(published 7th January 2019)
Cassie’s ghost walked through the front door and stepped into the hallway. As always, she dropped the phantom briefcase by the post at the foot of the stairs, and then carried on walking towards the kitchen.
Edward stepped out of the living room, an exercise book in one hand, a red pen in the other. He watched, transfixed, as the ghost walked past. Not scared, not fazed at all after seeing this scene play out so many times, but rapt at the sight of his wife’s ghost again. He followed her and stood just outside the kitchen, watching the ghost at the sink that overlooked the garden, seeing the cold tap dripping through the filter of her translucent body. The ghost turned around and smiled towards one of the chairs around the table, rolling her eyes, then turned to face him. She seemed to notice him and she smiled again. Edward smiled back.
The back door beside the sink opened, and Cassie, the real Cassie, walked in from the garden, her apron smeared with clay, her hands grey with dried and drying slip.
‘You’re home late,’ she said.
‘I’ve been home for a bit,’ he said. He lifted up the exercise book. ‘Just marking in the living room.’
She pulled her beanie off and ruffled her short hair, a look that she called gamine, leaving faint streaks of clay in her hair. She stamped her feet on the mat and stepped forward. For just an instant Cassie seemed to occupy the same space as her ghost. Then both Cassie and the ghost walked around the kitchen table towards Edward, overlapping and blurring into each other as they moved, the ghost smiling, the real Cassie looking troubled. The real Cassie stopped at the head of the table. She threw the beanie down and leaned against a chair, facing Edward. The ghost carried on walking towards him before disappearing at the doorway, leaving the real Cassie, the younger version of the apparition, alone in the kitchen.
Edward leaned against the kitchen doorway. ‘How are the pots?’
‘Vases, not pots,’ Cassie said, and she frowned. She pushed herself away from the chair and started pacing slowly around the table, back towards the sink. ‘Four are okay, four are cracked.’ She stared out of the window at the shed that was now her studio. ‘The kiln keeps overheating,’ she said.
‘What about the order?’ Edward asked. Cassie had secured a contract with a shop in the village, her only order so far. It was an unwise mix of friendship and business, and Sally at The Glass House had become increasingly anxious during Friday coffee that the forty little vases she’d ordered from Cassie for Easter still hadn’t arrived.
Cassie sighed. ‘I know, Edward.’ she said. She ran her hands down her apron, flakes of clay sprinkling off onto the floor, catching the evening sun streaming in the window like dust motes. ‘But I don’t think the kiln is working properly.’
There was nothing wrong with the kiln. Edward had bought it as a present when Cassie had decided to leave the museum and really make a go of it as a potter. But she’d chosen it, and acted as if she knew what she was doing, and what she needed. But half the vases – half the money she’d been advanced – had ended up in the bin. Sally had extended the deadline for delivery twice already, but now she wanted the vases finished or her money back.
Edward didn’t point this out. ‘Maybe we can get a new kiln?’ he said instead.
It was an empty thing to say, and she pounced on it: ‘With what, Edward? The money I haven’t made?’
He sighed. ‘Maybe it’s just time to accept that this wasn’t the best move. Maybe the museum—’
‘ —I was bored at the museum,’ she said, and she shook her head. ‘I want to make my own vases, not obsess over old ones.’ She’d made a full circuit of the table and was back at the end nearest him. She leaned against the chair again, one hand tucked deeply into the pocket of her apron, the other picking dust, real or imaginary, out of one eye. She wiped away a tear, leaving a trail of clay across one sharp cheekbone. He considered how thin she was now, how the last year had worn her down. ‘The museum was boring,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t happy.’
‘Are you happy now?’ he said. He realised that he was pointing the red pen at her. ‘I know digging up bones got boring,’ he said, ‘but there’s a lot to be said for paying the bills.’
Cassie hadn’t dug up bones. She’d worked in antique ceramics, cataloguing Bronze and Iron Age pieces. Edward knew this, but her job was still explained away with reference to dinosaurs. It was just teasing, a trope of their marriage, but sometimes it came across more cruelly than he intended. He seemed to realise and forced a chuckle, trying to take some of the tension out of the room, but being flippant somehow made things worse.
