Seldom are the ghost stories which appear on Tychy set in England. Some people get very upset about this kind of thing, and they tend to be the same people who view “the English ghost story” as something which can be only watered down. For them, “the English ghost story,” as a title, has a completeness to it which “the Scottish ghost story” or “the American ghost story” has no possibility of acquiring. For them, ghosts only ever look lost roaming about in Scottish glens or Arizona deserts, and it is therefore a justice to bring them back home, to the English country lanes and ruined English abbeys where they belong.
But the events of the following story took place in England and so it cannot be anything other than an English ghost story.
England is a strange country. Last November my editor James and I ventured downstairs to England to spend the weekend with two of James’ friends. We were going to fly, but then James recalled that Jurgis, a former client of our website, might be able to help us. Jurgis owns a travel agency which sells package holidays in Edinburgh to Lithuanian tourists. His speciality is coach trips to the Highlands which are supervised by Lithuanian-speaking tour guides, but every month there is an additional tour of English towns. James succeeded in wringing two complimentary seats out of Jurgis. At one point the itinerary would take us within walking distance of our destination and we could here hop out.
There were about fifty tourists on the coach. At first I was wondering why these Lithuanians wanted to inspect a bunch of apparently random English towns, but it all became clear with the news that we visiting on a Saturday in the late evening.
The guide was a very tall girl, obviously a student, with scared eyes and a strenuously perfect smile which seemed to be on continuous display like an inn sign. “We’re going to have a toilet stop,” she announced as we approached the first of the towns, “and it’s important that you go now because you might not be able to leave the coach for the rest of the evening.”
So we all dutifully went to the toilet. Back on board, the guide was instructing us on how to locate the binoculars beneath our seats and then, in a tone of anxious reassurance, she went through the safety procedures which we would have to follow if the coach came under a sustained assault.
She was speaking in Lithuanian, of course. But I had to translate for James then and so it is no trouble to translate for you now.
“England is a strange country,” I remarked to James, tuning out once the guide was explaining how to activate the distress flares.
James was looking about in alarm. “I know from my youth that England is bad, but this might be a little over the top. My God, is that really a rifle that the driver is loading?”
It was barely eight o’clock when we cruised into the first town centre, but it was already in a state of complete bedlam. There was a punch-up outside a nightclub with grown men sprawling on their backs and huge splashes of blood across the pavement. The police were gathering on horseback to attack. A little further down the street, three fat girls who couldn’t have been more than thirteen were vomiting profusely in front of the war memorial. Immediately afterwards and without even wiping her mouth, the fattest of the girls turned to a spotty teenaged boy who was lingering behind her and began to kiss him with an animal ferocity, her tongue straining for his tonsils. Inside the coach, the Lithuanians were bent over their binoculars, utterly enthralled.
The guide was calmly commentating over the roaring outside. “These boys here are on coke – you can tell this from how their jaws are rattling. The lady having sex down there in the hole in the road – the one surrounded by traffic cones – probably wants to get pregnant, so that she can get a house from the council.”
A policeman had been pulled off his horse, and the creature was now jangling about in the road ahead, as wildly as if it was being shaken by an enormous child’s hand. The coach was forced to slow. Men emerged from a pub to stare at the coach and then some of them began to throw stones, which bounced off the windows in horribly sharp little thuds. “Best stand away from the windows!” the guide advised.
The coach seemed to tilt and everybody was crushed together in the aisle into a sort of slithering blob. I extracted myself and sat back down in my seat in protest. But I stood again and James yelped at the same time, as a shot rang out from the driver’s rifle with stupendous volume. Next the coach had pounced forward and it accelerated swiftly.
“England is a strange country,” I repeated in bewilderment.
We toured half a dozen English market towns, witnessing an uninterrupted phantasmagoria of horror and debauchery. After a while, we got used to the drunken, ineffectual attacks upon the coach, no longer jumping at the rifle fire which fended them off. At three in the morning, the guide decided that the violence outside was on the ebb and she dimmed the lights to allow the tourists to sleep.
