by Neil Southern


How many stories have begun 'Do you believe in ghosts?'

Ok, this isn't so original but I am asking you.

Do you?

I don't think I do. I haven't seen anything. For the most part I have thoughts like most people who have lost their parents. How come they just can't come back and let you know they are all right? What about a tap on the radiator?

My old man died some 35 years ago and as much as I think about him most days I have never seen or heard anything that would make me think he was trying to get in touch. No whispers in the night. No murky figures on photographs. No cold spots.

Anyway I had better get to the point.

Many years ago, in fact before I lost my dad, I knew this guy by the name of Derek. He was an odd lad. We were at school together and we sort of met up in the evenings and hung about street corners, drank cider and generally did the adolescent thing. Derek was quite tall and very thin. He had a large nose and a pronounced pigeon chest and was bullied quite a lot at school. We had a strange relationship as in many ways I quite disliked him. He was outspoken and very opinionated. I had few friends so maybe I just tolerated him.

Who knows?

After leaving school we kept in touch. By this time we had progressed to drinking in pubs and found one that did lock-ins. We met a couple of girls at the local skating rink and went out together. I eventually went on to marry June, and Derek sort of disappeared for a while. He left his job as joinery apprentice and went off to work for Butlins. I didn't see him for a year or two.

Oh yes, one thing I forgot to say was that shortly before we lost touch he announced he was gay. I never quite got my head around that. You think you know someone? I only mention it in passing as it has no bearing on the story. Maybe it has.

My son was born in 1972. We named him after my good self as indeed my father had named his first son after him. My dad had died just a month earlier. I was gutted that he would never see our boy.

Then Derek turned up. I can't remember how he found us as we had moved into a new flat. It was a grim affair with separate lock up living room and kitchen on the ground floor, shared bathroom and a lock up bedroom on the first floor.

He would call in the evening, perhaps 3 nights a week. At first it was fine. He would stay an hour or two and we would talk about the old days at the skating rink. I would walk him to the bus stop and his whole demeanour would change. His voice became very camp and effeminate and he would relate stories about his days as a red coat. He spoke of literal gay abandon and how his life had spiralled into the depths of drugs, depravity and hopelessness. I was torn between sadness and disgust.

Then the next visit he would be the old Derek whilst in the presence of my wife and son. I found it all quite disturbing.

One night he arrived as usual and was quite upset. It transpired that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer. Derek was very close to his mother. Not so his Father who has seemingly caught him on the sofa with some young lad. Imagine that.

Anyway he was a mess. We just didn't know what to do. There he was sobbing about his Mum. I couldn't help him. Our friendship didn't lend itself to me attempting to comfort him.

A few nights later he arrived and announced that his mother had died. I couldn't think of anything to say. I felt guilty as I had thought he had over reacted to the diagnosis. Lots of people get cancer.

He appeared numb and just sat there saying nothing. We made tea and just stared at the television. June busied herself with the baby and I just felt so helpless. Still the walk to the bus stop an hour later seemed to have him awake from his depression and out came the stories of his life at the holiday camp. His longings for a particular young man and unwelcome details of his activities I would rather have not heard. This sort of split personality was becoming quite unsettling.

The next night he was back again. June was not happy. He was clearly very distressed.

It was a dream, a nightmare that he had that had preyed on his mind all day. We made tea and he seemed almost oblivious to our presence. In a slight voice and with trembling hands he proceeded to describe the dream of the night before. It was hazy, he said, but so real. The dream started with him taking drugs and meeting dubious friends in some seedy late night club. There was some sort of unthinkable encounter with a boy, the details of which he thankfully skipped over. It was late. He had no money for a taxi and was walking home. Everything was spinning around. For a while he was lost and helpless like a child. He began to cry and panic. Then at last home was in sight.

The drugs had taken hold and he tried to focus on his bedroom window, his body lurching around uncontrollably. He vomited and fell to his knees. What is that? Who is that? Panic took hold. Suddenly he became aware in the dream that he must be dreaming as this could not be happening. It didn't help. He turned away. He looked again. It's her! She is there! But wait, she was apparently sitting. She was sitting where his bed is, where his head would be if he were asleep. He said he screamed as her face became clear. Her eyes were so black, her skin so horribly white. He collapsed. He awoke.

'Stress' June said whilst changing the baby. 'You are suffering from stress'. We all nodded at the same time which made us laugh.

