An extract from Max Lury’s novel-in-progress, NO GHOSTS.
The sun sets over a pale building. Two bouncers stand shoulder to shoulder at the entrance. Their fluorescent jackets are faded and torn. Behind them the doors are open just a crack and a weak light comes from inside, shining on cigarette butts and wet asphalt and smears of gum that have gone hard in the cold.
When they talk it is quiet, and with purpose.
—Been a long time.
—That it has.
Silence. Noddy gives his greasy ponytail a tug. Hugs puts his hands in his pockets and rocks backwards on his heels, before speaking again.
—So you have.
—And what do you make of it?
—Don’t trust it.
—Right. Of course. But, I mean, which part?
—All of it.
—You think they’re lying?
The faint darkness of dusk. A small crowd appears at the bottom of the path, clutching signs and straw effigies and waving bedsheets on wooden sticks. There is the sound of a chant and the wind.
—Here we go.
—Exactly. Here we go.
Harlow did not listen to music when she cleaned her house because it felt like making a show. She wasn’t sure to whom, exactly, only that donning the elbow-length yellow rubber gloves and moving in time to the beat with a sponge made her feel like a deranged fifties housewife, buzzed to the gills on a cocktail of Valium and little pink Dexedrine pills and noon-on-the-dot glasses of gin and tonic.
So she moved in silence. She took the spray and the wipes and the sponge from room to room and did not whistle or hum. Sometimes she would stand and put her hands on her hips and compress her tongue against the roof of her mouth and then pull it away, but the rhythm that made was thoughtless, incomplete.
The pre-clean was more important, really, than the post-clean, if you were going to get academic about it. Now when a visitor left small fibres or coffee rings, she could spot them. Remove them. Otherwise, she would not discover it until weeks later, a sticky corner or the stub of a bus ticket under a chair. These remnants of people that kept the space from being hers, that forced themselves into the cracks and stayed there. She could feel them even when she could not see them, like sour breath in your ear on the tube.
She discovered once that saying the word clean out loud made you inadvertently smile, and so after pouring herself a glass of white wine she went to stand outside and while running the tip of her forefinger along the thin rim of the glass she said it to herself: clean.
Then she really did feel like some sort of trapped housewife, and for a moment she pictured stacks of empty blister packs and bottles and little pill cases and the word clean scrawled over and over again in the dirt.
The doorbell rang. She left the glass on a small table on the porch and made her way towards the front door. She took a moment or two, adjusting her hair in the nearby mirror, and said it again under her breath.
She opened the door to see Faye, her dark hair short and flat against her scalp, and said Faye it is so lovely to see you. Harlow gave her two big kisses and a smile she hoped seemed sincere.
Faye did a little wiggle of her hips and moved sideways, and gestured like she was introducing her assistant on stage.
She said this is my boyfriend Lloyd and Harlow said hello Lloyd I’m Harlow.
Faye had not asked if she could bring her boyfriend. Which was fine, really, but more than two bodies in the house upset the fault lines, the rules and regulations Harlow knew but could not name. She supposed he was pretty in a kind of vacant way, like he was from the third row of images you’d find if you Googled the word handsome.
Lloyd said so it’s Harlow?
She nodded and said her name again, to confirm. Harlow.
She was in two minds about her own name. Part of her knew there was something unforgivably American about it. It was sexless in a kind of modern way, but it also offered her a chance to compose herself before meeting new people. They would hear her name and would not know if she was a man or a woman or what and that suited her just fine.
Harlow asked if he needed to hear her name one more time just to be sure and Faye rolled her eyes and told Lloyd not to rise to it.
Faye stepped inside and looked around with wide eyes and said God this is really very nice isn’t it? while reaching out to just brush Harlow’s shoulder as she walked past. She took her time looking at the art on Harlow’s walls. She stood a few steps back and pointed at a painting, a black fish half-submerged in a cube, and said ooh you know what I think this one’s my favourite. Lloyd was studying the skirting board and Harlow was glad she had dusted it.
Harlow asked what would you like to drink? and Faye inhaled and shook her hands as if that was some sort of answer. Harlow pulled a bottle of white from the fridge and showed it to Faye but she just shrugged and pouted. She pointed at another painting and said oh no actually I like this one so much more.
Harlow was not entirely sure what the point of this was, and as it went on, she became less and less inclined to go through with whatever show Faye was trying to put on. So she now stood in the kitchen pouring two more glasses of wine whilst she listened to the sound of Faye and Lloyd’s feet in the other room.
She didn’t have the heart to tell Faye that an interior designer had picked all of this, that she couldn’t care less. She thought it was easier now to just let the little performance play out. She made her way to the back of the house and opened the door and put the glasses of wine on the small tables by the seats. Then she took her own in two hands and waited for the couple to come outside.
