I was in my early teens at the time that late summer. I remember feeling ten tons lighter for not being in my all girls High School during that holiday. I was roaming around Leeds City Centre still enjoying my freedom. I had just passed a street sign ;”Swinegate” and recalled that school and all its hateful teachers were fast rearing back into view.
The bright sun had streams of little clouds rushing across as if frantically trying to block tithe effect was dizzying, like driving past a row of trees fast with the sunlight coming through.
Leeds was not that busy a place back then. There were quite a lot of people passing me by as I made my way up New Market Street. I was about to pass the entrance to the Victoria Quarter but I don`t recall anyone in particular and I would certainly have forgot him.
My bus stop was at the lower end of the Headrow,which always struck me as aptly named, it being head of all the rows of streets. A landmarked sized longboat of a road, all the streets full of shops it`s oars. It goes from one side of Leeds to the other. Slowly mind you.
I was a shy but not immature teen. Living with my mother only a mile outside the city centre. I minded my own business and kept my head bowed when anyone passed unless there was some reason to look.
There was in the first instance I saw him more reasons than I wanted to know about to look at him. Something was not right about him I was not in any doubt even though I didn`t immediately spot what it was. His age group alone as a scruffy young man inclined me toward distrust. Yet he didn`t quite disturb me in the loud loutish way that type of ruffian disturbs everyone. Something about his eyes was actually wrong though I smiled and nodded politely at his odd grin i was relieved when he had passed.
It was Loud Tracey from school. She was stood outside the entrance to Kirkgate Market being absurdly loud and disregarding of innocent passers by
Loud burst of teenage girl shouting moanilly loud. Then angry and short
Then drawn out and loud again
I did giggle a bit at first. Everyone facing going back to our oppressive School with it`s barely sane teachers would be looking for something to take their mind off it but I didn`t want to be Loud Tracey`s diversion. I hoped there was another Karen about who would soon answer. I couldn`t look in her direction anyway, without being blinded by the sunlight.
Loud Tracey, frustrated with shrieking rushed across the road with her friend Ann Marie, both still shouting and breathlessly yelling
“There was no one there Karen!”
“KAREN!”Hollered Ann Marie right in my ear
“There was no one there!”
They kept repeating
“You just said Hello to no one Karen “Insisted Tracey
“I never said Hello to anyone “I confirmed
YOU GREETED SOMEONE”
“You know what I mean. No one was there “Ann Marie said
I was a bit confused
“He looked there to me”
“He was obviously there or I wouldn`t have seen him “They shook their heads at me and recovered their breath.
“You didn`t see him, you mean? “I argued to deaf ears
“He was there but you couldn`t see him”
Tracey went looking for back up and tried to get a couple of disinterested looking men stood outside a pub drinking beer in the sun involved. Starting to sense a wind up was underway I began to walk away.
Loud Tracey lept in front of me insisting I describe who I saw. The man I now suspected she was pulling the prank with.
I played along taking a credulous tone to get the thing over with. Describing the man I had seen;
“He was in his late teens probably early twenties. Messy light brown and blonde spiky hair. He had dark ringed brown eyes. Toothy smile.Scruffy.Washed out pale blue t-shirt,battered light brown or tan leather jacket. Light blue or grey trousers. He was covered in some kind of white ish dust or powder. Maybe he was a plasterer. His workmanlike boots were the sort that are usually black but his looked light grey I think”
Tracey listened carefully considered this and announced
“I don`t know him”
Ann Marie nodded her head ,then shook it in agreement. Tracey disappeared back into the pub.Ann Marie followed me as I made off for my bus stop again,asking
“are you sure you saw him?”
“What are you winding me up for?” I didn‘t really have to ask it was just something to do.
As I reached the corner onto the Headrow Tracey reappeared
“It‘s CRAIG!”She announced.Suprised at her own triumph
“That’s exactly what he wore and this is where he drank.It`s` him. They knew him”She took a breath;
“He`s dead.Died a few weeks back in a stock car racing accident. He wasn`t a plasterer he was an economics student at University. They said if his mother believes you saw him she will want to speak to you Karen.”
