this never happened before

It’s a drizzly, melancholy day, and I’m watching umbrellas float by outside like bubbles on a slow-moving stream.

I’m in Bygones, the pub across the street from Ruskin House, the philanthropic organization where I work.

My friend, Jake, shakes his head in awe. “What’s an Osgoode lawyer doing working in a small burg like this, for a non-profit?

I smile and shrug. “I was drafted.”

He scowls at my flippant reply. “Say, what happened to the Grant Preston I knew in law school—you know, the hipster who’d answer, Hell no—I won’t go. Did somebody take him captive?”

“Maybe he just grew up, Jake.”

“I think it’s more like somebody has him enthralled.”

I arch an eyebrow, but he smirks and points through the bleary pane to the yellow window squares of Ruskin House.  Jeannie Church, the secretary, is framed in the windows adjusting the blinds.

He sighs wistfully, “O, she could teach the torches to burn bright.”

The mere glimpse of her lovely face saddens me—I’ve tried everything to make her like me—all to no avail.

Jake sees my sad expression and turns serious. “That bad, huh? Guess you struck out big time with her. Sorry, Pal.”

“I just don’t get it, Jake. I’ve never met a woman so cold and distant. It’s as if she took an instant dislike to me the moment she met me. Nothing I do or say can thaw her icy reserve.”

“So, why are you still there? It can’t be the ambience—that building’s at least a century old and you’re boss is kind of dreary too.”

“Mr. New? Naw, he’s all right. He’s a kind man, and it’s strange because his warmth drew me to Ruskin House in the first place. I wasn’t planning on working pro bono, but somehow the place just melted my heart. He hired me because he said he saw a light in me—and I believed him. And, he offered me the same salary I’d receive at a big firm.”

Jake looked perplexed. “No kidding! —Well, how do they do it—where’s the money coming from?”

“Mr. New simply says it’s a trust fund set up by a wealthy benefactor.”

“Man, that’s really odd—you don’t often hear of that.”

“That’s not all that’s odd. He’s got a silent partner I’ve never met. He has an office next door to ours and he never comes out. In my six months with the foundation, I’ve never seen him enter or leave. If Alfred New needs to consult, he buzzes him on the intercom, and the partner’s door clicks open, and he goes in.”

Jakes eyes are wide. “Wow! That’s really spooky.”

The wall clock chimes the hour–my signal that it’s time to get back to the grind.

“Thanks for dropping by for lunch,” I say, getting to my feet, “—let’s get together on the weekend—maybe catch a Jay’s game.”

“Sounds like a plan. And oh, if I were you, I’d forget about that secretary, Pal—they say it’s gonna be a long, cold winter—and you won’t need any more frostiness.”

I laugh and clap him on the shoulder, but inside, I’m grim. I’ve been thinking the same thing.

 

Back at Ruskin House the day goes from bleak to bad. “You’re retiring—how am I going to run things without you, Mr. New? I’m just getting my feet wet.”

“Now, now, Grant—you’ll be fine. If I didn’t have confidence in you, I would never have hired you. Besides, you’ll have Jeannie here to assist you.”

I glance over at Jeannie’s inscrutable face and feel panic rising inside me. The girl won’t even acknowledge my existence—how can this possibly work?

The old gentleman senses my anxiety and gently ushers me into his office.

“Look, Grant—I’m not abandoning you entirely. I have a silent partner, Anthony—if you need help, he’ll bail you out.”

“But I haven’t even met him and how will I get in touch with him?”

“You won’t, my boy—he’ll get in touch with you.”

“But how will he know I’m in trouble?”

“Ha ha—don’t worry, son. Anthony always knows.”

He puts on his overcoat and hat, smiles goodbye and is out the door.

I slump down in his chair—now mine, and ponder my fate.

Jeannie is blithely typing at the ancient Smith Corona, as unfazed by Alfred New’s departure as my succeeding in his place.

 

The next week is incredibly awkward. I ask Jeannie a question only to get a short, staccato response. Hours go by and the only sound I hear is the ticking of the Regulator wall clock and the interminable clacking of her typewriter keys.

