James would see him every time he wandered in The National Gallery and his bright green eyes stood him apart from the rest of the crowd. He was wearing a white shirt that was tattered at the edges, torn faded jeans with holes, and no shoes to protect his tired and cracked feet. He was just an unknown figure at the corner of James’s eyes on the first day. The second time came and James decided that it was a coincidence. On the third time, James just ran into the gallery, shielding his face with his sketchbook just in case he was noticed.
Then, on the fourth time, the man beckoned him with a finger.
James’s tactic of dashing into the safe haven beyond the gallery entrance faded and he was frozen to the ground, a foot in front of the other, with an open mouth and shifty eyes. He looked around, hoping that the man was after someone else. When he turned his attention back, the man was amused with a smirk in his eyes and a crooked grin on his face. The man beckoned him again, his green eyes trained onto James’s own.
“You’ll regret it if you turn away now,” the man called out.
James shifted again under the man’s gaze. He was suspicious but James was an individual who would not know how to deal with empty threats and empty promises and was hardly ever armed with an iron will. Well, that what was his sister had been telling him anyway since he was very small.
“No offence here, bro, and I know that you are twenty, but there is something with you that makes me think that you need someone with you 24/7. Preferably, an older someone,” his sister had said in one evening after a party. James was actually twenty-three at the time but there was no point correcting his sister who was not even in the country ninety-eight percent of the year. James reckoned that that percentage would only go up.
“So, you think I am immature and needed a baby leash?” James quipped as he pulled his socks and shoes off, rolling his eyes. He remembered just wanting to head to his bedroom and bury under his duvet.
“Of course not,” his sister replied. “I am just saying that you can be too naive for your own good.”
James’ sister was not that someone despite the fact that it was her that kept throwing the criticism at him. She fled somewhere in Central Europe and never looked back. James tried not to miss her but he could not help it whenever he gazed upon his phone screen, wondering when she would ring. Never, James had decided.
Thus, because James did not have a sister at the moment to remind him of his apparent vulnerability, he shuffled over to the man who was now sporting a smile. He was still wary and was already planning in his head on how to push the man over the ledge. Just in case he happened to be a homicidal maniac. The man seemed to be too interested in him with his wide green eyes and the widest smile that James ever saw in his life to be trustworthy. When someone was too innocent-looking, then it meant no good. That had always been James’s philosophy.
“What?” James whispered to the man, shifting his gaze around him. The London crowd continued to pass them, business as usual. “Look, I don’t know you and I am sure you don’t know me,” James continued, “but for the past few days, I know that you have been watching me in that little corner of yours – are you a stalker?!”
The man gave a nervous laugh and scratched the back of his head. “Do I come across as a stalker?” he asked.
James nodded, still guarded and wondering if he could give him a concussion first with his sketchbook before throwing him off the stairs. No, James thought, that is too aggressive – I should only do that on desperate times.
“Erm,” the man continued, “sorry about that. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
James interrupted, “You didn’t scare me. But I am very wary.” With a sense of gddiness, he though that his sister should really be here now instead of Prague. James could now throw her underestimation of him back to her face.
“Oh, okay,” the man said, unconvinced. “But, seriously, I am not a stalker. If I am then I will watch you from your bedroom window like a creep. And I’ll let you know.”
The man laughed, a relaxed one, and James swore that the man’s eyes shone even brighter. James wondered whether it was against his judgement or not but he relaxed as well and even chuckled a little. He had to admit as well that up close, the man was not as intimidating as he looked before. His piercing green eyes were open and wide all this time and the crookedness of his smile became more child-like than of a menacing individual. James decided that maybe all that planning for the man’s hospital visit might be a little too much for first impressions.
The man reached into his pocket. He pulled something out, twirled it between his fingers before handing it over to James. James peered his eyes at it, gazing over its nibbled end and the scratched surface but that did not mar much of its impeccable design of golden flowers and vines. His eyes widened as he recognised what it was. It was his favourite mechanical pencil, given to him by his art mentor, and it surprised him that it took a long while for him to recognised. The golden flower design was unlike any other, after all.
“I thought I lost it weeks ago!” James exclaimed as he took his mechanical pencil.
“It was actually just a week and a half ago,” the man said. “I was by the fountain waiting for a friend when you dropped it.”
