The Return of Rose White

(c) Nate Marvin/Flickr
(c) Nate Marvin/Flickr

When Madame Veneris reached the cemetery, the first thing she did, after getting out of her car and setting down the blue blanket and candle, was to pull up the robe at her wrist and turn on the small black device there.

“Where are you located?” she said into it.

“Turn around and look to your left. I’m behind the tree near the angel.”

Madame Veneris peered through the deepening twilight and saw Tom lean out from the tree and wave.

“Did you test out the orb like I asked?”

“Of course I did! It shows up silver this time.”

“All right. I’m turning this thing up. Watch for my signal and then do your best woman’s voice. Make it bright.”

She quickly spread the dark blue blanket, embroidered with gold stars and moons, on the grass between the gravestones and set the candle down in the center. Pulling the device off her wrist, she walked to the other side of the blanket and pushed it down into the grass by a large monument.

Raising her hands up into the air, she cried, “Spirit! Let your presence be known to us!”

From the monument came a woman’s voice, “Who has disturbed my rest? Is that you, Monty? Why, it’s been twenty-five years but you look the same.”

“Great! Perfect! Keep it like that.”

Quickly, she unloaded the rest of the stuff from her car trunk. She set up the tall tiki torches in a circle around the blanket, pushing them hard down into the earth, and lighted them. Placing the small, bronze bowls at the four corners of the blanket, she set the incense cones in them and touched her lighter to their tips.

She had just finished the preparations, lit the candle in the center of the blanket and placed the wind guard, when a car pulled into the cemetery drive. It moved slowly up the hill on the white gravel path between the stones.

Madame Veneris took a deep breath and then let it out slowly. She was always nervous doing séances in cemeteries. One could never be sure who might show up. It was always easier back in her shop where precautions were in place for such things.

“Hope for the best,” she whispered. “Prepare for the worst.”

The car stopped some twenty feet away from where she stood on the blanket, ringed by the lighted torches, and she watched as two people got out.

An older man and younger woman, both in dark suits, walked toward her from the car, the woman carrying a briefcase. The woman came up first, saying, “I’m assuming you’re Madame Veneris? I’m Victoria Klein, we spoke on the phone. This is my client, Mister Herbert Terrence.”

“So very pleased to meet you,” Madame Veneris said, shaking both their hands. “The energies are strong tonight. We shall make splendid contact with your loved one.”

“I’m sure we will,” Mr. Terrence said.

“Are you also a believer, Ms. Klein?”

“Not so much,” she said, shaking her head. She shrugged and then said, “Not an unbeliever, either, though.”

“I see. Well, would you both sit, please, one to either side of me, around the candle.”

When they were seated, Madame Veneris asked, “Who is the spirit we seek commerce with this evening?”

Mister Terrence gestured and Victoria said, “Mister Terrence is thinking of changing his will. He needs some information from a friend of his, Rose, who has now passed on.”

“Rose White,” Mr. Terrence said. “This was one of her favorite spots.”

“Well, let us begin. Please close your eyes and let’s join hands. Breathe in—and exhale slowly—then again, slowly. We must quiet our energies. Think of Rose White. Concentrate all your energies on her name and calling her to us now.”

She repeated the breathing technique, reminded them to focus their energies and, when she paused and listened to their slow, regular breathing, she opened her eyes narrowly. Both their eyes were closed and they seemed to be concentrating. It was always a good sign when the eyes were closed.  Madame Veneris took a deep breath, smiling.

“Oh, spirits of the ethereal plane, come into our presence now and speak to us. Do not fear us as we do not fear you. We invite the spirit of Rose White to walk among us and commune again with life and the living.”

There was silence and then, from behind Mr. Terrence, came a woman’s voice.

“Who has disturbed my rest?”

“What do I do?” Mr. Terrence whispered.

“Speak to her,” Madame Veneris said. “Loudly and clearly.”

“Rose? Is that you?”

“It is I, Herbert.”

“Strange. You don’t sound anything like I thought you would.”

“There are many changes out of the body, old friend.”

“You were my old friend, all right.”

“And you were always mine.”

“Listen, I have to ask you something. You remember that anniversary party when Margaret and I got into that big fight? I need to know—was she cheating on me or did I really just forget that I had bought her that necklace?”

“I am a little foggy on that night. Could you remind me?”

“Foggy? You were right there!”

“Ah, yes, but here in the afterlife we sometimes forget things.”

Madame Veneris heard Mr. Terrence sigh heavily.

“I went to her jewelry box to drop in the necklace I’d gotten her, for a surprise, and I found a necklace there I’d never given her. She said I’d given it to her and forgotten about it. Was she telling the truth?

“I was often very sleepy, you know.”

“Sleepy?”

“I mean ‘sleepy’ as in ‘not paying attention’.”

“Listen, this is important. What about now? Is she cheating on me now?”

“I am close beside you always, dear friend. Open your eyes.”

There was a large silver orb dancing among the gravestones and, as the three watched, it came closer and then darted away.

“What’re you doing?” Mr. Terrence said. “Get back here and answer the question!”

Suddenly, from out of the darkness behind the dancing orb, a large white dog came loping from between the stones. A Labrador, she glared and growled low at Madame Veneris as she came slowly forward and then trotted over toward the monument. The dog sniffed at the monument by Mr. Terrence, picked something up, and dropped it into his lap.

From the device the voice came, “I cannot stay, my friend, but know Margaret was always true to you.”

“Rose White,” Mr. Terrence said, smiling.

He moved to hug the dog but his arms passed through her and he fell forward on to the blanket. Rose bobbed her head and licked at his face with her phantom tongue.

“Rose, it’s so good to see you again.”

Madame Veneris and Victoria Klein stared quietly. Madame Veneris wished she could convince herself that Tom had somehow put this together. She shut her eyes tightly.

“Did you hear my question, Rosie? Was Margaret seeing another guy? Is she seeing him now? Bark once for no and twice for yes.”

The dog barked twice.

“I knew it. You were always the only friend I could count on.”

Mr. Terrence got to his knees, picked up the device and tossed it to Victoria, never looking away from the dog. Then, kneeling, he reached out to stroke the air by Rose’s ear.

“Whether in life or death,” he said. “A dog is more human than a human every time.”

The dog moved to lick at her friend’s hand. She made a low, gentle, sound from her throat.

“Thanks, Rosie,” Mr. Terrence said. “You were always the best.”

Rose White bobbed her head at him, turned, and began trotting away. She looked back once and Mr. Terrence waved to her, smiling, and then she grew paler and vanished into the night air.

Victoria Klein said, “Well, that was certainly very interesting.”

She held up the device before Madame Veneris and said, “But, then so is this. What’s this, then?”

“I am sure I do not know.”

“You don’t know.”

“No.”

“Yes, well, I think you do.”

Victoria spoke into the device, “Nice show but no go,” and then, tossing the device at Madame Veneris, said, “You won’t be paid, of course, and I’m also reporting this to the police. Let’s go, Mister Terrence.”

Madame Veneris sat staring silently down at the flickering candle on the blanket.

As they walked away toward the car, she heard Mr. Terrence say to Victoria Klein, “I actually almost believed it. Couldn’t figure out how a dog was talking, though.”

“That was impressive with the dog, I must say.”

“Oh, that was no trick. That was Rosie.”

“Yes, well. Will you be drawing up the new will, then?”

“Most certainly. Dogs never lie. This one time…”

Madame Veneris watched them get into the car and then stared dully at the red tail lights as they slowly moved down the hill toward the road.

When they were gone, she unzipped her robe, reached into her breast pocket and pulled out a cigarette. She stuck it between her lips and lighted it from the candle. Then she blew the candle out and set it back down in the center of the blanket. She blew a plume of smoke out slowly into the night air, gazing up into the darkness.

Tom walked up and stood at the corner of the blanket, his hands in his pockets. He said, “Well, that didn’t go like I thought.”

Madame Veneris sighed and shook her head. She took another long drag on her cigarette and blew the smoke out toward the quiet candle.

“Never does when the real thing shows up.”

“What’ll we do now?”

“I don’t know,” Madame Veneris said. “But how about we get out of here before that dog comes back?”




Promises You Can Keep

(c) Toms Sk./Flickr

Pull and pull again, tilt forward, pivot on the corner, swing, pivot on the other corner, walk out, pull and pull again. Not as young as he once was, but after all these years what mattered was experience over energy, mind over matter.

Pete leant on the washing machine, catching his breath, looking around. It was a big kitchen. Big and empty and incomplete, caught between one age and another, one owner and the next. It was clear the new owner wanted a modern kitchen, one gutted of the past, cleared of its reminders. Ghosts of fixtures past haunted the walls; dressers, shelves and cupboards cast negative shadows across age-darkened wallpaper. The house still clung to what remained of the old, but the new owner would win; the house did not have the energy to resist such determined change. Through the window Pete could see bygone furniture and fittings in the skip on the driveway, viscera and memories of the old house.

The kitchen had been stripped to its bare essentials — a Belfast sink, a cooker of sorts and shelves in a pantry whose days against modern designs were surely numbered. The old fittings were joined by a fridge, a microwave and the washing machine, transients from the move, to be moved on without remorse when the time came.

Boxes were stacked high in two corners, their contents packed and sleeping, waiting until the dark Victorian gothic had been banished by downlighters and sheen-surfaced, right-angled units before they would venture into the kitchen to find new homes.

One box was open on the tiled floor. The essentials — a couple of pans, cutlery and plates for two, a pair of mugs, a kettle and little else — were out and in use on a worn-out sideboard moonlighting as a draining board and all-purpose surface.

In a living, lived-in house — a home — the flotsam and jetsam of everyday things would drift and wash into place, sorted and settled by habit rather than formality. Each thing and each kind of thing would belong, would have a home. But kettle, post, keys, phone charger and kitchenware were scattered without ritual or care across the sideboard, the floor and, before he had cleared it, the top of the washing machine. Unsettled. Restless.

Atop one pile of bills and flyers Pete spotted a yellow card: Pete the Plumber – The Promise of Punctual and Watertight Service. He smiled. He had been so much more impressed by his wording than Angela: “Dad, it makes you sound like a promise is as far as you’ll get — all talk, no plumbing. Anyway, printing stuff out and pushing it through doors isn’t how to get the work these days. You need to get yourself online.”

