Donna had been the first to notice him. One morning after she had got the kids off to school she was standing at the sink washing the breakfast things. She happened to look out of the window and there he was over by Big O, the huge oak tree that stood in the lambing field. He was leaning against the tree looking down at the farm. It's not as though he shouldn't have been there as public footpaths ran all through their property. Donna liked it that way. In summer she offered homemade lemonade and hot, fresh baking to ramblers. And in winter just seeing the gratitude on their faces when she came out with mugs of thick and creamy homemade soup was payment enough.
There was something a bit disconcerting about this stranger. He didn't have the air of someone just out to enjoy the countryside. Eventually she moved through to the lounge without waving as she normally would and when she looked again a few minutes later he had gone. After that she'd seen him several times. Just standing there against the tree watching.
The last two years had been hard for the Greyson's. Moving to Old Oak Farm had been a dream tree bearing fruit for them. Everything they had ever wanted. Open space, plenty of fresh air for the kid's and partial self-sufficiency for the family. Kenny was an artist and Donna a novelist; they said that their creative differences gave their relationship rocks to spark from. Farming was a terrible life to book into these days, but The Greysons were lucky in that they had two very comfortable sidelines and didn't have to rely on the farm as a sole income. The farm itself was modest; eighty milk cows, two hundred head of mutton and sixty free range hens. Plus several geese, ducks and old Billy the Bull. They had a barley field, one of corn and two of potatoes. Every year one field lay fallow. Life was idyllic and it seemed the sun shone on them every day.
They had only been there three years when tragedy struck. Kenny was out in the fields hay timing. The farmers all worked together to bring the hay in. All the labourers from the surrounding area pulled together until the hay was in on all the local farms. At best they had three weeks to collect and bale it all before it seeded. It was normally a happy time, one of the highlights of farm life. Damned hard work, but work with a party atmosphere as when the sun went down the tent went up and the beer and food flowed. Everybody would sing and dance until they fell into their beds full and exhausted.
Jack from up Smithson's farm had been on the baler. It was a freak accident; somehow Kenny had hit his blindspot and he never saw him until it was too late.
The Greyson's had been townies. Though both Donna and Kenny were brought up on farms as kids, it was one more thing they had in common that made them so compatible. Normally the country folk didn't like the 'outcomers,' but in just three years Kenny, Donna and the kid's had been taken into the hearts of the whole community. It was decreed that although they were still dreaded outcomers, they had the country in their souls so it was all right. All the same, after Kenny's death everybody said that Donna would sell up and go back to town.
The thought never entered her head for a second. This was their home and this is where Kenny was. She felt him close to her. She knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was watching over her. And there was no way she was giving up what Kenny had given his life for. The last two years since his death had not been easy, but Donna and the kid's had discovered the true meaning of friendship. It was public knowledge that Donna gave food and drink to ramblers and refused to take anything for it, saying that she loved the company and just having people visit was payment enough. They ran a small farm shop and gallery and Donna would often give the less well off an extra half pound of bacon or a few free eggs. At Christmas parcels of fresh home produce would mysteriously appear outside the homes of several pensioners who weren't too proud, or would be offended by the gifts. All these kindnesses came back ten-fold after Kenny's death.
Fences would be fixed without Donna even knowing they had been damaged. At dipping time labourers would appear from around and about mob handed to help out. And often on a lonely winters night the door would be knocked in the early evening and Bill Jenks and Carol or Henry and Joan Tyson would be 'int mood fer a bit a comp'ny like'. Life was never the same without Kenny. Never could be, but they learned to be happy again and laughter was never far from Old Oak Farm.
Over a couple of weeks the presence of the watching stranger made Donna edgy and irritable. She never knew when he was going to appear and every time she went out to confront him by the time she'd reached the gate at the end of the orchard he'd gone. Twice she went as far as the bottom path to see which direction he had gone in, but there were several choices of route away from the farm and it seemed he chose a different escape each time.
She mentioned him several times around the village. Good looking strangers tended to stick out like a punk in a monastery, yet nobody seemed to know anything about it. Emily in the post office usually knew everything that was happening within a radius of twenty miles, but knew of nobody local having visitors or of any new tenants. Eventually Donna became so rattled that she had a quiet unofficial word with Jack Gubbins, the local P.C.
"Well lass, its like this tha` sees. If`n `ees done nowt to hacktually bother thee` then ther's nowt ah can do abart it see?" Donna said that she saw.
Jack could see how rattled she was though and knew that her isolation at the farm and the fact that it was just her and the girls now was a great worry. He agreed to patrol the farm as often as he could manage.
"Prob`ly jus` a gadgy down on `is luck, after a bit o work."
Donna refrained from mentioning that at this time of year she had more work than she could shake a mucky stick at and if that was the case all the luckless gadgy had to do was ask. So why didn't he?
