Original Short Story: Enjoy The Silence
A ghost story from the ghosts’ point of view
Prish sighed as the two ghosts on the street below waved cheerily back up at her. It was far from the first time passing free spirits had made the same mistake. They assumed she was waving at them. She wasn’t. She wasn’t waving at anyone.
Out of ingrained politeness, Prish smiled back (feeling really goofy doing so) and the satisfied spirits – a skinny guy in a wetsuit and an old woman in a Victorian bathing outfit – started off down the street again, walking entirely unnoticed and unimpeded through a small group of still-living skateboarders as they headed out of the grey valley between the two Brutalist tower blocks. Ghosts were less than wind as far as the living were concerned.
After that brief interruption she got back to the job in hand. What Prish had been doing wasn’t waving, it was signing.
At a window on the fifth floor of the block opposite, a blue-rinsed old ghost watched Prish’s fluid gestures with rapt attention.
“Then there was a big punch up in the Rover’s Return. Toyah gave David a black eye,” signed Prish.
“Good for her,” the other ghost signed back.
Prish was updating Dot with all the juicy revelations from the previous night’s Coronation Street. Dot loved a bit of Corrie but rarely got a chance to catch an episode these days because the new (living) owners of her flat were a trendy young couple who only ever watched Netflix and sport.
Prish didn’t actually watch Corrie either, but she knew a ghost who did: Rita, who lived a couple of storeys above Dot. Rita, arms whirling like a windmill, was currently signing a breathless summary of the Street’s latest shenanigans to Prish, who was relaying them on to Dot. Even if Rita hadn’t seen the episode, Prish knew she’d be able to find some other ghost who had. Corrie was one of the easier shows to keep up to date with. There was always some ghost lingering in a flat where the TV had been on and tuned to the soap.
Prish had come up with the term lingering because she wasn’t keen on haunting. Ghosts, it turned out, didn’t actually do any haunting, not in the accepted sense. They had absolutely no interaction with the living at all. On any level. The living couldn’t see them, even vaguely out of the corners of their eyes. They couldn’t hear them, not even the faintest, “Boo!” Ghosts couldn’t communicate through mediums (they were all fake). Pets couldn’t sense them. And ghosts certainly couldn’t move objects around with psychic powers or write cryptic messages in the condensation on glass shower doors.
So lingering seemed a far more apt term. Especially for tethered ghosts who found themselves bound to particular places. Sure, all ghosts could walk through solid objects. But tethered ghosts, unlike free spirits, could only roam so far before being blocked by some undefined force. And so Prish, like many of her neighbours in the afterlife, found herself bound to her old flat. Which she found odd, as she hadn’t died there or even particularly liked the place. But that was just one more thing that didn’t make sense in an afterlife where little did. After all, what governed who became a ghost (because clearly the vast majority didn’t) and why some were tethered when others weren’t?
Corrie summary completed, Dot forwarded Prish some football results she’d picked up from the sports channels that her flat’s new owners watched. Dot had little interest in the pairs of numbers she was signing across, but Prish knew a good few ghosts in the building opposite who were hungry for this information. At least one of whom was going to be gutted. Chelsea nil, Spurs three.
“Phil’s not going to like that,” thought Prish, as she looked for a familiar portly, red-faced figure in a window two storeys below Dot’s. There he was, waiting patiently – a middle-aged ghost in a tight blue soccer shirt who gave every impression that he’d avoided any actual sporting activity himself in real life. “Did we win?” he signed hastily. Prish delivered the bad news.
