It was first published by a horror writers’ website called ‘Inclinations’ in 2006.
Reading time: approximately 30 minutes.
It was approaching midnight on an airless, sultry night in June when I first met Mr Grimshaw.
I had been working in my office for several hours and my weary eyes had done enough for one day. I went downstairs to get the first of my late night scotches. They were a regular habit of mine - very regular. Daily, in fact. Whether it was a bad habit or not is a matter of opinion. I lived alone, so the only opinion that counted was mine, and I looked forward to spending the last two hours of the day – or the first two of the next if you want to be pedantic – closeted comfortably in my sparsely lit house, sipping three or four double Bells with just a splash of water.
It was like being in the womb again, separate and aloof from a self-serving and insensitive world that always wants to put some weight unwontedly onto your shoulders. The night was always fully dark between midnight and 2 am, even at the height of summer, and the world beyond the walls was quiet and invisible. The scotch and a spot of late night TV, or maybe a browse around the internet with some stress-melting music floating out of my headphones, put a satisfying full stop to the day.
It had been full daylight when I’d gone up to the office earlier to do some work, so there were no downstairs lights on when I reached the foot of the stairs. I flicked on the hall light and went to the front door to check that it was locked. It wasn’t, and I realised that it must have been that way since I’d last come into the house at about six. I wasn’t concerned. The village was a self-contained little community in which strangers, apart from the odd workman or delivery driver, were rare. Having the door unlocked carried little risk. I turned the key, performed the unnecessary but oddly obligatory action of trying the handle, and then sauntered towards the kitchen where the scotch was kept.
I passed close to the foot of the stairs again, and beyond them the door to the living room stood half open. It was dark in there but a little light entered from the hall and something unfamiliar caught my eye. I turned to look fully at it and came to an abrupt and startled halt. The gap in the door gave a clear view to my favourite armchair placed at the side of the fireplace. The light was dim, but there was no doubting what I saw. Somebody was sitting in it.
A brief paralysis gripped me – part fearful, part confused, and part indignant at this unwelcome invasion of my hallowed space. I stared for several seconds, maybe longer. I could tell that the intruder was a man. I saw his pale face in profile as he sat motionless and looked straight ahead. He might have been watching the television, had it been switched on. I felt nervous about challenging him. Who knows what sort of strange and possibly dangerous notions might be infecting the mind of someone who would walk uninvited into a person’s house at the dead of night and sit in his armchair? I realised soon enough that I had no alternative.
A heavy weight of apprehension settled in my stomach as I walked to the living room door and pushed it open. It creaked on the old hinges, but the figure made no move. I put my hand out and pressed down the two switches that turned on the ceiling lights. I saw him more clearly now, but still he sat motionless, apparently oblivious to my presence or the sudden exposure to the comprehensive illumination of two 100 watt light bulbs.
“Who the hell are you?” I asked loudly, trying to sound authoritative.
He ignored me and continued to sit impassively, his arms resting easily along the arms of the chair and his hands hanging limply over the ends. He sat upright, but his head was leaning forward slightly, as though it were just a little too heavy to be kept erect. I walked around the back of the sofa and approached him full on, taking in every aspect of his appearance.
The bright light showed him to be an elderly man, late seventies or early eighties perhaps. His face was exceedingly pale, as though it hadn’t seen the light of the sun in a long time, and his skin had an unreal, wax-like quality about it. It reminded me of the off-white piano keys made of ivory that you still see on old uprights in church halls. It was a long, gaunt sort of a face, and wisps of fine, grey hair hung untidily down each side of his head from a bald crown. Pale grey stubble stood out from his jaw line, and there was an ugly blue scar, about an inch in length, above the corner of his right eye. The eyes themselves showed nothing by way of emotion or awareness, and yet they were not dead eyes. There was life there, just discernible behind the wetness of the flecked whites. And they were a curious colour; the palest, washed out blue that made them look almost artificial.
His clothes reminded me of what my grandfather had worn when I was a child: heavy black shoes, grey woollen socks, and dark brown trousers made of some thick, worsted material, held in place by a broad leather belt with the tongue hanging down. What I could see of his collarless white shirt looked dirty, and was covered by an old grey cardigan with holes here and there. I spoke to him again.
“Look, you shouldn’t be here you know. Where do you come from?”