He liked the slogan — he even made sure to “promise” in his phone calls — and the cards seemed to work well enough. Here he was, after all, making good on his promise of yesterday.

Boiling crescendo and a click from the kettle returned Pete’s attention to other rituals. He was sure no one would mind him making himself a cuppa. He had found tea bags and milk; no sugar though — clearly not an essential.

Placing his mug and tool bag on the floor, he knelt down to inspect the back of the washing machine. “Ah, off balance. Bet that wobbled something out of place. Let’s take a look.” The owner had said the machine had worked for a few washes after the move, but had shaken wildly and loudly — wildly and loudly, at least, until it went dead and silent. He adjusted the feet of the machine, pulled out a spirit level and nodded, satisfied, before unscrewing the back to pull the rear panel off. Looking inside he chuckled. “That’d be it then. Those screws have worked themselves right out. Surprised those fastenings didn’t shear right off!”

He reached for his tea, but caught something out the corner of his eye, something unexpected, not there before. A boy. A boy standing in the centre of the tiled floor. He wore a traditional school uniform with shorts, a blazer and a cap. Motionless, the boy stared at Pete, the look in his eyes deeper than his eight or nine years. Pete knocked the mug, jolting tea onto the floor.

“Oh! Hello.” The startled tea within the mug slowly calmed. “Didn’t hear you come in.” He forced a smile out of his surprise. “I’m Pete, Pete the plumber.”

“Are you here to fix our washing machine?” The boy’s voice was crisp and well spoken. Pete was not sure what he had been expecting, but he was almost as surprised by the boy speaking as he had been by his silent appearance.

“Err, oh, yes. It’s quite a simple fix really, just a couple of screws need putting back in place. They must’ve come loose during the move. The drum would’ve been jumping around like a mad dog in a cage — lucky the fastenings didn’t come off completely! Must’ve made a hell of a racket, eh?”

The boy looked at Pete, at his tools, at the machine, then back at Pete. Calm and controlled on the outside. Pete could see in the boy’s eyes inside was a different story, as if sadness had been bottled, shaken and put to one side, barely held in by a stopper.

“If you want, you can watch me fix it.” Pete nodded an invitation. The boy hesitated but accepted, walking over to one side as Pete pointed into the machine. “See here and here? There should be screws holding these bits together. I’ll use new screws rather than the old ones — the thread’ll be gone and we want to be sure it doesn’t break again, don’t we?”

The boy watched Pete fish into his bag for washers and screws.

“I’m Timothy.”

“Pleased to meet you, Timothy. Just back from school?”

“Yes. We’re late. There were roadworks. And an accident. In the roadworks.”

“Roadworks and accidents.” Pete sighed and shook his head at Timothy. “There’s nothing worse than that. Nothing worse.”

Timothy nodded. Pete reached into his tool bag for pliers and another screwdriver.

“Got any brothers and sisters, Timothy?”

“No.”

“So just you and your parents in this big old house?”

“Just me and Mum.”

“Your Dad…?” The words were out before Pete could stop them.

Timothy hesitated. When words finally formed in his mouth, his eyes had already told the story. “He’s gone.”

“Oh… I’m sorry.” Pete looked back at the machine. He started fitting the rear panel back on. Screws he could find, but not the words. “I’m almost done.”

“I… I think Mum’s on the phone. She said she had a couple of calls to make because we were late. She… she should be here… in a moment.”

Pete tightened the last screw, patted the machine then pushed and walked it back into place.

He knelt down close to Timothy. “You know you and your Mum are going to be OK, right? It won’t be easy, but right now you’re the most important thing in the world to your Mum, more important than you could ever imagine. And your Mum… your Mum is going to do everything she can to make your life the best it could be. You’ll miss your Dad, you’ll miss him something rotten, and so will your Mum, but you’re going to be OK. That’s a promise.”

“How… how can you promise that?” Timothy’s fists clenched, a storm gathering at the edge of his calm. “You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep.”

“When I lost Marjorie, my wife, my little girl was about as old as you are now. And that’s how it went. Angela was the most important thing in my world. She made life worth living. I tried to give her the best life I could, and she helped me have the best life I could. I look at you and I know you can be that person for your Mum.”

Timothy’s fists unclenched, the storm receding from his eyes. “You… you think I can be?”

“It won’t be easy. You have to promise to try hard — wherever you are, whatever you do, whoever you become — to look after your Mum. You think you can do that?”

“Yes… yes, I can. I promise.” The bottled sadness in Timothy’s eyes stirred with belief, with a tear.

“That’s a promise you can keep.” Pete smiled back at him. “Right, all done. Should work just as it did before the move. I’ll set it going on a short cycle just to check. Tell your Mum there’s nothing to pay — it’d be criminal to charge for such a simple fix! You’ve been great company, Timothy, and I know you can keep a promise like that.”

Pete turned the dial and pushed the button. The washing machine stirred to life with a gush of water and gentle anticipation.

“Timothy?” Timothy looked round. His mother was standing in the doorway, phone in hand, tears freshly wiped from her face, a look he knew too well. She tried to hide her crying, as if he would not notice, as if the absence of tears would not remind him of the absence of his father, as if the pretence would somehow dry their shared grief away.

“Mum, are you OK?”

“Oh… oh yes, Timothy. Yes.” She faltered a smile. “I’m just a little upset, that’s all… I was on the phone to someone whose father had just died. And that made me… anyway, it’s OK, it’s nothing to worry about — no one you know.” She cocked her head. “I heard voices?”

“The plumber.” Timothy turned back towards the washing machine. “He…”

“The plumber? I’m afraid he won’t be coming. I just spoke to his daughter. He passed away yesterday morning — a heart attack. It can’t have been more than an hour after I spoke to…” She frowned. Something was not quite right, not as expected. She stared at the washing machine marking time with a calm and rhythmic churn.

Timothy stared at the spilt tea on the tiles.

The two of them were alone in the kitchen, each one holding a question, each one missing a piece of a private puzzle. Timothy looked up at his mother and reached out to hold her hand — for reassurance, for life, for him and for her.




Walter

(c) Lawrence Wong

One night, my wife had had enough. “Let’s get a dog.”

“A dog will just mess up the house,” I said. “Besides, we have Walter.”

“It’s not the same,” she sighed. She turned on the television. It was late, and nothing was on. Walter jammed the signal after ten—a subtle reminder that we should go to bed so we could get our rest. We ignored it.

The lights flickered, then cut out.

“Guess it’s bedtime.”

We didn’t usually ignore him. That would mean being irresponsible, and we were responsible homeowners—with a little help. Walter kept things running like a tight ship. I loved it. The bathroom was always clean. We were always ready to have company over.

We hadn’t known he lived here when we bought the house.


Nothing during the walk-through or inspection could have led us to believe that there was a spirit in the walls. Sure, the floorboards creaked. The boiler made strange noises. The radiators made that knocking sound. Every now and then things rattled. But these were expected occurrences in an almost-century-old Victorian built in a forgotten corner of the city by a rail yard.

Then again, Victorians have that nook-and-cranny motif that leads to a plethora of spiderwebs and the haunted-house look when all the lights are off and the moon is out. So I guess a ghost isn’t a stretch.

I called it Walter, after the old man who died in the house. I had no proof that it was actually Walter’s ghost, but it made sense. In life, Walter kept the house in great condition, and the neighbors said he was a shut-in. I’m not sure there’s a lot of other qualifications needed in these matters.


Walter made his presence known after our housewarming party. We were up late, finishing the half-empty drinks, generally too wound up to sleep even though everyone else had gone home to bed. I had the music playing, and we danced and laughed and sang along loudly. We were homeowners now, no neighbors upstairs or downstairs to worry about.

Someone was banging on the door.

I turned down the stereo. My wife looked pointedly at me.

I flipped the deadbolt and swung the door open, half expecting to see a police officer or an angry, tired neighbor. There was no one.

“Just some kids,” I said. I shut the door, turned the stereo back up.

In the middle of the next song, the banging started again.

“It’s almost two in the morning,” my wife said. “Who’s out there?”

I turned down the stereo and checked the door again. No one was there.

I turned on the porch light and stepped out into the night. A dog was barking somewhere down the block. I could hear the false thunder of a train engine backing up into a waiting line of cars on the tracks. I heard the rumble of traffic behind the house. But the block, our front yard, and every bush in sight were still.

“Who was out there?” my wife asked when I got back inside, locking the door thoroughly behind me.

“I couldn’t find anyone.”

“Let’s go to bed. I’m too tired to play this game.”

Upstairs, we tucked ourselves in.

“Shoot,” my wife said. “We left a light on.”

I sat up in bed and looked out the bedroom door to the staircase. A warm yellow light, cut with the fuzzy shadows of the balusters, glowed on the wall.

“I’ll get it,” I said. But before I could throw the covers off, the light winked out.


Little by little, Walter revealed himself. Nothing in the house got lost. If I forgot where I put my keys, they were usually in the bowl by the door, even if I was absolutely sure I had left them in my pants pocket in the laundry pile. The day before they were due, library books showed up next to the door to the garage. Our mortgage bill always made it to the top of the stack of mail, checkbook placed close by. Junk mail ended up in a ready-to-toss pile.

“Thanks for doing the dishes,” my wife said one night after dinner.

“What do you mean?”

“The dishes. You’ve been doing them a lot lately.”

I put down my newspaper and frowned.

“I thought you were doing the dishes.”

She laughed. “I haven’t done the dishes in a month. Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Neither have I.”

We blinked.


It was great. Dust never seemed to accumulate anywhere. If we had to wake up early, Walter turned the heat up in our room until it was too hot to stay in bed. If we were slow to do our laundry, it would end up outside our bedroom door, so we’d trip over it in the middle of the night on the way to the bathroom. Once, when I was eating a candy bar and dropped the wrapper on the floor, a chill shook my spine.

Would you want to get rid of a ghost like that? I didn’t. Sure, my wife was right about the way Walter’s presence made the house feel less like our own, but at least it was always clean, always organized—even if it wasn’t always comfortable.

“It gives me the creeps,” my wife said. “How can you be so calm with that thing around, moving our stuff? It’s probably watching us. It’s like having a roommate who’s never around but there’s signs of him everywhere.”

“Walter is a very respectful ghost.”

