The Black-Eyed Boy
Mary looked round the drawing room with satisfaction. A couple of armchairs were next to a roaring fire and a grandfather clock ticked in the corner. It looked cosy and fresh. She had been dusting and cleaning all afternoon and now it was ready. Walking over to the French windows she looked out at the garden and woods. Wisps of fog wrapped around the trees and hovered over the lawn in the early evening light. She could see how it lingered over the lake, as if hiding its secrets.
For a moment her mind drifted to Peter working alongside the water in the gardens. She imagined him raking the leaves and placing them in a wheelbarrow. He would wink at her as he worked. His handsome face, dark hair, and even darker eyes used to make her heart melt.
The sound of the doorbell jolted her back to the arrival of Captain James Threadgold, her father’s latest guest. He was standing in the doorway, straight and tall with a suitcase at his feet.
“Good Afternoon. Miss Arnold.”
“Hello, she said accepting his offered hand. “Please come in and welcome to Ardmillan.”
“Thank you, I’m looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet.” He took off his hat and picked up his suitcase and followed her down the hallway.
“This is your bedroom and through that door is the bathroom.”
“It looks very comfortable,” he said gazing around.
My father and I have a separate lounge across the hall and the kitchen is the door opposite, which you are welcome to use."
“Very kind of you,” he said wandering to the window to look at the gardens. “Impressive lawns and is that a lake at the back?”
Mary rubbed her neck nervously. “Yes, but I wouldn’t go there, it’s dangerous.” The fog was already lifting.
Half an hour later she returned with a tray of freshly brewed tea and a home baked cake. James had changed and was now seated by the fire with a newspaper on his lap. As she entered, he stood and took the tray from her.
“I know about the circumstances that have brought you here and I’m sorry,” she said. “Losing your wife in such a terrible manner must have been difficult.”
"It was. Thank you for your consideration. It’s a jolly good place to recuperate. Is it just you and your father here?"
"Yes, He's ex-army too. Now the war is over he offers it as a refuge to soldiers like yourself to recuperate. Anyway, he’ll introduce himself to you later.”
“Good. Thank you.”
“If there’s anything you need please ask. Oh, and how would you like me to address you? Captain?”
“James is fine. I’m not a captain anymore.”
“All right. And I'm Mary.”
He smiled, and she left.
Over the next week, she saw little of him as he kept himself to himself, although he often joined her father for a nightcap.
“Hello, James, can I get you anything?” she asked as he hovered in the kitchen doorway.
“I was looking for a bit of company actually.”
She smiled. “Of course. Sit at the table and you can watch me finish this pie if you like. It’s for supper this evening.”
“Game pie, by any chance?”
“Yes, fresh this morning.”
“I thought I heard gun shots. Your father is very sprightly for his age.”
“Yes, he keeps himself in good shape. He says it keeps the old bones going.” James smiled. "You have a nice smile James, and it’s probably not been used much of late has it?”
“I’ve had nothing to smile for.”
“Can I offer you some tea, or perhaps something stronger?”
“I wouldn’t mind a brandy, if you’ll keep me company?”
“I think I will,” she said washing and drying her hands before leaving the room and returned with a bottle of cognac and two glasses. She set them down in front of him.
He poured the amber liquid and handed her a glass. “Ardmillan is a lovely place to live. Have you always lived here?”
“I was born in the room you’re sleeping in, but since I lost my mother, it’s been lonely. I think that’s why my father brings home lodgers.”
“Grief makes you lonely,” he said staring in the glass. It somehow changes the way we are, don’t you think? I never thought it would come to me, not like it did. Not after the war had finished.”
“It won’t get any worse than this,” she whispered, feeling his pain.
“It won’t.” She smiled.
He looked at her and his eyes were angry although his tone wasn’t. “Violence is not the way you expect to lose someone. How can we come through the war unscathed only for some crazed idiot, a damn blasted drunken fool…” He drained his glass and refilled it. He downed the second one, then got to his feet looking anguished. “I’m sorry. Oh, and tell that blasted boy to keep away from my window!”
He strode out of the room leaving Mary staring after him.
The following day as she cycled back from the village with her shopping, she saw James with a hiking stick and walking shoes.
“Good afternoon,” she called as she passed and stopped a little ahead. “Good walk?”
“Yes, damn fine. Beautiful countryside.”
“Yes, it’s remained untouched by the war.”
“Listen, I want to apologise for my abominable behaviour last night.”
“It’s all right. It’s all part of the healing process.”
“I had no right to speak to you like that. Please accept my apologies.”
“You’ve nothing to apologise for, honestly.”
“Here, let me take your bike, you can have my walking stick.”
Mary smiled, “Fair exchange, I’d say.”
At the house, he stood the bike against the wall and carried her shopping into the kitchen. She thanked him and just as he was going back into the drawing room, she called after him.
“James, what boy were you talking about last night?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, some black-eyed boy in the garden cutting ivy.”
Mary felt a sharp stinging sensation in her nose. She had no idea how she came to be lying on the drawing room settee with her father holding the smelling salts and James looking on anxiously.
“She’s coming round.” said the Major.
“What happened?” She touched her head as the room swayed a little.
“Here sip this.” James said, handing her a glass of water.
“You fainted, darling,” said the Major.
“I’m so sorry,” she said with embarrassment.
“Should we call a doctor?” James asked.
“No, no, I’ll be fine in a moment,” she said sitting up and sipping the water. Then she remembered. “James! The black-eyed boy?”
