PART SEVEN – THE OTHER SPIRITS
] HANDSHAKES ]
Back in the library, the logs on the fire were slowly dying. Ben was just about to top them up, when a cold breeze blew in through the chimney. It blew through the cobwebs, shuffling the pages of an open book that was resting upon the table. The book was one that Ben had been studying; and was entitled ‘The Hedgehog.’
The hairs on his arms stood on end as the room spun out of the tranquillity he had grown used to. Something had changed; he was no longer alone.
The floorboards beneath Ben creaked; as a tall bony character entered the room. His face was gaunt, and his lips looked as though he had been sucking on lemons. He wore a tweed suit with buttoned pockets and carried a pocket watch with a crack in its face. He looked at Ben through a pair of pale eyes as he placed himself on the floor next to the fire, his bones clicking as he bent.
Behind him followed a girl of around ten, she had large staring eyes and a head full of curls and was blowing bubbles through a wand. She wore a lace frock, and there was an old-fashioned air about her posture and solemn expression, which made Ben feel slightly uneasy. He watched as she positioned herself beside the fire next to the man, tucking her legs neatly to one side as she sat.
The final character to enter the room was an Old English sheepdog; with a floppy fringe that hung over his face. He was grasping a book between his teeth entitled ‘The Border Collie.’
His fur rippled and moulted as he shook, which caused Ben to sneeze; but this dog was easily the friendliest of the three and made himself comfortable at Ben’s feet.
Ben thought back to just after he had died: The point when he was standing at the bus stop in Bethnal Green. He remembered how he had felt very different and been aware of every tiny thing that was happening around him.
These had been things that he wouldn’t have noticed had he been alive. He didn’t remember paying much attention to the way people fidgeted when they were bored, how ants sometimes carried things, how foals that whinnied in fields are often answering another horse’s call; it was only since dying that he had felt hypersensitive to every movement.
It was a hard feeling to explain; almost like experiencing a sixth sense. Right now, as these spirits entered the reading room, Ben saw colours and felt feelings that indicated how each of them had felt about the life they just left. It was as if he had a power to read into them before they had even spoken.
THE COLOUR BEN SAW WHEN THE MAN HAD ENTERED THE ROOM: PALE GREEN
HOW HE FELT: VERY COLD, SHIVERY AND EVEN SLIGHTLY FEARFUL. BEN HAD BEEN SURPRISED TO SEE THE SPIRITS, BUT THE MAN’S PALE EYES LOOKED AS IF HE HAD SEEN SO MANY THINGS HAPPEN IN HIS LIFE THAT HE SELDOM NEEDED TO SHOW EXPRESSION ANYMORE. THERE WAS NO SMILE ON HIS FACE, ONLY A STREET MAP OF LINES.
This man had the habit of licking his fingers as he turned the pages of his book. This was a habit that Ben had always found quite irritating. The book the man was looking at was entitled ‘The Rainbow Trout’ and he muttered incoherently to himself as he stumbled through the words.
He was quite a distracting character, who Ben found intriguing, and struggled not to stare too much as to annoy him. He seemed intelligent; and whatever it was he was reading, he was clearly very passionate about the topic.
THE COLOUR BEN SAW WHEN THE GIRL ENTERED THE ROOM: WHITE
HOW HE FELT: A BIT NERVOUS. HE COULD SEE THAT SHE HAD BEEN BROUGHT UP BY SOMEONE UPPER CLASS. PROBABLY SPOILT BUT SHE SEEMED TROUBLED. SOMETHING UNUSUAL AND CLEARLY TERRIFYING HAD HAPPENED TO HER.
The girl was no longer blowing bubbles. She held a book in her hands but she didn’t read it, and Ben couldn’t see the title. She strummed her bitten fingernails against its cover and looked dreamily at the fire flames.
THE COLOUR BEN SAW WHEN THE DOG ENTERED THE ROOM: YELLOW
HOW HE FELT: HAPPY AND RELAXED. THE DOG WAS VERY FRIENDLY AND ACCEPTING OF PEOPLE. HE HAD LIVED WITH A KIND FAMILY AND HAD A LONG AND HAPPY LIFE, WITH NOTHING LEFT THAT HE NEEDED TO GO BACK AND CHANGE.