‘I don’t want to spend my days bored and unhappy, Edward,’ she said. ‘Because if I’m not careful, that’s how I will end up living my whole life.’
She stared at the floor, another tear cutting through the clay dust on her cheek. In the silence Edward heard it land with a little pat on her apron. He didn’t go to her, just stayed on the threshold of the kitchen, leaning against the doorframe and twirling the red pen in his fingers, watching her avoid looking back at him. He wasn’t sure if she was still talking about pottery, or if she was talking about them. Because this was how they spent their days now, arguing about money and broken vases.
‘Things are going to work out okay,’ he said.
She looked up. ‘Are they, Edward?’ She wiped the tear away, smearing more clay across her cheek.
He nodded, because he had seen the ghost again. He had seen the older version of her smiling and happy. ‘Things will work out,’ he said. ‘Just you wait and see.’ He smiled, but this version of Cassie did not smile back at him.
She made her way back to the shed. Edward stared out of the window, watching Cassie tug the beanie back on as she trudged back up the garden path, and he thought about the ghost.
He had never told Cassie that her ghost sometimes wandered the hallway while she sat in the shed that was now her studio, trying to turn meaningful days into a meaningful life. He told her that he had seen something, of course, but he didn’t know that the ghost was Cassie’s, not at first, because he’d only seen her from behind, walking through the kitchen or the hallway. The ghost had hair past her shoulders, while Cassie’s was short. The ghost wore an unfamiliar pink tweed coat, and carried a briefcase which Cassie didn’t own. But, most significantly, the ghost was a ghost, and Cassie was very much alive.
Edward watched Cassie enter the shed and close the door behind her, and he remembered the first time that he’d seen her ghost.
He’d been standing in the same spot at the kitchen sink (where the ghost would have been standing too, he realised later) so that he only saw a quick pink blur of her walking away as he turned around. When he told Cassie later that night she laughed, and dismissed it as drink or flu or old age creeping up on him, even though he was sober and well and still in his forties, even though he was clearly shaken and believed what he was telling her.
A few months later it happened again, this time more vividly. He’d arrived home early from school, had just walked through the front door, and there was the ghost ahead of him. ‘Hey!’ he shouted, because Cassie was still at the museum, and his first thought was that this was a burglar. But the burglar didn’t react, and he realised that he could see the carpet through her pink tweed coat.
He stood in the hallway, front door open, mouth open, keys jangling and tumbling out of his hand as he watched the ghost throw the briefcase by the post at the foot of the stairs and walk into the kitchen. But he was too frightened to follow, and so he didn’t see her at the sink, nor did he see her turn around and walk back the way she’d come.
The real Cassie hadn’t laughed this time, but rolled her eyes and shook her head, as if she didn’t get the joke. She was wrapped up in work at the museum, a difficult mix of stress and boredom that she wanted to escape from, and she launched into an account of her terrible day that cut his ghost story off, as if it was unimportant. As if he’d just made it up.
One Sunday morning a couple of months later he met the ghost as he walked towards the kitchen to put his mug in the sink, his mind occupied with lesson planning for the coming week.
‘I thought you were upstairs,’ he tried to say, because Cassie was in bed, lying in with a migraine. But only the first word came out, because this Cassie suddenly vanished. She had long hair, and was fuller in the face, the cheekbones not so prominent, the elfin look gone. And she was dressed in the pink tweed coat that he didn’t recognise. But it was definitely his wife. He had looked into her eyes, and she had seemed to look into his. In the years to come he would realise that this was just a matter of perspective, that if he had stood to one side she would appear to look over his shoulder. But if he was in the right spot, what he would come to think of as the sweet spot, they would appear to make eye contact.
When the ghost vanished Edward dropped his mug. It didn’t break, but hit the carpet in the hallway with a loud thud, the dregs of his coffee sloshing out of it in a dark brown blob, a stain he would struggle to get out of the cream carpet, but which would act as a cue, flagging the sweet spot from where he could look into the eyes of the ghost of his quite alive wife, and she could look back into his.
Cassie crept halfway down the stairs, looking drawn and tired, older in that moment than the ghost that Edward had just seen. She peered over the banister. ‘What are you doing Edward?’ she said. ‘What’s happened? You know I’m not feeling well.’ She had one hand holding her dressing gown tightly closed, the other ruffling through her short hair.
