She said she understood. It was my work that had driven me to it. I said it was nothing to do with my work. If I had a drink problem it was her that had driven me to it, with her constant moaning about my late hours, loss of memory and scratchy temper.
She didn’t complain about the money, I pointed out. Look at this place: bright, stylish, in a good part of town. No one could fault me as a provider. I gave her my sternest, wounded stare to make her feel guilty. Her outline softened and it took some concentration on my part to bring it into sharp focus again.
This was a bad moment for confrontation. I had lunched with a client and my words were slurred with wine. By raising my voice I merely reinforced my wife’s case; by saying nothing I became the morose drunk.
I said terrible things to her in anger, which I didn’t mean and she didn’t deserve. Tension had been building up between us. New barriers of spite were broken almost daily. Something had to give, and in rational moments we both realised it would be our marriage.
An addled brain takes refuge in dramatic bluff, and soon I was walking the night streets with the sound of the slamming door still echoing in my head. Some time later I was sitting at a bar scowling through inverted bottles at my own reflection. Normally I can’t resist mirrors, but that one gave me a shock. The face that stared back belonged to an obvious wife-beater, and no amount of expensive grooming could disguise the brutality that hung in those well-fed jowls.
Something had happened to the features since I last caught them in repose. A certain freshness of countenance, once taken for granted, had fizzled out like a blown light-bulb. The hair was still youthful, but there was a fair amount of sagging going on below the eyes, which goggled maliciously under puffy lids.
The barman was keeping his distance and I understood why. Oh Lord… the wife-beater sighed with remorse and all his rage was gone.
Slinking like Dorian Gray in the night, the brute returned to his own front door. His wife was silent, impervious to his contrition.
In the morning he pleaded with her but she kept out of reach, letting him know things had gone too far. For a day and a night the relationship hung by a thread; then she took pity.
‘What are you going to do, Robin? I can’t handle you when you drink.’
‘It goes with my job. What can I do?’
‘You can’t take it any more.’ Elizabeth said it with finality. ‘If you keep this up you’re going to kill somebody – probably yourself.’
I protested; but she introduced one of those chilling ideas that give anyone pause. People were starting to notice, she told me. I was becoming an embarrassment. I wouldn’t hold down a well-paid job if I was never sober.
She was right. I was fired the following week.
‘Don’t go for the double,’ Elizabeth told me. ‘You’ve lost your job but you’ve still got me. This is nature’s way of telling us it’s time to change our lives.’ (I swear she was happy about it).
The first major change was adapting to life without an expense account. I had learnt to indulge myself freely on the company and took the licence for granted. Stripped of that, I was nothing; a lush with no excuse. Instinct said, look for a similar job. Elizabeth said: ‘Don’t you dare.’
She meant it. City dwelling was at the root of our problem so it had to be set behind us. We had talked about running a country hotel and it looked as if the time had come to bring our long-term plans forward. I would be removed from temptation, Elizabeth argued, and the responsibility of my own business would be a sobering influence.
The prospect of a fresh start inspired us both. At last we had a common interest, plans to hatch and time for each other. I went on the wagon and was relieved to find that my problem hadn’t gone beyond the reach of will-power. Elizabeth was impressed; our relationship blossomed. We were on an upward spiral.
In this mood of mutual support, we found Fleetwood. It was everyone’s idea of a retreat – a square, mid-Victorian place that could almost have been called a mansion by anyone pretentious enough. It stood on high ground overlooking one of those rarities, a Cornish fishing village which had not been seduced into abandoning its proper industry in favour of tourism.
Fleetwood was flanked by trees which leant with the prevailing wind. It needed restoration, but having already served time as a hotel it was easily adaptable for the same purpose on a more modest level.
We poured money and energy into our new project, pausing occasionally from painting a ceiling or stripping wallpaper to exchange brave, onward-and-upward glances. I had knocked off the booze completely and was ready to run a lecture-course in smugness.
Elizabeth suggested we should make contact with the community, and there’s only one place to do that in a village: the pub. Take the Local out of English life and the whole fabric would collapse.
‘They’ve all got alcohol-free beer now,’ my wife assured me. ‘We’re going for the company, anyway – not the booze.’
The Pilchard, down by the quay, seemed most likely to be the hub of things. The sea sucked and slapped behind us as we pushed into the bar, trying not to look like that breed of outsider known as ‘grockles’. We had hoped to hear colourful seafaring chat from windswept people in oiled sweaters, but while the people around us looked right, most of the conversation was about the price of things other than fish.
The barman had a lizard-like quality and it was clear from his manner that only token attention was on offer to strangers. Elizabeth, being an ice-breaker by nature, wasn’t going to let him get away with that.
‘We’ve just moved in up the road,’ she told him. ‘The house is called Fleetwood.’
