Tuesday Terror! Mad Maudlin by Rosy Thornton

Buffering…please wait…

sandlands

When I reviewed Rosy Thornton’s collection of short stories set in the Suffolk sandlings, I mentioned that there was an air of mild ghostliness about some of them, and that one of them, in fact, is a “proper” ghost story. So I thought it would be perfect for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Mad Maudlin
by Rosy Thornton

Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton

The unnamed narrator of the story is staying in The Ship, a pub that features more than once in the stories. (Intriguingly, there’s nothing to identify whether the narrator is male or female, but for pretty vague and possibly sexist reasons, I thought of him as male while reading, so for ease I’m going with he/him throughout.)

I’m looking at a piano. That is, I’m looking at the video image of a piano, because I’m in the half-light of a rented bedroom at the back of a pub after closing and it’s just me and the laptop.

That afternoon, the narrator had filmed in the bar of the pub where locals and regulars had been having a folk session, playing and singing centuries-old traditional songs. Later, in his room, he had found two earlier videos of folk nights in the same pub on a local historical website – one from 1954, and the second from 1979. He has been comparing the three, noticing how little has changed over the years in the bar, and that the same songs are still being sung.

The Ship Inn, Blaxhall - I can't be sure, but I reckon this is the pub the story is set in.
The Ship Inn, Blaxhall – I can’t be sure, but I reckon this is the pub the story is set in.

Pubs, I’ve always thought, can be divided into two camps according to the stability of their décor. There are those that undergo a complete refit once or twice a decade, reinventing themselves from Haywain kitsch through ebony veneer and mirrors and back again in accordance with the latest fashion (or in spite of it) like the shifting political colours over some volatile town hall. Then there are others, the ones you’ll generally find me drinking in, where change is so incrementally slow as to be almost imperceptible, as gradual as the softening of the contours of a familiar face.

Even the photos on the wall of The Ship have stayed unchanged over the years – the old football team in their baggy shorts and moustaches…

One or two of the eldest players could be grandfather to the youngest, a grinning lad of twelve or thirteen, as if every able-bodied male in the village had to turn out to make up the eleven – and perhaps it was the case, it occurs to me with a bit of a shiver as I spot the date inscribed below the picture: 1919.

Drinking in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall - can't find a date.
Drinking in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall – can’t find a date.

One of the photos he spots in the 1954 video is of a woman dressed in the clothes of an even earlier era – a woman with a distinctively cleft chin, giving her a heart-shaped face. The face seems familiar to him…

I’m sure I’ve seen it, or an echo of it, very recently. Just this afternoon, in fact. That’s it: a woman with the same chin sat in the corner seat… and sang ‘Tom o’ Bedlam’ in a soft but sure contralto.

A strong family resemblance, he assumes, not unusual in a small village. Clicking through to the 1979 video, he is astonished to see the same face again, sitting in the same corner seat, singing…

For to see poor Tom o’ Bedlam
ten thousand miles I’d travel;
Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes
for to save her shoes from gravel…

Daughter, mother and grandmother? But the resemblance is so strong. Hastily he opens up the file of the video he took himself that evening and searches for the woman he had listened to singing…

I let the tape roll on. But as the teenagers linger on their final major chord, modulating to a plaintive minor, and applause stutters around the bar, the scraping chairs and rumbling voices are interrupted not by the woman with the cleft chin, but by the piano again…

The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, circa 1900.
The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, circa 1900.

He runs through the tape again, but the woman isn’t there. Had he stopped recording before she sang for some reason he’s now forgotten? He hastens back to the 1954 video to look again at the photo…

The camera swings round, and my stomach lurches. The corner chair is no longer empty…

There the woman sits, singing…

So drink to Tom o’ Bedlam,
he’ll fill the seas in barrels.
I’ll drink it all, all brewed with gall,
with Mad Maudlin I will travel.

Now trembling, he clicks again to reopen one of the other files, but now the connection is playing up and all he gets is the maddening rotating circle that tells him it’s buffering. And yet, somehow, he can still hear the singing…

buffering* * * * * * *

Ooh, this is a creepy one! It starts out as if it’s simply going to be an interesting look at the three videos, with some musings perhaps on unchanging traditions in small communities where generations of families still live in close proximity. And even just as that, the quality of the writing and observations make it interesting. But then, gradually at first, Thornton sneaks in a couple of things that are a little odd and a gentle air of unease begins to develop. She reminds us subtly that the narrator is alone in unfamiliar surroundings, in a room above the bar that appears in the films.

