Who amongst us doesn’t appreciate a spooky story? It’s not even a matter of believing, it’s about what every story is about: possibilities. Keep that in mind for later. Anyway, I recently discovered and just finished listening to the BBC podcast The Battersea Poltergeist and it was compelling, narratively speaking. There were excellent actors depicting the drama of it all, plus a reporter interrogating the matter, along with a sceptic and a believer offering their takes on the evidence, the witnesses, listener feedback, and the events in an everyday household in suburban Battersea from 1956 onwards. I didn’t reach a conclusion or formulate my own theory about what went on, instead, I drifted between speculations on what was a bit of a ride.
My next question is: who amongst us doesn’t have a ghost story? Of course I do, my flash fiction, In a manor published at Crow & Cross Keys was such a story, and it didn’t even mention the word ghost. Writers have ghost stories. But I suspect everyone, or if not everyone, then every family has a tale sporting a ghostly aspect. Here’s my mother’s story.
My mother ran a business out of a National Trust building, it was the first building in a newly laid out town on land which had never been ceded by its original owners. I want to state that clearly. A little further south, larger stone houses were built with slots for gun sights. I live on land fought over. Land damaged and haunted by the crimes and bloodshed of conquest and ongoing colonialism. The scars are everywhere. Where there is guilt, there are ghosts.
My mother’s ghost story is a little different. Perhaps. Her shop was located in a small dwelling built in 1850. It was made from large raw slices of blackwood rammed vertically into the ground, lashed together under a bark roof, with an open stone hearth for cooking, and a dirt floor. Eventually, two glass windows were installed. Much later, to preserve the building, a corrugated tin roof and guttering were added, along with a cement floor and electricity. It is described as a ‘slab hut’ while the timber cottage next door was built in 1860 by the same couple for their growing family. Inside the original hut was one space divided with a thin partial wall with an open doorway. The wall was just tall enough you couldn’t see over it and offered the illusion of separateness without providing privacy. Mum worked mostly in the back where the bigger space was lighter, but everyone had to come through. It was easy to tell if visitors entered. On darker days, on late afternoons, Mum heard people chatting by the hearth, then would walk in the front room, to find no one there, and in fact no one else on the street at all. Mum never felt unwelcome, but she did feel the tension, the worry that radiated from these half-heard conversations. They continued for months.
At the same time, tourists always remarked on the hostile nature of the slightly larger cottage next door. Many ducked inside the door and refused to go in any further. Animals did not enter. It was always described as oppressive. Mum occasionally got the chills in the tiny back bedroom, and found the atmosphere sad. It was much friendlier and cosier in her shop in the older hut.
After a bit of local history digging, Mum discovered one of the son’s of the original owners of the two houses had died as a teen. He’d fallen from a penny farthing bicycle and broken his hip. He had lingered for weeks on a narrow bed in that tiny back room, in agony from a bone infection. The guess is the boy hadn’t moved on from his traumatic death and his parents had returned, worried for him.
A little later a living descendant brought around a family photograph from back in the day in the UK, and Mum convinced this person to display it for awhile in the second cottage. The voices disappeared and at the same time the cold negativity of the cottage lifted. The descendants took back their photo. Mum was quietly chuffed at her ghost whispering, thinking the photograph was the evidence the spirit needed to move on. Maybe. She’s not here to correct me. It’s her story but I’m the narrator, and probably the only witness, which is unfair, but that’s the breaks.
Eventually, Mum closed her shop but left her own traces. For at least 10 years after her death her hand written notes in the second cottage remained on the mantle where that old family photo had been displayed. Last time I visited they were gone: the ghosts, their family photos, my mother and her notes. But the cottages remain.
In less sombre news, my poem Synesthete written in response to a painting by artist Anita Jawary, has been published over at The Ekphrastic Review. I don’t write in response to every piece I see, because not all art inspires me in that way, but when I see something that could haunt me, I kinda have to write. Anyway, you can read my poem and the other responses by following this link.
Steady as she goes, the 2022 writing update:
- Rejections: 122
- Pending: 54
- Acceptances by publisher: 21
- Acceptances by work: 28
- Published: 22