Chapter 1 (and, really, all the rest) is all about contrasts, so I'm posting it for Tea and Swiss Roll's Obbo 340: Contrast.
The first line of the novel is "Mrs Muir was a little woman." So there's the contrast between the novel and the fanfic as well.
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?”
“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.
Ray Doyle returns to Gull Cottage.
Half-past ten on Thursday morning, Ray Doyle again stood at the blue door of Gull Cottage, with Jax beside him instead of Mr Anson. Neither Colin nor his mother and sister had approved of Jax, and while Colin had probably disliked how Jax had known Ray when the trenches were stealing his sleep and turning him into a wreck, the Murphy women had disliked his colour. While Ray would rather have kept Jax on, he wouldn't ask the man to live somewhere he was not trusted or somewhere he was unreasonably feared. “Well, Jax, are you ready to brave the ghost?” Ray said over his shoulder as he wrestled with the key.
“I'll tell you if it appears.” Jax grinned, an expression that always made Ray feel as if his rebellious nerves would settle themselves and behave, since Jax clearly expected them to do so. “Meanwhile, I'm free to think it a load of gammon and just get on with the work.”
“There's plenty.” Ray shoved hard and the door opened stiffly. “Even the door and the gate need cleaning.”
“And a new coat of paint. But let's do the inside first.”
“Yes. We have to make it fit to stay in, tonight.”
Jax strode into the square front hall, looked up at the window, still spilling golden light down the stairs, and down at the floor, still scuffed and streaky. “I'll start in the kitchen, shall I? We'll need to make food, or tea at least.”
“Your work's cut out for you. I'll dust and sweep the sitting room.”
Jax handed over the broom he was carrying over his shoulder, and also gave Ray the dustpan and dustrags. The bag slung round his back bumped, and the bucket in his hand swung as he went lightly past the dining room door to the kitchen one. He stood for a moment in the doorway. “Blimey,” he said.
“Yes. Well.” Ray went into the sitting room and looked at the portrait. Today it stared blankly down, old paint and that was all. Ray tilted the broom handle to his forehead in salute and said, “We'll get this place shipshape and Bristol fashion.” Captain Bodie was silent and motionless, as was only to be expected.
Ray wasn't used to dusting, but it was simple enough. The horrid vases and fiddly china ornaments, as well as the gummy antimacassars, he put on the dining table to be boxed and stored; he wiped down the surfaces and called Jax in to help with the mantel.
“We need hot water, and plenty of it,” said Jax, “but I can't get the stove to light for love or money.”
They called Mr Anson from the telephone beside the stairs, and he said everything should be turned on. Nevertheless, neither Ray nor Jax could coax a burner to light. They called the gas company as well, but the man Ray spoke to would not agree to send one of their workers up to Gull Cottage until Friday afternoon at the earliest.
“That'll never do,” and Jax shook his head. “We'll be driven to a bonfire in the garden by that time, just to make a cuppa. We need a Beatrice―you know, one o'them small stoves, and paraffin to burn in it. Order it on up from the shop, they should be able to deliver it.”
And they did. To celebrate, Ray and Jax took a break and made tea, opening the packet of Anzac biscuits and crowding round the work table in the pantry where the char's spoiled, half-made dinner had been. “Oi, don't get crumbs all over me clean floor,” Jax said, poking Ray in the side and making him laugh, which of course sprayed wet biscuit shreds in all directions. Jax paddled in the air, laughing himself. “You need a keeper,” he said.
“Good thing I've got one, then,” Ray said, thinking of all Jax had brought him through.
Jax looked bashful. “Oh, go on.”
Ray meant it, and he wanted to know if Jax would stay, but it didn't seem the right time to ask. The moment was almost too intimate, as if he wanted Jax as a―as he'd been with Colin, and though Jax was well-made and had a strong, handsome face, Ray didn't want another caretaker-lover. He couldn't imagine Jax wanted that either.
After tea, they strung the clothesline in the back garden and took up the ground-floor rugs to shake and beat the dust out of them. Ray came in and washed, then went back to the sitting-room with a step-stool Jax had found, to wipe the frames on the wall, swipe down the cobwebs hanging from the crown moulding, and take down the drapes for a wash. Meanwhile Jax had taken a scrub-brush to the rugs on the line, currying out yet more clouds of dust. He was grey from his dense-curled hair to his boots, when he came in, and though Ray had made more tea, he wouldn't pour it until Jax had washed.
“We'll need more paraffin,” was all he said.
Ray called for another delivery.
The third time he washed off the accumulated grime, Ray almost thought of those terrible, muddy days in the trenches, but his mind still flinched away. All he could remember and hold to was an image of Jax carefully pouring tea into a metal cup and handing it to Ray, who cupped it gratefully in stiff, cold hands, the warmth more welcome than the drink.
The rooms had seemed chill at first, but the work had warmed Ray, and the sun came out to stream in the windows and bring out the welcome in the shapes of the rooms. “It's really a, a lovable house,” Ray said to Jax. “Feels like home.”
“Good.” Jax didn't commit himself as to his own feelings.
They skipped the dining room until tomorrow and went to the first floor, where they again split the work, Jax doing the upper hallway and the stairs while Ray did the bathroom; then Jax got his own room into shape while Ray began in the master bedroom. After the disaster of the dining room and the chaos of the sitting room, this room was full of beauty, light, and rest, even with the telescope in that dominating position and the dust everywhere else. Ray had brought curtains and linen for the bedrooms, and used the sheets even after discovering a chest full of Irish linen in the box room. They'd need washing anyway before they were used. Jax helped carry the rugs downstairs and again they shook, beat, and brushed them into submission.
Ray had also ordered candles when he'd sent for more paraffin, so they sat in the dusk with the little, flickering light, eating sardines from the tins with bread and beer in bottles. “Proper working-man's feed, this,” Jax said, looking sideways at Ray.
“A long time since I've worked this hard,” Ray agreed. “And almost as much to do tomorrow. I'd never get through it all without you, mate.”
“Mate,” Jax said, his voice expressionless and low.
“I don't have so many I can afford to lose one. Will you stay?”
Jax paused, head tilted down, and in the candlelight Ray could not see how he looked. Thinking more words would improve nothing, Ray was silent. Then Jax grinned at him and said, cheekiness back in his voice, “This a way of getting me labour without having to pay me?”
“No,” Ray said simply.
In the bedroom, Ray found the wind had turned chill, so he shut the windows, catching his finger in one of the latches. Only a momentary pain, and probably wouldn't even bruise. With the curtains shut and the candle on the bedside table, the room closed into shadowy comfort like a shell. Ray got between the sheets and fell into sleep as if someone had pushed him.
In his dream, the portrait from the sitting room grew large, and somehow the base of the frame was on the floor, so that the Captain could step through. He had to bend his head a little, for he was a taller man than Ray though shorter than Colin; his shoulders were square and broad as though he were standing at attention, facing off a gale with the knowledge that his men were looking to him to be steadfast and brave. Ray was sure he always had been. The blue uniform coat brought out his eyes, and when he saw Ray, he smiled, showing straight white teeth.
The hand he held out to shake was strong and callused, in fact scarred across the palms―here was a man who worked hard every day and made all his own decisions―and Ray's own hand felt stronger and warmer in the Captain's clasp. “Second Lieutenant Ray Doyle,” he introduced himself, though he didn't usually use his old Army rank. But then they were outside of time, here, in his dream.
“Call me Bodie,” said the ghost, in a voice that went with the chuckle Ray and Mr Anson had heard Tuesday, a voice that could give commands or persuade or woo, though Ray imagined it could also be cold. He hoped he would never hear it angry, not at him.
Ray wanted to hear the Captain speak again, but he himself didn't know what to say, so he just watched while Captain Bodie took a turn around the room, looking at Ray's brush and comb, his shaving things, his card case, his pocketbook, his suitcase that still had a book and a few items of clothing in it. Bodie's gait rolled a bit, which seemed quite normal for someone used to the tilting deck of a ship; he put one hand briefly on the telescope as if he'd missed it. Then he reached through the curtain to open the left-hand casement of the bow-window. Afterwards, he took another turn around the room, and Ray became aware of his own body lying in bed although he was sure he'd been standing before. At the bedside, Captain Bodie looked down, gazed in silence, and put out one hand as if to tuck Ray in or touch his hair.
Then a noise woke him, and the room was dark. The noise came again and he recognized it: the window clapping shut and blowing open again. He was, of course, alone.
Hadn't he closed the window? He knew he had. It had pinched his finger, and when he touched the spot with his thumb, it was still a little tender. And despite the blanket, the end of the bed was cold and his feet icy. Eventually he got out of bed, put on his slippers, latched the window again and went down to the kitchen to make himself a hot-water bottle.
It was the kind of thing Regina would have recommended, because she thought him frail, but the feel of a hot bottle at the foot of the bed was at least a comforting, private weakness, especially now that he did not have Colin's warm bulk to sleep beside.
As he filled the kettle at the tap, he wished he'd loved Colin more; he'd deserved it. Ray remembered how, sometimes, he'd look across the sitting room and meet Colin's baffled, adoring gaze, so plainly a lover's that Ray could hardly understand how Pamela, at least, didn't recognize it. In pity, in compunction, Ray would claim fatigue and make his way to Colin's room, where Colin always met him, undressed him, and feasted on his body, took his own pleasure and usually gave Ray an orgasm while Ray did little more than allow it to happen.
Once, in the aftermath, with Colin wrapped tenderly around him while Ray petted his hair and the back of his neck, he'd voiced his fear: “Do your mother and sister know? That we do this?”
“Eh?” Colin was almost asleep. His arms tightened, and he kissed Ray's neck. “Don't b'lieve so. Would think they'd have something to say.”
“You plan to marry? For the estate?”
“'S just land, Ray. No. Give you up? No.” Colin yawned, his eyes closed. “Love you.”
And Ray's stubborn honesty, which he thought of as his only asset and the source of his pride, didn't even allow him to lie. “You're a wonder, Colin,” was as close as he could come.
Now, at Gull Cottage, as he turned away from the sink, he saw that the moon came in the kitchen like a streak of milk across the flagged floor. The candle he'd brought down flickered in some draft and went out. He could see plainly enough without it to find the matchbox and try the Beatrice, but the flame was low and sullen, the paraffin nearly gone. They'd want it in the morning for tea. Ray blew it out.
But he was still cold, so he tried the gas stove again, though he had little expectation that it would light. It did not. He was increasingly irritable, the hot-water bottle gaining importance in his imagination, until it seemed his only comfort. He twisted the gas knob but didn't even hear any gas escaping, rattled the grate, even kicked the base of the stove. At the next try, the match wouldn't light either. He tried another, but the phosphorus wouldn't catch on the sandpaper strip of the matchbox. “Why the devil won't you light?” he said, exasperated.
“Because I don't choose it should,” said Captain Bodie's voice, conversational, close.
Ray jumped, dropped both match and box, and turned all the way around, trying to see the man from his dream, but no one was there.
“I don't approve of gas. Hate the damned stuff, in fact.”
The voice had no direction; in fact, it seemed to come straight into his brain without entering through the ears. Yet it seemed so real, so clear, and so like the Captain of his dream, that Ray answered it, still angry: “You're not the one freezing in the damned draft! Anyway, you must have been the one to have it put in, when you built the house!”
“I didn't know it would kill me then.” The voice seemed rueful, now.
“It's not my fault you killed yourself with it.”
“I did not kill myself!” was a roar that would have rattled the window if it had been borne on real sound waves. “I fell asleep on my armchair in front of the gas stove, on a blustery evening like this one, and I must have kicked the lever in my sleep. I'd closed the window because I could tell it would storm before morning. There's fresh air, and there's a blasted gale! Then my charwoman testified at the inquest that I always slept with the window open, all times of year, stormy or fine, and they brought it in as suicide, damn their eyes! How would she have known how I slept?―I never slept with her!”
Ray laughed before he could stop himself. After a moment, Captain Bodie began to laugh too, and Ray felt that same flush of attraction that he'd felt when he first heard the ghost's chuckle.
“Oh my,” he said at last. “If you're trying to frighten me away, you'll have to try much harder.”
“You won't stay; nobody does,” said the ghost. “I don't choose they should. Lily-livered landlubbers, easy enough to chase them away.”
“But I'm not lily-livered,” Ray protested. “And I choose to stay.”
“It's my house!”
Ray had always found that if he could keep his own temper (by no means a sure thing), his calm was far more irritating to the person he was arguing with than any other response would be. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the sink. “It's not, you know. It belongs to a man in South America.”
“And that's another thing! Just because he's my next of kin, that bloody little rat gets all my money and my house!”
Ray choked. He suspected, if he laughed now, the ghost would not join in. “Yes, that is generally how this inheritance business works. When there's no will.”
“I didn't know I was going to die!”
Ray didn't speak for a few moments. “I need to write my solicitor,” he said then, thoughtfully. “I never had much to leave, before, but now you remind me, I need to make my own will.”
“Do,” said the voice, more subdued.
“If your only next of kin was this fellow in South America, how would you have left things if you'd … remembered? Any children on the other side of the blanket?”
The ghost snorted. “Hardly. I'm a man like yourself, a man for other men.”
“Is that what they call it nowadays?” The voice was indifferent.
“And how do you know that about me?” Ray was uneasy. He'd hardly ever told anyone, almost never in words, always men he meant to have sex with. Even Jax didn't know, unless he'd guessed.
“I've walked through your dreams, Raymond,” and now the voice was gentle. “There's not much you can hide from me.”
And what harm could a dead man do his reputation, no matter what he knew? Ray braced himself. “Then you'll know I prefer Ray,” he said.
“Ray.” His name in that voice sounded like a promise, though Ray could not tell what promise it was.
“But how would you have left your house?"
“I wanted to make it a home for retired sea-captains.”
Surprised, amused, Ray made an almost barking sound.
“You needn't laugh.” The ghost sounded hurt. “We work damn hard, and don't make so much money. Most don't keep much, anyway.”
“If the others buy Chinese lacquer and Irish lace, it's no wonder.”
“So long as it's not Chinese opium and Irish whiskey that they buy.”
“True,” Ray admitted. Then he stamped his feet because, as entertaining as this banter was, his toes were still going numb with cold.
“Oh, light the stove and fill your bottle,” Captain Bodie said with a pretence of irritation that Ray saw through easily.
The match and the gas burner lit easily, too. While he stood waiting for the water to heat, facing the stove now, Ray felt himself drift into the thoughtless, emotionless trance of fatigue … it really had been too long since he had worked a whole day, hands and body and muscles … there was no point in worrying … he must simply do the next thing in front of him, grateful that the immediate task was as pleasant as this. Whatever was destined to happen, would.
Captain Bodie's voice was so quiet, it slipped into Ray's mind as if it had been his own thought. “That's the right way to live. We can't know how our plans and deeds will work out; all we can do to move into the future is wait. But men are such fools, blindly rushing about as if they were all playing blind-man's bluff, smashing into each other and trampling the most delicate things until they're ruined, and the man sits down and cries to heaven that it's the blind one. If a man never saw it, is there no sun?”
“I wouldn't know,” said Ray, feeling out of his depth. He closed his eyes.
