A Modern Ghost Story
‘You’re going to stay with Nana and Grandad. Just for a little while.’
My mother came into the room with a letter in her hand. I recognised Nana’s writing from the birthday cards she had sent. ‘Betsy, with love from Nana Lizzie and Grandad Joe.’ That’s what she always put.
Nana and Grandad lived in Birmingham and they didn’t have a telephone, so everything was done in letters.
Mum put an arm round me. ‘Do you mind, Betsy? ‘I have to go to London for a few days. I’m afraid there won’t be anyone for you to play with at Nana and Grandad’s.’
I didn’t really mind going away. I knew something had been going on at home. There’d been a lot of upsets with Dad, and Mum and I had been on our own for a bit. I was a passive child, looking out at the world, not questioning it. Besides, I was willing to go and stay in a new place – we had moved around such a lot, it didn’t seem much to go to Nana’s. So I was quite content to be collected by Nana Lizzie and taken on the train, and then on a tram, to their house in a terraced row down the road from a brass factory.
The front room had armchairs with brown velvet cushions all puffy and dented. Nana opened the door and called to Grandad who was flopped in a chair. He knocked out his pipe in a brass ashtray, gave me a smoky kiss and took my suitcase up the stairs for me. The room I was to sleep in looked out over the back yard. It was dark then, and pale brown curtains were drawn across the window. They were fluttering, so Grandad went across and pulled the window shut.
‘Let’s go down for a cup of tea,’ he said.
The kitchen was at the back, with a high white sink and a wooden draining-board. With my tea they gave me bread and marg with plum jam, which I had never had before, but I was feeling very sleepy by then and didn’t really bother about it. Nana took me upstairs to my room and put me into the narrow little bed. ‘Keep the curtains drawn,’ she said.
When I woke up in the morning, the sun was streaming in a creamy fawn light through the curtains. I jumped out of bed and pulled them back. Outside lay a big yard, with the backs of other houses arranged around it. I thought I must be the first in all those houses to wake up, because everybody else still had their curtains drawn across.
There was something dark and shiny standing at the back of the yard, about my own height, that is, the height of an eight-year old child. I had never seen anything like that thing before and after breakfast, when Nana said, ‘You can get out from under my feet and go and play in the yard now, but don’t go near the pump,’ I just repeated ‘pump?’, not knowing what that meant. Grandad Joe said, ‘They don’t know such a thing anymore, Lizzie. ‘ He turned to me. ‘That thing in the yard – that’s the pump. It was where they drew the water, before we had the pipes and the sink and all.’ He stopped to light his pipe.
‘What , all those houses around?’ I said, trying to understand. How did you get your water if you didn’t turn a tap on? ‘They didn’t have taps?’’
‘That’s right,’ said Nana. ‘Everybody had to go to that pump to get water. You pulled the handle and the water came out.’
‘Every time you needed water?’
‘Yes.’ She imitated me. It was a bit of a cruel way she had. ‘Evewy. But you’re not to touch it, understand? Mind, now. It doesn’t work anymore, at any rate. There’s no water there now.’
There weren’t many people left, either. The old slum houses were being torn down. ‘They’ve moved to Perry Hill, mostly’, said Grandad.
Perry Hill was the big new block of flats built on the outskirts of the city.
‘Lovely out there, it is,’ said Nana. ‘They’ve all got bathrooms – and kitchens! You should see the kitchens! Everything fitted, new sinks and all. ’They’ve taken the families already.’
Nana and Grandad would be among the last to be moved. They had no children to be placed in new schools and anyway they had asked to stay as long as they could.
It rained that first day, so I didn’t go out in the yard at all. When I went up to bed, Nana Lizzie came with me and went into the room ahead of me. ‘Stay outside a moment,’ she said. I heard the swish of the curtains being drawn across the window.
‘You keep them curtains closed,’ she said. ‘All night long. Till I come in the morning. Do you hear?’
That was one of the peculiar questions of grown-ups, that you’re not meant to answer. It’s really just telling you to do something.
