I can feel them staring at me. There are two, in particular, all sheets of straight glossy hair and designer black clothing. When Ben asks them a question they are sharp and knowing in reply, a caustic sort of flirting. They arch their eyebrows – drawn a little too thin, a little too severe – and answer with careful nonchalance. I have watched girls like this from the sidelines all of my life, have been at the end of their stiletto-point wit. If I had hackles they would be rising right now.
They are the most obvious of the lot, but the room is filled with people hanging on Ben’s every word. He is giving a lecture at the local university, and there is a good turn-out, though it turns out the turn-out is not the music and theatre and writing students, but largely the curious, and the smitten.
I can’t blame them, after all. Ben is just…louder than anybody or anything else in this small town.
It takes a while to extricate ourselves when the lecture ends, so many people have stayed behind to talk to Ben. He is given the fourth t-shirt of our few weeks in Lowell. They like their t-shirts, in Massachusetts. This one is purple, with a bright yellow number 42 embroidered on its chest. Life, the Universe and Everything. Just like that. Ben passes it straight to me.
We are parked across the street from the university building, and the evening is still warm enough to make the insides of the car hot and cloying. Ben likes the windows down when we drive. I don’t, but he opens his without thinking and the air strobes through the car and presses against my eardrums until I open mine too. It’s hot outside – unseasonably so, Ben tells me. The weather has already been hotter this September than the warmest English summer day, and sometimes the air is so thick and oppressive it combines with my jet-lag – both physical and emotional – to make it difficult to move outside. Sometimes my body feels twice as heavy, the air twice as dense. Sometimes I feel as if I have an echo. I am trying to learn the way things are around here.
In the car I am glad to have Ben to myself. There are different Ben’s: one in front of people, one in front of me. I love them both, but the small, silly one I don’t have to share with a roomful of amorous teenagers is something particular special, and makes me feel full up with love like a water balloon, liquid and bursting and warm.
Ben has two days off in a row, so we have designated Monday night as “Date Night”, (which, in turns out, will last just one glorious week). We have booked a night in the Salem Inn, an old townhouse converted into a bed and breakfast. It looks like a courthouse, an imposing red brick facade with steep steps up to a white painted portico, opposite the even more imposing, Tim Burton-esque Witch House, all crooked clapboard and slumping black gables.
The inn is “historic” since it was built in the 19th century. I scoff at it, wondering if it is even as old as my family’s house back in Wales. Even the old things are new in America. We have booked into the Honeymoon suite last minute, which is ridiculously cheap, used as we are to New York and London prices. The bed is huge and raft-like, taking up most of the room. It is gloriously welcome after the tiny bed we have been trying to sleep in for the past few weeks, and went from “snuggly” to “get your elbow out of my face” within about three days.
In the spirit of the First Ever (and last) Date Night, we go out to a raucous Mexican restaurant and get drunk on two cocktails each. Ben’s sense of direction is appalling when sober and non-existent when drunk – which he is, tonight. As the relatively sober of the pair, I navigate us back to our hotel, the long way-round and via the creepy Witch House once more. We climb the narrow wooden stairs to the top floor, and our room.
The suite has one too many doors – some open into other rooms, unnecessary. One opens into someone else’s, though it’s locked tonight. We have a brief test of the hot-tub bath, before deciding that we are about to fall asleep in the water, and the huge bed is a much better bet. As I put my glasses on the bedside table and reach to switch off the light, I think, an idle, fluttering thought, that this room in this old building is a little bit creepy. I lay for a while and listen to the sounds of traffic on the road outside floating through our open windows on the warm night breeze. A man-hole clunks every few seconds as wheels drive over it. Ben snores lightly beside me. And then I fall asleep.
There is a sound, some time later. It is incongruous enough to wake me, but the room is silent while I lie in the darkness, still and rigid and waiting for the sound to come again and make some kind of sense. There are no cars on the road outside anymore. Ben is quiet and still beside me. In my sleep-fugged mind all I can think of is a lump of sugar falling into a china teacup, the scrape and stir and settle of a spoon against the rim.
It comes again. It is somewhere near my left ear. My heart lurches in my chest. I reach out blindly and sink my fingers into Ben’s bare back, where he lies on his side next to me.
Still, I try to think logically. After all, I have grown up in an old house – older than this one – and know the kind of noises it can make when it creaks and settles, when the wind changes direction, when the hollow walls are full of mice. Whoever coined the phrase “Quiet as a mouse” has obviously never lived in an old building, because they are anything but. They gnaw and skitter and scritch, they rustle through old wrappers in wastepaper bins and patter across floorboards.
