Read The Ghost Writer Online

Authors: John Harwood

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Horror, #Ghost

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BOOK: The Ghost Writer
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For almost seven years now, my mother and I had maintained the pretence that Alice's letters were as invisible as Alice herself. At first, whenever I got home from school to find a letter waiting on the desk in my bedroom I used to examine the envelope closely for signs of tampering. (I had read about steaming open letters, though I'd never seen it done.) But I never found any. I knew that I was causing my mother pain, and if she had once broken her silence over Staplefield, I would have felt much worse about doing to her what she had previously done to me. Her 'nerves' had grown steadily worse, even before my father's sudden death. She hated being left alone after dark. Even now, if I got home more than half an hour late from my evening shift at the library, I would find her haunting the telephone table, wondering when to start ringing the hospitals.

Without Alice's letters, life at home would have been intolerable, but without Alice I wouldn't have been living there. Or in Mawson. My grades had been high enough to get me a place in one of the big eastern universities, but—apart from confronting my mother's pathological fears on my behalf—that would have made saving for England impossible. Whereas the Grace Levenson Memorial Library Studies Bursary paid all my fees and a living allowance, and would, I hoped, get me a job in England in just over a year's time.

And it pleased Alice to know that I hadn't abandoned my mother. Soon after we began writing, Alice and I had vowed that no matter what happened, we would never betray each other's secrets, or let anyone else read our letters: apart from the postman, no one outside our house even knew that Alice existed. She now had photographs of my parents, our house and its surroundings, and even, more recently, of me, to illustrate the day-to-day chronicle of my life in all its sameness and tedium; though Alice frequently assured me that nothing about me, however trivial, could possibly be boring to her. But she was troubled by the estrangement between my mother and me, and too perceptive not to see that she herself was partly the cause of it. At the same time, she understood my fear that if I broke the silence on my side, my mother would keep pushing and pushing until she had forced me into another confrontation. 'I know it's hard,' Alice had written recently, 'but you must cherish her, Gerard, you won't know how precious she is until she's gone. I only wish she could understand that I'm no threat: the last thing I want is to take you away from her.'

Alice was entirely sincere in this, because she still clung to her conviction that, short of a miraculous healing, we must never meet. But I had other plans.

, I
never seen a full copy of my own birth certificate. The short version I had used until then had told me nothing about my mother except that her maiden name had been Hatherley. Now I discovered that Phyllis May Hatherley had been born on 13 April 1929, in Portman Square, Marylebone, London Wl. Father George Rupert Hatherley, occupation Gentleman; mother Muriel Celia Hatherley, nee Wilson.

It ought not to have come as a shock. She had never actually
—at least I could not recall her ever saying—that she had been born at Staplefield, which after years of fruitless searching of atlases and reference books, I thought I might have found. Collins' Road Atlas of Britain showed a tiny village—the only Staplefield in the index—on the southern fringe of St Leonard's Forest in West Sussex. Just a minute black circle on a yellow byroad called the B2114, but it looked and felt right, though by no stretch of the imagination could anyone have expected to see ships at Portsmouth, fifty miles away to the south-west. Alice thought it would be quite common for a big country house to have the same name as the nearby village. Yet I still hadn't asked my mother about it—or anything else in her life before Mawson. Why had I always believed that her own parents had died when she was very young? Had she actually told me that, or had I simply imagined it? Why, above all, had I accepted her silence for so long? Didn't I have a right to my own history?

That evening, in our sitting room after dinner, I handed her the certificate. She took one look, and thrust it back at me.

'Why did you get this?' Her voice was ominously taut.

'I'm applying for a passport.'


'Because I'm going to England. As soon as I can afford to.'

My mother's attention was apparently fixed upon the unlit gas heater in our old fireplace. I could not see her face clearly because of the standard lamp between our armchairs, but its light fell upon her clasped hands, suddenly reminding me of old Mrs Noonan's, fingers clamped around swollen knuckles, blotched purple and livid white, the nails suffused with blood.

