Two Hundred Years is a Long Time by June Gemmell

I pressed myself into the soft shadows as the dark figure hovered a few feet away. Pencil thin, dressed in a frock-coat and top hat, he seemed to be looking for someone. He may have breathed my name just then, but it was faint, a mere murmur. He floated off and I crept into the nearest alleyway clutching my shawl, the one Ma had knitted when I turned fourteen. I liked to wrap it tight around me as if Ma held me close. I did this when I was lonely, which was often. Most of the other ghosts were loud and brash and I didn’t like to mix with them.
       The dimly lit closes and passageways of the old town were my home. From my hiding places I watched the seasons come and go. The years rolled by. Two hundred summers and winters. Two hundred years is a long time without a friend.
       I always sought out the darkest corners and only came out at night. My clothes, a blood-stained grey dress and fringed shawl, helped me blend into the murky gloom. One of my shoes had lost its buckle, making it flip and flap to my constant annoyance.
In life I hadn’t travelled much further than the old town and in death I was limited to there too.        At night I would sit up on the roofs of the highest tenements and look up at the stars, thousands of them far above me in the night sky. I missed my ma. I didn’t know where she had gone or how to reach her, but I hoped she was up in heaven now, looking down on me. I would sometimes look for the brightest star, and wait for a signal.
       I didn’t have a lot in life. We were always short of money my ma and me. We did laundry to earn a living and we sang together, arms up to the elbows in soapy suds. When we got paid my ma used to make pies and rice pudding with cinnamon or nutmeg. Nothing defeated my ma. Bad times would be followed by good, she would always say. She looked out for me, my ma, which was good because I had no pa, on account of him going off to sail the seven seas. Anyway, she was always there for me and that’s why I missed her so much.
       I wondered why I hadn’t passed on to the ‘other place’, like most people. A friendly girl-ghost, my friend for a while around a hundred years ago, explained that I was just in ‘limbo’. Stuck between worlds. She told me that I just had to wait until someone came to find me.
       She hooked my arm in hers. “Once they’ve located you, Rose, they’ll call your name. That’s how you know they’ve come for you. If you go with them you’ll be sent to the good place,” she pointed upwards. “That’s if you’re lucky. Seventy five years and no one’s come for me yet, but I’m watching and waiting.” Then she gripped my elbow, alarm in her eyes. “But…there are evil beings out there who pretend they’re taking you to the good place. ‘Come with me,’ they say, and beckon with their bony fingers…but they take you into a dark underworld. You don’t ever get out of that.”
       I didn’t see her again after that. I missed her and thought of her every day, with her bright smile and her cheery nature. I hoped she’d gone to the good place.
       I took her words seriously and avoided any contact with suspicious spirits who might trick me. There had been a few occasions over the years when I’d thought I saw something shifting in the darkness or heard a low whisper. Then I would huddle into a space in the nearest dark corner until I felt it was safe.
       Now that the dark figure in the frock coat and top hat was lurking about, I kept vigilant.
       I tried not to dwell on sad things. My ma had always told me to look on the bright side, whatever life flung at you. The one thing I tried not to think about above all others was the circumstances of my passing. It upset me too much. But this is what happened.
       One evening two hundred years ago, I was returning home past some public houses. I had just been paid for some laundry I had delivered to one of the big houses and my purse was in my hand. A man I didn’t know fell out of the doors of the White Hart Inn.
       “Hello young maid,” he said.
       I said nothing.
       “Let me see a smile. ’T would light up your face.”
       He had an oily sneer about him I didn’t like.
       I moved to walk past him and he blocked my path. I went the other way and so did he. As he leered and lurched at me, I ducked past him. But my stupid shoe, the one with the broken buckle, the shoe with the sole that’s flapping and flipping, came off and I stumbled. He grabbed me and pulled me into the alley and demanded I give him my money, but I held tight to my purse and I kicked him real hard on the shin. He let go of me, but his temper was up. His big hand whooshed through the air and slapped me hard on the face. So I screamed, a high pitched long note which travelled far in the night air. Next thing, his hand smelling of sour beer and cheap tobacco was clamped over my mouth. Then the knife came out.
       I had nowhere to run. The stone wall bruised my back and the stench of the gutter rose up to meet me as the knife went in. It went in deep and the pain was searing. The blood was wet and my dress spoiled, which bothered me greatly. I only had the one.
       The door of the inn flew open and someone shouted a name. My assailant fled. I couldn’t call out. I clutched the wound in my side and all was pain. I could hardly breathe. I stayed alive for an hour, maybe two.
