GHOST by Chris Green
‘You remember that creepy old man I told you about?’ I said. ‘The one I saw outside the kite museum. Well, Dad! He’s back.’
‘I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, son,’ Dad said, looking up briefly from his Melody Maker. On a Thursday, his day off, Dad liked to read this cover to cover. It gave him all the latest news from the music business. He’d probably be off out later to buy a new LP by Jefferson Airplane or The Doors, and I’d have to listen to that blasting out downstairs while I was trying to get to sleep. Or, perhaps he would have another go at playing I Am The Walrus on his Stratocaster. Mum would tell him to keep the noise down and they would have another row.
‘I was playing on the beach with Eddie,’ I continued. ‘You know, down by the groynes, and there he was. The same man. It looked like he was coming right out of the sea but he had all of his clothes on. Not just shirt and trousers either, a big overcoat and hat and everything.’
Still Dad showed no surprise.
‘He had a wrinkled old face, Dad, and a big grey beard and piercing eyes,’ I said. ‘He seemed to look right through me.’
‘He was spectral, Dad,’ I said, experimenting with a word I had learnt from my Collins dictionary. Even at twelve years old, I was keen on words. I wondered if one day I might become a writer.
Dad was unimpressed by my growing vocabulary. In fact, Dad seemed unimpressed by anything I did. Sometimes I wondered if he was really my Dad at all or whether there was some hidden family history that I wasn’t being told about.
‘He called out to me, you know,’ I continued. He knew my name. Then he came out with something I could not understand. It was as if it were in English, but not in English. Anyway, I looked around for Eddie, but by now Eddie had spotted a new boat coming in. You know what Eddie’s like when he spots a new boat. He had started running towards it and didn’t see the old man.’
‘So I ran away as well.’
‘Good thinking, lad.’
‘He shouted something after me, but I still couldn’t catch what it was.’
‘But this fellow’s sooooo old, Dad.’
‘Everyone’s old to you, son. You think Elvis Presley is old. He’s only, what? Twenty-nine, thirty perhaps?’
‘Well. Twenty-nine is old, Dad. But that’s not the point. The old feller on the beach was reeeeally ancient. He’s like the missing link.’
‘And when he looks at you, you feel a shudder. It’s as if he’s somehow connected to you. Like a shadow……… It’s really weird. Like something out of science fiction.’ Not that I had read any. Science was of no interest to me although I had decided I was definitely going to be a writer.
‘Come on son! Now you’re being weird. ……. Hey! You haven’t been rooting around in my desk drawer, have you?’
‘No, Dad. I wouldn’t do that……. Anyway, you always lock it.’
‘And you took aboard what they told you in those …… drug talks at school, didn’t you?’
‘I was there, if that’s what you mean. ……. Why are you asking?’
‘Oh, no reason, son.’
The spectral old man appeared before me again a year or so later at the disused Red Rock Quarry where I sometimes went on a Wednesday afternoon if I was skipping Double Chemistry. The same sudden materialisation, otherworldly profile, resounding voice and incomprehensible soliloquy. He was substantial, yet at the same time insubstantial. Once again, I was terrified. Once again, I ran. Dad was no longer in residence. He had left a month or two previously, following what Mum termed irreconcilable differences. Adultery on Dad’s part, I imagined. Or perhaps she too had discovered what he kept in his desk drawer. So, this time, it was Mum that I told about my experience. In retrospect, a huge mistake. Mum’s approach was entirely different to Dad’s. Whereas he was casual, she was proactive. She felt that I should see a psychiatrist and despite my protests, marched me off to see Dr Biggott to see if he could arrange a referral.
The term schizophrenia is more carefully defined today but in the late nineteen-sixties, it was an expression that was applied liberally, an umbrella term for a smorgasbord of disorders. Dr Harmer was an ardent fan of the term. Most symptoms of anxiety, he felt, could be explained this way. In the treatment of adolescents, classifying them as schizophrenic at the outset saved a lot of time with elaborate and unnecessary diagnoses, leaving him with more free time with which to concentrate on his female patients. The rewards, he found, were greater here.
