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THE WINNER OF THE JBWB SUMMER 2003 SHORT STORY COMPETITION

A Flash of Inspiration

by Faye Robertson

Email: apf.robertson@btopenworld.com

I always hear his voice in the archaeology section. I don't know why; he was hardly the academic sort in life and had no interest whatsoever in the subject. Perhaps he's taken it up as a hobby up there - or maybe he's just being nice to me and acknowledging my interests for once. The latter seems unlikely, I think. I thread my way through the deserted aisles of books - past science, art, travel - to the far corner of the library. No one is ever here at this time of night. I pull down a tome on the dig at Wharram Percy, blow dust off the cover, and open the first page.

"Back again?" he says. As usual, the light bulb above me flickers at his voice.

"I said I would," I retort, studying the list of illustrations. "How have you been?"

"Dead," he says. "You?"

ĎIím well, thank you for asking." I ignore his sarcasm. He's always like this for the first few minutes. I turn to a map of the deserted medieval village. It's not a very good one; they've missed out the site of the old manor house.

"What have you been up to?" His voice, gentler now, rings with the deep resonance that I loved so much in life. It still has the ability to make the hairs rise on the back of my neck. Mind you, that frisson could be due to the fact that Oscar died a year ago, and is speaking to me through a light bulb.

"I've been quite busy." I can't concentrate on the map and close the book, sliding it back on the shelf between the others. I run my hand along the row like a blind woman, feeling the silky covers and the embossed lettering under my fingertips. I derive the same pleasure from books that other women do from material (a fact that I've never told Oscar, as it would just bring a snort of derision). "Actually, I've got something I want to discuss with you."

"Discuss away," he says. "I'm not going anywhere."

I send the light bulb an exasperated look and then sigh. I'm not sure how to broach the subject.

"Is this about the artist?" he says, out of the blue.

I look up at the light bulb in surprise. "Yes. How did..."

He laughs softly. "You know I watch you, Jess. Did you really think I wouldn't have a clue about what's bothering you? I've been waiting for you to mention him."

I say nothing for a moment. I don't know why I'm surprised. I know Oscar watches me every minute of every day. I can feel him, even though he only speaks to me here, in the library. Cleaning my teeth, reading the paper, eating my toast, I know he's there. At first I found it comforting. So many people say they cannot sense a presence when their partner dies, that they think they've lost them forever. Not me. From the beginning I felt him near me, and knew that although he had passed over, he wasn't going to leave me. And that was fine, for a while. But just lately, I have begun to find him... intrusive. That's why I haven't been here for a few weeks.

"I'm surprised at your choice." His voice is teasing, but there's a steely edge to it "An artist? Really Jess, I thought you could have gone for someone a bit more... down to earth."

"Like you, you mean?" I say softly. The light bulb flickers, but he doesn't say anything. "Would you really be happy with anyone I dated, Oscar?"

"Td prefer it if he wasn't effeminate."

"Ray's not effeminate -Ē

"The hell he's not. He's practically a woman."

I grit my teeth. I will not be drawn into an argument over Ray. "He's very kind and gentle. I thought you would be pleased that I've met someone who cares about me." Again, the light bulb flickers but he doesn't say anything. "He likes football," I try gently.

"He supports Manchester United," Oscar says dryly. "He's not really into the game."

I move a couple of books around that have been put into the wrong place. 914.2, 914.3...

"He's totally up his arse," he says, "Iíve heard him going on about art. ĎLight illusions' this, and 'effervescent oils' that. Complete bollocks."

"Actually it makes a change to talk about something other than sport."

"Does he even own a wet suit?"

"I don't think he can swim." I say it before I can stop myself. Oscar laughs for a good five minutes.

"Look," I say eventually, "I'm going to go, Iíve got some stuff to do before school tomorrow, we've got an Ofsted inspection next week."

"Does he know you talk to a light bulb?" Oscar calls as a parting rejoinder.

I give him a glare before I exit the library.

***

I meet Ray in the cafe near the school for lunch next day. He's been painting all morning, and he smells of oil and turps. "You've cut yourself," I say suddenly, seeing a bright red stain on his sleeve.

He sniffs it. "Crimson Alizarin," he says, "nothing to worry about. Coffee and a tuna sandwich?"

"Please." This is beginning to become a bit of a habit, and I'm happy. I take a seat by the window and when he's ordered he comes over and sits opposite me. He gives me a big smile. I can't help but compare him to Oscar. They're so different, I wonder if I chose Ray on purpose. Oscar was tall and broad and dark with defined muscles; Ray's just an inch taller than me, fair-haired and rather thin. His bones are angular and sometimes look as if they're trying to pierce his skin. I know he struggles to make ends meet sometimes, and I'm sure food has to make way for other, more pressing bills. But he never complains, and I realise I find it rather endearing.

"What are you working on?" I ask him, smiling up as the waitress delivers my coffee.

"A still life, with lots of metal and shiny pottery, and reflections," he says enthusiastically. "I've been playing with colour, trying to understand how the spectrum changes as you apply more light."

