Ashley stepped into Gray’s bedroom and was surprised to see him sitting by the window looking out at the view. Admittedly it was a nice view across the road to the park, but at eight o’clock in the morning in December it couldn’t have been that fascinating.
“Hey, kid,” he said. “Are you up for Christmas shopping this morning?”
“I guess,” Gray answered. “Last year when I went with Jack, we were blown up by a murderous robot Santa.”
“If I see any robot Santas I’ll step in front of you,” Ashley promised.
“No problem. That’s what big brothers are for.”
They weren’t really brothers, of course. But nobody in their new neighbourhood knew that. They played along with the illusion even in private.
“Ashley,” Gray said, changing the subject quickly. “Can you see that woman over there, on the park bench?”
Ashley thought that was a strange question, and said so.
“Last winter, I saw ghosts at my school… and Jack said it was because I’d seen people die… it meant that my mind was changed some way so that I could connect with them, sort of.”
“I’ve seen dad killed, twice,” Ashley admitted. “So I suppose I qualify.” He looked closer at the woman. Her clothes were very old-fashioned, a long skirt and a blouse buttoned right up to the neck, heavy looking shoes. Her hairstyle, tied up in a bun at the back of her head was old-fashioned, too. She wasn’t wearing a coat, which seemed strange for early morning in December. “You think she’s a ghost?”
“Yes. I saw her yesterday morning, too.”
“She could just be waiting for a bus.”
“That’s not the bus stop. It’s a park bench. And she’s a ghost.”
“Ok. So… what do you think we should do about it?”
“Last time, Gwen told me to talk to them… to find out what they want. One of us should talk to her.”
“I’ll go,” Ashley said. “You stay here.”
Gray accepted that idea. He stayed watching while Ashley went downstairs and out through the front door. He watched him step out through the garden gate and start to cross the road.
But the woman was gone. He had taken his eyes off her momentarily to watch Ashley and she had vanished. He saw Ashley look up and down the street and speak to the boy delivering newspapers on a bicycle who shook his head and handed him the morning edition of the Western Mail. Ashley walked back into the house.
“She’s gone,” Gray said meeting him halfway down the stairs.
“I know, I noticed that she wasn’t there. There was a distinctly obvious absence of ghostly women out there on the bench.”
“Don’t be funny,” Gray complained. “This is serious. The last time it happened, there was an alien messing with the vortex continuum or something. The ghosts were a sort of side effect. Something like that could be happening again.”
“We should tell dad?”
“No, I don’t want him to know. Jack… these past weeks since Saul Galen was wiped out and we moved into this house… he’s been really happy. It’s been quiet at Torchwood. He’s had a chance to be ‘normal’, and he likes it. I don’t want him to know that weird stuff is happening right outside our home.”
“They’re both still in bed… sleeping late on a Saturday morning,” Ashley reflected. “Yeah, that’s pretty normal. Come on. Get your coat. We’re supposed to be going Christmas shopping. We’ll call in at the Hub first and talk to Alun and Ianto. Dad said they’re on duty over the weekend, looking after their pet Weevil.”
The two boys caught a number 28 bus into the city centre. It was crowded – it was the last Saturday before Christmas - but they got seats at the back. They didn’t talk much. They both looked out of the window at houses with Christmas trees in their windows, and as they came into the main shopping streets there were the decorations that a local celebrity had switched on a few weeks ago. They got off the bus at Customhouse Street and walked the rest of the way to Roald Dahl Plas.
The Plas, too, was in festive mood. There was a winter wonderland tableaux in the middle of the open space and the Christmas Ferris wheel was turning near the way down to Mermaid Quay. Even the water tower had been decorated with icicles that lit up a cool blue at night.
The two boys stood on the paving stone with the perception filter infused into it. Gray pressed a small device in his pocket that worked the ‘invisible lift’. They descended into the secret Hub of Torchwood Cardiff. There, too, there were signs of Christmas. They had a tree, decorations around the walls, seasonal screensavers on the computer terminals.
