I drafted this version of Clearout to see what it felt like with most of the indirect speech and description turned into direct speech to see how it felt. On reflection I think I prefer this version in many ways. It lets the reader pull out what is going on from the conversations rather than telling them. It still has the lack of jeopardy and a cosy ending but changing that is going to involve more thought and considerably more effort to keep within the (rough) space constraints. A task for another day perhaps.
The sixteenth time it happened he decided he needed to do something.
‘Sixteen? That’s very precise.’ Doctor Lennox said
‘Since I started keeping count.’ Irvine told him.
Lennox took out his stethoscope and blood pressure machine and torch and started prodding and poking at this point.
‘Not as much since we stopped that Napoleonic campaign.’
‘Yes that was nerve racking wasn’t it? Must do it again some time.’ He made a note. ‘Within guidelines then?’
‘Unless they’ve lowered them again to trap the unwary, like the speed limits.’
‘Sorry, but I’ve got to ask, any recreational drug use?’
‘Sure? I’m not off to the coppers if you are.’
‘No Robin, I don’t.’
Lennox nodded and went through a whole set of other questions about any recent dizzy spells, headaches, fainting or flushes.
‘I’m not here about the menopause.’
‘Not worried about that. And that’s not a very appropriate comment these days.’ Lennox chided ‘Any other odd visual symptoms?’
‘Not that I’ve noticed.’’
‘Well, we’ll take a blood sample for a general MOT type thing.’
‘That’s a bit of a leap under the circumstances. Just a general check up.’ Irvine presumed it was cancer cells they were looking for. Maybe liver function, although he couldn’t think why liver problems would give him visions. Lennox interrupted his chain of thought.’ And you should go and see an optician, as you’re seeing things.’ Doctor joke among friends. Except it had stopped being funny for Irvine well before he started counting the sixteen times.
The first time it had happened he’d blinked and sure enough it had gone away. It had always gone away. But more slowly of late, more reluctantly. Which was why he’d gone to Doctor Lennox. Lennox was a good man and Irvine had known him for years. Which was why it had taken so long to go and see him. It was a bit embarrassing going to someone you wargamed with and telling them you were seeing things. Especially when you didn’t know what it was you were seeing. And only seeing them in one place in the kitchen doorway to the hall was weird.
Irvine had struck while the iron was hot, or at least while his innate suspicion of medical types was overwhelmed and went into the optician’s. She hadn’t been much more help. He explained the reason for the out of schedule appointment and she went through the usual checks.
‘Well, your prescription is still good, we only changed that a few months ago. You still need glasses for seeing long distance, so you must wear them for driving. Reading is still good, no obvious problems.’ She flicked through a couple of screens on her computer. ‘The Field test was okay, and the puff test for eyeball pressure acceptable. No obvious signs of glaucoma. Nothing else obviously to worry about.’ She scrolled on down his notes. ‘Did you go and get that ballooned capillary checked at hospital?’
‘I’m afraid I haven’t got around to it yet.’
‘Under the circumstances I think I should make a referral, okay. It’s probably fine if you aren’t getting any other interference with vision, but it would be better to check in any case.’ She typed into the machine and looked up. ‘They might check a few other things while you are there under the circumstances.’ She sighed. ‘There is a waiting list of course.’
‘Of course. Covid. Post Covid.’
‘And the rest.’
He walked slowly home, reflecting all the worries this simple apparition problem was throwing up. Rhona didn’t appear too worried, although she vigorously supported his medicalisation of the problem.
‘Go and see Robin. He’s only a GP but it will start the ball rolling. And don’t forget what you’re there for and spend all the time talking toy soldiers.’ She understood the whole health care approach to things from the inside of course. From his outsider position it sometimes appeared as much akin to faith as anything. Something he had no understanding of. She had lightly murmured about a mental health aspect of course, but she would wouldn’t she? Experts liked to fit most things into their speciality, be they doctors, economists, politicians or plumbers. If you had a hammer, every problem had a nail like quality.
