Although the place had been wiped clean of ghosts, there was one that had not been persuaded to go. One that was so much a part of the fabric of the house and the people who lived here, that it had refused to make that final journey along the Highway of the Dead.
The question was why.
Looking at me warily from the corner of the room, the ghost fiddled with its over-sized granny glasses, the pattern of the wall paper behind it showing clearly through the insubstantial body. The forehead just above the left eye had been stoved in and something fluid glistened inside. This was how it remembered the injury it had received, a vague recollection of an outrage perpetrated on a body it no longer possessed.
I held out my hand and it came.
A wave of loneliness crashed over me casting me adrift on a vast featureless sea under a sullen sky, moorings cut, compass broken. But there was a lifeline because now we had a connection, a conduit through which, with a little luck, the spirit would yield its secrets.
Grudging details came at first, like reluctant suitors on a first date. In life it had been called Anne, but what had rooted it here in death was still buried deep down under the surface like a sleeping leviathan. My death sense began to whisper to it, threats and enticements in equal measure, prodding the monster to wake. The two shape-shifters in the room with me whined, afraid of something that could never be the quarry of mere tooth and claw. Creatures of rage and appetite, death held no such hot-blooded seductions.
Capitulation when it came was as sudden as it was complete. My death sense swarmed eagerly over and around the spirit in filaments of spun blue and silver lights. The ghost gained more solidity and in the process the extent of the head-injury was more clearly revealed. Previous reluctance forgotten, it, she, now wanted desperately to tell me everything and the trickle of information became a flood.
At last the frenetic jumble of images slowed into a sequence: two boys one of whom had short fair hair and looked around ten, the other a teenager. There was now a third child, a girl, all of them playing in a fast flowing stream swollen with recent rain. The rich scent of damp earth carried with it the tease of summer and the children’s laughter hung lightly on the warmed air. A brief moment of suspension and then I was inside the girl, Anne, and into a running commentary: a loop run by this forlorn piece of consciousness for more years now than it had been alive.
Adam starts saying that Phineas fancied Jenny so we laugh and Phineas tells us we’re being stupid. That just makes it funnier though. Stupid is as stupid does, mum always says. It’s kind of cold in the shallows of the stream and maybe that’s why mum has told us not to play here. I get a picture of her with her angry face on, but she always worries too much. My big brothers are here so it’ll be okay.
Phin lifts a big rock and shouts to us to come over and see what he’s found underneath it. I think he’s playing a joke on Adam and I for laughing at him. He can be mean like that sometimes. But then Adam shouts to me to come see. I turn too quick and put my foot down hard on a stone that moves when I stand on it. I lose my balance and fall face down into the river bed and smack my head hard and everything goes all black. Then it’s all weird because I’m above my body, looking at it face down in the water. It’s all red round my head and I think it must be blood, but then I think no, silly, how could it be? I watch the red bits spread in the water and shout to my brothers as they pull me onto the bank. They look so funny with their mouths flapping trying to pick me up and Phineas even blows air from his mouth into mine when they get me onto the bank. Yuck, why are boys so gross! I really hope Amanda Strathmartin didn’t see that because she’d blab to the whole school about how I was snogging my brother and then I’d have to go to a new school and and it would all just be stupid and I don’t think there are any others, not near ones anyway.
But then some men with stretchers come and take my body away, but that’s daft, ‘cos it can’t really be me can it? I’m here, amn’t I? Anyway, I’d better stay by the river and wait for mum to come get me because I don’t know if I can move. It’s so cold out here and now I don’t know how long I’ve been waiting. But it’s gone all dark and I start to cry ‘cos mum’s not come for me. She must be really angry with me this time, because she’s never not come before. After a while though I get the hang of things and find that if I really try, I can move. It takes ages though and it’s quite hard to do, so as I head off in the direction of our house I have plenty time to grump about why they’ve just left me behind.
I finally make it back to the house in a total strop and all I want to do is find mum. But the door is hanging open and the house is empty and that’s never happened before – not that I remember anyway. Where have they all gone?
Now it’s all changed and somehow I’m floating above my own body. I must be in hospital ‘cos people in white coats are shouting and putting metal things on my bare, naked chest with electricity coming out. Either that or I’m in the loony bin. Amanda Strathmartin would really love this. I think about this for so long I start to feel funny. I can see mum and dad just outside, dad being held back by more people in white coats. What does he think he’s doing? Maybe I’m dreaming or something, maybe that’s it and it’s all okay. I try to call out mum and dad, but either they can’t hear or my voice has packed up. Dad’s face is all red and mum looks like she’s been crying. I float near the ceiling and next thing hear this man with a stupid pointy beard say: “She was dead on arrival, it’s no use. Simon, better get someone to tell the parents.”
They can’t mean me can they? What is dead anyway? How can I be dead if I can still think things and see and hear stuff? But everything changes again and now I’m back at the house and it really does look as though someone has died because dad has his black suit on and the boys have their hair brushed in daft side partings which makes me laugh because I know how much they hate that! Dad’s face is all screwed up and he smells of that stuff adults drink that makes them act all silly and embarrassing.
“What is it dad?” I say and touch him on the arm but he doesn’t seem to hear me. I find mum in the kitchen crying and she won’t pay attention to me either. What’s wrong with everyone? Are they playing a joke to teach me a lesson about playing in the stream? But the boys were doing it too, so how is that fair?
But then I have a thought which makes me think that maybe I have gone loop the loop and am in the loony bin: they’re not ignoring me on purpose, this is my funeral. It must be because I don’t have a body and now I don’t have a mum and dad and two stinky brothers anymore. Did I do something wrong? I shouldn’t have played where mum told me not to, but I wasn’t bad enough for this, was I? Maybe if I say I’m sorry, it’ll come all right again. I’m a bit worried about mum and dad to be honest, hope they’re going to be okay because they look awful upset…