“When two systems, of which we know the states by their respective representatives, enter into temporary physical interaction due to known forces between them, and when after a time of mutual influence the systems separate again, then they can no longer be described in the same way as before, viz. by endowing each of them with a representative of its own. I would not call that one but rather the characteristic trait of quantum mechanics, the one that enforces its entire departure from classical lines of thought. By the interaction the two representatives [the quantum states] have become entangled.”
– Erwin Schrödinger.
We are all one, physics says so. Particles that have once been in contact will always be connected regardless how far apart they grow. Animal, vegetable or mineral, we were all together at the Big bang; we are all entangled. Einstein called it ‘spukhafte Fernwirkungen’: spooky action at a distance.
Parallel universes, parallel lives, each soul making its own choices, creating its own universe. We live on a sliver of reality, fragile as a bubble, molecule-thin, a transparent membrane of moments that separate what we call ‘now’ from what we call future and past. A split second of a split second and Now has crossed the line, now is just a memory. The future is not set in stone, it is in constant flux, an infinity of chaos, fractally evolving, the map of every path has already been drawn, but only one is actually trodden, only one becomes reality.
What if we could see through the interface, see into those parallel worlds? Forewarned, forearmed, with the ammunition to change the outcome of events, change our future – what then? People think they want to know what’s going to happen to them, placing faith in psychics, mediums, astrology, religion. ‘If only I’d known!’ they cry, but knowing opens so many roads, so many possibilities. Knowledge forces you to choose. What if you make the wrong choice? What if you screw up so badly that your life, your world, can never recover? In a multiple universe, anyone can predict a future with certainty since all futures will come to pass; predicting a specific future in a single universe, that’s the tricky part. If I‘d foreseen the consequences of all the things I did, would I have done anything differently? I’d like to think I would, but rather doubt it.
My name is Angel Copperwheat – stupid name for a boy, I know, please don’t laugh, blame my hippie mother. I see ghosts and spirits, the shadows of past lives and the shades of the future. I write, I teach – paraphysics, at the local University. I’m Professor Spooky; I study the things that go bump in the night.
Everything began when I was seven years old, on Midsummer’s Eve at seventeen minutes past midnight, I remember the time very clearly because I was alone and awake and staring at the luminous face of the bedroom clock. My mother Joy and I were living in a commune, a big old house in the middle of nowhere, the only home I’d ever known. Joy had run away from her boarding school at the age of sixteen, hitched a ride and immediately got herself pregnant to… who knows? She never got the chance to tell me who my father was, probably one of the bearded wonders in the few photographs I have of her; it’s how people were back then, a surprising number of my fellow academics were conceived in a similar fashion.
There was a party that night, a celebration of the season with dancing and a bonfire at the stone circle where Joy had given birth to me seven years, eight months and nineteen days before. The circle wasn’t real, the hippies had made it themselves on a ‘confluence of ley lines’ dowsed for them by Starlight, a girl formerly known as Karen Birkinshaw. They’d had it blessed by the local witch, decked the trees with prayer flags, buried crystals at their roots and worshipped nature there with great and solemn reverence, like children playing house.
Sometime that night it had started to rain, a storm on its way, distant lightning flashing silently in tall violet clouds. The wind picked up and circled us, lifting the girls’ thin frocks into billowing floral sails.
The party moved back to the house. I remember I was crying, it was late, I was tired, and there was something strange in the air that night, something feral, a touch of madness that frightened me. Someone who wasn’t Mum put me to bed, but the noise of the party and the storm meant I couldn’t sleep. Lightning lit my room, brighter than day and thunder cracked with a sound like bones breaking, the wind hurled rain at my window.
Then mum crashed into my room – drunk or high, probably both. I pulled the blankets over my head and tried to hide, pretended to sleep, but she pulled me from my warm bed because ‘everyone was going back to the stones to dance with the rain.’
They were all there when we arrived, whooping and dancing, running through the smoking, hissing embers of the fire, all soaked to the skin in the torrenting rain. Mum took me by my hands and spun me around and around, her drenched dress stuck to her legs as she shouted and sang and laughed at the sky, giving thanks to the ancient Gods of Thunder and Rain and his Majesty, Lord of the Universe. Then a bolt of lightning struck Mum’s silver necklace. A billion volts tore through her body, through our joined hands and into me, killing us both.
