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Authors: Rebecca Stott

Ghostwalk

BOOK: Ghostwalk
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CONTENTS

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Author's Note

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

Chapter Thirty-four

Chapter Thirty-five

For a Further Understanding of Newton

Author's Note

Time Line

Newton's Sins

Extracts from Notebook Containing “Quaestiones...

Newton's Recipes for Colour and Remedies for Sickness

Further Reading

Acknowledgements

Illustration and Text Sources and Credits

Copyright

For Judith Boddy and a meteorologist in a taxi, whose name I never asked

All the planets are heavy towards one another.

—ISAAC NEWTON

Things hurtful for the Eyes

Garlick Onions & Leeks…Gooing too suddaine after meals.

Hot wines. Cold ayre…

Much blood-letting…dust. Ffire. Much weeping.

—ISAAC NEWTON

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Although
Ghostwalk
is a work of fiction, and all of the characters are drawn from my imagination, the seventeenth-century figures in this book are historical. The details of their lives are based on records, as are the facts about Cambridge in the seventeenth century. For anyone interested in the historical background of the story within the novel, I have provided additional material at the end of the book: an author’s note explaining my use of history in more detail, a time line, excerpts from Newton’s diaries, and a bibliography.

—Rebecca Stott

Prologue

U
nrepaired and swollen with rain, the gate in the orchard wall refused to move until Cameron put his full weight against it and pushed, hard. Stepping into the smell of a long-abandoned apple crop, Cameron called towards the house, hoping to catch his mother’s attention in the window where she would be sitting working. “Elizabeth?” He waited for her to come to the window and wave, then called out again. This time his voice disturbed a pigeon, which flew from one of the apple trees in a great clatter of wings.

There was so much that needed mending here. The cracks and splits and rustings over bothered him more now that he was getting older. But then there also seemed to be a point when it stopped mattering. His mother had reached it. She was no longer trying to keep all that ageing and disrepair at bay. She’d stopped seeing it. She let the apples rot in the long grass where they fell; she let the Virginia creeper inch over the windows so the house became darker almost by the minute; dust gathered on the books, shells, and animal skulls on her shelves and windowsills; leaves blocked the gutters.

There was no answer from the house. No face at the window. Time had stopped here. Time always seemed to stop around Elizabeth. She wasn’t interested in the present; time ran backwards or eddied around her, always finding its way back to the seventeenth century.

Where was she? Where had she gone?

         

The grass had grown thick and long under the apple trees. The orchard smelled like a cider press; everywhere the gold and russet curves of fallen fruit gleamed through the emerald green of long grass, gloriously lit and shadowed by the late-afternoon sun which had broken through the rain. It was too late to gather them now. The brown of apple bruise had spread too far. Some of the apples had been gnawed, he noticed. Rats again.

Cameron’s boot pressed on something hard in the wet grass. A small pink plastic fist gestured at him aggressively. He reached down to pick up the half-clothed doll: his son Toby’s lost action man, lying at the base of a wizened tree. He laughed, looking up to follow a twist of wire into the apple boughs. Toby must have suspended this rope last time he had been here, a rope down which this action man had abseiled. The doll was covered in trails now from slugs that had crawled blithely over the plastic muscles in their hunger for fermenting apple flesh. When he pulled the string to see if the voice mechanism still worked, a woman’s voice called out: “Action man patrol. This is your commander speaking. Mortar attack. Fall out. Fall out.” He tucked the doll into the pocket of his coat where, muffled, it eventually fell silent.

Cameron knocked before he let himself into his mother’s house. Its eccentricity still amused him. She called it The Studio, but it reminded him of the witch’s gingerbread house in the forest, its wooden-tiled roof sloping precipitously all the way to the ground, cross-hatched by the shadows of the orchard’s apple trees. Inside, a sturdy white totem pole held up the entire structure; Elizabeth had commissioned the architect to give her a steep-ceilinged expanse of white studio space to write in and a little bedroom tucked away in a mezzanine floor under the roof, at the top of a steep wooden staircase.

