Maggie claimed there were the ghosts of squirrels in Harlton Woods. As we walked amongst the bluebells, I’d point at the squirrels on the branches and she’d tell me which were ghosts and which were alive. According to Maggie even the fox I spied in the hollow of an oak was a ghost. The woods weren’t exactly spooky. Just old trees with knotted branches and moss covered bark. I played along with her; it’s what friends do when they’re innocent and young.
It became sillier when she said there were rabbit ghosts, too.
‘Rabbit ghosts? How can you tell?’ I often carried a long stick to beat back the nettles and the bunnies would charge through the patchwork of undergrowth and run around knobbly tree roots.
She trailed behind, her quiet voice catching up with me. ‘Just the way they are. It’s easy for me to tell them apart. I don’t think you can. Yet.’
Most of my other friends told fibs; always making out they knew weird things and telling tall-tales. Maggie’s game was fun: imaging spectres here and there, little creatures that could do no harm.
‘Like that film, Sixth Sense. The boy who sees dead people everywhere, except for you it’s animals?’ I tried hard not to smirk.
‘Kind of…’ She never really explained it, nor why she told me and nobody else.
After that visit, we stopped going to Harlton Woods. It had nothing to with her tales of ghostly creatures. Within weeks, my family upped sticks and moved to the city. My world turned into concrete and paving with city dwelling foxes and vermin, the kind mouse traps fail to catch. The silent mice, Mum had called them. Things didn’t have to be heard to be there, I’d argue back. I cited Maggie and her peculiar creatures. Mum’s response had been to inflict one of those far away gazes that adults practise when the children speak nonsense. In hindsight, I should have kept quiet about poor Maggie and her ghosts. Mum hadn’t liked me going round there: bad influence had been her flimsy excuse.
Odd what sticks in your memory. It’s been twenty years since I last saw Maggie.
What brought all this up was finding her on Facebook. An accidental re-discovery; I hadn’t gone looking for her. One mutual friend told me Maggie’s new surname and sure enough, the profile picture is an older version of Maggie. I notice she’s a member of a paranormal society. I wonder if she remembers our walks.
She recognised me too and we chat online, catching up on life stuff. She still lives in the same village near Harlton. We arrange to meet up.
Her hair is surprisingly greyish and her skin is a little waxy, although her pale eyes sparkle when she tosses her head back and laughs. She’s developed an infectious giggle. I suggest a walk in Harlton Woods since the sun is peeping between the clouds.
‘You seem happier than when we were kids.’ I remark as we choose a path less trodden by the dog walkers.
‘Am I?’ she says. ‘I suppose. I was a sad child, wasn’t I?’ She smiles, but it isn’t a true smile. Some things about Maggie never change. She can’t fake smiles.
It comes naturally: talking about the things we did and said when we were small.
‘Those ghosts you went on about…’ I start to laugh, thinking it’s a way to lighten the mood, but immediately stop. A shadow fell over her face and hid those bright eyes. ‘What?’ I ask, alarmed. I’m not being cruel, am I? Teasing her about her overactive imagination?
She halts and clutches her handbag to her tummy. She’s trembling. ‘You see them. Or did,’ she whispers. ‘See them.’
The way she says it—with utter conviction—makes the hairs on the back of my head stand on end. I swivel, seeking out a bird or squirrel, something she would say is dead, but there is nothing moving other than the golden leaves, which lift and fall in the breeze.
Maggie walks toward a bench and perches on it, balancing her handbag on her knees. She taps her heels together. She doesn’t invite me to join her, but I sit next to her and wait for her to speak.
She’s silent, bides her time and occasionally glances in my direction with an air of suspicion. I guess she thinks I’m going to run away or something. Not that I ever did as a kid. There’s something magical having a friend who conjures up fantastical ideas – I’ve never had that kind of imagination, although my kids say differently. I fed off Maggie’s superstitious nature and I’m doing it again; waiting for her to spirit me away from the humdrum of daily life.