And so it went on all morning, with Prish in Herschel Block A passing information and chat to and from the ghosts in Herschel Block B. Also online today (as she liked to think of it) were Jimmy the Doctor Who fan, stargazer Chris, wild-haired Alvita, F-bomb Ben (whose messages invariably needed some censorship), Logan, Kylie, Chardonnay, Bald Archie, bad-shirt guy, squirrel girl (don’t ask), scary teeth, the serious bitch on the fifth floor, Squinty McSquintface, Ms Shoulder Pads, the Adidas King, pork belly and…
Prish actually lost track of who was active, not that anybody was keeping records. It didn’t matter to her. She just loved being at the centre of this whirling kaleidoscope of spectral buzz. Some of the ghosts were after specific information, others just wanted a chat to relieve the tedium. And so the messages flew back and forth between the estate’s concrete edifices.
“Did you know Ange Taylor used to perform backstreet abortions with a crochet hook and a tin bath?” Prish relayed from one ghost on the seventh storey to her friend on the second.
“No! And she made such lovely butterfly cakes,” came the reply.
“Queen to Rook five,” signed a Jamaican lady on the sixth storey.
“Knight to King three,” signed back her opponent.
The game had been going on for months.
Prish alone made this all possible.
Before she’s died, the ghosts of Herschel Block B had been strangers to each other, countless spirits anchored to countless different flats in the same block, not just unable to communicate, but largely oblivious to each other’s existence.
Then Prish had arrived in the afterlife, tethered to the flat she’d rented with her boyfriend. A flat that was opposite all those other ghosts. And that changed everything.
After a period of transition, in which Prish became accustomed to her incorporeal state, and was incapable of doing much besides watching the flat’s windows grow ever thicker with dirt (her ex did not handle her death well), she gradually became aware of all those isolated souls trapped in their myriad of bubble universes across the way. Then it clicked. She could get them talking.
Well, after a fashion.
Obviously she couldn’t hear them and they couldn’t hear her, not over that distance. Plus there was the fact that Prish had been profoundly deaf since birth, and continued to be so in death. But that became the key. She was fluent in sign language. All she had to do was get the others fluent too.
It was slow going, but she’d expected that, and time wasn’t exactly an issue. At first the other ghosts just waved back at her, not a clue what she was trying to achieve. Then a couple seemed to twig and others swiftly followed.
Prish started with the basics: counting (lots of holding up fingers), pronouns (lots of pointing), common objects (lots of pigeons). She adapted the BSL she’d learned to make the more expansive so they could be easily communicated across the divide. She creating bespoke signs that suited their particular interests. This included one for “TARDIS” that she created for Jimmy the Doctor Who fan after his own attempt – drawing a box shape with his hands followed by a forward whooshing motion (for the future) before ending with a kind of rolling gesture over his shoulder (for the past) – took longer to perform than a Shakespearean monologue. Prish reduced it to creating upright rectangle with her thumbs and index fingers then pulling hands rapidly apart into an expansive arms wide gesture. In her head she was portraying a box that was bigger on the inside but she wasn’t sure if Jimmy ever actually got that.
It had taken a couple of years and countless gibberish conversations before they achieved a level of workable lucidity. And Prish felt a sense of empowerment she’d rarely felt before.
“You love all this, don’t you?” signed Dot one day.
“Being the centre of attention. I remember a quote I heard on a TV documentary: ‘Blindness cuts you off from things, but deafness cuts you off from people.’ Now you’re the least cut off person in our little society.”
Prish chewed on that. She wasn’t sure what she felt to be honest. Being dead largely sucked. Being deaf sucked too. Ironically, however, the combination of the two was making parts of her afterlife exhilarating in a way she’d never experienced in life.
What was that old saying? In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. Well, she was the one-eared king in the land of the deaf. If that actually made any sense.
Not that her life had been some remorseless well of depression and self pity. Far from it. There were challenges, difficulties and low moments, sure, but everybody had those. She’d had a successful career, a large group of friends and a guy she adored who’d taken time to learn sign language because he didn’t think it right that she should put in all the effort lip reading. She had a fun, fulfilled life (unless you believed her mother who was under the impression that no woman could possibly be fulfilled until she’d dropped a sprog). She certainly knew a lot of fully-abled people a lot less happy than she was.
