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 knowledgeably: “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 in 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 their nights 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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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 want 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 2018. 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.