The next morning, the coach stopped for us at the agreed point and we disembarked. I thanked the guide. We would walk the remaining three miles to the house of James’ friends.
After about a mile of featureless countryside, we paused at a petrol station to buy some sandwiches. I went inside and left James smoking in a ditch across the road. A stooped man and his elderly mother were approaching the counter in front of me. The attendant behind the till gazed at them surlily but otherwise without any apparent alertness.
“I just want to buy some cigarettes, mother” the stooped man was bleating. “Just a small pack, a pack of ten.” Though I could not see his face I imagined that this man was in his late thirties. His mother was obstinate.
“I was strong enough to stop smoking,” she hissed in a voice which sounded oddly reptilian. “You are spineless – you have no character!”
The stooped man’s shame was descending like an enveloping cloud. “Mother, you’re embarrassing me!” he squealed. “You’re making a scene! Look – there is somebody behind us!”
“If you buy those cigarettes, you can make your own way home. You’ll drive in no car of mine ever again!”
“Be reasonable, mother!” In his excitement, the man sent specks of spittle flying over the sweets on the counter. When he saw this, he cringed even more.
I tried to stop listening and began to study the sandwiches. One was egg and cress; the other Marmite and cucumber. I could see through the packaging that the bread was rigidly stale. When I finally got to the counter, the attendant was truculent. Then he was so incredulous about my Scottish banknotes that it was as if I was trying to pass off pieces of used toilet paper as currency. “We don’t take credit cards,” he leered at me. “And there’s no cashpoint in the surrounding eighty miles – over all the hills and farms.”
So I put the sandwiches back and stormed down the road with James at my heels. “What is wrong with this fucking country?” I raged. “Everybody is mentally ill!”
We were soon in sight of our destination and I was astonished by its size. It was a country house but not a manor house, a handsome eighteenth century facade with no wrinkle of the arcane within its fresh face.
I have been delaying this part of the story for as long as possible, but I need to here bring in James’ friends. You may have met them before, because they have both featured previously in our stories. The first is the Swedish dwarf Marco and the second is his husband Ronnie. I loathe the pair of them, but since we were all in England it was probably wise for the even nominally sane to stick together.
Marco was waiting in the drive and he began to jump up and down with excitement, grinding his teeth, when he saw James. James ran to him and hauled him up, hugging him like a teddy bear. Marco still looks boyish for fifty, forever dancing with itchy energy, and with his flushing white and scarlet face gleaming fantastically. I noticed once more that he always appears to have strings of vomit strewn through his grey hair. James innocently attributes his friend’s energy to natural exuberance and he is outraged whenever I attempt to explain to him that Marco is on steep doses of incredibly powerful party drugs.
“Good morning Marco,” I said. I tried to shake his hand and he tried to hug me and he ended up grabbing my legs and shaking them like somebody who is dislodging fruit from a tree.
He was now prattling away. “Come and see my house and drop your things and then we go bird-watching!”
I gave James a suspicious look. “Bird-watching?”
“It’s his hobby. He’s crazy about it” James told me admiringly. He was stroking Marco’s hair, but his hand stopped when it encountered the vomit.
“Ronnie hates it,” Marco said sadly. “Such negativity! – for a few poor little birdies! – he won’t come and see how much fun it is.”
Realising that two people who I despised equally had finally come to divergent opinions on something, my mind seemed to peter out inconclusively. At the house, we dumped our bags in the kitchen. I had an impression of a vast airy interior, in which everything was polished, but we had no time to luxuriate in this because we had to chase off after Marco. He was now bounding upstairs to recover some wellington boots for us. Ronnie appeared on a balcony overhead, a theatrical figure dressed in a cloak and brandishing a silver cane. If Marco is boyish at fifty, Ronnie is somehow portly and decrepit in his late thirties. He seems to flap about in his own body, shrunken in his toadlikeness.
