Wednesday, 26 November 2014

A Question of Residence

I came out of the house and stopped dead on the doorstep. Well, not literally dead. But you know what I mean.

You couldn’t really blame me for that, either, if you saw what I’d seen. Not everybody is privileged to see a ghost walk up the stairs as he’s leaving home for work at half past eight in the morning.

What? Of course I knew it was a ghost. Don’t be daft. Everyone knows what a ghost looks like when they see one. And with the thousands of ghosts bungling around, it’s hard to get through a day without bumping into at least a couple. You just have to admit to yourself that they are ghosts.

Now if this had been just any ghost, of course, I wouldn’t have turned a hair. I’ve seen, at the last count, three thousand, one hundred, and twenty seven ghosts. Or maybe it was twenty eight – I thought I saw one once, driving a car, but ghosts don’t drive cars, do they?

But this ghost was something special. Oh yes. It was the last ghost I’d ever expected to see.

It was my own ghost.

I expect you understand now what I felt. For a long moment I stood goggling at it, imagining I was hallucinating. Because, of course, as far as I knew I wasn’t dead. And as far as I knew only dead people became ghosts.

One ghost each, too. I’d never heard of anybody owning more than one ghost.

Was the ghost similarly goggling back at me? Of course it wasn’t. The ghost didn’t even glance at me. It merely pushed past me and into the house.

What? Of course the ghost could push me. Ghosts can get solid for a bit if they want. I thought everyone knew that.

So it was inside my house. And then it slammed the door, and I heard the bolt clacking home.

I was locked out of my house, and my ghost was inside.

Think of that a moment and feel the horror of the situation.

So, what did I do? I did what you’d have done in my situation. I went right up to that door and began hammering on it. And the response I got was what you’d get – nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing. From inside the house, my ghost laughed. Have you ever tried to imagine what it’s like to hear your own ghost laugh? Give it up, you can’t.

But I couldn’t give up, because the ghost was in my house, and I was locked out. Also, I was getting late for work.

“I’ll be back in the evening,” I yelled to the ghost. “You’d better be off by then!”

The ghost chuckled. A chuckling ghost is even worse than a laughing ghost. Don’t believe me? Have one chuckle at you and see. I knew then that I’d have more problems than I’d bargained for.

At work I asked my departmental head what she thought.

“I think you ought to call the exterminators,” she whiffled.

“Exterminators?” I replied. “But that’s for infestations, isn’t it?”

“And?” she shot back. “If your house isn’t infested by this ghost, then what is it?”

I thought she had a point, so during my lunch break I checked online for exterminators. I found several, and called them up – but, do you know, not one of them dealt with exterminating ghosts!

“A ghost is already dead, sir,” a sweet young lady told me patiently. “When we exterminate them we kill them, and you can’t kill something that’s already dead.”

I had to reluctantly admit the sense in that. “But what do I do then?” I wailed plaintively, like people who have never admitted to themselves they saw a ghost imagine ghosts wail. “It’s occupying my house!”

“Please don’t yowl like that, sir,” the young lady replied. “I’ll ask my boss and see if he can help.”

So her boss came on the line and after listening to me he muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like “confounded crackpots” but couldn’t possibly have been. “You’d better go consult a ghostologist,” he said. “They can tell you what to do.”

So, taking a few more minutes of my time, I checked online for a ghostologist and actually found one. No, I am not going to tell you her name. She wouldn’t like it for reasons which have nothing to do with you. Anyway, I called, and caught her just as she was about to go out for the day.

“Hmm,” she said when I’d told her what I wanted. “You’re sure it’s your own ghost? No identical twins or anything?”

“Of course I’m sure,” I retorted. “I’ve never been so sure about anything.”

“In that case,” the ghostologist said, “I’m afraid there’s only one option open for us.”

“What? I’ll do anything...” I hesitated. “Anything within reason,” I amended. “I’ll do anything within reason to get my house back.”

“Reason is never reasonable,” the ghostologist said. Whatever that means. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to recruit other ghosts to do your work for you.”

“What?” I squeaked. “Recruit other ghosts?’

“Precisely,” she replied. “If it’s your own ghost, it can’t be sent away into the next world. Because it’s never been in the next world, you see.”

“I don’t see,” I admitted frankly, “but I’ll take your word for it. How do I go about recruiting other ghosts?”

“I’ll see to it,” she said. “Give me your address. What time do you get off work?”

I told her. “That should be fine,” she replied. “Meet me outside your house at half past six, then.”

