Death, Drink, Drugs, Edinburgh, Family, Flatmates, Flatshare, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Halloween, Halloween special, Hallucination, Horror, Humor, Leith, Lothian Buses, Love, Lovers, Psychic, Spiritualism
I had wanted to sit back and be alone with the city for a while, doing nothing other than watch it passing. But I had to now listen to Tori. Her conversation was skipping ahead, slightly too brilliantly, whilst I traipsed after it, grunting. She seems to grow more determinedly girlish as middle age becomes ever more inescapable. With Tori’s first, very beautiful locks of grey hair came the bare midriff, the ornamental miniature scooter, and her appearance with a frightful, banshee face on marches against the Cuts. I imagine that if she ever met some real women in their early twenties, they would find her completely mystifying.
She has never approved of Renata and she is exasperated by my continued moping after her. “You know, I heard somewhere, I think on Woman’s Hour, that the best way to deal with a break up…”
I cocked an eyebrow at her in warning.
She threw up her hands in despair. “Hear me out Biggy. This might actually help.” But then she was frowning. “You know, I think on Woman’s Hour they were warning against this kind of therapy. There’s a psychotherapeutic approach to ending relationships which recommends that you absorb yourself in the fantasy that your old partner is dead. You should get together with your friends, hold a fake funeral and bury a scarecrow in a cardboard coffin, grieve, and visit the fake gravestone with flowers. They do this in Silicon Valley, I think, or somewhere very progressive. The point is to become liberated from the hope that your partner is ever coming back. It also freezes them in the past, so that there’s no new life for them.”
“And the catch?”
“Well, on Woman’s Hour they reported that a man who had followed this therapy, doubtless some Google executive, had become too immersed in it and he genuinely persuaded himself that his ex-wife was dead. When he met her in Wal-Mart, he had a gigantic heart attack.”
I didn’t want Tori to think that she had made me amused, but in the end I was forced to laugh in her face. We sat back gladly in our seats, whilst outside the fantasia of Princes Street soared, with its gorgeous bric-a-brac of towers and statues.
Later, in the suburbs, we were once again at the front door of my old apartment. Distinct scrapes and bumps issued from inside in response to our knock and so Timothy must be up. The door swung open to reveal him standing fixed to the spot. In an instant a succession of emotions had chased each other across his face: he looked astonished, then guilty, then panic-stricken, and then he finally gave an impression of boldness or of deciding to take a risk. He smiled at me confidingly. “You’re in the sitting room…”
He had not even looked at Tori. “This is Tori,” I tried to explain, but Timothy’s back was already turned.
Tori squeezed my shoulder in encouragement. Inside the apartment, everything was unchanged, but it seemed indefinably refreshed, as if all of the air had been shaken up. Timothy led us into the sitting room. The long blade of a lone sunbeam, a creamy pink-orange, had been shed across the wall and the room was now cast in its unearthly goblin light. Timothy faced us with a wretched smile, looking like a murderer who is escorting some policemen to the bodies of his victims.
He was immediately disconsolate. “You can’t see them?”
I blinked – no, I couldn’t see them. “What are we looking at, Timothy?” Tori asked politely, as if it was surely our fault for being too slow on the uptake.
But Timothy was now conferring with the invisible presences, apparently entreating them not to leave. Unconsciously, his hand brushed an invisible arm. “You are here, Biggy, and your wife Renata and your two children Marcin and Agnieszka.”
I was coming down on him like a missile, but Tori got between us and with a shriek of exertion she steered me away.
She was conducting me towards the door and I had ostensibly agreed to go, when I sidestepped her and got a clear jab at Timothy’s head.
Timothy spluttered, scandalised. “You’re frightening your children! They’re screaming!”
We found ourselves back in the hallway. I was still calm enough to remember the basil.
Timothy was swaggering after me, suddenly cocky on his feet but with a finger stuck against his nostril to try to stem the blood. “Hey man, I know that you broke up with this chick. Pablo told me everything. But I can see her – I speak to her every day – and I can see your children as well. She says she loves you – they all love you, man.”
The basil would be in the kitchen. There were dusty, ancient glass pots of herbs on that little shelf above the sink, huddling like goats along a mountain ledge.
“I’ve seen them at different stages – over the last weeks. I’ve seen your children growing up man. I can even talk to them. Don’t you want to talk to your children – or the children you could have? Maybe might have one day?”
“You are delusional,” I told Timothy firmly. “A fantasist. This is pathetic!”
I became aware that Timothy had somehow settled back and that he was contemplating me with triumph. He is preparing to quote something, I thought, something which was personal between me and Renata, something which he could not possibly know, something incontrovertible.
I bolted, leaving an amazed Tori and the Holy Grail of the basil behind. I was crashing down stairs, taking them four at a time. Tori’s instinct was to engage with Timothy, to search his character for something sensible which she could latch on to. Now, however, she had no option but to follow me. Tottering down the stairwell, she forlornly waved goodbye to Timothy and commiserated with him over her shoulder.
“That was very vivid,” Tori reasoned when we were back on the bus, “but I doubt that mediums or spirit healers are utterly transparent when you meet them in person. You see through them on the television, of course, but in real life they take you unexpectedly.”
“You think that was a joke? You think that he – or he and Pablo – are now laughing at us?”
Tori glanced at me uncertainly. “Not Pablo. But that guy was a maniac. He’s probably picked up bits of random information about you and it’s all weaved itself together in his brain. Because it took us by surprise, we did not see how uninspired or implausible his fantasies no doubt really are. For one thing, he cannot speak Polish and your family… I mean, whatever they are…”
“Renata and I haven’t spoken together in Polish for years,” I harrumphed.
“But listen, Biggy, all of today there’s something that I’ve been meaning to tell you. It’s bad news, possibly.”
