Disclaimer and other thuktunthp: First, I am not J.K. Rowling. Second, this is a grossly self-indulgent story, borne out of long car drives, a long-standing fanfic habit and incompletely-treated mental illness and should be read by no-one, ever. Third, and finally for the nonce, while this is a self-insert I've changed a few modest details of my life for privacy purposes.
I was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt about that. Oh, none of the paperwork was signed yet - I hadn't stopped breathing, for one thing - but for all practical purposes I was as dead as a doornail.
We make jokes about lorries and their loads and Final Destination, but the reason that those jokes get made is that, from time to time, drivers make mistakes, equipment fails, and, as the vernacular has it: Shit Happens.
This shit happened on a late autumn evening on the M62, one of the more unpleasant bits of motorway driving England has to offer. I was on my way home from dropping my youngest off for her final year at university, crossing the pennines in driving rain with a hint of sleet, traffic not quite so bad as all that but still requiring attention, when I became the punchline of the joke.
A four-tonner flatbed with a crapload of steel fabrications on it. Me, checking my mirrors for a clear moment to pass it, chuckling about Final Destination. Windscreen awash. Whatever happened, happened with my eyes momentarily off it. Eyes front again and the wipers are back at the start and the view is blurred.
Squoosh goes the wiper. Clear goes the windscreen. Slam goes the brake on instincts honed for the Emergency Stop part of the driving test, lo these thirty years ago. Maybe, if I'd not done that, a couple of hundred kilos of rolled steel joist wouldn't have come through the windscreen and, as it turned out, me.
Consciousness returns and I can't breathe. Nothing new, asthmatic since forever and I hadn't helped matters along by smoking all those years. The van's on its side, and I'm pinned like a specimen butterfly to my seat.
Best will in the world, I'm going to receive medical attention in ten minutes or so. By which time all they'll be able to do is certify life extinct at the scene. I've never been a medical professional, but I know 'completely fucked' when I see it. Or, as the case may be, I'm bleeding it all over the upholstery of a rented van.
I give up. My eyes blur with tears - watering with the pain, if you want to insist on manliness on my behalf, I'm past bloody caring - and nobody hears my last, panted words.
It really doesn't feel like a time for eloquence.
Except, fuck my little wooden clogs. It's *not*. The end that is. There's a time of blackness, of nothing, the sensory equivalent of a line of asterisks on a printed page. Then there's a swirl and an odd sense of movement and I'm somewhere.
Doesn't feel like a dream, lacks that sense of unreality. Looks like a dream, all twisted perspective and nothing quite the way it ought to be, a collage of familiarity twisted into a strange setting. Something like a workroom, textile stuff, I had a summer job once, as a student, with the costume department of a theatre company and it's got that same explosion-in-a-fabric-mill air about it. Rolls of fabric and half-finished clothes everywhere, tools and machines rearing out of the debris here and there. One of them looks like a loom of all things.
I say somewhere, but I don't seem to be some thing. I'm just a point-of-view, seeing all this stuff and hearing, somewhere, the whirr of sewing machines. No smells, no sense of touch. Not even a sense of my own body.
Probably a good thing, given the condition it was in the last time I was aware of it. As sensations to experience go, bleeding to death on the hard shoulder of the M62 is pretty terrible. Zero stars, would not recommend. So *that* is a sense I still have: humour. Not that my sense of humour is fit for polite company after nearly thirty years of being a dad. I feel a chilly and distant sadness that I'm not going to see them ever again. No stupid nerd jokes, no long hikes over the fells with the kids and the dog, no pride as they come home enthused for what they've learnt, no commiseration over the struggle to get jobs in an economy the tories have been shitting on from a great height all these years.
I'm sure I'd be shedding tears if whatever this is included something to shed tears from: for all that I'm seeing, there aren't any eyes to go with it. A mercy, really, because if any death is going to make you grieve it's your own. So very much of human emotion comes from the glands, after all, and my glands are probably being recorded for evidence by a traffic officer who'll be needing a stiff drink later.
This is not being said to me. This is being dropped in my consciousness like a dollop of jam in semolina pudding. Not altogether unpleasant as such, but nothing I'd actually choose for dessert.
MOIRAI. My attention - what there is of it, in this loopy and distorted mess of haberdashery - is forcefully yanked into close up on a needle, darning a frayed hole in what looks like tapestry. MOIRAI.
