It happened one day when I was measuring up the refurbished wing of a hospital with a view to the supply of vinyl floor covering. None of the loose equipment had been installed yet, but the fixtures were in place. There were the rails for the curtains around the bed-bays, and the wash-hand basins and the electrical outlets, and on the wall to my left as I went into this ward there was a big mirror. There were nice big windows on the far wall, which looked out onto the foliage of trees that stood between the hospital and the road. So I went around stooping down, taking measurements at floor level; and as I was just about to leave, I took a glance in the mirror. I wasnít there.
Thatís right, I wasnít there. Well, it only took me a split second to realise that what Iíd mistaken for a mirror was a double-glazed panel between this ward and an identical one next door. But itís what happened in that split second that matters: because for that one, tiny moment I understood what it was like to be an incorporeal presence - to be a ghost.
I never talked to anyone about it. I suppose perhaps I should have done, but it seemed a bit fanciful, if you know what I mean. I could just imagine my mates guffawing and saying, ĎHere comes old spooky,í and making Halloween noises whenever I arrived in the office - and thatís what it would have been like, make no mistake about that. So I didnít. But the more I avoided talking about it, the more I began to feel that the thing had affected me in some indefinable way, like those out-of-body experiences people claim to have had - though it hadnít been that in my case, not by any stretch of the imagination. Anyhow, it came as a bit of a shock when my wife said to me one day, ĎYou donít hardly seem to be here these days. Is there someone else?í And I said, ĎWhat you on about? I come home straight from work every evening. Iím here as much as I always was.í And she said, ĎThatís not what I meant. I meant youíre not really here. Itís as if your feet werenít hardly touching the ground. Itís as if you were just haunting the place.í
I knew what it was. Iím not stupid, you know; and I knew what it was. Iíd gradually developed a way of looking at people as if they couldnít see me back, and talking to people without expecting a reply - which meant I took no notice of the reply when I did get one. Naturally people found that disconcerting. But it was too late for me to go into reverse gear. By now I was looking at everything the same way: as if the world was - how shall I say? - as if the world was a toy train set, and I could see it, and I could activate it, and I could influence it, but it didnít do anything off its own initiative. You may say, ĎBut surely the world must have gone on acting independently of your wishes. You canít have imagined you were controlling everything.í And yes, thatís true; but somehow all that activity, even when it was directed explicitly towards me, still had the aspect of something passive - a default state, if you like, of no more significance than the bubbling of a pan when youíve put it on to boil. Besides, there were increasingly cogent practical reasons why I shouldnít alter my slant on life. I donít have to tell you how much itís done for me. If the wife had stuck with me, sheíd soon have found herself married to the chairman of the board. Still, thatís her look-out.
Yes, things went well. We launched a range of kinky clothing for the s/m trade, and within weeks a much-esteemed member of the Upper House was found asphyxiated in one of our harnesses. That gave rise to a good deal of adverse publicity. Sales rocketed; and I gained the credit for having exploited a hitherto unsuspected market niche. In no time at all I was being head-hunted by Social Stability Systems, which is where I now am, and I think I can honestly say Iíve been responsible for introducing our products to the forces of the law in all corners of the globe. I used to muse upon the behaviour of elderly people - how they cling ever more tenaciously to their authority as their capacities go into decline. So just think how tight a grip our dead parents would exercise on us if they could, not to mention our grandparents, our great-grandparents: power squared, power cubed, power to the fourth power... My achievement, as I saw it, was to have fulfilled the longings of the dead while still in the land of the living.
Laudatory profiles and obsequious interviews in the specialist press led gradually to the point where, as of now, my name means something even to the man on that legendary Clapham omnibus; and it has seemed that my success must soon be crowned by the award of a privatised utility. And now I come almost to the present. In consequence of the improved efficiency achieved during my stewardship, the company has for some time been in the market for smaller premises; so, when the local maternity hospital was put up for sale, I arranged to go with one or two of our senior executives to inspect it. Walking into a vacated ward, I noticed with amusement what appeared to be a mirror on the wall to my left. I was not at all surprised to see that my reflection did not appear in it. The surprise occurred when, as my subordinates caught up with me, their reflections walked into the mirror, large as life. Only I was missing.
