Authors: Emily Diamand
For my sister
I wasn’t supposed to be there that night, you know?
It was Dad’s weekend, and I should’ve been at his flat. Eating beans on toast, watching his box sets of Doctor Who. That’s what he’d told Mum, anyway, but what he tells her and what we do are always different. It’s why we weren’t. In his flat, I mean. Why we were bumping along this dusty farm track instead, him parking the camper van at the end of it, us looking out over the valley.
It was a good spot. At the top of the slope, with a clear view across the fields. Lots of trees and well out of the way, not even a road going near.
August, it was. One of those on-off warm days, when the sun and clouds take turns in the sky. Dad spent the
whole afternoon staring up or checking the weather forecast. Luckily, by the time we got parked the clouds had all drifted away. Everything glowed golden in the sunset. The wheat shushed and settled in the last bit of breeze, and swallows twittered high in the air, hunting flies.
Perfect conditions, my dad said.
He twisted in his seat.
“You ready to set up, son?”
I nodded, undid my seat belt and squeezed into the back. Started untying the ropes and bungees holding down all his heavy black boxes. There was all sorts in them: cameras, monitors, meters, leads, even a generator.
But then, there’s always a lot of stuff, with my dad.
I did the untying, and Dad did the unloading. Putting the boxes down on the dry grass, opening them up and getting all the gear out. He was humming, happy.
“It’s going to be a good night, Gray,” he said, not looking up at me. “The weather’s right, last week there were three genuines near Gloucester…” he trailed off, like he does when he’s out there, and went back to his fiddling. I got my stuff last. Sleeping bag, coat, hat and gloves. It was still warm, but it gets really cold by three in the morning.
“Did you bring any food?” I asked, and Dad nodded.
“In the cupboard on the right-hand side. Have what you want.”
I opened the cupboard door. Loads of little plastic packets, lined up neatly; whatever I wanted, so long as it was Super Noodles.
When Dad had everything ready, we sat in our camping chairs looking out over the valley. The sun had properly set by then, and the first bats were out, fluttering circles through the twilight. Dad pointed his fork, noodles squirling off it.
“Here they come.” He meant the stars twinking into view in the sky. “It’ll be tonight. I’m sure of it.”
I just ate my noodles; I wasn’t expecting much. Nothing, actually. And I bet Dad wasn’t either, whatever he says now. The thing is, we’d done this stuff every fine summer night since I was eight and Dad had gone out by himself before that, which makes it years of waiting for something to happen. Years of watching and filming. Years of pushing through waist-high crops in the dark, me with my eyes out for an angry farmer, him with his dowsing rods, or one of his beeping meters. And in all that time…
Dad said he had loads of evidence, but most of it… Well, I wouldn’t say this to him, but even his UFO mates didn’t think much of it.
Until that night.
We ate our noodles. The sky inked into black, filling up with stars. Dad started tapping away at his tablet, doing his weird sums, and I reached in my pocket for my torch, so I could read my book. That’s when I saw it.
A little flash, down in the field. Like a camera popping. Then another flash, and another. Not on the ground, like if someone was in the crops taking pictures. Up in the air.
“Dad,” I said. “What’s that?”
He hadn’t even noticed, eyes down on the screen.
Of course, by the time he looked up, they’d gone. Winked out. Dad eyed me, but he didn’t say anything. Just pushed up from his chair, went and checked his laptop, playing back the readings.
“There’s no change in the background fields,” he said. “You joking, Gray? I won’t be happy if you are.”
“No. Honest.” I wouldn’t joke; he’s got no sense of humour about this stuff.
Flash, flash, flash, flash, flash.
They were back. Three, then five, then twenty. Hundreds of lights, flickering over the shadowy field.
“They can’t be fireflies, they’re too bright.” My dad was whispering, like they might hear us.
The lights rose upwards, like sparks from a fire, and each one left a glowing trace, drawn on the dark. They zigged and zagged, up and towards each other, stretching a net of fire-lines above the field. And then they started drifting apart, stretching the glittering net, spreading it across the stars. Wider and wider, the lines getting fainter, until… snap! The net broke into a thousand fading whiplashes, the lights shooting back together into a single point. And out of that point: a burning streak. Straight up into the night. Like a flaming arrow, or a rocket going up, and so bright it etched in my eyes.
The next second it was gone.
