Val Randall continues our series on favourite books which, sadly, have gone out of print.
Ghost in the Water by Edward Chitham was published by Longman Young Books in 1973.
I met Edward Chitham only once – perhaps 12 years ago, on a course devoted to children’s literature in schools. I was teaching in a Black Country school: Chitham was a Black Country writer – an unassuming man steeped in the traditions and folklore of his area. He read extracts from Ghost in the Water and its potential for classroom use was obvious. To the best of my knowledge it is the only book for children he’s ever written; to my sorrow it’s now been out of print for several years – despite having been serialised for BBC Children’s television. Try as I might I can no longer repair the few remaining copies in the stockroom and so an enthralling thought-provoking book has been lost.
The story is set in the Black Country and begins when Teresa and David, members of their school’s Local History Society, discover an intriguing inscription on a gravestone in a local churchyard. ‘In Memory of Abigail Parkes. Departed this Life 10th December, 1860. Aged 17. Innocent of All Harm.’
It is this last sentence which excites their curiosity – and the readers’. This is a mystery story and Chitham lays his clues subtly, using chance and coincidence to fashion a dense weave in which Teresa is caught – implored by the ghost of a girl dead for over a century to establish the verity of the bald statement ‘Innocent of All Harm’. There are no dramatic spirit manifestations, no bathos, no sensationalism – just a growing awareness that Teresa can watch, like a disembodied cinema-goer, the isolated incidents in Abigail’s life which most clearly tell her story.
‘It was uncanny to see her there in calm daylight, acting as though it was stormy night time; it seemed as though two films had been superimposed one on the other and were running at the same time, a film of the here and now and a film of Victoria’s day.’
Thus two devices move the narrative forward: Teresa’s experience of the supernatural and the influence of chance and coincidence. These literary tools are set to work in the opening pages of the book when a sampler in the hallway of Teresa’s home is discovered to be the work of Abigail Parkes. This coincidence edges Teresa towards the eventual knowledge that she’s related to Abigail, as a visit to her grandmother’s house reveals. Strengthened by the conviction that Abigail is guiding her hand, Teresa resolves to discover the truth behind the tombstone inscription:
“I’m determined to know for myself. She means me to know.”‘
Abigail’s story is rooted in the mines which ran like warrens beneath the Black Country of Victoria’s time. Her father, Henry Parkes, was a wealthy mine owner as harsh and inflexible in his treatment of family and employees alike. Abigail was to marry a man of her own class, as social convention dictated; when she fell in love with the young miner David Caddick, Parkes was furious – striking him with his horse whip and threatening to fire him. This did not deter the lovers but drove them to meet in secret.
Teresa ‘observes’ their first meeting as she dozes over a piece of homework, drawn by the intensity of their feelings into the world they occupied over 100 years ago. She is again permitted a glimpse into the past when she hears the pair pledging their love as they exchange tokens and hide them in a tin in the wall of the canal tunnel. This eerie experience is paralleled by the sampler falling from its hook in the hallway and smashing to reveal the imprint of a ring – the one which Abigail and David exchanged in that secret meeting in the tunnel’s gloom.
Events now crowd together, giving Teresa further access to the bridge between past and present: her sister is given Abigail’s ring by her fiancé; Teresa finds the hidden tin and Abigail makes a mute and urgent appeal, appearing as a reflection in the water of the canal. The inquest report, retrieved from local archives, states that Abigail committed suicide in the canal after learning that David Caddick had died in an accident in Fiery Holes mine. He had in fact survived but Parkes let his daughter believe he’d perished – the cruel Victorian tyrant to the last.
The truth about Abigail’s death was hidden in an innocuous statement by an elderly miner, Zachariah Oakley, who saw her leave the bridge:
“I sid th’ outline of the wench a-walkin’ off’n the bridge then.”‘
Distracted by grief, she had fiddled David’s ring from her finger and into the water below. In trying to retrieve it, she had overbalanced and drowned. It is this episode which Teresa sees:
“‘Hush, oh hush!” I breathed back. And then, my lips barely moving, “It’s her. “‘
The poignancy of this moment is achieved, like so much else in the book, through careful understatement and is expertly counterpointed by Teresa’s headlong rush into the water to try to save Abigail – over 100 years too late! Teresa survives and Abigail’s ghost is laid to rest: innocent of all harm indeed. Teresa’s perceptions are irrevocably changed and there is a warning for those who take these matters lightly:
‘Abigail was no toy to be played with, no fiction.’
The strength of Ghost in the Water is that the familiarity of everyday routines convinces the reader of the validity of the inexplicable. Realism is never overwhelmed by the fantastic, instead it provides a contrast which affirms that something unusual is happening. Since events are unusual, they are special – the very heart of the story, the substance which elevates it above the banal.
Val Randall is a member of BfK‘s regular reviewing team. She teaches at a secondary school in Lancashire.
Sonia Benster of The Children’s Bookshop, 37-39 Lidget Street, Lindley, Huddersfield HD3 3W, writes:
I was interested to read Grace Hallworth’s article on The Tenth Good Thing About Barney which is currently out of print in this country.
This is one of the titles we import from America and currently we have a couple in stock, can order more, though there is a six-week delivery from the States.
Liz Attenborough of Penguin Books writes:
What a nice piece Grace Hallworth wrote about The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. I’m sure lots of people will go to their library shelves to re-read the book.
But can I just point out to your readers that publishers don’t put books out of print for no reason? Books go out of print because they have ceased to sell – it’s as simple as that. All good things come to an end, but there may be times when a sufficient period has elapsed for a reissue of a particular book to prove worthwhile. Anyway, it’s always useful to be reminded of the goodies.