I think I’m falling in love with a ghost.
Technically, he isn’t a ghost because we met in the afterlife and, over there, I’m the one who tends to be pale and slightly transparent although, unfortunately, not ethereally thin. At least, in the heavens, we don’t have to worry about the age difference, given that he is approximately twelve hundred years older than I am.
Marcus is not in love with me because he has what we living folk would call a brain and the dead folk call ‘sense.’ However, we do hang out sometimes and, given that the afterlife is ineffable, sometimes, we manage to drink tea and eat chocolate biscuits together. Although, that’s only if I bring them. Nowadays, we laugh a lot but we weren’t laughing when we met.
It began at Christmas. Not all vicars secretly hate Christmas but quite a lot of us do. More accurately, it’s more exasperation and exhaustion with snippy bits. We ache for Boxing Day when we can get seriously drunk, forget the stupidities and calamities of the weeks beforehand and get back to the real Work (which is not the getting drunk part, honest).
Why? Well, let’s start with the nativity play and that very wise saying of ‘never work with children or animals.’ There was the year when the baby Jesus was eaten by the donkey. To be fair, the baby was a rag doll stuffed with hay and therefore rather tempting but it didn’t look good on the day. Then there was the year when the baby Jesus was dropped into the generous gift that the donkey had already donated on the church floor; not to mention the year that the baby Jesus was part of a tug-of-war between Mary and Joseph over who got to cuddle him and Mary pulled his head off. Or the year that the baby Jesus was a real baby (and the donkey was very tightly tethered) and we sang about the poor baby in the manger while he dozed in a high-tech baby stroller which would have cost all the gold, frankincense and myrrh and then some.
Everyone wants a live donkey in the Nativity and we get one from the local sanctuary … but nobody seems to clock the fact that Mary is supposed to be riding on it, because she’s too pregnant to walk. Our Marys usually lead the donkey and it doesn’t even carry any luggage. It really is the most pointless sort of donkey ever, apart from the part which is useful for my roses. The one time I persuaded Mary actually to ride the donkey, she fell off. She wasn’t hurt but the landing caused the realistic bump under her tunic to fall out, which meant that, innovatively, Jesus was born on the way to Bethlehem that year.
Then there’s the crib, in the church. I’m Anglo-Indian so I tend to object to the whiter-than-white baby Jesus with the ghastly orange hair rather more than my equally whiter-than-white parishioners do. I did once suggest re-painting him in more Middle Eastern colours but that was about as popular as a real vicar at a tarts and vicars fancy dress party … But it’s the size of the baby that’s the main issue, for me. It’s as big as an eight-year-old. You may not believe in any of the Christmas stories of virgin births, wise men or the star of Bethlehem but anyone, anyone must consider it a miracle that a 14-year-old girl could give birth to a baby that size without exploding.
People come to church at Christmas because it has a huge tree with pretty lights and carols that they know, and it’s ‘traditional.’ Yes, it’s nice to have the building stuffed to the rafters, for once, but if you’re going to come at Christmas, please do explain some of what’s going on to your children beforehand. Far too many parents tell their six or seven-year-old at Midnight Mass that there will be a lovely surprise at the end of the service – and what would a little child expect at Midnight on Christmas Eve? Father Christmas, of course. Instead, their parents take them to see a plaster baby with orange hair who has miraculously arrived in the manger, courtesy of my assistant, Lucie (and rather a lot of glue given that the donkey trod on it last year). The over-tired, bored and confused children look at it in horror, open their mouths, yell, ‘Why’s Santa got no clothes on?’ and the police really don’t need the hassle. They have to come every time because safeguarding is a major issue but Inspector Marks and her team are usually very stoical about it. Nowadays, we’ve got quite a routine of at least three police officers in my kitchen for a mug of Horlicks and a slice of Christmas cake at 2am on Christmas morning. I’m beginning to wonder if I should bake a bigger cake.
