“You wouldn’t, by any chance, know someone who could perform an exorcism?” I looked across the pub table at Ralphie.
“An exorcism?” He put his death’s head walking stick down on the polished mahogany between us. “My dear lady, why do you ask? Are you assuming that I know how to deal with restless spirits and other such troublesome riff-reff?”
Ralphie spoke like a pre-war BBC Home Service announcer, all clipped vowels and formal precision and the way he dressed too, in elegant frock coats and a silk waistcoat lavishly embroidered with lilies, made him appear like a refugee from the past. I was, however, quite unable to guess his age. With his fine-boned features and pale, papery skin, he might have been anything from a raddled, emaciated sixty to a well-preserved ninety-two.
“I was hoping that you might know what to do,” I admitted.
“I see. “ He looked thoughtful. “It’s certainly true that I have led a long and rackety life, dabbling in the decadent and brushing up against the bizarre in the most curious quarters of Europe. But as for an exorcism…”
He picked up his glass, warming it between his cupped hands.
“Strange,” he mused. “You can’t get really good absinthe any more. Dear Georgia does her best, supplying me with this stuff,” he held up the cloudy liquid, “but give me the wormwood of old. Absinthe, the drink of the dark, made from any species of Artemisia, but usually wormwood. The name, of course, comes from the Greek, ‘apsinthion’. In Paris, in my youth, I once went into a café where…”
“Ralphie, I hate to interrupt, but the thing is, I think I’ve got a ghost.” I took a nervous
gulp of my wine. “In my house,” I added.
“Dear, dear,” Ralphie commiserated. “What an unfortunate incursion into your domestic privacy.”
It was just after five and we were sitting together in the saloon bar of the Lord Halifax, the only customers at that early hour. I was fond of The Lord Halifax, a comforting, dimly-lit, characterful Victorian pub that I’d discovered quite by accident one afternoon when I was on my way home from the comprehensive school where I worked as a supply teacher. I’d been feeling exceptionally tired and frazzled and had decided to walk along the canal path for a change. I was admiring the peace and simplicity of the ducks on the water, when I noticed a set of stone steps leading up from an embankment overgrown with buddleia. I’d never seen those steps before, and in a mood of curiosity, I’d bounded up them to see where they led and found myself in a narrow cul de sac with dilapidated artisan houses on one side, and an old pub on the other. The Lord Halifax. It had a mysterious air, with black velvet curtains pulled across the plate glass windows, and hanging baskets of dark purple flowers. The door was half-open. I peered in and saw the period décor, the worn red plush banquettes, the wreaths of black roses and gilded cherubs on the walls, and the tarnished chandeliers. Then Ralphie had seen me.
“Do come in, dear lady,” he’d purred, in his charming, elderly voice.
And for no reason that I could explain, I had.
Now I was in the habit of calling into The Lord Halifax every day on my way home from work. I never had more than a single glass of chilled white wine and I never stayed longer than an hour, but it was soothing to sit in this gothic place. Ralphie’s witty, erudite conversation was therapeutic after a day of trying to communicate with morose, monosyllabic teenagers. He was always sitting in the same winged armchair, in the alcove that was to the left of a draped funeral urn, to the right of a mezzotint of a scene from Dante’s Inferno, and a respectful distance from the stuffed bear that stood at the bar with a bottle in the crook of its forearm. Georgia, the licensee, collected curios; she boasted about having found the mezzotint in the basement of a Florentine museum and the bear in a junk shop in Camden Passage. The urn had been one of the relics that she’d salvaged when the local council bulldozed the old church of St. Sebastian. It was only considerably later that I discovered how she’d acquired Ralphie.
“Are you sure that your home has been invaded by a presence?” He brushed a lock of grey-white hair back from his forehead with his liver-spotted left hand.
“It certainly looks like it.”
“How inconvenient.” He stared up at the ceiling, then said, “Tell me, where do you live?”
“In Arcadia Square.”
“Ah!” He nodded. “That explains it.”
“But it isn’t an old house,” I protested. “It’s one of the new ones, just opposite the deli.”
