- September 3rd, 2014
The Dead Know Your Secret Thoughts (A ghost story)
Jeremy was an only child, conceived and born before his parents had moved to the house in Burton Road for, once there, they had found it impossible to be intimate and impossible to leave.
Thomas and Edith Tyndale were kind people with regular habits: rarely staying up after ten p.m. Tom would invariably have the house – not one of the most recently built along this part of the road – locked up and the lights out before eleven.
Jeremy, was certain they knew each other’s thoughts, just as he was sure they knew his own. He had plentiful evidence. They would know without exchanging words when the other wanted a cup of tea, or would rather turn off the radio and listen to the gramophone instead.
As he grew older, he knew for a certainty that they knew when he was not really hungry and just being polite, or when his clothes were uncomfortable and he wasn’t saying. Most recently, his mother had alarmed him when she had told him that he was irresponsibly putting off doing his homework and had better get it out of the way, though he was positively certain he had never mentioned it.
While it is true that they were kind people, Mrs Tyndale was rather too concerned to solve her only son’s problems for him.
Mr and Mrs Tyndale’s bedroom looked out, from a bay window, over a small lawn with a rose garden around the bird bath at its centre, and carefully weeded beds of tall plants around the grass. Mr Tyndale had never changed it, retaining the simple layout since moving there. People, neighbours, had wondered whether this might have been a mark of respect, for Mrs Shaw, the previous owner, had been sitting in that bay window, in her tall rocking chair, when she passed away.
* * * *
Mrs Shaw and her husband Arthur had had the detached house built and had designed the small front and back gardens together. After he died, she had lived out a widowhood of several years, playing Wednesday afternoon bridge with a retired spinster schoolmistress and two others from a loose group of other widows whom she had known either since childhood or as members of married couples.
Having known her for so long, the other widows all tolerated her little idiosyncrasy, which was to leave them with their tea and sandwiches in the front room. After excusing herself, she went upstairs to watch the sunset from her bedroom for a few minutes as the clouds turned from white and pink to greyish purple and the blue sky turned the pale green of a duck’s egg before darkening. The day she did not come back down had been a Wednesday in late August and, knowing immediately that she was called upon, her closest friend, the spinster, had taken charge very efficiently.
The house, Mrs Shaw’s only substantial asset, had been sold after being on the market for only six weeks. After a few very minor bequests, that were little more than souvenirs for her surviving friends, the remainder of the proceeds went to her niece, who used part of the proceeds to buy a refrigerator and modernise her kitchen.
* * * *
The mortgage on the property was more than they could comfortably afford, but the purchasers, the Tyndales, moved in more or less immediately. Perhaps it had been the worry of his financial responsibilities that had woken him, but not long after the move, Tom Tyndale opened his eyes a little before midnight to see the shade of an old lady sitting in a rocking chair, with a man standing beside it, rocking it gently with his left hand. He turned to shake his wife’s arm and she also saw the apparition, which did not fade away when they both got out of bed and moved towards it.
The lady in the rocking chair turned towards them and smiled, though the man continued to stare, as though looking out of the window to study the sky beyond.
‘Good evening,’ she said.
‘Good evening,’ replied Mr and Mrs Tyndale, rather shakily, almost together.
‘You must live here now.’
‘Yes, we do.’
‘You seem very nice people.’
‘Thank you ... yes, thank you. I’m Thomas, Tom Tyndale and this is my wife, Edith.’
‘How do you do?’
‘How do you do?’ replied Edith, tightening her grip on her husband’s hand.
‘I should like to help you.’
‘Oh. That’s very kind of you,’ he answered, scarcely believing that he was talking so normally to a ghost in his own bedroom.
‘Yes, I was wondering how I might do it. You see there’s something I would like to ask of you in exchange. It’s nothing very onerous.’
‘What can we do for you?’ asked Tom Tyndale.