Doctor, I have to know: is something the matter with me?
They'll be putting out the flags again in Wootton Bassett. This time it's for Darren - or what's left of him.
'Repatriation', they call it. A spooky word to use: as if he was still alive, like a POW. They mean well, I know. They mean to be respectful. Yet some of them can only show respect by standing to attention and saluting. It reminds you of those military cemeteries with rank and file of tombstones as uniform as - well, as uniforms. But a dead soldier isn't a soldier any more. However much we loved him, he's gone. What I kept were his drawings, cartoons of his teachers, his school essays. Those are him as much as anything was. And now they're up there, I suppose. I shan't see them again, shall I. No. That's where he's really gone for good. Up there. Up there. Up there.
My eye catches it from time to time - the trap door. It's in the living room ceiling now. Used to be in the corridor before Alfred knocked down the partition wall to make more space. Said it wasn't load-bearing or somesuch. We used to get up there with a stepladder to shift the hatch, then the extending ladder. No way I could now - not any more. Alfred always used to say he couldn't understand the slogan Waste not, Want not: said you wasted things precisely because you didn't want them, and wouldn't waste them if you did...
Vicky'll be there of course, blubbing for the cameras. And I hear Alfred's voice: 'That's a terrible thing to say. He was her child, when all said and done.' All right, I withdraw that comment. Reluctantly. But Vicky and sincerity just don't go together. Not to me, anyhow. Still, it's true there was only her. I've no idea who the father was. Don't suppose she had, either - though again, Alfred wouldn't have liked me saying that, or even thinking it.
When I look back on my life I feel sort of giddy, like being on the edge of some high block: one little girl in blue. Then the factory all those years breathing in nylon fibres that have done for my lungs, Alfred courting me a bit half-heartedly I always thought, but time was rolling on and beggars can't be choosers, then Vicky being so different and landing me with a grandchild to look after who after all turned out to be the best thing, the one who understood and cared, or seemed to: now obliterated. And they'll put out flags along the street at Wootton Bassett, they always do, but what do they know, his coffin stuffed with whatever could be raked up; a sign of respect, but what are they respecting? Not the Darren I knew, there draped with the union jack, or union flag as we were taught to call it - no jack, jackrabbit, Jack the lad, wrong associations altogether... What was I thinking?
Well, are they still there, those memories? Spindle-shanked aunties in low-waisted dresses on unrecognisable lawns. All there above the shut hatch? Things were different shapes in those days, but you don't always think of them like that because at the time they were just themselves. An electric heater the shape of a saddle - some sort of a formula, apparently. But what matters is what I don't remember, because that's the me I've lost and I don't even know how important it was, or if what, or... Suitcases full of impedimenta, the leather gone soft as my brain. How could I have given birth to such a bitch as Vicky? She won't even sort through it. I know her. Won't even look to see if there's anything she might want. I'll just be junk to her - always was, if I'm honest about it. Losing Alfred so soon didn't help.
No, my daughter never liked me. Impossible to know the way of such things, wheres and why fores. Never even got asked to the funeral - she'll have told them I was too infirm. But what else is there? As for Alfred, his spanners were his life. Or largely.
Last time I ventured up there I came across - in an old attachť case - a snapshot of myself in a swimming costume. I'd have sworn I never wore such a thing; but it was definitely me. Bathing cap as well, would you believe. Why did everybody? Because we all had perms to protect. Which twin has the Toni? But what else may there be that I'd scarcely believe? Other me's. Other me's begun perhaps but come to nothing. Then there was one of Alfred's old lampshades from the time he took to making lampshades - after his breakdown, that was - by bending lengths of wire and soldering them to form a frame, then filling the panels with a peach-coloured plastic, quite distinctive, can't imagine where he got it from: not a shade of plastic you see at all nowadays. Punched holes in it and attached them with raffia. I wonder a lot about Alfred. His breakdown wiped off so much that had gone before. 'You've got a memory like a sieve,' he used to tell me; and I'd say, 'True enough; but don't forget that a sieve gets rid of the gunk and keeps what's worth having.' 'No it doesn't,' he'd say, 'it collects the impurities and lets the good stuff get through.' Either way, what's up there might have lots to tell us. Tell me. Or fall down and break my neck, more like. Woe beside me, dredging for dregs... Yes, he'd always sing in the bath. I remember that.