All those within earshot shared a pause. The barman’s hand hung for a moment over the till. Interest bristled from all quarters. It was a moment when some elderly, doom-faced local ought to have said: ‘No one from these parts ever goes near the place.’ But no one did.
One or two of the more outgoing regulars drifted over to appraise the grockles and there was the odd mumbled word of welcome. Someone said, ‘Good luck to you’ in the fatalistic way that really means, ‘God help you.’
After an hour, Elizabeth announced that she was tired and wanted to go home, but insisted that I stay a while longer.
‘You get yourself established,’ she whispered. ‘It’s easier for a man. Just don’t drink.’
I offered to walk her up the hill but she wouldn’t have it. I stayed until closing time, learnt a few first names, exchanged cordial good-nights and left.
Filled with the glow of one who has excelled at his social duty, I went to bed and let the sea whisper me to sleep. I awoke the following morning to a certain chilliness. Elizabeth’s side of the bed was empty, which was unusual because we were in the habit of getting up together, planning the day’s work while we washed and dressed, and wallowing in team spirit as all the best reformed marriage-on-the-rocks couples do.
Not wishing to miss a moment of our new life, I hurried downstairs and immediately caught a disturbing whiff of disinfectant. Elizabeth was on her hands and knees scrubbing the hall carpet. A small table was lying on its side close to her, and what was left of the vase that had stood on it was strewn all over the floor.
‘Had an accident?’ I asked.
She didn’t reply, but gave me a look which belonged on the face of a slighted cat, while the set of her mouth suggested the other end of the same animal.
You can fit a lot of silence into a whole day. It was like being excommunicated without the heresy being disclosed, and by evening my sense of injustice weighed heavily.
‘You’ve made your point,’ I told her. ‘Now do you mind telling me what I’ve done?’
She let her eyes rest on me at last, in a way that clearly said, ‘Are you still here?’ – then it all poured out.
‘You really had me believing you.’
‘Nothing’s changed, has it? You got me here under false pretences and now you’re slipping right back to where you were.’
‘Just a minute…’
‘You come in at God knows what hour, throw up all over the carpet, bust up the furniture and – and now you ask me what you’ve done. I should have followed my first instinct and left you.’
‘I swear to you…’
‘I’m going to bed. Do what you like. Just don’t… No.’
She avoided my tentative hand and marched up the stairs. The bedroom door slammed and I stood in the hall scratching my head.
There was no point in trying to make peace that night so I walked down to the harbour and along the sea wall. The Pilchard looked tempting from a distance, but I resisted it, mainly because I didn’t want to give my wife any ammunition.
So far, her attack had been unjustified. It seemed wise to keep it that way.
Walking back up the hill in the moonlight, I caught sight of the house and paused. I had not seen it from that spot after dark before, probably because the trees around it tended to confuse its outline. The reason I could pinpoint it now was that lights were showing in the two big dining room windows on the ground floor.
My first thought was that Elizabeth had come down to do some more decorating – working at night, to make me feel worse. Unlikely: she was fond of her sleep. Then it occurred to me that the windows didn’t look right. We had installed temporary strip lighting in all the ground floor rooms while we were working on them, and there were no curtains to dull the glare. But those windows were shedding a soft glow, more like the light from heavily shaded standard lamps – or even gaslights.
The thought of burglars crossed my mind, but we hadn’t much worth stealing, unless there was a thriving local market for dust-sheets, paint rollers and step-ladders.
I approached the house cautiously, keeping my eye on the dining room windows, and realised I must have fallen for some weird optical illusion. The closer I came to the building, the fainter the lights became. The place was completely dark when I let myself in.
Elizabeth was pretending to be asleep when I crawled into bed. You can always tell, can’t you? The lump under the blankets heaved and presented me with what was obviously its back, and the exhalation of breath certainly didn’t come from the depths of slumber.
No words passed between us, however, and the sea air must have done its work quickly because I awoke, moments later, to a bright new day.
Elizabeth was dressing when I peered over the bedclothes. She didn’t speak, and left the room in a way that made it clear she had better things to do than bandy words with the likes of me.
Wounded and confused, I was on my way downstairs with the intention of having this out when I heard her voice in the dining room.
‘Now what?’ I wandered in, resolved to face the problem calmly.
‘You’ve got a bloody nerve to look that innocent.’ If her face had been a pressure gauge her needle would have been in the danger-zone. The reason for her displeasure stood out in that bright, bare room like a gravy-stain on a chorister’s surplice. One of our freshly painted walls looked as if someone had splashed a bottle of claret over it and the same dull red liquid had soaked into the floorboards.
‘Watch where you’re treading…’
I darted aside and narrowly missed putting my foot in a pool of vomit.
‘Bloody hell yourself. You can clear this up. I’m going to pack.’
