He thought about the shadowy corridor again. It was a risk but he had seen his body and had accepted that things could have been much, much worse. Perhaps it was time to see what was on the other side of the door.
He stood up again and walked up the stairs. He felt youthful again without having to drag around his body. Again he stood in front of the door that had not been there before and looked at it. He reached a hand out to see if it would go through like it did through the kettle. It did. He pulled his hand back out to inspect it and saw no damage. When he was newly married he and Lucy used to like to watch those creepy episodes on telly, the ones that always had the twist in the end. There was one where a guy had stuck his head through a portal and to him he was in a different world but the rest of his body remained half in half out of this dimension. His friends had screamed and shouted for him to hurry up because the portal was closing, threatening to imprison him in the weird other universe.
Before he could think too much about it, Alfie stepped through the door and landed with a very silent thud in the grass between his own and his neighbour’s house. He looked up from where he had fallen and was glad he was dead—the fall might have killed him. He couldn’t describe the fall as feeling particularly painful but there was a sort of jolt that made him glad he didn’t feel anything.
There was nothing remarkable about being outside. He didn’t feel heat or cold or air pressure. He couldn’t smell the grass or feel the grass beneath his feet—all of which was fortunate as in his rush to get out, he hadn’t put on his proper shoes. His feet were clad in mere slippers. Well, and thank goodness, no one can see me, he thought to himself.
Alfie strolled to the pavement just outside of his house. He looked down one side of the street and up the other. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary—except that it appeared to be dusk. He looked down at his watch and saw that it now read that it was just past 7pm. He shook his head in disbelief. It was definitely much later in the day than it had been when he was at his table. A few cars passed by but no one looked at him, just as it had been when he was alive. He had known even before he died that somehow he had become invisible even before he became a ghost.
He was just about to walk to the park when something caught his eye. Next to his neighbour’s front door, there looked to be another portal. For a few seconds he thought maybe every house had a portal but when he glanced around, he could see no others.
Aha! Alfie thought to himself. That was the trick—he was supposed to go through the portals!! Feeling pleased with how clever he was, he walked straight up his neighbour’s house as if had a done it every day in a different lifetime. In fact, he had never even seen the neighbours. He knew there were children because every once in a while, one of the balls thudded against his side of the house. For just a few seconds, Alfie considered the shadowy portal and then plunged straight into his neighbour’s front room
Luckily no one was in. At least as not as far as he could see. A dog came running into the room and barked, looking straight Alfie. He jumped in surprise. The dog continued to bark and make a terrible racket. To test if the dog could see him, he walked over to the other side of the room. The dog’s black eyes followed him and the beast continued to bark at him
A man he did not recognise came into the front room and Alfie froze on the spot.
“Shut up, you mangy old hound!” The man shouted at the dog.
The dog kept barking. The man rolled a newspaper and the dog immediately quieted, turned a few circles and lay down, its fearful eyes still regarding Alfie nervously. The man left the room.
The dog could see him but the man couldn’t!! This delighted him. Alfie turned away from the dog and wriggled his bum at it. He grabbed his crotch and mouthed “bite this, pooch!” but the poor dog only whined quietly. Taking it as a signal, Alfie walked over to the dog and held his hand out as if to stroke it. Immediately the dog was on his feet again, barking furiously. It hunched down, growling and then suddenly pounced at him. Had he been alive, the dog might have bitten a chunk out of his arm but as he wasn’t, the dog flew right through him. Alfie and the dog whirled around to face each other again. The dog hunched down again but this time not in aggression but in a gesture that almost seemed to ask Alfie for mercy. It kept its eyes on him as it backed away from him. If it hadn’t been for the pleading gesture, Alfie might have thought the whole thing funny. But something about the dog’s fear made him feel very guilty.
It was the look Lucy had on her face when he had hit her. She had been stunned and hurt and her anger had been completely sucked out of her the instant his open hand had struck her cheek. She too had backed away from him, not daring to turn her back on him. What had she expected him to do?
“She expected you to keep going,” a voice said.
Alfie turned and was stunned to see Steven sitting on the coach. He though he could feel his face drain of colour.
“You look like you’ve just seen a ghost!” Steven said, smiling.
“Well, I sure as hell didn’t expect to see you here,” Alfie told him. Steven was still a young man even though in life, they had been similar ages. There was no sign of the injuries Steven had suffered that caused his death and Alfie was very glad of that. He had cried when his mother told him about the accident even though he was old enough to have reacted a bit more maturely.
Steven smiled mildly at Alfie. “I don’t know how you’re going to take this but I’m glad you’re here,” he said to Alfie. “I was kind of half tempted to push you in front of a bus on occasion but I resisted.”
Alfie was just about to ask Steven what they meant to do but Steven started fading and just before he disappeared completely, he gave a little wave.
