A short story by Alys Hammond
All I wanted was someone to help with the paperwork.
Teacake Estate Agents was flourishing and I was delighted to see the family business bounce back now that the war was over and the city was rebuilding from the Blitz. As the sole person running the whole affair, however, I admit the paperwork had gotten away from me. Daily I feared my pile-and-stack method of organizing was only one knock or gust of wind from total chaos. I needed help.
Estate agent seeking assistant for office work. Reception and pleasant telephone manner, typing skills and ability to create a filing system are a must. Inquiries: Cloak Lane, London.
My posting attracted a variety of young ladies from all over the city seeking employment. That fateful day the ladies assembled in the hall outside my office to await their interviews, but before the hiring process could begin I required a word with Mother, upstairs.
An orientation first: Teacake Estate Agents, established by my grandfather in 1891, can be found on the first floor of our Victorian-era family home. The ground floor has housed an assortment of tenants over the years and the space is currently occupied by Finnigan’s Fine Footwear, who kindly give me discounts on all my footwear-related needs. The second floor is the Teacake private residence. That’s where I found Mother, working away at her needlepoint as usual.
“Mother,” I said to her. “I need you to stay upstairs. This is important.”
Mother stabbed at her embroidery and ignored me.
“The ladies have arrived for their interviews and I would like to conduct these interviews without incident. This means you cannot ‘pop in’ on a whim or cause any manner of disturbance. Thank you for your kind attention regarding this matter.”
But Mother, also as usual, didn’t pay my request much attention at all.
I’m so very glad she didn’t.
Betty, or Miss Farnsworth, as I formally knew her then, was the last applicant of the day. To that point, the ladies I had interviewed were overwhelmingly enthusiastic for the role, and I had eyed the utterly charming “complete package” Miss Montjoy as the top contender for the position.
Betty was dressed perhaps not as fashionably as Miss Montjoy, with her coat mended in one spot and her shoes well worn, but her blonde hair was styled neatly and she appeared presentable, if a bit young. Skills were what mattered most here anyway.
“Shall we do a little role-play?” I said to Betty, who was seated at the second overflowing desk in my office. “Ring, ring!” I imitated a telephone.
Betty picked up the receiver.
“Good afternoon, Teacake Estate Agents. Mr. Teacake’s office. How may I help you?”
“Lovely.” I added a checkmark to my paper. We were off to a good start.
“If you’ll set yourself up at the typewriter, we’ll now do dictation,” I instructed.
“Right,” Betty said. She took a breath and rolled a sheet into the machine with some struggle.
“Let’s have a little fun with this, shall we?” I said. I had a think. “‘For sale: Pleasant Scottish castle with expansive grounds suitable for hunting, riding or bloody battles. Short walk to three friendly witches with fortune-telling abilities.’”
I thought this was rather clever of myself but Betty did not appear to be sharing in the fun. She typed with a frown using an inefficient two-finger style, and when she finished she stared at the paper for quite some time before pulling it from the typewriter and handing it to me.
“Ah,” I said reading it over. Betty was not a typist. She had captured only part of the first line of the dictation and there were several misspellings and improvisations. No, no, this wouldn’t do.
I regarded Betty over the top of the paper. Her flaming cheeks told me she knew this was not her finest talent.
“I’m really good at filing,” she said hopefully.
Setting the paper down, I said, “I think we’ll call it a day.”
There really was no point in prolonging this. Miss Montjoy it would be.
I got up. “I have all I need. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today. Let me show you out.”
Betty’s face fell but she took the news as gracefully as one could. She gathered her things silently and I escorted her to the door.
She held out her hand. “Good afternoon, Mr. Teacake.”
“Good afternoon, Miss Farnsworth.”
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” Betty then said to Mother, who was apparently no longer upstairs.
We watched her wander past dressed in her Sunday best even though it was a Tuesday. Annoyed, it took me a moment to work out why this was odder than normal. Then it hit me in the head like a buzz bomb.
I grabbed Betty’s arm.
“Mr. Teacake!” she cried out.
