The deal was quite a simple one really. Charles – that’s my sister Marcie’s husband – believes in ghosts and I don’t. At least I didn’t. He’s got money and I haven’t, so when he challenged me to put my beliefs to the test with the offer of a big fat payoff, I wasn’t minded to refuse. He knew I liked old buildings anyway, so he undertook to find one with “a history” as he euphemistically put it that was for sale. If I could spend the night there alone and in the dark, and I liked it enough to want to live in it, he’d give me a deposit of 20% to buy it. That way I could afford a mortgage of a size that even my biology teacher’s salary could sustain.
All I got from him that morning was an e-mail containing an address and a time, signed with his trademark smiley face. “Smug bastard,” I thought, memorising the content, as I wiped the e-mail form my already over-full mail box.
Six o’ clock was an irritatingly early hour to have to turn up to the address named, given that the deal was that I’d stay ‘til dawn, but I thought, what the hell. He-who-pays-the-piper-spoils-the broth, and all that. So I phoned my rather curvaceous date for the evening and cancelled (damn, I had high hopes for that night and she was pissed off with me). Then I packed a small overnight bag. “At least Minstead isn’t far from New Milton,” I thought as I set out at 5.30. The daylight was in its final death throes, and a typical November chill was fingering the city workers venturing home for a nice warm evening and a comfortable bed. I, by contrast, would spend a cold night shivering in some old wreck of a cottage that had no power while Charles proceed to play some damn stupid tricks to get me out of the place.
That was why I was so surprised to pull up outside a well lit, rather expensive looking Victorian semi just round the corner from the Trusty Servant pub in down town Minstead. I got out of the car suspiciously. I knew Charles must have something major planned. He wouldn’t risk having to give me the deposit on something worth as much as this place. It looked warm and inviting, and I could see through the window that there was a fire already lit in the wood-burner in the lounge. I was feeling quite chuffed about a cosy night in front of the Aga, and was just wondering how I was going to gain entry, when Charles appeared from out of nowhere. I assumed he had been sitting in the pub waiting for me to arrive. At 43, he was grossly overweight and balding, yet at six foot two he still cut an imposing figure in that Saville Row suit and city brogues. In that get up, he was a complete contrast to me at five foot four in my standard uniform of Pringle sweater and Levi jeans. I could tell straight away that something was wrong. In some not quite definable way, he wasn’t really himself – looked rattled, haunted even. “Davy,” he said, his voice sounding distracted and withdrawn. “Sorry but the deal’s off. There’s been an unfortunate development.”
“Development?” I mimicked, in a rather less than charitable snarl. “Kiss my arse baby,” I drawled in my best Bruce Willis imitation. “A deal’s a deal, so let me in and when the sunlight hits the fan tomorrow you owe me 20% of the value of this des-res-semi-d. I never renegotiate.” He looked like he didn’t understand, like if he and I weren’t quite on the same wavelength. Something was distracting him and his mind was clearly elsewhere. But what did I care if he had some business deal go sour on him? I’ve always resented that he has so much more than me. He had plenty of money to meet his end of the bargain and I was growing more and more confident that the deposit on the house would be mine at sunrise. This time I was going to get the better of Charles. I shoved past him, forgetting I didn’t have a key to the front door. Still inwardly celebrating my one-up-man-ship, I didn’t register that it was strange when the door swung back as I pushed on it.
It opened straight into the living room where, twenty feet away at the end of the room, the olde-worlde wood burner blazed in a perfect New Forest inglenook. Have you ever entered a room where the fire was burning in the grate yet it still feels cold? Well that’s how it was, and I sensed it immediately. But whether it was just the draft following me in front the front door or whether Charlie-boy the bet-loser had arranged the special effects, I knew I wouldn’t be taking off my coat that night. I glanced behind me to see if he’d followed me in. I got the shock of my life to find him standing no more than six inches from me as I turned, his eyes intently staring down the ten-inch height difference to mine. “Hey!” I exclaimed. “Don’t do that! You could frighten a man away from his bet like that, ya know.”
Charles looked at me with that same distant expression on his face, almost as if English was no longer his first language and he was straining his little grey cells to understand me. “Davy,” he started slowly, clearly fighting for words now, “I’d… really… appreciate it… if you would … err… cancel our little arrangement. Marcie needs the money now. You see… I have no… insurance.”
