Short Story: The Ghost Day, by Sophie Ellen Powell

homeless-manCommon decency had been ignored again.

Through the winter months the politicians had laid out a series of intentions and decrees that disgusted the people. But everyone felt powerless. Some groups proposed a general strike, arguing that the majority did in fact have the power to respond, but not much happened. A few placards were made, and a few petitions started but the proposed laws ploughed ahead regardless.

Slowly but surely the rich became richer and the poor became poorer. The government published a paper saying that the hard times were at an end, that it was time to celebrate. But when everyone looked around them, there seemed to be more homeless people than ever. Rough sleepers had set up semi-permanent base camps of pallets and sleeping bags in almost every doorway and arch across the city.

February ticked its way along. The PR people working for the government pinned their hope on Valentine’s Day to act as a mood lifter. In case it didn’t, they whipped up a row about a popular television programme. The combination of these two distractions allowed the politicians to squeeze through some particularly unpleasant changes to the health service.

The weather managed to be oblivious to all this discomfort for now. Even whilst the health and education systems were slowly drained of hope and money, the sun shone. The cold blue sky crackled with the promise of spring.

But on February 28th there was, ‘a compromise too far.’ The world shuddered imperceptibly in abhorrence, before the magnetic moon and planets pulled towards and repelled each other again. Several people looked up from what they were doing, but no one could quite put their finger on what the sensation was. Something had ruptured, a gap had opened.

February 29th arrived; that special day which only comes once every four years; the ghost day where all the lost minutes and seconds of the Earth’s orbit collect. There was something about this particular day, something invisible and enticing. The sun did not yet know whether it was rising in March or not.

As it rose this time there was an uncharacteristic pause in the constant revolving of sun and planets. As if in response to the profound unfairness of the times the laws of nature slipped slightly and ruffled their skirts. Time creased and rumpled. The record jumped. Certainly the causes no longer had their usual effects. The earth contemplated its revolution.

Sixteen-year-old Sebastian Moore celebrated his 4th birthday. A man in Ireland boarded a flight with someone who looked identical to him and was dressed exactly the same. Thousands of people in New Delhi experienced déjà vu simultaneously. All the babies of Amsterdam resolved to sleep through the night. Geese flew in never before seen formations across the skies of Europe and Africa honking melodiously.

At 8am, Liza Drummond, drinking her morning tea in her garden in Lewisham, was inspired to plunge her fingers deep into the soil. It felt cool and loamy. She enjoyed the sensation of the earth pushing under her fingernails. When she pulled them out the nails were vivid green at the tips. She stared at her own hands with pleasure and disbelief.

‘What a lovely colour,’ she said to herself. Before her eyes the grassy shade spread, rash-like, up her fingers. It curled in tendrils around her wrists.

It had been raining in the night and she ran her fingers along the hedge next to her to catch the drops.  She noticed that as she pulled her hand away the shrub pushed up new shoots. By 11 am she had coaxed the hedge into a swirling maze.

At 11.05am, Anna Tapp suddenly felt dizzy, as if the edges of the world were curling towards her. The ground lurched like the deck of a ship. The scene she was walking through began to fold itself in half.

At 11.30am Anna floated away from the ground so rapidly that her boyfriend, Paul, whose hand she was holding, had to pull down with all his strength. He was reminded of the sensation of kite flying as a boy. The string ran through his fingers and burned the palm of his hand. Her skirt caught the wind billowing like a sail, and her frightened eyes stared down at him.

Anna started to cry but her tears floated upwards too. Paul’s muscles strained. He called out to passers by and soon there was a chain of four bodies holding on to each other around the waist.

‘Get her feet back on the ground,’ Paul shouted. But they couldn’t reach her feet now and his grip on her hand had loosened.

At 11.55am, Paul’s arm started to shake.  His grip was getting sweaty, their hands slipped. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold on.

At 12.10pm, Anna stopped crying. The line of people on the ground were still struggling to keep her grounded, she could see their grimacing, pained faces. Anna was reminded of an illustration from a children’s book she had treasured.  The man at the end of the file had his eyes shut and his jaw clenched. Anna made a decision. At 12.11pm she shouted, ‘I’m going to let go. What’s the worst that can happen?’

Paul had grown up believing that what goes up must come down, but Anna went up and up and up. Off she went spinning into space. An image of Anna floating past stars, incongruously dressed in her neat skirt-suit and heels, flashed through the minds of all four of the helpers who had been trying to provide her with ballast on the ground.

Paul wanted to cry out but found himself unable to voice anything.

