I do not essentially believe in the supernatural. Even though I have grown up loving the thrill of those stories that make you curl up with dread and lie ramrod stiff on the bed at night. Most of my supply of stories came from the jhuli (Bengali for bag) of my father’s friend. He used to arrive every evening with a mischievous smile, his eye glinting behind thick black frames and you could see the joy he found in being a storyteller. A storyteller of creepy tales where someone would pull your legs from beneath the bed at night. Hah. You must have heard that one too, right?
My father once came up with the tale of a skondokata (Bengali word for a headless ghost). When he was a wee boy, he was part of a large joint family in Calcutta and they used to live in a place called Mohini Mansions in the southern part of Calcutta. They used to have a separate kitchen where they used to dine together. To get to the kitchen they had to take a flight of stairs that was outside the house. Next door was an old British mansion. One evening my father was going up the stairs for dinner and happened to glance at the lawn next door. What he saw chilled him to the bone – it was a skondokata. Each night after, he would race up the stairs and refuse to let his eyes stray next door.
Then my brother narrated one of his experiences to me. I somehow do believe him. This happened during his boyhood days of living in a hostel. The building in which he stayed at the time faced an old Muslim cemetary. One night he was studying alone in the hall when the windows — which were tightly shut — started flapping to and fro. My brother asked his teacher the next day about it. He was told, “You cannot do anything about it. You have to stay here. There are two ways you can deal with it. You either ignore them or go a little berserk every time they take place.” My brother chose the former.
I couldn’t sleep three nights in a row after that.
Yet, I am rather sceptic of the entire concept. I bet you are too. Which is why you might scoff at the tale I am about to tell you from one of my many Welsh holidays.
This happened one summer in an area called Gwynedd in north-west Wales. Gwynedd used to be a kingdom in times gone by, not that it has any bearing upon my story.
On a bank holiday weekend, I set out on a long drive from Northampton, with my husband in a merry group of six, to Wales. We had rented a converted old mill in the village of Abersoch, plonked right by the Irish Sea. The cottage was tucked away into a corner by a brook and slightly removed from a gaggle of lovely stone houses.
The plaque on the old cottage, latticed charmingly by Virginia creepers, read Melinsoch.
Angling references were scattered across its rambling interiors – an inkling about the locale of the cottage. Abersoch is an old fishing port.
Cobwebs hung in places. Fat candles with strands of wax melted and hardened around them added an eerie touch to the ambience of the farmhouse dining room. At the end of a rustic, pock-marked table stood a piano, its keys yellowed with age.
The living room was strewn with shabby rugs, and a big fireplace stuffed with logs, ready to warm up the cold, stone floors. The fireplace set off the (so far dormant) jacket-potato-baking instincts in my husband. He is just terribly enthusiastic about jacket potatoes. Woe be on that member of the gang who does not fancy a big, fat spud slathered with butter, cracked pepper and salt.
After a merry night of quaffing a few pints, and snacking on some deliciously smoky potatoes, we retired to the bedrooms. To our share fell a low-ceiling bedroom that could have readily been home to a hobbit or two. The door had no latch and tended to creak open.
The bedroom which our couple friend had, came with a cracked basin and an enamel jug. I could imagine an Emily Bronte heroine waking up to such a rustic affair and washing her rosy face in that basin.
A full strolley was my measure for wedging the door to our hobbit bedroom shut. During the wee hours, my husband woke me up. He had to make a quick trip to the bathroom which was round the other end of the house. We match each other in our propensity to be brave.
When he got back, the strolley resumed its place back against the door. He promptly fell asleep and I remained in a state of wakefulness. In a while, footsteps thudded above.
“Now, how is that even possible?” I mulled. The cottage had sloping roofs.
Right after, the handle of the door moved and it creaked open. I could not even believe my eyes. My heart beating rat-a-tat-tat, I leapt up on the bed and boomed out, “Who’s there?” In a second, I was at the door. Could it have been a prank? I did not put it past one of our gang – especially one of them who had planned to play the piano the next night, as a prank. But when I crept to the other side of the house, I found the others quite lost to the world.
The husband woke up with a start. Then he went off to sleep again (it is amazing how fast he can do that), after all his cooing failed to have any calming effect on me.
I was ready to flee that morning. But we had another night.
So the next night, I lay siege to the big bedroom in the cottage that had a massive bed and two bunkers. Our two male friends were banished to the bunkers in that bedroom. Also, unwittingly I had foiled the piano playing plans of the above mentioned friend. Only on the second night, we were haunted by the ascending snores of the fourth friend.
Would I go back to Melinsoch? I am in no hurry.