The Trafalgar Square ghost
This is a work of original fiction, and belongs to me.
Thank you, Stephanie, for asking me to contribute. I hope you all enjoy it.
If you’d like to get in touch, please feel free – Ceri.Lloyd@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.
Synopsis: Eliza knows she’s dead, she just doesn’t know how long for. Or why she hasn’t passed over, or why she is haunting London, specifically the West End. Perhaps Smudge, a young psychic, who comes looking for her in Trafalgar Square can shed some light on the situation and ultimately help Eliza.
I didn’t know how long I’d been dead. Weeks or months, I had no way of knowing for sure. Time doesn’t mean much when you don’t have a job or appointments to keep. Days blurred into each other, I didn’t need to sleep or to eat and so had no way of marking the time. The only event that stood out was the funeral. The living always think that they’d like to go to their own funerals, to see who turns up and hear all the wonderful things said about them. But they are foolish. It’s the worst thing that can happen; worse than death itself. If you are given the opportunity, decline it. Yes, everyone I ever cared for and cared for me was there, and they said wonderful things about me, and all it did was break my heart. My mother, the tears constant and almost silent, running down her face and dripping onto the front of her black coat. My father, stoic, like a father and husband should be, but I knew him, I knew that the cracks were showing; his hands shaking as he let a fist full of dirt drop onto the polished wood of my coffin. And then there was Madeline, my best friend, the person I loved most in the world but never told, pale and stricken. At one point, she looked up, right at me, her blue eyes widening until she shook her head and looked away. I wanted to sit and cry, but I was beyond that. I was dead.
I couldn’t understand why I was still around. An existential atheist, I believed that when I died that would be it, wham bam, lights out. I didn’t expect to look down at my rapidly cooling body lying at the side of the road, my eyes clouding as blood pooled around my smashed up head. Too numb to take in what was happening, I walked away, only marginally aware of the blue lights and sirens. My body was meat now. They could do what they liked with it. I walked away and didn’t look back.
Somehow I ended up in the West End. I walked, impervious to tiredness, hunger and the weather; I became an observer because I could no longer be involved, and took comfort from the throw-away fashion of Oxford Street, the upmarket shops on Bond Street, the showy expensive diamond tiaras and sapphire rings in the Burlington Arcade. All the things that had bored me or I took for granted when I was alive I now sought out, craving the human warmth of commerce and people going about their business as if nothing bad could ever happen to them; the life of the city ebbed and flowed, a river around my rock.
My only experience of ghosts was from films, where people walk through unsuspecting spirits, much to the surprise of everyone, living and dead. This must’ve been done for comic effect. In reality it seemed that even though they couldn’t see me, subconsciously their bodies were aware I was there and allowed me space: on the pavement outside a shop window, in the middle of a bench when I sat down. That ability surprised me. It wasn’t as if I needed to sit, but it was something I’d love to do alive so dead it gave me an illusion of normalcy. If I could sit on the steps of Eros at Picadilly Circus and watch the tourists swarm around me. I could pretend everything was fine when it patently wasn’t. Something was definitely up.
Wherever I walked, and I walked for miles and miles, sometimes without stopping, out from the city centre to the suburbs and back, I always ended up in Trafalgar Square. I liked the Landseer bronze lions, Nelson on the top of his column; the Neo-Classical porticos of the National Gallery, the elegant 18th century God-bothering of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. I loved the fountains spouting clear, clear water up into the thick London air just to watch it splash down into the blue painted pools. One day in the early summer I was sitting by a fountain, watching as the light hit the spray, making tiny rainbows. Around me was the chatter of Italian teenagers; it didn’t matter that I didn’t understand them, I let the flirtatious banter swirl around me.
