Someone once said that if you search for something your whole life, you’ll only find it when you stop looking.
It certainly happened to me.
I had never been to Cornwall. And I had also never had a clever, beautiful girlfriend before. That day I was so happy because finally my luck had changed: Caroline Abernathy was driving her Alfa Romeo down the narrow Cornish country lanes and I was in the passenger seat, wondering why such a lovely, talented, interesting girl wanted to spend time with a boring bloke like me.
“Honestly, Ted,” she said as we passed the signpost for St Fennybridge. “Ghost hunts, spiritualist meetings, séances, societies for psychic research, I reckon you must have been involved in every crackpot meeting in London over the years. Do you finally admit it’s all nonsense, as I told you all along?”
“Well, I’ve always been interested in the supernatural,” I admitted. “It’s as if there was something missing in my life that I’ve always been looking for. But, as you say, I never found it in all those years. So I guess you must be right. It is all lot of tosh.”
“I’m so relieved you’ve seen sense at last. You know I reckon it’s unhealthy to be preoccupied with supernatural things. Live a good life, help people, go to church if you believe in God, and hope for the best. Isn’t there enough to think about in the here and now, without worrying about what happens when you die?”
“Well the here and now is all I’m interested in right now,” I admitted. “Since I met you my life just got better and better.”
“Then just keep your promise, Ted Dexter. No more ghost hunting from now on or else. I mean it.”
Everything was perfect in that moment just before my life was turned upside down. The sun was shining, and I reflected that my job was going well and I had a marvellous girlfriend.
Caroline was right, it was time to grow up and put aside all the strange ideas and hobbies I had. Certainly I had always been interested in the supernatural, but to be honest I was also secretly keen to join forces with a like-minded woman, and since I’m not the most handsome guy in the world, I reckoned that having a hobby in common with a girl might boost my chances of romance. But before meeting Caroline, the only women of around my own age I’d come across tended to be strange in various ways, making them hard to get along with. For instance my last girlfriend, Beth, dressed from head-to-toe in black, read Tarot cards before breakfast every day to decide what plans to make, and had a history of bipolar episodes. Another girl I had gone out with a couple of times was Tracey, who described herself as a white witch, but our romance had floundered when she started yelling out tantric verses in the supermarket, and we were asked to leave. Hannah was a Druid who danced around graveyards at night stark naked and was offended when I refused to join her.
I’d met Caroline at the office where I work, and she was straightforward and normal, and was dead against any kind of ‘ghosts and Ghoulies nonsense’.
However, as the afternoon died, so did the happy easy-going atmosphere between us when we entered the environs of the old village. The tiny little alleyways between the buildings were somehow strangely familiar, and when we passed the big church on the left, something inside me lurched with shock and surprise.
I reflected that all the uncomfortable nights I’d spent in supposedly haunted houses, and the ridiculous spiritualist meetings I’d attended had always left me empty and disappointed.
Yet suddenly I was gripped by something more powerful than I could even begin to describe.
I was overwhelmed by the sure and certain knowledge that I had been here before. Indeed, somehow I knew all the twists and turns of this village intimately, yet I knew I had never been to Cornwall in my life.
“Shall I turn right? Looks like a good view at the top of the hill.” Caroline hadn’t picked up on my mood. As the car crested the ridge I saw the single old oak tree and the sea in the distance.
“Wow, what a terrific view!” Caroline said as she drew in to the kerb at the top of the hill. “Just look at that fantastic sunset over the sea!”
But the dying sun and the fine panoply of beautiful red clouds gathered over the cresting waves meant nothing to me. The emotion inside me was overwhelming, and I couldn’t stop myself bursting into tears as the terrifying images popped into my head.
“Ted?” Caroline asked in sympathetic surprise, turning towards me and laying a hand on my arm. “Ted? What is it? What on earth is the matter?”
“I’ve been here before. In a dream or something. I know this hill. I know that view of the sea. There were crowds, a gallows, everyone was shouting at me, looking at me. This is where it all ended for me. This is where I died. This is where the gallows was where they hanged me.”
“All ended? Where they hanged you? What the hell are you talking about?” She removed her hand.
“This is where I died.”
I couldn’t stop the tears falling, as the images span through my mind in vivid technicolour. I could even smell the crowds. The heat in the air, the hot roasted chestnuts as I mounted the scaffold, each step heavier than the last.
“Ted? Have you finally gone raving mad?”
“I don’t know. I don’t understand it. I don’t know what the hell is happening to me!”
“You’ve finally flipped, that’s what’s happened!”