“I still can’t believe you named him!”

We were reading in bed, and I put my book down.

“Look,” I said. “The only thing he’s done is to be helpful. How can you hate him when he makes our lives better?”

“A dog would be so much better.”

“A dog sheds and needs to eat and gets its muddy paws everywhere.”

“A dog is soft and friendly and will fetch things and isn’t creepy,” she said with finality. She rolled over, put her book on the bedside table, and reached up to turn out the bedside lamp. Walter beat her to it, and both lights winked out.

She groaned. “Take the night off, Walter.”

But Walter only became more zealous about keeping things neat and tidy.


“I’m going to look at dogs at the shelter,” my wife announced one day. “Want to join me?”

I could only say yes. I could tell by the look in her eyes she was going to get a dog, no matter what I argued.

At the shelter she was bright and lively. Watching her move from one cage to the next, it reminded me of one of our early dates, window-shopping along a pedestrian mall. On that date, I had kept up; at the shelter, I moved at moping speed behind her, pretending to be unimpressed. It was easy. An Italian greyhound trembled in the first cage. A one-eyed boxer wet itself in the next one.

I caught up to her and peered into the cage she’d stopped at. It was a black half-Rottweiler, half-Lab named Curly. One look at those brown eyes in that square head, and I knew it. We had a ghost, and we were going to have a dog, too. But with Walter on my side, maybe the house wouldn’t be perpetually covered in hair and paw prints.

Walter did not care for Curly, and Curly returned his feelings. The dog whined and cried through the first night.

“Just getting used to the place,” my wife said. “He’s scared.”

But it was the same thing for the rest of the week.

“What’s his problem?” I asked. “Curly, what’s your problem?”

“He’s spooked by the ghost.”

“That’s not it,” I said.

She sat down on the ground next to his bed and put her arms around his neck. “See, everyone else thinks it’s weird we have a ghost in the house.”

Walter wasn’t happy about this arrangement with Curly, either. I was sure he’d step up his game, keep things tidier than ever before. I even pitched in: I swept, I did the laundry more often, I took out the recycling.

It didn’t matter. I noticed a thin film of dust forming on the baseboards, a silverfish in the basement. The corner of the bathroom behind the toilet looked grimy. I forgot to return a library book, and for the first time since we moved in, accrued a late fee.

“I just had to pay four dollars to the library,” I said out loud to the walls and ceiling. “What gives?”

Walter responded by working double time. We didn’t even have to do anything; everything was getting done. We’d wake up after a night of taking turns comforting Curly and our outfits would be set out for us. There would be fresh coffee the pot, an egg frying in the pan. It seemed as if all was well again.


Then, once Curly got over his fear, he started to fight Walter. We’d wake up, and he’d be barking furiously at the dark. Once, when the light was turned on, I found the broom leaning against the wall, the floor half swept. In the evening, when Walter tried to jam the television signal, Curly let him know how unhappy he was.

“That’s it, Curly,” my wife said. “You protect us from the ghost. You let it know who’s the new sheriff in town.”

“You’re not helping,” I said, but who listened to me anymore.

Between the ghost mothering us and the dog defending us, my routine was ruined. I was a prisoner in my own home.

One evening I decided I was going to make it stop. I stood up and walked over to Curly. Those big brown eyes in that square head looked up at me. He was growing on me.

“Curly, don’t bark at Walter.”

The lights flickered. Our second warning to go to bed. Curly growled and barked at the ceiling.

“Walter, stop driving Curly nuts.”

The lights flickered again. A growl tore its way out of Curly’s chest.

Was I willing to keep track of my own things, to pay my bills on time, to sweep, clean, and do the laundry?

“Can’t you see?” I spoke to the empty upper reaches of the room. “When he knows you’re there, he keeps us up.

From our bedroom, my wife called Curly upstairs. He scampered off, leaving me alone in the room with Walter.

“Walter,” I said. “I hate doing this. But if the dog goes, the wife does, too. And you don’t want me to be alone, do you? I don’t know much about you, but it sounds like you might have been alone. But I’m not like you, Walter. Sure, I want the place spick-and-span, but I got married so I could share it, you know? Man, Walter, we had a great run, didn’t we? I really appreciate all the things you’ve done for us. And I’m sorry about yelling at you because of the library book. But I think it’s time for a change. I don’t know where else you have to go, but if you’d just maybe make yourself a little less present around here, I think it’d be for the better.”

I took a deep breath.

The lights slowly dimmed, then popped back to full strength. The only sound I could make out as I strained my ears was the false thunder of the train cars backing into each other. The house was still. I turned off the lights, went upstairs, and climbed into bed.


We overslept. We overslept the next day, too, so I went out and bought an alarm clock.

The next few weeks were glorious. We trashed the place. Pans thick with burnt bacon grease covered the kitchen counters. The trash was overflowing. Curly’s hair, along with a few healthy dust bunnies, gathered in corners and under the furniture. And we both got through all of our clean clothes, staring in wonder at our empty dressers. We sat in the living room and let out a huge sigh. The house was all ours now.

I was a little sad, but I believed Walter was happier. I think he moved to the attic. The upper windows always looked crystal clean, especially at night when the moon was out. If no one was looking, and I was outside, I’d wave from time to time.




The Japanese Ghost Stories of Lafcadio Hearn

“Mitsukini Defying the Skeleton Spectre” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c.1845.

The dead woman was lying on her face. “Now you must get astride upon her,” said the master, “and sit firmly on her back, as if you were riding a horse. Come! You must do it!”  —from a Lafcadio Hearn story

This week, Litro Lab takes a look at the Japanese ghost stories of Lafcadio Hearn and investigates the folklore of kai myths, Noh plays, modern urban legands, and horror cinema along the way.

Hearn was a journalist and travel writer who covered crime stories in Cincinatti, voodoo in New Orleans, and carnivals in the West Indies before settling in Japan in the 1890s. His books on his adopted country helped to fuel the Western obsession with orientalism at the turn of the last century. Hearn is now best remembered for his retellings of the traditional Japanese tales of the supernatural, collected from old texts and from his Japanese wife. His stories have been popular for over a century, influencing everything from literature to cinema.

In this episode you can listen to some of Hearn’s incredibly creepy stories, and to my interviews with folklore scholar Professor Michael Dylan Foster and Hearn expert Professor Roy Starrs on Hearn’s life, his source material, and the influence of his work.

Play

Reading credits:
“The Nightmare Touch” and “The Corpse Rider” were read by Greg Page.
“Mujina” was read by Richard Koworld.
“Ingwa Banashi” was read by Louisa Gummer.
“Yuki Onna” by Charlotte Worthing.
Sound credits: 
“Unanswered Questions” and “Ghost Processional” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com);
Japanese Koto Music, 1966;
Sound effects from freesound — Kongourin-ji bell: MShades, Flute: JohLaVine333, Taiko drum: sandyrb, Whisper: Connum, Running: nathanaelsams, Flute: UncleSigmund, Frogs: eyecandyuk, Walk on dirt road: laurent, Woman cry: thanvannispen, Taiko: whatsanickname4u, Howling wind: medialint.



Sarah Waters on the Supernatural and Her Favourite Ghost Story, “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs.

Sarah Waters. Photo (c) Charlie Hopkinson.

Sarah Waters is a Welsh novelist, perhaps best known for her debut novel, Tipping the Velvet (1998), which was adapted into a BBC mini series in 2002. It is set in Victorian England during the 1890s and tells the coming-of-age story of a young oyster girl who falls in love with a male impersonator and follows her to the music halls of London, where she goes through a journey of self-discovery.

Sarah’s latest novel, The Little Stranger, set in the 1940s in a dilapidated Warwickshire mansion, is a modern ghost story fuelled by war trauma, grief and class tensions.

As a life-long fan of tales of horror and the supernatural, Sarah talks to us in this episode of Litro Lab about her favourite classic ghost story, “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902) by W. W. Jacobs. She also tells us about her childhood obsession with the Pan Book of Horror Stories, writing The Little Stranger, haunted houses, and the lasting appeal of ghosts. Please listen, first to our chat with Sarah, then a reading of “The Monkey’s Paw” by the actor Greg Page—whose voice you’ll recognise from previous episodes of Litro Lab—using the player below.

The first man had his three wishes, yes… I don’t know what the first two were, but the third was for death.   “The Monkey’s Paw”

Play

“The Monkey’s Paw” is used with the kind permission of the Society of Authors as the literary representative of the estate of W. W. Jacobs.
Music credits: “Unanswered Questions” and “Seven March” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com), licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. Also sound effects from freesound: “Chimney Fire” by reinsamba, “Wind howling nighttime” by dynamicell, “Squeaky gate” by acclivity, “Footsteps concrete” by freqman, “Pendulum” by daveincamas, “Door knocks” by fogma, and “Opening Dead Bolt” by Scott-Kelly.



Litro #119: Ghosts

Cover art is “Yellow Room II”, 2008. Acrylic on linen. 152.5 x 183cm. WG/PUNW00171. By Phoebe Unwin, represented by Wilkinson Gallery, London.

October 2012

Editors’ Letter
Alex Goodwin and Mohsen Shah

Short Fiction
Flat Pack Pirate” by Sabrina Mahfouz
Bye, Bye Blackbird” by Daniel Knauf
Extract from Tequila Sunset by Sam Hawken
Jellyfish” by A. J. Kirby
The Ghost in the (Fruit) Machine” by Giles Anderson

Poetry
Keith” by Helen Mort

Listings
Compiled by Alex James




Litro #119: Ghosts — Editors’ Letter

Click for Contents

From Shakespeare to Stephen King, writers have long plundered the memory of ghosts past and present to inject fear into the hearts of their readers, and this fault line of human existence has conjured up some of the most memorable moments in English literature.

What are ghosts, if not the dark residue of memory? Their form is shaped by our own, their fears our fears grotesquely inversed. They mirror our own lives—a warning, or a promise, of how things may come to be.

But take them away from the occult and into the realm of the living and they become freakishly sinister, and even familiar. They become the moments that slide between wakefulness and dreaming, that gnaw away at the soul of human experience. From Daniel Knauf’s eerily unsettling and nightmarish horror fable “Bye, Bye Blackbird” to “Flat Pack Pirate”, Sabrina Mahfouz’s slick and chilling tale of domestic paranoia, there’s something to chill even the hardened ghost lover. And if you want your shot of horror laced with a hint of violent realism, we have an exclusive extract from Sam Hawken’s Tequila Sunset to see you through into the morning hours.