Suddenly someone dropped down right next to me; I turned to look at them, now used to staring at people without being noticed. I no longer cared about being rude. When dark brown eyes met mine, I thought nothing of it. Sometimes it felt as if people were looking at me, but I was sure it was a coincidence, a case of their unseeing eyes being on a level with mine. I took my time sizing up what was a pretty woman who was probably a couple of years younger than me with short and spiky blonde hair that wasn’t natural judging by her almost black eyebrows. She was dressed partly for the weather and partly not, which struck me as odd – khaki cargo shorts and Converse high-tops worn with a long sleeved shirt. Everyone else around us was making the most of the almost unseasonably hot weather, the Italians showing acres of beautifully tanned skin. Even the natives were risking lobster red sunburn. Not for the first time I regretted not being able to raise my face to the clear blue sky and feel the warmth, the sun turning my closed eye lids pink. This woman sitting next to me in her long sleeved shirt must’ve been roasting. For a moment I forgot myself and spoke out loud.
“You must be boiling in that shirt”
She grinned directly at me.
“Nah, mate, I’m used to it”
“You can see me?”
The grin grew broader.
“Course I can see you. I wouldn’t have spoken to you otherwise”
Stupid with surprise and shock I blurted:
The grin became a gentle smile, the eyes softening.
“Yes, you are. I wasn’t sure you knew it yourself”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re an elusive woman, very hard to find. Most spirits when they chose to haunt, they pick a castle or a garden, sometimes even a ship. You’re rarely in one place more than once. Except for here. There have been more sightings of you here than anywhere else in London”
“Sightings? You mean you’re not the only one who can see me?”
She nodded her head.
“People can see you. Quite a few probably don’t realise you’re a ghost. But plenty of others do. In fact, you’re becoming something of a celebrity. You’ve got your own website”
She reached into the pocket of her shorts and pulled out an iPhone, quickly flicking through pages until she found what she was looking for and holding up the phone in front of me. There on the screen was an artist’s impression of what the banner described as The Trafalgar Square Ghost, a full colour painting of a woman who looked exactly like me. Me when I was alive. I was shocked. I thought I’d appear more, I don’t know, ghostly. My limited knowledge of the subject had led me to believe they were translucent. But in this picture I looked better than I ever did alive.
“I don’t look dead”
“Actually, no you don’t. I mean, you don’t look in rude health but don’t look in spirit either”
“Is that unusual?”
“Pretty much, yeah. Do you want to look at the site?”
It comprised of Twitter like reports of sightings. Someone had seen me earlier, checking out the front windows of Fortnum and Mason. I’d been admiring the new display, an Arabian Nights-style extravaganza of blue silk drapes, Chinese tea pots and more spoons than you could ever find a use for. Harmless enough, but it felt weird being observed and reported on, as if I was doing something wrong. I turned and looked at the woman.
“So, are you going to post something about this conversation?”
I sounded peeved, I know, but I didn’t like the idea of being spied on. The woman frowned slightly.
“No, I won’t. I hate them, bunch of tossers. They’re busy spotting you when they should be helping you”
“Yeah. If I can, I’d like to help you. Why are you here?”
“I like it here. I like the water in the fountains. I find it very calming”
“Can’t argue with you there but that’s not what I meant. Why are you still here on this plane, why haven’t you crossed over?”
“I don’t know”
“Any unfinished business?”
“Not that I’m aware of”
“What happened to you?”
“Hit and run. A motorist knocked me off my bike and left me to die by the side of the road”
“So why are you haunting the West End?”
“I don’t know. I mean, would you want to haunt Acton?”
“Is that why I’m still here?”
“What, in an “avenge me” kind of a way?”
I nodded. She gave me a sad smile.
“It’s not usually about that. It’s usually about love, that sort of unfinished business”
“Well, it’s not that”
Something about that statement didn’t ring true and I fell quiet, not wanting to say anything further. The woman didn’t press me, instead we sat in comfortable silence for a couple of minutes watching the water in the fountain. The woman was in no hurry to leave, she seemed content to sit in the sun and keep me company, and I realised how lonely I'd been, how starved of human contact. I glanced at her, more surreptitiously this time. She was leaning back on the bench; the pull of her outstretched arms had moved the sleeves of her shirt back slightly and I caught a glimpse of thin white lines criss-crossing her forearms. I let my eyes drift away, up to her calm face.
