RAPHAEL KLEIN

The king had won another war, and wanted the victory commemorated, and decreed that a statue of himself on horseback leading his troops into battle should be designed, carved, and copied, and erected throughout the land in every single city, town, municipality, and all villages containing a population of more than five hundred souls. The village of K_ had nearly six hundred souls in it. And so it was that the court engineers came and set a statue down right in the middle of the square. It was made of grey stone – it was said that marble had been reserved for the cities alone – and was some twenty feet tall; the horse stood up ready to charge, and balancing upon its hind legs looked for all the world as if it were on tiptoes; and on its back the king raised a sword high, or maybe it was a cutlass, and his mouth was wide open, presumably in the act of shouting out some heroic order or other. The king’s nostrils were flared; so were the horse’s. The people of K_ quite liked the statue, really; it was a talking point, and it was something to shelter beneath when the sun was hot. And then, one day, not very long after, the king decided it was time to go to war again, and that he would need all the young men to fight alongside him. And in a trice the young men left, and the population of K_ dipped far below five hundred, and really they no longer qualified for a statue at all.

A year passed, and the young men never came home, and it became clear they never would. The burgomaster went to see the stonemason. He proposed that the statue be turned into a memorial to all those from K_ who had died and would not return; at the top of the plinth the stonemason could engrave the words ‘OUR GLORIOUS DEAD’, and beneath that, in smaller writing, but very neat, the names of all the young heroes. “Do you like ‘Our Glorious Dead’?” said the burgomaster. “I was also toying with ‘OUR FALLEN SONS’.” The stonemason told him he could have both, if he were paid a couple more coins for the effort, and the burgomaster readily agreed. The burgomaster produced a list of all the names that needed to be carved on to the stone, there were exactly a hundred of them, and the stonemason decided that if he carved one name every morning, and one name every afternoon, then that would be two names carved a day, and the job would take fifty days to complete.

And so it was. It was another warm summer, but the stonemason was in the best possible place in the whole of K_, working in the cool shadow of the statue. In the morning he would carve a name upon one side of the plinth; in the afternoon, when the sun had moved, he would carve a name upon the other side. There was no order to the names, he would engrave them at random, he’d look down the list and see whichever name caught that day’s fancy. And the people of K_ would come and see how he was progressing, and when the day came that he would choose the name of one of their dead sons, they would get so excited, and read the name out loud in wonder, and press their fingers into the inscriptions and marvel at the weird shapes of the letters, and weep for joy that at last their sacrifice had been acknowledged.

One evening Mr and Mrs Klein came to see the stonemason. Mr and Mrs Klein had no children. The stonemason couldn’t guess what they might possibly want.

They stood there in his cottage and looked nervous.

“We would like you to engrave the name of our son,” Mr Klein said.

“We have money,” said Mrs Klein.

“You don’t have a son,” pointed out the stonemason.

“But not for want of trying,” said Mr Klein, and he blushed bright red, and Mrs Klein looked down to the ground. “We wanted a son so very much. But we were never so blessed.”

The stonemason had put in a long day’s engraving, he had chosen a name that afternoon that had four whole syllables to it, and he was tired. “You’ll have to leave,” he said. “I don’t see how I can help you.”

Mrs Klein said, “If we had had a boy, he would have been taken from us. He would have gone to fight in the war. And we would have lost him, just as suredly as all the others. We would have had a hero too. It’s not our fault. It’s not our fault I was never strong enough to bear one.”

“Please,” said Mr Klein. “Honour our fallen son. We only want what’s right.”

“We have money,” said Mrs Klein again.

The stonemason said, “What name did you want?”

“Raphael.”

“Raphael? Really?”

“It is what,” said the Kleins, “we would certainly have called him.”

The stonemason felt shamed by the new commission, but he didn’t know why. He knew he couldn’t engrave the name on the statue with all the village there to see. So, sleepy as he was, he lit a candle, and went out then and there, he took up his chisel and he tapped out this latest child who had been lost in war. The moon hid behind the clouds, and the mason’s arms were weak, and it took hours to complete the job. For the sake of the real martyrs, he made sure that Raphael Klein’s name was slightly smaller than theirs.

He had barely had an hour’s sleep when he was woken by someone thumping at his front door.

The burgomaster was furious. “Don’t you understand?” he cried. “How this discredits the tragedy of the lads who so bravely died for us? The lads who actually existed?”

The mason stood his ground. When confronted by any extremity of emotion, he always chose to imitate the stone he worked with and understood so well, his face became impassive, his shoulders slumped hard as granite. “I just follow orders,” he said.

“Indeed!” said the burgomaster. “But not for nothing, I’ll bet. How much were you paid?”

“Two silver coins.”

“Two silver coins! So, that’s the price of our town’s integrity!”

A couple of hours later the burgomaster returned.

“Two silver coins,” he scoffed. “Look here. I’ve brought you five gold coins. And for them I want you to give me two sons. One is called Peter, the other is called Pyotr. They were good boys, strong boys. Identical, born in the very same hour, you couldn’t have told them apart – but I could, I could. Twins, and always the best of friends. They were the world to me. And they marched off to war together, and first they slapped me on the back, they said to me, Papa, if we never meet again, it’ll be for a higher cause – and they laughed, because they were men, do you see? And I laughed too. They gave me the courage to laugh. Pyotr joined the cavalry, Peter the infantry. And they died together, at the exact same time. Peter was stabbed through the heart in the midst of battle; elsewhere on the field, Pyotr’s horse was blown up by a mortar shell. They died at the very same instant, inseparable even at the end – and they never knew. They never even knew.” And the burgomaster cried. The stonemason knew that the burgomaster had sent four sons off to war already; with the twins, that made it a tidy half dozen.

The villagers of K_ came to the stonemason with all the money they could afford. They bought dead sons. Some bought an entire platoon of dead sons. Some only wanted one son, a single son, a handsome son, kinder and more honourable and just plain better than the one they had spent years bringing up and had sent away shaking and weeping and scared to die. And the villagers would tell the stonemason the stories of their new sons’ deaths, and most often they had died saving the king himself, or if not, the whole army, there had been such meaning to the deaths, they had died so that hundreds more could live – and always they’d done so with a hardy smile or a witty quip, it was never in pain or filth or puke, it was never screaming for their mummy and daddy to save them, why wouldn’t their parents save them? And it was easier to part with these sons, because they’d been born at the end of a chisel just so they could be killed. And it was harder to part with them, too, because they were perfect. And as the villagers told the stonemason the stories, oh, there were tears of great pride, and tears of loss, a loss all the greater for being for something never actually won in the first place. The stonemason listened politely, but he wished once they’d paid him the money they’d just shut up and leave. He had a lot of work to do.

Pretty soon there wasn’t room on the plinth for all the names. If the burgomaster had chosen between ‘Our Glorious Dead’ and ‘Our Fallen Sons’, then a few more might have been squeezed on, but there it was, he’d just had to be indecisive. The names soon snaked up the horse’s legs, on to the horse’s flank, right across the horse’s arse. And on to the king himself; the king’s face was tattooed with the names of all the boys he had killed, or would have killed, if the boys had been foolish enough to let themselves be born in the first place.

The stonemason always did these special names at night. He was no longer ashamed. But the darkness felt the right place for all the never-was-es and should-‘ve-beens. He continued to work on engraving the real dead in the daytime, but he was tired, and frequently he made spelling mistakes. No one seemed to mind.

And the stonemason became very rich.

*

And once, when he was dozing, he dreamed that the statue fell on him. He hadn’t even seen it start to topple, it must have all been very quick, one moment he was condemning another boy to death, the next he was sprawled out flat, pinned fast by the king’s buttocks. And he knew that the statue must weigh several tons, by rights he should be squashed to a pulp, but he understood stone, stone ran through him like lifeblood, stone would never hurt him. It was the dead. It was the dead who’d done it. He’d burdened the stone with too many dead, and it had made the stone top heavy – and it hadn’t  been fair on the stone, it was just unfeeling stone, why should the stone be made to care for them? He knew he could push the statue off, set it back on to its plinth, and they’d both be right as rain – but it was all the dead standing on top of it, they made it impossible, the dead all stomping down with their little army boots, he couldn’t budge it an inch. They stared down at him, and he knew they weren’t doing it deliberately, they didn’t know what they were doing, they were just stupid corpses. And there were just too many. There was just one too many. One fewer corpse in the world, and he could have set himself free.

When he awoke, he was drenched with sweat. He steadied his breathing. He got up. He went to his coffers.

And went out, into the night.

The house of Mr and Mrs Klein was all dark, like mourning. They had only ever asked him for that one son, the first son, Raphael. After that they had avoided the stonemason, turned away from him at the market, or in church, and he had never known why. Maybe they had realised Raphael’s inscription was smaller than the others, and more discreetly hidden. Maybe they thought he would tempt them to create and then murder another child.

Underneath their door he slid two silver coins.

He went back home, and to bed, and his conscience never troubled him again.

*

One evening, when the moon was its brightest, the dead came back. Not the dead who had ever lived, but the dead who had never been.

Into the town they marched, right to the square, right to the statue itself. And Raphael Klein was at the front, he was their leader. And everyone could tell it was Raphael Klein, even though no had ever seen him before, because he had just his father’s mouth and just his mother’s eyes, he did his parents proud.

He announced that they had all been granted a furlough. Just one night, to visit their families. Just one night, and then back to war. And that was good, because war was good, all the camaraderie and all the honour, and they were winning, didn’t their parents feel proud? And the soldier boys read the inscriptions on the memorial, and how they laughed. They weren’t dead, they were well and fit and happy, couldn’t Father see how well, didn’t Mother feel proud they looked so well in their smart uniforms? And the villagers of K_ were proud, and no one wanted to point out that some of them were missing limbs, or parts of their body, or parts of their head; not for all the world did they want to hurt their children’s feelings.

There were cakes and ale, and dancing, and games, and no one slept that night.

The stonemason stayed at home. He had never carved a name upon the statue for himself. He had been tempted. Of course he had been tempted.

When the knock sounded at the door, slow and heavy, the stonemason refused to open up. “Go away!” he said.

More knocking, so slow, heavier still, and it was not the knock of a dashing young hussar, it was the knock of a simpleton, from the lowest dregs of the regiment, what was standing behind the closed front door was nothing better than cannon fodder – “I don’t want you!” he shouted at it.

For a moment the knocking stopped. But then, as before, no more insistent, but just as mindless, thump, thump, thump.

And outside he could hear his neighbours celebrating what never was and could never have been.

“I never wanted a child!” he shouted. “Do you hear? I never wanted you!”

And there was silence. And he thought he had chased his son away. And that was a relief. And then, so suddenly, it was such a dreadful thing.

“Are you still there?” he said.

No answer.

“Are you there?”

Still nothing.

The stonemason said, “I never had a child. To have a child, I would have had to love someone. I would have had… to make someone love me. And, do you hear? Do you hear me? I never even came close.”

Still nothing, but the sound of villagers at play, mocking him.

“Please?” And he opened the door.

There he was, waiting for him. Unnamed. And featureless. His face a fracture of rock and chalk.

“My son,” he breathed. And he put his arms around him, and the statue cut at his skin, and made him bleed, and he didn’t care.

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CHARLES PREPOLEC

Mr Prepolec invited Mrs Prepolec out to dinner. He never thought she’d say yes, but the asking alone seemed like the right thing to do, one firm step on the road to recovery. But she did say yes. She didn’t want to go to their local restaurant. She wanted to go to a restaurant where there were no memories. So they got into the car and drove out of town and it was nearly forty-five minutes before they’d found somewhere that looked suitable. And there were no memories there, but of course there were memories there, they both remembered the first time Charlie had eaten a spaghetti bolognaise and had thought it was worms, and how much fun he’d had twisting the worms around his fork, and how he had splashed them both with meat sauce. There was nothing but memories. But they did well, they didn’t mention Charlie once, well, they mentioned him once, but not too badly, it was all right. They were going to be all right. And the waiter was polite, and the decor nice, and Mr Prepolec said, “It’s good here, we should come again.” The food was very nice and the wine was nice and neither of them enjoyed it, and neither of them had expected to, that would be too much to ask for.

He said, “I love you.”

She said, “I love you too.”

He raised a glass to toast her, but halfway up he decided that might be inappropriate, and drank alone instead.

*

At a little after nine o’clock they got home, and they could see right away that the house had been burgled. The alarm had been triggered, the blue box above the front door was flashing, and they could hear the siren inside, an electronic wail that was low and mournful and annoyingly discreet.

Mr Prepolec felt a rush of excitement. “Let me go first,” he said. “They might still be in there!” Though he didn’t know what would happen if he opened the door and found burglars the other side, what would he say to them, what could he do. Mrs Prepolec was right behind him, and she nodded fiercely as he put the key in the lock and pushed the door open, and Mr Prepolec thought she seemed excited too.

The hallway looked just the same as they’d left it. Mr Prepolec called, “If there’s anyone there, come out!” But no one did.

They saw where the burglars had broken in, a smashed window at the back leading out on to the garden. She said, “We’ll have to see what’s missing,” and he said, “I’ll do downstairs, you upstairs,” and they set to work. And as Mr Prepolec inspected the sitting room he allowed himself some little congratulation, he and his wife really responded well to crises. The day by day silences had been so difficult, but give them a crisis and they could really show off their best.

And then he heard a shout from upstairs, it was a shriek, and he hadn’t heard his wife shriek like that, not even through all the agonies of the last few weeks – and he rushed up to her, up the stairs two at a time, straight to the bedroom.

The bedroom, like the sitting room, looked untouched. There was not a hint any stranger had been inside. But his wife was shaking, positively shaking; tears were streaming down her face.

“What is it?” he asked, and went to touch her, and didn’t quite.

She said, “He’s gone. Oh God. Oh God.”

She pointed at her dressing table.

He said, “Are you sure?”

She said, “Oh God.”

He said, “Because you might have put it somewhere else? Hey? Did you put it, listen…”

She said, “What are we going to do?”

He said, “Did you put it in a drawer? Could it be in a drawer?”

She said, “What ever are we going to do now, oh God.”

He said, “I think we should check the drawers. Let me check the drawers. Let me.” And he checked the drawers, and the drawers were full of other stuff, jewellery, some of it perfectly nice, some of it perfectly burglerable, but it wasn’t there. And his wife sank down on to the bed, and then stood up again.

“We’ve got to get after them,” she said.

“What are you saying?”

“They could be right outside. They might only have just. They might be.”

“We don’t know what they look like,” he said. “We don’t know what to look for.”

“Oh God.”

“We’ll call the police. It’ll be all right.”

“How can the police help? You just said…”

“Listen…”

“They won’t know what to look for.”

“I’ll call the police. We have to call them anyway.”

“I’ll call them.”

“I’ll call them. You’re in no. You lie down, or. Or make us a cup of tea, I’ll, I’ll call them right away.”

He called the police. They said they’d send someone right over.

*

At ten minutes to ten she started clearing up the broken glass from the sitting room carpet, and he told her not to, he said it might be evidence, he said the police might want to fingerprint it, maybe that’s how they’d find the culprit. And she dropped the glass as if it were burning hot.

*

At quarter past ten the police rang the doorbell. There were two of them – one was a short woman, young; the other, a man who was younger still, who never said very much. They both looked suitably serious.

Mr Prepolec said, “Thank you for coming over.”

Mrs Prepolec said, “Thank you. Would you like some tea? We’ve put tea on.”

The woman said, “Thanks, we’ve just had some. Oh, this is a nice house. Have you had it long?”

He said, “About ten years now.”

She said, “Nearer fifteen!”

He said, “About fifteen.”

The woman said, “And can you show… Oh yes. Yes, this is where they’ll have got in, look.”

She said, “They? Do you think there was more than one?”

The woman said, “And when would this have been?”

He said, “We got back about nine-ish. We’d been out for dinner. We’d been out, I don’t know, an hour and a half?”

The woman said, “So, that’ll give us an hour and a half window.”

He said, “Yes.”

She said, “Will you be able to catch them?”

The woman said, “And has there been any other damage?” Her colleague was writing down everything in a little notebook.

“No,” said Mr Prepolec. “No, it was just the window.”

“Well, that’s a mercy,” said the policewoman. “And missing, what’s missing?”

He said, “Not that much.”

She said, “It’s everything to us.”

“Have you made a list?”

He said, “No need for a list. It was in the bedroom.” The Prepolecs showed the policewoman and her friend up the stairs.

“Right,” said the policewoman, surveying the room. The policeman wrote something new down in the notebook.

“It was an urn,” he said.

“Over here,” she said.

He said, “Though it might have been in the drawers. It’s gone, anyway.”

She said, “It contained our son. Charlie. It contained his ashes. He was seven. He was only seven.”

“Right,” said the policewoman. “Oh, I’m very sorry.”

He said, “It’s all right.”

She said, “It’s not all right. It was the only thing. It was the only thing left. Of him. Why didn’t you get here sooner? Then you could have… got after them and… bloody caught them…”

He said, “Hey, hey.”

She said, “Oh God, do you think you can get him back?”

The woman said, “A cup of tea would be nice. Mrs Prepolec? Do you think we could have that cup of tea?”

Mrs Prepolec said, “Yes.”

The woman said, “Andy here will help you.”

Mrs Prepolec said, “I don’t need. Yes. Thanks. Yes. Sugar?”

The woman said, “Please.” And Mrs Prepolec and the silent man with the notebook called Andy went downstairs.

“Sorry,” said Mr Prepolec. “She’s. Well.”

“Of course,” said the woman. “Your son. I’m sorry.”

“Yes,” said Mr Prepolec. “But we’ll be all right.”

“What did the urn look like?”

“So big. Quite small. They don’t give you many ashes. I thought there’d be more. We were both surprised. Oh, and it was sort of grey. The urn.”

“Sort of grey,” said the woman. “Right. And is the urn all that’s missing?”

A few minutes later the tea was brought up. Mrs Prepolec had stopped crying. She was even smiling. She looked at the policewoman with such hope in her eyes.

“Here you are,” she said. “Do you think you can get him back? I mean, I know you can’t make any promises.”

“It just seems odd that this was the only thing that was stolen,” said the policewoman. “I mean. Did anyone know where you kept the urn?”

“No,” said Mrs Prepolec.

“No,” said Mr Prepolec. “I mean, sometimes, you move it about, don’t you, love?”

“I’m not quite sure where I want to keep it yet,” said Mrs Prepolec.

“Odd,” said the policewoman. “Well. Well, we’ll get right on to it.”

“I know you can’t make any promises,” said Mrs Prepolec. “That’s all right.”

The woman said, “I won’t lie to you. The chances of recovering the urn are really. Well, very small. I mean, it’s not impossible.”

“No.”

“No.”

“But I don’t want you to have your hopes raised.”

“I don’t need the urn back,” said Mrs Prepolec. “If that makes things easier. We were going to get a better urn anyway. Something pretty we could keep forever. We only want the ashes inside.”

“That doesn’t,” said the woman, slowly, “make recovery much easier, no. Now, we’ll give you an incident report number. Andy. There. And if you get any further info, just. Yes. And we’ll send you something about theft counselling, it’s standard procedure.”

“We won’t need that,” said Mr Prepolec.

“It’s no trouble. Now, will you two be all right?”

“We’ll be all right,” said Mr Prepolec.

Mrs Prepolec said, “Yes. Yes.”

Then Mrs Prepolec said, “We won’t press charges. Tell them that. So long as they give us the ashes back.”

The policewoman said, “Nasty business. But you sleep safe. They never come back. And I’m. We’re sorry for your loss.”

They both thanked her.

Andy said, “Forgive me, but. How did your little boy die?”

And they told him.

*

At ten thirty-five the police left. At ten forty, Mrs Prepolec remembered the glass in the sitting room, there might be fingerprints on it. She wanted to call the police up and tell them. Mr Prepolec told her not to. Mrs Prepolec said they’d been asked to call if they had any further info, and this was further info, and Mr Prepolec said this wasn’t the sort of info that they’d have had in mind.

They dealt with the glass together. He picked up all the shards one by one, taking care he didn’t cut himself. She held a plastic bag open for him to drop the pieces inside. It was a perfect example of just how effective they could be when they worked together, they didn’t even need to plan it, he’d just gone to the shards, she’d gone for the bag, they were a team. It was the same mindset that had sent out the funeral invitations so efficiently, and had ensured the catering had been a success. At ten forty-five Mr Prepolec took the bag from his wife, and sealed it with a knot. “That’s that then,” he said. She asked whether he was going to call the insurance company for the window, and he said it’d be rather a waste of their no claims discount, wouldn’t it? And it was only three panes broken, he could have a go at them himself at the weekend.

He said, “You didn’t mean that, did you? About the urn?”

She said, “What?”

He said, “That we were going to buy a new one. To keep forever.”

She said, “Oh. Yes. Well, I hadn’t decided.”

He said, “I thought we’d agreed. We were going to scatter the ashes in the park. Where he used to play, you know.”

She said, “In the back garden, we said.”

He said, “Or in the back garden, yeah. Yeah, you never said anything about keeping the ashes.”

She said, “I hadn’t decided.”

