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'Do you believe in ghosts?'
Before Tom could answer, his study door opened and Ang looked in. 'What devilment are you two planning?' she teased. Seeing her, I felt a small lurch of pleasure. I kept my expression pleasant but controlled.
'Don asked me if I believed in ghosts,' Tom replied with a smile, refilling my glass. 'Would you like some, darling?' Tom has a fine cellar and had opened a 90's Hunter Shiraz. Not a great wine, but decent company.
Ang rubbed her eyes. 'No, thanks. I'm whacked. I've been sending a long email to Hannah.'
'Any news?' I asked.
'Not much. She loves London. Snared a MacJob in a publishing house. Something to tide her over for a few months. Met someone new. Marcel. He's an exchange student. Family's well heeled. Says he'll take her to France in August. His parents are from Arles, but rent a flat in Paris. Very central location. Big place. You can glimpse the Tower from the balcony.'
'That sounds exciting.'
'I suppose. Paris is a sort of young thing. Ghosts, eh? That sounds more interesting. I'd love to hear your views, Don but I can hardly keep my eyes open. I'm teaching a new class this year and some are horrors. Maybe another time.'
She went over to Tom and kissed him lightly on the mouth. Irrationally, given the fact she's been Tom's wife for 20 years, I felt a twinge of jealousy. 'I'm hitting the sack. Don't stay up too late, darling. Goodnight, Don. Sorry, I'm rotten company.'
'Not at all. Sleep well.'
'Goodnight darling,' Tom added. 'I'll be up in an hour or so.'
Ang nodded absently and left, closing the door.
'It's good Hannah's having a ball.' Hannah is the only child of my best friends, Tom and Angela Crawford.
'She's a great kid. What were we talking about? Oh yes, ghosts. You were asking what I think of them. Can't say I ever really gave them much thought. To answer, I'd have to ask what you mean by ghosts.'
The question surprised me. 'Well,' I ventured. 'I think of them as unattached souls. They can neither reach Heaven or descend to Hell.'
'How quaintly medieval you are!' Tom laughed. 'But that sounds a reasonable definition. Do I believe them?' he shrugged. 'I have mixed feelings. Of course, I believe in an after life.'
'Just as well,' I snorted in amusement. 'In your line, I'd take that as a given. Mind you, after Robinson, I couldn't begin to guess what priests or ministers believe. I remember having a long argument with a priest once who refused to accept the existence of the Devil. Said it was a cop out to excuse responsibility for human evil. So you don't believe in ghosts?'
Tom shook his head. 'I didn't say that. I'm open minded on the subject. Certainly, there are some strange things that suggest the supernatural.'
'Nothing I've experienced. I was thinking of a photo I once saw.'
'A photo of a ghost?'
'Well, who knows? It certainly gave me goosebumps when I saw it and read the explanation. You probably saw it. It's famous.'
'It appeared in one of those Time-Life books: you know they used to produce a series on almost every subject. This was on the supernatural. Given the publishers, I'd say the photo wasn't a hoax. How's your wine?'
'Plenty. Go on.'
'It was a photo of a passing car. Although slightly blurred, you could see three people in the vehicle. A driver, then in the back seat a young man and his elderly mother.'
'The picture was snapped by someone standing on the pavement outside a cemetery. The car was a funeral hearse. The photographer said he took the picture on a whim and swore he only saw two men in the car. When the photo was processed however, there was the woman.'
'Who had died?'
'That's right. The young man had just attended her funeral, but there she was, clearly identifiable sitting next to him and being driven home.'
'Creepy,' I agreed, thinking that what I would shortly reveal was far more disturbing and the next few minutes doubtless stretch our friendship to the limit. He would either accept my peculiar tale or he would think that dependable Don Pape was either playing a joke or had gone mad.
'Something's troubling you,' Tom observed. 'Do you think you're haunted?'
'Everyone's haunted,' I replied evasively.'We're haunted by memories, often of sad events. Scripts we desperately wish we could rewrite. Ghosts that demand no medium to surface and which no priest can exorcise.'
