The Lamplighter: A flash fic

The ghost stares me down from behind the glass. I’d been balancing on my wooden ladder, arm stretched out to light up the gas, minding my own business, when there were its black lips grinning, its veil rippling back even though there’s no wind inside the lamp. My heart leaps but I tap my hat – Ma’s always telling me its best to be painfully polite to a fault and I can tell this ghost is quality – and say, “how d’yer do,” as the lamp’s flame burns through its chest.

Its mouth stretches and I can smell decay, and something vinegar sharp. “Aren’t you afraid, good Sir? It’s October after all, and though I hate to point it out, you’ve got a long drop if you lose your grip.” Its voice is low and deep, a matron’s voice.

My heart’s hammering fit to wake the dead now – too bad that someone already has – and I dig nails tighter into my precarious perch. Just in time. With a sudden whoosh of cold air, the ghost’s floating, its nose to mine. An ache spreads through my chest, like the winter chill. Suddenly, I’m glad I have my knife in my pocket.

She’s a woman. I can tell ‘coz she’s all in dusty white, her crinoline showing off full skirted splendour and lace at the bust. Her starched cotton gown is dry against my knuckles, dry as animal carcass salted within an inch of its life, and I kind of like it. Reminds me of that time Lucy let me stroke the triangle of stiff linen at her lap. Poor Luce married off to that drunkard, Willie. Free Willie, we call him, on account of his easy way with the young girls at his inn. She might be respectable now, all chignon buns and silks and furs and in a good strip of London where the posh toffs go but—Well, I was glad to leave her sitting at my kitchen this morning. I’d promised her I’d not make her go back, that she could stay with me as long as she needed, until she found her feet.

“Don’t you want to know why I’ve appeared?” The ghost lady asks politely. “I’m told most people do.”

I run through my worst transgressions as fast as I can. Until this job, I stole watches on the corner, pickpocketed coin while I boot-blacked, guarded a brothel.

“None of that,” she says, amused. “Petty, small things, and you needed to do them to survive. I’m no sanctimonious rich philanthropist in the House of Lords to lecture you.”

“Can’t say I do know then,” I say. “And if it’s all the same to you, I’d much rather you left.”

“I can’t do that,” she says. “You see, you’re a good man with a good heart.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“You see those men scurrying away in the shadows?” She says.

I look down towards the dark park lined by brass fencing and see four of ‘em, top hats pulled over their heads, toiling away with a coffin on their shoulders.

“They’re grave-robbers and know full well you’re a watchman as much as a lamp lighter. They’d have stabbed you easy as winking afore your knife could flash.”

Cor, I could see she were right. If I’d have shimmied down a minute or so earlier, I’d have happened upon ‘em … “Here,” I say suspiciously. “Why d’ya care so much ‘bout my mortal coil?”

She’s crying now, clear tears sizzling as they hit the air and vanish. “I was William’s first wife. Ran away from a respectable home to be with him and he beat me until I died, a bloody pile of rags. Your Luce was smarter than me. She got away.”

I’m gaping. The ghost is already breaking up, wisping at the edges like a thread pulled loose. She won’t be with me much longer and still I can’t think of anything to say.

“You could try thank you,” she laughs, sounding faint as her mouth smudges out like chalk wiped from a blackboard.

“Thanks,” I whisper, thinking of what woulda happened to Lucy had I not come home.

But the ghost’s already gone.