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Authors: Rebecca Stott

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BOOK: Ghostwalk
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“That’s Dilys Kite. A friend of your mother’s. I met her at the funeral. Strange that she should be here.”

“Well, I don’t care whether she’s a friend of my mother’s. I’ve never met her and I don’t remember seeing her at the funeral. She’s definitely trying to hypnotise me. I won’t look. See her off, won’t you?”

“She can’t be trying to hypnotise you—at least not from there. She’s only got one good eye. The other is false. Don’t turn your head right now but take a look at her right forearm. She’s got the most magnificent tattoo.”

I don’t know why but, though I was laughing, I was suddenly afraid Dilys would disappear again. I didn’t want to speak to her this time. At least not in your presence. She would have made me say too many things I didn’t want to say. You would have been rude. I knew that. I took my camera from my bag. You raised your eyebrow.

“Don’t ask,” I said. “Just humour me. I need a photograph of her. Shift into this seat so that I can see her over your shoulder. That’s right. I’m going to make it look like I’m photographing you but the zoom on this camera is good enough to catch her. She can’t see us anyway, but just in case.”

“I’m too old for photographs.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll edit you out later. It’s her I want.”


“It’s a long story. You wouldn’t get it.”

“Oh, OK, it’s a writing thing. Your dark art.”

The flash of the camera made several people glance in our direction at the same time. I opened up the screen. There was Dilys, now a series of pixels in my digital camera. Fixed. Framed. Imprisoned. Her head rose over your shoulder, the smoke from the cigarette she held in her left hand curling upwards, a snake trail against the polished metal door of an old bread oven set into the fireplace behind her. Your cheek and jaw filled a third of the screen. I zoomed in past you to see how clear the cropped picture of Dilys would be. Her eyes were half closed but she was looking straight at the camera, as if she knew she was being photographed. I took the focus in several times so that her face filled the frame.

But you had poured me some more wine and begun to talk about Elizabeth and her book again, so I turned off the camera and put Dilys away. When I looked across at her table she and her friends had gone.

Since then I have gone back to that picture several times. I never did edit you out, though I meant to. And it was only later that day, when I transferred the picture to my computer screen to crop Dilys’s face, that I noticed the bloody weals that ran down your cheek—angry wounds. Funny, I thought. He must have cut himself shaving. Why hadn’t I noticed at the time? You hadn’t cut yourself shaving, had you? Something unaccountable had started.

Slowly you wove Elizabeth’s spell around me all through lunch with your silk threads and hers, like a cocoon. I was now very interested in your goddamned seventeenth century. Elizabeth’s seventeenth century. You said suddenly, seriously:

“I’d like you to finish Elizabeth’s book. Don’t say anything yet, just listen. You can make up your mind later. I’ve thought about this a lot. Elizabeth would have wanted this—she left your name among her papers on the last day.”

“But that doesn’t mean anything—”

“Shhh. Just
” You were cross, impatient. You were already talking to me as if we were still lovers. There seemed to be a great deal at stake.

“I want to pay you to finish it,” you said.
I want to pay you to finish it.
What a strange phrase; what an unnerving proposition. I thought of courtesans then, you know, in silk kimonos, in those still moments as I took in your words and dwelled upon them there, running my finger around the ring of the half-full wine glass so that the sound seemed to hold out a taut meditation between us which I could not sever, could not take my finger from. Silk kimonos and hushed peignoirs and a poem by Wallace Stevens. I blush to tell you even now what I thought then because—but you know, you knew—to tell you about seeing silk kimonos and courtesans is to tell you of books, and dust, and seduction, to tell you now that it is too late, that even then I was already in your bed, or you were in mine. Again. Yes, that was your story and mine, as it wrote itself, as it wound itself into sheets and stories through Cambridge winter afternoons as the shadows lengthened. How much seduction was in the air; even then, even in that lunch amid the eggplant and chickpeas and the smoke from the Sunday market.

“I propose to pay you a salary for six months. No, no, don’t laugh. Don’t dismiss it. I am making a business proposition: you have made others like it, I know. I’m asking you to finish my mother’s book between now and the spring; that’s around six months. It might not even need that long. It’s practically finished as far as I can see. Her footnotes look impeccable, as always.”