Right, time to start thinking. Moira. Greek. Fate, allotted portion, destiny. Moirai the personifications thereof. Been a long time, but I remember that much. I can remember Lachesis and Atropos, what's the other one? No matter. Look again at what's around me, what's in front of me. I realise I recognise all of it. Whatever I'm experiencing, it's built from my memories. The haberdashery is a mix of the place I worked, and the mess that resulted from sisters and wives and girlfriends in a sewing and/or knitting project frenzy. (And they get all pissy when you clean a carburettor in the sink… although that was the unlamented ex-wife, and fair dos, I was mostly doing it to be pissy with her. This was in the pre-therapy days when I didn't understand why I was so angry all the time and didn't have constructive - more constructive, at any rate - ways of handling it.)
So. Why am I being shown a collage of -
MESSAGE. COMMAND. A flash of Mazarin at Casale, one of the many pictures of the event I've seen. Why that? It was one of the ballsier moves of early modern diplomacy, one I picked up by the way at uni as background to the Peace of Westphalia and subsequent Public International Law, it ended up quite famous at the time, lots of pamphlets and broadsides about it, with suitably dramatic woodcuts. Jules Mazarin, before he was Cardinal of France, rode into the middle of an about-to-be battlefield with a blank piece of paper and announced a peace treaty. Which got the armies to stop fighting long enough for a real treaty to be drawn up and signed.
COMMAND. Mazarin again, the darning-needle again.
Why, it's almost like someone is trying to talk to me. Thinking back, once we got off the name, the next words were … fuzzy. Ringy. Full of harmonics and overtones. Like they're not just the words they are, but also the words they're trying to be. Lots of words are like that. Subtext tells you a lot if you're paying attention, even more if you're professionally trained and acculturated to it. Hated my time as a lawyer - the company you end up keeping ranges from disagreeable to vile - but the skills are … I'm rambling.
Apparently dying doesn't cure bad habits.
Someone or something is trying to communicate with me. Is this my scrambled, dying brain trying to make sense of what the paramedics are saying to me?
Well, that was emphatic. I suppose that simple declarative sentences are too much to hope for?
The scene shifts to the sight of a firehose trying to fill a small bucket. Is this some "form you are comfortable with" bollocks, then?
MOIRAI. This time, there's a sense of amusement. And three part harmony. It's some kind of absurd dying dream in which mythology is trying to talk to me, I reckon. I feel strangely OK with this. The alternative, that there really is a tri-partite personification of fate, the daughters of Old Night, whose spinning, cutting and weaving govern the very gods themselves, and they're talking to me instead of letting me get on with fucking dying? Absurd.
It's not even like they've had the decency to show up in their classical art depiction of scantily-clad women. Or their renaissance art depiction of naked women. Which would certainly fit in better with the dream aspect of this whole thing. And be nicer to look at than the surrealist clothiers' workshop that has come back while I've been musing.
MOIRAI. MESSAGE. COMMAND. REPAIR. Again with the darning needle.
Fuck it, might as well play along. "You're going to need to be more specific. What am I commanded to repair? With what skills?" I mean, sure, I've got your basic functioning-adult skillset for fixing stuff that can be fixed with the 'order a new part off the internet' method, I've been servicing my own motors since I was a teenager, and grew up in a family of builders, engineers and generally handy individuals so I picked up a thing or two on my way to becoming a lawyer. Carrying out a divine mandate to fix things may require someone with, you know, actual skills.
MESSAGE. Again, Jules Mazarin. In context with the question about skills? I suppose it might mean that the actual skills I need are the lawyers' stock-in-trade of bullshit, bluff, persuasion, advocacy and allied trades as exemplified by one of the most famous negotiating scams in the history of diplomacy, but if the Fates need that sort of thing what's stopping them, you know, hiring someone whose practising certificate isn't several years lapsed?
COMMAND. REPAIR. NEEDLE. With a definite sense of exasperation to it, this last. Like I'm missing the bleedin' obvious. Which is, in context, shut up and do as you're told, mortal, you are Our tool in this, fail not in this charge at your peril. Et fucking cetera.
The image of the fire hose into the bucket, except this time the hose is shutting off and there's some water in the bucket.
Apparently, communicating entirely in dream images and a six word vocabulary leaves lots of room for sarcasm.
I have room for some sarcasm of my own. Sure, I'm having a conversation with myself - this is all the hallucination of a dying brain, right? Unless I've been rescued and they've got me on the really good drugs - but that's all the more reason not to have at the underlying absurdity of the thing. If you can't be critical of your own thinking, whose can you be critical of?
"Leaving out the lack of detail as to what I'm supposed to be fixing, how am I supposed to do anything while I'm, you know, dead?"
