This is a short story from way back in 2016. I was tasked with writing a ghost story, to be read at a storytelling evening, and from what I can remember I wanted to explore how we might define a ‘ghost’. [10 minute read]
Gina always picked the weird ones.
Mike collected shoe trees. Pete was a vegan bodybuilder who smelled of Vicks Vaporub. And Rupert, Clapham’s own American Psycho, kept all his furniture under those creepy plastic covers. Whether they came from Tinder, match.com, the queue in the kebab shop, they all had something about them that was a bit dubious.
So, in the grand scheme of things, Andy was surprisingly normal. Judging from his profile on some obscure dating site – Gina had cast her net far and wide – he was actually quite intriguing. He was older than she usually goes for, maybe mid 50s. He was a university professor, with a PhD in quantum something. And he was cultured: he liked opera, philosophers I’d never heard of. But he wasn’t stuffy. There was something on his profile about Game of Thrones, which might actually have clinched it for him. There was no photograph. I said to Gina, you do realise that means he’s more David Gest than David Gandy? But she wasn’t bothered. She just said they could both agree that looks don’t matter, and she could stop shaving her legs. And when I asked about the age gap, Gina told me she’d been quite keen on older men since the 90s, when she’d had a major crush on Inspector Morse. In the end, we decided Andy was possibly a bit eccentric, but charming. Smart, but not a smartarse. I thought he was like Waitrose Essentials avocado: just wanky enough.
Gina had been in touch with him for a couple of weeks. His messages were funny, sweet, and very clever. Naturally, she was already visualising the swimsuit she’d wear on the honeymoon. But in those early days, one unexpected detail did come up: Andy had a son, from a previous marriage. Gina hadn’t probed too much, not at the start, but Andy said there was nothing nasty behind the split. He and his wife (divorced or separated, we weren’t sure) had just met and married at the wrong time. Gina couldn’t hold it against him. I see now that it was a red flag, just not for the reasons you might think.
Time is unreliable, don’t you think? Especially when it comes to love. You might think it’s all the same, that it’s a big mindless animal plodding evenly from one second to the next. But it’s slippery, deceiving. Think of how quickly the first date flies by, and then how the seconds drag when you’re waiting for a bloody text. There’s that quote, isn’t there:
Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is not.
People say it’s Shakespeare, but it’s not – it’s actually Henry van Dyke. That’s another problem, right? Knowing that people really are who you think they are.
Anyway. Back to Gina and Andy. They dated for about a year, I think. Then they moved in together, into his beautiful Islington house. Yes, house. And life was good. They went to wood-panelled pubs and drank overpriced pale ale, they took trains into the countryside at the weekends. They bought a spiraliser. I’m making it sound trivial, but the truth is they were very much in love. And, despite their differences, they were somehow a perfect fit. She adored his whirring brain, he made her curious about things she’d never thought about. After a year, they still held hands in the street. Honestly, it was like they’d stepped out of a Bronte novel. And on New Year’s Eve, Andy did something really romantic: just as the bongs were going off, he presented Gina with this beautiful vintage watch, made the year he was born, as a reminder of him. On the back there was an inscription from Emily Dickinson: ‘Forever is composed of nows.’ It was lovely. I remember saying to my husband Leo, pointedly, just how lovely it was, as he stared at the television. But it was so lovely that it made Gina think: is this forever? And deep down, she realised, it couldn’t be. Because she wanted children. But Andy had his son, and he’d said that was enough. Honestly, the connection between Gina and Andy was out of this world. But, like him and his first wife, they just seemed to have met at the wrong time. It was a hard decision, and Gina had to be brave. But there was only one thing she could do.
When she told him, he seemed to take it well enough. Possibly a little too well. Gina said he didn’t argue or sulk or cry. He just looked at her, quietly, for a long time. She said he was like a watchmaker studying a faulty mechanism. Then they hugged, awkwardly. And she packed her bags. She let him keep the spiraliser. And they promised to always stay in touch. You say these things, don’t you, without really meaning it.
There were a few months of tears. Takeaways. Not shaving legs, although perhaps no change there. And then, out of nowhere, Drew came along.
They met at the bus stop near Gina’s place, her drenched with rain and laden with shopping bags of digestives and toilet roll. But that didn’t put him off. And he was great. Funny, quick-witted. He was our age, which seemed to make all the difference. At first I worried that Gina might still be on the rebound, that she’d constantly compare this new guy, unfavourably, to the last. But I was pleased to be proved wrong. Over time she became mad about Drew, and he was mad about her. It was sickening, actually. In fact, she said she felt like she’d known him forever. Apparently lightning does strike twice. It was an amazing time. They both had their own minds, their own interests, but it looked like they wanted the same things out of life.
