Conversation with a ghost.
It was one of those quaint little hotels, about ten or twelve rooms, what do they call them? A boutique hotel is probably the right term - in fact, the whole town could be called a Boutique town, everything was picturesque, charming Tudor era homes, most of them quaint and some of them… well, just old. The hotel was situated on the edge of town along a narrow road, nearly adjacent to a slow flowing river with reeds on either side inter-spaced with moss covered rocks. I say nearly, because between the old manor - now a hotel - and the river were the remains of what in better days would in all probability have been a rather imposing mill of some sort, without any doubt assuring a prosperous bourgeois life to its owners, now obviously long since gone.
Ludlow, nestled in an area of outstanding natural beauty in the heart of Shropshire, is exactly that sort of a town with history pouring out of every nook and cranny. It even has two castles, one ruined but open to the public while the Stokesay castle is about seven-and-a-half miles away in the countryside. None of this however brought me here and I confess… I had never heard of Ludlow which may well be a blemish on my education, and so wisely, I shan’t mention it any further.
I am a structural engineer and the only thing that brought me here was the bridge over the River Teme. I had been working on a rather lengthy project elsewhere in the country, so I can’t say I was waiting to immediately leave London again just to go and inspect an old bridge miles away. But you see, I had also just come out of a relationship… And although I had since met someone interesting and attractive, I was in a bit of a dilemma, not sure if I should plunge immediately head and heart into a new relationship. Sensible people don’t do that sort of thing, but then again, who said I was sensible? Postponement however, came from an unlikely source… my boss. He called and said he would like very much for me to go and have a look at two bridges in Ludlow, one of which had been hit by a car. The name was meaningless to me and normally I would not have been in a hurry to check it out. Perhaps I should even have felt irritated to leave London so soon again; it gave me the feeling I was fleeing from my quandary. Oddly, though, I felt an unfathomable attraction to Ludlow even though I had never even heard of it. Now that I had however, the very name of the town seemed to create an enigmatic pull towards it that could hardly have anything to do with two bridges I had never seen.
It turned out to be more or less like the tourist brochures promised. Gastronomy in the old market town, too, was of a high standard. But then, yet another lonely meal, no matter how good, wasn’t my idea of Valhalla now either; for a glass of excellent wine and an exquisite meal is best shared in the company of an equally wonderful lady, whereas reading a magazine at the table can become, well, quite boring.
Oh, I nearly forgot about the bridge I was sent out to inspect. It is called the Ludford Bridge and it even played a role during the War of the Roses but I won’t bore you with that. The only reason I was there - no, not while the Roses were having a go at each other - was to see if it complied with modern structural requirements after a lengthy repair.
And so, when my job with the town’s engineering team was done, I was slowly walking back over the bridge from the south back towards town, when a car approached from behind. Now I assume that when the original medieval builders designed this narrow bridge, they obviously, only had horses and carts in mind, not modern vehicles almost wide enough to touch both sides – therefore, I momentarily took refuge on one of the angular parapets sticking out over the river and lingered there, enjoying the scenery; after all, what’s the hurry?
Peering out along the river my gaze came to rest on the old mill and the manor for a short while. I was standing there, quite alone, and feeling pensive when a strange feeling came over me; I think people call it a “déjà-vu”. Vaguely, and only for a fraction of a second - I saw the mill in all its majesty, just the way it used to be once upon a time. Odd; eerie even but then I paid no further attention to it and instead continued to my hotel to change into my gym clothes to go for a much-longed-for jog in the gently undulating Shropshire hills along forest trails and farmland. Let’s face it, we don’t get much of that in London now, do we?
That night, back in my hotel, after an excellent yet solitary dinner I watched the news followed by half a movie on TV before at last picking up the book I had brought along.
I may have some notoriously bad habits - or at least notorious with me, for lately no one else has had to endure them but myself. One of them is to read in bed far beyond midnight, assuring that my nights are shorter than would be advisable, making it without any doubt yet another challenge to get out of bed in time in the morning… and this particular night was no exception. It must therefore have been somewhere around half-past one before I put Ken Follet’s “World Without End” on the bedside table and at last switched the light off. And as usual, I put my earphones in and listened to my music on my iPod… I’m not sure if it’s just another bad habit but I usually fall asleep quite quickly to the sounds of Dire Straits or music from movies like The Lord of the Rings or whatever comes up randomly… most of it I never hear.
After a short while, however, just when I was about to drop off, I thought I heard a voice through the music. I concentrated but then it was gone again… very irritating. At first, I thought maybe there’s an electronic bug in that particular track but then I heard it again. Bloody hell, is there someone at the door? I pulled my earphones out and listened intently. But all remained silent. Just when I was about to put my earphones back where they belong - as in my ears - I heard a female voice saying,
‘Well, good morning young man.’
Good morning? That’s ridiculous, it’s nearly two in the morning for Pete’s sake… more to the point, who the hell is that and is she in my room? I know I locked the door, I’m quite particular about that sort of thing, even in what looked like a perfectly picturesque and safe little town. Just another habit I may have acquired during a tour in Afghanistan while serving in her Majesty’s Armed Forces. Suddenly wide awake again, in a flurry of activity I pushed myself up to a more or less sitting position and fumbled for the light switch. At last, I found the unfamiliar switch. What I saw in the subdued, yet adequate light sent icy shivers from my neck all the way down my spine. There she was, sitting on the end of my bed, crystal clear… well actually not as clear I would have preferred although attractive indeed, probably somewhere in her late twenties with long dark flowing hair, she also seemed to have a somewhat transparent quality, and when I say flowing hair, there seemed to be a problem there too as some strands appeared to be casually floating as if in a light breeze.