James then remembered that day, a week and a half ago. He had been rushing to meet his mentor inside the gallery – and James knew very well that his art mentor did not care much for late-comers. So, he did not notice that his favourite mechanical pencil fell out of a hole in his sack. James had only found out when he looked for it in his bag. His art mentor, when he discovered, was not happy but did not voice it out for some reason. He then spent a good five hours trying to find it, scouring the whole of Trafalgar Square and looking through between people’s legs. That was unfruitful and left James with a mild headache, courtesy of an old lady’s handbag.
“You looked like a plucky chicken on that afternoon,” the man added, his smile became even wider.
James glared at him, annoyed but with no real malice. “Why didn’t you return it to me before then?” he asked.
The man shrugged and held his hands out. “I was in the bus when I saw you again,” he explained. “I can’t exactly jump out of the moving bus.”
James pocketed his pencil. “Thank you,” he said to the man who seemed to be swaying lightly, “although… did you really just come back here week after week just to return my pencil? And why are your feet bare?”
The man gave a smile and leaned towards James. “If I said yes,” he whispered, “would you run away?”
James did not reply and was unblinking. The man’s smile widened a little and started to descend down the stairs. James kept his stare at him, a niggling feeling settled on the nape of his neck. The man was fluid and was avoiding the frenzy of the London crowd with ease. He was rocking his head in small motions as if he had a song in his head and was singing along with it. When James noticed that a lady was about to barge onto the man, he rushed to warn him. Only it turned out to be unmerited as both the man and the lady was unfazed.
The lady went through the man.
James’ eyes went wide and he was frozen to the ground. His sketchbook fell out of his arms and his bag fell off his shoulder. The man turned around to meet his flabbergasted gaze, then winked before strolling away again. As the man moved further away, James was a little certain that he did vanished there and then. James took shallow and deep breaths but still stood frozen on his spot. He was aware of the stares and the pointing aimed at him, a kid tugging onto his sleeve, and the cold sweat that formed upon his brow despite the cold and breezy day. Then came the shortness of his breath, the thumping of his heart, and every hair on his body that stood out.
It was only when he was half-way onto the traffic road he realised that he had been screaming in terror.
James texted his mentor ‘Can we meet somewhere else?’ with such a force in each of his fingertips that he feared his phone might break. He was huddling under his duvet with his sketchbooks, pencils of all types and fine-liners strewn all over his bed. He had been in a drawing frenzy, crosshatching and scribbling over numerous pages of his half-finished sketchbooks. In his frantic mind, there was a piece that screamed at him that he needed to paint as well. However, the more rational piece thankfully stopped him – his parents would be furious if they have to redo his bedroom again over splattered acrylic and oil paints.
There was a ping from his phone and James discovered that his mentor was not quite happy about the change.
‘Is there a good reason? The National Gallery is the most convenient place for me. And for you too. You told me when we agreed to meet,’ his mentor texted back. ‘So, NO. The gallery is the 3rd meeting place and I am, frankly, sick of moving around.’
James looked over the message again and groaned. Crawling out of his duvet and his bed, James threw his phone onto the mattress before he could blurt out that he had seen a ghost in Trafalgar Square. His art mentor, Alex, whilst a very good one, could be demanding and it might take James a good while before he would agree with him. Their last debate – although it was more of an argument for James – about digital art lasted for two whole hours when they were supposed to talk on submitting into exhibitions. Right then, James learnt that it was easier to go along with his art mentor than argue. It would be productive as well.
James descended down the stairs and went into his small kitchen, deciding to make some toast with biscuit spread and chocolate spread on it. When it was made, he devoured it in two bites then decided to make two more. He gobbled them up in quick mouthfuls too. This is not working, he thought as he put the jars away in the cupboard and the butter knife in the dishwasher. Licking his fingers, he paced towards his living room. James dropped onto the couch, shuffling to bring up his knees to his chest. Grabbing the remote, he switched channel after channel on this telly and found himself disappointed that he could not find a decent programme to focus his mind on. Bob Ross and David Attenborough are also not helping, James thought again, groaning and pressing his throw over his face. Switching the telly off, James moved to his computer and brought up his iTunes. Classical music, he decided, were known to soothe his mind.
However, before he could even press ‘play’, James was interrupted by a knocking upon his window. James turned and found no one. He searched into the street and there was still nothing. Shrugging and rubbing the nape of his neck, James went back to his computer. There was another knock and James whipped his head towards the window. There was still no one. James rushed to the window, opened it, and searched again. There was nothing at first and the street was quite save for the distant traffic on the main road. James stood his ground and surveyed the area. A rustle then a giggle. They came from the bush below his window. James gritted his teeth and his hand dove into the bush.