It’s hard to say when it started, as those little things only make sense with hindsight. But I think they’d been dating a couple of months. The first thing was when she was at work and got a voicemail from Drew – she pressed 1, to listen to the message, and she told me she heard this voice on the end of the line. A voice she hadn’t heard in a while, but one she’d know anywhere. She said it was Andy, and he said: Hi. Just calling to say I love you. And I’ll see you soon. She was so freaked out that she accidentally deleted all her messages, so she couldn’t even listen again to see whether or not she was having a breakdown. When she got home, Drew told her that he had called her and left a message that day. But had she really mistaken him for Andy? Gina didn’t think so. She told me how it had affected her, to think she’d heard Andy’s voice again. She said she’d felt chilled. And she didn’t know why – after all, Andy had never been unkind to her, never made her feel uncomfortable. But Gina just had this strange feeling that something was very wrong.
That’s another thing I should mention. Often, when people talk about romantics, they mean roses and dinner and not splitting the bill. But Romantic – Romanticism, with a capital R – that’s something else. Emotion and intuition. It’s about nature and the sublime. And it’s about a constant longing, an everlasting search for something unattainable. It’s that feeling when you want something desperately, something you think is truly perfect – but then, as soon as you get it, you realise it can’t really have been perfect, not if it was possible for an ordinary mortal like you to get it. So you move onto something else. I remember Andy at his piano, playing his Schubert. He always was an old Romantic.
Anyway. Things got weird. Gina told me that she’d been sleeping really badly, that she’d found herself lying awake at night. And one of those nights, while she lay in the dark, she became absolutely certain that Andy was in the room. She said she just had this feeling of his presence, and it turned her cold. But there was nobody there except her and, sleeping beside her, gentle Drew, his arm draped protectively over her. She even got up and walked around the flat, peering under sofas, checking the locks on the windows. And after a while, she started getting the same feeling right in the middle of the day, maybe when the two of them were knee-deep in Breaking Bad. As if Andy was nearby, looking at her. At one point she started wondering whether something terrible had happened to him and activated her previously-unrealised psychic powers – but I said to her, Gina, I talked you down from homeopathy, and I’ll talk you down from clairvoyance too. I even told her to call Andy to put her mind at ease. Just call him, I said, tell him you just wanted to say hi, you know, just being friendly. But when Gina called his mobile, it had been disconnected. She tried emailing, but she never knew whether her messages arrived anywhere or not. We had no idea what was going on, but it was as if Andy had never existed.
Before I get to the end, I should say one last thing about Andy. He was a nice guy. I liked him a lot. And he wasn’t just clever – he was brilliant. I used to talk to him about his PhD, his quantum stuff, and he’d try, patiently, to explain some of the basic ideas to me. I remember he told me about that famous thought experiment: Schroedinger’s cat. You know: you’ve got a sealed box, and inside it is a cat and a radioactive source. If the radioactive source starts to decay, the cat will die. But, while the box is sealed, you can’t know whether the cat is alive or dead. One theory in quantum mechanics says you can only know the position of a particle for sure when you observe it – and that unless you observe it, a particle has no fixed position. And so, according to that line of thinking, before you open the box the cat is alive and dead at the same time. Course, we know that’s not what happens in real life. And why would anyone have a radioactive cat in a box?
But this universe of ours is screwy. And the idea that a particle can be in two different states, two different places – two different times – all at once? I don’t know what to think any more.
So. Another New Year’s Eve rolls around, and we’re all together. Me and Leo, Drew and Gina. We’re at their place, eating crisps and dips while Gina uses every single implement in the kitchen making some kind of jus. Gary Barlow is on the telly, hamming up his Northern accent, and our glasses are charged with random fizz left over from Christmas.
And just as we’re all sitting down to dinner, Drew says he wants to say something. He has this twinkle in his eye, and Leo and I nearly choke on our Kettle Chips. Drew pulls out this little box, a little jewellery box, and hands it to Gina. She, slightly red-faced – from the kitchen or the gesture, I don’t know – opens it. And there inside is a ring. And engraved inside the beautiful gold band is a quote: a beautiful quote, one we all recognise. From Emily Dickinson. Drew, says Leo, I had no idea you were such a romantic. I’m full of surprises, says Drew. Then he catches my eye – and at that moment, I realise how much he looks like someone else, only much younger. And I wonder how I never noticed before. And I wonder why I never noticed that Andy and Drew are variations of the same name. I’d go to the end of time for this girl, he says. Gina is blushing, speechless. Then she says yes, Leo applauds, and I force myself to join in.
Obviously, I don’t understand it. I try to draw a timeline in my head, but it’s like a tangled watch chain, impossible to unpick. I don’t see Gina and Drew much these days, maybe just a glance and a wave in the supermarket – and when I do it’s as if I freeze, like the earth stands still. I get it: Gina just wants everything to work out. Especially as she’s pregnant now, with the child she always wanted. She’s convinced herself that Drew must have seen the watch from Andy, and that he maybe remembered the engraving subconsciously or something. She chooses not to see the connection. She chooses not to see how, as time goes on, Drew looks more and more like someone we used to know.
And I just wonder what will happen, a few years down the line, when we’re all a little greyer and baggier. When the child (and yes, it’s a boy) is a teenager. When Drew feels like chasing that spark, that perfect passion that always seems to slip through our fingers. Because, as we know: for ordinary people like me and Leo, time marches on. But for those who love, time is not.