Many friends warned me about dating Karen Baldwin, and, to be fair, none of them so openly or accurately as Karen Baldwin herself. “I give my heart away too easily,” she said over dinner, “and maybe that’s why I take it back again so often.” She speared a prawn with her fork, put it in her mouth, and chewed – chewed, I thought, for rather longer than the prawn warranted. “I’m fickle,” she concluded, and shrugged, and smiled.
And I suppose I asked her out as an act of hubris, I thought that I could be the one to tame her. She was, I think you’ll know this already, alarmingly attractive. Alarming, as in the sense that when you saw her, it made you wonder why you’d wasted your time with so many plainer girls beforehand – it never made men feel comfortable meeting Karen, no one wants to have to question their whole romantic past like that, and in all the time that I knew her I don’t think I ever saw a man look entirely happy in her presence. Excited, sometimes, certainly. With one or two of the older men, even surprised and grateful. But she wasn’t a woman who inspired joy on any level. Joy simply wasn’t what Karen Baldwin was about.
When I first met Karen, I’d been going out with Alice for quite a while. We were coming up to celebrating our six month anniversary – by which I mean, the six month milestone was all Alice was talking about, and how we should mark the occasion, how much the presents we should give each other should cost, whether we should throw a party. In retrospect I found all the faff about an anniversary that wasn’t even an anniversary rather endearing, but at the time it really got on my wick – and it didn’t help when I saw Karen standing by the photocopier that day trying to correct a paper jam. She wasn’t glammed up or anything, she was by a photocopier, for Christ’s sake, but there was a beauty to her that seemed quite natural and unforced and clear. – Alice wasn’t beautiful. Alice wasn’t ugly, but she wasn’t beautiful. Alice wouldn’t have looked good, all hot, and irritated by a hunk of malfunctioning office hardware. And I didn’t break up with her straight away, it wasn’t as simple as that, it wasn’t one look at Karen and my life had changed. – But, still, I’d got rid of Alice within the week.
Nor did I make a move on Karen for a while. She was new to the office, and that meant she’d be the pickings of upper management first. Besides, there was no good reason why she would want to go out with me. I’m not a looker, I know that – not ugly either, but very definitely in Alice’s league, when Alice and I had photos taken you could see that we sort of fitted together in them, we were of the same species, she had about as much wrong with her as I had wrong with me, indeed, that helped, her buck teeth were offset by my fat jowels, and vice versa, we were complementarily plain.
Beside Karen I looked plain. But I asked her out for two reasons. One was that I’d just had a very slight promotion. Nothing to change my job title or the size of my office cubicle, but there was a bit of extra money coming in, and bags more responsibility – and my ego felt good and inflated and bold. And the other reason, I knew Karen was single. She’d been going out with Greg from the human resources team, but that was all over now, I didn’t know Greg well but I heard he was quite cut up about it. I made my play. And I did it so confidently that I wasn’t surprised when she said yes. It wasn’t until I got home that evening that my legs began to wobble and the doubt set in.
But the date went well. I’ll say one thing for Karen Baldwin, she gives good dates. She’d dressed up really nicely, it made me feel flattered to have something so classy by my side, and even the waiters looked impressed – at one point she went to powder her nose, and I was able to look around the entire restaurant and see that every man in the place was looking at me with frank admiration. And we talked easily, and the conversations overlapped, but never in an annoying way, only because there seemed so much to say. Though I suppose it’s true I can’t remember now one thing we actually talked about. Still, we were still at it after the dessert and the coffee, and I asked Karen if I could see her safely home, and she said that would be nice. And I helped her with her coat, I even offered her my arm – sort of jokey, you know, so there’d be nothing wrong if she rejected it – but she didn’t reject it, she took my arm in hers as if that was what we always did, as if this wasn’t our first date but ourv hundredth, and as we walked out on to the street I imagined all the restaurant applauding me.
We stayed arm in arm all the way to her house, which slowed us down somewhat; we still got to her house far too soon. I had to cut short one of my anecdotes, and I was telling it better than I had ever told it before, it seemed not only amusing but had depth and point. “Well,” she said, “this is me.” “Well,” I said. I wondered if she’d invite me in. She didn’t. But that wasn’t a disappointment, we both had to be at the office in the morning, and I was sure she would see me again. “Would you like to see me again?” I asked; she said, “I think you’re going to be very special to me.” And that was more than I’d bargained for. I said, “How about we do it again this weekend?”, and she smiled.