I get to the point where I can take it no longer. I resolve to hand in my notice at the end of the day. No sooner do I resolve the matter in my head, than I hear the door to Anthony’s office click open.

Jeannie’s at my door. “Mr. Ashley Cooper would like a word with you, Mr. Preston.”

“And I with him,” I growl, thinking it the perfect time to vent my frustrations.

Her eyes grow huge, but she says nothing.

I stride out of my office and enter the partner’s den—and stop dead in my tracks.

The office is an elegant oak-paneled study with bookshelves lining one wall and a magnificent fireplace occupying the other. Anthony is sitting in a high-backed leather wing chair by the fire. “Sit down, Grant,” he smiles and motions me to another high-backed chair facing his.

I’m taken aback and sit down in a daze.

“I’m sorry to see you’re disconsolate and ready to leave, Grant—Alfred would be sad to hear that.”

“How do you know that?” I croak. It’s odd, but I feel intimidated by his presence.

“Oh, I know a lot of things about you, Grant—in mid-sentence, he breaks off and calls out, “that will be all, Jeannie.” The door clicks shut and merges seamlessly with the oak paneling.

Fear crawls up my spine.

“No need to be afraid, Grant. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now I cast no shadow. I’m not merely a silent partner, but a phantom one as well.”

He eyes me narrowly gauging my response. I refuse to flinch.

“Care for some port?” A glass slides across the coffee table and a bottle pops its cork. It floats several feet through the air to decant two ounces into my glass.

I shakily lift the glass to my lips, readily drink it all and feet the liquid warming me as it goes down.

Anthony smiles indulgently. “A wise decision to fortify yourself, my boy.”

He has a gaunt Abraham Lincoln face—complete with grizzled hair and beard and a long aquiline nose that gives him the air of a patrician.

“Are you really a ghost?” I ask.

He nods. “I am unfortunately, physically challenged. In life, I was Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. Now that I’m dead, I’m doing in death what I did in life—I’m a philanthropist and social reformer. I like to help people.”

“Then, you’re the foundation’s secret benefactor?”

He shrugs. “I amassed a considerable fortune in my life—mind you, when I was young I was, neither wise, nor good, nor useful, but as I went on I’d like to think I made a difference.”

“When did you live?”

“I was born in 1801 and passed in 1885.”

“My God, you’re over two hundred years old!”

“Well, I see myself in my mid-eighties, but I suppose you’re right. Time does fly when you’re on the other side.”

My mind is whirling trying to make sense of something totally incomprehensible.

“You know Dickens admired me—I worked to enact child labor laws, help chimney sweeps and boot blacks. Then, I worked with the Church Missionary Society and supported the work of Florence Nightingale. Unhappily, I died while trying to curb the opium trade.”

“So then, why not just enter your deserved rest, Anthony?”

“Well, some souls do rest, if their life work is over—but mine was still unfinished. I couldn’t rest. One day Alfred New visited my family estate in Dorset, and stayed overnight. I found he was a sensitive—he could actually see me. We conversed, discovered we shared the same passion for helping the poor, and so I accompanied him back here, and the result is Ruskin House.”

I smile at him warmly. “That’s very admirable.”

“Alfred told me he saw the same light in you, Grant. So, if that’s the case, and pardon the pun, but why are you so willing to give up the ghost?”

I decided to be frank with him.

“To tell the truth, Anthony, I’m smitten with Jeannie, but she doesn’t seem to know I exist.”

“Oh, I don’t think that’s the case at all, my boy—quite the contrary.”

“I hate to disagree, but if Jeannie Church even knows I’m alive, I’d be surprised.”

The old man shakes his head and smiles ruefully. “But that’s just it, Grant—she’s well aware you’re alive—but unfortunately, she isn’t.”

I’m thunder-struck. “You’re telling me Jeannie is a ghost, like you?”

