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The Previous Occupants by Annette Colgan

© Annette Colgan

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CHAPTER 1 BEN

It was only half past three but the light was already fading. The museum closed early at this time of year so there were no visitors. I

walked through the natural history room, my footsteps echoing on the wooden floorboards. Dead animals stared at me from glass

cases the size of shop windows. A polar bear stood up on its hind legs, front paws raised. It had been shot by an eminent Victorian,

so eminent no one has heard of him now. A dozen or so stuffed squirrels dressed in frills and lace sat around a miniature table

taking tea. Humming birds flew suspended on wire like tiny trapeze artists. There was something appalling about the attempt to

present them as living creatures. So much carnage, there must be over a thousand corpses in here. I had a childish fear of being in

this room alone. I wouldn't like to be locked up in here at night. In these rooms it is easy to imagine the presence of ghosts. But I

don’t believe in ghosts, everyone knows that the dead are dead. You see? I am a rational man.

I walked through the Education Room and as I mounted the stone steps that lead to my office, Peter’s head appeared over the

balustrade.

“Ben, your wife’s on the phone,” he said and disappeared.

This was unusual, Suzanne rarely, if ever, phoned me at work. Peter was standing on my chair stowing a pile of folders on top of

a cupboard so there was nowhere to sit. My desk was strewn with museum detritus, a box of fossils, a tin of owl pellets, old

photographs. The computer looked incongruous. The room felt overstuffed like a Victorian drawing room. We were always planning to

have a grand clear out. Peter often padded around the office in his socks looking hopeless and muttering.

“We must have a major sort out.”

We never do, behind his back Peter is now known as Major Sort Out. I have grown used to the junk shop atmosphere and find it

rather comforting. I picked up the phone.

“Thank goodness I caught you. I thought you might have already left.”

She sounded breathless, flustered.

“What’s up? Don’t tell me they’ve run out of turkeys,” I said praying I wasn’t going to be asked to do some last minute

supermarket dash.

“No it’s not that, nothing to do with Christmas. It might sound like an odd request but I just wanted to ask, have you still got

that old film projector?”

“Yes I think so, why?”

“Do you think we could borrow it over the holidays?”

“Whatever for, has the video broken?”

“No, I was in the attic just now. I couldn’t find the stand for the Christmas tree. Someone had thrown it right to the back of the

cupboard.”

"I can’t think who that was,” I said.

“I had to crawl right inside to get it. Anyway, I found a roll of film. Well a can of film to be precise. God knows how long it’s been

there. I thought it would be fun to have a look at it.”

‘You don’t mind if I borrow the film projector do you?” I said to Peter.

He nodded, his mouth too full of Quality Street to reply. I’d only had half a dozen and I could feel every one of them expanding on

my waistline. I had recently developed a permanent pouch over the belt of my trousers. Peter on the other hand was a perfect

example of an ectomorph. He opened a drawer and gave me a key, even his hands were thin.

I went back downstairs to the storeroom. This was in better shape than the office benefitting from the civilising influence of the

women volunteers. It had a primary school feel, craft materials on one side and costumes on the other. A Roman soldier hung next to

the rags and tatters of a nineteenth century prisoner. The projector was out of date and seldom used. It was right at the back behind

a pile of reproduction school slates. It was heavy and unwieldy. Should I take the screen as well? We could just project onto the

wall. I decided to take it. Carrying them both was difficult and I began to wish I had missed Suzanne’s phone call. I toyed with the

idea of saying I couldn’t find it but I knew she would be annoyed if I turned up empty handed. Anyway better this than being asked to

do battle over the last of the Brussels sprouts.

I loathe this time of year. I loathe Christmas. It made me think of my parents at their worst, drunk and arguing. They didn’t

drink much the rest of the year, in fact they barely spoke to one another. It was like being raised by mutes. But on Christmas day the

seething resentment of the last eleven months and twenty four days almost always erupted in an alcohol fuelled slanging match.

