Facing him was a man’s head floating in mid air, approximately on the same level as his own. The face conveyed an impression of irritation and discomfort.
‘Can I help you?’ asked the old man.
The eyes in the head stared back at him from beneath a furrowed brow, but the pale, bloodless lips remained closed.
‘Is there something the matter?’ he continued.
‘I should say there’s something the matter,’ replied the head.
‘Oh dear. What is it?’
‘What do you think it is?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Well think, man, think. I just knocked at your door, right?’
‘And how do people usually knock at doors?’
‘By rapping on it with their knuckles.’
‘Right. Got it in one. Do you see any knuckles? Do you see any arms? Do you see anything but this freggin head?’
‘So what do you think I knocked on your door with? The head, that’s what. And it hurt, especially the second time.’
‘Oh, I see. I’m sorry, it’s just that I wasn’t expecting any callers at this time of night and such dreadful things happen these days. If I’d known it was only you…’
‘Yeah, yeah, not your fault I suppose. The problem is, I’ve got no way of rubbing the bloody thing. Nothing to rub it with, see?’
‘I do indeed. It must be awful for you. Would you like me to rub it?’
‘No, don’t bother. The pain’s going off now.’
The head fell silent while the eyes blinked a few times. After a few moments of pregnant silence the old man spoke again.
‘Is there something else I can help you with?’
‘Well, what I mean to say is: why did you knock on the door in the first place?’
‘You knocked on the door. Did you want something?’
The head stared back again, but this time the frown was quizzical.
‘Oh that. Oh yeah, I wondered if you’d got any sugar.’
‘Yeah, sugar. I fancied a cup of tea but I haven’t got any sugar.’
‘Oh my, that is a shame. I do indeed have sugar to spare, but would there be any point in my giving you some?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well it occurs to me to wonder how you would hold the cup since you don’t have any hands.’
‘Ah, now, I’ve thought about that and I was going to ask you whether you’d got any straws so I could suck it up.’
‘I’m afraid that would present its own problem.’
‘It would. You see, in order to suck, a person has to have lungs, and you don’t.’
The head looked down at the empty space below its neck.
‘Oh no. Damn. Well how about if you made the tea in a cup and then poured it into my mouth?’
‘I’m afraid it would make an awful mess when it ran out of the bottom of your neck. And it would be quite impossible to slake your thirst anyway without a stomach.’
‘Oh. I suppose you’re right. So what you’re saying is, there wouldn’t be any point in me eating or drinking at all?’
‘I fear not.’
‘That’s a shame.’
‘Indeed. Have you ever eaten or drunk anything before?’
‘Where do you come from exactly?’
‘Erm… Don’t remember.’
‘Do you remember anything before you knocked on my door?’
The head went silent for some time while its eyes rolled this way and that.
‘As I suspected.’
‘Can’t you guess?’
The eyes stared long and hard until the light of understanding dawned.
‘You think I’m just a figment of your imagination, right?’
‘I think it most probable.’
‘Mmm… that’s a bit hard to swallow, if you’ll excuse the irony, but I don’t suppose I have a choice. So what should I do now?’
‘Disappear… disappear… disappear… Go pouf, you mean?’
‘Something like that.’
‘OK. Right. I suppose I’d better. Life’s a funny old thing, isn’t it? Oh well, it was nice talking to you.’
There was a sudden silent explosion as the head fragmented into a shower of what looked like fine flour, which fell rapidly but disappeared before it hit the floor. The old man returned to his armchair, raked the embers and added a little more coal. And then he went back to reading The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain which was just beginning to get interesting.