One eye. Just one. The pupil heavily dilated, the iris like a green beck collecting at the base of one of the mountains around here. Peering through a gap in the scarlet synthetic velvet curtains at the other side of the room.
I tell myself that it’s just the candlelight disturbing the dark. The burgundy with dinner and now the muscatel with dessert playing tricks with the shadows. Playing tricks on my mind.
I’ve been here before. Once, five years ago. Once with you.
I wipe my mouth on the thick linen napkin and rise from my seat a little unsteadily. I walk over to the curtains. Of course, there’s no one there. I draw them back with unintentional force, yanking one of the curtain hoops off the rail. The unnatural, vaguely metallic texture of the false velvet brushes against my skin like cobwebs, making me shiver. And then I’m opening the French windows and stumbling outside, cursing under my breath. Probably more loudly than I realise because when I turn to push the doors to, everybody in the restaurant is frowning at me from the other side of the glass.
My God. The sheer sadness of an autumn evening. The cold sky illuminated by a pale bright moon with the demeanour of some kind of ghost king in a big budget fantasy epic. A pale bright ghost king looking sadly over lands that had once fallen under his domain.
And the air is full of the fragrance of night frost and newly deceased leaves. It is a potion to open the past. Brimming my lungs with voices and faces from the past – all jostling for my attention – all of whom would beckon me back.
But there is only one voice that I can, in any case, ever really hear. Only one face that I can ever really see. Yours. My love. Yours, of course. Why else would I have come back to this place? To this hell on earth? Why else but to hear your voice ring out clearly? To have it cut through my despair and confusion like a bell pealing in the fog.
It was Halloween five years ago that I lost you.
Halloween. All Souls’ Night. Samhain. A night with many names. Samhain simply meaning summer’s end. Summer’s end. Jesus Christ. It was that all right.
And now it is another Hallows’ Eve and I have come back to find you. It is a ghost’s night, after all. And did not Yeats say, in that poem of his that you loved – that incantatory poem, set on this very night – that ‘a ghost may come’?
Yeats was your favourite. It was the Irish in you I suppose. Yeats, Kavanagh and Muldoon were always your favourites at university in any case. Where you studied literature with considerable success and I less so. Where we first met.
I set out on the path to the lake that we took five years ago. Retracing our steps. Going over and over again in my mind every detail of our last night together. Hoping to find what? Some clue? Some trace of your killers? Maybe partly.
But no. I am hoping to find a way to invoke you. To call you back from the dead.
Those two horse chestnut leaves. Red and gold. Almost radiant they seemed. You had sellotaped them into your diary after breakfast. Sitting outside with our coffees they had flown across and fallen straight into your lap.
Now it was evening and we were sitting inside by the fire, our coffees replaced with gin and tonics. I was staring, entranced, at the engagement ring that I had given you that morning. And you? You were writing around the leaves, recording our day. My heart had reached its high summer seeing that glittering diamond that I’d nervously treasured for weeks on your finger. That glittering diamond which spoke to everyone of our allegiance. Of your unaccountable allegiance to me. I kept replaying it over and over again in my mind. The way that you had said ‘well, yes!’ and had then broken into a beatific smile.
To be able to make you smile like that. Maybe it was too much happiness. Maybe we had too much of our share too quickly.
You looked up: your eyes beck-green, your hair bark-brown.
‘Love you,’ you said. Always so certain in your validations.
You lit a cigarette and looked across to where the pine trees rose above the hotel drive. ‘How about going for a walk after dinner? In the moonlight – in the serious moonlight,’ you said breaking into a comic David Bowie baritone.
If only I’d said what I wanted to. Why don’t we just go to bed after dinner? Why don’t we just make love? But I was always shy. Always far too shy. And besides you were obviously suggesting the expedition for my benefit; suggesting it because we’d spent all day around shops and cafes when I had been hoping to do some hiking before we left west Wales for the north.
That sad-eyed Ghost King was up there already. Waiting for us in the rapidly emptying sky.
‘Are you sure? It’ll probably be freezing later, hun bun.’
Hun bun. Short for honey bunny. Christ. The pet names we used to come out with! It’s too much to think of now. Too much to think in any great detail about how you then put your cigarette down, reached across and kissed me for just the longest time. So much so that I pulled away out of embarrassment in the end, knowing that we were not alone on the terrace of what was – and still is – a very expensive hotel.
‘I can wrap up,’ you grinned examining the long finger of ash that the expired cigarette had become; before causing it to fall felled-treelike into the ashtray with a single tap of your thumb on the filter. ‘Come on let’s eat.’
‘I think there’s a small lake nearby we could walk to,’ I said, knowing very well that this was in fact the case. I had already examined an ordinance survey map of the area in some detail.
‘Perfect, then!’ you had smiled. ‘We can ask the waiter.’
