A Ghost Story
The old hometown looks the same, I couldn’t help smiling, despite everything. This place – my old hometown – didn’t look the same at all. If I didn’t know where I was, I wouldn’t recognise it. From the hospital I’d just left to the trendy coffee-bar-type café where I was sitting; it was all new, all different. The next line of the old song came to mind – And there to meet me is my mama and my papa, well, that didn’t apply either. My dad was long dead now; he’d died a long time ago, way back in the seventies, before I’d even left this town to go to university. An industrial accident, that’s what they’d called it. The irony was that this new shopping complex, where I was idly passing time drinking trendy coffee, had been built in the place where the iron foundry where he died… that had killed him… had stood all those years ago.
And now, just a few streets away, my mother was lying, perhaps even dying, in the new hospital. I couldn’t help wondering if my dad would have lived, survived his accident, if that hospital had been there then, back in his day.
I looked around at the sound of my name; a portly middle-aged man was easing himself between the nearby tables, grinning at me. I stared at a face that bore the ghost of someone I knew a long time ago, a memory as vague as a reflection in a muddy canal. A quick flicker of uncertainty crossed his face as he drew closer, realising I did not recognise him. Then it hit me, and the years fell away from his face.
“Yeah. I was beginning to think you’d forgotten me.” He sat down opposite me, leaning forward over the table towards me.
“Sorry,” I said. “I… I’m a bit… preoccupied. I’ve just come from the hospital.” I nodded over in that direction. “My mom….”
“Oh, right.” He leant back again, glancing back the way he’d come. “I….”
“No, it’s all right. More than that, it’s just what I need… a familiar face.” I leant forwards, towards him, this time. “This place… It’s all… so strange… new. It doesn’t feel like home any more.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Carl said, relaxing and looking around too. “Anyway, about your mom?”
“Her heart. She is getting on now… well, as you know.”
Carl nodded and shook his head, one after the other. “I know. We lost… Alice, that’s my wife – I don’t think you two ever met. Anyway, Alice’s mom died last July. Every time the phone rings late at night now I expect the worst. Silly, I know….”
“No. I know what you mean. But, my mom, the doctors seem confident, relaxed…. Hopeful, even.”
“Good. Good.” He nodded rapidly, looking down at the table. We both descended into thoughtful silence for a moment or two.
“So,” he said. “What happened to you, then?”
I smiled back at him. “Well, you know I went to university – Swansea – as planned, and… well, I never came back – apart from visiting mom every now and then, of course. I’ve been living there for so long now, it’s, well, I suppose, it is home now.” I sipped at the dregs of my coffee. “I take it you never left, then?”
“Me? Oh no, I’m a real home-lover, me. Alice is always trying to get me to take more holidays… go abroad, and all that. But I just like pottering about at home. Home, wife, kids, family… and so on, that’s it for me. I’m a real traditionalist, at heart, I suppose.”
I nodded, thinking of my family back home. I was a stranger in a strange town now, and I suddenly felt the loneliness of it. The thought of going back to a house empty of everything except too many childhood memories filled me with a sudden depression.
“What’s the matter?” Carl said. “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
“I think I have.” I attempted a smile. “I was just thinking about going back to that empty house.”
“Ah.” Carl nodded his sympathy. “Hey, I know why don’t you come back with me? Meet the wife, the family. Have a proper home-cooked meal?”
I was instantly tempted. “No… I couldn’t… impose on you all like that.” I shook my head.
“Don’t be daft. They all know about you anyway. My best mate from school. I’ve told them about all the things we did. They’d all love to meet you. It would be proof I didn’t make all those stories up. The kids can’t seem to reconcile me as their dad with what I was like when I was their age. Go on… come back. Say yes.”
“Oh, okay then,” I grinned back at him. “All the stories?”
