Encounter

“If you were to pin me down on this, I’d say it has all to do with names.”  His eyes drawn to the row of beech trees beyond his friend’s rain-sodden garden, Kevin was in a reflective mood.

“What are you saying now?”  Christian asked.   “Names?  I thought we were discussing relationships?”

“Listen to that rain!”  Kevin exclaimed, as the wind thrashed a tattoo against the window.  “It is. Names strike at the very fabric of a relationship.  I mean, ‘Kevin’, you know?  The hard ‘K’?  Women just don’t value a Kevin.  And it isn’t exactly a superhero’s name, either, is it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. You’ve got a Clark batting for your team.”  Christian adjusted position in his armchair,perching his glass of whisky on the arm whilst reaching for a poker from the hearth.  He stoked the fire that burned brightly there into a profusion of sparks.  “Take my name.  I’m living a lie.  I’m agnostic at best.  You can’t seriously hope to convince me that these misfortunes of yours are attributable to your parents’ dismissive choice of name!”

Kevin turned away from the window and the depression of greys crowding his view.   “Dismissive.  You couldn’t know how accurately that describes my parents, could you?  Did you ever meet my father?”

“Once or twice.”

“Which was about as often as my mother met him.”

“Oh, come on!  But still, I believe your mother was his third wife?  Not strong on the whole bonding for life thing, was he?”

“Like father like son, is that your inference?”  Kevin shook his head.  “I thought I’d laid that ghost long ago.”

“They say the luck runs.”

 “No.”  I don’t believe that.  I mustn’t.  After all, we’re much the same, you and I;  I don’t see myself as particularly ill-favoured, or you, forgive me, as particularly handsome.  We’re roughly the same height, the same weight; our personalities are similar, even if I get a little more fired up at times – yet here I stand, left on the runway of yet another failed relationship, without the faintest idea where I went wrong.  And here are you, in this immaculately kept house with Svetlana who is, you have to admit, exquisite…”

“You could add clever – daunting insightful, formidably intelligent.  Yes, she is certainly visually pleasing, although she can be a little – shall we say – eccentric at times.”

“I will stick to exquisite.  After fifteen years she still looks as beautiful as the day you introduced me to her.  And you still dote on her, I can see that.  Fifteen years!  Can I tell you my experiences of those fifteen years?”

Christian chuckled sympathetically.  “There was Melissa.  She was a lovely girl!”

“With some lovely friends.  Lots of lovely friends, mostly male!  Then Claire, and Michelle…”

“Six months later.”

“Alright; that was brief even by my standards.  But Alicia…”

“Ah  Alicia!  She tore shreds, didn’t she?”

Kevin gave a grim nod.  “Literally.  I couldn’t go out, sometimes, with the scars and all.  And now…”

“Now Sophie.”

“Yes, Sophie.  Absolutely Sophie.”  Feeling his eyes smart from a revisited sadness, Kevin crossed to his friend’s sideboard, responding to the call of a whiskey glass that awaited him there.  “What’s the secret, Chris?  What do you have that I have not?  Where in the universe is there a Svetlana waiting for me?”

Christian’s finger traced an imaginary picture on the arm of his chair as he tried to frame an answer for his friend.  “I don’t know, Kev.  I could say there’s someone waiting for you out there, someone you’ve never met; but that wouldn’t hack, would it?  I think it’s just fate – no more and no less.”

“Fate!  That fickle digit!  No, I have no belief in luck, my friend.”

“Alright, let us say a ‘conjunction of circumstances’, then.  Will you settle for that?”

“Ah!  I suspected as much.  You have a secret, and it’s one I should share.  It’s time you publicized!  I want answers, before age and bachelorhood place my assets beyond recall.  Come on, give!”

” I have no treasures to impart!  Svetty and I were one of life’s chance encounters, no more, no less.”

“You met her on the Internet.  She posted on a dating site.  Or, wait – YOU posted on a dating site!”

Christian laughed.  “I did not!”

“I used to believe she was a mail order bride.  For years I was convinced you were holding out on me, in spite of her perfect English.”

“Oh really; you know that isn’t true.  She came to this country when she was ten.  Her parents live here.  He’s a ‘something’ with Debrette Cooper – the bankers?   Okay, I never told you how we met, did I? So I will.  It was pure chance.  I was in the middle of an aisle in the middle of a supermarket in the middle of an evening, trying to discover the location of the Cornflakes so I could replace an unwanted packet when this glorious woman just walked up to me and said: ‘Hi’.

“Amazing! “

“Amazed was I!  What could I do?”

“I suppose you could have hidden behind the Cornflakes.  But obviously you didn’t.  What did you do?”