“You are actually blind and deaf!” the Captain's voice said in a completely different tone. “Look at the steam coming out of that kettle―hear the hiss! You'll ruin the bottle if the water's boiling when you pour it in.”
Ray poured some more tap water in to cool the kettle slightly, then got the top off the hot-water bottle and poured the water in.
“You ought to have a funnel,” the ghost fussed. “You'll scald your hands sooner or later if you go on like that.”
Just like Colin, Ray thought.
Perhaps the Captain could hear thoughts, for he immediately asked, harshly, “Why do you wear all that black when you hardly cared a half-inch of black handkerchief edging for the man who's dead?”
“It's hardly yards of crepe,” Ray answered defensively, “and his mother and sister wanted it.” The moment he'd spoken, Ray felt he'd admitted that he hadn't loved Colin, and though he'd thought it so lately, it made him cross for Captain Bodie to haul that truth into the air and speak it all but aloud.
But instead of pressing Ray, Bodie said, “And they cared even less than you.”
“You haven't been walking through their dreams, have you? So how do you know?”
“You know,” and it was both answer and argument … and even some comfort.
Ray looked at his hands on the bottle. “Yes.” He took a deep breath and said, “I don't know whether it makes sense to wish you good night, but I do.”
“And I wish you sweet dreams. For many nights.”
“All spent here,” Ray said with a hint of challenge, but the ghost was silent.
Ray and Jax settle into Gull Cottage.
The bedroom curtains didn't block much sunlight. Still, the charm of his own bed in his own―though rented―house made waking early its own satisfaction. Ray walked over to the telescope and moved the curtains so he could get a view of the ships in the Channel. The focus was not right, and the more he fiddled with it, the worse it got. He must ask Captain Bodie … now that was a foolish idea, when he was still unsure that Captain Bodie was more than his own imagination or half-dream.
He hadn't dreamed all night after filling the hot bottle. It had cooled by now, of course, and Ray pulled it out of the bed and went to empty it in the bath. He didn't bother with a dressing gown. Nor did Jax, emerging from the back bedroom with his nightshirt pulled awry and a hand in his hair, scratching. “Good morning,” Jax yawned. “Are you hungry yet? I can make a cold bacon roll for you.”
“I'd rather have hot, wouldn't you? The gas stove worked last night when I made a hot-water bottle for myself. Give it a try, anyway, let me know. If not, I think there's enough paraffin for tea.” Then Ray went back into the bathroom and had a fast wash, because the stream from the tap came from the well and was as cold as the groundwater. He felt his chin and considered shaving, but the idea of doing it with cold water dissuaded him. He'd rather have stubble than nicks. Just as he meant to call down the stairs to ask about the gas, Jax made a startled hooting sound, and Ray ran down the stairs in his pyjama bottoms.
Wide-eyed, standing at the stove, Jax said, “Did I say that ghost was gammon? He spoke right in my ear when I took the pan off. 'You shut that off when you've finished,' as clear as day and close as … close.” He rubbed the ear in question. “Jumped a candlestick like Jack, if there'd been one.”
Ray shook his head and addressed the empty air. “I'm not leaving. Drive Jax away, I'll just do the work myself. I'd rather not. But I'm able and I shall if need be.”
There was no answer.
“Needs must when the devil drives?” Jax grinned. “Don't wear yourself out on my account. Come and eat before it's cold.”
Ray ate; he took water up and shaved; he put on holiday clothes because the cloth was lighter, and he didn't wear the armband. He told himself it needed cleaning before he wore it again.
After Jax had washed and shaved, they went back to the dining room and dug it out of the dirt, moved out the furniture and stripped the wallpaper from the walls. After a wash and lunch, Ray walked down to the shops and chose the paint colours he wanted for the walls and the tools he'd need, brushes and ladders and all, saw off the delivery cart and then bought groceries. After that delivery had gone too, he went to Lucas, McCabe and Anson to sign the paperwork and pay the rest of this year's rent.
“However,” he said forcefully, “you're not to charge me fifty-two pounds when I'm buying paint and doing the labour.”
Anson said quite meekly that he'd take a pound and ten shillings off the rent for Ray's work and the same for Jax's, too.
Ray negotiated. In the end it was four pounds that were taken off, and Ray happily paid the remaining forty-seven and ten shillings.
“No … disturbances?” Anson asked.
“We slept like babes unborn,” Ray said, which was true enough.
He was sure he'd do the same tonight, once he'd climbed the hill to Cliff Road and walked along to Gull Cottage. Jax had put the drop cloths and the ladders in the dining room, and the two of them put primer on the walls before their evening meal.
“I draw the line at sewing drapes,” Ray told Jax as they looked at their day's work. “I'll need a seamstress.”
“Try the Vicar for recommendations,” Jax answered. “Sure to be a flock of women in a town like this, be glad to run their needles through your cloth,” and he winked.
“They can keep their thread to themselves.”
“Oh, don't be like that, Lef'.”
“I shall be exactly like that, thank you.”
Jax looked over at Ray carefully, as if he meant to say something but was unsure how it would be received. Then he nodded. When he spoke, it was in a thoughtful voice. “I'll go down hill tomorrow, see if I can shop here.”
All Ray could really say was, “Yes, that will be good to know.”
Later, he lay in bed thinking about whether Jax could feel at home here. That afternoon, in town, he'd seen a few people of Jax's colour, or nearly; they were carrying goods in baskets, so were probably servants or delivery persons. Their presence was heartening. But they were so few.
“What are you worried about?” asked Captain Bodie. “You can always hire someone else.”
“Only if you leave them alone.” Ray stared up into the shadows above him. “Anyway, I know Jax. I'd rather have someone here that I know, who knows me.”
“Even a kaffir.”
“He's not. His family's from the West Indies.”
“What does that matter?”
Ray rolled to his side, propped his head on one hand, and peered into the depths of the bedroom. “I wish I could see you.”
“You can't, except in dreams.”
“People sometimes see ghosts.”
“No one sees me.”
Ray sat up. “Is that on purpose? You sound pleased about it. I don't, I can't tell what you mean, sometimes, because I can't see your face.”
“I'm not pleased.” Captain Bodie's voice seemed closer although it still had no direction. “But if I could choose to affect the mortal world more, I wouldn't choose ectoplasm.”
The flame of the candle wavered. The telescope moved in a short arc. “Ray, you know I shouldn't be here. I should move on, but for so long the house held me. I wish … would you buy it and make it a sea-captains' home in your will?”
Ray laughed shortly. “Those blasted sea captains! What if I left it for black sea captains?”
Bodie snorted. “Whatever you like. Sea captains under six feet tall. Sea captains with green eyes. I don't care, so long as they captained a ship.”
“I don't think I can afford it.”
“Will you ask?”
“I will. Not tomorrow, because I just paid the year's rent, but soon.”
There was a silence, and then Captain Bodie said, “You'll live in it, won't you?”
“Oh, yes, I felt it was my place as soon as I saw it. The whole plan of the place is good. I never think, 'I wish the door were over there' or 'this window should be higher,' or 'this cupboard needs another shelf.' You designed it yourself, didn't you?”
“Yes, I did.”
“You ought to have been an architect.”
“With no degree? To sit in an office all day long? To talk sweetly to clients? No, Ray, I wouldn't have borne it.” Another silence fell; Ray was no nearer to sleep. “Come look out the window,” Bodie said.
Ray got up, wrapped himself in his dressing gown, and toed into his slippers. The Channel was calm, light dancing on the water in a long, wavering track. Above, the sky was full of stars. “Grains of light everywhere. Did you navigate by them?”
“Certainly. See the Milky Way?”
“Yes.” The whole view was beautiful, the night all silver and the deepest sable blue. “I should paint this.”
“Do you own any paint?”
“Not now, but I’ll buy some as soon as I have time to use it, when the house is ready. And canvases, brushes, everything.” Ray gazed, absorbing the beauty as if he were basking in it or letting it soak through his skin. The moon's silver trail lay on the water like a diamond chain. Without turning, he said, “Captain Bodie, when I don't look I feel I know where that body you don't have is. Right now, your shoulder's on the window frame and your head is tilted back. Your arms are folded. You're looking at me.”
“The moonlight in your hair ...”
“In yours. It's really in yours, catching your curls and even your eyelashes.” If the Captain had been alive, he might have swallowed; he might have reached out. The night breeze came in the window and ruffled Ray's hair, yet he was not chilled. It felt like a friendly hand. “Did he tell you how, how you looked, that man who's dead?”
“Colin. You know his name, I'm sure.”
“He wasn't much for words, Colin. His eyes said he liked to look at me; his hands said he loved to touch me. He said he would not go, wouldn't let me go. He didn't mind this ...” Ray brushed his broken cheek with his fingertips.
“Why should he mind?”
“It's pulled my face out of shape. I was quite a pretty boy.”
“So I should think. You're better than pretty, now.”
“You're a judge, of course.”
“I've seen many faces, perfect as an angel's to beaten out of human shape. You draw the eye, Ray Doyle. And I'm your only judge, right now.”
Ray imagined the face he would never see, the expression as warm as the voice. “Aren't you where there's no marriage nor giving in marriage? No physicality at all. Though I'm no judge of that!” He laughed a little. “What is it like, where you are when you’re not here? The next world?”
After a moment, the voice spoke softly, thoughtfully. “No, I cannot put it into words. There are no words. Think of the most ineffable moments in your earthly experience, the times beauty or love or even pain took you beyond yourself ... and even then it was your body you experienced it through, and now there is no body. Those who are at home in the next life experience things I can't understand either, because I'm tied here. You'll have to wait, Ray.”
“I don't mind waiting.” Though he didn't feel chilled, though he wasn't afraid, Ray shivered all at once.
“Back to bed with you,” said Captain Bodie. “Before you catch your death.”
“My death!” Ray laughed. “Hardly!” But he got back in the bed, drawing the covers over him and bunching them luxuriously at his sides. He yawned tremendously and nestled his head in the pillow. “Have you made me sleepy?”
“No, I believe that is the sea air and the work you did today.”
“It should be,” Ray said, yawned again, and slept.
“Good night, Ray,” he thought he heard just as he was dropping off.
The next morning, as Ray began painting the dining room in earnest, Jax went down Cliff Road to shop, and returned looking so satisfied that Ray took what seemed to be his first full, relaxed breath of the day―of several days. He didn't want to live all alone, and Bodie, though amiable, was not enough company throughout the day. In the afternoon, Jax put on a second coat of paint while Ray went down to visit the Vicar, a friendly older man whose equally-friendly wife indeed had several suggestions of women whom she promised would be eager to make Ray's dining-room drapes. In fact, taking pity on his masculine inexperience of such things, she accompanied him to buy the material, in a soft sea green patterned with fern leaves. The draper was a middle-aged man of colour who spoke to Jax over the telephone to confirm the window measurements. The whole experience was like, yet delightfully unlike, shopping with Regina, since Mrs Parker never overrode Ray's preferences.
He promised to come to church services on the morrow.
Jax and he walked down Cliff Road together in the morning, but separated when they reached the town, Ray headed for church and Jax for his half-day. Ray didn't ask where he meant to spend it. The church was prettier than Ray had expected, with a marine theme to the colours and stained glass that he found lovely to look at as he listened to the sermon and to the discordant organ. He decided only part of the trouble was bad playing; the instrument clearly needed some repair.
After the service, Mrs Parker asked him to early tea, and over the groaning tea-table he met the middle-class congregants, who quizzed him about his deceased family and about the Murphys.
The whole gathering tired him more than he expected and reminded him more than he liked of the Murphys' teas. He felt himself an object of rumour again; at least, he comforted himself, he would no longer be regarded with suspicion over his role in the household, at least not his Gull Cottage household.
No sooner had he thought so than the matron next to him, a Mrs Franklin, finished a cucumber sandwich and asked him about his manservant. Ray found himself explaining Jax in more detail than he had previously planned. “Unmarried!” she exclaimed. “We must look to our maidservants, I believe.” Two other women seated nearby nodded, agreeing.
“I am also unmarried,” Ray said mildly. “I hope you won't decide I represent some sort of threat to any of your households.”
They rushed to assure him that they felt no such apprehension.
Nevertheless, he realised that whatever he or they said now, his tenancy of Gull Cottage, his redecorating work, and Jax's presence would all be a nine-days wonder in Whitecliff.
No one asked him about the haunting, though he was sure they gossiped among themselves. He wondered what questions Jax had been asked, or perhaps was being asked even now.
His nearest neighbours, the Turners, came to call twice in the following week. Mr Turner was a young man, near to his own age, who was part of the law firm in town; he was another army veteran, and they had a carefully superficial conversation about it. Turner had served in Arabia, in Basra, a place Ray had barely heard of. He spoke at some length of having seen the famous Lawrence. Ray supposed he would have found such an encounter memorable as well, though Turner hadn't actually spoken to the man.
A few days later, and fortunately after Ray had bought and installed a better settee and two armchairs in the sitting room, Turner returned with his wife, a pretty young creature with a flirtatious manner. Responding to flirtation from a woman who was already attached always felt to Ray like taking a chance; responding to the flirtation of unattached women felt like lying. It made him skittish. Ray thanked goodness the Turners were themselves too young to have marriageable daughters.
Mrs Turner was mother, and they sipped the tea Jax had brought in as both Turners looked around the room and out at the garden. “My goodness, what is that peculiar-looking tree?” asked Mrs Turner.
“It's called a monkey-puzzle tree, dearest,” Turner said. “I believe they come from Chile, do they not, Mr Doyle?”
“I'm afraid I don't know,” Ray said, trying to sound more interested. “It was here when I arrived. I find it ugly, myself. Spiky and bare.”
A jittery little breeze brushed across the back of Ray's neck, slipping into his collar.
“Will you have it down?” Turner asked.
Ray shrugged. “I'm more interested in repairing the gate and getting the summer-blooming flowers in.”
“Oh,” Mrs Turner gushed, “I love roses! Do you mean to plant any?”
“I prefer lilies. I also like daffodils and carnations. They're no trouble, except for weeding, and I can't afford a gardener.”
Turner smiled and said, “You have unusual taste, Doyle.”
Ray smiled back, wondering how he was to answer that.
“You must come and see our garden,” offered Mrs Turner. “Do come to tea. Will Saturday suit?”
“Yes, thank you very much.”
Ray's feelings, as he bade the Turners goodbye, were mixed. He didn't want to be isolated, but he wasn't feeling any great impulse to increase his acquaintanceship with either Turner. What he needed, he decided, was a local pub, a sketching society, something of that sort.
“A sketching society!” snorted Captain Bodie. “And what the devil is the matter with my monkey-puzzle tree?”
Ray went over to the window and regarded it without favour. “It's ugly: a bare trunk almost to the top of my head, weird long branches curling around and spiked with thick leaves like scales, and round green balls of the same leaves. Are they supposed to be blooms?”
“They're cones. It's a female tree―that's how the female cones look.”
Ray burst into laughter. “Female! Females with balls!” He laughed harder. “Just what I want!” He put a hand to his stomach and brayed with laughter until he could hardly stand.
Captain Bodie laughed too.
