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Authors: Rebecca Stott

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BOOK: Ghostwalk
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“You’re still reading it?”

“Yes. It’s fascinating. You’d like it. I’m about three-quarters of the way through a first reading, though even this far into the book, I’m not sure what she was trying to claim.”

“What do you mean, ‘claim’?”

“Well, you were right. The book argues aggressively that Newton didn’t work in isolation, that he wasn’t the lone genius of the Newton myth. Elizabeth shows how dependent he was on a whole host of European alchemists to bring him things—books, instruments, manuscripts, codes, and formulas—and to do things for him—act as his patrons and secure him positions in the Trinity College hierarchies. And of course she’s also saying that you can’t separate out alchemy from science in the mid-seventeenth century, that it’s a false distinction and that all scientists were alchemists to some degree and that they all depended on the networks. You couldn’t work in isolation or be independent.”

“Same is true now, of course.”

“How so?”

“In neuroscience. You can’t do the science without the sponsors.”

“Why not?”

“Well, on an obvious level, because you need sponsorship to pay for the labs and the equipment. That means constant fund-raising. The sponsors have their own agendas too, of course, because there’s so much money at stake, and so they try to control the questions you ask. And at the same time all scientists are dependent on knowledge and information from so many other scientists across the world, and you have to be connected up to get it. And for that you pay a price. There’s politics everywhere—in what gets published, in how it’s published. It’s impossible to keep out of all of that. Completely impossible.” You paused, catching yourself, and changed the subject. “What kind of book is
The Alchemist

“It starts out as a partial biography of Newton and alchemy, but then about halfway through it seems to turn into a kind of historical investigation—except that the end is missing. I have a hunch about what she is getting at or moving me towards, but it’s all by implication…so far at least…Newton’s involvement with a ‘Mr. F.’ seems to have been important.”

“Is he in the index-card box?”


“Mr. F.”

“I haven’t looked. Of course. The index-card box. I’d forgotten. You told me about that, didn’t you? The index-card box full of alchemists. Names and dates. God, that will save me some time. I’ll see if I can find it.”

“The Newton scholars will hate all that alchemy—”

“Does that matter?”

“Of course not. It’s great.”

“The book’s really confident in some places and hazy and vague in others. As if she’s undone some of it, and in other places she goes round the houses, embedding us in detail. As if she’s taken some of the explanations out. She just puts A next to B and doesn’t show what’s in between. It might be a plus or a minus or an equals sign.”

“Sounds like Elizabeth.”

“It’s complicated. I’ll read the whole thing, then read the last incomplete chapters again alongside the notes she left. Then I may be ready to write.”

“When will that be, do you think?”

“Are you going to harass me like this for the next few months? And are you going to light that fire or are we just going to stand and look at all this rubbish?”

“No, I’m not going to harass you. I know you’ll finish it. OK, let’s light it, shall we?” We didn’t. We were both a little lost, I think.

“If I’m right,
The Alchemist
is going to be a very controversial book,” I said.


“Elizabeth has accusations to make that will seriously undermine Newton’s reputation. You know how dangerous that would be. He’s practically a national saint. To be honest, I’m worried about the consequences of publishing this book.”

“You don’t have to worry about anything. Your name won’t be on the cover. You’ll be safe from all the publicity. The publishers will love it—all that scandal will sell copies. Why don’t
light it? Just set light to that piece of newspaper sticking out there.”

I did. The fire began to curl its way across the paper.

“OK. OK. I know,” I said. “I like the fact that my name won’t be on the cover. I’ll pull out the stopper and lob the hand grenade, then watch what happens from a distance. Watch all the Newton scholars scurrying around, trying to challenge Elizabeth’s evidence. Throwing up their hands in horror. There may even be headlines.”

“Hand grenades don’t have ‘stoppers.’”

“Whatever—trigger, plug, cork…This book is going to make waves, I’m sure of it.”

“They have pins.”

“What have?”

“Hand grenades. Look at the blue in that fire. Elizabeth loved bonfires. She used to light them on Sunday evenings all through the autumn. I’d build them for her when I was here and then she and I would drink a bottle of wine while the smoke poured out over the river. It always made me think of you.”

