Story master Shawn Callahan was kind enough to comment on my first post and suggest an additional metaphor for receptions. Whereas I had riffed on the concept of a border crossing, Shawn wisely emphasised the idea of a shoreline. And it’s a metaphor I like. For receptions are places of ebb and flow, subject to a diurnal low and high tide as employees and visitors arrive and depart. And just as the tides leave a detritus of seaweed, driftwood and, in my native Norfolk, rucksacks of carefully wrapped cocaine, so the human flow leaves its own traces: a temporary imprint on a leather seat; a corporate magazine left open at a nonchalantly scanned page; a half drunk cup of earl grey.
Similarly, as deserted shorelines exude a certain melancholy, so receptions, in those late evenings or weekends, possess a lonely, even uncanny, mood. The lighting subdued, the aggregate floors and walls prone to echoes, the security guard, a lonely sentinel peering through the plate glass windows to the wild seas beyond.
These shorelines – liminal, deserted – are places for story. Each attracts the other. M.R James, probably our greater writer of the uncanny, knew it well. In Oh, Whistle, and I’ll come to You, My Lad, the antiquarian Professor Parker dreams of a terrified, exhausted man pursued by a ‘figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined’ along a ‘stretch of shore – shingle edged by sand, and intersected at short intervals with black groynes running down to the water’. As a result of his horrifying experience at the climax of the story, Parker is arguably a changed man – his ‘views on certain points are less clear cut than they used to be’. Although, such enlightenment comes at a price: ‘the spectacle of a scarecrow in a field on a winter afternoon has cost him more than one sleepless night’.
As the story shows, the liminal can be a place of discomfort, of knowledge gained and innocence lost: a place of ambiguous transformation. So, next time you find yourself in a deserted reception, not only may the artefacts around you carry a greater potency (as there is less to distract you from the stories they carry), but you may find it prudent not to look behind you. Those footsteps you hear are getting closer, and closer still…