This is my fourth annual festive ghost story. I’ve started doing this five years ago, but I fell victim to writers’ block last year. Granted this one has its share of tropes, but they’re an integral part of the medium. At least that’s my excuse. I hope you enjoy it.
As soon as Curtis set foot on the high street, he wished he’d gone easier on Anna. Normally, she’d have been only too pleased to pick up a Christmas present for his wife, but after he’d reduced her to tears over a missed appointment, he’d felt awkward about asking. It would have been cruel, anyway, he supposed. The poor woman had been obsessed by him from the day Diane had nominated her as her replacement. Still, if he’d overcome his scruples and been prepared to exploit his secretary’s pathetic middle-aged crush, he’d have been spared the torment of shopping on Christmas Eve. Generous to a fault, that was his problem.
He rarely ventured into town unless he was lunching clients and he’d forgotten how hellish it could be. It was a little after one, already, overcast, and warm for the time of year. The precinct was a dismal sort of place, characterised by concrete buildings from the brutalist school. Overhead, someone, presumably out of a sense of obligation, had hung a desultory array of festive lights. Hordes of bickering shoppers weaved around him, ignoring the off-key carollers and the chestnut vendors. His heavy woollen coat trapped the heat against his body, and he could feel himself beginning to sweat. If he wanted to emerge with any of his Christmas spirit intact, he’d need to work quickly.
It had always been difficult to shop for Diane. Back when he was a junior partner and she had been his secretary, he’d set himself impossible goals, torturing himself trying to find the perfect gift. After he’d managed to impress her enough to move in with him, he’d tried to keep up the effort for a while, but it had soon become a ritual, and, as the marriage ran its course, he’d lost sight of what made her happy. He should have found it depressing; the fact that he didn’t somehow made it worse. He’d send Anna to find something when he could; over the years, she’d developed an eye for his wife’s tastes, no doubt a result of the time she’d spent imagining herself in her place. Lately, she might have lost focus, but she’d still have made a better job of it than him. Once again, he cursed himself for the quickness of his temper.
He’d spent the bulk of his lunch hour stalking the high street, hoping a festive miracle would bring about inspiration, when he came across the antique shop. If he hadn’t been desperate, he might never have noticed it. Nestled between a charity shop and a bookmakers, it was the sort of place that he could have walked past a hundred times without once registering its presence.
The exterior was drab, almost apologetic, a haphazard assortment of bric a brac in the window. It was an unpromising display, but if he could find an inexpensive trinket, he might be able concoct a post hoc justification for making a present of it for his wife.
Inside, the shop was dark, cramped. Someone had kept it clean but with little enthusiasm and it looked more like a stockroom than a sales area. Items were positioned in no particular order on shelves against the walls. In the air, an odour of dust mingled with one of unidentified spices. A shopkeeper sat behind the counter, the light from his phone giving his face a peculiar, greenish tinge. Hearing a potential customer enter, he grunted what might have been a welcome. Curtis reciprocated with a nod and began what he was now expecting to be a cursory inspection of the goods on display.
It was an oddly random collection. Half-remembered toys from his childhood were arranged next to costume jewellery; sheet music from forgotten musicals jockeyed up next to chipped piggybanks. In one corner, he saw a mound of dog eared paperback romances; in another, a hat-stand harboured a hoard of tattered coats.
The shopkeeper coughed and asked, in a vaguely north country accent, “You see anything she’d like?”
“‘She?'” asked Curtis.
“Your wife,” the cashier replied. There was a matiness to his voice which Curtis found irksome.
“What makes you I’m shopping for my wife?”
The shopkeeper smiled, made an obviously well-rehearsed bon mot, “A mistress might browse antiques for a man, but it’s never the other way round.” He smiled, revealing a graveyard-like arrangement of yellowing teeth. There was a mocking playfulness behind his rheumy eyes. “Do you have an idea what want?”
Curtis shook his head. “What do you suggest?”
The shopkeeper gave him an enigmatic smile, “If we’ve got what you’re looking for, it’ll find you.”
Curtis walked to the shelf nearest the door. This was given over to ornaments, mostly of distressed-looking animals and sinister cherubim. Amidst this ceramic Gomorrah, the box seemed strangely out of place.
