The ghost stood on the terrace of the school, looking out at the snow-covered city. The school was closed that day because of the weather, and the corridors and classrooms were all silent except for the sounds of heavy winds outside.
There was no one on the terrace, and the half foot of snow covering the terrace was smooth and nearly undisturbed, saved for the boot prints left by one of the cleaning staff who had come out earlier for a cigarette and to take in the view.
The ghost had long ago ceased to bother with the cleaning staff. They weren’t worth haunting, the poor souls. It was so much more fun to mess with the students, who each year arrived in fresh waves, their bright faces singing the songs of youth.
The ghost smiled as memories flooded back … that time in the toilet on the 4th floor, when he had blown a shiver down the back of a first-year student who locked himself in the stall to pray. Or that time in that teacher who decided to stay late and enter midterm grades – the ghost locked the door of the unfortunate teacher’s office. The teacher had forgotten his phone at home, and was reduced to tearfully pounding on the door until a security staff heard his cries.
And then there were all those times the ghost cut the Internet right in the middle of exams. Oh, the curses, the cries of frustration, the scurrying IT guys! Good stuff. The ghost let out a ghostly chuckle (what other kind of chuckle does a ghost have?). These and other memories came flooding back as the ghost stood regarding the city from the terrace.
It was an important day for the ghost, and it wanted to take a moment. For this was the day the ghost graduated: after decades of purgatory (damned bureaucracy), the ghost was finally headed to the afterlife. In short time, the ghost’s successor at the campus was due to arrive, a teacher who had met with the business end of a wayward bus on the city’s icy streets a few hours before.
Naturally, or perhaps supernaturally, there would be a turnover, with the outgoing phantasm giving a rundown of duties to the incoming spirit. The job was pretty easy, dull, and consisted mostly of drifting through the corridors, occasionally causing drafts and unexplained noises. Haunting per se wasn’t even in the contract, for the school hadn’t been built on ancient burial grounds or anything like that. There were no unexpurgated sins on school grounds, no murders or grave crimes. It was a routine ghost post, so any haunting was left to the ghost’s whim or initiative – it didn’t bring any extra compensation or expedite the afterlife process, mind. Alas, there were few rewards in purgatory …
I wrote this story at my desk this past week, as the city was in fact buried under a snowstorm that hit on Monday. All classes at the campus were canceled, and the lessons were to be done online. That was fine with the students of course – snow days!
As for me, I have always loved coming to the campus. It reminds me of my youth I suppose, arriving at Humboldt State (now Cal Poly Humboldt, I hear) just after sunrise, strolling over to the Jolly Giant for breakfast and a hot cup of coffee, before heading over to the library to get some studying done before class. In those early morning hours, the campus was nearly deserted, and I felt as though I had this great fountain of learning all to myself.
Here in the city, the first snow day or two was not too bad. It was nice and cozy at home, to be warm and pajama-ed, while the snow fell from heavy grey skies outside. The problem is we have a very small flat, and a two-year-old son. He cooperated pretty well though, turning in for his afternoon nap just in time for my lessons, and I was able to work on the balcony (with a portable heater) undisturbed.
But by Thursday, I’d had enough. Wasn’t nearly two years of remote working enough during the worst days of the pandemic? Aren’t we entitled to some separation of work and home life? Just because the rest of the school wants to stay home, does that mean I have to? Besides, being home day and night, day and night in a small flat with a two-year-old, my wife and I were starting to get on each other’s nerves. “The secret of a successful marriage,” a wise man once said, “is frequent periods of long absence.”
Thursday morning, snow be damned, I set out for the campus. It wasn’t so bad outside. There hadn’t been any fresh snowfall in a day or two. The streets were mostly clear, wet only with melted snow, all the rest piled up beside.
The ferry across the grey, nearly motionless Bosphorus was quick, as was the bus ride, and in no time at all I found myself at the campus. Entering the main entrance, darkness greeted me initially. Then a security guard materialized, peering at me quizzically. You could tell he was stunned to see me, or anyone for that matter. Probably resented having his peace and quiet disturbed.
