Things that go bump in the night

Recently I spent a pleasant hour inserting mildly relevant emoticons into the names of my ‘Contacts’ on my new mobile phone. Well, I lead a very dull life and have to take my fun where I can find it. The friend referred to in this blog as ‘Daisy’ had a daisy and ‘Rose’ had a rose; my friend down the road who in her (misspelt, incomprehensible) texts seem fixated on the ladybird, got a ladybird. My plumber got the umbrella + raindrops, my dentist got the little yellow man in the surgical mask and my doctor got the sickly green face. Ex got the anchor, and I won’t expand on that one.

When it came to the hospital I found myself automatically selecting the skull and crossbones. Half an hour later – superstitious, I suppose – I went back in and changed it to a spider’s web. Once in the hospital, I reminded myself, it is almost impossible to find your way around, and difficult to locate the Exit when you leave.

I suppose we are all a bit anxious about skulls. I remember the point in my childhood, if not the exact age, when I suddenly realised I had a skull inside my head, and that was what was keeping my brains in. It worried me. And then I started looking at Mum and Dad, and Nan and Grandad and everyone. They’ve all got skulls inside their heads! They’ve all got squidgy brains inside them!

It’s just one part of the vertebrate skeleton, but there’s a certain fascination, isn’t there? Why do skulls appear everywhere at Halloween? I guess we like to be frightened, but not too much. Presumably in imagination we superimpose the living face over the dead bone, and we don’t only do this for our contemporaries. Isn’t it fascinating to come face to face with a real Neanderthal, modelled from an ancient skull?

neanderthal

I was writing about paintings of St Jerome yesterday, and how he is surrounded by his own particular ‘iconography’ – red clothing, book, writing materials, and sometimes eyeglasses. This morning it occurred to me that I hadn’t said anything about the skull, which he always has. Was it the same little whisper of anxiety that made me delete the skull emoticon from my Contacts?

Skulls appear all over art, particularly medieval and renaissance art. In those days, life was, from our perspective, unimaginably short. A man from a landowning family in the Middle Ages had an average lifespan of 31.3 years. This is taking into account an infant mortality of 12% or thereabouts. Even in the Renaissance, say late 16th and early 17th century, the average lifespan was 39.7 years. Not long to win your passage into Heaven, and not long to avoid the terrifying actuality of Hell. So paintings of the time showed the skull, to remind people that they must focus on spiritual matters.

aston

Sir Thomas Aston at his Wife’s Deathbed

All this is a bit creepy, Halloween or no. However, in paintings of St Jerome the skull has a more nuanced meaning. The skull is the seat of thought and of spiritual perfection. The death of the physical body, symbolised by the skull, enabled one to be reborn at a higher level, where the spirit could rule. In St Jerome’s case – he was known for his translation of the Bible from Greek into Latin, and for his many Commentaries on the books of the Bible, and he is often depicted as a very old man with an angel, or occasionally a dove, whispering in his ear. The skull in paintings of Jerome, therefore, indicates that he is writing down truths from the spiritual world, even as his physical body fails him.

I don’t know whether you like Halloween? I personally don’t, mainly because, in this country anyway, it has become so tawdry and ridiculous. I live on my own and don’t like the prospect of four large teenage boys wearing masks knocking on my door at eight o’clock at night demanding – anything. Trick or Treat seems to me just a disguised form of blackmail, an implied threat. I also think it’s plain stupid, in this day and age, for smaller children to be sent out after dark to knock on strangers’ doors, with no knowledge of who or what might be waiting to open that door to them.

I prefer the pre-Christian festival of Samhain (sow-rin) or All Hallows. In Celtic times, after Harvest, it was customary to mark the arrival of ‘the dark half of the year’. People lit bonfires and wore costumes to frighten away ghosts, for it was believed that on All Hallows Eve, and at this time of year generally, barriers between Earth and the Other World became thin. The Living and the Dead might interact: there would be ghoulies and ghosties about.

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggety beasties
And thing that go bump in the night
Good Lord, deliver us.

Memento Mori

My sister sent me an email, advising me that she had moved Mum into her new Home. So far so predictable but at the foot of the email was one of those little grey paperclip things and hidden behind the little grey paperclip thing a disconcerting photo, of my mother peacefully asleep in her new bed, in her new room, and my sister with her hand resting on Mum’s forehead being photographed by – whom? Godmother and I agreed, there was something spooky, even gruesome about it.