The dog appeared to be satisfied with his choice to be a border collie and had come into the reading room to take a nap. After having his belly tickled, he rolled back onto his front and fell asleep contentedly with his legs tucked under Ben’s armchair.
Ben found it hard to concentrate on what he was doing. The man kept on muttering, the girl continued to strum her fingers against her book cover and the dog was snoring loudly.
Ben noticed that the girl was trembling as if she was cold or frightened, and he decided to talk to her. Ben introduced himself to both she and the man, and shook their hands politely.
The Man’s hands were bony, with large bulging veins like tree roots and he wore a gold signet ring. He introduced himself as Fergal Montague, in a tone that was flat and uncomfortable. Ben imagined that he must have lived a life in a busy line of work, leaving little time to socialise.
The girl’s hand was cold and trembling; she introduced herself as Ophelia Searle, adding that the sleeping dog’s name was Barney. She looked at Ben as though she wanted him to ask more questions.
‘I’m scared,’ she whispered finally.
Ben looked into her eyes; they were flickering and fearful like a mouse being confronted by a cat which made Ben feel sorry her. He had felt that he was far too young to be dead already but Ophelia was at least three years younger than him.
He smiled at her reassuringly and asked if she wanted to go for a walk. He was feeling a bit achy from sitting in the same position for so long and needed to stretch his legs, and Ophelia was clearly distracted. She didn’t look as if she’d be able to focus on selecting a life for herself anytime soon. So together they wandered around the corridor maze.
Ben explained how he had died to Ophelia and spoke a little about Anna, hoping that this might bring her to open up to him. Something about her was both haunting and intriguing and he was sure that she had an interesting story to tell. He also hoped that maybe he could help her and be her friend. The library was a very strange place to be, and you could never have too many friends during a time where decisions were so important.
Ophelia said very little, but Ben noticed that she was looking thoroughly at everything around her and guessed that she had developed a heightened awareness of little things that were happening too.
Together they observed the sloped corridor ceilings. These were supported by wooden beams that were decorated with nesting pigeons and antique lanterns that swung on chains. A family of mice scurried along the floorboards in front of them and disappeared down a drainpipe, as the last one’s tail vanished into the darkness, Ophelia spoke.
“I miss mother,” she sighed, “I wasn’t supposed to die yet.”
Her voice was high pitch and vibrato and Ben couldn’t make out whether this was through class or nerves.
It was then that Ophelia took a deep breath and shared with Ben her story.
] OPHELIA ]
Ophelia was born into a wealthy British family, who had been living in Germany for several years. Her dad worked for a toy company and Ophelia had every toy a child could dream of.
Ophelia had an amazing bedroom that included a four poster bed decorated with Christmas tree lanterns, and a wooden dolls house the size of a garden shed, with a ladder to reach the top level. She even had her own pair of pointy Siamese cats that followed her everywhere she went.
Unfortunately, this lifestyle didn’t last forever. After one Christmas of terrible sales figures, the toy company went bust and Ophelia’s dad lost his job. This meant that the family couldn't afford to keep their multi-story townhouse in Berlin, so they decided to go back to London, and stay with an equally rich great aunt. Ophelia had sulked for the entire plane journey: and at Heathrow airport, she decided to run away.
Her family had stopped to get a coffee whilst waiting for their taxi to arrive, when Ophelia got up from her seat, and announced that she was going to the bathroom. She wandered off, leaving her milkshake behind her and looked around for a good place to hide. She soon spotted the green exit sign and immediately made a dash for it.
She didn’t mean to get lost; she just expected her parents to panic and come looking for her. She wanted them to know how much the move had upset her and take her back to Germany to be with her friends.
On her back was a pink rucksack that she had taken on the plane as hand luggage. This contained a purse with eight pound coins inside it and Ophelia used some of this money to catch a bus into central London.
Once she was there, she caught another bus which took her around the famous sights. She took photographs of the houses of parliament, the river Thames and Tower Bridge, but after the tour had finished, Ophelia started to feel tired and alone. She also felt hungry.
Looking at her watch, she could see that she had been missing for approximately three hours. It seemed a lot longer; and she was starting to get scared. Why hadn’t anyone found her yet? She didn’t even know what part of London her great aunt lived in, nor did she have any contact details for anyone in England. She was unsure of the code for reaching Germany, so she couldn’t even phone a friend for advice.
