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Horlicks

I honestly can’t remember if I’ve posted this one before, so – because I rather like it – I’ll take the chance! Here’s hoping…

Let me tell you about Horlicks.

It all begins with a knock on my door early Saturday morning.  I’m in the middle of breakfast.  Ali, my landlord, is standing on the doormat; apology written all over his face.

“Sorry to disturb you, Ben.”

“It’s alright.”  Me, dressing gown, wiping Rice Krispies off my face.  Him, lounge suit, buttonhole – has he just got married?  I like Ali – he’s one of the new-style landlords – fresh faced, optimistic – went into property when the City went pear-shaped.

“You know about poor old Mr. Pennell?”  Ali uses his sensitive voice.  I do, of course.

“Yeah, Mrs. Jacob told me.  She found him, apparently.”  Abe Pennell, Flat Five.  If he caught you in the hallway you’d end up talking for hours, because once he started he’d never stop.  A lonely old man, I always supposed, and now he’d slipped away; in the night, alone.  It was sad.

“Well, I’ve cleared most of his stuff;” Ali says; “Except this.”

I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it: on the floor beside him, this massive cage thing –inside, with a quizzical look on its face, the most beautiful blue Macaw I’ve ever seen.

“He loved this bird and I just don’t have the heart to sell it.   I remember you asking about pets.”

A pet, yes: I’d been thinking of a cat, maybe, or a small pooch without any pretensions, not a parrot.  Yet somehow (I admit I’ve no idea how Ali persuades me) I end up with a cage in my hands.

“His name is Horlicks, Ben.”

Then Ali’s thanked me and gone, and the cage is standing on the table, and I’m looking at Horlicks and Horlicks is looking at me.  With great delicacy, Horlicks opens the cage and steps out onto the table.  With rather less delicacy, he plumps a grey foot on the edge of my breakfast bowl, sending Krispies and milk all over the cloth.  One by one he begins to eat the Krispies.  I suppress my annoyance  (how can you have a go at a bereaved bird?).  He seems quite passive as I coax him, nudge him, persuade him back inside his home, shut his door and secure it.  He opens it again and comes back out.

A cursory examination reveals that the latch is very loose.  I have some wire in the kitchen.  I put him back inside, wire up the door.  He seems to want to help me, poking at my fingers with his beak as I work, stepping back on his perch as if in admiration at the finished job.  Satisfied, I leave him while I go to the kitchen to make coffee.  The kettle has just boiled.  I am pouring water into my mug.  There is a flapping of wings and Horlicks joins me on the worktop.  He has a length of wire in his beak.

So we reach a tacit understanding:  Horlicks is not a caged bird.  From now on I will put the cage in a corner and leave the door open for him to return there whenever he wishes (he almost never does) while he has free run of my meticulously tidy flat.  I’m like that, you see?  I live alone, everything in order, everything in its place.  Lump sugar not loose, tablecloth on the table, covers on the chairs and wipe-your-feet-please-thank-you – get the picture?  Now I’ve heard that parrots are really messy, and that worries me, but there’s such a thing as duty of care, and I take that seriously too, so I have to trust Horlicks’ good manners and go out.

Fortunately this is a Saturday, because there is food to get – what do parrots eat, anyway?  The local pet shop will help.

Mrs. Hall at ‘Fluffy’s’ is effusively helpful:  “Parrots are extremely fussy, Mr. Cecil.”

She advises me no end, managing in the process to provide me with three books on care of Parrots and Parakeets, about half a hundredweight of balanced diet food for Horlicks, an extremely pretty perch, and a three-figure bill.  I make a note to get a larger car.

No-one could describe my feelings as I turn the handle on my front door.  All the way home I ‘m having cold sweats, picturing my flat as a battleground, seeing images of Horlicks amid shredded tablecoths, piles of stuffing ripped from chairs – what sort of things do parrots do when they get bored, anyway?  All my files opened and torn apart, broken china….

None of it!  I swing the door wide (but not too wide – I have another vision which involves Horlicks flapping past me to freedom) and there it is; my well-ordered flat:  still well ordered.  My new pet appears not to have moved, surveying me sagely from the top of my bookcase as I struggle to assemble the accoutrements of his new life.

“How old are you, Horlicks?”  I ask him conversationally as I carefully select a site for his brand new perch.  He tips his head to one side and rattles his tongue in a sort of keening sound.  “Do you like this, then?”

Now I am proud of that perch.  It is on a stand with a nice wide base where you can lay sand for collection of – well, need I be specific?  A hoop of little bells form an arch over the top.  There’s a food dish attached, too, which I fill with the newly-acquired goodies supplied by Mrs. Hall.

“You hungry, Horlicks?  You a hungry Horlicks?”  Oh-oh!  I’m starting to talk like my old ma did with her cats.  Here, tiddy-widdy!  Did he want his din-dins then?

Horlicks seems to understand.  He flutters down from the bookcase, settles on the perch, then after turning his head several ways, begins to poke at the food.  Satisfied, I go into the kitchen to make my lunch.  My coffee mug is on the worktop where I left it earlier, the sugar-bowl still beside it.  The sugar bowl is empty.  The coffee mug is full of sugar lumps.

Of course, it is my fault:  normally I would not think of leaving the half-full mug of unfinished coffee there, any more than I would forget to put the Rice Krispies packet back in the cupboard, but Horlicks’ arrival distracted me.  And the Rice Krispies packet is empty, too…..

When I return to my living room, Horlicks is back on top of the bookcase.  The food in his food bowl is untouched.  I calculate he has probably eaten enough unsuitable food to kill him.  Did I read somewhere birds can’t burp?

