Archive for October, 2015

Or is it just your imagination, running away with you?


The conversation that set in motion this chain of events was hardly memorable. A chance meeting with a childhood friend who I had not seen in years. That perhaps makes the incident sound more romantic and more significant than it felt at the time. In fact this individual had never been more than an acquaintance, even when we had shared a classroom back at primary school. We both spent a couple of years lingering on the fringes of the same gang – that is all. No doubt this explains why our adult conversation soon grew so strained and awkward. We had literally run into each other during a busy lunch break, both of us impatiently scouting for seats in a crowded café. He seemed to recognise me immediately, which must have instantly put me on my guard. A little bit of background: I am one of those rare souls from our hometown who has spent most of his life living and working away from Lethmachen. Yes I returned a year or two ago, but to be honest the demands of my career have allowed little opportunity for nostalgia and I never had the time for looking up old friends. Nevertheless I suppose it was only natural that our conversation was quickly directed towards those people we once had in common. It was not my intention to be rude or dismissive, but I genuinely struggled for something to say. At first I could not summon up any of the faces of the names mentioned, nothing but an indistinct blur of half formed faces in school uniforms. Then, out of nowhere, something came back to me. ‘Matthew Dolly?’ My companion fell silent, and studied me noncommittally, as if I had said something mildly offensive or inappropriately intimate. No, he did not recall anyone by that name. Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Matty had been as insignificant as we had been, just another boy on the margins, never the centre of attention with the boys or a favourite with the girls. If my memory served me right, he had actually been subject to a certain amount of teasing, on account of his effeminate surname and a nervous stutter.

My companion left shortly after, suddenly recalling that he needed to be back at the office in time for an important meeting. It meant nothing to me – the conversation had been stilted, inconsequential, and I did not expect to give it a second thought. However over the next few days it kept cropping up in my mind at the least opportune moments: in the middle of a delivering a corporate presentation or in the middle of the night. I suppose I was being oversensitive, guilty about not having been more open towards my old acquaintance. I found myself dwelling over every word uttered as some people are inclined to do. Why had he not remembered Matthew Dolly? The more I thought about that strange boy the more long forgotten details I was able to sketch in. Yes, on the whole he had simply been a face in the crowd – one of the substitutes for the football team or an anonymous shepherd during the nativity play. And yet there had been a handful of occasions when we had actually spent some quality time together…alone. Once Matty had turned up unexpectedly at my house on a Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t even aware he knew where I lived. My family were out – I had played up a slight cold to avoid having to trawl around the shops in the town centre. Matty and I spent three or four hours making up games in the attic, hunting through dusty boxes I knew I was not supposed to touch. It had been fun, but I remember I made him leave before my parents returned. After all, I was supposed to be ill. There was another time when I returned his visit. He lived with his grandmother in this old house on the hill that everyone thought had been empty for years. Matty invented some kind of treasure hunt because he had acres of overgrown gardens and lots of empty rooms. In one of these there were lots of dolls. Nothing but a heap of china dolls, lying neglected upon the floorboards, their eyes fixed on the door we had inched open.

Thankfully as the busy weeks passed I gradually forgot all about Matthew Dolly, resigned him to history once more. Then one evening recently I was enjoying a meal with my parents in a local restaurant. It was something they said that stirred everything up again, that raised the gnawing sense of doubt that has plagued me ever since. It began with the most casual of remarks. Perhaps these things often do. My parents were already in the preliminary stages of organising a small New Year’s Eve party for a few of the neighbours. It was a tradition down their road that each household took a turn as hosts as this year was the turn of my parents. This led to a discussion of the gatherings they used to host when they first moved to Lethmachen, and I was about five years old. As I grew older, and I assume my parents felt successfully assimilated into the community, these little soirées became few and far between. Yet they were a significant part of my early years, when every weekend I would be dragged out of bed to meet the assembled guests. As a nervous child, I always found being paraded in front of a crowd of slightly drunk strangers quite intimidating. My parents understood this and so, my duties over, I would then be permitted to retreat to the kitchen with a glass of lemonade and a plate of cheese and pineapple on sticks. There was one person I always enjoyed seeing though, who would pop his head into the kitchen with a friendly smile, either to tell me a joke or to smuggle me a handful of peanuts he had pinched from the glass bowl in the living room. He was, I think, a work colleague of my father’s. That is, I had never seen him around the area so I assumed he was not a neighbour. Somehow he seemed younger than the other party guests and his name was David Christmas. I shared this memory with my parents.

