An extract from Polly Halladay’s short story, She Visits.
You were either a believer or you weren’t, at first. Psychiatric hospitals filled; the emergency services were overwhelmed. Cults formed and were broken. Schools closed and opened. Then there were national polls and social media surveys trying to keep track of those who could see them. ‘Seers’ we were termed, though that suggests a degree of wisdom which is misplaced.
There were interviews attempted, but they didn’t show up on the screen, adrift between the pixels. You couldn’t hear them either, their voices lost amid frequencies. Thirty-three million people tuned in to the News at Six to watch an empty chair, the interviewer questioning silence.
It was midmorning, and I was smoking in the summer heat, leaning by the bins on the backstreet, when I saw one sitting beside the junkie outside the kebab shop.
Something sordid about seeing the backs of establishments: wheelie bins released from their steel-shutter cages, mouths agape, spewing split black liners on the ground, used tissues, rotten food, and the staffs’ stolen cigarette breaks butted into the hot pavement.
The junkie looked happier than usual, more animated than I’d ever seen him, more alive. He was chatting with it, both of them reclined on a cardboard box. Then the junkie passed the needle – unusually generous of him, I thought – and it took it. Holding something solid, it looked even more incorporeal than before, blending with the heat waves rippling in the distance. I had to keep blinking to hold it in sight.
It must have slipped the needle into the nothing of its arm because after a moment, it disappeared. The needle fell to the ground, a sound of splintered glass. But the junkie was too busy slapping his wrist, opening and closing his fist, to notice.
I stubbed out my cigarette, tipped the dregs of my coffee away, and walked back inside the café to work.
Meanwhile, a mother. Tries to pour her son some cereal. But she can’t lift the box. Can’t smell the milk to see if it’s off. Can’t speak. Or kiss him goodbye as he leaves. His father lies grief-soiled on the sofa, didn’t teach the boy to tie his own shoelaces or take himself to school. She cries. Silent in the kitchen. Her tears don’t even fall.
I took my lunch out the back: more cigarettes and caffeine, no stomach for anything else. The junkie was gone, the midday sun too much for skin and bone. Simon heard me coming back inside and called for me from the office, a pustule of space squeezed into the head of the café. Above it, your average overpriced London flat was perched like an expensive hat. Either side, ‘chic’ eateries, boutiques, and international restaurants constituted the high street of this urban village on the outskirts of the city.
I tied my milk-stained and stinking apron around me quickly, as I climbed the narrow stairway made of cheap, unpainted plywood – only staff were allowed back there. Places like this: faux industrial décor, shining metal tabletops, gleaming marble counters, all smoke and mirrors really. Food hygiene offences in the kitchen, mop water black and Guinness-thick, and stained steel tables polished with baby oil to complete the illusion. A veneer of sophistication veiling filth. A plaster on a pock-marked arm. The polish I used to cover my coffee-stained nails.
I stood just inside the office, silent at the top step, anticipating a grilling. I’d opened late, broken three cups over the course of the morning, and just finished my fourth cigarette break in as many hours. Simon, the manager, was sitting on a shitty little chair, his laptop humming on a shitty little desk. The rest of the office, and there wasn’t much of it, was taken up with large black shelves half-full of stock. Disposable cups, tumescent tubs of mayonnaise, an industrial-sized bag of chocolate buttons – Anita, the other barista, would sneak me one, cupped in her hand like treasure, and pop it, already softened by the heat of her skin, into my mouth – and a freezer you could hide a body in.
Simon tapped away for a full minute, knee jerking, while I stood there. Then he sighed, rubbed his stubbled jaw, and swivelled on the chair to look at me. It was hard to place his age: greying at the temples, thinning on top, the skin beneath shiny like linoleum. But something young about how he moved, flitting from task to task, always doing, never satisfied with any job done.
‘Do you like this job?’ he asked.
No. ‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Do you want to progress in this job?’
No. ‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Are you trying to get yourself fired?’
No. ‘No,’ I said. It was true. The café was all I’d known for the past half-decade. It was simple, insignificant. It passed the time. It paid the bills.
‘What the fuck is going on with you then?’
I thought about them. The news reports trickling in over the radio downstairs. The sirens multiplying in the night. But mainly, I thought about her.
It was the evening before, still light but waning. I was looking in my bathroom mirror. I wasn’t admiring my reflection; there was nothing admirable in my face. I was wiping off the makeup smudged into my skin during the hot shift, using the good stuff that stings because you shouldn’t use it on your eyes, but it’s the only thing that works. I opened my eyes, and I saw her.
She wasn’t there, and then she was. Grey, as they all are, but a boring kind of grey. The shade you see without seeing it, that resides within every other colour, that rims every shadow, when white is never truly white, not really. That’s the grey, the colour without colour.