‘Well you took your time,’ she said with a faint smile.
‘My… my time’, I stuttered.
‘Yes, you made me wait for quite a while, young man.’
‘Wait? My… my God, you’re a, a…’
‘Ghost, I believe is the correct word?’ she finished my sentence with an amused expression on her face.
‘Yes, precisely… a ghost. I can see through you… well, sort of, which means I assume you’re… well, you’re actually dead’, I managed to observe.
‘Dead? Hmm, well that’s a bit rash now, isn’t it… I mean what’s dead? I prefer to think I’m a little bit dead but not quite,’ she said, inspecting her nails.
I slapped myself in my face to see if I was actually awake but alas, yes I was awake and on top of that she had the audacity to laugh. ‘What are you doing here in my room?’ I asked.
‘Doing here? And in your room? Actually, young man, you are in my room and you’re lying in my bed. Even though you look well, young and fresh and quite appealing, I always find it a bit rude when people just crawl into my bed uninvited. People might think I’m some sort of easy tavern wench, a floozy. Ah… hmm, well, come to think of it, I was, of course, the daughter of the tavern proprietor,’ she seemed to suddenly remember as she gazed into an unseen distance.
‘Well, you know what I mean, rumours can spread quickly.’
In spite of her somewhat translucent appearance her surprising wit made me laugh, although I quickly took on a more appropriate expression. After all one never knows if one might be offending a… well… a ghost. She frowned, and for a fleeting moment had a serious countenance. It did not last long though, as she now continued with a coquettish smile.
‘Well, of course, there was a rumour after the mill caught fire. Oh, just the tiniest of little rumours but it was quite vexing because I couldn’t defend myself anymore.’
‘Defend? Why not?’ I asked rather clumsily.
‘Well, because I was dead… or at least sort of. You should have heard them, they all had something to say. I think I saw that foreign boy run out, someone shouted. That’s how rumours start, you know. One woman even had the audacity to tell my husband that that’s what happens when you marry the daughter of a tavern keeper. Very cheeky really, considering that she was only the fish monger’s wife, a mere nobody.’
‘I see,’ I said without really understanding any of it. What I did understand however is that I was actually having a conversation with an apparition, a ghost, a manifestation and I wasn’t quite sure if I should scream for help or be fascinated. For the time being, I opted for the latter but the screaming was still an option I held in reserve. After all, these sorts of experiences can become quite disconcerting.
‘So, if I’m lying in your bed then… then, who are you, if I may ask? Or maybe more precisely, who were you?’
'I’m Ariane, the miller’s wife… well, I was,’ she said with a hint of regret, looking at the plank floor. Now, who knows where he is? I haven’t seen him in years… come to think of it, I haven’t seen anyone from my town in years.’
‘Right,’ I mumbled. And judging by her clothes - out of fashion by at least a century or more - I assumed she had been dead or at least sort of dead for quite a while. So I asked, ‘But if he’s not here - and therefore I would imagine properly dead - why aren’t you dead, dead as in dead and buried?’
‘Oh but I am buried, buried several feet down, just behind the church in the old cemetery actually… I even have a tombstone with my name on it.’
‘Oh good, I’m glad to hear that… but then… if I may be so bold, why aren’t you out there, like you know… in your grave, like a proper dead person?’
‘Heavens no,’ she said quickly. ‘Who wants to lie around in the earth with a slab of stone on top of them with a barely readable inscription? It’s chilly too,’ she added, ‘One might catch rheumatism.’
I thought it best to remain courteous being in conversation with a ghost but Ariane’s sense of humour made it difficult for me to suppress a smirk. Being curious by nature I tried to steer the conversation away from the trivial, hoping she would reveal more of her story, so I asked: ‘Hope you don’t mind me asking but, how did you… em…’
‘Die?’ my uninvited ghostly guest said finishing my question.
‘Yes indeed, ifff you don’t mind.’ Bloody hell, I thought, can she read my mind ?
Sitting on the edge of the bed, she turned a bit more towards me and pulling her knee up on the bed in a casual fashion as if it was perfectly normal for a ghost to get a bit familiar with a perfectly live hotel guest; one might be forgiven for forgetting that she was in fact… well, not really alive.
‘Hmm, where do I begin?’ Looking at the ceiling she continued, ‘It was in the summer of ninety-four, I think, or was it ninety-five? I can’t quite remember, it’s all so long ago,’ she added apologetically.
It could not possibly have been in the nineteen-nineties, I thought… unless she had been to a period-costume party and died of an overdose or was hit on the way out by a double-decker bus crossing the street. So it had to be earlier. ‘Eighteen ninety-five?’ I suggested helpfully.
‘She gave me a bemused but mocking look. Had she been a woman of our era, without any doubt she would have said something modern and irritating like, ‘Pe’leaze… give me a break.’ She did not however.
‘No, no silly,’ she continued, ‘the year was seventeen-ninety-four… or ninety-whatever… as I said, it’s been a while.’