'You mean to stay,' she said at last.

'I don't know yet, Mother. If I did, I'd want you to come and live there too.'

'I can't afford it.'

'I could help.'

'I wouldn't let you. Anyway, I couldn't stand the winters.'

'But you hate the heat, Mother.'

'The cold would be worse.'

She was speaking mechanically, as if hardly aware of what she was saying.

'Mother, I didn't show you that to upset you. But it's time we talked—again. About your family. Because it's mine, too.'

The silence dragged out until I could bear it no longer.

'Mother did you hear what I—'

'I heard you.'

'Then tell me—' I broke off, not knowing what to ask. 'I—look, I still remember everything you used to tell me, when I was—before I—everything about Staplefield, and your grandmother, and I want to know—why you stopped talking about it, why I don't know anything—' I heard my voice beginning to quaver.

'There's nothing to tell,' she said after another long pause.

'But there must be. Your own parents. What happened to them?'

'They both died before—when I was a few months old. I don't remember anything about them.'

Her hands had dropped out of sight, below the arm of her chair.

'So—so did you live with your grandmother—Viola—was she your father's, or your mother's—'

'My father's. I told you everything I could remember, when you were a small boy.'

'But why did you stop after I—was it her picture I saw that day?'

'I don't remember any picture.'

Her voice sounded flatter and more disembodied with each reply.

remember, Mother. You were so furious. The picture you caught me with, that afternoon in your bedroom—'

'You were always poking about in my bedroom, Gerard. You can't expect me to remember every single time I caught you in there.'

'But—but—' I could not quite believe this was happening. 'After that day you never mentioned Staplefield again—'

'All I remember, Gerard, is that as you grew older you stopped asking. And a good thing too. We can't live in the past.'

'No, but why won't you talk about it?'

'Because it's
' she snapped. 'There was—there was a fire. After
left. During the war. The house burned to the ground.'

'You never told me that!'

'No ... I didn't want to disappoint you. That's—that's why I stopped talking about it.'

'Well I wish you had told me, Mother. All these years I've been hoping, hoping to...' I couldn't go on.

'Gerard, you didn't think it was

'No, of course not. I just wanted to see it.'

But of course I had thought of Staplefield as mine, without ever quite admitting it to myself. The long-lost heir, stranded in Mawson, waiting for the family solicitors to call him home. Ridiculous, absurd. My eyes were stinging.

'I'm sorry, Gerard. It was very wrong of me. I wish I'd never mentioned the place.'

Mother. I wish you hadn't stopped. Why did you leave? What caused the fire?'

'It was—a bomb. We—I was away at school. In Devon. Away from the bombing.'

For a moment she had seemed genuinely contrite. Now she sounded evasive.

'And Viola?'

'She looked after me. Until she died. Just after the war. Then I had to go out to work.'

'But it was a big house, you had servants. Wasn't it insured? Didn't Viola leave you anything?'

Another long pause.

'It all went in death duties. There was just enough left to pay for my typing course. She did everything she could for me. That's

'Mother it is not all and you know it. What about "Seraphina"?'

'I don't know what you're talking about.'

'Viola's story. In the drawer with the photograph.'

'I don't remember any story.'

I opened my mouth to object, and realised I couldn't push it any further.

don't you want to talk about your, past?'

'For the same reason you never talk about your—
I suppose. It's no one else's business. Not even yours.'

For the first time in seven years, my mother had acknowledged Alice's existence.

'No, it's not the same. Alice isn't—she's nothing to do with you—'

'She's taken you away from me.'

'That's not fair! Anyway, I'm almost twenty-one, people leave home and get married—'

'So you're getting married? Well thank you for mentioning it—'

'I didn't say that!'

'Well are you or aren't you?'

'I don't know yet!'

We were both almost shouting.

'I don't want to talk about her, Mother,' I said more quietly.

'But you're going to see her.'

