01 Feb Forgotten Valentine
I had managed to keep a healthy scepticism of ghosts, ghouls and all things supernatural until I was 28. I found most claims of such things to be dubious at best, and harmful at worst. I was very much in the camp of the classical sciences as I had studied physics at Edinburgh university several years earlier. While my profession has never taken me back into the scientific arena, I had until this time maintained a ruthless opposition to pseudo-science and superstition.
My friends often wonder about the change they saw in me at that time. What surprised them was that it wasn’t a slow, steady change of heart, but rather a complete turnaround over night; a transformation, if you will. It may have appeared as if it occurred so very quickly, but in fact it happened over a slightly longer time scale; two weeks to be precise.
It was February, in fact it was the week of Valentine’s day. Around this time I was going through a socially isolated phase. It’s something which often happens in the bleak Scottish winters, where I become increasingly wrapped up in my own loneliness and passing bitterness at those who ‘fit in’. It was, and still is, a neurotic hangover from my teenage years, one which has plagued me for far too long.
Two weeks earlier I had found myself wandering through the cobbled streets of Edinburgh to clear my head. Walking, as amusing as it may seem, has always been a great comfort to me. You are, in every sense, alone with your thoughts, but that part of you which craves the company of others is slightly appeased by being ‘in’ the world, even if you’re only in it long enough to share a glance with a passing stranger.
Edinburgh is a very old city and has remarkably kept much of its former self. The cobbled streets meander down the steep side of what was once a volcano, breaking off sporadically into narrow lanes which occasionally open up into secluded court yards. These numerous court yards are often flanked on all sides by tall terraced houses, huddled together as if whispering of a secret and long forgotten past. The impressiveness of Edinburgh as a city is often lost on those who have lived there long enough to find beauty commonplace.
As often happens when gripped by depression, I hadn’t been sleeping well. I had finished work the previous evening around 5pm and while I managed to get a few hours sleep, my mind just wouldn’t let me relax. Come 6 in the morning, even though it was a Sunday and I could for once have a long lie, I conceded defeat in my attempts to have a proper rest and got up to greet the world, however reluctantly.
By the time I had set out it was still early morning and the cold January air stung my face. Although Edinburgh is, for want of a better expression, a tourist city, at that time it still seemed relatively deserted, even for a Sunday. A slight mist had risen out of the water of Leith making it feel all the more colder as I passed through the narrow lanes and down empty pavements, entirely oblivious to where I was going.
As the shops opened and the first trickle of tourists bled out onto the cobbled walkways from their hotels, I deliberately headed for a quieter, often forgotten network of streets. My wandering mind had indeed taken over, for as I broke through the haze of a daydream I found myself standing at the gates of an old graveyard. I had been thinking of turning back and heading home, but something about this place awoke a compulsion in me; I had to explore it.
I found it curious that the gates, constructed out of blackened steel rods, were lying unlocked as early in the day as this. Entering the cemetery, I immediately noticed the overall isolation of the place, enjoying the sound of gravel under my feet which pierced the silence, as I moved slowly along a path littered with small white stones.
It wasn’t a large graveyard. It seemed to consist of two separate plots, with the older graves at the front, bordering the fence and gate, filing backwards up onto a diminutive nearby hill where the more recently deceased residents lay. The oldest graves bore the weathered scars of age, I found one which was dated 1776, but the epitaph was illegible. I felt a sadness staring at the headstone, wondering about who it belonged to and indulgently contemplating about myself as a forgotten or lost soul.
Eventually I moved off, wandering up the hill towards the newer graves. I found myself drawn to a large old sycamore tree which loomed over several graves below it, with an almost protective demeanour. I stared at one of the headstones, reading the words but not registering them, as my mind was engulfed by yet another daydream. The grave stood out somewhat from those around it. The headstone was white in colour, while those which accompanied it were forged out of a deep, black marble.