Edward bent down to pick up the mug. He lifted it up to show her. ‘I just dropped this is all,’ he said.
‘Please just keep the noise down?’ Cassie turned and crept back up the stairs. ‘And let me die in peace.’
Edward wanted to tell her that the ghost was back, that the ghost was her. That she wasn’t going to die, not yet anyway, at least not until her hair had grown out and she’d put on a few pounds. Not until she owned a pink tweed coat and a soft leather briefcase that she kept at the bottom of the stairs. Not until she was happy again. But in his shock he said nothing, just listened to Cassie’s footsteps in the bedroom above him, and he kept his encounter with the ghost to himself.
A week after their argument in the kitchen, Cassie finally finished the order of little yellow vases for The Glass House. They were delivered just in time for Easter, and Sally put some of them in the window, stuffed with mini daffodils. But few sold, and the glaze of tiny blue eggs meant that they wouldn’t sell well beyond the Easter weekend. A week later they were marked down in price. Sally didn’t place another order, and while she was friendly when Cassie visited the shop, Friday coffee faded out in a wave of weekly excuses. It occurred to Cassie that people did not always tell you what they thought of you, but, whether they intended to or not, they always showed you.
She moved from vases to bowls, and by the end of the Summer had managed to secure a new contract with another shop in the village called Artique. But there was no advance this time, no credit on trust. Just busy days spent in the studio at the bottom of the garden, working harder on her pottery than she’d ever done. Long Summer days Edward spent alone in the house, except when he was with the ghost.
It happened every few months, and it always happened the same, but there was no pattern he could discern, no day of the week or time of the day that he could predict that she would appear. And so he would see her by chance, the vantage point changing depending on where in the house he was, where in the scene he happened to cut in.
Only once had he seen it play out in its entirety, when he happened to be descending the stairs and had seen the ghost come through the closed front door as if it was open.
He’d watched from the midpoint of the stairs as Cassie’s ghost walked into the hallway, gave a sideways glance at the wall beside the front door, and then threw her briefcase by the post at the bottom of the stairs. He watched from above as she walked towards the kitchen. He had seen the scene from this point many times before: from the front door, from the hallway, once when he was deep in the garden and had looked up from the lawnmower and seen her through the kitchen window, standing at the sink.
He peered over the banister as he crept down the stairs, pivoting around the acorn at the top of the newel post, not taking his eyes off her.
The ghost walked into the kitchen and around the table. Edward crept to the sweet spot. He watched the ghost stop at the sink, head up and then down, as if looking out of the window and then into the basin. She turned around, smiled towards the table, and rolled her eyes. Then she smiled at him. She walked back around the table, back the way she had come, appearing to look at him, and then, a foot or so from the kitchen doorway, the smile still on her face, she vanished.
Martin at Artique didn’t put the little white bowls in the window. But he did place another order, this time for vases. Cassie’s long days in the shed had paid off, she had practised with the kiln, and she had changed the glaze, the little robins’ eggs gone in favour of a minimalist pattern — two red lines slashed across the off-white front of each vase. Each one was slightly different, and she’d even gone so far as to etch a unique number next to her maker’s mark on the bottom.
When Cassie returned to Artique to deliver the second batch of vases she found Martin displaying the first batch on a table in the middle of the shop, with a card describing the vases as By A Local Artist. He peered at her over his glasses, even though they were bifocals. ‘I hope you don’t mind?’ he said, and he asked Cassie to provide a box of business cards and flyers for her website when she next made a delivery.
Three months later, Cassie brought home an early Christmas present, a little mirror that she’d found on sale in Artique. Edward suggested placing it beside the front door. ‘So we can check ourselves before we go out with toothpaste on our chins,’ he said. Cassie giggled. It was the first time he’d heard her laugh in months, and he stared as she looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair was growing out now, and she smoothed it over her ears.
Edward thought nothing more of the mirror until the next time he saw the ghost, this time at the kitchen sink. The sight of the ghost made him reflect on the whole journey she took through the house, and that sideways glance he had seen her take as she came through the front door. She had looked at the spot on the wall where he had chosen to place the mirror.
