who comes in to see her."
"What little girl?"
"The little girl who lives here."
"When I heard Kitty say this my first thoughts were ‘Oh shit.’ I paused for a moment, trying to think what to say next. Mainly I didn't want to get my wife alarmed. As I was thinking, she spoke.
"There's something else, I must tell you," she said.
"What's that?" My stomach churned with anxiety.
"I, myself, have seen the little girl that Katie is talking about."
I stood in the doorway, not yet fully entering the house, as Kitty described how she had often seen an apparition of a little girl walking to and fro in the hall of our house.
"Describe her to me."
And Kitty went on to give me a detailed description of the very same little girl that appeared to me.
After Kitty told me everything I had to sit down. This time I was truly 'dok chay'. I then proceeded to recount to her my experiences of what I had seen over the past two years. I finished by telling her that I had kept the story to myself because I was concerned that she would become alarmed. I knew that Thai people had very strong emotions when it comes to the subject of ghosts and spirits. I was unsure of how she would react.
"Oh no, it is not a problem," she said, "I have spoken to the little girl a long time ago and told her that she could stay here but she mustn't disturb anyone or cause any bother."
It was just as well that I was sitting down when I heard this, otherwise I might have fallen down. Not only had we seen the same apparition, but we'd both kept it a secret for almost two years for fear of causing alarm.
"You spoke with her?"
"Yes, I felt she had lost her way somehow. So I said it was ok to stay with us. After all she is just a little girl."
"You know, I think we had better move from this house." I said. "Neither of us is scared, and the little girl causes no trouble, but we can't be sure what the effect on our daughter will be. Better safe than sorry."
"If you don't want the little girl here, I can ask her to go away."
"How can you do that?" I asked, surprised.
And that is how we came to perform a Thai ceremony of our own in the house. There was no Brahmin or monk to call on as far as we knew, so we decided a do-it-yourself ceremony would work just as well. My wife began to prepare for the event. She went to an Asian supermarket near the South Station in Brussels, and bought some banana leaves, incense sticks, candles, and some white perfumed liquid in a bottle. I'm not sure what it is, but I've seen it poured over people's hands at Songkhran as a blessing.
That evening, Kitty shaped the banana leaves into a small bowl, and filled it with fruit, candy and chocolates, the kind of snacks that a young kid would like. We had no Thai pomelai, but Kitty made a garland of flowers cut from the garden. Then she blessed the garland with some prayers and sprinkled some of the white coloured water over it. After some more blessings and prayers we lit the candles and burnt the incense sticks. The three of us knelt on the dining room floor, hands pressed together in a wai and Kitty called to the little girl.
She told her it was alright for her to be there in the house with us, but now it was time for the little girl to leave this world and this place and go off to another place where she would find peace and contentment. We knelt and waited. I wondered whether the girl would appear but nothing happened. Kitty said we would have to repeat the ceremony for the next three days. We extinguished the candles and incense, and left the candy next to the window as a spirit offering, just like you see in shops, offices and bars all over Thailand. Then we went to bed.
I couldn't sleep that night. Normally I am gone within seconds of my head hitting the pillow. But I was agitated and kept sitting up in bed, wondering how I was ever going to manage to sleep. I knew that I would be exhausted at work the next day.
The next morning, I went downstairs early to check the bowl of candy. I knew I was expecting to discover something weird had happened overnight, but the fruit and the chocolates appeared just as they were the evening before. We repeated the ceremony as Kitty had described; each time I was looking for something unusual to happen, and each morning I checked the bowl. But each time I was disappointed.
"It's done. It's over. She won't appear any more." Kitty said matter-of-factly when I expressed my dismay. I had hoped for a final appearance, a puff of smoke at the very least; a big bang would have been great. So it seemed an anti-climax.
"So what happens next?"
"Nothing. Trust me, she's gone."
"Just like that?"
"How do you know?"
"Will you please stop asking so many stupid questions."
And she had gone. Kitty was right. We stayed in that house for a further two years and that was the last we ever saw of that little girl. Funnily enough, it took a bit of getting used to. I had become accustomed to having this extra little kid around, and now she was no more.
With the passage of time, this story might have drifted from my memory, I may have doubted the veracity of the events; perhaps I might have begun doubting the story myself and put it down to mere imagination. But the final chilling chapter in this tale only confirms to me, ten years on from the events I have been describing, that my story actually did happen to me and my family. None of this is fabricated, and I wish to present it to and invite you to make of it what you will. It is the end of my story that still shocks me today, still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, still brings the goose pimples out onto my skin, even as I write it now.
