On Writing ‘The Mansion House’ / Elaine Canning

27th February 2019. It was a crisp sunny morning in Madrid, perfect for a one-hour stroll from the Chueca district to Chamartín rail station. My twelve-year-old son, for whom it was a first visit to the Spanish capital, was still buzzing with excitement, firing questions along the way about the meaning of shop signs, posters, bus displays, building plaques – anything and everything that caught his eye. We’d had one packed day of sightseeing by then including a boat trip in Retiro Park and an afternoon with Picasso at the Reina Sofía. However, it was the lift in the converted nineteenth-century mansion house where we were staying that was proving to be the highlight of the holiday so far. The rickety metal-framed construction that screeched, shuddered and juddered as it transported us from the ground floor to the third was somehow quite ‘cool’. Of course I didn’t understand.

Once we reached Chamartín, we quickly located the platform for Salamanca, our destination for the day. My son sat opposite me, inspecting the plushness of his seat and swishness of the digital displays, telling me on repeat how this train was nothing like the ones in Wales. The high-speed Ave was also a first for him.

It was during that train journey that the beginnings of ‘The Mansion House’ began to infiltrate my thoughts. After a frantic few days, the gentle, quiet lull of the train induced a natural contemplation of the intuitive responses of my twelve-year-old to unfamiliar place and space.

I decided then to write a story about a young Spanish boy with a fascination for a strange old mansion house which no one else cared about, not even his twin sister. My own fascination with Spanish history, primarily with that of the twentieth century and the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 led me to situate the story in the post-civil war period where ghosts and fragments of the recent past still lingered.

I wanted the house to have purpose specific to Carlos, to function not as a safe space but rather as one where he was forced to face his own fears and demons, including his worst nightmare – the potential loss of his sister.

The interplay between the real and fantastical as a conduit for self-discovery is something which I explore within the broader parameters of my writing. In Carlos’ case, this is encapsulated in his encounter with the old man of the mansion house and his subsequent undertaking of three challenges; challenges fused with a darker side of his day to day reality and the unreal, with three doors, three sightings of his sister and the transformation of the three adults who care for him.

By the time we were making our return journey to Madrid, the ideas for Carlos’ challenges were starting to simmer, like small jigsaw pieces to be fitted together somehow, much like Carlos’ own task in challenge one. And in the months that followed came my protagonist’s instinctive responses to unexpectedness and strangeness, to family and love.

You can read ‘The Mansion House’ in Issue Thirteen.

Originally from Belfast, Elaine Canning has published a book and several papers on Spanish Golden- Age drama, as well as a number of short stories and is editor of The Rhys Davies Short Story Award Anthology 2021. She is Head of Cultural Engagement and Development and Executive Officer of the Dylan Thomas Prize at Swansea University and is currently writing her first novel.

Image by Jo Mazelis.