When I agreed to go to boarding school for my last two years of school, I really did not expect to face death. Bullying? Yes. Homesickness? Absolutely. But death was not on the agenda. It was something I had hardly thought about - and even then, it was something that I only ever thought about in terms of others. I thought about my grandmother, a particularly unpleasant woman who was undoubtedly asking to speak to the manager of hell at any given moment. I thought about my cat Judas, a scrawny, thin-haired creature who, despite what his name might suggest, would never have hurt a fly (and who died when he ran out into the road after a neighbourhood sausage dog scared him). But never, not in my sixteen long years of existence, had I considered the possibility that I could be next. Death had always felt wonderfully vague and distant to me, like the end of a rainbow. Like a relative in Australia who kept saying she would visit even though she had no intention of it. I knew that death would come eventually, but the how and the where and the when were things I had neglected to consider.
Well, let me tell you. Let me tell the how and the where and the when.
How: the discovery of an unknown shellfish allergy.
Where: the canteen of a boarding school in the depths of the English countryside. More specifically, the corner table: the table reserved for the friendless.
When: my first week studying there.
Oh, and the why? Because these schools, these stupid posh schools, think that it is appropriate to serve crab for dinner.
Crab. They obviously need to be alerted immediately to the existence of fish and chips.
Anyway. That is how I died. At the hands (or should I say claws?) of a crab.
They held a memorial for me, one that involved a lot of confusion and bewilderment given no-one really knew who I was. The thing I heard most there was what was her name again; there was an intense debate amongst the year nines as to whether I was called Laura or Lauren.
My name is Lana, by the way.
Before the memorial, the principal rang up my parents. I heard my mother screaming about pressing legal charges. Good for her; I hope she can squeeze enough money out of them to pay for that conservatory she’s always wanted to add on to the back of the house.
My dorm mates looked a bit sad for about two hours, then they started fighting over my furnishings.
As for me. Since my death my life has taken a bit of a weird turn. I had better try to explain.
So there I was. I had gone through all the throes and pains of death, which for me largely consisted of a feeling of emptiness in my lungs and dread in my heart. I knew I was dead because I could no longer feel my body; all of my limbs and organs felt entirely numb. And yet… something of me was still there. I could see as though through a camera; I could hear as though through the surface of a pool. And somewhere, somehow, my mind was still whirring. I was still a part of our silly little world.
With a great effort I managed to heave the remnants of myself out of my body and in the direction of the teachers’ table. Like any frightened teen, I found myself seeking the assurance of some sort of authority. But when I got there, I was entirely ignored.
It’s like I’m a ghost, I thought. And then, Oh, God.
Yes folks, you guessed it: I had become a ghost. In a school I barely knew, full of people who ate crab.
Suffice to say I was more than a little frightened by this point, but I could see that the assurance I so desperately craved was not going to come from the school faculty. So I left the dining room, dragged myself out into the grounds and ghosted around them for a while. Trying and failing to calm myself with the greenness of the English countryside.
I would probably have stayed there forever: eternal, in the greenness.
But before I could make that decision, I heard voices.
‘She can’t have gone that far… she only died half an hour ago…’
‘You never know. These students have no loyalty these days. She may never set foot in the school again.’
‘Stop being cynical, Gwen, she’s probably just frightened and confused.’
‘That’s no excuse for leaving her body unattended like that.’
‘Some people just aren’t particularly attached to their mortal coil.’
It was at this point that the owners of the voices entered the clearing in which I had found myself, and suddenly I was face to face with two women. Two translucent, terrifyingly beautiful women.
‘And here she is!’ said the first woman, smiling as warmly as a ghost is able to smile. ‘Hello, child. My name’s Maggie, and this here is Gwen. We’ve been looking everywhere for you! Lana, isn’t it?’
I stared intently at the two ghosts, trying to better understand them. It seemed to me that Maggie’s beauty was less intimidating than Gwen’s. Whilst she was all blue silk and blonde plaits and kind eyes, Gwen was all red velvet and even features, pale skin and dark hair.
‘You’d better come with us, Lana,’ Maggie told me, still smiling. ‘They’re holding a meeting in the library in your honour.’
‘Honour?’ Gwen laughed spittingly. ‘It’s hardly about honour, Maggie.’
And that was my first introduction into the world of the dead: a beautiful woman in red laughing upon my honour.
When we got there, the library was overflowing with spirits. They were all intersecting each other and passing through one another, creating the strange illusion of waves in an ocean of ghosts. Sunshine from the skylights dripped through so that the ocean sparkled; the bookcases that lined the room shone with golden titles. All in all the image that was created was one of otherworldly splendour. I felt afraid.
