The Time of the Ghost
Diana Wynne Jones

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But it made you very shy, she remembered, being one girl out in the middle of a field full of boys. They stared and said to one another, “That’s Slimy Semolina, that girl.” Some said it to your face. And being boys, they were of course quite unable to tell you and your sisters apart, and called all four of you Slimy Semolina impartially. But now, when she was in the ideal state for not being noticed, Sally somehow could not face all that wide green space. She was afraid she would dissolve to nothing in it. There was little enough of her left as it was. She kept along beside the wall and the buildings, past an open cycle shed, across a square of asphalt with nets for basketball at either end, and – quickly – beside a row of tennis courts. Here, the balls sleepily went phut-phut. The ones in white, playing tennis, were all from the top of the school, who looked and spoke exactly like men. It was unnatural, somehow, that they should be schoolboys, when you could not tell them from masters. They alarmed Sally too, when they suddenly broke into bellows of deep laughter. She always thought they were laughing at her. This time when they did it, she imagined them saying, “Look at that girl – got nothing on – not even her body! Ha-ha-ha! Oh ha!”

Ha-ha to you! Sally said angrily, speeding past. I can’t help it!

Of course, she thought – it was as if embarrassment had churned up new ideas – this was probably only a dream. But just in case it was real, Mother and Himself would know what to do. Mother had really, very nearly, seen her by the green door. She need only wait until school was over for the day and they would be able to tell her what had happened. Probably everybody knows except me, Sally said, with the pricking of not-real tears in her nonexistent eyes. I’m always left out of things.

Almost at that moment, school was over for the afternoon. Sally found herself mixed, tumbled and swept back again, in a running grey crowd of boys. She was surrounded by laughing – “Did you listen to what Triggs said to Masham in Geography?” – and arguing – “No it isn’t! They have four-wheel drive!” – jeering – “Don’t give up, Peters! Just hit me and see what you get!” – and wordless fighting. BANG.

Ow! said Sally. I felt that!

It was very curious. She began to wonder if she had some kind of body after all. She had definitely been caught just then, between somebody’s fist and somebody else’s body. And it was as difficult to go forward against the crowd as it would have been in the ordinary way. Though Sally pushed and shoved, and expected with every push that she would go right through one of the chattering, running boys, she found that this was one thing she could not do. Each boy seemed to have, around his solid body, a warm elastic quivering field of life, which held Sally off. It was as thin as tissue paper, but it was there. Sally could feel it crackling faintly, every time she bumped against a boy.

That’s peculiar, she said. I wonder if all living things are like this. I must remember to try walking through a hen sometime. Oliver would have made a bigger target, but the idea of walking through Oliver was too alarming.

While Sally said this, the crowd of boys surged off past her and left her on her own, feeling strange and shaken. It was like being breathless – except that she had no breath to start with. She went on, round into the school garden beside the lime trees. More boys were coming out from under the lime trees and wandering about there. Sally hovered above the trampled earth, watching them. It was strange how few of them walked like human beings should. They went shambling, or knock-kneed, or with one shoulder up and the other down, and it almost seemed they did it deliberately. One boy was going up and down a space twenty feet long, walking with his toes digging into the earthy lawn and his knees giving gently. His jaw was hanging and he was muttering to himself. Every few steps, one of his knees bent sharply, as if he had no control over it.

“Ministry of Silly Walks,” Sally heard him mutter. “Ministry of Silly Walks.” It was Howard, the boy whose splinters were not catching.

Near him, another boy with gingery hair was going about with one arm bent like a cripple’s and jerking about. At each step he made a different hideous face. “Quiet, please, gentlemen!” he muttered from his contorted mouth. This one was Ned Jenkins, Sally remembered, and she did not think there was anything wrong with his arm usually.

Honestly! You’d think they were all mad, to look at them! she said wonderingly. She could not believe boys usually behaved like this. The boys at this school were clean-limbed young Englishmen. Yet, as she watched the stumbling, muttering, jerking figures, she knew that they often did this – or something equally peculiar. Cart had once told her that all boys were mad. Sally had protested at the time, but she now thought Cart was right. And she went on watching, trying to fix all of their bizarre antics in her strange, nebulous mind, hoping that something – anything – might give her a clue to how she came to be like this. Because I can’t stay like this for the rest of my life, she said. I shall go as mad as Jenkins.