“I said ‘Hi’ right back at her.  I wasn’t going to be intimidated, you see.”

“Heavens no, why should you be?  And?”

“And.  Ah yes, and!  She gave me the first of those quirky smiles she does, then she took this little blue card from her purse.  She came right up close to me, slipped it into my shirt pocket – bold as you like – and just walked away.  But oh, the quick touch of those fingers slipping into my pocket; and what a walk!”

“Stop it, you’re embarrassing yourself!  So let me guess, her ‘phone number was on the card?”

“A soft blue colour, that card.  It was nothing special – I mean, she hadn’t had fifty printed, or anything like that.  I think it was a business card for a hair salon, or something.  Point is – you’re right – she’d written her number on the corner.  And her name.  We both know her name.”

“That was how it all began?  Yes, of course it was.  You called, you dated, you lasted.”

“It was the way we all like to think it should be.  We matched perfectly.  Over a dinner table, at a bar, walking beside the river, it was like we read each other’s thoughts without ever really needing to speak.  We were married within a month, we’re still together.  We still – love – each other.  And I never told her.”

“Oh, my god!  Intriguing.  There’s a secret between you?”

“I didn’t say it, did I?  I never have.  When she told me her side of the story I could have reacted, I suppose, but  when you have everything in life you ever wanted, why break the spell?  Svetty knew.  She knew on Tuesday nights in that supermarket, on that particular aisle, if you carried a hand basket containing just two items it said you were looking for a companion.  It was a code, but the point is Svetty only knew because her friend had put her up to it that very evening.  She was feeling low after breaking up with someone so this friend persuaded her to give the supermarket ‘Singles Night’ a try.  And on that one night, the only night, possibly, she would ever do it I happened to be there.  I stumbled into it.  Fate, you see?  Apparently she was carrying the two significant items, but I didn’t even think about that.  How could I have known?”

Kevin  frowned.  “But that’s not a secret, not now.  Although it is likely to guide my feet towards that particular supermarket next Tuesday, it’s information you both share.  What’s the story?  What’s the big, humongous confidence you have kept to yourself for fifteen years?  How are you – even as we speak – deceiving your beloved Svetlana?”

“Well, it isn’t a deception, exactly….”

“What, then?”

“Just one small detail – in that supermarket, all those years ago – which means nothing now, of course…”

“Oh, no!  Of course not.   But you never told her…”

“I was  shopping with my aunt.  My amazing aunt.”

“This would be your Aunt Babs, would it?   A grainy old soul, God bless her.”

“Of sacred memory, yes, the same.  You see, after Uncle Henry had his stroke, I used to go shopping with her, to help her carry the weekly haul and to drive her, because she was getting on a bit herself, even then.  Anyway, dear old Aunty Babs knew all about Tuesday Singles Night – she heard about it at her Bridge Club, probably; most of the Singles Night clientele were of the card-playing persuasion.  We were in the adjoining aisle, Aunt Babs leaning heavily on her cart, me with my little hand-basket so I could pick up a few odd things for myself, when she suddenly snatched my few bits and pieces from my basket!

“I’ll look after these for you, dear,”  She told me,  “I’ve changed my mind about this cheese and these Cornflakes, so could you put them back for me?  They were just in the next row!”  She thrust said cheese and breakfast cereal product into my little basket, then gave me a brisk push on my shoulder to send me on my way.  Which was how I came to be in the same row as Svetty at the auspicious moment.  I wouldn’t have been there otherwise.  I would never have met her.”

“I see,” acknowledged Kevin, sagely.  “As accidents of fate go, that has to be an absolute corker!”  

“On the face of it, yes,absolutely.  Aunt Babs confessed much later (at our wedding, in fact) that while we were shopping she’d spotted this tall, statuesque woman navigating towards the Singles aisle.  She said that the moment she saw this woman she just knew we were meant to meet.  And she was right, you see.  She was absolutely right.  Dear old Babs, I really miss her.”

“So,”  Kevin said, giving Christian one of his most censorious looks,  “To return to my original premise, your meeting was not entirely fate.  Other forces were at work, there.”

“Well, you may say so, yet no trick or sleight of hand on my part was involved, unless you think I had Aunt Babs concealed in my hat like a white rabbit.  She acted without my corroboration.  Even fate needs a helping hand, once in a while. The truth is a succession of random events put two complete strangers, with neither background nor history in common, in the same place at the same time.   I don’t know about you, but in a land of sixty-odd million people, that speaks to me of something beyond yours, mine or anyone’s control.  We’re merely the pieces on the board.  The game, the strategy, if you like, belongs to someone, or something, higher than us.  Which is what I mean when I use the word ‘Fate’.”