As I said, we stayed in our dream house for a further two years and in all that time we never once had a visit from the landlord. Although, he was entitled to raise the rent each year by a government-controlled formula, he never appeared to claim his entitlement, and I toasted my good luck that we had saved ourselves a pocketful of money on rent that was ridiculously low in the first place. Then one day, out of the blue, we received a telephone call from the landlord's daughter. She wanted to come and talk with us; so we fixed up an appointment for the following weekend.
When she arrived with her genial boyfriend in tow, we showed her around the house and gardens. Laura, as we will call her, was amazed at the good condition of the property. We had cleared the garden of ten years of rubbish, made a lawn, pruned the oak and beach trees, and planted border flowers. Inside the house, we had completely repainted from top to bottom, and made scores of minor repairs of our own. The house was spick and span. Kitty had turned the grubby house, spoiled by years of careless renters, into a spotless home. Laura told us not only was she delighted with the condition of the place, but she noted that we were the longest serving tenants they had ever had. Most people up and left after six months and nobody ever stayed for more than a year. It was the size of the house that put people off she said. I looked over at Kitty and we exchanged glances. Perhaps there was something else about the house that discouraged people from staying there.
Then Laura came to the crux of her visit. She was planning to marry her boyfriend later that year, and her father had offered the house to her once they were husband and wife. She wanted to take a look at the house first before taking up on her father's offer. I told Laura that my contract in Brussels had six months left to run, after which we were planning to move back to Thailand to live. If it was OK with her, could we stay on for a further six months until we left the country?
Laura was silent for a moment, obviously thinking about something seriously. Then she turned and said that yes, we could stay there as long as we wanted, because she did not plan to take up her father's offer.
"Why is that?" I asked Laura. "You seem to have made up your mind very quickly."
"Because this house has so many unhappy memories for my family. This is why my father does not come to see you."
I said I did not understand.
"Let me explain. This house was built by my father. He was an architect before he retired, and he designed and built this as our family home. My parents, older brother and younger sister all lived here when we were very young children. I can just about remember living here when I was a small child. And then one day we had a tragedy in our family. My young sister, she was about five years old at the time, she was playing at the top of the stairs. As you can see it is a very long way down from the top. And somehow, she either climbed over the banister or squeezed through the rails. She fell head first onto the stone floor of the hall. Of course, she died instantly. There was nothing that anyone could do for her. Naturally my parents were devastated by this, we all were. My father blamed himself for her death. He built the house to his own specifications. He never imagined it would kill his own daughter. Father was inconsolable. But then, what could we say? We were children." She shrugged sadly.
I thought of my own little girl; of the days she spent playing alone upstairs with her Barbie dolls. Katie would have been about the same age, when we first moved in. I shuddered to think of something happening to her. While thinking about this scenario, Kitty began speaking to Laura. She began to tell her what we had seen; Kitty described the little girl in the nightdress with the blonde hair and how she would stand at the top of the steps, looking wistfully into the room.
Laura started crying. It was the way that she remembered her sister. Kitty comforted her and told Laura not to be upset. She explained about the Thai ceremony that we had carried out, and how afterwards the little girl had not been seen for more than two years. Laura was sobbing deeply during the story. Her mother had died just over two years ago after a long illness. Perhaps, after all these years, the little girl had at last found the person she'd been looking for.
Six months later, our bags were packed and waiting by the door. The furniture removal truck had arrived with a container to ship all our personal belongings out to Thailand. The sun streamed down into the hall. We were beginning a new life. We felt that we were returning home. I was still the old cynic, still am, perhaps more so as I get older and world-weary. But I can tell you this. You may not believe what you read here, after all if you haven't experienced it yourself, why should you believe a perfect stranger that you've never met? Yet, I saw it, and experienced it. So, too, did Kitty unbeknown to me. And just when we were ready to forget, an unexpected meeting chillingly confirms that something unnatural took place in that house of unease.
A beautiful June morning, a cloudless blue sky; I shut the front door of that house, closing a chapter in our lives. The house agent took the door keys and I signed the release papers. In a few hours our plane would be taking us back home to Thailand. And somewhere, in some other world, a little girl had found a new beginning.
Very nice story indeed.