The Misadventures of Isabel Instance: VI

The story so far: Isabel Instance, librarian and friend to the dead, and her deceased associate Aelfric Fouracre, are investigating the curious case of Gary Simmons, who has put his mother Maureen in the freezer. Gary, who is a little confused, is under the mistaken impression that they are angels – an impression Ael has not been quick to correct.


It takes a while to settle Gary. He keeps looking at Aelfric Fouracre and crossing himself, muttering, “Praise be.” Eventually Isabel Instance has him sitting down in one of the plastic chairs, with Maureen’s ghost still by his side. Ael perches his buttocks fastidiously on the little sofa, and Isabel joins him. The arm of the sofa is covered with stains whose origins she tries not to consider. Ael takes out his notebook, and starts doodling. Once he’s looked around, he leaves most of the talking to Isabel, noting down anything especially eccentric.

“Right,” Isabel says. “Now we’re all set. Gary, your mother is here. She can hear us, but she can’t communicate. Maureen, do you hear me? What you’re saying doesn’t make sense. Do you understand?”

Maureen’s ghost eddies slowly. In general, it is hopeless trying to talk to ghosts. But the more recently they’ve died, the better the chances – providing the spirit concentrates. From the way Maureen is glaring at Gary, that seems unlikely. He is following Isabel’s gaze raptly. “Oh Lord, grant her the power of speech,” he says, in a strangled voice. “Mother? Mum?”

Isabel quiets him with a hand. “Now, Maureen,” she says. “I’m going to tell you what’s happening. You just listen, love, all right?”

She feels rather than sees the ghost turn to face her. “All right. You have to understand, Maureen, that this isn’t supposed to happen. When you die, there’s supposed to be a light. Just as you’ve probably heard. The light… well… it takes you away, anyway.”

She looks quickly at Ael, who pauses in his doodling a moment before continuing. They’ll never come to agreement on this point, Isabel guesses. “But sometimes, when you die, there’s nothing. No light, just… just a sort of waking up, isn’t it? If you’ve… well, I mean, it depends how you died.” Isabel pauses, and looks briefly at Gary, who has gone quite still. But out of the corner of her eye she sees Ael shift forwards on the sofa, ready to grab him if he makes a move. “Anyway, that’s what’s happened to you.” She takes a deep breath. “And that’s what we’re here to do something about.”

Isabel exchanges a glance with Ael. So far, so good. But this is the hard part. In the old days, as Ael is fond of calling any period from about 860-1920, death was apparently very different. Ghosts were the exception to the rule. Those who died naturally followed the light at once, and even the victims of accidents or murder generally moved on fairly quickly. But recently spirits had started to linger more and more often. The fifties were the start of it, according to Ael, and in the sixties, the situation became dramatically worse. Even old people who’d died peacefully started to hang about the place. Isabel has been to care homes thronging with the undead, so thickly clustered she’s scarcely been able to breathe.

The problem is that ghosts seemed to have a day or two at most to find the light. More than that, and they might linger forever. Some of the tattered remnants of the dead Isabel sees on the street might have been the shades of Romans, or older. The best theory she’s come up with is that the dead have no sense of time: so when they become accustomed to their lot, they remain in it. That doesn’t mean they are content. Every ghost she has encountered has seemed powerfully disconsolate. She asked Ael once why more of them didn’t become apparently real, like him – visible to all, able to touch and feel. He shrugged and told her loftily that it took quite exceptional strength of will. She managed to keep a straight face, more or less, though he tended to be good at spotting the less part of it.

In any event, if ghosts missed the light it seemed to stay missed. How much ghosts regretted this was evident from what happened when the dead did see the light – which is that a flock of ghosts would turn up on the instant, reminding Isabel of drowning passengers rushing to lifeboats, hoping for what – salvation? Redemption? Illumination? Whatever the light might bring, the dead seemed desperately to want it.

And increasingly, they weren’t able to get it. Isabel has seen this even over the time she’s worked with Ael. If he were to measure his job satisfaction by how many ghosts they actually helped, he’d be an unhappy man. It’s just as well, Isabel reflects, that his yardstick is instead human folly. Where death is concerned, it isn’t exactly a scarce commodity.

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Will le Fleming is a novelist. His debut, Central Reservation, is published by Xelsion and available now. Read more...

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