A screech of tyres. A sickening crunch. A scream. My own, I think.
I consider myself to be a calm sort of person who quickly adapts to new circumstances. So when I was catapulted off my bike by a car that came whizzing around the corner, it only took a couple of deep breaths for the world to stop spinning and the adrenaline to leach out of my system. I was still rather shaky as I got to my feet, but I felt that was justified in the circumstances, given the sizable dent in the bonnet of the car. I quickly patted myself down and realised that I didn’t have so much as a scratch. Ha! I hoped the dent would be costly to repair. I’ve never liked cars. Besides, my bike was a twisted mass of metal screaming for vengeance.
People are always drawn to an accident. Cars were stopping and pedestrians were hurrying towards me.
“Oh my god!”
“Is she breathing?”
“Should we put her into the recovery position?”
“No, don’t touch her! There could be damage to her spine.”
“I’m calling an ambulance!”
“And the police.” That last comment was from a bicycle courier, who was eyeing the dented car darkly.
I gave a little wave. “I’m fine, honestly.”
The gaggle of concerned bystanders ignored me and crowded around a spot a bit beyond my smashed bike. I could just make out a leg, sticking out at a strangle angle. I hadn’t even noticed that a second person was involved in the crash. A cold ball of dread dropped into my stomach. Was I responsible for this? Had I crashed into someone when I was thrown from my bike? But those bystanders not involved in concerned hovering were casting evil looks at the driver of the car, who had gone deathly pale and was stammering out explanations.
The gaggle shifted and pulled aside when the ambulance arrived, and I got my first real look at the victim. She looked awfully familiar. The jacket, the hair, the shoes, even the stupid helmet. Then I spotted my own rings on her hand.
“Excuse me,” I said to a nearby man. He didn’t respond.
I stepped in front of him and waved. There was no reaction. When I tapped him on the shoulder my hand went right through him.
The ambulance crew were crouching down by my body and doing something complicated with tubes and machines that beeped.
“I’m right here,” I said to no one in particular.
I crouched down in front of the paramedics. “I’m here!”
Their hands and arms went right through me. I lay down on the ground and twisted my limbs so that they overlapped with my body’s. Weren’t ghosts supposed to be transparent? As far as I could tell, I was real and solid. There was no glowing outline or blurred edge. When I twitched my fingers my body’s fingers stayed eerily still, and it was a bit like watching a 3D movie without glasses. One of the paramedics was feeling my neck, or rather, my body’s neck. I felt absolutely nothing. Okay. Stay calm. Don’t panic. I must’ve hit my head. It was a dream. I was unconscious. I was having an out-of-body experience. They would pump me full of drugs and get out a defibrillator and send a thousand volts through my body and zap myself back into my brain.
One of the paramedics covered my body with a white sheet.
“No no no no!” I went straight through the sheet as I sat up. “Come on guys, try again!”
The police had arrived and a constable was busy roping off half the street with police tape while others talked to bystanders. The driver of the car that had hit me, meanwhile, was being checked by the paramedics while another copper stood by. I scrambled to my feet and joined them. I yelled, I jumped, I waved. I even tried to slip into the body of one of the paramedics, but it had no effect whatsoever.
I was dead.
Tomorrow there’d probably be a little piece in the newspaper about a cyclist who had been hit by a car and been declared dead at the scene. Further proof that helmets don’t keep cyclists alive. Proper infrastructure does, but try telling Londoners that. And now my body was lying broken and bloody under a white sheet in the middle of some godforsaken suburban intersection.
Stay calm. I took a deep breath and realised with a shock that it was the first one I’d taken in a while. And as soon as I realised that, I became aware of the fact that my heart was oddly still in my chest and I didn’t need to blink. Oh no. Not at all creepy. I could probably walk through walls too. Going bump in the night might be harder. I couldn’t even twitch the white sheet aside to get a last look at my face.
I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. Ghosts evidently can’t produce tears. I sat down on the curb and tried sobbing myself hoarse but my vocal cords seemed immune to overuse and damage. I don’t know how long I sat there. I vaguely remembered light and dark and rain and sun. Days must have passed. Around me, the police finished their business and my body was carted off. Someone washed my blood off the asphalt with a hose. And then everyone just carried on as though nothing had happened.
