Last year my Christmas card was about haunted technology – the ghost in the machine, so to speak. This year I return to the computer to write a story about someone quite like me, writing a Christmas card short story to upload and share. All very meta. I hope you like it.
The Ghost Story
‘Sardines’, wrote Tom, then stared disconsolately at the word on the screen. He centred and emboldened it, and increased the font size to 16. That was a bit better: it looked more like a title now and less like an act of desperation.
It was late November and he was setting out to write his annual ‘Christmas card’ to his social media friends. It was something he’d started five years ago. In the weeks leading up to Christmas he’d written a seasonal short story and uploaded it to his blog site, then invited his friends and followers to read it. He had no idea how many – if any – of them had done so, but he had enjoyed the process enough to repeat it the following advent and every year since.
This year he was struggling. He knew that he wanted to write a ghost story according to the principles that the master of the genre, the Edwardian writer MR James, had set out in the prefaces to various editions of his collected tales. Make the central character one with whom the reader could identify, James instructed, build tension through a series of hints of supernatural malevolence, leading to what he described as a ‘swift and dreadful climax’. Those rules provided an effective skeleton on which to hang a tale. Tom’s problem was that he didn’t have the tale to hang on the skeleton.
All he had was an idea that the climactic scare would be in a wardrobe. That location had been suggested to him by the wardrobe in the bedroom of his new flat. It was a dark brown Victorian monstrosity that towered above the rest of the flat-pack bedroom furniture, glaringly out of place. Tom suspected that it was only there because his landlord couldn’t get it down the stairs.
Tom’s idea was that the victim – or victims, he wasn’t sure yet – of his story would hide in the wardrobe during a game of Sardines, that variation on Hide and Seek in which the seekers, on finding the hider, must one-by-one join them in their place of hiding. The giggling intimacy of Sardines, Tom thought, offered the possibility that something nasty might be lurking in the dark corners of the wardrobe, and might want to join the game.
James’ stories were often told retrospectively by their protagonists, telescoping the reader back in time and lending first-person authority to the tale. Tom intended to use the same device. He started:
I suppose you could say that this story only ended the week before last, which is odd when you think that it began thirty-six years ago. Longer still for Gerald Painter; but for me and our Joe it was thirty-six years ago last month that we were invited to Gerald’s Christmas party.
He took a sip of whisky and read his words back. Christmas, he realised, was wrong. Christmas was everybody’s feast. Whilst the host could reasonably anticipate a present from every guest, they would reasonably expect one in return. At a birthday party, however, the giving would be entirely one-sided. It offered opportunities for a spoilt brat to lord it over his guests, to bully or humiliate them as he wished. And a spoilt brat could legitimately be punished in a way that an innocent child could not. With a dash of regret that he was losing seasonality – but confident that it better served the story – Tom deleted ‘Christmas’ and replaced it with ‘Birthday’.
With that, he was off the blocks. Characters introduced themselves and Tom got to know them. Events hopped about the screen in blocks, organising themselves into dramatic order. He rattled off a few expository paragraphs, leading up to the moment when the first shadow fell across the tale:
We didn’t want to go to the party, but mum insisted. She felt sorry for him. Everybody’s mum felt sorry for Gerald. One of the reasons the Painters had moved to Yorkshire was to try to put the death of Gerald’s younger sister, Hilary, behind them. Gerald had witnessed the whole thing, alone on the bank of a pond in the fields near his house, looking on helplessly as she had drowned just beyond his reach.
Having reached that satisfying point, a gurgle in his stomach reminded him that he had not eaten since he arrived home. He saved and closed the document and went through to the kitchen to search the almost empty fridge for sustenance.
* * *
Over the following evening’s takeaway, he reviewed his story so far, changing the structure of a sentence or two, replacing the odd word with another that fit better. When he reached the last paragraph, he frowned.
One of the reasons the Painters had moved to Yorkshire, he read, was to try to put the death of Gerald’s younger sister, Enid, behind them.
He had originally intended to name the sister after his aunt Hilary, as an easy way of signalling the period in which the story was set. He had no recollection whatsoever of choosing Enid instead. Such blanks of memory were nothing new to him, especially after a couple of large whiskies. Enid worked okay, but he still preferred his original choice. He gathered ‘Enid’ into a grey block, tapped the backspace button and retyped ‘Hilary’ in its place.
He embarked on the party, compounding from a mixture of memory and imagination the most toe-curlingly awful event he could muster.
