Ali Abbas is a writer, carpenter and photographer born and bred in London. He is the author of “Like Clockwork”, a steampunk mystery published by Transmundane Press; “Image and Other Stories”, a collection of seven short stories that examine themes of love, loss and the haunting nature of bad decisions; and “Hajj – My Pilgrimage”, a light-hearted and secular look at the pilgrimage to Mecca that is at the heart of the Islamic faith.
His short story / love letter to London "An Absolute Amount of Sadness" was published by Mad Scientist Journal in their "Fitting In" anthology, and his ghost story “The Girl Who Gives Me Sunsets” will be published in their forthcoming “Utter Fabrication” anthology.
Ali maintains a blog at www.aliabbasali.com
The Price of One
How do we distinguish life from existence? The difference lies somewhere in the operation of the senses. In death I continued to exist. Ghost or shade, spectre or phantasm I know not, only that my love could not see me, hear me, touch me. And I lost any capacity to console her, until the irregular merchant and his bottles of precious green enlivenment discovered me.
Something in that verdant elixir brought my shade back into a part life. Fungus-like the potion pressed it tendrils into death and brought forth a being wan and incomplete, and yet alive. My world passed from misty and intangible, leached of colour and vibrancy, to one seen through a screen of summer trees. The bustling hordes longer passed through me, wondering at the sudden chill. They swayed out of my way, thinking I was one of them.
My green fuelled sight was a sickly thing. The central filter and focus of my world changed from grey to green, which was at least fitting. At the edges of my vision the monochrome luminescence dimmed, as though bright leaves filtered the sunlight, laden with a premonition of autumn.
All of which I could ignore the moment that I saw her grey-green eyes widen at the sight of me, and glisten in the steps to re-acquaintance.
She always looked two days overdue to bathe, scruffy and smudged. But she smelled like a fresh cut lawn and tuberose, laced with the waking chill of dew at dawn. Her unlaced Converse were once bright red. She wore a leather jacket over a summer dress to spite the heat.
In my last late spring, or early summer, I don’t know what first drew her to my perch. I was in the lunchtime office workers refuge, an acre of grass on Mint Street. Sandwich eaters and sunbathers tried to ignore the yoga classes, clutching to our one square metre each of anonymity, and blocking out the supercilious little groups talking too loudly, braying laughs.
Her shadow fell on the scribbled lines and sketches in my notebook, and on every day of mine that passed since then.
From that first day in May life for both of us became the spinning joy of dizzy heights. I was anchored in her shabby and uncomplicated love, that knew my need for silences, and strong arms when the tremors came. And she bound herself in my words, hogtied in the ribbons of the lines that brought our love to life. I was her raft she said, as the swift brown tide would come and go, would ebb and flow. “You rise,” she murmured once in the langour after love, “You rise, and rising raise me, when the tide is threatening high, and when it sinks you somehow always find the still deep centre of the stream.”
After my death, before the green and its partial resurrection, she would walk on Wednesdays down Borough High Street and tie a piece of yellow paper to the bent railings that separate pedestrians from the constant flow of traffic. Along the way she would hand out from her pockets silver and copper change to the homeless huddled in the recesses of fire escapes, hoarding their precious few square feet of cardboard.
All of this I saw in the days she could not see me. I was a zephyr. Gently propelled by will alone, until some passing breeze fancied to push me to one side. My days and nights were grey. I measured time in lunch breaks, the flocking from and to of hungry wage-slave crowds, the human press and flow that passed heedless in and out of me.
The potion seller had his cart under Southwark Bridge, on the South Bank opposite the fiddler busking Gluck. I drifted by, a breath between the tourists. He held out a hand.
“The first one is free. Have a swig of this on me.”
I held it. Until now I had been utterly intangible, no more than a moth’s wings felt through the half sleep of summer nights. The shock of contact was enough to stutter my slow progress. I followed his instructions before my thoughts caught up with me. The taste was argent fire, crushed grass and nettles, absinthe and the nectar of Anatolian peaches. The fluid poured in lightly but set within like concrete. Suddenly I was grounded, people walking by swung their shoulders to step around me. I’d gone on several paces, half in disbelief and half in wonder. When I turned, the space was bare, the potion seller and his stall had disappeared. The busker played on, eyes closed and unaware.
The ferryman shouted something as I strode by. Moored to his stone seat at the corner of Bear Gardens he could not follow, and his words bounced off my new solidity.
The first bottle only lasted for some small part of a day. Just long enough for me to tell her that I was not suffering, for her to hold me, until I drifted out of her window, pulled back by the gravity of the time allaying Thames. She wept when I became a ghost again.
From then her life morphed into one of waiting, knowing I could be more than the wind perceived as kisses. From then I began my search for the potion seller. It took a desperate week for me to find the man again.
“There’s a price, it’s true,” the potion seller said. “Counted in pennies. Nothing to a man like you.”
“I have no money.”
He laughed. “Aye, but still, you’ll pay.”
The ferryman rose from his seat of flint set within an alcove of a restaurant's limestone wall. He put out a hand to stall me when I was searching once again. “Beware the black-eyed man,” he said. “You who are dead and have not passed have some unfinished business. No one else can tell you what it is.” His own cloudscape eyes burned out like the winter sun, piercing the gloom. “Remember that the devil wins with every soul that falters on the way to heaven, not just the ones that fall to hell.”
He dropped his hand and tears brimmed his eyes to shining. “So few of you, with destiny unfulfilled, can find your proper course. And I sit here unwanted, waiting for two pennies for your passage, that you spend on lesser things.”
The promise of her was one that I could not resist.
