Ever since the old woman, his niece, had left the house and joined their vaporous host, he had spent the days idly wandering from room to room in the grip of ancient memories. Here was the room he was born in, here the attic he played in as a lad, the log cabin, crow’s nest, castle turret of his solitary, always solitary fantasies; here the bathroom where he passed a guilty adolescence poring over chiaroscuro nudes in fear and circumspection; here the room he died in, not yet a man, lungs full of mustard gas, already turning vaporous.
They were all dead now of course, his mother, father, sisters, grandparents, even the old woman his niece, all together again, though hardly a family. The blood ties that had seemed to bind them while alive had loosened with the prospect of a common eternity, blood after all proving no thicker than air. No, it was the memories that held him, the memories he subsisted on, like a diet of ersatz foodstuffs, knowing he would never taste real nourishment again.
It was therefore with something resembling a sense of physical pleasure that, sitting one day at the foot of the stairs gazing glumly at the worn patterns on the carpet, his attention was alerted by the bright metallic tinkling of a key in the lock. He looked up, doubting the evidence of his phantom senses. With an ill-fitting shudder the door burst open to admit a wedge of dusted sunlight and three haloed figures, almost transparent in the light.
The corpulent sales-pitching estate agent – for such he took him to be – led the prospective buyers into the hall, a handsome smiling couple in their thirties. Ignoring the agent’s patter, they surveyed the gloomy baroque interior with a sceptical eye, taking in at a single glance the high dust-dark ceiling, the peeling paintwork, antique banister, heavy oak-panelled doors. Of course it needed some work doing on it, the old woman had let it get into quite a state as you could see, but nothing a good sweep and a few coats of paint wouldn’t fix.
He stood up and joined the group in the kitchen, nodding his agreement. As for the structural condition of the building, it was really first-rate – well, the surveyor’s report would confirm that – and it couldn’t be better situated as far as local services were concerned. He followed the trio from room to room, admiring with them the view of the fens from the upstairs windows, echoing the estate agent’s paean to the housebuilders of yore, endorsing his exaggerated claims about the costs of heating and upkeep. It was surprising, they’d find the fuel bills were actually quite low, the walls retained the heat, you see, and —
Well, they’d think about it. It was a bit bigger than they’d had in mind, they only had one child, a little girl (a little girl!), but on the other hand they had to admit they did like it, it had a sort of friendly lived-in feel, didn’t it, Clive?
Time passed, the surveyor did his surveying, other viewers came to view, and somewhat to his surprise the couple returned, complete with rubber plants, budgie, colour TV, modern aluminium-frame furniture and their little girl, Angela, four. He took to her instantly, as she took to the house. The bright green, improbably large eyes, the head of dark ringlets that tumbled as she ran, the dimpled cheeks, the freckles, the busy legs pounding the stairs – ‘It’s like a castle, Mummy!’ — there was something in her so saturated with vibrancy, vitality, that one could almost have persuaded oneself that decay was an illusion. Who would dare predict that one day this hair would be white, these gums toothless, this delicate blooming skin as blotched and tough as old shoe leather? As his fondness for her grew and he began to appreciate the depths of emotional attachment of which he was still unexpectedly capable, it struck him that what he was experiencing was a kind of love; a chaste, fraternal or paternal love, as befitted his condition.
At first he was content to remain in the role of onlooker. Settling below the ceiling in the corner of the room where she played, he would gratefully observe her solitary games, eavesdrop shamelessly on her conversations with her dolls, beguiled by her guileless charms. When bedtime came he would follow her upstairs, installing himself on top of her wardrobe or like a dog at the foot of her bed, watching over her through the night. It was as if, through her, he was able to live again, to recover a vicarious existence of his own.
He waited impatiently for her return each day from school, cursed the sunshine that took her out to play in the garden, dreaded the inevitable summer holidays and impromptu weekends away that deprived him of her company, leaving him alone in the vast desert empire of his solitude, murdering time till her return. He was happiest when she was sick and forced to keep to her bed; nothing too serious, a chill would do, or a mild lingering tummy upset. Sometimes, when especially lonely and bold, he would sidle in beside her, nestling his formless form against her sleeping curves, enfolding her with his fleshless arms. He managed not to waste time dwelling on the future – her future of course, he had none, or rather too much of it – on what would happen when she grew up and – well, he managed not to think of such things.
The idea took shape slowly. After all, he didn’t want to frighten her. Besides, he knew how the others scorned such diversions. Accept the facts, they said or seemed to imply (they seldom spoke), the world of the living is lost to you forever, you have no place there, let it go. Most of the others had made the transition successfully. The earthly world had faded for them, dimmed, dissolved, grown remote and insubstantial, as spectral in their eyes as their world was to the living.
