AD readers would be well advised to read my short story "The Ton-up Run" prior to this article. In so doing the article will make a lot more sense.
STRANGER THAN FICTION
As a freelance writer of some success, particularly by British Columbian standards, I occasionally am called upon to lecture to local High-schools on Creative Writing.I've been doing this in and around Victoria for about seven years and always end my talks by reading a couple of my stories which are then followed up with a question and answer session.Without fail the first question that I am asked is always the same:"Where d'you get your ideas from?"
I give the usual pat answers most anyone reading this would give:"They just come to me,""I hear a story being told by someone in a pub that they swear is true , and then embroider it a little”, "I dream up ideas when I'm driving the car."
And then when it's almost time for them to leave I tell them this anecdote.As it happens it is the unembellished, gospel truth, and this, is the first time I have ever attempted to share it with a larger audience of my peers.
I grew up in what used to be called the Medway Towns.That is, Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham that lie about thirty-eight miles south east of London.After I qualified as an Engineer I took off travelling and after three decades ended up here in Victoria, British Columbia having spent several years in such places as Holland, Borneo, Iran and South Africa (please read my article, "One Man's Search for Shangri-la").
It was when I lived in Teheran that I wrote the first short story I ever had broadcast.It was called THE TON-UP RUN and was put out by SABC in 1976 about three years after I had written it.
The plot was not terribly original.It was the Urban Legend of the phantom hitch-hiker who is picked up on a dark and stormy night . . . and then vanishes when her Samaritan arrives at the address she has given him.I know, we've all heard it before . . . but I sent it out as a work of fiction and it was broadcast twice in South Africa and once on Radio Medway.
The idea of my version of the Phantom Hitch-hiker came from rumours I had heard in the sixties about such a spectre that haunted Bluebell hill, a mile and a half long, , winding stretch of road that lies midway between Chatham and Maidstone.I had no idea of what actually was supposed to have happened and had my character the dead girlfriend of one of the Ton-up boys my parents successfully prevented me from ever becoming.
A few years ago my daughter, who was working in London at the time, sent me "TALES OF THE HAUNTED SOUTH" by Joan Forman, published by Robert Hale in 1978, for my birthday. Inside the card that accompanied it was a brief message that said something like:"I bought you this because your story about Bluebell Hill is in it."
I must confess my first reaction was anger that someone had plagiarized my efforts, but that was rapidly replaced with greed as I tried to guess how much they could be sued for.However, when I turned to page seventeen in her book, I quickly realized that Joan Forman is a highly competent researcher who documents facts:facts which in this case, still make the hair on the nape of my neck stand on end.
Here is the true story as told by Joan Forman in her book, upon which my fictional tale was based, five years before hers was written.
"This same correspondent told me of reports concerning the road from Maidstone to Chatham.Over a period of years, drivers travelling that road after have reported picking up a girl hitch-hiker.Apparently the girl has sometimes said that she wanted a lift into Rochester, sometimes that she had been involved in a car accident.Invariably she has travelled in the back seat of the car which picks her up, but has mysteriously disappeared before her destination was reached.
"The latest incident occurred in 1974.A motorist, Maurice Goodenough of Mooring RoadRochester, rushed into Rochester Police Station in an agitated state, saying he had hit a young girl on Bluebell Hill.He had hurriedly wrapped her in a tartan rug and left her by the roadside while he went to get help.When the police returned with the man, they found only the crumpled rug on the grass verge.Of the girl there was no sign, neither was there any mark on Maurice Goodenough's car.
"There is, as you may imagine, a factual story preceding this extraordinary series of incidents reported over the years.One miserable night of wind and rain in November 1965, saw a party of four girls driving towards a public house where they had arranged to meet a young man.The man was the fiancé of one of the girls (Suzanne Browne) and the other three, including twenty-two year old Judith Lingham, were to be bridesmaids at their marriage on the Saturday of that week.On the Thursday the girls had spent the afternoon trying on their dresses for the wedding, and had left happily in the evening for the rendezvous at the inn.The young man waited in vain, however.At a sharp bend on Bluebell Hill, their car skidded off the road.Three of the girls were killed, the fourth seriously injured.
"According to descriptions of the Apparition, it is Judith Lingham who haunts the fatal stretch of roadway, and since reports of the phantom hitch-hike's behaviour vary, it would seem that this is one of the hauntings where free will rather than a laid-down repetitive pattern operates.This, in my view, lends particular interest to the case, for it suggests that whatever survives at this spot is a conscious, thinking, decision-making entity.I use the word 'survives' advisedly, for the activities of this apparition do make a case for death survival."
I wrote to Joan Forman soon after I had got over the shock of reading the extract and sent her a cassette copy of my story.She replied some weeks later, thanking me.
Judith Lingham, the original ghost, was born in 1943 and educated at both Balfour Road Primary and Junior schools.How do I know?Because not only were we always in the same class, for a while we shared the same desk!
I had put Judith out of my mind along with the rest of my class-mates in 1954 after I had passed my eleven plus and entered Gillingham County Grammar School for Boys . . . and she went on to eventually become the unwitting lead in one of my stories . . . and the permanent resident of Bluebell Hill.
Since writing this piece I have been in
contact via e-mail with the man (BW) who was to have been married the day after the accident. He now lives in Australia . . . yet still the coincidences keep coming.
BW and I knew one another at grammar school.
The friend who had to awaken him and tell him his fiancée was in a coma was (PH) who also went to my grammar school and with whom I played rugby.
Another member of BW's stag party was Tony B. (now deceased) who had "stolen" the first love of my life when I was in the RN. Tony did not go to my school but years later sat next to me at the college where I was taking my mechanical engineering course. In fact, I even let him crib the correct answer to one of the questions in our "Mechanics" final exam. (at that time I didn't know of the connection between him and my ex girlfriend . . . and in any case, they were no longer a couple)
And finally, the accident occurred on the 19th November 1965 . . . my first wife’s birthday!
Addendum 2004-04-18 Today I received an e-mail from an old school friend I hadn't heard from in 50 years. He had just read this article at his home in Australia and went on to tell me that Patricia Ferguson's (see photo) brother was a classmate of ours with whom I played rugby (he was captain, I was vice captain). I can only but wonder how many other threads are still to be revealed in this web of coincedence.
I recently discovered that the pub the four women were heading fpr was "The Running Horse" which used to be on the left hand side of the road half way between the bottom of Blue Bell Hill and Maidstone . . . Which was where my wedding reception was held in May 1965!