And at quarter past eleven her face suddenly lit up. She went to the phone.

He said, “Who are you calling?” and she said, “Shh!”

She spoke to an answering machine in her nicest voice. She asked very sweetly if her call could be returned urgently, the very first thing next morning.

He said, “Was that the police? Love?”

She said, “It was the crematorium. I thought, hang on. We didn’t get many ashes in the first place. Maybe they have some left over.”

He said, “They won’t have any left over.”

She said, “They might.”

He said, “It wouldn’t all have been Charlie’s ashes anyway. There’ll have been bits of coffin in there.”

“I know.”

“It may have been other people’s ashes too. We don’t know.”

“Why are you saying that? Why would you say that?”

“I don’t know.”

“If you don’t know, then just bloody well shut up.”

A few minutes later he said, “Look. I was just trying to. I don’t know.”

She said, “It’s all right.”

He said, “But the ashes. Love. Love. They’re just a symbol, aren’t they? That’s what I mean.”

She didn’t reply.

“So,” he said, “we could scatter some other ashes. We could still say goodbye to Charlie.”

“What other ashes?”

He said, “It wouldn’t matter. It could be, I don’t know. One of his favourite toys. We could burn that bear of his, what, Paddington.”

“Paddington.”

“Charlie loved Paddington. We could set fire to Paddington and scatter Paddington’s ashes. That’s all I’m. That’s what I’m saying.”

A few minutes later he said, “I love you.”

A few minutes later he said, “I’m going to the toilet.” He didn’t go to the toilet. He went up the stairs to Charlie’s room. He closed the door. He sat on the bed.

*

Just before midnight she came upstairs to find him.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“I’m sorry too,” she said.

“Sit with me,” he said.

She did.

They’d left the room as it was. All the toys. All the cupboards full of little socks, little shirts, little person clothes. The wallpaper of characters from Toy Story. Mr Prepolec knew at some point he’d have to strip the wallpaper. Getting rid of the clothes and toys wouldn’t be so bad, there was still some use to them, they wouldn’t feel wasted. But he’d have to strip the paper right off.

He said, “I’ve been thinking. And it’s just you and me now. And I’m so sorry about Charlie. About all of this. But maybe, with the ashes, it’s good they’ve gone. Because it’s over. You know? It’s over. And I was so. Oh, dreading, that moment we would scatter his ashes. So scared of it. Having to say goodbye again, and we’ve already done it, haven’t we, I can’t go through that again. And now, it’s awful. I just feel such relief.”

She said, “Yes.”

He said, “Do you feel it too?” And he said, “We have each other.” And he said, “Oh, God. Oh, shit.”

She said then, “Did you do it?” And it was so quiet.

And he thought, what, did she mean, was it all his fault? Was it his fault Charlie had died? And of course it wasn’t. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. No one could have known.

She said, “Tell me. Did you do it? Did you steal the ashes?”

“What? No. No, I.”

She said, “What the police said. How odd it was. Only the ashes missing. And the thief knowing where there’d be. You knew where there’d be.”

“I thought they were in the drawers.”

She said, “Did you do it?” And he said, how, how could he have done it, they were out together, they were doing something together, at last, like ordinary people, as if they were ordinary people again, he hadn’t left her side, he hadn’t even been to the toilet, they’d been together the whole time. She said, “You could have asked a friend. You have lots of friends. You could have paid someone,” and he said, of course he hadn’t, he hadn’t got any friends, no friends at all.

She said – and she did the same thing she’d done with Charlie – she said, “Look at me, I can see if you’re telling the truth.” He looked at her, and my God, she was beautiful, she’d been crying and her eyes were so wet and large. “Just tell me. I’ll forgive you. I’ll understand. I’ll try to understand.”

He said, “I didn’t do it.” And she thought about this, then got up, and left the room.

She was back a few minutes later. She was wearing her coat. She was carrying his.

“What?” he said.

“We’ll look outside,” she said. “Maybe the burglars dropped something.”

*

At ten past midnight they left the house. She said, “You look down that street, I’ll look down this one.”

He’d not wanted to go, but he felt the need to apologise to her, and he wasn’t sure for what. He’d said there’d be nothing to find. She said she’d read somewhere that burglars drop some of their spoils in the getaway from the crime scene. She said she’d seen this programme once about burglars who were overcome with remorse, and brought back things they’d stolen, and left them on the front lawn. Maybe their burglars were remorseful. Maybe they’d thought, we can afford to buy an urn. Maybe they’d decided they could have a child of their own.

The moon was bright, and they didn’t need torches. She handed him a torch nonetheless, and turned on her own. She turned it up to her face, and she looked somewhat devilish. “Good luck,” she said.

He traced the beam on to the pavement for a while, and then, when he rounded the first corner, and could no longer be seen, he turned off the light. He stood there, and for all he was worth he tried to cry, but nothing would come out.

*

At one o’clock Mr Prepolec checked his watch, and decided that was time enough. He went back home, and found Mrs Prepolec was already indoors. In the kitchen she was making yet more tea.

“No luck,” she said. “Any luck? I had no luck.”

He said, “I can’t do this any more.”

She said nothing to that. He felt his heart beat faster. He felt sick.

“We’re not going to see Charlie again,” he said.

“No. But.”

“I’m not happy,” he said. “With you.”

“No,” she said. “But. But.”

“The three of us. It worked. Didn’t it? As a family. When we were all together.”

“Yes.”

“I wasn’t sure it would work. Do you remember? When you were pregnant? I didn’t think it would work. Because the two of us, on our own, that worked. Why should three of us work? Why mess that up? Do you remember?”

“Yes.”

“But it did. It was good. It was good. And now. It’s just you and me. Again, you and me left, baby.”

She nodded.

“I don’t see how.” He said, “I don’t see how.”

She said, “We’ll be all right.”

He said, “I only want to make you happy. And nothing makes you happy.”

She said, “I can’t be happy.” And she said, “We’ll be all right, though.” And she said, “We just have to get back to where we were. Before Charlie. We just have to find that again.”

“I don’t see how we’re going to do that.”

“No. No. No. Nor me. I know.”

He made a move further into the kitchen, right towards her, and she thought he might be about to hug her, and she steeled herself for it accordingly. She didn’t want to be hugged. But maybe it would be all right, so long as she let the hug happen, maybe after the hug everything would get better, maybe the hug would be the turning point. She steeled herself, then, but he didn’t hug her, and all that steel in her body gave way, she felt her limbs get all floppy and useless again.

“I’m going to bed,” he said. “Not in our bed. I’ll sleep. I’ll sleep on the sofa, or. Charlie’s bed. I’ll sleep in Charlie’s bed. Not to get away from you. I just want to be on my own.”

“Yes,” she said.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, and he went.

*

At quarter past one she knocked on Charlie’s door. “Can I come in?” she asked. He wanted to tell her to go away, he wanted to say something that would make her hurt, and he didn’t know why, why would he want that? “Sure,” he said.

He was lying on the bed, fully clothed, staring up at the ceiling. She said, “That looks comfortable.”

“It is.”

“Can I join you?”

“All right.”

There wasn’t much room on the bed. He shuffled to one side, but they had to hold on to each other to stop themselves rolling off.

She said, “I need you to tell me you did it.”

“I didn’t.”

“I need it to be you. I need it to have been you. Please. And not some stranger. Please.”

He said, “I did it.”

“I need you to tell me how. I need you to make me believe it.”

He said nothing for a while, and she thought he wasn’t going to speak, he wasn’t going to speak again, not ever, and where would that leave them? And then, softly, he explained. He told her how he’d asked a man at work. No one she knew, he wouldn’t give the name, it didn’t matter. He’d asked this man for a favour, no money had changed hands. He’d told the man their address, when they would be out at dinner, the exact location of the urn. And then he’d given instructions for the man to take the ashes to the park, and scatter them there by the swings – Charlie had liked the swings.

She said, “I’d prefer the back garden.”

He said, “I told him the park,” and that had to do.

She said, “Thank you.”

She said, “I still love you.”

He sighed.

He said, “Good.”

“Is it, though? Is it good?”

He thought about it for a while. “I don’t know,” he said, honestly.

“No.”

“I don’t see,” he said, “how it can be bad.”

“Can we turn the lights off?” she said. “Can we get beneath the covers?”

He couldn’t see why not.

*

Charlie had had a bedside clock, it lit up in the dark, it showed wild animals. And so they both knew when it was thirty-five minutes past one.

And at thirty-five minutes past one it was exactly nineteen days since Charlie had slipped away, and neither of them mentioned this, but both commemorated the moment in their own way.

Then he turned the clock around, so they couldn’t see the time any more. And it was truly dark.

And twenty-four hours later, exactly, they’d reach twenty days. And maybe that would be better. Or maybe it would be just the same. But they’d reached nineteen, they’d reached another milestone, they’d hopped right over it, and that was good, that was good, that was all right.

*

They dozed for a while. They now had no way of telling for how long.

They got hot. So they took off their clothes, and they snuggled together, naked.

And at length Mrs Prepolec said, “I kept on thinking, he’ll be more interesting when he’s older. Seven year olds aren’t very interesting. They haven’t done anything yet. They have nothing to say. I kept on thinking, he’ll be better when he’s a teenager, I have that to look forward to. But now, he’s never going to get interesting.”

She said it very softly, maybe because it was dark, maybe because she thought Mr Prepolec might be asleep.

He said, at last, “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

“Do you forgive me?”

“Tomorrow,” he said.

And then he said, “Yes.”

They began to kiss then. They hadn’t kissed for a while, and that had nothing to do with Charlie, or his death, they just hadn’t felt the need for such a very long time. They did now, but incuriously, and both thought that at any moment they might pull away and tell the other to stop.

He climbed on top of her.

He said, “Is this all right?”

She said, “Yes.”

He said, “Do you want me to. I don’t know. Do you want me as I am?”

She said, “It’s up to you.”

He said, “I think I’ll carry on. As I am, I think that’s best.”

They made love. And it didn’t mean anything that there was no condom, not necessarily – this wasn’t the start of something new. It was just another absence in a room full of absence. But it felt good, and they worked together, they didn’t need to tell the other what to do, they were a team. And afterwards Mrs Prepolec said thank you, and Mr Prepolec said thank you, and they kissed, and they held each other, and they went to sleep.

NICHOLAS BLAKE

A man comes to the door, and tells you he’s collecting the sexual favours from the descendants of Great Masters of English Literature. You didn’t know you were the descendant of any Great Master, but he takes out a family tree he’s researched and shows the direct line between you and Laurence Sterne, the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759). You thank him, but explain that you’re happily married, and have never once in fifteen long years cheated on your husband. He says he quite understands, and has the grace not to look too disappointed. He bobs his head with perfect courtesy. And asks whether you happen to have the address of your sister handy. Your sister is married as well, but she’s always been flightier than you, and her morality is her own affair – you see no reason why you shouldn’t help the man out. He smiles, bobs his head again, gives you his card, and leaves.

Something about this encounter disturbs you, and it takes you a full hour to work out quite what. Your sister hasn’t even read the classics! She doesn’t read anything unless it’s in big print and comes with a naked pirate on the cover. Whereas at least you’ve read Tristram Shandy – you didn’t understand very much of it, but you read it. Your sister is unworthy of the collector’s attention. You call him on his mobile phone straight away, and suggest he comes back – but he’d better hurry, your husband will be home from work soon, and he might not understand, he’s not as supportive of the arts as you are. The man does you doggie style in the kitchen, it is most enervating. Afterwards he pulls off his condom, seals the mouth tight with a small wooden clothes peg, and then sticks the warm rubber memento in a large scrapbook with blu-tac.

You ask whether you can look at the scrapbook. He seems unsure; he’s clearly gone to a lot of trouble over it; he cares about his collection with a depth that is really rather sweet. At length he agrees, but you’ll have to look over his shoulder, you mustn’t touch. He shows you the condoms he’s worn ploughing the relatives of all the greats: Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Makepeace Thackeray, the two better Bronte sisters, Wilkie Collins, Shelleys both Mary and Percy Bysshe, Nicholas Blake, Thomas Hardy. You admit it’s very impressive, it’s like a condensed library in there. There are pictures beside the condoms – of the nineteenth century literati, and of their sexually satiated great great grandchildren – the photographs show a whole array of subjects, some old, some young, fat, thin, both genders, the man tells you he doesn’t mind who he has to fuck, we’re all just bags of flesh containing our ancestors’ DNA, what does it matter the current form it might have taken? He shows you a picture of Laurence Sterne, and you think maybe you can see some family resemblance. And he takes a photo of you, and you try to smile properly, not display the same cheesy sleepy half-embarrassed grin you’ve seen in all the others – and you mostly fail.

When your husband comes home he’s concerned; something’s troubling you; what on earth is the matter? And so you tell him. You fancy you know your literary fiction pretty well, but you don’t recall ever having read anything by Nicholas Blake. He suggests tomorrow morning first thing you should go to the library, he’s always full of good ideas. And so you do. And there is Blake, under B, sharing shelf space with Balzac and Bulwer Lytton. You select the fattest novel you can find, it weighs in at eight hundred pages, and you start reading it on the bus home. The style is a bit old-fashioned maybe, but it’s full of urchins and prostitutes and reform bills and mistaken identities, the whole liberally sprinkled with jibes against the French and the blacks. It may just be the best book you’ve ever read. You can’t put it down, you read it for two weeks straight. You neglect the housework, and when your husband comes home one night, and sees all the dust that has been collecting, he jokes, “What, do you think we’re living in the nineteenth century too?” And, really, you have to laugh.

There’s a picture of Nicholas Blake at the back of the book, and he looks very old, and very wise, and you wish he had been your granddad – not Laurence Sterne, he looks like a right jerk.

It takes you months to find out the identity of Nicholas Blake’s great-great-great niece, on her mother’s side. She lives in Cirencester, you go there by train, it makes for a nice Sunday afternoon outing. You knock on her door. You tell her you’re a collector, and she sighs a bit, and looks bored, she’s seen this all before, of course – and when she opens her legs you tell her it isn’t sexual favours you’re after, you collect teabags, that’s it, you want teabags of the descendants of the Great Masters of English Literature, teabags will do you just fine. She seems a little disappointed. She makes you both a pot of tea and you sit out in the back garden and talk. It’s a hot day and it’s really too hot for tea, and you wish now you’d said you collected straws or ice cubes or something, a nice cold lemonade would be just the thing. Too late now. You ask her whether she’s proud to be related to a man of letters, and she says she doesn’t ever think about it. You ask her what she does for a living, and she tells you she works in a cake shop. She is really pretty dull, and you try to find a way to leave her as soon as politeness allows. You finish your tea. She offers you the teabag. You accept it, shake off the drips, put it in your purse. She asks whether she can see your scrapbook collection of teabags, and you say no. Because, frankly, even if you had one, she doesn’t deserve it.

You take the Nicholas Blake book back to the library. You had thought to keep it, but now you realise you won’t need it any more. You think any great artist should be measured not by his masterpieces but by the most average work he puts out to the world, and really, that niece of his was pretty average stuff. The overdue fine is hefty. You pay it without a murmur. You feel you ought to pay somehow, that you ought to be punished, you tried to soar above the rest of mankind on wings fashioned from other people’s genius, and now you have been brought down to earth.

A little while later your sister tells you that for her birthday present she would like a copy of Tristram Shandy. You are surprised by her awakening interest in the arts, and then understand that the man must have found her and collected her too – and for a moment it makes you sad that the condom he soiled inside your body hadn’t been enough for him, that he needed still more Sterne seeded skin fragments pressed between his pages. He had been a greedy man, for all his courtesy and his painstaking genealogical research. You never mention the man to your sister, but you do one day ask whether she enjoyed Tristram Shandy. Even over the phone you can hear she has wrinkled up her nose. “Not much,” she says, and then she sighs – “if we’re going to get saddled with some writer in the family, why can’t it have been one of the good ones?” And you never agree with your sister, you haven’t agreed with her about anything since primary school, you’ve never liked your sister, you’ve never quite understood how the same DNA is swishing about inside the both of you – but now you agree with her, you agree entirely, and you feel a familial warmth, a new bond, and you marvel at the unifying power of literary appreciation.

PHILIP BROWN

Philip Brown’s last words were staggering – so profound that everyone in the vicinity who heard them felt the very breath catch in their throats, and the lifting of something inside, deep inside, where even the crassest of us appreciate true wisdom. Within those words there was nothing morbid, just an acceptance that this is what life should be, fleeting, and yet beautiful for being so fleeting, a dash of colour against the darkness of an eternity in which we would no longer exist but had once existed and by dint of that had once mattered; there was a summation, then, a sense that within an ending one could look back and get full perspective on all that had gone before; in death we had at last achieved a completeness, and that was a blessing, a gift – because all that seeming randomness we had lived through now was connected, had purpose, fairly burst with meaning. Philip Brown was not a man given to profundity, and the people who overheard him at that moment – his wife, his teenage children, a few lone customers and the check-out girl at the supermarket – could in no way have anticipated that his final statement would have had such power. It made them want to applaud, frankly. It made them want to give him a standing ovation.

And the only false note was that when Philip Brown uttered these last words he was reasonably healthy. He was forty-four years old, and a little overweight maybe, but the doctor was happy with his cholesterol levels and said his blood pressure was so precisely normal it was almost text book. He was about as far away from death as any averagely unspectacular middle-aged man could hope to be.

Philip Brown looked as surprised as anybody else that these words had popped out of him. He chewed at the air for a moment, as if trying to get his mouth back into the right shape for the sort of forgettable nonsense he would usually come out with. And then he opened up wide, and he took a breath, and he was going to speak, he was going to spoil everything – and his wife actually clapped her hand to his face to stop him. “Don’t,” she said, “you’re never going to top that.”

*

Pretty soon they weren’t just last words, they were famous last words. One of the customers at the supermarket had sold the story to the newspapers – or maybe it was that check-out girl, there had been something nakedly acquisitive about her features. Even though Philip’s words had suggested that the pursuit of money was a futile exercise, and that true wealth could only be found through spiritual endeavour. A reporter came to the Brown house. He rang the doorbell. Mrs Brown answered. The reporter asked what Mrs Brown’s impression was of the last words, and Mrs Brown said she thought they’d been very nice. The reporter asked whether they might form the epitaph for her husband’s gravestone, and Mrs Brown said that was a good idea – though there were rather a lot of them, she might just use edited highlights. The reporter concluded by expressing his condolences for Mrs Brown’s loss, and Mrs Briggs said there was no need – not now – not yet anyway – Mr Brown was in the sitting room watching the snooker on television. But, thank you anyway, she said; when the time came, it’d make his passing easier to bear.

Philip Brown had not spoken since, of course. Hadn’t been to work, where the job requirement to talk about sales figures for gardening equipment could only have been seen as a crashing anticlimax. He had reached his apogee, and now he was there he could do nothing but shut up and accept it, he had no more words to add, his greatness stood for itself without need for embellishment or elaboration. And though his family had a new respect for him, they felt there was still something rather smug about that. He was given charge of the remote control, and would change the television channels without warning, and that could be irksome; he would let them know when he was hungry by clapping his hands or stamping his feet or by any method of slamming his body parts audibly against a standing object to get their attention; he would tell them what he wanted to eat by getting out tins from the kitchen cupboard and pointing. His wife and children still talked around him, naturally enough; they were only in the presence of greatness, they weren’t great themselves; they hadn’t yet said anything sufficiently meaningful they had nothing left to aim for. But conversation always felt a bit forced, no sooner were words out of their mouths than they would somehow stutter and wither and die, it was as if there was a black hole in the room sucking every syllable into silence.

His words were printed in magazines in every country around the world – or, at least, in every country which had the sort of Western culture worthy of them; choice phrases were quoted on mugs and ashtrays and T-shirts. And along came the copycats, of course. A fourteen year old boy in Wisconsin tried to better Brown, came up with famous last words of his own. They won their admirers, but most agreed that they were too practised, the boy had written them down in advance and that seemed a bit like cheating, and when after uttering them the child had thrown himself off the freeway bridge to a gory death below it was felt that the whole project had been just a tad gauche. The power of Philip Brown was that his words had been given to the world quite freely, there was no pretension to them, they were the complex sentiments of a simple man. And that’s what inspired everybody. The teenage American was soon forgotten, by all but his parents and a few of his more impressionable high school classmates. Whereas Philip Brown just lived on.

He was given a memorial service. The people insisted. A cathedral was hired for the event – one of the smaller cathedrals, anything larger would have shown an ostentation at odds with the basic tenets of Brown’s teachings. His famous last words were recited by a well-respected actor; the actor managed to bring such artistry to his performance, mining from Brown’s words both the triumph of life everlasting and the dread of inevitable loss, and Brown himself could never have said them so well, not with his monotone and his mumbling and his flat vowels, not if he’d rehearsed his dying message for weeks. The congregation was moved; one woman cried out, “Love you forever, Philly!”, though she’d never met Philip, though she’d never known him, though Philip hadn’t been called Philly since he was twelve and hadn’t liked being called Philly since seven. Philip Brown himself was present. He sat near the back, he couldn’t afford the more expensive seats – or maybe that was down to his characteristic humility, yes, it would have been the humility. Philip Brown thought the service went off rather well. But he couldn’t express his satisfaction verbally. He gave little smiles and nods, that was how his family registered his approval. And they were happy for him. And they mourned.