They found Alun and Ianto in the kitchen area with Sam the talking Weevil. They were teaching him to use a knife and fork to eat beans on toast, weaning him off the oatmeal he had been raised on since birth. The boys sat down quietly and watched until the meal was over. Alun took the large bib off and wiped the Weevil’s face then Ianto took him to his own corner that had been set up with books and educational toys. He was working on Sam’s vocabulary and understanding every day.
“You’re getting him to read a book about Christmas?” Gray asked, glancing at the picture book Ianto had put into the leathery claws of his unlikely fosterling. “Do you actually intend to invite him for Christmas?”
“We’re going to spend Christmas here with him,” Alun answered. “We’ve bought presents.”
The two boys looked at each other, wondering what sort of Christmas presents a Weevil would appreciate. They decided to pass over Alun and Ianto’s ideas of parenthood. They had their own agenda.
“Ghosts?” Alun queried when they explained about the woman on the bench. “Are you sure?”
“Gray is,” Ashley explained. “I don’t know what to think. I’ve never seen a ghost.”
Alun remembered that most of Ashley’s experience of anything were implanted in his mind. It was probably best to leave what he did or didn’t believe in well alone.
“We haven’t noted any Rift movement in the Roath Park area,” he said. “And there’s no history of paranormal activity there.”
“I’m not lying,” Gray insisted.
“Of course you’re not,” Alun assured him. “It just means that we need to look at other reasons why you’re seeing this apparition.”
“Such as what?” Ashley asked.
“Verschaffelt energy,” Ianto called out from the play area. “That’s what you need to look at. We’ve had a build up of that recently.”
“Ver… what?” Gray queried.
“Verschaffelt, it’s named after a Belgian physicist who identified it in the 1950s. Not formally attached to Torchwood, but we got hold of his research anyway. It’s weird stuff. It doesn’t seem to be harmful in any way, and it doesn’t have anything at all to do with the Rift as far as we can tell. It doesn’t co-relate to any known UFO activity. We just seem to have a lot of it in Cardiff.”
“There’s invisible stuff in the air all the time and even Torchwood doesn’t know what it is?” That struck both boys as alarming. Alun did his best to reassure them.
“It’s entirely possible that it’s to do with your ghosts. Maybe it’s a signal that they’re out and about.”
“Then why would there be a build up of them now? Wouldn’t they be around all the time?”
Alun smiled. Both of these boys definitely had Jack’s DNA in them. They always asked the awkward questions.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “It’s something we need to look into. But nobody really has the time. Jack’s just finished a week long interrogation of a group of Alassian Ground Troops who crash landed in Llandaff.” He noted the interrogative expressions on the boys’ faces. “They’re about three foot high and look like stick insects. You could snap them in half with one hand – only that would be a bad idea because the two halves grow heads and carry on. They’d just be labelled as unwanted guests except their ship carries nuclear torpedoes and we needed to know who they were planning to invade. Turns out their navigation was faulty. They wanted some place in the Sagittarius sector, about a hundred million light years from Earth. Jack’s going to send them packing just as soon as we’ve got all the useful tech we can get out of their ship. They get to spend Christmas in our vaults with all the cockroaches they can eat.”
“Yuk,” was the verdict on the Alassian idea of Christmas dinner.
“Meanwhile Gwen is co-ordinating with the Ministry of Defence about their latest set of UFO reports, sifting through the hoaxes and weather balloons for the genuine article. And Ianto and I….” Alun looked a little guilty. “Well, to tell the truth, we are spending a lot more time on Sam than we really ought to be. If Jack knew he’d be giving us hell. But his reading is coming on well and he asks questions all the time. We’re really hopeful.”
Ashley and Gray had all heard Jack’s opinion of their project. He gave it a grudging approval. An intelligent Weevil could be an asset to Torchwood in all kinds of ways. But he thought Alun and Ianto’s parental approach to Sam was more than a little nuts.
They smiled knowingly.
“Why don’t we do the research?” Gray suggested. “Into this Verschaffelt energy. Call it our project.”
“Jack would give me hell all over again for getting you two involved in Torchwood business.”