Tracey said my name with admonishing seriousness. It was weird set up for a fall
“He didn’t look dead to me so it can`t have been him” I argued. I would do almost anything to avoid thinking about school but this didn`t look like fun.
“THERE WAS NO ONE THERE!”
Screamed Ann Marie at me in frustration.
“THERE WAS !My BUS is due!” I fled. Leaving them both shouting “THERE WASN`T! “ at my back
Sat upstairs alone at the front of the bus was the best seat for some of my favourite sites of Leeds. I was as relieved to be going home as I was happy at the sunny sights before me.As the bus lumbered slowly up the Headrow there would be rows and rows of streets full of busy shoppers to watch. I loved people watching and to be sailing above it all in full view was never dull.
No sooner had we set off than the bus stalled at a crossing, a welcome pause between New Market Street on the left and Vicar Lane on the right. My attention was drawn into a crowd stood in front of an orange and black signposted newsagents, as people waited to cross the road a sensation of unease began to overcome me.I felt a cold dread even before I saw him. He was stood in the centre of the crowd. Not just still ,somehow immobile. Looking as real as anybody in a 3d sense but neither light nor wind seemed to be hitting him. His eyes were so wrong now I could barely look at them and he stared right at me unmovingly fixed on me.The blackness of his eyes was a different kind of black,a flat empty void of no feeling .The pupils and irises were much larger than was possible and there was no sign of light or life in them. If he had blinked it might not have been so horrifying but nothing about him moved at all he was not even perceptibly breathing.
I was so fixed in a moment of fear I did not notice the people around him moving away. When I did I took that moment to snap my head in the other direction,swearing at myself
“Oh my god.I mustn’t fall for this crap!”
I looked searchingly up Vicar Lane to see if I could spot where Tracey and AnnMarie were hiding.I would have laughed out loud with the relief if I had seen Tracey and Ann Marie bent double with hysterics.I didn`t see them.
Looking away the realisation of just how unnatural and unpleasant a s sight he was sank deeper and deeper within me.I found I could no longer look left.I felt physically frozen. The thought he might still not have moved threatened to fill me up with a horrifying terror
Where on earth did she find him!?And WHY? I asked myself.it was an awful nightmare of a joke I thought to myself bitterly.
The bus eventually lurched forward. I was nervous to look anywhere. The further away from where he had been the more anxious I was not to see him again. I thought I saw what may have been him several times from the side in the crowd and from the back but I felt happier passing it off as temporary insanity and looked away immediately so as not to confirm anything. He couldn`t run that fast could he? I asked myself ,as the bus rolled pass the Town Hall suspecting he probably could. Ann Marie and Tracey wouldn`t want to though so there was no point I reassured myself.
High School was an ever increasingly grotty and dilapidated oppressive 1950s building with bright classrooms and dark warrens of corridors. It was painted a grim shade of green inside and out. The teachers were a bizarre vindictively inclined set of characters whose behaviour never veered toward normal or even explicable. I tried to pass the incident off as one of Loud Tracey’s wind up’s. Her friends insisted it wasn`t but that was to be expected.
Tracey had a long history of trouble making, a vast and wide variety of trouble over many years, which she was forever just running into.
Ann Marie I remembered from primary school as a sort of limpet of a girl who trouble never stuck to. Her ever present thin blonde bob was now made fashionable by one single accessory at a time. It felt like she was finding life so easy she had decided to seek out difficulty just to see what it was like in teaming up with Tracey.
Tracey`s wild barely controlled brown hair was as often as wilfully out of place as her. She had always been as tuned up as Ann Marie was tuned down. Tracey could look animated and loud just sat thinking. She had a cruel streak too.
If Tracey was trying out some new line in annoying pranks then Ann Marie, who could look, like butter wouldn`t melt when she wanted to was the perfect ally.
The teachers at my High School For some reason never divulged really had it in for me.I hoped that the story Craig had been at University might bring out the snob in them and keep them out of it.If they were going to accuse anyone of insanity it would be me, regardless of what the story was. I tried to head off any future grief by accusing anyone talking to me about it of going crazy
I knew I had to make the thing go away as fast as possible so I just dismissed it.Began to treat it as if it was already over.Tracey and Ann Marie were persistent.Tracey insisting I was going to become a medium.I laughed and said not if I could help it
“Who wanted to see his like again?”
