It’s in the blood. Simple as that. Passed down in the genes like blue eyes or haemophilia. A family heirloom. You can trace it right back to the first ancestor that slumped onto dry land, gulping down oxygen through their gills. There’s something in us. We’re set to a different frequency. We’re lightning conductors.
In a certain light, the family tree is a gallows. My great-great-grandmother had the gift. In travelling fairs, she’d do card tricks and impersonations of departed loved ones for a fistful of guineas. Between lifting her skirts. Then her daughter holding hands in Victorian parlours, making the gaslights flicker and books fly from the walls and men with waxed moustaches and top hats squeal like schoolgirls and empty their bowels. My mother ran a psychic hotline from the house. It’s no big mystery, just like being able to hear a dog-whistle. Our eyes can only see a miniscule part of the spectrum. 5% percent of all light they say. You imagine what’s hidden?
Ghosts are as they lived. Some are snobs. Some wish to be celebrities. Some are intolerable bores who only want to speak about themselves, weaving vastly inflated accounts of their lives and their deaths. Most just function, spend their eternity in a state of quiet desperation, not really doing much. Some are accountants. Some still stampede into sales and gaze longingly in the reflections of shop windows. Some have lingering nicotine addictions and float around ceilings in smoke riptides. On rare occasions, they can still surprise. A railway conductor, with his jaw missing seeking tickets. A blood-spattered drunk shrieking for a drink in a crowded bar. The ghosts of cavemen running petrified from motorways. The vast majority are mundane though. They sit in doctor’s waiting rooms voicing their hypochondria to people who can’t hear them. They scowl about the living having no respect. They talk about the weather, school catchment areas, mortgage rates; the ill-discipline of youngsters these days. Stroll around supermarket aisles for decades, complaining about the prices. Talking just encourages them. The only sure way to end it, once it begins, is to point out to them that they’re dead. They don’t tend to come back after that.
Maybe they’re different elsewhere. I’ve heard all kinds of stories: narrow-necked teardrop ghosts taunting snow-blind Sherpas, the Brahmadaitya scurrying around Indian treetops, the foul-tempered Duppy who reside in the roots of silk cotton trees and can be lured out to wreak havoc with the promise of rum, La Llorona drowning her children in the Rio Grande. Not far from here, they talk about Blue Cap somewhere down in the night-maze of the mines, Jenny Greenteeth who drags children into lakes and thorn-rivers, Jack-In-Irons roams deserted highways clad in chains and decapitated heads. Hag of the Dribble, Ocean-Born Mary, Lorelei. Then you’ve got the famous ones. Dick Turpin galloping down the runway of Heathrow airport as planes come in to land, James Dean speeding his Porsche 550 Spyder down Highway 46. Robert Kennedy’s still out there on the campaign trail trying to pick up votes. James Joyce constructing a gargantuan riddle to dumbfound and outwit God, documenting every labyrinthine detail of Dublin, mapping streets that are no longer there and hiding from lightning storms inside wardrobes.
Someday the eggheads will begin to unravel death’s dark mysteries. Theories already abound. That luminescence people see when they’ve stepped out in front of a bus or ran the lights too late or fallen from windows is down to oxygen-starved optic nerves or injuries to the right temporal lobe or the body tripping out on endorphins. Unease at night is an inherited subconscious memory, a fear for what stalked us when the Neolithic sun set or the effect of infrasonics in the walls. Those near-death visions of candyfloss clouds and harp-plucking angels are a Western cultural construct, so the thinking goes. In India, those who awake from comas claim heaven takes the form of a limitless office filled with clerks filing reports on reincarnations. I read that somewhere. Maybe that’s why some ghosts are still here? A bureaucracy failing to meet its processing targets, afterlife civil servants who do not like their jobs. Like the old zombie movies said: heaven and hell are full. A red neon light blinking: No Vacancies.
Sometimes, I’m not proud to admit it gets too much so I mock them, call them all sons of bitches. Tell them to go fuck themselves. And the only place I can find any peace is by the sea, slip off to some deserted cove and for hours just hide amidst the rocks and listen to nothing but the ebb and flow of the waves. They still intrude from time to time. You can hear them singing sometimes. Not a graceful siren song but the bellows of sailors bawling sea shanties or a drowned one bloated, washed up and weeping, or the lonesome voice of a U-boat captain lilting, “Lili Marlene” from brine-filled lungs.
I drink myself to sleep. And my dreams are of emptiness, wide wheat fields, open seas, silence and solitude, those rarest of things. Most nights, I struggle to slip away, wrestling with the sheets, making shapes. I lie in bed and watch squares and rectangles of light climb the wall and move across the ceiling. And leaving the window ajar, I listen. You can peel away each layer of sound, strip away the wavelengths one by one; the cars, the sirens, the drunken shouts, the hum of the helicopters, the tides of the rain, peel away even the silence. And then you hear them, the whispering ghosts . . . gossiping, bickering, being blown about by the winds.
Darran Anderson is an Irish writer and poetry editor with 3:AM Magazine. He has just completed a novel entitled The Ship is Sinking and his poetry chapbook Tesla’s Ghost is forthcoming from Blackheath Books.