Talking to ghosts has always been a favourite hobby. It’s probably tied up with the Jesus complex. Ever since I was very young, I always prided myself on my ability to converse with members of the other world. Later in life, I developed a similar ability to speak with people who voted Conservative.
I can’t truthfully remember when I first began conversing. There wasn’t a seminal moment when I moved from being a cute little lad to being a conduit of other worldly mutterings, but as a kid, I was certainly not the norm.
“Our Matt has been talking again in his sleep,” my sister would report.
“Our Matt has been walking around in his sleep,” she’d tell our neighbourhood friends.
“Our Matt cried at The Song of Bernadette!”
Yes, fully-fledged member of the La La Club.
My big sister had a profound belief in my madness. She said I had mad eyes and kept shouting out in my dreams. She knew all about the Devil who came looking for me at night and she told as many people as she could about my nocturnal visitations.
“He says his prayers every night and then sings Walt Disney classics and Cliff Richard songs!”
The ghost thing is real. The house that we live in now has a ghost that haunts the new extension. My eldest daughter finds it almost impossible to sleep there after being visited on a number of occasions by footsteps on the other side of bedroom door, deep breathing inside of it and an inexplicable weight that pushed upon her during one unforgettable night-fest of happenings. On occasions such as this, my wife sends me into rooms to sense things out. Seeing myself as a fully-fledged phantom buster, I often try to reach out and communicate, but with no success. Is it the case that one loses ones powers the older one becomes, or is it that the faculties begin to fray a little at the edges?
My eldest daughter is not taken to fancy. She is a paragon of pragmatism. There is more of her mother in her than her father and I believe that they both view me with more than a little amused sympathy. “That’s your father,” my wife tells my daughters. “That’s Dad,” my daughters tell my wife. Dad is some type of benign presence these days. In the past he would wish to have been an Atticus Finch, but when the world closed in on him he would frequently become an Attila. Now, with the aid of medication and a fresh understanding of the edge of the precipice on which he walks, he has become a space cadet whose journey through the cosmos of family affairs allows him to drift for long periods of time, weightless, aimless and carefree.
He does, however, have moments when all the systems decide to close down. Take the party he was at the other week and the moment when the switches were flicked by his need to consider the existential nature of mankind at merriment. One man stopped to ask the forward-staring loon if he was alright and the loon’s wife placed a consoling hand around him to suggest that,
“Yes, he was alright…sort of.” His loon poses are becoming more of the norm, especially in company.
And the third person I (he) is using here?
It’s just another viewpoint.
The first ghost that I ever saw?
It was a grey lady. Yup, corny as hell, but real. I was working as a cocktail waiter at a restaurant in York. It was quite close to the Minster and the restaurant was on one of York’s oldest streets. Anyway, the bar area was on the upper floor of this restaurant, two floors up from the eating area. It was a cold winter night and the place wasn’t busy so I spent some time cleaning up my workspace. The whole building was genuinely very old-worldly with exposed timbers that really did date back to times long gone. It never did adopt the definite article of ‘Ye’, as in ‘Ye Olde Olde Place’. Couples enjoyed the experience because it leant some authenticity to the whole dining experience, even though it was essentially a posh burger-joint.
I quite liked my job, as the thought of mixing cocktails and getting paid for it made me a satisfied employee. Generally, I worked on my own up there, three to four hours at a time. That particular night promised drawn out monotony but I had a book and would often write poetry when it was quiet. Once, I wrote a poem on a napkin and still have it over thirty years later. Anyway, I heard the footsteps before I saw the figure.
I was expecting an early evening couple, all lovey and dovey. They would often visit the bar around this time, a few drinks, rather nice Americana food followed by a taxi back to one or the other’s and a night of unbridled entertainment not watching the telly. There was something reassuring in that bar, a sense that the world actually revolved around the basics of life. Instead of that, there was the figure of a woman dressed in a grey cloak with a hood. So, how did I know that it was a woman if she had her hood up? I just did. Anyway she didn’t turn towards me, choosing to take the long way around the bar area and dropping from sight behind a central column that would have been a chimney at one stage. She never reappeared.
I asked about my strange visitor and was met with the fairly straightforward reply from the owner that it was the Grey Lady whom I had seen. Lots of them had seen her. So my first face to face meeting with the paranormal introduced me to a rather promiscuously prominent phantom who had not especially chosen me to appear before.
One must remember that the lunatic has since, and prior to this, had many meetings with those from the other side. It’s become such a regular occurrence that I had become accepting of it. Deluded, many would think, absolutely bonkers.
