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‘The notion of a ghost story is absurd to me, an atheist who denies vehemently the merest possibility of a God, of life-after-death, of 'spirits' and such like nonsense. I am however an honest person and I write herein what I've witnessed, nothing more and nothing less. This is not a ghost story that I am about to relate, it's simply a story about someone who was... and who now is not.’
after death speaker
for Kathy, who never spoke
in this life,
the r~i~v~e~r stood still
and land flowed
by on either side
only after d e a t h
only to me
The small town wherein I lived and was schooled as a boy had a population of less than three thousand. There were two schools one Protestant and the other Catholic the latter being attended by my best friend Tom and the former being, albeit infrequently, attended by myself. When the sun shone, we would be wondering together over the gorse- cluttered hills or sitting by the river fashioning catapults when we should have been attending our separate instruction. School held few attractions for me when I considered the alternatives; scrounging fish from the quay-side trawlers, scrumping vegetables and fruit or gathering coal from the harbour bed where the coal-boats had unloaded and selling either commodity door-to-door from the back of my bogie-cart. The monies thus acquired were of greater immediate use to my mother than was book knowledge at the time. We, as a family, had little need for education but we were frequently short of money.
Tom and I lived in the same Court. A Court which belonged to a Mrs Corlett who sent a man to visit each of us in turn on Friday evenings ostensibly, I learnt later, to collect rent but it seemed at the time that his soul purpose was to be the butt of abuse hurled at him by the Court dwellers. Mr Brown, for such was his name, rode upon a great iron bicycle with a large wicker basket on the front, he was a tubby, red-faced, country-looking man who always arrived with his trousers tucked into his socks sporting a brown-check jacket with large leather elbow patches. He actually seemed quite cheerful most of the time an attitude which surprises me now when I look back as no one ever seemed pleased to see him. My mother spread a rumour that he smiled only to further aggravate people and that the knowledge of the aggravation thus accrued made his false smile become a reality. His only pleasure, so my mother related, was in seeing others angry.
I lived in number two Corlett's Court and Tom lived in number eight. As there were sixteen houses in all, eight either side of the five feet wide lane, and as there were even numbers down one side and uneven numbers down the other it can be seen that two houses separated us. My house, wherein I lived with my mother, was exactly the same as Tom's house in every respect. Indeed it was exactly the same as every other house in the Court. The door opened from the lane directly onto a narrow passage that had a staircase to one side which was wide enough only for one person to climb and if you met someone coming down then you were obliged to retreat. Light could reach the narrow entrance passage and the stairs only through the open door that led to the lane or through another door that led to the downstairs room. The area underneath the stairs was boxed in and contained two narrow cupboards; one for coal and wood and various fire-lighting equipment and the other housing general cleaning utensils and a zinc bath which hung inside the cupboard door from a large nail and where it remained undisturbed six days out of every seven. A 'slop' bucket was also in this cupboard for use on cold winter nights. We had you see no inside toilet.
The downstairs room was a little less than twelve feet square and could, if one stretched the imagination, be described as 'homely'. Mats made from sacks interlaced with colourful rags covered the floor and a settee draped in bright floral material occupied entirely the right hand wall that was opposite the small window with the dining table beneath it. Either side of the huge iron grate, whose fire seldom died either in Winter or Summer, were two square box stools whose tops, if opened, would reveal sewing utensils, buttons, grate-black, rags, scissors and perhaps the odd lead soldier. The wall above the grate was almost entirely occupied with black-framed sepia portraits of sombre men and women and by a huge painting of The Boyhood of Raleigh framed in stained timber which showed a picture of a man sitting upon an upturned clinker-built whaler pointing out to sea. Squatting on the sand close to him a young boy of about my own age followed his outstretched index finger with his large blue eyes. It was said that the seated man was the image of my grandfather who had died at sea some years before I was born. Mother spoke of granddad often and would weep as she commented upon how much I resembled him. Horse-brasses covered the other walls and various brass and copper jugs and candlesticks littered the mantelshelf where the crystal radio sat. In the far-left hand corner of the room was a half-barrel filled with alternate layers of salt and mackerel. Above it a small triangular larder with a gauze front contained potatoes always, flour usually and jars of fruit preserves only occasionally. Mother cooked everything in iron pots above the fire or in the black, cast-iron oven that was a part of the grate.
