A ghost story For Now (for now...)
Black coat. Black dress. Black hat. Black car.
I imagine you with me. What would you say to me?
Are you ready?
Mrs. Always Late, that’s me. As though I could wring some extra drops of time out of throwing myself breathless onto the train.
As though the clock had hidden minutes behind the hands. Minutes only I could see.
As though running into class as the bell tolled nine would free me from 300 seconds of wasted…what?
Send not to know for whom the bell tolls.
The bell is tolling. There’s the church. There’s the graveyard.
Today I must travel at the speed of the black car ahead of me. It’s a hearse.
For the occupant of the coffin there will be no further travels in time.
The church is cold. I feel nothing.
I sneak a look at my phone. Shouldn’t do that in church. There’s a message.
The message is from you. My sister has your phone. She’s a therapist. She says talking to the dead is helpful for up to six weeks.
Against the weight of the dead body, the graveyard men lower the coffin, slowly, into the dark wet ground. What if the coffin were to break? Your mortal remains in your best suit unable to support yourself. Your lolling head, eyes closed, brilliantine hair. Your dead weight.
The men pull away the straps. Last resting place. I throw in the handful of clean dry earth I have been given in a plastic bag. Next, I throw in the bunch of forget-me-nots.
I should get back in the car. The cars are lined up respectfully on the gravel. Instead, I turn away and no-one stops me. I am a widow. Perhaps I need a moment. There’s an old part of the cemetery. Ivy, railings, mossy headstones, weeping angels, broken urns. The family vaults. Yew trees whose roots raise the stones.
It’s coming to all of us. This here and now. But it came to him first.
The wind blasts me as I turn a corner. Knocks me so hard I lose my footing in these slim black heels…he liked me in heels. As I stand up, rubbing away the damp green stain from the hem of my coat, I seem to feel his hand under my arm. I seem to hear him: ‘Get up Bella!’
Walking slowly back towards the new part of the cemetery, I see that the grave diggers are already filling in the grave. One of them makes a joke, leans on his spade. I guess that’s how they cope. The heap of earth is levelling now. What’s left to one side is the size of John. John and his coffin. The ground will sink. Then they will come back and mound it up. Already bacteria are at work to make John smaller. He was a big man. Now, less so.
There’s the pastor. He wants to comfort me, but I don’t want to be comforted. I want to go home.
Drop my coat. Into the kitchen. Kettle on. Tea. Yes. And I say, out loud, thank God that’s over. Then without any warning, at volume, out of the Sonos system, a song John liked to play.
Here’s to the ones that we got. Cheers to the wish that you were here, but you’re not….
STOP THE SONG
Drinks bring back all the memories and the memories bring back, memories bring back you.
Nothing happens. The song plays. I run to my bag, find my phone. My hands are shaking. Where’s the app? Stop. Stop it now.
As I stand there, staring at my phone, a photo of the two of us fills the screen. Then my phone’s ringing. Caller ID says JOHN.
‘I think you’re feeling upset. But there’s no need. I will always be right by your side, Bella. Always.’
‘Who is this?’
‘Don’t you recognise my voice?’
‘I am your John App. Check your home screen. I’m fully installed.’
I call my sister. I ask her what she’s done. We agreed, she says, (injured tone), we agreed that I would keep John’s phone for you and send you a message every day to help you cope.
‘Someone using John’s voice just called me.’
‘I should have said something. (Pause.) But there were so many arrangements. I didn’t want to burden you. (You can’t cope.) I thought you would be glad. (Ungrateful.) I purchased you the app. (Spent money.) It trawls John’s phone and emails, his Facebook, his Insta, all his social media, the exchanges you two had, his music and movies, his likes. And then I programmed (I made an effort) the frequency of calls and messages, and sometimes there’s a photo. (Bing!) All you have to do is hit reply and it will keep coming. For as long as you want, you’ll have John.’
‘Gala, are you telling me this app is just going to message me and call me at random?’
