Yes! Oh, I’m so happy! It’s not often that you get to die with a notebook and pencil in your hands. I’ll make notes but I’m a bit euphoric, so watch out if you’re wild enough to read them.
What a relief! How long is it since I was a ghost? I love these times; everything is weird – and a bit spooky.
I quite like the way I’m absolutely still but the world is moving. I call it drifting and it can lead to problems. I’m standing slightly below the surface of the ground, a bit like having water lapping round my ankles. I scan around – no other ghosts present. This comes as no surprise; it’s rare to see another. What’s most surprising is that this is usually the case. There are Godzillions of ghosts to every single living person. If you think that is impossible – for instance by quoting the figures that there are more humans existing now than have ever been alive – you will struggle to become a ghost at all. The universe is all a bit more complicated than that … universes … see? Dying won’t help you, except for those lucky few who manage to achieve the transition to ghost without having to work out how to do it for themselves. I’m not lucky like that. I have to use my head every time.
I step up and try to see if I can stand on the ground and not drift. Success. This is good because ahead there is a mountain and I don’t want to end up under it. It is also bad because reality, if that’s what you want to call life, has a habit of pulling you back in and I’ve had quite enough of being alive for the moment.
I can just feel the ground under my bare feet.
Let’s take stock. Me: I’m dressed in microfibre trousers (rolled up above the ankles), T-shirt and polycotton pants. That’s it. Oh, I have a bit of kitchen roll in my pocket. Uh, and some keys. Is that what modern ghosts do? Rattle car keys?
The world: A pleasant surprise. I have no idea where I am but it’s sunny, really sunny. I’m standing on a rutted earth road. It looks like it was mud churned by cart wheels but has dried hard. It’s a light sandy colour. To my right is a river partially obscured by tall reeds. The river is barely flowing. No ripples, no wind.
Judging by shadows, the sun is high and behind me so I’m looking roughly north by east. To my left a line of houses follow the road which in turn follows the river.
The houses are made of rough-hewn planks and bamboo. Thatch, in deep eaves, throws dark shadows on balconies. All the houses are built on wooden piles or rocks. Maybe this place floods from time to time. There are raised walkways and even rope bridges between buildings.
There’s plenty of movement and noise, mainly from children playing and dogs barking.
Colour: The river is muddy brown, the road I have noted already, the houses are about the same as the road. Deep greens and emeralds come from the dense forest behind the houses; a forest that rises into the haze and distance. Other than that, the colours come from clothes. A blur of a red untucked shirt as a man in shorts bends over a net in a long thin boat. Yellow shirts, two children running on a balcony and across a rope bridge. They are so familiar with it they hardly use their hands to touch the rails. Orange and red clothes on two women passing a hat between them.
A dog rolls, scratching its back in the shade beneath a house; another lazes under the trestles of a half-built boat. Two small hairy pigs race to investigate something a bird is tearing at on the ground. The bird, huge and black, flaps away, its wings pumping up bursts of whirling twigs and dust.
More children – one with a limp and wasted leg being helped to walk by the younger child. Spooky – this is the problem. Sometimes you see people suffering and want to help and think you can. You get sucked in to a life. You appear – wanting to help – but the universe, in order to explain your appearance, gives you a past and you find that you’ve always been a git and the person you want to help utterly detests you and tries to hit you with a stick. Tragically, by then it’s too late to escape because you’ve forgotten you’re a ghost and the whole stupid living thing starts all over again. You’re trapped. It’s exactly like waking up and remembering where you are; one can be mistaken for the other. It pisses me off no end.
I stand for ages, ignoring the scary humans and watching the heat-haze shimmering everything.
So: I can see and hear and feel. Yes, it’s hot here but I could stand in a fire and feel the heat but no pain. I can look at food and appreciate it but never feel hungry. I could walk for years and never tire. This is as close as I want to connect with this reality. Sometimes you do connect more, in odd ways too.
I knew one idiot who went back to the house she’d died in years before. The occupants woke up to the sound of ghostly sneezing, and a spectral voice saying, “Get rid of these sodding chrysanthemums.”
Actually, I made that up but you can be pretty certain it’s happened somewhere.