I then realised that these were the last few seconds that the city would continue to roll past, gleaming and unspoilt. Tori paused for a moment, as if to compose her heart, before beginning.
Renata was pregnant. There were photos on social media. Renata and her new partner were pictured drinking mead and announcing the news. Half of our friends had left congratulatory comments. I would have learned eventually and so it was better if I learned straightaway.
There was awe, sheer blazing awe, and a sense of bottomless dismay and humiliation. My mind was reduced to something like a tiny dried pea, so light that it remained intact despite the vast forces swirling around it. For several minutes I sat and registered nothing but my breathing and the wonder of the blood circulating, as normal, around my body.
I stirred as the roaring in my ears gradually hollowed and faded. “Maybe you should get off the bus,” I remarked pleasantly to Tori. “I’m not going to hold a party this evening.”
“Oh Biggy.” Standing up, she looked around swiftly and then kissed me on the brow. The next thing she was gone, and I was sitting alone.
Like an autumn tree, with its leaves detaching in twos and threes, the bus was stripped bare of passengers. It eventually ended its journey somewhere up by the firth and I was the last remaining leaf. The driver emerged from his cabin and he took a step towards me, glowering. I stood up and walked robotically off the bus.
Outside, the air was massively clean, with the coldness of the sea pouring through the gaps in the edges of the city. I was walking across playing fields and then along the backstreets of an estate. This is what ghosts do, I thought, they patrol streets which have modernised and beautified themselves again and left their old habitués behind. I pictured meeting a miserable pale shadow who would raise some kind of antiquated hat to me in acknowledgement.
I walked in aimless circuits, following the streets wherever they went. I was gravitating slowly to the south and then all of a sudden I found myself back amongst familiar shops. Finally the road was carrying me towards Pablo’s flat in Leith.
I knew what I had to do and I knew that I must do it quickly, whilst my mind was made up. I sent Renata a text message:
“Just heard, wonderful news. Forget about water under bridge: congratulations.”
Barely a minute later Renata had replied:
“Means a lot Biggy. Thank you so much.”
I was not totally convinced by my own generosity. It had been spontaneous and momentary, and I recognised that I was still my old self, reliably loathing her and all the injustice of this awful baby. But the crisis had crystallised into a permanent fact; it would remain so until I had outlived Renata’s baby and faced down some doddering pensioner on their last legs.
Three days later, Pablo looked up from his phone and sat up abruptly in his armchair.
“Timothy. He’s in trouble – he wants to talk.”
“Timothy?” My voice was laced with displeasure. I was incurious about my tenant’s hallucinations, but I had been nonetheless assigned the role of a spectator in his story and I knew that I was somehow compelled to follow it to its conclusion.
He was pleading with me. For weeks, Renata and I and our children had been a model happy family, living contentedly in our apartment. But Renata had suddenly vanished, the image of myself now sat around on the kitchen floor silent and crestfallen, and the children had freaked out.
“Howling,” Timothy hissed. They were howling for their mother. The whole apartment was shaking with their screams. Timothy had tried to leave, but the children would not let him. Their distress was heartrending.
I advised that he consult a doctor. What else could I do? You are bound to judge me, I know, but you have to be realistic about my position.
The next day I was back on the bus to my old apartment, this time with Pablo at my side. He had received a garbled phone call from Timothy, a succession of snorts and yelps and other bestial noises. I guessed that Pablo wanted to tidy away any drugs from the apartment, along with anything which incriminated him in his client’s apparent meltdown.
I flipped the letterbox and shouted through it. My voice did not seem to meaningfully travel further than two feet. Pablo rang Timothy’s phone and he then stood back and surveyed the front door with vexation.
“Should I kick it down?”
“It’s okay,” Pablo assured me wearily. “I do the lock.”
Inside, the silence floated before us, as fierce and as steady as a tribal chant. I immediately wanted to be downstairs, safe in the mild, sunny street.
“Timothy, are you here?” I called tersely.
We were stopped at the sitting room doorway by the sight of something lying in a self-contained little parcel on the floor. After studying it for a while, I managed to distinguish the clear form of a human cheek and a piece of earlobe. The ribbons of flesh that this was attached to were luminously bright.
I turned to Pablo and commented in as casual a voice as possible, “we’re in tremendous danger.”
Pablo grunted and shuffled forward.
It shot directly into my sight before it had time to scramble towards me. A small, swarthy little man caked in blood. His arms were bare and clawing so fast that they looked like some out of control machinery. This was presumably Marcin, the son who I would never have.
I tried to jump away but I somehow blundered straight into the creature’s path. “We didn’t want you!” I bellowed at the attacking blur. “We couldn’t make you! We were never going to make you! You cannot exist and you never could exist!”
I had an impression of desperate biting and of a huge, profound loneliness and despair welling up. Then there was an airless clap and only Pablo and I were left in the room.
“Jesus, you have to look at this,” Pablo muttered from the corner, gazing down on something which lay heaped in glistening coils beside my favourite armchair. “Timothy?” he cried to it dolefully. “I don’t even know what I’m seeing. Is that the eye?”
Pablo grinned at me, his face shiny. He was completely unmanned.
I bundled him quickly from the room.
To his credit, the police pathologist attested that Timothy was most probably killed by two children under the age of ten. At some point my tenant’s tongue had been torn out and he had choked to death on the blood. The teeth which had dismantled his corpse belonged to young children, but the wounds had been inflicted with the superhuman energy which is only witnessed in extremes of psychosis. Unfortunately, these remarkable children had left no fingerprints or hair in the apartment. The sheer lack of evidence put paid to the likelihood of any arrests and so those investigating Timothy’s death were condemned to forever wander the arid plain of speculation.