Today I am going to pass on a yarn I heard about a month ago, when my wife and I were staying in a lonely part of East Anglia. After dinner our host gave us a whisky each as we sat in front of a blazing fire and asked us if we would like to hear a ghost story about the very house we were staying in. It was years since I had heard a good ghost story, so we signalled to him to do his best.
"It all happened about eighty years ago when a previous owner of the house was found dead, on July 13th...."
"Is July 13th significant ?" I asked.
"Yes, it is. That is the date of the Battle of Lone Oak Common, a Civil War battle that took place on the very ground where this house now stands. It wasn't one of the big famous battles. In fact, it was one of those indecisive battles after which both sides march away hoping for a replay some other time."
"So the owner of the house was found dead on the very anniversary of the battle?"
"Yes - killed by a blow to the back of the head. And he was in a locked bedroom at the time. And there was no sign of a weapon anywhere, though there was a fallen wardrobe, so it must have been quite a struggle."
There was a pause. It was such a long pause that I was about to comment that, for a ghost story, there was a large absence of ghosts, when our host spoke again.
"Where are the ghosts? You may well ask. Ah, but they are all around us! There was a battle here, round where this house now stands. Many people died. There must in all conscience be many soldiers' ghosts roaming round in misery, unable to get back to their families, unable even to find out the result of the Civil War. It was quite on the cards that one of those disembodied spirits had got his revenge on the old occupier of the house.
"Or so I thought until we had a man to stay who was a bit of an expert on ghosts and the spirit world, and when I told him my theory he pooh-poohed it. That is not how the spirit world works, he said. Oh yes, you get spirits attached to places they are emotionally tied to, but not to battlefields. A soldier is not attached in the after-life to the place where he is shot. He would only be attached to the home which he could never see again in this life. There are no ghosts on the site of Waterloo or Hastings, he said."
Our host paused.
"So then I asked him how he thought this man might have been killed in a locked room without a blunt instrument. I'd always entertained wild visions of him having been knocked out by a ghost cannon ball or something, so naturally I was disappointed and wanted another story.
"To my amazement the expert asked me to tell him why it was called the Battle of Lone Oak Common. Well, I could actually tell him that. There had been a legendary huge oak in the middle of the common, the one which the place was named after, and it had been destroyed by cannon fire during the battle. Fell down apparently near the end of the battle, killing two people, one from each side. Quite poetic, really.
"I suspect that's your culprit, said the expert.
"What is? I said.
"The tree, he said.
"THE TREE? I said.
"So he explained to me his theory that it isn't just people who leave spirits behind them. It also happens to animals. There are places haunted by the spirits of dogs. He had once known a place where a budgerigar's ghost brought terror. And he was disposed to believe that a battleground could be haunted by the grieving spirit of an ancient oak tree which, unlike the dead soldiers, had lived there all its long life. And also been a victim of the battle.
"Ah, I said, but how could the spirit of the tree be responsible for a murder?
"Easily, he said. What did I think happened to oak trees? They got turned into furniture. Into things like wardrobes. There was a better than average chance that the wardrobe in the dead man's bedroom had been made from the deceased tree. Which had killed him by falling on top of him."
We sat there, very silent.
"Do you mean to say that he was killed by the spirit of an oak tree in a wardrobe?"
"Yes, I do."
We thought about this for a moment, then got up, rained blows on our host till he lay still and quiet, and all went to bed, where we slept soundly till dawn.
Independent - Jan 6 2003