I thought I was special. I thought I was unique. I thought that I had been chosen. I was of course completely wrong.
Most people were asleep when the world changed. They woke up to something new. I’m glad that didn’t happen to me – it would have freaked me the fuck out. Not that it didn’t freak me out, but we’re terribly fragile during those first couple of seconds when we wake up. It’s when we reassure ourselves that the world is the one we’ve always known, that we’re in a bed we recognise (or hopefully with someone we recognise at least)… that’s the part of the day when we slip our little individual human cog into the vast machinery of the universe. We might not know what it is we do, but we know there’s a place where we turn. My cog got jarred out of place the night before.
I’d stayed up drinking. That might sound like a good Sunday night, and it wasn’t the worst Sunday night I’ve spent by a long chalk, but it wasn’t really planned. It was a dark evening, rain had been slapping the plastic window sills in a slipshod rhythm all day and as the sky slid from grey to black I’d felt my mood going with it. Clearly, there’s no finer solution to feeling that familiar slip into a grim mood than opening a bottle. It doesn’t matter how often we’re reminded that alcohol is a mood enhancer, proving especially skilled at swelling the black dogs into towering slavering wolves. And yet still the bottle cap rolls across the floor to vanish under the settee, joining the rest of the discarded colony. I should dig them out really; I think they’re recyclable. As an indication of the seriousness of the drinking I’d abandoned beer some while ago and moved on to the cheapest not-terrible supermarket whisky. Sainsbury’s own brand Kentucky Bourbon is gratifyingly drinkable, especially at thirteen quid a bottle.
Bourbon sloshed into my square, heavy glass. The rain continued in its arrhythmic tipper-tap. I prefer to lie on the settee. It’s almost as long as me, which means I can prop myself up and rest my feet on the opposite armrest in utter comfort. I’d finished my book earlier. It lay on the floor, another bookmark lost somewhere in its pages. Television just isn’t quite as good as reading, but I was allowing it to compete for now. There’s not many experiences that make me so aware of being alone as channel hopping. There’s no reinforcement that one channel might offer greater amusement than another. No one to share a rolled eye at how awful adverts are. I care not for your cars. There is no version of showing a car sliding down a mountain road or slickly gliding through the city that makes me give a toss. I don’t want your cereals. I don’t want your choices. I want mine. I want choices that I can make. I want to be a choice that someone else makes.
So I was gloomily emptying and refilling my glass, sneering at the television, mentally jabbing myself with each transition between channels. I can tell when that sneer has stuck. It’s like the wind blows and I realise that my mouth has turned down, there’s a twist that runs up my cheek and my forehead starts to hurt from my screwed up eyebrows. There’s really nothing like self-pity for turning your face into that shocking resting snarl I see at the bus stop; the default expression on someone whose life must have been so brutally awful and filled with misery that their very face points hatred and fear at the world. I don’t want that kind of face. I’ve spent time developing a neutral facial expression which can turn to a smile as quickly as a frown. It’s one that charity muggers in town misread as disinterested hostility. It’s a face I can look at in the mirror and pretend is me. Neutral, open, hopeful without making the mistake of thinking that being hopeful is enough to change my world.
Once my face starts screwing up it’s time to take action. I live alone, now. Looking around my living room that offers no surprise whatsoever. A comfortable, but hideous settee faces the blinded windows, drawn down to keep the streetlights and accidental glimpses of my often naked neighbours out of sight. The television sits in front of them, offering a fractionally more interesting view. I switched it off and dropped the remote onto the tiny folding table next to me. It fell sideways and clattered onto the floor. It can stay there. It’s close to where I’ll need it again. With no small effort I hauled myself upright and slid upright – no mean feat but I’m proud of the achievement.
There is only one thing I can do when I feel like this – sort something. The obvious candidates are the crenellated stacks of cardboard boxes that separate the living room from the kitchen. It’s not a big flat and I’ve done my best to make it as inhospitable and un-lived in as possible, at least that’s how it looked. The boxes were full of books. So many books. They were one of the few things I’d packed myself when I moved here. It was simple. Lovely rectangles, coming usually in four or five different sizes. They pack neatly and pleasingly in dense Tetrissy packages. I’ve always been told that I have far too many books. Often that’s by people who don’t read, or consider reading Twilight on the beach to be reading. Let’s be in no doubt – if you read, you read. That’s a lifestyle choice. I’ve still got almost all of the books I’ve ever had. A few contentious purges removed the really awful crap, and some of the books I couldn’t really remember, but didn’t feel I’d ever want to try reading again. It didn’t make a lot of difference to the overall volume.
