a ghost called alf

I’m looking through Judy’s notes, the last time someone listened to her chest. I can’t help laughing.
‘What’s so funny?’ she says.
‘Well – I think the nurse who wrote this must’ve been hungry. She’s written bilateral crepes.’
I show her the little drawing in the notes. The rough sketch of her lungs, a line of little crosses at the bottom of both, an arrow pointing to them.
Judy’s expression doesn’t change.
‘What does that mean?’ she says.
‘It should say creps.’
‘Craps?’
‘Creps. Short for crepitations. I think that’s what it stands for. Anyway, it’s that crackly sound you get sometimes when there’s gunk in the lungs.’
Judy shrugs.
‘I know all about that,’ she says. ‘I’ve had enough of that.’
‘You’re sounding better today, though.’
‘I’m not dead yet, then?’
‘No! Alive and kicking.’
‘I’ll kick you in a minute.’
‘I wouldn’t mind.’
She stares at me.
‘Where are you from?’ she says. ‘Or-stralia?’
‘Australia? No! I was born in London but brought up in the Fens.’
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘That explains it.’
I shut the folder and carry on with the examination.

Judy is ninety-eight but looks older. In fact, with her quilted housecoat, netted, silvery hair, enormous slippers, stiffly jointed movements – the way she wobbles along clinging to a kitchen trolley loaded with toast, Tommy Tippee beaker and emergency button – it feels like I’m in a marionette update of the Red Riding Hood story, where the Big Bad Wolf works for a Community Health Team, and lets himself in with the keysafe.

‘Are you going to be much longer?’ she says.
‘No. Almost done.’
She takes a toot of tea from the beaker.
‘Would you like me to freshen that up for you?’
‘No – thank you,’ she says. ‘I shall need the lavatory.’
There’s a pause whilst I add my notes to the folder.
‘What did you do – before you retired?’ I say.
‘Shorthand typist,’ she says.
‘How lovely!’ I say. ‘I like typing. It’s one of the most useful skills I ever learned. That and driving.’
‘I worked in a brewery,’ she says, moving on. ‘That’s where I met Alf.’
‘Did he work in the office, too?’
‘Nah. He was in and out. But we’d throw things at each other and we sort of went on from there.’
‘Sounds brilliant.’
‘It was hard during the war, though. Terrible hard. There were these Ack Ack guns on the roof. You should’ve heard ‘em when they went off. Boom! Boom! Boom! The whole place shook like it was gonna fall in. They were having a pop at all them German bombers comin’ over. It was a terrible business. Terrible.’
‘How long were you married, Judy?’
‘A long time. So long I couldn’t tell ya. But Alf’s been gone for years now and – well – that’s that.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘What for? It’s not your fault. Is it?’
‘No. I suppose not.’
‘Well then.’

I put the finishing touches to the notes.

‘Why don’t you go upstairs and have a lie-down if you’re tired?’ she says.
I look up from the folder.
‘Sorry, Judy – what?’
‘Not you,’ she says. ‘Him.’
She narrows her eyes and nods at the empty chair behind me. I turn to look.
‘My old man,’ she says, sighing and leaning back again. ‘If I don’t keep talking to him he might go orf’ with someone else.’

a christmas ghost story

Strictly speaking, Mr Jeffries is a double-up.
Not for the usual reasons – manual handling issues, a history of aggressive behaviour, substance abuse, hazardous environment or a tendency to make accusations – but for something else, something unspecified. So far I’ve been unable to get to the bottom of it, just a series of knowing smiles and nods. I’m supposed to visit Mr Jeffries to take blood, but unfortunately the nurse I was scheduled to go with has had to run out to a blocked catheter, and for one reason or another, there’s no-one else.
‘It’s okay. I don’t mind,’ I tell Anna, the Co-ordinator. ‘I’m fine going on my own,’ .
‘Are you sure, darlink? I’m so sorry there isn’t anyone to go with you. But I’m sure you’ll be fine. You used to work on ambulance before. I’m sure you’ve come across things a lot more – how should I say – strange.’
‘In what way strange, exactly?’
‘Just – you know – strange. Odd. Something different. But there’s no danger involved and you are strong person so I’m sure you’ll be fine. Just go in, get the blood and come out again.’
She smiles at me. ‘Maybe like this…’
She frowns, crossing her arms across her chest.
‘Why? Is it filthy in there?’
‘No! Is not filthy. Is very nice.’
‘What then? Is he a bit lecherous?’
‘Lecherous? What is this lecherous?’
‘You know. Hands everywhere.’
‘No, darlink. No. He is not lecherous. You’re perfectly safe as far as lecherous is concerned.’
‘So what then?’
‘You’ll see. I’m perfectly happy for you to wait until someone becomes available…’
‘It’s fine. I’ll go get the blood.’
‘You are good boy. Very erm… how you say…?’
‘I don’t know. Brave?’
‘No-ooo….’
‘Foolhardy?’
She doesn’t say what she means.

