Extract from Broken Ghosts




No matter how many times she comes back, the house always looks wrong. Like a badly fitted false tooth, it’s too modern compared to the buildings on either side. The windows don’t match; the roof tiles are a different shade of grey; the harling has fewer cracks than the neighbours’, even if there are more this year than last. None of the houses in this quiet cul-de-sac are the same any more, although she remembers a time when they were. A generation has come and gone, multiple owners making their small marks of difference, but the buildings are all essentially the same. Same shape, same dimensions, same size.

Except the one in the middle.

She sits in the car, unsure whether she has the strength of will to climb out, get closer. The view intermittently blurs and clears as the windscreen wipers sweep away the lightest of smirrs. There is no one left in this little community who would know who she is now. No one who would understand why that one house in the scheme is not like all the rest. On the passenger seat beside her, the bunch of flowers seems unnecessary, even a little vulgar. What would people think if they saw her placing it beside the low wall that separates the front garden from the pavement? How long would they stay there after she left? Why does she even keep coming here, year after year?

Survivor’s guilt, they call it. Although really it’s more complicated than that. She survived, it’s true. But the alternative would have meant she survived too. And there would be no need to come here every year, sit in her car and stare at a house she never lived in. That’s what she tells herself, at least. And sometimes she almost believes it too.

Movement to one side is a twitch in the curtains of the house two doors down. She’s been noticed now, and no doubt someone will be calling the police soon enough. It’s that kind of place, a Neighbourhood Watch roundel pinned to the nearest lamppost. She checks the clock on the dashboard, is five minutes enough? More than enough, she’s sure. It’s not as if anyone’s going to take her to task for her lack of respect. Nobody told her to come here, after all.

She starts the car, turns awkwardly in the narrow space of the cul-de-sac. As she glances in the mirror, for a moment the blurred image is lit with red from the brake lights and the scene takes on a hellish feel. As if that oddly ill-fitting house is ablaze. The thought has barely enough time to catch her breath before the rear wiper clears it away. Still, it sends a shudder through her, and she reaches for the button to turn up the heat a little.

She shouldn’t have come here. Time, surely, to put this annual pilgrimage behind her. As she checks the traffic before pulling out onto the Edinburgh road, she see the flowers still in their cellophane, lying on the passenger seat. Cheering and colourful, they’ll look nice in her living room, brighten the place up a bit for a change.





The train clattered over worn tracks, noisy and slow and packed with far too many people. Normally Phoebe would expect the carriage to be cold at this time of year, but this one seemed to have stored all the heat missing from all those other winter trips she’d made in her twelve years. She stuck a finger in the collar of her blouse, scratched at her neck and felt sweat trickle down her back. At least she’d managed to nab a seat, unlike half of the school trip.

If they’d been on the train they were meant to catch, it would have been fine. But Morag Carstairs and her gang had decided a trip to the National Museum was too boring and bunked off to go shopping or something. By the time they’d been rounded up and given a pointless stern lecture by Mrs Erskine, the whole group was an hour late. When they’d finally reached Waverley Station it had been chaos, thanks to faulty points, whatever they were. No trains out to Fife for hours, and two teachers trying to keep a bunch of increasingly fractious twelve-year-olds in check. When the trains had started running again, four hours after they should all have been home, the rush to fit five times as many people into each carriage as it was designed to hold had been brutal. Good luck to any ticket inspector trying to work his way down the aisle.

On balance, Phoebe didn’t mind the delay too much. She’d bought herself a Mars Bar and a bottle of Irn-Bru, found a bench and slipped her headphones on. She loved to watch people come and go, make up stories about their lives. There was so much going on in the bustling, chaotic station she could have sat even longer. After all, the alternative was an evening in her room, on her own, flicking through copies of Smash Hits and wishing she was old enough to go out unsupervised and hang out with her friends. As she stared through the dripping condensation on the glass at the slow-moving darkness outside the train, it struck her that this noisy, sweaty, smelly place was far preferable to the strained silence of home.

The train stopped everywhere, its cargo of squashed passengers slowly leaking away with each new station. By the time they’d pulled out of Markinch, there were enough seats for everybody. With an exaggerated gasp of relief, Jen slumped into the seat beside her, squeezing up against Phoebe far more than was strictly necessary.

‘What you listening to, Feebs?’

’Nothing.’ Phoebe slipped off her headphones and hung them round her neck, picked up her Walkman. ‘Batteries ran out an hour ago.’

