My Grandfather's Ghost
R. P. LISTER is an English free lance whose poetry and light articles appear frequently in the ATLANTIC.
One night, years ago, I was up on the top floor of a tall house in Kensington, waiting for the end of the world. It was four in the morning, and I had just taken my trousers off when a flying bomb drifted across the roof. Its engine had cut out what seemed several minutes ago, and now, as it approached the earth, I heard the whistle of the wind in its wings. Though I had been greatly troubled by these bombs in recent weeks, and one had even blown me through a doorway in a shower of broken glass, none had caused me as much anxiety as this one. My anxiety was, as usual, unjustifiable. Scorning to attack an unarmed man with his trousers down, the bomb passed lightly on and blew the top off the Kensington Palace Mansions Hotel. Other worlds ended that night, but not mine.
It was in the unplumbed silence that followed that I became aware of my grandfather’s ghost. My grandfather had been an uncommonly learned minister of the Scottish Kirk, and he was choosing this moment to visit me in Kensington. A spaewife had warned me a few weeks previously that this was likely to happen. She was Irish, with red hair, and lived in a converted stable in Cheval Place, between Knightsbridge and the Brompton Road, and she took a great interest in my grandfather. She had charged me ten shillings to hold a glove of mine and tell me all she could see, and since all she could see was my grandfather, she made the most of him.
She even gave me a reassuring message from him about Tom, my second cousin. Tom was walking out of Burma at the time, two hundred and fifty miles across the mountains, with nothing but mud and corpses all the way; only nobody knew this, except, of course, Tom. All the spaewife told me was that Tom, my grandfather wished her to say, was in a tight spot, but he would get out of it all right. She was perfectly accurate. Tom got out of it all right, fortified as he was against all mortal ills by twenty years’ steady intake of Scotch. When he swam the muddy rivers the crocs sniffed him and turned away, preferring their Scotch neat and from the bottle. The only thing my grandfather and the spaewife failed to mention about Tom was that if the crocs had got him, it would have been something of a relief to all, but it was typical of my grandfather’s charitable attitude to all mankind that he should choose to ignore this.
My grandfather’s ghost, at the moment I became aware of him — while the dust of the Kensington Palace Mansions Hotel was still quietly settling down — was on its way up the stairs. I was awkwardly placed. This flat, or apartment, was what is called a duplex further west, to the best of my belief, but is known in England as a maisonette. It consisted of the top two stories, with an internal staircase, and a door at the foot of the staircase shut it off from the rest of the tall house. There was no other way out except a dusty staircase that led from a cupboard in the front bedroom up to the attic. From here a skylight opened on to the roof, and supplied a magnificent prospect of other nocturnal roofs, lit up from time to time by the occasional fire. But fires were not what they had been a few months previously, during the incendiary raids; they had given up trying to burn the place down and were having another shot at blowing it up instead. If it caught fire now and then, it was by accident.
I had an idea that my grandfather’s ghost was on the upper part of the stairs leading to our front door, which he would doubtless pass through without difficulty. I was in a tight spot, like my second cousin Tom, only I was not so well fortified with Scotch. There was no Scotch to be had in England at that time, and although I had drunk all of the beer I could lay my hands on that evening, it, too, was in short supply. Besides, beer is notoriously less effective than Scotch against crocs and ghosts.
It was not that I had any particular objection to meeting my grandfather, of whom I was always very fond, but it did not seem the place or the moment for it. Even the nicest people’s ghosts are uncertain quantities, and I should have preferred to have somebody within call. Just then, as I knew well, there was nobody in the tall house at all; they had all taken to sleeping on the floor in the basement next door, where the porter lived, because if they slept upstairs the bombs kept them awake. I should not have been upstairs myself at that hour, only I had been dining with a poetess in Wigmore Street. I had left at three and bicycled to Kensington on a flat tire, and I was rather tired. All I wanted to do was to put on my pajamas and a dressing gown and descend to the basement next door with an eiderdown. To be caught between my grandfather’s ghost and the skylight seemed to me an unlovely thing.
It may be argued that my grandfather’s ghost was not really there, that he was a subjective thing, existing only in my mind. I have no quarrel with this view, and I even took it myself, but it did not help me at all. If I now suddenly had the subjective belief that my grandfather’s ghost was on his way up the stairs, then if I went down the stairs, I might have the subjective belief that I had to walk past or through him, or smile or shake hands, or whatever it is one does to well-loved ghosts, subjective or otherwise, and I did not want to do any of these things.
In the end, what I did was very simple. I switched off all the lights, picked up my trousers from the bed, and walked into the cupboard, shutting the door firmly behind me. I then walked up the stairs to the attic, which was, of course, in complete darkness, because the skylight was not blacked out. I was used to walking across it in complete darkness because I used to go up there fairly frequently to see if there were any incendiaries lying about on the roof that needed to be thrown off it. So I walked across to the skylight and stood with my head sticking out of it, ready to climb out if I had to; but I did not think it would be necessary, and it was not. I reckoned that my grandfather, though he might have found out my address in Kensington, could not possibly know that a way led up to the attic from a cupboard in the front bedroom. Finding the place in complete darkness and all the rooms apparently empty, he would go away again, thinking he had missed me.
And so it turned out. I stood there looking out into the night, with only the faintest feeling of discomfort in the small of my back, for ten minutes or so. The night was cloudy, and not the faintest speck of light was visible from the opaquely shrouded town; the principal sound was the distant, thin drone of another bomb chugging its way across London toward Enfield or Elstree or Edgware or some other northerly objective. After a time the drone stopped, but I could see no indication of where the bomb fell. And then I became suddenly aware that my grandfather’s ghost had gone. I descended to the basement and slept till six.
Strangely enough, my grandfather has never been to call on me since. I hope he did not get the impression — which I strove to avoid giving — that he was unwelcome, and someday I hope to have the opportunity of explaining to him that I was a little overwrought at the time.