If you’ve read Not Your Heart Away (and if you haven’t then you can just click here and let me know what you think when you’ve read it), you’ll know it’s got a ghost in it.
Claire’s house, the imaginary house in the story, (based on but not exactly like a real house and ditto a real person I knew lived in, but with bits borrowed from other houses, other people’s stories) was haunted, she believed. The real house I had in my head when I wrote it wasn’t, not that I ever heard. But the ghosts in the book were all told to me about other places, by people I didn’t think were fools or liars.
Claire’s ghosts in the book manifested themselves in three separate incidents, the scattering of flowers, the servant’s stairs and the naked woman on the landing that Ben is never sure is real or not or Claire’s mother or not.
When my grandmother was about twelve years old she went into service, working at the local Big House, Ashton Court in Bristol. It wasn’t about choice. Her father was an alcoholic and when he wasn’t drinking he had things to do at home which resulted in eight or nine children to support, which he couldn’t do. In exactly the way David Cameron and his privileged friends think is appropriate for those of lowly station a twelve year old girl had to do it for him because there was no state support system, the same way there won’t be one again.
This was back before 1914, and in true Downton Abbey style the people who owned it liked to have flowers arranged throughout the house. Except in one room. It ought to have a name, the Green Room or something, but while I’m sure it did I don’t know what it was. Flowers were never put there. On the rara occasions they were then the next day the windows would be standing wide open and the flowers scattered all over the floor. It wasn’t Hugsy the dog. It wasn’t in the same house at all.
The back stairs
The servants stairs was a story from another house too. Claire’s house had two staircases, like most of those big old houses; one for the family and one for the servants, back in a time when almost everybody had servants, skivvies, maids or boys. I suspect at least half of it was simply charity and the other half the need for help when there were no washing machines and gas-fired boilers or hoovers. Whatever it was, if you had a big house you certainly didn’t want to bump into the staff on the staircase so they had their own stairs, the back stairs, cheaper, steeper, narrower.
A girl who used to work for me told me about a trip to a friend’s house which had exactly the same kind of arrangement. They thought they had a ghost there and thought it generally confined itself to the back stairs, so the family didn’t use them. Another friend showed me her own back stairs, as it were, and given the choice you would’t use stairs like that anyway. They were incredibly narrow, the treads were short and the steps seemed to be in the wrong place, apart from which there was no handrail or bannister. They had the look of something made for a slight teenager, or maybe like the clothes from long ago that you see in museums, they were made for people who were just smaller in those days. But uncomfortable, not because of any sense of spookiness, but because the staircase was hemmed-in, claustrophobic and it felt as if it would be easy to miss a step with my big modern feet and end up haunting the place myself. Predictably, the first friend had a party and the boys decided to be brave, despite being told not to use the back stairs. Four of them did, deliberately, with a great show of taunting the ghost. All four ran out in tears. None of them would say what happened. It put a bit of a damper on the party.
A girl on the stairs
The naked woman on the stairs story happened to someone I used to know in Portscatho, in Cornwall. In one of my more excruciating memories from a fairly extensive catalogue of embarrassing events, I went down there with a girlfriend one summer when the world was young. Claire’s prototype just happened to be working nearby, but that was not part of this story. I did say it was a bit cringy.
One of the early pioneers of the gentrification of Portscatho, my friend’s father had retired from the Navy as a Commander and bought himself a house overlooking the harbour, just about a hundred yards from the Plume of Feathers and the village square. Mark was a good-looking boy with a convertible Triumph Herald and a future beckoning after he graduated from the School of Mines so he lived there instead of on campus. One morning his father demanded a quiet word.
Why for god’s sake, if Mark had to invite these bloody floosies back, could they not at least have the decency to put some clothes on before they paraded around the landing? It’s not me, Mark, it’s your mother. I don’t see why she nor I should have to put up with this in our own home. I don’t want to have to have this conversation again.
All very well, pops, as Mark said. Except he hadn’t invited anyone home. So far as he knew, he was on his own that morning. We all, Claire’s human form, my girlfriend, me, Mark and his local mate Johno hung around the house for a day or so while his folks were out. I was reading the paper in the front room on my own. Claire came in and sat down. I wanted to be cool, so I read a couple of pages of the newspaper before I put it down to talk to her. Except there was nobody there at all. It happened a lot there, Mark said. It was no big deal.
I’ve said before. I’m not very creative. I just steal other people’s stories. But I’ve been wondering about the truly fictional Claire and her ghosts at her fictional house and whether they were ghosts of the past, as she thought, or ghosts of the future, that what was haunting her wasn’t the past at all, but the fright of her world crumbling underneath her feet, as it did for so many people in the 1980s in so many different ways. Our legacy. Our times.
For years I had a recurring dream about a flat I was going to buy. I’ve never seen it except in my dream. It was decorated in a heavy, dated way, white paint and green walls, the kind of place Jason King would have been happy in, but cheaper, much more Barons Court back then than Kensington. Every time I went there in my dream I could hear people doing everyday things, having a meal, washing up, talking to each other as they did it, but faintly. I could never see anyone.
I always called it the Haunted Flat dream. I can describe the layout of the place to you still, if you like. The stairs were just like the landing in the old Boys block at school.
I always assumed I was looking at the flat to buy it, at different times. I could tell by the leaves on the trees I could see through the window and I would have bought it, apart from the fact it was haunted. But then one morning when I woke up I wondered if there was a real flat, one I’ve never seen. And whether the people who’ve lived there over the past twenty years and more sometimes wake up convinced something has visited them in a way they can’t explain, that they share their place with something else from another time, past or future.