“Don’t,” I said.


“Just don’t.”

“OK. It
made me think of you…Then she’d compost the ashes and pile the compost around the apple trees and under the roses every spring. Did she manage to decode those lines from the Newton notebook? I always hoped she’d manage that. It was an obsession.”

“What code? I haven’t come across a code in her papers yet.”

“Newton used a code in some of his notebooks. A biographer managed to decode most of it in the sixties, but there were four clusters of letters in one of the most important early notebooks that no one’s been able to crack. Elizabeth was convinced it was a powerful alchemical mantra that had been handed down to him. She asked me to help her decode it a few months ago. I’m good at codes, but I couldn’t crack that one. She and I spent hours writing out the letters in different combinations. She was convinced that Newton was using it as a kind of ancient purification spell, to protect the rest of his work. She’d found some of the combinations of letters in other alchemical books.”

“I’ll keep a look out for it in her notes,” I said. “Look. I’ve got a couple of bottles of champagne in the fridge which Kit gave me when I moved in. Shall I bring a bottle out here, or would that be inappropriate? Bad taste?”

“Only if it’s definitely champagne and not cava. I won’t drink cava.”


When I brought out the bottle and the glasses from the house I could already see the glow from the burning newspapers illuminating the riverbank, casting orange shapes upon the bark of the birch trees and along the towpath, smoke from the damp leaves brimming through the woods. I saw your shape silhouetted against the fire, very still. Beyond you, over the other side of the river in the darkness, there was the empty open land of Stourbridge Common, invisible now, as if there were nothing there, just a great black void; and there we were standing on the edge of it, looking into it. You between me and the dark. I thought, My talisman to keep all
at bay. Stourbridge marshland where pigs had scavenged and where Newton had bought his glass prism. The merchants and townspeople and prostitutes would row across somewhere near here, at Ferry Lane and Water Lane early in the morning as the chapel bells began to ring, from the quiet of Chesterton to the roar and lights of the fair. To market to market to buy a fat pig. Home again, home again, jiggity jig.

It was as if somewhere in the earth exactly under the patch of riverbank where we had built this fire, someone had slid aside a valve and, through that narrow hole, all the earth’s gases were escaping. A fire so blue and orange and dense that you could have touched it, which began there in that tangle of bonfire apple wood and the discarded stuff of a woman’s life. Around this blue light, the darkness fell away into shades of grey and brown.

“Passing through,” I said. “It’s like something’s passing through. A kind of exhalation.”

“You’re beginning to sound like Elizabeth.”

“Oh yes, I’m with the alchemists. It’s amazing how it changes the way you see things. Putrefaction is the key. Rotting reduces everything to chaos so then it can be remade. Apples rotted into fire and blue light. Fantastic. Aggregating and disaggregating. Out of the rot comes the power.” You poured me a glass.

“Like champagne,” you said. “Grapes to liquid gold and air and then assimilated into human flesh. That’s you and me and the transmutation of grape matter.”

“Are you making fun of me, Mr. Brown?” You kept your distance. We both kept our distance.

“Oh no, far from it. Perhaps we’re both sleepwalking. Maybe this fire will only figure as the flicker of a déjà vu next time we find ourselves standing among friends by the edge of a bonfire. And we will struggle to remember what we think we are remembering—”

“Oh, I’ll always remember this.”

“Yes. Elizabeth had something to do with this.”

“Elizabeth? No. She wouldn’t have wanted us working together like this.”

“She never knew about us.”

“She did, I’m afraid. She spoke to me about you just a month before I left for France.”

“She never told me. Never let on in all the time after you left. Though, when I think about it, she was very attentive that first winter. As if she knew I was suffering. But she never said anything.”

“No, I asked her not to.”

“I’m suddenly very tired, Lydia. I wonder if you might let me sleep in the little back bedroom. There’s still a bed in there, isn’t there?”

“It’s your house.” I was cold, suddenly formal. I hadn’t meant to be.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have come at all. It’s not you. It’s Elizabeth. It’s the first time I’ve been back since that Sunday.”

“I don’t think I’ve got any spare bedding.”