Without thinking, I ran my hand over the smooth stone feeling the occasional mark of the elements upon it. At the foot of the headstone lay a small, innocuous vase. It was made of a brownish metal (copper I assumed as the surface exhibited small veins which were blue in colour due to its exposure to the weather).
As I stood there, something rose up out of my mind. Something which bothered me greatly. At first I did not know what it was, experiencing it merely as a low, growing sense of discomfort. As this feeling of unease reached a crescendo, I suddenly realised what was wrong.
The name on the grave was Lisa Maine.
I knew that name well, everyone in the local area did. I had known her when I was growing up, as we went to the same school together. She was someone that I watched from afar, full of life and exuberance, while I was shy, reclusive, and reserved. I possessed that intense infatuation and desire for her which only a first love can produce.
The words on her headstone came into sharp focus; age 15. I was overcome with a tremendous sense of grief and loss, one which took me entirely by surprise, so much so that I had to leave that place; I just couldn’t bear it. As someone who prides himself on being level headed and immune to flights of fancy, I could not shake the profound unease which often comes with outrageous coincidence.
I exited the graveyard as quickly as possible and headed home ignoring the now cluttered Edinburgh streets. I did not look back.
Over the following few days or so I was preoccupied. I was overworked and was having trouble sleeping, but that was not unusual for me. What was unusual were the immovable thoughts and memories of Lisa Maine, thoughts which now stayed with me wherever I would go.
I had been terribly affected by her death as we were only 15 years old at the time, but that was over a decade ago and I had not thought of her for many years. It was as if seeing that gravestone had awoken a sense of loss, a sense of pain which I had managed to bury so far deep inside of me, that I had persuaded even myself to forget it.
A cacophony of memories now haunted me; beautiful and terrifying. At any one moment I would be exhilarated by the thought of her smile, her hair, her kindness, and at the very next engulfed by despair at the image of her lying under six feet of earth; cold and alone. Once full of life, now a decaying husk, which had long ago housed that beautiful soul.
If I had told anyone of how I felt they would have called me overly emotional or sentimental, for the fact remained; I barely knew Lisa. Watching her for years across a classroom, I imagined myself talking with her, sharing those intoxicating moments which mean so much to a teenager; the first connection with someone you adore, the first feeling of being loved, the first kiss.
I had in fact hardly ever spoken to her until only a few weeks before she died. In one of those embarrassing manoeuvres which teachers often pull, the pupils were all forcefully partnered with someone to take to our first social dance. Social dancing was a torrid affair. For someone like Lisa it was fun and to be enjoyed, while for me it was something to be detested. I was embarrassed, possessing none of the talent to be a dancer and even more so afraid to spend time with a girl, held back by my own teenage awkwardness.
It was the end of January, and Lisa quickly set me at ease in social dancing class where we practised. I cannot convey the simultaneous sense of joy and fear which I felt when she asked me to walk her home that day. Some people find social interactions to be exhausting, much like myself always worried about saying the wrong thing, but some individuals can set others at ease with the smallest of effort; Lisa was one of those people. As we walked across an elegantly Victorian bridge towards her house, the winter sun bathed our surroundings in a cool, comforting glow. I couldn’t have been more content to be in the presence of this happy, kind hearted girl. She was so beautiful, with an incredible smile and golden locks of hair which seemed more at home in a fairytale than our surroundings.
For weeks we walked the same route home every day. Talking, laughing (something I rarely did) and growing ever closer. When you are that age, everything is so potent. Most can fall in and out of love in a heart beat. I didn’t have many friends, and I lived alone with my mother who was not a particularly affectionate women, so in that short time I fell in love with Lisa Maine.
On the 13th of February, we stopped outside her house. We stood talking for a moment and then for the first time Lisa became distant. She stared straight at me in a way that she had never done before. I felt uneasy, yet exhilarated. There was a moment, a tiny moment where we said nothing to one another, then she hugged me. Her fingers slid through my hair. I will never forget how sweet she smelled, how alive she felt, and how grateful I was to someone for showing me a kindness I had never previously known.
