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The Ghost and Mr Doyle

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Raymond Doyle was not a little man. In contrast to the Murphys, he looked insubstantial, of course, for they were all (even the women) six-footers with broad shoulders and heavy bones. Colin Murphy, especially, seemed a giant next to Ray Doyle, and often handled him like a child, hands on his shoulders or a palm on his back, pulling him by the arm to put him where he wanted him to stand, the same way Colin made so many of Ray’s decisions for him. “Poor Ray,” his sister Regina used to say, “Colin bullies you.”

Ray bent his head and smiled, self-deprecatingly. “I’m not as assertive as I might be, I know.” Certainly he'd never told Regina that she bullied him. Though she did.

He could defend himself; he was wiry and strong, his muscles not as bulgy as Colin’s, but enough. He ran, he rode (though not to the hunt), he climbed; he kept up with Colin, so even though the Murphys considered him rather a pathetic creature, he had plenty on which to found his self-esteem.

The Murphy family were kind to him. He knew that few would have given Second Lieutenant Raymond Doyle house room, much less have adopted him as a member of the family, when he first came back from war. Two-thirds his current weight, he hardly slept any night through, screaming through his nightmares, unable to do a job even if he'd had one, with no property or family left. Only Colin, who’d been his friend in school, stood by him. Colin’s own war experiences seemed to have dropped from his memory as soon as he returned to England. Ray’s were not so easy to forget, but over time his night terrors faded, his health returned, and he gained not only Colin’s affection but Regina’s and their mother Pamela’s. Their home was his. Colin was his, in fact, far more than his female relatives knew.

They might have thought Ray the weaker; however, he had his own strength. When the flu raged in the village and the whole household came down with it, Ray recovered quickly, while Colin succumbed.

The reading of the will surprised Colin's family a great deal. His mother and sister inherited only two-thirds of Colin Murphy’s estate, and most of that was the house and land; Ray, called in the will “my dearest friend on Earth,” received his third in cash and securities.

For all their kind feelings, the Murphy women found the division of resources hard to bear. At first they said, weeping, to neighbours and friends at the funeral, “We cannot bear to lose our poor dear Ray. Who will take care of him? And the estate has so many bills. He must stay.” Then they said, over tea and after church services, “Money is so tight everywhere. Colin wasn’t a rich man, of course. How can poor Ray find a place to live he can afford? He’d fall to pieces in a bachelor flat.” Then they said to him, “Ray, since when have you handled anything on your own? We must come with you and inspect the places you think you can live. Though really, you should simply stay with us and we can mourn poor Colin together.”

“This,” Ray said, awakening one morning to a beam of March sunlight striking through the eastern window across his face, “this has got to stop. I must settle things for myself. I must leave Colin’s house.” He sat up in bed and flung aside the blankets. A blackbird sang in the garden below. The air coming in the window was brisk and full of the smell of growing things.

He felt, that morning, dressing in the sun and breathing the fresh air (for Colin had preferred the windows shut and the draperies closed), a sense of freedom and rebirth. He’d been fond of Colin and grateful to all the Murphys. His life had not been unhappy, but it had not been his own life at all. It had been mostly Colin’s life, and the rest Regina’s life and Pamela’s life, full of skeins of wool wound into balls, medicine cabinets full of syrupy medicines, foxes’ tails and climbing ropes and sex on his back while Colin looked down with loving lust. Regina chose his clothes and mended them; Pamela had his attendance most of the hours he wasn’t with Colin. What of his own hobbies, the stories he had used to write as a lad, the painting he’d liked to do in university? Gone.

But perhaps not gone forever. He smiled gently as he straightened his tie. It was black, as was his wool suit-coat and the silk band around his arm.

Pamela was an early riser and had already eaten breakfast; Regina had a Women’s Institute meeting that had begun already, so Ray found himself alone in the dining room and made his breakfast of fried egg and tomato with toast. How lovely not to have someone telling him to take some of the kedgeree and to eat more! He hurried to the train station before any well-intentioned person could stop him or argue with him. On the village street, he waved cheerily to a few pedestrians, who stared back. It was a beautiful day, and Ray even broke into a run on the slope of the big hill, as the road ran down to the station, just for the pleasure of the movement.

“Where to?” asked the booking clerk, stooping to his narrow window.

“To the sea,” replied Ray on impulse. He’d never lived by the seaside. He’d be able to walk the shore and perhaps record the beauty on canvas.

