- Reviews are injurious to health.
Countryside House. Available for immediate occupation. Rent negotiable.
This advertisement caught my eye, the word ‘immediate’ being the chief attraction. I connected with the agent; a smooth-talking man named Colby. After expressing an urgent need to get away from the city, I added nervously that neither had I murdered someone nor robbed a bank. I was just looking to keep a low profile (exactly what a murderer or a thief would do).
On the contrary, Colby didn’t seem bothered. Instead, he extolled the values of Harrington Hall and even proposed an amount that was well within my budget. I should have guessed that something was wrong.
If something was too good to be true, it probably wasn’t.
“View the property, first. If you like the place, you can move in. Remember to bring your identification, and the advance!” beamed Colby.
I was relieved and started packing, making sure to bring along my taser, just in case. Colby didn’t sound like a serial killer, but then neither did Jack the Ripper. On the bed lay my identity card which read Lucy Thurman, Junior Reporter, The Tattler. That right there was the source of my strife. I tossed it into the suitcase with a vengeance.
My woes had begun with a book. The author had sent a copy to our office, asking for an honest opinion. The novel was called ‘Stormy Passions,’ written by Mr. M. Vitale. I was new to the job and my editor Ed assigned me this unenviable task.
My Editor’s full name was Ed Shallow. His first name described his vocation, the second his temperament. Whoever named him must have been clairvoyant.
I managed to read ‘Stormy Passions’ with great difficulty. Walking blindfolded on a narrow plank over shark-infested waters would have been more pleasurable. The book was not worth the paper it was printed on. If the writer wanted honesty, he’d get it. I put together a scathing review with words sharper than a knife’s blade. It was titled, ‘A masterclass in how not to write.’
Ideally, my piece should have been cleared by Ed, but as luck would have it, he was down with the flu. My work found its way to the Tattler’s Sunday section, unapproved. Following this faux pas, many things hit the ceiling, including my future employability. In an unfortunate twist, I learned that M. Vitale stood for Marco Vitale, the retired mobster, better known by his nickname ‘The Knucklecracker.’
In the course of his notorious career, he had cracked umpteen knuckles. Other people’s knuckles. And that too with a hammer.
Why would a dreaded gangster want to write tasteless erotica? Why didn’t he write about his life in crime, instead? Netflix would love it. (Marco’s after Narcos)
Marco was furious and accused us of sabotaging his book. A hysterical Ed told me to disappear for a few days, out of concern, for both his tarnished reputation and my untarnished knuckles. Ultimately, I had to pay the price for being a knucklehead.
I couldn’t crash at my parents’ house; it would invite too many questions. Being an introvert, I didn’t have many friends. It was only a matter of time. Soon, things would invariably cool down. Marco would get started on his next book and forget about me.
A blessing for me, but a blow to readers worldwide.
- Always read the fine print.
I stared at the grandiose structure ahead of me in disbelief. Harrington Hall. It wasn’t some run-down cottage. It was an imposing mansion!
“Quite something, isn’t she?”
The voice belonged to a man with a paunch and a chubby face.
He extended his pudgy hand.
“What do you think?”
If Colby thought he was taking me for a ride, he’d soon discover that my elfin appearance and cherubic innocence were deceptive!
“Mr. Colby, for a house like this, why is the rent so cheap?”
He hawed and hemmed. Something about real estate and weather. I picked up my bags and attempted to leave. This was the negotiation tactic I used at the local flea market. It worked with agents too.
“Wait! Harrington Hall is rumored to have a teeny-weeny ghost.”
“The house is haunted?” I screeched.
No wonder the rent was cheap. A sense of déjà vu gripped me. Like the time I ordered a pair of socks at half-price and only one of them got delivered.
“Harrington Hall was owned by Lord Clearwater. After his death, his sister was his only surviving kin, and the house came to her possession. She had no interest in occupying it; the siblings had never gotten along. The place remained locked for years.
Some time ago, she had a change of heart and tried to rent it out, but unsuccessfully. No one could stay for more than a week. They claimed to hear unusual noises and movements at odd times. “
“Am I your guinea pig?” I demanded.
“Nobody has been harmed. It’s probably vicious hearsay. Stay for a few days. Feel free to leave anytime. Besides, I reside in the neighboring village and am just a call away.”
I recalled Marco’s fuming face. Being hunted or being haunted; which was better?
A ghost couldn’t be scarier than a gangster. Ghosts weren’t real. Marco, on the other hand, was real. Really real.
“If you manage to stay, the curse on this mansion will be lifted forever,” Colby gushed.
This man watched too much Disney.
