Her life is conducted on-line. When the supermarket in the nearby town started a home delivery service it radically altered her life, allowing her to park her car in the garage and to not have to worry about the rising cost of keeping it on the road. Internet shopping, her bread and butter, is a boon and a blessing to her, with delivery drivers the only people she need talk to. The postman is not allowed past the garden gate.
With the transitory nature of modern life, where people move from place to place with the frequency of migrating birds, her nearest neighbours, not that she would know their names, believe she has lived at the Old Rectory all her life, perhaps inheriting the property on the death of her parents. But it is not so; she moved to the village when she was twenty-one to avoid the unwanted advances of a persistent suitor. In another life, lived in another century, she might have made her bid for isolation by entering a convent or by travelling abroad. As events turned out it would have been better for both herself and the boyfriend if she had choose either of those solutions as a move of hundred miles proved insufficient to escape the young man’s deranged clutches.
People who pass by the Old Rectory and spy her tending the large garden that surrounds the house will not look at her and think of her as a successful businesswoman. But she is. In reality she is not a woman in her fifties drifting toward old age and expulsion but ‘Morning Glory’, internet supplier of organic insecticides and deterrents for the control and extermination of pests and vermin. When she is snipping and digging she is harvesting poisons and nasty odours, the ingredients that make up the powders, potions, decoctions, infusions and distillations her customers crave. The Old Rectory is a delight of toxicology - a paradise for poisoners.
As if manufacturing and distributing through the postal service organic articles of death is not unorthodox enough the dead also are frequent visitors. To her dismay The Old Rectory is a portal through which the deceased can travel to reach the living realm for weekend breaks. It is a nuisance to her, to come down for breakfast to find an ancient cadaver lying on the table where she normally eats her cornflakes. But to Felice the dead are as matter-of-fact as e-mail or pizza flyers. One of her earliest memories is seeing her grandmother laid out on the kitchen table; her mother happily singing arias and baking pies and pastries for the funeral around the open coffin. What she finds interesting and odd, though, about the visitations, is that her ‘house-guests’ achieved fame during their lives, as if only the successful in life are granted supernatural travel permits. The previous incumbent of her kitchen table was Francis Kilvert the renowned cleric and diarist. Unusually he left debris, as she was cleaning up maggots, worms and other invertebrates and creepy-crawlies for days after his departure. The latest manifestation to take time out from the stilled havoc of the grave to holiday with her is the herbalist Nicholas Culpeper.
As she gathers together the ingredients for a protection against moths to add to salt and orris root powder, to save from destruction the carpets of a public house in Glasgow, she suddenly and vividly recalls Ivan, the young man who loved her without consent, and his image in her mind’s eye again after so many peaceable years sends a shiver of fear down her spine. It is baffling and heartrending to be hamstrung by a memory fit only to be forgotten, to be momentarily transported back to a day when he had surprised her with the cold nonchalance of his introduction. “As good as a green woodpecker,” he said as he observed her painting the shelves and walls of the scullery with a decoction of walnut leaves. “Nothing better for the eradication of ants.”
The fear he induced in her at that precise moment is what turned her from merely solitary by nature to a woman who embraced misanthropy as if it was her only means of saving her soul.
She looks about her, expecting to see a tall thin man, giving special attention to where the monkshood and morning glory grow, the sensation of being watched advancing rather than diminishing by the solitude she apparently still enjoys. Ivan referred to herbal medicine as modern day alchemy and it was their fascination for herbal cures that was the pivot on which he based his misguided belief that they were a ‘match made in heaven’, a phrase that will always send a shudder throughout her body.
Returning to the task at hand, she snips the required number of leaves for her potion, talking to the mugwort plant as if she tends the grazed knee of a child. Herbs and flowers are her family and friends; she knows each and every one by both their colloquial and Latin name. “Artemisia Vulgaris,” she soothes, snipping with the precision of a surgeon, recollecting her Culpeper studies. “’You are herb of Venus and there forth maintaineth the parts of the anatomy she rules.’”
Mugwort is one of her favourites. It was only by regular decoction of the herb was she able in her younger days to ease herself of the pain of menstruation. “’You are volatile oil, absinthin, flavonoids and tannin to me,’” she almost sings, the close intimacy with nature exorcising the fleeting possession of her imagination by the former boyfriend.