I assumed he must be suffering some form of dementia, and that he had probably wandered out of his house or a geriatric rest home somewhere in the vicinity. He continued to ignore me. I considered shaking his shoulder, but thought better of it. That sort of thing should be left to the experts, I decided. Physical contact can ignite the most vigorous of fires in the most unlikely of people. His presence unnerved me and I just wanted to be rid of him. I made a mental note never to leave the front door unlocked again and decided that I should call the police. I walked the few feet over to the phone, picked it up and turned back to keep a wary eye on the strange interloper.
He was gone. The chair was empty. I made all haste back to the hall and checked every room in the house. There was no sign of anybody and the door was still locked from the inside.
The chilling realisation soon settled uneasily in my mind. I had a ghost. There could be no doubting the fact. I was fully awake, untouched by the demon drink, and in total command of my faculties. I’d seen him as plainly as it’s possible to see anything. I wondered why he had never put in an appearance before in the two years that I’d lived in the house. I wasn’t qualified to answer the question, and it was a pointless one anyway. Whatever the reason, he was here now.
Or was he? I considered that he might have been some sort of one-off apparition. Perhaps I would never see him again. I wasn’t qualified to answer that one either, but I made some attempt to take heart from the possibility.
But what if the hope was misplaced? There are two problems with resident ghosts. Firstly, the very mystery of their existence is enough to put the wind up even the most rational person. They just shouldn’t be there. They are the ultimate unknown quantity and we humans are congenitally terrified of the unknown. Secondly, they are beyond our control and we don’t like that either. We don’t know where or when they are going to turn up next.
It was the second point that was most occupying my troubled brain as I resumed my excursion to the scotch bottle. I was more in need of it now than I had been ten minutes earlier, and it was no surprise that my hand was shaking slightly as I poured rather more than a double. I broke my habit and left the water out. I stood and drank it in the kitchen, pondering the worst of the questions. How was I supposed to go to bed, turn off the light and try to go to sleep, not knowing whether I would wake up in the darkness of the small hours to find a gaunt, ivory-white face looking back at me?
Logic came to my aid as I remembered the received wisdom regarding ghosts. They don’t have any objective reality, we’re told, they’re just phantasms - some sort of residual energy playing the same routine over and over again when some unknown condition is right. If a ghost appears sitting in a chair at midnight, that’s how it is always likely to appear. It’s how grey ladies, hooded monks and headless aristocrats always behave, isn’t it?
Could I rely on that, I asked myself. Not entirely. I’d read of other sorts too, ghosts that follow people about and engage with them in disturbingly objective ways. My ghost had neither followed nor engaged with me and I was encouraged by the fact. I drained the first scotch and poured another. Then I peered around the kitchen door and looked into the living room again. My armchair was still empty.
I took myself and my libation back to the scene of the strange encounter. I felt nervous and decided that I wouldn’t be comfortable sitting in my favourite chair, so recently occupied and then vacated in such an extraordinary manner. I wondered whether non-objective phantasms would be capable of materialising in the same place as a living person. The thought was disturbing and disagreeable. I turned on the TV and started to watch it from the safety of the sofa.
I heard a noise behind me and turned around in alarm. It was only the night storage meter switching over and I smiled a nervous, relieved smile. This situation was going to take some getting used to, even if my house guest never appeared again. If he did – well, I supposed I would have to start looking for an exorcist.
My interest in the TV programmes was perfunctory at best. The problem with sitting on the sofa was that its back faced the door into the hall, and the fear of being approached from behind was too strong to ignore. I had to sit in a sideways position from which I could keep an eye of sorts on both the door and the armchair. The TV had little chance of holding my attention, but I left it on anyway as a distraction. And I did make some attempt to watch it in between frequent, furtive glances either side to ensure that I was still alone.
Another scotch followed and I began to yawn. I looked at the clock which told me that it was ten past two. I usually went to bed at around 2 am and I pondered the obvious question. How did I feel about going to bed tonight after my unnerving encounter with the old man? I reasoned that I would probably feel more comfortable upstairs. Whatever the wraith was, I could reasonably hope that he belonged to the living room, or at least the lower floor.
