I trespass through the grounds of Helena Lane Old Folks’ Home - just as we used to do as a short cut home from school - and creep towards the house where my brothers and I grew up. Sixteen Hayton View, Ludlow, Shropshire : a ‘sixties semi with garage and garden. Two point four children raised under Thatcher.
I peer over the concrete screen wall my dead Dad built and there - as if to prove the booming Thatcherite point - is the kitchen extension also built by my Dad. And him a card-carrying Socialist, too. Clem Redman - latterly ‘Fix-It Grandad’. Builder of Things.
I remember digging in the vegetable garden, making out like I was helping him build the dining room that would see me create Embarrassing Early Works in felt tip, when in reality I was just making mud pies and studying worms while he mixed concrete for his foundation. I remember my spade snicking the earth and accidentally slicing a worm in two. I picked up both bits of the worm in my hands and looked down in shock. The first time murderer surveying his crime scene. Guilt and grief ballooned from my gut to my gorge - resulting in snot and tears.
I ran towards my busy Dad, screaming brown murder - holding out both parts of the worm like he was Solomon with some sticky tape. ‘Fix-It Dad’ he may have been, but he couldn’t perform miracles. The worm remained in two. But he took time out from making us more living space to sit with me amongst the bricks and breeze blocks and explain how that a worm cut in half survives as two regenerated worms. A little bit more life after the indignity of a death at the hands of a kid and his seaside spade.
“I don’t think I put it quite like that.”
“No. I don’t think you did.” I say, still gazing at the extension now full of someone else’s tat and family.
“No. I think I just said not to worry because one worm becomes two when you kill it.” says my Dad’s ghost - which has appeared beside me in the grounds of Helena Lane, taking a trespass down Memory Lane with me, peeping over his wall at our old house like a couple of Chads wondering ‘Wot, No Redman family?’
“I know you’re not really here.” I tell him. “I know you’re just a figment of my imagination. From too much grief and tiredness. And whiskey.”
“An underdone potato? A blob of mustard?”
“See - you wouldn’t quote Dickens at me. Even when you’re dead. You’d quote Das Kapital. Or Alistair McClean. Or some DIY manual...”
“How do you know I’ve not read Dickens since I’ve been dead?”
“You’ve only been gone a fortnight. What would you read? ‘The Signalman’? ‘Certainly not enough time for ‘Bleak House’...”
He nods across at where my infant swing used to stand. “I can’t believe he’s pulled up my crazy paving for that bloody horrible decking. He’s not even laid it right. Does the man not own a spirit level?”
“Are you really going to waste this precious time we have together slagging off this bloke’s garden furniture?”
He wags his calloused finger at the kitchen-dining room extension. “D’you know how long it took me to get planning permission for that thing? And he goes and paints it beige...”
“What are you doing here, Dad?”
“I’m not sure.” He looks around like the answer might lie in the retirement home behind us. “Maybe I’m just doing what worms do - getting a little more borrowed time together.”
“So you’re like a headless chicken and this is your farmyard you’re going to run around?” It’s my turn to nod at the private property we were invading.
“It wouldn’t be the first time you blagged an extension on a deadline.” he teases.
“Greg says he sees you in every roadside lay-by trucker. And Albie swears blind you were under the archway in the Brewery Tap at your Wake. Glimpses of your ghost. So why am I getting the unmuted you?”
He shrugs. “Perhaps just to tell you that it’s alright. That it doesn’t matter you weren’t there at the end. Because here I am now - half a worm’s worth. To say goodbye.”
“But it’s not true, is it?” I gulp down the snot and the tears. The guilt and the grief.
“It is true. Nobody was there at the end. Not even your Mum. That’s how I wanted it.”
“Not true about the worm, I mean.” He frowns at me. “That’s just something you tell little kids to make them feel better about killing a worm. Because when a worm is cut in two it does not live on as two living worms. The front bit lives on while the back bit dies.”
“Is that a fact?” he muses, nodding his dead head.
“Yes it is.” I reply.
“Well sometimes facts get in the way of a good story.”
Says the bloke who read us bedtime stories in the style of Charlie Brown’s teacher to get us to sleep quicker. A practical man. A pragmatic man. The man who called ‘Doctor Who’ “Tea from China” but believed it when bullets pinged off unscathed John Wayne in ‘Stagecoach’!
“You’ll be telling me next there’s no such thing as Santa.” he fixes me with his mischievous, lively blue eyes. “...Or God..?”
“...Or Ghosts?” I chime in.
“Or Ghosts coming back to tell you there’s nothing to feel guilty for.”
I turn away to take in the extension he built again - the thing that started all this.
“So there’s no such thing as life after death?” I turn my head to challenge him. But he’s gone.
I take one last look at our old garden where his greenhouse full of radishes has been replaced with some hot tub. He was right. That decking is shit. But then he’s right about most things.
I sneak back through the Helena Lane grounds, feeling like the front end of a pantomime horse. The leader of a two-man Conga. Truck and trailer.
There is no such thing as an afterlife. Unless you count your kids carrying on after you’ve gone.
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