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Authors: Rebecca Stott

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BOOK: Ghostwalk
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None of this surprised me. If you joked about your mother’s obsessions, it was because you knew how it was to pursue a question so far that it began to consume you from the inside. You were always your mother’s son. When you were at the lab or working late on your papers in your office at Trinity, you’d forget to eat for whole days. There were times for both of us, when I was writing too, when we could only claw ourselves back to sanity in the depths of each other’s skin in the dark of the night, desperate and mindless and hungry for something we couldn’t name.

You’d wake sometimes in those nights and reach for paper to write something down, some solution that had come to you in the night, some formula or some new question. You’d laugh in the daylight, looking at the words you’d written, nonsensical words scribbled on the back of anything you could find: paperbacks, bills, even once the corner of a lamp-shade. Though you claimed otherwise, it was never the academic rewards and adulation that drove you, but the head rush of unearthing something no one had put together before, being the first one to see it. Sometimes, ecstatic with some new breakthrough, you’d begin to tell me something, then stop yourself, remembering the silence that had to wrap itself around your work. You thought I didn’t notice. Then the man of silences would make up stories. First thing in the morning, before dawn sometimes, spinning stories, ridiculous, brilliant stories. Write that down, you’d say. Do something with that. And I did. Stole your plots and the made-up people you brought me.

Once, eight years ago or so, when we were sitting talking about everything and nothing, nursing hangovers and drinking tequilas in a cabaret bar buried in a flea market in northern Paris, right at the heart of a knot of streets lined with shops selling chandeliers the size of upturned trees, jewelled swords, antique clocks, medical models of men and animals with every sinew labelled, jewels and glass and piles of lace and linen, boiled and ironed to stiff whiteness, I said:

“You’re a pretty good person to get annihilated with.”

You laughed. “Annihilation,” you said. “Yeah.
Killing Time
by Cameron Brown and Lydia Brooke.” An aged woman with dyed black hair and eyebrows had begun to sing “La Vie en Rose” very loudly on a platform in the sawdust depths of the bar.

“You know, you could annihilate me, everything, at any moment,” you said, darkly, when she had slipped off the stage again. “Just by sending her a letter or ringing her up. It frightens me sometimes to think about it. Armageddon. Your armies and mine—just think what they could do to each other. If we let them.”

“I think about that too,” I said. “And it frightens me that I do think about it.”

“It all hangs by a thread,” you said.

“No. Not really. It’s a robust thing; it’s weathered and adapted down the years. It’s all much stronger than you think.”

“You’re talking about yourself—”

“No, I was talking about you. I was hoping it was true and afraid that it wasn’t. I sometimes think I’m stronger than you. I think I am.” Yes, I could see your mounted armies and mine lined up to face each other on the hills of Montmartre, before the city spread that far, waiting, paused. A lowering sky behind. The glint and clink of metal. The exhalation of horses in cold air.

“Think you are what?”

“Stronger than you.”

“One of the animal-lib people wrote that to me once. Funny the language they use. Passionate. The letter said, ‘We know your every weakness. We are stronger than you. We have greater resolve and we will never give up.’ That scares me too.” You were running your finger around the edges of a stain on the table.

“Perhaps I should give you up,” I said. “Release you.”

“You can’t.”

“I could try.”

“But I will never give
you
up. Never. And I don’t care how that sounds. I need you. I won’t let you want to leave me. Not yet.” I could see the ring of gold around the dark iris of your eye.

We were both afraid suddenly in the smoke of that Parisian café. Afraid to leave and afraid to stay. We came to be afraid in those months before I disappeared, before I left you, from that day we lined up our armies on the hills of Montmartre. A game of Risk. You with the blue dice and me with the red. So many battalions to lose.

I had just begun to fall asleep, remembering that bar in Paris, my head against the fleece, when Kit told me about the phone calls. She tried to be casual, even offhand.

“Don’t answer the phone while you’re here, Lydia. Maria’s not allowed to either. I’ve been getting weird phone calls. So I just use my mobile.”

“What kind of phone calls?” Now I was wide awake.

“Look at you,” she laughed at me. “Bristling like a cat. Don’t get wound up. It’s been going on for a bit. They don’t bother me anymore. And they don’t happen that often either. It’s the fur coats.”

“You’re getting strange phone calls about fur coats? What kind of pervert is that?”

“It’s not a pervert. Look…I have a rail of vintage fur coats on my stall. This person, the woman who calls, belongs to some animal organisation—not NABED as far as I know, thank God. This woman says I shouldn’t sell them. To start with she was reasonable, but then, you know me, I got angry and told her to sod off, and since then she keeps on calling once a week or so.”

“Are there threats?”

“Oh yes.”

“And you’re still selling the coats? You could just stop. It’s not like you
have
to.”

