Sleeping Dogs Lie
by I. Verse
"Bollocks, bugger, buggeration!" Joseph 'Joe' Tibbs said as he burst from the caravan. The door banged as he stumbled down the breeze blocks steps holding a grill tray with blackened toast on it. He twisted the tray to toss the smoking ruins of his meal on the wet grass. Behind him, blue-white smoke wafted out of the open door and into the early evening twilight. The caravan had seen better days. Its trim was missing all down the side, the mirror on the back of the door was cracked and the front end of the thing was turning green with algae. The roof leaked too. In the late autumnal weather, it was getting too cold to be out in at night.
There was a short, quiet bark behind him and Joe turned to look at Digger. The mutt was laying half in and half out of a cardboard box, on top of a rumpled, old tartan throw. The box was tucked under the caravan, next to the door and the breeze block steps. Digger had some long haired Alsatian in him somewhere. You could see it in his nose, ears and fur, maybe a bit of Collie too. His muzzle was peppered with white hair but the old dog still had some life in him. Digger made his quiet bark again and looked at the burnt toast on the ground.
"Go on then," Joe said but Digger didn't move. Arthritis in his hips made it painful to get up, so Digger looked at the toast, then at Joe, then back at the toast again.
"All right," Joe said, rolling his eyes. Holding the grill tray in one hand, Joe bent down and flicked one piece of cooling black toast to the dog. Digger snapped at it, broke a piece off and gulped it down.
Joe turned to take the grill tray back inside and caught a glimpse of himself in the cracked mirror on the back of the caravan door. Black, curly hair, too long and a bit greasy, sat on top of a face with a dark complexion, dark brown eyes and a day's stubble. Joe gave his reflection a grin, the thousand watt smile that had closed many a deal or parted a pretty girl's knees, and adjusted the red handkerchief around his neck.
Digger made his quiet bark again and Joe turned to look at him. "Yeah, you're right, the handkerchief is a bit much, isn't it?"
Shoving the grill tray inside the door, Joe untied the handkerchief and turned to fetch the last piece of burnt toast for the dog. He put it under Digger's nose and tied the red hanky around the dog's neck as Digger chewed lumps off the carbonized bread. Dog and man looked up an instant before the voice called out.
Mike was finding it very difficult to concentrate in the small, stuffy room that was his office. The sexy, mischievous, female voice that had been phoning him all week had turned into a sexy, mischievous female, who now sat opposite him, perched up on his cluttered desk because he didn't have room for a another chair. While it had been easy to be confident, funny and even flirt with a disembodied voice on the telephone, the physical presence and attention of its curvaceous owner had turned Mike into a stuttering bag of nerves. At the same time, the detached psychological observer within him was fascinated at his stumbling reactions to the overload of sexual stimuli.
"So you don't actually investigate paranormal phenomena as such?" asked Alice Ashton, reporter for the local community paper, tapping her pen and looking at her note pad. Mike took a moment to remember where the conversation was going. He had been taking the opportunity to fully appreciate her breasts and the way they filled out her blouse. All perfectly normal male reactions, the inner voice reminded him. As long as you don't get caught looking.
"No, no. Here at the APRU --"
"Approo?" she interrupted, looking up. He'd caught the movement of her head and got his eyes focused on her face and off her enticing décolletage just in time. She had earnest blue eyes framed by a dark hair, a cute, upturned nose and a half smile playing across her lips. Mike was a sucker for an upturned nose.
"Abnormal Psychology Research Unit," Mike said. "We study the psychology of people who believe in the paranormal. It's about understanding how someone can develop radically different belief systems far outside what's considered normal."
"But you must also have to study something about the paranormal phenomena these people believe in?" Alice said.
"Well, some. Enough to know what it is they believe."
"And Mike, your expertise is specifically people who believe in ghosts?" Alice asked. She was nibbling on the end of her pen now and the action's symbolism was driving Mike to distraction. She knows exactly what she's doing, the inner observer told him.
"My area of research is in people who believe they can communicate with the dead. It's not always straightforward. First, you have to determine if someone truly believes they can talk to the dead or if they're some kind of con artist who's just trying to exploit other people's beliefs. Then there are those in the schizophrenic spectrum of mental illnesses who have auditory hallucinations. They genuinely believe these are the voices of ghosts or dead people. However, there are some people who honestly believe they can talk to the dead and who are not mentally ill. They're the subject of my research." Mike gave a little shrug, feeling a bit like he was lecturing.
"Interesting," Alice said and bent to scribble on her notepad again.
Mike took a deep breath to calm his nerves and caught her scent; a mixture of perfume, cigarettes and peppermint. Normally cigarettes where a big turnoff for him, but now it seemed to have the opposite effect.
"On the phone, you said this was background for a story," Mike said.
Alice finished writing and looked up. She leaned forward and lowered her voice to just above a husky whisper. "It's a piece I've had on the back burner for a while. I think it might have legs and I'd like to try and sell it to one of the nationals if it works out. It could be a stepping stone for me, so I want to make sure I've covered all the angles."
"I see," said Mike, trying very hard to keep his focus on her words and not think about how he'd only have to move his head a few inches forward to kiss her.
Alice leaned back again, breaking the spell.
"There's a medium who's been holding séances in the local area for a while now. He's got quite a dedicated following. At first, I thought he was just a con man but I've been to a few of his sessions now, incognito as it were, and he's very convincing. To be honest, I haven't been able to get any evidence one way or the other. My cover story is that I am trying to contact my dearly departed mother; she's not actually dear or departed. So far, he hasn't taken the bait."
"Well, that's certainly up my alley, very interesting in fact. I wouldn't mind seeing this guy's performance for myself," Mike said. If only to spend a little more time with a nicely proportioned female reporter, added the inner observer.
"I was hoping you'd say that," Alice said with a bright smile. "There's a séance tonight at six. I told them I might bring a friend, if you'd be interested."
"Tonight! Well, I think I can make it."
"It's twenty quid a head to get in."