The only bit of art Harlow had chosen herself was a sculpture that stood near the bottom of the garden. At the end of the lawn, which was now overgrown, swarming with plants she had not planted but that just seemed to emerge one day in the sun—daises with tall stems that bowed under the weight of their flowers, grasses that feathered and split— in the shadow of the great pine that she was told defined the property, stood a human figure.
It was made out of a kind of lead alloy and it had a pleasing flatness to it. Come rain or shine it was the same texture. She had chosen it because it seemed poorly made, stumbling across it at an auction she had been dragged to by Annie.
The places where you could see the fingerprints and seams and the clumsy melding of separate parts gave the piece a kind of potential. It was neither man nor woman, and its pose, although always technically the same, changed with your mood; some days it could be an awkward attempt at confidence and others it seemed to shrink into itself. She enjoyed watching it shift and remain still.
Annie had called it ‘unsolved’.
Sometimes, although she would tell no one this, she dreamt about dancing with it in her small field of daisies, and each footprint it left was so heavy and deep that it became a hole they would dance around, until the whole field had dropped away, and they were left, the skin of the statue cold against hers, dancing on nothing at all.
Once they had been in bed together, and when it came it moaned like a struck bell.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and Faye said her name as if she was scared she might wake her. Harlow gestured to the seat next to her and watched as Faye and Lloyd sat down. Faye was wearing very expensive sports leggings and a t-shirt that was designed to look worn but Harlow knew cost north of three hundred pounds.
They talked about not much to begin with. Lloyd was quiet and Faye did most of the talking, describing their journey, the ringroads that were a fucking nightmare, and the fact that her filtration system at home had broken a week ago so they were back to drinking Voss, and in response to this Harlow just shook her head and said the word microplastics with a knowing look and Faye said exactly, yeah.
Faye went on a small tangent about how she got to visit her mum’s grave on the way down, how they’d brought her favourite flowers—petunias—and how they had been the only people there for a while and the place had felt different. Like arriving early to your departure gate at Heathrow to find no one there. She kept talking about the man she’d eventually bumped into, and how he’d commented on it too, but by this point Harlow was so bored she could cry. She pictured smashing the bulb of the wine glass against her forehead and excusing herself to clean it up, getting on her hands and knees and using a dustpan and brush to sweep up the little bloody fragments and saying oh so sorry Faye if you could just move your—oops—perfect.
Faye offered Harlow some half-hearted work gossip although they had both left Horizon a couple of years ago. It was about people she did not really know or care about. Something about an affair and someone being caught in a hotel somewhere near the Cotswolds. Harlow said sorry but I’m really not sure I care and Faye said no I don’t really care either with a kind of resigned sigh.
Harlow ran her finger along the rim of her glass again and wondered if Faye thought she had to do this conversational routine as they’d been the only two women at the company for a while and should have developed a sort of rapport. They hadn’t. But Faye seemed to think that they had been complicit, somehow, in trying to make a world that was not theirs fit.
Lloyd was tapping his ring finger against the armrest and looking at the sky.
Faye’s phone vibrated on the table a couple of times and she did not pick it up. She looked over to Harlow and smiled without her eyes and said you know I’m so glad we did this. Harlow lied and said yeah, me too. She’d been a little more senior than Faye at Horizon and that relationship held even now, in the small ways Faye would try and check in, touch base.
Faye turned to Lloyd and explained that she’d bumped into Harlow at some tech event where they were both on separate panels and hadn’t realised. Faye ran through the whole thing start to finish, how she had seen Harlow and shouted oh my god oh my god we have to do drinks across the quiet lobby and Harlow had said how’s next Friday and Faye had whipped out her phone calendar which was colour-coded and full and now they were here and talking about things that did not matter.
Harlow studied Lloyd. There was something about him which took her a second to process. He was dirty. But it was a deliberate kind of dirtiness. Like you might see in a low-budget movie, an attempt to give the impression of dirtiness by someone who had never been filthy a day in their life. Soil seemed smeared on his skin in brushstrokes, it came up his neck and stopped short of his jawline and wrists. There was no dirt under fingernails or matted in the locks of his hair, his teeth were not yellow, they were clean and straight, and his skin was smooth.
Lloyd did not say very much at all. He just looked out over the garden and occasionally reached to squeeze Faye’s hand, who, upon receiving the squeeze, would lean towards him and kiss him on the cheek and then continue talking. Harlow asked if he wanted his wine and Faye shook her head and said, oh he doesn’t drink.
Lloyd stood up and said I’m sorry to interrupt but do you mind if I use your toilet?
Harlow said no of course be my guest and Faye gave her a look like she thought Harlow had been sarcastic but was not sure. Harlow shook her head like, no, that was serious.
She said it was inside and up the stairs, straight on. You couldn’t miss it.
Lloyd said thanks. He sat for a moment longer before standing and making his way into the house.
When she was sure he had gone upstairs Harlow said he’s quiet.
Faye said yeah, it works. Balances me out. Then she laughed the way people do when they have made the joke so many times that it has become polished and bland. Harlow did not laugh with her.
