I HEARD the ghost a full year before I ever saw it or knew that’s what it was. This was Christmas Eve, the proper time for ghosts, and I was alone in bed, with the lamps off and a glass of whisky balanced on my chest, the streetlight outside making hard slant lines across the room.
It was quiet, apart from background traffic noise, so I caught onto that weird sound straight away even though it was low, tinny and distant, like someone crooning into one of those old chrome microphones, lots of echo in there whether you wanted it or not. Only this wasn’t singing. It was more like choking.
One of those old-style crooners, Bobby Darin or Nat King Cole, choking and spitting in the wall behind my head. It was hardly past nine and I wasn’t really in bed. Rather, I was lying on the covers, fully clothed and sipping whisky, my Christmas wish being that this would be one of those nights when I hit the sweet spot, the tipping point that eased me to sleep.
I hopped straight to my feet when that thready sound started up and fumbled the lamp on. Put my ear to the wall, as if that might help. It did help, but it didn’t help me, not in the long run. I’ve come to understand that, once you hear Nat King, it’s already too late.
I could hear words in there but had to concentrate to catch them amongst all the static and overloaded valve sound. Only three of them, like in a loop. The same word, three times, “No, no, no.” No, no, no. No, no, no.
I hadn’t long moved out of my house, what I still thought of as my house, and the date of that leaving is branded on my memory. So, I can say for sure I’d been out on my own for exactly four months and three days. I hadn’t yet met Cindy and was in that first crummy flat, half of the top floor of an old Victorian in Hownslow, and naturally assumed the noise was from one of the other residents.
I stood by my bed, listening hard. For the moment, though, everything was quiet. I gulped down my whisky, giving up on the idea of sipping it slow, making it last, and headed for the kitchen and the bottle, turning on lights as I went, suddenly uncomfortable in the dark.
I tipped a couple of fingers into my glass, thought about it and tipped in a couple more. The kitchen was so small that you couldn’t open the doors of opposite cupboards without them hitting each other, and it held onto an ancient odour of fried food that never went away.
I sipped my whisky and froze, hair and all, when it came again. Nat or Bing or somebody on full tinny echo, choking and spitting. No, no, no.
I tried to pin it down, thinking it had to be coming from downstairs, a surly Irish bloke who had never once acknowledged me. Big, raw faced guy, who looked permanently hung over. Not the sort a slender short ass like me wanted to disagree with. I called myself slender, most called me skinny, the word most often aimed my way. In one of our final conversations, Lilah said I looked like a little fucking rodent.
I bent right down in the hall and, glad no one could see me, put my ear to the ratty carpet, but it wasn’t in the floor. It was in the wall.
The woman who lived across the landing was a young Romanian, friendlier than the Irishman, though that wouldn’t be difficult. But she wasn’t there, I knew. Back home for Christmas, first holiday in four years, she told me that, wanting me to know. She’d also told me that her flat would be empty, asking could I keep an eye.
Still, I unlocked my door and stepped out onto the freezing landing. The old house felt empty and dead, like I was the only one here. I listened hard, waiting, and the sound came again. I had to turn my head, because it was coming from inside my flat.
Ok, now I was properly rattled, didn’t want to go back in, but I had nowhere else to go. I briefly imagined myself turning up at my house, the one I had bought outright before I’d even met Lilah, using the money from my father’s estate.
I shook that one away. Little Joe might be happy to see me, if he wasn’t asleep, but Lilah…nah.
I walked back into that stinking, worn out little flat and turned on every light in the place, which wasn’t many, but at least it was bright, and stood still, listening. When it came again, I put my coat on and walked right out of there.
Once out in the street, I had a chance to get things into a bit more perspective. A wonderful word that, perspective. One year’s perspective is another’s madness.
That sound, I thought, had been tinny, like from a speaker. Meaning…shit. Meaning, it was probably from a speaker. A phone someplace, or downstairs’ television, some weird trick of acoustics putting it into my walls.
If it had happened a year ago, Lilah and I would have laughed, tried to track it down then forgot about it, turned the telly up high. Even as I had that thought there was something else at the back of my mind, lurking there all nasty and spiky.
Lilah had told me, more and more as the last year moved on, that I was losing it. Meaning losing my mind. Imagining things, mainly about her, where she was and what she was doing. Who with. Paranoid, she said. Looking at me sidelong, over and over. Mike, you’re drinking too much, it’s affecting your head.
I hadn’t thought about where I was going but it turned out to be the pub. I was already a half bottle of Glenmorangie to the good when I stepped into the thick, noisy atmosphere with the idea of a pint of lager. It was really bouncing in there, not even ten on Christmas Eve.