Only in the bath, mind. You're a rose in a garden of weeds... Where had he got that from? Never heard it anywhere else that I know of. Nor never since. One of those lampshades stayed in Vicky's room for quite a while. I still think of it as Vicky's room, don't I. Why does she hate her poor old mum so much? Just one of those things. Or maybe the secret's up there somewhere. Alfred's too, I wouldn't wonder. But I'll never mind it now, Never find it now. She drank coffee because we drank tea. It was that sort of a rigmarole. Alfred took her side for as long as he could, trying to cling to her shadow I used to say, but it was no use. Then she got religion, which gave her sanction for all her spites and put an end to any hope of serious debate. I don't think Darren went that way; but it made no difference in the end: Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir... then into the IED. They swore they hadn't known; but so what? Improvised Explosive Device: they've got initials for everything. Would it help if I knew? Knew what? I don't know.
They're not respecting him. They're claiming him. Think of all those identical gravestones somewhere in Flanders, bone orchard, over the hills and far away, a Nuremburg rally of the dead. Couldn't she have refused - demanded the mortal remains for cremation? Maybe they wouldn't have let her. In any case, that's not the point at issue A tissue? All fall down... The fact is she wouldn't have wanted to. I told her she was proud of him being dead, that's all, an unnatural mother, and she screeched at me saying she loved him more than I'd ever know how. All the same, I think if some loved-one of mine had died in the First World's War I'd rather he'd stayed undisturbed under some unkempt mound - a corner of a foreign field, wasn't it? - than be dragged back to a parade-ground of white markers: age, rank, regiment - and nothing else. Certainly nothing of what he'd really been about. Like that Harry Patch, who'd said war was just licensed murder, then got buried with full military honours. Honours! So even after 90 years the bastards still pressed him into service as one of their own. Better to be forgotten than to be remembered that way. So what about all that memory in my loft? Yes, I can't help but keep coming back to the subject. Same as that mountain of cat mummies. Saw about it in a programme on the telly: they'd been sending back cargo ships from Egypt to Liverpool with holds crammed with mummified cats - found great deposits of them and realised they'd be good as fertiliser. Is that all my memories are good for? Yet every one of that feline hoard had been someone's slithery companion once, consoling them in the small hours from jackals and sphinxes and so forth. Or lynxes, do I mean? Never could abide cats myself. But that's no matter.
It gets dark sooner these nights. Drawing in. I can't much any more. Once in a while new items flip into my head from nowhere, though - Festival-style cruets in primary colours, Victorian thingummies in grass-green cut glass, silly toys. All of them meant something in their day. Just like I did. Meant a lot. Iridescent little domed plugs to fit into holes in black cardboard. What shall we be remembered for when we're gone, eh? All those women with their difficulties, inhaling microscopic fibres... It wasn't that people didn't know. They just took it as part of the deal - like scuppering your eyesight. Your body was there to be used, to be worn out by life, used up; then pop goes the weasel. We used to sing that too - yes, to Vicky, when she was little.
But what they never told me was that my body would be left still down here while my mind was locked in boxes all tidied away. Exhausted mementos of short-lived romances or relations' holidays abroad. But there was more, too. I know there was more: the embryos of other selves that never made it into being but struck lights in the darkness for all that: maybe things I'd still be able to reconstitute myself from, yes even now. Sometimes I think I hear the creak of aboard. A footstep perhaps? I can scarcely remember Alfred's voice - at least, not when I try to. Perhaps I try too hard.
Darren had no loft-space. He travelled light through life. All right, everyone has a lifetime's memories no matter how short their lifetime. But not enough to fill a loft. Broken yellow lobster floats, blue mesh chafing away... What I am is hemmed in by what I'm not, or not any longer: little girl blue, flavoured with snowdrops; all that detritus flexing its elbows. And me down here cut off from it, trapped, a prisoner. I mean, I'm unreachable, aren't I? It's what's down here that's the relic, the trash - me in this chair. In this chair. This chair.