'Goodness,' Tom laughed uncomfortably. 'How gloomy! Give me a clue. Are we just chatting here or are you seeking advice from either a minister or a friend?'
Rather than answer directly, I said, 'I never really thanked you for all your help when mother died. You knew just what to say at the service.'
'Well, someone had to say something. I've known your mother for many years, besides Alice Mary Pape was a regular churchgoer and I was her minister.'
'Yes, she loved your sermons. She was like that old Italian proverb: ''an angel in the church, but a devil at home.'' '
Tom sighed. 'I know you're bitter.' He hesitated, torn between the frankness of a friend and the professionalism of a Baptist minister. 'Your mother was in many ways, a difficult woman,' he volunteered carefully.
'She was an egotist, termagant and remorseless bully,' I said flatly. 'The worst thing I ever did was to stay with her after my father died.'
'I know she suffered from ill health - a weak heart I think you once said. You saw it as your duty to care for her.'
I snorted bitterly. 'Who coined the phrase, ''The Tyranny of the Weak''? Mother used illness like a club. Each time I tried to leave, she'd suddenly start wheezing and rattling her damned pills, pleading with me to fetch the doctor or an ambulance. And you know what's so ironic? For decades, she'd whine every birthday, ''This is the end! I won't be here next year. That'll make you happy.'' Then one day, when neither of us expected us, she suffered a massive heart attack. It was hard convincing the doctor she genuinely needed help. Two days later, she died in hospital.
'Games. Always games. Even on her deathbed. When I visited her, she kept her eyes tight shut, pretending to be asleep, but before I came and when I left, the nurses said she was lively.'
What I didn't tell Tom that poor fool I was, I kissed her softly on her cheek and whispered that I loved her. Why did I tell her something I doubted was true? I guess I was prompted by pity. The thought that her soul would go off on its journey unmourned by anyone on that terrifyingly lonely journey into the unknown seemed unbearably sad. I still can't decide if I did the right thing. Perhaps it was wrong to offer affection, when she was no longer strong enough to shun it. How strange and twisted are emotions! I remember her once saying plaintively, 'Sometimes son, I wonder if you love me.' I was stunned that she understood me so little. Love! Why, I hardly even liked her.
On the second day, an hour before her death, I visited her again and found her in conversation with Tom. I knew that if she saw me standing at the end of the ward she shared with five others, she would scowl. It was cowardly, but it didn't
feel right to interrupt and I left them together - the minister and his dying parishioner - promising myself I'd return later. I had hardly reached home when the hospital was on the phone to tell me mother had passed away.
I asked Tom if she had left me any message: even mentioned me. I resented asking. Tom looked embarrassed and said they hadn't talked about me.
I knew mother thought highly of Tom. He was probably the son she wished she had. He only saw the better side of mother's personality. He didn't see her triumphant smile for instance when she that learnt Ang, the only girl I wanted to marry - would have married but for my mother's vicious interference - finally gave up on me and twelve months after our break, married Tom.
Despite all her efforts to belittle me, apart from my love life, I've had a successful life: I hold down a highly paid and interesting career and even my hobbies, such as photography have won widespread recognition, even coveted awards.
Although to others, I might have played that saddest yet comic part, that of a son never free of his mother, there was always part of me mother couldn't reach. I wrote a brief, bitter poem expressing this. Called 'Apology', it reads:
I could never be
the failure you predicted.
but what can you expect
from a loser
It felt strange to return to an empty home after mother's funeral. A 1920's two storey solid brick home set in a rambling garden in the Sydney suburb of Randwick (several blocks from the famous racecourse), it's where I've lived since I was thirteen. The family had only moved into the home a month before Dad was sent to far North Queensland where he died from Ross River Fever.
A week after the funeral, I steeled myself to enter mother's room. I had bought a pile of cardboard boxes which I assembled. I began by opening her wardrobe and taking coats and dresses off their hangers, folded them away. It was horrible handling her clothes, especially the sleepwear and lingerie, but I kept my mind blank. If I give up now, I told myself, it'll only be hardly to return to this tomorrow. What a strange feeling, to work in that quiet house, hearing only the creaking of the rafters and the ticking of the carriage clock in the lounge, while half expecting mother to appear at the door screeching in rage at my invasion.