Over the next few days we learn to live with one another, Horlicks and I.  I learn, for example, that he has no appreciation of expensive special food:  I learn that he likes my food, mostly before I get the opportunity to eat it.  I learn that slices of Pizza, pieces of bread, biscuits, all manner of cooking ingredients will mysteriously disappear the moment I turn my back:  that only hot food – kebabs with hot sauce, chilli, etc., are left untouched.  Whether Horlicks learns anything new at all is open to doubt.  There is little question as to who is educating who in our new partnership.

I begin to eat a lot more curry than is good for me.

At first I think Horlicks must be dangerously constipated, because the sand beneath his perch and in his cage stays spotlessly clean.  This in itself is no surprise, since he rarely touches either of them, but I worry.  Then I discover the top of the kitchen cupboard (by accident – I open it and a piece of stale pizza falls on my head).  There are more things up there, Horatio, than are dreamed of…..

Lindsay comes round this evening.  Lindsay and I, we’re sort of an item, if you know what I mean?  She says we are, anyway.

She calls me first: “Shall I bring a Chinese?”

“Better make it a Biryani.”

She sees Horlicks, screams and steps back five paces.  Horlicks cringes on top of the bookcase, head lowered, wings hunched.

“Oh, you’ve got a parrot!”

I’m thinking ‘What a pity Peter Scott couldn’t have seen this’.

“Oh, isn’t it just excellent?”

Horlicks perks up.  Obviously, this parrot is prone to flattery.  I go to the kitchen to dish out the food, and when I come back, there’s Lindsay sitting on my settee, and there’s Horlicks on her lap, on his back with his eyes shut, having his tummy tickled.

For the rest of the evening I am playing gooseberry while Horlicks courts Lindsay with the professionalism of a gigolo.  He sits beside her as she eats, snuggles up to her whenever her attention might stray in my direction, brings her little gifts, like sugar lumps, the odd grape or two from the fruit bowl, or a Rice Krispie.  When we finally get to say goodnight he perches on her shoulder and would have stayed there had we not insisted.  He parts with Lindsay reluctantly, touching her cheek with that great grey beak in what looks suspiciously like a kiss.

Horlicks loves the bathroom.  When I shower in the morning he is entranced.  He sits on the shower rail with that lopsided look of his and watches me with an attention that borders on the perverted.  I come to the conclusion that all the steam is like the jungle to him, and it makes him feel at home.

“I wonder if you remember where you came from, Horlicks?”  I ask him, towelling off; and he adopts a questioning stare.  But he never answers, not once.

“Macaws aren’t good talkers, dear.”  Mrs. Hall tells me.  “It’s the greys that are the real conversationalists.”  I think this is on my third visit to ‘Fluffy’s’ – I don’t remember for certain.

“How can I control him?  He won’t stay in his cage and I daren’t open the windows.”

“Ah now!  Let me show you this ingenious little harness….”

Horlicks looks quite proud of his smart new waistcoat, and he doesn’t seem to mind as I hitch the leash to his perch.  He even consents to sit there while I fix it.  Then he flies off and settles on the floor at the limit of the tether.  Never mind, at least now I can let in some air.  I open the casement window and Horlicks watches me, very carefully.

So it’s Monday, and I have to go to work.  I am (had you not guessed?) a working man; I have a parrot to support.  Imagine the doubt, the fear:  do I leave him tethered?  Of course not.  I make sure he has plenty of food and water, then we have a little talk.  (I’m starting to do a lot of that)  It’s a lecture about respect for property and it isn’t the first time Horlicks has heard it, but he listens attentively nonetheless with that sideways look he gives whenever he’s concentrating…..

All day I worry!  I make mistakes, can’t think straight because of the nightmares that are going on in my head.  I finally get away at six and drive home so fast it’s a wonder I don’t get nicked.

My shaking fingers turn the key.  My sweaty palm grips the handle.  My shoulder tentatively pushes around the jamb….Horlicks screeches.

That’s a sound he hasn’t made before, but maybe he feels he has to break the tension.  Anyway, there he is on top of the bookcase, and a brief look around my room assures me that all is well with my world.  You see? (I tell myself) Horlicks is really not a bad bird.

Now, normally I would be off down the pub of a Monday – it’s quiet, and I get a game of darts with Tull, my old mate from the army.  Tull and I, we go back a long way, so far that I’m sure we must have had discussions about parrots.  Tull being Tull, he would have lots of advice.  Tull would have owned a parrot at some time or another, a parrot just like Horlicks, only better.  So I don’t go.  Horlicks and me, we have a night in with a lamb dansak.

There’s not much on TV, just some local news item about a poor old confused fella who was out shopping with his wife and just drove off and left her for some reason.  They found him parked on a pedestrian crossing in the High Street.  He said God told him to stop there.

I decide its time Horlicks learned to talk.  What’s the use of a parrot if it can’t keep up a conversation?  So we sit down together at the table and we run through a few simple phrases

“Who’s a pretty boy then?”   Who did think that one up?

“Who’s that?”  I rap my knuckles on the table for that one; like a door-knock, you know?

“What’s the time?”  I show Horlicks my watch – a mistake, because from then on he is obsessed with removing it.

“Greedy Horlicks!”  Prompted by a beak in my lamb dansak.

We persevere for more than an hour.  Well, I persevere.  Horlicks watches.  He says nothing.

In the end I accept defeat.  I have a silent parrot.  Later Lindsay comes round and endorses this.  “Macaws are not good talkers.”

Then she spots the harness.

