Read by Elizabeth Bower
He first came to me at 5pm on a Tuesday. I'd phoned in sick with the flu and spent most of the day with a turkey baster up my nose trying to clear my sinuses. One of my more enlightened friends Ebony told me that she did this every morning, not with a turkey baster (she was vegetarian) but with a small ceramic pot. Titling her head to the side, she poured saltwater into one nostril until it gently drained out the other, clearing all the muck and germs in time for breakfast. I get the flu a lot so she thought this might be helpful but the baster was too big, it wouldn't fit up my nose, and the salt solution dribbled down my chin and stained the front of my nightie without a drop reaching my sinuses. I opted for a whisky toddy instead.
1 Generous Shot of Whisky (I prefer bourbon)
Juice of Half a Lemon
3-4 tsp Honey
5 tbsp Night Nurse
No sooner had I sucked it back than a strange feeling came over me. A warmth radiated from my very core and I began to sweat. I sensed that I wasn't alone, that someone was watching. Without warning the kettle switched itself on and whistled as the water boiled and hissed. I switched it off and held my breath. I listened. My skin crawled as the sun disappeared behind a cloud and the air fell frozen. I heard the toilet flush, impossible I thought because I lived alone, but then it flushed again. A double flusher? The light bulb on the ceiling flickered and popped and I heard, without a doubt, the floorboards creak in the hall. Someone was walking towards the kitchen, slowly and deliberately, one creak after another without thought or hesitation. I held my breath and watched as the kitchen door swung open as if blown by a breeze and the clock struck five. And there stood Aidan, large as life, with one arm missing and the other one holding forth a plunger as if to shake my hand. And to top it all off he was wearing my fucking sweater.
“First of all how did you get into my flat?” I asked. “And second, you left five years ago and you're still wearing my sweater? Give it back you ponce!”
I hate to admit it, but he looked good. The sweater, sloppy on me, hung squarely off his lean frame and fit tightly enough across his chest and good arm to show off his chiselled physique. He looked pale as a ghost, but his unruly curls sat in a soft patch over his forehead. A lock fell gently into one eye and he brushed it aside with a wink and a smile just like he used to.
“Ah Jenny you're as beautiful as I remember,” he crooned in his perfect Irish brogue. I thought I heard a thunderclap. Bastard.
We polished off the bottle of bourbon and he didn't say another word. I soaked him up, his green eyes and cocky smile, the way he tilted his glass and eyed the liquor before downing another sip. The last thing I remembered was the touch of his icy fingers on my lips as he put me to bed. His silhouette glowed as he walked away in the dark.
When I woke up the following afternoon I felt good. Not a trace of a hangover or the flu, and stranger still not a trace of Aidan. In the kitchen sink sat the empty bottle of Knob Creek and one glass, not two. And though I vaguely remember asking for my sweater back before he put me to bed, it was nowhere to be found. The flat smelt like kitty litter and the door was locked from the inside. Everything was perfectly normal. Except me. I floated around the apartment like a cloud. If it had been a dream, it was one of those dreams that stayed with you, like I'd been on a boat and could still fell the waves rocking back and forth back and forth. I didn't care if he was here and I didn't care that he was gone; for some reason I knew he'd be back and I liked the fact that I had something to look forward to. It had been so long.
I hashed out the details the next day at work with the girls in the photocopy room:
1) How did he get into my flat?
2) Why the unusually large bowel movement before his appearance?
3) What was with the plunger?
4) Why the hell was he missing an arm?
Over the gentle glow and rhythmic click of the photocopiers we discussed the ins and outs of Aidan's appearance and concluded first and foremost that there was no way in hell he was alive. I suspected this all along but didn’t care. The fact that he chose to return from the afterlife meant that our connection spanned time, that death was no barrier to our love and now, without ‘life's’ tedious grind we could finally be happy.
Either that or I'd drunk too much Night Nurse.
They suggested, and I agreed, that the only way forward was to wait and see if he reappeared. I was good at waiting. I'd spent most of my life biding time, so I continued as usual, bought a new jigsaw and the DVD box set of Natural World. But nothing happened. I finished my puzzle and saw every single animal on the Serengeti shag, which just made me horny and lonely and wish that I could go to Africa and get devoured by a lion or a hippopotamus. At least if my life was uneventful my death could be fantastic.
By the following Tuesday I'd given up on Aidan and made plans to meet Ebony at the cinema. She'd bought me a ceramic pot for my nose and I'd offered to take her to see Eat, Pray, Love as a thank you. It seemed fitting.
I poured myself a glass of wine for the road, and with the sounds of the Serengeti in the background I decided to have a quickie in the shower. The steam rose as I massaged oil into my freshly shaved legs. I ran my figures along my smooth curves, continuing up my calves and around my knees to my inner thigh. The hot water pummelled my chest as I worked the soap into a lather and grabbed the side of the wall for support. I heard a lion roar in the distance as the clock struck five. Then, without warning, the shower ran cold and the toilet flushed.