A few thousand, sorted strictly by size and shape into a range of box sizes. A mix of proper packing boxes, those stupid folding boxes you get from The Works with press studs that hold the box together until you lift it, any random box that deliveries came in and a couple of massive ones taken from work that used to house printers and photocopiers. Those last were a mistake – any more than about forty books gets seriously heavy. It was an intimidating prospect, eyeing this wall of boxed books. My own library of dreams and wonder. Thousands of hours curled up around someone’s ideas. Flooding my mind with a new world, new ideas. Safety. Escape. Happiness. If there’s one thing I love as much as reading books it’s handling them, looking at them, finding new ones, and sorting them into some kind of order. Anything to do with books really. The only thing I don’t really care for is reading about books. I’d much rather just read the book itself. I’m not that meta.
The boxes had been in their present configuration for seven weeks. Seven weeks of having other junk piled on top and around them. I’d opened just one, the only box I’d had the wit to mark as ‘new books’. I’ve always had a to-read heap of a hundred or so books and I was grateful that I’d make this small concession to organisation. That said, had made little use of it. Since assembling my wall I’d only read two books, one of which was lying next to the remote control, the other was on my bedside table. Not that impressive considering I usually read that much in a week. Reordering them all was bound to make a difference.
I’ve sorted alphabetically by author and title, by series, by book size (possibly the least helpful system), by genre (near impossible given my preferred diet of sci-fi and fantasy – the overlap and genre blend nearly drove me crazy), by favourites and by spine colour. We used to have the books we were especially delighted by on shelves in our front room. That was great, except that it weirdly separated the best books in a series from the others and generally lead to much confusion and searching for books. I didn’t really mind of course: the opportunity to root through piles of books is not to be missed.
Since I knew that the books would be in no particular order, there was no reason to begin with one box or another. I just opened all of the top row. I love the smell of books. I mean, I’ve got a Kindle and I love that too (it’s full of books, what’s not to love?) but I adore the sight of books. Familiar covers, creases in the spine which tell a story of reading all of their own. I find that I need to see and touch a book to remember it, sometimes even to remember that I’ve read it at all. That’s probably my biggest issue with digital books. The convenience and portability is amazing, but I can’t hold them individually. Staring up at me from the first box were a pair of hardbacks – a nice signed edition of Good Omens, which I’d found in a bargain bin at the now long-gone John Menzies when I was twelve, plus Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica , with the battered top of what I suspected was one of Carl Hiaasen’s children’s books. I needed a sorting system.
It’s impossible to devise a productive system until you know what it is you’re sorting. All I could do was improvise and develop interim systems. My whisky glass quickly became lost behind stacks of books as the boxes gave up their contents. My castle wall was soon replaced by precarious stacks of books sorted by author. The problem I have with this system is that it’s great when I’ve got ten or twenty books by a single author, like John Wyndham, but less helpful for Deathdolls of Lyra. That’s the only book I’ve got by J. Hunter Holly. I got it when my beloved Needwood Bookshop closed down. That terrible day did offer the wondrous prospect of as many books as I could carry for a fiver. I have quite long arms, and since it was just down the road even my teenage arms could gather the many. Singleton books I then attempted to stack by genre. I knew I’d forget that I had a stack for this author or that, but that would all be resolved later on in the organisation. Not all of the books were mine, and I carefully separated them into their own piles with less regard for author and more for provenance.
Once I realised that I was quite thirsty and not a little dusty I plucked a fresh glass from the breakfast bar thing that separated living room from kitchen. There was no point trying to find the last one. My flat looked like an obsessive-compulsive poltergeist had had a melt down. I had to abandon the open bottle as well and climbed into the kitchen area instead. Reluctantly I just filled the glass from the tap. Hot and sweaty from humping heaps of books across the flat I took a few moments to review my progress. The settee was unreachable, and a mountain range of sci-fi stretched from the front door all the way to the window and up to the door of my bedroom. Almost of the boxes were now open, and those empty ones filled the settee (and beyond, depending on how well they had landed). A glance at the microwave confirmed what I guessed – it was gone three in the morning. I hadn’t planned to sleep anyway. I’d given up on my sleeping tablets weeks ago when I realised I was doubling my dose or worse each night. I may not be responsible, but I’m not a complete idiot. At some point I should have a chat with my doctor about that. I’d make an appointment later.
