The crowded room magnified Judy’s sense of loneliness. Edward had waved at her when she arrived but then disappeared into the horde. Half an hour later, she sat alone with a deflated ego. Edward was at the bar, chatting to a blonde dressed as a vampire.
Judy shrugged away a twinge of jealousy, hating herself for caring. The story was old: a repetitive cycle. Unrequited love, like an addiction, whittled away the last remnants of self-esteem, little by little, every time she fell and every time she lost.
Stroking the velvet skirt of her dress, as if for comfort, Judy contemplated what to do next. She’d worn the dress to impress Edward; slinky, black, with a plunging neckline, labelled “Temptress Witch” in the fancy-dress shop.
The room had become devoid of air in the past half an hour. The place Edward had chosen for his Halloween party was stuffy. Judy estimated there might be about eighty people crammed in here. It was anything but relaxing: the music was too loud, causing everyone to shout instead of talk to each other; there was no room to move, which meant people were having to navigate their way through a throng every time they wanted to go to the bar or the toilet. Everyone appeared to be frowning, such was the ambience. Judy had arrived when it was a little less crowded but now there were people standing next to the sofa, close enough that she could feel the heat emanating from their bodies. It felt like sitting on a Tube train, except darker and even louder.
Childhood memories emerged. Judy’s older brother, Bill, used to hide and then unexpectedly leap out in front of her wearing scary costumes at this time of year. Being here, surrounded by people dressed as ghosts and ghouls, brought on all sorts of anxious sensations.
A girl dressed as a zombie who was standing beside the sofa moved aside to let somebody by and Judy glimpsed Edward through the gap for a microsecond. He and the blonde vampire were laughing. Dejection raised its head as Judy thought of all the other times she’d believed she’d found the one only to be cast aside, overlooked, made to feel invisible.
She thought about leaving the party, no longer in the mood to socialise. Self- destructive thoughts abounded. As she sat alone on the sofa in the corner of the room, her illusions—or delusions—began to splinter.
A man with a horrific Scream Ghostface mask pushed past a couple dressed as skeletons and sat beside her on the sofa. He didn’t say anything. Judy couldn’t see his eyes properly because of the mask but assumed he was looking at her. She coughed in an attempt to break the silence; he didn’t react.
Unnerved, she said, ‘H-hello.’
‘You mean you can see me?’
His voice sounded very deep, and distorted—almost as though it was computer- generated. Judy wondered if perhaps the mask could be causing the strange effect. ‘Of course I can see you,’ she replied, feeling disconcerted.
‘Wow,’ he said. ‘I didn’t realise anyone could; I’m usually invisible to the living. I was just joining in with the fun here. Gets lonely being undead, you know.’
‘Undead?’ Judy wished he would remove the mask.
The girl wearing the zombie costume smiled at her. Judy nodded and smiled back, embarrassed that the girl might have thought she was referring to her.
The strange man’s voice thankfully came to the rescue: ‘Yes, I’m dead. But I’ve been forced to wander the earth forevermore. I can’t find my way to Heaven or Hell, not sure if they even exist. Not actually sure what I’m supposed to be doing. Well, I know that one of my jobs is to collect other undeads and initiate them... welcome them to their eternal misery. But you’re not even dead, so I’m not sure how I’m able to communicate with you.’
‘You’re dead?’ Judy wondered how strong the wine was that she’d been drinking. Although anxiety still hovered close by, she decided to play along with this man—if only to have something to focus on; the denseness of the atmosphere induced a sense of claustrophobia. ‘How did you die?’
The zombie-girl laughed. ‘How much have you had to drink, love?’
‘It was a car accident,’ said the man, distracting Judy. ‘My own fault. I’d been drinking all night. I was already banned from driving at the time.’
‘She must be on something,’ said the zombie girl to the couple dressed as skeletons.
Judy felt bemused as she watched the trio move backwards into the crowd as if to get away from her.
‘That’s a great costume you’re wearing, Judy.’ The deep voice of the creepy man sitting on the sofa distracted her.
‘Thanks. Er... how did you know my name?’
‘It’s an undead thing. I kind of just know people’s names, not sure how. It’s like I have a higher knowledge but don’t know how to use it.’ He shrugged. ‘Are we anywhere near Scotland?’