Kevin smiled, staring deep into the red embers of the fire.  “If that’s agnosticism,”  he murmured,  “I’ll take it.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Feature Image credit: Marco Pomella from Pixabay

The Circle of Time

“Existing outside the circle of time.”  Bartolemy said, placing drinks he had bought on the table next to his friend.  “Imagine what that would be like!”

“Complicated.”  Hoenig thought.  “Didn’t I ask for lager?”

“Mrs. Brandleby-Hogg says that’s what spirits do.  Her spirits, anyway.”

“I should think the evidence for the effect of spirits on Mrs. Brandleby-Hogg is clear.”  Said Hoenig.   “I’d say at least a half-bottle of gin administered daily, if last night was anything to go by.”

“I think you’re very hard on the woman.  She’s a professional medium.”  Bartololemy rebuked.  “She has many distinguished clients.  I enjoyed last night’s little soiree, personally.”

“Then the long black dress and the dolman sleeves deceived you.”

“She truly is a substantial woman.”  Bartolemy admitted.  “She has great presence.”

“I’ve never heard them called that!  Contents-wise, it was a disaster.  Summoning Moira Jenner’s partner back from the dead, for instance…”

“I thought that was remarkable.  He came through loud and clear…”

“Miraculous!”  Hoenig agreed.  “Especially when Mrs. B called her partner ‘Tom’.   Moira’s partner’s name was Claudia – she’s gay, for heaven’s sake.  Then there was poor Mrs. Bevis…”

“Oh, that was far too practical!”

Hoenig permitted himself a chuckle.“Practical?   All the woman wanted to know was where her departed husband put the key for their shed.   She’s been locked out of it for six months!”

“Better than being locked in it, one might say…”  Bartolemy mused.   “When by engaging a locksmith…Anyway, back to existing outside the circle of time.  You’re not a believer, I take it?”

“I’ve always thought of time as being a rather linear affair.  Begin at the beginning, stop at the end, sort of thing.   Hard to see how a circle could work.”  

“You weren’t listening to Mrs. B., then!   It’s ludicrously simple, really it is.   The circle is like a wheel, spinning in the space-time continuum…”

Hoenig stared:  “The what?”

“Space – time – continuum.   The  junction between time and space:  they’re linked, you see?  The circle of time is at the centre of it; sort of whizzing round.”

“How does she know?”

“She’s a very clever woman, Mrs. Brandleby-Hogg.  She’s an ‘Honorable’.”  Bartolemy was not to be deterred.  “Time and size are directly correlated, so in our perception time seems to pass very quickly for small forms of life like the mouse, or the fruit fly…
“Are they correlated?”  

“Shut up and listen!”  Bartolemy rebuked.   “And it passes much more slowly for large life forms, like elephants, or the blue whale.  Think of the little creatures as rushing by on the wheel’s rim, while the elephant watches from much nearer to the hub – turning more slowly.  Can you see how the elephant would perceive time?”

“It would be too giddy to perceive anything, I should think.”  Hoenig said.  “ And she believes that her spirits are standing outside the wheel, or circle, or whatever – without moving?”

“Exactly!  You’ve got it!   So you might have Henry VIII standing next to Einstein, or Attila arm in arm with Florence Nightingale.  It wouldn’t matter because time is meaningless once you die and leave your physical form behind.  We rush by, while they remain there forever.”

“Round and round.”  Hoenig frowned.  “ Do you think he would have fancied her?”

“Who?”

“Attila – fancied Florence Nightingale.  A perfect couple, I’d have thought.  Supply and demand.  So when they die, they fall off the wheel?”

“That’s it.  Sort of.”   Bartolemy conceded.

“And then they’re outside the circle?”

“Right again!”

“Must be crowded out there.  How come she can speak to them, Henry VIII, and those – if she’s on the wheel, and they aren’t?”

“I don’t follow?”

“Well;”  Hoenig was becoming quite animated.  “If you’ve no sense of time – none at all – you can’t speak to someone who has.  See, even the simplest sentence requires time to be spoken; take for example ‘How are you today?’  It took a second or so to say that – that’s a unit of time?  Even if you shorten it to ‘Ho-ay” it still employs an element of time.”

“I suppose…”  Bartolemy hesitated, then shrugged helplessly.  “I don’t know, do I?  That’s her skill, I suppose.”

“That’s the gin.”

“Yes – no.  No!”  Bartolemy was crestfallen.  “How am I supposed to know?”

“You knew about the circle…”

“I did.”