"I might have to swing by a cash machine."
"No problem, I'll cover you if you like."
"I can pay you back later."
"Or you could buy me a drink afterwards and let me pick your brains a little more," Alice said with a half-smile playing across her lips again.
"Absolutely," agreed Mike.
"Joe?" The call came again. A short, hunched figure hobbled into view, through the gap in the Hawthorn hedge bordering the field Joe was camping in, and stopped to wave a walking stick in the air as a greeting.
"Elsie, love," Joe shouted and jogged towards her.
Elsie Baker continued onwards again, leaning hard on her stick. The entrance to her field was muddy and churned up by the passage of Joe's pickup truck. It would be easy to slip and fall and at her age that could be very serious. Joe got to her and took her other arm to steady her as they walked the short distance to his caravan. She was wrapped in a voluminous beige coat, done up with big buttons that were easier for old hands to deal with. Her white hair was thin. The light evening breeze had no trouble blowing wisps of it about as they walked.
"Hello, Joe," Elsie said with a smile, blinking her myopic eyes from their deep nest of wrinkles. "Just give me a minute to get my breath back."
"You take it easy, girl," Joe replied. He had an accent now, some odd mixture of Cornish and West Country.
To fill the gap in the conversation while Elsie gasped for air, Joe addressed the dog again. "Look who it is, Digger. It's Elsie. You're always pleased to see Elsie, ain't yer, fella?"
Digger already had his eyes locked on Elsie and a 'thump, thump, thump' echoed from the depths of the cardboard box as his wagging tail rebounded off the sides. Digger was indeed always happy to see Elsie because Elsie always had a treat for Digger, either in the purse slung over her forearm or in one of the pockets of her coat. On cue, Elsie reached into one deep pocket and pulled out a hard biscuit in the shape of a bone.
"Hello, Digger. Are you well?" she greeted the dog formally between breaths.
Elsie threw the bone shaped biscuit towards the dog. He caught it with a flick of his head, without moving from his box, and set to demolishing it in loud, crunching bites.
"His 'ips are playing up again," Joe replied for the dog. "It's the cold an' the wet, plays merry hell with his arthritis."
"You and me both, Digger," the old lady said with empathy.
"I've tol' you before, Elsie, you don't have to keep comin' over here on every whim an' errand. You'll do yourself an injury at this rate."
"Well, I only came to say-"
"We already know," interrupted Joe. "Ted, Nancy and Gladys are comin' tonight, as usual, an' Miss Smith phoned to say she's comin' too an' maybe bringin' a friend. Arthur's already told us."
"Arthur," Elsie said, looking around for the aforementioned gentleman. "Is he here now?"
"You know Arthur, Elsie, love. He ain't never far away but ain't 'ere right this minute." "Oh," she replied, sounding disappointed. The unapparent Arthur was Elsie's husband. They'd been childhood sweethearts, married young, living together in the cottage across the road from the field. They'd never known a world outside this place, barely venturing further than the next town. They had everything they could ever want right here, Elsie would often tell Joe.
"Come on, girl." Joe said, gently turning the old lady around. "I'll walk you back to the road, I'll 'ave a bit of tea an' then I'll be over."
"You know, Joe, you're more than welcome to come and have dinner at the house, and Digger too," Elsie said as they walked away from the caravan.
"It's beans en solitaire for me tonight, seein' as I just burnt the toast an' all, but I ain't puttin' you to no trouble so put it out of yer 'ead," Joe told her.
Joe had been up to the house for dinner with Elsie once before, soon after Digger and he first arrived, and once was enough. Elsie was probably the worst cook he'd ever met. She cooked vegetables until they were a uniform yellow color with the consistency of wet tissue paper and she cooked meat until it was as dried and tough as old leather. Joe sometimes wondered why Elsie hadn't starved to death on her own cooking. If Arthur wasn't already dead, her cooking would've killed him.
Joe saw Elsie across the road and then slipped back across the mud to his caravan and to Digger.
"It looks like the nosey Miss Smith isn't giving up, Digger." The accent was gone again. Joe knelt down and rubbed Digger behind the ear, the way the old dog liked it, and was rewarded by the thump of tail on box. He was lost in a thought for a moment, scratching Digger's ear, when a new acrid smell assaulted his senses.
"Bugger! Now my beans are burning," Joe cried, leaping into the caravan to try and rescue what was left of his dinner.
Alice was feeling pleased with herself. Her story was shaping up and Mike was quite a dish. He was scruffy and a little inept but maybe she'd piled on her charms a little too much. He'd sounded more suave on the phone. I'll just have to dial it back and let him take the lead, she thought. He was taking the lead now, guiding her through the labyrinthine corridors of the Abnormal Psychology Research Unit's offices. She hoped they'd soon come to a door that actually exited the place. She amused herself by watching Mike's tight, narrow rear as he strode ahead of her along the corridor.
Why do men in academia insist on wearing corduroy? She asked herself. Although, Alice had to concede, the brown corduroy trousers that Mike wore did look rather good on him. At least he doesn't have one of those jackets with the leather elbow patches.
Perhaps she was paying too much attention to Mike's derrière and not enough attention to where she was going because she ploughed full on in to some fellow coming out of a darkened doorway. Their heads knocked together with a resounding clunk.
"Ouch!" was all Alice could say as she staggered to a halt. She scrunched her eyes up in pain and lifted a hand to her forehead. Mike was beside her in an instant. He took her elbow with one hand and placed the other on the small of her back, as if she were about to keel over.
"Are you, okay? Do you want to sit down?" he asked.
"Hmmm," she replied. The pain was receding but she quite liked the sensation of his warm hands.
"I'm terribly sorry," said a deep voice, full of gravitas. "Entirely my fault."
Alice opened her eyes and got her first look at the other party involved in the collision. Visually he didn't match up to his voice. He was an older man, late fifties, with graying dark hair that brushed his shoulders. His neatly trimmed goatee was also going to grey. He wore round glasses and a concerned expression. She was dismayed to see leather elbow patches on his jacket.
