“Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what.”
I moved in with my parents four months after Grandma Clara did the same. It was to be a temporary arrangement for me, while I got back on my feet, but not for Grandma. She’d suffered her first stroke some months before and could no longer live alone. Grandma weakened as the weeks passed. And the mad thing was that even though the doctors had ascertained there had been several strokes since the first, nobody knew when they occurred. The attacks were silent and with each one Grandma, too, became increasingly silent.
A few days after I arrived, my parents were to leave, albeit apologetically, for their annual trip to Greece where they had a timeshare place with some people they didn’t like much. They could always come back in an emergency. A nurse had been scheduled to come. She’d stay in the small bedroom with a door into Grandma’s and that way she’d be properly looked after.
“Who is this nurse?” I asked Mum.
“Oh someone from the Benevolent Nursing Charity. We’ve used them before – very good. We pay for her essentials – food and so on. Her name’s Gretta or Gretal or something. She’ll be here in the morning so make sure you’re in. I need to introduce you and explain.”
But the night before, while we were eating fish and chips, drinking fake champagne, and watching Masterchef, the knocker bounced against the front door. We all looked at each other. Unannounced visitors are unheard of in Croxhill, our compact Hertfordshire village where a neighbourhood watch scheme is unnecessary thanks to the one born naturally from the residents’ nosiness.
Dad went to answer the door. He walked back in looking awkward and mouthing, “She’s here.”
The nurse didn’t wait in the hall, she followed Dad straight into the living room and we all stood up. “This my wife, Sara, and our daughter Daisy.”
“I’m Gloria,” she said. She had a small orange suitcase on wheels. An unusual colour for a case, but it suited her.
Gloria was about five-foot tall and everything about her was circular, from the curls that surrounded her ball-shaped head to the solid rotundness of her limbs. I could hear from her voice that she was probably of Caribbean origin. Her dark skin seemed to shine, almost radiate. I wondered how the Croxhill curtain-twitchers would like that. An immigrant in town with an accent that they would call foreign. Until now, there had been one Pakistani man (who villagers assumed was from Bombay and thus called him the Injun) married to a blond woman, and a fifty-five-year-old Polish lady, suspected of being a prostitute.
I heard Gloria unpacking across the hall that evening as I rested in the stillness of pre-sleep. She hummed softly, the low cadence of her voice full and gentle.
The stilted confusion of a dream woke me that night. It was about a phone call with Daniel. I don’t know if I’d dialled or answered but I was trying to say something to him and I couldn’t get my voice to work. I lay for a while, listening to the darkness. I heard the train cantering towards London, the same night train I used to hear when I was little. I’ve always been a night-waker. Then came the sound of Grandma moaning. Since the stroke, she often made noises in her sleep – unintelligible words and uninterpretable groans. I heard Gloria get up, the floorboards creaking, and a while later, Grandma was quiet again.
* * * *
I walked home from the station the following evening, breathing into my cuffs, my shoulders pinching up towards my neck. It was Autumn; bare, misty, unmoving. It took a good twenty minutes to get to our cottage and when I arrived, I could hear Gloria chattering away to Grandma. I’d forgotten that Mum and Dad had gone. I dropped my bag and headed upstairs. The room had that distinctive smell of the elderly – something awfully stagnant, an odour of pre-decay.
Gloria was feeding chicken soup to Grandma who was propped up in bed, already in her nightdress. Her lip hung to one side and she dribbled. Gloria dabbed her with a napkin. Grandma watched me but she didn’t smile. She couldn’t really smile anymore and her eyes told that she wouldn’t smile even if her body allowed it. Gloria scraped the last of the broth.
“There we go Clara. All finished.”
I stood a safe few paces away – something about the scene was so intimate I didn’t dare get too close. I don’t know why I couldn’t bring myself to feed Grandma but it was too frightening a concept, almost as difficult as the idea of washing her.
A couple of hours later, after a bath and bowl of noodles, I was sat on the floor, leaning against the Aga just like I used to do when I was a child. I was reading the Nelson Mandela biography. Gloria came in smiling and fussed around the sink. Then I heard Grandma groan.
“Is she OK?” I asked.
“Your grandma? Well she’s in a difficult place.”
We heard noises again, this time it sounded as though there were words too.
“She’s talking to herself,” I said.
“Maybe not to herself,” Gloria laughed.