‘You have to admit that she looks magnificent,’ a lady in her seventies with dyed red hair said to him. And it was true, she did. Anna had spread her arms out like the figurehead of a boat, and, tilting her chin upwards as she rose, she didn’t even look back. If she had she would have seen quite a crowd watching her.

Liza stood in the middle of the maze she had created and looked up. She was beginning to think about winding her way back indoors for some lunch. She could see clouds moving quickly, the sun trying to break through, and a figure travelling across the sky. It looked like a woman, her arms were outstretched, and her hair streamed behind her. She looked wonderful.

Liza held out her right hand, which was now entirely green. Slowly she found her way out of the spiral of hedges. She was hungry. She noticed that as she lifted the fridge-cold salad leaves into a bowl, they began to sprout.

The lady in her seventies continued walking. She was hosting a birthday tea for her grandson Sebastian and had a huge list of shopping to do, but her tooth had been bothering her since this morning and so she went first to the emergency dentist. When the dentist looked into her mouth he was surprised to find that a small tree had taken root in the gap between two molars. He pulled on it lightly but it wouldn’t budge and the woman cried out in pain.

‘It feels as if you are pulling something up from the soles of my feet,’ she exclaimed. ‘Leave it alone.’

‘But I’m not sure what will happen,’ the dentist said. ‘Either to the tree, or to you.’

‘Can I borrow your mirror?’ the lady asked. The dentist handed her the specially angled, magnifying mirror. The lady craned her neck and opened her mouth. She tilted the mirror first one way and then the other until she caught sight of the tops of the branches. They were bright green and there were blossom buds amongst them.

‘Its incredible,’ she said. ‘Why would I let you take it away from me? It’s going to flower.’ Her eyes welled with tears and the mirror misted over. She was filled with a feeling of joy and wonder at the capability of her own body. Just when I thought it was beginning to fail me, she thought.

‘It is causing you pain Mrs Malone. If we remove it that pain will stop.’

‘Have you ever done this before?’

‘No.’

‘Then what do you know?’

She stood up from the reclined chair, briskly handing the mirror back to the dentist. She glanced at the clock before leaving, it was 2.30pm, and so she must hurry to the shops. As she uncurled the crumpled shopping list from her coat pocket she felt the tree roots twist deeper into her jaw.

seaAnna was over the sea now.  The coastline was beneath her in strips of white and green and blue. A series of bays and headlands and peninsulas spread out map-like as far as she could see. The wind was blowing her hair in salty strands that stuck to her eyes and mouth. She was cold and she was still going up. The sensation of rising was not unpleasant however. She kicked off her shoes and watched them plummet towards the earth.  She felt an amazing sense of freedom and found that, in fact, she was not scared anymore. At 2.45pm she pulled off her watch and rings and dropped them too. She watched as they corkscrewed their way out of sight; they would be found later that day by a dog walker near Norwich.

At 3.30pm, Bridget Cooper, public communications specialist for the British government, smoothed her hair, checked her immaculate manicure and adjusted her tasteful but not too stylish necklace. She habitually read the list of reports that came through Breaking News with her afternoon coffee every day.

Bridget had been in the communications profession for more than fifteen years, but the recent flurry of unpopular government policies had been particularly hard to deal with. She found that her winning smile helped at press conferences but it had become more and more brittle as the weeks went on.

She got out a fresh sheet of paper and her monogrammed pen from her handbag, which shut with a satisfying click; time to make some notes. Time to see what fresh problems she had to gloss over today. Time to dream up the solutions and bury the really bad stuff. There were bound to be on -going complaints from the tenants of flats that had to be bulldozed (she had heard that there were people refusing to leave a key site that had already been sold for development) or demands for transparency regarding the PM’s finances.

She ran the stock phrases through her head on a loop: delivering bad news is the downside of leadership; focus on the positives; think of your professional relationships as a series of photographs; envisage the elements of the snap shot that you would like to change, and change them.

She wasn’t expecting the titles that she saw. There were claims from social media of new and exciting bird formations across the Atlantic, which was one thing, but a woman flying off the coast of Kent? The almost visible growth of a maze of hedges in South East London? Bridget put her head in her hands. The last this government needs is for people to feel invincible she thought.

Paul wandered aimlessly through the streets, feeling bereft. He had always seen himself as the risk taker in the relationship with Anna. If there was one thing you could say about her, it was that she had her feet firmly on the ground. She was not in the least bit adventurous. He had day dreamed about travelling the world but she had always seemed so happy with things the way they were. He wondered where she was now, and squinted upwards.

