by KARINA MACHADO
‘What the hell did I just see?’
Call it a cosmic in-joke, but sometimes the otherworldly will announce itself at the very moment we’re engrossed in something entirely earthbound, like prising out the vacuum cleaner from beneath stacks of old towels and blankets in the bottom shelf of a storage cupboard. Richard Caldwell was doing just that one afternoon, on the second floor of his house in Emu Plains, west of Sydney, when he detected a shift in the space behind him. He stopped rummaging and swivelled around to gaze across the upstairs landing. What he saw has haunted him for over a decade.
Some memories blur with the passage of time, but not this one. Every year it grows sharper and glossier. Every year, he spends a little longer turning it around in his quiet moments. For this softly- spoken anaesthetist, the self-professed sceptic of his household, the puzzle is as multi-faceted as a Rubik’s Cube. Uppermost in his mind – why was he the one to see?
On a muggy January day, Michael Caldwell rings my doorbell. Over a work lunch one day, talk had turned to all matters spooky, and now the TV publicist is making good on his offer to take me for a drive to his family home, where his father, Richard, awaits with coffee and a ghost story. We head west beneath a fickle sky but rain still hasn’t fallen by the time we pull up, an hour later, outside their two-storey house. Large and commanding, with Tudor-style trimmings, the house on a park-like block opposite the Nepean River is the one I used to yearn for in my Enid Blyton-addicted girlhood. A Benji lookalike bounds over to greet us, filling out the edges of my old fantasy.
Michael’s mother, Wendy, fifty-three, meets us at the door with a burst of chatter, while his sixty-year-old father is a pensive presence in the background. In slacks and a shirt, with a pen neatly poking out of his breast pocket, he busies himself making tea and coffee, but his mind seems elsewhere, perhaps examining, for the umpteenth time, a decade-old anomaly. Michael’s sister, Lily, twenty-five, who’s recently moved back into the family home, also joins us – she wears a warm, pretty smile and a jagged brunette bob. Only the middle child, Freya, is not here today. I proffer my Lebanese pastries and we cluster in a corner of the long dining table, where scones and other morning tea treats await us.
The house is hushed. There’s a sense of expectation and deference. I’m about to find out that Richard has never revealed so much about his experience as he will today, in the serene surrounds of the home his family has lived in for twenty-seven years.
‘I was upstairs,’ he begins. ‘I was bending down, looking for something in the linen cupboard, and something made me turn around and look out onto the upstairs landing.’ He pauses and we all float forward a few millimetres. ‘I suppose she was ninety per cent visible, if you could put it that way. She wasn’t solid but there was quite a distinct image there, um, of a woman, middle-aged, probably about five foot seven, five-eight, wearing a long green velveteen skirt that went down to her feet, with a white blouse and reddy-orange hair that was about shoulder-length. She had, I suppose, an English-type complexion, a light complexion.’
As he describes the lady, methodically and succinctly, Richard is very still. I can tell by his eyes, which seem to look inward in scrutiny of the memory, that he wants to render, as faithfully as possible, the picture in his mind.
She was gazing in his direction, but her eyes did not lock on his.
‘Being the sceptic that I am, I thought, Oh, that’s nonsense, so I turned around to continue looking for whatever I was looking for. Then I thought, What the hell did I just see? and turned back around but couldn’t see her again.’
Baffled, but unafraid, Richard’s instinct was to join the dots between the lady and his elderly neighbour, Elsa, who grew up in the house and now lives next door. ‘I’ve often wondered what Elsa’s mother looked like, I’ve never raised the subject with her, but every time I’m over there I’ve looked for a photo to see if she’s got one of her mother,’ he says, chuckling. ‘I must ask her one day.’
‘My mother has always known there’s been ‘somebody’ here, hasn’t she?’ chimes in Wendy. ‘She’s very fey, as the Scottish would say, and Freya used to see a man.’
‘She used to see a lot of things and hear a lot of things,’ says Lily.
‘But she’d see this particular man. He wore a top hat, that was the main thing,’ says Wendy. ‘He had a top hat and she was frightened of him.’
It is said that haunted houses need a ‘conductor’ – a psychic/ medium who ignites paranormal activity. Talking with the Caldwells on this balmy summer’s morning, a picture started to emerge of just who this conductor might be. A couple of weeks later, I’d have my chance to ask Freya about the man in the top hat, but today, it’s her father’s flame-haired visitor who demands our attention.
