As he turned on the office light and sat down, Christophe seriously considered whether he was succumbing to illness (progressive fugue? Psychosis?) or was a witness to the only other plausible, though no less extraordinary, circumstance: he was unofficially sharing his home with a most curious tenant. It started over a month ago.
After a typical day on campus he had walked home unhurriedly in the autumn evening, enjoying the leafy fragrance ever redolent of new terms and new beginnings. He himself was a young alumnus from several years before, a history graduate which – he tried to convince himself – imbued his relentless data administration (‘input’ would be the more accurate term) with a forensic significance transcending its mundane purposes. He was – he would tell himself dryly – making history. Just as the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt had their scribes to tally their wealth and resources, he too was ensuring that future historians need never question the accuracy of the details of student admissions, their accounts, their grades, recorded when he was on duty (tapping them rather than ‘scribing’ them, though. Progress).
He jammed the key in his front door only to let himself in and find an out of place scent greeting him with such an air of unfamiliarity as to convince him – for an instant – that he had entered the wrong house. But no, he was definitely home. His face frowned back at him from the small, frameless, mirror on the opposite wall. He walked past it, straight into the kitchen. Then, crouching by the oven door, he placed his hand against it carefully. Had something been cooking? The oven door was neither hot nor cold, just…well, cool as oven doors tend to be when not in use.
Christophe’s suspicions almost gained unfounded status, but a glance at the fold-out breakfast/dinner/supper table immediately proved them less so. There was a plate and a cup, both from the cupboard, pushed together in still and silent testimony of a prior presence that wasn’t his. Or was it his? No, it couldn’t be. It wasn’t the plate or mug he used to eat and drink with, and he always placed cups and dishes in the sink straight after using them (though some time before getting round to cleaning them). A stranger had been here; made a meal and a drink, and then left. A hungry burglar perhaps? Burglar! Christophe dashed around the house in a silent panic looking for signs of disarray. He soon relaxed as he was sure nothing had been taken, and nothing else seemed out of place. However, in all honesty he couldn’t be sure if it was or wasn’t he who had left, say, the TV remote precariously balanced on the arm of the sofa that way before he left for work; or if he had really left his coffee cup there on the bookcase instead of taking it back to the kitchen, as he usually did, because he was in a rush that morning.
That such things were not in their ‘usual’ places perhaps signalled only that he was sleepily preoccupied before he left, and nothing more. Yet, for all this anticlimactic reasoning there was still the problem of the plate and the mug. Christophe returned to the kitchen and noticed they were clearly unused. They were both clean and dry, squeakingly so, which meant that his reconstruction of the circumstances of their appearance – the use of the oven to cook a meal, subsequently served on the plate, and the use of the cup to hold tea, coffee, or any other kind of beverage – proved tenuously cogent at best. It looked more like they had been set there to be used later that day: for an evening meal, perhaps.
Surreally, Christophe spent the final hours of that day waiting for this mystery meal to appear, whether for his own satisfaction or that of its maker! Nothing happened and nobody appeared, and come midnight he replaced them in the cupboard and went to his room determined to sleep, dream, and ultimately forget. Unfortunately from that day on things just got stranger. In the days and weeks that followed, a succession of fresh clues and brazen arrangements left him in no doubt that he was sharing his tenancy either with a remarkable partier, or a typical poltergeist. He would either wake up or come home to an unexpected scene. Empty wine bottles – not his – would clutter free surfaces, half-drained wine glasses stood nearby (some with lipstick on!); cutlery would be laid out over napkins he never knew he had, sometimes in playfully hieroglyphic fashion (leading him to wonder if he himself was unconsciously responsible for it, hence his suspicion of fugue).
Once, he awoke to the unmistakable clinking of glasses being crowded carelessly into the kitchen sink and he raced from his bed only to find the tap hovering innocently over the bare plughole – though suspiciously hot to the touch. It seemed, whether asleep or awake, his senses were always being fooled, either too many steps behind or ahead. He never heard voices though, not once, not ever. The signs of human activity were always just that; they were clues without culprits, scenes abandoned by their actors.
He called his landlord’s office to ask if there were any ex-tenants who could still gain access to the house with spare keys, but was told the locks were always changed between tenancies to prevent squatting or other unwanted complications. Christophe left it at that. He didn’t want to arouse the landlord’s suspicion any more than was necessary; he would surely solve the mystery himself sooner or later, and no landlord wants to hear – from their current tenants especially – that their premises are being sub-let to boozy phantoms.
