I saw a ghost today.
I remembered her and with that memory came melancholy.
I saw her on the first day of school. She was in the grade above me, thin and spindly. Her brown hair was a bird’s nest, matted and unkempt. I could only imagine how bad she’d smell up close. I remember the disgust I felt towards her at the time. Why was she so unclean? Why was she so disgusting? Her school uniform was faded, the deep maroon now almost pink. Threadbare cuffs covered her emaciated wrists. Small dark patches bled out from the edges, presumably from hours of sucking on the fabric. Her clothes betrayed years of use, except it couldn’t be more than one.
My classmates laughed and pointed as she walked through the hallway, her gaze fixated on her feet or the floor, anywhere but the eyes of others. She quickened as she passed. Her breaths a raspy gasp, hard for her to keep her new pace. I looked at the children that waited in line outside the classroom with me and joined in. Fleabag I shouted. The new moniker spread like a virus and by the end of the day you’d hear it everywhere she passed. I hadn’t felt guilt many times before, so the cold burning in my stomach I was now feeling was all the more invasive.
I followed her from the building, watching her push hard on the door, for a moment I thought it wasn’t going to open. The air was frigid, her shoulders appeared to shiver. She struggled to walk. Every laboured step felt like her last. That knot in my stomach tightened. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was. That I was just trying to fit in. But that one word, it was a nail in a coffin that she so sorely didn’t deserve to be in, and I had driven it home.
She turned left as we hit the school gates. I hesitated, needing to turn right and go home. I was only eleven and my mother was waiting for me. I didn’t go home. I followed her. She left the main road and along a dirt path, a shortcut to the council estate. I kept my distance, not wanted her to know she was being followed. I wondered which of the flats she lived in. She passed all of them, leaving the built-up area. She bent over and forced her way through a hedgerow, the worn ground below showed its usage. Snow had begun to fall in the September air. The flakes landed on her school sweater, leaving patches of maroon, one by one reviving the colour that was once present in her uniform. She wrapped her arms around herself in a last ditch effort to stay warm and crossed the road.
When she got to her front door, my heart sank further. The broken render and overgrown garden mirrored her own dishevelment. My face ran warm as tears ran down my cheeks. I wanted to turn away, as if hiding the scene from my eyes would make everything better. Make me feel better. Sally waited at the front door for a moment, before looking over her shoulder. Her eyes were red, her face puffy, glistening in the chilled air. She had been crying the whole way home. I ran, trying to escape the overwhelming sense of sadness that permeated me.
My mother was waiting at the door when I arrived home, her hands on her hips, her expression of pure ire that only melted when she saw mine. She knelt and opened her arms. I embraced her and sobbed, the guilt turning to anxiety and hopelessness at the unconsidered word I had uttered. We didn’t say a word to each other as I entered the house and felt the warmth from within; something that had always calmed me, but instead left me longing.
In the morning, I packed my spare school sweater in my bag, along with the foil covered left overs of last night’s dinner and left. I didn’t see Sally that morning. When lunch came, my new friends asked if I wanted to play football with them on the tennis courts. I said I couldn’t, that I needed to find someone. I said my cousin was a few years above and was going to let me play on his Gameboy. They asked if they could join. When I said no, their faces fell. We don’t like you, one of them said. Yeah, another replied. I was being shunned. For a moment I reconsidered, but then I left. I had no cousin in the school.
I couldn’t find Sally anywhere. I checked the dining hall, the geography class where students who needed extra supervision ate. Even behind the science block where the older children smoked. I knocked on the teacher’s lounge and opened the door. Several bothered men and women turned to me in surprise. I asked if anyone had seen Sally. A woman with curly grey hair shook her head. Telling me she hadn’t turned up. She’d tried to get hold of her parents, but no-one answered. There was a look of resignation on her face, as if she’d expected this, like it had happened many times before.
Standing there, I felt sick. I called her a fleabag I said. I scanned the room, expecting the unapproving glances, someone to tell me off. That wasn’t very nice, was it, the older woman said. I shook my head, waiting for more. Run along now, a man with pencil-thin glasses said. No punishment, no recourse. But that’s not how it’s supposed to be. It wasn’t right.
