Have you ever had a recurring dream? I’ve had a few, but there is one in particular that I’ve had since I was a bairn. Now, I know I’ve never addressed what happens to ghosts after they move on, because I don’t know for sure, but these dreams certainly make it hard to refute the possibility of reincarnation. I say recurring dream, but that might be misleading, recurring implies the same every time. The only thing that’s the same in each of my dreams is the setting, and occasionally the people. Events, however, are varied.
It’s a nice place, where I have this dream. It’s a small town, perhaps even a village, with a few rows of stone cottages, a steady stream of smoke curling from the chimneys. There’s no pavement, not like we’d know it today, just dirt. In some dreams it’s solid, others it’s no better than a swamp. There are people everywhere, walking about with baskets, sacks, buckets, with people, on their own. There’s no organisation, it’s just chaos. People are walking beside horses pulling carts, jumping out of the way of a lone rider in a rush. Women wear white linen caps, sometimes trimmed with lace, other times plain. Pattens* are on their feet in an attempt to elevate their hems above the muck. Men’s hair is long, often tied back away from their face with a cord. Their trousers are short with buttons on the front, their jackets sometimes made of fading wool.
There’s smells in the air, of burning coal, manure, shite, piss, metal, and bread. It’s always noisy, although you wouldn’t expect it to be. Sometimes I can feel the thud beneath the ground as a horse approaches, or the clatter of a door knocker as someone leaves their home, or the squawking of two fish wives blethering* away.
I’ve never heard the name of this place, no one I speak to ever has any reason to mention it in conversation because they obviously know. I’m not myself in these dreams, not really. People talk to me like they know me, have known me for years, and I talk back exactly the same way, even though I couldn’t tell you their names.
I’m a bit like a passenger, what I’ve always assumed a ghost possessing someone else would experience. The irony isn’t lost on me. I’m conscious, I experience everything in the first person, but I’m not in control of what I do, say, or where I go. I don’t even know my own first name. Everyone just calls me Mrs McIlwraith.
I have a husband, although by the looks of my hands I’m quite young. In some dreams I have bairns, either cradling them in my arms, watching them play together, or watching as their coffins are lowered into the ground. It’s difficult to tell how much time has passed in these dreams because nothing about the town changes. The skin on my hands wrinkles, age spots appear. I notice the people I speak to can have strands of white hair in one dream, have none the next, and then not be there at all.
They’re never in order, these dreams of mine. It jumps around, from funeral, to christening, to wedding. The people are relatively constant, one generation after the next, all looking alike and becoming the same thing as their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. Everything is stagnant, to some extent, and nothing really changes.
It’s quite comforting really, there’s a sense of certainty and predictability that modern life lacks. People are simpler, they speak how they find, they’re more honest because they believe God’s watching and He’ll punish those who lie.
But it’s far from boring or monotonous. Every dream I’ve had, and there have been plenty, gives me a glimpse into this person’s life and the challenges we both share. Whether figment of my imagination or something more grounded in history it doesn’t really matter, because these dreams mostly bring me comfort that I’m not the only person like me. This was especially important when I was the only person like me that I knew, before Ewan.
I write them all down, the parts I can remember anyway. That’s the only bad thing about dreams, it’s difficult to remember linear time, it’s usually just scenes, snippets of nonsensical events. I’ve found that you’re more likely to remember your dreams if they make sense, if they tell you a story. So, I’ll tell you one.
I’m married in this dream, I know because I’m Mrs McIlwraith. There has been one dream where I’ve been a Miss, but it was very brief, and no matter how hard I try I can never remember what the surname was. I think I’m pregnant, either that or I’m eating too much. My stomach protrudes beneath the layers of clothing, but not enough to make it certain either way. My hands are relatively young. I know I’m referring to hands a lot but I’ve never seen my face in a mirror, there’s never a scene where I’m looking into one. So, the only way I can discern my age is by my hands, or sometimes by the bairns running around.
There are no other children, so I assume I’m carrying my first. There are dreams when I feel it kick or move around, and sometimes it’s so vivid that when I wake up I feel my stomach expecting it to still be there. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, apron tied around my waist, stained and repaired from many uses. The fire’s always on and the door’s always open. A lot of people walk past and each one of them shouts a greeting. Some of them even stop in the doorway to have a chat.
It’s mostly women, pausing to spread the local gossip, because there always is some. The Ogilvie’s eldest son is engaged to the Robertson’s second daughter, Mrs McClure is expecting her fifth bairn, or that Mr Cox has run off with his mistress. This time a young woman stops at the doorway. She’s not dressed like the other people in the village, she’s more flamboyant, her clothes a wee bit more expensive and eye catching, her makeup obvious where others look not to have any on.
I know her and exclaim her name in delight, but I also have this strange feeling, a bit like dread or anxiety. I invite her in, but then proceed to close the door, a wee voice in my head hoping that no one saw her come in. This young woman’s name is Ann, and she’s a prostitute, or whoore as the locals often say. How I’m friends with her is a mystery. From what I know of history, lassies of the night don’t usually mix with married women. It’s all to do with respectability. It’s fine to hear gossip of others, but every respectable soul lives in fear of being the subject of it. This is back in the day where everyone still went to church on a Sunday and appearances meant a lot.
