The ghost in the library

The ghost in the library

I had hoped to have some scary fiction to share this Halloween but the short story I wrote is either too scary or not scary enough, and I’d rather save it till I know which. I was also working on a longer story, but have stalled through lack of energy.

So, I thought I would entertain you all in the grand old tradition of telling true ghost stories at Halloween.

I’ve got a fair few odd little anecdotes about the supernatural from a life time of being something of a magnet for weird events, from being pelted with a potted hyacinth by a poltergeist to seeing the spectral form of a small child appear in the bedroom of our first house. So gather round, friends, and would someone shut the door lest the draught make the candles flicker? Throw a few more logs on the fire, pour yourself a glass of vintage port and make yourself comfortable.

Sixteen is a difficult age and while I was in few respects a true teenager, the world usually conspires to treat you as a being who falls squarely between being a child to be indulged and an adult who can be trusted. I was lucky that my post ‘O’ level work experience proved to be one where I was really given the opportunity to experience working in a museum.

Bedford museum had quite recently relocated to the Castle Gardens in Bedford, and the building it inhabited had an interesting history. Of the castle itself, constructed of timber shortly after the Norman conquest, only the mound still stood, and traces of the motte. The museum was a rambling old place which in its time had been a workhouse and also a brewery and when I joined for my month of experience, it was still undergoing changes. The smell of paint and plaster lingered; exhibits were being dusted down and given new labels as part of the whole programme of refurbishment.

I was originally there to work for the Archaeology Officer but I found I got on better with the curator and the Natural History Officer. As an adult I can see how hard it must have been for them to find me tasks for which I was qualified and able to do without reducing me to a tea girl, and I was first set with the task of examining and cataloguing a room full of boxes packed with magic lantern slides. They had been newly acquired but no one knew what was in most of them as there was no inventory. So I opened box and after dusty old box and methodically recorded what I found. It might have been tedious work but I found it actually quite good fun. I learned a lot about the world, too.

On occasions I got take out on trips, such as when John, the curator was asked to visit Police headquarters to help their public relations officer assess how to manage the museum housed there. That was eye-opening. I got to handle murder weapons from yesteryear and look at some quite gruesome relics of murders. Usually mid afternoon everyone at our museum came to the kitchen for a cuppa, and friends of the curator used to drop by too, several of whom worked in local government. I was included in these gatherings and enjoyed them.

The day came when I finished with my boxes of slides, and with some sense of accomplishment I handed over my inventory. I have no idea now if it was more or less what was needed but I got praised and then sent to the attic for my next assignment.

The attic was a vast long room that ran probably half the length of the building, and it was also the library. On one side of the room were lots and lots of windows, but the other walls were almost completely covered by shelves of books, floor to ceiling. It was a bright, sunny room and I suspect that it was far from the best place to store rare books but it was a pleasant enough place to work. It was reached by a steep staircase that began near the kitchen door in the private area of the museum. The stairs were solid enough but they creaked when you walked on them.

My task was to catalogue the latest batch of acquistions: a consignment of weights and measures. There was everything from the usual sets of scales (including tiny jeweller’s scales) to huge half hundredweight lumps of metal and a vast array of Chinese scales all in exquisitely made wooden cases of rosewood and velvet. I had to measure everything, and describe as accurately as I could everything about each item.

When you have measured a dozen scales, it gets boring. Really boring. On a summer afternoon, when the room has become warm, and sunshine is pouring in, a girl tends to suddenly start questioning what on earth she is doing in a museum library when she might be elsewhere. Of course, I didn’t sneak out and go and have a quiet afternoon down by the river but I did rebel a bit.

I went and found a book.

It was a bound edition of The Girl’s Own Paper from around 1900 onwards, and it was fascinating reading. From the coy problem pages to the advertisements for complexion soaps and dusting powders, I was hooked. There was a serial too. I remember little of it, because I limited myself to one paper a day. I had a guilty sense of stealing time when I read instead of cataloguing, and even though I was simply a volunteer, I wanted to make a good impression on those I was working for. So I kept the book as a secret treat.

