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.
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?
Short story by Rob Cullen.