On an Open Fire - a short story by Stuart Evers
Read a Christmas short story by Stuart Evers, acclaimed author of Your Father Sends His Love and If This Is Home.
Outside the city there were fires in the forests; Lord Ancrum’s Wood, Craigmillar, Glentress. For months their scrub and grasses were tinder-dry; tinder-dry and just waiting for a sly spark or dropped match to set the trunks and bark alight, the flames crowning the drawing-in nights. The unending summer – stonewalling autumn, ignoring winter – refused to blow cold; confusing the bees busking the glassware of outside drinkers, tanning pale faces shades of rose and beet. And so in November, the unending summer entering its fifth month, the fires raged, ash blowing into the city air, a fine settling on car bonnets and tenement roofs: a poor substitute for the expected snow. In other cities there were riots, flames of a different provenances, fires deliberately set; but here just the taste of ember in the mouth, the scent of sweat, of melting asphalt.
The citizens and tourists, like the bees, were confounded by the weather: shirtless builders wore Santa hats and reindeer ears; street Santas with their red coats open, beards removed or aslant, dozed behind begging bowls; sweating pipers ran through God Rest Ye Merry to audiences in beachwear. We did not dare wonder what it all meant. We left that to the radio and television, the websites and newspapers; to the scientists and pastors. As the decorations went up, we ignored their voices and concerns. Christmas is a time of miracles, after all: just let us rejoice in that.
The talk amongst ourselves was not of miracles, however. Just the heat. The heat and nothing else. What else could we talk about? We no longer spoke in the way we once had. At least we did not. Grace on the way out of her flat and me opening the door, asking her where she was heading, and how she was doing. Instead, a passing Hot today! from her as she quickstepped the tenement landing. My saying: Going to be hotter than last week. Really? Her saying. No chance of rain either, let alone snow. Well, keep cool, her saying. I miss snow. I miss wearing Wellingtons, seeing all the snowmen, I even miss the slush. Must dash, goodbye, her saying, her back disappearing around the corner and out onto the street.
The same for weeks. The same exchange, the same weary trade of forecasts, memories of winters past, intimations of a coming cold snap. With her, and with the others, too. Interactions stalled on this never-changing subject, as though time and news had been placed on notice, put on hiatus. Enough, that, to make one wish for an end to it all, to return to the humdrum and familiar, to know that when the sun set it would be cooler, to be sure that one would need coat and hat, to be certain it was really Christmas and not some elaborate, city-wide prank.
In the apartment, the chairs already set out, enough for one seat each, I took the Dustbuster to the windowsills and sofa, a fool’s errand vacuuming the ash as more settled, the particles blowing through the open panes, danced up by the pair of floor-standing fans either side of the hearth. They were on at top speed, their noise defeating the Christmas playlist I’d carefully curated, concerned that my compilation CD was out of date and included songs by artists who were no longer palatable. It is hard not to forget, though I have tried, the look on people’s faces the previous year when one particular song began. People left soon after that, though they do not usually stay long at my Christmas Eve’s Eve party. Enough for a drink and a hello, perhaps a mince pie that I get from a bakery and pass off as my own (my little secret), then out to wherever they all go, other parties possibly, they never say. As I cleared the glasses and plates, the song just ended and a more traditional number starting, I imagined what it might be like to be youthful again, to just let the city take over, to wander from house to bar to restaurant and have nothing else on one’s mind but where to go next.
Through the thin walls, I heard her unlatch the door chain, turn the Yale and close the door behind her, open it once more, go back inside and retrieve something, then close the door again. She could never leave the house just once, there was always something essential left behind, a purse perhaps or sunglasses, a tic I always counted down hypnotist-style – 1, 2, 3 and she’s back in the room! – though at a whisper so she would not hear.
