Cryptic crosswords can be fiendish. In my case, so fiendish it finished me. I should be more clear. My oblivious nature caused my demise. My mother said she never met anyone who lost their spectacles on top of their head more than I. She would use the expression, “if it had been a snake, it would have bitten you.” This was the time that the snake bit me good and hard.
I was walking back to my mother’s home while looking over the crossword and the clue was, “A Dane who had held the sceptre.” (7) The answer was there right in front me, as was the quiet of the doodlebug that caught me. My last thoughts in the physical world were, “ah ha!” I became what I had figured out: A spectre.
It took me a bit of time sort out my new situation. Not noticing the ruin around me, I picked myself up off of the ground thinking I must have tripped. After several years of half-present buildings I had learned not to think twice about any surrounding wreckage. Though I think my mother would have made a comment about how could I be so foolish as to not notice the chaos. She might have been right. I wonder if ghosts experience shock. You don’t experience a lot of strong emotions. Everything takes on a muted tone.
I came home and went up to the box room, (which was my part-time bedroom when I was in town on leave.) put on some music and settled down properly with the crossword.
I heard a cry, went to the stop of the stairs, looked down and saw my mother at the door with several neighbors and a policeman. He informed her (and me) of my death. I tried to object and point out that I was here but my voice floated away, like some piece of flotsam. I looked down at my hands and noticed I seemed dull. I wasn’t transparent but everything about me seemed to have a grey undertone. Helpless to the crisis below, I went back to the box room and began to try and figure out my new life.
There isn’t a guide to being a ghost, no helpful pamphlet saying, “Now you are ghost.” explaining all of the rules, and offering helpful suggestions regarding adjustment to your situation. It is a lot of trial and error. Wonderful if you like experiments (which I do) but a bit of a bother when you discover the limitations. Yes I could leave the house but there seemed to be a sort of perimeter. There wasn’t a visible fence but I would wander in a circle as if I suddenly remembered an errand, and find myself back at home or the newsagent’s. The one drawback to my small world was that I missed the sea. I hadn’t grown up near there but sometimes we could go on holidays to the seaside. Seaside. Take the letters and you could re-arrange it to say, “Eases id.” It certainly eased mine. Being able to sit on the beach, watching as the tide slowly inched in in or out, clambering over rocks, examining creatures in the pools. Even when it would rain (which it would.) it was wonderful to walk along the edge of the beach before retiring to drink sweetened tea and have biscuits. The river isn’t the same. It didn’t refresh the mind the way the ocean could.
I didn’t attend the funeral. I already had to see my mother in a sad state, and I wasn’t much for Church of England hymns and spectacle. Initially I wondered if I had to stick around in my half-state to keep my mother company. My sister would often visit, or telephone to make sure our mother was eating and taking care of herself. She had her neighbors who called upon her daily. It wasn’t like I could do much.
Sometimes I would switch on the wireless to listen to music, but then she thought she was going mad trying to remember when she had turned it on. So I began to only listen when she wasn’t home. I tried to think of ways to communicate with her. She seemed like a bright woman. She was the one who had introduced me to crosswords. I thought about making her a custom crossword that would spell out that I was there. (How would I slip it in and make her work it out?) I tried making tapping noises using Morse code but that made her think there were mice in the walls. In time I accepted our life together. Thankfully she took to keeping the wireless on a great deal. (To get rid of the quiet.) I went on a lot of walks, “borrowed” books I found on benches and occasionally in bookshops. (I would return them when finished) and observed this new world. Once I found myself thinking, “Oh A. would be pleased, his theories were spot on.”
People have often said that London must be filled with ghosts, and it is. We tend to avoid each other the way commuters might do on trains or the tube. Well that isn’t entirely true. The ones who have been here the longest tend to ignore everyone else. They have seen everything and they are merely waiting until they can get to their stop. If there is a stop. It is much like a fancy-dress party where no one can be bothered to play games or cheerfully mingle. You learn not to pay mind to people in older dress (just as I am sure that younger ghosts do the same with me.) and it is the newer ghosts who tend to be more chatty. Which is fair enough, when one is trying to figure out what is going on and what is possible. The rest merely nod their head in recognition.
