A Noisy Ghost Story -- by Susan Price

Tuning pipes
When I was a child, my parents had a family friend who was, in Fast Show parlance, a little bit whoo, a little bit wha-hey. He came by things. He wheeled, he dealed, he knew people. But however whoo and wha-hey he was with other people (I really don't know the details) he was great to us. (And I loved his dogs as I wasn't allowed to have a dog.)

Me and my siblings were always in need of drawing paper and the friend would turn up unexpectedly with boxes of pencils, enormous rolls of paper and once, two big rolls of shiny metallic foil, one gold and one silver. On another occasion, he handed a cavalry sword to my brother, albeit a broken, rusty one. He was a picker-up of unconsidered trifles.

When I won the Children's Literary Prize, I came home from school on a Friday afternoon, with a cheque for fifty whole pounds. (Note: this was in the early 70s. Banks closed at 3pm and didn't open at weekends.) By lucky chance, our friend rolled in that same evening, to sit at our table, smoking and drinking tea. When told about the cheque, he took a roll of money from his pocket, stripped off a fifty pound note and gave it to me.  He told me how to endorse the cheque, so he could cash it.

To put this in context, my Dad, with three children, didn't earn £50 a week. I'd never seen a £50 note and didn't realise they existed. Who could possibly need one? I was later told that our friend carried the cheque around with him for months afterwards, before cashing it, so he could show it to people and boast about me. It probably won't surprise you to learn that, during the decade of rationing that continued after WWII, this family friend could always, according to family legend, provide extra sugar to make birthday cakes and toffee apples -- and also pairs of nylons. I think he was what is known as 'a loveable rogue.' A very rare species, believe me.

You never knew when he would turn up or what he would bring. One day he arrived with a box of tuning-pipes. They were a little like the ones in the picture above, except they were shinier and weren't joined together. There were a great many more of them, too. Each was neatly labelled with the note it produced. A, A sharp, A flat and so on.

They came in a fascinating, neat little box, oval in shape. Pull off its close fitting lid and you revealed a honey-comb of narrow wooden cells, each of which held a silver pipe. The outside of the box was covered in a slightly furry, plush crimson cloth.

As children, we simply accepted this as another odd gift. We played with it for years, endlessly arranging the pipes in the box, sniffing the scent of the wood, blowing the pipes one after another, choosing our favourite sounds. There was a note for every mood, from deep, lugubrious lowing sounds like a yak with indigestion to bright, high, cheery song-bird notes.

Looking back now, I realise that this boxed set of pipes must once have been quite an expensive item. Forget the pipes -- that little box alone was such a beautifully made and delicate little gem, its lid fitting with an almost air-tight seal. We never thought to ask and were never told where or how our friend acquired the pipes --it was an age before boot-sales, but there were jumble sales and junk shops and scrap-yards. I've no idea why he gave them to us either, since none of us were musical. All we knew was that he'd turned up out of the blue one day, as he so often did, unshaven, bear-like and smelling of tobacco, took this little box from his pocket and gave it to us. Perhaps we were just the first household with children he dropped in on that day.

Knocking Jack: A Noisy Ghost Story.
Somewhere along the way, the box of pipes were lost. I no longer have them. But they found their way into my book, Knocking Jack: A Noisy Ghost Story. Their various notes are among the noises of the ghost.

The book was originally published in 1992 when, as often happened, I was approached by a publisher and asked to write a book for a particular age-group, so many words, to be completed in a couple of months. Given so little time to think about plots, I usually turned to folk-lore, which I love. Myths and legends have always spilled from my ears.

Something else from my childhood that found its way into the book was a very old house built at the side of a road that climbed one of our steep hills. The road was even older than the house, an ancient trackway along which loaded pack-ponies had trudged for centuries. Both road and house are still there.

I come from the Black Country, which people associate with the industrial revolution of the late 1700s and 1800s. They're right to do so, of course: canals were dug here to serve the iron works. Limestone was quarried, coal and iron-ore were mined, clay was dug... But people outside the area tend to forget that the Black Country existed long before the Industrial Revolution. The name is supposed to date from that period, because industry's smoke 'turned the country black.' I doubt this. The Black Mountains of Wales aren't so far away and the Black Country's soil is very black, in contrast to the redder soils of surrounding areas. I think the name probably predated the industry, but no one took any notice or wrote it down before then. Once industry attracted attention to the area, people invented a reason to explain the name.

Coal was mined and iron goods produced in the Black Country in the fifteenth century and, most likely, long before then. We have the 700-year old Dudley castle,and ancient abbeys and churches. The old house I mention above was a half-timbered farmhouse, with a date of 15-something carved into the beam above the porch. I often passed this old house, with its undulating slate roof and bending walls, its small, leaded windows and tiny door in a deep porch.

It no longer looks like that. It's been 'done up.' Its beams, if they're still there, are hidden by smooth, regular walls of brick and its roof no longer heaves up and down like a rough sea. It now looks like an executive mock-tudor house pretending, unconvincingly, to be old.

But the old, ricketty house crept into my story as the home for the ghost -- although the interior of the house, as described in the book is my invention. I've never so much as been through the gate of the real house.

The 'noisy ghost' of the story is a house-spirit, a boggart, a bogle, tales of which are found all over Britain and Scandinavia. Leave bread and milk for this creature and it will do your housework for you -- but make sure that, at any family celebration, it gets cake and ale or it will be offended.

And never thank it or it will take revenge.

Michaela doesn't mind her Mum moving them to live in Mr. Wheeler's really old house, until Mr. Wheeler tells them about Knocking Jack, the noisy ghost...It's Jack's house and humans are only allowed to live in it if they follow his rules...

One of Michaela's treasured possessions is a little plush box of tuning-pipes, which she peeps and parps constantly, driving her mother mad.  Soon after they settle in to the old house, the tuning pipes vanish, but their sound is heard in the air... Knocking Jack has stolen them.

Michaela and the ghost engage in a battle of wits. Michaela tries various ways to see the ghost and she tries to hide her tuning pipes from him -- but Jack always manages to sneak them away and then sounds several at once and plays tunes on them, which Michaela can't do. The ghost then sends resounding knocks around the walls, floors and ceilings of the old house, to taunt her.

He makes Michaela so mad that, to be revenged, she plays a spiteful trick on him. Jack's retaliation is terrifying...

It always surprises me to look back and see what a rag-bag of odds and ends a book is patched together from: a set of tuning-pipes, a familiar old house, a few old stories...

You can buy Knocking Jack here.

And you can find out more about my other books for the 8-10 age range HERE at my website.



Bill Kirton said…
I'd really like a 'little bit whoo, a little bit wha-hey' friend like yours, Sue. This is a lovely wee blog. Thanks for the momentary escape.
Jan Needle said…
Thanks from me too, Sue - lovely stuff! But as for "deep, lugubrious lowing sounds like a yak with indigestion" - well, I never knew you'd heard me playing tin whistle!
Susan Price said…
Thanks, both of you, for raising my spirits a little -- and thanks, Jan, for making me laugh.
Sandra Horn said…
You, spinning unconsidered trifles into magical stories. Had to buy it for my kindle - just too flippin' intriguing not to!
Umberto Tosi said…
I love rich, fine grained, memories and stories like this!

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