From the outside, the house’s windows and chimney looked like a face; small eyes and a long nose. It sat apart and crooked from the other houses on the block. A snaggletooth in the smile of Dufferin Street. Inside, the hallway had a cold patch, the bathroom had a secret entrance, and the basement was just a hole someone had dug in 1909.
I was one and a half or two when we moved into the house. 1983–84. My memories of it are milky; a thick, faded filter coats them. I worry those memories are actually photographs.
Mom, ALEJANDRIA, is a retired performer. In the ’80s, she was a young, soft-haired actor at the Stratford Festival. Dad is called JAMES. He also worked for the theatre as a sound guy until he retired last year. A is me, the daughter. We agree we lived a ghost story. But thirty years later, we’ve told and re-told it without agreeing on the exact events.
We lived at 99 Dufferin Street in Stratford, Ontario. It’s a pretty town. A river full of swans divides it, and most of the houses were built during Queen Victoria’s reign. It’s also full of hayseed hippies, a thick community of artists. People who wore floating garments and smoked pot while watching meteor showers.
I interviewed my parents separately.
ALEJANDRIA: Well, you’ll have to ask me questions, because it’s a long topic.
A: Well, let’s start at the beginning, when you moved in. What was the feeling?
ALEJANDRIA: Uneasiness. Unsettlement. Which is pretty normal if you’ve just moved into a house, but the house had such a strong personality imposed on it just by the way it was decorated. It had a lot of old wallpaper. It was ’60s–’70s patterned floral. The first thing you thought was “oh—this is dated.”
But I didn’t really care, because it was a house, and it had a yard, and it was in a neighbourhood. Those were the things I really wanted. It had a great kitchen, it had a wood stove, and you could fit a big table. It was a really nice-feeling room. The rest of the house was cold and disquieting.
But, like so many other things in your life, you make a decision. And when the whispers in the back of your head say “this is not the right thing,” you override those whispers if they’re between you and your goal. My goal was Happy Settled Family Home. With a yard. What everybody wants.
JAMES: The basement was really weird.
A: What was weird about it?
JAMES: There was a pile of dirt in the middle of the floor. But it was a pile of dirt that had a lot of old electronic gear in it.
A: From when?
JAMES: Going back to the ’20s, I think. From the ’20s to about the ’50s. Tubes for old radios and stuff like that.
A: Oh. So what made it weird? Because when we moved into Grange Street, it had a bunch of old stuff in it. That didn’t strike you as weird.
JAMES: No, you’re right. Old houses have old stuff in them.
A: What was weird about this old stuff?
JAMES: It was eerie when you went down there. It felt eerie.
ALEJANDRIA: Single light bulb, lots of shadows, you can’t stand up straight so you feel a bit trapped.
Alejandria looks at her hands.
I don’t know. It was a feeling. I just did not want to go in that basement. Ever. We were going to get a washing machine, and we didn’t get one because I really didn’t want to go down there.
A: So where did we do laundry?
ALEJANDRIA: I took the clothes to the laundromat.
Stratford’s Laundromat was a 15-minute walk from the house. I remember it being a profoundly boring place that was literally located on the wrong side of the tracks. Stratford has a “good” and “bad” side of the tracks. The bad side features a Laundromat and hard drugs.
A: Ok. So it was bad.
ALEJANDRIA: When I went to bed at night, I made sure the basement door was locked. Every night.
A: What were you afraid of?
ALEJANDRIA: It was just that the house made me uncomfortable. I did everything I could to increase my own level of comfort. I was there by myself a lot, because as you know, your dad goes to work and he stays there until 2 or 3 in the morning. So if I wasn’t in a show, I would be home alone with you.
ALEJANDRIA talks about being alone with me a lot. She felt very isolated during the time this story takes place. JAMES’s memories of life at the same time are different. They revolve around fatherhood and the things he did to facilitate it. The long hours at work. The pancakes on the weekend. Weird conversations with his tiny daughter. I wonder if they talked much.
