"To think, one day I'll be joining them," said Mum, at the funeral of one of her many aunts. It freaked out me and Kate, my sister. But Mum didn't seem upset, like it would be a happy reunion or something. Looking around, Cranbury churchyard was certainly full of Walkers.
"We ought to get some sort of group discount," Kate whispered to me.
The reception was held at Aunt Agatha's as she had the biggest garden. After a couple of hours, Kate and I had had enough, so we went to explore the village. We hadn't been there for ages. We meandered round for about an hour before we made our way back, cutting through the churchyard.
We were like young kids again, letting off steam, running about and leaping out at each other. Of course, Aunt Agatha's sherry might have made us more silly than usual. At fifteen, Kate should have known better. I was only thirteen, so had an excuse.
I'd been hiding behind a particularly impressive tomb. It was like a big chest freezer carved out of stone, with a figure lying on top. "Recumbent," as Kate informed me. The side of the tomb where I was hiding was pressed hard against a yew tree. It smelled a bit disgusting, but I could put up with it until Kate found me.
Crouching there, I could see some carvings on the tomb. Diddy demonic figures with toasting forks, chasing serpents. There was also some writing carved into the stone, which I could only just make out by tracing the letters with my finger. The words weren't English. "Eadem mutata resurgam," they spelled out.
It made no sense, though "mutata" sounded familiar. There was that annoyingly catchy song from The Lion King, "Hakuna Matata," which we had to sing in school. All about being cool and laid back. For someone "recumbent" in a chest freezer, it sounded about right.
Just then, I heard Kate yelling. She'd given up searching. I'd had enough of my smelly hiding place anyway, so, pushing the branches aside, I came round to the sunnier side of the tomb, nearer the path.
"Thought you'd joined our relatives," said Kate, milking our standard joke. "Been getting to know …," she read the name off the tomb, "Ambrose Jeremiah Walker,1796-1849, have we? Must be one of Mum's oldest relatives. Never heard of him before."
I turned to show Kate the cavorting little devils, but there were none on this side. Just a rather clumsy angel on one knee, carrying a shield. I asked Kate about the phrase I'd seen on the other side: "Eadem mutata resurgam."
"No idea," she said.
"I thought you did languages?"
"Not dead ones."
"What's a dead language when it's at home?" I asked. "One spoken by corpses?"
"No, stupid! Latin and Greek. Like this one." She pointed to the phrase inscribed on the angel's shield: "Requiescat in Pace."
"What's that about, then?"
Before she could answer, the vicar, who'd officiated at the burial, went past on his way to the church.
"You perhaps know it better in English," he said. "Rest in Peace: R.I.P."
"Oh, yeah," I smiled, feeling like a simpleton. "What about the words on the dark side?"
"I didn't know there were any," he replied, in his fruity voice.
"Yeah. 'Eadem mutata resurgam'," I said.
"That would mean … something like, 'I shall rise again, the same but changed'," he intoned as he walked away.
I waited till he was out of earshot. "Old Ambrose would certainly need to get changed after all that time among the maggots and worms!" I began waving my arms in the air, mock- attacking Kate.
Walking back to the reception, that earworm of a Disney tune was tunnelling its way through my head. I began singing it to the words on the tomb.
"You sound weird," said Kate. "Are you trying to imitate that plummy-voiced vicar?"
"I used to have a plum in my mouth," I said, "but those stinky worms snaffled it!"
We stayed at the reception until quite late and drank more of Aunt Agatha's sherry. Mum was enjoying a catch-up with her relatives. Even so, Kate and I did manage to ask about Ambrose Jeremiah.
"We don't usually talk about him," Aunt Agatha confided. "Bit of a black sheep."
She told us that he'd once been the vicar in Cranbury but had then gone off to Africa as a missionary. "He returned a changed man," she said. "Lost his faith and developed some strange ideas. He was branded a heretic and I don't think he'd have been buried in the churchyard but for his brother, Simon, who'd given a lot of money to the parish. That tomb of his," she concluded, "was particularly contentious. He'd designed it himself."
Having dispatched the last of the relatives, we cleared up and eventually went to bed. Aunt Agatha was putting us up. I thought I'd sleep like a log after all the food and sherry. But I didn't. For some reason, I dreamt about Ambrose Jeremiah. One of those weird dreams where you don't realise you're asleep.
In the dream, Ambrose has risen from his grave and walks all the way down to Aunt Agatha's. He shuffles up the stairs and into my room. Talk about nightmares! He pushes open the door and, in best zombie style, clatters in, all stiff and scarecrow-like. There's worms and maggots dripping from his nose, like bogies, and crawling through his hair, too. Gross!
