Variations on a Haunting Theme, page 28
‘We therefore commit his body to the ground...’ intoned the vicar.
The coffin began its slow descent. I released Priscilla’s hand expecting to be transported into the coffin beside my corpse at any moment screaming for help where no one could hear me but nothing happened, at least not then. The suspense was unbearable. I could feel my heart pounding and thumping against my chest.
‘...earth to earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust...’
This must surely be the moment when the light would suddenly be extinguished but still nothing happened. I wondered how long I would have to wait.
‘...in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.’
By now the coffin was fully lowered. The straps were withdrawn and I was still here. Filled with immense relief I hugged Priscilla and held her hand. One by one the mourners tossed a handful of soil on to the coffin lid. When my turn came I did it with relish. Priscilla was the last person to approach the grave. She opened her handbag, took out a single red rose and dropped it into the dark. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking but that tender act left me feeling deeply moved knowing she cared enough to mark my end with an emblem of love.
After they’d all departed I stayed at the graveside impatient to see it filled in. My wait was shorter than expected. Bill Mumford had quietly slipped home to change and was now returning with his spade. He made short work of the job and after the last scrap of soil was patted down I went back to the cottage now certain of being safe and able to carry on as I had been without the fear of being buried along with my corpse. I repeated the words of the vicar to myself over and over, ‘in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life’. I’d no idea how long my eternal life would last or how it would finally turn out but even this weird existence was better than what I’d dreaded earlier.
Back in the cottage I spent the rest of the day hammering at the keys of my Olivetti updating the story of my life or rather my afterlife. It was almost midnight before I reached the account of my funeral. I wondered how the story might end assuming it would. For all I knew I might be condemned to this state of limbo for ever. If that were the case I resolved to make the best of my time ahead and, for a while, I did.
I became more adventurous extending the range of my travels. On the day after the funeral I caught the train to London and wandered along the South Bank dropping into the Festival Hall for a free midday piano recital and taking advantage of free rides on the London Eye and Thames pleasure boats. On the train home I resolved to return again and visit the various haunts Howard had mentioned in his tales. In London I could find out where Trevor and Sophie had fallen in love. From Waterloo I could take the tube to Oakwood and see the café where they’d talked on that first meeting. I could visit Trent Park in the spring and see Sir Philip Sassoon’s mansion when the daffodils were out. I could go to Hyde Park and the Serpentine and see where their relationship blossomed. I wasn’t sure what impelled me to seek out these haunts. It might have been merely a ghoulish fascination or simply something to do to fill the endless days ahead of me.
On Sunday the fog finally disappeared and the sun came out. I went to the ten o’clock service and sat at the front beneath the pulpit where I had a good view of the organist playing the hymns. It was, of course, a delight to be there after the previous Friday. I sang with unbridled enthusiasm, listened attentively to the sermon and enjoyed every moment. On Monday I caught the train to Waterloo and spent the day at Cockfosters doing all the things I’d planned to do. Over the following weeks I went further afield. With several bus changes I managed to find a circuitous route to Compton Bishop where I climbed Crook Peak and found what I thought was the blocked cave where Tom had met his premature end. By train and bus I eventually reached the Burrator reservoir and walked all around it hoping to catch sight of Paul or his ghost but without success. I went to the Isle of Wight and after a long trek came across Malham House which was still in a state of disrepair. Wherever I went on trains and busses I talked to the other passengers. I laughed at their jokes, imagined they heard what I had to say and accepted me as one of their companions even though I knew it was all a pathetic pretence.
In the end I tired of all these travels and spent most of my time alone in the cottage or tramping over the mead and along the riverbank. My reluctance to travel was similar in many ways to the feelings I had in the days after Wendy died. We had always been together on holidays sharing those private but precious moments. I never realised then just how important that closeness and easy familiarity was. She would point something out, the rising moon, the setting sun, a particular flower or unusual bird, and I’d acknowledge it briefly before moving on to the next thing that captured our interest. At the time it seemed so natural and commonplace. Only after she’d died and I went on a short single’s break did I realise how much I missed being able to share those trifling details with somebody close. And that was how it was now and would always be. Seeing things I could only share with myself.
