She passed by me again today. The little girl who shares my home. She's not my daughter, nor are we related in any way. Even the neighbors don't seem to know who she is. She's about 10 years old, with blond hair swept back in a ponytail. She wears a blue cotton dress with a white pinafore in a somewhat Victorian style. (She reminds me of Alice as created by Lewis Carroll). Her eyes look sad and lost but she looks confused rather than scared. She has lived in this house for much longer than I have.
I knew nothing of her history nor the cause of her death. I knew only that she hadn't moved on, that somehow a vestige of her existence remained. A memory that replayed over and over. The memory of an unsolved enigma. I think I'm supposed to find an answer but I don't know where to start looking. I don't even know her name.
The house was part of a Victorian tenement building, built to house factory workers, whole families crammed into one or two rooms. They were renovated in the 1980s' to be sold to yuppies, that breed of arrogant, filofax welding business warrior who praised Maggie's dog - eat-dog economic policies that saw them on the bottom rung of a ruthless ladder of success. A false feel-good factor that led to many a ruined life.
This particular flat has been empty more than it has been occupied. No one, until me, has been in it more than a year, due, no doubt, to the ghost of 'Alice', (my pet name for her). I am not frightened by her though, rather, I am intrigued. I have been here for two and a half years now, and have witnessed 'Alice' many times during this period. I must admit, when I first started seeing her as a mere shadow from the corner of my eye, I was a bit apprehensive, but I was not about to give up my flat that easily and I determined that I would put up with her little visits and let her share my abode.... just as long as she didn't interfere too much.
As I have said, she first appeared as a shadow from the corner of my eye, but she soon started to manifest, to let me see her well enough to describe what she looks like. Sometimes she appears hazy, slightly opaque at other times she seems just as real as the kids who play outside my window of an occasion. Her sudden appearances can still disturb me but I am growing used to them. I think she is the reason why I was able to purchase the flat so cheaply.
I have tried talking to her a few times but she never answers me. Well not with words anyhow, there have been times when I've asked her things, like, where are you? And I've woke to find a drawing with a river separating two lands, one dark and dreary, the other sunny and bright. I have taken this to mean she is trapped between the realms of the living and the dead.
Or there was the time when I asked her 'who she was' and I woke next day to find a rather crude drawing that looked a lot like her. The strange thing was, I was sure I'd seen this drawing somewhere before.
'Alice' and I share the house in relative silence, although I do hear her snicker now and then, when something of mine goes missing from where I know I laid it down. I have learned to follow the sound of her laughter to the location of the missing object. She has also been known to help me when I have worrying thoughts. Once after I'd had time off work with a flu virus, I was worried about how to pay my mortgage on the flat. I was in the local newsagent getting a few groceries, when I got a sudden urge to buy a scratch card. I've never really been a gambler, so I shrugged off the notion and went to walk out the shop when I swear I heard a sigh from my little friend. I looked all around the shop, but she was nowhere to be seen. I heard the sigh again, deeper this time. No one else in the shop seemed to hear it, and so, on impulse, I bought a scratch card. I was elated when I won £500, which went a long way to solving my mortgage dilemma.
Although I have grown fond of 'Alice', I still feel there is something amiss, that somehow I have failed in a task she has set to me. I get the feeling that I am meant to bring something to her, something she can understand, something that will bring her peace. Something that will let her cross over to the other side. As yet, I have been unable to find that something.
Today I have an urge to go to the local library. I have never been to a library for years, so this can only be described as a sudden whim. Or perhaps 'Alice' knows some coincidental event is about to happen or maybe she has even manipulated it? Anyhow, only time will tell!
I have arrived at the library, but I don't know what I'm looking for yet, so I browse the book shelves with a half-hearted interest. There are people sitting at desks reading, I take a book, without paying much attention to the title, and go and sit at one of the desks. The lady at the desk next to me is reading an old newspaper, I don't know why, but as she turns the pages, I find myself more interested in what she's reading than in the book I have chosen. I watch her out of the corner of my eye. She turns another page. I spot a drawing of a little girl, she looks just like 'Alice'. In fact, I'm almost sure it is the same drawing she left for me when I asked her who she was. The lady turns another page though, before I can be certain. I am now watching the lady intently, I know the reason for my being here, is to read the article that caught my eye. The lady turns the final page of the paper and closes its protective folder. I lean over to her and say, "Excuse me, but would you mind if I borrowed that before you put it back?"