He had my attention now. You know how much I love Marcie. She and I have always bee there for each other. And even if I didn’t approve of her choice of marriage partners, she was still my sister and very high up my list of priorities. Anyway, blood is thicker than gin and tonic as Charles was always fond of saying. I studied his face carefully before replying. There was something not right, but I still couldn’t put my finger on it. Maybe things had been going worse for Charlie-boy than I thought. Perhaps all this had been bravado and he really was worried now that I’d collect on the bet and put him under financial strain in so doing. I considered my answer carefully. “Charles,” I started, “I know perfectly well you would have covered this bet with insurance if you’d been able to find anyone at Lloyds willing to take the risk on it for you. If you haven’t that’s your problem. And I really don’t see how your inconvenience over the fifty grand or so I’ll be collecting on this little beauty can have an implication for Marcie. For you, yes. But you’re not my sister, ol’ chum. And as far as I’m concerned a bet’s a bet. So throw your worst at me. I am not moving from this house until daylight. And as soon as the sun lights up your white and worried face tomorrow morning, I expect you to cross my palm with fifty k’s worth of silver. Period.” It was only as I said the words that I realised just how white Charles’ face was – almost like all the life was slowly draining from him. Clearly, it was one seriously worried city broker that stood before me.
I turned and walked to the sofa, a maroon leather Chesterfield that matched the stripes in the curtains. My footsteps echoed a little on the floorboards that were fashionably devoid of carpet. Settling myself down less than comfortably (actually I can never get comfortable on Chesterfields – no idea why people bother with the bloody things). I picked up the sports pages of the Sunday Times that someone had conveniently left in the magazine rack for my reading pleasure. I waited for the show to begin which I was quite certain Charles had arranged and wondered only why he didn’t leave me to suffer on my own. Charles, however, stood motionless, exactly where he was. Though I wasn’t listening closely, I heard him mutter to himself something like, “It may be ok if…I.. just.. stay indoors.” I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about and I didn’t really care. All I wanted was £50,000 or so of his money.
Nothing of note happened during the evening. I contented myself with reading the newspaper and glancing occasionally at Charles, who had eventually slid into the green armchair on the other side of the inglenook. Well, about midnight, just after the obligatory antique grandfather chimed the new day in, the inevitable creaks and groans began. “Jesus,” I thought. “This is so bloody trite. Cant he think of anything a little more imaginative than this?” Charles of course, reacted with delectably feigned fear to every creak and shudder, no doubt hoping to entice me into colluding in his apparent terror. I was having none of it. But it can’t have been more than half an hour later that the real fun began. Whispering coming from upstairs was what stared it. Now, my hearing’s pretty sharp, and I noticed it before Charles did, but when he started hearing it, I got to know all about it! “Charles, Charles… come to us Charles,” it kept repeating. You know those far off sounding voices ghosts are supposed to have. He virtually leapt out of the armchair and looked at me in a passable imitation of sheer terror. “Don’t let them take me,” he moaned, looking for all the world as if he really was frightened.
I., of course, was enjoying myself immensely. “Yeah, yeah, Charles,” I answered “and next we have Banquo’s Ghost going twelve rounds with Hamlet’s father, and for an encore the Devil’s gonna throw his pitch fork right through the window. Get real, Sunshine. There’s nothing you can do to frighten me out of this house and my money.” I folded my arms across my chest and looked at him enquiringly.
His twisted face looked at me with the word ‘please’ written all over it. “He must really need not to part with that money,” I thought. He made his way haltingly over to the sofa and sat down next to me. “Shit,” I thought. “Aggression I can deal with but if he starts coming on to me maybe I really am going to have to go. Never took ol’ Charlie for a gay-boy.” But all he seemed to want to do was sit by me. And somehow that had a slightly calming effect on him. I could only assume he’d worked himself into some sort of emotional frenzy that he was unable to control, now. Perhaps he really was feeling the fear that earlier I was certain he’d been feigning.
