I was a solitary child, playing alone in the shadowed confines of the garden, gathering sycamore seeds and autumn leaves and chattering to Henrietta, the girl who wasn’t there. As an adult, I discovered there had been a real girl called Henrietta who had lived and worked as a domestic servant in the vicarage that had once existed on the spot where our house was built.
One night there came the sound of slow, heavy footsteps climbing the stairs. It was just mum and me in the house and we’d both gone to bed. ‘Is that you, Helen?’ she called out. I replied it wasn’t. We’d both heard it, but neither one of us went to investigate. In my mind, it was simply the echo of the old vicar retiring to bed.
I’d always believed that the house we lived in had been a part of the vicarage, but I recently found a picture of it and was disappointed to find that it was a much grander building that had been demolished and replaced by our little row of houses. Oh, how I wish we’d lived in that house.
I lived in a world of perpetual imagination. Mad scientists worked in the portacabins on the car park at the bottom of our street. I knew this because the desks were strewn with glass beakers, Bunsen burners, and test tubes. Their white lab coats hovered like ghosts in the semi-dark after everyone had gone home for the night.
But the most influential and Gothic element of my childhood was the mansion that stood opposite my home and in whose grounds and rooms I spent as much time as I was allowed. I am sure I read in an article somewhere on the internet that the house was there in the 18th Century, but unfortunately I can’t find that article now.
It was my Green Knowe. I spent many a day dreaming up stories about the phantom children that occupied its rooms and often expected to see a leafy St Christopher striding past the high stone wall with Tolly on his shoulders. I never saw him, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t, one day.
If you climbed the grand staircase that greeted you as you entered the house and went on up to the attic, you’d find a variety of dusty and cobwebbed vintage organs left over from days gone by. In the bowels of the house, you’d be confronted by the giant bat that blotted out the light from the only window. The bat was a crumpled sheet of newspaper, but that’s what it looked like to me.
During World War I, the house had been used for the rehabilitation of sick and wounded soldiers, one of whom had made a small teddy bear whilst he waited for his wounds to heal and had left it behind when he left. I often took it down from the shelf and wondered what happened to the soldier who’d made it. Did he go back to the fighting and if so, did he survive the war and live out the rest of his life in peace? Perhaps he also served in the Second World War too. If he didn’t survive, was he drawn back to the house as one of its ghosts?
It was here that I met the other Helen, the owner’s granddaughter, who not only had the same name as me, but was the same age and when I think about it probably looked a lot like me too. A case of Gothic doubling! On one of her visits, I was allowed to stay the night. We were put to bed in the master bedroom in a bed that was much larger than the double bed my parents had. I was too excited to sleep and spent the night scaring ‘my twin’ with tales of ghosts and ghouls and convincing her that the heavy blue drapes that covered the windows were moving in some supernatural breeze from the otherworld.
When the house was put up for sale and the company over the road (the one with the mad scientists) purchased it and demolished it to make another car park, I was distraught. Where would my ghosts roam now? When they cleared the garden and chopped down the trees, the kestrel that made its plaintiff cry from the chimney each night was never heard again, the raven, that I’d nicknamed ‘Soot’ after Dickon’s pet in The Secret Garden also flew away. And here was the real horror – that someone could carelessly discard the many beautiful objects, furniture and personal possessions representing decades of memories of a person’s life without a second thought. The vintage organs, the highly polished mahogany dining table and anything else the owner didn’t have room for in her new flat in a sheltered housing complex were to be left behind and skipped. I don’t know what happened to the teddy bear.
As the house came down, brick by brick, I wept. It still angers and upsets me, but the house lives on in my memory. I can still open the wrought-iron gate, walk up the driveway to the porch, push open the door and stand in the hallway with its black and white tiled floor, turn left into the dining room and run my fingers along the polished table, play a few notes on the piano, pick up the teddy bear from the dresser where the patterned soup tureens line the shelves and then walk out through the white French doors down the three steps onto the cool grass of the lawn. Those French windows make an appearance in Black Feather in Kate’s lounge.
Or I can turn right into the living room and lie on the yellow chaise longue in front of an immense stone fireplace. Even the biggest Christmas tree I had ever seen couldn’t make this room feel cramped, and it was always a real tree that shed its needles on the thick patterned carpet. Or I can walk along the corridor by the stairs, past the door to the cellar and turn into the kitchen with its beautiful cream painted cupboards, long wooden counters and Belfast sink beneath the window. The airy space is filled with sunlight, and the greenhouse attached to the kitchen overflows with ripe tomatoes and fat juicy courgettes.
One day this house will become the setting for a time slip romance story I’m going to write in which a young woman inherits an old house and meets the ghost of a World War I soldier.
Nothing could replace Springwood House, but during my teenage years, my friends and I often visited a nearby stately home where the Fairfax family had lived during the English Civil Wars. A house this old always has more than its fair share of ghosts. The haunted room where the Jacobean cradle used to rock to the touch of an invisible hand was our favourite, followed by the mark on the floor of the great hall which legend has it was the indelible blood stain of a murder victim.
I didn’t know, back then, that there was such a thing as The Gothic. It’s only through studying it as part of my degree that I can look back and see the gothic elements of my childhood and the influence they’ve had on my writing and reading habits, and my insatiable desire to know what’s behind every closed door or investigate where a spiral staircase leads. And what a glorious childhood it was, free from adult responsibility, the ability to read whatever I chose and dream for hours on end. It may have been solitary, but I was never lonely.
Nel Ashley is the author of Black Feather and Immortal, the second book in the Black Feather Series. She is currently working on her third novel, Dandelion Time, a time slip romance novel.
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