"I'm sorry," the bearded man continued, with a small smile, "but have we met?"
"Alice, this is Professor Peter Whiting, the head of the APRU," Mike said. "Professor, this is Alice Ashton, she's a reporter for the local paper."
The Professor narrowed his eyes. "Were you looking for me, Michael?" he asked without taking them off Alice. She got the impression he was sizing her up.
"No, I was just showing Alice, Miss Ashton, out to the car park," Mike said.
"And so, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit to my research unit?" the Professor prompted after an awkward moment of silence.
"Background research," Alice replied, "I'm doing a story on a local psychic and I wanted Mike's opinion as a sort of expert on this kind of thing. Not sure if anything will come of it really."
"I see," the Professor said. "I hope Mike has made it clear that our area of research is strictly to do with the psychology of people who have such extreme beliefs and not about the paranormal, per se."
"Yes, he's made that very clear," Alice replied. Mike nodded in assent.
"Well, perhaps you would like to know more about the different areas of our research and the work we do here? I'm sure you would find it fascinating and it would make an excellent article for your paper. If you would like to follow me to my office-"
"I'm sorry, Professor," Mike interrupted. "M.s Ashton was just taking me to a séance session so I could give a firsthand opinion. I'm afraid we don't really have time."
"I see," the Professor said. He stroked his goatee and stared at Mike with hooded eyes. Mike looked uncomfortable under the Professor's gaze, like a naughty boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
"Here's a thought," the Professor said, turning his attention back to Alice. "I can come with you and give you a full background on my research unit and its work. It will also give me an excellent opportunity to observe Michael's field work."
Alice looked from the Professor to Mike, who opened his mouth to say something and then closed it again, his lips pursed in anger. She looked back to the Professor to find his disconcerting stare was still focused on her.
"That's an idea," she said with an insincere smile.
Joe sat in front of the unlit fireplace of Elsie's parlor in a stiff armchair with white lace arm covers that had turned ivory with age. Digger lay at his feet, his nose between his paws but his eyes and ears alert. The door was closed but Joe could hear Elsie, across the hall in the Dining room. She was pottering about, making everything ready for the evening's guests. They had settled into an easy routine for this now. Joe would come up to the house half an hour before the séance began and sit in the parlor to 'focus his psychic energies'. Elsie would greet the guests and seat them in the dining room. When they'd all paid their contribution for the evening's entertainment, Joe would make a grand entrance.
Normally, Joe would make a good show of meditating in case Elsie looked in but he was too jittery that evening. It was dark outside, the night quickened by rain clouds. Their gentle raindrops rattled against the window behind the closed curtains. A dim, overhead light illuminated the room, washing it in grays, browns and yellows. This room was a reflection of Elsie's life; the furniture, the décor, the sepia photos on the bookcase, all of it, stuck somewhere in the fifties. Joe felt it, the weight of decades and an old woman's loneliness. As his eyes wandered the walls and surfaces, he took in the details. The path in the old carpet, worn to the thread underneath by the passage of Elise's feet for all those years. The edge of a side table polished to a bright sheen where she continually brushed against it. How long did it take for that to happen? he asked himself, years or decades? The sofa and the other chair were barely used since the day they were bought here but the chair he sat in was Elsie's; the fabric was worn so smooth and thin on the arms that she had to put covers on them. It was the same with the rest of the house; he could follow the pattern of the old lady's life by the pattern of wear on the old farmhouse.
"Always falling for a hard luck story, aren't I Digger? Always picking up strays?" Joe remarked to the dog, whose ears flicked up at the mention of his name. Joe had found the mutt in a motorway lay-by one rainy November evening. He'd pulled over to relieve himself and as he stood there, hidden behind his caravan and pickup truck from the passing cars as they rushed by, he'd heard a quiet whimper. At first he'd been startled, thinking someone was there watching him but then he'd spotted the bedraggled dog a few yards away. Digger was soaked through and shivering, tied up with a bit of string to the crash barrier. Joe had taken the cold, wet dog and put him in his truck, intending to take him to an animal shelter or home. He never got around it, even though it would probably be better for Digger than life with him in the cold, leaky caravan.
Elsie was another stray that Joe had adopted.
Joe knew why she'd got so stuck in her life, like a needle stuck in the groove of one of the old seventy-eight records he could see piled up next to a gramophone in the corner. Arthur and Elsie had grown up together, during the war. They'd married as soon as their families would let them and moved into the farmhouse ready to start their own life together. One winter's evening soon after they'd moved in, Arthur didn't come home. By morning he'd been found dead beside the single track country lane, struck by a passing car or lorry. Whoever was driving hadn't stopped and there were no witnesses. That was it for Arthur; dead in a ditch, end of story. End of story for Elsie too. Who knew what the family thought but she didn't move on or move out. She just kept on as she had before, day in, day out, and all those long, empty years since. Like one of the old seventy-eights in the corner, played over and over until the groove was worn out and the needle dull. She had been a modern day Miss Havisham until Joe had come by last spring.
He'd only been looking for a place to stop for the night. Lost and not looking to be found, he'd pulled into the field and knocked on the farm house door. Elsie had answered it, shy and suspicious but a good enough natured soul. She'd let him and Digger stay. It was only going to be for a day, a week, a month. And as the days grew warmer they had warmed to each other, the tinker and the old widow. The ghost of Arthur was so strong around Elsie that Joe couldn't keep it to himself. He thought that if he told Elsie about Arthur, that Arthur was always there, always around her, it would give her some comfort, here and now at the end of her days. The first time that Joe told Elise about Arthur, the old girl's eyes had shone and tears had poured down her face. He'd swear, in that moment, he'd almost seen the young girl she'd once been shining like bones through the soft, wrinkled skin of the old lady that she was.
