‘Noises in your attic?’ ran the weekly ad. ‘Afraid to go up there? Who wouldn’t be!?’ My offer was discreet, low-cost attic inspection for cowards. Folks whose attics buzzed and creaked and bumped. Basements were another common request. I had also inspected sheds at the bottom of gardens, dark patches behind trees and, on one occasion, pried out the nails from a sealed-up bedroom in a Victorian terrace in South Dublin. Inside I found a bed, a dresser and a side-table with a broken lamp on it. No bloodstains. No ghosts.
But attics were my bread and butter. It was the start of my original business idea. When your attic makes sounds and you are afraid to go up there, who can you call? An electrician or plumber will laugh down the phone and then charge through the nose. It’s a little premature to summon an exorcist, or even a medium. My prices reflected the simplicity of my task. Climb up there, climb back down and report. If it’s rats it’s rats and the owner’s mind is put at ease. Assuming, of course, that rats is preferable to ghosts or spirits or heaving, hairy monsters. It is, for most. ‘I’ve just popped up the attic,’ the man of the house would then tell the exterminator. ‘Few rat droppings around. Looks like we’ll need someone over.’ This is the dignity I handed people.
The men of the house, I might add, were rarely home when I called. The wives let me in, offering some small excuse for their husband’s absence. I can understand it. Who would want to be home when courage comes knocking? Looking a tiler in the eye is bad enough.
You would not believe the mundanity of attics once you’ve seen a few hundred. I would arrive in work clothes, unequipped, usually by bicycle. I did not consider ladder provision under my remit. The wife, or doddering pensioner, would describe the noise. A creak. A groan. Persistent crying. A faint buzzing sound. Pebbles rattling. And up I’d go with a torch in my pocket. I have found, most commonly: rats, rat droppings. squirrels, bats (protected, so you cannot exterminate them. Unlucky problem), birds and birds’ nests, wasps’ nests (big as a sack of spuds), loose tarpaulin agitated by way of loose slates, and, of course, mice. Ireland is such a benign country.
I have pocketed, most commonly, old books, watches, antique toys, forgotten war-medals, bundles of letters and, of course, silverware. Some of these turned a little extra profit, and some I took purely out of curiosity. There were ghosts in those attics, alright.
Usually I was out in ten minutes, shouting reassurances into the hall as I lowered myself onto the ladder. Only seldom did I find nothing at all, no possible potential reason for the bumps in the night. You could see their face fall. Half the time I felt forgoing my small fee. ‘It could be coming from elsewhere,’ I would say, offering to look in the hot press free of charge. The lack of a daylight explanation for their haunting left only two options, ghosts or insanity, and no one chose to believe the latter. Despite it being often the case, of course.
Sometimes I would reassure them. ‘No, no, banshees wouldn’t be in your attic. They sit on the roof,’ or ‘You think these struts could support a pooka?’ But I wasn’t knowledgable. This wasn’t part of the service, just niceties.
I stopped the day I saw something. Which is not to say I saw something, for a skeptic never does. Have you noticed? Self-described converted skeptics never truly are, not in the sense that you and I are. There is always some malleable core in them, something that allows them to mistake dust and light for creased figures. Something that allows them to trust their animal brains as they never would their other organs. I could happily have dealt with an apparition. If only it was something of another world. It was enough to discover, one bright afternoon, what some people of this one keep in their attics.