On the corner of the old, cobbled alleyway there is a coffee shop. Inside the walls are covered in cracked, brown paint, with an orange and gold leaf pattern stenciled through the middle. It is a quaint, dimly lit place but it is not unpleasant, and at the spot furthest away from the door there is a small, round table with lots of indents and scrapes from years of wear. That table, right at the back of the coffee shop, is one of my most favourite places to go to and think, and just forget the world for a while.
One day I was sitting there alone with my cup of coffee and my books. The sun was glaring in through the window, but I was hidden in shadow as I concentrated determinedly on a pile of sugar I had created with ten, small paper sachets. One after another, on autopilot, I had picked them out of the brown bowl in the centre of the table, tore them open, then poured out the contents like tiny white waterfalls, until I had built enough of a mountain with which to distract myself.
With my elbow perched on the table and my head leaning into my palm, I drifted my fingers through the white grains, aimlessly shifting them into odd, random patterns.
There was a man sitting at the table opposite me with a steaming mug of black coffee and a laptop. His hair was brown and disheveled and he had long legs which stuck out from under the table. He was facing away from me, but I had noticed him when he first came in. I thought him to be handsome, but kind of sad and angry at the same time. He looked like someone you didn’t mess with, and he had a scar down the left side of his face. It made me wonder about his past and his present, and even his future. I have always liked to imagine and daydream. It is probably the one thing that has kept me going all these years; my ability to escape into my dreams.
A rush of wind suddenly blew into my pile of sugar spreading the grains out flat. Annoyed I scooped them back up. The wind blew again, and again the grains scattered across the table, this time spread even further apart.
I looked up. Where was the wind coming from? There was no window or door near to me through which a draught could have blown, and not a soul had passed by my table.
The sunlight from the far window grew suddenly stronger and its beams migrated quickly across the floor to glare down over my feet and illuminate my old, brown shoes. The sunbeams moved again, just a fraction more, but enough to cover my body and shine into my eyes. I tilted my head down as my eyes squinted in discomfort. The light now completely surrounded my tabletop making the little white grains of sugar glitter like diamonds. In that moment I felt as warm as toast, but in the next the tabletop had darkened to grey and my skin prickled with cold. My table was now shrouded in a misty darkness and it felt as if the light had been eclipsed by a hovering shadow.
I looked around and noticed something very strange. The sunlight was still streaming in through the window, lighting up the floor and the walls of the coffee shop. Everything was bright and clear, everything except my table, for only it was singled out in cold, darkness. I shivered and rubbed my hands over my arms. The man with the scar sitting at the table next to me glimpsed round. I saw his profile. It was strong and angular and he had a growth of dark stubble on his jaw. I couldn’t tell his age, not exactly, but I guessed he was somewhere in his twenties. He didn’t look at me. He merely stared at the floor as if he too had sensed the strange, dark, creeping cold. Then I saw something else, something sitting in the chair opposite me. But was it something or someone? I flinched in fright then immediately froze while a shiver as cold as ice cascaded down my spine.
The figure was translucent and it willowed very softly like a thin sheet of moving water. I could see right through it. I could see the chair it sat upon and all the other parts of the coffee shop that I had been able to see before it appeared. The man with the scar still had his head turned round and he was frowning, as if he sensed something was going on, as if aware that there was something or someone behind him that he could feel but could not see.
I knew right then that the translucent, willowing shape was a ghost, and that only I could see him.
“Hello,” the willowing shape said, tilting his head to one side with exaggerated puppy dog eyes. “You look sad. What are those books you are reading? Did they make you sad, those books?”
I didn’t speak. With my jaw hanging open I looked from the willowing shape to the textbooks still open on the table. One of the pages flapped back and forth in the cold breeze which emanated from his strange, translucent skin.
“Sort of,” I squeaked in a strangled, frightened voice.
“Shame,” he said. “Such a pity, because it really doesn’t need to be that way.”
The ghost then laid his hands on the table, leaned in towards me, and grinned. His hands were huge like a farmer’s. His frame was wide and his face overpoweringly large inspite of the fact that it was not completely solid. His appearance was young, about the same age as me. He was wearing modern, casual clothes; jeans and a t-shirt and a black leather jacket. He would have been handsome, if he was alive.
“Am I imagining you?” I whispered.
