I can only write this post because my friend the insanely-talented-teacher-and-interior-decorator is off on a cruise to the Med today and hasn’t got wireless. If she were reading I’d have to shelve my plans because ghost stories wake her up with the heebiejeebies at the dead of night.
Bon Voyage, Nix. Now: draw the curtains, get under the duvet and switch on the torch. It’s time for some seriously tall stories.
I have mentioned before that I served a few years as Duty Manager at a nearby great old house. The area is full of these things: we’re not far from London, just moments from some of the great roads to Winchester and Southampton.
This one’s mainly Victorian, built in 1760 and inhabited by a string of influential politicians and statesmen. It served time in the Second World War as a hospital: The Royal Sea Bathing Hospital, evacuated from Margate.
It’s a red -brick Italianate mansion, which has grown shabby because its clientele consists of, for the most part, penniless artists. It generally inspires unusual affection and loyalty in all who visit: it seems to have a tractor beam which draws one in.
But lacing the loyalty is a tinge of unease: a perception on the edge of one’s consciousness of something a little dark.
The history of the house has been mainly serene, but with scarlet slashes of tragedy worked into the fabric. One owner was found drowned in the ornamental lake after a bout of depression. A subsequent householder shot himself in what was then the gun room. And another tragedy, one I found almost unbearable when I began to work there: a nursery fire in which two young children died.
For a peddlar of stories, listening to the staff makes one feel like an avaricious Fagin. Every now and then I open up my box of folkloric jewels and look over them. I am rich, I tell myself. Rich.
A few years ago, my friend the ex-assistant-stage-manager tells me, there was a puppet show in the old nursery, playing to a packed crowd of youngsters. Terrifically popular. After the performance my friend caught up with the puppeteer.
He was delighted with the venue, he said, but had one or two health and safety reservations. Should those two children really have been standing up on the gantry, high above the others?
Of course, access to the gantry would have been impossible, especially for youngsters.
When I was a journalist, I missed a huge story. The PR girl of the time told all the local reporters about nine months after it happened, a safe distance from the Happenings.
Staff arrived in the attic offices, the administrative heart of the building, to find them ransacked. Paper everywhere, equipment on the floor….security confirmed no-one had accessed any of the doors to the building. The Director of the time had no doubt as to the event’s origin and called in the local Bishop, who performed the necessary rites.
But days later, office workers returned to find the same thing had happened again. If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly, and the Bishop was brought back to have another go, this time successfully.
Everyone has their own story. The Duty Managers will tell you of the way the doors bang, cavernously loud, all together, in the dead of night when they are locking up the theatre.
The Catering Manager popped up to the top floor and someone said:”Hello, Chris”. No-one there, naturally.
I have first-hand stories: MR James, corner-of-your-eye stuff. As I locked the mansion after midnight, hurrying back to see the catering manager, a man in coat-tails stood at the top of the stairs. I looked again and he was gone. Twice this happened. The third time, I hurried past, making a conscious decision not to look. No point in encouraging him.
A lady dressed in red on the stairs: strange figures on security cameras: we could be here all night, telling stories with the torch lit, under the counterpane.
My main interest in these stories is as a teller of tales. There’s a book in there somewhere, I’m sure. But the old house – lets call it The Park- never fails to excite that now-familiar twinge of unease. The building is paradoxical. It draws you in, but something in my subconscious whispers that it’s not good idea to get too close.
I have never been so glad to get home to my settled existence, my husband and two children, as when I worked, three nights a week, at The Park.
So, I don’t think I’ll be the one to write the book. Granted, it would be a fabulous money spinner. I think I might be able to pay off my posh camera bill, no problem.
But in researching it- in immersing myself in The Park’s endless corridors and echoing rooms- I’d have to delve into the fund of human tragedy and lonely yearning that I can feel, hovering, just beneath the surface of this great old house.