Spirits In The Night

The first time I see him, he’s just a blear in the doorway. He stands there, like he’s almost as wary of me as I should be of him. His face is in shadow, the light bulb from the kitchen behind his head, it’s glinting off that brooch he wears round his neck. The lamp in the corner of the living room has fallen over, casting weird shadows on the wall, and the record player is skipping at the end of ‘Bridge Of Spies’. I wonder if I’ve been singing along again? If Genghis is going to be putting in another complaint?

He turns then, like he’s going to leave if I scream, but he must see the truth on my face: I’m not afraid of him. Really, what is there to be afraid of? Rape? Assault? Murder?

I try to tell him it’s OK. I’m not going to scream. The words don’t come out right and I just end up giggling. I feel so light right now, like all the weight’s gone from me, like I could float. Like a duck with its arse in the air. Like the crazy seeds of a dandelion clock. Like an 18-30 lilo. I’m on the happy part of the circle.

“I’d offer you a drink,” I tell him, hoping the words sound the same in his ears as they do in my head. It’s difficult to tell sometimes. “But I seem to be tempo… tempy… timpytampytompytumpy… Ha!” I roll one of the empty bottles across the rug at him and laugh again. “I don’t think there’s anymore left in the fridge, but you’re welcome to look.”

He goes over and switches off the record player. Considerate, I like that. Then he flumps down in the armchair, like he owns the place. Yeah, go ahead, mister, you’re the closest thing we’ve had to a visitor in the six weeks since we moved in. I say we, though even Trixie ran away after a month. I thought maybe she’d gone back to the old place, but I called the people who’d moved in and they hadn’t seen her. Still, what I don’t spend on Kit-E-Kat, I can sure enough put to other uses.

“Fuck her,” I tell him. “Fucking cat did nothing but sleep and shit anyway. Not as though she was fec… ‘fectionate. Scratched me to shit ever I tried to pick her up. Mowwwwrrr!”

He’s staring at me now and his eyes have that look I sometimes see in the people at work. I have curry on my blouse and pigeon shit in my hair (though he probably can’t see the pigeon shit). Mum used to tell me that was lucky. I should have washed it when I got in, I’m so not going to feel like it in the morning, but I just couldn’t be… I just couldn’t be… I mean, what the hell difference does it make anyway?

I guess even rapists have their standards.

I wake to the phone, and it’s work, I know it. It’s after nine so I don’t answer. Just throw myself in the shower (do my best to get that crap out of my hair) and get out soon as. I’ll tell them the trains were all fucked up again and I couldn’t get a signal from the platform. If they don’t believe me, they don’t believe me.

Used to be I had more of a hangover after mixing red and white. Nowadays, I hardly even notice. I mean, sure, I feel like I’ve been trampled by horses, but I feel like that most the time anyway. Not just physically, either. Physically, you don’t mind so much. Physically, you take a couple more paracetamol with your Starbucks and you’re good to. Still, I haven’t blacked out for a couple of weeks now. Least I don’t think I have. That’s the worst, when you don’t even remember where you were, what you did. When you don’t even remember calling up work at 3 o’clock in the morning and leaving that message on the sanctimonious bitch’s voicemail. When you don’t even remember that argument in the all-night supermarket ‘cos they won’t sell you no more booze after eleven. When you don’t even know about it ‘til the following week when you go in again and the security guard tells you you’re barred. Barred – from fucking Sainsbury’s! Daddy would be so proud of his little muppet, if only he could see her now.

Crunching Extra Strong Mints on the way in to the office, I remember last night’s caller. He wasn’t there when I woke up, and if he’d been there at all, would he really have left me lying on the rug in a puddle of curry vomit and wretchedness? Great, so I’m imagining strange men in my flat now. Show me a barrel and I’ll scrape it…

At the office, the sanctimonious bitch is waiting. Berating me is the highlight of her week. That, and making flittery-fluttery eyelids at the Parcelforce bloke. Like she has a chance. Like she doesn’t already have a husband.

“So how much did you have to drink last night, Carol?”

“Enough to drown out the memory of your face,” I think about telling her, twenty minutes later. The smart replies never come when you need them.

“You know, if you just smartened yourself up a bit, lost a bit of weight, and stopped drinking so much…”

“Yeah?” Sometimes you don’t need a smart reply, not when you’ve got a stare that withers sunflowers.

