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Monday, December 29, 2014

Ghost Story

You Said:
Do you believe in ghosts?”
It was one of those January afternoons. Damp and bone marrow cold. Through the window of the cafe, if you wiped the mist away from the glass, all you could see was another layer of invisibility gradually closing in as the afternoon darkened into evening.
Well?” You said
Hmm? What made you ask that?”
It’s that sort of day. You never can tell what’s going on in that fog.”
I said “People shopping. Scurrying home to Neighbours on the tele.”
You’re behind. “ You said “ Neighbours hasn’t been on for years”
I don’t know about ghosts.” I thought a while “I’ve seen all sorts of things I couldn’t explain at the time. I’ve heard noises in the night. I’ve smelt things....”
You know, It was actually believed that saints gave off a particularly sweet odour when they died.”
Maybe saints washed more than everyone else.” You said sweetly
Probably. On the other hand evil gave off an odour of iniquity. Shakespeare mentions it in Pericles.”
You were always quoting Shakespeare.”
Only the odd bits I remember from productions I’ve done. ‘A fire from heaven came and shrivelled up
Their bodies, e’en to loathing: for they so stunk
That all those eyes adored them ere their fall
Scorn now their hand should give them burial.’ “
You looked at me curiously: “And you’ve smelled this odour of iniquity?”
Not exactly. It was more like Frying bacon.”
Very other worldly.”
When we used to work all nighters in the theatre. Come about four o’clock in the morning and someone would sniff and say “Who’s that cooking breakfast?”
You were tired.”
Oh, It was a quite a regular thing.Same sort of time. Frying bacon
We spent a lot of time looking. And sniffing. Believe me. But we couldn’t find a thing We got quite attached to it in the end. ‘There’s Charlie making breakfast again.’ ”
And then someone discovered that the theatre was built on the site of an ancient hostelry where a terrible murder took place over the scrambled eggs. The stench of the body charring on the hotplate lingered for months until they demolished it “
No Nothing like that. All I’m saying is that if ghosts did exist they could take one of many forms. Perhaps sometimes we wouldn’t even recognise it was a ghost we were looking at.”
So you do believe?”
Yes... no. I mean as an intellectual construct.”
And Charlie?”
Was he an intellectual construct?”
As you say, it was probably the drains.”
The cafe owner began to make clearing up noises from behind the counter. I had finished my tea. I wiped the window again but I still couldn’t see out.
Then you said: “There was a death, you know.”
What? Where?”
You leant forward to whisper keeping your eyes on the Cafe Owner behind the counter and inclining your head towards him
Here. Not all that long ago. It was in the paper.”
I raised my eyebrows: “Actually in here? “
There was some tragedy involved... Lone parent. Children left alone. You don't recall? Orphans. Tragic. That sort of thing.”
What if... “ I nodded to the cafe owner “He was involved.”
Murder, you mean?”
Not necessarily. Accidental poisoning . Something like that.... I’d been thinking this tea tasted.. you know”
I leant forward “So you think there’re ghosts here...”
I’m saying if there were ghosts this place would be as likely to be a venue as anywhere. If you think about it. the shocking thing is not that we see the occasional ghost but that we don’t see more of them more often. ”
