When the clock strikes three I wake surrounded by the stench of decaying matter, an intoxicating smell as surprising and disturbing this morning as it was forty years ago when I became acquainted with it for the first time. I extract myself from the confines of my sleeping compartment and observe the graveyard as it stands enshrouded in icy silence. The moon is full and its silvery glow illuminates he ancient stones that lean precariously in the overused ground. They say this is the witching hour — the devil’s hour — but I know nothing of such things.
Let me introduce myself, I’m Frank Dippel, and I’ve been dead for forty years.
Dear God, I’m ancient! Ah well, I was ancient when I died, what’s another four decades?
Let me not waste a moment of my precious time, or yours. I stretch out my old joints: my rickety knees and arthritic ankles, no longer made for speed, that’s for sure. I stumble er to the narrow path cut into the ground at the edge of the old stone wall, and follow it towards the gates. I keep my eyes peeled for rats; dirty wee beasts that crawl and scuffle, dig and piss over every inch of the place seeking food. Oh how I bet they’d love to sink their infected jaws into me; pierce these rickety old legs with their needle-like teeth and gnaw on my ancient bones.
Ash trees line the path; at this time of year their branches are bare. As I duck beneath the thin spindles jutting out in front of me, I feel them reach for me like multi-limbed beasts. I’ve spent too long in the ground and my imagination runs away with me at times. I pass beds of half-dead flowers that are losing the battle against the approaching winter; did I mention that the grass is frozen? It’s December 11th.
The gates are locked each evening at six to keep the world of the living and the dead apart, but I slip through the wrought iron bars. There’s not a soul in sight. Not a car, nor a dog, nor a single shred of life. Above me the street lamps cast a clinical eye, and I give them a wink. I pull my tweed cap down low over my face; gently of course, for it’s not quite as it used to be, the cap that is. The quality tweed, purchased for a small fortune from Sinclair’s department store in the city in 1969, is fraying round the edges, and there’s a hole in the middle where a tassel used to be. I brush the dirt off my moleskin trousers, smooth my blue and white checked shirt, and set off down the Shankill road to the place they call The Leisure Centre.
This road has changed a lot since I was alive. Fresh paint and newly baked bricks silence its history like a band aid, but if you look closely, you’ll see remnants of the past. Old and neglected chunks of buildings, windows nailed closed to hide their secrets. Up high, where the painter’s ladder didn’t quite reach, are fragments of bricks balancing amongst rotted leaves and pigeon crap. Weeds grow rampant through cracks in weakened walls, and each of these unnoticed artefacts has a story to tell.
I reach my destination just after three. The roller blinds of the building are bolted into the concrete to ward off trouble makers; I use the side door. Once inside I glance up at the red light of the security camera, the silent watchman keeping guard, and I grin. They can’t see me. I make my way to the exercise suite at the end of a long dark corridor, through two wooden doors that hang on prehistoric hinges. When they open they groan and their protests hang on the stagnant air that has collected in heavy pockets beneath the thick dark beams of the ceiling. The cleaner removes the cobwebs once a week on a Monday, but today is Friday and the spiders have spread their handiwork far and wide. I’m familiar with spiders; they weave stories on the letters engraved on my headstone.
My form becomes infused with an almost human energy and I trot along the cream coloured tiles. The automatic lights sense my presence, a phenomenon that never ceases to amaze me; they flood the room with glare. I aim for the only item of equipment in this modern room that makes sense to me, the rower, parked next to the contraption they call ‘the adductor machine.’ There’s a water fountain to my left, but of course I have no need for such things. As I sit down I try to ignore the mirrors in front of me, the great hulking beasts designed to expose. Once, many years ago, I looked into one of them and what was left of a man stared back. His bloodied face and shattered eyes filled with confusion and fear sent a chill down my spine.
The black handle of the rower fits snugly into my cupped hands. I close my eyes, take a deep breath and one sharp tug sees the cogs begin to turn. I hunch forwards listening to the soft whirring of the wheel that finds its rhythm through my efforts and fills the silent space that is my mind. My ghostly frame begins a slow rhythmical dance, backwards and forwards, arms and legs in tandem, and in this brief moment I can forget that I am dead, forget that I am trapped in the space between worlds.
But then I open my eyes and there is silence, the dial on the rower is unchanged. I glance to my left and see bubbles like small round blisters in the paint on the wall. Some of them have burst, their contents lie in a pile on the floor. I stare at them, they draw me in, take me back and it all replays.
