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Interludes: "Excuse me,'' I said...

Do you encounter ghosts in the supermarket? Sylvia West has cause to wonder.

Here she comes again, I thought.

“Excuse me,” I said,” are you a ghost?”

I didn’t say it out loud, of course, only to myself. I had seen this woman several times in the supermarket, slowly steering her empty trolley along the aisles. Today, there were three or four items in one corner. She was like no-one else I had ever seen; such a strange, lost expression in her dark eyes that I looked at her to smile. I did smile, a little one, but there was no response, just a look of non-recognition, of fear, almost, so I left it as a half-smile and moved on.

We passed each other twice more as we rounded corners and moved out of “cereals and tinned fruit” and into “eggs and baking”, and the last time I saw her she was standing still, transfixed by the sight of yoghurts and cool desserts. It didn’t seem to be a case of “what shall I buy?”, but rather “what on earth is all this?"

Why should I want to ask her whether or not she was a ghost, you say. A short time ago, I heard a man on a television programme say that he was an exorcist; a fully employed, busy man whose job it was to cast out, to expel evil or misguided spirits who hadn’t realised that they were supposed to have passed over, to have gone for good. He was a pleasant, serious man, in appearance a possible estate agent or bank clerk, and he was completely credible, a quality that must have been appreciated by his publisher because he had written a book on the subject.

One of the interviewers, obviously primed about a thing or two, said, “I understand you know how to recognise a ghost.”

It required confirmation, not an answer. The man’s reply immediately rang a bell in my memory bank, for he said
“Yes, indeed, you can recognise them by their hair.”

”How do you mean?” said the interviewer, and he replied that they always have hair which looks old-fashioned, or as if it hadn’t been attended to in a long time.

What a strange description, - “unattended hair”. I’m sure he didn’t mean not combed, not brushed, not washed, for even today’s often bizarre hair fashions have to receive careful attention.

Now I come back to my lady silently making her way along the supermarket aisles, bewilderment personified. She is thin and brown, everything about her is small, and her clothes are an odd unmatching collection of greys and faded blues. I see wonderful jewelled rings on her hands, she wears ear-rings too, but over-riding everything is her hair. It is brown hair with no hint of grey, and her lined and ancient face is framed by a birdsnest of indescribable complexity. It isn’t curly, it goes up and out like an abandoned roll of rusty barbed wire. The bramble hedge that imprisons “Sleeping Beauty” in her castle, comes to mind, and an Inca burial site at the top of a mountain. When the long lost mummy is finally revealed and lifted from the tomb, this is how the hair will be: dishevelled and dull, and long, long unattended.

Now I am sure. I have convinced myself that my unsmiling lady of the aisle must be a ghost. I shall see her again, without a doubt. What shall I do? Shall I try another smile? I’ve not decided yet, but to myself you know what I shall want to say.

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