It’s been a blast mixing this collection together. We hope the issue disturbs and delights.

Mohsen Shah & Alex Goodwin
Your Editors

October 2012




Flat-pack Pirate

Yes.

He knew he’d put them there. The bunch of keys had been on the side. Where they were supposed to be.

He wasn’t going to lie. No, nor forget.

Well, maybe they were gone now, but what did she want him to do about it?

[private]She slammed the bathroom door and the rushing sound of water followed. He swallowed the rude words that had formed at the edge of his tongue and instead began to light candles around the open-plan living area, in an attempt to make the Wapping riverside, new-build, shared-ownership, bargain, mid-recession, third-floor, generic cream-painted, luxury fittings-filled flat seem atmospheric, romantic. He planned it so that when she came out of the bath, all squeaky clean and warm, she’d smell the Waitrose marinated chicken and rosemary new potatoes he was about to get out the oven and all would be forgiven and forgotten. A half-hour later, it worked a treat. She even kissed him on the nose and she hadn’t done that since they’d signed the Land Register. But even as he ran his fingers down her soft, curved back, it pestered him still. Where were the keys?


The next morning, as usual, she left for work earlier than him: pinstriped skirt suit and Nike Air running trainers on black-tighted feet. Rucksack packed full of nutritious flaxseed-sprinkled salad. He was expecting a goodbye kiss, a peck at least if his morning breath was too much to bear. Instead, with a dramatic swoosh of blow-dried hair she threw the ‘lost’ keys at his head as he was enjoying his late-start lie-in (a big benefit of being a media creative).

She told him he needed to give his life a really good think; the keys had been in the Hulsta tray they’d got for Christmas from her step-mum. The tray was right by the door. How could he not have seen? Idiot.

She left, leaving him pretty sure that all his dirty talk that had made her moan and clench the sheets last night would be erased from her mind before her first profit-margin meeting. He’d better get to Waitrose.

He rose from bed, hair scraggly and boxers saggy, and went into the bathroom. It was humid in there like the greenhouse at Kew, where he’d asked her to marry him. His view was actually affected so much he took tiny steps to find the shower, afraid of bumping into anything, causing a breakage and her bad temper to flare. Before he got there, he glanced at the mirror and the mist seemed to miraculously clear a little. There was still some mirror-stuck steam obstructing a view of himself, and wait! Something else as well. Writing. Wobbly writing like a child’s. And a smell. A smell like the sea. Picked-up pebbles and webbed feet. He looked at the wobbly writing, read it, and almost fell over.

‘She don’t love you anymore’

That’s what it said. But it wasn’t true. She couldn’t have left that for him, not after everything they’d been through and wouldn’t she just tell him straight, to his face, or at least via email?

But then, she had been particularly pissed off with him recently, mainly due to all the things that seemed to go missing every day and it somehow always seemed to be his fault. But what a note to leave on the mirror. And in third person too? He knew she hated that. If she’d have written it, she’d have definitely put a capital ‘I’ and then ‘don’t’. She certainly wouldn’t have been so grammatically incorrect as to put ‘She don’t’. There was no chance of that happening. He decided not to wipe it off and leave it. When she got home he’d steam up the bathroom and show her, confront her… beg her to love him again.

Then he felt a rush of wind in the windowless bathroom and he slipped. Everything went black.


When he woke up, she was above him, like an angel. A sweet, kind smile on her beautiful ebony face. It quickly turned into a snarl as she saw his pupils focus.

‘When did you decide you’d had enough of us? Hey? Hey? Was it when I made you pretend to be my boss in bed on my birthday? Or when I chose the mauve curtains instead of the pine blinds?’

‘Wha-what are you talking about?’ He was confused. She grabbed him by the arm—he was sure it would bruise—and dragged him to the bathroom. She turned the shower on full blast as hot hot hot as it would go.

The steam soon appeared on the mirror, along with the words that had made him fall head first into a black hole. She pointed at them with a toxic-free painted nail:

‘He don’t love you anymore’

Was this supposed to be funny? He blinked. Couldn’t think clearly. She was right, it said ‘He’. But earlier it had said ‘She’, hadn’t it? Explanations rushed around his bumped brain: maybe she’d come home, embarrassed at what she’d done, guilt overpowering her as she’d seen him on the floor, and changed it herself, erased the ‘S’. But the fire in her eyes told him that was probably unlikely. He had nothing to say, he knew she would dismiss his story as a lie. He just wanted them to be happy like they had been in the old flat.


Late that night when the river outside was black like octopus ink and inside the only noise was the low buzz of the boiler, he heard a scratching sound and found that she was not next to him. Her clothes were abandoned on the floor by the bed. He followed the scratching, got closer closer closer… until he screamed with terror as he saw what was happening.

Ten minutes earlier, she had awoken with a very dry throat. She slipped on slippers and walked sleepily to the kitchen. She walked with the heaviness of not being sure if she was loved and with the hardness heaped onto someone who had to fight every day to keep a job she was great at. She sat on the recliner with a glass of water, feeling shivery despite the tropical combi-boiler heat. In the study room the laptop was on. Strange, she swore she’d turned it off when she’d gone to bed. Going to investigate, she saw his Facebook page was up. Great, she knew that now she’d have to look at it. There was an open message in the inbox from him to some trashy-looking girl with curly bleached hair and a tattoo on her thigh, posing in a turquoise bikini on a beach somewhere, probably about 23. He was asking her on a date, telling her not to be late, as his dick was aching to meet her.

Oh. My. God. She couldn’t breathe. She felt her neck getting so hot and her throat closing in on itself, she couldn’t tell if this was anxiety or… a rope. She swore she felt the rough edges of weaved hemp brush her veins and squeeze in slowly, although her fingers scratched and grappled and found nothing but flesh.

As her breath got tighter, her fighting subsided as she realised she was no longer seated, her feet no longer touched the floor. Her toes soared above the sanded, varnished boards and the air was moving past her frozen fingers like she’d poked them out of a car window on a winter road trip. She gripped the nape of her neck, but still could only feel flesh between her hands, even though the tug was so surely a rope, pulling, scratching, pulling, strangling and angling her towards the recycled milk-bottle light fittings that had just been installed.

She couldn’t scream. Her knees were weightless jelly and as she struggled with the invisible rope her acrylic fingernails scratched the statement wallpaper as she tried to push her way out of the torturing tornado. It didn’t work. Her neck was a cranberry-sauce mess of mushy flesh clawed away.

This was when he saw her, his love who he thought didn’t love him and who was convinced he didn’t love her, hanging by her fingernails onto the gold-painted lilies on the wall without the flat screen. He couldn’t scream either as he helplessly watched her float along to the aforementioned light fitting in the middle of the ceiling. Her hands grabbed the glass and she swung. He hung around below wanting to catch her, tell her he loved her very bones—but the yells made his throat cold and he still hadn’t spoken when she landed on top of him with a very expensive, crunchy crash.


The detective at the scene was perplexed. It was certainly a mystery. Such a good-looking, successful couple—dead. He was especially confused when they checked inside her mouth and found an article from a paper maybe 300 years old, all about pirates being hung by the river in Wapping, to set an example. Popping his head out the front-room balcony and taking a deep breath of the cool autumn air, he guessed he could see exactly where that had happened.[/private]




Bye, Bye Blackbird

(c) Kuyler McComas

1.

[private]Dale was eating breakfast, reading the Times. About halfway down the front page, he sensed something wrong. He peered over the paper and almost choked on a swallow of coffee. Across the chipped Formica table was a second plate of sausage and eggs, a second cup of coffee going cold. Bleary-eyed, he looked at his own plate, wondering vaguely why he’d prepared breakfast for two.

“You idiot,” he said aloud in a bored tone.

He scraped the dish into the garbage, set it in the sink and sat down to finish his eggs.[/private]


2.

“Maybe you’re getting lonely,” said Frank, packing brake shoes into a cardboard box.

Dale glanced at the clock. Ten minutes to quitting time. “Maybe,” he said, “I’m going nuts.”

Frank smiled knowingly and shook his head. “You need a woman, Dale.” He held up his left hand, pointing at his wedding ring. “A wife.”

Dale snorted. “Gimme a break. What do I want with a wife?”


3.

Several days later, on his way up the steps to his apartment, Dale heard a woman singing. The tune was familiar, but it took him awhile to peg it: “Bye Bye Blackbird”. He moved down the dark hall, a sack of groceries cradled in one arm, absently humming along. He was outside his door before he realized the singing was coming from inside his apartment. Dale gently set the bag down on the floor.

Pack up all your cares and woes…”

Holding his breath, he pressed his ear to the door. Yes. Definitely inside his place, the wood vibrating minutely against his cheek.

“…here I go, singing low…”

He pulled out his key ring.

“…bye bye blackbird.”

Slipped his key into the deadbolt, turned it slowly, quietly. He cranked the knob, threw his shoulder to the door and burst into the apartment.

Where somebody waits for me—”

The singing cut short, the echo of her voice still ringing off the casement windows. Dale frantically searched every room. He leaned against the sink in the kitchen, sweating, telling himself it must have been a radio outside, maybe a television in another apartment.


4.

“So I guess you’ve lived here a long time,” said Dale.

Dale’s landlord, Ralph Kowalski, stopped clipping the hedge. He pulled a red handkerchief out of his back pocket and mopped the sweat on his forehead, the back of his neck. Ralph was about eighty. His face resembled a crumpled lunchbag. He wore horn-rimmed glasses, one lens thick as a telescope element, the other smoked black. Ralph lived with his wife, Edna, in a small duplex out back.

“Damn near fifty years,” he said. “Useta have a pie fact’ry around the corner. It’s gone now though.”

Dale nodded. “You ever have any trouble?”

“Whaddaya mean?”

“You know. With tenants.”

Ralph peered at him with distrust, as if the very question might be an indication that Dale was planning something nefarious.

“Trouble?” he asked.

Dale shrugged. “I mean, I figure a guy like you’s seen a lot, huh?”

Ralph set his clippers down on the porch step. “Damn right.”

