‘I don’t believe in ghosts,’ Khalid said, his first day on the job as a security guard at Kenilworth Castle.
‘Neither do I,’ said the gardener, who had stopped at the staff kitchen for a cup of tea. ‘But when something funny happens that you can’t explain, just remember the ghosts here aren’t malicious. The boys on the top floor are mischievous—forever moving things around. And him along the corridor doesn’t like people in his space but he only gets a bit shouty. Or so I’ve heard from those who can actually see him. But there’s no harm involved.’
‘I’d stay away from the mere at night though,’ said the property supervisor, handing around a packet of digestives. ‘There was that siege in 1266; bodies catapulted over the walls, starvation, disease. If there really are ghosts of soldiers in the mere, they won’t be happy.’
‘What do ghosts do when they’re unhappy?’ Khalid asked, trying not to let any of what he was thinking enter his tone of voice. When you’ve lived through wars you don’t need to invent stories to scare you. Memory is more frightening than imagination.
‘I don’t know. I stay away from the mere at night,’ the property supervisor said, with a big laugh that made it acceptable to believe or not believe, just so long as you did it in good humour.
Later that day, when everyone else had gone, Khalid took his torch and walked out of the gatehouse, where the staff offices were located, to wander through the Elizabethan garden and up the stairs to the keep. Keep what? he wondered, shining a beam on the signboard that identified the building—but that didn’t clarify the matter. Keep in? Keep out?
Some days it still struck him as miraculous that the English language, once a series of unbeautiful left to right squiggles on a page, was now a friend, opening one door after another for him in this country far from home. But in moments such as this—encountering a word that should mean something but obviously meant something else, and feeling inadequate for not being able to work it out—he remembered that the language would never be to him what it was to his sister. For her it was a great love, rich in riddles and double-meanings and ambiguities. She had delighted in it almost as soon as they started to learn it at the school set up in the early days of war, back when ‘liberation’ seemed a possible consequence of ‘occupation’. War backwards is raw! A group of crows is a murder! Where does the president keep his armies? Up his sleevies! Some days he thought the reason she’d really been so angry when he left home to come here was because she was jealous that he would live in English, as she could never do. Switching off his torch, he turned and faced the garden. The moon was full, illuminating the marble fountain and the statues of the muzzled bears that felt like something from his old life. But his old life was far behind. Nothing told him this like these ruins formed by time, not bombs.
He switched the torch back on. He was a security guard without a gun, his presence enough to scare away any intruders—young lovers, teenagers in search of a dare. Here, even the ghosts were benign. He laughed softly, rapped his knuckles against the stone wall of the keep. ‘Any ghosts here?’ he called out, his voice echoing. No response, not even the wind through branches.
When midnight approached he was sitting on a low stone wall on the other side of the keep, finishing his careful reading of the guidebook. The moon had gone now and when he switched off his torch the structures all around him transformed from stone to concentrated darkness. A chill sliced through his bones.
Of course, the chill was brought on by the lateness of the hour, seeping even through his heavy jacket. He stood up, shook the pins and needles out of his hands and feet—he’d never sat in one place long enough to have pins and needles in both hands and both feet before—and approached the darkness, switching the torch back on just in time to see a single word rising up to meet his sight: ‘FOREBODING’. He spun in a circle, the torchlight skittering over stone and grass and stone and when it came to rest on the signboard once more he saw that really it read ‘FOREBUILDING’, followed by a dense explanatory text.
‘Idiot,’ he said to himself, grinning. He wished he could call his sister to tell her about his mis-reading, but she hadn’t spoken to him since he’d left—or, in her words, ‘deserted’—their homeland. And there was no one else to whom he could comfortably reveal his fear who had enough English to appreciate the humour of the moment. He missed her, sharply, in that instant, but at least it was possible now to think of her without pain or guilt; she benefitted, along with the rest of his family, from the money he sent home, which would increase with this new job—his salary made magnificent by the currency exchange rates. His steps were confident, his tread light, as he set off, exploring.
Now that he knew their history, the ruins were transformed. He walked slowly through all the broken rooms where queens had danced and plots had been laid and kings had been insulted and marriage proposals that would have changed history were rejected and great feasts were prepared by those whose lives went unrecorded. How beautifully the star-filled sky took the place of stained-glass in the vast windows of the great hall.
Through the centuries, the men who owned this castle had in common their love of light. This was something he’d understood while reading through the guidebook. First a reference to the twelfth-century remarkably sized windows of the keep, then a mention of the fourteenth-century exceptionally high windows of the great hall, and following that a detailed description of the sixteenth-century light-flooding windows of Elizabeth I’s private accommodation. Let in the light, and then let in more light.