A: What was the first odd thing that happened?
ALEJANDRIA: Shortly after we moved in, only days after, you asked me “who is the man on the phone in the hallway?”
I didn’t know what you were talking about, but I thought maybe a neighbour had come in the house without my knowing. I went to see, because you were very certain, very emphatic, and very concerned. But there was no one. I actually searched the rest of the house to see if someone had wondered in. But all there was in the hallway was an old wooden plate where there used to be a mounted wall phone.
I asked you later to try and describe the man. You described an old man, a small man, who had been talking on the phone in the hall. You described a peaked cap—took a while to get that. You said “a cap” and you went like this (Alejandria makes pinching motion in front of her forehead), and I said a baseball cap? And you went “no.” So I figured it was like a wool snap cap. I was mystified. Because I didn’t see anybody, and I didn’t know what you were talking about, and the creepiest part was the mount on the wall for the old phone.
A: Why was that creepy?
ALEJANDRIA: Because there had been a phone there.
The type of phone mount she’s describing is for a Kellogg Crank phone. Popular before World War I in North America, and usable enough until other technologies made them obsolete.
ALEJANDRIA: Two things started happening concurrently. If one had happened alone, I’d have thought I was just losing my mind. But because the other happened …
Alejandria shakes her head and laughs, a quick exhale through the nostrils.
ALEJANDRIA: The first thing was I would put things down and not know where I put them. Like I’d put my knife down beside my plate while I was eating and I’d go to pick it up, and it wouldn’t be there.
And this happened all the time with hairbrushes, house keys, cooking utensils. It was really common. TV guides—
A: And where would you find them?
ALEJANDRIA: Sometimes you wouldn’t find them at all. And then you’d find them in another room, or where you were almost certain that you hadn’t put them. Like I’d be cooking with a wooden spoon, look away, it’d be gone. I’d find it on top of the fridge. It was happening so much I thought I was losing it. And it was terrifying, because I was responsible for you.
The other thing was you began to have nightmares. They were about “the White Hands” and I couldn’t figure out what that came from. They’d pat you, come toward you, scratch you. They weren’t violent, but they weren’t benevolent.
James also remembers me talking about the White Hands.
JAMES: There was something about a body part, that’s vaguely in my memory. It was a white hand. You described it as being either just a white hand or it had a white hand. But I think it was disembodied hands, like Cousin It. Oh, by the way, that’s the other thing, in the basement in that pile of dirt, I found surgical gloves.
JAMES: Yeah, I know. I didn’t touch them.
ALEJANDRIA: You’d wake up every night with nightmares about the White Hands. It was horrible. And then I started to think, “How is this all connected?” Am I not remembering where I put things because I’m exhausted because you’re having nightmares? Are you having nightmares because I’m freaked out that I can’t find things?
A: Had I had nightmares before?
ALEJANDRIA: No. Not at all. But in this house, I’d wake up in the middle of the night, with you screaming in the other room. I’d fly across the hall and your door would be closed, locked. I wouldn’t be able to get the door open, even though I knew I’d wedged it open. Some nights, you’d start screaming and I’d wake up paralyzed. I couldn’t get out of bed; it felt like I was being held down by something.
A: Sleep paralysis?
ALEJANDRIA: Yes, I believe so.
A: So, I’m having nightmares, you’re having sleep paralysis, misplacing things.
ALEJANDRIA: Yep, then the lights started going on and off. You’d come into a room and flip the light on, you’d go further in the room and the light goes off. You’d go back to the switch, the light goes on without you touching it. You’d go back into the middle of the room, the light would go off. That’s not a power outage. I’d change the same light bulb in the same place six or seven times.
The faucets—I’d wake up in the middle of the night, and all the faucets would be on full blast. It was scary, because they were on downstairs. So you’d have to get up and go through the dark house by yourself to turn off the faucets that shouldn’t be on.
