A Flash of Inspiration
by Faye Robertson
I always hear his voice
in the archaeology section. I don't know why; he was hardly the academic
sort in life and had no interest whatsoever in the subject. Perhaps
he's taken it up as a hobby up there - or maybe he's just being nice
to me and acknowledging my interests for once. The latter seems unlikely,
I think. I thread my way through the deserted aisles of books - past
science, art, travel - to the far corner of the library. No one is
ever here at this time of night. I pull down a tome on the dig at
Wharram Percy, blow dust off the cover, and open the first page.
he says. As usual, the light bulb above me flickers at his voice.
"I said I would,"
I retort, studying the list of illustrations. "How have you been?"
"Dead," he says.
ĎIím well, thank you for
asking." I ignore his sarcasm. He's always like this for the
first few minutes. I turn to a map of the deserted medieval village.
It's not a very good one; they've missed out the site of the old manor
"What have you been
up to?" His voice, gentler now, rings with the deep resonance
that I loved so much in life. It still has the ability to make the
hairs rise on the back of my neck. Mind you, that frisson could be
due to the fact that Oscar died a year ago, and is speaking to me
through a light bulb.
"I've been quite busy."
I can't concentrate on the map and close the book, sliding it back
on the shelf between the others. I run my hand along the row like
a blind woman, feeling the silky covers and the embossed lettering
under my fingertips. I derive the same pleasure from books that other
women do from material (a fact that I've never told Oscar, as it would
just bring a snort of derision). "Actually, I've got something
I want to discuss with you."
he says. "I'm not going anywhere."
I send the light bulb an
exasperated look and then sigh. I'm not sure how to broach the subject.
"Is this about the
artist?" he says, out of the blue.
I look up at the light bulb
in surprise. "Yes. How did..."
He laughs softly. "You
know I watch you, Jess. Did you really think I wouldn't have a clue
about what's bothering you? I've been waiting for you to mention him."
I say nothing for a moment.
I don't know why I'm surprised. I know Oscar watches me every minute
of every day. I can feel him, even though he only speaks to me here,
in the library. Cleaning my teeth, reading the paper, eating my toast,
I know he's there. At first I found it comforting. So many people
say they cannot sense a presence when their partner dies, that they
think they've lost them forever. Not me. From the beginning I felt
him near me, and knew that although he had passed over, he wasn't
going to leave me. And that was fine, for a while. But just lately,
I have begun to find him... intrusive. That's why I haven't been here
for a few weeks.
"I'm surprised at your
choice." His voice is teasing, but there's a steely edge to it
"An artist? Really Jess, I thought you could have gone for someone
a bit more... down to earth."
"Like you, you mean?"
I say softly. The light bulb flickers, but he doesn't say anything.
"Would you really be happy with anyone I dated, Oscar?"
"Td prefer it if he
"Ray's not effeminate
"The hell he's not.
He's practically a woman."
I grit my teeth. I will
not be drawn into an argument over Ray. "He's very kind and gentle.
I thought you would be pleased that I've met someone who cares about
me." Again, the light bulb flickers but he doesn't say anything.
"He likes football," I try gently.
"He supports Manchester
United," Oscar says dryly. "He's not really into the game."
I move a couple of books
around that have been put into the wrong place. 914.2, 914.3...
"He's totally up his
arse," he says, "Iíve heard him going on about art. ĎLight
illusions' this, and 'effervescent oils' that. Complete bollocks."
"Actually it makes
a change to talk about something other than sport."
"Does he even own a
"I don't think he can
swim." I say it before I can stop myself. Oscar laughs for a
good five minutes.
"Look," I say
eventually, "I'm going to go, Iíve got some stuff to do before
school tomorrow, we've got an Ofsted inspection next week."
"Does he know you talk
to a light bulb?" Oscar calls as a parting rejoinder.
I give him a glare before
I exit the library.
I meet Ray in the cafe near
the school for lunch next day. He's been painting all morning, and
he smells of oil and turps. "You've cut yourself," I say
suddenly, seeing a bright red stain on his sleeve.
He sniffs it. "Crimson
Alizarin," he says, "nothing to worry about. Coffee and
a tuna sandwich?"
is beginning to become a bit of a habit, and I'm happy. I take a seat
by the window and when he's ordered he comes over and sits opposite
me. He gives me a big smile. I can't help but compare him to Oscar.
They're so different, I wonder if I chose Ray on purpose. Oscar was
tall and broad and dark with defined muscles; Ray's just an inch taller
than me, fair-haired and rather thin. His bones are angular and sometimes
look as if they're trying to pierce his skin. I know he struggles
to make ends meet sometimes, and I'm sure food has to make way for
other, more pressing bills. But he never complains, and I realise
I find it rather endearing.
"What are you working
on?" I ask him, smiling up as the waitress delivers my coffee.
"A still life, with
lots of metal and shiny pottery, and reflections," he says enthusiastically.
"I've been playing with colour, trying to understand how the
spectrum changes as you apply more light."
Bollocks, Oscar says, in
my head. The light bulb above us flickers momentarily. I freeze. It's
the first time I've heard him outside the library. I sip my coffee,
telling him mentally to go away. "I'd love to see it"
"You'll have to come
up to my studio, I've got so many pieces I want to show you."
