The words usually instilled a warm calm in her, ever since she’d first heard them and seen the old lady in the tartan skirt and grey cardigan. The kind, slightly wrinkled face was almost as familiar as her own. It had been nearly 20 years since the woman started appearing to her, always smiling.
A knowing smile.
“That’s the beauty of being a ghost,” Jenny had often thought to herself during the old lady’s visits. “Never to get any older, always staying the same.”
“Hello, dear,” she said back to the ever-smiling woman. But this time she wasn’t so confident. Her life was now happy and complete, so why was the old lady here? Was it a terrible disaster she had come to forewarn about?
However, Jenny’s life had been very different when she saw her the first time. It was only six months after her marriage to Malcolm, and already things were starting to go wrong.
“You can forgive him for his affair,” the old lady had told her. “He will never stray again, I promise you.”
“But how can you be so sure?” Jenny had asked.
“I’m sure. Trust me.” The old woman gave her a gentle nod and slowly vanished into thin air. Jenny stood rooted to the spot. Ten minutes earlier she had been viciously hoovering the floor, pulling the cleaner backwards and forwards with quick, angry jerks. How could Malcolm do this to her? How could he wreck her life like this? Didn’t he know how much she loved him? Why had he done this? And with her, of all people? His secretary, for goodness sake.
“Hello, dear.” The words spoken right by her ear, so quietly, yet clearly audible above the roar of the vacuum cleaner, took her totally by surprise. She was alone in the house, so who was talking to her?
Jenny whirled round and saw her standing there: early 70s, grey hair pulled back tightly into a bun, smiling sweetly. But she wasn’t quite whole, the green floral wallpaper of Jenny’s living room was visible straight through her. Jenny gasped in amazement and horror.
“Hello, dear,” the old woman said again. “Please don’t be frightened. I’ve come to help you.”
But Jenny was frozen to the spot, unable to move, unable to utter a sound.
“W-who are y-you?” she managed to stammer eventually, her mind whirling, completely incapable of rational thought. After all, what could be rational about a 70-year-old woman who wasn’t quite whole, wasn’t quite real, standing – no, floating – in her living room?
“Please don’t be scared of me. I’m not going to hurt you.”
She never stayed more than a few seconds. Just enough time to tell Jenny what she had to know. Always that gentle nod, the smile widening ever so slightly as she faded into nothing. Jenny was never frightened after that first time.
It had been during the second visit, a year later, when the old woman said to look upon her as her guardian angel. “The path of your life will not always be easy or smooth, my dear, and although I will be here to help you, I can’t always tell you which route to choose.”
“But why are you helping me like this? Who are you?”
The old woman ignored the questions. “You’re wondering whether to take the new job with Harrison Bonham Associates,” she said. “Or to stay with Sprackleys and take the promotion they’re offering.”
Jenny nodded, dumbly. The old lady was spot on. Jenny had been agonising over her decision after telling Helen Sprackley she was leaving the small, but growing, Public Relations consultancy to join a much larger, rival, operation.
The increased package had been swift in coming: a ten per-cent rise in salary, plus an upgrading of her car, an extra week’s holiday and an increase in her pension entitlements. Clearly an offer not to be sniffed at. But Harrison Bonham Associates was a well-established consultancy with a wonderful reputation; one of the best in the business, in fact. With that name on her CV the PR world would be her oyster in a couple of years. She could go to any consultancy in the land, more than likely as a board director, probably as Managing Director. But how would that sit with plans to start a family?
And that was when the old woman came a third time, to find her firmly ensconced as Sprackleys Managing Director; Helen Sprackley having taken on the role of chairman after Jenny had opted to stay with the company.
“You’re wondering whether your career can fit hand-in-glove with raising a family. Well, it will. Go ahead, my dear, start your family as you want to. It’s the right thing to do. If you don’t, you’ll always regret it.”
With Jenny’s excellent salary at Sprackleys and Malcolm also earning good money as a well-connected fashion photographer, she knew they could easily afford the best child-care. But how would she feel when the baby actually came along? Would she want to stay at home all the time to look after it? Would her career matter so much to her then? It certainly mattered now, but would it in the future? Would her priorities change?
And so the elderly woman came a fourth time. “I just don’t know what to do,” Jenny told her.