“Well, not the ones you’re thinking of.” Carl grinned too. “I’ll just ring Alice.” He took out his mobile and made a call. “Funny, she’s out,” he said to me. “I’ll leave a message.” I could just hear the sound of his distorted voice coming back to him from the answering machine. “Hey Alice, It’s me. I’m bringing an old friend back for dinner tonight. He’s had to come back to visit his mom in hospital… and he’s at a bit of a loose end. Anyway, see you later.” He switched off his mobile and noticed my frown. “Hey mate, I only mentioned your mom so she doesn’t get funny with us when we get back.”
“Look, if it’s going to be any trouble….”
“No, don’t be daft. You’ll get loads of sympathy off her. Alice’s really good that way. Don’t worry about it. It probably will save a bit of awkwardness, know what I mean?”
I nodded. “I suppose so.”
“Anyway, Alice… Alice Davis, as was. Do you remember her?”
I shook my head. “Doesn’t ring any bells.”
“Never mind, you’ll meet her in a few hours or so. Meanwhile, how about if I show you around a bit? Go and have a look at the few old places that are still left?”
“Hey, Steve, did you know The Crypt is still there?”
“Never!” I said. “I thought that place would have been condemned years ago.”
“Condemned? No chance! They even did it up a few years back.”
“Did it up? The only way you could do that place up is with a bulldozer.” I laughed and stood up. “Come on, you’ll have to show me. I still have a couple of photos of one of the gigs we played there. I bring them out every now and then to scare the kids with.”
Carl stood too, grinning like the teenager I now remembered so well. “I’ve still got a tape of your band – that one from the rehearsal in the upstairs room at the youth club. Remember?”
I shook my head. “No. I can’t remember any youth club.”
“Really? I would have thought you’d remember Dawn, though.”
So we spend a few hours visiting a few of the old places, laughing and giggling like a pair of kids as we went from place to place. The derelict old church was still there, but recently re-pointed and cleaned. The once-boarded-up big, high, church windows had now been professionally bricked up too. I shook my head in wonder. The Crypt with its enormous, but tasteful, new neon sign, the new set of steps with a guardrail that led to the door, I shook my head. It didn’t seem like the old place anymore. I glanced at the poster of upcoming gigs pasted on the wall.
“They’re all tribute bands,” I said with a sigh of disbelief.
“Yeah, it’s all like that now,” Carl said, shaking his head. “You don’t get many original bands doing their own stuff these days, or so it seems to me. I’m a bit out of touch with it all, though.”
I nodded, turning to look around at the new housing estate built on the hillside, stretching down towards the canal below. “Me too,” I said. “In fact, when I met Claire I sort of gave up on rock music.”
Carl turned to face me, shielding his eyes from the sun with his hand. “Nah, I can’t believe that. You… your band… music… it was everything to you.”
We turned and began to walk back to his car. “Well, Claire, she was a classical pianist when we met. She educated me.”
Carl seemed puzzled. “But, just because of that you gave it all up? I can’t see that.”
I stopped for a moment. “When I started to pay attention, to listen to what she was playing, then the stuff I’d been doing seemed so… so….” I waved my hands, making a dismissive gesture. “A different league, completely.”
“But The Swamp Rats were so good,” Carl said, almost forlornly.
“No.” I shook my head. “Third division, at best.”
Carl glanced at his watch. “Shit, we’d better get a move on, Alice will murder us.”
It was a house in the middle of the new estate built on the side of the hill. “It would be convenient for The Crypt, if I ever went there these days,” Carl said as he pulled into the drive.
I muttered the usual platitudes about the house as we went inside. Standing in the hall, Carl yelled “Alice! We’re here. Come and meet Steve.”
“Steve?” A voice from the kitchen with something strange… strained, perhaps, about it.
We stood for a moment, and then Carl nodded towards the kitchen. “Come on,” he said to me.
When she turned from the cooker, she seemed to be blushing. I put it down to the heat in the kitchen. She didn’t want to meet my eye, at first. There was something vaguely familiar about her. I presumed I must have met her once, briefly, some time in the distant past.
“Hello, Alice,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
It seemed as though she was risking a glance up at me.