She looked around for people to ask, but she didn’t see anyone approachable. Everyone seemed busy and preoccupied, dashing around with their brief cases in a brainwashed world. Ophelia decided that the best person to help her would have to be the most famous person in the whole of England: the Queen. Her mum had often told her stories about girls going to the palace for tea with the queen and Ophelia believed these to be true.
She had seen Buckingham Palace on the bus tour and decided that it should be easy enough to find.
There was a dirty street map lying on the pavement; Ophelia was usually fussy about picking things up off the ground, but she snatched the map up, hastily and carefully followed the route to the palace.
Somehow she got it wrong; it began to get dark and it wasn’t long before Ophelia found herself completely lost on a dodgy street, full of clubs and bars. She was cold and shaky and desperate to find her family.
A policeman was plodding the street, and if Ophelia had asked him to help her out, then everything would have been okay; but she didn’t and it wasn’t and you can’t turn back time.
Unfortunately, Ophelia was terrified of policemen. This was because if she misbehaved at home, her dad would often threaten to call the police and one time he had even gone as far as phoning the talking clock and pretending to Ophelia that it was a policeman on the other side of the phone. So watching one walking up and down the street, when she knew she had done something she shouldn’t, made her think that if he spotted her, he would lock her up. So she hid from him. She walked down some concrete steps next to one of the bars, zigzagged past some old dustbins and pushed and a door open. She was in someone’s flat.
It wasn’t the most welcoming of homes. The wallpaper was a dark mottled green, and air in the room smelt stale.
There was a table set for a meal. Cutlery and plates were laid out, and there were two candelabras lit with tall flames that flickered. In the middle of the table was an untouched iced cake decorated with black sugar-crafted flowers and the words Happy Birthday Eunice. Six chairs were arranged around the table; each one had a helium balloon tied to its back.
Ophelia found the house a bit spooky but being inside where it was warm and away from all the policemen made her feel relieved. She wanted to find somewhere to sleep until daylight and then she planned to search properly for her parents.
She walked through to the corridor, which was tiled in cold colours and housed a stuffed crow in a glass box. She hoped that the house might be empty, or failing that maybe someone kind might live there and allow her to stay for the night.
Ophelia heard a banging noise and peered through the doorway it seemed to be coming from. She looked into the sitting room where a creaky rocking chair moved back and forth. There in the chair sat the most frightening looking woman that Ophelia had ever seen.
This woman wore a long black dress with a high collar and lace around the cuffs and hem. A pearl necklace swung down to her tummy button and a black hat rested upon her silver hair. Her face was fully concealed with black netting that hung from the hat and she was banging a black raven headed umbrella against the wall, whilst muttering to a caged blackbird. Ophelia moved swiftly away.
There were two bedrooms. One was decorated black, with crow paintings surrounding the bed. She guessed it must belong to the scary woman; so she slept in the other one, which was cream, with a brass bed. It wasn’t very comfortable at all; the mattress had such a huge dip that it touched the floor, but somehow Ophelia managed to sleep heavily throughout the night.
Whilst she was asleep, one of the helium balloons blew into a candle flame and exploded setting the table cloth on fire. The fire spread to the carpet, and the fumes spread all over the flat.
Ophelia never woke up.
Now she was stuck in the library, frightened, and talking to Ben. Ben and Ophelia both had one thing in common, neither of them wanted to be anything other than what they were before they died. People missed them and would struggle to live with their losses, and neither Ben nor Ophelia could do anything to stop the hurt. They could only become something else that could visit their loved ones, and hope that they could be recognised.
] THE ONE TIME BEN AND OPHELIA MET ON EARTH ]
Ben was happy that Ophelia had spoken to him. He now realised why she was posh, serious and frightened and was glad that he wasn’t the only one in the same situation. Ophelia had stopped trembling and she even smiled faintly. As she and Ben strolled back to join the other spirits in the reading room, she turned to Ben and asked if he remembered her.
Ben looked into her unusual green eyes and shook his head. Ophelia showed no disappointment, and her expression remained neutral as she told Ben about the one and only time the two of them had met on Earth.