It’s not that I do not know what my mother looks like now, in her 87th year and suffering from dementia; how her face has thinned and yellowed and her smile has gone. I saw her only last weekend after all. I fed her a belated Christmas Dinner and wrote a post about it. It’s worse than that. It’s two things:

Firstly (my sister couldn’t have known this, but if she had it wouldn’t have stopped her) it reminded me so much of the painting on the cover of one of my old paperbacks of metaphysical poetry. It’s a mourning painting. Sir Thomas’s fine white hand beneath a frill of stiff white lace, rests on a skull. People are ranged around in their best-black-and-lace, looking mournful but resigned. The deceasing lady is propped up on many pillows, only her head and shoulders visible. And unfortunately, my sister had managed to mirror that exact pose in her smartphone snap.

Secondly, it reminded me of all those wildlife programmes where a vulture inspects the corpse of some recently slaughtered elephant or wildebeest – avidly, thoughtfully – as if debating whether a sprinkling of salt and pepper, or maybe a handful or two of chives might be a good idea.

The fact that associations like this are made my mind is shocking, even to me. Why do I – why even can I think such things? Couldn’t I switch off this poeticising, or in this case anti-poeticising, facility when appropriate? The answer is no. This sort of brain doesn’t switch off; there’s no editing what goes into it, no stopping it from ‘seeing’. And what it has seen can never subsequently be forgotten. It’s what makes people like me able to write. It’s what forces us to write, to exorcise what we cannot but see and know. It’s what makes living difficult.

Whilst on the subject of death (might as well get it all over in one post!) I am reminded of those roadside floral tributes, and my parents’ attitude towards them; also to funerals.

My mother in particular despised those bunches of flowers people nowadays tend to sticky-tape to lamp-posts or thread through the links of chain-link fences at the exact spot where a close relative had died. She hated how the flowers were renewed, month after month, year after year, “littering up the place”. What she really hated, I think, was the naked expression of grief. To my parents a death meant a cremation, as soon as possible. It meant a funeral service in a modern chapel with no embarrassing tears or screams of anguish, as characterless and forgettable as possible. After that, that was that, done with. The person, done with. Rarely mentioned again.

I like the flowers. I sometimes walk along the seafront passing all those memorial benches people have donated, and stop to read how Gerry loved to play the guitar or how Sid the taxi-driver is now driving the angels around in heaven, in a shiny white taxi. I love the bunches of flowers and imagine the relatives coming here, with a fresh bunch and a fresh card, and having a little chat with Gerry or Sid.

I like graveyards; when I worked in an office I used to eat my lunchtime sandwiches in one. On a sunny, summer’s day there is less to be afraid of in a graveyard than in the whole of the rest of the world. The dead enjoy your company. They appreciate a little chat every now and again. And did you know that you can talk to any dead person in any graveyard? They will always make themselves available even if what remains of their bodies is on the other side of the country.

I always found this sanitised modern death difficult. I longed for great black Victorian hearses, pulled by black horses and festooned in black lace. Brought up in the lowest possible church, and that most conformist of social groups the upper working class, my instincts are entirely Catholic and Gothic. I need those swinging censers, the trails of incense, the solemn faces, the cascades of tears, the wailing and the beating of breasts. I need the man with the black hat walking in front of the coffin with his mace and his black-crêpe streamers.

And I need a place to go to be with that person. I do understand the allure of the exact spot where someone died. I know that the lost one may still in a sense be there, exactly there.  Magical thinking, of course, but I know that where they went up they may, in a sense also, if earnestly implored, and if they choose, come down. Their ghost is anchored there. This is their own place, their little ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’ as that poem puts it.

Let us not deprive people of their magic, if magic is what they need to process the horror and the loss. Let’s not sanitise it all and cut out the ritual, if ritual is what people crave. My parents would have said – but the dead person isn’t there any longer – what’s the point of going to all that expense and – more importantly from an upper working class perspective – making all that unnecessary and embarrassing fuss and show – showing off like that?

But rituals are not intended for the dead, they are for the healing of the living.

Featured Image: Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his First Wife: John Slouch

Time and Motion

I’ve noticed more and more as time goes by – the past materialising and dematerialising. On every street corner, in shops long unvisited and parks half-forgotten, driving late at night or in the brightest sunlight – ghosts are starting to appear.

