‘The Graveyard Shift’ A short story by Florence Dunington

It is commonly understood that no amount of drink will eradicate our demons. But perhaps it is less commonly known that our demons, our ghosts, love a good drink themselves. The ghosts that make life so unbearable at times that we just want to reach into our minds and scoop them out, like little shimmering fishes that have festered too long in a septic pond. Claudia’s ghosts had resurfaced again, far more conniving than the last time. She’d made an enemy out of her bathroom mirror; she could no longer recognise the face staring back at her. Her hair lacked the body it was once boasted, and was no longer raven black – instead more like the under-feathers of a pigeon. Her skin had turned pallid and slightly sunken, her eyes blue but threaded in red. At all costs, she avoided paying herself any attention.

Her doctor, a robust woman who was never without lipstick on her teeth, recommended long walks, herbal teas, lots of sleep, and possibly a stay in a ‘lovely place where they’d look after you.’ She’d advertised it by describing it as ‘a sort of holiday.’ This doctor was the fourth in the space of two years, and Claudia had heard it all before. Drowning the voices in gullies of Vladivar Vodka was her only sure-fire way of silencing them, just for a moment. It was a temporary fix, but not a forgiving one.

With very few tangible people to reach out to, Claudia resolved to invite herself to stay with her cousin who was the manager of a little pub, The Falcon Inn, until she could get her life re-aligned. She preferred to see it this way, rather than the monotonous phrase ‘get back on track’ that all her doctors had repeated encouragingly. Her issue was that she had no idea where her track was, and where it was she was meant to be going. Thinking of herself, instead, as something malleable, like plasticine, Claudia could imagine moulding herself into something better. There was something reassuring in the idea of an improvement that wasn’t so impossible to reach.

The Falcon was a welcoming place, the only way Claudia could describe it was that it hugged her when she walked in – a sensation she’d sorely missed. The warmth of the place was a definite improvement from the warmth induced by a spirit and it was all wood work and autumnal-toned carpeting that was
plush underfoot. She immediately felt as if something had called her here, like a siren, beckoning her to this little corner of the world and the promise of sanctuary seemed too much to pass up.

For the first few weeks, Claudia threw herself into getting better. She lent a hand where she could at the inn, doing the odd jobs and the occasional waitressing shifts, and didn’t allow herself to succumb to temptation at all.

But as hard as she tried, her ghosts wouldn’t leave her be, and every day it was becoming more difficult to placate them. Lying awake most nights trying to seduce sleep to come to her, Claudia’s mind was infiltrated by the notion that several jewel-coloured bottles with their deliciously enticing contents lay willing just downstairs, begging to be touched.

One night she convinced herself that she’d heard footsteps, another night it was whispers, coming from the bar. On the worst night, shivering and close to tears, Claudia could’ve sworn she heard the sound of glasses being knocked together, so she resolved to go and see who was down there – determined
to drive them away ceremoniously. Upon discovering that there was no one there, she was thoroughly shaken, and what was one little tincture from the bottle of rum to calm her nerves?

But one little tincture that night, turned into every night, and evolved into a dozen empty shot glasses surrounding her passed out body.

This was how she found herself last Wednesday night. When she woke, her forehead was sticky, a film of drink residue clinging to her skin. Pressing her fingers to it, she could feel a throbbing in her temple, and groaned in disappointment. She’d let it happen again. The inn around her was altogetherdeserted and it could not have been any later than two in the morning. Groaning again, Claudia heaved herself out of her barstool and made her way behind the bar. As was customary for her now on a Wednesday night, she prepared for the Graveyard shift. Fixing herself a small glass of water, Claudia felt the familiar sinking in her stomach, like the drag of cold, wet sand, and the simultaneous blur in her vision. Her first less-than corporeal patrons had arrived.

Placing her empty glass down, Claudia met the gaze of the old builder, who’d come stumbling through the door gripping his collar tightly around his neck from the bracing November cold, and was now patiently waiting for his regular drink in front of her. Frank always had a sort of wild, crazed gleam in his eyes, but he was a gentle soul, as Claudia had come to find out, and she always felt like she could talk to him. Pouring him his usual glass of Samuel Smith beer, she asked Frank how he found his beloved Eastgate Clock, the one he’d worked tirelessly and devotedly on. He was severely displeased, claiming the clock had been done a great disservice and that she was not in the least bit as glamorous as when he’d built her. Claudia chuckled warmly. She’d told him time and time again, week in and week out, that time had weathered his beloved clock, as it had most things. Though Frank was not as resistant to the fact that his days were several centuries ago, compared to some of the other midnight clientele, he still sat sometimes in solemn silence. Commiserating. After all, he was incredibly patriotic. Pawing at his beer glass with grubby, oil-stained fingers, Frank took a swig from his glass. The creases in his forehead, and the drag in the corners of his mouth told Claudia all she needed to know. Topping up his glass, she asked Frank if he wanted to talk about whatever was on his mind. She figured even those in the afterlife needed someone to babble to over a drink, cosied with a blazing fire in the corner.

But before he could even craft the syllables in his mouth, a scramble of noise barrelled through the door. It was Walter and Sibylla, boisterously arguing as they usually did. Finding themselves a table was no trouble, and they brought in with them the cacophonic smell of spices and fish and manure. As
much as Claudia had complained about their accompanying smell in the past, she had figured that the stench was practically stitched into their clothing, and would stay with them for over a lifetime.

What they were arguing about this time, Claudia couldn’t quite distinguish, but delivering them their drinks, she managed to catch something about their neighbouring market vendor, Agnes, who sold the fine silks and cotton, finding Walter with his breaches around his ankles, and how Sibylla should never have married him just because her father had told her so.

Frank and Claudia made a face to each other once she’d returned behind the barto wipe down some empty glasses, both of them implying ‘not again’ in the rise of their eyebrows and small smirks. They allowed the noise of the couple to fade away into the background as more patrons turned up, some staying for several drinks, others just darting in for the one. Claudia helped herself to the occasional snifter of something splendidly toxic-tasting and that which she would definitely regret tomorrow. But that was tomorrow’s problem.

Frank saw her sorrow and suffering in her drinks, and wondered why she found the urge to seek the answers to them at the bottom of her glass, but he opted for diverting her attention to the melancholy chap sat grimly in the corner. Claudia looked over to where Frank pointed, and had a hard time trying
to make anybody out at all. It wasn’t until a great, shaking sigh was expelled and a figure shuddered into view. It was Marius, back from a performance. Claudia had learnt through the whispered conversations of other guests that he was an actor, in a tragedy, from 43 AD. Frank noted that Marius seemed frightfully disheartened for being in a public house. Claudia countered that he was a method actor. The two watched as the man dressed in a red toga and brown mask sipped from his wine, the same rich colour as his costume, and sighed once more. Claudia knew that he liked to drink his wine alone, but whether that was out of preference or because it was his only option she was uncertain. She’d never thought to ask.

A drawing of the ghost of the Roman soldier drinking a glass of red wine

She wanted to go over and invite Marius to come and sit with her and Frank, however her attention was diverted when the seat she’d intended for him became occupied. She looked up to greet her next customer, but her polite façade fell and she rolled her eyes. It was young Richard Grosvenor II, no doubt back from squiring his conquests around and boasting his family heritage. After all, it was his father, Sir Grosvenor, that made the Falcon what it was, but Claudia had heard all this before. She’d met Sir Grosvenor only a handful of times as he passed through to check up on what was once his family home, but had never exchanged many words with him. His eldest son, on the other hand, was more than happy to converse with her, or at her when Claudia chose to ignore him, dropping several flirtations at her feet that she couldn’t help but blush at. She never returned the favour, of course. Instead, Claudia simply handed him a glass of his regular gin, and left it at that.

As the night continued, the shift gradually became slower and the hours seemed to pass by stubbornly, as if refusing to change. The growing desire to be in bed, not surrounded by the increasingly drunken patrons, was becoming overwhelming, and Claudia could feel the tell-tale signs of her thumping headache returning to the edges of her mind. All too soon it would swallow her whole again.

Walter and Sibylla had not stopped arguing, though the topic of disagreement had changed, Frank was still grumbling to himself that his beloved work was being left to tarnish and rust, and Richard had not let up about his ability to hold a woman’s attention for longer than a few seconds. Claudia folded her arms up on the bar, and cocooned her head in them, allowing the sleeves of her shirt and curtains of her hair to muffle all of the noise. If she focused hard enough, the world would turn silent and dark – as if she were the only one there.

Unfortunately for her, it was short lived. An almighty crash resounded from somewhere in the bar, followed by an ear-splitting screech. The noise rattled around in Claudia’s brain and burned behind her eyes, so much so that a bolt of pain shot straight through her and settled in her stomach. She’d been holding out hope that Molly wouldn’t show up tonight. Alas, it was not to be. Every single one of Claudia’s patrons halted their conversations and looked towards the intrusion to find the maid-servant holding a selection of plates and goblets. With a maniacal grin, Molly started shrieking again and began tossing her ammunition.

On any other night, Claudia would have made a move to calm the poor girl out of her hysteria. She felt, often, that it was justified; poor Molly had been tossed out into the cold one night by the family and left to die. This was simply her seeking a little revenge. Claudia, familiar with the urge to turn to a frenzy to expel some of her teeming emotions, would usually allow Molly this relief. But not tonight.

As one last plate was chartered just above her head, exploding into tiny pieces of shrapnel upon impact, Claudia had had enough. All of the shrieking, and arguing, and complaining and flirting was just too much. Her ghosts were too loud tonight. Claudia stared down at her own glass, a tiny puddle still left at the bottom with a distorted imitation of her face swimming in it, and instantly became dizzy with revulsion. She couldn’t stand this anymore.

‘That’s enough!’ Claudia screamed. And everything fell silent.

© Florence Dunington

Florence Dunington is an up-and-coming writer studying for her Master’s degree at the University of Chester. She writes stories of all lengths and also has a penchant for poetry. Some of her work has been featured online at Burnt Breakfast magazine and The Lazy Woman, and has been printed in Pandora’s Box magazine.

Illustration: © Tim Foxon