He was astonished. ‘No obedience? How on earth…’ He shivered – as much as a ghost could shiver. ‘Never mind. That’s not what I am referring to. In a Christian ceremony, where it is widely considered that there is life after death, why do the vows state a couple will only last until death us do part?’
‘No! You foolish girl!’ he bawled.
Taken aback by his vehemence, I flinched.
‘Ivy,’ Winter said in a warning undertone.
‘Don’t worry. He’s just … loud.’
Winter glowered. ‘We can leave whenever you want.’
‘It’s not a problem.’
Grenville shook his fist at me. ‘Are you even listening?’
‘If you stop shouting, then I will,’ I replied calmly. ‘Right now, it seems like you need me a whole lot more than I need you. Calm yourself down.’
Grenville spluttered but he at least seemed to realise that I was serious. There were plenty of other ghosts I could talk to. They might all be bad tempered but that didn’t mean I was going to stand there and be shouted at for no reason.
He took a moment to compose himself before starting again. ‘I apologise,’ he said stiffly. ‘The time I have been like this has not been conducive to good manners. It is not easy spending two centuries watching the country descend into chaos while being unable to do a thing about it. We cannot eat. We cannot touch. We cannot feel.’ He paused. ‘Not physically anyway.’
‘I can see how that would put you in a bad mood.’
Grenville grunted. ‘Indeed.’ He twitched. ‘The point I am trying to make is that vows hold as much meaning in the after-life as they do in life itself. People don’t realise what damage can be done by saying the wrong thing or damning someone beyond the grave. We would like something done about it.’
I scratched my head. ‘I’m not sure what I can do but I’ll give it a shot.’
‘I sincerely hope you will do better than that. Besides, I am not finished.’
Genuinely fascinated about what he was going to say next, I gave him my full attention. ‘Go on.’
‘Other cultures revere their ancestors.’
I nodded. ‘You want reverence. Check.’ I paused. ‘How would you like that?’
‘Do you know what the Chinese do?’
‘Speak properly, girl! “Er” is not a word! The Chinese provide sustenance for their forebears. They have shrines in their houses. They make offerings and they treat their ancestors with respect! And what do we get? A couple of graveside visits if we’re lucky and then we’re consigned to history.’
‘You want a shrine?’ I turned my head to the wall. ‘You have a portrait. People pass by it every day. It can’t be that bad.’
Grenville’s bushy eyebrows drew together. ‘This is not just about me!’ he barked. ‘This is about every ghost. I’m speaking on behalf of all of them.’
‘All ghosts want shrines? Or portraits?’
‘They want to be remembered!’
Ah. That made sense. ‘Okay.’
‘I’m still not done.’ He fixed me with his yellow stare. ‘This part is the most important. We want our descendants to release us from whatever curses or vows are keeping us in this…’ his mouth turned down ‘…place. That way we can move on. We will tell you who to talk to and what they need to do. They will do it and we will pass on to the next plane.’
I was thoroughly confused. ‘The next plane? Aeroplane?’
A spasm of anguish crossed Grenville’s features. ‘Why you? Out of all the people we could have had, why did we get you?’
‘I’m starting to ask myself the same question,’ I grumbled.
He shook his head in irritation. ‘The next plane of existence! The place where we are supposed to be!’
At risk of being shouted at again, I asked another question. Just for clarification, it would be useful to know if Grenville here was destined for the fiery pits of Satan because he was an evil bastard. ‘The place you’re supposed to be is … heaven?’ I hedged. ‘Or hell?’
He sighed. ‘It’s a much more complicated concept than that. Your tiny brain would not be able to comprehend the truth. In any case, you don’t need to know the specifics, you just need to help us move on. We have established a system. Old-timers get priority. They talk to you, you talk to their families. Everybody’s happy.’
I passed a hand in front of my eyes while Winter nudged me in the ribs. ‘What’s going on?’
‘In a nutshell,’ I said, ‘there are a bunch of ghosts trapped here in this existence. They’ve effectively unionised in order to improve their lot and move onto the next, uh, plane.’
For the first time, Winter looked less wary and more interested. ‘So Old Ipsissimus Grenville is the union rep?’
‘You could put it like that. The trouble is,’ I continued, glancing at the ghost, ‘there’s only one of me. I have better things to do than spend the rest of my life helping out you lot. I’m not unsympathetic to your cause but there are thousands of you. I can’t drop everything and help you out. I don’t have the time.’
‘Why ever not?’
‘Because it would take my lifetime.’ Actually, I couldn’t abandon them now, any of them, but I needed Grenville to appreciate what a massive undertaking this would be.
‘We are not idiots. We will space out our requests.’
He sighed. ‘The living are all the same. They only think of themselves.’ He sniffed loudly. ‘We expected this. We are prepared to help you in return.’
‘Help me how? I asked, cautious now.
‘Not you specifically. All of you.’ He waved his arms around. ‘Come on. Let’s be having you.’
I frowned. ‘Eh?’
‘Not you,’ he snapped at me. He gestured at nothing. ‘Over here.’
As I watched, the air to the right of me started to shimmer. Bit by bit, the shape of a young girl came into focus. She looked to be round about eleven or twelve years old and her clothes suggested she’d died in the 1940s. Her face was grubby and she was holding a dirty teddy bear by the hand. I swallowed. ‘Hi there,’ I said quietly.
Grenville gave her a little shove. ‘Go on. Tell her.’
The girl toed the ground. ‘There’s a place in Dartmoor called Wistman’s Wood. You need to go there. You’ll find them there.’
She blinked rapidly as if she were trying to hold back tears. ‘The dead witches. They’re stuck there. They can’t leave. You need to help them.’
‘I can do this,’ I said. ‘But I don’t see how helping some ancient witch ghosts is going to do anything for—’
‘Shut up,’ Grenville said. ‘They’re not ancient. The last one was placed there last month. Every new moon there is another spirit, another soul cursed in ways that even I can only imagine.’ He shuddered.
The blood drained out of my cheeks. ‘Someone is killing witches?’
‘Help the spirits there and you’ll help the living who are yet to be targeted.’
I stared at the pair of them. It didn’t make any sense – if witches were being murdered regularly, someone would have noticed. This had to be some kind of ghostly ploy.
‘Go there and find them,’ Grenville said. ‘Then we will talk further. You will see that we can help you and your kind as much as you can help ours.’ He bowed his head and started to vanish, his whole body turning transparent.
‘Wait! Tell me why I can see you! Am I a necromancer now?’
He didn’t answer, he simply disappeared from view. I cursed under my breath. ‘Can you tell me?’ I asked the girl.
For a long second, she stared at me with limpid brown eyes. ‘I don’t know what you are,’ she whispered. Then she too dissipated.
The ghost child might not have known what I was but I knew I was hungry, tired and growing more irritable by the second. I hadn’t fully appreciated quite how far away Dartmoor was – or how desolate and bleak it could be at this time of year.
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