So at half past six I made my way back to my house, feeling like a bit of an idiot. The ghostologist was waiting outside, looking a bit like a ghost herself in the gathering dusk. Her face was thin and her skin translucent, and her hair was the colour of fog. Over her shoulder she carried a long bag that looked as though it was constructed out of discarded umbrellas, or maybe bat’s wings.

“Glad to see you’re here,” she said. Her voice sounded like a ghost’s, too, like a rustle of dried leaves. “Just make sure your ghost is still in possession and won’t let you in, and we’ll get on with the rest of it.”

So, feeling a bit stupid, I went up to the door and tried to unlock it. It was bolted, sure enough.

“Hey, ghost,” I called. “Open this and let me in.”

 All I got was a laugh. It wasn’t even a mocking laugh, just a really amused one. A ghost laughing that way sounds even worse than a ghost laughing any other way, in case you were wondering. The door stayed predictably, and obstinately, shut.

“Why aren’t you going to let him in?” the ghostologist asked.

“It’s my house now,” my ghost said from the other side of the door. “I need a place to stay, don’t I?”

“We’ll have to forcibly evict you if you don’t open the door,” the ghostologist warned.

The ghost laughed again. “Go ahead and try,” it said.

I turned back to the ghostologist. “Now what?”

She wasn’t put out. “Well,” she said, “we had to try. But since it didn’t work out...” She rummaged in her bag and brought out something that looked like a vuvuzela. She raised it to her lips and I braced myself for the noise, but nothing happened.

“It’s ultrasonic,” she explained, and blew again.

Something dropped out of the tree by the gate. It was long and thin, and had limbs that folded on themselves like spaghetti. Above a chest like a stovepipe it had a face made up entirely of knobs and tusks and dim reddish eyes.

It was a ghost, of course, and it was gorgeous.

“I didn’t know you lived in my tree,” I said stupidly.

The ghost glanced at me with three or four of its eyes and shook a knob or two at me. It then turned to the ghostologist.

“You will go in there,” the ghostologist said, “and open the door. You will then throw out the ghost inside. Do you understand?”

The thin ghost nodded. It was becoming more solid by the second, but still resembled spaghetti draped around a lollypop.

“It’s just the resident spirit,” the ghostologist said to me. “Most places acquire one or two. All the ghosts need a place to stay, you know?” She turned back to the ghost. “What reward do you want?”

“Peanuts,” said the ghost. Its voice sounded like a foghorn muffled with a pair of old socks. “Pay peanuts, first, I go then.”

“Very well.” The ghostologist fumbled in her bag and brought out a peanut. “You can have another after you do the job.”

The ghost nodded again, reached out with a spaghetti-limb, took the peanut from her hand and put in between two of its tusks. “Tasty,” it said. “One more?”

“Only after you do the job.” The ghostologist motioned to the house. “Go!”

 The ghost went. It drifted past me, its spaghetti limbs trailing, and came to the door. Then it folded itself up – no, don’t ask me how it did it, I couldn’t tell you – until it was a tiny spike the size of a baby earthworm. What? You’ve seen baby earthworms, haven’t you? No? Doesn’t matter. It just made itself very small, crawled up the door and oozed through the keyhole.

You know, it strikes me that burglar gangs could recruit ghosts. What better way of getting into vaults and...

All right, I’ll get back to the point. The thin ghost oozed through the keyhole and dropped inside. A moment later I heard the bolts shoot back and the door swung open.

“Let’s go,” I whooped. “Let’s get that ghost of mine out on its ear right now!”

“Wait!” the ghostologist shouted, but I wasn’t going to stand there when the door was finally open. And it’s as well that I did, seeing what happened next.

Right inside the open door, sitting on the floor, was a small bowl filled with roast peanuts. I was just in time to see the last of the thin ghost’s spaghetti limbs disappear into the bowl.

And what do you think happened? My ghost strolled up, picked up the bowl of peanuts, and swallowed them all down, ghost and all.

“What are you doing?” I yelled.

“What happened?” the ghostologist asked, appearing at my shoulder.

“It...” I gestured wildly at my ghost. “It, he, it ate your ghost!”

“And very tasty it was too,” my ghost affirmed, patting his stomach. “Peanut-flavoured, too, the way I like it.”

“How do we throw him out?” I glanced at the ghostologist, and was perturbed to see the unsure look in her eyes.

“Wait a moment,” she said, holding up a hand. “This is...complicated.”

