a ghost story
by Mari Ellis Dunning
a ghost story
Text copyright 2015 Mari Ellis Llewelyn Dunning. Cover image copyright Emily Eve Alice Parker. All rights reserved.
No portion of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted without the express written permission of the copyright holders except in the case of reviews or other journalistic purposes. Names, characters, places and incidents featured in this publication are either the product of the authors’ imagination or are used fictitiously.
Published October 2015
Gareth flinched every time a page was turned, disrupting his concentration. There was no other sound in the library, nothing aside from the scratching pens and shallow breathing of late-night students. His stomach was gnawing and he was beginning to feel light-headed, but he wanted to stay as late as possible, needing to finish his work, needing to keep away from home. The steaming cup of instant coffee perched on the desk tasted cheap. It left a scolding rubbery feeling on the roof of his mouth.
This was the downside to leaving the house. At home, Gareth had a kettle, a kitchen, a sofa to rest on when he needed a break. But typing endlessly at his desk, with only the quiet murmuring of the radio to keep him company, was dull. Often, when Cat came home at the end of the day, Gareth would be pacing around the living room, circuiting the coffee table, staring at the walls and wanting to scratch his way out, tunnel through like a rat. Cat would point to the front door and laugh, telling him he could leave whenever he wanted to, but she was missing the point. There was nowhere to go.
The library was emptying now, but Gareth was determined to get something on paper before leaving. His notebook lay open in front of him, the pages covered in biro and coffee stains, but he hadn’t picked up his pen in over half an hour.
‘Friends are like cake…’ he began, before setting his pen down and putting his head in his hands. It was no good. He had been going somewhere with the cake image, but the concept was evading him now. Something about the pieces? The slices making a whole? No, that wasn’t it, and if it was, it was shit anyway. Undissolved granules of coffee floated on the brown surface of Gareth’s coffee.
The sound of shuffling across the room caused him to look up. A young Chinese academic type was packing his laptop and books into a rucksack and heading towards the door, leaving the library completely empty but for Gareth. It was dark enough outside for the cluttered room to be reflected in the window, the harsh light glaring back and distorting the scene. Through the watery image of desks and bookshelves, the sky was murky and black, the road was quiet. Gareth sighed and walked over to the bathroom, passing shelves of dusty books, rows of DVDs, newspaper archives and magazines. Every now and then, tables were laid out between aisles, some still littered with forgotten pens or empty crisp packets.
Gareth pushed open the door to the men’s room, and waited for the light to come on. It didn’t. He waved his hand about, trying to trigger the motion sensor; the room remained just as gloomy. Somewhere to his right, a tap was dripping, steady, annoying droplets. It took a while for his eyes to adjust to the lack of light. The bin was overflowing with grubby damp hand towels, like a blocked toilet spilling up its dirty insides, or an open mouth, vomiting.
Gareth felt his way over to the urinals, the white gleam of the porcelain guiding his way. The sound of his own stream of urine echoed about the tiled room, a metallic tinkling. A dry retching sound carried over from one of the cubicles. Gareth looked around. He was certain the library was deserted by now. The sounds continued, rasping dry coughs. It sounded like someone was coughing up a lung behind the locked door.
As he pulled up his zip, Gareth scraped his skin and winced. When he was done, he turned towards the row of sinks and mirrors. As he drew closer, a familiar face appeared, slowly, blurred like a reflection in murky water, followed by a body. It grew, his own face, from the shadows; one shoulder, then the other, as he drew closer to the mirror. Gareth lingered for a while, staring at his reflection, ignoring the sound of the tap sending droplets of water spiralling down to the basin below. He looked tired; his eyes were swollen and dark. He rubbed his hand over his chin, feeling the two day old bristles there.
The wheezing came again from the cubicle behind him, a hollow choking sound. Gareth turned around, saw that the door was firmly shut, and turned back to the mirror. He ran some water, then closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath and letting the world drop dead around him. The water was cool and refreshing on his face, his tired eyes. It drowned out the retching. As he opened his lids again, the closed cubicle door, reflected before him, slowly swung open, revealing a quiet, empty space, and a clean white toilet bowl.
Gareth spun quickly around again. The cubical was empty. The toilet stood dead centre, clean and unused. There was no one in the bathroom with him; he was alone. He froze momentarily, his body stiff, limbs stuck to his sides. As feeling flooded back into his arms, which felt like dead weight, Gareth walked swiftly towards the door, without stopping to dry his hands, brushing them instead on his thighs. He pushed open the door too hurriedly, so that it banged against the wall in the corridor outside and swung back.
Back in the dusty, book filled room, he slowed, closed his eyes again, and leaned against a wall. It must have been the cleaner in the women’s toilets. Any noise could carry through the vents, he thought. Still, he glanced at his watch and, noting the late hour, went to gather his things. Slinging his satchel over his body, he headed for the exit.
Outside, the sky was a dark rumbling black. There was a static in the air as Gareth headed for the car. He felt as though the sky was breathing above him, filling its open belly with dense grey clouds and sparks of electricity.