“You do look vaguely familiar,” I said. “I think we may have met, back in the old days… briefly.”
She gave me another look, one that I found difficult to read. It was as though a whole raft of feelings were going through her mind at once. “I don’t think we did meet, did we?” she said, turning away from me.
“Of course not,” Carl said, brightly, trying to lighten the mood and rubbing his hands together briskly. “He wouldn’t be able to forget you, love.” He turned back to me. “Maybe she was around more, after your time. After you’d left for Uni?”
“Yes. Yes. That’s probably it,” Alice said emphatically as she busied herself stirring briskly at something in a saucepan. “Look, I’m a bit busy here.”
“Yes, right. Of course, love.” Carl ushered me out of the kitchen and into the living room.
“Sorry about that,” Carl said, as we sat down. “She’s usually not that… er… distracted.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “Look, if it’s a problem?”
“No, of course not. Don’t be daft. We both have mates around quite often. It must be something else… a bad day at work, or something. Don’t worry about it.”
I gave him the old look. The no bullshit between mates look.
“I said, didn’t I?”
I nodded. “Okay.” I looked around the room. “Nice place,” I said automatically.
“Yeah, well. It is about as good as you can get on our money,” Carl said, with a little hint of pride in his voice. “We were lucky actually, caught them at just the right time, just before the price boom.”
Once we sat down for the meal, just the three of us – the kids were out apparently – I again had the impression that Alice was trying to avoid catching my eye. She either looked down at her plate, over at Carl or stared out at the garden through the window. There seemed to be a tension about her too, her shoulders tight, and a certain awkwardness in the way she moved.
“I don’t know, there is something vaguely familiar about you,” I said to Alice, trying to be friendly.
She shook her head, as she stared out at the garden, not looking at me. I complimented her on the meal too, she just smiled briefly as she turned back to look down at her plate. “Thanks,” she said. “It’s just roast lamb and veg, nothing special.”
“No, love. It’s great,” Carl said. I caught the false note in his voice. He could tell there was something wrong too. He turned to me, a slightly forced smile on his face. “You probably wouldn’t recognise her, anyway. Back in those days she had bright pink hair!”
“Ssshh,” Alice said sharply, then forced herself to smile at her husband. “Steve won’t want to know about that. It was all such along time ago now.” She put down her knife and fork on her half-eaten food, then suddenly stood and took her plate out into the kitchen.
Pink hair? I caught a glance at her face. There was a memory there, just out of reach.
“Sorry, mate,” Carl said. “There must be something up. She’s not usually like this.”
I shook my head. “I’ll nip off, soon as I can, afterwards.”
I could see the disappointment in Carl’s face as he looked down at his plate. “We’ll arrange something, though, maybe… before I have to head back.”
He looked up at me, smiling in relief. “Yeah? Great.” The enthusiasm was there, genuine. I wondered for a moment why we hadn’t kept in touch.
After we’d finished eating, and Carl had taken our plates into the kitchen – where Alice was still – apparently – busy with something, we adjourned to the living room. We sat side by side on the sofa, like so many times in the past. I could almost see us as gawky teenagers once more.
I glanced up at their wedding photograph on the mantelpiece. “You know,” I said. “There is something vaguely familiar about Alice. I can almost remember….” Again, there was something tugging a few strands of memory… pink hair… the shape of her face… that nose. I shook my head; the memory had gone, slipped away.
“Hang on!” Carl said, jumping to his feet. “…Won’t be a minute.”
“Where…?” But he’d gone.
A few seconds later I looked up to see Alice had crept silently into the room. She still wouldn’t look at me.
“What’s the matter?” I said.
“You know… coming here… like this.”
“What?” I shrugged.
She risked a brief glance at my face. “Are you sure you don’t… don’t remember?”
“Back in the old da….”
“Here we are!” Carl burst back into the room, carrying a pile of photograph albums.
“No!” Alice almost screamed, reaching out to grab the albums.