It might have been more bearable had I not been an only child. Ours was a house that failed to attract even occasional visitors.

I had once tried inviting a friend home for tea but my mother had tutted about the extra work and my father ignored the poor boy to

the point of rudeness. We had whispered across the table to each other as if we were both in church. Then following the example of

my parents lapsed into a strained silence. I never asked him again.

So at the age of fifteen I had bought a three year diary and crossed the days off to my eighteenth birthday. My release date

came in the shape of a letter from the University of East Anglia with the offer of a place to read history. I had chosen wisely. It was

two hundred and thirty two miles from Preston to Norwich, a round trip of four hundred and sixty four miles. There would no parental

day trips. I had made my escape. With the optimism of youth I decided that as soon as I left I would reinvent myself, not realising I

had already been shaped in ways that geographical location could not override.

******************

I staggered from the car, the temperature had dipped below freezing and I was determined to get everything into the house in

one go. Halfway up the path I heard the back door open. My briefcase slipped from my frozen fingers and the screen, which I had

balanced vertically with one arm, slipped and banged me on the head.

“ Ow! Oh bloody hell.”

I heard Suzanne laugh and the smell of casserole wafted through the frosty air.

“Well here comes Scrooge full of the joys of Christmas,” she said.

She picked up my briefcase.

“My God what have you got in here, lead bricks?”

“Books.”

I tottered to the door. The projector was cutting into my fingers.

“Hurry up we’re letting all the heat out,” she said.

Mr Snow waddled across the kitchen and rubbed against my legs. He had arrived a few days after we moved in and after a brief

look round had decided to make this his home. He was a pure white tom of indeterminate age and stone deaf. Suzanne adored him. I

was indifferent so it was me he followed around, my lap he climbed on to and my feet he slept on.

We had lived here for three months. Myrtle Cottage had been built in the middle of the eighteenth century, there was a brick in

the gable with the year 1758 roughly carved into the brick work. It had a large garden and one day it would fulfil every English

persons ideal of a rural retreat but at the moment it was a work in progress. It had been on the market for a while when bought it and

it was cheap, or at least cheaper than the over priced boxes we’d been looking at.

“In need of some cosmetic updating,” said the details.

I knew what that meant.

“Just needs a bit of tlc,” said the smarmy git in the shiny suit who showed us round.

He didn’t look old enough to have a job.

“We’ve had a lot of interest in this one, so I wouldn’t hang around if I were you,” said smarmy git.

“I bet the phone never stops,” I said.

From then on he completely ignored me, directing all of his sales patter at Suzanne. I was miffed even though I didn’t like him.

She laughed afterwards when I complained.

“Have you never heard of ‘pitch to the bitch,” she said.

It worked, at Suzanne’s insistence we bought it. The place was a wreck when we moved in. We did all the boring stuff, new roof,

sorted the damp, installed central heating. I put up with strangers tramping through our house demanding cups of tea and watched

the money flow out of our savings account as if we’d fallen victims to some fraudster. Holidays were now out of the question and

there were times when I wished for a starter home on an edge of town estate, but Suzanne loved it. A family home, on a quiet road in

a pretty village with a great primary school. It was everything she had ever dreamed of, except we have no family.

Despite the money we had spent the place still looked like a 1950’s time warp, too tasteless and tatty to be retro. Some old boy

had lived here alone for God knows how many years. The wallpaper once floral and fussy had faded and the carpets were a joke.

Suzanne spent her evenings poring over paint charts and flicking through the kind of interior design magazines that are all pictures

and no copy. Photo after photo of gardens full of furniture and interiors that looked like an advert for a florists. I was interested of

course but I couldn’t feel passionate about curtains and light fittings. She could spend half an hour staring at handles for the kitchen

cupboards and looked astonished when I said it didn’t matter.

I carried the dirty plates over to the sink.

“I’ll do that,” said Suzanne.

