A Song From Under the Floorboards

Nostalgia…

Not what it used to be, eh?

Not entirely true in my case. As age advances upon me, steadily eroding what little remains of my once proud and noble frame, my inner eye turns both autumnal and misty, wandering down the leaf-strewn pathways of yore in search of the blue-remembered hills of my childhood.

What rubbish.

The only thing that has advanced steadily over the last few weeks is my waistline, thanks to the zealous administrations of my dear mum-in-law, who cosseted us daily with a diet of unconditional love and bacon sandwiches during our winter break in dear Old Blighty. Yes, age in its inexorable manner is advancing, but more with a gradual and somewhat sneaky creep than a steady march, or so I would like to believe. The British air did however seem to bring a degree of additional hirsuteness to your humble correspondent, not to the balding pate unfortunately, but my sideburns and inner ears would have given Benicio del Toro a run for his money in the remake of ‘The Wolf Man’ due to wend its way to a pirate DVD in a store near us later this year. ‘ Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers at night, can become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms, and the moon is full and bright.’ I reminded A. She told me to act my age, please be quiet and reminded me that I should simply go to the hairdresser when I got back to Phnom Penh. Oh well. As a boy I was fascinated by the original ‘Wolf Man’ with the brilliant Lon Chaney in the role of reluctant lycanthrope Lawrence Talbot, indeed the mere thought of all of those great Universal and RKO horror films induces huge waves of nostalgia (hurrah! He’s back on the subject again!) in me. Grampian Television, the north of Scotland’s very own canty and couthy television channel had the great idea of running all of the black and white horror classics on Friday evenings at 10.30 and I successfully pleaded with my long-suffering parents to be allowed to watch them. I was around the tender age of ten, just the right age in those pre CGI days to be roundly terrified at the sight of a rubber vampire bat or the grotesque make up of Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster. Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, was my favourite, particularly in ‘The Wolf Man’. To this day I can replicate the eerie orchestral music that accompanied the stop-motion transformation sequence, and the first thing that comes into my head upon seeing a full moon is the tortured visage of Lawrence Talbot pleading to be locked away for the safety of all, but to no avail… more visceral horrors would come (Oliver Reed’s impressive monster, ‘An American Werewolf in London’s’ tongue-in-snout approach to the genre) but Chaney’s sad and tortured figure remains the definitive take for this afficianado.

Even before the one-eyed monster in the corner of the living room became a fixture in our lives I loved to be terrified as a child. I had a hugely overactive imagination which amplified every creak and groan in the house and lent every deep shadow a sinister purpose. This imagination was fuelled in equal parts by books, comics, newspapers, the eventual arrival of television and real life. In particular by Elizabeth Cormack, my nana.

A great deal of my early childhood was spent in the company of my beloved nana. My mum’s mum was a skinny, wiry little woman with a cigarette permanently hovering somewhere around her tiny frame, seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy and a truly mischievous sense of humour. I loved her to bits. I used to spend most of my summer holiday at her house, and those early summers are imbued with a sense of true magic that is a joy for me to recall now, over forty years later. Her husband, my dear grandfather, died when I was six years old. I loved him also, a big, gentle, kind man who bore his crippling and debilitating illness with stoic dignity. His name was Alfred, and my baby talk attempts at pronouncing his name led to the family nickname for him, Avva. My nana came from a deeply superstitious highland family, and in addition to being immured in those superstitions had also inherited some of the more unusual gifts that the family possessed, including second sight, fortune telling and an ability to see into the spirit world. Of course, to a child growing up in this environment these things appeared perfectly natural. I too would peruse tea leaves to determine the significance of the shapes within the cup. Nails could only be clipped on certain days, and all clippings (and any hair trimmings) would have to be burned lest dark forces got hold of them and used them in spells or charms. I would avoid playing with the deck of cards on a Sunday to ensure that the devil would not come and sit on my shoulder and lead me down the narrow way to damnation, and I would nary bat an eyelid when my nana would launch into a conversation with my dear deceased Avva.

Her house was a place of wonder also. No gothic castle or witchwood cottage could compare to that tiny two-bedroom council semi-detached with the large tree in the front garden and the quietly sinister wooden shed that lurked behind it. The shed really gave me the creeps. It had been taken from its former resting place at the nearby beach, where the story went it had been used to house the remains of sailors washed up on the beach during the second world war… even before I was aware of its history, I hated to spend any longer than necessary in there. The ordinary garden implements, musty pots and half-empty tins of paint all stacked to the front of the shed must be hiding some dank and long dead secret behind them… what were the dark stains on the floor? Pitch? Seawater? Dried blood? Perhaps some ancient oozing emulsion of the three that would rise up from between the floorboards and physically grasp at my ankles, firstly immobilizing me before dragging me down in a sticky confluence to join the gurgling slime below for ever…

The bedroom I slept in had its share of terrors also. A huge iron framed bed that had cavernous dark spaces underneath, where all manner of Nameless Ones lurked, awaiting the coming of the dark when they could crawl and slither out and sit upon my legs and chest in the pitch black of absolute night, their loathsome visages only inches from my terrified face. Years later I watched a BBC2 Horizon programme where scientists tried to explain this phenomena of ‘phantom feelings’ in the night, linking it to the alien abduction hysteria prevalent at that time. Nonsense. Those scientists were scared little boys that didn’t want to admit that monsters existed. Not only did they live under the bed, but they also hung out in the wardrobe…

The wardrobe… the wardrobe was a huge, looming, dark presence in the room, right at the foot of the bed. In the still of the night it creaked and groaned, and if you listened really hard one could hear the slight click as the door opened to allow the denizens within access to our world. Boy oh boy did it scare me. Reading ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ did nothing to alleviate those fears – I knew that Narnia did not lie behind the mothballed garments hanging in there, but rather a Lovecraftian domain of ancient demons and their deformed spawn just waiting for me to pass into their hellish netherworld.

But this was all grist to the mill of the young J. I loved to be terrified, scared witless, blanched with fear etc etc. The long, bright, adventure filled summer days of my youth were balanced by the dark, scary, exciting winter nights. There are many more stories to come about my childhood during that time when the realities of growing up were tempered by the magical realm of childish imaginings, many more tales of mystery and imagination, but for now, enough…

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. I wonder if little O will one day fondly remember talking to his daddy about the monsters he imagines lurk in his room, or how his memory will recall the shapes and sounds and smells of the night that are currently a part of his reality. Nostalgia is also something that we fortunate ones should never ever take for granted. For I wonder too about the Khmer people around me, colleagues, friends, who have known real monsters in human form, monsters who lived alongside them breathing, eating, drinking, laughing until the day they changed… what of those monsters, some of whom still walk these streets… do they spend their waking and sleeping hours haunted, like their surviving victims, by the ghosts of the recent past…? Or have they locked away the memories in some dark wardrobe of the soul…?

For the most part I continue to only guess at the hellishness witnessed by so many of these quiet people… some have talked to me about it, and the things they have told me make me wonder if any part of them has the strength to recall any of their childhood with the warm feeling we are fortunate to call nostalgia…

Peace be with you.

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