There are no good or bad ways to die, no kind or cruel ones, only quick or slow. The doctors tell me I have a tumour in my brain, the size of a tennis ball and my head sometimes feels so full that I wish it would burst, so the pain could bleed away. Perhaps you think I’m mad to wish that, but then, that’s what they call me these days. Senile, old, not all there. Mad. My death is to be one of the slow ones.
The screams started on Tuesday and it’s Saturday now…
What? All right. If you say so. It’s hard to keep track of time when you’re old and you’ve a tennis ball in your head.
…The screams started several weeks ago and it’s Monday now. I see things that aren’t there – at least people tell me they’re not and I’m supposed to believe them. But what if they are the real hallucinations, telling me I’m hallucinating?
You might not be real. Have you thought of that?
Every night the scream comes and every night someone dies.
Are you sure? I thought it was every night… Very well.
The scream doesn’t come every night, but every time a person has died, nine people have died.
Is that right?
I tried to tell my daughter about the scream and the deaths. We used to be so close. When she was a little girl I would take her to the station on my day off, just to show her off. Told the boys she was going to be a policewoman when she grew up, just like her mother. But when I told my daughter about the deaths she said it was only natural, wasn’t it? This is an old folk’s home, after all.
“Only way any of us are leaving here,’ she said. Or was that Mrs Mistry? I forget.
The scream comes every night, a little after midnight, a banshee’s wail. Every night someone who hears it dies. One night the scream will be for me. One night, but not tonight. Not tonight.
Last night, Princess Anne came to visit us. She’s the patron of Cedar’s Rest, you see. It was good to see her, but I didn’t approve of the pole dancing. I don’t know what she was thinking of. I told my daughter, but she didn’t believe me.
I don’t remember my daughter’s name.
There’s nothing but crap on the telly, but I keep watching it anyway. What else is there to do? No one ever visits me. I’m abandoned, dying slowly. I spend my days looking out of the window, listening to the sound of the tumour growing in my head. It sounds like the sea.
I remember so little these days. I remember my father going off to war and never coming back. I remember my mother crying. I remember my Bob, courting me. I remember Gwen. We’re going out tonight, to visit some of her posh friends. I don’t really want to, I never fit in with that lot, all snooty and talking about people I don’t know, but Gwen wants me to go and so I will. I’ll wear my pink silk scarf.
The scream will come tonight and someone will die. No one’s paying any attention to the deaths, but then, as a policewoman, I know how blind people can be. Murder under their noses and they don’t see. I was once on the case of a woman who lay dead in her flat for over three years before she was discovered. And she wasn’t some old biddy, her friends dead, forgotten by her family. She was forty two, well dressed, had money, friends. But then she died and no one noticed.
No one notices a child’s broken arm or the look of fear in a woman’s eyes. No one notices the homeless man, dead of hypothermia in the park. No one notices the thief or the kidnapper, the rapist or the conman. Criminals look just like you and me, they’re never the monsters we want them to be. So no one sees the house down the road being set on fire, the boy getting stabbed a few yards away from the smokers hanging around outside the pub’s doors, they don’t know where their kids are, drive past the mugging, drive over the body in the road…
My head’s fit to burst. I wish they would drill holes in it, to let the tumour out. There isn’t room in there for a tennis ball.
The scream will come tonight and someone will die. I think it’s one of the nurses doing it. Not the grey-haired one that keeps stumbling into my room and messing with my underwear drawer (the dirty thing) but the red-haired one, that everyone likes. Always smiling, I don’t trust her. She tells lies. She told me I only have a daughter, but I don’t, I have a son as well. Jack, he was called. He died two days before his first birthday. Just one of those things, the doctor said.
The scream will come tonight and someone will die. The matron’s finally figured out something’s wrong. That’s why she brought you in, to sit down there in the hall, listening out for the scream. The banshee, everyone said, it’s a banshee, who only howls when someone is about to die and of course here at Cedar’s Rest, we’re all about to bloody die, aren’t we?
