Good afternoon, good folks. First, another quick check-in. How are we all doing? Thinking of anyone and everyone at this peculiar and unsettling time.
Just remember, wash your hands, stick to the rules, check in on ALL friends and relatives, not just the vulnerable ones (though make sure you focus on them!) and, also importantly, be sure to take care of yourselves. Read something new, or something old and well-loved. Break out your favourite movies and TV shows and DON’T feel guilty about a little bit of extra sofa-time. Do some exercise if you want/are able (Yoga with Adrienne is my personal favourite – yoga for all situations and for all levels) and try to stick to some form of routine.
Also, why not order yourself some nice things from local businesses that are doing delivery? You won’t be spending much money in the high streets, pubs or venues for the foreseeable so why not have the double bonus of treating yourself to something you can maybe afford without those extra expenses to think of, whilst also supporting a small (or large!) business that may well need all the help it can get at the moment.
Things to think about ordering:
Beer from a local brewery
Flowers from a local florist (for yourself or a friend or relative who maybe needs a lift right now)
Takeaway from your local restaurants that are currently closed
Meat from a local butcher
Veg from a local greengrocer
Milk from your milkman
There’s no end of it, really! Just whatever suits you, and your purse.
And so we come to the main reason for this post.
Amidst all the uncertainty and upheaval, it’s important to hang on to some positives. The gift of time is always a useful one and, lord knows, something we are likely to have plenty of in the weeks to come. So please find below, hot off the Pages App, a brand new short story. A ghost story, maybe? You decide. A bittersweet yarn, but one which I hope brings some comfort in its own way.
“Who helped you fix the boiler?”
Rose blinked at me with the kettle hovering under the tap. “Herman.”
It was my turn to blink. “Who’s Herman?”
Rose clicked the kettle on as she fetched the tin of teabags from the cupboard. “The ghost, dear.”
“The ghost. I’m sure I must have mentioned him.”
I watched her put teabags in two of her chipped yellow mugs with a sinking feeling in my stomach. “No. No you haven’t.”
“Haven’t I?” Her thin brows pulled together in a frown as she poured hot water into the mugs. “Well that’s odd. He’s been visiting a while now.”
“That’s right. Bourbon?” She handed held out an open packet of chocolate biscuits.
I took one with numb fingers and followed her to the kitchen table. “How often have you seen it, Auntie Rose?”
“Oh, I’m not sure,” she said, swirling a biscuit in her tea. “Not every night, that’s for sure. Think he just pops by when he feels like it.”
“And what does he do, this ghost?”
She bit the soggy end from her biscuit with relish, wiping the crumbs from her lips with one of her embroidered napkins. “Do? Why, the same as anyone, dear, I suppose. Sometimes he’s just passing through, asks how the garden is, that sort of thing. Sometimes he sits and talks.”
I put my biscuit down untasted. “And…it’s not…I mean. It’s not Uncle John?”
Her eyes dropped to her teacup. “No.”
“It’s just when someone dies, it’s sometimes normal to picture them – ”
“It’s not John,” Rose stated, meeting my eyes with a slightly hard look. “John is gone. Don’t you think I know that?”
“No, of course,” I said hastily. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you…”
“You didn’t, dear,” she said with a slightly pained smile. “I miss him, obviously. But I’m not losing my marbles. I know John’s dead. For the best, in a way. He was in a lot of pain at the end, you know.”
I swallowed some tea with a suddenly dry mouth. “Yes. Mum said. I’m sorry.”
“So, well, it is lovely to see you as always, dear. But I think you’ve had a wasted trip. The boiler’s working fine.”
There was a moment of silence whilst Rose teased another bourbon from the packet.
“I’m sorry I haven’t visited sooner.”
“I understand,” she said, dunking her biscuit. “The divorce can’t have been easy, I know that. And your big, important job and everything. Sometimes there’s just not enough time for everything.”
I pushed the bourbon around the saucer with my finger. “So this…Herman? He told you how to fix the boiler?”
“Oh yes, he’s a whizz with things like that. One of the connector pipes was a bit loose was all. I just needed to tighten it with a spanner.”
I was willing to bet that when John was alive Rose wouldn’t have even known what a spanner looked like, never mind a connector pipe.