When my mother decided to sell the house about 1960, (my sister had convinced her it was time to move to Welwyn to be near the grandchildren and away from the dirty city.) I thought that I might have served my purpose and I would become part of the air or maybe turn to sea foam like “The Little Mermaid”. Instead I acquired new flat mates. Most used the box room for storage, and as I can sleep anywhere it wasn’t bad. (I don’t really need to sleep but it is mostly out of habit that I like to recline in the evenings.) They were nice enough. In time the young couple moved out. Then after that I was like someone on a receiving line at a wedding, where I sort of shook hands with many people I didn’t know very well. Young couples, artist types, and university students. From a purely selfish base perspective I enjoyed things when the house became home to a bunch of young ladies who existed in a state of semi-undress. Over time my flat mates were ones who lacked means (or maybe the landlord did) and the house began to look a little worn. Later it was empty and broken down. The quiet was nice and I could play music, but it was lonely. Then it became what was known as a squat. Bohemian and outcasts would sleep there. Remnants of the Empire began to appear. Young people from Pakistan and Bangladesh who with very little began to fix things up. I loved the aroma of the food they made. The first time I smelled a powerful curry I thought I might have come back to life. (the only other time I have experienced that kick of life was passing coffee shops where they ground the beans. It smelled like civilization and excitement.) I didn’t eat, (which was a bit disappointing because I had always loved steak and kidney pie, or a good slice of cake) so I had to come to appreciate the perfume of food. Of course they moved on. Everyone does. There were so many young people. But then I am young. Some of my tastes are a bit old now but I am still 24. Some days I feel ancient like that one ghost by the post office who looks something out of a Gainsborough. (He is always mumbling about his gout.) Other days I feel keen to take on the world like when I finish a telegraph puzzle in 9 minutes. I like living with young people because there is always music and there are always interesting bits of technology to look over.
When my mother left, I managed to hide my records and small gramophone so I could have something to keep me company. It was difficult to keep it hidden and find the time to play them. Egghead types are supposed to favour complicated beautiful music like Bach, which I did to a point but I found more pleasure in jazzy sort of music. There were times when music was the only genuine pleasure I had. It was one of a few things that didn’t feel far away or numb to like the rest of life. Over time I was drawn to new things. I loved the transistor radio because it came with a little ear piece and then I could listen to music all of the time, even with flat mates about. I should be honest about how I acquired such things. It isn’t that ghosts want to steal. It is just our only way of existing. We can’t go to work. We do not have money. We can hold/touch objects (though you aren’t likely to notice us with them.) We merely want to use things for a bit. Most don’t actively pick-pocket people. But if you leave something on a bus or in a cafe, we are going to take it. We might give it back when we are done. I never gave back the transistor radio. I wasn’t going to give back something that brought me closer to living. Years later I stole an iPod. I could now possess every bit of music I had ever experienced. It was easier than trying to hide records under the floorboards. I love soul music. (An extension of that jazzy music.) Punk didn’t do much for me. I found some of the electronic stuff interesting. It reminded me of the days of fiddling about with large machines at the Park and some of the noises they would make. Ideas once upon a time, that had now become real. Music, crosswords, books, and walks kept me engaged. Sometimes I watched the television. There weren’t many things I liked. It made a sort of noise that only ghosts could hear, so it was a little irritating. I did like that one programme with the tall buffoon who upset everyone, and that other one… the man with the scarf.
Maybe I was becoming an old man after all. Some of the flat-mates had become more excruciating than pleasant. Then someone from the City bought up the house and divided it into proper flats. The basement and ground floor for one family. The upper floor became another smaller flat. They turned my cozy box room into a bathroom with toilet. Sleeping in the bath wasn’t that bad. There was now less mildew and mould. Someone had even put in a bath pillow. As Mrs. Collins (nee Lucas) would have said, “I am quite content with my situation.”
I find myself living with just one person again. There are the people downstairs but I don’t feel much curiosity about them after a few wanderings into their home. They watch a lot of dispiriting television about Scandinavians. They spend much of their time discussing “good schools”, the new carpet someone bought for their new place, and whether Spain was completely over as a place to holiday. They also have a young child, and young children have a proclivity for noticing ghosts. Children like to ask you many questions. (Usually when you are trying to read a book.) When a small child demands to understand your complicated state of existence and you can’t give them the answer they desire, you are forced to say, “it just is.” Both parties are confused and irritated. It also makes me feel a little sinister when a child tells their parents about the ghostly man living upstairs in the toilet.
With fewer rooms, I am compelled to intermingle more often with the living. Like the others before there is always the novelty of another person and the establishing what their habits might be. This one is noteworthy for being American. So far I have discovered that she likes to sing to herself, and I have to get up out of the bath early in the morning, otherwise I am presented with a rather intimate view. I feel it is a trifle unfair that I can see something and they can’t. Not that they would want that kind of fair trade but it isn’t cricket.