And so, on it went; chairs shifted or stacked (as if to clear the floor for standing/dancing room), snack wrappings aimed poorly at the bin, apparently landing near enough to warrant no further action – according to their invisible, squalid throwers, and tantalisingly incomplete phone numbers scribbled on napkins in mascara pens or bright lipstick.
Christophe played detective: assuming his guest was physically real, he collected and examined every snack wrapper and wine label. Then he took them to local stores for comparison purposes, confident he would find at least one match. If he did then he would ask the staff if they recalled serving any strange looking shoppers around the inferred time of their presence at his home. Unfortunately the investigation lasted less than two weeks as it became clear that not a single store, market, supermarket, superstore, within a three mile radius of his home sold a product that matched the contents of his garbage-filled pockets.
He did consider looking further afield but decided against it as he was of the opinion that if his unwanted guest was real, but not local, then the chances of tracking his activity became vanishingly small, especially given his unquestionably superior logistical skills. Instead he turned his attention to the bedaubed napkins to see if the partial numbers matched with any of those in the contact list on his phone. Not only did they not match but they were all missing at least three of their last digits which meant that there were at least a thousand ways to complete and call just one of them (and he had collected six!): a prohibitively time consuming and expensive task to be sure.
Finally, Christophe tried to match cunning with cunning. He didn’t want to splash out on a security camera system, certainly couldn’t justify the expense, so instead he improvised with his digicam and a cheap walkie talkie set that worked over a five kilometre range (ideal for his purposes as campus was but a fifteen minute amble from the house). He duct-taped the camera beneath the kitchen table, hid a handset between the kettle and the toaster, then headed out to work with the other handset in his coat pocket.
Unfortunately, perhaps unsurprisingly, while these devices acted as a stand-in for his own eyes and ears, his surrogate presence as it were, the unusual activities ceased. After an embarrassing week trying to stifle the random squawking from his power drained walkie talkie while at work, and wasting many hours forwarding and rewinding video files of static kitchen scenery when at home, he called time on operation ‘Peephole’ (operation ‘Scarecrow’ seemed a more accurate term for it).
I must be leading a double life! Christophe argued with himself as he flicked the monitor on and logged in to his account. He stared out at the familiar empty bench facing the office window and imagined seeing himself sitting there too; a clichéd alter-ego, loudly organising the next bash on his phone while swilling from some bottle of demonic brew; randomly inviting passing students to come back to his place; rallying the guys; trying it on with the girls. Could it be possible, he wondered? Have I been repressing some extreme inner pleasure-seeker for so long that it has now broken free and is making up for lost time?
But then wouldn’t someone have come up to me and said something about it by now? Thanked me for inviting them to the mad bash, asked if I was throwing another party, commented on how different I was to my workplace persona? That none of these things had happened confirmed in Christophe’s mind that he was not undergoing some kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation or breakdown. There was simply no direct evidence, no first-hand accounts to verify this, and every good historian knows that primary sources are key to piecing together the holy grail that is ‘the truth’. So what was left?
Well, fugue seemed as good an answer as any. Perhaps some electrical fault in his home had been triggering seizures, absences, during which he would methodically yet blankly set about staging after-party scenes before returning, unawares, to his sober self. He read somewhere that in the 1970s the Russians experimented with beaming electromagnetic frequencies across the globe to induce hypnotic states in the minds of the western hemisphere. He couldn’t remember if it really worked, or even if it really happened. He was pretty sure they weren’t doing it now, though.
“You’re either love-crossed or in a trance from staring at that screen for so long.” A female voice beside him teased. It was Laura, his colleague next door. She heaped a ream of paper onto the photocopier and pulled at its side till it yawned open. She dropped the ream into its maw, then rattled it shut with a firm slam. “Which is it then?” She smiled.
“A bit of both perhaps.” Christophe perkily teased back, his spell broken. “Though I should add the influence of alpha waves too, given that I’ve only been awake an hour.” He added, awkwardly. The irony in Laura’s statement was in no danger of being lost on him, it was farcically inescapable: a preoccupation with fugue leading to – fugue! Death in Tehran was more than a myth – it was happening here, in a tidy office on campus; a self-fulfilling fantasy appeared to be drawing him nearer to god knows what alter-Oedipal conclusion awaited him. But mixing myths like this wasn’t going to solve anything.
