Ghost children, p.1
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       Ghost Children, p.1

           Sue Townsend
 
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Ghost Children


  Sue Townsend

  Ghost Children

  1997, EN

  A compassionate and gritty examination of love and loss from one of Britain’s most-loved writers. Seventeen years ago Angela Carr aborted an unwanted child. The father, Christopher Moore, was devastated by the loss. Unable to accept what had happened between them they went their separate ways. Years later, whilst walking his dog on the heath, a horrifying discovery compels Christopher to confront Angela about the past, and they discover, after all this time, that they still have strong feelings for one another. Can they be happy together at last? Or will the mistakes of the past eclipse their bright future?

  Table of contents

  November

  1 · 2 · 3 · 4 · 5 · 6 · 7 · 8 · 9 · 10 · 11 · 12 · 13 · 14 · 15 · 16 · 17 · 18 · 19 · 20 · 21 · 22 · 23 · 24 · 25 · 26 · 27 · 28 · 29 · 30 · 31 · 32 · 33 · 34 · 35 · 36 · 37 · 38 · 39 · 40 · 41 · 42 · 43 · 44 · 45 · 46 · 47 · 48 · 49

  February

  ∨ Ghost Children ∧

  November

  Sleet filled the air and obscured the countryside.

  He knew he was driving too fast. He was angry enough to kill or be killed. The road was wet and the metal signposts ahead warned him of hazardous corners and sharp bends, but he wouldn’t slow down and neither would he turn his headlights on, even though dusk was falling.

  Why ask him to sweep the snow off the fucking carpark? It wasn’t his job was it? He was employed as a driver. Though why the fuck he was driving a van for a living, he didn’t know. He had a degree in business studies. Three years of hard fucking graft. By rights he should have had at least one foot on the corporate ladder by now. He should be washing his hands with executive soap in a hotel somewhere abroad. He should be doing business, wearing the Paul Smith suit he was still paying for. Paul Smith and for six days a week it hangs in the poxy wardrobe. I’m twenty-seven, he thought. I should have my own fax number by now, I shouldn’t be driving a van for a fucking nursing home, for three pounds seventy-five pence a poxy hour.

  There was a red Audi ahead of him, crawling it was, crawling. It was a woman behind the wheel. He drew closer until he was tail-gating her, and saw that she was young, his age. She had a proper job, he could tell. Nobody would ask her to push a fucking brush around a carpark.

  She looked like the fucking tadpole carriers he ferried to the railway station in the nursing home mini-bus, three times a week. Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. No overtime for Sunday, and they wouldn’t let him take the van or the mini-bus home with him. He had to stand at the fucking bus stop after work with the fucking muppets who worked in the kitchen. He’d worked out which car he’d have when he got a job commensurate with his qualifications. It was a BMW 325i, with veneer trim and leather upholstery. The doctors’ carpark at the nursing home was full of BMWs. Killing tadpoles was fucking good business. He should have studied medicine.

  She was mouthing something at him, her face was angry and frightened. To punish her he switched his headlights full on, then, although he couldn’t see the road ahead through the sleeting sky, he accelerated and passed her. Looking back he saw that she had pulled into the side of the road against a bank of dirty snow. She was speaking into a mobile phone. He hoped she hadn’t noticed the name of the nursing home on the side of the van. The bastards are not going to sack me, he thought. I’ll resign. I’ll take the van back tonight and I’ll tell them I’ve been head-hunted by ICI. And there’s no way I’m driving all the way across town to the incinerator and getting caught up in all that traffic, not now.

  He turned on to the A6, and drove through villages where the old houses teetered on the very edge of the narrow road. He was calmer now that he had made a decision. As he drove he kept a look-out for a place where he could dump the bag which lay behind him on the floor of the van. About four miles out of the city he remembered that the heath lay ahead. He had taken a girl there once for a picnic. The sun was shining, and there were people about walking their dogs, but she had complained that the place made her flesh creep, so they had gone somewhere else.