Well, well, I thought, that is a while indeed. ‘You look rather good for your age,’ I quickly interjected. After all, a bit of flattery can go a long way, even with a ghost.
‘Thank you… actually, I’m only thirty-one if you must know.’ And with her slightly translucent hand she moved a bothersome strand of thick dark hair back over her shoulder so as to emphasise her good looks while simultaneously fluttering her eyelashes, and I wondered, could she be flirting with me? In fact, there was nothing particularly frightening about her at all, for admittedly for a ghost, she was rather, well… attractive. But then, one has to be on one’s guard with not properly dead people: there could be a danger lurking there, as she could suddenly change into a rotting skeleton for instance, if horror movies are to be believed.
‘Don’t be so silly,’ she instantly reprimanded me. ‘I can’t do that, I can only be myself. Now stop interrupting me if you want to hear my story.’
‘Yes, yes please, by all means,’ I agreed thinking, ‘bloody hell she really does read my mind’. But then, with some women that is not unusual.
‘Now, where was I? Did I mention I was, in fact, the tavern owner’s daughter?
‘Yes you did indeed,’ I answered, trying to sound patient.
‘Oh yes, well… when I turned seventeen I was expected to help out and bring drinks to the patrons and that sort of thing. Naturally… on occasion, men wanted me to sit on their knees, or when I walked by, hands wandered to my bottom or other intimate places where they didn’t belong, oh nothing that couldn’t be handled by a slap on the wrist really - groping was the norm. Little did I know that sometime later, one of those patrons - whose hands were not always in the right place either - was going to be my husband. I can still hear my father’s voice bellow from the other side of the room over the clamour, ‘’Mister Davidson! Get yer hands from me daughter’s skirts or I’ll come and give you some clout." People laughed and it was all good-natured of course and all the petting, well… I was used to it by then.’
I propped myself up comfortably with two pillows behind my back, for my uninvited guest turned out to be quite a forthright and cheerful chatterbox. By now totally fascinated, I hung on every word she said. After all, it is not very often that one gets a first-hand account from someone who actually lived in the eighteenth century.
I was quite amused by now, and yet I couldn’t help thinking, had Madame lived in our era, the sexual harassment complaints would have been raining on the constable’s desk. But she seemed to find it all perfectly normal and for once she did not comment on my twenty-first-century thoughts that in all likelihood were completely alien to her anyway; instead, she cheerfully continued her story.
‘By the time I was nineteen, Mister Davidson, an affluent miller, and my father had made a deal, and I was to be married off. Both were reasonably well-to-do men in town so it made sense I suppose… never mind that he was fifteen years older than me, oh and a widower.’ Looking around the room she added, ‘Well I shouldn’t complain I suppose, I mean we had a cart, four horses and a small but covered carriage. I had fine clothes and we had a fine house and all that, oh, and for quite a while he was a good lover too,’ she added unabashedly.
Ignoring her last remark I asked, ‘He was a widower?’
‘Oh yes, quite a drama back then… the poor thing had slipped on the wet rocks just under the mill and she fell into the river. Her frocks dragged her under and, well… she drowned. Contrarily to me, the lass couldn’t swim. They found her two miles downstream, but by then the life had been properly sucked out of her.’
Being on my guard by now I gave the door and windows an uneasy look; after all, where there is one ghost there may well be a second one lurking around.
Predictably, she answered my unspoken question. Glancing at the door she said, perhaps with some regret, ‘Nah, she’s not here anymore, long since gone. Sometime soon after she saw her man being married off again, she visited a few times and then we never saw her again. I think she approved and saw no point in hanging around.’ She said that as if it was the most normal thing in the world… and judging by Ariane casually sitting on my bed, apparently it still is…
There again, I thought, being rather more pragmatic, maybe the miller's first wife had been quite pissed off to see another woman lying in her bed probably having some fun of the carnal variety with her ex. I did my best to blanket that thought, fearing she would detect it as well, but it was already too late, as she just slowly shook her head giving me one of those looks only a woman can give you no matter what century they’re from.
The problem with “sort of dead’s” is that they seem to have all the time in the world. It’s not like she had a bus to catch in the morning to get to work… I mean she probably hadn’t done a decent day’s work in centuries. However, by now totally enthralled by my one-to-one with a ghost, I tried to speed up her account.
‘So tell me, Ariane,’ we were on first-name basis now… ‘What did happen at the mill?’
‘Ah yes… the mill. Well hmm, you see, back then there was trouble in France, some sort of upheaval.’ With a brief frown, she continued, ‘I think they called it a revolution.’
Oh shit here we go again, I thought, another diversion… maybe she finds it difficult to talk about her death.
‘No, not really,’ she replied un-asked for with an annoying smirk. ‘I’m used to my fate and like you thought… yes, I do have all the time in the world. I mean where would I be going to?’
Getting quite used to her quirkiness I rolled my eyes at the ceiling. She ignored my gesture and continued her narrative.
‘Out there in Paris, they were chopping off heads faster than the miller could get up them stairs and show me why he married me. Many people fled. Those who could afford it crossed the channel. A few of those families settled in our town… foreigners you know. They spoke funny but with time they learned English… or at least something that sounded like it.’ She looked at me with those wide-open brown eyes, ‘foreigners, you know… what do you expect?’