What was wrong with him today? He had a knot in his stomach, an ache cradling a dark sense of anticipation. Elizabeth would say he was out of sorts. What was it to be “in sorts”? He must have dreamed some complicated sad dream the night before, he thought, which had slipped away, leaving the vestiges of itself in his skin and blood.

Where
was
she? Not in the house. The door, opening, swept mail to one side: A bank bill. Oxfam. A postcard from Russia. He called out again, tucking the mail into the ledge on the windowsill: “Elizabeth?” His words echoed back from the wood panelling. The Studio was already darkening as the afternoon slipped away. Perhaps she had gone for a walk: the red wool Jaeger duffle coat his wife, Sarah, had bought Elizabeth two Christmases ago was missing from the pegs by the door.

The house had a different smell. He noticed that first of all. It smelled of lavender furniture polish. He’d not smelled furniture polish here before; dust, yes, and books, and wood smoke, and sometimes the acrid sweetness of lilies—Elizabeth loved lilies and hyacinths—but not furniture polish. He couldn’t remember ever seeing Elizabeth cleaning with furniture polish. Her work table was different too. The oak slab on which she worked was usually invisible under piles of papers and books and card files. But now the research papers for her book were—for the first time—all piled neatly into labelled cardboard boxes. The labels read: Newton: Trinity College, 1667–69; Grantham: Apothecary’s House; Optics; Plague Years; Glass; European Alchemical Networks: 1665–66.

Along the windowsills the wood had been cleaned and polished and the delicate objects and bric-a-brac rearranged into fresh compositions. Elizabeth had always arranged everything into still lifes: stones cut in spirals on windowsills, strings of pearls draped over oyster shells she had gathered, coral, and, somewhere among the beauty, always the
vanitas
— the bleached skulls of small animals—yes, she collected those too.

How odd. In the kitchen there was no usual pile of unwashed plates, just a single mug upside down on the draining board. And she’d folded the cloth. She never did that.

He left the front door open and strode outside as fine rain began to sweep slantways across the garden. Why was he walking so quickly? he wondered, seeing himself suddenly as if from a distance, watching himself with curiosity from the trees at the other end of the garden as if he were in a film. He could see himself reflected in the glass of the big window: Cameron Brown, fellow of Trinity College, neuroscientist, was looking for his mother. He glanced at himself in profile, the large shambling frame, the long black coat, the Wellington boots, the snagged sweater, unbrushed hair, and unshaved face. Action man head sticking out from his pocket.

A flash of red out of the corner of his eye. Was she playing games? Down by the water’s edge.

Now he was running for the river, slipping on rotten apples, pushing through nettles that stung his hands. Then he forgot he was Cameron Brown. Cameron Brown lost his outlines—they dissolved as he waded into the water, seeped away as he reached down for the red woollen shape submerged in the rushes. He heard the howl of Mahler then as he turned the figure over and lifted his mother’s small body onto the nettle-veiled riverbank, where he closed her eyes because he couldn’t bear to look into the glassiness there, moved the white hair to one side, and blew air into her lungs. She had no shoes on. He rubbed her feet with the wet wool of his coat but could rub no colour into the blue-white flesh. And then, shouting to everyone and no one, he brought his fists down onto her chest twice. But someone had turned the sound off. River water emptied out of her mouth. When he stood blindly, lifting her small body, thinking only that he must get her into the house, he tripped on the long hem of his own coat and fell back into the nettles, his mother’s flailing body in a wet red coat falling heavily on his in the mud.

Then there was nothing. He remembered nothing. He could recall only a succession of images and sounds: flashes of light from the police car on the sloping ceiling, river water dripping loudly over the edges of her table and onto the floor and down through the cracks, a body covered with a blanket lifted onto a stretcher, papers to sign, a funeral at which he behaved badly in some way.

And a glass prism returned to him by a mortuary assistant who had pried it out of Elizabeth’s clenched fist. “Needs signing for,” he had said, before he placed it in Cameron’s hand. A wedge of triangular-shaped glass, chipped along one edge.