Dale nodded vigorously. “Yeah, I mean, I bet you’ve seen some pretty crazy shit come down around here.”

“Had some niggers bust up a bunch of windows once. It was when they was riotin’ down in Watts. Decided to do some riotin’ up here. I called the cops.”

“Yeah.”

The old man nodded. “Damn right. Threw ‘em in the can too. Nowadays, they’re scared of ‘em, but back then the cops didn’t take no shit. Beat ‘em up. Beat ‘em with sticks.”

Ralph laughed, picked up the shears and began hacking at the gardenia bushes. Dale watched him, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, wondering how to phrase the question he’d really wanted to ask, the old man becoming oblivious to his presence.

“You ever have anybody die on you?”

Ralph snapped the clippers together. After a moment’s silence, he continued his pruning.

“Not that I rec’lect,” he said without turning.

Dale caught a movement in the corner of his eye. He glanced at his apartment window, and saw her for the first time.

Perhaps twenty years old, long, dark hair, an expression of sorrow furrowing her pale brow. He realized immediately he was seeing a ghost. He felt no fear or awe, only surprise at how mundane, how natural the experience seemed. She was as real as the grass under his feet, the hot Santa Anas tugging his shirt, the children jumping double-dutch across the street.

He followed her gaze down to a point directly in front of Ralph.

At the old man’s feet lay a white gardenia, slashed and scattered across the grass, the edges of its petals already curling brown.


5.

That night she touched him.

Dale was sitting in bed in his boxers and a t-shirt, reading the Racing Form, when he felt a small, cool hand brush his naked thigh.

“Jesus!”

He jolted out of bed, covering himself with the paper. He looked frantically around the room, then at the spot she’d touched. He rubbed it, tentatively at first, then more vigorously, as if trying to remove something foul.

Fear turned to anger.

“Who’s there?” he shouted. Then quietly, almost a whisper: “Who are you?”

Silence. Only the distant hum of the freeway.

Stumbling into the bathroom, he threw some cold water on his face and took a couple of aspirin. He started at the haggard reflection in the mirror, forcing himself to breathe slowly, normally.

A woman’s voice, very close to his ear, perhaps inside his head, said one word: “Beth.”

He felt his gorge rise. Clapped one hand over his mouth, then vomited in the sink.


6.

“What’s wrong?” asked Frank.

Dale squeezed the receiver, considered hanging up.

“I dunno. Flu I guess. Just tell Churchill I’m gonna be out again today.”

“He’s gonna be pissed,” said Frank. “I mean, we’re already short of help and we got that big Pep Boys order goin’.”

Dale closed his eyes. “What do you want me to do? I’m leaking out of both ends.”

“Okay. Right. I was just sayin’… you know.”

“Yeah. I’ll be in soon as I’m feeling better, okay?”


7.

The virus took a leisurely tour through his digestive tract. He spent hours on the toilet, emerging tired, legs quivering, an angry red ring on his ass, only to return minutes later. It moved up into his throat and sinuses for a day or two, then settled deep in his lungs, spurring a rasping cough that brought up pale, yellow sputum.

As his condition worsened, Beth became bolder. Sometimes she was a rustle of fabric; sometimes a whiff of perfume, sweet and musty. Once he heard her voice, far away, calling the iceman.

Then the fever came.

She was with him every night as he drifted between sleep and delirium. He heard her coo softly, a cool hand on his forehead. Even when his cough settled deep and bubbling, every breath an act of will, fever pounding and smoldering inside his head, when he knew it was no longer flu, but pneumonia, Dale refused to call a doctor, afraid that by relieving his symptoms, he would somehow banish her.

He’d been out almost a week when his supervisor called to tell him he was fired.

After that, Dale took the phone off the hook.


8.

She told him things, hints Dale forgot as soon as he heard them. He lost himself in her whispers, her voice dark and soft with a child’s lilt. It wasn’t until the eleventh night that she revealed herself completely.

At first, Dale thought she’d gone away. The apartment was still, the air heavy. He lay in bed sweating, breathing in frantic, shallow bursts. Outside, the street was filled with Saturday night sounds: a car engine gunned, followed by laughter; a dog barking, joined by another, a third; ranchera music; distant sirens. Somewhere, a game-show host was giving away thousands of dollars in cash and fabulous merchandise.

As sunlight on water hides the trout, the noise was an intangible yet impenetrable barrier against his perception of her. Under the hustlers, the animals, the television sets, the shiny new cars and condos and golf courses existed another world, a place where a man could peel away his flesh in thick, curling slabs, step outside and breathe for the first time. A place where dead women wept.

Weeping.

In Dale’s closet she wept.

Beth.

He rolled over, pitched himself off the bed, landing hard on the point of his hip. His sweat made the hardwood floor slippery as he dragged himself toward the closet door, struggling for breath, his body wracked by shivering spasms.

Silence.

He pressed, held his breath, listened. The only sound was a rhythmic creaking. He reached up for the knob with one palsied hand. Pushing himself away from the door, he paused a moment, then threw it open.

Beth was in there.

Dale scampered back, his mouth open so wide his jaw hurt. All his constricted throat would allow was high-pitched mewling, the whistling cry of a crushed kitten. His back slammed against the side of the bed and still he pushed away, drawing himself into a tight, sweating ball. He felt a hot gushing in his shorts, smelled the wanton bitterness of his own piss.

A splash of moonlight illuminated her legs, the hem of her white cotton slip. Her chipped painted toenails dangled four inches above the floor. Blood had pooled inside her hands and feet, stretching the skin purplish red, like overripe figs. The rope around her neck crushed tissue and cartilage tight against vertebrae. The soft flesh under her jaw was bloated wineskin; her mouth a silent, shrieking hole.

Behind a cascade of limp, black hair, bulging obsidian eyes reflected sparks of moonlight.

The fabric of her slip rippled, shifted as if touched by a breeze. One side of her belly bulged, then withdrew. Dread gnawing at his bowels, Dale realized there was something inside her, something alive. He traced its frantic struggle under the satin as it kicked and squirmed, its movements becoming more insistent, purposeful.

In a moment that was forever, Dale became the tiny thing inside her, unable to breathe, clawing at slippery, yielding walls of cold flesh. No thoughts. No memories. Only pain and pain and pain. Her sin exploded into his primitive consciousness, not as a narrative, but a revelation. He pressed unformed hands to his huge head, struggled in vain to close lidless eyes in a feeble effort to keep it at bay, but still it flooded in white-hot.

His birthright.

Her bleeding harvest.

With a final shudder, he was delivered into darkness, left only with the knowledge of what he must do, and the terrible certainty of his own damnation.


9.

“I brought my tools,” Ralph said.

Dale motioned for him to enter. Without a word, the old man hefted his greasy wooden toolbox and shuffled in. As they walked through the bedroom, Ralph stopped and took a long look at the clutter. The bed was stripped, soiled linen and clothing strewn in twisted piles. Although the windows were wide open, the room still reeked of sour illness.

“Heard you was sick,” Ralph said, wrinkling his nose.

Dale kicked a t-shirt under the bed. “Yeah.”

The old man nodded sagely. “Shit’s going around. The wife’s feelin’ kinda punk.”

“Too bad.”

Ralph lugged his toolbox into the bathroom. “You say the toilet don’t work?”

Dale stood at the threshold. “Won’t flush.”

“Well we’ll have it fixed in a jiffy, then.”

With a grunt, Ralph removed the lid of the tank and set it in the tub. He opened his toolbox and rummaged around, pulling out a large monkey wrench. Turning his back to Dale, he began examining the inside of the tank. “I ever tell you how I was a ship-fitter in the Navy?”

Dale silently toyed with the cord of his alarm clock. He pulled the plug from the extension cord. “She died in that closet,” he said.

Ralph stiffened.

“Whassat?” he asked in a shaky voice, still looking at the guts of the toilet.

“The girl. The one who lived here. She died in that closet.”

The old man didn’t reply.

“Why’d you lie to me?” asked Dale.

Ralph glanced over his shoulder. His face was ashen.

Dale pulled the extension cord from the outlet. “She was pregnant, wasn’t she?”

The old man turned away. After a moment he nodded.

Dale began wrapping the cord around his right hand, then his left, leaving a length of eight inches between his fists. “With your baby.”

Ralph’s shoulders sagged.

Dale quietly closed the distance between them. He leaned forward gently as if to kiss the old man, and then stopped, his lips almost touching Ralph’s ear.

“Say her name,” Dale whispered.

“I can’t.”

“Say her name. The one you gave her.”

A croaking sob. “Beth.”

“Your daughter. Your little girl.”

The old man nodded. A fat tear rolled down his dry cheek.

“You knew I’d come someday,” Dale whispered. “You knew I’d come for you.”

Ralph looked sideways at him with one bulging, cataract-shrouded eye. “You’re dead.”

“I know.”


10.

Dale whipped his arms over Ralph’s head and yanked back the cord, planting one knee against the base of the old man’s spine. The monkey wrench clattered to the floor. Dale closed his eyes and smiled beatifically and began quietly singing.

Pack up all your cares and woes…”




Jellyfish

(c) lezumbalaberenjena/Flickr

You can become blasé about almost anything. Walking back through the verdant grounds of the hotel, I pass monkeys, monitor lizards and vultures and yet I barely eye a batlid. The ghost of heat haunts my peripheral vision.

[private]Let me try and explain the heat. You know that first blast of hot air you get when you first step off a plane and into a foreign country? Here, it’s like that all day long. It wrings you out. Especially just after lunch, when you’re at you’re meltiest anyway and there’s really not much else for it but to head to the room, flop by the fan, and wait it out.

Outside, the air doesn’t feel natural. There’s something manufactured about it. As though it’s part of some process, the bi-product of some work of filthy creation in some sweatshop or factory in the arse-end of the world. It thrums like an engine.

This is my first proper beach holiday and I’ve skipped the middle-of-the-road stuff like Greece or Spain. Headed straight for the centre of the sun, it seems. Thought I’d do something completely different this year. Clean break from the past and all that. Mark and I took winter holidays. Skiing. Snowboarding. The like. On account of him being ginger with the complexion of biscuits.

Clean break, she says. Like anything could be clean here. Wriggle a toe out the shower and already you’re sweating like you’ve spent a day toiling on a farm.