I opened the door and she stood there, straight and tall, and did not look beyond me for signs of other guests. She was wearing a Christmas singlet, red with a plum pudding design in green, a replacement fad since the heatwave had scuppered the popularity of Christmas jumpers. Her short brown hair was fixed at the fringe with a clip and she wore what we used to call NHS specs. She would be in her twenties, early or late, impossible for me to discern. I could have been her grandfather, a once-yearly visitor who asked about boyfriends and slipped her some money to get herself something nice.
‘Merry Christmas Eve’s Eve!’ I said in that way that I cannot help, stretched joviality, voice too loud and eyes too wide and arms extended as though beckoning a clutch of people for an embrace.
Grace looked at me for a moment, and I pivoted back against the wall to let her through. She walked in with a nod, not at all tentatively, as the first ones often are, and handed me a bottle of cold white wine. I followed her into the sitting room, the hurricane sound of the fans and the music chittering below them, the horns of cars from the street below. She moved past the tree, its fake snow falling as her cut-off denims brushed its plastic boughs and needles.
‘Some chilled mulled wine?’ I said.
‘Chilled?’ she said, not looking at me, instead at the walls, the few paintings I had hanging, prints I have owned for years, that have been my companions for longer than I can recall, the bright wallpaper squares they made when I last took them down from a different room, somehow moving,
‘In this heat, no point in serving it warm.’
‘OK. Sure,’ she said nodding to the picture of a hay wain. ‘Yes. Why not?’
I added more ice to the punchbowl and ladled wine into two glasses. She stood by the window, looking down on the view she and I shared, a dark Edinburgh street, lit by cars and people’s mobile phones.
‘Hot tonight,’ she said taking the glass.
‘That’s why I have the fans. Wouldn’t be able to cope without them.’
She looked towards the fans as though surprised they were there, despite the roar. She took the glass and I offered mine in toast. She did not clink, though it is famous bad luck not to do so, not to mention rather impolite, and so I took a sip as did she, both of us realising, I’m sure, at the same moment, that mulled wine should never be served under room temperature.
‘The others will be here soon,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I imagine they’ll be here soon.’
‘How goes the PhD?’
‘Fine,’ she said, looking out over the room, the patinas of dust, the pyramid of mince pies. How it must be to see this place for the first time, to look on it with fresh eyes.
‘And the world of tour guiding?’
‘Busy,’ she said. ‘The heat has brought the tourists. This time of year we’re usually winding down.’
‘And the ghosts? Are they enjoying the heat?’
I laughed, these the things with which I tease her. At least before the heat came. As I’ve told her several time, ghost tours of the city are just taxes on the most credulous of tourists. The last months, I’ve missed these little barbs, missed the way she retorts with her stories of the undead, the things they’ve told her. However outlandish, she always seems to believe them. The strange certainty of youth, the way they speak: sure that their knowledge trumps the wisdom of experience.
‘They think it’s strange,’ she said without amusement. ‘They are worried. Amongst other things.’
She put down her glass and headed to the mince pies.
‘I makes them myself,’ I said, as she took one from the top of the pyramid.
‘Are they vegetarian?’ she asked. I looked at the mince pie, the dusting of icing sugar, the holly leaf pastry work, the boxes of them I had bought.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘100%. My mother’s special recipe.’
She looked at the pie suspiciously.
‘So no suet?’
‘No. No suet.’
She put down the mince pie.
‘No point in a mince pie if there’s no suet in it.’
I laughed again. Duplicity gives me the guilty giggles.
Grace wore a watch but did not consult it, nor did she seek out the clock on the wall, nor the digital display on the cable box. She sat down on one of the comfortable chairs, my chair, in fact; the one on which I sit each day, on which I eat my meals, slight grease marks on its arms. She crossed her ankles, sipped at her drink, placed it down on the coffee table the same way I did.
‘They’ll be here soon,’ I said. ‘Not like Geoff to be late. Or Corina for that matter.’
