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The Ghost In The Machine

A haunted typewriter

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

We found the papers at the haunted house. They were foolscap, yellowed with age, the ‘esses’ written as ‘effs.’ Scattered everywhere — down the broken stairs, against the piss-stained open door, under the oak tree. The week before, they hadn’t been there. Fiona said they must have been spirited.

I was ten. In charge of the gang. Most weekends we played on The Common. We drew and labelled flowers; we spotted birds and the flasher in the bushes. (Fiona’s older sister told us to shout at him – ‘that wouldn’t satisfy a flea’ – so we did). We laid and followed paper trails and we looked for clues of things: Fox tracks, badger setts, the boot prints of men who might be murderers. We rode our bikes down Devil’s Dungeon and we climbed trees. Most of all, though, we loved to scare ourselves silly by messing about at the old derelict house that leaned, precarious, at The Common’s edge. We’d always said it looked haunted; now we reckoned we had proof. Because I was the leader and liked to act brave, I was the one who touched the papers, and I was the one who took them home, up to my bedroom in the attic. I folded them carefully under my Petite Typewriter and locked the case, put it back in the cupboard under the roof.

But the spirits must have followed me home, followed me all the way to the top of the house. A week later I knew they were there, and I knew they were bad.

It was raining, too wet to play on The Common so the gang was back in my room. Time to examine the papers. I reached into the cupboard. The typewriter case felt odd as I lifted it; it clunked. The metal hinges had been ripped apart. The case was ruined. And the papers had disappeared.

In 1919, Freud wrote his essay The Uncanny — ‘Das Unheimliche.’ In it he tackles the etymology of the words Heimlich (homely, familiar) and unheimlich (unhomely, that which is concealed, unfamiliar) and describes the uncanny as occurring when something familiar suddenly feels strange or behaves oddly — the apparently inanimate object coming to life, as in a manipulated doll, for example; an epileptic fit or what Freud calls ‘manifestations of insanity’. He argues that we’re taken back to a previously buried memory – something that our psyche has repressed – ‘that class of the terrifying that leads back to something long known to us, once familiar.’

Mum said don’t be silly. She carried on ironing shirts, dropped fag ash on Dad’s collar. It’ll be that youngest Bellamy girl. We didn’t much like Fiona’s sister but she was only six and she hadn’t been in my room before that day. I went to Dad, but he was doing the crossword and didn’t look at me. He laughed as if I’d told one of my not-so-funny jokes.

I was so sure I’d been tracked by some kind of evil spirit, so sure it had moved into my room, that I moved out. There must have been a stand-off with my parents, but I don’t remember it. I slept on a camp bed in their bedroom for months, until my sister Jen left home. Then her room became mine. I loved my typewriter but now I was afraid of it, abandoned it to the cupboard in the roof with the bad thing, never went up there.

I bought a spiral-bound orange notebook from the post office, went back to writing in biro — poems and stories and drawings to go with them, or pictures cut from cards and magazines. I never wrote about what happened and I never found the papers.

In his essay, Freud goes on to write about E.T.A Hoffmann’s tale The Sandman and to relate the uncanny to an idea of ‘the double’ – the Doppelgänger – which he describes as a form of telepathy in which one person inhabits the mind of another and so becomes ‘unsure of his true self; or he may substitute the other’s self for his own.’

Mirror images.
Guardian spirits.
The ‘uncanny harbinger of death’ or
Some kind of insurance policy against the extinction of the self.

Fiona had always said that I should be the leader of our gang and the others agreed. I had plenty of bright ideas, didn’t mind taking on the leader’s jobs, was cocky, adventurous and made everybody laugh. But then there was the other me that Fiona and the rest of the gang wouldn’t have recognised: the me who hid in the bathroom every school day because she was too afraid to go into that regimented, inescapable, peopled place that smelt of plimsolls and disinfectant and sour milk; the me who screamed the place down if her mum left the house without her.

Aged ten I hadn’t come across Freud but I knew the terror of the familiar becoming unfamiliar and that twin stranger, my double self. Even before the spirits followed me home, Doppelgänger me was dark and shadowy and scared. I think I wrote to make the world feel safe, tangible, indelible. To make a world that I could hold, even if only on paper. To be able to see it, keep it. To make it so. I wrote about nature, my pets, the countryside. In my religious phase I wrote about God, and he was gorgeous. I wrote stories of adventures with animals, of magic islands, bright rockets in outer space. I think I wrote to keep the bad things at bay.

But when the papers went missing from the typewriter case, I began to formulate the uncanniest feeling of all — that the bad spirit who had done this was my double. Was me. In the night, sleepwalking maybe, I must have gone into the cupboard in the roof. I must have taken my penknife. It must have been a clear night, a good moon to see by. I must have used all my skinny might to wrench the hinges from the case, taken the papers and… What must I have done with them? If I’d thrown them out the window they’d have stuck in the pear tree. My parents would have found them. If I’d ripped them up and stuffed them down the toilet, they’d have blocked it. If I’d hidden them — where? I searched the house, the dustbin, the yard — didn’t find them. I couldn’t have made a fire. I couldn’t have eaten them. I must have spirited them away.

Soon after, I stopped writing. I don’t really know why but I sometimes think writing the world as I wanted it to be just wasn’t working anymore. And as I was inhabited by spirits, writing would have only served to let the bad things breathe. So I stopped, and I didn’t start again until I was thirty-two, heartbroken after a failed love affair. Beside myself. Yes — beside myself is about right. I was deranged, somehow ‘other’, barely recognised my face in the mirror, had not expected that I owned the voice that began to write. It took me into the unknown, then out — to the unsafe world. This was writing that let my Doppelgänger in, let her sit down at the desk and type.

It’s obvious to say that all creative writing is about the unknown: putting feelings, experiences and possibilities into words to make them so: Forster’s ‘seeing what I say to know what I think’ or La Rochefoucauld’s ‘People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.’ Language as conjuring, the writer as animateur of the dead. There’s frequently an air of the supernatural, too, in descriptions of what happens when writers are ‘in the zone.’ I have a Michael Longley quote on a postcard above my desk: ‘If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there’. I think I went there for a bit when I was thirty-two and it was a pretty dark place.

I still don’t know what happened to the papers. I still don’t know what ripped the hinges from the case, don’t recall what became of the typewriter nor, for that matter, of Fiona and the gang. But a few years back I was visiting my sister who lives quite near to where we grew up. I drove to The Common, found myself running down the old tracks that were still there. I was dying to explore, dying to climb a tree. The haunted house was gone, long demolished. It would make a neat ending to say I found the papers in the grounds up there — just as I’d last seen them, the ‘esses’ written as ‘effs’, but of course I didn’t. Nor, when I parked by my childhood home and looked up at the attic window, did I see my ten-year-old self looking out. I just noticed that the window frames were different, wondered if there was still a cupboard under the roof. Then I worried I was going to get a parking ticket, so I went back to the car and drove away. This time, nothing followed me.

Amanda Dalton is a poet, playwright and writing tutor. Her poetry collections are published by Bloodaxe, the Poetry Business and Arc. After years as a senior creative leader at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, she is now freelance and writes extensively for BBC Radio and for theatre.

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