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Authors: Rebecca Stott

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BOOK: Ghostwalk
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Yes, he was angry, I thought. Newton’s anger had penetrated my dreams now—it happens sometimes with writing, when it matters, when there’s something at stake. Yes, I was dreaming the dreams of the boy who was angry with his sister, his mother, and his stepfather, who dreamed about killing them all when he went back to Woolsthorpe, who hated himself—and it all went round and round and he couldn’t stop it, and it was getting in the way of his work, his experiments. Too much noise in his head. He couldn’t get out of that. There was no way out.

I said to Kit, “He was desperate. When he was at school in Grantham, when he was
for Christ’s sake, he wrote in a notebook: ‘I will make an end. I cannot but weep. I know not what to do.’”

Kit was persistent despite my absences, wanderings. “So he started writing his sins down in a notebook to cheer himself up?”

“Yes, and to try to keep track of them. And he started doing alchemical experiments. Making potions with chemicals. He boarded with an apothecary in Grantham when he was at school, so in those days he had access to lots of chemicals.”

“Apothecaries are often the poisoners in Renaissance drama. Romeo and Juliet—the poison that goes wrong.”

“He collected recipes for mixing colours: purple, crimson, green, russet, charcoal black, colours for painting nakedness and colours for painting corpses.”

“A colour for painting corpses? Did he paint them? How do you mix a colour for painting dead bodies?”

“The colour for corpses? Do you really want to know?”

“Yes. Go on. Tell me.” She put out her cigarette and watched me closely, as though she was looking to find the hidden trick in this strange new memory of mine, as if I was some tin-pot street magician. “Go on,” she said. “Surprise me. Let’s see how good your memory really is.”

I did surprise her; I surprised both of us. That recipe was in a drawer in my head somewhere. All I had to do was read it through: “‘A colour for dead corpses: Change white lead with water of yellow berries and wash the picture all over and change it with blue Indie and shadow it in single hatches, and in the leanest places then take soot, yellow berries, and white lead, and with it shadow the darkest places.’”

Shadow the darkest places. If my beginning was Elizabeth’s funeral, and yours was finding her body in red in the river, Elizabeth’s entanglement started much earlier—I’d guess around the time she found that notebook full of sins. Yes, that was Elizabeth’s beginning—in the dark corpse-washed corners of a seventeenth-century notebook written by a boy who turned his sins into coded accounts and who wanted to paint dead bodies. I walked that way much later. As Elizabeth’s ghostwriter I had to walk the road she walked, trace its meanderings and speculations back to their origins, start where she started. She’d been working on alchemy and had found Newton’s sins while looking for something else. A moment’s curiosity had set her thinking about how far he would go to find the answers to the questions that stopped him from sleeping. How violent could he be? Would he kill? Could he? What happened to him to give him so much power—real or imagined—in 1665 and 1666?

Kit was sceptical. “So what’s the series of coincidences that’s spooking you? Apart from the fact that you can remember Newton’s sins and his recipes for red and for corpses?”

I passed her back the piece of hole-riddled paper. “Look again at Elizabeth’s transcriptions—she’s marked out some of the sins. You can just see the remains of red highlighter pen on sins thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and then if you turn it over, she’s also marked out number forty.” Kit read them out: “‘Thirteen: Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them. Fourteen: Wishing death and hoping it to some. Fifteen: Striking many. Forty: Using unlawful means to bring us out of distresses.’ Why those ones in particular?”

“That’s what I’ve got to work out,” I said. “They’re all about Newton’s violent feelings. I think it’s a clue to what the last chapters are supposed to say. The key one is ‘Using unlawful means to bring us out of distresses.’ Elizabeth has underlined it twice as well as highlighted it.”

“Unlawful means? What did he mean by that?”

“You tell me. You’re the one who knows about crime in the Renaissance and Restoration. What would ‘unlawful means’ be a euphemism for?”

“Could be anything. Murder. Conspiracy. Almost certainly violence of some kind. So you’ve got to fill in the last two chapters.”

