Jess Richards

The Ghost in the Room



Before I open my eyes each morning I mentally list all the things I’ve done wrong. This is so I don’t think about them all day. There are many things I need to list because before I have language, I can make the wrong things vanish. I’m forty-nine, and I still wake into thinking like a child.

After I wake in the morning and list the wrong things, I can forget them.



Before I open my eyes each morning I remember my dad is dead.

My dad so suddenly died, that he still feels suddenly dead, over six years later. We were told back then he would die within weeks or days. I kept saying months or weeks, and he and my mum and three brothers and the cancer nurses kept having to correct me. I’m the only daughter. Too emotional.

Perhaps every parent’s death feels sudden, to their children.

There’s a rip in the sky he’s gone away through.

I’m half-pulled through, after him.

My wife Morgan lies sleeping beside me. In this tiny white-walled bedroom, the brown blind lets in a sliver of pre-dawn light. The softness of the sheet across my ankles, the first call of an unidentifiable bird.

The smooth skin of her shoulder.

These real things hide my dad from me.

These real things pull me back from the rip and hold me here.



When I wake in the morning I open my eyes and see something which isn’t there. There’s a ghost in the corner of the bedroom. She’s blurring like a shadow against the white wall. She is half-lying, half-sitting up there on a high corner shelf which doesn’t exist. She’s been there just before dawn for the past three days. She disappears as it gets light so she’ll be gone soon. Those three other mornings, I’ve ignored her.

But today I’m curious.

I want to know why she’s here now.                



The ghost is wearing a grey nightgown and is curled across an invisible corner shelf, hugging her knees.

She looks like me at age fourteen—same nightgown, same awkward body.

Her brown hair is a tangled mask.

She hasn’t quite got to the age I was when I started dying my hair or wearing make-up.

The ghost hides her naked face.

She has heard of the names of the face-drawing materials. Foundation. Eyeliner. Lipstick. Eyeshadow. Blusher, mascara, powder.

But she doesn’t yet know how to draw a face over her own face.

How to know when the layers are thick enough.



—to protect others from our breath.

Before I open my eyes I remember the pandemic. We’re in lockdown again.

Masks used to be frightening things.

The demon at the carnival.

The Hallowe’en clown.

Now the virus is airborne—it’s frightening because it is invisible.

Outside, masked people are now frightened of unmasked people.

Outside, unmasked people want to convince masked people to remove their masks.

It is safest not to reply, not to breathe, it is safest to walk away.

It is safest to now disregard all the social rules which have been so carefully learned.

It is safest to become reclusive and refuse to go outside at all.

I exhale in relief because for now it is perfectly acceptable to stop trying so hard to make friends.



When the ghost speaks there are gaps. She censors her words using overlayers of gasps, as if other words are hidden in clumps of air:

‘I                 a daughter.                                       to grow up. I                        

                                                                           Meet a boy                 no   A girl                   because I don’t               at all.                            secrets                                                             with                  no picnic                                       .            ever             complete                              and don’t                                        go                                                   don’t care           becauSe all I liKe          is                           drawing                                               .                    don’t                            .   want to play       five cats and one day             a dog/wolf. And                 who’s kind                          who’s kind?                            

                           .                      care it’s                           coMe Away                      to eat              on the moor         and                         . Seek                 hiding                           talK              .’                                                                                                               

The ghost’s words disappear under false breath. Her past as well as mine has disappeared along with all the things I’ve done wrong and forgotten.



My final assessment appointment with Dr X was three days ago, on Skype because of the lockdown. She’s assessing me to find out if I’m autistic. The appointment happened in the front room of our home. Cats shut out. Litter tray put out in the hall. Door closed. Headphones on. Focus.

I’ll get her conclusion next week.

The ghost’s shoulders stiffen. She hears my thoughts. Or feels them.

Perhaps she hid beside the closed door and saw me talking to the doctor through a computer screen.

An odd conversation through glass with no reflections might be the kind of thing a ghost might watch.



—to reflect / seek similarities / mirror.

I wonder if my mum and any of my three brothers are autistic. I wonder if my dad was autistic. I wonder if Morgan is autistic.

I’ll find out for certain if I am or not next week. I’ve done diagnostic tests and ticked boxes. I’ve written pages about my childhood memories. I’ve completed questionnaires. My mum has answered questions and written a statement. Morgan has written a statement. I’ve filled out more questionnaires. Had conversations about childhood. Another test with scenarios and behaviours and opinions and layers of words and language designed to find gaps, lacks, empty spaces.

Tests to examine the things which don’t fit quite the way they’re expected to.

The wrong things.

I don’t want to talk about the wrong things. I don’t want to think about them.

Each morning, I forget them over and over again.

I’m trying to understand why no matter where I am or who I’m with, I’ve always felt lonely. I like being on my own, or being quiet and solitary, but loneliness is a painful emotion.

I wonder if Dr X is autistic.

When I find out the answer about whether I am autistic or not, I don’t want to speak about it because it could make me even lonelier to hear a response.

