The clocks have gone back, the nights are closing in, and this is no doubt the time of year when M.R. James used to begin to think rather seriously about the ghost story which he would read to his friends on Christmas Eve.
Perhaps the most successful of modern ghost-story writers is Susan Hill, whose new book The Man in the Picture was enthusiastically reviewed by Madame Arcati just a short while ago. Madame also announced that the book has been reprinted.
You may also remember that, a few months ago, the Times announced a competition for a short ghost story. Short being the operative word: 2000 words only, which is a bit difficult, in my view. For them as wanted to enter, Susan Hill provided a few tips.
The winner of this competition was Robert Fenner, with The Witch's Promise, and you can read it online. I did have ideas about entering the competition myself, but for a variety of reasons never got around to it.
So -- all of the above being the case, I thought I would give you a ghost story that I prepared earlier. It's called Gunner Balfour Treated Fairly, and you can read it below. It's one of the stories included in my 2003 collection, King Albert's Words of Advice.
GUNNER BALFOUR TREATED FAIRLY
Not many old ladies would ask their granddaughter to have a one-night stand with a soldier – especially if the two young people have not even been properly introduced. But that is what happened to me, in the summer of my twentieth year.
It was June, and I was at the end of my second year at Oxford. I received this slightly mysterious letter from my grandmother – my mother’s mother – asking me to phone her urgently. When I did, she invited me to go and see her. Well, more than invited – she pretty well demanded that I go and stay with her for a couple of nights. She said that she needed my help, urgently, but wouldn’t elaborate on what; just said that it was a family matter, and something of the utmost importance.
I dearly love my Granny, and I would go to quite a lot of trouble to help her, and as it happened I had finished all my exams so I was able to agree; though I must say I was a bit puzzled. ‘Bring that blue dress of yours – the one with buttons up the front,’ Granny had said. Which all added to the mystery.
My grandmother lives in a small village in Wiltshire, on the edge of Salisbury Plain. The Plain, as you probably know, is a big centre of military activity, and most of Granny’s neighbours are retired colonels or brigadiers. The tank regiments use the area for various war games, and the infantry practise street fighting in some of the deserted villages. These villages were not deserted willingly: they were taken over by the army during the second world war, and have never been returned to civilian use.
Granny, needless to say, is heavily involved in church affairs and village activities generally. She is president of the flower club, a member of the women’s bowls team (despite being over eighty), and is secretary of the women’s institute (or some such body – I forget the details).
I arrived soon after lunch on a beautifully warm June day: a taxi from the nearest railway station delivered to me Granny’s door.
We spent the afternoon resting and chatting, drinking tea, and then calling on various neighbours. We distributed excess vegetables from Granny’s garden. ‘Helping the old folk,’ Granny called it, oblivious of the fact that she herself was older than many of those we visited.
Nothing whatever was said about ‘the matter of the utmost importance’, and I knew better than to press the point. Like many old people who live alone, Granny talked a great deal whenever she had company, and I knew that she would tell me what was troubling her when she was good and ready.
After a light evening meal we chatted some more, and watched a television programme that Granny was particularly anxious to see.
Then she said: ‘I think we’ll just go for a little walk. Not very far. Just around the churchyard.’
Granny lives in a detached house, set in a comfortable garden, directly opposite the church – which is fourteenth century – so a walk round the churchyard was not going to tax either of us.
The sun had now set, and the light was fading, but the sky was still perfectly clear. The air was calm and sultry.
As we came out of Granny’s drive, and prepared to cross the road, I was struck by the almost complete absence of signs of life. Cars are few and far between in the village nowadays, because a new road has taken all the traffic away; and on that particular evening there weren’t even any dog-walkers about.
Granny took us on a small diversion, to look at the house of an absent neighbour and make sure that it was in good order, and then she led the way through the lychgate and into the churchyard.
