A ghost story for Christmas
I haven’t, in truth, known Dr Irwin Jacobs for very long. I would stop short at calling him a friend because I don’t honestly believe he has anyone he could apply that title too. While appearing outwardly friendly, in reality, he struck me as a very self-contained person; a very private man who only very reluctantly reveals anything about himself.
I first met him in Llandudno in North Wales at a conference on The Study of Personality Disorder. It was organised by SANE, the mental health charity and was attended largely by medics and psychiatrists and others involved in the provision of mental health services. I was there as a freelance journalist with an interest in mental health, having written on many occasions about how destructive it can be to families and relationships.
I literally bumped into him at the hotel bar where he was sitting on a stool staring gloomily into a gin and tonic. I rather clumsily managed to spill his drink which he was about to sip. I naturally apologised profusely and immediately offered to buy him another, but he waved the offer away.
Dr Jacobs has a rather Teutonic face; startling blue eyes, a square jaw and a firm mouth that is not given to smiling. His thinning grey hair sits above a furrowed brow and a sallow face. We shook hands and I apologised again.
I sat on a stool next to him and introduced myself. I am Dominic Howard, quite well known in my chosen field by mental health professionals, even if I do say so with a degree of modesty! After we concluded the introductions, I asked him about his practice. He immediately became quite animated and went into some detail about the problems some of his patients present. It was, however, punctuated by nervous glances around the room, his eyes flickering from side-to side as though expecting a friend or colleague. I looked around but there were just other delegates standing in small groups in earnest discussion.
‘Are you expecting someone,’ I said, standing up, preparing to leave.
‘No, No,’ he said, placing a hand on my arm with a look that invited me to sit. I did so. ‘I thought I saw a cat,’ he muttered, almost under his breath.
I stared at him. ‘A cat?’ I repeated looking around the bar.
‘I’m allergic to them,’ he said by way of explanation, looking around furtively. For some reason I did not believe him but why would he lie about something like that? Our conversation then turned to topics to do with matters of the mind. It ended with us exchanging contact details. As a journalist I have always found it useful to collect people who are experts in their fields and for all his odd behaviour, Dr Jacobs did appear to be highly knowledgeable. We shook hands and parted.
That was a month ago and I have been busy writing a feature on stress at the workplace, a subject close to my heart, when I routinely look at my email queue and there is one from Dr Jacobs inviting me to call round for supper. To say that I am surprised would be an understatement.
I note that Dr Jacobs lives at Bedford Square, which is not that far from my apartment at Ridgemount Gardens, near the University of London. I reply saying that I would be happy to call round. I am curious, more than anything else, to see what life is like at Bedford Square. I note his address is not an apartment!
The door is opened by a man formally dressed. He asks me to identify myself and ushers me into a small but comfortable room to the left of the front door. I take it he must be a butler or manservant. I am astonished that they still exist in the 21st century.
Five minutes later he returns and invites me to follow him to a plush, but rather austere lounge. Jacobs is standing near an open coal fire. He steps forward and we shake hands. He treats me to a rather watery smile and waves me into an expansive easy chair. The Butler, who he addresses as James, is standing nearby awaiting instructions. Jacobs orders two whiskies.
I gaze around the room. It is slightly Edwardian; not quite Victorian but fussy in that everything obviously has its place. Along one wall are shelves full of tomes. I am always fascinated by bookshelves; what treasures are hidden away there, I wonder, and I am sorely tempted to explore, but I don’t. Instead, I look at Jacobs who is staring around the room furtively.
‘Do you hear anything?’ he asks softly.
I listen. There is just a heavy silence which is interrupted by James bringing our whiskies. I stare at him. His face could be made of stone. It is set and expressionless as he sets our drinks down on occasional tables.
‘I am informed by cook Sir, that dinner will be served in 30 minutes,’ he announces in a monotone. Jacobs nods in acknowledgement and James glides out of the room.
‘I didn’t hear anything,’ I inform Jacobs, ‘apart from the occasional car passing outside.’
‘You didn’t hear a laugh,’ he asks, looking at me closely. I shake my head, puzzled, and enquire why he asked.
He stares at a corner of the room. This is a strange house,’ he says. ‘Once the servants have left, I can’t help feeling that there are other people here. I can hear them. Mutterings and laughing, sometimes all night long. There is a cat too. I have no idea how it got in here but I see it every night, lurking in corners.’
I look around the room and then say breezily that there is no sign of any cats now and then ask him how long he has lived at Bedford Square.
‘It was bought by my grandfather,’ he says, relaxing a little. ‘We have lived here for three generations. Both my father and grandfather were medical men. I am the only one to practise psychiatry.’