MOIRAI. This time with an over-tone of gleeful, mocking laughter. And a snatch of the Mummy - the good one, not the hammed-up Hammer House original or the in-name-only re-make - specifically the bit where Imhotep is sinking into the black goo.
Death is only the beginning.
"Well, that was -"
And everything goes black.
I'm still weightless, formless. A thoroughly disinheriting sensation, it has to be said. It's dark, but it's not the dark of no light, but the dark of a room with the lights off. Feels somehow small. I can't smell or feel anything, have no mouth to taste, but I can hear. And it no longer feels like I'm dreaming. I never got the hang of lucid dreaming - for want of effort to even find out if I even have the ability - so reality still feels real to me. And this feels real. Small, dark space. Somewhere outside it I can hear a telly blaring. Judging by the theme tune, someone's watching a re-run of Bergerac. I had no idea it was still playing anywhere, I've not heard that theme tune since I was a kid. It's distant, though. Not in the next room, somewhere else in the house.
Certainly not loud enough in here to cover up the fact that there's a child in here, sniffling. An upset child. And that, frankly, will not do.
"Hey there, kid. What's up?" I've no idea if I can be heard - after the frankly bizarre conversation I've just had without a mouth to speak the words, it feels like it's worth a try. I go for my best there-there-tell-dad-all-about-it tone.
"Who's there?" Definitely a kid, sounds like a little boy, anywhere from three to puberty. Bit of a hitch in the voice. He's whispering, which isn't a good sign. An upset child alone in the dark who won't call out for help when a strange voice speaks to him? I've no idea what I can do about this, but at the very least someone's going to get a talking-to.
I whisper too. Kid wants to be quiet, I'll play along. "Me, kid. Not sure who I am right now." Nothing like dying to give you an identity crisis, after all. And, when all's said and done, I'm nothing but a voice in the dark. Like a ghost. Ghost? Run with it. "I think I might be a ghost? A friendly ghost, I should say."
"Uncle says there's no such thing." Still a bit of a hitch in the voice, but a note of intrigue too. That's good, I can work with that. My usual tactic was dad jokes until the tears stopped and we could work on the actual problem, but curiosity will do the job just as well. He's still whispering, though, which is still not a good sign. Especially since whoever he doesn't want to be heard by has the telly up nice and loud. At least, I'm assuming that the cheesy 80s detective drama fan is the problem, but let's wait and see.
"Well, I thought there was no such thing too, but look at me now. I bet your uncle will change his tune when he's a ghost, I certainly have."
That gets me a small, slightly hiccupy giggle. Result! "He'd be a great big fat ghost."
"Likes his pies, does he?"
"Yeah, an' buns, an' cream cakes, an' sweeties. He's really fat. My cousin's the same."
"Your aunt too?"
"No, she's on a diet. She's always on a diet."
"She grumpy all the time?" I've known plenty of slaves to the bathroom scales in my time, and they're not usually much fun to be around. Pretty sure it's the constant low blood sugar that does it.
"Yeah. Who're you the ghost of, anyway?"
If I had a mouth, I'd be smiling. I can't quite hear a smile in the little fella's voice quite yet, but we're making progress. "Oooh, now that's a good question. Let's see, I was fifty years old, I'd retired early from being a solicitor - that's someone who works with courts and laws and business deals - and I had three children all grown up and I had a crash on the motorway. And I died, and then it went all weird, and now I'm a ghost here with you. Why are we whispering, by the way?"
I don't get an answer right away. I wish I could see youngster's face because a silence at this point could mean anything and kids communicate more with their expressions and body language than they do with their words.
After a while, another sniff. "My mummy and daddy died in a car crash. Are they ghosts too?"
Right this moment I could sing hymns of praise and gratitude that I don't have a heart, because it would be absolutely breaking in fucking bits for my new friend. "I don't know. Grown-ups don't know everything, I'm sorry to say, kid. And I've only been a ghost a few minutes, so I don't know much about how it works yet. You're the first person I've met since I - since the accident. I bet if your mum and dad could come and be ghosts here with you, they'd totally do it. I know I want to go see Peter, John and Emily but I haven't figured out how yet."
"Are they your children?"
"Yep. And I love them very much and I'm sure your mum and dad love you, wherever they are. So, how about we remember our manners and tell each other our names?" I'm pretty sure I'm not going to give my right name. I can see our conversation ending up in a child psychiatrist's office at some point and the last thing my grieving family need is this bizarre situation drawn to their attention. Hey, just because I don't have the necessary glandular apparatus to feel emotions, doesn't mean I don't remember and understand them.