So they had come to a good arrangement; Elsie let Joe camp in her muddy, old field and Joe brought Arthur alive for her again. Of course, it didn't stay like that for long. Soon there were other old ladies and old boys stopping by, asking about long dead relatives and lovers. And Joe, the sucker for a sob story that he was, obliged them. Then people from further afield started showing up. Soon it became a regular thing, three nights a week, and an opportunity for Joe to earn some money. Not much, not ripping anyone off, just enough to buy food for him and the dog and get diesel for the truck. Still, it mounted up and now there was fair amount of cash in the old tea tin under the driver's seat of the pickup. The problem was that things were snowballing now; random elements were making it spin out of control. Random elements like Miss Smith and her inquisitive nose for a story.
Someone knocked on the front door and Elsie went to answer it. Joe settled back into the chair and closed his eyes. He could hear the mumble of greetings and conversation through the closed parlor door. Not enough to make out the words, just enough to hear the rhythm and rhyme of it.
He didn't concentrate, it didn't work like that. He just had to let the other voices in, the silent voices, the ones that were always there underneath. They didn't speak directly to him but he could hear them, like the murmur of quiet conversations in a crowded theatre while the main show was on the stage. He had to focus to pick out the individual threads and even then it could be hard to make them out.
Another knock on the front door came. More people, more voices in his head. Soon it would be time to get the show on the road.
They had to stop at a cash machine after all and now Mike had no excuse to buy Alice a drink later. How they could ditch the Professor in any case was another problem. They were also late, so now they sped along dark, wet, English country roads to their destination in Alice's grimy, little car.
"In two hundred yards, turn left," the satellite navigation device stuck to the windscreen pronounced.
Mike sat in the back of the car and tried not to show resentment at the Professor for muscling in on his field trip. Alice sat in the driver's seat, concentrating on the narrow road as it twisted and turned through the night and the rain. The Professor pontificated, in his measured baritone, on the virtues and wonders of his Abnormal Psychology Research Unit from the front passenger seat. There was nothing the Professor liked more than the sound of his own voice except to see his name in print or, better yet, his photograph next to his name in print.
There had been a nasty moment, after Alice and the Professor had bumped heads and the Professor had been eyeing her up that Mike thought the lecherous, old sod might be after her. Of course, Mike was right, the professor was courting Alice, but not in the way Mike had feared. The Professor had reputation and he flirted outrageously with all but the most homely female students. Most of them would confess, safely out of earshot of the Professor, that he was an embarrassing creep. Five or six years ago the Professor's approaches might have worked but he had now crossed the line from distinguished late middle-age to dirty, old man and his charms no longer worked as they might have done. The Professor had many drives but the strongest one now was for self promotion.
After the rude interruption from the sat-nav device, the Professor continued with his lecture. Mike had heard it before. Between trying to avoid going into a ditch or the occasional oncoming car, Alice managed one word responses to punctuate the Professor's monologue at the appropriate pauses.
"Turn left," the sat-nav said.
The professor paused a moment as Alice took the turn from one twisted country lane into another even narrower road. Mike watched Alice's eyes in the rear-view mirror and caught them as she looked back at him. He made a rolling eye gesture and got a wink in return.
"-- Wouldn't you say, Michael?" the Professor said.
Mike started a little, he hadn't realized the Professor had finished lecturing and was now willing to let other people into the conversation.
"I said, this medium is no doubt a charlatan," the Professor said, and peered over his shoulder at Mike, making sure Mike knew his inattention had been noted.
"Certainly," Mike replied.
"I was asking Miss Ashton what techniques this medium employs," the Professor continued.
"Well, mostly, he just sits there and chats, a bit like he's relaying a conversation with someone. I'm not sure if he has any technique other than that," Alice said.
"Does he use any props? Ouija boards, spirit slates, stuff like that?" Mike asked.
"Not that I've seen," Alice said.
"Does he levitate the table?" the Professor asked.
"Good lord, no. It's a great big oak thing. I doubt he could even lift it, let alone levitate it," Alice replied.
"This medium of yours actually sounds rather mundane," the Professor said.
"He's probably using social engineering tricks to work out the names of relatives and get hints about what people want to hear," Mike said. "I guess you'd call it a mentalist trick."
"Is there someone here with a departed female relative, an older lady, her name starts with A, or is it K, maybe M..." Alice said in mock theatrical voice, "That kind of thing?"
"Yes, like that," said Mike.
"Nope, he doesn't do that either."
"In four hundred yards, you will have reached your destination," said the sat-nav.
"Right, cover stories," said Alice.
"How wonderfully cloak and dagger," the Professor remarked.
"Professor, you can be my uncle Peter and Mike, you can be my boyfriend," Alice said.
"Boyfriend, right, and what's this boyfriend's name?" Mike asked, both pleased and unsettled to be considered pretend boyfriend material.
"Mike, obviously," said Alice. All that Mike could still see in the rear view mirror were Alice's eyes but they managed to convey the hint of amusement that carried in her voice.
"In two hundred yards, you will have reached your destination," the sat-nav said.
Around a curve, house lights lit up the road ahead. As they got nearer, a farmer's cottage came into view. It was a little too ramshackle to be considered chocolate box but was still a welcome sight.
"You have reached your destination," the sat-nav said with a hint of satisfaction in its artificial voice.
Alice turned the car left, opposite the farmhouse, into a muddy field. There were other cars already parked near the gap in the hedge. Further away, towards a corner of the field a caravan and beaten up pickup truck huddled together. Alice parked near the other cars. They got out and tiptoed with care through the sodden grass and mud to the road again. As they stood at the roadside, ready to cross, Alice slipped her arm through Mike's.
"Ready to go, lover?" she asked with a grin.
Mike gave her arm a gentle squeeze in response and they all crossed the road together.
Miss Smith and her friend had not showed up by the appointed time but, after a short conference with Elsie, Joe decided to give them another ten minutes. It was important that Joe was the last to enter the room. Ten minutes later and Joe was just getting ready to make his entrance anyway when, at last, there was a knock on the front door. Joe closed his eyes once more and was assaulted by new voices, loud and strong, shouting over the quiet murmur that had been there before. He started to get a sense of foreboding. These new voices could mean only one thing; trouble.
