Are ghosts good judges of love? Some perhaps would deem them unacceptable commentators, being not in the realm of the living. Perhaps they could be esteemed the best judges, after having lived both within, and beyond, their mortal coils. Observers from both sides: all angles.
My first experience of these phantasmagorical beings was in Stratford-Upon-Avon: Shakespeare’s turf. This place could be viewed as romantic – where The Bard himself was born, lived, loved, weaved his sonnets: gospels of idolatry to his lovers. Short holiday breaks had always drawn me here, like fireflies to nocturnal climes – eager to showcase their emerald splendour, their unique hypnotising light source.
So, I booked a five-night break at a perfect Shakespearean cottage – just a few yards from Anne Hathaway’s former cottage itself. It was very bijoux, quintessentially Shakespearean. It included an oak four poster bed, thatch roof, original beams, low ceilings – not great for the taller species. I thought I could imagine the courting between William and Anne here, so close to the orchard where they shared early, perhaps first kisses; tumbled in hay covered ground, untwining themselves when disturbed by her brother or father, tilling the land.
I reminisced about those first flutters of love and how they must feel: excitement tickling every nerve ending in pleasure, shivers striking deep. The insurance of feeling alive, senses in their prime: ignited to fruition, honed to each specific detail of a lover. A stubbly kiss, a tender stroke of the face, weaving arms around each other, lost in moments like non-navigational black holes. Stolen glances, kisses, caresses, that’s what the throes of love should be filled of. Was that what I had with Peter or was I trying to romanticise that I had these elements of love? Was I labouring hard to concoct them in the fabric of memories, weave them into more mundane greying flesh that was the reality of us? Where were my crimson sparks, scarlet shivers? Passion-fuelled nights?
Our first night was so full of potentiality – a novel four poster bed, renown as honeymoon beds. Surely some electricity would flow here, currents of lust. But no. The second, third night followed to the same woeful ballad – a Tudor bed devoid of what I most ardently sought. My thoughts turned over the lovers before, that had shared, connected their souls within this bed. How I envied such sleep-deprived nights, drowsy by endearment – the precise undressing of intimate details of each other: an unravelling of self. To morph senses, identities, to simultaneously shiver with mutuality, lulled on a canopy of downy resplendence.
During my time in the cottage, I felt hope turn sour, then descend into despair. None of my indulgent romanticism would exist here – not between Peter and me. I knew he and I weren’t well matched. He didn’t seem all that interested in women per se to me. I had really misjudged this relationship. I think just to hone the point home, hammer the nail tightly in position, the supernatural intervened, upon reflection. I didn’t realise it at the time.
I had felt a paranormal presence since arrival but put it down to nervousness, a sense of anticipation, over-flustering. It was female of that I’m pretty sure: a supernatural message she held on her blue-skinned lips, tethering on the edge of communication. She knew that this love match was doomed. I did too secretly – I just didn’t want to allow myself to be conscious of it – to feel the fallout of another failure. Too many friends, family my age, had started families, boasting their white gold engagement rings in staged photos. Instagram and Facebook were over-spilling with just this type of smugness. Perhaps naively I longed for this sense of security too, willed for it to be so, but alas, Peter and I were damaged, broken.
We split up a few days after returning home.
Months passed and glimmers, fragments of the grey-clad, slim figurine, padded through my dreams, sometimes stomped to be remembered. Her ashen fingers curled around the bedpost, her chilly breath, just tangible in the midnight air. Her… Had it been her wedding bed? Had she tasted the toasted flames of seduction, want, need, succumbing herself to the whims, life force of another? Is that what love entailed? A forgetfulness of self, so enmeshed are two souls that they beat as one fleshy organ. My mind seemed to always bring me back to this theme of completeness – regardless of its intangibility in practice to achieve. For me anyway.