It’s a function of growing older. The world – or at least our world – is not that big, and we pass and repass over the same territory. There used to be a time-and-motion study for housewives, I remember. The housewife had some kind of light bulb attached and her movements – from fridge to cooker, from cooker to sink etcetera – were recorded as a trail of light. I believe that’s how cooker-sink-fridge came to be known as the kitchen work triangle. In idle moments wondered what the entire track my life would look like if I had had a lightbulb attached. What a job that would be to untangle!

Today I drove past a street corner in the same town I chugged through very slowly on the train yesterday. It’s a grimy, unremarkable corner opposite a kind of mini traffic island, and looking out onto a sea of moving cars is small, shabby taxi-cab office. It was a small, shabby taxi-cab office in 1971 too, and outside it I suddenly see me and Clive, leaning against the even-then flaking paintwork, kissing. We were at college together and rambled down through the back streets every afternoon , I to wait for a bus (outside the taxi office) and he to catch a train to the seaside. He was the only handsome man I ever went out with – dark, dapper, beautiful – and I knew, of course, that he was not for me. Indeed, he was engaged to a girl called Jean back home at the seaside, but that didn’t seem to bother either of us.

We snogged, desultorily, every evening until my bus arrived. I don’t think he even found me particularly attractive but we were together, temporarily, we were friends and I was willing, so he felt he might as well. Young people did that sort of thing in those days. Probably still do.

But it isn’t just Clive. I walk along the street I grew up on. Now I am looking down at my feet, watching out for the dropped kerbs with which it is now infested, though not quite as careful as my Mum, who was convinced she was going to fall over at any minute. But at the same time the child ‘me’ is running along the street. I pass her sometimes, sat on the edge of the pavement, her feet in the road. It has recently rained (so her dress will be getting wet, but she won’t notice) and she is watching twigs careering down the gutter towards the drain.

In two days time I will drive down the lane we lived in when we were married. I will no doubt be surprised at how much the house has changed since either of us was in it. I will remember the cat buried under the blue hydrangea. Unless they’ve dug them up – the bush, the cat, or both. I will remember how you cried for that little cat – the only time I ever saw you cry about anything. I will remember trying to take your arm, another day, and how you shook me off after a few paces, embarrassed even to be touched. I will remember hurrying down that lane to meet my lover, and how my heart was beating and the blood rushing in my ears.

As I get older I sometimes get inklings of the pattern behind things. That sounds so pretentious – and I really don’t like the word inklings – and it’s only for split seconds; nothing ever sticks. I don’t think any of us are ever allowed to discover the meaning of life – but as we progress we get these little glimpses, so that we know there might be a meaning. Sometimes it has seemed to me like a carpet we are weaving, with a pattern we can’t see because we are too close. But at the end – of each individual life, maybe, we get to see the overall pattern.

But recently – since I have been blogging (in earnest) in fact – I have begun to think that it’s more intricate and complicated even than that. It’s like the past and the present are not separated as we imagine, but linked one to the other at many points – linked and interlinked. And maybe I mean that the past – all the pasts – and the present – all the presents – exist in one plane. It is only made to seem that ‘the past is another country’. So, a life is more like a blog long worked on, and richly, richly supplied with links – links between past and present and here and there, and her and me, but also links with other people’s pasts and presents, their heres and theres.

And then I wonder, if I’m a character in the blog that is my life – who – or what version of me – is doing the blogging? What giant hands are hammering out each fresh instalment of my life at 80 wpm?

Visiting Granny Harrison: a ghost story

Nan is always doing things behind Mum’s back. She’s frightened of Mum because she’s naughty. Mum’s never naughty; she doesn’t smoke Players cigarettes from a silver case and doesn’t drink Emva Cream sherry in the mornings, and she doesn’t sing though sometimes she whistles Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag because Dad taught it to her and In A Monastery Garden which is on her Ronnie Ronalde whistling record, which I do not like the sound of at all and will not walk with her when she’s doing. Nan likes to sing, especially after her Emva Cream sherry. She sings I Like You Very Much which is by Carmen Miranda, a lady who wears a lot of fruit on her head; and Chase Me, Charlie which is about a lady who loses the leg of her drawers. Nan says drawers is the old word for knickers. She says knickers used to be pink and have legs right down to your knees, and you drew them up around your waist with a tape, which is why they were called drawers. I asked her once how the lady managed to lose a leg of them, and she said it was all Charlie’s fault.

carmen miranda 2.png

So it does not surprise me when Nan takes me up to have a chat with Granny Harrison in Saint Margaret’s graveyard instead of popping in at the Co-op to get Cream of Tartar and a couple of ounces of tea like she told Mum. Granny Harrison is Nan’s Mum, who died before I was born. I think it was when one of the Wars was on. I don’t know which one.

