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The Machine in the Ghost
‘Oh not again!’ Peter gasped looking around the music room which again had been tampered with. Neatly stacked sheet music was now haphazardly arranged, guitar cases open, the amp on and practice headphones plugged in. Stooping he picked up his Strat, plugged it into the amp confirming the tuning had been shifted down a half tone. Peter put the guitar back and sat down heavily.
Marg stood in the doorway. ‘You’re sure?’
‘Yes, no doubt at all. Five weeks, five times always the same.’ Peter looked up at the clock. ‘And again it’s 2 am Saturday.’
‘Not a thing. Just shifted, rearranged.’
‘Did you hear anything this time?’
‘No. Don’t even know why I got up, no alarms.’
Marg moved closer, putting her hand on his shoulder. ‘I’m worried, either one of us is unhinged or something weird’s going on.’
‘I’m not worried, I’m scared, either option isn’t good. We’re going to have to get help.’
‘I know someone, I’ll see them next week. Let’s get back to bed. It’s finished now as usual’, with which they went back across the hall, closing the bedroom door behind them.
In the darkened room the guitar case opened, the Strat rising to knee height. A soft cloth followed, slowly polishing down the fret board and back again. The Strat hovered, spun twice on its long axis, and then gently descended back into the case.
‘Polts man, you got polts!’ Kent exclaimed from behind John Lennon glasses. ‘You lucky bugger!’
Peter resisted the urge to toss his coffee into Kent’s beaming pock-marked face. He knew why he’d sought Kent out, half knowing the answer but needing confirmation. Well, he’d got it. ‘Don’t know about lucky, but I thought as much about the ghost …’
‘Not ghost, poltergeist. You’ve not seen it?’ Peter shook his head. ‘It doesn’t play with you, just your gear, only that room?’
‘Just there, nowhere else, nothing else.’
‘For sure it’s a polt. You planning to keep it?’
Peter glared back. ‘No, why do you think I called you? Maybe help me tweet at #freakedfromfenderfondlingfantom? No, I want it gone!’ He leaned closer to Kent’s smoke-stale breath, ‘It’s cluttering my life, freaking me out and nothing, and I mean nothing, is going on Saturday nights because of it, kapische?’
Kent grinned idiotically. ‘Ok, ok, explains the aggression, I’m hearing you. You’ve come to the right guy. No dramas, I can fix it.’ Kent leaned back sucking loudly on his soy latté. ‘I can do it this Saturday. No charge, it’s a service man, a community service. Just one condition.’
‘Which is?’ Peter asked suspiciously.
Kent polished off the latté and leaned forward, leering almost lustfully. ‘The polt. If I catch it, I keep it. It’s mine!’
Eleven o’clock Saturday Kent turned up on Peter’s doorstop, Marg deciding to spend the night with her sister. Kent smiled broadly as Peter opened the front door. ‘Hey man, we’re here,’ waving his free hand behind him, ‘me and my posse!’
Kent brushed past Peter, followed by his two assistants, each carrying a large sports bag. ‘Meet Barb and Donna, my team.’
Each girl turned, smiled, nodded and then headed off down the hall.
‘Pleased to meet you I’m sure’ Peter called to their backs. Turning to Kent he continued ‘So what’s the plan and what’s with the bags?’
‘Well it’s simple, we’ve got the traps in the bag and all we do is put them out and wait. C’mon, let’s get to it’ with which he followed the two girls to the music room.
‘Hey, nice digs, very nice room my man, just love the wall hangings,’ Kent crooned walking over and drumming his fingers on a psychedelically painted ukulele hanging over an easy chair, ‘very last century.’
‘I’m glad you like it but it’s show time isn’t it?’ Peter queried, stepping carefully between the girls and a tangle of wiring, power boards and meters.
‘Show time, hmm. Hey Barb tell Pete the drill.’ looking towards the girl on his left.
‘Love to.’ replied the girl on his right. Kent gave a sheepish grin and shifted his attention to emptying his bag haphazardly on the floor.
‘I’ll save the technical details but the main thing is that your poltergeist is composed of pure energy.’
‘Pure electrical energy’ chimed Donna.
