A Ghost Story for Christmas
© Stephen Carver, 2015
I first cultivated something like a friendship with Billy, the lonely old boy upstairs, because he reminded me of my dad. But the longer I lived in that little ground floor flat the more he reminded me of myself.
The low-rise flats were red brick and post-war, and I had grown up in one just like it myself, with the same narrow hallway with bedrooms in an inverted ‘T’ shape at one end and a heavy door topped with a single panel of frosted glass at the other. Looking towards that baleful entrance, a tiny bathroom and kitchen sprouted off the hall on the right, a living room on the left. The flat above would be indistinguishable from this one, only with stairs leading up from the front door at right angles to mine, while I had a slanting space beneath not much use for anything but hanging coats. I was not sure how long Billy had been there, but he felt as permanent as all the other fading fixture and it was difficult to imagine him ever living anywhere else.
The flat was not a home I would have chosen, but the way things were going I was lucky to get it. I’d been going slowly out of my mind in boarding houses ever since I lost my job and my girlfriend got so sick of my moods that she threw me out. It was only the lobbying of a sympathetic GP that got me moved up the council list as an emergency case, the emergency being the likelihood of my imminent self-murder. For a single man with no dependents and on the dole to get anything was nothing short of miraculous, although location and condition must have been a factor, even in these troubled times, while its reputation, my new neighbour couldn’t wait to tell me, also preceded the place.
‘That bloke downstairs kept bloody dogs,’ he said, having flung open his door to greet me as soon as he heard the woman from the housing office fumbling with the key.
I got the impression she had heard it all before. ‘Still with us, Mr. Barrington?’ she said breezily, nonetheless trying to get the key into the ancient lock with some agitation, like someone in a horror film.
‘Big bloody things,’ the old man continued, leaning on an old wooden walking stick until it creaked, ignoring the woman and blasting me with breath that stank of cheap beer, roll-ups and supermarket crisps. Green plaster walls shone dully behind him, while the stairs twisted away into the shadows beyond a window like an arrow slit in a castle wall. Everything about him was grey, his hair, his complexion, his eyes, and his choice in knitwear. ‘They didn’t know the old fool was dead until them dogs started howling and someone complained to the RSPCA,’ he said gleefully, adding, ‘that was after they ate him.’
‘Now you know that isn’t true,’ the woman snapped, finally getting the door open, ‘and you’ve got to stop spreading that nasty rumour and putting people off.’ The flavoured atmosphere that started to creep out was even less appealing than the old man, damp and mildewed like the still air of a cellar, overlaid with the sickly, rotten taste of undisturbed decomposition. ‘For goodness sake,’ the woman continued, ‘you’d think you didn’t want any neighbours.’
‘I don’t,’ replied the old man, speaking to her but looking at me. We left him framed in his doorway and I followed the woman inside. She flicked a light switch ineffectually several times and sighed. Either the power was off or the bulb had gone, and the rippling glass of the door she’d rapidly closed behind us was as useless as a porthole when it came to letting in natural light. With a kind of desperate idealism, she bustled through the door to her right and entered the tiny living room, moving quickly to the old, metal-framed window and opening all three casements.
‘That’s better,’ she announced, breathing deeply.
I wasn’t so sure. Dust as thick as falling snow danced and flurried in the spring sunshine in front of stained wallpaper that might have been fashionable forty years ago. Jagged Artex on the ceiling similarly suggested a makeover in the early-seventies, but the place was otherwise un-modernised. There was an ancient gas fire, and a grey, patterned carpet with a disturbingly large stain on it. ‘Is that where the previous tenant, sort of, you know, died?’ I ventured.
‘Oh, I don’t expect so,’ said the woman. ‘People always pass away in hospital, don’t they?’
Not around here, I thought, not in the middle of nowhere, which was where we were: a short street that pretty much constituted the council part of the village, stuck on a main road with nothing else for miles but flat bloody fields. All that could be said in its favour was that it was at the end of the row, so there were only neighbours on one side to worry about, and the old man above.
She had me over a barrel though, and we both knew it. This was not a viewing but a fait accompli. ‘Take it or leave it,’ she said with her eyes, ‘because we won’t be offering the likes of you anywhere else.’
Whether or not someone had died in here it smelled as though they had, the carpet releasing vapours like a fox rotting in a hedgerow. The plaster was sticky with nicotine, there was black mould in the bedrooms, dog’s piss up the walls and a shit-ring in the toilet. ‘I’m sure the place’ll clean up lovely,’ I said.
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