“No. I am here. Not completely in body as you can tell, but I am here entirely in spirit.”
“I am sorry,” I suddenly found myself saying. The words just came out of my mouth. “I am sorry you are....You seem so...so... you are so...“.
I was babbling, I knew I was babbling. I wanted to slap my hand over my mouth and force it to stop making noises, but I felt so drawn to him, as if he was real, not scary at all. And I was curious about him like the way you feel towards a new acquaintance who could one day become a friend. “You must have...it must have been....so....” My growing curiosity was fast overcoming my ebbing fear.
But then I stopped talking when I saw a deep scowl tighten over his face. He leaned back and with a heavy sigh said, “Ok, ok. Let’s get this sad bit over with. Yes, I did die young and yes, it was very sad.”
He looked away, and for a moment I thought he was going to leave and a little flicker of panic ran through me. Don’t go yet, I thought to myself. Not yet. To my relief he turned back to look at me and his face brightened.
“But lets not dwell on that,” he smiled. “You don’t want to know about all that stuff. Let me show you something far more interesting instead.”
With a grin he then twisted his head around three hundred and sixty degrees while his shoulders and spine followed until his body was wound into a corkscrew shape. In a final tight twist his head turned to face me and I saw his eyes popping right out of their sockets with his tongue hanging from his mouth, while his dark hair stood on end as if under the force of an electric shock. The whole spectacle was weird and macabre, but also sort of comical.
“Cool, don’t you think?” he asked with a broad grin on his face.
“S’pose,” I shrugged.
It was funny. He was funny. But I didn’t laugh, not out loud at least because the sensible part of me wouldn’t let my laughter come out, the same, sensible rational part that was urging me to save my energy to get ready to run in horror, because this friendly ghost who seemed funny and cool, might still turn out to be the complete opposite
“OK, OK,” the ghost said, uncoiling himself in a fast spin. “So not everyone shares my sense of humour, including you. It’s really a shame that you don’t, especially when it seems that you are the one.”
“The one? What one? You’re not going to kill me are you?” I said hurriedly in panic, scraping my chair backwards, ready now to heed the advice of my rational side and get up and run for my life. “Are you the grim reaper? I know my life isn’t amazing, but I’m not ready to go, not yet. I’ve got a future and it’s all mapped out……,”
“Hold on, hold on. No need to panic. Of course I’m not the grim reaper. I’m just an ordinary ghost called John. I’m not here to take you away.”
I let my breath slowly calm and sighed in relief. “Then why are you here?”
“OK, so here’s the deal,” the ghost called John said, placing his big hands back on the table and leaning in towards me again. “You have a big exam tomorrow, am I right?”
“Right,” I replied, eyeing the textbooks next to me.
“And you’re stuck, confused, too tired to concentrate, and with no time to sort it out. You feel at this point like you are probably going to fail and that the future you have been working towards is fast becoming an unattainable dream, forever slipping from your fingers?”
“OK, that sounds about right I suppose,” I reluctantly agreed.
“Well. You see that man behind me. The one with the hair similar to mine, and with, if you look closely enough, the same smile?” he said, gesturing towards the man with the scar.
“Sure I see him.”
“He can help you. He can help you pass your exam.”
“How do you know he can help me? Who is he?” I asked.
“He is my brother,” the ghost called John replied. “He took the same exam four years ago and passed with flying colours. He was top of the class. I however, failed. It was right after that we…..that I....had the accident. My brother survived. He has scars. You mustn’t stare though, but then I know you wouldn’t, otherwise I wouldn’t trust you with him. I know you have scars too, ones that are hidden. I know you wouldn’t stare. I will introduce you to him. I will bring him over right now, for I am sure now that you are the one. Now that I have met you I am certain.”
And then, without warning John the ghost began to evaporate away, disappearing before my eyes, the willowing shape growing fainter and fainter like a voice becoming lost in the wilderness. I reached my hand out into the empty space. Don’t go, not yet, the voice inside of me cried. Where are going? I want to talk with you some more. Don’t leave. Don’t leave.”