Mum and I stood together at the edge of the circle, our spirits hand in hand. Hurled from our bodies, we couldn’t speak, we were scared, we didn’t understand what had happened to us. A faint blue charge buzzed about our bodies as they lay so still in the streaming rain. A pall of shocked silence had fallen on the others who stood like mannequins, waxy in the storm-light, hands pressed to their mouths in silent shock, staring at our lifeless forms.
Maureen broke the spell with a scream. There was a flurry of panicked chatter and frightened sobbing and Peter, who’d been a medical student, rushed to our aid, dropping to his knees in the mud beside us. He put his hand to Mum’s throat; her necklace had melted into her skin, there was a charred ring around her neck. He screamed for someone to call for an ambulance then put his ear to her chest, listening. He closed his eyes, gave a frightened shake of his head, then turned and did the same to me, and must have sensed some spark of life because he put his mouth to mine and pressed his hands down on my chest, over and over, till the ambulance arrived, all flashing blue lights, reflective coats and noisy efficiency. They used paddles on us both: I remember the crackle and the smell of scorched air, more electricity, hair of the dog. They did their best, but Mum was already beyond their reach – and mine, too; she slipped away while I was watching Peter trying to keep me alive. She never said goodbye and I never saw her again.
I watched them lift our bodies on to stretchers, and that was the last thing I remember about that night, because that was when I slipped into another dimension. It was easy, with no drama or pain; one moment I was standing in the mud and rain, the next I was floating through a rainbow world of infinite peace and beauty.
I hated the commune, full to the brim as it was with noise and smells; an over-abundance of life, where I was always being made to ‘join in’ and to play with the other kids – so many kids, and I can’t remember the name of a single one. I was a solemn, solitary child, always searching for space to be alone; living inside my head or in a book. All I wanted was to be left in peace and never was, and then I died, and my wish came true.
I found myself suddenly alone, in a magical, silent space; the only sound was the breeze in the trees – the faintest blush on the pale face of this perfect world. A sense of seamless knowledge hung in the air like the scent of summer flowers, an understanding I could breathe like oxygen, things I found I’d always known: that the purpose of the universe is kindness, because kindness is compassion and compassion is love and love is ALL.
And then I was back in my body, drowning in noise and blinding light, pain and the smell of burning flesh as doctors pressed around me, shouting and desperate, and all was confusion and panic and I screamed, long and hard, till they doused my misery with a shot of something powerful.
When I woke again, I was lying in bed and covered in wires attached to machines. It was quieter now and dark outside, and the air in my room was fogged with ghosts. The ghosts were bewildered and afraid; suddenly tossed from life, from the only world they knew and not knowing what to do or where to go. I wasn’t afraid of the ghosts at all, I felt sorry for them. I was afraid of the hospital – I wanted to stay in the secret silent place and, wanting to be there, was there, at least for a while. The place didn’t want me then, it kept bouncing me back to life, but I found I could return and did, over and over, back and forth between worlds, for how long? I have no idea, time has no meaning in My World. I came to love the place I started calling My World, I loved its blissful solitude; My World was better than life.
Between times, when I was awake and alive, something had changed, some switch thrown in my brain; I could see things that hadn’t been there before, ghosts and spirits and other strange beings who felt like ghosts but weren’t, who brought dreams that weren’t dreams that I knew were the forgotten memories of past lives: these were shades, the wraiths of past existences that attach themselves to ghosts as well as the living.
I was in hospital for a long time, time on my hands and a child’s curiosity. I watched the ghosts, learned their secrets, developed the ability to leave my body behind, step in and out of the physical world and wander like a ghost amongst the living. I saw/felt/experienced things I can’t begin to explain, words on a page are so black and white, how can I use them to describe the rainbow sensations of other dimensions? Like colours in an oil-polluted puddle, so deceptively pretty, so poisonous, so damaging.
