|Alan sat in his office in London. It was six months since his foray into the unknown at Monsaratte. The Stock Market was quiet because of the global economic slump; he was bored—bored and restless.
I can’t just abandon a lifetime of beliefs and sit in this office day-after-day as though nothing has happened. I am privileged. I know, and know for certain, existence after death is a reality. Millions, perhaps billions on this planet accept this concept on faith alone, whereas, I know. What am I going to do about it?
He’d pondered this question since his time at Monsaratte. There was no way he was going to shout his newfound knowledge from the rooftops—he wasn’t that kind of person. Besides, what kind of faith did he have? Christian, Buddhist, Muslim … the list could go on forever. All he could safely say, was he was certain there was another plane of existence. He started to go to church, but it did not fill the need in him. It seemed to him, humanity created these ceremonies in an attempt to convince itself of what he now took for granted. He even started watching 'ghost hunting’ shows and the like on television, only to find he despised them for the sham they were. Only one—one, out of the dozens of practitioners of this trash, seemed genuine. These shows stirred the scientific ‘bent’ he’d nurtured for years. Why can’t they find proof-positive? If a soul stranded on Earth required help to move on, why, like Emily—his ghost, didn’t it respond to their offers of assistance? Was it lack of ceremony, a lack of genuine faith, or just the lack of a ghost?
His cell phone interrupted his ponderings. It was his friend, Steven.
“Hello, Alan. Sophie has asked me to give you a call, inviting you down for the weekend.”
He was immediately suspicious. Although, Steven, and Sophie, had been his close friends since university days, until their recent encounter with the afterlife he only saw them three or four times a year—and a couple of those times were here in town.
“Yeeees, Steven,” he replied drawing out the word. “Is there something a matter? Things in the Emily's room have stayed quiet, haven’t they?”
“Yes ...” Steven's voice faltered. “But … well look, Alan, this invitation isn’t my idea, it’s Sophie’s and I can’t deny there isn’t an element of that nature attached to it.”
Alan’s pulse quickened. “You need say no more, Steven. You can expect me before five o’clock this evening.”
“Thank you, Alan. I’m sorry to involve you again.”
“Think nothing of it, I’m glad you did. Goodbye.”
Alan found it hard to justify how he was feeling. He felt the phone call from Steven set him free. It gave him the impetus he needed to make a decision he’d tried hard to avoid. He buzzed his secretary.
“Sheila, find out if Alistair is in his office, please. If he is, and he’s free, ask if I can pop along and have a word.”
As he waited for Sheila to buzz back, he stared out of his office window at the City. For the last twenty years, it had been his life. He and Alistair - another acquaintance from university - had started the firm—and enjoyed great success. The late eighties through to the new millennium had been a boom time in the Stockbroker business - and they rode the wave.
His intercom buzzed. “Excuse me, Mr. Cavender. Mr. Davidson is free, and says you can see him anytime you like.”
“Thank you, Sheila.”
“Well, here we go,” he muttered, as he stood and headed for the door.
Sophie was adamant, Alan impatient, and Steven as usual, stoic. She would say nothing about his invitation to Monsaratte, until after dinner. Alan contained himself - barely - and the dinner conversation centred on Sophie and Steven's two children.
“Susan is taking her A Levels in a month or so, and is hoping to get a place at Cambridge,” Sophie announced proudly.
“What about young James?” Alan asked, referring to their fifteen-year-old son.
Steven stopped eating, put his knife and fork down, closed his eyes and shook his head. “I despair of the boy. All he seems to be interested in is sport, and some Irish ‘banjo-bouncers’ called The Answer, whose records he plays non-stop when he’s home from school.”
Sophie laughed, then said, “Come on, Steven, you are only young once. Anyway, they are not ‘banjo-bouncers,’ they are, and I quote: ‘A hard rock and blues-rock band, in tune with the wants of young people today.’”
“Ah! There, you see, you are wrong. You used the words ‘in tune’ and I’ve never heard such a racket in all my life.”
Sophie turned to her guest, smiling she said, “Heed him no mind. He’s never really recovered from Simon and Garfunkel splitting up.”
A dreamy look came into Steven’s eyes. “Now those two boys could warble. Do you remember at University when we …”
Sophie interrupted with a cough and, “Err, hum!”
“Yes, well, that was music,” he finished, blushing.
After the meal, they retired to the West drawing room. Once Sophie had poured the coffee, Alan spoke, “Come on then, what’s this all about? I’ve been patient enough.”