A voice in Khalid’s head—not his own voice, a woman’s voice—said: Did they love the light or was there something in the darkness they were trying to keep at bay?
He shivered—it was the cold, nothing more, of course it was—and started back to the gatehouse, steps quickening.
The alarm woke him up at eleven the next morning, in the attic room above the pub where he worked the afternoon shift. He sat up in bed, trying to ignore the protestations of his body to getting up so soon after lying down. The protestations of his mind were more insistent.
What kind of idiot is scared by ghost voices that he knows aren’t there, and what kind of idiot sits outdoors reading on an October night in England. No wonder he’d woken up with a sore throat.
Despite gargling with salt water and sucking lemon-flavoured lozenges, the soreness hadn’t receded by the evening and it was for that reason that he kept his perimeter walks to a minimum. He spent most of the night shift in the spacious staff kitchen of the gatehouse. He was at the kitchen table, reading one of the romance novels that were his guilty pleasure, when he smelled something he couldn’t quite place, familiar but with a wrong note, like a flower just beginning to rot. He looked up at the window across from him, the one that rattled in its frame and was the likeliest way for a new scent to enter the room, but the smell was coming from behind him. It was both pleasant and unpleasant. He closed his eyes and put his hands over his ears to try and isolate it, and that’s when he sensed it move. Not drift, not waft—move. The smell was coming towards him, attached to something—someone—that was now standing at his back. Khalid felt that old familiar weakness of his limbs—the one that said ‘bomb’ or ‘someone breaking down the door’ or ‘why is my uncle lying down in his orchard away from the shade of a tree’. But this was England. He was in England, and the kitchen door must have opened without him hearing and someone had walked in, and was standing behind him, politely, waiting to be noticed. But the kitchen door creaked on its hinges; he would have heard it. And the presence behind him was so close. No one in England stood so close.
Turn around, he told himself, and a voice in his head—not his voice, a woman’s voice—echoed, Turn around.
He would not turn around. Whatever happened, he must not turn around. He knew it the way you know a certain dog that you’ve always been on good terms with mustn’t be approached—something about it was different. The word came to him again—wrong. He gripped the edges of his paperback. He would not turn around.
The only sound in the room was the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece. It was going too slowly, two heartbeats of his between each second. Tick dhu-dhug dhu-dhug Tick. Tick dhu-dhug dhu-dhug dhu-Tick. He picked up his paperback and hurled it at the clock, knocked it onto the flagstones. Now there was only his heart and his breath disrupting the silence. The scent coming from behind him was so familiar—he tried to trace his way back through memory to find it—but the wrongness of it was a mask, irremovable.
‘Whatever you are, whatever in this world you can possibly be, I’ve faced worse,’ he said out loud. Saying it made him brave—no, more usefully, made him angry. He pressed the palms of his hands against the wooden table, felt the strength of an old oak tree enter him, and in one swift assured movement he stood up and turned around.
And the room turned with him. He was still facing the oak table and the rattling window. The scent still behind him. The thing, watching, still at his back.
He sat. Waited. This, also, he knew how to do. Wait through terror. Wait through your own impotence in the face of terror. Wait and hope it will be enough for terror to terrify you. On some days, the good days, that was all it needed.
Much later—an hour? two hours? three?—he was still sitting tensed at the table, the thing so close he dared not lean back in his chair for fear of brushing against it. And then, abruptly, he was alone again. The presence simply lifted and vanished. He sniffed at the air. No trace remained of whatever had been there an instant ago. He inhaled deeply through his nose. Nothing had ever smelt sweeter than the stale coffee from his half-full mug and the dishwashing liquid from the uncapped bottle on the sink. His muscles untensed, his body allowing itself to feel its exhaustion. A short time later, Khalid fell asleep at the kitchen table.“Wait through terror. Wait through your own impotence in the face of terror. Wait and hope it will be enough for terror to terrify you. On some days, the good days, that was all it needed.”
When he woke he didn’t know which memories of the previous night had been dreams and which had been brought on by the sickness he was incubating. His throat was sorer this morning—a bright star of pain behind his Adam’s apple. He stood, swept up the broken pieces of the clock and waited for the property supervisor, who liked to arrive long before the rest of the staff, so he could apologise for the clock and ask where he might buy a replacement.
‘No need for that,’ she said, when he explained without explaining. ‘It was a cheap old thing and anyway I have a spare one at home that’ll just need a battery. Was it you that knocked it down or one of the ghosts?’ She was smiling as she said it, but something in his expression made her come up to him and put a hand on his arm. ‘It can be strange here at night,’ she said. ‘You know the gatehouse is where you’ll find the most ghosts, not the castle.’
