These letters were sent to us by an American reader of the blog. He found them among the possessions of his mother, who died recently. Born in London, she had become estranged from her English family, who for several generations lived by the edge of Hampstead Heath, mainly in the same large house.
We have transcribed what was sent to us: photocopies of sections of the letters, with dates and other details left out. The sender tells us they were sent by his aunt to his mother over the course of several weeks, one autumn, ‘a good few years ago’.
The first letter
I know there are those among the family who think my challenge to the will was a Sin That Must Never Be Forgiven, but I do note that nobody could bring themselves to claim the old man was of sound frame of mind when he cobbled together that bodged lot of demands. The whole business about the house was absurd! To insist that it was sold and the money divided among us; that would have been insult enough. But signed documents to say that none would try to buy the other out? Would ever even set foot in it again? You know I loved him as much as you did, but that was a final spasm of spite too far.
Of course, our brothers were of tremendous support in the matter. I appreciate how difficult it is for you to be hands on from the other side of the pond. Everything moved so quickly after we won and it’s been a busy, busy, busy six months since then, as you can imagine. I apologise for not writing sooner. Being back in the old place, settling my own children in, has brought back many happy memories of our childhood here together.
If you were to stand at the top of the garden, as I do of an evening, I know you’d feel the same. The mulchy, misty, smoky smell is exactly as it ever was at this time of year. The apple and the oak tree stand like solid old friends. And beyond looms the Heath: that dark, dependable repository of all our family’s dreams and long ago days. If you could see it all, Sis, you’d be transported back in an instant.
As it happens, I thought of you in the garden just the other day.
Harry’s got the old summerhouse up and running again, you see. If I’m honest, I didn’t see the need. We’ve got the conservatory, the studio, and a wonderful treehouse that he built for the kids in the spring. But there was no telling him. I think because it’s my family home, he’s trying to – how shall I put it? – feel a connection, I suppose. He’s become obsessed with researching the local area. I’d say he spends more time in the library than at work. Quite the amateur historian.
Anyway, it always seemed like an odd spot for a summerhouse, didn’t it? Down in that dark corner. Well – and credit to Harry, I never knew this (never crossed my mind to wonder, as a child) – it is because it pre-dates the house. Apparently it’s the last remaining structure belonging to a small manor house that once stood further up the hill. Before this crop of houses were built, the land that became our gardens was of one grand scheme, on the edge of the Heath. Like a mini Kenwood.
Well, once Harry found this out, there was no stopping him.
He marched down to the summerhouse, cut back all the weeds, cleared everything out (remember the old tipi? Or Grandpa’s ancient lawnmower?); he repainted the ironwork (bright white, how it was); even went as far as replacing the windows. By which I mean he trailed every antique shop in London until he found correctly cut vintage panes. No small task when you consider that garden-sized octagonal structures comprised of narrow glazed arches weren’t exactly two-a-penny, even back then.
I have to admit, he did a decent job. Takes me back, Sis. It can’t have looked that good since – well, since Dad smashed all of the glass out of it in the first place.
And, to be fair to Harry, little Archie has taken to it. It has fully replaced the tree house in his affections. His sisters don’t share his enthusiasm, mind you. Not that that stops him asking them down there. When they say no, he goes and plays with imaginary friends instead.
And, you see, that’s what made me think of you! You loved that summerhouse, too, remember? And you were always asking us to come and play with you down there. But we never wanted to. So you populated the whole thing with your made-up friends. You must remember?
I suppose really I’m hoping you remember, because I think it would be nice for Archie. Not that I’m worried about him having imaginary friends. Lots of children do.
But I don’t suppose you still have any of those drawings you made? Of the friends? There’s one in particular I’m thinking of. You carried it around. They’re all holding hands around the summerhouse and there’s little you standing in the middle of it. I think it would be good to show Archie. So he knows that his aunty was the same. That he’s not the only one who talks to thin air.
The second letter
Thank you for sending me the drawings! I had a Proustian overload seeing all those funny little characters again. Quite the little gothic illustrator, weren’t you? Archie seemed quite engrossed in them, so thank you. Although your message to him that he should ‘try to make friends with them’ came across as slightly dotty. He seems to have plenty of your capacity for imagination, I don’t think we need to encourage him any further. Let’s keep things in perspective.
Although, I admit, the coincidences get more eerie by the day.
