I am the ghost, eating black cherries in the mist.
By universal consent the town had been abandoned in the night. The dead had arisen, the lame walked, the blind saw and the tide had withdrawn, leaving the streets scattered with seaweed, mermaid scales and memorabilia of the living. On the midnight cobbles the galloping of hooves had been heard but no one had dared look out, and at dawn the white horses had been seen far out at sea. Now at 9am I walked the streets alone. A sea-mist was creeping swiftly though the streets, wreathing the place with odd funnels and corners and corridors winding down to the harbour. All was eerie, silent, the foghorn sounding somewhere out to sea. The town centre empty but for a pair of crutches, neatly set against some bags of rubbish awaiting collection outside the bank. Even the market was muffled, the vendors’ bawls swallowed up by the fog. But black cherries loomed out of the mist, glossy, succulent; and lemons, summer still on them.
Bag of cherries in hand, I wandered down the water side. The tower on the front stood at 9.15am, five proud minutes in advance of Greenwich mean time. All had quietened, the harbour pool glimmered grey and tranquil. Not a mast stirred, mist held the boats static, the pathway of water between them still as if one might walk on it out to sea. The arches, once old boatyards carved into the cliff and now junk shops and aspiring photographic businesses, were locked up and silent.
I walked along eating cherries and dreaming of the time when I had had a friend to share them with. Somewhere beyond the end of the jetty the foghorn was still sounding as if a manifestation of the mist, and I understood that today was a day when nothing could happen. Nevertheless I threw a handful of cherry pips into the pool, where they floated stickily, and turned up the hill, to keep my appointment. I had come here in quest of a long-lost friend, and she was waiting.
The house stood as it had always stood, looking out to sea, a Regency tower masked with reddening Virginia creeper. Four worn stone steps with a sea-view at the top: today you could see no further than the whitish prom with a glimpse of its Victorian lamps. I pulled the rusted iron bell-pull, heard it jangling somewhere deep within the house, and the faint sound of shuffling on the other side of the door. Maybe the sound of myself coming to meet myself. Nothing would surprise me, in this town.
Then silence. The street empty, curving away round the lawn. Nothing happens to ghosts; they just happen to other people. No one would ever happen to me again, that’s for sure. But there was a knocker detaching from the door, its screws loose; this I pressed down firmly and beat like one summoning the dead indeed. I knew I was expected.
Suddenly the door opened and out shot a young man, tumultuously cross, fag stuck between his lips, plainly exiting as opposed to responding to my knock.
“Is your mother in?”
“I’m late for work,” he snapped, in acute hesitation, as if stressed beyond coping by my arrival. “Just go in. She’s in there,” and was pattering down the steps and gone, with all the native ungraciousness of the place.
The threshold stood open nonetheless. Inside, the hall was empty, silent, and the smell of cat leapt to meet one. Two massive gilt mirrors reflected one to infinity, the chandelier shed many dim yellow sparkles of light up the winding central staircase, the doors stood half-open all around, into other domains. It had been grand once, a vast limen. Now it was crammed, a spare marble fireplace leaned against the wall, the side dresser was piled urgently with junk mail and paraphernalia of all kinds. A sodden litter tray stood in a corner, and one stepped gingerly over the damp patches in the carpet. To the left was the red room onto the harbour. Once a gracious effort with the red velvet curtains, red plush sofas and open fireplace, it was now all blotted out by cardboard boxes, dozens of them piled atop each other into rough walls, as if for some crazy move, planned long ago and never carried out. These were the entities that ran this house. They sat there trailing their contents, tattered school books, broken toy trains, a rusting doll’s pram, a pair of child’s red ballet shoes, fur gloves, feather boas, plastic lilies, stacks of pictures with cracked frames and broken glass. There was a sense of imminent disaster, something breeding beneath the piles, rodents, fire, the unmentionable.
