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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

MORE GHOSTLY TALES...ESMERELDA OR Was it really the butler...?

The elegant nineteenth century mansion, Grosvenor (or Lanark as it was originally called) still graces Queens Road, Melbourne, although now a tizzed up shadow of its former glory, it forms nothing more than a facade to a large apartment complex.

Grosvenor - just after the Army moved out.
Built in 1887, Grosvenor was acquired by the Australian Army in 1942 for the princely sum of £25,000. Since that date it was used exclusively by the Army until it was finally sold in the late 1990s.

I was posted to Headquarters 4th Brigade, the last unit to occupy Grosvenor, in the mid 1990s, as the Brigade’s first legal officer. I was assigned a small, chilly office in what would have been the servant’s quarters. It was a room that resolutely refused to warm up, even on the chilliest day and I would often find my computer switched on after I was sure I had switched it off. The more experienced members of staff would just shrug their shoulders and blame it on “Esmerelda”.

There had been stories of Esmerelda in circulation for many years before I came to Grosvenor. She was reputed to have been a parlour maid with whom the master of the house had a dalliance. The story was that the butler killed her and concealed her body in the swamp which is now Albert Park Lake but her restless, unrequited spirit returned to the house. A LTCOL Thomas wrote a brief history of the house and although sceptical to the point of scathing about the existence of a ghost, did find a report in the Police Gazette of 1890-1910 of the body of a female child being found in the swamp on 19 June 1900. An autopsy revealed she had been suffocated but there did not appear to be any link to the house.

The Servants Wing from the carpark
One crusty old warrant officer who was posted to the house from the early 70s to 90s was convinced of supernatural occurrences in the cellar and the area behind the bar of the officers’ mess (the old butler’s pantry). He would frequently hear footsteps emanating from this area. One evening around dusk, he and an officer were leaving for the day. The building was deserted and locked up. As they got into the car he looked up and saw the shadow of a girl holding a candle holder in one of the upstairs rooms of the servant’s annexe. 

Esmerelda’s presence would be felt in other ways. From the bathroom next to the billiard room the staff were irritated by the persistent sound of a dripping tap. On investigation the taps were found to be firmly turned off. Before and after the building was carpeted, the sound of footsteps crunching on sand would be heard about the building.

The "Pink" Bathroom
Before my time there had been at least two sightings of Esmerelda, one in the dining room and one in the “pink bathroom” (attached to the commander’s office which would have been the master bedroom to the house). Both witnesses described a “white lady”. In the 1980s a soldier checking the pink bathroom was unable to open the door which was never locked. Once inside, he retreated hastily when the cups and saucers stored on a bench inside the bathroom began rattling and dancing.

Which brings me to my own time at Grosvenor. I had a young captain working for me who was not a person with a vivid imagination by any stretch. One evening he came up to our office, whitefaced, and told me he had been in the officers’ mess doing up his bootlaces. He became aware of someone entering the Mess and looked up thinking it was one of the other officers. He saw a “grey-white” image of a woman which abruptly disappeared.

(The following photograph is of "The Officer's Mess" where there were many sightings of Esmerelda. I took these photos using an a fairly simple standard film camera - remember those? - not long after the Army had moved out and in this photograph only there is a mysterious white "blob" in the middle of the floor. Just behind the "blob" is the bar area where the Butler's Pantry was situated. You can see the room is heavily curtained. A trick of the light or an "orb"? You be the judge.)

When I mentioned this story to the regular army members of the staff, they were livid. How come he had seen Esmerelda and they hadn’t? Out the stories came.
  • One warrant officer told me he had been alone in the building and gone for a shower. When he came out he distinctly heard the sound of voices talking. He prowled the building and found the offices locked and silent.
  • The Brigade RSM, a hard bitten English veteran, refused to spend a night in the building after hearing sounds of doors opening and closing and footsteps coming from the servant’s wing.
  • A civilian guest, with psychic abilities, claimed on entering the building that she felt a distinct presence in the building. Undeterred she stayed for the Mess Dinner

F   Finally my own son claims to have met Esmerelda. I called in one day with him in tow. In the car going home he said he had seen a grey white blob that had passed through him and felt very cold. Now I am less inclined to believe a 10 year old with a vivid imagination but, at the time, he hadn’t heard the stories of Esmerelda. 