“You can say that again,” my ghost said, filled with obvious enjoyment. “Now I’m holding your ghost prisoner, and what are you going to do about it?”

“I’m, well,” my ghostologist said. “I’ve never actually been in this situation before. He’s turned the tables on us.”

“It’s just another ghost, isn’t it?” I argued. “Who cares if it’s eaten the other ghost? We just have to get it out of here so I can take my house back.”

“They care,” my ghost said, pointing over my shoulder. I glanced back, and froze.

The path to the gate was filled with ghosts! Some were tall and thin, others fat and short, still others tall and fat or short and thin, but they all had spaghetti-limbs and knobby tusked heads. And as far as I could tell, they all looked furious.

“Where is my brother?” the tallest, fattest and ugliest demanded. “We demand to know where he is at once!”

“Where is Uncle?” a small and thin one added, poking at me with a floppy spaghetti-limb. “What have you done with him?”

“Give me my boyfriend back at once!” another said, wagging her straggly-haired head. “At once, you hear me?”

“Oh heavens,” I muttered. “Relatives.”

But, still, I had to try. “That ghost there ate him,” I said. “It’s him you ought to be after, not me.”

The ghostologist shook her head. “That won’t work.”

It did not work. “He was working for you,” they all moaned, nearly in unison. “It’s you who are responsible.”

“What do we do now?” I asked the ghostologist.

“There’s only one thing,” she said grimly. “I’d hoped to avoid it but I see now that we don’t have a choice.”

“What?” I asked.

“We’re going to have to go to court,” she said.


I’m not going to bore you with all the details of the court proceedings, all the long drawn out lawyers’ conferences, the back and forth and appeals and so on. All I’ll tell you is that, in the end, I won!

Oh yes, I won. I’ve got my house back now, and the spaghetti ghost is free and back with his brother and nephew and girlfriend. My ghost vomited him right up when he got the court order. He was a bit nutty bot otherwise fine.

My ghost now...this is where it gets a mite complicated.

You see, though I got my house back, it didn’t quite go all my way. It was...a...compromise. I got my house. He got something else.

What did he get? My body. He walked off wearing my body.

I’m the ghost now. I am my own ghost.

Well, it could be worse, couldn’t it? At least I have a place to stay. I don’t have to live in a tree like whatshisname, the nutcase.

But I no longer have a job, seeing as my old body is now filling in my position at the office. And I do have to pay taxes and such.

Besides, it gets kind of lonely and boring doing nothing, day after day after day.

So, um, seeing that you’re the leader of a gang of burglars, I have a little proposition for you. You know what it is.

Oh, you’re not the leader of a gang of burglars? Well, then, get going and recruit a gang! There’s a fortune to be made.

What are you waiting for?

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Monday, 10 November 2014

Book Review: Ruby Tanya


The older I get, the more I find that I prefer reading what’s called by the rather unflattering name of Young Adult fiction. I mean those usually slim books, usually written by Britons of various hues, which pretend to cater to the tastes of late teenagers. They tend to be short (to suit the mayfly attention span of the typical teenager) and (for the same reason) move the story along briskly. Unlike, say, the unspeakable Frederick Forsythe, there’s no time wasted in endless exposition designed to show off the author’s research and to hide the paper-thin weakness of the plot. And there’s no compulsory romance subplot (meant to appeal to the female readership, I assume), gratuitous sex or overcomplicated conspiracies that depend on twenty different things going just right if they’re to succeed.

I’ve just finished reading a lovely little example of the genre, Robert Swindells’ Ruby Tanya. As I believe I’ve said in the past, I only review two kinds of things (books, movies, whatever) – that which I really, really like or that which I really, really detest. This one would be in the first category – and, to be honest, I got a little emotional reading it. That’s right, the Butcher was wet-eyed; well, maybe a tear or two.


It’s the early 2000s. The pretty little British village of Tipton Lacey seems very nice and calm on the surface, but things aren’t anything like as fine underneath. A large number of refugees – brown-skinned Muslims, O horrors – have been resettled in a temporary detention camp in an abandoned Air Force base. They’ve fled a campaign of genocidal ethnic cleansing in their homeland, an unnamed Asian country, but from the names of the people I’ll bet you they’re meant to be Pakistanis. You don’t get Arabs called Butt and Akhtar and Malik, or Kurds or Iranians either.

One of the girls in the local school, which the refugee children also attend, is twelve-year-old Ruby Tanya Redwood. Her best friend is Asra, the daughter of one of the refugee couples in the camp. And here’s the problem: her father, Ruby Tanya's that is, a real estate agent by trade, is also a far-right winger who wants the “terrorists” deported back where they came from, because Britain is for the British only.