‘Um... no, we’re in London.’
‘I occasionally end up in the wrong place. I’m supposed to be collecting an unfortunate soul from Scotland. I sometimes find myself in a place that has significance for the person I’m collecting. Maybe he or she was born here. Who knows? Could be they’re not dead yet. I think I kind of tap into the person’s mind for a while before they die and then it’s easier to locate them. This one’s leading me on a wild goose chase, though.’
Judy had tuned out of the conversation, still baffled as to how he knew her name. Did she introduce herself? She couldn’t recall doing so. Could he have slipped a drug into her wine?
The Ghostface-man took off his mask and frowned. ‘Sorry to have spooked you.’
His voice still sounded unusual, even without the mask; almost artificial. Forcing a smile, Judy said, ‘Er... that’s a great costume and I love your act. You almost fooled me.’
‘Uh... Thanks,’ said a man dressed as a vampire when Judy caught his eye. There was something like fear in his voice when he said it.
‘Er... no, I was talking to him,’ she said, turning and pointing to the man seated beside her. When she looked back she saw that the vampire man had found a gap in the crowd and was now squeezing through it not even acknowledging her.
Perplexed, Judy turned to Ghostface and asked, ‘Is there something wrong with my face? Has my make-up run, or something?’
‘Everyone’s avoiding me. Maybe I’m just being paranoid.’ She shrugged. ‘Anyway, what was I saying? Yeah, I just said I like your act. It’s good. But maybe you should drop it now and just be you.’
‘Hmm... well, we have to find ways to pass the time, don’t we?’ Ghostface-man said. ‘My name’s Hendrix.’
‘Yes. I chose it when I died. My actual name when I was alive was pretty boring.’
‘Right, so you’re back to being dead.’ Judy sighed. ‘What was your name when you were alive?’
‘Yes, I already know that.’
‘Oh, yeah. But I still don’t remember telling you my name.’
Judy couldn’t help noticing that, despite there being hardly any room to move, the immediate area around the sofa was now clear of party-goers. Looking back at her companion, she wondered whether perhaps it might be Hendrix they were wary of. That would make sense. His voice sounded so weird, and quite spooky, now that she thought about it.
‘You must have told me your name when we first met,’ said Hendrix. ‘Or, as I say, I sometimes just know, especially where I’m getting information from the undead I’m collecting.’
‘How do you make your voice sound like that?’
‘It’s the fire damage that did it. I used to have a great voice; I was a singer, you know. Only in my spare time, but our band was destined for greatness, I just know it. People used to compare my singing to Robert Plant.’
‘You’re determined to keep up this role-play, aren’t you?’ Judy giggled but more from nerves than amusement.
Hendrix narrowed his eyes before saying, ‘Not sure what I’m doing at a Halloween party; parties were never really my thing even when I was alive.’ He paused, then said, ‘You don’t like parties much, do you?’
‘Is it that obvious?’
‘It is to me, but I know things.’
‘Oh, yeah, you’re an all-seeing undead person,’ Judy stated wryly.
‘You came alone.’
‘Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work that out as I’m sitting on my own.’
‘Edward invited you.’
‘Um... it’s his party, so again you wouldn’t need a degree to be able to work that out.’
‘How do you know Edward?’
‘You tell me, since you know everything.’
‘I didn’t say I know everything. I just know some things. He broke your heart.’
Judy’s cheeks reddened. ‘H-how did... I mean, no he didn’t. We’re just Facebook friends.’ As mortification descended, Judy now began to wonder about Hendrix. Was he a mind reader? A clairvoyant? There was no way he could have known about her infatuation. Was it that easy to tell that she had feelings for Edward? Then she wondered whether Edward had told him to speak to her; perhaps Hendrix had been looking to meet a single woman: ‘Go and chat Judy up; she’s desperate—always flirting with me on Facebook’. That would explain how he knew her name.
‘Who are you?’ she blurted.
‘I’m a Facebook friend of his too.’
It suddenly occurred to Judy that Edward’s friends on Facebook would be able to see her comments on his posts and perhaps Hendrix had worked out that she fancied him.
She turned towards where Edward sat at the bar and noticed that he seemed to be getting quite cosy with the blonde, whispering something into the woman’s ear. Jealousy took hold again.