At the top of the narrow stairs were two rooms. Mother's contained a marble-topped washstand with a china jug and basin to one side of an area where her hairbrush, a tobacco-tin containing hair-pins & clips and several combs lay. My room was not quite so comfortable for whilst mother had a three quarter bed which I sometimes shared with her on icy winter nights, mine contained a very small bed indeed and I had no kind of privacy as the door to the room had been removed for with the door in place the bed had been unable to sit properly on all four of its legs. My room was less than six feet long and less than four feet wide and to enter my bed I scrambled from the bottom of it to the top never once touching the floor. There was no window in my room and the few inches of space to one side of my bed just accommodated the shaft of an old boat-oar which being firmly wedged prevented the ceiling in the corner nearest to the lane from collapsing in upon me. My clothing, such as it was, was piled in a wooden orange box which was nailed near the centre of one wall.
There was no water piped to any of the houses. Water was gathered from a single brass tap with lead piping that was situated at the far closed-end of the lane. Light was provided by gas that hissed through mantles in the downstairs room only and the intensity of which was regulated by raising or lowering an ornate chain fitted to a valve. The fine gauze mantles which tuned the flame of the gas from an angry jet into a soft and gentle light would often burst with a plop which sent sheets of blue flame hissing into the air and sent myself into the night-time streets to knock on doors to borrow a new one from Mrs Smith or Mrs Crick. Outside of the downstairs room candles provided all of the light which we needed.
To my youthful eyes my home in Corlett's Court was beautiful. People came and went at all times of the day or night and I in turn treated all of the other houses in the Court as my own. If the kettle was boiling, and it always was, there was hot tea and a slice of crusty bread & margarine available and if you didn't get asked then it was your own fault if you didn't help yourself and there was no point in complaining to anyone if you went hungry. The doors were seldom locked except on Friday evenings when Mr Brown arrived.
You may be under the impression that my home, as described, was cramped. All things are however comparative. Imagine if you will number eight Corlett's Court, a house in every respect exactly the same as mine but housing therein Tommy and Janie Smith, Janie's sister Kathy, Jenny (seventeen and frequently kissed), my friend Tom, Donny (aged nine), and babies Peter and Sally (aged two and one respectively). Their house was cramped. Add to this mass of humanity the acknowledged fact that Old Tommy was the best bogie-maker and bike-fixer in the Court and that, as a result of these desirable skills, dozens of children plagued the house continually begging for assistance with repairs, spares and renovations and you have a home wherein Janie was constantly calling in her high-pitched voice for children to 'Mind out of the way there...' as she distributed butties and cracked mugs of tea to the hoards of mites who littered the scarified linoleum floor. The cups were plunged into an aluminium bucket which sat on a hob near the fire, wiped with a tea-cloth and re-filled immediately with hot, dark tea from a hot, dark kettle slung above the fire on a hook.
Amidst all of this perpetual bedlam, on the settee close to the window, sat Kathy. Stone-faced eyes heavily filled with unspoken grief staring fixedly ahead, always wearing a heavy green cable-knitted cardigan and always hunched over a mug of tea which never seemed to empty... Kathy never spoke a word. Not a single utterance ever passed her cracked and tight-set lips. Nor had she ever, in the past forty years, ventured outside of the house which her sister rented from Mrs Corlett, not since, it was said, as a girl of twelve 'something had happened...' And Kathy was ugly; hairs grew in bunches on her furrowed face and she smelt always of sweat and stale urine.
None of the children ever spoke to Kathy. I know now that many were afraid of her. It was sometime before I realised that none of the adults ever spoke to her either. I myself was never afraid of her, curiosity being my dominant emotion and as I grew older I confess that my curiosity gave way to a huge warmth and compassion for this woman bathed as she was in inconceivable sadness. I would frequently sit on the mat close to her whilst everyone else was babbling and talking and I'd try to fathom the pain that her face held. When everyone else was in bed and Tom and I sat listening to Radio Luxemburg together I began at some time to include Kathy in our conversations and eventually Tom did the same. I would ask her if she minded us being there for the settee was, presumably, her sleeping place and when Tom and I joined in with the singers of the current pop songs I'd ask her opinion on Buddy Holly or Alma Cogan... did she approve ? Tom was always slightly reluctant to address her directly, he'd say aloud that 'Cath liked that one eh?' but I was more direct, more polite, more respectful.
