The uncanny

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The uncanny

I should say that I have always found it impossible to start at the beginning – from my perspective there is always the question of where the beginning actually begins. And, of course, the question of whether there is ever an ending. I was aware that many of my parents and particularly my Grandmother’s stories were concerned with the “eerie” – uncanny things. Tales that are mistakenly called “ghost stories” – but which aren’t about what people call “ghosts” – whatever that means. That being said I have always, or at least for as long as I can remember, had an interest in storytelling where the idea of a beginning, middle and end are not held as strong constituents, or neccessities. Stories that recur, and go on recurring down through generations – sometimes involving what is called visitations, sometimes something less well definable – but one that occurs and recurs nevertheless.

This story involves my re-familiarizing myself with Freud and Jentsch’s focus on the Uncanny – Das Unheimlech. According to Freud’s definition this could mean encountering something that is both familiar but at the same time deeply unsettling for reasons that are not immediately clear or obvious. Dolls and waxworks are commonly held to evoke a certain strange quality that could be experienced as deeply unsettling. Twins sometimes are held with deep suspicion and in some countries there is a custom of one twin being removed and “exposed”, or murdered soon after birth. I wonder whether the myth and fear of the doppelganger stems from this source of suspicion.

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I must admit that one of my other interests includes being a member of several railway enthusiast clubs. I should make clear I have no particular interest in locomotives or trains old or new. But often on these webpages photographs are posted of railways in cities and townscapes which have been irrevocably destroyed by bombing during the war and and the landscape changed by subsequent modernisation. These old black and white photographs are well taken, sharply focussed and show in incredible detail old buildings that no longer exist. Sometimes aerial photographs of landscapes that are no longer identifiable are posted. I take a particular interest in the mining valley where I was born and grew up. The era of coal mining had long come to an end, and the sixty or so active mines had been closed and a landscape once dominated by the destructive processes of this industry had disappeared by the time I a teenager.

There is an eerie quality to the black and white photographs of Victorian, and turn of the century (20thC) streets and the figures staring back at the photographer – figures from another time.

Postcard Glamorgan Colliery Rhondda circa 1910

My searches of these photographs particularly involves looking for buildings that were present in my childhood or figured in stories that were told to me as a child. One such building was the “granary” of the local colliery – a mine with six shafts, numerous coke works and brick works. It was a huge mining combine contained within vast grounds and all protected by a high surrounding stone wall. During my childhood my parents rented the closed garden of the mine owners mansion set high on the hillside in its own wooded grounds. Each evening my mother and I would walk up the long driveway to the house and the gardens to feed the fowl and other animals we kept. On each journey to the garden we passed the huge structure of the “granary” with its four floors, looming high behind the mine’s walls. My mother would often tell me the story of the young man who set fire to the local film theatre – the Picturedrome – asa result of his infatuation with a young girl with whom he had been refused any chance of romantic involvement. After setting fire to the cinema he had sought to avoid capture, he tried to escape the hue and cry of the crowd and hid in the granary. In the search a policeman shone a torch up at the building and the man’s face white as a ghost was illuminated in the skylight. Walking by my mother’s side, a small child, I would look up at the building at the very same circular skylight, and sometimes when the moons reflection was caught in the glass it didn’t take much for my imagination to take hold, and the face of the escapee would once again be seen. A sleep disturbed by nightmares was sure to follow. However for as long as I’ve searched I’ve failed to find a photograph of this building – the granary.

One night, I decided to post some old photographs of the mine and the village in which I grew up, to see if this would prompt a discussion. Or perhaps in the chance someone would post a photograph including what I was interested in..

           Foto unknown source unattributable..

In amongst the responses I noticed one person’s somewhat intriguing post –

“Just as I remember it”.

I looked at this person’s social media page. His name was a very common one in the villages of the surrounding valley. I examined his page further and found, in amongst the personal photographs, one in particular which stood out.

It was a photograph of my class in nursery school (kindergarten) when I was four years of age. I recognised all my classmates but I did not recognise the photograph. I checked the nursery school photographs I possessed and one was missing. It was that one. I sat back feeling that this was slightly “odd”. Freud’s Unheimlech came to the forefront of my thoughts.