Not that Ivan is her only concern. It worries her that Nicholas Culpeper may have come to censure her. Not all her potions and mixtures are to be found in his ‘Complete Herbal’ even though she claims on her web-site an association with him. His displeasure with her is the only explanation she can think of as to why he should remain for so long as it is now nearly two weeks since he took up his somnambulant residence on her kitchen table. Why else would he travel so far from his resting place under Liverpool Street station is a question that accompanies her to sleep most nights? Not that his quiet presence keeps her awake, not with the reliable infusion of lime-flowers as her night-cap.
“Where nothing grows in vain, Mistress James.” She sits up, unable to distinguish between the dream and reality. It is dark, with only a skittish moon to offer illumination. Her bedroom appears normal, with the long drapes unmoving, the furniture in its rightful places. Yet she can sense eyes peering through the gloom and a mite too late she pulls up the duvet to shield her naked torso. Once again Ivan overfills her imagination.
With sleep now impossible she slowly descends the staircase, her eyes darting every which way, certain that menace must lie in wait somewhere within a shadowed corner. Not wanting to disturb Culpeper she decides to seek sanctuary in the living room, the promotion of her equipoise would be aided she believes by a medicinal glass of brandy. It is a poor decision as Culpeper awaits her, sitting in the red leather armchair as if he were her father in want of lecturing her.
“It resorts, Mistress James, for every mode of cure, to that infallible source prepared by God through the auspices of nature, whence flow spontaneously the genuine virtues of medicines, diffused universally over the whole earth.”
There are many questions Felice could rightfully put to the great, if deceased, herbalist, not the least of which is how after many centuries in the underworld can he look so superhumanly fit and well? But instead she rebukes him, as if Culpeper has breached the house rules of a B and B. “You are not allowed in here.”
“My good lady, your lodging provides good comfort for the travelling soul, yet space is not fulsome, you see, I awoke in readiness to dispense my business with you only to discover a young man of ill-breeding and no reputation occupying my place of ease. I had no other course, leaving him to his eternal slumbers, other than to seek an abode more fitting to my use.”
“Were you in my bedroom?”
“I was but my need for quietude was a desire much disturbed by your capacity to snore with the ferocity of a donkey’s bray.”
“Did you see me undressed?”
“Alas, I did, and though I am a physician I must confess the lack of symmetry of your bosom did wish me that my remedies hath a cure for the malady which is only a malady to the discerning male eye.”
Felice tightens her gown, muted and mortified by an observation she cannot defend herself against. She cannot argue, after all, in support of her bosom. To claim that no man has ever found fault with their shape would give the impression that she was morally loose. Nor can she counter his accusation that she ‘snores with the ferocity of a donkey’s bray’ as not since childhood as she slept in close proximity to a living human being. Yet even as she smarts from his ridicule she can remember Ivan’s grasping hands, the smothering of his lustful lips.
“What young man?” she must suddenly ask, fearing that her home is becoming a transit station for the spirit world.
“I fear I did not remain at my repose for a while long enough to encourage an introduction. His was a great impertinence to dislodge me from my ease.”
For someone with no blood to aid circulation Culpeper seems uncomfortable in the hugely comfortable chair he occupies. Felice suspects he has told a lie and she asks if he can offer enlightenment on the character of the young man resting on her kitchen table or perhaps a grain of knowledge that might help her professionally.
“I am disquieted by the monkshood in your garden. It is a great aid to the poisoner and glory lily is an irritant to young children if it enters their mouths.”
“I will bear that in mind Mr.Culpeper and refuse entry to all children if I ever open the garden to the public”, she chides, the aconite garnered from monkshood one of her most prized assets.
Felice sips her medicinal brandy, unsure if she should offer Culpeper a drink. It is an awkward situation. There are no books on etiquette when playing host to ghostly apparitions, not that she is strictly sure she is the host as Culpeper seems able to move around her home as if he were the mortgagee. She takes another sip of the warming beverage and thinks to take her leave so that she can investigate the new body occupying her kitchen table. But when she looks up Culpeper has moved from the chair and is browsing a book picked up from the bureau. She recognises the book straightaway as her own, the small volume she wrote and published herself.
“It will not out sale your book,” she tells him, embarrassed to even compare her effort with his mighty and enduring tome. “I have a copy of your book on the shelf.”
In the twinkling of an eye he is by the bookcase, his fingers craving to hold again his ‘Complete Herbal’. “But it is new,” he exclaims softly, interpreting the evidence before him. “’Culpeper, the man that first ranged the woods and climbed the mountains in search of medicinal and salutary herbs, has undoubtedly merited the gratitude of posterity.’ Who is this Dr.Johnson that he can wax lyrically on my endeavours and have his accolade circumscribed on this volume of my work?”
