After the party, it turned stormy. Through the single window, I watched blackened clouds coalescing in the streaked sky like conspirators ready to make their hit at long last. I was exhausted, absolutely squeezed of all feeling. Numbly, I let my eyes roam around – the two glasses on my charming black table were yet to be dealt with. They looked innocuous enough.
My two guests lay sprawled on the bold red settee. She, I looked at with disgust. Her mussed hair and frilly girlish clothes were crumpled and rode up above her knees. I felt that the staleness in the air was due, in some way, to her lying so wantonly. And him, I couldn’t make myself look at without a shiver of grief. That known body, familiar as my own, perhaps better-loved than my own. They lay as if in a tableau, curiously peaceful after the agony of the last few minutes. The clock’s face on the wall behind them cried out in the silence. Midnight.
I stepped out of doors for a breath of cold rain-fresh air. This I have always loved, always. Since childhood, this garden in the rain-time has called out to me unfailingly. I had only to close my eyes and I could see that child of long ago watching the rain and allowing some drops to shake and tremble in his little palm. Then, all the troubles of the day, the taunting and bullying at school, the discipline at home, all of that would disappear, washed away with the rain.
And now, zipping snake-lightning in the sky exposed the same quietly-breathing garden around me in flashes. In those magical moments of vision, the tall drenched beeches and poplars wrung their lank arms and the only sound was that of the garden earth drinking in the rain thirstily.
Between the trees, my prized flower-beds sagged at the onslaught. Those slapping gusts of wind made me almost turn inside when with a sudden start, I noticed a figure beside me on the doorstep.
It jarred me badly, I can tell you. It spoke, “You’re not afraid of me, by any chance, are you? Fact is, I’m a ghost. Here, hold on, what are you doing, collapsing on me? Get up!” he ordered peremptorily. On top of everything, this was too much. I shuddered but held myself together with a great effort of will.
“Look me in the face, will you?” he boomed above the gusting wind. I had no choice. In that cunning half-light, I made out his not-uncomely figure. I’ll say this – though he claimed to be a ghost, I could sense the sheer forcefulness of his personality. No wishy-washiness at all!
A stray thought floated into my stunned mind that, contrary to popular ideas, the term ‘ghost-like’ can hardly be applied to a pale person if this was a specimen of ghostliness. Not by a long shot.
“But”, I said hesitatingly, “how can you be a ghost? You look very – alive,” I stumbled for want of a more appropriate word. He turned nasty, “Now, no more of that cheek. I’m as dead as a doornail, and proud of it too. Incidentally, is that the right expression: dead as a doornail?”
You’ll realize that handling a ghost is tricky business, but if he turns nasty, it could be a potential nightmare. It’s better to be quietly diplomatic and amiable. So I hastily made amends.
“Yes, of course, you’re right. Your knowledge of the language is admirable, I’m sure.”
“Bound to be, my dear. I used to be an avid reader. But that was long, long ago,” he sighed and a gust of foul breath reached me. I quickly offered him a cigarette. To keep the conversation going, I said, “Excuse me, but your clothes are definitely out now. I mean, they’re not worn these days. Hope you don’t mind my mentioning it. You see, I’m a fashion designer by trade.”
He nodded genially, “Not at all, but then, I’m not really surprised, see? These clothes were made back in, let me see, April…no, August 1923. Things were different then!”
“My word, you’re certainly an old hand, aren’t you” I marvelled.
At this, he held up his hand and I grasped the door knob in shock. It became, for an instant, before my very eyes, a hand of bone, like you would see in a skeleton. Then it quietly resumed its appearance of normality. My heart thudded like a wild horse. He smiled, taking the cigarette from me.
“Anyway, what brings you here now?” I asked, just to keep the conversation going.
“I’m on my way to a welcome party for some newcomers. But I’m not yet in the right frame of mind. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind slipping me a beer?”
I could hardly have been more astounded.
“A party? Do ghosts have parties?”
He looked at me like I was crazy.
“What do you mean? Of course, we have parties. Want to come?”
My heart clamoured furiously, but I replied politely that though it would be a tremendous honour for a mere human like me, I really couldn’t.
Not tonight, I thought to myself. He didn’t press me after that. Indeed he gave me a piercing glare and went quiet.
Outwardly calm, I joined him in looking at the rain’s tantrum. Under the eaves, the rain water dripped constantly, stained a sickly yellow by the dim lamp above. My feet were starting to get wet. I made an impatient movement to remove them to a drier spot. He looked questioningly and I explained.
“Aren’t your feet getting wet too?”
He laughed, “Here look, I don’t have any! Ghosts aren’t supposed to. It’s an occupational thing. I tell you, it’s damned hard to get around without feet. That’s why we have to float. Did you know?”
“No,” I pondered, wonder-struck.
He shrugged as if to say it takes all kinds. I looked at my own feet and contemplated their tremendous significance. His cigarette was almost done. I noticed that he had smoked it to the last drag, relishing the fragrant smoke. Above the brawling rain and wind, he spoke, “These days, it’s a wonder we haven’t become an extinct species. We’d only be labelled in a jar and exhibited in museums at this this rate. You humans are playing havoc with our natural habitat.”
“How?” I murmured a little fearfully, for I could sense that our silent companionship was a thing of the past.
“You are doing everything you can to rid the earth of old houses, barns and forests which we have, for centuries, inhabited without interference. Old houses are a special favourite of our tribe. There’s nothing quite so cozy as a dark delicious nook which we use as a base for our nocturnal forays. You can say that it’s from these very dark corners that we start to become ourselves. Forests are also quite popular among our lot, but then, we have to claim territory from the animals who, in any case, run miles at our approach. I wonder why!” he mused.
“But there are hardly any forests left now. You guys are forever screaming about Environment and Pollution, and nobody gives us the time of day, so to speak. What are we supposed to haunt? Haunting, my dear chap, is a serious business. Not as easy as it sounds. You dismantle everything and replace them with ugly skyscrapers which are too high even for the likes of us. We can’t use the elevators since they’re always full. As for the neon-lit buildings – they’re positively lethal for our complexions. There just aren’t many places we can feel at home any more,” he lamented.
“And,” he resumed with a resurgence of fire, “another thing we’re pretty cut up about is that, don’t you humans know how to make a good ghost film? I’ve seen a few and they’re absolutely pitiful! I’d have expected something better. You’re supposed to be intelligent. We, in the spirit world, are seriously thinking of staging demonstrations since if anything is to be done, one must demonstrate, I’m told. Or use Social Media.”
My mind boggled. He looked at me sharply then, and said, “Got to go know. It was nice to meet you. My new friends are waiting. They’re in your basement,” he chuckled and was gone.