I double checked that the front door was locked and bolted. I knew that ghosts were not subject to physical constraints, but the thought of an unlocked door had become a source of some concern. I turned all the downstairs lights off, making sure that the landing light was on first so as not to be in the dark even for a second, and went upstairs. Again, the turning on of the bedroom light preceded the turning off of the landing one. I shut my bedroom door and, uncharacteristically, slid the bolt across. I lay in bed with my eyes open and the light on until sleep overcame me. I woke up in the morning feeling apprehensive, but lacking the chilling weight of fear that had sat heavily on me the previous night.
I went about my normal business throughout the day and tried to avoid the compulsion to look through the living room door every time I passed it. But I made sure that the front door was locked and the living room lights were switched on as soon as the dusk began to gather. I worked in the office again that evening, drank my usual nightcaps, and saw no more of my ghostly visitor. As the weeks passed he faded into the background. Bedtime soon resumed its normal routine and I came to assume that the phenomenon had indeed been an isolated one. And then, about a month later, I saw him again.
If anything, the second sighting was more shocking than the first. An unprecedented event has a novelty value that makes it easier to deal with. Repetition brings with it a desperate, sinking feeling. It indicates that the problem is perennial, or at least persistent, and won’t go away on its own.
I went to bed one night and followed my usual routine of getting undressed, turning the light off and drawing back the curtains. I liked to go to sleep with the curtains open. I found it peaceful to settle beneath the sheets in a world illuminated by moonlight; it somehow put me in touch with the spirit of the night. “Spirit” is an unfortunate, though entirely apposite, term in the circumstances. There was a low wall bordering the front of my short garden. As I drew back the curtains I saw that someone was sitting on it; and the moonlight was bright enough to be sure who that someone was.
His pose was different that time, no doubt dictated by the different mode of seating to which his ghostly form needed to adjust. But he looked just as relaxed as before. His right hand was pressed firmly on his right knee with his elbow cocked out slightly. His other elbow rested easily on his left thigh and his head was turned away to the right. He looked almost like a Rodin sculpture until he moved. I’d never seen him move before, and the tingle that was already gripping the nape of my neck became suddenly sharper. He only moved his head, but he turned it upwards to look directly at me.
I stepped back instinctively. Seeing a ghost is bad enough; but when its eyes look directly into yours, even at that distance, the sense of horror gets raised to a most uncomfortable level. I realised that I was hiding from him and, even though my jangling nerves were holding my faculty for logic at bay, the idea was preposterous. I inched back towards the side of the window and peered around the curtain. He was gone.
On that occasion he could, of course, simply have walked away. But I already knew that he was a ghost and didn’t need to. He could disappear at will; that’s what ghosts do. I had the sudden notion that he might have come into the house again, but I resisted it since that would have placed upon me a burden of decision that I had no desire to face. I had no intention of going downstairs to check.
So much for my theories, I thought. The ghost had now looked at me, deliberately it seemed, and that was some form of engagement. Unless, of course, his non-objective routine just happened to require that he look in that general direction at that point in its perpetual cycle. I doubted it somehow. I got into bed feeling profoundly troubled and nervous. The bedroom was well lit by the nearly-full moon and I was brave enough not to turn any lights on. I lay thinking for a while until a troubled sleep came over me and the night passed without further incident.
And so did the next few weeks. Until that day in August when I made the mistake of going out and leaving the door unlocked. It was about seven o’clock in the evening, still fully light, and I was only going as far as the post box. It never occurred to me that there was any reason to lock the front door.
The post box was a short walk of about fifty yards up the hill from my house. I posted my letters, exchanged a greeting with a neighbour, and walked back again. The rear of my house came directly onto the lane and had a large window set into it. As I passed it, I stopped. Momentarily, I thought I’d seen a face looking out at me. I glanced sharply at it, convinced that it was only a trick of the light. It wasn’t. The face was still looking at me. The same pale blue eyes, the same stubbly chin, the same blue scar, the same everything. But there was something different about the eyes this time. They looked interested in me, as though he were questioning my existence as much as I questioned his. I looked away in amazement and then looked back. Predictably, the window was empty.
The latest encounter brought a couple of new and disturbing thoughts tumbling into my head. Firstly, it was clear that my ghost was not exclusively nocturnal. That meant I could have no respite from the possibility of his making an appearance at any time. What bothered me more, however, was that he was in my house when I wasn’t. Feeling invaded is difficult to come to terms with, but this made me feel displaced and that was even worse.
