Three Years Later.
Percival Michaelmas Varney, known to everyone as Old Jammy, was one of the living ghosts, the shadows who live amongst us, the homeless, the mentally ill, the ones we pretend not to see. Named for his fondness for jam doughnuts and the sticky mess they made on his coat and beard; in summer, he was a martyr to wasps.
Old Jammy was a bit mental, there’s no getting away from that; a stinky, threadbare old man in a dark, dirty coat, tightly buttoned over layers of wool and tweed. He liked the shelter of the Arcade, wandering up and down all day long, talking to himself and anyone who’d listen, about the wisdom imparted by the voices he heard. Like everyone else, I hurried past him, head down, embarrassed, afraid he’d catch my eye and try to engage me in conversation – but this time, this one time, he called out,
I was a shy, self-conscious boy who lived in terror of attracting attention, but startled, I turned to face him.
‘Yeah you boy, yous knows who ‘m I’m talking ‘bout. The Angel, sent from Heaven to do good here on Earth, but yous not doing good are you’m boy? You’m pleasing yourself and having a rare old time, I’m thinking.’
I was scared of the mad old man but always aware of what I’d known since I first went to My World – that we should always strive to be kind and look for the person under the dirt and behind the scars.
‘I knows you,’ he said. ‘I seen you in my visions,’ he murmured, his voice deep and low. ‘You’re the Angel.’
I took him for tea and doughnuts in the charity shop café. The blue-rinsed ladies who worked there turned their noses up at him, so in my best Gramma voice and with execrable precocious conceit, I reminded them it said ‘Help The Aged’ over the door, and here I was, doing my bit, helping an Aged – Helping an aged, my arse. I wanted to piss off the Thatcher-haired women far more than I wanted to help a poor old man. I was full of myself back then, I a right little snot. I bought Jammy tea out of curiosity, too; he knew my name; he seemed to know more about me than I was comfortable with. A jammy doughnut, a mug of tea, an hour of embarrassment – it was a small price to pay for what Jammy gave me in return.
‘They’m told me ‘bout you,’ he said, his mouth full of pastry, sugar in his beard. ‘You see ‘em too, don’t you, boy? God sends down his Angels to lead souls back to their abode in the light. The beings tell me you in’t doing it right. You got a gift, boy, gotta do right by the gift.’
His voice was soft and rich and he had the old local accent, more rural, less Londony than the one you hear around town today. Only old people still talked like that back then, and now, it seems, no one does.
‘I don’t understand,’ I said. He fixed me with his turquoise eyes.
‘Beings can only reach the light by speaking to the Divine Spark inside. You in’t listening to that spark, boy, you only doin’ what pleases you, what’s right for you, that’s no good. Only way to find our way to the light’s by means of gnosis.’
‘Gnosis. Greek for ‘knowledge’,’ I said, like the smug little git I was.
He snapped his fingers at me. ‘I knew you’m were a clever sort. It is knowledge but not like you’d learn in school. Gnosis is special, only conveyed by angels, The Angel, Guardian Angel, that’s our higher self. Gotta listen to the Angel inside, that’s how we bring ourselves to the light.’
‘Tell me how.’
‘Can’t,’ he snapped. ‘Don’t know nothin’ ‘bout it, only knows what they says to me. I listens, I remembers, I don’t forget nothin’, all them words, theys all in here,’ he tapped sharply against his head with a teaspoon. ‘But I don’t always understand. Needs an educated sort like yourself to make sense of it. That’s why I’m tellin’ ee, I’m thinkin’ we can help each other. Cause you sees ‘em, don’t you boy? You talks with ‘em. I knows you does ‘cause theys been telling me ‘bout you, what they says to you an’ what you does with that information. Told me all about you they did. I sees you round town, you don’t go to school.’
I shook my head.
‘But you in’t a fool, you in’t daft.’
I shook my head.