“I wouldn't have thought you could laugh,” Ray said when he could speak. “Especially at something so indelicate. You just don't seem … very heavenly.”
“I'm not.” Bodie's voice was sober now.
“What worries me is that you're the kind of companion I would have imagined. The kind, in fact, that I've never had and, and wanted.”
Bodie said nothing.
“I wish you hadn't died. I wish … when I'd come back from France, in 1918, I wish I'd come here and lived with you.”
Then Bodie did speak. “I would have been in my sixties, if I'd lived so long, while you were in your twenties.”
“And would have lived here in peace while I was screaming Colin's house down. Better for you that we missed each other.”
“No,” said Bodie, and his voice, even on the single word, was bleak. The echo of that negation seemed to stay in the room, to roost in its evening shadows. Ray sat in the softest of the armchairs, put his head back, and closed his eyes.
“Why does it worry you?” Bodie asked at last.
“Why, because I may have just imagined you. You might be the man I wished I could meet, a clever, strong, wise man who has worked all his life and led men well. I might be going mad.”
“There's nothing the matter with you,” Bodie said more loudly than his voice had been speaking, projecting more forcefully. “Your mind is healthy. Your body is beautiful. You've worked hard on the house. You led men amidst horrors I never knew. The images I see in your mind when you think of painting, they're wonderful.”
“I always think so, but then they never turn out the way I envisioned them. Not that I've even tried, for years. You see, thinking of art but not painting, thinking of love but not loving. And let us not talk of my war, and how I left it. A useless life.”
And Bodie did not answer. Though Ray thought the ghost did not mean to hurt him, he was hurt, and then irritated with himself for feeling as he did. How self-absorbed, how self-pitying, was he? How much whining did he mean to do, even if it was not to any living person?
“I must make something,” he said. “I must do something.”
Without wishing Captain Bodie good night, Ray went up the stairs and went to bed.
"Ray dreamed of the Dispersal Centre." Later he visits the Murphys.
A version of the first part of this chapter was posted on my Livejournal for Armistice Day.
Ray dreamed of the Dispersal Centre, the holding camp for demobbed men. He seldom did, his nightmares tending more toward the charges out of the trenches. The rare dream of peace was nearly always of his childhood, and in them he was lost in the old house, looking for his mother or his dog Caesar. In this dream, he looked up at a grey sky to ground himself in the midst of soldiers, lorries, jeeps, shouts, and some kind of band music so far away that he could not make out the tune. Every sensation was there, every noise, the wind on his skin, the scratch of his uniform, his hunger, slight nausea tightening the muscles of his stomach; the daylight, petrol smoke and the bog hut's smell stinging his eyes and tickling the back of his throat … much realer than any dream he'd ever been in.
Without knowing quite what he was looking for, he threaded his way between tents, hearing voices he would not have recognized while awake. All survivors' voices. He breathed more freely and moved faster.
For all the dreams in which he'd searched and never found the ones he wanted, this dream led him to the fistfight he remembered. Two of his former men were battering grimly away when Ray shoved through the crowd and said, "What's all this, then?" hoping he sounded like an officer and not a bobby.
Williams, a sergeant, bent over with his palms flat above his knees and panted without speaking. His blond hair was clotted with sweat, and his undershirt was soaked down both sides. The other, Mad Tommy McKay, was bare to the waist, had a black eye already but was laughing, undaunted. "Lef'! Come to see me take this bugger to pieces?"
"No," he said, and felt the temper of the crowd shift, darken. He pulled his shoulders straight, lifted his chin. "What we need here is a sports club. Organize some real boxing. What do you say?"
Tommy grinned, showing blood on his teeth. "I say we finish, then you fight the winner."
"So I will," Ray promised recklessly. He knew in the dream that he'd chosen wrong, but he was powerless to change it.
Unsurprisingly, Tommy won the bout with Williams, but Ray was happy to see that just the association with regulated sport had made the fight more careful, more gentlemanly. He was pleased with himself for intervening. It was what an officer ought to do. Williams's friends helped him up and and into the ranks of the audience. Among them, Ray glimpsed an upright, dark-haired man who stared intently.
Tommy grinned again, then swiped the back of one hand across his mouth. "Your turn, Lef,'" he said.
Ray took off his Sam Browne belt and rolled it up to put in his jacket pocket. The jacket itself, he folded carefully and put his forage cap on top when he laid it, unavoidably, in the dust. He rolled up his shirt sleeves and took his position, fists raised, as he'd done in school bouts.
Mad Tommy disdained such niceties, charging in at once with skinned knuckles flying. The men cheered him, egged him on. Ray moved nimbly and got in a number of good blows until he caught Tommy painfully on the brow. Ray stepped back as Tommy shook his head. When he raised his eyes, they burned; the shape of his mouth was like a badger's when the dogs have cornered it.
Ray had known Tommy had berserker episodes―they were the source of his nickname, and Ray had seen them. When the unit went over the top into no-man's-land, they were even useful. Watching him fight Williams, though, had distracted Ray from the memory of Tommy's fits. Now he realised what trouble he was in. His own Queensberry-rules fighting was no match for this wild-animal rush. He glimpsed the dark-haired man pushing through the crowd but could not take the time to look again.
Like Tommy himself, the crowd grew more bloodthirsty as the two of them fought, and when Ray stumbled a few steps, withdrawing, and fell into the line of observers, they shoved him forward into the fight again. Ray seemed to hear his name shouted. He shook his head, feeling sweat fly from his hair.
Tommy's preference was evidently to hit Ray's face, and he blacked both Ray's eyes, hit him over and over on the chin and jaw―Ray saw the fist coming toward his cheek, felt his head tilt back as if the blow had already fallen―but it was Tommy who fell back, under a mighty punch from the dark-haired man. Lying in the dust, the man did not move except for his chest rising and falling as he panted.
It was Bodie who intervened, Bodie who in waking life had already been dead. Bodie, walking through Ray's dreams to save him, as if a dreamed blow could bring back Ray's shattered cheek, heal him and protect him from that long-done harm. Bodie smiling at him, holding out a clean, strong hand.
Ray woke as if he'd thrown himself back, and his face burst into pain almost as strong as the grenade-like explosion of his original injury. His body jolted, shaking the mattress and the frame, and even awake he felt as if he had banged his face on the wrought-iron bedstead. He raised his hand to cup where the bone was broken, where the doctor had taken out shards that threatened his eyesight and had stitched him up like Frankenstein's monster. Ray remembered.
While the side of his face had still been a handful of bruise and pain, the Army had handed him his new form Z22 for disability and a Dispersal Certificate for his equipment―his uniform jacket, belt and hat were gone, but at least he would not have to reimburse the army for them, due to the kindness of the clerk who had filled the forms on his behalf. He had a Z12 for any additional medical treatment he needed and a train ticket to the "home" town where he no longer had even acquaintance.
He'd descended from the train in that strange town. Shouldering his bag, he'd gritted his teeth and looked for a rooming-house or a decent hotel, anywhere he might find a bed and a bath. Most of them were full while others were too rich for his blood. It took a long, wearying time to find a room in a back street, and then it wasn't until the next morning that he'd thought of Colin. He'd almost been sick even at the notion of calling him, but finally forced his shaking hand to pick up the receiver.
The exchange girl said, “How may I connect you?”
“The Whitstable exchange, please, and I'm not sure of the number.”
“I'll get them.”
The wait was agonizing until another woman's voice said, “Whitstable, what number?”
“I don't know, I'm afraid.” His voice was more strained with every word. Forcing it louder, he concentrated on enunciating. “Colin Murphy.”
“Oh, yes, I can get you that number. Mr Murphy's ever so ...” and she giggled. “Everyone knows him.”
Ray didn't know whether he felt that was good news or bad.
“Murphy,” said a deep voice, and he gasped.
“Who's this? You sound … it's never Ray? Ray Doyle?”
“Ray! Ray! Where did you spring from?”
“France. And then Chiselden Camp. I'm just demobbed.” And just on that word his throat closed and speech became impossible without bursting into tears. He clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes shut, holding his breath to keep the weakness in.
“Ray―wonderful to hear you, old chap!” Colin waited for him to reply, and then Ray could hear him inhale, then pause. “You all right?”
Ray made a confused sound, a little like a chuckle, a little like a sob, with no discernible word.
“Where are you?”
“Drb, Drrr,” and Ray gasped again and forced it out: “Derby. D-d-d.” His nose was running. Oh, God, even if Colin wanted to see him, Ray didn't know how he could face the man.
“Ray, let me come down there, come see you. Yes? Where are you staying? Where can we meet?”
It took a shaming amount of time to say the name of his hotel, its address, directions to get there.
Even now, he was mortified to think of it, to remember it. He lay down again, drew the sheets and blanket around him tightly, wished for Captain Bodie's reassuring voice but could not bring himself to call for him or to discuss the ghost's attempt to protect Ray in his dream. Instead he lay on his side, staring at the telescope and the window, listening to the sound of the sea, touching his cheek to reassure himself that it was whole, if not its proper shape.
Though he often closed his eyes and tried, he didn't sleep again. When the night began to fade from black to shadow to ash, he got out of bed and lit a candle, washed and dressed and went to the bedroom window where the incoming breeze, though chill, felt like a greeting. He watched the Channel get brighter, purple and brown like a healing bruise, then lighter purple and rose, as if the sky itself were cheering up, streaked with golden light. The cries of the gulls were not mournful.
When he heard Jax on the stairs, Ray followed and got a thick slice of bread and a cup of tea but insisted he didn't want a proper breakfast. He was going for a long walk, he said. Jax looked hard at him but raised no objection.
Ray went higher on the road's slope first, looking inland to the scrub grass and wind-beaten bushes, then down the cliff side looking across the water or down to the shore. He walked all the way down to Whitecliff proper, then along the beach under the blank gaze of the esplanade windows. His steps shushed and scraped in the sand, along with a crunch or two as he stepped on a shell or an uneven slide-thump as his foot came down on driftwood.
It was still too early for most businesses to be open when he'd out-walked the edge of town and came back to the esplanade. In a town that lived so much on tourists, he was certain that there must be a shop that sold painting supplies, so he found a tea-shop and had a scone and several cups while he waited. The owner chatted with him between serving other early risers, and she brought him a second scone because she said he needed feeding up. Ray laughed but ate it. When it was at last time to go to the shop, which she had given him directions to, he left a couple of notes on the table to pay for the extra, hoping she wouldn't mind. But he really didn't need any more surrogate mothers.
That reminded him that he hadn't so much as sent a postcard to Pamela or Regina since he'd left Colin's house.
In the shop, the only real choice was watercolour although he'd worked most with oils and preferred them. He'd need to get a catalogue sent and have materials shipped. But the morning's walk had filled his mind with images suited to watercolour, beach scenes and the cliffs falling to the sea and the plants in a thousand shades of green, so he bought a paint box, an easel, and two blocks of paper: a large one to be delivered and a small one to carry with him, along with some good artist's pencils.
On the way back up Cliff Road, he stopped often to sketch, little studies of whatever caught his eye: a spray of foliage with a good curve, a few wild carrots already gone to lacy flower, a squirrel which had seemed satisfied to watch him almost as long as he needed to draw it, a few horizon views, and a couple of boats whose crews appeared to have put down anchors for lunch.
Jax had a meal all ready by the time Ray got home. “Good thing you're here,” Jax said, “was about to toss it out for the gulls.”
“We don't want to encourage them,” Ray said. But the soup and bread tasted delicious, and he made a good meal.
After luncheon, Ray sat down and wrote a letter to Pamela, sending his greetings to Regina and describing the features he liked in the house, the Turners' visit, the view, and even including a couple of the sketches he'd made. He walked down the hill again to post it, along with a letter to his old colourist and an envelope of Jax's. After the post office, Ray went to the pub.
The publican's name was Cook, also a veteran, but he'd been invalided out when a shell took half his foot. “Shoulda heard June, me wife, but I call it lucky. You see any o'them who lost a jaw or a slice off'eir heads? A foot's nothing.” Ray nodded. Cook had adapted well, and though he walked unevenly, kept his cane at the way out and only used it away from the bar. Of course, the roll in his step after he turned quickly reminded Ray of Captain Bodie, but the publican didn't bring up the rumours of haunting. Ray banished the image from his mind.
A few locals began a darts game, and Ray was gradually drawn into conversation and then into play. He stood his rounds, drank what he was given, and lost the match, though not by much.
“Where you put it all away,” Matheson said as they headed out, his diction careful, “I do not know. Scrawny lad like you. Eh, King?”
“Y'r a good bloke,” King said. He'd won the match even though he was the one who seemed most the worse for alcohol.
Ray walked slowly up the hill, stopping frequently to rest. In the dark, the ocean seemed louder, and that diamond path was brighter than ever under the moon. His chest felt odd, almost sore, and he rubbed it as he walked, mostly steady. When he reached Gull Cottage, he stopped in the sitting room and looked at Captain Bodie's painted face in that glaring moonlight. “Oh, Bodie,” he said because he could not help it.
After a long, silent moment, he turned to the door and heard the ghost's voice at last: “Good night, Ray.”
He rarely heard Bodie for the next few days, and never saw him in dreams. There was no reason that should make Ray sad. He busied himself getting to know his neighbours, repairing the cottage, talking with Jax, sketching and painting watercolours.
One morning, he worked in the front garden. Mrs Turner kept asking about it, and it was certainly no hardship to be outdoors on a bright, dry day like this one. Without the tall weeds, most of them dead leftovers from last summer, the daffodils seemed taller and brighter yellow. Ray paused to smell the salt, fresh air. His fingers might be dirty, but they bore another spring scent, the sap from the living weeds and the soil all moist and alive. His shoulders were a little stiff, so he stood and lifted his arms, stretched as if to touch that clear sky that was lighter than Bodie's eyes in the portrait but almost as compelling and alive. Then he laughed a little at himself.
The post was coming: Ray saw the cart making its slow way past the Turners' house on its way to Gull Cottage. It looked like an old cab, though there was no outside seat for the driver, and it had four wheels. What reminded Ray of those holiday rides in London when his mother was alive was the large, square window on the side and the resigned, slow gait of the horse. He wondered whether his artist's materials had arrived. Having met the postman at the pub the night he'd played darts, Ray even remembered his name. “Good morning, Lake,” he called, and the man waved, then pulled up his horse. Ray walked over to the gate, went out into the road, and patted the horse's nose as Lake dug in his mail bag. Not the art stuff, then.
“Here you are, Mr Doyle.” Lake handed over an envelope.
The address was in Regina's writing. Ray put it in his trousers' waistband in the back, having taken off his jacket when he first started weeding. “Thank you,” he said, not feeling the slightest gratitude, but it wasn't Lake's fault, so he smiled. Lake grinned back and tipped his hat. Then he clucked at the horse and turned the cart around.
Ray picked up his coat from the ground and went inside with a sigh. In the sitting room, he waved the envelope at the portrait. He'd gotten into the habit of speaking to it, hoping that the ghost would respond, though usually he did not. “I wrote to Pamela, but of course, Regina has to take over the correspondence.”