“Oh, you’ve got a lead!   Let’s take him for a walk; come on!”

Lindsay, NO!  The consumption of my household provisions I can take, the intrusion on my very private world I accept, even the worry and the financing of Mrs. Hall’s early retirement are things I will put myself through, but walking down the street with a parrot on a lead?  That is one straw more than this camel can handle.

“You’re a bit of a stuffy old grampus, aren’t you?”  Lindsay accuses, and settles on the sofa to watch TV.  Of course Horlicks immediately joins her.  The two of them spend the rest of the evening canoodling.  Game, set and match.

Through the week, things begin to settle into a routine.  Nobody could call it normal, this new life I’ve got, but we get used to each other, the bird and I.  Lindsay comes by nearly every night: not to see me so much as to get touched up by Horlicks, who seems to have this Harpo Marx quality.  Lindsay speaks, he mimes.  True, his mimes are rather limited, but they seem to work.

An item on the news about an escaped parrot:  there’s a picture of it stuck up a tree.  “Oh look Horly, there’s a parrot just like you!”  And Horlicks does this sort of curtsey thing on her shoulder, then nibbles her ear.

Daytimes I’m at work, naturally.  In the evenings I play the spare part.  Friday I come home looking forward to the weekend and find Lindsay waiting on my doormat with a pizza for the bird!  This, I tell her, is going too far!

We have a bit of a row.  It runs along the lines of   ‘you’re not seriously jealous of a parrot?’ and it would have played itself out but for one little thing:  a little thing Lindsay finds on the kitchen table.

“What’s this?”  She demands, walking up to me with ‘it’ between her thumb and forefinger.

‘It’ is what I will describe as a ‘feminine product’ – all nice and clean and new, I hasten to add – not previously owned, if you see what I mean.  For once, I don’t know what to say.

“Yours?”  I mutter, lamely.  Wrong answer!

“I don’t use this brand, and if I did, I wouldn’t leave one on your kitchen table!  Are you seeing someone else?”

“Do me a favour!  I’ve been at work all day!  Anyway, how could I be seeing anyone else?  You’re always here!”

“Well, I’m sure I don’t need to be!”

“Suit yourself!  No…”  Lindsay’s about to storm out.  Now I don’t know why, but I sort of don’t want that.  So I stop her.  “Look, you stay here, I’ll go out.  I don’t know how it got there, but I have my suspicions.”

Lindsay cottons on (forgive pun):  “You mean…?”  I nod.  “But how?”

“Dunno.  See if you can find out.  Cross-examine him.”  Then my parting shot:  “That bird’s got to go!”

I go to the pub.

“What have you been up to?”  Tull asks.  “Thought we’d lost you.  Darts?”

Around about half past eight he drops it into the small talk, between throws.

“You’ll never believe what happened to Charlie Garrett – y’know, old gaffer with the limp; sits in the corner there Mondays?”

And then he tells me.  Tull tells me.

“Charlie takes his wife shopping.  Because of his gammy leg they do the usual thing: Charlie parks outside the supermarket while his wife goes around with the trolley.  When she’s done she opens up the back and puts the bags inside, then goes off to return the trolley.

“There’s a shuffling from the back seat, then this voice, which Charlie swears is his wife’s, tells him to drive on.  So he does.  Now he’s a bit deaf and a bit vague is Charlie, so it doesn’t occur to him that the draught he feels is coming from the tailgate, which is still up, and he’s used to being hooted at, so he doesn’t pay any attention as other drivers try to tell him.  Half way across town, (by now all his shopping’s dropped out the back);  this same voice says “Stop!” It’s really loud and panicky, like something’s seriously wrong.  Charlie stops.  He realises he’s in the middle of a crossing, so he decides to drive on.  “Stop!”  the voice says again.

“What’s the matter?”  Says Charlie, who can’t turn around easily and he’s never heard of mirrors.

“Just stop!”  Says the voice.

“Well now he does turn around, though it takes him a bit of time.  Guess what – there’s no-one there!  Now he’s in shock, because he thinks his wife fell out of the back, which is why when the copper comes over to see what’s going on Charlie says he thinks God was telling him to stop!”

Why do I have a funny idea I know what’s coming next?

“Right.  Now Charlie has one hell of a time trying to convince the coppers he isn’t a loony tune.  He does, though, and yesterday morning, him and his wife, they go out shopping again.   They’ve got to – Charlie lost all the last lot!

Here’s the best bit: it only happens again, doesn’t it?  There’s Charlie sitting in the car, his wife gives him a bit of a tongue-lashing about waiting for her this time, and there’s this same voice!  “Drive on!”  It says, bold as you like.

Well, Charlie’s not that much of a fool.  He turns around, and there on the back of the seat is that parrot – you know, the one that escaped?  It was on the news?

“Drive on!”  Says the parrot again.

“Not likely!”  Says Charlie, and he takes a swipe at it with his stick.

“Bleedin’ Moses!”  says the parrot; and it flies off.”

“This Parrot..”  I choose my words.  “Have they caught it yet?”

“Nah.  Owner hasn’t come forward neither.  Apparently it’s been hanging around that supermarket for days, nicking things out of bags and trolleys.  Charlie’s wife has got a theory though.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah.  Old chap she used to go and visit sometimes died recently.  He had a parrot.  She reckons maybe they turned it loose.”

Lindsay’s waiting for me when I get back to the flat.  Horlicks is not in evidence.

She shows me the latch on the casement window with the beak-marks on it.  “I checked around to see if he could get out.  He could.”

