Excerpt from Ghosting by Jonathan Kemp (Myriad Editions - 12 March 2015)
It’s just after 9am on a bright July morning when she first claps eyes on her dead husband. She’s stepping out of a newsagents on Warwick Avenue when there he is, walking towards her through the sparse morning shoppers, like a figure from a nightmare in the garb of an angel. Handsome as the sun; shoulders broad as daylight.
Her first thought is, You’re losing it again, Grace.
Dark and unsteady, she makes her way to the Saint Saviour Church, to sit amongst the voiceless dead and light a tremulous cigarette. Inhaling the first sweetsharp lungful, she lets the slow tears come. She feels – well, to be honest she feels like she has just seen a ghost. And she looks like she has too. The face bloodless, the eyes dull as a seagull’s, the lips slightly parted. Everything appears as if behind glass; she imagines reaching out her hand to tap a dull note from its clear, unseen force. All sound is muffled, slowed down, as if she’s underwater.
A man walks by with two large huskies, one of which lopes over to her and sits by her side, as if sensing her sorrow and keeping her company. The man calls out, “Ludwig!” but the dog does not move until he walks over and grabs its collar. He looks at Grace and nods a good morning before dragging Ludwig away. Finishing the cigarette, she immediately lights another, transfixed by a fear that makes her feel strangely alive.
Eventually, she gets up from the bench and leaves the churchyard; starts to make her way back to the boat, still dazed and unsure what to think; what to make of it all. She hasn’t given Pete a passing thought in donkey’s years, though he still visits her in dreams which leave her aroused and unsettled the following day. That period of her life is Ancient History.
When she arrives back on the narrowboat, Gordon is still out so she sits up on deck, her mind in free fall. Gazing up at the cloudless sky as if it might hold some answers, she watches a plane slowly unzip the blue, wishing she were on it, going somewhere else; anywhere in the world but here.
It had been Gordon's idea to sell up and buy the boat once they’d retired After years of holidaying on narrowboats, they knew it was a lifestyle they both enjoyed, and she had loved the slow meander, stopping off whenever somewhere took their fancy. After a year of travelling, they’d acquired a permanent mooring in Little Venice, and it didn’t take long before the old life, the old friendships in Manchester slowly petered out. Now, painfully, she feels the pinch of her life, its very narrowness. There is no one to whom she can turn. Fear closes its cold hand around her; the fear of being taken back there; to lie and stare at those arrogant hospital walls.
She can’t shake the image of Pete from her mind, as memories start dropping like ripe fruit at her feet.
It wasn’t even him she’d fancied, at the time. It was his mate, Mike, she’d spotted first. Him she’d set her heart on.
They met at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. And just those two words were enough to make you want to go there. They even tasted good on the tongue when you said them; sugary sweet, like a stick of rock. Grace and her best friend, Ruth, on a day trip from Manchester, one Saturday in late May, 1958. It was the first really warm and sunny day of the year, and they’d both just finished school for good, feeling ripe with the invincibility of youth, kidding themselves they knew it all; giddy with a new sense of freedom. Scared of the world and fascinated by it in equal measure. Boys were part of that fascination, and part of that fear. And at sixteen it was sometimes hard to tell the difference.
They had only just arrived at the fairground, and were discussing which ride to go on first, when she spotted them: two RAF boys in blue serge; one with a black quiff glinting in the sun, like Elvis, she thought, with a swoon. He spotted them at about the same time and she saw him nudge his friend and say something. The boys walked over and introduced themselves. Elvis was called Mike, and his mate with the dark blonde quiff was Pete.
“Are you from around here?” Pete said.
“We’re from Manchester. Just here for the day. But we’ve been here loads of times before. What about you?” Grace said.
“We’re based over at Weeton. Just here for the day too. Fancy showing us around?”
“All right”, she said.
Pete did most of the talking, cracking jokes, asking questions; focusing all his attention on Grace, who was trying her best to engage Mike, who seemed content to leave the talking to Pete. Ruth just stood there, hardly saying a word. She was always tongue-tied around boys, which annoyed Grace as it left her to do all the talking. As they approached the Tunnel of Love, Grace asked Mike where he was from, but before he could answer Pete said, “Here. Let’s go on,” pulling her towards one of the boats. Her heart sank. She looked over her shoulder to see Mike and Ruth walking towards the boat behind. She looked at Pete and thought to herself, Well, he’s not bad looking, Grace, don’t be so miserable. Besides, Mike had been so monosyllabic she thought at least she’d have a laugh with this one, and not be bored like so many times before.
