Room to let
Mrs. Ruth Enderby and her daughter Madeline stood at an upstairs window of a tall, Edwardian terraced house and looked down at the man on the pavement below.
A rather slight figure in a grey raincoat, he was standing nervously looking at the front door.
“Go on, push the bell!” Mrs Enderby held the net curtains aside with arthritic fingers. “He doesn't look very exciting.”
Madeline had been rather guiltily indulging her favourite fantasy ever since, hoping to eke out their meagre income, they had advertised for a lodger. In her imaginings he would be a tall, dark man with a romantic lock of hair falling over his forehead; a secret agent or an explorer perhaps? She smiled at her own silliness.
"Exciting? We don't need exciting. I would rather have a woman anyway, much more reliable.”
At that moment the front doorbell finally rang and Madeline went down to answer it. Mrs. Enderby followed slowly - she seemed ever more full of aches and pains than usual this morning. When she reached the door Madeline was already talking to the stranger.
“I'm afraid there is only a shared bathroom, but the bedroom is large and comfortable, although a bit old-fashioned.”
He was not quite as small as he had looked from upstairs, but his raincoat drooped at the back. He had a vague and rather worried expression, and fair hair fading to grey; perhaps forty-ish, she thought. Madeline wondered why he should be adrift and looking for rooms in a strange town. She studied him surreptitiously: no lock of dark hair here, and no secret agent either. “May I see the room? It sounds just what I want.” He walked up the stairs behind her, admiring everything. “What a lovely old house - lovely high ceilings - what a lovely view!”
Madeline stared at the rather nondescript view of a tired Beech tree and the rooftops behind it. He seemed very eager to please and accepted the room gratefully, paying a month in advance.
“Really, a week would be plenty,” Madeline assured him, feeling embarrassed by his eagerness. He seemed pleasant but rather odd.
“Have you got some luggage?” She looked around for a suitcase.
“I'll bring that this afternoon if I may?”
“Well certainly, of course.” Madeline wondered where he had left it.
When he had gone the two women sat down in the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Mrs. Enderby gleefully checked the advance rent.
“You really shouldn't drink coffee. Mother, it's bad for your arthritis and your angina.”
Mrs. Enderby sighed. “I know, dear. But, honestly, it doesn't seem to make any difference. I gave it up for nearly three weeks and didn't feel any better at all, and these new pills make me feel woozy, anyway. I sometimes think I will give up doctors; just eat what I like, and put all the pills down the loo!”
In the afternoon the lodger duly turned up with a couple of suitcases. Madeline realised with surprise that she had not asked his name. “Archie Thomson,” he replied ruefully. “I know Archie is awful but my mother was Scottish.” “It's quite popular these days,” Madeline said kindly. “Shall I help you up with the cases?” “Oh gracious no, I'm fine!” he said as he disappeared up the stairs.
Archie Thomson proved an ideal lodger. He disappeared every morning at ten past eight clutching a briefcase and wearing the inevitable raincoat. He reappeared every evening at ten to six, sometimes shyly accepting a cup of tea, and then disappeared up to his room not to be seen again. Mrs. Enderby consulted Madeline as to whether they should relax the rule and offer him supper, which was not in the original arrangement.
“We don't want him getting too familiar, but I really wonder if he eats anything! We have to cook for two, anyway,” mused Madeline. “It wouldn't be much trouble.” Archie was amazed, and appeared quite taken aback when the offer of supper was made.
“That's terribly kind of you. I usually have a snack on the way home but - well - it would be lovely. Thank you very much!”
The rent was tactfully adjusted.
A week later the arrangement was extended to include breakfast. In spite of seeing much more of the lodger, the two women still knew hardly anything about him; he seemed to have no friends, and received no letters. Where he went to every day and what he did there remained a mystery; they didn't like to ask and Archie was not forthcoming. Madeline thought once or twice that he was on the point of saying something, but the moment always seemed to pass. She wondered if he was naturally secretive, or just shy. One day when Madeline came home early with a headache from the library where she worked, she saw him standing on the corner of the street looking completely lost and almost frantic. She did not feel like stopping because of her headache, but something in his expression concerned her, so she wound down the window and asked if he wanted a lift. To her surprise Archie leapt as though he had been stung and, with a muttered refusal, he raced off in the other direction. Madeline felt quite hurt and rather offended.