Doors would be stuck closed that didn’t have locks. Doors being open that shouldn’t be open. I’ve often wondered if that day you got up out of your crib and actually went outside and vanished, who opened the door?
I’m sure you don’t remember. But you got up, climbed out of your crib, went out the back door, and disappeared. I got up and you were gone, and the back door was open. And I freaked.
A: And how was the back door locked?
ALEJANDRIA: It had a deadbolt lock, and it had a turn-latch lock. So it had two locks. And your Dad would go to work and close the door behind him.
A: You guys must have talked about that.
ALEJANDRIA: He was sure he didn’t leave it open.
A: Could I have unlocked it?
ALEJANDRIA: Here’s the thing, I don’t see how. Because it had one lock that requires a key on the outside and a turn knob on the inside. And it had a second lock that required a key on both sides. Now. If he left it open—
A: He’d have to leave two locks open.
ALEJANDRIA: Exactly. I never saw any practical obvious phenomena in your room. Because I would sit there on the floor all night long and watch for it. And I never saw anything.
But apparently I did. I don’t remember, but both parents said I began regularly talking to and about The Old Man. We speculate it was the same one I’d caught trying to make a call.
JAMES: The first thing I remember is you waking up talking about Sakes. And I asked you—what is this Sakes that you’re talking about?
A: Hmm, and what did you think of that?
JAMES: I accepted it. Knowing that children are a little more open to these things. As you grow up, you lose—not the ability to have contact, but the intention and desire to do it. And you just write stuff off so it’s rational.
A: And in accepting that, did you accept it as a dream or did you think that I had seen a ghost?
JAMES: I accepted your description. You described Sakes as a ghost.
A: What, really? Would I have even known what that was?
JAMES: Yeah, probably. You become aware of that stuff pretty young, right?
ALEJANDRIA: You were talking about something and you used the word “Sakes.” “Sakes” had done something and I said who is Sakes? And you said “The Old Man.” Like duh, Mom. And I tried to shift it because Sakes is such an odd word. It doesn’t seem like a name. But you stayed pretty firm about that. It wasn’t Shakes, it wasn’t Jake, it wasn’t Sykes. It was Sakes.
A quick search on ancestry.ca reveals that “Sakes” is totally a name. It’s a surname common in Scotland and Wales.
I had a music box in my room that would start playing on its own. That was creepy, and amplified by the fact that it was a badly painted 1970s ceramic sculpture of two sad clowns and it played “Send in the Clowns” while rotating slowly. I would scream that Sakes had wound it and my mother would come in and spray her perfume all over the room.
JAMES: I remember that. Ghost spray. Ghost repellent. I don’t remember her wearing perfume, but she had it for that purpose.
A: Were you scared at all?
JAMES: No. I just looked at it as you were three years old and going through something.
A: Why would you feel so easy going about your young daughter seeing a ghost?
JAMES: Because there’s nothing unusual about it.
A: But you’d never had a kid before. I would understand if Nicola (my little sister, yet to be born when all of this was happening) said something unsettling and you’d be able to remember my experience.
JAMES: But I have ghosts in my memory. I mean, there’s always been that sort of thing. Well, the first one I can recall off the top of my head is a wounded soldier in the place that we (his parents) lived in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It was a convalescent hospital during the WWI. I have very strong memories of the house.
A: Did you tell your parents about that ghost?
A: And what did they say?
JAMES: They had the same reaction I did when you told me about Sakes. “That’s nice, honey.”
A: So you don’t remember experiencing any fear and Alejandria didn’t tell you about hers?
JAMES: I’m sure we talked about it, but I don’t remember what the gist of the conversation was … I’m sure it was brought up.
A: Do you feel like your communication was good?
JAMES: Our communication wasn’t bad.
A: So you didn’t see that you guys would separate at the time.
JAMES: No, I never do.
ALEJANDRIA: I don’t know how much of the difficulty in the relationship came from the house or how much of what happened in the house came from the difficulty in the relationship.
