Johnny was weird before he died. After the accident, well—it got pretty dark.
I was still a child then, at the awkward age where you don’t so much choose your friends as simply clump together. I floated in the soup of childhood, aimlessly sticking to my fellows.
By the time my peer group curdled, I found I was joined to three other boys. Gary Brewster was a nice enough kid, but he had the annoying habit of blinking over and over, like he was trying to get it right and never could. The second boy, Paul Cook, was annoying but benign; one of those compulsive liars who keep trying to impress you. He once told us his father was the third strongest man in the Commonwealth. I doubt he was the third strongest man on Nevile Road.
And then there was Johnny—Johnny Beddow—who was just plain weird.
I don’t mean he played a tuba, like Claire Broomfield, or endlessly doodled pictures of dicks, like Gordon Lee. I know children set a low bar for weird, but Johnny took it to another level. He was whippet-thin, and his arms were a little too long, and he always had this hungry smile. When he spoke, you’d look at his eyes and wonder what the hell was going on behind them, because the things he said were so—off.
I’ve got hundreds of examples, but I’ll give you one. When we were picking superpowers, like children do, I chose super-strength, and Gary said he wanted to fly. I can’t remember what Paul said, or if he was even there—but Johnny wanted to place his hand on people’s hearts and drain the life right out of them. The way he described it—I didn’t have the frame of reference at the time, but I knew something was wrong—the way described it was almost sexual. He wanted to look at their faces and see the light fading from their eyes, and when he described it, he was wiping spit from his mouth, like he was hungry or something.
That was Johnny in a nutshell. Even so, we saw him every day because, well—he was in our gang.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” I wondered, when we were kicking a ball round Kersal Moor.
Paul put a foot on it, stopping it dead.
“I’ve actually seen one,” he said boldly.
I didn’t take the bait.
“What about you?”
He thought about it, blinking furiously.
“We’ll make a pact,” he decided. “When we die, if we are ghosts, we’ll come back and haunt the others. Then we’ll know for sure.”
“Deal,” I said.
“Deal,” said Johnny darkly.
I looked at him and shuddered. I’d forgotten he was there.
“I hope there are ghosts,” he added. “If I knew I’d be a ghost, I’d kill myself tomorrow.”
“Why?” I marvelled.
He smiled ghoulishly and shrugged.
“Reckon I’d suit it,” he said—and I couldn’t disagree.
It wasn’t just the things he said. It was the things he did.
He was fascinated by weapons. Once, Paul told us his brother had a slingshot called a “Barnett Black Widow” that could punch holes in tin cans. We thought he was lying, but he surprised us by turning up with it stuck in his waistband.
“I can borrow it whenever I want,” he boasted—which was a lie, because his brother battered him for taking it. But the slingshot was real.
We passed it round for inspection. It wasn’t what I’d pictured. I was expecting something that Dennis the Menace might use, with a “Y” made of whittled wood, but the Black Widow was a proper weapon. It had a moulded grip like a handgun, with a wrist-brace for extra support. The fork was stainless steel. The “rubber band” was yellow tubing. We took turns trying to draw it, but even with the brace we weren’t really strong enough.
“Should we look for rocks?” I suggested.
“You don’t use rocks,” said Paul. “You use these ball-things.”
He opened his hand, showing us six he’d nicked from his brother. We guarded them jealously, trying to find them when we shot them. Gary was like a bloodhound when it came to looking, so we only lost two in total.
“Wait here,” said Johnny suddenly—lumbering off like a ghoul.
He was heading for his own home. When he reappeared, he was holding something red and floppy in his hand. I shielded my eyes to see better.
“What’s that?” I called.
“Steak!” he shouted back.
It soon became clear what he had in mind. He monopolised the slingshot to shoot his steak at close range.
“I want to know if it can penetrate muscle,” he explained.
He put it on the ground and stood over it, trying to shoot at a funny angle. He didn’t do much damage, but it wasn’t a conclusive test.
After a while, he got bored of the steak and aimed at a distant magpie.
“That’s enough,” said Paul quickly, taking it off him.
We lost interest in the slingshot after that because it felt weird, but really, it was par for the course where Johnny was concerned. He was the kind of boy who always has a cigarette lighter, and he used his to melt dolls and set fire to ants. He liked to trap woodlice and put salt on slugs.
As I said at the start: even before he died, he was weird. But he got even weirder.
It was a swampy day in August when we heard about the accident. Details were thin on the ground, but we knew that Mr Beddow had crashed his car, which was a blue Ford Orion. Johnny—who hadn’t been wearing a seat-belt—had gone face-first on the windscreen.
Face-first. The very thought of it made me shudder.
“I saw the whole thing,” said Paul audaciously.
“No you didn’t,” I told him automatically.
He was briefly offended. Then he made a calculation and his face softened.
“Well no. Not the crash,” he agreed. “I don’t mean the actual crash. But right after. The car was upside down.”
