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Authors: John Harwood

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

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BOOK: The Ghost Writer
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I was shocked by my reaction to the loss of Staplefield. My rational self stood helplessly by while I grieved for the place as if I had watched it burn with everything I loved inside it. Knowing that these feelings were utterly illogical didn't seem to help in the slightest. Until one night, in the middle of a letter to Alice, it struck me that in all my happily-ever-after daydreams, we simply took over Alice's room, whereupon it was magically incorporated into Staplefield, to which I was of course the rightful heir. And now we couldn't live there, because it had burnt to the ground. Even after this disturbing recognition—which I did not mention to Alice—I was troubled by a kind of waking nightmare in which I stood alone at her window looking out at a charred, blackened landscape, feeling that I was somehow responsible for the devastation.

Yet at the same time—and this made my distress seem even more irrational—I still suspected my mother of inventing the fire on the spot, to block any further approach to Staplefield, for reasons I couldn't begin to fathom. Alice, for all her reluctance to join in any criticism of my mother, plainly thought I was right. 'Perhaps', she had written,

there was some sort of family quarrel, after your great-grandmother died, and your mother was disinherited—of course she couldn't possibly have done anything to deserve that. But I know how it feels, having to let go of everything you love. Perhaps it's easier for your mother to say the house went up in smoke than to admit that other people are living in it. And surely she'd have said something about the fire, when you were little, so as not to get your hopes up? I mean, of living there one day. Perhaps when you were small she still hoped Staplefield might come back to you, and then something happened, something final that meant it could never be hers, or yours, and that's why she stopped talking to you.

Actually that reminds me of something.

Later: I've just been reading through your letters, the very first ones you ever wrote me, and I just found this: 'Mother said we can't go and live there because it was sold a long time ago and we don't have enough money to buy it back.' Perhaps she was still hoping, when she said that, that one day you
might
be able to afford it. Before whatever happened that made her abandon hope completely. What do you think?

I thought it made perfect sense. It also reminded me of the photograph I had found in my mother's bedroom. I'd always assumed that she had stopped talking about Staplefield to punish me. Perhaps the two things were unrelated: maybe the bad news just happened to arrive at about the same time. Maybe ... but that Medusa-like fury ... No, there had to be a connection. Perhaps catching me with the photograph had caused my mother to make some enquiry about Staplefield, something that brought on the bad news, whatever the news might have been? No point asking her. 'Photograph, what photograph?' More to the point: whose photograph? Not Viola's, surely: my mother had only ever spoken of Viola with affection. Wouldn't Viola's picture have been displayed on our mantelpiece, at least when we were still talking freely of Staplefield?

And I still hadn't said anything more to my mother about finding 'Seraphina', so I still didn't even know, for certain, that 'V.H.' was my great-grandmother. I had opened the drawer one more time and found it empty. Then as I learned more about the library, I realised I could order
The Chameleon
on inter-library loan, photocopy the story, present it to my mother as if I had no idea who 'V.H.' might be, and see how she reacted. Only one problem: there wasn't a copy of
The Chameleon
to be found anywhere in the southern hemisphere. From the British Library Catalogue I learned that it had run for just four numbers, from March to December of 1898. The only way to see them was to secure a reader's ticket; I had my letter of introduction in my pocket.

Seraphina's resemblance to Alice still sometimes troubled me. Rationally speaking, I knew there was nothing in the least uncanny about it. Of course Viola would have been to exhibitions of Pre-Raphaelite painting. She might perfectly well have seen the Lady of Shalott herself when the picture was first exhibited at the Royal Academy. Only Seraphina hadn't reminded me of the Lady, or any of the faces I'd borrowed from Burne-Jones, Millais, Waterhouse and company, but of Alice as I'd seen her in the dream. The memory had faded as quickly as it had come, but I had never quite shaken off a superstitious fancy that in opening the drawer for a second time I had accepted the terms of an inheritance, with no idea of what that might entail.

The plane shuddered and rattled like a bus crossing a stretch of gravel road. Twenty-one and a half hours to go. The dull weight of subdued, half-anaesthetised anxiety had not diminished. Maybe reading would dislodge it. I picked up Henry James,
The Turn of the Screw and Other Tales.

