I’m six years old when I see the poltergeist. My father is long gone, and my mother is watching TV, and my brother is upstairs, clashing He-Men together in violent plastic battles. I’m on the bottom step, facing the porch window. I often take the stairs backwards like this because there’s a creepy portrait of a girl at the top – no one we know, found in the attic, and displayed by my mother. The last owner of our house was a gardener, and we think the creepy portrait girl might be his niece. He burned leaves, and sometimes our house fills with thick smoke that isn’t really there. My mother talks of this happening in the same breezy tone she says, ‘Toast is ready,’ or ‘Time for school.’
Outside, the poltergeist shimmers like grounded lightning, tendrils waving. I wave back.
That night I see a lion walk straight through my bedroom wall. Another, I see my mother, impossibly young and hippyish, whispering, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright. I see a snarling head floating above my bed, with wings for ears, and – skittering around on the floor – wind-up teeth chatterers with mirrors inside so you can watch yourself be eaten alive.
I get in trouble because I won’t read a book that has the phrase ‘pale as a ghost’ in it. I won’t say it out loud. Saying it out loud might make it all real.
In English I’m told I have a flair for stories, such creativity, such imagination.
On holiday in a fading coastal town, I shrink from the Punch, his nose too red, his eyes too empty, but later that day on the cigarette-streaked beach I draw a D in the sand and ask for the devil to take me. I couldn’t tell you why. That night, in the murky hotel room, the swirls in the cracked ceiling plaster above me dance to form a boat – a lone, horned passenger, oar in hand.
At school, we chant over the covered well at the top of our playground – alleged to house the skeleton of some poor drowned caretaker. We knock three times, is there anybody there? We flip playing cards over, ask coded questions, black means yes, red means no. I squeal and shriek with the others. Play along. Listen to the answers.
Still in primary school, I watch Braindead, Killer Klowns, Halloween, Child’s Play, Nightmare on Elm Street 1-5. I’m allowed to watch whatever I want, except Poltergeist, which is ironic. I finally watch it in my mid-twenties and scream when the creature appears, with its drawn-out face and cobweb legs. I’m grateful that our porch window had pebbled glass.
By the time I’m a depressed teen I’ve soaked in so much darkness that I have difficulty telling what was already in me, and what came from the films. Such creativity, such imagination.
Later. Older. Visions haunt me through an anxiety disorder where I learn the term ‘intrusive thoughts’ and later still, older still, through a pandemic where I learn the term ‘maladaptive daydreaming’ and I wonder. Because,
I don’t believe. Not in ghosts or visions or premonitions. That’s what I say. To anyone interested enough to ask. To my daughter.
I don’t believe. Only, before she existed, I knew I would have a little girl who looks just like her.
I don’t believe, but a colleague ran from the staffroom in tears after I read her fortune from tarot cards I barely knew how to use.
I don’t believe, but the night my father died I saw him biting into a peach, completely at peace.
I don’t believe, but lately I’ve been seeing my own death. Young – younger than my daughter will be able to cope with.
I’ve written it here, but I won’t say it out loud. Saying it out loud might make it all real.
I tell myself it’s stress, anxiety, just part of being an older mother. But maybe it’s not. And maybe when it happens, I’ll feel the lava-hot splash of the devil come to row me ashore. Maybe I’ll smell the sweet smoke of burning leaves. Maybe I’ll see the shimmering poltergeist, come to wave me home.
Biography: Gaynor Jones is the recipient of a 2020 Northern Writer’s Award from New Writing North for her short story collection, Girls Who Get Taken. She loves stories that feature wayward teens, middle-aged women who’ve had enough, and the darker sides of suburban life.