Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Philip Charter

It was all about the minor details. Move things around too much and she’d notice. As well as having elephant-like ankles, she had a memory like one too. I nudged things an inch to the left one day, then two to the right the next. I was playing the slow game. Only once she cracked, would I let her know she was being haunted for what she’d done to me.

I’d gone to such efforts to please her when I was alive — cooking insipid recipes to the letter, following the instructions on her cleaning spreadsheet, and settling for the title of fourth most important man in her life (behind her sixty-year-old lover and her two poodles.) While I preferred Douglas Adams books and gardening, Alison enjoyed combing the knots out of their fur, and stroking another man’s ‘best friend’.

Most of my headaches had come from Alison’s daily allegations or those yapping poodles, so it was a surprise to me when I met my maker at just fifty. I’d been in good health, then suddenly, bang, a brain aneurysm.

Back in the kitchen, Alison cocked her head as she reached for her slim-shake sachets. What kind of game was this? She rearranged them, scolding the packets as if they were unruly schoolchildren. Just wait until she finds the batteries missing out of the Dustbuster. She drank her high-performance drink and fed Benjamin and Gerrald their one scoop of biscuits each. Another element of my little rebellion was to switch up the food in the packets so that Gerry (the portly one), kept piling on the pounds, while his brother ate the high-fibre pellets. Alison was baffled by the growing differential between her dogs. She might have thought that Gerry was also sneaking doughnuts on the way to work.

After the dogs had finished, and their bowls had been inspected, wiped clean, disinfected then stacked in their designated place, Alison wrote a to do list for him, and went out for her morning power walk. I suspected she just walked to the bakery and back. I wished I could have followed her, but I was destined to stay behind to complete my mission.

It’s true I never loved the dogs like she did, but I was mortified when they were poisoned. I’m no murderer. The silly pair got into a packet of my slug pellets that must’ve looked like their kibble. And they say curiosity killed the cat. Her pets eventually recovered, but Alison didn’t. She could have just divorced me, but she wouldn’t let sleeping dogs lie.

As I sat and waited at the kitchen table, I decided that today would be the day. I needed to push the action and elicit the reaction I’d been sent to, or I’d get just as depressed as when I’d been married to her. Besides, he was around, so my little game would have another unsuspecting victim.

He was Brian, a Brigadier in the British Army, with ruddy cheeks and a public-school voice. Alison always hated my ponytail, so I’m not surprised she went for a ‘short back and sides’ type. Even though they had married, they didn’t see each other often enough for his domestic misdemeanours to bother Alison too much. I think they actually preferred synchronising schedules to living together in domestic bliss. When I started my haunting a couple of years ago, I wondered where Brian would fit into the pecking order, but he soon had the dogs well drilled.

They were the perfect fit. Alison valued cleanliness and order, and Brian liked classical music and tin soldiers. I’m not kidding, he was even more serious about his battlefield arrangements than Alison was with her coordinated cushion displays. They were measured people. Even though they met at the Arms Expo, there were certainly no fireworks in the bedroom.

The dogs went to their beds for a nap and I twiddled my thumbs in the kitchen. I thought back to the moment after my death — my transformation from patsy to poltergeist. When I woke up, I was standing in a white room, and it wasn’t Saint Peter I heard, but a computerised voice.

“Appearance, communication, or movement?” it asked, in an soft American accent.

I looked around, but all I could see was blinding white. “Where on Earth am I?”

“You are not on Earth. In fact, you do not exist in any physical form, you are—.”

“Wait. I know that voice. Stephen Hawking?”

“The Intel ACAT system has been selected as the most appropriate voice to represent your creator,” it replied. I suppose I did always admire the man. His wife supposedly bullied him too.

“Homicide victim eight-one-nine, you must now choose appearance, communication or movement.”


The voice sighed.

I was surprised Dr Hawking needed a programmed sigh, but then again he was always a bit of sarcastic type.

“You were murdered, and have therefore been retained to haunt your killer until atonement is achieved.”

