When I was 19, I moved into a shared house in a grungy inner-city suburb of Sydney with my friends Mel, Antonia and Indigo. We were all at University or College. I was doing a combined Education/Arts degree, Mel was studying Journalism, Antonia was a third year apprentice chef and Indigo (whose real name was Tony) was at Art School.
Like many houses in the inner city our house was Victorian in style and had probably been built around 1850. It had 3 bedrooms upstairs and one downstairs which Indigo, being the only boy, claimed as his, stating with uncharacteristic bravado that he should sleep downstairs in case anyone broke in at night.
The house was completely unfurnished except for a shabby armchair which we all uhmmed and aahhed over as if we were antique dealers; and a faded framed photo of a soldier who looked like he may have served in World War I, hanging in the living room above it. Mel didn’t like the photo where it was, moving it to the hallway where it blended better with the wallpaper.
Within a week we had made ourselves at home, moving in our desks, single beds, boom boxes and secondhand wardrobes. We decided to keep the armchair in the living room where we had found it as it looked like it belonged there.
Indigo noticed it first. The creaking of the chair. The old armchair creaked when anyone sat in it, we made jokes about being able to guess who was sitting in it by the depth of the creak. When Indigo heard it creak, it was two in the morning and there was no one sitting in it. He heard it again the next night and the night after that. Mel heard it too. When Antonia heard it she was so scared she spent the next three nights at her boyfriend’s house.
I was scared too but I wanted proof. I needed to make sure the creak wasn’t caused by the floor boards contracting at night or a draught coming under the door. I set up a tape recorder to run all night and a very old Video 8 camera.
In the morning the video camera was upended on the couch (unnerving enough) but the tape recorder was still running. We played it back over our cornflakes.
Footsteps sidled across the hardwood floor, light as the steps of a child, pausing after about ten steps so that we thought we must have imagined the whole thing until we heard a whoosh as if someone was shifting position, then the familiar creak of the chair.
After hearing the recording we were all convinced we had another housemate, and not of the corporeal kind.
Antonia was freaked out, telling us she was moving in with her boyfriend. The three of us remained, sitting at the kitchen table feeling as if something was hiding in the house. Watching us. Indigo wanted to carry out an ancient Celtic cleansing ritual. I wanted to burn dried sage and rosemary. Mel wanted to burn the chair. Despite our protestations she took it and placed it in the laneway at the rear of the house, hoping someone would steal it in the middle of the night.
As night formed I felt guilty, a trespasser, like we had overstepped the mark. The chair looked like it belonged in the house more than we did, perhaps we had no right to move it. The moon rose, pale and faithless. A wind pushed its way along the hallway, bringing leaves and dust. We slept upstairs with torches and rosary beads.
After about an hour it began, the banging of the back gate, as if a band of thugs were kicking it in. We crawled downstairs like extras in a horror movie, holding onto one another. With a war cry, Indigo opened the gate. There was nothing there except for the chair. Mel whimpered. I nodded as if I had known all along what was banging on the gate.
Suddenly, we heard a crash inside and the breaking of glass. We turned on all the lights, searching. It was the photo of the soldier, fallen from its hook in the hallway. A piece of paper had fallen out of it, concealed beneath the frame. It was an aging clipping from a newspaper, an obituary. Edward Arnold, a resident of our town, had fallen in battle in 1916 during the War, leaving behind his young wife of six months, Lily. He had made furniture for a living, specialising in armchairs.
Immediately, we all knew what to do, bringing the chair back inside; putting the photo back together and hanging it on the wall near by. The creaking of the chair stopped after that but we were never completely comfortable in that house so moved out at the end of our lease. Twenty years later, none of us have forgotten the house. We have often wondered about the young woman who lost her husband. Did she marry again? Did she have children? How long did she live in the house?
The Romantic in me believes she couldn’t leave the house, that she didn’t believe Edward was dead, that she spent the rest of her life waiting for his return. I wonder if I was a forensic scientist could I find traces of her fingerprints, a strand of her hair, the shadow of her footprints on the floors….. For part of me would really like to know the truth behind the ghost of Lily Arnold.