The Homecoming

Fred returns to his old home to rebuild his life, but technology has other ideas. Contains content which may offend.

Image Credit: 
Public Domain

‘How’s it going, Fred?’ Harry roared over the noise of the pub.

The full-volume greeting causing the other patrons to turn in his direction didn’t bother Fred Hugget too much. ‘Oh you know…just travelling through life in the hope of a better one the next time.’

‘Aye, well, that’s all very well for you but some of us have to be content with the one we have now,’ Harry retorted. ‘Still a pint of bitter, is it?’

‘Seems like a few things have changed since I was here last. You’ve actually made the place into a restaurant,’ said Fred, indicating the six tables laid out alongside the windows.

‘Only way to survive these days,’ answered Lance the landlord, muttering under his breath, ‘No thanks to customers like you who come once a year.’

‘Okay then, I’ll have lunch here. Do I order at the bar or the table?’

‘Table first, look at the menu, back to the bar, place your order.’

‘How’s the missus, Fred?’ Harry called from the bar as Fred perused the menu.

‘She died last year, Harry. I thought you all knew.’

‘Oh shit, sorry man. No, we didn’t hear anything, did we Lance?’

‘Walter never said anything,’ Lance said.

‘That’s my brother for you. I’m not too surprised though. We haven’t spoken for years so he probably wasn’t interested and didn’t think anyone else would be.’

‘What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?’ Harry asked when Fred walked back to the bar, menu in hand.

Fred shook his head. ‘We were sailing off the Northumberland coast and I went below to put my sou’wester on because the wind was coming up. When I got back on deck, Gwen was gone…just gone.’ Fred’s head dropped and he went quiet for a while as Harry and Lance kept a respectful silence. ‘Yes,’ he suddenly added, ‘the coastguard came out, helicopter and everything, but no trace of her.’ After a moment more without speaking, Fred went back to his table.

‘Looks like Gwen hasn’t contacted him from the other side, then,’ murmured Lance.

‘That’s a bit unkind, mate,’ said Harry. ‘I know she wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea with her holier-than-thou attitude, but Fred seemed happy enough with her.’

‘You have to admit they were a bit unusual—him believing in reincarnation and her believing she can talk to the dead. I suppose it was a good mix, if you really think about it. People will never ever have to stay dead and quiet with them two.’ Lance chuckled at his crude joke.

Fred reappeared at the bar for a refill and to buy a pint for Harry. ‘You’ll be seeing a lot of me now. I’m moving back down here, lock, stock, and barrel. Too many memories up North.’

‘What about your work?’ Harry asked.

‘Not a problem. I work from home and just need to pop into HQ occasionally. All of my computer equipment’s arriving tomorrow,’ said Fred, his enthusiasm lifting his gloom.

‘How about the folks renting your place? Did you evict them?’ Lance asked.

‘I’m not as heartless as I look, you know. I waited for their tenancy to expire at the end of last month otherwise I would’ve been back sooner.’

* * * * *

As he sorted out the furniture the next morning, Fred wondered if he should give Walter a ring and patch things up. His obnoxious sister-in-law Ethel came to mind, and he decided against it.

‘A bridge too far,’ he said to the squirrel that had taken up residence on the kitchen window sill.

Gwen’s Retreat was at least a hundred years old, with oak beams interspersed between exposed stone walls throughout the house. Fred had bought the cottage when they first married, and everything in it reminded him now of their life together in that first flush of togetherness. In front of the open fireplace, in the limestone-flagged kitchen, stood an antique fire-guard in the shape of a peacock.

Fred recalled the day he’d bought it from an antiques fair as a two-year anniversary gift for her. She hadn’t been impressed, saying it wasn’t old enough. Fred hadn’t been thrilled, especially after parting with £500. Well, he didn’t need to impress anyone else anymore.

He remembered several other of Gwen’s put-downs. Looking around the old house now, he was glad that he hadn’t caved in to her demands to sell the place when they moved North. He must change the name of the place as soon as possible.