I messaged this man asking whether he was in the class and would he be willing to identify himself on the photograph.

After a long wait he responded by telling me he didn’t attend my school. Instead he named another school he attended.

This still seemed a bit strange. I asked him whether he had a link with someone in my class.

Again, after a long wait the answer came back.

No. He didn’t know anyone in the school.

I asked one further question.

“Why do you keep a photograph of a school and class of young children which you did not attend, if you do not know anyone who attended it and have no links to the school?”

Again a very long pause before an answer was posted.

“I just like collecting old photographs M8.”

Well nothing wrong with that I suppose – after all I like collecting old photographs too.

But the oddness of it began to chaff in my thoughts. It was very odd indeed I decided.

Every now and again I would go back to this unknown man’s social media page and examine that school photograph. My school photograph. What was it that bothered me about the fact that it was there? The fact that I was there – that I was that small four year old boy with the white blond hair staring back at the camera for all to see on this strangers page. It bothered me. Yes I was interested in old photographs. But I was interested in places – not people and certainly not very young school children.

Then one night the oddness of this whole thing  went up a gear. As I was looking over the school photograph I realised I knew all the names of the children with a few exceptions. I remembered one girl being seriously ill and hospitalised for a year or more, actually there were a few of those. But I also specifically remembered two of the boys, who at separate times disappeared. One boy a year later from the date of the photograph became ill with polio and died. The second boy was murdered just over a  year after that. Recognising my two young friends only seemed to amplify the oddness of this entire incident and acted to spur my puzzlement and curiosity about the reason this stranger should have this school photograph on his page.

On the next night I started to look at the images he’d posted of his friends. I immediately looked at the faces for any recognition – if there was anyone I knew. But there was no one. I started to check names. After all people’s appearance do change. I had begun to get tired at this point and started to think of closing everything down. Just as I decided to switch the machine off – there was a name I recognised it was one of the dead boys. The one who had been murdered. How was that? I looked at the face. No similarity. This was getting ridiculous. How could there be a similarity. He was dead. 

This was beginning to disturb me so much I decided I had to stop looking at these photographs. I had begun to question my sanity.

And again as I was about to switch off another name jumped out at me. It was the name of the other dead boy. And of course the photograph bore no resemblance at all to the little boy in the school photograph. How could it? He was dead!

If it is anywhere – Is this where the story begins?

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Short story by Rob Cullen.

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Don’t let go.

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“You should be told as a child that all the people of the place where you were born will follow you all your life through all the places you will ever live. And you will remember. It’s the sense of a place. But it’s much more.” Rob Cullen.

Don’t let go.

The roadway to the school skirted the bay. Steel grey skies, black seas raging, and those white wave crests. Astra heard the waves crashing on the rocks. She could taste the salt carried in the ozone filled air. The hood of the coat protected her from the worst of the icy blast but, even so, her eyes still smarted and ran with tears. Astra was tall and slim like most of her people. She walked quickly with a long determined stride. She watched the light flurries of snow gust past. Blown snow they’d said. It wouldn’t come to much they’d told her to reassure her. She’d never seen snow before she’d come to this country that was now her home. She hadn’t seen the sea before the escape out of Libya to Italy. She’d been terrified the first time she saw the high waves as the boat began to sink. Now as she walked along the bay road she could hear the sound of the breaking waves far below and it still frightened her.

The school had closed. It was a few days before Christmas. Astra knew her job. They’d shown her how to clean and what to do in each classroom. She had qualifications, a degree, but she took the job cleaning in the school. There was no other choice. They’d taken time to show her the ropes. That was how they described it.

When they said those words the first time it frightened Astra. She always tried to block out those old memories. But she couldn’t always control what she’d been told were “flashbacks” — the way she had been tied with ropes and all the other things she blocked out of her thoughts. She was grateful to be welcomed in this place. It was peaceful and quiet here. But she thought she would never get used to the wet and cold. It rained day after day and went on raining. She longed for the sun’s warmth on her skin.