I was just a child, I didn’t know the harm I was doing, meddling with things I didn’t understand, slipping away and back again across dimensions, injuring the membrane which was growing worn and weak and starting to leak, would eventually break and let in the flood and all that came after. No one told me I was doing anything wrong, no one came to make me stop. I was seven years old; I didn’t know I’d been given a unique gift. There was no one to teach me the rules, who could teach me? There was no one else like me, and it was all so normal and so easy for me. Until the day it stopped being easy, on the day everything I’d built began to crumble and my life changed forever.
It was the last week of the summer break. I was hiding from the heat of an Indian summer in the Jacaranda Tea Garden, a popular student hang-out with ring-stained tables and bare-board floors. The door was wedged open to let in the breeze that made the posters on the wall, of gigs and politics and bands in need of drummers, flap and snap.
I had my favourite table at the back, pretending to read but actually watching a young man, long-limbed, nervously thin, Congo Solidarity T shirt, your typical Jacaranda-type, only there was nothing typical about this guy at all. He was possessed by two ghosts who were fighting for control of his body, so that the poor chap appeared quite mad, twitching and jerking, muttering creative obscenities at himself and the world – Strange enough in itself, but weirder still, the ghosts who possessed him were alone in his body, of the man himself, the original spirit, there was no trace. Had he passed over suddenly, stepped outside himself for a moment (it happens, an illness, an accident, a terrible shock, even a bad dream can send the spirit briefly out-of-body), and returned to find his body kidnapped by these ghostly squatters? However it happened, it was bad for business. The café was emptying; embarrassed punters avoided eye-contact with the twitcher as they downed drinks and gathered coats and abandoned half-eaten cakes.
That was when I first saw Rosie, sitting at an empty table, her plump body squeezed tight inside a canary-yellow dress. She was staring at me and shaking her head.
‘Getting worse by the day ain’t it, Ghost-Boy?’ she said in a heavy Jamaican accent. ‘You done this, you!’ She cocked her thumb at the possessed man.
She was dead, of course; no one but the dead would be so intrusive, so impolite. I sipped my tea and stared down at my book. Rude of me, I suppose, but it doesn’t do to encourage them, I can’t be seen talking to ‘imaginary friends’, that’s got me into trouble more than once.
I’m a haunted man. I have no peace, no privacy, because I see ghosts, hear ghosts, feel them, all the time. Ghosts whisper in my ear as I browse in the library, chat me up in shops, flirt with me in cafés and shout insults at me across the street. I ignore them, and they ignore that I ignore them, telling me their life story, cool as you please; incessant one-sided conversations full of intimate, embarrassing details. Is it really so much to ask, for a little peace to enjoy a mug of tea, to read my book and muse on the mysteries? It’s rude, is what it is; being dead and disembodied is no excuse for bad manners.
I lifted my mug, took a sip of tea, turned the page, but my indifference had no effect on this one; I could feel her stare like a stain on my skin.
She came over to my table, sat down in front of me and drummed her fingers angrily on the table-top, trying to get my attention. ‘You listening to me, boy? When you going to be a man and do something!’
Do something about the possessed, of course. I knew what she meant. This man was the worst example I’d seen so far, but he wasn’t the first. The ghosts had been growing in number all summer. I felt them in the air, peppering me like windblown sand, creeping on my skin like fleas. They couldn’t get inside me, years of experience with their kind had made me impervious, but they were getting into others. I saw the possessed everywhere I went; ordinary people, going about their business, oblivious to their ghostly passengers. It was a growing problem, I could see that, but it wasn’t my problem, or so I thought, back then.
‘You’ve had your fun, had a lifetime o’ play, but the time has come,’ the woman said. ‘Piper’s gotta be paid, boy.’ She stabbed me with a cold, sharp finger. ‘Look at me when I’s talking to you!’
I did look up then, at her coldly staring face, her eyes full of hate and I probably would have said something – a cold denial, a politely worded invitation to fuck off and leave me alone – if the muttering man hadn’t suddenly screamed, ‘STOP IT!’, and smashed his forehead down onto the table, knocking his mug to the ground, where it rolled, spilling cold milky coffee across the stripped-pine floor.
The room went very quiet. The girl behind the counter lifted the phone, her finger poised and ready to dial. The possessed man pulled himself to his feet and walked to the door, fighting gravity all the way, dragging his feet like Frankenstein’s monster.