I looked over at the man with the scar - whom I now knew was John the ghost’s brother. He was tipping his head as if listening to something close by, and then stood up from his table and gathered his things together. My stomach began to flip madly. I don’t know why, just the sight of him moving, the way his long limbs and his hands seemed so....so determined, so swift, so confident in the space they owned. Seeing him standing at his full height was almost dizzying. I wanted to crane my neck and look up but that would have made it so obvious that I was staring at him, but I just wanted to look at him, to study for a little bit longer the broad lines of his chest and the way the crisp shirt seemed to emphasise, without even trying, the strong muscular frame that was underneath. Then I realised he was coming towards me, directly towards my table. Difficult as it was I tore my eyes away from him, but even though I could no longer directly see him, I would feel him, for the air was suddenly so ... so hot, so filled with moisture, with a dew that was threatening to trickle down between my breasts. Breathe Jane, I said to myself, just breathe. This will pass, he will pass by your table. He is on his way to the restroom, that is all, just on his way to the rest room. Look down, just look down at the boring old floor, at your boring old shoes, that will ground you, that will take you away from this crazy daydream you have just been in, bring you back down to earth, with a thud.
I squeezed my eyes closed, waiting for him to pass my table, waiting for the expectation of his smell and his strong presence to leave. My stomach continued to flip as I waited and waited to feel him pass by, but the feeling didn’t come, and when finally I opened my eyes, sure now that the last ten minutes with John the ghost and his hot handsome, dangerous looking brother must have been a new level of crazily real daydreaming, I opened my eyes and looked up.
He was sitting opposite me in the exact same chair as John. And he was staring at me, with a look I could not fathom. His eyes were searching me, roaming over the lines of my face and down over my neck. As I looked at him and felt my eyes lock with his, I am sure he suppressed a sharp intake of breath and his nostrils gently flared. The lines on his forehead wrinkled like he was angry, defensive, like a lion ready to pounce at danger. I sat back slightly. It felt overwhelming, like an overpowering force had entered my world and was threatening to rupture into it, like a damn that was cracking under the pressure it could no longer contain.
I smiled. I don’t know why. I just smiled. I think it was the thought of his brother, the brother who had just sat where he was and who had spun his ghostly body into a corkscrew to make me laugh. Maybe that smile I has suppressed back then in those absurd, surreal moments, was ready to break free.
He didn’t smile back, but his frown relinquished a little. He put his hands on the table and I noticed that they were large and square, just like his brother’s. Leaning in closer with his broad frame, he continued to stare at me. His eyes had never left me in all the moments since I had looked up.
“I had the strangest sensation back then,” he said shaking his head slightly.
“What happened?” I asked quietly. But why did I not say, leave my table I did not invite you to sit down next to me, in a tone that let him know in no uncertain terms that he was a stranger and he was not welcome? Maybe because I too had just felt that exact same sensation when I believed a ghost was speaking to me, and also because I knew that something about this man, and this encounter, was more than ordinary, was more than my fast-beating heart could comprehend.
“You will think I am crazy if I tell you,” he replied.
“No, I won’t,” I smiled. “Trust me, I won’t.”
He looked at me curiously. “Maybe,” he said, “Maybe you won’t. But maybe you will, and I don’t want to take that risk.”
His voice was low, deep and deliberate. He looked at me with enquiring, intelligent eyes and all I could do was stare back. But not at his scars; not at the line of thick, ridged skin down one side of his cheek and mouth, and not at the half-closed eyelid. I just stared at him.
“What risk?” I asked. “We are strangers. You have nothing to lose by telling me. You could tell me your deepest darkest secrets, and it would be of no consequence. Unless of course you are confessing to murder and then I will have to inform the police, and of course if you impart any gruesome details then they might stay in my mind and give me nightmares. In that circumstance then yes, I can see that there would be consequences, for both of us.”
I was talking nonsense but my nonsense seemed to make him smile and his smile was beautiful. It disarmed me, made me melt a little further into the world he had just caught me in, and made me want to stay in it, for as long as I could.
He leaned back on his chair and stretched his long longs out a little further from under the table as if he felt a little more at ease and a little less like an animal stalking its prey. “You need some help with that?” he said through his smile, gesturing towards the long forgotten textbooks at the side of my table.
I smiled back at him. Working through these textbooks was not exactly how I would like to continue in this moment, especially not with a man like him, but I could not deny that any help would be greatly appreciated. “Yes please,” I nodded. “That would be great.”
“First can I get you a fresh coffee? That one looks a bit cold.”
“Yes, sure, that would be nice.”
