[From a caper it has somehow morphed into a commitment: every year Tychy must submit a ghost story for Halloween. “Hideaway” and “The House Across the Street” were the entries for 2013 and 2012 (after several revisions the latter is probably superior). The following was originally intended as a brief introduction to this year’s Halloween story. It still functions as an introduction and, indeed, it remains somewhat adrift without this function.]
Our Halloween parties have dwindled over the years and this time there were only six of us. We were going to have supper at James’ apartment on Holy Corner. Although we put a brave face on this, I think that we all regarded our so-called “party” as a welcome chance to stop for a couple of hours, rather than to speed the world up.
Along with myself, James had invited Tori and her latest beau Toby, and Pablo and his girlfriend Magda. James has a large sitting room which has been left purposefully bare, to serve mostly as an office. The interior is typical of an Edinburgh tenement, with the dented walls and almost colourless floorboards concealing brickwork from the 1870s; and ancient, rudimentary wooden furniture which has been handed down, from tenant to tenant, since the 1970s. There is nonetheless a peacefulness to this scene; like trees standing in a forest, all of this scraped-together furniture will be still here when you are long gone.
I arrived first, traipsing up the stairwell to the second floor. On my way, I noted that the Japanese couple who live in the flat below must be absent. Their shoes were not parked neatly outside the front door, as if left on a shore by two swimmers. James previously had the temerity to lecture the couple about the foolishness of this age-old Japanese custom. For his part, the husband, or boyfriend, had been very gracious, expressing polite astonishment that anybody would wish to steal his worn out shoes.
“Oh no, the flat has changed hands,” James replied to my query.
“What’s the new regime like?”
“Not that warlike.” As he led me into the kitchen, James paused and turned to gaze at me in puzzlement. “We received a parcel for the chap and he has a strange surname: Corpusty. I’m not sure if he’s the landlord or a tenant though.”
Most of the supper was wet. There was a thick, glossy sangria which had been doted over like a grandmother’s stew. There were bottles of unremarkable beer – the sort of thing that dancing teenagers would suck at – all nestling in a fleece of ice and piled up, this way and that, in a spare office dustbin. The food, a kind of spiritless British tapas, was laid out on china plates and stacked into a cling-filmed trunk. There were Scotch eggs, huge pouches of crumbs and lard which looked immediately like hard work; cocktail sausages which were shrivelled and shrunken, like mummified penises; pork pies with that grand air they possess of having arrived from an eighteenth century coaching inn; and some cold, vomit-coloured pizza which even a goat would turn its back on.
I picked at a cocktail sausage through the cling film and then thought better of it. Perhaps if I went out and swept the pavements for a couple of hours, I could work up a hunger for James’ party food.
James ripped a stringy wet wipe out of a plastic sleeve and held it up for me to inspect. “Biggy, I know that it’s short notice but I want you to write a horror story about these. For Halloween.”
I looked at the wet wipe. “It flies about in the dead of night and strangles prostitutes?”
James blinked. “Well, that’s an idea. But no, I was reading this BBC article about a sewer blockage in London. Many Londoners have started substituting these wipes for toilet paper but the government says that the one thing you should never, ever do with them is flush them down the toilet…”
A picture somehow entered my mind of an East London hood princeling, swathed in gold chains, sitting on a toilet and preparing to pamper his bottom with the forbidden wipes. There was an expression of tremendous insolence stamped across his face.
“And down in the sewers all of these wipes swirled into a ball which grew to about the size of the planet Pluto. And Thames Water had to send engineers abseiling down manholes to blow up the blockage with dynamite…”
“Well, the point was that they had to dislodge it in some way. But it was a race against time. Had they not succeeded, sewage would have come sailing out of toilets all across the capital, ruining homes and closing businesses. Most of the economy would have collapsed.”
“A horror story?” I brooded. “It might help if the blockage had in some way acquired sentient awareness. And some provisional digestive powers. Then it could eat – or snuffle – up the engineers who were attacking it.” For a moment I was taken aback, unable to tell whether I was sincerely captivated by the story which was now composing itself in my mind. I told myself that there might be a film with the same plot already somewhere in existence, and that I had no time to watch hundreds of terrible 1970s sci-fi movies to confirm if the storyline was original.
James’ phone was now chanting and I took the opportunity to leave the kitchen. The bay window in the sitting room faces a darkened road where intervals of feeble orange light hang over the pavements. The unnatural stillness of this scene always seems to invite you to stop and monitor it. Once inside the sitting room I automatically gravitated to the window.
Pablo was proceeding down the empty street towards us. There was something about the way he was walking which made me immediately think: this is not Pablo. Even from a distance, I was conscious that this Pablo had practically no awareness of his surroundings. He was smiling as if enraptured and as he drew nearer, I stepped back from the window. In my experience, Pablo had never before smiled a smile like this.