“What's your name?”
“Surname Smith by any chance?”
Her smile broadened. She drew her feet up onto the bench and wrapped her arms round her raised knees.
“How did you guess? It's only my family that call me by my real name. Can't persuade them not to call me Nancy”
“Smudge suits you better. I'm Eliza”
“Nice to meet you, Eliza”
“Aren't you worried that people are going to think you're a nutter talking to yourself?”
“Don't really care much about that, but it's like how they kinda instinctively know you're there. Subconsciously they know I'm speaking to someone even if they can't see you”
“How do you know all this stuff?”
“Let's just say you're not the first ghost I've met”
A cloud passed over her face and her smile dropped. She picked at a thread on the hem of her shorts and wouldn't meet my eyes for a moment before she gave herself a small shake and looked up. She was smiling again but it had lost a little of its brilliance.
“Are you a psychic?”
“It's kinda the family business, come from a line of clairvoyants and mediums going back generations. Gypsies and charlatans most people would say”
“You can see me”
“Sometimes it's not a trick”
“Smudge, what you said before, will you help me?
She turned at looked at me, her dark eyes holding mine for what felt like an eternity.
“Yes, and if I can't, I know people who can”
The next day, I was sitting on the same bench watching a group of hyperactive school kids working off their packed lunch orange squash and crisps, their hot and tired teachers wishing it was August and they were lounging around the pool in Alicante rather than facing an afternoon in the National Portrait Gallery. I was thinking about Smudge and whether I'd see her again. I watched the people around me, wondering who of them could see me and why they never said hello. What was it about Smudge that made her exceptional, made her care enough to sit and talk to me for hours? She'd been reluctant to leave, it was obvious; she lingered over her goodbye, softening the blow of departure with promises of seeing me again and finding a way out of my current situation. Being with her had been wonderful but once she was gone, the loneliness hit me hard, a heaviness in my chest that still hadn't let up and showed no signs of doing so any time soon. I missed my mum and dad. I missed Madeline so much I wanted to lie down on the wooden bench and cry, but there were no tears to alleviate the dull ache.
I remembered the times Maddy had dragged me into the West End to “look at the shops.” I hated the shopping part, never feeling anything other than animosity towards the flagship branches of national department stores, mustering nothing more than an ambiguous grunt at the racks and racks of dresses that all seemed the same to me; sitting outside the changing rooms with the boyfriends and husbands, all of us wearing similar bored and resigned expressions. But much as I hated the shops, I loved being with Maddy, seeing her beautiful face break into a radiant smile as she pulled a 1950s style dress from a rail in Fenwicks, holding it against herself so I could picture her in the large red rose patterned material. I have no doubt my smile matched hers; I could feel its pull on my face. When we left the shop, she had a bag in one hand and the other she slipped through the crook of my arm as we walked up Bond Street. It was one of my most precious memories. As the kids raced around me, chasing each other and the unfortunate pigeons, I felt my head slump forward and longed for scourging tears, an end to this phantom heartache.
I sat on the bench as it got dark and the lights came on. I watched the endless blur of headlights as taxis and cars stopped and started at the traffic lights around the square, Admiralty Arch and the National Gallery bathed in soft yellow floodlight. Shaftesbury Avenue I knew would be lit up in yellow and red, theatre goers bright with excitement; Chinatown with its statuesque lion-dogs and pagoda gates would bustle with noise, the air rich with char sui pork and Singapore noodles. I knew I should get up and move, even though I had nowhere else to go. Perhaps I should go to the river and walk along it, down towards Greenwich or up towards Battersea, anything to get away from here and the crowding memories.