‘No, I can see you in’t.’ He added half the sugar bowl to his tea then poured it into his saucer and drank it down, slurping noisily and smacking his lips. ‘I seen you at the library,’ he said when he was done. ‘In and out of there you are. You likes to read.’
‘I’ve never seen you there.’
‘You wouldn’t, not inside. They don’t like me inside on account of the smell. S’fair enough. I do whiff a bit, I know and I got sticky hands, see.’ He waved his filthy hands at me. ‘They won’t let me touch their books.’
‘You could come in with me,’ I said. ‘They know me, I’ll say you’re with me, you can wash your hands in the loos.’ I needed him, I felt that strongly. He could help me, teach me things. ‘If you hear them too…’ I edged closer, aware of the biddies watching us, scenting their disapproval like an iffy drain on a warm day. I lowered my voice. ‘They’re there too; there are loads of them in the library. We could talk to them together. We see the same things; we could learn from each other, find the books we need and…’
‘No. No,’ he said, leaning away from me, shaking his head. ‘I don’t want to do none of that. I think, if I knows too much, I might lose the gift and that would be a shame, cause I likes listening to them, they keep me company. You knows what I mean, don’t you, young un? Yous lonely too?’
‘You do see them, then?’
‘Don’t see much. Hears.’ He waved a hand at his sticky ears. ‘Thems – out there.’ He pointed out of the window. ‘They says I’m mad. Shizzo Freenik’ – was how he said it – ‘Thems lets me walk about free n’ easy like, because thems knows I’m safe, knows I won’t go hurting no one, but I has to see the doctor at the hospital, reg’lur. Nice man. He gives me tea and Gypsy Creams, so I always goes, but he don’t know half as much as he thinks he does, ‘cause I in’t mad. I lets em think I am ‘cause it’s easier. I think if I said I thought I was sane an’ normal, they might lock me up with proper loonies. So I goes along and answers thems questions truthful and thems gives me medicines that don’t do nothing and sometimes I gets to stay over in a nice clean bed with hot baths and thems cuts my hair and beard all nice like, while young doctors, some of em ladies, asks me questions and plays me music and shines coloured lights on me. I likes all that, I likes when I gets to stop over.’
‘If they thought you were dangerous, they’d keep you there. Wouldn’t that be better than living in the arcade and sleeping at the hostel?’
‘Oh lord bless you, no! I likes the baths and beds and that, it’s true, but I likes my freedom. I couldn’t do with being locked up like them there loonies. That’d be the death of me that would and I in’t ready to go just yet.’
‘What else do they say to you,’ I asked him. ‘The spirits, when they talk?’
I shrugged. ‘About anything, everything.’
‘Not now,’ he said, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin, pocketing a few with the rest of the sugar lumps, standing up. ‘I don’t wanna talk no more now.’
‘Don’t go,’ I said. There was so much more I wanted to know.
‘Got to go now. Talking makes me tired and I think you need to find out a bit more for yourself. If I goes telling you everything, there’ll be nothing left for you to learn, will there, young un? And you needs to learn.’ He leaned down close to me, so I got the full force of his body and his breath. ‘There’s a lot you needs to learn, Angel.
‘I in’t going anywhere,’ he said cheerily, straightening up, adjusting his layers. ‘We’ll meet again. Next time, you’ll tell me what you’ve learned and I’ll tell you a bit more of what I knows. We’ll help each other that way, won’t we? ‘You bring me some doughnuts next time and we’ll talk again. Them raspberry jam ones is my favourites, the ones from them bakers down Castle Road, but any sort’s good.’
I nodded, but wondered; did I want to make a friend of Old Jammy? I was nervous of him. I was a young-for-my-years, naïve thirteen, Jammy was a scary old man with long white hair, he smelled very bad and had horrible teeth. At first, I thought he was a man of magic and secrets, guarding his knowledge, careful of his mysteries. Thinking about it later, I realised he was probably just hoarding what he knew, rationing it out so I’d have to keep buying him tea and doughnuts, but that was all right, it pleased me to think I was doing good, I’d’ve helped more, if he’d let me. If I met him now, he’d probably be living here in my house with Claude, the cats, the spirits and me.
