The Fairy Lights
A spooky yuletide story
Copyright © 2021 Leilanie Stewart
Aisling taped the last fairy light to the narrow stairwell of her terraced house. The colourful, battery-operated lights snaked up the handrail, around the banister on the landing above, across the ceiling and down the other side of the stairs towards the hallway. She slid the switch to the right, making the lights blink. No: too garish; never mind the fact that it gave her a headache. What if one of her guests had epilepsy and was triggered by the sensation? Too much risk. She slid the switch through the middle setting – off – and over to the left side, which put the fairy lights at a static ‘on’ setting. Perfect. She stood back and admired her handiwork with a smile. A bit of festive jazz would add seasonal cheer to her party, the first she would be hosting.
Before she left her house to get party supplies, Aisling switched off all the Christmas lights: tree in the living room, front window LED Santa, snowman and snowflake, nutcracker lights strung across the kitchen and lastly, the fairy lights running up the stairwell. She pulled on her boots and coat and set off up the street to the main road to do some shopping.
When Aisling returned half an hour later, she was laden with two canvas bags full of drinks – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic – as well as party treats. She had tried to buy as wide a range of food as the local convenience store would allow for: vegan canapēs; a selection of Christmas cheese nibbles; a gluten-free yuletide log and of course, the all-time party favourite food, cocktail sausages. She fumbled with the latch key to the door and squeezed into the narrow hallway sideways to allow room for the two bulky bags without squashing anything.
Aisling stopped without shutting the front door and stared up the stairwell. The fairy lights were switched on. Hadn’t she turned everything off before she had left the house? Yes, she was pretty sure she had. She went over it all in her head: tree; LED lights; string kitchen lights; fairy lights. Yes, she was positive she had switched everything off.
There was only one explanation for it; the fairy lights had to be faulty. The three settings of the switch were indeed close to each other on the battery case: left for on, middle for off and right for blinking. Maybe a minor malfunction of the wires allowed for it to switch on by itself. Not to worry; Aisling set down her shopping carrier bags in the hallway, pushed the front door shut with her foot and traipsed up the stairs to have a look. She lifted the battery case in her hand and looked down.
Aisling stared at the switch. It had been flicked to the left.
But that was impossible. She was positive that she had slid the switch to the middle setting – off – when she had left the house not half an hour before.
There couldn’t possibly be an intruder in the house, could there? A chill came over her as she set about the house checking every room. All the windows were shut and nothing looked disturbed. Besides, even if a burglar had broken into the house – in half an hour, no less – why would they have turned on the fairy lights as a marker that they had been and gone? It made no sense.
Aisling stopped on the landing and looked up. A small hatch opened into the attic. It measured maybe twelve by eighteen inches; narrow, but enough for a person to fit through. She thought back to a thriller she had watched a few months ago, of a couple who lived in rich people’s attics. They sneaked about by day and came out by night when the family who lived in the house were asleep, or when they were out at work and school. Could that be a possibility? It was an old, terraced house in Stranmillis Village in Belfast, probably built over a hundred years ago, judging by fact that it had a built in coal-bunker out in the back yard that now housed the boiler. It had a shed too, a built-in brickwork compartment next to the coal-bunker that was covered with a corrugated iron roof. The shed had once been, most likely, an outside toilet for the occupant at a time when neither electricity nor internal plumbing were commonplace. Such an old house probably gave access to roof spaces and other nooks and crannies where a person could hide.
The thought was unsettling, but that wasn’t why Aisling ruled it out. No, she ruled it out for another reason; if a person, or persons, were living in her attic space then food or possessions would have gone missing. Nothing had been stolen, moved or misplaced in the three months since she had moved in. Furthermore, she was a Queen’s University student like most of the people living on her street. Like many other students she could think of, Aisling was broke. What good would it do for a person to live in the roof-space above an undergraduate Classics student with more debt than money to their name?
No; Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is usually the best one. What did Aisling’s gut feeling tell her about the mystery of the fairy lights switching on by themselves?
That the fairy lights hadn’t malfunctioned. They hadn’t switched on by themselves.
That no living person was living in her attic.
No living person.