Astra had been given the keys to the school. The Supervisor had told her he would call in at five to take her back to the village. The school was an old building with a high pitched black grey slate roof and high windows. They’d said it was Victorian. She didn’t understand what the word meant and just nodded as she always did out of politeness and made the “aha” sound to show that she understood even when she didn’t. She opened the heavy grey door. The smell in the school of disinfectant was so powerful it made her cough. Astra thought about the school in her village. A small isolated building in the Rift valley surrounded by high wire fences to keep the hyenas out especially at night. There was a single tap for water. White painted walls and bare wood tables where they sat for their lessons. That was all. She learned to read and write. She learned mathematics. She loved reading. She began to learn about a world outside.

Astra wandered from class room to class room switching on the lights. It was only when she opened the staff room that she caught the smell of tobacco. She’d been told she would be alone in the building. She stopped to listen. Just silence. She retraced her footsteps to see if she’d left the front door unlocked. The smell of tobacco had grown stronger. She looked out at the darkening sky even though it was supposed to be day-time. The snow falling was different now, large, huge even, snowflakes as big as saucers hurled themselves out of the sky. The roadway was completely white.

Astra took her coat off and listened to the silence of the building. The heating system had been switched off for the Christmas holidays but the building still held a warmth. She started cleaning the youngest children’s classroom. She hoovered the floor. After that was done Astra stood for a while looking at the prettiness of the Christmas tree. As she stood there the silver tinsel decorations began shimmering, and two Christmas cards toppled over, as if a door had opened behind her sending a draft of air through the room, and bringing coldness that caused her to shiver. She turned but the door was closed. The slight tingling sound of a star hanging from one of the branches at the top of the tree immediately caught her attention and she felt her skin prickle with fear. She was certain now someone else was in the building.

Astra watched the snow through the high windows as it swept across the sky. She could see that drifts had begun to gather against the playground wall. She felt as though she had been forgotten. But the Supervisor had promised to collect her at 5.00pm without fail. Even so Astra was worried and had begun to think maybe she should lock up and walk back to her home before it became worse.

But then she worried about what the Supervisor would think of her if he came and she was not here.

“This was a trial.” he’d said.

She needed the job. Besides it was four o’clock only another hour. She decided to keep busy and finish cleaning the classrooms.

As Astra entered the next classroom the lights began flickering. Darkness. She felt for the light switch, flicked it on and then off, and back on. Nothing happened. Through the tall windows she could see the sky was completely dark now. She walked to the head master’s office picked up the landline phone. There was no dial tone. Her mobile showed barely a single bar. She heard the Supervisors recorded voice, and the message to leave a number and he would call back. Then silence. The signal had gone. And then that smell of tobacco again. Stronger now.

Astra walked into the hall. An orange glow filled the huge space. She could see the outline of a man sitting with his back to her in front of the large cast iron stove. The window of the door of the stove glowed with deep orange flames that flickered across the high walls of the hall. Astra walked to a position in the room where there was a distance between her and this man but a place where she could observe this man more clearly. He was elderly, a thick head of grey black hair and a heavy moustache and a small pipe jutted out of his mouth which was the source of the smell of tobacco.

“Excuse me sir? Do you work in the school? I have not seen you before.”

“Hello young lady. Worked in the school since I was invalided out of the army. I come from here. I’ve always been here. Pull up a chair in the warmth dear. I think by the look of things we might be here for a while.”

“I am locking up the school and you should leave now.”

The man turned towards her.

“In my experience if you walk from this place on a night like this you would place yourself in danger. It is not the sort of weather to be caught outdoors. Best to stay here where you are safe. They will come for you. Just be patient.”

Astra felt complete uncertainty about what she should do. She recognised the growing fear within herself, that ache in her stomach. She watched as the man turned to look out at the night sky and the snow drifting past the windows.

Astra pulled a chair so that she sat at an angle close to the warmth of the stove but from a position where she could observe this man closely.

“Where do you come from my dear?”

Astra considered the question. In the past she would lie or avoid answering. He spoke quietly almost a whisper. There was something calming about his voice.

“You have not answered my question young lady. I like to hear people’s news. Take your time I have all the time in the world.”