We kissed then. I put in a bit of effort, gave her one of Alice’s favourites, we were kissing for at least three minutes. Until we got to the point where I thought she’d have to ask me in. Until I thought etiquette demanded it. “Well,” she said, “well, good night.” And she went indoors. And I didn’t feel disappointed, I didn’t, it was fine, it was better than fine, actually – and as I walked to the bus stop I was already trying to work out what I should get her for Christmas – Christmas was just around the corner – and whether we should spend it with my parents or with hers, and actually I thought we’d go to my parents, because it would be so much fun to show off a girlfriend like Karen to my family, especially after all the Alice lookalikes I’d brought home, oh, the look there’d be on my father’s face! I’d get her to glam up like she had on the date, it’d knock his socks off.
At the office the next day Karen and I didn’t talk, but there was nothing unusual in that. I smiled at her a couple of times, though, and she smiled back.
I was full of plans for Saturday night, and it didn’t matter that they kept changing. We didn’t have to do everything at once, we’d have lots and lots of Saturdays to fill, all the world would be our oyster and we would enjoy exploring every last bit of it. On Friday night when she phoned me I think I’d got planned a movie and a curry. “Hello,” she said. “Look, I think we’ll have to cancel tomorrow night.”
“Oh,” I said. As her boyfriend, I did the good boyfriend thing, I immediately expressed concern for her health, and kept the disappointment as far from my voice as possible.
“I’m perfectly well,” she said. “I just don’t think we should see each other any more.”
I was quite surprised by this. I asked her why. “Does everything have to have a reason?” she said. I asked her if were now just going to be good friends, and I’m not sure that by this time the disappointment wasn’t seeping in perfectly audibly.
And she thought a bit. And then said, “Honestly, I’m not sure your friendship would mean that much to me.”
And that was that.
I must stress, I wasn’t upset by this. I hardly knew the girl. I was confused, that was all, and who can blame me? Had I behaved too coolly in the office towards her? But I was just trying to be professional. I had seen the way some of her boyfriends had moved around her, as if trying to assert to the world that she was their property – Greg, for example, and that had been nauseating (and it hadn’t done him much good in the end, had it?). Was it the kiss? Because if it were the kiss, I could try again, I had other kisses to choose from. I phoned her back, but she didn’t answer, and I thought she was probably blocking my number. So I put on my coat and walked out into the cold to ring her from the public phone box near the supermarket. Still no answer, maybe she’d gone out.
I wasn’t upset. It was her loss. And it wasn’t as if I’d sacrificed anything for Karen, no more than an evening of my time and the price of a three course Italian meal. I hadn’t broken up with Alice because of Karen. Alice and I had been on the way out anyway.
Before I went to bed, I tried phoning Karen one more time. Nothing. So I went to sleep.
And then I was upright.
It was the immediacy of it that disturbed me most, that first time. Not the absurdity of it – that I’d gone from a comfy horizontal position to one that was very definitely and uncompromisingly vertical. Nor the change of location, because I could see immediately I had moved – I had moved, for God’s sake! – even in the dark I could see I had moved! – I was still in a bedroom, but not in my own bedroom, this was a woman’s bedroom, it was neater than mine, and there was the whiff of perfume, scented soap. I was standing up, straight as a ramrod, in a woman’s bedroom, when I ought to have been lying down in mine – and that still wasn’t it, that wasn’t what set my heart racing, that wasn’t what was making me start to freak out (take it easy!) – it was the sheer speed with which I’d ended up there, as if I’d been catapulted into position – catapulted, yes, that was a good word for it – I felt all my limbs jangling with the rush of it all, and my hair out of place, and I tried to catch my breath but it was difficult, I had to suck the air in deep and pant it out, actually pant the thing, before I could feel myself calm down.
And my first impulse for all that new breath I’d earned was to waste it, was to cry out for help.
“Don’t say a word,” whispered a voice behind me.
So I didn’t. I decided not to worry about the voice. The voice could take care of itself for now. Let me worry about the other things first.
