(First published in a storytime blog hop Jan 2019)
Ghosts hang around because they have unfinished business. Or so the stories say. I’d never tested the theory, but then they’d never bothered me personally before.
By the time I discovered Jake in my apartment, I was tied into a three year lease agreement so I was stuck with him.
‘Do you know why you’re still here?’ I asked one Saturday afternoon. I’d cleared the kitchen table and we’d put his poltergeist skills to use in a game of table tennis. He was too good at it, so I asked more to distract him than for any other reason.
‘Because I’m winning?’
‘I mean here.’ I pointed to the floor. ‘This building. Why haven’t you moved on or whatever it is you’re supposed to do when you die.’
He winced, ‘Must you put it so bluntly? It’s incredibly bad manners.’
I looked around the empty room, ‘I don’t think anyone here will mind.’
‘Just play.’ He hit the ping pong ball back at me, but it shot over my shoulder and out the open window.
Muffled swearing from outside prompted me to peer out cautiously. ‘Oh no! I can’t believe you hit Mr Norrell, he hates me!’ I watched my upstairs neighbour slide the ball into his pocket, and turned back to Jake. ‘That’s my only ball. You’ll have to get it back.’
‘Me? I can’t go out there.’
‘Nobody will see you. Besides, it’s your fault.’
He stuck his nose in the air and twitched the folds of his cravat, ‘A gentleman doesn’t assign blame.’
‘I’m not a gentleman,’ I pointed out. I wasn’t convinced that he was either. ‘Off you go.’
‘You misunderstand me,’ he said. ‘I can’t go out there because I’m confined to this building; the er… premises of my demise,’ he added helpfully.
I threw my bat down in frustration as my ill-tempered neighbour continued his self-important stroll out the front gate.
That evening I was tucking into my Saturday night treat of chow mein from Mr Fibonachi’s, (I was as sure that wasn’t his real name as I was that he wasn’t of Chinese origin, but he made the best chow mein I’d ever tasted), when Jake appeared, setting a collection of objects on the table.
‘Where did they come from?’ He’d brought back the ping pong ball, but for some reason included my favourite tee-shirt, an old pair of shoes and a chicken ornament.
‘As requested,’ he bowed with a flourish of the tatty lace at his wrists. ‘I retrieved your belongings from the gentleman upstairs.’
‘But he only had my ping pong ball.’
‘I thought that too. However, when I traced it to his apartment—’
‘You traced it? I thought you couldn’t leave my place?’
‘This building, I said. And yes, I am able to trace the aura of something belonging to you. May I continue?’
Despite the many questions teeming through my brain, I nodded for him to carry on.
‘I traced it to a box which was marked with your apartment number. Inside were all of these.’
‘That’s creepy.’ I shivered.
‘If it makes you feel any better, you aren’t being singled out. There are boxes for all the apartments.’
‘I can’t decide if that’s creepier or not.’ I picked up the chicken ornament. ‘Where the hell did he get this? And my tee-shirt! I guess I should be grateful it’s not my underwear.’
‘Why would he have your underwear?’ Jake looked puzzled.
‘Are you telling me nobody got thrills watching people in their undies in regency England, or whenever you’re from?’
‘Oh, I see.’ He shook his head. ‘Undergarments were considerably less attractive in my day. Getting someone out of it was the challenge. Yours, however—’
‘No!’ I slammed my hands over my ears. ‘I thought we’d agreed on some boundaries!’
‘Now, yes. But…’ he shrugged and assumed a pious expression. ‘Sometimes you forget, and I don’t like to embarrass you.’
‘Ugh!’ I threw the chicken ornament at him, which was completely pointless as if he hadn’t caught it, it would have gone right through him anyway.
‘At least you’ve got your things back, now,’ he said.
That made me stop and think. ‘I have,’ I agreed. ‘But what about everybody else? No. This has to stop.’ I charged out of my apartment and up the stairs to Mr Norrell’s, propelled by righteous indignation and deaf to Jake’s pleas to be reasonable.
Mr Norrell answered my frenzied hammering at his door with a polite, ‘How may I help you?’
‘How dare you!’ I charged past him into his entrance hall and brandished my belongings under his nose. ‘How dare you steal my things!’
‘Where did you get those?’ he demanded.
‘Never mind where I got ‘em. Where did you get them?’
He looked at me as if I were an idiot. ‘They’re lost property, of course.’
‘No, they’re not. They’re mine.’
‘But they were lost,’ he insisted.
‘Why didn’t you give them back?’ I could feel my moral high ground starting to crumble underfoot.
‘That’s not how it works,’ he told me. ‘Caretakers don’t have time to run around after everyone, you know. So I put them in a box ready for when someone comes to collect them.’
‘But you’re not the caretaker.’ I was confused.
‘No,’ He replied sadly. ‘I retired. But I guess old habits die hard.’
He showed me his hallway cupboard, which was stacked with boxes labelled by apartment number.
‘Nobody knows to ask you if they’ve lost something,’ I pointed out.
Understanding dawned on his face. ‘I guess old habits do die hard.’ He shook his head. ‘Now I’m retired, I suppose I have time to return them. Here, I’ll start with you.’ He reached into his pocket, frowning when it turned out empty, then he spotted the ping pong ball in my hand. ‘Oh, I guess I did that already.’
‘Jake,’ I said when we were back downstairs. ‘He hadn’t put the ball with the other things, had he?’
Jake fiddled with his sleeve. ‘I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.’ Then he winked, ‘Sometimes people just need a little nudge, don’t you think?’