This short story by Pixi Robertson of Taumarunui won third place in the local section of the william Taylor Memorial Heartland Short Story competition for 2018
A GHOST for TWO and SIXPENCE
‘Come on Nelly, you know a fast game’s a good game.’
Meg lit a cigarette, waited impatiently for her friend to play a card. She looked at Nelly through eyes slitted against the smoke rising from her cigarette, appraising her friend and wondering, not for the first time, why Nelly was so slow.
Nelly the Fanciful, living in a dream world.
‘For goodness sake, just discard something. It’s not a big deal, I’m winning anyway, so just get on with it.’
The young woman ground her teeth in frustration, puffed furiously on her cigarette, and drew the last of the smoke deep into her lungs. She leant forward and ground out the cigarette in a glass ashtray brimming with grey ash and old, lipstick-stained butts.
Opposite her, Nelly frowned at her cards, fingering first one then another as she contemplated her choices.
‘I think – this one can go.’
She eased a card out of her hand.
‘N – o. I don’t think so.’
The card slid back to join the others, only to be replaced by another, then yet another.
Bored, Meg went to fetch her handbag, digging deep in its black depths before producing a small box of matches, a used tissue and a couple of old bus tickets.
‘Bloody junk,’ she muttered. ‘I hate the way rubbish lurks in the bottom of handbags. How does it get there? Magic?’
She scrunched the small pieces of paper in her hand and dropped the litter into the ashtray. She lit another gasper, took a puff, then balanced it on the edge of the ashtray.
Across the table Nelly still pondered the relative merits of the cards clutched in her hand.
Meg rose again, crossing the small room to unearth a bottle of wine in the scruffy kitchenette.
‘You sure you don’t want a drink, Nell? After all, it is your birthday, we should still be celebrating.’
Poverty, high rents and lack of suitable, well-paid work restricted their lives, but they had managed a small celebration earlier: a rare trip to the Greek café down the road and a shared plate of lamb kebab followed by one slice of baklava split in two.
After they had eaten, and buoyed by the warm autumn sunshine and the heady freedom a mid-week day of unemployment in the city can sometimes bring, and with a postal note for five shillings from Nelly’s grandmother burning a hole in her pocket, they headed to their favourite op shop.
The five jingling shillings were spent with glee on a non-foxed copy of Sylvia Plath for 2/6d, and, for another 2/6d, a delicate, rose pink silk shawl embroidered with oriental symbols in silver thread. Nelly draped it becomingly over her head and shoulders as they strolled home, Meg’s inevitable cigarette glowing in the gathering dark.
In the kitchenette a cork popped.
‘Nell? You’ve gotta have a birthday drink.’
Meg returned to the table with two glasses and a bottle of cheap Brandivino.
Nelly was sitting where her friend had left her, a fan of cards in one hand, a single card in the other, poised unmoving over the discards on the table.
‘Nell! Hey, Nelly? Are you okay? What’s wrong?’
The seated girl turned towards her friend, a look of wonder and puzzlement on her face.
‘Can’t you smell it, Meg? It’s – it’s wonderful. I – I’ve never smelt anything like it, it’s – it’s so beautiful it’s kind of scary.’
Meg paused, setting the glasses and bottle on the table. A look of wonder stole across her features as she, too, caught the tantalising smell. She sniffed again, eager to pinpoint the enticing perfume.
‘Oh my goodness? It’s as if all the gardens of the world were rolled into one giant, sweet smelling flower. It’s simply – beautiful.’
The exotic perfume dissipated as quickly as it had come.
The evening wore on. The level in the wine bottle dropped. The cards were shuffled again and again. Meg continued to win.
The perfume rose at unexpected moments. The women would pause, mid-sentence, with glass raised to red lips, with hand reaching for a card or cigarette, nostrils flared, before returning to their game.
‘I know I’m silly,’ Nelly offered timidly, ‘but ….’ She laid her cards on the table and delved into her handbag, pulling out the rose pink shawl. She wrapped the delicate piece of silk around her shoulders and buried her nose in its softness.
Immediately the heady perfume filled the air, weaving around and above the young women, tantalising, enchanting with imaginings of exotic and far-away places.
Nelly felt the hairs on her neck rise. Meg nervously tapped her cigarette in the ashtray. Fear curled through the air, carried on plumes of smoke and exotic aromas.
‘It’s the shawl, isn’t it?’ Meg uncannily voiced Nelly’s thoughts.
‘It comes and goes, but I can feel it – in the fabric – it’s spooky.’
The air was fresh again, the cloying perfume a memory.
‘How fanciful are we? Just silly, imagining things ….’
‘We need to get out more, meet new people.’
Meg took several rapid puffs on her cigarette before resting it in a groove of the ashtray. Nelly stroked the pink and silver shawl, wrapping and unwrapping the gorgeous thing.
Up and down went the cigarette to Meg’s lips before it came to rest, once again, in the ashtray.
Perfume filled the little room, till Nelly, unnerved, flung the flimsy shawl from her.
‘It’s haunted. That smell, it’s making my head ache. I, I don’t think I can stand it any more. The silk, I’m sure it’s the silk, it’s possessed by the perfume of it’s previous owner.’
Meg began to laugh. She drew smoke into her mouth and touched the end of the cigarette to the tissue lying amongst the butts. At once the air was filled with perfume.
‘See, there’s your ghost! When we tested the perfumes last week in David Jones’ store, remember? It’s the perfume, on the tissue in my bag. It’s not a ghost for two and sixpence after all.’