And then, in the chill, spidery darkness, they kissed. She’d been kissed before but never had she felt this aroused, disappointed when they had to stop. It seemed so right, his lips on hers, that by the time they’d come out the other side she was in love.
As they clunked through the wooden doors and out into the sunshine again, and the kissing ended, he said, “Where’d you learn to kiss like that?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing”, she said, feeling the rush of a blush as a devilish smirk pushed stubbornly onto her face. He laughed, setting her off, and they cried with fits of giggles till their stomachs ached.
“You might want to reapply your lipstick, Sweetheart”, he said, smoothing a hand through his hair. She took a handkerchief from her handbag and gave it a lick before wiping the lipstick from around her mouth. She handed him the hanky and said, “You’d best give your mouth a wipe, and all. You look like Coco the Clown.” Opening her compact, she redrew the red on her lips.
As they climbed out of the boat, she wondered if Ruth and Mike had kissed, before deciding with a fickleness that surprised her that she didn’t care. Judging by the look on Ruth’s face – no hasty reapplying of lipstick there – they hadn’t. She looked bored. Pete lit two cigarettes and passed one to Grace. He suggested the Ferris wheel next, where they kissed some more. Every ride an opportunity to kiss. After several more, they went for a walk along the seafront. It was a hot sunny day and the place was heaving with people, but like in the song, they all disappeared from view. He told her he was the son of a farmer and she told him about visiting her uncle’s farm in Fleetwood with a cousin, Pauline. How she loved the newly-hatched chicks, little fluffs of yellow small enough to hold in your hand.
He laughed and said, “I was only joking. He’s not a farmer; he’s an officer in the Royal Navy.” And she wondered why he’d lied, why he’d felt the need to lie, but brushed the thought aside and said,
“My Dad was in the navy during the war; he’s a fireman.”
“Only joined the RAF because it was either that or prison.”
“Me and some mates got caught trying to blow up a sweet machine on the side of an off license.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Dunno; for a laugh. And we thought there might be money in it.”
“You bloody idiots!”
They both laughed. And it had all been so easy. No anxieties about being pretty enough, or funny enough. Or too funny. She didn’t worry she was talking too much, or too little. With other boys she had always felt awkward but with him she didn’t. They talked about everything and nothing and laughed a great deal.
He said, “I was conceived in peace, and born in war, on the very day it was declared”.
She said, “Is that your excuse?”
Late afternoon they dropped into a pub on the seafront, and while Mike and Pete went to the bar to order drinks, Grace and Ruth went to the Ladies.
“So how are you two getting on?” Grace said, checking herself in the mirror.
“He doesn’t say much” Ruth said, “And don’t you think those luminous socks he’s got on are a bit common? What would Mummy and Daddy think?”
Ruth’s parents owned their own house, and acted – in the words of Grace’s father - like their shit didn’t smell.
“Who cares what they think?” said Grace, “As long as you like him.”
Ruth gave a laugh and said, “I wish I could be as bold as you”.
“Well, I’m having a great time.”
“I noticed. Mike hasn’t even tried to kiss me yet.” She forced a smile and ran her hands down her skirt.
“I can’t get enough, I can’t,” said Grace, trying not to sound like she was bragging.
Returning to the boys, Grace said they’d have to be getting a train soon. They took one last walk along the emptying beach, one last kiss behind a beach hut. A sudden draft on her back announced he’d undone her dress, and she said, “You can just zip that back up as quickly as you unzipped it!” The sun was setting and they soon realized they’d lost the others. Grace was supposed to be home by ten and it was nearly nine. They rushed to the train station, but there was no sign of Ruth, so she boarded the next train to Manchester. He asked for her address, promising to write.
She walked in the door at half past ten to a smack on the head from her irate father.
“Well, you won’t be hearing from him again”, he said when she mentioned Pete, “Them Raff boys are only out for what they can get.”
“Take no notice, Grace”, her mother said.
And he was wrong. Pete did write, asking if she’d like to meet him in Manchester the following weekend.