If you happen to know me in real life, then you’ll know that I absolutely do not believe in the supernatural. There’s a logical explanation for everything, or so the saying goes. Having said that, there is one genuinely frightening experience that happened to me about twenty five years ago. It’s something I don’t really talk about to people, and once you’ve read the story, I think you’ll understand why.
I must emphasise that every word of this is true, to the very best of my recollection. In honour of Halloween I’ve decided to finally write down what happened that night, all those years ago. This story takes place in my childhood home town of Gosport, specifically the Royal Haslar Hospital.
Photo by Pierre Terre, CC BY-SA 2.0.
You can’t visit Haslar anymore, at least not as a hospital. Some parts have been developed into modern designer flats, while the rest remains closed-off and semi-derelict. I guess there were reasons why they couldn’t develop the whole site. Reasons why the flats huddle on the narrow strip of land between the waterfront and that older parts of the hospital where the crows roost and the shadows linger.
First, a history lesson. Haslar Hospital was built in 1753 for the exclusive use of the Royal Navy. The Haslar Farm site, on an isolated peninsula overlooking the harbour, was chosen due to its relative proximity to Portsmouth dockyards. Patients would arrive by boat, and it treated people wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, the Normandy landings in World War 2 and everything in between. Imagine the horrific injuries those high brick walls must have seen down the long years. Some people say that they wish the walls of historic buildings could talk and tell us what they’d seen. In the case of Haslar, I’m very glad they can’t. The hospital finally closed in 2009, but before that, even though it was technically a military hospital, it also received local NHS patients by appointment. Which is where I come in.
When I was a lot younger I had a very minor procedure on my ear canal. It was a simple enough operation that went exactly as planned, but it had required general anaesthetic so they kept me in overnight for observation. I was around nine or ten years old at the time, so naturally I was staying on the Children’s Ward.
Again I’ll remind you that this is something that actually happened to me, and every word I’m going to tell you is true recounting of events as I remember them. Now you have to understand that this hospital was never built with child patients in mind. Why would it be? It was a naval hospital. The whole place smelled of antiseptic with subtle undertones of oil and machinery. The wards were cavernous and echoing. Cosy it was not. Plenty of room for shadows. Plenty of hiding places for anyone or anything that didn’t want to be found.
Haslar hospital was busy and bustling during the day, but at night all non-essential staff gladly headed home, crossing the old bridge across Gosport Creek, just leaving the night shift to staff the echoing halls. In the Children’s ward the lights were turned down, and we all went to sleep. This wasn’t an intensive care ward, so there were no facilities for parents to sleep there with us. Apart from a nurse or two, we were essentially on our own, or so it seemed. Looking back, this may have been one of the first times I stayed away from home without my parents, but I don’t remember having any trouble drifting off to sleep. At least, not at first.
I awoke at some point in the night. I had no idea what time it was, there were no ubiquitous mobile phones to check in those days, and no clocks in sight. Everything seemed silent and still. My mouth was weirdly dry so I took a sip of water from the cup by my bed and rolled over to try and get back to sleep beneath the stiff sheets. It was then that I noticed something was wrong.
There was someone standing over the bed opposite mine, on the other side of the ward, silently looming over the small boy who lay there. The boy in the bed had been shy when I met him earlier that day; quiet, with curly black hair. Thinking back now and racking my brains, I want to say his name was William. I might not be remembering that right, but I guess in a lot of ways what his name was doesn’t really matter now. In any case, we’ll call him William for the moment.
Someone was standing next to William’s bed, not moving. Remember at this point the lights were mostly off, the blinds were shut and there was very little light coming in from outside. The only real illumination was coming from the nurse’s station – manned by a solitary male nurse – at the far end of the ward.
I closed my eyes and tried to go back to sleep, but it was playing on my mind. Why was there someone just standing there? I assumed it was another nurse, as in the brief glimpse I’d caught they seemed to be wearing a white dress. I decided to take another look, and it was at that point I realised the figure standing there was missing something vital, an essential bit of kit for any nurse to have – they were missing a head!
