The Subtle Ghost

I’m going to tell you about the time I was haunted by a very subtle ghost.

It started after I quit a job at an insurance call centre. I’ll spare you the mundane epiphany that precipitated my resignation. I had enough money to live in okay comfort for a few months while I looked for something else. “Okay comfort” means I had to stop getting taxis when I could easily walk, but I could still afford to buy prosciutto.

I spent my days job-hunting, reading, cultivating an ever more meticulous approach to household chores and verbally pouncing on my housemates as soon as they entered the house after work.

The first thing I noticed was the towels. I have a brown towel and a beige towel that I alternate. One morning I put my dirty towel, the brown one, into the washing machine with some bathmats and tea towels. I got my clean beige towel out of the cupboard and hung it in the bathroom. I lay on my bed doing cryptic crosswords instead of job-hunting until the washing machine cycle finished.

When I went to hang it all out, the beige towel was in the machine. I paused. When I went into the bathroom, my brown towel was hanging there, dry.

The easy explanation was that I was mistaken. Maybe it was “proactive interference” (a term gleaned from perfunctory undergrad psychology classes), a memory of washing the towels in the alternate order in the past overlaying the most recent instance. That’s what I uneasily put it down to, even though I was sure in every rib and vertebrae that the towels had been the other way around.

A few days later, I did the dishes after eating lunch. I put the cutlery in the draining tin with the eating ends sticking out, handles down. I went and sat at the kitchen table with my laptop, forcing myself to spend some time writing selection criteria responses for a job I didn’t particularly want.

After pecking out a few sentences, I got up to get myself a glass of water. The cutlery now had the handles poking up, with the eating ends down.

Disquiet mushroomed mutedly, but remained latent. I googled memory interference theories, buttressing my half-recalled university studies. I convinced myself that days and days and days on end of performing similar menial tasks was giving me little memory skips.

Later that day, conscious of encroaching late springtime heat, I manoeuvred my pedestal fan out from the corner of my bedroom that houses seasonal miscellany. It was coated in dust as thick as moss. I cleaned the entire thing, even going as far as to disassemble the cage and vacuum the fan blades.

I went to rummage in our house junk drawers to see if there was a double adapter so I could plug the fan into my wall socket without sacrificing either my phone charger or bedside table lamp. When I came back to my room, wielding a yellowing but otherwise adequate-looking adapter, the fan was coated in an even thicker layer of dust.

I think of this as the true opening salvo of the haunting, the first occurrence I couldn’t pretend to explain away.

As the weeks passed, it was rare for a day to go by without at least a couple of incidents. One time when I was unpacking some shopping, I took an enormous packet of toilet paper into the bathroom, putting a two-pack of washing up sponges on the kitchen counter on my way past. I arranged the toilet paper into a pyramid and returned to the kitchen. The two sponges were sitting in the slots of the toaster. Later, when I went to the toilet, I found the rolls of paper stacked in a single tall tower.

The ghost, as I now allowed myself to call it, was never malicious or damaging. When a storm hit and the roof leaked as usual, it didn’t move the buckets I put out to catch the flow. It also ignored technology – no mysterious words typed onto my computer screen or humiliating texts sent to ex-partners or the like.

Conditioned by the trajectory of escalation at the spine of most ghost stories, I kept expecting an increase in frequency and extremity. But the haunting continued to be steadfastly understated, the ghost unerringly subtle. A polite poltergeist. A polterguest.

The ghost never made its modest presence felt when someone else was around, like my housemate popping back during her lunch break to swap uncomfortable shoes. Never on the weekends. It only seemed to manifest when I was alone during business hours. I imagined the ghost commuting to my house each day, wearing a jaunty ghost hat and carrying a care-worn ghost briefcase.

I may be making it sound comical, and sometimes it was. But it’s difficult to convey the moderate but persistent fear of that period. It was like a constant tight ponytail. At the same time, I felt a peculiar pride – like I was the perfect (maybe only) person to appreciate this ghost’s painstaking brand of haunting.

  • Candidate should possess demonstrated high-level attention to detail.

I have high-level attention to detail. For example, I have extensive experience proofreading documents to a high standard in my previous roles. This skill is also demonstrated by my ability to discern the nuanced manifestations of the ghost who lives in my house.

As I deleted this, I realised a hair elastic I had left on the table next to my laptop now had the computer’s power cord threaded through it.

  • Candidate should have sound interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate with a variety of stakeholders.

I have excellent interpersonal skills and am able to communicate with a wide range of stakeholders in efficient, effective and often innovative ways. For example, I have attempted to communicate with the ghost in my house by putting one of those poetry word magnet sets all over the fridge for it to rearrange into messages if it should so choose.

Deleted again, the cursor eating letters in my peripheral vision as I stared at the refrigerator. The poetry word magnets were untouched. All the other magnets – repairman calling cards, souvenir landscapes, 50s illustrations of men and women with acerbic captions – were now upside down.

Longstanding night-time fears abated as day-time dread rose. I’ve always had a grim aversion to mirrors in the dark, but I found myself boldly regarding my black hulk of a reflection in the bathroom mirror when I washed my hands after peeing in the middle of the night rather than nervously keeping my head turned to one side.

Eventually, after about three months, I got offered a job doing administration for an autism charity. It was not very well-paid, but I seized it with an enthusiasm that surprised the manager who called to offer it to me. My first few weeks of work, I was hyper-vigilant, wondering whether the ghost would somehow migrate its business hour activities to this new location. I kept the office scrupulously organised so I could quickly identify any potential incidents. Nothing happened, apart from my tidiness and attention to detail making an excellent impression on my new employers.

I haven’t taken any sick days or annual leave days. When I have an early mark I make sure I don’t come home until after 5:00 p.m. I’m starting to feel afraid of mirrors in the dark again.

This evening one of my housemates got home at the same time as me (5:01 p.m. precisely). I was surprised to see him because his job usually keeps him until at least 7:00 p.m. He told me he’d been made redundant and would be stuck at home job-hunting for the foreseeable future.

I’ve not said anything. I’m not sure what to say. Despite the months of muggy fear, his announcement made me feeling something I have only just now, as I write, identified as jealousy. He’s not as observant as me – often forgets which food in the fridge is his, for example. I’m not sure he will notice the subtle ghost.

I’m not sure he deserves my subtle ghost.