A Ghost's Story

Updated: May 24

It’s not like in the stories. In the movies and the books – those trashy paperbacks Joy enjoyed so much – ghosts are always so dramatic. They’ve always died in some terrible way, or died too young, or left something unresolved. That’s why they remain. They hang about to resolve their drama, righting their wrongs, or taking their pain out by terrorising the living.

And they know. They know that they’re ghosts, that they’re on the other side of that great divide.

I didn’t. Not for a long time, anyway. I didn’t recognise any moment when everything changed. Life just blended into death, like how a lovely hot bath slowly and imperceptibly cools until you find yourself, all of a sudden, frigid and quite ready to get out.

I hadn’t spoken to anyone for a long time. Joy, my wife, died long before I did, and the few of my friends that outlived her followed soon afterwards. My only son, Johnny, and I had a disagreement about money just after his mother died, and he had gradually stopped speaking to me. There was a nice young nurse that used to come and help me out a couple of times a week, do some laundry for me and maybe walk me down to the shops, but she’d stopped coming as well. She said I’d been deemed a low priority, so I would have to go on a waiting list. She had stopped coming, and I hadn’t spoken to anyone since.

I don’t how long that went on for. Weeks? Months? I couldn’t tell. I’d just bumble around my little flat all day every day until they all blended into one. I wouldn’t sleep properly at nights, just in little snatches all over the place, and the days wouldn’t change from one to the next. The telly droned on and on, endless antiques and gameshows and newsreels. I suppose I must have died some time then, in my flat, but I carried on with no idea for who knows how long.

I didn’t realise until I finally went out one day. After I’d been in my flat for weeks I thought, quite out of the blue, that I’d head down to the Lamb’s Head one afternoon to see the lads from the factory. It was a dark and damp day, the air chilled by the cold rain, so as I set off across town I pulled my cap and scarf tight to keep out the wet and miserable wind sweeping through the streets. The low cloud sat just above the roof of the houses, and I couldn’t see far. But I didn’t need to. Everything was so familiar. The skinny, redbrick terrace houses; the narrow tarmac roads cracked all over; the old cobbles peeking through the potholes. All perched on a steep hill overlooking the town.

As I got down into town, though, everything seemed a bit different. A lot seemed to have changed since I’d last been down there, a lot of places come and gone. All sorts of places I didn’t recognise. The old market hall, with its lovely coloured glass windows and grand old doors, was completely gone, and the butcher’s and the grocers with it. The newsagents looked to be closed down, and just across from it there was a huge new shop the size of a football stadium with a great big plastic sign like in pictures of Las Vegas.

Even the roads seemed to have changed. It was a long way to the Lamb’s Head, much longer than I remembered. I’d always known the town centre almost as well as the terraces, but now I was wandering around unsure on its edge for a long time. It wasn’t until I found one of the old factories that I recognised where I was. It didn’t seem to be working, which was odd for the middle of the week, but it still sat on the same road and I followed that down to the pub.

It was a lovely old building, the Lamb. A big Edwardian pub with white tiles on the outside and all original carved oak and brass fittings inside. But as I got down towards it I couldn’t see any lights on. No one seemed to be moving about in there. When I got up to the door it was all boarded over with great big pieces of plywood, and the kids had scrawled graffiti across the whole building. It looked like it had been closed for years, but it couldn’t have been. I’d been there just the other day for a couple with Arthur and Barney, so it could only have been gone for a day or two.

Or had I? I couldn’t remember. The way the kids had ruined the place, it looked like it must have been closed a while. Maybe it was The Weaver’s I was thinking of. Or the Lion. But that was over by Victoria, over the other side of town. And I was…


I must have lost track of myself, staring up at the old cast iron sign swinging gently in the wind and the rain. When I came around again, the sky was darkening, and I thought I’d better be heading off. I wanted to stop in at the graveyard on my way home to see Joy, and the light would soon be gone.

The stories also never seem to mention the way you flit about through time. They’re always one directional, with some soul from one time lingering into another. A Victorian bride hangs about in a house, or a medieval kid turns up in the modern day. But really you go back and forth all over the place, from your past life into the present and back again, as though life was a book that could fall open at any page.

As I made my way across town, my mind ricocheted wildly through the memories tied to the places I passed.