“…and standing outside it.”

“That too.  You do realise you’ve spoiled it for me now?”  Bartolemy lamented, thrusting despairing hands into his trouser pockets.  “I’ll never go to a séance again!”

“I’ve done you a service, then.”  Hoenig considered.   “What’s the matter?”

“I’ve found this in my pocket.  Did you put it there?”

“No.  I don’t go round putting things in people’s pockets.   What is it?”

“It’s a key.   A small key.”

Hoenig inspected the object.  “Looks about the right size for a shed.”

Chances for Psychical Research?

 

The stately homes of England
Though rather in the lurch
Provide a lot of chances
For psychical research
There’s the ghost
Of a crazy younger son

Who murdered in 1351
An extremely rowdy nun
Who resented it
And people who come to call
Meet her in the hall

The baby in the guest wing
Who crouches by the grate
Was walled up in the west wing
In 1428

If anyone spots
The Queen of Scots
In a hand-embroidered shroud
We’re proud
Of the stately homes of England

(Excerpt from song ‘The Stately Homes of England’ by Noel Coward)

 

If I may, I want to engage you in the sort of conversation that frequently occurs when the whisky has been passed around for a third or more times, or a cork is popped on a second bottle of rich burgundy.  Experience, if you can, that warm after-dinner glow –  I want to immerse you in candlelight and comfort you with the crackle of a log fire, for it is in such cossetted mood that the company is inclined to discuss real questions; those that explore the true meaning of life.  And one of those questions will almost certainly be:

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

Does it surprise you to learn that I do?

My encounters with the spirit world are rare, I grant you.  I can think of three, possibly four such moments in all of my long years which defy rational explanation; for now, let me select just one.  Let me show you this picture?

How odd, you might think, to produce a photograph in this dim light – especially one so contemporary and unremarkable!  Yet, if you hold it close to the candlelight you may see it as I do.  Though dressed in modern clothes, this building; ‘The Grange’, is the surviving wing of something that was very old, a great house raised in the 16th Century, when a Tudor rose ruled England and no head that rested upon other than Catholic shoulders could feel secure.  Oh, it has been altered much since then, renovated and remodelled many times, but its soul is not in doubt, and its heart, its beating heart, is more ancient still.

It is the unseen that must detain us here.  Imagine the foundations upon which this remnant of a mansion sits, because its footings harbour a secret:  once they founded a priory, the indulgence of a bishop whose goods and properties were coveted by an acquisitive King.  Once, these unruly thickets and meadowlands were a park with gardens tended by monks.   And although few tales or sketches of that bishop’s country palace survive (it was stripped of its gold and levelled by the forces that drove the Reformation) those stones – those ancient, buried stones – have their memories.

At the time my story starts the house itself lay abandoned, but nestling at the foot of the hill upon which it sits, beside a field gate, was a small caravan occupied by a man I knew as ‘Pete’.

Pete lived alone.  He was a polio survivor whose disabilities meant that he rarely left his compact home.  If you ask me for my most vivid memory of Pete I would have to admit it was his warmth.  No, I am not referring to his kind and caring nature, though doubtless he had one; I am talking about the heat of that caravan.  Upon a summer night when he opened his door a blast of hot air would greet his visitors like a Sirocco:  once inside it could flay the skin from their bones.

The source of so much radiation was a diminutive coke stove which crackled away, winter, summer, day and night at one end of the little van.  Guests would be urged to replenish its fuel from time to time, if its ferocity threatened to abate.  Personally, I became accustomed to the torment; it was a price worth paying for the tales Pete could tell.

Pete’s lifestyle afforded him plenty of time for study.  He was well versed in the lurid history of ‘The Grange’ and would describe the hauntings from its past with vivid conviction.   I, sometimes in the company of friends also drawn to this place, was a rapt audience for his stories of restless shades he had seen drifting through the darkness beyond his window, of grey-habited monks toiling in a garden that no longer grew.

“Whenever the moon’s up you’ll see them.  They look strange, of course, because in those days there was no wildness; no bushes or trees, unless ‘twas they that planted them.  So you see them moving through the underbrush as if it didn’t exist.  They walk along paths that’s not there anymore, digging in new trees that disappear with the moon, or…(here Pete would pause for effect)…just once in a while planting a tree that does still exist!  That elderly gentleman, the yew at the bottom of the cornfield there – I seen that as a sapling, with a couple o’ young initiates tending it.  And now…There it is!   Grown!”