Can’t even think clean. Think in, like, these weird phrases. Phases. Can’t quite maintain a train of thought without it being baked out of me. Like I say, heat haunts me.

I thought here would give me time to reflect on some of the choices I’ve made over the past couple years. Choices which have led me to, well, here. But here I’m just as confused as I ever was back at home. Only here, I can’t scurry around at a hundred miles an hour busying myself like I do at home and so it feels as though I’m wasting time, lots of it.

I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m depressed—seen depressed every day in my job. I’m not it—but I’m something. Not me, I suppose. I’ve lost something about myself and I thought being here would help me rediscover it.

It hasn’t.

I’m uneasy. The heat’s haunted me into something transparent. Anybody could just look at me from their balconies and see my mistake inside me; something rotten and diseased. Heat’s made me uneasy too because of the rolling news they showed in the dining room over lunch. The kidnappings in Kenya. It has crossed my mind that there is nobody in my life who would stump up a ransom for me like the man did for his mother… It has crossed my mind Kenya’s not that far away. Right continent.

My unease works its way into my hands as I fumble the key into the lock on the balcony door, my fingers feeling like thumbs, my thumbs like knuckles. But it just won’t open and the sun’s beating down fierce on the back of my neck and…

And I realise that the reason the key won’t click just right in the lock is because the door’s already open. And suddenly it’s not hot any more. Suddenly, my arms are cloaked with goosebumps.

I slide open the door. Step into the room, imagining machete-wielding kidnappers crouched under coffee tables and gun-toting madmen hidden behind the curtains.

And what I see matches the new chaos inside me because it looks like an incredibly localised storm, or a poltergeist, has hit the room. My suitcase upended and clothes—dirty and clean—scattered everywhere.

Quietly, carefully, I check around for the intruder.

But there’s nobody here. I’ve entered the scene of the crime too late to hear the bump in the night (or day). Holding my breath, I move to the big wardrobe in the corner, and I’m amazed and gratified to see the safety deposit box is untouched.

My nostrils flare, because almost this is worse than kidnapping. Because this now seems like common or garden vandalism. It’s pick on the weak woman who’s come here on her own type-stuff.

I flick my bikini top off the phone and call reception in a fit of pique. It’ll have been the cleaner. I know it. He lurks like some baddie from a horror novel. I scream out the receptionist as soon as she answers. The ghost-heat on me now like almost never before.

We’ll send someone straight down, confirms the receptionist, once she manages to get an edge in wordways.

After a good ten minutes, a man turns up wearing the hotel’s standard uniform. Sand-coloured. Epaulettes on the shoulders. He walks up looking unhurried in the extreme and bows his head as he addresses me. First thing I do is I check his name badge, just to be sure he is who he says he is. Lately, I’ve been having trust issues.

He asks me what seems to be the problem and for a moment, I’m speechless. I whirl round, gesture to the room.

And he just stands there. Looks as though he’s slouching against something even though he isn’t. Then he asks me what’s the matter and I’m like wow, I’ve already explained this once. But I bite back my hot temper and start to tell him about the break-in. As I do though, the man decides to really take the biscuit. Amazingly, he starts to smirk.

My voice comes out like Cerberus’ bark. What’s the problem?

And so he tells me about the monkeys. Happens to nearly everybody he says. If they leave their balcony doors open. They’re only looking for food. They’ve learned how to open suitcases and make-up bags. And then he laughs.

And really it should be funny, but it’s just too hot, and I feel haunted out here, with my smalls on display all across the room like some world-stopping night of passion has taken place inside.

He asks me whether there’s anything missing.

Flustered, I tell him I’ll check. He follows me into the room. Stands at my shoulder like he’s my epaulette as I check everything against the itemised Master Packing List which is stuffed in the front of my case. Nothing seems to be missing.

He cracks a smile, tells me not to leave the balcony door open again.

And I start to explain that I didn’t, and I don’t know why it’s so important to me that he understands, but it is. It’s as though he’s read me, psychically, and I don’t like it because I can’t read him back. Not any more.


I can’t stay in the room now. It seems tainted, somehow, even though it was only monkeys broke in. Or was it? A shiver runs up my spine whenever I think on it…

I can’t sit round the pool either. Too awful. They host water-aerobics sessions every hour on the hour. The lithe instructor—one of the few hotel staff who doesn’t wear the sandy uniform—zigzagging through the beds trying to drum up interest, bawling, ‘Wakey, wakey don’t be lazy,’ at the tourists flopped like globules of fat round the edges of a frying pan on their beds.

And some of the sights. The family whose five-year-old is dressed in a t-shirt with BITCH ON HEAT emblazoned across it. The women doused in oils reading Heat magazine, their feet rocking off the end of the sunbed in time to beats which are only in their head. The fat men talking loudly on their mobile phones using their very best I told you so voices.

So I set out for the beach. A private beach, dontchaknow. Though it’s not as idyllic or expensive as it sounds. The private beach is like a roughly constructed mezzanine level, its purpose to ensure none of the locals can properly pester the guests. I lie down and try to read my book, but I keep catching sight of the locals walking by, like spirits. Tops of their heads, at any rate. They are selling all sorts. Macheted-open coconuts. Beaded bracelets. Paintings. Voodoo mobile phone covers. Whenever I look up, I meet the eyes of one of the sellers. Have to say, politely but firmly, as though I’m training a dog, NO!

Eventually, I decide to go for a walk on the public beach. It’s crowded. More sellers. Men from the juice stalls—little more than shacks—trying to entice me over for a pineapple juice or whatever. I ignore them all. Nice to be nice, they say, as I pass, and part of me wants to tell them that I am being nice. I could stop and talk to them but that would make them think there was a sale to be made when there is actually squat-diddley chance of that. I’m not carrying any money. Nowhere to put it. No chance I’d keep it anywhere near my skin. The money is so dirty, the bureau de change at Marks’ won’t stock it. It’s like it’s been buried, and dug up, like that telltale heart in the Poe story. After touching it, it’s tempting to apply some hand gel to wash away the germs.

So I perfect the head-down walk-on. Thankful that the sunhat almost covers my eyes. I walk and I listen. Listen to the soundtrack of Africa today: tinny mobile phone ringtones, the clatter of a vulture’s claws as it glunks down on the tin roof of a juice stall, hawkers shouting their wares, the muted crash of the waves. Things that go bump in the night, like I say.

When I open my eyes, I find I’m walking not far behind a young couple. Hawkers flock around them like flies. The young man is wearing a football shirt with the name ROONEY on the back. They want Rooney to go on a fishing trip with them. I see them gesturing off to their boats bobbing over past the breakers in the sea. Others want Rooney to have a drink with them in a bar which is just up the road. Others still want Rooney to give them some money because their sister/mother/daughter is ill and needs medicine.

Still others run on ahead, and drop down onto the sands. Start doing press-ups as though the beach is an army assault course. I know what they’re doing. They’re trying to prove their virility. Some men and women come out here and pick up more than a tan. Some come here looking for husbands or wives. The idea makes me feel a little queasy. All that horrible auditioning for a life which surely they wouldn’t want. Or maybe they would. How should I know?

Other things on the beach make me feel queasy too. Seabirds haunt an area where the contents of a bucket have been tossed. I see fish-heads. Entrails. Farther along, I almost step on a dead jellyfish. Its skin is transparent. Ghostly. Reminds me of the clear plastic bags they issue at security in the airport. I can see all the wiring inside it; looks like telephone cord. Like it has a circuit board inside it.

I used to think people were like that. That I could see right through into the heart of them. That I understood them. Thought that was what made me a good social worker. All it took was one misreading and everything fell apart.

I should have realised things were not as they seemed with Denise. And with Boy A. I should have realised the uncle wasn’t an uncle at all. I should have seen Mark wasn’t what he appeared too, waaaaaay before I did. But I became complacent. Heat of the job, heat of married life. Made me blasé. Blasé as in blazingly oblivious.

I peer into the washed-up jellyfish and for a while my mind floats off elsewhere, into darkness I don’t know. It’s like my mind’s a timeshare and somebody else occupies my body for a while, someone from beyond… I’m thinking about when I was young. Family holidays to Wales. There always seemed to be an infestation of something on those holidays. Ladybirds one year, greenfly the next. One year it was jellyfish. Hundreds of them atop the white horses riding down onto the shingle beach. Tide went out, me and my brother would go look at them. Scared and intrigued at the same time. There was one type of jellyfish called a medusa. These were the ones had a body shaped like an umbrella. And I remember thinking that the name was apt. Because of the sting. Could turn a person to stone, like Medusa could in the Greek myth. I suppose that’s what happened to me in the end. I was turned into stone, and only now am I realising what a mess I made of everything.

I’m drawn out of my reverie finally. A family have now clustered around the jellyfish with me. The dad pokes at it with a stick. The woman cringes and says don’t do that Mark, and the name gives me a sting. Then the kid chucks a stone right into the middle of the jellyfish. The dad tells his son that if a jellyfish stings you, the only way to cure it is to whack the old wanger out and whizz right on the sting.

I walk away from them, farther up the beach, drawing closer to depression as I go. Heat weighing down on my hat, on my head, like I’m Chicken Licken and the sky has fallen in.

There are fewer people now and I start to think maybe I should head back because this is becoming kidnapping territory and have you heard the one about the stupid, ignorant Englishwoman who thought she’d be okay on her own until she stepped right into the crocodile’s jaws?

And then I start to think maybe I’d be safer if I walked back along the road because maybe I could catch a taxi if desperate, and surely one would stop for me because the heat’s now making me bedraggled and there’s probably desperation chalked on my features now.

Soon as I think about how I look, the desperation becomes panic. Because there’s nobody on the beach at all now. It’s like the scene has suddenly become post-apocalyptic, ghost-story territory. First little rutted track leading off the beach I see, I take it, and head in the general direction of the road. There are various signs I think are vaguely familiar. Adverts for mobile phone providers. Messages of support for the president: THANK YOU MISTER PRESIDENT and ELECT HIM PRESIDENT FOR LIFE!

After a while, I hear a car. I stop in the dust at the side of the road and watch it creep past. It has tinted windows. And I think about being kidnapped. I think about being important enough to be kidnapped. It accelerates away from me and leaves me in no doubt about any of it. And it’s as though the world’s suddenly revealed itself to be much larger, much emptier, than I ever thought it was.