‘You’re weird, you know?’ Jen stared at her, frizzy brown hair tumbling over her eyes. It stuck out at odd angles with the static from her fake fur-lined hood and whatever material the seats were covered in.

’Stops people bothering me. Mostly. Creepy guy over there was staring at both of us all the way to Kirkcaldy.’ Phoebe gestured to the far side of the carriage and a set of four seats now occupied by Morag Carstairs and her gang. Of course Morag took that moment to look up, scowling like she always did. For a moment Phoebe thought the girl might come over and make something of it, but apparently everyone was too fed up and tired even for that. There’d be words at school in the morning though. No doubt about that. No one could hold an unwarranted grudge like Morag.

‘Ugh. Makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.’

Phoebe might have asked Jen whether she was talking about the creepy guy or Morag and her gang, but the train had begun to slow now, approaching Cupar and home.

Gathering up her things, Phoebe followed Jen and the rest of their group of pupils and teachers out onto the cold night platform. The young and the old trudged up the stone steps to the road and headed their separate ways or stumbled across the carpark to waiting cars and anxious parents. At the far corner, she spotted the familiar shape of Mrs Dalgliesh’s dark coloured Range Rover, twin wisps of steam curling up from its exhaust pipes. Jen’s mum at least was on time.

‘You want a lift?’ Mrs Dalgliesh wound down the window to speak to Phoebe as her daughter climbed in on the other side.

‘Thanks Mrs D, but dad’s going to pick me up. Mrs Erskine said she spoke to them.’

Mrs Dalgliesh smiled at her. ‘OK, hen. You take care now.’

With a low rumble, the car pulled away, Jen waving from the passenger seat as if they would never see each other again, rather than both being in school the next morning. Phoebe stood alone in the car park, hands shoved in her coat pockets against the chill. A couple of taxis moved off, then quiet fell upon the town. She looked up the road in the direction her father would come, seeing nothing. Maybe she should have taken Mrs Dalgliesh up on her offer. Chances were her dad had fallen asleep in front of the telly, and mum would be in bed long since.

Phoebe took a deep breath and noticed for the first time the faint smell of smoke on the breeze. Cold enough for people to be lighting their fires, she hunched her shoulders, shoved her hands deeper into her coat pockets in search of warmth, and began the walk home.


The first police car was silent. Whistling past her at twice the speed limit, it disappeared round a bend in the road with a slight chirp of tyres. Phoebe paid it little heed.

The second police car had its lights flashing, and flipped on its siren as it passed, jolting her out of her reverie. It was then that she noticed the smoke again, only this time it wasn’t the sweet smell of burning logs. This was more like that time dad forgot to put the fire-guard in place and a spark flew out onto the carpet. Burning hair too close to the barbecue.

A fire engine roared past and Phoebe quickened her pace. All these vehicles were going the same way as her. Flickering movement caught her eye. She looked up to see the cloud base, low now, swirling with orange patterns and dark, dark smoke. Someone’s house was on fire and it was horribly close to where she lived. She needed to get home and let her parents know she was alright.

She ran the last few hundred yards, rounded the street corner and launched herself up the hill towards the end of the little cul-de-sac. Another police car sped past, followed by an ambulance, and then Phoebe started to see people. Some dressed in night clothes, others in dark blue uniforms, they milled around in the road like a street party for oldies. All of them had their backs to her; all stared at the inferno straight ahead.

The noise hit her like a jet fighter from Leuchars, roaring overhead. Only it didn’t quieten, didn’t fade into the distance at supersonic speed. Phoebe pushed through the people, all of them too fixated on the fire to notice her. She needed to get closer, had to get home.

‘Keep back, love. It’s too dangerous.’ A firm hand clasped her shoulder, stopped her in her tracks. She looked at it, not quite understanding what was going on, followed the length of the arm up to a shoulder, then a face. Dark shadows strobed blue and orange in the light from the police cars, the glare from the burning house.

‘But I’ve got to get home.’ She pulled against the strong hold.

‘Home?’ The policeman bent down to her level and she could see sweat from the heat of the fire beading on his cheeks and forehead. ‘Where you live then, love?’

Phoebe pointed beyond the fire engine, towards what looked like a wall of flame. Her house, her home, her parents. There was something not right in her mind, and she couldn’t think what it was. Some huge thought that she couldn’t quite form.

‘In there.’

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