Unsettling presence lingers on

It's February 1986, a steamy Auckland summer's day, but I'm cold. I'm standing in the front bedroom of the ex-state house we're renting in Remuera, shivering.

Outside, the sun is shining on the lush green sub-tropical foliage that crowds the neglected garden. I'm carrying a pile of son Michael's clean T-shirts and shorts to put away in the room's tall corner cupboard, but I can't seem to take one more step towards it.

I put the clean clothes on one of the children's beds and back out of the room into the warm hallway. I can hear a tui trilling in the flax beside the back door and the low roar of a bus on Remuera Rd and I realise I no longer feel cold.

This was my first experience of physical phenomena I could not then, and cannot now, explain. I don't know what you think about the existence of malevolent spirits or, for that matter, the benevolent spirits spruiked by the women's magazine clairvoyants, but I've never been convinced.

There's always a rational explanation for the strange bumps in the night, the groans behind the curtain, the shadow on the wall and the other entertaining features of ghosts and hauntings.

We'd moved our young family to Auckland at the end of January. Husband Steve was to head the Commerce Department at St Peter's College and we were renting while we waited to take possession of our new house.

Left over from the days when some of the scruffier gullies in this now well-heeled part of Auckland were filled with state houses, our rental was an anomaly, but a convenient find for us.

Steve began the school year and I settled into the daily routine of looking after baby Andrew and transporting Anna and Michael to and from school and kindergarten across the central isthmus. But there was something unsettling about this unprepossessing little house, and the least settled place was the sunny north-facing room where the children slept, the room with the deep cupboard. And the uncomfortable, often literally chilling sensations I experienced were focused on that cupboard.

It was square and deep. There were no shelves or rail, just a row of wooden coat pegs around the walls. It was an ordinary space, and yet there was something badly askew that I couldn't explain rationally. Steve didn't feel it at all, which was reassuring, and so I tried to ignore my fears.

But as the days passed, I became increasingly reluctant to open the cupboard's door, to approach it, or even to look at it. At first I had stored the children's clothes there, but as I became more uncomfortable, I emptied it. Opening the door was the worst - every time my hand touched the handle, dread descended. I expected to see something terrible, something cruel.

I should admit that, even though I'm a sceptic when it comes to the supernatural, my mother's side of the family, descended from Shetland Islanders, has had members who possessed what they called "the sight".

One of my grandmother's aunts was famous for reading tea leaves, and eventually predicted her own funeral, declaring to her sisters at a reading a few days before she died, "Girls, we're going to a funeral, I can see all the flowers!"

And that talent may have been handed on to some members of my family. From 1971 to 1982 we lived at Kapowai, on D'Urville Island, and my younger brothers were convinced they had seen the ghosts of previous residents, many of whom had come to unfortunate and premature ends.

We knew the story of Norman Woodman best. He was gored to death by an angry bull early one morning. My father, a young man at the time, was one of a party that went from Elmslie Bay to find out why the Woodmans could not be raised on the telephone. They found the bull stamping around on the beach and Mr Woodman's body nearby.

He was buried at Kapowai, and my brothers decided that it was his ghost they had seen on the island roads at dusk: a tall grey man, walking towards them with a manuka stick in his hands.

We lived in the house he had lived in, and we assumed it was his footsteps we often heard on the porch; footsteps that never resulted in anybody actually entering the kitchen. In the end, there were so many sightings of "Norman", we decided his presence in the bay was benevolent.

In April 1986 we moved into our new house and began the interesting process of making a new life in a new city. Before we left Remuera, I asked the neighbours about the house we'd rented.

It had been occupied for a long period by an immigrant family from what was then Yugoslavia. Anxious not to sound too foolish, I mentioned that sometimes the house had felt a bit "strange".

"Well, they were an unhappy family," my neighbour replied, "and the reason the house was available is that the children are still fighting bitterly over ownership," he paused, ". . . and other matters."

Safely settled into Royal Oak, I allowed the details of what I thought I'd find when I opened the cupboard door to surface.

It was a young child, sobbing quietly, hanging by his clothing from one of the coat pegs. And, even as I write this 26 years later, I cannot doubt my belief in that image's truth.

If asked now, I would still say that on balance, I do not believe in the existence of a spirit world. All I know is the truth of what I experienced.

I have no rational explanation for it so I'm happy to let Shakespeare's tragic, and arguably unhinged, hero Hamlet have the last word: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."