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Ghost of A Chance
written by: Richard Prime
I've always thought of myself as a bit of an entrepreneur. Not a con man, you understand. Everything I do is above board and proper. There's a lot of work now; running tyres for big Jim at the garage, a bit of painting and decorating, and I sell bric-a-brac at the Wednesday market in town. That moves very fast, mostly because of the amount of tourism we get here. Rich Americans or people from down south looking for a guide to take them round the cathedral and the old monastery. I do that, too. All cash-in-hand, of course. The only trouble I've ever had was when I was moving computer parts for Billy Albright on the business park. The police stopped me because one of my brake lights wasn't showing. Close call, that. If they'd looked in the boot, they'd have found fifty grands worth of computers. After that, I kept things legitimate.
Things are a bit tight now, with Winter coming. Too cold for wandering around old buildings, and Wednesday market is real brass-monkey weather. I spend most nights at the Spigot, or the Fox on London Road. Friendly crowd in there, and there's always someone with a nose for work.
I'd spent a lot of time out of work after the steel works closed. I took my redundancy and that should have tide us over, but my ex went off with someone else, and the money paid for a divorce. A couple of my mates had gone to college to learn new trades. That's ok for some. School was bad enough, and I'd left with no qualifications. Now, I live on my wits, and I don't do so bad.
This was until recently, when one night I was in the Spigot, busy minding my own business. I had a copy of Hare and Hounds open and I was looking for groundsman jobs or beaters. A bit too late in the year for that, but I thought I might catch something going at the end of the season. I was waiting, too, for one of the regular faces to come in and I'd mooch over to the bar and tap them for ideas. They might know someone who needs a lad, or they might need a driver. I've already said I only do legitimate work, but the larder was getting bare, and I'd have to find something soon. I could turn my hand to anything, and anything would do at that moment.
Then in came Dennis. Grand old Dennis. He wasn't old; younger than me, in fact, but he mixed with the old men. Played darts and dominoes with them.
"Ey, you've cleaned them bah brasses, Tom," I heard Dennis saying in his loud welcoming voice. Some folk thought his stammer meant Dennis was backward, but he soon put them right. There was no getting one by Dennis, you see. His eyes sparkled with knowing, and he was good with his fists, too. People didn't mess with Dennis. Not anymore. He'd helped me on a few jobs in the past: lifting things, carrying stuff. Keeping look out while I’m moving goods. You could trust Dennis, so long as he didn't speak.
I waved for Tom the barman to bring me another ale and I turned a page. Nothing. It was a bit grim, really.
It was then the American came in. Brassy old chap in a big coat. Beaver-lamb, it was. Smelled of money. Another tourist! I shouldn't complain, they were my bread and butter. I kept one eye on him and one ear open. There was always a chance of work with the tourists. He was talking to Dennis.
"Ah-America? Aye over se-sea," Dennis was saying.
The American laughed loud and slapped Dennis on the back, spilling some of his ale in the process. I smiled to myself. Dennis won't let that go, but he was quickly placated when the American bought him a fresh pint.
The American was talking to Tom and they were having a laugh together like old friends. I thought that would be a good opportunity for me to saunter over to the bar and introduce myself. It wasn't quite winter yet, and the American wore a warm coat. He'd likely appreciate a tour of the Cathedral or Monastery. He looked like a good tipper.
Just then, Tom rang the bell and everyone fell silent. The American stood by the bar and spoke loudly.
"I have a challenge for y'all", he said. "I'll pay any man one thousand British pounds if he can show me a ghost!"
I closed the Hara and Hounds, paying sharper attention now. A ghost? There must be loads of them round here.
The American continued: "I'll be back on Friday night, and for one thousand pounds, I want to see a ghost."
I stroked my chin. Job for Dennis, there. I could pick up a cheap habit and cowl from the costumers in town. Something to fit Dennis. He walks by the Monastery wall. I take the American there and show him the "Ghost". Suddenly things aren't so grim after all.
"Not only do I want to see a ghost," the American was saying. "I want to speak to it!"
It had been a good idea, but not if Dennis had to speak.
The American emptied his tankard and, placing it on the bar, left the Spigot.
Lots of ideas, then. Speak to the ghost? I had to think about that carefully. It was Wednesday already. Only two days to prepare a ghost for the tourist. A bit of elocution for Dennis. I crossed the bar room and taking Dennis by the sleeve of his cardigan, dragged him back to my table.
"Dennis," I said. "Job for you."
"Ay, wher-what's up man?"
I explained the logistics of my plan. The cowl and cloak, the walk. A few well-rehearsed lines, then we'd split the money 70/30. Dennis nodded enthusiastically, and we agreed to meet the following day at his place.
