Someone called my name. Angry voices. Footsteps echoing, someone running away. The scream of a dying man.
I opened my eyes.
I was lying on the sofa. Just a dream. I lay back against the cushions and turned to Claude, wanting to tell her about it, but she wasn’t there. We’d spent a quiet evening in the library together, watching old Q.I.s on Dave, comfort food for the soul. I wondered where she was; she wouldn’t have gone up without gently waking me to say goodnight and urge me off to my own bed. It was late, the station must have closed for the night because the telly was hissing and spitting with white noise, flooding the room with blue light, bright as moonlight but moving and shifting; like lying at the bottom of a swimming pool, looking up at the sun.
The whispers began again, louder, closer. I stood up quickly, looked round the room, hoping to catch a glimpse of them, try and work out who they were, and that was when I realised that the strange light wasn’t coming from the telly, it was shining in from outside, beyond the French doors.
I laid a cautious palm against the window, and though the night outside was cool and wet, the glass was hot and soft, as if it had started to melt. I drew back the bolts. Knowing this couldn’t be real, somehow knowing that it was, I opened the doors and crunched out into the snows of My World.
Cold, crystalline, magical; this world, My World, is calm and silent, lonely, beautiful; a place of rainbow mists and the lemon-pepper scent of frost; a landscape of forests and dunes of drifted snow that glitter with forgotten colours under watercolour skies of gold, green, rose, topaz. When I was there I felt that I was made of unadulterated light, vibrating with every colour in the spectrum. I’d return to my body relaxed and energised, recharged. I took to slipping away whenever I felt tired or depressed, when the hopeless bother of the real world became too much; it became quite a habit with me.
I love this clear, cold space with its pure, primordial air. Winter has always been my season. Odd, I suppose, considering my mother’s salamander forebears; maybe I take after my unknown father?
The forest in My World was vast, I’d never found its end. The trees grew thick and dark and pressing close as if huddling together for warmth. The light cast long shadows, there was more shadow than light, more dark than light and I couldn’t shake the sense that I was being watched by someone. Or something.
I heard movement, a skittering in the trees like mice in the attic.
I wasn’t alone.
In all the years I’d been coming here I’d always been entirely alone. There was someone here now though, at my back, watching from the trees – More than one, I could feel them, circling at the edge of perception, at the place where this world ends and joins another, a barrier I’d never dared to try and cross. It was slowly dawning on me too, that I’d always come here of my own volition. This time was different, this time I’d been summoned.
‘Who’s there?’ I said my voice too loud in the clear cold air. Affecting a nonchalance I didn’t feel, I strolled out of the forest, into the ‘safety’ (oh, who was I kidding?) of a snowy clearing. I felt stronger here, away from the pressing weight of timber and called out again, ‘Who’s there?’ But who could be there, here, in My World where there shouldn’t be anyone but me.
A wave shivered through reality. I felt Time brake, felt the air thicken. I forced myself to turn and look back into the forest, where figures were percolating out of the dark, shadows on shadows, gathered at the tree-line, shifting their feet nervously, like toddlers at their first party.
One figure separated from the group, pushed past the indecisive shufflers at the front and marched towards me, kicking up soft clouds of powdery snow, becoming more distinct with every step till I could see him clearly; a tall, thin young man in narrow jeans and a black leather jacket. Soon he was standing right in front of me, too close, in my space, in my face.
‘Do you mind telling me who you are and how you came to be here?’ I asked, politely, I thought, all things considered, surprising myself with how calm my voice sounded.
‘Who I was,’ the figure corrected. He’d put a bit of reverb on his flat, Essex voice, giving depth and resonance. Nice touch, I thought, fighting a smile at the tired old antics, surprised he hadn’t brought a few chains to rattle; what kind of amateur did he think I was?
‘I was Heathcliff Strong.’
‘Heathcliff Strong? Really?’
‘Well, it’s not my real name, obviously. I was a musician, lead guitar and vocals, and I had a band and Alan Henderson was never going to sign a record contract, so I was Heathcliff Strong.’
‘You were in a band?’ I said, realising I was attempting to make polite conversation with a dead man in a world between worlds and realising how ridiculous that was, yet somehow, unable to stop myself.
‘The Magistrates,’ he said. ‘You won’t have heard of us; band split when I died in sixty-two, just when it was all kicking off. I can’t begin to tell you how pissed off I was. We’d opened for The Dakotas, we were about to go on tour and I want my bloody life back!’
