Between being shortlisted for the Penfro competition and the winning announcement, I learned that I’d won second prize in the Ifanca Helene James short story competition.
(For more about Helene and the competition, see ifancahelenejames.wordpress.com )
Of course, this was very exciting – and welcome too, because I felt it would offer some consolation if I didn’t get placed in the Penfro. And, to be honest, I didn’t think I would after seeing some of the names on the shortlist.
It’s quite a different story from ‘Ingrid, Audrey and Jean’ though both, by coincidence, happen to contain an ailing mother (nothing personal Mum!). I wrote it a very long time ago but, as it’s set in Victorian times, that probably doesn’t matter. I’ve always had a fondness for it, and do think it’s a well-crafted story. And it won second prize! Second place after Tyler Keevil – a prizewinning, well-published Canadian-Welsh writer.
Here’s my story – ‘Meeting Mr. Dickens’:
Rain. Rain. And more rain. That much was true. Fingers of moisture, clawing their insidious way through the crevices of the turrets. Tear-drops splashing from leaf to leaf, leaden enough to reach the floor from even the top of the sequoias. Spider-webs, turned into be-jewelled filigree, woven amongst the hedges. Rain. Water. Dank. Damp. Everywhere, in everything. Day after day, after day. One week into the next. Just as he wrote ...
Though it was nothing to him, nor to the master and mistress; the lords, their ladies, and all the fashionable guests. After all, he was there to entertain them - that was his purpose, rain or shine. The ‘Great Novelist’, come to act out his stories in the Long Gallery, for all the fine people to see. But not us, who lived below stairs – or high above. We could feel the crackles of excitement, hear the laughter and applause, sometimes catch a glimpse of a curious costume, dashing between doors. But we could never go in; not even I, the governess, who had read more of his books, who knew more of his meaning, than any of the grand ladies. We must always be without.
Sometimes, too, we would come upon him, scribbling in corners, though we were instructed never to disturb him, and must turn hurriedly away. Some said he was writing his next book and that we might be in it... or, if not us, the house, chosen for one of his grand locations. We did not really care, not then. It was not our affair. All we wanted was for the rain to stop. But on and on it went.
In the end, I could stand it no longer. I had to get out. I needed to breathe air, damp or not. I needed to feel the trees, the grass against my legs. I wanted to go down to the village, to see my family there. I needed, most of all, to get away from this place, where I could never belong, too poor for the gentry, too ‘stuck up’ for those who served.
I chose not to go the quick way, past the church. I wanted to be out longer, whatever the weather. So I hastened through the laundry, and down onto the Yew Path. It was sheltered there, both from the rain, and prying eyes. It was a curious place, with looming, bulbous shapes on both sides. Some of the household were afraid of it - it had been there so long, according to the history of the house. So much had taken place beneath it - and even more in rumour and imagination. Was not yew the companion of death, they whispered? But I liked it. I liked that feeling of mystery, of strangeness.
As I approached its end, I heard something ahead of me…some small noise, then a footstep. I pressed myself into the hedge; I did not want to be seen. A shrouded form appeared at the end of the tunnel, barring my way to the iron gate that I must leave through. It was a man, I thought, by the height, though it was difficult to tell, it being dusk, and still pouring with rain. Then the figure turned towards me, and lifted the brim of his hat. And I saw that it was the great novelist, come, perhaps, for his daily constitutional, of which, we knew, he was fond.
I wished he would go. It was uncomfortable there, pricked by the yew, dampened by the rain. Finally, he stepped aside, and I thought, if I moved quickly, I could run through the gate and down into the grove, before he noticed me. Off I went, fast but silent. Then, just as I pushed the gate behind me, he turned and looked right at me. His face was white against the darkness, and I could see his body trembling, yet frozen to the ground. Truly, he looked just as if he had seen a ghost. I hesitated no longer, and disappeared into the trees.
I did not return to the Castle that night. Indeed, I was gone for almost two weeks. Reaching home, I found my mother ailing yet again – a chill this time, caught in all this dampness. And she needed me to stay and nurse her, as I had done so often in the past. When I was finally able to go back, I found the household plunged into mourning. The master had died, leaving all desolate. There were no more entertainments now. All the guests had left, leaving us to our grief. Now, we welcomed the rain and cold - they were a mirror without for our misery within. The mist sunk low over the parapets, and buried us there.
It was not until some months later that our spirits, along with the sap of springtime, began to rise. There was news come, exciting enough to lift the household from its gloom. Mr. Dickens’s book was published, and the Castle was indeed in it – just as we had suspected, the model for one of the chief settings, a stately pile shrouded in perpetual rain. Mrs. Ashbourne, our housekeeper, was particularly in a condition of pleasurable agitation, as her fictional counterpart had a significant role in the tale - though she knew, so she hastened to assure me, that a novel was only make-believe. But the ghost story, the tale of the ghost belonging to the stately pile, was almost certainly true, for had not Mr. Dickens had his very own experience of it during his visit?
I knew the Castle had its phantoms. A place so old, so touched by history was bound to have its share of uneasy spirits. And during the War between families, it had been taken by force, and much blood spilt at its very gates. There were winter nights, when, hearing the wind in the empty chimneys, the rain on the cobbles beneath, the children would huddle against me and beg me to tell them it was just the wicked elements, and not the sound of tormented souls.