I had to push to get to the bar. I’ve already mentioned that I’m not a tall guy, but it seems that condition has got worse over the last decade. Not that I’ve gotten shorter, I’m not even forty for God’s sake, but young guys nowadays, it seems like there’s hardly anybody much under six feet.
So, everybody was standing over me, seeming much drunker than me. I ordered, having to shout, nearly deafened by the noise. A guy lurched into me, deliberately I think, some of his beer sloshing onto my jacket. He turned, smirking, then took a huge swallow just as his friend pushed him, and suddenly he was coughing and choking. He coughed beer right across the bar, and the barman pointed, shouting.
“No, no, no! That’s it. Out, the pair of you.”
I picked up my pint and found a nearly quiet corner to stand and sip, watching the drunks queue up for their Christmas hangover. The music system was pumping out Shakin’ Stevens, wishing everybody a Merry Christmas. I sipped my pint and smiled as three girls, women, started a stumbly jive in front of me, one of them short and blonde and pretty. I couldn’t get my eyes off her.
She caught me looking, more than once, and abruptly grabbed my hand, smiling. “C’mon. It’s Christmas!”
Leaving me just enough time to put my pint on a table before I was pulled into a beery shambling spin. Actually, I know how to jive. I used to teach it a decade or so ago, met Lilah at one of my classes. It always surprises people when I go onto the floor. I guess I don’t look like the kind of guy who can dance.
It surprised this girl, suddenly finding herself whirled and pulled and jiving very nearly properly. It was a struggle to keep her boobs inside her dress, and one she wasn’t remotely interested in.
She was instantly breathless. Jive is a breathless kind of dance. “You can really move!”
“So, can you. You’re a natural.”
The lies came easily enough. I could hardly get my eyes out of her chest. Shaking Stevens gave way to Slade, Noddy belting it out at the top of his considerable lungs.
The other two girls and lots of drinkers formed a circle around us, clapping and shouting encouragement. I pulled her to a sudden, breast to breast halt. She asked. “What’s your name, then?”
“You’re a brilliant dancer, Mike. I’m Cindy.”
“Pleased to meet you, Cindy.”
I whirled her out to the full length of our arms with Slade well into their groove, winding towards the end of the song. But Noddy stumbled then, coughing on his lines, choking as he tried to look to the future now. I hesitated and Cindy lurched back into my arms, putting hers around my neck.
Noddy was coughing and choking and spitting. It wasn’t a surprise when he said, “No, no, no.” And it wasn’t much of a surprise when Cindy kissed me.
I’ve never been one for memory lapses, maybe the odd moment here or there, but I can’t imagine waking up in someone’s bed and wondering how I got there. So, when I woke up, I knew exactly where I was.
Cindy’s room was highly perfumed and reasonably tidy, apart from our clothes, tossed about the place. The atmosphere was tinted pink by the light streaming through the curtains. I shifted, hungover, thinking I had enjoyed what happened here last night, but that I should slip out now. She shifted then, her big eyes coming open, and that thought left as quick as it arrived.
When I got to the big house that I still thought of as mine, Lilah said, “You’re late.”
Her expression, as she said it, was flat. She stood in the doorway, hand on her hip, barring my entrance.
“It’s Christmas Day.”
I could hear the sound of the television inside, some Christmas animation it sounded like, and Lilah’s sister’s voice, something I couldn’t quite make out before that snorting bray of a laugh. Then Joe was in the hallway and hopping, grinning to see me. I bent down and he ran right into my arms.
I didn’t hear the sound again for the rest of December and began to think the noises that night had been a dream. After all, I had been in bed, slightly drunk, and must have fallen asleep. A nightmare. Simple as that.
Life continued, easing towards a new normal and, around the end of January, I was in the meeting room at work, chairing a particularly difficult meeting of the project board. Ellie Jones, communications lead, was complaining bitterly that Ben Martin’s purchase delays were undermining everything she was trying to do. Ben was stung, saying all she had to do was tell people what he was doing. It was him who had to actually do the damn thing.
The whole situation was threatening to head south in a hurry and I leaned forward to intervene. But I didn’t.
Instead, I cocked my head, listening to the scratchy metallic sound in the wall. A sound that seemed to be on a loop, overloaded valves sizzling, and something like coughing or spitting.
Ben and Ellie were pointing at each other, raising their voices, Ellie half standing, but the others in the room were ignoring them. They were looking at me.
Shabina asked, again, “Mike? You ok?”
Now even Ben and Ellie noticed.
I pointed to the wall. “Listen.”
