Claude’s bed springs twanged overhead. I followed the soft tread of her slippered feet across the landing, down the stairs and into the kitchen, where I’d spent the night in the warmth and light with the radio on, hiding from the whisperers who assailed me whenever I was tired and alone.
‘Good morning, darling,’ she said. ‘You look worn out; did you sleep here all night?’ She took my crumpled blanket from the floor, shook it out and folded it neatly. ‘I’ll get the laundry on today, if you’ve got anything that needs washing, just pop it in the basket. I’ll start breakfast in a bit, what would you like?’
‘You’re always working,’ I said. ‘You don’t have to, you know.’
‘I know I don’t have to,’ she said. ‘I like to. You’ve got to keep busy, use it or lose it. You look quite dreadful, if you don’t mind me saying, is everything alright?’
‘No,’ I smiled, crossing my arms across my chest.
‘Want to talk about it?’
‘Not really.’ Not yet. The kettle began to howl. ‘I’ll get it,’ I said.
‘Don’t be so silly,’ she said. ‘You sit down and rest yourself. A good cup of tea will set you right.’ She patted my shoulder soothingly.
I wanted to make the tea. Such a little thing, it seems silly to even mention it, but wanted to do something for her, needed to, really. I was suddenly seized by a terrible guilt, that I used people, took everything and everyone for granted, worried that Claude felt obligated to me because I gave her a home.
I crumpled back down on the too-soft sofa, threadbare velvet over busted springs. I felt empty; sucked-dry, like a papery carapace in a spider’s web. The whisperers were back and louder than ever.
I drank my tea but I couldn’t eat breakfast, I felt unwell, perhaps I was just coming down with something, blaming ghosts when all that was wrong was a virus.
I went out for a walk; ‘blow off the morning cobwebs’ as Gramma would have said. I needed the air, needed to think, needed to breathe; the whisperers were smothering me, stealing my air.
I went out the back, through the garden gate and into the park, avoiding St Swithun’s’. The warm weather had broken with last night’s storm. It was cold; the sky dense and grey as an old horse blanket, the morning’s light drizzle deepening into rain – not the best day for a stroll. I sheltered a while under the dripping horse chestnut trees, already turning amber and bronze, dead leaves and young conkers accumulating on the wet grass. A sudden breeze hurled the last of the bank holiday litter along the path, lifting it into an exuberant tornado before losing interest and dumping everything down on the mudded grate by the bins. I shivered inside Grampa’s old overcoat, its tweed, damp and heavy and beaded with rain; I smelled like a wet sheep. My thoughts turned to hot chocolate but the café was closed till spring.
Sod the morning cobwebs, I thought, and headed towards town, to the Jacaranda, where the wood stove would be burning and there’d be hot, buttered cinnamon rolls on the menu. The path took me past the bandstand, where a stream of yellow police tape quivered on the wind, one end clinging fast to the copse of leggy rhododendrons where a group of unfortunate kids, looking for a lost ball, had found the mutilated body of a teenage girl. The torn tape fluttered round and around like a bird with a broken wing on the ruined lawn, where the ruts made by ambulance and police cars had pooled with mud and water. It was two weeks since it happened; it had been a big story but was old news now and already half forgotten. Just another murder; there’d been so many and it wouldn’t be the last.
The Jacaranda was crowded, my usual table taken, so I took my pot of Earl Grey to the only empty seat left, with a table full of students in the corner by the window. I wiped a squeaky hole on the steamed glass and gazed out at the street where shrouded people hurried past, their heads hidden in hoods and umbrellas. I’d found a book in my coat pocket, Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland; I remembered buying it from the Oxfam shop last winter, got three chapters in and abandoned it. That must have been the last time I wore this coat, I’d quite forgotten it was there. The students were getting ready to leave, gathering coats, pushing hands into fingerless gloves. When they’d gone, I stretched out with relief, took a mouthful of tea, dunked my biscuit, opened my book then noticed a young ghost with half a head, grinning down at me.
‘Hello,’ he said, ‘I’m Danny. You’re Angel, in’t you? I know you I seen where you live down in that big old gaff by the river, right, I seen you sometimes, wandering round that big room full of books you got but you din’t see me, how’s that work, then?’
He smelled very badly of vomit, which presumably accounted for the copper-coloured stain all over his Acid-House t shirt. He had rusty blood all down one side and most of his face was missing. I looked back down at my tea, took a thoughtful slurp, turned a page, gave Tom Pynchon my attention.