My bones turned to ice and I kept staring, straining my eyes in the gloom. William moaned quietly and moved in his sleep. The figure remained silent and still. I was imagining this right? It was a dream? My eyes were playing tricks? I stayed low in the bed, trying to look like I was asleep while simultaneously slowly, slowly, reaching for my glasses.
I put them on, and yes, the figure in white was definitely there, floating silently next to William. I tried to breathe as silently and shallowly as possible and waited to see what it did next.
Time always seems to run slower when you’re younger, and also passes slowly when you’re scared. So as you can imagine it felt like I was waiting for an eternity, watching the figure holding silent vigil in the shadows over poor William.
At last I decided I had to do something. There’s no way I could go back to sleep and I definitely wasn’t brave enough to go any closer and confront the figure. Nope, no way. Nopers. Absolutely not. And I don’t think any of you would either, if I’m honest. I did what any sensible ten year old would do – I decided it was time to tell a grown up. In this case, that meant the nurse on duty.
I guess in some ways I should be proud I had the guts to leave the safety of my blankets when there was a ghostly nurse floating a couple of metres from me! I sort of slid out to one side, and then hurried down to the nurse’s station. My bare fit pit-pat-pit-pated on the cold and sterile floor tiles, all the while the skin on my back tingled as though I was being watched. I was sure it would only be seconds before I felt a frozen hand on my shoulder and my heart would stop in terror.
But no, miraculously I made it into the island of warm light that surrounded the nurse’s station. As I approach the male nurse looked up from whatever he was reading, sat in a chair behind the desk. “Are you alright?” he asked kindly. It was a difficult question to answer, given the circumstances. How do you tell someone that they’re in ghost story? I had no choice but to answer honestly.
“Sorry to bother you,” I said, always polite, “but I think I see a headless lady.”
I can still see the look on his face. It flashed through a look of amusement ‘is this a joke?’ to an apprehensive ‘oh no this kid is serious isn’t he’ in less than a second. In hindsight I know exactly what he was thinking. The nurse knew what happens to the guy in the horror movie who follows the creepy little kid into the darkness. Now I was that kid! But – and this is to his eternal credit – the nurse stood up, left the warmth and safety of his desk, and followed me back into the gloom.
I wish I knew the name of the nurse, so I can credit him for his bravery. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that I survived the events of that night, as I’m here to tell you the story. But I never did catch his name. We didn’t get a chance to talk about it afterwards; when I woke up in the morning he was gone and another nurse had taken his place. Presumably his shift had finished and he’d headed home…? In any case I never saw him again. I sometimes wonder if he tells this story to his friends and family. I wonder how they react.
We slowly crept back through the ward, that nurse and I. Now you may be wondering why we couldn’t see the headless ghost from the nurse’s station? Well, each of the beds had a curtain around it; the majority were open, but some were partially pulled, including the one around where William lay. All we could see was the end of his bed. We moved as silently as we could through the darkness, me on tiptoes and the nurse treading lightly. He may have been brave, but he was also cautious. As I type this it’s made me pause to reflect on what else he may have seen on night shifts in those old, benighted wards….
All around us the other children slept soundly, oblivious to the horror unfolding in their midst. At last we reached my bed. I made sure that the nurse gave William’s bed a wide berth so we could view the spectre from a distance. I think a large part of me expected the apparition to have vanished now that I’d arrived with adult reinforcements.
No, it was very much still there. Still floating, next to a helpless William, drifting like a broken promise on the wind, long arms down by its side, silent as the grave. A renewed chill shot down my spine.
“There…” I said in a small voice that was barely a whisper in the gloom.
The nurse took a step forward, squinting into the darkness. I held my breath, heart hammering in my chest.
“I see it,” said the nurse, “that’s just someone’s dressing gown hanging up.”
Emboldened, I moved a few steps closer, straining my eyes. Yeah, he was right, it was just a white dressing gown hanging on a black coat hanger.
“So you’re okay to go back to bed then?” he asked.
“Yes, sorry, thank you for coming to look,” I said, as I climbed back into my bed. It wasn’t long before I drifted off to sleep.
And of course it was just a dressing gown, because there’s absolutely no such thing as ghosts, even in a several hundred year old hospital! And on your way to bed tonight there’s definitely no need to check behind your bathroom or bedroom door to make sure you know exactly what’s hanging there…