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MANSION OF MYSTERY

In the English spring of 1966 I was employed as a delivery driver for a local building-material suppliers in Reading, the county town of Berkshire.

The company stored most of its bulk materials (bricks, tiles, paving-slabs, clay-pipes, etc.) at the site of the old brick works on the Wokingham to Bracknell road near Binfield. It was a part of my job to go out to this storage area and pick up any of these materials that were required by the Reading yard or the company’s customers. There was a caretaker at the site, an old local Binfield man named Jock (he wasn’t Scottish), and I used to take a young offsider with me, to help load, who we called Patrick (and he wasn’t Irish).

Patrick suited my temperament as an offsider. He, like myself, was a bit of a scallywag and poor old Jock was often lost for words at some of the stupid pranks that the pair of us played on each other.

One beautiful spring morning, as Jock, Patrick, and I were loading the lorry with bricks, Patrick idly mentioned that he’d spied a large, empty mansion up on a hill nearby and was looking for someone to explore it with him (he was secretly looking my way.) Although I was twenty three years old and married at the time, I wasn’t too old (nor have I ever been) to enjoy a bit of exploration, even an old deserted mansion would do. By the time that the lorry was loaded, the pair of us had agreed to visit the building that evening after work.

With work done for the day, we took off to have a look at the place. I recall that I wasn't too happy when Patrick had insisted that we go in his car.

The car was a really old Ford ‘Popular’ (‘Sit-up-and-beg-cars’ we called them) and, as well as the normal head- and side-lights, Patrick had mounted nine powerful spotlights across the front of the radiator grill (he thought it looked good). But, the looks and the performance of the car didn’t quite match. The mass of those lamps cut out most of the air to his radiator, and he had bad over-heating problems. On top of that, the car only had a six volt battery system, there wasn't enough power from the dynamo and battery to supply current to all the lights and the engine as well. Those lights only operated from the one switch and every time he flashed that mass of lamps (which was often) the engine cut out through lack of electrical power. I had suggested that he take some of the lamps off (when they were all on, the lamps were dim anyway) or disconnect some of them, but he was happy with his car the way it was and I had accepted that rather than lose a friend.

Anyway, on with the story.

Patrick drove us out to Wokingham, then turned south on, if I remember rightly, the Wokingham to Arborfield road and, just before we reached Arborfield, he parked the car up on a grass verge. We left the car and I followed Patrick through a small copse on the left until we came upon the lower slopes of a low, grass-covered hill. Above us, on top of the hill, was the mansion.

According to Patrick, the mansion had once belonged to the Simmond’s Brewery and had probably once been the Simmond’s family home. Again if I remember rightly, the Courage Brewery had just bought the Simmond’s brewery out and this is possibly why the mansion was sitting empty up on that little grass-covered hill at that time.

It wasn’t a ‘grand’ mansion as I recall. There were no marble steps or granite columns leading up to the front door and the place looked very austere and gaunt from the outside, almost as if the money had run out before any decorative architecture could be added.

But, in spite of the building’s forlorn exterior, the interior was very grand. Patrick and I tried the front door and found that it was locked. We tried the windows as we made our way around the right hand end of the great house but they were all securely fastened. The back door was also locked and we wandered on along the rear to the other end. Finally, after a bit of searching around at the left end, we discovered an open door leading down into the cellars, and across the other side of the cellars was a flight of steps leading up into the main part of the house.

The inside cellar door opened out into the side of a very long corridor, about a quarter of the way along from the left end. The first thing that caught my eye was the red carpet, it ran the whole length of that corridor and gave me the impression of grandeur even though the corridor was bare of any furnishings or pictures. There were many doors dotted along each side of the corridor and, as Patrick and I made our way up towards the right hand end of the house, we peeped into the great, red-carpeted rooms beyond those doors. I easily imagined the pomp and ceremony that must have gone on in some of those rooms and wondered to myself why the place had been left to deteriorate in such a way.