But the idea would not go away, it pursued him, niggled at him, refused to let him rest. If only he could become her friend, her secret friend, no one else need know. They both needed a friend. What possible harm could there be in that?
He chose to materialize one afternoon when her mother was out shopping and her father busy mowing the lawn. Dressed in his old army uniform with his decorations prominently displayed, he looked, he thought, rather handsome, distinguished, even a little dapper. No burglar or child-molester would affect such an elaborate disguise.
‘Hello,’ he said, standing in the open doorway of the living room – an apt location for his first appearance, he thought.
She looked up from the floor where she lay mutely mouthing the captions of a brightly-coloured comic; studied him with interest and suspicion.
‘Who are you?’
‘I used to live here.’ He took a step int the room, closing the door behind him. ‘Just popped in to see what the old place looks like. What’s your name? Mine’s William. You can call me Billy.’
‘How did you get in? My mummy and daddy told me not to speak to strange men.’
‘I’m not a strange man. I told you, I used to live here. Do you want to play a game?’
‘What sort of game?’
‘I don’t know, you choose. How about hide-and-seek?’
‘My name’s Angela,’ she said. ‘I’m five.’
‘You look funny. Are you a soldier?’
‘Sort of, yes.’
‘Mr Green was a soldier. I know because he told me.’
‘Who’s Mr Green?’
‘The man in the sweet shop.’ Then, her suspicions aroused again, ‘If you used to live here you’d know that.’
‘I’ve been away a long time,’ he said. ‘In the army. Just got back. Mr Green didn’t work in the sweet shop when I lived here. There wasn’t a sweet shop.’
They continued to talk. As he felt himself gaining her confidence he advanced slowly into the room, rediscovering the forgotten art of ambulation. With excessive caution he skirted those areas where the sunlight streaming through the French windows threatened to penetrate his disguise, expose him for the shadow he was. He rested against a mahogany table supporting an empty fruit bowl and a red ceramic vase. The polished surface of the table, he noted with the usual regret, disdained to return his reflection.
‘Do you have many friends, Angela?’
‘Hilary’s my friend. Her daddy’s a policeman.’
‘Can I be your friend, Angela?’
He could only assume she was about to answer in the affirmative because at that moment the door he had closed behind him was flung briskly open – ‘I’m back, Popsie!’ — and the head of Angela’s mother thrust itself into the room. He evaporated instantly but with such precipitateness that the vase on the table against which he had been leaning was sent rocking on its base and crashing to the floor, fracturing into a dozen pieces. Angela’s mother turned to the noise with a start. She closed the door and threw it open again, repeating the experiment without success: the fruit bowl refused to budge. Puzzled,she knelt down and began gathering the shards of pottery from the floor.
‘It was the man.’
‘The man who was here. The soldier. He made himself invisible when you came in.’
‘Come and help me unpack the shopping, there’s a good girl.’
The next time he visited her he was more careful. Angela was in her bedroom feeding and dressing her dolls, her father in the garage tinkering with his car, her mother in the kitchen with her arms in a sinkful of grey suds – a conventional tripartition of roles he was pleased to see had survived the disastrous changes of modern life.
‘Hello, it’s me, Billy,’ he said, stepping out from behind the wardrobe with a nervous smile meant to deprive his sudden entrance of menace.
She looked up from where she stood by a miniature crib in which a naked pink doll contentedly sucked air from the tiny plastic bottle nuzzled in its face. A slight furrowing of the brow and narrowing of the eyes betokened the tentative shaping of a question.
‘Are you a magician? I saw a magician on the telly once who could do that. He could make himself invisible. Pouf!’ she went, mimicking with ten tremulous fingers two rising balls of smoke.
‘That’s right, I’m a magician. I can do lots of tricks.’
‘Will you teach me them? I like tricks.’
‘Well, I don’t know, they’re secrets really. I’m not supposed to tell anyone.’
‘If you were my friend you’d tell me. Friends aren’t supposed to have secrets.’
‘Well, we’ll see, we’ll see. Perhaps when you’re a bit older.’
‘Grown-ups always say that,’ she complained. ‘My mummy and daddy don’t think you’re real. I told them about you but they don’t believe me. They think I made you up.’
‘You believe I’m real, don’t you? — the note of anxiety in his voice betraying him.
‘Of course. I can see you, can’t I? And I can touch you if I want.’ She took a step towards him.