“I spend millions on our country pad – on the Jacuzzi, on the gun room, on the billiards table – and he wants to spend all day in the bog behind the estate! Looking at ducks!” I blinked at Ronnie in surprise. Yes, he was absolutely incandescent. He smiled, his face shining, eyeing James with that tone he always takes of confiding something marvellously scandalous. “You see what this little cow is actually like?”
Marco stamped past him, his arms full of dangling wellingtons. “Don’t be jealous Ronnie – it’s just a few poor little birdies. If you opened your mind to the amazingness of the universe, you would see how they are just like you and me.”
Ronnie’s enraged face was purple and then black. “You squalid little cow. If you go off with your ducks, then I’m going to Fernando.” Ronnie posed melodramatically. “There, I’ve said it – I’m getting something special – something I can’t ever get from you! – from Fernando!” I looked at him inquiringly. “The boy who unclogs the pool filter,” he added in a flat voice.
“You always say this and it’s nonsense Ronnie,” Marco laughed, squirming on his back and kicking himself into his wellingtons. “You always say he unclogs the filter but he’s really our sushi chef.”
“You little cunt!” Ronnie was now clambering over his balcony, as wildly as an escaping monkey, his black face choking, his cloak aflap. “I’m leaving! I’m going back to Edinburgh! I’m going to New York!” James and I scrambled back as a vase flew over our heads and shattered barely a foot from where Marco was wriggling. Marco jumped up and turned away, unconcerned. “Bye Ronnie – don’t get jealous. They’re just birdies.”
“You’ll be sorry! I’m going to OD! You’ll think about me then – you’ll have to think about somebody else just for once in your fucking little life!” Ronnie screamed after us. His roars of fury and despair were still audible when we were far across the rolling parkland.
What Ronnie termed “the bog” was revealed to be an RSPB reserve. We here met half of Marco’s neighbours: cheerful, mostly middle-aged men and women in colourless heavy coats, with a restless gang of small children in tow. Almost all of the men were hugely bearded, in peppery colours, and I vaguely pictured all of the hats and coats falling to the ground, liberating the beards to float away like peaceful clouds.
This was the bird-watching club and Marco had volunteered to be its energetic dictator. He was now stamping ahead and everybody was following obediently. Some of the women were looking alert and hushing their children, as if really thinking that so many people could proceed stealthily down this path.
I fell into speaking with a chap who gave an impression of quiet intelligence. After I had questioned him about the club, he produced a tablet. “We track rare birds on this app and there are supposed to be many nearby today. Me and my wife are genuinely very excited.”
Boredom and excitement are probably alien to these people, I thought mildly. Yet I otherwise radiated a sense of relaxed generosity. Most men my age would be hanging back in the path and sniggering about these ornithologists, but I was impressed by my own maturity. These people were also a step up from the English who we had met earlier, though they had the same cringing appearance, if not hung over their shoulders like a sack then still somewhere in their eyes.
Things were not going well. We trooped off to one hide and, once crowded inside, we gazed out over an expanse of mud which was devoid of any living thing. Climbing out again, we trooped off on a laborious route around countless thickets and hillocks to a second hide and then gazed out over a second scene of brown slime and unmoving water. By now, the bird-watchers were looking dejected and my friend with the tablet was hovering shamefaced behind his disappointed wife. Marco was no longer speaking now, and even he was stamping along with an unusually grim expression on his face.
I was hoping that everything would pick up at the third hide. Inside, we surveyed miles of naked mud without seeing a single dot of life, but then Marco pulled at James’ sleeve and hissed, “over there! Look!”
Thirty or so pairs of binoculars weaved to the right, like a shoal of fish turning.
I didn’t have any binoculars but I could nonetheless discern some kind of activity. I peered intently. Then I sighed and shook my head and there were more sighs and the binoculars were lowered. It was a gigantic, scurrying rat, washing its face in a puddle.
