It began as a presence. There was nothing to see or hear, nothing to feel even, yet she knew that it was there. She was being watched. When other people were around her she found it harder to sense, but as soon as she was alone again it was there. Watching. Listening. For a time she could shake it off by turning her head to reassure herself that there was nothing there, and she could carry on with what she was doing, but slowly the conviction grew in her that the presence was waiting for a response. It wanted her to say something. She told nobody, if her mind was wandering then it was best kept to herself, so she went to work, cooked, met friends, did the school run, slept, and told herself that nothing was wrong. After all, if she could see nothing, hear nothing, what could possibly be wrong? She would get over it.
Strangely, when the presence turned into a pale shadow on the kitchen wall and she could see it for the first time it was almost a relief. There was something there after all. She was not losing her mind. It was real. She simply turned her head after switching the kettle on, as she had done so many times before and instead of seeing nothing, this time she found herself looking at a shadow. It was not being made by sunlight from the window and there were no electric lights switched on in the middle of the day. There was no reason for it to be there……other than force of will. The question was, whose?
The shadow began to prey on her mind. Every time she went into the kitchen she could look at nothing else. It had to go. She waited until she was sure that she would be alone in the house for a few hours, locked the doors, then fetched the pot of white emulsion paint from the cupboard under the stairs and started to paint furiously. Three coats were not enough to erase the shadow. After five coats she realised that she was wasting her time, any number of coats would not be enough. If anything the shadow had darkened, gained power and confidence. The only thing that had changed was the smell of paint filling the kitchen- they would be asking about that when they all came home. For the first time she was truly afraid.
From that moment on the shadow didn’t just stay in the kitchen. It moved around the house with her, settling onto a wall close by her, waiting. She never saw it move, it just remained with her wherever she was. Nobody else in the house mentioned it. She kept watching their faces to see if they showed any sign that they could see it, afraid to ask. Either they would say that they could, and a torrent of pent up feelings and emotions would be unleashed, or they would say that they couldn’t and wonder what was the matter with her. Whichever it might be she didn’t want to hear it. This was something which she had to deal with alone. It belonged to her.
As the weeks passed the shadow darkened and its edges became clearer, more distinct. She got into the habit of drinking her coffee in front of it while she watched to see if she could catch this process happening, trying to guess what it might be. It was something, she was sure of that now. Whichever wall it settled on, whatever the time of day, the shape was the same but the depth of the darkness in it no longer changed. It was now the deep, velvet black of a hole in space, reflecting nothing and drawing her in towards it. As she went about her daily life it held out a promise of glorious, unending, dangerous emptiness- it knew that she would come when called. It became an escape that she reached towards, a chasm that she would be thankful to fall into. It became her friend.
After many hours of sitting and looking into the darkness she finally decided that she must talk to it. It took a long time to gather enough courage- what if it answered?- but one early morning, at first light, she managed, very quietly, to say something. It was the obvious question.
“What do you want?”
She would never know whether the voice that she heard next came from the depths of the shadow or from inside her own head. Perhaps it didn’t matter. Perhaps it was the same thing.
It was not the answer that she had expected.
“Forgiveness? For what?”
“For leaving you alone. For letting you down.”
She watched as the shadow slowly formed itself into a familiar, beloved shape- why had she not recognised it before?
“I am angry.”
Fear clutched at her heart. This was what she had longed for more than anything else, but it shouldn’t be happening. Jonathan shouldn’t be here. This should not be happening. She waited in silence, hands shaking. The shadow spoke again, the voice familiar, reassuring.
“I will always be with you.”
“No. You died.”
She spat the words out, channeling her fear into a shard of rage that reached deep into the darkness of the shadow.
“Mum? Are you OK? I heard shouting.”
She turned away from the shadow to see her daughter standing at the door.
“It’s nothing. Go back to bed.”
“Is it dad?”
She nodded, unable to speak.
“Mum- look at me- dad will always be with us- so long as we remember him. He’s not gone.”
As she heard the words of the shadow repeated and reinforced by the warmth of a hug the tears that she had been unable to cry finally came. When she released herself and looked back at the wall the shadow was gone.