Steven looked at his wife. “You tell him. Mary’s your friend.”
Sophie took a sip of her coffee. “Well, I was talking with some members at my WI meeting, telling how we rid ourselves of a family ghost. One, Mary Turnbull, happened to say the nobility weren't the only people to have ghosts. Consequently, after the meeting I collared her. She told how the farm near her home had a ghost; that of an old farm worker called, Oliver. She tells how several people have seen him, and he seemed harmless enough. She didn’t go into great detail, only he’d died suddenly when he fell from a hay loft.”
Alan interrupted. “How long ago did he die?”
She frowned. “I’m not sure, after the war - in the forties - I think, from what Mary said.”
“And when can I have a talk with Mary? Or, should I see the people at the farm?
“I don’t really know. Again, from what Mary said, I got the impression she was related to the owners of the farm,” Sophie took on a vacant look, before continuing, “or maybe it was Oliver she was related to. In any case, I can phone her tomorrow and get better details.”
Steven broke in. “I must confess I’m at a bit of a loss. No one seems bothered by this … this … apparition, so why involve Alan?”
She looked at Alan, who sighed deeply. “I’m bothered,” he said with emphasis.
“I knew you would be, Alan,” she said softly. “That’s why I asked Steven to invite you down for the weekend.”
Steven looked at them both in turn, “What’s going on? Is this some little conspiracy you two are involved in?”
“Not at all, my dear, it’s just … as we stood at Emily’s grave in February, I sensed Alan’s frustration with it all being over. It seemed as though … as though he wasn’t finished, not fulfilled. Am I right, Alan?”
He smiled at her. “You are a very perceptive woman, Sophie, and you, Steven, are a very lucky man.”
Steven stared blankly at him.
Alan turned to face him and continued, “When I watched you walk down those stairs to Emily and take the baby from her, I confess, I was jealous of you. I admired the way you were not only able to, but also wanted to free her soul. I thought then how empty my life was, chasing around trying to put another nought on the end of my bank balance. Ever since that night, I have been trying to pluck up the courage to do what I know I really want to do. Today, your phone call did that for me.”
He looked a Sophie—she was smiling. “Earlier today, I told Alistair I was taking a sabbatical. I told him I had no idea when I would return, or even if I would return. When he asked why, I just said it was time I considered the spiritual side of existence. I got no real argument from him. I think he felt I was on the edge of a breakdown.”
He looked quickly at Steven, who opened his mouth to say something, and forestalled him by declaring. “No, I’m not.”
“I’ve decided to seek out and help other trapped souls—if I can,” he said.
“Good Lord! He’s gone from Stockbroker to Ghostbuster,” Steven exclaimed, while slowly shaking his head.
The next day was Saturday, and Mary was unavailable. So, Sophie arranged for Alan to see her on Sunday afternoon. He felt frustrated. Having made and explained his decision, he was eager to get started.
“Did Mary give you any more details?” he asked Sophie.
“No, Alan, she didn’t, and I was not going to press her for any while on the phone. Just be patient, you only have to wait until tomorrow.”
“How far away is this farm, anyway?” he persisted.
Her eyes rolled a little in exasperation. “About nine miles, I think. I believe Astonbury Farm, was at one time part of this estate.”
Alan gave up his attempt to get any more information out of Sophie. In the afternoon, he drove to Delevaton, the nearest and largest town to the estate in search of a library. If he could, he intended to find out more about Astondale Farm—and any mention of its ghost. He returned to Monsaratte disappointed. There had been little to learn about the farm, and nothing about its ghost. However, he learned a little more about Oliver, although it was precious little. Looking up obituaries chronologically from 1946, he came across an entry dated 23rd August 1947.
The obituary announced the death of Mr. Oliver James Staunton, a sixty-four year old farm-worker at Astondale Farm, on the 20th of August, due to an accident. The entry also declared Mr. Staunton to be a bachelor. Since it was Saturday, the Local Record Office - where he would find a transcript of the inquest into Oliver’s death - was not open, so he had to be content with what he had.
It was after lunch, before Sophie and Alan left for their appointment with Mrs. Turnbull in the village of Astondale. It was a pleasant, early April day and he found the journey and his company very pleasing. The trip took less than twenty minutes, and he found himself wishing Mrs. Turnbull lived further away. Sophie stopped her car in front of a row of four terraced houses.
“These used to be eight farm-labourer cottages until thirty years ago, when they were reduced to four and modernised,” she remarked as they got out of the car.