I should explain that the churchyard in Granny’s village is one of a number in the area which contain both civilian and military graves. The civilian ones cover several centuries, as usual, and come in all shapes and sizes. The military graves all date from 1919, soon after the end of the first world war; almost without exception they mark the final resting place of soldiers from New Zealand, and they are absolutely standard in design. They are about three feet high, and arranged in lines, like a platoon on parade: the white headstones carry little more than the name, rank, and date of death.
I have been familiar with these graves since I was a little girl, and as I walked through the churchyard with Granny I paid them little attention. I was just listening to her telling me how difficult it was to find anyone who would cut the grass regularly.
It did occur to me that Granny was talking even more than usual, and perhaps a little louder than usual, but I made nothing of that: just an old lady’s eccentricity. If I noticed anything, it was that the soldiers’ headstones seemed to glow in the twilight, as if they were softly illumined from within.
We went into the churchyard at the west end, walked around the north side of the church, where most of the soldiers are buried, and then began to approach the east end, where there is a huge old yew tree. This yew is older, some say, than the church; so old that its trunk has divided into two sections, leaving a gap large enough to walk through.
As we approached the east end of the church, I began to hear this loud humming noise. At first I thought it might be a swarm of bees, or something similar, and I looked round in some alarm. But it was a bit too late in the evening for bees, I thought, and anyway I couldn’t see any. The loud humming continued. It sounded almost as if it was a human being, making a sort of Mmmmm! sound, in warm appreciation of something – as if someone had tasted something really juicy.
I said nothing to Granny, and we walked slowly on, with Granny still prattling away about the churchyard management committee and the curious intractability of its members – which meant that they didn’t always agree with her.
And then Granny seemed to notice my puzzlement. She stopped and turned to look at me. ‘What’s the matter, dear?’
‘Well... nothing,’ I said. ‘But can you hear that humming noise?’
Granny stood and listened. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I can’t. Not any more. But I used to hear it when I was younger.’
‘What is it?’
Granny went into her evasive mode. ‘Oh, nothing to be alarmed about,’ she said vaguely. And began to walk on again. But still very slowly.
After a moment I followed her.
By now it was almost dark, but we were just able to see where we were going. And it was at that point that I heard a man’s voice. Quite distinctly.
‘It’s not fair!’ said the voice. The man spoke sharply, with a good deal of emphasis and some bitterness. ‘It’s not fair, I say! Do you hear me? It’s not fair.’
As you will understand, I looked around to see where this voice was coming from. The speaker was obviously some distance away, rather than right behind me, but at first I could see no one.
So I carried on walking, following Granny, who was doddering a bit, looking down to make quite certain where she was putting her feet.
I caught up with Granny as she prepared to walk along the south side of the church, completing our circular tour and heading back towards the churchyard gate. I put my hand on Granny’s arm to stop her progress.
’Did you hear someone speak?’ I asked her.
‘No, dear, I didn’t. Did you?
‘What did they say?’ The tone was innocent – so innocent that even then I guessed that Granny knew more than she was admitting.
I told her. Speaking quite distinctly myself, I said: ‘It was a man. and he said, “It’s not fair”.’
‘Ah,’ said Granny, with a slightly guilty tone to her voice. ‘In that case it was Gunner Balfour. Is he, perhaps, under the yew tree?’
I turned to look back at the ancient yew, and sure enough, I could now see the dark figure of a man, almost hidden under the lower branches.
And again I heard him speak. It was almost a shout, with a note of desperation: ‘It’s not fair! Not fair at all! I should have had my turn. And I never did. And that’s not right. I won’t rest till I do. Do you hear me? Won’t rest until I do.’
The voice was no so loud and aggressive that I began to feel a little alarmed. ‘I think we should go,’ I said firmly, and took Granny’s arm to hurry her along.
‘Oh you mustn’t be frightened of Gunner Balfour,’ said Granny. ‘He sounds a bit fierce but I assure you he’s harmless.’
I looked back at the figure under the tree, and was relieved to see that the man had not moved. And now that I looked more closely, I could see that he was wearing army uniform; his belt buckle sent a brief flash of reflection from the distant street light, as did his boots.
