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.
Isis pressed her hands on the wall, holding herself up on trembling legs.
“I won’t do it,” she whispered.
“That woman gives them lies,” said the ghost of the old man, his words piercing through the shouts, “while you could give them the truth.” He was standing back from the mob, as if studying her.
Goosebumps shivered up her arms, even under her thick jumper. The clamouring phantoms had dragged the heat from her body, her breath was crystal-freezing in the air.
“Go away,” she whispered. How long could she hold them off for? Would they be too strong this time?
“You’re as bad as that phoney back in the hall!”
“Worse! Because you’ve got the gift, and you won’t even use it!”
“Jenny!” “My son!” “The cats!” “They can’t sell it!” The shouting went on, getting more and more desperate, starting to press against her thoughts.
Go away go away go away
A shadowy young man put his fingers to a tattooed neck, pulling open a wide gash and revealing the bright-white bones of his spine.
“Look what they did to me,” he moaned. “You tell my brothers, they got to sort it out.”
The spirits closed in. Smells of earth, ash and river water filled her nose.
“Go back in there!”
“You have to tell them!”
Shivers raked her body, chattering her teeth.
“N-no,” she whispered “N-no.”
Then, a jostling in the crowd. Cries of surprise, and a wavering in the mist.
Angel! Swatting with her fists, kicking her small feet.
Fury crumpling her little brow and scrunching up her mouth.
“You go-way!” Angel’s voice squeaked loudly. “
sister! You go-way, you horrids!” Isis managed a smile, feeling her fight come back. She took a deep breath, then shoved her hands right into the ghost with the sliced neck. She gasped as a fierce, aching cold rushed up her arms, her fingers going white, then blue, then numb.
“Ow!” yelled the ghost, stumbling backwards, staring down at the hand-shaped holes in his shadow-body. “How did you
“Get away from me,” whispered Isis. “All of you.”
“Go!” shouted Angel, fists up. “Go-way!”
The ghost of the young man moaned, hugging the holes in his chest. They were closing, slowly, like ice refreezing.
Isis held her hands out, waving them at the other ghosts, praying she wouldn’t have to do it again. Her fingers prickled and burned as the blood returned to them, but the ghosts backed away, fearful.
They faded and flopped into the walls, sliding and slipping through the woodgrain of the door. The old man with the fez was the last to leave.
“Do you even know what you can do?” he asked as he
swirled into plumes of dust, drifting into nothing. Isis didn’t answer.
When he’d gone, Angel’s small hands reached up.
“Carry,” she ordered.
Isis leaned down and picked Angel up. Like holding the breeze from a butterfly’s wingbeat.
“Thank you.” Isis shivered, smiling. “You saved me.”
Angel grinned at Isis from her round little face. “I do it.”
Isis kissed her. Like kissing the mist rising from a river.
Her little sister. Three years old, five years dead.
All right then. If you want to know, I met Isis the year after, in late March. The days were getting longer by then, there’d even been a few warmish ones, so Dad’s round was picking up. He always gets busier in spring; lawns need cutting, stuff needs pruning. He started taking me out with him, on his weekends and the days he picked me up from school. That’s another of Dad’s things I didn’t tell Mum, cos she would’ve got really mad about it, but I liked it actually. I liked being outside.
So, we were at this house. Mansion really. It had a massive garden, about the size of our school playing fields or something, with high yew hedges and big iron gates on the drive. Dad was doing the lawn that afternoon, driving
round it on his mower. Green Garden Gil, that’s what he calls himself – it’s painted on his camper and on the trailer behind. Not that he’s actually green, he just doesn’t use any chemicals and tries to get people growing wildflowers and stuff.
Anyway, it was Mr Welkin’s place. Norman. He was really rich – he’d made loads of money selling herbal remedies. You wouldn’t think you could get to be a millionaire that way, but Dad said people will believe anything. And he was mad. I mean, completely fruit loop. He had long white hair, and he never wore shoes, even outside in the winter because he said they block ‘earth energies’. He was into ghosts and UFOs. He told me Jesus was really an alien, and he was always quoting this Native American chief, who said it’s only when all the trees are gone and the seas are empty of fish that we’ll realise we can’t eat money. He was into even weirder stuff than Dad, if you can believe it. I think that’s why Dad got the job.
I suppose we’d been there about half an hour, so it was probably a bit after four, and Dad was mowing the lawns. He’d told me to stay in the camper, do my homework, but the cooler in that van hardly worked and the sun was shining in and turning it into an oven. And anyway, what’s
the point of going to a massive place like that and not even going round it? I mean, the garden has an actual stream running through it! And so many trees it’s practically a forest, and all these yew bushes clipped into weird shapes. Dad said they were peacocks when they started, but over the years they’d grown out, so now you’d never know what they’re meant to be. Norman Welkin asked Dad if he could prune them back to being peacocks, and he said he’d do his best, but when he’d finished they looked more like aliens than anything. I’m not sure if that’s what he meant to do, but Mr Welkin really liked them.