We were both out of our chairs. Both staring.
“What…?” said Dad.
Light boomed silently over the field. A white-fire storm, a blazing whirlwind. Boiling up out of nothing, making a new sun overhead. It blued up the night, turning it back into day.
“Is it ball lightning?” I shouted.
A soundless wind flapped at our clothes, blowing my eyes to a squint.
“No! Much too big!” Dad’s face was lit up, the happiest I’ve ever seen him. “It’s them! They’re coming!”
The swirling light-storm opened out, unravelling into streamers, coiling and twisting through the sky. The air shimmered, and wisps of steam blew in from nowhere. Wisps that grew into vapour trails, wrapping and turning around the light. Tighter and tighter, spinning the light inwards, pulling it into a single, glowing sphere. It hung over the valley. Every head of wheat was picked out clear, every leaf on the trees.
I mean, loads of people made reports that night, from Bristol even.
Everything went still; you could’ve heard a mouse squeak. I think I stopped breathing. Then the hairs on my arms stood up, just like they were being pulled, and the sun-ball started growing. Bulging and bloating, fading from blinding white, to yellow, to sunset orange.
“Here, take the camera!” Dad shoved his camcorder at me. He was holding a meter in each hand; they were beeping like crazy.
I bet you’ve seen the film. It’s on loads of websites, it’s even been on telly a couple of times. The ball of orange light suddenly booms outwards, blasting right past the camera.
There’s nothing but colour for a few seconds, then the light starts sucking back, rolling like storm clouds, or water in a river. It rushes away from the lens, pulling together into a bright-glowing coil. The coil unfurls, slowly, like a snake made of light, or a huge tentacle. I wanted to run then, but I didn’t. The light fills the sky above the valley, waving this way and that, and then starts moving. Up and up into the night, until it’s just a faint streak, heading for the stars.
My dad yells out, “Look at that!” and the camera pans down. In the field, all the wheat’s been flattened into this pattern. Circles inside circles, so many you can’t tell how they all fit together.
After, I could hardly breathe, my heart was going so fast, and my legs were shaking right under me. All the hairs on my arms were singed off, and my skin looked sort of cooked.
An interesting story, Gray, and yes, I have seen that footage. Now, tell me. What has this got to do with the death of Isis Dunbar?
“Jonathan, I had a brother called Jonathan.”
A large, sad-faced woman was on her feet. Hands fluttering near her throat, mouth wobbling at the start of tears.
From her place at the back of the hall, hidden in darkness, Isis watched. Up on the makeshift stage, Cally had her head tilted, ‘listening with her spirit ear’. She always started the show by telling the audience she’d be channelling the spirits, letting them speak through her. Isis hated her saying that; it made Cally sound like a mobile phone for ghosts.
A single spotlight picked Cally out. Pale and dark-eyed, with gleaming black hair and a shimmering purple dress. She looked exotic, out of place; Cleopatra in a community
centre. Only Isis could see her mum, hiding beneath the sparkle.
“Jonathan…” said Cally softly, as if calling him back from some faraway land. She looked down at the woman. “He’s recently departed?”
The large woman shook her head, just a little.
“Jonny died five and a half years ago…”
Cally nodded briskly. “That’s right, he’s saying five and a half years, which is very recent in the spirit world.”
Isis kept one hand near the switches on the wall, just in case she had to bring the lights up suddenly. Other nights they’d had fainters, or people who couldn’t stop crying. Her left hand was tight on the takings bag. It had £157 inside, which wouldn’t leave much when the hall was paid for, and petrol, and the really cheap room they were staying in tonight. But the bag was still heavy, full of unsold tickets. Each one printed on black paper, with the words in glistening purple.
Isis sulked and sighed in the dark.
I want to go home.
The woman in the audience started crying snotty tears.
“He died of cancer,” she gasped.
Cally nodded again. “He says you shouldn’t worry any more, the pain is over.”
The woman smiled as she cried, gazing up at Cally.
From the corner of her eye, Isis saw a movement. The shape of a little girl, creeping up the side of the hall, barely visible in the coat-smelling dark.
Angel! She knew she wasn’t supposed to do that.
Isis always told her, right before every performance, “Keep still and quiet when Mummy’s doing her show.” But there she was, toddling past the audience, wearing the princess dress she always insisted on. Heading for the stage, step by careful step.
