The literary spirit in a writers’ retreat can move people in strange ways
MARIUS pushed himself up from his desk and sighed. Maybe another cup of coffee would help. He’d already had seven today, and it was only 11.30, but didn’t writers do everything to excess? Speaking of which, he carefully closed the web browser on his computer screen. No need for anyone to see what he’d been looking at.
Passing the mirror on his way to the door of his room, he couldn’t avoid another act of self-hatred and stared at himself. What he saw was a sad-looking man, late thirties, balding early, with a soft fold of stomach hanging over his trouser waistband that his dirty shirt couldn’t contain. He noticed a large coffee stain on the crest of his belly that wasn’t there before. Instead of putting on a new shirt, he gave himself up as hopeless and hung his coat over the mirror.
He closed his door behind him – without locking it, no keys needed, or given out, at Ballyfeckit Hall. A writers’ retreat, in the middle of nowhere: nobody had anything worth taking. Especially Marius. Because he’d only written about a page since he got there last week, and he’d already thrown it in the bin. The floarboards creaked their disdain at him as he walked down the old wooden hallway. What, he asked himself, was he doing there? Yes, somehow he had managed to win a competition to spend a month there. God knows how. The story he had sent in didn’t seem worth it, just a tale about nothing in particular, but still, he won. And now he was there, taking part in workshops, meeting other writers who seemed full of talent and confidence. And after a week he had nothing to show for himself but a long face and a dirty shirt.
Going down the stairs, he heard voices in the kitchen. One of them was Alicia. And now he wished he had changed his shirt. Instead, he grabbed a cardigan that was lying across a chair in the hall and quickly buttoned it up over himself. It wasn’t really big enough, and the edges gaped in between the buttons, but better than the big coffee stain over his big belly.
But Alicia still gave him a big smile as he hove into view. She was just lovely in every way. Friendly, chatty, and a successful author of chick lit – or as she called it, contemporary relationship literature. He straightened up, sucked in his stomach and entered the kitchen.
“Hello,” Marius said genially. “Hi Alicia. How are you getting on with your work?”
But then there was a noise at the back door, and Alicia had eyes and ears for him no more. It was Reynard, just in from running. He was an author and media figure, and Marius felt a mixture of resentment, envy and guilty satisfaction.
Reynard was sweaty, his clothes damp in the way that Marius’s clothes didn’t get damp. As well as the dark patches under his arms, there was a triangle of sweat on the back of his Hay Festival T-shirt. His face glistened. When Marius sweated – usually from having to climb too many stairs – he got damp patches under his man boobs. And Reynard smelt like, well, like he looked: a sweaty, manly man, oozing pheromones. Marius smelt like nerves and wet dog. He was lucky if that was the worst of it after climbing too many stairs.
“Anyone seen my notebok?” Reynard asked in his strong, fruity voice.
“Your notebook?” Alicia squeaked, her voice about two octaves higher. “You haven’t lost it?”
“Afraid so. I can’t find it anywhere.”
“Let me help you look,” Alicia offered, far too eagerly.
“No, no. Please don’t trouble yourself.”
“Oh, it wouldn’t be any trouble,” Alicia said, laying a manicured hand on his arm.
Reynard looked around at all the writers. Marius felt like Reynard looked the longest, the most intensely at him. “Has anyone seen it?”
Marius shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, looked around him. That felt like the most innocent thing to do. “Can I help you look for it?” That, he thought, would make him look even more innocent.
“No, it’s OK. I’m sure it will turn up.”
Reynard strode out. Alicia got up after him. “I’d better go help him. Men … ” She rolled her eyes at the others. “They’re so helpless.”
Marius watched her leave. He had little interest in the coffee now, but poured himself a cup anyway, so it didn’t look like he came down only for her and was disappointed.
“Hey,” said one of the other writers at the breakfast table, “I’ve got a cardigan just like that.” Unfortunately, it was one of the women.
“That’s a coincidence,” said Marius, and left the room with his cup.
As he walked out, someone said, “Maybe the ghost took it?”
They all laughed, but Marius shivered. Ballyfeckit Hall, apparently, was haunted. The people staying there told him stories about the ghost, who was the founder of the manor house. He had died after playing a terrible trick on his cousin, who ran him through with a dagger while he laughed. After that, MacMurdle – that was the name of the dead lord – remained a fiendish joker, even in death. He stole things, hid them, destroyed them, soiled them with his ghostly blood.