Norman’s garden is the best Dad goes to, so I didn’t want to just sit in the van. Also, there were the biscuits. Old Norman always brought some out, along with coffee for him and Dad. Really good biscuits; he said they were organic. Whatever, they had big lumps of chocolate in, and that chunky sugar on top. Him and Dad would yak on about their latest theory, and I’d eat the biscuits.
Not that day. I waited twenty minutes, and Norman didn’t show. In the end, I looked through the window into their living room, but there was only Sondra, his girlfriend. Not like that sounds, because she’s really old, as old as him. They weren’t married though, even though she
lived there. She was as weird as him, sort of jittery, like she was expecting someone to creep up on her. She had grey hair down to her waist, and wore all these long, flowery dresses. She said she was an artist, but she showed me a couple of her pictures once, and they were all… swirly and mixed up. Rubbish, I thought. Anyway, she was in the living room with this other woman, one of her friends I guessed. And no sign of Mr Welkin, which meant no biscuits.
I trudged off, keeping out of Dad’s sight, and I heard this sound over the noise of the mower.
, like someone drumming on the big horse chestnut tree. I knew it was a woodpecker because that’s what they do in spring. It’s hard to spot them without binoculars because they like to stay hidden, but I went looking anyway, staring up at the tree. It’s why I didn’t see her at first. Isis, I mean. She was sat against the tree trunk, on this bench that goes all the way round. Still as anything, feet together, hands in her lap. Like a statue or something, like she’d just appeared out of nowhere.
I thought she was a ghost for a minute.
“What are you
” I said.
She didn’t move a muscle. “Sitting.”
Little and thin, she was. She looked loads younger
than me, even though it turned out there’s only two months between us.
?” she asked, like she owned the place. Except I knew there was no way she was anything to do with old Norman or Sondra. For a start, she was wearing the same uniform as me, and rich kids don’t go to our school.
“My name’s Gray,” I said. “My dad’s the gardener here.” I looked at her uniform, so it’d be obvious what I was thinking. “Who are you?”
She kept her same blank face, shivered a bit.
“Cally… my mum’s in there.” Her mouth pressed tight and she shut up, like she’d said too much or something.
“She a friend of Sondra?” I asked.
Isis wobbled her head a bit; not yes, not no.
Going out with Dad on his rounds, he’d told me how the rich types work. One time he turned up to do a garden and the husband had just run off with someone else. Other times, my dad has seen ‘goings on’. That’s what he calls it.
“Is your mum a private investigator?” I asked. We met one once – he was keeping watch on one of Dad’s customers.
She didn’t answer.
“Is Norman having an affair with your mum?” She could’ve been in there, having it out with Sondra. Which would’ve been pretty cool, actually.
“No!” Isis pulled back on the bench, like I’d spat at her or something.
“So what then?”
But Isis only shut her mouth up and glared. Wouldn’t say another word.
The screaming started not long after that.
And what did you think of Isis, when you first met her?
I didn’t want her to die, if that’s what you’re asking.
Cally got the call from Sondra Borwan while Isis was walking home from school. When Isis opened the door of their flat, Cally was waiting for her. Coat on, car keys in hand.
“We’re going out, I’ve got a job.”
“Job?” For a hoping moment, Isis thought Cally had finally gone through with her promise to Grandma Janet.
Real work, bringing in regular wages, even if it’s just at the supermarket.
She flash-dreamed that other life: Cally being awake at the same time as Isis; Cally making new friends, and being happy; no more dark days, no more seances. Back to how they used to be. Back to normal.
Angel’s head drifted out from inside the sofa.
“A lady,” she lisped. “She want Mummy to listen.”
Isis tried not to blink as her dream ran into nothing.
“It’s a reading,” said Cally, blushing slightly, chin up.
“You said I wouldn’t have to go to any more!” said Isis, challenging back. What had been the point of all their fights during the seance tour, if she still had to do this?
Cally jingled the keys in her hand.
“Don’t be silly, Isis, I can’t leave you here by yourself, can I?”
Isis dropped her school bag onto the floor.
“I don’t want to go.”
Cally picked up Isis’s bag, and put it on the table. “Isis, this could be really important for me. The client’s rich, I could tell from her address. She wants someone who can get there right away, and she called
! If I do well, and she recommends me, this could be my breakthrough!”
“I won’t!” said Isis, even though she knew she would, that she’d already lost the argument. And going to individual readings was almost as bad as working the village halls. Cringing in the corner of someone’s living room, while Cally told them what the spirits were saying. Worse still when the spirits were there too, angrily contradicting.
