I walk the streets
of London haunted by ghosts and guilt; so much so that often I do not know what
is real and what is the product of my mind. Spirits reach out to me, trying to
drag me down into damp cellars or dark alleyways, and I fight them off as best
I can, knowing that one day I will surrender and let them take me, if only for
In recent years I
have lived a quiet life; five days a week I travel on the underground into the
city, where I work for Mitchison & Sons, a medium sized insurance company,
where I do a job I enjoy and am good at. I get on with my colleagues but
refrain from getting too close, but then most of them are younger than me, and
those that arent have their own lives with families and hobbies. At the
weekend I walk through London; exploring the city and just tiring myself out so
that I dont have to think. Sure I am alone but I have become used to
that; my period as a married man with a daughter now seems just an exceptional
moment in a life of loneliness.
She was sitting on
the tube, just a few metres away from me, staring into space; It was six years
ago since I last saw Alice, but she had not changed much from what I could see;
possibly a little thinner but then suicide does that to you. She was dressed
more smartly than she used to, wearing a formal skirt and blouse, but it was
her without a doubt. Was I seeing things? All around me people stared into
space or read their newspapers; and there was the everyday smell of the Tube;
rubber or some other material. But in their midst was the ghost of my
I tried to read my
book, in the hope that when I looked back up, she would have gone and life
would be back to normal. I picked up the Harry Kemelman detective novel that
was in my bag, using it as something to rest my eyes upon and calm me
down. But when I looked up again, she was still there, she must have felt
my eyes upon her, because after a moment she turned her head and caught my eye
and then she smiled and my heart broke.
to panic, I hurried up from my seat and headed towards the doors farthest away
from her. Fortunately, just then the train reached a stop, and I pushed my way
onto the platform and hurried away. I realised that I was at Monument, two
stops early, but I needed to get away from her, get out into the open
air. On the escalator I looked behind me, but I could not see her, and I
sighed with relief.
Once I was out in
the Spring sunshine, I realised that it could not have been her, that I must
have been dreaming. After all I thought about her a lot, particularly at
night, when there was nothing to distract me, so it was not surprising that my
thoughts should leak out in real life and create this vision.
I always give myself
plenty of time to get to work so that even after getting off at the wrong stop
I did not have to rush. I even had time to get some fruit juice before
heading in. But all the time I was aware that she might be behind me, and
every so often I looked behind me, dreading what I might see, but there was
just the usual hurry of Londoners heading to work; the constant chatter, and
buildings towering above me.
something that I find easy, I have been doing it since my mid-twenties, thus
for just over thirty years. For most of my life I had gone from one company to
another, getting a bigger salary as I did so and more responsibility. But I
doubt I will leave Mitchinson before I retire; I joined shortly after my life
fell apart and have not felt the urge to look for somewhere else. The money is
far more than I need and my ambition and my bravery has disappeared, as if
sucked out of me.
I shut my office
door and set to work, sipping at my orange juice as I did so. After a couple of
hours of peace the door opened, and my secretary Marie asked if I wanted some
you, I said, eyes glued to my computer screen.
oh this is our new member of staff Alice.
I looked up to see
my daughter smiling at me.
I stared at her,
unable to say anything and Marie looked at me oddly.
okay Alice said with a smile, we already know each other.
course, I replied, in bemusement and fear, do ghosts talk?
Marie still looked
puzzled, realising that something was amiss, or perhaps wondering how someone
as boring and old as me could know the young woman beside her.
later Alice said, the words she often said to her mum and me, when she
left for school or I went off to work, and I would smile at the thought of this
petit girl catching us both, saving us from trouble.
Once home I went
straight to bed as I suddenly felt incredibly tired. I live in Dagenham in a
small house, which I bought a year after Liz and I split up. At first I had
thought that we would get back together, that she would stop blaming me and
realise that we needed each other. But once I realised that wasnt going
to happen, I found this house, which I managed to pay off with the money from
my mothers will and my savings.
I woke up feeling
confused and at first wondering if I had slept all night, but realised that it
had been for less than hour and that I was feeling hungry. I cooked myself some
rice and vegetables and put on Radio 3 and listened to a concert. I wondered
who I could ring to talk about what had happened, this miracle, but the only
person was my ex-wife, who as far as I knew was still living in our house in
Alice, I told her without preamble, she is working in my
What are you
playing at? the sharpness in Lizs tone reminded me of our
living together; the barely concealed anger that she often displayed towards
me. I was never sure why we had stayed together for as long as we did, as she
clearly disliked me and I am not sure how much I liked her in return.
I am not
playing at anything. She came into my office, she is working there now, and she
was on the tube, so perhaps she lives near me.
Alice is dead,
we both know that. You need help, I always said that. Go and see someone,
and dont ring me, ever again.
But it was
She was stealing
things, that was the problem; money, her mothers jewellery even my
passport. She was twenty-two and had been working in a Burger King since
leaving university without completing her degree. I did not know why she needed
to take things; we gave her an allowance and she did not have to worry about
rent or food, and she rarely went out. Oddly she did not steal things from
shops or other people, it was just us, her parents who she pilfered from.
In retrospect she
was mentally ill and perhaps I should have taken her to a psychiatrist or a
doctor, but then I was just upset about the trouble it was causing. Perhaps if
I had spoken to someone else about it, I might have got some sense of
perspective, but I was embarrassed and angry, very angry.
ridiculous I told Liz, I shouldnt have to hide my cards and
my cash in my own house.
Perhaps she is
on drugs. Dont get cross with her.
But I was cross, and
when I asked her why she was stealing things, she would deny it, just looked at
me defiantly and so eventually, one Friday night, after discovering that more
money out of my suit was missing, I slapped her, hard. She stared at me for a
moment, with hate but also confusion, and then she ran to her room, packed a
bag and walked out.