“What?” Alan said. “Farm-labourers employed at Astondale Farm?”
“I expect so,” she replied, leading him to one of the end cottages. “You mustn’t forget, until the fifties and sixties, work on farms was labour demanding. It wasn’t until after the war, in fact as late as the early sixties that British farmers modernised their equipment and reduced their workforce.”
She rang the bell on the door of the cottage.
A woman in her early fifties, round-faced, with tinted hair opened the door. She looked at Alan and then at Sophie. “Oh! Hello So … milady,” she corrected herself, obviously unsure how to greet her guest in the presence of a stranger.
“None of that, Mary,” Sophie was quick to reassure her. “Alan is a friend of mine, and Sophie will do.”
Mary visually relaxed and opened the door wider. “Please, come on in. Can I get you a drink?”
As Mary shepherded them into her living room, both declined the offer. The room was extremely clean, modern looking and to Alan’s bachelor eyes, very girly. He and Sophie sat on a floral-patterned sofa; Mary sat opposite in an armchair covered with the same pattern and material.
“As I told you on the phone, Mary, Alan is interested in the ghost at Astondale Farm. He would be very grateful for any information you can give him.”
Mary stole a quick look at him before addressing her words to Sophie.
“Well, you know what it’s like mil … I mean Sophie, I’ve never seen it myself, but people up at the farm say they see him frequently—Oliver, the ghost I mean.”
“I believe you are related to the people who own the farm? Or, is it Oliver you are related to?” Alan enquired.
“Oh! I’m … sorry if I confused you … Sophie, but both really. Oliver, was my father’s uncle; he died before I was born,” Mary said, her eyes still on Sophie. “But Glynis, my cousin, married John Pearson, who owns Astondale Farm.”
“Do you think Mr. Pearson would mind if I poked around up there?” he asked.
Mary seemed reluctant to talk directly to him, but she responded while giving him a quick glance. “I’m not sure. They do tend to get a little busy this time of year—lambing you know. However, I can give her a call on the phone and find out for you.”
Sophie interceded, giving the woman a winning smile. “If you would, Mary, I’d be very grateful if you could use any influence you have with her.”
“Yes, milady,” she said, forgetting Sophie’s request for informality. “If you will excuse me for a moment, the phone is in the hallway.”
She rose and left the room. Alan and Sophie could not help eavesdropping on her telephone conversation.
“Hello, is that you Glynis? I wonder - could you do me a great favour? Lady Cannonbury and a friend of hers would like to come and have a word with you about your ghost.” There was a short pause before she continued. “Yes, Glyn, I know it was silly of me to mention it to her, but she’s here now, at my home asking if she can visit the farm.” Another short pause ensured before Mary spoke again. “Okay Glyn, will do, and I’ll let them know. Thank you Glyn, and Goodbye.”
Mary returned to the room. ”Well, I‘ve had a word with Glyn, and although she doesn’t sound too keen, she is willing for you to visit the farm.”
Sophie looked at Alan and smiled.
“But,” Mary added sheepishly. “Being who you are, she asked me to keep you talking here for a while until she makes her place presentable.”
Sophie gave a little laugh—Alan, a little smile.
“Thank you, Mary,” the Marchioness said. “In that case, I think we will have that drink.”
A little over a half hour later, they said their goodbyes to Mary and headed for Astondale Farm. The farm was only three miles from the village and it only took ten minutes to arrive there. From the main arterial road, a tarmac lane ran two hundred yards or so to the farmhouse itself.
As they got out of the car, the farmhouse door opened and a woman in her late fifties - early sixties came to meet them. She held out her hand to Sophie and did a little bob.
“There is no need for formalities, Mrs. Pearson, can I call you Glyn?” Sophie said with a smile. “I’m really grateful you agreed to our request at such short notice.”
“Not at all, my Lady, I’m only glad I could be of service. I would be honoured for you to call me Glyn,” the woman replied, blushing slightly. “Welcome to my home, Astondale Farm.”
Sophie introduced her companion. “This is a friend of mine, Glyn, his name is Alan.”
Again, Glyn did a little bob as she shook his hand.
“Alan is interested in hearing all about your ghost—Oliver,” Sophie continued. “I would consider it a personal favour if you could assist him in his enquires.”
“I’ll do what I can, my Lady, but it’s a silly thing really,” Glyn said, and turned to lead them into the farmhouse.
“Wait, Mrs. Pearson,” Alan said. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather stay outside a little while longer.”