Soon a pleasant ritual develops between us. Up early, looking at her laptop while she is in the bath. I like to look at the news, (not that it will matter but one should stay informed, and she has a subscription, so no bother about paywalls) or possibly glance at the crossword. From a practical point of view (with the internet), I can now do the crosswords without the worry of someone chucking out the paper before I am done. (One less thing to keep track of.) The internet came at the right time for me. There came a point after a couple of decades that I had to face the ache of endless solitude. It had always there but the volume of it had slowly been turned up. A former flat mate (I think it was the one who fancied himself a bit of a DJ when he wasn’t working as a barrister. The worst taste in electronic dance music.) He bought himself quite the computer. It was something to behold when I first watched him connect. The strangest sounds. Like someone playing a mangled penny-whistle whilst birds were strangled. Yet it was beautiful. All those ideas I heard and discussed many years ago, and here it was in front of me. I felt a flutter of joy. I could participate. One tiny step closer to the living. It was a bit tricky as I had to borrow someone else’s computer when they weren’t around. (It seems everyone now stays up half the night in front of their screens.) There are opinions to read, pictures to look at, and information to acquire. It’s like numbers in that it is unending. Not so long ago I “acquired” a smartphone. It is wonderful. It is the universe in my hands. Now like many, (living and otherwise) I scrounge for Wi-Fi. Stealing bandwidth is a very modern venial sin.
Her heritage shows when making tea. The last cup of tea I had was from leaves that had been used twice over but even that was likely better than what she produces. Sometimes she makes coffee, and that smells marvelous. (I think of those early espresso bars -the ones run by the Italians.) She doesn’t finish her tea half the time, but then who would. She takes this leisurely pace, sitting down to look at her laptop. Time sneaks up on her, and then it is the morning steeple-chase and scavenger hunt for her keys and oyster card. (Why doesn’t she put them in one place every evening? Maybe she does but they are under a towel.) She slams the door more often than not. The downstairs people have complained about that. She always apologizes, and the man always says something passive-aggressive. Once I heard him say something about Americans having their volume control stuck at 11. I would say that Americans tend to live in a state of exclamation points. At least much more so than the English. Maybe all that space allows for it.
She leaves half-full mugs and glasses about the flat. It isn’t as if I will knock them over, but it rankles me to see them everywhere. I thought about removing them to the kitchen. Instead I just empty them and put them back where I found them. I tell myself that I am contributing to the household in a small way. In the evening she returns. If she was British she could slam the door in revenge against the downstairs family. Often at that hour, the couple are in competition (discussions their “parenting strategy” and who is more exhausted) with their child. (He sounds like the nightly victim of an elephant stampede.)
She gathers up the (now empty) glass/cups and puts them in the sink, and makes herself cheese on toast or soup for her tea. Also she tends to strip off her work clothes. I am not sure how to sort this out. I can’t go into another room and patiently wait while she finishes, as she wanders about the flat, (checking her phone, looking amused as she is reading and scrolling. She does have a nice smile.) before changing into her pyjamas. I wish I could adopt a more continental attitude about these things. Mostly I concentrate on the contents of my smartphone until she is done.
Despite the complexities of boundaries, she has proved to be pleasing company. I knew she was a good sort when I discovered that we both like the same television programme. It has changed a bit since I remembered watching it. I find myself trying to finish more puzzles during the day, so that I might watch the television with her in the evening. She doesn’t pay full attention to it most of the time. I think it is noise for her while she is on her laptop. I like sitting near someone like this. It sort of feels like I am doing something more than just drifting through time.
At first I thought she might be an actress type. Sometimes she works late, and mentioned the theatre when on her phone. I can go to great lengths to find out things but I don’t feel that is polite to poke through a handbag or laptop. (My mother told me as a child, that one should never look in a lady’s handbag unless they were willing to face the consequences.) It is a fun game to figure things out on my own. It wasn’t until she had some colleagues from work over to the flat one night, that all was made clear. They were two men (a bit of a surprise for some reason.) who were quite chatty, telling her about their rehearsals. They were dancers. She worked for a ballet company on the non-artistic side of things. Before going out for the evening, they were gossiping about the director (and his history with certain dancers). After they left, I felt down. She was going to come back later, so it wasn’t as if I wouldn’t see her soon. Her friends seemed like nice sorts. (If a trifle theatrical) They shouldn’t bother me and I shouldn’t feel threatened. It was that last thought. Why would I feel threatened? There isn’t a bit of logic in that reaction. She is a flat mate. I am a ghost. It is like trying to solve an equation that is A + kettle x Tiger = ? When one of the men was doing an impression of the director, she displayed the most splendid smile, I felt queer in the head when I noticed how lovely she looked. Suddenly I wished I could take something; for I seemed to be having my first headache in about seventy years.
