Ghost Virus: Chapter 22


Mindy was walking her Yorkshire terrier Sprout across Furzedown recreation ground when she saw the blue velvet jacket hanging on the railings. Although it was a grey, still day, one of the jacket’s sleeves was flapping, almost as if it were waving to her.

She stopped and watched it for a few moments. Sprout tugged at his thin red leather lead and then looked up at her impatiently. He had seen a black Labrador by the entrance to the recreation ground and he was eager to go and have a sniff.

‘Wait, Sprout,’ said Mindy. ‘I want to have a look at that jacket. See its arm waving? Maybe there’s a squirrel stuck inside it!’

Mindy was nine – a thin, pretty girl with a brunette bob and a turned-up nose. In her red and yellow zig-zag sweater with its floppy hood and her ankle boots she looked like a character from a 1920s children’s storybook. Today was a school day but she was recovering from a cold and so her mother had let her have one more day off.

She walked over the grass to the railings and peered at the jacket closely. She had to tug Sprout to come with her, because he kept his fluffy little head turned towards the Labrador.

Now the sleeve had stopped waving, and it hung limply. The jacket was so expensive-looking that Mindy couldn’t think why its owner had left it in the recreation ground. Perhaps she had hung it up on the railings while she watched her children play on the swings, but it was a chilly morning, so why would she have done that? And how could she have walked off without realising that she had left it behind?

Perhaps one of her children had fallen off the roundabout and hurt himself, and she had rushed him to hospital. Perhaps she had suffered a fainting fit and some kind stranger had offered to drive her home. Mindy was always making up stories to explain the world around her, although she sometimes found out that the reality was even stranger. Once she had seen two men walking along Tooting Broadway carrying a stuffed brown bear between them, a real one, and she had invented so many different explanations for that, although she had never found out where they were taking it, or why.

The Labrador had disappeared now, and Sprout turned his attention back to Mindy. When he looked up at the jacket he made a thin falsetto whining noise in his throat, like he always did when he was frightened, and tried to back away. But as soon as he saw that she was about to lift the jacket off the railings, he started to bark, and he kept on barking, high and sharp and almost hysterical. He circled around and around, trying to pull her away, and became hopelessly tangled up in his lead.

‘Sprout! Stop it, will you! Don’t be so stupid! It’s only a jacket!’

She smacked at him with the end of the lead but he still wouldn’t stop barking and turning around in circles.

‘Sprout! Stop it! If you don’t stop it I won’t give you any rabbit sticks when we get home!’

Sprout kept on barking so Mindy tied his lead to the railings. He jumped up into the air again and again and he almost throttled himself with his collar.

Mindy lifted up the jacket. The lining was snagged on one of the spikes on top of the railings, but she managed to twist it free without tearing it too much. As she did so, she felt a strange but exhilarating sensation of being set free, like finishing school on the last day of term, or arriving at the beach on her holidays and running across the sand towards the sea.

She ran her fingertips over the velvet and the nap was so soft and luxurious that she had to try the jacket to see it fitted her. Although she was skinny, she was tall for a nine-year-old, and while the jacket had quite broad shoulders, it had a cinched-in waist and she was sure that she could get away with wearing it. It would look fantastic with the Hollister high-rise super-skinny jeans which she had been given for her last birthday, the ones with the shredded knees.

She took off her zig-zag sweater and hung it on the railings before she tried on the jacket and buttoned it up. It was two sizes too big for her, and the sleeves were too long, but it gave her a tingle of pleasure across her back and down her arms, and she felt that it belonged to her – as if it had been hanging on the railings waiting especially for her to come walking past – her and nobody else.

She reached into the pocket of her sweater to take out her mobile phone and admire herself. Then she took a series of selfies, posing and pouting like Kim Kardashian. A middle-aged man wheeling his bicycle along the path called out, ‘Lovely, love! You ought to be a model!’

Mindy turned round to him and shouted back, ‘Piss off, you pervert!’

The man stopped, obviously trying to make up his mind if he ought to answer back, but then he saw that two young mothers with pushchairs were approaching him, and he wheeled his bicycle away without saying anything.

You see? She’s always been sweet and polite and done whatever she’s told, but now she can be strong, too, and stick up for herself.

But ‘piss off’ – that’s rude!