“To Whitecliff?” the clerk asked.

Ray was not familiar with the place. “Yes, thank you, to Whitecliff,” he replied.

He was almost giddy, sitting in the train, facing the engine as he hardly ever had since he’d joined the army: Colin had always wanted to look at and speak to him, and also preferred to face in the direction the train went. Ray gazed out the window comfortably, without any of the motion sickness he’d sometimes been subject to. Trees, villages, fields sped by, under a sky half-full of blousy white clouds like ships’ sails full of wind; the real wind, fast and gusty, made them race like schooners in the same direction as the train. Ray wished for paints and canvas right that moment, though of course he couldn’t have kept a steady hand with the train rattling and rocking.

In Whitecliff, he was fairly blown out of the station and round the corner to the street, across to the house agents’ door, and fairly into it almost before he’d read the firm name of Lucas, McCabe, and Anson. Mr Anson was in, and soon Ray was perched on a red leather seat across the desk from the junior partner; Ray found himself still almost too breathless to speak.

“You’re a single young fellow―are you sure you’re not looking for a nice set of rooms?” asked Mr Anson, so kindly that Ray thought he too must see Ray as a small, weak man in need of advice.

“I want to rent a house. I’ve been staying with friends in their country house, and of course I couldn’t afford anything on their scale, but I’ll want more than a sitting room and bedroom. A garden would be nice. Near the sea.” Ray heard his own voice and approved. Solid, decided, like a big man. Almost like a Murphy.

Mr Anson glanced at the mourning band on Ray’s arm but did not speak. He pulled a thick blue-covered book from the edge of the desk and began to flip through the pages. “The Oaks, four bedrooms, garden, stables …”

Four bedrooms? That’s not …”

“Quite so. Beau Sejour, lovely gardens, on a good bus route to the local primary school and the shops, three bedrooms, usual offices, bath, gas …”

“I don’t care about the school, in fact I’d just as soon not be too near.”

“Indeed.” Anson flipped through some more pages. “Gull Cottage, furnished, company gas, two bedrooms, front and back garden, near seaside …” he paused and looked at Ray again, then down. His voice was toneless as he read, “charming site.” He swallowed and said in an even lower voice, “fifty-two pounds a year.”

“Rent a furnished house for fifty-two pounds a year?” Ray was delighted, then suspicious. “A pound a week? What’s the matter with it?”

“A ridiculous price,” Anson agreed, and flipped more pages. “Lavender Cottage might suit you. Two bedrooms, no garden, but near the sea.” He opened a drawer on his right and fished out a few Yale latchkeys.

“I want to take a look at Gull Cottage.” A furnished house meant he wouldn’t need to buy anything, so nobody would feel the need to help him shop. He could just pack his clothes and his own things―not so many anyway―get the key and move right in. Alone. Or he might look up his old batman, whom Colin had pensioned off. Jax might be willing to do for him, or at least to recommend someone. A house to sleep alone in, to wake when he pleased and eat what he liked, when he was hungry from walking on the beach. Or even from running on the sand, beside the waves.

Anson’s voice pulled Ray out of his daydream. “That wouldn’t suit you at all,” he said abruptly, standing. “We can start with Lavender Cottage, and then Beau Sejour.”

“I want to see Gull Cottage,” Ray insisted, not rising. He disliked being hurried. “It sounds very suitable to me, although the rent is so low I’m still wondering what’s the matter with it. Is it the drains?”

“The drains are in perfect order.” Mr Anson sat down again. “The owner lives in South America and is anxious to let it and have it off his hands.” He gazed intensely at Ray, as if trying, without words, to communicate something that worried him.

“They said at the station that there were two house agents on High Street, here. What’s the other firm’s name? Nairn, Nairn and Lawson? Perhaps they have Gull Cottage on their books, too.” He felt some compunction for Mr Anson’s obvious distress, but really, Ray deserved to see the place and decide for himself, and besides, he wasn’t made of money. The cheaper the rent, the better.

Anson clamped his mouth shut in a downturned line that pulled down his cheeks and made him look older. But he reached for the drawer on the other side of the desk and pulled out a larger key, iron, brown with rust.

“If you’re so determined, let us go immediately. My car is on the street,” he said soberly.