I turned left when I exited the school grounds. I left the main road along a dirt path, taking the shortcut through the council estate. I pushed my way through the hedgerow, and stared at Sally’s house. A two-storey semi-detached. The building on the other side withered, like a parasitic twin, leeching what life Sally’s house had left, which wasn’t much.
The garden gate wobbled in my hand, squeaking as I pushed, pleading with me to leave it alone, I’d already done enough damage. I knocked on the door, the rotten and moist wood dampened the sound, so I knocked harder. Sally? I asked sheepishly. I heard shuffling from within, as if the effort to answer the door was unbearable. I took a step back. Quiet, almost a whisper, she spoke. Please leave.
“I have something for you,” I replied.
My heart quickened, turning my palms slick with sweat.
“I have some food. It’s chicken and roast potatoes.”
From within, the sound of wood grinding against wood, then the door opened no more than an inch. I assumed it was my invitation. I pushed. Cold air rushed past me. It didn’t seem possible, but it was even chillier inside.
It was dark, except for what light managed to leak through the holes in the curtains that covered all the windows. A hallway stretched out in front of me, the length of the house. Dust motes swirled in the air, a heavy haze that made me cough. A bitter aftertaste clung to my mouth making me want to vomit. I swallowed, not knowing how long I could stand to be here. Through the makeshift carpet that sparsely covered the floor, you could see the stained vinyl tiles. Wallpaper hung in threads, exposing cracked and broken drywall.
“Sally?” I called out.
Apprehensively I took a few steps into the house. To my right was the kitchen. I jumped when I saw two older people stand aimlessly, facing the sink that was filled helter-skelter with dirty dishes, covered in mould and rotten food.
“Are you Sally’s parents?” I asked.
They didn’t reply, instead swaying from side to side. The woman, I assumed was Sally’s mother, wore a white hospital gown, peppered with brown stains. Her naked legs and feet covered in purple splotches and scabs. The man wore blue overalls, similarly stained in what appeared to be a dark substance, maybe oil. A puffy hat barely clung to his head.
“Hello?” I asked again.
This time they heard, slowly shuffling in unison to face me.
A ghastly smell gathered, acrid and stale. I turned, seeing Sally stand only a yard behind me. She wore the same clothes she had the previous day, the day I shouted that word. I was wondering if those were the only clothes she owned.
I could feel my chest thump so hard I was worried she would notice. I was scared. She didn’t say a word, but the odour was speaking to me. It told me I was out of my depth.
“Here,” I said, taking the bag off my shoulder and frantically searching for the food.
I brought it out and shoved it at her, like a hot potato. She glanced down. The aroma of garlic and chicken wafted out, mixing with the putrid smell of the place, making for an unsettling combination.
The skin on her hands was almost grey. She took the food gently, bringing it to her nose suspiciously. She sniffed. Her bloodshot eyes gazed into mine. She glided past me into the kitchen.
“I hope you like it,” I said, as I watched her.
She knelt in front of a dog bowl that overflowed with bloated offal, opened the foil and dropped it in. Oh I thought to myself.
“I have something else.”
I pulled out the sweater and entered the kitchen.
“Here, I have a spare one.”
Her eyes seemed to light up.
“I hope your parents don’t mind,” I offered, suddenly feeling like they were watching.
I was overtly aware we were alone in the kitchen. The door to the yard had been boarded up from the inside.
“Where are your parents?” I asked sheepishly.
She was smelling the sweater, breathing heavily as if trying to inhale its essence.
She shook her head, still holding the sweater to her mouth. That was all I needed to send the small hairs on my arms to stand on end, for that marching sense of dread to fill me. I walked backwards, not wanting to turn around.
“I… hope you like it,” I said.
Her hands gripped the sweater tightly, taking one large breath after another, not taking her gaze off me. My eyes darted around the room. The dining table, set up with three plates. Food left to congeal and ooze. Gungy-yellow fly strips hung from the ceiling, covered in the black bodies of hundreds of the dead insects. Now I noticed, I could see them everywhere. The dog bowl, full to the brim with gone off tripe. Where was the chicken and potatoes? I saw her put them in there. She glanced down, acknowledging I noticed. I startled when I heard scratching at the boarded up back door. I stumbled as Sally moved sharply. Still holding the sweater to her face, with her free hand removing the boards that rested on makeshift hinges. She continued to stare as she opened the back door.
