Young Hob

It’s funny the peculiar things that can happen to you, sometimes. I mean, weird things. Bizarre. Like what happened that time I bought the cottage, over at the bay. I knew as soon as I saw the place that I was on to something good. There was the view, for a start: the beach just down the road, and the steep bit of bush at the back, and the house, all neat and tidy and shining, as if something had just licked it all over. You’d have been hard put to find a speck of dust anywhere.

But there was something very strange about the house that the real estate agent had somehow neglected to mention. It had an occupant. And I don’t mean cats or dogs or possums. Nothing as straightforward as that.

My troubles started as soon as I set foot in the place. I’m an untidy sort of person, and I have this sloppy habit of leaving my clothes strewn all over the floor. Shirts, shoes, pants, socks — I just step out of them as I walk around the house, and forget about them.

Well, on that first evening in the cottage, I went to bed leaving my clothes lying about as usual, and didn’t give them another thought till the next morning when I woke up and saw everything neatly folded on a chair with my shoes sitting on top. And I hadn’t put them there, I was sure of that. Which made me a bit shivery, I can tell you. I started poking my head into corners to see if somebody was hiding there. There was this smell of tobacco smoke hanging in the air. Really strong it was, like burnt pepper. I reckoned a burglar must have got in during the night and poked about in my bedroom — except that he didn’t seem to have taken anything: not even my brand-new video recorder. Which was puzzling.

I made sure the house was locked and barred before I turned in that night. Then I threw off my clothes, jumped into bed, and fell fast asleep. In the morning, the first thing I saw was the neat little pile of clothes on the chair, and my shoes perched on top.

So now I knew why the cottage had been so cheap. I mean, it was pretty obvious. I had got myself a ghost — a fussy little nipper, too, by the look of it. I reckoned it must be the spirit of a former owner who was attached to the place. Well, I could live with that. It could even be a bonus in its way: a sort of attendant genie to do the housework for me, free of charge.

I quickly changed my mind, though, when I discovered a couple of items were missing from the pile on the chair: a new leather belt and my favourite blue linen shirt. I hunted for them everywhere, but with no luck. They’d gone, vanished into the bright blue air.

That wasn’t the end of it, either. Other things started disappearing: the cream, for instance. Somebody was getting into the fridge and drinking it all. I tried securing the bottles with screw-tops and when that didn’t work I disguised the cream by pouring it into containers of tinted glass labelled ‘custard’ and ‘caramel’. I even hid it in off-beat places such as under the sink or in the shaving cabinet. It made no difference: the cream kept on disappearing. So I cancelled the cream and ordered yoghurt instead.

That must have enraged the creature, because the next thing it did was unpeg the washing off the clothesline, so it fell in the dirt and had to be washed again. This was no joke, because it had been a long, hot summer and the supply of rainwater was alarmingly low. Every hour or so I would rush outside and stare up at the sky, hoping to see a storm-cloud sweep in over the sea. ‘Come in, clouds!’ I prayed. ‘Come in rain!’ But the sky stayed blue and bright, like a great gleaming eggshell.

Well, there’s one thing about it, I consoled myself: things surely can’t get much worse. But I was wrong about that ...

On the night of the clothesline incident, I had this dream I was splashing about under a waterfall. The water steamed and frothed and bubbled all around me: the noise was deafening. Then I woke up and heard the shower running. I leapt out of bed, raced to the bathroom and turned off the taps. It was like a sauna in there: steam everywhere. So who had been playing around with the shower? Well, ask yourself. There was that tell-tale reek of tobacco, for a start. It was so ripe it just about took my breath away. ‘That’s done it,’ I said to myself. ‘I’ll be out of water by the end of the day, and that’s a fact.’

And I was — by breakfast time. I turned on the kitchen tap to make a cup of tea and heard this strangled gurgle in the pipes. I was so upset I had to go outside and take some deep breaths to calm my mind. As I stood there I heard the gentle crinkle-crankle of water from a creek flowing down a steep gully nearby. And that gave me an idea. There was not much water in the creek this time of the year, but I reckoned I might be able to build a dam upstream and pipe the water down to the holding tank. Why hadn’t I thought of it before?