*

Mrs Brown hoped that grief would bring her family together. After the service she gave both her children a big hug – and they looked so smart, dressed in their best, she said she was so proud of them and that their father would have been proud too – and then she hugged their father as well, though that was something of an afterthought – she hugged them all, and told them that she loved them, and that the times ahead were going to be hard but that she knew they would weather them, that if they just held tight they would come out stronger.

The children went to see a counsellor on Thursdays. The daughter overcame her initial reticence, and soon let out her feelings about her father quite volubly and without inhibition. She was angry she’d lost him. She was angry he was gone before she’d taken the chance to get to know him properly. The counsellor suggested she could take some comfort in his famous last words – death was not an end, it was a new beginning – or maybe it was a continuation, it was sometimes hard to work out exactly what her father had meant, but it was all very uplifting nonetheless, didn’t the girl think so too? Couldn’t the girl be happy that her father had been a great man and that his words had inspired so many? And the girl said it made it worse, so much worse. Because she didn’t recognise from those words the man who had watched Top Gear and had drunk lager in front of the telly and belched and farted and whose stares had embarrassed her friends. That if death merely robbed you of a person then that was bad enough, if it took from you any sort of future you might hope to share – but death did more than that, it took from you the past as well, it sentimentalised the deceased, it made them seem more kindly and more interesting and more profound, it changed your memories of the one you’d known and left you with someone strange and unknowable. Death was such shit. Death was such a lying piece of shit.

The son was much less affected by the loss; he said he wasn’t bothered at all; he soon stopped going to counselling altogether, and that was all right, the counselling was expensive. And then he was busy, staying out late and getting drunk and committing acts of petty vandalism, knocking over lamp posts and setting fire to cats. And it was perfectly possible this had nothing to do with his father. He might well have been doing all that stuff anyway. Both Mr and Mrs Brown thought there was every chance this was just a harmless phase of ordinary teenage hijinks.

As for Mrs Brown, she was lonely. She hadn’t spoken enough to her husband, and she regretted that, but she refused to be bitter, she just knew that if she ever met another man she’d have to try harder and seize every moment and never take him for granted. She met a man at church. He began visiting after service on Sundays. And then he began visiting her during afternoons whilst the kids were at school. One day she took him to her bedroom, and he started to get undressed, and she froze up, and cried. She said that she couldn’t go through with it, it was disrespectful to her husband, why, his body was still warm! And the man said her husband had been a great man, but she was still young, her whole life was stretching out before her, Philip wouldn’t have wanted her to grieve forever. And at this they both looked across to Philip, who looked frankly non-committal, but now at least moved to the far side of the bed to give them more space. She said he could never be the equal of her husband, and he agreed, too easily. So then she accused him of sleeping with her just because of her famous husband, it wasn’t for her at all – and he admitted it, he wanted to touch where greatness had touched, he wanted to go deep inside her and see whether he too might be inspired to find words of grace and wisdom and genius. She let him take her then; she let him take her clothes off, and climb on top of her, and go as deep inside as he wanted – and she held back her tears, she knew his passion wasn’t hers at all, this wasn’t the expression of earthly lust but an appeal for something spiritual. “Oh God,” said the man as he shot his load, “oh God, oh God, oh shit, oh God.” And Mr and Mrs Brown exchanged glances at that, and neither was much impressed by the words the man had found. And Mrs Brown got up from the bed and put back on her clothes and redid her make-up, and supposed she should refuse to see him again. But she managed to keep some sort of relationship with him going for the next nine months; and when they broke up, she found someone else.

*

The children grew up and went away. They said they would come back and visit, and to be fair, they sometimes did.

Mrs Brown got old. Her hair turned grey, then white, then fell out altogether. She put on weight, the flesh just spread out every which way – and then, just as suddenly, retracted again, leaving her thinner than she’d ever been before. She found it hard to walk. She found it hard to breathe. She’d wake up some mornings and there was a pain inside, thrumming away, and she couldn’t work out which part of the body it came from.

And one day she went to the hospital, and she knew she wasn’t going to see her home ever again.

Philip Brown went to see his wife. He brought her some flowers, and the nurse cooed and put them in a vase. He nodded his thanks to the nurse silently, then sat beside his wife’s bed and took her hand.

“I love you,” she said, “I love you,” and it may have been the medicine talking, or maybe it was fear, or maybe the cool reality that comes over us before death. “Do you have any words of comfort for me?” And he smiled, and she smiled back; of course he didn’t; of course not.

“Will you stay with me?” she asked. “Will you make love to me, one last time?” So he climbed into bed with her, and he took it very slow and soft and made sure he didn’t give her a heart attack.

He stayed with her for the next few days, right beside her, right close, and no one seemed to mind, after a while the doctors and nurses seemed to pretend he wasn’t there. And he was with her at the end. She suddenly gripped his hand, her eyes were wide open, wider than they had been in years, wide like a child’s.”Oh God,” she said. “I think this is it. Oh God, oh shit, oh God.” She winced then, screwed those child eyes up tight so she couldn’t see what was coming for her. “God, it hurts, it hurts, you said it would be kind, oh God, you lied to me, you lied to me, you fuck.” As last words went they weren’t profound, and they would never be famous, but they were sincere at least, and that must count for something.

The grip on his hand slackened. He let go of her. He stroked his wife’s dead forehead. He kissed it. He kissed her lips.

She opened her eyes. She sat up. She smiled.

And now she kissed him back, and her lips weren’t dry and cracked with age, they were so smooth they slid right off his own lips and on to the chin, on to the face, all over the face.

No words. No words left. Nothing to say any more.

He offered her his arm, and she got out of bed. And, dressed in her nightie, she left the ward, together they walked right out of the hospital and into the world and went some place new.

JUDITH JACKSON

She loved the snow. It was cold, obviously, and it was wet. But that didn’t matter – and if she concentrated really hard, if she screwed up her eyes tight so that her forehead hurt, if she thought about nothing else, she could pretend the snow was a soft blanket covering up the world and making everything beneath all toasty and warm. She knew the snow was dangerous. She knew it could kill the animals in the forest, it’d chill their blood to ice, it’d freeze the birds to the branches. But that didn’t matter either – it wasn’t as if she knew any of these animals on speaking terms. She knew only her father. So long as her father was all right, the rest of the forest could go die.

She loved the snow because it made everything seem lighter. It was dark right there in the middle of the forest, and some days for all its trying the sun just couldn’t penetrate the density of the trees that clustered so hard around the cottage. On those days there was no light at all, a candle could do no good against the blackness, the dark would snuff it out. But the snow was so white, and so bright, and there was no escaping that bright white, it’d get into even the dingiest corners. When the forest was covered with snow the dark was banished, at least for a while.

And when the snow was at its deepest, then, her father would say to her, it was time to build the snowman. Father was a woodcutter, and he took his job very seriously. He would explain to the girl that if he didn’t cut enough wood they would never survive the winter, their very lives depended on it. And he built the snowman with the same grim determination with which he chopped his logs. He would first make the base of the snowman, and he made it big and strong, he would use only the hardened ice that could be found at the very bottom of the snowfall, he would dig for hours just to get the right sort. “This is the trunk,” he said to the girl, “and inside are the heart, are the lungs, are all the organs. This will keep the man alive.” And then, when the trunk was finished, he’d set to work on the head. The snow he’d use would be finer, but he had to choose it carefully, because – “Inside will be the brain, the memory, the thoughts both noble and earthy, all the things that define him, all the things that make him special. The trunk will keep a man alive, but without the right head, he may as well not bother with life at all.” He gave the head a pipe for the mouth, one of his best pipes, he wouldn’t dishonour the snowman with anything else. He gave the head a raw vegetable for a nose. And the girl’s job each year was to find the eyes, and she’d scour the forest floor for stones, she’d dig right down into the snow with her fingers and her fingers would hurt with the cold. And they’d have to be the right sort of stones too, if they weren’t just right her father would shake his head and she’d have to search again. He wanted eyes that would be in the correct proportion to the rest of his head. She wanted eyes that would twinkle and sparkle and make the man seem friendly and make the girl feel loved. Then, when the eyes were done, they would slap a hat upon the head, and put a coat upon the shoulders, and that was it, the snowman was finished.

They didn’t make the snowman legs. “It’s not as if he’s got anywhere to go,” said her father. “And besides,” he added, puffing on his second best pipe, “legs are the handiwork of God, and we mustn’t try to be Gods.”

And that’s how they would live through the winter, the three of them, the father, the girl, and the man of snow watching over them.

There had been a fourth, but the girl could barely remember her. She had died a long time ago. And the little girl didn’t mind, her father and the snowman were enough. But she thought sometimes it made her father sad, because she heard him mutter her name and cry in his sleep.

The snow would melt. Patches of dark green would break through. And the trees would throw the snow off, and then so would the bushes and the grasses. And then all that would be left would be the snowman, and he would get smaller every day, and thinner too, his once healthy bulk would waste away as if he were starving. And yet still he’d give off the bright white light, he’d do his very best to cheer the darkening days – until he was no more, he was gone, there was nothing left but a pipe and a turnip and two sparkling pebbles, and the little girl and her father had to contend with the blackness of summer alone.

*

The girl fell ill. Her eyes rolled in their sockets, her tongue was thick and dry, her limbs were so so heavy. And she burned with a heat she knew wasn’t really there. Her father said to her gravely, “You’re going to die.” He looked so sad, and the girl wanted to comfort him and put things right, she wanted to put her arms around him and hug him, but she had barely the strength even to take his hand – this she now did. “I can feel it in my bones,” he said, “the same I did for your mother.” And he wept a little.

The girl didn’t want to die, not yet. She’d seen the world – or all the world she had ever wanted to see. But she didn’t want to die without her father, she had always hoped they would die together, on the very same day, softly, peacefully, in the blackness, or in the bright. She wanted to live just a little longer, just so her father wouldn’t die alone. “Is there anything you want?” he said to her, and that’s the reply she wanted to give, but she knew that wouldn’t be fair. So she asked for the next best thing.

“I want a snowman,” she said.

“But,” her father said, “it is not the snowing season.”

“I know,” said the girl.

And her father stood up, frowned, puffed on his pipe in thought, then nodded.

It was dark outside. And so noisy. Because the rain was falling, and rain didn’t bother to fall quietly the way it might do in more civilised areas, no, it spat right out of the heavens hard, it hit every tree and every branch and every leaf, and each time it hit it sounded a crack as loud as thunder. The girl watched her father from the window, and as soon as he stepped from the cottage he was drenched, and the rain delighted in a new target, and poured down heavy upon him, and slapped against his face and his arms and his legs and thundercracked just the same.

And he stood his ground, in the darkness, in the deafening wet, and would not be swayed.

And the little girl saw her father’s face set in that grim determination of his. And he reached down towards the ground, and grabbed for the raindrops. For the raindrops were heaviest there, right before they smashed against the forest floor. And with them he rounded the shape of a trunk. Then he reached high, on tiptoe, as tall as he could go. He gathered together all the softer raindrops, the ones that were clinging to the leaves and were too timid to fall any further, the ones that had opted to be spray and foam. And with them he kneaded a head, and set it hard upon the trunk. He took from his coat pocket a turnip, and this was the nose. He took the pipe from his own mouth, stuck it inside the rainman’s own, and there it hung, for all the world as if it were in mid air, and even the most spiteful of the raindrops could not put out the fire within it and the rainman puffed away most merrily.

The father bent down, found two stones at his feet. He held them up to the window for the girl’s inspection. She shook her head; he concurred, he threw them aside. He stooped to look for better. It took him two hours before he found the stones that were just right.

He gave the rainman his hat, his coat. The rainfall didn’t know what to do with the rainman – it didn’t want to hit down on one of its own kind. The rainman flowed water from his head to the ground, but he stood apart from the storm and was dry.

Father whispered to the rainman. Something straight into his ears, or where his ears would have been. Father whispered close. And the pipe twitched, as if caught in the rainman’s smile.

Father went back indoors then. He was soaked through. But he shook every last raindrop off him, he wouldn’t have a single one of them in the house. Then, dry at last, but cold, so cold, he took to bed, and slept for days, and in his sleep he would sometimes cough and he would sometimes moan. And the little girl thought she might get her wish after all, that they would the both of them die together.

And all the while the rainman stood watch. The storm subsided at last, but still he stood upright, to attention, a fountain in human shape, a living cascade of running water. The stone eyes twinkled, the water running over them making it seem as if he were moved to tears. The raindrops gave off a silver light that shone through the cottage.

She watched him each day from her bed, and it seemed to her that the rainman was watching her too.

The girl recovered. And so too, at last, did her father. Though he moved more slowly, more heavily than before, it was as if the weight of water was still upon him. And at night, when he snored, she listened to the snore, and thought sometimes she heard behind it the distinct trace of a gargle.

She volunteered to go outside and fetch them some wood. He was still weak, and she knew how to use the axe. And he sat her down and spoke to her severely.

“You can never leave the house again,” he said. “The rainman and I have struck a deal. But if you stay in the house the deal won’t come into play, and I will not let him have you, I won’t, I would rather you had died. I will protect you always. You will stay here, with me, for now, and for always.” And the little girl promised she would never leave the house, because wasn’t this what she had always wanted?

The girl meant to keep her word too. But the rainman stood so faithfully outside her window. He never left her side, he never lost his resolve. He never betrayed her. Whilst her father slept, whilst her father sometimes closed the door on her, the rainman never betrayed her. And whilst her father slept, whilst he had the door closed, she liked to look at the rainman, because who was looking out for her otherwise? – not him, not him with his gargles! – but the rainman would, always would. His stone eyes sparkled at her. Never stopped watching her, never even blinked.

And the sound of that running water was like a whisper.

It was cold in the night, but as she walked closer to the rainman she felt a certain heat inside her body. And she thought, is this it, is this the return of my fever, am I going to die? But the heat fell nice, and her heart felt full. And the rainman was still staring at her bedroom window, just as he’d been positioned, he didn’t turn his head as she crept up behind him, he hadn’t got a clue she was so close, and now closer still, now she was right beside, now, now if she were so bold she could reach out and touch him.

She spoke to him nervously. “Sir?” she said. “Sir?” But the rainman did not answer, did not turn to face her.

“Sir?” she said. “I love you.” And she knew it to be true. “And if you want me, take me. Take me, I’m yours.”

She stepped in front of him, stared right up into his face.

Still he wouldn’t reply. Now, so close, did he not want her any more? Now he could see her as she really was. Did he find her voice displeasing, did she smell wrong? Her face, her hair, her body, all on display for him, and only for him – was that it, was it that she simply wasn’t pretty enough? And she cried, and her face turned to water. And still, still, he wouldn’t comfort her.

“Get inside!” She heard her father shout. And she could hear that he was angry, and frightened too – but she didn’t have time for that right now.

She touched the rainman. She merely brushed her hand against his cheek – it was so tentative, it was nothing, really nothing – it was the most innocent thing in the world, and the girl would still be her father’s forever, she had done nothing to compromise herself.

And the rainman’s body, it collapsed, the frame that held the water in shape dissolved at her touch. There was the smallest splash as the water fell to the ground, and there was for a moment the trace of a puddle, and then the earth had drunk the water down greedily and her rainman was no more.

The girl wondered if she might die then, whether she would just keel over now her protector was gone, she too would dissolve and be no more than a brief spray of water dropping through the air and be lost forever. But she didn’t die. She wanted to die. But she didn’t.

Nor did her father. She turned now, could see him racing towards her. And when he reached her his face was red with fury and she thought he might strike her, but he didn’t strike her. He didn’t touch her. He stared at her, and didn’t know what to say.

And together they went back inside the cottage. And that night the rain began to fall, but it was only a drizzle, it wasn’t enough even to keep them awake.

*

After that things were never quite the same.

It wasn’t that they didn’t talk. They still talked. But there was a hollowness to it, a politeness, and sometimes she could see her father at the dinner table thinking hard and he had never been a man who had thought much about anything, and she realised he was searching for conversation topics.

There was effort on both their parts. But it was rarely offered at the same time – he’d make a joke and it would make her cross, and neither of them knew why. Or she’d put her arms around him in a sudden burst of affection and he’d flinch away as if he’d never been touched by a woman before. And once in a while they’d get it right, their demonstrations of love would coincide, and they’d talk normally and laugh and hug and wonder why there had ever been such awkwardness between them and feel huge relief it had passed at long last – and then, the next day, in embarrassment, they wouldn’t know what to do about any of that, they’d struggle to achieve the same ease, they’d fall short, ease was such a difficult thing suddenly – they’d feel themselves slowly sliding into the same sticky silences as before.

That year the snow fell as it always did, and when it was at its deepest the girl suggested they build a snowman, and her father looked at her, in some brief surprise, and said, “Aren’t you getting a bit too old for that now?”

One day she said to him there had to be more to life than this. Forests, and woodcutting, and him. And he didn’t disagree, he didn’t try to hold her back. He made her a lunch, wrapped it in a large red handkerchief, and tied it on to the end of a long wooden stick. He asked her to take care of herself, and she assured him she would, a little defensively, of course she could take care. And then she left him.

She walked right out of the forest and into the city. She had reached the city in about half an hour. If she’d known it was so close she’d have made the journey before, maybe popped in on the weekends. The city was full of buildings that scraped the sky, and they blocked out the sun, but it didn’t matter, there were lights everywhere, so many lights, and the girl thought she would never need to ward off the blackness again.

She threw away the lunch her father had prepared for her, bought a coffee at Starbucks instead. The coffee was good. She would need money to buy more coffee, to flourish the way she deserved to in this brave new world.

She went to the tallest building she could find. She asked for a job. They told her they had no immediate need for woodcutters, but secretaries were always useful. Could the girl type? The girl said she could type. Could she fetch coffee? The girl said she could fetch coffee even better than she could type. The woman on reception decided to give her a trial run. She asked for the girl’s name, but the girl had never needed a name living in the forest. She tried of think of one, and could only come up with the name her father would sometimes mutter in his sleep. “Judith,” she said. For the surname she picked the one that was written on her interviewer’s own badge. “Jackson,” she added. If Mrs Jackson were suspicious she didn’t show it; indeed, she was tickled pink. “Why, we could be sisters!” Judith doubted it; the woman was at least twenty years older; moreover, she stank of nasty perfume; moreover, she was fat.

At the end of her first month there, Judith was rewarded with a pay cheque, and her name included in the employee directory, and an invitation from her boss for dinner and sex. The boss was married, and Judith wisely knew the value of discretion, and didn’t babble about her affair at the water cooler the way other girls in the typing pool might. And, indeed, when Judith found out one of the girls suspected her, she acted quickly. She reported her to her boss, and they had her sacked on some trumped-up minor misdemeanour.

She was promoted, and then she was promoted again. She found out she was even better at her job when she could make other people type and fetch coffee for her. Behind her back they called her the Bitch, they called her the Iron Lady, the Rottweiler, and she knew all about that, and she didn’t mind. Because she knew that really it was all an act. Really, she was just a little girl, and she was warm and kindly, but if she concentrated hard, really hard, and screwed her eyes up tight so her forehead hurt, then she could pretend to be as cold as ice.

She liked to look out of her office window the way she had in the cottage. But now she was sixty storeys up. She was higher than the clouds themselves. And when it rained she could stay dry, and she saw below how everyone scurried to the subway beneath a panoply of interlocking umbrellas. And how, when it snowed, no one went out.

*

She felt it in her bones, just as her father had said. She tried to ignore it at first, tried to bury the twinge beneath an hour’s extra hard cardio in the company gym. But she knew in her heart that she had to go back to him.

She told her PA to cancel a week’s worth of meetings, and postpone a business meeting in Amsterdam. She said she could be contacted on her Blackberry if it were really urgent. Then she caught a plane, and took a long taxi ride to the edge of the forest, and then walked six long hours into the heart of it. Home seemed much further away these days.

By the time she had reached the cottage, for all that it was summer, it had started to snow.

She found her father still chopping logs. Every time he swung his axe he wheezed horribly, and little bubbles frothed at his mouth. The arms were just as strong as ever, the arms were swinging axes by rote the way they had so many years. But the lungs were a different matter. He saw her, gave her an awkward embrace. “I’m dying,” he said, and swung the axe once more.

“That’s nonsense,” she said.

“Then why are you here?” He said it without bitterness.

She insisted he go straight to bed, and she imagined he’d resist, but he went to bed quite gladly, the fight had gone right out of him. As if he were happy for his daughter to take charge and become the adult. As if he’d only been waiting for this. He lay back under the blankets, and he was now as weak as a kitten, he’d never pick up an axe again, it was hard to imagine he could lift a cup to his lips without help. She made him some sweet tea, as hot as could be, and held it up to his safe as he sipped at it, and wiped the spillage from his chin.

“Have you seen a doctor?” she said, though the question was ridiculous. “Come back to the city with me. There are doctors there who will look after you.”

