Monday, 15 February 2010

“He said that he suffered from ‘fits’ and could not be left alone. He also claimed to be a music hall entertainer”

October 11th
Three days now and I’m starting to realise how cold this place can get. The days are still warm, but as soon as the sun falls… The wood is in no danger of running out, though. Neither is the whiskey.
October 14th
I was woken up at half four in the morning last night by one of the wooden window blinds. The catch doesn’t quite fit in the hole, pops out. I tried to sleep through it but it didn’t stop, so I got up and put it back in. Thankfully it held for the rest of the night. I’ll fix it today.
I started going through all my research again. Photos, photocopies, news stories, statements from the time, those I could find. I wish it wasn’t so long ago, so far away. That I’d begun this years ago, before I was born even. Talking to the old people, to Iris. It helped to get an impression, some idea, something to work with mood. But even that was things she remembered her mother saying. I hope I can do something with this.
Christ, what am I doing here?
October 19th
Went to the village again today, picked up some shopping. Food, booze, fags. I’ll try and make it all last longer this time. The woman in the shop. Joan? June? She is nice enough, very cheery, but I get the impression that she’s trying to work me out, work out what the hell I’m doing here beyond the information I’ve divulged. I told her I was looking after the house for a few months for a friend. That’s true enough, I suppose. Not even a lie of omission, really.
I switched to rollies again. It seems to fit the rustic setting. Plus the only straights they carry are shit and I really couldn’t face trying to get her to order in Reds. Trying to see if she had oyster sauce was tough enough. I might have to knock the East Asian cooking on the head for a little bit. I think my metropolitan ways make me stand out enough already.
October 21st
The photos I’ve placed everywhere, the courthouse and family descriptions in bold writing, the family tree of Edward, what family I could find of Mary (a “motherless child”), the old plans of Downmere Rd before it was concreted over. Her last words:
“Oh let me die”
They all sneer at me. Every time I try to look at them, they laugh at me. Every bastard movement of the second hand. The word count is the same every time I check it. For some reason I still haven’t developed the ability to increase it by meagre will.
I chopped wood for three hours and thought about nothing except what I was going to eat that evening. I cooked a stew on the fire and then drank until I fell asleep.

October 22nd
For the first time I realised how beautiful this place is. I went for a walk first thing this morning after breakfast and coffee. The words are so close by to the cottage. Maybe ten minutes walk away. This place is stunning. It hit me how long I’ve been starved of any kind of nature for the past year other than the trees and grass in the Victorian cemetery that she’s buried in. That Mary is buried in.
I wish I’d paid more attention as a child when my mother would take me around parks, identifying trees to me. I wish my prose was more lyrical so I could ‘extrapolate upon the verdant beauty’ of the forest without sounding like a third-rate romantic poet.
There’s a conker tree
There’s a birch
There’s an oak
There my knowledge runs out.
There’s a robin.
There’s a starling.
There’s a wood pigeon.
There I am at my grandparents, counting the pigeons in the trees outside the spare bedroom window.
Their calls all sound exactly the same.
I’m honestly amazed at all of these simple things. Living creatures not wrapped in concrete or living off of fag buts or chicken bones. The stars I can see at night. The sky being black and not some filthy grey-pink; the outside being dark. The smell of ozone and earth. I found a trail winding through the woods, running past a pond and over a slight hill. I’ll run this later in the week I think. Today I just strolled, taking it in.
Perhaps foolishly, I left my phone at home (the cottage). When I got back I noticed four missed calls from two people. Three from Sandra, checking up on how the book is coming along. The other number was one I didn’t know. Didn’t leave a message.
I managed to spend the rest of the day working on the book. Fleshing out the structure. The dichotomy present in the story is so strong I don’t feel the need to work against it. The class lines, the cheering inside the court at the acquittal, the ‘dark mood’ outside.
But what’s important here? Her murder? Their relationship? The fact he and his family had to flee because of the constant hounding by the press? Was that it? One of the first instances of what is seen as a 20th century phenomenon. The power of the print media. This could be far more interesting than I had first imagined. This could be something really big.
I could hardly sleep. Every time I closed my eyes I would think something new.