Bemused, I smiled, thinking not much has changed then, eh?
‘Now Mister Davidson however,’ she continued, ‘was a kind-hearted sort of a man and he saw some future in a young man of about seventeen, maybe eighteen or thereabouts and he gave him a job as an errand boy at the mill.’
Up until then, I had been mystified as to what all of this could possibly have to do with her death, but then I began to sense that this was probably the key to her story.
‘Now he was a very becoming young man, French, you know… educated, and always very respectful to me, doffing his hat and all that. Although - and he wasn’t the only one - when he struck up a polite conversation with me his gaze seemed to linger rather longer on my breasts than on my eyes.’
Indeed, I could barely miss where he was coming from, for not only were her brown eyes and her face surrounded by a mane of lush dark hair very eye-catching; other attributes could certainly catch a man’s attention too… today just as much as it would have done back in seventeen-ninety-five. In fact, by now I was finding it rather difficult to remind myself that I was actually having a cosy chat with… well, a dead person, a ghost. So far nothing unsettling about it at all.
‘I see,’ I said trying to avert my approving gaze away from her not so subtle cleavage. I was rewarded with one of those knowing and mocking expressions that reminded me of someone.
She continued, ignoring my gaze. ‘I was in the habit of cleaning and putting things in order after the mill closed for the night. My husband was not the best at keeping things tidy, so at times he would send the boy up as well to do some sweeping or other chores.’ It’s not that I couldn’t afford a maid, I had two maids, it’s just that I liked to do a bit of work.
Sitting on the bed she pulled up her left leg a bit further and, perfectly at ease, placed her left hand on her now exposed knee, with her right hand resting on her hip, exposing rather a lot of leg, or at least a lot for a woman of the late seventeen-hundreds - quite a pose.
‘Well, you know how it is,’ she went on, ‘proximity can breed familiarity, so while I rummaged on the second floor of the mill, the young man came up the wooden stairs and asked if there was anything more to do.’
Again she frowned briefly. ‘Or I think that’s how it was… Anyway, at some stage he said, “I’ll be off then,” but he lingered on a bit, mustering up his courage. Someone must have told him that once upon a time I had been a tavern wench. At last, he said, “You’re very beautiful Madame…. um… maybe I could have a kiss before I take my leave?” Now, I’m not insensitive to a bit of flattery and neither was I insensitive to his charms and… well… so he stole a kiss from me. Then he said, “I dream about you, you, know and I would very much like to dream a bit more, Madame.”
“I see,” I said, “Clearly your dreams are not very honourable for a young man your age,” I replied just to tease him a bit.’
‘Oh dear,’ I said. ‘So I take it he wanted to see a bit more than what was already on display, right?’
‘Indeed he did. Now In France, that may well have been perfectly acceptable but I’m English for heaven’s sake. Being a respectable wife I should have slapped him of course, but as I said, I was not entirely indifferent to his charms and I may have exposed just a tad more than was becoming of a married woman. Whatever my reasons were, in the enjoyment of what the young man saw his foot accidentally caught the heavy wooden broom and it went tumbling down the stairs and oh, heavens, I had left the oil lamp on the fourth rung where I thought it was safe, but to my horror it too tumbled down the steps, the oil spilling, pouring along the staircase and soaking a supply of cotton and linen… It all went up in flames and much faster than I had ever thought possible. We looked on aghast and I cried out “Get water, you silly boy!” Looking down at the flames he hesitated for a moment and then he threw himself down the steep stairs. I watched in awe as I saw him jump from the last steps straight into the flames swearing in French and then he was gone. When I heard him open the door however, a gush of air came in fanning the flames to new heights. “Ah non, merde alors,” I heard him shout as he threw the door closed again.’
‘Why didn’t you follow?’ I asked. For a brief moment, she looked into the distance.
‘I don’t really know… I was scared, well, of course, scared my skirts would catch fire and feeling guilty and rather foolish, I took all the wrong decisions. Also,’ and she hesitated, ‘after years of being the miller’s wife, I expected people to serve me… I really thought he could extinguish the fire single-handedly – which of course he couldn’t. But then I heard him cough as he reappeared among the flames. “You have to come now,” he shouted choking on the smoke. “Just jump… I’ll catch you… hurry please! I’m burning.”
‘But you didn’t jump did you,’ I said.
‘No, but I tried. I felt the heat as I went down a few steps but soon the flames were licking at my legs, and when the hem of my skirt began to smoulder too, I panicked. I didn’t dare to go down any further and made the terrible mistake of fleeing back up onto the loft. There were two small windows in the slanted roof but they were well above my height. No matter what I tried, I could not reach either of them and well, then the loft filled with smoke and I couldn’t see anything anymore, I was terrified. I heard him call out my name one last time and then it all went silent.
‘A very terrifying experience for you indeed,’ I said, sympathetic to her plight. ‘How awful to be burned… alive.’