“No you won’t, you cooked it.”

“No go on, you set the projector up.”

“What, we’re watching it now?”

I had my evening’s viewing all worked out, The English Patient followed by Have I Got News For You or The X Files.

“Oh come on, it’s only short, I promise you. I’m just dying to see what’s on it.”

“A family holiday in Skegness, or some kids sports day I expect.”

Suzanne frowned and turned away filling the encrusted casserole dish with scalding hot water. I dried my hands and went

through to the sitting room. Only the lights from the Christmas tree lights were on and even I had to admit it looked festive. I cursed

myself for my want of tact but it was so difficult never being able to say the words family or kids.

I dragged the coffee table to the far end of the room and stacked a pile of books on top to raise the projector. Mr Snow

pottered in and tried to dislodge baubles from the lower branches of the tree. It started to shake and sway as if a force nine had hit

the room. I picked him up and plonked him on the sofa. He sat there watching me, tail lashing, then curled up and went to sleep. He

was getting fat.

In the kitchen I heard Suzanne crashing the crockery. Minutes later she came through carrying the screen and what was left of a

bottle of Chianti. Was it my imagination or had she been crying?The film was in a flat blue tin the size of a large saucer. The lid was

rusted and had buckled where Suzanne had used a screwdriver to prise it off.

“Is this all there is?” I said lifting it by the edges between my finger and thumb. “There can’t be more than five minutes worth

on here.”

I wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or disappointed. Suzanne swung round the smallest of the two sofas to face the screen. I

started the film and switched off the Christmas tree lights. Dust particles danced in the light from the projector. Although bright it

homed in on the screen leaving the rest of the room in darkness. It felt like an old fashioned picture show. I was transported back to

Christmas parties in the scout hut, the smell of hot boy intermingled with fish paste sandwiches as we settled down to watch a load of

out of date cartoons.

“Popcorn anyone?” I said as I sat down.

I leaned across and whispered in Suzanne’s ear, “Fancy a snog?”

“Ssh!” she said. “It’s starting.”

The camera was panning round a room.

“That’s the dining room,” said Suzanne.

“So it is, God doesn’t it look drab. Christ I don’t believe it, it’s the same wallpaper.”

“When do you think it is?” Suzanne asked.

I stared at the screen, the heavy furniture looked late Victorian but then as the camera swung round to face the stairs it caught

an electric flex hanging from the ceiling.

“Hard to tell 1950’s maybe or early 60’s?”

The camera moved slowly up the stairs.

“I wonder who’s filming it?” said Suzanne.

“Great plot,” I said.

The camera was now on the landing.

“Shame it’s in black and white,” she said.

“I don’t think it makes much difference.”

We were taken past our bedroom door, which was closed. Outside against the wall was a cupboard come chest of drawers which

I recognised as war time utility furniture, on it was a vase of what looked like cornflowers.

“There are no people, how disappointing,” said Suzanne.

The camera moved to the bottom of the attic stairs. I found it increasingly weird. I reckoned we must be almost at the end by

now. Why would anyone film this? Whoever was holding the camera began to go slowly up the stairs. As they rounded the corner

they must have stumbled as the picture jolted violently. We were taken into the room. We used it as an office, but this was clearly a

child’s room.

There was a single bed with a hand knitted coverlet of brightly coloured squares. There was no carpet, only bare floorboards and

a rag rug. A rubber Mickey Mouse with bendy legs sat on the pillow grinning into camera. It looked very Spartan, not like the

bedrooms of our friend’s children. These people must have been poor, or perhaps that’s just how it was in the fifties. The camera

moved around the room and as we traversed the empty walls the hands that held the camera must have started to shake. The picture

wobbled as if we were aboard a rowing boat in choppy water then jerked suddenly into the corner.

“Here’s someone,” I said.