Over the next week she saw him three times, on the last occasion the girls were with her. "Who's that man Mum?" asked Alice. She waved over at the man, who raised his arm slightly but didn't wave back.
"Oh he's just a gentleman out for his morning walk love, I think he's enjoying a bit of peace and quiet so we won't bother him today, eh?"
"He's probably shacked up with Paula Jones out on Ringway, she has a new lover every week according to Emma."
"Alice!" admonished her mother in a shocked tone. Her twelve-year-old daughter was rapidly saying goodbye to the little girl she had been. Donna wasn't entirely convinced that her best friend Emma Harrison was a good influence on Alice.
Donna continued to worry about the stranger. He didn't look as though he meant any harm. And he never gave the impression of being a peeping tom or anything sinister. He would just appear at the tree looking down on the farm.
Donna had finished a couple of hours editing. The novel was written, that was the easy bit; now she was belly deep in the more difficult part of being a writer. The clean-up operation. The savagely cutting a third of the blood, sweat, and tear words that she had worked so hard to produce. The painstakingly rereading aloud every word to see if it could be improved on. Checking for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Writing a novel was fun. Preparing it for publication was sheer back breaking toil. And pleasing her surly faced editor was nigh on impossible. She was done for the night. File/save as/save. Now she could shut down the computer and go to bed.
"What the hell?" She thought. A chat box had suddenly opened on her computer, yet she was not even online never mind actually logged into a chat room. The cursor was flashing.
"Hello Donna." Now she was seriously worried. There must be something drastically wrong with her computer. What was happening seemed to be impossible and yet it was happening, so there must be some technical explanation for it.
"Hello." Waiting, cursor flashing, as though impatient for her to answer.
With a feeling of total surrealism Donna typed, "Hello" and return.
"Thank-you. I'm so happy to have been able to make contact at last." This came back almost instantly.
"What's happening?" Return. "Who are you?" Return.
Donna typed these messages and waited for an answer. The reply was a little longer coming this time.
"This is difficult for me, both mentally and morally. I have to convince you of something and I don't know if I have the words or the strength to do it. I may not be able to maintain this line of communication. If I lose you I will try again at another time."
Donna was about to reply when the mystery messenger continued.
"Let me try and explain my self."
"I wish you would," Donna interrupted. "I don't know what the hell's going on and I don't much like it. Who are you?"
"My name is Tony Allonby and I am currently a patient in room 243 of St Mary's hospital trauma unit. I am dying." Return. Pause.
Instantly Donna's good nature and sense of humanity kicked in, though at the back of her mind the thought that this man may not be who he said he was prevailed. This was becoming more bizarre by the second.
"Oh I'm so sorry. That must be terrible for both you and the people you care about."
"Yes it is, but that's not why I'm making contact with you. Well it is part of the reason. I have a message for you."
'Oh, Oh,' thought Donna. At this point the label 'religious freak' was flashing on and off in her mind like a cursor. Tony, or whoever he was continued.
"I am in a place where I come into contact with other people. Please Donna don't write me off as a nut, bear with me until I have finished. What I am about to tell you is very important." Return. Pause.
"Go on. I'm playing. :) " typed Donna. The next message that came on the screen caused Donna's blood to freeze in her veins.
"I have a message from Kenny."
Six little words that caused her internal organs to contract so painfully that she felt sure her heart had stopped beating. She sat immobile staring at the six words and the flashing cursor on the screen.
Her first emotion was one of pain, just seeing Kenny's name written down caused her pain. The emotion that flowed hot on the heels of the pain though was one of intense burning, white hot 'I'm-gonna-kill-you-you-son-of-a-bitch' anger. She was so incensed that she couldn't think straight. Couldn't at first formulate the words to tell this sick moron just how cruel and heartless he was being. And then rationality kicked in. She knew that she wouldn't be able to convince this person that what he was doing was wrong. Obviously to this hacker or whatever, it was a bit of fun. A laugh at someone else's expense. She wasn't even going to grace him with an answer. She made the decision to go to the police the next day.
She reached forward and with a stab of aggression turned the computer off without shutting down. The screen went black and the fan took three seconds to wear down. Then silent blackness soothed her. She leaned back into her chair and for the first time in over a minute let the breath exhale from her body. She felt herself relaxing and could almost hear Kenny's voice saying, "Take no notice doll, he's a dickhead." She even managed a weak smile at the thought.
The computer turned itself on. Without any outside interference the computer had animated itself and the words on the screen danced in front of her eyes. The entire screen was filled with the words 'Trust me,' repeated over and over again.
There had been no message saying 'Your computer was not properly shut down.' There was no start up procedure. Just the opened screen with the words trust me.
"LEAVE ME ALONE" typed Donna. Then she leaned forward and turned off the computer.
The computer turned itself on. This time it said, "You must listen to me. I mean you no harm."
The next words to appear on the screen drove the breath from Donna's body as surely as a punch to the stomach could have done. Nothing until this moment had struck her as supernatural, only mechanically odd. The words that appeared on her screen turned her world on its head.