The computer equipment didn’t show up until after lunch, and Fred only completed setting everything up six hours later. The internet service was up and running, the final task involved re-establishing the settings for the Smart Speaker. What a blessing, he thought as he lifted the spherical device out its box. Cora had all the answers in a flash—no typing and waiting or going through unnecessary lists. And as a bonus she could play his favourite Cohen and Dylan songs while he worked, not to mention controlling the house electricity and security as well.

After checking that everything was functioning correctly, Fred sat back in his chair and relaxed, happy to be in his private domain at last. ‘Hey Cora, please set the shower water to 32 degrees.’

‘Shower water set to 32 degrees,’ replied the cultured sensual voice.

‘Hey Cora, where is the best fish and chip shop?’

‘The Rod and Line 2.6 miles north in Minster is open until 10pm.’

‘Hey Cora, where can a lonely man find a woman for the night?’

‘Sorry, I am unable to help with that at the present time.’

Fred laughed. Forgetting the old maxim that the devil finds work for idle minds, he continued to play around with the device. ‘Hey Cora, do you remember Gwen?’

‘Gwen is a recognised voice in my system.’

‘I know that. She used you a lot didn’t she?’ said Fred. He grinned. ‘Hey Cora, I want to speak to Gwen. She always said there’s life after death.’

The five indicator lights danced around the top of the box for what seemed an age, and Fred suspected a malfunction. He was just about to press the reset button when a feeble and trembling voice emerged from the speaker.

‘Freddie, is that you? It’s too dark here. I can’t see, please help me.’

Fred’s hair stood on end.

The voice was Gwen’s. It sounded as though she was freezing cold. Her voice stuttered and trembled over the words.

‘What’s going on, Cora?’ Fred demanded. There was no answer, and the lights stopped dancing. ‘Hey Cora…p–please repeat the last communication.’ His heart was thumping hard in his ears.

‘Sorry, I am unable to help with that at the present time.’

Dumbfounded, Fred sat motionless for several minutes, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Did he really hear her voice? It wasn’t possible, unless the machine had stored some of her instructions and regurgitated them when he asked it to communicate with her. That must have been it.

Further thoughts were interrupted by the doorbell.

‘Hello Fred.’ It was Harry. ‘Just wondered if you needed a hand with anything? My goodness, what happened to you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’

‘Erm, yes, I mean no…just thought I heard Gwen’s voice,’ Fred stammered as he ushered Harry into the sitting room.

‘Really! When?’

‘Just now, in my office upstairs. I think I know what it was. It must have been some playback in my recording equipment but it was quite a shock.’

‘Yes, I can see that. I would have thought you may have been expecting to hear from her, the way the pair of you preached about the afterlife and all that kind of stuff,’ said Harry with a laugh.

‘Very droll, Harry but I don’t believe in ghosts even if she did. The afterlife is not about haunting.’

‘Well, I can see you’ve got everything shipshape and Bristol fashion here, so how about we adjourn to the Mucky Duck for a pint with a few old friends? Sometimes it’s not good to be alone. A man can start imagining all kinds of things.’

‘I guess you’re right. It was probably my imagination.’

‘Those tenants of yours didn’t complain about this place being haunted did they?’ Harry asked.

‘Nothing like that. In fact, they mentioned how peaceful everything was around here. Forget what I said, okay? I don’t want the whole village to think I’m delusional.’

‘Okay, I won’t mention it to Lance. Hurry along then, mate. I’ve got a little surprise for you.’ His old pal winked and smiled salaciously as they left for the pub.

* * * * *

It was almost midnight by the time Fred arrived back at his cottage. Harry had been correct, it was good to get out and meet a few friends from the past. He couldn’t help but notice how much easier they seemed in his presence now that Gwen was no longer around. Harry’s little surprise turned out to be an attempt at matchmaking. He introduced Agnes Cleary, a recently-widowed lady from the village, and made Fred sit next to her the whole evening. She was amply endowed and obviously quite popular amongst the male contingent. Fred played along so as not to disappoint his well-meaning friend.