At first I thought the feeling was a continuation of the ache I'd felt since the moment I watched Smudge disappear from view, but it was quickly intensifying, a forest fire tearing through my chest. O my God, maybe this was it, maybe I was about to cross over. All I had time to think was I'm not ready before I was dragged backwards with alarming speed and discomfort. I know I couldn't feel pain, but it was like being at the dentist when even though there is anaesthetic, you can still feel what the man with the drill is doing to your jaw. It didn't hurt but I felt as if I was being pushed through a potato ricer, that I was coming out in thin blobs of soul, that all that would be left of me would be an intangible mess on some cosmic carpet. A sound escaped my burning chest: an animal howl.
Suddenly the sensation stopped and I opened my eyes. If this was the hereafter, then the hereafter appeared to be a rather unremarkable front room in any house anywhere from Falkirk to Falmouth. It was a decorative mish-mash: china dogs and other Victorian knick-knacks on a tiled mantelpiece over a log effect gas fire, a too large DFS leather recliner sofa squashed into the space opposite a thirty two inch plasma screen telly. There was an old fashioned striped rag rug in front of the hearth, and a brass rack of redundant and very shiny fire irons. I blinked, trying to take it in. I'd never believed in anything after death, even if I had, I'm not sure I would've come up with something that looked like this. It seemed comfortable enough and I guessed I could spend eternity here if it came to that. At least I'd have something to sit on and something to watch.
The sound of a throat being cleared came from behind me, startled, I turned round and there was a delighted Smudge standing with a woman who was an older version of her; same liquid brown eyes, same delicately arched dark eyebrows. Her hair was the colour Smudge's would be naturally, a thick black, streaked a little with silver and tied back in a short ponytail. She looked at me intently before breaking out laughing.
“You were right about her being tasty. Shame to send her off really”
Smudge scowled at the woman who I took to be an aunt before grinning.
“I saw her first”
Now, I wasn't exactly used to two good looking women fighting over me and I should've been flattered but, really, there's a time and place for things, and I was still disorientated, not to say freaked out, by my recent experience.
“How the hell did I get here, wherever the hell this is?”
Smudge was too pleased with herself to notice the shortness of my tone.
“Vi summoned you”
My hands were now on my hips, a bad sign, I was working myself up good and proper. Smudge was oblivious to the fact that she was about it to get it, both barrels. My upper lip curled.
“She summoned me – ?”
Realisation was starting to dawn on Smudge, her smile had slipped slightly. I tried to keep all of the venom out of my voice but it was hard.
“Why didn't you just ask me to come?”
“Ghosts aren't the best time keepers. Who knows when you would've turned up?”
“I have never been late in my life, I don't intend to be in death either”
“I don't think it's something you have much control over, Eliza”
I wasn't in the mood to be reasonable.
“So instead of asking me nicely if I could come round, you do some sort of spell and I end up being squeezed through a sieve. Have you got any idea what that feels like, have you?”
Smudge was stricken, I could see that and wanted to stop but I had the bit between my teeth.
“So whatever it is you want, Nancy Smith, it had better be good or God help me – ”
“Enough! I know you’re going through a tough time, but you talk to her like that again and Heaven help me I'll smack you silly and don't think I can't, young lady”
My anger instantly burnt itself out and I was left chagrined.
“Smudge, I'm sorry. I know you're trying to help and I shouldn't have had a go at you like that”
“I didn't know the summoning would be so hard. No-one's ever complained before”
Smudge was twisting her hands; I wished I could I reach out and hold them. Instead I gave her what I hoped was a reassuring smile.
“Obviously I'm different”
Vi was observing me with an unreadable expression.
“I'll say. It's as if you're not completely dead. Nancy tells me you can sit down, so why don't you?”
There was a small dining room set in a corner. I sat on one of the straight-backed chairs, Vi taking the one opposite me. Smudge was hovering, as if she couldn't quite decide what to do, until Vi pointed at the chair next to mine and she sat down, staring at her nails as if they were endlessly fascinating. Vi, on the other hand looked directly at me, her gaze intense and penetrating. It took all I had not to squirm. After what felt like an eternity her eyes softened.
“As I thought. You aren't completely dead. It's as if you've just stepped out of the room for a moment, all bright and healthy and fully intending to come back. You can sit which I can safely say I've never seen a spirit do before. Can you manipulate objects?”
