I hope you like the humour – it was a difficult piece, to balance the humour with a serious and tragic subject. And of course the title is a play on words...
TIERS OF SORROW
I never believed in ghosts. Until I became one.
After a long holiday I returned to my old haunts. Or, rather, haunt – in particular, the renovated Victorian warehouse that served as home to an artistic couple, Alice and Jeff. They talked about getting married but never got around to it. Foolishly, they reckoned they had all the time in the world. So much for Carpe Diem!
They’d owned the place about two years and had no idea I existed – even in an ethereal sense. Some people – most people – just aren’t sensitive enough. I don’t mean sensitive in a precious way. This is something to do with the sixth sense, which, contrary to scientific pontificating, does exist. Cats and dogs are notably very sensitive, and even horses can detect manifestations of the spirit world.
Unlike my tenants, I seem to have all the time in the world. In one form or another, I’ve been around for almost 169 years. I was born on
July 1834, the day Samuel Taylor Coleridge died and I became a
ghost on 18th
December 1865. Ironically, on the day that
abolished slavery I was chained to this ghostly existence, seemingly forever. America
This two storey building has large rooms with Turkish rugs covering the varnished floorboards, a divan which wouldn’t be amiss in a bordello, a mahogany round table and matching chairs, and the omniscient eye of a television – a magical invention. The bathroom is enormous, tiled with cork and mirrors, with a round bath and Jacuzzi.
The place looked neglected. I’d been away about two months – one doesn’t precisely measure time when there’s a surfeit of it. Cobwebs abound, the windows grime-laden. Daylight hardly seeped through the high windows or skylight, making it a dark, sombre place, in complete contrast to the time when I went away, when it was all bright and cheerful, with their paintings adorning every wall. Alice painted colourful landscapes while Jeff indulged in nubile maidens in lush jungles, the flora vibrant with colour.
“Who the hell are you?” It was
voice, coming from the bathroom doorway. “What are you doing here?” Alice
At that moment a shaft of sunlight percolated through a smear on a high window. It revealed
or the semblance of her. I recognised the long blonde tresses, the rather too
large mouth and furrowed brow. She was wearing a diaphanous night dress. I
could see the flesh beneath, and the bones beneath the flesh… Alice
“My God!” I exclaimed. “You’re a ghost!”
She screamed, probably realising that I was one too.
I’ve never been haunted before. It was a strange feeling. No matter how much you might empathise, until you’ve experienced it, you don’t know what it’s like. I remembered the few previous tenants who had been able to perceive me. This, probably, was what they felt at our first introduction. Of course, I had quickly put them at their ease, but that first feeling of shock was quite something, to use the modern vernacular.
I held up a mollifying hand. Fortunately, it wasn’t attached to chains or carrying my head. (Some ghosts seem to go over the top). “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you!”
“Where’d you come from?” she asked.
“On holiday. A break from here.”
“But – but ghosts can’t – they’re – I’m tied to this place, where I killed myself!”
Oh, dear. With everything to live for and she kills herself! “There are different kinds of ghosts, and different tiers of sorrow, my dear.”
Her face appeared angry. Not suffused with colour – which would be impossible in her present state – but a darker hue of grey. “You mean I’m stuck here while you can swan off anywhere you like?”
“I’ve been around a while, picked up a few things. As the years pass by, you find you can travel to any place you visited while alive. It helps break the monotony.”
“Can you teach me?”
That dark grey look again!
“Well, I suspect you’ll find it impossible until you move up a tier or two.”
“You mentioned that before. What tier?”
I shrugged. The more we spoke, the stronger we appeared to each other visually. As if gaining substance because of belief in each other’s existence. I had noticed this a few times – encounters with other ghosts, good and bad – but nothing so strong. Perhaps it was something to do with the place. There were echoes of my death here, and now hers. “Time translates into tiers of ability. Unfortunately, from your viewpoint, you’ve got some way to go. A kind of apprenticeship, if you like.”
“I don’t like!”
“There’s nothing you can do about it. That’s life – or, rather, the cost of being a ghost. That’s all.”
“That’s all? That’s all!” She stood, clenching and unclenching her fists. I could picture her throwing plates and mugs at Jeff. Theirs had been a strong, passionate relationship. It broke my heart to realise she must be twenty-eight and would always be that age now.
“Why did you do it?” I asked, suddenly.
“What?” She was taken aback by my change of tack.
“Take your life. It’s so precious a gift, to be savoured in all its vicissitudes.”
“You some kind of ancient mariner, a poet or something? Killed because your verse didn’t scan?”
