We didn’t fit in where I grew up. Unlike all our neighbours, my parents were cash poor and worked in manual jobs. Our clothes were mostly second hand and we wore them during the boom period of label-branded fashion. But we were asset middle class, albeit by accident. My parents were baby boomers who benefited most when house prices in Britain were at their most affordable. We lived in south Buckinghamshire, the sweet spot of the commuter belt, so they hit the Home Counties postcode lottery, too. Their town’s property values soared during the Eighties and continued to buck trends as wealthy Londoners searched for homes in the leafy burbs where they could send their children to the best schools. Those were the kids I grew up with, my friends, only they were privileged and I wasn’t.
My parents decided to cash in when Dad lost his job at the warehouse where he’d worked for years. My three older half-siblings had all moved out. It made too much sense for them not to go, they said. My older brother, Fred, was fourteen and I was twelve when our house was sold within weeks of going on the market. We were moving to a hilltop bungalow in a town on the East Devon coast. Our new home was a ‘doer-upper’ with a quarter of an acre of land. We would love it, my parents told us; we could go to the beach whenever we wanted.
The bungalow had an eerie feel when we visited for the first time during a week-long holiday in Devon. It was painted white and tucked away in its plot. Its décor was dated and it needed a new kitchen, amongst many other things. But Mum and Dad were keen gardeners and the place had a large and lovingly landscaped garden. You could even see the sea in the distance, if you craned your neck far enough. Whilst the price stretched my parents’ budget to its limit, they were smitten and already dreaming of living out their retirements there.
There was a horrible, churning countdown over that summer as my parents fretted that something might go wrong – that their buyers would pull out, among other possible scenarios. I was hoping that would happen each time the possibility was mentioned. One year into secondary school, I didn’t want to leave. It’s not a time in your life when you want to start over in an unfamiliar place. But the sale did go through and we were greeted at our new bungalow by our new elderly neighbours, following a long, shell-shocked drive.
That afternoon, as we took possession of our new home, my parents invited them inside for a cup of tea but they declined. It didn’t feel right, they said. They’d known the previous owner, one Mrs. Gutteridge. She and her husband had bought the tennis courts of the enormous Victorian home on the other side of our house from these neighbours. There they’d built the bungalow in the Fifties and there Mrs. Gutteridge had lived out a long and bitter widowhood. She was an angry woman, our neighbours reported, and had slipped into a lonely, immobile misery there. It was like she was watching them, they fretted as they stood at our front door and leaned nervously inside.
In the wake of these unsettling remarks, my life took a turn toward the plot of some low-budget horror film. We were the unsuspecting family, moving into the cherished home of a ghastly widow who couldn’t release it from her icy grip, even in death. I’d had an obsession with ghosts throughout my childhood, frightening myself with stories of them, though I’ve grown to be a hardened skeptic of the paranormal since. In Buckinghamshire, I was a brash kid, loud, sporty and confident. But that assuredness vanished when the lights were out and my imagination would run wild. In Mrs. Gutteridge’s bungalow, the fears that used to nag me occasionally by night became constant. My parents would chat about our new house’s dark history almost gleefully, as if it were nothing at all to them at all. I’m sure they slept like babies there...for a while. But I was a veteran consumer of hastily written, non-fiction books about the supernatural and late night, spooky television documentaries and knew what we were in for.
The bungalow was unusually cold and dark, having been built at the wrong angle to trap the day’s light or warmth. It didn’t help that our radiators were always switched off, even at night in winter. Regardless, the chill in that home wasn’t something you could blast away by turning a thermostat dial. I knew that. Sinister icy patches and gusts were often cited by those who’d had supernatural encounters first-hand. That was why I lay awake at night under my covers, with two pairs of socks on my feet, waiting. It was why I stared into a blackness my eyes could never adjust to, looking for Mrs Gutteridge watching me there.
Before we started at our new school, my older brother, Fred, and I had the opportunity to spend more time together – just the two of us. Fred had subtle, undiagnosed learning difficulties from a young age, which had become more apparent as he hit his teenage years. “He was born blue,” Mum would say. The umbilical cord had been wrapped around his neck at birth. She could describe the scene in great detail, how the midwife turned him upside down, and slapped his back several times before he took his first breaths in the world. She was sure it was why he was the way he was, eccentric and a struggler educationally.
‘Slow’ was the word most commonly used to describe Fred back then, almost definitely the kindest. But I loved him. He was eighteen months my senior but I was the older sibling in most ways. We were competitive in sports and computer games but Fred was uncoordinated and I could best him with ease. He was good at parlour games though, especially pool which we’d play at the wonky, tilted table my parents had picked up at a car boot sale. Like many siblings close in age, we’d needle each other during games and often fight afterwards. Fred was a poor loser, and it was difficult to resist an air punch after a rare victory at pool, just to set him off. One time I got him so worked up he chased me down the hall and put a pool cue through my parents’ door after I barricaded myself inside their room.