I am choosing to take the level-headed response. I have felt an ease around other people who have lived here over the years. But it was more of a cheery acquaintanceship like you might feel for a colleague. I should carry on like that. Yes I think she is a lovely girl but I don’t really know her. I know her habits. I know which programmes she likes to watch on the television. I know how she spends her time at home but she is still a stranger and I should accept the situation with some grace. Does a ghost even have dignity?
I tried for several weeks to live a syncopated existence. Two people (or maybe I count as half of a person as I am not entirely here.) who just happen to share the same space. I would go out in the evenings and sit on a park bench. There are a lot of ghosts out at night but it is like being in the world’s most depressing pub. No warmth or cheer. I would remember there was good television that I was missing. I would return to the flat. She would be there on the sofa, where there was space for me. She never took up the whole sofa. It was like she was waiting for me. Though how could she? I don’t exist in her world. I flopped down on the sofa, look over at her and think how ridiculous all of this was. Maybe it would be all right to feel something. Again there was very little I could do. There is nothing wrong with just experiencing an emotion. Yes I think she has the grandest smile I have ever run across, and that I don’t mind so much that she leaves mugs everywhere. Isn’t it better to like a person you are with? It would be a great misery if she was someone awful. Maybe she is awful? She seems reasonable to me. She isn’t kicking cats or leaving nasty comments on the internet. At least I don’t think she leaves nasty comments. Maybe I should poke around and find out? Next thing you know I will be watching her as she sleeps. Is there Bedlam for ghosts?
I should stop sleeping in the bath. Just because that room was once my own, doesn’t mean it has been for some time. I may as well sleep on the sofa. That might help things. I could go elsewhere but that would mean facing other ghosts or getting to know new people. I am here. I have always been here. I will probably always be here. I will make the best of it like I always do.
The renewed sense of purpose and a plan didn’t exactly work. I came home after a walk and didn’t find her in the sitting room. She was in bed listening to the wireless. I began to wish I could sit right next to her and almost thought it might be all right since she was under the covers and I would be over the covers but it seemed a little odd. I sat in the sitting room and listened from afar. The programme ended and when it was late, I noticed the light was still on. I looked in, and saw that she had fallen asleep. I was breaking my rules by looking upon her for just a moment. In her sleeping state she had managed to take up the entire double bed, and most of the covers. She had the fan on low in her room, I turned up the fan so that the room might cool down. Strange that I would feel the heat. Maybe global warming is real and ghosts are now feeling it. The laptop was balanced precariously on the edge like a resigned husband. For a small moment I think I envied an inanimate object. I turned off her light, and moved the laptop to a safer spot. It was in moving it that I noticed she frequented a forum devoted to “our” show. I didn’t look further but I did think it was a legitimate “in” to finding out who she was. At least in one capacity.
I wasn’t looking through her email, or finding out her bank account details. Everyone deserves a bit of privacy. I was just looking to see what she had to say about a subject I was interested in. I spent half the night reading everything she had to say. It did lead me to other places where she posted things. She didn’t leave vicious comments around the internet. She was opinionated, (how could she not like my favourite actor from the series? She thought him ridiculous and over the top.) quietly sentimental, and enthusiastic about a number of subjects. (Some of which I like and some of which is totally alien to me. None of them involve mis-treating animals.) Of course how we come across in this medium is different than conversation. I thought about my old tricks. Maybe I could get her attention around the house. I started with playing with the lights a bit, but that just made her call in someone to make sure the wiring was safe. I tried knocking a bit, and that just made her paranoid about mice or someone breaking in. I even used my one known supernatural power; which is to make a room rather cold. (Ghosts mostly use this to get rid of people. I admit to using it on her when I want to watch the television, and she is sitting in her bra and knickers and I would like her to wear a dressing down.) She bought a hot water bottle, and made things to keep out drafts. It was time to take the direct approach and post on the forum. It was futile to make her feel like she was losing her mind. I wasn’t very good at this haunting business.