Astra hesitated again but then spoke of the place she’d grown up.

“My village is not far from the road to Djibouti. My family look after their herds — always looking for new pastures.”

“Herds of cattle.”

“Camels. Some cattle, sheep and goats also. When the rains fail life is very hard. The cattle die. The old and children also. My people are thought of as backward and punished as if they are animals. If my people resist, the repression only becomes worse. Bad things happen. So I left.”

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Astra held a glimpse of her fathers and brothers with the herd. She smiled. She brushed tears away from remembering.

“I came here to live again — in the rain.”

“And the snow.”

They both laughed.

“What is your name?”

“Astra.”

“Astra, if I remember my Latin lessons, it means star — if I’m not mistaken.”

“Aha. Astra is not my name. It was a name given to me by the aid workers.”

She went on.

“I was pulled out of the sea. Dead. No life in me. I was drowned.”

“Drowned did you say?”

“They breathed life into me. I came back. It was not my time they said.”

“Dead?”

“My real name was difficult for them. They called me Astra. But it is the name of another’s life. It is not my name.”

She heard her mobile ring. Ran for it but the phone immediately went into answerphone.

“Hello Astra.” She heard the Supervisor say.

“We will get to you as soon as we can. We’re trying to get to you…”

The voice faded and the signal died. She felt — what did she feel? Numb. Fear. The ache in her stomach was intense now. The fear she felt now, mingled with meories of that old pain. 

Astra returned to sit with the old man. She felt herself immediately tense as he rose and walked slowly to the kitchen. He returned out of the darkness with an old brown enamel kettle he placed on the top of the stove. He walked away again and returned with two grey blankets. He held them out to her.

“Wrap yourself in these Astra. They’ll keep you warm.”

“My name is Tomos by the way.”

They sat in silence.

“You said you were dead just then. You are alive are you Astra?”

“I’m alive. That is a strange question. ”

“Only sometimes I see things — people and I’m not sure….”

Steam started rising from the kettle. Astra watched as he made tea. He passed her a mug. It was sweet with lots of milk and sugar. She sipped at the warm liquid and felt very tired. She found difficulty keeping her eyes open. She listened as Tomos spoke about the hard winters of the past and a year when the heaviest falls of snow left the village cut off for weeks.

“People had to go out in it. However bad the weather was and dig out sheep covered by the blizzard. I don’t suppose your family had that kind of problem.”

Astra laughed and shook her head.

“No. Never.”

“Do you know the snow was so high, sometimes, it was easier walking on the tops of the hedges rather than try to walk through the depths of the snow in the roads?”

He shook his head.

“But we managed. Somehow we managed and got through. And then the rains came and washed it all away but that brought its own problems. Then there was the flooding. Life is like that.”

She heard herself say –

“In my country things are bad. The government kills my people.”

She felt his eyes on her.

“If I hadn’t run — I would not live. I would not be here.”

Tomos looked at her for a long time before turning to stare out at the swirling snow in the darkness of the night sky.

“I think I should leave now and go back home. What will you do?”

“Astra it would be madness if you try and go out on a night like this. You are safe here. Best stay and wait. They will come for you.”

Astra could no longer keep her eyes open. She fell into a disturbed, restless sleep. Occasionally she would wake and listen to the storm gusting against the roof and see the stream of snow blown across the darkness outside the windows. 

Tomos remained sitting silhouetted against the orange glow from the stove. Now and then she heard him open the stove, heard the roar of the draw of the fire and watched as he shovelled coal and the red flames that shot out.

Watching Tomos her attention was caught by droplets of water falling from his sleeve to the floor. Astra noticed the drops falling onto the wooden floor below the chair he was slouched on. Droplets of water gathering at the sleeve of his coat, to run along the palm of his hand, and fall steadily, one after the other to the floor. The sight of it brought her out of her sleepiness. She thought she could hear the water dropping into the small pool gathered under his chair.

“Tomos are you wet? Shouldn’t you get out of that coat and let it dry?”

“No need to worry about me young lady. I’m used to it. It’ll dry through in time.”

Astra listened to him reminiscing about the war, the desert and the heat and as he spoke for the first time she saw the unreflecting blackness of his eyes. It was as if his eyes had no life in them.