Lisa slowly let go of me and then skipped up to her front door. Just before she disappeared she turned and smiled at me one more time. Then she was gone.
Immediately I knew what I was going to do. For the first time in my life I was full of purpose and focus, a desire to do just one thing. I ran as fast as I could to the local shops. I was lucky as most of them were shutting up for the day. A kind old man who ran a rarely used card store allowed me in to his shop, even though he was just closing.
I was going to buy my first Valentine’s card.
It had to be perfect. It had to be just right. After looking at almost every card I could afford, I found one. It was fate. The card was red with a white circle in the middle. In that circle was a boy and girl walking hand in hand into the distance, together. I did not care what it said inside, because I have always had a way with the written word, and knew I could put something down which came from the heart. I bought it. After leaving the card shop I went straight into my local newsagents. I had kept aside my last two pounds. My mother gave me an allowance to buy my lunch at school every week, and I knew she would not give me more should I spend it. Despite it meaning I would have to go without lunch for a few days, I bought a box of chocolates to accompany the card.
I rushed home, walked straight past my mother, who barely greeted me, grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and went upstairs. I knew I would get into an unbelievable amount of trouble for it, but I didn’t care. I cut a slither of material from the red curtains hanging in my mother’s room and tied the makeshift ribbon around the box of chocolates. In my mind it now looked like a Valentine’s gift. I wrote in the card explaining how I felt about Lisa and how much those walks home had meant to me, signed it, sealed the envelope and slid it under the ribbon so it sat nicely with the chocolates.
I waited for the next day. It came all too slowly.
The 14th of February. I will never forget the excitement of getting ready for school. I took one last look at the chocolates and card before slipping them into my bag. I think I made it a little too obvious that I was carrying something important and delicate, as I cradled the whole bag in my arms for most of the day.
I was so enthused, so focused that I was going to march straight up to Lisa and give her the gift without a care for what the others, some of whom could be very cruel, would think.
But she was not there.
She wasn’t in the playgrounds, she wasn’t in her classes. For the subjects we shared, I just sat and stared at her empty desk and chair. School finished and I found myself walking the same route Lisa and I would normally. I stood outside her house, holding the chocolates. I can’t describe the feeling I experienced there. Call it the effects of a lack of food or the exhaustion of having been so primed for the day, but anxiety took me and as a result I couldn’t bring myself to knock on her door. I went home, dejected. I couldn’t so much as eat a bite of the undercooked ham my mother threw down in front of me, so I simply went upstairs and crawled into bed, barely sleeping all night.
For the next two days I walked that same route and found myself holding onto those chocolates, not daring to cross the threshold of the little white fence in front of Lisa’s house. On the third day I asked our teachers about Lisa’s absence, something which just hadn’t occurred to me to do. I associated any authority with being cold, distant, and unfair, and as a result normally avoided contact with my teachers at any cost. Mr Randall, our History teacher, told me that Lisa had come down with a bad fever and was very ill.
She could be off for weeks.
With this news I was resolute; I was going to knock on her door, and knock on her door was just what I did. I knocked, and knocked, and knocked, but no one answered. The next day I did the same, and again, no one answered.
It had now been five days since I had last seen Lisa. It was a Saturday and, once again, I went over to Lisa’s house, chocolates and card in hand. As I approached her house, the sky clouded over, casting a dull hue over Lisa’s seemingly deserted street. It was clear to see that Lisa’s father was not a gardener. The garden path split an overgrown and patchy lawn in two with clambering weeds stretching up towards the sun through numerous cracks in the concrete slabs. I stopped to look around and focused my gaze on what seemed to be a smallish gnome figurine smothered in the undergrowth; it had sadly been broken.
Many suggest that when something is wrong, a person knows. They may not be aware of precisely what has happened, but that they can almost feel a palpable sense of dread in the air. I looked around and continued towards the front door.