‘The front garden. I wondered if you wouldn’t mind leaving it as it is. It was the last thing my husband did for me when he was alive.’
‘I hadn’t really given it much thought, not with the winter coming on and jobs to do round the house. But I suppose I don’t mind. Do you, love?’
‘No, I’ve no objections.’
‘I was sure you were nice people – to be honest with you, I actually knew you were.’
‘How could you know?’
‘When I died, like my husband here, I found I could hear what people were thinking. We both can, but Arthur doesn’t like to listen. The only thing he likes doing is staring out of the window at the sunset. If you were to give me permission, I was thinking that in return for your looking after the garden, I would be able to keep you informed.’
‘Well, that’s very kind of you. I suppose that would be a good idea, don’t you love?’
‘I don’t see that it would hurt. In fact, it might come in handy. We’ve got that young fellow coming in tomorrow to talk about the mortgage.’
‘I thought he was coming the day after tomorrow - on the second, wasn’t it?’
‘No, I was going to tell you. He said he had to change it. Phoned to ask if he could come tomorrow after you got back from work.’
‘Hasn’t learnt what a diary is for.’
‘Pardon me,’ interrupted the ghost of Mrs Shaw, ‘but if you are going to, you must give me permission now. It’s a question of the time of day.’
‘Night, you mean,’ answered Tom. ‘Sorry. Yes, all right then. I’ll give you permission.’
‘So do I.’
‘Very well. The Dead know the secret thoughts of all and we shall tell you. It is agreed.’ She turned towards her husband, who was fading. ‘Witness, dear. They are going to look after the garden for us, Arthur.’ Then she too faded away.
As though reflecting his need to fill the silence in the small room, there a hint of an echo in Tom’s voice. ‘Well, that was odd. Looks like we’ve moved into a haunted house.’
He turned on his bedside lamp and looked at the alarm clock. It was ten past midnight. ‘Blimey, Edith. Look at the time! I’ve got an early start tomorrow.’
Edith looked at the clock.
‘And I’d better try and get some sleep if that mortgage fellow’s coming tomorrow, otherwise I won’t know what I’m getting talked into.’
‘I’m not sure I’ll be able to ... able to sleep, you know.’
‘Come on. Lie down. I’ll put my arms round you.’
He fell asleep almost immediately and snored gently while Edith lay in his arms, wide awake, studying the shadows shifting about on the ceiling.
* * * *
Late the following afternoon, when the young man from the building society turned up, Mrs Tyndale invited him into the front room and offered him a cup of tea.
‘Thank you very much,’ he stammered, shifting a handful of forms (printed not typed) around inside his brand new briefcase. ‘Erm, I was just wondering, do you think Mr Tyndale will be long?’
‘Oh, no,’ she answered, on her way to the kitchen. ‘He knows you’re coming. He’ll not be long. Has a thing about being late. Always setting the clocks ten minutes fast and then forgetting he has done. I have to keep putting them back or they’d be twenty, thirty ... well, you know what I mean.’
‘Yes, I do apologise. I’m sorry I arrived early. They told me the bus took half an hour. You see, I’ve only just moved here. If it hadn’t been raining so hard I’d have waited.’
‘And caught your death if I hadn’t seen you and called you inside. Don’t you worry. I won’t be long with the tea.’
When she came back in with the tray, three cups, a teapot in a woollen cosy, milk, sugar, and a plate of biscuits, the young man was doing his best not to sneeze.
‘There, that’s Tom now,’ she said, ‘coming down the drive.’
The young man twisted his neck around, but failed to see Mr Tyndale before he heard his key in the front door.
A moment later, after hanging his hat and coat up, Tom Tyndale opened the door and came into the front room. The young man put his teacup down, stood up and offered his hand.
‘So, you’re the lad from the building society, are you?’ said Tom Tyndale, shaking the young salesman’s hand boldly. ‘You lot get younger all the time.’