“Caroline, it’s gone now. But believe me, there was a gallows. A crowd of people. I can still hear them yelling in my head. I can hear them calling my name, only it’s not my name. There’s overwhelming sadness and fear, I’m bloody well terrified. . . .”
“For God’s sake, Ted! Look, I told you!” she muttered angrily, refusing to meet my gaze. “I told you that one more word of this bloody nonsense and I’m leaving you. I’m not putting up with this hysterical mumbo jumbo any more.”
“Don’t you understand what I’m feeling?”
“Let me make this plain, Ted Dexter. I’m not saddling myself with a man who I end up visiting in a padded cell! My friend told me I was an idiot getting mixed up with a crackpot like you, but would I listen? No. Oh yes, Ted’s a good looking bloke, she told me, a nice guy, everyone likes him. But he’s a nutcase, he’s got a screw loose. And would I listen? More fool me!”
“Can’t you try and understand—”
“I understand that you need your head examining – or maybe I do, to think I could knock some sense into you. Ghosts? Spiritualism? You told me that you’d given up all that rubbish.”
“But I have given it up. Don’t you understand? This thing has found me!”
“Oh, for Goodness sake, Ted, give me strength!”
So saying, she leapt out of the car and strode to the back and opened the boot to take out my case and put it on the pavement. I got out too, not quite believing what was happening.
“You can get the train back home,” she snapped as she jumped back behind the wheel. “Spend the weekend with one of your ghosts – a flesh-and-blood woman is more than you can handle.”
As the car got smaller and smaller in the distance, my tears fell again, but it had nothing to do with Caroline’s departure. I was overtaken by this weird feeling of utter and complete desolation, and completely mystified about what had just happened.
I picked up my case and trudged back down the hill, reflecting that after all these years of hoping to experience something supernatural, when it happened it was nothing like I’d expected it to be. It wasn’t exciting, it wasn’t wonderful, it wasn’t even particularly surprising. It just seemed devastatingly real, so real that I had actually picked up on the experience of what had happened to another person in another place at another time. One of the psychic investigators I had worked with had explained this kind of phenomenon as ‘tapping into the psychic experiences of others’, his theory being that deeds and actions left a kind of ‘tape recorded image’ on the ether, that sensitive people could pick up on.
Once I got back to the village all the old parts were utterly familiar to me: the church I’d already seen, the old almshouses, a row of ancient cottages, all the winding little alleyways. But the modern shopping parade and the new houses were things I’d never seen before.
I found the Camperdine Arms, the hotel I’d already booked with online. The sign showed a man’s face and with a terrifying shock, I knew that this was me. I knew every line of his face, the mole on his chin, even the expression in his eyes. It was like looking into a mirror, yet I was seeing someone else’s face.
I looked at the leaflet on the counter, entitled: James Camperdine, a history. I opened it up and below the face on the inn sign was a potted history of the person. Apparently James Camperdine had been a local gentleman who’d fallen on hard times and taken to being a highway robber, for which he’d been hanged in July 1795. Subsequently it transpired that they had hanged the wrong man – James Camperdine’s cousin Abberline, whom he resembled, had been the real criminal, but he had got away, and no one believed James’s story of mistaken identity until afterwards. The case was so sad that a local poet had composed a song about it, describing how Camperdine, who’d been devoted to his wife, had sworn just before he’d died that one day he’d be reunited with her.
After booking into the hotel, I asked about the story, and the receptionist advised me to go to the local library, where they had much more information on their local celebrity.
The second shock of the day was when I met Alison Magonagle, the librarian, who couldn’t have been more helpful. She had been mystified when I told her about the gallows I’d seen had been at the top of Spedlow Hill, since this fact wasn’t in any of the local histories that she knew of, and there had always been speculation as to the gallows’ whereabouts.
“I came here on holiday ten years ago,” she confided in me, “and felt this weird affinity with the place, as if I knew it already somehow. Then I read about James Camperdine and his wife Emmeline, and it made me feel incredibly sad. I always felt this really strange empathy with her, as if I really knew her, almost as if I actually was her, if you know what I mean, but of course that’s crazy. Yet sometimes I even felt as if I was aware of her every experience. And then this job cropped up, so coming to live here was a bit like coming home, ridiculous as it sounds.”
“Coming home?” I asked her, looking into her eyes, and somehow seeing into her soul. I told her exactly how I had felt when I’d gone up Spedlow Hill, the weird crazy feeling of re-living James Camperdine’s final moments on earth. While I was talking my hand had somehow found its way inside hers, and do you something? It fitted precisely, as if they’d been tailor made to fit together.
“So do you believe in reincarnation?” she asked me, and it seemed as if no one else was around, and that time did not exist.
“I do now.”
(image by Andreas Gollner from Pixabay)