PLEASE TALK TO ME
Charlie gets up in my face after school, as usual.
‘Your Mum had sex with any ghosts lately?’
‘Leave me alone,’ I say, hitching my backpack up on my shoulders and walking off in the direction of home. Charlie follows me, his feet skipping to keep up.
‘I bet that’s why you don’t have a boyfriend. Like Chantelle and that think you’re just not fit enough but he’s actually just some old invisible ghost.’
I march on, pretending he doesn’t exist. I used to create imaginary friends but now my mind creates empty space: instead of Charlie there is just oxygen and carbon dioxide and atoms, all moving further and further apart.
He waves his arms about in the air between us.
‘Is he here now, Romy?’
How I wish he would find something to grab: an arm, a shoulder of a child, a clump of hair.
‘Fuck off,’ I say, and start running.
One of the biggest problems with my life is that our house is only a few streets away from school, close enough that everyone knows where we live. There are kids from my year walking past the fence to my garden and pointing when I get near so I slow down. My little brother Walker once spent the entirety of a cloudy Sunday crafting a robot out of tins and Coke cans on our front lawn, and my Mum and Dad had let him keep it there for days. Someone from Year Ten or Eleven was staring at it as I was leaving the house one morning, so they stared at me as well as the robot, and asked if it was a sort of sacrifice to a God or some weird shit like that. I wanted to kick it down and stamp on the cans until they were flat.
If I could, I would move our house into the woods or a dark place where nobody goes. We could have a fire in a pit, and marshmallows, and Walker and I would roll around in the leaves and throw them in the air like we did when we went camping in Wales when I was ten. I would use my power to create a force field of empty quiet space for miles and miles and miles.
After the other kids have disappeared into Smiley’s Off License at the bottom of the road, I check behind me and then push open the metal gate. Our grass is patchy and brown and the paint is peeling off the house in crusty flakes because my Dad is still trying to get enough money together to do it up. I pick up some of the bits of it from the ground and brush them off my hands into the neighbour’s garden.
Dad and Walker are watching cartoons when I get in and Mum is standing in the doorway to the lounge wearing soapy marigolds. She’s telling them a story about a client and how he got shit on by a bird on the way to see her and how they spent the first half an hour of a session, meant to be set aside to contact a dead uncle, with the guy’s head over the bath tub. Walker is squirming he’s laughing so hard and Dad is tickling him to make it worse.
I go into the kitchen and grab a Coke, leaning up against the counter and cracking it open. I like my Coke flat so every night I shake two of them until my arm aches and put them in the fridge door by themselves so everyone knows they are mine. I sip it while Mum finishes her story. I look at the picture on the wall of her, and Grandma, and Great Grandma. They both spent their lives contacting the dead and now they’re dead too.
Mum used to walk me through the big graveyard next to the church in town on my way to primary school. She told me death wasn’t something to be afraid of, that the world was more transparent than it looked, and that I shouldn’t be scared if I ever saw anything or anyone that no one else saw. I should relax and just say please talk to me.
When I was older I would go to the graveyard by myself. I would lie down flat next to gravestones, pressing my ear up against the solid ground, but my world was not transparent enough to even hear worms wiggling around underneath me.
Mum comes into the kitchen.
‘Did you hear that, Romy?’ She says. She uses her bare arm to wipe laughter tears from her face and then peels off the marigolds. They fold inside themselves and become weird pale hands with stubby half fingers.
‘Yeah, sounds funny.’
She tilts my face up to look at her by putting her damp palm under my chin. ‘Those bullies haven’t been saying anything again have they?’
‘Oh no, Mum, honestly. I’m just tired from school. I’ve got a lot of homework.”
She strokes under my eyes with her thumbs and looks right at me. If I was dead she would be able to know what was going on in my mind.
‘Tea’s going to be a bit late,’ she says, letting go of my face ‘I’ve got a client coming round.’
‘It’s at four thirty. Not that late.’
‘Okay, let me know if you need any help. With tea.’
‘Thank you, sweet girl.’
I go to my bedroom and I wish I could know if she was watching me walk down the hallway, tilting her head while she was thinking, whether she goes into the other room and says to Dad ‘I don’t know if Romy is okay,’ or ‘I think we better ring the school again,’ or ‘I wonder if it’s finally happening for Romy. She’s acting a bit strange.’
When I was Walker’s age and he was a baby, we went camping in the Peak District. We never go on proper holidays, to Spain or Greece like the people in my classes at school, but we go camping every year, pitching our Costco tent in campsite surrounded by fields and fir trees and train tracks and brick pubs. Mum packs wellies and bacon and pop in an ice cooler and Dad gets the camping stove and pots and pans out of the attic. Mum had brought the red baby slings that they used to carry me in so that she or Dad could have Walker close to their chest when we went walking.
