I hope you’ll forgive me for indulging in a bit of nostalgia this week. (Correction: a lot of nostalgia) But in my column, Ideas Store, in the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I am writing about the house I grew up in and how it inspired my sister and I to make up stories (usually involving ghosts). There wasn’t room on my page for the story itself so I’m setting it out below and including some more detail about the story behind the story and the farm where I spent most of my childhood.
The house was an old Manor House, parts of which dated back to the 16th century (picture below) and before you run away with the idea that I am one of the landed gentry, let me explain some of the house’s more recent history.
It was on a 350 acre farm in South Somerset, set in a stunning location which I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate at the time, mostly because it was in the middle of nowhere and at the top of a very steep hill. I had to push my bike up with an overflowing school satchel cutting in to my shoulders after a long school day which started with a 2 mile bike ride, a 10 mile bus ride and a 15 minute walk – and ended the other way around in the evening. (At least in the mornings the bike ride was downhill) But the bus journey gave me chance to catch up on my homework – and check out the boys from the Grammar School. (I went to an all girls school)
The farm and manor house was bought by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) back in the 1950s. The farm had the most up to date machinery money could buy (my dad was the farm mechanic and looked after it all) and the idea was to run a model farm to show the farmers how brilliant ICI fertiliser was and how they could improve their own farms by using it. It would probably have been cheaper to have taken out a few adverts in the Farmer and Stockbreeder, I would have thought – but what do I know?
So, the house, which I now see is a grade 2 listed building, was split up into four parts, one being the farm offices and the other three into dwellings for the farm workers. It was a beautiful house, with high ceilings, tall mullioned windows and acres of space. I am one of six children and we had moved from a very cramped cottage. I can still remember the joy of moving into that house and have vivid memories of my younger brothers riding a sit-on wooden train that Dad had made for them that first Christmas round and round the huge kitchen/living room.
I loved Henley (in spite of it being in the middle of nowhere) and was desperately sad when my parents finally moved out, even though by then I’d long since left home. My parents were still living there when I got married and we had our wedding reception in the farm’s Conference Room. And, as you can see below, one of our wedding pictures was photo-bombed by the ICI roundel!
There were six other families on the farm, many with young children so although we were several miles from the nearest town there was always someone to play with. I was a very bossy little girl and soon had all the other children on the farm press ganged into appearing in my various plays and pageants. One of these, a pageant written for St George’s Day involved a lot of galloping around singing “For all the saints who from their labours rest” and precious little story. This event turned into a complete fiasco when one of my younger brothers refused to be an angel any more and quit his post on top of an oil drum in the middle of the performance. It was the inspiration behind one of the first short stories I ever sold. It was to Woman’s Weekly and called Angels on Oil Drums.
But the short story I want to feature this week is The Blue Lady, which, like many of my stories had its origin at this time of my life. My sister and I would make up ghost stories, based on the house and its long history, and frighten each other to death. The Blue Lady was our favourite and the only one we can still remember. What is interesting about that story is that it has now found its way into the local folklore.
So when many years later I wanted to write a ghost story I remembered our Blue Lady and incorporated her into the story which ended with what I thought was quite a neat twist.
THE BLUE LADY
‘For goodness sake, come in and shut the door.’ Jane Armstrong scowled at the woman who hovered behind her in the doorway. ‘I don’t pay you to stand around gawping like a goldfish.’
Elizabeth Parry, a timid grey woman in her mid-fifties, flinched but didn’t move. ‘I’m s-sorry. – ‘ she stammered as she backed away. ‘I can’t stay here.’
‘What?’ Jane was astonished. She wasn’t used to people standing up to her, least of all mouse-like Elizabeth.
‘I said I can’t stay here. Oh, Mrs Armstrong, something terrible’s happened here. Can’t you feel it?’
‘The only thing I feel is the urge to slap some sense into you.’
Elizabeth wrapped her arms around her thin body and shivered. ‘It’s like – listen! Can you hear it?’
‘All I hear is your idiotic babbling.’
‘Up there.’ Elizabeth pointed towards the upper landing. ‘Oh, please, let’s get out while we can.’
This time even Jane heard the low, rasping noise, like something heavy being dragged across the floor. She strode to the bottom of the stairs and called up: ‘Who’s there? Show yourself at once.’
A door opened and a plump, red-faced woman with hair like steel wool leaned over the banisters.
‘My life, you startled me,’ she said. ‘It’s Mrs Armstrong, the new owner, isn’t it? The agent said you wouldn’t be arriving until this evening. But not to worry. I’m done here.’
She bustled down the stairs, her blue plastic bucket overflowing with polishes and dusters
‘There’s your precious ghost, ‘ Jane sneered. ‘A cleaner, moving a bit of furniture. Am I right?’
The cleaner nodded then peered anxiously at Elizabeth’s pale face. ‘Didn’t mean to startle you, my dear,’ she said.
‘So now we’ve solved the mystery of your so-called ghost, Elizabeth, do you think you could do some work? It is after all what I pay you for.’
But Elizabeth shook her head.
Jane snorted. ‘Did you ever hear such nonsense, Mrs –er?’
‘Minty. Sarah Minty.’
‘Well, Sarah Minty, this madwoman here refuses to stay in this house, Says it’s haunted, even though I’ve proved to her the ghost doesn’t exist. She’s losing her mind.’
‘If she is then so’s half the folk in this village.’ Sarah said. ‘She’s not the first to be afraid of Waytown Hall. Several around here swear they’ve seen a ghost in this house I’m one of the few who’ll set foot inside.’
