‘I should have been pleased, and I was, briefly—my plan to rescue Constance was in early motion. But my tired old skin went cold as I watched myself gather up all of the cards and shuffle them in readiness of the hand about to be played.’
Extract from Men Playing Ghosts, Playing God,
from Look Where You Are Going, Not Where You Have Been
By Steven J Dines
Published by Luna Press Publishing
Men Playing Ghosts, Playing God
Age will not be defied
Let me tell you about the time four old ghosts held death captive in a basement. Let me tell you what that power can do to a man and the sacrifice he will make for the gift of time. But first, let me tell you how we became ghosts in the first place.
At the age of seventy-seven, I, Henry Eddowes, died. Nobody seemed to notice, nobody seemed to care, which only made it harder for me coming to terms with my demise. Not my literal demise, you should understand, otherwise how would I be writing this account? But there are other ways to die, just as there are other ways to live. The name of the one who took my life away was Russell Hobbs. That’s right, it was one of his toasters that caused the fire, his defective workmanship; not me, not mine. All I wanted on that September evening of last year was to put my tired feet up, eat spaghetti and sausages on toast, and listen to a little Piano Sonata No.14 until I fell asleep. Contrary to what the fire inspector concluded I never turned the dial all the way to the darkest setting, and even if I had, which I cannot completely disclaim since I don’t have what you might call ‘one hundred percent recall’, the fool contraption still should not have flame-grilled the toast, the toast the kitchen window-blind, and so on.
Being old is worse than being a child. When a child sets fire to something, they get a ticking off or a slap on the wrist, but do the same thing at my age and the powers that be—and I am referring to my children here—are prepared to throw you in a padded cell.
They call Wintercroft a residential home. I call it the waiting room to Hell. The brochure boasts it is situated in four acres of landscaped gardens on the outskirts of the city. It does not, anywhere, use the phrase, ‘out of the way.’ But it is and we are.
And that is an altogether different kind of death.
When we first heard of Constance’ husband’s passing, it was one minute to midnight and we were playing cards. It was quiet, the lights were low, and everyone else had been fed and bedded, except the four of us with our special pass, paid for with sixty cigarettes and the assurance that we would keep it down. We were in Wintercroft’s communal room. Kensington chairs lined two of the walls, hand upholstered, red floral pattern on a backdrop of somnolent green. In time, our bones turn to straw; in time, our brains too. None of the residents were really capable of lying on the grass to look at the sky anymore, so that was as good as it got: a chair and a window. We were scarecrows, propped up and left to watch the black birds circling.
But the four of us—we had poker.
Forget Bridge and Canasta, we left those to the nonagenarians. We young ones in our seventies, Walshy, Bullamore, Sheldon, and myself, we enjoyed nothing more than a game of five card stud. All right, so we used onion rings instead of actual poker chips, and our table, a walnut coffee commandeered from the women’s corner, was a little on the low side, something our backs incessantly complained about afterward, but we could lose ourselves, really lose ourselves: in the cards, in our hand, in the game.
The scream changed that. One soul-torn scream from just along the corridor.
It changed everything.
Walshy looked at Bullamore then Sheldon; Bullamore at Sheldon then Walshy; Sheldon at Walshy then Bullamore. Then all three turned to look at me.
None of us needed to say anything: we all knew what it meant. We were all putting in our twilight time in Wintercroft, and darkness was never too far away.
‘So he’s gone,’ I said in a low voice, raising my coffee mug in the air. ‘To George.’
‘To George,’ the others echoed.
We touched the rims to our lips and drank to him, or rather we breathed deeply of the aroma lingering at the bottom of our near-empty cups.
And then we played another hand.
I forget who won it. Not me. My heart was no longer in the game. It was, with my mind, just along the corridor…with Constance.
It was no secret among the other residents that I was madly in love with her. There is no time for secrets when time is short. Even George had known my feelings, but he’d also understood that I was nothing if not honourable. I respected the sanctity of their marriage as much as I respected the sanctity of my own. A growing shortness of time on this earth does not make licentious wolves of us all.
But I do love her.
Before we ever met, on my first day in Wintercroft, I heard someone mention her name, and the jolt I felt as a result rattled my heart. I fell in love with her name before I met and fell for the woman herself. Constance. Constance. And when I learned of the others they fell one behind the next, like a trail of warm autumn petals across a slab of frozen ground: Constance Harriet Willington-Wright.
Petals, yes—or four elegant train carriages lighting up the walls of a darkened tunnel: me.
But I digress.
Back to what happened.
I could not visit Constance in her room that night. The staff would not allow it. So I spent the hours until morning pacing my room like some poor love-starved teenager. When I grew tired of pacing, I stretched myself out on the bed and traced the cracks in the ceiling, imagining that I was somehow clinging to a comet up in space, looking down upon the rivers of the Earth. It was a game I used to play as a boy while my parents argued in the next room, after someone told me there was no sound in space.