“Good, cause we’re going to need it,” he grinned. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
I spent the next few hours enthralled and engaged, like a student who is besotted with her handsome, mysterious, and deeply intelligent lecturer, even though he was not that much older than me. He explained everything in a way that made it all seem so straightforward and there was not one question I felt too stupid to ask. He was amazing, too amazing for words, and sometimes when I looked up to catch a glimpse of his wide lips and his gorgeous brown eyes, I found him staring right back at me, with a curious grin on his face.
When it was over and clear that there was nothing left to explain, he closed the big heavy textbook. It shut with a definite thud and he eased forward in his chair, leaning in towards me. I leaned in towards him, like a magnet to its pole. He took my hands in his and my skin tingled with warmth and excitement.
Your exam is tomorrow,” he said in that low, gentle voice which was becoming so disarming. “You are tired. Now you must get some sleep.”
“Oh, I’m fine,” I protested.
The last thing I wanted was to go home. Home was the very last place I wanted to be. Here with him, I actually felt like I belonged somewhere. I had never felt that way before about anything or anyone and it filled me with incredible panic to think this meeting would soon be over. Maybe he saw it in my eyes and took pity on me, or maybe he just liked me, because then he said. “I will meet you tomorrow night. I would meet you straight after your exam but I can’t. Instead we will meet again here tomorrow at six. I will buy you dinner and you can tell me how it went.”
My throat seized up with crushing excitement and my head just moved back and forward, like a ridiculous nodding dog.
He walked me to the corner of the street and kissed me goodnight. Not on the lips or the cheek or the forehead, but on my hand, like I was a lady or something. I wanted to throw my arms around him and kiss him back, full on the lips, because saying goodbye like this just wasn’t enough. But I didn’t, just in case he didn’t want me to, and just in case I spoiled it all. However, in retrospect, nothing could have spoiled it, not a bomb, or a runaway train, or a bolt of forked lightning. Nothing.
I arrived home about twenty minutes later. I live on the top floor flat of a multi-storey block. It’s all grey and dull concrete, but I’m used to it. I don’t notice the swear words smeared in bad writing over the stone walls, I don’t hear the dull echo of my feet on the stairwell, and I always walk up to my flat because the lift scares me. Being trapped, that scares me. It’s my biggest fear.
I passed by my neighbour’s door and heard screams and shouts from inside. They are always shouting in that flat, but no one complains. Shane, the guy who lives there is built like a steam train and has learned a lot from his time spent in the local prison, especially when it comes to violence and aggression. Lots of people are scared of him, but not me. I told his old girlfriend a couple of years ago that she should leave him. She did, but he got a new one, and when she left another came along. It was sequence of horrible events which all ran into each other like the line of car pile-up. I think my stepmother kind of likes Shane though. She’s always flirting with him. He likes her too. I see him look down her top with lust drooling all over his ugly face. She moves in closer when he is near. It’s obvious what they both want and it scares me, especially with Bethany in the house.
I turned my key in the lock of the thin, white front door behind which live my stepmother Yvonne, my half-sister Bethany, and me, the unpaid slave. My dad married Yvonne a few years after my mum died but now he has passed away too and even though the flat belonged to my dad Yvonne only lets me stay on the condition that I am her free cook, cleaner and baby sitter. And I only stay because of Bethany; to look after her, make sure she is all right.
Things kind of went wrong for me at school. It wasn’t easy to attend lessons because we moved around so much and I looked after Bethany a lot when she was born, and then I looked after dad when he was ill. But even though I have no qualifications right now, I have a plan. I have always had a plan. I go to college to try and make up for the time I lost at school. I work really hard. I listen and study, and in some of my classes, when everyone else around me is mucking about, I am like the immoveable object in the middle of a whirlwind of chaos and noise. Some of the other students taunt me for it, bully me. They say I am no fun because I never go out and socialise. It hurts sometimes but I have to stick to my plan or I will never get myself and Bethany out of this miserable home.
And the plan is working because a few months ago I got a conditional offer to a university. Yvonne doesn’t know about it. No one does. I wanted to tell John’s brother tonight in the café, but something else always seemed to pop into my head. There was just so much I was able to say to him. But this conditional offer, it’s my ticket out of here. All I need is to get through this exam with a good grade and I’m free.