"I'd like that."
It's hard, having a three-way conversation when only two of you are
present. "I keep meaning to go to the gallery, but I've just
been so busy with the Oftsed inspection looming..."
"Oh, I'm there for
another six months, so there's no rush," he says easily. I smile
at him over my coffee. Ray is so easy to be with. Living with Oscar
was like living with an irritated hedgehog, all spikes and sharp bits
and watching what you say. He was too sensitive and often took things
the wrong way, or deliberately misinterpreted me because he was wound
up and wanted to pick a fight. Ray's like a
Labrador, soft, gentle, loving, loyal. I've never been so
relaxed with anyone in my life.
"Are you up for dinner
on Friday night?" he asks. "I thought we could try the Mexican
restaurant down by the Quay."
"I'd love to,"
Going to ask
him up for coffee?
I try to ignore the voice
and lean back as the waitress puts my tuna sandwich on the table.
But it's hard to shut him out of my head, especially as I know that
he's aware of what's on my mind.
You see, I haven't slept
with Ray yet. I've only been dating him for a few months, and I've
told him about Oscar. I said that I didn't want to rush into anything,
and he's been really good about it, and hasn't pushed me to go to
bed with him at all. But I can't put him off forever. I don't want
to put him off forever. But how on earth
can I have sex with Oscar looking over my shoulder?
On Thursday night, I go
back to the library. To my surprise there's someone else in the archaeology
section and I have to wait ten minutes for them to find the book they're
looking for. I wander around the chemistry section moodily, glad when
they finally head off towards the front desk.
'Thought they'd never go,"
says Oscar. I watch the light bulb flicker. "Back so soon? I
"I've got something
to ask you. I heard your voice in the cafe yesterday. Were you there?"
"I'm always there."
"I mean, was it you
talking? Or was it just in my head?"
He laughs, softly. "We'll
never really know, will we?"
Iím shaking a little now.
"I want to finish this, Oscar."
"This. My talking to
you. I want you to stop watching me."
"Because you're freaking
me out! You're gone now, you're not coming back, and I want to get
on with my life!"
Oscar pauses for a moment.
Then: "Did you see how thin his arms were? I've seen more meat
on a Kentucky Fried Chicken."
A tear runs down my cheek.
"This is what I mean! I'm seeing Ray now, but I can't see him,
if you know what I mean, knowing that you're always watching. I missed
you so much at first, Oscar, and I know I begged you to be with me,
and at first it was such a comfort, but now..."
"Now you don't want
me any more," he says softly. "The trouble is, Jess, how
do you get rid of me, if you don't know if I'm real, or in your head?"
I spend over an hour getting
ready Friday night. By the time Ray calls I'm de-haired, de-frizzed
and made up, and he gives a low whistle when I open the door.
"You look good! Are
"Yes," I say,
stepping out of the house with my bag. "But do you mind if we
pop in somewhere before we go to the restaurant?"
"To the library."
He looks at me in surprise,
but, bless him, doesn't question me. "Okay."
I get in his car and he
leaves my flat and heads for the city centre.
Bit of an old
banger, isnít it?
I ignore Oscar and stare
out of the window, biting my knuckles. I sense Ray look over at me
once or twice, but he doesn't say anything.
At the library, I take Ray's
hand and lead him upstairs. There's no one here tonight, and I take
him over to the archaeology section.
The light bulb flickers.
Oscar's voice is harsh. "Okay, so you've brought nancy boy to
see me. What's your point?"
I swallow and take both
Ray's hands in my own. "Ray," I say, staring into his eyes,
"I know you'll think Iím mad, but I've got something to tell
"Okay," he says
curiously, looking around at the books.
ďI come here to talk to
Oscar. I... can hear his voice. I don't know why here, but for some
reason he picked on this place to come to. I've been coming for over
a year, but now..." I take a deep breath. "I want to stop.
It's time for me to move on." I move closer to him. The light
bulb flickers dangerously.
I put my hand up behind
Ray's head. Gently I pull it down, until his lips touch mine.
I ignore Oscar's voice and
concentrate on Ray's mouth. It's soft, and I can taste the tic-tac
he's just had.
Above us, the light bulb
bursts in a shower of glass.
"Jesus!" Ray ducks
and pulls me away from the sharp rain. We both look up at the socket,
which fizzes softly in the silence of the library.
"I think that's his
way of saying goodbye," I say. My heart's pounding, but my head
feels clear, as if it's been scoured out. I think maybe he's gone
for good I take a deep breath, then let it out slowly, waiting for
his voice. Nothing.
I feel a twinge of guilt,
and I acknowledge it, then gently push it aside. I loved Oscar desperately
when he was here, but now he's dead, and Iím alive. It's time to move
I take Ray's hand. He studies
me curiously, his eyes questioning my odd behaviour, but he doesn't
ridicule me, doesn't demand to know what I think Iím doing. I smile,
knowing that I have made the right decision.
"Come on," I say,
walking out of the archaeology section and pulling him with me. "We
don't want to lose our table."