You never know, perhaps this person who’s eyes I see through was a whoore. Ann seems a good deal younger than me, I’d maybe say she was about 18 or 19, far too young to my modern eyes to be forced into stranger’s beds. I remove my apron, but not without wiping my hands on it first, and offer her a seat, which she takes with an ease that suggests she’s a regular visitor.
I sit down beside her and after the polite chitchat is over she gives me a grave look, as though something terrible has happened. I ask her if something’s wrong and she hesitates, glancing into the fire as though it’ll give her the words she’s looking for.
She tells me business has been slow of late, the brothel where she works isn’t getting as many customers as it usually does. I’ve gleaned the impression over the course of my dreams that a brothel is a place that working lasses want to work because there’s a measure of safety and security when it comes to themselves and their stream of income. That’s why when Ann tells me the man who runs the brothel is thinking about releasing some of the girls I can tell things are bad.
I share my condolences and try to reassure her that she may not be let go. She shakes her head lightly and then turns her watery gaze directly on me. Ann confesses that her visiting me wasn’t just to appraise me of events, it was to ask for my help.
I’m surprised as I have no power to change her predicament. My husband, Mr McIlwraith, is a foreman in the local mines, hardly in a position to entice customers to the brothel. At least, I’d hope not. Ann goes on to explain that the reason the brothel is losing its patrons is because there’s been a series of disturbances in one of the rooms. These events, such as people being harmed in some way, have led rumours to start that it’s haunted.
She then goes on to tell me the reason she came to me is because she knows I have the sight. That seems to be a common way to refer to my ability to see ghosts. The person who I am in the dream, Mrs McIlwraith, has the same gift as I do. However, she doesn’t appear to like it being mentioned. I can’t imagine any woman back then was. From what I can tell there are no witch trials going on, it’s a bit late for that, but their consequences are still felt, especially for people like Mrs McIlwraith who would probably be classed as one.
It’s the village’s worst kept secret. This isn’t the only dream I’ve had where someone’s propositioned me regarding an apparent haunting. But every time they do I feel my stomach clench, and an unwelcome feeling of dread bleeds into my mood. In this time, I don’t like being able to see things others can’t. I can’t tell how everyone knows about it, I can’t even glean if it’s a family thing, like my maiden name carries a reputation. Somehow, everyone knows, or at least it feels like everyone, but no one speaks about it unless they want me to do something with it.
The weird thing is despite my dread and apprehension I inquire further about the haunting at the brothel. Even though I don’t want to help, I feel like I have a duty to, as though it’s my job.
Ann tells me small things began happening 6 months ago. The door would open, or refuse to close, the windows acted the same way. Occasionally a patron would hear something coming from inside, but when someone went in to investigate there was nothing there. It was always cold in that room, even with a fire going. Things began to escalate when patrons were thrown out of the room, and some of the lasses would wake up with injuries on them like scratches and bruises, which they claimed were not from the client. It’d become so infamous that the man who ran the brothel had permanently locked the room but the sounds still came from inside.
His actions came too late, and in fear for their safety and their reputations, men had begun to frequent other places. Ann pleaded with me to help, implying I was the only one who could. Apparently, a minister, or church affiliated exorcist, had already had a go but understandably failed.
Despite believing in God, I understand that the souls of the dead aren’t his domain, and that there was very little the minister could do to free the spirit. I’m the brothel’s last hope, and I don’t like it.
Despite this, I still intend to help, but I worry how to go about it without being seen and without my husband finding out. I agree to visit early in the morning, when all the patrons have disappeared but the village hasn’t fully woken up. I sneak out of our house whilst my husband sleeps and have an excuse if he wakes up before I’ve returned.
The ease with which Mrs McIlwraith can investigate hauntings or ghosts is enviable. It’s strange the freedom she has because mostly everyone around her believes in them. There’s no science, there’s no journal articles disproving them, or budding scientists willing to reveal a fake medium or psychic. People aren’t educated to the same extent, and I’m pretty sure not many of the people I speak to can even read or write. Without education, without the foundations for questioning or investigative thoughts, it’s simpler for people to believe what their parents believed, and the stories that have been passed down the generations. This is rural Scotland, and if we’re superstitious in the 21st century, I can only imagine how much we were in the centuries before.
The brothel isn’t what I, modern me, expected. It’s very normal and looks just like every other house in the area. I can’t imagine the neighbours on either side were too happy about their being a brothel next door. There was no sign post, or anything that would indicate what it was, but I guarantee you everyone knew. This was the morning though, and it was probably an entirely different picture at night. I was reluctant to go inside and kept looking over my shoulder expecting someone to see me. I was very aware of the rumours that would fly around if I was seen. I almost left without knocking, but I managed to gather the courage to chap on the wooden door.
The man who ran the brothel, or was, at least, a manager of sorts, let me in where Ann was waiting for me, looking a bit more bedraggled than she’d been the day before. They both took me up to the room and my stomach squirmed around as the door was unlocked and swung open.
