Ghost Wall

Sarah Moss

In the north of England, far from the intrusions of cities but not far from civilization, Silvie and her family are living as if they are ancient Britons, surviving by the tools and knowledge of the Iron Age. For two weeks, they join an anthropology course set to reenact life in simpler times. The students are fulfilling their coursework; Silvie’s father is fulfilling his lifelong obsession. He has raised her on stories of early man, taken her to witness rare artifacts, recounted time and again their rituals and beliefs—particularly their sacrifices to the bog. The ancient Britons warded off enemy invaders by building ghost walls, rude barricades of stakes topped with ancestral skulls. When the group builds one of their own, they find a spiritual connection to the past. What comes next but human sacrifice?

They had caught fish, of course. It is only fair to observe that Dad and the Prof did have the off-grid survival skills they went on about. When we returned well after any conventional interpretation of “lunchtime,” sunburnt and blue-fingered, our bags almost as flaccid as they had been that morning, a small school of silver fish had been suffocated, disembowelled, opened out like pages, and strung on a wooden frame to dry in the sun. There was a smell. You’re back at last, said Dad, you know they wouldn’t have gone off lazing around, summer was the busy time, they’d have known what would happen in winter if they couldn’t be bothered to fill the stores. Is that really all you could find? And I dare say you’re all expecting to eat regardless? They wouldn’t have had two old men supplying the whole community, you know, the young people would have played their part. Had to, I thought, seeing as how nobody actually lived to be old, seeing as how you and Prof Jim would have been dead and buried years ago, infection or appendicitis, parasites, the leg you broke that time you fell on the mountain. Sorry, said Dan, we did look, there just didn’t seem to be much, maybe a different terrain next time, isn’t moorland a man-made landscape anyway, from sheep farming? The Prof was more relaxed. Never mind, he said, it’s just an experiment, just to get a sense of the challenges. Here, Alison made flatbreads and there’s lots of fish. Your bilberries should dry in no time, a day like today.

The basket weaver came. What kind of job is that, said Mum, fancy making your living weaving baskets in this day and age, but it turned out, of course, to be more complicated than that. The baskets weren’t to sell. Louise was a friend of the Prof, a semi-retired lecturer in textile arts who now spent her days making things by hand, the hard way, for the amusement of people bored by safe drinking water, modern medicine, and dry feet. Lecturer in Textile Arts; I caught Dad’s eye as he absented himself. She was wearing a sort of kaftan thing not unlike our tunics although probably more comfortable and certainly more expensive, with lumpy flat shoes made of cut-out red leather flowers and green leaves sewn together. She’d driven her jeep up the track into the wood and then the Prof pushed her wheelchair up the field, a process that looked uncomfortable for both and unsafe for her but seemed to cause them great hilarity. Dan and Pete went to help but were waved away; thank you, she said, but Jim pushed me into Loch Lomond once upon a time, I’ll see if I can trust him now. It was twenty-five years ago, he said. It was memorable, she said. Anyway, you must be Jim’s students?

The Prof parked Louise’s chair in the shade of the big oak and then went back with Pete to get her boxes of supplies from the car. Mum brought her a birch-bark cup of water, and, rattled by the wheelchair and the posh voice, offered tea she had no practical means of supplying. Don’t worry, said Louise, the water is perfect and if I want tea later I have a tap and a perfectly good kettle at home. Oh, are you going? Do join us if you like, make a basket. Mum paused. Try it, said Louise, you can stop if it’s not fun. It was the wrong word, Mum didn’t believe in fun. I’ve a mort to do, she said, I’ll be getting on, thank you. More water before I do?

