There was a girl in my class at high school called Alison Hart. She was clever and articulate and on the debating team with me and I guess we were friendly without ever being friends. For all her better qualities, there was a bit of cloud about Alison. She was rather heavy and like many of us at the time, going through a bit of an awkward stage. In addition, she had an appetite for confrontation and a rather vinegary view of the world that could find the worst in anything – in fact, that's what made her such a great debater.
She was never actively bullied, but if nobody ever did her any favours it has to be said that neither did she do any for herself. There wasn't anything wrong with her, really, she wasn't an “odd” kid, if you know what I mean, but she was a little isolated, I think, and often left out either out of thoughtlessness or occasionally animus.
In the sixth form, we discovered that she was “going round” with Bryan Quigley, who was my friend and a fellow I liked well enough but also a bit of a square peg and often the butt of good natured jokes from me and my friends. The combination of the two of them was just too hilarious to contemplate and they both came in for a bit of flack about it.
Well, Alison left Tawa Collage in the sixth form (so did Bryan as a matter of fact) and I didn't see her again for several years. A couple of years after I'd left university, though, when I was living on Aro Street and working at Butterworths, I was home one Friday night (broke) when she called round. Somehow she'd found out where I was living, probably through mutual friends, and decided she'd drop round.
She'd grown out of her awkwardness and had a little more dignity about her, and was still full of disdain for anyone she disapproved of. She told me she was working in PR in Christchurch having done a journalism certificate Canterbury. She might even have been married, I don't quite recall. I told her what I'd been up and we discussed this and that over a glass of wine, then after an hour or so, she bade farewell and left again, and I have not seen her since.
It was a bit of an odd experience, really, and while it was nice to see her and catch up, I wasn't quite sure what she was after. Obviously, I've speculated that she was romantically interested, but I don't remember getting that impression. It was just a random visit. This encounter, alongside Alison's marginal status at high school, still raises confused emotions, and long after I've forgotten many of the girls I fancied, she stays with me.
By coincidence, the lead character in Beyond Black is called Alison Hart. Because of the name, I couldn't help thinking of my Alison from Tawa College while I read this; like one of the spirits she brings to her clients, Hilary Mantel's Alison brought her back to me.
Ghost stories are all about memory. A spectre represents something that will not be forgotten, usually the breaking of some atavistic taboo – murder, incest, madness, torture and rape. The gravity of transgression twists time and space and the dead reach into the present day to create an eerie presence that stalks the protagonist relentlessly.
Alison the medium is haunted by a horrific childhood she struggles desperately to suppress. She fends off the spirits of her past through an exhausting routine of submission and avoidance, while trying to make up for the unknown horror of her past through “good actions”. In the end, though, the evil won't be forgotten and she has to confront the past so she can lay it to rest.
The memories of Alison Hart that this book brought back to me are nowhere near as dramatic as the life of the Alison Hart in Beyond Black, and neither had Alison come back to me as a spectre, but the mechanisms of haunting Mantel portrays so vividly are the same. Memory is a ghost only we can see, like the medium, and no one else can know the pleasures or anguish, or the secret knowledge that they bring us.
As soon as I finished this I wanted to go back and read it again. The fantastic controlled prose gave me butterflies – the effortless omniscient point of view, the stream of elegantly shaped sentences, clauses clumped and strung together to magnificent effect. There's a wonderful sickening dread about the build up that is then delivered with wonderful skill. It's a book that's going to stay with me for a while.