Abyss & Apex : First Quarter 2012: Her Long Hair Shining

Her Long Hair Shining

by Simon Kewin

 

Water ran down the walls, staining the stonework in triangles of green like a child’s drawing of a Christmas tree. Smith had to step around pools of water on the floor. The place hadn’t been used for years. Decades. Smashed windows let the wind and rain inside. It was colder inside, somehow, than it was out on the streets. The air tasted damp.

It was, he thought, a lonely place for a ghost to live.

Three lines of stone pillars supported the roof of the old mill. He wove his way between them, listening, the tap of his footsteps echoing sharply back to him.

‘Can you feel anything, Tom?’ he asked. ‘Anything at all?’

Tom whirled through the air from wall to wall, like a bird desperate to escape, an indistinct blur. He was always excited when they searched for a new ghost. Smith stopped for a moment to watch him. Delight at the sight of him coloured, as ever, with the crushing weight of guilt.

‘There is something,’ Tom said after a moment, pausing briefly in his zig-zagging. ‘Or there has been. It’s faint, very faint.’

‘Can you tell where?’

‘Near. Not here. Up a floor.’

‘Come on’.

There were stairs in each corner, their cramped steps worn smooth by the scuffing of many feet. Tom drifted along beside him, a flicker of light near his left shoulder. He could have just passed through the stone of the ceiling. Ghosts didn’t need to use the stairs. But, as always, he preferred to stay within sight.

The next floor was similar, another vast cavern that once would have roared with the clatter of machinery. Here, the pillars were of slender iron rather than stone. Some of them had rusted away completely at their base to form a line of jagged teeth that no longer touched the floor. The ceiling sagged. Lines of thin metal rods ran along it: axles that would once have powered the machines.

Smith heard a whisper, faint like dead leaves being blown along a stone floor. But the windows were unbroken here and he could feel no breeze on his face. There was the definite sense of not being alone. Tom was the sensitive one, of course, but after all this time Smith had become more attuned, too.

In the far corner of the room lay a jumble of broken metal parts, as if one of the great machines had crawled there to die. Tom zipped off that way now and Smith strode after him.

‘Anything, lad? Is it here?’

The disappointment in Tom’s voice was clear. ‘It’s gone again. I can’t feel it now.’

Smith nodded. The same had happened last time. He wondered how long the ghost had been here. Centuries maybe.

He looked again at the pile of debris. The broken frames of several looms lay jumbled together, along with rusted cogs and levers. A flat, triangular shard of polished metal was propped against them. It glistened slightly, covered in frost. Smith’s dim reflection filled it; he could just make out his wild mass of hair and beard, the bulk of his frayed, brown greatcoat wrapped tight with a length of string.

‘Let’s go home,’ he said.

‘Do we have to?’

‘I think so.’

‘Can we come back tomorrow and try again?’ said Tom. ‘Can we please, can we?’

 #

Later, he sat in his room, holding a steaming mug of tea on the patched arm of his old chair, trying to decide what to do. His thoughts were a jumble of disconnected threads. He was weary and hungry. He had spent the last of his money on cat-food. He felt like one of the fainter ghosts himself: scattered and incoherent. His mind jumped from thought to thought without reaching any conclusions.

Drawing out ghosts was often a matter of finding the right key. A person perhaps. That was a problem if the person was themselves dead. Or it might be a place, a particular room or building. Or an object.

Velvet, the cat, finished her food and padded over to lie in front of the one-bar electric fire they used when it was cold. Winter was coming on now. He still hadn’t taken his greatcoat off. His toes were numb from the long trek home. He needed new boots. The old ones let in too much water.

Only Tom took no notice of the temperature. He flew around in circles on the ceiling, playing some game of his own, disappointment forgotten. Smith sipped his scalding tea. Perhaps they wouldn’t be able to rescue this one. Some they couldn’t. The lost spirit faded away, little by little. He sometimes wondered whether they disappeared completely, or just became weaker as each day passed.

