No Ghosts This Year #10

There was nothing else he could tell Pa now.

Nothing else, because words could not convey the kind of knowledge he now held. It was knowledge of an utterly certain though intangible kind, yet it carried with it also the equally palpable certainty that none would believe it. He could not tell you how he knew, yet he did know: that the man he had directed to Burden Street had been the killer, that he was in some unavoidable way to blame for the death that had taken place there, and that his life was now forfeit because of what he had done. Indeed, he had already known this in some way prior to this moment; known, that is, that his life was forfeit because of something unspeakable within him. Was that not the reason his classmates mocked him, why they called him “Savage”, why that name always seemed so apt for him, why Laura kept her distance, or why he knew he had to keep his distance from her? It all made sense. It always had made sense. Yet, like Cassandra before the fall of Troy, what he knew was never to be believed, however disastrous the consequences.

And so silently he took the book from Pa, said, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing,” and made to get ready for bed. If Pa was unconvinced, he said nothing, only paused briefly in the doorway to add, “You know where I am if you want to chat.” It was one of his common lines – whenever he could see hints of unhappiness in Philip’s face – and Philip would reply, “In the backyard”. Only, not tonight. He said, “Yes,” and looked at the cover of the book.

He had read A Christmas Carol some years ago, and images from it were still burnt into his mind, most powerfully the Ghost of Christmas Future, that figure who was all the more terrifying for being silent and invisible. Yet he was haunted too by the image of Marley, the ghost whose face first appeared in the door knocker and who Philip somehow expected to see each time he went to his own front door. He had been haunted too by the ghosts that had hovered in the night air after Marley’s appearance to Scrooge, those souls tormented by unresolved wrongdoing, doomed to linger in that tortured half-life of theirs, a life that, for months after, Philip had believed himself condemned to.

No-one else knew why. At school, he was without fault. Yet that faultlessness was a trial to maintain, especially when it was nothing like the world within. And now, he felt sure, the world within had caught up with events outside of him. The murderer inside him had crept out and taken hold of circumstances, even against his conscious will, to take another life, just as he had done so many times in his own head, when mocked, when ridiculed, when set up for failure again and again. Each time he had wished death upon another: each of those times had culminated in this moment when a murderer had seen him in the street and, knowing at first sight the murderous kinship they held, had asked him for direction. There was no doubt in Philip’s mind: there would be ghosts for him tonight, and ghosts more brutal than any that Scrooge had seen.

*

The court was in session. The witnesses, ghoulish but familiar all of them, were summoned one by one. First, the swimming instructor Philip had wished dead when he was nine. Second, the emergency teacher who always found reason to tell him off when he was in Grade Six. Third, a convoy of his peers. Fourth, Laura. She could not even speak. All she could do was point at him. And then, fifth, the Burden Street Stranger. And sixth, the dead man at Number 12 who, though Philip had never seen, was emblazoned in his mind. He had no face, only eyes, and the eyes stared into Philip’s.

Seated at the head of the court was the judge. He too was faceless yet saw everything. And when the witnesses had all spoken he raised his gavel and beat Philip’s resounding judgment into the table, into the earth below. There was nothing Philip could do. Panicked, he ran from his bed. Only water could save him, if even that would do.

Hurriedly, he entered the bathroom and slammed the door, stripping his pyjamas from his body, now drenched in condemning sweat. The sweat knew. The bathroom mirror knew. He did not wait for the water to heat before standing under it. He did not close his eyes. He simply stared through the shower screen at the sight of his face in the basin mirror. The water gathered around his face. The shower screen began to mist. Still Philip stared. Still the face and the mirror knew.

He barely heard Sarah knock. He barely had the presence of mind to cover himself as she came in. He barely registered what she said; was it, “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before”? Perhaps. At least he gave up covering himself then, and let her enter the water to take him out.

And then, “Mum, Dad.” Yes, she called, “Mum, Dad.”

And where were they? Did they come straight away? Draped in towels, he felt himself be taken. He felt the couch beneath him. He heard his mother say, “Dad, can you keep an eye on him while…”

And then the phone. It was a noisy phone. The numbers always beeped when you touched them. He heard her speak but not her words. “Easy there, mate,” said Pa, as he sat. And Pa’s soft arms enveloped him.