“Yes, using her annotated notes and the rest of the book as the only source materials. Extrapolate the rest.”

“And what have you done so far?”

“Well, read it through several times. Started to read the notebooks.”

“Sounds to me like Elizabeth was turning him into a character from a revenge tragedy. You know: the boy wound up like a spring by parents who neglect him or favour other siblings over him, the boy who buries himself in secrecy and makes plans for revenge. Smoulders and smoulders. In the end the whole world has to be punished, burned, and tortured. Like Edmund in
King Lear
—the ambitious, vengeful bastard son. Too easy. Almost a cliché.”

“In her book, Elizabeth makes claims that have no sources. I simply don’t know where she got them from.”

“What sort of claims?”

“In the footnotes she often references what she has called the Vogelsang Papers—Vogelsang—she gave the archive her own surname.”

“Which means what?”

“That it’s a collection of primary sources that she discovered and that only she had access to. Eyewitness accounts, I guess, and historical documents that almost certainly won’t have been copied or microfilmed. I’ve looked everywhere in The Studio, but there’s nothing. Without the Vogelsang Papers these claims just won’t stand up.”

“Do they need to?”

“Well, I’m safe from being sued because as a ghostwriter, I am technically invisible. And Elizabeth can’t be sued, because she’s dead. The author is dead either way, beyond challenge. Absent from the court. But that doesn’t solve the problem. If I am going to get the publishers to take this book as it stands, I have to provide some kind of proof of the allegations I think she’s making. She knew these things to be true, but
did she know? Without the Vogelsang Papers there’s nothing absolute. That’s the problem—she’s missing, the evidence is missing, the last chapters are missing, and I’m invisible.”

Kit laughed. “There are some advantages to being invisible. If you’re right—that there are certain things that she just knew—maybe you just have to take those things for granted, even though she’s not proved them to you—yet. Maybe she found another way to know—beyond looking in archives. Maybe she got to the end of the archives and still wanted to know so badly that she went places where academics don’t usually go.”

“Such as?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Where would you go if you really wanted to find out something about the past and yet you got to the end of what was known?”

“I have absolutely no idea. I’m just standing there at the edge looking out and I can’t see anything. I’m becoming less and less certain that I know anything at all. I mean, there is so much I just can’t explain—everyday things, not just Elizabeth’s book.”

“Like what?”

“Pieces of Elizabeth’s notes, important keys to the last chapters, keep disappearing and reappearing as if someone wants them to disappear. Files have gone missing. There are coincidences. There are weird light effects all over the house that I can’t find sources for.”

“What kind of lights?”

“Light that looks like water—as if it’s been reflected off a bowl of water. Rainbows that appear in little stubs and stretch out till they disappear, really slowly. I’ve tried photographing them, but my camera doesn’t seem to be good enough to catch them.”

“The river?”

“It’s too far away.”


“No, I’ve checked.”

I didn’t tell her how one morning I had collected every piece of glass in The Studio, lifted down the decanters and the glasses from every shelf, unhooked all the mirrors and pictures still hanging on the walls, even removed the light bulbs from their sockets and put them in dark places—in cupboards or under Elizabeth’s bed. Then I had sat and waited, clutching my camera. The light came just the same, spreading around the wall, pooling, slanting, stretching out, even with nothing there to catch and throw it. Light thrown, hurled, pitched. Light caught. Illumination. But the brighter the house became, the more I was thrown into darkness. I couldn’t see anything. And the camera showed nothing, caught nothing.

“Don’t you think that maybe you just need to get out more?” I’d lost Kit. She stood up from the bench to walk again, so we followed the path along the river’s edge, towards the boardwalk that meanders round past the punts moored at Quayside. She was impatient. I could hear it in her voice. She would come with me so far and would go no further into these speculations. She was laughing at me. “Look, Lydia. I’m going to a party next week. Want to come? We might find someone to share your bed. Then I bet you won’t be watching light move across walls.”