I woke up suddenly, and for the moment couldn’t think where I was. Then the strangeness of the room fell into place as I looked around. There was a pale sunshine filtering through the curtains and flickering on the walls like tea with milk dancing in a cup, but it wasn’t the light that had woken me. I heard it again, the sound that had come when my eyes were still closed, a bit like a door groaning, but with the sort of screech you got from running something sharp on a piece of metal, like the boys at school did sometimes just to be annoying, and we girls would all put our fingers in our ears and jump and shriek. Only not really frightened, of course. Not by that.
The sound came from outside. I went across to the window and pulled back the curtains. The yard stood was surrounded by windows, mostly boarded up, the windows of houses where the people had moved away already. No-one seemed to be stirring.
But someone was there. Beside the pump stood a small girl wearing a light coloured dress, or perhaps a petticoat, for it was a skimpy thing that showed her thin arms and her legs, which looked dirty, as did her bare feet. Her head was turned to one side so that I could not see her face. She held a tin bucket in one hand and the other was fastened on to the rusting old pump. As I watched, she pulled the pump- handle down, and it moved with a slow, stiff movement, producing the creaking screech that had woken me up.
I pushed up the window and called as softly as I could, ‘It doesn’t work. There’s no water now.’
A bright streak of water splashed into the yard, a thin stream flowing into the bucket as the girl moved it closer to the mouth of the pump. Did I hear or imagine the sound it made against the tin? But she had turned her face towards me, and it was a strange colour, a kind of bluey-grey. Her eyes, staring out of great hollows, looking up directly at me.
‘Come down.’ The voice was a whisper, yet I heard it plain.
‘Come down and play with me. Aren’t you thirsty?’
And yes, my mouth seemed to have dried up and I wanted nothing more than a sip of that clear water running down beside her, I would have given anything just to drink it, even if I had to lap it from the palm of my hand, Or from her hand, as she held it out beneath the stream of water which ran over her palm, sparkling and splashing to the cobbles.
Scared, yet feeling something pulling me to the girl in the yard, something I felt as a kind of band , like a big sash or ribbon tight round my chest, crushing, making me gasp for breath, yet at the same time pulling, so that I might have moved, but Nana came into the room a few moments later and cried out as she seemed to charge across the room towards me.
‘What are you doing, out of bed? I told you not to draw back the curtains,’ she said as she grasped me and held me tight, pulling my shaking body against her. ‘There, there, now there’s no cause for this.’
Yet there was. I knew it, and I sensed Nana knew it too, but she would never admit it, in that way grown-ups have of not letting you tell the truth when they don’t want to hear it. I had been frightened by the girl, scarcely knowing why, yet there had been something else there as well, some kind of fascination in that thin little face that had looked up eagerly when I called from the window.
When granddad came to the foot of the stairs he looked up at Nana with his thick white eyebrows raised as if he wanted her to tell him something, and yet he did not speak, as if he knew the answer already.
Nana was saying, ‘Good job I heard her moving about and went into the room. She was having a bad dream, is all.’
I began, ‘There was a little girl. Outside. At the …’
But before I had finished I could tell by their faces what the response would be. ‘No , love, there was nothing there,’ said Grandad. ‘Nothing at all.’
But how could he know? Had he been looking out into the yard?
As if he understood, he took my hand and opened the back door. ‘See!’ he said. ‘There’s no-one there!’
The yard was empty, silent in the early morning, but here and there a face appeared at a window of a still-occupied house. All ordinary faces, grown-ups, all old, like Nana and Grandad. ‘There now, you’ve woken people up,’ said Nana crossly, but the very crossness in her voice made things seem normal again.
I let go of Grandad’s hand and walked across the yard, peering down at the ground where the bucket had stood, where some of the stream of water had just missed going into it. It was all quite dry, no splashes, not even a drop. I put my hand on the brown metal, blistered and furrowed with rust so that it was like the creased leathery skin of some animal. It was warm to the touch.
I took hold of the handle and pulled it down with all my strength. It didn’t move.
‘Stuck fast. Rusted solid,’ said Grandad. ‘There, you see. You imagined it.’
The next night, Nana went ahead of me into the bedroom and drew the curtains straight away. ‘Now you leave them like that in the morning,’ she said to me. ‘We don’t want any of your fancies again, do we? Don’t go into the yard tomorrow, love, eh?’’
