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FICTION FOR ADULTS- GENERAL

 

Look Upon This Little Child

In my grandmother's house there are many ghosts. But I do not bother them, and they do not bother me. They disturb me, in the fact that I feel pity for them. They dwell for ever on the edge of reality, unable to partake of true existence. But then again, perhaps my pity is misplaced as they seem oblivious to the fact of their unreality.
I would like to be able to speak with them, to understand more about who they are –and who and what they were before they became merely shadows without substance, the beings of dreams.
They sleep. That is a peculiar thing. You wouldn't think that ghosts need to sleep, would you? But seldom do I come across any of them, in the hours between midnight and dawn, although I have looked for them often in the halls and corridors of my grandmother's house.
I came here as a little child, so long ago that I can't remember, only it was a different place then. My grandmother was a lovely woman, but lacking in understanding of a child and its wants and needs. But I was lucky, I suppose, that I had somewhere to go when both of my parents died....
My father was a jovial man, plump, red faced and cheery, a confirmed atheist who believed in heaven and hell only here on earth. My mother was a shadow, remembered only very dimly. Her hair was fair and soft and fluffy and she cried a lot when she kissed me at night. She always smelled of lavender and tied pink ribbons in my hair. She had been brought up in an overwhelmingly Christian household, but, charity notwithstanding, her father had cut her off without a word when she had married the man she loved in spite of his atheism. My mother must have been truly in love to have gone to him and to have let him rule her life as strictly –although lovingly –as her own father had done.
He wouldn't even permit her to have their baby daughter –me –baptised in a church.
There is a little ghost girl whose story I would love to know. She seems a cheerful enough soul, for a ghost, that is. But then I don't suppose there's any real reason for a ghost to be miserable. She has dark hair that she wears in two long braids, and pale blue eyes that are always full of wonder and laughter.
And there is another, a tall, stiff backed old man. His eyes are cold and bitter, and there are lines in his face. So sad, I think, for anyone to be so full of anger and bitterness. But his expression softens when he and the little girl encounter each other during the daylight hours. I think they are somehow connected. One day I must find out....
And it is a strange and wonderful thing, that I have pondered often in my lonely night time vigils in the corridors of my grandmother's house....the ghosts I see around me in the daylight hours seem to be aging....they are growing older each day.
The little girl is a little girl no longer, and when the old man sees her his eyes lose all their bitterness and fill with tears....I must somehow find out why...
But they are only ghosts, unreality, and although I can see them, I have no way to contact them, to find out their stories and their motives....
I wish I could remember how long it is that I've been here. It can't really have been that very long, although sometimes it seems forever, for I am still a little girl, as I was when I first came here. But the ghosts, they have aged so many years since I first began to see them. Maybe time passes differently in their ghost world. Maybe....
I am afraid. There is something here that I do not understand. It frightens me.
The little girl is called Philippa. She is the old man's only grandchild. She should have had a cousin, but her aunt and her husband and the child died long ago. Sad. Philippa's aunt left the house after her father disapproved of her marriage.
I wish I could talk with Philippa. But she, like all the other ghosts of my grandmother's house, neither hears nor sees me. And although I can see all of them, I can but rarely hear them. It was during a brief and unusual occurrence of my ability to hear them talking that I found out about Philippa and her aunt.
I am beginning to feel lonely. It is no fun living in a house full of ghosts. People need other people, not spirits, to surround them, and I am alone. I wish there was someone I could talk to about this.
I think, although my father was an atheist, I shall have to start to pray. It has become very important to me that I find out more about the ghosts of this house. I cannot rest; I cannot sleep at nights, for wondering about them, just who and what they were.
And strange as it seems, my restlessness must be somehow communicating itself to them, the shadow inhabitants. I have noticed, on more than one occasion their furtive, almost frightened glances, as though they were becoming aware of me. After all, I have always been aware of them. But why should they be so frightened of me? I'm only a little girl.
Maybe I shall, one day soon, be able to communicate with them. I do hope so! I'm so lonely!

                      Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
                      Look upon this little child....
                      Help me, please, somebody, help me!
                      I'm lost and alone and frightened!

The ghosts no longer ignore me. They are afraid of me. I can see it in their eyes and faces and reactions when I came close. Afraid! Of a child who walks alone, and a child they cannot even see! I don't understand it. Why are they afraid of me?

