October is here and autumn has arrived in full force. Everywhere are signs of decay: the fallen leaves turn mushy on the wet grass, fungi grow puffed and swollen along the woodland paths, branches creak and tumble in the howling wind. We leave the house in darkness and return in darkness. We begin to look towards festivals that mark the end of the abundant summer and the beginning of the cold, dark winter.
This is the time of year associated with death. When the divide between the living and the dead becomes a thin veil and spirits may cross easily into this world. For our ancestors, winter was a difficult and dangerous time. On the night of Samhain, they believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth; some to cause mischief. They lit bonfires to keep away evil spirits, left offerings of food to appease the Gods and held feasts for dead kin, in the hope that they would make it through the coming darkness.
Soon, many families will celebrate Hallowe’en. Children, and some adults too, will enjoy dressing up, grotesque party food and scary stories. Although the shops are full of tawdry, plastic trinkets, unpleasant costumes and cynical commercialism, these activities are the evolution of ancient traditions. For that reason, I find the end of October a special time. The dark, chill nights are filled with the melancholy of seasons passing; the year is heading towards its end. There is hopefulness too, standing by a roaring, hot bonfire; the flames spread light into the moody, black sky. I think about past days, people I have lost, people I have forgotten. I remember my childhood; I enjoyed a good scare then, as I do today.
I remember one particular day in the school library…
Everyone was surprised when I wasn’t made a Prefect in my final year at Junior school. Pupils were usually awarded the role as a reward for academic or sporting success. I didn’t mind, though. In fact, I was relieved. Prefects stood in the corridors telling other kids off for running instead of walking. They were unpopular; bossy and rude teacher’s pets.
The teaching staff chose to make me a Librarian instead. Being a Librarian meant staying in at break times. It meant avoiding the playground with its noisy, rough games of Bulldog and Tag. It meant sitting in the quiet hush, organizing, labelling and cataloguing books, checking records, tidying shelves, making displays, and best of all, when the library was empty, which it often was, reading. Those teachers knew what they were doing.
One lunchtime, I was in the library with my friend, Dean. We had just finished creating a display of new adventure stories. We sat satisfied with our work, laughing and chatting in subdued voices about the myth of the ghost that haunted the library. Like all schools, there were many tales of ghostly happenings. The fact that the library was haunted was well-known. Stories of strange bumps and scrapes, chills down the back of the neck and shifting, shadowy shapes were shared with giggles and gasps between classmates. Exactly who or what haunted the library was unknown.
Certainly, the library had a special atmosphere of its own. Entering it was like entering a different world, far removed from the hustle of school life. It was cool and peaceful. The lighting muted. The outside world muffled as if it might even have ceased to exist.
Dean and I didn’t believe in the ghost nonsense. For us, the library was a place where we felt comfortable and safe; unthreatened amongst the neat rows of books. As we shook ours heads and tutted scornfully at the silliness of our fellow pupils, a book fell violently, in fact almost flew, from a shelf in the furthest corner. We looked at each other in bewilderment. Dean got up and went over, a little cautiously, to pick it up. Then, he yelped and dropped the book as if it had bitten him.
“What is it?” I asked in surprise.
“The book.” he said, pointing to where it lay on the floor.
I walked across to see what he was talking about. There sat the book on the dusty, grey linoleum. Its title: ‘Ghost Stories.’
Have you ever had a strange, other-worldly experience?