It was about the size of a book, fashioned from what looked to be a well-polished mahogany. On the upper surface was an etching in silver of a fairytale castle overlooking a forest. Curtis knew he ought to consider it ludicrous, but at that moment, it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. He reached out, snatched it away from its vulgar surroundings.
“You like it?” asked the shopkeeper.
Curtis wasn’t sure if ‘like’ was the correct word. The object had captivated him, but a wave of apprehension had come with holding it. “What is it?” he asked, surprised at the eagerness in his voice.
“Music box,” said the cashier, “Eighteenth century. Why don’t you try it?”
Curtis hesitated, but it was mainly for show. He placed his thumb under the catch and flipped the lid open. Inside was a model of the castle he’d seen on the etching, a ballerina figure, not to scale, performing a shambling pirouette on the turret in time to the music.
The melody was almost trite, a simple, seven note motif in a minor key, but there was something utterly heartbreaking about it. It was there in the way the notes related to one another, straining to come together whilst trying to break free, like atoms set in motion. For Curtis, music was rarely more than an irritant between traffic reports but, closing his eyes, he felt himself transported. A sense of intense sadness overtook him, too pure to be entirely displeasing. It was a despair unencumbered by distractions. In the background, the shopkeeper said something but Curtis wasn’t listening. He felt a memory begin to form, but it stayed just beyond of his mind’s reach.
“Haunting, isn’t it?” asked the shopkeeper, reaching over to close the box. Immediately, Curtis’ reverie was broken, and he was shocked to find he’d been crying. Wherever he’d been, he felt as though he’d brought some of the melancholia back with him. Everything seemed slower and imbued with a drab sepia tint. Taking his silence for incomprehension, the shopkeeper hummed a few note-perfect bars of the melody. Curtis felt he should be relieved at the interruption, but found himself resenting it,
“The music sounds familiar,” he said, “Should I recognise it?”
The vendor gave a barely perceptible shake of the head, “I’d be surprised if you did. Unless you’re acquainted with the works of Fehrenbach.” Curtis shrugged, puzzled that a piece of music by an obscure composer should have resonated so deeply. The shopkeeper smiled, “Emeric Fehrenbach. Court composer to the Margrave of Baden.”
“Never heard of him.”
The shopkeeper ignored the interruption, “It’s quite a sad story, as it happens.”
“A ‘sad story’?” repeated Curtis, thinking he’d need one if he was going to pass the box off as a considered token of his affections.
“Everything in the shop has a story.”
Getting irritated by the man’s mystical act, Curtis said, “Invented by you, I suppose?”
“Harboured by me, until the time comes to share it with an object’s rightful owner.”
“And you see me as the ‘rightful owner’ of this thing?”
“You’re taken by it, sir. I can tell the music moves you.”
This was true enough but Curtis wouldn’t admit as much until he’d haggled the man down to a good price. “What about this story?”
The shopkeeper cleared his throat, “Emeric was in love with the Margrave’s daughter. It should have been a hopeless infatuation. He was a mere tradesman, the son of a minor court official; she was destined to marry into German nobility. If they’d carried on an affair incognito, it might have been allowed to run its course but Emeric refused to let his love be hidden in the shadows.
“You can imagine the Margrave’s response when Emeric asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. A hundred years earlier, he’d have been lucky to get away with his head. As it was, the threats of disgrace and penury ought to have been enough but the composer was a stubborn man.
“He pleaded with the Margrave, said that if he could make him understand how he felt, he’d change his views. For some reason, his master took him up on the challenge. For three weeks, Emeric sat in his study, hunched over manuscript paper, trying to express his feelings in music. He went without sleep and ate only when he remembered. Those three weeks were filled with false starts and dead ends but he produced a sonata which he was convinced said everything he needed to say.”
“The music we’ve just heard?” Asked Curtis.
“One and the same,” the shopkeeper nodded, “Emeric played it to the Margrave on the harpsichord, awkwardly at first but growing in confidence until, finally, he’d channelled every ounce of his frustration and hopelessness. Even a man as uncultured and boorish as the Margrave couldn’t fail to be moved and he gave his blessing to Fehrenbach and his daughter.”