‘There was no such person, you must have imagined him!’ Both my parents were adamant about this, insistent even. Suddenly, inexplicably, my thoughts flashed back to Matthew Dolly. There seemed to be a connection, something I had overlooked. Could it be that I had imagined them both? Before I had time to consider the implications, my parents had proceeded with the conversation. No, they had only thrown a few of those evening parties, and there had been nobody present called David Christmas. Perhaps it was one of their friends playing a joke, although they could not imagine from my description whom it could be. Anyway, as they had explained, they had never really felt comfortable hosting those events, full of people they soon discovered they felt nothing in common with. If anything, the experience had only made them feel more isolated in their new neighbourhood. Instead they had soon settled on a more sedate arrangement with a certain couple they had become particularly friendly with. Did I not remember June and Geoff Ainsell? They used to come over for a meal every other Saturday night? No, try as hard as I might, I could not picture these people at all. I was about to say so when something terrible dawned on me. Perhaps my parents had imagined June and Geoff Ainsell, much as it appeared I had imagined David Christmas and Matthew Dolly? Should I dare suggest this possibility to them? But how could I? Too much time had passed, it would only upset things.

For I was beginning to recognise there was always a fragile sense of narcissism in the developing of an imaginary friend. A need to reassure ourselves that an imaginary friend lived only for us, that only our behaviour could impact upon their mood, that we alone could appoint a time for their final dismissal. Yet what if this belief were mistaken? What if imaginary friends were non-exclusive? What if in fact they were as indifferent to you, as sporadic in their interest, as ‘real friends’ so often were? Perhaps their needs were as fleeting and fickle as our own and they would only ever be peripheral characters in our lives. But then, how to identify an imaginary friend, to distinguish them from a real one, either at the time or with hindsight? Would there be a tell-tale sign in the purpose they served, or would their true nature be almost unobservable? How many of the people I had thought I had known in the past had in fact only existed in my imagination? For many weeks now I have been able to dismiss this anxiety, to get the fear out of my head.



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Is cleanliness next to godliness? Or next to something very different?


Dear Lethmachen Haunted,

I had the strangest experience in the bath last night. I realise there is a supremely rational explanation, but I would really prefer another, for reasons that will become clear. The twist is simple: when, after washing my hair with an old cup whilst sitting in deep, warm and soapy water –this a throwback from childhood – I lay out flat and submerged my head.  On doing so, I heard – with great clarity – the ringing of a little bell. Ting, ting, ting. This sound was small, like a jewel, I thought, but perfectly distinct. It was a tolling, not a shaking nor a rattling. Is there a possibility this is something a little more romantic than tinnitus or madness? If anyone knows, they are sure to be a regular reader of your wonderful site…

All the very best, Nigel Scrimp

We would be delighted to hear from anyone who can help Nigel. In the meantime we asked folklorist and friend of the site Nigel Lawrence Tuns-Smith for his take on the bath time bells:

Bells are uncanny. The bell is bound to the science of metallurgy, forever associated with occult practice. Imagine: you are out upon the common lands. No one is about, and all it is possible to encounter is mud and sky, the occasional trees or low lying shrub. If you say up there a while, an animal might come into view, having lost its way.  Before that: a sound.  The dull, sway of a bell. No other person is about, but that sound is sourced in iron, and where there is iron, there are human hands, and the spark of invention.  In a moment, human agency has intruded in a space you know is bereft of all human life other than your own. A spectral presence. Taken another way, that chime can speak of man’s departure, and that brings its own specific fear. The bell can sound through chance, not design, through the movement of air, or the swaying of bovine shoulders. It is an instrument of the human, but its note does not need to be consciously willed. The striking of a bell can thus seem automatic, deathly, a human art extrinsic to the human. The repetition of the thing supports this. The ringing of the bell goes nowhere. In one sense, it serves no purpose. Of course, it draws attention to itself, and thus to whatever it is bound, yet this really is nothing. Its purpose is to announce existence. It achieves nothing. That is why, I think, it has its place in ritual. It is the pointlessness of the thing that isolates it from any wider meaning: it has the terrible cleanliness essential to any ritual object. The danger is that this pointlessness can return in ways that are not desired, drawing attention to the emptiness of whatever ritual is to be enacted. It is not only that the bells, as signifying nothing themselves, fail to adulterate the wedding, but they sing out and repeat wedding’s insignificance, its lack of difference, the extent to which it is beyond anyone’s control. The bell is extrinsic, as I have said: the terror of it always comes back to that.

Of course, ‘the bell under water’ has a long standing tradition in British folklore. The drowned church mourns the passing of a golden age, and celebrates its persistence, whilst warning against a loss of faith. The knell is heard from an element other than water: it reaches the ears of those upon the land. Nigel has encountered something different. As we know from the song of whales that sounds travel swiftly beneath the waves.  Is it that these particular sounds have traversed a great distance? Or is it that distance is precisely what is not an issue. The bell is with Nigel, not attached to some other place, some lost way of thinking.  If this is a keening, what is to be lost? As all devotees of the Tarot know, death does not have to mean death in its most literal sense. Yet, I think, it is well that Nigel, concerned as he is with tinnitus and madness, is sure to be visiting his GP at the earliest opportunity…

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