twenty twenty whoo-hoo

about half past three
there was a buzz on the buzzer
I thought it was the postie
or someone or other

so imagine my surprise
when I found instead
my dad outside
after many years dead

the biggest shock to me
wasn’t the ghostly visitation
it’s just that normally
it’s a showier presentation

‘I know! I know!’ he said
shaking out his cloak
picking a hair-like worm from his head
(he was an image conscious bloke)

‘I’m done with all that theatrical shit
it gets a spirit down
when all you want is to get out for a bit
you go CRAZY underground’

he carefully wiped his calcaneum
on the welcome mat
then stomped across the linoleum
to sit and have a chat

‘How are things?’ I said
and gave a wincy grimace
c’mon! the guy was ten years dead
I should probably act more serious

he shrugged a little
which was quite a relief
‘better than in hospital’
and smiled with all his teeth

‘Jim? This is the last of my spectral visits
sorry to sound so doomy
but I need to know why the hell is it
you’ve been acting glum and gloomy’

‘It’s true’ I said, ‘I can’t deny it
I’m struggling to see my way clear
and it’s always a job to hide it
around this time of year’

‘I totally understand,’ he said
‘The Winter months can be hard
especially when the earth’s your bed
and you lie there counting stars’

‘The thing is, Jim, you worry too much
live a little before you die
and try not to use your phone as a crutch
you’re getting RSI’

‘I wish we could chat in reality’
I said – cradling his cold phalanges
‘instead of in dumb ass poetry
that’s longer than the Ganges’

‘C’mon!’ he said. ‘It’s never too late
to talk to your dear old pappy
– although having said that now’s not great
the connection’s pretty crappy’

and suddenly he rose up
made a farewell pass with his wrist
and I sat there numb and froze up
as he vanished in a swirl of mist

I worried a while about the visit
but really I shouldn’t have thought twice
he was always good with the jokey shit
and not so hot with advice

dad comes back (I know, right – AGAIN?)

as usual he appears with fluorescent flair
yaahing & woo-hooing down the stairs
a halo of ghastly green worms for hair
waving his shroud emphatically
a little melodramatically
it seems to me
especially
as I know he was buried in a suit
but maybe he hired the shroud for the shoot
maybe there’s an undead outfitters
called Zombie & sons, or Just Jitters
I’ve really no idea
I’m getting off-point here
which is
witches
ghouls and vampires and such
none of that bothers me all that much
but ghosts have got my attention good
since dad landed back in the neighbourhood

‘Jiiiiiiiimmmmmmmmeeeeeeee’
he wails to me
waving his arms unconvincingly

Okay, okay
I say
Let’s just drop the LOOK AT ME I’M SO DEAD act
I think I can take it as a flatline fact
since I saw you unplugged in ITU
(the scariest thing I saw anyone do)
so you can save the sulphur
sit on that sofa
and rest your mouldy old bones a minute
as far as hauntings go I’ve reached my limit
rest, rest, perturbed spirit
maybe it’ll make for an easier visit

and to my surprise
he complies

so – tell me – dad
this may sound mad
but what’s it like being dead?

he scratches his shiny head
lovingly examines his
long white phalanges
then smiles at me
and carries on more conversationally

S’okay he says
it’s had a bad press
are the hours good? yes
there’s very little stress
so unless
you’re under some kinda spiritual duress
or feel the need to confess
or maybe impress
the need for vengeance on someone who’s transgressed
I’d have to say, for me at least, it’s been a success

hey!
I say
that’s nice to hear
but – to be clear
why are you here?
if death’s such a doozy
why d’ya treat the place like a goddamn jacuzzi?
jumping in and out
waving your arms and legs about
lots of steam
see what I mean?

well, the metaphor’s a mess
but I guess
I can see where you’re coming from
and judging from
your current demeanour
I think you’d be keener
if I dropped by a little less often?
but then – wouldn’t I be forgotten?

no – no, you wouldn’t
so I shouldn’t
take that as a reason for haunting
continued contact I’m fully supporting
just not with all this phonus balonus
maybe you could phone us?
or skype?
or a text if you can type?
alright?