‘Harmless he may be,’ I said, ‘but it’s very late, and I think we should go home.’
Once we arrived back at the house, I locked the front door after us, and went round making sure that all doors and windows were fully secure. Granny, meanwhile, made some cocoa.
When she handed me my cup I said, ‘Now then, Granny, I think it’s about time you told me what that business in the churchyard was all about. Are you going to tell me who Gunner Balfour is, and what he means by hanging around out there?’
Granny took refuge, once again, in a sort of geriatric fatigue. ‘Oh not just now, dear. I don’t think now’s the right time. I’ll tell you tomorrow, dear. In what is sometimes called the cold light of day.’
The following morning we took our time about getting up. Then we had a neighbour in for coffee; and finally, after the neighbour had departed, I told Granny once again that I wanted hear about Gunner Balfour.
‘Oh,’ she said, as if faintly surprised. ‘I thought you might have forgotten.’
This was a transparent lie. She thought no such thing.
‘How could I forget?’ I said. ‘I want to know what on earth this man was doing, lurking about in the graveyard late at night, and scaring people by shouting at them. Is he a regular soldier?’
‘And what does his commanding officer think of him doing that sort of thing?’
Granny didn’t answer. What I got was a thoughtful question instead: ‘Tell me – how did he look to you?’
‘What do you mean, how did he look? You saw him, didn’t you?’
Granny shook her head. ‘No, dear. I can’t see him any longer. Or hear him either. Though I did once, of course. When I was younger.’
‘Granny, you’re not going blind, are you?’ I was quite upset and concerned.
‘No, no, dear. I’m not blind. Neither am I deaf. Not really.’
‘Well what then?’
I think it was at that point that I first began to understand; and, despite the warmth of the day, I shivered.
‘My dear,’ said Granny, ‘you’ve gone quite pale. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.... I tell you what, it might make better sense if we go across the road again. And Gunner Balfour won’t be there at this time of day, that much is quite certain.’
So that is what we did.
Granny led the way, and we wandered through the ancient graves until we were among the regular rows of New Zealand soldiers. And there, of course, we found the grave of Gunner Albert Balfour. Aged seventeen.
We stood and looked at the grave together.
‘He lied about his age, of course,’ said Granny. ‘They were farming people, his family. Good church-going folk, from somewhere near Christchurch. This boy was their only son, and they needed him on the farm really, but he thought he ought to volunteer for the army, and so they all conspired to let him. As soon as he left school he signed the recruitment papers, pretending he was older than he really was. And I expect the army knew what he was doing, but they weren’t too fussy about details in those days.’
‘And did he die in action?’
‘Oh no! None of these men died in action. What happened was, at the end of the war, in November 1918, the troops gradually began to drift back to England from France. Of course in an ideal world the troops from overseas – Canada, Australia, and so forth – they ought to have been sent home immediately. But there simply weren’t the ships available to move them. So lots of the troops were left hanging about in England, with nothing much to do, for months on end.’
I was astonished. ‘I bet that was popular.’
‘Well, exactly. The officers used to take them on endless route marches across Salisbury Plain, that sort of thing. I believe some of the Canadian troops actually mutinied, in protest against the delays, and the futility of wasting time. But that didn’t happen here. What did happen, of course, was influenza.’
‘Oh yes. There were epidemics of influenza all over Europe in 1918 and ’19, and it wasn’t just your usual bad-cold-and-a-headache type of flu. This was a killer. And it did kill them. Even fit young men. Killed them by the score, as you can see.’ She looked around, at the rows of pale creamy headstones.
Suddenly – and this was most unlike my grandmother – her face seemed to crumple and she grew ten years older, right in front of my eyes. She began to weep.
‘I met his parents,’ she said, in between great gulping sobs. ‘They came over after the second war, because they knew they were going to die soon, and they wanted to see his grave. And it’s all my fault, you see! That’s the worst part. It’s all my fault!’
I took Granny home, sat her down, and gave her a nice strong cup of tea. It was what she would have done for anyone else in a similar state of distress. And when she had regained control of herself I asked her to explain what she had meant about it being all her fault.