That evening at supper he was even quieter than usual, and disappeared upstairs without his usual cup of tea, offering no explanation for his odd behaviour of the afternoon. Madeline began to wonder if he was a little mad.
A couple of days later, Madeline returned from the library to find her mother in the kitchen with an old friend and neighbour, Alice Strickland, from three houses down the road. To Madeline’s dismay both women were in tears, cups of un-drunk tea on the table.
“Mother dear, what on earth is the matter?”
Mrs. Enderby turned a tearstained face to her daughter.
“Oh, Madeline, Alice's niece in Canada has lost a little boy in a dreadful car accident!” she gulped, and tears continued to stream down her lined old face.
Long after Alice had dried her tears, gathered her bags, kissed them both and departed, Ruth Enderby was still sobbing.
“Oh, mother!” sighed Madeline. “Come on, you have never even met Alice's niece.”
As the sobbing continued she put her arm around her mother's bony shoulders. “It's Jamie really, isn't it?”
“He was my baby, Madeleine, your little brother. I know it was 40 years ago, and I know I should've got over it by now. I am just a ridiculous old woman.”
“No, you're not! Why should you ‘get over him’ as though he were an attack of measles?” “I still remember him, and miss him, I always will.”
For a few minutes they sat together, remembering the jolly, happy toddler stomping round the room laughing as though nothing could ever possibly go wrong.
It was about a week later that they heard the noises.
Madeline woke up at about 3 o'clock in the morning under the impression that a thunderstorm had broken out. Gradually surfacing from a confused and noisy dream in which her long dead father was banging nails into the sitting room wall, while her mother searched for pictures to hang on them, she realised there was no rain, the sky was clear, and the Milky Way was glittering with a million stars, but the thunder continued. At last, fully awake, she realised that the noises were within the house. Pulling on a rather elegant Japanese dressing gown, a relic of a holiday in the Far East, she emerged into the corridor just as her mother came out of her bedroom. They stood side-by-side in speechless amazement. The noises were coming from Archie’s room.
“What on earth do you think he's doing? Moving the furniture?” “At 3 o'clock in the morning?” Suddenly the bedroom door flew open and Archie shot out, slamming it behind him. Immediately the banging stopped.
He was white, and shaking uncontrollably and, oddest of all, he appeared to be soaking wet, to such an extent that he was soon standing in a puddle of water. He stared at the women with pale, terrified eyes.
“It poured a bucket of water over me,” he whispered, and, sliding slowly down the wall, he collapsed on the floor in a dead faint.
Ruth and Madeline were both sensible women; they instinctively felt that explanations could wait. Madeline wrapped a large bath towel around the recumbent Archie while her mother gently slapped his cheeks and called his name. Gradually the worried, pale blue eyes flickered and opened. He pulled the towel round himself and sat up.
Madeline was horrified to see that tears were streaming down his face. She felt a surge of pity. There was obviously something terribly wrong. Ruth was rummaging in a drawer. “Here are some pyjamas of my late husband's, I keep them for emergencies, and this is certainly an emergency. Go into the bathroom and put them on; and here is a dressing-gown. Then come down to the kitchen. We're all going to have cocoa, with brandy in!”
Archie managed a watery smile, grabbed the clothes and darted into the bathroom. Madeline followed her mother down the stairs. She did not comment when she saw her slip one of her heart pills under her tongue.
“Miss out my brandy, it doesn't mix well with the pills. Give Archie my share as well. I think he needs it!”
When he was finally sitting at the table, dry but still shivering, and clutching his mug of cocoa to his chest, he started to talk.
“I should never have come here. It was unforgivable. I'll go first thing in the morning. I thought I might be alright here. It has been so wonderful up till now. I don't think I have ever been so happy.”