‘Did you never marry,’ I ask a little hesitantly wondering if he might be offended by such a personal question.
He frowns and replies that he did but that his wife died suddenly just two years after they were wed. ‘It was toxic shock. She died in just two days of the bacteria taking hold,’ he says quietly. I have been alone ever since.’
Suddenly, James appears to announce that dinner is served so we follow him into another spacious room with a dining table in the middle with seats for ten people. There are two place settings at one end. The room is mostly lit by candles, two candelabra on the table and two meagre wall lamps which together manage to cast ominous silhouettes on the walls.
Dinner passes in a gloomy silence and it is with some relief that we eventually rise to leave the maid to clear away the dishes. We return to the lounge which is also poorly lit with just two small wall lights.
Jacobs walks over to a cabinet and holds up a bottle of Martell. I nod and he pours two large measures and returns to his seat by the fire. He begins a conversation about psychiatry and the unusual symptoms displayed by his patients. I listen with interest as he describes Clinical Lycanthropy.
His patient involves a delusion that he can transform into an animal. It is often associated with turning into a wolf or werewolf; the name of the syndrome originates from the mythical condition of lycanthropy or shapeshifting into wolves.
‘The patient genuinely believes he can take the form of any particular animal and during delusional periods he can act like the animal.’
He goes on to talk about another patient who suffers from Alien Hand Syndrome which is characterized by the belief that one’s hand has its own life. Individuals experiencing the syndrome have normal sensations but feel their hand is a separate entity: The affected hand has its own agenda. This syndrome may occur in individuals who have damage to the corpus callosum, which connects the two cerebral hemispheres of the brain.
All very interesting but I notice that while he is talking, he is casting nervous glances around the room. He notices that I have almost finished my brandy and offers a refill and when I accept, walks over to the cabinet which is in a half light.
As he uncorks the bottle, I fancy I see a shadow to his right which appears to be bending over him. He suddenly starts and shouts ‘No, no, go away, damn you,’ waving his arms wildly. He steps back and glances in my direction.
‘Forgive me,’ he says. ‘That was not intended for you.’
‘I thought I saw a shadow,’ I say looking around the room. ‘But it may have just been a trick of the light.’ I smile a little uncertainly.
‘She is plaguing me,’ he mutters taking a large gulp of brandy.
‘Who is?’ I ask.
‘A patient of mine who died about a year ago. In fact, she committed suicide,’ he says with a finality I find rather strange.
I begin to think of what excuses I can conjure up to escape from this place with its sepulchral atmosphere. Did I imagine that shadow? Did he? Has this gloomy dump somehow infected his subconscious into making him believe he is haunted?
Just then there are measured footsteps in the corridor outside, becoming louder as they approach the door. We both stare at it, and then they stop just as suddenly as they started. The door handle turns slowly twice and then stops.
‘Is that the butler?’ I ask, but his face is white. ‘Why doesn’t he come in?’
‘The servants have gone home,’ he replies quietly twisting his fingers around in his lap.
I stand up and walk quickly to the door and wrench it open. There is nobody there but for some reason my eyes are drawn to a dark patch by an occasional table with phone directories on top. I can see two yellow eyes staring at me malevolently. They become larger and larger and begin moving towards me and I swiftly return into the room and slam the door behind me. I lean against it and then slowly walk back to my chair and sit down.
‘What did you see?’ he asks softly.
‘I thought I saw a cat,’ I say, shaking my head. ‘I have no idea who the footsteps belonged to though because there was nobody there.’
I decide it is time to go. I stand up and thank him for his hospitality. He also stands and we both walk to the door, a little warily in my case. The hall is eerily silent as we walk down its length. He opens the front door and I step outside. I turn and thank him again but just before I walk away, I ask. ‘Are you going to be alright?’ He doesn’t reply. He just closes the door silently.
It is two weeks since my eerie supper with Dr Jacobs and I have managed to put him to the back of my mind. I am about to file a story for the Telegraph when I feel my mobile phone vibrating. I stare at the screen. It is Dr Jacobs. Why on earth is he ringing me? I click answer and am about to ask how he is when he asks me if I could round to Bedford Square later. He sounds strange. His voice has a rasping quality and is slightly tremulous. I reluctantly agree.
I ring the bell and wait. Nothing happens. I ring it again. There is still no sign of life. I am about to walk away when the door half opens slowly revealing Jacobs. I stare at him in astonishment. He is unshaven, his jacket is open, his shirt half undone but it is his face that startles me. It is gaunt. His eyes are bloodshot.
He slowly opens the door wider and I walk in with some trepidation. When in the hall I ask him where the butler is.