Granny sighed deeply and looked down at the damp handkerchief in her hands. ‘Well, you see, it’s my fault that Gunner Balfour cannot rest in peace.’
‘Start at the beginning,’ I said firmly. ‘And go on to the end, and then stop.’
For once in her life Granny did as she was told.
‘Well, you see, at the end of the first war, all those New Zealanders died in England, as you well know. They survived all the shooting and killing, and then they died of a disease which most of us recover from in a week or two. Which is a dreadful irony in itself. And there they all lie, in a Wiltshire graveyard, many thousands of miles from their homes and their loved ones.
‘I don’t suppose the dead men were very happy about their situation, but they put up with it, as soldiers do. But then after the second world war, something happened. Something happened to upset them. Well, it upset Gunner Balfour, anyway.’
I waited, but nothing came. So I prodded. ‘What, exactly, happened?’
‘Well...’ There was much hesitation, and some embarrassment; a little guilt. ‘Well, you see, at the end of the second war there was a great deal of joy, as you can imagine, and a good deal of celebration, both formal and informal. And I think what happened was, a young soldier and his girlfriend went into the churchyard one night and celebrated in the way that young people do.’
‘You mean they made love?’
‘Yes. Under the yew tree. Quite near to Gunner Balfour’s grave. Too near, for his liking.’
‘It can’t have been very comfortable for the couple concerned.’
‘Oh, it wasn’t too bad,’ said Granny immediately. ‘It’s all right on a nice warm summer’s evening.’ She gave me a reproving look. ‘And besides, young people then weren’t as free as you are now, you know. They couldn’t just say to the family, Excuse us, we’re off upstairs for a quickie. They had to be more discreet. Take walks in the evening. That sort of thing.’
So, the rabbit was very definitely out of the hat. I now knew that my grandmother was rather more familiar with the couple in question than had appeared at first sight.
‘I see,’ I said, totally straight-faced. ‘But just assuming you’re right about the couple under the yew tree, why should it be Gunner Balfour who took offence, rather than any of the others?’
To Granny it was perfectly obvious. ‘Oh, because he’d never done it, you see. That’s why. He’d never made love to a woman himself. He says so, doesn’t he? “It’s not fair,” he says. “I should have had my turn.” That sort of thing. You’ve heard him, haven’t you?’
I had to admit I had.
‘It was after the second war, and after that bit of, er, informal celebration, that people began to hear him for the first time. Well, I say people. It’s only women, of course. Women of child-bearing age, so to speak. Children can’t hear him, or see him, and the oldies can’t either.... He’s not so bad in the winter – he lies quiet for most of the time. But in the summer, in the long hot evenings, he is troubled by desire.’
And he is not alone in that, I thought, but I said nothing.
Granny began to cry again. ‘And the worst thing is, I could have put a stop to it then. And I didn’t.’
‘How do you mean, you could have put a stop to it?’
‘Well, I could have gone with him, couldn’t I? I could have given him what he wanted. I could have given him the experience of having a woman.’ Her hands twisted together as she sought to express her guilt and shame. ‘He only wants to do it the once, you see. I’m sure of that. It’s just that he was so young, and he died so far from home, without ever having had a girl of his own. And that’s what he means when he says it’s so unfair! And he’s right! It is. Horribly, horribly unfair.’
I looked out of the window. Yes, it was still a normal June afternoon, in a perfectly normal English village, with a couple of perfectly normal English women, having a chat about ghosts in the churchyard.
‘So the figure that I saw and heard last night, he was a ghost, was he?’
Granny wiped her eyes and became very serious. ‘I prefer to think of him as a presence,’ she said. ‘People get frightened and come over all silly when you speak of ghosts. But technically Gunner Balfour is a ghost, of course. A ghost, you see, is the spirit of a dead person who for some reason remains earthbound. Such a spirit may generate an illusion, that is to say something which is actually unreal, but which looks and sounds convincingly real. That is why you can see him and hear him.’
