Illustration: Pippa Fay
June, the month of the winter solstice, when bitter winter winds whip the bare-branched trees and the days are short and the nights long and brittle with cold. Last June half a metre of snow fell into our roofless half-built house and we spent a day shovelling snow from the rooms in case it froze solid and lay for months. This winter the roof is on and we are snug behind double-glazed windows, warmed by a funky furnace we've nicknamed Dante's Inferno because, when you open the door, it looks hellish hot inside.
The new wooden house talks to us; it gently clunks as
the mornings warm and clonks as the evenings cool and it creaks on dark and windy nights. Our old farmhouse used to creak and rattle on stormy nights and sometimes I thought I heard the floorboards in the dark panelled hallway crack, as if trodden by a creeping something in the dark. When I first came to the house I sensed, at odd times, a presence at my shoulder, but on turning there would be no one there.
I dismissed the idea of a ghost as fanciful until the Christmas night my sister Pin disturbed "a man who wasn't there" in the back wash house lavatory.
My sister is famous in the family for her abstemiousness, so we never doubted her assertion that she'd seen a strange man in the back lavatory. Because he was an unaccounted-for guest, he passed into family legend as the Ghost in the Back Loo. After that Christmas the children were reluctant to venture into the wash house after dark and they liked to frighten their friends with ghoulish stories about how the tortured ghost had met his fate. Sometimes I too felt a presence: a subtle resistance on turning the old loo doorknob, as if the occupant did not want me to come in.
Your antique cottage on the slopes of Mt Eden feels old enough for a ghost.
Do you have one?
My cottage was built in 1884 so it is elderly enough for ghosts but I haven't Friended them on Facebook, so they know they are not welcome. The house does talk to me though. Most talkative are the floorboards.
When I moved in the kauri boards were covered in ancient black lacquer, dull and dark. Sanding that off was like peeling off thick lisle stockings and revealing pale skin. I wanted these boards to shine from within, but the flat, moon whiteness of them showed me wood that was gasping for nourishment. So, every month I've swabbed a tide of oil into them. At last some of them now look like falls of wavy blonde hair. Some twinkle as though a shallow, sunlit sea is covering them. Some are rough and dry, riddled with worm grooves that channel the oil and form dark runes like Braille. Some have had to be replaced with recycled ones.
The family is tough on them. Tane's 36-year-old Dinky toys - yes, they were his father's - etch new wounds into the wood, especially if they have lost their tyres. A truck's unhitched trailer can gouge them like shaving a pencil.
A racing car's tight turn can tattoo them. Worst are cardboard boxes with staples in them, used as trains, pulled along with children inside. Some boards have scribbles on them; the marker pens have been banished to the gardening box.
The most ghostly thing in the house is the occasional "boo" coming from inside Tane's play tent. Yesterday I was slowly making meatballs and silver beet for dinner - freshly picked silver beet is still Tane's favourite food - and I realised he had disappeared. Everything had been ghostly quiet for some time. I found him in my bedroom. I have no idea how long he'd been there, hiding behind the curtains with a wide grin on his face and his eyes shut tight. "Boo!" I said.