“What did you say to Mother?”
Betty looked up at me, her blue eyes wide. “I- I was just being polite!”
“But you can see her!”
Betty’s expression suggested I’d lost my mind. “Can’t everyone?”
“No!” I said with much more enthusiasm than I should have considering what I uttered next: “She’s dead.”
I was practically trembling with excitement at this unexpected development. Betty, conversely, was in a bit of a state. I gave her one of my handkerchiefs and led her to the sofa in my office where I politely waited for her to stop crying. I waited a long time.
“I’m s-s-sorry,” she sniffed at last.
“No need to apologize. Seeing a ghost can be quite a shock. Is Mother the first ghost you’ve seen?”
“No.” Betty dabbed at her eyes.
How interesting. I had never met another one like me. I didn’t want to be intrusive and start asking Betty all sorts of questions, yet I did want to be intrusive and start asking Betty all sorts of questions. I allowed myself one question.
“Have you always been able to see ghosts?”
“No.” Betty blew her nose.
I hoped for some elaboration, given I’d just used up my one question, and then Betty said, “Just since the war.”
She looked down at her lap. Blasted war. Mother, unhelpfully, decided this was a good time to drift in and take up a seat on the other end of the sofa. She began to work on her needlepoint again. Betty blinked back more tears.
“They’re real, aren’t they? I haven’t gone mad?”
“You are very much sane,” I assured her.
Betty glanced at Mother. “I never told anyone I can,” she said. “See ghosts, I mean.”
“A wise decision.”
Talking about ghosts may have earned one an odd look or two, but talking about seeing ghosts was a one-way ticket to a life on the fringes of society. A life filled with unkind whispers and sideshows and, my greatest fear, séance-themed tea parties.
Betty considered me. “So you see ghosts too?”
“My whole life.”
“But how? Why?” Betty’s eyes searched my face for answers I didn’t have.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve been like this since I was a boy. I acutely remember the sheer terror of it. But after many years that fear turned into more of a daily irritation. And then I discovered seeing ghosts is rather useful in my line of work. You see, I haven’t been entirely truthful with you, Miss Farnsworth.”
Betty raised her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“While I am an estate agent, I deal mainly with homes where the residents haven’t exactly, shall we say, departed as they should have.”
Betty took a moment to work through what I’d said.
“You mean,” she said slowly, “You sell haunted houses?”
“I do no such thing!” I said sharply, startling myself and making Betty jump.
“Oh, Miss Farnsworth, I do apologize!” I took a breath to gather my thoughts. “I didn’t mean for that to come out like it did. No, I don’t sell haunted houses. I remove the ghosts first and then sell the house or flat or whatever it may be. Ghosts are typically an unattractive selling feature in a property.”
Betty toyed with the handkerchief in her hands and I considered what I’d just said.
“But it’s more than that,” I went on. “It’s not only removing the ghosts. It’s helping them move on. I personally feel it’s a form of public service. Nobody wants to be left behind, do they?”
Betty didn’t say anything. I thought it best to let her sit with all this information. It must have been overwhelming to hear.
“How do you help a ghost move on?” Betty asked eventually.
A wild idea bloomed in my mind.
“I wonder if instead of explaining it to you, I might show you? I have a ghost that needs tending.”
Betty looked at me and I felt very much like I was the one being interviewed. Assessed.
“I thought you didn’t want me,” she said.
That was true, at the time. Betty’s skills as an assistant were good in some areas, acceptable in others, and atrocious in typing. But if she could see ghosts perhaps Betty could be a different sort of assistant. Two heads were always better than one when dealing with matters of the supernatural, after all.
“A rush to judgment,” I said to Betty with all sincerity. “When I put in the request for an assistant, I never imagined I would meet someone with the same ability but now…” I met Betty’s eyes. “I know seeing ghosts can be upsetting but there are ways to use this—”
“Curse,” Betty interjected quietly.
“—gift for good. Since this is new to both of us, why don’t you accompany me tomorrow and we’ll see how you fare. Only then will we know if this is your cup of tea. What do you say?”
