The ghost and the galaxy

Purveyors of ghost stories have a hard time of it these days.

On Monday this week I was in Matjiesfontein in the high wintery Karoo, in the company of some good friends and two twelve-year old girls, staying the night at the Lord Milner Hotel. The Lord Milner has everything I most value in an establishment: age, crenellations, a two-tiered Victorian fountain that freezes overnight; a wide wooden staircase that creaks underfoot; most of all, a plentiful supply of hauntings.

There’s the ghostly Kate, who has been in a loft room in the central turret for a hundred years, playing cards and watching for the train. There’s the sad inhabitant of room 14 – formerly room 13 – who arrived in the 1970s and never checked out. And there’s the mysterious Lady of the Photographs.

I learnt about the Lady from a bowler-hatted gent named Johnny who guides the world’s shortest bus tour – a ten-minute crawl up and down the main street to the accompaniment of some gear-grindingly bad patter. The rest of his working responsibilities appear to be divided between playing piano in the bar and forcing people to see pictures of the Lady. After much hectoring and waylaying, he finally cornered us in the sun lounge and produced a laminated glossy of Johnny himself, plus two visitors, and hovering behind them, all spooky and diaphanous and sort-of-Edwardian, the spectral image of a woman.

“See!” he said meaningfully. The two girls are impeccably polite so they nodded thoughtfully, but later they shook their heads and said, not in superiority but in sorrow, “Photoshop.”

I felt bad for Johnny. What’s a storyteller to do when his audience lives in an internetted world in which every day scads of weirdos dedicate their labours and the rich resources of modern technology to the composition of frauds? Surely the public will grow shrewder and shrewder, more cynical (or sensible), harder to dupe? As new generations emerge, wise to everyday hoaxing, surely he’ll find less and less purchase for his ghostly evidence?

But of course, not everyone is as smart as those twelve-year girls. There’s no slowing down of internet hoaxes or people willing to share them with their friends, so perhaps Johnny will continue to be the beneficiary of the truth that human beings need something bigger to believe in, something to wonder at that exceeds the visible limits of the everyday. For some it will be ghosts, holy or otherwise; for others it will be conspiracy theories or dietary magic or the power of positive thinking. Human beings are animals with an urgent and often very unnecessary imagination.

After inspecting the Lady of the Photographs we drove an hour upwards and westwards and well more than an hour cooler to the glittering starfields of Sutherland. It is cold in Sutherland at this time of year: foot-stomping, laugh-out-loud cold, a cold that is brutal and exhilarating, ferocious and somehow awe-inspiring. It’s like a great white shark or an earthquake or a Himalayan mountain: it makes you feel alive and afraid. You could worship that cold, or try hunt it to prove your manhood; you could carve it on a totem pole.

At night, up on the hill where the South African Large Telescope is, the cold somehow finds four degrees to knock off itself. It’s as though the airways of your nose and chest have been replaced with frozen aluminium. We huddled for warmth and looked up at the skies and I realised that the coldness and the DNA-unraveling emptiness of wide Karoo plains as you drive into town are perfectly designed to prepare your mind and your heart for the experience of the Sutherland night sky. Everyone should see such a sky at least once in their lives, and then again a few years later to remind themselves of what they felt the first time. It fills you like a secular liturgy: immensity upon immensity, vastness upon vastness, space beyond space, worlds without end.

As shooting stars fizzed and flamed and vanished like human lives, we looked through the telescope at Jupiter and its four bright moons, at the bright crescent of Venus, at the cool pyrotechnics of the Jewel Box Cluster. A dull smudge of light revealed itself as three different stars, billions of miles away, each ten times the size of our sun. I understand the urge towards awe, the yearning for unseen majesties that with our human faculties and Earth-scaled wits we can only half comprehend, but as I stood in the thrilling, pitiless cold, looking across 1.2 billion kilometres of icy, empty bigness to the impossibly perfect rings of Saturn, unable fully to grasp what it was I was seeing, it occurred to me how absolutely unnecessary it is to make up anything beyond the real story of us.

Times, 17 July 2015