“And there’s another thing…” I was getting desperate now.
Don’t leave me alone with this, Kit. Don’t look at me like that.


“The one bit of the list of sins that nobody has been able to decode is a line that Newton wrote at the top of the list, on the flyleaf, like a heading. Every Newton scholar who knows anything about codes has had a go but has failed to decode it. Cameron told me that Elizabeth had been trying to decode it for months. She even asked
to try.”

“And?” She was checking her watch. Thought I didn’t see.

“Well, it’s another coincidence. Look.” I passed her my notebook with the transcription of the undeciphered heading:


Nabed Efyhik, Wfnzo Cpmkfe.


“What am I supposed to be seeing?” she asked. “It’s gobbledygook.” Behind her a street juggler had started to throw coloured balls into the air. But it was too windy, and he kept dropping them.

“Same bloody word,” I said.
Was she being deliberately slow?
“Nabed. Newton used it as a code word in his notebooks in 1662. A code so obscure that no one in four hundred years has been able to break it. Because it’s so obscure, it may have been some code he had been passed by someone else—a pledge, a spell, or a mantra passed to him along the alchemical networks, something so powerful it would work as a kind of protection there on the flyleaf of his notebook where he kept the list of his sins.”


“Well, now, three hundred and forty years later, the same word turns up in the same town as a secret code word used by an animal-liberation group. OK, so it’s just a coincidence. I can see that. But what kind of coincidence is that? Just random—like monkeys on typewriters?”

“Yes, just that,” she said. “You are making as much sense as a monkey with a typewriter.”

I was about to tell her about the bloodstain that disappeared and reappeared, but I stopped and changed the subject. Why didn’t I tell her? Because then I would have had to explain that the blood was yours. To do that I would have had to explain how your blood came to be on the pillowcase I had washed. Yes, Kit, Cameron stayed the night at The Studio. Yes, I did go to his bed. No, nothing is happening between us. It’s finished. History.

No, I wouldn’t have said all of that. I could hear how hollow it all would have sounded. There were so many things that I had started to
not say.
Lydia Brooke, previously the soul of indiscretion, had become rather quiet about many things. That was part of the trouble.

Kit and I had followed the boardwalk round the edge of the river on to Quayside, where on that late afternoon in October a few last punt touters in white shirts and straw hats tried, with a tired charm, to persuade too-cold tourists to take river tours. One of them, with a blond ponytail and a goatee, approached us and then, recognising Kit, smiled and changed his mind. She’d had run-ins with him before, she explained triumphantly. Now she had plans to cast him in her next play. “He’d make a great Bosola,” she said, “if I can flatter him enough to agree. He has the right kind of swagger. Looks like an eighteenth-century pirate.”

As Kit prepared to leave me to walk down Magdalene Street to the market, where she would relieve her assistant and check on the sales of her crimson cotton shirts, she said, “You have too active an imagination. And you’re working too hard. Come and stay at Sturton Street for a few nights. Have a break.”

“What? So that I can exchange my strange lights for the sound of Titus’s wheel?” I said. “I think not. And, hey, thanks for all the sympathy.”

“Let me know if you want me to find you an exorcist,” she called deliberately loudly from the corner of Nadia’s Bakery. “I’ll look in the Yellow Pages.” She grinned and disappeared into the crowd. I watched her patch of purpled clothes move up the street.

But I knew where to find an exorcist—Will had told me. In the Texaco garage on the A10.


was heading for the library and would need to turn left onto the bridge but, determined to catch the last of the afternoon sun, I took a table outside one of the cafés on Quayside and ordered a coffee. This was, after all, part of what I was supposed to be doing—taking in Cambridge, finding the seventeenth century. This was research.