“Tomos? In my family we are different from others. We see things others cannot see. We see what are called spirits. We see the dead who still walk in this world. Do you understand me?”

“Now that’s strange you should say that. My grandmother had what they called second sight. Or so she said. Now that’s a queer thing. Why are you telling me this?”

“But you understand?”

“Oh yes. In these parts certain families were said to have what they called the “eye”. People who see the dead”

“Spirits of the dead?”

“Some people thought that.”

“I will tell you a story Tomos. In my home I would wake early and go to water the cows and goats. A cow that I liked had a calf. I loved the calf. I would go to her. And give her whatever sweet grass I could find. Some water too. I remember one morning when I was walking back to my parents hut on the pathway in front of me stood a man I did not immediately recognise. He was small, stooped and old. I stopped. I was frightened. He looked at me and smiled and I recognised the eyes of my grandfather. He was looking at me but looked as if he could not see me. His eyes were black. But of course he had died. I bowed to him, greeted him and called him Abu. A mark of respect for an elder in my home you understand. He nodded and walked by me without saying a word. I walked on but every now and again I turned to see whether he was following. He frightened me. It seems our spirits are like yours. The dead still walking in places they were once familiar with. They are still wandering — unseen — apart from some people who can see them.”

“Isn’t it strange? We are two people from different countries. And end up talking about this. It’s strange.”

The old man spoke again.

“It’s my turn to tell you a story Astra. Once when I was a young child I was very ill. I was at deaths door if the truth be known. Throughout the time of my illness I would wake in the early hours and see an old woman sitting in the darkness. My mother told me afterwards we all have guardians that look after us and warn us when we are in great danger. My mother believed that the old lady was keeping me awake preventing me from slipping away at that time they call the wolf’s hour. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of it. But it’s the time at night when the old and sick slip away. My mother said she thought the spirit was telling me it was not my time.”

“Tomos was she a spirit?”

He sighed — “I am tired now Astra.”

There was a moment of silence.

“The old woman who sat at night with you when you were a child?” Astra asked.

“Yes. What about her?”

“Did you ever see her again?”

“No, not see her exactly. I thought I heard her voice once though.”

“Tomos when was that?”

“Funny thing about that. It was a snow storm like tonight. I was going home from the school. I could hardly walk against the wind. And the snow was so deep it was nigh impossible to walk.”

She heard him draw a deep breath as though he was finding it hard to get the words out.

“Do you understand Astra? I was being blown backwards. I was a strong man but I couldn’t keep my feet. I never in my life felt so tired. I wanted to lie down in the snow and go to sleep. But I fought it.”

“And the voice? What did she say to you?”

”She told me to let go. “Tomos its time to let go now”. Is what she kept saying.”

“Just that?”

“Yes just those words. But I wasn’t ready. Her words made me angry. I couldn’t let go. I was young. I had a life to live.”

“What happened then Tomos?”

“I got through. I’m here Astra.”

“Yes I can see you Tomos.”

“I’m here Astra. Do you understand?”

“I can see you and hear you. Abu you must know?”

Both looked at each other in silence.

“Astra why did you call me Abu?”

“You must know?”

Astra searched for any expression on his face. The old man turned towards the glow of the fire. She watched as he closed his eyes.

“I’m tired now Astra.”

The fire started to die. The room became darker and the man called Tomos became a silhouette she could barely discern from the gloom that had overtaken the room. She began to feel herself fall into sleep. But in a brief moment of wakening she saw orange lights flash across the sky outside. It took a few minutes for her to realise someone had come for her. She was going to be rescued. Astra ran to the main door of the school. Opening it she saw the headlights of a huge tractor with orange lights flashing on its cab. She saw the man get out and walk towards her.

“Astra? Get your things together. I’m taking you back. Are you OK?”

“Yes I’m alive. Thank God you came.”

Astra ran to get her coat and bag. The chair where the old man had been sitting was empty.

Somewhere in the back of the school she heard the sound of a heavy door slam shut.

Astra whispered –

“Tomos don’t let go.”

©robcullen2020.

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