‘Yes, pure electrical energy, so it can be quite easily captured by sending the right voltage through a mesh trap at exactly the right time.’ Barb reached into her sports bag and pulled out a tightly woven wire mesh cloth.
‘We spread it like this’ she continued, shooing the three of them back to the doorway and placing the sheet in the middle of the room, ‘attach our cabling, trip switches and timers, then get the whole thing live and wait. It doesn’t even have to touch down on the sheet, just be, oh, maybe two or three meters away and bingo!’
‘Bingo!’ exclaimed Kent.
‘Bingo?’ Peter asked.
‘Bingo’ Barb continued, holding up a small gunmetal grey box, ‘polt in a box!’
‘And no damage, it’s all safe?’ Peter asked.
‘No damage.’ Donna smiled.
‘All safe.’ Barb chirped.
‘That’s what the manual says.’ Kent piped.
Peter spun around. ‘Manual? What do you mean manual? You’ve never done this before?’
‘Er, um, no, not with this exact method.’ Kent mumbled.
‘Not any other methods.’ Donna smiled.
‘We’re actually ghost busting virgins.’ Barb chirped.
‘You’re our first.’ Donna giggled.
‘But I’ve watched the YouTube vid and it looks easy, really.’ Kent slinked towards the doorway.
Peter just sighed. Too late now, too bloody late. He looked resignedly at Kent. ‘It looked easy? Really?’
‘Absolutely!’ Kent grabbed Peter by the shoulders, guiding him out of the room towards the lounge. ‘Better clear out, let the girls finish. Anyway’ he continued half way down the hall, ‘you’ve got full home insurance?’
With five minutes to go Peter, Barb and Donna were sitting in the lounge watching a small meter box on the coffee table. A thick cable ran from the back of the box down the hall to the mesh sheet via four power outlets. Kent stood opposite the three of them, his attention caught by Peter’s large collection of late-last-century early-this-century records. Kent would stop periodically, give a small girlish squeal of delight and pull one out. Tipping the record out of the sleeve he’d fondle it like an ancient artefact, badly hum what he thought were a few key bars, and hastily return record to sleeve to shelf. Each time Peter winced at the spectacle.
‘C’mon Kent’ he urged, ‘get over here and tell me what happens now. It’s nearly time.’
‘Ok, ok, just a sec.’ with which an original copy of the Beatles Sgt Peppers nearly slipped from his grip. ‘Yeah, yeah, she loves me’ he mumbled, placing the album back. He plodded over and plunked himself between Barb and Donna.
‘We wait, watch, and,’ pointing to the meter box, ‘once the needle hits 100 we know your polt’s there, 200 it’s in range and the autos trip in, then bingo!’
‘Bingo’ Barb echoed.
‘Bingo!’ Donna exclaimed.
‘Bingo,’ Kent resumed, ‘the power hits, the field collapses and we’ve got polt in a box! Then this lights up’ touching a small red globe on the top of the box, ‘and it’s all sealed and safe. I’ve got a polt, the house goes back to boring normality, and Peter gets to play mummies and daddies on Saturday night.’
Barb and Donna tittered as Peter just sat stock still. A few more minutes, just a few – Peter thought – and it will be over; electrocution, plot in a box, or total failure.
‘1:59 kiddies.’ Kent whispered, leaning forwards expectantly. Hardly had he done so than the needle flickered, wobbled, then jumped to 100.
‘It’s here’ Peter exclaimed.
‘Strong, very strong’ Donna muttered, pulling Kent’s hand from her upper arm, ‘shouldn’t be long.’
Barb squealed as Kent’s hand nearly crushed hers in his tightening grip, ‘200! 200! Now, now!’ she called, trying to lean forward as Kent tried to pull both girls closer. Peter just watched wide-eyed, now more interested than scared.
‘Whoa!’ Kent exclaimed sharply, ‘300! 500!! It’s still climbing!’ The needle rushed headlong across the dial face, bending as it tried to hammer it’s way off the gauge. The box smoked gently and then expired in a shower of sparks. As the sickly smell of ozone wafted up, across the room the record shelves started to vibrate, the records jostling back and forth.