She wasn’t a shimmering sign of life after life, like you might want her to be, or glistening ethereally. She wasn’t the grisly kind; no blood, swollen veins, or rotting flesh peeling from her cheeks. No old sheet thrown over either, the bulge of a head beneath and two black slits for eyes. Just grey. Mute grey. But not mute. She cried ‘Boo!’ of course, just because she could. And I jumped, of course, because she made me fucking jump.
She probably thought my red, watering eyes were the result of her trickery. She laughed hollowly and floated through my bathroom door. Mainly, I was just pissed off – it had been a long shift.
Simon had gone on about the state of the café floor, stood there sniffing, watching me while I mopped it. I’d closed the doors; Simon didn’t waste money on aircon and without the slight breeze off the busy street, the sweat ran down in rivulets. He must have noticed my melting face, the shadow coming loose around my eyes. I’d been embarrassed, though I didn’t find him remotely attractive. Frustrated, I’d snatched the scourer to scrub the corners where the counter met the floor, black from years of congealed coffee grounds. Crouched like an animal, I’d scrubbed hard, grunting, wanting him to see how ugly I could be. We’d closed at six but didn’t get out until eight and Simon didn’t pay overtime.
I decided not to be a coward and opened the bathroom door, following her like a stalker might as she glided into the main room of my garret flat: kitchen, living, and dining shoved together like unwilling siblings in a family photograph. Standing just inside the room, as though a stranger in my own home, I watched her roam about.
Her presence fluctuated, nearly erased in the low light of the evening sun through the window. More substantial in the shadows: by the bookshelf, behind the door, in the corner where the roof slanted into the room. She went to the fridge and with a touch of annoyance, her fingers slipping through the handle, she opened it. Looking inside, she snorted, then moved over to the sofa, fingering the frayed blanket I’d thrown over it to cover the stains from the previous tenant. Then she regarded the only picture I’d bothered to frame: a photo, the friends and family pictured mere spectres beneath a film of thick dust. Unimpressed, she pushed the corner down with her finger, repositioning the frame on a wonk, some dust falling and speckling the sofa. At the bookshelf, she noted my small collection: novels from forgotten days, unanswered letters from lost friends, folders with old documents inside. With comparative ease, she drew a folder out, opened it and flicked through the plastic wallets. Settling on one, she pulled out my degree certificate and, turning to look right at me, dropped it to the floor.
‘Right,’ I said, crossing my arms, looking anywhere but her face. ‘Who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my flat?’ She just smiled.
She hung around all evening, flickering in the middle of the room, making small, judgemental noises when I drank for dinner.
‘I’ll get the exorcist round,’ I told her, if she kept that up. Trying to joke, to sound okay, but perched on the arm of the sofa, close to the window, which I tried not to regard as a potential escape route.
Hours passed, and all she seemed to do was grow more restless: tucking in chairs, reordering the shoe rack, testing the dry beds of my potted plants. I wondered if she could feel anything with those fingers, long and slender like mine, but tapering at the ends into nothingness.
Empty bottles sprouted around me, but the alcohol didn’t work like it usually did, my nerves keeping me alert, and as the sun relinquished its hold, if not its heat, on the night, I noticed something. The tips of her fingers seemed to solidify, her edges becoming more discernible, more familiar. I looked away, as though seeing something I shouldn’t have, as though by seeing, I was not only acknowledging her presence but strengthening it. I skirted her on my way to bed.
When I woke, the bottles were gone. She was in the cupboard, a carton of out-of-date eggs in one hand and a bag of stale cereal in the other. I shut the door quickly and left without breakfast. It was only when I’d reached the café that I realised I’d forgotten the key, not in its usual place in my bag.
I lived right around the corner but trudged back, the sun sharp and unforgiving. She was there – I hadn’t really expected her to leave – and the key was in the middle of the table, glowing in the bright morning light. She was out of the cupboard, barely visible in the sun shining through her from the window. I was thankful for that. It helped me sound assertive when I said, ‘Next time, tell me when I forget to take the keys, yeah?’
She didn’t respond, and I realised on the walk back to the café that in saying that, I’d inadvertently invited her to stay.
Meanwhile, an old man. Wakes under an old quilt in an old bed that creaks as he rises. The old man also creaks, his joints like joints get.
The old woman doesn’t wake beside him. Doesn’t rise as he does. Doesn’t creak. She is silent, sitting in the old armchair opposite the bed, nude, not yet dressed for the day. Folds of her grey skin hang through the wicker arms and the wicker back of the chair. She bends, pulls grey stockings suddenly at her ankles up her legs, covering the grey varicose veins entwining her grey calves. Then she rises without creaking, the wicker chair unwincing, and walks to the wardrobe. Opening its doors and reaching inside, she pulls grey dresses from their coloured selves like banana skins. She puts one on. Then she leaves her dead self in the bed.