He reached the house and Rhona was already back. He shouted as he entered, ‘Only me!’ and went into the kitchen. He’d left the laptop on the table. He sat and opened it to check his emails. He heard Rhona coming down the stairs and looked up.
There it was again. An impression of a figure. Not a shadow exactly but not quite a solid object either, nor an obvious wispy apparition you could see through. Just the hint, the feeling almost, of a person. An indistinct presence in the doorway into the hall. As soon as he looked directly at it, it began to disappear. It left him, not scared, not desperately worried, but oddly concerned as if there was something he should be doing and he had forgotten what it was. It always left him feeling like that, in addition to the bewilderment of seeing something that wasn’t there. Rhona walked into the room from the hallway.
‘All right darling?’
Rhona looked behind her into the doorway.
‘Did it happen again?’ Not “Did you see it again?” but “Did it happen again?” Fair enough he supposed, he wasn’t sure what was going on himself. You picked the easiest explanation for you. Medics included no doubt.
‘Er, yes, just a flash when I looked up to see if you were there. I heard you coming down the stairs.’
‘Elephant feet eh?’
‘No love, you’re as light as a dove.’
‘Old flanneler’ she said smiling. ‘Right answer though. Coffee?’
‘Yes, thanks. The optician says there’s a wait for Ophthalmology.’
‘There is with everything since the Covid. I mean there was before but now…’ She raised her eyebrows and flicked the switch on the kettle. Her own department was snowed under. But mental health work had always been understaffed. ‘How long?’
‘Didn’t say. They’ll be in touch.’
‘I’ll see if I can have a word.’
‘I’m not urgent Ron, those in front of me will need it more.’
‘I was thinking of my needs, not yours.’
She sat down opposite him, the laptop between them, her head blotting out most of the site, and sight, of his worries.
‘It’s not going to be a physical thing is it?’ she said.
‘Does it happen anywhere else?’
They’d been through this a hundred times before.
‘No. Just when I’m sat here.’
‘Silly question, why not move? You’ve got a perfectly good study upstairs.’
‘I know but…’
‘I want to know what it is.’
‘It’s going to be an associative response to some particular light stimulation by something in there.’ She leaned over and tapped his temple gently.
‘I’m imagining it you mean?’
‘No, that’s simplistic, but if it helps you deal with it…’
‘It doesn’t actually.’
He got up and made the coffee. He brought the two cups back to the table and glowered at the computer.
‘Poor wee man.’ She said and stroked his cheek. ‘It will all be fine.’ She stood up and took her coffee away into the living room. ‘Get the tests run. It might be that capillary triggering it off with the angle of the light.’
He watched her through the doorway into the living room and then looked back at the hall. Nothing.
If it were simple mechanics, why didn’t it happen every time he looked up from the laptop? No there was something else going on. But he didn’t think he was going mad. Not that he’d put it like that to Rhona. But he didn’t.
He typed solidly for fifteen minutes. No stops, no corrections, no in line editing, just writing. Almost stream of consciousness. There was a noise at the front door and his daughter’s voice carried down the hallway.
‘Hiya, only me!
He looked up and there it was again. He wasn’t surprised this time, he’d expected it. He did wonder if it was the time staring at the screen that did it. Fifteen minutes, often more when he was working well, flooded his eyes with light and then looking up must mean he wasn’t getting a full picture in the relative dark of the room. Maybe it was simply an adjustment of light. He didn’t take his eyes off the doorway and sure enough it was fading now, almost gone as his daughter walked in.
‘Hi Dad. You okay?’
‘Hello love, yes thanks. You?
‘Yeah you should hear what Mara did today in the kitchen.’ She rubbed her arms, ‘Why is it so cold in here?’ She walked over to the kettle and switched it on. ‘Coffee?’
He waved his cup in the air.
‘Got one thanks.’ The last of the image faded.
Holly raced through the tale of Mara and the platter of chicken wings and he made a note not to eat there again. She sat at the table and that was the end of work for the day. He shut the laptop and they talked. He hadn’t told her about his problem yet. Wasn’t sure what to tell her. Alex probably knew because although five years younger than Holly he was a listener and cunning. If you wanted to know what was going on in the house, Alex was the one to bribe.