When we lived in Bucks, Fred was a ‘legend’. The teasing could be hurtful at times but it was mostly fond and never seemed to step over the line. He was funny too, made up ridiculous nicknames for people and knew how to make others laugh. But in Devon he was an outsider; we both were. His eccentricity was too unfamiliar not to make him the softest of soft targets. It made me embarrassed and resentful of him, the way his behaviour tarred me as well. I hated the selfishness of where that feeling came from, the schizophrenic pull of that yet wanting to protect and defend him all the time.
As time wore on, the days became unhappier than the bedtime hours of freezing darkness inside that unhomely house. But an actual sighting of Mrs Gutteridge, or any other paranormal experiences, were still thin on the ground. That was until one night, when I was woken by the sound of footsteps in the corridor hallway outside my door. Someone, or rather something, was running there, heavy-footed on the wooden floor, from one end of it to the other. I sat bolt-up, and rubbed my eyes. It was three-thirty in the morning, according to my radio alarm clock. Who would be up and sprinting lengths at that time? And for what purpose? It made no sense. It had to be a supernatural occurrence; it was the only logical conclusion.
When I finally plucked up the courage to leave my bed and investigate, those alarming footsteps turned out to belong to my brother. I’ll never forget his face as I opened my door, the wide blue-eyed panic as he rushed past me and pushed at the wall at the bottom of the hall, before turning back to sprint in the opposite direction.
‘Fred?’ I whispered, as his arms pumped, ‘What’s happening? Are you alright?’
‘What the fuck is going on?’ I could hear Dad grumble from my parents’ room.
‘Fred!’ Mum screamed, when she came into the room. She was never one for de-escalation. ‘What on earth are you doing?’
But Fred had no clue what he was doing and when we tried to talk to him, it was like he wasn’t there. Somehow, we got him back to bed eventually. Maybe he was experiencing night terrors, Mum suggested in the morning, and confessed it had been going on for weeks without my noticing. It was important to downplay it, to avoid the possibility of what it might be. But I was tuned into it now and woke with it each night, that blank sprinting from one end of the hallway to the other – Fred’s heavy feet on the floorboards. It wasn’t Mrs. Gutteridge, I told myself; it wasn’t possession. It was just my poor, bullied brother’s night terrors, was all.
Other peculiar behaviour followed. Fred would shadow box the fruit trees in the garden and pretend to shoot passing traffic with his fingers. The gentle, funny, slow Fred was leaving us and being replaced by something wrathful and malign...some poltergeist. The shock of witnessing that descent first hand came in waves. It seemed there was a ghost of sorts in our house after all and it had claimed my brother. My parents were ill-equipped to deal with his breakdown, or whatever it was. They were ill-equipped to deal with most things.
I remember when the ambulance pulled into our driveway to take Fred away after weeks of waiting, hoping his ‘episode’ would fade as quickly as it had come on. I remember Fred resignedly accepting his fate as he was coaxed outside and saw the van from the psychiatric hospital waiting there. I remember how he stepped so peacefully inside it, instead of running away as we’d feared. I’d never seen my dad cry before. He was a gentle man, but a hard one, too. Suddenly, he was unable to prize his fingers from his face and sobbed as Fred was driven away, as if the grief of it were flowing into his giant hands, along with his embarrassment at not being able to control that.
My parents’ shock at my brother’s rapid decline and subsequent sectioning morphed into anger over time. His illness had robbed them of their hopes for a peaceful retreat into retirement. Mum became short-tempered. She was a plain speaker, at the best of times, who rarely filtered her thoughts. It was often funny when she did that. But it was rough on me to hear her wonder aloud what life would have been like if they hadn’t decided to have children together. It was Dad’s fault, Mum would say. He’d never have been able to raise a family of his own. His previous marriage had failed when his daughter was young, whereas she had already been a mother to three, a single one for much of that time. She had been selfless then...and it was hard for her to continue being that way. My father was an old man who'd turned fifty the year of my birth. I think he felt he’d missed the window of opportunity to be the father he'd always imagined being. I’d occasionally catch sight of that regret in a rueful smile.
Even in the lead up to Fred’s breakdown, I had already retreated into deep introversion. I was homesick for Buckinghamshire and didn’t want to attend school, where I was slow to fit in. I was a posh boy, so they claimed there. My home counties accent didn’t mesh with the West Country burr all the kids there seemed to have. When I asked for days off, which I did all the time, my parents wouldn’t put up much of a fight.
It was before the arrival of affordable mobile phone service so I’d call old friends on their landlines, my only option to have any communication with them. Each time I dialled, I was excited at the possibility of hearing their voices again, and looked forward to how pleased they’d be to hear from me. When I reached them, they’d tell me about how they were getting on at school or how our old football team was doing. But more often than not, I’d only get to speak to their mums and dads who would tell me they were off having fun outside – something I could have been doing with them if only we’d stayed. ‘That’s a shame,’ I’d say, forlornly when I heard they were out and I’d do my utmost to ensure my disappointment could be felt.