His voice strobed pleasingly around the frozen landscape, echoing through the branches with interesting harmonics; we both paused to enjoy the effect.
‘Even Joe Meek couldn’t make a sound like that,’ he said, bobbing his head in appreciation. ‘You could probably do it now, though, with computers and stuff.’
‘You know about computers?’
He shot me a glare; pale grey eyes, searching mine, as if I should know… What? I had no idea, but I could feel his irritation. There was something I ought to have known and the fact that I hadn’t, angered him.
‘Of course I know about computers,’ he said. ‘In my last life, the one I just left…’
‘Three days ago. I just got here.’ He gave me another searching look, waiting for a flicker of recognition from me that, I’m ashamed to say now, I didn’t feel.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I’m confused.’
‘I left my last life three days ago. I say left, it wasn’t exactly voluntary. But she’s still walking around,’ he said. ‘Jordan. My body. The cow.’
‘Jordan Radcliffe. She’s a hairdresser. Thick as a bloody brick. A looker, though, I’ll give her that. I’d’ve given her one.’
‘Your body is a hairdresser called Jordan Radcliffe?’
‘Reincarnated. Keep up, mate.’
‘You, the former Alan Henderson, have reincarnated – as a girl called Jordan.’
Alan mimed firing a gun at me, made a ‘kerchow!’ noise. ‘She’s my second since I bought it as Cliff,’ he said. ‘Before her I was Steven Potter, a lathe operator from Sittingbourne. Useless little git. Drowned in the Swale, New Year’s Eve, nineteen ninety. Acting up he was. Drunk. Trying to impress his mates.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. I felt I should say something.
‘Are you?’ he said. ‘I’m not, I was glad to see the back of him, talentless little bastard, doomed to work down the factory all his life like his poor old granddad. I was hoping for better next time around, but I got stuck with her.’
‘But you’re not stuck with her are you, if she’s alive and you’re…’ What? It made no sense, and yet it did, it made perfect sense. ‘You’ve come unglued,’ I said. ‘Your body’s still alive, but soulless – and possessed?’
‘Taken over,’ he nodded. ‘Someone else has moved in.’
So Jordan was another of those things, a shell-creature, an empty chrysalis, a home to wandering ghosts.
‘Don’t know his name,’ Alan said. ‘The one who’s in there now; some bloke from long ago, some thief or highwayman. He seems happy; he’s certainly having more fun as her than I was.’ Alan pressed his hands down deep into his pockets and shrugged his shoulders at the timid group of souls still huddled at the edge of the woods. ‘We’re all lost,’ he said. ‘We didn’t even know where we were till you turned up, but we all know you, who you are, what you are. You’re here to help us, right?’
‘Alan,’ I said. ‘Can I call you Alan? I can’t think of you as Heathcliff.’
He shrugged, I took it for acquiescence. ‘This is very weird; weird even for me and weird is what I do. I take it you’re all in the same boat? You’ve all been ousted from your bodies?’
‘And you want me to help you find your way back?’
He shook his head. ‘They do, but I don’t, not if it means going back to being Jordan Radcliffe. I can’t spend another sixty-odd years with her. If I could find someone more like me, like I was. I know it’s not exactly within the rules – there are rules, right?’
I shrugged, non-committally. I’d never given the matter a moment’s thought. If there were rules, I must have been breaking them all my life.
‘I don’t want to go back to being her,’ he said.
‘But she is you, you are Jordan Radcliffe.’
‘No, I’m Cliff Strong. I never stopped being Cliff Strong, not really, not in my heart. Cliff was good looking, he was talented. Cliff had a great future ahead of him when that bloody Bedford van cut him off in his prime! This bloody hairdresser… I mean, she looks good now, she’s only eighteen, but she keeps knocking them tequila slammers back the way she does, she’s going to be twenty stone by the time she’s thirty. She’s got no brains, no talent, no ambition; she’ll be pushing a pram by time she’s 21, shacked up with some sweaty loser with a dead end job who’s knocking off her best friend on the side. I don’t want that. I don’t deserve that.’
The lost souls edged closer as Alan talked; close enough for me to feel each of them as individuals. There were far more than I’d thought, an uncountable number; their sadness stained the air like ink on a snowy tablecloth.
‘Tell me how it happens,’ I said.
‘I don’t know the details and I don’t know why. None of us remembers, only that no one goes willingly.’
