I used to think ghosts were frightening. On TV, they were inevitably Victorian, dressed in black and wafting around graveyards or creaking old houses.
In my dreams, I’d be in bed at the stroke of midnight, when the lights would spark out. There’d be breathing and objects flying around. Something ghastly was coming for me, like in Blair Witch. I’d scream and scream but couldn’t move a muscle, waiting for the horror.
Now I know differently. It’s the living you have to be scared of; not the dead. When I actually met a ghost, I didn’t turn a hair or feel the slightest goose-bump. Well, that’s a lie. I did because I fell in love with him. He loved me right back and saved my life.
I’m at university now, on a campus near Bath where peacocks strut around likes birds in party dresses but make the kind of screeching racquet that requires a muzzle; all honking and blaring.
He doesn’t come anymore, my beloved ghost. I miss him but I don’t miss the life I left and don’t talk about the past to anyone else in this happy land of students.
Like I said, it’s not the dead I’m nervous about.
Mum came out of rehab a week before I came out of care. We’d both been away for six months. Mum to get sober and me to get looked after. Well, as looked after as you can be by in a care home. Mum’s an alcoholic and I’m15.
She’d been chucked out of our council home in the seaside town we’d always lived in and sent to a Back-of-Beyond village where she’d have no drinking friends to buddy up with. My social worker, Maggie, drove me to Bleadon Hollow. Bleeding Hell I named it. But only in my head. I don’t do rude. I don’t speak much. It’s as I’ve been emptied of conversation. But as Maggie said, we have a chance to ‘move forward’ now. Bleadon Hollow was way off the main road, any beaten track and nobody went there if you didn’t have a delivery or live there.
‘You’re going to love it, Piper. And so’s Beth. Your mum’s settled in well. There’s a lovely old lady next door; she has two beehives.’ Maggie changed gear with a sound like an electric saw.
‘Are there any shops?’ I ask, as we jerk forward, narrowly missing a partridge that could barely fly.
‘Yes, a hairdresser’s, post office with grocers, a cafe, florist and off-licence.
‘The off-licence has been told about your mum.’
‘So, everyone will know before I’ve even got there.’
‘No, they’re good people who run it and promised not to say anything. For your sake.’
‘I bet.’ I said and that was the end of the embarrassing exchange. Maggie tuned into the Archers, possibly to get me used of the lingo they speak in villages, cricket they play and cakes they make.
‘Is there a bus or train service to the city?’ I ask, crossing my fingers, hoping there was a route to civilization, to mud-free pavements and cars instead of horses and tractors.
‘No trains, but there are buses. Sometimes, not every day. For the time being your mum could do with the lack of temptation. There is a school bus.’
School. I thought, heart sinking through the car floor, into middle earth. They’d already have a special support teacher ready to listen me. Like I said, I don’t talk much. Only to myself. I’d be the only girl who had nothing to say about evenings, weekends and holidays. Nothing printable. The only girl without a mobile phone or computer. And now stuck in Bleeding Hell.
Bird-filled hedges lined a winding road and three tractors roared passed us, driven by boys who looked about 12, chatting on mobile phones, driving monster machines one-handed. Maggie yelped each time one headed our way and slid her car into the hedge so branches scraped the side. The air smelt sweet, like new-mown grass.
‘Shit.’ Maggie said, followed by ‘Sorry.’ She didn’t know bad language was the least of my worries compared to being in the back-of-beyond while mum climbed the walls once the drink-urge gripped her.
A field of black cows with very short legs, some weird dwarf breed – chomped grass and sniffed the air. A velvety calf, the size of a Labrador, sprang about. Another field was full of filthy-bottomed sheep, munching away and brown hens clucking between them. There was a sign for ‘Free Range eggs’ on the driveway. I don’t like eggs which is a pain as I’m a veggie. Something about them coming out of a hen’s arse, or nearly it’s arse.
A pub looms into view. ‘The Blue Flame.’ A future trouble spot which Maggie didn’t mention as we breezed past. Pubs, supermarkets and offies are Meccas for mum.
There’s the florist, ‘Roots and Shoots’ and a tall, balding man carrying a huge bunch of pink flowers, with a little black and white Jack Russell at his heels. Three women are on a bench outside, cutting stems and arranging pale flowers into tall glass containers. They are laughing and the sun shines on their creased faces. I haven’t seen anyone under 50 yet.
The hairdressers, ‘Betty’s’ looks the kind of place you’d only go in if you are about to die. It’s got those weird hairdryers that should be in space and make old ladies come out with replicant hairdo’s that wouldn’t move in a tempest.
The post office is also the local shop and ‘Edward’s’ looks busy. There were cleaning products and loo rolls on display in the front window. Next door was the off-licence, ‘Amy’s Winehouse’. I wondered if that put people off. Chardonnay was on special offer. Half-price. Mum would weep. That was all. There didn’t seem to be a cafe or perhaps I’d blinked.
Around the corner loomed the church. Mushroom-coloured stone, rooks flapping around the square tower where a gold-painted stag pointed its leg as the wind changed. A whitewashed cottage next to it had a sun dial of a creepy man’s face, smoking a pipe with one bulging scary eye open to onlookers. The place looked like a museum. Posh, I thought. Too posh for us.
A little road forked to the left and Maggie turned down it. Council houses, tucked away and there at the end, where the village became fields was another tiny bone-rattling lane and down this we went, bumpety-bump on potholes and thickly-ridged muddy trails. A collie barked and followed us for a few yards. Two semis marked the gap between humans and animals. I guessed which one was ours. Not the one with white lace curtains, a garden crammed with swaying cottage flowers in rainbow colours and black cat in the window licking its paws. Maggie pulled in on the drive next door. It had a scrappy patio for a garden and straggly grass breaking through cracks.
‘Here we are.’ Maggie said brightly, brushing her red hair back into its neat, face-framing bob. She sounded relieved. I’d been safely delivered and ticked off her long to-do list. She’d done her part now and it was up to Mum to get a grip of herself and me to stand on my own two feet, while supporting her. It was then I spotted him. Lucas. I didn’t know his name then. Now, I know it means illumination and shining. He was at the end of the road by a farm gate, astride a motorbike with no helmet on his blonde head, dressed in a thin T-shirt and tight jeans.
The light filtered through an old tree above him and I thought he looked like an angel. His skin was dappled and tawny. He looked straight at me and grinned. I could have died because I hadn’t arsed myself to even brush my hair. It was scraped back in a greasy ponytail and I had a spot on the top of my lip and my braces hurt. I looked away. When I glimpsed back, he was gone; like trick of the light.
That’s what Lucas brought into my life; illumination but I didn’t know it yet. And I didn’t know he was already dead.