One

O
ver the last two years, as I have tried to tease out the truths from the untruths in that series of events that seeped out through Elizabeth’s death, like lava moving upwards and outwards through salt water from a tear in the seabed, I have had to
be
you several times, Cameron Brown, in order to claw myself towards some kind of coherence. Sometimes it was—is—easy to imagine the world through your eyes, terribly possible to imagine walking through the garden that afternoon in those moments before you found your mother’s body in the river. After all, for a long time, all that time we were lovers, it was difficult to tell where your skin ended and mine began. That was part of the trouble for Lydia Brooke and Cameron Brown. Lack of distance became—imperceptibly—a violent entanglement.

So this is for you, Cameron, and yes, it is also for me, Lydia Brooke, because perhaps, in putting all these pieces together properly, I will be able to step out from your skin and back into mine.

         

Alongside Elizabeth’s body floating in red in the river, there are other places where this story needs to start, places I can see now but wouldn’t have seen then, other beginnings which were all connected. Another death, one that took place around midnight on the 5th of January, 1665. That night, Richard Greswold, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, had opened a door onto a dark, unlit landing above a staircase in Trinity. A draught caught the flame from the lamp in his hand, twisting and elongating the shadows around him. As a thin stream of blood began to trickle from one, then both of his nostrils, he raised the back of his hand and wiped it across his cheek, smearing the blood into streaks, and fell forward, very slowly, into air, through the palest of moon shadows cast through casement windows. He fell heavily, his body twisting and beating against the steps and walls. The lamp fell too and bounced, making a metallic counterpoint to the thuds of flesh on wood. By morning the blood from the wound on Richard Greswold’s head had run through and across the uneven cracks of the stone flagging on which he died, making a brown map like the waterways across the Fens to the north, the college porter said, prying a key—the key to the garden—from the dead man’s clenched fist. Encrusted blood, as thick as fen mud.

Greswold’s death was bound up with Elizabeth’s. She came to know that before she died, but we didn’t. Two Cambridge deaths, separated by three centuries, but inseparable, shadowing each other. Richard Greswold. Elizabeth Vogelsang.

Elizabeth Vogelsang drowned in September, 2002, the first of three deaths that would become the subject of a police investigation four months later. The police took a ragged testimony from me, which I gave in answer to the questions they asked and which were recorded on tape in a windowless room in the basement of the Parkside Police Station by a Detective Sergeant Cuff on the 16th of January, 2003.

“All the interview rooms are occupied this morning, Dr. Brooke,” he said, struggling to find the right key as I followed him down grey corridors. “So we’ll have to use the central investigation room. I’m afraid it’s not ideal, but it is at least empty this morning. There’s a staff training morning—health and safety. We have about an hour. This is not a formal interview, you understand. We’ll do that later. Just a chat.”

“I don’t know whether what I have to tell you will take an hour,” I said. My nerves were jangled. I wasn’t sleeping. I was still waking in the middle of the night angry with you, and with me, but I had enough self-possession to know that I would have to be careful and alert here at the Parkside Police Station. Very alert. They had arrested Lily Ridler.

“We will have to see you again, Dr. Brooke, without doubt. You will be central to our enquiries.”

         

That’s how I came to see another version, their version. Well, not quite
see,
but
glimpse.
The central investigation room at the Parkside Police Station was filled with filing cabinets and four desks with exaggerated curves sweeping in different directions; over to the right, a magnetic whiteboard ran the length of one entire windowless wall. Cuff pulled up a swivel chair for me on the other side of his desk, carefully clearing away papers and notes into a drawer and locking it. A collection of objects and photographs had been attached to the whiteboard with magnets. Curled around those objects were a series of questions, names, lists, and arrows in coloured marker pens in different hands. I couldn’t see very much from where I was sitting, so when Cuff went to retrieve a file from another room, I slipped the digital camera out of my briefcase and photographed it. A risky act driven by nothing but a terrible, bereaved curiosity.