But there's worse. He makes his way over to my bed and, as if I'm not there, sits on the edge, then swings round his legs and climbs in. Aaargghh! I couldn't even move. It was one of those dreams where your legs won't work and your tongue's superglued to the roof of your mouth.
I woke in a right sweat. Worst part was, after I'd finally recovered, I dreamt about him again! I didn't share any of this with Kate or Mum, of course, but the following morning, I must have looked shot at. Mum noticed immediately, especially as I seemed to have lost my appetite. She asked if anything was wrong.
I did have a bit of a sore throat, which was painful when I swallowed. It made my voice sound strange.
"It's that plummy worm again," joked Kate.
"Really!" said Mum.
Normally, I'd have laughed, but the memory of Ambrose's leering face froze me.
When we got back home, about three hours away, I went straight to bed. I still felt lousy and my throat was swollen. I slept, but erratically, for disgusting old Ambrose kept appearing. It was as if he'd hitched a ride.
The dreams went on, night after night. Revolting! Ambrose, dragging his Worzel Gummidge bones into my room and clambering into bed alongside me, as though he belonged there. He stank of muck and decay, but that didn't bother him. He just pushed himself up against me. I could feel his scrawny frame – knobbly knees and scraggy hips – hard against my back. Even though he'd been dead for centuries, he felt solid enough.
At first, I woke every time he started pushing against me. Was I going to be … well, assaulted … raped? Not just by a dirty old man, either, but a dirty deceased old man — possibly diseased, too! It was too gross to contemplate. After several nights, though, the dreams no longer woke me. I think I'd realised he wasn't actually going to "penetrate" me or anything disgusting like that, despite the repulsive grunts and groans close to my ear. It was more as though he was trying to invade me, to squeeze his body into mine.
It was not something I could share with Mum or Kate, either, although I did ask my sister whether she'd had any weird dreams since our return from Cranbury. All I got was a blank look. Not that I'd wish bog-breath on anybody else.
If I could've pointed to some physical evidence, it might have been different. A few straggly white hairs of his, perhaps, or some scaly skin. But no. No one noticed anything. It was strictly between him and me.
I tried everything to shake him off. I moved my bed across the room, then started sleeping in the spare bedroom. Finally, I decamped to the settee downstairs. Mum thought I was nuts. It didn't work anyway. And why would it? He'd already followed me all the way from Cranbury. What difference would a change of room make?
Eventually Mum took me to the doctor. My neck glands remained swollen and I still had that strange, plummy twang to my voice. The doctor, though, could find little wrong. He put it down to puberty. My voice was breaking, he said, and I ought to try and relax till it settled down. I certainly yodelled a fair bit.
"Quite sexy," said Mum, to cheer me up.
Kate said it sounded as though I'd taken elocution classes. It definitely impressed Miss Waters, our English teacher, who persuaded me to join the drama society. "There's hardly any boys in it," she added, tipping me a wink.
Then other things started happening. My sore throat got better, but it still felt constricted, as though clogged with phlegm. Our doctor got me an appointment with a specialist. But I knew there was more to it than any throat specialist could sort. The muscles of my tongue and mouth would contort themselves in strange ways and, occasionally, I'd blurt out something insulting: "Harlot!" "Blackamoor!" "Nance!" Fortunately, most of these insults were so old-fashioned (I'd had to look them up) that no one took exception. I tried to disguise them with sudden coughing fits, too. It was exhausting, though. Schoolfriends must have thought I had Tourette's or something.
Then my outbursts got more serious. It first happened in a class debate. I not only shouted down Avril Saunders but then disrespected her. In fact, women in general! I told Avril she should know her place; that it was her duty to defer to her superiors, like me! Fortunately, the class laughed. They thought I was being ironic, especially as I said it in that extra-posh voice. But I could tell that many in the class felt intimidated. I apologised to Avril straightaway.
I tried to guard against these outbursts, but it's hard to monitor yourself when you don't know what's coming next. Sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic — you name it, I was there. People began keeping their distance — apart from some English Defence League lads, who suddenly befriended me!
Kate and Mum were really concerned. In fact, I caught Kate going through my search history. She must have thought I was being radicalised or something. Ambros-ised, more like!
I kept my jaws clamped after that, which made me even more anti-social. The throat specialist said I had "elective mutism" and referred me to a psychologist who diagnosed "dissociative episodes." He tried to identify some event that had been traumatic, initially homing in on Dad's departure. And when that didn't fit (the dates were wrong), he suggested that I might have been closer to my recently deceased Aunt Matilda than I'd realised.
By this point I was on the verge of giving in to Ambrose. I'd been prescribed some heavy-duty tranquilisers and I kept to my room, even taking my meals there. Ambrose, I could feel, was getting stronger, cockier.