The toilet flushed again... he was back.
And so it was every Tuesday at 5pm. He showed up like clockwork with his missing arm, a plunger and my favourite sweater. He'd never been punctual in life, but apparently he didn't have much to do now he was dead. I told Ebony everything. I knew she would sympathize. She wrote her psychic’s phone number on the back of a matchbook.
“You have a psychic?” I asked.
If Aidan couldn't talk, which wasn't unusual for ghosts, she said I’d need someone to act as a conduit for communication. But I liked that he couldn’t talk. He listened. I rambled on about the good old days, visiting his family in Donegal and getting drunk and lost in Glenveagh. We'd spent half the night together at the side of the road wrapped in moss and a plastic garbage bag. Eventually a car came a long and Aidan waved it down to drive us home. He was like that. Proactive.
I told him I loved the way he rubbed his stumpy shoulder when I spoke, and that I didn't mind the grey liquid that oozed sometimes from his eye sockets.
“Nobody's perfect,” I said, and he nodded and smiled.
Sometimes he brought me things other than the plunger, which was nice. One week he brought a lavender bush with roots intact. It was full of dirt and small spiders but it smelt good. Another time he brought me a bird, dead but still fresh enough to look like it was sleeping, curled up in a soft ball with its beak tucked neatly under one wing. He left it for me on the kitchen table, something to remember him by while he was gone. Weeks turned into months and I thought we'd carry on like this forever. Perfect domestic bliss every Tuesday at 5pm. But it wasn't to be. He changed.
He began to smell, like he was rotting from the inside out. Bits of skin started to flake all over the flat like fish scales until finally one evening in November his ear fell off leaving a gaping black hole on the side of his head. He was not happy. I made a little velvet pouch and tied it to his belt, brushed his curls aside to cover the offending hole but nothing seemed to help. He grew distant. Moody. The girls at work said there was no excuse for this, that we should talk about our problems and set some boundaries. But what could I do? I needed answers and Aidan wasn't saying a word.
I dug out the number for Ebony's psychic and we met that afternoon. I told her everything, my love affair with the Serengeti, the plunger, the missing arm and the toilet flushing. She asked what his bowels had been like in life. I said I didn't know. She thought it was an effort to connect over something real, and that the dead sometimes cling to life in mysterious ways. Was he full of shit? Yes. But who isn't? Maybe he was trying to give me the tools to deal with it. But what about the arm? Well he also lost an ear. Maybe the arm was the first thing to go. It wasn't the most profound explanation, but it was all I needed. And for the bargain price of £199.99 she could perform an exorcism if he really got on my tits. I felt free. I wanted to give it another go, see if we could patch things up. Until I found out he wasn't dead.
I saw his picture on the 4 o'clock news. The headline read ‘First Irish Man to Swim 2 Ways Across the Channel’. They showed a photograph of him with a gang of big breasted girls in union jack bikinis. I didn't even know he could swim! Right after the picture was taken he slipped and smashed his head on the rocks. One of the girls tried to resuscitate him but his heart stopped before the ambulance arrived, partly from exhaustion, partly from the impact of the fall. I had no sympathy. He died in a wave of glory and I was left with a good looking slightly decomposed poltergeist purely of my own creation. Fucking perfect. I called Ebony.
She said it was inconsequential, that we are all being born and dying every moment. And besides, if he pestered me while he was alive, surely now he was dead I'd never be alone again. I grabbed the Knob Creek and hoped she was right. It wasn't quite five but what the hell. I slammed a shot back and waited. Nothing. I drank a few more and eyed the light bulb in the kitchen. Not a flicker. I ran into the bathroom and flushed the toilet. With tears in my eyes I flushed it again and again. I thought of Aidan, salty water and warm whisky, the smooth mound of his missing arm, lavender and cold hands, the way his breath smelt in the morning... a warm blend of musty hamster cage and wet dog.
I sat at the kitchen table and watched the moon rise and the clouds clear to reveal a black and starry sky. I sat there and waited until there was nothing left, nothing at all except the tingling and numbness in my feet because I hadn't moved for years, and I realized that that's the way it happens, the feeling that's lost when you sit still for too long.
Knob Creek by Christina Lovelidge was read by Elizabeth Bower at the Liars' League Dark & Stormy event on 12 October 2010 at The Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London
Christina Lovelidge was born in Vancouver, Canada, but spent her formative years in the deep dark jungles of Hull. She studied Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia and was awarded a John Woods Fellowship through the University of Michigan for Theatre and Poetry. Liars' League is her first foray into fiction.
Elizabeth Bower graduated from Warwick University and trained at Mountview. She has played Shakespeare's Juliet and Lady Macbeth on stage and recently appeared in the BBC4 film Micro Men and as series regular, Melody Bell in BBC1 drama, Doctors. She narrates children’s adventures for BBC7 and for Short Story Radio. Elizabeth is delighted to be reading with the Liars’ League.