  The heath was in darkness now. He drove off the dual carriageway and parked alongside a hawthorn hedge. He switched the engine and van lights off, and sat for a while to allow his eyes to get accustomed to the blackness of the night He got out and stood for a moment, looking and listening. It had stopped sleeting but the night was full of dripping and trickling sounds. A grey mist hung a foot from the ground. As a child he had been afraid of the dark and his childhood terror returned to him. He saw human shapes amongst the bushes and unmentionable horrors in the branches of the trees.

  He went to the back of the van, squelching in the spongy ground. Wetness seeped over the tops of his shoes and he cried out in disgust. Ice-cold raindrops began to fall, soaking his hair and trickling down the back of his neck. He heard them drumming on the roof of the van. He fumbled with the lock on the back door. A harsh cry came from the black interior of the heath; a bird, or an animal. He waited, frozen, for the creature to cry out again, but the sound was not repeated. He opened the back door and groped in the dark for the bag. His hand touched the thick plastic and he recoiled from the wobbling sensation as the contents shifted slightly. He found the neck of the bag and lifted it out. He had planned to take the bag into the middle of the heath, but after only twenty yards of blind stumbling he heard a gurgle of water and threw the bag towards it. He heard it drop and settle.

  When he turned around he was surrounded by a swaying mist of moisture. He could no longer see the trees or the van. He felt as though he was being sucked into the saturated ground. There was nothing he could grab on to to save himself. He turned around in a circle, stretching his hands out in front of him in a frantic attempt to feel something solid. A dark shape loomed ahead. He stumbled towards it and fell among the painful thorns of a hawthorn hedge.

  When he eventually reached the safety of the van he saw that the thorns of the hedge had marked his face with bloody scratches. The rain on the roof sounded like an enemy trying to beat its way inside to drown him.

  He started the engine and turned on the windscreen wipers, but they were useless against the relentless torrent. When he tried to drive away the wheels spun on the soaking ground beneath him and it seemed to take a lifetime before he was able to manoeuvre the van away from the vile place and towards the safety of the road.

  ∨ Ghost Children ∧

  One

  The dog had always been a fool, look at it now, dragging a bin liner out of the ditch. The man shouted, “Here! Here!”, but the dog only stopped for a moment, then continued. As he got nearer he could hear a sound in the dog’s throat. That sound, together with the look in the dog’s eyes, made him afraid, and he hesitated for a moment before reaching down and grabbing for its collar. The dog snapped at his right hand and in a fury of pain and anger he kicked the dog hard into its soft side. The dog yelped and dropped on to its belly.

  Christopher Moore looked around at the dank scrubland. Nobody had seen him kick the dog. It was first light and dark grey clouds hung low enough to touch. Nobody else was walking their dog on the heath.

  Anger made the blood drum in his ears. “That’s it, mate,” he said to the dog in the ditch, “You’ve bloody had it, you’re off. I’m having you put down?” The bull terrier was panting now, showing its powerful jaws and its long brown tongue.

  He looked at the side of his right hand, where blood was seeping through a jagged wound. He hated to see his own blood, though I suppose it’s proof that I’m alive, he thought. He turned his head away and moved from the edge of the ditch. He fumbled in his trouser pocket for the white cotton handkerchief and pressed it into the torn flesh. He could hear the traffic now on the dual carriageway beyond the d
ripping trees and bushes. The tyres on the wet road sounded like a pebbled shoreline. He wanted to leave the dog in the ditch, throw its leather lead into the scrubby vegetation and walk away. The dog crawled on its belly and attacked the dark green plastic again. The mouth of the bag came open. Something fell out and the dog pawed at it. “Leave it! Leave it,” he roared and rooks flapped from a tree. Then he looked down into the ditch and saw a tiny naked child. It was a girl. Christopher climbed into the ditch and picked her up. She felt warm to him, but not warm enough to be alive. He placed her tenderly inside his coat.

  Now he was close up he saw that the bag was more substantial than he had at first thought. The plastic was thick and was marked INCINERATOR in yellow letters. There were other pink and bloody creatures in there. Christopher closed his eyes for a moment and then folded up the mouth of the bag. He pushed it back into the ditch. He couldn’t take care of them all. He called the dog, which was lying on its belly, watching him, attached it to its lead and made his way towards the road.