When they were all quiet, frowning, I whispered, “Can you hear that?”
No, no, no. No, no, no.
Shabina, after a moment. “Hear what?”
If anything, the sizzling and the hissing and choking had grown louder. The “No, no, no” …I didn’t have to put my ear to the wall to hear it. I got up and did that anyway.
“Don’t you hear this?”
One or two got up themselves, Shabina even put her ear to the wall.
“Can’t hear anything, Mike. What is it you think you’re hearing?”
And there it was. What is it you think you’re hearing? I turned to look at them, some of them faces I’d known for a dozen years. People who called me boss.
Their expressions ranged from worried to shocked to amused.
We all sat back down, but the noise wouldn’t stop. I managed to cope for maybe five more minutes, doing nothing to chair this meeting that was so vital to the business, before I stood.
And got out of there.
In my office, I kept some vodka. I hate the taste, but it doesn’t taint the breath like whisky. I took a healthy swig, straight from the bottle. Took another, but didn’t feel any better.
I sat at my desk, stunned, searching for traction and trying to work out what had just happened. I’d heard it again, for absolute certain, the Christmas Eve sound. No chance I had fallen asleep and dreamed it. I’d also made a fool of myself in front of my staff, none of whom could hear a damn thing.
Yet I had heard it plain as day. What did that tell you? The only thing I could think of- it was in my head, and Lilah had been right about me all along.
Things at work might have worked out ok if that had been a one off but, after that meeting, things seemed to accelerate. I was hearing it two or three times a week and, if there was a way to be cool, act like nothing was happening, I never found it. I’d started in there as the company accountant, rising to deputy Chief Exec, but that didn’t help me one bit.
Alice at least gave me the chance to resign before I was sacked, and I grabbed it. The last thing she said to me, “I’ve never seen anybody go downhill like this, Mike. For God’s sake, if you aren’t getting any help, get it now.”
I did go to see my Doctor, even intended to tell her that I was hearing voices, having diagnosed myself with schizophrenia. But I couldn’t bring myself to, and ended up with a prescription for sleeping tablets.
And it’s not like it was all bad. I hadn’t realised how much pressure the job was putting on me, until it was gone. I set up doing freelance work and started building up clients, just like the old days. It was hassle-free and meant I got to spend more time with Joe, even though Lilah made her views plain on the change in her financial circumstances. Fuck her. She had the house, and there was nothing stopping her going back to work herself.
I also got to spend more time with Cindy, and, with her, I rediscovered something I’d almost forgotten about- fun. A mild-mannered dental hygienist by day, Cindy could really cut loose. I took her to a jive night and, later, she said she’d never, ever, ever had such a good time.
I’d forgotten how much fun jive could be, but soon we were going to a dance every few weeks. She persuaded me to Salsa classes, and then even ballroom.
She told me, “I’d always wanted to learn to dance, ever since I was a little girl, but I never thought I’d actually do it.”
One night, in May, we ended up back at my place instead of hers. In the morning, she looked around. “You’re not really living here.”
“How do you mean?”
“There’s nothing here of yours. You’re hiding out.”
I shrugged. “It’s a dump.”
“Yea, it’s a dump. So, why not come and live with me?”
She put her hand over her mouth, wide eyed. “Oh shit. I really said that, didn’t I?”
I didn’t move in straight away, not because I didn’t want to, because I did. But I knew if I moved in it would only be a matter of time before I had an episode. I thought of them as that, by that time. It had never happened in front of her, or in front of Joe, but it was just a numbers game. The more time I spent with them, the more likely it was.
So, it was August before I moved in, and September before my first episode in front of Cindy. She picked up on it instantly, straightening from the book she was reading, her face anxious. “What’s wrong, love? You’ve gone white as a ghost.”
I dropped my eyes, not wanting to lie to her, but definitely not wanting her to know I was hearing voices. I put my hands over my face.
“I got a migraine coming on.”
“I didn’t know you even got them.”
“Not often. I’ll be ok in a minute.”
All this time, the tinny, echoey sound of choking was reverberating from the wall.
“No, no, no! You get straight off to bed. I’ll get you a paracetamol.”
So, I got away with it. I didn’t get away with it when it happened with Joe, though. Because Joe heard.
Or I thought he did, at the time it seemed like that. This was in December, maybe the third time I’d brought him to Cindy’s. He liked Cindy, but who wouldn’t? Lilah, that’s who. She was furious about the whole thing but struggled to explain why. She was, after all, the one to throw me out.
Cindy was at work, and so it was just me and Joe. His latest obsessions were Harry Potter, and Lego, and I’d found a Lego Hogwarts set which we’d spent the morning putting together.
