All heads turned to the window where Robin was jumping up and down, frantically gesturing at something outside.
“I thought the builders weren’t coming back until Monday?”
“Well, then clearly it is Monday.”
“No, it isn’t – I think I know how to keep track of the days, Thorne. We may be dead, but that does not mean a loss of order!”
“and why shouldn’t I know how to keep track of the days?”
None of them knew what day it was. Well, it wasn’t Monday, but that was trivial – yet another source for a petty argument amongst the discarnate beings. No, it was more than just another Sunday, but clearly none of them had remembered – or cared, he supposed.
“It’s not your death day, is it, Pat? It can’t have been a year since your family last visited!”
It was not Pat’s death day.
“No, that’s not their car anyway… unless they got a new one.” the scout leader shrugged, looking hopeful, nonetheless.
What was considered excitement in their ghostly existences was rather pitiful, but things in the living world had been even more uneventful than usual, with their nescient housemate being away and the few builders that had replaced her remaining majorly on the roof where the work was. Not that they needed to justify the way they’d all eagerly bustled to the window in curiosity, since they practically moved as one body to do so. Peering through the dusty glass and over shoulders, each attempted to catch a glimpse of the unidentified visitor.
Unidentified until she stepped out of the car; he knew exactly who she was. There was absolutely no question about it. If the Captain had been correctly keeping track, it had been a good few years since he last saw her, almost a decade in fact.
He felt a strange relief at the sight of a familiar face, if you could even call it that, though he supposed familiar faces these days were technically the eight other inhabitants of the house – nine if you counted the one that couldn’t even see any of them – but he’d never refer to them like that. Out of all of them, he fit in the least and he was happy with it that way, but it wasn’t made easy by the fact they were eternally trapped in the house, which didn’t feel as big as it seemed after nearly ten years. It probably felt tiny to Robin, who was built for the outdoors, and he’d been there much longer than any of them, but no pity for the caveman lingered in his mind very long; he’d never let others’ greater misfortunate stop him from whining about his own inconveniences.
Thinking about it properly now – another downside to eternal purgatory was that it left an awful lot of time for thinking, which was not something he liked to do often – this particular familiar face probably wasn’t the good kind of familiar, although, if he’d been given the choice of anyone in his life to step out of that car, he would have picked her every time. He’d always been pleased to see her, only her, and he liked to think she had been pleased to see him – at some point in their lives, anyway. She certainly wouldn’t be pleased to see him now.
Oh, right – she couldn’t. That was probably for the best, to be fair. He’d tried not to let the endless stretch of time before him push him to thinking too much – he’d run his mouth here even more than he had when he was alive to block out his own thoughts – but when it did, it was usually about her and how much he’d like to speak to her again; she’d made him laugh like no one else. Whenever he recalled a particularly raucous University party to his begrudging housemates, she always appeared in the memory, but for whatever reason, he never mentioned her out loud. There were probably things he wanted to say to her, but he still hadn’t worked out what. He’d never get the chance, anyway, but even if he did, she probably wouldn’t want to hear it. It had been different between them in the last few years of his life. Oh well, no point reminiscing now. This was probably the best way for it to happen; it would have been quite a different experience if she could see him. He might as well make the most of having her here while it lasted. But why was she here? Why now? Why today? Surely, she didn’t remember – no one else seemed to have, but he sort of expected that from the others, Maybe she hadn’t forgotten, but surely she wouldn’t care. But then again, why else would she come?
That was probably why she hadn’t been stopped by any kind of owner yet. There were no signs that the house had any inhabitants and the only thing telling her that it hadn’t been left completely to ruins was the scaffolding running up one of the walls and across part of the roof. It was difficult to tell with the house being all kinds of old, but she was almost certain the building work was still ongoing; it seemed like the only thing that hadn’t been completely abandoned in this place, though there were no builders here at the moment – it was a Sunday afternoon, they’d probably taken the day off.
Heaving a great sigh, she drifted to the temporary structure clinging to the house, finding it the only part of it all that wasn’t completely dull to her. She’d never had that appreciation for old architecture, even while she was at Cambridge; she’d been hoping to get into one of the more modern colleges, but she supposed in the end she was just lucky to have got in at all. No, modern buildings had always attracted her more: the neat crispness of the build, the functionality of it all. That life had always appealed to her and so this trek to an ancient, crumbly country house felt all the more useless. Nothing had changed – she’d been right – there was really no point in her coming here. Whatever kind of peace or detachment this was supposed to have granted her hadn’t come. Leaning absently on one of the scaffolding poles struck into the gravelly ground, she wondered how long she’d have to stay here to satisfy her family. To be honest, she could just make a round trip to Waitrose and pretend she’d been here the whole time. There’s no way they’d be able to tell. Why was she still here?
Pushing herself off her backrest, she turned towards her car, but was suddenly struck by something. Not a thought, nothing metaphorical, but quite literally struck, rather hard, by a heavy weight to her head.
“You’re the most recent ghost, or you were, so you’ve got to go and greet her.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Me neither – if I’d just died, a chap with no trousers is the last things I’d want to be greeted with, no offence, Julian…”
“I didn’t think we took turns, everyone was just sort of there when I died.”
“Yes, but taking turns is the more sensible way about it, Thorne. I, for one, did not appreciate the crowd you all decided to greet me with upon my death!”
“I never got a turn, oh! Can I greet her? Can it be me? Me! Me!”
“Look, we don’t even know if she’s going to stay yet, do we? In fact, is she even dead?”
“She stay. Me can tell.”
“Guys, we don’t want to overwhelm her, she has just died. I’ll go – I didn’t exactly get my turn when Julian died, so I’m happy to take your place if you’d rather not, Julian.”