I was standing over the sleeping body of Karen Baldwin. At least, I assumed she was sleeping – oh, God, what if she were dead? – oh, God, what if the police caught me in her bedroom and she were dead, how would I explain that? But then she gave a little snore, not so much a snore as a little sigh, it was rather sweet, really, and warm, and feminine – so, so she wasn’t dead, that was good, so when the police stormed in I’d only have to explain why I was standing in her bedroom at all, oh yes, that would be so much better – and I decided I had better get out of there as soon as possible. Before she stirred. Before she saw me.
And my feet wouldn’t move.
And I thought, that was unhelpful of them – and I thought, maybe they were numb. Maybe numbness was some side effect of all that impossible catapulting my body had just been put through. Or even worse. Worse, paralysed, I’d be stuck like this forever! So I sent a message down to my toes to wiggle, and they wiggled in response quite amiably – my feet would do anything I wanted, they cheerfully informed me, except walk away from Karen Baldwin’s bedside. I was meant to be here, and this is where they were going to keep me. Well, I wasn’t going to put up with a rebellion like that. I bent down, I was going to pick my feet up by hand, I was going to carry myself out of the room by force if I had to! – and I couldn’t find the feet amid the tangle of the white sheets I was wearing. And that’s when I first realised I was wearing white sheets at all. I hadn’t gone to bed at home wearing sheets; I’d gone to bed naked, actually, and thank God that wasn’t still the case, actually, that would make that explanation to the police that little bit more complicated. But sheets – I was all in white, a gleaming white, I was lighting up the room with how I gleamed. There was a hole cut in the sheet for my head, there were no holes for the arms. I was dressed like a ghost. It wasn’t a good costume. It would have shamed the seven year old trick or treaters who might have worn it at Halloween.
“Not at yourself,” the voice hissed. “Look at her. Do the job you’re here for.”
So I looked.
I never had had the chance to study a woman quite so completely before. And especially not a beautiful one; my formative adolescent years had been spent gazing not at the pretty girls I knew would mind, but at the dumpy ones who’d be lucky to care. As a result I had grown up acquainted only with the folds of flesh that gather around a woman’s face, the flecks of dandruff, the patches of make-up used to mask spots and blackheads – a whole gamut of big arses and lopsided breasts and faces that just somehow looked a bit wrong. Real beauty was something airbrushed in in lingerie advertisements and my elder brother’s top shelf mags. But I gazed down at Karen Baldwin, and here, indeed, was real beauty. On my date with her I’d stolen a few long glances at her face when she was chatting, but never for too long, never for long in case she noticed what I was doing, I had to look away at the menu, at the table, straight down at the floor. Now I could examine her without interruption.
In sleep Karen was so peaceful, only that sighing snore breaking through the still every now and then. A smile played about her face, she must have been dreaming about something very nice. Or even something rather naughty! – and even in the dark her lips were thick and red. Her hair was down and poured out over her chest, there was something liquid about it, it emphasised her breasts and the smooth milkiness of her neck – it looked quite artfully posed, but it couldn’t have been, could it? – Oh, Alice had never looked good asleep. There’d be spittle. And some nights she’d thrash about as if she were trying to punch me out of bed.
It was easy watching Karen. If this were my job, as the voice said, it was hardly an unpleasant one. The time passed before I knew it. And then I felt a tap upon my shoulder. And instinctively I turned around, before I even remembered my feet were frozen and I couldn’t move, and they were free, they had unglued themselves.
“It’s my turn now,” whispered a man. He too was dressed in a white sheet. I saw, to my surprise, it was old Mr Willis from the board of directors.
“Yes, sir,” I said, and gave him my place – although I could feel straight after there was no need to defer, office politics were irrelevant here. We were all equal before the might of Karen Baldwin.
There wasn’t just Mr Willis in the room. In the back, in the shadows, there must have been a dozen other ghosts. One of them waved at me, impatiently, to join them. When I got close I saw it was Greg from the Human Resources team.
“That’s your shift done for the night,” he whispered. “Two a.m., to two thirty. Watching over Karen, and protecting her from harm.” I looked at Greg, and in the office he’d always struck me as a bit of a prick, someone who was more interested in talking about football and beer than in the productivity graphs he was supposed to. Here in Karen Baldwin’s bedroom his face was deadly serious. And I looked at the other ghosts flanking him – some I recognised vaguely from the office, most I didn’t – and their faces were just as hard set and stern.
So when Greg smiled it wasn’t a warm smile. “You did well,” he said. “Well done.”