Betty didn’t say anything and then sighed.
“Well, I guess I’ve got nothing left to lose,” she said.
I took that as a yes.
I met Betty in Westminster the next morning. Our destination was a home a minute’s walk from the Thames. Excellent location. The home itself, one of five terraced houses in the street, was also in good form. Classic Georgian style; dark brown brick and white trimmed windows. Attractive and understated. I had all the adjectives in my head for the listing already.
Betty and I stopped outside number 18, different to the others only because of the FOR SALE, TEACAKE ESTATE AGENTS sign in the window.
“This is the former home of one Mr. John Hutton,” I said. “Deceased. Bachelor. No other family, so I’m told.”
One could always count on the neighbours for details, even when unsolicited.
“Looks nice,” Betty said.
“From the outside, yes. But imagine waking up one morning, coming downstairs to breakfast and finding that all of your furniture had been rearranged.”
“I’d think someone’s played a silly joke.”
“And if you put everything back in its rightful place only to wake up the next morning to find it all moved again?”
“Well,” Betty said. “I’d be… concerned.”
“As were the last several owners. Concerned to the point that they fled, driven out by something they couldn’t quite explain.” I pulled the house key from my pocket. “I acquired this listing recently and I think I’ve found the source of the problem. Shall we have a look?”
“Mr. Tea Cup, is that you?” came a voice from down the street. It was the neighbourhood gossip I had the misfortune of being acquainted with, out on her morning patrol.
“Good morning!” I called out. “Sorry, can’t stop to chat, estate business!”
“Quickly, before she starts her interrogation,” I said to Betty.
We hopped up the sidewalk and I opened the door, ushered Betty in, and locked it behind us.
“Did that lady call you Mr. ‘Tea Cup?’” Betty asked as I searched for the switch.
“Sadly, yes.” I flicked on the lights.
The last owners had left most of their furniture behind and I couldn’t fault them for it. Everything was out of place from where one would expect it to be. The sofa faced the wall. Picture frames hung upside down. But it was the dining chair upon the tabletop that made it clear these objects were touched by something not of this world. Betty and I stopped for a moment to observe it balancing on one leg, defying gravity and everything we knew to be true.
Betty gaped at this precarious throne. “But how?”
“Our answer resides on the first floor,” I said and guided her up the stairs. We passed a bedroom and the bath and stopped at the main bedroom at the end of the hall. Here was what remained of a life once lived: a bed left unmade, a scuffed up wardrobe with the doors ajar, and a dressing table chair shoved carelessly into the corner. That’s where we found him sitting: the gentleman reading a newspaper in total darkness.
“Miss Farnsworth, meet Mr. Hutton.”
Betty peered around the door frame. “He’s still here?” she whispered.
“He is. Will you get the lights?”
Betty did so but remained near the threshold. I imagined she had reservations. Understandable. It was always good practice to approach an unfamiliar ghost with caution anyway.
I set my briefcase down and had a look at Mr. Hutton’s spectral form. A man now eternally in his golden years, his unshaven face and wrinkled clothes made for an interesting contrast to the floral wallpaper I saw through him.
I turned back to Betty.
“When dealing with ghosts, there are certain protocols that need to be followed. Protocol number one is risk assessment. I undertook a risk assessment of Mr. Hutton on my initial visit here but let’s see if you come to the same conclusions I did.”
“All right,” Betty said.
“First question. Is this a single or multiple being?”
“Single,” Betty said promptly.
“Good. Is this being roaming, or tethered to a certain location?”
“Well,” Betty peeked at Mr. Hutton again. “Mr. Hutton hasn’t moved anywhere else so far so I would guess tethered?”
“Yes. House ghosts have strong attachments to their residences. That’s why they fail to move on from them when they die. Next question: Does this being present a threat to us or others?”
Mr. Hutton flipped another page of his newspaper, still making no acknowledgment of our presence.
“No?” said Betty.