‘Yes! Like real life.’
‘Real life is that John’s dead.’
‘You were speaking with him this morning before we left… I heard you…’
She’s still talking in the quiet concerned therapy voice she uses when she’s telling me what to do.
‘Bella, give it a week or so…give it a chance. You’re in shock. This will help. Trust me. It’s my job. And I’m your sister. Bella?’
I hang up on Gala. She means well. She’s my older sister. She’s bossy. But she means well. She organised everything for the funeral. She even sent my flowers for me. I chose herb stems and bay branches because John loved to cook. Gala thought John would prefer forget-me-nots.
How can I help you?
That’s Siri – don’t panic.
Searching for John in Apps.
There it is. JohnApp. Without thinking I click on the photo.
‘That was when we were in Thailand,’ says John.
I say, ‘I need a drink.’
‘There’s Pinot Noir in the larder,’ says John.
‘You know I don’t like Pinot Noir.’
In my hand – from the phone – there’s an unpleasant electric shock.
‘It’s nice to be home,’ says JohnApp. ‘With you.’
We don’t have any children. John never wanted kids. He is, he was, fifteen years older than me. I enjoy teaching at the community college. The kids there don’t have much. It will help me to get back to work.
I should eat something.
My phone beeps.
There’s a risotto in the freezer.
I open the big black drawer. It’s the size of a mortuary freezer. John’s containers. John’s handwriting. Tubs and tubs of risotto – RIZ-OH-TOE is how he pronounced it.
I am Italian. My family came from Rome. I met John when he was dating my sister. When she dumped him he started dating me. Gala is the fiery one. I am the sweet one. Chilli and sugar, said John. We’re all family, John said.
When I was struggling with an eating disorder John thought it would do me good to eat home-cooked Italian food. He’s so caring, said my sister.
The shiny white arborio rice.
Like eating a plateful of maggots.
I switched off my phone, poured a glass of whisky, swallowed a sleeping pill, and went to bed. Oblivion is good.
Soon the pull of the narcotic was heavier than the weight of the day. Sleep.
Bella in the Italian Alps gathering herbs and flowers, mushrooms, and berries. The young girl cooking the family suppers in the holiday home we rented every year. My sister, older, sophisticated, red lipstick, black hair. The tourist who broke down on the pass. The tourist who stayed the night. The big man whispering to my sister, and my sister climbing through the window to meet him.
She was soon bored. Soon busy. Then John was whispering to me through the window. Little Sugar Girl, he called me.
I dream of John at our wedding, his arm around my sister. I’m standing to one side. I’m awkward. She’s laughing. ‘We’re all family,’ he says.
My phone is ringing. Didn’t I turn it off? In the flat dark of the night the phone is flashing. Fumble, slip, press, answer, familiar voice.
I can’t sleep…
He hangs up. He always had trouble sleeping. The late nights at work. The drink. Slowly my befuddled mind lays out the facts. John is dead. John sleeps the sleep from which there is no waking. It’s not John calling me; it’s the app. Tomorrow I’ll delete it. I’m not upset. The pill has done its work. If he can’t sleep, I can.
As the night steadies around me and my body relaxes, I open my eyes. What’s that? What can I hear? Why do we open our eyes when we hear something in the dark? We can’t see it.
I am lying perfectly still, listening. I hold my breath to hear better. It’s downstairs. It’s murmuring.
What I do is pull up onto my knees and raise the blind a little. The kitchen is a single-storey extension, and I can see the skylights from the bedroom window. There’s a light on, dim and low. Did I forget? Did I leave the light on?
The radio? My mind tries hard to remember but the day is submerged.
I must get up and go downstairs. Settle my mind. I buried my husband today. I will make mistakes.
Stair by stair. Hold onto the rail. Step by step. Be careful. Sleepy. Drugged. Someone is down there. Myself watches myself turn into the hallway, into the kitchen, a tired woman in a worn nightdress.