“Don’t be silly, love.” Carl glanced at me, then looked heavenwards. “She hates anyone seeing these old photographs,” he said to me. “I keep telling her she’s just as beautiful now as she was then.”
Alice turned away, folded her arms and strode over to the big window, staring out at the front garden.
“Women, eh?” Carl whispered conspiratorially as he sat down beside me and opened the first photograph album. He flicked rapidly through a few pages. “Here, that’s Dawn – remember her now?”
I looked down at the photograph, out of focus and not very well posed. “Oh, yes. She was the one who….” I glanced up to see Alice look away sharply, before I could catch her eye. “Yes, well.”
Carl looked up at Alice. “He was always one for the girls. They all seemed to like him, fancy him, especially being in the band and all that. It used to make me as jealous as hell.”
“You should have carried on learning the drums….” I said.
He looked up at me. “I broke my leg remember, falling off that wall when we were pissed that night. I missed loads of Swamp Rats gigs during that time. I remember that one gig you told me about when you came to visit me in the hospital, y’know the one with the groupie?”
I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, Alice moving further away from us. I turned back to Carl, grinning like a schoolboy, “Oh, her… yes. I remember her.”
“Go on, tell Alice about it.” He turned towards Alice. “Hey, love, listen to this. After one gig, Steve here and four or five blokes from the band the Swamp Rats were supporting all shared this groupie. Six of them and just the one girl! Go on, tell her.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “We were young, foolish, just kids. I can’t remember that much about her….”
“Ah,” Carl said as he turned another page. “Here’s the photo of her – Alice. See – the pink hair!”
I stared at the photo, gulping and feeling myself beginning to blush as it all came back to me. The six of us, and the girl, lying there on the floor of the van, surrounded by the headline band’s equipment. The six of us – more boys than men – all naked and laughing along with the naked girl with the bright pink hair. I looked up at Alice. All I could see was the side of her face and her neck reddening as she stared away from us.
“Ah, all of this… so long ago….” I shrugged, helplessly. No wonder Alice had been so uptight all evening. I glanced at my watch. “Is that the time?”
Carl glanced up at the clock on the mantelpiece, next to their wedding photograph. He jumped to his feet. “Oh, shit, yeah. I’ve got to go and pick up Donna from Guides. Hang on, mate. I’ll only be twenty minutes or so. Wait here, with Alice, until I come back.”
I made doubtful noises, not wanting to be alone with Alice and doubting if she would want to be alone with me. But I could see the pleading look in Carl’s eyes. I nodded. Carl grinned then turned to leave.
The door slammed and we were alone together; me slumped on the sofa and Alice still staring out through the window as the silence lengthened between us.
I couldn’t stand it any longer. “I’m sorry,” I said to her back.
She didn’t turn. I was beginning to wonder if she had heard. “Sorry? What for? Sorry for what happened or sorry for not remembering?”
“I….” I didn’t know the answer to that one.
“I thought I was in love,” she said, still staring out at the front garden. “I thought I was in love with you.”
I remembered; she had come up to me as I finished helping the headline band pack their stuff away in their van. Alone among the guitar and drum cases, the amps and speakers I’d sat down in the back of the van for a quiet fag, only looking up when the van shook as she climbed in. She didn’t say anything, just came up and kissed me. Moments later – or so it seemed – I was leaning back against the side of the van as she knelt to suck me off. I could feel an erection growing now as I thought back to those days. Then, suddenly, the headline band had all reappeared, now with spliffs and beer, cheering and jeering as they caught Alice and me together.
After a few moments of chaos, suddenly she was naked. Then, as suddenly, the rest of us were naked, and then… I looked up to see that she’d turned away from the window and was looking at me.
“I thought I was in love with you,” she said again. “But I wasn’t” she shook her head. “I was half in love with your image – the rock star – and half in love with the rock ‘n’ roll dream… the myth…. ” She sighed and shook her head. “The illusion.”
I nodded, not knowing what else to do. I stared down at my hands clasped together, reassuring each other.