We tour the house, prattling as we go. I look up at the handsome staircase and my heart smiles. Such a staircase was a non-negotiable feature of the fantasy house of my past. Perhaps, I reflect, the dwelling we dream of as children is eventually delivered to us, though we may have to wait decades – and never inhabit it outside of our imaginations.
As we all traipse upstairs, Wendy and Richard tell me about the footsteps and the opening and closing of doors that for years preceded the apparition of the velveteen lady. The phenomena ceased once she showed herself. Then talk turns to films and TV shows. ‘Did you watch Ghost last night?’ asks Richard. ‘It’s a lovely movie.’ At the upper landing, Michael, thirty, tells me how he and his sisters used to balk at the chill that hovered here, and the sense that whatever it was pursued them. ‘You’d run down with your back against the wall,’ he recalls. ‘It was terrifying.’
Richard pulls open the doors of the linen cupboard, in the corner of the upstairs hallway, and re-enacts his scrounging around the bottom shelf on that distant afternoon. ‘I’ve looked back and she was about here,’ he says, pointing to a spot behind him, barely ninety centimetres away. Standing where it happened, I can’t imagine this exacting man to be mistaken in what he saw, especially when he reports such intricate detail – her skirt was green velveteen, her blouse white, her hair a blazing halo.
‘I would have seen her for somewhere up to ten seconds,’ he adds. ‘It wasn’t just a flash.’
There’s more: ‘Her age was between forty and forty-five. Her expression was fairly bland. I wouldn’t have said she was forlorn or upset, or what have you. She was more pensive.’ Like you, I think, and Wendy is of the same mind. ‘I have a funny feeling that she’s to do with somebody on your side of the family,’ she tells her husband. ‘Your mother had red orangey hair …’ Richard shakes his head, declaring, ‘It wasn’t anyone from my side of the family,’ but Wendy ploughs on. ‘I can remember your mother telling me that one of your great aunts had – as they put it – horrible red hair. They were shocked, because your grandfather was a blonde and your grandmother was a brunette, to produce these two daughters with red hair.’
Yet Richard is determined to explore his theory that the woman is an antecedent of his neighbour, Elsa, whose father built the property in 1939. As we wander outside to the backyard, he decides to pop next door and invite Elsa over for tea – to lay the mystery in her lap once and for all.
When Elsa glides into the dining room, where we’ve once again gathered, I resist the urge to curtsey, because this beautiful seventy- something lady is so innately graceful. Her blonde hair is cut in a chic bob and she wears a sleeveless frock with a narrow ribbon around her wasp waist. Straight-backed and slim as a sparrow, she nibbles delicately on a pastry. When she speaks, her perfect enunciation echoes another era, a voice transported through time. But Elsa is no ice queen – friendly and approachable, she shines her bright smile, framed by peachy-pink lipstick, like a welcoming beacon. She listens, absolutely fascinated, as Richard retells his experience.
‘Somebody in your family! They had the red hair!’ she exclaims.
Richard seems slightly crestfallen. Elsa is adamant it couldn’t have been her mother, as he’d always imagined, since she didn’t have red hair. She agrees with Wendy that the stranger in the Edwardian outfit was most likely an ancestor of Richard’s. ‘It’s queer, isn’t it?’ she says, softly. ‘I wonder who she was?’
I’m curious as to whether Elsa ever experienced anything odd while she was living here … ‘No,’ she answers, looking a bit sheepish and laughing, a youthful sound like bells tinkling. Her reminiscences of growing up here, on what was then a forty-hectare orchard, with her parents and two sisters, are like the house itself, picture-book pretty. Where Michael and Lily shudder at the memory of rushing up and down the staircase with the weight of something unseen at their backs, Elsa’s memory of the stairs is lit up in pink and green, the shades of the Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, celestial fireworks that sometimes coloured in the landing window as they climbed up to bed. ‘We had an idyllic childhood,’ she says. ‘We swam in the river, we had the tennis court, we used to go dancing, so I was very lucky.’
It’s time to start the drive back, though we’re still no closer to solving the mystery of what Richard saw on that day, indistinguishable, up until then, from so many before it. A plea from another plane marked that afternoon, snuffed out its quotidian concerns, and Richard answered it. Was her wish merely to be seen? To matter for a moment? If so, perhaps that’s why she’s never appeared again. In his calm doctor’s eyes, the remembrance of her still burns bright.
Extracted from Where Spirits Dwell by Karina Machado (Hachette Australia, $32.99)
Karina Machado was born in Uruguay and moved to Sydney with her family as a toddler, where she grew up hearing stories of her mother’s psychic gift.
What are your thoughts on the paranormal? Are you a sceptic? Or do you believe?