It is the middle of August and the sun beats down hard on the top of my head. It’s a long, uphill walk from Gallipoli Street to Saint Margaret’s. Grit has got inside my sandals, and it’s like walking on broken bits of eggshell. I want to empty them out and brush off the soles of my feet but once glance at Nan’s hurrying back makes me think again. She doesn’t want to stop. So I hobble along behind her and look forward to the overgrown churchyard grass and a chance to sit down and sort myself out.

The gate is old, wrought-iron and rusty. Luckily someone has fastened it back with hairy string. Saint Margaret’s is scary, its flint-made walls rise up in front of me, like Kevan the bully on the way home from school. I have to lean right back to see even a little bit of blue sky. Four uneven stone steps, a few paving stones spotted with confetti from last Saturday’s wedding, and then that big, chilly porch, so dark you can hardly see the side-benches and the black, studded door hidden inside. We tiptoe round the outside wall and into the graveyard, past the cupboard-in-the-wall where the vicar, according to Nan, keeps his watering can and spades. What she probably means is the gravedigger. Hard to imagine hollow-cheeked, hook-nosed Reverend Aldrich personally mowing, watering flowers or digging great holes in the ground.

I sit on a gravestone to sort out my sandals while Nan meanders around the gravestones, peering through mossy coverings, her lips moving as she reads one weather-worn inscription after another. I thought she would have known straight away where Granny Harrison was buried, that she would have been coming up here once a week, or once a month like the other village women to change the yellow water in the special vase and arrange fresh flowers through the metal holey bits. Like the old lady with the crooked back I now see over the way, pulling up fire-weeds and throwing them onto the heap by the stone wall. Gently, almost apologetically, she tugs at them, but they give way to her easily. Fire-weed, of course, doesn’t have much of a root. Nan tells me it’s called fire-weed because it flourishes in bomb craters, and the cooks-and-grannys in walls, between the pavement-stones. Nan hasn’t thought to bring new flowers for Granny Harrison, although there is a vase on the grave; Carmen Miranda seems to have deserted her today, as she sometimes does.

Mum says Nan suffers from very-sadness every once in a while. That’s why she goes away on the bus and we can’t go and see her. She goes to a big house called Sighlong, a long way away in the middle of a park with statues. It’s where the very-sad people go, and the people who believe they might be Jesus or Napoleon and march about wearing three-cornered hats, Mum says. And then she comes back and nobody talks to her about how she got on at Sighlong. She carries on as if she’s never been away and after a while Carmen Miranda comes back, and so do the Players Navy Cut and the Emva Cream, and Nan dances around the cherry tree in the garden with cherries draped over her ears singing eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-like-you-very-much- eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-think-you’re-grand and has no more screamy-nightmares for a while.

‘Here she is’. Nan beckons me over. We both kneel down in front of Granny Harrison’s grave, which is very overgrown and has stinging-nettles. It’s only a little gravestone, almost like the ones children have. Nan and I read the inscription together. It’s short.

  • MARY MAUDE HARRISON
  • Wife of Henry James Marten Harrison
  • 1841 – 1916
  • Resting

‘What does resting mean?’ I ask. ‘Isn’t she dead?’

‘It means she’s resting in the ground till the Last Trump,’ says Nan. ‘When the Last Trump sounds they all rise up, brush the earth and leaves and… worms and what-not off their Sunday clothes and walk towards the light.’

‘What light?’

‘There’s supposed to be a light. There’s supposed to be one, but I don’t know…’

I know not to ask any more because Nan is crying.

The old lady from over the way straightens up. It looks a bit painful, she has been bending for so long. I notice she has a veil, and black gloves. A wilting fire-weed dangles from one of them. She lets it fall, watching Nan carefully.

I want to help, but I don’t know what to do.

‘Shall I go and fetch a trowel, Nan? I expect the Vicar keeps one in his cupboard. We could do some weeding together.’

Nan doesn’t answer. Her head is bowed and her shoulders are shaking. I retreat to a safe distance, perch on a gravestone and wait, and it’s then that the old lady comes over. In fact I don’t see her come over. She’s just here. She puts one hand on Nan’s shoulder, and then rests the other one gently on the top of her head, just for a minute. Nan doesn’t seem to feel it.