Pablo trailed below the window and out of sight.
“Pablo’s here,” I called to the kitchen. I felt calm but cold all over my body and I began to walk about on the spot, as if this would cause normality to permeate me again.
“Without Magda?” James protested.
My heart was thumping densely and I stood still for a moment, waiting for the sensation to end, like a fisherman holding vigil over an expiring fish. I realised that I was listening intently for the buzzer from the stairwell entrance. Instead there was a distant, dutiful crack as the door opened unaided.
He was coming up the stairs.
I felt a strong urge to flee to the kitchen, but I straightaway scowled at myself for this. I was on the point of resembling one of those women who stands there wringing her hands. Then I was startled by the buzzer, which seemed to shake the apartment like an explosion.
James was in the hallway, sounding pleased. “It’s Toby.”
Out in the street Tori was lagging a long way behind, walking with a determined slowness so that she could finish her cigarette. I spotted a bottle of gin, naked in the open air, propped under her arm.
“Is Pablo in the stairwell?” I challenged Toby as soon as he was at the door. “I definitely saw him outside.”
“Without Magda?” James repeated.
Toby shook his head dumbly. He then gazed at me with swift hostility. “Hello Toby. How are you?” he recited smartly to himself.
“Hello Toby,” I smiled. “How are you?”
He nodded with thanks. “In reasonable fettle.” He is one of these men who looks permanently bleary, as if the good night’s sleep that he needs is always postponed.
Tori was at the door, dancing and waving merrily for a second in greeting, and then Pablo and Magda were spilling in after her. There were exclamations and a moment of contained surprise and then everybody was wafted into the waiting sitting room. Beers had to be fetched and then an ashtray. James carried in the plates of food and clapped them on the table. We glanced at this spread with a polite absence of enthusiasm.
Magda and Tori had promised to carve pumpkins, but neither had done so in the end, probably because they were deterred by grappling with these things for an hour. James, however, had spent the afternoon in a rhapsody, fondly hacking a face into his own pumpkin. This now stood on the table with a tea-light inside its head, the flame pulsing. There is a potent symbolism to pumpkins: they only acquire their grinning faces after you have cut off their crowns and scooped out their brain tissue.
This pumpkin displayed a complete set of perfect fangs, like the keys on a piano. Tori walked over to the pumpkin, ostensibly to inspect it, before daringly slotting her cigarette between the teeth to relight it.
Magda smiled at this. She was queuing up at the table to do the same thing when she suddenly took a step back, still craning her neck partially, and shivered.
Everyone paused to observe her. I followed her gaze and ducked quickly to the window. Outside, the tops of two heads had just sailed out of view.
“Nothing. I’m sorry.” Magda looked sunken and guilty.
Tori had become gently alert. “It was something?”
“Two men outside – they looked strangely like Toby and you Biggy. For a second I did not know where I was.”
Incredibly, she was now a shining, bone white.
“And they were grinning?” I was dismayed to hear myself ask this question. But a sort of horror was aligning or coming into shape and it could no longer be relaxed back into nothing.
Madga nodded and then she was tottering frantically. Hands caught her and helped her down.
I was listening for the far pinprick of sound down in the stairwell. James looked hurriedly at me, but I would not meet his gaze. Then we heard the stairwell door open. We will be safe if we remain in this apartment, I thought. Something is happening outside, in the stairwell, down in the flat below us, but we are all safe and warm in this lovely party. The stairwell could be over the ocean in India or China. We have everything that we need for the rest of the night in this apartment.
Next we were all talking at once. “What’s going on?” Toby chuckled.
To my horror, James and Toby were beating straight towards the diabolical connection. They were apparently determined to pollute an unspoken knowledge which I had been at pains to keep pure. “Biggy thought that he saw the ghost of Pablo outside in the street, and now Magda has seen Biggy and Toby. We know that these creatures entered the stairwell, but they did not make it as far as my flat.”
For a second, I had a ghastly vision of an eerily smiling Toby peeping around the door, bumping against it and then floating openly into our party…
Toby ripped the cling film off a plate of cocktail sausages and crammed a fistful into his mouth. I put down my bottle of beer.
Tori was hovering at the window. “Magda!” she announced to herself, like somebody saying a name in their sleep.
James reached the window before me. I nevertheless caught sight of a figure which resembled Madga, walking robotically and with a vast smile floating across her face like a zeppelin.
And again, the distant crash of the stairwell door.
James was jabbering away breathlessly and I simply had to cut him off. “We must stay in this apartment,” I warned. “There is no need for any of us to leave.”
But no, James urged, there were demons or some fantastical spirits in the flat downstairs. We had to try to film them.
“We need to keep the front door closed,” I insisted.