I went up into the bush behind the house and found a pool in the creek, which I built into a dam using large, flat rocks. Then, fetching some plastic hose from the shed, I secured one end at the bottom of the pool and fed the rest downhill into the tank. I turned on the tap and the water started trickling in. I was so pleased with myself that I let out a great whoop of joy. Which was stupid of me, because that mean little sniveller was sure to be listening in, and grinding its ghostly teeth.

Sure enough, when I went out again to check on the water level in the tank, I found the hose had been ripped out of the creek and the rocks rolled down the hill. Well, I was in a right rage when I saw that, but in the end there was nothing for it but to settle down and rebuild the dam, even though I suspected it was going to be a waste of time. There was no way I could keep an eye on it twenty-four hours a day.

So I wasn’t surprised the next morning to find the water had stopped again. This time the little beauty had sawn the hose in two at a spot halfway up the hill. Which meant a trip into town to get a connection that would join up the two pieces of pipe. But then I discovered that someone had been tampering with the car. The battery had been pulled out and thrown away, along with all my tools: spanners, jack, tyre pump — the lot. I rushed inside to phone the mechanic but I couldn’t get through; the line was dead. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the taps had started running again, and all the precious water I had saved was joyfully gushing down the pipes.

I started racing around turning off the taps, but of course as soon as I looked the other way they turned themselves on again, full bore. What a circus! I was like a cat chasing its tail. In the end I gave up trying. There wasn’t any point, really: the water had all dried up. I hitched a ride into town with the rural mailman, and on the way I thought of a plan to solve my problem, once and for all.

When I finally got home that evening, I had some new tools, a packet of hose connections and a few slabs of timber. The timber was for making a trap.

All right, I know what you’re going to say. Whoever heard of catching a ghost in a trap? It would be like holding water in a sieve. But this was no ghost-busting device. Not at all. Because I didn’t believe there was a ghost in the house after all. I had seen the depression of small bare feet in the mud alongside the creek, and ghosts don’t have footprints — at least not that I ever heard of. No, it was a small man, I reckoned: a tiny little fellow who was living under my roof as an uninvited house-guest. In the attic. I knew that, because there was always a reek of stale tobacco up there, day and night. But catch him? Not a hope. He was everywhere and nowhere — the invisible man himself. Well, not any more. He had a weakness, this little man, and I knew what it was. Cream. While in town I had bought half a dozen cream cakes from the bakery with the idea of using them to bait the trap. I figured his nose would be on to it right away — he wouldn’t be able to resist it.

I spent half the night building the trap, placing it on the back porch where the little pest would be sure to see it. Then I went to bed and slept like a log.

First thing in the morning I rushed out to check if the trap had sprung, but there was nothing in it. Not a whisker. The trapdoor was still ajar, the cream cake firmly in place. ‘Maybe he’s not up yet,’ I said to myself.

I went inside to brew myself a hot, strong cup of coffee. The next moment, Bang! The lid snapped shut. ‘Got you!’ I shouted. Racing outside I lifted the cage and gave it a shake. There was something in it, right enough; it felt about as heavy as a possum. ‘Anybody there?’ I said.

No reply.

‘Come on, I know you’re there.’ I gave the cage another quick shake around. ‘What are you? Man or beast?’

That seemed to do it. The creature became very fidgety; it sounded as if it was shuffling around in circles. Then it spoke. ‘None of your business,’ says he.

I was so surprised, I nearly dropped the cage on the spot. He had such a creaky little voice, and this strange sort of brogue, thick as treacle, if you know what I mean.

‘Don’t push your luck,’ I said. You’d better tell me your name and what you’re doing in my house or I’ll drop you in the creek real quick.’

That had him really hopping about. ‘’Taint fair to talk about names,’ says he. ‘Names be private.’

‘Is that right?’ I said, giving the cage another twirl. ‘Well, fair or not, it’s me calling the tune, not you. I want to know what sort of fish I’ve caught in my net.’

He hopped around a bit more, whispering and tispering. ‘Take your time,’ I said, ‘take your time, little man.’

After a while he went very quiet, as if he was doing some serious thinking. ‘I’ll tell you what I ain’t,’ he says at last. ‘I ain’t no human being, and that’s the truth.’

‘Really? So what are you then? I’d be interested to know.’

‘Not telling,’ says he.

‘Right, fine. If that’s how you want to play it.’ And I went inside to have my breakfast. ‘Let him cool his heels a bit,’ I said to myself.