The drive didn’t take long, only ten minutes on quiet roads, and Gareth made a mental note to walk next time, thinking of the stomach he’d been growing recently. The roads were quick and quiet. Gareth kept his foot pressed steadily on the accelerator. His tired eyes flicked more often than usual to the rearview mirror, but there was nothing behind him.
‘I think it’s going to thunder,’ he told Cat when he got home. ‘It’s in the air.’
Cat was stood in the kitchen, making herself a sandwich even though it was past 11pm.
‘Hungry?’ he asked.
‘I’ve got to go back to work,’ she said, taking a bite of her sandwich and sending crumbs flaking to the kitchen floor. He offered her a plate, and when she shook her head, he pulled it pointedly from under her, pulling another two slices of bread from the bread bin and reaching for the butter.
‘Now? Why?’ he asked, as he filled and cut his sandwich.
‘Because I’m needed,’ Cat snapped. ‘I’m on call Gareth, you know how it is. I can’t just swan around all day and go to bed when I please.’
He ignored her and headed for the living room, where he collapsed on the sofa and put his feet up. Sometimes, Cat could be a real bitch.
Her face appeared around the corner just as she was stuffing the last chunk of bread into her mouth.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m tired.’
‘S’okay. Me too.’
‘Bye,’ Cat mumbled, spitting flecks of bread out and pulling on her coat.
‘Bye, honey,’ Gareth replied, but the front door was already closing.
It felt like a lifetime since they had met through a mutual friend. It had been a warm summer evening. Gareth and his friend Sam were splayed lazily in a beer garden, surrounded by the sharp apple smell of golden cider. Soft clouds were rolling overhead like thin wisps of air.
‘I’m sorry about what happened between you and Hannah. I never thought you guys would break-up,’ Sam said.
‘Just one of those things, I guess,’ Gareth replied, shrugging. ‘It’s fine. It’s what we both wanted. She wasn’t herself towards the end. We weren’t happy.’
Sam leaned in towards Gareth, cider on his breath. ‘Katie hasn’t heard from her in weeks. Said she’s been blocking her calls.’
Before Gareth could reply, Katie herself came through the back door, carrying two half-pints and sloshing one over her hand as she walked. The honeyed liquid ran over her fingers and dripped on the grass beneath them.
‘Look who I found at the bar,’ she said, placing the drinks on the table.
A tall, slim woman was hovering behind Katie.
‘This is Cat,’ she said, shoving her friend forward.
Cat was attractive in a sharp, stern way which gave her an air of intellect. She held herself with confidence, smiling as she held her hand out to Gareth and said, ‘Cat.’
‘Gareth,’ he told her, taking her hand.
They sat in the beer garden until the sun sunk like an anchor, disappearing into the trees. When Sam and Katie left together, Gareth and the stern girl who was helping him to forget about the ugliness of the last few weeks stayed behind. They talked, unperturbed by the cool air, until goosebumps puckered on Cat’s forearms. Gareth offered her his jacket, and she took it. He remembered that vividly, the way she’d wrapped his coat around her lean frame, held it to her like a barrier from the cold. She wouldn’t do that now, he thought. She wasn’t one to admit defeat, to accept help. Perhaps that’s why he’d fallen for her.
Now, they were a decade on, sharing a flat and bickering like children almost daily.
Gareth skipped through the channels for a while, his thumb pressing the remote rhythmically, changing the screen from shopping channel to reality tv to news and back to another shopping channel. He began to doze. The picture flickering on the screen was casting blue light outwards, over the coffee table.
‘…these pearl earrings are just darling,’ a deep voice carried across the room. ‘The sort one can wear with anything, to any occasion.’
Gareth peeled his eyes open, looked at the orange man onscreen and grabbed the remote from where it had fallen on the floor.
‘…a true classic,’ the man was saying as Gareth turned the tv to standby and headed for bed.
The man’s overly-tanned face loomed at Gareth through the darkness as he slept. ‘…a classic,’ he was saying. ‘Real gems.’ His face seemed to be melting, the skin peeling like a mask from his skull. The orange sphere which sat above his pastel blue suit began to twirl and swirl, contorting and folding in on itself. His face was like water running down the drain, or a toilet bowl flushing. His swirling teeth were still solid and white, moving around and picking up speed like a carriage on a roller coaster.
‘…simply eloquent,’ the man kept repeating. ‘Care to try them on, Gareth?’ he asked, through his swirling features. And now Gareth was his assistant, dressed in a matching pastel blue suit. The man was thrusting his clasped hands towards Gareth. He felt uncomfortable, wanted to turn away but couldn’t. He was rooted to the spot, unable even to tell the man to leave him alone, that he didn’t want pearls in his ears. ‘Take them, take them,’ the man was saying. His voice was becoming less and less feminine, increasingly deeper. He unclenched his fists, opening out his palms to reveal not pearl earrings, but a pair of needles.
Gareth woke up as Cat crawled into bed beside him, pulling the covers over herself though she was still half dressed. His brow was sweaty, he felt clammy and cold, but the wider he opened his eyes, the further away the dream felt. He reached out to put his arm around his girlfriend, but she turned away from him, to face the door.