Apart from my ghosts, I am alone.

I stumble onwards. Sweat, tears and dust stinging my eyes. I pass a man resting in the shade of a tree. He might be asleep. He is lying on top of a sack of onions, as though they’re comfortable as a mattress. Soon as he sees me, he stands up, like he’s a stickler for manners and tradition.

I start to walk a little bit faster. My legs already starting to burn.

He draws level with me without even breaking a sweat. And now he’s so close I can smell the sweat of him, I see he’s only a little taller than me. Taller, but made of a different type of material somehow. Wicker maybe. His arms and legs look spindly. As though I could snap them easily.

He brushes the dust off his hands on a simple blue shirt, and proffers his right hand for me to shake. Very formal. And now I look at him properly, I see he’s not an old man at all. He’s young. Don’t know how young. But the way he keeps blinking like that, the nervous twitches to his mouth…

I ask him his name and he seems grateful. Salomon, he says. And he asks where I’m from. Where my husband is. I tell him I’m not married anymore, and it seems to confuse him. He asks me who looks after me then. I tell him I work. That I provide for myself. Which seems to confuse him even more.

So I start to tell him about my job. Usually, I’m rather tight-lipped about my work. I’m aware of the reaction the words ‘social worker’ elicits in people. They’re suddenly on their guard. Careful what they say to me. You know when I said I gave the boy a clip round the ear for being cheeky… I wasn’t being serious… Esther Rantzen put the cause of social workers like me back decades. Made us seem like witch-finder generals. Or the witches themselves. Current government put us back centuries. Laying off good workers here there and everywhere.

I look into people’s hearts, I tell him, finally.

And he smiles. Nods. Asks, and how is that working out for you?

I sigh. Not very well.

But you try, yes?

I did… do… Will…

People show you what they want you to see, he says.

I look off into the distance. Ghost-heat shimmers off the road, making everything seem blurry. I turn around, the words you’re a good boy hot on my lips. But when I turn, Salomon, my spindly boy, is gone.[/private]




The Ghost in the (Fruit) Machine

(c) Christian Heilmann

I think my brother writes computer games for Jesus because, for a long time, he thought, and maybe still does, that our father was a fruit machine.

You may have heard of some of his games. Exodus, where you take the character of Moses; in each level you gather objects to visit a plague upon the Egyptians. The main character resembles a pixelated Rock Hudson, since the digital rights to Charlton Heston’s likeness were deemed too expensive. His other top seller is a first person shoot-em-up; you play Jesus, fighting your way through Romans, using special move combinations to turn water into wine (press A then B on the console), produce fish from nowhere (C, D & X) and heal the sick (A + R1).

[private]Whilst the gameplay is fast and the character of Mary Magdalen is voiced by a former pornographic movie star, the games (and others in this stable) are not meant to be fun. They have a Purpose. Evangelism first, entertainment second. In the twenty-first century the battle for young minds and their imaginations is fierce and the road to salvation is rendered with digital distractions.

My brother is a convert; a true believer in the faith of ones and zeros, heaven and hell, and the binary state, but if there was any form of baptism it was not in the sea but rather above it, on the south coast of England.


We lived with our mother just outside the peeling seaside resort of Hastings. Under the unblinking eyes of a mournful, black statue of Queen Victoria, as she presided over offerings of last night’s salty vomit and rancid chip wrappings, Hastings had expanded from a fishing village to a poorer man’s Victorian Brighton, and over the twentieth century had continued to decline gently as a refuge of last resort. In the nineteen sixties the central government paid increased benefits to those who chose to move to Hastings to not look for work. In the eighties it became the suicide capital runner-up for England, narrowly beaten by Manchester in the young male category. As one letter writer wryly observed in the local Rye Observer, ‘Why can’t we ever win anything?’

It was this blend of economic hardship, depression and the trappings of a decayed Victorian holiday camp that had made the place. Nowhere was this more obvious than on Hastings Pier. It had been half closed for two decades and the chief adult attraction amongst the local cognoscenti was a three-bar portable gas heater, advertised by word of mouth and a cardboard sign proclaiming in black felt tip the legend, “Free and Warm.”

The twin aims of human existence were here, available to anyone. The prime positions right in front of the heater were always reserved for local dignitaries, of which my father was one. Three deck chairs were in permanent residence. The central position of honour was kept for Len, the pier manager. At his right hand sat our father, who notionally ran the Penny Arcade. To the left was Pat, a shaggy redhead of no fixed abode or employment who resided solely by dint of cronyism since he had gone to secondary school, briefly, with the other two men. He had been expelled for selling stolen wristwatches, but not before he’d let Len have one for cheap for his dad’s birthday. Len had never forgotten this small act of generosity.


I had always been closer to my mother so my parents separating had less of an obvious impact, but evidence of my brother’s distress was obvious. When at home he was withdrawn, hardly unusual for an eleven-year-old boy, but his withdrawal was not just verbal but physical. He was increasingly absent from school. My mother resorted to taking a day off from work, something any of us could little afford. Waiting outside the school in a borrowed car she followed him slowly in a pair of superfluous sunglasses down to the seafront and the rusting pier.

My father, apparently, treated him in the same way on every visit, barely stirring himself from his fireside banter with the cream of Hastings’ vagrant greybeards. Often without a word he would dip his hand into his pocket and produce a bag of assorted coppers, and if feeling especially paternal would pat his son, with what he imagined was affection, then gently shove him in the direction of the Penny Arcade.

It was there that the father-son relationship was nurtured by proxy, though increasingly as my brother approached puberty, the attractions became less familial and more like lovers. He would murmur to them, fondle them, coax them deftly to pay out their meagre jackpots with all the attentiveness of a young man in love for the first time. He became a virtuoso, learning their moods, their patterns, their rhythms; when they’d pay out, when they’d clam up. Warm copper coins eased gently into their gaping slots, with a tenderness and patience uncharacteristic of his gender and teenage years. My brother, the Casanova of copper coins.


And then my father died, buried by an avalanche of broken bones and coffins on his way to work. The cliffside graveyard in St. Leonards, as had long been foretold and ignored, after a particularly violent storm, had surrendered its dead; disgorging its contents, which had fled, along with much of the cliffside, at the earliest opportunity, to inter the one living person on the Undercliff path below. My father, thou art in Hastings.

He was buried with the rest, by far the youngest corpse there, in a new plot on the Ridge. For my brother this was not the end, only the beginning. The absenteeism increased until one day he came home red-eyed, with a bruise like a storm cloud just below his left eye. My mother made a lot of noise and fuss, the sort you think is unnecessary when you’re not yet grown up but will miss forever when it’s no longer there. My brother, uncharacteristically, gave what was, for him, an explanation:

‘They’ve banned me from the arcade. They won’t let me see Dad.’

In death it seemed my dear departed dad had become something of a model parent, albeit mechanical. He was utterly reliable, and with time, predictable. He made all the right noises at the right time, and rewarded good behaviour with a series of high-pitched noises and flashes and, if played correctly, was a dependable source of pocket money. My brother had it in his head that my father’s ghost had chosen to inhabit a two-penny one-armed bandit—in itself not the most harmful psychosis, at least until the middle-aged caravan couple who now ran the arcade accused him of nudging the machines, and tried, with success, to ban him.

He fought. He lost. He was physically bruised but emotionally broken. My mother pleaded on his behalf to Len, the manager, my father’s old boss and school friend. His price was too high; he’d made a similar suggestion to my mother at father’s funeral, reeking of cheap spirits as he pressed against her hand-me-down black crepe dress. Whilst she was a devoted mother she was unwilling to prostitute herself indefinitely and he wouldn’t budge his considerable bulk, so that was that. My brother had nowhere else to retreat to and gradually a stilted normality resumed. His absences were now exclusively mental and he attended school mechanically, present to all physical purposes.


It was the closure of the pier that saw hope rekindled in my brother’s eyes. He wrote articulately, politely and unrelentingly to the local council. How were the games machines being disposed of? Would they be sold off singly or en masse? Eventually he received a curt, typed reply: ‘obsolete’, ‘no resale value’, ‘to be scrapped, wholesale.’ Their destination was a local junkyard and there at the bottom, best of all, was the name of the dealer.

So, on my brother’s twelfth birthday we made a family pilgrimage to the tip. My brother was wealthy by juvenile standards: hoarded pennies seduced from the machines had turned into pounds, placed with care in a post office account for an unspecified occasion, until now.

There in a corner, illuminated by a solitary ray of sunshine, on its side, was my father’s immortal remains. My brother, usually soft-spoken, haggled with the fierce and unrelenting tenacity of an Old Town fishwife. The owner knew almost immediately when he was beaten and we returned in the borrowed van bearing our prize with something like triumph. My brother was given permission to restore and maintain our father in the shed. A not entirely novel experience for him if immediate family history was to be believed.


A year or so later and his visits to the bottom of the garden became less frequent. He’d met a girl at the local church. Later still he beckoned me into the shed.

‘I don’t think it’s him,’ he said, not looking at me, ‘but I’d like it to be. I’d like there to be something left.’

And, reflected in the glass of the machine, perhaps there was.

‘The thing is, I’ve brought Sarah down here a couple of times, and whilst it’s good to have him here, would you help me turn him around. I just don’t want him watching us when we’re…’

‘I don’t think I want to know.’

‘It’s nothing bad. We’re just kissing.’

‘Give us a hand with this, if only to stop you talking. I don’t want to know the details, sordid or otherwise.’

A few days later I was surprised to find my brother, red-faced, clearly from crying but now trying to hide it by frowning unconvincingly at a rhododendron bush.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Nothing. Sarah dumped me.’

‘Bad luck. What did you do?’

‘Nothing, it was because of dad.’

It seemed my brother’s faith had been misplaced: when she asked about the presence of the fruit machine facing the wall in their chaste love shed, he had made the mistake of telling her the truth. She split with him, not because he was the sort of person who believed his father was an electrical entertainment appliance, but for blasphemy. Paternal ghosts were reserved for Christianity’s first family, not the likes of him. The sad thing was not that they broke up; thirteen-year-olds break up, it’s what they do whenever they’re given the opportunity, and it’d be a stranger world if they didn’t. No, the sad thing was that, via Sarah or her family word got back to the church my brother had been attending. One Sunday soon after, the vicar took him aside after the service, much to Sarah’s father’s highly visible approval. Reverend Little was insistent; faith was a matter of belief, and that belief was quite clear. There was, in his philosophy, one less thing in heaven and earth than in my brother’s and if my brother wished to keep attending the church he had better audit his belief system to the sum of one surplus father. That evening I helped my brother turn the one-armed bandit around.

