In July 1965, Shirley Ross had just moved into one of two apartments built in a 500-year-old English farmhouse, when her friend named Stella Herbert came from Australia for an extended visit5.
Mrs. Herbert was exhausted from her journey and went to bed early. Sometime later, she awoke to find a young boy dressed in white pajamas, kneeling beside her bed. He stared at her with the saddest eyes she had ever seen. His face was so thin and drawn she was sure that, if he tried to stand up, he would surely keel right over.
The boy's silent expression pleaded with Mrs. Herbert. She sat up in bed and studied his face more carefully. As she did, she heard a voice inside her head: "Call mummy, call mummy. She's in the next room."
Mrs. Herbert knew that the boy wasn't one of the Ross children; they were all grown and living abroad.
She looked at his face again. His expression was so insistent that she finally said out loud: "Mummy."
Immediately his hands began to claw at her arm.
"Please," his face said. "Please I need your help. Please."
His pleading look upset her so much that her eyes filled with tears.
"Mummy," she said again.
He reached toward her and placed his hands on her shoulders, as if he were begging her to call his mother again.
"Mummy!" she called in a loud, clear voice.
At that moment, he disappeared. And Mrs. Herbert was so overcome with fatigue that she fell asleep and didn't awake until Mrs. Ross knocked on her door the next morning.
She told Mrs. Ross about her encounter with the boy.
"I never heard a sound," Mrs. Ross said.
"I'm not sure how loudly I was speaking," Mrs. Herbert explained. "I'm sure I thought I was screaming. He was so desperate. The look in his eyes was so pitiful. And when he clawed my arm, the sensation was so vivid that I can still feel it now." She rubbed her forearm.
"I'm sure I would have been quite scared," Mrs. Ross said. "Being a ghost and all."
"But that's the odd part," Mrs. Herbert replied. "I wasn't frightened at all. I just felt so badly for the boy. "
By evening, Mrs. Herbert was so upset about the boy's visit that Mrs. Ross questioned her next-door neighbor who had lived at Vicarage Farm her entire life.
"Did a little boy ever die in the house?" she asked.
"Yes, my brother Johnnie Minney," the neighbor said.
"Then come next door with me and listen to my friend. She has had an experience you'll want to hear. "
Mrs. Herbert's story upset the neighbor so much that she cried. "You saw Johnnie--my brother--who died when he was five," she said. Forty-four years earlier, in 1921, he had become ill. At that time, the house had not been divided, and Johnnie's bedroom was the one now used by Mrs. Herbert.
"He had meningitis," the neighbor said, "and he became terribly thin. The way you describe him is how he looked before he died. It was such an awful time for all of us. Sometimes he had spells when he seemed quite normal; then there were times when he'd shout with pain and cry and call for Mummy, as if he couldn't bear it."
During the last few months of his life, he lay in his mother's bedroom--the one now used by Mrs. Ross. During that hot summer, his mother and sister took turns placing ice on his forehead in a futile attempt to reduce his temperature. Finally, on August 21st, he died, an emaciated boy of five.
"I can't believe that you saw him," the neighbor said to Mrs. Herbert.
"Oh yes, he was definitely there," Mrs. Herbert said. "It was no dream."
"I'm overjoyed," was all the neighbor could say. That night, and for the rest of her stay at Vicarage Farm, Mrs. Herbert's sleep was undisturbed. The little boy's ghost was never seen again.
Copyright © James M. Deem. Originally published in Ghost Hunters (Avon, 1992). All rights reserved.