He tried not to watch Laura bending back down to give the side of the photocopier a second shove, but naturally he failed. Slim and slanting with her shirt hitching over the small of her back, she provoked within him a second maelstrom of doubt and confusion, this time mixed with lust.
Maybe I’ve been single too long? He fretted. Perhaps I’m not good at protracted singledom. God she looks positively angelic today. Maybe madness runs in the family. I have to ask dad, I need to find out. Perhaps if I start seeing Laura I won’t be spending all my spare time checking my house, finding crazy signs, and maybe – well, if it is because I’ve been spending so much time alone then all this stuff will stop happening if I get out more. Why does she look so…so…so damn hot today! But then I haven’t really lived, I know I can be shy but if I get involved with Laura then my partying days could be over before they begin. Am I wrong to think this? I’ll be missing out on partying and fun and in my case it’s worse because I’m already missing out on parties apparently going on in my own home! How absurdly pathetic is that. And who’s to say Laura would be interested anyway? Don’t stare she’s turning round.
Things changed as Christmas approached, but that was to be expected. Partying – everywhere – picked up its pace over the festive season, and during this period Christophe spent more time than he was happy with clearing up his trans-substantial guest’s mess and debris. It reached the stage where friends (real ones, mind) would visit him mid-clean and bemoan his lack of hospitality in not inviting them to his latest ‘soiree’. If only they knew – he lamented to himself after waving them off – that I hadn’t been invited myself.
Christophe’s life improved immeasurably at the office Christmas party however. Five days before the end of semester, it began in the reserved cafeteria on campus and moved on to the livelier bars in the centre of town. Everyone was there. Laura was there, looking gorgeous as he knew she would. It was the second annual get-together they spent informally, away from the office. But it was crucially different in that Laura was single this time, had been for six months, so he believed (and hoped). At the start of the evening they bantered playfully, as they did most days at work. As the evening progressed their banter became a touch sharper – as that between Beatrice and Benedick, Laura would later tell him (she was a literature graduate). By the end of the night, in the afterglow of a rush of homeward bound passion (his home to be precise), it settled into whisper. Pillow talk.
Early the following morning, hungover yet happy, Christophe carefully checked each room as Laura slept, determined to dispose of any half-numbered napkins that may have been magically and mischievously dropped into his world from another ethereal get-together that neither of them would have known about during the night. There were none and he breathed easier. But a moment later he felt dismayed when he entertained the possibility that the truly mysterious nature of his sub-tenant’s presence may never become apparent either to Laura, or to anyone else apart from himself.
The landlord may well change the locks to avoid complications between tenants but what possible measure could he implement that would succeed in preventing or disentangling the complications heaped upon me by my ‘extra-tenantial’companion? He brooded. I’ve already seen how visitors are able to observe its effects only when I alone am implicated in them. What if Laura calls on me like my friends had done that time, and I answer the door with a lipstick-stained glass in my hand? Exactly how am I to explain that? How? Tell me how? Christophe realised he was now directly questioning his imperceptible housemate, grilling him for an answer. Isn’t life tricky enough as it is? He started to silently fume. “Isn’t life tricky enough as it is!” He yelled, after Laura had left for work (he had judiciously booked the after-party day off).
Immediately following this outburst a sense of odd relief settled upon the house as though a bubble had burst and left a cooling mist to sink through the walls, through the floorboards; through Christophe’s brain.
He felt as though the air had been cleared: in what way would soon become apparent. That a notable shift in dynamic had indeed taken place was evidenced by the state of the kitchen that greeted Christophe when he came down to make breakfast next morning. The empty wine bottles, glasses, and snack wrappers still made their familiar appearances, but now the bottles had been rinsed and placed in the recycling box, the glasses stood in a gleaming row on the counter near the sink, and the wrappers had all managed to find their way inside the bin. More surprising – pleasingly so – was the unopened bottle of red on the table and that of the white in the fridge. Was this…could this be…compromise? Christophe wondered.
That night he opened the red, ordered a huge pizza, and chattered genially to his absent/present friend for a few hours as he/they watched tv. He sensed they were not so different than he’d first imagined; he discovered he could enjoy red wine as much as white, and that snacks and takeaways went just as well with both as did home-cooked meals. Despite knowing how insane he looked he tipped some of the red into a second glass and set it by his own on the coffee table. He clinked it and raised his own in a toast “To clearing the air!” He gulped, refilled, then opened up a more determined line of communication. The conversation went thus:
“Perhaps we’re as much alike in substance as we are in spirit. What I mean is, maybe we’re denizens of two intersecting realities, neither of us more or less real than the other. Who am I to say you are the ghostlier one?”
