I had the street pretty much to myself. Of course, there were many other figments of my imaginations bustling to and fro, but they don’t really count. I’ve always had an overactive capacity to produce these ghost that populate the streets, but even when I consciously realized what was going on, they remained there. They didn’t go away.
Among all these automata I could see very few people whom I hadn’t made up. Little Chen, a stiff-built little devil, could be seen lurking in his pile of cupboard boxes and newspapers, as I passed his corner of the derelict building. Chen has a paranoia about closed spaces, so even in the winter he burrows into piles of insulating garbage like a lame-legged beetle into old leaves, but would never spend a night in a room with four walls. Poor Chen, something must have happened to him as a kid or something.
Now me, I’m quite adapted. Closed spaces don’t freak me out, open spaces don’t freak me out, and the ghostly apparition that fill the streets don’t freak me out either. They did in the past, to be honest, but after I figured out how to deal with this situation, things mellowed out.
I stopped at the intersection and waited for the cars to stop as well. They could fool anyone of a more naive turn of mind that they had drivers and passengers, and there was a time when I had been fooled as well. Back then, I had even been deceived that I live in a house with a real wife, and work in an office with real coworkers. How these illusions cling.
The cars stopped. I walked over the zebra crossing, evading skillfully the clumsy mannequins that stumbled erratically into all directions. I reached the supermarket and went to the back, where it’s cozier. This is where old Conny lives.
She’s a splendid old hag and has been around simply forever. When you talk to her, you get the impressions that she remembers gas streetlamps, horse-drawn carriages, and telegrams sent and received by chaps with sideburns and top hats. Smart women know how to seem wise beyond their age.
Last night we had quietly made love in her niche behind the huge rusting rubbish containers, her newspapers rustling under my knees.
It’s a great place to have, actually, there’s always more the enough food thrown out from the supermarket every day, and Conny seems to project a sort of respect. No one has ever tried to take over her place.
She still had some of her hair left, and her tongue still had strength in it. I confess that I was quite thrilled when she had patted my thigh with her gnarled hand and called me a ‘pretty boy’. Finally, some real human contact.
Today I was bringing a gift to my new lover. She may be living in the perfect place to have fresh good food daily, but I had found something which she would certainly appreciate.
A gorgeous porcelain cat. It was half the size of my fist, and its left ear was gone, as was half of its tail. But I was sure Conny would go crazy over it, girls are suckers for such things.
I reached her place behind the rubbish containers. She lay there, below her old threadbare blanket, her funny fur hat covering her face. A lock of her hair lay right on her nose, which would’ve tickled the hell out of me, but not her, no, she’s of the old, stiff upper lip school.
I coughed politely as I approached. Past experience pointed conclusively against the wisdom of waking her abruptly, gentle touches and soft kisses included. Most likely she would explode into wakefulness screaming and waving her old kitchen knife.
Normally she can detect my polite cough at fifteen paces. But this time she simply didn’t stir.
“Conny,” I leaned over her now, “wake up, sweetheart, look what I’ve brought you!”
She continued with her non-stirring. Strange. I crouched by her and examined her face critically.
Was she even breathing?
I blew gently at her wrinkled face, making the lock of hair tremble over her nose. No reaction. I touched her cheek. It was very, very cold.
For a moment I was disoriented. My hands grabbed my elbows as I rocked on my feet, still crouching. Was she dead? Did this mean I would be overwhelmed by emotional pain in mere moments? This was terrible possibility. I had to act swiftly. I had to restart my drive right here, right now.
I stood up. Hands tense, breath bated, I took my tin foil hat off. Things came sharply into focus. All the foggy phantasms snapped into three dimensional existence, insistently leaning towards me, pressing at me with their demands for attention.
No matter how many times I do this, I never get used to it. The back of my T-shirt became wet instantly. My chin trembled.
I counted to twenty, said a quick prayer to the Lord, and put my hat back on.
Everything was back to normal, as it had always been. And now as I looked at Conny’s body, I realized that I had been mistaken after all. She was not dead. How could she be? She had never been alive.
She was one of the ghost-people, not one of the real ones. I had been mistaken, that’s all. No reason to grieve. No reason to panic. No reason to shed tears and to feel the stomach knot.
Relief, grateful relief flooded my body. I looked around myself with renewed confidence. Humanoid shadows flickered in the corners of my eyes; the noon sun warmed the back of my head. With surprised joy I realized that now would be an ideal time to go and find old Daren for a game of chess.
My shadow was thick on the pockmarked asphalt, it oozed and jerked with gusto, reacting to my every movement… When all was said and done, what mattered most is that at least I was still real, real and not feeling any pain at all.
As a gesture perhaps to my own naivete, as a nod to my tendency to confuse facts with fiction, I left the porcelain cat in the lap of the ghost that had been called Conny.
Then I left.