“There’s a brand-new duvet in the cupboard under the stairs. I bought it for you in case it got cold in the winter. Actually, Sarah did—I can’t claim that. She’s the thoughtful one. It’s probably still wrapped.” You pointed up to a pattern of stars I half recognised. “Have you seen the Big Dipper tonight?” you said. “It’s like a cup running over.”

The constellation
a cup running over. We stood there for that moment at midnight looking up at the sky through the white ash particles blown up by the now quiescent bonfire. Cambridge: pretty, suffocating Cambridge.

So you stayed. I found that still packaged duvet in the cupboard under the stairs; you brought in your bag from the car and, for a second, I glimpsed the small presents you had brought back from Berlin for Sarah and the boys: soaps, postcards, chocolate, and books, all thrown in. I wondered if I minded—yes, another place where a bruise had marked me once.

You asked me if I was safe sleeping up on the mezzanine floor and I asked you why you asked. You said the stairs were too steep and dangerous for sleepwalkers and I said I had never fallen on stairs while sleepwalking yet. Then, while you slept downstairs, with the moon casting its light directly on your bed through curtainless windows, sometime in the early hours I dreamed of an old man falling through moon shadows down the wooden stairs of a Cambridge college I half recognised. I dreamed of his blood filling up the ridges in the stones beneath his head. Blood running from his nose.

Since then I’ve often wondered if it was your presence that made me dream. I awoke in the night drenched in sweat, remembering the dream fall. I thought about Dilys Kite and the prism made from river stones and the fire made from apples. Something was being stoked up somewhere in that house. We were part of it, but only part. It was the aggregation that was important. You, me, Elizabeth, and Will in that little house in the orchard—in the glassmaker’s furnace. Someone should have seen that coming and not lit a match.

And I should not have walked down those stairs hungry for your body in the middle of that dream-filled night. And you should not have been awake and waiting for me.


When I woke at dawn there was blood on your pillow and dried blood smeared across your sleeping face, as if you had been struck. Had I struck you? Had I made you bleed? What had happened in one night to make you bleed?

“How strange,” you said, waking to my gaze, glancing at the sheets. “A nosebleed. I dreamed I’d fallen down a staircase.”

“Must have been that conversation about sleepwalking we had last night,” I said, too baffled to tell you I had dreamed that dream only hours before you. “Can a dream make you bleed, do you think? Or is it just a coincidence?”

“I’ve never had a nosebleed at night before,” you said. “I must be getting old. And I’m covered in bruises—here down my arms and these on my thigh—what did you
to me last night?”

“Perhaps you’re a princess,” I said.


“The princess and the pea. The pea that bruised the girl’s skin through a hundred mattresses.”

“What is it that you do to me, Lydia Brooke? Look at me. Bruises and blood—that’s because you’ve taken my skin off again, turned me inside out. You’ve always done that.”

“I don’t mean to.”

“But you do. Or one of you does. One of you stalks me, follows me so that I’m never alone. All the time you’ve been away—every day, every bloody day, you’ve appeared at some time or other. From somewhere.”

“That’s not true,” I said, pulling my gown around me, turning my back on you, looking out into the garden. “That’s just not fair.” I pressed my cheek up against the glass, cold and cornered. “I had to get away or one of us would have gone mad. You wouldn’t let me go. It hurt to go, nearly broke me, but I went, because I had to. I did leave you alone. That’s just not fair. You wouldn’t let up.”

“You took liberties with me; you still do. You climbed inside my head; slipped your hand through that broken pane of glass and lifted the latch and then climbed on in, made yourself at home, found out where everything was, how the electrics worked, the places where I’d hidden the spare keys, worked out the combination lock for the safe. And then you scattered your things around—all your memories, your passions, the way you see things. You can’t take all those things out of my head just by leaving the country, for Christ’s sake. You left them all behind. Here, in my bloody head, so that every time I see a sunset or a sunrise, I see it through your eyes and imagine what you’d say. Every time I hear Chopin, or eat oranges, or read Elizabeth Bishop. You think it’s been easy being in love with you all these years? With all that stuff still in here?”

BOOK: Ghostwalk
8.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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