A white magnetic board written on in different hands in different colours and a series of photographs—three dead bodies, one woman drowned in a red coat, two men with their faces slashed, a wall of graffiti, several photographs of mutilated cats and horses, the house at Landing Lane, a photograph of Lily Ridler next to some other people I didn’t recognise—animal activists, I assume—and a photograph of a pile of shredded paper. When I call up the photo on my laptop and increase the resolution I can pick out details. If you go close enough you can just see that the blue pen lists two of the murder scenes: Staircase E of Trinity College and St. Edward’s Passage. And if you go very close, right up into the right-hand corner—it took me a while to spot this—there’s a photograph of me next to a photograph of Sarah. It was the photograph of me that you carried in your mobile phone, filed away carefully, so that no one would find it. The one you took on Holkham Beach. They must have gone through all the files in your mobile to find that. Underneath someone had written my name. Lydia Brooke.

Yes, that whiteboard was the sketchy beginning of the police version of what came to be known as the Cambridge murders. Murders that would be discussed in Parliament and produced as evidence to support proposed draconian measures in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, and which were finally instrumental in changing British law. Yes, we were making legal history but, of course, we didn’t know that then.

That first conversation did take the best part of an hour because Cuff had so many questions about my relationship with you, what I had been doing in Elizabeth’s house, how I had come to know the family, when I had last seen you, what we had talked about, what you had been wearing, and the context for that message I left on your phone. Cuff, who affected a relaxed nonchalance composed, I guessed, to make me drop my guard, summarised my answers and wrote them all out on lined police paper before reading them back to me in a continuous story, which he had somehow made from my fragmented answers. I signed it as a “true account.”

A few months later I tried to put together a more coherent description for the lawyer representing Lily Ridler in the court case. She asked me to write down everything I remembered that might have been relevant to the case, from Elizabeth’s funeral to the days of the trial. I had no ambivalence then about its truth or about its beginning and ending. That came later. I typed it out in Kit’s study looking down over the summer garden, two hours a day, until it seemed about right. Although it read sequentially, I didn’t write it sequentially. Memory doesn’t work like that. I kept remembering things as I wrote, things I had thought until then were inconsequential, which might have been “relevant,” so I went back and tucked them into the story—little details, thoughts, surmisings, speculations.

I’ve always wondered how the two stories—the ragged one I put together in answer to Cuff’s questions and the one I wrote in Kit’s study for Patricia Dibb—ended up being so different. It wasn’t as if I falsified anything. For the police my story was only part of a much bigger narrative, made up of perhaps twenty witness accounts, so the prosecution knitted together all those reports and circumstantial evidence in chronological order, and bit by bit against and between them, my story got pulled in several directions. When set together with all those others, my story took on a different shape, and it was the composite version, filtered, dragged, and kneaded, that the jury agreed to. It was pretty damning once they’d finished with it, damning enough to convict Lily Ridler of murder and send her to prison for the rest of her life. A tight story, she said to me the last time I saw her. Impenetrable now. A closed case.

The story kept on changing. When the court issued a press statement and the newspapers distilled it back down to the size they wanted, with all the appropriately dramatic, suspenseful moments, it fitted neatly into columns of small type. One journalist even made a time line of events in which the two murders were simply a notch in the straight passing of time through Lily’s life, like a single-track train with stations that began with her birth and ended with her arrest. She was charged with three murders and sixteen acts of unlawful animal killing and mutilation, but because they couldn’t pin Elizabeth’s death on her, she was convicted of only two murders. Once they’d added those killings to the time line and filled in the details about her grandfather and her parents, Lily Ridler had become a psychopath, a monster. Now, nearly two years later, Lily is dead.

So if we thought it was finished, we know it isn’t now. The ghosts have not been laid to rest after all, you see, not yours and not hers. If they were to question me again I think I would have to say that I see it differently now—the connections, I mean. Time does that. There were missing parts then, a historical dimension that no one asked any questions about and which, then, I could only half see.

