I mentioned DANCERS earlier in the week, my first ghost story, written back in ’91, and one which won me 100 quid in the Writer’s News Ghost Story competition and has had a life of its own ever since. It’s been pinched several times and can easily be found online, so why not read it here, where it belongs.
Yes, I know its getting dark, and I know its getting cold, but just come over here for a minute. It wont take much of your time. There’s something I want to show you, someone I’d like you to meet.
Come on. Humor an old man who needs to tell his secret.
It’s just there, behind the church. Yes, in the older graveyard. You’re not afraid are you? I promise, there’s nothing here that would ever hurt you.
Watch out for the moss on the stones. Some of the slimier varieties can get embedded in your clothes, and it’s murder trying to get it out.
Just about there is usually the best spot. Stand quietly now – let your eyes get adjusted to the dark. You’ll soon see why I brought you here.
There she is.
Do you see her? She’s standing right there. Look – in front of the large grey angel, just to the left of the patch of moonlight, almost underneath the old elm. Yes, there, beside the largest headstone.
My beautiful Sarah. Forever young, forever twenty.
See how the red of her hair glows like a burning firebrand, a halo around the white perfection of her face. And look – she’s wearing the dress. The one I bought her for the dance, the last dance of our youth.
Three pounds two and sixpence that dress cost me – more than a week’s wages in those days. Times have changed, haven’t they? My mother told me that I was mad, spending all that money on a slip of a girl who was no better than she should be. But I knew that she was worth every penny.
I was drunk with the delight that danced in her eyes when she tried it on, swaying her hips to get the full effect from the long flowing pleats. I can still remember even now, fifty odd years and many strangers’ kisses later, the sweet honeyed taste of her lips as she thanked me, the pressure of her hands on my back as we embraced.
I wish she would touch me now. Just one touch, to bring us together at the end. If only she could see me. I have so much that I’ve never told her.
How still she is, how composed. The wind refuses to ruffle her, the rain refuses to dampen her, the earth refuses to cling to her. Yet there’s something more.
Look closer. She breathes; she blinks; her lips part and then connect, but there’s no steam. Not like you and I, standing here puffing at each other. It may be almost winter here, but for her it’s late summer, always summer.
Those lips. How deep and red and enticing they were that night, glistening moistly as she looked up at me. Smiling, dancing, laughing, we moved across the dance floor. We were young; the war had barely touched us, and I was in love for the very first time.
The night held the prospect of many new pleasures.
And then he arrived.
I knew he was going to be trouble. Right from the start I could see what he was. American, charming, arrogant and different. Hello excitement, goodbye dependability. In the space of a minute I’d lost her forever.
Shall I tell you how it happened?
He butted in on our dance. Just barged right in, excused himself, and then off they went, whirling round the floor in a flurry of legs and feet and arms. I tried to stop him as they came round again, but he had all the advantages – height, weight, diet, composure and training – while I merely had my rage.
Afterwards, as I lay there on the floor, my tongue counting teeth as my handkerchief vainly tried to soak up blood, I heard a laugh. Looking up through eyes which had already begun to puff up, I saw her. Only six feet away, but already distant, clinging to the conqueror. Her hair made a red scar where it fell on her shoulder, and in that moment I knew what I would have to do.
Can you see? She’s moving. But watch. Do her legs bend?
Does she walk like you or me? Or does she glide, smooth and silent like a great white owl? Listen. Can you hear any gravel being trodden underfoot? Or is there only you and me and silence?
You can’t tell, can you? She deceives the brain, but doesn’t brook too much attention. Try not to look too closely – set your mind on other matters.
Ah yes. The chiming. It must be eight o’clock again. Do you think she’s able to hear? She’ll be heading for the wall. When she reaches it she’ll rest her elbows and look over there, to the field on the left, where the airfield used to be.
I remember the women, silent, waiting, listening for the sounds which would tell them that their men were coming back. They used to peel off one at a time as the planes returned, until only a few were left, watching and waiting and wondering.
See how the moonbeams dance around her, making her glow. So white, so brilliant, so pure. And no shadow to taint the vision.
He was corrupting her. I could see that, even from the few glimpses I had of them together. There they were, laughing and giggling like a pair of kids fresh out of school. And kissing! In public! Right there on the main street for all to see, and again, later, in the pub, flaunting themselves in front of me.
Of course she had stockings. And lipstick. And chocolate. And cigarettes. The price of her innocence, the wages of sin.
I hoped that I wouldn’t be too late, that she was still capable of being saved. I watched. I waited. I planned. He continued with her destruction, but soon I’d have my turn.
See how she moves between the stones, not attempting to pass through them. Does she look solid to you? You can’t see through her, not like in the books or the films. Do you think that if I went over there and put out my hand she’d be able to take it, be able to feel? Would she notice that I was there?
I have often, over the years, thought about why she returns. It is only now, when I’m near my own end, that I’m able to look at it dispassionately. Maybe, when I go to join her, we’ll both understand.
Did you know that I used to be a mechanic? Well I was, and a good one at that. It was easy. I already had the run of the airfield, so it was simple to wangle myself in on the servicing of his plane. Once I had spent five minutes aboard, it was only a matter of waiting for the next flight.
I was subtle though. I didn’t want the plane blowing up over land; not over England anyway. My work might have been noticed. No, the explosion would occur only when the plane climbed to more than one thousand feet. That should do it. By the time it reached that height it would be well out over the channel.
He took it out the very night day.
Look. She’s reached the wall. See how her elbows stay white, despite the damp and moss and stone? Her eyes will be moist. Will those tears be real? Could I perhaps touch them? Touch them and somehow feel her pain?
The next day I saw the flight take off, twelve planes slowly gathering in formation before beginning their long climb into the sky. I watched them until they rose into the clouds, then listened as they droned away. Was there an explosion? Did the droning lessen? I never did find out.
Whether I’m a murderer or not, he never came back, and I never lost the guilt.
Later that day, when the sky was once more filled with sound, the women left the wall, one by one, until she was the only one remaining, trying to pierce the clouds as she peered avidly eastwards, willing him to return.
I stood, just about here, and watched, cursing her for her devotion, cursing him for his hold on her, as darkness fell and the skies grew silent.
It was late summer, and the temperature was dropping rapidly. A light drizzle began to fall, chilling me to the bone.
And still she waited, and still I watched.
See it. There’s the cigarette. How ungainly it looks in those pearl white fingers. It burns – there’s a good quarter of an inch of ash on the end – but there’s no smoke, no smell.
He started her off on that habit. She’d told me that morning that she did it because it made her look like a real lady. As if she’d not been a lady before that. It made me angry, so angry that I could watch no longer.
See how she turns, surprised. Now she’ll look confused for a second. Then she’ll see that it’s only me; only the young, fresh faced, solid, dependable me.
Watch closely now. You may just catch the disappointment as it flits across her face. Look, she turns her back again, returns to her vigil.
One look and I was consigned to despair. I grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her around to face me, demanding that she explain herself. She struggled in my arms but I held on as we moved around in a parody of a waltz; held her as she screamed, her once-beautiful lips contorted in rage.
She pulled away once more, and this time she was too strong for me to hold on to her. Surprised to be free so easily, she lost her balance.
I reached out desperately for her as she fell, slowly, slowly, towards the unyielding gravestones. And then came the sound, the one I hear late at night in my dreams, the sound of her neck as it broke.
So now we wait, she for a sweetheart who will never return, me for an end to the guilt and the hope of forgiveness. Which of us is more dead?
And the time passes and I watch, every night, as she dances, just for me.