As we entered the room, a hush fell and the oceans parted to allow us into the centre. Everyone’s eyes turned reverently to Gwen and Maggie. I felt myself drifting behind them as though they could hide me, as though they were more than a pair of diaphanous dresses.
‘Another has died on school grounds,’ announced Gwen commandingly. ‘Name: Lana. Status: student. I trust you will all make her feel welcome.’
A bored murmur of assent.
‘Excellent. You may all disperse.’
Gwen’s introduction was underwhelming to say the least. As soon as her semi-monosyllabic speech was over, the ghosts began leaving in their masses, drifting easily through the walls until the ocean was nothing but a puddle of stragglers. Some of the older-looking ghosts shot me dirty looks, whilst the younger ones eyed me with curiosity. Nobody spoke.
Turned out the boarding school of the dead was about as welcoming as the boarding school of the living had been. Even Gwen left almost immediately, clearly considering her speech to have been more than adequate. I watched mournfully as she threw herself through the skylight without so much as a farewell.
‘Great,’ I muttered. If I had not already been dead, I would have been seriously contemplating suicide at that moment. ‘Nobody was interested in me when I was alive, nobody’s interested in me now I’m dead, I’ve got nothing to do all day except try to find my way around this school that I never even wanted to go to -’
‘That’s not quite true.’
I spun around (slowly; I still hadn’t quite got the hang of being without a body). Behind me, Maggie was smiling again.
‘You’re quite the pessimist, aren’t you?’ she said. Then, without waiting for a response: ‘Being a ghost is a lot more fun than you might think. We have hobbies just like anyone else. And do you know what the best one is? Haunting.’
She handed me a book. The book was translucent, like us, but it was also the most beautiful book I had ever seen. The cover shimmered and morphed in its opalescent glory, and the words looked as though they were formed of liquid gold. I ran my fingers appreciatively over the embossed title: Haunting: A How-To Guide. And then over the author’s name: Maggie. I glanced up at her. Undead celebrity that she apparently was, Maggie had neglected to include her surname.
‘Did you write this?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ Maggie told me. The constant smiling was starting to become a bit disconcerting. ‘I wrote it in my first year of haunting. Back then everything was fresh and new. I got up to the most wonderful tricks. I even managed to convince a schoolboy to stab himself. James, he’s called. He’s still sulky with me to this day. Like, come on. It’s been centuries. Who holds onto grudges that long?’
I turned around (again, with difficulty). In the doorway to the library was another ghost, this time one with a serious face and a school uniform. James?
‘Don’t listen to Maggie,’ he instructed me, drifting closer, close enough to reach out and not touch. ‘She was manipulative in life and now she’s manipulative in death.’
‘And James,’ responded Maggie bitingly. ‘Was friendless and easily-manipulated in life. In death, he is merely friendless.’
James shrugged. ‘I’ve moved beyond the need for constant validation.’
James and Maggie stared noiselessly at each other, making battle with their eyes. I felt rather uncomfortable and began leafing through the book.
Chapter 3: How to Drive your Ex-Lover into Madness from Beyond the Grave.
I slammed the book shut.
‘James, why don’t you show me your favourite haunts?’ I suggested, suddenly feeling very strongly that mine and Maggie’s morals did not quite align. James grinned in surprise.
‘I’d love that.’
James spent the rest of the day showing me all the corners of the school where he had found silence, or solace.
The first part of our conversation was more a monologue on James’ part, a kind of anti-Maggie tirade that could rival the rage of a Shakespearean tragedy, but once he had this out of his system we chatted and found that we had a lot in common. For example, we had both died at the same age. It felt strangely intimate, being frozen together at the same point in time. The only thing we did not have in common was that, whilst James had been gutted at having his education cut short, I considered the absence of exams the only perk my demise.
‘How can you not already miss it?’ he asked me passionately. ‘Learning, the pursuit of knowledge?’
‘The essays,’ I added, entirely unable to relate.
Still, I respected James. He stayed away from the library - this was Maggie’s turf; for the living portion of her existence she had been a librarian and her death had actually come about when she was reaching for Volume 6 of Paradise Lost on a particularly rickety ladder - but he found other ways to learn. He had sat in so many classes that he was fluent in two dead languages and three living ones, he knew every word of Homer’s Odyssey off by heart, and he was essentially a walking periodic table. Talking to James was learning; it was being fed wisdom. Not the way one learns in school, though. I felt like he was helping me to understand reality.
I felt like he was helping me understand the world we had once lived in: the one we could only dream of now we were dead.
So, that’s it. The story till now. Protagonist: me. Side characters: the crab, Gwen, Maggie and James. Ending: to be determined.
I have an eternity before me. And, funnily enough, only now I have died do I feel that I might be able to understand life.
If James will teach it to me.
If James will be my library.