[dropcap]D[/dropcap]ad? Do you believe in ghosts?”I was taken aback, for I was not usually confronted by my thirteen year old daughter, Gemma, with a question on metaphysics. Usually the conversation around the breakfast table was conducted in words of one syllable. Responses of ‘no thanks’ or ‘two please’ for example, to counter the interruptions when reading Teen Magazine, or in my case The Times.“Mmm,” I uttered, stuck for an answer.
“Is that a yes, or no?” Gemma asked.
“Well; I must confess, I’ve never actually seen one. Why do you ask?”
Gemma spooned more sugar on to her bowl of cornflakes, scooped up a mouthful, and mumbled, “Oh, I just wondered, that’s all.”
I methodically folded the newspaper and placed it down on the table-cloth. Planning to give her my fullest attention, the disruptive cries of Daniel, her younger brother, could be heard from the landing, informing the whole neighborhood that he was having difficulty locating his football socks.
“Wondered what? I asked, over the commotion.
“Do you believe in ghosts? Just answer the question, dad. Yes, or no?”
Slowly I lifted the coffee cup to my lips. As I sipped I contemplated a reply. “Ah; no,” I finally answered.
“Oh, that’s alright then,” she concluded, in a tone that indicated the matter was now closed, just as the grandfather clock in the hall chimed the half-hour.
That was the signal to abandon the table, no matter how far the feeding had progressed, grab coat and satchel, and start the mad rush to the corner of the street to await the school bus.
“Daniel, are you coming?” Gemma screeched, like an old washer-woman. “If you don’t hurry up, I’ll go without you.”
A herd of elephant descended the stairs, three steps at a time. Breathless, Daniel appeared in the doorway, stuffing games’ kit into duffel bag. “We’ve got soccer practice after school, dad .Remember not to pick me up until five. OK?”
“Sure,” I replied smiling, scenting his breath for the tell-tale smell of toothpaste. None detected, I was about to return him to the bathroom when his sister called once more, this time from halfway down the garden path.
“The bus is coming!”
Daniel crashed past, high-jacking the remaining slice of toast on the way, and raced after his sister.
“Ha, ha; fooled ya.” She laughed, as she dodged the ill-timed swing of her brother’s duffel-bag.
I went to the back door. “Gemma,” I called.
“Yes, dad,” she said sheepishly, fully expecting to be told off for her little prank.
“Why did you ask about ghosts? You’ve not been watching one of those late-night films on television, or a horror video round at Sasha’s, have you?”
“No dad; of course not. You know I’m not allowed.” She grinned. “It’s just that I thought I…”
“You’re being silly,” volunteered Daniel. “There’s no such thing, is there dad?”
“How would you know? You’re only eight. “Eight year olds don’t know nothing.”
“Anything,” I corrected her. “Eight year olds don’t know anything.”
“That’s what I said. Come on Danny, or we really will be late. Can we have chicken for tea dad? Please dad? Please?”
“OK,” I agreed, “but where did you… Where do you think you saw this ghost, Gemma?”
“I didn’t see it dad. I heard it; at the top of the house.”
Before I could quiz her more fully, the school bus came along the road, tooting it’s horn. The two children darted along the back lane, and I was left alone.
Returning to the house, I sat at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper, sipping cold coffee. Too lazy to make another cup, I finally put the dirty dishes in the sink.
Then I realized… Something was different!
All the usual sounds of a house, ever present, normally recede into the background below one’s sense of awareness. Only when they change does one ever notice them. What was it?
The hall clock was no longer ticking. That familiar, steady, tick-tock, tick-tock, which announced the swing of the pendulum at it paced each second, was missing.
I looked at my watch; nearly ten minutes to nine. If I was not careful, I would be late myself.
I retrieved my jacket from the hall coat-stand, lifted the briefcase off the telephone table, and went to the front door. Pausing, I checked I had my keys and wallet. I placed my hand on the door latch…
Above my head, a long loud creak came through the floorboards.
“Dad; do you believe in ghosts?” my daughter’s words repeated in my head. “There’s no such thing,” Daniel’s voice echoed in reply.