It was quite something, your asking about ‘Maisie’ in your letter. Because, before I’d even received it, I had been reminded that that was the name of one of your little entourage. Reminded by Archie himself! He still spends every moment he can down at the summerhouse, even now the summer’s long gone. And the other day I overheard him ask his sisters, “Come and play in the Ghost House. Maisie wants to play”. I admit I had a little shiver. He sounded just like you used to.
He doesn’t seem to like this Maisie much, though. Is that normal? Do children invent friends that are mean to them? Did you? What was your Maisie like?
Not that I’m putting much store by your faculties of memory from now on, by the way. It’s absolutely incredible you don’t remember the night Dad smashed the summerhouse windows. You may be the youngest but you can’t have been much younger than seven when it happened. I remember your being there very well. Crying into my shirt, you were, not that I could blame you.
Dad was like a madman, wielding that great mallet, smash, smash, smash, every window in turn. The whole thing would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so frightening. He knocked out all the corners until there wasn’t even a crystal of glass left. And the noise! Matthew said afterwards it sounded like a scream each time a pane was smashed, but he always did have a hint of you and Father about him.
The third letter
Honestly, Sis. You’re starting to worry me. The tone of your last letter was close to unhinged. I know you used to call it the Ghost House. I knew that. I must have mentioned it to Archie when I was showing him the drawings.
Look, you’ll be pleased to know I’ve gotten to the bottom of the Maisie coincidence. Well, I say I. Really it was Harry. The amateur historian strikes again! Do you remember an old ghost story that used to be told in the schools around here? About a little girl that comes in through the windows at night to stab you or something? It rung a bell with me. Apparently it originated with a real event, but what’s important here is the legend that arose. Because, guess what the girl in the story is called? That’s right… Maisie!
You see? The story has been around for years. You know how these things fester in the playgrounds for generations without adults ever getting a whiff of them. You heard it when we were children, and Archie’s heard it now, and it fed into your respective fantasy worlds. These things swirl around your head, Sis, so that your mind plays tricks on you. By way of illustration – and to show that I’m not being condescending – I’m going to tell you the story of a little thing that happened to me the other day.
It was one of those moody November evenings and it was getting dark. Large clouds sailed across the sky, offering fleeting glimpses of the stars and moon (I haven’t gone poetic on you, it’s important to the story). I’d banned Archie from the summerhouse that day, having caught him stupidly bang his head against one of the windows, as if he was trying to break it. But a little later I saw him down there, arguing with some invisible someone or other, and I lost it a bit. Over-reacted. It wasn’t that he’d disobeyed, I think it was just getting to me, the whole imaginary world thing was getting out of hand, and I snapped.
So, I felt particularly bad later when he got very upset. He’d left his favourite teddy in the summerhouse, which apparently was the end of the world because, “Maisie was angry”. Only, when I said I’d get it for him, he begged me not to go down there, became even more distraught, something about his friends being gone, that ‘Maisie’ was down there.
Well, of course I went down to the summerhouse. Partly to get his teddy, partly to show Archie there was nothing to worry about. By this point I was more than a little fractious, as you can imagine. I did feel like a frightened child myself, down there in the gloaming, just a dim light coming from the distant-seeming house. Like a frightened little girl I trod into the darkening summerhouse. There was the teddy, but next to it was something else, scrumpled on the floor. I picked it up and smoothed it out. A drawing that Archie had made.
Then, with horror, I saw something.
Reflected in one of the windows of the summerhouse, or perhaps standing beyond it on the lawn, was a child. A girl, wearing a torn white dress, with long, dark hair stuck to a pale face, which was scarred horribly. Oh, but I didn’t just see her. I felt her. She was very unhappy, full of anger, standing perfectly still and staring at me with black, hate-filled eyes.
I whipped round, to where she would be standing if it was a reflection, but there was nobody in the summerhouse but me. When I looked back at the window, she was gone.
I stepped out of the summerhouse. And what did I find, standing on the grass? One of the children’s scooters, with some old white towel hanging off it or something. It was lit up by the moon, which at that moment went behind a cloud, throwing the scooter into shadow once more.
And Archie’s drawing? It was of a girl, in a ragged white dress or nightie. Red marks down her face and on her hands. Over the mouth Archie had drawn a piece of tape or bandage.