The chill of the water gave me a pleasant shiver down my shoulders. I stretched and cracked my head from side to side. The absence of a reaction to the fairly awful sound made me pause. I closed my eyes and leaned on the bar. I took a couple of deep breaths and reopened them. Tear-free I took another sip and regarded my books. That’s when it hit me. I remembered why I hadn’t done anything about the books sooner: I didn’t have any shelves. I felt suddenly tired. I’d been through this before. I remembered again thinking about sorting the books out. I’d thought about buying some shelves. I’d thought about just getting rid of the books (briefly). I’d even looked in the Argos catalogue; that was probably under the settee too. And now the flat was full of books. At a bare minimum I needed to be able to walk through the flat. Assuming I went to work in the morning I’d need to be able to open the front door.
I started pushing stacks of Pratchett and Asher up to the wall when I felt another icy shiver run up me, from heels right over the top of my scalp. I try not to get scared – I don’t watch horror films at the cinema because I hate the jump shock scares, I don’t like to watch them on my own at home because I’m on my own and they linger in my mind. It’s worth trying to push down those frightening sensations . They’re the same ones I get when I’m swimming and catch a flicker in the side of my goggles, or feel a wave of pressure at an odd-feeling angle to my feet, and then can’t get the idea of sharks out of my head. I try not speed up, try not to give in. I try to hold these feelings back, suppress the instinctive panic, the fear and the tears that itch to follow. This felt like that – that instinct that I should turn around, and give in to some weird atavistic sensation that makes my skin crawl. It’s so hard not to turn round.
I did the next best thing and froze. Giving in is a bad idea. It sets precedent and makes it harder to not give in next time. And there’s always a next time, whether it’s walking home in the dark or hearing a creak in another room, or remembering what it’s like to be held when you’re lying alone. You can’t just give in. Nothing happened, of course. I’d have to turn round eventually, and there’s always the outside chance that there’s a knife-wielding maniac who’s been hiding in a box of books for seven weeks, waiting for an opportunity to get me. I took a more serious grip of Small Gods (another lovely first edition hardback with one of my favourite Josh Kirby covers. I got it signed personally by a quite grumpy Terry Pratchett. He did doodle a turtle in the cover captioned “the turtle moves!” though).
Fully horripilated now, as much with my fear of fear as of fear itself – I’d puffed up in pitiful imitation of a startled cat. I pushed my right eye to its farthest reach, feeling like it was about to pop out of my head. I’m told that we can only see in low resolution black and white out of the corners of our eyes and it’s the rest of our mind that fills in the colour. I saw something, and couldn’t stop myself – I needed more detail. There was a whitish shape by the bedroom door. My mind craved detail, no matter what I wanted, and before I knew it I’d spun round and promptly threw myself back against the wall, books sliding everywhere, me sliding with them. There was something by the door. A human figure, ghostly pale, so pale I could see the darkness of the bedroom through its body.
The books shifted under me, and I scrabbled to get upright again, dust jackets tearing as I stepped on them. Like dead, wet leaves they tricked my feet and with a yelp I fell again, instinctively hurling my copy of Small Gods at the figure by the bedroom. Normally I have a terrible throw. It’s just not one of those skills I’ve ever developed. I take enormous pleasure from successfully landing a bottle cap in the bin. This was one of those times. The book flew true as I fell. It didn’t pass through the shape, but rebounded and knocked into another stack of books. The figure didn’t react. Didn’t move. I allowed “spectral figure” into my head. Now that it clearly had substance I could discount a range of terrors which danced through my sleep-deprived and whiskyed thoughts. Ghosts are by definition non-corporeal and being able to exclude such basic superstitious nonsense was enormously reassuring. Even while I stared open mouthed at it, on my throne of bent books, not understanding what I faced, the rational parts of my mind were smugly dismissing the supernatural explanations.
Knowing that absurd and irrational fears were out of the picture I had to wonder if I’d simply snapped. I might have eased off on the sleeping tablets, but I was still chugging a stupid daily combination of caffeine, alcohol, pain killers and anti-depressants on little more than my own whimsy. That was as much a response to grief as it was a way of dealing with the bereavement that had left all my books in boxes. Family and friends had been concerned for good reason, that much I couldn’t deny. Had opening those boxes unleashed something else? Not a ghost of course, though I’d been equally terrified and hopeful of that prospect. But maybe some deeper rift inside me; mental plates shifting and cracking. If it was me, then I could be frightened for sure, but I could also take the next step.