I wonder if the ghost is autistic.



—to avoid seeing, or remove from sight.

The diagnostic tests for autism are based on data which was gathered from autistic boys. Girls have to present severe behavioural problems or intellectual disabilities to meet the criteria. Autistic girls and women are under-diagnosed. They have learned how to mask. How to appear. It takes a highly experienced specialist to be able to assess women who have spent a lifetime masking.

—adapting, to adopt behaviours in order to fit in.

Women learn throughout their lifetime how to appear.

Have autistic women learned how to appear to appear?



—to redact / censor / hide the face.

The teenage ghost has been shouting, I think. She won’t look at me because she doesn’t want me to see the hurt which lives under the anger which lives under her hair-mask.

She doesn’t want me to see her naked ghost-face.



‘Appearing                  is                    irrelevant                                 if no one

                        sees                             behind the          .’



I’ve told very few people I’m having this assessment. Other people’s voices, while well-intentioned, echo with unknowing which reverberates with my own doubts:

‘But you’re clever. Imaginative.’

‘There’s a highly sensitive personality type—you’re more that, aren’t you?’

‘But you’re such a good teacher, a brilliant writer, you’ve even got a PhD.’

‘I think you’re the opposite of autistic. Is that an empath?’

Recent studies suggest autistic people aren’t lacking in empathy, but have too much empathy. High sensitivity is also indicated. Giftedness. Limited interests. Sensory overwhelm. Overload. Difficulty with small talk.

Whether I’m autistic or not, I’m sensitive to people discussing whether I seem autistic or not.

I’m sensitive to the assumptions many people, including myself, make about autistic people.

I’m sensitive to all the things I do wrong.

I have listed all the reasons I might be autistic in my responses to the questionnaires and statements written during the assessment. Pages of unrepeatable events and complicated relationships and misunderstandings and so many wrong things I always try to forget.

I am relieved that after writing the wrong things down and discussing them with Dr X I am still able to wake up and forget them.

All the same, this whole assessment might be an expensive mistake.



—a pointless investigation into overactive empathy and the permanence of loneliness.



The ghost measures language against its absence.

Miss               but                                                       never       ask     

 hate                being               .           A                     Secret               


I close my eyes and examine the ghost’s memories. She’s been shouting at my dad because she is a teenager and he is her dad. Now she feels guilty about all the words she’s shouted at him, because he is dead.

She was fourteen in 1986. She is still fourteen in 2021 and my dad has been suddenly dead for over six years. She is stuck, aged fourteen. From the corner of the room she stares down at me through her tangled hair. She’s been shouting about all the wrong things she couldn’t say.



I can see the ghost’s blue eyes faintly through her hair and they are damp with tears.

‘                                   I                       MeAn                                                  I hate it

            so                    Scared             when I                                                 rip                    up

                        tug       tear                  Keep                                       secrets.’

The ghost has wrapped her arms around herself. She’s so frightened of keeping secrets, she’s trembling.



I wake, remembering my dad is dead.

I used to talk to him about the wrong things I couldn’t usually talk about.

Remembering he’s dead is like curled grey leaves, like the cruelty of ivory.



Before I open my eyes I wake in this double bed beside Morgan.

I roll over and put my arm around her waist. Her murmur comes as a reply. A breath. Silence.

Outside the window birds sing up the sun. A tūī with its double voice box. Another tūī wakes, and another. They talk in overlayers of percussion. Click clack a ooo cluk.

We are lucky we don’t have to go outside today and dawn is still the brightest thing.

These birds seem so much louder than ever before.

I touch Morgan’s spine with my lips as I whisper, ‘Love you, sweetheart.’

She murmurs, ‘Mmm… love you too. Coffee…’

Smiling, I wake in a double bed with Morgan who loves me almost as much as she loves coffee.

What on earth would I do without her?

I forget this wrong thought, and hold her for a while longer, cradling warmth.

When I have forgotten everything I’ve done wrong, I try to forget how it feels to keep secrets.

As the birds sing louder the white walls become lighter.

The ghost grows paler as she disappears into daylight.



It’s frightening to think I might have worn a mask my whole life.

It’s frightening to think I might want to take it off.

It’s frightening to think there’s no mask, that I just don’t fit.

That I have always been lonely for no reason other than I was born lonely.

I might take off my mask.

I might take off my mask and find my own naked face.

I might take off my naked face, and find that behind it there is only a ghost.





Jess Richards


Jess Richards is the author of three novels: Snake Ropes, Cooking with Bones, and City of Circles are all published by Sceptre in the UK. (And via Hachette, NZ) She also writes short fiction, creative nonfiction, vispo and poetry - many of these texts have been published in international anthologies. She is currently working on a creative nonfiction project on the theme of birds and ghosts. Originally from Scotland, Jess lives in Wellington, New Zealand with her wife. She completed her PhD, Illusions, Transformations and Iterations: storytelling as fiction, image, artefact, at Massey University in 2020. This hybrid fine art and creative writing project culminated in a set of visually and textually transformed books.