"'kay. What's your name, ghost?"
Smart kid. He's treating the strange voice in the dark with suspicion, as well he ought. "Well, I think I'm going to pick a new name. You get a new name when you're born, I think I should have a new name while I'm dead. I'm going to pick Malcolm Reynolds. You ever seen Firefly on the telly?"
"Not 'llowed t' watch telly," his whisper just got even smaller. "Telly's not f' freaks."
Well, that's just shitty. Not allowed telly is bad enough - obviously, kids need limits and encouragement to get off their arses and run around yelling, vital part of childhood is your running around and yelling - but telling a little kid he's a freak? As soon as I figure out how to haunt, I am going to make someone's life an utter misery until they repent. That's for the future, though, I've got an upset child in front of me. "That the rule in this house, kid?"
"Is that a yes? Can't see you nodding, it's dark in here."
"Yes." That whisper was hissed out. Oh, well done, my young apprentice. You should be angry about this.
"Well, first of all, it's just the rule in this house. Everyone has different rules in their houses, and the rule in this house? It. Is. Stupid. Too much telly is bad for you, but no telly at all is just stupid. And why do they call you a freak?"
"'s my name."
My turn for the long silence. I'd guessed that I was talking to a young child, early years primary school at the latest. I revise it down to pre-school years, because no way does anyone send a child to school thinking his name is freak. Even the worst know to cover up what they're doing to the children in their doubtful care, and that would be a dead giveaway. When we get some light in here I'm checking for bruises. In my cold and chilly way I am angry about this, I just want to know whether I need to dial that up to murderous rage. Half-formed plans flash through my mind, but I can't really figure anything out until I know what I can do. Priorities!
"Right," I say, "you know how I said they had stupid rules in this house? This is also stupid. Your mum and dad did not name you freak. I reckon we need to find out what your name really is. Don't know how yet, but I was pretty clever while I was alive so even if I can't do anything, I can whisper in your ear and help you along the way. Sound like a plan?"
"Don't know." Dejected. Accepting he's beaten before we've begun.
"Neither do I, kid, but we're going to have fun finding out, aren't we?"
Just sniffles. I don't think trying to jolly him along with promises of great things would help; if it turns out that all I can offer is a helpful voice in his ear then it's better than nothing. More than I got at this age, certainly. And bad as my childhood was, I was at least allowed to know my actual fucking name.
"Whatever happens, kid," I say, "I'm going to be at least a friendly voice in your ear, which is more than you had. It's going to take time, and probably hard work, so I won't say 'cheer up'. What I want you to do is be brave, kid."
"K." comes the quiet little sniffle. Seriously, if there are bruises on this kid then I'm going to find the local council childrens' services department and straight up possess the biggest, most case-hardened social worker I can find. That's if I can possess people, which remains to be seen. I'm definitely going to give it a fucking good try.
"Now, is this your uncle's house we're in?"
"You think you can curl up in here and try and take a nap? I'm going to go and do a bit of haunting. Spook about the place quiet-like, see if I can find out your real name."
"Don't!" he's back to hissing again. "They'll blame me! If they see a ghost they'll say it's freakishness!"
This rings alarm bells in my mind. Big, loud, scary ones. If these people are seeing things and blaming the kid for them, they're not just abusers but psychotic abusers. Not that I'm going to share that with a small child, he's hearing voices after all. He doesn't know I'm actually real. "Well, I'll just have to be sneaky. Tell you what, though, do we have a light in here? Do you know where the switch is? I might be invisible, after all."
I hear scrabbling and the clack of a pull-switch knob being knocked against a wall, more scrabbling, and then click and a bare bulb comes on.
What we've got here is a skinny little boy, eyes screwed up against the sudden light, tear-tracks down his face, shaggy mop of black hair, and pyjamas about three sizes too big. They're not feeding him right, he's four or five years old and all the puppy fat is gone. I was a scrawny little git at that age - fussy eater, and a mother who couldn't cook worth a bollocks - but I at least looked healthy. No visible bruises, for which small mercy I am appropriately thankful. "Can you see me, kid?" My viewpoint is down around his face level, and it's not much more effort than thinking to move about. Not quickly, but I can get about. I back up a bit.