I passed the old hospital and saw Johnny being born, and Joy and I in the ward as happy as we ever were, glowing and beaming over the little pink bundle in our arms. I passed the schoolhouse and saw Johnny trying to hide a grin as the headteacher shouted about some prank he’d pulled. At the dark old factories, empty for years now, I still saw all the old lads piling out of the doors and down the steps, laughing and joking.

All these different peoples and times seemed to cross over one another, wandering through the streets and the decades. As I moved amongst them I felt like I was doing the same, and losing track of when and where I was. I half expected lads long dead to suddenly slap me on the shoulder and take me for a pint, or to turn the corner and find Johnny there as a little boy.

I couldn’t seem to keep track of anything. The town I knew so well seemed to be alive, the roads twisting and shifting over each other like snakes in a pit; and my memories were doing the same, decades tying themselves in impossible knots.

Luckily, just as it all began to feel too much, I found myself somewhere familiar. The graveyard, at least, was where I remembered it. Just past the railway station, on the Southern edge of town. It was a big old Victorian place, three or four acres of trees and greenery sitting like an oasis in amongst the city. A perfect place for Joy. The sky was darkening quickly as I passed through the gates, but as I did I immediately felt safe and soothed, as though she had come to meet me.

Her grave was a simple little piece of black marble, worn a little now from the weather, with bright gold lettering running across it. It wasn’t all that much, but it was all I could afford after she had died. Johnny was already worried about the money when we chose it. But it was a little memorial for her. A little place where I could come and speak to her, with a stone bench just across from it where I could sit down comfortably.

‘Hello, dear,’ I said as I sat down. ‘I thought I’d come see you before it got dark. Come see how you’re doing.’

Joy’s grave stared stone-cold back at me, the sparkle ebbing out of the marble as the light faded from the day.

‘I’ve been ok, I guess. I’m not getting out much. Just pottering around the flat, thinking about you and Johnny. Johnny still won’t speak to me, but I’m sure he will soon. I’ll keep phoning him, I’m sure he’ll let up some day.’

I stopped for a second, swallowing back the lump in my throat before I carried on. There was a little pain building in my left arm, but I figured it was just the cold.

‘I tried to go down to the pub today to see the old lads, but it was closed! Can you believe that? The old Lamb’s Head… closhed … down.’

I had to stop for a moment. The pain wasn’t fading away like it normally did. It was getting worse. It was in my foot now as well, and I could feel it building, crawling up my arm and my leg towards my body. My tongue was twitching a little and I couldn’t speak easily. I shook my arm and my leg off and tried to carry on.

‘I thought I’d go shee… Barney… but I couldn’t…’ I could barely get my words out. Joy’s grave was swimming before me, my eyes flickering in and out of focus… ‘I couldn’t…’

My whole body started twitching hard down the entire left-hand side. My arm and leg were spasming wildly, but they were completely numb, and I couldn’t feel them at all. It had spread from my tongue all over my face as well, stabbing me in the head. I tried to focus on the grave and on Joy, but I couldn’t, and I felt myself slipping slowly forward. I tried to pull myself back up a few times but immediately slumped down again. As everything went completely black, I felt myself falling forward, and hard stone smash into my eye socket as I collapsed onto the ground.

Pages turned wildly again. The film reel of my life flickered, catching and starting and changing, scene blending into scene in no order. Malfunctioning. Lights switching on and off. Darkness extending forever.

Then it was day. A bright cold day in the middle of winter. I was looking out a familiar window at the sun bearing down on familiar rooves. I was in The Lamb. Some of the lads were there too – Tony and Al, I think they were – old but alive. And Johnny was next to me. He was telling a story and the lads were all laughing with him, grinning into the pints they sipped slowly. But they were sad too. They were all in black and there was mourning in their eyes.

It was my wife’s wake. We’d just buried her in the frozen soil of the cemetery. There hadn’t been many there, just the last few of my pals, for my sake as much as anything, and Johnny and his wife and kids. There to say a final farewell to Joy. Johnny gave the eulogy. I tried to say something, but I got upset and wound up and so confused that I had to sit down again.

And then that was it. We put her in a tiny, gaping hole in the ground and she was gone. Then we went to the pub.

Johnny was just finishing his story. It was one we’d all heard a thousand times, about a party Joy and I had thrown in the seventies or eighties. Joy somehow managed to lock the front door and lose the key, so we had all our guests climbing through the living room window. She’d been forgetful like that, but so fun that you’d soon be laughing with her about it. As the story ended Johnny clapped me on the shoulder gently.