He set his mug down onto the stained carpet and stood to cross the room. In the alcove formed by the chimney-stack he had set up some shelves. An assortment of objects cluttered them. If anyone had come into the room, not that anyone else ever did, they might have been embarrassed that such a collection of broken and cheap objects had been placed there as ornaments. But they weren’t ornaments. Here were all the objects – the totems – they had used over the years to lure lost souls. Each, now, was a memorial, as well, to the person who was gone. All except one.

Sometimes handling the objects helped him think. He picked up one now, a solid metal clothes iron, rusting to the colour of treacle, with the manufacturer’s name, Hardwicke, cast into it. It was heavy; the sort they used before electricity, the brick-like lump of metal large enough to preserve the heat. He had stolen it from an antiques shop, enfolding it inside his coat to smuggle it out.

The woman had been killed in a Second World War air-raid. They had found her wandering, confused, very faint, among some office-blocks, looking for her house. Mary. It had taken weeks for Tom to gain her trust. But the iron had fascinated her. The simplest, most mundane item often did. It was something familiar, an anchor in the grey aether. She would have used one just like it most days of her life, keeping herself and her children crisp and presentable. Her husband, too, before he went off to be torpedoed in the Atlantic.

Once she had touched the iron, they were able to take her away from the roaring traffic and concrete towers. On the way home she had said the same thing, over and over.

‘I must get back! Dave and little Lou are on their own, waiting for me. I must get back.’

There wasn’t much left of her : just shreds of anxiety and memory. Still, they did what they could. They coaxed her name and address from her and Smith had managed, after long days of work in the library, to find out who she was and what had happened to her and her family. He had to explain it to her over and over.

‘Your house was destroyed in an air-raid. Your whole street.’

‘But Dave and little Lou. I have to get back. I only said I’d be a minute.’

‘It’s alright. Your children survived. The air-raid shelter. They both grew up and had children of their own. Grandchildren too. David was seventy-two when he died and Lucy was seventy-five. They had happy lives.’

‘They aren’t waiting for me? I only nipped out for some bread.’

‘They aren’t waiting for you. It’s all alright.’

Again and again she had listened, and each time Smith thought she had understood. But the following day they would have the same conversation again. Then, one bright summer day, her words had changed.

‘They aren’t waiting for me?’

‘No.’

‘Ah, good. I think I’d like to sleep now.’

The next day she was gone.

Now, he placed the iron back up on the shelf. Above it was the first piece in the collection. A toy robot, a C-3PO. It was made from a shiny plastic that resembled polished metal. It had been expensive to buy, he recalled. Originally it had talked and moved but it had stopped working at the time of the crash. It had lost an arm and half a leg as well.

He remembered walking for days along the winding country road, back and forth, past the skinned and blackened tree the car had crashed into, the robot clutched in his hand. It seemed amazing, now, that they had let him. But he recalled, with blazing clarity, the moment when Tom was back there with him; the rush of relief.

A shiny toy had done it, nothing more than that. He had an idea, then, about the old ghost in the mill. He set the robot carefully back on its shelf and began to open cupboard doors, rummaging through dusty, musty mounds of blankets, books, shoes and paintbrushes to find what he was looking for.

Finally he found it: an old mirror, about the size of a book, with a frame made from scrolls of iron, crudely painted. It was badly tarnished, the surface marred with spots and splodges of black, as if some disease had infected it. Still it might do. In his reflection, through his rough beard, he could see himself grinning.

He sat back down in his chair. His tea was lukewarm now. Tom was still, bobbing over by the window, the closest he came to sleeping.

‘We’ll go back there tomorrow,’ he said. ‘This mirror might do the trick.’

At the possibility of rescuing the ghost in the mill, Tom sped into a crazed, zig-zag flight once more, unable to contain his excitement.

 #

He set the mirror down onto the floor, next to the triangle of metal, then sat down on the dusty floor to wait. Waiting was a large part of what they did. To keep himself as warm as possible he buried his mouth and nose in the warmth of his greatcoat.

Hours passed by. Tom, excited at first, soon became bored and began to drift around the room, letting himself become an indistinct haze. Smith kept his eye on the polished metal and the mirror, looking for anything, a glint, a shadow. There was nothing. Daylight began to fade, leeching detail out of the room. Perhaps the ghost was too afraid of them. They often were. Perhaps it had faded already.