‘He left,’ he says. ‘He said he could no longer tolerate the things that go on here and just walked out’
I am about to say that I could hardly blame him but don’t. Instead, I follow him into the lounge where the curtains have been drawn back to fill the gloomy room with daylight. It looks no more inviting than it did at night. He walks over to the drinks cabinet and offers me a whisky. I decline with a shake of my head. It is just 10.00am.
‘What has happened to you?’ I ask indicating his open shirt and generally unkempt appearance.
‘I can’t sleep,’ he says. ‘It won’t let me. I get no peace, none at all.’ He glares around the room. ‘Very soon I imagine cook will leave and then God help me. I have no idea what I will do.’
It is on the tip of my tongue to say that he will have to do what most other single men do; cook for themselves or eat out, but I don’t.
As he talks, I find myself looking at the door. I have no idea why. It might have been a movement that caught my attention, I’m not sure, but then as I look, the door handle begins to turn very slowly in one direction and then in the other. I stare at it in dreadful anticipation at what might be on the other side but the door remains closed.
Jacobs has walked over to the window and is staring at the street outside. ‘Is there anyone else in the house?’ I ask.
‘No, just us,’ he says, turning around. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘I thought I saw the door handle turning,’ I say. He simply shrugs and turns back to the window. ‘Why have you asked me here Dr Jacobs?’
‘You have some idea of what I am going through,’ he says. ‘You know it is not the result of a fevered imagination or hallucinations. I just want someone to record what I am going through.’
‘There must be a cause though,’ I say. ‘Do you have no idea why you are being persecuted. There has to be a reason.’
‘I think it may be the result of a fixation my former patient entertained about me,’ he says staring at the other end of the room. I follow his gaze and there just by the door is a large black cat, its yellow eyes staring, unblinking. There is something malevolent about it.
‘Get away from me,’ he yells, throwing a book at it. But the cat has vanished.
‘It is always here,’ he growls. ‘It watches me day and night. There is no respite. I can hear it growling wherever I go.’
I am standing a little way into the room near the fireplace which is unmade. There are half-burned documents in the grate. Jacobs has resumed staring out of the window so I bend down and grasp the two pieces of paper. I hastily stuff them in my pocket and as I do, I hear a dry chuckle in my right ear. I start backwards and almost fall over an occasional table. He turns around and asks if I am alright. I tell him I lost my balance.
‘All I would ask you do is to make a record of what you have heard and seen here,’ he says. ‘My colleagues in the profession will be interested that my experiences have been verified by an independent witness.’
‘Surely they will be interested in the likely cause as well,’ I say. He turns back to the window.
‘That will be a matter of some debate I imagine,’ he says quietly.
I take my leave of him. He doesn’t offer to show me out so I make my way down the hall half expecting some horror to emerge from the shadows, but there is just an ominous silence.
I cross the road and look back at the house. I can see Jacobs in the window staring gloomily at the sky and then I look more closely. Standing behind him and slightly to his left is another figure, the figure of a woman, an old woman with a pinched face and a shawl around her shoulders. She is staring at him malignantly. I continue staring for perhaps a minute or two until the figure gradually fades from view. I make my way out of the square back to Ridgemount Gardens.
I had forgotten about the pieces of paper I found in Jacobs’ grate. I take them out of my coat pocket and lay them out on the table. The top halves are unburnt and one appears to be a bank statement belonging to a Catharine Bancroft. There are just three items visible, all withdrawals totalling £100,000. The other is a letter addressed to Jacobs saying that he had been granted Lasting Power of Attorney for Ms Catherine Bancroft. The rest of the letter is burnt. I assume she is or was a patient of his. Why, I wonder, has he attempted to destroy them in the grate? Then, another thought occurs. Could she be the patient he referred to?
I decide to go online and see what a Google search reveals. The first is a news story in which police are appealing for information about Catharine Bancroft, aged 78, who vanished a year ago. I read the story. It seems she told a neighbour she was going to a local shop in south London and was never seen again. The neighbour is later quoted as saying she was devoted to her cat which had also disappeared. It was, apparently, a large black cat which she doted on. It was always with her. I stare at the photograph. There is no doubt about it. She is the spectral figure I saw standing behind Jacobs. And the cat I saw was no doubt hers too.
The second news story that comes up is five years earlier in the Daily Mail saying the actress Catherine Bancroft was retiring from the stage after a lifetime in the theatre. It seems she was a regular in West End productions. It goes on to list many of the shows she appeared in.
So why would she be haunting Jacobs, if indeed it was her I saw? And why did he say she committed suicide, if indeed it was Miss Bancroft he was referring to? The inescapable conclusion, given the documents I found, is that Jacobs was somehow involved in her disappearance but I find that difficult to believe. He may be a little odd but an eminent psychiatrist like him murdering and stealing from a patient is difficult to believe. Surely not. There must be another explanation.