“I tried to kill myself, you know – afterwards.”
Shocked, I stared up at her. “Oh, shit. I’m sorry.”
She nodded slowly, looking down at the carpet in front of her feet. “You ought to be sorry,” she said, anger at the edge of her voice. “It was because of you, over you.” She glared at me. “The way you ignored me, didn’t even recognise me the next time we met at The Crypt. The thought that I’d… done… all that for you and then you could just walk away, ignore me, probably thought I was just a slag, a groupie, just some… thing you could discard, forget…. I… I just couldn’t bear to live with that.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, not knowing what else to say or do. I could remember how… how scared of her I was at the time. I thought that a girl who could do something like that – how could someone as… well, as ordinary as me ever cope with her?
“I rushed up to you as soon as I saw you for the first time after that night. You just walked straight past me. You were with some other woman… tall… jet-black hair… leather.”
I suddenly remembered Tina. Tina with all the black leather – a hardcore punk fantasy. We’d only gone out once together – to The Crypt, of course. She’d given me some pills, sneering at my ill-concealed reluctance to take them. I doubt if I would have recognised anyone that night. In fact, I could remember staring at myself for what seemed like hours in the stained and scratched sheet of metal that served – badly – as a mirror in The Crypt‘s toilets, wondering who I was. I didn’t mention this to Alice; it seemed like trying to weasel out of it, an attempt at some feeble excuse. Tina had scared me too.
“I got out of the whole thing myself, not long after,” my own voice sounded far away to me now. “I didn’t like what it made me become. I hated myself half the time for those things I did because I thought that was what I had to do. Perhaps I did recognise you, but thought something inane like it would be uncool – or some other similar stupidity – to acknowledge you.” I looked up into her eyes. “I was an utter bastard. You have every right to hate me.” I stood up. “Tell Carl, I had to go, maybe a message from the hospital… or something like that.” I took a step towards her, reaching out for her, touching her shoulder. She flinched as though my touch was electric. She took an involuntary step back, away from me. She shook her head.
“I met Carl in the hospital a little while later,” she said. “We were both there as outpatients, him for his leg, me for… well.” She wiped her nose and eyes roughly with the back of her hand. “At the time, I even blamed you for Carl breaking his leg, falling off that wall. It happened when he was out on the piss with you, of course.” She smiled grimly and shook her head. “He never did agree with me blaming you, though. He always thought the sun shone out of your arse.” She looked at me again. “You became my personal devil. Funnily, hating you made it easier to forget what happened. I could blame you, you personally, not me for what happened… and… forgive myself.”
I shrugged. “I suppose that is fair enough. If I were you, I’d think like that.” I tried to smile. “In fact, I blame me too. I’ve never thought about it before, but on those few occasions I did come back here, I stayed away from all the old places. Too many ghosts I didn’t want to face again, I suppose.”
For the first time that evening, she looked at me properly, as though she was actually seeing me now, rather than some ghost of memory, or even some nightmare character of her own construction. “Yes, well,” she said, and turned away from me again. She stared out of the window again.
“I….” I made some sort of half-hearted gesture towards the door. I saw the movement of my arm had caught her eye, but she did not turn back to face me.
“You’d better go now…. He’ll be back in a minute,” she said.
I made no move to leave.
“Go,” she said sharply. “I don’t want you here when he gets back. I can’t stand it, having you both together again.” She shuddered and hugged herself.
I took a tentative step towards her, mumbling something apologetic, but she shook her head and waved me away, without turning towards me. At the door, I glanced back. From that angle, I could see her reflection in the window. She wiped her arm roughly across her face as I left; she was still staring out of the window.
The hospital had my mobile number, so when, back in my mother’s empty house that night, her phone rang twice I ignored it. I could picture the look of confusion on Carl’s face as he put the phone down, and then, as he looked across at his wife of so many years, seeing something strange there. A look he had not seen for such a long time. A ghost he thought had long since been exorcised.
[This, and other stories can also be found here as well]