As a thank you and a Merry Christmas from me to all my readers and those who have supported me this year, here's a short story, and, keeping with Christmas tradition, it has a ghostly touch.
In The Eye of the Beholder
by Sophie Duncan
Charlotte Marie Josephine Smith was a bright girl, everyone said so, but that didn't stop them worrying about her. Her mother worried, her father worried, her aunts and uncles and just about everyone she met worried, because Charlotte was different. As a small child, just like others her age, she used to babble and giggle all day long, sometimes when there was someone there and sometimes to empty space. That was normal, all babies did it, but Charlotte, much to her mother's concern, did not grow out of her obsession with empty spaces. She would watch her daughter toddle around the room handing her play bricks to 'old lady', as the youngster used to announce in a loud, happy voice. During the day was unnerving enough, but both parents lying silently in bed at night would hear their child giggling and playing with someone in her bedroom.
It was a phase, just a phase.
Mother breathed a sigh of relief when the old lady went away. Yet, on the first day of nursery, Charlotte came home with an imaginary friend. Not so unusual, many children had them, but this one was called Toby and, whenever he was around, Mrs Smith used to find that things would go missing. Most often it was her keys: she always left them on the hall table in the bowl, but from time to time, she'd find them in odd places, like the biscuit barrel, or the toaster! Charlotte always used to apologise for Toby, telling him off and making him promise not to do it again, and that might have been it, a child's game, but the thing was, Charlotte couldn't reach either the biscuit barrel, or the toaster.
As she grew older, Charlotte began to realise not everyone could see some of the people that didn't look any different to her, and in public situations, that worried her parents. So, as the years passed, Charlotte learnt it was best not to acknowledge anyone until she was sure what kind of person they were, putting it simply, whether they were dead, or alive. This meant that Charlotte became known for a different kind of oddness, a shyness where she refused to even meet anyone's eye unless she was introduced, or they had been talking with someone she knew for a length of time. It didn't make her many friends, but it was a suitable compromise for her anxious parents, and, anyway, Charlotte had plenty of friends when she was in private, she just made sure her mother never knew.
Thus came the day when it was time for Charlotte to go to 'big school'. Her parents may have even been more excited than she, because they saw it as an opportunity for their beloved daughter to start again, make some new friends, be popular even. Charlotte was less enthusiastic: the first day of school just meant lots of awkward situations where she had to work out who she could talk to and who was invisible to everyone else. Thus, Charlotte insisted to her mother that she wanted to arrive early at the school, Heath Street Grammar, so she could find her way around before lots of other children were getting in her way. Mrs Smith was happy to acquiesce to her daughter's wish as long as she promised to talk to at least one pupil that day and try to make a friend. Charlotte had duly promised she would try.
Therefore, fifteen minutes before she was supposed to arrive, Charlotte walked in through the large, iron front gates of the old part of the school and followed her nose with what she remembered from her orientation day. Thanks to learning at an early age how not to upset her parents, Charlotte was an independent sort, and she wandered across the large asphalted area that was beginning to fill with the other years back from holiday and eager to catch up. She made a beeline for the outside corner of what she remembered was the school hall, which all the other pupils seemed to be avoiding. She ducked round the corner away from the gathering crowds, glad no-one had acknowledge the pale little year seven on her journey, and then sagged against the wall with a puff of relief.
"Not a people person?" an amused voice enquired lightly and Charlotte jumped as she peered into the shadow down the side of the wall.
A lanky shape slid off the five foot wall that made a kind of alley parallel to the building and then Charlotte found herself blinking at a boy slightly older than her. He was another pupil by his Heath Street uniform, blond hair slightly unkempt, blazer sleeves pushed up round his elbows, shirt hanging out, and a smile that left Charlotte wondering if he was friendly, or not. That made her uncomfortable, because she was usually good at observing people.
"I won't bite," the boy dismissed with a shrug, "not even now you've found my hideaway."