‘Ah, you suffered her a long time, Dad. You’ve the patience of a saint.’

Tony and Al smiled warmly over at me, but I could see the weariness in their eyes. They were old and tired, like me. They wanted to go home, and so did I. We finished our pints, consciously not rushing, then said our goodbyes. They both hugged me tight as they put on their caps and headed out. Then it was just Johnny and me.

‘Come on, Dad,’ he said gently, taking my arm, I’ll take you home.’

We got in his flash new car; a giant thing almost as wide as the road with deep leather seats I could almost get lost in. He drove slowly and quietly out of the car park, then turned sharply onto the road and sped off towards the flat where I now lived alone.

As we cruised along, Johnny shifted a few times in his seat, as though uncomfortable. A few times he seemed to start to say something, or at least thought about it, but then caught himself. After a while, he seemed to notice me watching him, and, with an ease which didn’t add up with those false starts, finally spoke.

‘How are you doing, dad?’ he finally asked, turning and looking at me with concern. ‘I’ve been worried about you, phoning you all the time but you never seem to pick up.’

‘Oh. I must have missed you. Sorry.’ I said. ‘I’m alright, I suppose. As good as can be. It’s quiet in the flat but I guess I’ll have to get used to that.’

‘Well I’m glad you’re keeping it together alright.’

I didn’t say anything to that, and we sat in silence for a few moments before Johnny spoke again.

‘Have you thought anymore about what I said the other day?’ he asked me gently as we drove into the blinding bright winter sun.

He was talking about the money. He’d mentioned it a lot recently. He was worried about me keeping track of it myself. There was a few quid about from when Joy and I sold our house and downsized into the flat, plus two pensions and two lifetime’s worth of savings, and Johnny wanted to look after it. He said I was too vulnerable in the flat on my own, said anybody could break in at any time or steal my cards and chequebook. He kept saying I wasn’t all there, and that I needed him to make sure I didn’t give it all away to someone with a sob story. He’d been saying it for a while now, since before Joy even got sick. He told her I was losing the plot and that he should keep hold of the money. Then when she was on her deathbed he really started pushing it, telling me I couldn’t cope on my own and that I had to give it up before it got taken from me.

‘Well?’ he asked, a little sharply. I’d been staring into the setting sun for a little while.

‘I don’t know, Johnny’ I said softly. ‘I think I’m okay for now. I reckon I’m alright up here.’ I tapped my head and laughed a little.

Another big modern car pulled out into the road ahead of us and Johnny swore quietly with frustration as he changed lanes.

‘Dad,’ he said, softening his voice, ‘I know you think you’re fine, but you have to see that I’m trying to help you. You’re not well, and you’re getting worse, and if you’re not careful you’ll wind up wasting all your money away on some scam. All that you’ve worked for all your life. Do you want that?’ He was staring straight ahead into the road and I couldn’t make out his expression. He seemed tense, all hunched up around the steering wheel, and the softness of his voice seemed to have some little edge to it, as though it wasn’t quite genuine.

‘Johnny…’ I began, ‘I don’t… I just… Please, can we not talk about this right now? Your mother’s just…’

‘Well when are we meant to talk about it?’ Suddenly he was frustrated, almost angry. ‘You’ve been saying this forever. ‘’Don’t talk about it, you’ll worry your mum,’’ ‘’don’t talk about it when your mum’s so sick,’’ ‘’don’t talk about it ever!’’ If you keep putting it off you’ll lose your money to some Nigerian prince before we ever talk about it!’

I grasped the handle and my seat to steady myself. I didn’t know what was happening. I was shocked by his sudden intensity, taken aback and confused. I didn’t know what he was talking about. What prince?

‘Johnny…’ I started, then stopped. My head was all muddled. I couldn’t remember where we were. What we were talking about. Where had we come from? Where was Joy?

‘I don’t… I don’t… what’s happening? What are we talking about?’ I asked in desperation.

Johnny started to speak and then stopped, checking and calming himself.

‘See?’ he asked. ‘This is exactly what I’m talking about. You’re forgetful. You’re easily confused. You’d be easily taken advantage of, too. Anybody could ask you for anything and you’d give it to them. It’s for the best, Dad. You need me to look after it for you.’