Danny sat down in the chair across from me and sighed. ‘That chocolate cake smells nice,’ he said. ‘Wish I could ‘ave some, it’s so boring, this, knocking around town, nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to see.’
I pretended to stretch my neck while I looked around and made sure no one was looking at me or listening. The café was full of the usual types – Goths and students, hippie mums rocking prams, everyone seemed deep in coffee, cake and conversation. I leaned across the table on my elbows, keeping my head down, so it would look to as if I was deep in my book and whispered, ‘So why don’t you just move on?’
‘Dunno how,’ he said. ‘Can’t remember, can’t remember how I got here. I’m dead, right?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But I can help…’
‘No,’ he said, leaning away from me, shaking his head. ‘I don’t like the sound of it. One old girl told me someone tried it on with her and it really hurt.’
‘It doesn’t hurt a bit,’ I said, but did it? I really didn’t know. No one had ever complained to me that it did, or asked me to stop.
Danny seemed nervous, he looked over his shoulder, checking the room, then leaned close and lowered his voice. ‘There’s dead people all over, now’ he whispered, ‘but not like me.’
‘How are they not like you?’ I asked, curious to know what the regular sort of ghost was making of the situation.
‘I dunno, just, not…’ he waved his hand vaguely. ‘Not here by the usual route. I think I got knocked off me bike, I don’t really know. It’s just the last thing I remember, being on me bike and then this… Wandering. I think I might have been doing it a while, now, I don’t really remember.’
Since the late eighties I’d guess, from his hair and his clothes. ‘Tell me about the others, Danny, the ones who aren’t like you. Do you mean the ones that live inside the empty people?’
He looked away. ‘I don’t talk to them.’
‘But you know about them. They’re the ones you mean, aren’t they? Are you scared of them? Have they spoken to you?’
He shook his head.
‘Come on, Danny, you know who I mean. Where are they coming from, how do they get here?’
Danny began joggling his knees, drumming his feet on the floor. ‘Don’t,’ he said. ‘Don’t wanna.’
‘There’s nothing to be scared of.’
His head snapped up, his eyes met mine. ‘That’s what you know!’
Two women at the next table stopped chatting and shot quick, frightened glances at me. It was the emotion they’d felt; Danny’s fear and sudden anger. I leaned back in my chair, stretched out and yawned, assumed an air of perfect relaxation, trying to calm the disturbed energies while Danny bounced nervously in his seat and cast me baleful looks. When I was sure the women were no longer watching, I leaned my elbow on the table, hid my face behind my hand and murmured, ‘Tell me about the possessors, Danny, please. It’s important. Help me save the world.’
He snorted. ‘It’s not a joke.’
Danny put his bare arms down on the table and fixed me with desperate eyes. ‘I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t talk to them, can’t hardly bear to share the air with them, you know? They bring a feeling with ‘em, like electricity, like when you get a shock off the frame of your bike. I’m scared of ‘em, I don’t hang about when they’re around.’
‘But you must know something, how they came to be here. If not you, the others, other spirits, the regulars, the ones like you, what are they saying?’
‘I don’t see many like me about. Most aren’t the types you’d want to chat with, know what I mean? There’s criminals, some of ‘em was hanged, beheaded, the ones from times back when they still did that sort of thing. Some of them passed natural, but they just don’t want to go.’
‘Not like me. And you’re not talking about the ones like me, you’re talking about the dark ones, the shadows. There’s something wrong about them, they’re taking over living people, that can’t be right.’
‘How are they doing that?’
He shrugged, looked away. ‘They go after the empty ones.’
‘From the church, from St Swithun’s?’
‘Why you askin’?’ he said. ‘You already know or you wouldn’t be askin’ and I don’t… I can’t… Can’t talk about it.’
‘Because they’ll hear us! They’ll know! And when they know, that’s when they come.’ He started to fade.
‘Move on, Danny, you’ll be safe if you just move on.’
‘No. No.’ He spoke rapidly, nervously. He stank of fear and fading all the time. ‘All my mates are here, I seen ‘em, knocking around town but they don’t talk to me, I talk to them, but they don’t answer.’
‘They can’t see you, they don’t know you’re there. You’re on different wavelengths, it’s like trying to watch two stations at the same time on the same TV, it can’t be done.
‘There’s no need to be,’ I said, as softly, as kindly as I could.
‘What’s it like over there?
‘I don’t know, I’ve never been.’
