Her first thought, when she awoke from the long sleep, was for her son. He was in danger. He was nearly eighteen and due to inherit his trust fund. Shirley knew she must get to him quickly and warn him. She looked around her. Snow lay on the ground, three inches deep, but she wasn’t cold. There was an old man kicking a ball against the side of a gravestone. Perhaps he looked a little bored, but he glanced her way and nodded. He seemed affable enough and the fear from the strangeness of her surroundings ebbed. The light from the moon cast a silvery glow, which made everyone seem ethereal. She laughed silently to herself.
Most people were heading for the lych gate, so she followed the increasing crowd, leaving the man pounding his ball against the solid marble headstone.
She wandered down the hill, away from the church and through the village, past the shops and the school, to the quiet lane where she lived. It was chocolate box pretty, with the white covered houses and trees. The large Georgian house that had once been her home, had lights blaring and seemed to be calling her onwards.
As she drew closer she could see the light came from downstairs, which suggested that Gerald was still up. She automatically went to the front door but of course it was shut. What could she do? He wasn’t going to answer the door to her. Creeping quietly up to the window she peeped inside. There he was sitting, asleep in the armchair, with his mouth open and his legs splayed. On the nearby table was a tumbler of the whisky he loved so much. It seemed as though nothing had changed, but how was she going to get in? She looked down at her clothes. The pale blue silk pyjamas were what she’d been wearing the last time she saw him, not her best dress that they’d placed on her for the long sleep. So could living spirits walk through glass, she wondered? Now was the time to find out. She drew herself up to her full height, gathered her courage and walked straight through the window. She’d expected to feel some resistance, or some sensation of substance, but there was none. Her mood lifted a little but she knew she must reach her son. An image of the old man from the graveyard, kicking the ball – with the timing of a grandfather clock, flashed through her mind.
She made her way upstairs and found her son, Robert, fast asleep on his bed. The room was its usual mess – a sort of organised chaos. His guitar was carefully propped up by a chair and there were clothes spilling over from the laundry basket. The only difference she could see, was there was a picture of herself, stuck to the wall with blue-tac. Shirley watched him as he slept and all the love she felt for him surged through her. Death didn’t kill love, she thought. That was good to know. Suddenly his eyes sprang open and he sat up with a start.
With the quickness of youth, which she envied, he spoke.
‘Mum, I’ve so missed you. Is it you? How did you get here?’
‘Oh I’ve missed you too my darling Robert, but I have a feeling that we haven’t much time. I’ve come to warn you. I think you’re in danger. I don’t know exactly how he did it, but your stepfather poisoned me. I thought he loved me, but he just wanted our money. On your birthday you will inherit some money from me and he’ll want it, if he hasn’t already spent it. You must leave.’
‘What old Gerald, I’m sure I can handle him, although now you mention it, he’s getting me to sign some papers tomorrow. He said it’s so the trust fund can be transferred to me.’
‘Robert you must leave now. If you don’t sign, we don’t know what might happen.’
Robert looked thoughtful.
‘I wondered why we weren’t using a solicitor.’
He threw his legs out of bed and stood up towering over Shirley. ‘I wish I could hug you,’ he said, ‘but you’re looking a bit translucent.’
‘You know I would give you a bear hug if I could, but we mustn’t waste time. Please pack a bag and go to your Aunt Cathy. She’ll look after you. Will you do that for me?’
Robert looked a bit exasperated, but he picked up a back pack and started loading clothes, both clean and dirty into it.
‘I’ll go to Dad’s. I’m seeing a lot more of him these days. He’s really sorry, well, about… you. And he’s made it clear that he wants to be in my life and be there for me. I’ll be safe there.’
Shirley thought about his dad. There was still a little part of her that loved him, even after he’d gone off with the glamorous Gloria, from the finance department. She looked a little less glamorous nowadays, with two children under three, Shirley thought, surprised she could still feel bitchy about her. She liked the fact that even in death, she was still herself. Yes Robert would be safe there. His dad would look out for him.
‘Good idea. I’d say send him my love, but he’d think you were mad.’ She smiled and Robert gave her his lop-sided grin. ‘Now we must be quiet going out or we’ll wake Gerald.’
‘No need to worry about that. He’s drinking really heavily these days. He never wakes up until about four in the morning. I hear him banging up the stairs to go to bed.’
Robert put the bag on his back, adjusted it, picked up his precious guitar and they started down the stairs. As they were going past the living room, where loud snores were emanating, Robert whispered, ‘What poison did he use to kill you?’
‘He used my heart pills. He must’ve ground them up and put them in that curry we had the night I died. I can’t think of any other way. I’m not absolutely sure how, but it was definitely my pills.’
