Having run out of things to do, near the end of our stay, we'd decided to take an afternoon walk along the banks of the River Stour near Borley. I was eight years old, hurrying ahead of my parents, grandparents and big sister, scanning the countryside to try and catch a glimpse of the haunted churchyard (the Rectory itself had burned down decades before). I’d learned all about it from a library audio tape dramatising the hauntings, complete with screams and ghostly moaning sound effects. It was a stifling August day, the heat pressing down hard, the river flowing brown and sluggish. I was disappointed when we didn’t get as far as the church, or sense anything remotely spooky. Just stillness. Quietness. Boring.
I haven’t been back to Suffolk since my grandparents died. Today I looked up their old house on Google street view. The house looks the same, but the tree in the front garden is bigger, and the door’s been painted green. You can almost – almost – see over the roof of the garage into the back garden where we used to watch for bats in the summer twilight. Using the arrows, you can follow the road along to the post office where my sister and I used to buy sherbet dips. The streets are eerily empty, just one or two cars appearing and then vanishing, lost in the time lapse between the photographs. That part of the world is empty, for me, in a wider sense too – there are no relatives left there, no family friends. I feel a strong pull to go back, but at the same time, the thought leaves me with a heavy, homesick feeling. There’s an uneasiness about it that drags at me and won’t leave me alone.
And then I start writing a scene for the novel I’m working on. The character, Hattie, is on her way to visit the boarding school where she stayed as a girl in the 1980s. She needs to see her brother, who’s now a music teacher there, staying in the empty dormitory block over the holidays.
Hattie gets off the train, and although this imagined school is in another part of the country altogether, in my mind she’s at the station where we used to stop on the way to Granny and Grandpa’s. It’s changed, since her school days. But in her mind she sees the old buffet room, selling plastic ham sandwiches and cheeseburgers with neon-bright cheese. She remembers the blue and yellow livery of the InterCity trains, and how she used to hate the scorching, metallic smell of the brakes. She remembers the way the steps up to the bridge sparkled, ever so slightly, underfoot.
Hattie’s story is not mine. She’s not thinking of her grandparents, or happy childhood holidays. She’s taken back to her boarding school days, at a time when her family was beginning a slow and complicated process of self-destruction. But there on the station platform, she’s overcome by something that feels like homesickness. By the disorientating suck and pull of a world that exists only in the past. Its comforts – barely noticed at the time – are unreachable. She feels this for me, and in that moment, she is me and I am her.
Writing can’t bring people back. It can’t recreate the security of childhood, or chase away old demons for that matter. It can’t – quite – transport you back to the places you loved. But it does do…. something. Something real, that stands in some small way against loss, and lostness. I’ve encountered it often, as I’ve written my way through the lives of my characters.
It might be to do with capturing tiny details, hiding them like jewels within the sweep of a story. It might be to do with the power of words; finding the exact shape of a certain kind of sadness, or fear, or the way it feels when things are made better. Or the dragging almostness of missed opportunities, connections that were never made, love that never quite worked. It might be about sharing those complex emotions - the very ones that make us human - with another person, even if it’s just a character I made up. Or maybe, if I’m very lucky, with a reader out there somewhere, one day.
So thank you, Neil Spring, for your Borley Rectory book, for sparking something off in me, even though you couldn’t possibly have known it (but that’s what the best books do – they take on a life of their own). It turns out I was looking for the wrong sort of ghosts, on that hazy, shimmering summer’s day when I was eight. It wasn’t until today that I found them, walking along that river path with me in my own memory.