‘Does it happen at St. Swithun’s?’
‘Sometimes. Some of us came that way. I think I did, though I can’t tell you how. All I remember is having a mug of tea and a jammy dodger in that dreary meeting room with the old Joanna. Others here reckon they were murdered by some big bloke in a black coat, but that can’t be right because they aren’t dead, either; they’re like me, the spirit is here, but the rest, the living breathing flesh and blood bit, is still walking around down there with someone else on board. I don’t know what’s going on,’ he said, looking at me, helplessly. ‘None of us does.’
‘There’s no exorcism, then, no ceremony…’
‘With a crypt full of candles, and blokes in robes chanting and a naked bird on a slab? It’s not some Hammer Horror,’ he scoffed. ‘You’re just there one minute and the next…’ He shrugged.
‘And Forster, the vicar, is he the one doing this?’
Alan looked to the others for guidance, but they stayed still and quiet, no one spoke.
‘I don’t know. He was there; I remember meeting him, but the rest… Like I said, I don’t remember.’
‘How did he get you into his church?’
‘Some of them were homeless, tramps, down and outs. They were living on the street; he offered to put them up in the vicarage.’
‘And it’s done against their will?’
‘He’s very charismatic; there’s a fair bit of hero-worship going on. He does look after them, no one living in that church wants to go back on the street. They either believe they’re possessed like he tells them they are, or they go along with it so’s not to risk getting thrown out.’
So the vicar told his victims they were possessed by demons, then cast their souls out, leaving the bodies empty to be possessed by ghosts. Why? Did he know what he was doing? Was he following some ancient holy rite, but doing it wrong? Was he doing it on purpose, and if so, to what possible end? Too many questions and no answers.
‘And this has happened to all of you?’ I said, dying to ask ‘what possessed you?’, but feeling it wouldn’t go down well.
Alan nodded. ‘Thrown away, like old chip papers.’
‘But you, you weren’t homeless. What happened to you, Alan?’
He looked down at the snow. His long brylcreamed fringe flopped over one eye, he wiped it away with a pale, narrow hand; musician’s fingers. ‘I’d never have got mixed up with a nonce like Forster, but Jordan – she had this boyfriend, much too old for her, ageing hippie type with a ponytail for Christ’s sake, a sanctimonious do-gooder, into all the mystic crap. He wasn’t a church-going type but he thought Forster wasn’t like your run-of-the-mill vicar – well, he was right about that, wasn’t he? Anyway, that’s how she got involved, and I got thrown out of that body, but I’m not complaining, you know? I was glad to be shot of her and if that was the end of it, I’d not be stood here moaning to you about it. But it’s not the end of it, is it? Cause I’m stuck.’
‘Between worlds,’ I said. Not living, not dead.
‘Where is this place anyway?’ he asked. ‘Is it part of your sub-conscious?’
‘That would make me a figment of my own imagination,’ I said, hoping he wouldn’t ask questions I couldn’t answer. I really do have no idea where or what My World is. I assume it’s some offshoot of the afterlife, a waiting room for eternity, but I don’t really know. I accepted my visits here as just another of those impossible things that seemed to happen to me.
‘How many of you are here?’ I asked.
He shrugged. ‘I dunno. Lots. Thousands. It’s like musical chairs, that church, it’s a sausage factory. I’m sick of wandering in limbo like this,’ Alan said, suddenly weary. ‘We all are. We’re not dead so we can’t pass over, but our bodies have been taken so we can’t get back to the physical either, not without a fight, and none of us wants to go up against Them. They’re not like us, they didn’t have bodies to lose, they were already there, waiting for their chance, and they’re so much stronger than we are.’
‘Ghosts,’ I said. ‘Wanderers. The dead who can’t or won’t move on.’
My words echoed back at me from a vast distance. The icy tang of My World evaporated, melting into kinder scents, of crumpets and cocoa. The physical world thickened around me like warm syrup as my soul slid back into my body with the gentle ease of long practice.
I was lying on the sofa, my head cushioned on Claude’s wadded cardigan, traces of Shalimar lingering in its hand-knitted fibres. Claude was in her chair, as she had been all evening, chuckling at the telly, oblivious to the fact I’d been away. How long had I been gone? A few seconds, probably, maybe less; the so-called laws of physics don’t function the way we expect on the other side of time’s membrane.
Claude turned to me, chuckling at some joke I’d missed. I smiled back, snuggled down into the cushions and watched her laugh.