Something was different.
I was sure that the house had seemed as deserted as it had on the previous days I had visited, and while the house was for all intents and purposes exactly the same as before, there was one change. The front door was open. I was convinced that it had been shut when I had arrived, but I dismissed this as simply the by-product of my fascination with the condition of Lisa’s garden. You see, I can’t quite explain it, but there was something suffocating about that house on that quiet street.
I reached the door and grasped the door knocker, chapping three times. No answer. I repeated my knocks more forcefully this time, but still no one came.
The door was only slightly ajar and as such I couldn’t really see much of the interior. All I could tell was that the house was dark and that the air escaping through the doorway was musty, as if nothing had stirred inside for days. I started to feel nervous. I didn’t really know why.
Clearing my throat, and stammering slightly I asked ‘hello?’ several times without answer. The street was empty and the whole place felt devoid of life. Then a thought began to ruminate and gather momentum within me. What if Lisa and her father were hurt? I started to play out all of the possibilities in my mind, the two of them lying somewhere in the house injured without food or water for days. Then I remembered that my History teacher had said Lisa was ill. He must have spoken to someone to know this, probably Lisa’s father. I hoped that she was not so sick that her father had taken her to hospital.
Despite the logic of my thoughts, I still could not dismiss the horrible feeling that something was indeed wrong. Fear began to grip me, yet I closed my eyes only for a moment and found the memory of Lisa’s embrace all the solace I needed to overcome it. I held on tightly to the card and chocolates as I pushed the door fully open. It moved silently, but I was sure the noise of it hitting a doorstop on the floor would alert anyone to my presence as the bang echoed throughout the house, but still no one came.
The house was bathed in darkness.
I took one last look around me and crossed the threshold. While Lisa did not come from an affluent family, the house had an upstairs and must have had at least four bedrooms with an attic. Perhaps the fact that Lisa was an only child made the house seem all the larger or emptier, but as I slowly made my way down the hallway, I felt as if each footstep echoed throughout distant passages and rooms.
Beginning with the living room on the ground floor, I moved from room to room occasionally asking if anyone could hear me, but I quickly became aware that I was only talking to myself. The air was stiflingly hot and running my hand across a radiator I realised that the boiler must have been on for some time.
As I moved into the kitchen at the rear of the house, I heard something. It was an almost rhythmic dull thudding. I couldn’t identify what it was, but I knew it was coming from somewhere upstairs. I left the kitchen, which I was glad to do as it was filled with the smell of rotting food, and walked to the foot of the stairs.
The staircase was quite narrow and ran along the inside of a wall. At the top of the stairs was a landing which curved round to the left and led onto the other rooms. The dull thudding was now more pronounced and as I slowly climbed the stairs the same fear which had gripped me at the door returned. The realisation of wandering into someone’s house uninvited came to the fore. Stopping for a moment, I closed my eyes and thought of Lisa again. I continued on.
As I reached the top of the stairs, the thudding noise stopped; I shudder now even just thinking of it. There were three doors leading to the other bedrooms and one leading to a bathroom which I could already see was empty. The door to the first bedroom lay open. I peered in slowly almost expecting to find someone there. There was no one. It was Lisa’s father’s room, neat, organised, with almost no objects of any note. The only curiosity was that the curtains were not drawn.
The door to the second room was closed. Again, I was overcome with a sense of intrusion. I was walking around inside someone’s house without invitation. In effect, I was a trespasser. I knocked on the door quietly. Waiting for a moment I realised the room must be empty and turned the brass handle on the door. It opened. As I pushed the door it creaked and then suddenly stopped after only a few inches of movement. Something was behind the door. I pulled it towards me and then pushed again, but no luck. With each attempt the wooden door bashed off of something. I suddenly became aware of the noise I was making as each attempt echoed throughout the house. It was not dissimilar to the thudding I had heard before.
