Like many a traditional ghost story, it begins in a graveyard on a dark and stormy night. Teresa “Tess” Willetts and David Ray, teenage classmates in an early 1970s Black Country comprehensive, have been drawn together by an unlikely coincidence while working on a local history project. Bespectacled, Bach-loving, academically-minded David has noted an interesting inscription while on a previous recce to the churchyard: In Memory of Abigail Parkes, Departed This Life, 10th December 1860. The sparkier Tess points out that – hanging in her hallway at home – is a “sampler”, a square of Victorian embroidery with a religious motto, adorned with the same name. Together, on a filthy late November journey home from school, they return to the gravestone for a closer inspection, and find a chilling addendum, hidden by the long grass: Aged 17. Innocent of All Harm.
So begins a ghost story with a fascinating twist: the immortal soul of Abigail Parkes is certainly influential, but equally relevant to the story is the living soul of Tess Willetts, who narrates the book in the first person. She is seized by an all-encompassing compulsion to investigate Abigail’s death, teaming up with David to discover that – on a similarly foul and freezing winter’s evening – Abigail drowned in the local canal, and the subsequent inquest recorded a verdict of suicide. Profoundly affected by this, to even her own surprise, Tess sets out to disprove the official version of events.
Abigail, it transpires, was the daughter of wealthy local mineworks owner Henry Parkes, and – at the time of her death – was in the midst of a torrid class-divide romance with grimy-faced collier David Caddick, much to the predictable fury of her father. And, as connections between Abigail and Tess’ lives begin to emerge in chilling fashion (not only were they distantly related, but the abandoned “Fiery Holes” mine itself is responsible for the dangerous subsidence of the Willetts’ council house… and so on), Tess is faced with a terrible revelation: if, as Abigail’s fate suggests, love leads to suicide, then what implications does that have for the increasingly strong feelings she holds for her own David?
The extent to which Abigail’s spirit presses and manipulates Tess is left, as with so many books of the era, delightfully ambiguous. But the dilemma in which Tess is placed is clear-cut, and sees her typically teenage worries (essentially, finding the new company of bookish David to have more depth than her long-standing “down the shops on a Saturday” friendship with schoolmate Val) transformed into much darker concerns. If, as seems apparent, her life is inextricably linked to that of the doomed Victorian girl, then proving that Abigail did not take her in life in the throes of a lovelorn depression becomes just as important for Tess’ future as it does for Abigail’s troubled spirit.
The book is bleak. Quite literally – the entire narrative is subsumed by the slate-grey oppression of winter, seemingly every scene soaked by perpetual torrents of Black Country rain. The “water” of the title is integral. In fact, you’ll probably never find a better literary evocation of the foul weeks before the respite of Christmas sparkle; those late November days of frozen, sodden-coated darkness on the silent walk home from school. Writer Edward Chitham is a Black Country man himself, and something of an authority on the area’s history and heritage; he peppers the book with local dialect (“Yourn looks a bit tatty to me”) and – brace yourselves – even passing references to West Bromwich Albion (“the best team out”, according to Tess). Although none are explicitly mentioned, I spent much of the story overcome by thoughts of the Three-Day Week, Slade singles and Jeff Astle with mutton-chop sideburns. It wasn’t an unpleasant experience.
Added to which, there’s a lovely sub-plot in which Tess begins to appreciate the difference between academic and empirical thinking: the head versus the heart, if you like. It’s struggling classmate Tracy Dobbs who provides the unexpected profundity. “Clever folk don’t like ghosts, dreams, anything,” she says. “See them seagulls up here… I bet if I asked at school this morning how many folk saw seagulls on their way to school, the whole lot’d say no. They know seagulls are what you see at Weston or Rhyl. They don’t believe in seagulls inland, and they’m not able to see ’em…”
So Tess’ more soulful, intuitive approach to life (and the detective work required to uncover Abigail’s date) contrasts with David’s, and causes tensions, but the two are eventually able to reconcile their differences and work together as a charmingly unlikely double act. The reveal of Abigail’s actual fate is heartbreaking, and the book’s final chapters are shocking… but with a poignant and hopeful conclusion. It all makes for another rich, intelligent and touching children’s book from a golden age of fiction for young readers.
POINT OF ORDER: Ghost In The Water was adapted into a one-off BBC drama for children, first broadcast at 4.40pm on New Year’s Eve 1982, and released on DVD by Simply Media in 2018. It works as a nice, creepy ghost story for TV, but perhaps inevitably loses some of the rich character detail that makes the book so affecting. It does have a nicely unlikely bit of casting for a Black Country drama, though: playing the part of Tess’ mother is Jane “Ivy from the cafe” Freeman, of Last of the Summer Wine fame.
MUSTINESS REPORT:: 3/10. Mine is a fragrant 1982 reprint with a cover that ties into the BBC adaptation. The pages are nicely yellow, but a quick dip in a Black Country canal would add a welcome extra level of must.