"No," he says, opening his eyes up in narrow slits, his arm still stretched up to hold the pull-cord for the light. We're in an under-stairs storage cupboard of some sort, vinyl tile floor, unpainted plaster, a shelf of cleaning products and the household hoover. And a baby's cot mattress on the floor, the sort with the wipe-clean cover on it. The fuckers make him sleep in here? There's not even a blanket or a pillow, never mind a duvet. Which, okay, not so bad in a small space in a centrally-heated house, but damn. I'm seeing the literary parallel and I am not fucking impressed. It's not actually the first time I've seen something like this: I did a stint as a local government lawyer and the Childrens' Services lawyers were just up the hallway. One of their 'frequent fliers' was a father who dragged his poor kid into his Star Trek fandom activities, about the only thing about him that wasn't a symptom of his massive psychiatric unfitness to be a parent.
"Okay, light back off, it's hurting your eyes." The light goes right back off. I'm hoping I won't discover that someone expressing ordinary decent care for his comfort surprises him. "If I'm going to help you, I need to go scout about a bit, find out what's going on."
"Why?" Aaand I just found out it surprised him. I've really got to find out how to take action as a ghost. If this isn't what the weird dream was ordering me to fix, tough shit. Whatever that was about can fucking wait.
"I'm not your daddy, son. But I am a daddy. And since my children are all grown up and can look after themselves, you're just going to have to put up with me looking after you. Savvy?"
"What's savvy mean?"
"It means 'understand'"
"K. And, um, I savvy. Um. Mister Reynolds sir."
"Good kid. Now, you curl up there and try and get a nap, I'm off to snoop about, but I'm not going to leave the house so if there's a problem I'll hear and I'll be right back. And call me Mal, we're going to be best friends."
"Not my daddy?"
"Not quite. I'll do as much of the stuff that daddies do for their children as I can, but I can't do all of it 'cos I'm a ghost. So just friends, savvy?"
"Savvy!" That was almost out loud. That's the spirit, kid! Well, strictly speaking I'm the spirit, but this isn't the time for pedantry.
"Shiny. Now get your head down and nap, I've got spooky ghostly stuff to be getting on with. I'll be watching over you, just relax. All floppy like a rag doll and sleep will come nice and easy."
"Savvy." He actually yawns.
I go silent and wait a couple of minutes as his breathing settles down nice and regular. If he's shamming sleep, he's loads better at it than any of mine ever were. It's a bit sad that something that'd scare pretty much any other kid seems to reassure this one.
Right. I concentrate on rising up through the stairs. Time to see what's fuckin' what around here.
First things first. The house I'm in is of fairly recent construction by English standards - I'm guessing Home Counties somewhere from the kid's accent. Houses built as entire estates, several streets at a time to a handful of standardised designs, were a thing that came in in the late sixties - I grew up in a house much like this in the early seventies. Fashions came and went in them and this one, if I'm any judge, is a mid to late seventies model. Still got its original storage heaters and bloody awful obscured-glass front door. I can see that it's still light out, looks like a late summer evening, and the street-lights will be coming on soon.
Inside, the decor's wildly out of date. Flocked vinyl wallpaper, magnolia-gloss woodwork and I haven't seen carpet that vile since about 1990. In the borderline-condemned student digs in Oxford that my favourite weed dealer lived in. Brown with orange highlights and a repeating geometric pattern of interlocking diamond shapes. It's all fastidiously clean and surprisingly well-maintained for its age, though.
The walls are adorned with framed photos. I'm able to identify lard-arse and lard-arse junior which means the scrawny bint with the hairdo she's clearly been overcharged for is the dieting aunt. The kid under the stairs isn't included, which fits with him being the abused orphaned poor relation. I can't tell by looking which side of the family he's nephew to these two on; none of them look like blood relations. There's something else off about the pictures, though I can't put my finger on quite what. The rest of what's hanging on the walls is the kind of tat people put up to try and crack on they're of refined sensibility. Cheap prints in gaudy frames. The usual suspects of Constable, Turner and Clayton Adams (which is to say all of their dullest, most unchallenging work, even the greatest of artists phone it in on occasion) are in evidence, and what I suspect are a couple of Preraphaelites, not that I could ever tell the buggers apart. And, of course, Monarch of the Glen, because what collection of tedious biscuit-tin-and-jigsaw-puzzle art would be complete without bloody Landseer. Still, I'm not here to be an art snob.
The hallway - and that dates the house, more recent builds don't waste quite this much space, you get a vestibule inside the front door and a bit of space at the bottom of the stairs - is otherwise unremarkable. Three doors: I'm guessing living room (the sound of the telly gives that one away), dining room and kitchen. And, of course, the stairs up. The only incongruous detail is that there's a land-line phone in the hallway by the front door, and it looks like an original-vintage Trimphone, with the rotary dial and everything. I'm actually old enough to remember a time when they were considered modern and stylish. It makes me wonder what I'm dealing with, here. I mean, I might install one of those if I picked one up in easily-reconditioned nick, because they're a rather nifty slice of technological history, but then I've never been one to hide my full-frontal nerdity.