“Romantic,” said Curtis, thinking that, with some embellishment, the story might be enough to convince his wife that he hadn’t just bought her the first vaguely acceptable thing he’d seen.
“It would have been,” said the vendor, “If the daughter hadn’t been listening from the other side of the door.”
“She didn’t like it, then?”
“Her feelings are unrecorded, but the piece must have exerted some effect.”
“The moment her beau had finished playing, she took herself to the roof of the castle and threw herself off the balustrade.”
“And Fehrenbach?” asked Curtis. He’d have to restrict Diane to the edited highlights.
“Naturally, the Margrave blamed him for his daughter’s death,” the shopkeeper smiled at what he presumably saw as unimpeachable logic, “He had him trussed up in a dungeon, knowing that if he didn’t succumb to starvation, the cold would finish him off. That’s if he didn’t use the key.”
“The Margrave though he’d give Emeric a sporting chance. He commissioned his clockmaker to make a music box and left the key inside. Fehrenbach was free to escape, but he’d have to listen to the song that killed the woman he loved as he did it.”
“And did he?”
“Faced with the choice, he let the rats rip out his heart.”
“And this is the box?”
“Maybe,” The shopkeeper nodded, “Or maybe it’s a cheap knock off from Taiwan. But the real question is this…,” he let the sentence hang.
The mocking smile was back, “If you don’t buy it, what else are you going to find before the shops close?”
As he walked back to work, Curtis found he couldn’t get the melody out of his head. The raindrops kept time to the imagined rhythm and the car horns sounded out the high notes. Even the carollers seemed to be trilling out a descant. An earworm, he’d heard it called. There was something fitting about the term; the music had burrowed into his mind and settled there, squirming, impossible to ignore. His mood remained downcast. At times, he felt as though he were on the verge of recollecting something significant but it remained somewhere beyond his consciousness.
Back at the office, his bleak outlook persisted, however much he tried to distract himself. The life assurance insurance industry was an inherently depressing one, his clients reduced to entries on an existential balance sheet, worth more to their loved ones dead that alive. As he sat, listening to their droning, he found his gaze drifting from the clock above the door to the music box. Once, he caught himself humming the melody under his breath and he was fortunate that his client had been too tearful to notice. Whenever he was alone, he felt a powerful compulsion to listen to Emeric’s sonata again and it was only his fear of what might happen if he did which kept him from acting.
At three o’clock, Anna brought him a pot of coffee. Usually, he’d have engaged in some light hearted flirting but today the words stayed, heavy and shapeless, in the pit of his stomach. She was getting old, he thought, looking drawn and sallow. He’d let her waste the best years of her life pining after him, and there was nothing he could do to give her the time back. All the while, the earworm provided the incidental music, giving added poignancy to the scene.
Driving back to the house, Curtis caught himself crying at the wheel and was startled to hear Fehrenbach’s melody trying to escape in the cadences of his sobs. He turned on a music station but as he sang along at the top of his voice, it was those seven notes that came out; straining to be together, fighting to be free.
Diane was in the lounge when he came in. Normally, he’d have mumbled a greeting and they’d have proceeded to ignore each other until they went to bed. Tonight, something was different. The silence, which he’d previously been able to convince himself was companionable, became oppressive. It was inevitable that the earworm would resurface. At once childish and devastating, it filled the room with a sorrowful miasma. All he could think of were those seven notes and the lives they’d already blighted.
He looked over at Diane, pretending to watch a seasonal edition of a lowbrow talent show. “Do you hear that?” he asked.
She shook her head, confused. “Hear what?” she said, “Is something wrong, love?”
He looked into her deep grey eyes, so full of concern for him. The girl he’d married was still there, almost lost in the desiccated wraith he’d made her. It wouldn’t take much for her to disappear altogether. He knew he could never let her hear Fehrenbach’s sonata.
“Whatever gives you that idea, darling?” he said, resolving that he’d throw the box out in the morning and face the consequences.
That night, he got drunk on an expensive single malt which he could no longer see any merit in saving for best. He’d hoped it would replace his despondency with euphoria but, in the end, the fitful, silent sleep it sent him into was enough.