It proved to be simple to join the forum and begin posting. I’ve been around the internet long enough to know that some places can be savage with unofficial contests to see who can be the most vicious. This was a much more mild place, (still full of opinion) and potential snark tended to be directed at writers/creators instead of participants. Like any other place you figure out the assorted characters that populate a small community. There were students, some professionals, and for some reason a great number of librarians. And then there was her. Her enthusiasm for specific episodes was touching in a way. I had been present then and I could remember her reaction. Like the time she cried and cried when a character found out how much he had mattered to so many, but the pain had still taken him away. I had been impotent to comfort her; but I was able to find out how despite all the tears, she had loved every bit of the experience. I just had to reply to something she had posted. She was a bit put out by my response. I felt like an ass. It was rereading my comment a couple of times that I saw she might have had a point. How do you say to someone, “I am a ghost, I am old but not, and sometimes I say stupid things?” But wait I could. At least the second part. I could say sorry. I messaged her privately to apologize and make nice about the situation. I spent a good long while trying to write the right message. I didn’t want to say, “I am sorry, if you felt offended” because that won’t win hearts. I also wanted her to keep talking to me. When in doubt aim for self-deprecation. It is the cornerstone of English communication.
I am truly sorry for my comment. That was some brilliant idiocy on my part. If I had any more feet in my mouth, I might as well be a member of the landed gentry who end up in the papers due to scandal
That’s okay. Though I did think, who’s the newb???? (I looked up your posting history) And why are his pants in a twist. I do dumb things all of the time. The other day I somehow went down the wrong way when I was in an underground station and I had some policeman lecture me like I was in school. I wanted to melt. There were people passing me (going the right way of course) and while they didn’t say anything, there were plenty of glances that made me feel like they wanted to say, “What an idiot.” So we can form a club of brilliant idiots.
There is that headache again. She communicated with me. She was telling me things. It was the best headache of my life.
I might be interested in such a club. What are the dues for the Brilliant idiots club? I wouldn’t feel too awful if I were you, the policeman only bothered you because other people were about and he had to look like he was doing his job. At least you are nicer than you had to be about my comment. You merely took a wrong turn. I couldn’t even come up with a clever reply to your comment.
I think that, that is what killed me the most. I couldn’t think of something clever to say to the policeman until I was on the tube and about two stops away. What am I supposed to do with all these delayed come-backs? As for club dues, you just have to give up a part of your brain. So that whoever ends up with a completely empty head first ends up president for life of the club.
Put them in a book and hold onto them so that when the occasion arises you can say, ‘excuse me a moment’ and flip through the book for the right retort. Be careful, there is a good chance I will become president before you.
Knowing me, I would forget to bring the book with me. ‘Listen I have a really snappy reply but it’s in my book at home, so you need to come with me, so I can find it because I have a real zinger pal.” Are you sure? I could be quite the president.
I think she was supposed to be working but we spent a good portion of the afternoon creating complicated rules and order for our imaginary club, and sharing stories about making fools of ourselves. She had a real knack for this game.
And then she came home. After all that chatting online, I could still see her, even if I couldn’t speak to her. I sat there on the sofa just watching her as she gathered up her empty mugs and made herself cocoa and toast. There was more to her, than this person that existed in front of me in these few rooms for many months. I got up to look for my phone, and she walked right through me. I was overcome and felt like I had the wind knocked out of me.
Sometimes people walk through you but you don’t really notice it. It’s a minor bother in that you might be looking at something and their view blocks it. (As humans do.) It’s a bit like being bumped by someone when you are walking along a sidewalk. I looked at her to see if she had noticed. She went along picking up things, and doing her nightly tidy. I sat down forgetting about my phone; baffled by this aberration. I tried to recall anything within my memory about this sensation. There is the ghost at the newsagents who was useful now and then with information about the present life. He once said that ghosts can feel twinges of their old life but that was it. I assumed that meant things like being able to smell food, and the enjoyment of music. The only answer was to repeat this experiment. I walked through her and felt nothing. This really didn’t make sense. I stood still in the room again to see if she might walk through me. She sat on the sofa, half watching the television, and glancing at her laptop. I sat down again, and remembered that my phone was beneath a cushion. She had sent me a message which I still had not replied to. I wouldn’t say that I was being forced to lie but I had to be inventive about how I drew out information from her. “Oh I know all about you, as I live in your bath, but do tell me more.” Even when I was alive, I wasn’t known for dazzling women, but I did pay attention to something a colleague named Gilbert-Jones (who acquired women at such an astonishing rate, that it was almost unfair.) once said, It is good to ask questions, so that you come across as sympathetic and half the work is done for you.
This might be a funny guess, but you aren’t English are you? (A few idioms made me wonder) But you obviously live in England now. (the tube and all) How did you end up here?
