Extract from The Ghost is in Wednesday
STEFAN GLIMPSED A RED SQUIRREL as he walked through the park. It was a flash, a spiral of burnt orange looping itself around the tree branch, which bounced as the squirrel ran along it before vanishing into the foliage. Stefan paused to see if it would re-emerge, but there was silence apart from the trickling stream to his left and the occasional brown leaf floating, untroubled and unhurrying, to the earth.
He came to the park most Saturdays, finding something cleansing about it. The vein of blue water running its length seemed to absolve his sins, although Stefan knew he did not really have anything to feel bad about. Yet he still felt guilt, and wondered when, or if, the feeling would eventually fade. He rubbed his hands against his coat. They always smelt of paint thinner, even by Sunday afternoon, and it was only when he took a week’s holiday that he managed to get rid of the smell for a few days.
Spat on by the beginnings of rain, Stefan diverted left to the ornate gateway outside the history museum. Seemingly stone on one side, albeit a tired, murky, decaying stone, it was only after walking through the arch and turning back that you saw it was actually made of plain red brick, plastered at the front to look like granite. Stefan often wondered why it had only been decorated on one side; surely, if you are going to create an illusion, the illusion has to be complete. Otherwise, there’s no point in trying for it in the first place. The brick side was covered in half-hearted graffiti. Stefan walked on, comforted by the idea that the front of the archway had been freed from the urge of young souls to immortalise themselves.
A Max Ernst exhibition on the first floor, and Stefan felt his shoulders dropping as the calm, almost deadening hush of the museum descended and he walked silently through the corridors. That particular smell of polish you only get in museums; the occasional distant squeak, as an attendant’s high heels glissaded across the dark wood floor. As the Ernst images got more and more surreal, Stefan felt himself floating through the high-ceilinged rooms and past the lead-latticed windows.
The engravings were from Ernst’s Une semaine de bonté; his French was poor enough to need to find out from the leaflet that ‘bonté’ meant ‘kindness.’ Each day was in a different room: Sunday painted a bright red, Tuesday blue, Wednesday yellow and so on. Stefan had always seen Wednesday as a green word, so he was interested to discover that was not the case here. Clearly, people didn’t always think the way he did. This surprised him. The engravings had descriptions in an elegant, Art Nouveau script. One of these captions began with the word ‘SO…’ in large letters. Stefan read this, at first glance, as ‘50’ – he would be 50 next year, and the number seemed to be following him around recently.
49 was an uncomfortable age to be: only a decade since he was a young man; only a decade until he would be an old one. How was it possible to change from one to the other so quickly, and why had no one warned him? He had not been worried by being on his own for the past nine or ten years; the right woman will come along one day, he had told himself, and he’d been quite content to enjoy being single in the meantime. In fact, he reflected as he moved into the fifth of the seven rooms, there had been something almost indulgent, organically enjoyable, about feeling complete for so long; not having to compromise, or having to feel half a person with the other half lazily absent. Now though, things were different.
Doppelgangers is a forthcoming collection of linked stories