George tells ghost stories as we cross the black river.
The ferry is lamplit. Nearly empty at this hour.
George is my classmate at Marlwood. And though he never paid me much of any mind, he’s invited me to go with him to the gardens at Vauxhall.
My sister has been to Vauxhall. Of course she has. She’s been everywhere in London. When she was drunk one night, she told me what men do together on the dark and winding paths of the pleasure garden. “They go there to be wanton, Tom,” she said. “Men wrestle each other to the ground. One might press his lips to another’s mouth. Stick his tongue inside. There’s more than that too. I’ve seen it.”
George himself is handsome. He plays cricket and boxes in the bareknuckle fights. I’ve watched him often from afar. His body is long and pale. His muscles, hard. But his mouth looks soft. And though he smells of bitter smoke, there’s something sweet about him too.
I hope George might mean to wrestle me on one of the old quiet paths at the garden. Maybe he’ll press his mouth to mine in the shadows of the mirror house. Or we’ll lie together on the banks of the floating island and listen to the distant music drifting down from the great hall.
Vauxhall is made for all sorts of hidden pleasures. And that would be a pleasure indeed.
Yet, as we cross the river, George gives no sign of such a future. Instead he continues to talk of ghosts: “There’s one that creeps about the supper boxes near the Turkish tent,” George says. “He bothers the diners there.”
I lean toward George, hoping a strong wave might knock me into his lap.
“He’s what’s called the Brown-Paper Man,” George continues. “Old fellow. Dressed in a suit of burned newsprint. He approaches men and women and begs for coins. But coins aren’t what really he wants.”
“What does he want?” I ask softly.
George takes a wooden pipe from the pocket of his coat. “I couldn’t say, Tom. But if anyone offers the old fellow money, he just walks off into the moonlight. Those who’ve seen his face say, well, they say it’s odd. As if he’s made of paper too.”
I move my knee carefully toward George.
“Then there’s him who’s called the Headless Bear,” George says.
“A bear?” I look toward the far river bank where torches glow dimly about the black gates of the pleasure garden. Faint music, likely from a band of roaming minstrels, drifts toward us across the water
“It’s some poor creature left over from the king’s hunt,” George says. “Poachers took the bear’s head. Now the body wanders all about. Walking on its two hind feet through the woods.”
Fire brightens George’s gray eyes as he lights his pipe.
“There’s one more too,” George says.
“What’s this one called?” I ask.
“Well, he doesn’t have a proper name. And he’s not really a ghost at all, I suppose.”
George leans close, but not close enough to touch me. “One of the fair boys, I’ve heard,” he says. “Come down from the summer court.”
“What’s the summer court?” I say.
George blows a ring of smoke. “You know the answer well enough, don’t you, Tom?”
I consider this, then shake my head.
“What season is it now, Tom?” George asks.
“The season when the leaves fall,” I say.
George nods. “That’s right. And the fair boys of the summer court have to find somewhere to go, don’t they?”
I look toward the far bank again. The black gates of Vauxhall loom closer still. Dark and glittering in the torchlight.
“We should have come to the gardens in the summer, you know?” George says. “We could have had a time together then. But traipsing around in the cold and the fallen leaves, that’s no such thing for you, Tom.”
“I don’t mind,” I say. “I’m hearty enough.”
“No,” George says, resting the stem of his pipe on his lower lip. “You’re not so hearty as that, Tom. I’ve watched you at school.”
“You have?” I say.
George nods. “You never play sports.”
“No,” I say.
“And I’ve seen you watching me,” George says.
“Have you?” I say.
I think of my sister then. She said her own young Mr. Brenner was so sweet to her at the pleasure gardens. She said he took her hand and kissed her lightly on the cheek. He picked flowers for her from a spot near the bathing pond.
I study George as he smokes, the pale strength of him.
“My sister tells me men wrestle each other on the paths at Vauxhall,” I say.
“Wrestle?” George says, raising his brow.
I nod. “And they do other things too.”
“Is that so?” George says. Then, he sits silent for a time. Finally, he says, “We’re not going to wrestle, Tom.”
“No,” I say. “I didn’t think so.”
“So many ghosts at Vauxhall,” George says.
Soon, the port side of our ferry knocks against the wooden dock on the far side of the river.
George’s hand is on my shoulder then.
His fingers are far colder than I imagined them to be.
Adam McOmber is the author of The White Forest: A Novel (Touchstone) and two collections of stories, This New & Poisonous Air and My House Gathers Desires (BOA). His new novel, Jesus and John, is forthcoming from Lethe Press in June 2020. His work has appeared in Conjunctions, Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, Fairytale Review and Diagram. He teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Los Angeles.