I’ve never been particularly religious. If I had thought about the afterlife at all, it had been in the vague, general sense that everything up and to including the meaning of life would become clear after death. And now I was here all alone, and there wasn’t a single angel or black-robed figure with a scythe to explain things to me. Was I going to fade away gradually, or hang around as a ghost forever?
Perhaps I had unfinished business. That’s what happens in movies. The thing was, I couldn’t for the life of me remember anything that would count as unfinished business. The dishes I’d stacked in the sink probably didn’t count, and all right, I’d missed a couple of deadlines at work but I doubted marketing campaigns for coffee filters were what was keeping me anchored to this life. Had I hurt someone? Did I need to be forgiven by Sally, whose braids I’d cut off when we were six? It had to be more important than that, or else the world would be crawling with ghosts.
I stood up and dried my non-existent tears. No point in haunting the scene of the accident like a suburban White Lady. So what next? My funeral? Hm. My parents had died more than a decade ago and I had no siblings and few close friends. If there were only half a dozen mourners it would be terribly awkward. If crowds lined the streets to watch the hearse go by, I’d break down and sob. Either way, best to avoid it. The same went for heading back home. I’d only hang around in my tiny fourth floor studio while a friend or neighbour packed away my tattered paperbacks and chipped mugs and sent them off to a charity shop. I didn’t want to know whether they chucked everything in a box with a muttered “Good riddance” or sobbed over my kitchen utensils while “Only the good die young” played in the background.
No, the best thing to do was try to get some answers. So I took a deep breath that I didn’t need and set off, with only the vaguest idea of what I was going to do.
Seventeen days later I had learned a number of things:
1. Ghosts do not need to eat, drink or sleep.
2. Ghosts cannot change their physical form. Believe me, I’d much rather go along my ghostly business without wearing a cracked bicycle helmet. At least I’d never been the type to cycle in Lycra.
3. All the mediums and psychics between Finsbury Park and Covent Garden are frauds.
In addition to psychics, I had tried talking to priests, imams, yoga instructors and even a bunch of scientists that I found when I drifted past an imposing doorway with the words “Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience” written across the top. None of them paid me the slightest attention. I spent a few days exploring the Tower of London, but there were no ghosts there, just hordes of awestruck American and Chinese tourists. I thought about reincarnation, and hung around the maternity ward of the hospital until the crying of the newborn babies drove me away. I dropped by the intensive care unit and five different nursing homes to watch people die but none of them joined me as ghosts.
It would have been so much easier to be a ghost if I could do something other than observe. Knock things over, for instance. But the only part of the world that was solid to me was the ground. I couldn’t sink through floors and my footsteps never made a noise. I didn’t care about Ouija boards and slamming doors, but I wanted to find the offices of the people who were in charge of implementing and planning and improving and whatevering London’s bike lanes, and then haunt them like it was a cheap horror movie from the eighties. I would have loved to damage the cars of idiot drivers who turned left without indicating or checking their mirrors. But I couldn’t even move a piece of paper, or let out a ghostly wail that a human could hear. I would never be the Vengeful Cyclist.
It’s lonely being a ghost. There are only so many times you can start a conversation with someone who looks and walks straight through you. I began to go to concerts, the theatre, the cinema, anywhere people gathered in large groups. I must have taken part of every walking tour of London in twelve different languages. I hung around pubs and cocktail bars and pretended the drunk football fans and loud students were my friends. Once I floated through the door of a posh house in Knightsbridge and joined a birthday party with about a hundred guests and a dozen waiters. It would have been more entertaining if I had been able to smash one of the champagne bottles.
One day - I don’t know how many days or weeks or months after my death - I started walking. Just to get away from London. I concentrated on lifting my feet and setting them down properly rather than just floating along. At first I took breaks to visit castles, museums and even farms. I had vaguely hoped that animals would be more receptive than humans to messages from the afterlife, but even the cats ignored me. After I passed Oxford I didn’t stop anymore but walked day and night until I reached the sea. I was in Wales somewhere, that was all I knew.
I flung myself down on a rock and wondered if I could walk across the ocean floor to Ireland.