Maybe they're just really committed to the retro decor? It's unimportant. After brief internal debate I decide to check upstairs first. While the kid assures me I'm invisible, I don't want to test that until after I've gathered all of the information I can without risking being seen.
Upstairs is four bedrooms: the master bedroom (with actual chintz curtains, no less), a guest bedroom (whose bed has an actual candlewick bedspread of the kind my grandmother retired from actual bedding duty in about 1978 and bowls of pot pourri on every vaguely level surface), a kid's bedroom with a fat kid snoring in it surrounded by evidence of him being a spoilt bastard and your traditional fourth bedroom-in-name-only that appears to be being used as some kind of combined storage and junk room. The bathroom, with its pistachio-green tiling and sanitary ware, I decide to leave for later close inspection. I could probably make it a daily thing, a Two Minute Hate on aesthetic grounds alone. On top of it all, it's a household full of squeezers-from-the middle when it comes to toothpaste. Forced-labour re-education for the bloody lot of them would be a good start.
Anyway. Family of four in a four bedroom house? Making the kid sleep under the stairs is nothing but spite. Sure, I'm clearly in the home of authentically crazy people with a vintage decor and furnishings fetish - they don't even have duvets on the beds, for crying out loud, an amenity I remember having by the late seventies. Hang on, did I see - I go back in and check. The telly in the kid's bedroom is a CRT model. And next to it there's a holy shit it's an Atari 2600. They've given a kid who can't be more than six or seven an actual no-shit museum piece as a toy to play with. While keeping their other kid in conditions that suspects in police custody would rightly complain about.
Again I'm glad I'm disembodied through all of this. I'd be in a towering fury by this point as opposed to the cool, calm consideration I'm giving things. Running, it has to be said, through a mental checklist for getting a Prohibited Steps Order under the Children Act 1989. Application ex parte in judge's chambers and then turning up unannounced with a social work team and a van full of the biggest uniforms the local nick had on hand. He seems like a nice kid, any potential fosterers would find him a pleasure to have in their family. Especially with his friendly ghost giving him helpful advice about eating his greens and doing his homework. If nothing else, getting the poor kid out of this crime-against-good-taste of a house would be a step in the right direction. It's not his home, that's for sure.
The friendly ghost bit is probably also something I should be chucking a bit of radge over, if I'm honest with myself. Although with hindsight it would have put my suicidal periods in a bit of perspective if I'd known that it wasn't a ticket to sweet, sweet oblivion.
Back downstairs and I Rentaghost my way through the dining room - surprisingly tasteful, with what might well be actual heirloom furniture - and the kitchen, which continues the vintage theme. Dating from the period just before fitted kitchens and standard base units with worktops became a thing. I'm relieved to see that the general cleanliness extends to a decent standard of food hygiene. I can't tell what they've got in the fridge and the cupboards, though. It's dark inside.
Right. Time to see how well my picture of these people matches the reality.
I pause at the door to the living room, the sound of the telly thumping at the door. Whoever this is, they're more in to Bergerac than I ever was. From the sound of things there's a car chase on. The kid was worried about me getting spotted, and going in through the door is the obvious move. If there's some way I can be seen even when I can't see myself, doing the obvious is going to put the risk up to the highest it can be.
Through the wall? Doesn't let me recce the room before moving in and I want to know where the telly, and with it all eyeballs in the room, actually is. The window, then, is the obvious choice. The curtains should be drawn, after all, but I'll be able to peep through. Out the front door, then - noting the expensive and heavyweight locks they've put on a glass door because that makes sense - and a quick look at the neighbourhood. Your standard suburban cul-de-sac, one each. A dozen houses on a gently curved road with a turning circle at the bottom end. All built to the same design, which was a thing they did back when these were built, because planning officers didn't yet have a tick-box on their checklists for 'actual houses rather than soul-destroying extruded dwelling units'. There's a surprising lack of modifications, extensions and - it seems like the neighbourhood for it - york-stone cladding. Godawful identikit neighbourhoods like this were a big driver of the DIY boom, after all, as people turned them from units into houses into homes.