I must have fallen asleep sometime after that, as the next thing I knew was the clock chiming three and the sofa Charles and I were sitting on starting to move. I was quite impressed with that, particularly when it began to drag itself – and us with it -inch by inch towards the front door. And when the door creaked slowly open and a chill wind began to blow in, I knew we were approaching the grand finale. I sat, amused, as Charles gave another ‘I-am-terrified’ performance, his red face sweating buckets down his handmade white collar. I only realised later that it failed to leave a mark. This time he pretended to try to get off the sofa, but acted as if he was unable to. To prove my point, as his pitiful moans grew louder and louder, I yawned, stood up and stretched. Naturally, there was no restraint on me. How could there be in this pathetic clichéd circus show he was throwing for me. Charles, of course, continued to moan in misery as the sofa creaked and shuddered its way slowly towards the door.
It was then that what I presumed the star turn arrived, in the form of a couple of wispy apparitions on the porch. They seemed to be made of smoke, but nevertheless had identifiable humanoid features. I was quite intrigued at first, wondering how on earth he’d managed to twist the smoke into a controllable form. “All done with mirrors,” I thought wryly to myself. It was then that the wispy-men started calling. “Charles…” they started, repeating what the voices from upstairs had said. “Charles. Come Charles…come to us.”
Of course, I was doubled up with laughter by now! But I can remember what I said, down to the last word. “Well shit on my grave, Charlie-baby,” I said to him “The spirits are here for you and not me after all.”
“Noooo,” he moaned from the couch, sounding completely out of control now. Urine was seeping through the crotch of his trousers now. Later I realised that there should have been a dark stain on the material. But for now all I could think was “God, the lengths he’ll go to, to convince me this is all real.”
“Noooo…” he repeated as the sofa slowly creaked and shuddered its way relentlessly towards the door.
“All right, all right,” I said, finally. “I’m sorry to spoil the fun, but I think its time we brought this little Victorian melodrama to a close.” I strode over to the sofa, which by now was about two feet from the apparitions and grabbed it by the arm furthest from the door. “Sorry, ol’ boy,” I said again, Putting all my ten stone weight behind it I gave it an almighty shove that pushed the furthest end of it, the end that Charles was sitting on, out through the open door way. If my aim hadn’t been dead straight it would have wedged. But as it was, I’d given it a clean push and it seemed almost to sail out through the door. The rest of the story you can guess. Charles’ cries now rose to a high-pitched scream and the wispy-men took hold of his arms. Their smoky bodies seemed to wrap around him until he all but disappeared in the fog, in the best Hollywood tradition. I was half expecting to see a Demi Moore look alike appear from offstage left, struggling with her tears. As Charles’ cries died away to a muffled silence, the fog slowly dispersed leaving nothing but me applauding what had really turned into an excellent performance. I was impressed with the lengths to which he’d gone to frighten me away. But I was even more delighted that it had been so clichéd that it never had a ghost in hell’s chance of frightening me.
I stood in the doorway waiting for something to happen. Nothing did, except that I began to get chilled by the night air after a few minutes, despite still having my coat on. In the absence of further instructions from my host for the evening, I pulled the Chesterfield back through the doorway and into its original place by the inglenook. Despite the absence of Charles sitting on it, it seemed somehow heavier and I had a devil of a job (no pun intended) getting it back to where it had come from. I also couldn’t find the wires it must have been pulled on, which puzzled me considerably.
Well, all went quiet after that, so I got some shuteye until the clock woke me again at seven. It was cold – the fire had gone out in the wood-burner. It was also light by then of course, so, still being in the house I’d won my bet. I packed my bag, returned the sports pages to the magazine rack and left the house, closing the door carefully behind me. You can’t be too careful these days, even in Minstead.
Of course as you know already, it was only when I got home that I retrieved Marcie’s answer phone messages, the first left for me the previous evening just after I left my flat. She was near incoherent in that first recording. It wasn’t ‘til I reached the third message that I made some sense of what she was saying. You know, she didn’t seem all that bothered that Charles had jumped out of the window after the failure of a crucial business deal. Her real concern was that there was now virtually no money left, so she was pretty much as poor as I was. She knew she’d have to sell the forest estate to pay off the bills. I thought it was only fitting when, a couple of months later, she bought the semi-d with the inglenook in Minstead. But I never did hold her to making good Charles’ wager with me. How could I after, he’d gone to such trouble to tell me he had no life insurance? I guess blood really is thicker than gin and tonic.