“Correct. House ghosts are not violent ghosts. They’re mischief-makers and like their little games. Mother, for instance, likes to pop up and catch me unaware on a regular basis.”
Last time I opened the hall closet I nearly had a heart attack.
“In my experience, you’ll be quite aware if a ghost wishes to cause you harm,” I continued. “This is also why it is important to have an escape route planned. Let’s practice. Have a look around. What are our emergency exits?”
Betty quickly scanned the room and the hall.
“The stairs... and the window?” she said.
“We are a storey up but if worse came to worse it could be an additional exit, yes. Excellent. Now, protocol number two is dialogue, the simplest and easiest way to rid oneself of a ghost. Watch and listen.”
I stood in front of Mr. Hutton in a non-combative posture. My intention was simply two chaps having a chat. No need to be threatening. This was only a house ghost.
I sensed Betty still hadn’t moved into the room at all.
“No need to be afraid,” I said.
“I- I’m not,” Betty protested.
“You’d be amazed at how many poor souls are completely unaware of their situation. A little chat is usually all that’s needed to clear things up here.”
Betty edged closer.
“Mr. Hutton, may I have your attention please?” I said.
Mr. Hutton did not look up.
“Mr. Hutton. Hello?”
He flipped another page.
“Must be an awfully good article in that paper,” I said to Betty.
Louder still. “Mr. Hutton! Hello! MR. HUTTON!”
Mr. Hutton looked up at me over his newspaper, eyebrow raised, as if to say, “And what do you want?”
“Ah, Mr. Hutton. Hello. Good morning,” I said. “Now that I’ve got your attention, do you know that you’re dead?”
Mr. Hutton knew he was dead and he seemed to be rather enjoying it. Some house ghosts spend their time flickering the lights. Others mess about with the plumbing. Mr. Hutton, it transpired, was quite intent on making his interior decor ideas a reality.
“Mr. Hutton,” I said firmly. “It’s time for you to leave this place.”
The ghost ruffled his newspaper like a bird ruffling its feathers. Clearly Mr. Hutton was not in agreement with my proposition. I suspected he wasn’t departing anytime soon on his own accord.
“What do we do now?” Betty asked.
“We move to protocol number three: Extraction.”
I moved to the window and wrenched the curtains apart as wide as I could.
“Ghosts like darkness so we give them light. They like mustiness so—” I opened the window “—we give them fresh air. We create an environment no ghost will want to linger in.”
Turning back to Mr. Hutton I said again, “It’s time for you to leave.”
He began to laugh and laugh. His laugh was horrid and strange, guttural but coming from somewhere deeper than his throat.
“He’s not leaving,” Betty said.
I regarded Mr. Hutton with my most serious of faces. Grabbing my briefcase, I set it on the bed and popped it open. Betty joined me.
“When light and air fail to give us the desired result,” I said as I rummaged through my case, “We come to a point where we must show the ghost that we are serious about our intentions.”
I pulled out what I sought.
Betty turned Mother’s white china cat over in her hands. “Is this a salt shaker?”
“Yes. Salt is an excellent ghost repellent. Will you give a good shake in the three corners of the room and some in front of Mr. Hutton. Every time you do I want you to say, ‘You cannot stay here. It is time for you to leave.’ Be kind but firm.”
Betty looked from the shaker to me. No doubt this was the strangest request I’d made so far but she set about her work muttering ‘Kind but firm. Kind but firm.’
The salt had no sooner hit the carpet when Mr. Hutton’s laughter stuttered. He threw down his newspaper, growling and puffing his chest in and out though he no longer had the means to breathe. The door to the hall slammed shut then the window and wardrobe followed suit in rapid sequence.
Betty rushed over to try the door handle but I knew it wouldn’t open. She looked at me in panic.
“Minor escalation,” I mused.
“Minor!” Betty exclaimed. “We’re trapped in a room with a ghost and—” Her eyes caught some spot of horror above my head. She pointed up with a shaking, slightly salted finger.
“The walls! Look at the walls!”