Aware of the chill still lingering around her shoulders, Aisling hunched them close to herself and rubbed her arms for warmth as she glanced over the banister at the fairy lights, shining benignly at her. If only they could speak to her, to tell her in their own words what had happened. Who – or what – had switched them on?
Aisling walked home from her only lecture that day. Student life could be so easy sometimes. Easy and difficult. She couldn’t deny she was lonely. Some of her classmates had seemed keen the previous week when she had told them about her party coming up on Saturday. In the three months since term had started, she hadn’t managed to find anyone she particularly bonded with. Sure, they were nice. There was Tracey who was loud and bubbly; but seemed a bit too brash for her taste, aside from amusing her in the lecture theatre with funny quips about whatever professor was speaking. There was Eoin, who was moody and sensitive, more on her wavelength in some ways; but he just wasn’t – just wasn’t… Wasn’t what? Fun enough? Or was it that he seemed like a mopey sort of friend, a bit too needy for her comfort. Aisling didn’t mind lovers who were needier, more clingy people, but it didn’t make for good friend-material. Not that she had a lover in her life either. Aisling sighed as she turned into the small, claustrophobic garden in front of her house. Friends or lovers, anything would do at the moment. Beggars couldn’t be choosers.
As soon as she opened her front door, a chill seized her body. The fairy lights shone across the stairwell, creating pools of blue, green, pink and yellow over the cream-coloured wallpaper. Fear pierced Aisling’s mind as she marched across the hallway; dread filled her legs, heavy with the anticipation of what she would find and she thudded up the stairs. Her hand reached towards the battery case of the fairy lights, fingers splayed, ready to face the truth–
The switch had been flicked to the left. Someone – or something – had pushed that small, black piece of plastic over to the left side, thereby turning an inoffensive object into the biggest threat Aisling had felt in her whole life. For now, there was no more doubt in her mind. Her house was haunted.
Aisling rested her chin on her knuckles. Her fingers were latticed over her cup of tea, her elbows perched on the kitchen counter. She enjoyed the steam rising up and warming her palms, massaging her face. It provided temporary respite from the dreaded realisation that upstairs, a ghost resided in her house. Tea seemed to soothe everything. She didn’t know how, or why. Maybe it reminded her of early mornings with her Mum, having heart-to-hearts over a cuppa while her brother and Dad were still in bed. If only her Mum were there with her now to give her comfort, tell her she was being silly. Ghosts didn’t exist, did they? If they did, then Mum was one too. Did such a notion comfort her, or add more to her repertoire of terrifying possibilities that had opened out over the past forty-eight hours? Yep; frightened her. The spiritual world – if it existed – was alien and terrifying.
She had never believed in the supernatural before, so why now? Wasn’t the thought of a person living in her attic and sneaking around more likely than a ghost switching on the fairy lights? Yes – in theory. It defied logic, but Aisling’s gut feeling, her deepest, most buried instinct within the realms of her subconscious, was telling her that a paranormal explanation provided the true answer for what was happening in her house.
Aisling gulped her tea down, burning her throat. Her eyes watered. Pain radiated across her tongue. Physical discomfort was good; it reminded her that she was in the here and now. She was alive and in control. This was her house. She would get to the bottom of it, solve the mystery of the fairy lights.
She walked up the stairs. One step: coldness enveloped her. Second step: getting frigid. Third step: the noticeable drop in temperature caused a cloud of condensation to fill the air with her exhalation. Coldness seemed to pool in certain areas, welling on the stairs and landing.
Nobody else was in the house apart from her, but it wasn’t what every sensation in her body told her. The fine hairs on her arm stood on end. Goosebumps prickled across her skin. Her muscles tensed and adrenaline coursed, ready for fight or flight. Flight, if a ghost were actually to materialise on the stairwell above, or the landing. She had dismissed the coldness as being due to draughts from the attic, poor insulation letting all the heat out; any excuse that suited, really. Now she had run out of excuses. A ghost shared her home and brought with it an ethereal coldness to the property.
“Hello? Who’s there? Show yourself.”