I’ve never felt so stupid as I did sitting on a pile of books saying “hello” to an unmoving ghostly (but definitely not a ghost) figure in my living room. It didn’t reply. It didn’t move. I tried again, avoiding such clichéd greetings as A Christmas Carol kept putting in my head. It’s genuinely difficult to remain frightened when receiving no more fear triggers. Rational thinking starts to kick back in. Hallucinations are fine. It doesn’t matter where they’ve come from just so long as it’s all in my head. I was choosing not to think about the book bouncing off, but why not? It probably bounced off the door frame. Really, the thing I needed to do was close my eyes and reopen them. Maybe rub them a bit. Like a dream, in a cartoon. That’s a solid test. Plus my eyes were quite dry – I’d been staring hard and the air was even drier because of all the books and their papery equivalent of skin cells filling the room. I really didn’t want to blink though. I might avoid those horror films, but I’m well aware of what happens when you do blink, or turn your back, or have a drink or have underage sex in a rowing boat. That’s when they get you. Whatever they are.
“Right – I’m going to close my eyes and you’re going to fuck off. That’s the deal. It’s a good deal. We’re on, right?” I was talking to myself, surely. I didn’t expect a response. I certainly didn’t expect the sudden flurry of activity: I didn’t even blink.
One second this thing is motionless, maybe even ignoring me on the other side of my flat. The next it’s inches from my face. I’m not entirely ashamed to admit that I might have slightly wet myself. I think I stopped breathing.
We just looked at each other.
So still. My eyes ached so much that I had to blink.
It was still there.
I began to breathe again, I don’t know how much later. With air in my lungs again I could start to really look at it. It was the shape of a person, but translucently pale like the crappy plastic they seal meat into at supermarkets. It had only the vaguest outlines of a face, but the light gleamed onto and through it, casting expressions made of shadows which weren’t really there.
I leaned back into the wall; it drew back slightly. Gingerly I pushed myself up the wall until I was standing. It rose with me, and then drew further back until it was a couple of metres away. Its feet were touching the floor, but they didn’t lift as it moved backwards. Its feet bent and slipped over the books, the bottom of its feet undulating over the uneven surface as if it didn’t know how to walk.
I stepped away from the wall and it drifted back even further. Warily, but with more confidence I picked an awkward circle out that brought me to the breakfast bar. It copied my action – bringing it to the settee. I took another step and the figure’s body bent at the thighs. Its legs folded and flowed backwards so that they ended up on the settee’s cushions; its body and head remained almost motionless, other than for its head tracking my every movement. I got into the kitchen area, all of the books between us. My thought had been to get a
weapon. My options included a metal bread bin, kettle, wooden spatula and a fork. Almost everything else was in the dishwasher, which I noticed that I failed to turn on. I knew it was pointless, but it might make me feel slightly better. I chose the fork and held it before me. The figure copied me again, its right arm bending unnaturally across its body. It was like one of those double mirrors where you see the mirror image reversed so it’s the right way round. I tested that theory – I turned the kettle on. Again, it crudely copied the motion, its legs just folding over furniture as we circled each other. Hopefully it wasn’t going to be like a shootout; my fork was after all only a fork.
The kettle boiled. The figure mimicked my every action as I found a mug, tea bag, combined them, stirred with my defensive fork and reached for the fridge. I remembered I had no milk and sighed. Its shoulders morphed up and down in freaky imitation. Now doubly armed with fork and black tea I slowly walked around to the other side of the room, passing the bedroom door and the window. I was heading for the settee. Comfort is an important foil for fear. It’s why I watch scary films with a cushion (or my hat in a cinema) – it’s not just for hiding behind. It’s also for clutching tightly, and nuzzling if necessary. Gratifyingly the apparition behaved as I’d expected, and it ended up standing in the kitchen. While I dragged the settee round to face it and tossed empty boxes into the space between us it flung its arms in the exact same way.
I eyed the thing warily from my more comfortable vantage. I also rediscovered the bottle of cheap bourbon. It’s not milk, but it did wonders for my frayed nerves. The adrenalin draining from my system and the hot whisky tea did exactly what you would expect. I fell asleep while staring at my pale double.