Half an hour later I strolled outside and gave the cage another spin. ‘You still there?’

The creature gave a little cough. ‘Aye,’ says he, speaking very low.

‘Right,’ I said. ‘Come on now, no more of your nonsense. I want to know who you are, and what the devil you’re doing in my house?’

‘I’m a house hob, Master,’ says he.

‘A what? Never heard of it.’

‘You must of,’ says he. ‘Everyone’s heard of hobs. They be gentle, friendly creatures that like living in houses. Give them a warm, dark place to sleep, and a fire at night, and plenty of cream and cakes, and they’ll be your friends forever — do anything for you, anything at all. See, it’s the old story: you look after me, I’ll look after you. Simple as that. So what do you say, Boss — shall we make a deal?’

Well, I had to scratch my head at that. I mean, the stories people tell! It was outrageous. But what to do with the little tyke? I suppose I could have carted him down to the police station, but I didn’t want the bother of that. Besides, I had an uneasy feeling that catching people in traps might not be strictly legal. And then again, he might come back and burn the place down. He sounded like a crazy one ...

‘All right,’ I said, playing it cool. ‘Maybe we’ll give it a try, but there’s to be no trickery, understand?’

‘Aye, Master. You can trust me.’

Well, I wasn’t so sure about that, but I opened the cage all the same. Suddenly I felt this tight little ball of air shoot past me like a sort of missile, but I couldn’t see a thing. The little creature really was invisible, after all. It gave me quite a turn, I can tell you — I couldn’t believe my eyes. And then I got all in a shiver and a shake as it dawned on me that I’d never catch him now — not in a thousand years.

Well, there’s an old saying, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,’ and when I’d calmed down a bit I decided to stock up with cream and cakes and some good dry wood for a fire at night. At least my little hobgoblin couldn’t say I hadn’t kept my end of the bargain. A couple of days went by and I didn’t see any sign of Hob. The cream and cakes stayed untouched. What’s he up to? I wondered, as I sat musing by the fire one night. He’s got to be around somewhere. And almost at once I got a whiff of that foul tobacco. ‘Is that you, young Hob?’ I said.

‘Aye, Master.’ He was sitting on the cushion I’d placed for him on the hearth. Not that I could see him, you understand, but there was a big hollow in the cushion where he’d curled himself up. ‘Settling in all right, are we?’

‘Oh, fairly,’ says he, ‘fairly.’

‘Good,’ I said, ‘very good. Now if there’s anything you need, any little thing at all, don’t be frightened to ask.’ Falling over backwards, I was, to be civil to the wee fellow.

So we sat there quietly, the two of us, thinking our own thoughts. After a while I said to him, ‘That’s a strange lilt you have there, young Hob. Are you from the Old Country, by any chance?’

‘Aye,’ said Hob. And then he started telling me about his past life, and how he used to live in a big house in Yorkshire; very grand it was, too, with a butler and lots of servants. ‘They was good to me,’ says he. ‘Treated me right and proper with cream straight from the cow and a crackling big fire from morn till night. So I did the same for them: kept the place neat and trim, just like I’ll do for you, Master.’

I don’t know why, but I could feel myself warming to him already. ‘You’ll do me, young fellow,’ I said. ‘But tell me, what made you want to swap all that for a little cottage on the other side of the world?’

‘Ah,’ says he, ‘it’s a sad story, that is. I got packed away in a sea-chest by mistake. I was sleeping in a pile of clothes at the time, and when I woke up I was out at sea rolling about in a storm, with the rigging moaning and groaning, and spars crashing down on the deck. I thought the end of the world was on me, I’m telling you true, Master.’

I stared at him in astonishment — or rather, at the hollow in the cushion where he was sitting. ‘Spars?’ I said. ‘Rigging? You mean, you came out on a sailing ship?’

‘Aye,’ says Hob, ‘The Lancashire Witch.’

Well, that really knocked me back. ‘Good grief,’ I said. ‘My great-grandfather came out on The Lancashire Witch, back in 1863. So how old does that make you then, you wee sprog?’