But there is nothing next to me, only a bedside table and lamp. It sounds like no mouse I have ever heard.
I begin to think I must have imagined the sound, when it comes once more. Before I know it I am bolt upright in bed, blindly scrabbling for my glasses and the lightswitch. A distinct but tiny part of my brain tells me that I am being ridiculous and will feel ten times more so in the morning.
I don’t believe in ghosts. Except for when it’s 2am, at which point I definitely do.
“What’s the matter?” asks Ben, finally awake.
“I know you’re not going to believe me and it sounds stupid but I’m definitely awake and I definitely didn’t dream it but I heard a noise like a teaspoon stirring in a china cup and it really freaked me out and I’m not imagining it…”
“A teaspoon,” Ben repeats. His voice is hoarse and sandpapered with sleep. “Okay.”
“I know it sounds stupid but I def-”
The noise comes once more, distinct, absurd, terrifying.
“Did you hear that?” I hiss, not even waiting for the sound to dissipate before I speak.
“Yes,” Ben says. “Really creepy.” His words slur into a snore as he turns over and falls asleep once more.
Fat lot of good he is. I give up everything I know and move to the other side of the world for him and he can’t even save me from a ghost.
I lay back down, every vertebrae rigid and thrumming, my heart thumping obscenely loud. The lamp casts a halo of light around the bed, but beyond it the corners of the room are pregnant with shadows. I don’t believe in ghosts, I tell myself. But it’s 2am. And I definitely do.
“Still awake?” Ben mumbles after a while. He gets up to use the en-suite, comes back around the bed and closes the windows as he goes. “Better?” he asks.
The noise doesn’t come again. After a while I fall into a fitful half-daze. Something creaks in the corridor, I dream the door into the next room begins to open, that the chintzy antique furniture is moving, just slightly. But the noise doesn’t come again.
I am the daughter of a logical father, raised in a house of reason and science and staunch scepticism of anything that might go bump in the night. Somehow though, this has never clashed or contradicted with my flighty imagination, prone to whims of superstition and folklore. Fairy-tales – and not the saccharine princesses and flurry of helpful tweeting birds, ready to tailor me a bespoke ballgown from the scraps of ribbon and the remnants of the curtains, either. The old kind. Gleaming-toothed wolves that look like men, dark impenetrable forests and blood-red cloaks. Shoes that dance you to death, fairy rings that people disappear into and stumble from, a day later and fifty years older. The hearts of virgins and walls of thorns.
But never mind my penchant for mythology and ancient folk stories, because these make a strange kind of sense, to me. They are entwined with place and history, with both the land and the culture of people that live there. The things that really terrify me are written in the pages of National Geographic and A Brief History Of Time. There lies the cold, indifference of space and time. In fairy tales and fantasy there is almost always a way to outwit Rumpelstiltskin, to beat the Big Bad Wolf. To quote Terry Pratchett, misquoting G.K. Chesterton:
“The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed.”
But science is another matter. It is more strange and unfathomable than superstition and fairy-tale. After all, there is no way to outwit a black-hole.
So here I lie, in a hotel in Salem, with a noise I cannot explain, and all I can think about is vast coldness of space and time, about atoms that can be in two places at once, and why is a belief in ghosts any more absurd that that?
And the truth is, that deep down, a small part of me likes to be afraid, wants to believe.
Rationally, I know that because the sound has not come again since the window was closed, it must be something that was caused by it being open. But in the fertile imaginary world that dawns when the sun dips below the horizon, I dream of the previous occupants of this 19th century house, of ladies taking tea in Salem’s parlours just like the one which now makes up the bedroom of the Honeymoon suite in which I sleep.
Enough Doctor Who episodes have told me that time is not a straight line. But what if it is, in fact, a concertina, an origami fold of paper. What if this now, this room, is pressed up against the now of the 19th century, sharing the same space but neighbours in time?
What if you could hear, as if in the next room, the filtering of conversation, of sounds from a time long ago?
My brain star-bursts with the thought. This will make a good story, I think, as I drift into sleep sometime before dawn.
Later, when the sun has risen fully and the cars are click-clacking across the manhole in the road outside, I go to the window to open the blinds.
The little toggle on the end of the blind pull scrapes against the wooden sill.
It sounds just like a teaspoon stirring a china cup of tea.
I feel stupid for the rest of the day, as Ben laughs at my “ghostly teacup”. Absurdly, it seems to make him love me more. But a tiny part of me – the part that comes alive in the darkness, the part that sparks and lights up with fear and imagination and the thrill of a quickening heart – is quietly disappointed.