Having said all that, deafness wasn’t just some trivial inconvenience, like myopia that could be corrected with a pair of glasses. It irritated her that some people regarded deafness as a “soft option” disability, the one they’d choose if forced at gunpoint to pick a physical defect from a list because, hey, it wasn’t that bad. She had specific a bone to pick with the Paralympics; the fact it has no category for deaf athletes surely sent out a message that, hey, deafness isn’t a real disability.
But for Prish, who’d been profoundly deaf from birth, deafness was a daily struggle; a daily struggle to connect. Humans are social animals, but being deaf made socialising a constant slog. Sure, lip reading, signing and pen and paper meant she could get across a message, but since when was talking just a dry exchange of facts? What about nuance? What about stress? What about timing? It was difficult to inject witty one-liners into group conversations down the pub when you were constantly trying to follow the back-and-forth of exchanges one mouth at a time. Often she she just laughed when others laughed, even if she hadn’t got a clue what she was laughing at, just to make others feel comfortable, because not laughing in a group makes you look weird. And she couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that her hearing friends and work mates colleagues had to consciously make an effort to include her.
Dot was right. Deafness cuts you off from people.
But not any more.
Now Prish was the conductor of a silent orchestra, the ebb and flow and rhythm of its soundless symphony under her control and guidance.
And it was a total rush.
Which was good, because apart from that, being a ghost was monumentally dull.
“We’re all desperate for anything to break the tedium,” Jimmy mused one day. “And you’re feeding us, Prish. You’re our dealer. You give me my Doctor Who fix. Dot’s getting high on Corrie cocaine.”
Prish wasn’t keen on that analogy. Instead, she found herself agreeing when a haunted-eyed goth girl on the third floor admitted, “I just miss the sex.”
Instead the ghosts of Herschel Estate pondered the big questions. The afterlife was good for pondering. Such as, if you were tethered to a flat with a drop dead gorgeous living occupant, was it immoral (or just downright creepy) to check them out in the shower?
Then, suddenly, everything changed again.
Drizzle drifted from grey-blanketed sky the morning it happened. The current owner of Prish’s flat – a nurse whose hours Prish rarely kept track of – had already had left for work. Prish stood at the living room window waiting to see if any of the other spectral networkers were ready to chat yet.
Nope. No one around.
No worries. It was early.
An hour later there was still no sign of anybody. Odd.
Around 11am the curtains to Jimmy’s flat flew back. The guys who owned Jimmy’s flat were notoriously late risers – they both worked in bars by the canal. A few minutes later, Jimmy appeared and beamed his usual toothy smile. Prish signed back, “Hi.”
Jimmy was about to sign something back when he was distracted by something further into the flat. He turned from the window. Was he talking to someone? That was odd? A free spirit, presumably?
“Jimmy, what’s going on?” Prish signed. Jimmy didn’t seem to notice her.
Prish squinted. There was definitely another figure in the flat who wasn’t either of its owners, who spent most of their time in little more than their pants. This figure was more of a blur in human shape; pale, indistinct and shifting, like a moon seen through frosted glass. Prish squinted but couldn’t bring the figure into clearer focus. It beckoned Jimmy closer. He leaned in towards it as if to listen to something it was saying. A goofy grin spread across Jimmy’s face; his eyes grew wide and dreamy. He looked like he’d just entered the TARDIS for real for the first time.
She signed again, a little more wildly this time. “Are you okay?”
Jimmy didn’t move but her signing caught the attention of the other figure. It straightened and slowly turned its gaze her way. Not that Prish could see any eyes; it was more like she just felt its gaze.
Leaving Jimmy to sag to his knees like a puppet whose strings had been cut, the blurry figure melted through the flat’s window. It hung in the air three storeys above ground for a moment, before beginning a brisk stroll towards Prish, each step leaving a hovering smudge of a footprint in the air. This was some new form of ghost Prish had never encountered before – no ghost she knew, tethered or free, could levitate.