‘No, don’t do that!’ Backing away towards the wardrobe.
Because, because I’m all dirty, my clothes are dirty. You don’t want to get your nice clean frock all dirty, do you?’
‘Why do you wear those funny army clothes? You don’t look like a proper soldier.’
She was asking too many questions, it was time to leave.
‘Look, shall I do my trick again? Do you want to see me disappear?’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘If you want.’
‘All right, but this time you count to three, all right? Then say the magic word: Alakazam. Got it? Alakazam. Any time you want me to appear, just say the magic word.’
She counted with ponderous deliberation. ‘Alka-Seltz!’
Running into the space he had vacated, she palpated the air with her fingers as if searching for a hidden crevice, then skipped back with a giggle to her dollies.
Those were the happiest days of his death. He floated freely about the house, borne up by a sense of belonging once more to the land of the living, or if not quite belonging then at least being accepted as a sort of naturalized alien or, more appropriately perhaps, a soldier on furlough, a prisoner on parole.
His euphoria made him reckless. Sliding under the covers that night when he had assured himself she was asleep, he took it into his head to materialize. Using words like ‘materialize’ or for that matter ‘head’ in connection with what was at best an ethereal act is liable to be misleading. To materialize, in this context, simply meant that, had she opened her eyes, she would have seen him there beside her, or imagined she did.
Unfortunately this was precisely what happened. He evaporated before the shrill piping scream had time to leave her lungs, scrambling to the top of the wardrobe, curling into a ball, imploring her soundlessly, invisibly, to curb her cries, be quiet, he hadn’t meant any harm, he’d just wanted some company, that was all.
‘It was the man, the man,’ she gave out between huge gulping sobs, burying her face in her mother’s shoulder.
‘Shh shh, it was just a dream, darling, just a dream, Mummy’s here now, it’s all right, all right.’
‘He was in my bed, the man.’
It irked him that she had reacted in this way. He’d been friendly after all, he’d been nice to her, what was she afraid of? If only he could talk to her, explain, apologize, he’d never do it again, honestly, not if she didn’t want him to, cross his heart and hope to – well, never mind.
But to appear before her now, he knew, would only make things worse, increase her fear, alienate her further. Especially as the so-called ‘dream’ in which he’d entered her bed was succeeded by a series of real (that is to say illusory) nightmares in which he apparently repeated and elaborated on the act. Night after night she would wake in a tangle of sweat-soaked sheets, screaming she’d seen him again. He came to despise this shadowy reflection of his already shadowy self, this impostor, this double, this malevolent twin, spreading a trail of terror and laying it at his door.
There was nothing for it, he had to speak to her again. He waited till she’d been tucked in and read to and was lying awake in the yellow glow of her bedside lamp, now left on all through the night, humming quietly to herself. She halted mid-phrase and looked up at him, lips parted in preparation for the automatic scream.
‘Don’t cry, Angela, please. I don’t want to hurt you, just be your friend.’
‘I don’t like you,’ she said uncertainly. ‘You’ve been scaring me. You’re not a nice man. I’m going to call my daddy.’
‘Don’t, Angela, please. Look, I promise I won’t visit you again if you don’t want me to. Just say so and I’ll go away, I promise.’
‘Go away!’ she said. ‘I don’t want to see you ever again.’
He was beginning to lose patience with her. ‘Come on now, don’t be silly. Look, I told you I’m your friend, didn’t I, you can’t send me away, I’m your friend for God’s sake!’
‘Mummy! Daddy! Mummee-ee!’
In a fit of pique he swept a phosphorescent arm across the desktop covered with dolls and dolls’ clothing, dolls’ hairbrushes, dolls’ toys, dolls’ dolls, sent them clattering to the floor.
‘Play with these, don’t you? Bloody dolls! Just bits of plastic, dead bloody plastic! What about me, what about me?’
The momentum of his anger and frustration, suddenly finding a release after a deathtime of denial, proved impossible to contain. He charged through the room in a swirling vortical haze, upsetting the furniture, ripping the posters from the wall, lifting up a mirror and shattering it against the desk, stamping hysterically on the dolls that littered the floor at his feet, crushing their hollow unfeeling skulls, tearing them limb from limb, flinging the mutilated remains at the walls and windows, howling. He evaporated in a heap as the door flew open behind him.
Everything was going wrong, why was everything going wrong? He hadn’t meant to fly off the handle like that, it just happened, ghosts had emotions too, he wasn’t perfect. And now he had spoiled everything, everything.