After dinner Irvine went for a stroll down to the village. Thought about going into the pub and decided against, just in case word got back to Lennox. There were shadows and odd lights aplenty on the walk but nowhere did he see any figures appear and then fade. Walking along the lane at the back of the house, overgrown with trees hiding the streetlights he could see dark forms and pools of shadow he was able to make into anything he liked should he choose. But if he didn’t choose they stayed as amorphous lagoons of darkness. Whereas he couldn’t make the thing in the doorway into anything or anyone at will, but he couldn’t stop it looking like someone when he wasn’t trying.
Holly was out when he got back. Alex was in his room, probably playing some game on his console and Johnny was of course at Uni. Rhona was watching the news on television. An activity which showed her age, and his. He sat down with her on the sofa.
‘Uh huh. You?’
‘Apart from this idiot.’ They spent a happy five minutes dissecting the Health Secretary’s lack of ability. A pleasant way to bond again after the worries about his eyesight, brain tumour, mental health.
‘I’m not crazy you know.’ He said. Rhona looked at him.
‘No-one said you were. And we tend not use that diagnosis these days. Just saying.’
‘Political correctness gone mad.’
‘Showing your age. Nobody says that anymore either.’
‘Really? I do.’
‘I may have to resurrect that diagnosis.’
‘What are you going to do about it?’
‘Ignore it probably for the moment. I’ve done everything I can. Seen the GP, waiting for test results. Seen the Optician. Been referred to the Ophthalmology Department . Your lot won’t look at me until the physical defect lot have said not our problem. So not a lot else to do. Get an exorcist in I suppose if we can’t wait.’
‘I wondered if we’d get round to it.’
‘The “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio” scenario.’
‘I’m not planning on ringing the local Jesuit priest if that’s what’s worrying you.’
‘Doesn’t worry me, you’re the committed atheist.’
‘Yes, I am aren’t I? Is it my Mum and Dad you’re thinking of?’
‘I did think originally we’d be leaving them behind somewhere rather than have them with us all this time.’
‘They don’t take up much space do they?’
‘Hardly the point Irv.’
The conversation moved on to generalities. They streamed a film. Holly arrived home during it, telling them as they watched what was going to happen in the next scene after every one that was on screen. At the end Irvine thanked his daughter for the inline captioning otherwise he might have had to pay attention to the plot and the acting rather than listen to her. She flounced off out of the room.
Rhona congratulated him on his parenting skills and went after her daughter telling him she obviously wanted to talk. Irvine wondered why she hadn’t just said, “I’d like to talk Dad” in that case. Maybe no-one did that any more either. He turned the television off and went into the kitchen with his laptop, put the kettle on and opened the document he’d been working one earlier. Did it make any more sense now? Rhona shouted down she was off to bed. He spooned coffee into a large mug, although Rhona routinely advised him against caffeinated drinks so late. He poured the water into the mug and read through the last few hundred words he had written in that burst of creativity. Oddly coherent he thought.
Alex clumped down the stairs and burst into the room.
‘Dad. Don’t worry, it’s only me.’
‘Who else would it be?’
‘You’re joking right?’
‘About what? Irvine asked his teenage son as the boy opened the refrigerator with a crash and took out a chilled can of fizzy orange drink.
‘Not caffeinated. Mum says it’s okay.’ Alex waved the label at Irvine. ‘See?’
‘Not really, but that’s okay, I don’t need to if it’s okay with your Mum.’
Alex leaned against the central island and looked at his father and then at the door.
‘I know about your problem. You and Mum couldn’t keep a secret if you tried.’
‘Oh. Does Holly know?’
‘You are joking now right? Holly? Nice girl, not too involved with the rest of humanity?’
‘You should hear what I say when I’m not being the caring sibling.’
‘You know I don’t think I should. Anyway, what problem?’
Alex rolled his eyes to the ceiling and took a long pull on the can of orange.
‘Well defended Dad. It would have been better if you’d opened with that rather than “Does Holly know?” don’t you think?’
Irvine conceded the point.
‘What do you think you know then?’ he asked.