There were no sounds from the yard the following morning, nor the next and I stopped saying the little prayer I had made up specially for when Nana shut the door of the room.
But then the following morning it came again, that steady, slow screeching sound . And I could hear the splashing too.
Then I heard a soft voice calling from outside, almost singing, ‘Come on, come into the yard and wash tha face, tha dirty little tyke!‘
There was something in the voice that conveyed laughter, larking around, maybe even hopscotch. And I was a lonely child then: however strange the little creature in the yard, she was a child and perhaps knew games. She might be company for me, as Nana and Grandad were not, for they were in the world of grown-ups, speaking by different laws.
This time Grandad stood in the kitchen, barring the door to the yard.
'I heard her,’ I said, for I knew he was about to say I had imagined the girl.
‘No, it must have one of the kiddies in the other houses,’ he said. ‘Not from there.’ And he gestured outside.
But I kept on. I knew there must be something more, from the way Grandad was trying to turn me away from talking about it. And I wasn’t a stupid child.
‘I heard the pump creaking!’ I said. ‘It was in the yard!’
Nana Lizzie appeared behind me.
‘You naughty girl!’ she cried out, and there was an odd tone in her voice. Angry, yes, and I had never heard her that angry before, but almost as if she was afraid as well. ‘Telling lies like that!’
‘It wasn’t a lie,’ I protested indignantly, but I knew they were playing by grown-up rules and already had decided I was not to be believed.
I did hear them talking that night, though I wasn’t listening specially. I can honestly say that I knew it was wrong to listen to people’s private conversations. But the sound carried in that house, which I realise now was a flimsy business, one skin of brick thick, little more than a hut, really, the sort of rubbish housing that the Victorians thought good enough for their workers.
‘Should we take her back?’ That was Grandad. I was hurt, for why should they want to take me home like a parcel. But somehow I didn’t feel especially happy when Nana answered, ‘No, she must have dreamed it.’
‘Dreamed? But you know what happened out there.’
‘Don’t be daft! That were years ago! ‘
‘But she come before … she come that time …’
Here I was confused. Who was the ‘she?’ Did Grandad mean me? Or did he – and this gave me deeply unpleasant sensation in the top of my stomach, so I thought for a few minutes I might be sick – did he mean the girl in the yard? I closed my eyes, and with the sudden ease of childhood, fell asleep. The next I knew, it was morning and I did not draw back the curtains.
Grandad took me to Kenley Park the next day, I remember, with a packet of sandwiches and a bottle of Tizer, and he told me all the names of the flowers and took me on a boat on the little lake, the biggest thrill I had in my life so far: I remember the rippling water and the ducks that crowded round for bits of sandwiches and Grandad’s face with his drooping whiskers, making exaggerated groans as he pulled on the oars. I forgot all about the child in the yard, though when I went to bed that night I was somehow conscious of the pump out there as a presence, standing there silently in the dark, waiting, as I fancied. Waiting for what? For the little girl? For children to come to it and fetch water for their mothers, slopping out of pails and into pans and cups. And to stand underneath and splash it on their own faces, pour it into their upturned mouths, playing the little games children will play with water, wetting their clothes, being scolded.
The following morning I was awake early again. I didn’t dare pull the curtains back completely, in case Nana Lizzie came running in and caught me, but I opened them just a crack and put my head round. The yard stood in bright sunlight and the girl was again beside the pump. She smiled at me and I could see deep hollows in her face and the bones of her skinny little shoulders that stuck up out of her thin dress. She turned and pulled on the handle of the pump, and it moved, creaking again, and spewed out a thin stream into a tin cup, which she held out to me.
‘Come and have a drink. Tha mun be thirsty!’
And I was, and I remember this surprised me, the intensity of my thirst and how bright and fresh the water looked in her cup.
I felt like a little cat I had once seen when a boy held out a bit of fish and it caught the smell and crept closer and closer, yet fearful all the time. I stepped nearer, keeping just out of her reach.
‘Come on!’ she called, very softly, coaxing. ‘ I’ve got no-one to play with. They’ve all gone away.’