No Ghosts This Year #9

No answer was forthcoming simply from passing the crime scene. Nor did his family know anything about it when they came home. It had to wait until the six o’clock news for anything official, though Pa had a friend visit his caravan out the back with word of what had happened. The story was that the police had arrived around midday after a tip-off that someone had died at number 12. No-one could remember who lived there now. The old family had moved a few years ago and there had been a stream of tenants since then. Pa’s sources had no information about the current tenant or who it was that had died. Had it been suspicious? Suspicious enough for the police to be there. Had anyone heard anything? Had anyone odd been seen around the house? Many questions were asked, many theories shared. Philip had ears only for the ones in his head.

As far as he could see, it all made sense, and it was all traced back to him. The lines were so clear that, when the police officer on the news was heard asking for all who knew anything to come forward, Philip’s face was sweaty with the urgency of the moment. Yet nothing came out, not even a confession to his parents, not even a mumbled question about what the police might be after. Although he rehearsed many such questions in his head, and at a speed that defied the movement of light, only silence seemed a clear enough response to what he had heard. While the rest of his family had nothing else to talk about but the death at Number 12, Philip had no desire to talk at all. After the news, and after dinner, he took himself to his room, where he sat on his bed and tied knots inside his mind.

*

Pa found him on his bed, the light still on, around 9 o’clock that night when he came to say goodnight. He didn’t, of course, see the knots, but he did see Philip staring blankly into the wall as though seeking to see through it. He paused in the doorway and asked, “Is everything okay, mate?”

Pa was the only one who called him that, “mate”. Philip looked over at him. He had a book in his hand. Philip looked at the title. An Advent and Christmas Treasury, it was called.

Philip didn’t reply. Pa stepped in closer to him, close enough to pass him the book, but he held it briefly suspended between them, letting Philip’s hand touch it but not quite giving it to him.

“I brought you this,” he said. “I knew I had it somewhere. I remembered it when you talked about ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ the other day.” He moved in now to sit beside Philip and, taking the book back, he opened it. “Look,” he said. “It’s got some other Rossetti poems in here that I thought you might like more. There’s one…” His hand hovered over the pages, as though trying to summon up the exact page from memory. “‘The end of all things is at hand’,” he said, then chuckled. “It’s a grim name. But it’s a beautiful poem. I think – ” He turned to a page near the centre of the book and, finding the poem, looked over the words to remind himself of them. “Yes, I think you’ll see her skill more if you read this one.”

Only then did he look up at Philip, whose eyes were directed towards the book but focused on nothing.

“Phil?” He paused. “Is there anything…?”

The question hung incomplete, slightly inflected, with Pa’s eyes asking the rest.

“Pa,” said Philip. “If…”

“Yes?” prompted Pa.

Philip paused, rearranging imagined words somewhere above his head.

“Is it…can someone be arrested for helping…for making a crime possible?”

Pa’s eyes turned more intently toward Philip’s.

“Do you mean…being an accessory?”

“Maybe…” said Philip. “I mean, if…”

Pa closed the book. Philip saw the picture on the front cover. He recognised the scene: Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present. He stared at it while he spoke, though the image slowed his words, almost blocking them somewhere in between brain and mouth.

“If…what happened at Burden Street…if someone had done something…not meaning to…something that helped…”

“Phil,” said Pa, moving closer, “have you done something?”

Philip’s eyes settled on Scrooge’s face. He tried to see into them, but couldn’t. The Ghost of Christmas Present, large, jolly, full of yuletide cheer – what did his glowing cheeks seem to say to Philip that night?

No Ghosts This Year #8

That lunchtime, before Drama class, Philip had nearly lost a prop that he’d brought from home for the performance they were doing, and had spent so much time running around looking for it – opening up and emptying the contents of his bag and locker, checking his home room, everywhere he could think of – that when he had arrived in class, he had been more flustered than usual for an afternoon class. And, to top it all off, when he’d finally come to class with his prop in hand and sat down, the boy next to him, a new boy to the school called Simon, had said, “I thought I smelt something.” It had taken a few minutes to realise that this was Simon’s latest joke – he was using it on most people in the class that afternoon – but even then the joke had stuck on him like his sweaty shirt did. The whole lesson after that, he’d had that same feeling about him as though he were no longer inside him but watching. As he had lain on the floor pretending to be a paintbrush, talking about what a hard master Van Gogh was, with the coloured wool he had brought to school gathered around his head, he had felt as though that very well might have been true. Better to be a paintbrush than what he was.