I tried one more time, pushing against the obstacle as hard as I could. No luck. I was about to give up and move on to the next door when I saw what was blocking my entrance. I will never forget the cold glassy stare of the face which seemed to be peeking out from behind the bottom of the door. The skin a pallid grey, a few retreating locks of hair covering an otherwise balding head, globules of sweat congealed under. Most of its features were obscured by the door, but the only visible eye still stared, clouded and covered in shadow.
I didn’t scream because I quickly realised that not only was this the face of Lisa’s father, but that he was very much dead. I felt numb, but looking back I realise I handled the situation much more calmly than many of my age would have, but then I did have a strange fascination for such things, reading many accounts of quite horrific death scenes.
I stared for a moment, composed myself, and then instantly turned to thoughts of Lisa and where she might be. Was she in the same room? Was she in the attic? All I could hope for was that she was OK.
Something then happened. An event which I have to this day repressed, ignored, and avoided as much as I possibly could. Something which shook me to the core. Something which I have never told a soul.
The face staring up at me through that gloom filled gap in the doorway, moved. At first it was only slight and I disregarded it as the effects of shock. Then it moved again. Suddenly the door began to shake violently as if being punched and kicked by the body lying behind it. The head turned upwards as the cracking of rigamortis from the neck struggled against each sharp and vicious movement. A putrid gurgling sound gasped out, enraged from deep within its bloated throat.
I closed my eyes. I was sure it was not real. The banging stopped, and the house fell once again into silence.
I let out a sigh of relief and opened my eyes. What I saw I can barely describe now. The face had moved upwards from behind the door to be level with mine. The door shook and rattled under the strain as its venomous attacker tried to claw and batter its way through. Finally, the face pushed and squeezed through the gap in the door, revealing its repulsively loathsome features in their entirety.
Dead, swollen with clotted blood, gasping relentlessly for air, all the time staring straight at me through hate filled eyes with lips pulled back over teeth gritted together, grinding against one another in wretched hatred.
I do not remember much of what took place after that, perhaps I am glad to. I know I escaped, and I know that I ran home confused, crying, and babbling like a madman. I also know one more thing, while the memory has been pushed so deep inside that I can barely recognise it, I know whatever was in that room slipped through the gap in that doorway; slipped through and grabbed me. How I escaped I do not know.
The truth was more horrifying than I could have imagined. Lisa’s father had lost his job a couple of weeks earlier and as bills mounted combined with the pressures of looking after his only child, he snapped. When the police entered the house they found poor, sweet Lisa’s body in the cellar. Her wrists were tied to a radiator. She had been strangled to death. After killing his daughter, Lisa’s father had then went upstairs and hanged himself in her room. After a few days of hanging there, the cord he used to choke the life from himself seemed to have snapped. The police found his body slumped behind the bedroom door. The door was open.
As time eroded the memory, the explanation of these events altered greatly. Through my years of study at school and then University, I read of psychological pressures and how trauma could bring about vivid hallucinations. I had convinced myself that I had found Lisa’s father dead and that the shock had produced the rest of the experience. No matter how real it felt, the idea that a corpse twisted by rage and hate, perhaps even by the love I felt for his daughter, could somehow come back to life and attack the living, just did not fit in with my scientific and atheistic understanding of the world.
I dismissed the entire experience, but one thing had still managed to haunt me until I managed to hide it from myself. The police reported that Lisa had been tied up for a couple of days before she was killed.
The date of her death was recorded as the 15th of February.
She had been in that cellar, tied up, frightened yet alive when I had come by to give her her Valentine’s gift. People talk about hauntings and spirits, but the memory of that contorted face rising up through the doorway was nothing compared to the knowledge that had I went into her house that day, that maybe, just maybe I could have saved her. Yes I was a child, but I could have done something!
I grew up, but I never felt that love again, that feeling of connection with another human being. I developed an unhealthy attachment to my own company and found myself more interested in burying my head in textbooks than perhaps meeting others, or even falling in love. The friends that I did have were never that close to me, nor did they ever truly understand who I was.