The right hand end of the long corridor stopped at a door that opened out into a large hallway and the corridor continued on for a bit over the other side of that hallway, as in the shape of a cross, before ending at the right hand end of the building. The hallway floor had no carpet, just bare floorboards. On the right of the hallway, as we emerged through the door from the main corridor, was the front door and, on the right wall, when facing the front door, was a great, open fireplace set in that wall. To the left, at the back of the hallway, was the rear door and, when facing that rear door, a staircase went up the right wall, turned across the wall above the rear door and then turned on up the left wall to join up with the floor above our heads.

Continuing our explorations, we wandered across the hallway and tried the door of a room on the left of the front door (as we were looking at it, the right hand room of the house when viewed from the front). This door seemed to be blocked by something from behind and needed a bit of force before it grudgingly opened. To our surprise, we saw that the room was absolutely crammed with hats.

To be a bit more precise, I’d say that they were Naval caps, the sort of caps that a Naval military band would wear. For some reason I immediately thought of an American Naval military band. There were literally hundreds of the hats, filling the room almost to the ceiling, with no recognition badge or label on any of them. Each hat had a navy blue rim and brim, but the upper cover and peak was made of a white corduroy-type material. I still wonder, as a sideline to the incident, how they came to be there.

With the ground floor explored, we climbed the winding staircase. The bannister was missing in one section of the stairs, but we passed on by and arrived at the end of another corridor, similar to the one on the ground floor. We glanced in each of the rooms, obviously bedrooms, on both sides of this corridor, until we reached the end where a door led into a small passageway that went off to the right.

The passageway was tacked on to the upper outside of the left end wall of the main house. It went towards the rear, along that wall, and then turned left away from the main house. Patrick and I followed this passageway and found a couple of doors leading into rooms on the left. I presumed that these rooms were once the servant’s quarters. I can’t recall if the passageway had an arch below or what was in the rooms under these ‘servant’s quarters’ but, I do recall what was in one of the rooms at the end of that passageway.

We opened the door of the first room and saw immediately that it had recently been occupied. There was an unmade bed over in the far left hand corner under the window and a lot of clothes spread over that bed and the floor, as if a very untidy person lived there. Feeling that we were intruding into somebody’s ‘home’, I was about to back out of the room when I realised that there was something very suspicious about the clothes that were lying all around the room. I stopped and took a closer look and was amazed to discover that most of the clothes were women’s under-garments. There were dozens of women’s panties scattered around with a few silk slips here and there and a couple of brassieres thrown in. Whoever occupied the place must have had a real fetish for that sort of thing. Upon leaving the room, we could only conclude that a man with a problem was secretly living there and happily pinching women’s underwear from local clothes-lines each night.

The explorations ended at this point. We wandered back through the whole house, finally made our way out through the cellar and it wasn’t long before we were chugging towards home in the old car. It had been quite interesting to take a glimpse at a stately home, even if it was falling to ruin, and imagine some of the entertaining and ‘wheeling and dealing’ that must have once been a part of life there.

A rough plan of the old mansion as I remember it.

Having now set the scene in my usual long-winded way, we come to the incident which is the real purpose of this narrative.

I arrived home and was soon telling my wife all about that old empty mansion up on the hill. The more I described the place, the more she wanted to see it for herself. In the end I agreed to take her for a look on the following Saturday afternoon. By the time that afternoon came around, my Mother-in-law and oldest Brother-in-law had expressed their interest in seeing the place. On the appointed day, the four of us drove out to the mansion and I was soon wandering around the old musty rooms for the second time.

We explored the ground floor and then the upper floor. I took them into the room where all the women’s underwear was scattered, then we made our way back down to the main hallway on the ground floor. At this point, my Mother-in-law went off to do some exploring of her own while the rest of us took a closer look around the hallway. Again, I wondered about all those ‘Naval’ caps but could find no answer as to why they were there. Then the three of us were standing in front of the great fireplace.

Etched in the ornate cement lintel above the fireplace and under the mantelshelf was an inscription (possibly in the French language) that neither of us could translate. As we read those words and tried to work out what they may have meant, an extraordinary thing occurred.

I heard a heavy thud over to my right in the vicinity of the rear door below the stairs. I glanced across and noticed a ragged oval of dust, roughly about 3 feet (90 cm) long by 18 inches (45 cm) wide and 1foot (30cm) high, rising from the bare floor boards immediately below the stairs and, about five feet (1.5 mtrs.) in from the rear door. The glare of light, coming through the windows around the room, in the doors and above the stairs, had helped to highlight the dust floating in the air. Being no more than 20 feet (6 mtrs) away, and standing up on the hearth bricks, I could see the shape quite clearly.