“Ow!” the bush yelped.
James watched as his young 9-year-old neighbour tumbled out of the bush. He knew that the little girl was quite the mischievous one but when one’s mind was in a frenzy, naughty habits were unwarranted and unwanted to James. James kept his stern look at the girl as she stood up, patting down her skirt and rubbing her head.
“I am only playing around,” the girl said.
“And I don’t like it,” James huffed.
“You’re a grumpy old man today,” the girl retorted, sticking out her tongue.
“Well, this grumpy old man wants you to stop messing about,” James said back. “Don’t you have to be in your piano lesson this afternoon?”
The girl gave a grin. “Cancelled,” she answered, “so I will have time for art instead?”
James softened and there was an urge to sigh and put his hand over his heart. He smiled at the girl and almost offered. However, his mind was still in a frenzy and it would do no justice to the girl if she was to be taught by him at his current state. James did not want to risk muddling up Gauguin and Van Gogh to a rising artist in front of him.
“I’m afraid I have to pass this time,” James told the girl, apologetic as he saw the latter’s disappointed face. “But I promise that I will make time for you next week. Besides, you still need to improve your flower painting skills and I have not seen much improvement from last time!”
The girl giggled. “I make no promises!” she exclaimed as she rushed back to her house across the street where a car was being pulled over. It seemed that her mum was home now.
James smiled as the girl walked inside of her home, hand in hand with her mum. He retreated back to his computer and played his music. For a few minutes, his mind was idle as he scanned through his social media with a blank stare. There were times that a blog post made him frown a little and there were some pictures that made him smile but overall nothing big had cropped up yet. James was happy enough, lounging on his computer chair and scrolling down webpages.
Another knock came. James moved his head to have a little look on his window again. Only to topple over his chair and crawl underneath his desk. James brought his knees up to his neck and hugged his legs tight. His eyes were wide and transfixed on to the wooden structure of the desk. His breathing was shallow and his nails dug into his flesh of his legs. There was another knock but James was determined not to look – once was enough.
It was the man from the Trafalgar Square and James wracked his brain for any explanation, for any reason on why a ghost was following him. Did James managed to offend him in any way? Did James offered his soul in his past life? Did James accidentally stomp the man’s grave in Highgate? Defamed his mother in his careless tweets? Killed his father when they were still in caveman days? Peed on him when they were babies and James forgot to apologise? Whatever it was, James was keen for the answer. He would not be keen meeting his doom at the incorporeal hands of the man.
Another knock came.
“James?” a voice called out, no doubt it was from the man as it rang through James’ consciousness a couple of times.
James huddled closer into himself and pressed his lips together in a thin line. The man seemed to have his friendly demeanour, judging from the tone of his voice alone. It was just like the last time James saw him in Trafalgar Square. And James imagined the man’s hair to be thick and wavy just like last time and his green eyes both piercing and open.
“James,” the man called out again then gave three more knocks.
For someone who was a ghost, James pondered on how the man sounded real and solid. James pondered about that for a moment. It will be much worse if the man was real, James thought, because instead of a ghost stalker, I will have a real one!
The man did not want to give up, it seemed for James. His name was now being called numerous times and the knocking on his window had developed its own rhythm. James’ first plan of ignoring the man and hoping that he would go away was not working. James took a deep breath and attempted to still the rapid thumping of his heart. He would need to confront the ghost.
James peered out from under his computer desk. The man was plastered all over his window. James was right; the man was still the same as when they met in Trafalgar Square. But he was a little bit more distracting this time, James figured as he observed on how the afternoon sun shone through the tips of his hair and how his eyes were exceptionally bright this time. James steeled his resolve, shook his head, and glared at the man by his window.
“So you are a stalker. You even know my name! I know I have not given it to you on that day,” James gritted out. The man continued to grin and it grated a little on James’s irritation. “What the hell are you, I haven’t got a clue.”
“Nothing dangerous, I promise,” the man’s muffled voice said through the window. “Erm, can you let me in?”
“Why would I do that?!” James blurted out.
“I have something to tell you,” the man told him. Then with a nervous smile, he added, “and I am getting cold here? It is a little bit of windy day today, isn’t it?”