“You might,” said a voice. I didn’t look up. Humans were always talking to each other.
“I’m talking to you,” the voice said. “Dead woman. Ghost. With your bicycle helmet.”
I spun around. A tall figure in a black robe was standing right behind me. They were holding a scythe, and I yelped and leaped back before I could remember that I was already dead.
“Who are you?” My voice wasn’t the least bit hoarse even though I hadn’t talked for ages.
The figure raised skeletal hands in a shrug that made the scythe wobble dangerously close to my nose.
“Not sure,” they said. “But I could be Death.”
“You could be?”
“I might also be a figment of your imagination.”
“How can you be both?”
Death or the Figment of my Imagination shrugged again. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
We looked at each other for a while. At least I think they were looking at me. I couldn’t actually see any eyes under the hood.
“What happens now?” I asked finally.
“No idea. Would you like anything to happen?”
“I’d like some answers.”
“You need questions first.”
“I’ve got dozens. For example, why am I here? What happens after death? Why am I a ghost? Why are there no other ghosts? How long will I be a ghost? What is going on?”
“Let’s see.” Death or the Figment of my Imagination began to count on their fingers. “You walked here. It’s your party. No idea. No idea. No idea. You’re here on this beach talking to me.”
I tried to make sense of the answers but I’d already forgotten the order of the questions. “What am I supposed to do?”
“No idea. What would you like to do?”
“This conversation is going in circles,” I said. I thought for a moment. “Do you know why I am a ghost?”
“No idea. But it’s probably got something to do with quantum.”
“Yes. Alive and dead at the same time. Like a cat in a box.”
What the hell? I thought about this for a bit, then decided I didn’t want to know.
“Why is it just me, though?” I asked.
Death or the Figment of my Imagination shrugged again. This time they somehow dropped the scythe. It made no sound as it hit the ground. “Damn! I still look cool without it, right?”
“Why me?” I pressed.
“Probably because all this quantum stuff is very improbable. The odds are roughly one in a billion trillion gazillion.”
“Can I stop being a ghost?”
“Maybe. I guess you have to become fully alive or fully dead,” said Death or the Figment of my Imagination. “Alive might be difficult if you haven’t got a body.”
“Death is fine,” I said.
“Don’t you want to know what happens when you are fully dead before you go?”
Curiosity got the better of me. “Yeah?”
“But you’re Death!”
“Or a figment of your imagination.”
I wished I could still sigh dramatically. It just wasn’t the same without air in your lungs. “Just tell me how I can become fully dead. And don’t say you have no idea!”
“I wasn’t going to. You have to open the box.”
“The one with the cat?”
“Yeah. Once you open it, you’ll see that the cat is either dead or alive. It can’t be both anymore.”
I looked around but of course there wasn’t really a box anywhere in sight. There was just me, Death or the Figment of my Imagination, and their scythe, somewhere on the Welsh coast.
“It’s a metaphor,” said Death or the Figment of my Imagination. “A figure of speech. The cat must be observed. But you are the cat.”
“So I just, what, look at myself?” I glanced down. As far as I could tell, I looked the same as ever. Sensible shoes, jeans, hair in a ponytail, bicycle helmet. Nothing happened.
“Not like that! Observe! Like a scientist!”
I tried to imagine I was wearing a lab coat and writing on a clipboard. Still nothing happened.
Death or the Figment of my Imagination groaned. “No, forget that. Consider your place in the world. Think about how unnatural it is to be both alive and dead at the same time.”
I did what they said and felt something shift, almost imperceptibly. Then a dark patch appeared in the air beside me. I stuck out a hesitant hand towards it.
“Cool,” said Death or the Figment of my Imagination. “You made a portal. Easy to comprehend, I suppose.”
“If I go through, will I die? Properly?”
“Yup. I think.”
“What happens to you then?”
“No idea. If I am a figment of your imagination, I’ll go where you go, I suppose. Are you sure you want to be fully dead?”
I wondered if there was a real afterlife or if I would simply stop existing. What would be worse?
“Yeah, I want to go.”
I took one step towards the portal.
“Bye then,” I said. “And thanks.”
I stepped through.