“And then, something wonderful will happen!” he continued.
“Err…Happily ever after?”
“No. I’ll be paid my commission!” he beamed and handed over the paperwork. I signed, hesitantly. He opened the door, and I hauled my suitcase over the threshold.
- A paranormal proposal is floated.
A week had sped by since I moved in. To think I had almost turned down this opportunity! Harrington Hall was heaven; there was an elaborate hallway, five spacious rooms, a kitchen, and a locked basement cellar which must be for storing wines. The ornate chandelier and the drapes added to its old-world charm. I cooked, cleaned, read, and wrote. The perfect idyllic existence.
If there were any unusual sounds, I didn’t hear them. I was a sound sleeper and as my ex-boyfriend, Jake used to say, “not even an earthquake can awaken Lucy.”
Ultimately, Jake’s infidelity awakened me, and that’s ‘why’ he was now an ‘ex’.
My phone rang, interrupting my thoughts. It was Ed. For a change, he had good news. I wasn’t fired (yet). However, I was advised to work remotely for at least a month, as Marco was still on the prowl.
That wouldn’t be a problem at all. Remote working. Not the prowling.
I was living my best life. No office politics, no traffic, and a mansion to myself. This called for a celebration. I recalled the basement cellar – could there be a bottle of bubbly I could borrow? And by borrow, I meant consume.
Emboldened, I grabbed the bunch of keys Colby left behind and made my way down. The door was locked. After trying out different keys, I located the right one. The door swung wide open with a loud creak. On turning on the switch, light flooded through the dark basement, and I gasped. This wasn’t a cellar. This was a library. Even better!
Like a kid in a candy store, I explored. These books were old but well-preserved. They hadn’t been accessed for a while; the pages were delicate, and I had to be careful not to damage them.
I grabbed one and made myself comfortable on a chair. A gust of icy wind blew around me. I ignored it and continued reading. Being a fast reader, I skimmed through the pages quickly.
“Can you read slowly? It’s been ages since I enjoyed a book,” an eerie soft voice jolted me out of my reverie.
I turned sharply, to see a silvery phantom-like form hovering. In utter panic, I made a cross symbol with my fingers.
“Go away! I’ve seen the Exorcist and I know how to get rid of you!”
“My lady, sorry if I scared you. I mean no harm.”
“Sure, that changes everything,” I cried sarcastically.
When a problem confronts you, you face it. But when a ghost confronts you, you RUN.
I bolted. Bad luck prevailed. I stumbled and fell to the ground.
“Are you hurt?” the grey apparition hovered over me.
“No. Just terrified. Who are you?”
“I can’t remember. Someone who died here, perhaps?”
Was I like that boy in the Sixth Sense who could see dead people?
“Why has no one else seen you?”
“Nobody has shown any interest in coming down to read…except you.”
Pride fluttered in my chest. I had initially come for alcohol. No one needed to know that though.
“What do you want?” I inquired, a little less hostile.
“Imagine being trapped in a library, but not being able to read! The travesty! The pages slip through my diaphanous fingers. It’s frustrating! I need a reading companion.”
“Why are you here in the first place?” I demanded.
“I’m confined to this library and cannot leave it. All I know is that I’m searching for joy.”
Him too? Did Marie Kondo have a fan-following among ghosts as well? A disturbing thought occurred. What if this wraith discovered that killing humans sparked joy?
“I’ll sleep over your proposal, and let you know.”
I hobbled out, with a heart that beat faster than a racing stallion, resolving to never set foot in there again.
However, by evening, my curiosity got the better of me. After two hours of intense research, the internet (Quora, Reddit, and Wikipedia) confirmed that most ghosts were friendly (Annabelle being an exception) and there was nothing to worry about.
I went back to the library with this newfound confidence.
“Mr. Ghost. I’m back! I’m Lucy, by the way.”
He appeared, startling me; a silvery mist with no clear contours.
“Google told me that souls are caught between life and death when they have an intense unfulfilled wish. Yours was to experience joy. Perhaps, the joy of reading? Once you discover it, you can be on your way to the pearly gates!” I updated him.
“Who is Google?”
“It’s a search engine.”
“Like a train?”
“No. More like an encyclopedia.”
“I don’t like encyclopedias.”
That was weirdly specific, but hardly the weirdest thing today.
- Different shades of Grey.
Once I overcame my fear of being either possessed or dispossessed, I warmed up to the ghost. He couldn’t remember his name; I suggested ‘Grey’. It was a nice name, though a little shady.
Every day, I spent time with Grey, reading out to him. He mostly listened, speaking only occasionally.