Edward wanted to tell Cassie, once they were past those difficult Summer months, but it seemed impossible to find the right words. Partly there was the fear that Cassie would call someone, that the men with the butterfly nets would come and take him away. Partly it was for Cassie, in case this time she actually believed him. Because what would that mean? That for weeks and then months he’d seen her ghost roaming the house, and had never thought to mention it? The truth was he didn’t know what to make of it, but he didn’t feel that the visions of his smiling, happy wife were any kind of warning, a portent of doom. The ghost seemed benevolent, a vision of Cassie at her best, a premonition not of death but of Cassie in the fullness of life. Edward thought that if the ghost was trying to tell him anything, it was that Cassie would be happy again. So he resolved always to tell her Someday. That one day he would explain it all. That one day he would be able to.
And so they went into the next year with Edward still seeing the ghost every few months, and still keeping it to himself. He became so used to her that she didn’t faze him, even when he looked down at the sink to find them sharing the same space.
But one Summer evening, by which time Cassie had started to look very much like the apparition, her hair shoulder-length, her face almost as full, her smile found again, she came home with a briefcase made of soft brown leather. That did faze him, made the breath catch in his throat as if he’d been punched.
‘What do you think?’ she said. She stood in the kitchen and held the briefcase up in front of her, like a Chancellor on budget day. ‘It’s nice, eh?’
‘Where did you get that?’ Edward said. His voice was high-pitched and unsteady, and he coughed to mask the accusatory tone of it.
‘It was Martin’s,’ Cassie said. ‘He doesn’t use it anymore. He said I could have it. For my designs.’
She put the briefcase on the table between them. There were two gold letters below the handle — MQ, in italics, for Martin Quinn. Edward had never noticed these on the phantom briefcase, but there was little doubt that it was the same case, and sure enough, the next time he saw it, there they were.
Cassie picked the briefcase up by the handle and carried it through to the hallway. Edward followed, frightened but fascinated.
‘Here,’ she said. ‘It can live right here.’
The briefcase had a strap, like a satchel, and she lifted it over the acorn at the top of the post at the bottom of the stairs. Edward smiled at the briefcase hanging in its new home, but he knew that the strap wouldn’t last, that at some point it would rip or break, that it wouldn’t be replaced, and that by the time Cassie’s hair was down past her shoulders she would be carrying it by the handle, and leaving it at the bottom of the post.
The business cards and flyers Martin had asked for had worked, and Cassie had acquired a small but reliable group of customers who placed orders online. Some of her work was made to order, and while this was the boring part of the job, what Edward might call digging up bones (and which Cassie jokingly referred to as compromising her art), the personalised plates, cups, and teapots kept the business afloat. Now Edward’s weekend lesson planning was interspersed with helping to wrap and send off the latest batch of orders.
By Christmas of that year, with the days cold and short, Cassie and the ghost looked identical. But Edward was now waiting to meet the ghost for real, to see the scene he’d watched play out so many times before finally play out for real, and for that to happen there was one final piece of the jigsaw to be slotted into place.
The day before Christmas Eve Cassie was lured into Brennan’s, the little clothes shop opposite The Glass House, by the January Sale sign hanging in the window. She dragged Edward in with her.
She wandered and rummaged and held things up in front of mirrors, but she could decide on nothing, and they were about to leave when he saw it. Like the briefcase, and the mirror, the moment he saw the pink tweed coat felt like it was waiting to happen.
‘What about this?’ he said, and he pointed at the coat.
Cassie laughed. ‘That’s lovely Edward. Does it come with a twinset and pearls?’
He lifted up the sleeve and shook the price tag. ‘It’s half price,’ he said.
‘I think it’s smart,’ he said. ‘It would be good for meetings.’
‘I don’t go to any meetings.’
Cassie turned away, to another display. Edward thought that maybe this was the wrong coat, similar but different, and that she would come home with the right one herself one day, like she’d done with the briefcase.
But then he said, ‘For deliveries then?’, and Cassie turned on her heels. Because he was right, this coat would be good for deliveries to her customers in the village, the locals who ordered the more arty pieces. It was the kind of thing some of them wore. It would certainly be better than turning up on their doorsteps in the awful duffel coat she was always wearing.