As it approached her flat window, its figures features started to resolve though never fully sharpen, as if all if edges were fraying into a powdery haze. Prish couldn’t shake an unnerving feeling that the ghost had been dead an unfathomably long time. But she didn’t feel fear, just that sense of “Oh, shit!” she used to get when she answered the front door to a double glazing salesman.
Finally, the ghost dissolved through the window of Prish’s flat leaving oily wisps swirling in the air. Hanging in front of her like a man-shaped storm cloud, it started talking. Prish obviously couldn’t hear it, but she could see the vague outline of a mouth opening and closing rapidly. It was also waving its arms quite animatedly.
No, she thought, not a salesman. More like some travelling evangelic preacher.
Prish shook her head in frustration and mouthed back, “I don’t understand!”
The ghost’s shifting outline became more agitated. The mouth was opening wider. Prish assumed it was shouting at her now, but not in aggression, just frustration. Prish’s response was a shrug.
Next, the ghost floated right up to her and tried screaming in her ear. Prish waved it away in frustration and pointed at her ears with both index fingers. “Deaf!” she mouthed. Then again more exaggeratedly: “DEAF!”
The ghost stepped away, then became motionless, as if thinking. Then the penny must finally have dropped because the ghost turned its back on her with a theatrical pirouette a dismissive wave of the hand. Prish was convinced it was having a diva hissyfit. It then float-walked back out through the window and stomped off in a huff as best it could when treading on thin air. Eventually it vanished round the back of Herschel Block B and Prish never saw it again.
She looked back at the window of Jimmy’s flat. He didn’t reappear.
Neither did any of the other ghosts. That day, or the next, or the next.
Prish was in silence again. Cloying, claustrophobic, soul-sapping silence. In the sudden absence of purpose it felt like her mind was slowly melting, heading for a complete shutdown. She skulked around the flat in a dull, semi-conscious, apathy, sometimes convinced she’d caught a glimpse of one of her old friends in a window opposite, then dismissing it as a fevered hallucination.
It was just over six weeks before Prish made contact with Block B again. She was watching the street below for a passing free spirit to sign a rude message at (she had to get her kicks somehow) when she noticed the haunted-eyed, goth girl at her window, a distracted expression on her thin face. Prish blinked, half expecting the illusion to vanish. Instead, the girl waved lazily at Prish.
Prish tentatively waved back.
Haunted-eyed girl began signing, slowly. She’d never been the most lucid signer and months without practice hadn’t helped her fluency. “Where you been? Why not you talking to us?”
“I don’t understand,” Prish signed back. “You stopped talking to me.”
“We talk,” signed the girl, gesturing around herself to the rest of Block B. “You were silent.”
Prish felt a slight panic rising in her – was she understanding this correctly? “You talk with each other?”
The girl gave a thumbs up and grinned again.
“But how?” signed Prish.
“Fuzzy ghost told us how to connect,” signed the girl falteringly. “It’s ghost internet. Really addictive. Social media for spooks. I haven’t seen sun for too long. Needed to get out.”
“It didn’t work for me,” signed Prish, feverishly – she now understood what the ancient ghost had been trying to do. “I couldn’t hear what he was saying! Can you sign me how to get connected too?”
The girl furrowed her brow, deep in thought. It looked like it was causing her pain. After a few moments she shook her head. “I don’t know the signs. Sorry. Can’t help.”
She began to turn from the window.
“Wait!” signed Prish frantically. The girl hesitated. Prish couldn’t believe what she was about to sign. “Do you know what’s been going on in Coronation Street?”
“I don’t follow it,” signed the girl.
“Or the football?”
“Or anything. Just… anything…?”
On the street below a free spirit in an white hard hat made the usual mistake and waved up at Prish.
She signed back with a two-fingered gesture the spirit didn’t need to know sign language to understand.
© Dave Golder, 2020