He didn’t even bother to refuse. “Build me a rainman,” he said.

“It’s not raining, it’s snowing.”

“Build me a rainman.”

“Don’t be silly.” She left him then. She turned on her Blackberry, she’d phone her PA, get her to arrange some sort of medicare. An ambulance, there must be some way of getting one through the forest. There was no signal. Damn.

She stepped outside. She reached into her handbag, pulled out her cigarettes. She lit one, gulped down the smoke hurriedly, wafted it away from the cottage window. She didn’t want her Daddy to know she smoked. She began to cry.

She dried her eyes, redid her mascara, popped a mint into her mouth. Went back indoors.

She sat with her father. When he was awake, she talked to him about the city. She showed him a portfolio she was especially pleased with, it had her photograph at the front. He said he was very proud of her. He said it right, but she wasn’t convinced.

When he was asleep, she’d hold his hand. Then, and only then.

In his sleep he’d mutter the name ‘Judith’, and she’d start, and then remember he didn’t mean her.

The next morning he didn’t say anything. She thought maybe he wasn’t able to any more. She prattled on about the portfolio again, she told him about her boyfriend, she told him that he would like him, she didn’t say that he was married.

She said, “I don’t know how to do it.”

And this time he took hold of her hand, and he squeezed it.

*

Judith stood in the forest and the snow fell around her. It was unhurried, lazy even, as if it knew perfectly well it shouldn’t be out this time of year, as if this were just a holiday.

She tried to remember how her father had done it all those years ago. She set on her face the same look of grim determination he had always worn. She opened her arms out wide, as if to conjure the snowflakes to do her bidding. She felt like an idiot.

Judith plucked the flakes out of the sky. The work was hard, they kept blowing away from her grasp, as if teasing, catch me, catch me! She caught them, she mushed them together. She built her man a body. She built him a head to sit upon it.

And it wasn’t perfect, and the body was too small, and the head a bit too square. And, worst of all, it wasn’t rain, it was just snow, snow.

She despaired. She gave up, right then, sat down upon the ground. She didn’t worry that she might ruin her Armani trousers or her jacket from Christian Dior.

The snow continued to fall about her, and it seemed that once again it was whispering. She listened.

She got to her feet, went to the snowman.

It didn’t have a mouth, not yet, but she kissed it where the mouth should have been. The snow melted in the heat of it.

And on she kissed. At his rough hewn neck, all the way down his frozen body. She kissed at every single flake, and at her tenderness they burned and died and the water was released from within. The snowman dribbled away, and the rainman was born in his place.

Judith stood back to examine him. Her lips aching with frostbite. Her breath now so cold, she had surely kissed all the heat in her body away forever. The rainman stood before her, all that water, every cell of skin a droplet of the stuff, held together impossibly in position.

He wasn’t finished yet.

For a nose she used a carrot from the low carb sandwich she’d packed for her trip. For a pipe, she gave him one of her Menthol Ultra Lights.

And for his eyes. She took from her pocket two perfect stones. The stones she had kept with her always, always, all those years.

She looked at him now, the rainman, her rainman. And this time he looked at her too. This time they were ready for each other. And Judith stole a look back to the cottage, and there was her father at the window, he’d got out of bed, he was too weak to get out of bed, surely, how had he done that? But there he was, and he was urging her on.

Because now the rainman’s arms were open for her. And she hadn’t given him arms. And he was coming towards her, and she hadn’t given him legs.

And she knew what that embrace would be like. It would be soft, like a blanket, it would make her feel all toasty and warm. If she concentrated hard enough, if she just believed. It would be everything she wanted. And still, still, she hesitated.

DAVID BISHOP

My kids won’t believe it, but there was a time when there was only one Burger King in London. The kids take Burger King for granted now, of course. My two don’t even go down there for the food, I think, they just like to hang out there with their friends at weekends. Even Sonia, and Sonia’s a vegetarian, or so she says; she goes mad if I put animal products on the same shelf as her food in the fridge. I ask Sonia what she does at Burger King, and she says she just hangs out and chills, and besides, the beanburgers are all right. And I ask Sonia whether she’s worried that the beanburgers are cooking around all that dead cow, and she shrugs and says it doesn’t matter.

 I suppose you get too much of anything good in this world, and you start taking it for granted. Health. Family. Fast food restaurants.

 I don’t remember the first time I was taken to a Burger King, no more than I can remember any specific childhood Christmases or birthdays or days we broke up from school – all those good times just roll into one. But I do remember the first time I heard about Burger King, because Dad was so excited. Dad had occasional business meetings in London and go there on the train, his going there always seemed to me like some great expedition, for which he’d have to pack properly (with his special suitcase) and dress nicely (with his special ties), and I’d hope he’d bring me back some sort of toy. This particular time he came home from London and his eyes were shining, I can see his beaming face in my mind’s eye now quite distinctly, and he told the whole family of this wonderful new restaurant he’d discovered. Even the name was royal. And it had, he said, the most delicious food he’d ever tasted. And it was so good that he was going to take us all there, this very weekend, which was as soon as Tabby and me had free time from school and Mum had free time from the shop. Mum objected – we couldn’t just go all the way to the capital city of England for dinner, that was such a waste of money, that was just too long a journey and Tabby and me would get all tired out – but Dad put his foot down, and said this was a once in a lifetime treat, and for our own sakes he wasn’t going to allow us to miss it. And Dad didn’t put his foot down too often. No. Looking back, poor sod, I don’t think he often got his way.

 London’s first Burger King stood just outside Victoria railway station. Or, at least, it was the first one we knew about, and for several years that was the one we visited. We used to do it on special occasions, like my birthday, and Tabby’s birthday too – though I’ve spoken to Tabby about it since, and she claims it was never such a big deal for her, it was more my treat than hers. We’d go there by train, and that was exciting in itself – from the moment Dad went to the ticket office to pay our fares – always to ‘the city’, he never even needed to say London! – the adventure had begun. And on the train we’d choose what we were going to eat that night, because there was always a choice, especially with the flavoured milkshake we’d have as dessert. I always chose a Whopper with cheese, and fries; I don’t think that I dared eat anything else from the menu just in case it didn’t live up to the Whopper with cheese, and fries; to come all that way and order something else and for it not to have been as good as the Whopper with cheese, and fries, would have been tragically disappointing.

 And what I remember is how bright the restaurant was. And that was so unusual back then, most restaurants were just cafes with more expensive food, and the light was just the same as the light at home, and they smelled like ordinary things, Grandma’s front room, school. But Burger King had a special light, everything so yellow, and so happy; and the smell was of meat and of salt and of special sauce. And by the time we arrived my anticipation was at fever pitch, but we didn’t even have to wait for the food – in most restaurants it’d be so boring, you’d sit down and wait ages for someone to come and take your order, and then you’d have to wait more ages for someone to come and deliver it, and you’d wait so long sometimes you waited yourself right out of being hungry. Not at Burger King – we’d get into queues, and within a minute Dad would be telling the server how many Whoppers with cheese he wanted, and the server was smiling because serving us was such a pleasure, and you didn’t many smiles in the early 1980s. And the meat had a tang I’d never tasted before, and even the chips were special, specially thin, with that special name. And we’d be done in five minutes, usually, and then we were ready to go home again.

 “It’s because it’s American,” Dad would say. “The Americans know how to do things properly.” He and Mum had been to America once, before Tabby and I were born – it had been a work thing, they’d gone over on a ship and stayed for nearly a year. America seemed like somewhere impossible to me, with its skyscrapers and its film stars and its cool lazy accents – oh, and it had Disneyland there too. But Burger King offered me a little slice of America, just off Buckingham Palace Road.

 Many years later I asked Dad how often he’d taken us up to that first Burger King outside Victoria station. He said he didn’t know – maybe three or four times? But he’s wrong. We went far more often than that. Every one of my birthdays until I was a teenager, at least, and Tabby’s birthdays, and sometimes when school ended for Christmas or the summer break. I don’t want to exaggerate. I’m not pretending I lived for our family Burger King expeditions or anything like that. But I always looked forward to them. They were always there, in the back of my mind, something to wait for.

 *

 I’ve been to America now, several times. I nearly went with my first ‘proper’ boyfriend when I was nineteen, we got this close to buying the tickets, and then he broke up with me. I’ve always thought that if we had bought the tickets we’d probably have stuck together, the fares were too expensive to waste. And maybe if we’d gone America would have fixed us, and we’d still have been together now. Well. But. But that put me off going to America for a while.

 Eventually I went with Frank, and we treated it like a honeymoon, though we’d been married over a year by then, and I was already expecting. When I went round to see Mum and Dad, a week or so before the trip, Dad said he had a present to give me. It was a guide book he had bought for that time he had been over; he said I’d find it very useful. And in the inside flap he’d written, in neat block capitals, ‘THIS BOOK BELONGS TO DAVID BISHOP’, as if he were a schoolboy, as if it were something precious. Not to David and Eileen Bishop, either, not to Mum as well, this book belonged to him, and I could suddenly imagine the way he had held on to it and read information out to her from it and kept it for himself. The book was about New York, and I told Dad we were going to Florida, remember, they were two entirely different places. He got a bit irritable at that. Told me he knew they were different, but there were some parts of the book that were still relevant; information about the currency, or the electrical voltage, or the change of time zone. And about the Americans themselves, the phrases they used, the expectations they had, how they carried themselves. “They’re not the same as us,” said Dad.

 *

 When Mum fell ill, Dad tried to look after at home for as long as possible. But he was older than she was, and besides, all those years, she’d been the one who’d cooked for and cleaned after him. He did his very best. He did a good job. But it wasn’t good enough for Mum, who was used to things being ‘just so’, ‘just right’, and sometimes she would lash out at him, she’d panic, she’d get in a really foul mood. One day she threw her dinner against the wall, because it wasn’t fit for eating, she said the food was ‘shit’ and she never used the ‘shit’ word – if I hadn’t been over there to hear it for myself I’d never have believed it – and this woman who had been so houseproud, who’d been a tyrant with the vacuum cleaner, didn’t mind that the baked beans were now running down the wall. “Leave it,” she told me when I tried to sponge them away, “no, I said, leave it! The place is a sty anyway, your father can’t clean for shit, what difference does it make?” And sometimes I’d visit and he’d have these bruises on his arm. He told me everything gave him bruises. It wasn’t as bad as it looked. But I agreed with social services when they recommended that the best care Mum could receive was in the hospice.

 I went to see her every now and again. Truth to tell, I didn’t visit her very often, because it was all a bit depressing. And each time I’d see her she’d aged another ten years, she’d become this ancient thing. And she’d got thinner, and her face was sallow, and her hair had fallen out.

 Dad was always there. He was always pleased to see me.

 And this one time, near the end, he asked if I had to hurry back home so soon. And I said I did, really, I wanted to get back on the train before the rush hour. And he said it’d just be nice, really nice, if we could spend a little time together, we could go into town, have a spot to eat? I could hardly say no, I said, so long as it didn’t take too long.

 We walked through the shopping centre, and it was probably October or November, there were a few Christmas decorations out, and that late in the afternoon it was already getting dark. But it wasn’t too cold, actually. And Dad and I spoke about this and that, actually anything except Mum. And then he plucked at my sleeve, and he was grinning, and pointing. There was a Burger King. “I haven’t been in one of these for years!”

 There was some sort of music playing in there, and it may have been Christmas music too. We got into a queue. “What are you going to have?” I asked. I said I wasn’t hungry, I’d just have a coffee. “No, no,” he laughed, “a Whopper and cheese, we’ll both have that, yes?” We reached the counter. He began to tell the server that he and his daughter had been coming to Burger King for years, and we always had Whoppers with cheese, and the server looked bored, and I interrupted and made the order. “I’ll get this,” said Dad, and he began looking through his pocket for the money – I already had my purse out – “No, no, this is my treat,” said Dad, but he was taking too long, and the server was starting to look cross, and I paid. Dad looked upset at this, until I told him it was all right, he could get the next one; “We’ll do this again?” he asked, “Really?”, and I said, sure.

 I carried the tray of food over to a plastic table, and Dad and I sat opposite each other on plastic chairs. I chose the plastic table which had the least lettuce on it.

 I took the grease paper wrapping off my Whopper, and bit into it, and spilled onions and tomato sauce everywhere. Dad asked about Frank, about Sonia and Jackie. And then he was asking whether Sonia and Jackie were going to visit Mum at any point, and Mum was mentioned, and it was all about Mum.

 “How do you think she was today?” Dad asked, and I said I thought she was a bit brighter. “She always looks brighter when you’re there,” said Dad. “She likes it when you visit. I think she gets bored with me.” I said that I wasn’t always sure Mum recognised me, she’d long ago stopped talking to me, and he said no, no, no, she did; I should see the difference I made just being there; I should see how bored she got when it was Dad on his own; the way she didn’t talk to me was completely different to the way she didn’t talk to him.

 Dad played with his fries a bit.

 “I’ve tried my hardest, you know,” he said.

 “I know you have.”

 “It’s not easy sometimes.”

 “I bet.”

 “And she’ll be gone soon, I suppose. The doctors don’t know when, they keep changing their minds. One young chap says she might live for years, she’ll outlive me! But she’s already gone, really.”

 I didn’t know what to say. I tried to think of something to say. I said, “Yes.”

 “I don’t love her,” he said.

 He tried to open a sachet of ketchup, but his fingers were too thick. I took the sachet from him, tore it open with my teeth. I passed it to him, and it was bleeding ketchup everywhere. “Thanks,” he said.

 “I can see,” I said, “how it must be difficult,” I said.

 “I’ve never loved her, I think,” he said. “I used to wonder whether I was just imagining that. That I’d got too used to her. But now she’s gone, you can see she’s gone. And I don’t miss her at all. I mean, I’ve nothing against your mother. She had her faults, but who doesn’t? Who doesn’t?”

 I pushed away my Whopper with cheese. It was too big, and its innards kept spilling out.

 “When we were in New York,” he said, “she didn’t want to do anything. Didn’t want to go up the Empire State Building. Didn’t want to do a Broadway show. Just wanted to stay at the hotel. And me with her. I wanted to explore, you know? But she never let me.”

 He ate his Whopper with cheese in big bites. He was hungry. “Do you want some of mine?” I asked. “Don’t you like it?” he asked. “I told you I only wanted a cup of coffee,” I said. “These burgers are good, aren’t they?” he said, and then he said, “I should have burgers more often,” and then he said, “I’m sorry.”

 “That’s okay.”

 “When your mother dies, I’m going away. I’m going back to New York. I’m going right across America. Nothing will hold me back. Not when there’s so much out there.”

 “Okay,” I said.

 “I love you,” he told me.

 “Yeah, I know.”

 He nodded at that.

 “I’ve got to go to the toilet,” I said.

 When I came back, Dad was in hearty conversation with the man who had come to take our tray away. “I used to come to Burger King with my family. So many years ago now, before you were born!” The teenager looked embarrassed, and a little resentful. “Come on, Dad,” I said, and Dad got to his feet. “Nice talking to you,” he said to the kid, smiling all the while.

 *

 There was some talk about Dad coming to live with either of us, Tabby or me. Neither of us liked the idea of him rattling around the house on his own now that Mum was gone. Tabby didn’t have a husband any more, and she’d never had children, and her house was almost as big as mine, so she seemed to me the perfect choice. But Tabby disagreed. Frank said Dad should live with us, and Sonia and Jackie said they didn’t mind. And I told Sonia and Jackie that having Dad would be a big commitment, that they’d have to share the television with him, that they couldn’t come and go so late at the weekends because they might disturb him now he was old. And Sonia, Sonia might find Dad putting meat next to her vegetables in the fridge, he was old, that’s what might happen. I said that, as a family, we should all take a vote on it, and that no one should feel bad if they decided that having my Dad live with us was too much to bear. Frank voted yes, the two girls no. I abstained. I didn’t think my vote would be entirely fair.

 Dad never went to America again. I think he intended to, properly, at least for a while. He went out and bought a fresh guide book. But after a little research he was put off by things like visa waiver forms. He said he’d wait until all the complicated stuff like that went away.

 *

 My father woke me up one night. He was standing by the side of my bed, and shaking my shoulder gently, and calling me by name. Frank was sleeping next to me, he didn’t want to disturb him. For a moment I thought maybe Dad had come to live with us after all, and then I remembered he hadn’t, and that I was pleased he hadn’t – this was precisely the reason it would be difficult, he’d be in my bedroom at all hours of the night shaking me awake because he wanted the toilet or something. And I knew this was a dream then, and it was a relief.

 “What do you want, Dad?” I hissed, and I tried to sound nice because I knew he was imaginary and so there were extenuating circumstances – but I was still a little annoyed with him.

 “I have a treat for you,” he said. “Get dressed. Get dressed up nice and smart.” And so I did, I went along with it. Dad waited downstairs for me, and I decided I’d go for the full evening dress, why not. He nodded approvingly at me, and I saw only now that he was in a tuxedo himself, I’d made the right choice.

 It didn’t feel like a dream, the way the evening dress was a little too tight around my waist. I thought, shouldn’t dreams feel more comfortable than this? Dad took my arm, though, as if I were still the daintiest thing ever, and we left the house. We got a train, the railway station was parked right next door to the house. And within minutes we were at Victoria station.

 The original Burger King, I knew, had long gone. Nowadays there are tons of Burger Kings all over Victoria, around the station concourse and spilling out on to the road, none as grand as the first Burger King, all fast and unfussy. I wasn’t surprised, of course, that Dad was taking me to our Burger King, the one that had belonged to us. The familiar logo shone in bright lights like it was some glitzy West End theatre show.

 The lighting was bright and friendly, but still subtle somehow. They knew us by name, of course. We didn’t have to queue. “Ah yes, Monsieur Bishop,” said the maitre d’, “we have your special table reserved for you.” The maitre d’ was all smiles and pleasing unction, and he led us somewhere discreet, close enough to the pianist so we could enjoy the music, far enough away so we could talk. “The usual, Pierre,” said my father, and there was a certain amused smugness to that, and he winked at me, look how I know a French waiter by name! (Except he wasn’t French, he was American, wasn’t he? And wore a cowboy hat?) “Tres bien, monsieur,” said Pierre, “howdy howdy!” – and within seconds he was back again, there were Whoppers with cheese on bone china plates, and there were gleaming steak knives to cut them with, and the fries came in a golden tureen. He poured our milkshakes into champagne glasses; I asked for banana, and I’m not sure Burger King even sell banana, and Dad had tutti frutti, and I’m quite certain they don’t have that. “Bon appétit, and have a nice day!” said Pierre. He made a formal little bow, and went; we unwrapped our burgers from the grease proof paper and we set to work.

 The burgers were really good.

 And I tried, then, telling my Dad I was sorry. And he shushed me.

 “I’m proud of you,” he said. I told him I couldn’t see why. And he said nothing to that, instead he raised a glass of tutti frutti to me, and I clinked it.

 “I love you,” I said.

 “Oh, darling,” he said. “Of course you do.”

 The dream might have ended there, but it played out properly, it was a full date. Just the two of us, and chatting more and more easily, and laughing at God knows what, and Pierre kept on appearing and topping up our glasses – “No, any more, I’ll turn into a tutti frutti!” said Dad, and then he winked, and said, “Go on, then, just another one!”

 We caught the train home. He said goodbye to me on the doorstep.

 “Thanks, Dad,” I said, and he smiled, and kissed me on the cheek. And I went inside, and went back to bed, and in the morning when I woke up I didn’t doubt it was a dream, but I still felt full and satisfied.

 *

 If this were a story, then that would be the night my father died. But it wasn’t. Or it would be the means by which we became better friends. And that wasn’t true either, though we did speak on the phone more often. I only saw him four more times, I think, and none of the meetings were bad ones, but I think we always did better on the phone.

 That very next day I gave him a call. I thought I’d tell him about the dream. I thought he might find it funny. But, as it happens, we found lots else to talk about, and I never quite got round to it. And maybe that’s just as well. What would his reaction have been, after all? He might have suggested we go out for a real meal together, and I didn’t want that. I really didn’t want that.

 If this were a story, I suppose I would find a proper ending. But endings are difficult. When things start out, they’re all so simple and clean, and there’s a sort of purity to them – and then they get corrupted somehow, or if not corrupted, complicated. And it’s silly to mind too much, to rail against what we can’t change. We just have to be grateful for those beginnings, and treasure the memory of them. And I went to the very first Burger King in London, and it was a nice restaurant, and the food was good, and we were all happy there.

 

SIMON HARRIES

A basic problem with early photography was its inability to hold the image of cats. Nicephore Niepce’s process of taking a metal plate coated with bitumen and bombarding it with light was quite the discovery, of course, and the further pioneering efforts by Daguerre and Talbot to develop this technique were of huge influence. For the first time in history there really was the sense that a moment in time could be frozen forever, that people and places and events could be preserved accurately. It gave us a glimpse of something godlike, something immortal. We drew a blank with cats, though.