It was a warm sunny day and they had been at the same open air swimming pool. Ophelia’s family had come to England for the summer, and rather than spending hot, sticky days in the London crowds, Ophelia’s aunty had taken them to explore the Devon coast.
Ben and Anna were nine and Ophelia was just five. Her father had blown up a pair of orange armbands to help keep her afloat. These bands squeezed around her arms tightly and made her move awkwardly as she wandered towards the pool, breathing in the combined scents of new rubber and chlorine.
She turned around, hoping to grasp the warm hand of her dad, but he was no longer with her. All she could see was the back of his shirt and the familiar bob of his head as he disappeared into the poolside bar. Her mother was stood at his side, tapping him with her hand as she laughed.
Ophelia was scared. The water looked deep and she didn’t know which end was the shallow one. Her insides burnt and her face felt hot as she cried and called for her parents. Neither one of them came.
Ben and Anna were in the water, playing on a frog shaped float. Ben paused when he noticed the little girl on her own, standing at the edge of the deep end. Anna followed his gaze.
“She’s too young to be on her own,” Ben said. “I wonder where her parents are.”
“We should see if she’s okay,” Anna agreed.
The two of them clambered out of the water, and together they went over to Ophelia. Her green eyes were wary and deer-like as she looked at the two of them. She explained that her parents had left her alone and she wasn’t yet able to swim. She pointed out two distant characters behind the glass front of the bar.
“They will collect me when their finished in there,” she said, wiping her eyes.
Ben and Anna were too young to go into the bar and speak with her parents, and even if they could, they wouldn’t have known what to say. So they showed Ophelia where the shallow end was and looked after her in the water.
Ben and Anna had been having swimming lessons at school and were both fairly competent. Ben asked Ophelia if she would like to learn doggy-paddle and she nodded.
Anna told her to hold onto one of the silver bars that framed the pool and practice kicking her legs. Splash droplets sprayed everywhere, but Ophelia was smiling, happy with the attention she was receiving. Ben and Anna swam either side of her as she bobbed in the water, copying their movements.
After about an hour, Ben suggested that she tried without the armbands. Ophelia was relieved to get the circulation back into her arms, and shook her hands before sliding into the water.
Anna stood beside her and Ben in front as she swam her first width.
Ben smiled as he remembered the story, and Ophelia grinned too.
“I always remembered that day.” She concluded, “Not only did you give me the attention I was craving, you also taught me a skill that would one day save my life.”
“It saved you?” Ben replied, eyes widening as he spoke.
“Yes.” She replied. “Two years ago I was climbing a tree, and I slipped and fell into a river. No one else had ever shown me how to swim, and no one was around to rescue me, but I remembered what you taught me and I swam to safety. It was deep and scary, but thanks to you and Anna, I lived for a couple more years.”
When the two spirits entered the reading room, Barney opened his eyes, and Fergal had stopped reading and was scratching around his hairline.
“Everyone in this reading room is connected in some way.” Ophelia whispered.
] FERGAL ]
Although he seemed distant, Fergal spoke in a broad country accent that reminded Ben of home.
“It’s very difficult to concentrate in here.” He said aloud, “Where have you two nippers been anyway?”
“Walking and talking about how we died,” Ben replied. “Do you have a story you’d like to share?”
“I was a fisherman,” began Fergal, nodding towards his choice of books. Ben flicked through the titles with interest:
FERGAL’S CHOICE OF BOOKS:
THE RAINBOW TROUT
THE CAT FISH
THE MONKEY FACED EEL
THE GREAT WHITE SHARK
“Why would you want to become a fish if you spent your time on Earth killing them?” Ben asked, intrigued.
Fergal went on to explain that he didn’t kill the fish: he merely caught them, kept them in water, studied them and then returned them to their natural habitat.
His job was to write books on the different species of fish that fascinated him. Now he was dead, he wanted to become a fish next. That way, he could find out for himself first-hand what it’s like to live amongst the waves. He could also get to know the creatures he had spent a lifetime trying to understand.
Fergal had been through a lot in his life. He had fought in the war and survived both an earthquake and a train crash. So in some ways he was a very lucky person and in other ways an extremely unlucky one. He had retired from the marines early due to a bullet injury in his left leg, and had taken up writing about marine biology as both a hobby and a career.
He was seventy-one and in good health when he had been killed by a deadly jellyfish.