It took about twenty-five minutes to drive through the
traffic-clogged roads of Wycombe, and out the other side to the wealthy, tree-lined lanes. Sondra Borwan lived in one of those villages where the cottages all had hanging baskets and pretty gardens, and the pub on the green did expensive Sunday lunches. Isis huffed a circle of mist on her window as they drove, drawing an angry face in it. Then she wiped it off with her sleeve.
Cally, who’d been chatty and excited about her new client, had fallen into silence when they’d hit the country roads. Hands tight on the steering wheel, eyes narrowed, she stiffened every time they came to a tight bend. They were nowhere near where it had happened, but the hedges looked just the same, the way they stopped you from seeing what was coming around the corner. Isis winced at a shot of pain all down one side. It wasn’t really there, only her body remembering the sudden shock of metal.
It was years ago, she wanted to say to Cally.
The car’s indicator ticked as they turned off the road, pulling up in front of iron gates set between tall, black-green hedges. Through the gates Isis caught a glimpse of mellow brick and glinting windows.
“Wow,” she breathed, “it’s huge.”
Cally came back from her thoughts, and smiled at Isis.
“What did I tell you?”
They had to buzz to get in, and the gates slowly swung open. Cally’s rust-patch of a car crunched up the gravel drive, past the green swathes of lawn and tumbling shrubs. When they reached the semicircle steps in front of the house, Cally parked the car in front of them. Then she sighed, settling her shoulders back.
“I’m listening,” she said quietly, but not to Isis.
Sondra Borwan was already out on the steps, anxiously clasping her silver-ringed hands. She started forwards before they were even out of the car.
“At last! I was beginning to think you wouldn’t come!” And she burst into tears.
Cally hurried up the steps, putting her arm around the woman’s shoulder as if they were friends. “How long has Norman been missing?” she asked quietly.
Sondra let out a sob. “Four and a half hours. He went for his morning walk at about eleven, and he hasn’t come back. I was in my meditations until two o’clock, so I didn’t realise at first, but then…” She gasped a breath, clearly trying to get control of herself. Fanning her face with her hands, bangles jingling.
“Would he normally come back?” asked Cally.
Sondra nodded, unable to speak.
“And have you called the police?”
Sondra nodded again, and let out a wail. “They said he wasn’t missing if he’d only been gone a few hours, he could’ve just gone to the shops. But they don’t understand, I know he’s not all right! He wouldn’t just go off, not when we had yoga planned.” She lowered her voice. “I knew a psychic was my only hope.”
Cally nodded. “I’ll do my best to find him.”
Sondra fluttered her hands. “Of course, I know the country’s best psychics personally, but I can’t ask
of them. Norman would never forgive me, not after what’s happened recently. Then I remembered my cleaner telling me that she’d seen you in Aylesbury, last autumn.”
Cally gave a stiff smile. “Oh,” she said. “Well, you did the right thing. The spirits will tell me where your husband is, and what he’s doing.”
Sondra nodded, calmer now, caught by Cally’s soothing tone. “I was desperate, I had to ring
“The spirits will help us,” said Cally. Isis could see she was offended, but trying not to show it.
Sondra’s eyes filled with tears. “That’s what Norman always says.”
And the two women went into the house, leaving Isis standing there.
She held back, not following them inside. Instead, she carefully checked every window. Although the house looked modern, that didn’t mean anything. New houses are built where old ones used to be, and people die all the time. But there were no faces at the glass, no figures on the rooftop. Isis turned, glancing casually at the garden, as if she were admiring it. There was nothing there either, just a gardener driving a ride-on lawn mower, and he was definitely alive.
Which only left their car. Isis watched two short legs misting out through the shut door, feet flapping, trying to reach the ground. The legs wriggled, and the bottom half of a little girl’s dress flickered out through the side of the car, up to the waist. The legs kicked, and toes hit gravel.
She was wearing the sandals again.
White strapped, with a stitched design of pink and yellow flowers. The day they’d gone to the shoe shop Angel had refused to try on anything else, and after Cally bought them, Angel had worn her new sandals all the time, even to bed.
Isis shuddered. One of the sandals had been ripped
from Angel’s foot, that last day. There’d been mud smeared across the flowers.
She shut her eyes, opened them again. It was only another memory.
Angel pulled the rest of herself out of the car, then turned and smiled at Isis. Her not-there curls bobbed above her not-there head as she trotted over, soundless on the gravel. Isis smiled back.
“Big garden!” said Angel, a whisper in the air. “Where the swings?”
When Isis found them, the swings were hidden in a forgotten corner of the rambling gardens. Old and wonky in their frames, their metal feet lost in long grass. Whatever children they’d been meant for must be long grown up, and Isis wasn’t sure they were even safe to sit on. Of course, that didn’t matter to Angel. Isis pushed the swing and it flew up on its rusting chains, unweighted. On the seat, Angel laughed and shrieked.
