Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ghost Story - Ian Barker

Happy Wednesday! In keeping with the international theme, today's ghost story comes to you from Ian Barker, who hails from Greater Manchester in the UK. Ian is editor of PC Tools magazine. He's currently collecting rejection slips for a novel.

I’d agreed to have Nick for a week over half-term whilst my sister and her husband were away on their second honeymoon. Derek was up north on business so it would be nice to have some company in the house while he was gone.

The thing is, I hadn’t seen Sandra’s son for four years – living at opposite ends of the country doesn’t do too much for family ties – and I still remembered the rather shy eleven-year-old I’d last met. What turned up on my doorstep was a gangly, spiky-haired model for skateboarder chic. His black hoodie was made for someone three sizes bigger and he wore gravity-defying combat pants that seemed in constant danger of descending to his ankles.

“Hello, Auntie Pam.” He dumped a
rucksack large enough to supply a three-month expedition to the Himalayas on my hall floor.

I put him in the lounge and went through to the kitchen to make tea. When I came back he was slouched on the sofa with the earpieces of an iPod firmly in place.

“What are you listening to?” I said as I put down the tray. I’d opted for mugs, teenagers and the quality china aren’t a good mix in my experience.

Nick grudgingly removed one earphone. “Kaiser Chiefs.”

I half recalled hearing a track on the car radio. “Oh, they’re rather jolly aren’t they? They remind me a bit of The Jam from back in my day.”

A scowl preceded the replacement of the earpiece and the neck sinking deeper into the hoodie. There was also an odd sideways glance and a raising of the eyebrows as though passing silent comment to someone else. Maybe “jolly” wasn’t the appropriate term.
I noticed the sideways glances more over the next few days, and thought I heard the odd muttered aside too but I never managed to catch the actual words. I just put it down to teenage hormones.

Then as I was on my way to bed on Thursday night I noticed Nick hadn’t shut his door properly. As I passed I clearly heard him say, “No, Mark, it’s different these days.” There was some other s
tuff that I couldn’t quite hear and I felt guilty about lingering to listen so I moved on. I was beginning to worry though. I’d half a mind to write to Sandra and say I was concerned about the boy’s mental state.

The next morning as he crunched his breakfast cereal I said, as casually as I could manage, "Who's Mark?"

For a fleeting moment he looked like he was about to burst into tears, then he looked down at his Corn Flakes and muttered, “Nobody.”

“It’s just that I thought I heard you talking to someone last night.”

“Oh... That’s just some stupid play thing we’re doing for school, I was rehearsing.” He blushed as he said it and I knew he was lying but I didn’t press the point.

“I thought we’d go shopping later, get some stuff for a special meal on Saturday before you go back. Your uncle Derek will be back on Sunday morning, so he can drive you to
the station.”

He didn’t say anything, but there was that odd sideways glance with the raised eyebrows again.
Nick trailed around the supermarket with his hands deep in his pockets and made monosyllabic replies to my queries about what sort of food he liked. When we got to the checkout I noticed a couple of extra items on the belt. A sliced white loaf and, oddly, a Glam Rock Greats CD. “Did you pick these up?” I asked Nick.

“No,” he said, injecting a surprising amount of feeling into a small word.

“If you wanted them you only had to ask.”

“I didn’t.” He was blushing again. The checkout girl was getting impatient and there was a queue, so I just paid for the lot. Behind me I distinctly heard Nick mutter, “Mark!” through gritted teeth. He hardly spoke on the way back. When I’d unpacked the shopping and looked up a recipe for bread and butter pudding to use up the unwanted loaf, I tried to talk to Nick again.

“Aren’t you a bit old for imaginary friends?”

“I don’t have imaginary friends.”

“Then who’s Mark?”

“No one.”

“So have you been talking to no one for long?”

“No, he’s only...” Nick suddenly became intent on conducting a close examination of his shoes.

“Only what? If something’s bothering you tell me.”

“I can’t”

“Why not?”

“You wouldn’t understand!” There were genuine tears in his eyes this time and he turned and thudded upstairs to the spare room.
Maybe I should have taken a less bull in a china shop approach. Don’t get me wrong here, there’s nothing the matter with imaginary friends as such. I mean, I had one when I was a little girl. I was six and her name was Emma. We had great adventures together and my mother would play along with the conspiracy, laying an extra place at table or dividing my orange squash into two glasses instead of one. But I grew out of it. Well, when you get a bit older you do, don’t you? A fifteen-year-old boy with an imaginary friend though. That’s odd if you ask me. I made the pudding as a peace offering, but all the while I was composing that difficult letter to my sister.

I decided against cooking on the Saturday evening. Instead we sent out for a takeaway and I opened a bottle of wine. And yes, I did let Nick drink some. What’s the point of being an auntie if you can’t be a wicked one now and again?

After we’d eaten we listened to the Glam Rock Greats CD and Nick surprised me by knowing most of the words and being able to sing along. We giggled at his attempts to match Noddy Holder’s gravel voice. Then he produced a gadget that linked his iPod to the stereo – Derek would have had a fit – and we listened to the Kaiser Chiefs and the Arctic Monkeys. He even let me kiss him on the cheek before he went to bed.

What with such a successful evening and more than half a bottle of Riesling I went to bed more than a little drunk. That’s probably why I forgot to turn off the fan heater in the utility room.

It was pitch dark when I woke and there was an acrid tang in my mouth and nose along with a stinging in my eyes. Someone was tugging at my arm. “Come on,” the voice was muffled. I climbed out of bed and the smoke was worse. I felt a hand, cold and clammy, take mine.

“Shut your eyes and bend down low.” The next bit I only know though my bare feet; the dense bedroom carpet giving way to the shorter pile of the landing and stairs, the woodstrip of the hall, the prickly doormat, the cold concrete of the garden path and then the damp tarmac of the pavement. “You can open your eyes now.”

Slowly I lifted my eyelids, and there was Nick, shivering in his underpants. “You saved my life,” I said.

Then I realised that both his hands were engaged in rubbing his arms to keep warm, but that someone’s fingers were still curved around mine.
I turned to see another boy, about Nick’s age standing next to me, dressed in flared jeans and a tank top, his blond hair in a collar-length feather cut. He gave me a dazzling two-million candle-power smile. I opened my mouth to speak, but before the words could come out, he'd gone. He didn't walk or run or fade like the Cheshire Cat or disappear in a puff of smoke; he just wasn't there any more.

I turned back to Nick. “Was that...?”

“Mark, yes.”

“But... He’s... I mean, how...?”

“I suppose you’d call him a ghost. He died trying to rescue someone from a fire in 1975. This was why he found me.” Nick nodded towards the house, then looked a little wistful. “I don’t think he’ll be back now.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I couldn’t. I was scared he’d go away if I did and...”

“Oh, Nick!” I hugged him until the wail of an approaching fire engine broke the spell. As if on cue neighbours, overcoats hastily thrown over nightwear, emerged from their houses with blankets.

“Auntie!” Nick pushed me away. I realised that he’s fifteen and doesn’t want to be hugged in the street by a middle-aged woman in a passion-killer nightie. “You won’t tell anyone? About Mark, I mean."

“I don’t think they’d believe me if I did.”

I mentally rip up the first letter to my sister and begin to write another telling her what a marvellous son she has. Then I wonder what Derek’s going to say about the house.

Happy Halloween!