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“Mrs Charbury at Eltham”

"I feel perhaps I’d woken the house up and that wasn’t wise."

October 31, 2018  By Max Porter
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Who is the man in a brown cloak standing at the foot of my bed every night?’ my sister asked, aged six or seven.

I said ‘A ghost’ and Mother said ‘Bad dreams’ and Papa said ‘Absolute nonsense. Nobody cares for your made-up terrors.

Papa died and we were a house of women. We grew accustomed, but not sympathetic, to Delia’s unnerving claims.

She sometimes said ‘That’s him!’ in a gallery, or in a busy street, and she would be referring to her man in brown robes. Once we rushed upstairs upon hearing her scream and she was pointing to the chair beside her bed.

‘He was sitting in my chair!’

*

I am standing on the gravel driveway of Eltham Palace. Someone called Rory Kippax from English Heritage has agreed to show me around, but he is late. My taxi has gone and it’s drizzling. I am very elderly and I do not like rain, or waiting. I cannot tolerate lateness.

I shall give them until midday. Perhaps I shall cancel my membership.

*

Delia was fussing.

Something is wrong with Eltham Palace’ she said ‘nothing good will come of me going there. I’d like to stay home and work on my paintings.’

Oh, fortify yourself Delia. Mummy is ill, and we have been invited, and the Courtaulds expect us, so we are going. You can’t idle your life away, scuffing away at your naïve little pictures.

“Papa died and we were a house of women. We grew accustomed, but not sympathetic, to Delia’s unnerving claims.”

*

Almost noon and still nobody here. I notice the huge wooden doors are ajar.

I bang on the door with my walking stick. I poke my head through.

‘Hello?’

I wander in. It’s freezing cold.

‘Hello? Mrs Charbury here, I have a visit booked!’

I peer into the lavatories.

Oh yes, I remember these ghastly silver taps. Moderne design, sharp and angled, no doubt hugely fashionable back then, but one couldn’t fit one’s hand under to get any water. Typical of those people.

I did love the heated towel rails though.

*
I don’t like it’ said Delia.

Oh do shut up.

And there we were, drying our hands and prettying ourselves, when we heard Virginia say to someone or other ‘Yes, and I’ve just seen the Charbury Sisters arrive. Ye-e-e-es, exactly. One beautiful and silly, one strange and ugly. One Flaming June berry, one burnt brûlée berry.’

And I know Delia heard, because she blushed and hastened her efforts with the handwashing. Poor peculiar Delia. Dumpy and glum.

*

I step through into the domed room with its fly’s eye roof; the pride and joy of New Eltham.

*
‘Hello? Is anybody here?’

*
Back then I called it the Temple of Questionable Taste. I was jealous, I suppose.

*
‘Hello?’ I call. The building hums.

I think I can hear footsteps approaching so I peer expectantly down each corridor but nobody comes.

‘Hello?’
*
There was champagne, so much champagne. Chatter and shrieks of laughter. Cigar smoke. Jazz. Silk.

I don’t like it here’ Delia said to me. ‘I have a very bad feeling.’

I flounced off to flirt and dance and get sloshed.

*

I was terribly drunk all the time back then. We all were. I smoked until I couldn’t swallow. At Eltham they topped you up all the time. There was nowhere you could go where people wouldn’t pop up from behind some door, a grinning servant with more drinks, more options for intoxication.

*
‘Dubonnet Cassis Madame?’

Too bloody right, yes please.’

*
I was young and comely and we were invited to parties where very famous people gathered and got drunk. I loved getting sozzled with the well-to-do.

*
Welcome to HMS Vulgar Italiano’ someone said.

‘Haha!’

There is no champagne today. Just the huge circular rug, browns and beiges and cruise-ship lines. I wonder why on earth Rory Kippax isn’t here.

I wander down the corridor to the medieval great hall. It’s deserted. I call out as I go through ‘Hello?’

*

I said ‘Virginia and Stephen!!’ and she said ‘Ginie, please!’ and my pitiful socialite spirit soared into the hammer beams above us.

I don’t remember the hall being this big. I remember it being crammed with sticky bodies. Always so fiendishly hot. I remember people whispering ‘Rab Butler is here!’

“I was terribly drunk all the time back then. We all were. I smoked until I couldn’t swallow.”

