In the master bedroom, the mother busied herself with taking little Gabe’s clothes off on the changing stand. He had seen Lucy do it a thousand times. She would put her hand on their children’s bellies so they wouldn’t roll off and crack their eggshell skulls on the hard floor (oh how Lucy could terrify Alfie with tales of negligent parents). The changing stand Lucy used had everything within reach and Lucy had been absolutely militant about keeping it well stacked: nappies, lotion, fresh clothes, powder were all within easy reach.
Then to Alfie’s disbelieving eyes, the mother left the baby unattended on the changing stand and went to the bathroom to turn on the taps. Little Gabe kicked his chubby feet and tried to put his toes in his mouth. He heard the splash of the water in the bathroom and willed the mother to hurry back. If the baby rolled off, Alfie wouldn’t be able to catch him. The thought of the sound of the baby’s head cracking on the floor filled him with near hysteria. Gabe was rolling his legs side to side. Alfie was beside himself. What was taking her so long?
Not really knowing what else to do, Alfie came to stand next to the baby who was rocking a little further over each time. Stupid woman!! Didn’t she know her own baby was capable of turning over? Gabe was chortling at Alfie, rocking ever closer to falling and the mother was messing about in the bathroom. Alfie did the only thing he could think of to make the mother rush back. He pulled what he hoped was the scariest face he could muster.
For a second, Gabe did not react and then it was like someone had flicked a switch. There was a deep but unsteady intake of air as if he had been winded and little Gabe began to wail as if he had seen a demented demon under his bed. But he stopped rocking and his mother ran back into the room.
“What’s the matter?” she shouted in alarm. There were the thumps of someone coming up the stairs and patter of lighter footsteps on the landing. When Alfie turned, the entire family was in the room.
“What happened? Did he get stung by something?” asked the father. The mother was looking the child all over, searching for whatever had stung him.
“I-I can’t see anything!” The mother was on the verge of tears herself.
Gabe continued to stare straight at Alfie and carried on screaming.
“I’ve never heard any of the babies cry like that before.” The father was rubbing his wife’s back and trying to soothe the baby at the same time. The other children were hopping around as if frightened too and worse, the dog had returned and was growling at him and adding to the general commotion. A second breath from Gabe, a split second of peace, and them the screaming continued. Gabe’s piercing cries were sending everyone into meltdown. The mother was near hysteria, the children were dancing in circles covering their ears, the father was tearing at his hair with his free hand and the dog, returning from wherever he had run off to, began to howl.
Figuring he had caused enough upset, Alphie slinked away from the scene. He slipped through the portal and looked up at the silhouettes in the upstairs window. Yes, he had a caused a bit of commotion but he had saved the child from falling. Far from feeling bad for the upset, for the first time in a very long time, Alfie actually felt very good about himself. How would everyone have reacted if baby Gabe had fallen to the floor and split his head open? How would they have paid for a new boiler and see to the needs of a severely injured child?
Yes, in a long lifetime, Alfie had done many stupid things he wished he had not done but preventing a child from certain injury was something he could be proud of. He looked up again at the upstairs window. Baby Gabe could still be heard screaming.
Suddenly, a terrible thought entered Alfie’s head: what if he had mentally traumatised the child? No one knew where or how psychosis started but maybe people snapped because they had seen something that scared them. Maybe the child would never stop screaming.
The thought of causing mental anguish to Gabe made Alfie launch himself back through the portal, up the stairs and back into the bedroom. The dog lunged at him but Alfie paid no mind. Little Gabe was now on the bed, still screaming in terror. Alfie took a very deep breath and looked over the mother’s shoulder. Little Gabe saw him and at once stilled. Alfie gave him a little wiggle of his fingers and the baby sighed deeply and smiled back. Then he looked away from Alfie and turned to his family. Two big sisters, two big brothers and two parents took a collective sigh of relief.
“What on earth was that about?” asked the father.
“I’m not sure but something spooked him,” the mother said with a shudder. “Okay, little man,” she said to Gabe, “Let’s get you into a nice bath, into clean jammies and to bed!” The other children took it as a signal to go back to their rooms.
“Crisis averted,” said the father.
“Did you see the way he just suddenly calmed down?” asked the mother. “I wonder what he saw.”
“Well the important thing, is that he’s OK now. I really don’t think I could have dealt with another crisis.”
“As you keep saying: the most important thing is that we keep our chins up,” she smiled.
And it wasn’t just a smile that pretended everything was fine, it was a smile that came from deep within in her. It was the kind of smile Alfie could have done with seeing a little more often in his lifetime.
As he had nothing else to do and could not possibly mess up anything else, Alfie decided for the second time it was a good opportunity to clear off. It was now dark outside and he didn’t fancy spending any more time in a strange house with a demented dog barking and howling at him. So he turned on his heel and went back down the stairs and bumped straight into the ghost of the man formally known as Ivan the Terrible.
Old age had not done him any favours but Alfie was still unable to assign an age to him with any sort of confidence.
