Ghosts of war


LIFE STORIES: AIFRIC CAMPBELLhas taught linguistics, worked as an investment banker and trained as a pychotherapist. She also writes novels and here tells how the history of her house prompted her latest book ‘The Loss Adjustor’

THIS WAS THE book I didn’t want to write. In May 2007, I began a residency at Yaddo, the artists’ retreat hidden away in the forests of upstate New York. I was halfway through a novel set in the financial markets of London and Hong Kong, and was very excited about the prospect of a month’s uninterrupted writing. But each morning when I sat down at my desk, I could hear a voice that would not stop talking and a story about guilty secrets buried in childhood, a friendship of three that had ended in tragedy and a life derailed by loss. The problem was that this story had nothing whatsoever to do with the book I was writing.

Yaddo has a ghostly past, as well as a daunting list of illustrious alumni that includes Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Leonard Bernstein and Truman Capote. Stories abound of spectral sightings. In fact, one of the poets hosted a seance in Sylvia Plath’s old room while I was there (they failed to rouse her). I have always been sceptical about hauntings, but up there in Saratoga Springs, surrounded by artists and writers and composers and vanishing deer, it is easy to find yourself unravelled. So The Loss Adjustorbegan, reluctantly, as a sort of exorcism. I wrote it so that I could silence a voice. And then, after a while, it became the book I really had to write.

It was only when I’d finished that I began to find my way back to the source. In 2002, I had moved from central London to Sussex. On the internet, I found a sandstone house with a flat roof, but it was the garden I fell for – a former quarry with unkempt woodland and huge sandstone boulders that somehow reminded me of Narnia. I don’t really remember much else from that first visit, or even exactly when I discovered that the house was built in 1939, was requisitioned during the second World War, that Canadian soldiers were billeted here, and that an anti-aircraft gun kept watch on the roof.

I began spending a lot of time among the dead. Every day – in all seasons – I walked the dog through the local graveyard and followed the same route down to the fishing lakes. There is a small section of the graveyard where children are buried. Here I came across weather-beaten toys by the gravestones, and sometimes even hand-drawn pictures left by a sibling. And this is where Estelle first appeared – or maybe I should say she was conjured up in a waltz between the real and the imagined. Although no one could be more surprised than me by this admission, I could swear I actually saw her through the corner of my left eye, her long flaxen hair flapping wildly as she streaked through the air. But when I turned to look, she was gone.

One night, a neighbour I’d never met called around. “This was the officer’s mess,” he murmured, when I led him into the kitchen. He used to call as a boy, and said the Canadian soldiers billeted here were all sent off to Dieppe in 1942. And suddenly there it was – a little boy and our kitchen transformed by history.

If you know where to look, the Sussex landscape is scarred with reminders of war – there are cenotaphs in many villages and the dips in the hillsides are often bomb craters. It’s all buried beneath a pretty veneer, but somehow still seeps into your consciousness.

But when my book took me off to the second World War, I was very reluctant to head down a path so well travelled in fiction. To begin with, there’s the fact that I’m Irish. It wasn’t our war at all – we were neutral, for god’s sake. And Irish history was always far more vivid to me – the Great Famine, the War of Independence, the Civil war, the artificial Border.

Call it myopia or incuriosity, but history is all about perspective, about being up close and personal. In all the years I’d lived in London, I never thought about the war. I do remember a colleague at the stock exchange mimicking the sound of the doodlebugs (a type of tractor) he heard at night when he was a kid. And I remember a neighbour in Earls Court who said she saw our house when it was a bomb site. But I wasn’t really listening then; I was too busy being 20-something.

The first person I met who had actually been in the war was my father-in-law, who joined the RAF as a mechanic when he was just 15. I was sitting opposite him in a restaurant one night when he mentioned that he’d crossed the Atlantic to Canada in 1944. I think I asked if he was scared, but I do not recall his answer. What I remember very vividly was a fleeting image of a boy and a warship and explosive darkness.

In the summer of 2008, when I was close to finishing the novel, a grass snake took up residence by the pond in our garden. It was incredibly thick and long and would spend the morning sunbathing on the hot stone before slipping into the water to snack on the fish. One day I saw the snake draped across the lily pads with a toad wedged between its gaping jaws. The toad’s legs twitched, the snake lay immobilised and this slow death played out in real time for the rest of the day. By evening the snake lay beached on the pads, its head leaning on the stone, trying and failing to heave itself out of the pond, weighed down by the huge toad-shaped lump crammed in its gullet.

It struck me that this is exactly what the past does. It sticks in your craw and obstructs the present and you are skewered by loss. Weighed down by what you cannot expel. It seemed in that moment that all of life is an adjustment to a succession of losses, it is the great universal – my young son already has nostalgia for the lost years of toddlerhood. And I realised that the voice that I had first heard at Yaddo was telling a story that had really begun long ago for me, but there was something I had yet to learn about moving on, letting go.

All the fictional places in the novel are real – the house, the church, the graveyard, the pilot’s grave, the dovecote. The names and initials of the Canadian soldiers are etched into the sandstone rocks in the garden. I still walk the same route most mornings, but with a different dog – the old one died while I was writing the book. We rarely meet a soul since no one cares to visit the dead in winter, so the tombstones lie silent and flowerless, the fields are slick with mud and the lake water is a filthy brown. And although I have grown used to the company of ghosts, I have not sensed their presence since I finished the book.

The Loss Adjustorby Aifric Campbell is published by Serpent’s Tail, £10.99