By David Cook
I watch the old man thrust his rusty spade into the ground, scoop out a lump of wet earth and drop it on the grass beside him.
“You could give me a hand if you like,” he calls. “I’ve got a spare shovel.”
I shake my head.“I can’t,” I say. “Don’t be silly. You’re not real. I’m imagining you.”
“If I’m not real, how can I be digging a grave?”
“Then I must be real, mustn’t I?” says the gravedigger, returning to his work.
“Probably the grave isn’t real either,” I tell him. He doesn’t reply. I watch him dig for a while.
“What shall I call you?”
“Isn’t that up to you, if you’ve imagined me?”
“I think I’ll call you Colin. Hi Colin, I’m Freddie.”
“Nice to meet you, Freddie. You can call me Colin if you like.”
I look at my watch. It’s lunchtime. “I have to go home now. Mum will be waiting.”
Colin frowns slightly, then shrugs and says, “Okay, then. Bye, Freddie.”
I scramble to my feet and run off towards the churchyard gate. As I look back, Colin is still digging, mud up to the ankles of his big black boots. He globs spit into the hole. When I look again a few seconds later, he’s gone.
The next day, I go back to the churchyard. Colin is starting work on a new grave.
“I know you’re not real,” I tell him, picking a scab on my knee. “You’re my new imaginary friend.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m real, kiddo.”
He sounds grumpy, but it doesn’t matter. He’s not really there, after all. “No,” I tell him. “You’re not. I’ve had lots of imaginary friends, like Spangles. He’s a talking penguin, but I think I’ve had enough of him. Now I have you, too.”
Colin digs for a bit. “Why’d you imagine me, then?” he says. “I’m not exactly the usual sort of imaginary friend.”
That’s true. “Dunno,” I say. “I just did.”
Colin keeps digging. I look up at the sky for a minute. When I stop, Colin has gone, just like yesterday. Imaginary friends can disappear fast. Actually, anyone can. Last year me and Mum nipped out to the corner shop for ten minutes, and when we came back Dad had run away with the woman next door.
“Are you trying to replace your Dad with an imaginary gravedigger?” asks Spangles.
“I said I’d had enough of you. Go away.”
Spangles runs and hides behind a gravestone and makes some funny neep-neep noises. I think he might be crying. I don’t care.
At home that night, I turn off the light, ready to get into bed. Before I pull the covers back, I look out of the window. By the light of a street lamp, I can see Colin digging a grave in my yard. He sees me staring at him and nods. He gives me a smile, but not a very nice one. I open the window. “What are you doing?” I yell.
“Nothing,” he says. “You’re imagining me. And this hole. Don’t worry about it.”
“That man is bad news,” says Spangles.
“Shut up, Spangles.”
“Who are you talking to, honeybun?” shouts Mum from downstairs.
“No one, Mum,” I shout back.
“I can’t believe you’d lie to your Mum,” tuts Spangles. I throw a pillow at him and he shuts himself in my wardrobe.
I think it’s very unfair that my Dad is gone but Spangles is still here. I close the curtains and go to bed.
The next morning, I wake up, stretch, get up and open the curtains. I blink in the bright morning light. Mum is in the yard, about to hang out some washing. I look around. I don’t see Colin, but the hole is still there and suddenly I’m confused. Maybe Colin is real after all. That hole definitely looks real. And I don’t think Mum’s seen it. I shove the window open.
“Mum, careful!” I shout.
She looks up and waves. “Be careful of what, baby?” she asks.
She takes a step forward. “What hole?” She takes another and falls forward into the grave.
There’s a thud. My eyes go wide. I jump off my bed and sprint downstairs. “Mum, Mum!” I shout. Spangles trots down behind me. “What a to-do,” he says. “I told you that man was bad news.”
I shove the back door open and race into the yard. My Mum is at the bottom of the hole. Her neck is bent in a funny way. “Mum!” I shout again.
Colin appears from nowhere, looks at Mum’s body, looks at me, shakes his head and then gives me another not very nice smile. He starts to fill the grave in, dark brown soil dirtying my Mum’s white blouse.
“Come on, darling, let’s go inside.”
“But Mum!” I point at the hole, tears pouring down my face.
“Oh, sweetie. Your Mum’s funeral was hard on you, I know. I heard you talking to her last night like she was really in the room.” I stare into her face and begin to remember what I’m trying so hard to forget. “But she’ll always be with you, in here and in here.” Gran taps at my head and my heart. Her fingertip feels like leather. “Maybe you shouldn’t be visiting the churchyard so often. I know how much you miss her, but your Mum wouldn’t want you to spend all your time there.”
She pulls a tissue from her pocket and tries to wipe away my tears. As she does it, I see that there is no hole, there is no Colin and there is no Mum. Then I start sobbing again, harder than before.
My shoulders wobble from all the crying. Gran hugs me to her tummy. Spangles the toy penguin drops from my hand onto the grass.