“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked.
The Professor stretched lazily and looked down at his tea. His thin lips curved into a smile under his beard. “Why,” he said, “don’t tell me you believe in ghosts. Surely not you?”
“I don’t,” I said awkwardly. “But it seems kind of pointless to go crawling around a dirty old house just because someone or other thinks it’s haunted.”
The Professor wasn’t really a professor, of course – it’s just what everyone called him, because he had such a professorial air. It came with his part time role as a hoax-buster and anti-medium, scourge of charlatans and magicians of all stripes. He tilted his head now so he could look at me down the length of his considerable nose.
“My dear fellow,” he said, “nothing is ever pointless. No effort is wasted, as long as you set out to achieve something.”
“So,” I said, knowing I was rising to the bait but unable to stop myself, “what exactly is this that you think you’re about to achieve? A few uncomfortable hours spent in a damp house when one could be doing something useful?”
“Like what?” he asked, raising one eyebrow, something which always irritated me because I could never do it. “What would you say is more useful?”
“Anything. Watching TV. Reading, Sleeping. Just about anything I could name would be more interesting.”
“Well then,” he said, innocently looking past my shoulder, “I think you’d better stay in this evening and watch TV and then read yourself to sleep. I’ll just go on by myself and see whatever I’ll see.”
There was a long pause. I looked at my hands, and tried to make the fingers stop twisting around each other.
“When do we have to go?” I asked.
“We’ll stay till midnight,” the Professor said, fitting the key in the lock. “That ought to be long enough.”
”Long enough for what?” I watched him twist the key in the lock. It hadn’t been used in a while, and he had to move it back and forth repeatedly. “Since there’s no ghost anyway, what are we going to be able to prove?”
He didn’t answer for a moment, pushing the door open with his shoulder. It creaked, as though tired with age, and so loudly that the noise seemed to echo through the house. Inside it was already quite dark, though the sun hadn’t even set yet. It looked dank and unwelcoming, and I had no desire to enter.
“Well?” the Professor asked. “Are you coming in or aren’t you?”
To save myself from having to answer, I stepped back and looked up at the building. It was a grey, angular mass, its peaked roof outlined against the evening sky like the blade of an axe. Tiny windows marked the upper storey, looking too small to be of much use.
“It’s old,” I said.
The Professor snorted. “Of course it’s old. It’s almost a hundred – they don’t make buildings like this any longer. Nor will this one be up much longer – the owner’s eager to sell, and of course anybody who buys will have it demolished and replaced by something modern.”
“But nobody will buy?” I asked, beginning to see the point of this expedition.
“No, because of this ridiculous story of a ghost. I’m pretty sure the owner believes it too – that’s why he wouldn’t come with us.” He looked at me impatiently. “If you aren’t coming, say so.”
“I’m coming,” I said, unhappily. The floor of the hall, inside the front door, was thick with dust, and it made me sneeze. “Who’s ever seen this ghost anyway? What’s it supposed to look like?”
The Professor laughed shortly. “I have not the faintest idea,” he said. “The more I heard about it the less I knew. Some of them said, you know, that they saw a oval of light with a hole for the face – the usual thing. Some others, a lovely naked woman with a string of pearls round her neck.” He cocked a sardonic eyebrow at me. “I see that got your attention.”
I felt myself blushing. “It’s all rubbish anyway.”
“Of course it is. Let’s have a good look around while there’s still some light.” The Professor clumped up the stairs, dust rising at every step. “They say the ghost’s been around since, oh, about as long as the house’s been completed. Fancy that.” He touched the balustrade with a fingertip, and held it up to the wan light from a dirty landing window. “Nobody’s been up here for a long, long time.”
“It’s not exactly inviting, is it?” I said. The upper floor comprised a long corridor with rooms leading off on either side. They were all empty, and the small windows let in enough light to show that the floors were covered with undisturbed dust.
“Hmm,” the Professor said, looking into the rooms one by one. “No sign anyone’s been here.”
“You think someone might have been waiting to scare off people by pretending to be a ghost?” I asked. “Why would they do that?”
The Professor shrugged. “I’m not thinking anything. At the moment I’m just looking. And so should you.”