It isn’t true.
The words become lost in the great vacuum of time and distance but somehow the screams never seem to lose their power. If anything, they become comets themselves, orbiting the world right alongside you. The next morning I was a Jack-out-of-his-box, hurrying along the corridor to Constance’ room. I found her curled up on a large chair, a little girl in posture but an ancient woman in appearance. Who knew one night could last so long? Enough to add years to a woman’s face when years were the thing none of us really had.
I stood before her, trying not to block her view out of the window. She needed distance—if not the ability to distance herself then at least the ability to see something distant. A lone-standing tree. A car coming over a hill. The sun climbing the sky.
‘Four years ago, when my Mary died,’ I said, ‘the window became my best friend too.’
Constance’ eyes changed focus, narrowing in on the movement of my lips, a matter of feet and inches from her own. A pained expression flitted across her face before she turned her head slightly, back to the distance on the other side of the glass. It was like she had not recognised me.
‘I’m sorry about George,’ I said.
‘He was a good man,’ I said.
‘A loss to us all,’ I said.
And I meant it, every word.
Constance said nothing, only nodding in places. Whether it was in response to me or to some other conversation playing inside her head, I did not know. I only knew that I was completely alone in the room with her.
And that somehow I had to bring her back.
‘Eddowes—no. No! It’s madness.’
I opened the door to my room and hurried Sheldon inside, out of earshot of the other residents. The service wasn’t over by thirty minutes and we were both still dressed in our funeral attire, but it had been two days and Constance was slipping further and further away.
Sheldon had been the one to share my idea with first. He was a cautious soul; he only ever went in on a winning hand and never, never went for the bluff. He had the scars to prove it too: every one of his three wives had been unfaithful, leaving him for other, less cautious men. But, bless his heart, some people never change and some people never win at poker; it didn’t stop them anteing up.
‘I need to do this,’ I told him. ‘Something to stop the rot setting in.’
Sheldon loosened his black tie but left it on. ‘It’s an awful risk, Henry,’ he said. ‘If she finds out, if she catches you, she’ll never forgive you. And you’d be giving them grounds to throw you out of here. There are worse places than Wintercroft, you know.’
I could think of only one.
‘I can’t do this alone,’ I said. ‘Are you in or not?’
‘Christ, Henry, his ashes have hardly had a chance to cool and you’re talking about…well, let’s just say it, you’re talking about sneaking into his widow’s room and planting clues—’
‘They’re not clues,’ I corrected, trying to placate him. ‘This isn’t some treasure hunt. Try not to get over-excited. They’re messages. Simple but clear messages—from George to his wife.’
‘And what do you hope to achieve by doing this?’ he asked.
I had given the question a lot of thought, and it boiled down to a single grain of truth.
‘Time,’ I said.
‘With Constance?’ he asked, suspicious.
Sheldon shook his head. It was a cautious shake.
‘There are other, better ways to steal a man’s wife—widow or not.’
Before I could stop myself, I reached for the loose tie around his neck and yanked it up and around like a noose. A tiny puff of air escaped from his mouth and passed into my nostrils the sweet-sharp smell of peppermint on his breath. Reality struck me then, and I snapped out of my rage in an instant, letting go of his tie and backing off to stand next to the window. Sheldon fixed his tie, trying to maintain his composure as he struggled to catch his breath. Suddenly the room felt smaller, the walls pressing in like hands around a bug.
‘I’m not trying to steal anyone,’ I said. ‘I simply want a little more time with her, that’s all. More time. Do you understand?’
With three ex-wives, he understood better than anyone.
To sweeten the mood, later that evening I folded on a Three of a Kind and two Flushes. The other two saw through it right away. Sheldon was too quiet and I rarely, if ever, lost at cards. Walshy, ever the clown, got a kick out of just playing the game, good hand or not. Bullamore always went in too heavy and came out light.
‘You’re one sick old dog,’ Walshy said, once he’d heard my plan.
‘But I’m in. Just try and keep me out.’
Bullamore took a little more convincing. He huffed and puffed but in the end blew nothing down. ‘As long as no one finds out and no one gets hurt then I’m in too.’
And so four ghosts we became.
I should have been pleased, and I was, briefly—my plan to rescue Constance was in early motion. But my tired old skin went cold as I watched myself gather up all of the cards and shuffle them in readiness of the hand about to be played. The sun was sinking outside, pouring in through the windows of the communal room a kind of thin, jaundiced light. It clung to the backs of my hands, to all of our skins in fact, and made of us strange yellow men. Men who had no right to think of themselves as ghosts, who had no right to meddle furtively in the lives of another. Men, strange and yellow.
And before a card was dealt, my hands began to shake.
Look Where You Are Going, Not Where You Have Been by Steven J Dines is published by Luna Press Publishing, price £12.99
‘I should have been pleased, and I was, briefly—my plan to rescue Constance was in early motion. But …