We both leaned forward and saw the figure of a boy. He must have been about nine years old and he was smiling. He was

wearing a striped Tee shirt, with shorts and old fashioned T bar sandals, he stepped out of the corner as if walking towards us, then

he stopped and waved, his head turned to one side. He appeared to be looking at Suzanne. I heard her sharp intake of breath. She

slid down the sofa towards me. The boy waited, then his eyes followed her, he was still smiling.

“Turn it off,” she said.

The screen went blank. The only sound a faint flicking of celluloid against the projector. It sounded like a large moth trapped

inside a lampshade. I jumped up, turned on the top light and switched off the projector. Suzanne sat with her hands clasped tightly in

her lap. I picked up the wine and poured us both a drink.

“God that really gave me the creeps,” she said, ignoring my outstretched hand.

“He was looking at the camera,” I said.

“It didn’t feel like it.”

She took her glass spilling a few drops on her skirt. She wiped them away with the back of her hand.

“I half expected him to walk out of the screen,” she said.

She rubbed her upper arms as if she was freezing. I started dismantling the projector.

“I expect he was waving at his dad,” I said.

I didn’t want to talk about children, any children and I didn’t want to hear the word dad. I pushed the sofa back, picked up the TV

remote and pressed a button, sound filled the room.



CHAPTER 2 BEN


It was January 2nd and I was at Norwich station waiting for George’s train to arrive. We had met at university fifteen years ago and I

have stayed in touch ever since. I had stayed in East Anglia sacrificing pay and advancement. George had left, travelled and was now

in London.

In some ways it was an unlikely friendship. I was surprised when he chose me to be a part of his coterie and I can’t deny it was

definitely that way round. I thought he would have found me too diffident, not his sort at all. In fact I thought it quite something that

he ever noticed me, but at the time I felt grateful. A gratitude I have been trying to hide ever since.

The boy who couldn’t wait to leave home was floundering. Already in those first few weeks I was becoming a recluse. A loner

hiding in my room, sitting by myself at meals. The girls seemed way out of my league with their home counties accents and expensive

clothes. So I slunk around the campus with my nose in a book trying to look studious and fighting back tears.

Then one Friday evening I was rescued by George. I had ventured into the crowded Union Bar desperate for a drink and

someone to talk to. It was packed, I couldn’t even see the bar let alone reach it. I was trying to push my way through when I trod on

someone’s feet.

“Sorry,” I yelled over the general hubbub. I remember Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger blaring from the speakers.

“No matter,” he yelled back. “Used to it, got size twelve feet.”

I was glad he wasn’t the sort of guy who picked a fight if someone jostled him and spilt his beer. The top of my head barely

reached his chin and his upper arms were the same circumference as telegraph poles. He looked like a rugby man and he was good

looking in a rough hewn sort of way, although his nose was slightly crooked. He was exactly the sort of boy I would have avoided at

school. He grabbed me by the shoulders, spun me round and propelled me in front of him. Normally I would have been outraged.

“Gangway, this is an emergency, let us through,” he yelled.

I could feel his powerful voice vibrating through his finger tips, the crowd parted, he pushed me through.

“Emergency, two men in desperate need of a drink.”

I remember wondering what I would do if someone got nasty and he disowned me, but most people laughed and stood back

letting us jump the queue. It wasn’t just his size that made them give way, George had chutzpah.

“A pint of ale my good man and one for my friend here.”

I felt my spirits lighten for the first time in weeks. It turned out to be the only drink he ever bought me, his friendship came at a

price. Naturally I have always felt somewhat in his shadow. From the first sentence he spoke I knew he was privately educated. Just

as my flat northern vowels revealed instantly that I was not. Yes, George was what Suzanne’s determinedly Yorkshire parents would

have called a posh southerner. What was it Shaw said? An Englishman has only to open his mouth for another Englishman to despise

him, or something like that. But it’s supposed to be all different now.

