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Under Your Skin

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He worked out that he’d died fairly quickly. Partly that was due to the boys screaming and jumping around the bus, but mostly it was because Pat knew it wasn’t normal to stand up and look down at your own body.

“It’s alright, boys,” he said, turning away from the sight of himself slumped over the steering wheel. “Calm down, everyone.”

The boys didn’t hear him, and obviously couldn’t see him, so they carried on screaming. Except for Gary - twelve and sensible - who turned and ran towards the house, shouting for the caretaker. Pat was proud of him, right then. Gary was the patrol leader, and he was proving he’d earned that title.

The caretaker came out sharpish, which was good, although he didn’t seem to be great with kids, which was less good. Still, Pat couldn’t fault him aside from the very loud swear word he uttered when he saw what had happened. The man herded the boys towards the house, leaving Pat standing awkwardly, trying not to look at his dead body. It certainly put things into perspective. Had his shoulders always looked like that? And that arrow. He reached up and found it through his neck. How embarrassing.

“You there!”

Pat turned to see a lady in old fashioned clothes marching down the lawn towards him. And she was not happy.

“Um - hello,” Pat said, raising his hand to wave. “Can you see me?”

“Of course I can see you,” the woman said, gesturing at the bus. “Did you have to make such a mess?”

“Sorry,” Pat said automatically. “I didn’t really know what I was doing.”

“Hmm.”

The woman eyed him up and down, her lips pursed. Pat had never been brilliant at history, but she looked sort of Victorian. Then he noticed a soldier over her shoulder, standing way up by the house, and a young woman in a long pink dress. She waved, and Pat waved back.

“What’s your name?” the Victorian lady asked.

“Uh - Patrick. Pat. Dawson. Pat Dawson.”

“Well, Patrick Dawson. Welcome to Button House.”

She turned as though to leave, and Pat didn’t think. He reached out and grabbed her sleeve.

“Wait, please. Who are you? What’s going on here?”

“Unhand me, sir,” the woman growled, shaking off his hand. Her eyes were wide and Pat jumped back, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Oh - I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to - I just-”

The woman balled her hands into fists, eyes narrowed, then snorted.

“Come along.”

Pat followed, because he didn’t know what else to do.

When they made it to the gravel driveway, the young woman in the dress hurried over.

“Hello! I’m Kitty. Who are you?”

“This is Patrick,” the scary woman said, as she marched past. “He has questions. I’m sure you can answer them.”

She swept into the house and the soldier, who had been watching silently, gave Pat the once up and down, then turned to follow her into the house.

“Don’t mind them,” Kitty said, a smile on her face that certainly helped to take the edge off the scary lady’s bad mood. “I’m very pleased to meet you. Did you know that you’re dead?”

**

It turned out that being dead took quite a bit of getting used to. Pat kept trying to open doors before he walked through them, and if he stopped concentrating, he could fall through the floor and into the cellar with the plague ghosts. And although they were nice enough, in their own way, they tended to keep to themselves and Pat always ended up feeling a bit of a spare part down there.

Then there were the other ghosts upstairs, who were an interesting bunch. Pat had always prided himself on how he got along with other people, but dead folk were definitely more difficult. Kitty and Mary were friendly, and Thomas was alright despite his funny moods. Pat thought that Robin probably liked him, even though he kept jumping out to scare him. But Fanny, the scary lady - who was Edwardian, thank you very much! - seemed to have decided that Pat’s face didn’t fit. And the Captain had barely spoken to him at all, just watching Pat’s every move.

“Don’t worry about them,” Kitty said, when Pat asked what he had done wrong. “They haven’t actually been here very long and they are both still terribly upset about being dead. They’ll get used to you.”

It was a kind thing for her to say. Pat wondered if he should be upset about being dead too, but then he’d always tried to look on the bright side. No real reason to stop doing that.

Still, it meant that he was on his own quite a bit, trying to get his bearings in the giant house. Sometimes, in the first days, he followed the alive people around; the security guards, the event organisers, the old lady who owned the house. But in the end, seeing them do alive things like eating made him a bit sad actually, so he stopped. Instead he just wandered around on his own, and tried to decide if he was dreaming. Maybe he’d hit his head when he crashed the bus and he was in a coma, and maybe one day he’d wake up from all this. That would be nice.

