Friday 22nd January – A Winter Ghost Story
So are ghosts as we understand them truly spirits trapped in limbo, betwixt heaven and hell, or merely the frozen pictorial ‘footprints’ of lives gone by – ever to be replayed in one particular location, like that dodgy puppet show that got jammed in your mechanical puppet show player at your college halls of residence (since demolished)? I for one never really paid such a long and convoluted question any mind, until one evening (this evening) when I became inadvertently trapped with the, and to some extent, my past. The day had started and ended reasonably enough – I ‘logged off’ at five, sending the carriers home to roost and telling Tim Talooly to write up the day’s trading at his leisure (‘be off now Tim, enjoy the weekend, and steer clear of my arch-rival Sedmond Divuck’s fantasy novels – you know how they play with one’s mind!’) It was then just myself and Delia Doogood remaining in the open plan, she immersed in a cauldron of filth brewed up by our supposed colleagues in the immigration service (‘I be off now Delia, I’ll enjoy my weekend, be sure to log off soon, lest reality subsume a fantastical weekend’). Imagine my surprise to be at the kitchenette – regurgitating my packed lunch into something resembling dinner – when the warehouse was suddenly plunged into DARKNESS.
‘Tim?’ I enquired. No answer.
‘Delia?’ I pined. Not a sausage.
‘Stephen?’ I hazarded. Nothing. Alone.
Without carriers I had no hope of attracting Licky (at the gymnasium), nor Bateman (packing for America), nor Sir Dempson (breaking into his own house), nor Pekalowski (picture-framing maids on their commute home), nor that girl I really fancied at primary school (even though I now have a deep voice and an apartment with two toilets). There was nothing for it but to ‘man up’ (a request so often at Licky’s lips), ‘get on with it’ (likewise) and see what was amiss in the workplace I hope to escape in mere months.
As regular readers will know I have worked at this particular cotton warehouse for almost ten years – hence the generous payout I anticipate for Voluntary Early Death – and it has always been a most comfortable environment, give or take the odd Shifty McQuiggin or Simon Slimon. Tonight things are very different. The doors are all locked tight, the heating off, the only light is from my lighter (a mémoire morte to a long-doomed Clipper); the only sound my own breathing. Until it stops. There in the corner, bending over the facts machine – his bald head as luminescent as the moon ricocheting off an icy lake wearing mink, is my former boss Marcus Kamp.
‘Morning Batson!’ he cries.
‘But it’s...’ I butt in – the tension, like my change of tenses, irredeemably tense.
‘Those figures ready for Sierra Leone?’
‘Oh yes,’ I lie, and am suddenly with myself eight years before – a smelly young upstart and no mistake. Yet there is with the figures, and I know it. I have failed to take account of the cost of the horse-drawn required to take the emergency cotton to the semi-clothed civilians in Kenema. Disaster. And while Marcus himself seems unperturbed what is this rising from his bald spot? A ghostly vision and no mistake – Mistress Guilt in all her glory – torn nightdress, fangs bared. Terrified I yell:
And she vanishes in a puff of smoke. Alone again, patrolling the corridors.
‘Pekalowski?’ ‘Shaddap, I’m sketching this.’
I venture onwards, upstairs or downstairs – my feet feeling no distinction in the pitched darkness. Suddenly a woman in white, bent over the cast-iron printer.
‘Hello?’ I address her bonnet, ‘Hello?’
When she finally turns I both recognise her and don’t. ‘Give her a kiss,’ urges my twenty-five year old self out of nowhere, but when I look at her eyes (a vivid blue but sad and old before her time) I see now that this is the last thing she needs. Where have I seen her before? I search within myself until all is clear: buoyant and happy at the start of a work’s night out; guilty and remorseful in the morning – she is every maiden I have ever harmed, who has ever made the mistake of sacrificing herself to me. ‘Kiss her,’ is the urge from within. But then that pretty face begins to distort – Mistress Guilt pulsates beneath the perfectly made-up skin.
‘I’m sorry!’ I yell, and while no sound comes out I am ultimately, inexplicably back at my flat, Miss Jordan’s suspiciously tanned arms all about me.
‘I’m sorry,’ I mutter, exhausted – so glad to be in familiar surroundings, and good company.
‘No need to apologise to me love,’ Miss Jordan oozes reassuringly, ‘just give us a cut of your Voluntary Death Allowance.’
Like ravens in the rafters my pigeons squawk agreement.