I was grinning at the top of his little blonde head, his face screwed up in concentration as he tried to get the wand into Hermione’s hand, saying something about her being the best at knowing spells, when the sound started in the wall, distant and echoey.
Joe instantly sat up straight, his eyes wide. “What’s that Daddy?”
“You can hear it?”
“What is it?”
You have to remember what this meant to me. Nobody had heard it before, and I’d thought that nobody could because it was all in my head. That was why I grabbed him like I did, I tell myself that. I would give anything to take back that moment. Keep replaying it in my head, my little boy, terrified. Of me? I honestly don’t know. I don’t. If he heard it, the thing I heard, I think it would terrify him, just like it terrified me.
He was screaming, Daddy, Daddy, no, no, no.
That was a kind of pivot in my life, the kind nothing goes right after.
I remember thinking, at least I’m not on my own this Christmas, but it turned out that it would have been better if I was. Christmas Eve I made Bolognese and then Cindy and I went out, not to get hammered, but just for a couple. Of course, we got hammered.
Back at her flat, I put some music on, and we danced, in a drunken sort of way.
She kissed me, then stood back, clearly wanting to make a point.
“Christmas Eve, Mikey. A year to the day.”
She shook her head, “No, no, no.”
I froze, thinking maybe she was just saying the words. Common enough words.
“No, no, no. What I mean. This is our first Christmas together. The first of many.”
In that moment, I hoped with all my heart that that could be true.
She turned away, maybe to refresh her drink. I never found out because a burst of sizzling static, like from big old amp, all its valves crackling and overloaded, made me fall to a crouch. It was much louder, much bigger, than before and felt like the whole room was thrumming and so full of static your hair would stand on end. Out of the corner of my eye, movement. I turned and someone was standing, right there in the middle of the room. That cliché about everything going cold, it’s there for a reason. The temperature dropped like a stone and I stood there, gaping at what could only be a ghost.
It was pale, like an overexposed image, all colour bleached away. It didn’t flicker, but it wasn’t all the way there. A pale man with pale hair, bent from the waist, so his face looked to the floor, but with his hands reaching out, fingers searching.
It moved, forwards and side to side, like a bloodhound on a scent, coming, I knew, for me.
It wasn’t only coming for me, it was me. Or at least, it looked enough like me, without even showing its face, to take my breath. I dodged to the side and it paused, as though it had heard, then turned again, homing in, searching, stepping forwards, like it knew I was there but couldn’t quite detect me.
I must have made some kind of noise, might even have cried out, because Cindy twisted, wide eyed and suddenly sober.
“Mikey! What’s wrong?”
I pointed, and she followed my shaky finger. This was a small room, just enough for a couch and a couple of easy chairs, a coffee table in the middle. I could see her squinting, trying to make sense of this.
“What is it, love?”
“Can’t you see?”
I asked, even though it was obvious she couldn’t see the creature, the ghost, which was indisputably there, right in the room and coming for me. I dodged sideways, just out of its reach, trying to slide past Cindy, who grabbed me, thinking to hold me tight.
I didn’t want to be held tight. Being held was the last thing I wanted.
Head down, bent almost double, arms out, and worm like fingers questing, it was almost on me when I struggled out of Cindy’s arms, knocking her down in my panic. I saw the hurt and confusion on her face, the humiliation of being dumped, flat on her ass in her nice party frock. Saw the ghost’s fingers close where I had just been, grazing her face so she yelped and jerked as though she had been stung. On her cheek, a welt raised that wasn’t there before.
The creature turned again and came for me, a resolute blind man’s buff of a ghost, its eyes still turned to the floor. I could crouch and get a look at that face, I knew, check to see if it was mine, but that’s something I definitely did not want to do.
I backed out of the door, and it came on.
Behind it, Cindy was on her feet, anxiety and anger mixed with bafflement on her face. She hurried forwards, catching up with the ghost, but stalled. Hopped in frustration, one foot to the other, trapped behind it.
I backed into the hall, then onto the landing.
“Mike! What’s wrong?”
The ghost got to the doorway, and that’s where it stopped.
Christmas Eve, one year later. My flatmates, most of them students, have learned to leave me well alone. They want nothing to do with me, and I don’t blame them one bit. I tried to call Joe, my beautiful Joe, but Lilah blocks my calls. Tried to call Cindy, but she wouldn’t pick up, even knowing I was alone at Christmas. Good for her, my gorgeous girl. I never told her that I loved her, and it’s too late now.
Earlier today, the duty manager took me aside and told me that she wasn’t going to be scheduling any more shifts for me.