And so, by the time Sarah had come to fetch him, Philip had nothing to say. There had been plenty of material for conversation throughout the morning: all the ridiculous and frustrating things his teachers had made him do, as though they mattered at all by this time of year. Yet the afternoon’s Drama class had overshadowed all of that, and done so in a way that words could not convey. The mute position he’d taken on the Drama room floor seemed somehow the most fitting way of expressing what had been and gone through the day. Sarah tried to make conversation a few times but, failing altogether, had settled into silence herself, though almost certainly a very different silence to the one that Philip inhabited.

Sarah would not, for instance, have been ruing Philip’s awkwardness with Laura that morning when passing the milk-bar had made him think of her offer to walk to school together. Nor would Sarah have felt that odd mixture of fear and shame that assaulted him when they approached Burden Street. Yet she would certainly have shared his surprise at seeing the police barricade outside Number 12, yellow-and-blue police tape marking out a temporary fence across the front lawn and white-and-blue cars in the street. And, in that moment of shared surprise, Sarah’s silence turned to now expressing Philip’s thoughts when she said, “What happened here?” But before she could speak Philip’s thoughts had turned to white noise in his ears.

No Ghosts This Year #7

“Hey,” called a voice from the other side of the road.

Reluctantly he looked over. It was Laura. She was crossing to meet him. But what was she doing here? She didn’t normally walk this way to school.

“I slept over at Stacy’s,” she said, as if she knew that an explanation was needed. “Are you walking to school?”

For some reason, he paused before saying, “Yeah.”

“Want to walk together?”

He looked over to where Stacy, a girl from his class whom he didn’t think much of, stood with some of the other kids from their class. They looked like they were waiting for a few more to join them.

“Aren’t you going with Stacy?” he asked.

Laura shrugged. “They’re waiting for the others,” she said. “I don’t mind walking ahead.”

It should have been an easy enough question to answer. Sometimes, since they had moved closer to school instead of coming from the next town away, he had wondered if he would bump into Laura while walking. It had never happened, though he had sometimes seen her in passing, when she had others with her or when he was with his family, and it had only ever been awkward. But now – now she was offering to walk to school with him – and he couldn’t answer her. He looked over at Stacy and the others, imagining what they would be thinking. It was always best to imagine what others thought, in case they thought something that might hurt you.

“It’s okay,” he said. “You go with them.”

And he kept walking.

“Bye then,” called Laura.

And, in an action that would confuse even him and circle around in his head in the days and weeks to come, he simply lifted his hand up in a kind of absent wave, not looking back, not even letting her see the side of his face as he walked.

No Ghosts This Year #6

The day after, he always felt like a wounded soldier. And, while there was a certain manly glory in the feeling, it was hard for others to see or understand it; and what good, really, was there in having survived a battle that no-one else knew you had fought?

As a younger child, he had tried at times to get his parents or Sarah to understand. Sometimes they seemed to, yet only sometimes. It was easiest for them to understand when there was something tangible to explain the battle: a sickness, f0r instance; something that could be observed and diagnosed. Fear of sickness did not seem to amount to the same thing. Being convinced he had asbestosis because Pa had brought out a piece of asbestos at the dinner table one night and had shown it to them: that had not been legitimate. The night that the left half of his face felt paralysed, that night they had understood, for a time; until it had been revealed that there was nothing really wrong with him, only fear.

So, on days like today, he learnt to simply endure it. School would go on, the battle would go on. Perhaps, he reflected, he shouldn’t have read that book before bed. Perhaps he should have drunk his before-bed glass of milk. There were no explanations, only guilt. So he took it on his own shoulders, and went to school.

Sarah, although offering to drive him from school, had no intention of driving him there. “I’m on holidays,” she’d said, when he’d gone to her room to say goodnight. “I’m not getting up that early.” And so it was with some level of fear that he set off walking to school, passing Burden Street as he did, not sure if he was afraid of the stranger he had met or of the strangeness of his thoughts on going to bed. He could reflect now, in the relatively calm light of day, that there had been no reason to think that he had feared – what was it? What even had he feared? The content of the book? The face of the stranger? His own heart? Having no idea what, he could only try to shrug off the odd sensation that clung still about him.

It was another sunny day, likely to make him clammy and grumpy by the end. He hated the sensation of summer about his face and limbs. Only when he could be still and at rest in the sun did he not mind. When he had a fan and a book, or a beach to dip into, then the sun did not trouble him. But when his uniform clung about him and the sun beat down with the pulsating urgency of timetables and the scrutiny of familiar schoolyard faces: then sun was only torture.

So he did his best to walk in the shade, and shade there was if he crossed the road. The shade took him also away from the milk bar where some of his classmates met in the mornings to walk to school together. Crossing over, he averted his eyes from the milk bar and focused on the shade.