He holds up a hand to stop me. “Oh no, my boy—she’s a ghost all right, but not like me. I’m incorporeal, but she can manifest. She has the ability to rematerialize as long as she remains in this locality. We’re all different, and we all have limitations, and that is hers.”

“You mean she has to remain in this building?”

“She’s not confined to a building, but a locality. Our office is located here in this tiny Victorian village on the fringes of Toronto, and so far she’s found she can manifest materially if she stays within these borders. It’s not too bad—not terribly confining.”

“I see. So, she’s flesh and blood like me as long as she stays within her allotted territory.”

He smiles, “something like that.”

“But even if that’s the case, that doesn’t account for the way she treats me. Why does she dislike me so much?”

“Ah, but that’s just it, my boy—she doesn’t. The fact is she likes you very much and it pains her. She avoids you so she won’t become too close to you. She feels if you both fell in love, it’d be too much to ask for you to give up traveling and seeing the world and be limited to life in this small village.”

“Well, I’d like to have the option of making that choice.”

“Well then, why not stay and give your relationship a chance?”

 

A silent partner who’s a ghost and a matchmaker—yeah, that sounds about right. Well, it’s typical of my life right now.

I’m continuing to work at Ruskin House and exploring my possibilities.

Actually, life in that other realm is very much like ours, once you get used to it. Admittedly, Anthony gets frustrated at times when he can’t catch hold of things—but then, that’s why he has me.

As for Jeannie, she’s beginning to warm up. We’re not dating or anything, but we are talking.

I’m learning a lot about the 60’s music and fashion—that was her era, before the microchip revolutionized our lives.

I’m starting to like those 60’s business suits, Audrey Hepburn dresses and vintage perfumes and lipsticks.

I can even take Petula Clark singing Downtown ad nauseam on scratchy vinyl because the words resonate with me.

You may find somebody kind to help and understand you

Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to

Guide them along.

© 2014, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.

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impressions

Nathalie Abbot is as unobtainable as the Moon, elusive as a silver drachma gleaming in the Aegean Sea—indifferent to men and oblivious of me.

She’s a mystery—I have no idea where she goes, or what she likes—I yearn to ask my fellow lecturer Aline, but I’m afraid she’ll find out I’m infatuated with her friend.

Ivy Gordon is another colleague who goes with Nathalie to coffee houses and art galleries, but other than a few stray comments from conversations, I really know nothing of Nathalie’s hidden life.

I do know she often comes in Saturdays to prepare her lecture notes for the week—she’s in her office and occasionally has lunch at Hart House and though I conspire to arrange a chance encounter, it never happens.

Still, I drag myself out of bed every Saturday and drive down to the university in the hope that this might be the day

Lately, I’ve been hearing through snippets of gossip that many of the female professors consider Nathalie quite spiritual—I take it that is in some way related to her practice of yoga—but I think all that stretching simply makes her more lithe and graceful.

She has honey colored hair and huge brown eyes that stare and leave me desolate.

But this weekend, I’m in a quandary. There’s a freak early snowfall. It’s still October but the weather forecast is calling for near-blizzard conditions.

I’m tempted to forego the trek to the university, but in the end, even the remote possibility that she’ll be there is enough to lure me into going.

 

I have no trouble finding a parking space in the near-deserted lot and thankfully notice Nathalie’s red sports car is there and already snowed-in. I deliberately park close to the street so I can easily exit the lot.

I find myself already fantasizing a scenario where Nathalie’s car is snowbound and I offer her a lift home. Even I recognize that’s improbable thinking, and so I try to shake off the daydream and get back to reality.

I walk through silent hallways that are gloomy and somber. The leaded windows in the gothic building are splattered with snow—their corners hold sculpted drifts and myriad flakes are dancing in clear spots in the windowpanes.

I see a yellow light under Nathalie’s closed door and hear muted strains of Rachmaninoff.

My heart aches for her, but I’m terrified to knock on her door and disturb her.

I continue walking past two more doors to my office, turn on the light and leave the door ajar, as I do every Saturday as a subtle invitation—a signal that anyone, especially Nathalie, is free to knock or come in. But she never drops by and never comes in.

