GARRICK SMITH reveals how he discovered the new retro-styled flat in Leicester he moved into was a haunted
Viewing it from the outside, I was excited because the flat had (has) a sort of turret affair at the top (it also had a balcony, which was great). I wanted to know about the turret, and when Mr Hopwood arrived to show me round I naturally asked about it. He took me to the foot of the interior stairs, and I ascended. I found that the door that should open on to the turret room was nailed shut, with a thick piece of wood across the jamb. I asked what was in there, and the mild-mannered Mr Hopwood went mental, shouting: “What’s in there is NO CONCERN OF YOURS!”
Odd, I thought, but I liked the flat anyway, so I signed up (it was £250 a month, those were the days). I also liked the fact that it was distinctly retro, with a very 1960s kitchen and an Edwardian-style bedroom, with a very big and very old-looking bed.
My guess – completely unsubstantiated – is that it was once the home of one of the Maidstones’ parents and that after his/her death was being let for profit, but they couldn’t afford to get the furniture taken away (or redecorate, or fit central heating). This is sort of irrelevant, but took on possible significance later on.
I didn’t realise it was haunted when I moved in. My first few months there were very happy – 1994 had an Indian summer that just didn’t seem to want to end, and I had plenty of friends living nearby, who quite liked my flat, and I don’t recall any initial problem.
The fact that it was haunted sort of crept up on me. I can’t say for sure that my problems began after I broke into the turret room, but at the same time I can’t recall having any problems until that point, which was (if I recall correctly) late 1994, early 1995.
I got drunk and curious one day, and took a claw hammer to the nails.
The turret room was a dilapidated attic sitting room. Quite damp, with yellow wallpaper sliding off the walls to lie in curls on a synthetic carpet in murky sixties colours (yellow and orange). There was a chair and a settee, and in front of the chair was a pair of slippers. This detail amused me at the time, as though someone had just gone downstairs to do something and left their slippers where they’d kicked them off. There were also boxes of household junk (whisky glasses, plates, cutlery, that sort of thing) and a string picture hanging on the wall. It smelt of damp plaster, dust and decay.
The first problem that happened was a door that kept opening itself.
At the top of the interior stairs, next to the turret room, was an attic door which opened out into roof space (I had a look, and there was just an old wardrobe in there). This door was one of the heavy old variety with a ‘z’-shaped crossframe and a bolt-lock.
I was sitting in my living room one evening when suddenly it got very cold. I could feel a draught whipping under the living room door, so went out to investigate, thinking I must have left a window open or something. Investigating, I found that the attic door was wide open. “Odd”, thought I, “I’m sure I shut that.” So I closed and bolted it again.
Some time after that, the same thing happened again, and I closed and bolted the door again, thinking I must have been up there for some reason and forgotten to shut the door.
This got to be a regular thing, and I started to comment on it to visitors (who generally took me in good humour). Sometimes it happened when I had company too — the temperature would drop, and I knew exactly what was wrong and would go and shut the door. At this stage, I didn’t think anything of it, I had a lot going on in my life and what I saw as ‘preventing draughts’ was not high on my list of things to worry about. But there were other things too.
I would come home from work and find that books had been left on the living room floor. It seemed like I was always picking up books and reshelving them. I put this down to my own messiness (and something I did like doing was stretching out in front of the fire, reading). It didn’t happen all the time, just enough to be a puzzle to me.
Then I started getting dreams that I had hanged myself from the interior stair balustrade (the bit outside the door to the turret room) and that I was inspecting my own lifeless body. These dreams did alarm me, and I felt sick and anxious all day when I woke up from one. I would go to the foot of the interior stairs and look up at the point where I had been hanging in my dream, wondering why I was dreaming of this location.
Things weren’t going so well now. I had stress-related eczema, and was losing weight. This was good, I thought (I was a gym bunny at the time), but I was a bit on the thin side. I wasn’t sleeping properly, and often woke in the dead of night with my ears straining. Looking back it’s clear that I was unconsciously under a great deal of stress, but there was nothing in my everyday life that was stressing me.
I can’t remember when I realised that the flat was haunted. The realisation must have crept up on me. One clinching factor was when I was sitting in the kitchen one day and a tightly-shelved video tape leaped out of the shelf and clattered open on the floor. It didn’t ‘fall’ out, either, it travelled a good distance across the kitchen. I didn’t want to be thought stupid or cowardly, so I said nothing. And got more stressed. Constantly picking up books and shutting the attic door.
It came to a head, for me, when my mother visited one day. I was trying to explain to her how stressed I was, but it wasn’t making sense, because there was nothing in my life that I could point to as being the cause of the stress.
At that point, I decided to confide in her, and said: “And the problem is, I think this flat is hau-”
I didn’t get to finish the sentence, because at that precise moment, a wineglass broke ranks from a kitchen shelf and bounced off the top of the microwave below, off the front of the fridge (the microwave was on top) and shattered on the woolen rug. It wasn’t a huge demonstration, but it was enough to make my mum go quiet. She said: “I see what you mean.”
After that, I accepted that the flat was haunted. I couldn’t wait to get out. My tenancy turned into a prison sentence (I didn’t have the cash to move). I got more and more miserable and anxious until in April 1997 I had a nervous breakdown in the flat, by which I mean an acute episode of mental illness. I recovered, with medical help, but had to come and live in the same flat once I had recovered. I do not like to remember what life was like during that time. I was still ill, and shit was still happening, and I was still having the dreams.
Eventually, I gave in, and moved. My recovery began in earnest from that point. The thing is though, sometimes, in dreams, I am back there, in that flat, trapped, unable to escape, back with the anxiety and gloom, waiting for the real occupants — whoever they might be — to return. I want these dreams to stop. They come less frequently now. I have only had one in the last six months, I think, but that flat still has the power to cast a pall over my happiest times.