Although that glance was quite casual and I quickly went back to the job of trying to translate the inscription over the fireplace, I nevertheless immediately began to feel uneasy. For a couple of seconds I tried to control those feelings until my wife asked me what had caused the noise and the dust cloud. Not wanting to frighten her, I suggested that her mother had somehow done it as a practical joke. My wife and Brother-in-law were not convinced, both said that they had seen their mother enter the door that led off the hallway into the long corridor.

The three of us walked along to the door and called out to my Mother-in-law, myself expecting her to answer from behind us. The dust had thinned out by this time, but it still retained its rough, oval shape. At that point, we were less than 10 feet (3 mtrs) away, and I was feeling more uneasy.

But, my Mother-in-law wasn’t behind us, she was right down at the far end of that long corridor. In answer to our call, she stepped out from a room that was just past the entrance down into the cellar.

My brother-in-law was the first to react, he took off along that corridor like a rocket. I pushed my wife through the doorway, slammed the door shut behind us and we followed her brother’s example. Even in my state of fearful panic, I could still register the reactions of my Mother-in-law as the three of us hurtled along that corridor towards the cellar door and hopeful safety.

At first her distant figure was motionless as if she were trying to decide whether us three were larking about. As we came closer my wife shouted at her to run for her very life. I could see her face by that time and it showed a puzzled frown of indecision. That frown had turned to a look of surprise then pure horror as my wife shouted to her. It was as if she had suddenly realised that we had been genuinely terrified by something that was lurking in the hallway behind us. Her body jerked back into action as we approached the cellar door in our headlong race.

I can look back now and laugh at the events of the next few minutes during that Saturday afternoon. It was the adult version of the Beech Barn bottom camp panic-stricken rush for safety (see my story 'The Beech Barn Mystery'). As my wife shouted, her mother became confused for a second, obviously not remembering which way to go. She turned towards the room that she had just left, then turned back and took a couple of hurried steps towards the door on the opposite side of the corridor. Finally, she must have remembered the cellar door. I saw her eyes flash to it, then she was racing towards us and her face was showing a determination that told me she wasn’t going to be last down those cellar steps if she could help it.

Meanwhile, I was being hampered by my wife, who was unable to run very fast due to her tight mini-skirt and high-heeled shoes, and my brother-in-law had gained a bit of ground on us. Nevertheless, his mother had just beat us three to the cellar door. With a clatter of high-heeled shoes and Chelsea Boots, and much pushing and shoving, the four of us almost fell down the steps into the semi-dark cellar. Then, just as my feet found the floor and I turned right, there came a most blood-curdling scream from my Mother-in-law in front and my hair stood up on end.

In the dim light that filtered down into that underground room I could just make out my Mother-in-law as she turned around and began to force us all back towards the flight of steps that we had just raced down. She was screaming something about ‘a huge grey face lurking in the darkness’. I took a swift glance about and, sure enough, there was the lighter shade of, what looked like, a huge face peering out of the blackness on our right.

But, I had quickly recognised it as the front end of a large, horizontal, steam boiler, (used in the late- 19th. and early-20th.centuries for heating rooms and water) which, with the darker shade of the fire-door as a mouth and the two flue-doors as eyes, certainly did resemble a huge grey face in the darkness. I shouted at everyone to keep going, using all my strength to push them over to the exit steps.

Within seconds, my three companions had vanished up the steps and out of the door to safety. I was left to hastily snatch up a couple of high-heeled shoes that had been abandoned during the last frenzied rush across the cellar floor and up the steps. Then I was up the steps, out into the bright sunshine and racing down across the field behind my friends.

I suddenly felt very relieved and alive. The thrill and comedy of our mad exit from the house soon had us laughing so much that we were forced to slow down due to us all having no breath. It wasn’t long before we were back to the car.

As the four of us headed home, each still collapsing into the occasional fits of uncontrollable laughter, we had speculated as to the cause of the heavy thud and the ragged oval of dust that had appeared on the, otherwise empty, floor area. But none of us could come up with a satisfactory answer.

