It wasn’t anything the voice said which gave Andy the heeby-jeebies. Mere words couldn’t bother him. He had worse troubles already. He was thirty-five, overworked and underpaid in an utterly foul sales job; and he had realised that his marriage to a woman who had become demanding, hyper-critical and unsympathetic was over. No, what alarmed him about the voice was hearing it in the darkness where no voice should have been.
After all, it was a very small hotel room. His expense allowance didn’t cater for luxury, or, indeed, comfort. So he knew that when he had put the light out no-one else had been there. Unless they had been in the one tiny drawer which the meagre furnishings provided, which seemed unlikely. And yet he had scarcely settled down when it came, starting with an apologetic cough:
‘Ahem. Excuse me.’
It sounded female, but that didn’t make it less alarming. He jerked upright and scrabbled for the bedside light, unfortunately sending both it and the table on which it stood spinning across the room. They didn’t have far to go before hitting the wall. He called out in an unusually shrill tone:
He considered trying to reach the main light switch, but the possibility of bumping into the voice’s owner was too daunting. Then it replied:
‘Oh, thank God! You can hear me! I’m terribly sorry. I don’t want to startle you.’
The obvious response was ‘Well, go away, then,’ but Andy opted for ‘Who are you?’, ‘What do you want?’ and ‘Where did you come from?’ in quick succession, pulling the duvet up to his chin.
‘Just tell me. But don’t come any nearer.’
‘I’m not here to harm you. Anyway, I wouldn’t know how to.’
Andy didn’t find that reassuring.
‘Please put the light on, so I can see you,’ he said, querulously.
‘I’m sorry, I’m not sure I have the ability. Anyway, it wouldn’t help.’
‘It would help me,’ said Andy. ‘OK, I’ll do it. Don’t move. I’m warning you, I have a weapon.’
He didn’t, of course. Travelling sales reps rarely take weapons to bed. At least, not in Cleethorpes, which is where he was.
‘It wouldn’t help you, honestly. But…’
Andy was trying to work out where the voice was coming from. It seemed to echo around various parts of the room, but, hoping it wasn’t coming from between him and the light switch, he leaped out of the bed and stumbled about feeling for the wall. That one wasn’t far away, either. The voice, apparently disconcerted, broke off. Finding the switch, Andy turned the light on, then swung round.
There was no-one there.
‘I said it wouldn’t help.’
Andy’s jaw dropped.
‘Where the hell are you?’
‘I’m not sure. Not exactly. I seem to be just, well, part of the…essence of the room.’
‘Look,’ the voice sounded anxious. ‘I don’t understand it any more than you. But there’s clearly been some kind of mistake.’
‘Yes. A sort of, well, administrative cock-up, I suppose. But I’m totally confused. I mean, I haven’t been dead long so I don’t know how things work. I only know I shouldn’t be here.’ Again the impression of anxiety was apparent.
Andy’s jaw, having returned to its normal place, dropped again. He was still seeking the location of his tormentor, and had started to move round the room, looking for concealed corners where she (the voice was definitely female) might be hiding, but now he froze.
‘Yes. Oh – I hadn’t told you, had I?’
‘No. And I don’t believe you. If you’re claiming to be a ghost you need to know I don’t believe in them.’
‘Neither do I.’
‘Or I didn’t. Not before I…you know…’
Andy resumed his search, which didn’t take long. There was nowhere to look. No furniture big enough to hide anything larger than a rat; no space under the bed; and, naturally, on his employer’s expenses, no en-suite.
The voice coughed apologetically again:
‘I’m sorry to be a nuisance…’ The words ‘Well, go away, then’ passed through Andy’s mind once more, ‘…but I’m hoping you’ll help me.’
‘To get away. Back to where I should be. Wherever that is.’
Andy pulled out the drawer in the one piece of significant, but unidentifiable furniture, looking for hidden speakers. No speaker was revealed. He shook his head, bewildered, then sat down on the bed. His initial alarm had worn off. Unexplained voices in the night can be terrifying but not for long, if they cough apologetically, sound anxious and ask for help. In fact he was beginning to find the voice fairly pleasant. Certainly a contrast to his wife’s normal severe tone. However, he remained mystified. He decided to play along with his uninvited guest.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘I’ve no idea what’s going on. I still don’t believe in ghosts. But tell me – what is your problem and what makes you think I can help?’
He sensed, rather than heard, a sigh of relief.
‘Oh, thank you so much. Well, my name’s Vanessa. Vanessa Roberts. Should I tell you what I used to do?’
Andy shrugged his shoulders.
‘Is it relevant?’
‘Probably not, but…’
‘Just tell it however you want.’
‘All right.’ She paused. ‘Oh, God, this is so difficult! I hardly understand it myself. I mean, I’ve only been…it’s only three weeks since I…’
Andy felt a stirring of empathy. He was still resistant to what he was being told, but the girl (he thought of her as a girl) seemed genuinely upset and the appeal of her voice was increasing significantly.
‘It’s all right, Vanessa, ‘ he said. ‘Just take your time.’
