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Saturday, 12 July 2008
Headless Hall
 (published 'Barddoni' 1991)
Headless Hall was the large house on the hill,during your childhood.You would look up at it from the school playground, never questioning its presence and as time went on, none of you hardly noticed it at all. It’s like all places where you’re brought up: you take many of the landmarks for granted, however peculiar they might appear to a stranger; all the quirks and nooks, winding alleys, architectural peculiarities, long walls without entrances, squares with fountains amid the statuary, and the line of terraced houses where you yourself had been chosen to live.with stylish, out-jutting windows and carved ornamentation mare akin to gargoyles than one would think typical of the Utility Years…

But you never really noticed anything.You played being a steam-train along the lines in the pavements, as you wended the familiar course to school; or decided that the blue-mottled paving-slabs meant death if you trod upon them, so you had to hop over those for fear of your very existence ... Until you reached Temperance Street where, if you but realised it, the school itseld was a peculiarity, with its squat bell-tower, endless redbrick walls, and tvo playgrounds, one for the boys and the other for those who were at that time a mystery to you (they called them “girls”, but that’s all you knew, other than they seemed to dress slightly different), and teachers with pea-brain whistles and an unaccountable desire for filing in two by two, looking older than they really were (whether that was the strain of the job or comparison with your insultingly young age, you still wonder), and playtime where you had to pinch your nose for fear of the ripe stench in the Boys, followed by games such as Denno and Slavechase amid chants of “fight fight fight!”, whereupon a teacher would arrive breathless from the frays you later learnt took place even within the sanctuary of the staff-room, to tear apart, limb from limb, those ruffians partaking in a catspit scrap, and other games, yes, like flicking cigarette cards so they flew off as bodiless helicopters into corners of the playground where, on different occasions.you would sometimes sit with a crony or two debating the nature of existence and whether “girls” have willies.

Those were the best days of your life,you think, but the horror is you cannot really remember them with any degree of clarity.

Let me remind you ...

One day, on emerging from the Boys, deeply inhaling the compatively fresh air of the playground, you looked up for once at the large house,with a tower,that stood on the hill. Headless Hall, they called it. A teacher, during PE that day, whilst the brawnier lads dragged the thick bristly exercise mats from the bicycle sheds and the weaker morsels toted the bean bags from the Boys, told you (as he said, you were the only one he could trust), that the house was haunted. You stared back quizzically, not speaking, for you hardly ever opened your mouth and, thinking about it, that’s probably why he trusted you so much.You can still see him now, standing there, staring at your three-quarter length trousers, which demurely hid your knobbly knees. His eyes were blue - funny what sticks in your mind - and he looked younger than the other masters. His horn-rimmed spectacles reflected your own face twice over ...

For several months after that, you were intrigued with Headless Hall. You began to notice it more and more. You went to the library to read up about it, searching archives of local history, questioning the spinster who sat at the front of the reading-room.staring into space most of the time.

She told you more than any of the books, which seemed more concerned with personalities that had passed through the annals of the Town Hall (which, you supposed, if you had the time, would prove to be quite an interesting building in itself to study, with its gothic clock-tower and yet unrepaired war damage). It was perhaps because you remembered more about facts given to you by word of mouth, as if you literally ate up the sounds, recompensing in due course, you hoped, for your own silence. She knew what you needed to know, without really being asked. She must have read it in your face like an open book.

• Apparently, she said, parts of the school were older than Headless Hall. The bell-tower was in itself the oldest pert of the whole town.

From the boy’s playground had emerged some of the world’s leaders, such as Disraeli, Cromwell, Churchill, Thatcher and so on.You ate it all up.

But.when you heard about Headless Hall, your mouth gaped open and stayed like that throughout. It had ghosts, true, many had seen them. Some even said, she told you, that it had been built actually to house the ghosts that already populated the bare hill.

“What sort of ghosts, I hear you ask me,”she continued (and you can now actually recall what she said precisely with that strange Welsh underlilt), “They came from all walks of reality. Wilde’s Canterville, Lewis’ Bleeding Nun, Hodgson’s Hog, Harvey’s Hand ... Benson stays locked up in the room in the tower, scribbling social comedy novels. James even today sits in its bookroom, illuminating clues upon all the fly-leaves, sometimes confiding with Carnacki who has taken to roosting up the library chimney. Lovecraft has left to go to a better place, but he has abandoned many of his more striking creations in the shuttered attic, where lesser monsters do not dare to go. Sitting in the kitchen, is one with a remarkable resemblance to Poe, polishing the silverware as he dreams…”

• None of the names then, as now, meant anything to you, but it was all so perfectly mysterious, each word fell into place like a massive jigsaw that would keep you busy for at least a decade of Christmases.

You cannot remember ever noticing Headless Hall again. The teacher who had drawn your attention to it was never seen again. There was a rumour doing the rounds in the Boys that he had been sacked for venturing into the “girls” playground.

You never even again noticed perhaps the hill upon which it once sat. Life took on a new urgency; things were happening to your body that you feared you would never understand; events leapfrogged; exams seemed all-important, for you wanted to follow in the footsteps of the famous Old Boys of the school ...

Now you’re older and, you hope, wiser. You thought you’d left that town far behind you, both in mind and body. The image of Headless Hall has not crossed your thoughts for all these years of helping your own children sort out the giant jigsaws…

Until now ... I’ve come to haunt you with memories, memories which you perhaps hoped had slipped away beyond recall. I’m a ghost from the irretrievable past, bringing it all back with me like the black lace train of a funeral dress: I’ve come to teach you that the past is all-important, should not be filed away in a forgotten drawer, you should rifle through the old yellowing photographs that your eyes once snapped; like the reflections in a pair of glasses; I shall renew the mysteries of the Opposite sex, which, at the best of times, you never really plumbed; I shall show how you can now tread fearlessly on the blue-mottled slabs; and, whatever you do, I shall continue to live (sometimes shy, sometimes voluble) in the shuttered attic of your brain, never fear.

Posted by wordonymous at 10:37 AM EDT
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