Lying wasn’t a moral issue for Celia. Whilst not a pathological liar, she didn’t give a hoot for what others considered to be right or wrong. People had been thinking Celia to be wrong her whole life so, for Celia, as long as she lived by her own truth, that’s all that mattered. She did have one rule, though: never tell a lie that can deliberately hurt another.
For Celia, this was exactly the reason why her latest fabrication had caused her own moral compass to bear a long and disdainful frown. It was time to do something about it. She picked up her mobile phone and dialled the number.
‘Oh Hello,’ Celia frowned, unsure whether the signal in the room was strong. She looked at her phone then quickly put it back to her ear. ‘Holistic Health for All? Yes, yes, I’m phoning on behalf of my friend who would like to cancel her book membership with you. ‘Yes, I understand. The thing is, she’s hearing impaired and she has emailed you ‘several’ times but …yes, yes you can speak to her but she can’t hear you. I will interpret for you instead. What do you want to say to her? You need her permission to speak to me? Yes, yes, okay. Her name? Ah yes: Celia Royle … not like ‘Royal’ but ‘Royle’, like ‘L’ ‘E’ not ‘A’ ‘L…Oh my name too?’ Celia had not considered a name for herself. She thought of the name of the woman who used to live there. ‘I’m Philippa, yes, Philippa Grey.’
After reeling off the address details, Celia asked the woman on the other end of the phone to wait a moment. She then plonked the phone on the coffee table in front of her and waved her arms about the room before quietly moving two steps away, holding on to her nose and feigning elongated, nasal vowels that might, to others, sound authentic.Two steps back, picking up the phone once more, Celia re-pegged her nose and, and feeling rather dirty, feigned a consent.
Celia had often wondered how she would have fared as an actress. She mused that she probably would have succeeded very well, if only she had been slimmer, had less facial hair and, perhaps, a straighter, less Roman nose. In school, all of her teachers had commented on what a wonderful actress she would make.
At parent evenings, in infant and junior schools when this career prediction was made about Celia to her parents, they would repeat the same quip in unison: ‘Oh yes,’ they said, rolling their eyes before looking pointedly back towards the teacher. ‘That girl could win an Oscar.’
Though quick to recognise the context of her parents’ weary disdain (the fabrication that her deceased grandmother had visited one night with a message for her parents to immediately purchase Sky TV had set the precedent for the slightest far-fetched tale to be disbelieved) Celia, armed with favourable memories of favoured performances as Samson in Samson and Delilah and an Ugly Sister in Cinderella, had felt that an Oscar was possible, even through she didn’t rightly know who ‘Oscar’ was.
But then puberty struck.
On the opening night of A Christmas Carol in which she had been thrust into the role of ‘Narrator’, Celia stood at the lectern, book opened against the hard wood, right hand arched across her top lip in an attempt to hide her newly acquired fine, wispy moustache. As she peered over the top of her hand toward the increasingly fidgety and expectant audience, she realised her body had begun to tremor. It made her feel obvious, like a self-conscious Siamese cat wearing a fake fur leopard print coat.
Celia couldn’t be sure if the tremor was noticeable to others, but it reminded her of last Winter when her parents’ car had broken down in the snow on a return Christmas family trip to Hereford. In rural Monmouthshire, the cold was malignant as it webbed its way through their low-top footwear and porous cotton coats. After a mile they had sported red circles around their eyes and a transparent, deathly parlour.
But it was at the telephone box when the real chill set in. Through glazed eyes she watched the moon as it glowered over them in the navy sky and imagined sipping on the warm, banana milk shake she would have when they arrived back home. Just as her attention melted away into her delicious fantasy, Celia was stolen back to the present by an approaching figure. The woman marched towards them, loudly punctuating her sentences with ‘fuck’ and ‘for fucks’ sake’s’ and demanded immediate use of the telephone box.
Celia had looked to her mum, waiting for her to use her adult knowledge to calm the woman in adult way. Celia’s mum looked back at Celia; eyelashes blinking away the snow as though she was trying to focus on why exactly her daughter was staring at her. When Celia gestured at the now-pacing woman, her mum looked, returned her focus to Celia, rolled her eyes and simply said ‘What?’ before raising her palms like she was trying to lift the events of the evening heavenwards.
As the moon slid behind the still branches of the trees, Celia’s temperature plummeted. From her peripherals she realised the woman was no longer there and when she looked again she realised she never had been. Her dad exited the phone box. ‘They’re on the way,’ he said.
Celia put the phone back down. Took two sidesteps then retraced them once more. ‘Hello? Yes. Right. That’s good. Yes, I want to cancel for Celia, yes. Okay. Okay. Right. Yes. So no more membership will be taken from her account, yes? Lovely. Okay. No, no, nothing else you can help with? Oh, she will get a full refund, yes?’
Celia pressed the ‘end call’ button and sank back into her sofa. She imagined the headlines: ‘So-Called Medium in Disability Fraud Case’ glaring out in dogmatic, bold black font from the front page of the Penarth Times. She sniffed in disgust at the thought of that small-minded, village newspaper. money was tight enough as it and her job was too often taken over by charlatans and opportunists without a fraud scandal reducing her income even further. At the moment, she couldn’t even afford the price of the stamp that would have prevented this whole charade of pretending to be somebody she wasn’t. Hopefully the lie would never come back to haunt her. Nobody would have believed the truth of why she had to lie. Nobody ever believed her.
Celia remembered the time when, not long after that night in Monmouthshire, at breakfast, while lifting a soggy, Shredded Wheat into her mouth, she had seen a man in blue overalls standing in the corner of the room, watching her with a wry and knowing smile.
‘They’ve sorted it now,’ she said, looking to her right at Philippa Grey sitting in the arm-chair.
Her house mate was busy picking imaginary dust from her own skeleton while admiring the front cover of the book that had forced Celia into telling such a lie. Philippa didn’t appear to care one way or the other; although, Celia conceded, it was difficult to tell.
The book had landed on the ‘Welcome’ mat that morning. When Celia had opened it and realised that, despite her name being on the envelope, the parcel wasn’t for her, she turned it over and glared at the book’s title, Life after Death.
Soon after discovering the delivery, Philippa had handed Celia a handwritten letter explaining all. Apparently, she’d wanted it after seeing it available in the virtual bookshelves of the on-line book franchise. As a ‘deceased’ member, using her previous details wasn’t a viable option and could have brought other, more serious, types of fraud allegations to Celia’s address.
But she hoped Celia would forgive her. Celia was special. If it wasn’t for Celia moving in to Philippa’s old house, she would be attempting to break the boredom of the afterlife by practising clichéd haunting techniques like pacing through the attic at night and turning dining tables upside down, the type of stuff that the typical layman recognised as signs of a haunting. And as much as scaring people was – particularly after the fright of death – quite cathartic at first, the thrill soon wore off. There’s only so many temperature drops a dead person can cause before the living become desensitised and simply purchase extra jumpers, or change energy suppliers.
Really, all Philippa wanted was to get on with living the afterlife, but in a progressive way and absolutely not in a fashion that would stereotype and degrade the rest of the walking dead for decades to come. Yes, without Celia to talk to, without Celia’s acceptance of the afterlife and personable skill for relating to dead people like others relate to the living, existence would be incredibly dull.
Philippa nodded to her house-mate and stuck up a bony thumb before opening the book at the first chapter.