Forty years ago this leisure centre did not exist — instead there was a furniture store, a fine place with a great range of tables and chairs, lights and other home essentials. One Saturday morning in December I walked through the doors looking for a pair of armchairs to replace the ones my wife and I had received as a wedding present in 1926. It was to be her anniversary gift, one she’d been wanting for some time.
At the back of the showroom I found the perfect pair, deep green, her favourite colour, with small red roses on the narrow antimacassars draped over each arm. I had just turned back towards the counter to pay for them when there was an almighty crash. I knew instantly it was a bomb. The walls caved in around me crushing everything in their path. I shrank back then rushed forward, trying to get across the room. I stumbled over fallen lights, smashed pictures and pieces of furniture. It was chaos, a whirlwind of destruction. The air was filled with piercing screams that chilled me to the bone. Bodies lay in crumpled heaps on the ground, and blood oozed across the carpet. Then, just as I was clambering over a pile of bricks, I saw my wife’s face in my mind’s eye. Her eyes were wide and filled with fear. ‘Frank! Frank! Don’t leave me!’ Confusion clouded me, how had she got there? Was she there at all?
I reached out my hand towards her and called ‘Suzanne!’ but as my fingers touched what I thought was her face, I fell. I felt myself falling into a void, a great black hole that swallowed me, drawing me deeper and deeper into its bottomless pit, and the sound of her voice faded away.
I woke to darkness and a suffocating stench of death and decay. Confused, I wondered if I might be having a nightmare. But as I continued to inhale the fumes that rose from my own body; the terrifying realisation that it was no nightmare dawned. I lifted my hand and felt for my fob watch, which, to my delight, was in my shirt pocket. I snapped open the lid and pressed the button. The hands read three o’clock, and the date was the 17th of December. I had been dead for six days. I clambered out of my coffin, and stood by my gravestone which read:
21st June 1896 – 11th December 1971.
Beloved wife of Suzanne. Gone but never forgotten.’
She was still alive!
In the beginning I searched the bomb site for her, the image of her face as I had last seen it was so vivid in my mind I was sure she was waiting for me there. I rummaged in the rubble, picking my way through every piece of what was left of the place. I found bloodied bits of clothing, so buried in the destruction they had been missed by those who were responsible for the cleanup. I found a baby’s dummy, and a small woollen hat, but nothing that lead me to her. Bulldozers arrived a few days later and the remnants were scraped away leaving nothing but a picked scab.
Next I searched our home on Matchett street, the only house on the street with a garden. I slunk in the shadows like a criminal, peering in through the windows. But there was no one there. Our belongings were packed in cardboard boxes and left in the centre of the living room. Every item that had represented our life was swept away and removed. A for sale sign went up on the street and within a few weeks a new family had moved in. Where was she? For months and months I scoured the road, visiting the places she used to frequent. The library, the cake store, and the alterations shop on the corner next to the pharmacy, all to no avail.
Eventually I trawled the old bomb site again, where a new building was rising from the ashes. Each morning I’d see new bricks laid and licked with fresh paint. I didn’t know what a gym was, nor did I know the purpose of the strange machines within it.
But I learnt, and here I am now.
The monitor in my mind tells me I’ve rowed seven miles, which means the clock above the entrance way must read 3.45. It’s time for me to go home.
At the back of the room, behind a pillar, a narrow doorway leads out of the building. I press my hands into the cold steel and slip onto the icy road. A breeze has picked up and it rattles in the gaps of the roof. I walk round the side of the building and pause beneath the bronze plaque screwed to the wall, the one that tells the visitors how many died that day.
I trace the outline of it wondering, as I do each morning, if the figures are wrong. Was it only two men and two babies? Was Suzanne there after all? I move on through the alleyway where broken bottles are scattered and rubbish is frozen to the drains. There’s a movement, I turn, a cat whips across the floor and disappears through a tiny hole in the wall.
For a time a drunk lived here, a homeless man with nothing but a pile of rags and the occasional bottle. I’d slip past him silently as he snored, and it would cross my mind that perhaps I was better off than he, for my wanderings are only for an hour each day.
As I make my way back up the Shankill road to the graveyard, I see some of the shops have lights on. The fish and chip shop owner is standing behind the counter and I can see him preparing for the day ahead. The shadow of his knife moves quickly up and down the wall as he guts fish.
I slip back through the iron bars and follow the path towards my grave. Just before I reach it, I pause beneath the ash tree for one last long look over the hushed ground. I whisper into the moonlight, ‘Suzanne, Suzanne, where are you?’
But the only reply is the ratish scuffle from the shadows. I take a step towards my coffin and lose my footing on the ice. As my body crashes to the ground I feel razors teeth cut into the soft flesh of my leg; the rats are squealing, again.