“I’m only saying…”

Sometimes she’s asked me, “do I think I have a problem?” That time I lost my keys and had to take an hour off to get a new set cut, because the key-cutting place closes at lunchtime. What sort of business closes at lunchtime, surely that’s when you get half your customers? But the bitch doesn’t ask me that today. Not today.

On the way home I stop for shopping. Blue and white stripe bread, beans, bacon and orange juice. Sarah Lee Triple Chocolate Gateaux and Smirnoff, two bottles. The two biggest bottles they have on the shelf. Today was my 30th birthday. You wouldn’t have known.

Do I think I have a problem? Sweetie-pie, I’ve got a hundred problems. What are you going to do about it? I can’t even remember how long ago I had my last paracetamol – is it four hours yet? Can’t take any more if the four hours isn’t up.

“Circle in the sand, going round and round. Never ending love is what we’ve found! CIRCLE IN THE SAND!”

Thump thump thump. Genghis from next door.

“It’s after eleven, Carol, please…”

I’m not sure if Genghis is his real name, or just what I decided to call him. Time was, I’d have know the difference.

“It’s my birthday,” I tell him, “I’m having a party!” Only I don’t use those words. Or any others. Genghis has called the police before now, and the landlord is one more complaint away from throwing me out on my ear. Even right now, I know I can’t lose another flat. Not so soon after the last one. (I wonder if Trixie really did go back to the old place? Maybe the new tenants decided to keep her. Maybe they heard the stories about her owner, and decided she’d be better off with them. Oh well, more Kit-E-Kat for me, I guess. F’narr!)

Belinda Carlisle is the tits, even after eleven, and anyone who can’t see that can spin. On. That. I put on my headphones and turn off the lights. I’ve bitten the inside of my mouth in three different places today, and I wasn’t even drunk when I did it. I seem to have forgotten how to eat without also gnawing away my own cheeks. Blood in my mouth tastes like I’m sucking copper coins. I get up, yanking the headphones out of the socket and blasting ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’ (if it is, I’ve never been there) at everyone and everybody. Laughing, I fall into the stereo and turn down the volume as the record hops. Genghis is going to think I did that on purpose. You have to see the funny side.

I spit blood into the sink and stare at the miserable cow in the mirror. She’s stopped laughing now. The circle’s turned past that. It never lasts long. Somebody walks past the bathroom door. Shit – Genghis?

No, not Genghis.

He’s sitting in the armchair again; he looks up as I come out of the bathroom. I try to get a proper look at his face, but the only light is from the bathroom and for a moment I can’t remember where the light switch is for the room. Instead, I backtrack to the front door and check that I locked it after Genghis came round to complain. If some weirdo is letting themselves in here every night…

It’s locked. So how the hell did he get in?

Ah, fuck him. What does it matter? If he were going to attack me, he’d have done it last night. We’ve already established I’m beyond ravaging. I’m going to bed. See if I can actually get up on time tomorrow; give the sanctimonious bitch a day off. Let my imaginary guest have the run of the place. Just don’t play the stereo too loud, mister, even if you love Belinda. It’s after eleven, and Genghis has his ear pressed to a tumbler. Even on my birthday.

The next morning my head feels like snot, and I didn’t even drink that much. There’s still half the first bottle left, and I hadn’t even started on the second. Lightweight! Sometimes seems the less I drink, the more I suffer.

In the bathroom, the toilet seat is up. I don’t remember being sick… Maybe I wasn’t. Maybe my new flatmate left it up. Ha. You have to see the funny side.

I’m in the Laundromat when the woman from across the street starts talking to me. It’s Saturday morning and I’ve had company five nights in a row now. What I really should do, I should stay sober tonight, see if he still turns up then. Only there’s a part of me scared that if I do, and he still does… then maybe I’m further down the road than I like to think. Besides, I’m not sure I can. Not on a Saturday. It’s hard enough getting through weeknights, after spending a day with the sanctimonious bitch and all the rest of them. Tracy, and her skirts that get shorter, legs that get browner. Alex, with her honeymoon photos. Debs, and her fucking Ann Summers parties.

“You ought to come, Carol. Buy yourself a little something. Or if you’d rather I just gave you the catalogue, you can order in private, we can keep it strictly on the QT.”

Yeah, she’d love that, wouldn’t she? They all would. What makes them think I’m even…?

It’s hard enough getting through weeknights, but at least then I haven’t spend the whole day by myself. Weekends, mind, weekends is a different kettle of.

