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.

I Don’t Normally Give Book Reviews, but…

If I try to buy a Kindle book from Amazon.com (because I was linked to it there, or simply because I discovered it and liked the look of it) I am politely but firmly advised to make my purchase on the Amazon.UK platform.  Now I understand the probable necessity for this approach – it may have to do with taxation, or other legal restrictions – but it also occasionally means I cannot buy a book at all, because it is not listed in UK.  Most importantly, to me, I cannot give my feedback anywhere but the UK platform.  My review will not appear to buyers in US.

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed ‘Cusp of Night’, the first of three books in the ‘Hodes Hill’ series by Mae Clair.  It inspired me to give a five-star review, which subsequently appeared on the UK site, but not in the United States.  Now this is a great book and essentially a very American book, so I would say its international appeal is an added testimony to its accomplishment:  opinions influence sales from wherever they may come.

‘Cusp of Night’ does not need my approbation; it has already deservedly attracted 39 excellent reviews from its homeland, but for the sake of transparency Mae Clair’s readers should also be aware of a further five five-star reviews of her book from my side of the pond.   Here, in case you are in danger of missing the book, is my review:

The Most Exciting Action Finish I have Read in Years  

It may not be entirely a coincidence that Maya Sinclair, after a motor accident that so nearly took her life, elects to move to Hodes Hill; nor may it be just a quirk of fortune that she decides to rent the old brownstone house at the corner of Chicory and River Road, close to the alley where Charlotte Hode’s young life was so tragically ended, a century ago.  The house has ‘history’ her neighbour tells her; a truth the house itself is swift to confirm when the clock hits 2.22am.- The Cusp of Night.

Mae Clair’s book is the story of a town unwilling to forget – her heroine comes to live here at the time of the annual Fiend Festival when townsfolk commemorate Charlotte Hode’s death by dressing up as the fiend that butchered her.  But it turns out the butchering is not entirely consigned to history, for in the course of the celebrations a very fiend-like attack takes the life of at least one reveller.

Before she has time to unpack in her new home, Maya becomes involved in the complex affairs of the Hode family and the tragic story of Lucy Strick, the beautiful Blue Lady.

Mae Clair weaves a skilful and extremely readable tale of mediums and mayhem in a very frightened town.  She attacks the familiar totems of money and power with relish and leaves me wanting…well, I guess you’ll know the feeling, when a book is so absorbing you can’t bear reaching the last page, because you want it to continue just a little longer?   Like that.

Which is why I am about to begin reading the second ‘Hodes Hill’ book…

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…