Angel could go higher than anyone – there was nothing to hold her down. Isis tried to think what it had been like, pushing Angel when there’d been something
to push, but her muscles couldn’t remember.
She hit her palms against the swing’s seat, batting it up into the air.
Angel was the only one in the family who’d stayed the same after she died, and Isis smiled as she watched her, pushing until her arms started to get tired.
“That’s enough,” Isis said.
“No!” cried Angel. “More, more!” She hung stubbornly onto the chains, but without Isis’s help the swing quickly settled back to stillness.
Angel twisted round on the seat; eyes wide, face pleading. “Pease?”
Isis shook her head. “I’ve been pushing you for ages.”
“No fair!” Angel kicked her legs, but the swing stayed motionless. “More!”
Isis shook her head again.
“No,” she said. “Let’s play another game.”
“I not want to!” the little ghost shouted at her. “I want swing! You a meany!”
“And you’re being a brat!” snapped Isis, before walking away.
The air was damp, and there was a cool breeze,
but Isis felt warm even without a coat, frowning as she walked. Really, Angel was eight. So why couldn’t she act like it? Isis knew the answer, of course. Angel was frozen, halted at the age of her death.
Isis followed the path as it meandered between deep borders, marking time until Cally finished. Shrubs and plants poked woody stems out of the earth. Crocuses and snowdrops speckled their colours in the flower beds, yellow daffodils just unfurling their buds. The path went on, heading under the spreading canopy of an enormous twisting tree. She saw the bench, circled around its massively gnarled trunk, and sat down.
Her frown settled in as she stared back the way she’d come.
It hadn’t mattered when she was younger, and if Angel hadn’t been there she probably would’ve ended up like Cally. But now… Isis was getting older. She was in secondary school, she’d be choosing her options next year, then it’d be exams, and leaving home. She tried to imagine going to college, getting a job, having a boyfriend.
Isis leaned against the rough bark of the tree. How could she do any of those things, with Angel?
Lost in her uncertain future, she didn’t notice the boy
until he was walking down the path straight for her. He was tall, a bit lanky even, with caramel-coloured skin. He’d come from the opposite direction she had, and he was looking up at the tree, his brown eyes deep set beneath heavy black eyebrows. The way his head was tilted made his chin look too big for his face, and he was scratching in the short black hair on his head.
Isis froze, only moving her eyes, watching him carefully. There. Wet footprints behind him on the paving stones. And there. His breath steaming into the air, his cheeks shiny with cold. Isis relaxed a little, but even so she kept still. It was a trick she’d learned over the years: people often only noticed her when she moved. It was the same for the living and the dead, whatever Cally told her audiences about the spirits seeing everything.
He almost walked by, and he probably would have if Angel hadn’t shot out from inside the tree, leaping at Isis and laughing.
“Come, Isis, come!” she squealed. “Play hidey-seek!”
Isis jumped and the boy stopped dead in his tracks, noticing her.
“Jeez!” he startled back a step, “what are you
Now Angel was jumping around Isis, clambering
onto her lap, grabbing her arm with butterfly fingers.
Isis tried ignoring her, but it was hard. Hard to think, hard to follow even the simplest conversation.
“Sitting,” Isis answered the living boy, not her dead sister.
“Don’t sit! Come with me!” cried Angel.
The boy was wearing school uniform, the same one as hers. She recognised his face as well, but she couldn’t remember his name, not with Angel pulling at her.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“My name’s Gray…”
Angel climbed onto the bench, putting her cold little arms around Isis’s neck, shouting into her ear.
Isis missed the rest of what Gray said, but she could tell he’d asked a question by the look on his face.
“Cally… my mum’s in there,” she said, hoping that would sound all right.
Angel put her hands over Isis’s eyes, like frost on her eyelashes.
“Hidey,” she said. “Seek. Hidey-seek.
Gray was answering her, but she couldn’t hear over
Angel, could hardly see him through her sister’s hands. And she couldn’t slap them away, not in plain view.
“Come!” shouted Angel. “Come now.”
“No!” snapped Isis. Out loud, not just in her head.
She clapped a hand over her mouth. What had Gray been saying? What had she yelled at?
“So why then?” he asked, frowning.
She’d have to guess, which never worked. It was guessing that got her into all the trouble at school, especially in the old Victorian buildings. The ghost children in their old-fashioned pinafores and knee breeches were always standing in front of the whiteboards, blocking Isis’s view while they traced the coloured lines with misty fingers.
Keep quiet, and don’t say anything, she told herself. He’ll get bored and wander off.
“Can’t you speak?” he asked, starting to sound annoyed.
Angel drifted through the bench onto the path, went up to Gray and kicked him. He leaned down, rubbing at his leg without seeming to notice.
“He a smelly,” Angel said, fading. “Isis, come.”
. The sound of a door, up at the house.