 Dogs were all right. There was something so essentially noble and straightforward about a dog, it would have been an offence to the sensibilities had dogs not been photographed. And, although it took a bit of fiddling with the lenses, by the late 1870s it had become increasingly easy to capture the likeness of horses as well. But no one had successfully managed to hold a cat upon film; there were various (unsubstantiated) reports from experimental ‘graphers that they had done it (and on the continent, always on the continent!) – only for a little while, and blurred maybe, not a good likeness, though quite definitely feline. But the image never held long enough for anyone to verify these claims, the cats faded away from the pictures within seconds.

 Some said it was because the cat had no soul. Others, that it was simply too minor a lifeform, too low down upon the table of creation for the camera to recognise it. And some people – the ones who actually owned cats, who knew what they were about, knew their moods and their characters, said that the cats were doing it deliberately. Cats had no interest in their images being preserved on paper via a collusion of light and oil. What was in it for them?

 For the sake of simplicity we had long claimed that the photography of cats was impossible, but that didn’t mean we thought it was actually, genuinely, impossible; no one believed that, I think, except perhaps Gerard Pomfrey, but his fustian ideas about the photosciences had long since been discredited. I was certain that the solution was out there, somewhere. It would be a long voyage of discovery for someone. That someone was not going to be me. I don’t like cats. I was not prepared to devote my hard-earned photoscopic skills on them.

 I still don’t know why it was me that Simon Harries contacted. We had both studied at Oxford together, and I remember that back then his views on the inconstancy of calotypes from silver salt solutions were regarded as mildly controversial. But Harries was not the man for controversy, he had neither the charisma nor the gall to carry it off. I had had respect for Harries, I could see there was talent within him, and I think maybe I was the closest he had to a friend – but, still, we were not friends, not by any stretch of the definition, and I had neither heard from him nor of him since we’d graduated fifteen years before. I can hardly describe the surprise I felt when I received a telegram from him, let alone my surprise at the contents of that message.

 He asked me to visit him at his house in South London that very evening – promptly, at half past eleven. He had something of vital importance to show me. There was no hint in his words that we had had no communication for so long, there was no greeting or attempt at reintroduction, it was as if we had been working side by side in the same laboratory every day. I was half inclined to ignore the thing, but for the urgency of the final sentence. He urged me to come alone, and to tell no one – and I confess, I was intrigued.

 I had a light supper, and then caught a hansom cab to Streatham. I hadn’t been south of the Thames for a while, and I had forgotten just how much poverty there was to the place. I don’t know how man can live in such slum conditions. Still, I was surprised when the cab dropped me off , the driver himself looking eager to get back to the civilising areas of the city and only too relieved when I told him he had no reason to wait. I had thought that Harries must have found some decent lodgings here, however cheap; but this was not a house, this was a hovel, there wasn’t even a doorknocker, I had to beat on the door with my fists. Photography was a science studied by gentlemen; this was not a place where a gentleman could live; what had happened to Harries to bring him so low?

 Harries opened the door and showed me in. I would not have recognised him. He had aged. His hair was grey. He had not shaven. His cravat was askew. “What is all this about, Harries?” I asked. I felt I had the right to be a little abrupt.

 His eyes wouldn’t settle on me, they darted about nervously. “You came alone?”

 “As you can see.”

 “And you have spoken to no one?”

 “You try my patience, man.”

 “Forgive me,” he said, and he smiled, and he grasped my hands in his, and shook them briefly, and he began to giggle. “I see so few people nowadays. Oh! but I have done it. I have done it! It is the discovery of the age!”

 He lived in one room, I could see, and that a small one; over the floor were papers; over the papers were sheets of acetate, broken or chipped lenses, dyes, gels, scraps of stale food. “I have ‘graphed a cat,” he whispered to me, eyes shining.

 I felt no personal affection for Harries, but I was nonetheless sorry that a man of such potential had gone down such a scientific blind alley. He could see the disappointment on my face; I confess, I did not try to disguise it; he grabbed on to my arm, tight. He said, “I’ve done it, I tell you!”

 “Then let me see,” I said.

 And then he was smiling again, a crafty little smile, I did not like that smile much. “Oho, not yet! Not yet! Not until midnight! The cats only come out at the witching hour, you’ll see, you’ll see.” And he cleared the debris off the only chair, and invited me to sit down.

 A little before twelve, he fetched for me a ‘graph. He’d taken a picture of the room. He had taken it from the chair, I think, from the exact place I was sitting. The books were in slightly different positions, maybe, I saw a pile of photoscientific treatises that had since then toppled over. “There’s nothing here,” I said – “Not yet, not yet,” he insisted, “I tell you, midnight!” And I looked hard at the picture, and so did he, and that’s how we spent the next few minutes. I felt ridiculous.

 The clock struck. Loud, too loud. “Sorry, sorry,” said Harries, “I make sure I can never sleep through it. But look, look, on the ‘graph!” And I was looking at the ‘graph, and of course, I expected to see nothing, and there would be an end to this. I even opened my mouth to say so; I shut it again.

 For wasn’t there something swimming into focus? Wasn’t there a blur, and the blur was taking on a more rigid outline, and then a solid shape. “My God,” I said, and I apologise, but I was that surprised. Because there, looking out of the picture, indubitably, was a cat. Looking out at me. It looked as shocked as I was. Its eyes were wide in the flash light, its ears were pricked, its fur was standing on edge.

 “But it must be a trick,” I said. “Simon? Is this not some small child you have dressed up as a cat, or…?”

 “I have the proof!” he laughed. “Ha ha, I have proof!” And at that he threw aside a few more papers, and lifted from the floor the cat itself. He picked it up by the tail. Its face was set in the exact same expression I saw in the ‘graph, its fur still set fast and rigid.

 “Dead,” I said, uselessly.

 “Dead, yes, ha ha, it always kills ‘em, don’t know why!” said Harries. “Normally they just die, ha ha, and there’s nothing to show for it. But this time I set the exposure right! I got the picture! The cat didn’t die in vain!”

 “And how long have you been doing this?” I asked.

 He waved his hand as if it were a matter of utter irrelevance; and, I suppose, to him it was. “There are lots of cats on the streets, sniffing around the waste is a good place to find ‘em. Sometimes they claw and bite,” and I could see now, yes, there were marks all over his arms, little scars on his cheeks, “but I’m bigger than ‘em, ha ha, they’re no match for me! I take ‘em here, and I ‘graph ‘em, and I get rid of ‘em, and their bodies end up so frozen hard they sink straight to the bottom of the river! But I kept this one, he’s my little pet, my little boy. I’m proud of him. He’s made me a success, yes, he has, he’s made me all proper and worthwhile.” And he actually stroked at the dead cat’s stiffened fur.

 “And what do you want of me?” I asked. And I felt a chill, as if I thought he might want to take a photograph of me, he would rob the life from me and set me down on film – but that was silly, no harm had ever come to a human being from being ‘graphed, I was not an animal.

 “You have a Reputation,” said Harries, and he said it like that, with a capital R. “You are a good man. People will listen to you. I charge you to bring my discovery to the world.”

 “No,” I said. I didn’t even know I was going to refuse him until I spoke, but the refusal came out immediately, as if all my instincts were revolting against him, as if my intellect knew I wanted no part of this before my mouth did.

 “Why not?” he said, and for a second he scrunched his hands into fists and something dark passed over his face – then he relaxed, his face slumped back into the same failed despondency I had known from Oxford.”Why not?” he said again, meek and defeated.

 “I am a man of science,” I said, “and I duly believe that the purpose of science is to better mankind. And I can see no betterment that comes from the photography of cats, not whether they are alive or dead.”

 I did not want to leave on such a terse note, and so endeavoured to make some light talk with Harries about his health and the weather, but neither of our hearts were in it, and I soon gave up and took a cab home.

 *

 Three weeks later Simon Harries was dead. The police came to my house and asked whether I could help them with their enquiries, and at first I thought they meant I was implicated, and I was fully prepared to get quite angry about the matter. But they assured me that wasn’t the case, and made apologies, and spoke to me with such due deference that I fetched my coat and my hat and agreed to go with them.

 They took me to Harries’ lodgings. In the middle of the room, spread over his papers, was a body, I presumed Harries’, covered with a sheet. I recoiled at that, but not at the sight of death, just at the insensitive way in which I’d been allowed to see it.

 “Sorry, sir,” said the constable on duty. “We’ve tried to move it, but it weighs a ton, and that’s a fact.” He showed me a box. He told me it had been left for me, and indeed, it had my name and address written upon the side.

 “Would you like me to open this?” I asked, and the policeman said it would be a blessing for ‘em if I didn’t mind.

 I could not imagine why Harries would leave me anything. Inside the box I found his camera, and a dozen or so photographs. The camera was old and outmoded, I dare say he’d never had the funds to purchase a better one; I had no need of it, I had several cameras of my own at home. The photographs were an odd mix; some of them, I assume, had been taken by Harries; some of them, like the portrait of Queen Victoria, no doubt rescued from a newspaper, definitely weren’t.

 At the bottom of the box I found an envelope. I opened it.

 “Can’t Stop Them Now,” was all it said.

 It was an unhelpful note, one of vagueness and imprecision, and unworthy of an Oxford graduate. And I understood why Simon Harries had managed no better than a lower second.

 The constable said, “Begging your pardon, would you look at the body, sir? It’s got us properly stumped, and you’re a man of science and all.” I pointed out that my science was photography not medicine, but accepted after further pleading that I was still the best qualified scientist there, and permitted them to present me the corpse.

 The sheet was removed. In death Harries looked larger, swollen somehow, as if he’d been the victim of drowning – though his body, naturally enough, was perfectly dry. That he was peculiarly bloated was not the most disturbing thing about him – it was more that his mouth was open, wide open, opened wider than I thought a mouth could stretch.

 “For heaven’s sake,” I said, “give the man some dignity. At least shut the mouth!” And the constable said to me his men had tried to do just that, but the mouth wouldn’t shut; “The jaws have got stuck somehow, sir.” So I had a go. I put on my gloves, and reached out to Harries’ face. I saw as I neared it there were fresh scratches upon his cheeks. I pulled on the chin, but it was indeed stiff. For a moment I thought his body had frozen hard like the carcass of the cat he had shown me – but no, I pulled harder, and I could feel some give – I admit, I was none too gentle about it, and at last the hinges of the jaws gave way to my bidding and the mouth snapped tight shut.

 “Thanking you, sir,” said the constable.

 “That’s all I can do, I’m afraid,” I said. “This death goes beyond the knowledge afforded me by photoscopic theory. I’d say he didn’t die easily, though. Poor devil.”

 *

 Back home I perused the contents of the box once more.

 There was nothing new to be gleaned from the enigmatic letter, so I destroyed it. I checked the camera; it had no film. I left it in the kitchen. It was junk, but I thought I might cannibalise it for parts.

 I took the photographs up to my study. I sat in my favourite chair, drank a brandy.

 Yes, some of them had clearly been taken by Harries. Two of them were of his own lodgings for a start, and I assumed they were failures from his cat experiments. But others seemed to be not of his hand at all, the style was wrong, the composition. There were pictures of empty anonymous streets. There were pictures of famous London landmarks, the one of St Paul’s Cathedral at dusk was especially striking. There was a man and a woman outside a church, all dressed up in their best – was it their wedding day?  Or was it nothing of the sort? They looked uncomfortable, was that at the prospect of spending the rest of their lives together, or that someone was aiming a camera at them and stealing the moment and freezing it for his own ends and committing it to film and making it possible that strangers like me could finger at it and paw at it and stare at it without shame? There was Queen Victoria. She didn’t seem amused.

 I could see nothing to connect the pictures whatsoever. I tried to puzzle it over, but not too seriously; it wasn’t my mystery, after all, I didn’t have to care. I felt drowsy. I raised a glass to Harries, and toasted him. I meant it respectfully enough, but quite see it may have come out wrong.

 I dozed.

 And when I woke up, the fire was nearly out, and there was a crick in my neck, and I’d dropped the photographs all over the floor. I looked at the time – and it was on the verge of midnight – and then, soon enough, the grandfather clock downstairs began to chime. But that wasn’t what had stirred me, that started after I had woken, and it was as if there was a little alarm inside my head and it had gone off, it had made sure I was able to see all the fun…

 The top photograph was of Harries’ room. And I stared at it. I didn’t want  to stare at it. I didn’t want to see a dead cat shimmer into view. But I couldn’t take my eyes off it – and yes – soon enough – there it was, the outline, then filling in with more clarity, more depth – there was the cat, sure enough, its ‘graph taken at the very point of death. The previous cat had looked merely surprised. This one was angry.

 And it wasn’t alone.

 Because the picture continued to blur, now all around the fringes of it, I could see the blurring ripple beneath my fingers and I all but dropped the photograph, it buzzed to the touch. And there was a sound to it now, a whispering? A hissing. And more cats began to appear.

 How many cats had Harries squeezed into his studio? What had he done?

 There were a dozen – then there were more – then the picture was full of them, a hundred cats, a hundred and one, who could say? – big cats, kittens too, and all spilling out over each other, jostling for space, cramming themselves into every last crevice of space the picture could afford, blotting out the background of the room until all that could be seen was wall to wall cat.

 And even though the picture was full, I could see that the ‘graph was blurring still, and the hissing was louder now, it was a seething – and there were still more cats being born, but there was no space for them, they were crushing the other cats now, they were bending themselves out of shape too, they were distorting, they were making themselves anew.

 And still, still, the cats wouldn’t stop. And there was no light to the picture now, it was all just a mass of black, and the black was crying out, I knew that black wasn’t a void, it was anything but, it was the weight of all the cats in the world stuffed into an area no more than a few inches square, and still, still the cats wouldn’t stop.

 And the other pictures.

 There were cats piled up as high as St Paul’s Cathedral, they were choking up the River Thames. There were cats in the wedding dress, there were cats perched on top of the bridegroom’s hat, and pouring out from under his hat, and pouring out from under him. There was Queen Victoria, regal, unsmiling, and the cats were prodding at her face, they were prodding at her cheeks, they were forcing a smile out of her whether she liked it or not.

 And I knew they were here. That the world was full of ghosts, stuffed together tight, and that we couldn’t see. But the camera could see. The camera could see the cats, at least. At least it could only see the cats.

 I wanted to throw the photographs from me, get them away as far as I could. But I couldn’t move. And I felt something so heavy on my chest – and I knew they were there, all of them, all the cats who had ever died, all of them were sitting on me and crawling over me and trying to find somewhere warm to shelter away from the cold of extinction. I thought I couldn’t breathe. I thought I couldn’t breathe. Then, then I forced myself to my feet. And, of course, there was nothing pinning me down, of course there was no weight to shift – and, of course, nothing kicked and wailed and howled as it scattered to the floor.

 I lit a candle. I went downstairs.

 I had to get to the camera. To destroy it? I don’t know. To take pictures, lots of pictures, to fill the world with cats, say to everybody, look! look! this is where the dead go!

 Film that doesn’t show us what is really there, that gives us stories and fantasies instead, what use could that ever be?

 And as I went down the stairs I imagined the cats beneath my feet would trip me up, and I held on to the banister rail so tightly. And I imagined my stepping on their tails, my treading down on their backs, the crunch of their bones breaking underfoot, the howls, the mews, the pitiful mews.

 I entered the kitchen.

 The camera was where I’d left it, on the table.

 Wrapped around it – licking it, even? – was a cat. The fattest cat I had ever seen. Greasy too, its fur looked slick and oily and wet.

 It bared its teeth at me.

 “Get away!” I cried. “Get out of here!”

 It wouldn’t take its eyes off me. It wouldn’t move from the camera.

 “Didn’t you hear what I said? What do you want? Tell me what you want!” I was ready to bargain with a cat. And I threw the candle at it.

 I didn’t aim at the cat directly. I think it knew that. I think that’s why it didn’t even flinch. The candlestick passed harmlessly overhead.

 “Get out!” I said, and I mimed throwing something else, although I had nothing left to throw, and of course the cat could see that. But it yawned, it stretched. It gave me a look that I can only describe as reproachful. And then, slowly, in its own time, it slinked away from the camera. It dropped off the table, and for all its bulk landed lightly on its feet.

 “You get away!” I said. But it was ignoring me now. I backed away from it as it trotted towards me, out of the door, out of the room.

 I looked for it in the corridor, but it was dark now without the candle. I couldn’t see it.

 I went to the camera.

 I was going to destroy it. But now I picked it up, I felt the urge to take photographs with it. What else is a camera for? No, I was going to destroy it. I was going to smash it down upon the table, now, hard, the glass would shatter, and all the ghosts would be locked away forever somewhere we couldn’t see.

 And I saw there was film in it. There hadn’t been film earlier. I had checked. Who had put the film in?

 I hesitated.

 I took out the film, and had it developed.

 *

 I haven’t destroyed the camera.

 I’ve told Cook to keep it in the kitchen. And if the cats get in, and sometimes they do, she is to remove them from the house. But she must be gentle with them. She must give them milk first, and treat them with respect.

 I haven’t used the camera, either. Though one night I woke up, and I was downstairs, in the kitchen, and I was holding the camera with both hands. And I had never walked in my sleep before. I woke up in time, I went back upstairs, I locked my bedroom door. I keep the door locked every night now.

 Maybe I’ll destroy the camera anyway. One day. We’ll see. I just don’t think that would make the cats very happy.

 There are African tribes I’ve heard of, savages really, who don’t like the white man taking photographs of them. They fear that it takes their souls. But I worry that the reverse may be true. What if the camera brings a dead soul back? What if every picture confers a little immortality, and the world simply cannot support the weight of all those never-to-be-forgotten memories?

 I destroyed the photograph that I had found in the camera. No one else need ever see that. For my part, though, it might as well still exist. For my part, I might as well have framed it, and hung it over my bed. It’s not as if I’ll ever forget what was in that photograph, not one single detail of it.

 The picture was of Simon Harries. And I now know how he died. And I now know why his mouth was open so unnaturally wide, because there was something forcing the bulk of its entire body in. It knew what it was doing, too – the photograph had caught a little jaunty wave of the tail. And I don’t think it was the first that had crawled inside Harries’ mouth, I think that Harries’ bloated body was full of them.

 And I remember how I had forced his jaws shut, and the resistance I felt, and I think I must have had that ghost body bitten clean through.

 I’ll destroy the camera one day. I will. But for now, I treat all cats well, and I sleep with the door locked, and my mouth taped up.

 *

 No one can take photographs of babies either. Babies have no souls. But no one wants a picture of a baby.

DAN WHEELER

I was asked if I’d ever known a child who’d died, and I thought about it, and I supposed I had. I’d been in class the day that Danny Wheeler had killed himself.

 No one knew why he had done it. Eight year olds don’t leave suicide notes. And we didn’t worry about that much because, after all, we were only eight year olds too. He hadn’t seemed particularly sad. He had friends, and the bullies in the fifth form tended to leave him alone because of his height. He was a bit stupid, I think, he got most things wrong in class, and we used to jeer at him for that. But it wasn’t an unkind jeering, and Danny never seemed to mind. Indeed, he offered his wrong answers with a grin, as if they were little gifts of comedy for us all to enjoy, as if he took the jeers as applause.

 I would have thought he’d simply killed himself out of boredom. It was maths class, after all, and with Miss Baldock, who looked like a toad, and had a voice that never strayed from the same flat dull note. Except, the death was clearly premeditated. It must have taken him weeks to collect all those straws.

 We used to get given cartons of milk with our school dinners, and attached to the side in plastic would be thin white straws. I never liked milk, but I liked the straws, I used to like flicking them at people. Danny clearly liked the straws too.

 He waited, I remember, until he was called upon in class. Miss Baldock asked him to solve a problem, I don’t know what, it might have been a times table, Miss Baldock was nuts for times tables. And Danny smiled, and didn’t say a word, and got out his straws. And we saw that he’d threaded them together, they were held fast by sellotape, so that they made one long enormous chain. There must have been fifty straws there, at least, he must have been working on them since the beginning of term. And he put one end of it into his mouth, and the other end into his ear. He took a deep breath. And then puffed down his giant straw as hard as he could.

 He blew his brains out.

 Now, I seem to remember that the entire side of his head exploded with the blast. And that his brains were sent flying right across the room, pink and quivering and alive, and that they splatted into the wall, and that they slowly slid down to the ground. But that seems unlikely. That might be childish exaggeration.

 What I do remember, quite certainly, was the look of triumph on Danny’s face, as if he’d pulled off a brilliant magic trick, as if death was the cleverest gag in the whole wide world. And then he slumped forward on to his desk.

 Even at eight years old we knew you couldn’t really kill yourself like that. It was impossible. But Danny Wheeler hadn’t been very bright. He might not have known it was impossible, and that’s how he’d managed to do it.

 You might have expected there to have been a scandal about it, a death in the school, but no one seemed to care much. I told my parents how Danny Wheeler had blown his brains out in maths class over dinner but they weren’t very interested. No one even tried to confiscate our milk straws, even though they were lethally dangerous.

 There were a few copycat suicide attempts. One girl made a big chain of straws, but when she blew down it during warm-up for gym nothing happened. Even I gave it a go, I was curious, but I only managed to collect half a dozen straws or so before I got bored with the idea and started collecting football stickers instead. And there were no suicide attempts of any other form – it wasn’t so much death that appealed to us, the death had to be straw-related or we weren’t interested. Anyway, no one else died. Maybe we just weren’t as committed to it as Danny Wheeler had been. Or maybe we just weren’t quite as ignorant.

