The small waiting room on platform 2 is full of a non-specific stink – kind of stale smelling, and a little bit toiletly. On an orange plastic chair that is screwed into the dirty, brown-tiled floor I wait for the 15:26 train to Liverpool Street, which is fifteen minutes away. The door opens and while a man with a walking stick hobbles in I try to fill my lungs with some fresh air before the door swings shut again, sealing me back in with the stench. The man with the stick sits down directly opposite me.
He’s got a large head and a small skinny body, and he looks at me when I look up from the job page of today’s Gazette and smiles – a friendly, child-like smile. He says hello and I say hi back.
Then he asks, “Are you an Essex girl?”
I smile and reply, “Yeah, I am.” Yet quickly add, as I always feel the need to, “But not a typical Essex girl!”
He has an accent that I can’t place. He assures me that there’s nothing wrong with being an Essex girl. I ask him where he’s from and he says he’s from Jordan. Then he says, leaning in closer to me whispering, although we are alone in the waiting room, “Do you like ghost stories?”
I lean in to meet him and find myself whispering back, “Yes.”
For a moment he looks very pleased with himself and then he sits back in his seat, placing his clasped hands in his lap.
“One evening,” he begins in a clear voice, “a young man went for a walk.” I close my paper. “It was the end of summer and the fields of corn had been harvested. The young man walked across the cut fields with a spring in his step, sometimes running, enjoying the freedom and speed his body was blessed with, and then he’d slow down again and take in the beauty of the rolling English fields stretching out before him in the low light of the evening. When he came to the edge of the field he was faced with a ditch and a large black dead field of some crop he didn’t know of beyond that. He stopped to look at it, never seeing anything like it before. The crop must have been tall when it was alive, and he thought maybe it had been sweetcorn?” He looks at me for confirmation. I shrug and nod. “Anyway, it looked like it had been long dead, and in the dwindling light the black field sloped up into a small hill, creating a wide black shape against the sky. All of a sudden, he hears a sound. There is something in the dead crop, rustling, moving the blackened stalks of corn. The young man is startled by the sudden noise and then feels stupid, knowing that it must only be a bird or perhaps a fox – nothing dangerous! But if only he had known the true peril he was about to face!”
He stops and takes a pack of Marlboros from his jacket pocket. He offers me one and I lamely point at the no-smoking sign on the wall near his head. He turns to look at it then waves his hand dismissively, saying “Pah!” and holds out the open pack to me. I smile and take one and he hands me his lighter.
“So, he’s staring into the dark field,” he continues, a cigarette between his lips, taking back his lighter. “And a tall shape appears out of the crop… Now that’s good,” he says, after his first drag. “Lebanese. Uh… a tall shape appears and he stands back, astounded, as a horse leaps from the corn and over the ditch, coming to a halt right in front of him.”
“Wow,” I say, checking my watch and wondering when this is going to turn into a ghost story.
“The horse is beautiful,” he says, “tall, and chestnut brown. Steam rises off of his muscular body. He makes that sound horses make, out of his nose, and stomps the ground a little with his front hoof. The young man stares at him, bewildered but enthralled. My English is very good, no?”
I choke slightly on my cigarette and nod in agreement. “It’s very good!” I say.
“Hesitantly, the young man approaches the horse, holding his hand out to stroke its head. The horse is very friendly and soon the man is patting it and talking to it gently. It gets dark very quickly and the young man realises that he must make his way home. He bids farewell to the horse and starts to walk away, but the horse begins to follow. The young man tries to persuade the horse to stay; he doesn’t know who owns it and he doesn’t want to lead it away from its home. But the horse is insistent and so the young man walks across the field, heading home, with the horse trailing closely at his side. When is your train due?” he asks, lifting the cigarette up to his mouth.
“Oh, um…” I look at my watch. “Seven minutes.”
