The Ghost Reader – runner up in the Frinton Literary Festival Short Story Competition – October 2021

This is where I died.  Not right in this spot, but here in the hospice book shop – mid-way down the aisle on the left.  I think back to that day.  A walk along the Greensward followed by my regular browse in the bookshop. I read prolifically but without method.  One week a romance, the next a crime novel, fiction, non-fiction – I read them all.  I love this shop – it provides my regular supply of second-hand books coupled with a sense of virtue as I donate to a local charity. 

Back to my death.  I remember arriving at ‘L’ Marina Lewycka.  I recognised her name – couldn’t pronounce it – but I recognised it.  I remembered that she once wrote a book about tractors – nice characters – I liked that one.   The book on the shelf was called the The Lubetkin Legacy and the cover looked promising.  I read the blurb on the back, then opened the book and looked inside.  There was a message.  I loved reading messages in second hand books .  This one was carefully written in fountain pen  “To Gloria.  Happy Birthday. I will always love you.  Fred.

I read the message again, confused.  The script was familiar, letters slanting off to the left.  That was my Fred’s writing.  I inhaled sharply and felt my shoulders tense.  Who the hell was Gloria!  And then I realised … That Gloria! Short skirt, too much cleavage, brassy Gloria from the Salon.   My heart broke with a peculiar crack.  Stopped dead – not another beat.  My body crumpled and my soul drifted up towards the bookshop ceiling where I hovered and watched as people crowded around.  I saw the ambulance arrive and then leave with my body on a stretcher. 

My disembodied self has been here for a few months and it has taken some adjusting.  For the first two weeks I tried to amass enough energy to leave the shop.  Every day I failed and I spent each evening weeping by the doorway.   I mourned for my old life, my walks on the beach, and those days sitting in my beach hut, cup of tea in hand, watching dog walkers or gazing out toward the horizon and listening to the sea.  But then I realised it was time to embrace my spirit-self and move on.

I discovered that there was fun to be had in ghosting on the day that  Gloria tottered in on her too-high heels, wearing one of my necklaces.  Bloody cheek I thought.  First my husband, then my jewellery and now my bookshop.  I stood behind her, and reached out to retrieve my necklace.  As my hand touched her sun-raddled neck she started. I touched again – goose bumps and a shiver that reverberated through her scrawny shoulders.  She felt her neck with acrylic nails, looked around, then shrugged and resumed her browsing.  This was war!  I looked around, found the biggest book I could lift and threw it at the back of her carefully coiffed head.  It struck hard and she let out a little yelp – more chihuahua than human.  I scrabbled at the books on the shelves around her sending them cascading into the floor.  By now she was screaming and the volunteers, disturbed by the commotion, gathered around. 

‘Madam!  You can’t do that to the books’

‘You have to leave the shop. Right now, or we will call the police.’ 

She was ushered out of the door, snivelling

“It wasn’t me!  I didn’t do it!”

The volunteers ejected her, ignoring her protestations. 

That foray into poltergeisting was fun – but rather exhausting, and caused irreparable damage to several books.  I realise that I am not that sort of spirit and have settled into a more sedate role as a ghost volunteer.  I have many duties – cataloguing books when the others have gone home and during opening hours I like keep an eye on the customers.  I have become the unofficial store detective, seeking out the light-fingered.  I see them off with cold touch and a rasping whisper ‘I can see you!  Put it back’ . 

Most of the time I am well behaved but I do have one guilty pleasure.  I regularly write inscriptions in the books that might appeal to Fred.

To Bert,  You are my only love.  Gloria.

To Frank. Thank you for another wonderful night.  Gloria.   

To Bill.  My love, I can’t wait to see you again.  Gloria

He hasn’t come in – probably too scared – it doesn’t matter.  The pleasure is in the writing and the hope that these messages will stir up some gossip. 

I realise that everything I need is right here.  Last week I walked the South West Coast Path with Raynor Winn and the week before journeyed along the Essex coast with Tom Bolton.  I learned how to sail in a weekend and am discovering more about marshland birds.  I lived in a shack with Kya, deep in the North Carolina marshland, near to the place where the Crawdads sing.  I searched for the Essex Serpent with Cora and then visited the coastlands Tanzania and Mexico with my guide from the Lonely Planet.   I read and I read, learning more each day, immersing myself in stories and exploring exotic and unusual locations around the world.  When my spirit rested here I assumed I was in limbo – waiting to be transported somewhere else.   But now I realise that I am destined to spend eternity here in Frinton-on-Sea.  I have just finished reading Thin Places: An Evangelical Journey Into Celtic Christianity and realise have arrived at my thin place – the place where heaven meets earth.  I am free! 

To read the shortlisted stories go to http://www.frintonliteraryfestival.co.uk/short-story-competition-2021/

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