I was nervous about going into the house, even though I felt sure that it would be empty. My ghost made only very brief appearances, and I suppose I was getting used to the pattern. And I was right; the house was empty. I hardly felt reassured. Three appearances were enough to make me feel that the problem really did need to be dealt with. I wasn’t sure how I would go about finding an exorcist, but I couldn’t think of any other option.
The following day I rang the vicar whom our parish shared with three others. I felt slightly awkward as I introduced myself and told him where I lived. I was not a churchgoer and had never spoken with him before. I felt embarrassed at the thought that people like me were the reason why four parishes had to share one vicar these days. But where else do you go to seek an exorcist?
He gave no indication that he begrudged my call. His manner was polite and friendly, but I had the impression that he was something of a modern rationalist in his views. He never actually said that he didn’t believe me, nor even claim openly that ghosts were just the stuff of imagination, but there was something in the tone of his voice that seemed dismissive. Nevertheless, he offered the welcome information that the diocese had a resident, trained exorcist and said that he would contact him and call me back in a day or two. I offered my thanks and privately hoped that it wouldn’t take any longer than that.
It was lunchtime and I had little work on at the time. The late August day was dull, but mild and dry. I decided to have something to eat and then go for a long ramble around the lanes that circuited the village. I hadn’t done that for some time and it seemed like a way of celebrating the fact that the business of laying my troublesome ghost was finally being given due attention.
A pleasant lunch concluded, I donned my walking shoes and went out, making sure that the door was securely locked behind me. I had come to the view, rather prematurely I suppose given the limited evidence available, that my visitor somehow needed the door to be unlocked in order to gain entrance. It seemed illogical but there was no harm in taking the precaution. And, as another precautionary measure, I decided to walk down the hill in the opposite direction to the post box. I might have been wrong about the door and felt uneasy at the prospect of walking past the living room window. I had the fanciful notion that the old man might have heard my telephone call to the vicar, and imagined him scowling at me through the glass. I decided not to take the risk.
About a hundred yards down the hill the Church of St Mary The Virgin stood on a large plot of land opposite a road junction. It was a typical example of Victorian gothic revival, pleasant and sturdy but generally unremarkable; and the graveyard was not as full as those of the old medieval churches. The headstones were huddled together in a small area around the church, leaving a large tract of well-mown ground waiting to be filled over the coming centuries.
The church and its grounds came into view shortly after I left the house and I saw that it contained a solitary figure, apparently standing in front of one of the graves. I assumed it to be one of the villagers paying respect to a lost relative and gave it little attention. But then I got closer and the figure became better defined.
It was clearly that of an elderly man, standing still and with his head bowed. He appeared to be looking at the headstone of a grave that was last in line at the eastern end of the church and close to the edge of the path. As I got closer still, the detail became clearer. He was wearing heavyweight, dark coloured trousers and a grey cardigan. And the top of his head was bald with wisps of fine grey hair hanging down each side.
I stood by the railings and watched him for a few minutes. He didn’t move but continued to stand with his hands clasped together in front of his chest, as though he were praying. His face was in profile and he was too far away to see the features clearly. Could it just be coincidence? I told myself that it was more than likely, and was reassured that he didn’t turn and look at me. No doubt there were plenty of elderly men who wore similar dress, I thought. But I knew everybody in the village, at least by sight, and I was sure that he wasn’t a local man. Perhaps he was an outsider paying a visit to the grave of someone who had lived there once. That seemed unlikely since there was no car parked on the road.
The pressure to go and investigate was irresistible. I walked on towards the gate, feeling a thrill of nervousness as I approached it and the figure became obscured by the corner of the church. The clatter of the heavy iron latch seemed uncommonly loud when I lifted it, and managed to startle me again when I closed the gate behind me. I made my way up the steps to the base of the tower and walked around to the south side of the church. I suppose I should have expected it, but the shock still made my heart pound when I saw that the figure had gone.
I considered the possibilities. He could have entered the church or he could have walked around the north side. There was no other way that an ordinary mortal could have left without me seeing him. I tried the church door first. It was locked. I walked quickly around the north side of the building and completed the circuit until I had a clear view of the gate and road again. There was no sign of anybody. The only occupants of the churchyard were me and the quiet remains of the rude forefathers, lying unseen beneath the green and brown earth. I looked at the spot where the man had been standing and walked over to read the inscription on the simple, limestone monument. It read:
In Memory of
Dearly loved wife of
Who departed this life
August 27th 1947.