“Yes, but talking in her sleep. I feel like she’s…. losing it a bit.”
“Well… you know, she’s talking to people.”
“Your Grandma’s not crazy.”
“No, I know, but a stroke is a big whack to the brain.”
“So who’s she talking to? Ghosts?”
“Ah – only she knows,” Gloria continued washing up. “But there are ghosts in this house. Especially in that part where we sleep.”
Our bedrooms were in an extension that had been added on a hundred and fifty years after the original structure. It was a large, long cottage with a thatched roof, so old that there were no foundations.
“How do you know?”
“Can’t you feel the change in temperature? It’s cold.”
She was quite right.
“And besides,” Gloria chewed as she spoke, “I’ve already seen one.”
“In your room?”
“Oh yes.” She filled the kettle with water, quite unperturbed. “This morning, I woke at dawn and there was a man walking through. He was covered in leaves, all red and orange, like an October tree.”
“I’ve never really believed in ghosts,” I said. “Always been a very logical person.”
“Nothing illogical about a ghost,” said Gloria matter-of-factly.
“OK, well, I mean that when you’re dead, you’re dead. You can’t still be here. I just don’t believe in the eternally wandering soul and all that.”
Gloria looked at me.
“I agree,” she said. “But there really are spirit-style entities that walk among us. Ghosts aren’t souls. Nothing to do with the dead.”
She took her cup of tea and headed for the door.
“Goodnight Daisy,” she called with the wave of the hand.
* * * *
As I said, I’d moved temporarily into my childhood house to get back on my feet. I’d left Daniel and was to all intents and purposes homeless. Grandma’s stroke and my separation were a coincidence. A coincidence or serendipity, I’ve never known what the difference is long term.
It’s true that at first, Daniel had been just what I’d wanted. I couldn’t quite believe I’d netted him. I was working on the picture desk in a publishing house. It was pretty much the lowest rung of the ladder, researching for a researcher who went out for lunch a lot without me. Daniel was a respected contributor and was called in regularly for editing and commentaries. We bumped into each other at the bar where everyone from the company went. I’m sure that half the girls would have taken up an offer from him. I can’t even remember if I was that attracted to him at first. But he went for me, in his discreet, flattering way. Soft speaking, gentle smiles, standing close. He laughed at the fact I couldn’t swim, he loved that I still read Roald Dahl (aloud) and he pushed me to follow my interests – flower arranging, pilates, biographies.
It progressed pretty fast and within ten months, I’d moved into his Bethnal Green townhouse. I was a few years younger than Daniel. In his early forties, the motor of age-related panic was in full throttle – the motor that thrashes against time, time marching on so mindlessly. He had everything planned and I went along with it, very contentedly. He was in charge and emanated confidence without swagger. People at work talked to me more, and sometimes I even got taken on lunches. I was Daniel’s girl and it was fun for a while. At times, it was sublime.
But things began to settle and, well, I gradually realised how irritating he’d become. That awful period where it’s simpler to deny the first whisper of involuntary, undesired detachment. It began with his thing about cold feet and wearing socks the whole time. People rarely look good wearing only socks and a man brooding over cold feet gets pretty exasperating. Then there was his stuff everywhere. He hoarded so much that I couldn’t turn around without an object of his falling on the floor. His amassed clutter, his permanent socks, plus the guilt I felt because he was so ideal – it all got suffocating. Like being next to a loud-talking but kindly old lady in a restaurant who you can’t begrudge because of her evident niceness. So bloody nice.
I got pregnant. By accident. Because I feared it might be my one opportunity at reproduction, I was going to keep it. But I knew the only reason I’d do so was from fear of never having a child. I pondered being a single mum yet of course that meant I’d be shackled to Daniel forever. Something in me baulked.
I booked myself into the abortion clinic near work. I went alone and had the pregnancy terminated. I didn’t dare tell Daniel. At least half his friends had kids and half of mine had had abortions. By midday I was walking along City Road looking for a cab and a month later I was out of Bethnal Green.
We had a steaming row after Daniel found the receipt from the clinic. I said I was sorry in an avoidant, simpering way and Daniel went off fishing for the weekend with a friend “to breathe a bit.” When he got back, I’d gone. I bolted. I cut off. I moved into a friend’s spare room for a month leaving a simple note. He called me at 10pm the Sunday saying he’d read my letter and had many unanswered questions. I replied that I was sorry. That I didn’t want talk about it right now and however many times he asked me for explanations, justifications, even opinions, I couldn’t find any.