The next morning, I drove into town and hired a cowl and cloak from the costumers. Dennis was six foot in his bare feet, so I'd had to get a big one. More expensive, but it would pay for itself on the Friday. Then I drove to Dennis's house.
We went over the plan together. Monastery gatehouse at midnight. Dennis walks by the wall, his hands out of sight, but not in his pockets. His hood pulled up over his head. When the American stopped him, he had some lines to rehearse.
"Gher-ghost," Dennis said.
"No! Try again. Repeat after me. I am a ghost."
"Ay, I am.."
This was frustrating, but for one thousand pounds, we'd work it out. I only hoped we'd manage it in time.
"I am a gher-host", Dennis said, his face set in concentration. You could see he was trying his hardest.
I thought for a moment, then hit on an idea. "Dennis," I said, "Go and buy a bottle of scotch. When you're drunk, your stammer disappears!"
"Ay," said Dennis, his eyes lighting up. "Lend me some mer-money?"
The following day we were still rehearsing. It was Friday, and we only had that morning and afternoon to sort this out.
"Take another drink, Dennis," I said.
Dennis poured another shot and drank it in one gulp. Then he looked at me, his eyes like saucers, and he said, "I am a Ghosht." Then he took another drink.
By 7pm that night, he was word perfect. I handed Dennis the cowl and cloak and told him to go to the Monastery and dress up. As soon as the American arrived, I'd drive him out to the gatehouse. I told Dennis to look for the car and start walking.
"What if I see a ghost?" Dennis asked.
"There's no such thing, Den, that's the point. You ARE the ghost!"
Then I hurriedly picked up my keys. On my way out I pointed at Dennis and said, "Go now. After all this you can't be late!"
Then I drove to the Spigot and waited.
The American arrived three hours later. Dennis must be freezing by now, I thought. It would be typical if we'd arranged all this and he froze to death. I laughed to myself. How ironic it'd be if the American met a real ghost, and it was Dennis.
The American saw me, shook my hand vigorously, then said, "Come on, boy. Show me the ghost!"
Everyone wanted to see the ghost then. We travelled in a rickety, ramshackle convoy: vans; cars; pushbikes. Even Tom came along. He closed the pub and followed us in his Mercedes. We travelled to the monastery and parked on the lane by the gatehouse. I killed the lights. We sat in the car. In the dark. The cold was seeping into my clothes and I began shivering. The American lit a cheroot and began blowing blue clouds of warm smoke into the air.
Come on, Dennis, I muttered under my breath anxiously.
Then movement. The American sat forward in his seat and watched. Yes, there was Dennis, not a moment too soon. I saw from the corner of my vision that those who were standing in the freezing night air, were disappearing back into their vehicles. No doubt they weren't keen on being haunted.
The American climbed from the car and sauntered over to the gatehouse. I saw him wave his hand and Dennis stopped.
"I am a ghost", I began saying myself. Willing Dennis to say the words without stuttering.
Dennis spoke to the American for a short while. I was dismayed. "I am a ghost," I said. "Don't say any more than that!"
Then Dennis and the American shook hands. I clapped my palm to my forehead. That's blown it, I thought.
The American returned to the car and climbed in. No sign of Dennis now. He'd disappeared into the darkness. The American smiled. He handed me a parcel, slapped me on the shoulder and with a broad grin on his face, said, "Goodbye."
The last I saw of the American, he was driving away in a range rover.
I didn't hang around. I put my foot down and drove to the Spigot as fast as I could.
It was chaos! Tom was there, waving his arms at a police officer. Blue lights flashed, cutting the night air like razors. I climbed out of the car and walked into the pub. Stools were over-turned. Glasses had been smashed. The till was open and empty. On my way out, I noticed that the door had been forced.
Outside, I heard Tom's voice: "There he is!"
This was no time for hanging about, I realised, and with the police officer walking hurriedly towards me, I leapt into the car and drove home as fast as I could.
Dennis was waiting outside my door. The cowl and cloak were draped over his arm. I let us in and climbed the stairs to my room. Dennis followed me in.
"What happened?" I demanded. "What went wrong? You were only supposed to say I am a ghost, you dope!"
"What ay?" Dennis seemed genuinely confused.
"When you spoke to the American," I said. "You were only supposed to say I am ghost!"
"I der-didn't go."
"I was der-drunk," said Dennis. "I fell as as-asleep on my set-settee!"
I fished the parcel from my coat pocket and lay it on the table. I cut the strings with a knife and opened the wrapping.
Inside were wads of neatly scissored newspaper.
I turned to Dennis and laughed, but he'd fallen asleep again.
I threw pieces of newspaper into the air. We never stood a ghost of a chance.