‘Take your time!’, he thought. ‘It’s after midnight, I’ve had a bad day, with a worse day coming up and I tell her to take her time!’ But her gratitude was palpable, which made him feel better.
‘I was working in London as a motor-cycle courier. One day, about three weeks ago, a car pulled out in front of me. The bike went straight into it. I flew over the top and landed heavily on the other side. I felt OK, so I got up. The car driver had got out and was coming towards me. I started to tell him what I thought of him, but he just kept walking. So I turned to follow him and then saw myself still lying on the road.’
Andy couldn’t help reacting with disbelief, but she didn’t notice. He felt slightly ashamed.
‘Then this bloke arrived, all smart and efficient and carrying a tablet. He came up, checked the tablet, then said, ‘Veronica Robins? Come with me, please. We were expecting you.’ I told him that wasn’t my name but he wasn’t listening. There was pandemonium around me. I was confused and frightened and had no idea what was happening. Then a police car arrived, but I found myself compelled to follow the man with the tablet. He hurried me along, saying things like ‘I have many clients to meet and greet today’ and he apologised for not having time to give me the full official welcome as they were well scattered and he was already behind schedule. I asked where we were going, but he didn’t reply.’
Andy was, unwillingly, intrigued by her tale. But the feelings which her voice was stirring in him were making him receptive to almost anything she might say.
‘Where did he take you?’ he asked.
‘To a taxi. Waiting on the pavement. Though it clearly wasn’t really there, as people were walking right through it. He opened the door, almost shoved me inside, told the driver I was Veronica Robins, apologised again and disappeared.’
A thought occurred to Andy.
‘Vanessa,’ he said. ‘How old are you?’
‘I’m…I was twenty-nine.’
Andy was shocked, despite having already pictured her as young.
‘Better than being thirty. At least I’ll never go through that transition.’
‘No, I mean…You know what I mean.’
‘Don’t worry about it…what’s your name?’
‘You needn’t worry about me, Andy. I wasn’t having a good life. I was brought up in care, then pretty well abandoned when I got to sixteen. I had no family. Slept rough for a while, then had a series of dead-end jobs. And a series of dead-end boyfriends. Who were also rough. I seemed to attract the self-obsessed and violent. I’ve never been strongly attached to my life, so, frankly, I’m not bothered that it’s stopped being attached to me.’
Andy’s compassion was roused. He felt a surge of tenderness towards his invisible companion, and a strong need to see her – especially now she’d confirmed her age. He began to wish he’d met her before she’d died – and preferably before he’d met his wife.
‘Is there any way I could see you?’ he said. ‘I don’t understand what you meant about being part of the essence of the room. Can’t you… materialise or something? Or do what ghosts are supposed to do? Like the grey ladies who inhabit castles.’
‘I don’t know how to do that.’
Andy closed his eyes and lay back on the bed. That seemed a more satisfactory way of listening, in the circumstances. The voice went on:
‘Anyway, I don’t want to be any more firmly here than necessary. Like I said, I shouldn’t be here at all. It’s a mistake – caused by that guy mixing me up with someone else.’
‘Didn’t you tell the taxi driver who you were?’
‘Yeah, but he said it was nothing to do with him. He’d been told who I was and that was the name he was going to give when we arrived.’
‘That’s what I asked. He said, ‘Reception.’ So I said, ‘Reception for where?’ and he said ‘The Afterlife.’ He wouldn’t tell me any more. Like whether it was Heaven and whether God was there. I’d never believed in any of that. Still don’t. But I hadn’t believe in an afterlife either. Anyway, he said it was more than his job was worth to reveal anything.’
‘So what happened at Reception? Where was it? What was it like?’
‘I don’t know where it was. We didn’t travel there normally. Just materialised. It was like a big posh office, but so busy. Heaving with people. Queues everywhere. The driver took me to a desk with a smart woman behind it and gave her the Veronica name, then left. She gave me a badge with that name on it, said she was sorry she hadn’t time for the usual introductory talk, and told me which queue to join. I told her my real name but she was dealing with someone else by then. So I joined the queue. When I finally got to the front it was just the same. No time to listen or explain anything. I think there’d been some sort of disaster or mass slaughter. Anyway, lots of oriental people had clearly died somewhere. The guy at the desk just looked at my name badge and checked his computer. I could see what came up. It said, ‘Veronica Robins. Suicide. Atonement before entering the Afterlife. One hundred years haunting location of death.’ He printed a ticket and handed it to me, then the Reception office faded away and I found myself here.’
Andy sat up.
‘What – they mistook you for someone who’d committed suicide – in this room? And they’re so old-fashioned that they insist on atonement, as if suicide were a sin?’
‘Seems like it. So I’m stuck here unless I can get someone to acknowledge the mistake.’
‘But how can I help?’
‘You can contact the OAA.’
‘The Office for Afterlife Administration.’
‘That’s what it’s called. Fortunately I’ve found someone who knows about it. Someone who had arrived at Reception when they weren’t so busy. He’s explained a few things to me.’
‘You met someone? Someone dead? Who? Where?’
‘Just next door, as it happens. Called Tom.’