He pulled up outside the flat. I’d come to myself again and I could see that my son, my Johnny, was angry. He was trying to hide it in his voice, but his face was red and bloated, his breathing short and sharp, and he wouldn’t look at me. He stared straight out through the windscreen.

‘Johnny,’ I said and put my hand on his shoulder, but after a moment he shrugged it off. I pulled it back. ‘I’m sorry, Johnny. Why don’t we talk about this another time? Why don’t you come ‘round for tea on Sunday and we can talk about it then?’

‘I’m busy, Dad’ he said shortly, then added ‘I’m working a lot at the moment, and on most weekends.’

‘Oh, well… Then maybe another time, maybe the weekend after?’

‘I’ll have to see,’ he said.

‘Ok, well let me know,’ I said, ‘and we can figure something out. It would be nice to see more of you.’

He was quiet for a moment, and then he relaxed his face and turned to me with a half-smile.

‘Yeah, sure,’ he said, ‘we’ll sort something out.’

I clambered heavily out the car. As I said farewell and closed the door he was off before my fingers had left the handle.

Over the months that followed I saw him less and less. For a while after the funeral he came around regularly, like he was doing his duty, but his visits were short. He kept asking about the money as well, and I kept refusing. Then his visits got less and less frequent, until he barely seemed to come over at all and just phoned instead. Then the phone calls started to get further apart, once a week instead of twice, then once a fortnight until eventually he just stopped. I tried to phone him regularly, but the dial tone just buzzed on and on and he never picked up.

As Johnny went speeding out of sight I drifted across the years and miles and came to myself in the graveyard. It was completely dark, and I was lying face down in the damp mud. As I raised my head Joy’s grave towered above me, blending into the slate-black eternity of the sky. I had no idea where I was. It was only the piercing pain in my skull which brought me back to myself.

As one wave of pain passed I tried to climb to my feet, but my left arm and leg were both still completely numb and as soon as I put weight on them I collapsed back to the ground, letting out a loud groan on my way. I lay again in the dark for a long time, drifting in and out of the pain and the cold, until I pulled myself together and clambered up using Joy’s grave as a crutch. I was completely disorientated, with no idea whatsoever about how to get home so I set off in the direction I was facing, my leg and arm completely useless. My arm swung limp from my side while my leg dragged heavily behind me, and with every step I let out a guttural, strained moan.

The hostile grey stone of the path seemed to go on forever in the black of the graveyard, but as I slowly made my way along I heard voices nearby. I stopped and looked up, and over on the walls of one of the tombs sat a group of young girls, teenagers, drinking cans of cider and laughing with each other. I would normally have stayed well clear of a group of teenagers in the dark, but I was desperate in my state so I started limping towards them as fast as I could, groaning again with every step. As I got closer, my eyes fixed right on them, one looked over towards me suddenly. She stopped laughing and chatting and sat silent, staring.

‘What’s that noise?’ she asked.

‘What noise?’ said another.

‘That groaning sound. Something’s groaning.’

‘Oh, shut up, you’ll have to try harder than that.’

‘I’m serious’ said the first one again, looking around her.

‘Come off it, it’s not that easy, even in a graveyard…’

‘There’s something groaning!’ the first one half-shouted. ‘Over there.’ She was staring directly at me, across the tops of the graves, but she didn’t seem to see me.

‘There is not.’ The second said as she stood up and looked over. ‘You’re making it up. There’s nothing there.’

They were all quiet now. The second one was acting brave, but as she scanned the gravestones she was tense as a prey animal on alert. I needed help but I couldn’t make it over there, and they were looking straight at me without seeing me. I hobbled forward a few paces and tried to shout over to them, but my face was as stiff as rock and when I tried to call out for help all that came out was a terrible groan.

‘Hurgghhh’ I shouted, before stumbling forward slightly and trying to move towards them. With the girls quiet my voice carried easily over to them. They all froze.

‘What the fuck is that then?’ the first one demanded of her friend.


I tried again, desperate for help but all that came out was the same sound, pained and longer this time.


‘Are you saying you can’t hear that?’

‘It’ll be nothing, a fox or something’ the second girl replied, but her voice cracked with clear terror.

I tried one more time, shouting as loud and long as I could before I collapsed forward, tipping over a metal flowerpot in front of a grave and sending it crashing and banging onto the path.

The girls stood in shock for a moment, before all in unison they let out a deafening, piercing scream, dropped their cans and sprinted off into the darkness.

