You could have knocked me down with a feather duster.
That’s how surprised I was to hear from Gerald again. Hadn’t heard a word from him since we’d both left Keele all those years ago. Gone our separate ways, armed with only our dreams and sweated for bits of paper. Mine in Chemistry with Computing, his in Philosophy. Philosophy, I ask you.
Naturally I headed straight for the M6 South and got myself a job designing new plastics molecules for a multi-national chemicals company. And Gerald? Straight for the Unemployment Benefit Office, and last I heard, was still there.
Hence my astonishment the other week when, plop through my letterbox there came a letter from Gerald.
Dear Edward, it read, could you be in Cumbria on Saturday, 16th December? Apparrently Gerald had finally got off the dole queue some three years ago and had been working as part of a research team up in the wilds of Cumbria. Researching, of all things, ghosts!
Not that the subject came as a surprise. Many was the late hour, over a bottle of good-ish wine, he had poured out to me spurious tales of ghostly sightings, and even more incredible theories to explain them. Not that I hadn’t enjoyed them. He told a tale well, with a story teller’s attention to detail, and a fine theatrical sense of atmosphere. And, yes, the wine helped too. But the tales had never been meant for a serious purpose.
At least, I presumed not.
But now I find he had been fascinated in the subject from childhood and had taken Philosophy with the express intention of doing what in fact he had eventually succeeded in doing: becoming a parapsychologist. A ghost hunter! I ask you.
And now it seems he found one — or proof of one — for he wanted me to spend Christmas up there to witness the result of his “investigations”. Huh! Seances more like it. Still, Christmas is wont to make one nostalgic, and I had nowhere else to go now my parents had passed away, so Saturday 16th December saw me traveling up to the Lakes, up to Oxenholme, change for Windermere, and from thence a taxi along some of the narrowest, winding-est, longest roads (or rather, lanes) than I would have though existed in this country.
Gerald’s house turned out to be an old farm, nestling against the feet of two giant, fog-crested hill, with ne’er a neighbour in sight. I paid off the cab driver and knocked on his door.
Night was allies to the fog, making it dark but for a single light coming from a downstairs window. I was about to knock again, for the cold made me impatient, when the door opened. Gerald!
Were I not so British I would have hugged him! He stood much as I remembered him: six-two, dark short hair (well, a little greying), a paunch (too much wine), and those eyes: green as an Irish meadow. A glass of warming sherry confirmed his welcome. As did an electric fire, soft chairs, a selection of delicacies from his fridge, and more wine.
He did not seem in a hurry to press upon me the details of his investigations, and for this I was grateful as I was very tired still from my journey, but instead we chatted away about lost university days, nights spent with wine and tall tales, dreams he thought were now forever lost….But I would have none of that and set about cheering him up. It was a three bottle job, but — if memory serves me well — I succeeded.
Before the end of the evening though, I enquired after details of the reasons for my being there, but all he would say was that I would discover all tomorrow. And I thought I could detect an odd sadness in his tone.
I had a heavy sleep, doing so almost fully dressed; it had been a long journey. When I awoke, bits of me still seemed to be asleep and so it was some time before I noticed the sealed envelope on my bedside table. To Edward, it said on its outside.
What it said inside I could hardly believe. Inside lay a tale of such sadness I could hardly believe it had been written by the same man who had been so affable to me the evening before. Of long years on the doles, a loss of confidence, a marriage he’d hoped would changed everything…but hadn’t. The job that he thought would be his life’s dream come true — ghost hunt: searching for the final proof that we survive death. The failures, the back-biting colleagues, the drink. I could hardly believe what I read. And then the ending…a joke! It was all a joke, had to be, and yet how sick. I determined then and there to go to Gerald and demand the truth of the matter.
His bedroom was at the end of a long L-shape. I strode there; I stopped; took a deep breath — what did it all mean? — I strode on. I stopped at what I presumed was Gerald’s bedroom (the open door opposite showed me it at least wasn’t the bathroom), gripped the brass handle and opened it. The truth hit me in the face.
Darkness. Impenetrable darkness. And the smell. Dust, and must, and the lingering smell of death. I switch on the bedroom light and the truth could be denied no more. Sprawled atop the bed, bedsheets flung aside, an empty bottle of wine on the floor, an open pill bottle on the bedside table….Gerald lay dead. A week dead, maybe more. And I thought, a curious smile about his lips.
©John Steele, 1991, 2008
I quite like ghost stories but I think I that lack the originality and creativity to come up with sparklingly new ideas or plots the average ghost story reader can’t spot coming a mile off. I quite like the narrator’s tone of voice that this one is written in though.