At the café, the old man didn’t notice much. His eyes were not what they once were, something he complained about most days, holding out the wrong change across the counter for me to inspect. He refused to wear glasses. The old woman scolded him for it. Their little routine. I never found it charming. There was shit to get to: coffee-stained cups piling up, the squeal of the receipt printer streaming orders, Anita placating a queue of uncaffeinated customers. The afternoon rush, the everyday, the mundane.
They sat at their usual table near the toilets, and I served the old woman as normal, not knowing what else to do. As she drank, the cappuccino fell through her in one fluid motion, splattering onto her chair and scalding a businessman on the table next to them who swore roughly.
I saw it all, unable to take my eyes off her, and watched as she rose and walked out, unconcerned by the mess she left behind her, freedom in her grey features.
The old man wheezed after her. The other patrons watched him go, some seeing her, most not. He left the exact change on the counter. I pocketed it as a tip and cleaned up the mess quickly, hiding the evidence, making sure Simon would have no reason to act on the warning he’d made to me earlier in the office. Get it together, or I’m sending you home. Where she would be.
‘There’ll be looting and rioting in the streets, you mark my words,’ a paranoid construction worker said the next day, before downing the triple shot espresso I’d made him, his face almost as orange as his hi-viz jacket. I just nodded, wide-eyed, towelling a teapot.
He wasn’t completely wrong. Later, the off-licence across the street was robbed. Two teenagers from the local school were arrested, the cheap wine they’d dropped when they ran dried red on the steaming pavement like spilled blood.
‘What a waste,’ I said to Anita, as we watched the police cars pull up.
‘Poor kids,’ she agreed. I didn’t tell her I’d meant the wine and repositioned some cakes melting in the window display.
Religious fanatics had a few field days of course, promoting the end of the world, so, nothing really new. I saw one on my way to buy more milk for the café. A preacher, standing outside the fish and chip shop. He was dressed in a medley of grey ponchos, misinterpreting what someone had told him they looked like and how hot it would be.
Two greys, a tall woman with sharp edges to her nothingness and a wavering young man with long hair, the flares of his jeans wafting without wind, stood around him laughing. I stopped to watch them and thought of her. They looked different. The woman was almost opaque in her greyness, the man was a waft of smoke, she was somewhere in between. No one knew why some were more present that others, why some could speak, could touch, could hold. I looked around then, at the bodies going about their business, ambitious with their being and desires, jaywalking across the street as the cars flashed passed. No one had stopped. No one was stuck like me, staring at the greys. I’d lingered too long and moved on.
Meanwhile, a boy. Just eighteen, never got to grow old. Still remembers the faces of the men who beat him. Remembers how the blood felt, filling his nostrils, the back of his throat, his lungs heavy with it; the taste of his own murder on his tongue. And the nurse who spoke to him in those final minutes. Slipping away to her words. He goes back to the hospital to thank her. But she lived and died and didn’t return like he did. So, he leaves, leaving others like himself tormenting those who’d failed to save them.
Not everyone can see them and there aren’t that many to be seen. Not compared to the living. Not compared to those who have died. But they make themselves known.
Anita told me of a grey who liked to hold up traffic on her street.
‘It works for those who can see him,’ she said over the screeching of the steam wand while she textured the milk, a steady expression in her face, her neat, straight blond hair drawn in at the nape of her neck, as always. There was a calmness about her, unflappable even when we were rushed off our feet, even when the dead walked the earth. She had asbestos hands, could hold the metal jug far longer than I could, though she burnt the milk that way. ‘Some accidents have even been caused,’ she said, gesticulating with her red hand.
‘Maybe that was his intention,’ I said, handing her a cup and catching my own face warped cruelly in the metal of the jug. ‘For those who can’t see, it’s just a normal day,’ she said. They drive right through him like fingers through a flame.
‘There’s another that likes to tidy,’ a customer told us, sipping on the green juice I’d made her using some questionable spinach. I watched it zip up her straw. ‘It’s an older gentleman,’ she said. She’d spotted him picking up the plums that fell from her tree. Glad for her company, she thought. But conscious that he should earn his keep in some way. So he tidied: repositioned the ornaments, reorganised the books alphabetically, then thematically, then by colour and back again. Turned her fridge magnets to right angles and made phrases with the magnetic poetry set.
Faking a toilet break to rest my feet, I flicked through the internet forums which had cropped up – Dateagrey.com, Greysenemy.co.uk, Greystay.org – and found a fan page for the ex-girlfriend grey. She haunted the man she used to date. Accusations of assault, abuse, worse, had been made against him by many women – one dead. She wouldn’t leave him alone. So, he’d decided to make his home into an attraction. People, Seers and the Blind alike, would pay to stay and be scared out of their wits. That was the premise anyway. Problem was, she didn’t play along. He handed himself into the authorities eventually. He’s in a cell now. She visits. Frequently.