The conversations out in the hall moved to the dining room but Joe still hung back, listening to the voices in his head, hoping to get a handle on things before he went in there. It was like someone had unleashed a pack of dogs in his head, they were all yapping and barking over each other in a terrible cacophony. Joe's forehead wrinkled with concentration as he tried to make sense of it but to little avail.
Elsie made a quiet knock on the door and Joe knew that he had run out of time.
She opened the parlor door a little and put her head inside. "Everybody is ready, Joe," she said. "Miss Smith has bought her Uncle and her boyfriend though, so I am afraid it is standing room only."
"Comin', Elsie love," Joe said as he stood up from the chair. Digger had fallen asleep on the rug. His legs twitched as he chased rabbits in his dreams. Joe looked at the old mutt with affection. Better to let sleeping dogs lie, he thought.
It was quite a squeeze in the dining room, which meant everyone had to sit uncomfortably close to each other around the table. Alice was sandwiched between the Professor on one side and Mike on the other. Being so close to Mike might not have been unpleasant except for the fact that the all the dining room chairs were taken already, save for one at the head of the table reserved for the medium. As a result, Mike was perched on an old, rickety stool, which made him look like a little boy sitting at the grown-up's table. This also meant that his head was the same level as Alice's chest and Mike was making a gallant effort not to look in her direction if he could help it. She tried not to let this amuse her too much.
She remembered one or two of the pensioners from previous meetings and they had made halting introductions all round. The Professor, it seemed, was much better at charming old ladies than younger ones and Alice was beginning to think it wasn't such a bad idea that he had come along. Except that Mike had to sit on a little stool now. No one had probed their cover stories. Everyone around the table was much too anxious for the main event to begin to start any serious conversations.
The door opened and old Mrs. Baker came in, leaning on her walking cane. She took a moment or two to settle herself in a chair on the opposite side of the table. Then the unimposing Joseph Tibbs entered; all smiles, cheerfulness and gypsy charm.
Medium or fraud, whatever he turned out to be, Alice was determined that she would have proof of it that evening.
At last, Gladys stopped talking. She seemed to have missed the point of holding a séance; that it was for the dead to communicate with the living, which was not easy to do if the living wouldn't let the dead get a word in edgeways.
"Well, Gladys," Joe said when he was sure the she'd stopped talking. "Robert says you should probably go to the doctor's and have it looked at."
"Is it serious?" Gladys asked, her eyes wide with anxiety. Around the table, the pensioners shared shocked expressions with each other, at least as shocked as when Gladys had shared the embarrassing and detailed symptoms of her latest ailments.
Joe put his head on one side, as if listening to another conversation for a moment.
"Robert says, he's buggered if he knows, that's what the doctor's there for," Joe relayed. This reassured the old woman somehow and she sat back with a satisfied expression. Joe took this as a sign that she was finished.
"Well, that's it for this evenin' I think," Joe said and he started to stand. Around the table, the murmur of conversation started to rise as well.
A soft hand on his, across the table, stopped Joe before he could get to his feet.
"What about Miss Smith, Joe?" Elsie asked. "She's come all this way with her uncle and her fiancée and there is still no word from her mother."
Elsie had some rather old fashioned ideas and, across the table, Miss Smith's boyfriend squirmed a little but remained silent.
Normally, Joe found the best way to deal with the skeptics was to give them nothing. To let their ghosts, real or imagined, remain silent. Given enough time and nothing to show for their money, they soon gave up and let him alone. Miss Smith though, was most persistent, and now she had upped the ante considerably by bringing her 'boyfriend' and her 'uncle'. Joe could smell the academics a mile off. The leather elbow patches were a dead giveaway. But Elsie, bless her, wanted the same comfort for Miss Smith that Joe had given her.
Joe turned to Miss Smith, "Sorry, Alice, love. I'm just not hearin' anything from your mum. Some of 'em, when they move on, they don't bother to look back."
"That is a pity," Elsie said, still with her hand on top of his, gently pinning it to the table.
"Is there anyone else?" Joe asked, more for show than anything else. "Someone you've been close to who's passed on that you'd like to speak with?"
Alice just looked at Joe but it was there, like the flash of a fish near the surface of slow moving water that streaks away when startled by a shadow. Joe had caught a glimpse of it. There was someone. Someone she had cared about, someone dear and departed. He'd slipped up by calling her by her first name, the quiet Miss Smith had never previously revealed it, but somehow the surprise of that had been enough for this glimmer to come through. Now he knew there was fish to catch, he'd just have to bait a hook for it.
Joe turned to Elise. "There's too many voices in 'ere," he said. "If everyone else clears out maybe it'll clear the air a bit, make it easier to 'elp find 'er mum or whatever."
Elsie gave him a smile and his hand a little squeeze. "That's it Joe. I knew you wouldn't let us down." Then she addressed the other pensioners in the room, "Come on everyone, let's give Miss Smith and her friends some space."
Slowly, the old folk got to their feet. Grumbling and muttering, saying their goodbyes to Joe, and conversing about the mundane now that the supernatural was finished with. It took a few minutes but soon they had all filed out. Elsie was the last to go. As she left, Elsie peered back around the door.
"Good luck, Miss Smith. Good luck, Joe," and then, with a smile, she was gone and the door was shut behind her.
After some musical chairs, they settled down again. Joe had Miss Smith sit near him at the head of the table and next to her he put her uncle. The other side of himself, facing Miss Smith and with his back to the door, Joe put the boyfriend who seemed happier now that he didn't have to sit on a ridiculous stool.
"All right, Love," said Joe. "Let's see what's through the lookin' glass."