Getting his own way, that rare occurrence, made Ray good-humoured. He ignored the cigar smoke that permeated the car and chatted amicably with Mr Anson as they drove, discovering that the house agent was fond of bicycling, bird-watching, and geology. Anson explained that Whitecliff was named for its chalk deposits, but that there were also interesting veins of sandstone and ragstone. “The ragstone is green, almost …” Anson paused quite a lot, Ray thought, as if he got into sentences without knowing how he’d get out of them. “Almost the colour of your eyes,” he finished at last.

Well, that’s why he hesitated, then. “People do say they’re green,” Ray said easily, “but I only see grey in the mirror, myself.”

That seemed to be the right answer, in that Anson did not flirt any more (even ponderously) and instead told Ray about Whitecliff. Ray could see for himself that it curved around the bay in a neat esplanade, catching the sun today and, probably, a pleasant breeze off the water later in the season. On the shoreline, fronting the beach, were the bandstand and bathing tents; beyond the hotels and boarding houses was the hollow they’d just driven out of, the one that sheltered the shops on the High Street (including the two housing agents), the fire and police and train stations, the Town Hall and church. Anson told Ray about the Vicar, the Mayor, the concerts, the yearly fête. “What a pleasant place this is.” Ray reverted to years spent wanting to please; still, it was a pretty town.

“It is,” Anson replied simply and added, “Here is Cliff Road,” shifting gears a little roughly to take the steeper slope that left the esplanade behind. The houses on Cliff Road stood behind front gardens full of spring blooms, well-kept, and the cliffs that gave the town its name (and contained the veins of greenish ragstone) fell from the other side of the road to the ocean.

It was only a few more minutes before Anson slowed to a stop and said, “And this is Gull Cottage.” It was a solid, grey stone house, farther from its nearest neighbour than the rest of the houses had been. Nothing seemed to have been built beyond it. The front garden was behind a wall of that same grey stone, so the first floor had the bow window that would give a fine view of the water. “That window must catch the sun all day long,” Ray said happily. “I like this very much. It’s just what I imagined of a seaside cottage.”

“You can’t judge it from one window and a bit of wall,” Anson said, but he made no move to leave the car. “You’ll get all the weather here, and it’s isolated. You may have trouble hiring your domestics.”

“Oh, I believe I can get my old batman, and whom else could I possibly need?” Ray asked. “It’s not as though I have children.”

“Has he seen it?”

“Of course not! I’m only seeing it myself right now. And in fact, I’m not seeing it right now, but I want to. Come on,” and Ray got out of the car and went right through the gate in the wall, which fortunately was not locked. It needed a bit of work, he saw: rust on the bars and an unfortunate wailing squeak as the hinges moved.

Anson was right behind him, muttering something Ray didn’t hear, and then the man actually took his elbow as they went up the flagstone path, as if Ray were hobbling with a cane or a trembling nervous wreck. “I beg your pardon,” he said, pulling his elbow out of Anson’s grasp, and the house agent coloured and stepped ahead to the stoop to unlock the faded blue door. The key was heavy and the lock stiff, and getting in wasn’t easy. Anson looked over his shoulder, as if Ray might give up on seeing the rest of the house, but when Ray frowned a little, Anson just went in.

It was, of course, dim inside, but not as shadowy as Ray might have expected, for a round window like a porthole brought a shower of champagne-coloured sunlight into the square entrance hall. Three doors with cracked white paint making them look shabby opened into the ground-floor rooms: the kitchen and dining room to one side and the sitting-room to the other. The staircase bent in a lovely curve somehow like the prow of a ship. It drew Ray, but he wanted to finish with each level before going to the next, so he stepped into the sitting room.

It was dominated by an enormous black marble fireplace. The ledge of the mantel was over Ray’s head, though not by much, and a big clock in a matching marble dominated the centre, drawing the eye with its large hands. Of course, it had stopped, and the hands lay at 7:45. Above the clock was an oil painting.

It was a portrait. The subject seemed to have been cut into pieces and poorly reassembled: the hands were brown claws, the hair like a black leather helmet, the uniform painted in loving detail and with gilt paint for the captain’s epaulettes and sleeve stripes, and his cocked hat painted as if an afterthought, unconvincingly held in his forward hand. “That looks terrible,” Ray said, yet he couldn’t stop looking at the face, which seemed to look back beyond the usual trick of placing the pupils so they appeared to follow the viewer. The eyebrows bent as if about to lift in surprise or sarcasm, and the eyes were as blue as the summit of the sky on an especially clear day. The curve of his lips, even painted redder than they should be, was a little pursed and as kissable as any Gainsborough beauty’s. His face made a perfect oval although its cheeks were spotted with a strawberry red that was either a mistake or a sign of far too much grog.

