The soft lilt of the church bells in the distance provided my usual Sunday morning wake up call. I got out of bed, brushed my teeth, dressed slowly, made myself hot chocolate and sat in my chair in the window, looking at the frost outside.
“It’s cold today, isn’t it?” she asked.
I nodded. I didn’t turn to look at her because in this light, I wouldn’t see. Sometimes I felt her presence – cold fingers brushing down my cheek, or cold breath on my neck.
“I didn’t see you in the bathroom, Maggie.” I said.
“Oh Jim, you’ve got to have some privacy, sometimes.” she giggled.
I drank some chocolate and looked out of the window, my breath fogging up part of it.
“Have you been out?” I asked.
“I have,” she said. “And this time, I think I might have found someone.”
“This is wrong, you know.” I shook my head.
“Relax,” Maggie replied. “I think I’ve got the perfect match.”
“Get a pen, because I can’t stay long,” she said. “Not if I want to save this one.”
“I won’t do it, Maggie.” I shook my head. “I just won’t.”
“Oh come on,” she whispered in my ear. “Years we’ve been planning this. Absolutely years.”
“Talking about it, Maggie.” I felt her finger on my cheek but didn’t turn to look at her. “I’m thirty-two, Maggie. I need more than just a ghost.”
“And that’s why I -”
“No.” I Interrupted. “This is someone’s life we’re talking about.”
I closed my eyes, and waited.
The room got abruptly warmer. She was gone.
You don’t know what it’s like, being in love with a ghost. When I met her, ten years ago, she was nineteen: the victim of an accident in a local mill, over a hundred years ago. She was a playful spirit, full of life, ironically. My first interaction with her was seeing her in the bathroom mirror, spying on me and grinning. We got to talking. In some kind of strange way, we clicked. Here was someone who died long before I was born, and she became the love of my life. I got used to a cold presence beside me in the bed, to refusing those blind dates friends always wanted to set me up on because they were “worried about me”, to getting over my head buying the flat I in this converted mill from the landlord I used to rent from because I didn’t want to lose her.
And now, this. We’d planned it for years, thought about it. What if we could do something, somehow? What if –
I pushed the thoughts away and looked across at the Christmas tree, little lights blinking away.
“Stupid tree,” I whispered into the bottom of my nearly empty cup.
It’s a cliché that people start crying and they don’t realise that they are. Right then, I just found it difficult to care about it.
This might be our chance. This might be our time. But what would be the cost? Killing someone else’s Christmas? Or worse?
“Maggie?” I asked. “Maggie?”
But she was gone.
Eventually I got out of the house, some hours later. I had Christmas shopping to do – parents, siblings and work colleagues – but I didn’t want to do it. I went to the cafe at the mall and made a single latte last an hour. I looked around homeware shops, evaluating gadgets I didn’t want and didn’t know what to do with for their potential as Christmas presents. I rooted through discount piles at the bookshops, looking for more ideas. In the end, nothing stuck in my head other than Maggie.
I was flicking through a rack of paperbacks when my mobile phone rang.
“Hello, is that James McCandless?”
“It is,” I replied. “Who’s this?”
“I’m Doctor Renshaw from the District Hospital”, he said and paused. “Do you happen to know a Karen Broadfield?”
I shook my head, not really realising that he couldn’t see it.
“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t think I know anybody by that name.”
“Well, she seems to know you…”
There was a pause.
“She’s asking for you,” he said. “Is there any chance you could come in?”
The hospital is about thirty minutes from town, by bus. I waited in reception at accident and emergency for about ten minutes until Renshaw came through the doors. He looked old, but yet timeless, the way that bald-headed men often do.
“Mr McCandless?” he held out his hand.
“Yes,” I said, and shook. His grip nearly broke my fingers.
“If you could come with me,” he turned, and beckoned me to follow. “Miss Broadfield was adamant that we called you.”
“What happened?” I asked. “Have you called her family?”
“We haven’t been able to trace any living family,” he replied. “Do you know any?”
“I know absolutely nothing,” I said.
“The funny thing is she doesn’t remember anything about what happened.”
“No. She told the team in accident and emergency exactly what happened, and then… well, let’s just say that once she woke up again, she didn’t remember a thing. But she knew about you, strangely.”
“Did she insist her name was Maggie, by any chance?”
He stopped, turned and stared at me. “How did you know?”
I shook my head. “Doesn’t matter.”
“We’ve never had a case like this,” he grabbed my lapel and stared at me. “Two hours she was dead. Two hours.”
Somehow, word leaked out. The newspapers wanted to know, but the hospital kept them out of it.
Broadfield, it turned out, had been orphaned young. She ran away from a care home, age fifteen, and slept on the streets for a few years. She managed to get into a hostel, then get a small flat through a scheme. She was getting her life on track until she found out one day what she was allergic to, the hard way.
Two hours later, she woke up in the morgue. Or rather, her body did, but with a new tenant.
A year later and I think I can finally forgive Maggie for that. Despite being a hundred or so years older than me, she’s now ten years older than me. Everyone seems to understand our relationship much better now, although I still find it strange that she looks totally different.
We bumped into someone who used to know Karen the other day.
“Hey,” he said. “It’s me, Hector, do you remember? We used to squat over by the park?”
“I’m sorry,” she replied. “I don’t know who you are.”
“Oh your accent – you’re Scottish.”
“I am, yes, thanks for noticing.”
“I mean, I’m sorry.” He looked abject. “You just look like someone I used to know. Karen something – I never knew her surname.”
“Well everybody has a doppelgänger, so they say,” she smiled. “I’m Maggie McCandless – this is Jim, my husband.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I smiled, and held out a hand. Knowing that once again, I’d have to pretend the truth never happened. Because no-one would ever believe it.
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