Ghost by Jan Harvey - runner up in the ChipLitFest 2017 Short Story competition
Comments from judge, Martyn Waites:
"Ghost is a story of emotional involvement and character. Loved it. A near textbook example of using minimalist storytelling to excavate emotional depths."
I am running my fingers over the back of your hand, seeing how the skin wrinkles beneath my touch; it is warm and alive. I know every hair on your hands, every line, bump and tiny mark. How many times have they touched and caressed my body? I press my face to your wrist and as I do I feel the rough texture of your skin against the softness of mine. This, I know, will be the final time.
The machines that surround you invade your body with plastic tentacles and sharp invasive needles. Everywhere are the mismatched patterns of plasters, the bedclothes, your horrible gown. I smooth out the sheet for the hundredth time and wish it was the fine linen we are used to. I wish it was a normal, boring everyday morning and we were curled up in bed, spooning, thinking only of who will make the coffee and warm the croissants.
The machine beeps, rhythmically, endlessly, it prevents any line of thought. I wish it would stop but, of course, it must not. That is a stupid thought. It must keep going monotonously on and on. I feel that I will remember it for the rest of my life; hear that sound in the back of my mind forever.
I study your nails. There is congealed blood under them. I run the edge of my thumb around the curve of one, it catches on a snag and instinctively I feel for my purse so that I can file it back for you. This thought gives me a tiny scrap of usefulness in a world that I suddenly cannot control, but I do not have my purse, I left it behind in all the confusion. I suddenly realise I have no way of getting home and no money, but now a deep, encompassing weight has descended on me and I cannot even begin to contemplate all that.
The nurse approaches and gives me a sympathetic nod. She is small, Thai I think, and has a kind face, but she speaks very little English. She shines a tiny torch under your eyelids and I can see a glimpse of blue in your irises. I am willing you to catch sight of me, to know I was here, but it is clear to me that your eyes are glassy and unseeing. The nurse smiles at me, with pity, and leaves and I stand up to stretch the stiffness from my body. Outside it is dawn, a shaft of lemony light is breaking from between inky clouds, it falls over the cars in the car park and suddenly, as I watch, all the windscreens are gold. It is beautiful, but it has no right to be beautiful, no right at all.
I feel so sad, so heavy, but I must be aware. I must check the car park, listen for footsteps in the corridor. I’m conscious that even now, with my brain feeling like soup, I have to keep alert. The flight is two hours twenty from Ottawa to here, they will be here any minute, I have a last few precious minutes with you.
I am running through everything in my head, the places we’ve been, the things we’ve seen. Vancouver, California, Seattle; remember the fish men? I want to ask if you remember the men selling fish in the market throwing them to each other, shouting, chanting, joking. Of course you remember them, you remember everything, every last second don’t you? It’s what we had, us.
I hear the sweep of the main doors in the lobby and the sounds of their footfalls. I know that it is them. I just know. I kiss you for a final time, a brief awkward peck as I lean over the wires and then I move to the other end of the ward, where there is drinks dispenser tucked away behind a smoked glass screen.
Helen is there first. She is taller than I imagined, and more striking. She clutches your hand immediately, the hand I have just been holding. There are tears in her eyes. Kierra is next, she is tall too, and blonde, so pretty, she looks just like her mother. Leo is holding back, awkward, frightened. He is too young to see this. Instinctively I want to move forward, wrap my arm around him because he is being ignored, no one is holding his hand. His bottom lip is quivering and he is trying to hold back his tears. God he looks like you. He has your forehead, your lips. I wonder if he will be a replica of you when he grows up, I so want to know this. I want to see him when he is your age, a preview, to see if he is a living breathing duplication of you.
The Thai nurse is handing over to the day staff. They are talking about you at the nurses’ station. I imagine them using your name and saying ‘subarachnoid hemorrhage’ to describe you and not ‘professor,’ or ‘expert in his field,’ or ‘father’...or ‘lover.’ The Thai nurse leaves and I know I must go too. I must walk past Helen, Kierra and Leo and I must not glance or give away any clues, I must be invisible.
They are gently stroking your face with the backs of their fingers. Can you feel it? Do you think it is me touching you? Helen is talking to you; can you hear her voice? They all look so pale and shocked, so bewildered. I know I must look like that too and then it occurs to me that I have not even brushed my hair this morning.
As I move out into the ward I tread as quietly as possible towards the doors at the other end. It is Leo who turns towards me and I try to avert my eyes, but he is staring right at me. I cannot manage a smile, my face seems to be set hard like concrete, yet I feel so sorry for him so I try. Then I realise he is not seeing me at all, he is looking right through me. His blue eyes are glistening with tears, he has turned towards me as an excuse to look away from his father. Later, if someone asked him if anyone else was there, in that ward, he would say no.
I don’t look back. I must give no clues, the nurses acknowledge me and one of them nods, but they do not know who I am. I am no-one, I don’t exist.
I must go back to the apartment. I will have to remove my belongings one by one, leaving no clues, nothing at all. Toothbrush; face creams; the English tea (you don’t drink tea); my book; my medication. These are the small things, like tiny grappling hooks that gave me a grip on you. I moved them in slowly, over time, but they are all easy to remove at a moment’s notice.
As I walk though the empty streets, on shoes that are not meant for walking, I feel a chill even though the day is warm and full of expectancy, I am dying inside because I know that, whatever the outcome, if you survive or if...you die, I have seen the last of you. One way or another they will take you back to your house in Ottawa. I will never see you again. I picture her, Helen, looking after you, praying over your bed. You scoff at her religion but she has that now, we don’t. I don’t. I had you, my point of reference.
She was not as cold as you said she was, she looked so concerned and frightened that she might lose you. I rationalise that she was with her children, she was putting on a display of affection for them. You and she were over years ago that’s what you told me. She was more beautiful than I imagined too, I thought you said she had let herself go, yet I was the one with the straggling hair and no make-up. I feel my stomach lurch and I take a deep breath, which becomes a juddering sigh.
I reach up and touch my hair; it feels flat and greasy. I need a shower, but I will have to do that at my house. I have to make my exit swift and clean, take everything I can and yet, against my nature I must not clean or tidy up. Should I straighten my side of the bed? I ought to smooth out my pillow, make sure there are no thick, dark hairs on it. I should spray some air-freshener too. It occurs to me that I will be like a criminal hiding the traces.
I feel overwhelmed with the thought of it all but I must ensure, at all costs, that I was never there. When they open the door later on they must not sense that I exist, no trace of me can be left behind, it will be as if I were a phantom that passed through their lives, unseen, unheard.
Jan Harvey asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.