I find him cowering behind the kitchen waste.  I’m not proud of myself, shouting at a bird:  it isn’t one of my finer moments.  But you must understand, he knows he’s done wrong:  not only that, he’s been deceitful.

“You can talk, can’t you?  You can imitate people!  Worse yet, you steal tampons!”

It’s all of two hours before I forgive him, and I only do it then because for most of those two hours Lindsay’s been forgiving me; and it’s late at night, and after all, he has sort of brought us closer together:  tonight, you see, for the first time, Lindsay won’t be going home.

“He’s so cute!”  Lindsay enthuses, as we snuggle on the sofa together, watching him in his new position, relegated to the fireside rug.

“He’s a complete hooligan!”  I tell her, though my words are directed mostly at him.

He rolls over, lifting one claw nearly to his beak.

“I’m a proper Horlicks!”  He says.  “Bleedin’ Moses!”

© 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

Wilbur’s Ghost

I’m reviving a tale of three or four years ago, to inject a lighter note in days when my own thoughts are anything but light! Happy New Year, to one and all!

It was imperative Wilbur should discover the exact location of the ghost.   He had no doubt there was a ghost; he had witnessed its activities often enough in the years since he had removed himself with his family to Abbot’s Croft, and he had become accustomed to its presence.   Although a little short-tempered at times, it was not a malevolent ghost; Abbot’s Croft did not feel especially cold, or suffer the clamminess associated with traditional hauntings, there were no clanking chains or cries of suffering, in fact the ghost made no noise at all, generally speaking.   Sometimes he would not be aware of it for weeks on end, at other times it would visit almost daily.

Yes, daily.  Wilbur’s ghost was not averse to making daylight appearances.  A haunting, Wilbur had learned, was not entirely a night-time phenomenon, not at Abbot’s Croft.  

“Is that your gardener?”  Roberta Mordegrave enquired, one fine afternoon over drinks on the terrace.

“Possibly; where?”  Wilbur was reluctant to admit he had been unable to retain a gardener for more than a few weeks, and on that particular Tuesday, he was gardener-less.  

“Over there, behind the fountain.”

It was a small fountain – more of a large water feature really – with enough spray to almost disguise someone standing behind it:  and there, standing behind it, was a disguised somebody; an opaque and watery silhouette that was undoubtedly the ghost.   Wilbur wisely confirmed his ‘gardener’s’ identity, then fell to distracting Roberta from the moment when the ghost must dematerialise, which it did.

“Where did your gardener go?”  Roberta asked, when next her eyes were drawn to the fountain.

“Oh, he does the roses in the front drive.  He’ll be there, I expect.”  Wilbur added knowledgably:  “They’re budding, you know.”  He refrained from admitting that his last gardener had left at a canter, after catching his horticultural tools performing a square dance in the vegetable garden. 

This is not to say the ghost lacked a nocturnal aspect, which could assume many forms.  On an evening devoted to a game of Bridge Wilbur found himself guided by a mysterious influence that, using neither vision nor voice, insisted he lead with a ‘low Club’ at a crucial juncture, resulting in a small slam for himself and his partner.   On another occasion he was reading peacefully in his drawing room when he heard a resounding bang followed by a sense of overwhelming pain and anger.   Wilbur scurried into the hall, where he found his Indian rug crumpled to a heap on the polished floor, suggesting that someone had slipped over while stepping upon it.  

One early morning he awoke to find his bedclothes pulled from over him.  Chilled and irritable, he snatched at the covers and wrapped them around himself.  Within seconds he was exposed again as a powerful force snatched the covers back.  Infuriated, he turned to rebuke his wife for her selfishness, but his wife was not there.  The other side of the bed was empty.  Only then did he remember that his wife was away, visiting her mother in Chipping Sodbury.

So there was a ghost.  Wilbur’s wife refused to make it a secret; instead, if a haunting was mentioned she would simply say “Oh, the ghost!” and move on to the next subject for conversation.  His two children, who had now flown the coup, would never admit to any sort of a ‘presence’, although through the last five of their growing years (those spent at Abbot’s Croft) they had passed more hours of the night giggling than sleeping. 

Wilbur’s worries about the ghost’s actual whereabouts stemmed from a meeting with Delbert Fruit-Hughes.  Now that Wilbur’s children were gone, Abbot’s Croft’s rambling old corridors and twelve bedrooms seemed too large for just himself and his wife.   He loved the house, did not want to downsize, so he suggested to his wife that they throw open their doors to others:

“Let’s take in guests.”

“Homeless people!”  His wife ruled.  “People sleeping in cardboard boxes everywhere.  Ghastly mess.”

Wilbur, who had more of a hotel in mind, demurred, but this was the sort of argument his wife always won.   So, on the following Wednesday morning, he kept an appointment with the County Planning Officer, whose name was Delbert Fruit-Hughes.   

“An HMO,” DFH decided.   “How many rooms?”

“We can make nine available.”   Wilbur calculated.  “What’s an HMO?”

“House of Multiple Occupancy – eight rentable units and a living area with cooking facilities.  You’ll need to update the rooms, add a couple of bathrooms.  Any bats?”

“What do you mean, ‘update’?  Surely our rooms are better than cardboard boxes – colder, maybe, but a bit drier?”

“There are standards we require.  And fire doors, you’ll need fire doors.  Any bats?”

“Bats?”

“You must be sure any work you have done will not disturb your bats. They’re protected, you know.”

“We don’t have any bats!”   

Delbert Fruit-Hughes screwed up his suspicious eyes suspiciously:  “Really?  Have you looked?”

 “No bats.”

“Newts, then?  A rare newt can hold up construction for years!”

