I see ghosts. I hear their voices. Watch them move across my vision. Sometimes they talk to me, but it isn’t them. It’s people from the past. They’re frozen in my memory. A word, a touch, a phrase. The what if’s and what might have been.
I can wave them away. They disappear, back into their cubicles. And then I smile. I’ve chosen them. Chosen to freeze the images until I need them again.
I look up. No one is observing me. I’m staring at a screen. The figures dance and bend, as if following a routine yet to be choreographed. I sigh. The clock is telling me 4.16. So long until home. And tonight, on the way to the station, I’ll stare at her as I pass. The girl in the flower shop. I see her most nights, clearing up. Twice I’ve bought flowers. Talking to her in a normal way, even when my heart was pounding. I set them in a jar, where I stare at them, remembering how her hands had touched their stems.
Flowers don’t last. Two days, three at most. They fade and die. I can’t keep buying flowers. She’ll think I’ve got a girlfriend or a wife, when it’s her I need. But she’s wearing a ring. She’s someone else’s lover and not mine. Such thoughts run in my head. I shouldn’t be obsessed, but I am. I can’t help it. I’m probably too old for her. I was too conceited at twenty. And now I’m heading towards forty. Strange, how what attracts a man once can remain an attraction throughout life.
Tonight, is no different. I’m walking on the opposite pavement, past the baker’s shop and the Compass Arms pub. It’s starting to rain. I should walk faster. Instead, I pause, but she isn’t there. The man she works for is clearing up. I cross the road, staring at the same type of flower I’ve bought before. Tonight, they appear dilapidated. They’ve been rejected throughout the day.
“Yes?” He says brusquely.
He wraps them quickly, doesn’t look at me. Probably doesn’t care. Names his price. I pay.
“Your girl not here today?” I ask quickly.
“Quit.” He remarks sullenly.
It’s quite a blow. I stagger. I’m still trying to put my wallet away.
“She was a nice girl, Kathy.” I say. I only know her name because the man addressed her by it once before.
The man says nothing, handing me the change. Dismissive of me, the flowers and the girl too.
I walk on. Glance at the flowers which she did not handle. Bin them at the entrance to the station.
That night, the ghosts appear. She’s amongst them. Her voice, her smile. It’s a memory to play back endlessly. I wish I had spoken to her when I had the chance.
For some, that might appear to be the end. I’ve faced such challenges before. It leads on to something different. The office clock say’s 4.17 almost identical to the day before. I wish I could believe it was a better day. The trees beyond the window are shedding their leaves. The branches barer every day. I glance around. Everyone has their head bent to the task. There’s shouting coming from the Marketing office along the corridor. There’s been something brewing for weeks now. I stare at the trees.
Going home, I glance into the florist’s window. There’s a new girl in there. Blonde. She doesn’t look up from what she’s doing. She’s not a patch on Kathy. I feel as if I’m missing something and yet nothing is absent in my life. Reading the paper. Fourteen stops on the rattletrap. It’s a name my father gave the train years ago. I’m not sure it’s appropriate anymore.
I live alone. Mother’s in a nursing home. Father left the house to me in his Will. I’m going to sell it, once mother dies. For now, it’s more than I need. I’d like one of those apartments with all mod cons. Somewhere to place a leather sofa and a large TV. I don’t need much. I’ve thought about marriage over the years, but it comes with all kinds of traps. I’d rather pay for what I want. I live on take away and convenience foods. I imagine, one day, the salt and sugar will catch up with me.
Staring out the window, I’m wondering what to do with Dad’s car. It’s stuck in the garage; a classic Jag. It was his pride and joy, but it means nothing to me. If it was an ordinary car, I’d sell it in the local rag, but it’s not. It’s such a chore having to place an ad in the specialist press. Having to deal with the petrol heads and those out to cheat me. Perhaps I’ll leave it on the street to see if it gets stolen.
The ghosts take me by surprise. They are there before I’m ready and I gasp. But then, I smile. One or two are new this evening. I can hear their chatter. Voices from when? Sometimes, they spin around. Tonight, they are staring at me, as if expecting me to say something. I’d like to please them, but I’ve got a feeling I’ve already said everything I needed to say years ago. But that isn’t true. And, now they’re irritated. If I close my eyes they’ll vanish, but not everything is as easy.