As I stood in the narrow hallway, at eye level with the peeling, mouldy wallpaper, I heard Yvonne shouting at me from the living room.
“Jane! Jane! Is that you?!” she screeched. “Where have you been?! There are dishes in the sink and Gloria peed on the floor, and I want you to………”
Blah, Blah, Blah, she droned on. She was drunk, I could tell, but that’s not unusual.
“Yeh. I’ll get it in a minute!” I yelled back.
I ran into my room and slammed the door shut. Holding my scruffy old bag full of textbooks to my chest, I flopped down onto the bed and stared straight up at the ceiling. Instantly I remembered his face and his voice and the fact that I was going to meet him again tomorrow. I hugged the books tighter to myself and smiled. Yvonne’s voice came screeching through the walls, yelling at me to start cleaning up because she was having a couple of friends over before she goes out. I hoped Bethany was sound asleep as Yvonne continued to yell.
But still I couldn’t help smiling because nothing could make me feel sad tonight, not Yvonne’s wicked tongue or a thousand chores that lasted beyond midnight. My last exam was tomorrow. All I had to do is pass it and I was free. And tomorrow I would see him again. Then I suddenly realised that I didn’t even know his name. Tomorrow, I thought to myself. I will ask him his name tomorrow.
I woke up at six o’clock sharp the next day and jumped out of bed, unable to remember the last time I had felt this alive or excited. I have no curtains - there is no need when you live this high up, and I like looking at the moonlight and the stars when night-time comes – so the sun was streaming in fully through my window. It was beautiful, and added to my sense of happy, expectation.
I picked up my towel and ran to the bedroom door. I turned the handle. It rattled but the door didn’t open. I turned it again. The door stayed shut. Then a horrible cramp seized my chest as the realisation hit me. My door was locked, bolted shut from the outside.
“Yvonne!” I shouted. “Yvonne! Open the door! It’s locked. I can’t get it open!”
The flat was silent except for the echo of my screams and the pounding of my chest.
“Yvonne!” I shouted again. But she was either blacked out from a night of drink or she wasn’t in the flat at all.
I banged my fists on the door, rammed my shoulder into it, took short runs from the farthest side of my tiny room and barged my whole side against it, over and over until my skin and bones were bruised and sore. For an hour or more I kept banging and thumping, frantically, painfully, until at last I heard something outside the door. It was the little voice of my half-sister Bethany.
“Bethany,” I whispered. “Help me.” I looked at the clock by my bedside. Forty minutes before my exam started. I could still make it if I didn’t have a shower because there was a bus due in ten minutes. “Can you unlock the door? I need to get out.”
I heard her little tears as she sniffed them back. “I can’t Jane. Mum said she would hurt me if I tried to let you out, and I don’t have the key for the lock and there are lots of heavy things in front of the door that I can’t move. She said if I tried to get help and let you out then soon you would leave us. She said she knew what you were up to. She said the college had phoned and told her. I don’t want you to leave us and neither does mummy.”
“Bethany!” I pleaded. “Please. I have to get out of here. Please help me. Can you at least get me my phone? Pass it under the door?” I normally have my phone by my bed, but I had noticed it was gone.
I could hear Bethany’s whimpered tears and picture the distress in her mournful eyes, and it was breaking my heart. Oh how I hated Yvonne. In that moment it was so visceral. I hated her, not for what she was doing to me, but for what she was doing to a little, nine-year-old girl.
“I can’t,” Bethany whimpered. “Mummy says no.”
“Where is she?” I asked in desperation. “Why is she doing this to me?”
I couldn’t stop the tears that were beginning to rain down my cheeks as the clock on my bedside ticked slowly on.
“I don’t know,” I heard Bethany’s little voice say. “But I’ve got to go now. Julie’s taking me to school. I have to meet her on the second floor. I’m staying with Julie for a sleepover too and Mum says she won’t be home for a few days.”
The front door slammed shut with a gut-wrenching finality that made my whole world spin in horrible, black emptiness. In the painful silence I slid down my bedroom door and looked over to the clock. Ten minutes until my exam. Even if I got out of here now there was no way I would make it in time. I looked at the textbooks and remembered his smile, his eyes and his lovely warm grin, and the kiss he had left on my hand. Now I wouldn’t see him again. Now I wouldn’t pass my exam. Now I wouldn’t get out of here. My fears had become reality. I was trapped.