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Authors: John Harwood

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Horror, #Ghost

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BOOK: The Ghost Writer
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My outdoor life was almost as constrained as hers, bounded by my mother's pathological dread of what would happen to me if I strayed from the narrow path that led from home to school (and post office) and back. But now that I had Alice, I no longer felt confined: gazing out of my own window, I would find myself staring through, rather than at, the rusty metal cladding of Mr Drukowicz's massive shed, to the woods and meadows of—as I would often catch myself imagining—Staplefield.

B
UT OF COURSE
I
BEGAN TO WANT MORE, MUCH MORE: TO
see Alice, to hear her voice, to hold her. I told her that I prayed every day (even though I didn't think I really believed in God) that her spine would heal or that the doctors would find a cure. 'I'm glad you do,' she replied, 'but I mustn't think about it. They told me I'll never walk again, and I've accepted that.' So I went on praying, and didn't mention it again. I would happily have spent my life savings on one short phone call, but she wouldn't allow that either. She didn't—at first—encourage any endearments or professions of love from me beyond 'Dear Alice' and 'Love, Gerard', and yet she told me, in almost every letter, that I was the closest, most important person in her life.

She did, however, keep her promise to answer honestly anything I asked about her appearance, even though she said it embarrassed her and she was very much afraid I'd think her vain. She admitted that her hair was long, and curly (she called it frizzy), and thick, and 'a sort of reddy-chestnut-brown colour', that she had very pale skin, dark brown eyes, and 'a nose that's really straight but looks as if it's just a little bit turned-up'. And though I'd been too shy to ask, she volunteered, 'just to get it over with', that her legs were quite long—and her waist quite small, 'and otherwise I suppose people would say I was quite well-developed for my age, and now I've embarrassed myself quite enough for one letter, my face is burning and I'm not saying any more'.

In other words, she looked like a goddess. A goddess who mostly wore jeans and T-shirts but sometimes, just for a change, put on one of her long dresses, 'like the one I'm wearing today, which is white and musliny and gathered at the waist, with small purple flowers embroidered over the bodice'. Apart from the obvious fact that she was stunningly beautiful, I learned, from her letters, the impossibility of capturing an individual face in words alone. My imagination of her remained both painfully vivid and tantalisingly blurred.

Then one lunch hour in the school library I found a book of paintings, mostly black and white but with a section of colour plates in the middle. They'd only just catalogued it, so the women in the pictures hadn't yet been equipped with beards, moustaches, monstrous breasts and grotesque genitals in livid Texta-Colour—you weren't allowed to borrow the art books, but that didn't save them. I turned over
The Last of England
and there was
The Lady of Shalott,
at whom I gazed, transfixed, for many minutes: this was surely Alice.

Before the afternoon bell rang I had discovered the Pre-Raphaelites, and found at least a dozen more Alices. She seemed to have modelled for the entire Brotherhood, but they weren't all equally good at painting her. Rossetti could do her hair, but he'd given her a mean mouth; Burne-Jones could do her face very well, but the hair wasn't quite right, and besides he'd painted her naked, emerging from a tree, for some reason, with her arms around an almost equally naked youth: I only dared glance at that one and pass hastily on, afraid that Mrs McKenzie the librarian would catch me. Millais's
The Bridesmaid
was close, but I kept turning back to
The Lady of Shalott,
and thinking that if only she could manage to look a little less tragic, the likeness would be perfect.

I told Alice that same night, and when at last her reply came it turned out that she already knew the picture, and yes, she supposed she did look a bit like the Lady of Shalott, except that she thought her hair was darker than the Lady's, and of course the Lady was much better-looking; whereas I felt certain the comparison was quite the other way round. I invested most of my savings in a book of Waterhouse's pictures, which I managed to smuggle home after one of our rare trips to Mawson Central Shopping Mall. Sex was not merely a taboo subject in our house; we had always lived according to the pretence—made possible by the absence of television and magazines—that no such thing existed. And even though Waterhouse's naked nymphs were Art, I knew my mother would not see them that way, any more than I did.

