WHAT OF THE NIGHT
"It's haunted, of course," said Oliver to the estate agent.
"No, no," protested that worthy, whose name was Mr Reynolds. They were in a room some sixteen feet square, lit by three tall windows facing south over some acres of picturesque parkland. Apart from its three occupants, the room was completely empty and bore the unmistakable signs of neglect.
"Somebody thinks it is," remarked Georgina. "How long since anybody lived here?"
"Three years," admitted Reynolds.
"And the price is very low," Oliver pointed out. "Admit it -- we've rumbled you."
"It won't put us off, if that's what's worrying you."
The estate agent looked relieved. "You understand I don't know anything about the stories. But it's true nobody wants to stay here very long. The last one only stayed a couple of months."
"Dear me," said Oliver mildly.
"You are still"
"Interested? yes. I've always wanted to meet a ghost, as a matter of fact."
"Perhaps Mr Reynolds can find someone who knows about it," Georgina suggested.
"I suppose old John Watson might know," said Reynolds. "He's been keeping an eye on the house and garden for donkey's years. Although I think he's a bit, you know, a few pence short of the pound in the brain department."
"Is that him there?"
"Where?" asked Oliver, looking in the direction of his wife's pointing finger. "I can't see anyone."
"Never mind; he must have gone behind those trees."
"He's usually in his shed at this time of day. If you've seen enough, we could call in on the way back to the office."
"I think we have," said Georgina, with a glance at Oliver, who nodded. "It's a lovely house -- I like it."
"We both like it. Now let's go and see your Mr Watson."
Leading the way out of the house, Reynolds conducted them some way through its grounds before halting before a solidly-constructed garden shed the size of a young bungalow. Looking back at the house, Oliver was reminded of a sad elderly relative who hadn't been cared for terribly well.
A head poked round the shed's door in response to Reynolds' knock. It was not a prepossessing sight: John Watson subscribed to the Bobby Charlton school of hairdressing which attempts to conceal baldness by teasing long and sparse hair over the offending area. He was unshaven, and rather resembled a warthog in general appearance.
"I'm on me tea break," he announced with a blast of mephitic breath, brandishing a mug to prove it. If tea is amber-coloured and made in Scotland, he spoke truth.
"We won't keep you long, John," said Reynolds soothingly. "Mr and Mrs Cox would like to hear about the ghost."
"You ain't thinkin' of buyin' the place?"
"Actually, we were," said Oliver.
"Well, you knows your own mind best, I s'pose. You better come in."
The visitors perched tentatively on the edge of a sofa which long ago might have had blue upholstery, and declined -- to Watson's obvious relief -- a drink from his mug. He drained it noisily before beginning, perhaps to forestall any change of mind on their part, then absently scratched the head of a villainous-looking lurcher which had been crouched beneath the table.
"They do say as 'ow there's three of 'em now, though when I first come 'ere there was only two, an' old Nobby Clark what used to do the gard'nin' said that for a long time there was only the one, till someone was fool enough to go and see what it wanted when it waved at 'im. Thin they are, an' sort of raggedy an' bony. An' 'ungry, that's what I 'eard."
"Hungry for what?" interrupted Oliver.
"I dunno. More folks to join 'em, per'aps."
"What are their faces like?" asked Georgina.
"Don't think I could rightly say I h'ever saw a face on 'em. They 'ave got teeth, though. I can swear to the teeth."
"Whose ghosts are they?"
"There ain't no tale about that, leastways not one what I ever 'eard. They don't come in the 'ouse, neither. Just 'ang about in the grounds... beckonin'."
"Well," said Oliver as they left Watson to his "tea", "that doesn't sound very alarming."
"Oh, I don't know," said Georgina. "That bit about them -- well -- recruiting is a bit creepy."
"Recruiting, I like that. Sits Vac, no experience necessary."
It was December when the Coxes moved into Ufford Hall. They hoped to get the place shipshape by Christmas, but as that day approached this began to seem increasingly unlikely. Oliver's book collection was still firmly ensconced in its boxes, and their arriving guests good-naturedly "mucked in" to help him and Georgina in their endeavours.
Standing to massage his aching back, Oliver looked out of the window into the gathering dusk. The weather was still unseasonably warm, and the low persistent rainclouds brought darkness even earlier than the season warranted; water lay in every dip and hollow like February Fill-Dyke come two months early. Although it had at last stopped raining, the grounds of the Hall looked far from inviting.
And then Oliver saw something thin and black detach itself from the trunk of a tree, and wave at him. His heart gave a great thump, as if trying to escape from his chest.
"Hullo, it's that blessed ghost," he said to himself. "I say, Georgie," he called out, advancing closer to the window. He could not see the figure clearly: there was no evidence of the teeth which had impressed Watson. It looked more like a scarecrow than anything else, its face invisible in the twilight. A bony arm crooked at Oliver, making him unsure, after all, that it wasn't part of the tree.
