Supernatural Inheritance: On a Unique Family Gift That Crosses Continents
Margot Livesey Explores the Possibility of a Power Passed Down for Generations
I grew up in the peculiar environment of a boys’ private school on the edge of the Scottish Highlands; my father taught mathematics and geography and was a confirmed bachelor. Then, at the age of fifty, he surprised everyone by marrying one of the few women in that world: Eva McEwen, the school nurse.
A year later, I was born. Eva died when I was two and a half and he went on to marry the next school nurse. He gave my mother and step-mother identical engagement rings but, in his defense, there was only one jeweler in the nearby town.
My step-mother was close to my father’s age and had no interest in having a step-daughter. Happily a nearby family had four children and left their door open. After she and my father died, I began to refer to Merril and Roger as my adopted parents, not bothering to explain who had done the adopting. I was an orphan, there was no one with whom I shared my DNA, but I was also one of a family of seven. In 1987, on a misty October morning, while driving me to the train at Pitlochry Station, Roger, my adopted father, told me that the most profound experience of the supernatural he had ever had was in the presence of my mother.I was the only child of two only children; I was the end of the story.
When I begged him to say more, he described how one day at the school he had gone to the Infirmary to ask Eve if he could use her phone. At that time no one at the school besides the headmaster and the school nurse had a phone. She said of course and left him alone to make his call. While Roger was on the phone, a woman came in. She had brown hair, he remembered, and was wearing a raincoat.
Seeing that he was on the phone, she nodded, walked across the room and left by a door on the far side. When Eva returned, Roger said, “Who was your friend?” “What friend?” said Eva. He described the woman and what she’d done. “Oh, her,” Eva said. “Go and try the door.” He did and found the door he had just seen the woman open and step through, screwed shut.
“Your mother had a great gift for second sight,” Roger said. “Her patients used to complain about the poltergeists visiting the infirmary at night and moving the furniture around but she never made a fuss about it.” He went on to tell me that he was sure I had inherited her gifts. When I protested—I saw only what others saw—he said, “That’s because your life is too busy and too urban.”
Once I was safely on the train, I wrote down everything he had said. Fourteen years and eight drafts later, I published Eva Moves the Furniture on 9/11. In writing the novel, I used everything I had been able to find out about my mother, a small handful of facts and stories: she won a medal for high jumping, she was a terrible cook, she didn’t complain about the poltergeists. It never occurred to me that there would be a sequel, or a prequel. I was the only child of two only children; I was the end of the story.
But in 2016, a former student who was doing research on Ancestry.com, offered to look into Eva’s family. Why not, I thought. A few weeks later, she sent me a family tree and an email from a woman named Gayle who wrote to ask if Eva McEwen had had a living child. I was still an orphan but, it turned out, I had many living relatives; they all happened to live in Australia.
In her letters Gayle described how in 1911 my great grandfather, Thomas Malcom, had emigrated from Glasgow to Brisbane with his wife and five children. He had set up as a tailor and made kilts for the Brisbane pipe band. In the summer of 1914, his oldest child, Barbara, aged twenty-six, had sailed back to Britain alone and married her childhood sweetheart Jim just before the First World War broke out. Barbara had a daughter who lived long enough to be christened and then a second daughter, Eva. She died in childbirth, or shortly thereafter.
In 2017 I flew to Brisbane to spend a week with Gayle and her family. It was forty years since I had met anyone with whom I shared DNA and I was deeply curious as to whether the tiny fraction would make a difference. As soon as Gayle stepped forward to greet me at the airport, I knew I liked her but there was no extra feeling; nothing that spoke to a subterranean connection. That absence persisted for most of the week that followed as I met cousin after cousin, all several times removed.
The only faint flicker, came with the two oldest members of the family: John and Gwen. John, aged ninety, had a pale, bony Scottish face with blazing blue eyes. As a young man, working in the bush, he told me, he used to put a bottle of beer under his bed every night to be ready for morning. His younger sister Gwen gave me a cup and saucer, part of my great grandmother’s wedding china, and told me stories about her. Everyone in the family knew, she said, that Lizzie had second sight. As she described my great grandmother who had, until then, been no more than a biological fact, I thought of Eva. Her relationship with the supernatural was no longer a unique gift but an inheritance.What interested me was that great grandmother who could see the future but never change it.
I flew back to the States and continued work on my current novel with no thought that I would ever write about any of this; I had spent enough time in the shadowy past. When The Boy in the Field was finished, I set to writing another contemporary novel. Then in March, 2020, all our lives changed. Gradually, in the face of faltering pandemic policy, I began to realize that I would not be going back to Scotland for many months. From one day to the next I set aside my contemporary novel and began writing about my great grandmother growing up in Fife in the 1880s. I wanted to go home in the only way I could. The Road from Belhaven was my magic carpet.
In terms of a subject for a prequel, my grandmother Barbara might seem a more obvious choice. In Brisbane one of the second cousins twice removed gave me a lock of her hair; it exactly matches my own. She had made the unusual choice to emigrate and then, after three years of nothing but letters, to make the long voyage back to Glasgow, to Jim, to the terrors of childbirth. But her heroic story felt over determined; the choices already made before I had written a word. What interested me was that great grandmother who could see the future but never change it, who bequeathed, albeit in a different form, her relationship with the supernatural to my mother.
When I told the story of Roger’s phone call to Gayle, she asked, “But why did he see this woman?” The answer became increasingly clear in his later years. My pragmatic, keen-witted adopted father also had a profound relationship with the supernatural. The night before he died a woman appeared, her hair braided in a heavy crown, a benign presence keeping him company. As for me, I am still waiting for my life to become less busy and less urban but shortly before John died in a Brisbane hospital, he claimed that I appeared at his bedside wearing a green dress with many buttons.
The Road from Belhaven by Margot Livesey is available from Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.