The advantage of my open door policy is I can hear when she leaves for lunch and locks her door to make the trek across Queen’s Park to Hart House.

Today, I follow at a discreet distance almost wishing she’d flounder in the snow or lose her footing so I might rescue her, but of course, she doesn’t. I watch her graceful figure in her dark, ankle-length hooded coat and follow in her glassy footsteps down a path choked with sleet. We veer across Queen’s Park Circle, and continue on to the Hart House doors.

Today, the dining hall is closed because of the storm and only The Arbor Room Café is open. Nathalie is nowhere in sight. I go into the café and order soup and sandwich and pick a table where I’m sure she’ll have to spot me and be constrained to sit down and join me.

After what seems an eternity, she comes in and heads to the food counter, but to my dismay, she orders a takeout sandwich and coffee. Within moments she’s back out the door leaving me dining alone at a lopsided Arborite table.

By the time I make it back to the college, the snow is knee-deep and visibility minimal. Nathalie is again sequestered behind the yellow outline of her door.

I sit alone in my office sipping lukewarm coffee I bought at the café and bemoaning my fate. The utter futility of pursuing Nathalie finally dawns on me—the truth finally penetrates.

I realize my fantasy of Nathalie will never come true, mainly because I’m too reserved to take a bold step. Moreover, each passing day the prospect of failure becomes even more terrifying because of the time and emotional investment I’ve made in obsessing over her.

If ever a lover were deluded and destined to failure, it’s me. For the sake of my own sanity, I conclude I can no longer indulge this fantasy.

I gather up my books and papers, dump the lot in my briefcase, put on my winter coat and gloves and head out into the parking lot. I pass by Nathalie’s darkened door and realize she’s also done the same.

Out in the parking lot, the wind is so strong it catches me by surprise, blinding me and flinging icy grit into my eyes. I barely make it to my car and manage to crack open the door when I hear the familiar clicking of a starting motor as Nathalie’s motor fails to start.

I put the key in the ignition of my SUV and get the same result. Great, just great!

After a few minutes, Nathalie exits her snowbound car and spots me sitting in my SUV with my usual half-open entry, but this time uselessly cranking a dead battery.

She flounders through the drifts and actually has to shout over the wind, “Is your SUV dead too?”

I’m in no mood for this bathos—this failed pity-patter of people caught in hopeless circumstances. I simply nod, get out and slam the door with disgust.

Her eyes grow huge, but I’m past pleasantries, infuriated at myself for transforming an ordinary woman into a goddess. I want to take out my foul mood on her, but I’m really furious at myself for blindly wasting a semester pursuing a dream.

“I can’t get a signal on my cell phone,” she shouts above the wind, “what about you?”

“I didn’t try,” I shout. “We’d better get inside.”

Once inside, she opens her office door and says, “Why don’t you come in and try phoning from here? Maybe you’ll be able to get a signal.”

I’m resentful now, and actually turn my back on her while I punch in the dealership’s number. My phone is dead too.

I throw it at the wall and watch it splinter into plastic parts and a printed circuit. I don’t care about anything now, least of all the impression I’m making on her.

I feel frustrated, claustrophobic, and just want to go home.

“Was that a new Blackberry Passport?” she asks.

“Yeah—it has a great touch screen,” I growl, “You should try it.”

I figure she doesn’t touch much—this princess.

She shrugs and flicks on the light switch but her room stays dark. “Oh no—the electricity is out.”

“It’s probably out all over the area—hence no cell tower signals,” I mutter, and resist the urge to add, Duh!

I could hate this girl, and may just end up doing that.

I’m expecting to see a haughty look or an angry flush creeping up her neck, but her eyes are soft and vulnerable.

“I guess we’re really stuck, huh?”

Her voice wavers and she looks frightened.

I notice the temperature has dropped in the hallway and figure there’s no heat as well.

“I have some candles in my office,” she whispers, “at least we’ll have some light.”

Who the hell has candles in their office? I answer my own question by realizing she’s into yoga and probably uses them for meditating.