One very warm afternoon I gave up working quite quickly. None of the windows would open and it was airless and stuffy. I worked at a big desk at the far end of the long room, and I sat side on, so that while I did not have my back to the room, I did not exactly face it. I was enjoying reading and was lost in some Edwardian beauty tips when it happened.

Directly behind me, someone sighed, loudly and with obvious sorrow. I froze, believing that one of the staff must have come up and found me shirking my tasks. I turned, ready to apologise, and saw there was no one there.

I ran through my mind what had just happened. I had definitely heard a pronounced sigh. I had felt it on the back of my neck. All the windows were closed. I had not heard footsteps coming up the creaky stairs, nor yet the same across the expanse of floor boards to my desk. I checked the room, to see if someone had sneaked up and was standing now grinning at my discomfiture.

I was totally alone. And the room that had previously been sweltering with July heat was stone cold.

I was out of that room and down the stairs in a very few seconds, landing in the kitchen white-faced and shaking. One of John’s friends was there, making tea and he was a bit shocked and my sudden arrival. Then he saw my face.

Oh, you’ve met our resident ghost, then?” he said and I nodded and was too scared to say more in case I was teased about it.

I did go back up a few days later, and while I had the eerie feeling of being watched, nothing further happened. I’ve looked up the museum now and while a lot has changed, including the name, it seems that ghostly goings on are still a feature as this Halloween they are running a paranormal investigation.


Attaining enlightenment, inner peace and sublime bliss ~ a how-to guide


Attaining enlightenment, inner peace and sublime bliss ~ a how-to guide

Admit it: you clicked on this article because all three are things you crave from the bottom of your heart and soul. The hope that a single blog post might contain all you need to find these three intangibles was overwhelming. Normally, it’s at very least a book or a series of books or an expensive course that promises this.

Yesterday I experienced very briefly moments of all three.

I’ll give you a run down of the external events, so if you want a list of things that occurred, you can see what I did.

It was one of those autumn days that is so typical of my island. It started out wet, miserable and grey but by lunchtime the sun had come out and it became a perfect autumn day, blustery but not unduly so, mild but not unseasonable, sunny with a few white clouds scudding across the sky. I’ve been stuck at home a lot, lately, so I decided to go for a walk to the next village. The route took me through some lanes and footpaths and fields and the hedgerows were full of berries and birds, and all the glory of autumn colours surrounded me.

I got into Starston and entered the glebe meadow by the beck and sat for a few moments on one bench, watching the water before walking down to the footbridge and standing there for a while. I spotted a dipper working her way around the remnants of an old sluice gate so I moved closer and sat amid the rubble ruins of an old bridge-pier and watched the flow of the water. The wind made the branches of the trees toss and flounce and birdsong surrounded me, though it was hard to hear above the chuckle of water falling over the artificial waterfall made by the old sluice gate. As I sat, I felt an expanding sense of joy and oneness with the natural world; after ten minutes, a kingfisher flew past me silently, a flash of brilliant colour. I got up and headed home, and as I walked through a wooded lane, I felt I wanted to hug all of creation to me and hold it in love. Everything from the leaf litter and the worms to the birds flying around me filled me with love.

Idyllic, eh? I can imagine the list one might make: 1) spend time in nature 2) observe closely all that is around 3) be alone and quiet….and so on.

But the truth is, I do these things often. I meditate most days. I find good things to be thankful for. But the amount of times I have felt the way I did that day are very few and far between.

I’m not well. In addition to my long standing mental health struggles, this year I have been diagnosed with something that has impacted on my health significantly already and which can only be managed in the future. In recent weeks, a second condition has come to light that is being investigated and which is serious enough to shorten my life if not addressed. I’m in pain and discomfort daily, and I’ve felt as if things that defined me as me, are being steadily stripped from me, making me wonder who and what I am.

I did not chose or create any of this; it just is. Nor did I choose yesterday to change my thinking, recite mantras or affirmations or think positively or only focus on the beautiful etc. I was not responsible for being in that state yesterday; it just happened that way. You might see it as a gift of grace, a simple coming together of inner workings and external conditions. The truth is, it could have been raining cats and dogs, I could have fallen face first in the mud, could have seen nothing of unusual significance and I would have still felt the same (though in need of a hot bath). I could have stayed home on the sofa and read.