October 24th
The last two days have been among the most productive I can remember for a long time. Despite the connection being as slow as dial-up, I’ve been able to find a couple of articles from around the time, from just after the trial. Some totally unconnected, just for some kind of reference. It’s extraordinary. The language has changed a lot, but ultimately it reads like a tabloid before a ‘Big Brother’ eviction. The first case of trial-by-media? I now have no idea if it was him or not. The acquittal, the vitriolic response of the tabloids on one hand, the public reaction on the other.
Are the papers a worse factor in this than the murderer? Can I even begin to think that?
1st draft of 1st chapter done. Sending it off to Sandra now, if the connection can take it.
October 26th
Worked all day ‘til late. No run today. Had my dinner in the pub last night. Steak and Kidney. Read the paper over a pint of ale. Started chatting to a guy on the next table. Guy named Edward. Not an uncommon name I guess, but it stuck with me. Funny when you feel like life is throwing things at you. I was waiting for a profound moment whereby I realise that I’m talking to the ghost of Pool. I almost asked him if his wife was called Mary. Ha. We just talked about football, a little bit about politics without any real partisan distinctions. I stuck to my story. Looking after the house, self employed. He works at the library, sculpts in his spare time. We spoke a little about Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
(There my knowledge runs out)
I bought him a brandy before we both toddled off home. I even whistled on the way home like an extra in an old Ealing comedy.
The latch on the window went again at 4 or so. Even a slight breeze has that thing going. I hammered it in with my shoe and then gaffer taped it closed. I’ll fix it properly tomorrow.
October 27th
Sandra called today with feedback on the first chapter. My fucking phone could hardly get any signal, despite being not 20 minutes from a mast. Hills or something. I don’t know. Eventually managed to talk to her. She’s concerned with the direction its taking. She wants me to keep up the personal element, more on the “fevered romance” which leads to Edward murdering Mary. I voiced my opinion that there was at least some room for doubt. She told me to get my head out of my arse, that he was as guilty as O.J. and reminded me that “I’m not writing ‘The Wire’”. Great.
“People just aren’t going to get it. Think more about the hammer and less about the newspapers, O.K.?”
I have no idea why I didn’t call her a sick, cold hearted bitch, but I’m sure she’s had worse. I’m sure she’d consider it ‘part of the creative process’.
That was it. I tried working after that but couldn’t focus. I was so angry. I went for a run, but it didn’t help at all. I ended up drinking half a bottle of whiskey and listening to the Rolling Stones. I think I tried calling her back, but couldn’t get any signal from the cottage. Probably a good thing.
The latch went again I think? I swear I heard it again, banging in the middle of the night. I couldn’t move, though. When I got up in the morning it was still held in place with gaffer tape.

November 1st
I think my phone has pretty much died now. No big loss, I suppose. I was only using it to keep in contact with Sandra. Everything else was an annoyance. Ha. Well, she was an annoyance, but a necessary one. The ‘dongle’ still kind of works, so I at least have one foot in the 21st century.
I wrote for hours this morning but couldn’t face looking at any of it by the afternoon. I turned off my laptop and went for a walk.
I found myself at the stream that runs though the village. I walked along and ended up just a little way out of town. There I saw a tree. Just above it, three starlings were circling. They were slowly joined by two more, then three, then five. Around a dozen circled above this willow (there’s another tree I can name), with more and more joining. I sat down on an old wall that ran beside the river and rolled a cigarette and waited for whatever was going to happen next. Some subtle change in light or temperature, something I couldn’t tell, the thirty or forty starlings that had gathered above the tree began to descend. Twenty more appeared. Thirty. Forty. A hundred. Two, three, four hundred. Thousands of birds swept through the sky, jostling for space in the tree, eclipsing the setting sun, screaming at each other. Thousands of birds from miles around, all screaming, fighting for somewhere to sleep.
Oh god, the noise. All I saw when I looked at it was not some heart-warming example of cooperation and cohabitation in nature, but its stark selfishness and brutality.
Earlier today I saw the corpse of a starling chick on the pavement on the way to the railway station. It must have fallen out of one of the nests just under the guttering of a house. It was mostly skeletal. Some flesh, some feathers.
I drank myself to sleep again.
November 10th
I feel like this book is splitting in two. On one hand it’s a romance/murder story that rapidly veers between tawdry and passionate, and on the other it’s a indictment of both the class divide in south east (as was outer) London of the late 19th century and the development of ‘tabloid’ newspaper sensationalism ‘news celebrity’ culture. I don’t see why this can’t be both things, but they just won’t resolve themselves. They won’t sit together.
November 13th
“Think more about the hammer”
I can’t stop.