I went back to gazing out of the window and wondered about the shapeless forms passing to and fro.
And what is it that makes people scared of them any way? I thought. We don’t do inner turmoil in the 21st century. “Wooo. Your mortgage has just gone up by a hundred pounds a month. Wooo. Your train is running late and you’ll miss Strictly Come Dancing.”
No There is one thing everyone is everyone terrified by in the twenty-first century. Being alone.”
You’re joking. I can’t get enough time on our own. Away from the kids, the crowds, the boss. I’d do anything for a few days of blissful solitude.”
A few days, maybe. But an eternity. Stretching out in front of you. A tunnel of loneliness. It’s heartbreaking.
Yes but then you’d be dead.”
That’s the point. The ghosts are the dead who do not know they are dead. They don’t have time to realise what’s happening. To adjust. They just find themselves more and more isolated. Cut off from human contact but yearning for those human things like affection, warmth. Talking to themselves as though.. Imagine what it’s like for a bereft parent when a child dies. The grief is unending.
That’s horrible. And sad.” Your voice had an emotional catch in it suddenly which upset me. “And the ghost, him or herself, may not know that this happening to them?
Pinned by the arms and facing an eternity of fear and loneliness. Paralysed but aware. Unable to tell people what you are feeling. Like in those nightmare where you want to scream but no-one can hear you.”
Is there any way out of that?”
They just need a friend. Someone to point it out as gently as possible.”
I watched out of the window as the evening grew darker and the fog thickened. The passersby seemed to grow ever fainter and ever more distant. “But do you really think there are such things? People, I mean. Who don’t know they’re ghosts?”
The lost and the lonely. This cafe... could be full of them
Do you think he’s one?” I said nodding towards the cafe owner flicking the counter top with a tea towel t.lost and lonely.”
Mind you, it all fits if your theory is right.
What theory?”
About the frying bacon. Perhaps that’s the fate of all lost souls to end up in catering. And come to think about it, some of the paninis I’ve had in here. Half cooked. Practically undead itself.”
And you carried on making jokes about the cafe owner whilst I was watching through the steamed up windows again. All those people. Lost from view. And I felt a lurch of emotion deep in the pit of my stomach. For what? I couldn’t place it. And at that moment a breath of cold air passed across my neck. I could feel the hairs standing up with the cold. I turned to say something but you were gone. I stared at the door. I hadn’t heard you leave and there seemed to be no indication that it had been opened at all. and out on the pavement the fog was too thick to show which way you had gone.
The cafe owner was looking at the door and frowning slightly. I was going to say something but he moved to our table and picked up the cup and saucer and took it back to the counter.
Oh my God! One cup and saucer. We had been drinking tea together. But there was only one cup and saucer. What had happened to the other? Was there another? Oh no! Oh dear God.
I turned to the cafe owner. He was ignoring me. Untying his apron and hanging it up. I was peering through the misted window. Desperate to catch some sight of you. You must be out there somewhere. And then it was dark. The cafe owner had turned out the lights and closed the door behind him. He hadn’t noticed me. He hadn’t seen me. The latch clicked.