Toby swept some more tiny sausages into his mouth, before slamming the plate off the table in frustration. I jumped as it scudded across the floor. “Demons, man!” he appealed to the room. “We’re going to party with some demons!”
Magda was crying silently and Pablo, with that wisdom that he sometimes improbably demonstrates in moments of crisis, had glided behind her and rested his hands on her shoulders. He smiled distantly, looking oddly paternalistic.
“I’m sure we could drink a demon under the table,” Tori laughed. Nobody spoke: she had aimed at humour and missed completely.
“Okay, Biggy,” James attempted to reason. “You’re nervous. Usually, I’m the nervous one but today you’re nervous. That’s okay. What if I sneak out and head down to the first floor and suss out what’s happening?”
“How will we know that you’ve returned and not a demon with your face?”
Our eyes met and we were suddenly stricken with the awfulness of what we were saying. Toby gave a raucous yell.
There was a shift of gears and Tori was speaking in that rare firm voice with which she utters commands. “I want Toby here.”
Toby bristled but his glare seemed to be contained within a glass case. “We can’t all go,” Tori added airily. “We’d make too much noise together.”
Pablo was uninterested in the adventure. “I’m looking after my girlfriend.”
It was like leaping off a distressed ship and plunging into the sea. The front door opened and swallowed us up without a bubble. James raced lightly down the stairs and I followed stealthily, like a murky shadow. On the first floor, two doors faced each other. An elderly lady lived behind the first and I knew that she was presently in Turkey. We approached the door of the flat which this Corpusty now either owned or occupied. A great coldness settled over me as I registered that the door was ajar.
James glanced back at me and smiled conspiratorially.
He seemed to trickle noiselessly into the flat. With my heart stuffed into my mouth I followed.
We were alone in a layout of large rooms. As we trod on, the flat opened up for us like a hand. There was a torch application on my mobile phone and I managed to activate the tiny beam. It swung up the wall and trailed under the ceiling and then down along another wall until it had reached a sofa. There was suddenly a head and a motionless, smiling face. The beam shot away and I staggered back into the darkness, blurting on my feet. Yet James was still ahead of me and so I automatically swung the beam back on to him. Somewhere in the scrabbling light I saw him lurch to a halt in front of three grinning seated figures, before making a decision and crouching forward. His hand found a knee and he shook it.
Then my scream was frozen like a brick of ice in my throat as I tore for the door. For a moment the door danced wildly in front of me but then I had reached its safety. Crashing through this barrier, I could not stop myself running. I could have run across deserts. Even when I was back in James’ apartment, I was scrambling for the corner of the room, for somewhere behind a sofa, for the most inconspicuous place to be found.
“Biggy?” Pablo was standing over me with a face of concern. “You okay Biggy?”
“He looks ill. Maybe we should lie him down on the sofa.”
“James,” I mouthed. “James?”
“He’s okay. A bit quiet, but okay.”
I was on my feet, for a second impossibly huge and passionate in this small, practical room. “Is it James? Is it him?”
“Biggy?” Pablo frowned at me. “Keep your hair screwed on, eh? You’ll scare my girlfriend even more.”
With everybody else looking defeated, Tori had instinctively assumed a bright, cheerful mood. It was her who suggested that we open the parcel which James had been looking after for Mr. Corpusty. Too weary to speak, I shook my head vehemently at this. But James, who now wore the irritable appearance of somebody who is sobering up, nodded faintly. There was a DVD inside the parcel and this was immediately spirited into James’ laptop.
We settled around the laptop to watch some shaky footage of a party, the sort which might be posted on a Facebook page. All of us were filmed dancing and drinking; the party was unfolding within an unfamiliar, strangely-furnished flat, but one with the same general layout as the one that we were in now.
Our faces shone with those uncanny smiles and I had the sense that if we had suddenly vanished, the smiles would have remained floating in the air. We were wobbling on our feet, interacting with each other clumsily, rather like huge toddlers who are dutifully trying to impersonate a cheerful adult party. The deep, ominous feeling hit all of us at the same time; that choking suspense that you feel when watching a video in which you know that somebody is about to be beheaded. Without a word, Tori disabled the footage.
“We have to stay in this apartment,” I ordered, my voice now rigid with authority. “Your neighbour has taken against you, James, perhaps he has taken against your website. He’s engineered some sort of plot against our party. But I know that we will be safe if we stay here until morning.”
After this we at once felt freer and more relaxed. Tori doled out the sangria and we began to talk about our work. The party food, however, appeared to remain stuck to the plates.
At some point, Tori requested that we tell some Halloween ghost stories. Then Pablo mentioned these strange incidents which had occurred when I was living with him earlier in the year. I agreed to recount these and so everybody lit their cigarettes and grabbed a spare beer and, in this way, we prepared to fade out of the room. My story supplies the following narrative…