Then gradually, as the woman begins to shift from photo to video, sometimes appearing, sometimes not; and then when the buffering begins, and the only lights in the room are the laptop screen and the winking bulbs of the router, and the only sound is the singing… and it still goes on even when the screen freezes… ooh, I say! The ending is left beautifully ambiguous, adding much to the spine-tingling feeling of dread.

A first-class ghost story that relies on tension and atmosphere rather than chainsaws and gore. I loved that Thornton managed to use modern technology so effectively in what feels nevertheless like a traditional style of tale. Great stuff! I wonder if she could be persuaded to write an entire collection of ghost stories…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

A fine collection…

😀 😀 😀 😀

sandlandsThis is a collection of loosely linked short stories based in the Suffolk sandlings, an area the author clearly knows and loves well. Although each story stands by itself, locations reappear frequently, and occasionally characters at the centre of one story are referred to peripherally in another, which gives the collection a feeling of wholeness – the individual pieces gradually fitting together to create a complete picture of the landscape and community of this place. Many of the stories include the wildlife of the region, either actually or symbolically – foxes, deer, owls, et al.

There is a tone of nostalgia running through the collection. Although most of the stories are set in the present day, they are often looking back at events in the past, and there is a general theme of connections across the generations. This allows Thornton to look at how the region has changed, with the collapse of many of its traditional ways of life, such as fishing; and also to look forward with a kind of fear to an uncertain future, as sea rises due to climate change threaten this low-lying coastal land.

suffolk-fox

The writing is excellent, especially when she is writing about the natural world…

As he stood he closed his eyes and let his mind trace out the melody as it rose and fell. He knew no other bird which could combine within a single phrase that round, full-throated tone like a thrush or blackbird before soaring up as impossibly high as the trilling of a skylark. But his favourite of all was a low, bubbling warble, a note so pure and liquid clear you felt refreshed to hear it, as if you had actually drunk the spring water the sound resembled, welling fresh from the rock.

Several of the stories have an air of ghostliness about them, usually mild and not the main focus, though there is one that I feel counts as a ‘proper’ ghost story, and beautifully creepy it is too! (It may well appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post.) Lots of them also read almost like folk tales, or rely on superstition for their impact. But there’s also humour in the collection, which prevents the nostalgia from becoming overly melancholic.

Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton

These are stories with an ending, rather than the more fragmentary style so often employed in contemporary short story writing. Normally I prefer stories with endings, but to be honest sometimes the endings here feel a little contrived, almost amounting to the dreaded “twist” on occasion. But this is my one criticism of a collection which I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed and recommend, from an author I am now keen to investigate further. As with any collection, I enjoyed some of the stories more than others – here are a few of the ones that stood out for me…

The White Doe – the first story in the collection, this tells of a woman grieving the death of her mother. The doe of the title refers both to an old folk tale and to an actual white doe, that Fran spots in the woods near her home. As the story unfolds, we learn that Fran has a personal history that in a strange way mirrors the folk tale. I found this story excellently written and frankly rather disturbing, and it set the tone of gentle unease that runs through much of the collection.

white-doe-2

The Interregnum – this is a delicious and wickedly funny tale of village life. The local parish priest is on maternity leave, so the parish brings in a ‘temp’ to cover – an unordained but highly qualified woman, Ivy. We see the story develop through the eyes of Dorothy, the elderly secretary of the parish council. Ivy, the stand-in, keeps telling the parishioners of the pagan rituals that pre-dated and were often absorbed into Christianity. Although some of her ideas seem a bit strange, the parishioners are a kind lot who go along with her ideas, until they gradually find themselves performing rites that feel, somehow, vaguely pagan. The ending of this one is also a twist, but in this case it works perfectly and left me laughing. Well-told, and a nice indicator of how Thornton can write in a variety of styles.

The Watcher of Souls is a beautiful story about Rebecca, an elderly lady in remission from cancer. During her regular walks in the woods, she becomes fascinated by a barn owl that roosts in an old, split oak tree. One day, she finds an old tin buried within the hollow of the tree, and within it are some old love letters…. The ending was one of those that felt a little too contrived for my taste, but otherwise this is a sad little story made lovely by the subtlety of the writing.

suffolk-barn-owl

Mackerel – the final story in the collection and one that in many ways sums up the themes of the book. An old woman is cooking mackerel for her favourite granddaughter, and as she does, she reminisces about the differences between her own life when she was young and her granddaughter’s life – both with entirely different aspirations and expectations, but both finding life fulfilling in their own ways. The story also talks of fishing, back when it was a way of life rather than an industry, and when mackerel was still plentiful before it was overfished almost into local extinction. A very nostalgic tale, this one, almost elegiac, as of a lifestyle lost forever. And a fine one to end on.

NB This book was kindly provided for review by the author.

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