I am sitting in the window of a café, in Norwich, nurdling the dregs of a cappuccino. The framed notice on the wall next to me, its words digitally printed in a swirling calligraphic script, tells me that this place is rumoured to be haunted.
I look out onto St Stephen’s Street: cluttered bike-racks, bus stop, Argos. It’s Saturday, a decorated December mid-morning. The bright sun has burnt off the frost. Shoppers, dressed for the cold, have their top buttons undone, scarves loosened, gloves removed. They carry bags of what might be gifts. They talk and laugh, beyond the glass, emitting small ghosts of steam from their shining faces. Life goes on.
I’m here on a pilgrimage, of sorts, to deliver… I’m not sure yet. An apology? Or, an acknowledgement, at least? To earn some sort of… atonement?
I have imagined: boldly standing up at my table, announcing my intention to read out a short document, then doing so.
But I can’t. I don’t know what holds me back: fear of seeming foolish? (Certainly, I’m not comfortable being the centre of attention…) Not wanting to cause an upset? Shame…?
I’ll just have to read it to myself, under my breath; say the words in my head. It’s nearly the same thing.
From my pocket I remove an envelope, grubby with smudges of fine grey-brown dust. Finger prints; some of them mine, some older. Rubbing my fingertips together, I feel the disintegrating matter of personal history.
I pull out a single leaf of brittle, yellowed, writing paper. The top-left corner is flaking and frayed where it’s been bent and scratched – by a paper-clip, I suppose; this page must have been attached to others at times during its past 50 years or so. There’s a deep brown stain smeared across it, beneath which the fading ink is even harder to read. The handwriting is spidery and uncertain.
My father (after whom I am named) recently passed away. Eighty-six. I discovered this letter “in his papers”. Originally – before I even existed – it was found next to the mess of his father’s body. Gave himself both barrels, apparently. A dark, family secret; a chronic embarrassment… “not in front of the children”.
“It all happened long before you were born,” was all I could get out of my parents for years, as if that made it any better.
I shudder, imagining the fleeting presence of his victim. As far as I can tell from my research, I am now sitting in what was once the front-room of her home.
Handling the paper with care, not wanting to touch the stain-that-must-be-blood, I read aloud, in my head:
November 20th 1956
Please try to understand: things were difficult for us during the war. Farm labour didn’t pay me well. Your Mother was too ill to work, but even had she been able, her hands were too full with you children. We struggled to keep you all fed. I really wanted to keep you in school – especially you – but we just couldn’t make ends meet.
I fell in with a rough crowd; black market and the like. With so many people putting in extra shifts, homes were left empty for hours. There were many opportunities.
April 27th, 1942. The Baedeker raids. A big terrace-house on St. Stephen’s took one through the roof. I was first on the scene. Whole place burst open. The flames had almost blown themselves out, didn’t get a hold again until later. The upstairs’ furniture was all broken and littered about downstairs. I just walked in and helped myself: money, ration books, silk stockings, a watch.
There was a bed, looking like it had just been made, standing on its chunk of bedroom floor, crushing a couple of lounge-chairs. Hoping to find something underneath – a suitcase, or a box, perhaps containing valuables packed in readiness for evacuation – I peered beneath the bed-frame. And there she was, all bleeding, moaning, trapped and helpless. The daughter of the family: Mary. She looked at me; knew me, too. She managed just one word: my name.
I ran. Yes, I left her there to die.
Every day since then I have been haunted by the thought, hearing her voice, over and over… I pray that she was able to leave this world before the flames caught hold again.
I am so sorry.
May God see my true remorse and forgive me. May He grant me some peace.
‘Robert,’ someone says at my shoulder, in hushed tones.
I turn, see only the rough bricks of the stripped-back wall.
I look the other way, the echo of my name still whispering in my ears. There’s no-one there – but I would swear, to a priest, I’d just heard a woman’s voice, close by.
I peer around the room, hear the chatter of conversation, a gaggle of laughter, the clatter of crockery, the gurgle-hiss of the milk-steamer; all the slurps and satisfied sighs of imbibing humanity, rushing me back to the here-and-now.
There’d been a faint sound, accompanying that voice… a wash and back-wash, like sea in a shell; background radio static. I notice its absence, hear the return of everyday life, its ordinariness crowding out of my mind the memory of someone quietly saying my name… my father’s… and my grand-father’s name.
I shudder, and although the logic in my brain tells me the smoke I can smell is from the kitchen, from overcooked meat, I suddenly feel the need to escape.
On my way out, I am stopped short by the sight of an old photograph, its sepia image hung by the door, framed in dark, distressed wood.
“The Residents of St Stephen’s Street, Circa 1942,” standing in a row.
My gaze is drawn to a pale young woman, at the right-hand end of the untidy line, turning away from the camera, from the others, as if about to leave. Trapped behind the glass, a pattern of tiny flies traces a join-the-dots “M” beneath her feet.
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