A Short Story
By Sadie Maskery
“It’s a slightly odd one, but we didn’t know who else to call.”
“You do realise that whatever, um, deliverance is required, I am not the official go-to person in this part of the world? There are channels, and I’m not part of them.”
“Yes but we know you, and honestly this isn’t a… channel… situation. A discrete cul de sac is fine. Just come for tea and let me show you?”
“Mm. Will there be lemon cake?”
“Well, I must say this is jolly nice,” said Andrew, perching delicately on the edge of the stone bench under the apple tree. “Is this homemade cordial?”
“Yes, that’s last year’s elderflower. We made it into gin as well, if you would like a sample?”
“Not just yet, bit too early for me. Maybe after, er.”
“Oh absolutely. Speaking of which, are you getting any sort of inklings? We didn’t want to give you any details that would predispose you to believe or disbelieve us. Any feelings?” The young couple were tucked side by side on the grass and Izzie plucked nervously at the daisies, shredding the petals as they watched him. Andrew shifted uncomfortably.
“As I said, this is not my area of expertise. Baptisms, blessings, I can marry you like a shot, well, you know, after the requisite paperwork and banns and so forth, would you like that at any point?”
“Possibly and if we did we’d naturally want you to be the vicar, but no, let’s get this sorted out first. You don’t feel anything?”
“Is it the tree? Did someone hang themselves from the tree?” He stuck his hand under his leg and scratched absently.
“Not that. What are you feeling right now?”
“Well an itch.”
Andrew stood up gently and rearranged his trouser leg.
“No, not really. A warmth. Like a grease spot running down my… oh. The bench?”
They observed the bench. It was visibly a thing of great age and heft, more a slab with arms than a piece of craft. It sat under the tree and the tree practically sat on the bench, or at least the trunk encroached slightly into its back. This was a seat with history, no doubt.
“Has it always been there? You haven’t bought it from a house clearance where the owners disappeared in mysterious circumstances?”
“No no, nothing like that. It’s never moved. Izzie’s family have owned this place for generations. We asked your uncle didn’t we, Iz?” said Mark. He and Andrew knew each other from university, and Andrew was grateful that the old easy camaraderie seemed to have been adopted by Izzie as well. There was no tension here, no doom-laden atmosphere. Just a bench.
“We think it was here before the house. So, it might not be a bench at all but a Saxon obelisk on its side, or a prehistoric standing stone and the arms used to be its feet or something.”
“But that’s amazing!” Andrew knelt at the side of the bench and peered around it, gently caressing the lichened surface. “Any inscriptions?”
“We’ve tried all that. It’s got nothing any more. It’s perfectly ordinary apart from the whole ancient relic thing it has going on. And the fact no one can sit on it for more than twenty minutes.”
“It was just an itch.”
“Go back. Try again.”
Andrew sat back down gingerly. “May I have a cup of tea?” he asked, and Izzie went back inside the house. There was a silence. Izzie returned with a mug. They sat, Andrew on the bench, his friends expectant as puppies waiting for a treat.
“So” said Andrew. “This is odd. It’s as if I am sitting on a seat that someone else has just left. So, it’s warm, but not my warmth. Like a toilet seat too soon after the previous occupant.” He blinked at Izzie apologetically. He shifted again. “Definitely not happy now. Is someone trying to sit in my lap? It’s not that, it’s as if someone is already there, there’s a – ooooooh – Oh no. That’s not –” and he bucked off the seat and joined them on the grass, clutching his mug.
“Do you know what we think it is? It’s not evil, or sentient or anything. It’s full” said Mark. Izzie nodded in agreement.
“There was this article we found, where someone thought that ghosts were sort of a recording that had got stuck, so they kept repeating when the same atmosphere set them off. So, a massive output of emotion gets trapped in a wall that has the right sort of texture or density or something and you get screaming ladies running away from murderers. They’re not actually there, it’s just a replay.”
Andrew gazed at them disapprovingly. “The Church has other theories but that’s one hypothesis for certain manifestations, possibly, yes. Not all of them.”
“Oh no, we know that. But we think the bench has been there for what, centuries, or thousands of years, and in all that time what’s happened? It’s been sat on–”
“All those bottoms,” said Izzie, dreamily. “Just sitting.”