“Is it ok if I take a quick look anyway? Just to be sure?”
I drained my tea and pulled open the cupboard that housed the boiler. The green power light was on and it was making a low, level hum. The pressure readings were normal and when I ran a test cycle everything went through fine. I could see the problem pipe, connector bolts newly greased and tightened at the back. I tested it with my fingers and found it sound.
“That certainly seems to have done the trick. Just make sure it gets its service next month.”
“Already booked for the 14th. I put it on the calendar.”
I nodded and gently closed the cupboard door. I surveyed her closely as she wiped biscuit crumbs from the table top into her hand.
“Apart from…Herman…has there been any other…changes around here? Anything seeming out of place? Stuff being moved, things not where you think you’ve left them?”
Her brows pulled together again over her thick glasses. “I know where you’re going with this. And you’re wrong. I’ve not got dementia, dear.”
“I didn’t say that. It’s just – ”
I sighed and stared at the leaf-patterned linoleum. It was faded and scuffed but spotlessly clean, like always. The mustard-yellow mugs still hung on the mug tree by the kettle. Her collection of potted herbs crowded the windowsill. Behind them lace curtains were looped back on strands of ribbon she’d embroidered herself god knew how many years ago. Everything was as it was the last time I’d visited. And all the times before that, stretching right back to childhood. The only thing different was that John’s chair at the kitchen table was empty.
Well, I also had to admit that Rose had lost weight. Her peach-soft skin hung a little loose from her jaw and neck. The tendons on the back of her hands stood out like wire. Mum had said not to worry. She was still eating, she had just been under a lot of stress and was only just getting into a routine of cooking for one. Her eyes, the colour of warm cocoa, had always been welcoming and easy. They were tired now, a little red, but the warmth was still there. There was grief, yes, but there was also the readiness to comfort. The readiness to understand. Even though she was the one who should need both those things.
It didn’t seem to make sense that she should seem so…ok. So unchanged, apart from the slightest suggestion of sadness in her smile. How could your entire world turn upside down and you remain the right way up?
Apart from seeing ghosts, that is.
“Just what, dear?” she prompted me when I still hadn’t said anything several moments later.
“Do realise how it sounds, Auntie Rose? When you say you’ve been talking to a ghost?”
Her face went blank. “How it sounds?”
I chewed my thumbnail, remembered she never liked the habit and dropped my hand. “Have you mentioned it – ”
“He has a name, dear.”
“Have you mentioned Herman to Mum?”
Her smile gained a small amount of life. “Your mother is a dear woman. And is still my favourite niece. But she wouldn’t understand such things. I mention him to you because I thought you would.”
I sat back down at the table. “Did John ever see this ghost?”
“No, no. He’s only started visiting since John passed. He’s a lovely boy, but I don’t think he and John would have got on.”
“Oh, well that’s how he appears to me. Anyone under 50 to me looks like a child, dear.”
I fought a frown as I tried to get my head round this. “So he’s a young ghost?”
“I don’t know if he has any real age, or what we would think of as age. But he looks like a young man. Handsome one too, if I do say so myself. If I’d been forty years younger, I’d’ve been quite taken, I don’t mind admitting it.”
“And what does he do? Besides passing on DIY tips?”
She gave me a look but her smile didn’t falter. “He just likes to chat. He knows a lot about 60s music. And Jazz. Oh and he’s a great reader. Big fan of mystery stories.”
I took a bite of the biscuit to buy some time whilst my mind flopped back and forth. “You’ve got a lot in common then.”
“Oh, yes,” her smile brightened still further. “More than me and your uncle did if I’m completely honest. John was never a big reader.”
“And Herman…he’s not someone you knew when you were younger?”
“No, dear,” Rose said, rising and brushing the biscuit crumbs into the sink. “Though, now that you mention, he does look a little like the young man that lived next door to us when we were children. Was forever fetching our balls out of his hedge. Never once complained though. Always returned them with a smile.” She smiled a small, secret smile of her own. “Gosh, I’ve not thought of him in years.”
“Was he called Herman too?”
“No,” she said like it was a silly question. “Mr Dawson, to us. Richard, I think Father called him. And Herman doesn’t really look like him. Just something about his manner reminded me of him. Herman has blue eyes just like John, in fact. But he’s Scottish, I think. From Edinburgh. Such a comforting accent, don’t you think?”
