The Hungry Ghost
Short Fiction ~ Cath Barton
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
There had once been an uninterrupted vista across the park. The sun still rose behind the three-winged Georgian house – the worse efforts of man could do nothing to change that – but a tarmac road now sliced through the avenue of trees that had lined the original carriageway from the gates. The oaks to the west of the road had split and been felled, and those on the house side had grown so thick that its facade was hidden from view.
Marcia Brice-Martin, visiting with her husband from Ormonville, a one-street town of clapboard houses in the American Mid West, was none the less enchanted.
‘This is so pretty,’ she trilled to the girl selling entrance tickets from a window cut in a portacabin. ‘Back home we have only – ’
‘House and garden or just garden?’ interrupted the unsmiling girl. Her shift should have finished an hour earlier and she was feeling the heat inside the metal box.
‘Excuse me?’ said Marcia, who had forgotten to put in her hearing aids that morning.
The girl sighed and repeated the options slowly.
Marcia’s husband bristled and stepped forward. If he’d been back home, he would have had his hand on his gun. ‘Two tickets for the complete package,’ he barked at the girl.
‘Elmer’, Mrs B-M started in a high voice, ‘Don’t you think–?’
As he lifted an arm to silence her, she noticed, as she had earlier that morning, how prominent the veins were on the backs of his hands.
‘We will take the tour, Marcia,’ he said. ‘You wanted to come here. We will damn well see it out.’ He would have slammed his hand on the counter to emphasise the point, but there was no counter, only the sliding plastic window behind which the girl sat with the tickets.
Marcia, who would have preferred to have simply strolled round the walled garden before taking tea, knew better than to argue.
‘Tours start on the hour,’ the girl said in a flat voice. ‘Forty minutes round the East Wing of the house. Stay with the guide at all times.’
As they walked towards the house Elmer Brice-Martin stumbled and clung to his wife’s arm.
‘Your stick, Elmer, we should go back to the car and fetch it,’ she said, her voice rising again.
‘Don’t fuss, Marcia, it’s this damned gravel the English lay on their paths. Designed to trip a guy up.’
The Brice-Martins were nearing the end of the 3pm tour when Trenchant Collier, a local boy whose father had worked in the gardens of the house two hundred years previously, woke from a long sleep in one of the furthest greenhouses, which were out of bounds to visitors, and went in search of something to eat. As he entered the old kitchen, which had been kept exactly as it was in the early 1800s, except that the joints of meat and loaves of bread were plastic replicas, the boy was surprised to see the small gaggle of people dressed in clothes strange to him, and equally surprised when he bit into a loaf of bread and found it impossible to chew.
None of the visitors saw Trenchant, but Marcia felt his aura. She said nothing to her husband; he was a sceptic who preferred the feel of cold hard metal to stories of the insubstantial. In the conservatory tea-room they ordered cream teas, though, looking at the veins standing out on her husband’s forehead now as well as his hands, Marcia wondered about the wisdom of this.
‘Don’t you think–?’, she started as Elmer spread strawberry jam thickly on half a large scone.
‘For heaven’s sake, Marcia, can’t you let a man enjoy a bit of fruit?’
Elmer heard his voice ricochet off the glass of the conservatory roof like a spray of gunfire. The legs of the wicker chair into which he had squeezed himself buckled as he instinctively ducked down. He reached out for one of the table legs to steady himself, but caught only the trailing edge of the tablecloth.
Trenchant Collier, who just had come into the tea room, was still in search of something he could eat. The girl whose job was to stop children from poking their fingers into the cake icing had been distracted by the unfolding calamity at Table 3, and in any case would not have seen Trenchant pick up the apricot and walnut loaf which she had just taken out of the freezer and attempt to bite into it.
Marcia was wailing, thinking this was the heart attack she had long feared would carry her husband off. He, on his back like a stranded beetle, was impeded in his struggle to right himself by the tangle of tablecloth. The floor was splattered with sticky jam and cream and tea was trickling under the neighbouring tables. Trenchant picked up a scone rolling in his direction and smeared it with butter that had been left on another table. Relieved to find something edible, he sat down and watched the drama unfold.
Marcia, feeling Trenchant’s aura again, and now convinced that her husband was about to die, cried out even more loudly.
‘For heaven’s sake, woman, pull yourself together!’ Elmer, who had managed to get to his feet remarkably unsullied by jam and cream, sank heavily onto another chair which wobbled but remained upright.
‘More tea, waitress,’ he called to the hapless girl who was trying, single-handedly, to clear up the mess.
She scurried into the kitchen. Marcia felt Trenchant depart. Elmer was still with her.
The waitress brought tea and more scones. ‘On the house,’ she said.
Neither of the Brice-Martins had any idea what she meant, but both feeling somewhat shaken, tucked in.
‘You need to ask for the recipe for these, Marcia,’ said Elmer. ‘They’re real good.’
She did not reply. Her thoughts had turned to the ghost story she was going to relate to the Women’s Home Guild when they got back to Ormonville.
Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in South Wales. She won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella 2017 for The Plankton Collector, now published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint.
Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published in November 2020 by Louise Walters Books.
Cath’s short stories have been published by print magazines including The Lonely Crowd and Strix, as well as in a number of anthologies.
She is also active in the online flash fiction community.
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