WRITER IN RESIDENCE by Wendy L Sweetman



     I knew the moment I set eyes on Honey Cottage that it was the perfect place to write my book. Not just because it was beautiful in that rustic, rambling rose kind of way, but because one of the characters I was researching for the novel - a man named Henry J Wishart - had lived here for a while before he hanged himself from the beams in the cottage's kitchen. Not that that bothered me; I wasn't expecting his ghost to make my tenure a nightmare, even though local legend had it that a presence did inhabit the house. No, ghosts were for people with souls - and I didn't have one. Working and surviving as an account handler in the advertising firm of Menkoff and Menkoff had taught me that for certain!

     But now that was all behind me, and an article I'd written for a magazine on a famous family of bankers in the 20s had been so well received that I'd been commissioned to turn the thing into a full-blown novel based on their lives. So, waving goodbye to Men and Men (the joke being that if you worked for them as a woman, in truth you were really a man), I rented out my flat in the city and headed south, towards the country and the cottage which an old friend had come across by sheer accident.

     It was love at first sight. I adored the low ceilings and the gnarled oak beams, the tiny latticed windows, the creaking wooden floors, the way it sat, lazy as-sin in the sunshine, the way the garden smelled of lavender and mint. It was the sort of place that, had you lost your soul, you might just be guaranteed to find it. I couldn't believe that it had stayed empty for years. Although it was remote, it would make a wonderful holiday hideaway, and was far too lovely a place to be left uninhabited.

     At the agents, I discovered why. `The presence', of course, had been the deterring feature. There were not, it appeared, too many people ready to take on a cottage in the heart of the countryside that was half a mile from the nearest house, where someone had hanged himself. His spirit, it was rumoured, had haunted the house since his death in 1931, and it appeared each night to stake out its territorial imperative in an old rocking chair which stood by the open fire in the main living room. When the ‘presence’ was about, so the story went, the chair rocked to and fro on its own accompanied by the whiff of newly-lit cigars.

     Was I afraid? No, I have this indomitable practical streak and this convinced me that if Henry J Wishart wanted to rock, then he could do so in the living room while I got stuck into my book in the bedroom I'd converted into a den. As to the smell of cigars? I'd always liked it - in fact I'd been known to smoke one myself after a good meal and with a decent port. I would 'live and let live', and Henry Wishart's presence about the cottage would be good for the novel's atmosphere.

     For the first month, that's exactly how it worked. From seven in the morning to eight or nine at night I sealed myself up in the den with my personal computer -pushing myself to meet my publisher's deadline and not leaving the room, save for a trip to the bathroom, or to make a cup of coffee and a plate of sandwiches.

     In the evenings, I was just too tired to take myself into the living room and sit and watch TV. I did however, almost as a courtesy, open the living room door on my way up to bed, and utter a soft 'Goodnight' to Wishart, who sat invisibly rocking in his chair. And on my way upstairs, I was always conscious of the smell of rolled tobacco.

     One evening, on my way through the hall, I opened the door of the living room as usual, but this time, instead of continuing to rock, the chair stopped abruptly , as if someone had steadied it by placing a foot on the ground. Then, it seemed as if someone got up from its cushions. I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise, and the saliva under my tongue dry up. The presence seemed to come across the room towards me. I started to tremble and gripped the door handle tight. There was a cold rush of air as the spirit passed me and went into the hall and, as it did, it seemed to pause and attend to something. Seconds later, I smelled the aroma of a cigar. But this time I was so far from being comfortable with the smell I thought it might even make me faint.

     The presence then hurried across the hall, leaving a trail of smoke wafting behind it. Then, as if I'd been drawn by a magnet my feet started to follow the trail of smoke, which led back to my den.

     When I got there the door was already open, and from the inside I heard the whirr of the computer - someone had turned it on! Panicking, my instincts were to run, but somehow my feet seemed firmly rooted, then, they seemed to be drawn forward again - into the room where I could read on the screen the name: Henry Jasper Wishart. I don't know what happened to me then, but I found myself moving inexorably toward the computer and something made me tap out my own name underneath. The response from Wishart came up on the screen: `Welcome to Honey Cottage.' Then other letters crowded the welcome out. A dense paragraph started to unfold, and its message was directly connected to the work I was doing on the book. As I watched dumb-founded, the words told me that I was making a serious mistake with the facts - that the material from the 20s I'd been using (and which had come from the banking family) was a tissue of lies. That the characters concerned had falsified the pertinent documents and that only he, Wishart, knew the absolute truth: he’d been murdered here in Honey Cottage to stop that truth getting out. I could feel the sweat trickling down my back.

     The facts as the machine showed them seemed preposterous. But then material came up on screen and, as I really began to see the truth of what the presence had been writing. Suddenly, as if to prove it, he led me out of the den and back to the living room where the rocking chair stood still by the fire. I watched, as it slowly began its pattern of swaying. Then suddenly the pattern changed instead of rocking to fro at its usual pace, it started to buck uncontrollably - back and forth, wilder and wilder, eventually it lifted right off the floor and its feet smashed violently against a table. Deathly cold, what I knew to be my fear returning, and with abject terror that I'd unwittingly released some ghoul.

     Then the violence stopped and before me, in the well of the chair, I saw a bundle of papers protruding from the stuffing. They were the diaries of Wishart, Henry. Trembling; I picked them up and, terrified of more violence, I flicked through the pages. It was rather like reading pages of my manuscript - but this time the characters and events were revealed in the sad light of truth:

     I felt the blood return to my veins and, as I did, I aware that all traces of cigar smoke had vanished from the room - instead the cottage seemed to smell: only of roses. And the chair? The debris assured me that it had now rocked for its final time - that Henry Wishart's vigil was over.

     That was five years ago. With the details of Wishart's murder revealed an investigation into the families banking practices started. My novel was a bestseller. I decided to keep writing and to keep on the cottage. On nights when I'm stuck, I leave my computer on, and in the morning come down to the smell of roses, and latest suggestions of Wishart, Henry J.


ENDS © Wendy L Sweetman