She lowered the sweater, revealing a dark wet patch. She awkwardly removed hers. She shivered. Her torso was covered in welts and burns. I averted my eyes, but not before I saw the multiple slash marks that tattooed her wrists and betrayed the red stains on her old clothes.
“I… must be going,” I stammered.
That fetid smell returned, almost cloaking me. I didn’t turn around to look. Instead, I made a beeline for the front door. It almost fell off its hinges as I barged past and into the overgrown front garden.
After closing the gate, I stole one a glance at the house. The curtains of a bedroom on the top floor twitched. I saw a woman in a hospital gown stare down, and an older man whose hat clung to his head; beside them, a young girl in a pristine maroon sweater.
“Fleabag!” I heard from across the road.
When I looked, one of the children from my class, one of my temporary friends pointed at me and laughed.
“I’m going to tell everyone,” he said with a smile that beamed from cheek to cheek.
The virus had spread and infected me.
My eyes returned to the bedroom window one last time. The curtains were shut.
Sally didn’t return to school. No one cared, not the children nor the teachers. I remembered her every day though. Every time someone called me fleabag.
I was relieved when I was able to leave school and go to college somewhere far away. I finished my A-Levels, but University was a step too far. I wanted to be a doctor, but my grades weren’t good enough. I moved back home , settling for dead end jobs for a few years before I trained to be a paramedic instead. I wanted to help people. I knew what it was like to be hated and I knew what it was like to be abused. That didn’t stop the urge I had burning inside me, something that hadn’t be sated since that day when the teachers dismissed my confession.
Throughout my first year as a paramedic, I had been called to several houses of ex-class mates. Some were so drunk I had to sling them into the back of the ambulance for them to receive life-saving stomach pumps. This one guy got his hand stuck inside a vending machine, trying to pull out a bottle of coke that had got lodged in front of the glass window. I remembered how they had called me names, how they’d gang up on me and mush my face into the mud. All because I tried to help some poor girl I’d slandered. I didn’t hold it against them. Not even when they didn’t apologise. The embarrassed expressions were enough. I knew I was a better person.
I didn’t recognise the address I was called to today, I should have, but I’d never known the street name. Some kids had broken into a house and discovered a bleeding woman. Attempted suicide. When we pulled up into the street, I knew where we were going.
The house was beyond repair now. The left part of the semi-detached had long since been demolished. The overgrown garden was now more of a jungle. The front gate now lay on top of tangled brambles, rusted and forgotten. The front door was crumbling and decayed. Every window had been smashed to some degree. It was a miracle anyone lived there at all.
I called out as I entered the house. It was colder than the last time I’d been in there. Graffiti decorated the exposed drywall. The wallpaper that once clung on the drywall now covered the floor like fallen snow. Rubble from the collapsed ceiling mounted up in the kitchen. But I saw her in the living room, on a threadbare couch, slumped back.
As I approached, I knew I wouldn’t need my bag. Her withered leathery skin and mummified body was plain to see. She was naked except for underwear. I wondered if it was Sally’s mother. I saw the scars that slashed zigzag up her arms, way higher than before, as if they were tree rings, dating her. There was no blood. The kids that found her must have been mistaken. She had been dead for a long time.
I remembered her and with that memory came melancholy.
Then my heart broke. It wasn’t Sally’s mother. Next to her sat a neatly folded maroon sweater, sun-bleached and faded.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” my partner said, as I left to get some fresh air, “where is she?”
“Already long dead.”
Darren entered the house and I stayed outside.
I gazed up at the broken windows of the bedrooms expectantly. There was no one there. Just the ghost of the house that once stood there.
Darren returned, puffing slightly.
“We have two more upstairs, also mummified. Oh and one dog. Looks like they’ve been here a very long time.”
I wondered how someone, never mind a family, never mind a child, could be so forgotten. I didn’t forget. Maybe I was the only one.
I returned to the ambulance. I stole one last glance at the house. Behind the broken window, the curtains twitched. I saw a woman in a hospital gown stare down, and an older man whose hat clung to his head; beside them, a young girl in a pristine maroon sweater. Gingerly she waved. Gingerly I waved back.