I took a step forward, already putting out my hand for the cup.
A strong smell came from the girl, and I saw as if it were a sharp warning in the sunlight that she had yellow flaking sores around her lips, yet my thirst seemed so strong that all I thought about was having a drink of that clear water. But there were things at my feet that stopped me reaching it, that lay in the way, and I looked down and saw they were other children.
They weren’t higgledy-piggledy: they lay in rows, almost neat lines, their arms and legs almost transparent, their faces that same dreadful colour as that of the little girl at the pump, and there was some sort of ooze running from them, something stinking and trickling over the yard.
And yet I was so desperate for a drink that I found I was stepping over them, treading on them, in them, even, feeling their soft limbs giving way, sticky under my bare feet. I recall even now my feelings of disgust with myself, the sense that I was doing something deeply wrong – for something inside me said that these poor children were to be pitied, yet nothing would stop me from getting a drink of that shining water into my parched mouth, so driven by thirst I was.
I had my hand around the cup when something knocked it out away and I heard Grandad’s voice right close to my ear shouting ‘No! That’s dirty! Don’t touch it!’ I saw the cup rolling away on the ground, leaving a wet trail across the ground. I remember wondering how it could be dirty water: it looked so clean, just like what ran out of the taps at home.
I can’t recollect any more of that stay at Grandad and Nana Lizzie’s, except for one thing. I think I was in bed for a bit, and my mother must have been sent for to take me home and I heard her and Nana having a row.
‘Why didn’t you tell me it was still going on? Why the hell didn’t you say something?’
‘Don’t you go for me ,’ shouted Nana, –We were doing our best.’
And then Grandad, trying to make peace, ‘We thought it were all over, love. All gone, a long time ago.’ Then he added softly, ‘Besides, we liked having the littl’un here. We miss having a kiddie around.’
‘Having my child here! She wanted to get my child! Like the others. ’
‘Hush,’ said Grandad. ‘Hush, the bairn’s maybe gone off now.’
Gone off to sleep? Was he talking about me?
At any rate, it seemed to silence them because no-one said anything more. I fell asleep.
I never asked about the little girl. Somehow I knew I wasn’t to mention it, that the grown-ups were going to pretend nothing had been there, beside that rusty old pump in the yard.
Grandad and Nana were moved to their new home soon after, a very nice ground-floor flat.
‘Good job, too,’ said my mother. ‘That was a nasty old place.’
‘I thought they were happy in that house.’
‘Oh, the house was all right,’ said my mother. ‘That was a cholera pump in the yard, though.’
‘A cholera pump?’ I had never heard the expression.
‘The water was spreading diseases in the old days. It was contaminated by sewage. ’
I felt a bit sick, remembering the wet cup the girl had held out to me.
My mother continued, ‘There were hundreds died in those houses that were getting their water from that pump. The water supply to the pump was cut off when they discovered that was the cause. But some children never did thrive there.’
There was an odd look in her face, as if she were seeing something in her mind.
‘But that must have been a long time ago,’ I said.
‘No, sometimes it happened even afterwards, even when they had tap water laid on in the houses around. The kiddies do much better now, away in the new flats. I don’t know why it should be, I’m sure. ‘
Then she looked at me, came over and stroked my hair and said suddenly and more passionately than I had ever heard her speak, ‘I shouldn’t have let you go there! ’
And then I added quickly, ‘Mum, why haven’t you got any brothers or sisters?’
How did I, as a child, know to ask that question at that particular moment? Surely not just because I’d always wanted an auntie or an uncle, like so many of the children in my school.
She answered me slowly, ‘I did have a brother, once. A very little boy.’
‘What happened to him?’
She looked at me and her mouth opened and then closed again as if had shut tight on something she was going to say. All she said was, ‘They sent me away.’
My mother never spoke another word on the subject.
How many children had been lured from the houses to taste the water in that bright little cup? Years later, when I went past the place in a bus, I looked out and saw that the entire area had been razed and a supermarket occupied the site. No housing. No child sleeps above that ground now.
Which is perhaps just as well.
© Jane Jakeman 2012