He nods, takes a drag, then breathes the smoke out of his nose. “The young man reaches a country lane at the end of the field and stops. He looks at the horse and says, uselessly I suppose, “Stay!” But the horse is very cool; he knows he can’t be bossed about by a scrawny little man, so when the man starts walking down the country lane, towards the main road, the horse of course follows. By the time they reach the main road the man is feeling very self-conscious. There is a huge horse following closely by his side! He walks down the street, the horses’ hooves clip clip on the pavement and he’s anxious about what people are going to say! He passes an Indian restaurant and sees a waiter standing outside, smoking. The waiter looks at the man, raises his hand and says, “Good evening!” The man nervously looks at the horse and then back at the waiter and then back at the horse. The waiter gives the man a funny look and says, “You okay, my friend?” The waiter isn’t looking at the horse; he’s just staring at the man, looking concerned.
“I’m fine,” says the man, almost asking if it’s true, still turning his gaze back and forth between the horse and the Indian waiter. He carries on down the street and passes a couple walking their dog. They look at him, but not at the horse and walk right on by.”
He leans forward again and says in a hushed voice, “No one else can see the horse!” He chuckles. “It’s a ghost horse. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”
“Never,” I say, honestly.
“The horse follows the man home, squeezing itself through the door into the tiny flat. It stands there in the living room, its tail swings every now and then and it makes that horsey noise through its nose. When the man goes into the bathroom to splash some cold water on his face to wake himself up from this bizarre dream, the horse follows him in, cramming into the room behind him. He turns on the cold tap and lets it run until its icy cold, he bends down, his arse pressing against the horse’s side, and splashes his face with the water. He hopes that when he looks up the horse will be gone, but he can still feel the horse behind him and when he stands up the horses face is reflected along with his own in the bathroom cabinet mirror. It is at this moment that the horse tells the man his name, “Little White Lies.” He was a race horse,” he adds. I nod.
“The next day Little White Lies tells the young man to bet £5 on ‘A Token Gesture’ who stands at 6-1 in the race at 2:30pm. The young man, who is at this point trying not to have a nervous breakdown because he thinks he is hallucinating a talking dead race horse, doesn’t do any such thing. But he watches the race on TV and the winner is…”
“A Token Gesture?” I say, taking one last drag from my cigarette and stubbing it out on the dirty floor.
He nods, smiling. “So, when Little White Lies says bet £5 on a 12-1 called ‘Dream Lover’ at 3:30pm, the young man hops into his car, with the horse cramming into the back seat, his face squashed up against the window, and drives into Clacton to place his bet. He wins £60. He stays at the bookies for an hour and wins on two more races. The next day he spends all day betting. Little White Lies predicts right every single time. He says things like, “’A Fighting Chance’, I know him, he’s a good chap, but he won’t win this one, it’ll be ‘Shelley’s House’.” It doesn’t take long before the young man is winning a fortune. He bets more and more on each race and wins every time. After a week he leaves his job. He has to find new betting shops every day so no one gets too suspicious. The young man has never had so much money before in his life, he’s going out on spending sprees, buying designer clothes, fancy shoes, he takes his friends out and buys all the rounds when once he was forced to be a scrounger and bought none! He’s having the time of his life.” His smile looks reminiscent as he takes a long pause.
I look at my watch. “My train is due any minute…” I fold my paper and stuff it into my handbag.
“Yes, yes. One day Little White Lies says to bet everything on ‘Witchy Poo’. But ‘Alfred’s Gun’ wins instead. The young man is left with nothing. Not a penny. The next day Little White Lies has vanished, and the man never sees him again. The young man can’t pay that months rent because he doesn’t have a job anymore, so he borrows some money from a shady Turkish guy who is a friend of a friend. Big mistake. So then he takes out a credit card. He gets into a lot of trouble. He can’t pay back the Turkish guy… You don’t have a credit card, do you?” He asks warningly.
“No,” I shake my head.
My train pulls into the station and I sling my handbag over my shoulder. As I head for the door he’s nodding gently as I’m saying, “I’m so sorry, I’ve got to run! Great story though!”
I open the door and notice the walking stick propped up against the seat next to him. I look back; I just have to ask him, “What did the Turkish man do when the man couldn’t pay back the money?”
The man from Jordan smiles, raising his eyebrows high above his large child-like eyes, and gestures down at his lap.
“They broke his legs, of course!”