Pilgrim’s Unrest

It seems there’s a host of wandering souls in this Mpumalanga town

‘If we are going to be contacted from the other side anywhere in the house, it is likely to be here in Marjery’s room,” said Sherry, our guide. At that point the lights went out.

Marjery, Sherry had just explained, had died at Roedean, a school which, in the early 1900s, prided itself on losing very few children every term. The girl in whose bedroom we were standing was one of those sad few, succumbing to meningitis at the age of 13.

The family dog’s name was Jock – not that Jock, although this was Pilgrim’s Rest – and his favourite chair was next to Marjery’s bed, with a distinct dent in its cushion. A photographer the previous week had been unable to focus on it as if, he said, there was something moving there. His camera had been smashed inexplicably into pieces as he left the house. Ours would only switch on in certain rooms and steamed up in others.

Marjery’s room was much colder than the others and sometimes, Sherry said, there was a strong smell of cologne. I could smell talcum powder.

Even Sherry seemed a bit shaken when her words plunged us into darkness, and she has a seven-year-old spook living in her house up the road. He fiddles with her children’s Gameboys and plays loud music on the stereo at 3am.

She went downstairs, trying not to trip over the orbs that she had told us were there, to get some lamps. In Marjery’s darkened bedroom, there was much nervous laughter, squealing and surreptitious pinching of bottoms. Sherry returned and we continued the tour by lamplight. So much for Pilgrim’s Rest’s having had power before London. Marjery had certainly put an end to that.

A light drizzle had been falling on Alanglade House as we’d arrived in the late afternoon and the impressive residence had all the hallmarks of a Scooby Doo set. We half expected Shaggy to come hurtling down the steps, pursued by a rattling skeleton. In fact, Sherry said, one woman had seen someone in the window the previous week and refused to go in; another had been chased out by a full body manifestation in a top hat.

But back to Marjery. Sometimes, Sherry said, she’d slam her bedroom door and nobody could get in but they’d come back in the morning and find it open. And often her toys were moved. Indeed, that day, a pram of hers had mysteriously made its way upstairs from the playroom to the governess’s room.

We ended the tour of the house huddled around a couple of paraffin lamps in Mr Barry’s bedroom, looking at a family portrait taken on Marjery’s birthday in the year she damaged Roedean’s survival statistics.

Her brothers, it seemed, had not been much luckier. One fell off a mountain, another went down with a sinking ship and the third was shot down 12 days before the end of the First World War. At least they didn’t seem to have found it necessary to stick around in the family house.

As we left, Sherry told us something had mysteriously eaten all the peacocks. A leopard, presumably, or maybe Jock’s wraith. I think if a peacock had cried right then, we’d all have dropped dead in sheer terror.

“Let’s go the cemetery,” said Sherry and it seemed the right thing to do, so we did. She poured us a glass of her namesake outside the gate to steady the nerves and told us the week before she’d seen an extra person standing behind one of her colleagues at a graveside.

Probably Naboompi, she said, who’d had his legs sawn off below the knee because he wouldn’t fit in the coffin. Or Mrs Stopforth, who had 11 children before her husband left her for another woman. The week before that, Sherry said, a woman in her group had walked around the graveyard and shaken hands with all its inhabitants.

As we stood at the Robber’s Grave, three in the group saw, several times, a figure looming up behind a grave up the hill. Looking downhill, I saw a streak of bright light shoot past a large headstone.

Then the street lights came back on.