There was no fire in the fireplace, the window was closed, but everything else was ordinary. There was a bed, neatly made, a few chairs and tables near the flames. It was basic but comfortable. Ann was right about it being cold and my fingertips were the first to feel the lack of heat.
I took a few reluctant steps inside, not failing to notice that Ann or her employer didn’t follow me. I gazed around in every corner, under the bed, even near the wooden beams of the ceiling, but I couldn’t see anything. I began to relax a bit. I also recalled Ann’s descriptions of the phenomena in the room and realised that no one had actually seen anything. But I knew better than to try and find some normal explanation.
My heart jumped against my ribcage when I heard the door to the room slam violently shut. I whirled around, but I wasn’t really surprised. The handle began to rattle, as though someone on the outside was trying to open it again. Ann called that it was locked. I checked, and it wasn’t. There was no reason I couldn’t just go and open it, but I knew that’d be impossible.
I turned back around to face the room, deciding not to waste my time with the door. My eyes snagged on the one thing that had changed. A woman, dressed in bright clothing, perched on the side of the bed, the buckles on her shoes sparkling even in death. I had a brief moment of recognition, as though we’d met before, but it was too fleeting to grasp onto.
“I know why you’re here,” she stated sourly.
I asked why.
“Tae get rid ae’ me!” she snapped.
I tried to explain that no one wanted to get rid of her, that they only wanted to help. She mentioned the minister who’d visited and shouted to the room for her to leave. I reassured her I wasn’t going to repeat those events. I then asked her who she was.
She opened her mouth, closed it, and repeated this a few times, whispered syllables falling from her mouth but never forming a coherent answer. I inquired if she couldn’t remember.
“It doesnae matter if I cannae,” she answered dejectedly.
After a moment of silence, she checked if I truly wanted to help her. I nodded. She commented that it was unusual for married women to want anything to do with people like her. I couldn’t answer her, knowing I’d felt nothing but reluctance and dread at the thought of helping prostitutes.
She began by acknowledging she couldn’t remember who she was, even her name. There were only two things that lingered in her mind. One was that she’d been murdered by a patron. Rather than seek justice, payment, the male manager had simply thrown her body in the river. The second was that in her short life she’d given birth to a handful of bairns, only one of which had survived. She was adamant she hadn’t wanted to keep it, and that she didn’t regret her decision to give it away. But I could tell from the way her eyes watered that those words were hollow.
There’d been something she’d forgotten to give her daughter before she was sent away, the only item that she wanted her to have. It was a necklace. A small silver cross with one modest ruby in the centre. Fortunately, she hadn’t been wearing it when she’d died, and it was still somewhere in the room, hidden beneath a loose floorboard.
At her request, I recovered the soft piece of velvet it was enrobed in. I couldn’t help my hand hovering over my own stomach and thanking God I’d been born with a better fortune than this woman, and Ann, and the girls like her. If the bairn I was carrying was a daughter, I vowed upon my life she’d never set foot in a place like this.
The nameless woman elicited a promise from me that I’d ensure the necklace reached her daughter, and in return she’d stop haunting the brothel where she’d died. I agreed, and just as she disappeared there was a click from the door and it swung open to reveal a frantic Ann and the man whom I knew had disposed of the spirit’s body.
I reassured them I was fine, stuffing the velvet scrap into my pocket before they could see what it was. Before I left the brothel to complete my side of the promise, I stared into that man’s eyes as coldly as I could and delivered a prophecy that he, one day soon, would meet as bloody an end as the women who he’d disposed of. And I had no doubt in my mind that my words would come true.
Seeing as it was a small village, there was only one church that looked after orphans and abandoned bairns. There was a name embroidered on the piece of velvet in unsteady hand. I assumed the ghost’s daughter was Martha.
I went to the church to find the minister and the volunteers who looked after the parish’s bairns and requested they give the necklace to Martha. When asked if I wanted to see her, I declined, feeling like it was too close to the bone. I don’t think I’d removed my hand from my stomach for more than 5 seconds since my visit to the brothel.
I did catch a glimpse of the bairn, who couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5. She was in clothes that barely fit her, and shoes that had to be tied to her ankles to prevent them from flying off as she played. She was a bonnie bairn, with the essence of her mother in her dark hair. I found it best not to think about what she’d become. I’d only promised the ghost to deliver the necklace, I hadn’t promised to be the girls keeper. I wasn’t wealthy enough to sponsor her, nor I was in a position to adopt her. The only thing I could really do was make her clothes that fit, and that’s exactly what I did.
I can’t tell you what happened to Martha, this is the only dream so far that she’s been in. I like to think she did better than her origins would imply, but it’s perhaps my wishful thinking.
I don’t know who Mrs McIlwraith is, if she’s even real or it’s just my imagination running amock whilst I’m asleep. If I was so inclined I could delve into my ancestry, but without a first name it’s impossible to verify. So, I’ll leave that decision whether she’s real or not up to you.
*Pattens: special shoes usually made of wood or metal that would go over the shoe and elevate the wearer so the hems of their skirts, and their actual shoes, wouldn’t get dirty.
*Blethering: Scottish colloquialism for chatting/talking, mostly in a gossip-y way.