I would rather have liked to have gone home then. But I wasn’t able to leave the room. My hand wasn’t able to grasp the doorknob properly, it was like syrup.
All the ghosts had to pay witness. We watched over each other as we watched over Karen.
It was, frankly, rather dull. I wished I’d brought my iPod, or a book, maybe.
Old Mr Ellis wasn’t content to watch. From his feet frozen position he was still able to bend forward over Karen. He would stroke her hair. He would kiss at his fingers, then wipe his fingers over her cheeks. He said to her things, so quietly that we couldn’t hear.
“Is he allowed to do that?” I whispered to Greg.
“We can do what we want,” Greg whispered back. “It’s not as if we can wake her, no matter how hard we try.”
“Then why on earth are we whispering?”
He looked at me coldly. “Out of respect.”
I wondered how long all this would take. It would be dawn soon, and at least five ghosts hadn’t had a turn yet.
“I think there’s been some mistake,” I said. “I shouldn’t really be here.”
“There’s no mistake. Your passion has brought you here.”
“I only snogged her once!”
“You must love her very much.”
“And that was, what, two minutes, tops.”
Greg said, “Then she must love you. There’s clearly a lot of love going on somewhere.”
“Jesus,” I said.
Around five o’clock another ghost shuffled into position. He began prodding at Karen’s breasts, then cupping them, weighing them like fruit. He made strange little grunting noises.
“Oh, come on!” I said. “We’re supposed to be protecting her!” But no one replied.
“This isn’t going to keep happening, is it?” I asked eventually. “Not night after night? How do I get it to stop?” And the ghosts were scandalised. This wasn’t a curse, it was a privilege.
I don’t remember how I got home. But at half past seven my alarm clock woke me up, and I was back in my own bed, and I felt exhausted, and my legs were aching from standing still too long.
During the lunch hour I set off to find Greg. As I approached his desk I could see he didn’t recognise me at all, and that made me asking about our night time dalliances with his ex-girlfriend rather awkward. The look of angry bewilderment on his face spoke volumes, and I soon stammered to a halt; “See you tonight, then,” I mumbled, and left. But I’d known he’d been there in the bedroom with me, I hadn’t imagined it. In his eyes was the same bloodshot sleeplessness that I had.
I tried talking to Karen too. When she saw me, she sighed, and said, “I don’t want to discuss this, I don’t want to go out with you any more.” It was odd to see that jaw move, and for all those words to spill out.
“You don’t love me, do you?” I said. “I think we can agree on that.”
“I don’t love you,” she confirmed.
“And I’m pretty sure I don’t love you either,” I told her.
She nodded at that. “Well, then,” she said.
“Well,” I agreed. And I actually thought that might have done the trick. I went to bed that night apprehensive but hopeful. But at two o’clock, it made no difference, the catapulting happened, I was back in position by her bedside. “Shit,” I whispered, softly.
The next night I decided I simply wouldn’t go to sleep. I drank lots of black coffee, litres of the stuff. And that meant that when I found myself standing over Karen Baldwin, I had the most agonising urge to go and pee. At the back of her bedroom, after my shift was done, I jogged up and down in my ghost costume, praying that dawn would come – and when my alarm clock rang and woke me from my own bedroom I nearly didn’t make it to the toilet in time.
I didn’t touch Karen at all for the first week. Eventually, out of boredom, really, I thought I’d give it a go. With my middle finger I carefully pressed down on her forehead. I thought it’d feel weird and syrupy, like the doorknob had, and it’s true, it wasn’t quite right, not quite like a forehead should feel – it yielded a bit too easily to my touch, wasn’t there supposed to be bone underneath? But it was pleasant and warm. From that point on, if I felt I’d earned it, if I’d done a good day’s work and deserved a treat, I might prod at Karen Baldwin’s forehead a bit.
It became harder to concentrate at work. I’d start the morning with a renewed determination to do my best, to stay as bright and breezy as my new job demanded. By noon my eyelids were sinking and my head spun and my spirits felt as flat as a pancake.
Rather than take black coffee when I went to bed, I began popping sleeping pills. They wouldn’t stop me materialising at Karen’s house, but they took the edge off the boredom a bit, and the numbness that spread up my rigid standing body was comforting.
