I had a love affair while writing my new book. With London.
It was dysfunctional to start with, a love-hate relationship. A friend was killed on the underground and afterwards I had panic attacks whenever I got on the tube. Even walking through the city was difficult. If possible, I avoided going to London at all.
And then, one day, up from Hastings for a meeting, I sat on a bench on the South Bank and watched people unfurl in the early spring sun. Skateboarders rolled. A man swayed on stilts. The river seemed to wink at me. I hesitated. It winked again. I turned away but could feel myself relenting.
The romance slowly grew – a walk in a blossom-heavy park, a night visit to a museum, drinking Pimms in the Wonderground.
I was one of those annoying, Londoned-up tourists, bumping into commuters because I was too busy staring up at architecture.
Aware that I was walking on vertical history, layer upon layer of compressed time, I dug into London’s past and read, like a jealous girlfriend scrolling through a lover’s Facebook page, chronicles from Boswell, Mayhew and Ackroyd. I learned how to mudlark, like Maria in my book, and experienced the arm-swinging, oxytocin high of those in love while sifting through the city’s secrets and stroking its stones.
I still avoided the tube. I told myself I was learning the city through my feet, as if I could make my own map of London, but I knew I was afraid. One winter’s afternoon, I decided to face my fear. I mantra-ed my way down the escalator at Charing Cross and through the echoing tunnels to the platform. I didn’t get on the first train. Or the second. It took six trains rumbling through before I clambered on and sat down, sweating profusely, heart pumping, feeling ridiculous, unable to move. I gripped my seat all the way to Harrow.
On the way back, however, I calmed down enough to take in my surroundings. One seat in the middle of the carriage remained empty, despite people standing by the doors. At the next stop, more people got on. The seat was still not taken. There was nothing obviously wrong with it – no chewing gum stuck to the fabric, no holes in the upholstery – but it was bypassed, as if it did not exist. It was still unoccupied when I got out. And then I thought – what if it isn’t unoccupied at all? What if a ghost is sitting in it? What if Londoners subconsciously ignore ghosts? And that was the start of Jonathan Dark or The Evidence of Ghosts.
London was even more fascinating after that. Everywhere I looked, ghosts appeared in apparently empty spaces. They were on top of the Hungerford Bridge, on park benches; in the choir stalls of St Pauls and the aisles of Tesco Metro. I now can’t move in London for imagined ghosts.
But I am not afraid. Not any more. Not of spectres or of death. Writing about ghosts has exorcised that which haunted me. For now, at least. Like the very best of affairs, I feel enriched by knowing the city intimately and I don’t want our relationship to end. I hope my book does the city justice. I’m sure the ghosts will let me know.