Ripping up the flap, Ray unfolded the paper inside and read,
How lovely to hear from you, if unexpected after the way you left us. Never mind, Mother is almost over the palpitations, though she did have a recurrence when we received your most surprising letter. We're delighted you have had the luck to find a house you want to live in, even if you are quite alone. The little drawings you sent were most appreciated. Mother misses you dreadfully. Should you be able to take the trouble to visit us, her at-home hours are three in the afternoon to half four. Her doctor has also suggested sea air, so I wonder if you think Whitecliff has the sort of reasonably-priced but comfortable accommodations she would need. Would it not be lovely to be close enough to see each other every day again!
Ray let the hand holding the letter fall to his lap. He rubbed his eyes with the other.
“I shall have to go, I suppose.”
“Do you want to go?” Bodie was nothing if not frank, and demanded frankness in return.
Ray laughed briefly. “No. Less than two weeks, and I already feel I've been away for years … free for years.” He took a deep breath. “I don't want to be 'poor Ray' again, even only for tea-time.”
“I was, literally. And perhaps because, to them, no real man could be without money and social standing, I must also be frail and helpless, fit only to roll wool for Pamela and listen to Regina's good works.” He sighed. “Oh, well! It's only a few hours. I'd rather go there than have them here.”
“I wouldn't have them here. I'd scare them right off the cliff.”
“You would, would you?” Ray looked with fond exasperation at the portrait. It had been that same thirteen days since Captain Bodie had called Ray lily-livered and said he would not stay. Underneath that hard shell, the ghost was a great big softie. Ray chuckled.
Bodie's voice, as if in response to Ray's thought, seemed lower, gentler. “Not just for the house, any more.”
Ray heard what Bodie meant, and took a breath, absorbing it. But all he said was, “Not at all. They still want me to go back there to live, I believe. But I won't.” He folded the letter and put it back in the envelope. “I won't desert your sea captains!”
When Bodie said nothing, Ray wondered suddenly about the ghost's other silences. They might not have been rejections. “I won't desert you,” he said seriously, but the ghost gave no reply to that either.
Ray wrote to Regina, and on Friday got on a train to follow the letter. Now sitting forward seemed normal, and the clacking of the train wheels made no music―instead, it struck his fancy like the clink of chains. He forced his mind to the images he was trying to get on paper, of the Channel in all its moods, for the sitting room when he was pleased enough with them. So far he only had a sunset that was ready to hang, or would be when he had it framed.
He walked up from the station; the hill he'd run down seemed hardly a slope after living at the top of the cliff. Ray hadn't realised how much the exercise had already made him stronger, until he stood at the top of the hill and took even deep breaths, looking at the edge of town and feeling as though he had lived here years ago.
The same feeling made the tea much easier than he'd thought it could be. Of course they asked him about everything and tried to make all of it feel wrong, but it only amused him, most of the time. Only when Pamela widened her eyes and said, “Your manservant sleeps in? That batman of yours? I thought Colin …” did Ray feel a rush of indignant anger.
“Colin did,” he snapped. “Jax came with me when I opened the house and made it habitable, and I'm very lucky he agreed to continue.” He ate a biscuit to keep himself from saying any more.
“But …” Pamela wavered.
“Please don't worry about him.”
“But …” this time it was Regina.
“Please,” Ray said more forcefully, “do not worry about my man.”
“It's you we worry about,” Regina insisted. “Are you eating enough? Do you see people? Are you attending holy services?”
Suddenly, the whole conversation was too absurd to be angry about. Ray laughed out, and the two women looked shocked all over again. “I attend the Whitecliff church, St Anne's. The Vicar and his wife have been most kind,” he said to comfort them.
“But what do you do all day?” Pamela ventured, her voice so baffled that Ray almost laughed again.
“Too many things to list,” he said. “I garden, walk the shore, take tea in the shop, buy groceries and so forth and carry them up to the cottage―”
Pamela positively gasped. “Like a tradesman!”
Ray shrugged. “Why not?”
“If you're going to carry your own food up a cliff, perhaps you should grow vegetables and keep a half-dozen hens up there,” Regina told him.
“I don't know anything about hens.”
“You could learn!”
Ray didn't want to learn, or to argue about poultry of any kind.
“I know someone who can deliver some pullets to you, even in your cottage up there on the cliffs.”
“I'll turn them away, Regina. Don't force your friend through that.”
She actually shut her mouth for a moment or two in order to glare at him.
“I don't like chickens,” Ray said placidly.
“I'm only trying to help. Am I not, Mother?”
Pamela said, loyally, “You're always so helpful, Regina, dear.”
Ray felt obliged to say, “It's very good of you. But, you see, I don't need any help.”
She laughed, in a harsh, scornful bark. “From the day we met you, you've needed help.”
“Yes, that was true then.”
“You took Colin's help.”
“Yes,” Ray smiled with all the complicated feelings that his friend and lover's name brought into his throat. “Colin was most generous.”
“You took everything he gave you!” Regina burst into tears.
He could say nothing that would comfort her, would not willingly say anything that would allow her to understand, even if she wanted to. He sat silently as she wept and mopped her face with a lace handkerchief that he could not help but think could not absorb her tears.
Pamela murmured “There, there, dear,” but did not move from her chair.
“Lady Smythe,” Regina forced out, still crying, “always used to say … you were such a, a … sweet young man. Whatever would she … say now?”
“I'm thirty-one,” Ray answered, and fancied Bodie spoke with him when he continued, “and not particularly sweet. I don't mind what Lady Smythe says about me.”
Regina gasped. Pamela stared.
“I don't want to tire you, Mrs Murphy, Miss Murphy, and I'm afraid I already have.” Ray seized the moment. “Thank you for the lovely tea and biscuits. I must be going.”
Even then, it was not until he stood and collected his hat and gloves that Pamela said, “Farewell, then, Ray,” and Regina just shook her head.
“Routed them horse and foot,” Ray almost heard, as he walked back down the hill, as if a faint echo of the ghost's voice carried over the miles between him and Gull Cottage.
Jax had made roast chicken for supper, and didn't understand why it made Ray laugh so hard.
“Ah, me, I wish I didn't feel as if I'd been rude or cruel,” he told the painting.
“Nonsense, you were neither,” said Bodie. “You stood up for yourself, probably the first time in years. I'm proud of you. You're proud of yourself.”
“I'm afraid I am,” Ray said, sighing and smiling.
Bodie said, “You came back shining. Like a ray of the sun.”
Ray groaned at the pun.
Bodie sounded unabashed: “I'll have to call you Sunshine, now.”
Ray re-paints Captain Bodie's portrait. Bodie convinces him he has the resources to buy Gull Cottage.
Two months later, Ray felt he was a true resident of Whitecliff, a regular dart player with a mug of his own at the pub, a painter known among the villagers for carrying his easel and paints along the shore, the founder of a boxing club in which the fights were orderly and friendly. The gate was fixed and no longer rusty; the door was a strong clear blue with a brass knocker shaped like a sailing knot; the monkey-puzzle tree stood in its harsh spikes among the tiger lilies, and a few vegetables did grow in the back garden, but there were no chickens.
He was painting indoors today, because his subject was Captain Bodie, adapted loosely from the old portrait which for now still held pride of place over the mantel. Ray had lost count of the number of times the ghost complained, “I don't know why you are bothering with re-painting a perfectly good likeness.”
“Perfectly good?” Also as usual, Ray snorted. “That's a matter of opinion. I think you look terrible in it.”
“Why? What's the matter with it?”
“I am fairly certain that you had actual hair. And hands that could hold things, like that hat of yours.”
They'd found the dress uniform itself, in the box room trunk, complete with hat, and Ray had it draped over an armchair, ready for when he needed a model, so to speak.
“Well, they weren't my hands. The artist―” Ray snorted again― “the fellow who painted it, then, did it in lieu of passage money. And I was too busy to sit for it, most of the time, so he made do with anyone who would.”
“They still would have had separate strands of hair. Fingers. Fingernails all on the same side of the fingers. Really, there's primitivism and then there's sheer incompetence. I can remember your, remember you, better from dreams than this man did while you were right there on the ship.”
“May-be so,” Bodie said, the first word drawn out as if in disagreement.
Ray had painted the background as the bedroom's bay window, complete with telescope. The brass set off the gold insignia, and remotely, through the window, a tiny ship sailed that was meant to be Bodie's own. Now he was sketching Bodie's face, trying to decide what age he meant to portray, the young man of the original portrait or the older one in the camp dream, or the one from his first dream whom Ray would now guess to be Bodie at the time the house was built, just after retiring. “Weren't you only in your fifties when you came here?”
“That seems early to retire.”
“Not really. Many of us captains are injured or killed in the line of duty, in a storm, for instance. I went through a hurricane, came out of it uninjured but only just, and I thought, I won't try my luck any further. One more short step, it would have been me the mast came down on. Just not as nimble or as quick any more.”
“Poor Jack.” Ray decided he wanted those creases at Bodie's temples, that squarer hairline and the strong bushy wave above. He sketched and looked, erased and sketched some more.
“That's good,” the ghost said. “Now stop, before it goes wrong.”
Ray laughed again. “Thank you for the confidence!”
“No, that's eavesdropping on your memories.”
Ray put the sketchbook down. “I'll stop for tea, then.”
It was almost always a kind of shock for Ray to realise he was alone in the room. He sighed, then walked through the house to the back garden, where he'd put a little metal table and chairs On the way, he put his head in the kitchen and told Jax to bring the tray out.
“Tea in the garden,” he murmured, sitting on the chilly, hard seat but loving the air and sun on his skin. He'd never dreamed of such a thing before seeing the Turners' little tea set in their rose garden. Now, if it was not raining, he was out here for most daylight meals. Jax grumbled a little, but Ray knew it was hardly any trouble. The main trouble was his own. Since the table was close to the wall to take advantage of the wind break, spiders had an unfortunate tendency to drop into the milk jug or the food from the ivy on the wall. But now, having mentioned this difficulty at one of Mrs Parker's teas, he was the proud owner of three jug covers crocheted by the ladies of St Anne's. Each had a lacy design and beads around the edge to hold it in place on the jug. They made Ray smile every time he saw them, for the beads that twinkled at him, for the good will in the gifts, for the acceptance of his domestic habits. He couldn't imagine even explaining to Regina that drinking a cup of tea was possible in the garden.
Ray loved his home. He sat, the cup at his mouth and the tea on his tongue, happy in a way he had never been before. There were the lilies curving around the corner into the larger bed around the monkey-puzzle. There were carrot greens and lettuce and the beginnings of cauliflower, looking decorative themselves, waving in the Channel wind. There was the sun on the paving stones, on the garden wall, and on the growing things that stretched up to feel it and to grow.
After tea, he went down the hill to see how much it would cost to buy this place which was the only home he'd ever had.
Anson hadn't been busy, but he didn't seem happy to see Ray, even to earn what Ray supposed would be a good commission. After a prolonged dive into the pages of that blue book Ray perfectly remembered from the day they'd met, as well as some digging around in paper files, Anson's verdict was that the owner would accept 200 pounds.
“Four years of rent.” Ray sighed. “I'll have to make some arrangements.”
He trudged back up the hill. He'd have to write to his bank, and to his solicitor.
It was a perfectly decent price, he knew. Not ridiculously low, like the rent, but not expensive for a whole house, the land, and the placement so close to a resort town.
His solicitor wrote back to deplore the idea of digging into Ray's capital to buy a seaside cottage that wasn't even an investment.
“I don't want it as an investment!” Ray exclaimed to the empty sitting room. Two sets of intent eyes looked back from the two canvases. “I need to make more money.”
But painting watercolours was never going to bring in more than a few pounds, and he didn't think his oils were even saleable.
“Buy the house with my money,” said Captain Bodie's voice, quite suddenly and unexpectedly. It had been a few days since he'd spoken.
“Your money! What money?”
“It's my own, I promise, and I hid it among and under the roots of my monkey-puzzle tree.”
“Are you telling me,” Ray said slowly, “that after all that fuss about your beloved ugly tree, I am to take it down on your own advice to find buried treasure? This is nonsense. I am dreaming.”
“You needn't be so dramatic. Dig and see if you don't believe me.”
“I don't believe in you,” Ray muttered. But of course he did, and he had workmen in from the town to take out the tree within two days.
“Silly to do this after putting in all these lilies,” said one of them with a sideways look.
“Well, I've never had a garden before. Had to feel my way, designing it,” was the best Ray could do.
And it was only a few minutes later that the second workman, Benny, said, “Hi! What's this?” His spade had struck metal, and when it was pulled from the earth, it was a small strongbox with an old padlock.
Ray knew the key was gone. In the end the locksmith had to break in, and Ray gasped audibly at the glittering mass when it was revealed. Mostly golden guineas, there was also jewellery that made him say, once he was safely alone before the portrait, “Tell me you weren't a pirate.”
“I was a perfectly respectable seaman. Never took a penny I wasn't owed, much less a sovereign.”
Reassured, Ray dug his hands into the hoard, letting coins drag through his fingers, held brilliant jewels up so spots of liquid colour flew around the room. He lifted a pair of earrings until their ruby drops trembled in the light like drops of blood. Laying them back among the coins, he pulled out a gold and diamond chain and held it between his palms, a graceful arc that reminded him of the diamond moonlight on the water darker than Bodie's eyes.
“Would you wear it, Ray?” and Bodie's voice sounded hushed.
“I'm a man.”
“Not on the street. But would you … put it round your neck and let me see it?"
Ray shrugged. “If it would give you pleasure."
“You know it would.” After a pause, the ghost went on, “It would please me more if you went up to your bedchamber and put on the chain.”
Without further comment, Ray plucked up the necklace and left the room.
The chain was made of large ring-shaped links alternating with small ones, the diamonds mounted flat between links, like little eyes too bright to show colour. It was long enough that it would fall into Ray's shirt and be lost to view. First he unbuttoned the shirt collar and pulled it open, but the necklace still did not show to advantage. In the end, he took his shirt off entirely, and had to pull the closure of the necklace around to the front to latch it securely, then turn it round again.
“In the bow window, Sunshine. In the sun,” Bodie said, and Ray went as he was directed.
Even without looking at the diamonds, without opening his eyes at all, the dark of Ray's eyelids flared orange-yellow like the tiger lilies; when he opened his eyes, everything in his visual range had a glare as if a candelabra had been lit all at once under his chin. “You shine so bright,” Bodie said, and Ray let his eyes fall shut and let himself be displayed. The silence held, as if he were in the centre of a soap-bubble, iridescent and lovely and full of light.
“Step this way,” said Bodie, almost in a whisper, and Ray took a short step and then another without opening his eyes, was directed to right and then a little to the left, told to move his shoulder forward and step again, and when Bodie said, “Look now, my Sunshine,” he found he was in front of the shaving stand, seeing his reflection in the little mirror he used to be sure his razor didn't miss a spot and that the part in his hair was straight.
He looked wild, hair shaggy and fluffy because it had grown too long, damaged face dangerous, the tendons of his neck tight and shadow-coloured chest-hair pulling the eye down his torso until the wooden frame of the mirror stopped him from seeing more. He could have looked down, of course, but his trousers would seem foolishly formal and his bare skin wanton.
“You look wonderful,” Bodie said. “Strange as a legend; familiar as a dream I haven't remembered but that shows me what I …” and the sentence broke off.