James gave a sardonic and nervous chuckle before moving to close his curtains. “Sorry, I don’t deal with supernatural beings. I’ve seen enough movies.”
“Supernatural beings? But I am real?” the man said with a perplexed tone but the gleam in his eyes and the little curve at the corner of his lips told James otherwise.
James shook his head, “Nope, you’re not. You’re just a confused ghost – and still a stalker.” He moved to the other side of window to close the other half of the curtain. “I’ve seen this in some movies and read in some books. You just did not know that you are dead yet so you will follow the only person that can see you. Unfortunately for you, I don’t buy on those heart-warming and romantic malarkey so you can bug off.”
“Look, I don’t know what are you talking about,” the man insisted, that annoying smile was still plastered upon his face. “I do have something to tell you though!”
“Figure it out,” James retorted as he closed the man off, “and I don’t deal with supernatural beings – I just told you that!”
After a short while, James heard some shuffling from the other side, and then some footsteps. Another bout of knocking came again but on the front door this time. James stood where he was, watching the man jumping up and down to the little window above the door. He did look a little desperate there and then. At the back of his mind, James was not sure why the man just go through the wall of his house. He shook off that thought, afraid that the ghost could read minds. James went into his dining room and ignored the insistent knocks on his front door and the constant calls of his name. He sat down on a chair and drummed his fingers upon the table. There was still cold sweat on his brow but at least his heart was not thumping loud and rapid anymore. The ghost was a persistent one but not a clever one it seem so James stayed put in the dining room and drew swirls with his finger on the table.
Soon enough, the knocking stopped when James was about to draw a final petal on his imaginary garden on the table. It lasted around fifteen minutes, he reckoned. James turned towards the direction of the front door. He did not get out of his seat and he certainly could not get comfortable yet. Ghosts were unpredictable and this one proved to be more than that. Then, a clink from his letter plaque came. James shuffled and saw a piece of paper on the floor in front of the door. There was another clink and James saw a hand though the letter plaque waving at his direction. It retreated shortly and James saw a silhouette of the man through the window walking away. James at last moved from the dining table and tip-toed towards the paper. He then opened the front door and peered through the little gap. There seemed to be no one out and the man was nowhere to be found. James closed the door. He picked up the paper, inspecting it and turning it in every direction. When he turned over, James did a double take.
It was a detailed sketch of the Trafalgar Square, from the fountain on the foreground to the Nelson’s column at the back. The crosshatching on the shadows were in the right places and the details on the statues were impeccable. James roved his eyes over it before landing onto a note at the corner of the drawing.
‘I bet you that ghosts couldn’t draw like this,’ the note said, ‘the name is Gabe, btw. :)”
It was cold inside the gallery but James was not that all bothered sitting on a bench with his arms bare, looking at one of the “Sunflowers” repetition by Vincent Van Gogh with a blank stare. He had thought that we was running late again with his meeting with his mentor and had forgotten to put on a coat this morning. It was when he reached inside of The National Gallery only did James realised that he had only put on a sleeveless shirt and jeans, and no coat. It was too late to go back and so far he did not see a bare-footed man in torn clothes outside. James felt that his coat was not worth the risk of seeing him again.
Then, when he sat down on their usual bench, only did James realised that he was hours away early. He could have his breakfast and possibly set his mind straight for the day. Although, that would be a fruitless endeavour, James decided, as the past days were surprising enough to make a straight-minded banker to be muddled up with his numbers. But James decided to stay inside. He was not ready to greet his ghost stalker after all. Thus in all these hours, James ambled around the gallery and spending a good minute in each and every painting that he encountered. He pondered about the use of perspective in Vermeer’s “A Young Woman standing at a Virginal”. He studied the charm and irony of the idyllic landscape of “Mr and Mrs Andrews” by Gainsborough. Then, he went to lightly mourn the solemn colours that Turner gave “The Fighting Temeraire.”
However, the humour wore off for James and soon he found himself just sitting with an idle expression upon his face on every single room. His eyes still rove over the paintings but they glossed over, looking at these masterpieces that James knew well and loved but not comprehending. And when he came upon “Sunflowers” painting, James wore an empty stare.
“You look like a bored teenager dragged into the gallery, you know,” a wry voice called out to him.
James smiled, recognising Alex’s dry humour. He turned around, ready to greet his mentor with a his own come back. But his face fell when he saw someone by Alex’s side – a very familiar someone.