He had been in Australia at the time, studying sharks for his latest book. Diving in the Great Barrier Reef had always been something that he had wanted to do, and he was excited when the opportunity had arisen for him to photograph the Great Whites for an encyclopaedia.
He dove off a yacht and swam deep into the ocean, exploring the types of coral and swarms of fish as he searched around excitedly for the sharks. It was very unusual for Fergal to become excited; but somehow the thought of sharks caused a happy ripple across his body, like an electric current. He had no fear of them at all. To him, they were the most interesting and powerful creatures alive.
It took a couple of hours of being under the sea before he finally spotted one; and when he did, his pale eyes shone and crinkled lips curled upwards at the sides. His flippers kicked as he moved along, and he imagined that he too was a shark as he swam towards it.
The shark remained a blue shadow in the distance for quite a while, probably swimming at Fergal’s speed, which would explain why it didn’t appear to be getting much closer. It must have stopped because Fergal finally managed to catch up with it, and once close, he positioned himself just metres away, behind a mass of seaweed. He was just getting his camera ready to zoom in close, when a Box Jellyfish swam underneath him.
Unfortunately, Fergal was so fascinated by the shark that he failed to notice the jellyfish. He must have moved suddenly or done something to frighten it because it stung him right in the chest.
Fergal had a terrible reaction to this. With no one close enough to help him, he blacked out and tragically drowned.
He had woken up to find himself, safe and warm in the cabin of a boat with no visible injuries. He thought that he might have been saved and that some sort of miracle had occurred. Then when he came up on deck, he realised where he was going.
The boat was heading towards the library. He recognised it straight away.
Fergal wasn’t disappointed to end up in the library. He saw it as a new chapter, and he had no interest whatsoever in becoming a human again. If anything he would be relieved once his form changed into something different.
Fergal had been a loner in life, with only his tropical fish tank and research books for company. He had very few friends, and had never been married or had any children. To him, choosing to be a human was the most stressful choice a spirit could make.
It was a popular choice because humans have so much power over the planet, but constantly having to follow a clock and be in places at certain times was always a bother and having to be confined in buildings such as schools and workplaces for large portions of the day also irritated Fergal a great deal. Humans spend far more time rushing about the place in bad moods than any other species.
He shared these thoughts with Ben, Ophelia and Barney who agreed with him, without sharing the same bitterness. The difference was that they all had people who they wanted to return to. They had all been loved.
“Ophelia told me that in this reading room, we’re all connected in some way.” Ben told Fergal. “Did you ever meet me on Earth?”
Fergal shook his head.
“No, I never met you. I knew your dad.” He explained.
] HOW FERGAL MET BEN’S DAD ]
When Fergal was in his late forties, he spent his weekends studying the sea life at the old aquarium on Plymouth Hoe.
This aquarium was where Ben’s dad worked when he was seventeen, cleaning out the fish tanks. This was his first and only job. The aquarium was managed by Steve’s dad: the granddad who Ben had never met. Ben had a very good relationship with his mum’s parents but had always wondered why he never saw his dad’s.
As a teenager, Steve was different. He had ambition, and wanted to become a wildlife photographer. Naturally, he looked up to Fergal and often asked him questions about his photography equipment. Fergal believed that he would go far in life. He always remembered his manners and was good at making conversation with the visitors.
Steve’s dad was a round shouldered man, who always wore a tailor made suit, with creases ironed into his trouser legs. His hairline had receded into a V-shape and he wore thick lensed glasses and an open mouthed smile, which exposed his gold fillings. He was a respected man, used to being obeyed. All his life Steve had feared him and had been careful to do as he was told.
Fergal was awkward and lived in his own world, where he believed animals to be superior. He was almost ashamed to be human, often speaking of the damage we were causing to the rainforests and oceans. Steve was happy to have discovered a role model, who cared for more than money making. Sometimes after work, they would walk together by the sea and look out for seals. Steve would sometimes confide in Fergal, and Fergal got the feeling that Steve lacked confidence and was looking out for someone who could reassure him.
One day something horrible happened. Steve had just finished a shift and was buttoning his coat to leave, when he felt a dark shadow cast over him. He breathed in the familiar scent of cigar smoke, and as he turned, he found himself face to face with his father. His face was an angry tone of purple and his pupils were black with rage. He flickered cigar ash on Steve’s shoe.
