“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.