Marius was afraid of ghosts. He had not been pleased when he heard this story.
He paused on his way back to his room, looking out the bay window at the vast roll of lawn down to the lake. The sun was nearly overhead and glinted knifelike off the water. He sighed and went up the stairs.
He couldn’t go through with it. He would go back to his room, pull Reynard’s notebook from under his underwear at the bottom of the drawer, where he had hidden it, and leave it somewhere. Then someone else would find it. They’d all think the ghost had taken it. Then it would be over, and Marius could go back to tearing out what little hair he had left at his writing desk.
As climbed the creaking wooden staircase, he unbuttoned the pilfered cardigan with his free hand. The sides of the garment sprang open like an impatiens seed pod as the buttons popped open. He opened the door to his room and tugged one arm out of a sleeve – a delicate operation while holding the cup of coffee – switched hands and prepared to tug off the other – when he heard a cackle.
Someone was lying on his bed. “Lying” was not quite the right word, as the someone was actually hovering several inches above it. This person turned his transparent face to him with glee and cackled again, waving a notebook – Reynard’s notebook.
Marius started and spilt most of the coffee over himself – and, unfortunately, the cardigan, now hanging from his wrist. He didn’t scream – he wanted to, he tried to – but no sound would come out.
“This is the most marvellous bit of literature! With this to hand, who would read novels? HA HA HA HA HA HA!”
“Who … who … ” Marius’s voice sounded strangled.
But he didn’t need to ask. The ghost had a large, messy-looking hole in its chest. It didn’t look bloody anymore, just darker, not reflective moon-white like the rest of him.
“Listen to this,” the ghost rasped, then read, “‘That tart Alicia is really into me. I’ll keep ignoring her for a day or two more, then, when she’s totally gagging for it, I’ll let her help me with something. Maybe I’ll confide in her about my ex-wife being cruel to me. I’ll just have to figure out which ex-wife I’ll mention.’ You couldn’t make it up!”
“You’re it,” Marius stammered. “You’re the ghost.”
“That’s not very polite. I am MacMurdle. You should show me more respect, now that I have the notebook you stole from Reynard. HA HA HA!”
“How do you – ?”
“‘She looks like a sheepdog having a bad hair day,’” MacMurdle read on, “but, still, writers are generally unlovely, and she’s the best of the lot.’ A gentleman, our Reynard. ‘Afterwards, I’ll offer to read some of her manuscript. It’s probably the usual drivel, but there’ll be something in there that will be useful to me, I’m sure.’”
It was true, Marius thought. Reynard did not sound like a very nice person.
“He isn’t a nice person,” MacMurdle said. Could he read Marius’s thoughts? “And doesn’t think much of you, either: ‘There’s a new inmate this year. How he got in I can’t imagine. A doughy dolt who hasn’t a brain in his head. And less personality. Alicia said he looked like a yesterday’s waterballoon with a slow leak.’”
That stung. Marius wondered why he hadn’t actually read any of the notebook. Too much reverence for the famous Reynard. As it was, stealing the thing was turning out to be its own punishment, an own goal.
MacMurdle grinned at Marius. He was enjoying himself. “You stole it, and didn’t read it? What were you going to do with it?”
“I was just … I don’t know. I was jealous.”
MacMurdle cackled. “That big, muscle-bound fathead. He comes here every year. Always steals other people’s ideas. Some woman always develops a fancy for him. And then he steals her work and puts it in his books. And even so, what has he actually published? One book ten years ago that nobody reads anymore. You might say it was ghostwritten. HA!”
MacMurdle bobbed gleefully from Marius’s bed and floated towards him. Marius froze as the ghost grinned into his face. “Let’s have some fun, shall we?”
MacMurdle the ghost disappeared through the wall with the notebook. How did he manage to take the notebook through the wall, Marius thought. He was still in shock. And hurt. But feeling less guilty about stealing the notebook, much less. What was MacMurdle going to do with it? Was he going to give him away?
From downstairs he heard a shriek. “It’s the ghost! AAAAAHHHHHH!” It sounded like Alicia.
“Listen to this!” It was the voice of MacMurdle.
Marius smiled with private pleasure and sipped what was left of his coffee.
A version of this story originally appeared in the German magazine Spotlight