I had yet to feel this wholeness, a sense of totality – the idea tantalised me, drew me to desire it further. I pined to taste, consume love’s emblazoned flames, be scorched by their flecks and hellish peripheries…
What if I just reached a little closer, teetering on the precipice of sublime lava, ready to coat myself in its honeyed destruction?
Time ticked on. Passed…
Two years later I returned to Stratford-Upon-Avon, with a new partner, well we had been dating for about six months at this point. His name was Gareth, and he was a builder: stocky, ruggedly sewn together, but he had a heart, even if it was stitched in the caverns. Even at the start (those halcyon days), his love always felt beyond the reach of my heart tendrils – a little too slippery to hold onto. I didn’t know that then, but she did…
We stayed for two nights at The Swan in the centre of town – upgraded to the honeymoon suite no less, for no extra charge. Its spacious living area, four poster bed, window seat to watch the tourists pass by or to read a book in its sunken alcove, on first glance seemed heavenly to me. But there was a sting just beneath the skin, manifesting and turning itself into a putrid green; a splinter had pierced and left its sharpened point in the most tenderest flesh. Instead of treating the wound, removing the splint, I left it to fester: to grow in potency, riveting in its liberty, submerged in my naive self.
What should I have done? Checked out there and then? Pretended to be unwell? Should I have faked a need to return home for a family emergency, a major issue at work? Surely, he would know that nothing warranted a cancelled break except something more extreme, a death. I couldn’t fabricate anything so macabre, so like a fool, I tried to embrace the first night. I applied scarlet lipstick, a black velvet dress (first time worn), my new multi-coloured Dune handbag and donned some sparkly shoes – for added glamour. I could do this. I could make this relationship work, right? He wasn’t interested in men like Peter; I was pretty sure on that front. What was the issue?
I sat through dinner, decadent and lavish, enjoying velvety smooth red Tempranillo wine, soaking in the warm embers of the open log fire. The stage was set for romance. The four-poster bed awaited us, empty and full of promise…
The four-poster bed…
“What’s wrong?” questioned Gareth. “You all of a sudden turned quiet and look white, ashen like you’ve seen a ghost,” he quizzically guessed at reasons for my change in demeanour.
I sat stunned, paralysed as I allowed my character, integral parts of me, to drip from my fingertips.
“Has the meal upset you, something you ate?” he continued to provoke a decent explanation from my lips.
“The wine… has gone to my head. That’s all. I’m fine, honestly…” I tried for surety but fell short of reassuring him. “I’m just popping to the ladies.”
I made my way to the toilet to allow myself a few minutes breathing space, without scrutiny. Maybe he sensed an insecurity, a flaw in our relationship? Had he sniffed the hesitancy from me? What did its aroma smell like: sweet, sour, acrid? I had tried so hard this time to make it work, aiming for a brighter future – roots that held firmer, not torn and distorted like the past.
I reached the bathroom mirror and stared at my own dazed reflection, let my gaze hold and hover over it… What did I want? Was Gareth it? Had I, in truth, drunk a little too much wine and permitted it to soak into an insecure part of me, the broken doll? As I stared harder at my own lost self, a frosty blue claw-like hand fingered the edges of the mirror, tapped its edges from somewhere behind, an unknown ether.
It’s Her. My watcher from the cottage – with Peter. It’s the same hand. I recognise its veinous motorways – overtly exposed from thinning, ageing skin. Her nails rapped in time to a dastardly beat against the mirror’s encasing: the surrounds of me. She played a gothic ditty, almost in agitation. Was it a loss of patience on her part? Was she angry at me? Was it because I had misjudged my own heart, yet again? Did she know better with her unearthly vision?