"Who are you?" Charlotte decided engagement was best with no-one else around to see, and found her voice.
"David Lucas, I'm a year eight."
"Charlotte Smith," she replied, a little formally, but then she wasn't very good at the whole conversation thing.
"Yes, I know, spotted you last term when you were trailing everyone else at your orientation. Come on, I'll show you around and give you the low down on the stuff that the head would never tell you."
With that, David breezed past Charlotte and headed back out onto the tarmac that was really beginning to fill up now. Charlotte hesitated for a second or two, still unsure of the sudden offer of friendship, but, after all, a friend was a friend, she could work things out later, and so she followed. David wove his way through a crowd of much taller kids like a pro, so much so, they didn't even notice him. A couple stared when Charlotte followed, but she kept her head down and dashed after David's disappearing shape. When she'd cleared the crowd, David was just standing there, smiling and waiting for her, and, subconsciously wiping her fringe out of her eyes, she smiled back.
"This is the old part of the school," he told her, nodding towards the hall with its Victorian clock hanging above the double-doored entrance. "The modern bit is behind."
"I remember," Charlotte agreed quietly, looking up at the new roofs that spread out behind the red-brick building and made up the majority of the classrooms.
"Ah," David winked and waggled his finger, "but what you don't know is why it's all so modern. Fire y'see, five or so years ago, cut through the place like it was tinder."
"Oh no!" Charlotte whispered, putting her hand to her mouth as a girl a few yards off glanced her way, but it made sense and she checked, "Was anyone hurt?"
"One class got trapped," David revealed, his tone flattening and his face grave. "By the time the firemen got to them, half of them and their teacher had died from smoke inhalation."
Charlotte would have said something conciliatory, but David's eyes flicked up to look at something over her head, he grimaced and then started off again with a quick, "Come on."
Charlotte glanced over her shoulder and saw a group of girls processing slowly across the yard. There was one in the lead, tall, fourteen or fifteen, probably pretty if it hadn't been for the sneer on her face. The other three looked less practised in the art of bitchiness, but Charlotte recognised it when she saw it (there had been another girl like that at her primary school) and she ducked after David. She quickly caught up with him and hissed, "Who are they?"
David glanced across at Charlotte, over his shoulder at the mean girls and then back to Charlotte again, his eyes widening a little and then he smiled.
"People to avoid," he told her very quietly and then, as they both ducked back into their hiding place, he breathed a very familiar breath of relief.
Charlotte just sidled into the shadows and, looking nervously back at the hoards of people, waited for David to continue.
"Casey Morgan and her little gang of queen bitches," he explained. "If she can make anyone younger than her cry, she will: mental torture a speciality."
It sounded very much like David had been on the receiving end of that torture, but Charlotte dismissed that idea, girls didn't bully boys in her experience, and anyway...a bell went off in the middle of Charlotte's thought and she jumped. David laughed.
"Get used to those. That's the form bell. What form are you in, I'll show you the way?"
"1B," Charlotte replied and happily trailed after David as he led her away.
They parted company at the corridor that led to Charlotte's form room, David dashing off saying he was going to be late. That meant Charlotte didn't get a chance to say thank you, and she found herself wondering about her new friend all through the day. She didn't see him at lunch, nor during afternoon break and by the end of school, she was beginning to worry she'd never see him again. So preoccupied was she that she managed to get lost on the way out and found herself in a deserted corridor that she thought ran past the back of the hall stage in the Victorian section of the building. It clearly wasn't used now most of the school was shiny and modern, it was a bit dusty and there were chairs stacked up along it. Still, it had an exit onto the main corridor, she could see it beyond the clutter and she didn't see any other way to get to the front gates unless she doubled right back the way she had come. Trying not to sneeze, Charlotte began dodging round the chairs.
"This is out of bounds, year seven," a stranger's voice made Charlotte jump for the second time that day, only this time, the haughty tone filled her with dread and she knew who she'd be looking at when she turned and stared up at the stage.
