Outside it’s sunny, a hot, muggy Auckland day. A plump Tui swings on the untidy flax bush by the bedroom’s open window; slothful clouds drift past in a china-blue sky. But inside the bedroom it’s cold, chilly enough to raise goose-pimples. Despite the golden light outside, the room is shadowy, its corners dim and blurry. I back out, still holding the pile of clean, folded tee-shirts and shorts I came to put away.
It’s early February, 1986. In November my husband got a promotion to Auckland and in mid-January we’d moved our family of five from Nelson to the Big Smoke. We were renting an ex-State house tucked in one of Remuera’s leafy gullies, waiting to move into the house we’d bought in Royal Oak.
Home alone with my eight-week old baby, I had begun to feel uneasy. There was something ‘off’ I couldn’t quite put my finger on but which was centered in that oddly cold bedroom at the front of the house.
I come from a family who believe in the supernatural. My mother often told the tale of her Great Aunt, a Shetland Islander, gifted with at least partial ’sight’. One day Aunt Jesssie read her own tea-leaves. “Oh girls,” she said to her sisters, “We’re going to a funeral!” Two days later she was dead.
When I was a teenager, we moved from our Sounds farm to Kapowai Bay on nearby D’Urville Island. Our new home was a draughty cottage built in 1894 with a higgledy-piggledy collection of ill-designed and cheaply built rooms tacked on. Huddled under tall Norfolk pines on a narrow strip of sloping land at the base of steep bush-clad hills, in the wintry twilight the place had a somber, almost Gothic aspect.
Since European settlement, an unusually high number of the bay’s residents had died in unfortunate circumstances. In 1906 Dr Smylie LL.D left French Pass rowing a dinghy loaded with supplies and was never seen again although his boat was found several miles away washed up on the Island’s coast. A young mother died giving birth to still-born twins in a wild storm during which help could not be sought or delivered, and the owner before us had choked to death on his own vomit following an operation – admittedly in Nelson Hospital, but near enough to be added to the list of fatalities the bay had hosted.
My mother and brothers believed the bay was haunted. The ghost, they decided, was the spirit of Norman Woodman who was gored to death by his bull in February 1942. That morning he’d left his severely disabled wife Eva tied into her chair, but disconnected from the telephone exchange she operated, while he went out to shift his bull. The next day, when the exchange was unable to be raised, and a boat from French Pass sent to investigate, Norman’s badly damaged body was found in the creek, the bull with blood-stained horns grazing nearby. Mrs Woodman was in a state of collapse, having heard the bull roaring throughout the night and having been unattended for 30 hours. She was removed to care in Wellington and died a few months later.
Norman Woodman was buried on a hill near the house. My mother believed she often heard his footsteps on the verandah or saw his shadow pass the kitchen window. One of my brothers, sent out at dusk with a broom handle to untangle the lines that delivered the television signal from the aerial to the house, swears he saw the grey figure of Norman walking towards him down the gravel road. He panicked, threw the broom handle at the apparition and ran for his life.
I was never convinced. I believe that suggestion fuelled by the vivid story-telling for which my family was notorious, created Norman’s ghost. In Auckland, I put my feelings of unease down to postnatal hormones and the stress of moving.
But the bedroom’s chill persisted despite the warmth of high summer. On one wall was a large, square cupboard, coat pegs on three sides. At first, I had stored the children’s toys and clothes there, but as the weeks passed, I realized that this cupboard was the source of my dread. It was irrational, but each time I reluctantly opened the door I felt I would see something, something terrible. One day, when everyone was home, I moved everything out and did my best to ignore it.
Settlement day arrived. Leaving the house, I thanked the agent who had organized the rental for us and asked about the owners. “Oh,” he said, “it’s quite an unhappy story. I don’t know the details, but there have been some pretty bitter family disputes. The property sits empty most of the time.”
That night, exhausted from wrangling three small children and a house-lot of possessions I collapsed into bed hoping for a good night’s sleep. Instead I had an unusually vivid dream. I was standing in the rental house hallway. I heard a child crying. Then I was in the front bedroom, shivering with cold. Sobs were coming from inside the cupboard. I opened the door. A small child was hanging by his clothing on one of the pegs and crying piteously. Hormones and imagination? Probably…