“Think about it. Would you stop if someone started ringing you like that? I mean really?”

“But you’re so exposed there on the market. Anyone could—” I stopped.

“Anyone could what? I’ve thought about all of that. Yes—they could what? Graffiti my stall, poison me, burn the coats…bomb my stall? I’m a little person. They won’t do anything to me.”

I moved to sit nearer the fire, taking one of Kit’s feet into my hand and massaging it. “They might.”

“It’s not a bloody film, Lydia. This is just some crank. You can’t give in to these people. Actually, I’m pretty sympathetic. Anthony’s friend belongs to one of these groups, and they’ve got a point. They say there’s an animal holocaust going on and that anyone who is complicit with it, by selling animal products or experimenting on animals, is a collaborator. I kind of see that. They want to bring down the institutions, the meat industry, the clothes manufacturers, the pharmaceuticals—all the institutions that hurt and exploit animals. It makes sense.”

“So why don’t you stop?”

“You wouldn’t.”

“No, I wouldn’t. But…What about Maria?”

“I’ve talked to her about it. She thinks I’m right. So just don’t answer the phone, that’s all. They’ll stop if I ignore them for long enough. Now go to bed, look at you. You look a hundred and five.”

         

I was cold, suddenly, and sad; I wished I’d known. Wished I’d been up to Cambridge to stay more often. That’s how it started…slowly, piece by piece. With a bristle. Yes, it did make me bristle. I wanted to protect Kit and Maria and even those bloody fur coats. After all, I had time. I could stay. That’s what I said to myself then, but there was something else too. Something about not being finished with the city or it with me. I wasn’t going back to my flat till Peter had gone. Not now. I had some wadding to throw off. And you? Well, you might have had something to do with it, too.

Five

I
called you early. It ought to be easy, I thought, after five years—what trouble could there be? We were over it. It was finished. I had two books Elizabeth had lent me that I wanted to return. I only had to see you once, after all, to make my point and satisfy my curiosity. Best to get it out of the way, I thought, so it was eight-thirty
A.M
. when I phoned; Kit and Maria were still sleeping, and there was no chance of being overheard. I didn’t want to be thinking about Cameron Brown today: the day was fine and I had promised to take Maria punting on the river. The punts would be packed away for winter from the beginning of October, so there wasn’t much time left now that she’d started school again. As soon as I had pressed the buttons on Kit’s phone I realised it was Sunday and probably too early to call. But it was too late.

I would never have used your home phone before, but I was lucky; it was you, not Sarah, who answered the phone.

“Cameron Brown. Hello.”

I began to speak, but my voice was too high. I started again.

“Sorry. I have a cold. Cameron, it’s Lydia.”

“Lydia
Brooke
?” Did I detect anything in your voice? Had I forgotten how to read it? Already?

“Yes.” Safer to say as little as possible. For the moment.

“That’s extraordinary. I have a piece of paper on my desk here on which I’ve written your name. It says ‘Call Lydia,’ but I thought it was too early to call. I thought you’d still be sleeping. Last night I called your home in Brighton. Your husband gave me your mobile phone number. But here you are calling me instead. Are you in Cambridge?”

“Yes, I’m in Cambridge. That was Peter you spoke to. He’s not my husband. He’s a friend. He’s staying in my flat.”

“Oh, OK, sorry. I’d heard you were married. Are you in Cambridge for long?”

“Yes, well, about a week. Maybe longer. It depends. I came for Elizabeth’s funeral and I’m staying with Kit. And…you didn’t hear I was married. You made that up. You know I don’t believe in…You know I wouldn’t.” You had me, and you knew it. I’d lost my composure.

“You’re staying in Sturton Street? Shit. I wish you hadn’t told me that. Same room?”

“No. I’m sharing with Maria. Kit’s turned my old room into a storeroom for her clothes.”

Same room?
Not your business, Cameron Brown. “My old room”
—our
old room. Yes, you were at Sturton Street for most of the time I rented a room from Kit there. We’d been talking for less than two minutes and already we’d talked our way back to
that room.
Change the subject. Get out of there, away from the crimson sheets, the white muslin curtains and the light that hit the bed around midafternoon through trees that dappled it. Keep to the point.

“I have some books of Elizabeth’s I wanted to return. I wonder if I might drop them by the lab sometime in the next few days?”

“Yes, yes, that would be great, but I wonder. Might we meet? I have some things I wanted to ask you. Elizabeth left a letter for me in which she gave me your phone number. Oh, look, it’s impossible to explain over the phone. I have some questions I want to ask you about the goddamned seventeenth century.”

“You have some questions about the goddamned seventeenth century? You probably need someone else then, not me.”