At the zenith of our enthusiasm Pete rarely passed an evening of the full moon alone.  Two or three of us would be perched on the edge of his bunk, sipping hot tea as we stared through his window at the rough meadow and the gaunt, empty house on the hill.  His voice coached us from the darkness:  “Look carefully!  Remember they were smaller people then, and they walk on ground they tilled five hundred years ago.  The level of the land’s higher now, much higher in places:  sometimes you can only see them from the waist up.  There – over there.  See?”

But we never saw.  The blue land, silent in that eerie light, surrendered none of its secrets to us.  Pete’s explanation was simple:  “Vision isn’t given to everybody.”  And we accepted it.  He enjoyed our company, and we were willing enough to provide.

Nothing is forever.  I called one day to find the little caravan padlocked and its curtains drawn:  although I asked, nobody knew where Pete had gone.  I never saw him again.

Is that the end of the story?  Oh, no.  Ghosts I have promised you and a ghost you shall have.  The same year Pete disappeared The Grange was bought by a local landlord, who intended to turn it into apartments.   We knew the gentleman, and asked him if we could spend a night in The Grange before its interior was gutted and altered forever.   A bonafide ‘night in a haunted house’.

To our surprise the landlord agreed so, loaded with enthusiasm and sleeping bags we embarked on a ghost hunt, a night I can remember to have been one of the coldest of my life.

We were four.   On the Grange’s middle level we made a pitch on bare boards, surrounded by the workings of carpenters and builders; new un-plastered stud walls, stacks of plumbing and sanitary wares, some doors that were new, some much older.  Our sleeping bags did nothing to defend us against the October cold, so after a couple of shuddering hours of conversation and too chilled for sleep, at the dead of night we set off on a tour of the house.

There were many rooms to explore, many doors to open, all shrouded in darkness so intense we could touch it.  With our torches as our tentative guides we probed a confusing agglomeration of structures either old and part-demolished, or new and incomplete.  Too much was already altered – the structure of the old place was gone.  We quickly resigned all thoughts of haunting in so cluttered an environment.  The consensus was for abandonment and home.

The last door we intended to investigate was a modern one, set in a partition wall on the ground floor, at the centre of the house.    We expected nothing from it, having already opened a dozen precisely similar doors, and mentally, in my mind at least, I was already starting my car, looking forward to the full blast of the heater.  One of our group turned the handle briskly, thrusting the door open, expecting to reveal yet another small room in the making.  He was wrong.

Instead, we found ourselves staring through the doorway into a large hall bathed in soft, grey light.  A long refectory table made from three large planks dominated the centre of this space, at the further end of which, upon a substantial chair, was seated an aged monk.  Such was the light and the state of his habit, it was difficult to tell whether its colour was grey or brown; his face, certainly, was drained of all colour, but I recall exactly how he looked, and how his eyes raised to acknowledge us.  There was no feeling among us of shock, we felt no need for fear; in fact, the overwhelming sense was of intrusion, and it was that, perhaps, that induced our group member to quietly and discreetly close the door.

Initially I might have wondered if the others had shared my impression, but their odd behaviour confirmed for me that they had.  Before opening that door we had all been fairly buoyant, talking eagerly about going home.  Afterwards no-one spoke.  We walked away; we almost tiptoed.  There was no double take, no rush to open the door again, not even a conversation about what we had seen for several minutes, when the darkness suddenly descended once more and we realised all our torches had gone out.   Much later, when we had packed our sleeping bags back into the car and settled for the journey home, we agreed we would write down our individual versions of what we had seen.  When we compared these notes the following night they were surprisingly consistent.  Three of us had shared exactly the same experience in every detail, only our fourth insisted he had seen nothing.   When it was suggested we go back for a second look, however, he displayed marked reluctance.  In the end, we returned the key to our friendly landlord.  We did not return; not then.

One outstanding feature of what I will call ‘supernatural’ experiences is absolute clarity of memory.  I will never forget any detail of that ancient hall, although it happened a lot of years ago.  It remains with me:  it has become a part of my psyche.  I might make a number of attempts to explain, or to justify a collective illusion shared equally among my friends, but I can never satisfactorily pass it by.

There is a footnote.  In fact, one of our quartet did return to The Grange.  The following year those renovated apartments were put up for rent and I, with my immediate family, moved into the uppermost flat, the windows of which are shown in the photograph.  In all of my stay there, I had no further visions or clues that would lead me to suspect anything ‘supernatural’.  The place was warm and the views from those windows quite breathtaking.

In the summer of my second year at The Grange, a truck came to tow Pete’s caravan away.  I have never forgotten him, or that night.  I would wait more than twenty-five years for my next brush with the spirit world, one which would convince me that there are boundaries beyond which logic has no dominion.   But that’s a story for another time…