After some hours and halfway through packing, I sat on the bed, the pillow of which was heavily scented with mother's perfume and thought about the past. It had been a small funeral. A number of mother's friends had either died, while many more had been alienated. I foolishly hoped that Ruth, my long estranged sister, might attend but she didn't. The only address I had for her was out of date and she may have been living overseas or even dead. My last memory of her was as an 18-year old, storming out of the house after a brutal argument with mother. Perhaps if she had appeared, I might have wondered if she was putting in a bid for part of mother's estate. That wasn't the Ruth I remembered, but people change. But she didn't come. I could hire someone to track her down. Although she was written out of the will and I'm the sole executor, nothing would prevent me giving her some money. I'll need to think that through. It may be that contact from me is the last thing that Ruth wants. Odd. I haven't thought about Ruth for years, but now I miss her.
Certainly, I could afford to be generous with Ruth. I have more money than I need with few needs and less desires. I 've been comfortably off for years but mother's estate has made me wealthy. I need never work again. It's both pleasant and curiously hollow to realise that one is rich, yet you have no one to share your life.
Being a resilient person however I determined to use my freedom to discover myself. A little late in the day, you may think, but many go through to their deaths never having decided how they want to live.
I began with my environment. There was much about the house I didn't like. It had the bare bones of an elegant structure, but mother's taste was generally bad. I decided if I restored the house to its original grandeur, I would have either a wonderful place in which to live or a valuable property to sell. So each night after work I'd have a scratch meal, then would continue plastering, sanding, painting or varnishing. I discovered old fireplaces, installed plaster cornices, pasted or stenciled friezes and bought art deco furniture and fittings to replace the hideous old 50's to 70's tat. When I was exhausted, I'd shower, sleep soundly and wake refreshed the next morning.
On two evenings out of seven, I took a break from restoration. One evening, I would work out at a gym, the other I would take out my recently purchased Moto Guzzi for a spin. I love this beautiful road machine. It's an EV - flagship model of the California range. With a V- twin, four stroke engine, five speed gearbox and integral braking system, this is a rider's bike - powerful, responsive and with few vices. I also adore the tank badge, a bird - what is it eagle, hawk, falcon -soaring in a teal blue sky. To me, the Moto Guzzi bird symbolizes release and freedom, rather than a middle-aged man's flight from the real world. Twist the accelerator, kick down a gear, the lights of Sydney shimmering in the mirrors and breathe deeply the smell of tar, paint, salt, hot oil, leather and exhaust fumes as I gun across the Bridge into the cool, darkened suburbs of the North Shore - this is a time a thousand light years from my claustrophobic life with mother.
As the days passed into weeks, then months I felt like a man recovering from a long illness. Don Pape was exploring his life and liking what he found.
I told Tom this and he looked puzzled. 'Well, that's great, but what's the problem?'
In answer, I took three folded sheets of paper from my pocket and passed them to him.
Tom unfolded the pages and began to read. He looked up. 'This is appalling!' he exclaimed.
'How can anyone write those hateful things about you? It's the filthiest thing I've seen,' he went on. He scanned the pages quickly. 'I can't read this,' he decided, thrusting the pages back in disgust. 'Who wrote it? How did you get it?'
'About three weeks ago, I was awoken by a whirring sound at around 3a.m. I went into my office to find these pages being faxed. I know who sent it. The key is the references to me as "Bini''. It was mother's nickname for me. We were the only two who knew that name. Everything about the fax suggests mother's hand.'
'But she's dead.' He paused,'You're not suggesting...'
I took a small cassette from my trouser pocket.
'Exhibit B,' I went on. 'Tape of incoming messages from my telephone answering machine.'