‘Just a minute.’ I barred her way to the door. ‘I’ll certainly clear it up – but I didn’t make this mess. Someone’s been in here, so if you want to do something useful, call the police.’
‘Don’t be so pathetic.’ Elizabeth spoke quietly, which was more alarming than a harangue. ‘I’m not daft and I’m not deaf. You were reeling last night – falling about and cackling like a maniac. You stank like a distillery when you fell into bed – by the way, I don’t appreciate being goosed and groped when I’m nearly asleep – and when you got up to puke, you thought the dining room was the bathroom. Look…’ She presented our defiled dining room with a gesture.
‘Listen to me…’
‘The whole house reeks of booze. I don’t know whether you’re losing your mind or your memory, but I’ve had enough.’
‘I came to bed sober and slept soundly.’
‘You’re a bloody liar. Get out of my way.’
‘If someone groped you, it wasn’t me.’ The implication of what I had just said brought me up short and all other emotions gave way to fear.
‘Please listen.’ I moved towards her but she stiffened. ‘I didn’t get up in the night. I didn’t drink. Give me a chance to prove it.’
‘We’re bound to find signs of a break-in. Will you believe me then?’
She didn’t answer that. The pressure gauge eased a little but the eyes still said, ‘keep clear’.
We searched the house inside and out but there were no broken panes, no sign of a door having been forced, nothing.
‘All right – ‘ I offered myself as evidence – ‘do I look like a man with a hangover?’
‘You look all right now.’
‘And do I smell of booze?’
‘I don’t know. The whole house smells sour to me.’ She was half way to giving me the benefit of the doubt. ‘Robin, perhaps you genuinely believe what you’re saying to me – I don’t know. But what happened happened – and if you really don’t remember, that’s all the more worrying. I think you should get help.’
I suggested she had dreamt I came in drunk and groped her.
‘I didn’t dream the puke and the wine-stain,’ she snapped; and she had a point. Even so, as far as I was concerned we still had an unexplained mess in the dining room and I wanted the police to know about it.
Our phones hadn’t been connected, so I walked down to the village to make the call. Elizabeth watched me go with a resigned look on her face. She thought I was putting on a charade in self-defence, a view that was clearly shared by the officer who arrived an hour later to look the place over.
‘Nothing missing?’ he enquired, having satisfied himself that no one had forced an entry.
I explained that we had nothing to offer but a couple of unsightly stains.
‘If anyone broke in, they did it with a key,’ he remarked. ‘Your best plan is to change the locks – if you’re still worried.’
‘Satisfied?’ Elizabeth asked, when the sleuth had left us.
We didn’t get any work done that day. It’s impossible to settle when there’s a major unresolved issue and we argued on and off until evening. I offered to take her to The Pilchard and let the landlord confirm that I hadn’t been in the night before, but she muttered something about men sticking together.
We went to bed early in a state of armed neutrality. The sea didn’t soothe me, but a day’s arguing has a draining effect and I was happy to take refuge in oblivion. Just before I dozed off it seemed to me that someone was trying to flush a very antiquated lavatory cistern in another part of the house – pulling the chain again and again – but I was too tired to wonder about it.
The digital clock beside the bed said 3.28 when my eyes popped open. A sound that could have been breaking glass had penetrated my sleep and brought me to the surface.
I was by no means attuned to the noises that old house was capable of producing; but as I lay, hardly breathing, what sounded like an aggressive, long drawn-out belch echoed up the stair-well.
In the main, if there’s anything brave to be done, I would rather let someone else have the glory. If I have to face peril myself, especially in the hours before dawn, the least I require is company. I shook Elizabeth until she rolled over, then put my face close to hers and hissed, ‘There’s someone downstairs.’
It took a while for her to grasp what I was saying, and when it did sink in she made an exasperated noise and burrowed deeper into the blankets.
There was a definite disturbance from somewhere below, but Elizabeth was in no mood to listen so I leapt out of bed and felt for my trousers.
‘It’s all in your head,’ she murmured.
‘We’ll see.’ I started towards the door, expecting her to stop me, or offer to come too; she did neither, so I was left stranded at the point of no return.
The house seemed quiet as I tiptoed down the stairs. The stillness of listeners. I wished I had stayed in bed.
It took all the nerve I could muster to cross the hall in darkness, but I decided it would be safer with the lights out. The dining room door was ajar and I peeped round it, holding my breath.
At the far end of the room was another door which led to the kitchen corridor. I made my way towards it across the dust-sheets, treading carefully so as not to disturb loose floorboards. But before I reached it, I froze.
Someone had come into the room behind me.
It crossed my mind that Elizabeth might have relented and followed me down, but I could sense that it wasn’t her. Fortunately I was close to the back wall, away from the windows and in shadow, so I stood still, suspended breathing and cranked my neck round as far as it would go.