I spun around to see the wallpaper violently shredding itself. Betty and I backed away from the perimeter of the room watching the wave of destruction jump from wall to wall, like hundreds of invisible hands ripping and tearing.
“Right,” I said. Mr. Hutton was strong, unusually so for a house ghost. I feared he would take part of the house with him if I didn’t put an end to this soon.
(I thought it best not to mention this to Betty in the moment).
Taking the salt shaker from her, I pulled the cork from the bottom and poured the contents around us in a circle.
“Stay within the circle,” I instructed. “It will protect you.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Send Mr. Hutton away whether he wants to go or not.”
My briefcase contained two torches for such events. I took both for good measure and the cigarette lighter I kept on hand for emergencies.
“Attention, Mr. John Hutton,” I began, flicking the lighter open. “This is your final notice. You must leave these premises immediately. You are no longer welcome here.”
The ghost snarled at us and the wardrobe and window panes started to rattle.
I exchanged a look with Betty. I saw fear but also resolve in her eyes. She nodded.
“You give me no choice, Mr. Hutton,” I said. “I send you now from this world to the next. Be at peace.”
I set the torches ablaze, giving one to Betty. We held them out towards the ghost, watching the white smoke drift across the room, spiraling ever closer and closer. And then, much like what happens when a pin touches a balloon, the smoke touched the ghost.
The force knocked me backwards, sending the torch flying from my hand. Betty hit the ground behind me with a scream. Salt and smoke blasted throughout the room, stinging our eyes and burning our throats. But as fast as it had come, it was just as soon over and Mr. Hutton was gone.
Through the haze I found my bearings and Betty sitting against the wall near the window. She was as pale (I cringe to say it) as a ghost. I rushed to her assistance.
“Miss Farnsworth? Betty? Betty! Are you hurt? Are you all right?”
Betty picked at a piece of wallpaper stuck to her dress. She was trembling.
“I don’t like to say mean things, Mr. Teacake,” she said. “But what a terrible old man.”
“Betty, on my honour, if I had known what was in store for us today, I never would have brought you here.” I felt absolutely wretched about the whole affair. This was not the job introduction I had envisioned at all. “May I help you up?”
Betty got herself to her feet and regarded me civilly. “Mr. Teacake, I would like to leave this room now and never come back.”
So did I, if I were being honest. There would be clean-up to do of course but that delightful job would wait another day. I couldn’t sell this home fast enough, especially when we walked out the front door and smack into Neighbourhood Gossip number one.
“Mr. Tea Cup,” she said, “What in heaven’s name is going on?”
“I heard a commotion,” the Gossip said. “Did someone scream?”
She tried to look around into the entryway and I quickly snapped the door shut behind us. The chair on the dining table may have been acting like a chair again but the rest of the house remained topsy turvy. Besides, Betty and I were enough of a troublesome sight as it was.
The Gossip appraised our disheveled appearance with an intense curiosity that made me nervous. Elder ladies with too much time on their hands were problematic when it came to discretion and secrecy in my experience. Mother in her later years being the best example.
“Nothing to be concerned about!” I said, heading the Gossip off. “We’re undertaking some renovations. Giving the residence a freshening up, you know, making it more attractive to buyers. Dusting, rearranging the furniture, perhaps a fresh coat of paint—”
“Removing that ghastly wallpaper,” Betty chimed in.
I did my best to keep a straight face.
“Yes, exactly. Miss Farnsworth has a keen eye for design.”
The Gossip took a second look at Betty’s rumpled dress and mussed-up hair.
“My dear, are you sure you’re quite well?”
Her eyes traveled from Betty to me and narrowed. I could only imagine what sordid stories she might come up with regarding an unmarried young lady and a gentleman behind closed doors.
“Just a bit tired,” Betty smiled.
“I’m confident we’ll have the house sold in no time,” I said to the Gossip.
The Gossip considered me, likely deciding if she wanted to pursue her enquiries further, but at last she gave a satisfied nod.
“I’m glad to hear it, Mr. Tea Cup,” she said. “I look forward to meeting my new neighbours.”
