My contribution to Halloween, a tad late.
“Sindy, your turn with the bins.”
“Ok,” Sindy huffs and starts gathering the black bags. They clink with empty bottles and stink of stale beer and fag buts. She grunts as she swings the sticky bags over her shoulder to carry them. She had imagined seeing the world when she left Australia but it hadn’t been long before that had turned into spending raining mornings and drizzly nights going to and from the pub to work.
Mr Jones says that she is very lucky working there, that she is working in a place full of history. He lists a bunch of famous dead men including Charles Dickens who drank there and the carving had been done by the King’s own carpenter back in the day. All Sindy can think is that Ye Olde Cock Tavern is too narrow and the uppity clientele too demanding. Still, not long to clock off now, the drinkers have gone and it is only the clean up to go.
Outside the bins stink even more. They have a rotting sweet smell that wafts up in horrible waves. Dave says that it’s not the bins but the smell of the graves at Saint Bride’s church. He’s a nasty one that Dave, says that the pub used to be the other side of the street and when they moved it they built some of it on the old graveyard. He thinks it’s funny to moan and sneaks up on her when her back is turned. Sindy reckons she like him. As she swings the bin bags into the big bin, she feels someone else watching her.
“Very funny Dave,” she says but nobody replies. “Dave?”, she turns around. There is a face, friendly but ugly. The face has a large bulbous forehead, a top lip that juts out too far and a bottom lip and chin that seem to go nowhere. The eyes bulge in the head, strange-looking but kind. Then Sindy looks below the head. There is nothing there. The head is floating, benevolent but wrong, hovering above the bins. Sindy screams.
Mr Jones comes out.
“What is it Sindy?”
“Look,” she says and points to the empty space above the bins. She is gulping and breathing, he eyes are stretched wide and she doesn’t take them off the space where the head was. “There was no body.”
“There still is nobody.”
“No. No, body.”
“Exactly, nobody. So what was the scream for. We’ve got to pack up and get gone.”
“No! A head but no body.” Sindy’s strength fails her and she slumps onto Mr Jones’ shoulders. He manoeuvres her inside and helps her up the stairs, calling to Dave to give her a brandy. He slumps her in a booth and she starts to maintain her breathing.
Dave clatters up the stairs with a double brandy but promptly drops it when Sindy screams again. The pierce of the smash mixes with the pierce of the scream and everything feels extra quiet afterwards.
“What is it now?” Mr Jones says.
“It was him. That was the head,” Sindy says, pointing at a faded print framed above the booth. The print shows a face, friendly but ugly. The face has a large bulbous forehead, a top lip that juts out too far and a bottom lip and chin that seem to go nowhere. The eyes bulge in the head, strange-looking but kind.
“That’s Oliver Goldsmith. You can’t have seen him.”
“He’s been dead two-hundred-odd years. He used to drink with Samuel Johnson in the 1700s.”
“I saw him. I definitely saw him. His face anyway.”
“He is buried in St Bride’s,” Dave says. “Probably not far from the bins.”
“It can’t be him, why would Goldsmith be a bodyless ghost?”
The wind was blowing hard as the man was dying.
“Doctor Goldsmith, you should not be this sick after the kind of fever you have had. Is your mind at ease.”
“No,” replied the doctor in his obviously Irish accent, “it is not.” It is clear to the physician that he will not hear much more from Oliver Goldsmith, so he leaves the man to himself.
Goldsmith hurrumphs in his bed and looks around. He’s assembled some nice things, it’s taken him a long time but finally after years of back breaking toil he has some nice stuff. He even has a name, one better then Doctor Minimus. He may never be out of Sam’s shadow but he can look him in the eye more than ever and know that he has succeeded in packing the crowds into the theatre and making them laugh to the beams shake. Nobody believed he could, not even the dratted theatre people but he’d shown them. He’d shown the world that he could say something. True, he’d still not been paid the amount of praise he’d hoped and he still wondered whether anyone would let him on the stagecoach to immortal fame but it was something. If he concentrated hard enough on his successes, he wouldn’t have to see the shadows. He wouldn’t have to notice the bailiffs stirring from their dark lairs and begin to lick their chops.
He was quite pleased when he caught a fever, it meant he didn’t have to think about the next play. All the pain as someone read it and decided it wasn’t funny enough and the irritation as he had to argue for everything he put in. It had been nice to feel in charge of his life again, to take his prescriptions in his own hands and get better his way, he was qualified after all, or at least that’s what he’d pretended to everyone. He’d spent a lot of time pretending, anything to leave off thinking about the future.
Whenever Goldsmith had looked at the future it had seemed empty. As a child it looked like a life of work, as a young man a life of poverty and as a middle-aged man a life of celebrity. He’d probably been happiest in Europe, playing the flute and wandering around, winning debates for money and generally bumming around. He’d written about the thread that stretched across Europe to his brother but it was a thread that had never pulled. If only he could have been his brother, content in a little poor parish to be a good man and a generous father. All he had was a group of friends who thought he was their private joke. He smiled to himself.
“At least this will be the last laugh,” he said as he looked at his Retribution poem. But who was he in it? What part had he in the grand feast of friendship? He was a gooseberry fool. He coughed, spluttered and died quietly to himself and wondered if he was ever going to be anything else and if he had any way of finding out.
(N.B There is an urban legend of Goldsmith's disembodied head being seen out the back of The Cock in Fleet Street. Seems a bit ironic that a man known for writing against the existence of the Cock Lane ghost should become the ghost of the Cock Tavern)