Today I don’t feel terribly good. I had a poor night of sleep, more pain and discomfort. I don’t feel the need to try and reproduce the events of yesterday to try and get back the delightful feelings. Knowing that they happened, even for one day is a good memory but I know I cannot recreate the experience by reproducing the circumstances. There is a deep and profound mystery here and I am glad. For to truly be able to tell you how to achieve enlightenment, inner peace and sublime bliss would be to rob you of the experience. No one can achieve these things. Sometimes the work that we do, the lives that we lead, the challenges we face, all bring us to a pinpoint moment where for a blindingly short time, these glorious things just HAPPEN.

There’s no short-cut, no route map, no tick-list, no exercise and diet programme.

Sometimes they just happen. And when they have done so for me, I am thankful and still. 

Of Mice and Men… and Women too.

Of Mice and Men…and Women too

Of the many things that baffle me about life, why people fear and hate mice is one that I’ve grappled with on numerous occasions. I could never understand as a child why the maid in Tom and Jerry could leap in terror onto a chair at the sight of Jerry, a creature thousands of times smaller than her.

My first ever pet that was solely mine was a mouse, a sleek golden-coated little fellow who I loved dearly. As pets, mice have their drawbacks: their short lives that mean that they are with you probably less than two years, the fact that they urinate constantly and that their wee smells very pungent.(Incidentally, the poisonous plant hemlock smells powerfully of mouse urine!) But as a six year old, these were never a concern.

In recent weeks mice have been cropping up in my life. I’ve been dreaming about them and I found a moribund mouse in the garden who I tried to revive (I failed). I’ve revived many stunned and petrified mice when our cats have brought them in to play with, and I’ve never worried about handling them (one did bite me but didn’t break the skin). Yet for much of human history mice (and rats) have been considered our enemies. It’s why cats became revered as gods in ancient Egypt (cats have never forgotten this) because they could keep the precious granaries free of the pestilence of hordes of mice and rats.

So while I understand that mice as a force are to be reckoned with, a single mouse has never made me feel fear.

This morning, though, I dreamed again of mice. I was handed a bag of black mice, a plastic zip lock food bag and I had the impression that the mice were to be food for a snake. The squirming mass of tiny creatures filled me with concern. They had no food or water and would surely die. So I found a tank to put them in, that had a kind of adventure playground of hillocks and tunnels much like one I used to play on as a child, and then was concerned that transferring them to it would mean they would all disperse as I was trying to contain them. They all went in to the new home, though I think a few tails were damaged as they did. Then I brought food, chunks of cheese and cake cut into small blocks, and filled the little plastic ponds with water. All the little animals were hungry and thirsty.

I decided to do a little thinking. As a totem, these are some of the suggestions for the meaning of Mouse:

Examines life’s lessons



Understanding details

Seeing double meanings in things



Guidance in signing contracts


Ability to be unseen

In most dream dictionaries Mouse is seen as a bad thing, something that gnaws and nibbles at the soul or the confidence. Yet I believe that the best interpretation of dreams come direct from the dreamer’s own consciousness and I have always had a deep affection for mice (even the one that bit me). Because (like rats) mice reproduce exponentially when food is available, we fear them but I think the fear is rooted in our sense of kindred. We too will reproduce until the world is choked with our kind and all the food is gone. We fear mice because they are like us; they mirror back our greed to us and we hate them for it.

I’d like to share a passage from C.S Lewis (himself surely a man who had a fondness for mice; he ennobled them and made them Talking Animals in the Narnia books for their role in nibbling away the ropes that held the slain Aslan.)

In this passage of That Hideous Strength (really worth reading) crumbs of cake have been spilled deliberately on the floor, a whistle blown and mice have arrived to clear up the mess:

Thanks to this effort she saw mice for the first time as they really are – not as creeping things but as dainty quadrupeds, almost, when they sat up, like tiny kangaroos, with sensitive kid-gloved forepaws and transparent ears. With quick, inaudible movements they ranged to and fro till not a crumb was left on the floor.”