"Kenny told me to tell you that you've got the country in your soul and that you are his rock to spark against." Nobody but Kenny could have said those words. Nobody but Kenny could know how much they meant to her.
Donna had no idea what was going on, but this man knew something that only she and Kenny knew. Something that had been private between them. She was ready to listen to him. Tears were coursing down her cheeks and a ball of excitement rolled in her gut.
"Go on." she typed.
The words began to appear. Quickly and yet with short pauses as though the typist was thinking of the best way to formulate his words. "My name is Tony Allonby Three years ago I was in a head on collision with another motorist. I was on a motor-bike and it's a miracle my head did stay on. Since that day I have lain in St. Mary's hospital in PVS. I will not recover."
Donna interrupted "What's PVS?"
"Sorry Donna. Permanent Vegatative State. A very deep coma."
This was beyond belief. Donna was becoming suspicious again.
"That is ridiculous. I don't believe you. How do you manage to use the computer?"
"Please Donna this is difficult and I don't know how long I can maintain this level of brain activity. Please let me finish and then you can ask anything you like."
As much as words on a screen could, this mans words seemed sincere. She bit down on her impatience and watched the man's thoughts come through at their own pace without interruption other than a "K" to let him know she was reading him.
"Some of the time my brain is connected to my body in the hospital. I am aware of things, can hear things. My parents sit by my bed talking to me constantly, but I have no way of letting them know that I'm still there. And then other times I'm not there. I'm in a place that is best described as neither here nor there. It is a place where souls go to come to terms with the fact that they are timeless. A no-man's land between this world and the next. Catholics call it purgatory. I call it hell."
"I know there is a better place beyond. Somewhere that I belong. My parents won't let me go. Refuse to sign the consent form. If only they knew." No more words appeared on the screen.
"Tony? Are you still there?"
"Yes Donna I'm here but I'm weakening. I want you to help me, but I made a promise to Kenny. I need to tell you about that first. I met Kenny in this place that I talk about. Don't worry he has moved on now, he is at peace. He talked about you Donna and the girls all the time. Told me how much he loved you. How much the farm meant to you both. How proud he is of you for not selling up and moving back to town. He wants me to tell you that he loves you and that he is all right. There is more than this life. Kenny said you talked about the afterlife. He wanted you to know that there is more than this."
Donna remembered the times they had talked about death. They had made a pledge that whichever one went first, they would try to get back to the other with proof of afterlife.
"Can I talk to him?"
"No love he has moved on now this was the only way. I tried so hard to make contact. I know you saw me. I tried to wave tried to get you to come to me, tried to talk to you, but I only had enough energy to give myself form. I couldn't remain visible for more than a few minutes each time."
"The man by the tree?" Typed Donna.
"Yes. I didn't want to frighten you but I desperately wanted to get through."
"Can you appear to me now? I want to see you. You are my only link to Kenny. I need to see you."
"I'll try when we finish talking, this is more important. I have kept my promise to Ken, now I'm hoping that you will return the favour and help me. I need you to talk to my parents. I don't care what you say but you must persuade them to turn off my life support. It's time for me to move on. When we are finished talking, you can recover this conversation from your computer memory give it to them to read."
"I love you Mum, Dad, John, Stella, Davey. I know this is going to be hard for you but it's the right time. Mum remember when we baked that cake for Dad and burned it and then had to run out and buy one. You never did find out did you Dad? And Dad, we went fishing down at parker's pond and you told me that's where you fell in love with Mum. Stella you have got a lovely voice I didn't mean it when I said you were crap. I used to sit across the hall from your room and listen to you singing 'The uninvited guest' by the Carpenters. It was your favourite song and you sing it beautifully. John and Davey, we have too many shared memories to single out any particular one. Too many things we wouldn't want the folks to know eh? :) I just want to say something that brothers don't say to each other enough. I love you guys. I heard you both say it to me when you have sat alone by my bedside."
"I'm going now Donna I'm getting weak and I have a brief guest appearance to make. :) Kenny loves you and so do I. I know you'll help me, because Ken told me so much about you that I know you like my sister. Take care of the girls, I know you will. Goodbye. xxx"
The screen turned itself off.
Donna didn't know who she was sobbing for the hardest. Her own family or the family that had just blown through her computer like a force ten gale. Probably both.
"Hey Dry those eyes sis."
The words were soft if she had been crying any louder she might not have heard them. She turned slowly in the swivel chair.
He was there in front of her as she turned. She could see his smile. He was close enough to touch. She put out her hand to the space that he didn't quite occupy. He was barely there and already he was fading.
"Tell Kenny I love him." she cried.
"I don't need to. He knows."
"Not goodbye. Au revoir, I'll see you at the hospital tomorrow. My family will love you."
"I'll be there Tony."
The whispered Thank-you was so soft that she had to strain to hear it. And then he was gone.