Why do people move into haunted houses? We ask merely for information.
The Ghost of Bellevue Park
'I hope this place isn't haunted,' said Paul,looking out of the window and raising his eyebrows.
'You don't believe in ghosts, do you?' said Jess, crossing the room with cups of coffee.
'Well, it was a lunatic asylum, wasn't it? It ought to have a few ghosts.'
Jess stood beside Paul, with her light brown hair brushing his shoulder. She looked out at the long wall, with its ochre brickwork and rows of identical windows. A few trees, including a pine not far from her window, softened the institutional impression. 'It's a fine Victorian building. It's got a lot more character than these little modern blocks.'
She was proud of her new flat in Bellevue Park. It was the first place she'd ever owned, having combined money from her grandmother with savings from her salary as an assistant at a London law firm. As soon as the estate agent had showed her round she liked the flat, with its high windows and views towards the South Downs. It didn't trouble her that the building was once a lunatic asylum. It had been well renovated.
The place was beginning to look like home, although there were boxes everywhere. The furniture was old. One of the armchairs was green, the other brown, and the dining table was scratched. But Jess didn't mind. She sat in the green armchair, sipped her coffee and thought she'd succeeded in living the life she wanted – with a career, a place of her own and, of course, Paul. He had driven a van from South London and helped her unpack, so he obviously cared. With his glasses on, he looked a bit of a geek, but without, he was handsome. She put down her coffee cup and slipped her arm round his waist.
'Are you staying tonight?'
Once Paul had left the next morning, Jess put a parka over her striped top and jeans and walked round the grounds of Bellevue Park. The estate agent had described it as 'carefully landscaped' but, in October, most of the trees had lost their leaves, and the flower beds were wet and bedraggled. She approached the chapel, with its Italianate bell tower, which looked out of place. It had been converted into a nursery, and was locked.
Jess saw an elderly man in a long coat, bending over the gardens that flanked the chapel. Thinking he looked frail, she approached.
'Have you lost something?' she asked.
He straightened up and adjusted his glasses. 'I'm fine, thank you. I'm a local historian. I'm making a study of the asylum graves.'
'There are graves here?'
'Oh yes, some of us campaigned for them to be saved. There's a lot of history here. The asylum dates back to 1859.'
Jess wondered if she'd made a mistake in talking to the old man, who was obviously an enthusiast. But Paul's question floated into her mind. 'I hope there aren't any ghosts.'
'People always ask about the ghosts,' he smiled. 'And, yes, there are rumours. People say there's the ghost of a young woman. Apparently, she was brought here after her baby died. She was so distraught, she wouldn't accept the baby was dead. She walked round, carrying the body, and pleading with people to help her. They say her ghost still walks the South Wing.' He stopped and looked at the cemetery through his thick glasses. 'I don't know about that, but there are infant graves. Look, there's one over there.' He pointed to a tiny, grass covered hummock at the edge of the plot.
Jess stared, filled with a sense of pity for the unnamed young woman and her child. She knew that plenty of babies died in the 19th Century, but the unmarked grave conveyed a strong sense of loss.
For a moment, she could think of nothing to say, and settled for the most banal formula. 'Well, thank you. That's very interesting, Mr...'
'Sexton, Harry Sexton,' he answered, holding out his hand.
As Jess returned to her flat, she looked at the place with new eyes. Now, she imagined long corridors, and wards with rows of iron-framed beds. And the lunatics, going about their daily lives. She realised she knew little of those lives, beyond a display of old pictures in the local library. Although Jess didn't believe in ghosts, she could imagine the history of the building as made up of the stories of people who had lived and died there. If there were ghosts, she thought, that's what they were – stories.
When Jess drove home from the station on Wednesday, she saw a group of children hurrying into the chapel. Some wore witches' hats, others hid behind ghoulish masks, and a number were covered in sheets, on which were daubed rough skeletons. For a moment, Jess was amazed, then she laughed. She'd forgotten it was Halloween. The nursery must have organised a party. She envied the women who would be playing games with the children, while she was alone in her flat.
The wind caught the children's costumes and blew off a couple of witches' hats. It tore the remaining leaves off trees and dumped them in corners, along with plastic bags and old newspapers. A metal fence at the edge of the garden started resonating, producing a strange humming sound. Jess shivered in the navy suit she wore for work and felt glad she could go home to a warm flat.
As she sat eating spaghetti bolognese, and listening to the wind, her mind returned to the lunatics who'd lived here. The winter months would have been hard and cold. She imagined people sitting by long tables, eating gruel and rough bread. The women wore long skirts and shawls, the men rough woollen trousers. Some sat in silence, or talked quietly, but others laughed out loud, or screamed for no obvious reason. At least one woman was sobbing. To dispel the vision, Jess turned on the TV and decided to go to bed early.
She woke suddenly, glanced at her alarm clock and saw that it was nearly midnight. The wind was shaking the branches of the pine tree outside her window, making rustling noises, that sounded like sobbing. She pulled her duvet over her head but the sound grew louder. Unable to ignore the sobbing, she looked over the edge of her duvet. The shadows in her room were rearranging themselves. A door opened in the wall, where no doorway existed, and a darker shadow formed in the opening. It wavered, and took human shape. It was a girl, her head covered by a shawl, and carrying a bundle in her arms. The ghostly woman didn't speak, but sobbed without cease. As she passed Jess's bed, she stopped and held out the bundle. Jess had a fleeting glimpse of a baby and knew it was dead. The next moment, the vision faded.
Jess threw the bedclothes on the floor and rushed to look out of the window. Apart from the tossing pine tree, nothing was moving outside. There was no sign of a girl with a baby. Jess turned on all the lights, driving darkness into corners. She sat on her bed and wept. Not for herself, but for the girl whose baby had died, all those years ago. Jess understood the girl's love, which was so great that she couldn't face the loss of her child. And she recognised in a great rush that, in her own life, which she had thought perfect, there was an aching hole.