We were near the end of our friendship, but I couldn’t see it. Zeff still seemed cool and dangerous to me, the way he rolled his ciggies, and how he drove that boxy automatic his uncle left him, with its disability badge still on the windscreen, which meant Zeff could park anywhere. We sometimes cruised around the city on errands, me in the passenger seat and him swinging around bends with that lazy driving of his. There would be music on the stereo. We used to like Michael Nyman’s soundtracks to Peter Greenaway’s films.
Zeff had a shock of blonde hair, blue eyes and freckles, and a smile that – depending on how you looked at it – was either cheeky or cruel. Girls threw themselves at him. On our course was a scarily beautiful girl with amazing wavy red curls all the way down to her waist. She lived off-campus by the sea, and Zeff once stayed the night. When I asked what she was like, Zeff said that whilst she’d gone to the loo he’d looked through her diary. It was full of notes on how to attract the right kind of men. ‘She keeps a great big vibrator by her bed,’ he smirked. ‘But I think she uses it a bit too much.’
It surprised me he’d even made the effort to drive and see her. Mostly, he liked to get drunk and stoned and sit talking bollocks at home. He was the only man I knew who faked his orgasms when he felt tired. At least, that’s what he told me, but he was lazy enough for me to believe it.
One weekend, I got off at a party with another girl from our course. We went outside for a snog. The taste and touch of a new person felt so good to me, but at the same time somehow painful. I’d never noticed this before. It felt as if this girl and I were splitting up, whereas in fact we never even got started.
Over her shoulder, I saw Zeff come out for a smoke. He watched us, then gave me a thumbs-up sign, then sat down heavily, swigging from a pint glass of red wine. I ignored him. He got so drunk that night, in the morning he seemed to remember nothing. I dropped a few remarks about the girl, but he just looked blank and talked about something else. I couldn’t tell if he really didn’t remember, or simply wasn’t interested in things that happened to me.
What I couldn’t do without were our talks. His room was over mine, and each night I’d go up and we’d talk and talk, usually with the television on. Beavis and Butthead were big around that time. We joked about how we were their philosophical equivalent.
Death was Zeff’s big preoccupation. He wanted to write his dissertation on it. He had books by Sartre, Heidegger and Freud. On top of his television stood a brass statue of Kali, whose lithe and dancing limbs dangled severed heads, and waved cruel-looking knives. I never quite worked out where Zeff thought he stood on death. I found a book of photos once by an Italian artist, who made portraits of dead people: the elderly and children; the chronically ill, and those who had been healthy right up to the end. He seemed to be saying that, even as corpses, we retain individuality. Many of those dead faces looked like they were faintly smiling at some private joke. Zeff flipped through the images cursorily – a bit tensely, I thought.
‘Well, they’re all peaceful and happy,’ he declared.
‘Of course they’re not,’ I said, taken aback. ‘They’re dead, Zeff. There’s nothing there that can feel peaceful or happy.’
Another time, our conversation turned onto how dying must feel.
‘Like nothing much,’ Zeff surmised. ‘Merely glimmers. Flashes of sensation as the brain shuts down.’
‘But those “glimmers” will be all of our experience,’ I said, ‘and if that is everything there is for us, then there can be no “merely” about it.’
I sat drinking wine and talking bollocks like this until I was tired. After midnight, Zeff would switch to whiskey and sit up for long after I’d gone to bed. Some mornings, I heard his television and knew he was still up from the night before. He usually surfaced after lunch, when I’d already been studying for a few hours. Sometimes, I would take a break from the books and journals. ‘It’s a day off, today,’ I would tell him.
‘No it’s not,’ he would snap. ‘It’s just another day. Just like any other.’
I don’t know how it came about. Maybe I was bored, because either I would be reading or else I would be talking bollocks with Zeff, and that was all it seemed I ever did.
‘I don’t need to read any books,’ Zeff once said. ‘I just talk to you about them.’