“No, no newts.  Although,”  Wilbur added, with a smile. “We do have a ghost;”  

“Ah!  Oh, dear me!   Oh, my days!  Oh goodness!  That really is trouble!”

“How do you mean?  We quite like him.”

“He’ll have to be re-homed.  If there’s any chance of disturbing him, or if he’s likely to disturb your new occupants – I’m saying ‘him’, it’s not Mary Queen of Scots, is it?”

“I don’t think so.  Why, should it be?”

“She’s rather popular, we find.  Anyway, ghosts – part of heritage you see.  Heritage Britain is very protective of its ghosts. FMM, that’s my advice.”

“FMM?”

“Oh, those dreadful three-letter acronyms!  Find him, Mollify him, Move him, m’dear sir.  Oh, and if it’s MQS, you might have to deal with the head separately.  I wish you very good luck!  That aside, the process is deliciously simple.  I shall study your plans, to be assured that your proposals are in keeping with the age and listing of your house and that you intend using appropriate materials.  Then I shall come and visit the site in a few days.  As long as I’m satisfied, planning permission should be granted.  Tickety-boo!  Shall we say Monday?”

#

“It’s quite simple.”  Wilbur explained to the empty air in his bedroom.  “We want to find you somewhere more comfortable.  More comfortable to haunt, that is.”  

No-one answered.  

Wilbur was taking breakfast with his wife in Abbot’s Croft’s voluminous kitchen.  

“I should tell you,” said the figure at the end of their table, “I’m perfectly happy where I am.”

Wilbur’s wife glanced up, taking in a pale young woman wearing a grey business suit.  “You don’t look well.”  She said brusquely.  “You’d be much healthier if you got out more.”

“Of course I don’t look well.  I’m dead!”  The figure retorted.  “And I get outside often enough, thank you.”

“She does – he does.  I thought she was a him; or do I mean a he?”  Wilbur stumbled.  “I’ve seen her, after a fashion.”

“Well, I have my work to get to.”  His wife said.  “Sort this out, please, Wilbur.”  And she left.

“The thing is…”  Wilbur began.

“The thing is,”  The ghost cut in;  “You want to tear this house apart and fill it up with vagrants.  Well, no dice, I’m afraid.  No dados, kein wurfel, saikoro.   No.”

“Only part of the house.”  Wilbur protested.  “Anyway, how did you know?”

“I’m a ghost, sweetie.  Ghosts know everything.   Now please understand this:  we all have our place here; places important to us because they correspond with our deaths.  We won’t be moved.”

Wilbur tutted.  “We?”

“Of course!  You didn’t think I was the only spirit in this joint, did you?  There’s a nine-year-old girl bricked in behind the fireplace in the old refectory, a forty-year old stonemason who fell off the roof, an unlucky monk who ate too much pigeon pie, and a murdered eldest son under the floor more or less where you’re sitting.  This house is over six hundred years old, you know.  It’s seen some action!”

Wilbur was aghast.  “I didn’t realise!  I thought…”

“Thought it was just me?  By no means.  I’m simply Abbot’s Croft’s EHR.”

“EHR?”  Wilbur enquired politely.

“Those damned three-letter acronyms!  Elected Haunting Representative.  I do the manifestations on the others’ behalf (and you don’t need to move your chair, he’s at least four feet down).”

“And whose ghost are you?  You look – well, you look very modern.”

“I can appear in any clothing I want, if that’s what you mean.  One has to keep up with the times, doesn’t one?  Although I must admit…”  The ghost squirmed uncomfortably  “…I find the current fashion for underwear very strange.   I am, let me see…”  she counted on her fingers “…four hundred and seventy years old.  I don’t suppose that will mean anything to you, though.”

“Should it not?   Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, dissolution of the monasteries?  What happened to you?  Did you get dissolved?”

“Very nearly.  I fell in a cooking pot, alright?  The cook pushed me.  Then she got scared, because all the household knew she didn’t like me, so she hid my body inside the kitchen chimney. It was very embarrassing, and I don’t really want to talk about it, but I have to because my remains are still there.”

“What, here?”  Wilbur stared at the kitchen Aga, and the great chimney breast above it.

“In the room you use for your ‘home cinema’, I think you call it.  It may not look like it anymore, but that was a kitchen once, and the chimney is part of the south wall.”

“We have to take that down.  It’s in the way of the alterations.   We’ll find you, and we’ll give you a decent burial.  Then you’ll be released, and you can rest in peace.”   Wilbur suggested helpfully.  “Although we’ll miss you.”  He added.

“Absolutely not!”  The ghost declared.  “I like it here.  I would miss you, too.  You’re a nice family, you know.  I feel we have got quite close, over the years.”

“But you’d be at rest in Heaven!” 

“Not after the life I led!  Anyway, what would I do, puffing clouds around all day?  I’m sorry, but your plans are out of the question. None of us wan t them.  Why can’t you just go on as you are?

“Because the place is too big for us now.  We do this, or we move somewhere smaller.”

“I can’t dissuade you?”

“No.” Wilbur said tersely.  “We’ve submitted the plans, they’re all ready for approval.  You can’t do anything about it.  We’ve decided.”

Wilbur was treated to the eerie sound of ghostly laughter.  “Can’t do anything about it?  Oh sweetie!  Have you heard of poltergeists?”  To reinforce her point, the ghost raised a vase of flowers gently from the sideboard and floated it across the kitchen.  Wilbur watched it nervously, half-expecting to see it fly at his head.

“You may throw a few things, but it won’t make any difference; it’s decided.”