'I—I just don't want to talk about her.'

'Gerard,' she said heavily, after a long silence, 'I know you think I'm jealous. A jealous mother who won't let go. Nothing I say will make any difference. Just remember: I tried to keep you safe.'

'Safe from what, Mother?'

But all she said was, 'I'm going to bed now.'

'Tell me one thing, then,' I said, 'I won't ask you any more. Where exactly was Staplefield? The house, I mean. Was it in Staplefield village?'

Her chair creaked. She stood up and moved stiffly towards the door. I thought she would leave without speaking, but in the doorway she turned, light flashing from the lenses of her spectacles.

'Going to look for Staplefield would be a complete waste of money. There's nothing left. Nothing.'

She flung the last word over her shoulder. It hung in the air like the smell of charred paper as her footsteps receded along the hall.

less, Saharan expanse of sand. From thirty-five thousand feet, I watched the patterns unrolling beneath the wing, fantastic whorls and cross-hatchings and striations, ochreous yellows and earth-browns and purples and deep rust-reds, until the hostess asked me if I would mind closing my blind so the other passengers could watch the movie. I did mind, never having been in a plane before, but I closed it anyway and sat holding my unopened book.

Twenty-two hours to Heathrow. I didn't seriously believe—did I?—that after eight years of undying adoration Alice would have me turned away at the door? Her letters were as tenderly passionate as ever. I had written to tell her I would be at the Stanhope Hotel, Sussex Gardens, London W2, which sounded leafy and grand, despite being called 'budget' in the brochure. Admittedly it was January, so there might not be many leaves, but there was sure to be a letter waiting when I arrived. From the hotel I would ring Penfriends International, who were bound to be in the phone book, though I still had only their box number. Maybe I should have written ahead to Juliet Summers, but I'd been over and over that. Much better to plead my case in person.

Since I had stopped pleading with Alice to change her mind, neither of us had mentioned the possibility of our meeting. Her view of my coming to live in England was seemingly unchanged: she would love to feel that I was so much closer, but only if I could persuade my mother to join me. Alice and I were pretending to believe that, while it would be wonderful to be in the same country at last, the purpose of my trip was to look around for places where my mother might be persuaded to settle. And to see Staplefield, assuming my mother really had invented the fire. But how could Alice possibly, doubt that I'd come looking for her? And since she hadn't made me promise not to, she must—mustn't she?—be waiting for me to find her.

The businessman in the seat next to me had put away his papers and fallen asleep. I knew already that I wasn't afraid of flying. So why did I feel so numbly apprehensive, as if something cold and leaden had lodged in the pit of my stomach and refused to dissolve, not just since take-off but for days beforehand?

Perhaps I was more anxious about my mother than I was willing to admit. She had been behaving as if I had a terminal illness rather than a three-week excursion fare to London. Not to mention a job as an assistant librarian at Mawson University College, starting in February. I couldn't imagine how I would tear myself away from Alice, but three weeks was all I could afford; I would have to come back to save more money and apply for permanent residence. If my mother couldn't bear the thought of life without me, she would just have to overcome her pathological fear of return, or travel, or whatever it was. It didn't matter how often I repeated that I was a thousand times more likely to die in a car than a plane crash; she treated all of my attempts at reassurance as irrelevant interruptions. I noticed that she had grown even more intolerant of noise; she could not bear the radio on, and reacted to the ringing of the phone as if it were a fire alarm. She seemed to be listening to—or for—sounds inaudible to anyone else.

Since the night, just over a year ago, when she told me Staplefield had burnt down, she had not once referred to Alice. Our day-to-day life had gone on as before, as if the no-go areas did not exist. I had learned to cook in spite of her protests, though she still would not let me near the washing-machine or the iron, or accept any money for board. But the balance between us had altered. Now it felt as if she was the one on the defensive. I won't mention your
again, her silence seemed to say, so don't ask me any more about my past.

BOOK: The Ghost Writer
10.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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