Chasing Ghosts


When you go chasing ghosts, there should be someone there to tell you to be careful in what you do. You might catch one.

A few days ago, I wrote about an unexpected side-effect of my current project. I am transcribing for the first time a novel I wrote thirty years ago, which is basically autobiographical. It was about a two-year period of my life when I lived away from home for the first time, and about falling heavily in love with a woman who did not return my feelings, because she already had a boyfriend (whom she married).

There are going to be no names. We were close friends back then, and I kept my feelings hidden (or so I at least thought) to be friends. Part of it is an old habit, long unpracticed, but more importantly it’s still a question of honour: I kept schtum then, as best I could, so as not to embarrass her  with feelings she didn’t want, and I’ll stick to my guns now, no matter how unnecessary it might be.

The novel is full of people, almost all of whom are based on real-life equivalents, to one extent or another. Some, my best mate at the time being the main example, are pretty much wholeheartedly themselves. Others begin as similar equivalents, but develop along their own courses. Others are placeholders, standing in the shoes of real-life people but having little or no other connection.

I wrote before that the reason this novel never went beyond a first draft was because it successfully exorcised ghosts I had carried with me for the better part of a decade, and that the worst part of what I’m currently doing is that those ghosts stand in danger of being resurrected. I am becoming obsessed with the fictional people and places.

It’s almost twenty years since I had any contact with any of the friends I made away from home. Ironically, the longest lasting of these was with the woman I had known the least time, a sweet, funny, genuinely gorgeous blonde, who’d joined my firm only about four months before I left, had fitted in instantly, and who, somehow, I kept in contact with. The last I saw of her, her marriage had broken down, and one of her children would end up preferring to live with his father. I jokingly told her she’d had a great escape: if it weren’t for the fact I had only just met the woman I was to marry, I’d have been after her!

Not long after, she met a man who was a Born Again Christian, became Born Again herself, converted her daughter, and they moved to London to be with him. She became a different person, and we lost touch.

But that’s an irrelevance, really. The point is that the novel is full of the shadows of people I once knew, people whose lives have been lived, people who probably don’t even remember me. Some, I know, have passed on. Others were sufficiently older than me that the odds are that they are no longer with us. But there are some who I have tried to locate, in real life, with mixed results.

The first I looked for was my best mate. He was a local lad, the senior, as I was the junior, of the firm’s four Articled Clerks, but not much more than six weeks ahead of me. He was a great guy, obviously very good at his job, confident, easy-going, friendly. As much as any 23 year old can do for another, he took me under his wing at times, and helped knock off a few rough edges (though I had more rough edges than a polydodecahedron, and the seemingly mystical ability to sprout several more every time I started to feel self-confident). We hardly agreed about anything but got in like a house on fire.

He was always going to be a success. The firm wanted to keep him after he qualified, and it was only a few years before he became a Partner. Some years later, my old firm merged with another of the big firms in Nottingham, as the undercard, so to speak. That firm still exists, though all trace of my old firm’s name has gone with the years, and their website is easy to locate.

There are familiar names there, among their Partners. There’s the guy who was my old firm’s junior Partner, and the bloke who came to us as a Student in the summer of 1979, and who was one of my successors the following year, and who I knew had gone on to succeed there. But no mention of my mate.

I have tried various combinations of his name and his firm(s) and his city on Google, but the only thing I could find was a 2006 newspaper report of a major case he had handled, which clarified the law in relation to licensing Festivals. He was a Partner with the merged firm then, but ten years later I can find no trace with my limited search skills.

Of course, I could e-mail either of those two Partners I knew, reintroduce themselves, ask to be put into contact, but I am already worried about what I might find. There are many reasons why a successful, intelligent Solicitor of my generation might have left his firm and many of them are good, but one of them isn’t. I haven’t seen or spoken to him in pretty much thirty-five years, but my memories are of a healthy, fit young man, whose big game was tennis, who would only play me at squash in the brief period of the year when tennis couldn’t be played, in case the different styles of the game ‘threw’ his tennis arm off, and it is horrible to think that he might not have had at least the same least of life that I have had so far, that he might not be there to enjoy the good things his deserved success has brought him.

The other ghost, and certainly the most significant one, is my former love. And that is a very different story.

I’d foregone trying to track her down. We exchanged cards and occasional letters for a couple of years after she left, but since that petered out, I’ve had no contact whatsoever with her. And whereas she used to dominate my thoughts on a daily basis, it’s now decades since I thought of her more than occasionally. Sometimes I wonder about how life treated her, sometimes we bump into each other in my imagination, though the fantasy never goes beyond the delight of recognition: I’m not my former self any more, and she surely won’t be.

Besides, her name is a commonplace name, especially since she married. It’s the kind of name that, if googled, would bring up hundreds and hundreds of references to hundreds and hundreds of women. I’d have more chance if she’d stuck to her maiden name, which was rather more distinctive, but married? No chance.

As for her husband, he’s equally commonplace in my name. More than that, he shares it with a man who’s been in the public eye: google that name and see how many references to this man you’d have to wade through before even scratching the surface of those myriad others.