Yes and no. I am American. But I have a parent who left a long time ago and came to the US. (They have lived there longer than here.) It has allowed me to come and work here. I finished college last year, and I didn’t want to go to grad school. (My friends who are in grad school seem to complain a lot about the misery of their program.) Someone my Father knew, knew of an opening, and so this opportunity presented itself. What better way to combat indecision than moving half-way around the world to a place where you don’t know many people. I am still not sure what I want to do. The work is all right, and I am in this massive amazing city but it’s not what I expected.
Are you lonely here? How is it not what you expected?
Sometimes. Which is a bit ridiculous. I am here in a place (and situation) that most of my friends would kill to get. Everyone is very nice and when they find out you are American, they always ask how you like it, and how is it different from where you are. Unless you are from New York or Los Angeles many don’t always know the geography of my country. (Which strikes me as very funny, considering how many people view Americans and their supposed ignorance.) It’s kind of like how they moan about how there are places outside of London you know. There are women from the office who invited me out and it was fun but there was a parade of cultural references I was obviously missing out on. (I spent half the evening holding my drink and smiling) I wish there was some kind of book for understanding everything around me. Sometimes I feel like I was given this giant present that requires some assembly and has limited instructions. I don’t know what to do with it yet. I want to like it but I would also like to put it away because it is just too much. The only way I can deal with the strange lonely feelings and that sense that I am not part of it all, is to hide here at home.
I looked over at her and thought, “I have this president for life of the Brilliant Idiots club sorted. What kind of idiot ghost becomes curious about a woman and then has the gall to contact her.” I wrote back:
I believe I understand some of that. When I went to university I went from being in a safe position where I knew my place and where I stood. Then I was sent to a place where it was often pointed out to me how terribly lucky I was to be there. Yet I didn’t feel like I understood all that I was meant to get. (It did take a bit of time to find my set of friends) It was a place full of prestige. Sometimes the weight of expectation was staggering. I knew I was fortunate but I did give myself a lot of pressure to do things just so. I suppose you can’t tell anyone how to enjoy or experience a situation. London can be a whirl of many intersecting villages but it is like anywhere else. If you can find one person, the vastness or alien nature of a place isn’t so paralyzing.
Who am I? Someone’s solid Auntie offering advice. I do sympathise with her so much. What do I just say, “Listen darling, if you are alone, don’t worry, this dead man will stay with you.” I shouldn’t be allowed near the internet. When she got the alert of my message, her eyes had that brief flicker of gaiety. It made my IQ drop about twenty points. She stretched out on the sofa, so that her feet ended up on my lap. I don’t think her feet were that cold but I could have used a hot water bottle. She fell asleep on the sofa, and I went to lay in the bath because my brain couldn’t work out that thunderstruck feeling.
In the morning, she replied.
Yes. All that glamour that you must recognize. I work for a ballet company and while my side of things is devoted to a lot of paperwork, the atmosphere is such, that you never forget how beautiful and important the place. I encounter the dancers now and then, and there are two I am sort of friends with. We went out dancing and OMG they were fun but you know how you are at a park where there is a pond or something and everyone is happy to feed the ducks but if swans come along, everyone forgets about the little mallards, and they are losing their minds over the beauty of those giant white birds? Well I was the grey mallard. The dancers are absolutely sweet, (and those two in particular are always good about getting paperwork back to me) and I can’t hate them but I knew then and there that I was out of my depth. And I should just get over my own insecurities/nonsense because they don’t think of me as a boring mallard (at least I hope not) but I do want to find a place where I can feel fine with how I am. Do you live in London? You seem familiar with the place. I mean you obviously live here in England but I know that not everyone lives in London.
She rushes off to work again. (not slamming the door, after a passive-aggressive note from the people downstairs.) How to answer those last sentences.
I will have to be a careful liar. “Yes and I also died here and I was born probably about the same time as your Grandmother.” What a conversation ender. Where is that Gilbert-Jones to offer more advice? (The only other advice I recall was “Know a bloke who doesn’t mind lending his car.”) I wasn’t going to give her the hoary advice about finding your own path/ritual in a new place. I wasn’t entirely sure as to how to respond to the rest of her message. I wanted to say many things to her but none of them were appropriate to the situation. It would either sound saccharine “You could never be a grey mallard to me” or too intimate. Better to be brief.
I have lived in London at various points in my life. I was even born in London. It has changed so much over the years.
I spent much of the afternoon sitting in the park. It took me a good half an hour to try and work through a cryptic crossword. It was a simple one too. I watched people pass by. I have spent decades watching people pass by. And watching a life I never really got to have, pass by. Today there are circumstances that impels me to change that.