Mark tutted and continued, “–sat on, and it’s coincidentally got the right structure or grooves or location to be absorbing the fundamental essence of the, um, sitting, whether whoever sat was very unhappy or angry or evil or whatever, and there’s been a supernatural resonance with the bench and it’s recorded the –”
“Ghost bottoms”, said Izzie.
“Shut up, Izzie. The morphic field of whatever it is and its memory is too full –”
“Full of ghost bottoms. It’s leaking.”
And Izzie lost all gravity and rolled in the grass laughing.
“And that is why we can’t sit on it. Honestly Izzie.” And then they all started laughing, even Andrew.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Andrew.
“Probably. But you said yourself, it’s like someone else is already there when you try and stay on it. And it’s definitely a feeling that’s supernatural, not just beetles, isn’t it? You feel that too? We don’t want to ask anyone official to exorcise it, it’s a nice bench, we like it. If we go to the Church, we will get laughed at or it’ll end up on the internet and we’ll get nutters trying to sit on it every full moon or solstice. Can you not just give it a bit of a nudge to release the excess energy? If there is anything sentient involved it can’t be very comfortable in there.”
“Oh MARK. I don’t know if I’m allowed.”
“We’re not asking for a proper service or anything. Can you not just try an exploratory mumble and chuck a bit of incense to see if we’re right?”
“Your lack of respect for the machinery of the one true faith is an insult.”
“Andrew. Please,” said Izzie, suddenly serious. “We know it’s your vocation and we aren’t laughing at that, honestly. Whatever is going on here is beyond human comprehension and we do know how amazing and serious it is really. But it’s my family home, and I spent my childhood sitting on that bench eating apples and having little dreams. It’s something we want to share with our children and their children and but not some nasty ghosty thing that makes the news or gives us nightmares. Mark trusts you. I trust you. Could you try to make it right, just quietly?”
“All right. I brought some items with me. I did have a conversation with my spiritual advisor about hypotheticals and he’s not thrilled but there are things I am allowed to explore. But go away. I need to be in the right place spiritually. Plus,” he added honestly, “I’m a bit shy.”
He went back to his car and came back with robes, books, small containers and a thurible. He shooed them back like recalcitrant chickens and they huddled together on the other side of the orchard whilst he arranged his paraphernalia and opened a small leather-bound volume.
“All right then,” he called, once all was prepared; and he began chanting, his hand on the bench, incense smoke wafting through the apple tree. This went on for some minutes and he pushed his glasses up his nose, hesitated, turned to a different page of the book, and started again.
“Do you think it’s working?” whispered Izzie.
“I don’t know. I can’t see his face. Does he look like he knows what he’s doing?”
“He doesn’t look scared; he looks a bit serious. How would we know if he’s exorcised it?”
“Do we know how long it takes?”
“In The Exorcist it took days.”
” That was a bit more evil and serious. Plus, that was made up. This is a garden bench. Oh. He’s going the other way round.”
Andrew waved the thurible and the chant took on a more urgent tone, although they couldn’t make out the words. He seemed to be exhorting something, almost pleading. His hand struck gently on the bench once, twice, thrice, and his face gleamed with a rapt, ecstatic concentration of will. Louder he recited the words in the tome, each sentence resounding like a bell, a poem, a song, to a climax of anthemic exultation. Then…
A soft wall of stench came rolling across the orchard, so solid in its noxiousness that they expected the grass to shrivel and die as it passed. But no. Not a blade waved. The smell just spread until it permeated the whole area, and Mark and Izzie dropped to the ground retching, rolling, to escape the insidious fingers of stink seeking to imbue the very fabric of their being.
“Jesus,” gasped Mark eventually, crawling on all fours and shaking his head to dislodge invisible particles of invisible ectoplasm from his ears. “What the hell was that?”
“Farts,” said Emily tremulously but with certainty. “Centuries and millennia of ghost farts. I think Andrew’s exorcism worked.”
“Andrew! Where is he? Is he all right?”
They looked over, bleary eyed to where a dishevelled figure was shambling towards them, looking simultaneously just as he had before, and yet like a man blown backwards through the bowels of hell, which perhaps, to all intents and purposes, he indeed had.
“Ah,” Andrew said, gathering together the tattered shreds of his dignity as they gazed at him in awe, noses firmly covered. “I think that’s resolved your little problem. I’d give it a few minutes if I were you. And yes.” He pushed his glasses back up his nose and winced a little. “I could definitely do with that gin now.”