“Serves him right for spending the morning in bed with Garrett,” Ashley pointed out. “You said the stuff wasn’t dangerous. And the worst we could do is find more ghosts. I’ve been blown to bits by a bomb in my own appendix. I’m not going to get freaked by some poor dead guys.”
Again Alun was sharply reminded that these were no ordinary boys with ordinary teenage hangups. They were already surrounded by what Owen Harper long ago labelled as ‘Torchwood Weird Shit’.
“Ok, come with me,” he decided. He brought them to his workstation. A rummage in his desk drawer produced a small device that resembled the digital pedometers that they saw joggers in the park using to monitor their progress.
“It’s been calibrated to register Verschaffelt energy,” Alun explained. “There’s even a limited sort of direction finder on the screen. Take it out with you and see what you can learn. I’ll look forward to reading your report. It should be no less than a thousand words, by the way.”
“Homework!” The two boys groaned in unison. But Gray reached for the device anyway and slipped it into his pocket. Ashley looked as if he might argue seniority then changed his mind. They waved to Ianto and were just a little disturbed when Sam the Weevil waved back before they headed for the pavement lift again.
It was strange coming back up onto Roald Dahl Plas after any amount of time in the Hub. The sheer normality of everything that was happening on the surface, compared to Alassian stick insects, UFO reports and Weevils learning about Christmas was overwhelming.
But this time Ashley and Gray knew that the normality was just an illusion that kept the ordinary citizens from freaking out completely.
“Nothing from the gismo yet,” Gray said in a disappointed tone. He had half hoped for a Plas full of ghosts. “And nobody around here looks out of place.”
“Let’s get on with our Christmas shopping and see what happens,” Ashley said. “If we don’t want dad to know we’re on Torchwood business the shopping will be a good cover story.”
They caught a bus back into the town centre. As they sat down near the back, Gray noticed the Verschaffelt energy monitor buzzing in his pocket. He pulled it out and looked at it curiously. Was it faulty? He turned it and the sound increased. The blip on the LCD screen was indicating very close proximity.
There was a ghost right behind him.
Gray twisted in his seat and looked at the old woman sitting in the seat behind them. She didn’t look like a ghost. She was wearing a tan-coloured coat and had a handbag on her knee. She was looking out of the window with a faintly puzzled expression. The modern buildings along the way seemed to be confusing her.
“Excuse me,” Gray said to her politely. “Are you all right? Have you missed your stop?”
“I’m not sure,” she answered. “This is Lloyd George Avenue, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is.”
“I don’t recognise anything. Where have all the houses gone? All the shops?”
“I don’t know,” Gray answered. “I’ve only lived here for a couple of years. I don’t know what it used to look like before the regeneration project. This bus is going to St. Mary’s Street. Are you getting off there?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I’ve got to buy Christmas presents for my grandchildren. They’re twins, you know. Two boys. They’re growing up fast. They want all sorts of things that we’d never heard of in my day. Skateboards and... what was it Rhys was talking about? A computer console....”
“An X Box?” Gray asked. “The X Box Kinnect?”
“No, that wasn’t it. Something like... rainbows... Spectrum... That’s what he said. A Spectrum something. I don’t know. His mother said she’d ordered one from the catalogue. I’m going to buy them Meccano. My brothers always loved Meccano when they were boys. No matter how modern they think they are, they can always have fun with something like that.”
“I like Meccano,” Gray said. Then he smiled politely as the old woman showed him a picture of her twin grandsons. He studied the image carefully. He was no expert. He had only lived on planet Earth for two years, but the way the boys were dressed looked strangely old fashioned.
“How old are they?” Ashley asked, joining in the conversation.
“Twelve,” she answered. “Born on October 1st, 1970. Lovely boys. Good as gold, not like some of these youngsters these days with their punk music and terrible haircuts. You look like good boys, too. Nicely dressed, polite....”
She rambled on like that all the way to St. Mary’s Street. Gray and Ashley said appropriate things now and again, but they had worked it out by now. She was a ghost. She must have died somewhere around 1982. Her memories were stuck in that year. Her grandsons were middle aged men by now. They probably had children of their own.
