She looks just like me.
No really, she looks just like me now. People always used to say we looked alike, even when I was in my twenties. “You’re the me I was meant to be, sweetheart,” Mum used to say. “Pretty. Normal.”
“I’m not normal!” I used to object, back then.
In Mum’s world ‘normal’ is a compliment. She spent her whole life trying to pass as normal. No one in my generation aspires to be normal (not unless they really aren’t, like, they’re actually mad or something). They want to be crazy, a freak, ‘you’re insane, girlfriend!’
The waitress brings two coffees, a slice of mud cake.
“Could we have another fork for the cake?”
“Sure.” She gives us an odd look. No wonder. Only one of us is real.
“One for my upside, one for my down. I’m bipolar,” Mum jokes.
“Uh huh…” She laughs nervously, politely, and then slides back behind the counter.
“How’s the afterlife?” I say. That’s a joke too, an inside job. We share the same sense of irony.
“Fine. And yours?”
“You should know, you’re it.”
Life after death, death after life, what’s the difference really?
She wavers. I mean, she kind of blurs sideways, like the blades of a fan when they’re going too fast to see. Or like the beginning of a detached retina. Oh I know – the living are under the impression think that ghosts are indistinct, but the truth is, it’s you who disappear. Or maybe it’s just that the dead don’t see too well.
“Your latest book got one of those big awards,” she says, changing the subject. “Congratulations, honey.”
There’s something stiff about the way she smiles at me, something wistful.
“Thanks…Mum. Our book, I think you mean…”
She looks down, her little finger trailing the rim of her coffee cup.
“Mum…be honest. Are you jealous of me?”
I’d never have dared to ask that when we were both in the flesh: the untethering of our relationship from reality has made me daring. You see, ever since we published my first book, with a real publisher, there’s been an edge to her love for me. Best not explored, in case one of us cuts ourselves.
She flickers, winks out for a moment, like the night sky when a cloud passes by.
“Oh, my beautiful one, I used to be…” She gives a little pale green puff of laughter. “Now it’s just a ghost of an emotion, like everything else.”
She means the ghost of a cake, the ghost of a coffee. The soon-to-be ghost of a waitress, hovering.
“You know it’s all because of you. The only reason I can do it is you.”
Funny to think how, when I was young, I hardly ever read a book. Why bother with words when you can cut to the picture, the Youtube video, the movie? But she, she was always writing, words that never went anywhere, that wandered to the edges of her island and never got wet. She wanted to be famous: she wanted to be reviewed in magazines and talked of in publishing circles and whisked off shelves. Now death has built an unexpected bridge between her words and my stories, her living fingers and my dead dreams…it isn’t how she thought it would be.
“Yeah, I know.”
The waitress stops by us, again. She looks at the un-drunk coffee, the half-eaten cake.
“Would you like me to take that?” She probably thinks we’ve been stood up.
She looks towards the door, hopefully. It’s because she wants us to go out of it. The middle-aged woman with the long dark hair and the dry, equivocal mouth, whispering to herself at a table set for two. The waitress doesn’t see that other woman, the smile just the same, the hair a little more salt and pepper, the eyes set in a nest of sparrows’ feet, like the kind of reflection you don’t want to see in the mirror.
“This latest book…it’s about us, isn’t it.”
“Well, kind of…”
Of course the first book was all about me. Aren’t they always? And the others, they were just me showing off – look how I can create a whole cast of people simply through the power of my imagination, look how I can sneak like a tapeworm into this man, this woman, and make you believe they’re as real as your neighbour. Look how I can weave you, yes, you, my reader, into my story until by the last page you’re part of it: it’ll take you a week to find your way out, back to your own world again.
“It’s about re-making. The idea that you can take an individual, a block of marble if you like, and chip away at them until you reveal the other person inside, the person they were meant to be.”
“So it’s about fixing what’s broken,” she said, the corner of her mouth set in that characteristic smile of hers, like the Mona Lisa, medicine in honey. “Setting things right. As if you could take me into a workshop, scrape away a bit here, a bit there, and guess what, I’ve become you!”
“What? No! If anything it should be the other way around, you’re much nicer than I ever was.”
“Perhaps. But you’re a work of art, sweetheart. My best ever.”
“Exactly. And all the greatest works of art are imperfect, deliberately so.”
“Are you saying I’m not perfect?” Now she’s laughing at me, laughing at herself. The sound of it comes to me from far away, a kind of echo of a laugh.
“It’s funny, I never thought I’d end up a ghostwriter,” says Mum, starting in on my side of the cake. Someone’s got to eat it: I don’t mind. But I do like to have it there in front of me, just as if I still could.
“Fair enough. I never thought I’d end up a ghost,” I reply.
“I’m glad it was your story I got to write, though. Not…Shane Warne’s, or some boring actor with nothing to talk about except his coke habit and a bunch of dropped names…”
We exchange a long, complicit look. Mum reaches for my hand. She was always tactile, always slinging her arm around my shoulders or winding herself around my waist like a girlfriend. Her fingers close on nothing.
“If you hadn’t died….you could have been so many things,” she whispers, because people are staring now. Of course she’s self-conscious: she’s alive. It’s a relief to be done with that, at least. “It should have been your name on those books, not mine…”
“You’re the real writer, Mum, not me….”
“I suppose inspiration has to come from somewhere,” she says, pleased.
It’s time. She’s beginning to fade, or is it me? The room shifts in and out of focus. I kiss her cheek, feel the shiver of the tie that binds us, beginning to stretch and fray.
In the glass window I see her, bent over a copy of my new book – her new book, our new book? – her hair falling over her face to hide it. And for a moment I see myself. We are almost the same age, now…and so alike. Our stories have become one.