Are you troubled by SPIRITS? Call FRANÇOIS, GIFTED MEDIUM, on 07812 678321.
The advert was in the back of a folded-up newspaper someone had left on the bus, between the personals and furniture for sale. There was a little sketch underneath of praying hands with waves of rainbow light coming off them.
I stared at it for a long time. Then, just as we turned into my road, I tore it out and stuffed it into my bag.
Paul and I had met in an art shop six weeks earlier. It was such a happy and unexpected beginning that right up until the end, I couldn’t believe anything but good could come out of it.
It was a Saturday morning. I was fishing around in one of the high racks with a foot up on the bottom shelf, trying to get hold of a sketchpad that was just out of reach.
‘Can I help?’
The very tall man who’d been flipping through a book of swatches next to me leaned over and pulled it out. He was wearing a run-of-the-mill shirt and jeans with Converse hi-tops, but there was something about the way he carried himself – a kind of self-contained held-togetherness – that struck me.
‘You’re contractually obliged to do this kind of thing when you’re six foot six,’ he said as he handed it to me. ‘They make you sign something.’
I’d been living in London for almost a year, working in a succession of over-lit, under-ventilated offices and doing art classes in the evenings. I hadn’t made many friends, and a lot of the time I felt totally untethered, like I was drifting out to sea. I desperately wanted to be fixed in place by something.
‘The height of a standard door,’ I said.
‘Six foot six. That’s how tall they make doors.’ My voice sounded unnaturally high. ‘Generally.’
He laughed. ‘I’ll remember that.’
For a second he looked like he might be about to say something else – but he didn’t. I watched him as he walked out of the shop, then went up to the till to pay for my sketchpad. The day stretched ahead of me, shapeless.
When I got outside I saw him standing in the doorway opposite.
‘You were right!’ he called out to me across the road. And he went slightly up on tiptoes so his head touched the frame. He was grinning with what looked like relief – as though he’d jumped into cold water and come up, smiling, for air.
The next night we went to an old-fashioned Italian restaurant near Charing Cross Road. I arrived in a new dress I had bought that afternoon. Paul was already there, sitting at a table, packing up a camera bag
‘Sorry about all the clutter.’ He stood up to kiss me on the cheek, and I thought how nice he smelled – like bonfire-smoke on a cold day. ‘Most of my weekends are working ones.’
‘You’re a photographer?’
‘Food, mainly. I used to do people, but they’re very…’ He smiled at me. ‘There’s only so much that can go wrong with a sandwich.’
We had ravioli in butter that smelled of almond biscuits. I let him look at pictures of the drawings I’d done in class the previous week, and when he said he really liked them, I knew he meant it.
As the plates were being cleared away, Paul told me he’d recently got divorced. His ex-wife, who made sculptures of animals from scrap metal, had gone to live in Ireland. They’d just sold their house, and he was renting while he looked for somewhere new.
‘It wasn’t so bad,’ he said, picking up his dessert spoon and flipping it from side to side. ‘We didn’t have any children. Which makes it easier, in some ways.’
There was a waxy indent on his finger where his wedding ring had been. I nudged my hand alongside his, and he stroked my thumb gently, without looking at me.
‘Shall we get some more wine?’ I said.
Outside, we kissed properly, and I realised how long it had been since I’d touched anyone, or anyone had really touched me. ‘I’d, um, like to see some of your photos,’ I said. ‘You know. At home.’
I felt him go tense. Instantly, the happy, carried-along feeling I’d had all evening evaporated. I glanced up. He looked terrifed.
‘I don’t…’ He pulled away. ‘Look, this is going to sound completely mad, but there’s something there.’
‘In my flat. It’s like…’ His shoulders sank. ‘The building used to be a match factory, in Victorian times. The women who worked there got really sick from the chemicals. Some of them died. When the agent told me about it I said I didn’t believe in ghosts. But you can feel it. I’ve got used to it now, but other people…’
I felt like I was watching something precious wobbling on the edge of a high shelf. It was up to me, I realised, to stay very still and make sure it didn’t topple off.
‘It’s ok,’ I said, quietly. ‘I understand.’
We went back to my flat. Undressed, he was much thinner than I thought he’d be – when he held me his collarbones pressed almost painfully into my forehead.
The next morning he brought me a mug of coffee in bed. When I went downstairs after he’d left I saw the cafetiere and teaspoon he’d used to make it had already been carefully washed and dried.
By the time I got into work he’d texted me. That was lovely. You are lovely. Are you free over the weekend?
We settled into a routine quickly. On Saturdays we would go to the cinema or have dinner by ourselves, and we always stayed at mine. His didn’t talk about his flat, and I didn’t ask. When he left in the mornings there was never any sign he’d been there. Sian, who I lived with, called him The Man From UNCLE.
‘What’s his place like?’ She was hunched over on the sofa, painting her toenails the colour of Irn-Bru and drinking a milkshake.
‘I haven’t been there yet.’
‘Why not? It’s been ages.’