There are neighbourhood watch signs on the lampposts and a - wait. The cars in the driveways are all old. Ford Granadas and Vauxhall Cavaliers, the sort that made up about half of every company car fleet. My dad had a succession of them, and most of them ended up as recycled scrap due to unsentimental fleet management practises. Very few of these sorts of cars were driven by people who actually owned them. I could buy one slightly demented vintage car enthusiast on a street, but - a quick count - six of them? The other houses appear to be using their semi-integral garages for keeping their cars in, another oddity. I mean, if you've got your car in the garage, where do you keep your huge piles of accumulated junk?
Lard-arse, apparently, favours a 1980s-looking 5-series BMW, which actually makes some sense as a vintage car. If you can afford to keep it on the road, that is. But it does bring the total of vintage car enthusiasts on this street to seven. Out of twelve. And they are definitely enthusiasts, all of these motors are in good, like-new nick. I'm picturing them all out on Sunday afternoons with buckets and sponges and exotic car waxes, complaining to each other about the difficulty of getting pre-fuel-injection motors serviced. The Stepford Petrolheads.
If I had a head at this point I'd've shook it. I'm getting distracted because this house, this neighbourhood, is not just weird but recursively weird. It looks odd at a distance and then when you focus on the details you find that it's just as odd close up. The important thing is finding out about the people, not just their stuff. Even if I was fully corporeal, I'd not be able to do anything until the appropriate authorities were open for business, so time taken in reconnaissance is doubly not-wasted.
I don't feel like I have an incorporeal body like something out of Ghostbusters, but I'm arbitrarily designating the point I'm seeing from as my head. I seem to have the same field of vision as I had when I had actual eyes, at any rate, and I kept those in my head after all. So I gently and gingerly poke my head in through the window - windowsill covered in Royal Doulton and Lladro tat, naturally - and the (rouched and swagged rose velvet) curtains and get my first look at Fat Uncle and Dieting Aunt.
He's filling a brown velvet armchair and she's on the sofa. He's made entirely of rancid lard and moustache, sandy-blonde and no obvious grey. Head's too small for the fat neck and the rest of him is blubber all the way down. Fat fingers are dabbling in a tin of shortbread on the occasional table next to his chair where he also has a bottle of mass-market blended scotch. I move closer and look at the hands. Yep. Clubbed fingers. Bloaty-boy is eating and boozing his way in to an early grave. Barely in to his thirties if I'm any judge of wrinkles and thread-veins, but he's less healthy than some seventy-year-olds I've known.
She, on the other hand, is sitting primly with a magazine of some sort in one hand and what is more than likely a G&T in the other. She's the direct complement of her husband, in as much as she's malnourishing herself into premature ageing. Early thirties, could pass for fifty in the wrong light. Whatever her natural colour is, it's covered up by a salon dye-and-highlights job and a perm that was last fashionable in the 1970s. On professional football players.
The art of conversation is clearly lost in contemplation of whatever Jim Bergerac is doing in this episode - she's pretending not to be watching but sneaking glances in best housewife-with-a-celebrity-crush style. I don't doubt she's an avid fan of Magnum PI, Lovejoy, and Dempsey and Makepeace on the same basis. Any sexual attraction has long since fled the bedroom upstairs, I shouldn't wonder. Even if Fat Uncle can even find the wretched thing amid the rolls of gut, he hasn't the cardiovascular oomph to get it up.
Time for an experiment. I move in to the middle of the room and get right in front of the telly. No reaction. Definitely invisible, which takes a load off my mind. I'll work on whether they can hear me in a bit. Right now, let's look at the coffee table. Mail, Express, Telegraph and Financial Times, not just drawing a picture of the politics of this household but colouring it in and mounting it in a handsome presentation frame. Tories, and unreconstructed Thatcherite tories at that, with which even the possibility of me mustering any sympathy for these two evaporates like Brexit promises.
Hang on. Hang right the fuck on. I've read the titles off those newspapers and glossed over the design, and it's all wrong. None of them have looked like that in decades. The pictures are in black-and-white, for crying out loud. A closer look. They're dated 31st July 1985.
Okay. Occam's razor time. Which is the simplest explanation that fits these facts? Is it that I've manifested in a neighbourhood of eerily-consistent retro fetishists in the house of a couple who carry it to the point of reproduction newspapers on the coffee table? Or that dying and coming back as a ghost also included a time travel component?
One of these presupposes that there's something I don't know about how time works for the spirits of the recently departed. Which, yeah. I'm working on less than an hour's experience here. The other flies in the face of everything I know about how human beings work, on which subject I've got nearly fifty years time-in-grade. And, if we add in the surreal visions I had while I was dying (or just after I died, I don't really have any way to tell) then my being under orders to fix the tapestry of fate gives the time-travel bit of it quite the freight of plausibility, don't it?