When the Smiths departed en-masse for Church on a Sunday I would enter number eight and sit alone with Kathy. I'd tell her all that I'd done, where I'd been, how I'd chased rabbits up Claughbane and tried to tickle trout in the Sulby river, I'd tell her about the paths through the holly bushes on the side of Barrule and about the hidden glens and dells where Tom and I lit fires and baked potatoes. It got so that I talked with Kathy almost without realising that she either couldn't hear me or was ignoring me completely. I never embellished my stories when I spoke to her, not in the way which was common amongst all of my friends. Kathy was told only the truth whether she liked it or not.
I had known Tom and his family for at least four years before I began to talk to Kathy and it was another year and a half before the incident occurred of which I now write. It is no exaggeration to say that I was, in the final months, visiting number eight as much to talk to Kathy as to see my friend. Tom and I had jealous squabbles about my relationship with his Aunt Kathy but if they began within ear-shot of Janie then she'd shove a buttie in each of our mouths and tell Tommy to leave me alone, adding frequently that I was doing no harm in talking to Kathy which indeed was obviously true. Once we'd began to munch our way through inch thick wads of bread and margarine we found in any case that we had no faculty for argument.
Father Woods entered number eight one dull afternoon when the house was filled with children. It did not remain filled for more than a few minutes following his arrival but I stayed where I was and continued explaining to Kathy how to bake a wood-pigeon in red clay. The priest sat on the only easy chair close to the fire-place and he talked to Jenny whilst Janie plodded her endless path twixt kettle and table with little apparent concern for the priest's presence. Old Tommy and Tom sat on the floor stripping parts from a radio, laying the diodes and valves in neat rows on the linoleum. It was some time before I realised that the priest was addressing me.
Has voice radiated false warmth and had the instant effect of making me want to ignore him. As was usual he took it for granted that he'd be at all times obeyed and respected to the point where his word demanded deference. He addressed me as 'boy' and scolded my 'mocking' the woman, insisting that I find something 'constructive' to do with my time.
Cliffy Duggan, who lived in number thirteen, entered my thoughts at that moment. Although Cliffy was a full two months younger than I he possessed courage beyond his years. Cliffy would have laughed at this black-garbed hypocrite, he'd have sworn at him and had the priest persisted with his insulting suggestions then Cliffy may well have physically attacked him before making his escape through the door and into the lane beyond. Nevertheless, although such a course of action appealed to me, I was as always constrained and I merely reminded father Woods mentally that neither my mother nor I were of his faith or of any faith for that matter... he was to me the 'sky-pilot', the peddler of false-hopes and dreams for in such terms had I heard my mother refer to him. I pointedly ignored him, turning my attention back to Kathy and beginning again where I'd left off my 'conversation' with her. That was a mistake. I never finished what I was saying to Kathy for the priest leapt from his seat and cuffed me hard on the ear with such force that I fell from the settee to the floor and my head began to reverberate like a bell while my ear blazed with scalding heat. The man-of-god, like some monsterous demon teeming with self-righteousness, was towering over me continuing his sermon in a voice that seemed to pour like volcanic ash from the heights of a black volcano. Not only myself but the few young people who remained in the room were included in the wrath of his anger and I noticed that everyone, including Janie and Old Tommy seemed to be physically recoiling from the onslaught of his venom. Everyone that is except Kathy, she merely sat and stared as always and her apparent composure kept me cool enough to hurl myself through the front door and out into the cool fresh air of the lane from where I launched several expletives behind me as I stood trembling with shame and anger outside of my own front door. I could hear Janie's voice apologising for me and I could hear the priest ignoring her protestations and voicing loudly his opinion that Kathy was one of God's 'unfortunates' and that we had a duty to protect her from the 'meddlesome interference of evil children'. Inside number eight, though I couldn't see it, everyone was nodding agreement... everyone except Kathy. The pain from my ear filtered into every part of my body and changed as it did from pain to seething humiliation and tears flowed freely from my burning eyes. I hated him, I hated his God, and I hated the presumptuousness of them both. In their arrogance they presumed that Kathy was an idiot and I, Kathy's only friend, resented their arrogance.
When the priest had strutted past our window I ran immediately back into Tom's house. No one mentioned the incident although Jenny mouthed words which I interpreted as 'don't let him worry you...' Janie shoved a wadge and a cup of tea into my hand and the wadge, miraculously, was spread with both margarine and jam. I broke it in half and shared it with Kathy who ate and drank alternately as always, softening the bread with hot tear and then swallowing it almost instantly. I resumed my chat with my friend and noted that Janie smiled and nodded towards Old Tommy, she made a remark to the effect that I looked as if I was expecting Kathy to make notes and Old Tom lowered his head and chuckled. To me she voiced the opinion that I was going as soft as she was, meaning Kathy, but she said it with a smile and I knew she meant no harm as I savoured the sweetness of the jam on my tongue.