Karen wasn’t always asleep. Those were the exciting nights. This one time she had insomnia, and was up for hours reading a book. If I leaned to the side, and strained my neck as far as it could go, I could read it alongside her. It was some sort of chick lit thing. It wasn’t too bad, actually, but Karen was a faster reader than I was, and I’d rarely reached the end of a page before she’d turned over. It was hard to work out what was going on.
And once in a while she had sex. Those nights were exciting too, but I really wasn’t sure where I was supposed to look. I discovered many things about Karen Baldwin it might have taken years of a real relationship to reveal – because I could see what her boyfriends couldn’t, I could see the facial expressions when they’d turned away, or had their eyes closed, or were intent on nibbling at her nether regions. I learned that she liked her nipples tickled, she liked kissing at her ear. Toe sucking, though, did nothing for her at all. And she wouldn’t do anal for anyone.
There was this one guy she was sleeping with, a young lad, he didn’t work at the office, I had no idea where Karen had found him. He kept on going for the toes. I wanted to say to him, you’re barking up the wrong tree there, mate. All the ghosts knew his days were numbered. He didn’t last long. One night he was chewing away at her feet, with Karen huffing away in frank irritation right above him – the next, he was standing over her in a white sheet, as perplexed as hell, and crying with shock and disappointment.
I must admit, I liked it when we got new recruits. They were always so surprised to find themselves there, it made me laugh. I could see now how well I had handled my own job placement. I had been very good about it.
I didn’t go to see my parents that Christmas at all. They said they felt let down. I said I had too much work on. I did, too, there was no time off for holidays. And on New Year’s Eve, Karen didn’t come to bed all night. All the ghosts were left haunting an empty room for hours, it was embarrassing. Or would have been embarrassing, if Greg hadn’t thought to make a party of it. He gave a speech. “To us,” he said, “and to another year of it! We’re all in this together!”
First week of January, I was called in to see the management. I was told that my work had been unsatisfactory for a while, and that if I couldn’t handle the extra responsibility they could take away my promotion in an instant. I apologised, told them I would pull my socks up and work all the waking hours I had. And it was old Mr Ellis I had to promise this to, the fucking hypocrite.
That night as I stood over Karen Baldwin I pressed my finger on her forehead, I stabbed it down as hard as I could.
Soon after that, something broke.
I had gone to bed, washed and shaved, ready for my date with Karen, and my bladder was good and empty. And I don’t know what happened, but when I stirred awake in the night I was still in my own house. It was already ten past two, and I was late. “Shit!” I said, and leaped out of bed. Thank God, I had at least transformed into a ghost, the white sheet was all around me, but it didn’t alter the fact that my shift had already started the other side of town.
I phoned for a taxi. I was told there wouldn’t be one for half an hour. “This is an emergency!” I yelled. “I’ll pay double!” And a taxi was outside my house in five minutes flat. I’d put on a big anorak, the best to hide my ghost outfit, but the sheets were so big and billowy they kept popping out around my midriff.
I couldn’t remember Karen’s exact address. I’d spent every night there for the last six months, but I’d seen the outside of her house just the once. I asked the driver to go up and down likely looking roads; he kept trying to make conversation, and I had to tell him eventually to shut up. At that he dropped me off, and maybe that was just as well, I might find the place better on foot. I paid him his double fare, and a tip on top, and that didn’t seem to mollify him at all.
All the houses were dark, and on those suburban streets they all looked the same. I admit it, I started to panic. I thought I’d have to give up and go home – and then I knew I couldn’t give up, that was unacceptable. If necessary I would have to knock on people’s doors, late as it was, and ask whether anyone might know where Karen Baldwin lived. And then – I turned a corner – and there it was. I couldn’t be sure, but it was beside a lamp post, and the back garden I’d look out on from Karen’s window seemed familiar, and, yes, there was the graffiti on the pavement I’d sometimes enjoy to read.
And now what? I couldn’t exactly ring the doorbell. I picked up some loose gravel, and threw them up at the upstairs window. And for a dread moment I thought I’d probably got the wrong house after all, and I prepared to run – but then, thank Christ, the faces of half a dozen ghosts came into view behind the pane, all shining white and ethereal, and peered down at me. I gave them a wave.
They couldn’t open the front door, of course. No one could leave the room. But the window was forced open. I took off my anorak, it would only weigh me down. And as my white sheets blew all around me in the night breeze, I shinned up the drainpipe.