I have spoken to Philippa.
And she has heard me. I'm sure of it!
She was sitting in her bedroom when I entered. It was evening and she was brushing her hair. It's still long and dark, but she no longer wears it in plaits. It is braided and coiled and pinned on top of her head. But at nights she sits on her bed and brushes it out. It shines in the candlelight and she smiles and hums and sings to herself as she brushes it.
I called to her and she paused, turned around, puzzled and then shrugged as if she had imagined it. As if she, a ghost, had imagined me, reality! Oh no, that's not funny, not any longer!
I called to her again and she stood up and looked around, straight at me. I didn't really expect her even then to be able to see me. None of them had ever been able to see me properly before. Her eyes widened and she gave a little cry, and I lost the courage that had buoyed me up and I fled.
But the next night I returned, and this time I managed to remain still when she looked at me. And then she spoke, and I was able to hear her as clearly as if it had been my own voice. The sound was music to my lonely ears.
"Who are you?"
I smiled.
"That's funny. I wanted to ask you the same thing. I had almost given up hope of ever being able to talk with all you ghosts."
"Ghosts?" She stared at me, her eyes widening.
"Yes, you and all the others who live here in my grandmother's house. You are all ghosts."
She didn't say anything to that, just sat and stared at me for a long time.
"Do you have a name?" she said finally and I smiled at her again.
"Of course I have a name. I'm called Veronica."
"Veronica. That's a pretty name. My name's Philippa."
"I know that. You have grown up, Philippa, since I first saw you."
"What?" She caught her breath and looked at me intently. "I....Veronica, how long have you lived in this house?"
I shrugged.
"I'm not sure. Sometimes it seems such a very long time, and then other times I'm sure it can't have been for very long. I was a little girl when I first came here. And I'm still a little girl. But you –you and all the other ghosts –you have aged about fifteen years. It's funny that, that you ghosts should get older and I stay the same."
In spite of all my earlier curiousity about this puzzle, the topic now made me uncomfortable. But Philippa persisted.
"Veronica, how old are you? How did you come to be living in this house?"
"I'm....I'm....I don't remember how old I am! This is my grandmother's house. I came here when my mother and father were killed. There was an accident. It was horrible!"
She was looking at me with a peculiar expression on her face. I was afraid, for the first time ever then, of the ghosts, and I fled, hiding myself in the furthermost attic I could find. I hid and cried bitter tears. I had thought Philippa would be kind to me, but instead she had set my thoughts onto subjects I didn't was to remember or even to think about. It wasn't fair, and it wasn't nice at all.
I wanted to keep myself hidden, but even more than that I wanted to see Philippa again. She had such a gentle voice, such a pretty smile and such lovely hair.

This time I found her in the library. She had dug into the diaries and manuscripts stored in the big old desk, and was reading, a little frown of concentration on her face. I stood and watched her for a long time and she didn't even realise I was there. I would have liked to have crossed the room and read the diaries over her shoulder, but I haven't learned to read yet.
Finally she put the books down and lifted her head.
"Veronica? Where are you, Veronica?"
I was puzzled. Why was she calling me, as if she expected me to be able to hear, wherever I was? I was sure she hadn't noticed me; she didn't know I was there. It was cold in that library, cold and musty with the smell of too many unread unloved books. I had a horrible presentiment of something unpleasant and frightening hovering over us both. I didn't like that room at all. But I replied, moving across the room to stand before her.
Here I am, Philippa."
"Veronica, child. Come here. Hold out your hand."
Hold out my hand? She was being foolish. I couldn't touch a ghost. She held out her hand to me and then suddenly there was the warmth of a hand, holding my fingers, soft and warm. But I couldn't touch a ghost's fingers. They had no substance, no reality. It was imagination, had to be!
"Veronica, your fingers are so cold. So very cold." She wiped at her eyes. Had she been crying? Why? "I have to tell you something. And it will hurt you, poor child. I will try to help you. But I don't know how."
Whatever did she mean?
"Philippa, you're a ghost. You and all the others in this house. You're ghosts, not real, not true!"
She shook her head gently and very sadly.
"No, Veronica. We are real. You. You're the ghost." She let out her breath slowly. "The ghost of the little girl who died with her parents. You're my cousin, Veronica. Or you would have been. But you died with your parents. You're dead. You died when you were five years old. You're a spirit, Veronica. A poor little lost spirit, and I have to find some way to help you, I really do."
"No, it's not true! It can't be true! I'm real. I always have been real. Go away! Leave me alone! You're lying to me. I thought you were nice but you're cruel and I hate you!"
"Veronica, trust me. I wouldn't lie to you." She shook her head sadly. "But what we're going to do I just don't know. I really don't."
"No!" I wouldn't ever believe such lies. I wrested my fingers from her grip and ran away. I ran out of the house to the cold outdoors. I ran to my parents' grave in the old churchyard and huddled against the stone, crying bitterly. I couldn't read the words but I knew it was the right stone. I often left flowers there.
Philippa found me there, later. She bent to me and touched my head gently.
"Veronica, please."
I turned and looked up at her. My face felt wet and I wiped at it angrily.
"This is my parents' grave. This is real. You aren't. You're a ghost. Go away."
In silence, she stood and read the words on the stone in the light of her lantern. And then she shook her head and looked at me with gentle, troubled eyes.
"Veronica, this is the grave of your parents –and it's yours, too. Your earthly body lies here, with them."
"No!"
She held up the lantern to shine on the stone and read out the names to me. I tried to block my ears, to shut out the horrible truth. But I had to hear her. I couldn't even move my feet to take me away, to flee as I had before. And now, when I didn't want to be able to hear her, I had to listen.
But there was something in her soft voice that was calming my blind panic. It was horrible, but not as horrible as I had thought it would be.
"Miriam and Anthony Mardel – and their daughter Veronica. They died fifteen years ago… You died fifteen years ago."
I sniffed and wiped my face, all of a sudden wanting nothing more than to sit and cuddle up against her reassuring warmth, and put my face to her shoulder, as I had often done to my mother when she was alive.
Philippa was right.
And the ghosts of my grandmother's house were not ghosts but reality.
I had no right to be there, had never had any right to wander the halls and corridors and explore the attics.
The lantern flickered suddenly and went out, but it wasn't dark any more. There was a brightness around us and I could sense another Presence there beside Philippa and myself. It was time to go and find my parents. They'd be missing me, worrying about me…

Philippa straightened and blinked her eyes against the after image of the brilliance that had surrounded them. She picked up her lantern to return to the house of her parents and grandparents.
Her hand still retained the sensation of small fingers in hers, and she clutched a small scrap of lavender scented ribbon.