“No, I mean, I don't know, I haven't tried”
“Do you eat and drink?”
I shook my head.
“I haven't been either hungry or thirsty, or tired. I guess I'm quite a bit dead after all”
“It's not always a bad way to be, at least you know where you are in the scheme of things. Right now I'm guessing that's not the case”
I shrugged and Vi nodded her head solemnly.
“It's a strong tie you have to this plane. You're sure you have no unfinished business? No? Then someone has unfinished business with you”
She looked at me again, this time even more deeply. It was as if she was searching right down into the heart of me. This time I did squirm. I knew I had no secrets from her.
“It's a woman. She's the one holding you here”
Smudge's head turned in my direction so quickly, I swear the girl must've got whiplash. Her dark eyes were accusatory.
“You never said there was a woman”
“To the best of my knowledge there isn't one. Could it be my mum? She was distraught”
Vi shook her head.
“No, she's grieving you like she should. Much as it pains her, she is letting you go”
Again, that penetrating stare.
“This a young woman, one who's known you a long time”
It hit me hard, as hard as a 4x4 on a dark, rainy night, and equally devastating. “Madeline”
The hard edge to Smudge's voice perplexed me.
“My best friend. We've known each other since we were eleven”
“And you never thought to mention her when we were talking? You told me you had no unfinished business and now you spring this Madeline on us”
“We are just friends”
“Just friends? She's the one keeping you here, for God's sake. That's more than just friends”
“Not that it's really any of your concern – ”
“Not any of my concern? I'm the one who's trying to – ”
“Nancy, love, why don't you go and make us a nice cup of tea?”
Smudge turned to face her aunt.
“But – ”
“Go on. I'd like to have a little chat with Eliza”
With a heavy sigh, Smudge pushed away from the table and stomped out of the room. I watched her leave, almost seeing the anger coming off her in waves of steam.
“What's up with her?”
“If I had to guess I'd say she's got a bit of a thing about you”
“But I'm dead”
“Something you need to know about Nancy is that she is strongly connected to the spirit world. The departed are seriously attracted to her and can be very demanding. The lines can get blurred and it's not been easy for her to separate herself from it all”
The thin white lines on Smudge's arms, the way her face had darkened.
“Vi, believe me, I'd never – ”
Her smile was gentle. If she could've patted my arm, I believe she would've.
“I know. She's much better at shielding herself these days. Anyway, she went out looking for you, remember? Now tell me about this Madeline before madam comes back”
And so I told her everything. I told her about the first time I saw Maddy on the first day of secondary school, how I fell in love with her there and then but never, in the intervening fifteen years, had the courage to tell her. I watched her lurch from unhappy relationship to unhappy relationship with boys, then men, and sometimes women, knowing that I could make her happy if I only had the nerve to tell her the truth. But I've always been a coward, and now I was dead and it was too late. Vi sat back in her chair, a warm smile on her face.
“I'm not so sure it is too late, my not-completely-dead friend”
I leant forward, my forearms resting on the table in a way I knew still astounded Vi.
“Do you know a way to reach her?”
“I think I do, and knowing you, you're extraordinary enough to pull it off”
I was in Trafalgar Square again but this time it was different. It was sunny and the sky was a cloudless blue, the air crystalline. There were people and traffic, but they were removed somehow, a backdrop and background noise. Adding to the atmosphere rather than detracting from it. Just the way I'd wanted it to be. There was only one thing that would make it complete and perfect, and there she was, sitting on the bench I always sat on, the bench we always sat on: Madeline, in her 1950s red rose patterned dress. I walked over and stood in front of her.
“Maddy, you look beautiful”
She looked up at me, her blue eyes bright, as if she didn't know whether to laugh or cry, or both. When she spoke, her voice caught.
“Is this really happening?”
Sadly, I shook my head.
“No, it's a dream”
“But it feels so real”
“I wanted it to be how I remember it, being here with you. D'ya remember how we'd sit here for hours and watch all the people?”
