Episode 19 – The face of death

How can you not realise you’re dead? Up until this case I thought it was impossible. Perhaps loops were the exception, but then again they’re not technically ghosts, they have no consciousness, no ability to think for themselves because they’re just memories of people who died.

Moira could hold a conversation, Moira was a ghost.

Her apparent ignorance took us both off guard. What did we do? Should we tell her she was dead and that we’d been called in to help her move on? Was she even the ghost the minister had called us for?

It was a difficult situation, and since she was there Ewan and I couldn’t discuss it, so we just went along with it. We knew nothing about her, how she’d died, where she’d died, why she was haunting the church. Without that information what could we really tell her that she would believe? If Ewan had theories or answers to these questions, he couldn’t tell me at the time.

When we later discussed it, we’d both been reluctant to tell her the truth. The entire situation just seemed so sad. How long had she been dead and not realised? How long had she been haunting this church before we arrived?

When Moira asked if we’d like a tour of the church whilst we waited, we both mumbled something inaudible and she took it as consent. If someone had come in then, the minister or a member of the congregation, I can’t imagine what they’d have thought.

She began informing us about the dedicational plaques to affluent members of the village who’d been buried inside the church, back in the day when they used to do such things. They even had a stone effigy in one of the small chapels. It was well worn, but had a knight lying down with his legs crossed, signalling that he was a crusader once upon a time. Moira knew everything about every piece of that church.

What was curious was that she never mentioned the significance or the context of the art on the walls. There was a lot of it, from bairn’s crayon drawings to professional calligraphy, but she never mentioned or even acknowledged any of them. I theorised it was because they’d been put up after her death. Because she didn’t know she was dead, perhaps she couldn’t see anything that had been put there in the years since. It was just a theory.

As much as we wanted to humour Moira the church wasn’t of interest to either of us. She was. Thankfully, Moira was more than eager to tell us about herself.

She’d been married for nearly thirty years. She and her husband had been childhood sweethearts. He was a clever man and had attended university. So clever that he’d been summoned down to London to work for the government. It saved him from the frontlines, at least, but their long separations were difficult. She often went down to visit him because he was rarely allowed leave. It was also easier to see her son when he was released from duty in France.

Mercifully, he hadn’t been injured, but he was a brave lad who was fighting for his country. All she wanted was him home safe.

Moira appeared to take all these things in her stride, and she informed us matter-of-factly of her family’s predicament. And she wouldn’t be alone. The twentieth century witnessed two of the worst wars in human history, her entire generation were forced into a way of life they had no choice but to adapt to. Hearing about that time spoke like it was ongoing shrunk the distance until it was uncomfortably close.

It’s always comforting to think of that time as the past, as words on the page of a textbook we’re forced to read, as a fictional or foreign land that we’ll never see. But people like Moira lived through it, and facing the fear, dread and worry head on was how they dealt with it.

I don’t know about Ewan, but I almost didn’t want to tell her the truth. She wasn’t doing any harm, why couldn’t we just leave her be? But I knew the answer. Ghosts are subject to the decay of time as much as anything in this world. Even though she was fine now after so many decades that wouldn’t always be the case. As much as I wanted to let her stay, to let her carry on thinking she was ever going to see her husband and son again, I knew we couldn’t.

Then came the difficult question of what we were going to do about it. She didn’t have any unfinished business that’d be keeping her around, she wasn’t a vengeful spirit determined to torment even in death. Why was she in the church in the first place? What drew and kept her here? Had she died inside, was she one of the affluent buried beneath our feet?

We were all interrupted by the door to the church opening. The minister hurried in, out of breath. He was a middle-aged man with trimmed beard and dark chestnut hair. He huffed his way through an apology, he’d been kept by a parishioner who’d just lost his wife. Moira saw him as we did, and Ewan and I took turns in observing her expression. She obviously could see him, but he didn’t reciprocate.

We asked him if he was familiar with a Moira, although it was obvious it would’ve been long before his time. Luckily his face lit up with recognition. He confirmed she used to be an active member of the church during the war and that some of his current parishioners would reminisce about her. Her husband had been called to London to work with British intelligence during World War II, whilst her son was sent to France.

She had the unfortunate timing of visiting her husband in London during the blitz in 1941 and never returned. Her body was interred outside, amongst the rows of neatly kept headstones.

It might’ve been cruel of us to let her find out this way, but if it came from a minister she could hardly accuse us or him of lying. I fully expected her to deny it anyway, to get angry, but she was silent.