I turned back to find an empty chair. Rosie had disappeared and the air was charged and fizzing.
There are ghosts everywhere. You might not see or sense them, but I promise you, they’re there. Their rainbow hues pulse about us but their lights are weak, burned out by the brighter vibrations of the living, like stars in daylight – which is exactly as it should be.
The living were never meant to commune with the dead, but the fashion for televised ghost hunts has made it practically mainstream. People have lost respect for the sanctity of the séance; they don’t understand how dangerous it is. Would you invite a complete stranger – someone you met on the bus or in the street – into your home, knowing absolutely nothing about them? Ghosts are not your run-of-the-mill dead. The spirits of the dead move on, but ghosts have chosen to stay behind – for all kinds of reasons that are rarely good. Murderers, rapists, criminals of all colours refuse to pass over because they’re scared of what’s waiting for them on the other side. Are those the kind of people you’d invite into your home?
I stepped out into the street, turned the corner – my usual route home, down a narrow wynd to the High Street before walking through the park – but my way was stopped by a man leaning against the wall, his scuffed boots stretched out across the alleyway, blocking my path. Dirty, dark and whiskered, with a presence that made him seem much bigger than he was, and wearing a long, dark woollen coat – which would have seemed odd, the day being so warm, but I could feel the almost insupportable weight of Cold flowing from him, the earthy dank of must and mould on its chill breath. I knew, with absolute certainty, if I cut past him and went on my way down that dog-legged alley, I’d never come out the other side. No one else seemed to see him; the lunchtime crowd passed by without so much as a glance, but he was no ghost, he was a man, as solid as flesh and blood gets, muscular and bruised, a veteran of the streets and possessed by a spirit so like himself that at first, I thought I was seeing double. The ghost was a thuggish creature: a Cruikshank wood-cut figure, Bill Sikes, The Ripper; generic Victorian-villain of collective memory. His history seeped along the threads that link us all like sound vibrating on a wire, a soul steeped in blood. He’d taken many lives, he was as evil as they come, but a product of his times, ‘Bill Sikes’ was a believer and terrified of divine retribution; it was clear why he hadn’t moved on when he died.
There was something else inside him, too. Beside the man’s own, small spirit and the powerful possessor, there was… something; I couldn’t make it out. It wasn’t a ghost; it was closer to pure energy, a window to another dimension, a hole punched in time, and at its heart…
I knew it was dangerous, but – irresistibly drawn, I pushed deeper. Like diving into a deep and murky pool, womb dark and oddly mesmerising, the waters drew me down; poison-green, thick with mud and weed and numbingly cold, down and down until the light was all gone and still there was nothing, just the endless descent into The Cold, the dread place at the end of eternity where nothing lives.
And then. I caught a glimpse of her. A woman, a tiny skin-and-bone creature with tangled white-hair and tribal scars, and I felt… That she’d been powerful once, been tricked, enslaved and in the end, cruelly killed. She was angry, but it wasn’t just anger that had kept her earthbound, there were other forces involved, things I couldn’t read. She’d ousted many souls in twisted rituals of dark magic, a ruthless shaman past, and she wanted…
I felt it just in time, just as eager fingers reached for me, to hold me tight and drag my soul from my body.
I broke contact. Like suddenly letting go in a tug of war, I fell back hard against the Jacaranda wall, but I could still feel her, searching for me blindly, along the threads I’d left torn and drifting when I broke the link and, coming to my senses, I turned and ran (I say ran, it was more of a fast stagger) around the corner and down the street, fast as I could till I reached the river, where my sedentary, academic lungs called time and I was forced to stop and catch my breath.
That woman. That thing. A Soul Thief. The strongest spirit I’d ever encountered – and the darkest. It wanted me with a hunger I could still feel as I stood panting in the summer street, with the smell of petrol and melting ice cream, giggling schoolgirls in boaters and summer uniforms, buses changing gear as they crossed the bridge, and me, shaking all over with fear and remembered cold. That thing had almost had me; still wanted me and I knew it would search until it found me again, come after me again and again, keep coming until it had me.
I was almost home. I had a choice, to go my usual route – which meant walking back past the alley, past the man with his powerful possessors – or brave the short walk by the river, past St. Swithun’s. For once, the walk past the church seemed the safest.
