Perhaps the pot puffin’ student years are the worst in which to encounter a ghost.Nobody believes a word of it. “Lay off the weed man! Things that go brrriiiinnnggg in the night? What next?”
Late summer 1995: Brooklyn Heights. Our pursuit of student accommodations reached its conclusion between the walls of a tidy top-floor apartment in a house just off Jay Street, recently vacated by its owner of many years. The rent was low and our landlady, Mrs Fusco, could not conceal her relief when passing the keys. Visibly, she deflated, blowing out air like a balloon introduced to its first hat pin: “My tiny family home for fifty years. But since I put my Mack to rest last month, I just can’t live there myself. Take good care o’ the place boys.”
Mrs Fusco, Terri, had relocated to the other side of the street. Her sister’s home, with a horizontal view of our living room window. She’d be keeping an eye on us. Oh, and she promised to pray. Just in case.
To us, the flat represented new found freedom – our own place in which to lock the door, get stoned lots and study little. The sun shone brightly as Iain, John and I picked out rooms and the new Pixies LP made it feel like summer. Summer in the city. No place for ghosts. No place for fear.
We unpacked boxes, scattered electrical equipment relieved from parental possession, records, books, pinned the obligatory clichéd posters and nested. Iain’s bedroom was to double as the lounge, the social hub. A mainstay of student flats and, to some, an honour. Not one I was willing to have bestowed upon me, however. I like to sleep at night. That room was to become the centre of all kinds of activity and energy and quickly I became glad the room was not mine.
First night, as darkness fell, we sprawled upon the pristine sofa and celebrated with beer and grass. It was the sofa’s last shot at being pristine, but it remained painfully unaware. The joints rolled, the beer poured, we proclaimed, “This is the life boys! No hassles. Nobody telling you what to do. And no more sneaking around!” Three weeks until the start of classes, and we planned to use them wisely. Getting wrecked.
The joints poured and the beer rolled and the telephone rang. Each of us jumped a little, not expecting company.
“Who plugged the bloody phone in?” Iain laughed.
“I did,” John admitted. “And my mother is one phone lighter. Figured we could call Ma Bell tomorrow. Get connected.”
“Yeah, man. We should get connected,” I slurred. Stoners don’t know when they sound like stoners.
I eased myself off the sofa and lurched into the hallway. The large central hallway, an ever present in student apartments, echoed the telephone’s ring, making the tone deeper, louder, eerier than a sound so familiar should ever be. I reached towards the big old receiver. One millimetre from physical contact, the ring stopped. Died. Suddenly. Nothing unusual, right? Probably happens every time you try and get to the phone on time. But here it didn’t feel right. A cold shiver tickled the length of my back and I turned, almost surprised to find myself alone in the hall.
Perhaps it was just the unsettling nature of the first night in a new abode. Perhaps, as I first assumed, I was a little drunk, a little stoned and more than a little paranoid. Perhaps we all were.
I bounded back into the room. I had no intention of appearing shaken in front of my new housemates. So I shook it off.
“Nah, it rang off. Must be someone looking for Terri.”
“Long as it’s not the cops!”
“I don’t think they tend to call in advance.”
Young pot-heads with university careers before them are significantly more afraid of the police than they are of ghosts. That is, until they encounter a ghost.
No sooner did my backside touch fake leather, and the telephone’s grating call disturbed us once more. Brrrrrrrriiiiinnnngggg. Brrrrrrrriiiiinnnngg. Old fashioned ringer: more effective, far more sinister. Sucking on a joint, I started to rise.
“Stay where you are old boy,” said Iain, “I’ll tell ‘em to go fuck themselves!” We laughed, and relaxed a little.
Almost instantly, Iain reappeared in the room.
“Jesus, man. The minute I touched the phone it stopped.”
“Same thing as happened to me.”
As he stood there in the doorway of the lounge, of his bedroom, we became acutely aware that the record had stopped turning and the still summer evening had been defeated by a dark, windy night. A cold stare on Iain’s face betrayed the confidence with which he had exited the room.
“The atmosphere in this place changes a bit at night, eh lads?” John voiced what all were thinking.
By the time the black telephone had performed its circus act for the sixth time, we three were sitting on the floor of the hall awaiting its next move. Thick jumpers replaced t-shirts in an attempt to offset the icy chill that sat above the hallway. An icy chill, watching our every move. Huddling together, we took it in turns, racing to the phone, trying to answer before it rung off. But, without fail, the ring would stop the second a finger touched its shining receiver. This perpetuated until the stroke of ten. And then the phone stopped ringing.
The following night, the second in our new home, was a repeat. From the moment we attempted to relax on the couch, joints rolled, until bang-on ten o’clock. The details were the same. Identical. But on the second night, it became all the more chilling. No longer a game.
“Somebody is watching us, right?”
By the third night, this was starting to become an inconvenience. More than an inconvenience. Downright annoying and pretty damn scary. We stopped wondering about cause and replaced curiosity with frustration. But nobody ever suggested unplugging the phone. Not once. Like clockwork, the rings would stop each night at ten and, although we didn’t discuss it, I guess nobody was prepared to risk missing something. And, other than the phone’s ghostly ring, nothing more sinister occurred.
On our fourth day in the flat, the Bell engineer banged on our front door. He met three bleary eyed students with a chirpy demeanour.
“Hey guys, sorry to disturb, it’s only noon! I’m here to connect up your phone line.” He leaned forward, flashing his identity and a giant grin.
“It’s ok bud, phone line is already connected. The phone has been ringing non-stop. In fact, we figured there must be an electrical fault or something.”
“Ok guys, let me check it out. I’m the man with the telephone plan!” He and his tool box walked to the phone and dropped to their knees. We returned to the living room to inflict further pain on the sofa.