What was missing? The seventeenth century. But how do you say that to a policeman who has just switched on his tape recorder to record the words “Parkside Police Station, 16 January, 2003, interview with Dr. Lydia Brooke”? How do you say, “There’s a missing witness account and a missing suspect…Sergeant Cuff, the seventeenth century is missing. And you need to talk to a man called Mr. F.”

How do you tell him that you think there’s a link between a female scholar found drowned in a river in Cambridge and a man who fell down a staircase nearby three hundred years earlier? Not a simple causal relationship but something as delicate as a web, one of those fine white skeins you see around the tips of grass stems in the spring when the dew is heavy.

A crow has just flown off my study roof, launched itself into the air to my left down over the garden, just as the right-hand corner of my map of Cambridge has curled itself noisily away from the wall. The syncopated sounds of the scurrying of crows’ feet on roof tiles and the curling of old paper is enough to make one think that there might be something else in the room beside me as I write. Which of you restless people is it? What do you want with my story?

No. If Elizabeth were here she would say that history is less like a skein of silk and more like a palimpsest—time layered upon time so that one buried layer leaks into the one above. Or like a stain in an old stone wall that seeps through the plaster.

What would Cuff have said or done if I had told him that he needed to know about the man who fell down the stairs of Trinity College on the 5th of January 1665, the fall that stained the floor, the stain that leaked through Elizabeth’s life and Lily’s, that held us all together, in thrall? Cuff would not have known the significance of the date—1665—or at least I don’t think he would have done. Perhaps 1666 would have rung some bells: the year the Great Plague abated in England and the Fire of London ravaged the capital in its wake. He might have remembered that from his secondary school history classes.

If I had told Cuff about Greswold and about Isaac Newton’s complicated friendship with a Mr. F., he wouldn’t have written any of it down. He wouldn’t have considered it relevant. A man falling through air and shadows in Trinity College, 1665. A secret friendship between two young men, forged in alchemical and mathematical calculations. How could that have any bearing on a series of murders in Cambridge that took place in 2002 and 2003? If I had suggested that, Cuff would have raised one of his thick black eyebrows and his pen would have paused in midair. Elizabeth Vogelsang would have understood. Cuff wouldn’t.

Lily went to prison because the seventeenth century was missing from her court records, from her story. Her time line needed to be longer, much longer, and there were many sidelines and tracks, twistings and turnings and yes, it was a labyrinth, a skein of silk that began to weave itself in 1665, 339 years ago.

I’ve been thinking about labyrinths this summer. Ariadne giving Theseus the thread so that he could find his way back out of the labyrinth, away from the black void of the flesh-eating Minotaur. Unravellings have to start somewhere. Now that I see, for the first time, how connected everything is, I know that the threads between Isaac Newton and us were all attached, like the ground elder under Kit’s soil.

That summer in which I wrote my story and yours for Patricia Dibb, Kit and I declared war on the ground elder that had taken over her flower beds at Sturton Street. As we began to dig, we could see how each of those separate plants, uncurling above ground, was joined to a great network of root systems underground. There was no point in digging up
part
of it; you had to pull up the whole thing, and if you didn’t, it would start reaching out again in the wet darkness of the soil, another green leaf curling up a week or so later. Grace, Kit’s elderly neighbour, leaning over the chicken wire fence, uttered her warnings about the impossibility of ever killing it off. She had spent fifty years trying, she said. Break those roots just once, she said, and the wound on the root will make scores of new shoots.

From my study in the attic of Kit’s house, I looked down on the long stretch of her garden, with its rose beds and gravel path twisting through tall shrubs and Mexican orange blossom, and imagined the ground elder stretching itself luxuriously under the lawn, under the iris bed, unseen in the dark. We had pulled out most of it by the end of June, but a root or tendril here and there would have clung to the root systems of other plants—the iris bulbs, the tubers of the gladioluses—so I knew we would see it again.

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