“It’s a rational enough notion for sure.” He continued. “You leave almost as much immediate evidence for your habitation here as I do. Poltergeists don’t buy wine and snacks from out of town shops, bring them home, then aim the snack wrappers poorly at the bin after finishing off a bottle or two. Well, no poltergeist I’ve ever read about has done that.”
“Or accept a phone number in lipstick on a napkin.” He added, “Though it occurs to me – and this is no insult to you I promise – that half a number may count as more of a brush off than an invitation. But then maybe you have one half and I have the other, and now, sadly, never the twain shall meet?”
He waited. Then:
“Perhaps you’re pacing this room as I am right now, asking similar questions, proposing similar answers; wondering who keeps shifting the tv remote from the edge of the sofa and placing it onto the coffee table, or moving the coffee cup from the bookcase to the kitchen. Is it the remote or the cup that links us?” He shook his head. “No, it can’t be. I’m being irrational now.” And he poured out another two glasses. “Not drinking yours?” He grinned. “Oh well shame to waste it?”
Before heading up to bed he closed the pizza box, which contained the last two slices, and left it near the bottle and the empty glasses. “Night.” He said, and turned off the light. The next morning he came down to find both glasses shining on the kitchen counter, the pizza box binned (both slices gone), and the bottle rinsed and ready for disposal. He smiled and got ready for work.
“Who were you talking to just then?” Laura asked as Christophe answered her knock at the door the following evening. He looked distracted, as if she’d called him out of a meeting. “Just my invisible friend.” He joked, and kissed her gently. She fixed him a quiet smile as he busied himself with her coat, folding it and hanging it up. He radiated a companionable aura with his odd chattering. She found him doubly attractive for it.
As the weeks then months passed Christophe’s bathroom cabinet gradually filled out and spilled onto the sink below in colourful toothpaste and brush formations; hand creams and face creams and gleaming tap tops signalled silently the advent of a blissful domesticity. Laura had yet to move in but now the last weekend in April was earmarked for just that occasion. She and Christophe couldn’t wait – though the latter had his misgivings.
Two weeks before the move Christophe woke alone and went into the kitchen to find the old disarray awaiting him on the counters, the table, the sink, and around the bin. “If I were getting married,” he addressed the air, “I could reasonably excuse this mess as the aftermath of stag party. But though that isn’t the case, I still think I understand, my friend. I believe I do understand.” And he dutifully tidied up with half-closed eyes. The last piece of rubbish he grabbed was a balled up napkin on the counter. It had no numbers painted across it but there was an item inside which fell to the floor as he turned to throw it in the bin. The item bounced over his toes. It was a stone, clear and small and faceted. A beautiful, precious stone. He bent to pick it up and examined it in the morning sunlight. The facets glinted like windows onto other worlds, more than Christophe cared to imagine (one was enough, two proved a stupefying revelation, any more would hasten the strongest of minds towards collapse).
“Well, my friend.” He said. “Of all the apportations I’ve had to clear up this is clearly the best of them, the most welcome, the most appreciated. I would have been less annoyed from the start if you’d left a few more of these lying around of a morning. But I’m guessing relative scarcity and market forces must be the same in your world too, so I’ll accept this generous gift in the same spirit Laura may well do, one day, maybe (I’ll not tempt fate with complacency).”
Christophe took a hurried shower before dressing for work (the unexpected clear up had made him late), and as he hauled his coat over his shoulders in the hallway – dimly aware of a strangely familiar yet unfamiliar scent hanging in the air as he did so — he caught himself frowning in the mirror at the realisation that later Laura would be letting herself in with his spare key an hour before his return from campus, and that the milk in the fridge had already gone off (though such pre-cohabitational consideration was slow to come to him he found himself gradually getting the hang of it). He clapped his forehead in faux reproach, drew a notepad and pen from his inside coat pocket, and wrote “We need more milk.” He re-entered the kitchen, tore the message from the pad, fixed it to the fridge door with a sliver of magnet, and then he left, pulling the front door shut behind him.
It doesn’t matter who reads the note first – Christophe mused, so long as somebody gets the milk, right? He tried to chuckle at this thought, and at the idea of adding a third name to his soon-to-be redrafted tenancy agreement (to keep everything above board – though he and Laura would be making up the inevitable shortfall), but he found he couldn’t, for a sadness of a most strange kind accompanied him all the way to work.