“I know, my dear, I know. It’s hard for you,” the woman said. “You’re worried that if you leave the agency you’ll be bored at home, and that Gemma will only occupy your time for so many years. But you can always return to your industry later, when Gemma’s older, when she’s at school. Someone with your experience will always find work.”
The fifth visit was, indeed, when Gemma was starting school. Helen Sprackley offered Jenny her old job back as Managing Director; Jenny’s replacement having moved on to Harrison Bonham Associates. Funny how things work out, Jenny told herself.
This time the agonising was over whether to run her own part-time business from home, so she would be there when Gemma came in from school; so she would be there when Gemma was ill; so she could be sure of not missing school sports days and plays. The offer of MD was very tempting, but would be full-time. Working from home would keep her mind occupied; keep her hand in and provide her with a degree of financial independence while ensuring she was always there for Gemma. When Gemma needed her.
And so Jenny gave birth again. Not to a baby this time, but to Jennifer Radcliffe Communications.
“Hello, dear.” The old woman appeared to her on the first day of business, smiled sweetly and said: “You’ve done the right thing,” before vanishing. Never before had a visit been so brief.
And so the old woman’s appearances stopped. The years flew past. Jenny and Malcolm doted on Gemma. Every six months Malcolm would take professional pictures of her, and the growing portfolio catalogued her young life, from the moments after her birth, through her captivating smile and first steps, to her first day at school in grey pinafore dress, white shirt and red cardigan, first sports day – when she broke the tape by winning the 50 metres sprint, and of course, all her birthday parties.
Gemma was six when her brother Dominic came along. Jenny had wondered whether the old woman would appear again when she and Malcolm had been discussing whether to try for another child. Both of them knew that if they were to have another baby it had to be now, before they, and Gemma for that matter, grew any older. After all, Jenny’s body clock was ticking away relentlessly. She was now 35 and Malcolm was 41.
But there were no appearances. Jenny began to worry about making her mind up. All her major life decisions had been influenced by the old woman’s comforting, reassuring presence and words. Malcolm just thought she was a good decision-maker. But this time he sensed she was having trouble.
However, he knew better than to push her. If pushed, she fell into a stubborn rut and sulked with him for days. Eventually she did make up her mind, as Dominic was testament to.
Over the years she had longed to tell Malcolm about their very welcome supernatural visitor – her guardian angel – but he didn’t believe in ghosts. And after all, she told herself, it was her secret, shared alone with the old woman, whoever she was. And so she never told him.
She often wondered if she would ever hear those once-familiar words again. Yet here they were, almost 20 years after she first heard them and 10 years since the last time.
A chill of pleasure ran down her spine as she turned from her computer screen to see that familiar face smiling back at her.
“Hello, dear,” she replied, using the old woman’s regular greeting back to her, unable to control the feelings of intense pleasure which tingled through her body before changing to those of doubt.
“Don’t worry, my dear,” said the old woman. Uncanny. It was almost as if she were reading Jenny’s thoughts about disaster. “We won’t be seeing each other for a very long time to come, and I didn’t want you to forget me, that’s all.”
Jenny was almost crying. “Of course I won’t forget you,” she sobbed. “You’ve helped me so much.” The smile widened, just as before, and the old lady faded into nothing.
And so the years passed by. Gemma and Dominic grew up and had families of their own, providing Malcolm and Jenny with a clutch of much-loved grandchildren. Jenny’s PR firm also grew to a very respectable size, employing over 50 people. She had all but retired in her early fifties, only taking on a part-time role as Chairman. And, exactly as the old woman forecast, Malcolm never strayed again.
Yes, her life was happy and complete.
One day the sound of hoovering suddenly came from the living room. Malcolm was out, so who was in the house with her? And who would be hoovering, for goodness sake?
Her heart pounded as she trod silently down the hall and opened the door, peering cautiously inside. There was a young girl viciously hoovering, pulling the cleaner backwards and forwards with quick, angry jerks.
But the girl and her hoover weren’t quite whole, weren’t quite real. Jenny could see the recently hung light red flock wallpaper and newly fitted dado rail right through her.
And the girl was floating.
Suddenly Jenny understood. Now she realised why the old woman’s face had always seemed so familiar, right from the very first time she saw her.
She strode up behind the girl, the vacuuming masking the sound of her footsteps.
“Hello, dear,” she said.