I knew Daniel was aggrieved. I felt the fragility I’d discovered in him over the months but that just made it worse. I sensed him flapping in anguish somewhere, like a fish on a deck, but I couldn’t bring myself to go into it all. The following week, I received a notice that I was being transferred to the Ealing Common office with immediate effect. After a few unproductive text messages, Daniel requested I delete his number. I did. I ended up back at Mum and Dad’s – just for a while.
* * * *
I came home early the next day because I’d had a follow-up internal, a post-abortion procedure. Grandma was sitting up, out of bed, slumped to one side, her left hand resting on the arm of her wheelchair. Her fingers seemed stiff and the nails looked thick and untrimmable. I said hello to her and kissed her whiskery face and she looked up at me with despondent eyes.
It’s difficult to sit with someone who barely speaks. I fetched the old family photo album which had last been added to during the 1970s. It didn’t contain many pictures. The family had been poor when cameras were rare, expensive items. I’d never met my grandfather, who’d died when mum was a teenager and Grandma was only just into her forties. Grandad was twenty-two years her senior and she’d never looked at another man since she nursed him to his final breath. He, too, had been taken by strokes.
Her eyes flickered at the pages. I asked her a few questions about where people were and when the photo was taken and she told me in vague gestures and a few, faltering words. Then we came to one of the rare photos of Grandad.
“Do you still miss him?”
And my grandma suddenly shouted! Something I never heard her do before the stroke. It was so loud I jumped in my chair.
“YES!” she screamed, her face strangely passive. “And I wish he were here NOW.”
Gloria and I ate together that evening. She had made some Caribbean rice and pea dish that smelt delicious. She splatted a great ladle of it into a bowl for me and we sat at the kitchen bar, near the Aga. Grandma’s shriek still echoed in my ears. I really wanted to talk about the ghost thing again.
“When we hear her crying out, don’t you think she’s talking to my Grandad?” I asked.
“No,” Gloria spoke with remarkable assurance.
“My cousin said she saw the same ghost three times in this house,” I said. “A young boy, apparently, wearing red and blue, walking really normally from one room to the next.”
“Yes. They can look very ordinary,” Gloria said. “Sometimes they’re not even visible.”
I slurped at the sauce on the rice.
“To be honest, I’m scared of ghosts,” I continued. “Even if you say they’re ordinary.”
“You said you didn’t believe in them.”
“Well, no. But I’m scared of the idea.”
“Nothing to be scared of,” Gloria said, waving a fat hand dismissively.
“So totally unrelated to dead people?”
Gloria laughed. “Dead people are dead. But ghosts, well they’re created by the living, for the living and because of the living. They’re… how can I put it,” she paused, setting her bowl down. “They’re what I’d call residue.”
My bemused expression must have been patent because she looked at me and laughed.
“Don’t look so flummoxed, Daisy! It’s very clear if you think about it. Nothing is clearer than death. But the remnant of unsettled anguish – that’s something else. It traipses around looking for resolution.”
I wondered if she were sane. Should I class her, like the villagers would, as a strange woman of the spirits?
“I’m not sure I get it,” I said.
Grandma began grunting and quibbling upstairs, apparently alone in her room.
“There she goes,” Gloria smiled. “Telling them what’s what.”
“Of course! Why do you think they come to us?”
She got up and brushed some crumbs from her long, purple skirts.
“I’ll go and see her,” she said.
I woke up again that night to the sound of the same rushing train, one foot still in my dreams. As I mentioned, I’d been a night-waker my entire life, but there are periods when it happens more frequently. The house was silent apart from the rattle of Grandma’s low, slow breaths. I began thinking back. It’d been four months since I’d walked out of the abortion clinic feeling pretty much the same as when I’d gone in – some low abdominal pains mixed with both culpability and relief.
My memory led me to picture Daniel, the anger and the ruin on his face as he held up the abortion receipt.
I’d stopped cold, dropped myself into the chair at the kitchen table.
“I couldn’t,” I said.
“I see that.”
“I just didn’t feel able to…”
“To what?” he asked. “TO WHAT?”
I retreated. “I don’t know.”
“And was I anywhere in all of this? Did I exist?”