The tape began with several hang-ups, then mother's voice, cold, flat, unmistakable filled the room. 'Don,' she commanded, 'I know you're there. That you're listening to me. Pick up the phone. Come on. Do it now.' After a while, she cursed and hung up, but messages followed on other days. As she realised I wasn't going to lift the receiver, she became abusive. I switched off the machine. 'It gets far worse,' I told him. 'I'm not mistaken? That's her voice?'
'I don't know what to think,' Tom shook his head.
'Exhibit C is even more persuasive, ' I continued. Going to my coat, I took out a videotape.
'I had put a blank tape into my video recorder wanting to tape a program next week. I went to the bathroom this morning when I heard the machine recording in the lounge. I thought at first I'd made a mistake in programming, but when I played back the tape --- well, see for yourself.'
Tom inserted the cassette in his VCR and pressed the Play button.
Every morning, millions of Australians watch 'Fresh Dawn' Frank Schrembi's TV program: a beguiling mixture of interviews, musical and comedy acts, news and weather updates. 'Usually we try to include a series of interviews in each show,' Schrembi began, 'But today we have a guest whose story not only deserves to be told, but examined in depth. Alice Pape is not a household name. She is however a remarkable woman who has suffered great hardships in her life, but has maintained courage that is truly inspirational. Some of the things Mrs. Pape will tell you will make you laugh, others will make you cry - as indeed I cried in hearing of the ingratitude of her only son, Don. But let her tell the story. Ladies and Gentlemen, viewers of Australia, our only guest on this morning's very special show, Alice Mary Pape.'
And there was mother, wearing the same dress in which she was buried.
Almost as soon as the show began, she began to talk about me. Schrembi became outraged at the revelations, women in the studio audience burst into tears and several men interjected, offering to beat some sense into me.
Tom clicked off the controls. 'I've seen enough,' he said grimly. 'Schrembi should be ashamed to air such rubbish. I know you and it's all lies. What on earth were the station's lawyers thinking? You could sue them for millions. It's slanderous.'
I was agreeably surprised to see Tom so exercised on my behalf. Although he's my best friend, I've always felt cynical about friendship.
'It would be slanderous if it was screened,' I said. 'As you can imagine, as soon as I saw this, I rang the station. They told me that Schrembi has never heard of my mother, much less interviewed her. They sent me a tape of that morning's screening and of course she wasn't there. They were keen to see this tape, but I put them off. They'd ask questions I can't answer.'
'But how can she do all this? Type faxes, leave phone messages, fake television interviews. She's dead.'
'No, she's alive in another dimension. Somehow, she can tap into electronic messages. It's frightening. If she has that much power, what else might she do?'
'I suppose,' Tom mused, 'It's her?'
'Oh come on,' I exclaimed impatiently, 'You've seen and heard my mother. What else do you want?'
'Don't misunderstand,' he went on hurriedly. 'I'm not saying that something weird isn't happening. In fact, I agree it's supernatural. You're being haunted. All I'm wondering is whether what we've seen and heard is really your mother. Perhaps some evil spirit has assumed her voice and likeness. I mean, in all the years you've known your mother, was she ever as vile as that?'
'No,' I admitted. 'She could be mean, even vicious but even at her worse, she wasn't like that. It's hard to believe she could write that fax. It's the product of a degenerate mind. But could that happen? Could a spirit really assume an identity?'
Tom shrugged. 'Perhaps. Ang told me a friend of hers once went to a seance.
'Shortly after, the lights were dimmed, the medium asked if a spirit was present. A voice answered and Ang's friend exclaimed, 'That's my father!' They had a delightful conversation before the voice fell silent. The girl left the seance thrilled to have made contact. Minutes later however she sensed the spirit had attached itself to her. Soon, she realised from what it was saying - that this couldn't be her father, despite knowing so much about her. It was a terrible time. Even when the evil stranger was silent, she felt it was watching her, laughing at her fear and powerlessness. Finally, she consulted a priest skilled at exorcism. After a great struggle, he convinced the demon to leave.'
I nodded thoughtfully, even as I thought with glee, Why, Tom is quoting all the lines I'd like him to say!