Bollocks, Oscar says, in my head. The light bulb above us flickers momentarily. I freeze. It's the first time I've heard him outside the library. I sip my coffee, telling him mentally to go away. "I'd love to see it"

"You'll have to come up to my studio, I've got so many pieces I want to show you."

Any excuse.

"I'd like that." It's hard, having a three-way conversation when only two of you are present. "I keep meaning to go to the gallery, but I've just been so busy with the Oftsed inspection looming..."

"Oh, I'm there for another six months, so there's no rush," he says easily. I smile at him over my coffee. Ray is so easy to be with. Living with Oscar was like living with an irritated hedgehog, all spikes and sharp bits and watching what you say. He was too sensitive and often took things the wrong way, or deliberately misinterpreted me because he was wound up and wanted to pick a fight. Ray's like a Labrador, soft, gentle, loving, loyal. I've never been so relaxed with anyone in my life.

"Are you up for dinner on Friday night?" he asks. "I thought we could try the Mexican restaurant down by the Quay."

"I'd love to," I say.

Going to ask him up for coffee?

I try to ignore the voice and lean back as the waitress puts my tuna sandwich on the table. But it's hard to shut him out of my head, especially as I know that he's aware of what's on my mind.

You see, I haven't slept with Ray yet. I've only been dating him for a few months, and I've told him about Oscar. I said that I didn't want to rush into anything, and he's been really good about it, and hasn't pushed me to go to bed with him at all. But I can't put him off forever. I don't want to put him off forever. But how on earth can I have sex with Oscar looking over my shoulder?

***

On Thursday night, I go back to the library. To my surprise there's someone else in the archaeology section and I have to wait ten minutes for them to find the book they're looking for. I wander around the chemistry section moodily, glad when they finally head off towards the front desk.

'Thought they'd never go," says Oscar. I watch the light bulb flicker. "Back so soon? I am honoured."

"I've got something to ask you. I heard your voice in the cafe yesterday. Were you there?"

"I'm always there."

"I mean, was it you talking? Or was it just in my head?"

He laughs, softly. "We'll never really know, will we?"

Iím shaking a little now. "I want to finish this, Oscar."

"Finish what?"

"This. My talking to you. I want you to stop watching me."

"Why?"

"Because you're freaking me out! You're gone now, you're not coming back, and I want to get on with my life!"

Oscar pauses for a moment. Then: "Did you see how thin his arms were? I've seen more meat on a Kentucky Fried Chicken."

A tear runs down my cheek. "This is what I mean! I'm seeing Ray now, but I can't see him, if you know what I mean, knowing that you're always watching. I missed you so much at first, Oscar, and I know I begged you to be with me, and at first it was such a comfort, but now..."

"Now you don't want me any more," he says softly. "The trouble is, Jess, how do you get rid of me, if you don't know if I'm real, or in your head?"

***

I spend over an hour getting ready Friday night. By the time Ray calls I'm de-haired, de-frizzed and made up, and he gives a low whistle when I open the door.

"You look good! Are you ready?"

"Yes," I say, stepping out of the house with my bag. "But do you mind if we pop in somewhere before we go to the restaurant?"

"Sure, where?"

"To the library."

He looks at me in surprise, but, bless him, doesn't question me. "Okay."

I get in his car and he leaves my flat and heads for the city centre.

Bit of an old banger, isnít it?

I ignore Oscar and stare out of the window, biting my knuckles. I sense Ray look over at me once or twice, but he doesn't say anything.

At the library, I take Ray's hand and lead him upstairs. There's no one here tonight, and I take him over to the archaeology section.

The light bulb flickers. Oscar's voice is harsh. "Okay, so you've brought nancy boy to see me. What's your point?"

I swallow and take both Ray's hands in my own. "Ray," I say, staring into his eyes, "I know you'll think Iím mad, but I've got something to tell you."

"Okay," he says curiously, looking around at the books.

ďI come here to talk to Oscar. I... can hear his voice. I don't know why here, but for some reason he picked on this place to come to. I've been coming for over a year, but now..." I take a deep breath. "I want to stop. It's time for me to move on." I move closer to him. The light bulb flickers dangerously.

I put my hand up behind Ray's head. Gently I pull it down, until his lips touch mine.

"Jess..."

I ignore Oscar's voice and concentrate on Ray's mouth. It's soft, and I can taste the tic-tac he's just had.

Above us, the light bulb bursts in a shower of glass.

"Jesus!" Ray ducks and pulls me away from the sharp rain. We both look up at the socket, which fizzes softly in the silence of the library.

"I think that's his way of saying goodbye," I say. My heart's pounding, but my head feels clear, as if it's been scoured out. I think maybe he's gone for good I take a deep breath, then let it out slowly, waiting for his voice. Nothing.

I feel a twinge of guilt, and I acknowledge it, then gently push it aside. I loved Oscar desperately when he was here, but now he's dead, and Iím alive. It's time to move on.

I take Ray's hand. He studies me curiously, his eyes questioning my odd behaviour, but he doesn't ridicule me, doesn't demand to know what I think Iím doing. I smile, knowing that I have made the right decision.

"Come on," I say, walking out of the archaeology section and pulling him with me. "We don't want to lose our table."

©2003 Faye Robertson

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