Wednesday 1 November 2023

The Vanishing Gentleman - a Short Story

A few years ago I wrote this short story for a writing contest, but in my usual style I did not submit it on time. The theme was to be taking things for granted, and the sentence "what we took for granted" had to be included. I doubt it's contest-winning material but I thought I might as well share it nevertheless. 

I was taking a shower, as one does, staring blankly through the water-streaked glass door, when a man materialised in my bathroom. The door hadn’t opened, I hadn’t heard anyone come in, he seemed to just spring into existence. I couldn’t see him clearly through the daubs of water, but he looked at first glance to be wearing an historical costume with a wig. He turned around and saw me, completely naked and soapy.  

I screamed. So did he. After a few confusing seconds wherein we stared at each other, shouting, he vanished. Just evaporated as suddenly as he had appeared. I stood blinking through the water. 

A ghost? My house was a very old one, although one wouldn’t know given how many times it had been done up and modernised. I didn’t believe in ghosts and yet, what had I just seen? I hadn’t imagined it. Had I? If I had it had been a very vivid and noisy hallucination. 

Weeks later, I was at the bathroom basin, absentmindedly brushing my teeth, as one does. And there he was again. Materialising suddenly out of thin air and appearing at my left was a tall, middle-aged, seventeenth century gentleman. He had a lined but friendly face framed by a long, curly, grey periwig. He was dressed in an ornately embroidered frock coat of navy blue over a voluminous white shirt, matching waistcoat and breeches, a cascade of white lace at his throat, ruffles around his knees, and grey hose on his legs with neatly buckled shoes. I had only a moment to take all this in. My toothbrush clattered into the basin.  

He looked just as shocked to see me as I was him. 

“What are you doing in my bathroom!?” I cried through a mouthful of foam. 

“What are you doing in my-?!”  

And he disappeared. Sucked back into the aether or to wherever he had come from.  

I had definitely not imagined it this time. There had been a man in my bathroom. A man from another time. I had heard of “glitches in the matrix”, perhaps this was something like that? A little tear or ripple in the fabric of spacetime? The whole subject was beyond me.  

Weeks passed without event. I performed my ablutions every day sans mysterious apparitions. I hadn’t mentioned the mysterious bathroom gentleman to anyone lest they questioned my sanity, though I did read everything I could find online about apparitions and time anomalies. Until one morning, having finished dressing and primping for the day, I saw to my lavatorial needs and flushed the toilet. As the water rushed down and I shut the lid with a clank, a voice bellowed from behind me. 

“What pray tell is that!?” 

I spun around. There he was, in his frock coat and periwig, a look of pure astonishment on his face. This time I was taking no chances. Before he could vanish again, I leapt forward and seized him by the lace-frilled wrist. This was no ghost, for if it was, it was a very solid ghost. He was staring straight past me as the cistern noisily refilled itself. 

“The — the white water barrel— where doth the water go?" 

“It’s a toilet,” I said blandly. “It flushes away your um, wastes. Into pipes. You’ve never seen one before?” The man slowly shook his head. 

“Fascinating,” he said, captivated. 

“What do you use then?” I asked. It seemed a bit rude and personal but we were talking about toilets.  

“Why a chamber pot of course,” he said, “emptied into the cesspit by the maid.” 

“That must smell awful.” 

“It doth,” he agreed. I let go of his wrist as he leaned forward and bowed deeply. “Forgive me, I’ve no idea how I got here. I was one moment in my closet, and the next here in your wash room.” He introduced himself as Sir Willard de Belligny and explained that last he knew, it had been the year 1671. I explained that I was Zoe, that this was 2020, and asked if he’d like a cup of tea. As I guided him on the short walk between the bathroom and kitchen, I had never seen such a look of childlike wonder on the face of a middle-aged man. 

Sir Willard took a seat at the kitchen table and stared around the room, wide-eyed, as if seeing the world for the first time. He plucked a cherry from the fruit basket and examined it. 

“It is not the season for cherries,” he said, “how is it possible?” 

“Oh, they’re probably imported,” I said vaguely. 

I took the lid off the kettle and carried it to the sink to fill it. He leapt from his seat and bounded over to my side. I raised an eyebrow up at him as I turned the tap off after filling the kettle. He placed a hand on the tap and twisted it back on, then off again.  

“This spigot pumps water to your home?” He enquired. 

“Yeah,” I said thickly, placing the kettle on its base with a click, “why, how do you get water?” 

“My boy fetches it from the parish pump,” he said, “though recently we had to abandon our pump, for there was an outbreak of the cholera attributed to it. Transpired that the churchyard there was seeping putrescence into it, as the churchyard is overstuffed with corpses after the late plague.” 

I winced, getting cups and teabags down from the cupboard. 

“Is the water clean, then? Can you drink it?” 

“Drink it?” he snorted. “Heavens no, one drinks small beer or wine, far safer for the health.” He turned the hot tap on now, allowing the water to run over the palm of his hand, and drew a long, slow gasp. 