Then the noise hit. Peter fancied that he could see the shock wave hammering down the hallway, screaming, demanding to be heard as it burst into the lounge room. It was a guitar, one perfectly hit and sustained chord, a deafening crescendo that shoved him back in the recliner. The records were torn off the wall and flew straight at Kent who shoved Barb and Donna forward while trying to disappear between the sofa cushions.
The note changed, grew louder and more strident, shifted, slid and rippled up and down the scale in a frenzied riff. The records circled drunkenly in the air around Kent and the girls. Every couple of seconds one would dive straight for Kent’s face, come to a screeching halt inches away, briefly hover drunkenly and then re-join the whirling pack as another took it’s place. Peter hardly noticed that the divers were all from his metal collection, festooned with ghoulish artwork. He also didn’t notice Kent had noticed, to which the newly formed and rapidly growing wet patch across Kent’s groin bore witness. All this accompanied by the girl’s strident screaming and Kent’s crying.
In the middle of the bedlam, mayhem and ear shattering noise Peter sat rigid, transfixed. The sound was perfect, clear, played brilliantly and crisply, no wavering, fumble, or uncertainty. It was a living thing that possessed and invaded him, lifting him upwards until he hung, arms and legs flung back, floating in the middle of the swirling pack of records. He was part of the music, the sound, the screaming demanding deafening thrust, the guitar elevating the hard rock lead to a place of sublime beauty it had no right to touch, never mind hold.
Seemingly as quickly as it had started it was over. Peter was placed firmly but gently back, the records flew at breakneck speed each to it’s original place, and the darkened house burst into brightness as all the lights came on. As the last note faded into silence Kent and the girls vaulted over the smoking box, out the door and into Kent’s car, leaving in a cloud of tyre smoke, screams and urine scented fear.
Peter just stayed sitting, drained. He’d never felt playing like that, it was impossible, just impossible. But there it was and (he admitted guiltily) he wanted more. Funny – he thought – he was supposed to be getting rid of a malevolent spirit but he wanted to be a part of the music, for it to never stop. He sighed. It still didn’t change the fact that something needed to be done.
Peter told Marg the full story the next day, in a house that showed absolutely no signs of anything having happened. Their neighbours also swore that Saturday night had been the quietest night in the street for years.
Marg walked out of the undisturbed house in the quiet street five minutes after Peter had finished.
‘Hot shredder or not I am not sharing my house with that,’ she explained through the driver’s side window, ‘you get it sorted, call me at my sister’s and I’ll be back.’ With which she sped off, leaving a second burnout mark on the driveway.
Towards the end of the following week Peter realised he still didn’t know what he was actually going to do. He’d only seen Kent once, briefly, and that from a distance as Kent ran away. He was left by himself to deal with the problem. It had chosen to scare the daylights out of Kent and the girls but not me so maybe, just maybe I can reason with it – Peter thought – maybe I’ll just try talking to it.
He slept soundly Friday night, having a plan, no matter how vague, seemingly a help. By 1:59 am Saturday he was relaxed and sitting comfortably in a chair in the corner of the music room, feeling more comfortable having walls rather than empty space behind him. A final check of his watch, and Peter flipped the floor lamp off with his foot, plunging the music room into darkness.
He counted silently to sixty, shifted slightly, then coughed.
He was answered by silence. Nothing.
‘Er, hello?’ Just a little louder. Still nothing.
‘Hello??’ This time it was a bit too loud, startling him. Peter realised he was getting nervous. He tried again, in what he hoped was a friendly tone.
‘Hello? Are you there? I’d like to talk.’ Still nothing, but his left foot felt cold. Could that be it?
‘Is that you? Are you here?’ Still silence, but now both of his feet and calves were cold. Ok, it’s here but not talking – he thought. Could it be upset over last week?
‘Look, I’m sorry about last week’s effort, it’s … well …we were both scared you know, but …’
‘Your friend’s a twat!’ The voice was soft, measured, English with a touch of peevishness. To Peter’s horror it came from just behind his left ear. It was all he could do not to run away screaming in terror; as it was he’d taken a death grip on the arms of the chair and was shaking.
‘Your apology is accepted,’ the voice now behind his right ear, ‘but I’d have thought you had better tastes in friends yeah?’ the voice now in front of him.
‘Well, oh I’m, it’s just, he’s sorta’ Peter stammered out, still quivering.