Ray fingered the necklace. “I do, in this,” he said even more softly than Bodie had spoken. His eyes burned in the mirror, and the diamonds burned on his chest. The breeze from the window that Ray thought of as the touch of Bodie's fingers moved across his collar bone and down his hair to his belly, where it tickled.
“Don't sell that,” Bodie whispered. “There should be two hundred pounds in the other things.”
“Sell it? I have to turn it in. It's treasure trove.”
“It's mine, and I want it to be yours.”
“It belongs to your heir.”
“He'll only give it to his wife, the sandy-haired, freckled creature. I didn't buy that necklace to put it around a woman's neck.”
Ray swallowed, breathing through the unexpected jealousy. “For whom did you buy it?”
Was it the memory or the question that made Bodie chuckle? “My first mate. Jimmy Keller.” After a pause, the voice said reminiscently, “Lovely mouth he had.”
Ray turned the necklace to unclasp it, his movements jerky and fierce.
“Ray, Sunshine, stop.”
“I won't have his leavings.”
“He never wore it.”
“I bought it on a shore leave. Jimmy had saved my life, and was making me pay for it over and over. I meant to give it to him as a kind of severance, get him out of my bed and off my crew. But when I got back to the ship, he was dead. Stuck in the back as he walked back from the quayside pub, killed for the coins in his pocket. I tracked down the thug who'd killed Jimmy and broke his neck, but the necklace, I just put away. No one has ever worn it but you, my Ray. Please, accept it. Please keep it. I give it to you.”
“It must go with the rest. I'm sorry, Bodie, it's beautiful, but it isn't mine. It's either your cousin's or the crown's.”
The next morning, Ray phoned the bank and was told that the coroner must be informed. After that, Ray was told to replace everything in the strongbox and give it to the coroner's designated man. Ray took the gold and diamond chain off and laid it in the box, on top of the other jewellery and the coins. The coroner's man, Ray, and the locksmith were witnesses to the contents of the box; the workman and Ray to its finding. All three had to testify at the inquest, held a few days later in the town hall.
The most arduous part of the entire proceeding was lifting and moving the strongbox. The jury ruled that Ray Doyle and Benjamin Marsh were the finders of gold and jewels in the form of jewellery and sovereigns to the value of three-hundred forty-seven pounds. The fact that the strongbox had clearly been placed deliberately in its hiding place, and that it had been secured by the lock, argued that it was not meant for others to disclose and use―that its previous owner had meant to dig it up, had animus revocandi. They called the hoard “treasure trove,” as Ray had thought of it since Bodie had first mentioned that it existed.
The start Ray gave when the box was opened for valuation was covered by the general reaction of the audience, none of whom except the bankers had ever seen so much gold and so many precious stones before. Though Ray had, what in fact startled him was that the gold and diamond chain was not there. He'd definitely placed it on top of the rest.
He said nothing.
Re-entering his bedroom, hours later, he found the diamond chain laid across his pillow.
“Bodie!” he exclaimed. “Whatever am I to do with this now?”
There was no reply.
Ray tossed the chain irritably into the drawer where he kept his watch and its fob, his father's tie-pin, a pair of cufflinks that Colin had given him their first Christmas and another pair he'd bought himself because the mother-of-pearl buttons on the ends were formal without being fussy. Then he went to bed to toss and turn, only falling asleep when the sky had gone from sable to deep navy blue and the gaudy full moon had set.
He woke lying on his back, one arm curled around his head and the other stretched out, hand palm upwards. His legs were comfortably spread, and the bedclothes were twisted in knots, mostly not covering him.
The necklace was draped over his throat, its weight catching at the stubble of his beard, making him want to swallow. He sat up all at once, and it slithered down his torso to his lap. “Bodie!”
He picked up the necklace and held it in one hand, trying to think how he could put it back in the strongbox now that the rest of the contents had been valued. Really the only way was to confess having kept it back. “They'll put me in jail,” he said.
Bodie chuckled. “No, they won't.” Ray couldn't help but smile at the sound, as annoyed as he was at the position the ghost had put him in.
Ray masturbates, and also plays Father Christmas at the Women's Institute's Christmas Market.
The Lords Commissioners of the Treasury took a bureaucratically long time to come to a determination of what, in the strongbox, was museum-quality (a pair of earrings that proved to be Roman), and what was simply currency; Ray got most of the jewellery and the value of all the sovereigns back by the time the leaves were falling and the air whooped and whistled round Gull Cottage.
“You could have left the necklace alone,” Ray told Captain Bodie.
Bodie chuckled and said, “You weren't sure―how could I be? Anyway, we did the right thing.”
“The right thing?” Ray still felt he'd defrauded the cousin in South America.
“Beauty has value,” Bodie said, “and making the world more beautiful has value. The picture you make now is worth more than the sovereigns.”
Ray found the sun that streamed in the bay window made a gentle heat even in autumn, even though the days were so short. At Bodie's request, Ray's shirt was unbuttoned and its tails lay on either side, while the necklace glittered under the arm of the telescope. His back was against the wall under the windows. The finished portrait of heroic Captain Bodie that Ray had re-painted was now hung where Ray could see it when he was where Bodie wanted him, wearing diamonds and half-undressed.
“I can't feel the least bit sorry about the sovereigns, I must say,” Ray admitted. “I cannot wait to sign the papers and become the owner of Gull Cottage.”
“And sign your will,” Bodie reminded him.
“Yes, yes. My solicitor thinks I've gone mad, you know.” They'd arranged for a little ceremony on the occasion of the house sale being finalized that included Ray formally signing the will to arrange for Gull Cottage to become the W. A. P. Bodie Home for Retired Sea Captains. “I had no idea you had such a crowd of Christian names. What do all those initials stand for?”
“William. Andrew. Philip. I never used them. I told people to call me just Bodie.”
“There's a Christian name. Just. My dear Just, let me fondle your ...”
“Don't promise what you won't perform.”
“Do you have anything to fondle, now?”
“It's gone to bone and dust.”
Ray ceased to find the conversation funny. Bodie noticed immediately.
“Come, come, Ray. It's been so long now, I don't really mind.”
Ray's voice had become soft involuntarily. “Don't you really?”
There were several moments of silence except for the sea and the wind.
“Yes,” Bodie said roughly. “I mind when I see you like this. I mind when that lovely lean brown body lies naked in the sheets, my sheets, on my bed, and me not able to join you there.” The draft curled into Ray's shirt, brushed across his chest, and he arched his spine a little, feeling his nipples tighten as he drew a quick, deep breath, the salt air rushing in his nose and his lips parting, longing for the taste of a lover. Be honest―of Bodie.
“Christ, Ray,” Bodie said as Ray cupped his cock through his trousers. But when he moved his hand, Bodie said, “No, don't stop! Don't stop.”
Ray stood. “If I'm going to wank in the middle of the day, and for you to watch, I won't sit on the floor just looking at the bed.”
He undressed as well, feeling a little silly but enjoying the feel of his skin against the linen as he lay down; if he could not touch another man's skin, he could at least touch his own, roll and pinch his own nipples, tickle down over his quivering stomach, palm over his hip to his buttock and run his fingertips down the divide to the crumpled skin around his anus. Bodie's focused breezes and whispered praise made Ray shiver and smile, close his eyes and pretend fiercely, murmuring back, “Your fingers, Bodie, that hot broad palm. When I shook your hand I felt the rope-scar, thought how that would feel―” He took his cock in his hand, thinking of the rough scrape of Bodie's scar and the strength of his grip.
“Yes, I'd hold you, Sunshine, pull you, that soft, sweet skin over hard … yes, look at you, like a cannon in and out of the bay as it fires.”
Ray flexed and thrust, caught his breath on laughter at the maritime image and found his own fingers at his lips. “Get them wet,” Bodie whispered, so Ray did, and as if Bodie moved and guided his hand, brushed his own spit on the head of his cock, along with the drops already coming out, in rhythm with his/Bodie's gripping, pulling hand and the push of Ray's hips. When he came, he seemed to fall a few inches, bursting as he remembered coming from the first oral sex he had received, helplessly, into what he knew was his own hand though it felt closer and wetter. His eyes were closed, and he felt tears in his eyelashes. “Ah, Bodie,” he said, his voice hoarse.
“I've never seen anything so beautiful,” Bodie said. “I've seen a flock of flamingos startled into flight, thousands, filling the sky with pink; I've seen the Fourteen Falls in Kenya, the air full of every colour from the rainbows around every droplet of the mist; I've seen the Cape at dawn, the majesty of the sunrise, like the face of God, on the cliffs and the water. You, Raymond Doyle, are a more glorious natural wonder than any of them.”
Ray could not reply, could hardly breathe.
“I wish I could have shown them all to you. Ah, what you've missed, not travelling with me over the seven seas! And what I've missed, too.”
“What we're both missing now,” Ray said, hearing the bitterness in his voice and not caring. He loved to be held close after orgasm. The thought that he might never again be encircled in a lover's arms made him catch his breath as his lungs tingled. He knew this pain was not literally in his heart, but he certainly felt it there.
A little lick of breeze caught his broken cheek. Ray kept silent, not moving, until he cooled off and decided to put his clothes back on. Then he went down to have tea in the garden while he still could. November generally brought cold rains and storms.
The weather did turn harsher; while not freezing cold, the winds from the Channel blustered and cut. Ray still walked a good deal, now without his easel and with woollen hat and gloves as well as scarves, again the products of the ladies of St Anne's, who praised him inordinately for his regular church attendance. He didn't tell them that any fixed event in the week would have done as well to keep him from drifting into isolation and sloth. He read Captain Bodie's books and continued to paint although he was usually unsatisfied with the results.
Mrs Parker enlisted him to help with the Women's Institute's Christmas Market. While most of what he volunteered to do was fetching, carrying, and climbing ladders to decorate, he also wore the costume to represent Father Christmas. In Whitecliff, they used a green robe and floss beard and wig, not like the American Santa Claus, so at least he needed no padding. Bodie laughed heartily to see him dressed up, and said, “Sunshine, you're a better Lord of Misrule than Saint Nicholas.”
“I'd wear nothing under the robe, for you, and mistletoe in the wreath on my head, and bells to keep you in mind of me whenever I moved.”
“I watch whenever you move.” Bodie's voice was sultry now.
“Do you indeed. Shortly I'll be going to the market. Will you watch me there?” Ray really did not know how broad Bodie's territory was, how far he could move.
So Ray still did not know.
Mr Anson must have arrived earlier in the day, but Ray didn't see him until he'd put on the costume and returned, when he'd begun handing out little treats to the children. The younger ones believed in him and shuffled their feet and bent their heads shyly. He held each child's hand and heard his or her whispers telling him what toys and gifts were wanted. When they ran away with their orange or square of chocolate, Ray told the parents what the child had said. He was unexpectedly moved by the children's trust and the way the parents' shared their happiness with him when they'd already obtained the gift or their chagrin when they had not.
Ray gave treats to the older children as well, smiling in response to their cynical greetings; they clearly didn't believe, but they were kindly not spoiling the charade for their younger siblings.
As Ray stood near the town's Christmas tree thinking of Bodie, Anson came close, a little unsteadily, and murmured, “If only I could kiss you under the mistletoe. Your eyes are as green as the robe.”
“You've had too much cider, Mr Anson,” Ray replied.
“No. Even if I wished to do … as you ask,” Ray glanced around, hoped no one heard them, “it's illegal. And sinful, the Church says .” His own hypocracy almost choked him, but he didn't want Anson.
“Come to my rooms.”
Ray put a hand on Anson's arm. “Mr Anson, listen to me. I will not kiss you. I'll keep your confidence, but I won't go with you.”
Anson looked at his feet, and for a moment, he looked like one of the little boys who said he wanted a pony or a biplane or a lorry, knowing he would not have what he asked for.
Ray said, “I'm sorry.”
“You're not,” muttered Anson.
Ray chuckled helplessly. “Do go home and sleep it off,” he said and clapped Anson on the shoulder.
Mrs Parker took him round the work and bakery tables; the things she pointed out―the additional jug covers, the red scarf and mittens, the Bakewell tart―she told him had been made with Mr Doyle specifically in mind, so he bought them. Then, escaping, he thought he'd better take the things home to keep them safe.
It felt a longer walk up than he'd taken down, just that afternoon. The house was completely silent and dark when he came back. Jax must be at the Christmas Market, or possibly at the draper's, since his daughter was a pretty little creature who clearly wanted to see a great deal more of Jax. In the front hall, the skylight let in the moon, almost light enough for Ray to need no candle; definitely, it was bright enough to see the candlestick Jax had left for him and to light it.
The little golden flame danced in the air that moved in the cottage. Ray wondered idly whether the winds of January or February would be bearable, whether the place needed ordinary winter maintenance of window frames or door sills, or whether he'd have to ask Captain Bodie to keep his draughts in one place (like the master bedroom, said his salacious mind).
He took the pie and the jug covers to the kitchen and left the scarf and mittens in the dining room for Jax to put away. The stairs seemed to waver in front of him as he climbed the treads.
As a child, Ray had been deeply frightened of the dark. This climb in the jumping shadows would have made him weep as a lad, and even now made his abdomen tight and his breathing harsh though he was over thirty and a soldier. “Captain Bodie?” he asked, keeping his voice steady and low by force.
“Sunshine,” Bodie said, instantly and calmly. “Father Christmas,” and now there was humour in the voice, before it was seductive again. “Lord of Misrule.”
“Good evening to you, too,” Ray said, at the first-floor landing. He was no longer wearing the costume, of course. The sight of his own bed made him suddenly so weary that he decided not to try to make himself anything to eat or even any tea. He stripped, put on his pyjamas, and got into bed. But as heavy as his eyelids were, as much like string as his muscles felt, sleep did not come. Ray thought of the empty rooms on the ground floor, without so much as a holly leaf to mark the season. “Captain Bodie,” he said, “please tell me about your Christmas celebrations.”
“There were many years I celebrated, and many I did not,” Bodie replied. “I rarely had decorations in Gull Cottage. When I first retired, I was too busy designing the cottage and having it built. I remember one Christmas at sea I could tell you about,” and if Bodie had been physically present, his voice made Ray picture a leather armchair and a glass of whiskey or port, a cigar or a pipe sending up spirals of smoke, a lamp shedding amber light through a shade the colour of beer.
“Tell me,” Ray said, closing his eyes and picturing the man in the armchair looking at him warmly.
“We were in the Southern Hemisphere, so it was early summer, a nice warm day with a clear sky. We had a Christmas tree on the poop deck, with tropical flower garlands, very pretty. We couldn't keep gifts up there, but it was a cheerful sight. Our cook was to make us a feast, fresh fowl, fish pie, fruit and yams, and he'd been working for days in heat that the rest of us hardly believed in. I should have paid attention even if I couldn't do anything for him. He came raging up to the deck with a cutlass he got God knows where, and tried to carve me up instead of the goose. I fended him off as best I could with a belaying pin, but it was Keller who did for him, shot him in the back.”
“Was that the time he saved your life?”
“Yes. 'Your Christmas present' he used to call it.”
Ray tried to think of something to say but could not.
“You certainly lived a life full of incident,” he said at last.