One way or another, Pat ended up being the one to welcome their new housemate. As he walked through the front door – he could have just got straight through the wall of the room they were in, but it seemed a strange custom they had all adopted to use doors as they used to, for all the difference it didn’t make – he decided he was glad the majority had supported his decision to be the one to greet her. It was a strange dynamic between the ghostly inhabitants of Button House and while Pat realised that they were probably luckier than most, he couldn’t help but feel something was missing from it all as each day went by. Pat was extremely friendly by nature, everyone knew that – and everyone really did mean everyone.
The first time they had visited, Daley, Carol and Morris had talked about his funeral. Daley spoke to the tree, as though it were some kind of memorial, and so Pat had sat on the roots and listened to them tearfully. It had been packed to the rafters, they’d said, everyone who knew him has shown up and that meant the service was nearly overflowing. Pat had beamed at that, he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way – he loved knowing everyone and everyone knowing him – it was the best way to live life, but he always prided himself on having such a close friend as Morris. A necessity of such an outgoing life, he’d realised, was having at least one friend you could call your best. He didn’t quite have that at Button House.
The Captain had been the one to greet him upon his death, and so he’d wondered if he’d be the best candidate. He’d followed him around for the first few days for lack of much else to do, but it soon became clear that he was only irritating the man with this. The others had their own friendships or seemed happy enough to drift between, and he supposed that outwardly he must seem that way too. There was always the lingering feeling of outsideness as a latecomer, even now when he was no longer the most recent of the spirits. Maybe this was his chance to establish a unique friendship, a companion within the house that he could be closest with, one that would undoubtedly have his back and that he in turn could support.
He’d had similar thoughts when Julian had arrived. He hoped this one would be nicer.
As she sat up, a voice suddenly rang out. She raised her head and took in the sight before her.
Ah, there it was. The expected sign of a head injury.
Before her stood a man decked out in vintage scoutmaster gear, what was undoubtedly a very 80s hairstyle and, if that alone wasn’t already extraordinary in itself, an arrow protruding from both sides of his neck. A hallucination. An oddly specific figment of imagination, but a hallucination nonetheless.
“There’s no easy way to tell you this,” the man continued, in lack of her own reply. “But you’re dead.”
This is a dream. It has to be.
She stood up, unsure of what else there was to do, and looked around herself. The thought of denying his statements passed through her mind, but there was no sense in replying to something that wasn’t even there. But what made even less sense was when she turned around and saw herself lying on the floor. Her unmoving form was sprawled on the floor in the exact spot she had just stood up from, but that couldn’t be her; she was stood looking over herself.
A crumbling chunk of brick lay beside her and she absently reached to touch the place on her own head where she could see the other version of her had been hit. It didn’t feel as wet as she thought it would, considering the sight before her; she wondered subconsciously whether the house had heard her disdainful thoughts of it and had taken its revenge.
“If it makes you feel any better, I’m dead too.”
She turned away from the unpleasant scene on the floor and back to the funny scout man; she’d almost forgotten he was stood there. Maybe he was real then. It all seemed to make sense put together, but really it shouldn’t make sense at all.
There was nothing to do but to try and make sense of it. “Are you… are we… ghosts, or something…?”
“Bingo!” he smiled, giving her a thumbs up. He was awfully cheerful for a dead person, which should have probably been quite off-putting, but it was about the only thing keeping her from having a breakdown in all honesty. Unless this was all part of a breakdown she was already having.
“Sorry, I haven’t even introduced myself! I’m Pat.”
She shook his hand with a nod and her own introduction. That felt real enough. She hadn’t realised the absence of conscious feeling up until that point; she could no longer properly feel the cool air as they stood outside or the breeze swaying the trees on the grounds or even the fatal wound in her own head. She had felt Pat’s handshake real enough though. She was part of a ghostly world overlaying the living. She had never been one to play along with any kind of nonsense, but when evidence for something was being pieced together in front of her face, she wasn’t about to ignore it. Whether she liked it or not, it was making more and more sense as it went on. There was nothing to do but accept it and work out what happened next. Rather helpfully, Pat seemed to have all the answers.
“There’s more,” he continued. “Ghosts, I mean, inside. Quite a few of us actually, but better than ghosting alone, I bet! Would you like to meet them, or would you rather stay out here a bit? They’re quite eager to meet you, but they can get a bit too eager, so I wouldn’t want–”
“Yes,” she made her decision before Pat or herself could talk her out of it. “Let’s go.”
Pat looked a little taken aback, but nodded agreeably with her decision and led her straight through the front door. Straight through it, of course, because they were ghosts.
As soon as they passed through it, a great wave of excited chatter met her ears and they were near enough ambushed as soon as they stepped through another door from the hall into a larger room. She took in the sight of six other people, ghosts she concluded given the array of periodical outfits they were wearing, launching an overwhelming number of questions and statements at her considering they were really only a small crowd. Quite impressively, Pat managed to get them all to settle down and quiet so he could make introductions.
“That’s the Captain, and there’s Thomas. Kitty, Mary, and Lady Button – this was her house – Robin, and Humphrey is around somewhere, but he’s in two pieces, so there’s no telling which you’ll meet first!” She nodded politely at each of them as Pat pointed them out, millions of questions filling her mind as she looked at them all, but it seemed they were equally bursting with questions for her. “Everyone, this is Margot.”
Margot opened her mouth to say her own bit before she was bombarded with any more questions, but before she could say anything, another ghost rose from his seat behind the others. Her mouth stayed open as she gaped at him in shock and she wondered how on earth she hadn’t seen him immediately.
I was very wrong. This is definitely not a dream.
There was a wary silence as her horror evidently showed on her face and all eyes turned to Julian as he spoke up in sardonic reply to the prolonged silence.
It’s a ruddy nightmare.