‘I see,’ I said. ‘Well, I sort of see. But if he is a ghost then surely he ought to be exorcised.’
Granny was dismissive. ‘Oh, we’ve tried that. Last Vicar but one.’
‘Well, the Vicar went into the churchyard late at night, with his bell book and candle, or whatever, and he hadn’t got more than three words out when Gunner Balfour punched him full in the face and knocked him flat. The Vicar came out of that churchyard a sight faster than he went in, I can tell you. “I don’t know what that ghost wants, Mrs Bannister,” he said to me afterwards, “but one thing he doesn’t want is to be exorcised.” So that was the end of that.’
I tried another track. “Well why not leave him alone then? Just let him be. Is he very troublesome?’
“No, not... particularly. It’s only young girls who can hear him clearly, and they tend to keep well away. Or they used to. Modern girls are bolder – I’ve heard them shout back at him. Telling him what he can do with himself, that sort of thing. Well that’s not kind, and it’s not at all helpful.’
‘Time has not mellowed him then.’
‘Oh no.’ She quoted: ‘For they shall not grow old as we that are left grow old.’
That thought struck home a bit, and I paused.
Then I said: ‘What does the current Vicar think?’
‘He raised it at the last churchyard committee meeting. Tactfully. And I said that I had an idea for dealing with the matter. So I was appointed. Mrs Jenkin, the secretary, minuted that Mrs Bannister was appointed as a subcommittee of one to deal with the churchyard ghost. She made a bit of a joke of it. But it’s not a joke at all. It’s not a bit funny. It’s a serious matter, and it has to be dealt with properly. And I’m afraid it’s a family matter – because as I explained, I’m the one who started it all off.’
There was another pause, while I digested what Granny had told me. ‘Well, if you’ve been deputed to deal with it, what are you going to do?’
‘Well for a start, I sent for you.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘So it’s a plot, is it?’
Granny looked just a little bit sheepish. ‘I’m afraid so. You see, I’m a wicked, scheming old woman.’
I called a halt at that point. Subconsciously I had decided that I didn’t want to hear any more, at least for the time being.
We went out to lunch at one of the two village pubs. Then we came home, and after Granny had had a nap and a cup of tea, I asked her what she thought I could do to help.
‘Ah well, you see,’ she began, and I knew at once that she was going to take a roundabout route. ‘You’ve heard the noise, haven’t you – that low, rumbling, murmuring sound.’
‘Yes,’ I said – cautiously.
‘Well that means Gunner Balfour likes you. And you’ve seen him under the yew tree.’
‘And you’ve heard what he said. About it not being fair.’
I genuinely didn’t understand, even then. And I must have looked blank, because Granny felt obliged to be more specific.
‘You’re not engaged, are you?’ she asked.
‘Or spoken for in any way?’
‘Good. I was pretty sure you weren’t. It wouldn’t do otherwise.’
‘Granny, what wouldn’t do?’
‘Well, you see, you are exactly the sort of person he needs. Gunner Balfour needs a young, beautiful woman, preferably someone who is not attached to anyone else, and who has enough experience to help him. Because he hasn’t had any experience.’
I was, I must admit, incredulous. ‘You mean, you think I should go into the churchyard and let Gunner Balfour make love to me?’
‘Oh yes, dear. That’s the whole point.’
I must have looked stunned, and I was certainly speechless, so Granny continued.
‘It’s not much to ask, is it? Poor Gunner Balfour was robbed and cheated of fifty years of life. He was a perfectly healthy and decent young man, laid low by a terrible virus. And all he asks in return for his sacrifice is a little affection. That’s all. He doesn’t want a lifetime’s devotion, or a drawn-out love affair – he just wants a few moments of kindness and generosity and sympathy. A little recognition of the sacrifice he made. Now that’s not unreasonable, is it? And I’m sure you can put it all right for him if you choose. I mean you have spent two years at Oxford – so you’re not without experience are you?’
At last she stopped for breath, and I almost laughed. But I was forced to admit that she was right. About that last bit. ‘No, Granny,’ I said solemnly. ‘I am not without experience.’