Saint Swithun’s stood next door to my house. Built of solid red brick and municipal stone; ostensibly Victorian, it had ancient roots I could feel through the soles of my feet. It was a commonplace thing, you wouldn’t give it a second glance, except perhaps to comment on the ugliness of the bare, charred rafters and ruined tower, the blackened stone and soot-stained brick. Years since the fire but it still burned, flames like solar flares, exploding into the violet sky where livid, blood-stained clouds eddied round the ruined tower and confused spirits clung to the crumbling crenulations; spirits that had been violently ripped from the cosy world of life and light and forced to wander an unwelcoming ether. It was a metaphysical disaster zone that only I could see. I’d been avoiding it like a dumped girlfriend for years.
I knew St. Swithun’s was the nexus, it had to be the source of the ghosts that wandered the town, possessing the unwary. I’d always hated the place, even when it was whole, long before it burned; before the dispossessed-dead began to gather in its stark garrets. Even as a child, I’d distrusted it, avoided it; some sense perhaps, of what was coming? I couldn’t even bear to look at the place; I walked a quarter of a mile out of my way every day to avoid it.
I let myself in at the front door and went through to the kitchen, put the kettle on and leaned against the stove, trying to chase away the Cold that seemed to have taken root in my belly, looking out at the garden, where Claude was hard at work in gloves and gumboots, secateurs in hand.
I went to the door. ‘Kettle’s on,’ I called. She looked up and smiled.
‘Be in in a tic, darling, just wrestling with an intransigent bramble.’
My house is called ‘Golkonda’. My great-Grandparents built it before leaving to do their bit for King and Empire on the other side of the world. They never made it back, both died in foreign lands; it was my Grandparents who returned to make their ‘home’ here, though this country was never home to them. Both were Children of the Raj, already middle-aged when their world came to an end in nineteen forty-seven, their lives were of another time and place and they never took to the motherland they barely knew. They certainly had no interest in a small, cold, English garden, so they buried half of it under a gargantuan conservatory that they filled with a jungle of tropical trees and flowers, rich with the scent of warm wet earth; an ersatz Hyderabad, a home from home. They took their post-breakfast tea in there, sitting like a pair of Maharajas in high-backed, peacock chairs, downing mug after mug of strong Assam while they read their morning papers.
Expensive to heat and maintain, the conservatory was starting to fray at the seams when they were still alive and I neglected it too. Paint peeled from rotting frames and every storm brought a fresh crack in the mossy panes – ‘til Claudia
Came. She fell in love with my Grandparent’s magnificent folly. Claudia – or Claude, as she prefers to be called – begged, borrowed and freecycled the things it needed; she fixed it up without a word to me and hardly a penny spent, did it as she did everything, with hearty, military energy. Now my Grandparent’s conservatory is green again, with vines and gardenias, pomegranates and stately potted palms that she rescued from a skip, half-dead, now tall and verdant, restored to life.
She sorted out the garden, too; for sixty years it had been left to itself, a fairytale forest of thorns. Claude sliced back the brambles and poisoned the bindweed, made a votive bonfire of the Russian Vine and re-planted with things she grew from seeds and cuttings, begged and sneaked and stolen, and now, for a few short weeks, we have a garden – till the church steals our summer. From October to the start of June, St Swithun’s eats our sun, sending cold shadows shivering across the lawn, casting Claude’s little Eden into early winter.
With perfect timing, Claude clumped inside just as the kettle began to wail. Easing off her wellies at the door, she stroked a quick hand over my back as I poured tea for us both, reaching past me for the whisky, adding a slug to her own mug and mine. I took a sip and winced, ‘Too strong.’
‘Calms the nerves,’ she said, sitting down, across from me at the kitchen table. She kicked out the chair next to her, put her feet up and waited for me to get it off my chest.
‘What makes you think my nerves need calming?’ I said.
She smiled and shook her head, she knows me too well.