By the beginning of winter everyone in Corlett's Court was indulging in the seasonal occupation of stealing coal from the steam-railway pens at the end of Water Street and storing the large dull lumps under the stairs. By this time almost everyone who arrived at number eight had at least a few words to say to Kathy and some sat and spoke to her about the weather or the quality of steam-coal... almost everyone had something to say. Even Father Woods condescended to include her in his 'good-day' or his 'good-night' but that was the extent of his compassion. If I was present when he spoke his few words to her he always glanced briefly at me but his gaze never held. He seemed somehow embarrassed. Tom and I included Kathy in every thing which we talked about now and it was obvious that Tom chatted with her even when I was absent. I clearly recall one time when Tom and I and his father were constructing a telescope out of old cardboard tubes and spectacle lenses, we were arguing as to the best way to gain a clearer image when Old Tom stated that Kathy could make a better job of it than we two squabblers. For several minutes an argument raged between the three of us and each opinion and exchange was accompanied by '...he doesn't know does he Kathy?' or alternately 'Cath, he never said that before did he?' And we'd laugh. And it was accepted as normal.
But Kathy remained gazing fixedly into space cradling her cracked mug of tea.
And she said nothing.
The winter was well laid in and the nights were long and cold when the incident happened. It was a night when the older lads were in the hills with their bright lamps and their lurcher dogs hunting rabbits, it was a night when a full moon stood bright and a howling wind dashed the sheets and the clothing straining stark on the clothes-lines which stretched from the even numbered houses to the uneven ones. It was a night when the journey from the warmth of the interior to the toilets at the top of the lane was an alarming prospect even for the adults. On such a winter night Eddy Cowell had been discovered sitting dead inside the first toilet by the communal mangle with his trousers around his knees and blood on his chin and his grey waistcoat. With the thought of Eddy on my mind I asked mother could I use the slop bucket but permission was not given as although it was fully dark the night was as yet young. I drew level with number eight with my heart in my mouth when a cat screamed and darted across my path and my courage fled completely and I turned the handle of number eight and entered Kathy's house.
My objective was simple. I needed to make contact with the warm gas-lit glow of Tom's front room as speedily as possible but as I threw the door open I noticed before me a figure standing erect on the narrow stairs. By the light that was thrown from Mrs Crick's downstairs window opposite it was clear to see that the figure before me was Kathy but she was dressed as I'd never seen her before in a long white night-dress that had lace at the neck and which stretched to her feet. It swirled tight about her as the wind entered the cramped hall and I began to speak even as I was pushing the door closed behind me telling her that it was an awful night and that I was sorry for scaring her although if the truth be told her ghostly silhouette had in fact scared me initially as I'd thrown the door open with thoughts of Eddy Cowell in my mind. I asked why she was on the stairs and was she sleeping upstairs now and then I wished her good night as I moved from the darkness towards the gas-lit downstairs room.
My hand was on the door when her returned 'Goodnight my friend' froze my mind for an instant. As I turned to look at her she repeated her words gently and clearly as she turned her back and her feet began slowly to ascend the stairs.
You must understand that after my initial shock upon entering the house and the fleeting second of fear as I'd witnessed the figure on the stairs I'd felt no other emotion excepting relief at escaping from the cold and eerie night. Now however I was startled. Literally so. Stopped in my tracks is a figure of speech which springs to mind but stopped and filled not with trepidation but with joy. A cascade of happiness warmed my frozen body and the thoughts of flapping sheets and ghosts in the toilet disappeared in an instant.
I couldn't wait to enter the room and tell them.
In retrospect I confess that I did notice, even before I spoke, that Mrs Daley was in the room, as were Tom and Jenny and their Mum and Dad and little Peter and Sally too which was odd as it was well past bed-time. I noticed them all briefly and although the scene was unusual I noticed them simply as a mass of people and not as individual faces for I was obsessed with the revelation which I was about to astound them with. If I'd noticed more clearly the sorrow and the demeanour of all who were present perhaps I'd not have blurted out my news in such an inconsiderate manner.