Delia was next to me, stiff as a board. ‘There is something wrong with Eltham. I don’t feel well. There’s something wrong.’ Someone said ‘Quickstep!’ and I shrieked and whooped and ran away from Delia.

Someone said ‘Edith Sitwell’s dreadful poems’ and I said ‘Oh spare me!’

Someone said ‘Taste does not come by chance: it is a long and laborious task to acquire it’ and all us slender dreadful ladies cackled.

They had a fetish for electricity and for warmth. A beautiful woman in green velvet slippers said to me ‘The floor is warmer than a granite boulder in midsummer sun. Underfloor heating, no expense spared!

*

The floor today is ice cold. There are bits of old confetti stuck to the flagstones. This place is a party venue for hire.

Was it ever thus.

I call out into the medieval emptiness ‘Hello?’

I picture Delia crossing the huge floor to tell me she’s scared, or worried. I imagine Edward IV spying on me from behind a curtain. Sinister history here. I feel a ripple of fear, all alone in this hall of memories, so I shout ‘Hello!’ and my sudden nervousness is embarrassing so I shut it off with noise, yelling ‘HELLO!’ yelling ‘Is there anybody here? I have an appointment.’

*

I feel suddenly very self-aware. I wish I hadn’t made noise. I feel perhaps I’d woken the house up and that wasn’t wise.

*

A man in a jester’s costume said ‘Refill, saucy Mixy?

*

I was rather too hot and dizzy and I was in something of a clinch I think, with a racing driver, a friend of the famous Italian nephews, and suddenly Delia was there, and she was cold. She was shaking like a river-dipper.

‘The man is here’ she said ‘the robed man in brown, the man I’ve always seen.’

‘What tosh, can’t you ever relax? Can’t you enjoy yourself?’

‘He won’t leave me alone. He . . . he knows me. Please, I’m frightened and I want to go home.’

Delia was quivering and pale and her skin was mottled with goose bumps. She looked really quite dramatically the less pretty sister, more than usual.

Stop being so odd, Delia. It makes you very difficult to love.

*

I was dancing and sweating, then I was canoodling with the racing driver.

‘Plug one in for me old boy!’ said a famous actor, and we all roared with laughter.

I wander back up to the domed entrance hall in case the man from English Heritage is waiting, but there’s nobody. The door is closed. Did I close the door?

*

‘Hello?’

*

I sit down in an armchair in the drawing room that says ‘Please do not sit’. I’ve paid my membership fees for years and I’ve been rudely stood up, so I shall jolly well sit down. I swear I can hear music somewhere. It is my mind playing tricks on me. I call out feebly ‘Is there someone here?’

*

There is a scratching noise in the walls but it’s the same with any old house, heaving and adjusting. Creaking. Hundreds of years of history leaking out. Perfectly normal.

*

I remember we all went and saw the infamous pet lemur, which was not biting people or cuddling its mistress as the legends have it, but snoozing in a fetid heap.

*

‘Well bugger that, Mah-Jongg you party pooper’ said a shiny Frenchman in plus-fours, and we all roared with laughter.

*

Then Delia was with me again, pulling at my sleeve, and I followed her.

*

We crept into Virginia’s boudoir. I was terribly drunk. There were people lounging on the floor, on cushions, smoking. We both gazed at the leather map. It buzzed. Hidden machinery behind the walls. Eltham the electric toy.

‘I told you this place was haunted’ she said.

‘Did you?’

‘Are you drunk?’

‘Absomagnificat’ I said, and giggled.

She whispered.

‘He knows me! He said he used to watch over me as a child, while I was sleeping. He described the inside of my bedroom. He said he liked my paintings, he said I have to paint my pictures for him.’

She pointed to the curtain in the corner of the boudoir.

‘Through there in the map room, but it’s terribly secret. He’s very angry with me.’

I remember she was multiplying in front of my eyes.

Two Delias, each a babbling frenzy about the blasted man and his paintings.

Three Delias, frightened, pale and dim.

I did my best impression of our poor departed father. I looked at Delia and, swaying, said ‘Nobody cares for your made-up terrors.’

*

And then I was whooping, riding on my pilot’s shoulders across the lawn to the glasshouses to see Stephen Courtauld’s world famous orchids.