There it stayed. Girlfriends came and went, though Simon (that’s my brother) became more circumspect about whom he told, if at all. There was also a slight but lingering resentment towards the machine; in some ways he blamed it for his first break up and would continue to do so for any subsequent disasters in his love life. We both went away to university; me first, to London, then him, down the road to the University of Sussex, and the certainties of the Computer Science department. Dad’s remains remained with mum. I don’t know what she thought of it all. I had never asked. I suppose I had assumed she was indulging Simon the same way I had. Was it still wish fulfilment and nothing more? Perhaps I was jealous. In all the time since he had bought the bandit I had never found even the faintest hint of what my brother claimed to perceive. I had always assumed it was because there was nothing there.


My brother’s feelings towards the machine and mine towards him, for seeing something I didn’t, took a long time to percolate, but it happened at Christmas, at the end of the millennium. We had both moved out and my mother had sold the house and moved into a smaller flat in nearby Bexhill. I was in a one-room palace in central London and my brother had bought a house outside Eastbourne. He was doing pretty well in the games industry, even then, and since his place was bigger he kindly invited us to spend Christmas with him. I arrived at his on Christmas Eve and everything was congenial, until I stepped into the front room. It was warm and cosy with a cast-iron log-burner pulsing heat. My mother sat there awkwardly and the cause of her discomfort was clear: in the middle of the room, sporting a Santa hat, was the fruit machine. Mum and I sat uncomfortably whilst my brother fussed around, oblivious to our raised eyebrows and theatrical shrugs.

‘Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.’

‘Thanks, can I help with anything?’

‘No, no.’

In the dining room we chatted easily; mum had been quietly seeing Pat. Apparently dad’s death had really shocked him and the closure of the pier had literally got him off his backside. He worked in the local tourist attraction (The Smuggler’s Life, a permanent exhibition in nearby caves) gift shop and did tours. It was company for her and she was bored just being on her own.

My brother was quiet through this exchange. I can only assume he had not known. In a way that he had clearly seen on films to denote vast reservoirs of self-control, he very slowly placed his cutlery on the table cloth.

‘What about dad?’

Mum looked at him, genuinely puzzled.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, don’t you think it’s a bit disrespectful.’

‘Well, we were divorced.’

‘No, I mean talking about this when he’s in the other room. He still loves you, you know.’

‘Oh Simon.’

‘He told me.’

‘How?’ I interjected. ‘I mean how does he do it. One jackpot for yes, three lemons for no?’

Simon ignored the sarcasm.

‘Not quite, it’s more of a feeling. You wouldn’t understand.’

I nodded, saying nothing, but that was the moment I decided to do something. I wasn’t sure what, but something, if only to remove the look of self-satisfaction from his face. I couldn’t see the desperate sadness of someone who had never got to terms with his parents’ divorce, robbed of any chance to by his dad’s premature death. All I saw was a smug prick with his home-made religion. The rest of the meal and most of the evening continued in virtual silence. It was uncomfortable but my brother again appeared not to notice. Mum decided to head back to Bexhill and I offered to give her a lift, neither of us had had a drink and no one felt like sticking it out until tomorrow. Even so my brother made a big show of disappearing off to go and get our Christmas presents. Whilst he did this, I am not proud, but not particularly ashamed to say I swiped a couple of the fruit machine’s fuses. It was childish and I’m not sure why I did it; on reflection I think it was jealousy. Not of his relationship with the one-armed bandit, but what I perceived to be an impregnability about him. I envied that, and rather spitefully I wanted to take it away from him, however briefly, over Christmas.

He didn’t notice the theft, so intent was he on fetching our gifts. They looked bulky, identical.

‘Well open them now then.’

Mum hadn’t noticed what I’d done, and neither of us had the heart to refuse him. They were laptop computers, identical, expensive.

‘I got them through a guy at work I know. Top of the range. E-mail, the internet, everything. We can all stay in touch much easier.’

He seemed childishly enthusiastic, I hadn’t seen him this way since the penny arcades.

‘Great, thanks.’

‘Oh that’s really kind love, really thoughtful.’

‘No problem. Well, bye then. See you soon.’


I drove mum home. We talked, by unspoken mutual agreement, about everything except Simon and I wasn’t surprised to see Pat waiting at the flat to buzz her in. I declined the offer of a coffee or a bed for the night and drove back to London. The flat seemed very small and empty and I had already regretted taking the fuses. I popped them in a jiffy bag and addressed it to my brother, no note, and went to bed. The next morning I woke refreshed and with nothing planned, plugged in my brother’s gift. It was a thing of beauty—slim, light, sleek, metallic design. Elegant. I felt clumsy even switching it on. As it booted swiftly and silently I noted the operating system had come pre-installed, clearly by Simon, and the desktop showed an image of the fruit machine. There waiting for me was a solitary e-mail:

 

From: Simon Peter <[email protected]>

Subject: Attempted Murder

Date: 25 December 1999 23:52:54 GMT

To: Jude Thomas <[email protected]>

Hey Jude,

I know what you did and I know why.

I know you never loved our father.

Dad’s not in the fruit machine anymore, I built an emulator and transferred him. He’s on the ‘net, he’s on your computer, he’s everywhere. I’ve spoken to him though and we both forgive you. I pity you Jude and I love you.

Happy Christmas.

love

Simon.

 

Outside, snow began to fall. On the screen the reels of the fruit machine simulation began to spin. If there was a pattern I couldn’t see it.[/private]

This is Giles Anderson’s first fictional submission.



Five Ghost Stories that Scared M. R. James

Montague Rhodes James

Today marks 150 years since the birth of the master of the ghost story, Montague Rhodes James. In the century since they were first published, James’s stories have never been out of print. In the general scheme of things, terror in literature doesn’t have a very long shelf life. New generations of jaded readers demand new thrills, and the jump-cuts and sound effects of horror in cinema and on television make the literary ghost seem rather tame. But James’s stories are still as terrifying now as they ever were.

There’s a sinister and repulsive imprecision about his ghosts; blanks that new readers fill with nervous imaginations. He does the literary equivalent of covering our eyes at the moment of horror. A few words dropped casually: face like crumpled linen, a creature made of hair, a man very thin and wet, a footprint with the bones visible. We desperately want to look, but even more desperately, we don’t want to see. We’re like the observers in “The Mezzotint“, “profoundly thankful that they could see no more“.

But of course, if you love ghost stories, you always want more. I’ve got shelves of the things, anthology after anthology promising scares and chills in the blurbs. But those of us searching for our next literary shudder know that, all too often, ghosts disappoint. They hang around not doing much, or do too much, like disembodied agony aunts. There are ghosts that turn out to be tricks, ghosts too airy-fairy to be scary, yawn-inducing amiable ghosts, and absolutely the worst kind of all, the comic ghost.

James McBryde’s illustration for “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad

Roald Dahl once worked his way through pretty much the entire body of ghost stories written in English in an attempt to find 24 good ones to adapt for an American TV series. He was surprised to find that most were so poor he had difficulty getting to the end of them. In the introduction to Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories (1985), he wrote, “I couldn’t believe how bad they were,” concluding that “good ghost stories, like good children’s books, are damnably difficult to write.”

It’s rather useful then that Monty James, a voracious reader of supernatural literature and a fan of proper ghosts—the kind that make you dash past the dark shadow of the bathroom door and leap into bed—handily gave us a list of ghost stories that gave him that shiver of “pleasing terror” he so craved. In a 1929 article in the Bookman magazine, he summarised the history of the ghost story, picking out those examples of the genre that he returned to again and againIn celebration of his birthday today, here are five ghost stories by other writers that he loved.

The Open Door” by Mrs Olliphant
James didn’t have much time for ghosts that weren’t scary, and this was one of only two stories he picked where pity rather than fear is the overriding emotion. That said, there is enough in “The Open Door” to send shivers down your spine. Something roams the ruins of an old house, calling to its mother to let it in: “a creature, restless, unhappy, moaning, crying, before the vacant doorway, which no one could either shut or open more.” The ending deftly sidesteps expectations.

The Upper Berth” by F. Marion Crawford
There’s something fundamentally claustrophobic about a ship’s cabin, especially when you’re forced to share the confined space with a fellow passenger. In one of the most unpleasantly creepy ghost stories ever written, the upper bunk of an ocean liner cabin is inhabited by something that makes passengers run helter-skelter for the side of the ship in the middle of the night. James thought this stood “high among ghost stories in general”.

The Familiar” by Sheridan Le Fanu
Le Fanu’s influence shows up strongly in James’s work. His stories are complex, the characters of the protagonists as important as the ghosts themselves. In “The Familiar”, a sea captain is haunted by the footsteps of some invisible thing. There’s a disquieting confusion over what the captain is so afraid of. He asks a doctor wildly, “Is there any disease […] which would have the effect of […] causing the man to shrink in all his proportions, and yet to preserve his exact resemblance to himself in every particular […]?

The Red Lodge” by H. R. Wakefield (Listen to a reading by Jim Moon)
Wakefield was much influenced by James, and although James called Wakefield’s ghost stories “a mixed bag”, he did enjoy some of Wakefield’s work. He didn’t elucidate which stories he thought “very inventive”, but at a guess, he might well have favoured “The Red Lodge“, in which a ghost’s oppressive presence causes children to drown themselves, and “Professor Pownall’s Oversight”, about a haunted chess game.

Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian

The White and the Black” by Erckmann-Chatrian
Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian collaborated on a series of stories which “delighted” James. Their writing is characterised by the French/German culture of the Alsace-Lorraine region they came from. Known as “the twins”, they apparently worked out their plots while smoking and boozing together. Appropriately, in “The White & the Black”, a group of townsfolk are drinking in an alehouse when they hear news of the murder of a young girl. When the murderer bursts into the bar in the middle of a storm, he is pursued through the dark by something more terrible than remorse.

Our October theme is “Ghosts”. Submit now.