That Time When I Was A Ghost by Dick Perkins
Aberdeen, Scotland. The late Nineteen-Seventies.
Ah, Aberdeen – The Granite City. A city that – in the right light – actually sparkles. I remember... Andy, a very old man, who used to sell Aberdeen’s two daily papers – two daily papers! – near where I worked.
At different times of the day, he used to call out which of the two papers he was selling. Many years of shouting had blurred his words. The “Aberdeen Evening Express” was announced as “spresss”, and the “Aberdeen Press and Journal” as “hhhohah”. No, I don’t understand either.
After he had sold all his papers, Andy would come to the bar that we used to go to after work and play his accordion. He had drilled a hole in the top of the instrument through which we were invited – with a look and a pointed nod – to put money.
And we did, until the coins interfered with the workings of his accordion and Andy was forced to stop playing. Thank God.
Ah, the Seventies. When I look back at photos of that time, everyone just looks poor and grubby. All those places that I used to go, inevitably changed or gone. All those people I used to know - now all ghosts, even the ones still alive.
Perhaps I’m a ghost to them. Someone the memory of whom is vague and out-of-focus – fleetingly recalled, then gone.
I had answered the call for musicians to play in the pit for the annual student show. The show was an Aberdeen institution and ran for a week at His Majesty’s Theatre.
His Majesty’s Theatre – HMT – is a big, dripping birthday cake of a building – still there, but these days attached to an annex: a rectangular glass slice of modern cheesecake. It nearly works, but not quite. It had a rotating stage, and the band had to play extra loud when it was in operation because of the racket it made.
Of course, it was haunted. The obligatory “grey lady” that is issued to all old buildings, and Jake the stagehand, killed during a circus performance in 1942.
And possibly there were other ghosts, who didn’t have the advantage of a good publicist. Perhaps a jilted actress or a troubled actor killed themselves there. Unrequited love; unrequited career.
For the band, there was to be one rehearsal in a big church hall somewhere in Aberdeen, one dress rehearsal at the theatre, then straight into it. I bought a charity shop dinner suit – very old-fashioned, but still timeless – and a new white shirt.
On the last day of the run, we had two performance – matinee and evening. During the break, I took the opportunity to have a look around the theatre. I packed away my trombone and went exploring. I was standing in one of the boxes and taking in the warm, cushiony feel of the dimly lit auditorium, when I noticed a woman in one of the boxes opposite. She was dressed in a black dress with a white pinafore, the uniform of the female front of house staff. Again, timeless.
We locked eyes across the theatre and I don’t know why, but I stepped back into the shadows. She came back moments later with a man, pointed to the invisible me in the darkness and said “over there – in the box”.
And that’s when I made my mistake.
I stepped forward and said “Hello? Hello? – it’s only me. I’m playing in the band for the show. I was just having a look round”. They laughed and I laughed and the man said “oh, we thought...” A pause. The woman said “we thought you were Jake”. “Oh, no. No...”, I said. “I thought you were, you know...” We all laughed again.
Of course, what I should have done was stay in the shadows. I could have been the ghost of His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen. I’m sure I would have made the papers.
Later that week, Andy would have cried “spresss” and the headlines in the “Aberdeen Evening Express” would have shouted: “Jake The Theatre Ghost Makes Appearance At Student Show”, and underneath, “But He’s Smartened Up And Wearing A Rather Stylish Dinner Suit And A New Shirt”. But I would have felt terrible at having frightened someone. And word would have got out that it was me, because – even now – I can’t keep a secret.
Soon after, the “Aberdeen Press and Journal” (“hhhohah”) would have run an exposé. “Jake The Theatre Ghost Turns Out To Be Dick The Student... And He’s English”.
I would have become a hate figure for both the living and the dead of Aberdeen. Jake – the real theatrical ghost - would have haunted me for ever more, as a punishment for impersonating him.
Perhaps he does now, for even considering that ghostly deception. Perhaps he watches me from any audience I find myself in front of – work colleagues, wedding guests, “in group”.
Perhaps he is so aggrieved that he watches me all the time, in silent disapproval.
Perhaps he’s watching me type this.