Amelia Vincent Drinkwater, named for a dead uncle, dead now herself, sat high in the crook of a eucalypt’s mighty branches and watched them bury her body. The wind blew hard and cold, with a little rain in it. When she wanted, she’d learned, she could let it pass right through her. She’d also learned to turn herself just so and thus the wind had carried her high into the tree, and from there she looked down at her daughter. At her daughter and her husband and their two daughters as they buried her beneath the foreign gums of a foreign country.
Of course she did not feel the cold and she only knew the wind blustered for the way it had carried her so swiftly up, and for the way it tore at her daughter’s and her husband’s and granddaughters’ coats. And the minister’s. Yet it all felt very sad and grey and dismal and Amelia felt that it was not right, for this had not been her nature.
Amelia, sitting high in the crook of a tree, was in fact in very many simultaneously contradictory states of mind. There was at the surface a whirl of a kind of childish glee that she was getting to watch her own funeral, compounded with a genuine joy at the way she had, kite-like, lifted off with the wind and felt that childhood dream of flying, at last real. Then there was guilt; she had seen their tears. And, again, fermenting at the base, indignant frustration that she could let the wind carry her apparently wherever she desired, yet was unable to reassure those she had so loved and lived with these past three years. Because she was mute. The world, it seemed, ignored her. (Except of course for cats. They reared suddenly and spat at nothing whenever she was near. Rats also noticed and she wondered if this was another kindred tie that those eternal enemies had. Some birds as well, like owls, and that crow flapping maliciously nearby, afraid to come back near its nest. Amelia moved for she had never meant anyone or anything any harm. She drifted down towards the little knot of people she loved but could not talk to.)
Reassure them, how? That she was still here, that she still loved them, that she could hear their every word. This was her greatest anguish. That the conscious world, the world she still wanted to talk with, to laugh with, to tease, simply no longer recognised her. ‘seventy-two years young,’ the minister was saying. She could not argue with him, yet she was actually seventy-one.
She had tried so hard to make the little bell above the door ring when Madison had cried when she’d held a freshly picked little posy of violets (her Nana’s favourite flowers). How Amelia had exerted herself, passing her hand through and across the little clapper, wishing it solid (her hand), and squeezing her eyes shut and holding her breath, (what breath?), and then blowing, (with what breath?) exactly like some little girl who wished she could fly or marry a Prince. Exactly like Madison. And not a sound did that bell make, not a tinkle.
She had swum, just that morning, before a mirror that showed only Joanna’s little room. Joanna had said ‘I wish Nana was here’, and though phantom tears had rolled down Amelia’s cheeks nothing of this was communicated to anyone.
Even at that moment when she knew she was dead no one paid her any mind. Yes she knew the very minute, second that she had died. There she was, suddenly outside herself and looking down, a little curious and puzzled, at Mark. He was thumping her chest. She remembered he had just done a first aid course. ‘Rather pointless,’ she had told him, expecting him to chuckle (which was what had attracted Millicent to him, Millie had said) and call her an old cynic. Which of course she wasn’t. And yes, she could now confess, she’d been a little flustered at the way he was thumping her about her chest in that forward way and just ignoring her. She imagined she was blushing – this old thin ghost looking down at her body and her daughter’s husband trying to beat her heart into submissive life. Then she wondered if ghosts blushed. Then she suddenly felt Madison crying, sobbing, and she remembered it had been Madison who had been there when that gigantic hand had taken her up and just squeeze-squeeze-squeezed her heart until it burst. ‘Good girl, darling,’ she soothed,’ how clever. You ran and got Dad.’ And still Madison wept on, oblivious.
That had been the moment, thought Amelia, now alone in her tree in a deserted churchyard, when it suddenly crashed in on her. She knew she was utterly and irretrievably beyond anyone’s company. For God knew how long. What have I done so sinful, she had cried. And no one saw or heard her, not even the little girl standing in a worn smooth old dress that was two years out of date. Poor Madison.