She looks at me with curious eyes and says simply, "Sure," before handing the folder over to me. The folder is thick with back issues of the local community newspaper, all dating from 1987. Already I am curious as to what a drawing of a little girl in a Victorian dress could be doing in a local newspaper from the 1980s'. I open the folder at a random page and she is there, staring at me from the drawing. It is definitely the same drawing that she left for me, definitely the same little girl who has become known to me as 'Alice'.
I read the headline which said, 'BODY OF GIRL FOUND DURING RENOVATION OF TENEMENT BUILDING'.
It went on to say, 'The body of a young girl, believed to be around 10 years old, was found during the renovation of a block of tenement buildings in Irving Square, on the east side of the city. The girl is believed to have died at the turn of the century. There were signs of trauma to the left side of her skull, indicating that she was murdered. A local historian has told us that a 10-year-old girl disappeared from the area in 1912, a search was made for her, but she was never found. He went on to say that many children of that time were known to disappear, most of them runaways, and that the search by the authorities would probably have been half-hearted at best. He said that the girl he was referring to, had lived in this particular tenement block where the body was found. Her name, as far as his research had revealed, was Mary Johnstone, and that at the time, there was rumor that her next door neighbor had murdered her. His name was Andrew Higgins, he was interviewed, as were most of the locals, by the police, but no charges were ever brought against him.
He said that a few months after the murder, Mr. Higgins hanged himself, the torment or the guilt of the accusations being too much for him to bear'.
I didn't read the rest of the article, I didn't need to. I know who 'Alice' was now. I feel a deep sadness like I have never known before, and I can only wish that I could hug this little girl and tell her that everything is alright. Alas, I can't!
It is early evening, I am back in the flat. But this time it is I who have traveled through time. The room is small, dark and damp, the small bed in the corner is there to sleep Mary ('Alice') and her three siblings. The walls are undecorated, and the floor is bare of carpet. A fire is burning on the other side of the room, there is a table and a couple of rather mangy looking chairs, all in all there is very little space for them to share. The other room is just as miserable, it's where her parents sleep. Mary, looks at me and beckons me to follow her. The others don't seem to be aware of my presence. I follow Mary out of the house, a short way along the corridor to a neighboring house.
This, I presume, is where Mr. Higgins lives. Mary knocks on the door and a gruff male voice tells her to enter. We go in. Mr. Higgins says, "Hello Mary, what have you got for me today?"
"I have a pocket watch," says Mary, "but I think I may keep this one, it's very pretty."
"Come now, Mary", says Mr. Higgins, "you know that if you work for me, then you have to sell me everything you pinch. Give the watch to me."
Mary takes the silver pocket watch from her apron pocket and hands it to Mr. Higgins. He scrutinized the watch and realized immediately, its value. It was sterling silver and would fetch a tidy sum at the market. He opened up the watch and read aloud the inscription, "J.R.J." He closed the watch again and put it aside. "I'll give you a shilling for it." he said to Mary.
"I don't want to sell it, Mr. Higgins," said Mary, "I have a friend I'd like to give it to."
"You know the rules Mary, if you won't sell it to me, then I'll have to give it to the police.
and tell them that you stole it," he said.
"But it's mine," protested Mary.
"It belongs to me now, Mary. Now take the shilling and be on your way before I change my mind!"
I wanted to grab the watch for Mary and run with her, but as I was only an observer from another time, everything around me had no substance, my hand going through anything I tried to pick up. Mary must have had a similar notion, for she grabbed the watch and started to run. Higgins' reaction was instinctive, he tripped Mary with his foot while pulling at her right arm. Mary lost her balance and fell. I heard her skull crack on the hearth. She lay very still on the floor, blood seeping from her left temple. Higgins, to his credit, tried to help Mary, a stark anguish obvious on his face. He shook Mary but she never responded. He felt for a pulse, listened for a heartbeat, listened for a breath, any sign of life. There was none. Mary was dead!
Higgins panicked. He was obviously in a state of shock. This incident could see him hanged, no one would believe it to be an accident, especially when he was a well-known scoundrel. He was crying. I'm sure he hadn't meant to kill little Mary. My own emotions were mixed. I didn't know whether to feel sorry for or hell-mend him. I could only look on as he bundled Mary into a sack and buried it beneath the floorboards over which he pulled his bed!
I awake to find myself back in my own time, Mary is standing at the foot of my bed, she is smiling at me. She says nothing, but lifts a hand and points to the dresser in the corner. Then she waves to me, I take it to be a wave of goodbye. I rise from my bed and go to the dresser. On it lies a silver pocket watch. I lift and open it and inside I read the inscription, J.R.J.!