The oak rustled, its shadows pattering over Louise’s clothes and hair. I stood there, had nothing to say. Molly came through the sunlight, introduced herself, and knelt at Louise’s side, sitting on her flexed ankles in an elegant Japanese posture that I couldn’t have managed. It’s not easy to sit on the ground in a knee-length tunic. Either Ancient Britons worried a lot less about flashing their knickers than we do or the hunter-gatherer life made them very bendy. Not that they had knickers, probably. And this is Silvie, Molly said, Jim probably mentioned, Bill’s daughter? Short for Sulevia. Hi, I said, feeling myself redden for no particular reason. Molly smiled at me, flicked a plait over her shoulder, and started asking questions: Don’t you have to destroy an artefact to find out how it was made? Do you use replica tools to make replica objects, and if so do you use replica tools to make the replica tools, how far back does it go? Since the textiles themselves don’t survive, how far are ideas about what people wore in prehistory just guesswork, these tunics, for example? I stood at the edge of the tree’s shelter, leaves moving in my hair, wondering if she’d prepared these questions in advance, worrying that her rapid fire was rude. You don’t talk to people like that, I thought, just come out and ask them stuff, but Molly did and Louise didn’t seem to mind. Well, she said, a lot of archaeology is about taking things apart to see how they work, isn’t it, and we often don’t put them back when we’ve finished, but one of the reasons for making replicas is that you can test them to destruction if you need to. Sometimes I do use replica tools, I have quite a collection of bone needles at home, but you know sometimes you can use the real thing, there are enough medieval loomweights and spindles around that we can put the real things in handling collections. Really, said Molly, you can spin using the very thing that someone, some woman, used before the Civil War? Doesn’t it feel strange, I heard myself ask, putting your fingers exactly the way someone put hers only she’s been dead for a few hundred years? Louise smiled, as if it was fine for me to join in. Not to me, she said, not anymore, anyway, I’m always trying to do what dead people tell me. And especially when I’m making a replica, spending days looking at and feeling and listening to some prehistoric object, I’m kind of trying to think their thoughts too. I mean, it would make sense, wouldn’t it, that when I really concentrate on the spaces between decorative dots or the exact tension of a twist, my mind’s doing what their minds did while my hands do what their hands did. I sometimes think I can tell when two pieces from the same site were made by the same prehistoric person, because the way my hands move is the same. I shivered. Of course, that was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves became the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone. To do it properly, I thought, we would almost have to absent ourselves from ourselves, leaving our actions, our reenactions, to those no longer there. Who are the ghosts again, we or our dead? Maybe they imagined us first, maybe we were conjured out of the deep past by other minds. It’s a shame I couldn’t bring a loom, Louise was saying, it would have been interesting for you to see, perhaps I should ask Jim to arrange a session in my studio next term.

Who are the ghosts again, we or our dead?

I turned out to have natural talent as a basket weaver. Silvie’s doing very well, said Louise, look at that, have you done this before, do you do a lot of making? Making what, I thought, but whatever she had in mind, the answer was no. Great, I said to Moll, my future is settled, I’ll weave baskets. Maybe not full-time, Molly said, you must want to do something, there must be something you like, a starting point. I like reading, I said, but not what we do in English lessons. Um, going for walks? Nothing anyone’d pay me for. She pushed woven reeds down onto their willow frame. Mountain guiding, she said. Working in a youth hostel. Forestry and conservation. What about all the outdoor stuff, foraging, you know more about it than we do. Just the bilberries, I said, and only because of Dad, it wasn’t as if there was any way I could not know that stuff, anyway I don’t think it’s a job.

Aviate, navigate, communicate, Dad always said, and don’t expect that anyone will come and get you when it all goes wrong. I was pretty sure he’d never flown, nor even sat in a light aircraft; the aviation was metaphorical and what he meant by “communicate” was “don’t ask for help.” I started to tuck the sticking-out ends into the weave of my basket. It was actually quite good, even and stable.

What about you, I said, you’re going to be an archaeologist? Molly’s plaits had come back to the front. There were green apples on them today. Maybe, she said, don’t think I want to spend my life digging though, I like walls and a roof and a bathroom. I might go into museums and galleries, maybe do teacher training first so I can work with kids and families, I’ve always loved museums.

Museums. My father regarded them as temples, the bone-houses of our ancestral past. There wasn’t much locally, just small-town collections going from the less exciting flint tools to patched hoopskirts from someone’s granny’s attic, but my father was one of the few people who liked to go and look at them, and therefore to take me. He had taken me once, years ago, to the Manchester Museum, told me I didn’t need to go to school that day, we had better things to do, he and I. He’d told Mum to put up sandwiches for us, sent me back upstairs to take off my uniform and put on “summat decent,” and then sent me back to change again when I, matching his one suit with the wide legs, came down in my party dress. Come on, he said, we don’t want to miss the train. I had never been on the train. We held hands and I trotted, as always, to keep up with him, past the butcher where the pork and lamb and beef in the window were divided from each other like the animals on the toy farm at school by plastic grass, past the post office where I went with Mum every Thursday straight after school to pick up the Child Benefit and we queued on the dusty lino floor around the metal barriers, because Thursday was also the day you collected your pension so there were old ladies with sweets in their handbags for little girls who knew how to be winsome, which I didn’t, mostly.