“Hmm.”  Said the ghost.  “I see you’re determined.  I’m sorry, because I always thought I was a good ghost to you.  Things clearly need to be brought under control.”  And she vanished, leaving the flower vase to drop, shattering, to the flagstone floor.

Wilbur and his wife were waiting on the Monday when Delbert Fruit-Hughes parked his car at the end of their drive, and watched him retrieve his briefcase from the back seat.   They moved to make him welcome, flinging wide Abbot’s Croft’s  old double front doors, and if Wilbur, stepping outside, noticed the driveway beneath his feet was wet, he took no account of it at first, although it had not rained for a day and a half.  In his endeavour to greet DFH halfway down the drive, however, his ears began to pick up a strange squelching sound.  He looked down.

Delbert Fruit-Hughes cried out:  “Oh, newts!”   And newts there were; hundreds, possibly thousands of the rarest newts nature could provide – newts that floundered on the gravel, crawled over Wilbur’s shoes, climbed his trouser legs, and when he bent to brush them off, one somehow attached itself to his hand and sat upon it, regarding him with a thoughtful expression.  But if there were thousands of newts, they were comfortably outnumbered by the bats.   The bats burst from the end gables of Abbot’s Croft in an effusion of black wings like a pharaoh’s plague, descending upon the running form of DFH and flapping about his head as he struggled to regain the safety of his car.   

As for Wilbur, he turned to his wife with a gesture of despair, but it was not her incredulous expression that caught his eye, it was the presence, at each window of Abbot’s Croft, of a smiling, grey, wispy ghost.

The letter denying Wilbur and his wife planning permission came promptly, not from DFH, who had suffered a nervous breakdown, but from his successor.  So it is a story of failure; the tale of a well-meaning couple who attempted to launch Abbot’s Croft as an HMO ( a House of Multiple Occupancy) only to be thwarted by a PSI (Protected Species Infestation); yet it is not quite the end of the story.   No sooner had Delbert Fruit-Hughes departed than the newts departed too, the newts and all but two pairs of the bats.  The entire host simply melted away.   The two pairs of bats that lingered, however, required feeding; and they were bats of a certain habit.  They took their fill from Wilbur and his wife as they slept, that very night, so that by morning they had wrought great changes.

Through the centuries that are to come rumours will strengthen and fade about the shy, retiring owners of Abbot’s Croft and their odd, nocturnal ways; but hey, they seem to be nice people, and though they never seem to get any older they are not at all the sort who could be connected in any way with the strange instances of dead farm animals that occur in the area now and then.   And as for tales of ghosts that linger in the old house, well, some claim to have seen a figure of a woman drifting about the gardens, but no-one has ever felt threatened by her.  She seems quite happy, for a ghost.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  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.

Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts: Part Four.

Author’s note:  this episode contains some eroticism and political incorrectness, so it probably isn’t for everyone, but I did warn you about that, didn’t I?  All dun in fun (or done in fone).  I hope you enjoy.

In Julian Parfitt’s ‘Oval Office’, an agreement with the UK Government was finalised with almost indecent haste.  After everybody had expressed their admiration for everybody else, A.J. Poulson, on the ‘phone from the Ministry, wrapped the deal up.

“I’ll have the papers prepared.  If your legal people are happy we’ll be signed and sealed in a few days.  You keep your sovereignty, we pay your rate for the gas, and we rent the pipeline from the Republic of Aga.  Toodle-pip!”  He rang off.

“That was amazingly easy!”  Julian enthused.  “Willoughby, you’re a genius!”

Willoughby blushed.  “Now, Julian!  Come on.  Let’s get in that exercise I promised!”

Skaeflint’ae Beach was at its best that summer forenoon.  Very early in his explorations Willoughby had discovered the cove with its honeycomb of caves and tall cliffs, hidden away from the gas wells on the other side of the headland.  The little apron of sand was large enough to tempt bathers and private enough to be exclusive.  In their first days on the island – in those times Rowena remembered so wistfully – she and Julian had bathed uninhibitedly here.

Today it was Willoughby who accompanied Julian to the beach.  Rowena had to stay behind – a consultant and an Iranian cook had arrived on the early tide to help prepare for the Iranian delegation due that afternoon.  They had set up most of their equipment at the harbour, ready to transport to the house, which they began to do at around eleven am. They were nice people, and they brought with them some knowledge of a surprising nature.

“Your clocks;” said the consultant.  “You do realize they’re two hours adrift?”

“Are they?”  Rowena was at first disbelieving, then astounded.  “My watch, too.  How could that be?”

“I guess too long away from the mainland?”  the cook suggested.  “It is of no importance – we can finish our work in very little time.”

“Julian!”  Rowena exclaimed.  “He won’t know!  Can you find your own way around?  I must warn him!”

Even as she set off up the path to Ben Adderhochie, Rowena recognised the futility of her task.  The walk to Skaeflint’ae was at least forty minutes, and the Iranians would be with them within the hour.  However, as she hurried, a few dark corners began to open in her mind; a few vital tumblers began to click into place.  As the sinister import of these deliberations took shape, Rowena began to increase her pace.  She had not missed the faun-like conspiracy in her husband’s look that morning, or Willoughby’s devious smile…..

“Isn’t this truly beautiful?”  Cried Willoughby, standing at the water margin.  “Doesn’t it just fill your heart, Julian?”

Julian, staring at Willoughby’s back, admitted that it did.  As they had clambered down the steeper section of the cliff path, Willoughby had removed his shirt to expose that back and every rippling muscle in it.