It was because the castle had so little left of its original doors and furnishing, she explained. Ghosts attached themselves to these things. Here in the gatehouse there were pieces brought from all over the property as well as original fittings. Leicester’s fireplace, the Elizabethan staircase, bits of furniture. She walked him round, pointing out all the places where staff and visitors had met ghosts—the scent of tobacco so often in this room, the feeling of being watched on that landing, the stairs which creaked under the tread of something invisible. And that old wooden door—no one knew where it originally came from—behind which a group of visitors had once heard voices speaking in Spanish.
‘Couldn’t there have been Spanish speakers on the other side?’
‘The door’s always locked. I have the only key, but it hasn’t been used since I started here fourteen years ago. I peeked inside just the once to see there was nothing in there worth seeing—just a storage room full of dust.’
He knew she was trying to reassure him and on another day perhaps he would have understood that it wasn’t unusual to be carried away by your imagination in here—or encounter the inexplicable-but-harmless—but his throat ached terribly, exhaustion was deep in his bones, and the feeling of wrongness was still with him. What he wanted, needed, was familiarity. Familialarity. His sister had invented that term.
He excused himself from the company of the property supervisor and made his way upstairs to the oak-panelled room which was filled with early morning light, and allowed better mobile reception.
This wasn’t the time he usually called home, and it was possible that everyone would be out—his father and cousins in their orchards, his mother and aunt cooking outdoors, his sister teaching at their old school. But his father answered on the second ring.
‘Son?’ his father said, in response to his respectful greeting. ‘You’re calling? You know already?’
His sister was dead. A bomb had detonated in the school building. Perhaps attached to a human, perhaps not, did it matter? The windows had shattered and a piece of glass, like a spear, had cut right through her. They took her to the hospital but she had lost too much blood. This was yesterday—they were going to tell Khalid when he made his weekly call home tomorrow.
‘Was she conscious in hospital?’
‘Yes, at first.’
‘You should have called me. We could have spoken.’
‘The glass went through her neck, it severed the place that makes speaking possible.’
‘Voice box,’ Khalid said, in English, touching three fingers to his throat.
A few minutes later he was back on the ground floor again, looking for the property supervisor to tell her he was sorry, she would have to find someone else for tonight, he had to go. Go where, he didn’t know. Go to the airport, with the papers he now had that made returning here legal? Go to the city where he had cousins who could mourn with him? Go—away from here. That was all. Away from another night in this place with its silence so complete it made you hear voices in your head.
The property supervisor wasn’t in the room with Leicester’s fireplace where he’d left her; she wasn’t in the staff kitchen. But as he went towards the stairs again, he saw the old wooden door was ajar. She must have decided to have another look in the storage room full of dust. He pushed the door open, and stepped inside. Something soft—cloying—caressed his head, the side of his face. He jumped back out into the hallway. Cobwebs, just cobwebs. He stepped in again, brushed them aside, called the property supervisor’s name. No, she wasn’t here. But how cold it
was. He stepped forward, wanting to prove to himself that he wasn’t afraid. It was an entirely unremarkable coldness in a stone-walled room without windows.
The door slammed shut behind him. No gap between door and doorframe to allow in even a sliver of daylight. That smell, previously out of memory’s reach, bloomed in the darkness. He knew it now. It was ink and lemon and musky underarms; his sister’s scent. And the mask pulled over it was blood, metallic and sharp.“His throat ached terribly, exhaustion was deep in his bones, and the feeling of wrongness was still with him. What he wanted, needed, was familiarity. Familialarity. His sister had invented that term.”
The smell entered his nose and his mouth and the pores of his skin. It was almost a taste, almost a texture. His skin tightened on his bones, his tongue curled back on itself. Turn around, she dared him. But if he did that, the room would turn with him, the doorway forever at his back. He had never fallen for any of her tricks twice, not even when they were benign, before she blamed him for leaving, before he said a man’s job is to provide and she replied no, it’s to protect; you’re only leaving because it’s safer and because you can.
He glanced down at the phone in his hand. Of course, no signal. But on the other side of the door the property supervisor was calling his name. All he had to do was shout out a response, and she would find the key to the door, and let in the light and the living.
You can’t keep me where I don’t want to be whether you’re alive or dead, he mentally addressed his sister. I’m sorry.
The property supervisor had come closer to the door. She called his name again. Pain lanced his throat as he yelled out to her. No sound emerged.
A voice in his head—not his voice, but one inflected just like it—said, the doorway to this room, can you guess where it came from? A giggle, then, all malignancy and triumph, Well, I never could resist a word game, could I?
From Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories. Used with permission of September Publishing. Copyright © 2018 by Kamila Shamsie.