Why didn’t they make men like him, nowadays?
A month sped by, and we fell into a comfortable routine, reading several books together. It was strangely soothing. If this was lunacy, so be it.
At times, madness made more sense than sensibility. In any case, who got to decide what normal, abnormal, or paranormal was?
I was running low on supplies, and a trip to the nearby village was in order. Walking outdoors in the warm sun was a welcome change. The countryside was a lush green, and the houses that dotted the landscape were quaint.
I bought bread and milk from the local store. The owner, an old man, was quite garrulous.
“Missy, You staying at Harrington Hall?”
“Unhappy place. Claimed many a life. My nephew, Henry died there too.”
Why do some people make it their life mission to share useless spooky trivia?
After assuring him that I appreciated his concern (or the distinct lack of it), I returned. I made my way down to the library, meaning to ask Grey about Henry. I didn’t get a chance. The wraith seemed agitated and pensive, refusing to speak.
“Joy!” he whispered repeatedly, dissolving into little clouds of silver, and reappearing randomly. It was most unsettling.
Should I offer him water? It would go right through him. Additionally, there were no mops here.
“Grey, don’t be blue. Let me read out a story; it’s hilariously bad!”
I brought out ‘Stormy Passions’ by M. Vitale, which had made its way into my bag (My plans for it involved a bonfire).
I began reading.
“He watched her heaving bosom with anticipation. She woke up, fresh as a daisy, not a lock out of place. Her sheer nightdress enhanced her voluptuous curves. How he longed to quench his thirst.”
“Lucy, stop!” Grey implored.
“My feelings, exactly. Gross misrepresentation. We, women, wake up with drool on our faces and an urge to rush to the loo. This author is deluded.”
We burst out laughing.
Just a girl and a ghost bonding. No big deal.
“Do you have a special someone in your life?” Grey mumbled.
“Jake. We parted ways though.”
“Did he put you in a compromising position? That rake!”
Before Grey could unleash his rage on Jake-the-rake, I clarified.
“Any positions I put myself in were pleasurable for both of us.”
“What?” Grey flitted in confusion.
“Jake is history. I ghosted him.”
“Oops! Didn’t mean to offend you.”
Grey whispered, “I had someone too. I can’t remember her face, but I remember her. If I’ve ever lived, it was for her. When you find true love, hold it so tight, that even death can’t do you apart.”
I felt a lump in my throat. Now THAT was stormy passion!
I wondered who Grey was. Could he be Lord Clearwater’s ghost? I asked him if the name Clearwater meant anything to him, but he returned a blank stare.
Or, what I assumed was blank because he didn’t have a face.
- Lady Clearwater clears the air.
When the doorbell rang, I jumped out of my skin.
Of late, I was comfortable with ghosts; humans scared me.
An elderly, elegant lady stood at the door.
“Lucy! I’m Lady Clearwater. The agent spoke about you.”
“Yes! His name sounded like cheese.”
“Cheesy gentleman, indeed.”
“I hope you don’t mind my dropping in, unannounced.”
“Not at all. Come in.”
I served her tea.
“It’s been several years since I set foot in this house,” she confessed.
“My parents died when I was young. My elder brother George became my guardian. He sent me abroad to widen my prospects. Years later, he passed away in an accident, leaving me a fortune and this house. I didn’t want to come back here. There was nothing left for me, anyway.
I travelled, saw the world, and lived my life. Now, I’m old and have no kin to pass this house onto. Thanks to you, Harrington Hall’s reputation has been cleared. I’ll ask Colby to put it up for sale soon.”
“I understand, Lady Clearwater.”
“Call me Joyce.”
There was a loud crash from the cellar.
“What was that?”
Grey. He must have sensed a stranger’s presence.
And then it struck me! Joyce. Joy. Not an emotion. A person.
“Joyce, you need to come with me.”
- A moment of great Joy
“Grey! I’ve gotten Joyce. You wanted her, not Joy.”
I held Joyce’s hand. She was staring at the apparition in shock. For a second, I thought she was going to faint.
“I think this is your brother, Lord Clearwater.”
“No, this is not George. There is only one person who called me Joy. Henry!” she exclaimed.
Henry, the mystery man.
Grey’s shape transformed from silver to grey to gold. He radiated glinting beams that bounced off the walls.
“Henry, my love, is that you?” Joyce sobbed.
A poor man, courting the lady of an affluent house. Of course, Lord Clearwater disapproved. He sent his sister away so that the perfect miss didn’t have the perfect misadventure.