How my search for some variety turned into joining the Parapsychological Society, I’m not sure. It was close to Halloween, so I guess I just saw a poster for what they had planned: a night in some woods, investigating ghosts. In 1941 a German bomber had come down in some nearby woodland. Ever since, people had supposedly seen re-enactments of the plane’s last moments, plus a ghostly airman, wandering among the trees in Nazi uniform. This was long before the packaged ghost vigils that are popular today. I could think of no better way to spend Halloween than in those woods, hunting dead Nazis. And when I heard that the organisers needed volunteer drivers, suddenly Zeff was involved too.
‘Could you please slow down?’
That was Liam, a weedy bloke in specs who nominally led the group. Also on the back seat was a chubby goth girl known as Raven. They weren’t holding hands and didn’t often look at each other. In fact, I’d never seen a couple like them. They seemed like strangers always accidentally too close.
Zeff thundered along way too fast down the winding roads. The three cars behind struggled to follow. He and I were postgrads, and I shared his delight in torturing the undergrads Liam and Raven. They blanched when he pulled out a bottle of Famous Grouse whiskey and swigged on it, yanking the wheel with his free hand.
After Liam shakily alighted and the others arrived, he marshalled us at a lay-by and we followed him into the trees, Zeff still pulling on his whiskey bottle. Pressing through the bracken, the wind sighed through the branches and the trees crowded in. I caught myself scanning the others for reassurance, but sensed them just as fruitlessly scanning me.
We split into two groups. Ours, led by Liam, patrolled the clearing made fifty years earlier when the plane came down. Raven guided the rest to a roadside spot where the airman had been sighted. Zeff passed me the bottle, and I was grateful for the warmth it imparted. By torchlight we trudged around the clearing.
‘You really feel you could bump into something weird here,’ I murmured.
‘Don’t worry. We won’t,’ said Zeff.
‘Be quiet, please,’ Liam chided, relishing his chance to turn the tables on Zeff.
But Zeff was right. Nothing happened for the whole hour, except we grew accustomed enough to our surroundings to start to feel bored. Yet when we reconnoitred at the lay-by with the other group, Raven was squatting by the verge, looking ill.
‘When she touched that tree stump,’ one of the guys in her group explained, ‘the negative energy nearly threw her across the road.’
Liam put his hand on the place indicated and confirmed he sensed something strange,
‘It wouldn’t surprise me,’ he said, ‘if the pilot’s ghost often stands just here.’
I glanced at Zeff, and his glance in return assured me we were agreed on what we thought of this. With much stroking and soothing, Raven was coaxed by her friends back onto her feet. There was just enough moonlight to reveal the road winding down into a valley, then curving upwards past more woods in the distance. Someone shouted, and pointed at something odd, moving at speed through those distant trees. It was a vivid red light, which shot out a concentrated beam that revolved in all directions as it moved in and out of the trees. We could all see clearly that it was not at ground level, but hovering a short height above. My mind reeled in incomprehension as I watched. I’d come to investigate a ghost, but had found a UFO instead.
One of the better-equipped guys aimed his flashlight at the object and signalled it with two quick blasts. In response, it instantly winked out and vanished.
Although this proved the thing was intelligent, suddenly it didn’t seem wise to have given away to it our position. As we stood, debating whether it was better to leave, or hike over to where the light had last been, we heard an engine roaring up the road.
A tall truck appeared, with an open rear, on which stood a man in camouflage gear, hands gripping a device on the cabin roof. Leaving us in no doubt as to what we’d seen, he flicked a switch and we were drenched in dazzling red light. The driver pulled over and killed the engine.
‘What are you lot doing out here?’ he growled, climbing from the cab.
‘We’re from the university, undertaking scientific investigation into sightings of a ghost,’ said Liam.
The driver looked at the other man and they smiled. The man in the back of the truck dimmed the light and jumped down.
‘There’s no ghosts out here,’ he said. ‘I’ve lived around here for years and I never heard of any.’
‘A German bomber crashed here in 1941,’ Liam explained.
