“‘One of my patients thinks somebody’s trying to kill him,” Aileen Macklin says to her husband over breakfast. A psychiatrist with a fading marriage, Aileen is haunted by the glue-sniffing lad who comes to her in a panic, begging to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for protection. Gary Dunn clearly needs help: ravaged by his squalid existence, he is paralyzed with fear about a murder he has witnessed and convinced he may be next. Unfortunately for Gary, he may just be right. And unfortunately for Aileen, she becomes far more involved in his case than professional ethics would recommend.‘
I found this an intriguing story. The separate threads of the story gradually interweave, while the atmosphere of vague threat increases. The author has written this story in such a way that a ‘natural’ explanation is possible – if flawed by a few improbable co-incidences. A ghostly one is also hinted at: the decision seemed to be left in the hands of the reader.
This was a fairly complex book, and I may have missed on certain points that interconnect the interwoven plots.
It is also set in the 1980’s – an era I remember well, the one before the rise of the internet, mobile phones, social media. Car culture was only just taking off as a mass addiction in the UK.
Another sort of addiction – glue sniffing – was comparatively new, too.
Intriguingly, I found the callousness of the characters who together form a sort of diverse, malevolent collective antagonist almost shocking.
There is Aileen’s husband Doug, for instance. The depiction of his relentless attempts to destroy her – always shaky – self confidence is a coolly objective description of long term emotional abuse. Although at this time understanding the destructive nature of ‘gaslighting’ as a destructive weapon against a marriage partner or family member had not developed, the author clearly realises how terribly destructive this treatment is, and that it is deliberate. Doug subjects Aileen to a decades long campaign of emotional abuse of various forms, and yet, Aileen never thinks of leaving him.
‘Her…mistake…was to try and discuss openly with him the deteriorating state of their marriage. ..Her husband had not only refused to talk about it, but had rejected her description of the situation as distorted and exaggerrated. “If you don’t mind my saying so,” he had said in that solicitous tone which she had come to fear and loacan the, “I think you read a good deal too much into things. When I come home in the evening, I’m far too exhuasted to have any interest in playing the sort of games you’re talking about.’
It is perhaps an indication of some unsuspected strength of characer that Aileen has been able to survive this onslaught for the best part of twenty years. when reading this, it was never clear to me exatly why she has married Doug, even given her being so distraught after her preferred lover’s death and her failed suicide attemp. Surely, any security that Doug offers is offset by the fact that she doesn’t even seem to find him physically attractive, even apart from all this mental torture. Even fifty years ago, few women were likely to resign themselves to quite so bleak a marriage as hers if they had any sort of financial independence, and the childless Aileen has a well paid enough job as a psychologist. For me, this required more of a suspension of disbelief than any of the seemingly supernatural events.
To object to some practical detail in the plotting as improbable in a ghost story may sound absurd, and perhaps it is a comment on how convincing most of the writing is. Of course, that trick of the widly improbable being made to seem probable by the use of realistic details making up wholly a convincing background is just what is recommended to write a gripping novel.
Aileen is, in a quiet way, quite lovely to look at: ‘Aileen had always had a difficult relationship with those regular features of hers…the moment she tried to do anything with it, her face turned dumpy, common and ordinary. ‘ Her wild and unreliable preferred lover -who died before he could reveal quite how shallow and self serving his interest in Aileen was, saw this. So did another man, but to reveal who this is would be to write a spoiler.
Other characters who behave with gratuitous cruelty include, hardly surprisngly, the glue-sniffers with whom Aileen’s client, the fiften-year-old Gary Dunn lives in a sordid squat somewhere in West London. As they turn to making a living by mugging pensioners, it should have come as no surprise to me that they finally scheme to murder him. Nevertheless, I found the scene where he finds this out especially horrific. Their wits have obviously been scrambled by their drug abuse. Gary Dunn – or Stephen Bradley, is ironically rescued by them from the police. ‘He’d seen them before, the stiff robotic march, the swollen plastic bags clutched in their hands, his eyes glazed like those of the fish heads he sometimes came across, scavenging in bins for his supper.’ One of them claims that Steve is his younger brother, and he goes to live with them. He contributes some money by deliering fre newspapers.
An element of insecure, transitory cosiness is added when an old man on Gary’s round begins to pay him to do some shopping . This man is scared of going outside. He goes in dread of a strange man who seems to be shadowing him. He invites Steve into his house: ‘They were sitting in the snug clutter of the basement room in Grafton Avenue, the man and the boy. To celebrate the commencement of the story he had promised to tell, Ernest Matthews had prepared a high tea of soft-boiled eggs with bread and butter cut into inch wide fingers. ..Steve sat by the table, his eyes fixed on the stove, where rising currents of hot air made the tiles of the fireplace ripple like stones on the bed of a stream.’
He begins to tell Steve the story of his life: ‘You should have heard the clock that stood in the housekeeper’s parlour at the Hall…The chimes were as mellow as the drops of wine I used to taste out of the gentlemen’s glasses sometimes after dinner. And all day long, and all through the night, the pendulum swung to and fro, tick tock, tick tock. Ah, things were different then! There were sixty minutes to an hour in those days. Now time is nothing but rubbish, short measure and shoddy quality…’
Matthew’s mother was a housekeeper in a country mansion in the Edwardian era, where he grew up (this story being set in the 1980’s, there were still a number of old people who remembered World War I and the era immediately before it). The peace of this secluded childhood is abruptly shattered when the owner of the great house dies. Soon after this, one of his sons , the poetic Maurice, becomes obsessed with a vision of a lovely fair woman in a white robe he sees crossing the lawn at night. He soon falls to his death while pursuing it to the old hunting lodge.
When war breaks out, Matthews volunteers, lying about his age. Here he meets Aubrey Deville, a friend of the dead Maurice, and finds out about the bizarre circumstances in which Maurice fell to his death, and how the local gypsies lving nearby concealed the body for fear of being blamed. Then, Matthews sees horrors in his first action and suffers nightmarishly from thirst and being trapped, wounded, in ‘No Man’s Land’ . Then he begins to see the figure of Aubrey Devillle, who has recently been killed in action, shadowing him. No-one else can see the figure, and when those in command hear of his talk, and he starts firing on this figure nobody else can see, he is discharged from the army as mentally unbalanced.
In mental hospital based in a big country house, he is untroubled by visions of the ghost. Any trip outside, however, leads to the figure’s haunting him again. ‘My dreams of freedom had all turned sour… Remember that, lad, if e er you have need; get into hospital…’I would be there myself if they hadn’t put me out in the end. ..’ He came to live in this London house inherited from his aunt.
Steve has seen a strange, sinister man lurking about the old man’s house, and believes that he is the ghost figure whom Matthews is talking about. He shcemes to be put in a psychiatric unit ny feigning mental illness. That is how he encounters Aileen, who notes how much he looks like her former lover, Raymond…
Aileen herself, intolerably persecuted by Doug, begins to show signs of mental strain. She begins to wonder if this boy is not in some impossible way, the baby she miscarried after her suicide attempt after Raymond’s death.
It is a bleak enough story, yet there are such brilliantly humorous touches in it that I found it compulsive reading. For instance:
‘Whatever the stotters other shortcomings, a morbid sensitivity to each others’ moods was not among them. Steve was perhaps told to stop wanking about rather more often than usual during the week that followed, but the nearest anyone came to asking him to account for his behaviour was when Jimmy demanded, “You been on the glue, or what?”
A ghost story where it is difficult to distinguish between the psychological and the supernatural elements is always fascinating. This is one of the most cleverly crafted that I have read.