‘No, no, I wasn't burned, only the fringe of my skirt and the hairs on my legs were slightly singed.’ And she lifted the hem of her otherwise unblemished skirt to show a scorch mark. ‘It’s the smoke that got me, the smoke filled my lungs and I couldn’t breathe anymore and I passed out. I remember then, suddenly I was looking down at myself. I didn’t understand why I didn’t move, yet… I was free from my body, very strange. I hurried down and out among all those people. I saw a whole chain of people and many familiar faces among them, all carrying pails of water from the river. I shouted at them, “Hurry, I’m still up there, I’m alright, help me…” but no one heard me, they didn’t even see me. Already then I began to wonder how I managed to get down with most of the stairs missing and how I seemed to run straight through people who bumped into me.'
Ariane looked at her nails again, scratching the cuticles on her middle finger with her thumb. ‘Well, after a while, when they finally managed to bring my body down, I was looking down at myself, just like the people fussing over me. All those brave people saved most of the mill… but it came too late for me.
Someone said, “She’s not breathing, Mister Davidson.” And I understood, I was not alright at all, I was, in fact dead or in any case not alive. Then I heard my distressed husband cry out, “Where were the maids? Were they not helping her? And the boy… where was he? Maybe he could have saved her?”
Someone said, “I think I saw him carrying water.” But no one was really sure. The fish monger’s wife said accusingly, “He was always looking at her unashamedly; maybe she led him on… that’s what happens when you marry the daughter of a tavern keeper.”
“How dare you! Anyway, what nonsense,” my husband said, “she could almost have been his mother.”
Well, don’t let that fool you, I thought, a married woman having a dalliance with a younger man is quite normal nowadays.
Fortunately, Ariane was now too absorbed in her own story to pay attention to my more open-minded modern thoughts and continued talking.
“She must have dropped a lamp,” Mister Barneby, the lawyer suggested. “Clumsy.” A nasty voice said.
“I did not,” I shouted… but again, no one heard me.
‘Later people thought that my death had made the miller act quite strange. He never remarried and they said he talked to himself, which was true, although he did not really talk to himself at all, he talked to me. I was feeling rather guilty that my death had deprived him of a caring wife, so I never really left him and we talked just like you and I are talking now.’ She gave me a coy smile.
‘For a long time, I did not tell him that it was in actual fact the boy who had caused the lamp to tumble and deprived my husband of his joy. I had kept silent for fear that the town’s people might do the boy serious harm. When I finally did tell him not so long before his death, he just said, “Yes that makes sense. When you worked in your father’s tavern not once did I see you drop a pitcher, not even while men slapped your bottom.”
I could not quite bring myself, however, to admit that I too was to blame.
Then one early morning, at the age of seventy-and-two if I recall well, his life quietly slipped away. It was my duty as a wife to guide him to the threshold. I saw the light, but I could not see what lay beyond. I would have liked to have gone with my companion hand in hand but something prevented me from crossing over. There was still something I had to wait for… something I had to confront, and well, so I stayed behind.’
I’ve always been a sentimental guy, I felt my eyes becoming moist as I listened to her ordeal.
‘Don’t be sad for me James,’ she said. Predictably, even my name was no mystery to her.
‘It’s all a very long time ago and really, I was the one to blame; I should never have led the boy on. He was young and easily led into temptation and I, as a married woman, should have known better. I was neat and tidy but it could just as well have been me who accidentally kicked over a burning oil lamp. It was my mistake in the first place, to leave it sitting where I did, and my silence assured I remained where I am,’ she added.
Only later would I understand what those puzzling words meant.
‘And my beloved mill, half of it in ruins… Dearie me! It took quite a while before they got it up and running again.’
I was totally gripped by her story, and again, I found it difficult to think that this beautiful woman, trapped in self-blame was no more today and was just a ghost from a world that no longer existed.
‘Well, there you are. You asked how I died, and now you know.’
Ariane looked me in the eyes with what could almost have passed for a naughty smile… almost. As she leaned over I noticed the singed hem of her skirt again. Evidently, she was still dressed in the clothes she'd been wearing on the day she died. A long crimson skirt with a yellow apron over it for work and a white blouse with long puffy sleeves which left her slender wrists exposed. Over it she wore a green velvet bodice laced from just below her waist up to the lower edge of her breasts, creating a deep cleavage exposing a generous amount of flesh which her blouse made little attempt to hide.
As she came closer and leaned towards me I couldn’t escape the lush sight she offered. I don’t know if she was oblivious to it or, as I suspect, she quite enjoyed being a bit of a tease. I did find it a bit disconcerting, however, that I could also discern straight through Madame’s décolleté the television sitting on the antique writing table placed against the wall on the other side of the room - only very vaguely, but I was aware of it nevertheless. She was now close enough to touch me when she lifted her hand to caress my face. Instinctively I backed off but the wall I leaned against was my barrier. She smiled; it was a gentle but knowing smile.
‘Don’t worry luv,’ she said, ‘it won’t kill you.’
And with that, she leaned in very close and gave me a long lingering kiss on my lips.
‘Thank you,’ she said mysteriously as at last she slowly backed away. Now I may never know how much of my warmth she could actually feel but a bit of human touch seemed to made her happy. As for me, a kiss that should have made me gasp for air, regrettably, I didn’t feel like anything at all. Nothing. No smell, no warmth, nor bone-chilling cold for that matter. I was a bit disappointed, to say the least, but if the truth be told I was also somewhat relieved; clearly, there was going to be no hanky-panky with a ghost… after all, one never knows what kind of trouble that sort of behaviour may trigger.