A: So … did you have any conversations with him about it?
A: And what did he say?
ALEJANDRIA: He felt I was being too dramatic, that I was seeking attention.
A: Were you seeking attention? Because I would be actively seeking attention. There’s nothing wrong with that.
ALEJANDRIA: I knew he hated drama. So, this is not the way I would have gone to get attention from him. Do you know what I mean?
I did know what she meant, but it was painful to think of my Alejandria writing her fear off as “drama.” I think of my Dad as an empathetic person, and I wish he’d seemed that way to her.
A: Were you scared?
ALEJANDRIA: I was terrified. But not for me. For you.
A: Why were you afraid for me?
ALEJANDRIA: Because you were the person who was being physically touched. The White Hands. Your bedroom door was being sealed closed. You saw and named Sakes. You would wake up with scratches on your face.
A: What? I didn’t know that!
ALEJANDRIA: Yeah, exactly. Not good.
Things began to fall into place for Alejandria when she began talking to other people. She said it happened almost by accident. She began talking to the neighbours and was blown away, but wanted to keep it casual so they wouldn’t think she was crazy.
ALEJANDRIA: The next-door neighbours told me the house used to be owned by an elderly Scottish gentleman who lived by himself. He wasn’t very friendly. He’d gotten a mail-order bride from Scotland, but she’d left him, and he died in the house alone. He’d had an artificial hand. They said they’d tried to make friends with him several times, but he just didn’t want anything to do with them. So that was the first thing that felt like something.
A: Did we find out his name?
A: How could we not have found out his name? The neighbours didn’t know?
ALEJANDRIA: I just let it drop, Aurora. But you know what? It’s possible to find out.
ALEJANDRIA: Land ownership records in Stratford.
As of now, I’ve contacted the land ownership office in Stratford to get more information about the “Elderly Scottish Gentleman.” I might not find out in time for this to be published, but I still want to know.
ALEJANDRIA: The craziest thing was the guy who showed up at the back door looking for the friends with whom he’d bought the house. After the elderly Scottish gentleman died, the house was put on sale at auction. People will buy a house at auction and and flip it for whatever profit they can make. And he’d been part of a trio that had bought this house in order to do that. He was a carpenter. But partway through the re-building process, something had happened and he’d had to leave. The two people he’d left behind had to sell it before it all got re-done. So his friends were gone, but I was there. And this carpenter showed up and said, “You know, when we bought this house, we bought it with everything in it. The weirdest thing we found in the house was a white porcelain artificial hand.”
He’d found a White Hand in a quart apple box stored in a cupboard over the stove. A White Hand.
I remember how I felt when he told me that. The pennies just dropped. The hand, the old man.
And right around the stove top, it was always a particularly uncomfortable area and I had no idea why. Remember, all the cooking utensils would go missing. And I swear to God, there were many, many times I’d look out the window above the sink to the backyard and think I’d see someone moving back and forth and back and forth.
A: When we moved away from 99 Dufferin, what was that like?
ALEJANDRIA: Tremendous relief.
A: Did I have nightmares?
ALEJANDRIA: No. No, you didn’t. No more than what you’d consider normal for a child, which is like, three or four times a year.
And so we moved. Into another Victorian house, an Ontario cottage with a warm feeling. Our lives trotted forth. We painted the walls. I started school. My parents continued to work, but at different theatres. They separated in 1988. Now, I can’t even imagine them together. I always wonder if the loneliness soaked into the foundation at 99 Dufferin seeped into them and made them unknowable to each other. My Dad went on to a new relationship, and I got the gift of two half-siblings and a step-mom. Alejandria has chosen to focus on herself. In 1998, she moved to Toronto. Currently, she buys props for film.