“Well, we might as well light those candles and settle in for a long winter’s night,” I sigh.

“It’s kind of an adventure,” she says half-hopingly.

“If we don’t freeze to death,” I grumble, staring out the window at the gathering darkness outside.

“At least we won’t starve to death,” she laughs. “I went shopping this morning at the market and have several shopping bags of food in the trunk of my car.”

“Really?”

“Ivy and Aline were going to come over tonight for wine and cheese at my apartment—but it looks like we’re going to have the party here.”

“A moveable feast,” I say sarcastically.

I take her keys and head out into the storm and bring all the bags inside—including several bottles of Yellow Tail Cabernet—my favorite.

Nathalie’s thinking out loud, because if she’s talking, I’m not listening. I’m on strike—I’ve had it with aloof women.

“They say one taper candle alone can give enough heat to keep you alive—I have six pillar candles.”

I roll my eyes. I don’t want to go through this forced socializing—I just want to go home.

“Just light two or three—in case they don’t last the night. That should provide enough warmth and heat.”

She holds up her empty coffee cup. “Oh dear, I don’t have glasses—just this.”

“No problem,” I sigh.  I have one discolored slightly crumpled paper cup just like hers back in my office. I retrieve it from my office wastebasket.

She lights the candles while I use a corkscrew tool from my Swiss army knife to open a bottle of Yellow Tail.

“Aren’t we resourceful?” she says, eyes dancing.

“Well, no big deal on my part,” I say frostily. “I would have just pushed in the cork—but I guess it’s more civilized without fragments of cork in your cup.”

“Much more civilized,” she smiles encouragingly.

More romantic too, I muse—candlelight and wine—a jug of wine a loaf of bread and thou. Damn! I’m getting bitter. I’ve got to let go of my resentment.

She sets out several different varieties of cheese and breaks a French stick in two.

We sit on the carpet and picnic in the candlelight.

Flashes of green lightning waver outside and illumine the windows. She seems anxious.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

“Sorry—it’s silly. I’ve always been terrified of lighting.”

“That’s okay,” I console her, “we all have things we’re afraid of.”

“Really? I can’t imagine you being afraid of anything—you seem so poised and self-assured.”

“I wish that were true. I’m kind of a disaster socially.”

“It’s hard for me to see you that way—I always figured you the opposite.”

Once again common sense deserts me when I most need it. “Actually, I followed you across campus today and was going to ask you to sit with me at lunch, but was afraid of bothering you.”

“I wish you had—that would have been nice.”

“I was respecting your space—I mean you always have your office door shut. I figure you’re a private person.”

“Not really. I wish I were confident like you. I’m always fearful of strangers—that’s why I keep my office door shut.”

“I suppose looks can be deceiving,” I say guiltily.

She has this far-off look in her eyes and says dreamily “I’m so shy—I sometimes notice certain people but am fearful of approaching them, so I have imaginary conversations with them inside my head. That’s crazy isn’t it?”

“If it is, I’m crazy too, because I do it all the time.”

She looks surprised. “You do?”

“Well—only with you,” I croak.

I don’t know why I said it, or how it came out—maybe it was the wine or the atmosphere—the lack of reality, or actuality—but I was emboldened and followed my feelings for probably the first time in my life.

I look over at her and her head is bowed.

All my bravado and false swagger is gone and I feel as desolate and empty as a crater on the Moon.

I’ve gone too far, ruined the moment—made a complete fool of myself.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

She lifts her eyes to me. “Why are you sorry? I said the same thing.”

“Yeah, but I made it personal.”

“I was trying to do that,” she whispers, “but wasn’t as bold as you.”

“So you mentally communicate with people in your head?

“I don’t do it with just anyone, James—I try to, but mostly do it with you, and I’m always asking your soul why you don’t talk to me.”

My heart’s beating so fast, I feel faint.

“Because I’m an idiot,” I sigh.

“Join the club,” she smiles.

I’m feeling spontaneous for the second time in my life.

I lean across and kiss her softly on the lips.

© 2014, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.

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