Aisling’s frightened voice echoed in her own ears, an octave higher than how she would normally speak. She cleared her throat; this was her house. No spectre would force her out of a place that not only belonged to her family, but that she had made her home for the next three years.
“Do you want to get my attention for some reason – is that why you’ve been switching on my fairy lights? So that I know you’re there?”
No answer. Of course there wouldn’t be. A wave of embarrassment washed over Aisling; how ludicrous to be speaking in an otherwise empty house and expecting a reply.
She whipped her phone out of her pocket. “Hello, Dad? It’s me. Listen, I have a question about the house. This is going to sound really strange.”
“What is it, love? Did something happen? You weren’t broken into?”
“No, don’t worry, it’s nothing like that.” Aisling sighed. “Did you ever live in this house at any point?”
“Well, sure. I haven’t always been renting it out. I lived in it when I was studying Economics at Queen’s in the nineties.” Her Dad guffawed. “It’s sort of becoming a family tradition to spend your student days there. Maybe you can get your own kids to spend their undergrad days in it when they go to Queen’s, or Ulster University, someday.”
Better to ignore the awkward conversation about kids. “Dad, do you believe in ghosts?”
A pause. “You know I do, love. I like to think your Mum is still with us every day. I talk to her in the mornings when I’m getting ready for work, and last thing at night.”
She rolled her eyes, thankful that he couldn’t see her. “That’s different – I miss Mum too. But I meant, like, do you believe that ghosts can be a physical presence? You know, that they can make places seem colder just by being there and that they can tamper with objects in someone’s house?”
“What’s this about, sweetheart? Are you worried that the old house, your student digs, is haunted?”
When Dad put it that way, it sounded absolutely ridiculous. “In a word, yes.”
“Well, now that you mention it, we did used to joke about old Jimbo when we were living there, me and a mate of mine. I stayed in the master bedroom at the front of the house and my mate Stevie stayed in the back bedroom, the one you picked.”
As her Dad’s words sunk in, Aisling gulped. “Who was Jimbo?”
“Ach, probably nothing, love. I don’t want you worrying your wee head about it.” Dad’s voice took on an exaggerated whine, that he did when he was pleading with her to believe him about a topic. She knew him too well though, and it had the opposite effect.
“No, tell me,” she said. “Jimbo – so I’m guessing some fella named Jim used to live in the house?”
“It’s just hearsay, you know how it goes. Every other auld house or building in Belfast has a story about being haunted – you can’t throw a rock without some place or other having a ghost.” Dad forced a laugh, but Aisling heard the nervousness in his voice.
“Listen, Dad. If you don’t tell me about Jim, then I’ll find out myself.”
Dad hesitated then sighed. “You always were so headstrong, just like your Mum. Alright then. When your Granda bought the house back in 82, he said the auld man who sold it to him gave it to him for so cheap because of Jimbo. These houses round here would have sold for maybe £28,000 back in the late seventies, early eighties, but he got it for only £10,000. Apparently a man called Jim Murphy had died in the house, around the turn of the century, nineteen-hundreds-time, you know.”
“Jim Murphy? How did he die?”
“The man who sold it to your Granda never mentioned that. He mumbled some keek or other about how the spirit was a bit restless and liked to make its presence known to the current occupiers from time to time. Just to assert dominance, I’m sure. It’s a shame about the rumours, you know. These houses today would fetch upwards of £150,000, but if I wanted to sell ours, I’d be lucky to get £120,000 I think, all because of Jimbo.”
A cold chill tickled her shoulders and neck, static electricity raising every hair until it stood on end. That was the proof Aisling needed. Jimbo, the owner of her house back in Edwardian times was stuck in limbo on earth. She needed to get in contact with him. Not only that; she needed to get him out of her house.
Aisling sat down cross-legged at the top of the stairs. The hallway mirror, which she had taken off the nail, was now propped against the newel post to the left of the stairs. The fairy lights glowed with innocent brilliance and she took comfort in their brightness; more so, because if her plan worked, she would soon be very scared indeed. Terrified, in fact. If her plan worked, Jimbo would look out of the mirror at her and she would see the face of the man who had been haunting her house since long before even her grandfather was born.