Liza ran into the street. She couldn’t see the woman in the sky any more but she needed to be outside. The verdant shade had reached her elbows. As she ran she brushed past a man carrying a bunch of garage flowers. They doubled and trebled, bursting out of the clear cellophane wrapper that tried to contain them. Buds opened, shoots sprang. Soon he was hugging a bushel of blooms to rival Columbia Road Flower Market. Liza began to laugh.

It was a young boy walking home from school, eating sweets that caught sight of Anna above the local community centre. He tried to follow her through the streets, but he couldn’t keep up with her trajectory. As she became smaller on the horizon he was reminded of a helium balloon. The kind you attached your address to with string. You let it go and whoever found your balloon could write back. He wondered where the lady in the sky would land and who would help her to get back home.

It was 4.30pm and Bridget had decided what she must do. These stories needed to be discredited, to be written off as urban myths. She thought briefly of her husband and his rambling large and left wing family, made up of university lecturers, teachers and artists. She thought about her own children. She had no time for daydreamers and idealists.

Bridget reached for her pen but found herself unable to pick it up. It wasn’t stuck exactly, but it felt overwhelmingly heavy and she found it hard to grasp. She noticed that the beautifully polished parquet flooring of her office was beginning to creak and crack. At 4.45pm Bridget’s desk fell through the floor, and then through the floor of the office below that. It made a terrible noise as the wood splintered and the plaster fell. It landed in a broken heap on the ground floor, her laptop and papers smashed and scattered. She was left seated on her chair, (especially commissioned at great expense to support the lumbar spine), staring at a yawning hole in the floor.

At 5.42 pm the sun set. It was the predicted and allotted time published in the newspaper, although by now no one was expecting it to happen. The clouds were tinged with an incredible golden light. The exciting events of the day, which had seemed so wonderful in the cold crisp sunshine, felt more dangerous and intense as dusk fell. In a final flurry of energy the sea threw some strange tides at the shore. The Channel shone wave-less and still like a mirror. The flow ebbed and the ebb flowed.  Just off the coast of Sutherland the temperature dropped suddenly and the waves froze on their way to the beach. They looked like giant speech marks.

Paul opened a bottle of red wine at 7.35pm and decided even as he poured the first glass that he would drink the lot. Liza, wearing gloves now, had dinner with the flower man. Mrs Malone welcomed her grandson and family into her flat, which she did not want to leave, despite the increasing pressure that she do so. She presented Sebastian with a birthday cake in the shape of a tree.

At 9.15pm Anna noticed that she was loosing height.

At 23.59pm all the dogs started barking and they did not stop until well past midnight. At which point everyone slept more soundly than they had ever thought possible.

It was the morning of March 1st. The sun rose tentatively to survey the aftermath. People began to emerge sleepily to begin their day. It felt like the morning after one of those parties.

No one could quite remember who first saw the posters, although later many people claimed that it was either them, or someone that they knew. They were everywhere. Pasted onto walls and bus stops, framed in advertising hoardings and shop windows. Before long they were photographed and shared via the Internet. They went viral. On them were slogans in bold font,

Stop Moaning & Take Action Now’,

Together We Can.

Beneath the writing was a picture of a woman flying across the London skyline.  No one would admit to producing the posters, but it was strange that even if you tried to take them down, the image of the woman remained where the poster had been. As if it had been burnt into the wall. Much later the image of the flying woman would become the poster girl for hope and dissent, an internationally recognised symbol of revolution.

At 9.36 am Paul heard the doorbell ring.  He answered it and was amazed to see Anna standing on the doorstep, shoeless and with her skirt hitched up on one side. Her tights were laddered, and her hair was wild, but her eyes were gleaming.

“We have so much work to do,” she said.

***

Sophie Ellen Powell is a writer, puppeteer, performer and director. She was awarded a distinction in the MA in Creative Writing from Chichester University, and was the recipient of the Kate Betts Memorial prize for best writing in the MA. She received the Exeter story Prize 2017 and was shortlisted for the Cambridge story prize and long listed for Myriad Drafts. Sophie was commissioned by Moomin characters TM and The Southbank Centre to co-write an original Moomin puppet show Mischief and Mystery in Moomin Valley, which premiered at The South Bank Centre in 2017 and toured nationally. Sophie is a regular performer with Long Nose Puppets and has a wide range of performance and directing credits including Flatpack and Barbara Pootlepaddle for OH! Productions ,Lying with the animals at LIMF and Yukon Ho! With Jennifer Irons. Sophie is co-founder of Puppetbox. You can find her on Instagram @apinchofsaltsophie or on twitter @SophiePowell


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