I return home, and she is home early and she has one of the dancers with her. They are working through the dancer’s CV, and she is helping him to figure out how to format certain things. She has all the confidence as she guides him through certain details and offers some thoughts on how to approach it. She searches through her handbag while talking to him and pulls out a newspaper. The dancer looks at the page and says, “You do the cryptic crossword? I can never figure out how those work.”
“I am still learning. One of the girls in the office explained how it worked to me, and has been showing me all the tricks. Her Granddad used to win prizes doing them, so he taught her. When you do figure one out you feel like you should win a Nobel prize or something.”
“Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose, what is that?”
“Oh.. Rebelled!” she continued to explain to the dancer how to solve the clue.
My heart fell onto the floor, for that is my favourite crossword clue, and it also gave me the idea of how to talk to her and tell her more about me.
The dancer full of plans for his future left the flat, while I worked on mine. I wrote her a message.
Do you like puzzles? I am creating one right now, and would like someone to try it out. It has a ghost theme, and I will tell you which clues go together.
I worked fast collecting assorted puzzle clues I already knew along with the ones I created especially for her. In the end, I used the clue that had a hand in making me what I was.
A Dane, who once held the Sceptre (7)
In veils, dancing apart (5)
Present, Part of the reception (4)
Sure, I can’t promise that I will be able to solve all of it but I will give it a go. I am flattered that you thought of me. So where do you live now?
I sent her the puzzle along with a quick message
If you have any trouble with it let me know. I can help you if need be. And the ghost theme will tell you where I live. And (obviously) some things have a British spelling. I hope you like it.
If I had the capacity to be sick I would have been unwell all over the flat. She didn’t even change out of her working clothes. She wrote things down on a piece of paper and played with the letters. I wondered if there was some kind of punishment for ghosts who get involved with the living. I stared at my phone. (Like someone was going to send me a message.) I tried listening to music. I am creating potential misery for myself in four tiny rooms from which I can’t really ever escape.
Over time she relaxed a little. Wandered off to change, made herself a sandwich, returned to the puzzle, and I sat in a small chair in a corner. I wished for her to turn on the television or something to end the itchy quiet. Eventually she put on the television but kept the sound low. I have never tried to concentrate so deeply on a programme about heritage breeds of sheep until now. And then I sat through a historical documentary where the presenter had the required speech impediment that is so common to this channel. About the time that the presenter was walking through the umpteenth church and I was hoping to strangle them with their jaunty scarf, she sent me a message.
I think I solved it. I am not entirely sure if I got the theme right but it seems to fit.
“Spectre Lives Here”
You said you would tell me where you live in the clue. Spectre? Is that you? Because I don’t think that is a village, though I wouldn’t be entirely surprised since there are places called Goole and Land of Nod.
Yes. That is me.
As in a ghost?
Yes. That’s right.
So what you are saying is that you are a ghost that lives here.
She began to giggle like it was a joke or some kind of roundabout way to flirt. I saw her typing.
Are you going to appear to me or prove that you present by making a glass move?
I don’t think I could make a glass move but I could try something else.
She thought this was a great laugh.
All right then. Do something. What can you do?
I got up, walked across the room, sat down next to her and sent her the following message.
I shall make the room cold. Like winter has descended upon the room.
Here was one of the few times I didn’t use my magic trick to make her put her clothes on. She looked amused until the room did go ice cold and she sat up and slowly looked all around her. She had gone through the wardrobe. She looked down at her laptop like she wanted to tell me something. I stopped making the room cold and she just sat there.
Are you all right? I don’t want to frighten you.
She read the message and a look of wonder fell upon her face and she began to type.
How long have you lived here? How much can you see?
I am not ancient like some but I have lived here for quite a while. I can see most things, like anyone else. (Don’t worry, I don’t go around spying on people in their private state.)
How did you find me? Also how can you communicate with me?”
I spent much of the night explaining my somewhat limited knowledge of the physics of ghosts, how this was my home, or at least had been since I was five years old. (Other than those years at university, and my work away from home during the war.) She was amused that I had lived in the bath for a while, but was glad that I now used the sofa. While she wasn’t alienated she was a little overwhelmed trying to understand everything. It was difficult for her to understand why I couldn’t just appear. The only thing I could tell her was that I was bound by something, what that was, I knew not.
Over several days she came up with more questions for me. I began to consider things, and emotions I hadn’t examined in a very long time. Finally I was able to tell someone about my work, the elegance I found in patterns, and the things I missed.
Do you wish you could go somewhere else? Or that you could still see something?
I am content here but I do wish sometimes that I could visit the seaside again.
