Final Words

Haunted HouseI signed my will at the weekend. They still call it a Last Will and Testament, conjuring up images of grieving relatives weeping at your bedside as you sigh your final breath and let go of this mortal coil to meet your maker.

But as I signed the document, my first thought was not of my grieving family but of a movie called the Cat and the Canary, starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. I saw that movie on TV when I was a small boy and, although it is a comedy, it scared the living daylights out of me.

In the movie, the will is read at midnight and the entire estate goes to the beautiful, young Paulette Goddard. But there’s a catch for the heiress: because of a concern about a streak of insanity in the family’s blood, she must stay sane for thirty days or lose the fortune to another family member.

Everyone has to stay the night in the spooky mansion, haunted by many spirits. It’s an open invitation for greedy relatives to drive her, overnight, into a state of total insanity.

I doubt there will be such drama when my will is read, even if there is a streak of insanity in my family’s blood. But signing your will does make you think about death. We’re all going to die, but thankfully, most of us don’t know when the end will be. So maybe we should start living as if this is our last day.

Well, if I was living each day as if it were my last, I can tell you that it would be one heck of a lot different from what it is. For a start, I would be eating a bacon, egg and cheese roll for breakfast. With a beer. And not organic muesli with skimmed milk.

And another thing, I would be spending all my money on a beach holiday with my friends and loved ones, partying till I drop. And not getting on the New York subway at 7 am to spend twelve hours in the grasping clutches of corporate America.

What’s more, I would get a sleeve tattoo and always speak my mind, whether people liked what I said or not. So no. Living each day like it is your last does not work at all. Unless you’ve inherited someone’s fortune.

Maybe living like we know that life won’t last forever is a better way to think about it. Just stop worrying about all the meaningless trivia and enjoy it while we still can. Before we’re all declared insane for eating organic muesli and getting on the subway at 7 am.

But I do like the thought of my will being read at midnight in a haunted mansion.

Runaway

RunawayI knew someone was watching me. I always knew.

It was dark, except for the light of the fire I had made with bits of wood broken off the old fence that was already falling down. That fire made violent shadows like ancient slaves waving on the outside wall of the house, wanting to be free.

I had to escape from the house and that girl who screamed in the attic. I had to escape from my sister who beat me every day and told me tales of the thing that was inside her head and soon would be inside my own, always telling her to kill herself or to kill us all. I had to escape from the man who hanged himself in the toilet, eyes bulging out like my big green marbles.

That’s why I was sleeping in the old coalbunker at the back of the house. It was safe in there, even if there was someone watching me. I glanced over at our neighbor’s house and just for a moment I saw that long white nightshirt, floating slowly towards the dividing fence. That’s what happens when you stare too long at the flames, in the blackness of the night. You see things that are not there.

And it made the woman in the white nightshirt, who was not there, look like she had a yellow face and long grey hair.  If she was there, she wouldn’t be able to see me because I was inside the old coalbunker, looking out.  It looked like she was watching the sparks from the campfire as they floated up into the dark night sky. If she was there.

Then she floated towards me, howling like a dog as she came up to the low fence and moved right over it. She reached out her arms, the way that people do when they pretend to be a ghost. And her long yellow fingers twitched like she was trying to hold onto something.

I ran, of course. Mum said I had an overactive imagination. That’s what mothers always say to small boys who have seen something that was not there. It was the following day that Joan from next door came to tell us that her mother had died. It was to be expected. She had been dying for a long time. But now she was finally dead in the back bedroom, arms folded across her chest and pennies on her eyelids. She died that previous afternoon, Joan by her side saying the Lord’s Prayer, for it was the only prayer she knew.

If I were to run away again, I would need a different plan. The coalbunker was now no different from the attic or the toilet. And I knew that sooner or later something bad would happen if I stayed, something really terrible.

And I learned right there that I could run away but it didn’t mean I could escape. Some of our ghosts stay with us forever.

Bedtime Stories

Orange SkyNot all of our thoughts are our own. Sometimes we think something that someone else has said. And then there are those thoughts that are too horrible, too vile to have come from inside of us, even though they did. They are thoughts that intrude rudely on our consciousness, saying things we would never say ourselves.

My sister heard voices in her head. But unlike you and me, she thought they were real. She couldn’t put a face, a name, to those thoughts. One of them was just like a color, another was the water streaming perfectly from an open tap. That’s all she could say.

But when she described what one of those voices told her, that’s when I was afraid. That’s when I was terrified.