“Nice save,” he said to Alfie. Ivan jerked his mouldy head towards the upstairs room.
“Thanks,” Alfie did not know what else he could say.
“Fancy a little stroll around the neighbourhood?”
“Not at this time of night,” Alfie stared at Ivan. It was amazing how he had gotten older but was still recognised as the kid who everyone was afraid of. Not even their friendly exchange over the death of Ivan’s grandfather soothes Alfie’s fear that he get thumped any moment.
“You look like you’ve just seen a ghost,” Ivan leered eerily, showing a set of perfectly rotten teeth.
To Alfie, this just wasn’t funny. Here he was in a strange place, with an even stranger person and at night time to boot. “I would say it’s good to see you again and it’s a shame about the circumstances and all.”
“We can’t get out,” Ivan said, pointing to where the portal had once been.
“How on earth did that happen!?”
“You can’t figure on those damn things. One minute they’re there and the next minute they’re not.” Ivan shrugged.
“But we can’t stay here! There’s a demented dog, a traumatised baby and two mushy parents.”
Ivan sat down on the large sofa, tucking his long legs under him delicately. He leaned back, reached for the remote and turned on the television.
Alfie looked from Ivan to the remote in shock. How come Ivan could turn on the TV but he couldn’t? Just as he was about to ask, Ivan lifted one creaking hip and let loose with the foulest gas Alfie had ever had the displeasure to experience. He was so affronted that he leaned over Ivan and opened the front window to get some clean air. He was so busy mumbling about what a dirty pig he was in the company of, he missed what Ivan had said.
“Pardon?” he asked with his head still out the window. Even though disgusted, Alfie hadn’t lost his manners. His mother would have been proud. Suddenly Alfie realised he had opened the window without his hands passing through.
“I said: Congratulations you must have earned a little kudos from somewhere. If you do something well or correct something you have done wrong in the past life, you get to move something. Try to save your moves for something really important.”
Alfie sat down next to Ivan, testing the air carefully. It was just about tolerable.
“So is that the way of it then? We spook around looking for a good deed to do?”
“Something like that. I prefer to watch a little TV every now and again.”
Alfie looked to the screen. It wasn’t any sort of programme he had ever seen before. There were red and green flashing dots appearing and disappearing over a map of the world. He could make no sense of it.
Ivan watched the dots for a very long time and then turned to Alfie.
“How about we go check out the action across town?”
“I thought we couldn’t get out,”
Ivan pointed a long finger to a shadow just beyond the kitchen. “Let’s move before it does.” With that, Ivan was up and out of the coach and halfway across the room before Alfie had decided it would be a good move to follow him. They passed through the portal and landed smoothly into the family’s back yard.
A small swimming pool shimmered in the moonlight, Alfie caught his breath. How long had it been since his last swim? A good old splash was exactly what he needed after a day like today. How better to end the first day of your life in the after world than with a little paddle. Without thinking things through, he kicked off his ghostly slippers and dove in. He had expected, of course, to feel refreshed. Instead he felt as if he had slid across sandpaper. Worse, Ivan was laughing at him.
“Dummy,” he called, “Don’t you know that ghosts can’t go in water?”
Alfie lay on top of the surface of the water and slapped his hands in fury. There was not a splash, not a sound and it hurt. He pushed himself to his knees, which also hurt and got to his feet which hurt worse of all.
“Shut up,” he blandly said to Ivan. “How am I supposed to know these things?” He limped out of the pool and quickly put his slippers back on, his feet still feeling the sting.
Ivan was still chuckling quietly.
They walked side by side, slipping through open gates and sometimes climbing over them and still at others, a portal had appeared letting them through. Again, Alfie felt relieved to be free of his cumbersome physical body. In fact, besides the stinging of his feet, he almost felt young again. He wondered where they were going and he wanted to ask what would happen if it started raining but that just felt like it was inviting insults and he didn’t want to appear stupid in front of Ivan again.
Alfie didn’t feel the cold, didn’t see the vapour of his breath and could not hear his or Ivan’s footfalls. Occasionally, a bat flew overhead or a fox crossed their path and Alfie was surprised there wasn’t more nocturnal activity. He had always been under impression animals came out when people went to bed.
After some time, he noticed a fat ginger cat appeared to be following them. When he stopped to look at it, the cat stopped too, looking him directly into his eyes.
Alfie had always hated cats. Hated their lazy ways, the way they tortured the prey they had caught just for the fun of it and the way they rubbed up against one’s legs. He seriously hoped this cat left them alone for a while.
Beth had once found a mangy old feral cat and tried to domesticate it. The cantankerous old thing would eat all the cat food left out for it, evacuate its bladder on his pillow (which he would only have discovered just before he put his head on it to sleep) or leave piles of its flea ridden hair on his favourite jumper. What had Beth called that damn thing? He searched his memory banks. It was something out of mythology. A long name that didn’t sound as it looks. Goddess of the Underworld. . .