She’s had some boyfriends in Stratford, and one of them was a popular writer named Bruce. In the summer, we’d sit on the porch and he’d read us short stories. One night, Alejandria told him her story, what happened at 99 Dufferin. Bruce listened with his jaw slack. His good friend Bill Ethrington had lived at 99 Dufferin right before we did. Bruce had been to the house and had some strange days there.
35 years later, BILL spoke with me on the phone from his home in Stratford.
A: Hi Bill, it’s Aurora. How are you?
BILL: I’m okay, I’m great. Should I just get started? Should I just tell you what occurred? Or do you have anything specific?
BILL was completely prepared with a full run-down of everything that had happened to him at that house. It was like he’d written notes.
BILL: In approximately 1980 or ’81, my girlfriend Jo-Anne and I, we ran a rooming house at 99 Dufferin. I can’t remember exactly when the weirdness started. I think people were noticing odd knocking and banging sounds here and there, but it was nothing that couldn’t be explained away. Maybe the old plumbing.
But people began to talk, saying there was a strange atmosphere. Sometimes people would lose items, and then find them again in a really funny place. I did some reading about it a number of years later; the paranormal writer Charles Fort talked about it. It’s a phenomena called “apports,” and that’s where something appears to have disappeared and then gets brought back. Kind of like a negative hallucination.
I can only remember one specific example, but it was a real doozie. I was alone in the house and my cousin Kevin came over for the evening. He’d brought along a bag of dog food. It was a 10 pound bag—a pretty substantial, heavy, dense item. Not the kind of thing that’s would disappear if you become forgetful.
Now, I will admit there was a lot of cannabis use going on, it was the tail end of the hippie days. I won’t lie and say we were perfectly straight when this happened, but I saw him put the bag of dog food down and then we watched a movie in the living room. It was just the two of us—nobody else in the house. The time came for Kevin to leave and lo and behold, the dog food is gone. Gone. We’re both scratching our heads like, “Where did that giant bag of dog food go?”
He’d put it down right beside this chair in the kitchen, and it simply wasn’t there. It was this sickening feeling. We knew something happened that we couldn’t explain. We were passing our hands underneath the chair, just to prove to ourselves beyond all doubt that the thing was gone. And we thought well, let’s go have a cigarette, calm down. An ordinary tobacco cigarette. After we’re done, we go back in the kitchen and there was the bag of dog food sitting right where he’d left it when he’d come in.
BILL: Yeah. If it’d happened to just one person you’d say, “Oh, you were just too ripped, you were stoned.” But both of us looked in that exact spot and it was not there. It simply was not there. You can hear me getting a little bit emotional after all these decades.
There was also some poltergeist phenomena. Twice, we had people sitting in the front living room. In the first incident, a frying pan fell off of the drying rack. But the odd thing was that the conversation stopped, everybody turned and looked out towards the kitchen, and this is what occurred: the frying pan fell, but it didn’t fall in a normal fashion. It moved, floated in space for a split second, and then it dropped. I think that’s the night Bruce was there.
A few nights later, a similar thing. A bunch of people were sitting in the front room, the conversation stopped, and knife zipped off the cutting board, floated in space and fell to the floor. But this time it scuttled across the kitchen and made its way into the dining room. The next day, I tried to replicate it, but no matter how hard I’d throw the knife against the floor, I couldn’t make it scuttle like that. And that was scarier than the frying pan somehow, I guess because it was a knife.
So we tried to exorcise whatever force this was. I had this little sculpture. A wooden thing. I don’t know what I was trying to be, Henry Moore or something. It was just this horribly executed piece of art. But one day, there were a few of us and I took it and held it up and I said, “Okay, whoever you are, you’re not welcome here. And this sculpture is a spirit catcher and it’s going to suck you up and trap you and you’ll never bother us again.” And I set it down on the book case in the living room and just waited for something to happen. Nothing did.
A day or two later, Kevin and I are upstairs having a visit, there’s nobody else in the house. And we hear a really loud bang. We go running down the stairs and that little sculpture had been thrown all the way across the room.