“So what makes you think Herman’s a…I mean…how do you know he’s a ghost? Is he dead?”
“That’s a very personal question for someone, dear,” she admonished. “I would never presume to ask.”
“What I mean is, is he…real? I mean, does he knock on the door and you open it for him?” I asked as my mind reeled through several alarming scenarios.
“He asks to come in but he doesn’t come through the door.”
“So he just steps out of thin air?”
“It doesn’t feel quite that strange. But essentially, yes, I suppose he does.”
“So what makes you think he’s a ghost, specifically?”
“Well, what else could he be?”
There was a question.
“Has he told you what he is? Or why he’s here? Or if he wants anything?”
Rose folded her arms across her faded apron. Her lips were pressed into a thin line but her brown eyes, as ever, were warm. “So many questions. Don’t you take anything on faith any more?”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek. “I’m sorry, Auntie Rose. It just doesn’t make much sense.”
“Why does everything have to make sense?”
Another good question. I crunched another biscuit at her insistence then helped her wash up. She chatted about the garden, the spring flowers coming in, pointing out her primroses through the kitchen window. I promised to pick up some compost for her, nodded and smiled, kept the chatter going, even as concern threaded itself through my insides like cold vines. She seemed so…normal. Old. Tired. Grieving. But still herself.
The thought of her sat alone at night, talking to someone who wasn’t there, filled me with ice water.
“You know what, I don’t have to rush back,” I said as she was showing me to the front door. “Maybe I will take that bed for the night, if that’s still ok?”
She beamed, the first real smile I’d seen from her all afternoon. “I’ll make up the spare room. I have some butcher’s mince in the fridge too. I could make those burgers you used to like so much for tea.”
“That sounds lovely.”
And it was. The radio gently burbled out her favourite jazz channel. The smell of the homemade burgers as they browned under the grill went right through me. Their warm, savoury taste, cut through with the sweetness of homegrown red onion the sharp kick of her homemade chilli ketchup, filled something in me I hadn’t realised was hollow. It tasted like thirty years ago. It tasted like home.
We chatted about anything and nothing. She didn’t ask about the divorce. I didn’t ask about Herman. We talked about John and I managed to tell her how sorry I was I never got to see him in the hospice. She patted my hand and told me it was ok and the hard knot of guilt in my belly loosened a little.
We watched Countdown and then a Harrison Ford film that was on the TV. She started nodding in her chair as I washed up our cocoa mugs and I told her I would stay up a little longer when she finally announced she was going to bed.
I fixed some coffee, turned all the lights down, put the TV on low and prepared to wait the night out, without being able to tell myself why.
I watched another made-for-tv film. Then the news. Then the late night talk shows. The grandfather clock in the corner struck midnight. I clutched my coffee cup tighter, even as I silently berated myself for being foolish. I looked around the room. Nothing.
Midnight ticked along to 1am. I got up and moved quietly through the kitchen, the dining room, then back to the sitting room, looking for anything that might appear like something it shouldn’t. Any odd shadows or an angled piece of furniture creating illusions in the moonlight. Anything to prove my poor aunt wasn’t going crazy. But everything looked normal. It was quiet, still and peaceful, smelling of potpourri and furniture polish. I was all so familiar I ached.
Eventually I padded upstairs and gently pushed open Rose’s bedroom door. I saw her silent figure in the bed, the covers gently rising and falling with her sleeping breaths. I switched on the torch light on my mobile and scanned the whole room. It was empty apart from Rose.
I took a moment to register how neatly she kept to her side of the bed and how big and empty the other half looked, then crept back downstairs.
I nodded off somewhere towards 4. Rose woke me with a scolding a few hours later, berating my addiction to the television which she surmised must have been what stopped me from going to bed. She didn’t meet my eye as I followed her into the kitchen where she bustled about making coffee and scrambled eggs.
“Did you sleep alright?” I asked carefully.
“Fine, thank you dear.”
She gave me a baleful look over her shoulder. “Herman doesn’t visit me in my bedroom, darling. That would be most improper. Besides, there was no need for him come last night.”
“Because you were here, dear.”
