It’s a drizzly, melancholy day, and I’m watching umbrellas float by outside like bubbles on a slow-moving stream.
I’m in Bygones, the pub across the street from Ruskin House, the philanthropic organization where I work.
My friend, Jake, shakes his head in awe. “What’s an Osgoode lawyer doing working in a small burg like this, for a non-profit?”
I smile and shrug. “I was drafted.”
He scowls at my flippant reply. “Say, what happened to the Grant Preston I knew in law school—you know, the hipster who’d answer, Hell no—I won’t go. Did somebody take him captive?”
“Maybe he just grew up, Jake.”
“I think it’s more like somebody has him enthralled.”
I arch an eyebrow, but he smirks and points through the bleary pane to the yellow window squares of Ruskin House. Jeannie Church, the secretary, is framed in the windows adjusting the blinds.
He sighs wistfully, “O, she could teach the torches to burn bright.”
The mere glimpse of her lovely face saddens me—I’ve tried everything to make her like me—all to no avail.
Jake sees my sad expression and turns serious. “That bad, huh? Guess you struck out big time with her. Sorry, Pal.”
“I just don’t get it, Jake. I’ve never met a woman so cold and distant. It’s as if she took an instant dislike to me the moment she met me. Nothing I do or say can thaw her icy reserve.”
“So, why are you still there? It can’t be the ambience—that building’s at least a century old and you’re boss is kind of dreary too.”
“Mr. New? Naw, he’s all right. He’s a kind man, and it’s strange because his warmth drew me to Ruskin House in the first place. I wasn’t planning on working pro bono, but somehow the place just melted my heart. He hired me because he said he saw a light in me—and I believed him. And, he offered me the same salary I’d receive at a big firm.”
Jake looked perplexed. “No kidding! —Well, how do they do it—where’s the money coming from?”
“Mr. New simply says it’s a trust fund set up by a wealthy benefactor.”
“Man, that’s really odd—you don’t often hear of that.”
“That’s not all that’s odd. He’s got a silent partner I’ve never met. He has an office next door to ours and he never comes out. In my six months with the foundation, I’ve never seen him enter or leave. If Alfred New needs to consult, he buzzes him on the intercom, and the partner’s door clicks open, and he goes in.”
Jakes eyes are wide. “Wow! That’s really spooky.”
The wall clock chimes the hour–my signal that it’s time to get back to the grind.
“Thanks for dropping by for lunch,” I say, getting to my feet, “—let’s get together on the weekend—maybe catch a Jay’s game.”
“Sounds like a plan. And oh, if I were you, I’d forget about that secretary, Pal—they say it’s gonna be a long, cold winter—and you won’t need any more frostiness.”
I laugh and clap him on the shoulder, but inside, I’m grim. I’ve been thinking the same thing.
Back at Ruskin House the day goes from bleak to bad. “You’re retiring—how am I going to run things without you, Mr. New? I’m just getting my feet wet.”
“Now, now, Grant—you’ll be fine. If I didn’t have confidence in you, I would never have hired you. Besides, you’ll have Jeannie here to assist you.”
I glance over at Jeannie’s inscrutable face and feel panic rising inside me. The girl won’t even acknowledge my existence—how can this possibly work?
The old gentleman senses my anxiety and gently ushers me into his office.
“Look, Grant—I’m not abandoning you entirely. I have a silent partner, Anthony—if you need help, he’ll bail you out.”
“But I haven’t even met him and how will I get in touch with him?”
“You won’t, my boy—he’ll get in touch with you.”
“But how will he know I’m in trouble?”
“Ha ha—don’t worry, son. Anthony always knows.”
He puts on his overcoat and hat, smiles goodbye and is out the door.
I slump down in his chair—now mine, and ponder my fate.
Jeannie is blithely typing at the ancient Smith Corona, as unfazed by Alfred New’s departure as my succeeding in his place.
The next week is incredibly awkward. I ask Jeannie a question only to get a short, staccato response. Hours go by and the only sound I hear is the ticking of the Regulator wall clock and the interminable clacking of her typewriter keys.
I get to the point where I can take it no longer. I resolve to hand in my notice at the end of the day. No sooner do I resolve the matter in my head, than I hear the door to Anthony’s office click open.
Jeannie’s at my door. “Mr. Ashley Cooper would like a word with you, Mr. Preston.”
“And I with him,” I growl, thinking it the perfect time to vent my frustrations.
Her eyes grow huge, but she says nothing.
I stride out of my office and enter the partner’s den—and stop dead in my tracks.
The office is an elegant oak-paneled study with bookshelves lining one wall and a magnificent fireplace occupying the other. Anthony is sitting in a high-backed leather wing chair by the fire. “Sit down, Grant,” he smiles and motions me to another high-backed chair facing his.
I’m taken aback and sit down in a daze.
“I’m sorry to see you’re disconsolate and ready to leave, Grant—Alfred would be sad to hear that.”