For the past four years George had insisted on staying with us after new year, sometimes with a girl, sometimes without. This

was a without year. George was good at attracting women, not so good at keeping them. He strode out of the station grinning, slung

his bag into the back and flung himself into the passenger seat. The suspension sank beneath his weight.

“Mmmm, nice car,” he said patting the dashboard of our Ford Fiesta.

I didn’t rise to it. I knew he had a BMW back in London. I had never been interested in cars.

I smiled, “You’ve grown a beard.”

He passed a hand over it, “Like it?” he asked.

“Very Treasure Island. Suzanne probably won’t open the door until you’ve shaved it off.”

“And how is the lovely Suzanne?”

‘Okay,” I said.

We had spent Christmas as we had planned, just the two of us, our new house provided us with the perfect excuse. It hadn’t

been my idea to spend it alone but I had no other suggestions. We couldn’t afford to go away and I certainly wasn’t going to

subject Suzanne to my dysfunctional family. She was equally adamant about dragging me up to Harrogate. Her three sisters were

well on their way to breeding an entire cricket team and as The Childless Couple we would be offered pitying glances as the evidence

of their fruitfulness crawled around our ankles. That and the thought that we would be expected to sleep on a pile of cushions on the

sitting room floor was enough for us to make polite excuses. I was relieved, I wouldn’t have to try and make stilted conversation with

their right wing, rugger bugger husbands. They earned twice as much as me and I knew they all thought Suzanne should have put

me straight back when she first pulled me out of the bran tub.

But Christmas alone had been a mistake. The tension between us had increased as Suzanne became more withdrawn in her

attempt to hide her grief. If only we were able to talk, but I have never been a great talker and I increasingly felt that anything I said

sounded like a platitude, everything I said was wrong.

“Still no sign of a sprog?” George asked.

I burst out laughing. Only George could get away with asking me that. I was so glad he was here blundering around with his

enormous feet. Thank God for George. I shook my head and he paused for a moment, winding down the window and lighting a last fag

before we reached the homestead, cold air rushed in as he inhaled.

“I don’t like to ask but I take it you’ve had tests and things?”

“Yes and everything’s normal.”

“Phew, so you’re not firing blanks then?”

I stuck two fingers up. He deliberately misinterpreted the gesture and handed me his cigarette. I took a sneaky drag and passed

it back hoping Suzanne wouldn’t smell it.

“No I’m not, thank you so much for asking. It’s what they call unexplained infertility.”

“Sounds like medical speak for haven’t a bloody clue.”

He took a last puff and threw the butt out of the window.

“Anything I can do to help?”

“Bugger off you cheeky sod!”

George’s laugh filled the tiny car as if it was coming through a loud speaker. Progress was slow, it was the first day of the sales

and traffic was heavy. Eventually we left the city behind and headed out past the airport.

“Must be tough for her though.”

Like everyone else the full force of George’s sympathy was for Suzanne. I as a mere man was side lined. I could not possibly feel

it as she did. I knew that this compounded the problem. My demand for equality in sharing the pain was seen as selfish, insensitive

and met with the same incredulity I would expect if I clutched my abdomen and cried out in pain in the delivery room.

George scratched his beard, it looked itchy.

“I mean it must be tough, teaching other people’s kids.”

“She’ll be doing a bit less of that from now on. She’s just been made the new head.”

“You’ll be a kept man before long.”

“So what happened to Joanne?” I asked anxious to change the subject. I didn’t want him asking me about my work. I didn’t feel

like telling him about my failed promotion.

“Ah the lovely Joanne!”

George was easily deflected.

“She turned out to be a neurotic, jealous, gibbering wreck, who’s idea of a good time was to accuse me of ogling other women

then go into a rant about the selfish bastardness of the male sex in general. Joanne didn’t want a boyfriend she wanted a hostage.

Joanne I’m happy to say is in the arms of another, God help him.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“I’m not,” he replied.