Cr-ea-k. There it was again! I felt my heart pounding. I swallowed, forcing down the lump in my throat. Slowly I turned, put the briefcase back on to the table, and strained to hear the sound repeat.
Placing my hand on the banister, I lifted it off, aware that the palm was now covered in a cold, clammy sweat.
“Is anybody there?” I called, not seriously expecting a reply.
Up the first, then the second, then the third step; noiseless I ascended the stairs, pausing with each stride.
The landing was clear. The doors to the bathroom and Gemma’s room were open. I gingerly peered inside.
I pushed the door of the main bedroom. As it moved back, apprehensively I waited.
Opening Daniel’s door, I was met with a life-size poster of Johnny Depp, alias Edward Scissorhands, whose razor-sharp appendages were poised to snip any unsuspecting intruder. A perpetual mess littered the floor, a lifestyle my son had chosen to adopt ever since…
A dull thud resounded on the ceiling. The lampshade visibly swayed. That was definitely not a figment of my imagination. There was someone, or something, in the attic.
The house being old, suffered none of the inconveniences of trap-doors or loft-ladders. Instead, there was a final flight of stairs, deep and narrow, which led to the top. With reservation, I placed my foot on the lowest step, and started to climb.
Clud, clud, clud. My own footsteps were enough to scare me ridged. ‘Do ghosts get scared?’ I wondered. At the top of the stairs I found the door unlocked. It opened with a loud groaning sound, a credible start to any Edgar Alan Poe story. Holding my breath, I entered.
The room held no surprises. Trunks and boxes were silhouetted against the thin beam of light shining through the arrow-slit window. No footprints marked the dust-covered floor. No picture of an ageing man hung on the wall. There was nothing, except the accumulated wealth of sixteen years of continual occupation of the same house; only a year since…
From the entrance hall the sound of the grandfather clock reverberated as it chimed the hour.
Funny, I could have sworn it had stopped.
I found myself counting, ‘One, two.’
But there was another noise, a discord, blending in with each dong. ‘Three, four.’ I listened. ‘Five, six.’ The hairs on the back of my neck suddenly stood on end. It sounded like… ‘Seven, eight.’ Like the clop of shoe against wood. ‘Nine.’ And it was right at the top of stairs.
“Hello darling; have you missed me?” Warm lips pressed against mine, as a pair of familiar arms were thrown around my shoulders. I was enveloped in the scent of Chanel No. 5.
That afternoon, at five minutes to five, accelerating away from the traffic lights, I passed a row of shops on by left, then the public library on my right. Opposite were the high, black, spiked railings, which bounded the municipal cemetery and crematorium. I slowed as Daniel’s school came into view. He was waiting, standing at the entrance, still wearing his football kit, underneath a blazer pulled tightly across to keep out the wind. I looked in the rear-view mirror. No car was following. The way ahead was clear. Signalling, I swiftly executed a U-turn and stopped, opening the door to allow the boy in.
He pulled the door closed, and fastened his seat-belt. No mention of the school day, or his game’s practice. “Can we drop in on mum on the way home, dad? was his first question.
‘On a day like this,’ I thought, as the wind buffeted the car from side to side. “What’s brought this on?” I asked.
“OK,” I relented with a smile. “If that’s what you want? Where did you get the flowers.” I was referring to the bunch of daffodils he was clutching in his hand.
“Mr. Jennings, the school caretaker, gave them to me. They’re out of his garden. Got snapped off by the wind.”
I nodded. As we set off, Daniel sniffed the flowers, disappointed that they held so little scent.
When the library come into view, I slowed, signalling. I stopped and waited for the on-coming traffic to pass. The rapid tick-tock, tick-tock of the indicator impatiently paced our delay. When the road was clear I swung the car through the wrought-iron gates, pushed back against their brick pillars. The tyres crunched on the gravel drive.
Again the short hairs of may neck bristled. I imagined the warmth of her breath on my ear; heard the unspoken words in my head. “Hello darling; how I’ve missed you.” Once more, I was enveloped in the scent of Chanel No. 5.