‘About you seeing someone over there every time you look up from that old steam computer.’
‘My difference engine works perfectly thank you.’
‘You can joke all you like its ancient.’
‘It isn’t, and it works.’
‘Stop changing the subject.’
‘I’m not.’ He looked at his son and at the door. ‘Only a bit. How do you know?’
‘Apart from the doctor’s visits and optician and Mum clucking like an old hen trying not to say you’re crazy?’
‘That’s not a …’
‘…current diagnostic term. I know.’ Alex drained the can and put in on the work top. ‘Anyone else seen it?’
‘That’s not strictly true Dad.’
‘Yeah. Me too.’
‘Are you all right?’
‘I don’t need an optician.’
‘No. I meant…’
‘Does she scare me?
‘Don’t you know who it is?’
‘Alex, all I see is a sort of shadow, not even that, something, and then it disappears.’
‘Makes sense. You don’t believe do you?’
‘Anything. God, spirits, anything like that.’
‘No. There’s no way it could work.’
‘Well, that makes it hard for her to get you to see.’
Alex stared at his father.
‘You really don’t know?’
‘Do you think I’d be going through all this bloody medical palaver if I knew what I was seeing? Irvine said.
‘Okay. Don’t freak out Dad, but it’s Granny.’
‘Granny? You mean…’
‘Your mum, Granny Laidlaw.’
Irvine was stunned. He had expected Alex to have worked out there was something odd happening with him, Irvine. He hadn’t expected this.
‘Did your mother put you up to this? Is that what she did? All that going to bed early rubbish, feeding you this line to make me look daft. Is that it?’
‘Dad! Come on, be serious.’
Irvine took a deep breath.
I’m trying to be. Are you?’
‘Yes, all this ghost stuff, it’s not like you.’
‘It’s not like, you know’ Alex raised his hands in the air and waved them from side to side, ‘Wooooo! type of thing. It’s just granny. It feels okay.’
‘How do you know it’s her?’
‘Dad, I remember what granny looked like.’
‘Have you told Mum?’
‘I’m not in the nut house am I? Course not.’
‘I don’t believe I’m asking this, but, do you know what she wants?’
‘It’s not like she actually says anything. But I think she just wants to get your attention.’ Alex shook his head, ‘It’s not words, it’s just a feeling. Wanting to move on or something.’ Alex walked over and kissed his Dad on the head, something he hadn’t done for years. ‘I’m okay. You should be too. Take a chance and believe eh? I’m pretty sure you’re safe. Night Dad.’ And with that he walked off.
Irvine sat staring at the doorway where Alex left the room. There was nothing. He didn’t feel any chills, no tingling of the spine. No fears or disturbances in the force. He got up and went upstairs.
Holly’s door was shut, Alex’s light was on and there was a low rumble of something on his computer. Rhona was asleep already. Irvine opened the loft and pulled down the ladder and ascended. He turned the light on and went to the cupboard at the back of the. It wasn’t a traditional lumber room or anything, if had flooring and carpeting but there was he admitted an inordinate amount of rainy day material in boxes that had never been opened since he’d put them up there. Must have a clearout.
On a shelf in the cupboard, in velvet drawstring bags were two urns containing his mother and father. What was left of them after the crematorium. He hadn’t known what to do with them after the funeral. He’d hoped for inspiration to let him know what to do with them. It never came. As Rhona had said, months turned into years. On reflection it was perhaps a little unusual. He looked at them and apologised. He probably hadn’t been ready to let go. He lifted them from the shelf and carried them downstairs. They were surprisingly heavy for ashes.
He put them on the mantelpiece in the dining room and said goodnight. He’d take them both out onto the hillside overlooking the loch tomorrow and scatter them where sea and mountain could claim them He went into the kitchen and made sure all the taps were off and the implements unplugged. He sat at the table in front of the laptop, saved his work and turned the computer off. He looked up at the doorway. Was there a figure? He couldn’t see anything. Nothing.
He’d get his blood test results and get his eyes checked in hospital and he knew they would both be okay. He had a warm peaceful feeling.