I don’t know if it was a ghost or not, but I have no other explanation of it. Maybe it was all in my mind. Maybe not. However, this is what I believe happened.
It was half-past five on a misty December evening and cars, scooters and buses were streaming from the factories towards the residential areas of the city. I was in the district on business after many years of absence and had planned, as soon as the factories closed, to visit an old and valued friend whom I had not seen for thirty years. The shortest way to her cottage would be by one of the numerous foot paths across the common, which was a surprisingly large area, preserved more or less in its natural state and protected against building development by local legislation; its vegetation consisted of stunted woodlands, interspersed by glades, thorn bushes, stretches of tussocky grass and brambles, and in course of time the birds had selected it as a sanctuary. Apart from the birds the common was little frequented in winter, but once spring and summer came round the swimming pool there would ring with shouts and splashes, and the houses in the roads opened the gates at the end of their gardens and released their children and dogs to the delights of freedom.
I followed the road from the factory for a few hundred yards and then turned off by the footpath I remembered. For the rest of the way, as I knew, there would be no lights except for the occasional gleams through the trees and hedges from the lighted windows of houses in the distance. The pathway was not difficult to identify because, although overgrown in places, it had been artificially restored, in parts by asphalt, wherever the grass or mud had seriously threatened to take over.
To my surprise, when I left the road behind me, I found that I was not alone in choosing this particular way, and in turning around saw, in the gathering darkness, a timeless face I recognised, but I did not know where from.
“A wintry evening,” I paused and allowed the shadowy figure to catch up with me.
“Yes,” came the reply, and the figure of a small, sturdy looking woman came along side me; “It’s going to be a pitch black night.”
“May I accompany you across the common? It’s very lonely and at night it might be uncomfortable for a woman.”
“By all means, if you like. But don’t worry about me. I’m used to it.”
“You can’t be too careful nowadays. There are strange people about.”
“I’ve come alone this way, at all times of day and night, and no-one has ever troubled me – or if they had tried they’ve as got as good as they gave. Of course, I always carry a stick.” Despite the darkness I could see her ebony looking cane, which I realised, could be a very effective weapon if used skilfully.
“Well, I’ve no doubt you can defend yourself,”
“I take them by surprise, you see, before any move has been made, and I know the darkest corners so well that I can defend myself against anyone but a ghost.”
“Well,” I laughed “I don’t believe in ghosts, but for both our sakes let us see each other as far as the road!”
Just then the figure of a man materialised from the thicket, gave one glance at my companion and seeing that she was accompanied hurried on down the path.
“There you are,” I said, “isn’t it lucky I’m with you?”
“I suppose I should be truly grateful,” she said “but actually he is my next door neighbour. He moved in a year before me and his crops have only just been properly sewn.”
“What?” I said
“I have lived a long time, my friend, and I have learned to trust in God and my own resources all my life. I can tell you that, believe it or not, nine people out of ten are thoroughly good.”
“And the tenth?”
“The tenth is either a saint – or a sinner.”
“And if you happen to meet the sinner, what do you do then?”
“Christ came into this world to save that sinner. I make a point of reminding him so.”
We walked on for a few minutes in silence. At this point the narrow asphalt path wound its way across a stream. It was the quintessence of rural peace, rendered all the more striking by the dank and misty evening. Listening to the gentle tinkling of the water, so black as to be almost invisible, it was difficult to realise that there was a city near by throbbing with life and vitality where thousands of souls, with their private ambitions and miseries, collaborated daily to produce heat and light and food and clothes and books, and to protect and preserve the waking and sleeping hours of the community.
From here on the path wound its way under the overhanging branches of low trees and saplings, dripping from the deposit of fine rain and mist. My companion had fallen silent and I turned to look at her in order to reassure myself that all was well. Her head was averted and I could only see her movements that were small and quiet.
“Don’t you feel lonely,” I asked, “coming al this way in the mornings and evenings, summer and winter?”
“Lonely? Why should I feel lonely? The place is full of my friends and I am never alone in my mind for a minute of the day or night. I never have been all my life. Just think to yourself that great gangs of young men are building an enormous double-track motorway over there on the other side of the town; and that two thousand years ago Roman soldiers were tramping the Ickenfield Way to build camp on the top of the hill.”
We came to a crossing footpath where she stopped. “My way is to the left now. I expect you’re going straight on to where the path joins the road.”
“Yes. How did you know?” She ignored my question and said,
“You won’t get lonely now, or frightened in the dark, will you?” You haven’t far to go now,” I laughed in astonishment.
“What on earth have I to be frightened of?”
“Well you never know. I’ll tell you what – I’ll lend you my stick so that you can ward off anyone – except a ghost!”
“No! I couldn’t possibly accept it!” But she insisted.
“You can return it next time we meet. And remember this, that you need never feel lonely, for one moment. You only have to think.” She hesitated a while, she seemed to be probing her mind “For example, think that you will never forget this walk we had together!”
Before I could protest further she had turned to the left and disappeared in the darkness. “Goodnight,” I called after her. There was no answer that I could hear and I turned my attention to the visit I was about to make. By now it was nearly pitch black and I was glad of my stick to push the brambles out the way in the last hundred yards of the path, which curved uphill to the road. Once on the road there would be a few streets lamps, if I remembered right, and the cottage I was looking for would be a little way along the opposite side. Yes, there it was. A light was shining through the curtains of the front window, reminding me of the oil-lamp of thirty years ago. There was the flagged path leading unsteadily between untidy flowerbeds – they would be ablaze of flowers in the spring and summer – to the front door.
Behind that door, in her sitting room where the fire always burned in a welcoming way as if it were only too anxious to boil a kettle, would be sitting the hard-headed little lady I was coming to see. She would probably be stooped over her much loved embroidery and would be sure to remember me – I was once her lodger- even though we would have both changed. I tried to recall her appearance and the tones of her voice, the way thirty years ago she used to say, “Don’t get so worried, young man,” and I remembered that before I left the neighbourhood I had asked her what she would like for souvenir. She said that her tastes were peculiar, so much so that many of her numerous friends had told her that she was a witch. “What about a nice broomstick?” I had suggested. That made her laugh and then she said that, more than anything else, she would like a red cane without a handle. So I bought her one and gave it to her and I shall never forget the smile of beauty on her timeless face…
What did I say? Timeless face? A shiver passed over me. Was it a shiver of fear, or of loneliness? I grasped my stick and rapped on the front door with it. A stranger opened the door. “Is Kate home?” I asked, then faltered at the expression on his face. “I have come especially down to see her,” I went on hurriedly, “from the other side of London…” My voice trailed away to nothingness.
“Haven’t you heard?” he said in a matter of fact voice “she died over a year ago and we bought this cottage. The opening of the door had released a pool of light on the path and as I turned to go I caught sight of the stick I was carrying in my hand. It was red.