Mark didn’t want to go to a deserted graveyard alone, at midnight, to prove that there were no such things as ghosts. He was not the sort of chap who would stick his neck out about anything, and it was the last thing he’d ever chosen to do. But when you’re staying for the first time with people – particularly if they are your cousins who don’t seem to like you very much – you do things you’d normally be afraid to do – just to prove that you’re not afraid.
All the kids went for swimming on the first morning after Mark arrived. They had fun in a deep water-hole in the creek that wound its way through the green river-flats at the bottom of the horse paddock. Then they stayed under the sun to dry off – David, Mark’s eldest cousin, back from boarding school for the summer holidays – and Susan and Bill, who still did Correspondence School lessons at home.
Most of Mark’s life had been spent in different parts of the world. His dad was a scientist. They had lived wherever his dad had been sent. Travel! Foreign countries! Exotic lifestyles! It all sounded wonderful – but in actual fact it was awful. International airports that all looked the same. Waiting around in hotel rooms while your parents would attend receptions and conferences. Not to be having any friends. Never to be fitting in anywhere. In Mark’s loneliest moments he’d like to think about his cousins in Australia. He had photographs of them. He knew all about them. And he had taken it for granted they would like him as much as he was ready to like them. But things didn’t work out that way. There they were – three against one; all showing that they didn’t think much of Mark. Oh, they were polite enough – that was the trouble; they were too polite; Speaking to Mark as if he was a foreigner, an outsider – a rather dopey one.
They talked for a while. Then silence. Everyone seemed to be wondering what to say. Mark was popped up on one elbow, looking back at the homestead and outbuildings sprawled over the hillside. A strange house, it looked all wrong out in the middle of a sheep-grazing property. The garden, all tangled and over grown, was swept sideways by the winds, making it like a barrier holding the house apart from the rest. Sinister looking, he thought but of course didn’t tell them that. Just for something to say, he remarked that they were lucky to be living in such an unusual place.
He was really surprised when David snapped: “Call that lucky? It’s just a bit too unusual, for my liking!”
Up till then it had been peaceful, lying on the grass under the willows. Birds chirped and chattered overhead. Horses grazed nearby, flicking their tails at the flies. Mark felt lazy and relaxed. Then there was this odd feeling that Something Awful was about to happen. Everything looked just the same as before- but felt different, then.
“We thought it would be lovely to live in a great big house with a barn and a coach-house and stables and everything,” Susan was friendlier now. “We didn’t believe what people said about it. But…” she took a big breath. “All sorts of strange things have happened since we came here. The place really is haunted – by a mean and horrible ghost.”
Mark laughed and said that there weren’t any such things as ghosts. That’s one thing he really felt sure of, owing to his father having talked a lot about UFO’s and all that. Then, seeing the looks on their faces, quickly went on: “Dad says that there’s a simple scientific explanation to everything… He’s a scientist, and he ought to know.”
“He ought to know!”
Susan and Bill grinned when David repeated Mark’s words to make it sound as Mark’s dad ought to know better.
“He jolly well does know!” He, Mark, was tired of those country bumpkins who’d been trying to put him down ever since they met, and was determined to stand up for the one thing he really did feel sure of. “He says there are chemical substances that react against others in certain circumstances; and when they’re not able to explain strange sights, uneducated people make up stories to…”
“Uneducated! I LIKE THAT!” Susan spoke furiously, “Just because we aren’t pompous know-alls who…”
David threw a towel over her head and told her to shut up. “Don’t take any notice of her,” he said. “She’s upset. We all are… This place had been empty for a long time when Dad bought it. There were stories of weird goings-on, but we didn’t take any notice of them. We were like you then – we thought there was a sensible explanation for everything…”
“The house was built on land granted to one of the earliest settlers,” Susan recited like a lesson. “He was determined to build a beautiful place – larger, richer, and more elegant than any homestead in the Colony. He didn’t care how cruelly the convicts were treated as long as he got what he wanted.