“Bulls░░░,” I judged.
He glared defiantly.
“It was!” he insisted. “Right in the middle of the road. Swear to God.”
Gary was patiently trying to split a blade of grass into a pair of thin ones, using his thumbnail.
“The middle of what road?” he challenged—which was a pointed question, but rather more neutral than I was being.
Paul took a moment to think.
“Vine Street,” he decided.
I groaned at the transparent lie. Vine Street was a long sleepy lane where his grandma lived. It only had houses on one side, with a dense wall of trees on the other. On dark winter nights, when the branches were bare, you could see Kersal Vale beyond, all the way to the city centre. Tiny lights shone in the distance, seeming to swim as hot air rose from faraway streets. I couldn’t think of a less likely place for a high speed car-crash.
“Vine Street?” I jeered. “What were they doing? Going round the bend at fifty miles an hour? Come on Paul, it must’ve been an A-road.”
“What’s an A-road?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
“Well then,” he said in triumph.
I felt my face redden.
“I don’t know exactly what it is,” I said, “but it’s a proper road. You go fast. Not like bloomin’ Vine Street.”
Of the three of us, Paul was the first to visit the hospital. We were keen to get his report, despite the high risk of fantastical nonsense.
“He didn’t wake up,” Paul told us. “He hasn’t since the crash. He’s stuck in a coma.”
We were sat in Paul’s bedroom that day. The clammy heat had turned at last to liquid downpour. The rain made maracas sounds on the street below. From time to time there was a blue electric flash, followed by the sheet metal rumble of the thunder.
“Did you see his face?” I asked.
“No. It’s all bandaged up. He’s just got tubes for his nose and stuff.”
Gary butted in.
“It’s true,” he confirmed, blinking repeatedly. “My mum told me.”
It was a rare moment of honesty from Paul, but it didn’t last.
“He doesn’t even have a face,” he went on. “The doctor said so. They’re calling him Johnny-No-Face now.”
“Rubbish,” I said again. “Even if they were, the doctor wouldn’t tell you about it.”
He glanced at the carpet and made one of his calculations.
“Well no,” he agreed. “Not an actual doctor. I mean a nurse.”
Gary chipped in again.
“He’s got ‘life-changing injuries’,” he said glumly.
I looked at him in horror.
“Life-changing? What does that mean?”
“Means he’s got no face,” said Paul darkly.
I saw for myself at the weekend. Johnny was in a solemn side-ward with no other beds. His head was completely bandaged. He just lay there, and I didn’t know what to do or say.
In time, we learned that Mr Beddow had been wearing a selt-belt. Incredibly, all he got was whiplash—plus, of course, debilitating guilt.
A few days later, I saw him leaving his house on Oaklands Road. He was wearing a neck brace. Someone had a hand on his shoulder, steering him to the back of a taxi. He looked broken, like he barely had the strength to stand. His eyes were downcast. I shudder to think what was going on in his head. I don’t know if the crash was his fault, but Johnny’s seatbelt certainly was.
I waited for news of Johnny but none came. I was worried. Not because I liked him—I think I’ve made it clear I didn’t like him—but because I had a morbid fear of anything bad that happened to anyone. If bad things could happen, they could happen to me. It was naked self-interest, rather than altruism, which made me pray for his recovery.
A few days after that, I had a dream.
It wasn’t really a full dream. More like the remains of one, when you know you’re in bed but aren’t yet awake, and part of your brain is still dreaming. I lay there on Sunday morning, unwilling to stir, when Johnny’s voice came to me.
“Joe,” he whispered. “Can you hear me?”
Yes, I thought—keeping my eyes closed.
“You’re not going to believe what’s going on,” he said. “I’ve seen the other side! Oh, Joe—I’m going to love it there.”
I felt a pang of dread.
The other side? You mean you’re dead?
“No. But I’m close enough to see it. You know the view from Vine Street, in the winter?”
I relaxed. I’d thought of it the week before. It was too much of a coincidence for Johnny to bring it up. I was surely dreaming.
“It’s beautiful, right? You can see the dark vale, all the way to the city. Fairy lights on the bottom of the sky. It’s like that here. From where I am, I can actually see it.”
See what, though?
“I already told you, Joe. The other side. And it’s beautiful.”
I opened my eyes. I was facing the wall and wasn’t brave enough to roll over.
“Johnny?” I said out loud.
No answer came so I got out of bed.
I caught up with Gary and Paul that afternoon. We weren’t in the mood to do much and just sat on the moors. It was hot again, and the world smelled faintly of sewage. We took turns to throw stones down a sandy footpath.
I asked if they’d dreamed of Johnny. Paul instantly said he had, and span an elaborate yarn about a lucid dream with aliens and zombies. I didn’t believe a word of it.
Gary was more measured.