I asked,hoping this might upset his ego enough to get her to back off.Ann Marie was telling anyone who would listen;”Karen saw someone no one else could see. She described Craig exactly”
Almost inevitably someone turned out to have known Craig. I was shrieked at from a classroom further down the hallway one day that Craig was a great bloke and I was a bitch if I didn`t help his mother. I hung anxiously in the doorway of my classroom listening intently for laughter, Tracey or Ann Marie`s voice ,any evidence of the hoax but it was inconclusive.
I didn`t really need this drama at all. A few years earlier my father had died suddenly. The little house my mother and I shared though light and sunny still had an emptiness to it.
“BUT WAS HE HAPPY KAREN!?”
Loud Tracey kept asking me
“HOW DID HE SEEM IN HIMSELF?”
Always a frustrating question
“SHE WANTS TO KNOW KAREN.SHE.IS.HIS.MOTHER!”
I was in a rush packing up pens and books from the lesson just ended. Trying not to be late for the next one
A frustrated Tracey had cornered me exactly at that moment to see if I would crack under pressure. I might get something not much short of a death sentence passed on me by the teachers for lateness. It was her prank I felt she knew very well what I had seen. Were both frustrated at this point
“No he didn`t look happy Tracey!”
I snapped at her. Most of my own class had gone now and the new one was starting to come in
“You can`t tell her that though can you “I stated
“That would be really horrible of you. Really mean Tracey”
Tracey looked shocked by the suggestion that she could do any wrong
“His mother is grieving …”I explained. Even if I didn`t believe in them I could still do right by these fictionally suffering fictional people “…she is in mourning for her son and he aught o be R.I.P”
“WHAT!?” Tracey cut me off mid sentence
“…He ought to be RESTING IN PEACE.Not wandering about Leeds appearing to schoolgirls.It`s not what the grief stricken mother need hear about her son is it?” I inquired quite honestly .Tracey began speaking to someone else about something else as I rushed off down the corridor.
Later that evening,sat on the carpet in my bedroom at home long shadows were starting to fall across the ceiling.The cold was creeping bitterly up my shoulders but I persisted in pestering my little kitten Ginger George. Whenever I looked away I could see out of the corner of my eye one large sharp green eye pop open to see what I was doing. Snapping shut when I turned back.
He pretended to sleep curled up on his furry matt and I dangled a little feather on elastic around his whiskers and paws .His eyes were just open the slightest bit. Someone knocked on our front door .I heard my mother Harmony let someone in, shut the door and shriek “TRACEY!” up the stairs, she didn`t know AnnMarie,Footsteps came thundering up,they burst into my room.I switched on a lamp as they sat on the floor backs to my wardrobe on the floor opposite where I sat back against my bed. It appeared it was all deadly serious now.
“The whole family are UP IN ARMS Now Karen.”
Tracey announced the moment she was sat. In a tone that informed me it was all my fault.
“Craig`s father has gone to stay with his brother”
Said Tracey to confirm her accusation, cut off by Ann Marie backing her up but not backing her up with
“but he wasn`t getting on with his wife anyway…”
“They haven`t got on in years”
Confirmed Tracey seeming more in the know briefly. Continuing with the accusational tone;
“Craig`s two sisters and brother HATE YOUR GUTS NOW KAREN”Tracey just carried on not aware that might have any impact “His mother wants to meet you. She wants you to tell her everything “She paused for breath
“YOU HAVE ABSOLUTELY GOT TO TELL HER EVERYTHING!”
It was a serious sounding loud statement as possible. Tracey rolled her eyes at me, looking toward Ann Marie for help
“Every Single Detail. Even if you don`t think it is anything “added Ann Marie
“YOU HAVE GOT TO TELL HER EVERYTHING “Loud Tracey confirmed
“EVERY SINGLE DETAIL”
She added especially loudly. Repeating it twice with Ann Marie saying it simultaneously the second time around. Both nodding;
“She won’t` be happy and she won`t even try to get over it till you do”
Ginger George had risen and was now stood with his back to my pale pink bedroom door. His tail totally upright and all the fur along his spine on end. He made no sound and was staring unmoving toward the window
“What`s wrong with him?”