Over by the hall door the darkness seemed to have intensified and I was aware of a figure standing there. A pale V took shape against the gloom, which resolved itself into a white shirt front. I was looking at a man in evening dress.
He moved to the window. In silhouette he appeared to be quite tall, but stooped, with straggling hair and a large chin thrust forward. A pale arc of moonlight picked out the form of the face, but the eyes and features were sunk in deep shadow.
Until that moment I hadn’t known what fear was. My knees seemed to evaporate and I might have collapsed had the uninvited visitor not chosen that moment to loose a slow, luxurious fart.
That put a different complexion on things. I had imagined burglars to be stealthy people who melt into the background, not much given to tottering about in conspicuous clothing breaking wind. But there was no time for idle conjecture. What mattered was that the man was between me and the door.
He lurched forward, stumbled and gave vent to a flow of cantankerous muttering which deteriorated into a coughing fit.
The door to the kitchen corridor was closed. We kept it locked at night, for security, and I tried to remember whether or not the key was in it. If I made a dash and couldn’t get through, I would be cornered. The way was still not clear to the other door, so I decided to stay still.
Footsteps shuffled across the dust-sheets. The silhouette passed from one window to the next, where it paused with a sepulchral groan and put a hand to its forehead. The next thing I heard was the sound of pouring liquid, then the figure raised one of its arms and I saw the twinkle of cut glass against the moon.
It takes a certain amount of restraint to stand quietly by while a complete stranger treats your home as his own. He drained the first glass in one, but appeared to have brought his own bottle, because when the crystal appeared again, it was full.
He put the rim to his lips a second time, but lost his balance and reeled against the wall.
‘Blast.’ He growled the word in a voice I associate with retired admirals; then there was a crash and the sound of liquid glopping on the floor. It seemed he had dropped his bottle.
I took advantage of the moment to edge towards the hall door and the movement must have caught his eye. He lowered his head and turned towards me, swaying.
‘Who’s that skulking in the corner?’ he demanded, slurring badly.
I chose not to answer that, and was about to make a dash for the hall when the man turned away, treated me to another trump of flatulence, and threw up.
Calculating that I was in better condition than him, I broke silence and faced him.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’
‘Wha’s it look like, you dullard? Looking for the women.’
‘S’pose they’ve buggered off.’ He swung round, glaring into the shadows, then let out a raucous cackle and blundered towards the far door. ‘I know where you are,’ he bellowed. ‘I’m coming for you…’
Not wishing to be around when he discovered there weren’t any women to chase, I darted into the hall and collided with Elizabeth, who was standing at the foot of the stairs.
‘What’s all the shouting in aid of?’ She switched on the lights and looked me up and down.
‘We’ve got a visitor,’ I explained. ‘He’s drunk and probably dangerous. Don’t go in…’
But she swept past me and hit the switch in the dining room. The strip-lights flickered and came on.
The room was empty.
‘He went that way.’ I pointed at the far door.
‘Really?’ Elizabeth marched across the room and tried the handle, pausing on the way to look at the vomit. ‘And locked it behind him – from this side?’
I tried the door myself. It was locked and the key was in it.
‘Well, don’t ask me.’ I shrugged.
‘You can find another room to sleep in. I’m going in the morning.’ She walked out, leaving me to gaze at the puke and the red wine that trickled down the wall onto the floor.
Elizabeth slept later than usual and I took the opportunity to clear up the mess and make some investigations of my own.
I could see how it looked from her point of view. The house did indeed stink of stale booze; that was certainly red wine on the dining room wall and someone had undeniably been ill on the dust-sheet. The difference between my perception and Elizabeth’s was that I had seen it happen.
What I needed to know was how the man got in and out – and that was a question my wife had no reason to consider.
In the corridor between the dining room and the kitchen I found another stain that could have been wine. It looked conspicuously fresh in that neglected part of the house, and I was kneeling for a closer look when there was a knock at the back door.
A girl of about twenty stood on the doorstep. She had on a long coat and a hat that did her no favours, but her face had an impish quality which was quite appealing.
‘I’ve come to do the cleaning,’ she said, avoiding my eye.
I’m never that sharp first thing in the morning and I stood aside to let her in without thinking to ask questions. She disappeared into the scullery, found a bucket and scrubbing brushes and made straight for the stain in the corridor.
‘It looks like red wine,’ I remarked.
‘I was wondering how it got there.’
‘That’s not for me to say.’ She made a coy face and went to work with a brush.
Her servile manner was unsettling, so I left her to her chores and went upstairs to check on Elizabeth’s frame of mind. There was no obvious improvement. When I raised the matter of the drunken intruder, my wife made her feelings clear with two harsh syllables.