I knew things had been going badly between us, but murder?

“Your wife added concentrated slug poison into your food, drinks, and cosmetic products. You had a stroke.”

Talk about a toxic relationship. “She really must have thought I wanted the dogs dead . . .”

“You must now return to the scene of the crime, to haunt her conscience as a poltergeist, through selected visions, by communication through a medium, or via the movement of objects. You may choose only one.”

“Won’t she be going to prison?” I asked.

Another robot sigh escaped. “A brain tumour was discovered during your autopsy, and what with your advancing age, the police didn’t—”

“Alright, Stephen, don’t rub it in! I know I was getting on, but . . . that slimy so-and-so.” The snails were going to have a field day in the garden now.

After careful consideration, I chose the power of movement. I certainly had nothing to say to Alison, and I’d always maintained that spirit mediums were a hoax. What The Great Stephen didn’t tell me, was that I’d have to stay around the house until Alison was sorry for her crimes. She never seemed to feel guilty about anything, but I wasn’t just going to spell it out to Alison and move on. I wanted to exact the perfect revenge, taking my time to send her over the edge. Now, after two years with little success, it felt like I was only punishing myself.

Last week, The Brigadier returned from his posting in Cyprus. I’d waged a prolonged campaign of gaslighting against his wife and the cracks were starting to show. I decided that during his two weeks of leave I would turn up the heat.

“Hello, you,” she said when she saw him at the door in his desert uniform. “I’m so glad you’re here, darling.”

He dropped his holdall and saluted. He actually saluted. “Brigadier Jevons reporting for duty.” In truth, he looked more like a sandbag with a moustache than a Brigadier.

Ben and Gerry stood guard beside Alison, sniffing the bag before falling in line. He patted them on the head. “Benjamin. Gerald.”

It was sickening to watch my murderous ex-wife and my direct replacement (better with a bayonet, worse with a trowel) play house. At least I wouldn’t be at home alone during the day any more. And today was the day I would end it.

“Shall we get a brew on?” he asked, looking at his watch.

“Yes, darling. You get yourself unpacked.”

He went upstairs with his kit bag and the dogs followed at a respectful distance.

Over the next couple of days, I watched their holiday routines develop. The Brigadier completed his exercise routine at 0600 hours sharp (his wife didn’t join in), showered (again without Alison), and pulled on a fresh polo shirt and slacks, before presenting himself for inspection. He looked like a walking advertisement for Off-Duty Officer magazine. After breakfast, he set up his model soldiers in the conservatory and stayed away from Drill Sergeant Alison for the remainder of the morning. I assume she made her secret visits to the bakery during the morning dog walk.

During their time off, I was hard at work shifting things around. Making ever more obvious movements of Alison’s things, and playing fast and loose with The Brigadier’s belongings.

“Have you seen the Dijon, love?” she barked into the conservatory, as the man fiddled with his soldiers.

“Mustard? No. Can’t stand the stuff,” he barked in reply.

Off she went to the shops, then I returned the two missing jars to the shelf. Stick that in your ham sandwich.

Every time Brian went to the toilet, I made sure to lift the seat back up and splash a small puddle on the floor. I left lights on all over the house, ironed the creases out of his slacks, took in the waists on Alison’s trousers, and shortened the dogs’ leads by one inch per day.

The tension increased, and over the course of one week, they went from cuddles on the sofa, to sleeping in separate beds. Some holiday. While Alison researched new cleaning products and watched reruns of Midsomer Murders, he spent more and more time with his spectacles perched on his nose, and various maps of historical battles open on the table.

Moving The Brigadier’s tin soldiers around was the most fun I’d had in years. I’d quite forgotten that I was supposed to be concentrating on Alison. He was so careful where he placed the miniature guns, horses and flags, attaining military precision with the use of a magnifying glass.

Alison returned from her power walk, and I got ready to ramp up the action. That morning, I really stuck it to Brian’s troops, switching armaments, toppling soldiers left and right, and even removing all of the brigadiers from the scene. Every time he came back to his battle, he was ever more exasperated.