She said nothing. She sipped her drink and put it down again. She crossed and uncrossed her legs, smooth skinned legs, bare arms with a soft, pronounced down. I stood by the window, and any words I might have had caught in my throat, like a stubborn hair in the windpipe, uncomfortable and unreachable; that’s how it felt, but worse than that, brain a skitter and no way to speak its blather. Small talk as impossible as snow, smiles the best I could muster, sunshine smiles that spoke of nothing. And Grace simply looked at me, legs crossed and uncrossed, sipping her drink, watching me as one might a muted television screen in a takeaway restaurant.
‘Do you remember what you said to me?’ she said after silent minutes, minutes I felt sweat on the backs of my knees. ‘That first time we talked, in the garden at that summer party?’
My memory is quick to fade, and sentences like that give me the stomach plummets. The implication is that one does not remember, though one should, and that one’s current behaviour betrays the fact one either has forgotten, or one does not understand that what one said was deserving of apology or explanation. The stomach plummets, yes.
‘I remember that we talked about your PhD.’
‘Yes, we did,’ she said. ‘And then we talked about the ghost tours. And you asked me if I believed in ghosts and I said yes. To which you replied: “I can’t believe someone as clever, as smart, and as if I may say, as pretty as you can be so intellectually lacking to believe in such baseless hocus pocus.”’
She looked directly at me, eyes red, pleated around the lower lids, another one who could not sleep in the infernal weather. They say the heat changes people. They become more erratic, more prone to violence, to anger, something I have seen myself, so tried to calm the situation.
‘I stand by that,’ I said. ‘I shouldn’t have perhaps been so trenchant, and I did not appear to sound rude, but it pains me to hear of an otherwise intelligent—’
‘There you go again,’ she said. There was a smile there too, somewhat cruel; the smile of someone already amused long before the words had issued from her mouth. ‘So very sure of yourself, so very, very sure of everything. How can one man be so very sure? And “Otherwise intelligent”? Is not intelligence predicated on curiosity, on research, in inference and exegesis?’
‘Intelligence is,’ I said, warming to the argument, better than the usual party talk of communal spaces and the pointing of the roof. ‘Simply gleaning the most obvious of conclusions from reputable data. And all evidence points conclusively to ghosts being folk fables, cautionary tales and claptrap designed to part fools from their money.’
Grace drained her drink, my rejoinder clearly a stinging rebuke of her foolish beliefs, and set it back down on the table with a gentle thump. She smiled again, differently, and this surprised me, the joy of the smile, the way her eyes matched it behind her spectacles.
‘I see ghosts,’ she said. ‘I see them all the time. They are close companions, friends some of them. My evidence conclusively points to ghosts being very much real. The reputable data is the eyes through which I see and the ears through which I listen. They are as real as you or me. Your definition is unworkable.’
Grace got up from her chair and walked past me, a cool gust as she did, the muffled smell of her sweat as she picked up my glass and headed for the kitchen. A ladleful in each glass, mine handed back with a clove and a slice of orange bobbing at its top.
‘You pity me, I think,’ she said, still smiling, sitting back in my chair. ‘You look at me. At my face. At my body and you worry for my mind. I’ve seen that look before. Seen it in others better at disguise. Pity the pretty girl, beset by demons, by visions, by her over-active imagination. By the disease in her brain, by the unbalancing in her mind. I see it on the stairwell when you open the door the second I leave my flat. I see it as you look me up and down when you’ve caught my attention for a moment. Oh, dear girl, your face says, oh, dear sweet girl, what happened to you? What broke you so? I’m here and if we can just talk it through, you’ll be better. You’ll be well.’
‘I rather think—’
‘I do not like your thoughts,’ she said. ‘I do not like your thoughts and the ghosts do not like them either.’
At this I could not help but laugh. The guilty giggles again. No, a chuckle, no more than a chuckle. Her eyes did not leave me, but she leant her torso forward, braless though she was.
‘You laugh, but they have told me about you. In detail. Excruciating detail. They talk to so few, they cannot help but be verbose, and on the subject of you, they are positively voluble.’