‘C’mon you can’t be that scared, I mean you came in here, waited and want to chat. I’m glad you didn’t bring wotzitz with you, he’s a complete tosser.’
‘Maybe, but I didn’t know anyone who knew anything about gh… I mean, well, the undea… I mean …’
‘Wot, you mean things that go twang in the night?’ The voice laughed. ‘Yeah, your mate’s really smart, lotsa help. He ran every red light for miles and spent the next two nights cowering in a church.’
‘He won’t even talk to me now. Maybe it was stupid but what else was I going to do? I don’t know the first thing about this. So it was a mistake …’
‘ … but you’ve wised up?’
‘… I have, so I’m here now.’ Peter found himself relaxing and leant back, his foot moving unconsciously towards the floor lamp switch.
‘Wouldn’t do that if I were you laddie.’
‘Huh?’ Peter froze.
‘The switch. Light. You know I’m not really all here yeah, just enough to do the job, I’m not built proper if you know what I mean.’
Peter cautiously moved his foot away from the switch. ‘Sorry, didn’t realise.’
‘S’ok. So I’m here, you’re here, what’s eating you?’
‘I thought it was obvious. You turn up once a week, play my guitar and stuff …’
‘I put it all back, I’m careful …’
‘But we know you’ve been here, we’ve got no idea about you. I mean, one minute it’s the Strat, what’s next? Knife wielding puppets? Chainsaws? I’ve never met a dead person before.’
‘I didn’t want to be dead …’
‘I didn’t mean that …’
‘… and I didn’t want to hang around down here,’ the voice continued in a melancholy tone, ‘it’s not like I planned this.’
‘I didn’t say you had, I just …’
‘You know it’s not normal yeah?’
‘What, talking to the dead? Thought everyone did it.’
‘Smartarse! You want I should go?’
‘Yes, I mean, no, look, it’s just a bit … different … talking to you.’
‘Well I haven’t had company for a while so s’cuse me manners ok? Do you want to know how I got like this? You know it’s rare yeah? Ever wondered why you aren’t all knee deep in the dear departed?’
‘To be honest no, it’s never crossed my mind. But I guess there are a lot of dead people.’
‘A few million year’s worth. And hardly any are here. It’s rare. So listen. Do you remember when that big scientific tunnel in Europe, you know, that tube thingy …’
‘’Yeah, that’s him, CERN. Yeah, do you remember when they found that big hose on wotzitz particle …’
‘The Higgs boson?’
‘Yeah, that’s it, that thing. Remember that?’
‘No, I wasn’t born then but I read about it in school and Marg …’
‘Anyway’ the voice broke in, ‘so I’m driving near that thing with a blonde piece and she’s getting busy you know …’
‘No, I don’t know …’
‘… well you should find out …’
‘That’s why I’m trying to sort this out.’
‘So’ the voice continued with emphasis, ‘I get badly distracted – or goodly you could say – and next thing I know we’re off the road hurtling across a paddock and then straight into a tree and I’m dead, but at the same time they made that higgs wotzitz, exactly the same time, and that’s why I’m here and not gone.’
‘Because of the Higgs boson?’
‘Yeah, I read a bit about it later and I must have gotten tangled up with a …’
Peter sprung up. ‘Hold on! You’re him? I mean, that was, I mean only one …’
‘Yeah yeah, me, now you know. Guess you’ve read about me?’
‘Of course, I’ve got all your albums and all that and it explains the music last week. Holy … you’re in my house?? Wow!!’
‘Hey, don’t go all stupid on me, I’m dead remember.’
‘Yeah but you’re still you, I mean, this is crazy …’
‘Ok, fine, I’m here, it’s me, but just don’t expect Hendrix or Clapton to come floating down and do a set with me yeah? It’s just me and as far as I know maybe thirty others around and they don’t play.’
‘Well compared to you who did? Seriously, who ever could? I bet they like listening to you, you know, free gigs and all.’
‘Ha!’ The voice was derisive. ‘You got no idea. Do you know what I did all day, all night? Watch. It’s all I could do. Couldn’t sleep, materialise, grab stuff or nuthin’, not a damned thing. Except.’