…Humans want crumbs removed; mice are very anxious to remove them. It ought never to have been a cause of war. But you see that obedience and rule are more like a dance than a drill – specially between man and woman were the roles are always changing.”


I have fallen in love

I have fallen in love… with goldfish

Earlier this year we decided that it was high time our pond was populated with something a bit brighter and shinier than frogs, toads and newts so we went to a garden centre and bought a batch of goldfish. At a pound each, these little tiddlers weren’t expensive or exotic but in terms of making me smile, they turn out to be priceless.

So when they started turning up dead, or dying, chomped on by dragonfly nymphs, I was pretty upset. There’s masses of things in the pond for the nymphs to hunt, and that’s the natural order of things. Of the thousands of tadpoles, toad-poles and newt-poles (yes, I am making up these names) very few will make it to adulthood and join in the joyous orgiastic frenzy of mating that made our pond this spring an interesting spectacle to rival the Serengetti (but on a very small scale). That’s just how it is: nature, red in tooth and claw. But I felt very protective of my pretty little fish, who have no defence (I don’t think they even have teeth, as such) and every time one bobbed up, dead, I was angry. We cleared away some of the overgrowth so that they had more clear water to enjoy without being ambushed by beings that closely resemble the Aliens from, well, Alien (jaws that shoot out a distance out of the creatures head).

No more dead fishies. But with clear water came greater visibility and more chance to observe the fish. And watching them has become a very powerful thing. They do things. They have a social order and a hierarchy among the shoal. They each have personalities and quirks. And I realised that I love them, very dearly, and they will never know this, for what way can I, a human, speak to them, small fish of the carp family?

So I feed them. I stand and watch them. I speculate about their lives, their feelings. They do odd things that I cannot fathom. One of their activities is to lie in the shallows, inert and still. First time I saw one do this, I thought it was dead and scooped it up in my hand. The fish woke up, and thrashed around and I released it back into the water. On a sunny day, you might find almost all of them lined up in the shallows, sleepy and unresponsive.

I began to tickle them. I don’t want them in the shallows, as crows come to the pond to drink, so I want to make them stay in deeper water. I have speculated long on why they do this, and I have no idea. Perhaps they are meditating, the way we might meditate on a mountain top. I can’t ask them and they can’t tell me. Sometimes I see them at the surface, blowing bubbles. For all I know they might be praying, or trying to communicate with me.

So I will continue to try to care for them, even though they can never thank me, or speak with me, or even really meet, as minds. Every time I see their gleam, flashing past as they swim, often in formation, they gladden my heart, and deep inside me, I hope that in their own fishy way, they know I love them. 

Pond Painting

World Mental Health Day ~ and Happy Birthday Dandelions

Today is World Mental Health Day.

It’s also the first anniversary of the publication of Dandelions and Bad Hair Days, the book of essays, poems, pictures and musings written by a whole range of people, about their experiences of mental health distress, either as carer or as someone who suffers with one or other form of distress.

It was put together by Suzie Grogan and I contributed several pieces, including the essay that gave the book its title. It’s been extremely well received by many people, especially mental health professionals, and the stories are inspiring and thought provoking. Monies raised from sales of the book go to SANE and OCD Action and the awareness the book has raised so far has been impressive.

For the anniversary, the Kindle edition is priced at £1.53, and I would urge you to consider sharing this post on social media, buying the book either as Kindle or as paperback,  or if you have already got a copy, please think about writing a short review. The book was published initially by a small publisher without much budget for advertising and word of mouth is by far the best way a book like this can reach people.  The higher up the Amazon bestsellers lists for its categories it goes, the more visible it is to people browsing the virtual shelves for books that might help them. At the time of writing, it was at 14 in the charts for Kindle books on depression, at 29 in personal transformation and at 33 in mental health. The higher it goes and the longer it stays, the more of an impact it will make.

I was very proud to be a part of this project and still am. I’d like to see it at number one for books on depression.  In the blurb it says it might just save lives, and I believe this is true.