*

Sometime in the very early morning Delia was on the lawn and she looked luminously white and I wrapped her in someone’s shawl.

‘I don’t know what to do’ she said. ‘He’s come for me. I have to go with him.’

She gazed into my eyes and she said to me ‘Will you come and find me? Please come and find me.’

I was so sloshed. I don’t know what I said to her.

I suppose I was unkind.

I suppose I said ‘Absolute nonsense.’

*

Eltham loomed out of the dark, sparkling and noisy, like a huge electric ship made of jewels and I watched my strange little sister step back inside it.

*

I shift uncomfortably on the chair in the drawing room. I do not feel safe in this house. It’s the memories. All the people I was here with are presumably dead and gone. It’s just me in Eltham Palace with my memories. Nasty me, in 1937, surrounded by glitz. Nasty me, now, all alone.

“I remember we all went and saw the infamous pet lemur, which was not biting people or cuddling its mistress as the legends have it, but snoozing in a fetid heap.”

*

Sometime in the early morning I was wrapped in the pilot’s jacket and there was a man playing the clarinet, and someone gave me a shot of herbal liqueur out of a tiny crystal glass and we all bundled into cars and someone said my sister had left, and then she wasn’t at home, and then sometime later we phoned the exchange and got through to Eltham and they told us that no guests were left at the house, and then in a shambolic and slightly embarrassed manner we phoned the police.

They searched for her, and I was asked a million times about the party, and I couldn’t remember much, and my head hurt so terribly for those first days that I simply sobbed and repeated that it had been awfully noisy and my sister had met a chap in a brown costume.

*

They dredged the moat and searched the Tudor sewers. They stopped a fellow in a field who was in some kind of monk’s robe, Eric Gill get-up, but he turned out to be a genuine eccentric who had never stepped foot in the palace.
Delia was simply gone.

Society Daughter Disappears at Eltham.

Mother never got well. On the evening after the party, before we really understood Delia was properly missing, she had a nightmare about Eltham. She said she dreamed that Delia was trapped between the old bits and the new bits of the palace. Lost. She saw her face in a painting. She raved and shrieked about her daughter being imprisoned in Eltham. On her deathbed she said ‘Find your sister’ and I never even tried. I never bloody tried.

I never came back to Eltham until today.

*

I heave myself off the armchair and wander back through the entrance hall, swiping at the fusty air with my stick.

*

I can smell some kind of chemical or medical odour. Girlhood smells. Particles of the young me. Nostalgia.

*

I go through into the green servants’ corridor and turn left down into the basement. I’m very frail these days. One step at a time. Descending past the shadow of the younger me on these same stairs.

I never went to another party at Eltham. I married a Scot and fled the flat Home Counties. I became a dull, wealthy, landowning wife of a laird. I’ve got dozens of grandchildren who sometimes phone and thank me for money.

My husband said I was a fragile flower. I said he was an ox. Flowers outlive oxen you know.

*

The Courtaulds ditched Eltham when one too many bombs landed on the great hall which they had so tirelessly faked back into authenticity. They eventually settled in Southern Rhodesia and presumably lived out their days reminiscing about the razzle-dazzle of this place.

*

The basement is painted red like animal innards. I swear I can hear music.

*

‘Oh! Bloody hell!’ I yelp, because there is a mannequin dressed up as an air warden. I whack it crossly with my stick.

‘Piss off ’ I say to it, in passing.

My poor ancient heart jangles in its cage. I detest shocks.

I tiptoe through to the billiards room. My pulse is plunking in my ears, making me nervous.

It’s warm down here and I feel agitated.

*

There it is, the Italianate mural. As incongruous now as it was then. Pastiche. An Umbrian soap advert clinging to the wall for dear life.

Is this what my mother dreamed of? She must’ve seen this mural at a party.

I peer at the painting. There are two girls, carrying bowls on their heads.

I’m suddenly desperately disconcerted and confused. This place is making me ill.

There are tears in my eyes. ‘Delia?’ I speak to the servant girl. For heaven’s sake, it doesn’t look a thing like Delia.

I feel terribly, abjectly alone. I want my husband. I want Delia. I was a terrible sister. Sniffling, I lean my head against the mural and whisper,

‘I’m sorry I was so relentlessly cruel. Forgive me, Delia.’