One day, when a thunderstorm was blowing a gale outside, Pat went up to the top of the house. It was noisy and he spent a while trying to find a leak that he could hear. In the room furthest from the stairs, he found the water dripping through a hole in the roof into a bucket.

He also found a head.

When he’d finished screaming, he crouched down to get a better look. The man had neatly combed hair and an impressive goatee. He was smiling, kind even though Pat had screamed at him, and his eyes crinkled at the corners. He looked friendly, even though he was just a head.

“I’m so sorry,” Pat said. “I didn’t mean-”

“Happens all the time,” the head said, in a voice that shrugged. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Humphrey.”

“Oh. You belong to the body wandering about downstairs.”

“He belongs to me,” Humphrey said. “They didn’t tell you about me, did they? Typical.”

Pat sat down, legs crossed. He was talking to a severed head. If this was a dream, he wondered what kinds of medicines they were pumping him full of to give him visions like this.

“I’m Pat,” he said. “I haven’t - I don’t think I’ve been here long. It’s hard to tell, innit?”

“It is,” Humphrey said. “Thomas tells me I died in 1536 but it seems like yesterday. No need to ask what happened to you though.”

Pat reached up and touched the arrow. He wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to the feeling. Then again, Humphrey seemed to be doing alright, and he had much bigger problems.

“Anyway, you’ll get used to it. Say, can I ask you a favour?”

Humphrey was very expressive with his eyebrows, and Pat liked him a lot.

“Of course.”

“Would you mind taking me to find my body? Usually we manage well enough but if there’s a new chap I haven’t met that means I’ve been up here a while and the bloody idiot has got himself all mixed up.”

“Oh. Can I touch you?” Pat said, scrambling to his feet.

“Oh yes. We can touch each other. Comes in handy sometimes.”

“I think I knew that actually,” Pat said, gently picking Humphrey up. “I grabbed Fanny’s arm on my first day. Didn’t really think about it.”

“Bet that went down well,” Humphrey chuckled. Pat shifted him till he was tucked under his arm like a football. It was weird to be touching something solid. Humphrey’s beard scratched against his hand and although his skin wasn’t warm, Pat could feel the texture of it. It was quite nice.

“Alrighty. Where to?”

“Wherever an idiot might be wandering about.”

“That’s a lot of places.”

“Yeah. Comes with the job, I’m afraid.”

**

On the first anniversary of his death - not that Pat knew it at the time - Carol turned up with Dale. At Button House. Morris drove them, good mate that he was. Pat was glad Carol had someone to rely on.

The other ghosts, knowing entertainment when they saw it, followed him outside to see the visitors.

“This is my family,” Pat said, standing at Carol’s side. “Look, guys. This is my son!”

“He be a pretty scrap,” Mary said, nodding at the toddler.

“A fine young fellow,” the Captain said, and Pat beamed. It was still a bit hit and miss if the man would speak to him.

“As long as they do not also crash their carriage into anything, they are most welcome,” Fanny sniffed.

He was so excited to see his family that Pat didn’t notice Kitty slip away into the house. He did notice though when they all finally trooped back inside and Kitty disappeared from the drawing room before anyone could speak to her.

“I’ll - I’m just going for a walk,” Pat announced to the room, then slipped out of the same door that Kitty had. The others were already arguing about something, the excitement forgotten, and none of them heard him.

Now Carol had gone, the familiar hollow ache was back in his chest. Like his whole insides had been pulled out, which he supposed they sort of had. He’d wondered before if ghosts could cry, and had even tried to do it, but so far no luck. There was no shame in tears. That’s what he had always told his boys. Real men cry. That had come in very handy the day that Pat had zipped his moustache into his tent, and needed to be cut free by the first aider. The scouts didn’t look twice at that.