I walked into the kitchen and started washing up a bowl from breakfast.
‘He’s renting,’ I called out over my shoulder.
Sian snorted. ‘You’re renting.’
There were hard flecks of porridge on the bowl that wouldn’t come off. I scrubbed at them for a bit, then went back into the living room and sat on the arm of the sofa.
‘He says it’s haunted.’
Sian laughed so hard that her milkshake slopped onto the carpet.
‘What does it feel like?’ I asked Paul in bed. That evening we’d been to see a play about solitary confinement, and as we were walking to the station afterwards he’d reached for my hand. It was the first time he’d ever done that.
‘What, this?’ He gave me a squeeze, and we both laughed.
‘No – I mean the thing. In your flat.’
He rolled onto his back. Out in the street, a fox shrieked.
‘I don’t really know how to explain it.’
We lay there not saying anything for a long time. The music from the bar over the road started to die down and I closed my eyes, but I couldn’t sleep. Eventually, Paul got up and went into the bathroom. He shut the door, and after a while I heard him crying.
I found a picture of him and his ex-wife online. It had been taken at the opening of an exhibition a couple of years earlier – they were standing in the middle of a big group, nearly touching, smiling at each other like nobody else was there. She had a glass of water in one hand, and the other was resting on the slight but defnite swell of her stomach.
We didn’t have any children.
I put my phone down and shut my eyes, willing it away.
The next Sunday, after Paul had gone home, I stayed in bed with the curtains still drawn, reading about match factories.
Victorian matches were made using highly toxic white phosphorus, and deposits of it built up in the jawbones of the workers – usually young women – in the factories. “Phossy jaw” led to abscesses, severe disfigurement, brain damage and, eventually, death.
There was a knock on the door, and I jumped. Sian came in with a rolled-up towel under her arm. I slammed the lid of my laptop.
‘I’m going for a swim. Fancy it?’
‘Thanks, but I think I’ll stay here,’ I said.
‘Sure?’ She frowned. ‘Bit gloomy in here, isn’t it?’
After she’d gone I took my sketch-pad to the park, but everything I drew came out mangled and wrong. On the way home I found the newspaper with the advert in it.
François the medium asked me to meet him at a Mexican restaurant. He was fiftyish, with a stubby ponytail. When I arrived he was drinking a cocktail with palm fronds poking out of it.
‘Tell me how I can help you, Claire,’ he said. He didn’t sound French. I wondered if François was his real name, and why he’d chosen this line of work. I wondered how on earth I’d ended up there.
As I told him about the match factory, and the phosphorus, and all the workers who’d died, he stared at me over the top of his glass.
‘How long have you been living in this flat?’
‘Oh, no – it’s not mine. My…’ an image of Paul dressing in his usual slightly distant way the previous Sunday morning swam in front of my eyes. I blinked it away. ‘Someone I know rents it.’
One of François’s eyebrows twitched.
‘But you’ve felt it?’
‘I haven’t, actually,’ I said. I looked down at the sticky tabletop. ‘I’ve never been there.’ There was a knot in my stomach. ‘I don’t think he wants me to be exposed to it,’ I said finally.
‘I see,’ François said.
We sat in silence. Then François leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. ‘I can come round and take a look,’ he said. ‘But he needs to ring me, if it’s his place. It can’t be you.’
A mariachi-band cover of Walk the Line was leaking out of the speakers, and there was a smell of burnt cheese coming from the kitchen. I was starting to feel ill.
‘Would you excuse me for a minute?’ I said, grabbing my bag. I was halfway to the door when François called out to me.
‘Maybe he likes it.
I turned around. ‘Sorry?’
‘He might not want to get rid of it.’ He laughed, and slurped his drink. ‘Sounds very convenient.’
The restaurant was next to a busy crossroads. I stood in the doorway for a couple of minutes, watching the cars as they shot past me, and then I did something I’d never done in all the weeks I’d known him – I called Paul.
He picked up almost straight away. ‘Claire? Is everything ok?’
There was a pan sizzling in the background, and music. ‘Fine,’ I said, trying to keep my voice as even as I could. ‘Totally fine. Listen, I was thinking – why don’t I come round?’
Paul turned the music down. ‘Tonight?’
‘I’m right by the tube. I could probably be there in about half an hour.’
The silence felt like something being stretched.
‘Look, whatever it is that’s there…’ I took a deep breath. ‘I don’t care. I’d just really like to see you.’
When Paul did eventually speak, he sounded exhausted.
‘I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,’ he said.
I moved the phone away from my ear. The traffic lights were on red, and I could see the young couple in the car nearest me nodding along to the radio together, laughing. Distantly, I heard Paul’s voice asking if I was still there.
Emma Hughes was born in 1986 and studied English at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, followed by an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. She’s a freelance journalist, and her work has appeared in newspapers and magazines including The Telegraph, Time Out, Country Life and the Spectator. ‘The Match Factory’ is her first published short story. She lives in south London.