They will soon be a forgotten set of rituals, all the practices of amateur photography before the advent of the digital camera. Each frame was precious when the film rationed you to 36 frames and you assessed your composition more carefully before committing to capture it with the depression of a satisfyingly weighty button and a staccato swish from the shutter. Failure to wind the film on by one frame from spindle to spindle would result, at worst, in two ruined images amalgamated into one confusing double exposure, or, at best, the intriguing appearance of a ghostly figure superimposed on an inappropriate background.
Ever the enthusiast for his hobbies, my dad contrived a a domestic darkroom in our third bedroom to make his own prints from the negatives he had processed in Bakelite canisters. On the wallpaper of this little room, crinoline clad lady ducks, and gentlemen rabbits with their ears poking through their hats still cavorted. These I had studied sideways through the bars of my cot as an infant, until I had been promoted to a larger bedroom at the back.
The wizardry was performed in eerie red light. The bulbous projector hung like a celestial object in the gloom, suspended over the light-sensitive paper in its frame. My dad told me to hold my breath for the few seconds of the exposure, hoping that neither we, nor a rare evening vehicle passing down Bosty Lane would cause a vibration that might mar it.
Into albums went photographs that presented us safely to the world, shoes polished, happy, and healthy. The stash of negatives, which I am so glad to have inherited, was the id of photography: it was its subconscious mind, the repository of the forgotten, the secret, and the regretted – even the unbearable. Unflattering portraits; images of friends fallen out of favour; or dear faces, in hindsight showing glaringly obvious pain and decay. Some things that we can’t bear to see, but can’t bear to destroy.
Could I convince you that there was no living person in the lane when this particular photograph was taken? That the figure in the middle distance only became visible when the film was developed, and that the unnerving presence of the apparition was what caused the negative to be consigned to dusty ignominy at the bottom of a drawer for so many years until my curiosity ferreted it out?
Probably not – that mysterious, heavily coated figure is most likely to be my grandad, Alfred Noah Horton, “Pop” to everyone, just as my grandmother was “Ma”. And the dark smudge of its familiar, trotting ahead? – Just the dog.
From the south-east corner of his family’s home, Keeper’s Cottage, near the side door into the tiny kitchen, here my dad’s camera points up Footherley Lane in the direction of Stonnall. The trees whose leafless outlines mark this particular curve of the lane are still easily recognisable from the same spot today, sixty odd years later. A recent fall of snow has shrunk back into the earth – apart from a stubborn patch clinging to the shadiest part of the high hedge banks that flank Footherley Lane, testament to the long history of this thoroughfare. In a hard winter, these solid margins formed a channel in which snow tended to collect, so that my dad and his brothers could excavate a tunnel to walk in, strangely lit by weak, filtered winter sun.
Information is precariously invested in these scraps of celluloid. Out of context, the location of this country lane will be meaninglessly anonymous as soon as I am not here to interpret it. I like the spooky atmospheric charm which the patination of age on the negative has conferred on this image. Time has not yet destroyed it.
Keeper’s Cottage’s many years as a family home are well and truly over, and it looks much more of a haunted place now, with clumsy breeze blocks filling the window holes and all the garden overgrown, than ever it did at the time my dad took that photograph, when light still streamed through the little windows and a fire burnt brightly in the grate of the range. Whatever ghosts walk there now, no one is there to perceive them. Of the two manifestations that my Horton family witnessed in the 1930s, I can offer no evidence, just the retelling of the stories I was told – no less insubstantial, I suppose, than other folkloric tales of ephemeral family history that happen not to contain the supernatural. There is no narrative to connect the two stories, which I simply present as I heard them – there is, I am afraid, no twist in the tale.
Ghost stories attach themselves to ancient places, and the cottage is old, there is no doubt about that, and the dwelling place, near the brook, near the wood, and near the now invisible course of a stretch of Roman Ryknield Street, is older still. The building which served as a barn, orientated at 90% from the cottage and the lane, showed signs of doors and windows now bricked up – both indicating that it might have been an earlier dwelling. The Besant family lived at Keepers Cottage for a few years before my family moved there in about 1929, and prior to that, the last Gamekeeper, Albert Reed, a Hampshire man by birth, was still living out a peaceful retirement there in 1911, according to the census of that year. Did these families, I wonder, pass on to younger generations any tales of strange happenings within these walls?
Ma was up early to light the range one morning, in the decade before the war, and was the first to hear a wheezing, sighing presence in the corner of the room. Pop perched on the stool to put on his boots ready for his cycle ride to work, and remarked to Ma that he, too, could hear it. Bill, George, and my dad had the same experience as they bent to tie their laces, casting their eyes about for the source of the sound. When my dad came home from Shenstone school that day, the noise had gone. Ma said that about 11 o’clock, there had been a final rasping gulp, and it was silent. It never made its presence felt again.
Of the three small rooms that constituted the upper floor of the cottage, two were interconnected, and in the third, to the left at the top of the stairs, slept the boys, Bill, George, and my dad, Ted, all in one feather bed. When nights were still and sultry towards the end of the summer, a strange phenomenon repeatedly occurred. A loud thud against the outside wall of the bedroom would be followed by the unmistakable sound of a heavy object rolling across the bare wooden boards. More intrigued than frightened, one night Bill said “I’ll have the bugger,” and piled all their clothes in a heap in the middle of the floor. Sure enough, in the darkest part of the night, the thud was heard, and the rolling noise began, only to pause thoughtfully at the pile of trousers and vests, before continuing on its way towards the landing.
Whatever will it do, this thing, when the walls of the cottage finally tumble?