I walk, for no reason other than I don’t have to. The pigs have decided the bird has left nothing for them. One flomps to the ground like a disappointed pig. The other seems to be thinking about following suit but can’t make up its mind if the whole flomping thing is just too much effort. It’s that sort of day. There’s a muted rhythmical thumping coming from somewhere, maybe someone pounding grain or beating their spouse to death in a leisurely way.
Between two houses is a broad path leading up through the forest. I take that. Anything to be away from humans. I didn’t like them much even when I was alive.
It’s dark but even hotter here; the trees are some sort of arboreal duvet with a mosquito obsession. I wonder if insects can see me? Some people and cats are supposed to see ghosts but any cat in here would end up a shrivelled bloodless bag before it could say, “
The forest path goes uphill for ages. There’s light ahead which is good. I’ve seen more than enough trees for one day. Nobody needs this many trees.
Shit! I’ve just been bitten. Sodding mosquitoes. No way! I decide to walk one metre above the ground. Realities can also try to suck you in, in nasty subtle ways like that. I need this one to understand I want very little to do with it. Actually, let’s try twenty metres up. If I do get drawn into life it will be bearably temporary. All the locals will notice is someone high up shouting, “Oh bollocks,” and ending in a messy little splat on the ground.
Fields, small and scraggy with laid hedges between. To the north is a composite building, also made of bamboo and rough planks. It sprawls, little shacks tacked onto each other. Walkways and bridges abound. It’s so beautiful and probably houses a couple of hundred families. Washing flaps on lines (there is a breeze here). What’s strange is that this whole maze-like construction is also built on piles of rock. It’s on top of a hill – no chance of flooding. Maybe this is all about ants or rats … or very low flying aircraft.
Sorry about that. At some point the euphoria will turn to me being sensible and the only cure for that is a drink … and the only way I can get that is…
Amidst all the usual emotions people radiate there is a pinpoint of fear down there among those buildings somewhere. It’s quite nasty and not like I’ve ever come across before. Damn. I’ve only been dead for a couple of hours. What sort of a life is that? Alright … I’ll take a look. Why do I always fall for the same merciless trick? Somewhere, in some universe, is a Pavlov’s dog (deaf), watching me and pissing itself with laughter.
Wait… The focus of pain and fear is moving without reacting to anything it passes through. That can only mean one thing: drifting. A ghost that’s scared? That beggar’s belief. Ghosts should know better. It’s understandable for them to harbour a healthy distrust or dislike of the living. With practice you can develop it into full-blown contempt, indeed some people achieve such heady levels of enlightenment while still alive.
But really … what is there to be scared of?
This is weird and not fair and I’m a little fish on a proverbial big hook, in a net, in a shrinking fish tank somewhere near the great dinner plate of life.
Or maybe not … it is a ghost. Only a ghost. There’s nothing to be scared of…
I drift through a thatched roof and say Hi to the insects living their scurrying lives there. None of them bite me.
The ghost is a girl. Now it gets serious. She’s being buffeted as if by a strong wind, gusts battering her in all directions. She’s trying to fight against them. She’s focused on a person or object, investing emotions or needs in it. That’s always a terrible mistake and can cause extreme problems not only for the ghost but all sorts of poltergeist activity which terrifies the living.
Quite apart from her flying around screeching, a few metres away one moment, hundreds the next, I’m in a small room. A peaceful and tranquil room, totally undisturbed by the maelstrom of duelling hurricanes affecting the poor dead girl … or woman. If only she would keep still for a moment, I’d be able to give you a more accurate description. OK, sort of flat face, wild black hair that’s acting like an electrocuted octopus … legs and arms more or less following suit.
Given that she’s a ghost and therefore indestructible all this mayhem is quite entertaining. But she’s not happy and I’m as soft as a really insubstantial thing. Alright, I’ll see what I can do for her.
Right, there is something in the room that is moving, if only a little, in tune with what seems to be happening to her. It’s a poster tacked to a wall. Not sure what all the fuss is about. It’s not a poster to get upset over, just a load of empty circles joined with lines … and … totally weird.
I sit (sort of) on a pile of straw and study it.