The food was rotten; egg or fish paste sandwiches, little pastry cases full of stuff which looked like cat-sick, and cubes of cheese, pieces of pineapple and pickled onions, all spiked on the same stick. There was barley water to drink and for afters a birthday cake with `Happy Birthday Darling Gerald’ written on it in red icing.
Mrs. Painter, the Frankenstein to Gerald’s monster, almost wrote herself:
As the game went on I could see that she was trying to fix it for Gerald to win. Eventually only he and Joe were left, marching round the last remaining chair. But then she made a mess of it and stopped the music while Gerald was showing off to the posh children and Joe got to the chair first. There was nothing she could do but give Joe the prize, which left Gerald sulking and staring daggers at him. Joe came and stood next to me, pressing himself against my side.
After a few more paragraphs, Tom went to the kitchen and poured himself a generous glass of scotch. The heap of unwashed crockery stared at him beseechingly from the worktop beside the sink.
When he returned to his desk twenty minutes later, the laptop screen was blank. His forefinger skated a circle around the touchpad. Nothing. He tapped the space bar, then looked down at the plug and cursed: he had forgotten to switch the power on at the wall and the laptop battery had drained. Trying to recall when he had last saved, he flicked on the socket switch and after a couple of abortive attempts, rebooted the machine.
His word processing package informed him that it had autosaved a recent copy of his document. Would he, it asked politely, like to see it? He hit the Enter key and was hugely relieved to see his story appear on the screen, complete with his most recent tweaks to the text.
No, there was one error. Gerald’s sister had turned back into Enid. Tom frowned. He was sure that he had changed the name at the start of the evening, before the new paragraphs. But maybe it was a glitch in the autosave. Still, it amused him to imagine that the poor girl was naming herself, so he left it in.
After the disastrous game of Musical Chairs it was time for the children to play the fateful game of Sardines, which gave Tom the chance to let Gerald off the leash. In revenge for the musical chairs debacle, he tried to make the timid Joe hide first. Tom hastily invented Charlie, the unnamed narrator’s best friend, who stepped in and volunteered himself for the task. Tom went back through the story, retrofitting Charlie by adding a couple of introductory sentences.
He was approaching the ‘swift and dreadful climax’. Gerald was the first to find Charlie, so became the next round’s hider. First in turn to discover Gerald hiding in the wardrobe were the unnamed narrator and little Joe. Gerald petulantly ordered them to get in quickly and close the door.
A smell was coming from somewhere, damp and musty, a smell of decay.
“Who’s in here?” He asked.
His voice sounded loud in the confines of the wardrobe, and a little shrill.
“Just you, me, our Joe and the other girl,” I whispered back.
“What other girl?” asked Gerald.
Tom went to the kitchen, refilled his glass and sat back down his desk, then scrolled down to the end of his text.
He stared at the screen in blank bewilderment. This time there was no possibility that those words were a change to the text that he had made and forgotten about. He glanced over his shoulder, against the absurd improbability that someone – who, he couldn’t imagine – had sneaked into the flat and was playing a trick on him. There was nobody.
Had his laptop been hacked? If so, it was by a perverse sort of hacker: a practical joker with a twisted sense of humour. The possibility panicked him: his hard drive was full of personal and financial details, including the crib sheet listing all his passwords. He hurriedly clicked on the taskbar and turned off the wifi.
More words appeared on the screen: not typed in letter by letter, but fading in softly, all at once.
Come and find me.
He leapt to his feet, ran across the room and pulled the router plug out of the socket. When he looked back at the screen, another line had appeared. He sat back down and stared dumbly at the words.
You’re getting colder.
He typed, “Who are you?” and waited.
“Enid’s not real. I made her up. Her name is Hilary.” He was thumping the keys, angry and scared at the intrusion.
“Where are you hiding?” he stared at the screen, waiting for a reply. Nothing came.
Then a movement caught his eye. Something white and wrinkled was rising up, just behind the screen. Some things. They curled over to grip the top of the screen and Tom saw nails. Fingers. Tom reared back, upsetting his chair and tumbling out of his seat in a clumsy half-somersault.
A crown of wet, dark hair appeared, then a forehead of pasty and swollen flesh.
Most of the head was now visible above the screen. It had the face of a young girl, but horribly bloated and white, with bedraggled hair clinging to the forehead and cheeks. A line of water ran along the edge of the laptop and gathered in a pool at the front of the desk.
The girl’s eyes were almost hidden, buried between water-swollen eyebrows and cheeks. She was looking straight at Tom. She smiled.