‘What – in the next room?’
‘Yes. Seems he actually did commit suicide there and is doing his penance. Bizarre.’
‘So two different people both committed suicide in this hotel in adjacent rooms?’
‘Apparently. I said it was bizarre. Though they were a few years apart. And, let’s face it, if you were going to commit suicide in a hotel, this is the sort of hotel you’d choose.’
‘True. Most of the hotels I use come into that category. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if several of them haven’t had suicides who didn’t intend killing themselves when they checked in.’
The voice laughed, eerily echoing around the room.
‘But how do I get in touch with the…what was it?’
‘OAA. Well, Tom says someone living needs to contact them because spirits or whatever we are can’t. Some bureaucratic regulation, apparently. But they’re always open to psychics wanting to contact someone in the Afterlife. And you’re psychic. So you can do it. Please.’
‘But I’m not psychic. Never had a psychic experience in my life.’
‘So what are you doing now?’
‘Oh, yes. But that’s you, isn’t it?’
‘It’s you as well. I told you I’ve been here weeks. I’ve tried with every other person who’s stayed here. But not one showed a flicker of consciousness of my presence. You must be able to help. Please. Just contact them and explain who I am. So I can find out where I’m supposed to be and go there.’
‘But I can’t have a séance by myself.’
‘No, but you can enter into, not a trance, more an opening of the consciousness, Tom says. You just lie back, clear your mind, decide you want to make contact. Then just keep saying ‘I want to make contact’. And mean it. Really want to make contact.’
Andy by now felt he’d do anything for the girl whose face he had created in his mind and who he was developing strong feelings towards. He began following her instructions.
‘I want to make contact. I want to make contact… It isn’t working.’
He carried on. After a few minutes the air crackled and a new voice made itself heard.
‘Thank you for contacting the Office for Afterlife Administration. All our operatives are busy at present. We will answer you as soon as possible. You are currently….third…in the queue.’ This was followed by Oasis singing Wonderwall.
‘For God’s sake!’ Andy sat up. ‘That’s ridiculous.’
Vanessa shushed him. ‘Keep concentrating. Please.’
Andy found it difficult to concentrate on anything with Oasis bouncing round the room. After a moment it was cut off.
‘Thank you for your patience. Your contact is important to us. We will answer as soon as possible. You are currently…first…in the queue.’ Oasis resumed their droning.
‘Oh,’ said Vanessa, ‘you’ve jumped two places. That’s good.’
Andy made no comment.
Eventually Oasis were interrupted by a new voice: male and sounding very capable.
‘Good evening. Welcome to the OAA. My name is Khalid. Please note that this contact is being recorded for training purposes. How can I help you tonight?’
Andy was startled.
‘Oh, er, sorry, I need to talk to someone with authority.’
‘I am authorised to help you contact whomever you wish. Please tell me their name and the approximate date of decease.’
‘No. I just want to speak to someone in the, er, office. Someone with authority to correct a mistake.’
‘A mistake? By the OAA?’
‘Hold on. I’ll transfer you to our complaints team.’
It took three more doses of Oasis before Andy was in contact with a voice which seemed to understand the issue.
‘Ah, yes, sir.’ This one was female and sounded just as capable as the first. ‘We do have someone claiming to be Veronica Robins who has recently been returned from the Afterlife, being currently un-atoned and therefore unsuitable. It now seems clear what’s gone wrong. Miss Roberts will be returned to Reception for reprocessing.’
‘Oh, thank heavens.’ Vanessa sounded relieved. ‘I’m not sure I like the sound of reprocessing, but it should end up OK. Thank you, Andy, I’m so grateful.’
Andy had mixed feelings. He realised he had apparently just succeeded in separating himself permanently from someone to whom he now felt a deep emotional attachment.
‘Oh. I think I’m going.’ Vanessa’s delight was clear. ‘Bye, sweetie.’
There was the sound of a kiss being blown, then a sort of schloop! noise.
‘Hang on!’ Andy stood up. ‘Vanessa!’
There was no reply. The capable female spoke again.
‘The OAA apologises for its error and thanks you for your help. We will arrange for the real Miss Robins to be transferred to the location of her decease. Thank you for contacting the OAA. Have a nice day.’
There was another crackle.
Andy shouted, ‘What? For God’s sake, I don’t want another bloody ghost! I want to talk to Vanessa.’
His only answer was silence. He collapsed on the bed. Tears gathered and spilled down his cheeks. He repeated in a low tone: ‘I want to talk to Vanessa.’
Then he realised there was a way to meet her again. He could die. An option which was no longer unappealing. But almost immediately he remembered that taking that option would mean a sentence of a hundred years in the same dreadful room. And he’d have to share it with Veronica, whoever she was.
The schloop! noise was repeated. A new voice intruded on his despair. A harsh, complaining voice reminding him strongly of his wife.
‘Are you responsible for having me brought back here?’
Andy buried his head in the pillow.
‘Well? Answer me!’
Andy stuck his fingers in his ears. A gut-wrenching groan forced its way through the pillow and echoed round the room.
By John Emms