I don’t think rationally. So I have endless conversations with ghosts
Michael Harding: ‘Are you with me?’ I inquired. ‘I am,’ he whispered
‘Later I sat on a bench near the bridge, exhausted by mental instability; I had just spent 20 minutes working through my neurosis with a phantom.’
I was at a car boot sale last Sunday, looking for nothing in particular, rummaging through old records on the ground, and poking about at a stall selling Christmas angels, when suddenly a stranger appeared behind me.
“You don’t know me but I know you. I see you sitting by the river a lot.”
He said: “You’d need to watch yourself at the river. There is people out to get you. If you got tossed into that river you’d never be seen again. There’s pike in there, that would eat a small child.”
“I’m not small,” I said, realising at this stage that the stranger was a phantom.
“Just watch out,” he said. “You can’t be too careful.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “And by the way, who would try to toss me into a river?”
“I told you,” he said, “the people that are out to get you.”
“But who are they?”
“Are you stupid or what?” he wondered.
“Well I spend a lot of time at car boot sales, so maybe that’s not a good sign,” I replied.
“There you go,” he said, “You’re sneering at me.”
He pushed his face close up to mine.
“You people think you can ignore the likes of us.”
“I’m not ignoring you,” I said. “I’m talking to you.”
“You’re like all the rest of them. Puffed up with your airs and graces; your opinions and certainties.”
“Don’t look now,” I said, “but this car boot sale is patrolled by flying archangels who might take your head off with a sword if you get one step more aggressive with me.”
He was speechless.
But this was tricky enough, because if I overplayed my hand he might transform me into a Messiah, and then I’d be stuck with him for years.
“It’s like this,” I explained. “I know there is nothing beyond the physicality of this universe. But when I say angel, I mean angel. Are you with me?”
“No,” he replied.
“Angels protect me. Yes, I know they don’t exist. We all know that. Just like you don’t exist. But you and the others provide me with reference points. Shadows that embody all the scattered anxieties of my tired brain. Metaphors that balance me in the empirical world.”
I put my face close up to his.
“Are you with me?” I inquired.
“I am,” he whispered. “But by Jesus, you’re a rare bird.”
Later I sat on a bench near the bridge, exhausted by mental instability; I had just spent 20 minutes working through my neurosis with a phantom. I had been talking to a demon. Just as sometimes I talk to angels. Just as sometimes I talk to the absent General. Just as sometimes I talk to my departed mother, may the light of heaven shine on her.
My interior life is mythic. I’m not a computer. I don’t think rationally. So I have endless conversations with ghosts. Especially in winter. Adversaries taunt me, and gods comfort me.
I sit on park benches nowadays because by just looking at the chestnut trees . . . I become calm
I know it’s all poppycock. But at least it’s less painful than trying to reason my way through what is called the empirical world. Maybe there are others like me. Maybe all of us live in secret universes of private and extraordinary fantasy, as we sit on buses and trains and stare blankly at the ordinary world around us.
I sit on park benches nowadays because by just looking at the chestnut trees, all rusty and ragged at the end of the year, I become calm. Not because I am certain they exist. Not because they are more real than phantoms. But because they embrace me.
I feel their touch as tender as a lover’s breath.
And nobody bothers me as I admire young swans waddling in the shallow water near the bridge. Because it’s entirely acceptable to see an old man alone by a river absorbed in his dreams. It’s agreeable to know he has withdrawn from the world. That he is contemplating other journeys, conversing with unseen strangers.
Sometimes I wonder about the beloved. Where does she go when I hold her hand in silence and we both sit at the water’s edge? Where is she when she wears her earphones? Where is she when the duvet covers her eyes in the morning? Where is she as we hold hands on a park bench?
Each of us wrapped in solitude. Each of us talking to strangers, phantoms of the dark or angels of heaven, as they whisper sweet or bitter nothings in our ears. But it’s kind of beautiful, on the bench, to hold her hand, in a serenity I hope will grow as the winter closes in.