‘I am not seeing things or hearing voices,’ I told him. ‘That is not what is happening.’
‘Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘This, we find, is the usual response. Many people come to me and say they have seen a ghost, but its all in the imagination. Imagination can be very powerful, you see.’
‘But this is not a ghost. He was really there,’ I protested. ‘Large as life.’
‘You see you’ve just said it there,’ Dr Harmer continued. ‘If he was as large as life, then he wasn’t really there. The key is in that little preposition. I think we’ll start you off on some Thorazine and then perhaps put you on a short course of ECT. This usually does the trick.’
The treatment may or may not have, as he put it, done the trick, but it certainly changed the goalposts. I didn’t see the ominous stranger in the flesh again for many years, but I regularly had nightmares about him. In the dreams, it would always be dark and I would be lost in an unfamiliar place on the edge of town or perhaps the edge of the world. There would be the eerie echo you get from silence. Then, he would slowly materialise, a giant ghostly presence towering above me, causing me to cower in the shadows. He would issue a stentorian proclamation, like God shouting down to Moses, I would wake up in a sweat.
As a teenager, recurring nightmares aren’t the kind of thing you talk about to your friends for fear of being ridiculed. Nor are they a matter you bring up with your peers when trying to make your way in the world as a young adult. Even after I married Maddie, I was reluctant to disclose why I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night screaming. She probably wouldn’t have thought that seeing an old man in a big black coat and hat in a dream was much for a grown man to get in a stew about. And of course, she was probably right. She had once said, ‘You know what, Myles. Sometimes I think you are afraid of your own shadow’, and this had stuck with me. I always tried to play down the trauma that the dreams caused me.
While the content of dreams can be surreal and deeply unsettling, it is often not the content but the timbre of the dream narrative that is really terrifying. An unspoken background commentary can dictate how the dream feels. It can insist that there is an underlying air of menace, something sinister and threatening about what is going to happen. You are now tuned into your repository of deepest secret fears. All rationality is out the window. You are at the mercy of the demons lurking in the depths of your unconscious. All manner of ghouls and monsters seemed to inhabit my netherworld.
Dreams, however, are dreams and I never came to any physical harm in any of these episodes. The spectre, it seemed, merely wanted to make me aware of something, and while I got the palpable impression that his message was of great importance, to my frustration, I could never understand what the message was. It always came out as amplified babble. Once or twice, I nearly caught the drift of what he was saying, but as soon as this happened, he would vanish again and I would be left once with after images without this clarity. Nonetheless, night-times were harrowing. Although my ghostly visitor didn’t appear every night, he turned up frequently enough to make me frightened of what each night might bring. Even Dr Nice’s powerful sedatives were not enough to protect me from the possibility of a visit.
Then, one day it happened. There he was. Not as a surrealistic Neptune rising out of the sea. Not as a despotic archetype running amok in a nightmare. But there, in the flesh, sitting calmly beside me on a park bench. Maddie had gone into town shopping and I had been walking the dog in Providence Park and sat down to rest for a minute or two. Maximilian was a ten-mile a day dog. I had put on a few pounds since I put away my running shoes. The skiing accident in Switzerland too had added to my mobility problems. I was no longer a ten-mile a day dog walker. Suddenly, he was next to me, having materialised from out of nowhere. But after the initial shock of finding him within a whisker of my personal space, his aspect seemed to be no longer threatening. The familiar coat, hat, thick grey beard, the swarthy features and the roadmap of lines criss-crossing his face had now taken on a friendly air. My companion could easily have been a fellow dog walker taking a breather to exchange dog behaviour anecdotes.
