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Don't you love stories that begin like this?
It was a wintry night. All day, great waves had pounded the Cornish coast. The wind tore in from the sea, howling or screaming across the headland, buffeting the trees and rattling the weathered shutters of the old inn that stood two miles from the tiny village of Benhawden.
In the smoke-filled bar, under the low timber-beamed ceiling, villagers, most of whom were fishermen, listened to the tormented groans of the wind and watched the rain that was hurled in gusts against the thick glass. The men were drinking ale or mulled wine and telling stories to pass the time. All felt afraid to leave the warmth and friendship of the bar for their homes. Noone wanted to venture out into the dark on such a devilish night.
Each man told his tale. When they finished, an old man - a stranger - who had been sitting silently by the fire, seemingly absorbed by the cruel dance of flames, spoke for the first time.
'Ghosts,' he said with quiet scorn. 'Tales to frighten children to their beds! But I have a tale. It's a queer story, but it happened to me.'
As though to give emphasis to his words, the wind gave a sudden, piercing shriek and fell silent, for the first time in many hours. Several villagers started, one of them covering his embarrassment with a short, barking laugh.
Yet each man shivered as though icy fingers had for a moment, stroked the nape of his neck.
And so on. Have I hooked you yet?
I was 40 when I first heard a ghost.
It was the second time Sonia, my wife and I stayed in Maldon, a small, goldmining village in Central Victoria - a town that was to become our home.
We rented an old house for several days. Built in 1868, its grandest and most original feature was the main bedroom. The room was noticeably colder than the rest of the house. Not caring for the room, we slept in the second bedroom. Around 3am we woke to the sound of a heavy tread in the corridor. The steps which sounded as though made by a man wearing boots continued for an hour. We weren't exactly scared, but nor did we open the locked door to investigate. Later, the owners told us other guests had heard the steps. Because the house had little recorded history, she couldn't suggest who restlessly paced the corridor.
Ghosts are as much part of Maldon as the double row of elms leading into the small village.
All mining towns have tragic stories. Underground explosions, cave ins, poisonous gas leaks, flooding shafts are common events. Life above the ground in Victorian times was scarcely safer. There is a small cemetery close to Maldon where miners' children, many of whom died from typhoid are buried. Most of the miners couldn't afford a headstone so often a cairn of rocks marks a grave.
The farmhouse where we live today has its own ghosts. Built in 1862, the house witnessed weddings, births and deaths.
Once Sonia and I were seated in our kitchen toward evening when we heard a soft voice calling 'Sonia'. We thought at first a friend may have called, but noone was there. We also live far from our neighbours. When the call began again, we realised it was a child's voice. We now feel sure it was the ghost of a child who died in the house.
Other times, we have smelt pipe tobacco or cigarette smoke. Neither of us are smokers.
One evening, as I returned to the house after gardening, I saw a young woman in Victorian dress watching me. As I approached, she faded from view. I later realised from an old photo she was a daughter of George Greene, original owner of our house. She died over 80 years ago.
My most uncanny experience however occurred not in our present home, but in a small cottage we bought and lived in on weekends, renovating it for sale. The cottage had a grim history.
During the First World War, Australia was part of the British Empire and the government pledged to send our young men to fight overseas. Thousands of volunteers marched away to be slaughtered in the trenches. When numbers waned, conscription was introduced.
Most of Maldon's young men went to War, but the cottage owner's son hid in the nearby Nuggety Ranges. He lived rough for some months, his mother leaving him food.
The strain became too great. Returning to the cottage while his mother was absent, he tied a double-barrelled shotgun to the end of his bed. He then wrapped a cord around the triggers, attaching it to the big toe of his right foot. Lying in bed, he pulled the triggers, blowing off his head.
Decades later, the cottage still held a memory of that time.
I had been painting the main bedroom. To escape the smell of fresh paint, Sonia and I slept in bunk beds in the second bedroom. Normally, we never slept in this room.
Around 3am, I woke. I felt someone gently shake me by the shoulder. Thinking it was Sonia, I asked what she wanted, but in the dim light saw her asleep on the other side of the room. It was strange. I knew I hadn't been sleeping nor had I imagined the touch. It suggested both sadness and sympathy. I think it was the boy's mother waking him before he went bush.
So there it is. My current experience with ghosts. No severed heads, clanking chains or tormented groans. It isn't the spine-chilling tale that the old man would have doubtless told, but my experience occurred.
Anyway, who in their right mind, would accept the word of a stranger in a Cornish inn on a night when demons roamed abroad?