Aged 71 years
I realised that today was August 27th. It seemed that my ghost now had a name.
It didn’t make me feel any better about his sudden and unwelcome appearance in my life. I wondered whether I was being selfish. Why had he chosen me? Or did he appear to other people too? Did he want something, need something even? And what should I do about it? Wait for him to appear again and talk to him? I’d already done that once and he’d ignored me. But I hadn’t known he was a ghost then. Did that make a difference? Should I try to find out something about him, presumably from one of the older locals who would have known him?
That seemed like a good idea. Forewarned is forearmed, and I was genuinely interested anyway. And why not start now? I abandoned my walk and went to the local shop instead. The owners were an elderly couple who kept it going out of a sense of duty to the community, even though they were both some way beyond retirement age.
George and Nellie Spencer were together in the shop when I went in. I bought some chocolate by way of providing an excuse to be there and engaged them in conversation, gradually bringing the subject around to old village characters and the Grimshaws in particular.
It seemed that they had been something of a cause celebre in the village at one time and the two elderly shopkeepers took evident delight in relating the old story, especially as there was an unsolved mystery attached to it. They explained that they only knew what they had picked up from conversations between the grown-ups at the time, since they had still been children when Mr Grimshaw had mysteriously disappeared and Mrs Grimshaw had died shortly afterwards.
The Grimshaws, they told me, had lived in one of a pair of tied cottages down the lane that ran to the main road. Edith Grimshaw was considered eccentric. She never socialised, never went to church, and was rarely seen except when she was tending the herb garden at the back of the house. Albert Grimshaw was a farm labourer who worked up at Common Farm on the main road. He was considered unsociable too, and the story in the village was that he beat his wife. He spent nearly every evening in the local pub, communicating as little as possible with the other men and going home drunk at closing time.
The people who lived next door to them reported that the noise of some excessive commotion was commonly heard shortly after his return, and the shouting and banging led them to believe that he was giving his wife a hard time. It was generally taken as the reason for Mrs Grimshaw’s social reticence. They assumed that Mr Grimshaw was highly possessive and kept his wife at home, both to deny her what he saw as unwarranted freedom, and also to keep the outward signs of his brutal handiwork from the eyes of the village. No-one intervened, of course; and the police regarded domestic violence as an entirely personal matter in those days. How a man treated his possessions was his business.
By the time the war started in 1939, Albert had been retired for a few years. But he was still strong and fit, and was able to earn extra money doing work for local farmers in place of the younger men who were away fighting. His drinking continued unabated and so did the nightly commotions. When the war finished the conscripts gradually returned to the village and the local farms. Albert’s temporary work came to an end and it seemed to have an effect on him. He became even more sullen and unsociable. By then the Spencers were old enough to be aware of him themselves. They noticed that he was rarely seen during the day and, when he did appear outdoors, he was so morose, distant and bad tempered that they were afraid of him.
And then, in the summer or autumn of 1946, Albert disappeared. His nightly visits to the pub were still a regular habit and, on the night in question, he had left at closing time but failed to return home. The neighbours were about to go to bed when Mrs Grimshaw knocked on their door saying that her husband hadn’t come back yet. She told them she had searched the lane between the pub and their house but to no avail. The neighbours later testified that they’d heard no shouting or banging that night.
The following day the villagers conducted a search of the lanes and fields but found nothing. The police were called in and they were unsuccessful too. The case remained open and Albert Grimshaw was never seen again. About a year later, Edith died suddenly of a heart attack. One of the local gentleman farmers paid for a simple funeral, and a collection among the sympathetic villagers provided the headstone.
It was an interesting story and I had listened to it intently. But I failed to see any clues as to why Mr Grimshaw was plaguing me with his unearthly presence, or what it was that he wanted of me. I assumed that it must have something to do with the mystery of his disappearance. I left the shop and walked home, wondering all the way what I should do about the situation.
Briefly, I considered leaving the door unlocked as an invitation to Albert to come in and tell me what his problem was. But no; I wasn’t that brave, and things probably didn’t work like that anyway. I decided to take the more discretionary option and see what the exorcist could achieve.
It was still early and I decided to resume my ramble. It only took a little over an hour to walk the two mile circuit, even allowing for the odd few minutes spent here and there leaning on gateposts and admiring the view. And I was glad of the chocolate that I’d bought at the shop.