This particular Christmas was the one when the ghost dog arrived. I don’t think I’ve ever had a dog though I’ve got nothing against them. If that sentence sounds weird, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a dog because about 15 years of my life is missing after what was probably a car accident following a murder attempt by another vicar who was possessed by a demon. Head injuries are life changing and my life was transformed to the extent that I actually have some justification for forgetting what day it is and falling in love with ghosts. It’s always possible, though unlikely, that a dog of some kind was involved somewhere along the way. Considerable patches of memory have come back but, apparently, I may never recover the rest. The perpetrator of the situation didn’t come back at all so we can’t clarify what happened there either. All I know for sure is that I woke up with a hole in my head and the ability to travel between the worlds which, I suppose, is a reasonably fair exchange for losing a load of memories that, in retrospect, were mostly less than useful. Without memory it’s far easier to forgive people because you can’t work out what it was that what they did, or didn’t do, that offended you in the first place. Take my ex-husband for example: he lives in my parish and, from simple observation, I have deduced that he’s a bit of a prat but, as I have sod-all recall about our life together there’s nothing I can actually blame him for and I really rather like his new wife. He appears to find that rather surprising. What I do find constantly amazing is why I would have wanted to marry him in the first place.
Oh, and before I forget … most nights, since the accident/murder attempt, I am driven off to the afterlife by my dead brother, Jon in his 1990s blue Fiat Panda. It seems so normal to me now that it’s almost an afterthought to mention it.
I suppose Jon is also a ghost but, it seems to me after nearly a year of this way of life, that the healthy dead are far more vibrant than most of the living. The unhealthy dead are another matter… They are my part-time job, and the full-time work of my other dead friends, Sam and Callista.
When I’m with Jon, we can operate outside of space and time which means that, after a week or so away, I get home about a minute after I left. Apparently, it’s quantum. In Kairos time, I must be about sixty by now though on Earth, in Chronos time, I’m forty-four.
I see angels too, by the way, just so you’re fully in the picture. And no, I don’t discuss all this with relevant archdeacons, deans or (nowadays) bishops.
Of course, there is the possibility that I’m making all this up because have a head injury and I ought to see a(nother) psychiatrist or even go for voluntary admission in some place where they medicate you out of your delusions, but I’m happy, I get to hang out with Jon and souls get saved so where’s the harm? And I’m a vicar, so it’s my job. We are meantto save souls; all of ‘em, not just the ones that signed up to our particular party, whatever the fundamentalists say.
There’s a rumour that there are neighbourhoods in the heavens where people who had strong religious beliefs live in a kind of conclave that locks out anyone different so that they don’t have to face the fact that the afterlife doesn’t give a rap what you believed in or even who you were. Everyone is welcome. So far, I haven’t seen any evidence of such neighbourhoods but anything is possible.
That particular Christmas night, I finally stopped binge-watching The West Wing and went to bed. One of the best things about memory loss is that you can re-view box sets of shows you have completely forgotten but can love all over again. That only works if you’ve still got the DVDs of course; you’ll probably have no idea what you might have streamed or recorded and deleted.
I was cleaning my teeth while standing on one leg. Balance issues are a common side-effect of a head injury and teaching myself to stand on one leg as often as possible is a way to retrain my brain by making it work on the issue directly.
Something touched my left calf. That was the one with a foot on the floor. It took a moment to realise that this wasn’t the belt of my towelling dressing gown and it took another moment to realise that the action was being repeated up and down the leg. Something was touching me on purpose.
Now, I do understand that the normal reaction to such an experience would be to go ‘bleugh!’ and start flapping towels around but I do hope you realise by now that I am not normal. I was slightly annoyed rather than frightened. Given my life-choices it was almost certainly some kind of ghost and I really, really wanted a night off. Jon had promised to give me a whole three-day break from Christmas night to the day after Boxing Day. I was supposed to have had Christmas Eve off too but there had been a small cosmic crisis with a dead film star being prevented from crossing over safely due to the anguished grief of his fans calling him back, which meant that I had done seven hours extra in two minutes somewhere around 3am, after the police had left, stuffed with Horlicks and cake.
Cautiously, I put the other foot down on the floor. There was a pause and then the ghost began the touching again, this time on the fresh leg. I stood there probably for a full five minutes – which is a lot longer than you think it is – until it stopped. By then, I had deduced that the action was something licking me rather than touching so it was some kind of animal. Nothing else happened which was good, indicating that the licking wasn’t being undertaken as an aperitif. This appeared to be a short, friendly ghost that liked drying wet legs. Or, as previously stated, it could be a delusion caused by a head injury.
To be honest, I forgot about it because nothing else unusual happened that night. I spent Boxing Day in glorious seclusion, tramping over Dartmoor, scoffing myself silly and revering the genius of Aaron Sorkin.
After my bath that night, the same thing happened. Something dried my feet and my legs and then moved away. And the next night too. I spoke to it, gently, bidding it welcome – on the hopeful assumption that it might understand me and, that third night, I could have sworn that, just before I dropped off to sleep, there was a subtle pressure by my feet in the bed as if something had jumped up and settled down. I sat up to look but there was nothing to see.
