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So here’s a quaint little story I’m only now recollecting for the first time in my adult life, having faded slowly in the memory since the event actually occurred on one day during my teenage years.
I was 11, and it was the summer that existed immediately before my first year of secondary school was due to start. Having been an academic boy of sorts, mother (keen to ensure this desirable trait continued) encouraged me to start my preparation of the educational year almost as soon as my previous one had ended. I’m not ashamed to admit even now that my relentless pursuit of intelligence – and resulting lack of social graces – was done purely as a means to make her proud, and never once in order to develop my own enjoyment of life.
As such, when I saw in the paper that the ever-popular paranormal expert Professor Luke Caine was hosting a talk in my local community hall, I jumped at the opportunity to attend – if only to find out what on earth ‘paranormal’ meant, as the subject was not included on my junior school curriculum.
To a wired-framed boy like myself, the hall was vast, so vast in fact that I was sure if a bird ever stumbled into it, it should live the rest of its days under the illusion of complete, limitless freedom. I was amongst the last to arrive, and so took my seat as quickly and discreetly as possible before, mere seconds later, Professor Caine took to the stage.
He was dressed in a long, cloak-like outer jacket which made any other garments beneath it aesthetically redundant (though I was confident he was wearing some) and a top hat that he never once removed during the whole presentation. He looked the epitome of knowledge, and the silence that befell his entrance confirmed a similar reputation.
He spoke well, with a literacy that even I – at the zenith of scholastic understanding – found hard to understand in places. I felt myself becoming cleverer with every word, and I couldn’t help but look forward to returning home and relaying all that I’d learnt to mother at dinner. She will be so impressed, I thought.
It was at a point, about halfway through proceedings, that Professor Caine asked (in a rhetorical manner I did and still believe) whether anyone in the audience had lagged behind in their grasp of his explanation as to why ghosts couldn’t possibly exist. In typical English resolve, no one dared speak up, although I was certain not everyone could have followed such a convoluted theory.
However, a hand was raised, atop an arm belonging to an old lady sitting three or four rows ahead of me. Professor Caine, though slightly miffed at the situation, humoured it.
“What of Tharbles?” asked the lady.
“Tharbles?” answered the professor, “what are Tharbles?”
“Tharbles,” said the lady, “are the little goblin creatures we can’t see, but are there. Y’know, not invisible, but real good at hidin’. They’re on our shoulders, Mister Caine.”
The professor was knocked well off his stride at this line of questioning. He tried to brush it off in a professional manner, but the lady, observing that no one was accepting her inquiries as genuine, continued determinedly.
“Ya haven’t heard o’ the goblins Tharbles? The goblins that’re with us now, n’ when we go home they’ll be there, n’ when we eat n’ sleep n’ brush our teeth, they’ll be there as well. They’re watchin’ us.”
“Goblins, madam? The little green creatures that populate our children’s fairytales? You believe that they are watching us?” asked Professor Caine.
“And where are they now? If they are watching us. I don’t see them, I mean.”
“In this room right now? There’ll just be the one,” insisted the old lady, “n’ it’ll be on the back of the man in the furthest corner of the room, so as to see everyone and not be seen itself, see?”
I confide in you now that when the old lady spoke of this ghoulish entity and its mannerisms – dwelling solely in her imagination or not – my spine shivered and one or two hairs stood to attention toward the back of my neck.
“Well, thank you for your question, dear lady, but I rather think you’ve been reading too many fantasy books. There are no such things as Tharbles, I can assure you,” said the professor.
“That’s what you wish ‘cause you ain’t ever seen one,” said the lady, with a certain amount more bullishness than before. “This is a Tharble world. They don’t like us so they kill us, have done for centuries and will do, forever.”
Murmurs erupted – as much as murmurs can erupt – throughout the audience. I assumed that these side-mouthed conversations most-likely centred on the old lady’s mental capacity and how sad it was that with age came a delusional state like the one she was portraying.
“What do you mean, ‘kill us’?” asked one faceless man from the crowd.
