The first time I remember seeing her, I was probably about four or five. I was playing in the hallway, tracing the Greek key patterns of the carpet with my toes; I was so engrossed in this game that I didn’t even notice her until she was halfway up the stairs. I thought she was my little sister. She was small and her blonde hair was straight and long, just like my sister’s. Much as I had been enjoying my obsessive pattern tracing, I liked the idea of playing with somebody else, so I followed her.
She walked into the bedroom I shared with my younger sister and an older one; we weren’t rich and as we were still relatively small, two of us shared a bed, sleeping top to toe in surprising harmony. I wasn’t far behind the girl so I entered the room a few seconds after she did. She was gone. Of course, thinking she was my little sister, I presumed she was hiding and began to search, calling her name in case she would do me a favour and come out. My sister was great at hiding because she was really small; not just ‘young small’, she was ‘small small’. With very little between us in age, I towered over her and she could fit into places I wouldn’t even attempt to get into. One time, she hid behind a sewing machine and it took me ten minutes to find her – that’s how good she was … and how little.
But she wasn’t hiding, because two or three minutes into my exhaustive search, she came up the stairs and asked ‘What?’ She had heard me saying her name and come to find out what I wanted. I told everybody about the girl: what she looked like, where I had seen her, how she had just vanished. Mostly that! How she’d just vanished.
I watched out for her for ages and didn’t see her, but my bedroom didn’t feel like a good place to be in anymore and I couldn’t get to sleep if I faced the wall. I would read for hours using the light from the landing to avoid the darkness of closed eyes. My reading improved in leaps and bounds; my ability to sleep soundly was destroyed permanently.
Yet there had been nothing sinister about the little girl, other than the mysterious vanishing act. If I hadn’t followed her, I probably would always have assumed she was my sister and just forgotten seeing her go up the stairs. As it is, I know I’ll never forget her.
Years later, perhaps when I was 10 or 11, I was sleeping in a different room, with two different sisters. One night we heard the unmistakeable sound of a ball bouncing against the wall. It was the adjoining wall to our new neighbours, who had a young boy and girl. They were younger than me by a little and didn’t play out. Certainly not with us, at any rate. The noise kept us awake for ages and sounded really loud, with the hollow of the chimney breast magnifying every bounce and we grumbled about the terrible mother who couldn’t get her children to go to bed and sleep when they were of no age at all. We had no room to talk, since we were more likely to read or secretly listen to a tiny portable radio that one of my big sisters had smuggled into the bedroom than we were to go to sleep at a reasonable hour. Still! At least we weren’t actually out of bed playing ball.
The bouncing went on for days and seemed louder than ever. Our parents heard it and also grumbled about the new kids next door, right up until the day they were leaving the house for work at the same time as the woman next door had come out to do the school run. She asked my mum if she could have a word with us, because the ball games were keeping her awake. The bouncing sound was actually coming from our room. To bounce a ball against that wall, someone would have to be standing at the end of the bed, just next to where my head would be.
The bouncing didn’t stop, but it didn’t happen all the time and sometimes it came from different places in the house but always upstairs.
Still, I didn’t see the girl again until one night when I was about 15. Only me and my little sister were in the house. She was watching the telly and I was in another room, drawing. The door to the hallway was open and something made me look up, just in time to see the girl walk past, as though she were heading for the stairs or for the room where my sister was laughing at some comedy programme. She still looked like my sister, but she had aged. I didn’t know what to do. I actually felt too scared to look where she had gone; I couldn’t even get out of my seat. She was just a girl, who’d never so much as looked at me or said a word. Maybe she’d kept me awake with her ball games, maybe not. Eventually I got up the courage to look out of the room and was very relieved to see nobody. I went and spent the rest of the evening in the same room as my sister, leaving every light lit up and casting little glances to the hall every couple of minutes.
I saw her one more time. I was an adult, with three children and fast asleep in my bed. The insomnia she had caused had continued to plague me, but I’d had a busy day, visiting my sick brother amongst other things, and had fallen into bed, exhausted. A single word woke me up. Just my name in a voice that sounded like family, but I knew I’d never heard it before. I knew it was her even before I saw her. Still blonde, still looking as though she could be my sister, but grown up. She didn’t say another word, but I knew that she had come to bring me bad news about my brother and she had. The news came by phone in the morning, but it was just confirmation. I don’t know how she told me, but she did.
I think I’ll see her again. I don’t know when or where and I don’t look out for her, but I know it will happen. One day … and I wonder if she’ll still be blonde or will she be grey, like I am, like my sister is. I’m not afraid any more, but I am curious. I just want to know who she is.