I thought of Mr and Mrs Grimshaw constantly. I imagined Albert sitting alone in the pub with only a pint for company. I imagined him staggering home, and the fearful look in Edith’s eyes when he walked through the door. I didn’t know what she looked like, of course; I hadn’t seen her. I constructed a picture of some sad, nervous, bird-like little woman, and the imagined view of Albert’s abusive behaviour wasn’t pleasant.
The conclusion of the walk brought me back to the village at the junction that faced the churchyard. I looked over at Edith’s headstone again and was relieved that there was no mysterious figure in attendance. For some reason though, I felt drawn to take another look at it. I knew it wouldn’t help with my problem, but there was something fascinating about being in the company of Mrs Grimshaw’s mortal remains. I went around the south side of the church and stood at the end of Edith’s plot, looking at the inscription on the headstone. I even muttered something like “I wish you could tell me what Albert’s problem is.”
At that point I felt a tingling sensation. It was the feeling you get when you can’t see or hear anything, but you know you are being watched. I knew with all certainty that someone was standing behind me. I turned around in alarm. That someone was Albert Grimshaw, dressed as I had become used to seeing him. He stood with his hands clasped in front of his stomach and his intense stare left me in no doubt that he was aware of my presence.
You might think that seeing a ghost outside in broad daylight is preferable to seeing it in your house at night. I’m not so sure. It’s different, but it still makes your skin creep. My first impression was that there was something unreal about the figure and it didn’t take me long to realise what it was. The sun had come out. There were shadows everywhere. But Albert cast no shadow; neither were there shadows under his forehead, his prominent cheekbones or his stubbly chin. He looked like a hologram.
It was the expression on his face, though, that made me feel weak and inclined to flee. He was grinning at me, and it was a most unpleasant grin. His lips were parted to reveal a set of clenched, yellow teeth that looked too big for his emaciated face. And the grin seemed to contradict the look in his eyes that was helpless and imploring. His face looked like the mask of some sad and hideous clown and it disgusted me.
But there he stood, motionless; and I didn’t flee. It seemed the moment of truth had arrived and it was clear that I would have to face it. I gathered the courage to ask him if he could speak. He looked away for a second. He seemed uncertain. Then he looked back at me and nodded. I told him that I knew who he was and that I’d heard the story of his disappearance. I asked him if he could tell me what had happened and what he wanted from me now. His grin faded and his eyes looked sadder. He seemed to swallow and I felt that speaking was something he hadn’t done for a long time.
He began hesitatingly and I almost wished I hadn’t encouraged him. The fact that he could speak at all was unbelievable enough, but his voice added another level of repulsion to the horror that was already gripping me. It was thin, weak and rasping, as though he had a sore throat. But it was the hissing sound accompanying each syllable that I found really unpleasant. It seemed that air was escaping from somewhere as he spoke. It sounded unhealthy, menacing, repugnant.
“Hard to talk,” he rasped. “Not used to it. Ask questions please.”
Logic told me that I should be sympathetic, but I didn’t feel that way. My gut reaction was to put considerable distance between us as soon as possible. I wanted to be rid of the responsibility of dealing with Mr Grimshaw. But I realised that if I didn’t face the situation now I would probably have to deal with it at some other time and in circumstances that might be even more unpleasant. I didn’t want him in my house again. So questions it would have to be. But what should I ask him? I started with the obvious.
“Did you die that night, the night you left the pub and disappeared?”
He shook his head, but his melancholy eyes never left mine.
“When did you die then?”
“Never died,” he croaked. “Not dead.”
That threw me, and I stood looking at him for a few seconds.
“What do you mean, you’re not dead? What did happen?”
He sighed visibly and looked even more deflated. He roused himself to make the effort. His subsequent speech was broken and hesitant. It seemed he needed to keep his words to a minimum.
“Went home from pub. Expected Edith to shout and beat me. Always did. See...” He pointed to the scar above his right eye. “Gave me cup of tea instead. Never done that in years. Tasted strange. Edith watched me drink it. Eyes looked evil. Mouth moving but no sound. Felt frightened.”
He stopped and put one hand on his chest. He looked to be in pain. He gathered himself again and continued.
“Fell asleep. Woke up outside. House all dark. Went to door but couldn’t touch it. Knew it was locked. Couldn’t knock. Knew it wasn’t allowed.”