‘Well I’ve never heard of it,’ the man insisted.
The residual red glow revealed a bulging tarpaulin in the back of the truck. Feathered carcasses protruded from underneath, and something big that might have been a dead deer.
‘You’re farmers?’ Liam asked.
The two men looked at each other again.
‘That’s right,’ said the driver.
‘We didn’t mean to trespass,’ Liam apologised.
‘Oh, we don’t mind,’ said the driver.
‘No,’ smiled the other man. ‘Make yourselves at home.’
Zeff broke away from the group to stand chatting with the men. In the meantime, Liam gathered us around him. ‘Each group will swap sites,’ he announced, glancing at the truck, ‘for one final patrol.’
I watched Zeff sharing his spliff and whiskey. The men laughed again and finally made off. The tail lights of their truck went back down the hill, and Zeff skulked in at the rear of the group. They must have had shotguns with them. Things could have turned out far worse.
By now it was past 2am. But the next hour was as dull as the first, as we tramped up and down the same stretch of road. At one point Liam froze, pointed, and made a performance of having seen a goggled figure near the tree stump where Raven had her dizzy fit. A few in the group began to nod and murmur that maybe they’d seen it too, but I wasn’t convinced. To judge from his complete disinterest, neither was Zeff.
‘Sorry,’ I whispered to him as we trudged again up the road. ‘I thought there would be more to it than this. You know, some kind of intellectual, scientific discussion.’
‘Not your fault they’re dicks,’ said Zeff.
‘We could have done something useful instead,’ I said.
‘You might have,’ Zeff replied.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘I can’t be bothered working as hard as you do. I don’t even know why I’m doing our course.’
‘Because you turn in good work,’ I reminded him.
‘I get all my ideas from you.’ He flicked the remains of his roll-up. They traced a red arc into the damp grass. ‘Before you came along,’ he said, ‘I’d never met anyone more intelligent than me,’
He was angry, but I was puzzled. It’s clearer to me now what happened right then, but at the time I felt only that if we wasn’t blaming me for how badly the evening had turned out, then he was certainly blaming me for something.
After the two groups merged and we prepared to drive home, in the same instant all of us noticed peculiar sounds and movements. The sky was clear at that moment, the moon bright. On the opposite side of the road an empty field rose into a gentle hill, glowing blue-white. On its crest, something stirred. An undulating form that coalesced from mist, and rose into an approximately human shape. It turned its head to us. It had no features, and never ceased shifting and writhing as it gathered itself, beneath the brilliant moon.
Even as my heart continued to hammer, I still remember how one thing seemed to transform into another: the ghost turned into a laughing heap of two men, flailing under a tarpaulin. It was the poachers, returned from over the field to give us a scare.
‘Admit it,’ said Zeff to Liam, after the men had stopped laughing at us and walked away. ‘I talked to those guys earlier. There was never a ghost out here, was there?’
Liam looked at Raven, then around the group. ‘I was going to tell everyone,’ he said. ‘But –’ he raised his voice over the chorus of groans – ‘it was still a valid exercise. We needed to test how to coordinate a large group out in the field, before we undertook a real investigation.’
I never attended another of their meetings. Although we laughed on the way home, and often re-told this story between ourselves and friends, it marked the point after which things changed. Within a couple of months Zeff had given up the course and moved back with his parents. I stayed in touch, until it grew painfully obvious how it was always me who phoned. I heard through other friends that Zeff had later found a job and moved into his own place. Then, after a couple of years, I heard he’d married and set up a business selling designer shoes. It has been twenty years now since I saw him. I still think about what he’s doing, and still wonder how it took me so long to realise he never liked me as much as I liked him.
In the meantime, the internet has come along. Some nights I go on-line and try to find him. These days, everyone leaves some kind of trace on-line, but although he has an unusual surname Zeff seems to have left nothing. And this worries me, because Zeff was always so obsessed with the idea of death. A lot can happen in the space of twenty years, but so – of course – can absolutely nothing at all.