When the bus reached its destination they watched her get off and head towards the Morgan Arcade. It had been around since 1896, one of the parts of Cardiff that hadn’t changed much over the years. Somebody who was stuck in 1982 would know how to get there. It would seem familiar to her.
“Is that what it was like last time you talked to a ghost?” Ashley asked as they followed her towards the arcade.
“Kind of,” Gray replied. “I spent an hour talking to a Roman soldier from the Galligaer fort. He didn’t recognise any part of Cardiff at all. At least she knew how to get the bus.”
He looked again at the old lady. She was at the entrance to the arcade, but she was starting to look thinner and more insubstantial, so that only a mere shadow of her actually walked into the arcade. Her blip on the monitor in his hand faded with her.
“I think her ghost actually haunts the bus,” he said. “She’s going shopping… but she doesn’t actually get there.
“The expectation of the shopping trip is enough,” Ashley agreed. “Thinking about her grandsons and what she thinks she should get them for Christmas. Maybe an old lady died on the bus, you know, a sudden heart attack…. If we asked Alun he could probably look it up for us in the old newspaper archives.”
“You mean she died on her way to buy Christmas presents for her grand-children? That’s sad.”
“Yes. But it happened thirty years ago. There’s nothing we can do for her. I don’t think we need to. She seemed happy enough with her memories.”
Their feet carried them into the Morgan arcade after her all the same. Beth in the tourist office on Mermaid Quay could have given them an information leaflet that said it was one of twelve original Victorian shopping arcades still in existence in Cardiff, and the best preserved with most of the original Venetian windows on the upper floor and the wooden fronts of some of the shops lovingly maintained. It was, the two boys realised, very much an arcade for older people. There were two shops selling hearing aids, which struck them as one more than any arcade needed. The ladies fashion shop was the sort that women of a certain age who liked salmon pink twin sets would frequent. The café did old fashioned cream teas with crisp linen and silver cake stands. Only one shop stood out incongruously as of interest to the younger generation, selling skateboards and skates.
“I bet our old lady thinks it’s still a toyshop with Meccano sets for sale,” Ashley said.
“Yes,” Gray agreed in a distracted tone. He was looking at the Verschaffelt monitor. It was buzzing so fast the noise was a continuous drone. “There are ghosts all around us. At least half the people in this arcade….”
They stood quietly and looked at the shoppers who passed them by. They could spot the ghosts easily enough. They were the ones whose clothes weren’t quite the right fashion, and who seemed to be looking at things that weren’t there – shops that had changed hands years ago.
The only one who seemed at all aware of the modern scene was a young woman with a pale complexion and an ankle length silk dress who gazed at the Christmas decorations with a rapturous expression.
“They do such lovely displays these days, don’t they?” she said as Gray and Ashley drew closer to her. “When I was a girl it was all just greenery. During the war they had to put blackout curtains across all the windows – even the roof.” The boys looked at the glass roof that let in natural light to the arcade. They couldn’t quite imagine it covered in black curtains, but this lady obviously could. “They hung silver stars from it. They were just foil and cardboard, but it looked so very pretty. It made people smile when there wasn’t much to smile about. I do like to come and look every year to see what they’ve done for Christmas.”
She smiled wanly. The boys thought she looked ill. The word ‘consumptive’ came to both their minds from somewhere. They could guess the rest.
“The ghosts come out at Christmas to enjoy the same things we do,” Ashley said. “That’s WHY there’s been an increase in the energy levels lately.”
Gray nodded. That seemed like a reasonable theory.
“Let’s go to the St. David’s Centre to do our shopping,” Gray said. “It’s new. There might be less of them there. It’ll be less distracting.”
Of course, the Centre was new, built in the prosperous and enthusiastic 1990s when Cardiff’s regeneration first got underway. But it stood on old ground, replacing a century old open air market. Even among modern shops like Next and JB Sports they still saw people who thought they were browsing stalls selling fresh fruit and queuing at the butcher for their Christmas turkey. They weren’t scared. They both knew there was nothing that anyone had to fear from these wandering souls. The idea that ghosts enjoyed Christmas shopping was rather a cheerful idea.