‘Someone’s got a key to this place,’ I told her. ‘Maybe he’s a lunatic who thinks he owns the place, I don’t know.’ I sat on the bed and she immediately sprang out of it.
‘He’s a lunatic all right, and he does own the place.’
‘Reserve your judgement till you’ve seen him,’ I remarked bitterly. ‘Maybe the girl knows. Come down with me and we’ll ask her together.’
‘The cleaner. She’s here now.’
‘You hired a cleaner?’
‘No. I assumed you did.’
Elizabeth gave me one of her helpless looks and led the way downstairs. There was no one in the kitchen corridor or the scullery. The dark stain had all but disappeared.
After much pleading on my part, Elizabeth agreed to stay one more week on the off-chance that our visitor might show himself again. She conceded that I probably believed what I’d told her; but, as she put it, I had a distorted view of reality.
‘You think I’m going round the bend.’
‘I think you’re letting fantasy take over.’ She nodded, satisfied with that phrasing.
That was her best offer and I had to accept it, in the hope that something would happen during the week to make her reconsider.
Something happened that very night, but unfortunately it had the opposite effect.
Working on the assumption that she thought I was drinking in secret, I had made a point of staying close to Elizabeth – ideally where she could see me – so as to leave no room for suspicion. Naturally, this meant reinstating myself in our marital bed, from which I had been banished the night before.
We went upstairs early, exhausted after a day of disruption. December had crept in unnoticed and this was the coldest night of the year so far. We burrowed gratefully into our mountain of bedclothes and slept like babies.
All would have been well but for a simple oversight. In my enthusiasm for staying close to Elizabeth, I had forgotten to go to the lavatory before turning in, and woke up at three in the morning bursting for a pee.
There is no escaping the tyranny of the bladder, especially on a freezing night. I fought it for a minute or so, but in the end I had to get up and tiptoe across the landing. It took for ever, as it always does when you’re stuck there with your teeth chattering, so I suppose I was out of the bedroom for three or four minutes.
When it was over, I groped my way back in the dark noticing nothing amiss, crawled into bed and slept soundly.
The pillow that whacked across my ear in the morning promised little improvement in domestic harmony that day. My wife was not happy, for reasons I quickly understood.
One observable characteristic of the late night drunk is a tendency to confuse familiar objects in the dark. Doors that give access to confined spaces are a common hazard for the fuddled brain, and I have lost count of the stories told about people caught peeing in wardrobes. I had even done it myself.
Elizabeth showed me the wardrobe, held the door open and thrust my head inside. There was no doubt; that was exactly what had happened.
‘No.’ I stood back and shook my head. ‘Not me.’
Her hand flashed and my face stung. Any number of denials rose to my lips but the words wouldn’t form themselves. Elizabeth advanced, claws out, and I don’t care to dwell on what might have happened had we not both, at that moment, heard footsteps on the stairs and the clank of a bucket.
Elizabeth stared at me and I could read the doubts as they formed. As we stood facing each other, there was a timid tap at the door. I opened it, and there stood the girl I had met the previous morning, still in her long coat and hat.
‘I’ve come to do the cleaning,’ she said.
I stood aside, speechless. The girl came in carrying the bucket and made straight for the wardrobe. Elizabeth and I tiptoed from the room and down the stairs. When we reached the hall I noticed my wife appeared to be in shock. She gasped and held my arm, glanced back up the stairs and found her voice with an effort.
‘She knew exactly where to go…’
In the dining room we found freshly scrubbed patches on the wall and floor. There was another in the kitchen corridor. Elizabeth didn’t say anything. I was clearly exonerated, but now we had to face a different problem; something was going on in our house and neither of us was likely to sleep until we put an end to it.
‘That girl obviously knows all about it,’ Elizabeth said at last. ‘I’m going to ask her.’
Bursting with curiosity I followed her back upstairs, but the girl had gone.
‘I didn’t hear her leave.’ Elizabeth looked around, bewildered.
We searched the house without success.
‘She must have left by the back stairs,’ I suggested.
All we found was the bucket in the scullery, bone dry.
It was a relief to have it acknowledged that the problem wasn’t all in my head. Now we looked on our new house with suspicion – but at least that was something we could share. We brewed tea and sat in the kitchen exchanging theories.
‘Perhaps the locals resent us,’ Elizabeth suggested. ‘They’ve probably been treating this place as their own all the time it’s been empty.’
We decided to change the locks and ask a few discreet questions in the village. The landlord of The Pilchard gave us the name of a locksmith, but offered the opinion that we might as well save our money.
‘What do you mean?’
He shrugged off my question. ‘If they want to get in, they’ll get in.’
‘Who will?’ I pressed him.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t know.’
Elizabeth tried pleading. ‘If you’ve got any idea, please tell us. It’s private property, and I want to feel safe in it.’