I met Claude two years ago. She was living on the street; I often saw her as I walked to work, a shape that moved in the shadows, shrouded in coats and cardis and smelling strongly of the bins she lived behind. I doubt if I’d have given her more than the usual sad and guilty glance if it hadn’t been for the spirit with her, a young man in a mustard pullover and green moleskins, wearing little round, gold-rimmed spectacles. He’d been young, no more than twenty five, when he passed. Solicitous and loving, he took good care of Claude, gently steering her away from danger, her guardian angel. He wasn’t earthbound the way some ghosts are, held down by chains of fear or shame. He wasn’t afraid to move on; he stayed because of her, because she needed him so badly.
‘I think we may have met before,’ I said, when I finally found the courage to speak to her.
‘Have we dear?’ she asked as she rooted round the skips at the back of Sainsbury’s, slipping a half-crushed Kit Kat into her pocket. ‘I can’t say I remember you.’ She had a clipped, well educated voice; a tall, large-boned woman with black, gimlet eyes and a bright smile.
‘You wouldn’t, it was a long time ago,’ I said, not knowing if it was true. I don’t remember meeting Claude in this life or another, but it couldn’t be a lie because we’ve all met somewhere along eternity’s line, we’re all entangled. I did feel drawn to her, nothing and no one lives in a vacuum, quantum reality is holistic.
‘There’s a man with you,’ I said. She looked up, a little startled. She’d been searching through a box of ruined pears and I think she’d forgotten I was there.
‘His hair’s dark like yours, but his is straight, brushed over one eye.’ I flapped a hand against my face by way of illustration. ‘He’s alabaster pale and he wears gold wire glasses, a bit like mine but smaller; granny glasses, like Harry Potter. He’s wearing a tweed jacket with leather patches…’
She started to cry. Her angel looked devastated, he flashed me an angry look and put his arm around her. She told me after she never felt him, that she didn’t know he was there, but she did – on some level, she did, because she leaned into him as she told me about Robert, her younger brother, who’d gone up to Cambridge and died there, of meningitis. She’d always looked after him, taking the place of their mother, who’d died when Robert was only five. Now he was doing the same for her, always at her side, keeping her as safe as he could through her breakdown and subsequent life on the street. She had nowhere to go, so I brought her here, to live with me. I felt… a connection to her. It was the only thing to do.
Claude blossomed in my house – such a big house, far too big for one. I gave her my grandfather’s old room. She delighted in the view from the big bay window, of the fat brown river, the weeping willows and neatly-tended flower beds, the bandstand and suspension bridge: a Victorian view, well-ordered and comforting.
Claude took the sudden change of circumstance in her stride, with practical acceptance. She took me as I was, too; embraced me and all my quirks and strangeness. She never questioned my claims to see ghosts and shades and fragments of the future. She wrapped me in a soft blanket of love, becoming the mother I’d hardly known. Claude has the gift of life, happy counterpoint to my gift of death. Yang to my yin, she loves me and I love her; we’re making new Karma.
‘So what’s got you spooked?’ she asked.
I smiled at her choice of words, put my mug down on the table and stared at it.
‘Have you seen how it is it out there?’ I said.
‘Not the way you do.’
‘What do you see?’
She sighed. ‘Fights. The sort you always get at closing time but happening all the time, now. Someone got stabbed outside M & S yesterday.’
‘The murder rate’s through the roof.’
‘There’s always been fighting…’
‘But not like this! You’ve seen it. The atmosphere. This isn’t normal.’
I shifted my mug back and forth, trying to line it up with the tea rings that stained the table. I needed a moment to wrangle my thoughts, marshal my words.
Claude pulled a box of cigarillos from her pocket, tapped one out and popped it in her mouth, then click, click, click, with her lighter as it refused to spark.
‘I met a ghost today,’ I said. ‘She was very angry. She told me I was to blame.’
‘Do you think you are?’
Claude knows me better than anyone in this world, but even she didn’t know what a devious little shit I am. If she knew the truth, would she still like me? Would she still be my friend? I couldn’t meet her eyes. I stared down at my mug and said, ‘I don’t know.’
Claude leaned back in her chair with a sigh. ‘Your trouble, sweetie, is that you’ve never allowed events to run their course. It could be that all of this…’ she waved a trail of smoke at the world, ‘is nothing more than the universe correcting the balance. Why don’t you just let things be for a bit, see what happens?’
‘Because it’s much too dangerous.’
‘Life’s dangerous babe, take it from one who knows.’