'W
HERE, MY PET, IS
M
ISS
J
ESSEL
?' T
HE PHRASE REPEATED
itself over and over, through the cramped, interminable night aboard QF 9. The engines played endless rhythmic variations on the words: dum dadadda dada, dum dadada dum, dum dadadadadada. They didn't care that Alice spelled her surname with two Ts. Every so often they would lift the tempo to Miss Jessel Miss Jessel Miss Jessel Miss Jessel, just to make sure I was still awake enough to hallucinate. Where, my pet, is Miss Jessel? Waiting in Alice's room of course. I knew I would never get the name out of my head. I had once looked it up in the Mawson phone book. Not a single Jessell, whichever way you spelt it. Alice would take one look at me and know that something was appallingly, irrevocably wrong. I wouldn't be able to look at her without thinking of Miss Jessel. Miss Jessel with her dead white face and long black dress. Like the man in the churchyard, tramping over my mother's grave, and were you aware sir, that your late mother was in a highly disturbed state, while out in the garage the trains still ran on time, round and round and round Miss Jessel and where Miss Jessel is my pet, waking with a thump to the runway lights of Heathrow and rain streaming over the wing.

I hadn't realised that it would still be dark when the Airbus deposited me outside Paddington station. Or that the Stanhope—when they eventually agreed to let me in—would be a claustrophobic warren, smelling of wet animal hair, stale fry-ups, and mould. The stairs creaked at every tread, and the only window in my room, or rather cell on the second floor, opened into a so called lightwell and a view of blackened walls and rusting fire escapes.

And no letter from Alice, though I had sent her the address a fortnight before I left. Struggling to shake off the depression which seemed to be gathering around me like thick black mist, I stumbled back down the stairs to the payphone in the foyer.

From Directory Enquiries I learned that Penfriends International had an unlisted number. There were dozens of entries for Summers, J., in the phone book, but none of them gave the Mount Pleasant box number as their address. And when it finally occurred to me to phone Mount Pleasant post office, they would only confirm that Penfriends International were indeed at Box 294. All other details were strictly confidential sir, I'm sorry there's nothing more I can tell you, more than my job's worth, sorry sir but there it is, can't help you any more.

I dragged myself back up the creaking staircase, lay down on the bed, and slipped head-first into a pit of darkness.

I
T WAS ALL TRUE, EVERYTHING MY MOTHER HAD SAID, THERE
really were mountains of black plastic bags spewing garbage on to the pavement wherever you went. Ragged beggars lined the underpasses, wrapped in sodden cardboard, lying in pools of unspeakable filth. I couldn't walk two blocks through the rain and sleet without getting lost, or stop to wrestle with my
London A-Z
without being jostled into the gutter by seething crowds. Half frozen but rabidly adhesive dogshit lurked beneath the slush. The chaffinches had all mutated into scrofulous pigeons.

Each morning until the postman arrived, I hovered in the Stanhopes reeking foyer, waiting for a letter which never came. Then I would set off for the British Museum in grey half-light, to haunt the Reading Room until closing time, searching for some trace of Alice. I knew that I ought to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the Museum: the immense stone columns, the rainswept forecourt seething with tourists, the Babel of unknown languages rising from the front steps, the Reading Room itself, into which the whole Mawson College Library building would have fitted quite comfortably. I would stare up into the blue and gold dome above the tiered galleries and try to feel something, anything, but it was like looking at the sun through a thick pall of smoke. I would feel eyes following me up and down the aisles; several times I felt certain I had caught people staring at me with horror, as if they could actually see the fog of black depression that enveloped me.

Some of my fellow readers were in no better shape: the little old woman in the filthy grey raincoat who sat all day in row L, with half a dozen tattered shopping bags clustered at her feet, muttering at the partition in front of her; or the wild-eyed, white-haired man at the far end of row C, who shielded his book with both arms when anybody approached him. And once a tall, emaciated old lady, who smelt strongly of mothballs and wore a black veil so impenetrable you could not see even the outline of a face beneath, came and sat next to me for two hours while I worked my way through a pile of directories. She had
The Times
open in front of her, but I felt she was watching me all the time.