‘He’s a scientist,’ said Hendrix.
‘Yes,’ she replied glumly. ‘I don’t know him very well.’
I don’t know him very well. She heard the words echo mockingly. Once again, she felt foolish for allowing herself to get carried away imagining that there could be anything between them. She’d met Edward twice, and even then it was only for a quick drink.
‘I went to uni with him,’ said Hendrix. He wasn’t looking at Judy, and he spoke whimsically as if remembering a fantastical bygone era, nostalgia colouring his words, telling of times he had spent with Edward and how everyone just knew he would become a scientist. The way he spoke about Edward, making him out to be a nice, ordinary guy, made Judy feel worse somehow.
‘That’s his latest girlfriend,’ said Hendrix, pointing at the couple. ‘Deborah. They’ve been seeing each other for a few weeks. It still surprises me how much I know about people by just looking at them. I wish I’d had that ability when I was alive, it would have saved me a lot of trouble.’
Girlfriend? How did I not know about that? Rejection and envy battled for the uppermost sensory position in Judy’s mind. She contemplated what her life had become: an endless series of obsessions. Heartache and feelings of inadequacy were common companions; she felt stuck in a pattern that had become more of a prison.
She remembered reading somewhere a quote about why people always want what they can’t have: it said that people ask for disappointment so that when everything goes wrong they can feel, really feel something.
Whenever Judy felt rejected she often ended up thinking it was a fool’s game to search for true love when there were a million alternatives, and wished that she didn’t fall so quickly and so deeply for the wrong type of man, waiting, and wasting time and love.
Relationships were easy to come by and disposable, allowing an illusion of freedom. No one wanted to waste their time waiting for the real thing and developing spiritually, with all the darkness and solitude that entails.
In her own fruitless search, over the years Judy had taken solace in literature: as chronicled in innumerable books and articles—fiction and non-fiction—by the greatest and most revered writers, century after century, the harsh reality seemed to be that no one ever found what they were looking for. Humans would only ever experience glimpses of what real happiness could be, mostly because it was hard to wait for any length of time under the pressure to conform. Conformity, with its tepid rewards, made people feel as if they belonged to something bigger than themselves, and everyone wanted to believe they belonged somewhere. Love—the one thing that could stop the endless search, the endless disappointments—fell by the wayside, regarded as a dream for the foolish or the deluded.
As these thoughts pervaded Judy’s mind, Dave Gahan’s voice synchronistically boomed over the speakers, the haunting last lines of Depeche Mode’s “Going Backwards” echoed her thoughts as the song came to an end.
Pushing away the negative feeling and putting on a positive front, Judy forced a smile at Hendrix. ‘I’ll be leaving soon.’
‘Oh, that’s a pity. But yeah, I’ll probably be off soon as well. As I say, parties aren’t really my thing, and I’m miles from Scotland. I guess I’d better make my way up there.’
‘It was nice to meet you,’ said Judy, out of politeness.
‘Yes, was nice to meet you too,’ he replied. ‘I think you’re the only one who can see me, judging by the way people are looking at you. They think you’re talking to yourself.’
Judy watched him walk away. The tremorous tone of his voice, and his words, had left a hollow sense of anguish in their wake—a black and dense, heavy burden, similar to the emotion she associated with mourning. It wouldn’t disperse no matter how hard she tried to ignore it. Maybe it was all the talk of death, she mused; yet it was more than that.
She approached the bar and ordered a double whisky—not the most sensible solution, but she wanted to take the edge off the night’s disappointment.
As she sipped her drink, she spotted Edward and Deborah sharing a kiss. She ordered another whisky. As she sipped the drink lost in regret and humiliation, she heard someone call out, ‘Judy!’. Looking up, she saw Edward waving from across the bar. She waved back and faked a smile. The next thing she knew, he was standing beside her.
‘Glad you could make it, Judy,’ he said, as if they were the best of friends. ‘Love the costume.’
‘You having a good time?’
‘Er... yeah. I just met your friend, Hendrix.’
Edward squinted and it appeared he hadn’t heard what she’d said. He smiled and shrugged. ‘Sorry, it’s too loud in here!’ he remarked, leaning in towards her.