“You’re saying, I’m sacked?”
“I’m saying, we’re not scheduling any more shifts for you.”
“Was my fucking burger preparation sub-standard?”
“Mike. Get help. You’re basically a nice guy but you scare people. You need serious, urgent help.”
I thought, to hell with it. “You might look a bit jumpy too, if you were haunted by your own ghost.”
“Never mind. Stuff the job. I used to be the Deputy Chief…”
“Just get help, ok?”
The only good thing about this dirty, noisy, freezing dump is that my bedroom is big. Big matters. The burger bar was spacious too and I needed that, I have to have enough space to dodge and run, when it comes.
Because it keeps coming. I can never rest.
So, when the scratchy valve sound started up this evening, Christmas Eve again, I rolled straight off my bed and ran from the room, no hesitation, even as I recognised it was different, higher pitched and screechy, so it hurt my ears.
I got into the hall and turned to see what would come. The ghost was no longer bent double, so now I could see his face. My face.
I screamed, “What do you want?”
No answer, but it turned its head towards me, its bleached-out eyes questing, but blind. The door to one of the other bedrooms opened and young Cameron, the medical student, looked out, clearly worried.
“Mike? Is everything ok?”
I ignored him, skipping backwards, but I’d had more than a bottle already and my feet weren’t too clever, so I went down. The ghost with my face kept coming.
“You can’t be me. I’m not dead.”
I turned to Cameron. “I’m not dead.”
The thing about this new version of my ghost, though, it wasn’t slow. I’d grown used to being able to outmanoeuvre it, but now it was coming straight for me and you couldn’t call it slow at all.
I scrambled to my feet and got to the door, scrabbling to pull it open, but it touched me before I could get out and, even through the cotton of my shirt, its touch like acid on my skin. I screamed and ran.
I had to go back after they threw me out of the pub. They didn’t mind it in there when I got so drunk, I could barely speak to order more booze but shouting and running from something that wasn’t there – it upsets the other customers.
Back at the flat, I locked myself in the toilet and crouched over the bowl. The truth was, I’d been at the end of my rope for a long time. Hounded and haunted for years by my own ghost, inexorable, implacable, it never stopped and would never give up. I’d lost everything, my career, my love, my mind. Even Little Joe wanted nothing to do with me.
I’m sure, looking back, that Joe heard nothing that time, because there was nothing to hear. There is no ghost, speaking through the walls. Chasing me around.
Beyond caring and beyond help, I bent over and threw it all up, wanting rid of everything. All the booze and the craziness and the shitty food. I was sick of it all.
Outside, somebody shouted, “Clean that up, you nutcase. Then pack your bags. You’re out of here.”
I shouted back, telling them I just needed it all to stop.
Clutching the bowl, I threw up again. Again. Sank to the floor.
“I’m serious, Mike! Time to clear up your mess.”
Behind the bowl, my hand hit the toilet bleach, the kind with the bendy neck to let you squirt it up under the rim. My fingers were fuzzy, but I managed to pick it up.
“Time to clean up my mess.”
I put the nozzle to my lips, pushed it as far down there as I could, and squeezed. Drank it all, before I fell over. The pain was like nothing I could imagine was possible, and I must have made a lot of noise, because suddenly I was being hauled to my feet. I looked around at their faces, and it was like seeing them for the first time. My ghost was at the back, quiet now, just standing there, like his power lead had been pulled.
My vision started to tunnel then, turning a hazy grey at the edges. Somewhere, a voice said, “Oh, Jesus. Send for an ambulance.”
Then I was on the floor and the grey was deepening into black, the tunnel of my sight becoming a thin pipe, shrinking down until it was gone- I watched it go- and I could only hear.
I listened to Cameron, gasping as he counted, pumping at my chest. Focussed on his voice as even it faded, no longer counting. Instead, saying, “Oh God, no. No, no, no. No, no, no.”
I floated, thinking it was finally over and glad of it. But the darkness had other ideas, and it swirled and cleared until I could see myself, as if from a distance, lying, not on the bathroom floor, but on a neat bed in a darkened bedroom, fully clothed and with a glass of whisky, balanced on my chest. The streetlight made hard white bars through the blind, slanting across the wall.
I tried to call out a warning, but could only cough, gagging and choking on bleach. Saw myself jerk in surprise, rolling to stand and fumble the light on, looking so young and scared. I tried to shout again, desperate now.
I reached out, but my vision started to grey, shrinking, darkness encroaching once more. I struggled, panicking, coughing and doubling over in my desperation to call out a warning. All I could manage was, “No, no, no.”
No, no, no. No, no, no. No, no, no.