On the last wedding anniversary my parents ever celebrated, my mother and father slept in a room that once housed King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. It was everything my mother had both expected and could not imagine: a bedchamber sequestered in a dark-stoned turret, up a spiral staircase and behind a thick wooden door. The room featured a four-poster bed with a gold-fringed canopy, a lion-clawed tub, and a window for every cardinal direction. In Mom’s estimation, these were the things that were due to kings, queens, and their lovers.
My parents had left me and my younger sisters in the care of cousins while she and my father, along with my aunt and uncle, found refuge in this weekend getaway in Gloucestershire. It was a celebration, after all. But despite the verdant trappings of a walled garden, rows of observant suits of armor that kept post in the buttressed halls, and personalized room service for any given occasion, there was the unsettled memory of my mother’s recent miscarriage that kept her enjoyment at bay. On the actual night of her anniversary, she drank more than she usually did — my mother is a moderate drinker — while she, my father, my aunt, and my uncle laughed at the resemblance the waiter bore to the ever-abashed Manuel from the BBC show Fawlty Towers. I know nothing!, my aunt or uncle probably blared, quoting the show. She drank so much that when it was time to order dessert, she, the sole American, could not ask for her favorite dish: bread pudding with raisins, or, as it is commonly called in England, spotted dick. Spotted dick! my father or uncle or aunt most likely tried to say, choking on laughter and the flaming aftermath of digestifs. This was helping my mother, pushing away the interloping sadness. They all drank so much that someone spilled a glass of water, and another waiter had to ask them to quiet down.
Here is something my mother never told me, but something I am sure of yet. After my mother and father clambered up their turret and into their room; after they had stopped laughing, the first laughter they had shared in a long while, and probably one of the last; after they turned their backs to each other in the bed, their spines interlocked in a way both familiar and mournful, like conjoined egg yolks in a bowl; after my mother thought of what they would have named the baby if it had become her baby; after all this, she remembered that Henry and Anne had once slept here, and wondered how a chopping block could make a world of difference.
The summer I was ten years old, my family moved from Pittsburgh, PA to Kenilworth, England because my father, an academic, accepted a position at the University of Warwick. We were always destined to be an itinerant bunch. Dad, a British emigre to the U.S., was the son of Holocaust survivors, who had left Nazi-occupied Vienna with the panicked hope of an unblemished life, only to be met by an impoverished existence in North London and the slow, eventual news of relatives that had been obliterated in Mauthausen, in Treblinka, in Lodz. The ghosts of exterminated relatives crowded every room in their modest flat in West Hampstead, reminding my father and his two older siblings why their mother, my oma, hid tins of non-perishables in dresser drawers, or why they were brought up not to believe in G-d. In turn, my father seized a scholarship to graduate school at Brandeis, met my mother there, and married her. While writing his dissertation, they moved and lived in a handful of towns and cities across the eastern seaboard. After that, Dad constantly drifted from visiting professorships to conference junkets and academic fieldwork. Travel was another word for escape: if no one knows you’re there, no one has a reason to find you.
So we uprooted to an outskirt called Kenilworth, where we lived in a square duplex a two-minute drive away from a decimated castle the color of rust. While my father went to the university, my mother packed crackers and sliced kosher salami into a basket, hounded me and my sisters into a car, and drove us to Roman ruins and Georgian palaces, as far west as the Welsh border and as far north as Nottingham. On weekends, we took the M40 to Milton Keynes to visit my father’s sister and her family, or the occasional trip to London. If it was London, we either dove into the common tourist traps of the Tower of London or Piccadilly Circus, or paid homage to my father’s upbringing. The latter was its own historical tour. We gaped out the car window at the townhouse he was born in, or placed stones at the columbarium that contained the cremains of Oma and Opa, as per Jewish custom, pebbles more lasting than lilies. All of this fed my already present fascination for British history, leftover from stories about King Arthur and other love-sodden knights. And from there, my fascination with ghosts.
When we set out on our day trips, driving on the wrong side of the road, I made it a habit to bring two books with me: The Young Oxford History of Britain and Ireland, and a selection about the ghosts of whatever places we were visiting. The latter I bought with what I saved from my weekly allowance. Most of them had the word haunted in the title, followed by the name of the city or town. Haunted Cambridge, Haunted Bibury, Haunted Stoke-on-Trent. They delivered nightmares filled with demon wings, vicious and folded, grey women in regency dresses, and Victorian children blued with loneliness. I tried not to sleep. I couldn’t get enough.
It was only on a trip to Oxford that the idea of ghosts became palpable — that the dead could surface and retrace their steps, all for me to witness.