Hot water!” he exclaimed. “How is it hot?” He darted his eyes about the room, and apparently not seeing what he was looking for, shuffled into the living room. 

“Miss Zoe,” came Sir Willard’s voice, “where is the fire?”  

“There isn’t a fire,” I answered, “they’re banned around here.” 

“Banned,” he said incredulously, returning to the kitchen, “then how does one cook, heat one’s home? It must be awfully cold and dark by night.” 

“Not at all,” I said, handing him a teacup, “it’s all done with electricity.” 

This was clearly a word he had never heard before. He cautiously sipped the tea, expressing astonishment at how quickly I had produced a hot drink. Tea in hand, I decided to give Sir Willard a tour of my flat. Apparently the whole block of flats had once been his house, but it was unrecognisable now.  

He nearly spilt his tea when he saw a light go on. I hadn’t even thought about it. I walked into the dark laundry and switched the light on automatically. Sir Willard explained that all his work had to be done by day, for writing or working by candlelight at night strained his eyes. This artificial light was incredible, it must make life so much easier. When he asked me how the lightbulbs worked I had to admit I didn’t actually know, something to do with filaments and a vacuum. I showed him the washing machine, and demonstrated its use. He told me it takes three women a full day of hauling tubs and arduous scrubbing to wash his household’s clothes and linens. If he had been impressed by these things, it was nothing next to the television and computer screens. I asked what he did for entertainment, he said he frequented the playhouse. He marvelled at being able to see plays any time within one’s own home by means of a television, one would never tire of it. We spent some hours looking at the computer, him constantly asking questions while I googled the answers and provided them within seconds. He said if he wanted to learn something new, he would go to his booksellers, where there were at least 200 different printed books available.  I took out my smartphone and said it was a portable version of the computer, but allowed me to talk to anyone in the world. He said for him to send a message, it often took days or weeks to reach its recipient.  

The brightness of the screens gave him a headache after some time, and requested to lay in the dark til it abated. I popped a couple of paracetamol from a blister pack in my handbag for him to take, and he was in disbelief when half an hour later, the pain had completely ceased. Sir Willard told me the last time he “took physic for a fit of the ague", he’d had to mix the ashes of a burnt goose with a good white wine, bay laurel, and ambergris, and take it three times a day, along with regular bleedings to rebalance his humours. He also explained how it had pleased God for him to survive the late plague, while so many around him had perished from the distemper, including his brother, his brother’s wife, and a dear friend.  

“Wanna go get an ice cream?” 

Sir Willard wanted to see, do, and try everything possible. I wanted to lighten the mood after so much talk of death. He asked how one went about hiring a coach, or if I had horses of my own. We went outside to my car, and I opened the door for him. 

“A horseless carriage!” he exclaimed. “Is this what my eyes behold?” 

“A car, yeah. Most people have one. Mine’s a bit old and shit. No one uses horses anymore.” 

As we drove to the ice cream place, Sir Willard’s knuckles were white as he clasped the seat and door handle in terror. He could not believe how fast we were going; I was only driving 40kph. When he asked what powered the car, I confessed I did not know. Petrol and combustion or something. On the way back, he seemed fascinated by the coldness of the ice cream, testing it tentatively with the tip of his tongue, saying he had once before had an iced drink on a warm day but that was at a wealthy Duke’s house. I pulled up in my driveway and we walked up the path towards the front door.  

“Christ in Heaven!” cried Sir Willard, crossing himself and staring skyward.  

“Oh,” I said, stifling a laugh, “that’s a plane. An aeroplane.” I hadn’t even noticed the deep rumble of the plane as it whooshed overhead.  

“What is— what does—“  

“It carries passengers to other countries,” I explained.  

“So it is a flying ship,” said Sir Willard in utter bewilderment, “if I wish to travel a very great distance, I sail over the sea aboard a ship.” 

“Flights are really boring though, it takes a whole two days to reach the other side of the world, and the air is all dry and the food is bad.” 

“Two days?” he stammered. “Two days to reach the other side of… of the world? Miss Zoe, a ship takes months to travel such a distance, and it is not known what lies on the other side of the world. I went overseas once with my cousin. He died on the journey. I feared I might myself, much of the water was fouled and the weather was oft tempestuous. I have not travelled again. No one even knows what lieth on the other side of the world. Were it possible to see foreign lands with one’s own eyes in so short a time, I should be doing it all the time.”  

We sat down in my living room and after impressing him profoundly once more by taking his photo on my phone, we picked at the bowl of cherries. Sir Willard sighed wistfully. 

“Miss Zoe, thy world is one of wonders. One of great ease, comfort, and safety. Thou canst have anything, thou canst go anywhere, all with little more than a gesture.” 

I wanted to tell him that he had made me realise how lucky I was, that I now saw what we took for granted, but before I could do so, he had gone.