Cora’s wake-up jingle sounded as he stepped out of the bathroom after a hot shower. What could have caused that? A power surge, maybe? He wrapped a towel around his waist and headed for the computer room. The indicator lights on the speaker were static. Looking about at his set-up, he reminded himself that he should have the home electrics looked at.

‘Hey Cora, what was your last communication?’

‘Sorry, I am unable to help with that at the present time.’

Maybe he was still inebriated from his time at the pub. Maybe it was something else that made him say, ‘Hey Cora…let me speak to Gwen again.’

The indicator lights changed from white to blue and skipped around the perimeter of the hub for a while before the thin wavering voice came through. ‘Is that you, Freddie? Please let me out of here. I can’t breathe. Help me, please.’

Fear gripped Fred’s heart. ‘Cora, stop playback.’

‘I can’t see, Freddie,’ Gwen’s voice cried. ‘Please stop playing games and get me out.’

‘Hey Cora, mute,’ Fred commanded, but the blue lights kept on twinkling.

‘Cora? No, Freddie, it’s not Cora. It’s me, Gwen. Help me out, please. It’s freezing in here.’

Fred yanked out the mains lead, and everything went quiet. He sat for a long time before daring to plug the speaker in again. The lights flickered and went into their normal standby mode.

‘Hey Cora, what just happened?’ Fred whispered, his voice high.

‘Voice not recognised.’

He swallowed hard and tried again, this time a little calmer. ‘Hey Cora…how are you connected to Gwen?’

‘Sorry, I am unable to help with that at the present time.’

‘Hey Cora, stop! Repeat the previous communication.’

‘There has only been one communication and that was: How are you connected to Gwen.’

Deciding the ale at the Mucky Duck might have been extra potent, Fred staggered from his chair. Switching everything off in the computer room and pulling all the plugs out of the wall sockets, he sought refuge under the bed clothes.

Sleep evaded him. Every time he closed his eyes he could see Gwen trying to escape from her deep and dark prison, her face contorted in terror, eyeballs bulging out of their sockets and her mouth uttering silent screams. Eventually, he dozed off just as the first shafts of daylight split the sky and the dim light cast eerie shadows around the walls.

An electronic chime disturbed his half-sleep. Fred jumped out of bed, senses fully alert. He could see blue light rays sneaking from under the computer room door. His hand shook on the doorknob as he tried to summon up the courage to open it.

A thin wailing voice shattered the silence and Fred’s nerves. ‘Please let me out, Freddie. Please, I beg you. I’m trapped in here. Why have you done this to me?’

Fred ran down the stairs out into the freezing morning air.

* * * * *

‘Hi Harry, what do think about your mate, Fred Hugget?’ Johnny the newsagent asked as Harry popped in for his usual Thanet Extra.

‘Why do you ask? Has something happened?’

‘You could say that. He’s gone mad. He walked into the police station this morning and confessed to the murder of his wife. Sergeant Osborne reckons he looked as if all the devils from hell were after him. He was shaking so badly, they had to phone for the paramedics.’

‘What?’ Harry cried. ‘He was fine when I left him. Although, hold on, he did say something about hearing Gwen’s voice. It must have happened again and scared the living daylights out of him.’

Johnny shrugged. ‘Apparently he went on and on about his computer and about someone called Cora. Sergeant Osborne couldn’t get any sense out of him at first. Then he confessed to killing Gwen. Said he was sick of her domineering ways and planned the perfect murder. Told Osborne that while they were scuba-diving, he’d tricked her into swimming into the hold of an old shipwreck and closed the hatch on her. Kept sobbing and moaning that she’s come back to punish him. Osborne asked him where she is and he started screaming, She’s trapped in the speaker, oh my god, she’s trapped in the speaker.’

Born just six months before WWII ended, Brian was fostered to his paternal grandparents in the North when he was barely six months old.

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