The "Billiard Room" 

Like Netherby (see THE LAST RESIDENT OF NETHERBY), Grosvenor lay empty for many years before the developers moved in. Much of the building was demolished, notably the servants wing where she seemed to have been most active. I wonder if her lonely spirit now lives in the glammed up modernity of the apartment complex?

Grosvenor today...any self respecting ghost would stay away!

Post script: Since writing the article on Netherby, the Sergeant I mentioned in that article got back in touch with me.  When I told him I was planning on putting up the companion piece on Grosvenor, he wrote: "I played a great prank on the the receptionist at Grosvenor who I knew quite well from my posting to 4 Bde (I was there for a short time before coming to Netherby). Terrified the life out of her,rang 4 Bde she answered and I pretended to be Albert, with a growly groaning voice looking for Esmerelda, told her that she was probably upstairs in the pink bathroom and I needed to speak with her. It took her a long time to forgive me and she would not venture into that bathroom for anything. Funny though I never felt Esmeralda's presence at Grosvenor, perhaps it was because I wasn't there long enough as we had recently moved there from Kensington and everything was still quite disorganised."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Chocolate Frog Challenge - Preparing for NaNoWriMo

This is a Chocolate Frog. Not just any chocolate frog...This is a Haigh's Dark Chocolate Peppermint Frog and  let me tell you he is delicious!

This is the first year I have signed up for National Novel Writing Month. It runs from 1 - 30 November every year and the rules are simple - You must write 50,000 words of fiction by midnight on 30 November. That's words of NEW fiction. 

Now I've looked at my diary. I have days when I attend a place of paid employment and other days with 'huge commitement' written all over them. To accomplish 50,000 words I need to average 2500 words a day. Holy excess of words, Batman!

Now you might think because I am a published writer, that I don't need a challenge like NaNoWriMo but take it from me, I am:
a) the world's slowest writer and
b) the world's greatest procrastinator.  (Social media is the worst thing that ever happened to me...)

So these are my NaNo commitments.

  • There is to be no more than 1.5 hours internet time in total per day...that includes checking and responding to emails, writing blogs, Facebook etc. etc. In other words the "business" and the "busyness" of my writing life MUST  be conducted in that time frame. I anticipate 1/2 hour in the morning, 1/2 hour at lunch and 1/2 hour in the evening.
  • If in the course of my writing, I encounter a research problem, it is to be passed over with a "Check this fact". Blockages are to be met with "more stuff here". 
  • There is to be no playing of Spider Solitaire.
So what am I hoping to accomplish? 

It's time to start something new  and at the end of November I hope to have the rough draft of a new story...the first in a series of mysteries set in early twentieth century Singapore - the Harriet Gordon mysteries. I've done the world building for Harriet so now all I need to do is start telling her story.  

Harriet leaped out of a 1903 copy of The Straits Times I was perusing in the Singapore Library. There in the classifieds I found the following advertisement...

“Shorthand and Typewriting. An Englishwoman undertakes casual work as a stenographer and typist. From Monday to Friday after 5.30pm daily. On Sunday after 3pm. She guarantees rapid and careful work together with ABSOLUTE SECRECY..."

How could I not write a story around that???

Harriet Gordon
Meet Harriet Gordon...stenographer, typist and possibly - amateur sleuth.
So back to my chocolate frogs.  My froggie has 9 little friends. That is one chocolate frog for every 5000 words I complete in the NaNoWriMo Challenge! Here they all are.

So to keep myself honest, I thought I would bore you all with my progress over the next 4 weeks with a weekly frog count. Like Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" hope is they will gradually disappear until by 30 November there are no little frogs!

(NOTE TO SELF:  Schedule regular exercise into NaNoWriMo to work off the evil influences of the chocolate frogs!)

If there are any other NaNoWriMo participants reading this post...what are your plans for keeping yourself on track?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Writer's Life...Lost Word Children (Or having a "Gibbons" Moment)

On Monday I suffered a "writer's disaster", 3000 of my carefully crafted word-children went wandering into the cyber woods and never came out.

Edward Gibbons
I call these moments - that awful realisation that an entire day's work has vanished - a "Gibbons" moment, for reasons I will relate.