Finally, with a grunt, he worked his way back up to his feet, his legs stiff and clumsy. Tom circled over towards him, saying nothing.

‘I know, lad. Perhaps tomorrow.’

He turned to leave. It was then he saw a flicker of light in the polished metal. He stood motionless, watching. It was almost completely dark now. Sometimes it needed to be. Daylight flooded the ghosts, diluting them. There was another movement, distant. Smith knelt down, trying to quieten his rough breathing. Perhaps they had a chance after all.

There were dim lights swirling in the mirror, too. It was hard to be sure but it looked as if the faint presence had moved across from the shard of metal. Smith edged forwards, preparing to lift the mirror and smother it away in his coat. He was nearly there when the images, clear as an old television, began to appear.

 #

A young woman dressed in plain, grey clothes, strides into the factory. She walks arm-in-arm with a friend, the two of them elbowing each other and giggling. The woman’s golden hair glows, lighting up the drab surroundings. She must spend hours in front of the mirror to brush it to such a sheen. She is just a girl, really: sixteen or seventeen.

The mill is already full of workers, men and women. Young children as well, scampering around at their feet, darting into the machines to retie broken yarns. The looms are powered by wide leather belts that slap their way up to the thundering axles running along the ceiling. Somehow, Smith can hear all the sounds as well as seeing the sights. The crash and roar are deafening.

The woman’s friend speaks. Smith can’t hear what she says but the woman, lip-reading, or perhaps just seeing the expression on her friend’s face, understands. She blushes and glances over her shoulder towards a man working on the next row of machines. The man has seen her, knows he is being watched. He is young too. A beard shades his boyish face but he is tall and strong. He smiles to himself as he stares into the clattering depths of his machine.

The woman, knowing she is beautiful, flicks her hair to one side. What happens then is the simplest accident. Her hair becomes entangled in one of the leather belts. She is plucked from the ground and hauled up to the ceiling, her weight nothing to the power of the machines. Her body is mangled, bones broken in countless places as her body is partially wrapped around the axle. The roar of the machines rises in pitch slightly, angry at the extra resistance.

 #

When the pictures had stopped, Smith shuffled his way towards the mirror and lifted it, gently, into his arms.

 #

Two weeks later, returning home from another day at the library, he stopped outside his door to listen. Sally and Tom were lost in another of their games. He heard them whooping in delight. He listened for long minutes, smiling at the doorknob, not wanting to break the spell.

Tom had coaxed her name from her a week ago and now Smith was spending his days tracking down who she was and what had happened afterwards. It had been slow-going. Details from the nineteenth century were patchy and he had to walk miles and miles to read parish records. But now, finally, he thought he had the full picture. He sighed as he unlocked his door and slipped inside.

The two ghosts were chasing each other around the room. They moved so quickly–nothing more solid than a flicker in the air–that he couldn’t keep up with them. He caught glimpses of them flashing across all the reflective surfaces: the television screen, the gloss paint on the kitchen door, the window.

When Sally did finally dissipate, he knew, the loss to Tom would be terrible. Perhaps it would be too much for him. He would fade too, his existence, as insubstantial as a whisper in the air, finally over. For now they played endlessly, Tom never tiring, Sally sometimes an excited child herself, his sister perhaps, sometimes older, more like a mother.

‘I always wanted lots of children,’ she had said yesterday. ‘I wanted six. With Danny I mean. He was going to ask me to marry him. We’d have had three boys and three girls. We’d have had such fun together.’

Danny, he now thought, was Daniel Thomas. And the other woman, Sally’s friend, he was sure was Lillian Hargreaves. He had, just today, tracked down the death-certificate from 1975 of one Lilly McNeal, named after her great-grandmother. In his pocket he had a family photograph of the whole McNeal clan, black-and-white, taken at a wedding in the sixties, printed off from the microfiche archive of a local paper.

Smith lit the gas under the kettle. He had bought a loaf of bread, only slightly stale, which he sawed into wedges. Sitting back down he thought about how best to tell her everything.