“James, this is Gabriel,” Alex introduced the man beside him, “but call him Gabe. He’s not fond of being called Gabriel.”
James stared with his mouth open, unable to form words, when the ghost waved at him and greeted, “Hello. We meet again.”
Alex looked at the ghost, a little surprised. “You two met before?”
Gabe grinned back. “In a way,” he said then turned to James. “Right?”
Although there was still the thick hair and the green eyes, the ghost – Gabe was his name, apparently – was not donned in the ragged-looking white shirt and torn jeans like the previous times that James saw him. No, this ghost was well dressed in a beige trench coat, deep maroon trousers, and a thick navy blue cardigan. And he wore shoes – nice, polished shoes that James could use as a mirror. But it was still the ghost all right and James felt more than a few degrees colder.
“Earth to James?” Alex called, waving a hand upon James’s face. “You look like a petrified chicken. Close your mouth.”
The man beside Alex chuckled a little. James then remembered on how he was likened to a hen on that first conversation. James gave a little glare at man but did not move to confront him.
“Right,” Alex started, “I don’t know when and how you two have met but it should make things certainly easier – I hope, anyway. Gabe here will be your replacement art mentor for a while. Duty calls to the US – family stuff and all that jazz.” He then slapped a hand on Gabe’s shoulder, unfazed by James’s increasing horrified expression. “Don’t worry, I am not just about to fish you off to some amateurs who don’t know numbers of their art couriers. Oh no! This guy here had won open exhibitions, was a graduate at one of the schools of the Royal Academy of Arts, won the Luxembourg Art Prize at one point, and have been featured in many art magazines. Just like me, he is one of the best, of the best. He also have a lot of connections – art critics, curators, galleries, and many more. So, don’t underestimate him at any point – it will bite back at you. Just like you did.”
The man, Gabe, just kept smiling at James, hands inside the pockets of his trench coat and bright green eyes open and focused. James gripped his knees and was trying to will himself not to shiver. His eyes glossed over and his mouth was threatening to gape open again.
Alex, who was still unfazed, slapped his other hand upon James’s shoulder. “Now that was out of the way, I hope that everything will be going smoothly between you two! Gabe was not working on a big project at the moment so he have bags of time on his hands. He will be with you for three months.”
James whipped his head to turn to Alex with an even more horrified expression. “Three months?!” he exclaimed.
Alex put his hands up in the air and gave James a nonchalant look. “Can’t help it,” he said, “I am needed there for that period.”
Gabe, the living ghost and the one who seemed take pleasure on weirding James out, finally averted his gaze from James and looked at Alex.
“I did warn you that he would get uncomfortable,” Gabe told Alex. James resisted the urge to yell at the man – making James uncomfortable seemed to be the aim here.
“Nonsense!” Alex said. “Give it a few weeks and he’ll warm up to you. He was a little like a hermit crab when I first saw him as well but soon he was demanding things from me – a real pest.”
Gabe stared again at James with a knowing gleam in his eye and with that usual smile of his that James grew accustomed to. James wondered if he was being made fun off in the other man’s mind. His cheeks were then starting to heat up which made James turned away from him, looking unperturbed. It was working a little as well as James saw from the corner of his eye that the man’s smile fell a little. Good, James thought, he should be annoyed.
However, James was taken out of his thought when Alex landed an abrupt slap upon his back.
“Now that introductions are over,” Alex said, “let’s shake hands to seal the business!”
James watched as Gabe draw out a hand from one of his coat pockets and offered it to him. The smile upon his face morphed into a tentative one and he was looking at James through his thick fringe. He was a child again like when James first encountered him, but with a nervous demeanour when one was introduced to a new friend. James then looked at the offered hand. It looked real enough, tangible enough that James could hold onto it. His own was by his side and and clenching. He was still debating on whether to take the offered hand. However, Alex made the decision for him as he slapped James’s back again. Wanting to get this over with, James took a deep breath and made a grab for Gabe’s hand.
James’s hand did not go through.
Cliffhanger alert but I hope that no one really mind. I decided to end the first part here or else I’ll end up typing something too long. So just like my first ‘Prague’ story, this story will have parts as well. I also promised that I will write another story at the end of the week so best to keep this one at its current length.
There will be mistakes, I know, both about story consistency and grammar. Story-wise, some of the things that I wrote above probably won’t make much sense but they will come around on the next instalments. I am thinking of making two more parts so I can explore everything.
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