Ariane leaned back, interlaced her fingers and placed her hands in her lap. She rewarded me with a bemused smile.
‘I know,’ she said, ‘I’m not quite flesh-and-bone the way I used to be but I do enjoy the company you know.’
And with some regret, she added, ‘You would be my lover while I reside here and perhaps beyond, but well... there are some impediments I have yet to find the answers for; maybe sometime.’
Indeed, I thought, you have been dead for quite some time, and I? Well, I’m alive and I’d rather keep it that way.
‘Maybe that is a bridge that had better not be crossed,' I suggested philosophically.
She gave me a long warm but pensive look. ‘I know,’ she said at last. ‘I can appear to you and enjoy your company but apparently, there seem to be some boundaries preventing us from merging.
I was nearly disappointed but then death might be a step too far to join her.
Unsurprisingly, she read that thought too.
‘Dead, you might walk straight through my domain without even seeing me… although, don’t take it for granted luv… you too you have your secrets. For now, it is alive I need you, not dead,’ Ariane said enigmatically.
She sighed and continued. ‘I reside in a labyrinth of time, my would-be-lover… I have seen the light but not yet what lies beyond it. Most people can’t see me and those that do, usher me on, they don’t want to talk to me, or even listen, it makes them feel uncomfortable. The owner of the hotel can’t see me either but he knows I’m here. He just claps his hands as if I’m some bothersome cat in his way, very rude really, considering he is in my home. Others just scream stupidly when they do see me; I find that disturbing, not to mention ear-splitting. Dogs seem to stare at me and then whimper in a corner. But you, you are different, you listened, you sat with me, you let me tell my story, I liked that very much. It gave me great comfort… but then, of course, I knew you would.’
I wasn’t sure what she meant by that when I replied, ‘I’m very happy you came to my… well your room actually. I’m aware you are a… a ghost but I like you very much. And yes, I would love to date you… or at least, I would have liked to.’
‘Date?’ she asked, uncertain what that meant.
‘Yes well, court, if you prefer.’
Her smile lit up her beautiful face, framed by her auburn hair.
‘Thank you. Will you be coming back one day?’ Ariane asked hopefully. ‘Life… well, death... is quite boring you know, and you are such good company, and of course, you’re also charming,’ she added with that smile.
A wiser man might have heeded the warnings of the perils of having a date with a ghost, but by now, I was too spellbound by her infatuating presence, so without hesitation, I replied, ‘Yes, I will definitely come back and visit you Ariane, you are a fascinating woman and I will specifically ask for your room on Booking-dot-com.'
‘Booking what?’ She looked puzzled again.
I shook my head. ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s a thing of my era. I’ll visit you sometime very soon,’ I promised.
‘Yes, please do.’
With a smile she touched my hand and then she started to move her leg off the bed as if to be on her way. She turned her gaze towards the other side of the room, watching the rain-streaked small pieces of glass held together with strips of lead that made up the window. For a moment with her mouth half-open, she seemed startled, as if something struck her. I don’t know if it was because she had seen something that I could not, or if she had a sudden insight over something I had yet to grasp. Whatever it was, clearly having a second thought, she pulled her left leg back onto the bed pulling her skirt up far enough this time to expose considerably more of her white legs than I would have expected. Ariane turned to face me directly biting her lip. For a brief moment, she said nothing, her head slightly tilted while her gaze bore deep into my eyes. And then she spoke again.
‘I would very much like to stay here and wait for your return but it may not be wise. The path for me is open now and therefore I must listen to the voice of reason and you, my love… you are the key.’
‘I am?’ I asked, somewhat confused.
‘Yes, it is no coincidence that I chose to visit you… you don’t realise it yet luv, but you will lead me out of my labyrinth. However, before I can take your hand I have to tell you something… something that concerns us both, and all you have to do is listen and then you will be my guide towards the light as I knew you would.'
‘Yes, believe me and you will understand why. So listen. Oh dear, how will I say this? Concerning the young man… well… you see...’ She paused searching for the right words and perhaps gathering up her courage. ‘Sometimes there are hidden reasons behind the things we do… there was a purpose I never dared reveal. You see, I’m thirty-one years old… quite old really for…’
I looked into her eyes and suddenly the truth dawned on me. For once being faster than Ariane, a bit rudely I interrupted her.
‘Oh my God…’ I said, my voice barely audible. ‘Now I see it… your husband never gave you children, nor to his first wife, that’s it… right?’
She gazed into her lap and then raised her eyes with her face slightly tilted again.
‘Yes, that is it… and it wasn’t for trying… are you reading my thoughts now? You are not supposed to do that, it’s not becoming of a gentleman.’
She made me smile.
‘Anyhow, a son or even a daughter would have made my husband very happy, and well, the boy was young, eager and fertile. It did not happen of course but there was the intent.’
I couldn’t help but feel deep warmth towards her as I realised she was a woman driven by the longing for a child, and to achieve that she took a young man for her lover. I had a suspicion though, that the affection for her young lover may have been a bit more passionate than she led on. I even suspected that it was the main reason why she became trapped in time. Why of all people she chose me to set her free was a complete mystery to me? Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the truth when she revealed it.
‘I really have a bit more to tell you luv,’ she continued, ‘and it’s worse than you think…’
I just nodded, ready for anything.