I felt punished twofold: my own heart bruised, purplish and weeping; but her discomfort, overt displeasure, added further macabre layers to my own crushing sense of despair. I looked down at my sparkly shoes, the multi-hued hexagonal patterns of the carpet, in shame. She knew me better than I knew myself. A figure from the afterlife saw me clearer than I could, even when face to face with my own reflection. Her closeness, and held presence, caused shivers to spin, rotate, lash at my arms, legs, face: all over. A feverish vibration had claimed me, taken me over…
It felt like hours had passed, possibly longer, until I gathered the mettle to look up, to face the gnarled, veinous hand and my own clueless stare. Look up. Do it. Look.
Slowly, by minute degrees, I raised my head, eyes closed, reluctant to release my held breath, to allow my blood to course freely. See me. Her. Us.
I saw me, or a version of myself, perhaps not the fully formed article. The impatient, oxygen-starved fingernails no longer toying with the edges of the frame. Gone.
I pulled myself together, reawakening with splashes of running cold water to my face, patting it dry. I needed some colour. I looked drained, splintered. I flicked the scarlet lipstick across both lips, puckered them in a fake kiss. Was I taunting her? Trying to fain an indifference to her melancholic power, her siren call?
I returned to the table, made my excuses and told Gareth that I needed to turn in for an early night. He joked about the waste of the honeymoon suite on us as the four-poster bed would see nothing but two slumbering figures. I managed a half smile, more a grimace in reply. She was right. What an arsehole.
Once back in our room, I undressed, brushed my teeth, got into my side of the four-poster bed. Gareth then did the same: I heard him quite carelessly knocking over token toiletry samples from the hotel, a china cup he used for nighttime drinking water. Why did men have to parade their sexual frustrations so overtly? Jerk.
I don’t know why I did what I did next. I hadn’t done it since I was about thirteen. I believed wholeheartedly at the time, that a vampire was under my bed – that it had flattened itself paper-thin beneath the mattress. This was after watching Lost Boys very late at night, stupidly allowed to do so by a careless mother. That’s another story.
I did proceed to do what I thought was unthinkable for a grown woman, nearly in her late twenties. I looked under the bed. Was I checking for Her? What could I name her, other than Her? She was nameless, unidentifiable like Victor’s Frankenstein’s monster. Would naming her make her less fearsome? My eyes desperately scrutinised the gloom beneath the honeymoon four poster: I felt as if I was perusing the underbelly of love. Is this what it looked like?
A party popper.
That’s all there was, probably from a previous wedding night, a couple in the throes of celebrating their nuptials. Shards of rainbow-coloured streamers lay dispersed like a flattened, unseen celebration cake on the oak panelled floor.
Sleep. Just sleep, Emily. This is ridiculous. I strained to think rational thoughts, desperately endeavouring to implant them in my head.
Gareth was still fumbling about in the bathroom. As I raised myself from peering under the bed, looking for creatures of the night, I decided to rest my head on the inviting pillow and rest. My exertion in front of the mirror during the meal had drained me of life force, weakened my spirit like diluted whisky – no longer potent.
And then it happened…
A shake. A vigorous, sustained, forceful shake. Someone… something… had taken hold of one of the bed posts and was rocking it with all their might, back and forth. This I couldn’t deny or bury in the chambers of my mind, beneath locked chains. This was real and happening. To me. Now.
In sheer terror I involuntarily squeezed my eyes shut with all my might, to force out the unnatural, the subversive parts of me. But then I saw it as I slowly willed my eyelids to lift themselves to the bed post, the one nearest to my head. This was the exact spot where I had detected the originating shaking force. And there it was…
Emma is a mother and English teacher. She has poetry published with various literary journals and magazines. She enjoys writing flash fiction and short stories also. Emma won Wingless Dreamer’s Bird Poetry Contest of 2022 and her short story entitled ‘Virginia Creeper’ was selected as a winning title by WriteFluence Singles Contest in 2021. Recently, she won Dipity Literary Magazine’s 2024 Best of the Net Nominations for Fiction with her short story entitled ‘The Voice of a Wildling.’ Her first novel is entitled 'Shelley’s Sisterhood' which is due to be published in late 2023.