‘Yeah, you have, you went and come back, everyone knows that.’
‘It’s not the same,’ I said. ‘I went somewhere, but the place that you go at the very end is further than I’ve ever been.’
‘I don’t like it, don’t like the sound of it,’ he said, his voice fading and far-away, I couldn’t see him at all. ‘I like it here, all my mates are here. I’m fine, I’m just great, really I am, I don’t wanna go, I’m not ready.’
A rush of wind hurled rain at the window, and Danny was gone.
I sat back and stared at the street, let my thoughts ride the rollercoaster of all that had happened and remembered a strange incident at the start of summer break, just a few short weeks ago.
It must have been the last week of June, that first hot spell before the rain set in, because the girls were in dresses and skimpy tops that showed their tan lines, the boys in sweat-stained office shirts, with sleeves rolled up over sunburned arms. A dropped ice cream cone was melting on the pavement and the air smelled of mown grass, exhaust fumes and Ambre Solaire.
I was right here, outside the Jacaranda, heading to the library. A gaggle of teenage girls skipped across the road towards me, I glanced at them as I passed, no more than a glance and one of them – a tall girl, ample thighs in pink leggings, big jelly breasts that juddered with each step of her sandaled feet, a deep tan on her taut young skin – looked right at me as we walked towards each other and didn’t break her gaze, which was so frank and uncompromising that at first, I thought I must know her; a student, perhaps, though I didn’t recognise her. She didn’t look like one of my students, who tend to be on the gothy side, all black hair and fingerless gloves.
The girl strode on towards me, jaws snapping angrily on gum and huge blue eyes fixed right on mine. I felt hypnotised, unable to look away. Time slowed, the sounds of the street faded as if a Godly hand were turning a dial down and down to silence, and as the sound faded away, a spirit emerged from the girl, peeled from her like dead skin from a sunburned back.
Two spirits, one person. One that belonged with that body and that life, that walked on ahead with its flesh and blood, and another that was left behind, gazing at me, sad-faced and tearful, as the hot summer air chilled to the frosted death of absolute zero and the sharp citrus scents of My World wrapped icy tendrils round me.
And she stood.
And we stared long and hard at each other.
She was soft, sweet-faced and very pretty; small-boned with red-blonde curls, a tender, apple-cheeked face, sparkling, startling blue eyes and a small, rosy mouth. I knew that I knew her, that we’d once been very dear to each other, but had no idea who she was.
She wasn’t a possessing spirit; she wasn’t a spirit at all, she was a shade, a memory of a past life. I wanted to remember her, but I couldn’t and she knew it, and she spoke, in that way that they have which isn’t speaking, just something you sense somewhere deep in your being.
‘Leave time to itself. What will be will be, it needs no help from you.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said inside, sending my thoughts to her. I don’t know if she heard, she made no sign that she did. I don’t even know if they can hear. I don’t know if they exist in any real sense, or if they’re just recordings, vibrations of lives gone, spirits past.
She spoke again: ‘Everything is in the realm of possibility. A coin tossed into a well. Hope and ripples.’
A wave of breathless grief washed over me.
‘True love will find a way. I live again. You’ll have the chance to put things right.’
And I blinked, and she was gone and the world was back and the girls were chattering and laughing, striding ahead as I stood stock-still, in shock, desperate to see the shade again.
I ran after the girls, spoke to the one who’d held the shade, begged a minute of her time. I told her who I am, what I do, said I was running an experiment at the university, felt she had some psychic ability, asked if she’d take part. She rolled her eyes till I told her she’d be paid for her pains, and then she shrugged and glanced at her friends who also shrugged and, trying not to laugh, said she’d think about it. So I took down her name and I gave her my card and begged her to call me. She never did, of course.
The girls exchanged some knowing glances and mocking smiles, walked on, then burst into fits of giggles. I turned and watched them go, a perfumed posse, arm in arm, all too, too solid flesh, but of the shade there was no trace.
I’d forgotten all about it, shoved it to the back of my mind – there was nothing very unusual about it, just one more piece of the strangeness that is the meat and potatoes of my life. It was all coming back to me now, though, in vivid, living colour. I pulled my notebook from my pocket and turned to the page where I’d written the girl’s name: Jordan Radcliffe, Alan’s body before his soul was cast out, which meant the shade with the message was linked to Alan, which meant that Alan was linked to me. Did he know about the shade? Did he know of our connection? And if he did, why hadn’t he told me, and what more might he be hiding?