* * * *
I’d been out with the girls at the pub. We’d meant to stay for one drink but had ended up ordering bowls of chips and several bottles of white wine. I was trying hard to be happy in spite of feeling pretty flat about everything.
When I got home it was midnight but I still didn’t want to sleep. I heard Gloria in the living room stoking a fire. She was humming again.
“Why have I never met a ghost?” I was drunk and uninhibited. I’d started feeling annoyed that Grandma and Gloria could sense the ghosts and I was so oblivious. Was there really another world encircling us that I couldn’t tap into?
“Ah – so you’re not scared,” she smiled. She was sitting in Dad’s big brown armchair, which she filled comfortably and her large gold earrings glinted in the firelight.
“I don’t know. I guess not. I want proof.”
“Only some of us have that,” said Gloria. “Your grandma may look paralysed, but she’s on a plane of perception that you’ve never known. Not yet at least.”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“Nothing is wrong, dear, you’re just far too deep into your own self. It’s very common but it does take away susceptibility.”
“What should I be susceptible too? The possibility of ghosts? How on earth can I be susceptible if I’ve never experienced it?”
“You need first to really grasp the reason they’re here.”
“What’s that then?” I’d poured myself a glass of Dad’s aged scotch.
“It’s hard to explain,” she smiled, “but think of them as the leftovers of what’s never been put to rights.”
“Such as unexpressed torment, unheard thoughts, unseen tears – all those scraps of sorrow searching for settlement. And until that’s resolved,” she lifted her hand, waving it and smiling, “the ghost will keep wandering.”
“I see,” I said. I was beginning to understand something I already knew.
“And how can it be put to rights?”
“It depends,” Gloria took her cup of tea in her fat fingers. “But the best way is usually by dealing with a silence.”
“Yes. Silence can be very violent, you know. Prolonged limbo. That’s where ghosts grow.”
“I thought silence was peaceful.”
“Not always. Now sit down and stop twitching and pottering about.”
I took a cushion and sat on the carpet at Gloria’s feet. I looked up at her and saw her warm round head, her face so patient and calm.
“Take the parents of Amelia, the girl who went missing on her way home from school. Death for them would be a relief after all these years. A final rest, resolution. But they were never granted the luxury of knowledge. Not even of her death. All they had was silence.”
“But the death of a child,” I exclaimed, “who’d want to live with that ultimate tragedy instead of keeping hope?”
“Everyone. Tragedy is sadness. Hope can only live for a certain amount of time until it’s eclipsed by doubt. But silence,” she looked straight at me, “silence is the harshest persecutor. The hardest thing to live with is that which is undeclared, unexplained.”
I felt a clump of something twist in my belly, the kind of twist that precedes tears. I almost cried. It must have been the wine.
Gloria looked at me, folding her hands across her soft, rounded middle.
“Now go get some sleep, dear.”
As I got into bed I heard Grandma murmuring again before the house fell silent. But in spite of the quiet, I was restless. I tried so hard to sleep but all I could think of was Daniel’s perplexed expression that I’d avoided day by day as he’d tried to understand the sea change. All those little differences in my behaviour that he’d questioned and I’d denied. The coming home late, pretending I was too tired for sex, intentionally causing fights and then making him out to be the one at fault.
I picked up my phone and went on Daniel’s Twitter page. There was a new post, a commentary he’d written, followed by a host of complimentary remarks. There was a new photo, too. He looked like the self-assured editor who impressed people with his remarks. It was a good shot.
* * * *
It was a Saturday. I had breakfast in bed with my book before even thinking of Grandma. But when I went into her room she looked different. A little more slumped, a little less present. Gloria was washing Grandma’s brow and looked at me rather busily.
“She’s had another one,” she said.
I touched Grandma’s head. Her eyes moved with the weary listlessness of one trapped on the final edge of life.
“Shouldn’t we call the doctors’ surgery?”
“I’ve already contacted them. They know what the status quo is. I’m going to get her a drink. You stay here,” Gloria ordered and was gone.
I sat with Grandma and held her deadened hand. Her skin was cool and waxy and I felt no pulse in her veins. Nothing moved. It was the quietest of moments, where her breaths were the only sound in the room. Gentle, regular rasps, so long and simple. In and out, the basic rhythm of life. We sat there together, one as still as the other.
Something became unequivocally clear.
