Mrs Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Wilson, ninety-one not out, sits with her hands cupped in her lap, neatly perched on the edge of a plump and flowery sofa, her head wrapped in a bandage. She fell over in the bathroom and cut the back of her head; the bandage is there to hold a dressing in place whilst we wait for the paramedic practitioner to glue the wound here at home and keep Betty out of hospital. As the wound is right at the back of her head, the bandage has to take a couple of turns under her chin, too, otherwise the whole thing would gradually slide upwards.
‘You look like a proper Mummy,’ her son Jeremy says. ‘Or Marley’s ghost.’
Then he slaps his knees to spur himself into action, and goes off into the kitchen to make us all a cup of tea.
‘I saw a ghost once. Twice, actually,’ Betty says, leaning forwards and squeezing her eyes shut, smiling indulgently like a tipsy nun. ‘I used to work in an old hotel, a very, very old hotel. A coaching hotel, in fact. I looked after the linen. Well, I had a little office in the oldest part out the back, and I was out there one night doing the books, when I felt something strange in the air. Nothing frightening. Just different. Out of the ordinary, you might say. And when I looked up, I saw a man walk across the room and go up the stairs.’
She sits back up straight again and looks at us. After a pause, in which the only sounds are the heavy rain thrumming against the windows and Richard clinking cups in the kitchen, I ask:
‘So - how did he look?’
‘Just odd. Completely different.’
Frank wades in.
‘How do you know he was a ghost and not just some geezer staying at the hotel? Was he transparent? Head under his arm?’
‘Oh no. Nothing like that. He just looked - extraordinary. The outline of a person. All ripply. But I wasn’t afraid. Things like that don’t scare me. Why should they? It’s just the way things are. Like the clouds, or the rain. When my husband died he came back to me about a month later. He was just a smiling face, drifting across the room when I opened my eyes one night. He was saying: Don’t worry, Betty. Everything’s going to be fine.’
Jeremy comes in with a tray of tea, and takes up his seat again on a matching flowery pouffe at Betty’s side. We sit sipping our tea in a semi-circle, the rain booming down outside. Betty’s bird song clock suddenly cuckoo’s the half hour.
‘I heard a good one from some guys at another station,’ says Frank, replacing the delicate, rose-patterned cup on its matching saucer with the self-conscious precision of a navvy in a china shop.
‘They turn up to a resus in a hotel. They charge into the lobby and a guy on the desk says Room 43 – which was what they’d been told anyway. So they pile up the stairs to the first floor, find the door to Room 43 and knock on it. A guy comes to the door and says: “What do you want?” and they say: “We’ve been told there’s a sick person here.” And the man turns round and says: “I think you have the wrong room, mate. There’s no-one like that here.” So of course they say sorry and all that, the guy shuts the door, and one of them gets on the radio to ask if Control can check the address. Meanwhile, the manager appears at the end of the corridor and says: “Thanks for coming so quickly. I’ve got the key.” And they say to him: “Well it’s not Room 43. The guy there says he doesn’t know anything about it.” So the Manager gives them a funny look, leans past them, swipes his key card and pushes the door open. The same guy who answered the door to them just a minute ago is lying on the floor, and he’s been dead at least twelve hours.’
‘That’s a good one,’ laughs Jeremy, taking a swig of his tea. ‘I like that one.’
‘I know what you’re thinking, but they’re stand up guys, those two’ says Frank.
‘Stand up comedy, more like.’
‘All I’m saying is, there’s more to life than just what you see on the surface,’ he says, sitting back on the chair and looking round the room, as if the framed photos and needlepoint pictures could be covering something altogether more terrifying than a floral print wall.
There’s a sudden, urgent rapping on the door.
‘That’ll be the paramedic practitioner,’ I say, getting up to answer it.