On 28th December, when Jon came to pick me up, I asked him what he thought. It was a fairly routine trip that night; just ensuring that a couple of atheists found their way through. They, understandably, thought they weren’t dead but had gone mad or invisible or something. It’s not my job to explain the heavens to them – there are whole ranges of experts in the spirit world for that. Generally, atheists are brilliant to deal with because they are surprised and delighted to find that there is an afterlife after all and that no one gives a rap what you believed on Earth. We are warned on pain of being born again never, ever to say ‘I told you so.’
‘Do you think it’s a dog?’ I asked. ‘Whatever it is, it must be around for a reason. I can’t see it – the beast, or the reason.’
‘Dunno,’ said Jon, swerving to avoid an asteroid. I should explain that, each night, we take a ridiculous, symbolic and highly enjoyable trip through the Universe in the blue Panda to get to and from the afterlife. It isn’t necessary for more advanced souls but, as had been carefully and tactfully revealed to me, living people need to pass through a filtering process to be able to access the realms of the dead. We are thick energies whereas the higher realms are finer ones. We live in what feels like murky water to them but beyond the stars it is all light. I can’t access vast areas of the afterlife for two reasons: 1. I’m not dead and 2. I am too dense a vibration not to burn out. That changes after you die – at least it does if you get through. And if you don’t, well, there are people like me and Jon and Sam and Callista all over the Universe to bring you safely home.
‘We could ask Marcus if he’s missing anyone,’ said Jon.
‘Marcus is the Dog Wranger. He receives all the domestic dogs that die so they know they are coming home. I think he must be one third human, one third angel and one third dog.’
Jon sighed. ‘Okay … well as far as I know, animals belong to a group soul but because so many of them have individuated so much through being pets, dogs, especially, need someone they love and recognise to greet them when they die. It takes them a while to adapt back into the group where they can be a hundred percent soul-dog again. Marcus takes them through birth and welcomes them back at death so they already know and love him.’
‘What, all of them?’
‘That I don’t know; probably he’s part of a team like we are. But he’s the only Dog Wrangler I’ve met so I think we’d better go and see him about your ghost hound tonight. You’ll need to hold my hand, and not let go. Oh, and you’ll need a hanky…’
The couple were very quiet in the vet’s waiting room. At their feet sat an old dog, her fur dusty with grey hairs and her eyes cloudy. They, loving her as they did, could not bear to see her suffer any more and had made the kindest but most painful decision. Other people waiting with their pets cast sympathetic looks; all could tell by the expressions on the couple’s faces, and the way they fondled their beloved’s ears that this was the last hour of the little dog’s life.
It felt incredibly intrusive to go into the vet’s room with them but Jon was insistent. ‘You need to see this,’ he said. ‘Every human being who has ever loved a pet, needs to see this. And, in any case, it’s the only way I know of that we can get through to that particular dimension.’
We stood, invisible in the corner – and don’t ask me ‘how?’ because I don’t know and I didn’t care – while the vet, as kindly as she could, talked the couple through the procedure and put the catheter in the little mongrel’s leg. Bracken tried to pull her paw away; not knowing what was happening or why.
The woman who had loved Bracken so deeply for thirteen years, held her and spoke her name gently, praising her and telling her what a wonderful friend he had been, while her partner, also with tears in his eyes, stood beside her … and the vet put the little dog to sleep.
Two scenarios played out instantly; firstly, the palpable grief of the couple as the dog’s body slumped in the woman’s arms. And, from a different dimension, a being of light was also there, filling all the spaces in the living woman’s cells, so that he was the first thing the spirit of the dog would sense as she passed through the veil.
Bracken lifted her spirit head, her eyes re-focused, her nose twitched and she gave a yelp of excitement. And then, this tired, old dog, transformed, leapt into the Being’s arms, crying with joy at being reunited with a love as great as that she had known on Earth.
And the Being loved her too. His arms wrapped around her, he held her until he realised that she was well and began to jump and run around the room in delight. The Being ran too as the little mongrel chased him and jumped up at him, eyes bright, tongue out and voice uttering cries of excitement. She didn’t look back once as they ran through the different-dimension open door together and they both vanished into the ether.
Bodies work differently in the spirit world but I still couldn’t see for tears as Jon took my hand and pulled me through that door into the Dimension of Animal Souls.