       I sat up on a windowsill overlooking the alley until the black night gave way to the dawn and the yellow light came creeping over the roofs high above. I cried a little, for it was me down there lying in a pool of blood with one shoe off. Although I wasn’t in pain any more. The innkeeper, emptying the slops from the night before, found my body.
       As the lonely decades ticked slowly by, I found a favourite courtyard where I liked to sit, far away from the noise and chatter of the other ghosts. There was an apple tree in this courtyard with a bench below it. An old woman sat there most evenings when it was warm. She had tight curly hair, white with age, rosy cheeks like apples and she reminded me of my ma.
       I liked to sit high up in the tree as the light left the sky and a hush came to the world. Sometimes I would hear her singing. She didn’t know the old songs Ma sang, but her voice reminded me of her, and stirred something deep inside. My ma had a voice like a nightingale, clear and true, and my eyes pricked at the memory of it.
       In the summertime the town was full of travellers. At night, the shops and public houses were strung with lights and noise and chatter. Some entertainers took to the streets, bagpipe players, violinists, and one accordion man I always watched out for. He had a grey herringbone coat, a kindly face and his music always took me back to a happier time.
       I loved the foreign tongues, and the exotic creatures who walked the streets until late. I hadn’t been able to travel the world, but in the summer months, the world came to me.
Then the man in the frock coat made an appearance again. I was admiring a display in a shop window of a pretty green tartan dress with a scarlet sash. I pictured myself wearing it, twirling around in our kitchen at home, Ma laughing, shirts steaming gently by the fire.
       “I can take you to a place where you can have fine things.” The voice was at my ear, a wheeze of breath, a fleeting whisper. I had been distracted by the reflection of the jewel colours dancing around my drab clothes. He had crept in from somewhere.
       He took off his top hat and gave a deep bow, leaving wispy bits of himself in mid air. I pressed myself against the shop door, and unwilling to meet his eye, looked away from him into the shop window.
       He followed my gaze. “Would you like a pretty dress, Rose?’
       He said my name.
       “Rose, it’s time.”
       His teeth had a yellow tinge. Close up he smelled of mould and things long damp.
       In panic I ducked under his wavering arm, weaved in and out of the revellers in the bright streets and ran and ran, until I leapt weightless onto the chimney pots of the tallest building where I hid.
       Much later, I peeped out when I heard music on the street below. To my delight it was the accordion player. He squeezed his accordion this way and that and warbled some old Scottish ditty. I could hardly make out the words, but I enjoyed the singing which seemed to come from deep within his soul. People threw silver coins into the upturned cap beside him on the pavement. I wished I had some coins to give, for I would have loved to hear the clink as they landed, and to see the look in his gentle face as I did that.
       I sat on the windowsill of the shop opposite. The accordion man looked my way as if he could see me – that happened sometimes – then he started to play a tune I was not familiar with, but which brought tears to my eyes, each note holding a heartbreak, before it drifted off into the midnight blue above us.
       He stopped, looked directly at me and smiled. “Rose, it’s time.”
       He started to play a song I recognised from days long past, tickling my memory. A voice joined in, a soft voice, barely discernible, but clear, like a nightingale. A figure appeared from the shadows of the alley, indistinct at first then a shape took form. I thought it was an illusion, a sorcerer’s trickery. My hands went to my mouth. As I stood up, my shawl fell to the wet pavement.
       The figure stooped, picked it up and placed it back on my shoulders. Ma, my own dear ma. I fell forward as she held her arms open wide. I buried my face in her hair and she smelt of home, of cinnamon and apple pie.
       You would think after two hundred years I would have plenty to say to her. But my mouth was dry, my tongue wouldn’t work. My eyes spilled over with tears.
       She spoke. “My own darling girl.” She held out my silver shoe buckle. “I kept this, all these years, until we were together again.” Her eyes glittered the way they always did. Her big wide grin. She passed the buckle to me.
       She nodded to the accordion man. Then my feet left the ground. In the darkness, the silver stars drew an arc above my head and I rose up to meet the golden dawn.

June Gemmell is an editor for Loft Books anthologies. Her short stories have been published by Gutter Magazine, Loft Books, Razur Cuts and the Edinburgh Literary Salon, also Short Story Today and Yorick Radio Productions podcasts. She has completed two novels, one adult and one for children and has started work on a new children’s fantasy novel.

You can find her on Twitter @june_gemmell

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