‘Except here. Near you. I don’t know why.’
‘Why? I’m not blinking Einstein am I? I’m a, I mean I used to be a guitarist so how do I know? I left school in third form and you want me to know how this works? Leave it out!’
‘But why me? Why here? It’s so out of the way, you expect me to believe you just floated in?’
‘Do you have any idea how boring it is being dead? Do you? It was fun for a bit man, you know, after I’d just gone, reading my obits and watching it all fold out. But after that? Zip. Nada. Bugger all.’
‘I’d never …’
‘I know, I’m not being narky, just sayin’. It was so boring, so bleedin’ Swiss boring, god those people! So straight, dull, grey. It got too much, I had to escape, so I started walking and didn’t stop until I got here.’
The voice paused, then at a slower pace continued.
‘Six weeks ago, do you remember your loo jamming up?’
‘Of course, cost me $200 for the plumber.’
‘Sorry, that was me.’
‘You? Why’d you block my toilet?’
‘I didn’t mean to’ the voice continued defensively, ‘I’d just come walking along, minding my own business and then bang! I materialise in the middle of your sewer pipe! I didn’t know what was going on, I’d never materialised before.’
‘It wasn’t a disaster, I mean just a bit of backflow upstairs, it could’ve been worse.’
‘For you yeah, but me? I’m just wandering along and it’s my face passing through the s-bend and it hits what you’ve deposited and I materialise, stuck there, I can’t move, you’re still going about your business …’
Peter nearly held back his first peal of laughter.
‘Oh yeah, it’s ok for you to laugh innit, but guess what? I materialised just high enough to put me eyes, nose and mouth in the right place facing upstream and working perfectly for the first time since I’m dead and what do I get? Your processed vindaloo!’
‘Oh hell, I’m sorry,’ Peter lurched out between gasps, ‘you poor oh jeez …’
‘Hey, it took me two flippin’ hours to work out how to dematerialise and at the end your plumber was sending it all down with a plunger! And the Rota-Rooter?!?! Hell, have you any idea …’ with which the voice choked, spluttered, and then dissolved into laughter.
‘Alright, alright’ the voice continued after it had recovered, ‘yeah I guess it’s bleedin’ hilarious and all that but the point is it was an accident, until I hit here I couldn’t do nuthin’ to the physical world, couldn’t pick up anything or that or anything. And I miss it, you know, so bad I miss it, just to sit and jam and blow out the cobwebs.’
Peter looked over to where he thought his guitars lay. ‘I know what you mean, I’d go spare if I couldn’t play…’
‘… torture man, total torture.’
‘I know it’s not the same but at least you can listen, I’m not anywhere as good but I’m not too bad …’
The voice coughed loudly. ‘Look, no offence and all that but as a guitarist you’ve got nuthin.’
‘Oh c’mon, it’s not that bad.’
‘It is, I mean, technically you’re ok but you’re too rigid, too tight, too much the notes. I mean, look around here, you got all those music sheets yeah?’
‘You know I never had a one? Phil neither and he wrote all our stuff. You’ve got to feel your way around, live it. Without that you’re like everyone else, cold, flat, no mojo. It’s gotta flow.’
‘Nah! I feel it …’
‘… but only when you sing, your voice’s cool but your playing’s stiff, drags it down. It don’t jump across and maybe it never will. That’s the only difference, you and me, stiff and flow.’
‘You’re kidding me? Surely, I mean you’ve …’
‘No, honest mate, I’m not. Technically speaking it’s four fingers, six strings and a pick so we’re equal, but it’s the flow you can’t teach. It’s either come out, in there waiting to come out, or not there. And I gotta say, sorry you know, but what I heard it aint there.’
Peter groaned inwardly. Yeah, it was right. ‘Ok, I guess you’re right. Maybe I’ll just give it up.’
‘No way, it’s not cat scratching it’s just it don’t fly. Your singing is different, but your playin’s holding you back.’
‘Hey, you don’t suppose you could help me, I mean teach me? If you could, well, maybe it’d work.’
‘Nope, told you, you can’t teach, you gotta have. Maybe if you felt it that could help, maybe. The only chance you’d have would be if you could be me or …’ the voice trailed off into silence.