* * * *
That afternoon I called Daniel’s friend Stephan, who sounded particularly unthrilled to hear from me. I asked him to give me Daniel’s number and Stephen said he’d let me know. After a couple of hours he texted it to me. He wrote no name, nor anything else. Just the number.
My parents were informed of the latest stroke and they decided to come home. Their timeshare partners were irritating them beyond belief anyway. Gloria was packing her orange suitcase in her room. I felt a bolt of desolation that she was leaving and I followed her around like a small child asking pointless questions. As if she might stay just for me.
Gloria hugged my Grandma with her big arms, Grandma’s face looking over her shoulder, expressionless and distant.
“It’s been a pleasure, Clara, to be your nurse. A real honour.”
Grandma murmured something slowly, imperceptible. Then she closed her eyes and looked peaceful.
We left the room. There was a whisper of sorrow in the way Gloria turned from the closed door, in the way she carried her orange case downstairs.
“It’s difficult to know how to say goodbye properly,” Gloria said. “You have to do it right.”
I followed her through the living room. She opened the front door and stepped out.
“Daisy.” She regarded me firmly, her hand gripping my forearm, her rounded cheeks shining softly. “Make sure you take care. Of everyone.”
* * * *
“Alright,” Daniel said. “Meet me by the river at Lowemar.”
“Yes,” he said uncompromisingly. “At the Grand Hotel bridge.”
I arrived first and sat on a bench. When he called my name I stood up like a jack-in-a-box. He was walking towards the bench. Our eyes met but he looked away over the water for a split second, then kept his head down until he was right in front of me.
“You grew a beard.”
“Yeah. It’s the fashion.”
Neither of us knew what else to say. Shattered people rarely do.
“Come on,” he said. “This way.”
Daniel led me to the water’s edge and he pointed to a small rowing boat.
“But I’m scared of water.”
“I know Daisy, but I’m not going to push you into the Thames.”
He rowed us out to a central island and attached the boat to a post.
“Why are we here?”
“I don’t know,” said Daniel. “You called me.”
A long pause.
“I’m not sure what to say.”
“You never did want to talk about what happened.”
“I don’t know what happened.”
Something about being in the little boat rocking on the wide stretch of water made it necessary to talk gently. He sighed quietly. I dared not look at him.
“Well then, I’ll tell you what happened,” he said eventually.
Daniel traced back through everything, from the euphoric firework beginning to the slow, heavy crescendo of doubt and into the awful finale. He knew it all, from my side and his, without me ever having told him. I had a few interjections but he had it all down. Turns out he’d worked it out. That’s what silence does to you if you use it right.
“You,” said Daniel peaceful and stern, “behaved abominably. All that pretending, avoiding and twisting. And then totally….” he paused, breathing a few indignant breaths, “….ghosting me at the end.”
I felt uneasy on the hard, wooden seat.
“Don’t guilt me,” I said.
“You are guilty, Daisy. You’re a coward.”
I stared at my clasped fingers. “I know.”
“It’s OK. I’m glad you found the balls to call and confront it. But you really did behave like a fucking arsehole.”
We stayed there for a while in the boat. Daniel rolled a joint and we drank a beer or two and ate salt and vinegar crisps, wrapped in our big coats and scarves. Sometimes we spoke and sometimes we looked over towards the park by the river where people were walking dogs, drinking coffee and pulling children along – being generally normal.
“Do you regret it all?” I asked.
“Mostly. It wasn’t worth the pain. But there’s one thing I guess I don’t regret.
“I don’t regret that I was real.” He looked straight at me.
“I was too..” I began.
“No, no you weren’t. But anyway, I can be as naïve as the next man,” Daniel said. “The good and bad thing about being the real one in a relationship is that it makes you innocent.”
He spat the end of the joint into the water and took the oars.
* * * *
I caught the train home and crunched through the early winter frost back to the cottage, to mum and dad and Grandma. The trees were black cuts in the dark grey sky and the fields slept beneath the chill.
As I walked, I wondered how we know if the people who fleet in and out of our lives were real, once they’ve gone. How much of them do we invent ourselves? And I wondered why time gives us periods of pure, perfect intimacy, only to remove it.
I still don’t know.
A week later, I called the Benevolent Nursing Charity. I wanted to tell Gloria that I understood now what ghosts are made of. But they said that nobody called Gloria had ever volunteered there.