They were glad, all the same, when they headed for a café to get a bit of lunch that the monitor quietened down. They ordered turkey subs and coffee and compared shopping lists. They had nearly everything they wanted to buy now in a collection of plastic bags.
“Is the monitor going again?” Ashley asked. Gray didn’t answer at first. He was swallowing a large bite of sandwich.
“No, I found out how to turn off the sound,” he said finally.
“Check it. There’s something about that couple over there….”
Gray had to turn to see the people he meant, and he tried not to make it obvious that he was looking at them. But he saw right away what Ashley meant. The woman was sitting with a cup of coffee that she wasn’t really drinking. She looked sad. Every so often she gave a deep sigh and looked around the café before coming back to staring into the coffee cup.
The man was sitting opposite her. He reached out and put his hand over hers, but the woman didn’t seem aware of his touch. He sighed deeply and took his hand away. The woman reached in her handbag for money and went to pay the bill for the untouched coffee and walked slowly out of the café.
Gray and Ashley moved and sat opposite the man. It wasn’t a very smooth transaction because they had so much shopping, but they got his attention.
“Yes, we can see you,” Ashley said. “Don’t ask how. It’s complicated. But we wondered if we can help.”
“That’s my wife,” the man said, nodding towards the door. “We’ve only been married a short while – our first anniversary was in September. She knew I had a heart condition, but I never told her how bad it was. I didn’t want to worry her. I thought I had a bit more time. I thought we’d have one more Christmas, at least. But three weeks ago….”
Both boys told him they were sorry for his loss, because it was obvious that he had lost something special as much as his young widow had. He couldn’t even touch her hand and let her know he was there for her.
“I just wish I could tell her… one more time…. I wish I could tell her about her Christmas present. I bought it in November, a music box that plays her favourite tune. I had it engraved – ‘for Lucy with all my love’. It’s in the locked drawer of my desk. She hasn’t looked in there. She hasn’t brought herself to go into my study. She hasn’t taken my clothes out of the wardrobe, any of the things that would help her bring closure and get on with her life.”
“A letter,” Gray said. “Send her a letter.” He reached into one of his carrier bags and pulled out a very nice stationary set of pale yellow vellum paper and envelopes with a good quality retractable ballpoint pen. He started to open the packet. “I’ll write it. My teacher says I have really nice handwriting. Just tell me what to say.”
The man hesitated for a moment then began to dictate his last letter to his wife, telling her how much he loved her and missed her, and where to find his Christmas gift to her. He told her not to cry any more, and to get on with her life as best she could. Gray wrote it all down faithfully. When it came to the signature the man reached out his ghostly hand. Gray didn’t feel anything, but his hand moved of its own accord and a signature appeared on the paper.
He folded the letter carefully and put it into an envelope. The man dictated the address.
“That’s not far from where we live,” Ashley said. “We can post it on our way home. Better than risking a stamp this close to Christmas.”
“Thank you,” the man said. He stood up and walked away out of the café. The fact that he didn’t open the door didn’t worry either of the boys.
“You’re a cheapskate,” Ashley said as Gray put the rest of the paper and envelopes back in the box. “What did a stationary set cost – about £2.99?”
“It was more than that. It’s really nice paper,” he answered. “And it’s for Molly, dad’s oldest girl. She likes to write him letters every week about what’s happening to her in Ireland. I got her a doll, too. It’s just an extra.”
“Oh… I forgot about the three girls,” Ashley said, looking anxiously at his shopping list and how much money he had left. “I don’t really know them, but they’re coming the day after tomorrow. I should get them something.”
“Toymaster,” Gray told him. “Then we should head back home.”
It was getting dark by the time they got off the twenty-eight bus in Park Road West. They took a quick detour to deliver the letter Gray had written out for the widow then they went home. They were not entirely surprised to find Jack and Garrett in the kitchen. They both looked as if it wasn’t very long since they showered. The two boys grinned knowingly.