‘I’ve often wondered that meself, Master,’ says he. ‘We hobs live to a fair old age, you know. Too long to be a-counting of. A few hundred years is neither here nor there to the likes of us. Which is why we like to settle down in a place and make ourselves comfy. We’re home bodies, we are. Me and old Miss Pipe that was here afore you, we lived 40 years together in this house. She used to call me when she was putting out my vittles. ‘Chuck, chuck,’ she’d say, like she was calling the hens. But talk to me — like you and me, now — no, never; it wasn’t her way, you see.’

‘Well, young Hob,’ I said, ‘I don’t mind a bit of company at night. It beats television, I reckon.’

We sat on in the dark thinking our own thoughts and not saying very much to each other; but there was a good feeling between us, all the same.

It was like that every night for as long as Hob and I were together in that little cottage by the sea. And I suppose if this were a fairy tale, I could say we lived happily ever after, but it didn’t end that way ...

You see, after a couple of years I had to start thinking about moving on. Times were hard, especially for builders like me, and there wasn’t much money coming in. So it made sense to sell up and move to Australia, where there were plenty of jobs at that time. Young Hob got very quiet after I told him the news. He seemed to be in a bit of a sulk. ‘You could come too,’ I suggested.

‘Not on your life,’ says he. ‘I’ll not travel on one of them new-fangled flying things. Never have, and never will, neither.’

So that was that. Then a couple of days later, as we sat by the fire, Hob started talking about my old dinghy, stored out in the shed. ‘Tell me,’ says he, ‘is she a seaworthy boat?’

‘Course she is,’ I said. I’d bought it with the idea of doing a little fishing, but had never got around to it. ‘All she needs,’ I told Hob, ‘is a lick of paint, and she’ll be good as new. You can give me a hand if you like.’

So we worked on the boat together until it looked shiny and new. Sky blue it was, with a gold trim. The next evening we loaded the dinghy on the trailer and drove down to the mooring jetty for a spot of night fishing.

It was a clear starlit night, with the water silvery-still, although further out you could see the waves breaking, like ghostly shadows turning over and over. With Hob’s help I lowered the boat into the water and tied it to the mooring-post. Then I loaded the life jackets and fishing tackle and sat Hob down in the stern. ‘Just keep an eye on things for me,’ I told him, ‘while I get the thermos out of the car. We might feel like some coffee later.’

Well, I was only away half a minute but when I got back I was dismayed to see the boat afloat out in the bay. I heard the gentle creak of the oars and saw a column of red sparks shoot up from Hob’s pipe. ‘Hey!’ I shouted. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’

Hob’s voice floated clear and calm over the water. ‘I’m sorry, Master, don’t be too hard on me ... I wanted to go fishing, too true I did. But something’s come up.’

‘What’s that?’ I shouted back. ‘What the devil are you talking about? Come back here at once!’

But the boat continued to float further away. ‘I’m off on a journey,’ says Hob. ‘I’m getting old, see, and it’s time to be going home.’

‘Home?’ I shouted. ‘You gone mad or something? It’s 12,000 miles to the Old Country — you’ll never make it, Hob.’

But Hob just kept on rowing. ‘Don’t fret yourself about me, Master,’ says he. ‘I’m figuring on taking a short-cut.’

Well, I stood there pleading with him till my voice grew hoarse but it was no use: Hob’s mind was made up. He had drifted so far away that I couldn’t hear what he was saying anymore; but a whiff of tobacco came drifting across the water and made me feel really sad. ‘Goodbye, Hob!’ I called, and waved one last time. ‘God bless!’

Then a strange thing happened. Hob waved back. I mean, he became visible: I saw him. He was very small, about the size of a cat standing on its hind legs, with hair flowing all round his face; and there was a sort of silvery light around him that shimmered and sparkled like phosphorescence. Just then a cloud passed over the moon, darkening the sea; and when the light came back there was no sign of the boat anywhere. Hob had vanished.

I stood there staring for a while, hoping I would see the boat bob up suddenly from some dark spot in the water, but it didn’t: there was nothing there. I went back home and sat by the fire and thought about poor old Hob. The more I thought about him, the more I could have kicked myself for letting the little tyke loose in that boat, but there was no use fretting about it. ‘He’s gone,’ I told myself, ‘and what’s done is done.’ So I busied myself packing up for Australia, which helped take my mind off things.

Just before I left I spruced up the attic. I put in new leadlight casements and some dark oak panelling to make it warm and snug and inviting, in case some stowaway ever turned up needing a home.

Well, you never know, do you?