‘Oh good. So you’ll do it then?’
I sighed deeply. ‘What precisely do I have to do?’
‘Well, you have to go into the churchyard at midnight tonight.’
‘Has it got to be tonight?’
‘Oh yes. It’s midsummer’s Eve.’
Well, there was no arguing with that. ‘And it’s got to be midnight, has it?’
‘Oh yes. That seems the appropriate time to me.’
‘Hmm,’ I said. ‘I think I’m going to need a minute or two to think about this.’ But of course we both knew that she had me.
‘Jolly good,’ Granny said chirpily. ‘And by the way, whatever happens, I don’t think we should tell your mother.’
After tea we went for a walk and watched part of a bowls match. Then we had non-alcoholic drinks in the pub and wandered home at about ten.
Granny disappeared into the kitchen. A few minutes later she emerged with a bowl of cereal, made with hot milk. I was mildly astonished, because we didn’t normally have any supper.
‘Well, dear, I look at it this way. If I was going to go out into the churchyard, at midnight on midsummer’s eve, to meet Gunner Balfour under the yew tree, I think I would want to get a couple of weetabix inside me first.’
I was beyond protest by that time. I ate it all up, like a good girl.
‘I think you should wear that blue dress,’ said Granny. ‘The one with buttons all down the front. Nice and easy to get out of. And sandals.’
‘And nothing else,’ I added sarcastically, but Granny thought I was being vulgar and refused to reply.
‘I shan’t wait up,’ she said, ‘any more than I would if you were going to a disco.’
And when I had finished the weetabix she took the bowl from me and pottered off to bed.
After about half an hour I changed into the suggested outfit, feeling distinctly foolish and self-conscious, and then I waited, alone, in silence, until the church clock struck twelve. Perhaps I dozed, I don’t know, but the time seemed to pass quite quickly.
I turned off all the lights in the house and then went out, quietly, through the front door. There I paused for a few moments, letting my eyes become used to the gloom.
It was fairly dark, because there was no moon, and there was scarcely a sound to be heard. Just once, in the far distance, I heard the engine of a car. Then silence again.
My feet crunched on the gravel as I went down the short drive, and when I crossed the road I could see no sign of a light in any of the houses.
As soon as I reached the gate to the churchyard I heard the hum again – that hum of desire, as I now realised. It was much louder now than the first time, and for a moment I hesitated.
As if sensing my uncertainty, the hum paused, and then, when I did not run, it began again, more intense than ever. Too late to turn back now, I thought.
I went in through the gate, and I saw Gunner Balfour at once. He was waiting for me under the yew tree. As on the previous night, an indirect beam of street light, far away, flickered briefly on his belt and his boots.
As I approached the low boughs of the ancient yew, Gunner Balfour came forward to greet me, and I could see at once that he was far younger than I had imagined. He was nothing more than a tall, lanky boy. Shy, and little reserved. His eyes shone, and his belt buckle shone, and his boots shone like black gold. He had polished them just for me.
I led him, rather than he me, until we were hidden deep under the yew. And when we were both naked and ready I reached out my hand and took hold of his manhood. It seemed quite unusually hot and firm – but then he had been kept waiting for a very long time.
After it was all over, his hand stroked my face. And then he quietly faded away.
Nothing remained of him except his neatly folded uniform, and his belt, and his boots. I could see them clearly defined in the half light of midnight, and when I reached out and touched them they were as real as my own hand. But I left them there on the ground. I thought he might need them again.
The following morning I was awake at dawn. And when I had gathered my senses I remembered about the uniform.
I thought it might somehow alarm people – cause gossip and talk – if a soldier’s uniform and his boots were to be found under the yew tree. It might generate enough speculation about the ghost to get into the local press; and then the nationals would pick it up, and after that the village would have no peace. So I pulled on a few clothes – not the blue dress – and hurried across the road.
I knew exactly where the uniform, and the belt, and the boots, had been left. And I went straight to the spot.
But of course... there was nothing there.