Ghost Stories Part IV (a): Muriel Spark’s ‘The Portobello Road’

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I posted previously about a ghostly I-narrator in Spark’s The Girl I Left Behind Me, and in The Portobello Road we have another I-narrator ghost, but in this story the murder victim haunts her murderer. This was one of Muriel Spark’s favourite short stories, along with The Executor.

The Portobello Road tells the story of four friends: Kathleen, Skinny, George and Needle. In her youth, Needle found a needle in a haystack, which is why she came to be known as Needle. From that day forward, Needle is considered ‘lucky’ by the other characters, although in fact haystacks are associated with injury and death for her: the needle she chances upon in the story’s first haystack drives deep into the cushion of her thumb creating a wound which bleeds copiously; Needle is suffocated with hay and her body buried in the second haystack. When her corpse is recovered, the headlines in the evening papers run ‘ “Needle” is found: in haystack!’

Needle’s haphazard, itinerant existence induces the other characters to remark that she is lucky. Needle makes her living by writing and in profiting from the occasional stroke of fortune, such as a fortuitous legacy, and the discovery of a diamond bracelet for which she is given a reward. Needle is a character we find often in Spark: an independent woman writer who is assured of her ‘difference from the rest’. Spark is writing from her own experience, obviously, but she doesn’t trouble to make this character likable. In fact, Needle treats George – her murderer – with malice and contempt, both before her death and after. But we are not led to have any sympathy for George, either. He is a ridiculous figure, marked from the outset as a threat by the narrator’s repeated insistence on how large a man he is, and we are told often about George’s full, sensuous red lips and white teeth. One can’t help but think of vampires, and George does indeed drain Needle’s life-force when he stuffs her mouth with hay and kills her. George’s ‘wide slit of red lips’ reveals a sensuousness in his nature which marks him out as a man ruled by his passions. He takes up with Matilda and marries her because he ‘needed the woman’ and he murders Needle in a fit of anger when she refuses to keep quiet about George’s projected bigamy. The murder itself is reported in the typically understated Sparkian fashion which is so devastatingly effective: ‘He looked as if he would murder me and he did.’

So Needle exists as a ghost in order to haunt and punish George. She explains away the fact that she ‘did not altogether depart this world’ because there are ‘odd things still to be done which one’s executors can never do properly’. (This includes looking over papers which the executors have already torn up, so the papers are themselves ghostly.) Tormenting George is clearly one of the other ‘odd things’ to be accomplished, because Needle cannot be seen or heard by anyone other than George – she tells us that she ‘wasn’t in a position to speak to Kathleen’, but that she ‘had a sudden inspiration’ to talk to George. We are given no more explanation than this. We do not know why Needle can only address George, nor do we know who or what inspired her to do so. Needle does not speak very much to George beyond saying hello and telling him that he doesn’t look very well, but her narratorial reporting of these encounters is gleefully disingenuous: ‘I suppose from poor George’s point of view it was like seeing a ghost when he saw me’, and ‘I suppose that was why he looked so unwell when I stood, nearly five years later, by the barrow in the Portobello Road’. But Needle knows exactly what she is doing, even if she chooses to give us a skewed version of events: ‘The next Saturday I looked out for him, and at last there he was, without Kathleen, half-worried, half-hopeful. I dashed his hopes.’

The narratorial voice is a strange one, here as in almost everything else Muriel Spark wrote. What we have in this story is a first-person narrator who shares much of the knowledge of an omniscient third-person narrator, presumably because of Needle’s status as a ghost. Needle reports the discovery of her own body and the results of the ensuing investigation, and she is also privy to the emotions and thoughts of other characters: Skinny feels sorry for the byre-hand who was one of the chief suspects; Kathleen doesn’t like the snapshot George took of his friends on the day Needle discovered the needle; the police ‘could tell from the way [George] was talking that there was something wrong with the man’. In the latter example, the narratorial voice slips easily into the perspective of the police following a straightforward description of action (‘he went to the police and gave himself up’), which is the sort of thing you would expect from an omniscient third-person narrator, but not from an I-narrator. In fact, George is telling the police the truth at this point, but they don’t believe him because he tells them that he has just escaped from a nursing home, and, as the narrator tells us, ‘Dozens of poor mad fellows confess to every murder.’ Needle’s emotional detachment from even her own untimely demise is what gives the story its arch narratorial tone and its black humour. The malice which Needle directs at George, the most powerful emotion we sense from her, is engendered not as a result of his being her murderer, but is felt even when Needle was living, and throughout their friendship, because George so desperately needs the approval and company of others, whereas Needle considers herself ‘set apart from the common run’.

Coming soon: The Executor!

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