This is what happens when you raise the ghosts. When you let the past out of its box.
A few weeks ago I was looking through some old photos and picked up one of my first wife. It had been taken on our first wedding anniversary, on the trip to the US her parents gave us as a belated birthday present. She had glasses that turned dark in the sunshine, so it was impossible to see her eyes in the bright Ohio May light. But the dark hair framed her face and she was beaming at the camera. Young, happy, carefree.
That was a long time ago. Eight years and we divorced. I moved to the West Coast, then back to England. She stayed where she was. I don’t even remember how it happened, but we became friends online. Exchanging messages. And then, last year, from out of the blue I received a message from the daughter of her second marriage. The first time she’d contacted me. My ex was in hospital, she wrote, and not expected to last the night.
It was a brain bleed. She was gone. It rocked me. We were the same age – hers a June birthday, mine July. Not old, not by today’s standards.
Then I glanced at the photo and woke the ghost.
It appeared first when I opened my e-mail a couple of mornings later. No subject header, an address I didn’t know. Probably spam, I thought. But I was curious and opened it anyway.
Do you remember when we went to that village where the Brontës lived? It was winter, it must have been. The main street was very steep. I have a memory that we went up on to that moorland and it began to snow. In my mind, that snow was so heavy we almost couldn’t see? Did that happen or did I imagine it? I’m trying to recall, but it’s lost.
It had happened just as she said. A white-out for a couple of minutes that made us terrified we’d end up lost. It passed, we came down, and laughed about it later.
But who else apart from her knew that detail? It scared me. If this was some kind of joke, it was twisted. It couldn’t be her. That was impossible. She’d been dead for nine months.
I read the words over and over. At first I refused to believe it all. Then the horror arrived. I wanted to trace the email, but I didn’t know how. I’m no techie.
After a day of opening the email endless times until I could have recited each word with my eyes closed, I decided to reply. It was stupid, but there had been a real sense of longing. Of someone lost.
Yes, it all happened. All that snow coming down. I was up there in the summer a couple of years ago. Sun, blue skies, grass and flowers. It looked absolutely different.
WHO ARE YOU?
The reply was there the next morning: I don’t understand. What do you mean? It’s me. I’m trying to remember. The farther back I go, the hazier it becomes. It’s like trying to see through gauze. I was hoping you could help me. It’s hard sometimes. I can’t keep my mind clear. That house we bought here. Was it that bad? When I think about it, it seems like a wreck. Did we really have three dogs?
Here? Did she really think she was still in Ohio? That…no…it couldn’t be. But everything was so earnest. This wasn’t someone having a joke or taunting me. It was real.
Yes, we had three dogs – Rag, Muffin and Lindy. Yes, the house was pretty bad. But cheap. You do know you’re read, don’t you?
A reply within an hour. Dead? I can’t be dead. I’m right here. I know I’m right here. I have to be…
I’m sorry, I told her, but you’re dead. Your daughter messaged me to tell me. It happened suddenly. You remember your husband and daughter, don’t you?
A whole day passed before her reply.
I see them all the time. I’m there with them. It’s the past that seems dim, that’s all Everything recent is clear. I can’t be dead, they’re with me. When did I die?
It was last August, I wrote. By now I was convinced it was real, that it was her. If not, I’d somehow gone mad. But the rest of my life carried on normally. Everything expect the emails. I hadn’t told anyone about them. Who’d have believed me, anyway?
Did I want to believe it? I did. We lose the past soon enough as it is. This was one way of holding on. But I couldn’t understand why she was visiting me.
What about your husband and your daughter? Anything we shared was a long time ago.
Yes, she replied. I just want to know about the past. It’s like trying to see through a fog.
It carried on for a week, several emails every day. From the header, she looked to be on East Coast time.
It all scared me. I didn’t understand it, although a part of me enjoyed the whole idea. It wasn’t quite romantic, but full of mystery.
It kept me awake at night. Soon it was filling my thoughts. That wasn’t good. And it wasn’t helping here. She was asking questions again that I’d already answered.
Finally I saw down at the computer: I know you feel you need this. Perhaps part of you does. But there are people close to you who love you deeply. They’re grieving for you. Maybe it’s time to leave this and be with them. They need to know you’re there.
Then answer was waiting the next morning. You’re right. Thank you. For everything. For those old memories.
No need to reply. I went to make some tea. By the time I returned, the whole thread of mails had gone from the computer, as if they’d never really existed.
That night I dreamed. The usual mix of images. I was in my current car, but I was in Ohio, parking on a track I’d never driven along, that didn’t exist. But I knew it was close to her parents’ house. I went inside. No need to knock. She was there, and the place was filled with the smell of cooking.
She was there, looking just the way she had in the first photo she ever sent me. Smiling. She came over and placed her hand on my shoulders. A touch so light I had to look to be sure it was there. Her breath smelt of wildflowers.
A peck on the cheek.
‘Thank you,’ she said. The voice I remembered.
Then I was walk back to the car.
No more dreams of her since. No more emails.
Just everyday, ordinary life.
And the ghost in my head.