‘I have maybe not have been entirely truthful with you,’ she continued. ‘I had to be sure, but I now know the time has come to tell you.’
Well, well, I thought, what more could she possibly have to get off her chest? ‘By all means, please go on, time is of no importance anymore.’
Ariane gave me a coquettish glance.
‘Well, a bit more really happened that day in the attic of the mill, luv…’
I thought back to what she had said, and inexplicably, for a fleeting moment I caught a vision of the whole scene as if I were there, but then it was gone.
‘You saw it, didn’t you? You cannot hide your deepest insights from me.’
And this time Ariane betrayed an expression of playful amusement.
Then she continued, ‘Yes I did lay with you. Before you found it necessary to kick down the broom and set the place ablaze - oh completely accidentally - you had your wish and you did make passionate love to me.’
Now being from the twentieth century, and as I may have mentioned before, rather liberal in my thinking, a married woman having a little fling on the side was not all that shocking a revelation to me and I nearly said, Well, good for you, but I thought better of it and instead said, ‘Oh well Ariane, that doesn’t really surprise me all that much and it’s all so long ago and so not really such a big…. What..? Hold on a moment here! What did you say?’ I suddenly blurted out. ‘Did you say we had…. well, I mean, “we” made love? That’s ridiculous… and that was over two centuries ago…’ I had to look away from her to digest what she had just nonchalantly disclosed. ‘That’s not possible,’ I mumbled staring into the void.
‘Isn’t it luv? Well, I’m sitting here with you... and I’ve been sort of dead for a long time.’
I looked at her in shock. Could she be right..? Could I have been here before? During the late seventeen hundreds..? and with Ariane?
I have always scoffed at the notion of reincarnation and in fact, I don’t even like the word, but then nor did I believe in ghosts and yet I was having a rather intimate conversation with… an apparition from a time long since gone. I thought back to that funny feeling, like a déjà vu I had experienced that afternoon on the old bridge when I walked back towards the manor and all at once, doubt – or should I say belief – overwhelmed me: My god, could it be possible, had I really lived before and could we really have been lovers? Then how many times had I died? Had I in an earlier time stupidly died during a cavalry charge on the slopes of Waterloo or heroically during the battle of Ypres, or even more disturbing, did I ride the tanks among the German ranks while the Blitzkrieg raged? Whatever the past may have been, it would also mean I had probably known many women and yet, it was Ariane who was sitting close to me on the bed.
Questions triggered more questions like dominoes falling in all directions, which is precisely why suddenly the blood drained from my face and that icy feeling ran down my back again... Had Ariane come back to stake her claim? Was she finally going to have her prize? If so, what future exactly would that entail for me?
Was she going to take me with her? Was it possible? Did she have that kind of power over me? A more sobering thought then entered my mind: Would I willingly walk the muddled maze where she dwelled, and vanish hand-in-hand into the beyond with Ariane? To what end? To be her lover for perpetuity? Would I dare? Enthralled as I was, I feared I might well indeed, and I tried to draw myself back to reality.
While all this whirled through my head Ariane kept quiet, observing me with her deep brown eyes and a bemused little smile playing around the corners of her perfect mouth. With her leg pulled up onto the bed, her left hand now leaning on the sheets and the other hand holding on to her bare ankle, her posture was as casual as any modern woman’s.
‘I think you would,’ she suddenly said. ‘But as much as I desire it, you mustn’t… your time has not come yet.
A troubling thought then suddenly overwhelmed me… ‘Good God,’ I mumbled. ‘If I have been here before and we were lovers, then… then that would mean that I was responsible for your death… how awful. Oh my God, I am so terribly sorry for the pain I must have caused you.’
Her dreamy eyes and the warm expression on her face, however, betrayed no scorn at all.
‘No my love, we were both responsible… I was just as guilty, you may have thought you were a great seducer but really, it was I who seduced you. Not only did I deprive my husband of a loving wife but I left you with a terrible burden of guilt and loss until the end of your days and for that, I ask your forgiveness.’
I was stunned and I felt a nearly irresistible urge to take her into my arms, only more than likely, I would only have grasped fresh air considering I had not even felt her kisses. ‘My poor Ariane,’ I said, ‘whatever may have happened to me, it pales in comparison to your fate.
‘Well, that may be a matter of opinion,’ she answered ominously.
I was about to ask what lot had befallen me when with a gesture of her hand Ariane made clear she was not going to clarify.
‘What I yearned for was your return and enjoy your company,’ Ariane went on, ‘my heart filled with joy when I saw you had answered the call and at last, I would hear your voice. You may have changed but I knew you were my lover. When I appeared to you, you were not afraid of me, you allowed me to sit with you and let me tell my story; you listened, patiently to the truth, because you and I once were one. No one but you would have heard me out and now my love, no one but you can set me free. Only you can guide me back to the light.’
She smiled again and then slowly began to move off the bed. When she was standing in front of me she bent down and, gently taking my face in both her hands, gave me another long lingering kiss on my lips that I was now convinced only she could feel, but I was certain it would have been very warming.
I felt like saying something sentimental like, “Don’t go… but if you must… I will miss you,” and again she answered before I had even spoken.
‘I will miss you too, but as you said before, I have been dead for quite some time now… at least sort of... while you, well, you are very much alive… and we both prefer to keep it that way… and James, when you finally return to London tomorrow you have a girl waiting for you, remember?’