Anyway. I’m in the launderette when this woman from across the road starts talking to me. I think her name is Maureen. It’s the usual bullshit to start with: the weather, the parking round here, those kids what broke in the corner shop and the police didn’t even arrest them or nothing. I’m trying my best to keep it polite if only because I can do without falling out with any more of my neighbours, but I really am starting to wonder why she’s making so much effort. Then she gets to the point:

“If you need any help with the ironing, I do a little bit. For people in the street, family and friends. For a modest sum.”

It’s only a fucking sales pitch! And for just a moment there, I thought maybe she was being friendly. Well, I should’ve known better, like the song says. For a modest sum, too!

“I used to do for the young man lived there before you. Terrible what happened to him. I suppose you heard. Swallowed a box full of carpet tacks. I’ve got to tell you, if I was going to… well, I’d choose something a little less… I mean, you’d have to be pretty desperate… “

She goes on, but her words get lost in the spin cycle. I don’t know whether to be relieved, that my nocturnal guest isn’t just some fig-tree in my imagination, or scared worse now I know the truth. The weird thing is, I feel like I’ve heard this before. Only I can’t have, because who’d have told it? Maureen’s the first person in this street to talk to me, not shout at me. And the landlord wouldn’t have. It’s not the sort of thing you advertise. “By the way, the last tenant tried to top himself with tacks. Sign here, please.” No. No, he wouldn’t want me to know. To know…

“I know what you are and I don’t want you coming round here no more!”

I’d like to tell you I stayed sober for this confrontation, but the truth is, I was shit scared to. Truth is I came straight home from the launderette and put on Living to watch the Most Haunted weekend, hoping maybe Derek Acorah might have some tips on how to deal with this sort of thing, but it was just the usual bullshit, and I so needed a drink to stop me screaming at the TV. But I was only going to have the one. Keep my wits about me, like. For the exorcism… if that’s what it came to.

“Carol?”

“In nominee patrish, et fillips… fuck!”

“Carol, what is it? What’s the matter?” He gets up from the chair and comes towards me, and all I can think is: Shit! Spook knows my name! Spook knows my fucking name!

“In Nomine Patris, et Fill… et Filii…” I’m making the cross, but my arm’s shaking bad and I guess it’s coming out all wonky. Like a fucking swastika or something. God will not be amused. Still, it’s been the longest time since I took Mass, and I’m not sure why the heavenly father would help this poor sinner anyway… but God, God, I’m praying here, I’m praying bad and I need your help right now, “et Spiriti Sanctus… no, no – shit! Spiritus. Spiritus sanct—“

“Carol!”

And then he takes me by the shoulders, the ghost, I mean, not God – only he’s so not like I expected. I mean, I can feel his hands on my arms, not wispy and walkthrough and insubstantial like would be in films, but warm and solid like he’s just as real as you or me, like he’s—

“Carol, please – you’re scaring me! If you want me to go, if you don’t want me staying here no more, you just have to say. I don’t want to… I mean, you’ve been very kind, letting me… giving me the key and all… but if you’ve changed your mind, if you’d rather I…”

And then, it breaks. It breaks, and I remember. Was it a week ago, a little more? In the park across the square. Was it after they threw me out of Sainsbury’s, the second time? I’m sitting on the swings and it’s late, and I see him at the bottom of my path, staring at the front door. And I’m crying, because the anger’s passed and the laughter’s gone (I think that’s maybe why I black out when the circle gets round this side, because this is the worst, and remembering just shits on your soul), and I go over and ask him what he’s looking at. Not aggressive, like. Not starting no arguments, just for someone to talk to, really. Because in the middle of the night, sometimes that’s all you want.

“I used to live there,” he tells me. “Had some good times in that house, until…”

“Until?” I ask, steadying myself on the chain link.

“Until I had some not so good times… then I had to go away.”

And then he tells me all about the carpet tacks, and about the hospital. About shitting blood for a month, and the psych ward, and how after a while they had to let him out because they didn’t have enough beds. Not because they thought he was better, not really, because they just didn’t have the room no more. And he tells me about living rough, no job and no chance of getting one. About not wanting to be a burden, but not knowing what else to do.

And so I take him across the road, into our house, give him my keys, and offer him a drink. Just like that.

“Thanks,” he tells me, “but I’m trying not to, you know? ‘Til I’m back on my feet. ‘Til I don’t need it so much anymore.”

And I fall back in the armchair with the bottle and laugh. The circle’s turned around there again already, see?

“Fair enough,” I say then. “But I hope you won’t mind if I do…”

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Rol Hirst was the first man in space from Huddersfield. The Russians still beat him up there.

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