That afternoon, after our chat, I went to the library and looked up gnosis: From Hellenic – Byzantine culture; the spiritual knowledge or insight of a saint or mystically enlightened one. Divine, infinite uncreated wisdom indicating communion with mystic sources, rather than reasoned thought. Obtained through inner experience, contemplation, meditation, theophany…
Theophany, also Greek: Divine disclosure; when a divine being shows him or herself to a mortal. The manifestations of Gods or Angels.
I did a bit of reading on Skizzo-Freenia too. Aldous Huxley said some interesting things about schizophrenics, who passed their days ‘in a grey, shadowy world of phantoms and unrealities’; that ghostly experiences could be induced by giving shots of chemicals; that the mentally disturbed share the experiences of religious mystics.
It frightened me a little. Was I perhaps, not gifted at all but simply mad? I put the notion out of my head. I knew I wasn’t schizophrenic, but I recognised the danger of wandering about, jabbering away to invisible beings; I had no desire to be labelled, sectioned, locked away. I began to wonder how many of the poor buggers in institutions weren’t insane at all but just like me. One thing was clear, if I was going to have any kind of regular life, I’d have to adopt a façade. I’d be an actor, playing the part of a ‘Normal’, a role I’d have to play for the rest of my life. I learned to ignore the spirits when I had to, learned to stop talking and communicate instead. My talks with Jammy raised so many questions, he made me think about all the things I’d taken for granted. Why were some ghosts so real you could feel the weave of their clothes, smell the beer on their breath – while others wandered, transparent and immune to the world they inhabited, unreachable and remote? Why was I like this? If I wasn’t simply mad, if ‘they’ were really there, why could I see them when almost no one else could?
Having died seemed to be key; Jammy told me he served with the North Atlantic Convoy in the war, one of six survivors of a U Boat attack. Seriously wounded, he’d drifted for days in an open boat and briefly passed over. He hadn’t been away long, just a few minutes, he reckoned. Maybe that was why he couldn’t see them, only sense them and hear them and had never been able to return, whereas I went back and forth at will. Maybe the time spent on the other side was important?
After that first meeting, I went to see Jammy every Thursday. It was Grampa’s club day, my day off ‘school’. I’d cycle into town, spend the morning in the Library then head to the arcade to take Old Jammy out for tea, always bringing a bag of jam doughnuts with me. I saw the way people looked at him, often with disgust, sometimes with loathing, occasionally with compassion. They all judged him, just a dirty, mad old man, but he saw things, knew things that they couldn’t even begin to imagine.
‘Look to the Daemon!’ Jammy was shouting at the world in general as I arrived, one bright sunny day in June.
‘What demon?’ I asked.
He grinned, shifting from foot to foot in happiness at seeing me.
‘Daemon,’ he said. ‘Not demon. Not the same, not the same at all. Buy me a mug of tea and I’ll tell ‘ee about it.’
Jammy stirred six packs of sugar into his tea and slurped loudly from his mug, drips running down to stain his white beard. Our usual tea room was being painted and was closed, so I seized the chance to bring him to the coffee bar in the library, where drinks were served in mugs and there were no saucers for him to drink from. He was getting the usual looks, though; the place emptied as we arrived.
‘Tell me about the Daemons,’ I asked him again, half-watching a spirit at an empty table who was loitering, listening; he was freshly departed and young, not much older than me. He wore his cap on back to front, dressed in purple, lime-green and acid-yellow sportswear that was fashionable back then. The spirit fidgeted nervously as he tried to pluck up courage to approach us.