Felice cannot at first believe anyone can be in ignorance of the fame and notoriety of Samuel Johnson. If she had given the matter any thought, as she does now, she would assume the lexicographer’s achievements would have transcended the spiritual realm and that every great literary figure would pay homage to him.
“He compiled the first extensive dictionary of the English language. He is known as one of the great men of literary history.”
“And he extols virtue on my Herbal.”
Noticing a tear roll down his silk-like cheek Felice takes the opportunity to leave the room, to allow Culpeper time to recompose himself, her curiosity to know who occupies her kitchen table overwhelming the fascination of witnessing emotion in a ghost, a phenomenon unmentioned in any supernatural literature she has read.
Her memorable night stumbles further into the extraordinary as on her kitchen table is Ivan. He, too, like Culpeper, looks remarkably healthy for a man long dead. She is not ordinarily shocked by the sight of a corpse. It is commonplace to her. But to come upon Ivan, who she knows should be at rest in her herb garden, is a devilment that wrestles with commonsense.
“He was a pest to you, wasn’t he, Miss James? It is why you had to poison him.”
She spins around, dazed by this new acquisition to her household. “Who are you?” she snaps, reeling away from her accuser.
“Dew. Detective Inspector Dew. You might recall that I was the arresting officer in the Crippen murder case.” He raises his hat and stands back, as if in expectation of a round of applause. “The first use of ship-to-shore radio. Mr.Marconi remains proud to this day that his invention was incidental in bringing such a villain to justice.”
“Why are you here?” Felice asks, making a mental note to Google for methods of closing supernatural portals.
“To seek a confession from you. Mr Abbot’s murder remains unsolved and it is my duty to solve the unsolved. The wicked must never get-away scot-free. They are always pursued to the ends of the earth and, if necessary, beyond.”
“Why should I confess? You have no proof.”
“That, Mistress James, is my business here,” Culpeper explains, appearing through the kitchen door as any well-trained ghost is presumed to do. “But by the by, did you know ground elder is excellent in the cure of gout, piles and the woman’s diseases. It also coloureth the hair black. It is the most useful of plants yet you leave it untouched in your medicinal garden. The first shoots boil as good asparagus and the young leaves boiled in fat broth doth mightily dilute the phlegm and choler.”
Dew tuts his annoyance at Culpeper rambling off subject, Culpeper, as is his wont, believing his expertise with herbs and poisons to be worth interjecting on any conversation. “In your opinion, Culpepper, what was the cause of Mr.Abbot’s death?”
“That is a simple matter, Mr.Dew. He died of aconite poisoning, a deadly substance extracted from the leaves of the pretty monkshood, of which our suspect hath many in her garden. It can be plainly introduced to the victim by ways of food and drink or through forced administration. It killeth with great speed.”
Unable to fashion a defence to the charge laid before her by the spirit world’s answer to Randall and Hopkirk, Felice turns to the only person who can help her. In life he promised her ‘undying love’ and now it is his opportunity to make good the vow. But as her hand extends toward him, to stroke his cheek in hope of waking him, Ivan disappears, leaving not a trace of having ever slept on the table. She turns back to Dew but he too has disappeared.
“Ivan Abbot, poor soul, was the last living kin of my blood-line. He was to have taken my work forward. Soon your modern medicine will founder, be especially for your common ailments, and my Herbal will be required to stem persecution of man by common pestilence and decease. Ivan was to become champion of my knowledge. We have waited for you to take his place. We can wait no longer. Dew, even in this realm, suffers gout terribly. With your sensitivity toward the dead you might serve him well by use of my remedy.”
And then Culpeper, too, is gone.
Felice returns to the sitting room, to her brandy. On the leather chair she finds the ‘Complete Herbal’ opened to the page on ground elder, an excellent cure for the gout, apparently: a grain of knowledge worth pursuing.
With the ghosts departed and dawn about to rise, with her guilt unproven, she sets about tidying up. As she returns the ‘Complete Herbal’ to its place on the shelf she notices her own book, left where Culpeper turned it aside. To her surprise there is a slice of fruit cake on its cover page.
“It is how you committed the murder, is that not right, Miss James? Was the whole of the cake laced or just the slice you offered Mr.Abbot?”
Dew stands before her, daring her to contradict him.
Without thinking, without being in the least bit hungry, perhaps to prove her innocence, Felice devours the cake, eating every crumb and as she falls, Ivan manifests out of the ether to take her in his arms; his love as undying as he promised in life.