Georgina came in carrying a cardboard box. "Did you call?"
"Yes, can you see anything over there?"
"I thought I saw a figure -- thought it was one of old John's ghosts."
"More likely the man himself."
"No, too skinny."
"Did you feel scared?" she asked curiously.
"Not a bit."
"I wonder why people don't stay here long, if that's all there is to it. Here, lend me your Swiss Army knife." She slit the tape on the box, revealing tree ornaments. "Good. That's the last."
"How's the tree doing?"
"What are you two up to?" asked a new voice. They turned to see Oliver's cousin Tony. "Skiving, I bet."
"Not at all," said Georgina, showing him the box. "Tree stuff. Oliver thought he'd spotted one of our spooks outside."
"You never told me you had spooks!"
Oliver related Watson's tale, with appropriate dialect which was deservedly derided.
"Ghoulies and ghosties," said Tony. "You'll be telling me you've got fairies at the bottom of the garden next. Anyway I came to tell you there's tea in the blue room."
"Lead me to it," said Oliver. "I'm gasping."
Tony announced his host and hostess to the rest of the party as "the Ghostbusters", which necessitated the tale being related once again, to varying degrees of amusement or scepticism. The company was discouraged, to Oliver's secret relief, from a ghost-hunt by the return of the rain in great abundance. Although he had told Georgina he was not scared by the apparition -- if that was what it had been -- he did feel slightly uneasy. He shut out the darkness and the uncomfortable thoughts by pulling closed the heavy curtains.
"You've left a gap," complained Georgina. "You always leave a gap." She got to her feet and crossed the room to remedy this error.
As she reached to draw the two curtains together she chanced to look through the gap. Close up against the window -- indeed pressed against the glass -- was a face, an intensely horrible face; her wild thought was that now she understood what Watson had meant about the teeth. Apart from them, the face was mainly earth; but it was unmistakably alive.
Everyone heard her gasping indrawn breath. Oliver was at her side in seconds, but the face was gone. Georgina found herself shaking.
"Are you all right? Come and sit down. My God, you're as white as a sheet."
"Here," said Tony, who had found the brandy decanter. "Get this down you."
"They can't get in," Georgina said. "John Watson said they never come into the house. They can't, can they?"
"No, of course not," Oliver reassured her. "Otherwise old John would have said so."
"Of course he would, old girl. Drink up your brandy. Most likely it's just someone fooling around."
"Who would do something like that?"
"Come on, Georgie; ghosts is fiction, after all."
Georgina allowed herself to be calmed. She was naturally as sceptical as Tony, but could hardly imagine how such a thing as she had seen could be counterfeited.
"Let's go and see," said Tony suddenly. "With all this rain there'll be footprints."
"No!" said Oliver, more sharply than he had intended. "It's still tipping down, and it's dark. Wait until morning, at least." Tony, reluctantly, agreed, but had to be indulged to the extent of opening the window and peering out. There were no footprints to be seen, but Tony pronounced this to be inconclusive, as the ground beneath the window, sheltered as it was by the house, was less saturated than elsewhere.
Some time later, settled with pre-prandial drinks and sorted into convivial groups, with the ineffably sweet sound of the choir of King's College Chapel singing carols in the background, the company relaxed and admired the Christmas tree. Its piny scent gave the room a resinous edge, as if they were within a forest.
"Where's Tony?" asked someone.
It transpired that he was not in the room. Oliver's heart gave a horrible lurch.
"Oh, God, Oliver" whispered Georgina.
"Shh," he hissed back. "He's probably in his room, or gone to the loo," he said aloud. "I'll just go and tell him supper's nearly ready."
But Tony proved to be in neither of these places, and a subsequent search of the house failed to reveal him.
"He's gone ghost-hunting," was the general opinion, revised, as time passed, to include, "and got lost."
"Well, we'd better go and look for him," said Oliver. "Bother him! Why did he have to get a bee in his bonnet?"
Armed with torches, the gathering booted and coated itself and made a mass exodus. But despite their efforts Tony was nowhere to be found, and they eventually had to admit defeat. Georgina telephoned the police, but was not reassured. They and their guests retired unhappily to bed after a belated supper.
Sleep eluded Georgina. Oliver eventually fell into a fitful doze, but she remained wide awake, with sick worry curdling and roiling in her stomach. Eventually she got out of bed, wrapping herself in her woollen overcoat -- her dressing-gown was in a box somewhere -- and sat on the window-seat.
The clouds were gone. A full moon shone on the grounds of the Hall, its round pallid face like an idiot's. As Georgina watched, feeling herself more than half in a dream, she saw three figures advance like spiders from among the trees and cavort on the sodden grass.
They had been a long time in the earth; their tattered garments were all gone to black; they were more dirt and bone than flesh. Their movements were loose and unco-ordinated, and their heads lolled and wagged upon their shoulders.
And then a fourth broken-limbed figure emerged from the trees.