“So have you,” Bodie answered.
“No. I saw the Christmas truce of 1914, but by 1915 one could not even imagine a Christmas without shells and gas. Bombardment is not incident―it's just Hell on earth.”
“I've seen your nightmares.”
“I haven't even had them here,” Ray protested.
Bodie said nothing.
“The Vicar invited me to a Christmas dinner party.”
“You should go.”
Ray sighed. “I shall. They've been kind to me.”
“You ought to do things that please you, Sunshine, without allowing other people's kindness to obligate you.”
“They haven't saved my life, after all.”
“I wish you didn't feel jealous of Keller.”
“I don't!” Ray took a deep breath. “I don't really. It's more … envy.” Should he say it? Ray asked himself. But why not? Likely enough, Bodie already knew. “He sucked you, didn't he?”
“Yes. And I returned the favour.”
Ray shook his head against the pillow and told himself he'd known the question was unwise.
“Sleep for me, Sunshine,” Bodie murmured. “Relax and sleep.” The breeze seemed to stroke through Ray's hair, caress his throat, and he found he could fall asleep after all.
Ray has an erotic dream and then meets a live man who attracts him.
In this dream, Ray was back in 1918, just demobbed. He didn't look for a room in Derby after leaving Chiselden camp, because as he trudged down the street from the station, he almost ran into a taller, older man with grey wings in his dark brown hair where it waved over his ears. Sharp blue eyes looked him up and down, and the man said, “Come along, Sunshine, I'll see to you,” as if they'd known each other for years, were closer than brothers.
“Yes, of course. Follow me.”
His gait was still that rolling one Ray had noticed in the first dream, and Bodie was as decisive and as kind as ever. But there was something Ray couldn't quite define, something harder-edged, more brittle, about this Bodie, who smelled of tobacco and whiskey, who threw an arm over Ray's shoulder that was heavy. The gesture sent Ray a puff of Bodie's sweat, a rich, musky smell, and Ray breathed all the more deeply and felt a rush of adrenaline, a throb at his groin.
They seemed to walk a long time. Then they climbed a few marble steps and went through beautiful wooden doors, gleaming polish on the wood and shining brass handles, into a carpeted reception area panelled in the same wood as the door and cocooned in the silence of the rich. The desk clerk was deferential, the bus-boy took Ray's duffel bag as if it were Moroccan leather with gold fittings, and Bodie's hand at the small of his back made the stairs an easy climb. Ray's bone-deep, aching fatigue had disappeared.
When they were alone in the room, Bodie stood back and looked at him. “I know I am not ready for Heaven,” Bodie said seriously. After another long stare, he went on, “Sit down, rest yourself. I'll run the bath.”
Ray did as he was told. Some day, he told himself, he must be more of a man, assert himself, but with his most recent failure in leadership carved into his face, he was glad to be led.
In a few moments, Bodie was looking down at him. Ray saw that the captain's jacket and waistcoat were gone, and the soft material of his shirt was rolled up his forearms. He'd taken off his old-fashioned neck-cloth, as well, and the first few shirt buttons were unfastened, baring his throat and the notch of his collar bone, both smooth and pale.
“Now I know I'm dreaming,” Ray said, his dry tongue sticking tackily to his palate, the words half-choked.
Bodie's mouth quirked, then pursed. Ray had never seen another man smile in just that way―he reached up, unable to control himself, and Bodie took his hands, drew him to his feet, and embraced him.
At first, they only held each other close, though it was closer than Ray had ever been held, even by Colin. Bodie's face pushed into his collar, seeking the skin of his neck, and Ray felt the ends of Bodie's hair, the puff of his breath, his cheek, his lips, the solidity of his body―that body which was now, really, dust. Ray shuddered.
“No, Sunshine,” the deep voice buzzed in Ray's nerves, “dream with me.” Bodie brought his head up along Ray's, until his mouth was beside Ray's ear, until he licked into the shell and breathed warm air to chill the wet skin and make Ray tremble. “Dream with me.”
So Ray did. Bodie bathed him, the tough, callused hands smoothing and fingering, comforting and arousing. Bodie dried him, the towels warm and fluffy, scented with lavender, the patting and stroking punctuated with kisses. Bodie wrapped a new, dry towel around Ray's shoulders and knelt to take his penis between those pursed, flushed lips. Ray's eyes kept shutting with pleasure, but he kept forcing them open again to see Bodie, his own long eyelashes lying dark against his cheeks, his crooked eyebrows all relaxed as his head moved back and forth. Ray ran fingers through feathery hair, down stubbled cheeks, to the corners of that working mouth, back to the hair. Bodie's hands were on the backs of Ray's thighs, up under his arse, holding warm and tight.
In the frustrating manner of dreams, Ray could never later recall his climax, how they ended up on the soft, cool sheets, what Bodie's naked body looked like, exactly, or how Bodie had taken his own pleasure―Ray woke with an unprecedented amount of his own ejaculate on and around him in the bed, feeling he had been turned inside-out with ecstasy and should be careful of his edges if he only knew where they were. He lay unmoving, elbow and fingertips in the puddle, reverberating still with pleasure. He felt Bodie near, but the ghost did not speak.
At long last, he sat up, moved the covers, looked down at the mess, and said, “That was the wettest wet dream I have ever woken from with the evidence all over me, even when I was a randy lad.”
Bodie's chuckle filled the room. “You're still a randy lad, my Sunshine,” he said. “A lovely, lovely randy lad.”
But as soon as that voice that, in waking reality, had no sound died out of his inner ear, Ray caught his breath on misery, swallowed, wrapped both arms around himself. “What are we going to do, Bodie? I can't live on dreams.”
“No, you can't,” Bodie answered after several moments. “Even if you could … ” his voice grew quieter, more remote, “it would be unconscionable of me to try, to let you try, to abet you.”
“Can't be good for you, either,” Ray realised. “You're too bound here already. Said so, didn't you? Oh, Bodie.”
The ghost didn't answer; the room felt very empty.
Ray got up to wash himself, dress, and change the bed. He felt embarrased to have Jax change it. "Merry Christmas,” he whispered into the silence.
He went to the Parkers' dinner party. Ray had met most of the other guests: they were the ladies of St Anne's and their husbands. Mr and Mrs Franklin, Mr and Mrs Turner, greeted him kindly, and chatted to him about the Christmas Market, the St Anne's Carol Service, decorating the church with Christmas greens, and what the younger children had said about Father Christmas since the Market. Occasionally, they asked about his own plans for the holiday itself, but accepted his evasive answers.
But at the dinner table, the Vicar gave thanks in prayer for the safe arrival of his cousin Charles Parker, from Johannesburg, and gratitude for the timing that allowed them to spend Christmas together. Ray looked at the guest of honour: he was tall, lean, fair-haired. In fact, his eyebrows were so blond that their shapes were hard to see. His nose was straight, a little long; his chin was firm. His eyes were paler blue than Bodie's.
Those eyes were fixed on Ray most of the time. They weren't seated particularly near each other, and Ray thought that Mr Parker must be neglecting his dinner partners. The steady gaze and little smiles Parker was giving him began to make Ray shy, and drew him to the stranger.
After dinner, Ray wasn't entirely sure how, he found himself seated in an armchair by the fire, and Charles Parker sat nearby, his long mouth relaxed and nearly smiling, drawing Ray out about his home, his painting, the boxing club, his acquaintanceship with the Vicar and his wife, his schooling―even his war, a little. The thin South African voice, the word or phrase in Afrikaans, would normally not have been pleasant, but Ray couldn't help but hear the admiration and attraction, as he felt it under that steady gaze and in the touch of the long fingers on his wrist, his forearm, while they spoke. Parker brought Ray a whiskey and offered him a cigar as if it were a pleasure just to wait upon him.
“Call me Charles,” he murmured. “May I call you Raymond?”
“Ray.” He didn't say yes, but giving the preferred version of his name was certainly not a no, either.
So it was no surprise when Charles said immediately, “Ray.” His voice was deeper than Ray had thought. He bent in, and Ray noticed the freckles on his nose, his forehead.
“Your hair's a little red, isn't it?” He smiled.
Charles lifted his hand; his fingertips passed through the curls at the top of Ray's head. “Yours as well. Chestnut and fire.” The touch was so light that it felt like the ghost's breeze, and Ray shuddered a little.
“Ah, what was that?” Charles said. “Something sad. Boetie, don't be sad.”
Ray didn't answer; Charles smiled a little more widely, looking from under those blond brows, and Ray felt the edge of danger, not just of desire, yet the solid life in Charles's body drew him, and he couldn't deny it. When Charles said, “It's a long walk, isn't it, up to your cottage? You look tired. May I drive you up there?” Ray nodded his assent.
He couldn't live on dreams. And Bodie had left. It was good, wasn't it? If Bodie's spirit had found its home in that next world that had no words to describe it. If he had been given the common miracle of mortality.
Christmas had no miracle for Ray, but he knew he would not need to be alone. That would have to be enough.
Ray has an affair with Charles Parker. Jax gets engaged. This chapter contains sexual violence and non-consensual sex.
The Parkers and the other guests said goodbye with what seemed almost fondness, and Parker brought his motor to the vicarage front door, so Ray had only a few steps to take. It felt like the care Colin had taken of him; it felt familiar. Even the touch to his shoulder when he got into the car seemed like touches Ray had given and received, when he had begun liaisons with men in silence.
But Charles spoke, as he drove. “The moment I saw you.” He took a breath. “It was as if a voice spoke in my ear, saying, 'Don't you want him?' And oh, I did, I do.” Another long breath, like a sigh but harsher. “Ray, am I 'n dwass … making myself a fool here?” He reached blindly, and Ray took his hand. Charles held hard. “I'm not usually … I'll have to explain to John what got into me, now! I wish I knew. I've never fallen so hard. What is it to you?”
Ray didn't know what to answer.
Charles laughed shortly. “I'll have to woo you! I've never done that either.”
It wasn't that Ray had no thoughts. Charles was attractive, if dangerous. That mouth would be no hardship to kiss; he wanted to see Charles's face gentled by pleasure.
When Charles stopped the car outside Gull Cottage, he took Ray's arm in a firm clasp and said, “Wait, wait, a moment.” And then dragged Ray close and kissed him fiercely. Ray kissed back, learning this new mouth, this new taste. Charles's fingertips were there, as they were kissing and after, feeling Ray's lips and the stubble around them. Then he pulled the back of Ray's neck toward his lap while cupping his own genitals through the cloth. “Oh, I can't, you're such a, you feetjie, suck me, suck me. I need you.”
Ray hadn't done this out of doors, or outside a bedroom, for years. He didn't know Charles at all, and though he wasn't sure what that Afrikaans word meant, he was fairly sure that when he knew, he wouldn't like it. Yet he twisted round and unfastened Charles's trousers, pulled out his prick, and got to work to make it harder, to make Charles come. The strong hands pushed and pulled his head, petted and pulled his hair. When he felt the tension tighten in the thighs under him, he forced himself up, tore himself away, and did see Charles's face tipped back, eyes closed, saw him bite his lip and heard him groan as he came, and though the strong face was not exactly softened, Ray saw the pleasure there.
It wasn't Bodie. But Charles was there, and alive, and they were both awake.
As Ray left the car, Charles said, “Don't walk that hill, Ray. I'll come get you. I'll bring you back. I don't like the idea of you … I'll drive you.”
Ray kept walking because he liked the freedom and the exercise, but he didn't know whether Charles knew that.
Charles did court him, with gifts and attention and sex, hand and blow jobs. Ray didn't know what the Vicar had been told, but Mrs Parker's conversation seemed to imply that Ray was showing Charles around Whitecliff and befriending him. This was not entirely untrue, but aside from one meeting of the boxing club, they didn't see much of the town. Charles had a bathing machine he'd rented, where he had a pallet and some blankets, and there they spent hours pretending to change. Charles held Ray tightly, the touch he'd so missed, called him names in Afrikaans and a tender voice, and monopolised his time except on Sunday during church service.
“Come home with me,” he murmured when they lay together, sated. “I'll show you the wonders of the Southern Hemisphere.” But the offer reminded Ray sharply of Captain Bodie's “What you've missed,” and the memory made Ray squirm and turn away.
“Why do you do that? Why?” Charles demanded. One too many times, Ray said nothing; then Charles hauled him up to a sitting position in order to take him in a bruising grip and shake him until he was dizzy. “What are you thinking of? Tell me what you're thinking of!”
But what could he say? I'm in love with a ghost, and I can't leave the place we were almost together.
Instead, he invited Charles to Gull Cottage while Jax was on his half-day. The original portrait of Captain Bodie, wooden and without the intensity Ray had seen in it from the first, was the subject of some light mockery, and so were the ornaments Ray had kept. Charles regarded the drapes with disfavour and said Ray should sell the telescope. But the new portrait of Captain Bodie in the bedroom made him actively angry.
“You painted a dead man. Why?” he almost snarled.
“The one downstairs was so badly done. It was good practice,” Ray said, conscious that his account did not seem to be a complete story, because it was not.
“Did you imagine him? Daydream about him? Was he your dream lover?”
Ray gazed for a while as Charles frowned and his nostrils dilated like a horse's.
“Why does it matter? I didn't even know you existed, then. And he's dead. He's dead,” and his voice cracked a little, involuntarily.
Charles stepped forward and grabbed Ray's arms, as if to shake him again. “Paint me.”
Ray shrugged. “Certainly,” he said.
“Don't paint anyone else. Paint me.”
But Charles didn't let go, and didn't stop frowning. “You have Vaseline, right?”
“Get it,” and the thin accent seemed thinner yet, sharper. “Ek sal jou fuck.”
Ray didn't really want to, with Charles in this mood, but refusal seemed fraught with danger. Silently, he went to the bathroom and got the grease; silently, he took off his clothes and sat on the bed. Charles watched him with hot, angry eyes. “You've done this before, feetjie, haven't you? Jy hoar, little whore. I'll show you, tempting me, making me feel this.”
“Come to bed,” Ray said, appeasingly, hating his submission, fearing the violence of Charles's anger.
Charles stalked over to the bed and took off his clothes with abrupt, awkward movements. Ray reached for him and petted the blond fur of his forearms, palmed his chest, trying to calm him. Charles pushed Ray onto his back and knelt over him, fists in the mattress on either side of Ray. He took Ray's mouth without gentleness, without any of the love he had professed, as if Ray had somehow forced Charles to this.
“Charles,” Ray said softly. “Lie down, do.” And when Charles did, at last, unlock his elbows and lie down on his side, Ray turned to curl into his body and handed him the Vaseline. “Give me the grease,” he said, lifting one leg to hook it over Charles's. “Put it in.”
Charles's hands were shaking, but he did manage to poke some of the jelly into Ray, who lay still and listened to Charles grinding his teeth, then went on lying still and gritting his own teeth as Charles pushed in, roughly, ignoring Ray's hiss of pain and frozen muscles.
Nothing like Colin. Nothing like a lover. Ray forced himself to lie still, lest he be hurt more, and waited for it to be over. Eventually, it was. Charles rolled Ray to his back and stared down at the tracks of the tears Ray had not been able to hold back.