That might not have mattered so much, if there hadn’t been a bomb blast in the school one day in which two students were badly injured and a student teacher killed. The villagers, led by Ruby Tanya’s father, immediately blame the “terrorists” at the refugee camp, and plan demonstrations against them. Ruby Tanya and Asra are forced to meet clandestinely, and the bullies at school have a field day picking on the refugee children. And that’s not all that happens...

Ruby Tanya’s father, the Britain-for-the-British radical, makes contact with a far right wing party with a militant wing. It promises to back him in local elections in return, and – once the “terrorists” have been evicted from the derelict airfield – to let him handle the “developments” which will be constructed on the “liberated” land.

Meanwhile, the police arrest and interrogate Asra’s father, a chemical engineer, on the grounds that only he could have had the knowledge to make a bomb. Though he’s found innocent, his application for asylum is rejected and the family is due to be forcibly deported back to where they came from.

Ruby Tanya and Asra hatch a plan together for the latter to hide in a deserted farm in another part of the old airport. With the connivance of Ruby Tanya’s grandmother, an old-time liberal who furnishes them with bedding and utensils apart from food, they stock the old farmhouse and equip it as a refuge. When the police come for Asra’s family, she somehow manages to escape and hides out in the farmhouse while her family is deported.

Around the same time, Ruby Tanya’s mother – who is also a liberal, and has no sympathy with her husband’s political aims – discovers from her husband that it wasn’t the refugees who had set the bomb. He’s overheard things which have made him believe that it was the radical Nazi party itself which was responsible for the bombing, and the dead student teacher had actually been planting the bomb when it had gone off and killed him. This leads to a break in his relations with the Nazis but doesn’t dent his political ambitions, which still revolve around evicting the refugees.

Meanwhile, Asra is still hiding in the old farm, undiscovered despite a massive search for her. It is while she’s hiding there that she sees and hears things which lead her to believe something much worse is being planned...

...I am not going to put up any spoilers here, so I’m not going to describe the story further. But it has a fairly predictable denouement, with most of the loose ends tied up at the end and most of the characters living “happily ever after”. If that were all there was to the book I wouldn’t have bothered reviewing it.

No. The thing about this little novel that brought tears to my eyes is the wonderful friendship between the two girls. The story is told in chapters from both their points of view, about three chapters of Ruby Tanya alternating with one of Asra, except for the very last one which is a joint one from them both. They are utterly believable characters, so much so that I find it impossible to believe they weren’t patterned on real people. Ruby Tanya, rebellious, disgusted with her parents’ “fratching”, despising her father ("the Moron") while still unable to shake her love for him; and Asra, fearful of the British, terrified for her own family, and yet desperately yearning for her only friend, Ruby Tanya. These two are wonderful, deeply moving young ladies, and I defy anyone to read the book without feeling for them as people.

 There’s also the wonderful use of styling in the novel. It feels odd at first when one sees that there is absolutely no use of quotation marks, so that the reader has to decide for him/herself where conversations begin and end. But since the story is told as what’s going on in the minds of the two girls, that fits right in. After all, one doesn’t put mental quotes around what people say when one’s talking to them.

And there’s the language, too. None of the book is in standard English. The Ruby Tanya chapters are in English school slang of the period, replete with words like “div”, “twonk” or the aforementioned “fratching” (quarrelling). Asra’s chapters are told in the kind of English a beginner might use, complete with grammatical errors aplenty, but steadily improving as the book progresses and she becomes more expert. And as she speaks, we catch multiple glimpses of the situation in her homeland, where villages are cluster-bombed and one can be called a “goat” for belonging to the wrong ethnic group.

Of course I have problems with the book, too. Nothing’s perfect, after all. One is the too-pat ending, quite predictable as it is. Another is a speech that Ruby Tanya’s mother makes to her husband, calling Britain a land of freedom. Yes, it’s such a land of freedom. Ask those of us who were enslaved and looted to destitution by the British what a land of freedom it is. And there was a third point, which escapes my mind at the moment. Advancing age, you know.

But still it was worth reviewing, and there’s little higher praise than that.

Note: I’ve read a few other reviews which claim. like this one, that the refugees were from an “unnamed East European country”. Where they came up with that one I don’t know, because the book clearly calls them “Asian” and says it was a desert country with hot days and cold nights. I suppose using "east European" comes so easily to Westerners that they no longer even think about it.