Two hours later, our friendly neighbourhood phone guy tapped on the living room door.
“Well boys, I have to say, I’m flummoxed. Downright flummoxed. I’ve been all over your point, right down your cables and up the pole outside.” He pointed out the widow to a telephone pole with a ladder leaning against it and an open yellow box.
“This flat is not connected. In fact, the connection into your local exchange,” he pointed to the yellow box, “has completely burnt out. Looks like some kind of electrical surge. Anyway, there’s absolutely no way whatsoever your phone line could have been connected. Not today, and not anytime in the past few weeks. Sure you boys haven’t been imagining things?” He nodded towards the ashtray.
His words hung in the air. There was no doubt, our affair with the insistent telephone was very real and, suddenly, very creepy. In that moment, there was a realisation – the flat was not, and never was going to be, our own. We were merely guests, and had an important choice to make – whether or not to live in fear.
“So, do you want me to fix up your connection? There’ll be a charge, but I’ll soon have you up and running.”
We ushered him out the house faster than a pulse of electronic communication.
“Another time, cheers mate, thanks for all your help!”
There, in the hallway, we caught each others’ eye, said nothing, and gave John the command to lean down and unplug the telephone he had, with the best of intentions, attempted to connect four days earlier.
There, our strange encounters did not end. They just became part of everyday life. Unplugging the phone made little difference; the messages from beyond, or wherever they originated, just kept coming. They never appeared with the same rhythmic regularity, but still the phone rang, although never past ten pm. Eventually, we came to believe ourselves the victims of nothing more than mischief. Eventually we forgot about fear.
A number of months passed; student life slipped into its usual routine and our apartment morphed into the social hub you would expect. Our telephone absurdity became renowned, the curious would befriend us, befriend friends, just to experience the oddity of our abode. One particularly bright Spring evening brought the shock we’d be waiting for, that our intrigued gathering of revellers failed to anticipate.
The evening drew in, heavy city air clinging onto the day’s warmth, keeping windows thrown wide. An exam’s end gathering was evolving into a minor party. Always conscious of our landlady’s proximity and presence, and before I drank one beer too many, I bounded towards the window in the hope that misdemeanours could remain hidden behind flapping drapes. There I caught Terri’s eye, peering from the widow opposite. I pretended not to see her, but her gaze drew me in. She nodded, slowly, before making the sign of the cross. Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch. Well, perhaps not so much of the testicles, but you get my drift. We’d long since determined Terri Fusco mad, and thus, I thought nothing of it and returned to well earned recreation.
The night rolled until only a small group of us remained, including a handful of friends old and new. As the carriage clock on the mantle began to strike the first of ten rings, Iain lifted us from a self-induced fog.
“Hey guys, check it out. Ten o’clock and a no phone. Ain’t no ringing any more!”
We, the residents of the apartment, applauded in unison with a universal groan from those who had gathered in the hope of experiencing our famous “haunted telephone”. And then, the windows slammed.
The windows slammed together. The door slammed shut. The light disappeared. The candles flickered, then faded. Some started to curse, some started to scream, then all lost their voice. Some started to stand, some intended to run, then all became pinned to their seats or pinned to the floor. Nobody could talk nor move. Silence fell. Deathly silence.
And then the telephone started to ring. Three rings, then silence. Two rings, the silence. One ring, then silence.
The room was filled with fear. I looked around at the faces of the party guests, invited or otherwise. Drawn gazes of terror and resignation. Something terrible was happening; something even worse was about to happen. Each flapped around, desperate to move, but unable, glued to their surface like toy soldiers awaiting playful execution. And through that chaos came clarity; Iain, John and I locked eyes. Apartment-house allies, sharing this moment, sharing emotion. We engaged, looked deep into each other’s eyes and saw no fear. We smiled the slightest of smiles and turned heads to catch the bright light that had come to peer beneath the door, to catch the momentary glimpse of a shadow rapidly moving away. To hear the apartment’s front door creak, then slam closed with a chilling gust of absolute finality.
First the candles flickered, then reignited. Immediately thereafter, all were able to move freely, with our guests doing exactly that, straight through the front door, fleeing towards the city streets, never to be seen again. As they scrambled for freedom, John, Iain and I sat quietly. We did not speak; we had not feared. We knew the telephone would not ring again.
And we knew the time had come to leave the apartment.
The next day, the three of us visited Terri Fusco to hand back the keys. Our lease was soon to expire and each planned to return home for the vacation. We never thought to leave the apartment early, did not believe ourselves to have been chased away. It just seemed like the right time to go.
Terri clasped her hands round the keys, never once having visited us during our tenure, never once having inspected the mess we made of her couch.
“I’ve kept a close eye on you boys and, I have to say, you’ve done pretty well. There’s not many would have stayed so long, for sure.”
We shared a glance.
“Thanks Mrs Fusco,” in unison.
“Yep, I’ll be sorry to see y’all go.”
“We’re sorry to go, Mrs Fusco,” each of us dying to depart her creepy air.
“Alright, alright, boys. I can see you’re dying to get away. I just wanted to ask you one little question before you disappear. I just wondered, how’s my Mac doing? And is he still going to bed at ten o’clock sharp, just like I always told him?”
Sharing a sideways glace, I decided to answer for all of us,
“I don’t think so Mrs Fusco, it seems he’s decided stay up later, spend some time on the town.” We grinned. To our surprise, Terri grinned too,
“Yeah, sure, I would think so as well. Last night, you mean? Last night was his anniversary.”
“His anniversary! One year since he last regretted staying out past ten!”
She winked and, with no further questions, we too were on our way.