I was whizzing along the road out of Wensleydale through Low Thwaite beyond Naresby when I suddenly saw a woman at her cottage gate, waving at me gently like an old friend. In a lonely dale this is not very surprising, as I had found out. Several times I have met someone at a lane end flapping a letter that has missed the post in Kirby Thore or Hawes. ‘It’s me sister’s birthday tomorrow. I near forgot’ or ‘It’s the bill fort telephone. We’ll be cut off next thing. The curious thing about this figure, so still and watchful, was that it was standing there waving to me in the middle of the night.
“A Spot of Gothic” is just that: and the slightly too aware (as though Gardam is being slightly apologetic for the genre she has slipped into; there’s a sense that she’s wiping her feet a little before stepping into the haunted house) foray into creepy territory belies the skill at which such a quick chilly blast is deployed. As though Gardam was itchy to try her hand at bleeding a little of the macabre and ghostly into her usual forte (the sure foundations of quotidian life lightly erupted and henceforth clearer but less solid). The story is a considerable success. Imagine Roald Dahl rewritten by Penelope Fitzgerald and you’re thereabouts.
We join our protagonist, once she has related her frightening glimpse of a waving woman on a post-midnight country road, as she first demolishes Northern stereotypes: relocated there as a war widow (her husband gone to Hong Kong, she not remotely interested in going as she “hates crowded places”). He has warned her that she will struggle to make friends near his army camp in Aldershot as “It’s the North . . . they take ten years to do more than wag their heads at you up here.” This haughty assumption is soon quashed. She’s rapidly accepted by the locals, who can’t seem to stop giving her beans or offering unsoliciting advice.
She accepts an invitation to dine with two local sisters, Gertie and Millicent (names from a long-dead age), who fill her with great wine and food and whiskey and more food and it’s whilst on her rather later-than-planned journey home that she spots a woman waving “in some sort of recognition.” Returning the day after, she parks her car up and walks down to the exact spot and sits on an old milk churn in the afternoon sun. She is soon startled by a face peering at her.
“Whatever time is it?” she said.
“About three o’clock.” I found I had stood up and turned to face her. For all the misery in the face there were the relics of unswervable good manners which demanded good manners back; as well as a quite curious sensation, quite without visible foundation, that this body, this dotty half-bemused memsahib had once commanded respect, inspired good sense.
“It’s just after three,” I said again.
“Oh good gracious — good gracious.” She turned with a funny, bent movement feeling for the wall to support her as she moved away. The face had not been an old woman’s but the stance, the tottering walk were ancient. The dreadful sense of loss, the melancholy, were so thick in the air that there was almost a smell, a sick smell of them.
She was gone, and utterly silently, as if I had slept for a moment in the sunshine and had a momentary dream.
She is then startled by a herd of sheep clattering past her before the local doctor introduces himself and mentions another upcoming dinner with Gertie and Millicent (“We’re both to go dining out at the good sisters’ in a week or so. I gather we’re not supposed to know it yet. We are both supposed to be lonely.”). He’s on his way to see the woman who has startled our protagonist. On her way back to her car, the doctor flashes past her in a “reckless” way in his Land Rover, before a Mrs Metcalfe, of the continual offerings of beans, meets her when she returns home. This time, along with the beans, she has news of “That daft woman up near Melbeck. She’s dead. The doctor’s just left her. Or I hear tell. She hanged herself.”
This leads to a bit of a disquisition upon Rose, the woman who has hanged herself, the woman peering strangely before vanishing “utterly silently”. She had, according to Gertie and Millicent at that next meal at which the doctor is also present, “fitted in round here as if country born.” Alas, the house in which she lived, “a queer place,” had taken Rose rather too much to itself: upon the end of her marriage, she had been seen less and less. Her and the house were inseparable.
She didn’t seem able to leave it in the end.
Our protagonist suggests she might’ve been “the last person to have seen her alive.” This is met with initial indulgent doubt. There is a polite and slightly uncomfortable suggestion to the contrary from the doctor that begins the final passage of the story.
“I wonder,” he said, “if that could be true.” Gertie and Millcent were busy with coffee cups. They turned away.
“’Could be true?’ But it is certainly true. I know exactly when. She asked me the time that afternoon. I told her. It was just after three. She seemed very — bewildered about it. You called upon her hardly a quarter of an hour later. She’d hardly been back in the house a quarter of an hour.”
“She’d been in it longer than that,” he said. “When I found her she’d been dead nearly three weeks. Maybe since hay-time.”
I went to Hong Kong.
How many writers can provoke a laugh as they chill?
Gardam’s stories are full of people who don’t quite fit in but cast the lives around them into a marginally more hopeful, potentialized state. Here, that rewarding sense of accommodating another’s askew perspective is withdrawn. Rose drew and stayed inward and nobody sought her out. The potential for revelation, implicit in all Gardam’s work, is, though, realized. It’s the nature of it that delivers the delicious afterburn and prompts such a memorable payoff. It’s a rare walk beyond the treeline of Gardamville, a welcome one that showcases a rare adroitness with a kind of wry macabre wit. The story is a masterclass of deft little narrative steps that walk right up to you before diving behind and whispering in your ear. You get the joke and you shiver. You also understand the further emphasis of that which is so prevalent in these stories: how easily people can isolate themselves. There’s a particular Englishness to the forgotten hermit at the heart of this story. Even when dead she reeks of a kind of festering decorum. No doubt the house in which she was found hanged was otherwise spotless, speaking well of her — (“She was well-liked”) to those discovering her decomposing corpse.