The woman laughed, I recall, in a manner reserved only for the most ludicrous suggestions and side-splitting jokes. “Why d’ya think we all gott’a habit of dyin’, man? Old age is what the doctors’ll tell ya, but I know trees as old as my long dead pa still standin’. The Tharbles are there, behind ya shoulder or leanin’ on ya head, pullin’ ya strings ’til the day they get ya.”
The professor sighed, and I remember being comforted by the gesture. He clearly felt the old lady had a great deal more than one screw loose, lending fuel to my hopes that what she was saying was the simple ramblings of an overactive imagination and nothing more.
It was unfortunate that the situation had now grown to be unsustainable, and Professor Caine had to request the old lady be escorted from the hall by a pair of gentlemen whom I guessed to be general overseers of the building. Whilst being almost literally dragged away, the lady berated Professor Caine (and the audience as a whole, actually) for rejecting what she’d said, despite her having ‘taken a great risk’ in saying it.
The rest of the presentation continued without a hitch, and a great deal of brain-achingly in-depth topics later, the hall was vacated and I returned home to mother.
I remember talking eagerly and without pause over our cabbage soup about what I’d learnt – or what I’d thought I’d learnt – from my evening with the great Professor Luke Caine. The conversation must have been fascinating, as I distinctly remember my baby sister Jade nodding in and out of consciousness throughout its course.
It wasn’t until I was mopping up the excess soup in my bowl with a buttered slice of bread that the old lady forced herself into the forefront of my mind. With nothing else to say, I relayed all of the lady’s thoughts to mother there and then.
Mother, to my surprise, listened intently to every word as though I were spilling some sort of secret truth to her for the first time. I couldn’t help but notice her intense reaction.
“You don’t believe it, do you?” I asked.
She smiled, the kind of disingenuous smile a child can always tell is meant for their comfort and so does little to comfort them.
“Do you remember your father?” she asked. “A little round fellow he was, and bald as a coot.”
I could remember him, very well in fact, but I wondered how he, a man 18 months dead, related to Tharbles.
“He spent much of his time alone, an introverted person I think they call it, locked up in his study for days on end. And before he, you know…” mother’s use of ‘you know’ in this instance meaning ‘hung himself with an old belt,’ “… he swore he was being driven looney by the constant feeling that something was pressing down on his shoulders and head.”
I argued the point that doctors had said father’s brain was broken down (medicine at the time not being nearly as precise as it is these days) and he never thought straight about a single thing since before I could remember right up until his death.
“But what,” I pressed, “does this have to do with what the old lady called Tharbles?”
Mother proposed that the reason my father died so young, the reason he was once a six foot tall, long haired 20-year-old but ended up being buried a five foot five, bald 36-year-old, was because he – the lonely man he became – had a Tharble with him, on him, for the vast majority of his adult life.
I couldn’t accept it.
“If this is true, then where is the Tharble that is supposedly watching us right now?” I asked. “Like the old lady said, there’s always at least one.”
“Keep your eyes on me, just as mine are on you,” said mother, “and suppose your baby sister, in her highchair right now, all but fast asleep, has her head tilted slightly down, as though something is weighing upon it.”
A few seconds passed as we both wrestled with the urge to check on the dear little girl. Mother caved first, and as she did, my spine shivered, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, just as they did in the community hall. I turned to little Jade as well.
She was sitting, completely alone, and drifting off as babies do in that adorable, regretful manner.
Mother smiled and I smiled back, and the idea that she had just been playing a cruel joke on me from the very start started to grow in my subconscious.
We washed up together before I took Jade to her cot in mother’s room, tucking her in and kissing her on the forehead, then turning the lights out and leaving her to sleep. I had a bath and used the time to go over that day’s events, but it wasn’t until I grabbed my toothbrush from beside the sink that I noticed again, a shiver run down my back and the hairs on my neck standing on end.
It was then that I realised I had been the person sitting in the furthermost corner of the community hall, I was the only one not being watched at when mother looked to Jane during that moment at dinner, and as I turned to brush my teeth, I had looked upon myself in the bathroom mirror, and once again felt a Tharble forced to hide himself behind my back.