She thinks if she goes slowly, it doesn’t count.
In a few minutes Angel would be right up by Cally, and then she’d be running around, putting her off. It might even blow the whole gig!
“Come back here!” hissed Isis, but the curly-haired shape of Angel’s head stayed stubbornly facing forwards, and she took another step. Isis couldn’t even run and pull
her back, because then everyone would turn to look and Cally’s hold on the room would be broken. Isis had done it once, but never again; her mum had been “too angry to speak to you” for the whole evening after.
Up on stage, Cally was oblivious.
“It took Jonathan a long time to pass,” she said, not quite a question.
The woman in the audience wiped her eyes with her palms.
“He used to complain about his cough, but we never thought it was much… Then he went for a check-up, and they said it was cancer…” She gargled a sob. “He was dead six weeks later.”
Cally opened her hands to the woman, her face beautiful with sympathy.
“He says they felt like the longest weeks of his life, but now he’s happy, and the pain is gone. You shouldn’t blame yourself for anything.”
The woman pulled a crumpled tissue from her sleeve, blew her nose in it. “Thank you, it’s so good to hear from him…”
“WHAT ARE YOU ON ABOUT? He’s not even HERE!”
Isis jumped, heart drumming in her chest.
“There’s no Jonathan! You’re leading her up the GARDEN PATH!”
Isis turned her head slowly, trying to look like she was stretching. At the back of the hall, behind the seated audience, was a small crowd of people. The standers, Isis called them to herself. Some young, some old, but always motley and slightly odd. Every performance they were there, huddled and yearning. Isis even recognised a couple of them.
But she didn’t remember the old man in the middle of this lot, the one who’d just shouted. He was tall, and the tasselled fez perched on top of his almost-hairless scalp made him look even taller. His brightest features were his blue eyes, glaring at Cally. Otherwise he was crinkle-necked and tortoisey, fury fizzing out of him. Even from where she was, Isis caught the dusty smell of his frayed velvet jacket.
“I can feel my brother, sometimes,” the large woman continued, as if there’d been no interruption. “When I walk past the betting office, I’m sure I can smell his aftershave.”
Cally nodded. “He’s with you often,” she said kindly.
“He’s not with you now!” called the old man.
The crowd of standers laughed; the audience stayed silent.
Breathe in, breathe out. Don’t make a fuss. Everyone else is ignoring them, you can too.
here!” shouted a teenage girl, pushing out from the standing crowd into the seated area. She had long, straggling hair and her hippyish dress fell into rags around her. “
need to speak!” The people sitting on their plastic chairs shuffled a little, pulling their clothes tight, putting scarves and coats back on.
“I wouldn’t bother,” the old man said, as the girl waved and shouted. “No one here is listening.”
Isis shuffled a few steps along the wall, to the large wooden door with ‘Way Out’ green-lit above it. She moved her hand to the soft steel of the handle. Sometimes the best thing was to leave; Cally would be fine.
But this door was heavy, the kind that really creaks when you push it. And then there was Angel, still creeping step by step to the stage.
The large woman sat down, and the hippy girl sloped back into the crowd. From the spotlight, Cally gazed around the darkened head-shapes of the audience.
“I’m getting someone else now. It’s… a lady. I can’t quite hear her name, but I think it starts with a B, or maybe an L. I’m hearing something like… Lin… Linda…?”
A flurry in the standers. A middle-aged woman pushed her way through them.
“Yes! Linda! Linda Belborough!” She waved her hands at Cally, dirty water sprinkling off them. But Cally kept her gaze on the people sitting down. A few shook their heads, then near the front of the audience a man raised his arm, uncertainly.
“I had a cousin…” he said. “Lindsey? She died a few years ago.”
Cally cocked her head. “Oh yes, that’s it, Lindsey.” She spoke to the air, smiling. “I couldn’t quite hear you, you need to speak up.”
“I’m speaking perfectly clearly!” snapped the woman at the back of the hall. “And it’s Linda, not Lindsey. I know my own name!” She pointed towards a middle row, a steady drip falling from the end of her finger. “I want to speak to my son over there. Him, with the beard.”
The old man tutted, the tassel on his fez sparkling as he shook his head. “You’re wasting your time, she’s just another charlatan.”