“That,” said Anson in a strangled voice, “is Captain Bodie, the late owner of the property. You have a lovely view of the garden from here,” and he touched Ray’s arm to show him what could be seen from the window. Ray hardly registered the grey-green monkey-puzzle tree and the daffodils nearly choked in tall grass, for the image of the captain’s face burned into his mind.

When he looked at the rest of the room, he was taken aback with its mixture of the luxurious and exotic on the one hand, and cheap bric-a-brac on the other. An intricately patterned Persian rug and a beautiful cherry-red lacquer cabinet jostled a red plush sofa that looked like it belonged in a whorehouse and streaky carnival glass vases on the occasional tables. The hearthrug was cheap and the red dye uneven, but the fire irons were finely wrought and made beautiful curves that were hardly visible against the marble. On the walls, postcards and sloppy watercolours duelled with fine old prints and two pieces of the most lovely Florentine embroidery Ray had ever seen.

“Half this shabby trash has to go,” he said, and could have sworn he saw the painted face frown above the mantel.

“It can be stored, if you wish,” Anson said.

“And you, sir, shall be the first to be boxed up,” Ray said to the portrait.

“The dining room needs a few repairs,” Anson said, leading him into the hallway and through the other door, but to Ray’s eye the dining room―with its sagging strips of greyish wallpaper; greenish, streaked drapes; and fraying cloth on the chair seats―needed less repair than total redecoration, ceiling to floor. The layers of dust on the surface of the table looked like the soil in an unplanted cucumber frame, uneven, as if parts of it had been cleaned and then re-buried under layers of dust.

Ray couldn’t help saying, “This place can’t have been lived in for years.”

“No,” said Anson baldly. “Here’s the kitchen.”

It was also an inch deep in dust, on the shelves and tops of hanging pans, even in the flat bottom of the sink, and Ray said, “I can see why you didn’t want to show it in this state. But doesn’t the owner have anyone in to clean the place?” Yet in the pantry was a small work table which bore a teapot, a half-full cup, a plate with a half-made sandwich, and a cut loaf of bread―even a small milk jug which was, Ray realized, the source of the bad smell he’d been half-aware of since he’d stepped into the room.

“Was the char called away in a hurry?” he asked, wrinkling his nose and stepping back into the kitchen. “You’d think she would have come back for the food while it was still good.”

“You would,” Anson responded, but not as if he were interested.

“Don’t you know? Oh dear. Is this an example of what you said about domestic help being hard to bring in here?”

“She turned the key in to our mailbox at the office, but didn’t leave any message,” Anson explained. “She never came back for any wages, either.”

“Well, did she earn any?” Like the painting, Ray frowned. No, Ray really frowned, he reminded himself. He’d only imagined the painting’s expression. “I’m beginning to think something is very odd about this house.”

“Oh, good, then we needn’t go upstairs. Come along, we can still see Lavender Cottage.” Anson looked relieved. “I knew it wouldn’t suit you.”

“Nonsense, it suits me very well so far. It just needs getting ready, and I expected that. But there’s something strange going on here, and I’m going to find out what it is, whether you tell me or not.” Ray glared in the way Colin had always jollied him out of, but Anson just turned and led the way up that beautiful staircase. It was a pleasure to go up, the curve of the bannister in Ray’s hand like the neck of a friendly horse, almost alive.

A bath and two bedrooms opened from the first-floor landing. Both bedrooms were furnished simply, chests of drawers, a hanging mirror over a shaving stand, a single bed in the back room and a full-size bed in the front one. The rugs were blue and seemed thick, though the dust made their texture hard to tell, and the walls’ whitewash had survived neglect better than the ground-floor walls. The front bedroom, obviously the one Captain Bodie had used, was larger and contained a wicker chair in front of a gas stove and three prints of sailing ships on the walls. But the object that caught and held Ray’s attention was an enormous brass telescope on a tripod, right in the bow window and bright as a fire.

Ray walked over and touched the shining metal. “There’s not a grain of dust on this,” he said, so baffled that he couldn’t forbear remark.

