A ghost passed through me. An icy mist shivering through the spaces between the atoms of my body. With it came the fleeting image of a garden, like a memory, but not mine. Someone else’s.
I was visiting my Aunt Julie and this happened just as we were stepping into her garden. I hesitated for a moment, and she asked if I was all right. I told her I was, and dismissed the sensation.
Julie had made a beautiful garden, filled with roses now in late June, but in my mind I saw a darker garden with heavy evergreen trees and—
‘Was there ever a sundial?’ I asked, moving towards the end of the garden.
‘A sundial? No. Oh, there was one once.’
‘Here,’ I said, ‘where I’m standing.’
‘Yes, I think it was about there, before you were born.’
‘It was rather ugly, and no use because—‘
‘Because it was always overshadowed by a big holly bush,’ I said.
‘Yes, but how do you know? Have you seen some old photos?’
I shook my head.
‘I must have done, I suppose. You’ve made it much more beautiful.’
‘Thank you. Decades of work from me and the plants, that’s all it took.’
We went back into the house. My parents had moved to Scotland before I was born, so I hardly ever saw my aunt or cousins. Now Mum and Dad were gone, i felt the need of other relatives.
We were drinking tea and chatting about the past when Julie got up and brought out a stack of old photo albums.
‘Where is it? Ah, this is the one.’
She opened a small brown album, the cover crumbling at the hinge.
‘There,’ she said, laying it on my knees, ‘that’s the garden as it was when your Uncle Phil and I moved in here.’
The photo was black and white, of dark looming trees, the white shape of a sundial just visible in the shadows, but the memory I had was in colour. Dark greens and browns, and a stormy sky above. Yet I had never before visited this house, or this town, even.
When I looked up from the photo, another false memory smeared itself across the sunny room with its bright furniture and flowers on the window ledge. The remembered room was all shades of brown and dark maroon, heavy furniture, ornaments on every surface, an aspidistra gathering dust in a dark corner, an upright piano against one wall with a row of fat plaster cherubs lounging on top.
‘What is it?’ said Julie, then she snatched back the photo album and closed it with a snap.
I came back to the present and dusted fragments of the album’s binding off my lap, then thought better of it and began to pick them up from Julie’s clean red carpet.
‘It’s not old photos you remember, is it?’ she said.
I shook my head, but doubtfully.
‘It couldn’t be anything else, could it?’ I said. ‘Were there photos of the inside of the house, too?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘there weren’t. Your mother never told you why they moved to Scotland, did she?’
‘Dad got a job up there.’
‘No. Well, yes. He got the job because they had to move away from Shuckleigh.’
I felt a twisting nausea in my stomach. Had to move. Some horrible family secret was coming.
‘You should go back to Scotland now, and not come back here. We’ll come up and visit you, the way we always have.’
‘What is it Aunt Julie? I would like to know why we never came to visit you when there’s so much family here.’
Julie stood up and walked across the room to put away the album. I looked down at the little crumbs of leather cupped in my hand, and waited.
‘Our family have been here a long time. Probably since before there was a town. Well, you know the place is known for odd goings on? No? She didn’t even tell you that. Perhaps she thought it would interest you too much.’
She stopped, contemplating whether she ought to go on. I could see the hesitancy in her eyes. She took a breath.
‘Some of us have always been a bit sensitive. I see things myself from time to time, but I ignore them. Your mother, Angie, saw things almost all the time. There were days when she couldn’t tell the present apart from the past in front of her. We tried to hide it, make excuses, but once she was at the doctor’s for her swollen tonsils and she saw an angry black cat in the consulting room. It wasn’t there, or at least not then, but the doctor started talking about hallucinations, schizophrenia, medication.
‘Your Dad, Jack, he understood the family history. They’d go on trips away and she’d be fine. It was something about this place. That was when they decided to move, and he got the job in Glasgow.
‘Now look at you. You’ve been in town an hour and you’re already seeing things. Stay here and drown under the weight of it like Angie almost did, or go back to Scotland and live a normal life. That’s your choice.’
‘There’s a woman in the corner,’ I said. ‘She’s wearing a long white dress, and I think she’s trying to say something.’
Julie followed my gaze, then stood between me and the vision.
‘Ignore her. Whatever she’s trying to say is something long gone and of no importance any more.’
Julie hustled me out of the room, and called for a taxi. Within half an hour I was standing, holding my overnight bag, outside the station. Everything looked normal, but if I tried to really see, other shadows came into focus. The past, or stray thoughts? I did not know, but if I left, I never would.
I turned away from the station. Across the road, I saw the woman in white reaching towards me, mouthing words I could not hear. I started to walk towards her, stepped into the road, leapt back to the kerb just in time as a bus bore down on me.
The adrenaline of the near miss cleared my mind. There was a train in five minutes, and I was going to be on it.