And then the lady turns and walks away and I notice something quite funny. Under the lady’s stiff black jacket, with its buttons and black embroidery, her blouse is hanging out at the back, just a little, as if as if she left home in a hurry and forgot to tuck it into her the waistband of her long black skirt. It looks kind of silly, but I know I mustn’t laugh. It’s a very serious occasion.

Nan dries her tears and when we get back to my house Nan goes in for a cuppa with Mum. And Mum asks here where she has put the two ounces of tea and, come to that, the Cream of Tartar.

Nan looks at me, panic-stricken.

‘We went to the Rec and played on the swings,’ I say. The lie slides out of my mouth without my even needing to invent it.

‘It was so nice and sunny that we didn’t feel much like buying Cream of Tartar after all…’

Mum gives me one of her Looks.

‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I could swear you two are twins.’

‘How could we be…?’

Mum gives me another one of her Looks.

Mum and Nan make a pot of tea and carry it out on a tray, with two cups and two saucers and a glass of Barley Water for me; and they sit telling stories of olden times on two of the kitchen table chairs in the sunshine on the lawnwhile I sit at their feet making daisy-chains. I tend not to listen when they’re doing stuff like that. Or rather I do, but I’m listening to other things as well, like the bees buzzing, and the clouds whooshing by overhead. Clouds make a sound, you see, but nobody much seems to hear them. And I look at things like red ants mountaineering in the grass. And I wonder if I could get to Australia if I dug for a hundred years, and whether I would meet a Bunyip there so we could sit side by side on a log, biting our nails, and the grown-ups’ stories just wind in and out of my ears, like music. And Nan is telling Mum a story she already knows about Granny Harrison in the olden days. This is the story after the one about the favourite chicken that Granny Harrison killed by accident in the kitchen with her besom-broom and criedandcriedandcried. This is the one about the Sunday they all went to church, Granny Harrison, Nan and all her thirteen brothers and sisters, and they were walking down the aisle behind her to their own particular Harrison pew, and Auntie May noticed Granny’s shirt was hanging out at the back, and they all tried not to giggle but couldn’t help it, and Granny Harrison turned round with a face like thunder and…

All things which live below the sky

I never really thought about light pollution until I started to think about ghosts. It just occurred to me: if all the unnecessary light we generate nowadays hinders astronomers in their exploration of the heavens, might it not also hinder ghosts in their…manifestations? I mean, maybe they’re all around us but we can no longer see them because the shadows have gone, there are no dark corners.

Just out of interest I looked up photo pollution. It had never occurred to me that our man-made high light levels may be affecting things like our health, ecosystems and the life-cycles of animals, and may also be having subtler and as yet unknown effects. Spooky.

Digression/connection/synchronous occurrence:

A magpie has just landed on a telegraph wire right outside my window. There it sits – gosh, it’s huge – you never get to see magpies that close up normally – waggling about like a high-wire walker trying to keep its balance. Do you think birds could be coming closer? Yesterday I stepped out into my garden to collect the washing; perched on the clothes-airer, atop my washing but not as yet polluting it, was a huge pigeon and it didn’t fly away. I walked right up to it and asked it if it was OK. It continued to sit there for a moment or two, eye to eye, before flapping away in slow motion. Do you think this could mean something? I just keep thinking of birds being harbingers of death. All those folk-tales about birds coming to carry off the soul of the about-to-be-departed. Bear with me and I’ll look that up in Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. Oooh…yes:

Many old highland families had particular death omens that came to them in the shape of a bird of unidentifiable species; at the moment of death, it was alleged to scream horribly. The bird was called an t-eun bàis. A similar bird, the tamhusg, appeared to people in parts of the Island of Skye. On Barra there is still a tradition of a huge, white-speckled bird whose nightly screeching is a sure sign of approaching evil or bad luck.

But then, the birds I saw weren’t unidentifiable. I mean, clearly they were a pigeon and a magpie. But there’s something else – something from a long way back, connected with The Garden by Andrew Marvell…

  • Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
  • Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,
  • Casting the body’s vest aside,
  • My soul into the boughs does glide;
  • There like a bird it sits and sings,
  • Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
  • And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
  • Waves in its plumes the various light.

So the soul, releasing itself from the poet’s body, perches in the trees like a bird.