Next morning, he woke up on the sofa, feet perilously close to the Christmas tree, with less of a hangover than he might have expected. Diane was waiting for him, holding a cup of sweet tea. He kissed her on the cheek, gratified she didn’t recoil at the fumes.
“Merry Christmas, love,” he said, taking a sip of the tea.
“Merry Christmas to you.” She gave him a sympathetic smile, “Did you work out whatever it was bothering you?”
He nodded, “All behind me now,” he said, meaning it.
Too late, he saw the music box on the coffee table. He watched in silent horror as Diane’s gaze drifted towards it.
“Is this my present?” she asked, reaching for the earworm’s den. It was smaller than Curtis remembered, more scuffed and tarnished. The etching on the lid was different, too, gothic lair rather than fairytale castle. The sight of it brought on an immediate sense of listlessness. He watched with rising panic as she turned it over in her hands, inspecting it. “You could have wrapped it,” she said putting it back on the table.
“You’re not going to listen to it?” he asked, offended and relieved in equal measure.
“Later, love,” she said, “I’ve got to ring my sister.”
Curtis knew he should have left it at that. She’d have forgotten about the box eventually; he could have left it where it was until he could find a time to dispose of it. He wasn’t certain what made him want to open it again, only that once the idea had occurred, he’d been powerless to resist the compulsion. He let the music fill the room and was immediately lost in sadness and shadowy, half-formed memories.
They were supposed to be joining her sister and brother-in-law for lunch at the country club but unable to face the forced bonhomie, he stayed at home, pleading a stomach bug. When Diane came back, he was still listening to the sonata in his dressing gown, face caked in half-dried tears. An argument should have ensued, but he hadn’t been able to muster the energy and he’d known that every accusation she’d levelled at him was true. For the second night in a row, he slept on the sofa and the following morning he was gone.
He took a small flat on the other side of town, and stopped going to work. Eventually, he sold his share in the business. It didn’t bring much but with his days spent in darkness listening to the music box, it was enough to meet his outgoings. By the autumn, he’d stopped eating altogether. Fehrenbach’s sonata was enough to sustain him, and if, one day, it became a requiem, well, that was only fitting.
It was Anna who found him. She’d brought a Christmas card, but it had only been a pretext. She’d been waiting for this a long time. When he didn’t answer the door, she was unsurprised; something in his eyes had marked him out the last time they’d met. She’d seen Emeric’s curse at work often enough to recognise its effects. When there was no answer, she let herself in.
The flat was too empty to be untidy, and it evinced no sense of human habitation. Only the unopened mail on the carpet gave any indication that that this had ever been someone’s home. In the air, the stench of mouldering food couldn’t mask a more sinister, instantly recognisable, odour.
Curtis was in the living room, sprawled on the sofa, dressing gown open to the waist. In these spartan surroundings, his features contorted into an expression of hopelessness, no one could have doubted he’d spent his last confinement in misery. Anna understood more than anyone else what he’d gone through.
It took her a moment to find what she had come for. She’d expected to find him still clutching the music box, but he must have let it fall from his grasp at the end. It had rolled under the chair and she had to stretch to get it.
When she’d first heard Emeric’s melody, she’d found it twee but she’d know that he’d captured her essence perfectly. Those notes had not merely represented her, they were her, always striving to be free but forever drawn back to earth. Through his art, the little composer had won her father’s blessing, and he’d made her life untenable. Knowing she could never return his affections, he’d gifted her with the curse of immortality, ensuring that even after her flesh expired, her spirit would persist in the ether in those seven notes. These days, it would be called a hate crime, though it had all been done out of love.
Still, she was hopeful that she’d found companionship at last. She’d been drawn to Diane ever since she’d trained her up her as her replacement. Even then, it had been her husband whose role she’d wanted to take. It had had pained her to watch as Curtis treated the love of her life so carelessly, but she’d lacked the courage to intervene. Only when she’d noticed the first signs of illness in her current vessel had she dared to act. Leaving the music box for Curtis to find had been simple; it had been waiting for it to take effect which had proved the challenge.
As the melody began, memories of her lonely childhood returned, the way they always did. She felt herself dissolve and reform, let her essence disperse and then coalesce inside her new host.
Curtis opened his eyes and began to dance in time to the music.