“Hold on now, dammit,” he called out. “What am I supposed to do now?”
But there was no answer.
For several seconds, Alfie was at a loss. But then he decided he should have a look around. After all, it wasn’t every day that he got into his next door neighbour’s house.
As it turned out, there were five children in the household. The children were all very young, none of them in adolescence yet and the baby was still being breastfed. All of them had roses in their cheeks and seemed very glad to be home with their parents after a long day at school.
It was a scene Alfie had wished he had been able to create when his children were younger. His neighbour’s children looked not just content in their home but downright comfortable. Not like Elliot who always seemed keen to get away and not at all like his daughter Beth who had left the family home even before she was able to look after herself properly and certainly nowhere near the way Nathan made it clear about the way he felt about his home.
What more could he have done, he wondered. There were only so many hours in the day and only so much a man could do to take on responsibility for the happiness of others. Lucy had done her best too, he could admit now. He had often been so angry when he was left on his own with the children while she looked after other people’s problems.
He had worked himself up into such a lather remembering his own family that he hadn’t noticed the baby had been watching him intently. When he looked back at the family, slowly from face to face so he could take in the smallest hint of discontent, his eyes finally made contact with baby’s. Alfie gulped and raised a shaky smile then gave a little wiggle of his fingers in a greeting. The baby squealed with delight and held his chubby arms out to Alfie as if wanting a cuddle. The mother suddenly shifted in her chair to keep him from falling.
“What is he looking at?” asked the girl, turning around but looking straight through Alfie. “There’s no one there, Eli,” she laughed.
There were two other boys, neither no more than seven years old who also tried to see what the baby had seen. But the youngest girl squinted at him as if she could almost see him but not quite clearly enough to be convinced he was really there. Alfie didn’t dare move. He was a ghost after all and didn’t want to frighten the children and make them cry. All the children went back to their dinners while their parents drank coffee and chatted to each other. There was no rush to leave the table, no sign of argument. The wife smiled at her husband and children, not ignoring them with a grim line of determination on her lips the way Lucy had done. But then, this woman didn’t have Alfie to contend with.
Alfie licked his lips as he thought of the coffee. He would have liked to have a soothing mug with these patient adults if he still had a stomach. As nice mug with a bit of sugar and just enough cream to turn the coffee from black to the colour of chocolate. He would have liked to watch the cream cloud in his mug and maybe he wouldn’t bother to stir so he could enjoy the uneven texture of the smooth cream and bitter coffee.
There was a spare chair at the table so Alfie sat down and pretended he was drinking coffee. It was the next best thing to actually being able to drink it.
“If we could manage to put another £20 away each week, we will have enough for the new boiler,” the man said.
“It’s such a shame we can’t get credit,” his wife said sadly, taking another sip of her coffee.
Oh please don’t let this turn into an argument Alfie pleaded silently. Please don’t wreck the conversation with shame and regret.
“I think we need to keep our chins up,” the husband answered.
Alfie wished he had said something like this more often. If it had been Lucy who started on with the old “it’s a shame”, he would have countered with his own lists of unfulfilled wants.
“Yes, sorry,” the wife laughed. “I forget sometimes.” She pulled her blouse up to the baby could reach her. Alfie looked away.
“Me too,” the husband admitted. “It’s hard to be positive all the time but if we remind each other, we can do it together.” He reached for his wife’s hand.
The children chattered, oblivious to their parents. The baby continued to regard him curiously every now and then as he suckled, pushing away from his mother to get a better view.
As if a silent signal had been given, the children began stacking their plates and taking the placemats to the kitchen. The father stood, began scraping scraps onto a single plate and then stacked the cutlery on top of the other plates. The mother kissed the baby’s fingers and rocked him gently as the other children excused themselves. She hummed quietly while her husband started the washing up.
A familiar twinge of guilt surged through Alfie. If it had been his household, he would not have done the washing up. He would have left the table and the mess for Lucy to clean. After all, it was her job.
“I’m just going to get Gabe in the bath,” she called out to the kitchen.
“OK,” the husband called back as she pulled her shirt down and stood. There was a smile on her face as she did it as if she enjoyed looking after little Gabe. He had always been quite sure everything Lucy had done was done in resentment.
Alfie didn’t want to sit at the table by himself so after a few minutes of wondering what to do with himself, he decided to go upstairs to watch Gabe have his bath. Following the young mother up the stairs reminded him of the girl that brought his meals. The mum was a little on the skinny side, perhaps from all the breastfeeding, but she looked strong and moved with sureness. She turned right at the top of the stairs, flicked the light on. The landing led to four rooms altogether, three bedrooms and a large bathroom. Alfie could see the boys had one of the rooms and the girls the other. They looked like they were doing homework so he decided to let them get on with it. He was curious about the baby.