It was the fault of the cat. Come 4.30pm on the dot and Oliver Kat appears, interposing himself between the keyboard and the screen - a large furry sight screen. (I am sure he thinks his name is "Get down! You're a b@#$$%^ nuisance!").  A quick glance at my watch told me that, apart from a demanding feline, I had my own dinner to prepare before shooting off to my 6.00pm exercise class. The result was a hasty computer shut down.  "Do you wish to save changes?" Word enquired. Thinking I was in the OTHER document, I clicked "No" and my day's work vanished. Now before you say...autosave...I have a new computer and it is not fully configured yet.

I do all my writing in Scrivener these days. I love the "helicopter" view it gives you of the structure of your manuscript. It also autosaves so there is never a lost child. Unfortunately I considered my manuscript was "finished" (as if any manuscript ever is!). I had uploaded it as a complete manuscript (again another Scrivener feature) into Word to give me that "completed" manuscript feel on which to run my eye for minor errors and discrepancies. As so often happens, I realised it actually needed some fairly major structural work including the reordering of scenes and the writing of a couple of new chapters.

Fortunately I had emailed a bit of the work with some of the more minor edits to a friend for comment but not the new writing so an afternoon's work disappeared in a key stroke. 

Moral of story... 
1. Do major editing in Scrivener. 
2. Make sure Word is configured to autosave.
3. SAVE my work at frequent intervals. 

In my shaky defence, if I am working in Word, I  do save any work in progress to Dropbox (as well as to the hard drive of my computer) so whichever computer I am (including the iPad) I have access to my latest version.

And if I feel like kicking the cat...I have to remember the loss of 3000 words is not really a disaster compared to that suffered by Edward Gibbons, the eighteenth century historian and author of a monumental treatise called THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. Gibbons spent years writing this work, by hand, of course. The manuscript completed, it sat in his study awaiting dispatch to his publisher. The new maid, short of kindling for the fire on a cold winter's day, found a useful pile of paper and dispatched the only copy of THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE up the chimney. One can imagine she probably left his employ without a reference and Gibbons began all over again. The truth may be she didn't burn all of it...but it makes a good story!

The 6 volumes of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
And Edward is in good (if somewhat strange company). Jilly Coooper relates the tale of her lost manuscript "It was awful, awful. I'd finished the first draft, I went out to lunch and then I got the bus home – the number 22 bus – and I left it behind. I had this somewhat lovely fantasy of the West Indian bus driver publishing a novel about showjumping but it never happened. Everyone was very kind and the Evening Standard put out an appeal. That was 1970 I think. Then I suppose it was 14 years later, I started writing it again. I hate to be conceited but I think it's probably one of the best books I ever wrote because the characters had built up over 15 years."

So whenever I lose any writing, I just keeping repeating "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" as a mantra and I feel much better.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Paws for Reflection - Big Ginger Meggs