‘Do you remember my mum?’ she says abruptly.
I do. Mrs Lovell – a diminutive lady with yellow hair. ‘Yes.’
‘Then you see ghosts.’ The same calm conviction delivered without blinking.
I flinch and gape in disbelief – her mother?
‘No,’ I guffaw. ‘You’ve gone too far this time, Maggie.’
Mrs Lovell. How often had I seen her? Most mums, like my own, seemed to live in the kitchen, at least when you’re a child that’s where you find them. Mrs Lovell spent her time in an upstairs bedroom. The first time I’d seen her, I’d gone in there by mistake thinking it was Maggie’s room. She was sitting at a dresser, brushing her straw-coloured hair with long sweeps. Up, then down, over and over, never pausing. She didn’t even turn to say hello. Maggie quickly shooed me out when I asked what she was doing up there.
I blink, thinking hard about the next time I saw Mrs Lovell.
‘Go on,’ Maggie urges, as if she’s reading my thoughts.
‘She liked that back room.’ It was decorated with striped wallpaper and no carpet, only a big rug, which lay under the bed and across to the dresser. A bed that was made up but there was nothing on the bedside tables. No lamps, alarm clock, books, nothing. I’d never seen Mrs Lovell in any other room of that poky semi-detached. ‘I don’t really remember much. It’s odd that she never spoke to me.’
‘She died in that room.’ Maggie takes out a wallet out of handbag. Tucked inside is a photograph, the corners chewed and the colours faded. She hands it to me.
The face is familiar; a smiling version of Maggie’s mum. The woman I encountered never smiled. Or spoke, I didn’t think she spoke, but this is a long time ago.
‘We became friends after she died,’ Maggie says carefully.
I swallow a lump in my throat. Was Maggie implying I’d only ever seen her mother when she was dead?
‘She killed herself in there,’ Maggie’s voice is barely audible over the rustle of dying leaves. ‘Took an overdose and tried to slash her wrists. Dad had to rip out the carpet because of the blood stains.’
Mr Lovell is more memorable: tall, frequently unshaven and always busy—cooking, working, even ironing. My dad never ironed a thing.
‘When?’ I ask.
‘When I was small. I don’t really remember much. The police, the ambulance. I think somebody sat with me in the sitting room and did a jigsaw with me. Kev went round to a friend’s house.’ She mentions her brother, an older elusive figure who downed tins of baked beans at the kitchen table and then vanished into the dusk to play football on the streets.
Poor deluded Maggie—she’d got things all mixed up. Of course I met her mum. Once I got home, I’d verify it. Check the dates and ask around. It couldn’t be true. Mrs Lovell had been sick, or something. One of those mental problems that kept her shut away. Agoraphobia, wasn’t it?
‘Then, there were the squirrels, the rabbits, all those creatures, the ones in the woods. I wasn’t sure if you really understood what was going on. Sorry,’ she says, tears forming in her eyes. ‘I thought you knew.’
I can see her pain. I capture one of her hands and cradle it in mine. Did it matter if it’s true or not? Maggie is still my friend, even after all these years.
‘Okay, I believe you,’ I tell her.
It isn’t a lie. I believe Maggie saw those things in the woods. I just don’t want to believe I’d seen them too. As for her mum, I must have seen Mrs Lovell brushing her hair before she’d died. That would explain it. Afterwards, nobody had spoken about her death because who did talk about suicide. The whole neighbourhood had shied away from gossiping, especially in front of the children. I’d not known because my parents never told me about Maggie’s mum, but they must have heard the rumours. It explained those little suggestions Mum made before I went round to play at Maggie’s house.
‘Take her for a walk.’ Mum had said. ‘Out into the woods, away from the blasted house. Why he didn’t move out, I don’t know. Who would want to stay there?’ The house was three streets away from ours, the one with the rickety stairs and mice in the attic – I’d refused to go up there after I encountered their nest.
