Death was accompanied by the patter of nurses’ rubber-soled shoes marching briskly along linoleum floors. The smell of antiseptic solution. A gurney wheel, in need of oil, squeaking rhythmically as another patient was rushed past. Starchy white sheets, and the sharp and angular shapes of nurses headdresses.
My body revolted against the crisp order in violent expulsions of browns, greens, and yellows against the bleached hospital whites. Veins stood out on my small, pale neck and spittle flew from my mouth as I screamed. The cool bed sheets, tucked with neat and stern hospital corners, were twisted into angry, damp knots against my writhing body. I am ordinarily a neat and demure person, so you can imagine my cringing in horror at this loud, violent, and messy departure. I shudder when my mind, invariably, drifts to remember it. I am happily brought back to the present by the distant iron clang of the cemetery gate.
There’s a reassuring and settled sameness about death. A contentment. Cool, mossy, and stone strewn. Calm and painless. Life was harder - stressful. My father worked long days in crumbling mining tunnels cut deep into the earth. He would return with his face etched deeply with coal dust, collapsing into wheezy snores on the small, hard bed. I remember, too, my mother’s mouth, tight lipped with constant worry, and concealing two chipped front teeth. I remember my baby brother screaming with hunger and cold. The frigid earth was chipped open by large-shouldered men with axes and spades when that brother died before the spring melt.
Of course there were some joyous moments; things I recollect with nostalgia. There is one thing I remember with a thrill of excitement: Alice Alderidge and I on that summer morning. The air was already thick, humid, and buzzing with crickets as we ran to the creek. It was our favourite place in summer, this particular spot, where water gathered - cool and shaded - in a gurgling pool of deep stone. That day, for the first time, we swam naked. Our girlish squeals were loud, we were exhilarated with the naughtiness of it - with the thrilling and mortifying possibility that someone might appear suddenly and see us.
When we got out to dress on the warm rocks, I turned to watch as she emerged, serpentine and lithe, from the water. Beautiful, was the thought that arrived - unbidden but suddenly completely obvious - into my mind. We were no longer squealing or giggling. Droplets slid over her small, round breasts. Her nipples were nut brown, and bunched tightly and sharply from the cold water. For a terrifying and intoxicating moment, I imagined licking off the sliding droplets which rolled over her honey-coloured skin. She watched me watching her. Her wet, dark eyelashes framed bold and knowing green eyes, like a a bewitching goddess.
It’s difficult, now, to ascertain to what extent Alice Alderidge knew about my sudden and sincere desire to lick her beautiful young breasts, because we both contracted cholera in the following days. She lived, but I died.
I waited, aching, but Alice didn’t arrive at Highgate Cemetery for another sixty years. As with all of the others, a pile of earth was disgorged for her, in dark and damp clods, worms struggling wetly in the too-bright air. Her body was wrinkled and thin, but those sultry green eyes had never dimmed. She had married a man - liar, I thought - and had five children.
I spent those first decades in hope, but she did not remain after death in a ghostly form, as I had; I remained alone.
Sometimes I trace the name I had in life, Adelaide Quail: 1898-1913, with a finger as translucent and light as a whisper. This simple summary of myself is etched in modest stone, now coated with moss. These days, my existence is mainly devoted to observing the predictable contours of the seasons. I sit for weeks on the shoulder of a stone angel to watch the snow gradually recede from sun-filled valleys; I observe the daisies, irrepressible, forcing their way through the frigid ground to greet the spring sun. I lie across the cracked stone of my own grave and watch as rain drops hurtle towards the ground from tempestuous, autumnal skies.
I am contained here, by unknowable forces, to the cemetery and the surrounding forest. I have little influence on the world around me, except maybe a slight parting of the wind as it moves around me. I am impervious to dirt and mud; invisible even after bathing in stagnant September moose swamps, or lying across summer-baked dirt roads. On swirling, freezing winter mornings, my bare feet leave barely perceptible prints as I wander across the lightest drifts. I am unnoticed by all but the lightest and most alert insects and birds, which I can occasionally convince to briefly perch on my insubstantial form.
I spend some of my time, in the warmer months, accompanying tour groups of motley children on school excursions. Modern people tend to burn their bodies - a morbid practice in my opinion - but it has had the positive effect of converting Highgate Hill Cemetery into more of a commemorative museum than an active cemetery. This is a relief to me. Although I am without a body, I am not without feelings, and I used to find the wailing of grieving widows and the cries of children at the graves of recently dead loved ones very distressing. I would stand with them as they cried, wearing an invisible expression of sober and respectful grief.
Now, instead, I join the children as they crowd around information boards about local history, or in front of graves and mausoleums. On one information board, entitled ‘Coal Creek Settlement: 1890-1957,’ there’s a photo of some children from my schoolhouse, taken two years before I started there myself. They see us, but they don’t really see us, these children of the present day. I’ve watched, mere inches from their faces, as they observe my contemporaries. I can sense that understanding is lost somewhere in the colourlessness of the black-and-white image, or in our straight faces (smiling wasn’t in vogue in photographs at the time), or just by virtue of the clothing - which seems strange and old-fashioned to them.
