I once read an extraordinary short story by A. S. Byatt called “The July Ghost” (from Sugar and Other Stories, 1987). It describes a man, an academic writing a paper on Hardy’s poems, who, sitting in a summer garden at his lodgings, finds he has a ten year old boy as a companion. When he describes this young boy to the woman from whom he has rented his room, she tells him—unable to see the ghost herself—that it was her only child, killed two years earlier, knocked down by a car on a hot July afternoon.
Aside from additional poignancy that comes with knowing Byatt’s own son died this way, so imbuing the weight of personal experience to the writing, the story, for me, presented an aching, almost unbearable, contradiction and dynamic, one that certainly influenced the creative process when I was developing Afterlife, my ITV drama series (2005-6)—which I always paraphrased as being about a troubled psychic medium and the even more troubled psychologist studying her. In my series, avowed sceptic Dr Robert Bridge (Andrew Lincoln) is paralysed by the loss of his son, Josh. Alison Mundy (Lesley Sharp) can see him, but he himself cannot.
Since ghosts are about presences but also absences, I find the symbolism of who can see and who is psychically “blind” one that returns to my writing again and again. What is gone is often as important as what remains. And if you can see nothing, does it really mean there is nothing there? As Alison says to Robert in Afterlife: “Who’s to say I’m mad and you’re sane?”
And so to Baby on Board.
Which first came to me as a short story idea, the catalyst being a request from Holly Blades for a late night ghost story to be read aloud at EdgeLit, the bijou genre convention at The Quad in Derby, upcoming in July 2023.
As many genre writers will tell you, sometimes a creepy story is sparked by something quite innocuous in life. In this case, it was the ubiquitous sign or sticker you see on the rear windows of cars—"Baby on Board"—which somehow, to me, with its catchy alliteration, and its implication of a fragile cargo, has a sinister, or potentially sinister, ring to it. With the title firmly in mind, I pictured an empty baby seat, something we see every day with no attendant anxiety, imagining that the parent must have extracted said child for some undefined period of time after which the occupant would be returned. But what if that isn’t the case? What if the child is gone forever?
Presences and absences.
I wondered if I could use a baby seat as a totemic object and one to which a grieving father must cling. I knew of many instances (we probably all do) where a treasured possession or piece of clothing comes to symbolise a lost loved one and the bereaved person is understandably loath to part with it. This seemed one such instance, albeit an invented and bizarre one. The set-up of one father enduring loss meeting another, expectant, father in the dead of night struck me as an eerie one, but this tale needed to be about sadness; taking it in an overtly horror direction would have served to cheapen it, I felt, so I pulled back from that.
No gag. No twist. When it comes to horror stories, I often ask myself: “What’s the least I have to do to make this horror?”
And so it was written, and became accepted as part of a new collection—all ghost stories by me—which will be published later this year. Details TBC.
It will also—as you know by now, dear reader—be a short film directed by the excellent Andrew David Barker. As soon as it was on the page I thought, this is basically a two-hander which could be realised on film without bursting anybody’s bank balance. I thought it was performable—not all stories are—and, importantly, I thought it might, for all its brevity, stick in the mind of the viewer if we got it right. In my opinion, many short films are beautifully produced but sometimes feel like show reels for the director’s next job. I wanted this to be a film the director wanted to make, not the next one.
And so, it seems, it is.
God knows, using the ghost to represent a projection of inner psychological turmoil isn’t new, but nevertheless it’s one of the most potent metaphors I know. Ultimately, I think, and hope, embedded in Baby on Board is something a little different in a supernatural story—if it is a supernatural story, even. The idea that hurt can be painful to the point of being unbearable, but to continue without that hurt, perceived as a kind of betrayal of the deceased, can be more unbearable still.
Screenwriter and author