‘Very pleased to meet you, Mr Tyndale.’
‘So, what have you got to show us, then?’ Tom said, sitting down in his armchair.
‘Well, I was reviewing a number of our contracts with my manager and, when we noticed yours, we thought we might be able to increase your benefits from the payment plan.’
‘Go on. I’m listening.’
‘Yes. Well, this is a new contract for...,’ he took a printed form from his briefcase, ‘for a variable rate mortgage.’
‘And why would I want one of those?’ replied Tom, adopting a pretended business-like tone with a grin.
‘If Bank Rate comes down, then you would pay less. Or you could keep your payments the same and pay off your mortgage earlier.’
The young man smiled, but at the back of his mind heard his manager’s veiled threat. ‘Interest rates are as low as they’ve ever been. They’ll be going up sharply next year. I need you to help me get rid of these fixed-rate mortgages. If you can’t do that, I don’t need you.’
‘What we think,’ he continued, ‘at the office, that is, and it’s why we’re visiting everyone in our area to offer them these new contracts, is that interest rates could very well come down ... probably no later than spring next year.’
A clear voice in Tom Tyndale’s head spoke up, ‘He’s lying. That’s what they told him to say. Interest rates are going to go up.’
It was Tom’s turn to speak, but instead, elbows on his knees, he looked down at the carpet for a moment, his face reddening as bitter memories of being tricked out of his money flooded back, and he exploded.
‘Oh no, you don’t,’ said Tom Tyndale, looking up, his voice changing. ‘I know exactly what you’re thinking. You reckon you’ve got some poor bugger here who never finished his secondary school and you can come into his house and give him a loads of old codswallop and then, when the time’s right, take his home away. I can see right through you. You can finish that tea my wife gave you and then get on your way. I’m not signing anything.’
‘It’s all right, love,’ he answered, breathing in and breathing out. ‘Our little grammar school friend has nearly finished.’ He turned to the young salesman. ‘Haven’t you?’
‘Yes, Mr Tyndale. Well, thank you very much.’ He held out his hand again, but this time Tom pointedly ignored it.
‘The front door’s this way,’ he said, standing up and opening the door of the living room.
‘There was no need to be so rude,’ Edith said, when he came back in.
‘He was lying, smarmy little grammar school boy. Lying through his milk-white teeth,’ adding, before she could ask, ‘Mrs Shaw told me ...’ Then he fell silent for a moment. ‘Maybe I never finished my schooling, but I’m still going to look after you and little Jeremy.’
Edith looked at her husband, realising something she had never noticed before. Some things in the world frightened him and he did his utmost to hide the fact, not just from her, but from himself as well.
‘I love you, Tom,’ she said. ‘I know you will.’
‘Come here.’ He put his arms around her. ‘I can pay the mortgage on this place with what I earn. Just. But if we had to pay any more, I don’t know what would happen. And that’s what he was avoiding saying.’
Edith went over to the bay window and drew the curtains, then returned to her husband. She stood in front of him and looked up into his face. He put his arms around her again, leaned down and kissed her.
Knowing how much he loved her and how much she loved him, after a few minutes, he said, ‘Shall we go upstairs?’
‘Later on,’ she answered. ‘We’re not alone.’
* * * *
Edith often reflected as the next few years passed how easy it had been – even for Tom – to do without physical lovemaking. Thanks to Mrs Shaw, their brief shared pleasure had been replaced by the permanent certainty of how much they loved one another.
Her front room became a refuge for many of her friends, for Mrs Shaw often helped her to help them, mothers like herself who were having problems with their husbands. They were all amazed by how well she understood the thoughts they did not dare to even imagine. They were comforted to know that what they were going through was normal, relieved to know that others had gone through the same thing, and that sooner or later it would end.