‘I met Hendrix,’ she said louder, into his ear.
He pulled away and nodded. ‘Yeah, they should play some Hendrix. I’ll ask the manager.’
Judy rolled her eyes.
Edward said something else that she didn’t catch because of the loud music.
Judy watched as he returned to his seat, taking with him the ghosts of crossed wires and miscommunication that had haunted their relationship from the start.
Deborah pretended to suck blood from Edward’s neck as he embraced her. Judy screamed inwardly. Deflated once again, she decided to leave.
When she stood up, the room appeared to spin and she had to remain still for a few moments before attempting to walk. She walked to the door on wobbly legs as the room continued to spin and sway and the noise of chatter and music boomed. Again, she worried about the possibility that Hendrix may have spiked her drink. Would he be waiting outside? Unable to shake the paranoia, she instinctively rubbed her arms where goosebumps had erupted.
As she exited the venue, the intro to “All Along The Watchtower” began to play. Frustration coloured her thoughts. The meeting with Edward played over and over in her mind like a bad movie: what she’d said; what she should have said; what he’d said; how he’d looked at her; what an idiot he must think she is. Overthinking. Another burden to bear.
She put on her coat. The cool air was calming but she still found herself checking that Hendrix had gone. ‘He broke your heart’; His words came to mind. A tear threatened to fall as she conceded that it was the truth. She liked to think of herself as emotionally stable—idealistic but realistic—however, this deep wounded feeling wouldn’t budge: she began to question her sanity.
On the way to the Tube station, she tried hard to focus on the now, knowing the past couldn’t be changed. Just as she turned the corner of the street, someone jumped out in front of her wearing a terrifying zombie mask. ‘Boo!’ he shouted.
Judy fought with memories of her brother, cursing him for turning her into this nervous wreck.
The man removed his mask. ‘Hi, Judy.’
‘Bill?’ She hadn’t seen him for a few months; he lived in Manchester.
He hugged her tightly.
A smile spread across her lips and she felt instantly more relaxed as she asked, ‘How come you’re in London?’
‘A friend’s stag do with a Halloween theme.’ He gestured to the zombie costume and raised his eyebrows.
They chatted for a while, catching up on family matters. His buoyant disposition was contagious and, soon, Judy found her dark mood dissipating.
A rowdy group of men exited the pub and one of them called out to Bill.
‘I have to go,’ said Bill, apologetically. ‘It’s a pub crawl; I’m guessing we’re heading off to the next pub.’
‘Okay, don’t drink too much,’ said Judy.
‘Ha! You sound like Mum.’ He laughed. ‘Don’t worry, I’m old enough and ugly enough to look after myself. You must visit soon, sis. Isla and the kids would love to see you.’
‘I’ve really missed you all. I’ll try and visit soon.’
‘It was great to see you. Take care of yourself.’
Bill ran over to join the rest of the group who were already walking away towards the Tube station. One of the men began singing a song that Judy had never heard before; the others joined in.
She couldn’t help smiling as she watched them leave.
Judy got home at 11 p.m. and changed into pyjamas. Seeing Bill had cheered her up; all else was, for the moment, forgotten. Her mood changed when she found a missed call and a tearful voicemail message on her phone: ‘Judy, it’s Mum. Call me when you get this message, please.’
Feeling suddenly sober, Judy made the call and sighed with relief when her father answered the phone.
‘Dad? I had a message from Mum.’
‘It’s your brother,’ was all he said.
‘He’s been in an accident.’
‘But... But I just saw him. About an hour ago. What happened?’
‘You saw him? That’s impossible. Where?’
‘He was at a stag do in Camden.’
‘Judy, you’re getting confused. Your brother isn’t in London. Listen, me and your mother will be visiting him in hospital tomorrow. We’ll collect you on the way. He’s in a coma; on life support. He’s in a serious condition. All we know is that it was a car accident. We were told that he’d been drinking. It doesn’t make sense; he was banned from driving. He mentioned it when your mother last spoke to him.’
Banned? Drinking? In the haze of Judy’s mind, she recalled having a similar conversation with a man earlier in the evening.
‘We’re leaving quite early in the morning, about six o’clock. We don’t want to be too late. Pack a bag, we’ll stay with Isla overnight.'