One time, when Dad had Walker in the sling, Mum and I were up ahead by ourselves and we found a river, a big gushing one with a big long rickety bridge over it. It was really windy, and my hair kept getting in my mouth and my eyes.
“Are we going on that?” I said to Mum, loudly over the wind.
“Watch this, Romy!” She said, and she let go of my hand and ran across the bridge with her arms held out to the side.
“Mum!” I yelled, but she had already made it across.
“Come on Romy, come to me.”
“Of course you can. It’s so fun.”
I paused and she said, “Stop worrying. Don’t you believe me?”
I could see Dad coming up the path behind us, with Walker’s fuzzy head poking from the top of the carrier, and Mum was holding out her arms to me and I wanted to get to her first so I ran for it, laughing, the wind catching under my open duffle coat and unable to slow down I fell into Mum’s arms at the other side of the bridge.
“I told you it was fun,” Mum said, picking me up and snuggling her face into my shoulder. I could smell the fresh water and the mildew of our damp clothes and I loved that moment and her as strongly as I could smell and touch and feel.
When I was twelve, and Chantelle had written Loser in black marker on the back of my school shirt when I took it off for PE, and I came home crying, Mum said she would tell the headmaster, that she would ring him right now.
“I’m going to stop this Romy, I am going to stop this,” she said.
Later that night I said, “I can’t go to school tomorrow.”
“Of course you can,” she said, “I am your mother and I will fix this.”
“Honey, don’t worry, don’t you believe me?”
The next day was when I figured out that when Mum says “Don’t you believe me?” it doesn’t mean she’s right.
We sit down for dinner after Mum’s client has clicked the front door shut behind him. Walker is in his pyjamas and his hair is wet from the bath Dad ran for him; it’s sticking out at all angles.
‘Please tell me, Mum,’ he says, shoving a spoonful of peas into his mouth as he talks.
‘I can’t, you know I can’t,’ Mum says, but she is smiling.
He’s asking about her client. My little brother is fascinated by death, and Mum’s clients, and who they are trying to get into contact with. Mum has a filing cabinet in her office with all her information in, a metal block in a room of patterned carpet, tapestry and candles. One Saturday about a year ago when I had been doing school work and Dad was shopping and Mum was taking a nap, Walker managed to get into the filing cabinet and after hours we found him sat on the floor with papers and papers scattered around, piecing together the lives of the people Mum saw day after day by the words he was able to read. He went into school after that and bragged about what he knew. If he doesn’t learn to shut up, when he gets to my age, he’ll get bullied even worse than I do.
“Are we going on holiday this year?” I ask.
“I don’t know yet, darling,” Dad says, “Probably.”
“I think we should move somewhere like that,” I say.
“Why?” Mum asks.
“I like it here,” Walker says.
“We all do,” Mum says.
“I just like countryside, the woods and stuff.” I take a mouthful of my dinner and then say “Just being away from everything.”
“We’ve got the woods here. This is a pretty green city.”
“Me and Walker could home school. Outside. In nature. That would be good for us, Mum.”
“It would,” she says, winking at me. “I need clients though. It’s how we eat.”
I get up from the table and grab my last flat Coke.
‘Can I have one?’ Walker asks as I crack it open and take a sip, ‘A fizzy one.’
‘No, bud, it’s too close to bed time,’ Mum says.
‘But Romy is allowed one.’
‘She goes to bed later than you.’
Walker starts crying and saying that life isn’t fair. I would happily trade all the Coke in the world to be him. Mum and Dad are looking at each other and silently questioning whether they should relent, both wanting the other to give them permission.
I take a long gulp from mine so it’s about half full.
‘Here, he can have the rest of mine if he likes.’
‘I don’t want a flat one.’
‘Try it,’ I say, passing him the can, ‘It didn’t even work when I shook it last night.’
Walker sips it, and smiles, tears still wet on his cheeks.
‘But it’s your Coke, honey,’ Dad says.
‘You’re right though, it is bad for you, and it isn’t as flat as I like, and it’s better for him to have less than a full can if you want him to sleep through the night, right?’
‘You’re sure?’ Mum asks.
‘Thanks, Romy,’ Walker says.
I ask to be excused.
I wake in the middle of the night and at first I don’t know why but then I hear soft crying through the walls. Walker’s been seeing ghosts in his dreams every night this week. I crack my door open slightly, not making any noise, a small triangle of light coming through and onto my bare feet.
‘It was a girl ghost, a girl ghost,’ Walker says, and I imagine him in my parent’s room, Mum sitting on the edge of the bed with him in her arms and Dad standing next to them, looking over.