She’d been dead 84 hours. She wondered was this what all ghosts did, simply hung about, wondering what to do. She sat and analysed herself (after all, she didn’t need sleep and what else did one do). She could see herself in mirrors, even if no one else could (except that dratted neighbour’s cat, hissingly and spittingly drawn to her so that it could hiss and spit) and thus it was, on the night of her funeral, by moonlight in Millicent’s room, she catalogued her character. Watched her daughter and husband in ragged sleep, and sighed.
‘Seventy-two years young.’ That was what the minister had said at the graveside.
And again at the eulogy. Oh yes, she’d attended the eulogy. Of course. How could she not, to hear all those wonderful lies. Georgina Ambles, her friend of sixty-seven years, English like she was (they’d travelled out on the ship together), had said lovely things. Loyal, funny, child like (never childish), with a sense of the devil and the heart of an angel (clichéd).
Amelia conjured up Georgina in her mind, and rehearsed the bits she’d best liked in that speech – that time they’d snowballed stuffy old Mr Crewe in the vestry (and been whipped soundly for it at home), the ‘home’ for old chickens they established when the Venables’ poultry concern went bust, running at 18 on a bet in her bikini through a blizzard to the town square a quarter of a mile away (no one out, thank the Lord), then drinking, shivering like a puppy, all of Mick Dale’s pint as a reward. Swimming under the water mill race on the Wye for a dare and nearly drownin’ as she always said because old Mick Callaghan had observed the rescue and furiously hacking girl and wryly commented; ‘That was nearly the drownin’ of ya’. She almost wished Georgina dead so she could talk to her right this instant. ‘Don’t mean anything by it Gig’,’ she whispered to an indifferent moon. ‘It’s just that the others round here are miserable.’
She’d met them. Mrs. Wilkins, dead seventeen years, and still trying to get her no-good son and that bitch of his wife out of her house, Peter (last name unknown), a drunkard who had broken his neck on the stairs at the back of the pub, and was apparently waiting for some other poor fool to do the same and thus claim his rest. So Peter told it, anyway. She’d asked him, is this the way it ends? Yes, he said, and no drinks to bear it with… But who can trust a drunk. Then there was mad Freddy, murdered by someone unknown two years back, and still trying to find out who. And Phyllida Dwyer, who Amelia had known – and not liked – in life. Decapitated in a car crash and now carrying her head around like some fashion accessory. They still weren’t speaking.
‘Grim company,’ Amelia said out loud to no one.
Days passed. Weeks. Life went on, sadness paling into a kind of consistent hum that never quite dies away but becomes almost familiar and comforting. The girls, who had truly loved her – mostly because she loved to play, much more than Mum or Dad – said, less frequently, I miss Nana. But they still gathered posies of violets, or other flowers when the violets went away too, and put them on her grave. Mark stopped playing sad riffs on his guitar. He went away on tour, a trip he’d almost cancelled. Millicent still cried for no apparent reason, but not so often.
She cried again when the insurance came. The life annuity. $27,003.18. Amelia watched and said, ‘Use it to buy the girls new dresses and to get Mark new drums and get that washing machine fixed, and why don’t you have a manicure and lash out on a new frock.’ She was looking fiercely into her daughter’s eyes and hoping this time they’d know her.
Millicent whispered to Mark in their bed, ‘I want to go to England and see all the places Mum used to talk about. Where she lived, the river and the churchyards with the snowbells and the daffodils in summer and the old cliffs. I feel like I should go, I need to go.’
Mark, despite Amelia sitting on his chest and reciting no, no, no in his ear, said yes. The word pushed right through Amelia’s insubstance.
She squeezed first among luggage in the baggage compartment of the plane. She’d always wondered at what it was like down there. When she found out she slid up through the wall and floor of the aircraft. Economy was bad, but not that bad.
She’d learned just recently to pass herself through solid objects. Not that there was any trick to it; it was a question of attitude. It took a lot of overcoming of ingrained habit to simply walk at and into something that would once have resisted you, painfully. But now she did, up and through that floor between people and their things, painlessly, and she found her family. Took a vacant seat across the aisle, next to a German returning home via London.