Cassie didn’t wear the tweed coat until the following Spring, when the weather was becoming warmer, the days were becoming longer, and Summer was on its way.
Edward would watch Cassie in the coat, would follow her in from the front door, wondering if these were going to be the ten steps through the hallway, the eight steps around the kitchen table, that he’d seen play out so many times. Any day now, he thought, as if waiting for the ghost to be born.
But Cassie never quite took the same journey — the briefcase would remain in the boot of the car, or be brought through to the kitchen, or she would carry it with her left hand instead of her right. Often the coat would come off, hung over the acorn at the top of the newel post, or draped around a kitchen chair.
By May, Edward knew that the window for Cassie to become the ghost was narrowing, that the coat would only be worn for another few weeks before being put away until the following year, and he wondered if he would ever see the scene play out for real.
The following Saturday, Edward walked to the kitchen to find Cassie boxing up vases.
He leaned against the kitchen doorway. ‘How are the pots?’ he said.
‘Vases, not pots,’ Cassie said, and she smiled.
He took a seat opposite her and busied himself with putting vases into bubble wrap, handing them over for her to box and label. He turned his head towards the front door, and he saw the ghost walking through the hallway for the final time.
She entered the kitchen and walked around the table, past the real Cassie, who was peeling off a label to put on the box in front of her. The ghost looked directly at Edward and mouthed something, as if talking to him over Cassie’s shoulder, but no sound was heard. He’d never seen her from this vantage point before, had never realised that she actually spoke.
The ghost walked to the sink, looked out of the window, as if staring at the early Summer sun, and then looked down at the basin. She turned to look directly at Edward again, the sun from the window shining through her, making her appear angelic. She smiled at him, and then she rolled her eyes. He’d found another sweet spot, and it made him smile back.
She walked past Cassie again. As always, she disappeared before she reached the door.
He realised that Cassie was staring at him.
‘Where do you go to?’ she said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’re away with the fairies again.’
Edward felt the familiar urge to tell Cassie, to blurt it all out, to let the men with the butterfly nets come for him, if it came to that. But he still didn’t know how to. He still didn’t know where to begin.
He leaned back in his chair instead, placed his hands behind his head, and laced his fingers. ‘I was just thinking about how we’re going to spend all your money,’ he said.
‘I hear Antigua is very nice this time of year.’
Cassie laughed. It was a nice idea, but the truth was that she earned much less now than she’d done at the museum. And there was no holiday pay or sick pay or company pension. But she was earning enough to live on, and she was living, really living. She was spending her days in a way that made her life feel rich and meaningful.
‘How many more you got?’ she said.
He held up a bubble-wrapped vase. ‘Last one,’ he said. ‘Catch!’ He pretended to throw it to her and she laughed again.
She took it and boxed it, smoothed a label across the box and ticked it off her list. ‘If I hurry I can get to the post office before it closes,’ she said.
Edward nodded and started clearing the table.
Cassie’s coat was on the back of her chair, and she put it on. She took the boxes out to the car, took her briefcase out of the boot, and put the boxes in. She was about to get into the car, but then she stopped, shook her head, and walked back to the house.
She glanced at herself in the little mirror from Artique as she passed it, dropped the briefcase at the foot of the stairs, and walked through to the kitchen.
Edward was sat at the table, rolling up the bubble wrap, not looking at her.
‘That was quick,’ he said.
‘Very funny,’ she said. ‘I forgot my specs.’
He looked up now, and for an instant he thought that he was seeing the ghost again, not five minutes after the last encounter. But this Cassie wasn’t translucent. This Cassie wasn’t an apparition. This Cassie was real.
She walked around the table and towards the sink. The same eight steps that he’d seen her take countless times. She looked out of the window into the bright Summer sunlight, and then down at the sink, and she picked her glasses up from the draining board. She turned and smiled, rolling her eyes at him, at her own forgetfulness, and she walked back around the table towards the hallway.
Edward sat at the table, transfixed, watching her go, watching the ordinary scene that he’d seen so many times play out one final time. He couldn’t see Cassie’s face, but he knew that she was smiling.
Paul Nevin is a London-born and based author of short fiction about ghosts, monsters, and the horror of attending a party on your own. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @paulnevin.