‘That used to be quite a place.’ The landlord stroked his chin. ‘Famous people used to stay there. Rich people.’
‘You mean, when it was a hotel?’
‘It was some old earl’s country house before that. It had quite a reputation.’
I’m always uneasy with people who won’t look at you when they talk and this man was a prime offender. I made an effort to engage him.
‘There’s something we should know, isn’t there?’
He still wouldn’t meet my eye.
‘Come on,’ I urged. ‘We’re outsiders now, but we’re going to be around for a while. We’ve got a right to know anything there is to know about our own house.’
‘It’s been empty a long time, make what you can of that.’
‘Are you saying there’s something wrong with it?’ Elizabeth was visibly alarmed.
‘Depends who you listen to.’ The man started to move away. ‘You change the locks if it makes you happy.’
The Season of Goodwill didn’t include us that year. The policeman came back, listened to what Elizabeth had to say and decided we were both cranks. He didn’t put it like that of course, but his body language was eloquent.
We changed the locks and carried on with the work of restoration. We toyed with the idea of inviting friends down for Christmas, just to fill the place up, but decided against it. New Year’s Eve was to be our house warming; we had planned that from the start. The place was going to be packed to capacity then and there was a lot of work to do before it would be fit to receive our city friends.
Hard labour had its advantages. We were too tired to worry about anything at the end of a day and tended to sleep deeply. I fancied I heard the lavatory flushing a couple of times at dead of night, and once I had the notion that someone was creeping along the passage outside our bedroom door but I said nothing to Elizabeth. The nights were otherwise undisturbed until the week before Christmas.
By the twenty-second we had almost finished the downstairs. The dining and drawing rooms were painted, papered and carpeted; radiators were installed, lighting and furniture were in. The study and library looked habitable; the kitchen, parlour and what had once been the butler’s pantry were clean and almost functional. We had every reason to congratulate ourselves.
Inspired by our progress we worked late that night, and when Elizabeth took herself off to clean up I collapsed into a leather armchair in the library. This was a restful room; the temporary strip-lights had all gone and a table-lamp provided the only oasis of light. I gazed into the shadows for a while and began to feel, for the first time, at one with the house. It wasn’t a shell any more; we had put something of ourselves into it and in spite of the smell of paint, the atmosphere seemed to have settled, as if the cycle of ageing had not been disturbed.
I began to realise that no one owns a house like Fleetwood. We were custodians – there to serve its needs, as generations had before us and no doubt would in the future. Life flowed through it and remained, permanently enshrined. A change of wallpaper every once in a while made no difference at all.
In this rather profound frame of mind, My thoughts turned to our disorderly visitor. I had not imagined him, and Elizabeth was inclined to accept that now. How he had slipped out of the dining room when we were in the hall was still a mystery, but there had been a certain amount of confusion in the air that night and he had probably walked straight past us. Living, as we did, in the real world, we worked on the assumption that he did as well. Neither of us was ready to admit there might be an alternative.
I should say that I am not prone to atmospheres, and wasn’t willing to acknowledge a ‘presence’. Like most people, I suspect, I neither believe nor disbelieve anything that’s outside my experience. A few locals obviously thought the place was haunted. The landlord of The Pilchard and the girl who came to do the cleaning had both been enigmatic to an irritating degree, but I put that down to mischief.
My problem with ghosts was that I’d never been aware of one. Other people’s stories lacked the sting of personal experience, and second-hand encounters aren’t good enough to turn one’s whole view of infinity on its head.
I must have dozed, because some time later I noticed a glass of port on the table beside me.
Well, it was Christmas, and Elizabeth had obviously relented. It was natural to assume it was her sitting in the shadows, in the wing-back chair half turned away from me. I raised the glass to toast another milestone in our relationship, grateful that she should trust me with the booze again.
Then I smelt cigar smoke.
At the same time, I became aware of faint, confused sounds, as if a distant room was full of people. Still drowsy, I shook my head and tried to concentrate. Something was going on; a loud party down in the village perhaps.
Something stirred in the shadows. From the wing-back chair came the smack of dry lips – the sound of someone waking with a bad taste in the mouth – then a groan of disgust.
My first thought, accompanied by all kinds of internal contractions, was that Elizabeth had invited a neighbour in. I sat up and rubbed my eyes.
‘Hello?’ My own voice surprised me.
There was no response. Whoever was sitting in that chair made no attempt at introduction. Obviously I was supposed to make the running.
‘Elizabeth?’ I knew it wasn’t my wife but I hoped she might at least be within earshot.
‘Will you stop blathering?’ The voice was a growl from the depths. ‘Can’t you blasted people let a chap suffer in peace?’
‘Who is that?’ I demanded, realising that the time for confrontation was at hand. ‘You’ve been here before, haven’t you?’
The reply was a bitter, wheezing laugh.