She was lulled into an almost unconscious state by the drone of jet engines and some silly film about time travel. I have enough trouble with the here and now, she thought. Her family had done their talking. Mark was writing music, Millicent reading a book and Madison and Joanna had found the games console on the back of the seat before them. Then the German startled her, passing a hand that reached for a beer through her. A rod of unexpected warmth.
She leapt, metaphorically, at the suddenness of insight this gave her and slid – without taking the time to think whether she should – into the nearest body, the German’s. Plenty of room, Amelia chuckled. And then she was astonished and almost fainted at her temerity. And the warmth, the suddenness of possibilities. She could look out his eyes, if she moved her head just a little forward.
Then the German moved suddenly again, this time to pass his beer bottle back to a passing stewardess. Amelia was ¾s in and ¼ out until he righted himself. She cursed him, this very courteous and winning with the stewardesses German, who was remarkably agile for his size, and she cursed herself as old and not-so-nimble… Amelia passed through him and tried to slide seamlessly into the stewardess a little down the aisle but coordinating her movements and the stewardesses, once she was in, was impossible. When the stewardess stopped and smiled and asked, it was fine. She was in, in that warm space of other peoples’ possibilities, but let the stewardess move an arm to take a glass, or turn to a question from another quarter, or reach up to pull a pillow from the overhead locker, and Amelia lost the plot, even if she had anticipated the move. She paused for thought and the stewardess passed on, leaving the incorporeal Amelia stranded, and bereft. She had thought she’d a real chance – somehow – of making contact with her family. She would have learned – somehow – to pass (through the eyes, the windows of the soul, perhaps) a message. Perhaps she might have taken over a muscle, whispered words to some stranger’s subconscious, and made contact. Somehow.
It was impossible.
They did London first and there was laughter back in Millie. Mark smiled when she posed with Billy Connolly at Tussaud’s, and he wanted his photo taken with the Beatles. The Children rode a big open bus in April sunshine, stared up at Westminster (quickly bored) then screamed real imagined fear on some ride at Thorpe Park.
At night they slept in a cheap hotel with rusty taps and a man with a drug habit two doors down. Amelia watched him tighten the strap round his arm and was ineffably sad. She drifted through walls and let the wind that blew off the Thames tumble her through half remembered streets. Other ghosts drifted by but she was too sad, too much herself, to listen to any who wailed out their stories. She found herself in Westminster Abbey. She had never been before. She stared; it was magnificent.
‘New, are we?’ A very droll voice, that belonged, so Amelia found, to a very old ghost.
‘Tourist,’ Amelia tittered. ‘Isn’t that an absurd description for a ghost.’
He was Robert de Newey; some minor aristocrat. He’d been hanged – unofficially – from the stonework outside, late one September night in 1814. ‘For dallying with a woman not my wife. By the angry husband and his three burly brothers, one of whom departed this life before me,’ Robert proudly boasted, tapping his sword’s scabbard. ‘And that’s a troubled spirit who is unwelcome in these parts.’
Robert shot a fierce look at the nave wall, as if expecting that burly brother’s reappearance at any moment.
‘What happened to your lover?’
‘Bess,’ Robert called and the woman appeared from out a stone crypt nearby, as if this was some rehearsed show. Perhaps it was, Amelia thought; they certainly have had time to prepare for it.
‘My husband came back and slit my throat,’ Bess whispered. ‘I remember shooting up through the roof and at the stars, screaming bloody murder. I howled at the moon and didn’t have no sense.’
‘What do you mean?’ Amelia asked.
‘To follow my husband and his murderous brothers and see what they done with my body.’
‘That’s the rub, isn’t it. Why she’s a ghost, I mean. Why she has no peace,’ Robert said. ‘She needs to know where her body lies and rest with it. That’s what she needs.’
‘What do you need?’ Amelia sensed a break through here.
De Newey smiled. ‘I need have not cursed God and black Pete with my dying breath. I need to atone.’