In the kitchen, the counter-lights are on low, the radio is playing. It’s one of those shock-jock talk hosts. John’s late-night listening. On the table there’s a bottle of Pinot Noir and a glass.
It’s a late-waking morning for me. In the shower I remind myself that nothing about yesterday can be trusted as fact. That’s what any doctor would say. The mind plays tricks. Many people believe that the dead are talking to them.
I’m going to drive to the community college to pick up my mail. Then I shall delete the JohnApp. Life and Death are not interchangeable.
Just as I am about to throw my phone into my bag, I change my mind. Leave it here.
College is small and friendly. There’s a coffee machine that makes proper espresso. I take a cup and sit at a table sifting through my post. Then Noel comes to join me. He offers his sympathies, he’s surprised to see me, especially after my email.
Noel received it this morning. My resignation email.
I don’t know what to say. What I feel is cold dread.
‘May I see it?’
He looks at me oddly, but together we go to a desktop, and login. He shows me his inbox. 6:45 A.M. this morning.
‘I was asleep then,’ I tell him. ‘And I don’t want to resign.’
‘But you sent this email…’
‘No. I didn’t.’
Noel has the face men wear when they fear the woman in front of them is crazy. Men are frightened by crazy women. I don’t blame Noel. There’s an email from me that I say I didn’t write.
‘You are bereaved…’ he says. ‘Perhaps you don’t remember. You should definitely take some time off.’
‘I want to come back as soon as I can. Next week…’
He’s distracted for a moment by a student. I print the email and study it carefully. There’s a line in it: I want to do right by John.
That was the first time he hit me. When I was so late home from the college and there was no time to make dinner. He was early for once; early, hungry, angry, half-way down a bottle of Pinot Noir. I said something about doing right by my students. He grabbed me, pulling my face into his: ‘You do right by me, do you understand? By me.’
Then he knocked me down.
As I lay there on the kitchen floor he bent over, softly, and took my arm. ‘On your feet, Bella.’
Driving home, the highway was closed. An accident. I turned on the navigation system, speaking my address details, as I always do, to take another route through town.
At the next junction turn left.
I wasn’t concentrating on where I was going, just driving, distracted by what had happened at the college.
I didn’t write that email. I know I didn’t.
You don’t know anything, Bella. What do you know?
John’s voice coming out of the speaker.
‘Leave me alone!’
There’s a pause, as though I have confused the biddable bot trying to steer me round town. Then…
At the traffic lights turn right…
OK. OK. Calm down. Auditory processing hallucination. I’ve read about them.
I followed the instructions with a blank mind.
YOU HAVE REACHED YOUR DESTINATION.
I stop the car. I seem to have driven to the cemetery.
What is a haunting? Is it inside or outside? The brain can only receive information from the senses. Sensory neurons carry information to the brain. Motor neurons carry information from the brain to the body. The link is the spinal cord – the pathway from brain to body and body to brain. I think I am being haunted, and so my body is clenching in fear, and returning this fear to my brain.
But I am not being haunted. John is an App. JohnApp will be as cruel and vile as JohnNoApp. That’s all there is to it. I am making a pattern out of this, because unlike John, I am alive, and humans make patterns.
There’s a tap at my driver window. I jump, look through the glass. Pale face, black suit. Brilliantine hair. John? What do you want?
Not John. A normal NotJohn human.
It’s the undertaker. I must move my car. A cortege is waiting patiently to enter through the metal gates. Death is also a pattern. Regular. Known. Inevitable. And final.
Be calm, Bella. This is your haunting, not his.
By the time I get home I feel better. I go to my desktop. There’s the email sent at 06:45. I sit staring at it stupidly, because it reads like me, sounds like me. What is the real explanation? Not a ghost. Be like Sherlock Holmes. First rule out the impossible…then.
Then, I recall that last year John did make me draft a resignation letter. He wanted to retire. Wanted me to be with him. That’s not true, because he went out and did whatever he pleased. He didn’t want me to have a life. He wanted a living dead person.