He asked for it. She’s only nine and out on her own. Who knows what he might have done to her next, the lecher?

Mindy felt that the jacket was becoming tighter and tighter, and actually clinging to her skin through her long-sleeved T-shirt. It was so tight that she was finding it difficult to breathe, but the sensation was pleasurable, too, in a way that she had never experienced before, and it made her feel grown-up and excited.

So what is she going to do now? Go home and see her mother? It’s about time she told her mother what she really thinks of her.

Why? What’s Mummy done wrong?

Oh, come on! Think about it! She may be her mother but that doesn’t give her the right to tell her how to behave every minute of the day, and to make her bed and tidy her room, and help with the laundry. Why should she? She’s nine now, and an independent person. She can stop her mother taking her to St Nicholas’ every Sunday, for a start. God doesn’t exist, so why waste an hour in a chilly church singing stupid songs about fighting the good fight and listening to some boring vicar talking about forgiveness? If anybody needs to ask for her forgiveness, it’s her mother.

Mindy untied Sprout from the railings and tugged him away, even though he was still barking and furiously trying to shake himself free from his collar. She left her zig-zag sweater behind on the railings, and one of the young mothers called out, ‘Hey! Sweetheart! Is that jumper yours?’

Mindy waved her arm at her dismissively and called back, ‘Get stuffed and mind your own business!’

‘Oh – charming!’ said the young mother. ‘Why don’t you go home and wash your mouth out with soap and water!’

‘Didn’t you hear me?’ Mindy retorted. ‘I said get stuffed and I meant it!’

The two young mothers shrugged and pulled faces at each other and carried on walking. For a few moments Mindy stood watching them go, and then she made her way to the entrance, almost bursting with self-satisfaction.

See! That was telling them, wasn’t it? She’s found her true voice at last!

 

*

 

It was beginning to grow dark by the time Mindy came down the alley beside her house in Nimrod Road and into the kitchen through the back door. Her mother was ironing sheets and pillowcases and her father’s shirts for the office.

‘Mindy!’ said her mother. ‘Where on earth have you been? I’ve been ringing you and ringing you! Isn’t your phone working? I was going to call the police if you didn’t come home soon!’

‘Oh, yes, why?’ said Mindy, dropping Sprout’s lead on the kitchen table. ‘Don’t you think she’s quite capable of looking after herself?’

‘What did you say? And where did you get that jacket you’re wearing? And where’s Sprout?’

‘What do you care?’ Mindy replied, walking towards the door that led to the hallway.

Her mother put down her iron and caught hold of Mindy’s arm. She looked so much like Mindy that they could have been sisters, if there weren’t twenty-four years between them.

‘Where have you been, Mindy? Where’s Sprout? What’s happened? And why are you wearing that awful jacket? Where’s your sweater?’

Mindy stayed perfectly still, but stared straight ahead of her, as if she intended to keep on walking out of the kitchen as soon as her mother let go of her.

‘So what is it now?’ she asked. ‘Insult the way she dresses, as well as everything else she does, like her homework, and her piano playing, and her dancing?’

‘Mindy – where’s Sprout? What have you done with him? Have you lost him? What’s going on, darling? Please – tell me!’

Mindy looked up at her at last. ‘Just like she said to those busybodies in the park – get stuffed and mind your own business!’

Mindy’s mother slapped her across the face, and then immediately said, ‘I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to hurt you! But you have to tell me what’s happened, Mindy! Why are you talking like this?’

Mindy’s left cheek was flushed scarlet, but she gave her mother a dismissive smile, as if she had expected to be slapped, and couldn’t care.

‘Mindy, for the love of God, darling! I really didn’t mean to hurt you! But you’ve come home hours and hours late, wearing some completely strange jacket, and there’s no Sprout with you, and all you can do is answer me back as if I’m some kind of a stranger.’

‘She’s had enough, that’s why,’ said Mindy.

‘Why do you keep calling yourself “she”? Have you had an accident or something? Has somebody attacked you?’

‘If you had experienced even a tenth of my suffering, you would feel the same way as I do,’ said Mindy. Her voice sounded different now, low and measured, and her mother thought her eyes looked different, too – not wide and round and innocent, but curiously feline, and filled with a kind of weary malevolence. They were the eyes of somebody who had been punished by life, and was not going to forgive those who had hurt her, or anybody.