‘Oh,’ Amelia sympathised, but her heart had leapt at her own possibilities. She knew the question she needed to ask, and so, it seems, did de Newey.
‘What do you need?’ de Newey proffered.
‘You’re not the first to ask,’ he smiled. ‘It’s obvious, isn’t it. You need to find your purpose.’ De Newey answered. ‘You need to do something, complete something.’
‘Now that I don’t know; only you. That’s the rub.’
They drifted north in a hired car, Amelia sitting in the back between the girls. She did not mind the warm hands they passed through her as they exchanged books and Gameboys but she wished that Millicent would do something when they squabbled and pulled faces at her behind her back. Then she laughed at herself: you old fuddy duddy. Millie twittered on about this and that and said ‘Ooh, I see what Mum meant about how green it is…’, and ‘I don’t remember her telling us about all the red brick’ and ‘God, the litter’s bad…’
They pulled off the M1 somewhere north of Nottingham and even Amelia felt a little flutter of excitement at suddenly being nearly home, after all these years when she hadn’t seen it. Maybe, she suddenly thought, that’s it. That’s my purpose, to go home.
No, she thought, this is not my home. My home is riding in this car. This is my home, these people. I need to talk to them, to say goodbye. To say I’m all right. To tell the girls not to be sad. I had a good life. I just died too quick.
She knew it suddenly. Knew it in her bones, with absolute certainty. Her purpose. She had to get a message to them.
They drove into the Peak and now she remembered things. The purling river and the race of clouds across hills, sheep on hillside, little pubs with ivy growing on them. Slatey cliffs. They drove over a bridge and she looked down into the clear water and then across at the derelict water race, and remembered the too-hard-to-catch trout that you had to be rich to fish for, and her Dad working hard to die young in a saw milling accident and her Mum and she running away from the debts and the little cottage they could never own in Yorke Dale.
The car scaled a steep rise and they were there, at a little B and B they’d booked way off in Australia. People came out, introductions were made, bags and a sleeping child carried down to the cottage that was out the back, behind the main house. Food was cooked, wine drunk, TV watched, a children’s book read. Amelia looked at them all: doing all this, putting children to bed, saying quiet prayers, remembering Nana in heaven, hiccoughing with exhaustion. She smiled and sighed, with undying love. I will find a way, she thought. I will get a message to you.
The river curled and flowed through the tight valley. There was an old water mill, still and useless on a channel they no longer let water run through. The wood was suspect but no one had torn it down. ‘It’s a priceless English heirloom,’ the man in The Angler’s Rest joked to Mark and Millicent.
The girls liked to throw scraps of old bread to the trout in the river; they rose out of invisibility, pink mouths agape.
‘Did you see that big one,’ Mark cried.
‘There’s a beauty down here too,’ Millie said, when she came for a look. ‘I think it’s even bigger.’
It became a game to see if Joanna and Mark could lure up a bigger trout than Millie and Madison. Every morning they came down with two or three slices. They walked slowly. They stopped to look at the daffodils, and at the crocuses that were still out in shadier places. The fish were reassuringly there. They became friends.
In the evenings they walked down again, sometimes with bread for the trout, sometimes without. It was a very quiet place. Mark and Millie went in for a pint. The girls had juice and then came out again, on strict instructions. They climbed gentle trees and stayed away from the road, just in case. They dropped daffodil petals into the river, from behind the safety of a low stone wall. Mum had warned them of the current and the cold that would kill them. The petals raced away and the girls wondered where they were going.
Amelia watched them and wondered if she’d been wrong. Wounds were healing; the girls had no grave to put flowers upon. At night she’d watched Mark rest a hand upon her daughter’s breast and Millie turn to him with a smile. She’d fled the room in dismay.
Rain came and the river rose. A log, picked from high on a bank upstream, was driven against the boards that barred the water mill’s channel. The mill’s wheel did not turn though; it was rusted and earth-jammed still.
That morning they did not come down because of the rain.
