Joanna was the first person I knew who actually died...

home life

It's hot - too hot to breathe or think or move - and I am sitting in an orchard talking to my friend Joanna. Apples and damsons hang, sticky and pungent, insects crackle and dither. Deep in the long grass, a tap hisses.

Joanna and I sit on the old swing. Well, a metal frame with two swings and a seesaw in the middle. The red paint has peeled and is scabbed with rust. The faded vinyl seat coverings puke yellowed foam. One of the feet is not pegged into the ground - swing properly and the whole thing judders, threatens to uproot.

Joanna is 36. We are 36. The swing is 36. To have come this far, we tell each other - would tell each other.

When Joanna was eight, her hair was so perfectly white her parents could find her at a glance in a crowd. Willing puberty to hit her, Joanna achieved breasts before I did; impressive pads of fat which bounced beneath her nipples when she jumped on the tumble-twist mat after a bath. Now Joanna's hair has darkened and demystified. Her breasts have fed two, maybe three babies (what would Joanna call her babies? Jessie? Oliver?) and, under her sleeveless, linen top, are not noticeably bigger than mine.

The tap hisses.

"Hot." Joanna blows a wisp of hair off her mouth. She gave up smoking a year ago. She's a vegetarian. She chews menthol gum, picks at her cuticles, worries away about the size of school classes, the size of her mortgage, her bum, her thighs.

Wasps are crawling in and out of a fallen damson, its flesh bite gapes. "Look at them," she says, "going at it."

The tap hisses. I consider Joanna's dirty, long-nailed big toe in its cream and blue rubber flip-flop. Flip-flop? Would she really still be wearing flip-flops at 36?

"Forget clothes," Jonathan interrupts. "You can fill all that in later. This woman's crying out for a dialogue - look at her, she's doing nothing, saying nothing."

"I find it difficult," I counter, "to know what she's saying."

"Give her an agenda."

"It's all very well for you."

"Stop trying to make it easy for yourself. Characters don't just sit and swing - they're angry, they're jealous, they want a screw, they want a new car. Cut to the chase."

Yes, but how do you bring someone back to life? When I was 13, Joanna frightened me. "Come up the stairs," she murmured. "And on the ninth step you'll feel something. I swear it."

"The ninth? What sort of something?"

She lit a joss-stick and grinned, showing the serrated edge of the new, big front tooth which was growing down to meet the other. The air filled with sandalwood. "Ninth step. Chicken are you?"

I reached the eighth. Joanna was on her haunches at the top. I could see the black gap between her thighs, the red Biro heart on her knee. I shut my eyes. As I lifted my foot to the ninth step, something soft brushed my neck and there was a low gasp of male laughter in my ear. I fell.

"A person died in this house," Joanna announced when we'd both been told off - her more than me because I was The Guest.

"How do you know?"

"Spirits came and told me."

She was lying, of course. She learned to lie at boarding school, where survival depends on what you can make others believe. She's lying now. The tap is hissing and she's telling me lies to get me on her side. "I envied you," she says, cocking her head, narrowing her eyes, "because you did well at school and your parents were divorced."

"Hang on," says Jonathan, "I thought you said her parents got divorced at the same time as yours? And what's all this about the tap? Get real. If it had been hissing all this time, you'd be knee deep in water by now."

"You're so literal," I protest, "I like the idea. It sounds good. It's the sound of Joanna's and my childhood."

"Where is this orchard, anyway? Talk about overworked cliches: middle- class rural idyll. Come back Virginia Woolf, all is forgiven. Next thing there'll be a quote from Plath at the top."

"OK, I made the orchard up."

"No, really?"

"And it's Joanna, the one who died. She died when she was 15."

"Right, now we've got something happening. Being dead for 21 years is what I call an agenda."

"I don't want to get into that. I want to imagine her now, a grown-up."

Joanna and me in the orchard, a place of hissing water and heat and shadow and damsons with their hearts chewed out. Joanna was the first person I knew who actually died, except for our family doctor. But that wasn't the same. He wasn't real. I didn't know his skin grain or his secrets like I knew Joanna's.

Occasionally, if you hold your breath and half close your eyes, you can almost convince yourself you've written someone back. The right words can begin to make them seem quite rounded, almost whole. "Don't you think?" I ask Jonathan, knowing I'll get a lower second, at best.

A wasp is fussing at the window in my study, mouthing up the glass and then down again, bumping on the sill. "Anyway, you're breaking your own rule," - he's enjoying this - "you're writing about writing. Worse, you're writing about being a writer. I told you that's why Karaoke was so dull."

"Hmm. I'll start again then."

I am sitting in an orchard talking to my friend. Let's give her a new name ... Anna?

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