“You’ve let me down son.” He snarled.
Steve stood frozen to the floor, hands still stuck to his button hole.
“Do you have any idea how much money you’ve cost my business and I?” His father continued, spit firing from his gap-tooth as he spoke.
Steve was unsure of what he had done; he had never seen anyone so angry. He didn’t dare ask. He stood in silence listening to the words: words that would scar him forever.
“You make me sick son, I don’t ever want you to set foot near me or my business again! You’re good for nothing!”
The door slammed, and that was the last Steve saw of his father.
Steve left the building confused, with his eyes prickled and head hung in shame. He found a bench, and watched the seagulls bobbing on the surface of the sea in front of him. Fergal sat silently beside him. It was the one time that Fergal considered putting his arm around a human, but he felt awkward. He was angry about what Steve had done too, but unlike Steve’s father, Fergal knew it had been a terrible mistake.
“I don’t know what I did.” Steve whispered.
“That’s probably a good thing.” Fergal replied.
“Tell me.” Steve pleaded; looking into Fergal’s soft, knowing eyes.
“You used the wrong solution to clean the tanks.” He explained.
“Were the fish okay?” Steve asked hopefully.
“No, they died.”
“All of them?”
“All of them.”
Steve got up and walked away, angry with himself, and from that day on he believed his dad: he was good for nothing.
Fergal didn’t see Steve again until seven years later.
It was the county show and Fergal had agreed to photograph the prize winning life stock for the local newspaper. In his free time he decided to look inside some of the other tents. Steve was sitting at a homemade jam stall alongside a slim woman with bobbed mousey hair and perfect teeth.
He introduced her as Sandra, adding that she was his girlfriend. She was well dressed, unlike Steve who was wearing an old grey t-shirt with tattered jeans. Sandra explained to Fergal that the jam was made by her parents and she was watching the stall so that they could look around.
Her tone was firm and Fergal could tell that she was the dominant one of the two. Steve looked bored. He picked the skin that surrounded his fingernails and scuffed his trainers along the grass. Sandra muttered at him to stop fidgeting and suggested that he and Fergal go for a coffee together.
They sat on hay bales, gripping onto their polystyrene cups, and catching up with each other. Fergal was surprised at how Steve had changed. He had no ambition and he had achieved very little since leaving the aquarium. His days were spent lounging in front of the television and gorging on takeaway food. Sandra tried to encourage him, but it had little effect.
Steve and Sandra had met in a bar and she had fallen for his rugged looks. Initially being a mother figure hadn’t bothered her but she was beginning to get tired of Steve never lifting a finger to help out, and wished that he would appreciate her. She was three months pregnant, and worried about how he would handle the responsibilities that fatherhood would bring.
Expressing her concerns only made things worse, and Steve confessed to Fergal his fears of being unable to bond with a baby. Fergal tried to encourage him but it was useless. The way Steve’s father had treated him had changed everything.
Once Ben was born, Steve tried his best to make an effort, but his self-esteem was so low that he struggled, eventually giving up. He could see how much Ben craved his attention but he didn’t see how he could change. He always saw himself as someone who was ‘Good for nothing.”
] BARNEY ]
Barney had lived a healthy long life and had died peacefully of old age during his sleep. His owners were an elderly couple who lived in a pretty little cottage that overlooked the Yorkshire dales. There were plenty of fields at the back of the cottage where Barney could run around amongst the buttercups and chase the rabbits.
His owners were Ernest and Gwen Clemons who were both retired school teachers.
Ernest enjoyed pottering around in the garden when the weather was warm and Barney would often follow him about, helping him to dig holes and bury bulbs, which was always good fun. Summers in Yorkshire were dreamy; but the sun stayed hidden for the majority of winter, which meant that the days would often drag.
When it was cold, the majority of Ernest’s time was spent in his armchair. He would sit there for hours playing the harmonica and catching up on the news headlines. Barney would sometimes get a bit bored sitting around and would try to jump up on Ernest’s lap.
Gwen was a lot more motivated and always seemed to be busy cooking, walking and baking. When she wasn’t busy with those things, she would be knitting and even made Barney a red woollen coat for the winter. She was always the one who took Barney for walks along the windswept hills and wasn’t fazed by fog or snow. Gwen and Barney loved these walks equally and looked forward to days when the views were clear and cloud free.