 The 4 October marked the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the saint known particularly as the patron saint of animals. Many churches around the world hold St. Francis Day services and the parishioners bring their animals into the church for a blessing. 
Among the "blessed" animals who have shared our hearts and home was BIG GINGER MEGGS. He actually went by many names - Ginger Meggs, Big,  BGM (most common), Biggie Boy or in his latter days simply the old cat.
BGM and Winston - inseperable
Our old friend died in 1999.  I say our old friend because he was a friend to all four of us in four unique and different ways.  
BGM came to us at a difficult time of our lives. We had moved into an old house in on 'the other side of town' while we built a new home on the site of the little cottage we had demolished.  J was eighteen months old and his brother H, a fractious and difficult three year old.  We took with us to this house a strange old cat we had called Lizzie.  A plain name for a plain cat.  She had to be ugliest cat on earth, dirty white with odd tabby patches, her ears and nose scabby with skin cancer.  She had adopted us but refused to come inside the house. In fact if she was ever accidently caught inside she would literally climb walls to try and get out.  Lizzie was an outside cat and still definitely a stray but we felt we could not leave her at a potential building site so she moved with us and seemed quite content in the huge back of our temporary home - as long as we kept feeding her
BGM moves in on Lizzie's food bowl
Content that is until HE moved in.  I found a photo of him the other day, thin and mangy stretching out for Lizzies food bowl.  His coat was ginger and the texture of dried straw, he had a bite out of one ear.  He was fully grown and fully tom and nothing we could do could dissuade him from Lizzies food.  Water pistols, yelling, banging... all to no avail.  He would simply retreat a few paces and sit there calmly surveying us with the sure and certain knowledge that we would eventually cave in.
Of course we did.  Two bowls started to be put out and gradually over the next few months we watched a beautiful cat emerging literally like a chrysalis as his tatty coat began to improve.  First his head, then his shoulders. One warm summer night as I sat in the front room watching television, he appeared in the doorway of the room, hesitated only momentarily before he jumped on to the sofa a few feet away from me.  With his golden eyes firmly fixed upon me he crept down the sofa and laid his big, beautiful head on my lap, purring like a steam engine.  BGM had moved in.
We still refused to acknowledge that he was really ours, although I did the right thing by him and off he went to the vet, returning with his manhood missing and no doubt relieved that he no longer had to battle for the ladies attention.  There was one glorious summer day when J decided the cats needed sun protection and daubed fluorescent zinc cream liberally on both of them.  BGM had a fluorescent pink stripe for days and patches of bright green did nothing to improve Lizzies plain looks.
The time came to move and it was plain Lizzie was sick.  She could not walk without staggering.  The vet said her kidneys had failed and the decision was easy. Lizzie would not return to Aitken Street but BGM did.  After all by this stage we felt morally obliged to him.
He assumed his position in the new house as it he had been born to it but with one strange character quirk which it took a long time for us to come to terms with.  I cannot remember now how many times he went walkabout over the next few years.  Maybe two or three times a year some instinct would draw him back to the 'other side of our town'.  The first few times I went frantic until somebody from Victoria Street would ring and I would go and fetch him. Even without his collar and tag  he was so well known, he was traced back to me. 
After a while, the walkabouts began to take on a pattern.  He would disappear one evening and three or four days later I would get a phone call from Mrs. W., whose smart white house in Victoria street became his established haven.  Mrs. W. adored him and admitted that if wasnt for her own cat she would adopt him herself.  She would put him in the Mercedes and drive him home and he would arrive smiling and unfazed by the fuss. Even today she still mentions him when we meet in the street.
Gradually the wandering ceased and although Mrs. W. would ask after him fondly he would not come and visit.  I often wondered what called to him from over there.  He did not come from Victoria Street and certainly not from Mrs. W.  What adventures did he go through to get there?  If you asked him he would just smile enigmatically.
Companions came and went.  Our beloved Winston, left with us as a dirty abused kitten by the late Mrs. S. the cat lady” and we had a duo of gingers.  Good natured and obliging Winston was much adored by J who would tuck him under one arm and climb the stairs to bed with the limp Winstons feet banging on the stairs as he went.  Sadly Winston, 'the stupid', who would frequently get himself locked in the neighbor’s garage met his end when a car hit him.  Not a mark on his beautiful golden body. Mercifully the boys were away which made it easier but I wept for him and his loss was keenly felt by us all.
Winston was replaced by Sarah, a small bundle of tortoishell indignation who firmly decided from very early on that I was her person and although procured to replace Winston in the boys’  hearts was not up to the job.  BGM became the number one cat with J and endured H with a patience not displayed by Sarah.  From the photos of two cats together, I know it was part of his huge heart to let his fellow felines share his wonderful good fortune.  Never in the ten years he lived with us did I ever hear him utter a cross word to human or feline.
He was diagnosed early with Feline Aids, the legacy of his tomming past but on the whole his health was good.  It was only in his last years that the upper respiratory infections which plagued us began.  Cat snot from one end of the house to the other”, I would complain.  He would look up at me.  Sorry.
A boy and his cat
His one allotted task in life was putting J to bed.  J would set him at the bottom of the stairs and he would potter up to J’s  bed, lying in the boys arms until James was asleep when he would more often than not come back downstairs and join us for the evening before eventually taking his repose at the end of our bed.  He knew his place and was never a nuisance at night, unlike Sarah who liked to snuggle up close.
I dont know how old he was but of all the cats I have ever known, BGM had a serene wisdom as if he looked into your soul and understood what he found there.  It is the sort of unnerving goodness I have found in only two people, both of them priests.  Perhaps he was a priest of the feline world?  Certainly he ministered to us in our pain and unhappiness and shared joyfully in our happy times.
Without any explanation he began to fade.  The vets shook their heads and said they could not find a cause.  Maybe it was the Aids? We figured as long as he was not in pain and was still eating then we would go on loving him and maybe, just maybe God in his wisdom would take him peacefully in his sleep.  It was not to be that simple, perhaps God wanted to give us the chance to say goodbye properly.  In his last days he became incontinent and such was his immense dignity that I found him sleeping in his litter box.  On the Saturday morning he looked up at me and his eyes said Its time.  It was a family decision, a chance for those final farewells before D and I took him to the vet.  He was calm and peaceful, as if he quite understood what was to happen and welcomed the release.  I sat in the waiting room, tears running down my face as I stroked his beautiful golden, head, marked with the M between the eyes. 
So he rests beneath our birch tree and still if I feel troubled I find myself standing in that peaceful place as if he can still give the comfort he shared so generously when he was alive.  