“Where the hell have you been?” whispered Greg. “You’ve missed your turn. We had to give it to Terry.” Terry was the ghost with the breast cupping fetish, and Terry grinned at me, he wouldn’t have minded the extra bit of overtime.
The next night things were back to normal, and I was catapulted into Karen Baldwin’s bedroom at two o’clock precisely the way I should have been. The next night, though, it was back on the blink. I phoned for a taxi. The taxi service remembered me, and said no. I phoned for a different taxi. It wasn’t so bad, this time I knew how to get there. But I still missed the beginning of my shift, and still I had to climb up that wretched drainpipe.
The ghosts all seemed very disappointed in me, even the newbies. But I couldn’t see how any of this was my fault.
The next day at work I received an envelope in the internal mail. Inside it was a house key. There was no note.
The other ghosts mocked me for it, but I think they rather liked the fact I had a key. If nothing else, it meant I was the only one who wasn’t obliged to spend all night in the bedroom. I could make them cups of tea in the kitchen. “Anyone fancy a cuppa?” I’d say every half hour or so, and the ghosts would say yes, please, and I’d go downstairs and brew us up a pot. I brought my own teabags, it didn’t seem fair to use Karen’s. And besides, she was into some weird herbal stuff, and we needed good old-fashioned bloke’s tea if we were going to get through the long night.
Pretty soon my ghost costume went on the blink as well. I had to make my own. I cut out a hole for my head, but I didn’t do it in quite the right place, I kept tripping up over the train of it and if I wanted to walk had to remember to lift it up. But it was better than nothing, and even though the sheet was very old, after a few goes in the washing machine it gleamed nearly as white as my original.
And I didn’t mind that I looked different to the other ghosts now. Because I felt I’d been given a sort of promotion. It was my responsibility to keep them happy, I started to bring not just tea to work but chocolate digestives. And as dawn approached and the last ghost faded into thin air, downstairs I would take all the empty cups and plates and wash them up in the sink, keeping everything nice and tidy for when Karen got up. Sometimes I’d leave her some breakfast. I don’t know, of course, whether she enjoyed it or not.
The taxi fares cost a fortune, though, and I decided I’d have to rent somewhere closer to where Karen lived. That was a bitter shame. I’d loved my old house. But needs must, and all that.
Karen Baldwin is in love again. I suppose I should have recognised the signs.
For a start, she hasn’t been appearing in her bedroom much of late. The ghosts just sit around it drinking tea and eating biscuits without anything much to do. Greg said that Karen’s probably been visiting her parents, but that doesn’t seem likely, how often can a girl visit her parents? And she’s always in the office in the morning as usual. Still, Greg’s always seemed to know best.
It turns out that Karen is in love with Greg. They’ve got back together somehow. Greg’s all smiles around the office again, all laughter and bloke jokes, it’s a bit nauseating to watch, if I’m honest. It appears that Greg has been pulling a fast one on all of us. That whilst his ghost self was spending the night with us guarding an empty bedroom, his actual body was out with Karen doing the nasty.
Karen looks happy too, I suppose. She’s all smiles too. But I don’t trust those smiles. They don’t look as relaxed or as natural as the ones I’ve seen on her sleeping face these past few months. Whatever else, Greg has not been the man inside her head every night. Greg is not the man of her dreams.
This is how I found out.
We were over at Karen’s, the ghosts and I, and we’d settled ourselves in for a nice quiet evening. Not all of the lads had even bothered to show up, there was no Mark, no Stuart or Alan, and Terry hasn’t bothered to turn up for weeks now the breasts are in short supply. No Greg either, of course, and I found out the reason for that only too soon. And it was gone midnight, and we heard a key turn in the front door downstairs. “Action stations!” said old Mr Ellis, and the thinning collection of ghosts got into position ready to haunt. I climbed into the wardrobe.
In all the hurry I’d forgotten to clean up the cups of tea, but Karen didn’t seem to mind. Her attentions were elsewhere. She entered the bedroom already wrapped around Greg’s body, and they were kissing each other with such hunger, now tearing off each other’s clothes then throwing them on to the floor. The ghosts watched on aghast, and who could blame them? We’d never seen our Karen show such passion before. And then they were naked, and they were at it full pelt, and Karen was crying out, and she never cried out, she had been a discreet and disinterested lover – and Greg was all over her nipples and all over her ears, and was giving the toes a wide berth. And I thought as I watched him, he’s studied for this, this is what these past few months have been for – he wasn’t protecting Kar en at all, he was getting insider information!
