It’s been a hot day, busy and chaotic, but it’s late now, almost finishing time, and the fierce light of the afternoon is settling around the old hospital into something easier and more golden. There’s only me and Jane in the office, the long, empty room settling and ticking in tiny sounds of absence, like a car finally parked up and cooling. I’m sitting opposite Jane at the coordinator’s desk. Jane’s been pretty quiet the last hour, focused on working through a printed sheet of stats, the summation of the week’s activity. It’s a painstaking task and she sighs a lot. I’ve been fielding all the calls from patients and staff to give her the space, but they’ve eased off now and there’s nothing much else to be done.
Suddenly one of the connecting doors on the far side slams shut. At the same time, an overhead light flickers and goes off.
Jane looks up.
‘Ghosts,’ I say. ‘This used to be a surgical ward. It’s probably infested.’
She leans back in her chair and stretches. When she sits forward again she fixes me with a long look.
‘You’ll probably think I’m mad if I tell you this,’ she says. ‘But the place I live is haunted.’
‘It used to be an asylum. Then it was just a big, fancy house. Then it was flats. So it’s no wonder there’s stuff going on.’
‘What sort of ghosts?’
‘It depends,’ she says. ‘Mostly it’s odd bangings and things, whispering. Stuff gets thrown around. The other night when Steve came over, I went to bed and I saw his shadow on the door. So I told him to stop mucking about. Nothing happened, the shadow just stayed there. Suit yourself, I said. Then the shadow went away, and I heard Steve coming up the stairs. Who were you talking to? he said. So I realised it wasn’t him.’
‘Were you scared?’
‘Not really. I’ve got used to them now. I think they like the company. They get a bit restless when there’s been some change in things, like the lockdown. But otherwise they keep themselves to themselves. They’re basically just lonely, I suppose.’
‘It’s weird about ghosts,’ I say. ‘I mean – logically I don’t believe in them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t spook myself out a lot.’
She nods, but in a non-committal way, acknowledging the words but not the feeling.
‘When you think of all the places people die,’ I say. ‘Not just hospital, but everywhere. All over the place. Like where we live. It’s pretty old, used to be owned by a farmer. When we moved in, the old woman next door took great delight in telling us he choked to death on a chicken bone, in the front room. She rushed in to save him, but it was too late. So I thought – Oh, great! We’ve moved into a haunted house. But nothing. Not a cough. And none of the dogs or cats we’ve had have hissed or done anything strange. And they’re supposed to be sensitive, aren’t they?’
‘Depends on the dogs.’
‘And then you’ve got to think – if everyone who dies makes a ghost, wouldn’t we be completely snowed?’
‘Maybe we are. Maybe only some of them can make themselves known. And only some of us can see them.’
She smooths out the spreadsheet in front of her and stares at it.
‘Who knows?’ she says, planting her elbows on the desk, cradling her chin in the palms of her hands and pressing her fingers into her eyes so vigorously her glasses ride up onto her forehead. ‘I’ve never been good with numbers.’