Authors: Graham Joyce
Some Kind of Fairy Tale
The Silent Land
How to Make Friends with Demons
The Limits of Enchantment
Tales for a Dark Evening
The Facts of Life
The Tooth Fairy
House of Lost Dreams
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Graham Joyce
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York. Originally published in Great Britain, in slightly different form, as
The Year of the Ladybird
by Gollancz, an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group, a Hachette UK Company, London, in 2013.
DOUBLEDAY and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
Jacket design by Emily Mahon
Jacket photograph © Capturework/Millennium Images, UK
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Joyce, Graham, 1954–
The ghost in the electric blue suit/Graham Joyce—First edition.
1. College students—Fiction. 2. Family secrets—Fiction. I. Title.
ISBN 978-0-385-53863-3 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-0-385-53864-0 (eBook)
To my son, Joe, who inspires me to do better
LEND THEM NO MONEY, BUY THEM NO BEER
It was 1976 and the hottest summer in living memory. The reservoirs were cracked and dry; some of the towns were restricted to water from standpipes; crops were failing in the fields. England was a country innocent of all such extremity. I was nineteen and had just finished my first year at college.
Broke and with time on my hands, I needed a summer job. Looking for a way out from the plans my stepdad had made for me, I got an interview at a holiday resort on the east coast. Skegness, celebrated for that jolly fisherman in gum boots and a sou’wester gamely making headway against a seaward gale:
It’s so bracing!
But when I arrived in Skegness there wasn’t a breath of wind, not even a sigh. The train rumbled in on hot iron tracks, decanted me and a few others onto the platform, and wheezed out again. The dirty Victorian red brick of the station seemed brittle, powdery. Flowers potted along the platform wilted and the grubby paintwork was cracked and peeled. I took a double-decker bus—mercifully open-topped—and
asked the driver to drop me at the resort. He forgot and had to stop the bus and come up the stairs to tell me he’d passed it by. I had to backpack it a quarter of a mile, all in the shimmering heat. I followed the wire-mesh perimeter of the site with its neat rows of chalets and the seagull-like cries of the holidaymakers.
I thought I might get a job as a kitchen porter or as a white-jacketed waiter bowling soup plates at the holidaymakers. Any job at all, just so long as I didn’t have to go home. The manager in charge of recruitment—a dapper figure in a blue blazer and sporting a tiny pencil mustache—didn’t seem too interested. He was preoccupied with sprinkling bread crumbs on the corner of his desk. As I waited to be interviewed a sparrow fluttered in through the open window, picked up a crumb in its beak, and flew out again.
“That’s amazing,” I said.
No eye contact. “Tell me a bit about yourself.”
I colored. “Well, I’m studying to be a teacher, so I’m good with children.”
One of his eyebrows raised a notch. Encouraged, I added: “Actually I like children. And I can play a few chords. On the guitar.”
The first bit was true but the thing about the guitar was a good stretch. I mean I knew the rough finger positions for the E, the A, and the C chords. Go and form a band, as they said at the time. The sparrow winged in again, picked up more bread crumbs, and fluttered out.
“What’s your name again?”
“David,” he said at last. “Find your way over to the laundry
room and tell Dot to kit you out as a Greencoat. Then report to Pinky. He’s our entertainments manager, you know. He has an office behind the theater. You know where the theater is, don’t you?”
I’d stuck in my thumb and pulled out a plumb. It was early June and the temperature was already soaring into the high eighties. The kitchen was a sweat at any time. A Greencoat’s job, on the other hand, had to be the prized option. I didn’t know too much about it but I guessed you organized the Bathing Belle Parade beside the swimming pool; you got to walk around in the fresh air and fraternize with the holidaymakers.
To get to the laundry room I had to pass between a little white caravan and a beautifully kempt bowling green. Despite the drought regulations a sprinkler ticked away, keeping the grass green. Outside the caravan was a professionally painted billboard with a picture of an open palm bearing occult lines and numbers. The billboard advertised the services of one Madame Rosa,
AS SEEN ON TV
, palmist and fortune-teller to the stars. I didn’t think I’d ever seen anyone called Madame Rosa on TV.
But the carnival stopped there, and the laundry room was a soulless breeze-block construction behind the offices where Dot, a stressed and rather grouchy woman with gray roots under her thinning bleached hair, toiled away in clouds of billowing steam. I interrupted her in the act of pressing shirts with an industrial iron. I smiled and let her know I needed kitting out as a Greencoat.
“You?” she said.
Maybe I blinked.
She seemed to be able to focus one eye on me while keeping the other eye on her work. “You could cut your hair and smarten yourself up a bit.”
I bit my lip as she unearthed a set of whites for me—trousers and shirts—plus a green sweater and a loud blazer candy-striped green, white, and red. She dumped them on the counter.
The sizes were all hopelessly wrong, and I protested.
“Yeh, you tell ’em,” she said, turning back to her labors with the iron. The contraption made a huge hiss and she retreated into her cave behind a cloud of steam.
Clutching my new clothes, I was directed to the staff chalets. I say chalets, with its suggestion of delightful beachside cabins, but they were just a row of shaky plasterboard rabbit hutches with a communal shower and toilets. It was all pretty basic. Each “room” had just enough space for two narrow cots, with a gap of about eighteen inches between them, and a pair of miraculously slim wardrobes.
But I was happy to be by the seaside. It meant I didn’t have to work with my stepdad. It was a job. It paid cash, folding.
One of the beds was unmade and a couple of shirts hung on wire hangers in its frail partner wardrobe. It seemed I had a roommate, but aside from a whiff of stale tobacco there were few clues to give me any hint about his character. I unpacked my few belongings and changed into the whites I’d been given.
The trousers were baggy at the waist and long in the leg, the shirts at least one collar size too big. I had a sewing kit in my bag, something I thought I’d never need, so I turned
up the trouser cuffs to shorten them, and though I didn’t make a great job of the sewing, the cuffs stayed up. It left me baggy in the crotch but I had a good belt to keep my trousers aloft. At least the candy-striped blazer was a rough fit. I gave myself the once-over in the mirror on the reverse of the door. I looked like a clown. I tried out a show-bizzy greeting smile in the mirror. I scared myself with it.
I’d been told to meet Pinky in the theater. I passed through an impressive front of house built to emulate a West End playhouse, with a plush foyer of red velvet fabrics and golden ropes. Billboards proclaimed a range of theater acts with gilt-framed professional black-and-white head shots. One giant picture showed a wild-eyed man called
in a tasseled red fez pointing his fingers at the camera in mesmeric fashion. His eyes followed me as I passed through giant doors leading into a hushed auditorium. I made my way down past the shadowed rows of red velvet seats to the front of the stage where I could see a small light illuminating an old-style Wurlitzer organ. The organist was studying some music scores while a second man in a blue-and-yellow-checked jacket looked on with a doleful expression.
The heyday of the British holiday resorts had slipped. The age of cheap flights had arrived and holidays in the guaranteed sunshine of the Costa Brava had dented the industrial fortnight supremacy. It all felt time-locked. The doleful man glanced up at me as I proceeded down the aisle, and I felt he, too, was time-locked, maybe in the 1950s. His hair was pressed into a permanent wave that had crawled to the top of his forehead before taking a look over the edge and deciding to go no farther. He held an unlit cigar between his fingers
and his eyebrows were perpetually arched, as if he were so often surprised by life that he had decided to save himself the energy of frequently raising and lowering them. “Let’s have a look at you then,” he said.