by Andrew Lee-Hart
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 some peace.
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 daughter.
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.
Suddenly beginning 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.
Insurance is 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 coffee.
Thank you, I said, eyes glued to my computer screen.
She coughed, 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.
It is okay Alice said with a smile, we already know each other.
Yes, of 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.
Catch you 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 Highgate.
I saw Alice, I told her without preamble, she is working in my office.
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 her.
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.
This is 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 her alive.
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.
It was 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 back?
You have never forgiven me.
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 dead.
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 they?
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 instinctively.
She is young enough to be your daughter I said without thinking.
No she 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 or so.
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 conversation.
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.
I thought who are you? I thought you were dead.
God knows 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 you.
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 younger and alive.
What are you doing at Mitchisons?
I always 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 miss you.
I know and I am sorry.
There was silence between us; I felt fear, but also love, and then she spoke again.
You 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 it?
But nothing has changed
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 eyes, unreadable.
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.
I expected 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 dread.
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.
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