‘Too late? He’s not going to...’
‘Don’t worry. Get some sleep. We don’t know all the details yet. Hopefully he’ll be fine.’
Judy’s head was spinning after the phone call. How could Bill have been in a car accident when his friends were all headed towards the Tube station? She was certain she’d seen him enter the station. Then she remembered what her father had said about drink-driving and her thoughts went to the party. Hendrix’s nonsense story about him being undead was so similar. Perhaps she was imagining things. She tried to recall how many drinks she’d had.
Hendrix had said he was a Facebook friend of Edward’s. She decided to look him up if only to prove to herself that she wasn’t completely losing her mind. She found her laptop and logged on to Facebook. There was a message notification: Edward; he’d sent a message thanking everyone for attending the Halloween party. Judy checked the names included in the bulk message. No Hendrix. She scanned the list for a Mark, but there wasn’t one.
She clicked through to Edward’s Facebook page. He’d updated his status to “in a relationship” with Deborah Squires. She fought the overwhelming sense of rejection and searched through Edward’s Friend list. Soon she found the man she’d been speaking to earlier: Mark Porter; recognising his face from the profile photo. Without thinking about it, she sent him a friend request.
After packing an overnight bag ready for the trip to see Bill at the hospital, she returned to the computer. There was a message notification on Facebook from Mark.
Hello. Thank you for the friend request. This page is being kept open as a memorial for Mark, who sadly passed away last Halloween. I can add you as a friend if you knew him but otherwise we’d like to keep it for friends and family only. I hope you understand. Mark’s mother, Daisy.
Mark/Hendrix certainly had a warped sense of humour. Judy rolled her eyes and clicked through to his Facebook page. The blood washed from her face as she scrolled through hundreds of messages of condolence. How can this be true?
His words echoed in her mind:You mean you can see me?... I’m dead... one of my jobs is to collect other undeads and initiate them... welcome them to their eternal misery...
Judy covered her ears, in a futile attempt to block out the incessant inward chatter. With trembling hands, she replied to his mother’s message: I’m sorry for your loss. I had no idea Mark had died. This is all a dream. None of it can possibly be true. I’m losing my mind. It must be the whisky. I need to sleep.
A few hours later, Judy was awoken by the phone ringing. She reached over to the bedside cabinet to pick it up. ‘Hello,’ she said in a croaky voice.
‘Darling, it’s Mum. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this.’ She began to cry.
‘Mum? Is it Bill?’
‘Yes. He... He didn’t make it. The doctor said he was critical; we should have gone straight away.’
‘Stop... There was nothing we could have done.’
‘Isla and the children were at his bedside when— I’m so glad they got there in time to say goodbye; it was a bit of a trek for them from Manchester.’
A trek? So he was in London, after all... Judy wished she could rewind time, delete the past few hours, return to the night before and stop Bill from getting into his car. She blinked away tears.
‘Are you all right, darling?’ Her mother’s voice cracked as she asked the question.
Judy tried to say yes, but she knew that if she spoke she would cry.
‘Take your time. It must have come as a shock. We’ll come and see you later, darling; maybe I shouldn’t have told you over the phone.’
Judy recalled that after the conversation with her dad the night before—when he’d said that Bill wasn’t in London—she’d been convinced that Mark must have spiked her drink, causing a hallucination when she thought she’d seen Bill. Thinking back to their meeting, she felt strangely comforted by that one last memory of her brother.
‘He was so happy last night, enjoying himself with his friends. He said I should visit. Mum, why didn’t I visit them more often? I took it for granted that he’d always be there. He was always there but now I’ll never see him again.’
‘Darling, don’t upset yourself. No one could have guessed something like this would have happened.’
‘It was so good to see him last night.’
‘What? How? You couldn’t have seen him last night.’
‘Yes, I did. It was unexpected. He was in Camden. I bumped into him on my way home. He said he was at a stag do.’
‘You’re getting confused, darling. It must be the grief. Bill was at a stag do, yes. But it was in Edinburgh.’
‘Yes, his friend Phil is getting married. You remember Phil, don’t you? You all used to play together when you were children. I have to go, love, your father isn’t taking this very well. We’ll come and see you later.’