 *

 I was called into the school to see the deputy headmistress. I thought that it may not be too serious, because it was only the deputy, after all. But I was annoyed I had to take time off work.

 “If this is about Jeremy,” I said, as I entered the room, “then I’m sorry, but he’s going through a bad time right now.” Of course it was about Jeremy, I only have one kid, his name is Jeremy, who else was it going to be?

 “Please sit down,” said Mrs Kelly, and so I did.

 Mrs Kelly spent all her days surrounded by children, I suppose, and that’s why she talked to me like I was a child too. She looked at me sternly, like I was going to be given detention. I tried to look sternly back, faltered, failed.

 “I appreciate Jeremy is going through a bad time,” she said. “But lots of children are going through a bad time. Polly McAdam’s parents have just got divorced, and you don’t see her acting up.”

 “We’re not getting divorced,” I said.

 “And Johnny Milne’s dog died last week, he’s as good as gold.”

 “We’re not getting divorced. It’s a trial separation.”

 “You have to understand, we feel sorry for Jeremy,” said Mrs Kelly. “But our responsibility is towards all the children in our care, even the ones whose parents are in healthy stable relationships.”

 “What has Jeremy been doing?” I asked. And she showed me.

 There were half a dozen pieces of paper, and on all of them were written the same thing. “You’re going to die.” Mrs Kelly told me that the children had found them in their school bags and the pockets of their coats, Jeremy must have put them there when no one was looking. “How do you know it’s Jeremy?” I said, and she told me they were in his handwriting, didn’t I know my own son’s handwriting? And the truth was, I didn’t, I didn’t know that children even had handwriting yet, I thought it was all just scrawl.

 “It’s very disturbing,” said Mrs Kelly.

 “But he hadn’t actually tried to hurt anyone?” I asked. “He’s not, I don’t know. Tried strangling, or hitting kids over the head with blunt, ah, objects?” Mrs Kelly looked scandalised at the very idea. “Well, I’m sorry,” I said, “I’ll have a word with Jeremy, of course. But it doesn’t sound that serious.”

 “Some of the parents found the notes,” she said. “Some of the parents want Jeremy suspended.”

 “It’s not even as if he’s threatening them!” I said. “Just telling them they’re going to die, and he has a point, they are, we’re all going to die at some point, aren’t we?” I could see I wasn’t helping matters. “Look,” I said. “You know kids. Kids just say stuff. Jeremy doesn’t even know what death is. Kids don’t know what death is.”

 She glared at me, and said, “Have you ever known a child who has died? I have known far too many, I’m afraid to say.” And I thought, and I remembered Danny Wheeler and the straw incident, and I decided I’d keep that to myself.

 “If he had said he was going to kill them,” Mrs Kelly told me, with the gravity of a judge, “then he’d be out of the school instantly. We take death threats very seriously here, some of our children are Muslims. As it is, I want Jeremy off school for a week, and I think we should monitor his progress very closely.”

 “Yes,” I said. And, “Thank you.”

 She nodded, seemed to soften. “I’m sorry about you and your wife,” she said. “I’m sorry for your loss,” as if Liz was dead, we weren’t merely getting divorced. “We’re not getting divorced,” I said, “we’re fine,” and Mrs Kelly nodded.

 She had Jeremy brought in, and there he was, my little boy, and he looked so young and so innocent and as far away from death as could be.

 *

 I said to Jeremy in the car, “Do you want to tell me what’s going on?” And he didn’t say anything, and I realised I’d made a mistake, I’d given him an option, so I said, “Tell me what’s going on.”

 I didn’t think he was going to reply to that either. And then he looked at me, calmly, directly – and I looked back at him too, I took my eyes off the road, I admit it, but I had to hear what he was going to say, that was important parenting. And he had my full attention. And he said, very deliberately, “Fuck. You.” From the mouth of a six year old.

 I swerved the car. I stopped it at the side of the road. I wanted to hit him. And he looked so thrilled by that. And I said, “I want an ice cream. Do you want an ice cream? Let’s have an ice cream.” So I turned off the engine, and let go of the steering wheel, and I realised only then how tightly I’d been gripping it, my hand hurt. And we got out of the car, and went to the nearest grocery store, and I bought us ice cream.

 When we got home, Jeremy went straight to his room without a word. I’d decided I was going to send him to his room anyway, I couldn’t tell whether I was frustrated or relieved he had done it without my say so. I phoned up Liz, but Liz didn’t answer, he did.

 “I’d like to speak to my wife,” I said, and calling her ‘my wife’ seemed such a petty thing to do, but maybe I am petty.

 Liz came to the phone. She sounded tired. “What is it?”

 “It’s Jeremy. He’s in trouble at school. I don’t think it’s anything serious. I think it’s all a storm in a teacup, actually. Don’t worry about it.”

 “All right,” she said.

 “I don’t know what to do with him,” I said.

 “You’re the one who said bringing him up was so easy,” she said, and I thought, had I say that, had I ever? “He wants to spend more time with you. It’s a good idea. You said it was a good idea.”

 “I don’t know what to do.”

 She said, and it sounded like something from one of those TV movies she watched every day I was out hard at work, really glib, you know – she said, “Try to be a good father.” And then she said, “Try to be a better father than you were a husband,” and that was pure afternoon soap.

 “Take him back,” I said quietly. And I also thought, that would limit your time with him, he won’t be at the house so often if my son is there, Jeremy can do some good after all.

 “Just stick with it,” she said. “We know you’ll do great.” And then Liz hung up.

 *

 And over the years, of course, I doubted whether anyone had ever really killed themselves at school. I doubted there’d been a Danny Wheeler in the first place. And I didn’t think of Danny Wheeler much. I’d sometimes remember – or remember that I had forgotten, because he was always at a remove, like a fairy story I’d heard as a kid, like a resurfaced dream – and then Danny Wheeler might be in my head for days, I’d tease at the edges of the memory, I’d wonder whether any part of it was real or whether I’d made up every last bit of it. And then there’d be some other distraction – something urgent at work, or plans for holidays or Christmas, or school reports for Jeremy, or Liz and I, arguing or growing cold or falling in love all over again – and then I’d forget all about Danny Wheeler once more, I’d push him out of my mind again altogether.

 There were occasional letters asking me to school reunions, but I never bothered to reply. Except that one year. And that may be because the invitation just happened to coincide with Danny Wheeler popping back into my life for one of his periodic visits. Or because that was about the time things started to get sticky between Liz and me, and I just fancied an evening away from her. Who can say?

 The school seemed so much smaller than when I’d last been there; my classmates all so much bigger. There was a notice board in the entrance hall, and photographs of us as children had been pinned there, alongside pictures of how we looked now – fatter, mostly, and sadder, and less comfortable in front of the camera, not one of those pictures had a smile I believed in. I half expected to find Danny there. There wasn’t; but that didn’t prove he was dead. On the contrary, it may just have meant he had a life.

 There was orange squash and expensive bottles of German lager. We all tried sitting in the little infant chairs, and laughed at how large our bottoms had grown. I asked a few people whether they remembered Danny Wheeler. And some said they didn’t, and some said they did, but I think they were lying. “Oh yes, Danny,” they’d say. “So, what’s he up to these days?”

 I tried to find the very classroom in which the suicide had taken place, but they all looked the same.

 I didn’t stay long. I bought a second bottle of lager, but didn’t finish it.

 I stepped out into the cold. I heard my name called.

 There was a woman by the main entrance. “Do you remember me?” she asked, and I said I did. She was smoking, and as she spoke she blew out clouds of the stuff, and I couldn’t tell where the cigarette smoke ended and steam of condensation began – and I remembered that that was another thing I had liked to do with those white plastic straws, I would pretend they were cigarettes and I would stand out in the cold and put them between my lips and suck deep and puff out clouds of steam.

 She had a hard middle-aged face, she’d never been a schoolchild, surely, she was a teacher through and through. “We were in the same class,” she said. “A bit weird, all this, isn’t it? Makes you feel old.”

 “Oh, I bet you’re not old,” I said, and that was silly, she was precisely as old as I was.

 “Did you see your friends?” she asked. “Most of mine didn’t show up.”

 And I said mine hadn’t showed up either; my friends were the sort of people who wouldn’t have come to school reunions; my friends were all working abroad, maybe, or too rich, or dead. “Did you know Danny Wheeler?” I asked, and she frowned, and she shook her head, and she laughed – “It was such a long time ago!” she said.

 “He was quite tall,” I said. “Or, I don’t know, probably quite short, really, he was eight.” She laughed again, I don’t know why. “And I think he may have killed himself.”

 And at that her mouth opened into a wide ‘o’. And the years fell off her, and she looked so young suddenly, and I don’t know, I thought maybe I did recognise her after all.

 “Oh my God,” she said. “I always thought. God.”

 “What?”

 “I thought I’d imagined that. What happened, didn’t he? Didn’t he hit his head, or…?”

 “He blew his brains out in maths class.”

 And she whispered, “With a straw.” And she looked so happy, she positively beamed. “With a straw, how could that be? I mean, that has to be impossible, right?”

 “Impossible, yeah.”

 “I thought I was stupid! All this time. All these years. But I wasn’t stupid at all.”

 We went to my car. We began to kiss. Her teeth knocked against my teeth.

 We remembered the teacher’s weary disapproval of the mess Danny Wheeler had left against the wall. (Miss Balding, she said; I’m still sure it was Baldock.) We remembered the squelching sound the brain had made as it slurped its way down to the floor. We remembered the way that Danny Wheeler hadn’t been mentioned again by anyone. We remembered Danny Wheeler, and we celebrated him, I think, in a way; we had sex on the back seat, and she was a noisy lover, and I was obliged to shout out louder than I’d normally have done so as not to feel left out.

 “I’m married,” she gasped. “He’s a good man.” And I thought how formal that sounded.

 “I’m married too,” I explained. “But it won’t last, we’re bound to get a divorce sooner or later.”

 “He’s a good man,” she repeated. And after we’d finished we kissed a few minutes longer, and we talked about Danny Wheeler and straws for a bit, but we’d pretty much said all that there was to say. Then I thanked her, and she thanked me, and I let her out of the car, and I drove home.

 *

 For dinner I made Jeremy his favourite. I know I shouldn’t be seen to reward him, but it was my favourite too, why should I have to suffer? Jeremy took one bite, then pushed the plate away. “Mummy does it better,” he said. “Fine,” I said, “all the more for me,” and I spooned his portion on to my plate, and made a great show of enthusiasm as I ate it, “ Mmm!” But he may have had a point, actually. Maybe I used too much salt.

 After, I turned on the television. Jeremy didn’t want to watch television, so he went upstairs. I watched one programme, and then I watched another. As a third was starting I decided I really ought to have a word with Jeremy about his behaviour and say some fatherly things. I went up to him. He wasn’t in his room.

 “I’m in the toilet,” he said, when I called for him.

 “When you’re done in the toilet, come down and see me, please.”

 “I’m not going to leave the toilet, ever,” he said.

 I laughed. “You can’t want to live in a toilet.”

 And he said, “I’m going to die in the toilet,” and I went cold.

 *

 I phoned Liz. I got the answering machine. “Mark and Liz can’t come to the phone right now,” it said. Liz sounded inappropriately cheerful. I hadn’t heard the message before.

 “Your son is dying,” I said. “I thought you’d want to know.”

 I hung up. Then called back.

 “And it wouldn’t have happened,” I said, after another beep, “if you’d been here. If you’d just had a little faith. You selfish bitch. I hope you’re happy.”

 I hung up. Called back once more. Waited for the beep.

 “ I wouldn’t have you back now if you begged.”

 And I called the emergency services. Very possibly, I thought, I should have called them first. The woman on the end seemed respectful and calm, and I liked that, I rather wish Liz could have ever been like that, I wished I’d met and married this woman instead. She asked me which department I wanted, and I wasn’t sure, could she remind me which ones were on offer? – and then I thought a bit, and said I wouldn’t be needing the fire brigade or the coastguard. And I thought a bit more, and I don’t know, she sounded so efficient, it made me feel good, and I rather think the messages I’d left Liz had done me the world of good too. So I apologised, said the crisis was over, there’d been a mistake, and I put the phone down.

 I went upstairs. I knocked on the toilet door.

 “Jeremy?” I said. “You still in there? You still alive?”

 There was silence for a while, and I briefly wondered whether he might really be dead – and if so, what I would do – and if so, whether this would be easier or harder for me in the long run. Then, grumpily, I heard, “Yes.”

 “I was just wondering how you were going to do it. The killing yourself thing.”

 “Why do you care?”

 “Just curious.”

 And he didn’t respond to that. So I said, “Because I have a few suggestions.”

 He didn’t ask what suggestions. I could just have offered him my suggestions then and there, but sod it, I wasn’t going to offer him anything if he wasn’t listening, I’d spent years giving my son things that he didn’t seem to want or need, and I didn’t know what I should be doing, I’m not sure I’d ever got it right, I certainly wasn’t going to waste any more of my effort if that effort wasn’t going to be appreciated. “Do you want to hear my suggestions?” I said, at last. And he made a noise that might have been a yes.

 “Well,” I said. “These are razorblades on the top shelf of the cabinet. You’ll have to stand on the toilet seat to reach them, but I’m sure you can manage. You could cut your wrists with razorblades, if you like, if you don’t mind the blood, there’ll be a lot of blood, if you cut down really deep enough.”

 Not a word. He was considering this option.

 “Or, whilst you’re in the cabinet, go for the pills. There are lots of pills in there, I don’t know what there are, a lot of them are your mother’s. I don’t know which ones will kill you, or which ones will make you more or less fertile, or which ones will just give you a stomach ache, but you could experiment, there’s nothing to stop you.”

 Hmm. Still that thoughtful silence. I imagined him behind the door, weighing up the pros and cons.

 “Or you could drown yourself, even. Why not? Lots of water in there, must be possible to drown yourself. You could stick your head in the toilet bowl and just keep reaching up to pull the chain. I’m sure the flush would polish you off eventually.”

 Nothing.

 “I mean to say,” I said. “Your choice.”

 Nothing.

 “It’s all the same to me,” I said.

 Nothing. Or was that the faintest sound of a sob?

 “Really boring ways to die, though, frankly,” I said. “If it were up to me, I’d want to go out with a bit more panache. In my day, the kids were much more inventive. There was a boy at my school, Danny Wheeler was his name. He killed himself with nothing more than a few straws. That was brilliant. There was genius in that, I think.”

 Nothing. Then, very quietly, Jeremy said, “How did he manage to do that?”

 “You open the door, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

 *

 In the fridge there were three little cartons of orange juice, we had the straws off those for a start. And then we had a look in the cupboards, and we found a couple of bendy straws that must have been left over from one of his birthday parties. “Is that enough?” said Jeremy, and I said, “I think that’s more than enough!”

 I let Jeremy do the sellotape all by himself. He was very careful, he looked so serious as he performed the operation. But he couldn’t help but laugh in spite of himself when he kept getting the sticky end on his fingers, he had to keep shaking his hands about wildly to free them.

 And he looked at his new giant straw a bit doubtfully, and I told him it was good, it was Danny Wheeler good, it was as least as good as Danny Wheeler’s and a damn sight more colourful too. “Try blowing down the end, see if the air passage is clear,” and he did, and it was.

 “Let me go first,” Jeremy said.

 I put one end of the straw in my son’s ear.

 “You’re sure this won’t hurt?” And he sounded like such a little boy for a moment.

 “It’s not going to do anything,” I said. “I think you have to really believe that it’ll kill you, and we don’t believe that, do we?” He shook his head firmly, and closed his eyes. He was shivering. “We don’t have to do this,” I said, but he shook his head at that too, and he was shivering, but he was giggling as well. “Do it, Daddy!”

 I was going to give only the smallest of puffs. But I thought that would dishonour Jeremy after all the work he’d put in. And I thought it’d dishonour Danny too. “Here I come!” I said, and put the other end in my mouth, and I blew.

 Jeremy squealed with laughter. “It tickles!”

 “You want me to do it again?”

 “Yes! No. No. Let me do it to you.”

 He got up from his chair, came to my side. Even sitting down I was too big for him to reach, I had to lower my head right down to the table. It wasn’t very comfortable. He put the straw in my ear. He put it in deep.

 I knew Liz would get the phone message sooner or later. And there’d be hell to pay when she rushed over here, and found out it had been a false alarm, and realised that neither of us were dying. I could imagine the disappointment on her face. But that didn’t matter for the while. I was playing with my son. I was playing Russian roulette with my son.

 “I love you,” I said to my son, to my son, and I did, I loved him. And I hoped I would survive this round, because it would be so much better to be alive now I knew that and now I had worked out how to be a father. “I love you,” I said, but my son couldn’t answer, his mouth was full. And he was shivering again, I don’t know why. And he took the deepest of breaths, and screwed up his eyes tight, as if he were using every ounce of his concentration, as if he were trying to believe.

KAREN BALDWIN

Many friends warned me about dating Karen Baldwin, and, to be fair, none of them so openly or accurately as Karen Baldwin herself. “I give my heart away too easily,” she said over dinner, “and maybe that’s why I take it back again so often.” She speared a prawn with her fork, put it in her mouth, and chewed – chewed, I thought, for rather longer than the prawn warranted. “I’m fickle,” she concluded, and shrugged, and smiled.

 And I suppose I asked her out as an act of hubris, I thought that I could be the one to tame her. She was, I think you’ll know this already, alarmingly attractive. Alarming, as in the sense that when you saw her, it made you wonder why you’d wasted your time with so many plainer girls beforehand – it never made men feel comfortable meeting Karen, no one wants to have to question their whole romantic past like that, and in all the time that I knew her I don’t think I ever saw a man look entirely happy in her presence. Excited, sometimes, certainly. With one or two of the older men, even surprised and grateful. But she wasn’t a woman who inspired joy on any level. Joy simply wasn’t what Karen Baldwin was about.

 When I first met Karen, I’d been going out with Alice for quite a while. We were coming up to celebrating our six month anniversary – by which I mean, the six month milestone was all Alice was talking about, and how we should mark the occasion, how much the presents we should give each other should cost, whether we should throw a party. In retrospect I found all the faff about an anniversary that wasn’t even an anniversary rather endearing, but at the time it really got on my wick – and it didn’t help when I saw Karen standing by the photocopier that day trying to correct a paper jam. She wasn’t glammed up or anything, she was by a photocopier, for Christ’s sake, but there was a beauty to her that seemed quite natural and unforced and clear. – Alice wasn’t beautiful. Alice wasn’t ugly, but she wasn’t beautiful. Alice wouldn’t have looked good, all hot, and irritated by a hunk of malfunctioning office hardware. And I didn’t break up with her straight away, it wasn’t as simple as that, it wasn’t one look at Karen and my life had changed. – But, still, I’d got rid of Alice within the week.

 Nor did I make a move on Karen for a while. She was new to the office, and that meant she’d be the pickings of upper management first. Besides, there was no good reason why she would want to go out with me. I’m not a looker, I know that – not ugly either, but very definitely in Alice’s league, when Alice and I had photos taken you could see that we sort of fitted together in them, we were of the same species, she had about as much wrong with her as I had wrong with me, indeed, that helped, her buck teeth were offset by my fat jowels, and vice versa, we were complementarily plain.

 Beside Karen I looked plain. But I asked her out for two reasons. One was that I’d just had a very slight promotion. Nothing to change my job title or the size of my office cubicle, but there was a bit of extra money coming in, and bags more responsibility – and my ego felt good and inflated and bold. And the other reason, I knew Karen was single. She’d been going out with Greg from the human resources team, but that was all over now, I didn’t know Greg well but I heard he was quite cut up about it. I made my play. And I did it so confidently that I wasn’t surprised when she said yes. It wasn’t until I got home that evening that my legs began to wobble and the doubt set in.

 But the date went well. I’ll say one thing for Karen Baldwin, she gives good dates. She’d dressed up really nicely, it made me feel flattered to have something so classy by my side, and even the waiters looked impressed – at one point she went to powder her nose, and I was able to look around the entire restaurant and see that every man in the place was looking at me with frank admiration. And we talked easily, and the conversations overlapped, but never in an annoying way, only because there seemed so much to say. Though I suppose it’s true I can’t remember now one thing we actually talked about. Still, we were still at it after the dessert and the coffee, and I asked Karen if I could see her safely home, and she said that would be nice. And I helped her with her coat, I even offered her my arm – sort of jokey, you know, so there’d be nothing wrong if she rejected it – but she didn’t reject it, she took my arm in hers as if that was what we always did, as if this wasn’t our first date but ourv hundredth, and as we walked out on to the street I imagined all the restaurant applauding me.