You know in my day we police officers scoffed a bit at your lot – ghost hunters. Thought you were all charlatans and con artists, but these days they take you seriously, don’t they? They must do, that matron brought you in. Have you ever caught a banshee? Would you even know what do with one if you had a hold of it?
You would? Well, no matter. The scream will come tonight and…
What? It came already? Oh yes.
Yes, I remember.
I don’t remember the last time I left my room on my own. My legs hurt, they don’t work right. There’s a tennis ball in my head. It’s a slow death, but is it cruel? Any crueller than to die two days short of your first birthday? Getting dressed was hard. All I could manage was my dressing gown and slippers. I can’t do buttons anymore. Do you see my hands? Old woman’s hands, the veins rooted through them. Maybe I’m turning into a tree. I had to press down hard on these hands, to get a good grip on my walking frame.
I came to see you, could you hear me calling? I knew you were here, it was the talk of the home. The ghost hunter sitting in the hall all night, every night, keeping us safe. Three nights, they said you’d been here, three nights and no scream.
Maybe, Mrs Mistry said, the banshee won’t come, maybe the ghost hunter will scare her away.
But the scream came again tonight.
I’d reached the top of the stairs, was looking down. I could just see you, sitting at the reception desk. You couldn’t see me, didn’t hear me. I didn’t know how I was going to get down those stairs. I needed to talk to you, you see, about the red-headed nurse. You needed to know, it wasn’t a banshee you were after, but a murderer. Then the lift pinged and I turned thinking – oh yes, that’s how I’ll get downstairs – and there was the red-headed nurse.
She was coming towards me, smiling as always, a syringe in her hand. I couldn’t stop staring at that syringe, the needle gleaming sharper than any knife.
“What are you doing out of bed?”
“None of your business.”
“Well, shall I help you back? You should be asleep at this time of night.”
“What time is it?”
I couldn’t breathe I was so scared. Midnight, the time the scream came and right on cue, here was the red-headed nurse. Tonight, the scream would be for me.
“I’m not tired.”
“I can give you something to help you sleep.”
I’m not being funny, but have you had your ears checked? Here I was fighting for my life and you couldn’t hear me?
“Come on,” the nurse said, her hair colour as fake as her smile. She was bearing down on me with that syringe and I knew I was a goner.
Funny, isn’t it? An old woman fighting for her life?
“You’ll never get away with this,” I told her. “Bob will never believe it.”
She laughed at that. “Bob? Your husband? He’s dead. Has been for twenty years.”
Is she right? Is my Bob gone?
That’s a relief then. I thought he’d forgotten me, the way he never visits. Found himself a fancy woman, left me like Gwen did, for fancier friends.
I screamed when she grabbed my arm. Poison in that syringe, I’d bet my life on it. I screamed, but all that came out was a puff of air. I’d no strength left, just a feeble old woman. We struggled and somehow she tripped and…
She fell over the banister, a straight drop to the floor below. A scream that will haunt us all. The same scream we’ve been hearing every night. She landed with a thud right in front of you and that made you look up from your book, didn’t it? Finally.
I need to just sit here for a while, if you don’t mind. Catch my breath. All this noise and light, I can’t get my thoughts straight. You’re good to sit with me. There’s a tennis ball in my head, did I tell you? It bounces around, confuses me.
Can you hear those screams? That’s the sirens coming at last. My last job as a policewoman and a job well done. We can all sleep safe in our beds tonight. Maybe ghosts are real, after all. Maybe the scream was her ghost, haunting us from the future. Maybe now that her death is in the past, the scream won’t be heard any more.
Well, we can hope, can’t we?
It’s a shame Bob’s not here any more. He always liked to hear about my arrests. Kept every clipping in the paper, the daft sod. But he died of a heart attack one morning on the toilet. It was a quick death, but was it a kind one? The paramedics saw him with his underpants down, his turd still fresh in the toilet bowl.
But then there are no kind deaths, nor cruel ones, no good or bad. Only quick or slow.