During the next few months after the incident, I had often thought about the old mansion and wondered what had really been the cause of that mysterious thud and dust cloud. I thought of the uneasy feeling I’d experienced. But, being frightened of ‘ghosts’ and the unexplained was a part of my upbringing. And yet, were ghosts and spirits really all the imaginings that I had been led to believe? Some quite ‘weird’ incidents had already occurred in my life, shouldn’t I believe what my own eyes and ears told me, rather than what had been instilled into my mind by that upbringing?

Gradually, I came up with an idea. This new idea was based on a spiritual theory. Of course, I cannot prove nor disprove this theory any more than any other, or anyone else’s, theories. But, to me, the more I thought about it, the more I liked the spiritual angle. I will end this particular narrative with an outline of the final theory that I came up with, and leave any reader to make up his or her own mind as to the cause of the mystery.

We are often told that there is an ‘afterlife’, a place where our spirits go after we pass on from this life. It is also said that some spirits, for various reasons, get trapped in a ‘nether region’ between this life and the next. Apparently, some of these spirits need to be forgiven for some terrible crime they may have committed during their 'earthly life', some of them have not realised that they are dead, and some of them have a strong need to pass a ‘message’ back to this world before going on to the next. My theory concerns this last group.

There are plenty of examples, in recorded history, of spirits (or ghosts?) getting in touch with loved-ones, friends, mediums, and, even more important, sometimes anybody who is handy. Some of these spirits just want to assure the recipient that they are happy, others need to point out some unfinished business, etc. But, the spirits that cause my interest are the ones that feel a need to show how they died in the first place. Mediums who have helped in solving many murders have proved that some spirits ‘want justice’.

In a society that tells us not to believe in ghosts, how can a spirit suddenly appear and pass on a message without frightening the life out of anybody? Does every spirit have all its faculties and 'body'? What about a person whose body had been disintegrated by an explosion? Or consumed by fire? Or even eaten by animals? Could there be spirits with no voice or body? Only being left with a strong desire to tell us something that they consider very important? If this is a possibility, then it must be very frustrating for those spirits to try passing on messages.

Could there be hundreds of such spirits, with some part of their faculties or bodies missing, trapped in that nether region and trying to get a message to the living on earth or hoping to find some way of being forgiven?

We idly talk of haunted buildings. The ‘good’ ghost is tolerated and the ‘bad’ one is exorcised. But, is there such a thing as a ‘bad’ spirit? There is plenty of evidence that spirits ask for forgiveness so that they can go on over to the other side, even when they had led bad 'earthly' lives. Do all spirits see the error of their ways? Are there millions of spirits, trapped in that nether region, who continue to be bad and enjoy causing trouble for the folk left on earth? Or are the so-called ‘bad’ ghosts really just those spirits who are unable to send their message, maybe through some personal or 'physical' problem, and are trying hard to attract attention in the only way that they can?

Could such a spirit have tried to contact us in that mansion?

Supposing (and all this is only supposition), for instance, that somebody had fallen (or had been pushed?) from the stairs and died as a result of injuries caused by the fall. Could the spirit of that person, having somehow lost some of its faculties, have been desperately trying to contact an earthly person? Could the heavy thud have been the sound of someone crashing to the floor? Was the oval of dust caused by an invisible body? If this was so, what would have happened if we’d had the courage to stay in that hallway and await events?

Of course, this is all conjecture. I have no evidence whatsoever that such an event had occurred in that mansion. The real point that I’m trying to make is the fact that I saw ‘something mysterious’ that I couldn’t explain away easily in 'earthly' terms. I began to look at the ‘supernatural’ angle. Now, I strongly feel that the spiritual theory should be seriously considered along with any other theories.

I never had the chance to go into that mansion again. By the time my curiosity had got the better of me and I wanted some answers, the old place had long been demolished. Nevertheless, the whole incident is still very clear in my mind and I strongly feel that, in spite of the comic situations caused by our panic, something unusual occurred in the old building that Saturday afternoon.

PS. See my story The Beech Barn Mystery for more on weird ‘dust clouds’ and the children's version of a panic-stricken race for safety. Or....

Next story - Mystery or coincidence?

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