But there’s a superstition, earlier than that…robins!

The robin was said to have tried to remove the thorns from Christ’s head during the crucifixion, injuring itself in the process. A drop of Christ’s blood fell on the bird and that was how it got its red breast. The red breast was also said to have come from robin having flown water into Hell for the burning sinners. The hand that kills a robin will shake thereafter. If you own a cow, the milk will become blood-coloured. If you break robin’s eggs something valuable of your own will be broken. Whatever harm you do to a robin, some equivalent harm is bound to happen to you. A robin flying in through an open window or tapping on the window is a sign of death being present. Strangely enough, I remember Ex rescuing a robin. He passed the house of a woman who didn’t much care for animals. She was sitting in her window-seat, talking on the telephone. Inside her house a robin was trapped, flying around in a panic, banging against the window pane right in front of her in its attempts to escape, while she ignored it. Ex being Ex – uninterested in humans but valiant in defence of the meanest of sparrows* – he marched into her house via the open front door and slammed open the sash window, while she was still talking, to let the bird out. And a year or so later she was dead, I can’t remember what of.

  • A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
  • Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
  • Auguries of Innocence: William Blake

He also told me once that in his family a bird singing insistently outside a sick person’s window was taken for a sign that they were not long for this world.

How far we are wandering from ghosts and yet…not.

I wrote a couple of posts about doppelgangers (or doppelgänger) a while back, but I just learned something new, and that is why it is so bad to catch sight of your double. It seems the doppelganger, like the poltergeist, is another example of the ghost-that-is-not-a-ghost. Whereas the poltergeist is thought to be some kind of energy released by adolescents, the doppelganger is a form of fetch or wraith. It appears only once to its twin (you) before engulfing them (you) in the final embrace of death.

But what of classical ghosts – apparitions, real or imaginary, that are in some way connected with the souls of the departed? More to follow, dragons’ teeth permitting.

  • *Beneath his heaven there’s room for all;
  • he gives to all their meat;
  • he sees the meanest sparrow fall
  • unnoticed in the street.
  • All Things Which Live Below The Sky: Edward John Brailsford (1841-1921)

IN OUR STRONGROOMS FOR SAFE KEEPING

THAT’S what we put in our letters. It’s a standard phrase. ‘Your documents will be held in our strongrooms for safe keeping.’ ‘Our strongrooms’ conjures up – as of course it is meant to – images of metal vaults, great clanging doors, time-locks, electronic keypads, uniformed security guards and maybe an alsatian or two. The reality is rather different. Your documents are held in our cellars or in one of three old sheds whose roofs are corrugated iron, whose walls are a haven for spiders and whose floors are thickly carpeted with broken elastic bands. In winter the sheds are silent and smell of dust. In summer the heat of midday draws out the smell of perished rubber and there is a faint scrabbling of birds, insects or mice.

There’s another misleading phrase. Between ourselves we refer to files as ‘gone away’. For most other firms ‘gone away’ actually means gone away. It means the file has been despatched to some distant storage facility and will be sent for if required. But for us a ‘gone away’ file is actually still in our strongrooms, ie our cellars or sheds. Secretaries from rival firms, most of whom have worked for us at some time or other in the past, as we in turn have worked for them, are sympathetic. ‘Still having to go downstairs?’

We are not exactly deceiving you when we write ‘in our strongrooms’. Your documents are safe. The files, which appear to be haphazardly stacked on wooden shelving around the walls of the ten or so separate, low-ceilinged rooms which constitute our cellars, are actually fairly systematically arranged, and indeed it is the sole job of a succession of grumpy old gentlemen to maintain them. The covers of the files may be torn, their labels faded; they may be held together only by those ubiquitous elastic bands, but the cellars are dry, and locked and bolted at night-time. And no burglar in his right mind would venture down those uneven stone steps to enter that musty subterranean darkness.

The little rooms in our cellars have different purposes. They are like a maze – one room leading off from another. It takes months to learn your way around them, for they represent several different, interrelated filing systems – a system for filing your ‘dead’ files, another for filing your will, and yet another for filing your probate when the times come for you to be painlessly translated – from the kind of client who is to be invoiced at regular intervals into the kind of client whose executors or distant descendants are to be invoiced in your stead.