Like a phantom I cautiously pushed open the door opposite, which yawned silently into the other living room. Here a rosewood piano stood just about held up by its own strings, stuck with two burnt pink candles and scattered with sepia photos in tarnished silver frames. A line of empty wine bottles was sprawled along the wall where the beige carpet was stained with brown, and by the French windows was a pile of newspapers and a really vicious stink. The sofa held more boxes, and more boxes still sat all over the floor; all of them held old Christmas decorations. The window showed dusty onto the garden where vague dark shapes showed, half-blotted out by the thickening fog.
Surely she was here. But the place was empty, and I the intruder, I the ghost.
In the basement the filth was sectionable. A small hall strewn with cat food and droppings and soiled newspaper. Used wine glasses and dirty saucepans piled up to eternity in the kitchen, and the kind of beige, chipped enamel cookware that really encrusts the food, long brown dentelles burned to its side. Grey water lapped at the blocked sink. Two brown pyrex mugs bobbing therein. On the filthy wood table, a litter of protective nibs from insulin injections, old newspapers, piles of madly discarded bills, dying roses, a lavish necklace of emerald flowers, brown-spotted bananas and fruit flies. Ash and half-burnt wood spilling over the grate of the stove and the two sullen little armchairs were piled with more junk. Yet the Welsh dresser held champagne flutes of real crystal, there were exquisite china cups with golden handles and multicoloured butterflies, there were art nouveau artefacts, bronze flowers and ornate silver miroirs, and beneath was an appropriately cobwebbed selection of fine wines in a leafy iron wine rack. It was all vintage, vintage gone wrong. Lavinia was there. In the uncanny silence, I could feel her presence, could almost hear her constant patter. But in the darkened basement there was no one visible, nothing but the rough and tumble of coats over chairs, a quiver of the heavy tapestry curtain dividing kitchen from dining room, a welter of men’s shirts on hangers, strung along the curtain rail.
“Hello? Anybody home?”
Back up the stair carpets with their patina of trodden-in black, lined with carrier bags waiting to go to the charity shop, as they had been waiting for the past 20 years. But there was a new cable, snaking all the way up the stairs, the thin line on which the electrical supply depended, ominous, like a long fuse coiling and snaking its way to a giant explosion at some point in the future, when they would all be blown into smithereens into the sea; and now I recalled the complicated curse of the house, that no electricity would work in it apart from one point upstairs. It had been the last house in town to have electricity put in, and the gas fittings stood still in the walls down the stairwell and in the reception rooms downstairs.
Above stood the open doors of the bedrooms, three on this floor, three on the floor above. The upper enchanted realms of the house. I would go no further; called again, into the silence of those upper floors. For a moment I thought I saw her, with her long ashen hair and mournful expression, peeping down the stairwell, but it was a trick of the dresses draped over the rail of the landing upstairs. I rang her mobile and heard it ringing in the silence two floors above, ten rings, loud and clear. Should I have run up and answered it? But I no longer wanted to find her. Very slowly, I started backing down the stairs. I didn’t want to see Lavinia, I just wanted to get out, before I tripped the fuse that snaked down the stairs, before I set light to the boxes and all their contents, before an entity of dirt with creased, blackened face rose to meet me from one of the armchairs in the red room, before I came face to face with Lavinia and ran screaming into the street.
I was fumbling at the front door; the broken catch gave suddenly and I was out. The misty prom at the end of the street looked clean.
I had the feeling that Lavinia was in the house all the time and when I finally got her on the phone later, I found I was right. She said she was deafer than she thought, that she hadn’t heard me, had no idea I was even in the house, had mislaid her phone, hadn’t heard it ring. I wonder. Was she really that deaf, or had she slipped into some other dimension for the duration? Sometimes you think you’ve seen a friend only to realise it was a ghost, and sometimes a ghost is a foe you just can’t see. All I can say is, I arrived on time and kept my appointment, the way ghosts do, and invisible friends really are the limit – especially when you’re both there in the same house at the same time.