Tom Crawford was my oldest friend. Yet, without meaning to do so, he was always outshone me. Academically gifted. An outstanding sportsman. Assured and handsome. The man who was at my mother's bedside when she died. Of course, being a minister, he was never going to be as rich as me, but even that choice seemed nobler than how I spent my life.
Tom Crawford my friend. Yet that same friend would, when our conversation finished tonight, gather up the wineglasses and wash them in the kitchen, leaving them to drain on the sink before mounting the stairs to the bedroom. And there in the dark, he would strip naked and drawing back the sheets would slip into bed beside Ang. Would they make love tonight? In the short time Ang and I had been together so many years ago, she didn't want me to go all the way. 'Soon,' she whispered, 'Soon. Let's make it special. When we're married.'
'As soon as we are, we'll spend hours every day making love,' I promised and she laughed. Except, of course, we didn't and it was Tom who took my place. Hey, I chided myself, don't go down this path. We all made decisions. It's better Ang has this good man, than ten thousand others. They're a great couple who clearly love each other. Does it matter that I still hurt? I wondered if Ang ever thought of me as I did or was I forever just Tom's best friend or, even worse, another sad case Tom patiently listened to and tried to help. This is stupid. It's usually in the background, like a dull ache. I forced myself to listen to him.
'Ang could ask her friend to give us the priest's phone number. He might know how to silence your mother.'
The trap was sprung! I pretended to consider his suggestion. 'That might work, but let's do it as a last step.'
'What do you suggest? Your mother clearly wants to talk to you.'
'Which is probably the last thing I should do. She'll believe she's regained her power over me'
'It's why I've came to you. If anyone should contact her, it's you. She always liked and respected you. Even on her deathbed, you're the one she asked for. You're professional and detached.'
'I don't know,' Tom wavered.
'You could reason with her. Find out what she wants. Encourage her to leave me alone.'
'Where would you be?'
'Best that I disappear for at least six weeks. Hopefully, she won't follow. I'll take a holiday and leave you free to act. I won't contact you until I return. When I come back, everything may have returned to normal. Would you do this for me as a friend?'
Tom agreed and several days later, I bought an open-ended air ticket to Singapore and traveled to Asia. Shortly after my arrival I bought a bike. It was a classic - an '81 Triumph 'Bonneville' and rode off on a long tour through Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. While mother was alive, she never let me travel outside New South Wales and even then it was often with her. Now I was alone seeing strange sights, eating exotic food and meeting new people. By the end of six weeks, I was fit, tanned and without a care in the world. If it wasn't for my helpless love for Ang and curiosity to find out how he had gone, I probably would have sold everything and left Australia forever. Finally however, I forced myself to return.
There were letters, phone messages and emails waiting for me at home but nothing from mother. Ang had sent me a number of urgent messages, but these had ceased three weeks ago. I decided to go to see her, rather than speak on the phone.
'Where were you?' she demanded as soon as she opened the door. She stood back and I entered her house. 'I've been trying to contact you for weeks.'
'I was overseas. In Asia. Out of touch.'
'Noone's out of touch these days unless they want to be. Couldn't you check your emails or call? For Heaven's sake, would a few words on a postcard been so difficult?'
'I'm sorry Ang. Is Tom alright?'
She began to cry. It was as though she couldn't stop. 'Oh Tom. Tom, ' she kept whispering. 'Why?'
'It's horrible,' she finally said. 'A month ago, he suicided. Ran a hose pipe from the exhaust into our car and suffocated. I was at a friend's luncheon and had taken a taxi. He said he needed the car.'
'Oh, Ang that's appalling! Tom of all people! He was so balanced. He'd never suicide.'
'There's no doubt about it. The garage was locked from the inside. He wasn't the same for weeks before. Spiteful, even violent. It was as though some demon was in his mind.'
'Did he leave a suicide note?'
'Yes, but it didn't make any sense. Something about a jealous woman. That unless he joined her, she would harm me. But how can he be dead and with her? It's crazy! I can't believe he'd be unfaithful.'
Ang began to cry again. I took her in my arms. It felt wonderful.