“Fucking rat,” Marco fumed outside the hide. James and I exchanged appalled looks. Our afternoon was a disaster.
We traversed a stretch of mudflat which was now totally bare of foliage. We glanced hopefully at the channel of still water which ran alongside the path, but the whole scene was unnervingly motionless. Then Marco gave a kind of breathless squeak. He pulled at a fistful of his coat and thrust it out for us to examine.
Birdshit. A fresh pat of birdshit.
The binoculars were immediately all over the sky, probing into everywhere. But they were lowered again after a lady at the back began to chuckle.
We spun around to confront her. She was a tiny, wizened old lady, a country dame who must have seen over eighty harvests. “Oh, the ghost it be,” she giggled helplessly, bending over in mirth.
“A ghost, madam?” I observed. “Me and my friend here collect ghost stories. You must tell us everything at once.”
I tell the story as she had told it. Several years beforehand, the Brown government had set up a new public body which would regulate the conduct of London’s banks. It was naturally staffed by analysts from all of the banks which it was meant to regulate. Still, the regulator was called Falcon – this might have been an acronym for something – and it was hoped that this name would supply an effect of sleek efficiency and ruthlessness. After all, the whole point of the regulator was to restore trust in the banking sector, not to actually regulate anything.
Soon this regulator had produced a document called the Falcon Report, an apparent landmark in banking regulation, and the chief executive of Falcon decided upon a suitably imposing press conference to publicise its recommendations. The report would be here presented to key figures from the banking sector.
A bright young special adviser suggested that Falcon should hire a live falcon and incorporate this into the press launch. At first, this looked like a bold gambit, but once they were committed to it, they learned that the nearest falcon that they could get their hands on was based in the very RSPB reserve which we were visiting this afternoon. After musing on the difficulties of transporting the falcon to London, they theorised that the press launch might make more of an impact if the journalists were summoned to it from afar.
And so regulators, bankers, and the press descended upon the reserve, all cracking predictable jokes about the inconvenient trains and the scarcity of alcohol. Under the low grey sky, these metropolitans felt strangely dwarfed and disconcerted. Their lives and magnificent careers did not seem relevant in any way to all of this formidable mud.
The chief executive appeared beside the banking leaders on a platform which was set against the backdrop of the estuary. At length, he enumerated the virtues of the Falcon Report – its impartiality, its probity, its fearlessness, and so on. He and the leading bankers were then handed copies of the glossy document and they posed, leafing through it, whilst the cameras snapped and crackled. At this juncture, the falcon was released to soar majestically over the water behind them. And it was here that something went terribly wrong.
The falcon shot over the water, gave a couple of inelegant flaps, dipped, and then crashed down into it with a hard, distant smack. The bankers fell appallingly silent, so that the only noise left was the faraway sound of the bird floundering about in the estuary.
The falcon handler ran straight up to the media presentation, he crashed through the line of bankers, and then stood on the water’s edge riveted in disbelief.
The chief executive flourished his arms at a nearby circle of junior bankers. “How much does it cost?” he barked.
“A lot,” one of them mouthed.
“Strip!” the chief executive commanded. “Swim after it!”
In a trice, the male banking staff had stripped down to their underpants, tossing ties and jackets and then shoes and socks into the grass. With a volley of splashes, they disappeared into the water. They were all strong young men and swam with expert thrusts and strokes.
The falcon handler clamped a hand on the chief executive’s arm, trying to explain that the water was too dangerous, that there were racing tidal currents beneath the surface. But his thick Norfolk accent – an accent which seldom penetrates the shell of London – was translated by the chief executive’s mind into the most maddening gobbledygook. The chief executive shook him off.
None of the young bankers made it back to the shore. The current sucked them down and dragged them away. It is surely needless to add that things went just as badly for the falcon.
“It’s weird that the birdy is the ghost,” Marco reflected. “But they have beautiful souls – it is the amazingness of the universe that they are just like you and me.”