“No.” I was surprised at her uncanny reference to Coleridge’s famous creation and a little shocked at her waspish tongue. Of course, she’d not changed simply because she’d died. “You’re naturally upset –”
“Upset? I’m livid!” She stamped into the lounge, looked around. “This place is filthy!”
“You never seemed to care when you were alive.”
“How would you know?” Then she realised: “You were here all the time, while Jeff and I – “
I smiled to myself and lied: “I didn’t look.”
Slowly, with an enchanting hangdog appeal in her eyes, she looked up. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know, but I can find out. A few neighbourhood ghosts owe me.”
She grinned. “You’re cute, you know?”
“I’ve heard the expression before – usually concerning pets and other creatures.” I didn’t feel cute – especially in my black frock-coat, breeches and buckle-shoes. I felt like a fugitive from a Dickens novel.
“There are different tiers of ghosts. Like angels, that sort of thing, a kind of hierarchy,” I tried to explain the next day. “The tier a ghost belongs to depends on the circumstances of the person’s death, the reasons for the spirit being trapped between life and after-life, roaming until some blessed relief.”
“I suppose I’m on the bottom tier, then?”
I shrugged and caused cold air to waft the curtains: motes of dust danced in a solitary sunbeam. “Some ghosts are so powerful, they haunt their allotted place for centuries. Others, the majority, last merely a year or two and fade away, neither here nor there, lost forever.”
“Is that why there doesn’t seem to be many ghosts about?” she asked, gesturing around with her arms.
I smiled. “Right. The world would be pretty crowded, otherwise.” Just the persistent ones survive, I thought, those terribly wronged. Like me.
The news didn’t take long in coming. “We’ve found Jeff.”
Her eyes lit up at mention of his name, then clouded over. “I suppose he’s at his mate’s place. Dave’s. He ruined his marriage with a one-night stand, the idiot!”
“Yes, Dave did, but neither he nor his wronged wife committed suicide over it!” It was out before I could prevent it.
And she laughed, the familiar tinkling sound I remembered. “Touché, I think! Serves me right.”
“He was at Dave’s, but they had a blazing row.”
“What? They never argued –”
“Jeff said Dave was a fool to throw away his marriage. Told him to crawl back to his wife.”
“Jeff said that?”
“Yes. Then he packed and left.”
A worried look came into her eyes. Concern. Even fear.
“He walked the streets most of last night.”
“He’s here now–”
The front door opened.
Jeff was a shadow of his former self – not as much as
was, obviously – but these weeks of
bereavement, guilt and anguish had taken their toll. He slouched into the room,
dropping his rucksack. Alice
“Can he see us?”
“No, he doesn’t have the gift. And he can’t hear us, either, so there’s no need to whisper.”
“He looks awful.”
“Yes, he does. No sleep, no heart because it’s broken–”
“But he betrayed our love –”
“He regretted it the next morning, said he was sorry. He meant it, you know.”
“How do you know all this? You were on holiday!”
We could hear Jeff talking to himself or, rather, to dead
. “God, how I wish I’d been stronger, Alice . I shouldn’t have
stormed out and left you like that… I couldn’t reason with you, though, never
could when you got your temper up… I loved you, always will… And now you’re
I glanced at
She was quite moved by his confession. Ghosts can’t cry, but I swear she was
blinking back non-existent tears. Alice
“Can’t I help him?” She paced in front of Jeff, eyeing me beseechingly. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen! It was a dreadful mistake. I’ll regret it to my dying day – I mean, for all eternity!”
“You can help him by being here, taking on his pain.”
She stood in front of him as he poured his heart out and her ethereal form seemed to waver and grow dim as the man’s tears ran. It was as if his words hit her, she kept staggering back.
After a while, she pleaded, “Jeff, stop torturing yourself! It was my life and I wasted it! Don’t make me waste yours too! Forgive me, please!” She touched his tears and they sparkled for an instant.
He shivered as with a sudden chill.
Slowly, he stood up and wiped his face.
He glanced around as he came out of his cathartic reverie and saw a painting in a dark corner: it was a landscape by
over which he’d painted a nude sitting of her. As he went across to it, clouds
moved or the sky turned or the earth moved and light streamed through the
skylight and illuminated the picture. Alice ’s
eyes in the picture seemed to glow, reflecting on his face. Alice
He held it up and said, “I can forgive you for leaving me like you did. I guess I must get on with my life... But I’ll always remember you.”
The light grew quite intense and I turned to see the mere wisps of what remained of
up into the white light. That was quick – so much for working through different
tiers! Already, she was going on to a better place. Alice
I envied her such an early release.
Jeff picked up his rucksack and walked out of the building, with the picture under his arm.
I wondered what the new tenants would be like.
Previously published in Telmicro Media Magazine, 2007.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014
If you liked this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat, which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’.
He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.