There in spirit
If they had given me a choice in who I’d want to haunt for the rest of their mortal life, it would have been a toss-up between a celebrity – a real celebrity, although I don’t really mind which one, they all kind of homogenise after a point – and my spinster aunt. I can see myself floating around her sprawling Federation cottage, dressed in a romantic, billowing white dress, doing kind and lovely things like leaving flowers on the windowsill, or gently rustling the curtains as she drinks tea and thinks about her poor niece, dead at 32, such a shame, so young, so beautiful, what a tragedy.
Or maybe I could walk the halls of one of the men I used to date and whisper in his ear as he lies next to his attractive-but-less-attractive-than-me wife about the one who got away.
The list goes on and on: lovers, nemeses, relatives. But no, here I am. In Audrey’s house.
My eyes closed for the final time, then, around an hour later, opened again, and I was standing in a sun-dappled courtyard, vines twisting over every wall.
It clearly wasn’t heaven. Heaven would have more marble, more gilt, there wouldn’t be the distant sound of truck horns. There should have been angels listing my virtues, consoling me. Instead I was alone, standing between a wilted tomato plant and a weather-beaten table. I’d learn Audrey was normally fastidious about cleaning, but on this day the glass in the back door was heavily smudged, turning her into a moving blur behind it.
Stepping forward took me further than expected. The glass was briefly cold, she was briefly warm, and then I was standing at the kitchen bench. Normally I’m bad with faces, but in 20 years hers hadn’t changed much, not really.
Same dark brown hair, same basic cut. I watched as she pushed the vacuum cleaner back and forth around the small room. My lip curled. Linoleum. Tacky.
I knew somehow that she couldn’t see me, so I didn’t bother calling out, and instead sighed dramatically, tragically, as I slumped into an armchair to wonder why the hell I was here.
On the first day I tested my boundaries, in as dignified a way as possible. Corporeality, or at least some bastardised form of it, was found quickly to be optional. My proximity to Audrey, however, was not. Fifteen metres was about as far as I could go, otherwise things would get all turned around and I’d find myself standing right behind her.
I had hoped she might go to my funeral. I longed to stand at the front, assessing whose tears were true devastation. I wondered if my sister would sob in the middle of the eulogy. But I watched as Audrey flicked past the In Memoriam page in the paper without acknowledging the notice about me. It was small, I conceded; I thought they’d have bought me a full column at least. She didn’t even know I was dead. Her obliviousness filled me with fury and I tried to concentrate all my physicality into what should have been my hand, swiped angrily at a mug, at a vase, at a framed photograph. I imagined her starting as glass shards and water exploded onto the floor, staring balefully at the perfect crack across her mother’s frozen, black-and-white face. Instead, her cat yawned at my futile efforts, and looked bored when I hissed at him in frustration.
Audrey had arrived at school halfway through the term, standing a foot shorter than the rest of us. When she beat me in a spelling test, I told her that her mum was a mail-order bride and my parents left the principal’s office red-faced and apologetic. Dad told me not to repeat the things he said at home.
Her work was boring. Her hobbies were boring. Her boyfriend was boring. She liked different films than me, and read far too quickly; my eyes peeking over her shoulder couldn’t keep up. At first, I spent the nights wandering the house, passing the time and filling the gaps. I read the spines of books, and memorised her disappointingly mundane prescriptions. I whispered in her boyfriend’s ear but he didn’t notice. The well quickly ran dry, and I switched to sitting in the dark, imagining where I might be right now had things been a little bit different.
There I am at an intimate gathering, friends hanging on my every word.
There I am, staying at an expensive overseas hotel, uploading a picture with a humble caption.
There I am, my fingers cold, staring at the wall.
I started playing a game I called “blink”. Blink, and a week would have passed. Blink, and a month had gone by. Blink, and Audrey had a sprinkling of grey hair that she tried to hide. Blink, and we were in a bigger house. Blink, and suddenly the cat was very thin. Blink, and Audrey was crying in the bathroom, and so was I as I could finally curl my fingers through the feline’s long fur.
But I tried not to play too often because I was missing crucial details; Audrey had become my favourite soap opera and I now couldn’t tolerate missing a single episode.
I started talking to her, and, for the most part, forgot she couldn’t hear me. As she tried on wedding dresses, I explained that an empire waist was not flattering to her figure, that her hair would look better up. Perhaps she could consider a veil that clipped into a high bun?
You can’t see it in the photographs, of course, but on the day, I was standing in front of the maid of honour, my expression a mix of pride and sadness. I circled the couple during their first dance and whispered that, perhaps, she could have done better.
Sometimes I stare into the hall mirror and can almost see my face. I wonder if my sharp lines would have softened by now; if I would have tolerated crow’s-feet the way she does.
On some nights, if there was room, I would lie between Audrey and her husband and imagine the feeling of a hand draped over my hip. I didn’t think I would miss him this much.
I told her she should dye her hair, but she let it go and I hated how well it suited her.
We were sitting on the couch, a cat on each of our laps, when I felt her go blank and knock over her drink. “You should go to the doctor,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t.
On the day half her face sagged and she crumpled to the ground, I listened to the increasingly frantic knocks at the door, watched as paramedics broke their way in, as they zipped her up and took her away. It was sad, of course, but I was giddy. When I felt her behind me, I turned around and broke into a wide, winning smile. I opened my mouth, ready to share my knowledge, to ask my questions, to finally be heard, but she was the one who spoke first.
“Who are you?”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 13, 2020 as "There in spirit".
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