In the evening, there is no movement on the manor grounds, only a soft wind in the leaves of the great lindens and oaks under which I walk. The main building glows in the distance with candle-white pillars, guarded by carved stone lions and locked doors.
I step inside.
My evening walks often lead me here — to the same place, under the same painting. A portrait of a young man in a dark tailcoat, a white cravat gathered at his throat, a regal look in his blue eyes. Emil Carlsberg. Lord of the manor’s son. 1821. I remember sitting for the artist for days. It made my back ache.
As years go by, I find it harder and harder to see myself as the man in the picture. I may look like him and wear the same clothes, but everything else about him seems lifetimes ago. A distant dream, nothing more.
For nearly two hundred years, I’ve watched how everything around me changes. My father’s title, never passed along to me, has changed ownership a dozen times. Houses have burned and risen again. Carriages have become cars.
Only I remain the same.
For a long time, I used to watch my cousin’s children and grandchildren. All those little boys and girls playing in the yard, growing up under my eyes, their lives unfolding and flourishing like rose vines.
Now, there are only strangers. Everyone I once knew has died or moved away. I can’t help but wonder: Why am I still here?
I no longer recognise my distant relatives and wouldn’t know if any come to visit. So I follow the lives of the people who live and work on the grounds. I watch them till and sow, laugh and eat. I learn their names. I listen to their conversations but can never join in.
I’ve tried leaving, but an invisible wall stops me. I’ve made it as far as the edge of the fields where the swans and geese stop to rest and feed, but no further. Same on the road and in the woods.
It’s not that I don’t love this place, every room and hall and side building, every tree and stone and curve in the path, but shouldn’t I be moving on?
I’ve had some luck with the horses. I’m not sure if they feel my presence, but sometimes it seems like they might. A head comes up. A mouth stops chewing. A silky brown ear turns my way. Subtle signs the living barely register.
The manor has empty rooms, empty beds, but more often than not, I sleep at the stables — as much as a ghost can sleep. I rest my head upon a pillow of straw, close my eyes, and wait until my mind becomes slow and quiet. When I open my eyes, a minute has passed, an hour, weeks.
No more horses. The stables have been turned into a white-chalked restaurant with a gift shop though barn swallows still nest under the upper roof. A new bus of strangers arrives every day.
The staff, too, has changed. Every familiar face and half-friend gone.
However, there is plenty of merriment to fill my days. Modern artwork in the smaller buildings, music on an outdoor stage, moving pictures on every screen. I’m able to rekindle an old favourite pastime — reading. When a tourist sits on a bench with a book or a portable reading machine, I’m there, too, leaning over their shoulder. Unfortunately, I rarely get to see how a story ends.
My portrait hangs in the manor. Frequently dusted, cherished, loved. It doesn’t matter how many people gaze at my picture. I can stand right next to them, and they don’t even know I’m there.
I sit on the steps between the carved stone lions, forever frozen in their silent roar. I watch the place bustle with strangers, day in, day out. This is my home, not theirs.
I don’t belong anymore.
I’ve felt this way before.
As the lord’s son, I had more toys than friends, my own room, and ironed clothes. While the servants’ children chased after escaped piglets, laughing and falling in the dirt, I watched from my window, not allowed to join them.
As a young man, things weren’t much different. My education and manners were more important than my wants, my image more important than my heart. In the end, not even solitary confinement saved me from the spreading consumption. A disease that had little regard for heritage.
A few weeks later, a banner rises in the fields along with a string of colourful stalls. People bite into candy apples and pork sausages, carrying bags of yarn and wooden swords. Some kind of fair. I watch from a distance until deciding to give it a try.
My head turns left and right as I slowly spin around. Everywhere around me strange but familiar outfits. Wool and cotton dresses, corsets and gloves, breeches and boots. A mix of styles and decades, but for once closer to mine.
As I step under the green banner announcing The Old Time Fair, I almost expect something to happen. I feel a little different, don’t I? Perhaps it’s hope? Nerves? The truth is, nothing happens. No wall lifts or door opens.
I can live with hope.
A young lady with a long thick braid on one shoulder welcomes everyone stepping through the bannered gate. For a moment, her eyes meet mine. “Welcome to the fair. Enjoy your stay.”
She looks at me again, really looks at me, but her cheeks are much too rosy to belong to a ghost. “Great outfit. Wait — Do I know you from somewhere?”
A smile spreads on my face, a warmth inside my whole being, opening like a doorway. She has no idea of the effect of her words. I take a step and disappear into the happy crowd.
Sometimes even a ghost just wants to be seen.