“Look at you, as if you didn't ask for it, as if you were some sort of virgin,” Charles snarled. “As if I hurt you, you useless little hole. Don't you blame me.” He dragged at Ray, who sat up, and then slapped him across the face, knocking him back down in the bed.
There was a kind of whirlwind―the window flew open with such force that the glass shattered, and Bodie's voice roared more loudly than Ray had ever heard it: “Out! Out! Get your miserable arse out of my house!” Charles jumped, so startled that he slipped on the edge of the bed and ended up with his feet on the floor, turning his head wildly, his eyes wide and terrified. “Get the hell out before I bring down the ceiling! A plague of lice and hornets on you! Out with you, damn it, don't touch those clothes!” And Charles actually did run out of the room stark naked. Ray heard his stumbling, dull footfalls down the stairs and out the door, which slammed behind him, and a few moments later, the motor engine fired up and roared away.
Ray was so stunned that he could neither laugh, which he felt he should want to do, nor speak. “Bodie?” he said in a small voice at last.
“In all my breathing life,” came the ghost's voice “―and I have killed with my own hands, Ray―in all that time and all the time since, I have never thirsted for a man's blood the way I do for Parker's. How dare he strike you―how dare he fuck you like that!”
“I let him,” Ray said dully, rolling to his side and curling up more.
“It wasn't your fault,” Bodie said, “it was his, the bloody bastard, it was his.”
“I'm not hurt,” Ray said.
“You lie, my Ray,” Bodie said tenderly. “If your mind and heart could bleed, it would look like a slaughterhouse in here.”
Ray said nothing. The bedclothes rose, untangled themselves, and tucked round him.
“His heart is a small, pinched thing not to let him, make him see the beauty of your spirit, Sunshine. He only wanted to take, when you deserve nothing but gifts. I should never have directed his attention to you. I only beg you'll forgive me.”
“I do forgive you,” Ray said. “I didn't say no.”
“He didn't listen. But I cannot forgive myself. I should have known better, because interfering in other people's lives, unasked, no matter how much one intends kindness, is one of the greater sins. It comes from pride, and I still have too much pride. It's my own pain that makes me want to give you through another what I cannot give myself, but I should have looked in his dreams, his memories, first.”
Ray thought about how tired he was of being the ornament of another man's pride, the medicine of his pain, the evidence of his charity. He said nothing.
“I ought to go away until I have learned greater wisdom and more care,” Bodie said, more humbly than he had ever spoken. “Shall I go away, Sunshine?”
But Ray felt as if there was nothing left in him, not a word to reply, neither a yes nor a no.
It was a day or two later that Jax said, “Servants at the vicarage say there was a row to end all rows and Mr Parker's gone.”
Good riddance, Ray thought.
Jax brought him tea, which Ray drank in front of the fire in the sitting room. He never looked above the mantel.
“You going on a walk, you think, today?”
Ray didn't turn his head.
Jax went out, then some time later, came back. “I reckon I need to give notice.”
That got Ray's attention. “Notice?”
“I'm, I asked Juliette Culver to marry me.”
Ray stared for a moment. “What was her reply?”
Jax grinned widely. “She said yes.”
“Congratulations! But why do you need to give notice?” Jax opened his mouth, and Ray rushed to forestall him. “Jax, Jax, sit down. I want to ask you something.”
Uneasily, Jax took the other armchair.
“You know what's in my will.”
“Of course I do, Lef'. Nine days' wonder, that was, in town.”
“Well, I think Captain Bodie intended more than one retired sea captain to live here. We'll need more rooms. I'm thinking of an addition. Could you help me do that? You and Juliette and … your children could live there. Would you stay then?”
Staring, Jax opened his mouth, then shut it. “I'd have to ask Juliette.”
Jax left the room. Though he was fairly certain that Bodie was gone, Ray said aloud, “Now I must find the money.”
After the stock-market crash of 1929, Ray thinks he might have to let Gull House, which Captain Bodie disapproves of mightily. Bodie dictates his memoirs: Blood and Swash. Warning for brief suicidal ideation.
Ray had to sell out of many of his securities in order to build the addition, and his solicitor was so indignant that Ray had to find a new one. The sitting room and Jax's bedroom led through to the addition, which added almost as much space as had originally been in the house. Jax and Juliette had their first baby just after the new rooms were ready for use; their other babies were born as quickly as was physically possible, so two years later there were three children, a boy and two girls. As little as he had ever thought of being a father himself, Ray found the children brought life and energy into the house as they grew.
“More than enough energy, them,” Juliette said darkly when Ray said as much.
Whenever Juliette leaned into Jax's shoulder or Jax kissed Juliette's cheek, Ray missed Bodie. But the ghost did not come back for years. In the restlessness of his secret grief and his loneliness, Ray changed his way of living. He ran more, boxed more, joined the volunteer fire brigade. Found himself leading it. He got a dog and named him Lieutenant, though he attached himself to the children, and supervised their bedtime before prowling the house. One night, Ray was sitting before the vast marble fireplace and sipping brandy when Lieutenant began to growl fiercely and rear up against the wall beside the mantel. In response came that voice that Ray had almost forgotten: “Down, sir! Down, you beast!”
“Bodie! You've come back!” Ray said, sitting up with such a jolt that the brandy splashed at the sides of the glass.
“Sunshine,” Bodie said, with a brush of air past Ray's cheek.
“Are you wise and good now? Have you learned a great deal?” Ray heard the fond teasing in his voice and hoped he wasn't making a fool of himself.
“I'm not a very good pupil,” and Bodie's voice was warm, too. “My thoughts kept wandering back here. I'm still too interested in Mammon, I dare say.”
“Meaning the house?”
“Meaning you, mostly.”
Ray felt his face heat up. “Shall I thank you?”
Bodie chuckled. “You may if you wish.”
“For thinking of me as Mammon?”
“For thinking of you as the one … whom I wish I had known in life.” Bodie paused; when he spoke again, his voice was a little more distant. “The one who will keep and love my house.”
“As long as I can.”
But in the following weeks, the question of the upkeep of Gull House (renamed since the addition) did arise and become a preoccupation of Ray's. That fall and winter of 1929 saw the collapse of Ray's remaining investments; though he had never been extravagant, it became harder and harder to keep himself, pay the rates, and support Jax's family.
“It's no use,” Ray said to Captain Bodie while trying for the third time to figure out how to pay larger bills with almost no money. “I shall have to let Gull House.”
“You can't. You shan't.”
“I must. I shall need to go back and live with the Murphys until I've made enough from rent to return.” Ray sighed, for that request and the conversation containing it made him feel sick to contemplate.
“I will not have my house let,” said Bodie. “If you allow strangers to come here , I shall haunt them.”
“If I don't let it, I must declare myself bankrupt, and the house will go altogether to strangers.”
“I'll haunt the lot of them!” the ghost seemed to shout. “You dare go bankrupt!”
Ray was angry too, at the terrible choice before him, and now at Bodie for not listening and recognizing it. “How do I dare go bankrupt? How dare you act as though I am going bankrupt wilfully? It's your bloody house that caused this disaster! What have I done but care for it, care about it, and spend my whole income on it? What the hell was I supposed to have done?”
There was a silence, during which Ray pulled his mass of disordered papers into a neat stack. His heart was aching; he felt as homesick as if he had already left.
“I'm sorry, Sunshine,” said the ghost. “What we need is a way to make money.”
“Elementary, my dear ghost,” Ray said bitterly.
“Well, it's not impossible. Sell your paintings―”
“Get a job.”
“What skills do I have? That anyone will pay for?”
“Write a book.”
“I can't. I don't have that kind of imagination.”
There was a silence until the ghost said abruptly, “But I can! Bless my soul, I can write a best-seller of a book! And you shall put it on paper for me. Buy a typewriter and some foolscap tomorrow.”
“But what will you write about?”
“Me,” said Bodie. “The story of my life―you said it was full of incident! I shall call it … I shall call it … Blood and Swash.”
Ray chuckled. “That's certainly a potboiler of a title.”
“Arresting, don't you think? Anyway, get a pen and paper and we'll start tonight.”
“You order me about so,” Ray half-complained, but he was beginning to feel better already.
He wrote until his hand ached, went to bed, woke to write some more, and more after breakfast … until he refused lest the pain in his writing hand should cripple it permanently. “You have no idea,” he said, shaking it. “I think it's actually swelling.”
“Think that if you like.”
Exchanges like that one continued even after Ray bought a typewriter, the use of which was considerably harder than Ray had ever dreamed it would be. His hands were quick and deft enough when sketching or painting; he'd fixed his own motorbike when he'd owned one and worked with Colin's motor as well, but on the typewriter he kept missing the key he meant, or typing too fast until the keys on their long metal stalks were in a knot. Then he had to stop Bodie's yarn, which otherwise would spin away happily for hours, and untangle the typewriter. But now that he'd stressed his hands with pen and paper writing, they had a distressing tendency to ache again, especially the wrists. When he could not type, he couldn't draw or paint either. He took walks or paid calls when his hands and wrists hurt. All too soon they'd hurt again until he took to wrapping them as if they were sprained, which did help prolong his working time.
One day, he was rubbing his wrists preparatory to wrapping them and working again, talking idly to Bodie. He asked, “That Marseille whorehouse story, did that really happen?”
“Of course it did, what d'you think?”
“I think you were sixteen, which isn't a baby, and you'd been on the ship for a week already. I understand going to the brothel if others went, but how'd you imagine that young girl with her loose blouse was taking you all home to meet her family?”
“Well … “ Bodie's voice was rueful. “I suspected she wasn't what she seemed. Hoped so, in fact. The jokes were getting sharper, if you know what I mean, and I thought, if I could manage it once, or maybe pay her to say so, the other sailors would leave me be for a while. A ship's a confined space, Ray. What I didn't dream of was that where she led us was not only not her family, not only a whorehouse―but a whorehouse full of brawny street thugs who beat all of us to flinders and took every penny. That's what I want everyone to know. Young sailors, all young travellers, should know what goes on in port cities so they can be on guard.”
“As a young traveller, anyway a travelling soldier, I don't think I would have learned from this, reading it in a book. I wouldn't have believed you were this naïve, so the whole story would not have convinced me enough to make me take care.”
“You mean I should tell them that I was raised by me maiden aunt and me godfather the vicar?”
“Then yes, put it in. We'll do a little David Copperfield piece at the beginning about your childhood. Explain how you ran away to sea. Put in your boyish ideals. Then the misunderstanding becomes plausible.”
From feeling that he'd been drafted as an amanuenses only, Ray progressed to feeling like a private editor. Bodie took his suggestions more often than not, and as time passed, even when he would not allow a change, he explained why not; sometimes they were able to make a compromise, even if it was an irritable one.
“Marseille is different to any other port in Europe,” Bodie announced.
“Different from,” Ray said absently.
“To or from, what does it matter!” shouted Bodie. “This is not a literary epic, it's the unvarnished tale of a seaman's life!”
“Smear on your own varnish, then.” After a pause while Ray thought that “smear” sounded a bit indelicate, Bodie laughed and Ray did too. “I'd like to see it,” Bodie teased. “Not varnish, though.”
“No.” And Ray sobered, thinking of Vaseline. Of Charles.
Another time, Ray said, “I see it would be ridiculous for your language to be too … prim, but this amount of damns, blasts, and shites won't help it get published.”
“Oh, do what you like,” Bodie said dismissively.
When he was well away on some yarn, Ray could hear his voice as it seemed to move up and down the room, as if Bodie were walking up and down his quarter-deck. He pictured the lad who had run away to sea, the young officer who had talked down mutineers, and, reluctantly, the young captain with the handsome first mate, one kneeling before the other to do intimate service.
“I'm sorry,” he said, “I need a break. A walk.”
A soft breeze stroked his cheek, and he closed his eyes.
“Yes, have a walk and a rest,” said the ghost, with that lover’s tone in his voice.
Later, Ray would look back on these months of labour with a mixture of nostalgia and grief that he could never have explained to anyone, and hardly understood himself. He felt so close to Bodie, yet Ray's body ached for the impossibility of Bodie’s physical presence, and Ray's skin fairly burned for touch that was not his own. When he lay unsleeping now, Bodie said nothing; Ray stared into the dark and knew there was nothing to say.
One morning, he caught himself thinking of death, of how he might call it to him, with a blade or a jump off the cliff or the gas stove—and then he stopped that train of thought while he still could, certain that real suicide would not bring Bodie and him together and remembering how angry Bodie had been that he had ever been suspected of it.
He walked down to the church and sat beside the blue and green windows—the picture was of Jesus walking on the water with the fishermen astonished—and listened to the organist's awkward practice of, as it happened, the Royal Navy Hymn. He remembered the lyric: “Who walkedst on the foaming deep, and calm amidst its rage did sleep, oh hear us when we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea.” Tears came to his eyes, and since there was no one to see him, he gripped the top of his pew and rested his head on his hand, allowing despair and loneliness to swamp him. An unmeasured time passed until he felt a grip on his shoulder, and Mr Parker was there.
“Is there anything I can help you with, my boy?”
Ray swallowed convulsively and rasped out, “You're very kind, Vicar, but I don't believe so.”
“Come have some tea,” Parker said, and feeling Ray's recoil, explained, “We're alone this afternoon.”
So he went. He wondered how he looked, for both the Parkers treated him if he were an invalid, coddling him, speaking to him with undeniable affection. As was far too usual, he enjoyed the affection but felt somehow belittled by the expression of it.
Then he went back to Gull House and to taking Bodie’s dictation.
Six months they worked; then Ray typed a clean copy of the manuscript and took it to London, to the publisher they had chosen to try first, CI Quinque Books. The senior editor Bodie picked out was one whom he knew loved the sea and old tales of shipboard battles and bravery. “Just ask for him and barge in,” was Bodie’s advice. “A personal interview, I’m sure that will do the trick.” So Ray found himself climbing the stairs to Mr Cowley’s office with the manuscript, wrapped in brown paper, under his arm.
He’d walked right past the office-boy and the waiting room he oversaw. The boy was chewing gum, reading an issue of Comic Cuts and chuckling to himself. If he was supposed to be watching the entrance, he wasn’t.
The editor’s office door was dark wood, like the walls and stairs. At eye-level was a brass plate that said “George Cowley,” and that was all. Ray knocked two quick raps and opened the door. The man looked up from the desk. His hair was sand-coloured, his forehead high and creased, his eyes light and very sharp. The walls around him were filled to overflowing with books that looked as though they had never been opened, presumably examples of CI Quinque's publications, and the desk itself was covered with tin trays that overflowed with loose typed pages scrawled with notes.
“Ah, Mr Fowles,” he said, sternly. “You’re late.” He was evidently a Scot.
“I’m not,” Ray began, but Mr Cowley interrupted.
“Indeed y’are. But sit down, laddie, sit down. Now our sales for your first book were nae so verra high, but we’re prepared to try again with the second in your series. Those murder mystery books normally sell well, especially to the commuter market. Let me see this new one.”
Dumbly, Ray handed over the package. Cowley tore it open, removed the handful of paper in it, and read the title page.
“You’re nae Mr Fowles! Who are ye?”
“I tried to say so. No, my name is Ray Doyle.”