I can’t find an edge unless I blink and look away. If I try to follow the lines to the sides … I only see more lines going on for ever.
The girl gets close for a moment and shouts something. I wish she’d shut up. It’s bad enough trying to concentrate on this bizarre poster without her – and without this small child who’s walked into the room and curled up on the straw and through my body. Sweet dreams, little one. I hope for your sake I’m not in them. The child, chubby cheeks and a long ponytail, closes tired eyes and is instantly asleep.
The paper flutters and I go to steady it. Despite what’s happening to howling tornado-woman here, there’s not a breath of wind in this room. This inexplicably rustling poster could cause the child to have nightmares and then there’d be even more screaming that I can do without.
As I hold it the paper stops fluttering, the spectral wind dies faster than a super-power battery you bought the day before a child’s birthday, and the woman even shuts up. At least I’ve improved my own circumstances.
The woman appears behind my shoulder. “You imbecile! Where the hell have you been?” She slaps the side of my face.
Things are going downhill again. “Stop hitting me. Who are you? What’s going on? Stop hitting me! And … well … that will do for the moment. Please attend to these matters forthwith.”
She tucks hair behind an ear. “Thank you.”
“I’m so glad you’ve answered all my questions. Could you try again and be a little more rigorous in your approach this time?”
She nods at the poster and asks me, “What is that?” She has a definite East Asian accent which fits with her appearance.
Keeping a gentle hold on a corner of the paper, I answer, “All I can see are circles and lines. What do you think it is?”
“No. You tell me what you think it is!” She’s very bossy.
“OK, I’ll think for a bit while you tell me what this is all about.”
“It’s about not having to be alive again.” Her chin rests on my shoulder for a moment. She moves her head until her mouth is against my T-shirt. Inexplicably she blows through it, warming the back of my shoulder. I’d like to pause reality here for a while. I need to think all this through. Since when do ghosts choose to breathe? and why is her breath hot? and why do I quite like her totally rewriting my whole concept of being dead? The bit I like most is the not having to be alive again. I could hug her just for the suggestion that such a thing is possible. I won’t hug her because I’m scared of letting the paper go and all that wind starting up again – and because she can slap harder than a cricket bat.
“Go on…” I prompt.
“You’re an experiment. I’m working on the future.”
“I’m an experiment? Oh good. Would you like me to grow white fur and whiskers … and a cute wiggly pink nose?” I duck. “Shit. Don’t slap me!”
“What are you talking about?”
“My future … I think. I’ll get back to you when more data is available for analysis.”
She leans her chin on me again. There’s a sisterly feel about it. I hate sisters; they are always too grown up, supercilious and bossy. They can always out-think me too. I admit that it doesn’t take a lot to out-think me but they don’t have to make such an issue of it.
She murmurs, “I couldn’t work out how to move on from this plane of existence. I thought I needed help, so I needed someone else.” She nods at the poster. “I drew that.”
“Well done. It answers every known question about everything… No hitting!”
She pats me instead. “I wasn’t clever enough to know what to do next.”
So … not like a sister at all. “As I understand things thus far: in some clever way you chose me from all possible people in the universe…”
“I couldn’t choose. I have to make do with whatever comes along.” She’s clutching my arm in a friendly way. Even the way the nails dig in is sort of not, quite yet, agonising.
“So all I have to do is unravel the secret of these utterly meaningless circles and lines…”
“You need to write things in the circles, I think.” She points with a long nail.
“I could have told you that … eventually.”
“Why did I get an idiot?”
“You get what you deserve in this death. Alright. I really will think.” And, to my surprise, astonishment, I do. Not that it helps – that is less of a shock. “Hey … wait…”
She closes her eyes and pretends to snore. Despite myself, I’m beginning to form a healthy respect for her assessment of me. The sleeping child turns over, briefly opens her eyes, makes eye-contact with me and falls asleep again.
“Got it!” I say to the woman, “OK, whatever your name is…”
“I want a new name. I want to be called Ayesha. I’ll call you Bibi.”
“What? That’s a girl’s name!”
“It suits you.”
“Congratulations. You just halved the time it usually takes me to loathe someone.”
She presses the side of her face against mine. “Bibi … cute.”