I wasn’t entirely sure the new neighbours would feel the same about meeting her.
Our return to Teacake Headquarters was a quiet affair. We trudged up Cloak Lane, past Finnigan’s Fine Footwear and slowly climbed the stairs to the office.
“Am I supposed to feel awful afterwards?” Betty asked as we reached the first floor.
“Ah, wrestling with the departed can be very taxing. It’s a reality of the job unfortunately.”
I checked the time. Half eleven.
“Some nourishment may sort us. Would you join me for an early lunch? It’s the least I can offer after this morning’s adventure.”
“Thank you,” Betty said. “That would be nice.”
We walked by the converted sitting room I used as my office and down the hall to the kitchen at the back of the house, my grandfather’s portrait watching us as we passed. In grandfather’s time the kitchen was the domain of the Teacake family cook. Over the years our numbers had dwindled down to Mother and me, and now I was the only Teacake left.
Mother was clearly of no help these days and I never fed anyone but myself, but I managed to make a pot of Earl Grey and arranged two plates of bread, luncheon ham, cheese, pickles, and a selection of chocolate biscuits for us to nibble at.
Betty looked like she couldn’t believe her luck.
“This is wonderful!” she said. “I haven’t had chocolate in ages.”
I went to take my seat and jumped up instantly with a yelp, my bottom feeling as though it had been stabbed with a thousand icy needles. Mother materialized in my spot.
“There are empty chairs!” I said trying to shake off the biting cold and horror of plunging one’s derrière through one’s mother.
Betty, ever the portrait of politeness, took this in stride. I suppose after Mr. Hutton, Mother was a quiet stroll in the park.
“Hello, Mrs. Teacake. Nice to see you again.”
Mother blinked at her.
“Mother’s not used to being acknowledged in the afterlife,” I said, sitting down again in a ghost-free chair and taking a biscuit. I needed some chocolate.
Mother looked at the biscuits and then glared at me before finally floating off through the table and wall.
“They were her favourite,” I said.
“Oh, that’s sad,” Betty said. Not sad enough to put her off her food however. She buttered another piece of bread.
“Mr. Teacake,” she said. “May I ask you a question?”
“About the salt shaker and all of that.”
“Light, air, salt and smoke.” I ticked them off on my fingers. “Or the helpful acronym L.A.S.S. They’re our best tools to remove a stubborn ghost.”
“I must admit I felt a bit silly sprinkling salt at first but it worked!”
“It’s messy but effective. The salt is both a repellent and a protector. Popular in ecclesiastical circles so I’m told. My friend Father Pimberly clued me into it.”
Betty took a bite of a biscuit. “And the smoke?”
“Did you notice the smoke was white? White smoke is a purifier and ghosts abhor it. Regular black smoke has no effect.”
We sat in comfortable silence. What a pleasure it was to talk about ghosts with someone for once! Betty hadn’t fled in terror and she even seemed interested. I took her presence as a hopeful sign this business of ghosts could be a part of her future.
But I wouldn’t know for certain until I broached the subject.
I said to her, “Would you like to learn more about them? Ghosts?”
Betty broke out into a smile. The first I’d seen. “You mean I did all right? I can be your assistant?”
“Yes, I’m thinking of it as an apprenticeship of sorts. There would still be some administrative work but our focus would be on ghosts and everything that comes with that. With a little training, I think you’ll be a true asset to the Teacake organization. What do you say?”
“Oh yes, please, thank you!”
I held up my teacup. “To many more haunted homes!”
Betty raised hers and we clinked. Betty beamed.
“Cheers, Mr. Tea...cup!” she said.
I sputtered into my tea and Betty giggled into hers.
“The day is young,” I said after I stopped choking. “After lunch, how about we get you settled in the office. Perhaps we could start with some typing practice?”
See? I also liked to jest.
“Oh no,” Betty said. From the horror on her face, Betty looked like she would have rather faced another round with Mr. Hutton. “Can’t we find a ghost instead?”
I laughed. I knew then without a doubt I’d picked the right assistant.