*

A hand claps down on my shoulder.

*

I scream.

I flail, spin around, waggle my stick and topple back against the mural.

*

There is a little man in a brown suit.

*

‘There, there ma’am’ he says ‘it’s just a pretty picture.’

*

The shock has rendered me completely speechless. I am close to losing control of my antique bladder. I am trying to catch my breath.

*

He simply stares at me and says it again in his strange vinegary voice; ‘Just a pretty picture.’

*

My hands are shaking quite ridiculously. I brandish my stick at him.

*

‘You’re late!’ I snap.

*

‘Well you seem to know your way around. Welcome back.’

*

‘Welcome back?’

*

He has peculiar round eyes, the little English Heritage man. Eyes like little electric light bulbs, glowing gold. His face puts me in mind of the bloody awful lemur. I glance at the portrait of the pet in the mural beside me. Yes, he has a look of Mah-Jongg, this little man. That’s probably why they hired him.

*

‘Yes, I assume you’ve been to Eltham before, since you know your way around?’

*

‘I have, many years ago, yes. Anyway, I was rather hoping to see the leather map, in Virginia’s boudoir.’

*

‘Follow me, ma’am.’

He goes in front and I follow him slowly up. My pulse rate is still preposterously high and the thought crosses my mind that a shock like that, at my age, might have killed me. I think to myself that not only will I be cancelling my membership but I shall be writing a strongly worded letter of complaint to English Heritage. I despise being given a fright.

*

I am about to voice my upset when I realise the little man is mumbling something.

He is issuing forth a peculiar stream of unrelated and half-formed titbits of Eltham trivia, some of which strike me as complete nonsense.

‘They say the ghost of Thomas Wolsey appears, sometimes, and you can actually hear the marble bust of Virginia Courtauld cry out in shock, some say she’s alive at night, and up here in the servant quarter is where Erasmus might have sat in deep conversation with the courtiers of . . .’

‘Well, thank you, but I think I’ll be fine without the folklore and hearsay.’

*

We walk across the entrance hall and down towards Virginia’s boudoir. The little man fidgets with his pockets.
He squirms and judders as if there are fleas in his suit. He smells strongly of iodine and the smell makes me feel . . . vulnerable. I haven’t smelt iodine in years.

*

‘Here we are, ma’am.’

*

I don’t feel well. The fright he caused me in the basement has given me a tightness in the chest. My breaths are shallow. There’s jazz music playing and I feel hot and stifled. My bones are aching and I don’t like this peculiar little man.

‘Where is that music coming from?’

‘Music, ma’am?’

And he’s right, there isn’t any music playing.

I’m flustered, that’s all.

*

‘Here on the wall you see the famous leather map, complete with the—’

‘How long have you worked at Eltham?’ I interrupt him.

‘Oh a long time. I’ve always been here really. Now ma’am, I see your gaze drifts to the velvet curtain there in the corner. Would you like to see the map room?’

*

He says ‘map room’ softly and with an especially repellent twist of his little simian face.

*

‘Don’t worry I think I shall leave now, actually, I have a taxi b—’

*

‘YOU CAN’T’ he shrieks and squirms his hands around in his pockets. ‘I mean, you must see the map room, there are paintings on the wall, only recently discovered, dating from the 1930s. It’s one of the most remarkable rooms at Eltham Palace.’

*

My stomach wobbles.

‘Paintings?’
‘Come, come, ma’am’ he says and holds back the curtain ‘you’re going to enjoy this.’

*

I step through.

It’s a small room with stained and torn maps on all the walls. Around the maps there are little painted motifs. A funny Irish man in a green suit. Coral, jewels, some faint airplanes, palm trees, camels and a thorny green dragon. My mouth is atrociously dry and I feel perhaps I am about to vomit. I realise with abject surety as I gaze upon them that these are my sister’s paintings. That is Delia’s sweet signature Britannia with a shield, the same Britannia she did on letterheads. I would know her curious style anywhere. My sister did these paintings, but how? And when? The night of the party? My brain skitters and leaps. I don’t know what to think. I fear I must be having some kind of emotion-induced hallucination. I am about to ask the guide when I notice something. Above the European map there are two young women depicted, together, in frocks. One is slender and beautiful, with flowing red hair, she is flushed and grinning. The other is shorter, and plumper, less pretty, and she looks terrified. She is grimacing and pointing across the top of the map.