I drove home carefully, yawning and fighting a headache. I rang Mum from the car, told her I’d stayed with Rose and that she was sad but well. Yes, her cupboards were well stocked. Yes, the boiler was fine. The service was booked for the following month.
She hesitated then asked me how I was. I skirted the question, as I always did, and heard the relief in her voice when she was able to say goodbye.
Weeks stretched on. I got the promotion I’d interviewed for, but lost the first court battle for some disputed company assets. I slept for five hours a night, if I was lucky, and only with the aid of a few large glasses of wine. The rest of the time I was on the road, on the phone, on the laptop, in my lawyer’s office.
I rang Rose often at first. And I managed to visit a couple more times, though not as often as I would have liked.
No surprise there.
The knot in my stomach returned.
It didn’t loosen even during my last visit to her, possibly because I only had time to empty the bags of compost I’d picked up from the garden centre and swallow a quick coffee before racing back to my car. She waved from the gate and I watched her shrink away in the rearview mirror, chilled by the inexplicable feeling that that she wasn’t really there. But then my mobile rang and I saw it was the solicitor and forgot everything else.
When Mum phoned to tell me Rose had died I was in the queue at the coffee shop. The barista asked for my order but I couldn’t remember what I wanted. I drifted back outside, shut myself in my car and cried. I rang Mum back but she was too busy dealing with Rose’s solicitor to talk. Even the next day, after everything was signed, she was too busy emptying the house to do more than tell me she hoped I wasn’t drinking too much. I stared at the blank bedroom wall in my spartan flat. I’d dropped my mobile on the floor but I didn’t bend to pick it up, even when the office number flashed up and it started buzzing across the bare boards. I held my head in my hands and tried to cry because I thought it might make me feel better. But no more tears came.
It was a simple funeral. About a dozen people tried their best to sit evenly in the pews to make the church look fuller than it was. Apart from us, her closest living relatives, there were a couple of members of staff from her local bookstore and the cafe she’d baked cakes for. I wondered where all her friends were. Then it occurred to me maybe John had been her only friend. She’d certainly never mentioned anyone else.
I scanned the gathering for a young man, someone I didn’t recognise, possibly there on his own, sat near the back. Maybe in the shadows.
But there was no one. There was no one at all under 50 apart from myself and I only just squeaked under that yard stick.
I returned home and opened a bottle of wine. I turned the TV on just to fill the silence and stared, unseeing, at the screen.
It was as I was draining my glass and realising with a curse that it was my last bottle that she asked to come in. I blinked groggily into the shadows. I muted the TV and listened. Nothing.
No one spoke. No one knocked on the door or rang the bell. But I knew she was asking to come in. Asking if she could see me.
I swallowed and, somehow, said ok without opening my mouth. She stepped out of the shadows. She was younger, though not young. Perhaps mid fifties, her hair still holding on to a flush of brown. The lines around her eyes and mouth were less pronounced and there was a roundness to her cheeks. This will have been how Rose looked when I was a child. Except it can’t have been. She never had round cheeks. She’d always had very fine cheekbones. Film-star cheekbones, she’d called them. Grandma had had round cheeks, I thought. My father’s mother, that is. No relation to Rose. She was also the one that had worn those pearl earrings that now caught the light from the TV, turning pink and blue all at once.
I knew I should have been scared. But I wasn’t.
“Auntie Rose?” My voice sounded far away, like a radio tuned to an unfamiliar channel in a distant room.
She shook her head. “Not Rose, dear, no. I’m Iris.”
I scanned my brain to try and think if Rose had had any other sisters besides my maternal grandmother. There was a brother who’d died in infancy, I was sure. But no third sister.
“I’m not a relative, dear.”
“Who are you?”
“You look like Rose.”
“Do I?” Her smile was as warm as a new spring day and her brown eyes were the colour of fresh coffee. “That’s good.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You understand more than you think you do, dear,” she said and sat in the armchair opposite me. “How are you feeling, love? You don’t look so well. Are you eating?”
The rational part of my brain wanted me to shout, to run, to be indignant, angry, confused or just plain terrified. But all I felt was the fuzz of the wine and the warm flooding sensation that swam through me at the sound of her voice, unknotting my stomach and muscles as it went. “I’m…I’m not good. I don’t think. And I haven’t eaten properly in….” I rubbed my eyes. “Too long.”
