The Ghost of First Nights
by Northern Life
by Rona Harvey
Things were different in 1974 and work was easy to come by; so I only had to knock on the door of Nazareth House in Prestwich, our local ‘old folks home’ and ask for a job to be interviewed there and then.
As the place was a convent as well, I was naturally introduced to a nun and as such was my inexperience of these ladies, as well as convents and job interviews, that I stood ready to curtsy if necessary but it wasn’t expected much to my relief. In fact I only had to give my name and address to be told to turn up for work the following evening for the night shift.
Arriving at eight-thirty for a nine o’clock start, I was met by the same sister and taken quietly around the three floors, many corridors and several staircases of the vast house. It seemed as if there were stairs around every corner; vast, carpeted, you-can-wear-a-crinoline-dress ones and darkly painted, maids-uniform-only ones which were bare wood.
As we walked it was explained to me that I must check my patients every two hours but wait in the nurses’ station for the half hour or so between rounds. I did rather wonder why I was having all this explained, as surely I would learn on the job as I followed the other staff.
Then my mentor said goodnight and God blessed me, as she climbed the four stairs at the top of which were two juxtaposition doors, before disappearing through the more imposing one marked ‘PRIVATE’ which led to the nuns’ quarters, leaving me alone holding a tiny torch and staring after her as all the lights dimmed and then went out. I was in complete darkness except for a tiny yellow glow sneaking out from under the second door, the nurse’s room – which I headed straight into.
Like the rest of the house, this room was furnished in the Victorian manner and appeared to be a cosy, velvet-strewn parlour apart from the umbrella stand full of walking sticks by the door which
seemed rather incongruous in a parlour. An over-stuffed armchair was squashed awkwardly behind a dining chair and the velour covered, square table on which sat a tray with all the necessaries for tea making, beside which was a plated ham salad, complete with a dozen or so greenflies on their knees, hands clasped and mutely pleading with me not to eat them. I agreed and in the eerie silence I moved the table out of the way and took the single blanket, left for when the heating went off at midnight, over to the rather more inviting armchair.
Unfortunately the chair did not want me. It made this apparent as it rocked forward onto where it had a caster missing – and threw me noisily onto the floor, establishing in my mind just why it had been pushed out of easy reach in the first place.
The noisy collapse of furniture and the clatter of tea things falling from the table cloth as I grabbed it to help me upright, echoed throughout the house and did nothing to ease the terror of my situation and I felt my hearing go into overdrive as I rose and picked through the damage I had caused.
The sister told me to do my first round at eleven o’clock and waiting for that time took about three weeks in my estimation whilst I alternatively paced the room or sat at the table worrying about this ridiculously responsible position I found myself in. The windows gave me only shadowy impressions of the outside world and I felt unutterably trapped as I resumed my umpteenth circular tour of the 12 foot square room, softly chanting: “Oh! For a book or magazine to read.”
I was passing the doorway when I heard the noise. It was distant and rhythmic; a metal tapping that stopped me in my tracks, freezing me to the spot and sending the hair on my neck into a French pleat without the use of pins. And slowly, very slowly, but just as surely, it was coming closer.
At this point I realised that I had never been so frightened in all my life; that my fear was nothing to do with feeling inadequate to look after the 76 souls in my care, and that I was just too blooming young to die.
I was desperate to rationalise the situation into some sort of house cooling sound or water pipes knocking, but it couldn’t be done. The sound was not coming from anywhere but the corridor outside my room – and it was still getting closer. Everywhere else was like a vacuum. Even the buses had stopped running past the gates and the world seemed to be asleep. All except the perpetrator of the unholy sounds that were driving my goosebumps into a frenzy.
Should I crouch down or stand on a chair? Which would be best as the thing entered the door? Which would trick the apparition when my head was not at the expected shoulder height? I chose the chair option and reached blindly behind me to bring it forward from under the table. That’s when I knocked over the umbrella stand, scattering its contents across the room in an uneven cacophony of bumps and thuds. The noise outside stopped but only for a few moments, thus proving a viable entity was out there; after all, trees tapping on windows don’t stop when they hear umbrellas and walking sticks cascading around a room and then begin to tap again.
Naturally, I picked up the stoutest of the sticks before resuming my vigil at the crack of the door formed by the hinges. Actually I would not have had to be aggressive with the stick; just hold it in front of me and the shaking of my hands would have given anything in its range a good thrashing.
Peering into complete darkness, I realised that now I was armed. I absolutely must go and face my destiny even though the tapping sound now had clear accompaniment. The metallic ‘ching’ now had an echo of a whooshing, like air expelled from a tormented balloon and a swish like the skirts of a silk-clad dancer. As the trio continued swish, chink ahhh, a second’s pause, then swish, chink ahhh, and worse, an occasional grunt, I thought that death by monster would be easier than death by over-active imagination and I gradually edged forward.
With my Woolworth’s kiddie torch doing its best but only illuminating a few feet ahead, I saw the apparition and my French pleat undid itself and reformed into a Mohican. There at the bottom of the four steps was a figure of about four feet six inches tall wearing a white gown which would have reached the floor if it hadn’t been held up at one side by a tiny and frail hand. Looking down on it, as I was, I could not make out where the long white hair ended or where the shoulders might begin.
The sound continued as it came nearer and I saw that while one hand clutched the swishy dressing gown, the other hand inched along the metal handrail, at each touch the ghost’s wedding ring made a resounding ‘ching’ and, as each step was an obvious effort, an exhalation of wheezy breath accompanied each ching.
For each step closer she huffed, puffed, shuffled and groaned, but never looked up. All I saw was a mass of hair above a mass of gown and I stood, mesmerised – awaiting my fate.
It still took me a while to realise this was no common or garden spook. I got the first clue when it eventually looked up, saw me and spoke…..
“Oh! Nurse, can you help me, please? I got up to go to the toilet and now I can’t find my bedroom.”
Footnote: Neither could I, but we managed, Margaret and me.