“How do you know that?” I croak. It’s odd, but I feel intimidated by his presence.
“Oh, I know a lot of things about you, Grant—in mid-sentence, he breaks off and calls out, “that will be all, Jeannie.” The door clicks shut and merges seamlessly with the oak paneling.
Fear crawls up my spine.
“No need to be afraid, Grant. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now I cast no shadow. I’m not merely a silent partner, but a phantom one as well.”
He eyes me narrowly gauging my response. I refuse to flinch.
“Care for some port?” A glass slides across the coffee table and a bottle pops its cork. It floats several feet through the air to decant two ounces into my glass.
I shakily lift the glass to my lips, readily drink it all and feet the liquid warming me as it goes down.
Anthony smiles indulgently. “A wise decision to fortify yourself, my boy.”
He has a gaunt Abraham Lincoln face—complete with grizzled hair and beard and a long aquiline nose that gives him the air of a patrician.
“Are you really a ghost?” I ask.
He nods. “I am unfortunately, physically challenged. In life, I was Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. Now that I’m dead, I’m doing in death what I did in life—I’m a philanthropist and social reformer. I like to help people.”
“Then, you’re the foundation’s secret benefactor?”
He shrugs. “I amassed a considerable fortune in my life—mind you, when I was young I was, neither wise, nor good, nor useful, but as I went on I’d like to think I made a difference.”
“When did you live?”
“I was born in 1801 and passed in 1885.”
“My God, you’re over two hundred years old!”
“Well, I see myself in my mid-eighties, but I suppose you’re right. Time does fly when you’re on the other side.”
My mind is whirling trying to make sense of something totally incomprehensible.
“You know Dickens admired me—I worked to enact child labor laws, help chimney sweeps and boot blacks. Then, I worked with the Church Missionary Society and supported the work of Florence Nightingale. Unhappily, I died while trying to curb the opium trade.”
“So then, why not just enter your deserved rest, Anthony?”
“Well, some souls do rest, if their life work is over—but mine was still unfinished. I couldn’t rest. One day Alfred New visited my family estate in Dorset, and stayed overnight. I found he was a sensitive—he could actually see me. We conversed, discovered we shared the same passion for helping the poor, and so I accompanied him back here, and the result is Ruskin House.”
I smile at him warmly. “That’s very admirable.”
“Alfred told me he saw the same light in you, Grant. So, if that’s the case, and pardon the pun, but why are you so willing to give up the ghost?”
I decided to be frank with him.
“To tell the truth, Anthony, I’m smitten with Jeannie, but she doesn’t seem to know I exist.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s the case at all, my boy—quite the contrary.”
“I hate to disagree, but if Jeannie Church even knows I’m alive, I’d be surprised.”
The old man shakes his head and smiles ruefully. “But that’s just it, Grant—she’s well aware you’re alive—but unfortunately, she isn’t.”
I’m thunder-struck. “You’re telling me Jeannie is a ghost, like you?”
He holds up a hand to stop me. “Oh no, my boy—she’s a ghost all right, but not like me. I’m incorporeal, but she can manifest. She has the ability to rematerialize as long as she remains in this locality. We’re all different, and we all have limitations, and that is hers.”
“You mean she has to remain in this building?”
“She’s not confined to a building, but a locality. Our office is located here in this tiny Victorian village on the fringes of Toronto, and so far she’s found she can manifest materially if she stays within these borders. It’s not too bad—not terribly confining.”
“I see. So, she’s flesh and blood like me as long as she stays within her allotted territory.”
He smiles, “something like that.”
“But even if that’s the case, that doesn’t account for the way she treats me. Why does she dislike me so much?”
“Ah, but that’s just it, my boy—she doesn’t. The fact is she likes you very much and it pains her. She avoids you so she won’t become too close to you. She feels if you both fell in love, it’d be too much to ask for you to give up traveling and seeing the world and be limited to life in this small village.”
“Well, I’d like to have the option of making that choice.”
“Well then, why not stay and give your relationship a chance?”
A silent partner who’s a ghost and a matchmaker—yeah, that sounds about right. Well, it’s typical of my life right now.
I’m continuing to work at Ruskin House and exploring my possibilities.
Actually, life in that other realm is very much like ours, once you get used to it. Admittedly, Anthony gets frustrated at times when he can’t catch hold of things—but then, that’s why he has me.
As for Jeannie, she’s beginning to warm up. We’re not dating or anything, but we are talking.
I’m learning a lot about the 60’s music and fashion—that was her era, before the microchip revolutionized our lives.
I’m starting to like those 60’s business suits, Audrey Hepburn dresses and vintage perfumes and lipsticks.
I can even take Petula Clark singing Downtown ad nauseam on scratchy vinyl because the words resonate with me.
You may find somebody kind to help and understand you
Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to
Guide them along.
© 2014, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.