One day was much like another until one morning in May I heard the key turn in the lock. The door opened and in walked Martin the estate agent followed by a young couple. ‘Come in,’ he said, ‘and I’ll show you around.’ He looked as smart as ever with his highly polished shoes, neatly pressed trousers and spotlessly white shirt. The woman was around twenty. She was short with a friendly face and soft, unblemished skin. She had dark hair, brown eyes and rosy cheeks. From her shape I could see she was several months pregnant. Her partner of similar age was a little taller and also dark haired. His noticeable beer belly prevented the zip on his jeans from being fully engaged.
‘Rather unusual isn’t it?’ said Martin. ‘I believe it was originally two cottages which were knocked into one.’ The rest of his spiel was an exact repeat of the one I’d heard when he’d shown me around although the reaction of his clients was more enthusiastic than mine had been. I followed them on their tour of the house. The couple seemed delighted with everything including the propped up bed. Unlike me they both giggled when he commented on the two staircases and joked about how if they rowed they could go to bed their separate ways and make it up in the bedroom. By now they were all on Christian name terms. The girl was called Rose and her partner was Ron which was pleasingly alliterative and easy for me to remember.
‘How long has it been on the market?’ Ron asked.
‘Only a short while and there’s been a lot of interest.’
‘Liar,’ I said.
Martin ignored me and carried on. ‘The asking price is very reasonable for a detached property.’
‘I love it,’ Rose said. ‘What do you think, Ron?’
Ron wasn’t over enthusiastic. ‘It’s a bit close to the church isn’t it? Do you get a lot of noise from the bells?’
‘Hardly any,’ Martin assured him, ‘and only on Sundays.’
‘More lies, what about bell ringing practise?’ I said.
Rose gave Ron a beseeching look and sighed. ‘Oh I love church bells.’
‘How long do we have to decide?’ Ron asked.
‘Well that’s up to you but, as I say, there’s been a lot of interest.’
‘Oh, let’s have it, it’s beautiful.’ Rose needed no persuasion.
Ron did. ‘Can we put in an offer?’
‘You can but...’
Rose interrupted and asked if she and Ron could have a moment alone to talk. Martin agreed and said he’d be waiting outside. It was clear to me that Ron stood no chance against Rose. After the briefest of exchanges they opened the door and called Martin back.
‘We’ll have it.’ Ron said.
‘Do you want to put in an offer?’
‘No. We’ll pay the asking price.’
‘Excellent. I’ll let the vendor know today. Would you like to look around again on your own? I can wait.’
‘No,’ said Rose emph
‘No,’ Ron replied with a look of resignation.
I had no intention of moving out and wondered how it would be sharing the cottage with another couple and a baby. I didn’t have long to wait before finding out. After six weeks they moved in.
The first problem came when I realised my furniture would be disappearing. As soon as the lorry turned up and two burly men started taking my own things out I began to panic. The first thing to go was my favourite fireside chair and after that the dining table. Before they could take any more I frantically rescued my Olivetti from the small lounge with the notes I’d written and hid them away in the outside log store. Those were the only possessions I needed. When the house was cleared a second lorry arrived with their own belongings and after a couple of hours the place was filled with completely new furniture. At first I didn’t know what to think but as I got used to the change I rather liked it. The new television was more modern than mine with a large flat screen. There were several comfy chairs and the sleeping arrangements were more than adequate. In one of the spare bedrooms reserved for the baby they’d put a cot. A single bed had been placed in the other spare bedroom. Deciding that’s where I’d sleep I collected the Olivetti and notes from the log store and hid them behind the bed where a tiny trap door set into the wall gave access to a space in the eves just large enough to store them. With that done I rejoined Ron and Rose in the living room and settled in as their unseen guest.
At first I enjoyed having them around. Ron worked as a hospital porter and was out each day. Rose had her daily routine of dusting, polishing, washing and ironing while I went for a walk or took the bus into town. In the evenings we all watched the television and although their choice of programmes wasn’t always to my taste I soon found myself as engrossed in the soaps and chat shows as they were.