My mother had purchased a coin-thin book for me — Haunted Oxford — which I read as we all ate pouches of falafel on Cornmarket Street. One page discussed a room at Worcester College that paired the looping patter of footsteps with a bleak chill that almost suffocated the quarters. Compared to accounts of archbishops that bowled their own heads across campus lawns and faceless men that roamed the gardens near Magdalen Bridge, this was tame stuff. But there was something devastating about this story, so innocuous that it could allow you to be wounded. As my mother finished her lunch, unaware that the knotting cells inside of her were destined to unreel, I imagined myself trapped in a room for that grew more ancient with each breath, going from one end to the other in a circuit, desperate for someone to finally see me.
A few weeks after my mother’s miscarriage, I encountered my first and only ghost.
My father’s boss had invited us to a day at his estate outside of Manchester, and Dad had decided to make a weekend’s vacation out of it, perhaps to distract my mother from mourning what could have been, perhaps to divert the wash of relief at the child that never was. Their marriage was already in the last stages of its undoing. My father had envisioned a life of passport pages stamped with entry visas in languages he could not read, while my mother longed for the house she had left behind. In a few months, we would move back to that house, my father intent on divorce. But for now, we were a family.
Dad had booked two conjoined rooms in Nantwich called Rookery Hall, an Elizabethan-style hotel that was once a private manor. We would spend the afternoon and night there, leaving the next morning after breakfast.
Hours after my parents had put us all to bed and receded behind their door, I awoke to the bloodless rhythm of approaching footfall coming from the hallway. An ebbing coldness in my marrow made it hard to believe I was alive, and my teeth latched into my tongue. As the steps drew nearer, so did the choking scent of flowers. Wake up, I thought, wake up!
It ended with no flourish or sudden apparition; the footsteps disappeared with the efficiency of a departing train, and I could move my hands again. I ran to the door and opened it, wide enough to peer through, cautious enough to slam.
The corridor was empty. We were at the end of the hall. There was no other door or exit. Ours was the last stop.
The next morning, amid scones and pink fruit cut into the shape of stars, I thumbed through a pamphlet about the brief history of Rookery Hall. Here is what I came across:
Would-be guests should not be deterred by the legend of the ghosts. The Grey Lady, whose portrait hangs in the Drawing Room, was an elderly maid of the Cookes, the builders of the Hall some two hundred years ago. She had a fatal fall whilst hanging curtains and is said to roam the corridors leaving a sweet smell of flowers in her wake.
Mom, I said, Mom, last night I saw a ghost. My sisters made faces, stretching their mouths apart with hooked fingers. You were only dreaming, said my mother. She smiled. Nothing could ever haunt us, she wanted to say, if only such a thing could be true.
My father’s mother, my oma, was the madwoman in the attic, plugging her ears with her fingers to silence the voices of the dead from Mauthausen, from Treblinka, from Lodz, all to no avail. These voices came through the trim windows of small moments, while she battened pastry dough at the bakery where she worked, or when she steeped her morning tea. They only asked one question: Why you? Why was it you and your sister that survived? For this, she had no answer.
Though she was never diagnosed, it is taken as fact in my family that Oma had a mental illness, though it is hard to define the clinical parameters. She was given to bouts of depression and paranoia that submerged her like a mire of peat. For two years, she refused to speak to my parents for my mother’s transgression of insisting that Oma relax while Mom made a holiday dinner. She was so different from her sister, Gerte, who countered my oma’s erraticism with a patience that could almost be mistaken for inner peace.
When we lived in England, Oma had been dead for five years, and Gerte was the only survivor left. I met her once, and only once. Fittingly, it is my last memory of England, after the ghost of Rookery Hall, and before I was told about my mother’s miscarriage a decade later.
It was a family reunion, at Gerte’s son’s house, my father’s only cousin. A jumble of pastries and salads adorned a long table, and I sat on the floor, watching my sisters tug at the sleeves of their elders. Dad and his sister, the only two left after their older brother, Dennis, died of cancer; my mother and her empty womb, my father’s cousin and his boy and girl; Gerte, crumpled in a seat. There was too much food for so few people. Us, the last ones standing.
Gerte saw me watching, her little tomboy of a great-niece. She unfurled her lips in a shadow of a smile. Dennis, she said to me, take a piece of cake. It’s your favorite, I know.
I looked into Gerte’s eyes, history at my throat. At long last, once and for all, I knew that ghosts were real.
In England, every city is the most haunted city. Every room has a blue boy, every corridor a grey lady, every light-absent street has a man with no face. On every battlement someone walks, by every river someone jumps, and in every room there is the echo of someone who once cradled their face in their hands, shocked by the first crack of a broken heart.
So here is the problem with history: we see the same ghosts, over and over, and still we never learn.
J.E. Reich's writing is recent or forthcoming in Luna Luna Magazine, Nerve, LIT Magazine, Armchair/Shotgun, the Daily Dot, and Volume 1 Brooklyn, and her novella The Demon Room is out now. She lives in Brooklyn. You can follow her on Twitter at @jereichwrites.