(Partly truth, partly fiction)
“Occupying a magnificent chosen position in this lovely old-world village in the Amber Valley. Weathered stone facing South West within a beautiful landscaped garden and having superb views over most lovely unspoilt country about mid-way between Chesterfield and Matlock. Modernised and restored in the distinctive Georgian manner with elegant rooms full of charm and character yet compact and designed for easy management.”
There was a creeping unease about the place. In the rising damp, the cold rooms, the mushrooms that climbed the kitchen wall, the uneven floors that would protest at each footfall; the way the whole place would rattle and murmur with the wild winter winds coming off the moor as though in some kind of a cabalistic collusion with the elements.
Strange things began to happen. Sharp raps at her bedroom door at night and the feeling of being constantly watched. She often woke to the feel of someone sitting down at the foot of her bed only to find no one there. All the while her mother’s illness worsened. She would lie awake at night and listen to her gasp for air in the adjacent room. Fight for each wheezing breath. She hated that sound but feared the day that it might end.
Once when she was home alone, she went into the pantry and someone or something turned the key in the door and locked her in. She was relieved to return to her boarding school when the holidays ended.
There were good times. They had horses. Swallow, Bracken, Bunter and her favourite Jorricks, who was blind in one eye and often escaped his stable at night, leaving hoof prints all over the manicured lawn to which her father would rise next morning, see, and shout, ‘Bloody Jorricks!’ At the top of his lungs. On one occasion Jorricks walked off a small bridge with her astride him. Neither were hurt.
They had a dog, Honey, a golden retriever who’s preferred place to relieve herself was beneath the giant beech tree in the back, such that the area became known as Honey’s lavatory.
She remembers a time when her mother was well, and they were holidaying in Edinburgh. They went to a fair ground in North Berwick. She would have been about eight and she rode a carousel round and round to the hurdy gurdy tune of The Cuckoo Waltz. Nothing could possibly be better than this, she thought then, riding a lacquered wooden horse on a warm spring night, her mother standing to the side, beaming at her each time she passed. One night at school she was woken in her cold bed and summoned to the head mistress’ office where she found her older sister waiting there already and they were told,
‘Your mother has died. Your father will pick you up in the morning.’
She would spend less and less time at ‘The Bourne’. When she was 18, she moved south to London. And eventually, Canada.
Her father remarried. Inexplicable events persisted at the old house. One night during the great storm of ’60, the beech tree was blown over. Entirely uprooted. The next morning Honey went out for a pee and returned to the breakfast table with a human femur in her mouth.
They moved shortly after.
Each one of us is a haunted house, our memories it’s familiar ghosts. It is easy to understand my mother’s hatred of old houses, her intolerance of other’s illness. I never met her parents. I often wonder what they’d have made of me. They both died before I was born. Her mother in 1958 and her father in 1971. All I know of them is from old pictures and the stories told by my Mum and my aunt. They are unknown to me. Strangers in well-thumbed black and white photographs. There’s my grandmother on a Swiss mountainside in the 1930’s or my grandfather with his rugby team in the ‘20’s along with various family gatherings over the years. A few of my grandfather are in colour, my grandmothers are only in black and white, her having never made it that far.
I can see in those photos, some of the features of my family’s faces. Sometimes I Imagine listening to my grandparents recount details from their storied lives and histories, as though through a glass placed on a thick wall, hearing amidst all the static of the years between us, the murky, far-off cadence of their voices, addressing me from that unknowable hinterland.