George had arrived empty handed as usual. Not even a bunch of garage flowers. I knew how much this annoyed Suzanne. I had

been given instructions to stop at an off licence on the way home and not leave until George had bought a bottle. She knew I’d wimp

out of that one. We both knew that George was in the city and earned a fortune. In the kitchen he lifted Suzanne clean off her feet

and planted a smacking great kiss on each cheek.

“Good afternoon Mrs Selby. My mummy says I can’t do games today.”

Suzanne laughed, how quickly she forgave him.

“You’re going for a walk after lunch Georgie Porgie whether you like it or not and why have you got a dead cat on your face?”

“Because it makes me look manly and irresistible.”

He winked at me, “You should grow one.”

Suzanne wagged her finger.

“Don’t even think about it.”

We ate bread and cheese, salads and olives and ham with a bottle of white wine. George drank most of it. He waved away a

second bottle.

“Mustn’t peak too early,” he said.

I was so grateful for his presence. At uni we had called him Thumbelina. Six foot five and fifteen and a half stone, George didn’t

walk into rooms he exploded into them. He cut through our introverted sadness and we both rose to the occasion, soon it

felt like a party. Suzanne ate a slice of tomato and pulled a face.

“Why did I buy these? They cost a fortune and taste of nothing.”

She pushed her plate away.

“So tell me George, how’s your love life?” she asked head on one side.

George rolled his eyes.

“Joanne’s history,” I explained.

Suzanne giggled.

“I hope you don’t mind my saying, but I’m not exactly surprised. You didn’t look like a couple somehow. You didn’t quite fit. Oh

God sorry that sounds rude.”

George shrugged, “Are you referring to the discrepancy in size?”

“Well not just that, But she was small. You looked hilarious together.”

George leaned back in his chair.

“Yeah I know what you mean. A bit like a Great Dane mounting a Chihuahua.”

He grinned roguishly, Suzanne responded with a mischievous smile.

“Would you like me to find you a nice primary school teacher?”

“Only if she’s very strict with naughty boys.”

They smiled at each other across the table. I was used to it, George had always flirted with Suzanne. George would flirt with a

female baboon. He leapt from his chair making us both jump.

“Walkies!” he announced.

The mood shifted. He bounded up the stairs two at a time shouting,

“Woof, woof.”

We could hear him banging and clattering in the guest bedroom. If you could really call it that. It was last decorated in about

1955 and the iron bedstead was left by the previous owner. I reached out and put my hand over Suzanne’s and gave it a gentle

squeeze. Her half smile was shy, almost girlish. George came down with Mr Snow at his heels singing What’s New Pussy Cat in a bass

baritone so powerful it could fill the Albert Hall.

We drove to Blickling and walked round the lake. Suzanne took the wheel, George sat in the front at my insistence. His legs

were so much longer than mine. He pushed the seat back so far he was practically in my lap. I had to move all the road maps and sit

behind Suzanne. It was still the holiday season and the schools hadn’t gone back yet but I felt relaxed. For once the shouts of children,

the buggies and the babies in slings didn’t feel like an accusation.

A flock of Canada geese honked to each other in the centre of the lake, smaller birds stood on sheets of ice floating near the

reeds at the waters edge. The winter sunshine was dazzling and the light ricocheted off the mullioned windows of the hall. We

stopped to admire the beauty of the house from across the lake. Despite the sunlight the temperature was falling and mist was

already rising from the black water.

We carried on walking, it was too cold to stand for long. The ground was rock hard and unforgiving under our feet. The path left

the lake and followed the edge of the gardens laid out in Tudor style. The hall was closed at this time of year, a solitary woman

walked across the lawn carrying a trug. We were almost back at the car when George linked arms with Suzanne.

“Can we go to the pictures this evening?” he asked.

Suzanne frowned, it was obvious she wasn’t keen on the idea but she played the accommodating host.

“Well yes of course, if you really want to. What is it you want to see? We’d have to go into Norwich, or Cromer.”

“Oh I don’t think we need to go that far.”