It was then that I realised we’d been wrong. She did know she was dead, and all she’d wanted to do was talk to us because we were the only ones who could listen. Her life at the church must’ve been fulfilling, some of her happiest memories, and after her abrupt death she’d decided to stay.

The minister’s ringing phone cut through an atmosphere he was totally ignorant of like a sharp knife. He said he needed to answer and we nodded stiffly in understanding.

Before Ewan and I could mentally scramble for an excuse to leave and discuss what we should do, the air in the church began to ripple. Think of heat from tarmac on a warm day but more distorting. Suddenly there was an older gentleman a few paces away from us all. He looked to me as if he’d just stepped out of a film from old Hollywood. He was perfect in every way you can imagine, there wasn’t a blemish on his skin, his eyes were glassy and innocent. Nothing about him was intimidating, yet I was nervous.

His presence was jarring, as if he offended the very air he occupied. Although his presence wasn’t malignant it still gave me this pit in my stomach, like the beginning of existential dread. He wasn’t human, I was certain of that, but he wasn’t a ghost either.

Whatever he was he showed no interest in Ewan and I, only Moira. That frightened me more, as if he meant her harm in some way. He asked her if she was ready, and that people were waiting for her.

She was crestfallen, and his meaning was obvious to everyone. She was being asked to move on, after so many years stuck. Who was this…this…creature? Was he death, capital D?

Neither Ewan or I moved an inch, even our breathing was shallow in case we were spotted. A nonsense reaction since we weren’t exactly invisible. Moira was torn, and to help with her decision the strange man explained that if she didn’t leave voluntarily with him then something else would eventually take her. It was obvious from his tone that no one wanted to meet this something.

After further contemplative silence Moira took a deep breath and faced the man directly, nodding her assent. He held out his hand and then they were both gone, vanished into thin air without pomp and ceremony. I’d at least expected there to be a bright light.

Ewan let out the breath he was holding and his limbs turned to jelly. He looked relieved that they’d both left. I begged him to explain.

The man dressed like a black and white film star was an Overseer, or at least that’s what everyone called them. They were death, the grim reaper, every tale you’ve ever heard, that’s what they were. But rather than killing souls, per se, they were merely guides helping people move on.

When you die you have a choice; go with the Overseer or remain behind as a ghost. Most spirits go, but the ones who remain, the ones I can see, are the ones who go against the advice given to them. But no spirit can remain amongst the living forever. There was a subgroup of Overseers, aptly named Catchers. They went around capturing ghosts.

This puzzled me a bit. If there were these Catchers then how could Ewan and I make a living out of helping ghosts move on? How were there ghosts who had lingered for decades, even centuries? Were these catchers waiting for a brew*?

But then I remembered a certain few instances where a ghost had just vanished, as if they’d been snatched away before they could finish the business that’d kept them here in the first place. Maybe these Catchers were understaffed, or very selective.

I asked Ewan how many Overseers he’d seen, and if he knew the one we’d just met. He didn’t know. He’d never seen the same one twice, but his grandmother had told him that they always appear different. Usually in a form that’s comforting or familiar to the spirit they’re trying to guide.

The idea was to make it as easy for the spirit to move on as possible, which they wouldn’t if they were afraid. All I knew was that the Overseer had shaken me to my core. Perhaps they affect the living differently, but there was just something unbelievably unsettling about it. The way it moved the air, it’s overly sympathetic gaze, the silken soft way it spoke, it’s definitely featured in some nightmares of mine over the years.

Thankfully I haven’t seen many, but it’s always a worry of mine whenever I find a ghost case to involve myself in. It makes me miss the days of the study, before I knew what they were, or even that they existed.

Ewan never took payment for this job, I think we both agreed it was inappropriate considering we hadn’t really done anything. The timing of the Overseer’s appearance was suspect considering how long Moira had lingered. But the living aren’t meant to know the ways of death, even ones like Ewan and myself. I’ve spoken to a lot of people over the years, some like me, others better, and although we all know about the guides, and their hunting counterparts, information and facts about them are thin on the ground.

The only words they ever say to us are thanks. It’s like we’re background characters they take no notice of. Just as well because they’re all creepy as hell and if I wasn’t looking forward to dying before then the thought of being met by one of them makes me wish for unnatural longevity.

And I’m afraid that’s as much as I can tell you with confidence because no one, and I mean no one living, knows what happens after. My only piece of advice, if you’ll permit me, is always go with the Overseer. Staying might seem important, but nothing is worth your soul.

*a brew – British colloquialism for a cup of tea.

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