If she got the joke she didn't let it show. Joe reached out to Alice with both his hands, across the table. After a moment's hesitation she held them. Joe let out a long slow breath and closed his eyes. Not all the way, enough to peak through his lashes, but he was letting his mind settle again, letting the part that allowed the voices in to relax. They were there again, the unruly, strident voices, talking over each other so loud and clear that he had only a little trouble picking one apart from the other now. He had to concentrate on just one, pick just that thread and unravel it.
"Is there anyone there?" Joe said in a quiet voice, "Anyone that wants to talk to Alice."
Through his lashes, Joe could see the Uncle smirking at this corny line. The man was quick to cover his mouth but Joe could see it in the wrinkles around his eyes. I'll wipe that smirk off his face soon enough, he thought. First, he had to waggle some bait and get this fish on a hook.
"There's someone there," Joe said, after a moment. "They're very faint; I think they want to talk to you, Alice." Joe's forehead furrowed, as if he were listening to something far away. "I can't quite work it out, is it a man or a woman?" He paused again. "It's a woman, I think." In his mind's eye, he could see the line wiggle as the fish started nibbling at the bait.
"A younger woman, a child," he continued, definitely a little tug on the line. "Like a sister, maybe, or a friend."
There was no response to that, the water was still.
"Not a sister, no, Young though, very young."
That was it now; the fish was going to bite. Through his lashes he could see Alice was also biting, her bottom lip. Her hands felt clammy, clasped as they were in his. Then he knew it all, the voice in his head let slip and told him everything. He knew the lost and longed for loved one that Alice grieved after, yearned after, and tried every day of her life to forget. This is going to be a bad, he thought, but it was too late to back down. She wanted proof, she was going to get her proof, whether she liked it or not.
"She's so quiet," Joe whispered. "She's tiny; she's hardly there at all."
Alice tried to snatch her hands away but Joe held them tight. He had the fish on the hook now and he wasn't going to let it go until it was landed, gasping and flapping.
"What's yer name, love?" Joe asked the air and tilted his head to listen harder. The moment stretched. Alice's hands went white with tension but she no longer tried to pull away. To her side, Joe could see the Uncle had leaned forward, one hand unconsciously stroking his graying beard. Beside him, Joe could almost feel the boyfriend quivering with tension. He had them all hooked, all these little fishes.
"Alice," said Joe into the tense silence. "It's yer daughter, it's Emma."
"No!" It came like an exhalation from Alice's lips and left her mouth open in a little circle. Joe could see the blood drain from her face and felt her hands go cold in his.
"She wants to know --" Joe continued in his hushed, quiet voice. "She wants to know why you didn't love her."
"No," Alice said again, tears brimming in her eyes.
"She wants to know why you sent her away."
"Please, don't," Alice said and started to tremble.
"She wants to know why you killed her?"
"No!" It was somewhere between a sob and a shout. Alice wrenched her hands from Joe's and seemed to fly to her feet. She dashed around him to the door and scrabbled at it for a moment. Then she was out of the room and, in a heartbeat, the younger academic, the boyfriend, was on his feet and after her, calling her name. Barely a few seconds ticked by and the front door banged. Joe and the Professor were left facing each other in stunned silence across the table.
The older man took a moment to collect himself and then leaned back in his chair and smiled.
"Very good," the Professor said. "Very impressive, a little melodramatic for my tastes but, still, my hat's off to you."
"You're a bloody idiot," said Joe.
The professor stood, patting a pocket as if to make sure he had everything he had come with.
"You've completely fooled my assistant there, you and Miss Ashton. It really was a very good show but I am afraid that there won't be any endorsements from myself or my research unit."
Joe said nothing as he got to his feet as well. The professor started to slowly circumnavigate the end of the table opposite from Joe, making for the door.
Joe was angry. He was more than angry, he was furious. He had never asked for this. He'd been trying to keep his head down, keep a low profile. He didn't want to depend on anyone and he didn't want anyone to depend on him. Somehow, along the way, he had picked up these strays; an old dog that no one wanted and old woman that didn't want anyone but her dead husband. Well, that was okay, everybody needs somebody, like the song said, but now it was ruined, wrecked, destroyed, for Joe and, worse, for them. It didn't matter that the pushy young reporter had bought it on herself. If she'd had only dropped it, given up, or left the big guns back at the university where they belonged. And now that pompous, puffed-up letch, stood in front of him, smug and self-satisfied that he had the answer to everything.
The professor reached for the door and started to open it but Joe was there in an instant. He slammed the door shut with one hand and stood staring into the Professor's surprised face.
"No ghosts in your past, Professor?" Joe said, his fake accent forgotten. "No skeletons in your cupboard?"
"Don't be ridiculous," the Professor replied, a sneer on his face. The voice in Joe's head told him otherwise. It told him of the shock on a woman's face as the headlights caught her. Of the squeal of brakes, too late, much too late. Of impact and a body somersaulting through cold, night air.
"Rebecca Fuller," Joe said.
"What?" The Professor recoiled an arm raised in defense as if Joe had been about to strike him.
"Hit and run. You just left her there in the road, you heartless bastard," Joe said with disgust.
"Impossible!" the Professor said, more to himself than to Joe. In the voice in his head, Joe sensed the shame, regret, self-loathing.
"Why?" Joe asked, shaking his head but he already knew the answer. The voice in his head told him everything; too much wine at a faculty dinner, over the limit. Watching the pathetic shape in the road for signs of life and not seeing any. Then the justifications began; His research centre was just getting off the ground, he couldn't jeopardize that. He couldn't risk his career and everything he had worked for, not even for such a tragic mistake as this.
"You coward, you left her there to save your pathetic career. You make me sick," Joe said with venom in every word.
"My work is important, essential. It would only make things more tragic, more of a loss, if my work had suffered as a result of that unfortunate accident," the Professor said. "And no one knew. It was late, there were no witnesses."
"Rebecca knew," Joe said.
"No, she didn't!" the Professor replied. "She was in a coma for two months but when she woke up she couldn't remember anything from that night. It was reported in the paper, the police were at a complete loss but Rebecca Fuller didn't die, I didn't kill her."