The voice told her of the future. It was my future. And she told me that story in the quiet darkness of bedtime.

Lost to the trials of urban ruin, sunken souls will traipse the vapid streets like living corpses, sensing only their silent but urgent desperation. They will not sleep, they will not eat, they will not think. They will not exist, except to the solitary agent who counts their numbers in that city within a city. That agent will not care how many are alive, even if you could call it living. He will only want to know how many have died since he was there the previous night. How many sacks of yellow human skin he must count.

Their children will not beg for money. They will beg for anything that means they can wake again tomorrow. Tomorrow, when the sun will streak the orange sky and fill their eyes with the dread of the day. Slip away. Slip away from it all into the tiny crevices of human filth. And pray to their absent God that he might save them.

It was my bedtime story. As a child I would die like that. I would die in a desolate place, devoid of friends and love. I would die before I had a chance to live.

But I never did. I am alive and a grown man. But those terrible images sit deep inside my psyche, waiting to haunt me with portents of my own death.

I keep telling myself that not all the thoughts we have are our own. I see people everywhere who love me. I see friends. I hold the hand of my own little girl and look into her eyes and read with her The Tiger Who Came To Tea and tuck her up in bed.

I will never let anyone tell her stories of an untimely, loveless death. The stories that will stay forever with her are of fairies that dance in the purple moonlight. Of being a beautiful princess who holds violet-pink roses close to her skin and rides through fields, with the dappled sunlight reflected from the silver dew. Riding with gracious confidence on her white unicorn into a beautiful tomorrow.

And she will never know what bedtime stories I live with.

Sad Songs

Heaven B&WWhen Pop died, Nana said it was for the best because he would be with Saint Peter and the bright lights of Heaven. We were watching the television when Pop rolled up his bed blanket and said he wanted to go home because the war was over. Then he fell down near the front door and some men came to take him away.

But it wasn’t long before they brought him back into the front room.  Nana said I had to say goodbye to him but there was no way I was going to give him a kiss for all eternity.  I would not kiss someone who was dead.

But I did look at him.

He was in his suit and he had his medals from the war on his chest.  And someone had put his teeth back in and his tongue wasn’t hanging out, the way it did before he died.  I don’t know how they did that because it was a really big tongue.  He was also wearing lipstick and makeup.  He still looked like a ghost.

Mum said she would bury him with Grandpa because she had bought a two-for-one burial plot. Pop and Grandpa always argued when they were alive and Mum said they could now argue for the endless time of the afterlife.

Nana never cried. But that night she put her sad songs on the gramophone and she whispered those words in my ear.

“But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow… And I shall hear though soft you tread above me. And then my grave shall warmer, sweeter be. For you will bend and tell me that you love me. And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me. I love you, my dear boy.”

She said that Pop would always be with me, like that song. And so would she.

When people go away, you will still see them again, one day. One day, you will see your Nana again and then you can be with her forever and ever and you will never be alone. She will hold your hand as you walk down the street, singing together. And when you get home she will cuddle you on her lap by the fire and she will sing you one of her sad songs and whisper in your ear that she loves you and she will always love you.

She will always love you.

And you will be a man one day, and always love her.

And though she left me long, long ago, it is true. I will always love my Nana and sing her sad songs inside my heart until me meet again.

Help Me!

I ran to the phone box in my pajamas that dark, late night. It had been raining and my bare feet slipped on the wet leaves, fallen from the giant oak trees that leaned in towards me, waving their branches like the shackled arms of helpless ancient slaves.

Twice I fell and skinned my knees but I didn’t feel any pain at all. There wasn’t time to think about the grit in the bloody cuts.  There wasn’t time to think about why my sister wasn’t moving, lying back there on her bedroom floor where my Mum found her. There was only time to call for an ambulance from the pay phone.

The screams that night were different. They weren’t like the howls of the little girl who screamed in the attic, abandoned there by the gypsy people. That’s why I didn’t bury my head under the blanket and pray to God to make them stop.

Our Father which art in Heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Deliver us from evil.

For the love of God.

And then I knew it was my Mum. She was screaming for me to come and help her. She was sheltering my sister’s head in her arms, like she was a baby again. And I looked around the room to see if that evil thing was still there. The evil thing that had harmed my sister, the way she always said it would. The evil thing that could come into her head and tell her to kill herself. Or kill us all.

And when the woman answered the phone, I shouted in-between desperate breaths, “Help me! Please send an ambulance! Help me! I think my sister is dead.”

And the giant oak trees leaned further in as I ran back home.

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