‘Honey, you don’t have to be scared.’
‘A girl ghost,’ he whimpers into her chest.
‘You’re just like your mother,’ Dad says. He’s probably putting his big hand on Walker’s head and stroking his hair.
‘Did you see the ghost?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But you knew she was there?’
‘Then what happened?’
‘I shook myself awake.’
He’s not crying anymore, and I hear them moving around. Mum is giving Dad a silent look as they try and figure out what is going on with their son and whether or not it’s the gift.
‘Why don’t you sleep in our bed? Does that sound good?’
‘How about, if you fall asleep and see the ghost again, why don’t you wait, and listen to what she wants to say to you?’
‘She doesn’t want to talk to me.’
‘There must be a reason she is here, love.’
‘Why isn’t she talking to you?’ Walker says through a yawn.
‘Do you know this ghost, Gloria?’ Dad says.
‘It rings a bell, but I see so many. She seems to want to speak to you, Walk.’
The bed creaks as they all lie down.
‘Just relax and say please talk to me.’
‘Mummy and Daddy will be right here with you.’
I leave my door open and get back into bed, watching the triangle of light on the floor until I fall asleep.
I put my uniform on slowly the next day. I brush the same bits of my hair again and again, flick it over my shoulder and then sweep it back to the front.
Walker is in the kitchen in his dressing gown when I go in. He is chewing on toast and he has a blob of jam on the corner of his lip and he stares at me.
“Why aren’t you ready for school?”
“Mum says I’m too tired.”
“That’s so unfair.”
Walker shrugs, and rips the crust off his toast, “I like school.”
“I hate it so much.”
Mum comes in. She’s wearing her bright orange pyjamas and her hair is a mess.
“Hate what?” she asks, fumbling around with the coffee pot.
“Nothing,” I say, going to the cupboard and pouring myself some cereal. “Just sports. I have P.E today.”
Walker stares at me and I wonder if he is going to sell me out.
“Oh, shoot,” Mum says, running from the room and yelling back to us. “Your P.E kit is in the wash. I’ll put it in the dryer now. It should be ready in time.”
I go to the fridge to get milk and I notice there aren’t any cans of Coke on my side so I take out the milk and two Cokes. Walker doesn’t whine or clamour for one he just watches and then goes back to concentrating on his toast. I shake the Cokes and eat my cereal at the same time.
‘You lied,” he says.
About a month after my Mum called the school and Charlie and Chantelle got put in isolation, they cornered me with all their mates in the fields behind school and told me I would pay for snitching on them. Chantelle ripped the pages out my school books, and threw my bag in the mud. I told Mum again and she kept calling the school and they kept trying. They all kept trying. One night, Mum came into my room after my bedtime and I pretended I was still sleeping while she stroked my hair and cried softly. The next day when she asked how school was I said that it was good, and that no one had said anything, and that’s what I kept saying and that has become her part of her truth. That was the day I learnt that people can have different truths; that maybe in mine there can be no ghosts but that maybe in hers there really is and maybe one day I’ll be in a graveyard and see a shadow of a person beckoning to me and Mum and I will live in the same world again like we did when she caught me on the end of that bridge.
Until then, I step outside with my book bag, scanning the street for other people from my school. I turn out my gate and see Charlie and Chantelle and all their mates up ahead and I start walking the opposite way, away from school and towards the woods.
They are five minutes from our house and families traipse around them on the weekend, having picnics and looking for Gruffalos with toddlers but today everyone is at work, or at school, or at home meeting a tight schedule of clients wishing to contact their dead friends and relatives and testing if their seven year old can contact ghosts.
This is my truth. Every step I take in the crunchy leaves is bold and loud in the sound of nothing. I kick at the leaves and make them fly around in the air. It smells muddy and wet from rainfall but the air is light and cold. I move my arms around in the empty space between trees, knowing there isn’t anything to grab hold of. I take a big gulp of the air, feel it in my cheeks and blow it out again.
While my class is in science I am sitting with my back up against a tree and looking up through the branches at the wide open sky. I get my history text book out of my bag and find a fake note from a ghost on the title page that Charlie must have written when I wasn’t looking. I take a breath, feel the empty space around me, and take a black marker from my bag and scribble it out. Then I start reading. I’ve never skipped school before because I’ve always been scared of getting caught and getting in trouble but who is going to know? When I get home, I’ll tell Mum what I’ve learnt.
From Derby, England, Heather Cripps is about to begin her MA in Creative Writing at the University of Kent. She has previously been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, and The Purple Breakfast Review. More of her work can be found at heatherlikeswriting.wordpress.com.