When I decided to come to Rye I didn’t foresee that it would take twelve hours to travel less than three hundred miles. I didn’t envision arriving near midnight. Perhaps it would have been more sensible to stay in London near Victoria station, where I had to get the train to Gatwick in two days, but I had decided to chill down in a quiet medieval town, as I’d done in Chartres and Bern at the ends of my trips to France and Switzerland. In England, I had been staying with friends in London and Yorkshire, and this was my chance to end my trip on a solitary, reflective note. Presently I was in Rye, exhausted, starving, freezing, and dripping snot. It would be loud and obnoxious to clatter uptown, but I had no choice. I pulled my suitcase behind me and the wheels clacked on the cobblestones like echoing hooves.
It was quite comical, the racket, and I laughed to myself all the way up to the High Street. There I found a delivery guy who said the Mermaid was off the bend of the Mint–whatever that meant. He said I should turn left straight on “by the blue car,” then right on the next street. It was unclear which blue car he meant, and unclear where the side street was, but I failed to clarify his directions because I was tired and he seemed weird. So I approached false alarm after false alarm, alcoves that resembled crossings and turned out to be houses set further back from the street than others.
My suitcase and I clacked on.
Finally I came to Mermaid Street and induced that it would be a likely spot for the Mermaid Inn. I turned left and noted another hill. I was hot from exertion, but my hands and face were frozen from the cold air. My legs were getting weak as I maneuvered my suitcase up a narrow sidewalk—too narrow, really, for the suitcase.
I veered into the street, laughing at the volume of my noise, the decibel of my midnight arrival in a quiet town off-season on a Sunday. The stones were inherently uneven and kept trying to trip me as I zigzagged through what looked like the easiest path for suitcase wheels. I stopped for breath, looking up at where Mermaid Street met West Street, catching wind of cool air and enveloping atmosphere, everything so old and so quiet. For a moment, as I stood there in the darkness and the beauty, the town was mine. Then I turned and saw that the building I stood in front of was the Mermaid.
Inside, they must have thought I was drunk. I leaned on the counter, wiped my red nose with a tattered Kleenex, and mumbled exchanges through frozen lips set like stone between numbed cheeks.
I was reminded that there was a porter, and I savored a sense of relief as he carried my suitcase up a short, narrow flight of stairs, another short, narrow flight of stairs, and then to the right toward a doorway that led to a trio of rooms that may at one time have been one room. Even an active imagination can’t conceive of how much must have been and changed in the 900 years of the hotel’s operation. (The original edifice dates from the twelfth century; the modern Mermaid was rebuilt after a fire in 1420.)
The porter was a mild-mannered fellow, soft-spoken and reticent. He reminded me of the bus driver, with his long, ambiguous pauses, who stopped at phantom stops to let people on who weren’t there. And he reminded me of the innkeeper in the film The Woman in Black, who speaks little, except to ask Arthur Kipps, who arrives late at night, “ave you et?”
He seemed to have inhabited the Mermaid since its inception, so I asked him about the resident ghosts (the reason I had chosen the Mermaid). Had he seen them? Where did they appear?
His answer was slow in coming, then languid and elusive.
“There’s no way to tell,” he said, “what they are. They’re just a mist-like.”
“What do they do?” I asked.
Slowly, he pointed behind me, toward the landing, dark but for the glow of a painting of the Virgin Queen bearing a white ruff and a stony expression.
“Make odd noises–strange sounds you can’t make out.”
This seemed silly, just a vague story to intrigue tourists. Of course I was captivated, but I also chuckled to myself, because what building this old wouldn’t be subject to random noises?
The porter opened the door to my room. The door was thick, made of uneven planks, and fixed to the jam with heavy iron brackets. The room was warm and pleasant with a four-poster bed and a beamed ceiling. The windows were mullioned; there was a little door on one wall that connected to the adjoining room. The bathroom was modern for a British one, but the bones of the room were medieval. Two floors above the atmospheric street I admired when I stopped for breath, it gave me a feeling of warmth and security, a feeling of toasty comfort I haven’t felt since I lived in my sloped-ceilinged bedroom in high school, a room that looked over the street and my neighborhood from a level that made me feel insulated.