Panic began bulging again. The idea hovered – just behind the name Jenkins – that it was nonsense to say the rest of my life. It was quite possible Sally was a ghost, and her life was over already. Sally fought to keep this idea behind Jenkins’ name, safely hidden, and the idea fought to come out. In the battle, Sally herself was tumbled off again, through the thick hedge, back into the orchard where the hens fled cackling, and then whirled towards the house. There she stopped, hanging stiffly against the branches of the last apple tree. A new idea had been let out in the fight.

Suppose, Sally said, I left a letter – or made a note – or keep a diary.

The notion was a magnificent relief. Somewhere there would be a few lines of writing which explained everything. Sally did not quite see herself doing anything so methodical as keeping a diary, but, right at the back of her transparent, swirling mind, she found a dim, dim notion that she might have written a letter. Alongside this notion was a fainter one: if there was a letter, it was to do with the Plan Fenella had talked about.

The house quivered with Sally’s excitement as she whirled inside it.

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In the kitchen, Cart was actually doing the washing-up. She was standing at the sink with her heavy feet planted at a suffering angle, slowly clattering thick white cups. Her face had a large expression of righteous misery.

“Penance,” Cart said, as Sally hovered by the kitchen table, wondering where to look for a letter. “Utter boredom. I do think the rest of you might help sometimes.”

Now you know how I feel, Sally said. I always do it. Letters were more likely to be in the sitting room. She was on her way there when she realised that the only other being in the kitchen was Oliver. Oliver was asleep in his favourite place – vastly heaped in the middle of the floor – with three feet stretched out and the fourth – the one with only three toes – laid alongside his boar’s muzzle. Oliver was snoring like a small motorbike, jerking and twitching all over. That means Cart was speaking to me! Sally said, and hovered to a halt in the doorway. Cart? she said.

Cart plunged a pile of thick plates under the water and broke into a song. “I leaned my back up against an oak, thinking he was a trusty tree—” It sounded as if there was a cow in the kitchen, in considerable pain.

CART! said Sally.

“First he bended and then he broke!” howled Cart. Oliver began to stir.

Sally realised it was no good and went on into the sitting room, just as Fenella shut its door to keep out the sound of Cart singing. She brushed right by Fenella, feeling again the tingle of the field of life round a human body. But Fenella seemed to feel nothing. She turned away from Sally and went to crouch like a gnome in an old armchair. Imogen was still lying on the sofa. The room was hot and fuggy and dusty.

You both ought to go outside, Sally said disgustedly. Or at least open a window.

There was a desk and a coffee table and a bookcase in the room, each covered and crowded with papers. There were rings from coffee cups on all the papers, and dust on top of that. Sally could tell simply by hovering near that it was several months since any of the papers had been moved. That meant there was no point looking at them. The notion was very firm – though dim – in Sally’s mind that, if there was a letter, it had not been written very long ago. She went over to try the papers on the piano.

It was the same story there. Dust lay, even and undisturbed, over each magazine and each old letter, and only slightly less thickly over a school report. This last term’s, Sally saw from the date. “Name of pupil: Imogen Melford.” A for English – A for almost everything except Maths. Imogen was disgustingly brilliant, Sally thought resentfully. A for Art too, which made a change. Only B for Music – which made a change also, a surprising one, considering Imogen’s career. Underneath: “An excellent term’s work. Imogen has worked well but still seems acutely unhappy. I would be grateful for an opportunity to discuss Imogen’s future with Imogen’s parents. B.A. Form Mistress.”

But Imogen always seems unhappy! Sally said.

The papers on the treble end of the piano keys were actually browning with age. Nothing there. The picture – it was good – was more recent, but still slightly dusty. There was a film of scum on the water in the crookedly balanced paste-pot at the other end.

Here Sally noticed that Imogen had turned on the sofa to stare at her. Imogen’s eyes were large and a curiously dark blue. They had a way of looking almost blank with, behind the blankness, something so keen and vivid that people often jumped when Imogen looked at them. Sally jumped now. They were, as she remembered agreeing with Cart, unquestionably the eyes of a genius.

Imogen? Sally said hopefully.

But it was the picture behind Sally that Imogen was staring at. “I like those brambles particularly,” she said. “The stalks are just that deep crimson – brawny, I call them. They almost have muscles – tendons, anyway – and thorns like cats’ claws.”

“My self-portrait,” Fenella said smugly.

“It’s not a self-portrait. You didn’t paint it,” said Imogen. “And it makes you look too brown.” She sighed. “I think I shall take up writing poetry.” A large tear detached itself from the uppermost of her dark blue eyes and rolled down the hill of her cheek, beyond her nose.