That's when it dawned on me that it wasn't enough to try and suppress him. The effort was draining me, making me more susceptible to his control. I needed to exorcise him in some way. I needed something like a Harry Potter, "expel-Ambrosius" spell, before he expelled me!
Things came to a head when Mum lost another of her aunts. Aunt Agatha. Our favourite, I guess. Whenever we went back to Mum's village, it was with her that we used to stay. Her death came out of the blue, even though she was in her eighties.
Once again, we set off for Cranbury, but this time stayed at the village pub as Aunt Agatha's house was already up for sale. Mum was really upset and, I guess, very concerned about taking me along. She and Kate were quite aware of the embarrassment I could cause, but I'm so pleased they risked it. Not, I guess, that they really had much option. I don't think I could have been left on my own.
The funeral went without mishap. I was quite relaxed amongst Mum's relatives, always a jolly lot. This time I got talking to Aunt Judy, the youngest of the three aunts. Remembering that I'd been enquiring last time, she volunteered a bit more information about Ambrose.
According to her, Ambrose had attempted to found a new religion. Something about an elect few being reincarnated at some future time, returning to rule the world, overthrowing Christianity and other belief systems. It sounded bizarre and we all laughed, though the noise I made came out more like a wheeze as I felt my throat constricting, courtesy of … guess who?
Aunt Judy also told me more about Ambrose's tomb. Originally it had been designed with the devilish figures running all round it. However, the church had refused to allow such a monstrosity. A new stonemason was engaged. He chipped away the devilish ornamentation from the side on show, replacing it with the kneeling angel. At the insistence of the then vicar, the more lurid side was hidden from sight, and he oversaw the planting of a yew tree to conceal it more thoroughly.
Aunt Judy cheered me up more than I could have hoped. It wasn't so much what she was saying as the effect I could feel her words having on my "guest." Until this point, Ambrose had been relatively quiet, but I could sense his mounting anger and resentment. Fortunately, thanks to my former dealings with him, I had become more skilled in Ambrose management.
Kate, who'd been alongside me, listening to all this (she was my minder), suggested that we return to the graveyard and take another look at his tomb. Before hearing Aunt Judy, it would have been my worst nightmare. But, sensing Ambrose's reluctance, I was energised. If he didn't want to go there, I most certainly did.
Kate and I set off for the churchyard. The closer we came, the more I could sense Ambrose backpedalling. He attempted to immobilise my legs, then abruptly released them, almost causing me to sprawl headlong. He then switched his attack. Suddenly I had to deal with a mouthful of vitriol spewing from my lips. Fortunately, I knew Ambrose's ways by now. My elective mutism prevailed.
We made it to the churchyard. Kate said she wanted to see this "dark side." I'd have been happy for her to do so but for the fact that Ambrose felt likewise. I stepped in front of Kate, blocking her path. I should have said something but my mute guard was still up. Seeing the state I was in, she readily complied.
Why was Ambrose so keen for Kate to see the dark side? Did he hope to ensnare her, too? Or was Ambrose intending to jump ship, from me to her? Or did he simply want to prevent us from taking the main path? I remembered Aunt Judy's words about the alterations to this side of his tomb, where Ambrose's devils had been replaced by the kneeling angel.
As I steered us down the main path, Ambrose's displeasure increased. I felt his bony fingers nipping at my tongue like pincers. Once again, he'd involuntarily given me a sign.
The nearer we came, the more my tongue, like a trapped eel, writhed to be free. I feigned submission until the inscription was in view. Then I shouted out those Latin words, "Requiescat in Pace."
The adrenalin rush was instant. It felt like I'd puked up something disgusting. I even looked around for the mess. Nothing, except for a heady feeling of release.
"There's no need to shout!" Kate was saying.
"Your voice!" said Kate. "It's like it used to be."
I barely heard her. The ground was rising towards me. Kate must have thought I was having a fit of some sort. But I'd never felt better and, after a moment's unconsciousness (so Kate later told me), I was on my feet again.
Kate was eager to get me back to the reception. First, though, I had something else to do. To her disgust, I grabbed handfuls of soil from a nearby mound, no doubt awaiting someone else's interment. Round the back of Ambrose's tomb, I smeared the earth into the grooved letters. Though I wasn't aware at the time, Kate tells me I started singing "Hakuna Matata," but this time sticking to the original words.
"One day," I told Kate as I re-emerged, clarted with mud, "I'll come back with a chisel and do the job properly."
She didn't know what I was on about, but she did know that it was the old me talking. We linked arms and, to the bewilderment of any villagers we encountered, gave that Disney song a truly anthemic outing.