Sunday, April 03, 2011

The ghost

The man steps from the doorway, hands deep in the pockets of his worn gray coat, and passes into the crowd unnoticed, flowing through the throng as if he, or they, were immaterial. He hears voices, sounds of traffic, but muffled; they swirl and echo randomly around him, separated from their source. He recognizes the language -- it's not the one he was born with -- but he can't pick out the words. Above the rooftops the sky is opaque and sunless, yet each passing taxi reflects a blinding flash that makes him lower his eyes.

He stares into a shop window. There is a name displayed across it, a semi-circle of bronze decals that are peeling a bit at the edges, but the inscription makes no sense to him. The letters morph and transpose and won't stay still. Behind the glass gaudy objects in velvet-lined boxes have been laid out with great care on a background of dark gray fabric, but he doesn't recognize them, can't guess their purpose. In the shop's interior a man in a white smock is talking to a patron, or maybe it's the patron who wears the smock, he can't tell, they've already moved away or another person has taken their place, a woman he thinks. He walks away.

He passes a church, its heavy stone walls rising abruptly behind a hedge of red-berried yew. A man is slouched against the railing on the porch of the rectory next door. He recognizes him, somebody he knew years ago, and he stops and stares but the man doesn't return his gaze and suddenly he vanishes and when he looks again it's not the same man at all but someone he's never seen before. He hears a sudden shout behind him and turns but there's no one there, just the same incessant river of strangers.

The traffic has stopped at the corner, waiting for the light, and crowd drifts across, light as birds, their clothes rippling and slacking in the intersecting breezes. A signpost rattles on rusty bolts. He looks up at the street number on a building, remembering the address of a bar he used to frequent. It's still a bar but the name is different, everything is different inside, he thinks maybe I'm wrong, it was another place, so long ago... He lingers at the door. He's feeling thirsty but he won't go in, nothing will slake his thirst, not now.

In the center of the street the pavement divides around a narrow park. He crosses, walks past a shuttered newsstand, climbs a flight of stone steps, and takes a seat on a bench in the variegated shadow of a vast beech tree. It's quieter here, above the cars, just now and then the sound of a woman's heels on the cobbles, approaching or receding he can't be sure until all of a sudden he doesn't hear them anymore.

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