“What are you grieving about now?” Fenella enquired.

“My utter incapacity!” said Imogen. A tear rolled out of her lower eye.

Imogen’s grieving was so well known that Sally was bored before the second tear was on its way. There was going to be no letter down here. The place to look was the bedroom. She flitted to the stairs at the end of the room, as Fenella said, “Well, I won’t interrupt you. I’m going to steal some tea.”

Sally was halfway upstairs when the door was barged open under Fenella’s hands. Oliver’s huge blurred head appeared on a level with Fenella’s face.

“Get out, Oliver,” Imogen said, lying with a tear twinkling on either cheek.

Fenella pushed at Oliver’s nose. “Go away. Imogen’s grieving.” Oliver took no notice. He simply shouldered Fenella aside and rolled into the room, growling lightly, like a heavy lorry in the distance. Where Oliver chose to go, Oliver went. He was too huge to stop. And he had detected that the peculiar Sally was here again. He shambled past Imogen to the foot of the stairs, alternating growls with whining.

“Sorry,” Fenella said to Imogen, and went out.

Sally hung at the top of the stairs, looking down at Oliver. He filled the first four steps. She did not think he would come up any farther. Oliver was so heavy and misshapen that his feet hurt him most of the time. He did not like going upstairs. But she wished he would not behave like this. It was alarming.

“Imogen’s grieving again,” Fenella said to Cart in the kitchen.

“Damn,” said Cart.

Sally gave Oliver what she hoped was a masterful look. Go away. The result was alarming. Oliver growled until Sally could feel the vibrations in the stairs. The hair on his back came pricking up. Sally had never seen that happen before. It was horrifying. He looked as big as a bear. Sally turned and fled to the bathroom, where Oliver’s growls followed her but, to her relief, not Oliver himself.

The bathroom was in its usual mess, with a bright black line round the bath and dirty towels and slimy facecloths everywhere. Sally retreated from it in disgust, into the bedroom. Here, as seemed to keep happening, she found herself being startled by something she should have known as well as the back of her hand. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t got a back to my hand at the moment, she thought, trying to make a joke out of it.

The bedroom was airless and hot, from being up in the roof. It was the size of the kitchen and sitting room downstairs, with a bite out for the bathroom, but that space did not seem very big with four beds in it. Three of the beds were unmade, of course, with covers trailing over the floor. The fourth bed, Sally supposed, must be hers. It had a square, white, unfamiliar look. There was no personality about it at all.

Another reason why the room looked so small was that it was as high as it was long. Three black bending beams ran overhead. You could see they had all been cut from the same tree. The twists in them matched. Above them was a complex of dusty rafters, reaching into the peak of the roof, which was lined with greyish hardboard. Sally found herself knowing that this part, where they lived, was the oldest part of School House. It had been stables, long before the red buildings went up beside it. She also knew it was very cold in winter.

She turned her attention from the roof and found that the walls were covered with pictures. By this time, from under the floor, through the rumbles from Oliver, she could hear Cart in the sitting room. Cart was beginning on another unsuccessful attempt to stop Imogen grieving. “Now look, Imogen, it’s not your fault you keep being turned out of the music rooms. You ought to explain to Miss Bailley.”

Sally paid no attention, because she was so astonished by the number of pictures. There were pen and ink sketches, pencil drawings, crayoned scenes, water colours, poster paintings, stencils, prints – bad and wobbly, obviously done with potatoes – and even one or two oil paintings. The oil paints and the canvases, Sally knew guiltily, had been stolen from the school Art Room. Most of the rest were on typing paper pinched from the school office. But there were one or two paintings on good cartridge paper. That brought a dim memory to her of the row there had been about the typing paper and the oil paints. She remembered Himself roaring, “I shall have to pay for every hair of every paintbrush you little bitches have thieved!” Then afterwards came a memory of Phyllis, desperately tired and terribly sensible, saying, “Look, I shall give you a pound between you to buy some paper.” A pound did not seem to buy much paper, by the look of it.

This was supposed to be an Exhibition. Sally discovered, round the bathroom corner, first a bell-push, labelled FOR EMERGENCY ONLY, and then a notice: THIS WAY TO THE EXHIBITION. The notice was signed “Sally”. But Sally had not the slightest recollection of writing it. Why was that? After staring at it in perturbation for a minute, she thought that it must have been written very recently, perhaps just after the end of term – and it was always the things in the last few days she seemed to have the greatest difficulty in remembering.
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