I was startled. Ginger George seemed to me to be asleep as a rule. Tracey outright yelled at me
“YOU HAVE GOT TO TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY!”
Before I could ask why Ann Marie added
“Look at what you’ve done to this family Karen!”
They both tutted exasperated. What I had done was be entirely straight with everyone and anyone fictional or otherwise. I rolled my eyes at them. I was committed to helping Craig`s possibly real mother by letting her get on with the grieving process and not letting whatever I had seen get in the way.
There were still no traces of laughter on Ann Marie or Tracey. Not a smirk. I understood grief better though and felt you didn`t need all this drama and nonsense from strangers
“Just tell us everything and we will tell her”
Began Ann Marie reasonably as she twisted her arm to open the wardrobe behind her and tugged on a cardigan questioningly. I nodded and she pulled it down and slipped it on. Tracey and I stared at each other fixedly whilst Ann Marie had the wardrobe door open there was too deep a black void in there to look. We didn`t acknowledge it.It was an unnatural darkness that had a presence of its own you just did not want to know about.
The uneasiness turned quickly into a cold hard glaringly unpleasant atmosphere. It seemed like someone else was in the room. I opened the door to let Ginger George out and to see if there was someone in the hallway. There wasn`t and George wouldn`t move. I wondered if they had brought someone with them and left him downstairs, Craig maybe. They said it was just the two of them.
Sitting back down I saw Annemarie shudder. There was an urgency in Tracey`s mood too. I felt a sudden pain in my chest, like someone had just punched all the air out of media gasped at them they looked back questioningly.
I knew I could get away with saying nothing now. Ann Marie and Tracey clearly wanted to leave. I just had to wait them out. The room seemed darker and oprressive,shrinking somehow.I started to explain that I felt it was wrong to offer false hope to the family,to interfere with the grieving process.I had to keep looking around the room it had changed so much. They were both fixedly struggling not to look at the window. Ann Marie could barely look away from the door.
I couldn`t escape the feeling someone else was watching me and almost jumped out of my skin when I thought I felt someone tap me on the shoulder
“The grieving father…” I continued. Ann Marie and Tracey looked glued together at the shoulder as they stared wide in horror at George. He started to hiss, trembling all over. I called my mother who came halfway up the stairs stopping halfway to complain about the cold.Taking a towel from the bathroom I covered George up completely and plucked him off the carpet passing him to my mother explaining something had spooked him.
Back in my room the fear was really getting to Ann Marie and Tracey. AnnMarie looked like she had just announced she was leaving got up and been pulled down and talked out of it by Tracey. I darted over to the window to tear the curtains shut.It looked so pitch black outside it appeared more like the window had been painted black.I shuddered and sat down shakily everything so dark my spot on the carpet obscured.
“The grieving siblings…”I carried on. Ann Marie`s head shot forward with such force she almost hit the floor with her forehead. It looked like she had been punched square in the back. She just got up and bolted. Flung my cardigan over the bannister and ran down the stairs and out without a word.
The atmosphere was beyond weird now ,claustrophobic,dark.The cold almost immobilizing but to my surprise and dismay Tracey spoke with a sense she was in control
“Karen..”She began solemnly. It was odd to see her so quite. She knew it was and didn`t like to show it
“Craig`s brothers and sisters have been a bit odd about it really. They could just be upset though…”She was becoming distracted
“Is your room always like this?”
I Felt what she ought to be doing was freaking out and the fact that she wasn`t freaked me out. What did she know? This whole joke was so far removed from anything vaguely comic. Was she trying to set herself up as some kind of prankster mastermind…
I had enough and explained curtly that I didn`t want to believe I had seen someone dead. Didn`t want to believe it, know it, accept it or think about it. She left telling me I ought to think about his mother.