When the ghosts went
by Daniel C. Tuck
John Arkwright has seen ghosts for years: in the bingo hall, in the supermarket; everywhere. The day the ghosts stop, John realises something has drastically changed…
It were a Thursday when the ghosts stopped coming.
I remember that, as it were Thursdays when I used to go to bingo with Barbara, and Des would always be there. That particular night, he weren’t. It seemed a bit off. He were normally there, standing beside his usual table, glaring at the people who were sat at it. The look on his face whenever they won anything; it were as well they couldn’t see him. Would have given them a right fright. Not that he weren’t partial to giving people a fright when he were alive, too, though.
Vicious, he were.
But as I were saying: this particular Thursday night, Des weren’t there. I’d not noticed at first being as how I’d grown used to him being there – of all of them being there – he were just another face in the crowd, even though he’d been dead for going on three years.
Then I realised the others weren’t there either, all the usual crowd.
The ghosts had gone, and all that were left was them of us that were still alive.
I say ‘alive’, but most of us were barely this side of grave still. As I looked around it were harder and harder to work out who were ghosts and who weren’t. It were nowt but saggy, wrinkled skin and white hair, should that person be lucky enough to still have any hair, that were. Not like me; mine had gone years back, save for a few wispy patches here and there. I mostly keep it covered by a cap these days, particularly when it’s harsh out.
I say they were playing a game, but you wouldn’t have thought it were fun. There were always a lot of glum faces in the bingo hall. Sad eyes looking desperate like at their cards on the table in front of them, the only joy coming on those rare occasions they’d get to win their week’s beer or cigarette money. Then, course, everyone else around would get in a bigger grump, since it weren’t them who was winning that particular time. Wrinkled, jealous faces scowling at each other through the murky, smoke-filled atmosphere of the bingo hall, lager shandys in front of them, packets of fags sat beside them, peeled open, ready for the game to end for them choke down another one before the next game began.
Barbara weren’t there that day either, but sometimes she were like that and just didn’t turn up. It weren’t like we always had to go together. If she were there that day, I’d have told her straight off about the ghosts not being around anymore.
‘What, like white sheets floating around and moaning?’ she’d laughed once I’d plucked up the nerve to tell her about the ghosts in the first place.
‘Not like that,’ I told her. ‘They look like normal people. But paler, perhaps. And they can’t talk.’
‘Sounds like half the folk at bingo any day of the week.’
She’d turned back to her bingo card, then, and not mentioned them again since I first spoke of it. Seemed it were all but forgotten about.
Least, that was until about a week ago.
‘What’re you doing after this?’ Barbara asked, though it seemed she had something else on her mind.
‘Better head back,’ I told her. ‘The place is a tip. I need to do some clearing out.’
She nodded her head seriously, like I’d made a grave confession that needed some contemplation. She looked at me. Once, twice. I waited for her to be ready to say whatever it was she had to say, no pressure, like.
‘You still seeing them ghosts?’ she asked as she dabbed out the two fat ladies.
‘Aye. What of it?’
She glanced at me, then. Weird, like. As though there were something she wanted to say, but then thought better of it.
‘Nowt,’ she replied, turning her attention back to the caller, more focused than I’d ever seen her before.
I had a good streak going, so I let it go until we got outside. I’d won nothing, but it were still a good session. It were bitter out, so there were loads of us huddled under the shelter of the bingo sign, smoke hovering round us in a cancerous fog as we puffed at our tabs.
‘Why’d you ask about the ghosts?’ I asked Barbara after sucking up enough nicotine for the time being.
She glanced at the others around us.
‘What’s up with you?’
‘Leave it, alright?’
She flicked the butt to the ground, ground her heel on it and strode off. It weren’t like Barbara not to say what were on her mind. She were normally first to say if something were bothering her. I’d known her since before I left from working at the school. She were a good friend to me and Margaret before, and she were a good friend to me after, too. More on Margaret’s side, admittedly, to begin with, but after Margaret passed on (God bless her soul) we enjoyed each other’s company all the more.
I’d never known her to act like this before. It fair worried me.
‘Hold on,’ I called out, struggling to match her stride, my lungs struggling to match my own pace.
Lucky for me she had to stop at the bus stop, or else I’d never have caught up with her.
‘Come on, love,’ I wheezed. ‘There must be something.’
She looked at me again. Looked over my shoulder. She pulled out another tab, lit it with a hand that shook so much it took three attempts for her to get it right.
‘Thought you’d said you wanted to get home and tidy up?’ she said.
‘What is it, Barbara?’ I asked.
‘What you in a rush to get back to tidy up for anyway?’
‘No reason,’ I told her. ‘The house is just a pig sty.’
She took a long drag as she stared at me, then looked over my shoulder again.
‘These ghosts of yours. You said they look just like any other folk.’
‘No weird red eyes, or pointed teeth or anything like that?’
‘What are you talking about woman?’
Barbara wasn’t laughing, though.
‘I’m serious, John. I’m dead serious.’