On the third day I braved the slush down Kingsway to Catherine House, where the records of births and marriages were kept. A gloomy concrete bunker, dank and cold, smelling of greasy folios and sodden clothing. The quarterly registers - huge steel-reinforced volumes, red for births and green for marriages (deaths were kept on the other side of Kingsway)—were housed in rows of battered metal shelves. Grim-faced searchers swarmed over every row, fighting for position, slamming the massive volumes on and off the shelves. Couples fought and shouted in the aisles; the noise was deafening. I hovered politely beside the 1960s for a few minutes before trying to insinuate myself into the scrum. Someone rammed the metal corner of a register into my kidneys; an elbow jabbed my ribs; an anonymous hand snatched 'J-L Jan.-Mar. 1964' from over my shoulder and carried it off. Finding Alice's birth certificate, I realised, would contribute absolutely nothing to my search for her. Cowed, shivering, I surrendered without a fight.

In the relative tranquillity of the Reading Room, I scoured directories for lists of nursing homes in Sussex and poured pound after pound's worth of coins into payphones: no Alice Jessell anywhere. Alice didn't want to be found.

On the fifth day I woke with a thick head and a rasping throat, but rather than lie staring into the darkness of the lightwell I dragged myself back to the Museum.

In a Sussex directory for the 1930s, I looked up the entry for Staplefield. There was a Staplefield House listed, but the owner was a Colonel Reginald Bassington. No Viola, or any Hatherley was listed as a resident, there or in any of the neighbouring villages or towns. There was no Viola Hatherley in the main catalogue either. I ordered the four numbers of
The Chameleon,
thinking as I did so how horribly prophetic 'Seraphina' had turned out to be.

But of the four numbers only the fourth and last was delivered: the slips for the other three came back marked 'Destroyed by bombing during the war'. Without much hope or even interest I glanced through the table of contents.
The Chameleon.
Volume I, Number 4, December 1898. Essay by Ernest Rhys. Story by Amy Levy. Poems by Herbert Home and Selwyn Image—and 'The Gift of Flight: A Tale', by V.H.

***

The Gift of Flight

T
HE
R
EADING
R
OOM OF THE
B
RITISH
Museum is not, I think, the first place in which most of us would seek refuge from a consuming grief, especially not in winter, when fog creeps into the great dome and hangs like a damp halo about the electric lamps. Nor are ones fellow readers always the most desirable company, some being less than fastidious in matters of dress and personal cleanliness, whilst others, seemingly on the verge of madness, conduct whispered conversations with phantoms, or crouch motionless for an entire afternoon, glaring at the same unturned page. Others again lie sprawled in attitudes of abandoned despair or exhaustion, snoring away the hours with their heads pillowed upon priceless volumes until the attendants come to turn them out. There are of course many industrious souls deep in concentration or copying busily, so that the dome seems to echo, at times, to the faint sound of a hundred nibs scratching in unison, but to a troubled mind that sound can too easily suggest the fingernails of prisoners clawing upon stone.

So, at least, it seemed to Julia Lockhart, and yet she was drawn back there by the conviction that the library contained one particular book which would speak directly to her sorrow. It would be like finding a new friend, one whose perceptions were so subtly and delicately attuned to hers as to see further into her heart than she herself was capable of doing. But since she had no idea what kind of book, or by whom, she spent a great deal of her time idly turning the pages of the catalogue, or gazing sightlessly into the black leather surface of her desk, or wandering the circumference of the labyrinth—the image that came most frequently to her mind, given the catacombs filled with shelf upon shelf of books that she imagined stretching away into darkness beneath the floor.

It had been many months since she and Frederick Liddell had parted, and yet the pall of grief had in no way diminished; instead, it had darkened into something quite beyond her experience. A thick veil seemed to have fallen between her and the world; she felt estranged, not only from friends and family, but from herself. She could not work, for all power of concentration had left her. Her husband kept his accustomed round between his chambers, his club, and his chair by the fireside, tranquilly unaware that anything was wrong; her daughter Florence was away at school in Berne; and the chatter of friends, in which Julia had once joined so enthusiastically, now seemed like die gibbering of dead souls in limbo. Yet to all outward appearances she had merely done what so many women yoked to indifferent husbands had done before her. She numbered amongst her own acquaintance women who moved cheerfully and lightly from one lover to the next, and knew of cases in which the children of such unions were accepted by the said indifferent husbands without apparent protest. The code seemed to be that so long as appearances were more or less maintained, women as well as men could do as they pleased. Whereas to Julia the taking of a lover had seemed an altogether momentous step. She had yearned for an intimacy to which she could bring her whole heart, which would release something trapped within her, free a door in her imagination which seemed to have swollen and stuck fast; but until the day she met Frederick Liddell she had come to believe she would die without ever having found it.

BOOK: The Ghost Writer
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