“I’m scheduled to see Mr Fowles!”
“That’s not my fault,” Ray argued. “You’re here, I’m here, this Mr Fowles is not, and I have a manuscript for your consideration."
Mr Cowley frowned. “That boy,” he growled.
“I never spoke to him.”
“You niver—” Cowley stared, then looked back at the title page. “Blood and Swash, eh?” He flicked idly through the first few pages, then back to the beginning and began to read in earnest. His cross expression gradually changed to absorbed interest, and then he suddenly chuckled. Ray thought, from the stack of pages he’d set aside, that he was possibly as far as the Marseille scenes.
Nearly an hour later, the boy rapped on the door much as Ray had, but opened it only a little to stick his head in. “Mr Fowles’s been waitin’,” he said.
“Can’t ye see I’m busy?” said Cowley. “The man must have patience.”
“He’s gettin’ annoyed.”
Cowley just stared. The boy shuffled his feet and said, “Well, he may not wait.”
The boy shrugged and left, pulling the door shut and clattering down the stairs.
Mr Cowley went back to reading Blood and Swash. Ray settled into the padded visitor chair and watched. It fascinated Ray to see the play of emotions reflected on Cowley’s face from the text of Bodie’s stories. He could almost tell when Cowley read the ceremony that made Bodie a Son of Neptune when he crossed the equator, the near- mutiny of the common seamen in the doldrums coming home, the storm that made Bodie a captain by default.
The hands of the black Parliamentary clock crept toward, and past, one. The boy came to the door again and said he was going to lunch.
“Lunch! What’s the time?” said Cowley, looking at the clock. “Half-past one! Send me in a tray from opposite—” he glanced at Ray— “twice, of course, and make sure I’m not disturbed. No mair lettin’ bampots up the stairs wi’ armloads of foolscap, eh?”
The boy looked sullen, but left without a verbal reply.
After a time, a waiter with a white towel round his waist appeared with an enormous tray full of covered dishes and two tankards, balanced it on top of the paper-filled tins, and withdrew so silently that Cowley never even looked up.
“Your lunch has arrived, Mr Cowley!” Ray pointed out.
“Eh?” Cowley started. “Oh, the food’s here. Join me, then.” And he took the covers off to disclose plates full of beef-steak and kidney pudding, cauliflower and mashed potatoes. The tankards were full of ale.
“This is good,” Ray said after a few minutes.
“Int it! And cheap for the value.” They chewed a little in silence, and then Mr Cowley began to talk about the book.
“A bit rough, but a mon’s book. I’d like to meet this Captain Bodie.”
They hadn’t agreed on a story, Ray realised. “I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
“Not possible! Int he the writer?”
Ray looked down and thought fast. “I live in the house he … died in. I found his diaries and logs and thought they’d make a grand book.”
“They do, they do.” Cowley wiped his mouth and said, caution returning, “which doesn’t mean we’re going to publish it. Leave the manuscript and your address, and we’ll send you our decision.”
Ray walked out of the office feeling oddly let down. He hadn’t expected the book to be instantly accepted. Still, he wasn’t looking forward to waiting for CI Quinque Books’ decision.
At least he hadn’t needed to pay for lunch out of his ever-thinner wallet.
Blood and Swash succeeds. Jax's children (and Ray) get older. Jax's son wants to run away to sea. Ray and Bodie convince him not to.
It was a hard time, waiting the months needed for Blood and Swash to go from a mass of foolscap to an actual, published book. The shops had to extend Ray credit, and Jax and Juliette worked without pay for the last month. The Parkers fed Ray too often at tea or dinner, and when the rates came due, he had to ask Mr Parker for a loan. Beyond the shame of the request itself, it troubled Ray that the Vicar would probably not approve of the book at all, that Parker's opinion of Ray would be lowered once he realised what his loan had supported.
The cover design was lurid, but Mr Cowley said Ray's portrait would not attract sales, and that he was not in the habit of allowing authors to dictate to him about the covers of his books. Ray waited, sold his cufflinks, thought of selling the necklace but could not bear to (and also could not imagine the argument with Bodie).
Then he got his first royalty cheque, and had to sit down. It took a slow tea and a stern talking to himself before he could even walk down to the bank to deposit it. While he was there, he asked the banker about how to put money aside for the children, thinking that sales might continue to be this good. The man gave him a very strange look. Ray supposed, when he thought it over, that the banker must think Ray was the children's natural father if he sought to provide for them.
Ray hoped that piece of gossip never got back to Jax or Juliette.
Bodie had had no doubt that the sales would continue to grow; he asked Ray to read the book reviews aloud for him even though he could tell what Ray was reading or had read in his own ghostly way. Whenever Ray got CI Quinque's discreet envelopes, Bodie preened. Ray supposed that earning money after one's death was quite a coup.
The Parkers kept inviting Ray to dine; they had no way to know, of course, that his lean times seemed to be over. Ray asked to speak to the Vicar over coffee to pay back the money he'd borrowed. Mr Parker turned the cheque over and over in his hands. “I'm pleased you're doing so well,” he said at last. “I hope … I hope you can be proud of how this money was earned.”
“John!” Ray was so surprised that he used the Christian name he'd never been granted the use of. And even realising his impropriety, he couldn't help saying it again. “John! Whatever do you think?” And now he had to say it, though over dinner, he'd heard Parker's misgivings about Blood and Swash. “I wrote a book. It seems to be selling well.”
Parker was no fool; he gazed at Ray for a few long moments, and then said, “I should have guessed. Based on―were there papers left at Gull Cottage? Captain Bodie's words?”
“Captain Bodie's words,” Ray agreed, feeling lucky that he didn't have to lie to Parker again. “I defy anyone not to think of the sea, and his life on it, living there!”
“I read it,” Parker said soberly. “I thought I should know what my people were reading. I thought its moral outlook was … basically sound, if unconventional.”
“I'm glad,” Ray answered, and he was. He could keep his home and his friends here, his life. His happy, if solitary, life.
The first year passed, and the book still sold; it prompted indignant letters to editors, speeches, sermons, which of course kept the sales up; the American edition was banned in Boston, which positively made Mr Cowley rub his hands together in gratification. Not to mention the sale of the film rights. A particularly handsome young actor was cast as Captain Bodie … Ray privately thought he was feeble looking next to the portrait, much less the captain in Ray's dreams.
He missed those dreams.
There was a fire on the beachfront, which tested the volunteer fire brigade, and though it was terrifying at the time, Ray was pleased with the work they did. The changing tents were burned to the ground, everything in them lost. A dog ran from the fire fighters, and there was a mad chase in the dark, among the flames, while the dog's owner stood shouting its name until it ran back to him, and even the firefighter who stumbled got back out of the fire. No one was hurt.
Afterwards, the brigade stood around the engine clapping each other on the back and laughing, praising each other―as good as payment, Ray thought.
“Why can't I join the brigade?” Jax's son Reginald asked the next morning.
“Because you're too young,” Ray answered, smiling at the boy's pout. “Your parents would have to consent.” And Jax, who was also in the room, shook his head and folded his arms.
Ray was a softie for these children, though, and he knew it, had known it since they took over his dog and he hadn't minded. He smiled and spoke conspiratorially to the boy. “Will you help me today, Reg? I want to go sailing.” The boy lit up like a lamp. He was a handsome one, like Jax but lighter-skinned, his hair straighter but still rough-textured and brown, almost Ray's colour.
His boat was tucked alongside the fishermen's craft like a little brother, which was very like how he'd felt learning to sail it from fishermen he knew down the pub. It was a bright day, the sea calm, the wind just right for a little sailboat like Ray's, and as they launched her and got themselves aboard, Ray laughed aloud in delight. “Good work!” he called to Reg. “Now let me show you all her parts,” but he found Reg already knew the lines, the sailing points, and the names of the sails.
“I've been studying them, Mr Ray,” Reg said, bashful but certain of himself in a way Ray would have envied when he was a decade older than Reg was now. They got the mainsail and the headsail up, and Ray called Reg back to the tiller so they could keep steady as Ray pulled them off the wind so they could close-haul.
“Starboard a bit, now!” he called and Reg did it, and Ray laughed again and stood up, the wash of the wind pushing him and the sun bathing him in bright hot light. Spray fell on his skin. “Perfect day!” he called, and Reg grinned.
It was. They ate sandwiches Juliette had made them, drank cold tea from Mason jars, talked about the day and the Channel and Reg's schoolwork.
“Mr Ray,” he said as they were gathering up the wrappings. All the children called him “Mr Ray,” which he preferred to “Mr Doyle” in his home, and since neither of the older Jaxes would allow a simple “Ray.”
“Mr Ray, I want to go to sea. Captain Bodie did, didn't he? When he was fourteen years old? I'm almost that. Would you … help me?”
“Run away? No. What a bad turn that'd be to Jax. And your mother! She'd never forgive me.”
Reg looked dejected. He packed up the paper and the jars in the cloth carrying bag. “That's what Captain Bodie said. He told me you'd say that.”
“What!” Ray couldn't believe what he'd heard. “He spoke to you!”
Reg looked Ray in the face, his own a little higher in colour than the wind alone could account for. “Now I know,” he said. “If Captain Bodie had really been all my imagination, you'd never have said that. Yes, I was unhappy at school, and I used to have a hard time sleeping, even with Lieutenant in the bed. I'd creep into your sitting room, sometimes, and look at the old painting in the moonlight, and imagine. He seemed like my friend. He gave me good advice and told me stories.”
“And you read the book?”
“Yes, this year I snuck it off your shelf and sat in my bedroom when I didn't have chores, and read it.”
Ray shook his head. “I had no idea. I didn't even notice the book was gone.”
“I moved the others, so you wouldn't see a hole. Are you angry?”
That Marseille chapter! And the one about the pimp, and the language … “It doesn't seem to have harmed you, to read it. And I am not in charge of whom the ghost speaks to.”
“He's very fond of you,” Reg said.
Ray turned his face toward the sea and shut his eyes against the glare. He was reminded of wearing the necklace. He was reminded of too many things, and they made his chest hurt. Made his heart hurt.
“So,” he said a bit breathlessly, “You admire Captain Bodie and want to grow up to be like him?”
“Yes,” Reg answered.
“Even the running away to sea part? Does he approve of this plan?”
“No, not really. He tells me some, some frightening stories.”
“Indeed.” Thank you, Bodie, Ray thought, hoping Bodie knew. “Tell your parents what you want. Let them get used to it. Meanwhile, I'll see if I can get you work on a fishing boat here, and the crews will help you and teach you. Join us boxing. Make yourself ready, so you can be as safe as possible. Talk to Captain Bodie and take his advice.”
Bodie never spoke to Ray about it, and nor did Reg, so Ray never knew about the conversations between the boy and the ghost. Jax did, some time later, thank Ray for discouraging the running-away plan, and after a conversation about the cost of navigation school, Ray paid for it, from Blood and Swash royalties, which amused him.
The day Reg left for Southampton with all the luggage his mother had packed for him and a couple of sovereigns in his pocket for tips, Ray stood back with an effort, wanting to embrace the boy but fearing to injure the young dignity so much in evidence. Reg shook his hand. “Thank you for, well, for nearly everything, Mr Ray,” he stammered and got on the train, dragging the duffel behind him. Jax gave it a boost when it got caught on the stairs and put his fingers through Reg's hair as he looked out one last time. Ray couldn't tell whether the wind in his own hair was natural, from the train's movement or not; he would have liked to think Bodie had seen off his protégé. The Jaxes and Ray walked up from the station, and Juliette wept a little on her husband's shoulder. The little girls, not so little any more, held hands and were unusually quiet.
Later in the day, the youngest, Zadie, went down to town to visit her cousin Madeleine, and Ray sat in the sitting room looking at the portrait and wishing for the past. “Sunshine,” seemed to blow in his ear, but he had no great sense of the ghost's presence.
“Am I imagining you?” he murmured.
The window opened farther, and the scent of the lilies seemed stronger than usual. The phone rang.
“Oh my God!” Jax's voice cried out from the hallway. “Oh Lord! Don't!”
Ray leapt out of the chair and opened the sitting room door.
“It's a fire!” Jax's face was suddenly old; his hair couldn't have turned grey just now, could it? Ray must just be noticing it because Jax's face had turned a muddy grey colour as well.
“At old Culver's,” Jax gasped, and now Ray was terrified too, because young Madeleine was visiting her grandfather, and old Culver lived above his shop.
How fast could Ray get down to town, raise the fire brigade, get to the draper's shop? He could hear the clangour of the alarm bell, so the brigade was turning out. If he went straight down the hill? If he … “Saddle the mare,” he said. He'd bought her to teach the girls to ride, and she was no racehorse, but she was still faster down Cliff Road than his feet.
She galloped today as if she knew why he was in such a hurry. “Good girl, Tibbie,” he told her and thought Bodie might be scaring her somehow, for her eyes were edged with white. The air streamed by, and the sun heated the top of his uncovered head. By the time he reached the draper's shop, sweat was flying off Tibbie's flanks in white foam, and the brigade was pumping water over the flames, but no one seemed to have been brought out of the building. “Where's Zadie?” he shouted, but no one seemed to know, and then he heard a high, girl's scream and ran in, one sleeve over his face.
Ray enters the afterlife. Bodie, of course, is waiting for him. Warning for shameless sentimentality. Of the last three lines of dialog, two are from the book, but the last is my own.
Raymond Doyle's funeral was not a very large affair, but all the Jaxes were there, and the Vicar's wife (Mr Parker, of course, officiated), and the fire brigade, and the fishermen. Young Zadie Jax, her bandaged hands to her blotched face, cried inconsolably in Mrs Parker's arms all through the service. Mr Cowley stood near the back. Regina and Pamela Murphy felt they should have received more consideration, for it seemed no one wanted to hear their stories of Ray's dependence on their brother and on their own help. A paperback copy of Blood and Swash, with the new cover design, stood next to the coffin, and Ray's solicitor had already located and brought to the service the first four residents of the W. A. P. Bodie Home for Retired Sea Captains. The four grizzled men, one with a cane and another with a wooden leg, sat awkwardly together, looking at the stained glass and the book and the motley crowd. The youngest of the fire brigade members was talking in a low voice to Reginald Jax.
“I swear I saw it,” he said. “Two men, one Mr Ray and another one just as tall, but dark haired, looked like that picture on the book there. Hand in hand they were, walking out toward the Channel, through the buildings, looked like. In a blue mist.”
“I believe you,” Reg said, thinking of the voice he'd heard in the middle of his school day, as if Captain Bodie was standing right there beside his chair.
“Now, my Sunshine, we are together, as we were meant to be.”
Reg had known he was not the person to whom Bodie was speaking even before he heard Mr Ray's voice answering, “I feel so strange, so happy.”
“Come with me,” Bodie's voice said. “Now, my Ray, now I am ready for Heaven.”
So Reg felt no surprise when he was called to the telephone to hear the sad news; especially, he felt no surprise to hear that Mr Ray had saved Zadie. Reg knew Mr Ray was no small man, no weak one. Reg only wished Mr Ray had known how much his leadership had meant to Reg, to the others. But he supposed that, now, Mr Ray knew everything he needed.