After that it died down a bit. I remember one of the tenants saying her bed would shake at night. But that was second-hand information. I couldn’t prove it to you.
A: And that was it? That was all?
Bill: Well, wait. You’re going to find this hard to believe. It’s a bit too much like a Hollywood movie. But I took a cab one day. I was going somewhere. And the conversation came around to the cab driver asking me what I thought about that house. And before I could say anything, I can’t remember whether he said it was his uncle or his grandfather. He said he’d died upstairs in that house. It was natural causes.
That information contradicted what Alejandria had learned from the neighbours. That our potential Sakes had no family. A young relative driving cab undid the story we’d constructed. But the house on Dufferin Street was built in the early 1900s. More than one person had probably died there. Most old houses have had somebody die in them.
Maybe we couldn’t know Sakes. Even if we got a list of previous owners from the Property Registry in Stratford. Even if we learned all about the Elderly Scottish Gentleman. Whatever lived at 99 Dufferin inhabited a dimensional life-phase we’d couldn’t understand. We couldn’t even know each other, even though we’re human, speaking the same language, part of the same family.
A: Yeah. Well, um, do you believe in ghosts?
JAMES: is that the first question you asked your mother? Yeah, I believe in ghosts. I believe in the dream world, too.
A: You believe in the dream world. As in?
JAMES: As in Australian Aboriginals.
A: Right, like it’s a different world. A realm that we visit that’s real. Do you think those two things are connected?
A: Do you believe in ghosts?
ALEJANDRIA: I believe in something. It would be dumb to say I don’t. I don’t know the limits of existence. But I wish that I’d handled our ghost better.
A: I think you handled it well. We’re here, safe, talking about it today.
ALEJANDRIA: But you know, I should have paid attention. I knew that there was some sort of something going on because of what happened with my grandmother. You know, my grandmother after she died came to visit me.
A: But it sounds like it was a completely different thing.
ALEJANDRIA: Oh, it was beautiful. Warm. Radiant love. All that stuff. Like a shape, like the iris of a cat’s eye and it’s just sparkling and there’s light coming out of it, and there’s a form in it, but it’s very soft edges, vaguely a humanoid. But the warmth and love that comes out of it, and the joy. I can only hope that’s what it’s like.
JAMES: One of my favourite, although scary things about the theatre happened on a night I was there quite late on my own. I was working in the Green Room. I had the sound on, so I could hear what was happening in the theatre. I usually do that when I’m working on my own so that anywhere in the building I could hear what was happening in the theatre. That night, I heard a drum kit being set up and tested. And I immediately went out into the theatre and there’s nothing out there, just the firelight in the middle of the stage and the shadows from the risers. I knew exactly what it was. The place used to be an entertainment venue, bands used to play there. It felt like a ghost memory. A building’s memory. And that’s what I love about that space; it’s got 120 years of good vibrations because it’s always been a pleasure place, so that’s soaked into the walls.
ALEJANDRIA: I didn’t feel like there was something powerful waiting to destroy us, but I did feel like the situation could cause a lot of damage. It wasn’t evil, but when water puts out fire, is water malicious? It’s just what happens when water and fire meet. What happened with my Grandmother was kind and good, but it was still another experience for which there’s absolutely no scientific explanation.
Outside of the physics, I mean. The law of conservation of energy. Energy becomes matter, matter becomes energy. But what we know is that it can’t be lost. So this matter (Alejandria makes a circling motion in front of her chest) and even more so this energy (she makes one above her head), it can’t die, it has to go somewhere.
Aurora Stewart de Peña is a writer. She lives in Toronto’s West End with her husband, Scott. Publication history includes Little Brother and Petal Journal. She's written a bunch of plays and runs a theatre company called Birdtown & Swanville with her friends. Her newest play, a co-creation called Even This Old Town Was A Forest, will premiere at The Theatre Centre in October, 2016. Personal motto is "black clothes, gold heart."