Twenty years ago, when I was a new mother of one tiny baby boy, my husband treated us to a weekend away from it all in Portaferry.
Being a blow-in from England, living in Belfast, I'd never been to that part of the country before, so it was a welcome change to escape from the troubled city to a quiet village at the end of that gloriously unspoilt country drive down the Ards Peninsula. The quaint and elegant Portaferry Hotel was our destination for a special mid-season offer of two nights, dinner, bed and breakfast that he'd seen advertised in the Tele. Having had a few complications after the birth, which resulted in a long confinement, I was looking forward to a break from hospital food almost as much as the change of scenery.
When the owners saw our perfect new baby beaming and blinking up at them they were really delighted, declaring him a “very special guest” and immediately offering us an “upgrade” to their best family room, even though we hardly needed extra space because he was so tiny. After much cooing and clucking we were eventually led up the wooden-panelled hallway and creaking staircase, adorned with elegant antiques, to our special room featuring a traditional Jacobean-style four-poster bed and a marvellous view out onto the harbour.
I'll never forget how peaceful it was, and how idyllic it felt, sitting nursing Luke by the window as I watched the ferry chug backwards and forwards against the sparkling currents of Strangford Lough. I felt like I didn't have a care in the world and life seemed so perfect.
When he finally drifted off to sleep, we set up a baby-monitor — a relatively new invention back then — for the first time ever and then went down for dinner in the hotel restaurant, leaving him alone for the first time since he was born. He may have been fast asleep in a peaceful slumber, but of course I couldn't settle and kept dashing back upstairs between courses to check the monitor and to make sure he was still ok. By the time coffee was served, I was too tired to get up for another check, so I sent my husband up to the room instead.
Just as I was sipping my coffee I heard an eerie sound coming from the monitor. “Whoo-hoo hoooooo ... this ... is the voice ... of the Strangford ghost! I have come ... to steal your child! Mwaaa-ha-ha-haaaa!”
I still laugh about it now, all those years later. In fact, it has long-since become a family joke.
So naturally, when I was invited by a friend to go on a fishing trip to Strangford Lough, there was only one place I wanted to stay that night. I'd never been back there since, but had cherished the happy memory of that blissful weekend for two decades as my own life changed, my family expanded, my marriage dissolved and the country we lived in transformed beyond belief.
All I knew was that the original owners had sold the hotel and it had changed hands a couple of times again in recent years before being bought a few months ago by a well-known hotel group, who were planning a major renovation. As I drove down the winding roads of the peninsula, I was hoping that the old-fashioned charm of this lovely place had somehow and in some way been kept intact.
I shouldn't have worried. There it was, exactly as it had been two decades ago when I'd arrived with my precious cargo at the beginning of the adventurous journey called motherhood.
I'd requested the same room overlooking the harbour, and it was just as I'd remembered it, too. The same four-poster bed that creaked characteristically when you turned in your sleep; the writing bureau by the window where I'd written a pile of Christening invitations as the wee fella slept and his daddy enjoyed a quiet pint of Guinness down in the bar; the leather armchair where I'd nestled with Luke whilst watching the boats bobbing in the tide; and the ferry, still chugging back and forth across the sparkling currents of Strangford Lough, so many thousand times later.
As I sat there and reminisced, my phone buzzed on the table to herald an answerphone message. It was from Luke, now 20 years old, in charge of the house overnight while I was away.
“This is the ghost of Strangford ... I've posessed your son and I'm trashing your house! Mwaaa-ha-ha-haaaaa!”