Let’s make this book shout out to the world that there is hope in the stories we have to share.

The Longest Barrow

The Longest Barrow

The fairies have reclaimed this place

of oak and ash and thorn,

Tentatively taking the mounded earth

Where once the railway ran,

Now stripped of iron and engines

That once drove the Old Ones away.

An immense long barrow it is now,

Holding the forgotten land within,

an England that hides, left behind by time

But never lost and only hidden.

Straighter than nature’s rules allow,

This ridge splits unfamiliar crops;

I swear the fairies came to greet

The rows of roses, an ordered army,

Serried rank on rank without a bloom,

Bred for nameless gardens.

Perhaps when each is dug, encased in pot

Ready for the eager gardener’s hands,

Unseen stowaways may hitch a ride

And recolonise this land with fay.

An Eye for an Eye for an Eye ~subverting and challenging genres

Today’s post comes from Marc Nash. If you remember I was setting sail on a voyage to discover books that are exciting and break the norms; Marc is one of the authors creating such work. You can find his blog here:

I used to bristle at the word ‘genre’. Apparently I don’t just write ‘fiction’, rather my novels are in the genre ‘literary fiction’. Yet ask for a definition of quite what that is and you’d struggle to receive a coherent answer. At best you might receive woolly assertions that genre novels tend to operate more on the level of plot and story-line, while literary fiction places less emphasis on plot and more on language and character. I’ve never understood why literary novels supposedly don’t overly-concern themselves with plot, nor why genre novels can’t attain high level of literariness through their language. They are not mutually exclusive. I always have the sneaking suspicion, that ‘literary fiction’ is merely the genre tag for when a book can’t be neatly fitted into any of the other genres.

But my new novel “An Eye For An Eye For An Eye” is a bit different for me. Firstly I wanted to write a genre book that also demonstrated a literariness through it’s language and depth of character study. But I also approached the task of writing a genre book that was at the same time also subverting the very notion of genre. Taking the standards of the genres I was working in and breaking as many of those prescriptions as I could. Will the gatekeepers of these literary genres admit my book to their canon, or will they banish it as heretical?

Genre number one: Police procedural. The main character Simon Moralee is charged with clearing up murders, yet he isn’t actually a policeman at all. He’s a member of the public with a special psychic power, who is adopted by the police to make them look good in their clean-up rates. The problem for them is, his mental ability completely obviates the need for any detective work at all, so that he actually represents the death of procedure. The police are demoted into serving as little more than Moralee’s baby sitters, yet he himself yearns for being elevated to a true policeman and bemoans what his gift has done to the solid practises of evidence and deduction.

Genre number two: Paranormal. Well Simon’s psychic gift is notionally a paranormal one. Since he can decoct the last few frames a person sees before they die, which in the case of murder victims is usually the faces of their killers. The book examines quite how the balance of his mind may have been shaped to throw up such a power, while his adversary also offers further, menacing but mundane reasons as to what lies behind such an ability. But the book goes further, as part of its theme interrogates those very last frames in a person’s life as it tantalisingly probes just what happens at the point of death. So a paranormal phenomenon actually serves as the launchpad of the most rooted-in materiality fact, that of death itself.

Genre number three: Dystopia. The definition of ‘dystopia’ is a place where everything is as bad as it could possibly be. Yet you don’t need the post-apocalyptic delight of a zombie invasion, or some viral pandemic, or nuclear catastrophe to bring civilisation to its knees. My inhospitable world is one more of drift and aimlessness, fostered by a collapse of central authority brought about by economic bankruptcy. I was conceiving of a world not too much further removed from the economic problems suffered by certain countries within the Eurozone like Greece and Spain. What might happen were a government forced to adopt such economic stringencies, that citizens no longer saw any benefit in regarding themselves as citizens of their nation? So the dystopia I have created is one that has many recognisable facets of our own society and offers some political slant on where our Western democracies may currently lie in their relationship to us their citizens.

And yes, “An Eye For An Eye For An Eye” not only has a plot, a considerable array of big ideas and themes, but it also revels in its literary language! Now to see what the genre purists make of it.