Tears welled up in his eyes and he brushed them away with his sleeve. Madeline thought he looked rather nice in her father’s dressing gown, better than that awful raincoat. He looked like a small boy after a bath, with his hair standing on end.
“Tell us everything from the beginning!” said Ruth. “We're all a bit confused at the moment.”
Archie took a deep breath.
“I'm haunted - that is what it amounts to! I don't know why, or what it is, but something, some spirit or devil, or whatever, is haunting me! It started last year, just after my mother died. I don't think it can be anything to do with her. She was a cold sort of woman; we weren't close.”
He paused to take a gulp of cocoa.
“It started with simple things; I kept losing keys and money and stuff like that and finding them in funny places: money stuffed in the teapot, keys in the lavatory cistern! Then stuff started moving about. I came home one day and found my bicycle in the bedroom! I hadn't used it for years. It gave me an awful shock! And then a neighbour called with a pile of broken china, and asked if I had been chucking cups and saucers over the fence! All mother’s best bits and pieces, about the only things she really cared about, all broken to smithereens.”
Here he seemed to stop and think for a moment before continuing.
“I consulted the vicar, a nice man, but I think it was all a bit beyond him. I really think he believed I was making it up, till he went to go home and found his hat full of carrots! Anyway, he tried to help - looked up all sorts of books and things.”
Archie’s narrative faltered to a close.
“What happened on Monday?” Madeline asked. “That was the day I offered you a lift in town. You looked as though you had seen a ghost.”
“I'm afraid I must have seemed terribly rude but I just didn't know what to do.”
“Well, the vicar brought a priest over to my cottage, specially trained in exorcism - there are two or three apparently.” “Well, what happened?” “He asked us to leave him alone in the house - he had bell, book and candle, all the real old traditional things. He set off, sprinkling holy water. We waited for ages; we didn't like to go in till he called us. Eventually, though, we went in.”
Archie gulped the last of his cocoa and buried his head in his hands.
“We found him upstairs. He was in some sort of cataleptic fit, as stiff as a board and propped up against the wall like a broom or something. His eyes had gone up into his head, only the whites were showing. It was ghastly!”
“Good God, what did you do?”
“We lifted him onto the bed. He was absolutely rigid. We rang for an ambulance but, just before it arrived, he gave a grunt and relaxed, and seemed to go to sleep. The ambulance man gave him a little shake and he came to and sat up!”
Archie spoke hesitantly.
“He couldn't remember a thing after walking upstairs. I just felt I had to get away so I caught a bus into town, and then I saw you in the car.”
“What a frightful experience!” Mrs. Enderby shuddered. By this time dawn was creeping across the rooftops. “I think it's time we had a look in your bedroom.”
With considerable trepidation the three mounted the stairs and Archie bravely opened the door.
A scene of complete chaos met their eyes: an enormous, old-fashioned wardrobe was lying across the bed; a standard lamp was hanging by its flex out of the window; chairs were broken and piled in a corner. In another corner, where poor Archie had been cowering, a large yellow plastic bucket stood in a puddle of water. Madeline picked up the bucket.
“How extraordinary! This is from the kitchen, and the standard lamp is from the sitting room.”
Mrs. Enderby pushed the corner of the wardrobe. “This weighs a ton! I remember four removal men struggling upstairs with it, and it was empty then.” “I'll leave as soon as I can.” said Archie. “I'll pay for all the damage. I'm so dreadfully sorry about everything.” “Of course you're not leaving! We have never had such an exciting time in our lives!” Madeline gave a rather hysterical giggle.
“Go into the spare room. Let’s all get a couple of hours sleep and we’ll decide what to do tomorrow…that is to say, today,” she added, catching sight of the clock.
United in adversity, they all started grinning and laughing at each other. Even so, Mrs. Enderby followed Madeline into her room.
“I think I'll stay with you if you don't mind, dear. I don't think my old heart will stand much more of this. If the wardrobe is going to fly across the room, you can help me catch it!”