Seeing Lisa’s grave had brought it all flooding back to me. Those stolen moments, that thing in the house, her death. The funny thing is that of all those memories, both traumatic and precious, the one thought which would not leave me was of the Valentine’s gift I never gave. While I still hoped that the dead thing in Lisa’s house was of my own imagination and that the world was still very much material, lacking in the spiritual, I still felt the need to rectify this.
I had kept the card all those years, in many ways it was both my most cherished and loathed possession. Cherished for the memories which it drew up from within me, and loathed for the same reason. On the morning of the 14th I walked through the cobbled streets of Edinburgh towards Lisa’s resting place, on the way I stopped at a little newsagents and picked up a box of chocolates.
On my first visit I had wandered there by accident, vaguely negotiating each street in a daze, but this time I was focussed and resolute. Sentiment is a curious thing and it had encouraged me to keep, not only the card, but also the ribbon I made for the chocolates. When I entered the graveyard I gazed up towards that lonely hill where she lay. I felt hesitant. Not because I did not want to leave the gifts by her graveside, but more so because I did not know the extent to which the feelings of remorse, sadness, and bitter nostalgia would overcome me again. Nevertheless, I took a moment and then made my way up over the whitened path, up towards the hill, up towards her.
There I stood. The sun was still relatively low in the sky and it cast long, contorted and exaggerated shadows over everything. After standing there for what seemed like an age, I pulled out the ribbon, tied it carefully around the box and then placed the chocolates and the card against the cold headstone.
I don’t know if I said anything. At the time I probably didn’t as I was still convinced that she wasn’t there to hear me; that once your loved ones pass away, they are gone forever; that death is the end. I do know that I cried. I cried like I hadn’t since I was a child. I fell to my knees and buried my head in my hands. I was inconsolable.
Those moments of utter sadness, utter despair at the cruelness of life and what it had done to beautiful Lisa were the last I had as a true sceptic, for as I knelt there the wind blew gently through the graveyard; gently caressing those stone markers of loss and those who attended them.
I had heard and read about people having a religious or spiritual experience, and while I cannot truly accept others’ testimonies, I can say that what I felt at that moment was profound; an achingly beautiful feeling of companionship and love. I looked around. No one was there, but I felt that someone was. I tried to shake the feeling off as my mind simply playing tricks on me, but no matter how much I tried to stick to that interpretation of events, I simply could not do it. That feeling shared a twin emotion. I had only once ever felt that way before; when Lisa hugged me the last time I saw her. As the sensation washed over me, I realised that I had truly been searching for that same feeling again, but never found it until that moment.
I stood up, wiped my eyes and touched the gravestone as if to say goodbye. I walked to the graveyard entrance with a smile which stretched from ear to ear, something anyone who knows me will tell you is extremely unusual. When I reached the gate I glanced once more at that hill, which for me was no longer a site of loneliness, but one of love and friendship.
The second and last time I can say I have ever seen a ghost was at that moment, for standing up on the hill beside Lisa’s grave was the blurry image of a young girl in a pink social dancing dress. I did not run to the grave, because I knew I did not have to. She waved slowly at me and then disappeared behind her gravestone.
I walked home. I felt full, joyful, and exuberant. It is almost impossible to describe that experience by the graveside, perhaps completeness will do for now, but even that cannot convey it.
Friends wonder what happened to me around that time. The truth is that I found something I did not know was missing. Some reading this may think that I found my faith, but it was not that at all. What I found that day was companionship and acceptance from the only person I had ever truly loved. I knew from that day onwards that the world was a far more mysterious and wonderful place than I could ever have possibly imagined. I knew that I would never fear being alone, for when I go wandering through the streets of Edinburgh and find myself on a quiet stretch of road, I smile to myself knowing that if I listen carefully I can hear the footsteps of Lisa, that girl I loved so dearly when I was a child, walking with me wherever I go.