It definitely makes it harder vis a vis the abused child part. Victoria Climbie and Baby P are nearly two decades in the future at this point, and the law reforms that would make what these two fucks are up to actually illegal won't happen until after the next change of government. Child abuse, after all, is a problem of the underclass, so there's no funding or legislative time for stopping it. (And, because child abuse is a problem of the underclass, nobody's going to believe it goes on in the kind of household that has a BMW in the driveway.)
I still need to confirm the time-travel bit, and it happens along as conveniently as BBC programming: Bergerac ends and, after a few trails for shows I can't recall watching at the time, and Threads, which I very much remember because the imminent possibility of nuclear holocaust makes an impression, on comes the Nine O Clock News. Presented by Julia Somerville, which surprises me. She's still working in broadcast news in 2019, I didn't think she got on the telly this early.
The news itself is a collage of half-remembered history. Apartheid era South Africa showing their collective arse, and the Common Market - which won't be the EU for a few years yet - disagreeing about how to deal with them. Ronald Reagan might be dying of cancer, on which matter I know more than his doctors as at this date. He isn't. The inquiry into the Bradford FC stadium fire (about which I remember little more than the schoolyard sick jokes, it was a more robust time) has created some fuss and Thatcher is giving off about it. Lacking context - I wasn't paying attention at the time and it's been thirty-five years - I'm mostly baffled by the headlines of what was clearly a slow news day. There's a Shuttle mission in orbit, and both sides are expressing high hopes for the Fourth Test of this year's Ashes series, with Botham in particularly ebullient form. But then, when was he ever not?
I can't remember who won that year. This year, I suppose, but the Aussies won't be quite the juggernaut they were - will be - in the 90s and beyond, so it could be an England win. Fat Uncle is giving off about it, though, since apparently level-pegging with a win and a draw each on three Test matches is clearly below the standards he personally expects from English Cricket. Like he'd last more than two fucking overs at the crease, even in the more gentlemanly atmosphere of the professional game. The game I grew up with - north country working class cricket - would see him carried off the field after the second or third ball. Likely missing teeth and with an almost certain concussion.
Nursing yet another reason to disdain the fool, I'm barely paying attention as the news comes to an end and this pair of delightful specimens start conversing and I almost miss the names they address each other by.
What the double-jointed haemhorraging fuck?
This is carrying fandom a bit - no it's not. Those books won't come out for a few years yet. This right here is a scene out of actual fiction. Feels real, though. Simulated reality? Apart from my own personal but still subjectively real existence, it's indistinguishable from actual reality, so no point arguing the toss. Proof by solipsistic fatalism is going to have to do.
They're shuffling about and making as if to retire for the night - ludicrously early, but it is a school night and I've plenty of other reasons to despise these two - so if I'm going to get any more information I need to get a wiggle on while the lights are on. There's a letter-rack on the mantelpiece with unanswered correspondence in it. Couple of bills, a rates notice. The address is clearly visible: Mr. and Mrs. V. Dursley, 4, Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey. With, as it happens, a TW postcode, so we're nearer London than not.
So, I'm definitely not in Kansas anymore. Again with the gratitude for no hormones and glands, because this is definitely the right time for hysterical giggling. That kid under the stairs is Harry James Potter and he's a wizard.
That theory that everything, no matter how absurdly fictional, is real somewhere? It just acquired my own personal anecdotal data point.
Fuck. Me. Standing.
NOTES: I've absconded with the central conceit from The Evil Overlord List by Boomvroomshroom (on this site and AO3 to my certain knowledge, don't know if it's posted elsewhere) which I recommend to one and all. The obvious difference between that story and this is the time period - I've stuck firmly to the books, although I'll be correcting JKR's cavalier approach to dates as I go - and the character the voice is helping: Harry, rather than Tom.
As to the muggle-world history and details I refer to, there are a couple of places where I'm going with purely what I remember rather than checking details as I write the first draft, on the basis that if I really was hurled back into a fictional past, I'd have to wait ten years for search engines to be invented, never mind Google.
Not least of which errors, in this chapter, is that the child protection laws are very different to the ones I learned. At this particular date, I had just finished my third year of secondary school and was getting ready to buckle down for my GCSEs (muggle OWLS). Which is why I'm dead flat wrong about the law and practise of child protection in the mid 80s. It's also why none of the news made sense: in 1985 I was more focussed on homework, pickup games of cricket in the park, and friday night Call of Cthulhu marathons with my friends.