Isis leaned against the door. If it would just push quietly…
“Were you close to Lindsey?” Cally asked the man in
the audience. He stood up, looking awkward, and shook his head.
“I didn’t see her very often. She lived over near Newcastle – it’s a long way.”
Cally pursed her lips. “Well I don’t think she’s here for herself. I think she’s got a message for you from someone else. Is it…” She paused, finger in the air, eyebrows together. “Someone older? Who was very dear to you…?”
“Grampy John!” cried the man, beaming up into the stage light.
“Oh this is pathetic,” said the old man at the back. He cupped his hands round his mouth and shouted. “There’s NO Lindsey! And NO Grampy! Can’t you HEAR ME?” Isis tried not to cough at the dust wafting out from him.
She pushed against the door. The hinge squeaked loudly and a few heads turned, including the old man’s. His eyes gleamed blue, boring into her. She kept her face blank, glancing casually away.
And saw Angel, standing defiant by the edge of the stage. Her little hands gripping on, her dress crumpling as she raised herself up.
Isis gasped, reaching for Angel. She stopped herself, pulling in tight against the door, but it was too late.
The old man’s finger was pointing, quivering at Isis.
“She can see us!”
Every head in the standers turned, their gazes tingling over her skin. Isis stared at her mum, eyes aching with concentration.
“Your Grampy says you shouldn’t worry so much about little things,” said Cally to the man in the audience. There was a tinkle of laughter in the room, and the man looked happy, teary.
Now the woman called Linda was walking around the edge of the hall. Sloshing past the chairs, leaving a trail of fading, watery footprints. Isis watched from the corner of her eye, holding herself completely still. Except for her heart, beating madly.
On stage, Cally was smiling, happily into the swing of her performance.
“Your Grampy says you should take time every day to relax.”
Linda stopped right in front of Isis. Face-to-face, hazing the view of the stage. She smelled like seaweed.
Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look.
The woman peered at her.
Isis jumped, just the tiniest stutter in her body.
And Linda grinned, turning around.
“Mandeville’s right!” she crowed, waving at the rest of the standers. “She
Isis rammed her hand down on the door handle, pushing with all her weight. The door creak-slammed open, and she shot through the gap, tumbling into the lobby, shoving the door shut behind her. She stopped, heart hammering. In front of her were the main doors of the community centre, but they only led to cold winter rain in the car park, and an empty, night-time housing estate.
She ran to the far wall, pressing herself against it.
A damp stain appeared on the door into the hall, droplets of condensation forming on it. The stain darkened and spread, sliding down the grain, streaking into wet shadows. Limbs and a body, then a head. Water bubbled out through the varnish, collecting in vertical puddles and joining into the shape of a woman, who sucked herself out through the door, leaving it dry behind as she took a sloshing step forwards.
Following her, something like smoke puffed through the cracks around the door. It swirled vaguely in the air, then curled up and over Linda’s sloshing shape, funnelling down
in front of Isis. She pulled in against the wall as grey specks spun in the air. Not smoke, but a cloud of velvet fibres and dust, forming into the tall figure of an elderly, tortoisey, blue-eyed man.
Behind him, through him, Isis could see the other ghosts following. Fingers pushing through the breeze-block wall, a leg stepping out of nothing. Arms dripped out of the wall, bodies and heads squeezed from the wood of the door.
And the mouths. Open, clamouring.
“I want to talk to Jenny.”
“It’s really important – they aren’t looking after my cats!”
“I left the house to
– they can’t sell it!”
Bodies and limbs melted into almost-people. Rushing for Isis on wavery legs, crowding round her, pushing and slapping each other, shouting louder and louder. Wispy hands plucking at her clothes, cold fingers brushing her face.
Isis beat at nothing, the cold piercing into her.
“You can see us! You have to go on stage!” cried one.
“Chuck that fake woman off, go and do the seance properly!” screamed another.
They pressed in further, overlapping each other, pushing
themselves into a translucent wall of faces, bodies and reaching arms.
Isis swallowed dry nothing, trying to hold down her fear.
“No,” she whispered, shaking her head.
There were astonished, outraged looks from the ghosts.
“But that woman’s a liar!”
“She’s just making stuff up!”
“There was no Jonny, and she got Linda’s name wrong.”
See-through heads and blurry, featureless faces pushed closer. Their words had no breath behind them, only a spreading cold.