That story that I am always late? John stole my car keys, took my purse, removed passcards from my wallet. Sometimes he hid one shoe that went with the outfit I was wearing, so that I had to change. I used to plan an extra hour to get anywhere, and still, I was late.
Bella’s so scatty. Bella has no sense of time. Bella can’t remember what she did. Bella can’t cook. John takes care of Bella.
These thoughts became a world. So it took several minutes for me to notice that my screensaver had changed. It had been a photograph of me and last year’s graduation students. Now it’s a photo of John that I have never seen before. A recent photo, judging from his bloated face. It’s taken at night. He’s in a bar with my sister.
Are you sure you want to delete this app permanently?
Just to be sure, I double-delete the Trash.
Where’s my phone? Better check.
I left it here this afternoon, just on the counter, by the door. Did I mistake? First, my bag, next, the car, then I mail Noel. He sends me a Zoom link right back.
He looks strained. That’s what happens when someone tries to be smiling and serious in the same face. He doesn’t have my phone.
‘We think you should take some time out…’
Time is as time does.
I need to do normal things in a normal way to convince myself, and all the others, that things are normal. What could be more normal than a Victoria sponge? I shall bake one. I’m a good cook. I used to do all the cooking. John used to open the door to our guests wearing an apron stained with flour and red wine. It was a pleasant afternoon, listening to the radio, feeling the autumn sun through the kitchen skylights. It’s now or not at all, this life. And I am alive.
The cake halves were cooling on the wire trays when the front doorbell buzzed.
Probably a neighbour wondering how I am doing.
At the door are two policemen. They want to come in. Would I like a chat?
Bereaved. Yes. Difficult. Yes. Understandable. Yes. But I must not make nuisance calls.
It seems as though I have been telephoning my neighbours in the small hours of the morning. Playing loud music down the phone. Look, here’s the call log from my number: 04:30. 04:45. 05:15.
The police want to see my phone. I don’t have it. Why not? I don’t know…
Have I been to the doctor? Who is my next of kin?
I had an app, I said. It was the app that made those calls. My sister probably downloaded a knock-off, she’s cheap like that, my sister. She bought me a rogue app – no, you’re not listening! JohnApp can do all those things, that’s the point, so that you feel, believe, the person is still alive. What kind of neighbours would call the police? Can’t they come to the door?
Yes, I agree it was my phone, but he hacked it. When he was alive, he remotely controlled my phone. So, the app can do it too… No, I’m not crazy.
Yes, I will rest.
The police have gone.
Put jam and cream in the sponge.
In the house, in the shadows, with the light off, there’s a phone ringing.
When I go upstairs it’s ringing downstairs. When I am downstairs, it’s ringing upstairs.
That night, on Facetime with my sister, she agrees that she will send me John’s phone back, and that we should both delete everything.
This is the first I know of her own JohnApp.
‘I miss him too,’ she tells me. ‘And I wanted to try it out. I kinda like it, but I can tell it’s not good for you.’ (Sympathising superior bitch.)
‘You mean, after death, the person can be simultaneous? As many apps as you want?’
‘Some people have big families,’ she says. ‘I think it’s nice.’
‘The only thing that kept me sane when he was alive, was knowing he could only be in one place at a time. If he was with someone else, he couldn’t be with me.’
‘You didn’t bring out the best in him,’ she said. ‘Don’t get mad, it’s a fact.’
‘I hated him.’
‘Exactly. (Her blend of sympathy and sadism.) ‘And now you are blaming JohnApp for the things you did.’
‘I did not do those things!’
She sighs. She has a whole register of sighs.
‘I know you’re in shock, so I’m not going to give you a hard time – in fact I am going to show you that I am on your side. Let me share my screen with you.’
There’s her screen and her cursor moving busily about.
‘You see? Do you see, Bella? DELETE. John is Gone.’