He looked at me and winked. Suzanne looked puzzled, I wanted to stop him but I didn’t know how.

“I want to see The Boy In The Corner.”

He stopped, waved and gave a maniacal smile.

“I’ve heard it’s really scary,” he said.

Suzanne looked startled, she glanced at me, “You told him?”

“Well, it’s a good story,” I said full of apology.

I had beefed it up to George in the car but he had shown no interest in seeing it until now.

“I hear he took a particular shine to you,” George said waving again. “The ghost boy of Myrtle Cottage.”

I wished he’d shut up.

“He wasn’t waving at me, it just looks like it. It’s really not that interesting.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” George replied.

Suzanne pulled out the car keys and wrenched open the driver’s door. The extreme cold made it stick slightly. This time I sat in

the front and I didn’t move the seat forward. As soon as the engine started I put a on a tape, The Three Tenors. I turned the sound

up so that it was too loud to talk.



CHAPTER 3 BEN


We went home for tea and crumpets. I lit a fire and we sat on the floor around the coffee table like children. Mr Snow had

switched his allegiance to George. He head butted his arm and tea splashed from his cup onto the swirling leaves of the

hideous black and gold carpet.

“Oh Christ, sorry, I’ll get a cloth,” he said starting to get up.

“Sit down, don’t worry about it. We’re going to rip it up and sand down the floorboards aren’t we?” said Suzanne.

“Well I’m not sure about the we in that particular activity. I think you mean you’re going to do the sanding while I stand by

trying to look manly.”

“I’m sure you’re perfectly capable of operating an electric sander if you try.”

George held his hand up.

“No marital squabbling please.”

Mr Snow was being a real nuisance, trying to lick the butter from George’s plate and kneading his thighs with his front paws.

George winced as his claws sank through the material of his trousers. Suzanne put her plate down and scooped him up into her arms.

She turned him onto his back and buried her face in his soft curling fur making cooing noises. I looked away embarrassed but

George made light of it.

“Has he got any outfits we could dress him up in? He’d look great in a sailor suit.”

Suzanne laughed, “I hadn’t thought of that. I’ll try knitting him a couple of jumpers.”

I was certain she wasn’t kidding.

“You’ve never offered to make me one,” he said.

They exchanged glances.

“I wouldn’t dream of it. You’re not the home made jumper type.”

I felt she was implying that I was. The fire collapsed inwards as the kindling burned through. The chimney smoked slightly, we

had forgotten to have it swept. Mr Snow wriggled his over fed body upright and demanded to be put down. Suzanne held him tighter.

“What about this film then?” said George.

He put a tea towel over his head and waved his arms in front of him.

“Oooooh.”

Suzanne snatched it off accidentally pulling his hair. Mr Snow tumbled onto the floor looking put out.

“Ow,” said George rubbing his scalp, “Oh come on, let’s see it?”

I felt it wasn’t a good idea but I knew George wasn’t going to let this go.

“Please Miss, can we Miss, oh go on Miss?”

Suzanne and I looked at each other. Then to my surprise she said, “OK.”

“Are you sure?” I asked. “George and I could watch it on our own.”

“No it’ll be fine,” she sounded slightly irritable.

“We’ll watch it after dinner,” I said.

“No let’s watch it now, it’s dark enough,” she said.

George was full of banter as we set the room up.

“Do you think he’ll wave at me? I know we’ll sit in different parts of the room, see who he likes best. He’ll probably choose the

cat.”

He carried in the projector singing.

“Oh how the ghost of you clings
These foolish things
Remind me of you.”

I switched off the Christmas tree lights, just as I had done ten days ago. The film started. The camera panned round the dining

room and headed for the stairs. Suzanne sat beside me, she seemed quite relaxed. We were on the landing and moving down the

corridor.

“Where’s the ghost?” asked George.

“Shush, it’s at the end, and it’s not a ghost it’s a boy,” said Suzanne.