 We stayed arm in arm all the way to her house, which slowed us down somewhat; we still got to her house far too soon. I had to cut short one of my anecdotes, and I was telling it better than I had ever told it before, it seemed not only amusing but had depth and point. “Well,” she said, “this is me.” “Well,” I said. I wondered if she’d invite me in. She didn’t. But that wasn’t a disappointment, we both had to be at the office in the morning, and I was sure she would see me again. “Would you like to see me again?” I asked; she said, “I think you’re going to be very special to me.” And that was more than I’d bargained for. I said, “How about we do it again this weekend?”, and she smiled.

 We kissed then. I put in a bit of effort, gave her one of Alice’s favourites, we were kissing for at least three minutes. Until we got to the point where I thought she’d have to ask me in. Until I thought etiquette demanded it. “Well,” she said, “well, good night.” And she went indoors. And I didn’t feel disappointed, I didn’t, it was fine, it was better than fine, actually – and as I walked to the bus stop I was already trying to work out what I should get her for Christmas – Christmas was just around the corner – and whether we should spend it with my parents or with hers, and actually I thought we’d go to my parents, because it would be so much fun to show off a girlfriend like Karen to my family, especially after all the Alice lookalikes I’d brought home, oh, the look there’d be on my father’s face! I’d get her to glam up like she had on the date, it’d knock his socks off.

 At the office the next day Karen and I didn’t talk, but there was nothing unusual in that. I smiled at her a couple of times, though, and she smiled back.

 I was full of plans for Saturday night, and it didn’t matter that they kept changing. We didn’t have to do everything at once, we’d have lots and lots of Saturdays to fill, all the world would be our oyster and we would enjoy exploring every last bit of it. On Friday night when she phoned me I think I’d got planned a movie and a curry. “Hello,” she said. “Look, I think we’ll have to cancel tomorrow night.”

 “Oh,” I said. As her boyfriend, I did the good boyfriend thing, I immediately expressed concern for her health, and kept the disappointment as far from my voice as possible.

 “I’m perfectly well,” she said. “I just don’t think we should see each other any more.”

 I was quite surprised by this. I asked her why. “Does everything have to have a reason?” she said. I asked her if were now just going to be good friends, and I’m not sure that by this time the disappointment wasn’t seeping in perfectly audibly.

 And she thought a bit. And then said, “Honestly, I’m not sure your friendship would mean that much to me.”

 And that was that.

 *

 I must stress, I wasn’t upset by this. I hardly knew the girl. I was confused, that was all, and who can blame me? Had I behaved too coolly in the office towards her? But I was just trying to be professional. I had seen the way some of her boyfriends had moved around her, as if trying to assert to the world that she was their property – Greg, for example, and that had been nauseating (and it hadn’t done him much good in the end, had it?). Was it the kiss? Because if it were the kiss, I could try again, I had other kisses to choose from. I phoned her back, but she didn’t answer, and I thought she was probably blocking my number. So I put on my coat and walked out into the cold to ring her from the public phone box near the supermarket. Still no answer, maybe she’d gone out.

 I wasn’t upset. It was her loss. And it wasn’t as if I’d sacrificed anything for Karen, no more than an evening of my time and the price of a three course Italian meal. I hadn’t broken up with Alice because of Karen. Alice and I had been on the way out anyway.

 Before I went to bed, I tried phoning Karen one more time. Nothing. So I went to sleep.

 *

 And then I was upright.

 It was the immediacy of it that disturbed me most, that first time. Not the absurdity of it – that I’d gone from a comfy horizontal position to one that was very definitely and uncompromisingly vertical. Nor the change of location, because I could see immediately I had moved – I had moved, for God’s sake! – even in the dark I could see I had moved! – I was still in a bedroom, but not in my own bedroom, this was a woman’s bedroom, it was neater than mine, and there was the whiff of perfume, scented soap. I was standing up, straight as a ramrod, in a woman’s bedroom, when I ought to have been lying down in mine – and that still wasn’t it, that wasn’t what set my heart racing, that wasn’t what was making me start to freak out (take it easy!) – it was the sheer speed with which I’d ended up there, as if I’d been catapulted into position – catapulted, yes, that was a good word for it – I felt all my limbs jangling with the rush of it all, and my hair out of place, and I tried to catch my breath but it was difficult, I had to suck the air in deep and pant it out, actually pant the thing, before I could feel myself calm down.

 And my first impulse for all that new breath I’d earned was to waste it, was to cry out for help.

 “Don’t say a word,” whispered a voice behind me.

 So I didn’t. I decided not to worry about the voice. The voice could take care of itself for now. Let me worry about the other things first.

 I was standing over the sleeping body of Karen Baldwin. At least, I assumed she was sleeping – oh, God, what if she were dead? – oh, God, what if the police caught me in her bedroom and she were dead, how would I explain that? But then she gave a little snore, not so much a snore as a little sigh, it was rather sweet, really, and warm, and feminine – so, so she wasn’t dead, that was good, so when the police stormed in I’d only have to explain why I was standing in her bedroom at all, oh yes, that would be so much better – and I decided I had better get out of there as soon as possible. Before she stirred. Before she saw me.

 And my feet wouldn’t move.

 And I thought, that was unhelpful of them – and I thought, maybe they were numb. Maybe numbness was some side effect of all that impossible catapulting my body had just been put through. Or even worse. Worse, paralysed, I’d be stuck like this forever! So I sent a message down to my toes to wiggle, and they wiggled in response quite amiably – my feet would do anything I wanted, they cheerfully informed me, except walk away from Karen Baldwin’s bedside. I was meant to be here, and this is where they were going to keep me. Well, I wasn’t going to put up with a rebellion like that. I bent down, I was going to pick my feet up by hand, I was going to carry myself out of the room by force if I had to! – and I couldn’t find the feet amid the tangle of the white sheets I was wearing. And that’s when I first realised I was wearing white sheets at all. I hadn’t gone to bed at home wearing sheets; I’d gone to bed naked, actually, and thank God that wasn’t still the case, actually, that would make that explanation to the police that little bit more complicated. But sheets – I was all in white, a gleaming white, I was lighting up the room with how I gleamed. There was a hole cut in the sheet for my head, there were no holes for the arms. I was dressed like a ghost. It wasn’t a good costume. It would have shamed the seven year old trick or treaters who might have worn it at Halloween.

 “Not at yourself,” the voice hissed. “Look at her. Do the job you’re here for.”

 So I looked.

 I never had had the chance to study a woman quite so completely before. And especially not a beautiful one; my formative adolescent years had been spent gazing not at the pretty girls I knew would mind, but at the dumpy ones who’d be lucky to care. As a result I had grown up acquainted only with the folds of flesh that gather around a woman’s face, the flecks of dandruff, the patches of make-up used to mask spots and blackheads – a whole gamut of big arses and lopsided breasts and faces that just somehow looked a bit wrong. Real beauty was something airbrushed in in lingerie advertisements and my elder brother’s top shelf mags. But I gazed down at Karen Baldwin, and here, indeed, was real beauty. On my date with her I’d stolen a few long glances at her face when she was chatting, but never for too long, never for long in case she noticed what I was doing, I had to look away at the menu, at the table, straight down at the floor. Now I could examine her without interruption.

 In sleep Karen was so peaceful, only that sighing snore breaking through the still every now and then. A smile played about her face, she must have been dreaming about something very nice. Or even something rather naughty! – and even in the dark her lips were thick and red. Her hair was down and poured out over her chest, there was something liquid about it, it emphasised her breasts and the smooth milkiness of her neck – it looked quite artfully posed, but it couldn’t have been, could it? – Oh, Alice had never looked good asleep. There’d be spittle. And some nights she’d thrash about as if she were trying to punch me out of bed.

 It was easy watching Karen. If this were my job, as the voice said, it was hardly an unpleasant one. The time passed before I knew it. And then I felt a tap upon my shoulder. And instinctively I turned around, before I even remembered my feet were frozen and I couldn’t move, and they were free, they had unglued themselves.

 “It’s my turn now,” whispered a man. He too was dressed in a white sheet. I saw, to my surprise, it was old Mr Willis from the board of directors.

 “Yes, sir,” I said, and gave him my place – although I could feel straight after there was no need to defer, office politics were irrelevant here. We were all equal before the might of Karen Baldwin.

 There wasn’t just Mr Willis in the room. In the back, in the shadows, there must have been a dozen other ghosts. One of them waved at me, impatiently, to join them. When I got close I saw it was Greg from the Human Resources team.

 “That’s your shift done for the night,” he whispered. “Two a.m., to two thirty. Watching over Karen, and protecting her from harm.” I looked at Greg, and in the office he’d always struck me as a bit of a prick, someone who was more interested in talking about football and beer than in the productivity graphs he was supposed to. Here in Karen Baldwin’s bedroom his face was deadly serious. And I looked at the other ghosts flanking him – some I recognised vaguely from the office, most I didn’t – and their faces were just as hard set and stern.

 So when Greg smiled it wasn’t a warm smile. “You did well,” he said. “Well done.”

 *

 I would rather have liked to have gone home then. But I wasn’t able to leave the room. My hand wasn’t able to grasp the doorknob properly, it was like syrup.

 All the ghosts had to pay witness. We watched over each other as we watched over Karen.

 It was, frankly, rather dull. I wished I’d brought my iPod, or a book, maybe.

 Old Mr Ellis wasn’t content to watch. From his feet frozen position he was still able to bend forward over Karen. He would stroke her hair. He would kiss at his fingers, then wipe his fingers over her cheeks. He said to her things, so quietly that we couldn’t hear.

 “Is he allowed to do that?” I whispered to Greg.

 “We can do what we want,” Greg whispered back. “It’s not as if we can wake her, no matter how hard we try.”

 “Then why on earth are we whispering?”

 He looked at me coldly. “Out of respect.”

 I wondered how long all this would take. It would be dawn soon, and at least five ghosts hadn’t had a turn yet.

 “I think there’s been some mistake,” I said. “I shouldn’t really be here.”

 “There’s no mistake. Your passion has brought you here.”

 “I only snogged her once!”

 “You must love her very much.”

 “And that was, what, two minutes, tops.”

 Greg said, “Then she must love you. There’s clearly a lot of love going on somewhere.”

 “Jesus,” I said.

 Around five o’clock another ghost shuffled into position. He began prodding at Karen’s breasts, then cupping them, weighing them like fruit. He made strange little grunting noises.

 “Oh, come on!” I said. “We’re supposed to be protecting her!” But no one replied.

 “This isn’t going to keep happening, is it?” I asked eventually. “Not night after night? How do I get it to stop?” And the ghosts were scandalised. This wasn’t a curse, it was a privilege.

 I don’t remember how I got home. But at half past seven my alarm clock woke me up, and I was back in my own bed, and I felt exhausted, and my legs were aching from standing still too long.

 *

 During the lunch hour I set off to find Greg. As I approached his desk I could see he didn’t recognise me at all, and that made me asking about our night time dalliances with his ex-girlfriend rather awkward. The look of angry bewilderment on his face spoke volumes, and I soon stammered to a halt; “See you tonight, then,” I mumbled, and left. But I’d known he’d been there in the bedroom with me, I hadn’t imagined it. In his eyes was the same bloodshot sleeplessness that I had.

 I tried talking to Karen too. When she saw me, she sighed, and said, “I don’t want to discuss this, I don’t want to go out with you any more.” It was odd to see that jaw move, and for all those words to spill out.

 “You don’t love me, do you?” I said. “I think we can agree on that.”

 “I don’t love you,” she confirmed.

 “And I’m pretty sure I don’t love you either,” I told her.

 She nodded at that. “Well, then,” she said.

 “Well,” I agreed. And I actually thought that might have done the trick. I went to bed that night apprehensive but hopeful. But at two o’clock, it made no difference, the catapulting happened, I was back in position by her bedside. “Shit,” I whispered, softly.

 The next night I decided I simply wouldn’t go to sleep. I drank lots of black coffee, litres of the stuff. And that meant that when I found myself standing over Karen Baldwin, I had the most agonising urge to go and pee. At the back of her bedroom, after my shift was done, I jogged up and down in my ghost costume, praying that dawn would come – and when my alarm clock rang and woke me from my own bedroom I nearly didn’t make it to the toilet in time.

 I didn’t touch Karen at all for the first week. Eventually, out of boredom, really, I thought I’d give it a go. With my middle finger I carefully pressed down on her forehead. I thought it’d feel weird and syrupy, like the doorknob had, and it’s true, it wasn’t quite right, not quite like a forehead should feel – it yielded a bit too easily to my touch, wasn’t there supposed to be bone underneath? But it was pleasant and warm. From that point on, if I felt I’d earned it, if I’d done a good day’s work and deserved a treat, I might prod at Karen Baldwin’s forehead a bit.

 It became harder to concentrate at work. I’d start the morning with a renewed determination to do my best, to stay as bright and breezy as my new job demanded. By noon my eyelids were sinking and my head spun and my spirits felt as flat as a pancake.

 Rather than take black coffee when I went to bed, I began popping sleeping pills. They wouldn’t stop me materialising at Karen’s house, but they took the edge off the boredom a bit, and the numbness that spread up my rigid standing body was comforting.

 Karen wasn’t always asleep. Those were the exciting nights. This one time she had insomnia, and was up for hours reading a book. If I leaned to the side, and strained my neck as far as it could go, I could read it alongside her. It was some sort of chick lit thing. It wasn’t too bad, actually, but Karen was a faster reader than I was, and I’d rarely reached the end of a page before she’d turned over. It was hard to work out what was going on.

 And once in a while she had sex. Those nights were exciting too, but I really wasn’t sure where I was supposed to look. I discovered many things about Karen Baldwin it might have taken years of a real relationship to reveal – because I could see what her boyfriends couldn’t, I could see the facial expressions when they’d turned away, or had their eyes closed, or were intent on nibbling at her nether regions. I learned that she liked her nipples tickled, she liked kissing at her ear. Toe sucking, though, did nothing for her at all. And she wouldn’t do anal for anyone.

 There was this one guy she was sleeping with, a young lad, he didn’t work at the office, I had no idea where Karen had found him. He kept on going for the toes. I wanted to say to him, you’re barking up the wrong tree there, mate. All the ghosts knew his days were numbered. He didn’t last long. One night he was chewing away at her feet, with Karen huffing away in frank irritation right above him – the next, he was standing over her in a white sheet, as perplexed as hell, and crying with shock and disappointment.

 I must admit, I liked it when we got new recruits. They were always so surprised to find themselves there, it made me laugh. I could see now how well I had handled my own job placement. I had  been very good about it.

 I didn’t go to see my parents that Christmas at all. They said they felt let down. I said I had too much work on. I did, too, there was no time off for holidays. And on New Year’s Eve, Karen didn’t come to bed all night. All the ghosts were left haunting an empty room for hours, it was embarrassing. Or would have been embarrassing, if Greg hadn’t thought to make a party of it. He gave a speech. “To us,” he said, “and to another year of it! We’re all in this together!”

 First week of January, I was called in to see the management. I was told that my work had been unsatisfactory for a while, and that if I couldn’t handle the extra responsibility they could take away my promotion in an instant. I apologised, told them I would pull my socks up and work all the waking hours I had. And it was old Mr Ellis I had to promise this to, the fucking hypocrite.

 That night as I stood over Karen Baldwin I pressed my finger on her forehead, I stabbed it down as hard as I could.

 *

 Soon after that, something broke.

 I had gone to bed, washed and shaved, ready for my date with Karen, and my bladder was good and empty. And I don’t know what happened, but when I stirred awake in the night I was still in my own house. It was already ten past two, and I was late. “Shit!” I said, and leaped out of bed. Thank God, I had at least transformed into a ghost, the white sheet was all around me, but it didn’t alter the fact that my shift had already started the other side of town.

 I phoned for a taxi. I was told there wouldn’t be one for half an hour. “This is an emergency!” I yelled. “I’ll pay double!” And a taxi was outside my house in five minutes flat. I’d put on a big anorak, the best to hide my ghost outfit, but the sheets were so big and billowy they kept popping out around my midriff.

 I couldn’t remember Karen’s exact address. I’d spent every night there for the last six months, but I’d seen the outside of her house just the once. I asked the driver to go up and down likely looking roads; he kept trying to make conversation, and I had to tell him eventually to shut up. At that he dropped me off, and maybe that was just as well, I might find the place better on foot. I paid him his double fare, and a tip on top, and that didn’t seem to mollify him at all.

 All the houses were dark, and on those suburban streets they all looked the same. I admit it, I started to panic. I thought I’d have to give up and go home – and then I knew I couldn’t give up, that was unacceptable. If necessary I would have to knock on people’s doors, late as it was, and ask whether anyone might know where Karen Baldwin lived. And then – I turned a corner – and there it was. I couldn’t be sure, but it was beside a lamp post, and the back garden I’d look out on from Karen’s window seemed familiar, and, yes, there was the graffiti on the pavement I’d sometimes enjoy to read.

 And now what? I couldn’t exactly ring the doorbell. I picked up some loose gravel, and threw them up at the upstairs window. And for a dread moment I thought I’d probably got the wrong house after all, and I prepared to run – but then, thank Christ, the faces of half a dozen ghosts came into view behind the pane, all shining white and ethereal, and peered down at me. I gave them a wave.

 They couldn’t open the front door, of course. No one could leave the  room. But the window was forced open. I took off my anorak, it would only weigh me down. And as my white sheets blew all around me in the night breeze, I shinned up the drainpipe.

 “Where the hell have you been?” whispered Greg. “You’ve missed your turn. We had to give it to Terry.” Terry was the ghost with the breast cupping fetish, and Terry grinned at me, he wouldn’t have minded the extra bit of overtime.

 The next night things were back to normal, and I was catapulted into Karen Baldwin’s bedroom at two o’clock precisely the way I should have been. The next night, though, it was back on the blink. I phoned for a taxi. The taxi service remembered me, and said no. I phoned for a different taxi. It wasn’t so bad, this time I knew how to get there. But I still missed the beginning of my shift, and still I had to climb up that wretched drainpipe.

 The ghosts all seemed very disappointed in me, even the newbies. But I couldn’t see how any of this was my fault.

 The next day at work I received an envelope in the internal mail. Inside it was a house key. There was no note.

 The other ghosts mocked me for it, but I think they rather liked the fact I had a key. If nothing else, it meant I was the only one who wasn’t obliged to spend all night in the bedroom. I could make them cups of tea in the kitchen. “Anyone fancy a cuppa?” I’d say every half hour or so, and the ghosts would say yes, please, and I’d go downstairs and brew us up a pot. I brought my own teabags, it didn’t seem fair to use Karen’s. And besides, she was into some weird herbal stuff, and we needed good old-fashioned bloke’s tea if we were going to get through the long night.

 Pretty soon my ghost costume went on the blink as well. I had to make my own. I cut out a hole for my head, but I didn’t do it in quite the right place, I kept tripping up over the train of it and if I wanted to walk had to remember to lift it up. But it was better than nothing, and even though the sheet was very old, after a few goes in the washing machine it gleamed nearly as white as my original.

 And I didn’t mind that I looked different to the other ghosts now. Because I felt I’d been given a sort of promotion. It was my responsibility to keep them happy, I started to bring not just tea to work but chocolate digestives. And as dawn approached and the last ghost faded into thin air, downstairs I would take all the empty cups and plates and wash them up in the sink, keeping everything nice and tidy for when Karen got up. Sometimes I’d leave her some breakfast. I don’t know, of course, whether she enjoyed it or not.

 The taxi fares cost a fortune, though, and I decided I’d have to rent somewhere closer to where Karen lived. That was a bitter shame. I’d loved my old house. But needs must, and all that.

 *

 Karen Baldwin is in love again. I suppose I should have recognised the signs.

 For a start, she hasn’t been appearing in her bedroom much of late. The ghosts just sit around it drinking tea and eating biscuits without anything much to do. Greg said that Karen’s probably been visiting her parents, but that doesn’t seem likely, how often can a girl visit her parents? And she’s always in the office in the morning as usual. Still, Greg’s always seemed to know best.

 It turns out that Karen is in love with Greg. They’ve got back together somehow. Greg’s all smiles around the office again, all laughter and bloke jokes, it’s a bit nauseating to watch, if I’m honest. It appears that Greg has been pulling a fast one on all of us. That whilst his ghost self was spending the night with us guarding an empty bedroom, his actual body was out with Karen doing the nasty.

 Karen looks happy too, I suppose. She’s all smiles too. But I don’t trust those smiles. They don’t look as relaxed or as natural as the ones I’ve seen on her sleeping face these past few months. Whatever else, Greg has not been the man inside her head every night. Greg is not the man of her dreams.

 This is how I found out.

 We were over at Karen’s, the ghosts and I, and we’d settled ourselves in for a nice quiet evening. Not all of the lads had even bothered to show up, there was no Mark, no Stuart or Alan, and Terry hasn’t bothered to turn up for weeks now the breasts are in short supply. No Greg either, of course, and I found out the reason for that only too soon. And it was gone midnight, and we heard a key turn in the front door downstairs. “Action stations!” said old Mr Ellis, and the thinning collection of ghosts got into position ready to haunt. I climbed into the wardrobe.