“I see.” He placed his finger-tips over his eyelids. “Let me try to form an image of your dwelling place in my mind. Yes! I see a spacious kitchen with scrubbed pine units and an adjoining utility room with an Italian tiled floor. On the first floor, I see a bathroom with an ivory-coloured bath and a scallop shell soap dish. I see a plethora of soft towels and scented toiletries. It is a pure house, with pale carpets and white walls, highly polished wooden floors and big fluffy duvets on the Scandinavian beds. Everything is spotless, with the scent of furniture polish in the air, and toilets flushing merrily away with that blue stuff in the cistern. Not a speck of dirt to be seen!” He opened his eyes and smiled at me triumphantly.
“You’re not entirely wrong,” I agreed. “I do have some of those things. But the house isn’t as pristine as that. After all, I do have two sons. When Seb’s home from uni he leaves piles of dirty laundry on the stairs and beer cans all over his room, and I’ve sometimes caught his friends stubbing out their illicit fags on the kitchen worktops. And Caspian’s been known to stuff empty crisp packets down the back of
“The joys of motherhood!” Ralphie exclaimed with the breezy detachment of someone who’d never been a parent. “But, all the same, I imagine you dislike mess.”
“I do my best to keep the house clean and tidy.”
“I’m sure you do. But now you have discovered a bitter truth. Your beautiful, well-lit home is haunted and Domestos does not kill all known household demons.”
“I don’t think it’s actually a demon,” I said.
“I’m afraid it could be. Demons are adept at taking the form of the recently deceased.”
“Oh!” This really wasn’t a pleasant thought.
“But it may be a simple haunting. Have you identified this spirit?”
“Unfortunately, yes. It’s one of my mother-in-laws.”
“One of your mothers-in-law,” Ralphie corrected me with schoolmasterly
severity. “Do you mean to tell me you have had more than one?”
“Yes. I’ve had three.”
“That does sound excessive. And which one of these three ladies has chosen to
manifest herself in spirit-form?”
“It’s my second mother-in-law. Agatha Dellow. The only one who’s dead.
Cynthia’s still with us. But now I come to think of it, I have no idea whether Gertie
Shuttlehanger is still alive.”
“Gertie Shuttlehanger?” Ralphie looked aghast. “But no-one is called
“My first mother-in-law was,” I said. “But I haven’t seen her for over twenty years. I never want to see her again.”
“You certainly wouldn’t want to see her if she’s dead,” Ralphie smiled slyly.
“No.” I shuddered as a vision of my first mother-in-law’s face in all its lean,
mean malevolence flashed into my mind. For entirely the wrong reasons, I found myself praying that she was still in the land of the living.
“Have you actually seen this ghost?” Ralphie asked.
“No, but Caspian did. He’s only eight, but I don’t think he was making this story up. When he said Nanny had popped in, I thought he meant Cynthia, but then I saw what had happened to the cushions and Caspian said, ‘Oh no, Mum, it wasn’t Nanny Well Preserved! It was Nanny Barrel Hips!’”
“My dear lady,” Ralphie spread out his hands beseechingly, “You’re beginning to confuse me! All these names, all these mothers-in-law and now cushions! Please explain!”
“Right. Well, I’ve been married three times. Gertie was my first mother in law, and then I was divorced, and I married Dave, who was Seb’s father, and Agatha’s son. That marriage also ended and twelve years later, I married Peregrine. He’s Caspian’s father. We divorced three years ago.”
“Dear, dear.” Ralphie shook his head gravely. “This is a sad theme, all this divorce and separation. I sympathise. In my youth, I knew what it was to long for the silken hand of romance to touch my life.” He picked up his glass and gazed soulfully into his absinthe.
“I’m certainly not looking for romance,” I said firmly. “Now I’m divorced, I
intend to stay an independent, single mother.”
“But you are still young,” Ralphie objected. “You need not remain alone
“I’m thirty eight.”
“But that is young!” Ralphie protested. “You must not shut yourself away. mMany have thought themselves beyond love and then they have succumbed to a passion so deliceuse that they are swept off their feet.” He kissed his finger tips and fluttered his hand in the air. I suspected that it hadn’t been women who had featured in his search for romance. “But let us return to the matter in hand. Why do you call this woman Nanny Barrel Hips?”
“The boys made up secret nicknames to distinguish their grandmothers. They
called Peregrine’s mother Nanny Well Preserved and they called Dave’s mother Nanny Barrel Hips because…”
“Oh, I think I can work that one out.” Ralphie purred. “Tell me, how long is it since Nanny Barrel Hips left this mortal sphere?”
“It’s been just over a year. She was on a pensioners’ cut price flight to Florida.