alright! he says
yes!
you’ve made your case!
I was never any good at face-to-face
but promise me I can swing by soon
anytime there’s a blood red moon

so I say naturally dad, of course
when suddenly he rises with the force
of a Marvel special effects team
and roars off with a chilling banshee scream
and the ceiling rends and ripples
and the hissing cat’s hair bristles
and the lights all surge and pop
and dogs in the street all howl without stop
and the curtains snap and whip
and the carpets ruck and rip
and the chairs all flip
and I’m sitting trembling saying what the shit

then a moment of silence

the sound of distant sirens

then I hear dad whispering so low I almost miss it
sorry Jim – couldn’t resist it

adieu, adieu, mon dieu

The ghost of my father came back again last night
(I know, right?
it’s all so contrived
I see more of him dead then I did when he was alive)

Anyway, I’ve stopped being freaked by his spooky mug
the more something happens the more you shrug

Sup, dad? I said
as he hovered heavily overhead
pretending to do the front crawl
against the opposite wall
(the irony escaping him
that in life he couldn’t swim
although maybe he was trying to ease the chills
and prove you can always earn new skills)

The thing that really gets me
is why he can’t forget me?
I mean – you’d think he’d relish the chance
to swerve my bullshit badinage
but no – it’s just like Hamlet’s father, right?
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night
and by the way, whilst he’s at it
criticise the work we had done in the attic

So he does what he always does eventually
which is settle on the bed and talk endlessly
which sounds quite nice as these things go
but he can lie in and I’ve got work tomorrow

It was hot & heady stuff
right enough
exactly the kind of secrets and regrets
that would stop anyone getting a good aeon’s rest
the casual betrayals and sordid affairs
you’d only admit to in Cosmo questionnaires
(then immediately re-work to change your score
and get a result that suited you more)

Did someone murder you, father? I cried out, on edge
Cos I don’t think I’m really cut out for revenge
What? No! he said. What are you, CRAZY?
It was just when your mum was a dinner lady
she had an affair with that Iranian student
who was good at table tennis and liked Ted Nugent

How d’you know all this? I said
She told me later on in bed
and whilst I was turned on for a while
in the end it started to cramp my style
so I took up with that woman from accounts
who said it would work but I had my doubts

He carried on in this way for an eternity
and made me question the benefits of paternity
until suddenly he was struck dumb
My hour is almost come,
he said
rising portentously from the bed
When I to sulph’rous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself – erm – James
Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me
– and bailed through the curtains clumsily

So right that second I went on the Net
to buy the best ghost insulation I could get
(a wool & wafer mix from the Holy See
fifty pounds a metre, plus VAT)

dad came back (again)

I woke from dreams that were dark and troubled / the glass of water on the bedside table bubbled / the ceiling buckled / there was a roaring of resonant cursing & swearing / the sound of the spacetime continuum tearing / then dad dropped through in a ghastly heap / and struggled back up on his bony feet

Alright Jim? he said with fake insouciance
sorry to be such a ghostly nuisance
but these poems about me are highly dubious

Sorry Dad I said. Well, I do my best
I’m grateful for the feelings you’ve expressed
I was only exploring ideas of inheritance
I can leave you out if that’s your preference

He adjusted his shroud and scratched his pate
his ribs and hips in a terrible state
but twenty years’ buried and you never look great

Wait, he said. I don’t want to sound mean
I just don’t get this whole poetry scene
in fact any kinda writing I’ve never been keen

That’s true, I said, and reading between the lines
you hated fiction but trusted The Times
you always thought literature a bit suspicious
and only read gardening books we got you at Christmas

Come on, though, Jim, he said, I did you a favour
when I took those poems you wrote as a teenager
and got them typed up by a colleague or whatever

Yes! I said. I remember! It’s all coming back
I’d written a collection about insects and that
‘miniature dinosaurs of a macabre imagination’
or some such bullshit gothic creation

Dad suddenly looked a little bit guilty
he said (unironically) please don’t kill me
but I did it to impress a temp called Julie

I don’t mind, I said, I was thrilled all the same
to have something finished and bound in my name
I’ve been chasing that particular dream ever since
it’s just the publishers I’ve got to convince

Anyway, said Dad, rising to go
I just thought I’d drop by and let you know
you should give all those ghost dad poems the elbow

I’m not promising anything, Dad, I said
as he hovered prophetically over the bed
Fathers and sons are fertile topics
and ghosts are fun, so screw the optics

dad’s ghost

Dad’s ghost came to me again last night
which doesn’t sound quite right
like ‘Dad’ is one kind of entity
and his ghost exists independently
gliding around silently
like those ROVs
you sometimes see
nosing around in documentaries
exploring the furthest depths of the sea
smoothly & stealthily
and maybe
in that analogy
the wreck it illuminates so spookily
is me

wizards, ghosts, vampires

Every time I visit Cutter Street I think of Platform 9 3/4 in Harry Potter. It takes the same crazy leap of faith to make the turn off the busy main drag, to shut your eyes and swing a right between the Pottery Play Barn and the Natural Funeral shop, where no sane person would ever think to hang a right without catastrophically jamming the nose of the car into an alleyway even a cat would pull its whiskers in to enter. But amazingly, the brick walls either side seem to lean away, like they respect anyone mad enough to come through. And the path quickly widens in a magical, funnel-like way, and suddenly you’re parking-up in a generous courtyard with an office block one side and a housing block the other, both of them dropped fully formed from the sky by a giant who wanted to keep them secret.