‘Mindy, let’s go through to the sitting-room. I’m going to call Daddy.’

‘Oh, yes? And what do you think the great and wonderful Daddy is going to do? He’s as hopeless as you are, you stupid bitch.’

Mindy’s mother wasn’t tempted to slap her face again. She was seriously worried now. She held onto her arm and guided her into the living-room and switched on the light. Over the beige-tiled fireplace there was a row of framed photographs, most of them of Mindy from when she was a baby, and always smiling her coy, shy smile, as if she couldn’t believe that she was pretty enough for anybody to want to take a picture of her.

‘There, sit down,’ said Mindy’s mother, leading her over to the sofa. ‘I think you’ve had a shock and we need to find out what it was. Why don’t you take off that horrible jacket? I mean, where did it come from? It doesn’t look very clean.’

‘No,’ said Mindy, staring around the room. ‘I hate this wallpaper. Green! Why did you choose green, of all the disgusting colours?’

‘Well, sit down at least.’

‘No.’

You see? She doesn’t have to be obedient. She can defy her mother and there’s nothing that her mother can do about it. Her mother won’t slap her again. Slapping her like that made her feel worse than Mindy.

Mindy’s mother sat in the armchair next to the fireplace and took her mobile phone out of her apron pocket. She rang her father’s number and he answered almost immediately.

‘Hi there, love! What’s up? I’m right in the middle of a meeting, I’m afraid.’

‘Peter, it’s Mindy. Something awful’s happened to her but I don’t know what it is and she won’t tell me.’

‘What do you mean, “something awful”? Has she been hurt?’

‘I don’t think so, not physically. But she took Sprout out for a walk at three o’clock and she’s only just come back. There’s no sign of Sprout and she’s wearing some peculiar second-hand jacket instead of her sweater. And she’s saying such meaningless things. She keeps talking about herself in the third person, as if she’s somebody else.’

‘And she won’t say what’s happened to her?’

‘No… she told me it was none of my business. In fact she was ruder than that.’

There was a long pause, and then Mindy’s father said, ‘She hasn’t been raped, has she?’

‘I don’t think so, no. But then she won’t tell me anything.’

Mindy had been standing with her back to her mother, but now she turned around and said, ‘I know what he’s thinking. Typical father. He thinks she was raped, doesn’t he? Just because he’d secretly like to have sex with her himself. All fathers do. They look at their little daughters naked in the bath and if their wives weren’t around they’d love to touch them.’

‘Peter,’ said Mindy’s mother. ‘I think you’d better come home now. And I think we might have to call the police.’

‘Oh, you want to call the police?’ Mindy challenged her. ‘And what good will that do? You think the police are going to go looking for a Yorkshire terrier and a sweater? You don’t think they’ve got one or two things more urgent to attend to?’

‘Mindy—’ her mother began.

‘No, Janet! You can’t go on interfering in her life any more! She’s found her strength now! She has me and I have her! We’re one and the same! Nothing you do or say is ever going to be able to change that!’

Mindy’s voice rose to a scream. She bent forward so that her face was only two or three inches away from her mother’s and her mother could feel her spit on her cheeks.

‘It’s all going to be different from now on! You’re never going to give her orders again and you’re never going to treat her like a child! She’s a woman because I’m a woman and we’re one and the same! She’s going to come and go as she pleases! Not only that, she—’

Mindy hesitated, and held her left hand to her stomach. She retched, and a long string of saliva dripped from her lips.

‘Not only that—’ she repeated, but then she stopped again, and retched even louder, with a sickening noise.

For three or four seconds she stood leaning over her mother with her eyes closed and her cheeks bulging, as if her mouth were filling up with bile. Then she shuddered and vomited directly into her mother’s lap, a stringy torrent of red, half-chewed meat and tangles of wet tan and black fur.

She heaved again and again and all her mother could do was hold onto her shoulders with both hands and try to suppress her convulsions.

At last she sank to her knees onto the carpet and stayed there with her head bowed, sobbing. Her mother looked down at the grisly mess in her apron and she could tell by the fur and the liquorice-black fragment of snout what it was.

‘Dear God in Heaven,’ she whispered. ‘Oh, Mindy. What’s got into you, my darling? Who’s got into you?’


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