‘You’re obviously far too sensible to believe in all that nonsense.’ Jane said.
‘I believe in the spirits,’ Sarah said quietly. ‘But I know this one means me no harm, though some think she was responsible for Major Harvey’s death. He was the old gentleman who lived here before you.’
‘How did he die?’ Elizabeth whispered, wide-eyed .
‘Fell down these very stairs. Broke his neck, poor chap. Although I wonder if it wasn’t the spirits from a bottle that did for him rather than the Blue Lady.’
‘What did you call her?’ Jane asked sharply.
‘The Blue Lady. Nobody’s really sure who she is or why she walks but –’
‘No one .. except … me.’ Jane said between wild gusts of laughter that left her gasping for breath.
‘Mrs Armstrong, remember the doctor said over-excitement was bad for your heart,’ Elizabeth warned, then turned to Sarah. ‘You’re wrong, Mrs Minty, about the ghost being a friendly one. I feel intense hatred in this room.’
Sarah frowned. ‘Now you mention it there is something. It wasn’t like it when I arrived but now… there’s a disturbance in the air, as if – .’
‘When you two have finished scaring each other witless with your ghost stories, I’d like to tell you mine .’ Jane’s acid voice cut in. ‘It’s not scary – just very funny. When I was a child, I lived in this house. My mother died when I was a baby and so there was just me and my father, Charles Maidment. I dare say you know the name? There were generations of Maidments at Waytown Hall until my fool of a father sold it.’
Elizabeth gasped. ‘You never said –’
‘It was none of your business,’ Jane snapped. ‘I’m only telling you now to end this nonsense. I used to play with a girl called Margaret who was so gullible, she believed everything I told her. I’d frighten the life out of her with stories of headless monks and weeping children. But the one that terrified her most was about the ghost who was supposed to haunt this house and how, if she touched you, you’d drop down dead. Now do you see why I’m so sure your precious Blue Lady doesn’t exist? I invented her!’
But still Elizabeth refused to stay. When Sarah Minty left Waytown Hall, Elizabeth, with one last anguished plea for Jane to come with them, went too.
‘Don’t come whining back to me when you find no one wants to employ someone of your age with no qualifications or reference,’ Jane yelled, slamming the door behind them.
‘Your temper’s as nasty as ever I see, Jane.’
Jane whirled round to stare up at a slender young woman who stood at the top of the stairs. Her long, blue dress shimmered as she moved.
‘I knew you’d be back,’ The Blue Lady said.
‘Who are you?’
‘You know perfectly well who I am. I’ve been waiting for you. I had to frighten poor Major Harvey into falling down the stairs because I wanted the place unoccupied, ready for you. Pity, though. He was a nice old chap.’
Jane shivered in spite of the central heating. ‘What do you want?’
‘To ask you why.’ The ghost closed her eyes as if, even after all these years, the memory still upset her. ‘Why did you push me down the stairs? I loved you and thought we were a normal happy family.’
‘A normal happy family?’ Jane forgot her fear as the years slipped away. ‘I hated you. Daddy and I were happy until you came along. He used to call me his Little Lady. He didn’t need a wife and I certainly didn’t need a step-mother.’
‘Yet my death didn’t bring you what you wanted, did it?’ The Blue Lady began walking down the stairs towards Jane. ‘You and your father were never easy in each other’s company again.’
‘Of course we were,’ Jane said defiantly. ‘Without you around to spoil things, we had a wonderful time.’
‘I know you’re lying because I’ve been watching you all these years. Watching and waiting.’
As the Blue Lady got closer, Jane felt a chill wrap around her like November fog.
‘You’ve been alone all your life, haven’t you? Nobody could stand being near you for long. Your husband, even Elizabeth left in the end. I made sure of that. And as for your father -‘
‘I’m not listening -‘ Jane said but the quiet voice went on pitilessly.
‘After my death, Charles sold this house. He couldn’t bear to be reminded of what had happened here because there was this tiny seed of doubt in his mind. He saw you – did you know that? He saw you at the top of the stairs.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘He thought your strange, too calm expression as you looked down on my body was the result of shock. But over the years, every time you went into one of your uncontrollable rages, the doubts grew until he was finally forced to admit the truth. That my death was no accident – and you were responsible.’
‘He couldn’t have –’
‘He died of a broken heart, you know, Jane.’
‘No!’ Jane screamed. ‘That’s a lie. You were always lying to him.’
‘I never lie. Unlike you. You even made up the ghost story to frighten poor little Margaret.’
‘That was only a bit of harmless fun.’
‘Your Blue Lady served my purpose well. I even added my own little touch. Can you smell violets? I was always very fond of them. Don’t you think I’m a convincing Blue Lady?’ The gossamer material whispered against her legs as she gave a small twirl. ‘Your harmless fun appears to have backfired on you.’
She laid a hand on Jane’s wrist. ‘Come along now.’
The ghost’s touch had been icy but Jane’s wrist stung as if a red hot iron had been laid on it. She remembered how she used to frighten Margaret by saying how if the ghost touched you … but it was only a story. Wasn’t it?
As if she had no will of her own, Jane stumbled up the stairs, her heart beating erratically, frantically as she did so. She remembered the heart pills in her handbag on the hall table, but instead of turning back to get them she kept climbing the stairs, her breath coming in short, painful gasps, her eyes focussed on the Blue Lady.
Two days later, Elizabeth, worried about her employer, called the Police who found Jane’s body on the stairs. It wasn’t until later that Elizabeth realised the sense of evil that had so frightened her earlier was no longer there.
Now, there was nothing in the air but a faint lingering scent of violets.