It took a few moments for her to realise that the man she thought had been waving at her through the window was in fact cleaning it. In readiness for a response she had already subconsciously improved her posture, moved her face into a smile and was just on the point waving back when she simultaneously realised her mistake – it wasn’t Alasdair – and felt a shop assistant observing her with an amused expression.
“In which aisle would I find eggs?” she said turning the ghost of the smile on the girl, determined that she should stay in control and suppress the deep heat of a flush that had already started, “And crystallised ginger?” She turned the trolley in anticipation, “I can’t seem to find anything since you had a change around in here.”
Later, after she had piled all the bags into the car boot she returned to the store’s cafe with The Guardian to have a latte, an almond croissant and two paracetamol. She pulled her glasses and an A5 notepad out of her hand bag and flipped over a few pages of lists to find today’s scrawl and started ticking and adding until she come across something, in her own handwriting that she couldn’t remember adding, and it was completely indecipherable. It seemed to say jumper bernies. She sat and stared at it for some while, but nothing clicked and in the end she put he notepad away and returned to her coffee and croissant. God, she thought, am I going completely mad? She picked up the newspaper and glanced at the front page before opening it at the crossword.
The first clue she glanced at was 1 Down: What can a sticking plaster sing at Yuletide? (2, 4, 4, 3, 9). She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Shut her eyes and leaned back to think.
“Well I never! Hello, Vicky,” said a man’s voice.
She looked up to find a tall, elegant man smiling at her. She frowned lightly,
“I haven’t really changed so much, while you have aged so beautifully?”
She took off her reading glasses and looked again.
“Ronnie?” Her mind did a quick flip. When did I last see you? she thought.
“1983,” said Ronnie, though Vicky knew she hadn’t spoken aloud. She looked at him, hard. He seemed to have rather odd translucent quality to his skin and didn’t look any older than she remembered him, from that year in Oxford when they both qualified. Nearly 30 years ago.
“I can see you’re puzzled,” said Ronnie, with that smile and the flick of an eyebrow that she remembered so well. “Do you mind if I join you?”
“No, not at all,” said Vicky, somewhat flustered, and she looked down at her newspaper with no regret and folded it away. When she looked up again Ronnie was sitting opposite her, observing her closely in the same manner he had used at that college ball. Intent, analytical and slightly amused.
“I’ve often wondered,” he said, “what it must be like to age.”
She started to formulate an answer to this rather odd statement when Ronnie continued. “You see I haven’t aged at all since 1984.” Again Vicky started to think about a reply, but Ronnie started speaking once more. “I was out driving one night just before Christmas and that record – you know the famine relief one – was on the radio, when I hit a patch of black ice and lost control of the car. It was awful. I skidded around and around and ended up in the river. I was pulled out and resuscitated of course and spent two weeks on ITU. Two weeks of torture, in fact. I could hear everything going on around me. But I had no way of letting them know. To all intents and purposes I was dead.”
“Oh, how awful,” murmured Vicky, as a cold shudder walked itself up her spine, tightening her scalp as it reached her head.
“Yes,” said Ronnie. “My parents would visit every night and in the end it was decided that the ventilator should be turned off. All the tests were done and apparently I gave no signs of life and they did turn off the machines. And this is the result.”
“What is the result?” asked Vicky, puzzled.
“What you see before you. The walking dead.”
Vicky could feel the blood draining from her cheeks.
“You mean… you mean that you are….” she couldn’t bring herself to say it. After all she didn’t believe in ghosts.
“Yes,” said Ronnie. “I know you may not believe in ghosts – but I am a ghost, destined to roam the earth, as they say.” He ignored the pallor evident in Vicky’s face. She picked up her coffee to take a sip as he continued talking. Her hands were none too steady. Ronnie sighed. “It is especially bad at this time of year, because of that blasted record. It was playing when I skidded and it was on in the background in the ITU when they switched me off. And now it seems I can’t get away from it.” He grimaced. “Thing is, Vicky, I’ve been looking for you. I think you may be part of the puzzle.”
Vicky could hardly bring herself to speak. There was a pause, during which Ronnie continued to look at her intently.
“How-” she croaked, “am I part of the puzzle?”
“Well, do you remember I had a crush on you? Well, maybe you didn’t know. I never said. But I did. I had an enormous crush on you.”
“Oh!” she said, followed by,”And?” Her pulse was soaring now and her breath was short.
“Well, that night I was driving I was thinking of you, as that blasted record played and I had made a decision. I had planned to come and find you, somehow and tell you how I felt. That’s when I skidded.”
Vicky nodded silently. She didn’t know what to say.
“Put me out of my misery,” said Ronnie, “if I had come to see you at the end of 1984 would I have been on a hiding to nothing? Were you already spoken for?”
“Spoken for?” whispered Vicky.
“Yes, you know. Would you have been receptive to my advances?”
She placed her cup down carefully on the saucer, but it still clattered as she did so.
“By Christmas 1984 I was married, Ronnie. To Alasdair. Well and truly married. So no, I would not have been receptive, as you put it, to your advances. You had missed your chance.”
“Missed my chance?”
“You could have made your move at the May Ball. The year we qualified. I would have been receptive then.” She reached out to touch him on the arm – his face had somehow collapsed in on itself with this news – but as she reached out he dissolved like a dream into nothingness. He just wasn’t there anymore.
Vicky sat still and stared into space. Was she really going mad? After a while she shook her head as if coming around from a dream and sighed at the ridiculousness of it all. She reached down into her bag and pulled out her note book and the paper. She glanced at the shopping list and could immediately see she had forgotten to buy juniper berries. She glanced at the crossword and realised that she knew the answer to 1 down. “Do they know it’s Christmas” – no space for a question mark. Bandaid, that was the group, she remembered. Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s concert for the famine relief in Ethiopia. What had she been doing then?
She became aware of someone waving at her through the window. Really waving at her. Not washing the windows. It was Alasdair, at last. She raised her hand and waved back.
“I’m ready,” she mouthed, knowing he would now be impatient to get off, and as she started to gather her things to go out into the cold to meet him that same record came on quietly over the loudspeakers. Then she saw Ronnie again as a thin shimmer in front of her, completely transparent now, with no substance, and she thought she heard him say, ‘thank you, I can go now.’
Then he evaporated again into thin air taking with him any remnants of hope that she had left.
For this : Theme Ghosts, up to 2000 to incorporate a Christmas song title….