She nodded, not trusting her voice.
“Maddy, I've missed you so much”
The decision between laughing and crying was made. I reached down to grab her hands and pull her into my arms as she sobbed against my chest. It felt wonderful to hold her again, to feel the solid warmth of her body, smell the shampoo I always associated with her, even if I smelled it on someone else.
“I've missed you too, Liza, why did you have to go and die?”
“To be fair, it wasn't my fault”
“Why did you have to go and leave me?”
I tried to soothe and pet her, kissing the soft hair at her temple. Maddy had fought a life-long battle against what she considered the unruly curl in her hair, but I had always loved it, loved the wild unpredictability of it because it epitomised Maddy.
“Believe me, I didn't want to. I wish I'd done things differently. I wish
I'd got the bus rather than going out on my bike, I wish I'd stayed at home and watched telly that night. I wish – I wish I'd come round to your house and spent it with you”
“I wish you had too. I’d have held onto you and never let you go”
I felt the arms around me tighten, and when she spoke, Maddy's voice was muffled.
“I could hold onto you forever”
This was my chance and I knew I had to take it now. I eased myself away slightly. Startled, Maddy looked up at me, her eyes still bright with tears. She wasn't making it easy on me. I ran my fingers through that wild curly hair, rubbing it between my fingers, marvelling at its springy softness. It was a distraction, I knew, but one I allowed myself after so many years.
“Maddy, that's the problem. I – I need you to let go”
She didn't understand, I could tell by the frown that was developing between her eyebrows. I tried to smooth it out with the edge of my thumb. It wasn't working. I was going to have to explain.
“I need you to let me go, sweetheart”
Her head dropped, her voice a cracked whisper.
I raised her head with my fingers under her chin. I tried to lighten my tone, if only to alleviate the lump that had taken up residence in my chest, constricting my heart.
“You don't want me to haunt the West End for ever do you?”
She managed a brave if weak smile.
“You must hate that”
She became serious again.
“Because it's where I've been the happiest. Being with you”
“O Liza. I can't believe you're gone. I – I saw you at the funeral and then every day I've expected to see you again, everywhere I look, as if you'll walk back into the room at any moment and wonder what all the fuss is about. You can't be dead”
“I am though, Maddy. I hate it but it's true. You have to let me go so that I can cross over, I can't stay here forever”
I didn't want to say any more for now, so I pulled Madeline back against me and held on tight simply enjoying the sensations, the feel and smell of her. She was soft and warm and fit perfectly in my arms. Why had I never held her like this before? Still, I had to stick to my plan.
“Maddy, there's someone I'd like you to meet”
“Wha – ?”
Before Maddy finished what she was about to say, a very bemused Smudge appeared before us. She stared at me, wide eyed and dishevelled, as if she had just woken up.
“How the hell did you do that?”
My grin was smug, I knew, but I couldn't help myself.
“A little trick your Aunty Vi told me. Consider it payback for the summoning”
“For God's sake, woman, I'm in the middle of Trafalgar Square in my vest and pants. You could've at least dressed me”
“I don't know, you've got a great pair of – ”
“Don't say it”
“Legs. I was going to say you've got a great pair of legs”
“Liza, who is this woman, and what's she doing in my dream?”
Both Smudge and I turned to face Madeline, who was watching us with no small amount of trepidation.
“In fairness it's her dream too. Maddy, this is Smudge”
Smudge's face softened and I remembered why I liked and trusted her. Smudge took Maddy's hand and dipped her head to meet blue eyes with her own brown, giving a smile of incredible warmth and compassion,
“I'm very pleased to meet you, Maddy, and so sorry for your loss”
Maddy's mouth trembled, and she bit at her bottom lip, trying hard not to cry in front of this stranger. I could tell that Smudge's sympathy was almost too much for her, at any moment she was going to unravel, and although I hated to see her so unhappy, there was a part of me that knew it wouldn't be a bad thing. Denial is a part of the grieving process, I know, but Maddy’s denial was having serious ramifications on me. I touched Maddy’s arm.
