The hostel has a brisk, administrative feel to it, corridors and fire doors, numbered rooms, informative posters on pin-boards and a reception desk in the foyer. Natalie, the young key worker, meets us there and takes us up in the lift.
‘Bernadette’s lived here ten years or more. She lost her husband and went a bit crazy, ended up on the street, then here. She’s never been any trouble, no drinking or carrying on. She just keeps herself to herself, smoking away in her room, popping out every now and again. The mental health team have been keen to get involved for a while now but unfortunately Bernie’s a bit – how shall I put it? – independent minded?’
‘So what’s happened today?’
‘She pulled her alarm cord. Apparently she had a fall of some kind, don’t know why. She’d got herself up by the time we got there, and she doesn’t seem to have hurt herself. I wouldn’t have called you only she was behaving a little strangely so I thought we should. I hope we’re not wasting your time.’
‘It’s fine. Don’t worry. You should always call if you’re worried about anything.’
‘She’s just down here. Oh – and, one more thing. Don’t worry about her hair. She always looks like that.’
Natalie smiles reassuringly, then knocks on a door and opens it with her key.
It leads into a tiny hallway with a kitchenette and shower room straight ahead and two rooms, right and left. Natalie knocks on the door to our left, and lets us in to that, too.
‘Hello, Bernie. I’ve come back with the ambulance,’ she says.
Bernie is sitting on the edge of her bed. I’m glad Natalie warned us about her hair, because it’s the first thing anyone would notice. Whilst the rest of her long grey hair falls down around Bernie’s shoulders a little tangled a but otherwise quite normal, the top of her head is extraordinary. If I had to recreate it, I’d have to put a nest of baby yellow spiders on the crown of my head, spray them with a mist of sugared water and then get someone to pass a flamethrower over the whole affair.
‘Hello, Bernie,’ I say. ‘My name’s Spence, this is Rae. How are you feeling?’
‘Not good,’ she says. ‘Dreadful.’
‘I’m sorry to hear it. Natalie here tells us you had a bit of a fall earlier.’
‘Tell us about that. Did you hurt yourself?’
She rubs the small of her back.
‘Not much. Just where I landed on my bottom.’
‘Did you bang your head? Were you knocked unconscious or anything dramatic like that?’
‘Okay. So why did you fall? Was it a trip or something? Did you have a funny turn?’
Bernie looks at Natalie for a moment, then down at her hands.
‘I felt it coming through the day but I didn’t think much of it.’
‘Felt what coming?’
‘A darkness in the room. Coming over me. But I just ignored it. I went out shopping. Got some things. Had lunch. Chicken and chips. Came back. Felt tired, so I got into bed and fell asleep. I had some bad dreams, like the darkness had followed me there. Then when I woke up, it was right there, hanging over me. I couldn’t say nothing. Then it grabbed me out of bed and threw me on the floor. That’s when I rang for help.’
‘What do you think it was?’
‘A whatsisname. A poltergeist.’
‘Okay. Wow! Have you seen it before?’
‘No. I don’t believe in ghosts.’
‘Well I have to say, neither do I. But something’s happened today, Bernie. Shall we run a few checks and see if anything’s amiss?’
‘If you like.’
There’s a curiously inert quality to her, the way she raises her arms and lowers them again, following instructions as neutrally as a mannequin. But everything seems normal, her blood pressure, blood sugar, temperature and so on. Up close like this it’s difficult not to look at her hair. There are two bold, brown streaks of matters from the temple back, like she dipped a finger in mud and swiped herself above each ear.
‘What have you done with your hair today?’ I ask her.
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s just I haven’t seen that done before. What did you use?’
‘Is that what it is?’
‘I put it on every morning. For control.’
I wrap up my cuff and steth.
‘Have you had any alcohol today, Bernie?’
‘I don’t drink.’
‘Anything else out of the ordinary?’
She shakes her head.
‘Well I must admit I’m a bit stumped. I’m glad you didn’t hurt yourself when you fell, but I’m a bit concerned about the reason for it all. The poltergeist, and so on.’
‘It picked me up and threw me down.’
‘Hmm. You see – I don’t think it was a poltergeist. I think it was something else, a hallucination of some kind. And it would be good to get a blood test done to see if there was a reason for it. Are you okay about coming with us to hospital for a check-up?’
‘I want to get dressed first.’
‘Of course. Shall we step outside and give you some privacy?’
Natalie helps Bernie get some clothes together whilst we wait in the little hallway. The place is having a refurbishment, because even though the walls in Bernie’s room are stained with ten years of tarry cigarettes, the kitchen and shower room are bright and white. In fact the kitchen has a notice taped to the sink: Wet Paint, and every surface is bare.
‘I suppose you’re just as likely to see a ghost here as anywhere else,’ says Rae, folding her arms and looking around. ‘They’re not obliged to hang around old houses and graveyards, are they?’
‘I suppose not.’
‘But I hardly think it can be a ghost.’
‘Why’s that?’‘Her hair would scare it off.’