Robert placed his guitar and bag by the front door and quietly made his way back to the living room. Gerald’s computer was on and he was logged into Facebook. Robert looked over to her smiled, typed a short message on the laptop and pressed send. The rasping snores continued uninterrupted from the armchair. Shirley quietly studied Gerald and noticed that he’d put on a lot of weight. He really did look out for the count. She’d thought he was her knight in shining armour, picking her up from the depths of despair after Roberts dad had left her for a younger woman. He’d been so kind and attentive, but she realized now he’d had his own agenda and ambitions. The clues had all been there. He liked the best whisky, expensive cars, dining out and spent money at a rate far beyond his earnings. There was no point in dwelling on her lack of insight.
When Robert went to leave, she said, ‘Be safe my lovely son. Have a wonderful life and know that you are loved so much.’
‘Are you staying here, mum? Why would you want to stay.’
‘I think I should say good-bye to Gerald. Don’t you?’ she gave Robert a cheeky laugh.
‘Yes,’ he grinned. ‘I may just take a gander through the window. At least he can’t hurt you any more.’
The closing of the front door awakened Gerald. He looked around him and took another swig of whisky. Shirley drifted around the room and hovered within his sight until he noticed her. She’d have rather been dressed up, than in her pyjamas, but it didn’t matter now. She wasn’t trying to seduce him.
‘What the devil!’ he said.
‘Good evening, Gerald, I guess you weren’t expecting a visit from me.’
‘How did you get in?’
‘Through the window. It was actually quite easy. Are you missing me Gerald? Shall I come and visit you every night?’
‘You always were a troublesome bitch. This is my house now. You don’t own anything, any more now do you? And dear lofty Robert is going to sign over control of his money to me tomorrow, which is a good thing. I won’t have to get rid of him. He doesn’t cost too much. He’s normally off playing his bloody guitar with some band or other. Now why don’t you go back where you belong. Get out of here,’ he said grabbing the arm of the chair and trying to stand up.
‘Now that’s not very friendly. You promised to love me, but I guess that was all a lie. I’m such a bad judge of people. You just wanted my money. What a shame you didn’t ask. I’d probably have given it to you.’
‘Yes, you really are so stupid, but I’d still have been saddled with you and I wanted a fresh start; a chance to meet someone young and fit. Besides I didn’t want to be grateful to you for the rest of my life. Thank you for the meal, darling. Thank you for the car,’ he mimicked.
Thud, thud thud, Shirley heard. It was the sound of the old man kicking his football. She knew her time in the house was running out.
A siren could be heard getting louder, and closer, outside. It broke the total silence that only snow brings. Gerald rubbed his forehead as if he couldn’t make sense of what was going on.
‘Oh dear, have you got a headache? Too much whisky? Not enough home cooking?’ asked Shirley in an ultra sympathetic voice. ‘How tiresome for you.’
‘Just get lost,’ Gerald muttered.
There was a loud pounding on the front door.
‘I think that must be for you,’ said Shirley. ‘It could be the police. You see it would seem that you sent a message out on Facebook to all of our friends, saying how you administered poison to your wife, so that you could get your hands on her money. Confession is so good for the soul, don’t you think, Gerald. I’m so glad you owned up. I suspect the police will send somebody round to the back door as well, so I think you need to let them in.’
At that moment the door flew open and Gerald found himself surrounded by police. At the same time Shirley found that a force was pulling her back towards the graveyard, but she didn’t mind. Her son was safe and her husband would at last pay for snatching her precious years with her son. The sound of the wind swished by her, but it wasn’t icy, as it should have been.
‘I miss you,’ Robert shouted as she was was pulled backwards through the air, right by where he stood. She managed to blow him a kiss.
She landed unceremoniously on the white ground near her headstone. The old man was still kicking the ball in a regular beat against his large marble stone.
‘I took the liberty of bringing you back so you wouldn’t be late,’ he called over to her. ‘You have to be back asleep before first light, or you’ll be stuck here until someone rescues you. Believe me that’s not a good thing.’
‘I didn’t know there was a time limit, but I sort of felt there would be. Thank you for looking out for me.’
‘No worries. I’m guessing you managed to say good-bye to your loved ones and sort out any outstanding affairs.’
‘Yes. I think I did,’ she smiled.
‘You’re the lucky one then. You’ll be on your way to eternal life and freedom.’
‘What about you?’
‘I stayed out too long and I have to stay here until nature knows I’m sorry for disregarding the rules and until someone rescues me.’
Knowing that she had no idea how to help this stranger, she said, ‘Oh you poor man,’ as she reached out to put an arm round him. Surprisingly her arm didn’t go through him and she could feel his sadness. All the years of his loneliness flitted through her mind and then the world wobbled and the two spirits flew to the stars in an instant.
There was no sign that anyone had been in the churchyard, except an old ball that moved occasionally with the wind.