And all of this seems to fit, because I’ve been asked to come and see a patient who’s seeing ghosts.

The GP is querying a UTI. When they’re bad they can give you hallucinations, so it has to be the most likely explanation – certainly in Gerry’s case, who’s had them before, more vulnerable since he was fitted with a catheter a couple of years ago. The GP has already sent over a short course of antibiotics, just in case, and then asked for us to take bloods and get some more information.

I buzz Gerry’s number. He sounds confused when he answers through the intercom, but there’s a lot of crackling and interference. He doesn’t buzz the main door open, though, so I’m forced to go to Plan B, which is to ring the neighbour in the flat next to his. After a minute or two an elderly guy in a Chelsea football shirt and jogging bottoms appears. It’s strange to see him in those clothes, like he aged seventy years on the journey from his flat to the main door.
‘You’ve come for Gerry,’ he says.
‘Yes. Sorry to bother you. The doctor sent me.’
He bats the air – whether to say it’s no bother or he doesn’t believe in doctors, it’s hard to say.
‘This way,’ he says, turns and leads me in an odd, shuffle trot through the deserted lobby to the foot of the stairs.
Gerry is standing at the top, looking down.
‘Oh!’ I say. ‘You must be Gerry!’
‘I found him outside’ says the guy in the football kit. ‘Says the doctor sent him or something.’
‘I was coming down to let you in,’ says Gerry.
‘That’s great!’ I say. ‘Are you alright if we go to your flat and have a quick chat?’
He stands there, holding onto the rail, thinking about it.
For some reason I say:
‘Permission to come aboard, sir?’ and salute.
Football guy laughs.
‘I’ll pipe you up,’ he says, and makes a toothless whistle.
Gerry salutes, too, which I take as a good sign. Football guy slaps me on the shoulder, says: ‘If you want me I’ll be in my flat. Flat number one.’
‘I rang flat five though,’ I say.
‘Oh. That’s right. I meant five. What did I say?’
‘One.’
‘No. Five. Flat five. I’ll be in flat five.’
I’m not sure if he’s confused or covering for something, but I don’t have a chance to form more of an idea because he turns on the spot and shuffle-trots off.
‘Come on then,’ says Gerry, turning and walking off down the hallway. I sprint up the steps to catch up with him.

Gerry’s flat is lush. It’s filled with dark wooden antiques, old prints of The Great Exhibition and whatnot, marble busts, fern jardinieres and dominating the whole thing, centre stage on a circular, teak dining table, a huge ceramic parrot.
‘How are you feeling?’ I ask Gerry as he settles down in his armchair.
‘Fine,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what all the rumpus is about.’
‘I think the doctor was worried you might have an infection or something.’
‘Why would they think that?’
‘They said you were seeing things. Is that right?’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘But I’ve been seeing them since I was six.’
‘What kind of things?’
He raises his shoulders, purses his lips, raises his eyebrows, shakes his head repeatedly from side to side, then completely relaxes again. It’s a funny, all-in-one expression, like he’s concentrating all his confusion into one, short mega-shrug.
‘Oh… people – mostly,’ he says.
He strokes the leather arms of his chair.
‘But I’ve always been interested in… you know… what’s it called…?’
‘Ghosts?’
‘Yes. That’s it. The occult. I used to be in a group… a whaddyacallit?… god, my memory… ?’
‘I don’t know. A coven?’
‘No. When you all come together and summon the spirits.’
‘A seance?’
‘Is it? Anyway, I’ve always had the gift.’
‘Do the ghosts worry you?’
‘No. Not at all. Yesterday it was my mum, dad and sister. They’ve been dead twenty years but they were drifting through the flat.’
‘That must’ve been quite nice to see them.’
‘They didn’t stay long.’
I’m tempted to make a crack about that, but I hold off in case it doesn’t help.
I take his blood pressure, temperature and so on. Everything checks out.
‘The doctor wants some blood, too,’ I say.
‘Typical vampire,’ says Gerry.