He began to speak. In contrast to his delivery in the earlier encounters, his voice was now gentle, compassionate. At first, I was unable to understand his words. But I found that this was more a case that I was unable to understand that I was able to understand. Although the language was not my own, once I had become accustomed to its nuances, I found that I could follow what he was saying. Perhaps it was some kind of sorcery or Douglas Adams’ Babelfish at work. Or maybe it was just that I was now older and had a greater understanding of the world. I wasn’t well versed in Chomsky, but I reasoned that this must be down to the same imperceptible process whereby a young child finds he suddenly understands what a parent is trying to communicate. Perhaps a dual nationality child clearing up the confusion from hearing the two tongues spoken.
‘I’ve been trying to tell you something important for years now,’ he said. ‘But each time, I have appeared to try to guide you through the mysteries of self-discovery, you seem to have been consumed by fear. You have to be able to grasp the wisdom of the dream.’
‘Are you saying that it’s just my …….. my perception of you that has been the stumbling block?’ I said.
‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘You have been crippled by inner conflict. All your life you have been fighting with yourself. You have taken on the opinions of others. You have not trusted your inner impulses. As a result, you have been unable to make meaningful decisions. This has made you weak. This has made you condescending. But you can put all this behind you. I believe you are ready now.’
While this was encouraging, I was not really sure what he meant. None of my counsellors had hit upon inner conflict being at the root of my neuroses. They only seemed to want to let me rabbit on for fifty minutes, repeat the last line of each of my ramblings as a question and then say that they would see me next week. If I said something like, ‘My parents were selfish. They don’t understand me.’ They would come back with, ‘so you think your parents don’t understand you.’
‘I cannot stay in this realm so I don’t have long,’ he said. ‘So listen carefully.’
He told me that I was the only one who could sort out my problems. There never had been and never would be anyone else that I could rely on. It was a common mistake to think that the answer lay somewhere out there. The answer was inside. I needed to discover my essence. Find my proper place in the cosmos.
‘You are unique and valuable,’ he said. ‘Nothing that anyone else ever says or does makes the slightest difference to who you are and what you truly feel. Things may have been bad in the past but you must let go of them. They are of no consequence.’
His aphorisms began to sound a little like the ones I had come across in Maddie’s self-help books over the years but nevertheless, they hit home. The meeting had a profound effect on me. Something fundamental changed that day, the day I realised that I was part of something very large indeed. The universe. A small but integral part of the universe. A stillness came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter ceased. Past and future dropped away. I reappraised who and what I was. It was as if I had been born in that moment, brand new, mindless and innocent of all debilitating memories. There existed only the present and what was clearly given in it.
I took stock and went about making changes in my life. I persuaded Maddie we should move to a more rural location. The town had over the years turned into a tourist hotspot. It was now noisy and vulgar and the traffic was so bad it was no longer worth going out in the car. I stopped seeing my therapist. I realised she was, like many practitioners, a charlatan. There was no sense in throwing good money after bad here for little or no return. Perhaps most importantly of all, I gave up my job at the software development centre where I was a technical author. This is not the kind of writing I had envisioned I would be doing all those years ago. It was dull and soul-less. Furthermore, there was no joy in being a wage slave. Every day the task ahead was basically to describe how to reduce everything to either zero or one.
Although previously I had never managed to keep so much as a spider plant alive, something inside me told me I should move into horticulture. I gravitated towards orchids. It didn’t happen overnight. There are many thousand of hybrids, and the most precious one are the most difficult to grow. Slowly but surely, though, I became a successful orchid grower. My ghost orchids, never before cultivated in this country, became much sought after. By nurturing the delicate plants, I found I was also feeding my spirit. I began to live in the light. I no longer had nightmares.
Perhaps I was a little slow on the uptake, but it was not until the turn of the millennium when I looked in the mirror and saw the old man’s face looking back at me that I realised who he was. I have been gradually morphing into that face in the mirror ever since. I believe I am nearly there now.
Copyright © Chris Green, 2022: All rights reserved