And then, slowly, distinctly, as they both reached climax, Greg raised one hand high in the air. Pointed directly at where he knew the ghosts stood to watch. And gave us all the finger.
Mr Ellis today interrupted work to make a special announcement. He said he was delighted to inform us that there was going to be a marriage in the company! And that at five o’clock there’d be champagne so we could all toast the engagement of Greg Murphy and Karen Baldwin. Ellis actually looked pleased. I don’t know how he managed it. Ellis, who had been so distraught, that night when the sex was over and Greg and Karen were asleep and spent and their limbs were across each other and they were so so sweaty – Ellis, whose ghost had sat down on the floor beside the bed and cried.
The champagne was in paper cups. Ellis toasted the couple, and said he hoped they’d be very happy together. But Karen Baldwin does not make men happy. She is not a woman to inspire joy.
I hadn’t spoken to Karen in a long time. I saw her each night for work, it would have been exhausting having to see her in the daylight as well. But everybody was going up to her to wish her congratulations, I thought I should take the opportunity to have a word.
She looked up at me expectantly over the paper cup. She even smiled a bit. Everything forgiven now, and all ready to accept my well wishes.
“I know you don’t love me any more,” I said. “That was clear from what happened with the catapulting and the sheets. But I want you to know. I will always be there for you. I will always watch over you.”
She went white at that, and it was as if I was seeing what her ghost looked like.
Greg came up to me in the toilets as I was washing my hands. I decided to forgive Gary. I had been used, all the ghosts had been used – but, fair enough, which of us wouldn’t have done the same thing? Karen Baldwin was very beautiful, after all. “Hello, Greg,” I said, amiably enough. He grabbed me and held my face hard against the mirror. It hurt. “You just leave her alone,” he said. He wouldn’t release me until I promised that I would.
But I didn’t know it was a promise I could keep. A supernatural force compels me each night to visit Karen Baldwin as she sleeps. I can’t stop it, and I’ve really tried. I understand what that force is now, and I’m not sure that love can just be switched off or made to go away. I wish it could be. That would make life so much easier.
I tried very hard.
I went to bed nice and early. Thought I’d read a book for a while. I turned out the light.
But pretty soon my body was itching for my ghost costume. Even then, once the sheet was around me, I knew it didn’t mean I had to go out. I could have just stayed there on the bed in it. Stayed in my own bed, for the first time in so very long, and waited for dawn.
Oh, my God. That sounded so sweet, so delicious. Believe me.
I have a regular taxi driver. I like him. He’s never tried to make conversation. He never shows any emotion at all. Tonight, though, I surprised him when I told him where I wanted to go.
And there I was, standing outside Alice’s house. Her bedroom light was still on. Oh yes, that’s right, she was always a late night bird. I waited until the house was dark, then waited another good half hour so everything would be nice and still.
I wondered how Alice was. I hadn’t seen her in ages.
I still had a spare key. It didn’t work. She had changed the locks! I had to do what I had never done to Karen’s house. I smashed a window to get inside.
I remembered Alice’s bedroom, going in there gave me a rush of nostalgia. There wasn’t the scented soap and perfume of Karen’s room, but there was still something female about it, something sweet to smell. We had had sex in this room quite a lot. She hadn’t done anything about the headboard, I noticed. When we’d had sex, the headboard would thump.
Alice was snoring. It was definitely snoring. Her face didn’t smile as it snored. Instead, it contorted into a sort of frown, a confused frown, as if she were concentrating on her dream very hard indeed but was not at all convinced by what she found in there. But she wasn’t thrashing the way she could sometimes do. She was calm. Calm, at least, for Alice.
Those buck teeth of hers. She really was very plain. But then, so am I. We are complementarily plain.
I checked my watch. It was ten past two. All right, then, we’d say this was a two o’clock shift, from now on I’d get into position ten minutes earlier. And tonight I’d put in a bit of overtime to make up for it.
I would protect her. Come what may.
And I reached out a finger, my middle finger. And pressed it down, hard, firm, right upon her forehead.