Kitty probably couldn’t cry either, but she did a good impression of it. Pat rounded the corner and found her perched on a windowsill, making convincing noises into a hanky. It probably helped her to do that. Pat wasn’t one to judge.

“Kitty, are you alright?”

“Oh!”

She wiped at her dry face, and tucked the hanky into her sleeve in one smooth movement.

“It’s nothing, Pat,” she said. “You are very nice to ask.”

“Are you sure? Only you sounded-”

“I’m just being silly. Your son is very nice. He reminded me of my baby brother and I haven’t thought about him in such a long time. I was just surprised”

“Oh, I see.”

Pat sat down next to her. His elbow touched Kitty’s, but she didn’t move away.

“I’m sorry it upset you,” he said.

“It’s not your fault. It all happened a long time ago now.”

She turned a smile onto him, one of her lovely smiles, although she still looked a bit upset. Pat wasn’t sure what to do. He’d always been a cuddler, when people were feeling peaky. With everyone really; his mum, his dad, his brothers, Carol, Dale. Even his mates. He was a modern man, after all. The 1980s were a brave new world. But Kitty was from - well, whenever she was from, and men probably didn’t go around cuddling ladies all the time. Still. She was upset.

“You don’t have to say sorry for anything,” he said, then carefully put his arm around her shoulder. When she didn’t jump away, he curled his fingers against the rough velvet of her dress.

“You’re a very lovely man, Pat,” Kitty smiled, then leaned against him just a little bit before she hopped to her feet. She was so young, and she seemed to bounce back from things so quickly. Pat would be jealous, if he was a jealous sort.

“I feel much better now,” Kitty said. “Come on. Let’s go and play a trick on someone. I’ve had a wonderful idea to annoy the Captain!”

**

The pandemonium happened early one morning when someone ran along the corridor outside Pat’s room, yelling their head off and pounding on every door as they went past.

“Fawcett’s dead!”

Pat didn’t know who Fawcett was, of course, but he had to be one of the Tories who’d turned up for a conference. Pat had never been a Tory voter and he couldn’t really say he was sorry to hear that one of them had died, especially with how they’d all been carrying on since they’d arrived. Still, going along to have a look was something to do.

Evidently the other ghosts felt the same, because they all appeared to follow the crowd heading towards one of the bedrooms. Well, all except the Captain, but he was above things like this, Pat was sure.

“How did he die?” Kitty asked as they all gathered in the room, peering around the crowd of MPs. “Oh. He isn’t wearing any trousers!”

Robin laughed, Fanny tutted. Pat knew that if he could, he would be blushing. He could tell well enough what the bloke had been up to before he popped his clogs, and he was glad that none of the others would be able to work it out. Probably best the Captain wasn’t here. He’d only get all funny about it.

Then again, what was really funny in the end was that when they all went down to the drawing room to get out of the way of the mob of MPs, the Captain was already there with a brand new ghost. Who wasn’t wearing trousers.

“Oh my!” Kitty said. “You’re him.”

“Faw-cett,” Robin said, peering at the bloke from around the door.

“This is Julian,” the Captain said smugly. “I found him last night. Another soldier to swell our ranks.”

“You could have had the decency to die with your clothing intact, sir!” Fanny said, turning her face away from him, but watching from the corner of her eye. “There are ladies present here.”

“I do beg your pardon,” Julian snapped. “I wasn’t exactly planning on it, you know!”

Fanny’s mouth fell open and everyone went silent, watching with anticipation to see what happened next.

“Well, I have never been spoken to so rudely in my own house. You, sir, are most unwelcome here!”

She turned and stormed out of the room. Pat watched as Julian didn’t exactly hang his head, but he did have the decency to look a little shamefaced. Fanny was difficult to live with, but she was right enough that they’d all have to live with him like that for - well, a long time.

“How did you dies?” Mary asked.

“Uh-”

Julian looked frantically at the Captain, who smirked. Pat was right about that then - he’d worked it out as well. It was dreadfully embarrassing. He even felt a bit sorry for the bloke then.

“Was it your heart?” Pat asked, stepping forwards and clasping Julian’s shoulder. He squeezed it tightly and Julian got the message.