For two nights she
was gone, and in my heart I hoped that she wouldnt come back, so that
life could be normal, despite my wifes sorrow. But on the third morning
she reappeared as if nothing had happened. She never told us where she
had been or what she had done; she must have stayed with a friend because she
looked tidy enough and had carried on going to work. After that she just
carried on as before, including stealing our possessions.
She needs to
leave I told Liz, I cant live like this. One evening I
had fancied some music after a hard day at work, only to discover that she had
stolen several of my old jazz records; some exceedingly rare and all of them
valuable. She must have Googled them to find out which were worth taking, and
taken them to a local record shop.
She is your
own daughter, Liz told me, but she did not stop me telling her to leave,
and she could have done if she had wanted to. Deep down I think she
wanted her gone as much as I did but wanted me to do the dirty work. Or perhaps
not. God knows. One of the problems was that we preferred to argue and blame
each other than to discuss things and work out solutions. Easy to say now of
course, now that it is all over with, and everything is broken.
She screamed and
cried when I told her she had to go and then appealed to her mum, who said
nothing, and then Alice packed her bags and stormed out.
Where will she
go? asked Liz.
She will find
somewhere, I told her with a confidence that I did not have.
How do you
know? Liz glared at me and went upstairs. This was a week after
Alices twenty-third birthday, and the last time either of us would see
They telephoned me
at work a week later. She had been found in a hostel by another resident; Alice
had taken paracetamol and some other tablets and was dead, covered in her
blanket. There was no note and she had barely spoken to anyone at the hostel. I
have never known why she stole or why she killed herself, and nobody else seems
to do either. Lizs blaming it all on me, might be correct, but it does
not help me know why; if there is a why.
I identified her at
the morgue; even in death, with the scars on her arms and her legs she did not
look at peace, if anything she looked more troubled. I wept and then went
straight back to work; I never told anybody there and anyone else for that
matter. I carried on as normal, whilst Liz wept and the day after the funeral
told me to leave, which I did willingly.
As I spoke to her on
my phone I could smell the cooked rice and my feeble air freshener.
definitely her; she was close to me, I could smell that perfume she used to
wear, the one you got her for Christmas.
Oh stop it; it
is your guilt driving you mad. Do you think that I dont wish she was
You have never
No of course I
havent; you killed her. If only you had been kinder, showed some patience
then she would be alive.
And the phone went
And she was right;
perhaps if I had stopped worrying and been kinder; shown love, instead of
worrying so much about my money she would still be alive. In fact of course she
would be alive. Now all I had was this guilt which I carried round like Atlas
with his globe, just wanting someone to relieve me for awhile. But why should
Alice is doing
well, only here a fortnight
. Mike was not exactly a friend, but he
was the one I chatted to most, quite pretty as well, no wonder she is
popular with H.J.
I glowered at him
She is young
enough to be your daughter I said without thinking.
isnt and anyway I was just joking, you know that I am happily married.
What about you though? About time you have some glamour in your life. Perhaps
you could do with a younger woman.
I stormed off
without a word; fortunately it was lunchtime and so I could escape for an hour
I sat in Festival
Gardens, near St. Pauls and ate a cheese baguette, still seething with
anger. It had been a strange few days; Alice turning up every day, part of
office life. She would smile at me and wish me a good morning, and I would see
her on the Tube at the beginning and end of the day, but we never engaged in
And I was becoming
almost used to it; my initial fear wearing off and I found that every morning I
was looking forward to seeing her. And my dreams, which had woken me in the
early hours in tears, had gone. I slept peacefully throughout the night, and
when I awoke I felt refreshed and as close to happiness as I had ever been.
And then I felt
someone sit down next to me on the bench and I smelt that familiar perfume.
who are you? I thought you were dead.
and she laughed; I had forgotten her laugh, almost as if she
was laughing despite herself, unable to contain her inner mirth.
I have no idea
what is going on, she told me, but it was good to see
It was her, solid
and human, no ghost or spirit.
I have missed
you, I am sorry for slapping you that time, I told her.
She sighed, it
is okay; you gain a different perspective once you are dead, and I must have
been very difficult to live with.
We sat together, she
was not eating and was wearing clothes from when she was younger
What are you
doing at Mitchisons?
wondered where you worked; it has been interesting; seeing you day after day.
Anyway I wont be back; I have seen what I want to see. I will be
off; God knows where.
Oh. But I will
I know and I
There was silence
between us; I felt fear, but also love, and then she spoke again.
shouldnt feel guilty you know. Whats the point? Just enjoy your
life. Your friend is right, find some romance, why not retire, you can afford
She shrugged as if
as baffled as I was. We held hands for a moment; hers felt cold, colder than
they should be, but solid. And then she turned towards me and looked into my
I have got to
go now dad.
She hugged me so
tight that I thought she would disappear. But she disengaged herself and got up
and I watched her walk away down towards the River. She turned once to smile at
me and then she was gone, fading away into the London sunshine. I sat there,
not knowing what to feel, and then I picked up my book and read until it was
time to go back into work.
everything to be different after that, but it was not, or not that much. I
thought of retiring as my daughter had suggested, but then realised that I
enjoyed my job and was not sure what I would do instead, I already had more
than enough time on my hands. So I stayed where I was, following the same
routine that I have been doing for the last few years. Hopefully I will die
before I retire, because the thought of all that time to fill, fills me with
Perhaps I feel a
little happier, a hole where my guilt used to lie, but it is difficult to get
used to such changes. To reassure myself, in the early hours I ring my
wife, and she always answers, and reminds me of my wickedness and why I deserve
nothing, certainly not a message from the dead.