‘Wasn’t it odd, being there after she’d died?’ I asked Maggie.
‘I’d go talk to her,’ she sniffs. I release her hand and she hunts around for a handkerchief in her handbag. ‘The last thing she did before she killed herself was wash and dry her hair, like she wanted to look pretty. I’d sit in the room and tell her about school and things. Gradually, she started to fade. By the time I left home, she’d become so faint, I had to use photographs to remember her. Dad rarely went into the spare room. It was their bedroom, before she died.’
‘But he didn’t move you out to a new home?’ I echo Mum’s thoughts.
‘No. He couldn’t afford to move. Nobody wanted to buy our house, not after the local newspapers finished their stories. He burnt the papers in the back garden. Horrible things about Mum, that she’d had an affair or something, and got dumped by him. All lies, Dad said. She was just a sad person.’
Maggie believes in ghosts, but not the truth about her mother. I suspect Mr Lovell had softened the image of her mum to take away the blame.
She blows hard into the kerchief and wipes her nose. ‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘I didn’t mean to bring all this up. I’m fine. Honestly. I worried for years about you. I should have contacted you earlier.’
She’s lost me. Why would she worry about me? I feel a strange sense of embarrassment that she should care when I’d forgotten all about her for years.
The conversation shifts in direction to the present. We’re both married with kids and work part-time. I tell her about the new house. Finally, we’re out of the city and back in the countryside.
‘For the kids’ sake,’ I explain. ‘Didn’t want them growing up there.’
I’d pined for the old places, the spaces between streets and houses where the grass grows thick and the hawthorn hedges thrive. I’d convinced my less than enthusiastic husband to join me in the hunt for somewhere to park the car without arguing with the neighbours. We found the house less than a mile away from the one I’d grown up in.
We continue our walk. Maggie doesn’t mention dead animals, nor do I.
We hug and wave good-bye, promising to stay in touch.
I drive home. The reunion hasn’t been what I expected. An old friendship has been re-kindled, but the childhood memories she awoke bring with them a coldness; I’m shivering in the car. Instead of clawing back a lost innocence, I’ve re-lived the eerier moments of my young life when things never made much sense. I assumed, as an adult, a new perspective would turn murky recollections into amusing anecdotes.
As I wash the dishes, I stare out of the kitchen window across the heath beyond the back garden. There’s a warren and a few of the rabbits poke their heads out of the holes, sniffing the air. They start to hop about, dashing from bush to bush.
Some hardly move. They just sit with their noses still and their pitch black eyes honed on each other.
My hands freeze on the plate. Of course they’re dead, I can see that now.
The day we moved in, I pointed them out to the kids, who in reply joked that I couldn’t count, that there were hardly any out there.
I stagger back, recalling everything Maggie had said to me. She’d never actually said she saw ghosts, only that she believed in them. I’d pointed them out to her and she’d defined what she couldn’t see, and not once had she disparaged my visions of invisible creatures; she let me think it was normal to see those apparitions. It’s me who sees the docile squirrels in the trees and black-eyed rabbits in the tall grass. And not just in the woods. The silent hoard of mice rampaging in the attic; the gangs of urban foxes marauding amongst the dustbins. Even the flocks of geese flying by in the dead of winter weren’t migrating.
Which meant… Mrs Lovell. I block the wave of nausea. I had given Maggie the idea of talking to her mum in that room. I’d awoken that spirit and Maggie had used my macabre encounter to feed her imagination to find solace from her grief. Why wonder she’d worried about me.
Maggie’s perception of reality runs far deeper than mine. I’m the conjuror of magic, not her. She had followed me into the woods and I had given her the ghost of her mother to heal her grief.
I pick up the dishcloth and slowly circle the plate. It doesn’t matter. Nobody has to know. Only Maggie knows and she’d keep it a secret.
I look out the window. So there are rabbits, lots of them. So what. What harm can they do me?