Crash! The sound of a saucepan hitting quarry tiles echoes through the early morning. I start. Outside the conservatory I see that night is ebbing slowly away. Looking back at me I see the reflection of a 50-something male, still pyjama-clad and bleary-eyed. A second passes before I recognise myself in that tired figure.
“You’re getting old, Tom”, I say to myself.
Beside me on the sofa I hear the sigh of another old soul, my dog, Honey, as she decides it’s not worth moving and settles back, nose-to-tail in a tight curl of contentment.
Outside the conservatory window the early-rising blue tits cling to the seed-feeder, grazing on sunflower seeds.
“You hear that”? I ask as the rattle of cups and dishes replaces the clanging of pans.
But only my dog, slumbering softly now, is there to respond. She flickers a long and fluffy tail half-heartedly and promptly returns to her dreams of lush meadows and slow squirrels.
But it’s there now, low and insistent in my head. I can hear the clatter of dishes as the dishwasher is emptied. I remember when I first heard it. Hell I even remember when it moved in. Course it wasn’t so scary then.
But now? Now there are rooms in this house of mine into which I never venture. Rooms in which I tread cautiously in fear of being pounced-upon. Rooms where every dropped spoon or bashed shin is a nerve-wracking wait for the terrifying sound of softly shuffling slippers; for the ghost who haunts us to appear.
Our ghost pounces on every semblance of movement, shuffling in to peer or quip inappropriately or just perhaps to lurk. Its curiosity piqued by this fascinating intrusion into the mundanity of the day.
Last night I arrived home to find our ghost had emptied the dishwasher again; never a good thing. Unsure still after all this time of where things are or where they go, she spreads the contents in random nooks and crannies about the kitchen. Some even, just by chance, in their appointed places. Many of them actually washed. I shooke my head as I put spoons in spoon drawers and cups in cupboards.
Now, quietly sitting here in the conservatory as the morning sun ventures to rise and enjoying the view over the pond to the garden beyond, I am safe. The ghost rarely ventures outside of our house and only on Sundays does it visit this new addition to our home. Although I never wanted the extension, I am so grateful for the sanctuary it now gives me.
The aroma of coffee rises from the mug on the table and calms me. For a while I reflect on my thoughts … and find them fearful. Oh, that’s Irrational of course and unwarranted; yet tangible for all that.
Deep down inside, unconscious and only rarely glimpsed, I sense an affinity with our ghostly guest. Not that I am like it or bound to it. But that I am destined somehow to become it. To fade into nothingness Cheshire Cat-like, disappearing bit by bit as I endure the echoes of the pointless hauntings, the endless mimicry of mundanity.
It is that void, that empty blackness, which scares me so. The vacuity of that existence bewilders me.
And yet, no … that’s not quite right … I mislead you. It is something far more fundamental, more personal, than that, which fuels my fear.
It is dependancy, not aimlessness, that so frightens me.
And every time I see or hear our ghost, it portends a future that I fear more than death’s embrace.
Our ghost is the shadow of a person I once knew. Silvered and faded and deflated, weathered by time, yet still recognisable.
I wonder does she see herself too? Yes, the ghost is a she, I know. And what it must make of this shadow life I can only guess.
I remember from long ago, the florid, proud and compassionate woman it once was. I do not think she would enjoy this sad parody of life.
“Mortified”, I mutter to the sleeping dog. That’s an old word. I don’t hear it often, but more often here in Lancashire. “I think she’d be mortified”.
I pass the doorway to the lounge and I see her, hunched over a word search puzzle book. Her thin and wispy hair is luminescent silver in the sunlight. I wonder does it matter that today is like yesterday is like tomorrow if one cannot remember the morning from the evening. Or if somewhere, some remnant of Anna rails inside at this interminable Groundhog day.
For my own peace of mind I have to believe that there is mercy; that her mind is troubled by nothing more than the vaguest sense of déjà vu. To be so trapped, to never more than wander from kitchen to lounge to bathroom to bedroom, that is a purgatory I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. Even someone who didn’t like me.
And she doesn’t like me, our ghost. I know because she tells me. And then forgets. But I’m not so lucky; those moments stick with me and will not be shaken. They cling to my psyche like burrs in fur. Prickly and hard to forget.
Yet, I never knew her to be nasty and though we were never close my mother-in-law and I, I always respected her; admired what she’d achieved, including some paintings we have hanging in our home.
If I was quiet and uncommunicative, well that’s just my nature. I think it is the way I shield myself from the pain of life. A mechanism to remain apart from it, an observer and not a participant.
Some people think that’s ignorance. People like my Aunt Beatrice for one. She told me once, at my cousin’s wedding. Just sat there at our table large as life and bold as only the half-tipsy are and said: “You’re an ignorant thing. Always have been”. Another burr I’ve still not shaken off.
Oh we’re not at each other’s throats, our ghost and I, but we pass in the corridor like ships in the night. Civil and cool.
If it seems to you that people don’t seem to like me much. Well, maybe you’re right. But I don’t mean harm to anyone. I’m just wrapped, in true Cancerian-style, in a rock hard shell. And no one is getting in. Except my wife and children and they wreak enough emotional havoc to last me a life-time.
I don’t know how to care for a ghost, still less how to love one. There are no books, no self-help guides to show the way.
There is nothing to prepare you for the emptiness of receiving a suddenly remembered birthday gift when it’s not actually your birthday. Or for receiving a present from someone who clearly doesn’t know who you are.
Both have happened to me. And I felt equally disturbed by both events. I have no concept of how my wife copes with this apparition of her mother; only admiration for her apparent steadfastness.
We both taste the guilt that comes from lashing out in frustration when repeated questions or actions continue despite being satisfied a dozen times before.
After 16-months with us still periodically asks where her bedroom is. And each time I hear it I cringe inside. My soul poked with a sharp and sour barb.
Yesterday seconds stretched into an eternity as I sat in my car, engine ticking over, at the top of our driveway, desperately trying to remember which switch worked the headlights. Those moments, the lost words, the misremembered actions, leap at me now like demons from the abyss.
Maybe they are nothing more than the aberrations of age and tiredness, but they scare the soul out of me.