Your letters, the coincidence with the name, the old playground ghost story, my concern for Archie, even father’s death. All of it feeds into that moment. I pick up this disturbing drawing by Archie – and just then the moon comes out from behind a cloud, shines on a bloody scooter, and that’s that: Here’s Maisie, come to climb through my window and do God knows what to me.
So I understand how affecting these coincidences can be, when mixed up with our anxieties and who knows what else. But that’s it, Sis. Coincidences. That’s all they are.
Now, let that little tale be the last time we mention it. I’m terribly sorry I ever brought it up. If I’d known how fragile you still were, I would have stuck to the ongoing saga of Harry’s foraged fruit preserves.
The fourth letter
I’m writing simply to request that you stop calling the house. I’m not really sure what you expect me to do. As your sister I’m begging you: please stop phoning. Harry has told you I can’t speak to you until you stop all this nonsense. It’s too much! Do we have to change our number? My sympathy for you is fighting a losing battle with anger. It’s been hard enough as it is, trying to cope with Archie’s loneliness.
Harry says last night you told him you were booking a flight over here. I do hope you weren’t serious. And please stop yelling at him to smash the bloody summerhouse windows, he’s not our father, which is exactly why I married him. I suggest you hold back on the parenting advice altogether, before I say something I regret.
The whole thing is so absurd, I’m cross with myself for even writing to you. But I know that when I’ve calmed down, what will remain is concern. After what became of Dad… What really needs to happen is that you get help. Never mind you flying here, when I’ve stopped being so bloody pissed off with you, I’m coming to you and we’re going to sort through a lot of things we should have sorted through a long time ago.
The final letter
The final letter in the sequence was sent to our correspondent’s mother not by her sister, but by her brother-in-law, Harry:
Thank you for your letter of condolence. I understand why you couldn’t attend the funeral. As to whether there is anything to be salvaged of the relationship between you and my wife, that is for time to tell (and not for me to say).
There is not much more to add, other than to say that Archie appreciated very much the drawings you sent him. I know he would have liked to have met you.
Perhaps when my grief matures I will be better placed to begin to process these terrible events. The one thing I must say on the matter is that I am not a superstitious man. My son was the victim of a tragic accident, fuelled perhaps by a furtive imagination, but aided certainly by my own decision – with which I will have to live for the rest of my life – to put antique glass into a rusting, rotting structure.
We intend to leave the summerhouse, windowless and empty, as a monument to our beloved boy, who – as you did – loved so much to fill it with dreams.
‘Lore of the Heath’
PoL have tried to track down the letters written in reply from America, but nobody on the English side of the family wanted to discuss the matter.
We were intrigued by the allusion to the manor house ghost story. In a secondhand bookshop in Highgate we found a pamphlet called ‘Lore of the Heath’, written by local historian Fred Goodrich. The following extract recounts, we believe, the story referenced in the third letter:
The short-lived manor house was built in the 18th century and demolished by the mid-19th. Much of its grounds became the gardens of several large late-Victorian and Edwardian family homes. Never really successful as a family home in its own right, by the time of its demise the manor house had for some years been used as a school for ‘deserted’ children.
It now resides in local memory chiefly as the source of a gruesome ghost story. The story, about a girl called Maisie who punishes naughty children with a knife, has its basis in a tragic true story, the reporting of which may have played its part in the final demise of the manor house.
The story concerns the death of a girl named Maisie Beckett. It seems Maisie was a very troubled child, who would take her troubles out on others. A bully and a tyrant, she was known for a series of sadistic rituals imposed on the other children. It was one of these rituals which led to the tragedy.
In the manor house dormitory was a row of tall windows. After dark, it was said, Maisie would make the other children stand in front of the glass, each to a window. Then she would call a name. If your name was called you had to whip your head forward. The idea of the game was to do this as hard as you could without breaking the glass.
One day the inevitable happened. A boy was cut. Although he wasn’t badly hurt, something snapped in the other children. Perhaps the sound of glass shattering, or the sight of blood, or their pent up humiliations led to their turning on Maisie. Never, they said afterwards, intending to do more than scratch her skin, they picked up shards of glass and attacked her body and face, slashing at the hands she put up to defend herself. In the frenzy, a cut found her throat.
Maisie was buried in the graveyard of a small chapel within the manor house grounds, the exact location of which is now unknown.
- Candidate: The Ghost House
- Type: Spectral Breach (unconfirmed)
- Status: Unknown