Manfred, fireworks, and a boy called Oliver

This is a true story. I’ve thought about that summer often over the last thirty years and I still recall vividly the terrible feeling of panic, the hellish special effects, and those pale eyes.

I was twenty-one, my sisters were coming up to twenty, eighteen, and almost seventeen. It was the end of the school/university year and we were all at home. I had just had the first big bust up with my boyfriend, first sister had just jacked in her stint training to be a nurse, second sister was about to embark on a course at a swanky London art school, and youngest sister was slowly but surely turning into a subversive. Tensions and adolescent angst were running reasonably high.
Second sister and I were going to spend July 14th in France to see the celebrations and take my mind off…things. The other two were looking for jobs. For some reason, in the lull between working and travelling, we decided to have a go at a séance. Don’t ask me why. While being a fully paid up sceptic, I’ve always preferred to give that kind of thing a wide berth. Anyway, we did. We cut out letters and arranged them in a circle on the dining table with a glass in the middle. Nothing fancy, no ‘atmosphere’, left the electric light on and the tv going in the corner.
The glass started to move as soon as we put our fingertips on it. We replaced the glass with an orange—the orange moved too. It worked as long as at least two people touched it, any two.
It was fun at first, sort of exciting. Then the sister I was going to France with started asking the usual sort of questions, and we started getting comprehensible answers. ‘It’ claimed to be a German called Manfred, a Panzer tank driver who was killed in WWII. The question and answer sessions were a bit laborious as the sister putting the questions has a flippant turn of mind and wasn’t taking it seriously. The rest of us were too uneasy to ask anything.
We did this over several evenings. Sometimes ‘Manfred’ didn’t turn up. We used to play Schumann’s Manfred Overture for him but I’m not sure he was particularly musical as it didn’t make much difference. Manfred seemed like a reasonable enough bloke, said he’d been married with two children and he was sorry for all the fathers with families he’d killed. He wasn’t your typical angry vindictive spirit so we kept on ‘contacting’ him. Then one evening he let us know he was aware two of us were going to France, and to be careful. He kept repeating it, said he didn’t want anything to happen to us, but we had to watch out in France. There was someone who wanted to harm us, someone called Oliver. He seemed to get quite distressed and almost hysterical. That was the last time we got him. The airwaves went dead and we stopped trying. It was time for our trip anyway.

So, we went over to Dieppe, a little town we already knew and liked, arriving on the 13th. The evening of the 14th, they told us in the hotel, there would be dancing in the street more or less everywhere, and not to miss the fireworks. It started late, there were street orchestras in every little square, and we had a whale of a time. My sister and I got separated—she was dancing with one guy, I was waltzed off by another. I still remember his face, tanned, light brown curly hair and big, pale, blue-green eyes.
He started with the usual chat, practicing his English. Then he went suddenly serious and said, “I’m going to tell you something that will frighten you.”
I didn’t say anything, just cast about looking for my sister. He pushed his face with his big pale eyes right up to me and said, “My name is Oliver.”
I remember jabbering something about it being Olivier in French, and he just shook his head and grinned. “It’s Oliver. I told you you’d be frightened.”
You bet I bloody was! I turned and ran. Somewhere, the firework display had started, and the flashes in the sky splashed eerie light across the faces in the street. Firecrackers went off all around us making everyone shriek. The noise from the fireworks and the band was deafening, the lights flashed and the narrow streets leading into the square were full of shadows. I charged about like a mad thing, yelling out my sister’s name, barging into people who waltzed into my way and trying to avoid the gangs of kids chucking firecrackers about. Oliver just watched. I caught sight of him through the crowd, grinning.
I found my sister, grabbed her by the arm and told her I’d just met Oliver. She didn’t ask “Oliver who?” just ran. We charged off down a dark street, completely disoriented and without a clue where we were in relation to the hotel which was out of town, almost in the countryside. It took us an age to get back, lock the door and stop trembling. Twice over the next couple of days, I saw Oliver hanging around in front of the hotel. I spotted him a couple of times sitting on the terrace of the nearest café too. The third morning, he was in the café of our hotel, leaning on the football table. We left.

When we got home, the first thing my sister did was get out the cut-out letters and the water glass and ask Manfred if he had any more little nuggets to impart. Nothing. We never heard from him again, and I have never had anything to do with prying into the supernatural again.