‘I had a dream about my grandmother the night she died. She came and stood over my bed, still wearing the floral nightdress from the hospital. Still wearing the horrible little plastic wristband they make you wear like you’re going to a fucking festival or something. And she just laid her hand on my head and gave me a look that was… I don’t know. I don’t know if it was reassuring exactly because she looked tired and worried too. But I felt like she had come to tell me that she had died.’
You blew out a perfect smoke ring. ‘In the morning Sal woke me up to tell me and before I knew what I was saying I said, ‘I know.’ And the thing is I did. I felt quite detached about it. And sort of lucid too. Almost as though Gran had given me an insight into the afterlife. I mean I just kept thinking – how could she visit me in my sleep if she was just dead? If there was no afterlife?’
You were throwing me a look of challenge then, your heart overflowing into your eyes, your lips tight in the smile-shape but not smiling. Expecting me to deny the possibility.
I gave you a reassuring look and moved my hand under the table to rest on your knee. You were wearing thick black tights I remember and a new dress that you had bought in Carmarthen earlier that day. Marks and Spencer it was from. Dark blue with red berries something like rose hips.
‘It’s funny though, isn’t it?’ you went on, still in something of a combative fashion. ‘How you can think you’re this amazingly rational person and then all it takes is one thing like that to shake your entire way of thinking? To make you believe in ghosts!’
‘I know what you mean,’ I replied. ‘I try my best to think lucidly about God and existence and all of my thinking leads me to not believe in God or ghosts or… whatever. But even so I can’t seem to help it!’ I laughed. ‘Peer under the surface and there it is. Mad superstition! Being brought up a Catholic doesn’t help, of course.’
‘Oh but for Christ’s sake I’m not a Catholic, am I?’ you had rejoined in exasperation. ‘I mean you’ve met Roger and Sal, haven’t you?’
Your parents, Roger and Sal, still seemed a tiny bit fantastical to me. Modern, liberal and resolutely atheist they were as far removed from the religious conservatism of my parents as I thought possible.
‘The first time I met Roger and Sal they seemed like they’d accidentally stumbled out of the Bloomsbury group,’ I smiled. ‘’What? No one can have parents like this!’ But no, I just mean that it’s stupidly easy to be superstitious if you’ve been brought up a Catholic. I mean it’s more like the other way round. It’s more like it’s fucking difficult not to be!’
Our voices had been raised for some time and the table to our side were now staring at me in open disapproval. You gave them your best, haughty private girls’ school stare before turning back to me and affecting a particularly dirty smile. Then we were both suddenly giggling unstoppably. A feeling of reckless inebriation spreading between us.
And then I was wanting to tell you about something from years ago that had come into my mind from out of nowhere. I don’t know why because I certainly hadn’t consciously thought about that odd, sinister night for several years. But there it was unbidden and I drunkenly felt that I must tell you about it. I remember lighting a cigarette from the candle and you mock-tutting and reminding me that a sailor drowns every time that someone lights a cigarette that way. A Greek friend of ours that we lived in halls with at university had used to always chide us for doing that.
‘There’s this one thing,’ I said. ‘This one thing especially, that was weird and unaccountable.’
You moved your hand under the table and rested it on my thigh. Too much to think about that sensation now. Or to think in any detail about another evening earlier that week when you had sat beside me in the quiet backroom of an otherwise crowded pub and brought me to climax. A jacket over my lap and no time to take off the sharp-stoned ruby ring belonging to your grandmother that you always wore. The cold feeling of silver a little shocking after you had unbuttoned my fly. The faceted stone catching my foreskin from time to time not that I cared.
‘I must have been sixteen – fifteen even,’ I said. ‘It was the weekend and we’d all been getting pissed down the river as usual. You know the graveyard near my parent’s house?’
You nodded. We didn’t go to my parents house all that often because we weren’t allowed to sleep in the same room but you got on well with them all the same; even thinking of our separate rooms as being quite sweet and old fashioned. (I, on the other hand, was in the habit of flying into a rage with mum and dad about this.) I think you were the opposite of me in a funny sort of way; by which I mean that I think that you felt suffocated by liberalism and artistic freethinking in a peculiarly similar manner to the way in which I felt suffocated by my parent’s religious conservatism. (Roger and Sal were extraordinary, of course, but as you would always say whenever I got too annoyed with my parents, ‘At least they care. Roger and Sal just aren’t really that interested.’)
I continued: ‘I was walking back home through the graveyard with a friend, when we saw two men drunkenly fighting and shouting by the side of the church. One man jabbed the other full in the eyes with his fingers. Really vicious. And this guy was just, you know, clutching his eyes, when the man smacked him full in the face and quickly again in the stomach. He tottered for a moment and fell backwards. Into what we suddenly realised was an open grave.’
‘An open grave?’ you queried.
‘I know. Then the guy threw back his head and laughed in this really unpleasant, shrill way. Then he jumped after him into the grave!’
‘Jumped into the grave?’ you said, a look of disbelief crossing your face. ‘Jesus, are you sure you’re not making this up? I do know it’s Halloween you know!’