She looked at him and he could see she was puzzled.
He smiled at her. “Is … Oliver ever seen in the farmhouse?” he asked.
“Well, no, not that I ever heard,” she answered.
“Tell me,” he continued. “How many times have people seen him? Have you, Mrs. Pearson?”
“Well, as to how many times, I don’t really know, a couple of dozen, I would say. However, I’ve only lived on the farm since I got married thirty-five years ago, and I believe it went on before then.”
“And have you ever seen him?” he coaxed.
Glynis blushed before answering. “Yes, sir, I have—twice.”
She looked a little embarrassed—almost waiting for them to laugh.
Alan gave her another smile - a warmer smile and put his arm around her shoulders. “I think, Mrs. Pearson, we can go indoors now. I want you to tell me all about it.”
They stayed at the farm for over two hours, and yet the time seemed to fly by. After an hour or so, Mr Pearson—John, joined them. At first, his manner was a little gruff. He’d seen Sophie’s Aston Martin in front of the farmhouse on his return from the fields, and he was not one for company. Finding the Marchioness of Cannonbury sitting in his living room shocked him; Glynis had no way of informing him of their visit.
However, by the time John arrived, Glynis, Sophie and Alan were chatting like old friends. Sophie insisted Glynis be informal and address her by name, which obviously pleased Glyn enormously and, apart from the occasional blush while saying it, and an infrequent ‘milady,’ she conformed to Sophie’s wishes. Her husband, John, towered over Glyn. He stood over six feet tall and was what could be described as ‘rangy.’ He looked nearly ten years older than Glynis, but that might have been due to the outdoor life he led. His hair, obviously originally blond, now was mostly silver-grey. He sat in the armchair opposite Alan, who thought a look of … reluctance, crossed John’s craggy face when Glyn told him the purpose of their visit.
“Now come on, John,” Glyn scolded, seeing the look. “Her Ladyship is interested in Oliver and I’ve given my word to help her and Mr. Cavender.”
Alan spoke before John could answer, “I promise you, Mr. Pearson, I will not disrupt the working of your farm in anyway.”
John, whose head bent forward, eyes glued to the floor after his wife’s words, looked up through his bushy eyebrows at him.
“You’re not some newspaper man, are you?” he asked, obviously reluctant to talk.
“Nothing of the kind, Mr. Pearson, in fact I’m a Stockbroker from London,” he replied.
John looked puzzled, “Then why … I mean what interest have you in … Oliver?”
Alan smiled at him. “Well you might ask, Mr. Pearson,” he answered, giving Sophie a quick glance before continuing. “Can I ask you a question first, before answering?”
John just nodded his head in agreement.
“Oliver; I suppose he was here before you were born, am I right?”
“Well, he died a couple of years before I was born, if that’s what you mean. My old dad ran the farm then.” He stopped - looking at Alan to see if it was all that was required.
Alan nodded to encourage him to go on. John frowned, but continued.
“He’s just been here— Oliver I mean, since I can remember. He does nobody any harm and when you are used to him, he doesn’t even scare you any more.”
“So you’ve actually seen him then, Mr. Pearson?” Alan coaxed.
“Oh yes, many-a-time. I first saw him when I was a nipper—he frightened me then, alright,” John said with a wry smile. “But over the years you get used to him, like. As I said, he does nobody any harm; disappears almost as soon as you see him.”
“Have you, or anyone else, ever spoken to him?” Alan pressed.
John looked shocked. “Why would anyone do that?” he exclaimed.
Alan cast him a huge grin. “Why indeed, Mr. Pearson, why indeed,” he replied, and continued. “So, I can take it you know of no one who has ever spoken to Oliver?”
John shook his head in the negative while looking at him as if he needed psychiatric help.
Alan let out a short laugh. “It’s alright, John, I’m perfectly sane.”
He proceeded to ask John questions on when and where Oliver most frequently appeared.
“Depends,” John, explained. “Early morning and twilight, coming and going down the lane. Other times it’s mainly in the lambing shed. We thought when we knocked the old barn with the hayloft down and replaced it with the modern shed, he might not come anymore—but he does.”
“And is there any special time of the year?” Alan enquired.
“Not really, he tends to be a bit more active in summer months I suppose. But I’ve seen him at other times as well.”
“Just a couple of more questions, John, and I’ll stop bothering you.” Alan watched John’s face closely as he asked. “How would you feel if Oliver left and never came back?”