“I understand, dear. Life is hard sometimes, you know? Sometimes there just isn’t enough time for everything.”
I dropped my hand and looked at her. She was so real, so solid. Not an illusion or a wine-induced hallucination. The armchair dipped under her weight. The light from the TV shone on the glasses she wore on a beaded chain around her neck. She was there and yet not. She looked like Rose and yet…didn’t. There was more of a resemblance to my mother than Rose had ever had. And her hair was styled the way my favourite dinner lady had worn it in secondary school. She used to save extra beetroot for me because she knew I liked it. She also picked me up and dusted me off when some other kids pushed me over in the carpark, sending them all off with a flea in their ear.
I hadn’t thought about her in years but I could suddenly hear her broad Lancashire accent and taste the pickled beetroot clear as day. And she, along with my mother and both grandmas, was looking out at me from my Auntie Rose’s cocoa-brown eyes.
“I know you.”
“Of course you do, dear. You’ve known me your whole life.”
“You knew my aunt.”
A nod. “I did. Lovely lady. Liked her Agatha Christie.”
I felt a smile spread over my face despite everything. “So you’re….you’re Herman?”
Iris put her head on one side, a comforting tilt to her mouth as she adjusted the buttons on her shell-pink cardigan. “Not to you. For you I’m Iris.”
“Who was Herman?”
“Herman was someone your aunt needed. I’m here for you, now. Come, dear. Tell me what’s going on.”
I told her. Everything. The breakdown of my marriage. The promotion I’d fought for but didn’t really want. The business I was about to lose to my ex despite having spent years of my life building it up. Everything I felt like I’d lost by sinking so much of myself into things I felt no longer mattered. May never have mattered.
I told her about not being able to talk to Mum about it because she didn’t like not knowing what to say. Not being able to talk to Dad as he had never really done ‘talking’. Not being able to talk to any friends because I’d pushed them all away. And now that Rose was gone and her house was sold subject to contract, it felt like the last parts of me that had known a time when things had been good were getting swept away.
She listened. She said nice things. She patted my hand. Her skin was warm and she smelled like violets, a scent my dad’s mother had favoured and had worn every day of her life, even when she had gone into hospital one day, never to come out again. She didn’t do anything, or say anything particularly remarkable. She didn’t need to. She was just there.
Then she wasn’t.
I woke up on the sofa the next morning with a crick in my neck, fur on my tongue and a pounding head but with an inexplicably light feeling in my chest. Nothing real had changed. But something in me had shifted. I felt like I had as a child when I’d fallen and skinned my knees, or when my first elderly relative had passed away. Bad things had happened. I was allowed to be sad. But that didn’t mean life was over. Or that it was all my fault.
I got up, showered on the hottest setting, fixed coffee, took a deep breath and rang the office.
Iris visited again. She asked how the new job was going and helped me pick some colours for decorating my flat. She scolded me gently for not buying furniture that I liked but making do with what I’d scavenged from my marital home. She talked to me about things from my childhood I’d thought I’d forgotten about. Places we’d gone on holiday. Rose’s homemade scones. The card games she had taught me which John had then taught me to cheat at, much to her consternation. When Dad had used to let me help sort his fishing rods before a trip. The time when Mum used to smile more.
Iris talked about Mum. And her relationship with Dad. Things I must have already known, deep down, but had never let myself consider. We talked about how I’d taken a chance to escape but how she had never felt like she could.
The next time I rung home I asked Mum how she was and was slightly ashamed to find her surprised by the question. I persuaded her to let me take her out for dinner, without Dad, so we could talk. Properly talk. Reluctantly, she agreed. And we did.
It was hard. On both of us. We both said honest things. And stupid things. But then we said sorry. Iris suggested that I ask Mum to make it a regular thing. She agreed. With less responsibility at work I had the time to spare and found I enjoyed it. I even started cooking at home and Mum enjoyed being cooked for more than she predicted.
I looked up from my plate to see Mum staring at me with a confused look. “What?”
“Who did you say suggested adding fresh chilli?”
I blinked at her, paused in the action of pouring her a glass of wine. “Iris.”
I wiped my mouth on my napkin and thought hard about where to begin.