Mr Jeffries doesn’t answer his phone, which is something the notes say is typical for him. He has a keysafe, though. The only thing is to go there and take a chance he’s in.

* * *

Mr Jeffries lives on the top floor of a run-down block of flats. The architect must have designed the place in a rush over breakfast, because it’s exactly like an upturned cereal box, with a lift at either serving long, unbroken corridors of doors and security grilles. If by the day the block is austere, at night it’s perfectly bleak. The lamp out front flickers, animating the entrance in such a menacing way I can’t help zipping my jacket to the neck and shouldering my bag more squarely. Inside is worse, utterly lightless, with that heavy kind of dark you’d think was pumped in from deep underground. The corridor lights only come on when you move, and even then there’s a delay, so the effect is of a steady falling forwards, disconcerting, not at all pleasant.

I knock on Mr Jeffries door. There’s a muffled answer. I use the key and let myself in.

The flat is warm, close, unaired, filled wall to ceiling with shelves and shelves of books – art, astrology, folklore, history, that kind of thing. Mr Jeffries is sitting in his lounge on an electric wheelchair, as perfectly contained in the glow from his desk lamp as a hunched insect preserved in amber.
He spins round to face me, and the first thing that strikes me are his eyes, wide-set and unblinking, tub-water grey, with a diverging bulge that gives him an acute and predatory appearance. That, coupled with his dry smile and knowing demeanour are as unsettling as you could get, and I suddenly understand why Anna thinks this is a double-up.
‘I suppose you’ve come for my blood,’ he says, arching his long fingers together and scrutinising me over the top of them. ‘The doctor doesn’t think I need it, but I think I know more about my condition than a simple GP. If only I had more energy – and a better prognosis – I’d sue them for millions. But really – what good what that do me?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say.
‘No. I don’t suppose you do.’
He parts his hands in a simple gesture of letting go, but then his attitude hardens just as suddenly.
‘Here’s what I need you to do…’ he says, and then tells me where to set up my things, what bottles to use, what the tests need to show and so on.
‘Some people find me intimidating,’ he says. ‘My last consultant actually started to shake.’
‘I don’t think I’ll shake,’ I tell him, although it’ll be a miracle if I don’t. ‘I’ll save the shaking for afterwards.’
It helps when I find out that Mr Jeffries used to dialyse in the renal department around the time I was a ward clerk there. I don’t remember him – and I feel sure I would – but it means we have a shared history of names and places I can use to distract him from focusing too much on me.
‘No,’ he says, interrupting a story about one of the PD nurses with red hair out of a bottle, ‘not that vein. Use that one, there…’
It’s annoying, but he’s right. The blood starts to flow, and I’m immediately more relaxed.
‘So you had a transplant?’ I say.
‘I’ll tell you a little story about that,’ he says. ‘The department had been having a run of deaths. A whole year of them. So much so that everyone was beginning to lose faith in their abilities. It was nothing to do with that, of course. But people divine all manner of things from simple coincidence. When it came to me, the consultant brought the kidney back himself, in a box on the backseat of his car. Can you imagine? It was a few years ago, of course. Things are different now. Anyway, I was prepped and readied. Everyone wished me luck. And that was that. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the recovery room. I was conscious of someone standing by the bed, and I thought it was a nurse. But when I turned to look, I saw a young woman, right beside me, staring down at me, with the oddest expression. Not sad – no. Not angry. Just – I don’t know – confused. She stood there for the longest while. So long I couldn’t bear it. I said Thank you for the kidney, closed my eyes, and prayed she would leave me alone. When I opened my eyes again the surgical team were standing around me, everyone smiling, waving blood results in the air, relieved the operation had been a success and their run of bad luck ended. Who was the girl who gave me the kidney? I asked them. She came to me. They dismissed my experience as post-operative hallucinations, and, of course, it was policy for them never to disclose any information about the donor. I knew it wasn’t a hallucination, though. I’ve always been able to see things. Some people can. A little while later, just before I left the unit for good, I saw the consultant again. ‘Who was she?’ I asked him. ‘Let’s just say she was a woman who was formerly wealthy.’ What does that mean – formerly wealthy? What do you think it means?’
‘I don’t know. It’s an odd expression. Maybe he was speaking metaphorically. Maybe he meant wealth as in life, and formerly because she lost it.’
I tape some gauze to the crook of his arm. He gently holds his fingers to it, as if he’s healing the wound by the power of touch.
‘I never saw her again,’ he says. ‘Which is a shame, because she seemed so lost.’
And he turns his enormous eyes up to me, and I have to look away, because I don’t want to see my own reflection contained in them.
‘All done!’ I say, shaking the vials of blood.
‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘You’ve been most kind.’
‘You’re welcome.’
And he watches me closely as I pick up my things and go.