  He called her Catherine. He spoke to her, he said silly, jokey things as he trudged along on the pavement towards the small estate of private houses where he lived. His own voice sounded unfamiliar to him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken to anyone. “I live in Toytown,” he said. “Wait ‘til you see my house; it’s like something out of a Noddy book.” Christopher had got an almost complete set of Noddy books upstairs in one of his spare bedrooms. They were flanked on the shelf by Just William and Swallows and Amazons.

  The dog strained on its lead as they stood together on the pavement waiting to cross, and he jerked it back. But he wasn’t angry with the dog now. If it hadn’t been for the dog he would not have found Catherine. He would not have had a child to hold in his arms.

  There were twenty-four houses on the two-year-old estate. They were known collectively as Curlew Close. No two houses were exactly the same, though each had a thatched porch and solar panels on the roof. Christopher hurried across the road and turned into the silent estate. He let himself in at the front door and went straight down the hall to the kitchen. He laid Catherine down on a pile of clean tea-towels on the work top, then, after washing the wound on his hand at the sink and applying a waterproof plaster, he fed the dog. When it was sleeping in front of the gas log fire in the living room, he took Catherine upstairs to the bathroom. He washed her in clean warm water in the wash basin. Her eyes were shut tight, but he imagined that they were blue. He compared her fingernails to his own and thought that he saw a similarity of shape. He patted her dry and wrapped her in a white hand towel.

  He stood in front of the bathroom mirror with her and thought that he looked like the father of a new-born baby. Not dead, as he knew Catherine was, just sleeping, like babies do all the time. They’re famous for it. It’s what they do. He carried her downstairs and sat by the fire. His forefinger followed the delicate profile of Catherine’s face. His finger looked grotesque to him, the skin was tough and forty-nine years old. Catherine’s skin peeled away at the gentlest of his touch. She had been born too soon, before the thicker skin she needed to survive in the world had developed.

  He sat there all day long until the room became dark. He ate nothing and drank nothing. When it was time to walk the dog again he laid Catherine on the sofa; he did not cover her face. He pulled the curtains, put on his coat, called the dog and left the house. He checked the front door twice before walking down the short path. Nobody else had a key to his front door. He never had a visitor. He walked in the opposite direction to the heath, towards what his neighbours liked to call ‘the Village’.

  Christopher had never called it ‘the Village’. He knew what constituted a village and it wasn’t a five-year-old pub, a dozen bungalows, and an executive housing estate grouped self-consciously around a primly landscaped lawn, with a Chinese take-away whose proprietor sent his children away to boarding school.

  He passed the window of the Lotus take-away. On his way back he would tie the dog to the bollard on the pavement and go inside and order some food. His mouth watered, he felt light-headed, he had missed three meals.

  When he got to the dark shape of the horse-chestnut tree which cornered the primary school football field, the dog strained forward and Christopher released it from its lead. The dog ran immediately to relieve itself, and he stood alone in the navy-blue darkness. He would give the little girl a decent burial in the morning: he might need to borrow a spade, he thought. This gave him a tremor of anxiety. He didn’t fraternise with his neighbours, it was only as a result of a misdirected letter that he knew the name of the old man who lived next door.

  Christopher’s tiny back garden was covered in concrete slabs. He would have to lift one. Perhaps, if the ground underneath was soft he would be able to manage with the metal coal shovel he’d brought from his grandmother’s house, three years ago. Tomorrow, after he had walked the dog, he would wrap Catherine in a single white sheet, cover her with earth, and replace the slab. He practised doing these things in his mind.

  The dog rustled in the dry leaves at the base of the tree and Christopher smelt autumn. He took out the small flashlight he always carried in his pocket and directed it on to the ground. He looked for conkers and had soon gathered a pocketful. He had always contributed to the nature table at school but he had made his offerings secretly, when the teacher and the other children were out of the classroom.

  He whistled the dog and it came to him, and stood obediently as it was put on the lead for the walk back along the road.