Towards the end of Barney’s life; Gwen had to go into hospital to have a knee operation, which meant that they didn’t go walking at all. To make matters worse, Ernest liked to spoil Barney with food, and whilst Gwen was in hospital, Barney had been fed on endless scraps from the fridge and sure enough had ended up gaining weight.
After Gwen’s operation; the walks became shorter and the naps got longer, but the loyalty and love were always strong.
Everyone could see that Barney was a well-loved dog. He had returned to the library in a state that all spirits wish to return: Happy with the life they lived, with nothing very much they’d change and ready to move onto something new.
As Ben ruffled Barney’s fur, he brushed the curtain of fringe from his face, exposing a familiar pair of brown eyes.
Ben and Barney weren’t strangers; and as Ben studied his face, memories of their time together on earth came flooding back to him.
] WHEN BEN MET BARNEY ON EARTH ]
One of Ben’s earliest memories was watching his cousin Lucy being trampled on by a Labrador. Lucy had just learnt to crawl, and Ben watched horrified as the muddy paws traipsed over the baby, leaving prints smeared across her white sleep suit. He remembered hearing her screams and watching his auntie’s concerned expression as she scooped her child up off the floor. He recalled cowering into a corner and the dog chasing him, jumping up and knocking him to the ground. Ben ran and hid under the bed. That was the day he developed a fear of dogs.
Whenever he saw a dog, he would hide behind his mum, and she would tell him not to be a scaredy-cat. His dad was a little more understanding; he suffered with his nerves and could relate to the feelings of fear.
When Ben was three, his parents were going through a difficult time. There were daily arguments that he didn’t know how to stop. Sometimes when his mum and dad were shouting at each other, Ben would tell them that he loved them both, hoping that it would make them happy again, but it didn’t work. Instead, he would be told to go to his bedroom and play with his toys.
Sometimes he would sit on the top stair, clinging onto his toy monkey, until the shouting stopped. When it was all over he would often find his mother crying, and his father smoking outside.
His grandparents didn’t like the situation and took Ben away for a week so that he could have fun, whilst his parents tried to sort out their differences.
They went to Yorkshire, to stay with two of their good friends, Gwen and Ernest in a beautiful stone cottage by the Dales. Gwen and Ernest were in their sixties and liked drinking tea and working on their garden. They had a beautiful garden surrounded by rolling hills.
On the first day of their visit, Gwen set up a slide for Ben, using a sheet of tarp that was going spare in their garage.
She and Ernest spread it out across the grassy bank, using bricks to hold it down at the edges. They then squirted it with fairy liquid and set up a hose so that Ben could slide down it like a water slide.
He slid down on his belly, so quickly that when he reached the end, he continued to slide across the lawn. Once he had stopped, Ben stood up. A bemused expression had spread over his face and he was plastered in a mixture of soap and grass. As he brushed himself clean, a fluffy puppy ran towards him.
Ben screamed and grabbed onto his granddad’s arm, closing his eyes tightly as he felt the rough tongue licking at his cheek.
“Hey, he’s just a puppy.” Ben’s granddad said, soothingly. Barney lay on the floor and rolled onto his back to have his tummy rubbed.
Ben took a step towards him. Even through his frightened eyes, Ben could see that Barney was as young and playful as him.
“Hold out your hand.” His granddad said, taking hold of Ben’s tensed up fist.
Barney sniffed at it, and Ben’s fingers slowly relaxed. He stroked Barney’s floppy fringe from his eyes and smiled.
“He just wants to be your friend.” Gwen told him.
She handed him two bone shaped biscuits. Ben threw these in the air and giggled as Barney caught them in his mouth. From that day forth, he was no longer afraid of dogs.
Ben spent the week tearing down the slide with Barney chasing after him, throwing sticks for him to catch in the woods, and curled up with him in front of the television before bedtime. At the end of the week, Ben even helped Ernest give Barney a bath.
There was a framed photograph at Ben’s grandparents, depicting him and Barney sitting together on a dry stone wall.
Over the years Ben had looked at the picture and remembered Barney, often wondering what had become of him.
Now they were together once again.