As Anson opened and shut his mouth without speaking, a rich, low chuckle seemed to fill the room. Ray had never heard any human sound so attractive―it seemed to curl round him and hold him close―but that was ridiculous. He was hallucinating, or the wind in the eaves made the strangest sound he could imagine. Ray turned completely around, trying to trace where the sound came from, and when he looked at Anson, the house agent had coloured from neck to forehead; in fact, as his blond hair was thinning in the front, his blush went back until it vanished somewhere near the crown of his head. He came forward, and instead of simply grasping Ray’s arm, he put an arm around his shoulders and moved him bodily out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and out of the house entirely.

It felt like Colin, back again in this much less physically impressive body, but still sure he knew exactly what Ray needed and where he should be. Ray couldn’t even struggle, the habit of moving for Colin and at his direction was so ingrained. By the time they reached the car, though, he was indignant. “How dare you!” he cried out and tore free, only to find himself standing at the passenger door of the car with no real reason not to get into it. Hating to give in, he looked into Anson’s flushed face and said sternly, “This house is haunted.”

“I didn’t want to bring you here!” Anson was almost shouting. “I wanted to take you to Lavender Cottage! Beau Sejour! You would come here!”

Ray swallowed and got into the car. Anson jumped in and sped off as if the ghost were chasing them.

“Slow. Down.” Ray ground out each word.

“I’m sorry,” Anson said and as they reached the esplanade, brought the car to a normal traffic speed. “I feel ill.”

Certainly he looked ill. The flush was gone; his pale forehead was beaded with sweat.

“Should we stop at a chemist?” Ray asked with sarcasm.

“No, no, I’m not ill that way. It’s … do I owe more of a responsibility to my client or to you?”

“What do you expect me to say to that? I will tell you, if you don’t explain to me what is going on at Gull Cottage, I’ll make you sick enough, if fists can do it.”

“Oh, dear,” said Anson. “That house! I’ve only managed to get it let three times in the years we’ve had it on the books, and Nairn, Nairn and Lawson have never gotten a client to take the place on at all. But the tenants I’ve signed have never stayed longer than twenty-four hours. I’ve written to the owner over and over, but he just cables ‘Rely on you,’ and I don’t want to be relied on!” He pulled into the parking spot the car had been in before, just down the street from the offices of McCabe, Lucas, and Anson. Then he actually fisted his own hair, pulling on it as he said, “That blasted house―excuse me―but I dream of it. Some night I may go out there and set the place on fire just to get it out of my head. Damn Captain William Bodie and all his works!”

“Why does he haunt? How did he die?”

“Suicide.”

“Really!” Ray could hardly believe it. That chuckle―he couldn’t believe that man had been unhappy, much less despairing enough to kill himself.

“The only way to give the greatest trouble to the largest number of people,” Anson groused.

Ray didn’t care about the house agent’s self-pity.

“At least it’s not your trouble,” Anson went on. “You see you can’t live in it.”

“Nonsense, of course I can. I like the house and I will rent it.”

“I can’t allow it, Mr Doyle,” and the condescending kindness in Anson’s voice made Ray want to hit out.

“Here’s a suggestion to soothe your tender conscience,” he said, the S sounds hissing through his clenched teeth. “Let the house to me on approval. Give me that same twenty-four hours that the other tenants spent there. I’ll pay ahead―I’ll give you two shillings and over-pay, even.”

“That’s absurd. I’ve never heard of anything like it.”

“And a haunted seaside cottage is perfectly normal.” Ray only barely escaped rolling his eyes. “Of course if everyone runs at the first odd noise, the house will get a bad name. But in the twentieth century, it’s too ridiculous to pretend ghosts are real. There’s probably a hole in the roof and the wind’s just getting in, or it’s coming down the chimney.”

“No wind in the world could have made that laugh.”

“If you won’t let the place to me, I’m sure Nairn, Nairn and Lawson will.”

Anson stared for what seemed a long time, his expression very different than it had been since Ray had introduced himself. “You may be the most self-willed, obstinate man I’ve ever met.”

Ray just smiled. “I must speak to that old batman of mine, but I’ll be back day after tomorrow. Shall we draw up the paperwork now or then?”

“Then,” groaned Anson. “You may yet come to your senses.”

Ray smiled again as he got out of the car. He could shake Anson’s hand, now that the man would do what Ray wanted. Gull Cottage would be his. He’d lay the ghost if he had to.

And that made him give his own chuckle, which might not have the strength of Captain Bodie’s ghostly one, but Colin had always said would raise the dead … meaning his cock.

Too bad he couldn’t literally raise Captain Bodie. He’d love to have met the man.