In November 1772, Bessie Surtees escaped down a ladder from her home on Sandhill, Newcastle, to elope with her forbidden lover John Scott, a coal merchant’s son. They were married in Scotland and soon Bessie’s father forgave her and invited them back home. Scott went on to become Lord Eldon and the Lord Chancellor of Britain. This piece imagines a worker at Bessie Surtees’ House befriending Bessie’s ghost.
My fingers struggled with the old key. I winced with the effort of getting it to turn – the swollen fingers didn’t help. I gave the door a shove with my shoulder, holding my breath until it finally budged, making a muffled crack. The last thing I did before clearing my desk last month was to slide back the bolt on the inside, to make sure I could get in again when I needed to speak to her. A gamble, but I guessed no one would spot it.
I felt my way up the stairs in the thick darkness. Too risky to put on the lights. No matter: I knew every corner of this building, every gnarl and splinter in its dark wood, the different sound made on every step. I know it like my own body. Or like I used to know my own body, when I ran up and down the staircase and across the skewed floors as they leaned this way and that. Now I panted at the top of the stairs and struggled to keep my balance, inching my way through the dark. The weight inside dragged me one way while the floorboards pulled me another. I shushed them at every creak.
I knew she would be there, sitting at the leaded window, squinting through the tiny pane of blue glass. Refracted moonlight gave her a paler look than usual. She turned to me and pursed her lips. “I’m not at all sure this was the right one,” she said, her voice a sliver of the wind. “I think it was perhaps… further to the left.”
“I know,” I said. “You’ve told me that before. Does it matter? The visitors like to know which window you escaped from, so we took a guess.”
Bessie sniffed and blew her nose on a yellowing lace handkerchief. “I came back though. I came back through the door. No one makes such a fuss about that.”
“I know that, too. Bessie? Look at me.” I placed my two palms on my swollen belly. Its solidity still took me by surprise and I screwed up my face at another wash of pain. Maybe I shouldn’t have come out tonight. But there was more than a week to go before my due date. I wanted to see her one final time. “Did you even notice I was pregnant?”
“You’re not the first and you won’t be the last.” Her gaze slid back to the window and she placed her fingers on the blue pane. The outside lights of the Quayside glittered through them. If she heard the sounds of the traffic and the rising voices of the drinkers in the bars below, she didn’t show it.
I edged closer. “You look different.” I was used to a young woman, with spots of pink on her creamy cheeks. Tonight I could see the beginnings of frown lines between her brows and spidery grooves above her lips.
“We all get older. And most of us get wiser.”
“But you are already…” I stopped myself. It felt graceless to point out that she was long dead. And it seemed cruel that even ghosts got wrinkles.
It was a year ago, a windy, wintry night just like this when I first saw Bessie sitting in this room, looking down at the street. I wasn’t scared. It seemed quite natural that her spirit would go back to the place that defined her life – the window where she climbed out, defying society to elope with her lover.
All the things everyone says will happen if you meet a ghost – the room will chill, your hair will stand on end – they’re all nonsense. I just saw a young woman whose story I already knew. I said her name and she turned her pretty face towards me. And because I knew her story, I thought it was only fair that I should tell her mine.
“I’m in love with someone I shouldn’t be. I don’t know what to do.”
Bessie recognised that. She risked everything to be with her forbidden man, and the gamble paid off – she won her father over, and her husband, the coal merchant’s son, went on to become a lord.
“I did what you said, Bessie,” I told her, trying to keep the accusing edge out of my voice. “You told me to take a chance. You told me to do everything – anything – to be with him.” I dropped into a crouch, clutching myself around the middle, breathing hard.
She gave a little sigh. “I was younger then. You shouldn’t have taken any notice to me, a silly little girl.”
“It was only twelve months ago.” Now I was on my hands and knees, clenching my teeth. Every few moments, convulsions of pain seared through my whole body. My eyes streamed.
“Long enough to learn a lesson.” Her voice was the gentle lap of the river. “I looked for excitement, for romance. I ended up back at home, forgiven but always in the wrong. He got what he wanted. I don’t know that I did.”
She was standing over me, her skirts rustling like old love notes. There were silvery strands in her hair.
“I went all out for him, like you told me to.” I spoke in uneven gasps, shifting my body from side to side to ease the pangs. “He didn’t leave his wife. And he doesn’t even want to work with me. I’ve lost my job.” I pushed strands of sweat-soaked hair from my eyes.
“I don’t know why you thought I had answers to your questions.”
“Because…because…” I was grunting like an animal, too wracked to form the words.
“Because I am dead?” Bessie smiled.
“No…” The urge to bear down and force the pain out was overwhelming. “Because you’d seen life. All of it. Because of that.” The words came coughing out and then I wailed.
“Push,” Bessie urged. “Children – that’s something I do know. You are almost there. I can see…a head.”
It was wrenching my body apart. There was blood, spattering onto the wooden floors, a smell like metal, like a butcher’s shop.
“I need to get to hospital, now.” The scream was echoing round the room, bouncing back at me through the mouths of the wooden cherubs carved in every corner.
“This house has seen the births of hundreds of children. Keep pushing.”
“I’m not supposed to be here anymore.” I leaned across the heavy Tudor chest that visitors are not allowed to touch, gripped its smooth edges with my bloodied hands.
“Why are you?”
“To see you. To say goodbye.” I howled into the darkness.
Cold fingers kneaded my back. They soothed me, just a little. I pushed and strained, screamed and swore.
“Here he is. In one tiny moment, you will forget that pain, as if it never happened.” As Bessie spoke, I felt a slipping, loosening sensation, my whole body falling away from me.
“When we leap, we do not always land where we think,” said Bessie. “The lustre soon wears off a man. But to have a child… that is a forever.”
I don’t know how much time passed. The blackness outside turned a deep winter blue and Bessie was still there when I clutched my slippery son to my chest. As I kissed his sticky head, she sang a lullaby that sounded like the morning birds.
CREATIVE NONFICTION INSPIRED BY THE STAFF AT BESSIE SURTEES HOUSE
It doesn’t take much to make Bessie sing. That’s what we tell the workmen when a door flies open or the wind whoops around the building and they don’t know where the noises are coming from. We say, that’s Bessie singing. They look at us, willing us to laugh.
The skewed wooden floors, heavy with age, lean first one way and then another. It is as if the house longs to take those short steps to the river and sail away, down the Tyne and out to sea, taking the spoils of Empire back to their homelands. All the carved native American heads with their mouths in an O, trophies of trade, brought home for the women, those legendary canny hinnies. Maybe the wind and salt water would be the end of Bessie – the weather does for this old lady often enough. When we come in and find a new crack in the plaster or a pool of rainwater on the floor, we sigh and say, ‘Oh, Bessie’.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Barbara Henderson writes as Bea Davenport and is the author of three commercially published books. Her two suspense novels In Too Deep and This Little Piggy are published by Legend Press. Her children’s novel The Serpent House, written as part of a Creative Writing PhD at Newcastle University, is published by Curious Fox. It is currently under consideration for the Waterstones Childrens Fiction and the Branford Boase awards. Her next children’s book, My Cousin Faustina, will be published by Readzone in spring 2015.