Mrs Daley sat on the settee, in Kathy's place. Janie sat close to her and Mrs Daley held her hand in her lap. I may be wrong but I have a notion that it was the only time I'd ever seen Janie sitting in her own home. I told them all that Kathy had spoken. Like the child I was I turned and repeated the words to Janie personally. Like the fool that I was I then implored Old Tom with the truth of it and warned him to wait 'til she came down again and then he'd hear for himself. I was babbling excitedly and I turned to address Tom and Jenny when Old Tom rose, pushed me to one side and sat on the settee close to his wife. He placed his arms tenderly around her shoulders as her head bowed and I could hear for the first time that she was weeping softly. My stomach churned. It suddenly dawned on me that I'd only ever seen Mrs Daley in peoples' houses at times of stress, she was the laying-out lady and as I turned to look at her directly her eyes were rancorous and a chill ran through my body.
It was Mrs Daley, who told me with cold impatience, that Kathy had died over an hour ago. Dr Jones was expected and she was waiting to 'attend on the deceased'.
Let me attempt the difficult task of explaining to you how I felt at that moment standing beneath the hissing gas mantle, surrounded by the disapproving eyes of people whom I loved. I was a reasonably intelligent and heedful boy. I certainly was never considered to be either a liar or a practical-joker. And yet I knew that everyone in that small room believed at that moment that I was involved in some monstrous and elaborate joke either that or malice was within me and I willfully intended to cause grief to my friends. I felt sick. I turned to Tom and tried to explain, it seemed that the improbability of what I'd told them could be made believable by repeating it loudly and frequently but as my pleading caused him to turn away my shame gave way to anger. I began shouting at Tom and pulling at his arm, I tried to physically push him towards the stairs beyond the still-open door; 'Kathy wasn't dead, there'd been a mistake, go and look'. Old Tommy suddenly bounded across the room grabbing me with force by the shoulder. He shoved me unceremoniously through the door and I felt certain that he was about to cast me out into the wind-lashed lane but the hands on my shoulders forced me up the narrow flight of stairs. Clearly now I recall that in an instant fear overwhelmed me and I resisted his thrust but I was forced to stumble my way to the top landing where I stood trembling as Tommy struck a match and lit a candle which sat in a saucer by the bedroom door. When his hand stretched past my shoulder and opened the door the pale, deathly light spread across the prostrate and lifeless body of Kathy which lay on the double bed.
She was dressed in a white night-gown with lace at the neck and the gown reached down to her ankles.
I said nothing. All that I could do was weep. I felt Tommy's anger cease in an instant and he lowered his hand gently onto my shoulder and we stood together in the flickering candle-light for a brief moment before I turned and buried my face into his collarless, sweat-stained shirt and allowed the flood of tears to inundate him. He placed his hand behind my head and murmured gruff words of comfort. He told me that I'd imagined it all and I sobbed my agreement. No one would think differently about me. I was still welcome in their home at any time. Kathy was better off now he insisted and at that point I broke free from his embrace and ran down the narrow stairs and out into the lane. In the first toilet, close to the communal mangle, I cradled my grief and my shame for several long minutes until Janie and my Mother arrived and guided me back home to my bed.
Immediately after the funeral Father Woods spoke to me. Whilst Kathy's grave lay uncluttered with earth and open to the elements he held his Bible in the folds of his soutane and stated his conviction, nay his assured belief, that my experience had been an indication from God that I should alter my ways. My belief was that if his God had only ever allowed Kathy to speak half a dozen words in forty years then he was not a God I cared to have indicate to me in any way.
But unlike the man of God I kept my thought to myself.
Tom and I went scrumping apples together later on the same day and life went on forthwith... almost as though Kathy had never even existed.
I'm sad to impart that Kathy never spoke to me ever again. Even though I thought hard of her when the nights were moon-bright and wind-swept. I often wondered, as indeed must you, what really did happen that night. Was it all a visual and auditory illusion brought about by my affinity with Kathy or did I really see her and speak to her? Was it perhaps possible that following the stroke which ended her pain and after the cursory inspection by Mrs Daley she had awoken briefly and determined to say some few words to someone before she finally let go of her life?
I do not know.
What I do know, what becomes clearer with the passage of time, is that I touched a human being that night who had lived for an age born down by unspeakable sorrow and who bade me goodnight on her last night alive as she stood on the stairs of a back-to-back slum dressed in a white night-gown which had lace at the neck and which reached from her throat to her feet.
And that is all that I know.