November 17th
I stared at the screen for 5 hours today, watching the smoke and the breath hang in front of my face, trying to tell the two apart. With every passing minute I realise more and more what a fucking fraud I am and how little I know of life. Sat in this room, over a hundred years later, wanting for nothing. How fucking dare I dramatise something so horrific. What right to I have to use the murder of this poor, poor girl to furnish my own home. To keep me in laptops and ipods and fags and booze and warmth. I’m just as much of a rich cunt raping that poor girl as that bastard Edward. I’m no better at all.
I could make a glass eye cry.
I woke up some at around four in the morning, my face on the descriptions of sightings of her ghost.
“Held out her hand”
“Looked straight in the eye”
“Dirty white dress”
“Blood from her face”
“Oh let me die”
“Oh let me die”
I don’t know how long I sat staring at those words. I think I managed to take myself to bed soon after that.
I’m not so sure.
November 18th
I’m paying for yesterday, making myself pay. I ran 5 miles this morning before breakfast and threw up twice. I almost passed out and had to sit on the side of the track in the forest for half an hour before my legs would stop shaking. I made some eggs when I got in, but could barely even look at them
I pressed undo and redo over and over again. A time-lapse of a day’s work disappearing and reappearing. 9.30. 5.30. 9.30. 5.30 At the ‘start of the day’ I was tempted to hit a random key and close it down. Make the whole fucking thing disappear.
I held my fist over the keyboard, but I couldn’t bring myself to bring it down.
I haven’t backed anything up for a week.
My head hurts.

November 19th
I saw her last night. Mary. I saw her. I swear.
I began drinking at 5 to stay warm. I tell myself. To stay warm.
The heat from the fire, the sound of the snapping of the wood.
A light bulb blew.
I couldn’t drink any more. I went to bed. Fully clothed.
Her face. The middle of the night. Her face in the dark.
As I was sleeping, I heard something. I opened my eyes and for a split second I saw her face in the dark.
I was probably just drunk.
November 20th
I woke up with a stinking hangover. I ate some bacon. I couldn’t face a run. I threw on some clothes and went into town for fags and a few things. The woman (Joan? June?) tried talking to me about a village fair next week or something. I nodded and smiled as best I could. I bought a local paper out of morbid interest.
Later I tried getting online. Dead. No signal at all. Unplugged the ‘dongle’, plugged it back in. Nothing.
The words on screen stared back at me as I tried to think of something, of anything. I tried a more ‘proactive’ approach. I tried writing something else, starting a story to take my mind off it. Nothing. I couldn’t find anything. I just stared, dead eyed. This is all I have. All I can write about. Some small mercy, some attempt to clear my head.
In lieu of my fourth cup of coffee, I opted for whiskey and tried to accept that the days lack of writing was probably over. I listened to the 13th Floor Elevators to cheer myself up. All I could think about was acid and mental illness, which didn’t help. Around seven in the evening things became sketchy. I remember smashing a glass, cutting my hand trying to pick the pieces up, trying to get online to check old emails from recent exes and look at pornography in a fit of self loathing and then… my laptop wouldn’t work?
I was awoken at about four or so in the morning. The window. Cover. I need to find out the name for that thing if I’m going to mention it so often. It came loose again. The loud bangs. It was so cold. I was in all my clothes but it was so cold and I was frightened. I couldn’t open my eyes. The very thought made me feel sick. I could feel the weight on the end of my bed. I could feel her sitting there, next to my legs. I could hear her breathing but I couldn’t open my eyes. I wouldn’t.
November 21st
I’m trying to piece together last night. I got up this morning to find my laptop broken. The screen cracked, not working. The casing in bits. Actually come apart. It must have been thrown with some force. I don’t remember this at all. Glass on the floor.
I got my typewriter out. I hadn’t even bothered to unpack this particular affectation since I’d been here and had insulted it every moment I carried it. A cumbersome totem, I never thought I’d actually be using it. This might be exactly what I need. Everything is still floating around my head. I can rewrite it; see how it compares to what I backed up. I packed the laptop away, just in case something can be salvaged.
I’m trying not to think about what happened last night. It felt so real. I could feel her sitting there.
I’m not going to drink tonight.

