Ghost Story in Four Parts
They met like this: he was leaning up against a thousand year-old cross on campus, smoking. She told him to get off the thing because it was a gravestone, protected by the National Trust.
"So sue me," he said.
"That's so American," she said. "The lawsuit. Here we'll just fine your ass off."
But they liked each other's accents, and they got to talking. She told him how the whole university sat on the site of a medieval village, wiped out by the plague, and how there were ghosts all over the place.
"They say that if you touch the old cross, you'll see one for sure."
"Amazing," he said. "Sounds like total bullshit."
"Okay, fine," she confessed. "I made it all up. But I had you going, didn't I?" When she invited him to lunch a few days later, they got along fabulously. The kicker was they were both second year law students-or at least he would have been, if he hadn't taken the year off to study history in England. They fell into bed together, spent whole weekends sleeping in late, learned the tiny constellations of freckles on one another's shoulders, and by Easter holiday were taking a romantic trip up north together. Later though, when she broke things off, the question he couldn't get out of his head was why?
But this was the wrong question.
Not long after they met, she'd caught him in the campus library browsing the stacks instead of studying. He'd found a copy of On the Road and was re-reading the Mexico chapters.
"You'll never pass your exams if you don't take things seriously," she had said. "No wonder you're not back home getting on with your studies."
"You're supposed to be impressed at how wide ranging my tastes are," he answered.
"For reading Kerouac?" she laughed. "The man never enjoyed anything good while he had it. What a bunch of shite!" She pulled the book out of his hands and hid it behind her back.
"Fine," he said, reaching out and trying to get it back. "What are you reading right now? For pleasure, I mean."
"For pleasure?" She laughed. "Between you and class, I don't have the time." She winked. "Unless you'd rather I gave you up?"
Later that day they walked up by the old cross. They sat on an iron bench in the middle of a small square and pulled out their cigarettes and smoked. A green moss with the texture of velvet grew everywhere: on the cross, on the bench, even between the smooth gray paving stones. They stubbed out the butts on the mossy ground.
"No time to read, huh? Let me tell you a story, then," he said, leaning over to kiss her. "I'm from Moffett, Wyoming, okay? Named after the Moffett family, who arrived by covered wagon and settled the area back in the 1860's or something."
"I see, how charming," she said, pulling back just enough that he'd have to work for it. "Do go on."
"Well, they had a daughter, and she fell in love with an architect from Denver. Move to Denver with me, he told her, but she didn't want to leave her family. Maybe she liked living in a town named Moffett, I don't know. But to make a long story short, she died the very next winter in a snowstorm, out looking for lost cattle, her spirit wandering the plains forever. So that's what all work and no play gets you."
"Sounds like bullshit to me," she said, letting him kiss her at last.
"No, no, it's all true, I swear." "You're such a liar," she said. Then suddenly: "So why are you here, anyway. Because I don't get it. If you like history, why are you studying law back home? Or if you're committed to studying law, why are you here? Don't you see why I don't want to get close to you? You keep trying to convince me you're serious, but you can't even convince yourself."
This at last was the question, but he had no answer to it.
What he did after she called things off was spend a lot of time brooding. He found a perch high up in the library, third floor, where the Arab students read Socialist newspapers and chain-smoked. These were two of the things he liked most about England: the left-wing politics and the fact that you could smoke anywhere. It was the mirror image of Wyoming, of the life as a small town lawyer that was waiting for him there. Why had he decided to go to England for a year? That was part of the question too, and the answer was either thoughtful or ignoble. Had he come to reflect, consider, and decide? Or just to delay, procrastinate, and dodge? It depended on whether he had any real intention of dropping out of law school, or of disappointing his family, or of moving somewhere far away from Moffett. Then to have met this woman, so sure of her own convictions, of her own path to the future. Every second with her was sweet but also overpowering, like a bite of pure frosting off a birthday cake.
What had gone wrong? The trip up north, he decided. They'd packed a single suitcase and taken the bus to Newcastle, where for three days they hiked along Hadrian's Wall. Northumberland in the spring was desolate, and the landscape reminded him of home. Each day they followed the winding length of the old wall from village to village, through wind and persistent drizzle, until they found a bed and breakfast to stay the night.
"From up above," he had said one day after having trekked through field after field of muddy cows and trampled yellow wheat stalks, "this countryside must look like a couple of strips of tattered canvas, sewn together by the Roman wall." He'd said this idly, but she made a big deal of the comparison.
"That's it, isn't. I wouldn't have thought to describe it like that, but that's it exactly. A poet and a barrister. Imagine!"
"Now who's not being serious," he teased her, but the truth was he liked seeing her this way, unbrushed and windblown, relaxed, hundreds of miles from campus and classes and studies.
Then that night the most extraordinary thing happened. At a pub they met two local hikers who claimed to have seen a ghost tailor-dressed in a suit, sheers and measuring tape in hand-roaming the empty plains north of the wall.
"Amazing," she had said, "because my American friend here, he just out of the blue today starts telling me how the countryside looks like sewn canvas." She called over the bartender and anyone else who would listen and made the hikers tell their story before telling his. Everyone agreed that it was very strange and mysterious, and later that night the two of them pulled close, skin on skin, feeling nothing at all ghostly but instead something real.
But now, in the library, he seemed to recall that the boots of those two hikers had been clean-no mud, no nicks. Well, in fact he couldn't quite recall it exactly, but it seemed possible. And wasn't that the whole problem with eye-witness testimony? And once he had the possibility, it didn't matter whether it was true or not. The logic had a certain beauty of its own. Because maybe those hikers hadn't been out hiking at all, maybe they hadn't seen any ghost tailor. Maybe he had actually told his story first, and they had just made up theirs to fit. Perhaps they had never met an American before, just as she never had, and they were just having a laugh at his expense. The trip up north had seemed so perfect, but it was also locus of all his imagined doubts. She had never been in love with him, he decided, only with the idea of being in love with an American.
"When I'm back home," he told himself, "it'll be so obvious." There was no mystery that night, only novelty.
He heard jazz through the window of the pub as he walked by. Inside, all the fashionable Brits wore cowboy boots and drank Budweiser. Jazz and cowboy boots, he thought? It was a shallow, ill-matched sort of imitation. He had seen enough real cowboys back in Moffett to know. But he ordered a Budweiser too, and sat in the corner at an empty table, sipping froth and watching bubbles rise.
Why had she called things off? Because she could do the arithmetic. He had come for a year and one year minus one year was zero. The problem was this equation left him feeling as trampled and cold as Northumberland. But during those lonely days in the library another possibility had come to him, an algebraic sleight of hand that transformed everything. Instead of asking himself why he couldn't accept that something could be beautiful and short-lived, he simply denied that it had been beautiful at all. Just by saying it he felt better, an obstacle lifted from his path.
What he didn't know yet was that he could now convince himself of anything: that he hadn't loved her, that her motives had been crass, that this year abroad had been a waste, that he really wanted to finish law school. Anything seemed possible, even the thought that possibility itself was malleable. Being able to look straight through the truth and not even see it, being able to stare through it like a ghost, that was the one skill that had been missing from his legal repertoire. But no more. His future was now laid out before him; the long, thin wings of a jumbo jet would fly him there. Nothing was left for him to do except order another beer and wait for it to be time to leave for the airport. Soon, very soon, it was.