I got into my nightclothes and lounged on the bed, reading through the touristy crap considerate hotels compile for travelers. I learned that the aforementioned monarch stayed at the Mermaid in 1573. Henry James’s house, which I had come to see, was around the corner. I could get beer and cheese delivered to my room at any time. This was enticing, but I was more tired than hungry. I was weary and glad to have the next day to spend quietly. Aside from this, I didn’t know why I had come to Rye. It didn’t have a cathedral like Chartres or Winchester, but it had a pull, and I sank into the tiny twin mattress with the hope of finding it the next day.
It was quiet, and I was nearly asleep, tucked under a quilt with an oddly comforting smell of dust, when I became aware of a presence behind me, standing over my bed. It was tall and male.
I sometimes have these feelings–impressions–of spirits, and am not often sure if they’re real. But this was something that seemed to have observed me and then stood next to my bed as I was about to sleep.
I lay still and considered it. It chilled me that it had waited till I was nearly asleep, but I didn’t have a bad feeling, though I was afraid.
I often have the feeling, in these situations, that if I moved deeper into the experience, if I moved beyond the threshold of caution, if I really wanted answers—who these people are, what they want, why they reach out to me—I could find out, and they would appear in fuller form.
There was a time in Chartres when the ghost from a novel I was writing at the time would have appeared to me if I had allowed her to. But then, as now, I exuded a strong objection. This was not the time.
I tend to ignore presences, to consider them only vaguely, to shut my mind from deeper consideration, to concentrate on other things that occupy my mind at these times. I think these presences are related to my writing, drawn by the creative spirit, attracted to my fiction. I think they can help, or have something to offer, but I’m not ready to be receptive. I think these presences are related to the writing of my ghostly novels, but for now I ignore them. And I’ve been fortunate, in not being ready, that they are mild and not forceful, and seem to respect the kairos, or what I view as the right time, whenever that might be.
So I lay quiet in Rye, unmolested, but not unafraid—it could never be said that these things don’t chill my blood. I concentrated on a ring of white light surrounding my body, visualized it circulating, threading around me as I followed its course with closed eyes. And I concentrated on how these experiences are more for my fiction than for me, though these two things are the same.
Eventually I worked up the nerve to turn the lamp on. I could feel that the presence was still there, standing, watching, waiting (for what?), but it was dimmer. I reached for my notebook and wrote as though I were being observed by an animal that could communicate intuitively but would be unlikely to speak.
I wrote about why unknown things should desire to approach you at your bed. One reason is that in sleep the unconscious moves away from logic. This makes sense particularly if apparitions are projections of the self. Was there really a presence next to my bed, or was my creative unconscious just excited by exhaustion, and now rest, not to mention gothic tales, being around the corner from the house of the author of The Turn of the Screw, and in the mind of my own novel?
The presence diminished further, became more distant, as I wrote. I then scratched a poem down quickly–good in some ways, trite in others . . . suffice to say I wrote a poem (poems don’t often come to me anymore), and I understood then why Henry James lived in Rye.
Once I had written for a bit, I felt I could sleep. I left my notebook and pen within reach and turned off the light.
It was quiet for a while. I drifted and neared sleep again.
Then the noises began.
Odd sounds, like someone tapping on a pipe with a tiny hammer. I kept thinking, as I thought on the threshold, that it would have been unnatural not to hear random noises in a place so old.
But the tapping was intermittent, irregular. There was no steadiness, no predictability to it, no rhythm; it was sporadic and alarming and strange. Logic kicked in and I decided it was a radiator clinking. My radiator was off, but it could have come from another room.
Or maybe it was a plumbing pipe.
It was under the floor.
Every tap came from a different part of the floor.
It moved around under my bed. It wasn’t there before, and now it was jumping around without pattern, tapping without rhythm, each tap getting louder and echoing like a small dull drum.
I searched the darkness for reason and wished vehemently for it to stop. I reached for my notebook and wrote in the dark. Just stop and let me sleep. I’m not going to talk to you. Just stop and let me sleep. I’ll write, but I won’t talk to you.
I closed my eyes.
Moments passed, and I counted them.
Then it started again, intermittent tapping, chilling, bizarre, thundering in the surrounding silence.
But I was too tired for games. I closed my eyes and slept.