Dad strode up the cobbled lane to the station, bought tickets, told me to stay behind the yellow line on the platform and not to act daft. It was only on the train that he started to explain where we were going, as I pressed my nose to the grimy window and took in the marine tartan of British Rail, poked my fingers into what turned out to be ashtrays in the arm of each seat. Stop that, he said, listen now. I knew about the peat bogs up on the moor, yes, the ones where the cotton flags grew, where we had to jump from tussock to tussock not to fall in the mire? Even then, when I must have slowed him down enough to be annoying, he took me walking up there every Sunday, whatever the weather; yes, I knew. Right, well, those bogs have always been special places for folk round here, right back in ancient times, people saw the marshlights, probably, thought it was spirits or summat like, and probably they were frightened to fall in just like us because I knew, didn’t I, that the bog could hold you down and suck you in, he’d told me, hadn’t he, how hard it could be to get out. Aye, I said, yes. We were crossing the moor by then, the wires swooping along the tracks, and it was a clear-enough grey day but I couldn’t see any bog, just heather and sheep and below us terraced houses like our own creeping up the hillside. Well, he said, folk used sometimes to give their precious things to the bog, like if you were to give it your Owl. In my mind I clasped Owl tightly, sent a thought to him left undefended in my bed, tried not to imagine his fur darkening as he sank, the bog swallowing his yellow felt feet. Or if you gave it your digging books, I said. There was a bookshelf for Dad’s digging books, by the gas fire in the front room. Mum couldn’t watch TV unless Dad was working a night shift because he liked to read them there in the evenings, in silence, and although I wasn’t allowed to touch them he’d sometimes show me the pictures when I came down to say good night. These are Bronze Age necklaces, Sylvie, can you imagine how heavy to wear? That’s a sword, look at that inlay, think of the work in that. And on this rock, look, they carved a magic pattern, someone did that by hand three thousand years since. That’s where you come from, those folk, that’s how it used to be. I looked around and saw him tense at the thought of throwing his big shiny books in a bog. Ripped pages, spreading water. Aye, I suppose, he said, but you know you’re not to touch them, mind. Anyroad, there’s been all sorts found in the bogs, the peat and the water preserve stuff that rots away everywhere else, and of course there’s always been digging for peats so things get found. And Silvie, out Cheshire way they found a person, a man. From the really old days, the Iron Age. A man, I said, what, dead? Of course dead, you lummock, didn’t I just say Iron Age, when was the Iron Age? I knew that one. Two thousand years, I said, before the Romans came. Well, there you go, then, he’s not going to be alive, is he. We were coming to the next station. The people who wanted to get off had to push the windows all the way down and lean out to use the handle on the outside of the door. Did he fall in, then, I asked, get sucked down? Pushed in, more like, said Dad, and a rope round his neck and all. You’re going to see him, Silvie, today. They’ve got him all laid out in a case at the museum. A real man from the Iron Age, himself. But dead, I said again, unable to imagine it.

Did he fall in, then, I asked, get sucked down? Pushed in, more like, said Dad, and a rope round his neck and all.

My dad likes museums, I said to Molly. He likes dead things. She pulled a strand out of her basket and started winding it around the spokes again. I’d like to make things be alive again, she said, like Louise does, let visitors see that people’s tools and jewellery and games are still here even when the people aren’t. And I wish I was better at this, I like the idea of making things the way people used to. Practice, I said, I bet the baskets in museums weren’t anyone’s first attempt.

But some of the bog bodies, I thought, must have been someone’s first attempt. It would have been a skill to learn like any other, the art of taking someone into the flickering moment between life and death and holding them there, gone and yet speaking, moving still, for as long as you liked.

Sarah Moss was educated at Oxford University and is a professor of creative writing at the University of Warwick. Her books include the novels Cold Earth, Night Waking, and Signs for Lost Children, and the memoir Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland.