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The Casual Ghost

John Patrick Higgins


here is a piece of paper Blu Tacked to a pillar about ten feet away, and it does my job better than me.

It says: “Tables 4–8 this way.” And I can’t say that. I’m not that precise. There’s too much of me in the way. I’m a smear on glass, fuzzying everything up.

I’m a casual host, standing on the concourse of an Arts institution, wearing company-issue slacks with the creases built in. The trousers have had a previous owner. Over my left nipple is a badge that tells people “My Name Is Irwin” (my name is not Irwin).

When the snooker’s on, I stand here and smile at the day drinkers gambling on their phones. Occasionally, I ask if I can help and they look confused, until they realize I’m attempting to direct them somewhere or trying to maximise their cultural experience. I’m not telling them when to shout “Housey Housey” on the Sun Bingo app.

I can’t think on my feet, so I’m not good at this job. The work involves seas of boredom, swathes of unvarying tedium. It’s hypnotically uninteresting. Your mind reels from inactivity, it rebels. You enter a liminal world, one foot to the left of the space you’re staring into. Somebody asking you a question at that point is traumatic, snapping you back into disappointing reality. You gabble, jabber, stutter. The sign, exemplary, gummed to its pillar, has none of these problems. It’s a limpid pool. It doesn’t need you to like it, it doesn’t need to impress you, and it doesn’t want to go the extra mile. I envy its completeness. It’s unchanging, where I’m a storm on desert sands, though you wouldn’t know it to look at me, grinning in my corporate shirt, blurting out local information to unhurried passers-by.

It’s just a sign. It has words and an arrow on it. It isn’t masquerading as Irwin or unsure whether the restaurant is open today (it is).

I remember school trips to museums before museums were child friendly and interactive. Nowadays, you can ride a dinosaur, split an atom or experience what it’s like to be a sneeze, but when I was young, museums were damp, clattering Victorian institutions, full of green glass cases of igneous rocks, stuffed fish, or the remains of some hapless pachyderm, immortalised on the pointy end of a Cro-Magnon spear. All of it labelled in boilerplate Latin, on a brass plaque screwed into a marble plinth. Next to these, living fossils themselves, were the museum guards, straining their uniforms, hair stiff with pomade under concierge caps. They sat there: ex -army, shrapnel always on manoeuvres, glowering at children who didn’t want to be there.

I used to wonder about them, about their Bakelite specs and blue, pannier jowls. Was this it for them? Sitting amongst the dead, staring down at the living? After everything they’d seen: the wars, the foreign soil stuck to their boots, all that heavy past. I thought of the men they’d killed, the women they’d failed to satisfy, only to end their days here, amongst threadbare tapirs, crumbling papyrus, dead currency. How could they do that to themselves?

But it’s what I’ve done.

The uniform’s a bit more casual. There’s less marble and Latin and more natural light. There are snacks and refreshments available in the foyer, and two bars on the third and fifth floor (though only the third-floor bar is open today). The colour scheme suggests corporate positivity, and I am obliged to smile at people when I direct them. But it’s the same job. I sit there. Or I stand. I pace, back and forth, like a zoo animal losing its wits.

Today I have been advising people on the location of the nearest toilet. That was what was on the rota: “Comfort Guide.” On a couple of occasions, I’ve had to run after them as they sail past the clearly advertised toilet door and wandered into the VIP lounge (currently inactive).

I scurry after them, crying “Sir! Sir!” They are all male. The snooker is on.

Perhaps that’s why they do it. Everyone likes to be called “sir”. Before this job, I don’t think I’d called anyone “sir” since school, but it comes naturally now, as though I actual enjoy the loss of status. There is a part of me that finds something exhilarating in boredom, in wasted time, in squandered effort. Something giddily exciting about a fat man in tracksuit bottoms ignoring my accurate toilet directions. It’s like a cosmic truth laid out in front of me: proof, finally, of my insignificance, my lack of worth, my place in the scheme of things. I relish the abasement. I deserve this.

So, how may I optimise your experience today?

b w

John Patrick Higgins