She was standing by the hearth now, between the two fans, her glass on the mantel, the back of her head, tiny drops of perspiration budding there, visible in the mirror.
‘And they know all about you,’ she said. ‘The stories they have told! Going way back. All the way back’ – here she laughed, her chuckles fading like a detuned radio – ‘the details are a scandal. A horrorshow. Look at you sitting there, your face all concern. Oh, how do you do that? How? When you have done those things. To those in your charge.’
The Santa hat itched my crown. I put down the wine and rested my hand on the sofa, its palm getting blacker the longer it alighted. She shook her head.
‘I need help,’ she said. ‘That’s what you want to say, isn’t it? What you are about to say? These ravings! Ghosts telling me all these disgusting things about your past. Making up such lies about a man of good standing and those you only sought to protect and nurture. That’s what you want to say, isn’t it? You want to put one of your caring arms around my shoulders and say: You need to see someone. You need specialist help. You’re a danger to yourself. ’
Grace moved over towards me, sat on the sofa below my arm.
‘You’ve said it to others. You can say it now,’ she said. ‘It’s OK. You can say it if it makes you feel better.’
She looked up expectantly, a few faces replacing hers, switching back and forth, in and out, back and forth. Two or three at first. Unseen for years.
‘If it makes you feel better, say it.’
I took my hand from the sofa and went to the window, looked down onto the street. The others would be here soon. The others and what would she say then? Enough for her to be sectioned. Enough for her to be certified and removed by white coated orderlies. Enough for them to wonder if she would ever recover. She says the ghosts told her. Pity the girl.
To the night, I said. ‘You need help.’
To the night, I said: ‘You need to see someone.’
To the night, I said: ‘You are a danger to yourself.’
Soft I said these things, a calming voice, the calming tone, used so many times before. But before I turned, I felt sure that she would not to be there. He who does not believe in ghosts, expecting to have been haunted! Expecting to turn and see that there was no one there, no bottle of cold white wine on the coffee table, no disrupted pyramid of mince pies. Expecting the doorbell to ring and guests arriving, none of them with any knowledge of the woman next door, the flat having been empty for years, a young woman having once lived there, but who had died long before I had arrived, years before my upping of sticks.
But I turned around and there she was, tall between the fans, finishing her drink, the glass upended and her drinking the dregs. Real as you or me.
‘You know why I came here.’ she said.
I looked at her, the faces dropping in and out. Dropping in and out the faces. Five or six now.
‘You know what I came to do,’ she said.
I looked at her, at the faces. Seven now. I looked at the floor, the polished wood, the rag rugs and the small shoes there and not there.
‘I will not do it,’ she said. ‘The ghosts, they want me to. All of them. They all want me to. But I won’t do it. Do you understand?’
I looked at her. Arms now, and legs – as well as the faces. Dropping in and out the faces, arms and legs. Perhaps eight. Toes and fingers.
‘You need help,’ I said.
‘You need to see somebody,’ I said.
Grace put a hand on my arm. She nodded her head. She went to the windows and closed each one, locking all the catches. She turned off the fans and turned down the Christmas music. The heat was bewildering. Her cheeks flushed as she took the unopened bottle of wine from the coffee table. She tapped the back of my chair with the back of her hand, and though lightly done, ash billowed as though she’d beaten an ancient rug. She waited beside the chair until I sat down in it.
‘Merry Christmas,’ she said softly.
She planted a kiss on my head. Like a child’s, the kiss. I looked up to her. Aghast, my face, I suppose, though this may be being polite, even to me.
‘Yes?’ she said. ‘Is there something you want to say?’
I looked up at her shifting face. There were fires in the forest. The summer would not end. We did not dare wonder what it all meant. And then the heat blew cold, an icy blast, the chill of Christmases past.
I looked again to her shifting face, to her shifting body.
‘Yes?’ she said.
‘Will there be ghosts?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘There will be ghosts. So many, many ghosts.’