Though he had pre-registered months in advance, when he arrived at reception, the conference hosts could not locate his name on their lists, nor was a “John Wraith” lanyard waiting for him to collect. There were, the wraith noticed, other pale faces checking in, slipping between the hearty flesh-and-blood types who wheeled their compact suitcases about the lobby and gabbed brightly. When his turn came to pass his luggage to the porter for stowing while a room was prepared for him, the man at first overlooked him. Then, handing over the string bag in which he’d packed his best shoes, a black brogue slithered out and tumbled to the floor. Apologetically, the wraith picked it up, repacked it, was left holding the bag; the porter had moved on to the next guest.
A brisk air-con in the executive suite kept the delegates alert. The wraith sat silently tapping notes into his iPad and sipping water while the hosts paraded their company’s successes and left little time at the end for the thicket of raised hands. He himself had no questions to ask, and in any case, speaking was not always possible for him. He was merely anxious to get settled in his room and update his Instagram account. This anxiety increased when a brief check showed a photo of the pop star he felt to be his Instagram rival, bronzed, in a lounger by a swimming pool, being fed grapes by a lovely girl, which had already acquired many thousands of favourites. In this hotel, the wraith hoped, he would take the photo which would put him on the Instagram map.
Hotel meals, it was widely felt, were the main draw to conference, along with discovering which scones, cupcakes, fortune cookies and such like would accompany the regular coffee breaks. Despite the winter weather, meals were served in a marquee. The delegates were cold. The wraith was cold. His room too was under-heated. And the complimentary tea set, with its archaic kettle and powder packets stashed in a cupboard, proved an early letdown. Following the evening’s Mexican-themed dinner, a mix of meat dishes followed by lime jelly all disgusting to the vegetarian wraith, he retired to his room, dragged out the tea set and discovered no biscuits, not even a solitary shortbread, which he had been counting on to make it through the night. He lay alone in the double bed, a surplus of cushions and pillows heaped to one side, his stomach puttering like a washing machine.
When the wraith checked his Instagram account the next morning, there were the selfies of others he followed, smears of white reflection unsmiling in various locations and states of undress, and he glanced briefly at these before a lengthy period of brooding over another poolside shot of his Instagram rival; this one had acquired even more favourites than the previous day’s upload. He sighed, stood up and stared at himself in the spotlit mirror. While online he could envisage himself having, indeed, on some websites had, substance, in the physical world he was all too plainly ghost. He ran a hand through his pale hair, over the stubble on his pale chin. In the room next door, a couple were laughing.
Breakfast was self-service. He ladled out a bowl of porridge, added raisins and maple syrup, and returned to his table to find his seat, which he had carefully marked with his coat, had been taken. His coat was now lying on the floor. Finding another table, he fed slowly on the thick porridge, sought every now and again to attract the attention of the waitress circulating with a coffee pot, and read a trending story about a pilot who had deliberately flown his airbus into the side of a mountain.
At intervals throughout the day’s many workshops, the wraith returned to his room, and took a photo of himself. Each time, the light was different. He had long ago given up attempting to smile; his smile didn’t favour reproduction. Sometimes he looked directly at the camera, or he turned his head to one side, or he slightly sucked in his cheeks the way he’d heard some models did. By the end of the day, he had a shot he felt happy with. It was somewhat blurry in comparison with those of his rival, but that was only to be expected; his rival most likely had a much more expensive camera. Carefully, he tagged the photo, noted the location, and posted it on Instagram. Then he ran a bath. He lay in the bath for a long time. He thought of how, when his mother was heavily sedated and about to die, his father had spoken to her of all the holidays they were going to have, holidays which of course would never happen. This negative space of things that would not occur was the world he felt he inhabited; he didn’t know why.
When the wraith entered the foyer for pre-dinner drinks, it was empty. Disconcerted, he looked into the marquee; that too was empty. Dinner, he learned from the receptionist, was to be held in the adjoining mansion. He walked out into the cold night, through the car park, and down a gravel path lit by burning gas candles. Ahead, he could see the white mansion, its entrance marked by a red carpet, which poked out like a thin tongue. Somewhat self-conscious, he drifted down the carpet, though there was no one about to see him.
Inside, warm and dark, the mansion buzzed. Checking, he found his name was not on the seating plan, but others’ names had also been omitted. When the call to dinner came, he drew up a chair at a table with colleagues from his company, who spent the meal gently prodding the waiters to ensure he wasn’t overlooked. And they discussed company problems, which were many, and mainly ignored by their directors, who holed themselves up behind a coded door and worked on pointlessly abstract service plans or their own property portfolios while frontline staff ran the practical side of the business and took the flack for any failings.
Dinner, to the wraith’s relief, he found edible enough. Then the lights lowered, and a DJ announced himself. There was the checkered dance floor, empty. Who would be the first to dance? The wraith was distracted by the appearance at their table of a busty Northern girl. ‘That’s Siobhan,’ his colleague whispered to him. ‘She likes to drink.’ Siobhan flirted with a couple of suits, and was suddenly beside the wraith, her bust in his face like a trifle, interrogating him while he whimpered and softly protested. She might have been gesturing at him from behind a sheet of perspex.
He checked his phone. The photo he had posted earlier had generated no interest so far. Perhaps, the wraith fretted, he should have applied a filter. When he looked up, the chess board was full of people, mainly women, executing a dance which involved laying their hands on their shoulders and jumping round a quarter step at regular intervals. He stared at them. With self-conscious defiance, it seemed to him, they stared back. Perhaps, the wraith pondered, they had listened to this song when they were young. The dancers rotated away from him. He refilled his glass.
A pair of trousers, it was disseminated next morning, had been found on the hotel stairs. They were as yet unclaimed, but the involvement of Siobhan was floated over breakfast. Delegates also discussed the pilot who had crashed his airbus. According to a former girlfriend, he had wanted to make a mark on the world. The wraith was not at breakfast. He was nowhere to be seen. He had departed early, silently gathering his luggage, handing in his key card to reception, checking out. Vacuuming an empty corridor, a cleaner stopped, lifted her head, looked round, then went back to work. Perhaps he had left an impression of himself in the hotel, a shed layer, with him a little more insubstantial, a little less in the world. Light swabbing the clouds, the hotel door shuddered and the wraith passed through it.