The baby was due on the seventh of July and Rose’s water broke at three in the afternoon on the sixth. Ron was home from work within the hour to take her off to hospital. Two days later they returned with Rosina, their baby daughter whose face resembled a shrivelled prune. From that day on the daily routine changed with the baby’s constant demands taking precedence over everything else. Permanently hungry and suffering for the first six months from projectile vomiting, Rosina kept them up most nights with her constant crying. Fortunately, with Ron and Rose’s bedroom between the baby and me, I was rarely disturbed and slept through most of the turmoil. Which of the two went into the baby’s bedroom to calm her down I never knew. I was only glad that it wasn’t me having to get up at all hours of the night.
As the months passed the child grew more settled. The first Christmas came and went and after that many more, so many I’ve lost count. I imagine Rosina must have been four years old when I noticed that Ron was showing the first signs of greying hair with his trouser zip lower than ever. Rose, having lost her youthful bloom, was looking drab and putting on weight. I often checked in the mirror to see if I’d aged at all but I looked much the same as I did on the day I supposedly died.
Rosina was going through the magic years. She was rosy-cheeked like her mother had been. With a mop of soft, curly hair she romped through life like a spring lamb, always happy and active. There were times when I longed to play with her, lift her up and throw her around as her father did at weekends or give her a cuddle whenever she cried and tell her that all would be well. But the company I enjoyed when they’d first moved in was beginning to pall. I wanted so much to be accepted as one of the family, the grandfather always there for Rosina to read her stories and tell her tales of the days gone by before there were televisions in every house when the gas lamps lit the way home from school and travelling on a steam train was more exciting than anything she could imagine.
Throughout those years and the years that followed I tried to adapt to my situation. At first I was hopeful. I must have walked thousands of miles never tiring of speaking to people and saying hello on the slightest chance that someone would hear me and answer. But they always walked by without so much as a glance talking amongst themselves about the everyday things I so much missed. As time went on my hope of contacting anyone diminished until there was nothing left but the dreadful acceptance of being alone. I still went on speaking to passers-by but now without hope or expectation of any response. The isolation was deeply depressing. I felt like a lost soul, part of the world around me and yet so completely apart from it. It might have been purgatory for all I knew though it felt more like hell.
And then something happened which in the end would only deepen my sense of despair. It was New Year’s day though which year I’ve no idea. I was walking across the mead when I saw a figure emerging from the fog. It might have been a man or a woman. I couldn’t tell and didn’t much care. The person was walking slowly towards me and as we passed each other without looking up I spoke as I always do. To my utter amazement the person stopped and turned towards me. ‘Is that you William?’
‘Good God!’ I exclaimed. ‘Harold, can that be you?’
‘Yes,’ he said in a flat voice as though our meeting was nothing unusual.
‘How good to see you,’ I gasped, ‘I thought I was all alone.’
‘No you’re not alone,’ he said. ‘You’ll meet the others from time to time.’
‘What others?’ In all these years I’ve never met anyone other than you who’s heard my voice.’
‘Oh they’re all here somewhere. You’ll know them when you meet, Gary still looking for his severed hand, Tom with his crushed face, Matthew trapped in his mangled body, Marcus and Trevor with burn marks around their necks where they both hanged themselves - Trevor in prison and Marcus in the asylum. Priscilla’s here too though somewhat reluctantly. Yes, we all meet from time to time though we never stop to speak anymore. We simply pass and go our separate ways.’
‘But weren’t you excited to see each other?’
‘At first we were though not for long. We’d no desire to stay in each other’s company. It’s the living we long to be with not the half-dead. We’ve nothing new to say to each other.’ He gave me a soulful look. ‘I’m sorry William. I should never have involved you in my stories. I wish you well, I really do but I’ve places to go. Take care of yourself.’ And with that he turned away and merged with the mist.
I still live in the same cottage. Rosina married and moved abroad. Soon after she’d gone her parents left too. They sold the house to an ageing spinster who keeps herself to herself and causes no trouble. I still sleep in the same room on a different bed. How long I shall be here or where I might go I’ve yet to decide. There is always the chance of meeting Priscilla, not that I think she’d be pleased to see me. And so I come to type my last words. There’s nothing I want to add to what I’ve already written. This collection of tales I shall leave in the eves to gather dust. Who knows, they might someday be found and read. If they are I can only hope that whoever reads them will not be affected as we were and be doomed to the fate that is ours and which we must each endure forever it seems, always unseen, unheard and horribly alone.
Alan Millard, Variations on a Haunting Theme