But of this ghost, this vision of Mr. Dickens, I had heard nothing. I begged Mrs. Ashbourne to explain. She, if anyone, would know.
‘Well,’ she began, spreading her expansive folds into the corners of the rocking-chair, ‘it happened one rainy evening ... though all evenings were rainy, then. You know how Mr. Dickens liked his walk, whatever the weather? This day, he waited as long as he could, hoping the sky would clear, but it was of no use. Still, he must go, so out he went, wrapped up in his cloak and hat, round the front walls, on to the end of the Yew Walk. Here, he stopped, hoping to find shelter. Suddenly, he heard a noise, coming from inside the hedge. He was sure he could see a shape, a female form, but thought it must be his imagination. But then ... then... a figure ran past him, the same woman, an apparition, through the gate without opening it, it seemed. At that moment, she turned, and looked straight at him, only to disappear in front of his eyes...’
‘It was I who met him in the Hall, on his return, and he told me what had happened. He was not especially shaken, being used to the carryings on of the spirit world, but said he must retire immediately, as he needed to put his experience into words - it was just the idea he was looking for to include in his book. Next morning, he asked the Master to tell him all about the Castle and the Civil War, for he was sure the ghost was a Lady from that time, and said again that this was perfect material for his story. Of course, with the Master’s passing, we had forgotten all about it, but now the Mistress has had word from Mr. Dickens himself, and a copy of the book, and our ghost story is there, for everyone to see!’
Even as Mrs. Ashbourne spoke, a vague memory rose to the surface of my mind ... something I had not thought about since it happened. ‘But when did this occur?’ I asked my informant now. ‘How is it that I knew nothing of it?’ And her answer came, just as I expected.
‘It must have been when you were away, nursing your mother. Indeed, now that I think of it, it was the very night you went from here, for, when Mr. Dickens entered, all bedraggled and flustered, and told me his tale, I momentarily feared that you, too, may have seen the ghost, and been sorely alarmed. You did not see it, did you?’
It is as I would tell the children - the violence of the elements makes for unnatural imaginings. Mist turns solid objects into diaphanous wraiths; the howling wind becomes a banshee yell; a chill draught turns into an invisible icy breath. And so it is with the rain. The driving rain at twilight masks and blurs, confuses. Thus, one evening, in an ancient and eerie setting, the incessant deluge from the heavens turned a humble Victorian governess into the restless spirit of a Lady Cavalier.
And even as the laughter welled up in my throat, and my ‘confession’ reached my lips, the words Mrs. Ashbourne was speaking penetrated my thoughts.
‘... and Mistress has told me to make ready for many guests, as the gentlemen of the Press have let it be known that they wish to come here, to write up the story for general distribution. And the various spiritualist societies also wish to visit, in order to search for the ghost themselves. Think, we shall be known throughout the land, as the place where Mr. Dickens saw a ghost! But, best of all, this commotion has distracted Madam, and lifted her out of her grief - indeed, has given her some purpose to live. And the poor children, too, have at last stopped their crying, and have shown themselves affected by something other than their father’s passing. So thanks be to Mr. Dickens’s visitation!’
And I knew then, that, for the sake of the children, I must keep my own counsel, and never reveal that it was I who was Mr. Dickens’s ghost ...
It was as Mrs. Ashbourne prophesied. Soon, the story of our haunting had spread far and wide, and we were overrun by people wanting to follow in the great author’s footsteps, and share, perhaps, his other-worldly encounter. For there were many who knew him only for his ghosts, his spectacular spiritual creations of Christmas Past, Present and Future. And now they could search for the real thing - no fictional apparitions spun out of words, but a spectre raised from a genuine experience ... or so they thought. And, as the tale grew in the telling, the fame of the ghost grew throughout the land – and the repute of the author, too, knew no bounds, and his celebrity was unequalled in his time, and beyond.
It was only I who must fade into obscurity - I, who began it all. For, soon, my charges out-grew me, and I returned to the house in the village, to spend my years tending my still-ailing, but yet surviving, mother. Strange, that the ethereal being should gain in substance, while I, its corporeal counterpart should disappear into nothingness ...
It is summer now at the Castle. The sun shines down day after day. People mill around the parapet, gazing out at the view. Men and women, clad in scant, unsettling garments, wander through the towers and halls, then follow the paths through the gardens, taking photos as they go. They all stop at the end of the Yew tunnel, and look down at the iron gate. Their tourist pamphlets tell them that this is the Ghost Walk, so called because it was here that Charles Dickens saw a Lady ghost. They snap away, and converse excitedly, wondering, perhaps, was …is….there really such a phenomenon? It is hard to think that such a venerable figure as the great novelist would invent such a thing. I wander amongst the trees – yes, through my Yew Hedge, even – and try to speak to them. But few, if any, see me. And none will hear my words as anything more than the whisper of the breeze through the sequoias. Besides, who am I, now, to tell them there is no such thing as ghosts?
© Diana Powell 2014
Anyway, my two successes in as many weeks prompted some thoughts about short stories and writing competitions in general. More of this later...