He stopped again and I asked the obvious question.
“Who said it wasn’t allowed?”
He fell silent and I prompted him to continue.
“Got confused. Days all mixed up. Sometimes dark, sometimes light. Sometimes hot, sometimes cold. Sometimes dry, sometimes rain, sometimes snow. Saw people, but didn’t see me. Went into houses when doors not locked. Nobody saw me. Spoke but nobody heard. Walked through me. Horrible. Got frightened all the time. Went home lots. Door always locked. Then, open one day. Went in. Edith saw me. Screamed. Grabbed her arm. Wanted to know what happened. Wanted her to make it right. Fell down dead at my feet. Watched them take her away. Watched them bury her - there...” He pointed to the grave and stood looking sadly at it. “No escape now. Can’t die. Can’t be with people. Lonely.”
I thought he was going to cry, but men of Albert’s generation don’t do that. Feelings of pity and revulsion were battling each other in my brain as I watched his eerie form stand wretched and forlorn in the sunlit churchyard. Being the undead among the dead was a poignant concept. And I had already realised that being the undead among the living must be maddening. I was wondering what it must be like to spend over half a century walking among your fellow creatures without being able to engage with them. I found myself hoping that Albert’s sense of time was different to ours, as his stilted and difficult speech had indicated.
But my curiosity was aroused too. I wanted to know more. The idea of talking to a ghost was becoming interesting, although it seemed that Albert wasn’t quite that – at least not in the conventional sense. I had to ask more questions, partly to confirm that I had understood him correctly.
“You’re sure you’re not dead?”
“You’re sure your body isn’t lying somewhere?”
He nodded again.
“And you think Edith did this to you by putting something in you drink?”
His nod of assent was more pronounced and the look in his eyes said “definitely.”
“Was she a witch or something?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Made things with herbs. Talked to people when nobody there. Psychic.”
“So how do you move about?”
“Sometimes walk; sometimes just appear places, where I want,” he said.
“Can you walk through solid objects – walls and so on?”
He nodded again.
“So you can go into people’s houses without opening the door, but you don’t do it unless the door’s unlocked because you know it’s not allowed?” I really wanted that point left in no doubt. Another nod. “And you’ve been in other houses as well as mine?” A further nod. “But nobody else has ever seen you?” He shook his head. “So why do I see you; why nobody else?” He shrugged his shoulders.
“Must be sensitive,” he said, “like Edith. Psychic. Don’t know.”
I asked him how he managed to appear and disappear but he didn’t seem to understand the question. I realised that it probably meant nothing to him. No doubt he was only aware of his own continued existence. The phenomenon of appearance and disappearance was, I assumed, only apparent to the observer. The explanation for that would have to remain a mystery.
“So why did you ignore me that first night, when you were sitting in my armchair?”
“Frightened,” he said. The hissing noise seemed to be getting worse and I wondered whether the effort of speaking was tiring him. “First person to see me. Wanted to hide.”
I stood and pondered the situation for a while, shaking my own head. I felt frustrated. I knew that there must be lots of interesting questions that I could put to him, but only one came to mind.
“Is there anything I can do to help you?” I asked.
The look that suddenly appeared on his face surprised me. The sad, lost look disappeared instantly and was replaced with one of hope. For a second I was pleased, but his mouth began to contort as the look turned to one of longing – and it was a loathsome, lascivious sort of longing that seemed to ooze menacingly from his pale, watery eyes.
“Can come with me,” he said, mouthing that awful grin again. “Can be friend.” And he began to walk unsteadily towards me.
I started to back away. My feelings towards the old man had become ambivalent as I had listened to his apparently tragic story. They had even become more inclined towards pity and a genuine desire to help. But now I found him repulsive again. The thought of him coming any closer, let alone touching me, brought waves of panic setting my nerves on edge. I tried the obvious appeal to reason.
“No, I can’t come with you Albert. I can’t come into your world. It’s not possible.”
“Is,” hissed that awful voice. “Know how.”
Did he know how? The thought was appalling, but he seemed certain. Perhaps he did. I held out my hands in a pointless gesture. He continued to walk towards me and I continued to back away.
“Can come. Will come. Need friend.”