“No, it’s definitely you I need to talk to. Let me explain. Let’s meet. Are you free later on today? Let me buy you lunch. I have to go into Trinity to pick up some files, so how about the pasta place on Market Square? Twelve-thirty?”

“OK. Sounds interesting.”

“Mmmm. Don’t know about that. It all seems very complicated to me. But I will explain. Or I’ll try to…It’s so good to hear your voice.”

So I abandoned the plans to take Maria punting. Just like old times. You always made me do that. But then I suppose I didn’t
have
to abandon friends, films, plans, and trips whenever you texted me that you had an hour or a day free. I was in love—was that justification enough for always putting you first?

         

I saw you reading a book in the restaurant window looking over the market—the Sunday market full of craft stalls and ugly objects, cartoons of cats and painted glass. A market among the chiselled and inscrutable stone of Cambridge colleges, walls marking their borders from the town. The first word Maria had recognised, Kit told me once, was the word
private.
Kit said she hadn’t noticed how often you could see the word around Cambridge on walls and doors till Maria had pointed and repeated it. A city of keys and locked doors and private secret inner courtyards—gardens to which only fellows had the key.

Kit’s stall was empty; she didn’t work on Sundays. She’d gone to a yard sale; Maria was still asleep. Hidden in the shadows I locked Kit’s bike, caught my breath, and ran my fingers through my hair, checking my reflection in the window of the CUP bookshop. Cameron Brown, Doctor of Neuroscience, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. You never looked quite like an academic. Cambridge male academics dress badly, Kit always says; that is axiomatic, that is the dress code: trousers at least an inch too short, patterned sweaters from the eighties, jackets with shorts, socks worn with sandals, and once, Kit swore, she’d seen a split seam on a pair of trousers that had been
stapled
back together. You dressed positively elegantly compared with most of the men I’d seen in the University Library. That man’s dishevelment, Kit used to say, is different; it’s carefully arranged. Studied even. There’s nothing contingent about it.

“So sorry I’m late. Hope you haven’t been waiting long.” Why did I sound like I was a hundred years old? Or about to interview you? The cuffs of that grey sweater I bought you had begun to unravel. You had shaved. It always made you look younger.

“I knew you’d be late. I had a bet with myself.” You knocked the salt and pepper pots over as you stood to shake my hand and tried to put your book away in your briefcase at the same time. I thought I’d be the awkward one. I felt suddenly at my ease as I took off my coat and watched you stand the salt and pepper pots up again, smiling urbanely, looking me up and down, thinking I didn’t notice. But then I was doing the same to you. A man with long limbs, I remembered, who doesn’t quite know how to carry himself.

“I’m not late,” I said. “And you know I’m not a generally late person. You must be mixing me up with someone else.”

“No, I don’t think I am, as it happens,” you said, passing me the menu. “I’ve ordered us a bottle of wine—the wine’s good here. And some olives. Are you hungry? The seafood’s good here too. You like crab, don’t you? It’s fresh in from Lowestoft. Probably scuttling across the seabed up there only yesterday.”

“Are you having crab?” I asked. I didn’t like crab. Not at all. My stepmother had tricked me into eating a crab sandwich once in a café in Cromer, told me it was tuna. I’d never forgiven her. You once knew I hated crab. Had you forgotten or were you pretending to have forgotten?

“I’m having the eggplant and chickpeas. And bread—a basket of bread. My kind of food.”

From where I was sitting I could see the stall where the young man mended wicker chairs, and stalls full of market vegetables and organic meats and the smoke from the stall round the other side where they barbecued ostrich burgers. I remembered talking to you and Sarah at the market once, before any of us had become entangled. The three of us had been at the same party the night before and there we were, quite by chance, at the water hydrant on the marketplace, sitting on the same wall, eating lunch. It was May, I think. She’d gone rowing at six
A.M
., she’d said, despite her hangover, and she was going home to sleep. She had magnificent arms. I remember that. Rower’s arms.

You poured me a glass of wine and, draining yours, poured yourself another. It was a brown earthy red, a Rioja. We were both doing everything we could to avoid looking at each other.

“We could have gone to the vegetarian café across the road,” I said. “You’re still vegetarian, I assume.”

“Yes, I am. But that café’s not very good anymore and anyway—you like seafood.”

“How do you know I still like seafood?”

“Oh, that won’t have changed. It’s in your blood.”

“I’m genetically programmed to always like seafood?”

“Yes, I wrote the programme. It’s the finest I’ve written. My masterpiece.” You must have seen my eyes narrow. You could still read me then and put your shields up as fast as ever. “Lydia, shit, it’s just a joke, OK? Don’t look at me like that.” You were winning.

“None of your manipulative jokes, eh?”

“Maybe later? A little one?”

“Have I told you how much I dislike you?”