“May-be,” he said. “I didn’t see him, but I think I heard him. Something about—a city? I don’t know. It was like—it came between two other dreams. Like an advert or something.”
“An advert,” I laughed. But I shivered inside.
He came to me three more times in the coming nights. On the first two occasions I kept my eyes shut, for fear of what I’d see.
“I had a good look at the other side,” he told me. “I wasn’t actually there because I’m not dead, but when I looked across the plain, it was like a camera zooming in, and then I was swooping down the dark streets.”
Did you see other people?
“I wouldn’t call ’em ‘people’. You’re different when you’re dead. I’m not surprised they don’t bother haunting us. They’ve got better things to do.”
He started to laugh.
Like what, Johnny?
Before he could answer, I woke up. The sky was painting sunlight on the wall.
I could hear my parents moving below. The dull chimes of breakfast bowls.
I shivered and went to the loo, then downstairs to join them.
The second time he came, two nights later, he was even more excited.
“It happened again,” he told me. “The camera-zoom. I think they’re showing me on purpose.”
What’s it like there?
“It’s magic. The streets are dark but the homes are lit. You can hear them laughing inside. All day long, they laugh and laugh. It’s like a dream come true.”
When I remembered his words the next day, I felt uncomfortable. The two of us were very different, and I had the vague idea that his dreams would be my nightmares.
There was a smell, too, that came with his voice. It wasn’t the smell of dreams; it was the smell of injured flesh. It was metallic, like blood, and faintly rotten. It was an old-sausage smell, like a butcher’s bin. It seemed stronger each time he came.
During the day, I remembered him holding a flame to the long grass, making tiny thrashing martyrs of the ants. Behind that hungry smile was the soul of a Caligula.
The thought solidified in my mind. His dreams are my nightmares, I warned myself.
In any case, the day after that, I got the news: Johnny Beddow had died in hospital, without ever regaining consciousness.
The third time he came, he was different.
I’d gone to sleep at the normal time but was soon aware of lying in bed. The putrid smell was back again. It was so strong that the air was hot in my nostrils.
“Open your eyes,” Johnny urged.
His voice was unmistakeably different. Deep and hollow, dark and cold. The sound of the grave or distant stars.
I don’t want to, I said with my mind.
“I won’t hurt you,” he promised. “I want to give you a present.”
“I crossed over, Joe. It was nothing. A short walk. Listen—can you hear them?”
I could. It was a distant sound of screaming.
“They’re laughing,” he said unexpectedly. “That’s what it sounds like, when you’re dead. We all laugh together. It’s like—And Death Shall Have No Dominion. Do you know that poem? ‘Dead men naked, they shall be one / With the man in the wind and the west moon; / When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone.’ I never knew poems till I died and now I know ’em all. Open your eyes, Joe. I want to give you something.”
Something in his voice compelled me to obey. I opened my eyes and rolled over, and there was Johnny Beddow, standing in the corner.
In some ways, he looked quite normal. He was wearing his yellow tee shirt with the rabbit-head logo, and he still had his black leather cuff on one wrist. But death had changed him. Instead of a face, he had nothing. It was a black rip in the fabric of space.
“What happened to your face?” I said out loud.
His voice came from the dark tear.
“I left it behind,” he told me. “Shook it off in the crash. I don’t need it on the other side. I’ve got something better than a face now. Here—take this.”
He was holding a pulsating knot of weird green light.
“When you touch it,” he promised, “you’ll see me properly.”
“What about the others? Did they touch it?”
“No. I didn’t bother with Paul, I never really liked him. And I didn’t get far with Gary. It was like he was talking in his sleep and kept drifting off. Too much like hard work. With you, though, I made a real connection.”
Like a sleepwalker, I rose from the bed and took some steps towards him.
“Come closer,” he urged, “and touch it.”
The smell was very strong now. A hot breeze blew from the nothing of his face. Warm air coming from an abattoir.
A low note of dread sounded in my mind, making my body vibrate with one long shiver. The light in his hand made the room seem green and unreal. It writhed between his fingers like an emblem of pain.
“Touch it!” he cried.
I didn’t. I stayed where I was and simply screamed. Then I was back in bed and Dad stood over me, shaking me awake.
I’m an adult now but I remember him often.
I hope they were dreams. If not, then whatever he found on the other side, it isn’t for me. His dreams are my nightmares.
Maybe what he found was hell and it suited him. I only hope that I find heaven.
But really, none of us knows what dying is like. Maybe when I’m old, I’ll go to sleep and find myself in a dark borderland. Maybe I’ll look out across the plain and see a city of the dead, shining in the night like fairy lights on the bottom of the sky.
If I do, I won’t go there. I’ll just stay put, or turn and walk the other way. I’d rather wander the dark forever than join that boy on the other side. I just hope I have a choice.
But no one lives forever, and I’m sure I’ll find out.
Ellis Reed, 17/08/2020