The third time, ten days of searching passed before I wafted into her spacious flat and took the barest sip to write a haiku in my notebook, which she still kept at her bedside. When she came home I drained all that remained and we were lost inside ourselves for I cannot count how long.
I told her all about the bottles, crystal clear, almost invisible when empty. I told her how the precious green could make the unseen seen, bring a ghost of London back to a semblance of its life. I told her of the other ghosts: the brawlers and the guttersnipes parading through the damp streets by the Clink, the market porters gathered by the pub that bears their name. But something stopped me there; I did not mention all the Bishop's geese, the whores of Redcross Street that thronged around the Cross Bones cemetery. Nor could I explain how I was the only one not tied to a place, but drawn each day back to the riverside.
I told her of the potion seller. She said “I’ll pay. I’ll pay a hundred times over to have you back again.”
That was the day she stopped giving change to tramps and began collecting it in jars instead. The growing weight of coins drew me, as if the verdigris on copper was a shadow of the green that grounded me, a new gravity against the inexorable momentum of the Thames. If I still had a heart it might have burst that she sought somehow to buy me back. Just half a life to share with her and both be whole.
I stroked her hair and tried to assuage all the guilt that riddled her, to quell this new rage of desire that billowed up with every bottle that I downed. Fevered and fervent she tried to clutch at my cold shade, to search the streets with me, but all to no avail. Without the green I had no means to tell her that the potion seller kept a schedule all his own. And truth be told hope burned in me. The thought that there might be a way warred with my words that it was just an accident, that her search was doomed to fail.
Should I have seen, with all my cold detachment, within my world of muted hues and unsought changes of direction? Should I have perceived that while I took the drug, hers was the addiction?
I died on a Wednesday. We were due to meet but she texted she would be late. I wrote back that I'd stroll around Southwark Cathedral, take the river air, buy us bread and chocolate from the market. My impatience would not wait. I wandered southward before I had any right to think she would be there. I saw a girl come out of Borough Station. Hair piled high, and lipstick cherry red. Legs long in heels, and poured into a dress.
It could not have been her, except that I would know her anywhere. I paused as all the questions I had not thought to ask were answered all at once. The independent means I had assumed furnished her South Bank chic decor became a dark dependency. The way she always paid in cash, the closet that she never opened when I stayed. I paused and then I smiled because it was not for me to mind. She was mine when all the masks were torn away, when clothes in which her body rested easy could be clasped within my arms, and with silence she would signal “I am home.”
I hope she saw the smile that topped the pause before the bus hit me, just by St George the Martyr. Each night since then I was the whispering draft, “Sweet Gwendolyn, my Wendy, treasured Gwen, it was just an accident.”
I followed her one last Wednesday, during one of the seller’s lengthy absences. I was buffeted by passing cars and errant winds, barely able to affect my own traverse. How I wished then for a bottle of the precious balm. I would have held her hand, fingers wrapped in fingers, claimed her heart from the coveting eyes of passers-by. My sweetheart, heavy breasted in the way that skinny girls can sometimes be. Blonde hair of ragged curls, and in her leather jacket just to spite the summer. She drew the eyes of everyone and hated it. I would have held her hand all the way to the railing right beside where I had died. Perhaps I would have sensed the looming trade, composed something to soothe the hurt, to say, “Love, live out your life and I will wait.”
She tied a yellow note paper, this time scrawled with the words: “I will pay.”
This time I found him just late enough to suit his purpose, on Millennium Bridge, the steel contraption that links the sacred of St Paul’s to South Bank profanity. He had his cart back to back with the chocolate coated chestnut man. They could have been conjoined twins, spliced at opposing shoulders.
“You will pay,” he said. “That’s the deal. I must tell you, you will pay. If you decide to buy it's all on you.”
“Because it hurts you more when you realise that you’ve already paid.” He looked downstream beyond the silver spars and the curving bars to Southwark Bridge, two tone and gleaming in the evening sun.
On its central span, a waif like form, leather draped shoulders drooped and wan, leaning over the shallow balustrade.
I turned back, unwilling to believe, trying to discern some other truth in his black eyes. On his cart he had a jar, brimful with pennies. One jar out of three.
I swigged and closed my eyes to think, “Which way?” North would be the quieter, but a zigzag route and far from certain. It would put me on the Steel Ring side of Southwark Bridge, the mazy side that only cabbies know the trick of. Instead I ran towards the Tate, south and south again as the bridge overshot its mark and doubled back to drop me on the foreshore.
Crowds clogged the way, selfies staggered me before the Globe. By the Bard’s place I learned the true meaning of pell-mell. The running that is uncontrolled, arms aflail for a balance always on the brink of being lost. The running that is three parts in four a falling.
I lost her for a moment in the turn of Southwark Bridge steps. Clawing around the handrail, I caught a glimpse of her scarred Converse clamber up the side. I cried, hoarse with the rasping need for air in lungs unaccustomed to the strain. No sound came out. I swigged the dregs to ease my throat and I cried out again, “Wendy, Wendy, Gwen.”
She turned and saw me then. One jar wedged into each pocket of her jacket, and the zips and straps all done up tight. “Tonight,” she called, “Tonight we’ll be together once again, this time forever, and you can read me Clare and Donne.”
I hurled the cursed bottle and myself over the bridge, but she knew London just as well as I. The tide was high for summer, running out. Weighed down by the price paid out in pennies she was swallowed by the murky brown and gone.
The potion seller will not sell to us. His bottles are lined up, crystal clear and filled with precious green, but none for such as we. Who is left to pay? No one cares if we should stay or float downstream. We are two fading sighs, two breaths upon a river bank, extant but not alive enough to consummate or complicate our love. We drift by the lonely ferryman on his seat. He shakes his head and says, “Never bargain with the black-eyed man, he got two for the price of one.”