An impossible task, suitable only to an obsessive, and for what reason? To locate a woman with whom I shared a brief period of time, nearly two-thirds of the way back along our joint lives?

But last night, when I should have been switching off this laptop and going to sleep, I followed up an e-mail Link to LinkedIn: one of my small circle has got a new post. And while I was there, on a whim, I decided to search the name of my ex-love’s husband.

There were several, of course. I scanned the list for a couple of pages, and stopped when I saw an entry with a photo. I wouldn’t recognise the guy n w if I fell over him, but this bloke was the right age, so I clicked on his link.

Very successful businessman. Founded his own company in 1992, grown into a major international company with offices in every corner of the world. Celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary pretty much now. There was a profile of him, and I immediately noticed one thing that tallied: right thing, right time. I started googling him in relation to his company. Bits of other information dropped into place like jigsaw puzzle pieces. A Welsh University. Somewhere he’d been for an extended period. A sporting hobby. All in very general terms, and nothing that would make it an implausible coincidence, but it was growing steadily clearer that this was the right man, this was who she married.

But what of her? I started googling hm again, this time with wife linked into the search. He was married, but was it still to her? Then a very familiar first name popped out of a search item relating to Company Directorships. Same company, right name.

Even then it could all have been coincidence. These are common names, not an unusual combination. When I knew her, there was a hit single with his name in it, and I can still remember the frisson I felt when I played the other side, and her name was there.

But there were the middle names. Unusual, somewhat old-fashioned names. The same names. It was my former love, and I even had her address, and I could now contact her, if so so chose. I could bring a ghost back to life.

All rather creepy, in its way. The astonishing thing was that, after all this time, I found her and where she is in only twenty minutes.

I’m not going to contact her. Why should I? I have nothing of any value to her except an old memory (I’m going to assume she still remembers me). Her life has been a success, they are successful in business, they live in a house in a totally different part of the country that’s probably worth well over half a million since they bought it. They travel the world. If she had ever have been foolish enough to think that my naive charms outweighed his, she would not have had this life.

Most of all, though, what I’ve learned is that she’s been happy with him. A mutual friend went to her wedding, brought back photos. I’d never seen anyone looking so radiantly happy before (though my perspective may have been a bit blurred on the subject). And that marriage is still there, thirty-seven years later. It worked for them. It worked for her. I long since gave up any hopes for myself when it came to her: I’m glad to know that there was a point to that.

I’ll still keep looking, tentatively, for my old mate, in hopes of finding him and his wife in happy and glorious retirement or something equally fulfilling, and there are other names I’ll gently google, out of curiosity. Chasing ghosts can be dangerous, especially if you find them, but whereas I can be weak-willed about things that relate to me only, I have the strength of mind to keep to decisions I make that affect others, and I will not go back. Let chance bring old names and faces back across my path: I will not force myself into the lives of anyone I no longer know. Even if I catch sight of their ghost.

I have a fiction in which I can share that old life. The people in that are more real now.

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7 thoughts on “Chasing Ghosts

  1. Fascinating reading Martin. A novel with a potent back story. I like (and thoroughly agree) with the suggestion your reworked fictionalised story will contain more truth and meaning than any attempt to make contact now, although good luck with tracking your old best friend. In my experience if you click with someone like that, you often find you still do years later.

    This is a song called I Know I’m Not the One by my band Mechanical Mouse Organ. Might not be your kind of thing (not exactly the Moody Blues), but the sentiment it expresses is very similar to the premise of your novel, if a little less magnanimous. The idea in the song is that the object of your unrequited affection is very clearly with the wrong guy, but the recognition/resignation that it’s never going to be you is the same.

    https://mouseorgan.bandcamp.com/track/i-know-im-not-the-one

  2. Hi George. I enjoyed the song: your band sounds far closer to my tastes than the Moodies, obsessed though I was once in my youth with their sound. Yes, a different perspective, though I’d say my situation is less magnanimous than a simple recognition of fact.

    Oddly enough, in the fictional world, I’ve begun to speculate on what happens/happened to my characters after the story ends, and I am convinced that the marriage there doesn’t last: I give it ten years. It’s a purely subconscious approach on my then-self’s part, but re-reading it now I can see that I was laying down a scenario closer to your song than what actually happened.

    Not that any of this is relevant to the story itself, or belongs, but one thing about second drafts is that, when you know what’s coming, all sorts of sneaky little foreshadowing becomes possible…

  3. Excellent stuff – very interesting to hear how time is changing your perspective. I read your post from several years ago recalling how you finished the original draft in Coniston after a walk up Grey Friar. I do find inspiration an unnerving thing when after days/weeks/months of trying in vain to forge something, the floodgates suddenly open and it all pours out almost too fast to capture.

    Glad you liked the song.

    Enjoy refining your second draft.

  4. Amazing experience. It’s not the only time I’ve had a great rush of words inside when I’ve been approaching the end of a book (one time it was like a physical pressure, as if my head would burst if I didn’t get it out and written down, another I wrote three chapters on the bounce, over 6,000 words in a single session: wish i had that stamina now).

    It’s going to be interesting re-living when I reach that final chapter…

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