things that go ‘whatever’ in the night

P1180449‘Anytime anything goes missing I know it’s mum. It’s like the other day. I couldn’t find my purse anywhere, even though I’d only just put it down. So I went to the bottom of the stairs and I shouted Mum! Give it a rest! And when I turned round, there it was, in the middle of the table. I mean – it drives me nuts! But on the other hand, it’s nice to know she’s still around, d’you know what I mean?’

‘Absolutely! It’s like my Uncle Dave. Dead Uncle Dave. He was always such a laugh when he was alive, a real practical joker. And since he’s gone it’s only got worse. You can tell when he’s in one of his moods, because nothing’s where you left it, things in odd places. So I’ll save Dave! Will you stop that now! And he does. Mostly.’

‘Well – I was driving home one night. And I usually take this bend pretty fast. But this one time I heard this voice in my head saying: Slow down Karen. So I did – and there was a cow standing right in the middle of the road. And if I’d carried on like I was, I would’ve been killed.’

I want to add a ghost story of my own but really I don’t have one.

My Dad was convinced he saw a ghost when he lived in an old tenement block in London. He passed an old woman on the stairs, said hello, she ignored him, he carried on, and when he turned round again she’d gone. She didn’t vanish or anything. Just wasn’t there. (So – maybe she was just visiting someone in the block, Dad? No – she was definitely a ghost. And later on – I’m not kidding – turns out, an old woman had died in the block, some years before.)

Hardly M R James. More like Sid James.

Mum had one. She said she woke up one night and saw her friend Fred standing at the end of the bed looking sad, and she knew immediately he’d died and come to say goodbye. Which was verified later by the fact he’d appeared at exactly the hour he died. Presumably when the paramedics were tidying up.

I like ghost stories, and I’m as easily spooked as the next person. But there are a few things that have always bothered me about ghosts. So at the risk of sounding pedantic & a right ol’ seance-pooper, here there are (in no particular spectral order):

  1. When do you actually acquire a spirit? Is it at the point of fertilisation? In which case, do the egg and the sperm carry a little bit each?
  2. Why aren’t ghosts naked? If a ghost is some kind of projection, the living essence of someone, why does that include jeans and trainers?
  3. You have to think that coming back as a ghost is difficult, otherwise we’d be absolutely rammed. So given that it IS such hard work, why do ghosts waste so much time doing obscure stuff, like hiding someone’s purse then putting it back, or being clippy on a stairwell? Why, if they’ve managed to fight their way back to the world of the living, don’t they just go on TV and talk about their experience? I’d certainly watch.
  4. A lot of ghostly phenomena just seems profoundly unfair. I mean, a person gets murdered, which is bad enough. But then they’re doomed to hang around some gloomy spot, replaying the circumstance for tens if not hundreds of years. Ah, you say. That’s where the priest comes in, running down the cellar steps with his / her bottle of holy water, snap-together crucifix and EVP recorder. But if a priest can do this kinda thing because they’re a representative of God – where’s God? Why do they need a middle man / woman? If God’s all about love & justice &c, why don’t they intervene and do what’s palpably right – and liberate the tormented spirit? Ah – but now we’re in the domain of free will. Really? It doesn’t sound as if the poor ghost had much say in the matter. Something bad happened to them and boom – sorry mate – I don’t make the rules.
  5. Since 1964, The James Randi Educational Foundation has been offering money to anyone who can demonstrate psychic or ghostly phenomena under laboratory conditions. Lots of psychics and mediums have come forward, no-one has managed it, and the pot stands unclaimed at one million dollars.
  6. Most people die in hospitals, so they must be the most crowded places on earth. Which they are, of course, but let’s not get political.

Of course, all these objections get brushed aside with a Shakespearean ‘there are more things in heaven & earth, Horatio…’ Which is true. There’s Dark Matter, Quark strings, Quorn – you name it, I’ve no idea. And anyway, ‘an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. Also true, but I think after all this time the burden of proof must have shifted the other way. Not that anyone cares. We’re too invested. As people we orientate ourselves in the world by telling stories. It’s a fundamental trait, like smiling, or sneezing. Confirmation Bias is a tart way of saying we like to tie things up in a way that makes sense to us, and gives us comfort – even if that comfort feels more like a delicious thrill. Because you have to think the subtext to many of these stories is the belief that the soul or spirit is something that exists independently of the body, and carries on in some form or other when we die – even if it’s only to hide your purse.

