From my window I see my son playing in the garden. He will be six tomorrow and for his birthday treat he has asked to go to McDonalds. He wants to take two school friends, Thomas and Graham – but he also wants Billy to come too. Billy is his imaginary friend, a friend who has caused nothing but trouble since his first appearance six months ago.
My wife tells me not to worry, that it’s just a phase young children go through, perfectly normal in fact. My parents even reminded me I’d had an invisible friend when I was Mikey’s age who, by coincidence, was also called Billy. At first I couldn’t remember anything about this, until last Sunday when, watching Mikey, just as I am now, but instead of seeing my son I saw myself with another little boy dressed in clothes which looked as though he’d walked straight out of Oliver Twist. We were throwing stones to knock down a tower of old cans and the other boy missed the cans completely, instead smashing the window in my father’s shed. My parents had been furious, I told them it wasn’t me. It was Billy, but they said they didn’t believe me, they said they couldn’t see him. When I looked around, I couldn’t see him either, he’d vanished.
When I saw him again, I was still angry.
“Go away!” I shouted. “Go away and leave me alone! I don’t want to play with you anymore.”
Billy glared at me. “I won’t come back, you know. You won’t ever see me again.”
“Fine,” I retorted and turned my back on him. He was right. I never did see him again and a few months later, we moved house, which wiped all thoughts of Billy from my mind.
Now history seemed to be repeating itself.
I refocus on the garden. A movement has caught my eye. Looking closer, I can make out a tower of cans and then, through the open door, I hear a crash. Running down the path, I see the smashed window of my shed. Mikey is standing there, red-faced and trying not to cry.
“It wasn’t me, Billy did it!” he blurts out.
He looks so miserable, I don’t have the heart to scold him.
“Hmm. Come on, let’s get you cleaned up and then we can have a little chat about your friend Billy.”
I give him a hug and carry him back into the house on my shoulders, jogging along so he can pretend he is riding a horse. The distraction is enough to stop him from wondering why I’m not angry with him. Too many memories are crowding in for me to consider punishing my son.
At this point, my mother arrives to join us for tea.
“Hello, you two. How about a hug then?”
I deliver Mikey into her embrace.
“Your hands are filthy, Michael, what have you been up to?”
“Playing in the garden,” he says, then adds, “Billy broke Daddy’s shed window. Not me.”
Mum looks across at me, a slight smile appearing. She sends Mikey upstairs to wash his hands.
“Well, isn’t that a coincidence, love?”
I nod uncertainly. “I suppose so, it just all seems a bit … odd.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t worry, Simon, there’s a perfectly logical explanation for all this. I mean it’s not as if Billy’s come back to haunt you, is it?”
“Hasn’t he?” I ask, as a completely stupid, and totally unlikely, idea begins to form in my mind. I decide to test my theory, as Mikey reappears in the kitchen.
“Mikey, where’s Billy now?”
“Don’t know, he disappeared when he heard you coming but he’s probably still out in the garden. He likes Cheese and Crackers.”
Cheese and Crackers are our rabbits, so I head warily down to their hutch.
“Hello Simon, it’s been a long time.”
The voice came from behind the apple tree, as a figure emerged from the shadows. It was Billy, my Billy. My stupid idea suddenly becomes a bizarre reality.
“You’ve come back.”
“I’ve never really been away. I just wanted someone to play with – like we used to. I get a bit lonely.” He is looking sorry for himself. Then he notices my mother coming down the path.
“Kate!” Billy greets her as though he’s found a long-lost friend.
“Hello, Billy, I wondered when you’d come back,” Mum says, totally composed.
Billy just grins.
“Ah, a complete set!” he exclaims as Mikey peers out from behind my mother’s legs. “Anyone for Hide and Seek?”
“Mum,” I interrupt. “I think perhaps an explanation …?”
She looks at me as though she’s forgotten I’m there.
“Oh, oh dear, yes, I suppose I should explain. This um, this . . . er . . . is Billy.”
“We know that, Nan,” says Mikey.
“Your … um … great-great-great-great-uncle Billy to be precise.”
“Oh,” we both say.
Mikey is a bit more enthusiastic. “Wow, Nan, a ghost! Billy’s a real live ghost?”
“More dead than alive, but yes, you could call me a ghost,” says Billy smiling. “Trouble is only members of our family can see me and it’s been pretty lonely down the centuries. I had to disappear when our games went wrong. I didn’t like leaving either of you to face the music – honest.”
Somehow I don’t quite believe that but I let it pass.
“I’m sorry, Simon,” says my mother. “I just didn’t know how to explain it to you and when he disappeared, I didn’t have to.”
She then proceeds to tell me how Billy had always appeared to the younger members of the McKenzie family. Each successive generation of parents had simply adopted the ‘he’s just an invisible friend’ approach and waited until he disappeared, which he did when he caused a bit too much trouble. At some point, usually when the child became a parent, the grandparents would tell Billy’s story. Needless to say they were never believed until he turned up.
“And now he’s back. I don’t want to seem rude, but isn’t there a place of eternal rest ghosts are supposed to go to?” I ask Billy, unable to believe I am even asking this.
“Yes, but I don’t want to go. I want to stay in your world, it’s more fun.”
Fun for him, I think, but trouble and inconvenience, not to mention odd looks, for everyone else.
“We could get a priest in,” I muse aloud, rather enjoying Billy’s terrified look.
“Dad, why can’t Billy stay?” asks Mikey, who’s forgotten it is Billy who always gets him into trouble.
I am surprised how normal it feels as we all stand around rationally discussing the problem, fully accepting of Billy’s presence. “He causes mischief,” was all I can say and even that’s unconvincing. For my old feelings of friendship and memories of the games we played are returning.
“He can be fun though,” says Mikey.
“True,” says Mum, smiling at her own memories. “We did have some good times and I know you did, Simon.”
She looks me directly in the eye and I know I can’t argue with that.
“I wouldn’t be any trouble and it’s time I settled down instead of flitting between every branch and twig of the McKenzie family,” says Billy. “And I’d always be here to look over Mikey and his children and his children’s children. An eternal babysitter, for free.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I say, not liking the sound of where this is going.
“A trial period,” announces my mother. “If Billy promises to behave, obey our house rules, he can live in the attic. We can make it nice and cosy for him.”
“Mum, he’s a ghost! He doesn’t need somewhere nice and cosy.”
My protests fall on deaf ears and that’s how I come to have a genuine, honest-to-goodness, ghost living in my house. I do draw the line at taking Billy to McDonalds for Mikey’s birthday treat but we let him help blow out the candles on the cake back at the house.