The mottled green of the scrubland along the wild riverbank from Chesterton had given way to lush green grass, hedges, flower borders where Magdalene College began the great sweep of colleges lining the river as it curved its way down to Queens’ College, past Silver Street, and on to Peterhouse. From here the river belonged to the colleges. For hundreds of years men and women labourers employed by the colleges had kept this water’s edge spruce, mended its bridges, trimmed its hedges, tended its flower beds, painted its windowsills, polished its glass. Beyond this point on the river Cambridge became a kind of miniature Venice, its river water lapping up against the ancient stone of college walls, here mottled and reddened brick, there white stone. Stained, lichened, softened by water light. Here the river became a great north-south tunnel, a gothic castle from the river, flanked by locked iron gates, steps leading nowhere, labyrinths, trapdoors, landing stages where barges had unloaded their freight: crates of fine wines, flour, oats, candles, fine meats carried into the damp darkness of college cellars.

Great Bridge, carrying the great north road into Cambridge and on to London in a diagonal stroke from northwest to southeast, had been the single most important entry point to the city, where all northern traffic moving by water or by road made its way south. Now Bridge Street was lined with bag and hat shops, little boutiques selling jewellery.

I had Elizabeth at my side again, the Elizabeth who’d conjured Stourbridge Fair from February winds for me, Elizabeth the shaman of the seventeenth century. “Find Elizabeth, find the seventeenth century, we always say,” said Dilys Kite. What could Dilys have wanted with the seventeenth century? Or it with her?
Find Elizabeth, find the seventeenth century.
“Find it for me,” I said, under my breath. “Find me the seventeenth century.”

Somewhere close by council workers were emptying glass-recycling containers into a refuse lorry. I heard the pouring torrent of breaking and splintering and crushed glass bottles stop and start, echo and subside. I wondered whether glass bottles sounded different, in their breaking, once they had been sorted by colour.

I watched the men and women come and go across the bridge, negotiating their way past the punt touters with their placards, stopping to lean over the edge of the bridge to look at the river traffic or take pictures. But instead of finding the seventeenth century, I began to wonder where you were at that moment, whether you might be walking this way, how you would meet my eye. Yes, it was when I was thinking about you that I first saw him. Not out of the corner of my eye or on the edges of my vision but there on the bridge, directly in front of me. How far away? About fifty feet. What did he look like? He had white hair and a red gown.

I saw the white hair first. A thin young man, about the same age as the punt touters, but looking old before his time, his hair worn to his shoulders, so that it blew slightly in the wind as he leaned against the metal of the bridge, flanked on either side by Japanese tourists taking photographs. He wore no hat and his university gown was scarlet, not the usual black. It was the shock of recognition that made me gasp. He met my eyes. Mutual recognition, a raised eyebrow, the slightest upturning of the edges of his mouth. Or did I imagine that? What was I doing hallucinating Newton on a bridge in Cambridge?

He was as definite as a picture in a frame, yet around him everything fell away. There was a smudge around him. As if what I was seeing was something
the surface of my reality, as if someone had rubbed away the surface of my Cambridge, its boutiques, cars, bicycles, and hat shops, so that now, for this moment, there were shades instead—even smears—of men and women from his world walking behind him through the optical smudge he occupied, or had made. Perhaps he had done the rubbing through from his side. How, then, was it that I could see him, see through into that?

As we stood there confronting each other—he on the Great Bridge, me on Quayside—there was a falling away such as even Elizabeth could not have conjured. Yet nothing much changed. Neither of the Japanese tourists on either side of him seemed to show any surprise at his presence. I can hear again, as I write, the intense hush into which the sounds of the afternoon fell away. Quayside lost for a moment its clamour. I might even have said that for a moment it lost its colour; they faded into a kind of black and white. That would happen again, later, much more sharply, that draining out of colour, but then you wouldn’t know that. I didn’t tell you.

How long did it last? You ask that now? You, who understand about the contractions and spasms of time, about that world and this. It lasted longer than I could breathe my way through it. He seemed to fix me from the bridge with a question, a scrutiny through the fading light. He had both hands on the ledge, and as he turned away from me, his hand grazed along the length of it. I can still see, as if I am seeing it now, the passing of his long fingers along the stone. He turned away; that was all I knew, and was gone.

BOOK: Ghostwalk
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