Tom drifted up to him as he sat and thought. The lad was almost solid there before him, his boyish features, his unkempt hair real enough to try to touch. It was often the way when he was filled with some strong emotion. He knew well enough that Smith had uncovered Sally’s story.

He thought about the crash. He remembered very little, of course. Partly this was because of his head injuries. He had one knife-sharp memory, though. A memory that skewered him to the spot two or three times a day even now.

It was moments after the crash. The mangled car had stopped spinning and lurching. The engine ticked as it cooled. There was the smell of petrol. The car radio, miraculously, still played. He had looked behind him, his movement restricted by the confining space of the crushed car, a tearing pain across his shoulders. In the seat behind him sat Tom, his eyes wide open, frozen in astonishment, but seeing nothing.

The judge had been lenient. Said he had suffered enough. She was wrong, of course. He could never suffer enough.

‘Sally,’ said Smith quietly. ‘Can I show you something?’

He held the photograph up to the mirror.

‘Do you recognize anyone?’

‘Ah, Danny,’ whispered Sally after a few moments. ‘I wanted you so much.’

‘You see him?’

‘I don’t … this man looks like him, but it isn’t him is it?’

‘This is Samuel. He’s Danny’s great-great-great-grandson.’

‘He was going to ask me to marry him, you know. I said I’d wait for him outside the factory.’

‘I know.’

‘Who did he marry? The old woman standing next to him. She’s familiar.’

He had no idea what her reaction would be. Sometimes they burned and raged when it came home to them what they had lost. Sometimes they faded away there and then.

‘They waited five years. Then Danny married Lilly. The old woman is Samuel’s grandmother. Danny and Lilly’s great-granddaughter.’

‘Ah.’ The sound was drawn-out, more an exhalation of breath than a word. She had, he knew, lost much in her short life. Her mother when she was seven. Two brothers and a sister after that. She had learned not to expect much.

‘They had five children,’ he went on. ‘Four of them survived. The first, the eldest, was a girl. They called her Sally. This Lilly is her granddaughter.’

Sally said nothing.

‘They must have thought about you a lot. In a way, you were there with them all along.’

‘Lil always admired him too,’ she whispered. ‘She used to say. She’d have him if I didn’t want him. I’m glad they had each other.’

A circle of breath bloomed on the inside of the mirror with each word, only to evaporate away immediately.  He could see nothing of  her save for a quarter of her face, a tangle of golden hair and the corner of her mouth, hidden behind the patches of tarnished silver.

‘It’s over now. You don’t need to wait for him any more.’

‘I don’t?’

‘No.’

‘Then … what will happen to me now? Will I die? Will I go to heaven?’

It was the question they always asked.

‘I think … I think once you’re released you’ll be gone. You just won’t exist any more. But there will be no more pain.’

‘Oh. I see.’ She sounded more weary than disappointed. She said nothing more.

After a while he became afraid she had already faded. He peered closely into the murky depths of the mirror. He could see only himself: his lined face, his wild beard and bad teeth.

‘You could stay here with us,’ he whispered.

After a moment, there was a flicker of movement deep inside the glass.

‘Here?’ She was still with him.

‘In this mirror. Or anywhere. You’ll have me for company, for a time at least. Tom is always here. Others pass through. And Velvet can see you, of course.’ He trailed off, aware of how meagre a life it was he was offering. How poor a family.

She was silent. Velvet stood, stretched into an arc and padded two paces across the floor, catching up with the square of weak sunlight that was slanting across the room. She circled three times and lay back down again.

‘What would I do?’ said the girl.

‘I can’t tell you what to do. You’re much older than I am.’

Her face, sketched in grey lines, slid to the front of the glass. Her eyes were bright. They held his gaze, then looked through him, onto greater distances, the window beyond him, the rooftops of the city.

‘I never saw the sea,’ she said. ‘There were so many things I wanted to see before I died.’

‘You still can.’

‘I’d like that,’ she said.

Tom, the remnants of his dead boy, began to dart and flicker around the room, glowing with light. The cat, lifting its head, watched him dance. The ghost in the mirror, also watching him, laughed out loud, her long hair shining.

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