She placed her hands on the glass and saw a halo of condensation form around each finger. The top of the stairs where she sat was the coldest spot in the house; Aisling shuddered at the thought. She needed to be brave; this could take a long time, maybe even all night. She was prepared to do whatever it took.
Aisling looked in the mirror. Grey semi-circles arced under each of her brown eyes. Her dark brown hair was unkempt, messy around her shoulders and with a few strands sticking up on top of her head. Had she really been that worried about the unknown entity in her house? She smoothed her hair flat against her head, took a deep breath and started.
“Hello, Jim Murphy? If you are there, show me a sign.”
Aisling stared hard at herself in the mirror, but nothing happened.
She sighed. How stupid was this, really? She felt like a flippin’ eejit, sitting there at the top of the stairs, talking to herself in the mirror. Thank goodness she lived alone. Thank goodness she didn’t have any friends in particular, who would see her looking a right numpty trying to contact a ghost.
Aisling rubbed the inside corner of each eye with her thumb and index finger, massaging the bridge of her nose while she was at it. She really should have brought up a cup of tea to keep her warm; she hadn’t even thought to bring a glass of water, never mind a nice, hot brew. Oh well. Fingers crossed Jimbo would materialise sooner rather than later.
What would help to contact the dead? She had heard that meditation worked to clear the mind, and in that sense, to get in touch with unseen energies. Aisling straightened her back. She pulled her right foot up onto her inner left thigh and placed her left foot on her right knee, getting herself into a lotus position. She hadn’t done yoga in over a year, but found herself still quite limber.
Aisling closed her eyes and breathed in for a count of three through her nose, then out for a count of five through her mouth. In and out, each breath relaxing her body and opening her unconscious mind.
Air in for three, then out for five.
Three in, five out.
She felt her own warm breath blow over her arms and legs, the air expelled from her chest heating her feet and toes.
A deep breath in and then a cold gust of air over her back, sending a shiver down her spine.
Aisling opened her eyes and caught sight of her panicked face in the mirror. An unseen presence had exhaled a cold breath of air from beyond the grave that had breezed along her back raising goosebumps in its wake. Her own breath caught in her throat. Now was the time to make contact.
“Jim Murphy, is that you?” Aisling focused her thoughts, in spite of the blood pounding in her ears, making her lightheaded. “You’re known as Jimbo, aren’t you?”
The mirror rocked, first left, then right, in time with the fairy lights flashing off then on. Aisling yelped and lifted both hands away from the mirror. She willed herself to be brave and put both palms back on the mirror, spreading her fingers wide on the glassy surface.
“Are you angry at me for being in your house, Jimbo?”
The mirror didn’t move.
“Do you know this is my house now? My granddad bought it, it’s been in my family for decades.”
The mirror rocked: left then right. The fairy lights blinked off and back on.
“I guess that means, yes, you understand.”
Mirror left then right, fairy lights off then on.
Aisling wiped her brow, surprised that sweat dotted her hairline despite the chill. Guess adrenaline did its own thing in the face of the unseen.
What did she know about ghosts? Not much. Until now, she hadn’t believed in anything supernatural. If she had known a week before that she would be sitting there in her house, three weeks before Christmas, communing with the dead she would think herself entirely bonkers. Of her rocker, gaga to be precise. Yet, there she was, having a fully-fledged conversation with Jim Murphy, a resident who had died in her house a hundred years before. Not to mention the fact that she was on a roll with her questioning; Aisling forced her mind to think of new things to ask.
“Are you stuck here on earth and trying to find a way back to the afterlife?”
No movement from the mirror, no blinking of the fairy lights.
“Hmm.” Aisling searched her own reflection. “Did you die in this house?”
No movement, or lights blinking.
Interesting; that wasn’t what her Dad had said. “So, you didn’t die here, but you’re haunting this house because it was yours when you lived on earth?”
The mirror rocked and the lights flashed off then on. Bingo. Aisling was starting to understand. In the glow of the fairy lights, Aisling caught sight of her reflection with yellow, pink, blue and green spotlights across her face. Her gaze drifted behind her; the base of the mirror had shifted forwards showing a view of the attic hatch in the ceiling above. It had been closed earlier, but now was half open. In the shadows beyond, the fairy lights highlighted a man’s face peering out through the hatch. Deep-set eyes watched her and a wide mouth grinned. Aisling shrieked and fell forwards, down the stairs.