I hoped my not-so-subtle expressions of homesickness might tug at some maternal cord – that I’d be talked about over dinner that evening. Such conversations would snowball in my mind until, soon, my pain would become theirs too. I imagined how, eventually, I’d be invited to come and live in one of their houses, which were light and warm, and back in the place I belonged. Of course, no such invitation ever came, but far-fetched fantasies like these seem perfectly feasible when you’re young and heartbroken, and don’t understand the social norms of such matters.
When we saw Fred again, he’d been moved to an adolescent mental health unit. He had been prescribed a harsh cocktail of ‘corrective’ drugs and was monosyllabic and sleepy. He wasn’t crazy any longer, but he wasn’t Fred either. He was just subdued and there was something haunting about him, something glazed over and emptied out. We were invited to meet with his psychiatrist in a side room. He’s a man I still think about, somehow having morphed into the character actor, Nigel Havers, in my mind’s eye. There must have been a likeness.
After a brief overview of Fred’s condition from behind his desk, he invited my parents to ask questions to ensure they were fully aware of the process going forward.
‘Do you think Glen might've caused it?’ my mother asked, when prompted. It came out of nowhere.
‘No,’ the psychiatrist replied, firmly and with finality. His brow was furrowed and our eyes met. My jaw had dropped open. I wanted to disappear. ‘That’s really not how mental illness operates, Mrs. Sibley.’
‘It’s just that they argued a lot,’ Dad reasoned, ‘And Glen always took it too far.’
‘Look, there’s nobody to blame for your son’s illness,’ the psychiatrist repeated. It was a scolding and it was called for. ‘You really ought to consider how you are going to look after both of your sons.’
I never knew why my parents even raised that possibility, as childish and irrational in its own way as my suspcion that my brother might've been in the clutches of the ghost of Mrs. Gutteridge. I still wonder about it now; of course course I do. Perhaps it was because they sought simple solutions to complex problems. Perhaps because their world was small and the answer to what had happened to my brother had to lie within their limited field of vision. Or perhaps it was just one more wild thought among a million swirling inside my mother’s agitated mind under the deep stress of the situation, that just came tumbling out of her mouth like her thoughts always seemed to.
I’m still grateful to that psychiatrist for helping to insure that I never remotely accepted the possibility that our sibling squabbles had caused Fred’s breakdown; that to do so would be as childish as believing it had been caused by the ghost of Mrs. Gutteridge. At fourteen years of age, the damage from that would likely have been severe, if I had. Simply worrying about the permanence of Fred’s condition took up enough space as it was. What I did struggle with, and still do when I think of that time, is trying to understand that bizarre question’s purpose. It’s almost too hot to touch even now. Parking its tactlessness (I was sitting right there), what was Mom implying? While Dad’s elaboration made it obvious that it was a possibility they’d already discussed. How could it ever have helped the situation to have believed such a thing? And why did they think I was so awful?
I should note that my parents were by no means cruel people. They could be tactless and reluctant, and put their own wants ahead of my brother’s and mine. But there were many happy times also. My father was a kind, thoughtful and amusing man. My mother had a genuinely warm, maternal side which showed itself often. It was the inconsistency that made my (and Fred’s) childhood such a wild ride, all those tangents and how easily the happiness and stability of our family could veer off course.
There are some who unwaveringly cherish the relationships they have, or had, with their parents. At the other end of the scale, some are the opposite, feeling little for their parents or outright loathing them. For most of us though, there’s this large space in between those extremes where the connection is ambivalent and difficult to navigate. There’s a chasm there that suddenly yawns, like a dark room in a haunted house, but then retracts. You’d rather it wasn’t there, but it irrevocably is.
Fred came home after more than a month away. He spent most of his time in his room, his curtains were drawn for long periods of the day. His weight ballooned and his face bloated until he was unrecognisable. It was a common side-effect of his medications, we were told, the combination of which had been designed to render him listless and undangerous, as much as to treat his psychosis. Meanwhile, aspects of my own life did get somewhat better during that troubled time. I began to make a few friends and started playing football for a local team. It kept me outside and away from the house, which was where I gradually learned to be happiest. I grew to enjoy school again, just before it was too late, and the old me began to rear his cheerful head again.
Life eventually improved for Fred, too. He says he doesn’t remember much about that period. Maybe he chooses not to and I can understand why. He’s funny again, jovial and happy. He’s married now, like me and has a full-time job. Last year, he and his wife bought a home of their own and next year he’s becoming a father. None of these things were even remote possibilities back then. His recovery feels like a miracle and my parents played a significant part in it. But I suspect he must wrestle with ghosts from that dark time. I know I’m still haunted sometimes by mine.
Glen Sibley works as a data scientist and lives in Exeter, England with his wife, Kate, a Nurse in the British National Health Service, and their two secondary school age sons. He began work on his debut novel during the Covid lockdown to try and fulfil a promise to himself to write a novel by the time he turned forty, something he has now achieved. The novel, for which he is seeking an agent or publisher, is about a session guitarist in London who, following a suicide attempt, moves to a small town in Devon, where he gradually begins to put himself back together again. He has also tried his hand at non-fiction pieces of which 'Ghosts' is one.