Three days passed and we heard nothing. It was quite a relief. Not for long though as when he turned up he was in a worse state than ever. June took the baby to the bedroom and Derek sat down visibly shaking. I could only offer him coffee which he accepted. He looked terrible. His clothes seemed dirty and he was unshaven. The rapid decline in this young man was disconcerting. He started to speak of the events of the previous night. He had decided he needed to get out and forget about his troubles so he hit the gay bars and look to meet up with some friends. The night went well and he did some drugs and just went with the flow. For a while he felt like his old self. A group of them went on for a curry then he began to make his way home. Everything was spinning around and he felt out of control. He fell a couple of times scuffing his knee badly. His trousers were torn. The rain was gradually soaking him through and then the familiar sight of his street lifted his heart. Then he dropped to his knees. His heart pounded and the rain felt as if it was burning. It poured and poured relentlessly. He held his head in his hands.

The dream! This was the dream! He stood and felt confused and sick. What could he do? The house was in sight but he dare not look at the upper window. He dare not! How could this be? Was this a dream also? Have a fag, think this through. What could he do? 'MUM!' he shouted aloud. Then everything went black.

June returned from upstairs having got the baby to sleep. Derek looked up and concluded that he had slept in some bushes near his house such was his absolute fear of looking upward to his bedroom window.

Derek had barely drawn breath from his last sentence and the atmosphere in the room was chilling.

There were three huge bangs on the door.

June screamed. I nearly fell on the floor. Derek?

He stood bolt upright and the blood completely drained from his face. His hairline crept back a good inch. I had heard the phrase 'makes you skin crawl' but this was real. This guy was so scared.

I opened the door. It was my brother, great timing.

'You fucking idiot!!' Derek screamed. And fell back into the chair. I could swear he had wet himself. My brother was oblivious to it all and thought we were all on something!

Another hour passed and things calmed down a little. It seems Derek was due to visit his mum in the funeral parlour the next day so we cut him some slack. I turned on the television to lighten the mood. He got up to visit the bathroom and my brother left.

Seconds later Derek charged down the stairs and slumped in the chair completely covering his face with his hands. What could have happened? This was the last straw for June who had just got the baby to sleep. She pulled him from the carry cot and went up to the bedroom in a furious mood.

'What's up?' I nervously asked. This was the limit. It was getting late. I faced an argument with June and frankly I wanted him to leave. He didn't move. His hands gripped his face as if his life depended on it. His entire body was visibly shaking.

What he told me next chilled me to the bone.

Derek said he had felt guilty at overreacting when my brother knocked on the door and ran up to the bathroom feeling he would maybe apologise. He went into the bathroom, locked the door and as he relieved himself was mulling over what he should say and how he might say things. He was thinking that he must make things up to June and I as we had been so supportive.

Then his heart almost stopped. Someone was behind him. This was a shared bathroom. Perhaps he had forgotten to lock the door? Why didn't they speak? He couldn't move and was conscious of himself urinating on the floor. His heart raced and he could feel cold sweat seeping down from his hair on to his brow. 'Turn around!' he thought! He was shaking with fear and opened his mouth to cry out. He could not. His mouth was so dry, his throat parched. The banging of his heart in his chest was so pronounced he began to feel faint. Then it happened.

Someone gripped his shoulder from behind. He corrected himself and tried to describe that it felt more like someone was actually stood beside him and was putting their arm around him gripping his shoulder as a friend might do. Then the grip released and was more like a hand outstretched sliding off his shoulder. Derek found the strength from somewhere to look to his right shoulder. There was no hand. It was as if he had just missed the sight of a hand sliding away. There was something though. He said he was somehow relieved as he saw a strange lace type material in the shape of a parallel cross just falling off his shoulder. Two crosses offset against each other. He was confused and couldn't think properly. There was no sound.

Adrenalin kicked in and he turned around. There was nobody there. The journey back to our living room I have already described.

I felt I couldn't handle the situation. What could I say? What did it mean? I made some tea. June must have gone to bed. When I handed Derek the cup I noticed a large vase that was on the television was smashed on the floor. There had been no noticeable sound of breaking glass and yet there it was in pieces. Which of us were sinking into madness? Was Derek even there? I was so high on emotion and fear that I just couldn't get things into perspective.

An hour later he was gone. I didn't walk him to the bus stop. I said I felt unwell fearing that his bizarre mood change once away from my home would tip me over the edge. I didn't sleep that night.

We didn't see Derek for about 3 months. I didn't attend his mother's funeral. To be honest he didn't invite us. To be honest I was glad he didn't.