November 24th
I’m writing this from the train to London. I’m still unsure of what happened, what really happened. I feel cold, in shock. As if something inside me has frozen. I left. I took my typewriter and my clothes and left as quickly as I could.
A last stab at this thing. A multithread narrative. Mess about. Have fun. Doesn’t matter if it’s not used. The story, the events were set in stone. I tried writing it from various perspectives. As soon as I got stuck, try something else. Three days. Come back, try someone new. A reporter. A maid (one who carried the coffin). One of the parents. Edward, to try and understand what I could. And then Mary. I started writing about her. It just poured from me. I don’t think I’ve ever written with such force or emotion or… it was like I was channelling something. Channelling her. What facts I didn’t have, I made up. It didn’t matter. The only truth was the story itself.
And then, I stopped. My fingers where white, frozen. Tears were running down my cheeks, dripping onto the ink. I… I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t write.
Drinking straight from the bottle, I read my own words, ‘her’ words back to myself, out loud with an accusatory voice, dropping each page into the fire when I had finished, draining a glass with each one.
I’m sorry, I remember shouting, whilst weeping. I’m sorry.
I screamed, throwing the bottle against the wall. Whiskey soaked the wallpaper, blurring the print.
Bed. The window. Again. I was still awake this time. I knew she would be coming. I could hardly breathe in the cold. The fear. I held my eyes tightly shut, like a child receiving a present. Holding the tears in. A slight creak. The weight of her sitting there. Her breath. Mine. My fists were clenched into tight balls, my fingernails digging into my palms, almost breaking the skin. I tried not to breathe. I tried to disappear. I am 5 years old and there is a ghost in the room.
(There my breath runs out)
My eyes slowly opened. The pain of the sweat, the tears. The black flashing on black as the scant light fell into images.
And there, at the foot of my bed sat the ghost of Mary Coulson.
Pale, almost translucent, her matted hair framed her terrified face. Blood fell from her forehead, dripped over her ragged clothes. She looked ready to flinch at my slightest movement. I stared at her without any change in my expression, without any reaction. And I realised. She’s nothing but a frightened girl. Not even a woman. A girl. A child.
I held out my hands to her.
“I… I’m sorry”
She stretched her hands back to me.
“Oh, let me die” she mouthed.
I closed my eyes and she was gone.

I’m sorry, Mary. I’m so, so sorry.

Author’s note: The title of this story is taken from the article ‘The true story of Jane Clouson, by her cousin’ by John Hancock. The bulk of this story (or rather, the story-within-the-story) is based on that of Jane Clouson, who was brutally murdered in Kidbrook, South-East London and interred at Brockley cemetery; and Edmund Plook, who was accused and (somewhat contentiously) acquitted of her murder. He was subsequently hounded by the press and forced to change his identity. No one was ever convicted of the murder of Jane Clouson. Her ghost was reputedly sighted on a number of occasions over the next century.
Names and details have been changed both for the purposes of creative freedom and also a sense of decency to those actually involved, though her final words remain the same. Apologies for any offence caused, it was certainly not my intent.
Written with thanks to Sam Holloway.

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