Anatole leaned forward on the couch and coughed a hearty, phlegmy cough. He grunted at the dusty ray of sunlight that had entered uninvited through the divide in his dingy curtains. A mild hangover squeezed his head. His eyes settled on the coffee table, where from amid the mass of horse racing form guides and aging takeaway containers, a pornographic novelty mug stared at him. He reached out and picked it up, but all it held was an accumulating layer of congealed coffee dregs. He set the mug on the arm of the couch where the padding had worn away, and then leaned back, massaging his stubbly face with his leathery palms. The palpable aroma of cigarettes and toenail clippings filled the air. Anatole heaved himself up off the couch and the exertion caused his nose to bleed. It was a pretty good start to the day.
In the kitchen he took the frying pan from the sink—it was clean enough—and mentally debated whether to have his eggs fried or scrambled. He set the pan on the stove and then checked the fridge. One egg left. He decided to fry it; scrambling one egg seemed sarcastic. As he turned back to the stove he was startled to see Toby standing there. Anatole made an effort to smile. “Good morning Toby,” he said. “I wish you wouldn’t sneak up on me.”
Toby’s expressionless face stared back up at him. “Hello mister. Have you seen my mother and father?”
Anatole sighed and cracked his egg into the pan. “Oh dear,” he played along, “you’re parents are missing. How sad. I wonder where they are.”
“They’ve gone away. Would you like to know what happened to them?”
Anatole sniffed and looked around the bench for the pepper. “Uh, yeah sure, what happened?”
Toby’s sinister eyes narrowed and he grinned. “Are you sure you want to know?”
Anatole slid the spatula beneath the egg. “This sounds serious,” he said. He flipped the egg. “I hope you didn’t set your house on fire and kill them.”
“I set our house on fire and—what?” Toby’s face changed from cold malevolence to innocent confusion. It was rather cute. “How did you know?”
“It’s me—Anatole. Remember? You used to come to my house at Caxton Street.”
“Yeah. I was much younger then.”
Toby thought, and it came back to him—not all of it, but enough. “Oh, yes.” He shook his head, leaned his back against the cupboard door, and slid down onto the tiles. After a moment he looked up at Anatole, who was eating his egg straight from the pan. “You look old,” he said. “How long has it been?”
Anatole thought. “Since Caxton Street? Eighteen years I should think. Yes, it must be eighteen.” He could see Toby was disappointed. “You haven’t aged though—you don’t look a day over seven years old.”
“Hmm?” Toby looked at his hands, and at his little shoes. “I suppose so,” he said. “Ghosts don’t get older.” He looked at Anatole. “Did I ever ask you…did we…play a game?”
“The game? Yes we did, you little sh**!”
Toby smiled, with excitement this time. “Did you really play the game?”
“Yes I did. You convinced me to cut the brake lines on the car.”
Toby rolled about laughing. “You really did it? So your wife is dead then?”
Anatole shook his head. “No. She almost died. She was very lucky. I went to prison for six years, and spent about half of that time in the shrink’s office. Helen left me of course, and went back to New Zealand.”
Toby was a little disappointed he hadn’t been able to get him to commit murder, but he was happy with the attempted murder conviction.
“You know,” said Anatole, “you should see a shrink yourself, if you were real, that is. He might be able to help you with your memory loss. You know you come here almost every week?”
“Do I?” said Toby. “I can’t remember.” He stood up and looked at Anatole. “Do you want to play another game?”
“Oh, no thanks mate. I’m too old for that now. Besides, I don’t want to kill anyone.”
Toby looked around the kitchen, but it was a dull kitchen; there was nothing much to interest a seven-year-old.
“Would you like to watch T.V.?” said Anatole.
“All right, it’s in the other room. The remote is probably on the table, near the—”
“Near the booby cup!” Toby raced out of the kitchen. “I remembered!”
“Good for you, Toby,” said Anatole.
It was nice to have company.
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