 In all the hurry I’d forgotten to clean up the cups of tea, but Karen didn’t seem to mind. Her attentions were elsewhere. She entered the bedroom already wrapped around Greg’s body, and they were kissing each other with such hunger, now tearing off each other’s clothes then throwing them on to the floor. The ghosts watched on aghast, and who could blame them? We’d never seen our Karen show such passion before. And then they were naked, and they were at it full pelt, and Karen was crying out, and she never cried out, she had been a discreet and disinterested lover – and Greg was all over her nipples and all over her ears, and was giving the toes a wide berth. And I thought as I watched him, he’s studied for this, this is what these past few months have been for – he wasn’t protecting Kar en at all, he was getting insider information!

 And then, slowly, distinctly, as they both reached climax, Greg raised one hand high in the air. Pointed directly at where he knew the ghosts stood to watch. And gave us all the finger.

 *

 Mr Ellis today interrupted work to make a special announcement. He said he was delighted to inform us that there was going to be a marriage in the company! And that at five o’clock there’d be champagne so we could all toast the engagement of Greg Murphy and Karen Baldwin. Ellis actually looked pleased. I don’t know how he managed it. Ellis, who had been so distraught, that night when the sex was over and Greg and Karen were asleep and spent and their limbs were across each other and they were so so sweaty – Ellis, whose ghost had sat down on the floor beside the bed and cried.

 The champagne was in paper cups. Ellis toasted the couple, and said he hoped they’d be very happy together. But Karen Baldwin does not make men happy. She is not a woman to inspire joy.

 I hadn’t spoken to Karen in a long time. I saw her each night for work, it would have been exhausting having to see her in the daylight as well. But everybody was going up to her to wish her congratulations, I thought I should take the opportunity to have a word.

 She looked up at me expectantly over the paper cup. She even smiled a bit. Everything forgiven now, and all ready to accept my well wishes.

 “I know you don’t love me any more,” I said. “That was clear from what happened with the catapulting and the sheets. But I want you to know. I will always be there for you. I will always watch over you.”

 She went white at that, and it was as if I was seeing what her ghost looked like.

 Greg came up to me in the toilets as I was washing my hands. I decided to forgive Gary. I had been used, all the ghosts had been used – but, fair enough, which of us wouldn’t have done the same thing? Karen Baldwin was very beautiful, after all. “Hello, Greg,” I said, amiably enough. He grabbed me and held my face hard against the mirror. It hurt. “You just leave her alone,” he said. He wouldn’t release me until I promised that I would.

 But I didn’t know it was a promise I could keep. A supernatural force compels me each night to visit Karen Baldwin as she sleeps. I can’t stop it, and I’ve really tried. I understand what that force is now, and I’m not sure that love can just be switched off or made to go away. I wish it could be. That would make life so much easier.

 *

 I tried very hard.

 I went to bed nice and early. Thought I’d read a book for a while. I turned out the light.

 But pretty soon my body was itching for my ghost costume. Even then, once the sheet was around me, I knew it didn’t mean I had to go out. I could have just stayed there on the bed in it. Stayed in my own bed, for the first time in so very long, and waited for dawn.

 Oh, my God. That sounded so sweet, so delicious. Believe me.

*

 I have a regular taxi driver. I like him. He’s never tried to make conversation. He never shows any emotion at all. Tonight, though, I surprised him when I told him where I wanted to go.

 And there I was, standing outside Alice’s house. Her bedroom light was still on. Oh yes, that’s right, she was always a late night bird. I waited until the house was dark, then waited another good half hour so everything would be nice and still.

 I wondered how Alice was. I hadn’t seen her in ages.

 I still had a spare key. It didn’t work. She had changed the locks! I had to do what I had never done to Karen’s house. I smashed a window to get inside.

 I remembered Alice’s bedroom, going in there gave me a rush of nostalgia. There wasn’t the scented soap and perfume of Karen’s room, but there was still something female about it, something sweet to smell. We had had sex in this room quite a lot. She hadn’t done anything about the headboard, I noticed. When we’d had sex, the headboard would thump.

 Alice was snoring. It was definitely snoring. Her face didn’t smile as it snored. Instead, it contorted into a sort of frown, a confused frown, as if she were concentrating on her dream very hard indeed but was not at all convinced by what she found in there. But she wasn’t thrashing the way she could sometimes do. She was calm. Calm, at least, for Alice.

 Those buck teeth of hers. She really was very plain. But then, so am I. We are complementarily plain.

 I checked my watch. It was ten past two. All right, then, we’d say this was a two o’clock shift, from now on I’d get into position ten minutes earlier. And tonight I’d put in a bit of overtime to make up for it.

 I would protect her. Come what may.

 And I reached out a finger, my middle finger. And pressed it down, hard, firm, right upon her forehead.

MADALYN MORGAN

Snoopy is dead. They found his body lying on top of his kennel, wearing those World War I fighter pilot goggles he liked, and there must have been a foot of snow on him. Charlie Brown told the reporters, “At first I just thought it was one of his gags. That up out of the mound of snow would float a thought bubble with a punchline in it.” He went on to admit that he hadn’t cleared the snow off the body for hours, just in case he did something to throw the comic timing. But Snoopy was dead, he was frozen stiff, it’s a cold winter and the beagle was really very old. The doctors say it might have been hypothermia, it might have been suffocation, he might even have drowned if enough snow had got into his mouth and melted. Charlie Brown is distraught. “I can’t help but think I might be partially responsible.” But no one blames Charlie Brown, we all know what Snoopy was like, you couldn’t tell Snoopy anything, Snoopy was his own worst enemy.

Everyone’s being nice to Charlie Brown. No one’s called him a blockhead for days. Lucy Van Pelt has offered him free consultations at her psychiatry booth, and the kite-eating tree has passed on its condolences. And all the kids at school, the ones who never get a line to say or a joke of their own, all of them have been passing on their sympathies. You admit, you immediately saw it as an opportunity. That if you went up to Charlie Brown and said something suitably witty, maybe it’d end up printed in the comic strip. You came up with a funny joke, you practised the delivery. You’d find him in recess, maybe, or that pitcher’s mound of his, and you’d say, “It’s a dog-gone shame, Charlie Brown!” That’s pretty funny. That’s T-shirt funny. That’s funny enough to be put on a lunch box. But when it comes to it, you just can’t do it. When you see Charlie’s perfectly rounded head, and the expression on it so vacant, so lost, it’s not just a sidekick who’s dead but a family pet – no, you won’t do it, you have some scruples. – Besides, you can see that all the kids have had the same idea, he’s being harangued on all sides by the bit part players of the Peanuts franchise, and their gags are better than yours.

Your name is Madalyn Morgan, although none of the readers would know that. Your name has never been printed. You’ve appeared in quite a few of the cartoons, whenever they need a crowd of kids to watch a baseball game or something. Once you got to be in a cartoon in which Charlie Brown and the gang were queueing up to see a movie, and you were standing just three kids in front! You didn’t get to say anything, but you were proud anyway, you cut out the strip from the newspaper, and framed it, and now it hangs on your bedroom wall. You think Madalyn Morgan is a good name. It’s better than Patricia Reichardt, she had to change her name to Peppermint Patty just to get the alliteration, and you have the alliteration already, they should have used you in the first place. And Peppermint Patty’s friend is called Marcie, that’s so close to Maddie, oh, it’s infuriating. Some of the supporting characters have a gimmick, and you’ve been working on some of your own. Schroeder has a toy piano; you’re learning how to play the harp. You think there’s room for a harp in the Peanuts strip. Linus carries a security blanket everywhere with him, and believes in the Great Pumpkin. You’ve experimented with towels and Mormonism.

You’re sorry that Snoopy is dead, of course, but you can’t say that you’ll miss him. He was a self-obsessed narcissist, that’s the truth of it. And all those fantasies he had, that he was fighting the Red Baron on a Sopwith Camel, that he was the world’s greatest tennis coach or hockey player or novelist, that by putting on a pair of sunglasses he could be Joe Cool and hit on the girls – is it just you that thinks these delusions aren’t charming? But actually the symptoms of a sociopathic mental case? He was only kind to one of the characters, that little yellow bird called Woodstock, and you suspect that’s because Woodstock can’t speak English, and with no jokes of his own he’d never rival the dog in popularity. Snoopy is dead, and the world is in mourning, and you’re sorry, but you can’t pretend you care. But you admit that without his comic genius there’s a cold wind now blowing through the funny pages.

There’s a funeral for Snoopy, but it’s only for close friends and stars of the strip. You’re not invited. It’s quite a big send-off, all over town everyone can hear it. There are fireworks. You like fireworks.

*

The Peanuts franchise has been marketed to the hilt, and it doesn’t take you long to track down a full size Snoopy costume. When you try it on you’re pleased that it’s so woolly, that’ll keep you snug during the cold winter months ahead. Your hair is quite distinctive, and you’re worried that the head piece won’t cover it up properly, but it’s fine, it’s better than fine, it pads out all the crevices nicely and helps give Snoopy’s head that soft squidgy shape that’s so endearing.

 You put the supper bowl between your teeth, the way you’ve seen the real Snoopy do countless times in countless strips. You go up to the front door of Charlie Brown’s house. You kick against it three times, loud, insistent.

 You know this is a classic opening to many a Peanuts cartoon. Suppertime at the Charlie Brown house, and Snoopy banging on the door, demanding to be fed. And you can already imagine it on the page, this is panel one.

Charlie Brown opens the door. He stares at you. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t know what to say. And this is the crucial moment, you know this – if he accepts you, then you’re okay, and the strip can continue, but there’ll be a million and one reasons why he wouldn’t want to accept you: for a start, you’re some strange kid he doesn’t know pretending to be his dead dog. His eyes water. Is he going to cry? You think he might cry. Or will he be angry? Charlie Brown doesn’t do anger well, his character is sold on that essential wishy-washiness of his, but if ever a boy is going to get angry, it’s now, surely – and you’re suddenly aware of just how obvious the costume looks, the zips and fasteners exposed for all the world to see, you’re some ill-fitting parody of a best friend he only buried last week.

And then his face softens. He has made the decision to play along, you can see it. Or has he been fooled? Is he really that much of a blockhead? “Snoopy, where have you been? We thought you were gone for good!” he says. The speech bubble appears to his side, you can read the words clearly, his response is now official. And that is panel two.

In panel three you’re both walking to the kennel. Charlie Brown is now carrying the supper bowl. You’re following behind, on hind legs, of course. You wonder whether you should be doing the happy dance, when Snoopy’s fed his supper he sometimes does the happy dance, but you think that maybe it’s a little ambitious. And it might break the comic focus – if there’s one thing you’ve learned on your long stint on Peanuts it’s that you mustn’t smother the gag with extraneous detail. Always focus on what the story is about. This isn’t a strip about Snoopy doing a happy dance. It’s a strip about Snoopy coming home and Charlie Brown accepting him. Keep it simple. Charlie Brown says,” I threw out all your dog food, all I’ve got left are these old vegetables…”

And he’s gone. And you’re into panel four. The final panel on a weekday Peanuts strip is panel four, and it has a special job – it needs to sum up the world weariness and despair that is the hallmark of the cartoon at its best. To take all the hope that was present in the first three panels and show that it is wanting. To demonstrate that at best life is an awkward compromise we all just have to buckle down and accept. You don’t know how to convey all that. All eyes are on you. You stare down at the awful food in your supper bowl. You roll your eyes. You send up a thought bubble. “Good grief,” you think.

And it’s a wrap.

The strip is printed in the newspapers the very next day. The world is glad to see that Snoopy is back again, even if he’s sporting a zip.

You soon find out, in the absence of a really good punchline, rolling your eyes and thinking “Good grief” tends to work pretty well.

*

Sometimes the supporting cast come to see you. Linus says, “You are exploiting the grief of someone who is suffering, don’t you feel ashamed?” And then quotes some Bible verses at you, and that’s so very Linus – and you want to say, if you’re so smug and sanctimonious, why do you carry a security blanket? No, you don’t feel ashamed, because Snoopy wouldn’t feel ashamed – that was the point of Snoopy, can’t they see that, he had no conscience at all. You just lie on the roof of the kennel and let their criticisms wash right over you. Lucy is more direct, as usual; she says she wants to slug you; she says she wants to pound you. The best way to deal with Lucy is to call her ‘sweetie’ and kiss her on the nose, that never fails to infuriate her.

 Incidentally, it’s hard to sleep on the roof of a kennel, especially one that tapers into such a very sharp point. It took you a week to learn how to do it without falling off. And even now, you haven’t found a way of lying there without the pain, it jabs right into your spine, it’s agony. Thank God your contorted face is masked beneath that Snoopy head. Thank God your Snoopy head is fixed in that expression of cute self-satisfaction.

 Woodstock comes by only the once. He jabbers at you, and he’s angry, but you’ve no idea what he’s saying, his speech bubbles are full of nothing more than vertical lines. And you tire of him, and you punch him – you thwack him with yout paw, and it says, ‘Ka-pow!’ – and Woodstock is lying still on the grass for ages, and you wonder whether you’ve killed him. (And wonder whether it would matter; if the Peanuts strip can survive the death of the original Snoopy, who cares about the fate of a little bird that wasn’t even given a name for the first twenty years of syndication?) But Woodstock does revive. And he flies away. And you never see him again.

 The only one you need to keep happy is Charlie Brown. And Charlie Brown is very happy; he brings you fresh bowls of dog food every day, and you wolf them down, and dance the happy dance for real. He’s the butt of all your jokes, but he has faith in you, and you have faith in him – life will knock the stuffing out of Charlie Brown each and every day, but he rolls with the punches, he keeps coming back for more. It’s harder to be a Charlie Brown than a Snoopy. You have to admire him a bit for it.

 You try out Snoopy’s tried and tested specialty acts. You fly your kennel into World War I, and fight the Germans. The first time you strap on your goggles you think maybe something magical will happen, that you’ll really take off into the air, that you’re really have to dodge the bullets of enemy fire. And you feel a bit disappointed at first that it’s all pretend, of course it’s all pretend, and it always was. But there’s a certain thrill to it, that you have a nemesis, the Red Baron, even if it’s just a made-up nemesis. And every time he shoots you down you shake your fist up to heaven and curse him, and it’s fun, even though you know there’s no one up there listening and that no one really cares.

 You try to introduce some of your own skills into the act. For a few strips Snoopy begins to play the harp, with hilarious consequences. For a week or two he becomes a Mormon. The last storyline is seen as a noble failure, and is never repeated.

 Sometimes you forget you’re Madalyn Morgan at all. Sometimes you think you really were born at Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. And when your head itches, and once in a while you’re forced to pull off your mask, you see that that hair of yours has just kept on growing, there’s so much of it now, and you stare at it in the mirror with horror.

 You don’t see why a dog would try so hard to be human. Being human doesn’t look that remarkable to you.

 A kid pretending to be a dog, that’s eccentric. But a kid pretending to be a dog pretending to be a kid? To coin a phrase, that’s barking mad.

*

So, you tire of Snoopy and his anthropomorphistic ways. You want to be a real dog.

 You try to tell Charlie Brown. But real dogs don’t have thought balloons. You bark, you wag your tail in urgent manners. Charlie Brown looks very confused, but then, that’s a default setting for Charlie Brown. You find a leash, drop it in front of him on the floor. At last he gets the hint.

 He puts your leash on warily. He’s waiting for the punchline. He’s waiting for your ironic sneer, the little bit of humiliation you’ll make him suffer. “Good grief,” says Charlie Brown. His hands are shaking.

 He takes you out to the park. That’s where most people take their dogs, but he’s never done it before. Now you’re there, he hasn’t the faintest idea what to do.

 In your mouth you pick up a stick, and offer it to him. He takes it suspiciously.

 His hands are still shaking.

 You realise he’s scared of you. Not scared that you’ll bite him, like an ordinary dog might. But that you’ll bully him. That you’ll point at him and laugh. He was once the star of his own comic strip, and the wacky dog took that away from him, and reduced him to a stooge.

 He throws the stick for you.

 And, as Snoopy, so many options come into play. You could bring him back the stick, but have already fashioned it into some exciting piece of woodwork, a model boat, maybe, or a pipe rack. You could bring him instead an entire branch, an entire log, and entire tree. You could just roll your eyes, say “Good grief,” and walk away. That would be the most hurtful.

 You bring him back the stick. And not in your paws, as if you’re a human. And not with a little gift bow on top, in sarcastic overenthusiasm. You bring it back properly, as a loyal dog would.

 He takes the stick from you. He doesn’t trust you. He’s still waiting for the joke.

 There is no joke. And each time he throws it, you bark, and race after it, and bring it back to your master. And each time, Charlie Brown’s face breaks into an ever larger smile, and the smile is sincere and free, and it’s not a smile for the newspaper readers at home, it’s a smile for you, just for you, his faithful canine pal.

*

The supporting cast come back to see you again. Lucy Van Pelt says, “What are you doing, you blockhead?”, and then she starts on about wanting to slug you again. Linus tells of how selfish it is that you are putting the needs of one above the livelihood of many, and finds some bit of scripture to emphasise the point. The truth is, the Peanuts readership is dwindling fast. No one wants to read about Snoopy, if Snoopy’s just an ordinary dog. No one wants to read about a Charlie Brown who’s happy.

 It’s easy to ignore Lucy and Linus, because you’re a dog, and dogs aren’t supposed to understand what humans say.

 And not everyone minds. All the kids at school, the ones who never got names, the ones who never felt valued – they’re free now, they can do whatever they want. Maybe they’ll become proper kids now, with real lives, and real futures, and dreams that they have the power to fulfil. Maybe they’ll find some other comic strip to knock about in. It’s up to them.

 And Charlie Brown one morning is excited to find something growing on his chin. “Look, boy, it’s stubble! I think I’m growing a beard!” He’s spent so many years trapped as an eight year old, and now even the banalities of ageing seem wondrous to him.

 You wrap up your storylines. Snoopy the would-be novelist puts aside his typewriter; he finally has to admit that he was never good enough to get published. Snoopy throws away his tennis racquet, his Joe Cool sunglasses, his stash of root beer.

 You put on your goggles for the last time, and climb aboard your kennel. It’s time you put an end to the Red Baron once and for all. The engines roar into life, and you can feel the Sopwith Camel speeding up into the clouds. Kill the Red Baron, shoot him in cold blood if you need to, and the war will be over. You circle the sky for hours, but you can’t find anyone to fight. There’s no enemy aircraft up there. Because the First World War was such a long time ago. And the Red Baron, if he even existed, is dead, he’s already dead – maybe he was a dachshund, or a German shepherd, and he was a dog in Berlin who used to climb aboard his own kennel and fantasise about being a hero – and by now the poor animal will be long dead, maybe he died of old age, maybe he died peacefully in the arms of some round-headed little German boy all of his own.

 *

Panel one. And you’re indoors. And your head is on Charlie Brown’s lap. And he’s scratching at your ears, and you like that. It makes you feel dizzy, it makes you feel you could just let go of this world altogether and drift off somewhere magical. And Charlie Brown says to you, “It was never what I wanted. I didn’t want fame. I didn’t know what I was agreeing to. I was just a little kid. What’s a little kid to know? And do you sometimes feel that you just want to change, to be a different person, but you can’t be? Because you’re surrounded by people who know you too well already, and they don’t mean to, but they’re going to hold you down and keep you in check, there’ll be no second chances because you can’t escape their expectations of you – and the whole world has expectations of me, they’re looking at me and know who I am and how I’ll fail at every turn. And then the second chance comes. Impossibly, the second chance is there. I never wanted a dog who was extraordinary. I wanted a dog who was ordinary to the world, but extraordinary to me, who’d love me and be my friend. I didn’t want a dog like Snoopy. I wanted a dog like you. “ And this was all far too much to fit inside one speech bubble, but it didn’t matter, this is what Charlie Brown said to you.

 Panel two. And he’s still scratching at your ears. But, no, now he’s tugging. He’s tugging at your ears. He’s tugging at your head. And you want to say, no, Charlie Brown, no, you blockhead! Because he’s going to ruin everything. Because Charlie Brown was never supposed to be happy, because this isn’t the way it’s meant to be – and he should leave your fake dog head alone, the two of you work like this, it’s nice like this, isn’t it? It’s neat. And if he pulls your head off and reveals the girl beneath there’s no going back, it’ll all change forever – and maybe the head won’t come off anyway, maybe it isn’t a costume any more, maybe at last you’ve turned into a real dog – but still he tugs, he just keeps tugging, and there’s give, you can feel the weight lift from your shoulders – oh, you want to shout out, tell him to stop, good grief, Charlie Brown! – but you can’t speak, a dog can’t speak, you can only bark.

 Panel three. And the head’s off. The head’s off. The head’s off. And there’s your hair everywhere. It’s spilled out all over the frame, there’s so much of it, how it has grown, how ever did you manage to stuff it all away? And its colour is so vivid, bursting out of a black and white strip like this, it’s wrong, it’s rude. Rude and red, the brightest red, the reddest red, red hair everywhere. You stare up at Charlie Brown. And he stares down at you. The round-headed kid, and the little red-haired girl.

 You stare at each other for a long time.

 You wonder whether you’ll move on to panel four. What the punchline will be, that’ll bring you both crashing down to earth. But there doesn’t have to be one. There never has to be.