I breathed on the cold glass and tried to write. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t, couldn’t, say Goodbye. You or the kids. I called out. But you couldn’t hear me. Behind the glass in the fog.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Merry Christmas, Sir Reginald

It is bitterly cold on the West Cliff tonight. The gardens are deserted. The moon is obscured by thick rolling clouds. The street lamps cast only frail pools of light on the paths. Where is Sir Reginald? Surely it's time for him to be out and about on his evening constitutional raging against the Communists at the Council for the feebleness of the lighting? Or will tonight's fulmination be for the waste of tax payers money engendered by having street lighting at all?

Click whirr. Click whirr. Ah here he is now in his bath chair propelled with vigour by his one legged manservant Phillips. Sir Reginald is wrapped warmly in his tartan blanket against the chill whilst Phillips, his sleeves rolled up to display his tattooed arms has a film of sweat across his brow. 
    “Faster, Man. Faster. Can you not see that I am in imminent danger of dying from hypothermia here?”

A single flake of white flutters down through the street light's rays. “What! What was that?” demands Sir Reginald.
    “It was a snowflake, I believe Sir.” answers Phillips and, as if to prove his belief the first is followed by a second and a third.
    “Snow! We want none of that here. This is Bournemouth not Siberia.”
    “Snow is a thing of great beauty.”
    “Beauty! Pshaw! Your idea of beauty is very much at odds with mine, Sirrah. An idea of beauty that could only have come from the twisted hell hole of the 'tween decks mess of that pirate ship I rescued you from.”
The truth is that Phillips has never ventured further on the high seas than a Sunday cruise around Poole Harbour as a child but he lets it pass.
    “Under the lens, each snowflake is a thing of great wonder. While no two are exactly the same, they ll exhibit the astonishing uniformity of having six sides.”
Sir Reginald likes uniformity. He likes regularity and order in all things. “Six sides, you say?”
    “Yes Sir. Every one of them. All different but, at the same time, all the same.”
Sir Reginald is about to begin extolling the virtues of regularity and order when out of the whirling white comes a disturbing sight. It is the bath chair of his nemesis Dame Amelia Vole leading member of the Women’s International Socialist and Suffrage movement. She is, in turn propelled by her companion Miss Pymm a tall angular female of indeterminate years but who is surprisingly athletic beneath her shapeless grey smock.
    “Get out of my way you... you harridan.” rages Sir Reginald. But Dame Amelia fails to respond and as they draw level she smiles and says “And a Merry Christmas to you.”
    “What! What did you say?”
    “I wished you the season's greeting. I said 'A Merry Christmas to you.'”
    “You dare wish me a Merry Christmas?”
    “I do. A merry Christmas. There, I've done it again.”
    “Christmas Balderdash.” He would have liked to say ' Christmas humbug' but he has in the back of his mind that that has been used somewhere already.
   “I suppose you do not keep Christmas, then?”
   “I'll thank you to keep your impertinent suppositions to your self.”
   “Not even a plate of good plum duff? I wager you don't keep any of The good old British traditions.”
   “Of course we keep all the traditions. All the British ones.” Sir Reginald has only a perfunctory knowledge of what the traditions of Christmas are. He knows they can be dangerously subversive but this woman has just wagered him
   “We do. Every one of them. We keep every one of them .” Then he remembers with a lurch that one of the traditions is that of generals feeding dinner to their troops. He cringes at the terrifying prospect of having to wheel himself backwards and forwards through the unholy melee in the dining room whilst Phillips sits there gloating at him and devouring all the plum duff. He would be seen. There would be members of the Club present sniggering through their fingers. The thought is insufferable.“Not precisely every one.” Then he remembers with growing horror the tradition of exchanging of gifts and he shudders even more. “Times change.”
“I'll wager you don't even decorate with holly.”
He brightens. “Ah yes, holly.” He remembers that holly can be got from holly bushes and is free.   “We keep the holly tradition.” And his demeanour is so pathetic all of a sudden that Phillips steps forward with his clasp knife at the ready.
   “If I may venture to say,” interjects the one-legged manservant. “That is just what we were doing out here. Collecting holly.” And he swiftly removes a couple of low branches from an overhanging bush.
  ”And mistletoe?” persists the old woman.
  “Yes. Mistletoe, of course.” But despite the certainty in his master's voice, this time Phillips can contribute nothing.
  “Mistletoe, Miss Pymm.” barks the old woman and The angular companion produces a bunch which she holds out over the heads of the warring pair. Dame Amelia leans forward and kisses Sir Reginald on the cheek
  “What! What! Madam I will have you prosecuted for common assault.”
  “Forward, Miss Pymm,” chuckles the venerable dame and the angular companion trundles her charge off into the swirling maelstrom of the snowstorm.
  “And battery” mumbles Sir Reginald. “Assault and battery. You are my witness, Phillips”

As the subdued pair return to Grand Marine Court he churns with the damnable confusion that now besets him. Christmas. He hates Christmas. Vile old women that attempt lewd acts in public. Snowflakes, at once regular yet individual. A manservant, an ex-pirate with a dangerous looking clasp knife who would gladly slit his throat as cheerfully as he gathered evergreens and to whom tomorrow he will have to bring plates of plum duff.
  “Damn Christmas,” he ejaculates. “Damn and blast it to hell.”
There is a pause as the two men survey the scene before going in..
  “I may not be having dinner tomorrow. Lost me damn appetite.”
  “There will be plum duff in the dining room. You do so enjoy that, Sir.”
  “Yes yes I do.”
There is a long pause.
  “It will not be necessary for you to serve at table tomorrow, Sir.”
  “No. Of course not.” and with a small cough almost lost in the blizzard. “Thank you.”
  “You will manage a small serving of plum duff, I'm sure. If I bring it to you.”
Silently Sir Reginald watches the snow smoothing out the imperfections of the world and touches his cheek where it burns from the wind.
  “If I may venture to wish you A merry Christmas Sir,” says Phillips as though from a great distance.
  “Yes. Yes. You may. And the same to you. Now get me in out of this damn cold.”