Ironically, the only people that Mrs Shaw did not always help were Edith and Tom. Edith believed that Mrs Shaw was telling her everything. As her marriage adjusted, they had gone through many painful times because of this. While everything she told her was true, there was one thing that she never mentioned. Though dead, even the Dead have fears. Mrs Shaw could not bring herself to tell Edith the one thing she feared would destroy their arrangement. She could not tell either of them about Jeremy’s feelings.
During his childhood, the protective umbrella provided by a father who was always there for him, a mother who had no doubts about whatever might have been wrong with him – an acute stomach-ache that turned out to be appendicitis, throbbing toothache or sinus headache, problems with school subjects or with his peers at school – their being on hand all the time to help him deal with everything had made him confident and happy. It was only when, once puberty had changed him and his need for privacy became urgent, that Jeremy had found his cocoon suffocating.
Accustomed to his parents knowing everything, he was suddenly convinced that everyone else did too and what always hit him hardest from then on was being in the presence of a girl of his age. Though his thoughts were public, he was unable to avoid looking at her, unable not to notice every hint of her feminine form that her clothes would allow.
Paradoxically, he always took pains not to be observed. The latent fear that she might disapprove worried him sick. He hoped the day would come when one of them would turn to him and say thank you, for his thoughts were always complimentary and respectful, often bordering on worship. He dared nothing else.
He attempted telepathy with girls when he fancied a special connection, but nothing happened. They all seemed to know what was on his mind though, gathering in small groups, occasionally looking over their shoulders at him and laughing. He never got any messages back.
He distanced himself from the other friends of his childhood when they too seemed to know everything that was going on in his mind and, though his thoughts were utterly pure, they made fun of him when they accurately suspected that he had fallen in love.
When he remembered the mothers leaving as he arrived home from primary school, wreathed in smiles after their visit, this too became corroborating evidence. He was the only one who lived in silence, the only one excluded from the magic circle. His thoughts were all spoken aloud, but he could hear nothing.
Edith, who was devoted to her only child, was completely in the dark. Accustomed to Mrs Shaw telling her everything, as Jeremy became more and more withdrawn, she failed to notice tell-tale signs that a less gifted mother might have spotted. Meanwhile, Jeremy’s chaste puberty tormented him like fire and acid.
Fearing change and never having had children herself, Mrs Shaw had no reason to understand him, nor did she much want to. When at night Jeremy hid beneath his bedclothes and wept, his self-confidence ruined by the pity he sensed everywhere, she told Edith nothing. When tension made him vomit – and he then carefully cleaned and aired the bathroom – Edith never knew. When he lied about having eaten, Mrs Shaw now never contradicted him.
Tom simply assumed, in the absence of anybody saying anything to the contrary and as it had been for years, that all was well. He occasionally woke during the night and saw their guardian angels in the bay window, Mrs Shaw in the rocking chair, her husband, Arthur, never doing anything but moving it gently backwards and forwards as he stared out at bygone sunsets.
However, when, one night, Arthur Shaw unexpectedly turned to him and said, ‘Your son needs you,’ he sat bolt upright in bed. Edith mumbled something in her sleep, but Tom got out of bed, a deep feeling of unease growing in the pit of his stomach. Not even stopping to grab his dressing gown, he opened the bedroom door onto the cold landing and saw his son’s bedroom door ajar. In case nothing was wrong, he switched on the landing light rather than Jeremy’s and noticed something tied to the banister. He looked down and saw his son swinging by his neck from a belt.
‘Edith, Edith!’ he screamed, and rushed downstairs to take the weight of his son’s body.
‘What’s the matter?’ she called as she stumbled out of their room.
She looked over the rail and saw her husband struggling to hold up the unconscious boy’s weight. All thumbs, she struggled desperately to untie the belt from the banister until suddenly it came free and Jeremy fell on top of his father.
‘He’s breathing,’ Tom sobbed. ‘He’s still breathing.’
Her voice breaking, Edith, between three ghosts, called down, ‘I’m so sorry, Tom. Look up here. He can’t be.’