There are amongst the probates boxes and chests of various shapes and sizes. They are never opened but are said to contain belongings – the ledgers of some long-defunct business, maybe, or a deer’s head complete with antlers; a collection of black hats and umbrellas – stored with us by long-since translated clients and never reclaimed. Two rooms are devoted to Scrip. Scrip is the really valuable stuff. It is your share certificates or the deeds and documents relating to your houses, your lands, your farms, your business partnerships. Each system has its own set of filing boxes or rotating files or ancient metal filing cabinets, where you will be listed alphabetically. Probably.

All of the rooms are in darkness if you happen to be the first one down there in the morning. All of them have light switches on the inside so that you have to feel around for them whilst who knows what hairy hand might be feeling around for your hand. But each of us has a least favourite room. Mine is the air-raid shelter – a long, blind tunnel so narrowed by the files stacked from floor to ceiling on either side that there is scarcely room to turn. The shelter is angled in the middle so that from the door you can’t see the far end. And at the far end you can’t see the door. The files are arranged in number order down the left hand wall to the blind white wall at the end, and then up the right-hand wall, so unless you are very lucky the one you need is going to be down at the blind end. It seems to take forever to get to the end, and even longer to get back to the door. The door itself bristles with locks and bolts, and the various keys hang on numbered hooks outside the door so that at any time someone with a grudge could come along and lock you in. It is not a good place to be. Cold, even in the middle of summer. And it has a strange smell, though what of, exactly, is hard to say. And it is inhabited. Something, or maybe more than one something, resides in that tunnel.

It is the secretaries’ job to come down here and find things, but occasionally one of the Partners can also be found, dusty and intent, perched at the top of a set of wooden steps, ‘perusing’. When I first joined the firm all the Partners seemed so weird, so solemn, beaky and birdlike, that I had this fantasy. Down in the cellar I would one day discover, hidden behind a door perhaps or in one of the darkest and least accessible rooms, a row of hooks, each strong enough to take the weight of a skinny human being. It was there, at the end of each working day, that the Partners would suspended themselves, upside-down, folding away their metaphorical wings to await the dawn when they would flitter upstairs to their offices and begin all over again.

Occasionally, also, one bumps into the handyman, who was once a roadie for a famous guitarist. He mostly confines himself to his headquarters in Shed 3 where the oldest and least sought-after files are kept. Here there is a paint-splattered bench and an old chair with the stuffing hanging out. Here, amongst miscellaneous chisels and tubes of glue, he can drink his soup-in-a-cup, read the magazines his wife won’t let him have at home, smoke the occasional unusual cigarette and generally be at peace with the world.

Lastly there is the ghost – the usual white lady, though some say grey – who walks the cellars at ten past two every day. They say even if you don’t see her you can sometimes hear her footsteps tripping along behind you. I have never seen her and I don’t want to. I simply never go down there between lunch at least three, in case she’s running late.

I have often pondered in that semi-intellectual, semi-philosophical kind of way that you do over your afternoon tea, what the cellars actually signify. Having read some Jung I seem to recall that in dreams cellars and basements represent the subconscious, those things about ourselves that we would rather not know. And the cellars may be the equivalent of a subconscious mind for our firm. Here is kept the very raw material of our craft – the stuff we deal in but never can admit we deal in – time and death. Over time, our clients change. They arrange their business affairs, divorce one another or take one another to court for a variety of sins and omissions and we are careful not to remind them – or ourselves, of course – of the triviality and passingness of such matters in the larger scale of things. They make their wills, they are translated, years pass, centuries pass, but their paperwork – all that remains of their lives – remains with us. In our strongrooms for safe-keeping.

Partners succeed one another too, but only very slowly, and previous Partners are referred to sotto voce, as if they might overhear. They stretch back over the years – thin men, rotund men, men in black suits, in wing-collars, in wigs; eccentric men, garrulous men, deadly serious men, men of business, men who were once ‘somebody’ in this most provincial of provincial towns.

The retired but untranslated ones occasionally telephone from their cottages in the country to ask how their shares are doing, or to complain about the wastage of paper since we have been using these new-fangled computers, or to demand that next time we write to them we sent them a stamped, addressed envelope for their reply, or simply to ask the address of Battersea Dogs’ Home. The translated ones stare down at us from their portraits on the wall or from gilt-lettered name boards; they leap out at us as the signatories of old documents, as Executors and Trustees, with all their middle names listed and learned by heart by secretary after secretary. We can never forget them. They are stored – after a fashion – just as you are stored – in our strongrooms for safe keeping.