Return to the haunted house

Sometimes you need to get away and last week I got far away from Dublin and the novel I’m getting nowhere on. I went back to beautiful county Sligo where I lived from the age of three to ten (and about which I wrote in my very first ever blog post.)

But the staycation didn’t go exactly how I expected. Memories were stirred up. Ghosts even.

After a bit of haggling with my family, I managed to get away on my own for a walk in the countryside near my old home. I used to play all around there with my gang of friends as a kid. We’d not been the hardest working or most focused of students, but when we got out of school we had loads of time to seek out adventures, especially during those long summer days where we were free to disappear off and make our own mischief as long as we were back for tea.

While I was out walking in my old child-size footsteps, I saw the abandoned house that I’d long forgotten. It looked remarkably unchanged since my childhood.

That house was a central conversation topic in my gang. Not particularly originally, we called it The Haunted House. We actively ignored anything factual our parents told us about it (early 80s recession, emigration, blah, blah, blah) and invented our own stories which were far more exciting. No doubt deals had been made with the devil and gone wrong in that house leading to horrific supernatural murders.

We’d peek in the broken windows and dare each other to go inside through one of the broken downstairs windows. We were too scared to ever go in and that hasn’t fully changed. Even last week I didn’t venture too far inside at first. There was still something eerie about the house. I snapped a few photos then hurried away.

But despite all of our childhood paranormal fears, one of our friends did go inside.

Anna was always a leader. She lived across the busy road from me and she was my age and almost as tall and thin. Her family had purchased the farm and moved in when I was about seven. The youngest girl in a large family, she was never going to let herself be forgotten. She climbed higher up trees, refused to do her homework, talked back to the teachers and once announced that she was in love with me. I was embarrassed, chased after her on my bike and a day later she’d announced that Knightrider star David Hasselhoff had replaced me in her affections.

I’m not even sure exactly what prompted Anna to go inside the house. We’d visited it loads of times so why did she do it that day? It mustn’t have been long after my ninth birthday as I remember gripping the two Star Wars figures (Chewie and C3PO) that I’d gotten as presents. Of course, this may not be true at all, childhood memories leave things out, conflate events and invent out of whole cloth. Childhood memories are untrustworthy narrators.

But for the record, here’s what I think I remember.

I remember Anna asking if any of us would go inside with her. No one answered so she laughed and went in through the window alone. I remember her laughter stopping once she was out of view. I remember waiting, the silence from inside, and us calling to her and her not answering. I remember feeling simultaneously terrified and angry. Terrified that something had happened to her. Angry that it was a joke and she’d jump up and mock us. And I remember later only feeling fear – she’d been silent too long.

And then I remember seeing her.

We caught sight of her in the upper window of the house, the one right above the doorway. She was looking out at the distant trees and hills. We called to her and cheered. She looked down briefly at us, twisting her head like we were a curious sight, almost something inexplicable to her, then looked away from us again.

We called to her a few more times, but she didn’t respond. Her eyes were distant. Almost hypnosised. We looked at each other, not knowing what exactly to do. I think I shivered.

Someone shouted, ‘She’s possessed,’ and that was it. We spun around and set off running off, genuinely believing it. All the way home, I never looked back at her or the house. Not once.

But this isn’t a horror story. This was Sligo, not Amityville or wherever The Exorcist or The Poltergeist was set. Anna was at school the next day. Life went on as normal, but something had changed.

She moved to the front of the class and started doing her homework. She stopped playing with me and my gang in the yard. She joined the older girls and boys and the athletes and popular kids and hung around with them. Over the next week, we visited her house a couple of times, but she never wanted to come out and play. We got the message and it hurt. Just like she dropped me for The Hoff, she dropped all of us.

We stopped visiting the Haunted House and inventing stories about it. Instead we invented stories about Anna. Had something really possessed her? Could she have been replaced by a evil fairy? What had happened to her inside that house that changed her?

I moved away from Sligo when I was ten and I drifted out of touch with most of those kids but thanks to Facebook we’ve reconnected a little. There’s no great success stories among us. One of the lads manages the small pub he grew up above. He drinks a lot in it too. A few have been in and out of trouble with the authorities. One has chronic mental health problems. Some have emigrated. I’m probably one of the most settled of the lot – happily married and trying to break into children’s fiction – but nothing to write home about. Our lives meander along, nothing extraordinary.

Anna, she’s the exception.

Over the years, I’ve read about her on and off in the newspaper, first in the sports then in the business section. I’m not going to say anything to give away her identity here and Anna’s not her real name, but let’s just say that after success in a specific sporting field combined with a top degree from a Dublin university and an MBA from an Ivy league college in the US, she made a significant success of herself in a financially remunerative sector of industry. A quick bit of googling tells me that she’s living between homes in New York, London and a holiday home in rural France. There’s talk of her running one of the major international charities or leading global taskforces for the United Nations. She’s a high flyer.

Now that I’m back in Dublin and back in the spare bedroom at my computer with my wife working away at her desk a few feet from me, I wonder if myself and my friends in Sligo were wrong. Maybe it wasn’t what happened in the house that changed Anna – it was what she saw when she reached that upper window and looked out.

She looked down and saw all of us down below, us almost literally pooing our pants with fear. She saw us from a distance from a first time. She saw that we were kids. And she looked out at the mountains and country around her and she knew she wanted more. And by the time she came out of the building, she wasn’t a kid anymore.

Her decision hurt my feelings at the time, but I don’t feel hurt by it anymore. I admire her. She went for what she wanted and she got it. She was brave enough to look beyond what the rest of us saw.

Some days, I wish I’d taken her offer and gone inside the house with her. Maybe I would have looked out of that window with her. Maybe things would be different and on my bad days anxiety and fear rule wouldn’t rule me so much.

But I’ll never know. Even last week I was still too scared to go into the Haunted House.

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