‘I knew you’d say that!’ I laughed. ‘But no. This really happened. We were both drunk ourselves it’s true and even, I will admit, a little stoned. But we both saw it. My friend insisted that we do something and so, even though, to put it mildly, self-defence was not a core strength for either of us, we both went over there, thinking that a murder might happen if we didn’t do something.’
‘Jesus, that was brave! What happened?’
‘Well that’s the strange thing. Nothing. When we got to what we were pretty sure must have been the open grave, it was filled in. It was just an untouched old grave. And no sign of the men. And we searched.
‘We couldn’t understand it. I really can’t understand it still. Where could they have gone?’
They remember me, of course, the ones who still work here. They do not acknowledge as much, nor are they pleased to see me, but how could they forget? The headwaiter, in particular, won’t allow his eyes to meet mine. Doubtless he is afraid I will be full of questions and tears. That I will cause a scene.
It was he who told us the way to the lake. I can see him now, taking a liking to you. Gangling over our drunken heads, his icicle white moustache containing crumbs of food. His face helplessly taut, tied back by ill-health and worry-lines. He made it clear that he thought we were mad. The temperature had dropped and there was no outdoor lighting to speak of. But he fetched us a torch all the same. Beguiled, I felt, by the combination of your beauty and enthusiasm.
We walked up through the garden to the floodlit tennis courts. There we unlatched a tiny gate in a beech hedge and wandered out into the heavy country darkness. The torch revealed a narrow lane, an unkempt extension of the hotel drive. You slipped your arm through mine, saying:
‘This is a proper adventure!’
For the first few minutes the moon was obscured by trees and we were quiet, reliant on the torch to be sure of our footing. Then we turned a corner and came to a small farmhouse. Somewhere within a dog began to bark and we both jumped. A light came on and, tittering like children, we went running hand-in-hand down the lane, into the valley. The Ghost King shining pale brightly over far-stretching fields. Disturbing their sleep. The dog ceased it’s barking and everything fell still. There were faint rustles in the undergrowth and the insistent whisper of the wind, moving across, animating the fields.
Our breathing amplified by the silence as we kissed.
‘I can’t wait to be Mrs You.’
Concentrating only on the movements of your tongue and the thoughts behind the movements of your tongue.
We were in a field then. Unconsciously unfastening. Unzipping.
A way to stop being separate. A way to lose all sense of what it means to be separate.
I ran across the field to piss. You were sat up smoking, pulling your tights up.
I ran a little too far, dazed by the wine and the intimacy and even enchanted a little by the moonlit, frost-glinting fields. I turned to wave but had come so far that I couldn’t see you. I urinated noisily into a sheep dip, and suddenly all of the wine and rich food that we’d had at the hotel became too much for me and I felt an overwhelming need to be sick. I fell to my knees, trying to suppress the vomit with my hand.
I returned to you slowly, unsteadily.
But you weren’t there. I thought that I must have gone the wrong way. A sliver of panic sloshed in my stomach. I retraced my steps and heaved a little when I reached the vomit-spattered sheep dip. No. I had taken the right way back. Now panic was coming in from all sides like water into a capsizing sailboat. But you had probably just gone off to find somewhere to go to the loo yourself.
There was no mobile reception out there. Not one bar.
I ran. It was no distance at all.
‘’Tash! ’Tash! Natasha!’ I called.
You weren’t there. I stood over the indentation our bodies had made in the grass and scanned the shadow-shrouded wall that separated the field from the lane. I ran along it shouting your name. Then into the middle of the field. Shouting your name. Screaming it.
One eye, just one. Beck-green iris, the pupil heavily dilated.
Calling me through the gate. The floodlit tennis courts disturbing the dark and playing tricks with the leaves. Playing tricks on my mind.
They found you two days later. Twenty miles away. Washed up on a long stony beach outside Aberystwyth.
I went with Roger and Sal to identify your body. Your head sat rigidly on the slab. I wanted to say forlornly just then but that wouldn’t be accurate because the body didn’t really look animated in any way. It didn’t, I mean, look anything like you. Rather, it looked more like someone had gone to the peculiar trouble of making a passable replica of you. You had been raped. Beaten about the face. Your right eye puffed out black-purple. Your cheek had been slit on the left side of your face with a knife. At the lip.
At the lip, so that it hung open a little. Like…. Like I don’t know what. Like the most obscene thing that I have ever seen or will ever see again I suppose.
They never found your killers. Yes, the plural. It was two men the police thought. They couldn’t be sure whether you were already dead before the men threw you into the water but probably not. Their investigations led nowhere. They found DNA traces on your body but they didn’t match any records. The men seemed to have vanished into thin air, they said.
I walk along the lane in the thick, ungovernable darkness. Firmly, you take my hand. So certain, as ever, in your validations.
‘Where have you been?’ I ask. ‘’Tash?’
You will not say. And so we walk on in silence, down into the valley. The pale bright Ghost King looking down sadly over all these far-stretching, frost-luminous fields, that had once fallen under his domain.
original illustration by Dean Lewis