“I’m sorry I mentioned it now.”
“Black-eyed boy?” Her father frowned.
“It’s nothing, Dad.” Mary blurted. She got to her feet, the two men holding her elbows, as she steadied herself. “I’m fine, really.”
Later that evening as she listened to the radio at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, there was a tap on the door.
“I seem to have done it again to you, haven’t I? Damned rude of me.”
“Not at all, James,” she said getting her feet. “Can I get you some tea, it’s freshly brewed?”
“I’ll pour, you stay there.” He opened the cupboard and took out a cup and saucer. Helping himself to milk he held up the teapot “Top up?”
“You still look a trifle pale.”
“I’m all right.”
“What did I say that upset you so much?” He poured the tea and sat down.
“Tell me about the black-eyed boy.”
“I hope I didn’t offend you or him when I told him to bugger off.”
Mary swallowed, “Did he speak to you?”
“Not really. I’m afraid I was quite rude considering he was a good listener.”
“What do you mean?”
“Yesterday after we talked, I went back to my room and opened the French doors. He was there in the garden. I did think it strange at that time of night, but I was a bit upset myself, I wasn’t thinking properly.”
“What did he say?”
"Nothing, he just listened. Strange now I come to think about it.” He stopped speaking as he saw her face. “What’s the matter?”
Mary’s eyes had filled with tears. “James, he’s not there.”
“What do you mean?”
She swallowed and was about to speak when they heard her father coming up the hall. “Please don’t mention it in front of him.”
“Now what are you two youngsters up to?” he asked entering the room.
James got to his feet. “Nothing Sir, just a little night time refreshment. The tea’s still fresh if you would like me to pour you a cup.”
The major looked at his daughter with a slight frown, “Mary, you still look pale.”
She gave him a patient smile. “I’m fine, just a little tired.”
“Then you should go to bed.”
“I will shortly. We’re just having a night cap.”
James poured another drink out and handed it to him.
“Thank you.” Her father put in a spoonful of sugar and stirred. “Well don’t be too long. It will be cold tonight and you need to be wrapped up in bed before it sets in. Good night.”
When he had gone James said. “Are you telling me I’ve been talking to a ghost?”
“I know it sounds preposterous. But yes, Peter is a ghost. I haven’t told my father because he would say it was a load of twaddle.”
“I can hardly believe it. Why would a ghost be here?”
“Because this was where he worked. When I first saw him, it terrified me. But I now know he's harmless.”
“But I spoke to him and he was listening.” James was shaking his head.
“That’s what he does, just listens. Never speaks. I would talk to him too, about my mother.”
“What happened to her?”
“She drowned herself in the lake.” Tears threatened just as they always did when she thought about the terrible affair.
“I’m so sorry, Mary.” He touched her hand “Sometimes it helps to talk about it, as I've discovered.”
She let out a long breath. “She was having an affair with the gardener, Peter. Father found out and it devastated us both. Peter was sent away.”
“No, he was flat footed and so he couldn’t join up. Instead he worked on people’s gardens, mainly here. Father gave him his marching orders, of course. When his leave was over, he thought he had sorted it all out, but Peter came back.” James said nothing, as she continued. “I began seeing Peter around again and one day I came home from school to find Father had returned. Unexpectedly it seems. There had been some sort of fight and Peter rushed out nursing his jaw and mother was crying.”
“It must have been dreadful.”
“All night father ranted, and mother wept. The following day she jumped in the lake.”
“I am so sorry,” he said again.
Mary put both palms on her cheeks. “Nobody knew that I loved Peter too. He was so kind to me.”
“Good Lord, you’ve kept that to yourself all this time?”
“You poor thing, that’s an awful secret to keep. What happened to Peter?”
She shook her head and closed her eyes. “Some dreadful accident in the woods; I don’t really know.”
“I thought Jane’s death was the worst thing to happen, but now I don't know.”
“It was, for you. She was your life; you must have loved her very much.”
“I did. We were walking home when some drunk wanted to pick a fight with a soldier and I was it. Jane tried to intervene. She was like that, tough as old bricks. She hit her head on the wall and died instantly.”
“That’s terrible. Was he charged?”
“He ran off before the MPs could get there.”
Mary looked aghast. “He got off?”
"No, he was found dead some days later."
“That’s terrible!” she gasped.
“Saved the cost of a Court Marshal I suppose, but at least Jane died loving me. I’d hate to think she roamed somewhere, her spirit as unsettled as Peter's.”
Mary nodded. “I must go to bed now, I’m exhausted.”
“I’m leaving in the morning. It’s time I got my life back together again. Now the war has finished, I have to find myself a job.”
“I’d like to come back here and see you.”
“Yes, I’d like that too. We’ve both been through a lot, James. I feel it’s helped us to talk about it, don’t you think?”
He picked up her hand and kissed it. “I do. Goodnight, Mary.”
The following day as James packed his suitcase and said goodbye to Mary. As he walked up the road, the major caught up with him.
“Well, old chap, it’s been good having you here.”
They shook hands. “It’s been my pleasure.”
They turned and smiled at Mary who waved from the door before going inside. “She’s seen Peter, too.”
“I thought so. Damned blighter! I don’t need a resident ghost.”
“He’s a lost soul, she knows that.”
The major nodded. “You will be back then?”
“Yes, sir. She’s a fine girl. A man has to look after his family and I’ll not forget what you did for me.”
“An eye for an eye, captain.” He held out his hand. “Goodbye, old chap.”