Conjuring with ghosts, by Martyn Clayton

Listen. Can you hear it ? It’s low and hidden but it’s there. Stand still for a moment. No, not the silent poetic sound of the leaves falling somewhere in the back of your mind. Ignore the voices of the children in the playground and the postcard chuckle of the ducks. The birdsong’s nice but it won’t offer any answers. The distant buzz of the city beyond is something you should try to forget. Bore down further still.

There. You hear it now? It’s low and barely audible and if you tried to tell people about it they’d probably think you mad. They might be right. If you remember rightly it was a day like today when you witnessed the fall. He had a face as sad and long as an Easter Island statue. He wore a heavy coat and a tweed cap from beneath which looked like a pair of Armistice eyes. Nothing special about him. The world’s full of sad old men isn’t it?  He was standing looking confused and a little lost. Welcome to the club my friend.

No, but he really was and that was the thing. You wondered if he needed help. You saw his step was unsteady as he walked down through the middle of the naked rose beds towards the fountain, then seemed to hesitate, then turn, then look to the sky.  It was obvious he wasn’t quite right, but what do you do ?

Here in the fabled North we should surely know the answer. Where we talk to strangers, and milkmen (if they still existed) would whistle as they dropped off your silver top. Busty bustling women make earthy jokes in the company of handsome young men, scruffy kids are full of precocious wisdom, the clatter of trolley buses, clogs on cobbles, heart warming stories of endless  smiles in the face of adversity with two lovely black eyes for your trouble, the confused elderly never left to suffer alone like the lonely commercial travellers on The Great North Road.

Except sometimes they are. Or at least he was.

His legs buckled, his whole body swayed and, before you knew it, he was in a crumpled mass on the concrete. There was no one else here. Not that you could see. Maybe there were one or two taking tea, or more likely lattes, in the café. Perhaps people with fat arthritic dogs were skirting the boundaries, but there was no one here in the orbit of this fallen man. Except you.

You stood frozen some metres away staring at him, eyes invariably transfixed, confusion obviously growing. Aren’t times like this meant to produce clarity? Isn’t that what the ordinary heroes say on early evening TV when they’re being applauded by presenters with regional faces. You’re meant to shrug and say ‘I only did what anyone would have done’ as the drowning boy and his mum look up at you adoringly from the lime green sofa. But it’s not true.

It’s not what everyone would do is it?

The question before us now is when did his heart stop beating? If we’re being honest, it’s the question that won’t leave us alone. Was it immediately? Perhaps when he hit the deck, or maybe he only fell because he had already given up the ghost. Ghost. Now there’s a word to conjure with. There’s that noise again. Did you hear it?

The thought that’s brought you here is the possibility that he was still alive when you decided to calmly walk away.  Over the bridge across the pond, up the steps, beyond the gates and into the streets. It’s hard to remember what you thought as you found a window seat on an earlier than planned train home. You thought about him there and knew it wouldn’t be long before someone found him. It just wasn’t going to be you.

Funerals always bring out the kindest words. ‘So glad you came,’ they said. ‘It was a tragedy what happened between you. He wanted to make amends,’ they said. ‘Changed man he was. He was going to get in touch and arrange for you to meet up,’ they said. ‘All he talked about was how proud of you he was, how sorry he was for walking out on you and all those years he lost to the drink.’ All those friends with jaundiced faces set with heavy sentimental eyes, camaraderie born from the bottom of the bottle and the shared self-reproach of  the AA meeting; another funeral fixture to tick off in the programme. ‘Terrible what it does to you,’ said his brother. ‘Tragic that it ended like it did.’ To Be A Pilgrim. Jerusalem. I Vow To Thee My Country.  But what exactly did you vow?

‘He was going to feed the ducks,’ they said. ‘Did it every day. He’d step out of his flat on the other side of the river, cross the bridge, find a bench and throw stale clumps of white Aldi bread in the direction of the pond. He’d built these little routines and finally found some peace,’ they said. ‘Honestly, he wanted to see you. He wanted to put things right.’

You put the word ‘flaneur’ (or it could be flaneuse) on your Twitter Bio because you like walking alone in parks and sometimes take photographs of shadows. There are no shadows today because it’s January grey (battleship surely?) and the sun can’t get through.

He’s not here now. The spot where he fell isn’t marked. There’s no blue plaque or commemorative bench. There’re just the voices of the children in the playground and the postcard chuckle of the ducks. The birdsong’s nice and the buzz of the distant city is difficult to forget. Then there’s that noise; it’s low and barely audible. Listen. Can you hear it ?

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