We’re family, after all.

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ghost sheet

  1. Ghosts are lost in a persistent, inter-dimensional, crystalline time-lattice, so please be patient.
  2. Ghosts are not in themselves a cause of creaky doors, but they cannot resist taking advantage. Treat accordingly.
  3. Ghost to Living ratio = 10:1. Libraries have the highest concentrations; abandoned hospitals the lowest.
  4. Fairground Ghost Trains are ghost-free; actual trains suffer from over-ghosting, especially at peak times.
  5. Ghosts are tormented by the idea of hats.
  6. Ghosts have no sense of irony, cliché, personal boundaries, social etiquette. Ghost clowns are even worse.
  7. Ghosts are confused by whisks, pastry cutters & pizza wheels, and have a morbid fear of sandwich tins, so tend to avoid the kitchen.
  8. Ghosts are fascinated by cats, interested in dogs, amused by spiders, patronising about birds, withering about fish.
  9. Ghosts can be frozen indefinitely, but need careful handling when thawing.
  10. Ghosts are, for the most part, high maintenance / low carbon
  11. Crucifixes are unsightly, candles a fire hazard, Holy Water makes the place damp and chalk pentagrams spoil an otherwise charmingly rustic floor. To keep your place ghost free, simply air thoroughly, cook pizza and wear a hat.

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ghosts : a walk-through

ghosts spook easy
so wear socks
& cough before you enter

ghosts feel the cold
heavy curtains are good
they help maintain an even temperature

ghosts thrive on repetition
spend time planning your routine
then stick to it

ghosts mean static
especially in older houses
review all wiring annually

ghosts die in carved mirrors
be responsible
cover up before you turn in

ghosts do not haunt, they
inhabit crystalline lattices of fractured time
(stairs, mostly; corridors)

ghosts are preternaturally attracted to marzipan
enraged by liquorice
(scientists divided on this one)

my spiritual vaccum

Well – it’s almost Halloween, I’m hoovering, and I’m thinking about ghosts. (Hoovering’s a good time to think about most things).

I wonder if there’s ever been a ghostly survey? A spreadsheet somewhere, in Exorcel, with columns for the age of ghost at death, indoor or outdoor, private property or public space, self harm, illness, murder, natural causes. And then probably a whole subset of columns under the murder heading: thrown down well, bricked up in wall, shot, stabbed, hanged, clubbed, poisoned (God knows how many subsections that would need), set upon by dogs and so on. You could be scrolling right for eternity. But if they’d set up a handy function on another sheet, you could skip all the detail and go straight for the totals, particularly: Unjustly taken before time, or maybe Unfinished business.

Because they’re the ones I worry about the most.

It’s always struck me as doubly unfair. Not only did they have to suffer an untimely death, but they’ve also been condemned to hang around for all eternity – often in unwholesome environments – scaring the living bejesus out of innocent folk who’ve really got nothing at all to do with it, and who’d be pretty sympathetic, no doubt, once they’d had a cup of tea and a hug and five minutes to think about it.

I suppose you could argue that it’s not about judgement or vengeance at all. That’s a religious spin on the situation. Perhaps it’s much more prosaic than that. Perhaps the spirit is just confused, having died in such a traumatic way that the normal processes of transition have been corrupted, and left the poor soul in a state of blurry limbo, forever skipping back to that time, without understanding why, or that everyone else has moved on, even if they haven’t.

If that is the case, we shouldn’t have anything to fear from these spirits. They can’t do us harm because they’re too confused to do much about it other than weep and wail and wander up and down, blowing whatever shreds of evanescent sense they have blundering through doors that were long-ago bricked up, or rattling a few pots. I suppose you could argue that in their confusion they might think you actually did have something to do with that whole tossing down the well incident, even though the Count had never been known to hoover the stairs in his onesie. So all you’d need to do if it appeared and threatened you would be to stand your ground and say: Spirit – Depart! I am not the Count you think I am, or something, maybe in Latin, and have your Driving Licence ready to prove it. (It’s easy to be brave about these things in the abstract, when you’re hoovering).

