Returning the Screw
By P.V. Tims
After Henry James
Have you got a match?
My name is Quint. And no, growing up with a name that sounds like a cross between “cunt” and “squint” didn’t do me any favours. You might have heard of me. If you’ve ever read The Turn of the Screw, or seen the film The Turning, or watched that rambling bloody Netflix thing, you’ll have heard of me. I’m the bad guy, see. In some versions of the story I’m the ghost that haunts the manor. In others, I’m just a bad memory, with my long-lost life sitting like a poison in the veins of the old place. Whatever way you slice it, I’m the one they pinned it all on. When the governess killed herself, it must have been because Quint broke her brain during their torrid affair. When the kiddies started going mental, it must have been because of old Quint’s influence.
The governess – Jessel, if you must know – was a lovely girl, and we did have a little fling, but she also had a history of problems and a chip on her shoulder. Not a great combo for people wanting to live long, happy lives. I should know, since I fell into roughly the same category. Once upon a time. The kids… well, I’m not a child psychologist, but I reckon the sudden death of your parents will mess you up pretty bad, especially if you’re raised by their bowin-and-scrapin’ servants ’cause your actual relatives can’t be bothered to show up and put in the work. I’m not what you’d call a “responsible adult”, let alone a “great role model”, but I tried my best with those poor sprogs, I really did. Especially the boy. Reminded me of myself at his age. Only posh. It wasn’t me who cracked their impressionable wee skulls open and poured all the horrors of the world in. The world did that all on its own.
Of course, the reason I’m the bad guy is simple. My real crime wasn’t corrupting the oh-so-pure governess or telling the bairns that booze and gambling existed. My real crime was wanting a chunk of that old money – that unearned, inherited money. Wanting a little piece of luxury for myself; daring to think I was as good and deserving as the rich fuckers who employed me because – here’s the truth – it wouldn’t take much. I mean, all they ever did was own land and cultivate gout. Pretty sure that doesn’t require a rarefied heart or even a particularly taxing skill set. But they had everything, and I had nothing. So, since they were never going to notice anyway, I made no bones about helping myself to the wine cellar, borrowing the odd tuxedo and tails or overpriced watch, and pumping my little governess over their snooker – sorry, billiards – table.
While we’re on the subject, who actually uses snooker tables for snooker? Fucking nobody, that’s who. Snooker is, by a considerable margin, the most boring game ever invented. Those are fuck-tables: that’s what they are. Rich people buy them so they won’t have to shag their mistresses in bed and then explain the stains to their cleaners. If a stain shows up on a snooker table, it’s just chalk from the cue, grazed baize, and nobody has to get suspicious about anything. Fucking genius.
The point is, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And if you can’t join ’em, work for ’em and help yourself to their crap. And people hate that. Britain’s still a classist toilet. If anyone spots a working-class fella taking the same liberties that the rich do – or even just failing to tug the ol' forelock – they lose their minds. Especially a certain type of working-class person – the ones who are oh-so-happy-to-serve ’cause they haven’t got the imagination to do anything else. The trouble with being brought up to lick somebody else’s boots is, well, you get used to it. Some people can’t imagine a world without the taste of shoe-leather on their tongue, and they’ll bite you if you try to take it away. They’ll also bite if you don’t want any yourself, ’cause if there’s one thing they hate more than someone trying to fill in their comfortable little rut, it’s being reminded that there’s a world outside the rut. Sorry, I know my metaphors are mixed. It happens when you’ve been dead as long as I have – language as the living understand it starts to slip and blur.
Yeah. Maybe I should clarify. I am dead. Not as dead as Elvis – that guy’s majorly dead – but pretty fucking dead. If I’ve still got a body at all, it’s just a bloated husk somewhere, eaten up by maggots and fungus. Mainly fungus. Fun fact: mycelium will get into literally fucking anything if it’s dark and squishy enough. Being dead ain’t so bad. It’s not like I have to sit around in my body while it decomposes, and there’s no class system to put up with in death. All ghosts are equally fucked. The only thing I mind is being here. Not this plane of existence, think more specific. I’m talking about the manor house where it all happened. Where my governess killed herself; where the fine lord and lady died leaving a distant prick of an uncle to manage two kiddies; where those kiddies went mad; where another governess nearly killed one of them and got carted off to the nearest loony bin; where the fucking housekeeper of all people decided to make me the bad guy, just because the idea I’d lived and laughed and screwed one of her colleagues on a snooker table that I didn’t personally own offended her Victorian sensibilities.
I really don’t want to be here anymore. Especially not when I’m trapped here with her and poor Jessel. One won’t stop talking and the other won’t stop crying. I want to save one and rid myself of the other. But I need your help, whoever you are. Whoever’s reading this, let me ask you, as a fellow human being, for just one thing. This property’s owned by the National Trust. I don’t know what they’re calling it nowadays, but it can’t be too hard to find out from your side of the veil. Go to the blasted place and bring kerosene. Burn it down. Burn it until there’s not a stone left uncharred; until this symbol of pointless wealth and English feudal deference is just a blackened crater. Maybe then I can move on.
Have you got a match?
Paul Tims is a writer, living in Consett. When he isn’t writing really weird stories, he practices sleight of hand and hopes one day to be recognised as the Magician King of Britannia.