“Hey,” called a voice from the other side of the road.

No Ghosts This Year #5

A knock on the door. The door began to open. He hurriedly poked his head out from under the covers. It was Sarah.

“What are you doing?” she asked, looking a little oddly at him.

“Nothing,” he mumbled. “Just reading.”

“Under the covers?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“No reason.”

A pause. He slipped the book under his pillow, hoping Sarah didn’t see the action, then slid the covers off and stood up, with a face that said, Nothing to see here.

“Do you want me to pick you up from school tomorrow?”

“Sure,” he said. It felt strangely grown-up having your sister pick you up from school. He wondered if Mark’s sister could drive. He didn’t know if Mark had a sister.

“Okay,” said Sarah. She stood in the doorway for a moment. “Are you alright?”

And, though he felt quite sure that he was, for some reason his voice squeaked a little when he said, “Yeah.” Was his voice breaking? He was a bit young for that, wasn’t he?

“You sure?” Sarah insisted.

“Yes, I am sure,” he said, thinking that a more formal reply might be more convincing. And Sarah, recognising at least that no other answer would be forthcoming, gave him a peck on the cheek and went out, closing the door behind her.

He paused before picking up the book again, but soon he was so immersed in that strange, staccato world that he forgot the conversation. So immersed in the odd and frantic world of the character’s brain – a brain that feared an eye, and the pounding of a dead man’s heart. Immersed, he must admit, in a mind that had resorted to murder. Nothing else could enter his brain until he reached the final words – Tear up the planks! here, here! – It is the beating of his hideous heart! – and had found in that phrase something that grabbed him and clung to him like an oddly caustic limpet.

He had carried it with him, wordlessly, as he said good night to his family, turned off the light for the night and crawled under the sheets, with Edgar Allan Poe still at his head, beneath the pillow. And as he lay there he found the limpet still present, though it seemed to be becoming larger, stronger, almost in the atmosphere around him. And he found that all conversations and all things that he had read, seen and known that day were replaced with the face of the man in the street – why was he there? – somehow changed, turned not so much sinister as knowing, and replaced too by the pounding thought, prompted by nothing but his own pulsating mind, that he, Philip Savage, was the real danger, and that a pounding, murderous heart, uninvited yet thoroughly expected, was beating all about him. Quick, the air seemed to say, listen to his hideous heart! And sleep, he knew, was unlikely to come that night.

No Ghosts This Year #4

Dinner had passed with congratulations all round for his sister’s success at her license test and corrections from his grandfather over his reports of the ridiculous song that had been inflicted on Philip in music class that afternoon.

“That was ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’!” Pa had said. “Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst. The greatest English poet of her century, and one of the greatest English composers too. Strangled cat indeed. Ppphhhh!”

He never quite knew how Pa managed to make that sound, really just a blowing of air through pursed lips, into something so affectionate and admonitory at the same time, but it had had its desired effect. Philip already contemplated changing his listening diary in the morning to reflect a growing understanding of the song’s value. But then dinner had ended, he had been asked if he had any homework, to which he had replied in the negative, and the conclusion had been that he was therefore in the perfect position to do the washing up. Unable to suddenly acquire homework without raising suspicions, Philip had slunk off to the kitchen in reluctant obedience and had begun the laborious task, finding as he got underway that the act of splashing dish suds around in the sink was quite restful and restorative. Only, when he had finished and his shirt was covered in water, Sarah said, “Did you wet yourself, Phil?” and his dad found several plates that still had food-scraps left on them, and the job, when he returned to complete it, seemed much less pleasurable the second time around.

So, when Philip was finally released from the responsibility, he retreated quickly to his room, where the book he had borrowed that morning from the library was waiting for him. It was entitled Tales of Mystery and Imagination and had a particularly gruesome picture of a man skulking around a four-poster bed with a bloodied heart in his hands. He felt fairly sure that his parents wouldn’t want him reading it, which was why he had placed the book under his pillow as soon as he’d come home, and why he decided to read it now with the added precaution of hiding under the covers. The caption on the back cover told him that the cover painting was called “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and, finding a story in the book by that name – and finding that it was relatively short – he started the book there.

True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them.

He was compelled from the start. The phrases – short, sharp, almost staccato – and the odd, frantic punctuation arrested him somehow, as though he himself were in the mind of the narrator. He had no idea what he was reading, yet he had to continue.

Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth…

A knock on the door. The door began to open. He hurriedly poked his head out from under the covers. It was Sarah.