Joe's face drained of anger. He opened the door. "I think you should go," he said.
The Professor stood his ground; his eyes searching Joe's face until it was Joe who looked away.
"There were no witnesses and there is no ghost, so how do you know all this?" the Professor asked.
Joe said nothing but he saw it; the expression of shocked belief on the Professor's face as the penny dropped. He might have been a coward and a fool but the Professor was not stupid. The Professor yanked open the door and was gone
Elsie found Joe still standing by the open dining room door, his face dark and brooding.
"A bad business tonight, Elsie," Joe told the old woman. "Bad people with bad ghosts,"
Mike caught up with the crying woman as she stood trying to unlock her car door with shaking hands. Alice was shaking so hard that she couldn't get the key in the lock. Mike cautiously stepped up beside her and put one warm hand over hers to steady them. Alice turned and in a moment she was in his arms, sobbing into his shoulder. He held her while her body shook and the tears fell.
They were alone in the field. Only Alice's car remained, apart from the old caravan and the beaten pickup truck. Their breath gently steamed the air around them as cold rain fell from the black sky. It could only have been a couple of minutes before the Professor came into view. He stalked straight towards Alice and Mike, head down not caring about the mud and puddles as he splashed through them, until he stood before the couple.
"I'll drive," was all the Professor said and he took the car keys from Alice's unresisting hand.
The Professor unlocked the car, letting Mike open one of the back doors and gently help Alice inside before he ran around the car and got in beside her. The Professor stayed silent as he got in, started the car, put it into gear and navigated it out of the field and onto the road. Mike put an arm around Alice and watched over his shoulder as the old farm cottage disappeared from view.
They all sat in an uncomfortable silence. The Professor not speaking, Alice no longer crying but her head hung down, she gave an occasional sniff. Mike did not know what to say and so he said nothing. He just sat there, leaning close, with an arm around her shoulders. After a while, Alice took her hand bag from the floor in front of her, pulled a tissue from inside, wiped her eyes and blew her nose. She threw the balled up paper back inside her bag and then took a slightly crumpled packet of cigarettes out. With unsteady hands she opened the packet and took out a single cigarette and a lighter. She put the cigarette between her lips and lit it, drawing deep until the end of the cigarette glowed. Alice held it for a moment and then exhaled a long stream of blue smoke that rolled forwards, towards the back of the Professor's head. She looked around at Mike.
"Sorry, I've been trying to quit," Alice said with a tremulous voice.
She transferred the cigarette to her other hand and opened her window a little. The car's slipstream drew the smoke out through the narrow gap at the top, away and into the night. Mike gave her an encouraging smile to let her know he understood.
"I was eighteen," she said. "It was the summer holidays, a while after I got my A-level results. Everything was going great. I had a place at a good University, Mum and Dad were really proud. I was getting ready to leave home, you know, get some real independence."
She paused and drew heavily on her cigarette again.
"My last couple of periods had been a bit short, a bit spotty. I wasn't really worried. I thought it was probably just the excitement of finishing school and moving away. Mum made me go to the doctor, just to be sure there wasn't anything to worry about. My Mum's always been like that, a bit over-protective, a bit pushy. I had to give a urine sample. God, and I thought that was embarrassing, I couldn't believe it when the doctor told me I was pregnant."
Alice put the cigarette to her lips again, inhaled and blew the smoke towards the slit at the top of the window. She kept her head turned away like that, looking out into the night and into the past.
"It was a boy from my English Lit course. No one special, just a friend really. We'd kind of got together at a party after the exams. All that teenage excitement and hormones, I guess. I thought we'd been safe but we were both pretty drunk. Mum went ballistic, before I even knew what was happening she was on the phone, trying to arrange an abortion."
Alice flicked the ash from her cigarette through the narrow gap in the window.
"I hadn't even thought about it, you know. I think I was still in shock from finding out but when I heard my mum on the phone to the clinic, that's when I knew I didn't want get rid of it. I also found out what my mother's really like too. It was constant, the pressure, the nagging, the pleading. I thought I could take a year off to have the baby and go to University later. I told her there were plenty of girls that did it. She told me that there were plenty more that didn't or dropped out. She was relentless, constantly telling me how my life was ruined, that it was effectively over, that all my plans for the future, for a career, were gone but I didn't care about that anymore. All I wanted was what was growing inside of me. I would sit in my room, reading Jane Austin and daydreaming about the baby; Emma, if it was a girl, or George, if it was a boy. Stupid, I know." Alice smiled then at that memory. Mike saw it in her reflection in the window.
"Something was flagged up in the standard screening tests, so I had to go for another test, an amniocentesis. I was so worried, worried about the test, worried that the big needle would somehow hurt the baby. The first thing they told me was that the baby was a girl and the second thing they told me was she had Down's syndrome. I was crushed, devastated, but my mother was glad, she was pleased. She took control, just took over and I was so frightened and so scared that I let her. She arranged it all; the termination, the trip to the hospital. I sat there and signed the forms when they were put in front of me. It only took a day, in and out and back home again. I felt so empty but my mum, she was happy again, happy that my life was back on track. I thought about giving it up, university and all that, but it was the only way to get out. Once I left, I never went back home again to stay. I wouldn't go back at all if it weren't for Dad."
The cigarette in Alice's hand was halfway gone and now and it began to tremble again, making the smoke from the tip wave into the air. In her reflection in the window, Mike saw tears sliding down her face again.
"I think about her, my baby, my Emma, from time to time. Not so much these last couple of years, but I always wondered what my life would have been like if I had kept her."
Alice sobbed, the sound was wretched. She turned to Mike, her expression raw with pain, the tears streaming down.
"All this time, she's been with me. She's been watching me and wondering why I didn't want her." Alice crumpled then, burying her face in her hands.
"I'm so sorry," she wailed from behind them.
The end of her cigarette was forgotten between her fingers. Mike took it and pushed it out of the gap at the top of the window before holding her in his arms again.
"There are no ghosts," said the Professor from the driving seat.