‘Hurrgghhh’ I called after them from the ground before blacking out again.

I don’t know how I got home. I don’t remember getting up off the ground, I just remember passing out and then, however later it was, coming through the door of the flat. I was more disorientated than ever. My mind was going haywire, ten thoughts flying through my head one moment and then cloudy absence the next. I shrugged off my coat in the hallway and let it fall to the floor, then as I was staggering through into the living room I passed the mirror in the hallway and caught sight of myself.

It was then that I realised.

Looking at my face in the mirror, I’d never seen anything like it. I didn’t look human. I didn’t feel human. My eyes had lost all colour and shine and were as dull and grey as the face they had sunken into. My skin was paper thin and stretched taught over my skull, as though it had been shrink-wrapped onto the bone and may split open at any moment. My jaw hung slack and dumb, my mouth unbalanced and drool dribbling down onto my chest. I looked a thousand years old. Even when Joy was a day from death, incoherent and uncontactable, she had never looked anywhere near as bad as this. I looked entirely inhuman, as though life had abandoned me altogether.

That’s when I understood. Life had abandoned me. I looked like the dead because I was.

I was dead.

Then so much made sense. Why those girls had run screaming in fear. The way people looked through me on the streets. How I flew through decades in moments, and how the world changed so quickly and dramatically around me.

Since I last spoke to the nurse, in the time that I’d been alone in the flat without seeing anyone, however long it was, I had died. I’d been a ghost ever since, completely unaware, floating around my flat as a spirit. Where my body was, I do not know.

I hadn’t even noticed. The warmth of life had, it seemed, just seeped slowly away, fading into the cold eternity of death.

Since I realised, my mind has unravelled across space and time. All is now blurred. Reality and dreams and past and present and myself and the world. Life and death. One moment I find myself in the present, in my flat with the TV blaring and the phone ringing and bright sunscreen streaming through the blinds; the next I’m playing in the streets in some distant and ancient part of my life; then I’m off in some strange, unknowable place outside of it all. I come back to the now and I’m on those old streets again wandering past the living without them so much as glancing at me. Then it’s night and it’s quiet and I’m looking for something, but I’m never able to find it; never able, even, to recall what it is. And I’m afraid. Afraid of the long dark existence stretching out ahead of me.

If the stories are right then it must be something unfinished keeping me here. Some drama. And that could only be Johnny and me. That we haven’t spoken in so long, and that I passed on with us still not talking. I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel that there’s something unfinished between us, a wrong that needs righting, or something left unsaid. I love Johnny, and I want him to live a full and happy life.

But maybe something has decided that’s not enough; that Johnny and I aren’t quite finished yet, or that we need to speak again.

I wish it wasn’t so. I don’t want to see Johnny like this, in my new state. I can’t even look at myself. I certainly won’t haunt my only child, but I can’t face this horrific eternity either. So I’m hoping that I don’t have to haunt him; that I can somehow tell him I love him, make myself heard across the divide, and that will be enough.

Johnny’s house is a long way away. Even now, when I should weigh nothing, my arm and leg drag heavily and painfully along behind me. I’m cold too, which hardly seems fair. I shouldn’t feel the cold now. But I slowly and steadily move across town, up and down hills, along the old roads, past the terraces and the factories and the old schoolhouses and hospitals. No one looks at me. I’m invisible now.

Eventually I find myself outside Johnny’s tall and handsome townhouse. A long flight of stone steps run up from the pavement to a huge sky-blue door with shining brass handle and knocker. I’m tired, but I keep going. My leg is useless, but with huge struggle I climb step by step up towards the door. I’m practically crawling, dragging the broken side of my body up with me, but eventually I get there. I’m at the top, and I reach up to the knocker, hoping my hand can move it.

Then suddenly, just as I lift the knocker, the quiet leafy street is overtaken by a terrible jarring noise which rattles through everything, up from the pavement to the stairs and right into my soul. There’s more pain, huge pain, but of a different kind, not dull throbs but searing light and noise which burns into me. My body rattles violently, and I slip backwards and feel myself crashing down the steps, smashing into the blunt edges.

My mind is falling too, falling and fading into blankness.

Then for a moment I’m back in my body, staring up past the house into the soft grey sky.

As I feel myself dissolving, out of the corner of my eye I see movement above me. And noise. A door slams open. Someone draws breath quickly. I hear a voice.