This was how my father always told our family ghost story.
We had nearly arrived at our rented holiday cottage after a long car journey to the seaside on a warm, cloudless spring day. With an hour or so to kill before we could get the keys we settled down on a broad expanse of grass. It seemed an ideal spot for a picnic. I was three years old, a little girl with dark hair and a happy smile. For once my parents relaxed and almost forgot to watch me as I bounced and caught my brightly coloured ball. I tracked further and further from them propelling my ball with inexpert kicks until suddenly it was rolling away, downhill, faster and faster.
Angrily I stamped after it. The faint cries of my father, now alarmed and racing after me, made no impression on my young mind focussed on the irritating bouncing ball that would not come back.
Then it vanished, falling away over a sheer drop, a cliff edge that held no fears for me. I did not realise what lay ahead. I had no idea of danger, no thought that the rocks below would dash me to an early death. So, on I trotted, determined to find my ball and oblivious to my frantic father who had now realised he was going to be just too late.
Then she appeared. The lady in the white dress. Directly in front of me, staring, ghostly.
I stopped, of course. A few feet from the edge I stopped and seconds later was scooped into my sobbing father’s arms. For a moment, the White Lady flickered, her gaze steady and penetrating. Then she disappeared.
My mother saw nothing. She reached the spot some while after my father and refused to believe his story even when I corroborated it, albeit in a confused and unconvincing fashion. So, it was our secret; mine and my father’s. We used to talk about her furtively and called her my guardian angel. I spent my whole childhood expecting to see her again, but I never did.
I suppose I forgot about her. Marriage came along and three children of my own. For years I was too busy to dwell on ghosts and as the span of time increased the White Lady became more a childish dream than the former vivid reality.
And then I saw an advert in the paper. My husband and I had divorced, the children had taken his side and largely disappeared from my life, and I was depressed and badly in need of a holiday.
“Cottage to Let”.
It was the same place. I knew at once from the location and further particulars that it matched the description my father had so often given me. This was the cottage I had stayed at with my parents forty five years ago. Suddenly I yearned to go back there. I booked a week, and as I did so, my skin tingled.
It was still a peaceful place but I could remember little more. Some aspects of the cottage gave me a vague feeling of familiarity but otherwise I could not really imagine that I had ever been there before. I arrived late and the first night passed fitfully with the old timbers creaking as if footsteps approached my bedroom and the open shutters bumping in the breeze as if somebody wanted to enter.
I awoke amused at my own trepidation. A brief breakfast and I was afoot, eager to discover the picnic spot and the cliff that had so nearly claimed me.
It was mid-afternoon before I found it. A broad green sward with fresh spring flowers adding a delicate palette of colour – ideal for a picnic. I could picture my parents, tired from the journey and drowsy in the sun, while a small girl bounced her plastic ball. It all seemed so safe and tranquil. I could not blame them at all. There was no indication of any danger.
I knew the way now and hurried along. The slope began to drop a little and I went more quickly. Something seemed to be driving me. The air was chill despite the sun. I felt a clutch of fear in my throat. An odd feeling that I was late; that I must hurry.
The cliff appeared. I stopped. It was indeed a chasm and I drank in the view with a horror at my close escape all those years ago. The waves far below whispered and foamed over the jagged rocks as if enticing me to jump. They had been cheated of their prey all those years ago and they wanted me now. For a brief instant I was gripped by an urge to throw myself over and stepped hurriedly back whimpering in fear.
Why I turned around at that moment, I do not know. Some instinct told me. As I gazed back up the slope a small, dark haired girl appeared running as if in slow motion. Behind her, eyes wide and startled, neck bulging with soundless screams was my dear father, long dead. I watched the spasm of terror cross his face and yet he was determined first to grab his child and clutch her to him. Only then did our eyes lock in mutual dread.
As their figures faded slowly away, my last view was of my own young eyes peering quizzically at me like black, fathomless wells.
And when they were quite gone and I could strain no longer to see their nebulous outlines I looked slowly down and realised I was wearing a white dress.
Rob Butler lives in Reading in the UK and has had fiction published in Noesis, Perihelion and Daily Science Fiction. His ebook, “The Way we used to Work”, can be found at www.bibliotastic.com/ebooks/fiction-humour/way-we-used-work.