‘Intermediate spirits,’ Jammy said, pressing a chocolate muffin into his face, chewing hard, talking with his mouth full, spitting sickening wet and frothy gobbets of sponge on to the table between us. I averted my eyes and swallowed my nausea. ‘Is somewhere between immortal beings like Gods and Bible Angels and mortal beins, like you and me.’ He pushed the last of his muffin into his mouth. ‘Theys passionate things, is daemons, theys the messengers between worlds. Theys what the ancient Greeks called angels’. He looked at me meaningfully, lifting his mug. ‘Means ‘messenger’, thems that brings the words of immortals to mortals. Different from Bible Angels them Daemons though. Theys full of emotions, bad tempered even, selfish and wild. Theys don’t always do what’s right for humankind, theys do what pleases them. I can tell you what I thinks about it, if I had one of them big biscuit things they got on that plate there.’
I bought him a chocolate-chip cookie – white chocolate, he had a sweet tooth; I was lucky that Grampa was so generous with my pocket money.
‘Way I see it,’ Jammy said, examining the cookie suspiciously, biting off a large chunk, chewing, nodding to me with surprised pleasure. ‘Is that Daemons can become Angels if they learns how to be more godly.’
‘Godly?’ I asked, a little distracted by the Starburst-coloured spirit who’d been slowly edging closer as we talked and listening to us avidly.
‘Godly,’ he nodded. ‘The eternal, the infinite vibration, the music of the spheres, the song that God sings; that the meaning of life is love.’
‘I heard that, too, on the other side.’
He nodded. ‘And kindness the easiest way to show love.’
‘You can be kind without love.’
‘Can you?’ he fixed me with a pale, gimlet eye.
‘I think so.’
‘No you don’t, young fellah, you don’t think at all. You needs to think more, in my ‘umble opinion. Give some thought to the mysteries, boy, meditate on it.’
‘Do you believe in God, Mr Varney?’ I asked. It was a question that concerned me more and more as I delved deeper into the philosophies behind our mutual condition. Jammy was an old-fashioned sort of chap, I was assuming a simple ‘yes’ from him, but for once, he didn’t have a ready answer. He put his damp, half-bitten pastry carefully down on his plate and paused a while in silence, his head down, hands folded in his lap; for a moment I thought he was praying.
‘Yes, and no,’ he said after long seconds. ‘I don’t believe in no man in the sky. I been talking to spirits and angels all my life and none of ‘ems never mentioned no God.’
Neither had mine. Ghosts had talked of God to me – most ghosts were believers, it was why so many were earthbound, afraid of divine retribution for their sins, afraid to confront their maker – but they were earthbound, they knew no more about the Mysteries than any human and rather less, I think, than me.
‘All these spirits flitting about, like that young fella over there’ – Jammy waved a long, filthy fingernail at Acid Boy – ‘They show there’s something, something beyond flesh and blood, but as for ‘God’, well, I just don’t know.’
When he realised he’d been seen, the ghost began to panic, fading in and out.
‘We can both see you,’ I murmured, as loud as I dared. ‘But we’re the only ones who can.’ I glanced around the coffee shop but no one was looking our way; everyone was trying very hard to pretend we weren’t there.
‘So you see him too,’ I said. Jammy shook his head.
‘I never sees ‘em,’ he said. ‘I feels em, in here’ – he tapped his breastbone. ‘And here’ – he knocked the base of his skull where it meets the spine.
‘How does that work?’ I asked.
He thought a moment, staring into space. ‘It’s a sorta tingling, a feeling that thems near that grows into a knowing; who they is, how they came to pass, how they looked before they passed. This one ‘ere’s a young un. Something killed him; hit him hard – not hard – yes hard but… Water, I think. He fell in the water, but not deliberate. Hims own fault, drunk, I’d say.’ Jammy drained his mug. ‘Any chance of some more tea?’
I glanced at the coins in my pocket, the last of my allowance; I’d be broke for the rest of the week, but what else did I need money for? I stood and went to the counter, bought another round of tea. The spirit followed; he stood staring, close beside me so that I got the full force of him, his sorry tale flooding over me like being in the sea and hit by a wave, full in the face, salt water shooting into your sinuses and just as painful.