In that time we moved from the flat into a proper house. It wasn't so grand but it was our first real home. No more locking the living room door at bedtime!

When Derek turned up I was pleased to see him. He looked so much better and had gained some weight. We showed him around the house and he couldn't get over how much the baby had grown. Nothing was said about the events in the flat, or indeed about his beloved mum. He seemed changed, different. June seemed nervous as he played with our son. We chatted about his plan to return to the holiday business and an hour or so later he announced that he needed to get off. I walked him to the bus stop. At this point Derek normally changed gear into his flamboyant alter ego. Not tonight. He remained calm and said nothing. I ranted on about the house so as to hopefully get to the bus stop before the change occurred. He cut me mid rant. 'I suppose you wonder what happened.'

Here we go I thought.

'You know, after that night.'

Now I was curious. The camp voice hadn't come online. We got to the bus shelter and within seconds his bus arrived but he let it go by. He drew hard on a cigarette and told me what happened after leaving us that night.

Derek avoided his Father. They didn't get on. He couldn't accept his son's sexuality. On that night his Dad was working away so he raided his bottle of scotch and slept on the sofa. He couldn't bear to sleep in his bed. No dreams. In fact he had a really deep sleep. Hours later he awoke to a strange sound as the sunlight pierced the net curtains. A sound that was familiar. It sounded like the radio was on and there was a faint smell of toast.

'Derek', a voice called out. He was so tired, hung-over, confused.

'Derek' sounded in the distance.

'You will be late' again almost unintelligible.

Hang on, he thought. The mist was clearing. The sunlight made him squint. He was awake.


Of course it wasn't his Mum. All that booze and the hellish pressure of the prior days were responsible. It was after two. It was time to get up and out to the chapel of rest.

How quiet the house was. He had no money. There was no food. It was a beautiful day. He may as well walk.

The undertaker was very nice. Derek couldn't take his eyes off the guy's upper lip. It never moved as he spoke. Years of maintaining the quiet calm composure had frozen the old man's mouth. How many sobbing relatives had this frail old man endured?

He led Derek into a small cubicle where his Mother lay and retired. The coffin lid was positioned perfectly behind the casket with a polished name plate. Derek immediately broke down and shivered uncontrollably. He felt so helpless and wanted to touch his Mum. What could he do? The undertaker appeared as if by some divine intervention with a chair and some tissues. Derek asked if he could hold her hand.

'Of course' the old man replied quietly and left.

The chair creaked as he let it take his weight. He was strangely calm now. The air was still and quiet. He gazed upon the face of the old lady that had given him life. Her Brow seemed like porcelain. Was this Mum? The countenance was perfect, the skin smooth. Where were the wrinkles and lines he knew so well? Where were her hands?

Derek wanted so much to hold her hand one last time. He moved his hand under the shroud and located her cold lifeless hand and held it as he would have done as a child.

He shivered.

This was goodbye. He had decided that he would not look upon her at the funeral with everyone else. This now was their time. Memories of his childhood filled his head. She was so healthy, so strong. He smiled as his mind was awash with an abundance of flashbacks to happier times. How on earth had she managed to get him that bike when he was eleven? His father was a heavy drinker and helped so little. How had she managed? So many times he felt he should have said he loved her. He knew she knew.

She knew.

The light was fading as he recalled the time he told her he was Gay. She was so good, so understanding. Not like his dad. He was a pig. Derek hated his father.

'Is everything all right' the undertaker appeared without a sound which surprised Derek. 'Yes, a few more moments please' his mouth was dry; a strange unsettling feeling overcame him. 'Of course Sir' the old man so obliging.

Suddenly a chill came over Derek. He thought of the dream and the dark face of his mother. He thought of the voices in the night and the time at our flat. He retracted his hand but something was wrong. He couldn't let go. Her hand was gripping his!

'NO' he screamed aloud.

This couldn't be happening. Where was the old man? Surely he must have heard his scream? This is nerves, there has to be an explanation!

Frantically he tried to pull free in what seemed to be an eternity. It was almost dark.

Finally his hand was released and he uncovered the shroud revealing his dead mother's hand.

'No' he spoke aloud. The old man appeared.

Derek stood.

'Can I be of assistance' the lip did not move.

Derek was frozen with dread. This was his Mum. This was not the stuff of horror stories. The old man received no reply.

They both gazed upon the old lady in the coffin. Tears welled in Derek's eyes.

One of her hands was uncovered revealing an unusual lace extension to the shroud in the form of a double crucifix adorning her hand.

Like a parallel cross.

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