“Over there is the ruins of an old church,” David pointed to trees over on the other side of the hill behind the homestead. “The man was mean and cruel and greedy, but liked to make it look that he always did the right thing… They used to have to travel for days to get to the nearest town; and, so that nobody missed going to church on Sundays, he had one built for his family, and the servants and convicts who worked on the place…”
“Even then he had to be horrible, too,” Susan chipped in. “Just think! Underneath the church he had a dark clammy dungeon down in the ground where he could lock up the convicts when they’d be bad and…”
“And they probably hadn’t done anything worse than fall down when the heavy stones were too much for them to carry,” David said. “Even now, people tell you how much he was hated by everyone who worked for him. That’s why there’s that strange brooding sort of atmosphere about the place… Oh it’s all very well to smile in the superior way – we did, when we first came here. But we know now, it’s true. There’s a curse on the place.”
“We’ll show you!” Bill jumped up, all ready to lead the way. “I bet you’re not game to go down to the dungeon alone!”
I didn’t want to see it. And didn’t feel game to go down into any sort of a dungeon. But they didn’t wait to see what I wanted to do. So we went.
They walked, single filed, up the hill through tall straw-coloured grass that snapped when you trod on it, leaving the path like the wake of a ship. It was hot. The sun beat down from the sky. They walked unconcerned through a paddock which was alive with death adders.
They finally reached to what remained of the church. David stopped, and grinned as he said, “Want to down?” Mark certainly didn’t want to. He wasn’t exactly scared of it – but he didn’t like the dark. He wasn’t going to let them think that he was afraid so he stepped forward…
Then leapt back at the sight of an evil-looking reptile gazing up at him; its long blue tongue darting in and out. The way Susan laughed was enough to make him walk past a dozen of them. “Don’t tell me that you’re afraid of a blue-tongue lizard!” she said. “They’re the friendliest old things.”
So he went forward again. He went down into the gloom. He had to bend to climb over a broken door torn off its hinges. Taking a right, he saw that nothing could be seen in the dark.
He was quite sure then, there were no such things as ghosts. He knew it was all in his mind – the whispering and sighing sounds; the figures he seemed to see hunched up in the dark… Just imagination, he kept telling himself. Even so, he was scared stiff. He longed to scream. To race out in the sunlight… But he didn’t want his cousins to know that he really was afraid. He just believed what his dad told him.
So he stayed in the dark and counted a hundred – fast! Then went back up the steps where his cousins waited.
“No wonder the convicts hated him! He locked them up in such a horrible place. That’s why they murdered him,” Susan said solemnly.
Out on the church-yard, David pointed to a small plot surrounded by iron railings, almost hidden in the long grass.
“That’s where his grave is – he still haunts it. His headstone is lying on the ground because the ghost pushed it over.”
Mark still not believing him said, “Some ghost!”
David glared at him.
“I know you don’t believe us,” he said. “But why isn’t the stone upright like the others?
“I believe there’s a simple scientific explanation,” said Mark, really annoying the others.
“And we believe there’s a ghost!” Susan mimicked. “If you’re so sure there’s no such thing, why don’t you find out what it is?”
David and Bill agreed with her.
Then David made a fair offer. “Come here at midnight tonight,” he said. “If you can explain whatever it I, scientifically, we’ll believe that there are no such things as ghosts.”
So they took a piece of paper, and wrote:
We, the undersigned, all agree to agree there are no such things as ghosts, if Mark Milford can satisfy us with a simple scientific explanation after examining this grave at midnight.
David put the paper as far inside the railings as he could reach; then placed a stone on top.
Midnight came. Mark was trembling with fear. He reached the railings and plucking up the courage, went inside. This time, he was really scared. He slowly walked, feeling someone’s presence. Suddenly, something made him stop. He heard a murmuring sound. Then he realized that it was just a gentle ‘moo’ of a cow. He gave a sigh of relief. He hurried to the stone, reached the paper, and ran as if a pack of demons was chasing him.
He was finally out. He was feeling very courageous and kept on telling himself that yes; there are no ghosts in this world. The next day, he showed all his cousins the paper, proving them wrong. They all started laughing at him. Poor Mark realized that they were all just making stories to tease him. He felt very bad and very hurt about it.
Later when he went back home, he told his best friend, Joe, all about what had happened. Joe tried to comfort him that at least he had been successful to prove his cousins wrong. He said, “Don’t be upset now. All’s well that ends well, and your own resolution to success is more important than any other thing.”