It has been a sombre week. I killed a dog who ran into the road while I was driving. I wasn’t speeding. She hit my back tyre, so I didn’t have to choose to break or swerve or to keep going to avoid a more serious accident. I stopped on the verge, wrapped her up in my daughter’s pink towelling dressing gown with piggy ears on the hood, and held her as she died without even a whimper. Perhaps T.S. Eliot was wrong after all.
“This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper.” ~ T.S. Eliot
My first thought was to phone my dad, but he has been dead for almost 5 years. When I tried to quit smoking in the past, I remember reading that it takes 3 weeks to break a habit (or is it 40 days?). Strange then that after 5 years I still haven’t broken the habit of calling my dad when I’m in trouble and need help.
That got me thinking about memory and ghosts; what we take with us when we die and what we leave behind. I pulled Eric Rosenthal’s wonderful They Walk in the Night off my bookshelf and began re-reading it. It is a collection of South Africa’s most famous ghost stories. They are wonderful and remind me of slumber parties; giggling girls eating condensed milk out of the tin and scaring ourselves half to death.
There have been people living in South Africa for over 100 000 years, so that’s plenty of time to have a veritable rush hour of spectres crossing the landscape. I’ll start though with the haunting of South Africa’s oldest colonial building, the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. It was built by the Dutch between 1666 and 1679.
Several ghosts have been reported over the years including the “Grey Lady” (just like J.K. Rowling’s Ravenclaw ghost!) who haunted both the Castle and Government House. She was said to travel along a collapsed tunnel between the two buildings. After a female skeleton was dug up in the grounds of the Castle in the 1940s, the Grey Lady was seen no more.
The wicked Governor Van Noodt supposedly haunts the castle too. He died suddenly in his chair almost at the same moment that 7 prisoners whom he had sentenced to death for their objection to his cruelty were hanged in the yard. While the Grey Lady seems only to have floated around the castle, Governor Van Noodt is said to speak and dislodge plaster from the ceiling. No doubt tut-tutting about the sad condition of his office hundreds of years after he vacated it.
My favourite ghost story from the Castle though was reported in 1947 by members of the Union Defence Force who were occupying the fort at the time. In a week of few smiles, it makes me laugh out loud.
Over the course of 3 nights at 3 day intervals in July, there were sightings of an 8 foot, semi-transparent apparition. It was first spotted on the ramparts, where after being approached by the guards on duty, “in a pincer movement” no less, it jumped off the battlements and disappeared into thin air above the old moat. 3 Nights later it was seen again. Before reporting the incident to the commander, however, the resourceful Corporal Boonzaair decided first to eliminate the possibility of the ghost being a soldier playing a practical joke.
To do this, he recruited the help of Private Sneygans. Private Sneygans was ordered to “haunt” the battlements while covered in a sheet. Not the sort of derring-do that inspired young men to join the army! Unsurprisingly, the soldiers who had gathered to be haunted were not convinced and with much raucous laughter, dispelled the idea of a joker in a sheet being the culprit.
The last night the ghost appeared, he not only hovered but also rang the bells in the guard-room. The troops were now no longer laughing; they were in a cold sweat of fear. Corporal Boonzaair was ready to present his report to the Commander of the Castle. And although the commander asked the Military Police to keep an eye open for practical jokers (didn’t he read that Boonzaair had conducted his own investigation into the validity of this idea?), “finding no instructions in the Military Code how to deal with ghosts, went on with his work.”