I had a shock the following morning, Kathy, the girl from the flower shop was on the train. I smiled in her direction, but I don’t think she recognised me. She’s changed her hair. There are other changes too. How well does one person know another, I was asking myself. And when I looked up again, she’d gone. She was standing on the platform with a young man. They were laughing as they talked. It was one stop before mine. It’s good to know she’s getting on with her life. I still wish I’d spoken to her when I had the chance. Now, I probably never will.
Passing the florist, I noticed yet another girl working in there. It was on the way to the office, but I called anyway. I bought a colourful bunch to place in a vase on the desk. When I glanced around the office, I noticed everyone was staring. For a moment, I felt myself to be the focus of their attention. But it didn’t last long. The ghosts were laughing. I heard them snigger. Strange, their continued interest in me.
That evening, there were three people who came to view the Jag. I dealt with each separately and each offered a different sum of money. I didn’t want to get into a bidding war and sold it to the man with the nicest attitude. He drove away happily. I stared into the empty garage. Most of what was left had been Dad’s. He was a private man too.
I wondered what to do with the money from the car sale. It would have bought many things, but I don’t need much. I went to M&S to buy a new suit. I bought some shirts and a tie too. It felt odd, wearing new things. The people in my office ignored me as usual. I didn’t mind. I’ve got my own life and interests. If it were but true.
On the way to the station I stared in at the florists. The new girl was examining her phone. She wasn’t tidying or caring for the flowers around her. Perhaps, she had little interest in the job. I thought about going in, but I’ve no one to give flowers to. And she wouldn’t understand if I talked to her about Kathy, her predecessor. That’s the way it goes. Haunted by ghosts, what if’s and other imaginings. I made my way to the station where I found my usual seat on the train. The train was delayed. One delay building upon another. It was late when I got home, but the ghosts were waiting.
The following evening, walking to the station, I passed the Compass Arms as usual, but something made me turn and go inside. I ordered a beer and sat at a table on my own. There were few other customers. The jukebox was playing something I didn’t immediately recognise. And then I did – it was someone reinterpreting one of the classic songs from my youth. I had to smile. It was so bad. It brought to mind memories I’d suppressed. I bought a second and then a third beer. I’m not much of a drinker and soon regretted my actions.
The train home was delayed yet again and by the time I boarded it, my head was spinning. I sat there feeling as if I might be sick at any moment. I suppose I must have appeared ill to those around me. No one sat close and when I eventually got off, I was immediately sick into a litter bin. I wondered why I’d drunk so much. Generally, it wasn’t my thing and I made a promise not to do it again. Staggering home, I fell onto the sofa to try to sleep it off. I was woken by the phone buzzing inside my pocket. It’s rare anyone rings, and if they do it usually means trouble.
“Hello.” I answered cautiously.
There was no one there. A long silence before I turned it off. A mystery no doubt, or a wrong number. I made coffee, staring at the clock. It was long past the time I usually go to bed. Beyond the window, there was a starry night as I began to feel everything that was missing in my life. It started me crying. Something I don’t usually do. It was a short brief interlude, before I saw the foolishness of tears. I wiped my eyes, blew my nose and finished the coffee. I had everything I needed. What else was there? That night, I slept badly. My dreams were strange, and I woke several times. Once again, I swore never to drink again.
The following day at work there was a little excitement among the female staff. One of them, Julia, was having a birthday. I was asked to sign a card and put in for a present, which I did. Later, another of the girls asked if I’d like to join them in the pub to celebrate. Usually, I say no, but for once I didn’t. I could always have a soft drink and slip away once the others were enjoying themselves. But when I got to the pub, I found I couldn’t. There were only four of us. Everyone else had called off, it being the middle of the week.
There was the birthday girl, her friend, a young man from accounts and me. The conversation remained stilted throughout. I bought a round of drinks and was trying to find an excuse to leave when the birthday girl approached me. I could tell she was on a mission.
“I’m surprised you came.” She smiled.
I smiled in return. “I suppose I am too.” I answered.
“You don’t usually mix.”
“No.” I should have said more but didn’t add to the exchange.
