It was a confident thought, the way it strode through my mind expecting no opposition.
“Well. At least that’s the day’s weirdo done and dusted” it said, as the former jailbird made his way out of the Art Exhibition, leaving me alone with the pipecleaner families and garden sculptures made of rusted farm machinery.
I was replaying the encounter, wondering what would prompt someone who hadn’t spoken a word the entire time he’d been in my presence, to suddenly, and seemingly urgently, reveal that he had been incarcerated.
When I couldn’t reach a conclusion, I began concocting my own.
One theory proposed that he was an imprisoned soldier, who, in an attempt to escape his confinement, accidentally time travelled to that week in May 2013 – approximately 87 years too late – where he had hoped to evade capture by hiding among the crowd who had congregated in the community hall for a night of dancing.
While I found that theory to be quite possible, there was an alternative explanation.
He wasn’t speaking to me. He was speaking to a ghost standing behind me. A ghost I couldn’t see. A ghost I couldn’t hear.
A ghost who had challenged him to a game of truth or dare, where the only option was truth.
My eyes were glazed as I chewed the little slit on the lid of my throwaway coffee cup, absentmindedly sipping the lukewarm caffeine I was not enjoying and only drinking to help pass the time.
I was wondering what the ghost would look like when I was interrupted by an old man standing at my side, grinning from beneath a cowboy hat and a crooked spine.
I jumped in fright. I hadn’t seen anybody come in.
“Off with the fairies, you were!”, he laughed. It was a rattling laugh, a wet phlegm laugh, the kind you hear in retirement homes filled with lung cancer and emphysema.
“I was”, I laughed through a saccharine smile that hid the disgusted thoughts vying for attention in my mind.
I knew this man. Most of the town knew this man, though not by the name inked onto his birth certificate. This man has an ugly name, a nickname, the origins of which are as cobwebbed and dusty as the stories he would spend hours telling if most people didn’t walk away from him the moment he opened his mouth.
He had been the bane of my very existence, from the moment this exhibition had been announced – weekly visits to find out when he could bring in his art works, phone calls to ask questions he’d been given answers to only the day before, and constant pestering – even after he’d been given a prize – about when his picture would be in the local paper.
He was grinning at me, eyes glazed with booze, his hands balled into fists and wedged on either side of his ribcage, just under his armpits – which also happens to be just above his pants.
His rank breath made my stomach churn as he wooed me with his wit.
We toured the exhibition together – for he wouldn’t do it alone – spending most of our time admiring his own entries – buildings made entirely out of cereal boxes and animals made of car tyres.
Half an hour passed, then an hour as other visitors trickled through the doors. Some asked me questions – questions I was unable to answer immediately because my VIP was in the middle of another joke. I would wander off to speak to them, only to find him standing at my elbow again, moments later, hot, filthy breath spilling out of his mouth.
I was taking surreptitious glances at my phone, desperate for the time to reach a point where I could extricate myself from his presence without causing offence. Just when I feared my teeth would be ground to powder by the force of holding my thoughts inside, he took a breath and announced that I really must let him go – he has things to do.
I took the opportunity to hurry him out the door, thanking him for coming to the exhibition.
“We will have to have some beers together, you and I”, he said through the shrinking gap I was making in the doorway.
“If I see you at the pub, I’ll say hello”, came my non-committal reply as the door closed and the lock latched.
Relief flooded my body as I leaned against the wall. Over. All over for another year. For twelve glorious months, I would have no reason to hear his voice, to smell his breath, to be polite to a creature that makes my skin crawl simply because he exists.
That too was a premature celebration.