John frowned. “Funny question that,” he said, not looking at anyone. “Dun-know, really,” he eventually said. “I’ve rather got used to him being here. I suppose he shouldn’t really—be here, that is. I suppose he should have ‘moved on’ so as to speak.”
“And how would you feel if I came up to the farm a couple of times during the next week?” Alan asked.
“What for?” John asked, his eyes narrowing. “To see Oliver, or to try and move him on, like?” His voice seemed accusing.
“Well, a least to try and do that,” he said softly. He wasn’t sure John was so keen on the idea.
Glynis butted in. Looking sternly at her husband, her voice took on an almost shrill quality. “John Pearson! Do you think it’s right Oliver should be earthbound just for your amusement?”
For a woman no higher than five feet-four inches tall, her voice certainly carried a punch.
John cringed. “No, no, I didn’t say that, did I? I just meant …” he fumbled, looking for an excuse. “What if they disturb him and he becomes violent?” He held a self-satisfied smile at having produced a valid argument.
Glyn’s eyes were flashing - she wasn’t taken in for a moment. Alan interceded quickly before she could lambast him again.
“John, I can assure you that won’t happen. If I do make contact with Oliver and he doesn’t want to be disturbed, I will leave him alone and go away.”
John looked at his wife; she was still glaring at him. “Well,” he said falteringly. “In that case, I can see no harm in it.”
Glynis was going to have her say. “You come and do what you think best, Mr. Cavender. Even if this old sod … please excuse my French, can’t remember his Christian upbringing, I can. If you can help my Great Uncle Oliver find peace, then you do it.”
“Oh, I forgot,” Sophie, chirped in. “You and Mary Turnbull are related, aren’t you?”
“Yes, milady, we have the same grandfather and her father is my uncle.”
John broke in; it was obvious he felt the decision slipping away from him. “Right, Mr. Cavender, as long as things on the farm aren’t disrupted, I reckon you must do what you think fit.”
Both Alan and Sophie thanked him and rose to leave. Glyn gave John a meaningful glance.
“Err … can I show you the lambing shed before you go, Mr. Cavender?” John said, rising to her prompt.
“Thank you, Mr. Pearson, but I don’t think that’s necessary. It’s that big building about fifty yards further up the lane isn’t it?”
“Aye, that’s the one. Most of the lambs are out in the meadows with the ewes. There’s only a couple of sicklies in the shed at the moment, so you’ll not be disturbing a lot.”
After saying their goodbyes, Alan and Sophie left the farm.
On their journey back to Monsaratte, Alan was a bit pensive and his companion noticed.
“Are you alright, Alan, you seem a little quiet,” she remarked.
“I’m fine, Sophie, I was just thinking about Oliver.”
“Why didn’t you take up John’s offer to show you the lambing shed? You might have got a sight of him today,” she said joking.
“I think I did get a look at him, if you must know,” Alan said, smiling at her.
She was so shocked at his statement and the flippant manner in which he announced it, for a moment she lost concentration and swerved the car. She slowed down, pulled over and turned to face him. He continued to smile at her.
“Alan!” she said in exasperation.
“Okay, okay,” he said, still smiling at her. “If you remember, I refused Glyn’s initial offer to go in the farmhouse.”
Her brow furrowed as she tried to remember.
“Well,” he went on not waiting for a reply. “As we stood outside the farmhouse, I saw someone come out of the lambing shed, but he disappeared almost immediately.”
Sophie’s mouth dropped open.
He continued, "That’s why I refused John’s offer. I didn’t want us all to barge in there. I have this feeling Oliver needs to be confronted on a personal level—one to one.”
Sophie’s brows furrowed again. “Alan, you don’t think you’ve become … I don’t know, sort of, well … psychic or something, do you?”
He looked away from her for a moment - staring out of the passenger window chewing his bottom lip. He turned back to her; she was looking at him concerned.
“I only wish I had an answer, Sophie. Something has changed in me, I can feel it—I’ve felt it since the first time I saw Emily. This … this metaphysical - or whatever world you want to call it, seems to have attached itself to me.
“When do you intend to go back to the farm?”
“Tomorrow,” he said. “I intend to go down there late morning about eleven o’clock. I’m hoping everyone will be busy in the fields and the lambing shed deserted.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” she offered.
“Not this time, Sophie. I really want to try and get a one-to-one with Oliver.”
She started the car again before saying, “I hope you know what you are doing, Alan.” There was concern in her voice.
Turning to look out of the passenger window, he replied, “So do I, Sophie, so do I.”