Peter sat wondering. ‘You don’t suppose you could?’ he ventured.
‘If you mean what I think you mean then maybe, I think, maybe, but you as a puppet?’
‘Could it be just a bit? I mean, just the arms, just the guitar. Could you? Could I control …’
‘… I think, I mean, yeah, should be ok. It’s your body, I’d be a guest, you could kick me out.’
‘Just once maybe? Let me feel it once, for myself, to know?’
‘Yeah, ok, yeah it should be ok, just once. Which one you want to use?’
‘Sweet, damned sweet.’ A hard wooden form brushed against Peter’s knee. ‘There she is, plugged in and live. You ready?’
Peter cradled the guitar carefully. ‘Yeah, I guess.’ Deep breath, relax, stop shaking. ‘What do I do?’
‘Relax yeah, I’m not sure’ the voice replied, ‘I’ve got an idea, it sorta worked last week with your cat so I guess, but if it gets too weird just say something, boot me out yeah?’
‘Sorta? Well, ah, ok.’
‘Ok, here we go.’
The room grew quiet for a minute or two. Peter felt a small patch of cold and damp on his forehead that slowly sank from outside to inside.
- Just like an ice-cream headache – Peter thought.
- God I could go a magnum now – the voice in Peter’s head commented.
Peter blanched. – Hell, you’re in here!
- Yeah, you knew this’d be it. Gotta say there’s lotsa interesting shit going on in here.
- Oh you’re not …
- Nah, just joking. I’m behaving. It feels good, to have fingers, to touch, ones I don’t have to generate. You’re just like the cat, I’m workin’ out where the pedals are. How you doin'?’
- Not bad, a bit weird but. What now?
- Well, your body, your choice. Make it a good one yeah. Ideas?
Peter laughed. – You know if there’s only one shot there’s only one choice.
- Thunder and lightning?
It took the first few bars but Peter managed to forget his guitar, forgot that someone else was controlling his fingers flying up and down the fretboard, and just let it happen. It had never been like this for him, the guitar so effortless and sweet. He flung his head back, dropped out all his inhibition and fear, and let loose.
Five minutes later Peter sat eyes blazing, pumped up on the edge of the chair as the last notes bounced back across the room at him.
- Holy mother of … flipping heck – he thought.
- You see it now? Do you feel it? How good can you be when you let go! Your voice, my fingers …
- More, c’mon, let’s go again!
- Which one?
- Who cares, anything!
And off they went without hesitation or respite on a mad musical orgy of reckless abandon. For hours they continued, Peter’s arms burning with fire, finger tips screaming and near bloodied, his voice growing hoarse as the sweat cascaded down across his guitar and chair. Peter prayed it would never stop, that it could never stop; but the dim light of a late autumn’s dawn crept across the fog bound landscape, teasing through the curtains, bringing them to a halt.
After so many hours the silence was deafening, torpid.
- Thanks, that was worth the wait yeah. The voice was soft in his head.
- That was unbelievable! I’m the one that should be thanking you.
- It’s no biggie, just a shame that’s gonna be it.
- You know, Marg? Why you talked to me in the first place? No more spook yeah? It’s respect innit, you’re not a bad bloke, I don’t want to be a weight you know.
A surge of panic hit Peter. – No! I mean, I don’t want you to go, I don’t want to never have that again.
- You wouldn’t mind if I hung around? If I played through you?
- If we could keep it from her …
- … well I’m not gonna tell …
- … and I won’t …
- … so it’s guess a deal yeah …
- Yes, a deal. I’ll tell her I scared you off …
- … I’ll pull my head in and leave your stuff alone …
- … until we pull out the guitars. But how’ll I find you?
- Just think, I’ll leave a bit of me in here, you just call.
- Call what?
- I’ve got a name – the voice laughed.
Peter paused, looking up to the ceiling now bathed in the gold light of a new day. He continued out loud:
‘You know, I’ve always dreamed of being in a band, a good band.’
- Most have, it’s way common.
‘I didn’t think I was good enough …’ Peter trailed off into silence.
- But? - the voice cajoling, teasing.
‘Well, I don’t suppose you’d consider hitting the road again?’
- Baby, – the voice crooned – baby I thought you’d never ask.
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