“Let’s swim!”  The rest of Willoughby’s clothes seemed to magic from him, so all of a sudden Julian was plunged into his dream of the previous night:  these were not the tropics, but Willoughby’s virile nudity was all it promised to be, running towards the deeper sea.  Laughing at the ice-chill of the waves, Willoughby turned to offer a view that certainly filled Julian’s heart, and did much to stimulate other organs too:  “Come on, my little water-baby; get in here!” 

Julian tried a modest compromise, removing his shirt and trousers.  Willoughby was hysterical:  “Oh, what?  Underpants!  Get them off you, man!”

So Julian did.  The sea was so bollock-freezingly cold it precluded all innocent play.  Willoughby did not mind this – he saw it merely as the setting of a stage.   Swiftly back upon the beach both men laughed and stamped and shivered while Julian made the point that, in this wet condition, they had no hope of regaining their clothes.

“I’m going to catch pneumonia!”

“Lie down on the sand,”  commanded Willoughby.  “It’s warm in the sun.”

Side by side in the more yielding stuff above the tide-line they stretched themselves out to dry.  Gradually Julian’s shivering stopped, but he did not cease to complain of the cold.  Not, that is, until he felt Willoughby’s arm across his chest – then he began to experience a warmth which wasn’t quite rational.

“Not a bad body, you know, Julian,” said Willoughby; “for a City gent, hmm?”

Julian should have resisted, but he found himself quite liking that irrational warmth.  There was still time to step back, then; to turn away – before Willoughby slithered closer to him, so they were flank to flank, and certainly before Willoughby’s hands began to explore him in areas where even Rowena was reluctant to go, unless offered a bribe of fine vintage Bollinger.

“I’m afraid I’m not very…”  He heard himself stuttering.  “I’m not hung like a…well, not like you.”

“Like a donkey?”  Willoughby laughed.  “Don’t worry, I’ve heard it said.  But I think you’re rather sweet, dear Julian.  And size isn’t so important, is it?”

To be fair to Julian, he did tense up a little at this point:  he did recognise the Rubicon he was crossing, that this was an aspect of sexuality which had always made him feel uncomfortable in the past.  But he did not feel uncomfortable – not at all.  In fact, Willoughby’s attention was making him feel very comfortable indeed.

He would have been less relaxed if his ears had picked up the faint chug of a diesel motor, or if he had been looking out to sea at this particular moment; for a yacht was passing the open mouth of the cove with its complement of three Iranian diplomats lined up, like three wise men on a Christmas card,  upon its deck.  Unlike the three wise men, though, they each had binoculars.  Alas, he was not looking, and he did not see.  He did not see even when, five minutes later, the same yacht and the same three diplomats passed by again, travelling in the opposite direction.  This time only one diplomat was looking through binoculars – the other two had cameras.

“I know what we need.”  Willoughby murmured in Julian’s ear.  “I’ll be right back, love, Okay?”

“Oh, don’t go!”  Julian was nervously affected by the prospect of any interval in his further education, inasmuch as he feared a premature conclusion, exacerbated by the sight of Willoughby’s taut buttocks stalking away from him up the beach, to disappear into one of the caves. Fortunately, Willoughby’s return was almost immediate.  He held a packet of white powder in one hand while he twirled a drinking straw in the other.

“A little stash I set up yesterday, especially for us,”  he explained, as he plunged into the pockets of his discarded trousers to produce a small mirror.  Using that magnificent torso to shield them from any breeze, he nicked the corner of the packet, allowing a thin stream of powder to settle in a line upon the mirror.  “Here we are, darling boy.  Something else you haven’t tried.”

Now there was truly no turning back. The Rubicon was a distant memory; Julian was well into Italy and his feet had dried.  The white powder filled his world with little clicking sounds and flashing lights and unable to withstand any further delay he thrust himself awkwardly at Willoughby, who chuckled his indulgence:  “No, sweety – that works with women, not with us.”

Then he showed Julian exactly what to do, and Julian followed his instructions with alacrity, and Willoughby said a rather curious thing. 

 He said:  “All right boys – in for the close-up.  Not all at once, now!”

‘Close-up’?  Julian relished this strange terminology, knowing there would be many new words to learn.  It was a whole new world, one he had denied himself for so, so long.  As he let the waves of fulfilment roll over him he ruffled Willoughby’s hair and opened his eyes to ask its meaning.  He did not have to ask; nor did he need to ask about the clicks, or the flashing lights, because they were still happening.  They were coming from the ring of photographers standing around them.

“Julian old chap!”  Said Willoughby, disengaging himself.  “Let me introduce you to the gentlemen of the Press.”

The misery of the next ten minutes would remain with Julian all his life.  His struggle to get through the ranks of paparazzi to recover his clothes, the break into an undignified run with his trousers still down around his knees, the raucous cheer when he fell flat on his face in the sand.  Then there was the second raucous cheer when, halfway up the cliff path he met Rowena coming down – or, more correctly, ran onto her fist.

If the gentlemen of the fourth estate had lacked quotes to spice up their articles Rowena gave them plenty.  But Rowena was never a woman to be taken, or quoted, lightly – she also gave weight.  The one redeeming act of that whole mortifying afternoon was when she kicked Willoughby off the cliff.  The man who wrestled with crocodiles was no match for Rowena scorned, and Rowena was never one to leave an advantage without pressing it home.  She pursued Willoughby to where he had fallen, clutching a number of compound fractures, and jumped on him until four sturdy press men restrained her.  By that time she had ensured that Willoughby would trouble no-one of either sex for a very long time.

#

“He invited them in early that morning,” Julian explained miserably, after he and Rowena had negotiated an uneasy truce and they were browsing the websites of the national dailies in their kitchen the following day.  “They were hiding in the caves all the time we were there.  He set me up.  The coke, the whole thing.”