The trouble is, of course, ghosts aren’t known for their reasoning skills. They’re primal essences, energy fields in human form, dragging their pain through the deep hollows of the night (I’m imagining Bela Lugosi saying this shit), lost amongst the shimmering lattices of this world and the next, searching, searching, for something lost, so cruelly, so very long ago…spooky oak

I’m so spooked I’m holding the nozzle of the hoover straight out in front of me. (But hey! It’s a good hoover. It’s got so many settings, one of them’s bound to work.)

Happy Halloween!

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maud’s mother

It’s been three weeks since I last saw Maud. She’s the one hundred year old woman who spooked me a little by saying she was worried she couldn’t look after her parents who were asleep upstairs. I’m here this time with Stacy, a physiotherapist, to conduct a mobility assessment. The carers have reported a sudden and significant drop in Maud’s ability to stand. We need to figure out if this is a confidence issue or something more permanent.

Stacy is exactly the kind of person you’d want to have with you in a haunted house. She may be small, but she has big feet, a disproportionately loud voice, and a vigorous, open-faced, square-shouldered approach to things. I can imagine her standing in the middle of a dark room, the hectic shreds of wailing ghosts swirling round her, planting her bag on the floor and saying: Right! Firstly, no-one’s impressed. Secondly, what do you hope to achieve by this? Thirdly – just because you’ve been dead two hundred years, doesn’t mean you can fly around with the posture of a cashew nut. So straighten yourselves out, settle down, stop messing about and we’ll see what we can do to help. The ghosts would immediately clam up and hover in line. And Stacy would sort them out.

She could be a whole new kind of health visitor. A physioexortherapist.

Who ya gonna call?

Stacy listens carefully when I tell her about what happened last time, the whole ‘ghostly parents asleep upstairs waiting for their daughter’ deal, and also about what her next of kin, Alan, said about it, which was that in many religions it’d would be seen as quite normal to be ‘met’ as you neared the end of life.
‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Fine. But you do know that Maud spent many years looking after her parents? So I don’t think it’s all that surprising she’s a bit muddled with the timings. I hardly know what day of the week it is myself, and I’m supposed to be young and fit.’
‘No. I suppose when you put it like that.’
She re-shoulders her rucksack, reaches up, and knocks so firmly with the rapper on the door it makes me think of Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, knocking on the door of the giant’s castle. But instead of a giant housekeeper coming to the door, it’s Alan, still wearing the same Nordic sweater,shirt and tie, his goatee beard as perfectly groomed as a chin dipped in silver paint.

‘Good to see you!’ he whispers, shaking our hands. ‘Thanks so much for coming.’ And he shows us in.

Maud is in the hospital bed in the living room, as before. If anything she seems in better form, alert and smiling, with that copy of Anna Karenina on her lap.
‘Ah!’ she says. ‘Here comes the cavalry!’ putting the book aside.

The last week or so, Maud has stopped being able to stand with assistance and transfer to the commode. There doesn’t seem to be any infection or other organic reasons why she shouldn’t be able to do this. And she certainly has the strength. When we’ve lowered the bed and raised the backrest, she swings her legs over the edge ready for the off. It’s just – that’s as far as she gets. Stacy is great at clearly and firmly describing what Maud needs to do to stand up, even sitting next to her at one point and demonstrating – but Maud just can’t translate it into action. She keeps putting her feet too far out in front, and then waggling them up and down on the carpet, like a child splashing her feet in a puddle.
‘It’s no good!’ she says. ‘I’m falling!’

We persevere for as long as we can, but it’s a game of diminishing returns. The more we try, the more anxious Maud becomes, until her efforts to stand are such an approximate and off-kilter thing, leaning back against our hands, the zimmer frame lifting off the carpet, that we have to accept defeat, and help her back to bed. It’s strange to see how well she lifts her legs back onto the mattress and snuggle down again. Strength is certainly not the issue.
‘It’s definitely a confidence thing,’ says Stacy, snapping off her gloves. ‘Which isn’t any less incapacitating, of course.’
‘No, of course,’ says Alan. ‘So what’s to be done?’
Stacy shrugs.
‘Seems a shame to be thinking about hoisting. But other than that I suppose it’s bed care and some gentle encouragement to overcome the block.’

‘You see that woman over there,’ says Maud, pulling the bedclothes up to her neck, and then pointing straight in front of her. For a second I wonder if it’s another ghost – until I realise she means the sideboard facing her, and an ornate, silver frame in the centre of it. ‘This one?’ I say, going over to take a closer look. It’s a sepia photograph of a young girl standing on a dark, southern English beach. She’s dressed in a billowing white dress and enormous circular brimmed hat, which she holds on her head with one hand as she squints off into the distance. ‘That’s my mother,’ says Maud. ‘Now she’d have known what to do.’