But ghosts do exist. They are the people you once knew, the family you have lost. I have just been through a short period of being contacted by the dead. Old friends who had fallen into the void of time and had since disappeared. I met a lad who once played football with me in a team of misfits called Independiente. We were a colourful and inclusive collection of individuals who had, or didn’t have, football skills depending your persuasion. We moved from available pitch to available pitch playing mud-filled matches before being made to move on again and again. We were like a travelling circus with a collection of long-haired hippies, social workers, long-term unemployed and teachers. We were a nice team who tended to read The Guardian and have a grasp of the fact that culture was not just something that could be taken from a one-night-stand. One of our most effective midfielders was widely known as one of the best ‘Lady of Spain’ performers in the West Riding. But it was another midfielder, a rather bright, funny and occasionally argumentative lad whose general rotundity never hindered his ability to make it up and down the pitch, even after having a skin-full the previous night. Unfortunately, this number seven is now dead.
It happens to us all: Facebook..
One minute you are rolling along convinced that having cyber communications with the rest of the world is akin to opening your door every Saturday night to whoever may wish to drop in; then it changes; I joined.
Why? I do not know. But with my handful of friends, much greater than my real life acquaintances, I happily surfed the social detritus of other people’s lives. Sophie and I have an old family friend who in recent years has stopped being so much a friend as a source of entertainment and annoyance. The life of this person is fully documented on a tweet-like basis on an almost daily basis. Dirty washing is hung out along with freshly laundered items. I suppose that it is a way of connecting to a world that does not necessarily wish to connect with them. Have I looked at what I’m doing recently?
Anyway, being on Facebook is like standing at the side of a small stream that carries a variety of jetsam and flotsam which may or may not be worth salvaging. Faces pop up from the past like spirits from a different life and, unlike Scrooge, you get to pick which one you wish to communicate with.
Several years ago I saw our old midfielder.
I didn’t realise then that he was dying. I was a little confused that he seemed not to be working and, with his more rotund appearance, persuaded me he had successfully saved and retired before his time. At that time, I had no envy of his otherwise enviable position of early retirement. I was still in the last flushes of a midlife renaissance that had seen me seize the day and find a little later-life success. All things end. The midfielder managed to smile through his posts and never let on that he was in the final stages of cancer. He posted photographs of his favourite beers, curry restaurant and football team. It brought me some warmth to consider that things continue. Then he died. The death thing was becoming a regular feature in my life. Facebook was its choice of oracle, its magpie and its throw of the dice. As far as death is concerned, predicting the future should be easy (pick a card, any card). Whatever we choose, the outcome is the same. Our problem is that we deny its inevitability.
In five short years, lots of people who we have known have stopped breathing. I had spent my years with Sophie hearing about her favourite person from school who had got a foothold in the music magazine industry and had set about successfully climbing. She adored him and did the Facebook a Friend Request. At first, I thought that she must have had a thing for her old schoolmate; she did, it was a devoted friendship and complete admiration. This friend married in later life and became a father before he discovered that his time was reaching its sell-by-date. The cancer was pancreatic. He never drunk and regularly ran marathons.
My youngest daughter started making bracelets, Bands for Life, which she sold to raise money for his chosen charity. We were all pulling for him and then the thud of reality hit. With a child, who was just eighteen months old, a wife who adored him, a career that was prepared to wait for him, he died. His wife and child found him dead on the floor of the kitchen when they returned from an impromptu shopping trip. Nice touch, death. Your detached irony truly helps.
Just recently, old FB has thrown up two new cases of cancer with people who are ghosts of the old world. It seems that if you don’t want to trigger the unfortunate arrival of death to the doorsteps of those who you had known in a past life, don’t send a Friend Request.
So in the course of all of my soul-searching, I’m probably feeling that raking up the past is a futile exercise. The fundamental thing is that it has happened, we have happened and we can’t recreate it no matter how many photographs we post or how many old memories we share. There is a reason why our lives move on – they just do. We change friendship groups or, in my case, cease to have any real friends outside of my immediate family. We move on and move away so much so that we are often in danger of losing ourselves in the process. When people die, as they always do, we remind ourselves of the important things in life and make pacts that we shall return to them, but we don’t. Life is too pressing. It surges onwards without any particular place to go or reason to go there. And when it has caught us up in its whirls and eddies, we believe that it is fate. It was meant to be. Que sera, sera.
At this point, a bullish, bull-shitter like the ghost I used to be, would resolve to fight on. I would declare war on fate and rally myself for one last stand, one last hurrah! But I am strapped to the horse and it is gently plodding towards the jaws of that great beast and for all the flying cannon balls, heroic trumpets and poetic licence, I can’t get off. There are ghosts up ahead and behind, but I can’t dismount. Yet, the good thing is that I have been doing this for as long as I can remember and it no longer pains me. I could be on the sands at Bridlington, on a donkey with a bell, going up and down across the sands until the donkey’s handler decides to turn around and take me back to the beginning again.
When I finally get off the donkey, they are all there waiting for me to start another chapter.