“Alison, darling? Have the dogs been in here?”

She paused her cleaning of the microscopic honey droplets on the floor I’d left to attract ants. “Don’t be silly. Gerald’s with me, and Benjamin’s in the garden. Look.”

“Hmm. It must have been them nosing around where they don’t belong.”

Alison pointed a finger. “And I suppose it was them who left the toilet seat up again.”

The Brigadier didn’t like thataccusation. He was used to giving orders, not receiving them. “Nonsense. I always leave the lavvy as I found it. And please don’t touch my pieces.”

Alison mumbled that his piece wasn’t in any danger of being touched, and went back to her cleaning. The Brigadier went to inspect the latrines to rid himself of the charge of leaving the seat up. While he was gone, I quickly rearranged the battle of Waterloo to make it look as though the French had won and Napoleon was buggering The Duke of Wellington.

When he returned, his face went redder than the British uniforms. “This is not a game, woman!”

Alison marched into the conservatory. “What is it now, Brian? Honestly, you and your bloody toy soldiers.”

The Brigadier picked up the nearest piece to hand — a lead field gun about the size of a King Edward potato. “Stay out of here!” he commanded, launching his projectile. It was even better than I’d hoped.

He didn’t mean to hit her. Of that I’m sure. But, it clonked Alison right on the head. She stumbled backwards, crashing into the kitchen like a concussed rhinoceros, knocking over the dogs’ food in the process. Kibble everywhere. I watched in amazement as she struggled for footing, and slipped on the wet floor. Her head slammed on the edge of the freshly-wiped kitchen counter and she went down. Alison held her temple, groaning, and rolled under the table, leaving a slimy trail of blood on the lino. She stared up at the underside of the table and probably wondered why someone had stencilled the logo for Slug Away onto the wood. (I’d planned to put these messages all around the house, but at least she got to see it once before she went.) Even if they found a brain tumour when they performed her autopsy, it wouldn’t explain the hole in her head caused by the fall. Her slug-like body went into spasms.

The Brigadier was beside himself. He even left The Duke of Wellington to the mercy of Bonaparte and rushed in to administer CPR. The dogs barked and ran around in circles, before hoovering up the biscuits on the bloody floor.

Alison was dead in minutes. If that wasn’t justice then I didn’t know what was. I couldn’t have hoped for a better result. I even did a little jig on top of her body.

The Brigadier phoned the police and turned himself in. Although he hadn’t meant to hit her, he would go to jail for manslaughter or worse. It wasn’t as if the dogs could exonerate him. Brian wouldn’t be able to play with his tin soldiers in prison, but at least he’d be used to the strict routine.

With my mission complete, I left the house and felt myself floating up to the white emptiness of Stephen Hawking’s voice machine. Now I could rest in peace.

“Haunting unsuccessful,” said the voice.

I couldn’t believe it. “What do you mean? She got exactly what she deserved.”

Stephen sighed. “She did not atone for her crime.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I’m happy with the outcome.”

There was a long pause like he was calculating something. “Manslaughter victim three-four-nine will now haunt the agent of her misjustice.”

“Hold on a minute,” I said.

“And she has elected to appear, through selected visions, until justice is served.”

It couldn’t be. I felt another headache coming on and screwed my eyes shut. My temple was pounding, and it wasn’t just from the bright white surroundings.

When I opened my eyes, I saw a plump, perfectly turned-out events planner, wearing a pressed suit and a name badge that said Alison Baker. She had a diet milkshake drink in one hand and a miniature metal cannon in the other. As she looked up, she raised a hand as if to say . . . hello, you.


Philip Charter is a British writer who teaches writing to non-native English speakers. His work has been featured in Fictive Dream and The National Flash Fiction Day Anthology among other publications. In 2018, he released his debut short fiction collection, Foreign Voices. He likes orange cats, but hates oranges.

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