They were all booked into a hotel where Tom Jones was due to be doing cabaret, and
they were halfway over the Atlantic when Agatha was sucked out of the plane.”
“Sucked out!” Ralphie sounded astonished, as well he might. “How did this surreal event occur?”
“It was a freak accident,” I said. I didn’t feel like explaining all the details.
“But at least she died while she was enjoying herself with her friends. I can just imagine how
they must have all been passing bags of boiled sweets around and singing raucous choruses of
‘Delilah’. She must have died happy.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” Ralphie looked solemn. “People who shuffle off this
mortal coil before they’ve had time to adjust or prepare themselves can be extremely problematic. For one thing, they may not even recognize that their situation has changed, if you see what I mean, and secondly, they usually have a considerable amount of unfinished business. But explain what meant when you referred to the cushions?”
“When I came downstairs this morning, I found all the scatter cushions arranged on the settee with a hollow in the middle, as if someone had been sitting there. Dave’s mum always used to do that. I wouldn’t have minded if she’d had a bad back, but she was just a self-indulgent, interfering old...”
“Don’t say any more.” Ralphie slapped the table with the flat of his hand.
His vehemence was startling. “Never speak ill of the dead!”
“Why not? You can’t libel or slander the dead.”
“The expression ‘Never speak ill of the dead’ has nothing to do with the laws of defamation,” Ralphie leant across the table towards me, lowering his voice to an urgent whisper. “It has everything to do with self-preservation.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you speak ill of the dead,” he told me gravely. “There is a very real danger
that they might return for vengeance. So I should be very polite to your late mother-in-law if you do happen to see her.”
I was feeling nervous as I walked home from the Lord Halifax. It had been a relief to confide in Ralphie but nothing had been resolved. Not only was I distinctly unsettled, I was also beginning to feel rather annoyed. I really didn’t want my late ex-mother-in- law to haunt my house. It hardly seemed fair that I should have to cope with spirits while I was in the throes of trying to survive a miserable job at Havelock Ellis High School. Supply teaching, as anyone who has done it is likely to tell you, is exhausting, and I didn’t really want to be a teacher in any case, much as I admired those with skill and a vocation. But I’d been driven into working at Havelock Ellis through sheer financial necessity, and my dream was to get my career as a freelance cinema critic off the ground. If only I didn’t have an ex-husband who was so mean with money and if only the small press listings magazine that I’d worked for hadn’t gone bankrupt.
But I mustn’t succumb to self-pity, I told myself, as I turned the corner into Arcadia Square. I was lucky to be living in this lovely part of London, so full of character and so close to the park, just a bus ride away from the Heath. I adored the area, the streets of tall, early nineteenth-century terraced houses with their cream and white stucco facades. I liked the little shops and bistros and felt that I was living in a community, a genuine London village. Sometimes, at night, I could hear the wolves howling at the zoo.
I walked up to my front door and put the key in the lock. The house still belonged to Peregrine, as he never tired of reminding me, and I didn’t know whether I’d still be able to live there once Caspian had grown up and moved away, but it was better not think about that now. It was time to count my blessings. Here I was, home after a long working day and it was time to relax. I had another hour to myself, time to have a soak in the bath, change, listen to some music, fix myself a G. and T. and…grief!
The moment the door swung open, I knew something was wrong. The hall was filled with the sickly-sweet smell of cheap face powder and the living room door, that I’d closed before leaving for school, was half-open. There could be no doubt about it. Someone had got in.
I took several deep breaths, telling myself that I must try to be calm. But my heart was thumping. I edged my way towards the doorway and, bracing myself, peered inside.
“’Ello!” a voice announced with cheerful belligerence.
I screamed, dropped my school bag and watched transfixed, as it fell open, scattering exercise books and papers across the floor. I was too shocked to stoop and pick them up. My legs felt as wobbly as if I’d just seen an impossibly large spider in the bath. My mouth opened, but no sound came out. It was only with the greatest effort that I managed to look up to check that I hadn’t just had some weird hallucination.
No. This was real. Here she was, dressed in a vast, pleated white skirt and a purple cardigan, her bouffant white hair meringued on her head. She was firmly established on my oyster-cream sofa, the red velvet cushions plumped up around her. She looked like a fat, self-congratulatory old hamster ensconced in a gigantic nest.
Caspian was right. Nanny Barrel Hips had returned from beyond the grave.
And after the day I’d had at Havelock Ellis High School, too. This really was too much!