When I first knew him, Charlie was 75 and seemed to me, a child, to be immeasurably old. He was short and thin with a hooked nose and always wore a grey trilby hat and black boots that came up to his ankles. His trousers were grey flannel and were hitched up so tightly with both braces and belt that they fought shy of his feet. When he sat down and they rode up, you could see the ends of long underpants tucked into his grey socks.
We came to know him when my mother, a trained nurse, was employed to care for his wife Wyn in the last months of her losing battle with cancer. Wyn was a bit younger than Charlie and her father also lived with them in the comfortable house on the main road with its old-fashioned décor and antique ornaments. I remember him as an amiable old gentleman dressed in a grey suit, sitting all day in the front room. He died shortly after his daughter.
Left alone in the house, and against the advice of friends, Charlie decided to sell up and to go to live in a bedsit. The result was predictable: he would move into a new house, praising the landlady and the facilities to the skies and within a few weeks, dissatisfaction and disagreements would start up and he would go looking for another place. Charlie would have liked nothing better than to move in with us but my mother refused. I think she was nervous of gossip (his frequent visits already caused her some anxiety) and perhaps realized that he would eventually fall out with her as he had with all the other people he had lived with.
As it was, he came to our house every day. He would spend the time sitting in the low folding chair that had once been the favourite nest of Toby, the marmalade cat until his death in advanced old age. Miffy the Scottish terrier would curl up on his lap and there they would sit for long hours, Charlie frequently closing his eyes and muttering prayers to his “spirit guide”, who was no less a personage than St Paul.
Charlie was a spiritualist, and this was my first encounter with this religious belief. In their house, one room had been dedicated to séances and suchlike, but all the furnishings and decorations had been dispersed when he moved out and all he had retained were three pictures of “spirit guides”, which now adorned my bedroom wall, and a Ouija board. Over a period of a few years, until Charlie died in hospital after what should have been a routine operation, I was witness to many Ouija board sessions and acted as secretary, taking down the letters as they were indicated.
At the time, I took this bizarre arrangement for granted, as if Charlie were merely calling up his family on the phone. Nearly every day, my mother would draw the curtains (in case the neighbours could see) and they would sit at the small table with the Ouija board on it, and each place a finger on the small inverted glass which, after a while would make a few uncertain movements and then start running around the board like a living thing.
A session always went more or less the same way. First Wyn would “come on” and she and Charlie would converse, he speaking, she responding by causing the glass to pick out her words, letter by letter. Then it would be her father’s turn, though he had as little to say from The Other Side as he generally had while on earth. Then Wyn would take charge again for the final words and sign off with “kisses”, which were signified by the glass speeding around the board in big circles.
My mother told me in confidence that she knew Charlie sometimes pushed the glass in order to get the response he wanted. This left open the question of why the glass moved when he wasn’t pushing it. Or maybe he always pushed it and this was sometimes more obvious than others. Did I believe that Charlie was really “talking” to Wyn and her father, dead as both were? Yes, I suppose I did. A child often does not question what adults believe in.
When Charlie died, leaving with us the precious Ouija board and a green parrot, the obvious question was whether he would get in touch through his familiar instrument of communication. My mother never showed the slightest inclination to try so if he was hoping to talk to us, we were never in a position to find out. Nor, as far as I know, did he manage to contact us by other means, despite having a firm belief that this was possible.
Years have passed. The Ouija board and the sessions I witnessed, notebook and pencil in hand, remain in my memory like old dreams. Charlie had some weird ideas but he wasn’t a bad sort. He treated me with genuine kindness and when he heard I was going to university, gave me a substantial sum of money to help with expenses. I remember him with affection for he deserves no less.