“Henry was our housekeeper’s son. We were childhood friends. When we were older, we developed feelings for one another. Henry would sneak into the library and hide love letters in the books for me,” Joyce sniffed.
“When George discovered one of the letters, he sent me away. Sometime later, he had Henry murdered in this very library!”
What? The villain!
Grey finally spoke; his voice was fraught with emotion. “Joy, my heart! How long have I waited for you! George called me here after you left. How I hoped he’d have a change of heart and bless our union. I was mistaken; his face was like thunder.
He grabbed me by my shirt and warned me to stay away. He pushed me against a shelf. The shelf wobbled, displacing a heavy book, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It came crashing down and broke my neck.
Joy, George tried to save me, but it was too late. He hadn’t wanted to kill me; it was an accident. My dying wish was to see you one last time. The Universe heard me!”
If that was how things worked, my dying wish would be to date Ryan Gosling.
“Henry, if only I had come here before! But I couldn’t. It was too painful, to relive the times we spent here, without you. I refused to return, even when George kept asking. I couldn’t forgive him. Years later, he died too, and my connections to the Hall were severed.”
Joyce tried to reach out to Grey. But like grains of sand, he slipped through her fingers.
“I just found you…are you leaving me again?” she whispered.
“I’ll see you on the other side when your time comes, love,” Grey muttered.
“Before you go, please know that I preserved all your letters, safely. They kept your memories alive!”
An idea struck me. The timing was bad, but was there ever a bad time for a sales pitch?
“Sorry to interrupt. I could compile your letters and render your romance immortal! I’d be your ghostwriter!” I volunteered.
“I thought the ghostwriter was me…” mumbled Grey.
“That’s a lovely idea, Lucy! I’ll share all the material you need!” Joyce exclaimed.
While Joy/Joyce was bidding adieu to Grey/Henry, I scanned the shelves till I located the Encyclopaedia Britannica and extracted it gingerly to prevent history from repeating itself. It was hardbound and heavy. I kept it on the table, my curiosity satiated.
That’s when I heard footsteps descending the stairs.
“Hiding down here, are we?” a familiar voice sneered at me.
- From Godfather to Godman.
His hair was an unkempt grey, and a half-smoked cigarette dangled from his mouth. He had a hammer in his hand, to live up to his knuckle cracking fame.
“Thought you could run away from me, Lucy?”
Joyce shrieked, “You are trespassing on my property. I’ll call the Police!”
Marco ignored her and walked menacingly toward me.
“Marco, let’s talk,” I pleaded.
“Women and children can be careless, but not reviewers! *” he sneered.
Was it time to remember Ryan Gosling, yet?
“Amazon delisted me. Goodreads blacklisted me. Sales slumped to single digits; thanks to your infernal review!”
That’s when I realized that Grey had crept behind Marco, stealthily.
“Look behind you!”
Sensing the icy draught on his back, Marco turned and screamed.
It takes time to get adjusted to a ghost.
I grabbed the heavy encyclopedia from the table and whacked Marco’s head with it. He fell to the ground unconscious, dropping the hammer with a thud.
The law hadn’t been able to bring him to book, but a book had managed this feat. Talk of irony!
I turned my attention to Grey, who seemed to be dissolving into a pool of light.
“Goodbye, Joy, my love. Thank you, Lucy!”
“Henry, we shall be reunited someday. And this time for eternity,” Joyce wailed.
The light faded, and the library fell dark. It suddenly felt empty, a lacuna created by the loss of a friend.
“What happened?” Marco opened his eyes and groaned. He had developed a nasty bump, the size of a golf ball.
“Stay still. You have a concussion, Knuckleberry Finn!”
He stared at me, dazed. I rang up the ambulance and the police in that order. While we waited, I picked up the bloodstained book, the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Such a killer book.
I’m back at The Tattler, and it’s like I never left. I miss Grey but I’m glad that he is in a better place, in the giant library in the sky. Joyce shared her letters with me. I’ve started work on the manuscript and my pitch. Some publishers have shown an interest already.
When you take on an ex-mafia boss, you are elevated to celebrity status, and it’s easier to publish.
As for Marco? He survived his concussion and went around claiming that he ‘saw the light’. I heard that he gave up writing to start a new religious sect.
Thank you God, for taking one for the team!
A humble encyclopedia hastened Marco’s reformation; from Godfather to Godman. Words carry weight, so much weight that they knocked sense into someone’s head!
I’m off to review my next book. Could it be yours?
- Women and children can be careless, but not reviewers: A modified version of the original dialogue from the Godfather; Women and children can be careless, but not men.
- Colby Jack- a type of cheese.
This story was first published on Penmancy.