In the evening they came. The trout rose out of dirtied water, and they only saw them as pink mouths that took the bread.
‘I wonder how they know it’s there,’ Mark wondered.
‘Shall we have our traditional pint?’ Millie asked. ‘Come in girls.’
When the girls came out they gathered cherry blossoms from the ground near the pub’s back wall. The man in the pub had told them they made wonderful water boats. They hadn’t been round this side before. Joanna noticed the race was open, water pouring through.
The girls ran down by the water, at the head, where it poured through the channel. One, two, three, four… One after the other the girls let the cherry blossom boats go. They raced madly up to the wheel. Some of them bobbed there for a little while, others pushed back mysteriously into a little cave that had been eroded from the channel’s bank, while still others danced and swirled in little currents, then, suddenly sodden and heavy, sank beneath the water.
‘Look,’ said Madison.
One or two of the cherry blossom boats had bobbed again to the surface, though now they rode with saturated dignity. The current still had them and they flowed along with it to where the water race picked up speed across a shallow gravel bed. The race was carrying them back to the main flow of the river. The girls watched the boats flow around the bend, out of sight. The raced up to the corner and saw one of them caught in an eddy before it rejoined the river.
‘I wonder if the trout try to eat them,’ Madison said.
‘Let’s do some more and see if they float through.’ Joanna always had the ideas. ‘There’s some flowers at the wheel. We don’t need to go back for cherry ones.’
A run of Wisteria fell over the wheel; someone had planted it long ago, and now it hung enticingly.
‘I’ll get them,’ Madison said. Joanna didn’t argue; it always worked this way, her ideas, Madison’s actions.
Madison took a few paces back, then ran and jumped the narrow channel. She tried a tentative step onto the unmoving wheel, slowly putting more and more weight onto the first board, until at least she was standing on it. She started to slowly climb. The best, the largest, blossoms hung right out from the apex of the wheel.
It was as she swung to get a particularly large cluster of blossoms that a board suddenly snapped.
Joanna screamed her name as Madison fell, hitting her head on the protruding wheel boss. And, as if a gigantic hand had her, Madison was quite simply pulled beneath the surface.
Joanna ran to the water and cried out her name. Something white and fleeting disappeared beneath the water and Joanna ran; ran as fast as she could, calling Dad Dad Dad…
That giant hand had hold of Madison. It held her, suddenly and blissfully conscious again, with no sense of death coming, against the bottom, pinned by current and old heritage wood.
Suddenly she was very cold, and very frightened. She knew not to scream, she kicked out and could not move. She tried to push up but something held her. And she was terribly terribly cold. Her mind was numb. She blacked out.
Amelia had seen it all. It was she whom Joanna had suddenly seen, white and fleeting. She passed through her granddaughter’s body, and unwittingly pulled her from her unconscious bliss, and then, magically, was able to take hold of her coat, She pushed, against an unyielding board; she did not know where her strength had suddenly come from. But she felt the wood, did not pass through it, was corporeal again. She knew deep in her heart that she had found her purpose.
And was useless. The wood would not bend, nor break. And something in the weight she held fast to with one hand told her that her granddaughter was dying. ‘Don’t die, not you, not yet,’ she prayed. Frantically she heaved and threw her weight (she had it again) against the board. Felt her sinews break. Then felt the board give and she was free. They were free. The current had them and took them up, towards the shallows.
Light came back into Madison’s eyes. She saw her grandmother, smiling at her.
Gran whispered, ‘Goodbye,’ then other hands took her and pulled her from the water.
Stephen Kimber writes freelance for an educational publisher and teaches Academic English to international students who are transitioning into Australian universities. He lives in Brisbane, Australia, where he has just returned from teaching overseas in the UK and Indonesia for seven years, with his wife and two daughters. He plays bass guitar and likes to read Ernest Hemingway and Louis de Bernières’ earlier work. He has a border collie named Roger who unfailingly catches objects thrown into the air and he wishes he too could unfailingly catch objects thrown at random into the air.
© 2010, Stephen Kimber