Last Christmas I gave you my heart blared across the living room at a level that was loud enough to reach the kitchen, and maybe out into the hallway, but hopefully wouldn’t interrupt the neighbours too much. Mind you, the neighbours on either side were also students, so Aisling doubted they would care too much in any case. Eleven people from her Classics course had arrived; a small number by most people’s standards, but Aisling was pleased. Maybe she did have some friends after all.
Friends in the real world and friends in the spirit world too. Aisling glanced up the stairs at the fairy lights, shining benignly across the hallway.
In the past week since she had seen Jimbo through the mirror, Aisling hadn’t tried to make any further contact with him. She sensed, however, that although the energy in her house was cold, it was friendly and not sinister. When Jimbo had appeared behind her, he had been grinning. She recalled his smiling face now; at the time, she had knocked herself out with the shock – both of falling down the stairs and of seeing his ghost – but now, she felt more intrigued than afraid. Jimbo hadn’t been an old man, as she had been thinking. Quite the contrary in fact; he had been young and handsome. What had killed a young man, in the prime of his life, a century ago?
Aisling stole away from her party, leaving her guests drinking and mingling in the living room and slid out into the hallway. An idea popped to mind; she took a sprig of mistletoe from the wreath on her front door and closed her fingers around it. She climbed the stairs to the landing, leaning on the newel post after one too many Baileys, and looked up at the attic hatch.
“Jimbo? Are you there? Merry Christmas.”
Aisling held the mistletoe above her head, extending her arm towards the attic hatch. But the hatch remained closed.
It wasn’t the first time that week that she had been left feeling stupid. What would it look like if one of her friends walked out of the living room and caught her, talking to thin air and offering a sprig of mistletoe to an invisible presence? She would lose all her new companions, and not only that; they would spread word of her being a looney too.
She started to lower her arm, when a tingling sensation touched her lips; a jolt of static electricity. Aisling likened the feeling to the time when she had taken a mild allergic reaction to a menthol lip-balm; painful, but not without a strange, soothing pleasure.
Had Jimbo responded to her Christmas greeting?
Yes. She had received her first kiss from a spirit.
“I get it now, Jimbo. This is your house, and as tempted as you were to haunt me, you like me too much.”
Aisling couldn’t say how she could sense it, but she knew she was on the right track.
“You’re lonely like me, and you’ve grown rather found of me since I moved in.”
Again, she knew she was right, and continued.
“My fairy lights attracted you as the electrical charge brings this world – and the spirit world – close together. It’s like a lightning rod. That’s how you were able to physically move the switch.”
Right again. She knew it and so did Jimbo. He was listening.
“I’ve decided I won’t try to remove you from my house. It was my intention to exorcise you at first. But now I quite like you.” A blush crept over her cheeks. “Ill let you stay, provided we can get to know each other better – and also that you never sneak up on me when I’m not expecting it.”
Ground rules accepted; Aisling sensed it.
“Well, that’s all then. Merry Christmas Jimbo.”
Aisling kept her arm raised, holding the white berries over her head. In her mind she heard a reply. Merry Christmas, Aisling. Aisling closed her eyes and pouted her lips, ready for more.
A note for my readers:
Thank you for reading this story. I hope you enjoyed this little slice of spooky, festive fun. If you did, then I’m happy to share the good news with you that it isn’t the end for this particular piece; I am currently expanding The Fairy Lights into a novel. Don’t worry though, as you’ll find out much more about Aisling and Jimbo in a story that will take off in a deeper direction – one that hopefully will offer you a few unexpected surprises and more creepy, supernatural fun.
In the meantime, stay tuned in the new year as my next novel – The Blue Man – will be coming out in October 2022. Like this short story you’ve just read, The Blue Man is a supernatural novel set in Belfast. I’d love to share it with you and to have you along with me for my third big book adventure coming in autumn next year.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year for 2022!