I went upstairs to the fourth floor, where my office is located. All of the corridors were dark and silent. Up on the fifth floor, the door to the coffee room was locked, as was the smoking terrace. Not a soul was stirring, not even the ghost of a mouse. Was I to be denied even a cup of morning mojo? All I ask is one cup, brother!
There had to be a cup of coffee somewhere on campus. Beginning to feel a bit spectral myself, with my lone boots echoing in the empty halls, I thought of those slasher movies where the last girl treds fearfully through dark, silent halls, the masked killer’s heavy breathing not far behind. “Yep, it’s just you and me today, mad man!” I thought grimly, nevertheless casting a cautious look down the dark corridors once more. At the far end, you could see the winter landscape peering in from a small window.
Speaking of masks: I donned my mask out of habit (what was the point? Who was I going to get Covid from, the solitary street cat lounging at the foot of the steps? It stared at me with wide eyes as I passed).
At last, on the ground floor over in the A Block, I found a coffee vending machine. It accepted my bank card and poured forth a blessed black brew in a paper cup. Ah, ye gods! It tasted marvelous, and by the time I got back to my office in B block I was back in my mostly human form. In the stairwell I encountered another soul. She looked young enough to be a student, a flashing dark, moon-faced girl with a tossel cap. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask what she was doing, but then I thought that maybe she didn’t have Internet access at home, and came to the school for her online lessons. Or maybe like me, she just couldn’t stand being stuck at home day in and day out. A kindred ghost.
A second security guard, who also appeared to be of the living, accosted me.
“The coffee room is open, hoca! Fifth floor!” He barked in Turkish. Not wishing to disabuse him, having just checked a few minutes before, I kindly nodded and we both went about our business.
On the bus ride to the campus, I had thought about what to write. There was the urgent situation in Ukraine. The Turkish president has offered to serve as a mediator between the two parties, to help de-escalate the conflict. Turkey has no wish to live in a war zone, but in peace, the leader said. Reading that made me think of the Syrian war, which has gone since my arrival here a decade ago. First Syria, now Ukraine, and don’t forget about the unrest in Kazakhstan. I thought about writing something about living in a country surrounded by conflicts, an open letter to Putin perhaps. “Dear Vladimir (can I call you Vladimir?), I write as a member of the human race, as a “friend.” ….” But as I sat down to write, after a moment of concentration I just sighed and said, “You know what? I really don’t care!” and sat down and wrote this story instead.
I went upstairs and checked the coffee room once more. Why, it was open! The security guard was right. I poured myself a proper hot cup of Joe, and tried the door to the terrace. Open! I stepped out onto the deserted terrace, lit a cigarette, and breathed in the cold morning air. A pathway had been shoveled by the staff, and somebody had made a snowman out of some of the loose, dirty snow. Two thin metal bars stuck out from the sides like arms, so that the whole effect resembled a crude, winter crucifixion.
The crucified snowman and I stood alone on the rooftop, with all of the city cold and grey around us. “Well, snowman, it’s just you, me and the city!” I said. “What shall we do about Ukraine, snowman?”
The snowman didn’t answer. It felt strange to be talking to a snowman, especially one who had been crucified. But then again, just an hour before I had been communing with ghosts. Funny what a few snow days will do to you.
Later, there was a knock at my door. Mick, one of the other American teachers, presented himself. No doubt, he and I were the only teachers in the building.
“Wanna grab some lunch?” he asked. The cafeteria was closed, but we could grab a burger or something at the food court in nearby Trump Tower.
“What about our level meeting?” I asked. We had a Zoom session scheduled for one o’clock.
“We can just log in with our phones,” Mick suggested. “That’s what I did for the last meeting.”
“Sounds good to me.”
So after the lessons finished, we left the campus and headed out into the cold streets, back to the land of the living. Some day this winter will end, and hopefully take the pandemic with it. One day all of these things will be part of the ghostly past.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.