The girl returned to her friend and the young man. I felt the awkwardness of the situation and made my excuses. Walking back to the station, I passed the flower shop which was in darkness. It was a little bit past eight and I was beginning to wonder if I’d have to wait for the train. There were few people on the platform. Two ghosts I recognised from previously, dancing over the high voltage conductors. I watched them for a few minutes and then received a surprise.
Kathy, the girl from the flower shop, was standing on the platform too. It took me a moment to get up my confidence, but the alcohol helped to loosen me up a little. I approached her from the side, standing a few feet away before remarking.
My greeting appeared to take her by surprise. She reacted as if startled, staring at me acutely.
“The flower shop,” I smiled. “I bought flowers from you.”
This appeared to shift her into motion. “Did you? I can’t remember.” She stated categorically.
“Are you working elsewhere now?” I asked.
She nodded, getting out her phone to examine the screen. I saw by her actions she was attempting to blank me. It was probably my fault.
“Oh well, I just wanted to say hello.”
I moved away and felt her eyes on my back. She was not the girl I’d imagined but maybe it was not my place to imagine anything about her. When I looked back, she was strolling to the far end of the platform and I thought possibly I’d startled her. It had been the last thing on my mind.
The ghosts were staring, smiling and leering. But then the train pulled in, blocking my view.
The following morning, Julia thanked me for coming to the pub. She had a ‘head’ on her she said. After I’d left, they’d gone on to a cocktail bar and got drunk. I was glad in a way I hadn’t gone with them, but it wouldn’t have suited me. Later in the day, an internal e mail was circulated among the staff. There was to be a planned merger between our company and another similar sized outfit. Economies of scale were being considered. Voluntary redundancies were sought. I knew what it meant but didn’t want to face up to the prospect.
I’d been there fourteen years. It would mean massive change. Did I want to be a part of it? No doubt, the job would be reconstructed. Or the job would no longer exist. My settled routines would all be at an end. I thought about it during the afternoon and on my way to the station. What else could I do? I walked past the flower shop, where yet another girl was serving. Perhaps, I could find work doing something simple. My role had been the same for years. I’d never challenged myself. Perhaps it was time for a change?
I was still thinking about it on the train, when Kathy got on. She saw me and hesitated. I know she wanted to walk further down the carriage, but there was an empty seat beside me. She sat heavily.
“Sorry.” She said. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“No.” I smiled. “Glad of the company.”
She said nothing for a few minutes until confessing. “I do remember you coming into the flower shop. You caught me off guard the other night, I’d just broken up with my boyfriend and I was upset.”
I said something I considered appropriate before asking. “So, you’re single again?”
She glanced at me cautiously. “I suppose I am.”
I stared straight ahead for a moment before turning back to her. “I know it may be presumptuous… Would you have a drink with me – just to chat.” I wanted to say more, but in the circumstances it seemed enough. I felt brave enough in even asking.
She said nothing for what appeared to be an age. “Alright.” She answered cautiously. “But I’m not looking for anything.”
I didn’t know what she meant by the statement, preferring to ignore whatever context it contained. I named a pub which I knew did food, asking if we could meet there later in the evening. She got off at the station before mine, promising to meet later. I went home, bathed and changed clothes, ordered a taxi and sat in the bar for almost two hours before deciding she was never going to come. It was simply another of life’s disappointments. The ghosts thought it highly amusing, dancing and leering as I made my way home.
Next morning, there was a letter on the desk. I was among the chosen few to be made redundant. There was an offer of compensation. Not a great deal for fourteen years of loyalty. I glanced at it briefly, stood up and put my jacket on before leaving the room. I had no intention of going back. Outside, the air felt heavy. I looked about myself, possibly seeing things I’d never really bothered to consider before. Walking to the park, I sat on a bench and allowed the world to wash over me. It appeared justice had been done. I was one of the condemned. I felt little bitterness, or regret. It was timely. I felt I was being funnelled into or onwards towards something greater than myself. There was no point in fighting against the flow. Reality had simply caught up with me.
I caught an afternoon train home and rang the estate agents. I was selling up. Moving on to bigger and better things for certain. Surprisingly, there were no ghosts that day or for many days following.
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