"He heard her," Alice choked out between sobs.
"There are no ghosts, no spirits, no shades. That man does not speak for the dead," said the Professor.
"How did he know then?" Alice snapped. She pushed Mike's arms away, her hair flying, her face red with anger and sorrow. "I've never told anyone about Emma, I never told my parents her name."
After a moment, the professor looked back over his shoulder. He couldn't turn far enough to look at Alice so he stared into Mike's eyes instead.
"Because he read our minds."
Joe left the motor running. He wanted it to be quick, he wanted to get a good head start, he wanted to be very far away before the morning came. He could see that the lights were on downstairs. Elsie was still up. He took Digger with him to the door. The old mutt didn't want to leave the warm comfort of the pickup truck's cab but he'd follow Joe anywhere and, to make sure, Joe had him on a lead.
With a heavy heart Joe, lifted the brass knocker and let it fall, once, twice.
It took a few moments. Elsie wasn't quick on her pins any more. It had stopped raining a while earlier but Digger didn't want to sit on the wet ground. He whined a little, letting Joe know that his hips still hurt. Behind the frosted glass panel, Joe saw the hall light come on and heard the rhythmic thump of Elsie's walking cane on the hall floor.
"Who is it?" she called through the closed door.
"It's us, Elsie. It's Joe an' Digger."
A bolt was drawn, a lock unlatched and the door opened. Elsie Baker stood there in her slippers and a dressing gown.
"Joe," she said, but then her eyes moved past him, to the pickup truck idling across the road in the entrance to her muddy field, and the old caravan that was hitched to it.
"You're leaving, Joe?" Elsie asked.
"Got to, Elsie. It was a bad business tonight. It's poisoned the well. I can't stay 'ere no more. Nothin' good will come of it if I do," Joe told the old lady.
"What about Arthur?" Elsie asked.
Joe felt it then. The loneliness of the old widow sprung from her like leak in a dam wall, a trickle that became a river, which became a flood, threatening to drown him. Joe gritted his teeth.
"He's always here, Elsie. You know that. He's always with you," he said.
Elsie made no reply; she just looked at Joe, sorrow written in every line of her face. It was true, Arthur was always with her, he was always on her mind and in her thoughts. Alive today in Elsie's memory as the day he had died, Arthur; her childhood sweetheart, her lover, her husband, forever young and forever beyond reach. It came through so clearly in her voice in Joe's head. It didn't help the old lady though. She'd been stuck there, a dull needle in the worn out groove of an old seventy-eight. Just waiting for the gramophone to wind down, for the tired, old tune that was her life to finally come to an end. Then Joe had come along and changed the record.
"I'm sorry, Elsie, love, but I need to ask you a big favor before I go."
"It's Digger, you see. He ain't a young pup no more. He 'ates the rain and he 'ates the cold. The weather's turnin' bad and it ain't no life for an old dog to be on the road with me in that knackered, old van. Will you look after him for me, Elsie? Will you take him in?"
Elsie looked at the old mutt and Digger, in turn, looked back at Elsie. His tail wagged a couple of times, as if in hope.
"I don't know, Joe. I think I'm too old to have a dog."
"Please, Elsie," Joe stepped forward and put the end of Digger's lead into the old lady's hands. "I ain't got nobody else I can ask." Joe took the battered tea tin from his jacket pocket and gave it to Elsie as well. "It's a bit of cash, like, for lookin' after the mutt, for food and the vet and such. Please, Elsie, say you'll take him."
She relented then. Joe already knew it before she looked up and gave him a small nod.
"He won't be no trouble," Joe said, taking a step back. "He's a good dog."
Digger looked around at Joe and started after him, but Elsie held his lead and when it pulled tight it stopped him. The old mutt gave a small whine again, looking after Joe.
"Will you come back for him, Joe, in the spring?" the old lady called after Joe as he turned away, a hint of hope in her voice.
"Maybe, Elsie," Joe called back over his shoulder. "Maybe not next year, maybe the year after, eh?"
It was so hard, those few steps across the road to the truck, not to look back. Joe didn't want to give them false hope but that was all the hope he had to give. He didn't know how long they would have together, the old lady and the old dog, maybe a year, maybe two. Maybe it would be enough, here and now at the end of their days. Joe climbed in, put the truck in gear and pulled away from the field that been his home since the spring; away from the farmhouse and the mud, from Elise and Digger, from séances and ghosts, from lecherous Professors and broken reporters.
Digger stood and stared at the closed front door, listening to the sound of Joe's truck as it faded into the night, laboring to pull the caravan. The old dog whined a little and then was silent.
"Digger," Elsie called from somewhere beyond the hallway.
Digger looked back towards Elsie's voice and then, after a moment's hesitation, he turned back to the door. After a while, he heard the rumble of a vehicle, getting louder, coming back towards the farmhouse, and his tail wagged, until the rumble passed and faded into the night once more.
Digger didn't know that he had been left again, abandoned again. That didn't matter to him. Dogs don't worry about the future and they don't care about the ghosts of the past. If Digger saw Joe again he'd just be so happy to see him, he wouldn't care about all the time Joe had been away. Dogs live only in the present, they're better that way.
Digger stood staring at the closed front door. The old dog whined a little and then was silent.
"Digger," Elsie called again.
Digger liked Elsie, he was always happy to see Elsie because Elsie always had a treat for him. The old mutt was somewhere warm and somewhere dry. Somewhere nearby, in his present, was a nice old lady with a biscuit shaped like a bone for him.
The old dog turned from the door and trotted away down the hall.
© 2012 I. Verse
Bio: I.Verse is a small dog with a big attitude problem. He enjoys long walks, chasing rabbits and writing speculative fiction short stories. His human recently met Terry Pratchett and won't stop going on about it. He also barks incessantly whenever the chance to mention his multiple Forum Flash Challenge victories and popular fiction contributions to Aphelion (most recently Less of Her, August 2012).
E-mail: I. Verse
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