His name was Stephen Potter and Jammy was right about his end. He’d drowned after a night out tanked up on alcopops, acting the fool for his mates. Not an overly bright boy, he’d been walking on a wall and he’d fallen into the sea, or an estuary; something tidal, I could smell it, the feral, briny, kelpish stink. I felt the icy, brackish water, too. It had been New Year, winter, and the shock – God, the shock of the fall, the sudden, heart-stopping blow of the cold. Cold water and deep… Not that deep, really, but seemed very deep that night, and it was dark and he was too drunk to know which way was up, unable to find his way to the air and his spirit slipping free, quite easily, so easy that he hardly knew what had happened for a long time after an still disoriented now, extremely so; a lost and wandering soul. Did he know he was dead? He’d come looking for me – specifically me. Maybe he thought I could help him pass on?
I sat back down at the table. Lost in thought, I handed Jammy his tea.
‘That young un’s connected to you,’ Jammy said without preamble. ‘There’s no sugar.’
I reached over and took the sugar-bowl from the table next to us, where the spirit was lurking. Our eyes met briefly and I felt a jolt, a tingle in my loins, a thunderbolt in my heart; poor Stephen Potter. He touched me; I couldn’t feel it of course, but sensed a coolness, a warmth, a tearing flash of guilt and pleasure and pain and something else too; an emotion too profound to have a word attached to it. I wondered what the link between us was, but Stephen couldn’t tell me, he didn’t know himself, he was just lost. He’d come a long way in search of me. I tipped him a nod. ‘After,’ I whispered. He smiled, and I wanted to cry.
I put the bowl of sugar lumps down on the table; Jammy poured most of them into his tea and stirred and stirred and stirred.
‘You feel a connection between us?’ I asked him.
‘Oh yes!’ he said, fixing me with a look, surprised I’d felt the need to ask. ‘We’s all connected, of course.’ He blew on his tea. ‘But some connections is stronger than others and his is powerful strong; there’s a shining thread that ties you together.’
I lost myself in my tea – too much caffeine today, I was shaking, my senses singing, colours seemed brighter; I could see auras.
‘Gold, it is,’ Jammy said, ‘the thread that binds.’
‘Gold.’ I nodded.
I wanted to help Stephen Potter. I don’t know what had passed between us in some past life or other dimension but like Jammy said, it was ‘powerful strong’. I felt the strangest, strongest need to nurture and protect him; the thought of his suffering was unbearable to me.
That was how I came to perform my first rescue. I did it in the library toilets, leaning on the sink, terrified someone would come in and interrupt as I helped this earthbound soul to cross. I’d read so much about it, how it was done and always wondered if I could – and it turned out to be the easiest thing imaginable; a simple matter of slipping sideways, the way I did on an almost daily basis, bringing Stephen’s soul with me into My World. He just had a little further to travel, is all, further than I could go. There was a woman waiting for him at the tree-line, a girl with golden curls who looked at me sadly as she beckoned the boy over.
I lifted myself from the cracked floor tiles, realising I’d fainted again. Thankfully I was still alone; no one had heard me fall. My face hurt. I checked myself in the mirror, poking at a tender cheekbone; I must have banged it when I went down, there’d be a new bruise and questions from the Gramma.
When I got back to our table, Jammy had gone, taking all the sugar in the bowl with him. Old Jammy’s gone now; he left one warm summer night when I was away at university. He’d spent the day at his Centre, been bathed and shaved and tucked up in a clean bed, ‘staying over’. His spirit came to find me, to say goodbye. He had chestnut hair slick with brilliantine, dapper in a demob suit that hung from his bones like the young Frank Sinatra. Jammy was better-looking than old blue-eyes, he must have been quite the heartbreaker in his day. He didn’t hang around after, and I’ve never seen him since. I rather wish he’d come and haunt a little, I miss him.