Thoroughly unnerved, I decided on a reasonable approach. ‘I don’t want to seem inhospitable,’ I said, ‘but this is my house and I don’t know who you are. Did my wife let you in?’
‘Were you at the party?’
‘Party?’ I could still hear a distant commotion. ‘Where – down in the village?’
‘Here, you dull-witted cretin – s’been going on all night.’
‘There’s nothing going on here,’ I stammered, wondering if the lunatic was dangerous.
‘All buggered off, I suppose. Couldn’t stand the pace.’
A dark mass stirred in the shadows. I saw the dinner jacket again, and the white V of shirt-front as the man rose to his feet. I wanted to leap out of my chair but the strength drained from my body as he advanced on me. It was a fearsome face; dark eye-sockets above a brutal chin – straggling hair falling from either side of a high, bald cranium. I felt a chill that went to the core and hugged myself, either for warmth or protection – I don’t know which.
‘Who are you?’ I heard an unsteady voice which was my own.
He leant towards me, chin thrust forward. ‘Can’t make out if you’re as dense as you look or just damned impertinent.’
I goggled as the awful face came closer. Perhaps I was as indistinct to him as he was to me, but he seemed to have trouble making me out. I have seen that expression on young babies who loll at you as if their heads were about to fall off. I have also seen it on many a slobbering drunk, and taken it as a cue to get out of the way.
I sat rigid in my chair, unable to take my eyes off him. He stood swaying before me and loosed a lazy fart.
A kind of hysteria gripped me. Torn between laughing and screaming, I sort of gibbered, and the effect must have caught his fancy because he wagged a finger at me.
In that moment we seemed to become accomplices and I fought to recover the gravitas of a slighted householder.
‘Now listen to me – ‘ I wagged a finger back. ‘You’ve caused me untold trouble. You come in here at all hours of the night – don’t ask me how – you disturb our sleep, break things and behave revoltingly. My wife blames me for all this. Don’t laugh – it’s not funny…’
But I was spluttering, and the old bastard saw the chink in my armour.
‘Not funny – ‘ he bellowed. ‘A fart is always funny.’
‘You mistook our wardrobe for the lavatory. No one would stand for that.’
‘Not the first time – won’t be the last.’
‘You admit it then. I want my wife to hear this.’
‘Aha – so you do know where the women are.’
I wasn’t having that. ‘You’re in no fit state for women,’ I shouted. ‘Look at you – you can hardly stand up.’
‘Oh, really.’ The dome of head sank to his chest, then the chin snapped up, challenging. ‘Better man than you, any day. Watch… and… learn.’
He sprang sideways, arms flung out, stepping a wild tango across the room. He was amazingly agile for a man of his age.
‘Take it easy…’ I was half out of my chair, braced against the inevitable accident.
‘Not fit for women? Eat your words, you wretch.’
He flung himself ecstatically at the wall.
And disappeared, as if plaster and paper had been opaque liquid.
Don’t ask me what I did in the moments after that. Just stood gaping like a moron, probably.
The room was quiet, tomb-like. Then he was back – tangoing through solid masonry – misjudging his entrance badly enough to blunder into an occasional table and sprawl headlong on the floor.
They say terror lends wings and I took advantage of this mishap to dash for the door, bellowing for my wife to come down and meet our visitor. I needn’t have bothered. Elizabeth was standing on the threshold with a look on her face I had never seen before.
‘Who is this?’ Her question was in the spirit of curiosity rather than outrage.
‘We haven’t got round to introductions,’ I told her. ‘Perhaps you can get some sense out of him.’
She eyed the old man as he struggled uncertainly to his feet. ‘Good evening,’ she began, peering at him curiously.
‘At your service, Ma’am.’
‘I don’t believe we’ve met.’
‘Don’t you, begad.’ The great chin swung to attention. ‘If you don’t remember, I’m not going to remind you.’
Elizabeth frowned. I could see her mind at work and remembered a night when she accused me of groping her when she was half asleep.
‘Who are you?’ she stammered.
And I was about to have my say when the old devil interrupted me with a raised hand and advanced on my wife with a demonic grin on his face.
‘An ill-advised question, Ma’am, if I may say so. I am the Ghost of Christmas Pissed.’
With that, he strode erratically for the doorway, missed and melted into the wall.
New Year’s Eve was the best party we had ever thrown; possibly the best I’ve ever been to.
Perversely, we were the envy of a lot of the people we had left behind when we abandoned city life. To their way of thinking, we had flown the nest and left our troubles behind. You should have seen the envy in their faces.
The house was quite impressive, I had to admit. We had gone for the Regency look – a lot of vertically striped wallpaper, heavy-shaded lamps and plenty of space to relax in. It suited the building, and enabled us to play the gracious host and hostess. The effort had been worthwhile.