Although the rest of the night passed peacefully, nobody got much sleep. They arrived at the breakfast table somewhat frail and hollow-eyed. “I'm not going to work today, as a matter of fact I haven't been in for several days. I just went off in the morning to keep up appearances.” Archie grinned sheepishly.
“I don't think we know what you do?” Mrs. Enderby questioned. Madeline had been wondering, too, but felt they shouldn’t ask.
“Mother, really!” “No, it’s alright,” Archie reassured her. “I manage a computer software company in Middleton. I stopped going in because ‘IT’ started sending, well, rather obscene messages on the fax machine … only there was no sender! My secretary, Mrs. Bloom, was terribly offended. She seemed to think I was doing it, although how I could have done I can't imagine. So I stopped going in.” “Why did you decide to be our lodger?” “The vicar suggested it. He thought perhaps it was the cottage that was haunted, and not me. I knew it was a forlorn hope, but I thought it was worth trying. It was stupid of me, I'm so sorry!” “Oh, do stop apologising! We've got to decide what to do next. Have you tried getting away from the cottage before?” Archie hung his head. “I spent one night in a hotel - it was awful!” “What happened?” “’IT’ turned on all the taps on my floor - everything was flooded. I nearly confessed it was my fault but didn't know how to explain. I felt dreadful. They insisted on not giving me a bill, which made it worse. I sneaked into the hotel later on and hid a hundred pounds under some papers on the desk.”
“Oh Archie, I bet someone thought it was their birthday.”
Mrs. Enderby clapped her hands.
“I've got an idea! Alice knows a medium! She was talking about it because of, you know, her niece’s troubles. Perhaps we could find out what is haunting Archie?”
“Oh dear, I don't know, I have always been ‘C of E’!”
“I don't think there is anything un-Christian about it. Anyway, the ‘C of E’ hasn't had much success so far!” “We could talk to Alice?” suggested Madeline gently. “You needn't take it any further if you don't want to.” So, two days later, when they had discussed the situation from every possible angle, Alice Strickland was invited to tea. Ruth was wondering how to bring the subject round to the medium without upsetting them both again. However, Alice started talking about her niece’s son who had been killed. She had been to a séance and had heard, straight away, that the child was happy and well, and no one was to feel bitter or sad because there was a spiritual job for him to do on the ‘other side’. Ruth couldn't help wondering if, perhaps, the medium - whose name was Mr. Bashir - was just spreading comfort and consolation to the bereaved. Even if this was the case, that seemed a harmless, and possibly helpful exercise. He would find ‘IT’ a different matter altogether, she thought grimly.
So the séance was arranged for Wednesday evening. To their complete astonishment they found that Alice had omitted to mention that Mr. Bashir was not Indian, as they had expected, but a freckled, red-haired lad of not more than thirty, with a strong Yorkshire accent.
As usual it was Mrs. Enderby whose curiosity overcame her. “How did you land up with an Indian name? It's quite obvious to me that you're a proper Yorkshire tyke.” “My real dad pushed off when I was born. Ram Bashir was a good, kind man. He married my mother and adopted me. I was proud to take his name.” “Good gracious!” “I've got a half sister who is, of course, half Indian so she has the blue eyes and the accent, but long black hair - better than this!” He rubbed his fingers through his thick, red thatch. “My dad recognized my talent when I was only fifteen. These things are more acceptable to Hindus. He encouraged me and sent me to train with a wonderfully wise man at the temple, Mr. Gopal.” “Good gracious!” exclaimed Mrs. Enderby again, then, feeling that this did not really take matters forward much, said: “How do we begin?” “Sit round the table, put your hands down so that we all touch little fingers.” “Do you want the light out or anything?” “No, just sit quietly - there is somebody here already - the waves are very strong.” As he spoke the table started to rock alarmingly.
“Now, now, none of that!” said the Yorkshire voice firmly. “We are here to try to help you, so you can cut that out for a start!”
The table movements subsided.
“It is not a poltergeist, that's for certain - quite different behaviour. He wants to take over. Now don’t be frit - I'm going into a trance for a few minutes.” Mr. Bashir went rather pale, closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the chair. There was a long pause, perhaps only a couple of minutes, but it seemed like hours to the watchers. Then suddenly, and rather horribly, a child’s piping voice came from the open mouth of the medium. “Hello, Archie!” it said.