But if she weren’t murdered, what could have happened to her? Suicide is simply out of the question. A well-known actress like her taking her own life would have been certain to have made the headlines.
I scroll through the other news items in which Catherine was mentioned but the headlines get smaller and the stories shorter as time goes on and there is no trace of her. There is only one story in which Jacobs is mentioned and that was when he revealed that she had been a patient of his for some time. No significance appears to have been attached to that.
I decide that I can do no more but I write up my research and file it away thinking that if Catherine does re-appear there will be story in it. I put Jacobs out of my mind and immerse myself in more pressing matters.
It is just a week later when I am sitting in a coffee shop sipping a cappuccino reading the Guardian when my mobile rings. I sigh and am minded to ignore it. I value my thinking time and interruptions are annoying. I glance at the screen which is saying ‘Dr Jacobs’. I really do not want to visit him again in that creepy house of his but I decide to answer and make an excuse, if indeed that is what he wants.
I click on it and listen but all I can hear is an odd subdued, whispered, muttering. I keep saying ‘Dr Jacobs, are you there’ but there is no answer, just the muttering and a strange, rather eery rustling sound.
Then, suddenly, there is scream which is so loud I almost fall off my chair. The two people sitting at the next table glance at me curiously as I hold the phone away from my ear. When I listen again there is just absolute, total, silence. Then I hear a sound that chills me to the bone; it is a sound I last heard in a butcher’s, the unmistakable sound of flesh being sliced. I rush outside and hail a cab, telling the driver to take me to Bedford Square.
I stand looking uncertainly at the door. What am I going to find behind it? Perhaps I should have rung the police first, but then if nothing gruesome has happened despite the scream, I would look foolish. For all I know Jacobs might have just been having a fit of hysterics. Having said that my instinct is telling me otherwise.
There is no movement in the windows; no lights are shining; they just stare down at me ominously. I press the bell and wait. There is no response. I press it again and notice that the door appears to be very slightly open. I push it gently and it swings open very slowly as though by an invisible hand, revealing the cavernous, dinghy hall.
I stare into its gloomy space. There is no movement, no sign of life. I suddenly have an almost overwhelming urge to walk away from this place but I know I must enter; something is compelling me to.
I walk slowly, fearfully, down the hall. I call out to Dr Jacobs several times; there is no answer, just an oppressive, brooding silence. I reach the lounge and stare at the door. I want to turn back; what will I find in there?
As I stand there transfixed, the door gradually opens of its own accord. I step hesitatingly into the room which is in partial darkness due to the curtains being slightly open. At first, I can see nothing in the gloom. I was expecting to see Jacobs in his armchair asleep but the two chairs are empty.
It is only then I notice the smell. It is a sickeningly dry, sweet metallic scent on the verge of being pungent and slightly suffocating, mixed with the odour of burning.
It is only when I walk past the first armchair that I see it. At first, my senses cannot interpret the scene that confronts me. I stare in open-mouthed horror at the carnage that lies before me. Bile rises up and I rush to a plant in the corner and throw up. I leave the room trembling, the scene etched into my mind.
Jacobs, or what is left of him, was lying in the hearth in front of the fire which had been lit and which was casting a red glow on the room.
Embers from the fire had somehow fallen on his chest and burned their way into him exposing a few ribs. He is lying in a pool of blood, but the most horrific sight is his face which has been shredded as if by a claw. One eyeball has been forced out of its socket and hanging down his cheek.
I stumble to the end of the hall into the kitchen and pour myself a tumbler of water. I sit on a chair until my breathing returns to normal and my heart stops its wild beating. Something is telling me to return to the room. I walk to the doorway and there, in the centre of the room, is an elderly woman. I know immediately it is Catherine Bancroft. She is staring at me, tears trickling down her cheeks. At her side is her cat, also staring at me, its eyes no longer glowing. She raises an arm and points to the floor and they both slowly disappear.
It is two weeks later that police discover a body in the cellar. It was quickly identified as that of Catherine Bancroft. I had some difficulty persuading them to search the cellar without revealing that it was Catherine herself who pointed it out. The half-burned documents I produced persuaded them that it was a possibility that Ms Bancroft had been murdered.
At the inquest, forensic scientists were unable to satisfactorily explain how Jacobs sustained such horrific injuries. An open verdict was recorded.
Just two days later, I found myself wide wake at 2.00am. I glance at the window. I always leave the curtains half drawn to let in light. The moon’s rays cast a sombre light on the opposite wall. I stare at the windowsill.
A cat is sitting there.