“You’re a very bad example to both of us,” Ashley said. “Spending the whole day in bed. Disgraceful.”
“And how long does it take to do a bit of Christmas shopping?” Jack retorted. “What else were you doing?”
“Nothing,” they both insisted, trying to sound innocent. Jack and Garrett both looked at them curiously but didn’t question them further. The boys left them in the kitchen and headed up to their rooms.
Gray was busy wrapping the presents he had bought for Garrett’s girls when there was a knock at his bedroom door.
“Dad,” he said, greeting Garrett cheerfully.
“I’m a spy, you know. It’s my job to know when somebody isn’t telling me the whole truth. What haven’t you told me about your day?”
“It was nothing bad,” Gray assured him. He looked at his adopted father and bit his lip thoughtfully then he told him everything about the ghost hunt they had conducted in between the shopping.
“We think the ghosts like to come out at Christmas,” he explained. “That’s why there’s so much more of that energy stuff around. They want to look at the decorations in town, and reminisce about Christmases when they were alive or to see their relatives going Christmas shopping. There was an old man on the Plas when we came back to the Hub to tell Alun what we did. He was just sitting there on one of the benches. We sat with him for a bit and he talked to us about when all that area was still called Tiger Bay and the docks were all around there. He lived in an old terraced house with a tin bath in the kitchen and an outside toilet. He said they were usually short of money, but they had really great Christmases with what they had. His great-grandchildren were on the Ferris Wheel. He was just watching them, seeing if they were doing ok. He was nice. ”
“So the two of you have your own Torchwood investigation. That’s all right. Why did you have to hide it from us?”
He was about to explain his reasons when the Verschaffelt energy monitor bleeped in his pocket. He took it out and looked at it curiously. Then Ashley crashed in through the bedroom door. He didn’t seem to notice Garrett as he ran to the window.
“Come and see,” he said. “She’s there again.”
“Another ghost?” Garrett asked. He came to the window with the two boys and looked at the woman in an old fashioned dress sitting on the bench, illuminated by a street lamp that showed up the cold sleet that had started a few minutes before. She was clearly oblivious to the weather.
“That’s the lady you’ve both seen?” Garrett asked the two boys. They nodded.
“Ashley, go tell your dad,” he said.
“But….” Gray began. “We didn’t want Jack to worry about this. It’ll spoil Christmas for him.”
“Jack will want to know about this, believe me,” Garrett insisted. “Ashley, quickly.”
Ashley did as he asked. Jack came into the bedroom and looked just once out of the window before he gave an odd kind of cry and rushed downstairs. Garrett and the boys watched him cross the road quickly and then slow down as he approached the bench. They saw him speak to the woman and then sit down next to her. He reached out and touched her hand. They talked for a long, long time. Then Jack embraced her and kissed her once on the lips, very tenderly. He stood up and walked away. He looked back once and she was still sitting there. When he reached the pavement outside their garden and looked back again she was gone.
Garrett and the boys went downstairs to meet him as he came into the house. His eyes were glassy. He brushed a tear from his cheek. Garrett grasped his hand, the same hand he had touched the woman’s hand with.
“It was her, wasn’t it?” he said. “Vicky, your wife, from all those years ago. The one who died.”
“Yes.” Jack answered.
“Wow!” Ashley and Gray exchanged glances. “You mean…she was here for you?”
“Yes, she was.”
“You kissed her. Can people kiss ghosts?”
“They can… when they love them as much as I loved her,” Jack replied. “She… wanted to find me… to tell me that it’s all right. She’s happy that I’ve found you… all of you… the family that she and I wanted but never got the chance to have. We have her blessing.”
“That’s good to know,” Garrett told him. “Are you ok?”
Jack wiped another stray tear from his eye.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m ok. I’m more than ok. I’m feeling good. I don’t think we have anything to be scared of. The future is going to be great. We can dare to be happy without expecting something to come along and destroy our happiness. And… I know it’s going to be an absolutely fabulous Christmas.”