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Heart of the High Country

I count myself fortunate. In my life I have seen the soaring mountains of New Zealand, the Canadian Rockies and the Austrian Alps but when it comes to mountains my heart belongs to the Australian High Country.

The Australian High Country
It always comes as something of a shock to visitors from overseas to learn that Australia (a land most people think of as one large desert) has a mountain range of sufficient height for regular snow in the winter. The "High Country" is that part of the Great Dividing Range that runs from southern New South Wales to southern Victoria. Ski-fields punctuate the higher peaks and while our runs are not long and punctuated by hazards such as snow gums, it attracts the snow fiends.

Last weekend, D and I took a break in one of our favourite corners of the State, a little gold mining town tucked into the mountains, called (somewhat ironically) Walhalla. Far from being the home of the Gods,  at its heyday it must have been more like hell. Walhalla lies in a narrow valley with steep slopes on either side. It is so steep that the cemetery boasts vertical graves and the locals literally had to take the top off a nearby hill to construct a cricket pitch.

Gold...the lure of gold induced our tough forebears to risk their necks and ankles in the pursuit of the elusive metal as they pushed deeper and deeper into the bush. By the late 1890s Walhalla boasted a population of nearly 30,000 people clinging to its vertiginous slopes like mussels to a sea wall. The hills for thirty miles around had been stripped bare of trees, arsenic from the processing poured into the creek and the continual thump of the stampers would have echoed around the hills. D and I to shake our heads in wonderment at how ow these massive bits of iron machinery were brought into these valleys.

Today Walhalla boasts a permanent population of about twenty people and has the dubious honour of being the last town in Victoria to be connected to the electrical grid (less than 20 years ago). When we first visited this area, the road into it was no more than a narrow dirt track. Today it boasts asphalt, bed and breakfasts and a steady stream of tourists. How it escaped the fury of the 2009 bushfires still causes the locals to wonder. It came close, ringing the valley on 3 sides.  Black Saturday took Marysville but not Walhalla. If it had come, there would be no escape from this valley.

Ruins at "Maiden Town"
The little valley is filled with ghosts. Although long since reclaimed by the bush, the countryside is treacherous, littered with hidden mine openings. High above the town and stretching miles into the forbidding hills beyond are the ruins of little settlements, ghost towns which once boasted pubs and shops, families and schools and the many citizens of different lands intent on eking a living from this inhospitable countryside.  Up here the wind doesn't sigh through the trees, it roars and howls.

We did not deliberately choose the weekend of the Australian Rules Grand Final but the happy circumstance meant that Walhalla was quiet. It was also bitterly cold and very wet. Tucked up in our comfortable room in the Star Hotel, D read and I wrote. In the evening we ventured out into the cold, wet darkness on a ghost tour (more on that for a later blog).

For the return trip we decided to go north through "the High Country". This track takes you out past Thompson Dam (nearly dry during the height of the drought) and through the worst of the country devestated by Black Saturday. Few hardy souls go this way even in the best of weather and the rugged track was bearing witness to the storms of the last few months with wash aways and fallen trees making the going tough. The map declares the road "unsuitable for caravans". It would have been unsuitable for anything less than our Landrover!

We pause to look down at the Thompson Dam, ringed by its blue hills and now nearly filled. The air smells of damp gum leaves, cold and fresh.

Thompson Dam
As we drive further north, the snow begins, great wet flakes falling on the windscreen. The scars of the great fires are still very much in evidence. Along the ridge lines, the skeletal sentinels of the great gums fringe the horizon, mute witness to the fire storm. Closer to the road, the limbs of the fire ravished trees bend under the weight of the frosting of pristine snow and in the deep gullies, tree ferns wear their mantle of snow like a lady's petticoat, sweeping into a deep curtsey before the fickleness of nature. We are the first car to break the crusting of snow on the road and everywhere around us is silence.

My heart belongs to the High Country. Where does your heart lie?