His expression changed again. His head fell slightly to one side and his eyes carried a look of manic intent. They still looked sad, but there was a degree of steely determination there too. I stumbled slightly as my foot left the raised verge and landed on the path. I decided to run. No doubt I would be swifter than him and now I knew how to keep him out of the house. I gave no thought to the possibility of being menaced at other times. The urge to flee was uppermost; nothing else mattered.
I turned and began to sprint. I managed only a few paces before he appeared in front of me again, blocking the path. I remembered his words, “sometimes just appear places”. Trying to sidestep him was out of the question. He might grab me as I went past. I had to keep as much distance as possible between us. The fear of capture was paramount and the instinct to avoid it was overriding all capacity for reason. I felt horribly trapped and walked backwards again as he moved towards me.
“I’m not coming with you,” I stuttered in desperation. “You can’t do that to somebody.”
He said nothing that time, just grinned his awful grin and nodded his cadaverous head. His pace quickened and so did my attempt to maintain the gap between us. I was losing. And then I stumbled again. I’d backed into a dustbin which fell over with an almighty clatter and rolled across the tarmac. I fell too and stared up into Mr Grimshaw’s depraved eyes as he stood looking down at me. They looked triumphant, and some power in them sent waves of fear and nausea swimming through my head.
Something snapped and I became angry. I prepared to fight whatever he was about to attack me with. But he didn’t attack me, not physically anyway. He stood there gloating and staring at me with a malevolence that I hope never to see again. It seemed that his power might have had its source in his eyes and I felt the urge to look away or even close mine altogether. But that would have meant being blind to whatever movement he made. I looked at his hands instead and raised my own when he started to reach out towards me.
Suddenly he stopped and drew them back. I looked up at his face again. He seemed alarmed and glanced over to his right. I took the opportunity to scramble to my feet and looked in the same direction. He appeared to be looking at Edith’s grave but I saw nothing. He evidently did, for the eyes that had menaced me were now growing wide and frightened. His mouth opened and emitted such a hideous howl that I covered my ears. His fear transmitted itself to me but I could see nothing to be afraid of, least of all Mr Grimshaw who was sinking to his knees pathetically. The awful howling continued as he raised his head to look at something or someone apparently standing over him.
Whatever it was, something invisible to me was obviously intervening. Whether it was doing so on my behalf or through some interest of its own, I shall never know. Mr Grimshaw stopped howling suddenly and the smile returned to his face. But this was a different smile - peaceful, contented even. He continued to look upwards, ignoring my presence altogether. And then he disappeared.
The graveyard was empty and quiet, and so was the village street beyond the perimeter. I walked away quickly, looking behind me often, and opened the church gate with trembling hands. I continued to keep a curious and nervous eye on the churchyard as I walked up the hill in the direction of home. It remained empty.
Needless to say, my evening was consumed with memories of the afternoon’s events and speculations about the fate of Albert Grimshaw. Waves of some dark sense of loathing continued to wash over me every now and then. I couldn’t be sure that the old man was definitely gone, but I felt hopeful. There had been something final about his disappearance. That last look of contentment on his face had suggested as much.
So who had been responsible for my salvation? Had Edith intervened for my sake, to deliver me from the clutches of her undead husband? What was the truth of their relationship? Who had been abusing whom? And which of them had really been responsible for their relative demises, he into some curious nether world and she into a conventional death? I had only heard Albert’s version of events and had come to distrust him.
Or had some other agency stepped in, for Albert’s sake, to grant him the peace of proper rest that had been cruelly denied him by an evil and scheming wife? Whoever it was, and for whatever reason, I could only be eternally grateful and hope that the Grimshaws were now both resting properly.
I have a feeling that a body will be found one day, the mortal remains of someone long dead and come to dust. Next week maybe, or in a year’s time, or even fifty years from now. They will be unable to identify it with certainty, but there will be speculation as long as any of the locals know the story of Albert Grimshaw’s mysterious disappearance. They will assume that the mystery has finally been solved. I won’t complicate matters, or prejudice my reputation, by telling them my story.
What concerns me most is what Albert said when I asked how it was that only I could see him. What was it? “Must be sensitive. Like Edith. Psychic.”
I don’t think I like that very much. I wonder how many more Mr Grimshaws there might be wandering about, hoping to find a friend. That’s why I keep my front door locked at all times. It’s the only way I can pass my living room without feeling nervous. And, for the time being at least, I’ve stopped opening my curtains at bedtime. The spirit of the night doesn’t have quite the same appeal at the moment.