“Oh - yes. My heart. Had a dodgy ticker my whole life, truth be told.”

He was a good liar. Typical Tory that. Still, he looked so grateful that Pat didn’t mind too much. It didn’t hurt to help him have a decent start.

It was a bit of a boring answer though, and the others soon got restless, wandering off to see what the other living people were up to. There was certainly enough noise going on upstairs.

“Thanks for that,” Julian said, holding out his hand for Pat to shake. “Very awkward, you know. Would rather - er - if you two chaps would keep it to yourselves.”

The Captain’s moustache twitched but he nodded, and Pat took Julian’s offered hand.

“Your secret’s safe with us.”

**

Pat’s grandson was barely standing on his own two feet the day that Carol didn’t come to visit as well.

“I’m so sorry, Pat,” Alison said, once she’d gone to get the intel on why Morris was there with the boys on his own. “Carol - she died, a few months ago. Unexpected.”

His fellow ghosts were not usually known for their ability to be quiet, but they were then. Pat caught a movement from the corner of his eye and thought Kitty had probably covered her mouth to stop herself from crying out, but he was too busy staring down at the ground. Robin had been right then, about it happening, and how it would be sooner than he thought.

“I’ll -”

He swallowed, or at least remembered what it was like to swallow. Everything should hurt. Carol had died. But there was nothing. Just the same lot of empty nothing. And somehow that was even worse.

“Excuse me,” he said, then pushed past everyone to get into the house.

“Pat!” Alison called, but he was already up the stairs and heading for the attic.

The old room, the one with the leak, had long been patched up. Mike had done that, soon after they moved in, once Pat had told Alison about it. Now no one really came up there, except for Humphrey’s body sometimes, and Pat used it as a bit of a hideout when he needed some time to himself. And now probably counted as a good time to be alone.

His eyes burned, or the memory of them did, and he sank down into the corner, resting his face in his hands. Even finding out what Carol had been up to Morris didn’t really change that she had been his wife. They’d loved each other once. They had a son. A grandson. And now she was gone, and he was stuck here. Probably forever. And he couldn’t even cry about it.

After a while, he heard the car pull away, crunching on the gravel. Then Alison and Mike’s voices, way down below, as they got in their own car and went off to do something. Without them, the house was always quiet. If the others had gathered in the drawing room for the afternoon, he wouldn’t hear a thing. It was probably best that they just left him by himself. The last thing he’d want to do was snap at anyone for something that wasn’t their fault. Still, if Kitty or Mary had thought about coming up to find him, he wouldn’t have really minded. But they wouldn’t know what to say; they’d all lived their own troubled existences. This had all happened so long ago for them that they barely remembered it. Even the Captain had once admitted he had trouble remembering some of the details of his life, and he’d only died forty years before Pat did.

He stayed in his corner, jaw clenched tight, and maybe he drifted off into a kind of half sleep, because the next thing he knew, Robin was standing in front of him.

“Hello,” Robin said, as Pat nearly jumped out of his skin. “Thought you be here.”

Without asking, he sat down next to Pat.

“I sorry lady dead.”

“Thanks, mate,” Pat murmured. “I know you - told me it would happen. But it’s still a bit of a shock.”

“Yeah. No mean you not be sad. It okay. Be sad.”

Robin was so old. It was easy to forget sometimes how old he was. It was, honestly, hard to comprehend it at all. But he was so wise as well. How many lives had he seen come and go through the house. Too many to count. Too many people he’d watched. So many stories he’d learned and forgotten.

“Thank you - for coming up to find me.”

“Is okay.”

Then, without warning, Robin shifted and wrapped his arms around Pat. His grip was strong. No getting out of it, even if he wanted to. Which he really didn’t.

He felt that welling up in his throat that used to be tears.

“Haven’t had a hug in a long time, mate,” he said weakly, curling his fingers into the fur of Robin’s tunic.

“Not for everyone,” Robin mumbled from where he was resting his face in Pat’s hair. “Don’t tell or all want one. Just for sad days.”

“Your secret’s safe with me.”