“Many times.” The corners of your mouth had curled into the faintest of smiles. You wanted to fight. I didn’t. Today you would win. Perhaps I didn’t care anymore.

“I’ll have the duck salad. Did you finish your book?” I couldn’t tell you that I had bought and read it; that would have given you too much advantage.

“Yes. I finished it—finally. That was a burden. I
had
to finish it once you’d gone. What are
you
working on now? Actually, I know the answer to that question. I asked Anthony. You’ve just finished a screenplay. Yes?”

“Yes, I’ve just finished a screenplay. Suddenly I know why I live in Brighton, not Cambridge.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because you can be private in Brighton—even, on good days, anonymous.”

“Oops, sorry. You’re right. In Cambridge everyone knows everyone else’s business. Especially if you’re famous.”

“I’m not famous.”

“I think you’ll find you are. Famous by Cambridge’s standards. Doesn’t take much.”

“Cameron, stop it now. Enough.”

“Stop what, Dr. Brooke?”

“Your games.”

“So you’re back? You’re looking good. Different. Your hair’s longer. Something’s different. Not sure what. Something about your eyes.”

“Yes, I’m back.”
But not to you. I haven’t come back for you.
“I came for your mother’s funeral. I’m so sorry about Elizabeth. You must be…”

“It’s been five years since I saw you.”

“I know.”
Five years and three months, actually.
“Shall we order? I’m very hungry. I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“Jesus. I know how you get when you’re hungry. We better eat quickly or you’ll have one of your tantrums. Were you working late or just anxious about seeing me?”

“Neither. It was a noisy guinea pig.”

“I was up late last night too. Sick child.”

Cameron Brown up at night with a sick child. Toby or Leo? That seemed strangely incongruous and implausible. Then I saw it all again—the house, the wife, the boys who played football and got sick. The smell of couples, sentences routinely finished by the other, clothes hanging in the same wardrobe, schedules for cleaning the toilet or for picking up the kids. Was Sarah still arranging for your bike repairs and taking your clothes to the dry cleaner? You probably never even questioned all of that, took it for granted. Life was disappointing, I thought, when you looked close; full of mediocrity and domesticity. Everyone went down in the end, martyrs to the golden marital dream. Then the compromises and the bandages, the arguments about who cleans the toilet. Cambridge was full of wives who tolerated their academic husbands working late and did everything for them, looking firmly away from their affairs. And full of women like me who didn’t want all of that and in return got to be called mistresses and were whispered about in libraries and college corridors. Pretty, suffocating Cambridge. I didn’t like to look at it. Didn’t want to see inside your house and find a repetition of a thousand Cambridge middle-class households. It bored and frightened me.

I blushed and you noticed. I saw your eyes linger on the base of my neck, which is where my blushes stain most red. What were you thinking then? Only the most obvious interpretation, I thought: confirmation that you were still under my skin.

But you didn’t misunderstand me, did you? Not then and not later.

You misunderstood other things but you knew then, you knew why I blushed. I never gave you credit for that.

“And how is Sarah?” I asked when that blush had receded. I made an effort to meet your eyes head-on. I must have looked confrontational. No more misreadings.

“Sarah? She’s fine. She’s had a book out too, on seventeenth-century trade relations between England and Spain.”

“She finished that book? You
both
finished?”

“Yes, it’s been, Christ, what’s the word? Peaceful. We just got on with our lives. Worked hard, finished certain projects. Lydia, I want to ask you something.”

“Yes, you said. About the ‘goddamned seventeenth century.’ Can’t you ask Sarah? She’s a seventeenth-century historian.”

“Not the right kind, unfortunately. OK. From the beginning…It’s about Elizabeth’s book.”

“The history of alchemy book?”

“You know how it meant everything to her, night and day, summer and winter.”

“Yes. I don’t know much about it, though. She never really talked about it to me.”

“She didn’t really talk about it to anyone. She’d started out with that history of alchemy project thirty years or so ago, but in the last decade she’d narrowed it down to just Newton’s alchemical work. She published a few articles in the nineties, all of them highly scholarly but uncontroversial. She gained a reputation; even something of a following. There were certain important historians who were waiting for her to finish the magnum opus with a degree of anticipation, I think.”

I noticed several patches on your neck that you’d missed in shaving. I hated noticing things like that. You leaned forward, suddenly conspiratorial, and whispered:

“Don’t look now but there’s an old girl two tables away who’s trying to hypnotise me.” I glanced in the direction you indicated. An old woman dressed in dark blue sat with a group of friends, talking and chain-smoking. She looked away as I turned towards her. An older woman in a tweed jacket passed her a pint of golden-coloured beer, and she lifted her hand to the glass. She drank half in one go without putting down her cigarette. I was impressed. She didn’t look like the sort of woman who would drink pints.

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