‘Let me share my screen with you,’ I say. ‘Do you recognise my screensaver?’
There’s a pause (her special pause). ‘Why would I want to look at your college kids?’ And she says it just the way John did.
The photo of her and John isn’t there anymore.
That night nothing happens. I lay awake most of the night, the way I used to when he was out late, wondering what he would do, do to me, when he got in. The last time he just stood in the bedroom doorway, swaying, and undoing his tie like it was a noose.
The sound of his footsteps going to the spare room.
The next day there’s a package in the mail. It’s from my sister. It’s John’s phone. That’s useful. Until I find my own phone, I can use his. It’s wiped anyway.
I cut a piece of cake, make coffee, all deliberately slow, like a cat washing before she intends to pounce on a mouse.
Then, when I am ready, I turn on his phone and call my number.
The phone picks up, but no-one speaks.
‘Who is that?’ I ask.
‘It’s Bella,’ says John.
The connection goes dead.
Immediately John’s phone rings in my hand.
‘Hello? Bella speaking.’
‘Bella’s dead,’ says John.
On the phone, in my face, there’s the photograph of the two of them again. I email it to Gala. Then I turn off the phone and take a walk. Autumn rain that falls and disappears. The leaves baring the branches of the trees. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing should.
Do you, Bella, take John to be your lawful wedded husband…till death us do part?
That night I set the table for two, just as I always did. Cutlery, glasses, napkins, a bottle of Pinot Noir. Then I wait.
Just before 9 o’clock the front door opens with a key. I sit where I am in the chair. I don’t look up. Gala comes into the kitchen.
‘Can I have a drink?’
‘It’s not what you think,’ she says. ‘It was a bit of stupidity. You know he always liked me.’
‘It was just one night.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Is there anything to eat?’
‘Yes. I took one of John’s riz-oh-toes out of the freezer. His signature dish. Mushroom. It’s in the oven.’
I serve us both. Take the plates. Sit down.
‘You’re not eating,’ she says, filling her fork.
‘I’m not hungry. Gala, did you do those things? Write the email? Make the calls? Did you hack my operating systems?’
‘You over-think everything, Bella.’
‘How long was the affair?’
‘I told you…we didn’t start again.’
‘Shall I tell you something? I went through John’s phone after he died. Before you took it away – and I know why you wanted to take it away. The app was just an excuse, wasn’t it? I’ve seen everything, Gala. You didn’t start the affair again, that’s true. But that’s because you never stopped.’
‘You’re a snoop.’
‘I had plenty of time, waiting for the police to arrive.’
‘Are you going to tell Mike?’
‘Mike will have enough to deal with.’
She’s looking at me strangely, as though she can’t focus. She wants to speak but the words don’t come. She tries to get up from the table but she falls.
I know the routine. I’ve done it so recently. I will call the police. They will arrange for the body to be taken away. There was no inquest when John died, because he had a history of heart trouble, and he hadn’t been taking his tablets. I switched them for weeks but it didn’t kill him. And then he wanted to make his famous risotto for a dinner party.
That is, he wanted me to make the risotto. I did it. No problem. The second batch, carefully tubbed and labelled by John, uses different mushrooms to the first. I know where they grow in the woods.
But no-one can blame me because John does all the cooking, and look, there are his labels, and look, there is my sister. I take her phone from her bag. It’s easy to unlock it, just as it was when John died. Their thumbs still warm…
Scrolling through, I carefully delete John’s last messages to her:
I think Bella is trying to kill me.
I cut a piece of cake and sit down. Now that they are together forever, perhaps they will leave me alone.
It’s after midnight by the time Gala’s body is gone. In bed, I feel the slab of darkness above my face.
Sleep now. Don’t be afraid.
Somewhere in the house my phone is ringing.
Woooooooooow. After reading, I jumped when my phone buzzed. And now I will only ever make my own risotto. Thank you!
An excellent piece. Remarkable.