Indeed, Casey Morgan was standing there with her trio of bullies.
"I'm lost," Charlotte tried to sound brave, but the way the four girls were smiling down on her, lauding their prefects badges, made her shudder.
"Too bad, Sweetie, consider yourself on report," Casey laughed, hands on hips.
"But it's my first day," Charlotte objected, her voice small and she knew she sounded scared, it was just how Sarah at primary school had liked to make her feel too.
"And we're going to have so much fun with you, Lottie," one of the other girls taunted, all four of them cackling like a bunch of Shakespearean witches.
"Get lost, Casey!" a welcome voice sounded in Charlotte's ear and she found David standing beside her, glaring up at the girls.
Casey's face went from amused to thunderous in a second and her lip curled.
"You've grown, Pipsqueak," she quipped, much to Charlotte's surprise.
"You haven't," David snarled back, his eyes blazing and face reddening as Charlotte watched from one to the other. "I've learnt a new trick this year, want to see it?"
Casey looked confused, she clearly wasn't used to being resisted and she glanced at her companions. Still, she wasn't going to be put down by a junior and her expression cleared.
"What you got for us then, Pipsqueak?"
David grinned, not a happy expression, put two fingers to just above the bridge of his nose and then threw the gesture out at Casey. The girl tensed, looked stunned and then very quickly angry. She stamped her foot, it made no sound, and then Charlotte realised she could see the stage curtain through the bully. Her jaw dropped as slowly, all four very annoyed ghosts disappeared.
"I'll probably pay for that if she catches me alone, but as long as we stick together, we should be fine," David grabbed back Charlotte's attention and he was shrugging ruefully.
"They were..." she began.
"Killed in the fire," David finished when Charlotte ran out of words. "And death has not improved any of them. They bullied me all last year when they figured out I could see them."
"You're like me," Charlotte gabbled as things began to fall into place and she felt a smile beginning to spread across her face at that happy thought and then she admitted, "When I didn't see you around at lunch time, I thought you might be a ghost."
David laughed, his smile crooked as he looked sideways at Charlotte for that.
"Yeah, hazard of the talent, isn't it?" he finally agreed with a quick nod and carried on, "I thought you might be like me when I saw you staring at Miss Erlam on the open day," David explained, "but I couldn't be sure until you saw Casey and her crew."
"I didn't know she was a ghost, she looked kind of lost and sad," Charlotte remembered that moment vividly when she had seen the woman she assumed was a teacher walking down a corridor alone, clutching the pearls at her neck anxiously and checking in each classroom as she went.
"She doesn't say much, but she's a good egg," David explained and turned to lead the way out of the corridor. "She was the teacher who got killed in the fire. The kids who survived said she tried to keep them all calm and helped them put damp jumpers over their noses - that's what saved them. She's saved me from Casey and her cronies a few times too."
The pair walked out into the light of the playground and Charlotte finally remembered her manners.
"Thank you for saving me," she offered sincerely.
David shrugged and looked a bit embarrassed by her gratitude, so Charlotte continued, "How did you get rid of Casey?"
"Not sure how it works, I just have to think the right way, a special friend taught me over the Summer," David replied and rubbed his forehead. "I can teach you if you like."
"Yes please," Charlotte agreed and bounced on her heels.
She was so happy, she did something she had never done before, she invited, "Would you like to come home for tea?"
David looked surprised and Charlotte's heart entered her throat as she realised she might have been pushing too fast with this new friendship. Still, there was no going back, and so she waited. Finally, David smiled and nodded. Charlotte beamed at him, slipped her arm through the crook of David's and then led off towards the gate.
"My parents are going to be so happy I found a real live person to talk to," she told him conspiratorially as she spotted her mother's car down the road.
"You too?" David checked and laughed with a relief Charlotte recognised.
Laughing as well, Charlotte decided things were looking up.