‘You’re going to be joining Delia’ says the little man, behind me.

‘What did you just say?’ I spin about and face him.

‘I said, “You’re going to enjoy the detail there.”’

*

I am so lightheaded I don’t really understand what is happening. I turn back to look at the paintings and I support myself with one shaking hand on the wall.

What is that? On the wall. Bloody hell what in god’s name. . .

I can scarcely believe my eyes, but the taller girl is paler than she was just seconds ago. She looks less confident. The painting is changing. I am unwell, surely. I keep on looking. The other less pretty lady is open-mouthed, blazing with intent, pointing along the top of the map. I follow her outstretched arm and there, perched on the end of the map, is a little man in brown robes, with a face like a lemur.

SCREEEEAAACHH!!; from behind me a vicious explosion of noise.

I turn around brandishing my pathetic stick and the man leaps and he is the lemur, the hideous Mah-Jongg, orange eyes glazed with rage, swivelling and spinning in their sockets, rows of sharp teeth all the way back into his black throat, and I start to scream and he leaps at me and knocks me back against the wall, punching me hard in the chest with two paw-like fists. I struggle against him, lashing out, and he bites my hand, like a dozen pins driven into my skin, and the pain is simply unbelievable. I howl. The shock of being attacked is atrocious, but the sheer surprise of the violence merges with appalling incredulity because as I have met the wall I have not stopped. The wall is soft. It seems to be absorbing me. I feel a gradual tug, then a stronger pull and I can’t get my weight forward, I am shouting quite insanely now, yelping, gasping ‘Oh GOD’ terrified spitting gasps of panic ‘HELP ME!’ dribbling bursts of sobs, I am not strong enough, I am going to drown, the wall seems to be pulling me in, the lemur man has gone, and something is snarling and tugging at me from behind now, hissing, growling, pulling me into the wall, I kick and scramble and claw at the air, but all is liquid and the room is dark and I can’t hold on and then all of a sudden through my wailing there is a familiar voice, a young woman’s voice and she is saying ‘No’, she is angry and determined and she is saying ‘No! No!’ and I join her frantic calls and I start yelling ‘No! Please, NO!’ and I feel two hands on my shoulders pushing me forward, strong but small hands, pushing me back out of the wall, out into the room and I call out in pain and confusion ‘Delia? DELIA?!’ and there is a hard two-handed thump of a final shove on my shoulders and I spill out onto the floor in a heap and pass beyond the nightmare into total dreadful collapse.

*

Dear Mr Porter,

Thank you for your letter.

I no longer work for English Heritage but yes I do remember Mrs Charbury.

This was 2012. I was meant to show her around. I found her on the front drive, in a terrible state. She said her sister Delia was trapped in some paintings in the map room and had been since 1937. She said the lemur had attacked her. I admit to you I thought it was nonsense. I thought she was crackers. For starters the palace was locked and alarmed.

I opened up after Mrs Charbury had left in the ambulance. There was nobody there. I called out the name Delia several times, because I had promised Mrs Charbury I would. I was embarrassed, and a little unnerved, alone in there calling out for someone. The map room was closed with no sign of any disturbance. I searched the premises thoroughly. You ask about a bad feeling in there. Yes, I did have a bad feeling in there, that day. The only noteworthy thing was that one of the WW2 educational costumes from the basement, a brown woollen suit, had been left upstairs in the Mah-Jongg Suite, presumably by one of the half-term school parties. And that was that.

In 2014 when the restorers uncovered the paintings in the map room I admit I was highly perturbed and remembered Mrs Charbury’s terrified ramblings about her sister. I attempted to make contact, but she had cancelled her English Heritage membership. I found her with a bit of googling and saw that she passed away back in 2012, after her visit to Eltham. Poor old dear, she died of an infected animal bite to her hand.

Nasty business.

Anyway, strange old place, Eltham.

Good luck with your story,

 

Rory Kippax.

__________________________________

From Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories. Used with permission of September Publishing. Copyright © 2018 by Max Porter.




Max Porter
Max Porter
Max Porter is the author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which made the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist 2015. This title also was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.








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