We went up the attic stairs, the same jolt as the unknown film maker stumbled. The same knitted coverlet and rag rug, the same

rubber Mickey Mouse. Suzanne nudged George.

“Here it comes,” she said.

The camera panned into the corner.

“There,” she said.

We all three leaned forward.

“Where?” said George.

But there was no one there, he had gone. The corner where he had stood was empty. The film sputtered in its spool and the

screen went white. As I turned off the projector I looked at Suzanne. Her face was ashen. I jumped up to turn the lights

on. George was sitting with his arms folded across his barrel chest, like a boy in a sulk.

“Some bloody ghost!” he said.

He looked from me to Suzanne for signs that this was all a joke. She was staring at the empty screen as if waiting for something

to appear.

“He’s gone,” I said shrugging my shoulders.

Suzanne shook her head.

“No, don’t you see, just because we can’t see him, it doesn’t mean he isn’t there.”

What was she talking about? My wife sounded crazy.

“Look,” I said. I’m sure there’s some logical explanation.”

Even to myself I sounded slightly exasperated. George took one look at Suzanne’s pale face and immediately swung into action.

“Of course there is. It’s an old film right?”

Suzanne nodded.

“Maybe the end snapped off and ended up in the hoover or something.”

Suzanne stood up and headed for the door.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“To see if George is right.”

George and I looked at each other as Suzanne opened the cupboard under the stairs and dragged out the hoover. She opened it

up and unclipped the bag then went into the kitchen. She came back with an old newspaper. I watched as she spread

this on the floor and tipped out the contents. I felt as though I should stop her. She raked through the dark grey fluff. She even

went and got the torch. George leaned over and picked out a five pence piece and one of my shirt buttons. He gave them a

wipe and put them on the table. Suzanne sat back on her heels and looked up at me.

“Any other theories?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Look let’s not make a big deal of this. ”

I put my hand out to pull her up but she ignored it and folded up the newspaper.

“Even you have to admit that was pretty weird,” she said standing up.

“I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation.”

“I’m waiting,” she said.

“Well maybe it’s so fragile that it disintegrated, melted away.”

“Or maybe ghostie didn’t feel like appearing today,” said George.

I tried to quell him with a look. He put on his penitent face and slapped his own wrist.

“Come on, I’m sure Ben’s right. It’s no big deal. Let’s all have a drink,” he said.

George’s answer to everything. It was only half past five but I decided to waive the not before six rule. The flurry of activity

provided a good distraction, lemons, ice, glasses, gin bottle. George fiddled with his phone.

“No bloody signal,” he complained.

“Welcome to Norfolk,” Suzanne replied.

“I just want to check my answer phone.”

I nodded towards the other room.

“Be my guest.”

George disappeared. I put my arms around Suzanne, her body stayed rigid, not quite a brush off, but almost.

“You OK.” I whispered.

She nodded and smiled, I let her go.

“ I wish I’d never found it,” she said.

I poured three strong gin and tonics. What the hell if we were all hammered by half past eight. Suzanne started loading crisps

and peanuts into bowls. Why is it we never stop eating at this time of year? My trousers were already tight when I sat

down.

“I wonder who he is, the boy I mean?” she swirled the ice cubes around in her glass.

“George’s head appeared round the door.

“Fraid you’re phone’s bust,” he said.

I followed him back into the sitting room cursing. He picked up the receiver of a 1950’s Bakelite phone with its cable still

attached to the wall. He put it to his ear, looked at me and shrugged.

“That’s never worked. It was here when we moved in. We decided to keep it.”

I pointed to a cream push button phone on a small table by the arm of the sofa.

“Sorry, what a bozo,” George jerked his thumb in the direction of the kitchen. “She OK?” he mouthed.

I nodded, resisting the temptation to say, no thanks to you. He picked up the handset and started dialling. It usually took thirty

six hours for George to begin irritating me, this time he’d done it in five.

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