A
ND THEN
I
HAD THE DREAM
. I
T WAS LATE SUMMER, TWO
years since we'd started writing. I woke—or so I thought—in bed in my own room, everything the same except that a full moon was shining through my window. A strange moon, because its light was soft and golden, like candlelight, and warm against my face. An impossible moon, because my window faced south and the sky was blotted out by the side of Mr Drukowicz's shed, but in the dream it seemed absolutely right and natural. I lay there for a little while, feeling the warmth of its rays, until I became aware that the source of the warmth, which was now filling my whole body, was much closer than the moon.

I turned my head on the pillow. Alice lay facing me, smiling the most enchanting smile, a smile of pure joy and tenderness and love. Her head was only a few inches from mine, her red-gold-chestnut hair rippling over the pillow in the candle-moonlight, our bodies not quite touching, and for a small eternity I just lay there, floating in perfect bliss. She did not look exactly like the Lady, or any of the women in the paintings; she was simply Alice, and beautiful, and the warmth of her body flowed into mine as our lips brushed and met and I woke in my wet pyjamas, alone, to the familiar patch of neon from the streetlight spilling across the wall of Mr Drukowicz's shed. It was 1.30 in the morning.

Always before, scrubbing at my pyjamas and sheets by torchlight, I'd felt nothing but shame and dread that this time—for the stains were always horribly visible in the morning—my mother would say something. But that night I went through the routine almost absent-mindedly, praying that I would float straight back into the dream, and Alice radiant beside me.

Instead I lay sleepless for a long time, struggling in vain to recapture her face as I had seen it, the glow fading until there were only the faces from the paintings left, and I buried my own face in my pillow and wept.

As I was finally drifting in and out of sleep, I had another dream, of myself as a very small child, being read to on my mothers knee, in lamplight on our couch at night. My mother was in her dressing-gown, which made it feel very late, and she was reading from a book with no pictures, a story I didn't understand at all, but I sat listening intently just the same, following the cadences of her voice. I was watching from outside, as if my older self were sitting invisibly on the couch beside them. Then I saw that my mother was crying silently as she read. Tears were streaming down her face and splashing over my pale blue sleeping suit, but she made no attempt to wipe them away; she just went on reading and the tears went on falling until I woke again briefly to find my own pillow still damp from the tears I had shed for Alice.

O
N THE
S
ATURDAY MORNING AFTER THE DREAM
, I
FOUND
myself alone in the house. My father was at a train men's swap meet on the other side of town; my mother had run herself late for the hairdresser. I came out into the hall when I heard the front door slam, and saw that she had—most unusually—left the door to her room open. As I moved closer my gaze fell upon the drawer I had opened on that stifling January afternoon.

My unspoken pact with my mother had kept me away from her room before this. I won't pry into your secrets if you don't pry into mine. But the door was open, and Alice was so fascinated by Staplefield, and Viola, and anything I could remember about the photograph I had found.

The drawer was still locked, and there was no small brass key in any of the obvious places. Then I remembered that the tongue—or whatever the bit that worked the lock was called—had been nothing more than a plain metal tag with a slot cut in the front end of it. So I went around the house collecting and trying keys from other pieces of furniture until I found one that fitted.

The lock clicked over. Kneeling in the half-light, breathing mothballs and insect spray and the faint doggy smell of the carpet, I saw my uneasy reflection staring from the depths of the dressing-table mirror.
Gerard is so like his mother.

The envelope and the photograph had gone. The only thing in the drawer was the book with the faded grey paper cover, mottled with reddish brown spots.
The Chameleon
—I still didn't know what a chameleon was but I recognised the word—A
Review of Arts and Letters.
Volume I, Number 2, June 1898. Edited by Frederick Ravenscroft. Essays by Richard Le Gallienne and G.S. Street. Poems by Victor Plarr, Olive Custance, and Theodore Wratislaw. I tried to open it and discovered that the pages were joined together at the edges. Except for one section. 'Seraphina: A Tale', by V.H.

***

Seraphina

L
ORD
E
DMUND
N
APIER LIKED EVERY
thing about him pleasant and agreeable, and since he was rich, handsome, unmarried, and possessed of a splendid town house in Cheyne Walk, the world made haste to oblige him. Indeed it had been hastening—with one disagreeable exception, as we shall presently learn—almost from the moment of his birth some forty years before the afternoon upon which we find him gazing at a blank space on the wall of his private gallery.