You can tell straight away when you’ve got a success on your hands. Our guests mixed well; most of them were glad to see each other, relieved to be with friends and acquaintances again after high dosages of un-chosen relatives over Christmas. I caught Elizabeth’s eye from time to time and we raised glasses: amnesty.
The babble reached shouting-level early and went on unabated, drowning the music, until well after the midnight chimes and Auld lang syne. Bottle in hand, I drifted like a rudderless dinghy, constantly foundering in one group or another until I was ready for a break. Hardly anyone had left and there were still people everywhere. On my way upstairs I encountered Shirley, a friend of Elizabeth’s, looking slightly ruffled.
‘Enjoying yourself?’ I asked her.
‘Wonderful party.’ She flashed wicked eyes at me and finished rearranging her dress – a silky thing that showed a lot of her. ‘It’s a great idea to mix the generations up. I’ve just been ravaged by somebody’s grandfather. Hands everywhere.’
She went on down to the hall and I climbed the stairs, swaying, relieved to get away from the light. The bathroom door was locked and from beyond it came the sound of someone retching. I decided to wait and was joined by Richard, a one-time colleague, who lurched up and put a hand on my shoulder. Richard tried to explain that he was enjoying himself but what came out might as well have been in Russian. Then he jerked a thumb at the bathroom door.
‘Someone in there?’ he managed.
Before I could answer he turned the knob, the door opened to reveal an empty room and he vanished inside. Confused, I groped my way along the landing to the back stairs. Something was going on in one of the bedrooms as I passed, but it was none of my business. I found the lavatory off the scullery, then made my way back to the dining room via the kitchen corridor.
Gales of laughter and applause greeted me as I approached, but that was nothing to do with me either. The source of entertainment seemed to be on the far side of the room, but most of the party had gathered in there so I couldn’t get a clear view.
Standing on tiptoe I glimpsed the black sleeve of a dinner jacket, from which protruded a bony old hand waving a bottle aloft.
The racket subsided and a raucous voice was raised in song. It was a voice I knew.
‘By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ Eastward to the sea,’ it howled, ‘There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me; For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:”Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”’
And they all joined in – all our friends, bellowing the chorus:
‘Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from
Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer
China ‘crost the bay!’
I’d have sworn not one of them knew the right words to that, but they all followed easily.
Red wine was splashing freely and the scent of mayhem was in the air. I could see him now; grizzled eyebrows, thrusting chin and all – the withered hedonist of former years. They loved him.
The great mouth opened, almost devoid of teeth, and shot a melodic belch to the delighted disgust of the audience.
‘Wherever you be, let your wind go free – says the Great Sam Johnson.’ he growled. ‘Now dance, you feeble-minded dotards – DANCE.’
Whereupon he began an arthritic jig, all arms and legs – moving towards the door. The crowd fell in behind him; someone began chanting the Conga and they all filed out in a line.
Something moved in the passage behind me and I glanced over my shoulder to see the cleaning girl coming down the back stairs, smoothing her shapeless dress. She caught my eye for a moment and hurried away.
By the time I joined on at the tail end of the Conga line, most of our guests were jerking and shuffling down the hill towards the village. I could hear the old bastard’s voice raised above the din –
‘Dance, you cretins. Get some air into those lungs. You’ll never get to Heaven with a hangover – take it from one who knows.’
But I noticed he wasn’t leading them any more.
In the morning, those guests who remembered anything wanted to know who the sprightly old gentleman was.
We opened for business in the Spring. For a first season, we did well. The place was full during August and September, which was tiring but good practice.
The art of running a hotel is to appear to be in control, no matter what.
An elderly couple complained about being disturbed at dead of night by a drunk who staggered into their room demanding to know where the woman in the silky thing had got to. Apparently the gentleman had leered at them, broken wind and become abusive when they didn’t find it funny.
Elizabeth calmed them down and I assured them (rashly) that it wouldn’t happen again.
We had the problem of the underwear. A honeymoon couple confronted us one morning with the news that their room had been rifled by a pervert. Small, silk garments had been taken from their drawers and tossed all over the place with apparent relish. I thanked them for their tolerance and told them a member of staff had been under pressure and was now in psychiatric care.
These setbacks aside, we managed pretty well. From time to time the bar or the restaurant would be invaded by a rather overbearing elderly gentleman in a dinner jacket who told lewd, incomprehensible stories to anyone misguided enough to listen. The occasional female guest would be seen, red-faced and dishevelled, after a brief spell away from the dining-room of an evening – but none of them ever complained.
Elizabeth was a new woman. It didn’t bother her that our home was occupied by something neither of us could control. Whatever happened in the night – no matter what mess or evidence of foul behaviour we might find in the morning – she was gloriously content.
We didn’t talk about it. And the cleaning girl had always been and gone before we got up in the morning.