Dismally, they scanned pages full of pictures with little black squares all over them.  Rowena featured as much as Julian, for the camera Willoughby had set up on the grandfather clock had done its job well.

“I got a phone call from the Iranians;” She said.  “They don’t want your alliance.”

Julian nodded. “You should have heard Prince Fuisal.  Apparently what I was doing in those photographs is punishable by death in Al Flaberri.  Daddy’s told him never to speak to me again.  The tankers all sailed early this morning – there’s going to be no pipeline and no deal.  We’re just waiting for the landing craft.”

Rowena rested her chin on her hands:  “Or maybe not.”  She said. “No, maybe not.”

Julian gave her a quizzical look.  “Unless you know something I don’t…”

“Exactly.  Let me explain: last night while you were licking your wounds, so to speak, I made a few calls of my own.  Then, this morning while you were watching the tankers sail away, I called A.J.  It took me a long time to get through, and even longer before he stopped laughing.  Then I told him he had to negotiate with me now, and he did stop laughing.  The deal’s back on.”

“I don’t understand.”  Julian admitted, staring blankly at his wife.

“You don’t. Do you?  Oil is oil, my dear:  gas is gas.  That, and the opportunity to get one over on the British are incentives too great for the King of Al Flaberri to turn down.  And fortunately, the sweet old King has a more liberal attitude to dealing with women than his stuffy little squirt of a son.  We had a lovely chat – he’s going to come and visit me next summer; isn’t that nice?”

Rowena’s husband’s expression was changing rapidly from bewilderment to sheer open-mouthed admiration:  “You’ve struck a deal with the King!  You’re a genius!”

“It has been said.”

“And with reason!  But, wait, what about the Iranians?”

“I was never too keen on them.  We’re exchanging diplomats with Saudi Arabia instead.  Lots more ‘planes!”

“Diplomats!  But we haven’t got an embassy!”  Julian protested.

“I thought the woodshed, with a few alterations of course.  I did explain and the chappy’s quite prepared to rough it, as long as he has a garage for his two Ferraris and we promise to build a road for him to drive them on.  I mentioned the grouse moors, of course.”

“Oh, now why didn’t I think of that?  A sheik in the woodshed – an essential talking point for parties!  And who, pray, have you in mind as our ambassador?  I’m sure you’ve got somebody!”

“Yes!”  Rowena said brightly; “I have!  I believe a certain A.J. Poulson is going to apply for the job.  He seems to think his career at the Home Office is over.”

Julian was completely overawed.  “You bloody little miracle worker!”  He cried:  “It was a day of days when I married you, my love!”

“Ah.”  Rowena said heavily.  “There’s something I ought to tell you, Julian, my sweet.  Let me see, how does it go?….Yes.  I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee.  There!  I can say that because I’ve changed the constitution.  And we’re Moslems, remember?”

Julian’s expression changed profoundly for a second time.  “You see;” Rowena said; “the King would only agree to revive our contract if you were completely out of the picture.  His family would never accept any association with – what was the charming term they have for it in their language? – I forget exactly, but I remember telling him you didn’t wear that type of shirt.  Anyway, I’ve staged a coup!”

“He’s made you take over the Presidency.”  Said Julian, staring in mystification at his ex-wife.  He shook his head in despair:  “I’m going for a walk.”  He made to rise from his chair.

“I’m awfully afraid you can’t.”  Rowena apologised.

“Why?”

“Well that’s the other part.  You’re under house arrest.”  She gave Julian one of her gentle, consoling smiles.

“What?”  Julian growled.  

Rowena repeated her words, in response to which Julian added a few thoughts of his own, largely in words that are unprintable, inducing Rowena to tut.  “Language dear!  You know, you’re dreadfully sexy when you’re angry.”

“You’re mad!”  Julian spat the words through gritted teeth.

“No, no; I’m perfectly calm.  You, however, are getting redder and redder.  It’s all completely civilised.  You know the portacabin the drilling crew used?  I’m having it moved this morning to the top of Ben Adderhochie:  there’s an oil heater inside so you’ll be quite warm – it’s a perfectly acceptable place to live until I can arrange to have you exiled.  I might come and visit from time to time, like I used to at your flat before we were married; won’t that be fun?  Or have your tastes changed?  Would you prefer someone more masculine?”

Julian exploded.  “Exiled?  I won’t do it!  You can’t make me do it!  All I have to do is call security, and we’ll see who gets the charming hilltop bungalow, you scheming, devious, blousy bitch!”

“Thank you.  I learned from the best, my darling.  Now, if by security you mean your half-dozen alcoholic Glaswegians they’ve sworn allegiance to the New Republic, because I’m paying them now – they’re waiting for you outside.  They’ll escort you to your new home.  I should go straight away, if I were you; we’re quite finished here.”

There was a moment Rowena genuinely feared; the critical few seconds when Julian was close to putting his thumbs to her windpipe and squeezing.  But his shoulders slumped and he stood up wearily.  At the door, he turned:  “One thing I don’t understand.  I wasn’t the only one Willoughby caught.  There are just as many photos of you with your knickers off – how come His Royal Majesty is prepared to overlook those?”

“Heterosexual love isn’t illegal in Al Flaberri.”  Said Rowena with an indulgent smile.  “In fact, they positively encourage it.  The old King was very impressed with the pictures – in fact, he’s asked if I have any more.  You recall the ones you took on our honeymoon?  You wouldn’t happen to know where they are, would you?”

The End

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  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.