Though the main entrance hall and staircase of his house were adorned, as might be expected, with portraits of Napiers past, this gallery was known only to Lord Edmund's most intimate associates. It was a long, vaulted, panelled room, reminiscent in its proportions of a place of worship, but lit so as to draw in as much natural illumination as possible while excluding any direct glare. The merest glance around the walls, however, would reveal Lord Edmund to be, as the phrase goes, a devotee of the female form, lavishly and variously illustrated by over a hundred canvases running the length of the gallery on either side, and supplemented by numerous pieces of statuary in bronze, marble, jade, ebony, and other precious materials; all, I hasten to add, in the finest of taste; the finest, indeed, that money could buy. But to describe Lord Edmund as a worshipper at the shrine of Beauty would be, if not precisely untrue, at least a shade discourteous. A gentleman predestined to adorn the very pinnacle of society cannot but be conscious of his own perfections; and it would be fairer to say that Lord Edmund and Beauty had long been on intimate terms. And this, paradoxical as it may seem, was the source of a certain discontentment on his side, and the reason why the wall at the northern end of the gallery, farthest from the great double doors which opened onto its vaulted length, the very space in which the finest flower of his collection ought to have been displayed, remained obstinately blank. He had, over the years, tried any number of canvases in the place of honour, but none had ever quite sustained that pitch of perfection he had, almost unwittingly, come to require of its subject.

Lord Edmund himself could scarcely have accounted for his single state, which nevertheless remained a topic of lively interest to every fashionable hostess with marriageable daughters at her disposal. Many a matron had fancied her favourite as good as engaged to his lordship, only to discover, just as she thought him safely landed, that the catch had unaccountably slipped the net, and so adroitly as to leave her without even the consolation of an action for breach of promise. In truth his lordships heart had only ever been engaged on one occasion, and that many years ago, when he was but four and twenty. The match was impossible: Miss Eleanor Brandon, though undeniably beautiful and sweet-natured (and, it must be admitted, far more cultivated and better read than the youthful Edmund himself) possessed neither family nor fortune; worse, she nurtured artistic ambitions, accepting whatever was offered her in the way of scenery-painting and the like around the studios of Chelsea. She had, at the time of their meeting, an impoverished suitor some ten years older than herself, a portrait painter constitutionally incapable of fulfilling any of the few commissions offered him; to whom, nevertheless, she was on the verge of committing her affections. But youth and charm prevailed; so entirely that Edmund could not but be swayed by the force of her love for him. He did not—at least in retrospect—believe that he had explicitly pledged himself to her; but he did speak privately to his father, the earl, who forbade not only the match, but any further association with Miss Brandon.

Edmund was of age, and sole heir, and could have defied his parent, but severe financial constraint, and a great deal of unpleasantness, would certainly have followed. What was a fellow to do? He owed Miss Brandon, at the very least, the courtesy of an interview; but that would certainly upset her, and therefore him, so how could it benefit either? And if his father were to hear of it ... no; a letter was the obvious thing; but it proved so devilish difficult to compose that he was forced to abandon the attempt. An emissary: now there was an idea; a good friend upon whose delicacy and discretion he could absolutely rely; indeed, he knew the very man for the task. But the very man was so far affected by Miss Brandon's distress as to charge his friend with cruel and unmanly conduct; which led, inevitably, to a breach between them, and left the matter still unresolved. Perhaps he really ought to see her, come what may ... and if only his fathers temper, uncertain at the best of times, had not been so vile of late, he really thought he would have gone.

So the days stretched into weeks without anything decisive being done, until one afternoon, when he had just concluded a painful exchange with his father on the subject of his expenditure, and was about to set forth in search of new distractions, a footman informed them that there was a young person at the front door, refusing to accept that Edmund was not at home, and insisting upon an interview. With a sinking heart, he descended the stair, his father immediately behind him. Eleanor's pale, stricken face was terrible to behold; still worse, the momentary joy transfiguring her expression when she saw that it was he. She moved as if to embrace him; transfixed by the baleful presence looming at his back, he could only stammer and retreat, until the door was closed against her. That evening he learned that a young woman had flung herself off Battersea Bridge and drowned. It was Eleanor; and the coroners jury, hearing that she was with child, brought in a verdict of suicide while the balance of her mind was disturbed.

BOOK: The Ghost Writer
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