I sighed. It was turning in to a weird sort of night.
‘No,’ I rolled my eyes. ‘They do not have weird red eyes, and they do not have pointed teeth.’
She stood from her seat at the bus stop and took a step back.
‘That’s not a ghost that’s following you around, then.’
Her eyes were wide as she jabbed her cigarette in my direction, staring over my shoulder.
I felt something warm against my neck.
Like something were breathing on me, right up close.
I span around, fast as my hip would allow.
There were nothing there. Just an empty street, save for a few stragglers coming out of the pubs. A few ghosts scattered here and then, drifting about, calling in at their old haunting grounds, so to speak.
Nothing with red eyes and fangs.
The number 62 bus pulled up at the stop with a squeal of brakes. The door hissed open and I turned back as Barbara stepped aboard.
‘There’s nothing there,’ I called to her.
‘God help you, John Arkwright,’ she said to me. ‘God help you.’
I watched the bus disappear round the corner, then turned and walked towards home. It were bitter out now; though, perhaps that were something to do with the conversation with Barbara more than the weather.
When I got indoors I were too exhausted to do any tidying. I went straight up to bed, though it took me hours to get off to sleep.
It were the Tuesday of that week when things turned more peculiar. As if being told I had a demon creature following me around weren’t peculiar enough. I were at the local supermarket, picking up me milk and bread and the likes. Ghosts walked up and down the aisles, browsing the produce like they were there to make some purchases.
But there were more of them than were usual.
They never normally paid attention to each other; it were like they weren’t aware that there were any other like them around. They never normally paid attention to me, neither. But that day they were. They kept glancing towards me, then looking away quickly, like they were scared of something, but wanted to keep looking. They were anticipating something happening, it seemed to me.
There was a young man I’d seen around from time to time. Died in a car accident, I’d heard. Drink driving. His girlfriend at the time were seriously injured. Paralysed for life, apparently. Said he got what he deserved, she did; said she’d warned him about the drinking. He’d shoved her in the car. Never listened.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked him.
But he looked away and walked off sharpish like, ignoring my question. Course, I were the only one could see the ghosts, so I got some funny looks from those that were living and doing their shopping: there’s another one, they no doubt thought – another old fella gone and lost his marbles, talking to himself.
‘You alright there, love?’ this woman said to me, talking like I were a five-year-old, even though I had a good forty years on her.
‘I’m fine,’ I replied without paying her much attention, but watching the ghosts who were watching me.
The lights in the store flickered, dimmed. Sparked back up again, then went down again. No one in the shop but me seemed to notice.
Then the lights went out completely.
I could still see the ghosts. They let off this weird glow – not bright, but more like them glow in the dark stars and things you can get. A faint glow, but enough that I could see them.
They all turned towards me. All of them. Every single ghost in that store. There must have been a dozen – far more than I’d ever seen congregated together. They turned and looked at me, staring.
I felt something warm against my neck. There were a strange smell. Like something burning. And I knew what it were. I knew Barbara were right about the demon. It were there, right behind me. And the ghosts could see it. And they were waiting to see what it were going to do.
And they were waiting to see what I were going to do.
I turned my head to look over my shoulder.
Two red eyes stared straight at me.
Then everything went black.
Next thing I knew, I were at the bingo hall. It were Thursday. You know, that Thursday I mentioned previously, when the ghosts were gone. As I said before, Des and the others weren’t there. Barbara weren’t there either. There were something right weird about the atmosphere that night. A strange tension in the air. Something weren’t right.
And that were without bringing the fact that I couldn’t remember anything since the supermarket into the equation.
It weren’t like anyone other than Barbara particularly spoke to me anyway – you’ve no idea what a competitive, hostile game bingo is, ’less you see it for yourself – but that night it were like I were plain being ignored.
She walked in, then, did Barbara.
The whole place went right quiet. Silent. Even the caller stopped calling. Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned and looked at her. She looked around at all the faces she’d seen at least once a week for God only knew how many years. They looked at her like she were nothing but muck, but – bless her – she held her head up high, chin in the air.
That’s when I heard them whispering.
Whispering about her.
Whispering about me.
Something about me collapsing in the supermarket.
‘Never made it,’ they said.
‘Massive stroke,’ they told each other.
‘Bloody disgusting,’ I heard.
‘Filthy old man,’ they said.
Barbara heard the whispers. Her lips trembled, her chin dropped a fraction. Then tears came, dripping from her eyes, thick and fast. No one went to help her.
I called out after her: ‘Barbara! Barbara!’ and walked towards her, but she didn’t hear me, didn’t see me.
She turned on her heels and ran from the hall.
The voices of the punters got louder now she were gone.
They spoke about the police having been to my house. Having found some stuff that were deemed ‘unsavoury’. Stuff that were ‘against nature’. Stuff that meant Barbara should be ‘ashamed to have known me’. Stuff that ‘Margaret must never have known about’.
I realised then that I never did get around to tidying up.
Now it were too late.
Too late for anything.