  He would mark the grave. Perhaps place a terracotta pot on top of the slab. He wondered if November was too late to plant bulbs. He would look it up when he got home. His reference books were old friends. He tied the dog up outside and pushed open the door of the Lotus. Mr and Mrs Wong were reading the local newspaper, which was spread out on the counter covering the takeaway menus. They looked up and smiled, and with some difficulty, because his mouth felt uncomfortably tight, Christopher smiled back. He was familiar with the menu and ordered immediately: spare ribs with chilli and salt—the dog enjoyed the bones—and prawn curry with plain boiled rice. His grandmother had warned him about eating foreign food. “You’ll ruin your taste buds,” she had said when, at the age of sixteen, he had enthused about his first spaghetti bolognese. Now he thought she might have been right; English food seemed bland to him. He couldn’t taste it.

  After giving his order he sat down and watched the television, which was suspended high up in a corner of the room. The kitchen door opened and he saw Mrs Wong lifting a sizzling wok from the stove. On-screen a getaway car drove down an alley scattering empty-looking boxes. Christopher looked out of the window. The dog had wrapped its lead around the bollard. A teenage girl, dressed in a tiny skirt and a skimpy sweater which showed her midriff, was disentangling it. Christopher was shocked that her parents had allowed her to dress in such inadequate winter clothing. He thought about Catherine wrapped up warmly on the sofa. He had left the gas fire on for her. He knew she was dead: that it was illogical to worry about the temperature in the room where she lay.

  Mr Wong was smiling again. Christopher took the plastic bag from him containing the small hot boxes and left the shop. The dog leapt up, excited by the smell of the food. “Calm down! Calm down!” he ordered.

  As he turned into the Close, he saw immediately that there was something wrong. He had left the downstairs lights on, but now his house was in darkness. The front door was open. He stood still for a moment, then sat down on a small boundary wall. He dropped the plastic bag on to the wet pavement. Prawn curry oozed out and the dog lapped at the food before Christopher kicked it away. After a moment he retrieved the bag, got up and walked slowly towards his house. Splinters of wood lay on the doorstep. He pushed the door wide open with his fingertips and let the dog off the lead. He reached inside the hallway and switched the light on. He saw that the phone was off the hook.

  “We’ve been burgled,” he said to the dog. “Catherine!
he said next. “Catherine!” He felt his heart stop, and then start again. He ran into the living room. She was still there on the sofa, wrapped in the towel. He picked her up and walked around the house, noting what was missing: the television, the video, the computer, the microwave, his sound system, the cheap presentation watch given to him at the redundancy party to which he and thirty-nine other colleagues had been invited a year ago. He was glad the watch had gone. He muttered endearments to her as they walked around.

  “There, chick, there, my little chicken, who’s done this to us, eh? Who’s been in our house?”

  Her colour was bad now and the back of her head bore an indentation. There were stains on the towel in a colour he’d never seen before. He fetched a dry towel and wrapped her tight. He carried her upstairs. Other things had gone. The alarm clock, his electric razor, a travel bag. He couldn’t bear the thought that a stranger had been in the same room as her. He didn’t want to put her down; he needed to hold on to something.

  “My chick,” he crooned. “My pretty little chick.” He went into the bedrooms where his books were kept. None were missing. “Philistines!” he said, contemptuously.

  He laid her back in her place, in the corner of the sofa, and tried to plan what he should do next. He began to tremble uncontrollably. He found he could only think about food. He ate the tepid take-away food straight from the boxes, gulping down the rice and the remains of the curry and stripping the meat from the spare ribs with his teeth. He threw the bones on to the hearth rug for the dog. He wished he could pick up the phone and tell his grandma what had happened to him.

  He had let all his insurance policies lapse. There was no question of claiming for any of the things stolen from him, and he didn’t want the police in his house, not with Catherine here. After he’d finished eating, he went out to the shed in the back garden and found tools to mend the front door. The lock was broken but he found a bolt that would secure the door for the night; though he knew there was nothing of obvious monetary value left to steal. Nobody wanted his books, or the photograph of Angela that stood by his bed. These things were precious only to him. He went upstairs to check that the photograph was still there. It was in its usual place. He would try to find her tomorrow and ask her where his real baby daughter was. Angela was forty-six now. There would be grey in the black hair. The flesh would be loose around her neck. He wondered if she had any children, and if she still lived in the same city as him.

 
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