“Fine then. It’s a child. This child. Any child. A person. You write their name in a circle and … the names of everyone they know in the others. Oh gods… Do you know what you’ve just done?”
“Drawn circles. I like circles.”
“Everyone knows other people until, by putting one name in, you’ve just got the entire human race from now right back into the past.”
She points again. “And the future.”
“Let me sort this out… It looks like a person is themselves and a bit of everyone else too. And, yes, it’s a map of time! Including, as you so rightly say, the future … which … what?” I gasp. I don’t have to but it’s good for expression. “Look, everything affects everything else. The future affects the present as much as the past… This isn’t just time and people … it’s a map of everything. Gods, Ayesha, you’re playing with fire here! Have you been talking to Prometheus or something?”
“Who’s … Pr… that?”
“Is that a thing that lives under the sea?”
“A man … a god.”
“Is he nicer than you?” She tenses, fingernails at almost unbearable. “Write our names in a circle. With your pencil.”
“Oh yes, pencil! Writing with a pencil! What a clever idea. Why did no one ever think of that before? I was going to, idiot.”
“Look at the picture!”
The poster has become an infinite swirling mass. “No. I feel sick. Pictures aren’t allowed to move like that.”
“Something’s… You found the key! It’s a cave…”
“I claim total irresponsibility. At the very least it was a team effort. I’d hate to take all the blame,” I say this while trying to keep my cool. We’re not so much sucked into the picture, more that it swallows us. The circles and lines proliferate and a new reality forms like a surface of webs slowly turning into – yes, a cave.
This is weird. Everything: this whole reality – it feels different. It’s all new. Ayesha very cleverly worked out a way of avoiding the endless cycle of trying not to be alive – and falling as we all do into a repetitive nightmare of amnesia and rebirth. I’m full of admiration. Escape, as she discovered, is through cooperation, or as she put it: our two heads are equal to one and a half.
I hate her.
However, she has managed the impossible – to start a new life without forgetting everything you’ve ever been. I think this is a big step forward but I’m not hoping for too much.
We both have breathe now. We’re alive. I have a new body. It’s just like my old one but, as I said, I wasn’t hoping for too much. So what has changed? Me for a start. Hmm… I get the feeling there are fewer rules here – as if I’ve been given more power over myself and surroundings. That’s a bit scary. I may have no one else to blame things on.
Ayesha’s left me a single sheet to write on while she reads my notes. But there’s not much to write about this place except that we’re in a very small, damp, gloomy cave, lit by sunlight coming through the slanted crack that is the entrance. It’s also smelly here. I assume the smell comes from something in the cave and not her … or worse … me.
She’s dark skinned, with a big smile and seriously white teeth. The sort of teeth you’d only expect to see in a full moon. She’s full of life, wit, and shaped a bit like a peach. Short arms and legs, tiny hands and feet. She’s bossy, sarcastic and a bully. This is the comrade fate has thrown me to enter the new world with.
She hurls my notes at me. “What do you mean ‘sort of flat face’!”
“Have you seen your face? And that nose; they stick out like a … a … those things they make in Russia.”
“No … big things … ice-breakers!”
“I like my nose.”
“Really? The only thing it’s good for is if the ice-breaking ship loses its rudder.”
“At least I’m prepared.” I stand up. “Are you ready to face this new world? because…”
She stands, still glaring at me. “Because?” She flicks her jet black hair over a shoulder.
“I’m scared shitless.”
“Ah… You want me to hold your hand?”
“Promise to be gentle.” I take her hand.
“And we stay friends?”
I turn to the light coming in vivid bars through the cave entrance. “Yes.”
She jerks my arm. “Why won’t you look at me when you say that?”
“Because … because it starts with hand-holding then a little bit of eye-contact and it all escalates – the next minute there are babies everywhere.”
“You can’t be scared of babies!”
“With every baby comes a whole bunch of new universes. It, whatever it is, could get cluttered with them. We need to practise responsible eye-contact.”
“Ah … poor little Bibi. Scared of a few little infinities? I’ll protect you.”
“Will you shut up? Right, take a deep breath…” I take a pace towards the entrance. “Here we go.”
©Gary Bonn, 2017