“Can you give me a second? I’d like a quick word with Smudge”
She mutely nodded her head and I watched her as she walked away from us to stare at the fountain, her expression dazed. With a sigh I turned to Smudge, whose face still wore its compassionate expression; this time it was for me.
“Smudge, I know you’ve already done so much for me, but I’d like to ask you a favour”
I looked back at Madeline, who was trailing her fingers in the water at the base of the fountain.
“If this works, it’s going to be really hard for her. Like losing me again”
Smudge nodded her agreement.
“It’s a lot to ask when you don’t know her and only barely know me, but do you think you could keep an eye on her, make sure she’s okay?”
Smudge’s smile lit up the whole of her face, including those deep brown eyes of hers.
“Course I will. It would be a privilege. Now go talk to your girl whilst you’ve still got the time. You know how quickly dreams can change. I’ll just sit here and enjoy what has to be the weirdest anxiety dream I’ve ever had”
“Thanks, Smudge, you’re tops”
She waved me off and settled down on the bench, pointedly gazing in the other direction so we could have some privacy.
Madeline leant back into me the instant my arms went around her, the sound that escaped her mouth a combination of a sigh and a sob. She placed her hands over mine.
“Are you really haunting here?”
“I wish I’d known. I’ve been avoiding the West End because it reminds me too much of you”
“Maddy there’s something I want to tell you”
“I’m not sure I want to hear it, Liza. I don’t think – I don’t know if I can let you go”
“We both need to move on. You have to get on with your life, sweetheart”
Her head dropped forward, and I could see the nape of her neck where the hair parted. The longing to kiss that vulnerable skin was too much to resist; I leant in and let my lips gently brush it. Madeline released another sigh-sob.
“But that’s not what I wanted to say to you. Come on, let’s go and sit down”
I took her hand and led her over to another bench, away from where Smudge was still staring in the opposite direction, flexing her bare toes on the warm paving stones. We sat silent for a moment, me holding Maddy’s hand in both of mine. I half turned so that I was facing her, freeing my right hand so that I could brush a curl from her forehead.
“Maddy, I want you to know something. I love you. I always have and I always will”
She looked at up me, her blue eyes bright.
“Why did you never say anything?”
“I nearly did so many times. When you finished things with Paul I nearly did. And with Sarah, I came so close to telling you and hoping that I might have a chance. But I always lost my nerve. I – I figured you were out of my league”
Maddy reached out a hand, letting her fingers drift down my cheek.
“O God, Liza, you were never that. I always thought there would be time, that one day I’d tell you too”
Her shoulders slumped.
“But there wasn’t enough was there? Now everything is over and I can’t bear the thought that I’ll never see you again”
“Don’t say that. You don’t believe in life after death, you know you don’t”
“I suspect my views on that have changed”
I was rewarded with a rather watery laugh, but laugh none the less.
“I meant what I said, Maddy. I love you. I have since the first day I saw you, and I don’t think a small thing like death is going to get in the way of that”
And in the end it was easy, breaching the gap between Maddy’s mouth and mine; her lips were so soft, as was the gasp that escaped them. A gasp that quickly turned into a moan as she opened her mouth and encouraged my tongue in. I would’ve berated myself for waiting until I was dead to do this, but I was too caught up in the moment, in what we were doing. I didn’t even consider the surrealism of the action: me, a ghost, kissing my best friend in a dream of my devising. I didn’t care. Everything was perfect and I didn’t want to spoil it with over-thinking. Maddy’s hand moved up to tangle itself into my hair and pull my head closer as the kiss deepened. I could feel every emotion she’d had and never vocalised, all the frustrated love, the happiness and devastating loss. With each stroke of her hot tongue against mine I felt my own love for her expand, out and out until it consumed Trafalgar Square. From there, it would take over the whole of London, maybe England, and I was happy to let it.
With a nip at my bottom lip, Maddy pulled back a little and looked at me, her eyes now expressing what her lips and tongue had moments before. Her voice was a breath on my lips.