He took once more to roaming the house without aim, borne down by the weight of his solitude and grief. When even movement proved beyond him, he would retire to a dusty corner of the attic or huddle in a foetal ball in the grate of an unlit fireplace, roasting in the cold ashes of self-pity and self-hate. How could he now enjoy watching over her through the night when aware that she might wake at any moment, denouncing him for dream crimes he had had no part in? How could he even enter her room when afraid that the icy draught he bore in his train might alert her to his presence, set into irresistible motion the whole familiar histrionic routine?
Slouched one evening before the television set, watching a daft late-night horror movie with Angela’s parents, he heard them talking about him.
‘Poltergeist! So the place is haunted, is that it? Bloody ridiculous! What’s he want us to do, get in a priest to exorcise it?’
‘Please darling, try and stay calm. I’m just telling you what he said, that’s all. Apparently it’s got nothing to do with ghosts, it’s quite a common phenomenon, especially among young girls. Some sort of release of psychic energy or something. They can break things, start fires, you know, cause a lot of damage.’
‘But Christ, Shirl, you saw that room. That wasn’t just breaking things. She must have done that physically, with her hands. But why, why?’
‘I know, I know. I’m just telling you what he said, that’s all.’
How endearing the living were with their obstinate refusal to countenance any but the most grossly physical of explanations in their commerce with the spirit, how they feared the intangible, the unknown. Sometimes it seemed to him that for all the arid lunar emptiness of his own existence, the real tragedy was theirs. He at least knew how things stood, he had had time – so much time! — to adjust, while they still had to live through the monstrous metamorphosis of death, still had to suffer the pain of that fatal wrench. How differently they would treat their bodies, how they would glory and exult in the flesh, how plunder its pleasures, if they knew the hollow ache of facing eternity without it. How they will miss that heavenly machine when it gasps up its infernal ghost.
Things had come to a head, they couldn’t go on as they were. It was clear their relationship was fractured beyond repair. It was equally clear that he couldn’t continue indefinitely in his present condition, slinking and skulking round the house, wilting under the burden of an oppressive guilt. He must appear before her one final time, explain what had happened, quietly, without rancour, obtain her forgiveness, then vanish forever in the penetralia of the house till nature made them equal again.
He selected for his day of valediction one sultry Sunday afternoon when both parents were in the garden sunbathing; prostrate, beach-clad, toning up their cancerous tans. It was too hot for Angela, who lay on her bed by an open window, listlessly turning the pages of a well-thumbed comic, sipping a glass of orange squash through two thin coloured straws.
The main thing was not to frighten her. He materialized inside the wardrobe – less alarming, he thought, than suddenly appearing unannounced in the middle of the room – and pushed the door gently open with a slow forewarning creak. So innocent and incorruptible she looked, lying there in her red (what was it called?) jumpsuit on the bed. As cherubic as her name. He coughed to signal his presence and assumed a simpering, as he thought disarming, smile.
Instantly she was up on the bed and backing away from him. Her lips parted, breaking not in a cry but in a thin gasp and bubble of saliva like one of the speech bubbles in the comic she’d been reading.
‘It’s all right, Angela, it’s all right, I’ve come to say goodbye, don’t be frightened, please.’
She had retreated dangerously close to the open window. In a single movement she turned on her heels, thrust her torso over the sill and split the air with a spirit-curdling scream. ‘Mummee-ee!’
Her body was extended so far across the sill he was afraid the slightest movement would topple her, send her tumbling, plummeting, to the patio below. He rushed towards her to prevent her fall, grab her ankles, hold her down, but even as his ghostly fingers grazed the fabric of her trouser-leg he knew he was too late, she had gone, overbalanced, was already somersaulting through the air like one of her own dolls, swooping to embrace the geometric grid of flagstones flying up to meet her. He could only look on with her parents in mute helpless horror as the implacable laws of gravity were fatally confirmed.
He didn’t wait to see if she was dead. Dead or alive, what was the difference? Either way he had to leave. If alive, she would never want to see him again. If dead, how should he explain himself to her newly-arrived spirit, how convince her of his thoughtless good intentions, how justify what he had done? No, the crime was clear, parole would be revoked and escape was the only option. Shimmering through the open window and passing silently over the huddled scene of grief being played out below, he drifted sluggishly towards the whispering fens, then slowly up, up, up, like a child’s gas-filled balloon, on his way to heaven knows where.
First published in The Spectator, 23/30 Dec. 1989. Reprinted in Best Short Stories 1990, ed. Giles Gordon & David Hughes (Heinemann, 1990); and in The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, ed. Barbara Korte (Penguin Classics, 2007)