So I looked, without any idea what I was looking for. I followed the Professor as he walked from room to room, checking the windows. I checked them too – they were sealed to their frames with grime. Like him, I looked into the corners of the ceilings – there was nothing to see except a selection of defunct cobwebs. We toured the entire upper floor, found nothing unusual, and then repeated the performance on the ground floor too. We found nothing.
“It seems like any other house which hasn’t been entered in a long time,” the Professor said at last, pausing by the open front door. The sun had gone down, but there was just about enough light to see by. “Well, there’s nothing to do but wait.”
“Wait?” I asked. “Wait where? There isn’t even a stick of furniture to sit on. And I’ll bet there isn’t any electricity either!”
“Of course there’s no electricity,” the Professor said. “In any case we’re supposed to wait in the dark – the only two constant things about what the so-called witnesses said was that the ghost appears in the dark, and before midnight. We’ll just sit on the stairs...” he took out a handkerchief and wiped ineffectually at part of the steps. “...Here.”
We sat down and watched the light outside fade. Soon it was completely dark except the glimmer of distant streetlights.
“So,” I said, after we’d been waiting a while, “do we sit like this the whole time?”
“No,” the Professor said. “We’ll get up every couple of hours or so and take a tour of the rooms.”
“Wandering around this place will be fun in the dark,” I said.
“I have a torch.” The Professor flashed it, a narrow yellow beam in the darkness. “I’ll only use it if I have to, though.”
Time passed. After a while the Professor got up and closed the front door.
“There might be someone watching,” he explained. “I don’t want anybody to say we didn’t see the ghost because there was too much light from outside.”
I was getting stiff with not moving as well as with boredom when he finally decided to make a round. We went through the same routine as before, entering each room and looking around. It was almost completely dark, but apart from that there wasn’t anything.
“It’s early yet,” he told me, as though it was some kind of consolation.
We went back to the stairs. Time passed, and it became colder. In fact, it was the cold which kept me from falling asleep right there – the cold and the discomfort of sitting on the narrow staircase.
We did another round. Again, of course, there was nothing, and when we went back to the stairs I was tempted to suggest we quit. It was only the thought that the Professor would certainly say that I was free to go, but that he’d remain, which held me back.
We sat in silence, looking at the darkness until I began to imagine coloured lights. I rubbed my eyes and rotated my shoulders, try to ease myself. It didn’t help.
“It’s almost midnight,” the Professor said. He, too, sounded tired. “We’ll just make one last round. To save time, each of us will take one room. Nothing will happen tonight anyway.”
I was more than happy to oblige. While the Professor took the rooms on the left side of the lower floor, I did the right. There was of course nothing to see, and when we met at the foot of the stairs I had no particular desire to fumble my way upstairs one more time.
“Let’s do it anyway,” the Professor said, wearily. “It’s just a matter of ten minutes.”
So we went upstairs, and the Professor took, again, the rooms on the left. I went into the first room, and then the next. It was all the same, darkness faintly pierced by distant dirt-filtered lamplight through the small window.
It was when I’d entered the third room that I heard the Professor call my name. He was on the other side of the corridor, and further away.
“Yes?” I called.
“There’s something odd here,” he said. He didn’t sound alarmed, just faintly puzzled. “You don’t recall a door in the wall in this room, do you?”
“A door?” I couldn’t remember seeing any door. “What door?”
“It’s open,” he said. “Wait –“
“Professor!” I called. I went out of the room I was in and into the room opposite. He wasn’t there. Nor was he in the next room. That left only the last room, at the end of the corridor. “Professor?” I called.
“That’s strange,” I heard him say, his voice sounding muffled. “It goes back such a long way –“
I entered the room, not knowing what I expected to see. Whatever it was, it wasn’t an empty room with no trace of the Professor – or of any door.
“Professor!” I shouted. “Where the hell are you?”
Then I heard his voice again, as though coming from a long, long way away. “Distances upon distance,” I heard him say. “My god –“
There was nothing else.
I ran through the room, hunting all over the walls, fumbling in the dark for a trace of a door. I had gone right round the room when I stumbled on something. Bending, I picked it up.
It was the Professor’s torch.
Lighting it, I looked over the room again, but there was nothing, No door, no trace of even a crack in the wall.
I’ll wait, I told myself. I’ll wait until the Professor comes back, and I’ll ask him what on earth is going on.
I’m still waiting.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013