Poor Archie gave a start and let out a strangled scream. Then, with enormous self-control, he asked: “Who are you?”
“Andrew, of course!” “I don't know anyone called Andrew.”
“Oh, don't be silly, Archie!” continued the voice, with a ripple of childish laughter. “Of course you know me! We're brothers!”
“Brothers?” The word was a hoarse whisper.
“More than brothers – twins!”
It was more than Archie could cope with. “It’s not true, it's not true!” He stood up, breaking the circle. “Mother never had any other children, only me!”
The childish voice was fading away but they could still just hear it. “Oh yes, only you, only bloody you! She didn't want me!”
The tremendous venom in the last words was very shocking. Mr. Bashir woke up.
“This is a real weird case! If you folks want to call it a day I shall quite understand. In fact, perhaps we should. I've never encountered anything like this before. I think I should get some advice before we continue.” It was Ruth Enderby who insisted on continuing.
“That child is in dreadful trouble. We can't just leave him now. There must be something we can do?”
Mr. Bashir looked decidedly worried.
“Well, entirely at your own risk, just for a few minutes. I'm not letting him in, though. I'll pass on messages. No need to touch fingers.” After a moment he started to speak, in his own voice. “Andrew says your mother had twins. She hadn't much money and she couldn't manage both. Your father was in prison.”
Archie gasped. “She never told me that.”
“Seems she didn't tell you much. She decided to keep you! She sold Andrew for a measly, rotten £500 – his words. The people who bought him told her they desperately wanted a child. They didn't say what they wanted him for! He had a pretty dreadful time, and died when he was three or four, he thinks. He was so angry his spirit got trapped here. He stayed with his mother until she died, then he attached himself to Archie. Hating you both more and more, he only recently learned to do tricks. That was really fun, he thought! What did you think of the wardrobe?” Archie, who had been listening intently, interrupted.
“I wonder if mother knew he was there - she did suffer from terrible nightmares all her life.”
“Poor little boy! Oh poor, poor little boy!” whispered Mrs. Enderby, who was quietly weeping now. “Surely there is something we can do?”
“Andrew, turn your face towards the light!” implored Mr. Bashir. “You don't have to stay here any more. Go towards the light; you can go if you want to.”
Suddenly they heard the piping child’s voice again. “I'm so lonely! Come with me, mummy!”
In the ensuing silence, Mrs. Enderby slowly slid down until her head was resting on the table. It was several seconds before Madeline touched her lightly on the shoulder and realized she was dead. Mr. Bashir was all for trying resuscitation and calling for an ambulance, but Madeline stopped him.
“Look at the peaceful smile on her face. Let her go. She has been in pain for years.”
Later on, when the doctor had been and Alice had gone off with a very subdued Mr. Bashir, Madeline and Archie were washing-up, waiting for the undertaker.
“I don't really understand any of it, Archie. She wasn't his mother, and he wasn’t her little boy.”
Archie pondered. “I think perhaps we can't all have exactly what we want and make do jolly well with what we can get.” Madeline nodded thoughtfully. After a moment she said: “I'm going to sell this house. It is far too big, that's why we had to have a lodger.” “I'm awfully glad you did!” said Archie shyly. “I think I shall sell my cottage, too. It’s got too many nasty memories. Perhaps we could help each other … you know … sort things out?”
Madeline saw, in her mind’s eye, the tall, dark, secret agent with the lock of black hair falling across his forehead. She thought he looked a little pathetic and old-fashioned! After all, the cold war was over ages ago - who needs secret agents nowadays?
“Shall I help you wash-up?" asked Archie, “the tea things are all still in the sink.”
“That's a good idea Archie. You wash and I'll dry, but I’ll tell you one thing, you’ve got to get rid of that dreadful raincoat.’ While they were washing up Madeline thought to herself that it was a dreadful raincoat, but his smile was particularly endearing.