‘I do?’ My god, does she know everything?
Ariane laughed. ‘Well, I have followed you long enough, luv. I am referring to the girl you have recently known. You may have travelled far but she is true. Go to her, she is in love with you and although tonight you are confused, you will find your true destiny with her. She is as beautiful as you believe me to be and so much more… we do not always have choices. Where I must go you cannot. So she’s the one.’
Really? My true destiny? I wondered. I didn’t even know if such a thing existed. To say I was confused would be putting it mildly. Oh, and here is another thought: Just imagine Miss "She Who is The One” walking into the room tonight and finding Ariane casually sitting on my bed. “Oh hi… um, this is not what it seems… Meet Ariane, she’s a ghost and not just any random ghost… apparently, we were lovers, but don’t worry about it, that was a while back… Well, more like two hundred years ago actually.”
That might be anything from slightly frightening to bewildering to downright shocking for someone who is supposedly going to be “The one”. And so, right there and then, I decided that it would be best for all concerned never to mention the Ghost I Had Loved in a Previous Life and to remain silent forever.
Ariane was right, we don’t always have choices and there was only one path to walk and that was the path into the future.
Alas, none of this prevented a sudden feeling of “being left behind" from coming over me as I realised that her departure was in all likelihood going to be final and I would never see Ariane again.
Ariane’s faint smile could not hide the sadness deep in her heart when she said, ‘I must now join the ranks of the departed, luv, but our memories will never fade, not even after everything has vanished.’
‘You will always be in my heart,’ I replied. Then another question suddenly came back to me, a question I was now certain only she had the answer to. ‘Ariane, before you leave… do you know what happened to me after you, um… died?’
She observed me for a short moment as if she was deliberating how to answer, and for once, her deep dark brown eyes betrayed a little emotion.
‘Yes, my poor Victor Alexandre de Patoir, for that was your real name then… you were heartbroken. A year later you left town and it was not always easy to follow you. I heard that you had joined Wellington’s Army, and eventually, in eighteen-hundred-and-fifteen you returned to France… fatefully to die during the assault on Hougoumont, on the slopes of Waterloo. They found my name tattooed on your left arm… your love never faded.’ She sighed, ‘I had to wait two centuries for you to return… but you finally came.’
‘Good god…’ is all I could murmur.
With that she walked in perfect silence towards the door, not a floorboard creaked or cracked.
In the middle of the room she halted, and, stretching out her hand, palm up she beckoned, ‘Come, walk with me.’
Mesmerised, I slid off the bed asking myself, What am I doing? ‘What? In my t-shirt and gym shorts?' Again she just looked at me; her head with that slight tilt and that seductive magnetising expression on her face. Nearly imperceptibly she raised her shoulders. ‘It’s not relevant… trust me.’
As I walked over, contrarily to Ariane, the plank floor did creak under my feet. She then took my hand and we walked a few steps bringing us closer to the door. She stood and turned to me. Her face could touch mine quite easily for she was, in fact, a bit taller than I might have expected for a woman of her time. Wrapping her arms around me, she pulled me close against her body. It took me a few seconds to realise that unexpectedly she was whole; the ghostly transparency appeared to be gone. I was overwhelmed. I could now also feel the warmth of her body and smell her unperfumed skin, the pure scent of a woman. With her hair brushing my face she was close enough for me to breathe in the heat of her breath when she opened her mouth and proceeded to kiss me with a shameless passion.
Simultaneously, like a dam bursting, images began to inundate my brain, rushing me back to a bygone time. Scenes of the long road out of France, at war with itself, then of Ludlow, the gently flowing river, images of the mill and Ariane in all her glory, our half-naked bodies fused in love and promiscuous pleasures and more than once apparently. At times she wore the colourful clothes of a relatively wealthy woman… and sometimes none at all. As pleasant as this all seemed another pressing question crept into my brain from who knows where: Had I willingly walked in Ariane’s footsteps to the point of no return? Had I crossed over into the beyond… in my t-shirt and shorts for Pete’s sake? Was I therefore destined to be Ariane’s lover for all time?
But then, as she finally withdrew and let me breathe she broke the spell.
‘What have you done?’ I asked, incredulous.
‘I made sure you will never forget me as I will never forget you. I will cherish you forever,’ she answered.
'And you succeeded, I murmured. 'Good God, 'who could forget you? So we really did have a past… then we must treasure it and it must never be forgotten.’
‘And it won’t,’ she said. ‘Remember the sound of my voice but do not be sad luv, for that is undeniably what it is now… the past. Now follow the path to your future. Remember, she is beautiful in every way… and she is alive. As for me, I don’t know what awaits me but I know I can now at last join the line of my people and take my place amongst them.’
As Ariane slowly let go of my hand a slight translucency returned to her features already beginning to fade and when she silently moved on I asked, ‘Will you appear again one day?’
‘I don’t know if I can, luv… but I will watch over you, I promise.’
It was the last time I saw that loving smile.
Ariane then turned and continued on her way. I half expected her to open the door and walk out but I should have known better of course. She walked straight through it, and then the miller’s wife was gone.
In all probability there is no mill and no old manor near the river in Ludlow. Ariane’s ghost however, is free to roam wherever she wants now… that is all that matters.