“I was so lucky to have you in my life, Eliza James”
It took me a moment to notice the past tense in her statement, and felt a flutter in my chest, a spark of something I couldn’t name or even pinpoint. And then all I became aware of was Madeline’s mouth, her hands stroking my face: soft, gentle and beautiful. She pulled away a second time, holding my face in both her hands, gazing at me, her blue eyes filled with love and something else. Not resignation, more a profound acceptance. Briefly she brushed her lips over mine and whispered:
“Goodbye, my love”
At first I thought I was still feeling the kiss, a wave of euphoria that started in my belly and quickly moved up to my chest and then my head, filling it with golden light. Light that poured out through the whole of my body, glimmering off me in a halo, shooting down my arms to emerge out from my finger tips. I saw it reflected in Maddy’s astonished face. I shot a glance at Smudge who had given up any pretence of ignoring us and was staring at me, as wide eyed as Maddy. I couldn’t help it, I grabbed Madeline’s hands and laughed my joy. It was contagious; soon Maddy was laughing along with me, and Smudge wore a smile that would crack the face of someone less large hearted. I mouthed thank you and she nodded, that smile lighting up an already brilliantly sunny square. I grabbed Maddy and held on tight, infusing her with the light that was bursting out of my chest now, out of the whole of my body. Now that’s more like it. My last thoughts, my last words: I LOVE YOU.
The last day of October was cold but thankfully not wet, not like the year before, the night the driver of a stolen car knocked a young woman off her bike and left her to die. It was cold but thankfully not wet, and two women sat huddled in their winter coats on a bench in Trafalgar Square, one blonde, the other a curly brunette. Pedestrians and traffic moved around them, oblivious. They were simply two unremarkable people. The curly brunette shivered until the blonde put an arm around her and drew her closer, the brunette gladly nuzzling into her freely offered warmth.
“Can you feel her?”
“Yes, it’s always strongest here, it’s like she’s only been gone five minutes”
Madeline sighed and shivered, making Smudge pull her in even closer.
“Fortnums for some reason”
“We used to go there for tea and cake. It made her feel like she was a classy bird. Not surprised she haunted there”
“She never went in. Just stood outside and looked in the windows”
Maddy drew in a shaky breath. Eliza, alone and on the street, feeling as if she wasn’t allowed in. She shook her head to clear the thought, burying her face into the warmth of Smudge’s neck; Smudge, who always smelled of sunshine, even at the end of autumn.
Eliza had vanished without a trace. Much to Vi’s disappointment, she could never contact her no matter how hard she tried. Reported sightings on the website dwindled. There were the occasional posts from people claiming to have seen her in their local branch of Tescos, or at Robbie Williams concerts, but no one took them seriously. It seemed that Smudge was the only one who was aware of the echoes Eliza had left behind, a psychic imprint. She’d traced her over huge distances, discovering parts of the city she’d never known before. She told Maddy she could write a guidebook and Maddy snorted her laughter into the soft warm skin of Smudge’s neck. But truth be told, the echoes were fading. Here was the last strong place, and both women were drawn to it. It was a celebration of sorts, a quiet one that went unnoticed by the people around them.
“I’m worried that she’s gone completely. You know, she never believed in life after death and that that’s what she’s got. Nothingness. I can’t bear to think of that”
Smudge bent down and kissed the top of Maddy’s head.
“I don’t think so. She had too much life force for that. She’ll be somewhere. Maybe she’s up in the stars, wandering around the heavens”
“That would be about right. She could never sit still for long. Apart from here”
“Yeah, with me”
They sat in silence for a moment, finally broken by Maddy’s soft voice.
“I like the idea of her in the stars. Maybe she has her own constellation”
The night was clear but there was too much ambient light for anything to be visible but a crescent moon and the lights from a plane circling the city before landing at Heathrow. Even as a star, Eliza was hidden from them. They sat close together, gazing at a moon in an orange tinted sky.