When I walk through the college gardens at night it seems indubitable that there are ghosts there.
Maybe ghosts is the wrong word. Memories — imprints of people who were once here, and are now gone. ‘Ghosts’ is too morbid a word, suggesting that they’re dead. Some of them were here a month ago. Some of them a century. They leave traces.
I feel it in the day time too, this idea that I’m surrounded by history (it’s hard not to feel like that when you’re a newcomer to a place that has existed for some time) and all the people who were here before. I can imagine them easily, walking through the gardens in fashions now considered vintage, crunching the autumn leaves the same way I do, pulling on woolly hats against the chilly air, ducking gratefully inside as soon as they reach the building.
And the corridors, too, they’re full of memories, but not quite so much. Maybe because there’s a faint smell of cheese. Maybe because they’re cleaned so often that all the ghosts get swept away. The library — they’re trapped in books there, fingerprints across pages, faint pencil marks in margins, but there’s still a sense of distance there. But out in the gardens, despite the fact that no blade of grass will be the same as the ones they walked on, they seem very present.
And then at night, it’s heightened.
At night, when it’s cold and slightly misty but the sky’s clear, you can look up and see stars. More stars than I’d ever see back home, because even if I lived in the suburbs it was still London — here in the gardens the dim and infrequent streetlights of Cambridge’s roads are a long way away, and you may as well be in the countryside for all the illumination that’s around you. It’s easy to trip on the steps or miss the path when you’re trying to navigate in pitch blackness.
But sometimes people leave their curtains open and the light from their rooms spills out over the grass, catches the mist and makes it glow faintly yellow-orange. Or sometimes there’s a formal dinner happening in the hall and the big glass windows are lit bright and they cast long, segmented shadows over the lawn outside, and all the mist is made real, made solid, given colour.
Then it’s impossible not to imagine the ghosts.
It’s quiet at this time of night, and sometimes you really are the only person wandering around the gardens. (At other times, you’ll run into somebody that you hadn’t seen in the darkness, terrifying both of you.) Woolly hats muffle any human sounds, and at this time of year and by that time of night, most people have reached out and pulled their windows closed, so their music is dampened. Sometimes you can hear somebody playing the piano, or a choral scholar practising. But maybe they’re ghosts too.
And it feels safe in a way that most dark places don’t, perhaps because you feel so alone, and so separate from the city where the student life will continue for hours from this point. At this time of year you could have a pitch-black walk at 6pm as easily as midnight, and maybe you’re just on your way to dinner, but it feels like a stargazing expedition.
The lights spill out over the grass and maybe the people eating in the hall are there now or maybe they’re generations of alumnae, brought back by the mists.
I don’t know how much I believe in ghosts, but I certainly think memories cling to places. People leave their marks on the places they go, even if you can’t quite see them. Sometimes, you think it’s only your imagination that associates particular moods with one isolated part of the garden, but is it really? Perhaps it’s a memory of somebody who used to go there whenever they felt that way, and what you’re getting is the imprint of a thousand afternoons, curled up on a stone bench.
You start to create your own ghosts. The ghost of the time you cried on the memorial. The ghost of opening a parcel from home while walking across the lawn. The ghost of the first successfully cooked meal that you ate out on the grass. The ghost of many journeys with a folder of music under one arm and a violin slung over your shoulder. The ghost that hums the tune you had on the brain when you walked that way.
You leave your ghosts for yourself and for the people who come afterwards.
You don’t find ghosts so much in the street of a suburban town. There’s nothing to hold them there, and a hundred people pass through those roads without once thinking about who did it yesterday, last week, fifty years ago. It’s new to me, to be surrounded by them, like memories clinging to flypaper, and in their newness I keep trying to capture them on camera, in videos, in words. Nothing my phone can snapshot will ever quite convey the way the light dances in the mist.
I keep trying anyway.
I keep chasing after ghosts, after memories. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure what I’d do with them once I caught them. Maybe I’d just let them go again, my mark left on somebody else’s. Maybe I’d walk with them a while, and let them tell me the garden they walked through even while I walk through mine.
There are so many ghosts here. It’s impossible not to see them.