She turned to her right and stared at where I was sitting. (I had told her where I often sat. She inspires a blathering sort of honesty.) She then returned to replying.
I have tomorrow off. I think I am going to take a day trip somewhere. I could take pictures or a short video to bring you a piece of the seaside. I know it’s not the same as smelling something or seeing it for yourself, but it might be something. Where should I go?
So much has changed since I was last near the coast that I don’t feel confident suggesting a place. I do recall how much I loved clambering over shingle beaches as a child. Looking for a rock that stood out from the rest.
Within minutes she booked a ticket for her day trip. We didn’t speak for the rest of the evening. We watched television and then she went to bed. I sat there in the dark, puzzling over things like the sudden envy I felt for her and the seaside. She was up early in the morning. She messaged me goodbye, reminded me not to empty the glasses because she would tidy it up when she came home, and she would be sure to bring home some seaside rock.
I left the house and began to walk. I had that murky perimeter always leading me back home; but today I just kept walking. I stood at the entrance of a tube station that I thought I once knew but looking at the map, the line had changed since I had last used the underground. (At least the station still had that familiar green tiling.) I followed someone through as they paid, and got onto a carriage. I swore at one point someone bumped into me. There wasn’t time to wonder about things on the platform, the din of the oncoming train terrified me for a second. It was like the scream of planes dive-bombing and no one seemed to notice this. And then all the announcements left and right. Which way to go, stand back don’t do this or that. I leaped onto the nearest carriage and held onto a pole tight -in case something whipped me away onto the tracks. Once I was steady I could look at the map that seemed so spare compared to the busy advertisements and bits of information telling everyone that they could obtain better broadband packages, and see someone about that lump. (Do people have many lumps now?) I had to change at one station -one I used to know. There were escalators and queues of people. The roaring echo of the trains above and below me were competing with the steps of people, and the muffled faraway voices making announcements. I thought to myself, “It is good I did not bring my coat, it would have made me too warm.” What coat though? I had not worn one in years. My suit and old jumper (My mother had knitted it for me that first winter in the huts when I had complained about the cold.) had done me well all this time. I arrived at Victoria and slipped through the stile with a family that was fumbling with suitcases and a pram. The child in the pram pointed to me and said, “Man!” His mother snapped at her husband and said, “See, this is why we are going on holiday, so that he can get to know you. You aren’t even Daddy, but a stranger.”
Once I was in that giant cavernous pieced together place I had to stop and catch my breath. A shop with beautiful cakes. No interest in coffee and walnut cake or tomato sandwiches anymore. How to find a train? What has happened to trains? I had read what had happened but to see it was just plain disappointing. I suppose progress has to disappoint the soul a bit. There was one heading south and only a slight delay. (So many wayward shopping trolleys trying to end it all on tracks.) I stood in the corridor as the carriages appeared to be full, but I had the view. Familiar Victorian brick, and then space-age glass monuments that couldn’t really be buildings. The clickity-clack of the train on the track allowed my mind to wander a bit until I heard a man coming through a carriage asking for tickets. I hid in the toilet but began to laugh at myself. It wasn’t like he could see me. Someone began knocking. (I had locked it!) As I exited, someone grumbled and made noises about how some people think the loos are their own private quarters. I went back to looking out the window suburbs that had once been villages seemed to have no end. They melted together. Trying to keep up with the scenery made me dizzy. There was wide open sky and fields. I wanted to remember this. I didn’t think to film anything on my phone. I just tried to note every tree, rise and fall of a field, and the scatter of the clouds. No film could capture this vast experience. As the tight slices of terraces houses came into view, people began to appear in the corridor with me. We slid quietly into another glass cave. We had come to the end of the line.
I got off with everyone else. I wandered down the road. Some of it was like my bit of London -the same chain shops, and the same people in funereal grey and black looking down at their phones. Though I did see a bit more color when it came to shoes and hats. See more color? Was everything more colorful here or had I missed it at home? I pressed on. South I must go. I kept passing by everyone and everything until I came to the seafront. It wasn’t a pretty day. There was that glacial wind that comes off the sea. The sky and sea had the appearance of a veiny piece of slate. To me it was everything ordinary and exquisite. I stood there for about five minutes watching the hypnotic bombardment of the waves against the shoreline. I was cold! I had not been cold for seventy years. A rush of sharp wind found its way to my soul. That feeling again. I was not alone. There she was just a few feet away from me. All bundled up, and bravely filming the sea for me. I came up to her. She turned, looked at me, with that smile, and said, “Billy, you made it.”