Faye looked at her. That’s just his work, she said. Then she sat back in her chair as if that somehow summed it all up, and together they watched the wind tease the flowers and the small black birds that made their way across the lawn.
Harlow wanted to ask questions like can you get over saying a name like that in the bedroom out loud, but she knew Faye would only blush and say nothing and so she was silent.
Faye asked if the statue had come with the house and Harlow lied and said yes it did. Faye sighed and said thank God, I hate it.
Then she paused and tapped her wine glass with a fingernail and said as if she had been thinking this the whole time, it’s a bit crude.
Harlow rolled her eyes in a small, contained movement she was sure Faye could not see. Faye hummed a little tune and then, as if looking at Harlow would make what she was about to say too hard, she fixed her eyes on the statue and said we hadn’t heard from you in a while. She turned her head and looked at the glass of wine that was empty in Harlow’s hand and said but you are ok, right?
They did not make eye contact. Harlow imagined all the ways Faye might package it, who she’d tell and how. The idea of her response being endlessly disseminated and shared made her mouth dry. She said nothing.
Instead, she lit a cigarette and took an ashtray from under the small table. It was plastic and had SPLIT, CROATIA in a gaudy font superimposed over a woman with her legs spread and her underwear the chequered red and white of the Croatian flag. Faye looked at it and wrinkled her nose.
Lloyd came back from the toilet and said found it! in a way that made it sound like Harlow’s house was a maze. Harlow stood up and went to get another glass of wine from the kitchen. When she came back the couple looked up as if they had been talking about her whilst she was gone.
Which, it turned out, they had been.
Faye said look a few of us from the job are getting together in a couple of weeks and I thought I’d just let you know.
They always called it ‘the job’ now. It had become something almost mythical. Something they shared and the implication was, she supposed, that what they had been doing was so intense and demanding that there could only ever be one job. Everything else paled in comparison.
Faye mentioned Mark wasn’t invited as if that might somehow entice her. Harlow was embarrassed to admit it did a little. But not enough. Then Faye checked her phone and said oh, it’s not next weekend but next next weekend, if that helps.
It was in telling Faye what she was doing that she remembered it. It was like her mouth had solved the problem for her, faster than her brain, and she was so shocked by the ease and convenience of it that she said it twice.
She said I’m going to a memorial service for a friend then, I’m sorry.
Faye gave her a look.
A memorial service for a friend, that weekend. So I can’t make it.
Faye said oh, I heard, but I just thought maybe. Harlow interrupted said it’s very important to me that I go. Faye tried to push her a bit more but Harlow went quiet and chewed her lip and did the whole, oh this is quite difficult for me to talk about thing, and then Faye was quiet.
Lloyd looked at Harlow like he didn’t quite believe her. He said was it recent? and Harlow shook her head. No, she said. A year ago.
Ah, he said with a smile. Time heals all wounds.
Faye frowned and said Lloyd in a voice you might use on babies or on big stupid dogs.
She thought it was kind of thoughtless to say time healed all wounds because time was precisely the problem, the fact that she had, if she wanted it, all these messages and videos and voicemails, records of time spent, decades of her and Annie’s friendship that had been converted to data and tucked in her pocket.
Sometimes when she could not sleep she would reread their old text conversations. Her favourites were not when they talked about their feelings or their days or dates, but when she could see the gaps between messages, when texts just read outside, or there in 15, and there was no location because they’d discussed it on the phone or in person, when there were these inane texts about things that only made sense on the day or in that moment, things like what do u think, or I can see u, and the implication of these, of a life built around them, was so much richer than just the flat text on the screen or the limits of her memory after a bottle or two.
Harlow said so what do you do Lloyd? and he shrugged and said it’s complicated.
Right, Harlow said. That’s kind of patronising.
I don’t mean it to be.
Well, she said. It is.
Faye said I mean, it is a little complicated and Harlow said right well look it’s not exactly like what we do is easy to describe.
Faye corrected her. Did, she said, what we did.
There was some confusion about the wine. Faye had stopped drinking because she was driving so Harlow was left holding two very full glasses. After a few limp attempts at further conversation— politics, old colleagues’ relationships, house prices—they agreed it was probably time to call it a night.
They said goodbye and agreed that they must do this again and Lloyd gave her a small precise smile when he shook her hand.
She stood by the door for a while after they’d left. The fault lines of the house felt locked into place and the world felt rigid and tight around her.
It was only when she cleaned everything up, and it was all bright and neat again, that she felt she was able to breathe. She sat on the sofa and finished the bottle and then had another. She felt sick and put her head between her knees. After a while she felt a little better and she stood to go to bed, and it was when she went into her bathroom to brush her teeth that she saw it.
Right in the centre of her mirror, obscuring her face as she walked in, was a large, dirty handprint. The fingers were spread wide and long. She stood for a while staring, letting it disembody her reflection, the dirt swallowing her stomach and her breasts and the hollow of her throat.