your haunting questions answered

Q: Spirits keep restlessly coming & going
fading & flickering, drifting & glowing
we’ve exorcised thoroughly but no luck yet
A: Try rebooting your Ethernet

Q: Demons are nesting up in the attic
and the noise is increasingly problematic
I’d be grateful for any information
A: Follow the link re. insulation

Q: A ghoul is forever moving pictures
shifting tables, loosening fixtures
tossing our plants – it’s driving us screwy
A: A simple case of bad Feng Shui

Q: There’s an entity over the garden lawn
like a numinous ectoplasmic swarm
I threw a net but the damned thing missed ‘im
A: Try holy water on a sprinkler system

accounting for ghosts

It’s been a hot day, busy and chaotic, but it’s late now, almost finishing time, and the fierce light of the afternoon is settling around the old hospital into something easier and more golden. There’s only me and Jane in the office, the long, empty room settling and ticking in tiny sounds of absence, like a car finally parked up and cooling. I’m sitting opposite Jane at the coordinator’s desk. Jane’s been pretty quiet the last hour, focused on working through a printed sheet of stats, the summation of the week’s activity. It’s a painstaking task and she sighs a lot. I’ve been fielding all the calls from patients and staff to give her the space, but they’ve eased off now and there’s nothing much else to be done.

Suddenly one of the connecting doors on the far side slams shut. At the same time, an overhead light flickers and goes off.
Jane looks up.
‘Ghosts,’ I say. ‘This used to be a surgical ward. It’s probably infested.’
She leans back in her chair and stretches. When she sits forward again she fixes me with a long look.
‘You’ll probably think I’m mad if I tell you this,’ she says. ‘But the place I live is haunted.’
‘Is it?’
‘It used to be an asylum. Then it was just a big, fancy house. Then it was flats. So it’s no wonder there’s stuff going on.’
‘What sort of ghosts?’
‘It depends,’ she says. ‘Mostly it’s odd bangings and things, whispering. Stuff gets thrown around. The other night when Steve came over, I went to bed and I saw his shadow on the door. So I told him to stop mucking about. Nothing happened, the shadow just stayed there. Suit yourself, I said. Then the shadow went away, and I heard Steve coming up the stairs. Who were you talking to? he said. So I realised it wasn’t him.’
‘Were you scared?’
‘Not really. I’ve got used to them now. I think they like the company. They get a bit restless when there’s been some change in things, like the lockdown. But otherwise they keep themselves to themselves. They’re basically just lonely, I suppose.’
‘It’s weird about ghosts,’ I say. ‘I mean – logically I don’t believe in them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t spook myself out a lot.’
She nods, but in a non-committal way, acknowledging the words but not the feeling.
‘When you think of all the places people die,’ I say. ‘Not just hospital, but everywhere. All over the place. Like where we live. It’s pretty old, used to be owned by a farmer. When we moved in, the old woman next door took great delight in telling us he choked to death on a chicken bone, in the front room. She rushed in to save him, but it was too late. So I thought – Oh, great! We’ve moved into a haunted house. But nothing. Not a cough. And none of the dogs or cats we’ve had have hissed or done anything strange. And they’re supposed to be sensitive, aren’t they?’
‘Depends on the dogs.’
‘And then you’ve got to think – if everyone who dies makes a ghost, wouldn’t we be completely snowed?’
‘Maybe we are. Maybe only some of them can make themselves known. And only some of us can see them.’
She smooths out the spreadsheet in front of her and stares at it.
‘Who knows?’ she says, planting her elbows on the desk, cradling her chin in the palms of her hands and pressing her fingers into her eyes so vigorously her glasses ride up onto her forehead. ‘I’ve never been good with numbers.’

ghost protocol

I’m sorry, but if you’ve been murdered
and want your cause for justice furthered
you can’t simply fire off a furious email
describing what happened in meticulous detail

No.

You’re contractually obliged to be scary as shit
while you draw the whole thing out a bit
scrawling on mirrors, freaking out dogs,
looming alarmingly in spooky fogs

and even though you can open doors
and make wet footprints on kitchen floors
type your initials on a computer screen
or work the buttons on an answer machine

you’re totally forbidden to write a letter
that would explain the thing a whole lot better
or pull up a chair and have a chat
about who it was killed you and stuff like that

It doesn’t make much sense, I agree
and only adds insult to injury
but them’s the rules. I didn’t make ‘em
who the hell knows what happens if you break ‘em

IMG_1805

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.’