“We’re not so different, you know,” I explain; although they don’t hear me.
The tour guide does nothing to help. My grave, for example, is used to describe the cholera epidemic which gripped the valley in the early 20th Century. It was allegedly caused by the town’s water supply running through the corpses of men crushed in a mining disaster - not a fact that I revelled in finding out about.
“Well, there’s more to know about me than that,” I say, irritably, but this woman was born in 1981, so I can’t blame her for knowing very little about history. There is a fir tree near my grave which outdates this alleged expert of the past by two decades.
She tells the children about my tragic death, at only fifteen years of age. This death of mine, she points out, was one year before the outbreak of the Great War. This provides a convenient segue to shepherd the trotting children to the next stand of graves. Some days I find it insulting that my death is used as merely a pivoting point towards more important and famous deaths, but perhaps I’m being overly sensitive.
The children, by this point, are usually glazed. This is unsurprising. How can children root themselves in the shifting sands of the past with facts and figures? Sixty men dead in a mine collapse in 1913 at Coal Creek. Twenty million dead in the First World War. Better to tell them that Bert Lawrence, visible in the front row of the schoolhouse photo, has a visibly wet nose because he cried on the first day of school. Or that the frizzy-haired Maggie Alderidge (middle right), sister of the aforementioned Alice, was in love with Thomas Woodburne (back right). Or that we would all have snowball fights outside of the schoolhouse when school finished on the last day before our Christmas break. If only I could tell them, I think, with wicked glee, about Alice - wet breasts glistening - smiling at me with sultry confidence. Then they would understand, I think, that the young people in the faded photograph were not so different from themselves.
On a cool autumn morning, one girl, from among another group of shuffling and sniffing school children, looked at my grave and said, to no one in particular, “Adelaide Quail. Adelaide, like the city in Australia, and Quail, like the bird.” Her alert green eyes regarded my name with interest. I felt seen, recognized, celebrated.
“Yes!” I cried, unheard. “Exactly! That’s me!”
I followed the green-eyed girl, endeavouring to be helpful by giving unheard but correct answers to the questions on the worksheet secured in her clipboard. I reluctantly farewelled her when her group left through the wrought iron gates forty-five minutes later. I obsessed over the minutiae of this meeting for glorious and delightful hours afterwards.
Imagine my shock and joy when the girl, my new Alice, walked through again only a week later, wrangling an exuberant, golden puppy on a leash. I walked with them from one gate to the next, telling her about the changing of the seasons, about the hospital with its clean, white surfaces, about my family, and about the schoolhouse. I told her that we could run together through the long grass once the weather warmed again; we could run to the creek. I could show her the spot - the cool, sheltered spot where the water is deep. The air would be hot, and we could drape our dresses on the warm rocks while we swam together.
The first sprinkling of snow dusted the tops of the immense, distant ranges - an event I usually watch for - but I was too distracted to notice. Being unseen and unheard had previously only been a mild annoyance, but now it was torturous. Alice arrived most days in the evenings, dog on leash, travelling from gate to gate, presumably as part of a larger loop. I screamed in agonized frustration each day as she left me, yearning to be seen, to be known. To touch and be touched.
Inspiration came one morning when I observed a dew-covered spiderweb, branching and complex, ordinarily invisible, but illuminated by its wetness in the bright morning sun. Nearby, a hummingbird was extracting nectar from a group of flowers. I hardened my heart and reached for the small bird. Unsure what force my invisible fingers could produce, I was as shocked as the hummingbird when I was able to grasp its tiny, almost weightless body. I twisted its neck decisively. Raised it to my lips. My invisible and blunt but persistent teeth tore at the sinewy body. Feathers twisted and fluttered to the damp earth as warm, small organs burst against my lips. Blood and entrails ran down my chin, coating my mouth and face.
The wait for her was tortuous. I distractedly observed yellowed leaves fluttering to the ground from the oak trees on the hill. Finally, the light started to ebb from the afternoon, turning the sky into a dusty grey. I heard her approaching and stood at the gate’s entrance, willing my nervous mouth - the contours of which I hoped were now, at last, visible - into a smile of greeting.
At first I thought that my plan had failed- they were only a few steps away and continuing unconcernedly. Suddenly though, the dog stopped, eyes fixed on my face, and uttered a low growl. The girl, confused and worried, stopped as well. She looked at the dog, and followed its gaze to the space where I stood in front of them. My smile widened; I was exhilarated by my scheme, ready, for the first time in over a century, to be seen. My Alice stumbled backwards, her eyes wide and a scream beginning in her throat. There was a perfect moment, before she ran, where we looked right into each other's eyes.