‘And look what it did to you.’
‘Yes,’ she smiled, reaching across the table to take my hand. ‘It brought you.’
I lifted the mug to my lips but it was empty. I couldn’t remember drinking it, but I could feel the whisky buzzing in my veins. I went to the Aga where the pot was keeping warm and poured myself a fresh cup. I lifted the pot in query, Claude shook her head.
‘I’m fine, darling,’ she said, flicking ash on to a plate sticky with crumbs and marmalade.
I thought again about the man, Bill Sikes, the ghosts and that thing inside him; felt its slippery, icy fingers on my soul again and my insides began to shake. I leaned against the stove, hoping its warmth would thaw the ice growing in my belly.
‘The dead are everywhere, Claude. They always were, but…’ I turned to face her, keeping my hands wrapped tight around my tea, trying to warm my frost-bitten fingers. ‘Nothing’s like it was, something’s changed, the ghosts have changed, there’s a new energy about them, they’re not just wandering any more, it’s like they have some purpose.’
She waited for me to go on but I couldn’t because I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to get bogged down in details about the possessed and the church and all the things I couldn’t explain, not till I’d had time to work on it, sort things out in my own head. I needed information, needed to talk to friendly souls, spirits I could trust – not ghosts, not the wanderers, the malicious souls, the left-behinds and won’t-gos.
‘What do you see when you look at the church?’ I asked.
She took a last drag on the little cigar before grinding it to ashes. ‘Nasty black thing, they should fix it up or knock it down. It spoils the whole neighbourhood; that awful burned-out roof. The council should make him fix it.’
‘Him’ being the Reverend Reginald Forster, current Vicar of St Swithun’s.
Though Forster and I arrived here the same year – me from my hospital bed, he from a London parish – I’d never actually met him. The Grandparents were not churchgoers and had no time for fetes and teas and good-works of that sort. Not having been brought up a Christian, our paths had never crossed. I’d seen him, of course, at a distance, an unmistakable figure with his dark, burnished skin, so tall and muscular, and always in dog-collar and cassock.
Having Forster for their vicar was a real departure for this tweedy, blue-rinsed, very English and very white parish. It seems he was the particular pet of an incoming, modernising bishop who admired Forster’s old-school Christianity, his vigorous commitment to charitable works and to spreading the word, and if the locals disapproved of the ‘types’ he brought in to help him in his work, no one doubted his commitment to walk in the ways of his Lord. If there were complaints, they were ignored.
Forster’s Wiki page is mostly about his work with the homeless, but there’s a potted bio that it says he was born in Trinidad in 1960. He was the first child in his village to be educated beyond the age of twelve, taken under the wing of some local churchman who sponsored him to study theology at Manchester University. That was all I knew about the Vicar of St Swithun’s; I’d had no reason to investigate further.
‘You know he won’t do that,’ I said. ‘Forster’s always claiming poverty, says he needs every penny for the homeless.’
Claude snorted. ‘The homeless! My arse! I remember his revolting followers when I was down on my uppers. Bloody God-botherers, all bad-breath and sandals, hanging about, trying to lure us in to their horrid, happy-clappy services and save our souls with a cup of instant and a custard cream.’
‘But the church…’
‘Hate it,’ she said. ‘Gives me the willies just looking at it. There’s something sinister about it, isn’t there. Is it haunted? It is, isn’t it? I go cold all over when I see it.’ She tipped a fresh slug of whisky into her mug and took a swig.
So Claude could sense it too. Instinct told her something was wrong, but she couldn’t see what I could see, the constant fire that raged around its charcoaled rafters, the howling, clouded vortex that blackened the sky and kept out the sun. She couldn’t see the ghosts who wandered the streets, taking over living bodies, trying to live out lives that were long since done.
Claude couldn’t sense any of this, any more than she could hear the sudden whispers or feel the shadows that pressed about me, stealing the air as I stood in my slippers, leaning on the Aga, Eddie Mair chattering softly in the background. I clung to these shreds of normality like a drowning man clings to the splinters of his ship, using them to pull down the shutters on my senses, raising a drawbridge, strengthening my barriers, fighting off the invaders, refusing to hear them as they begged for the help I didn’t know how to give.