“But I live in Brighton. Elizabeth had notes and papers. I would need libraries and access to her books…”

“I’ve thought about that. It makes sense for you to live in The Studio while you’re writing. It’s obvious. All the books you could possibly need are there, and it’s only a half-hour walk from The Studio to the University Library. Pepys is still there. A neighbour has been feeding him.”

“You want me to live in Elizabeth’s house? But if there’s more research to be done—how…? I’m not a proper historian, Cameron. You know that.”

“You won’t need to be a historian. She’s done all the research. There are a couple of incomplete chapters, but there are files with notes for each of those. The rest just needs redrafting and editing. The manuscript is in her computer; there’s a printout on her desk.”

“Have you read it?”

“No, I can’t bear to. But I have glanced through it, just to see what sort of state it was in.”

“And?” I was biting my nails.

“Well, it reads well. The bulk of it covers Newton’s life from 1661, when he arrived in Cambridge, to 1667, when he was given his fellowship. Like a mini-biography. It’s very detailed.”

“Just six years? Why those years in particular?”

“Alchemy. She was using Newton as a way of showing how all those European alchemical networks and secret societies hung together. That’s how I always understood it, anyway. She wanted to challenge that myth of Newton as a lone genius, working completely in isolation. It was a passion to her—she hated all those genius myths and eureka moments in the history of science books. She talked about it a lot. She wanted to show how much, like all other scientists in the seventeenth century, Newton depended upon European secret societies, Freemasons and alchemists, groups of men in The Hague and in London and Cambridge and Paris. That he wasn’t in isolation and that the network to which he belonged controlled him in some ways, too.”

“Depended on them for what?”

“Oh, for almost everything—for knowledge, secret manuscripts, books, libraries, scientific instruments, patronage, formulas, introductions to other people. Newton was apparently connected up to a group of alchemists working in London and Cambridge. She’d been tracking them down one by one. She had an index-card box full of their names and dates. Some of them were easy to identify apparently, but others just had code names like ‘Mr. F.’ or initials like ‘W.S.’ or pseudonyms like ‘Philalethes.’ She was working on identifying some of the last alchemists in Newton’s circle when I last spoke with her, just before she died. I helped her with some of it.”

“OK. Sounds interesting. That does happen to be a decade I know relatively well because of
—end of the civil war, the plague, the Fire of London, the establishment of the Royal Society. I’d like to read it, though, before I make up my mind.”

“You can’t. This is an act of trust. I can’t let you read it unless you agree to finish it. You have four days to make up your mind.”


“I’m going to Berlin until Friday. A conference.”

“Lucky you.”

“I won’t see anything of Berlin. We’re not allowed to leave the hotel.”

“Why?” You looked away. Waved for the bill.

“The usual reasons. The lab managers have stepped up security to high alert. There’s a new animal-liberation campaign going on in Cambridge that’s getting nasty. Three car bombs and acid attacks since the summer. One of the car bombs was mine. I seem to be towards the top of their hit list now that the book is out. That’s a measure of professional success, I suppose.”

“Christ. They got your car? Not the little green Mini.”

“Yes. The fucking Mini. I’ve had that car since I was a student. We’ve got a Volvo now. I hate Volvos.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”
We slept in that Mini, remember, parked in the middle of a field at night, somewhere outside Wisbech.
“Kit’s on one of those lists too, it seems,” I said.

“Kit’s being targeted? Why?”

“The fur coats on her stall.”

“Oh yes, that would be reason enough—now. Oh, you know how it is. It’s no big deal. I’ve lived with it for at least fifteen years. Phone calls, letters, e-mails—threats mostly. Since you left, the sponsors agreed to pay for Sarah and me to get proper security for the house at Over so it feels safer. They leave the kids alone, which is something. But it’s more dangerous abroad—particularly in Germany, where many of my financial backers are based. The conference will be boycotted.”

“Do you have to go?” Was this fear on my part or a sense of foreboding?

“It’s my work. Of course I have to go.” You smiled. Yes, you knew. It had already started.

“Look. Here’s my card and contact details. I’ve changed labs. You won’t be able to just drop by, I’m afraid. No one’s allowed in, not now. Even my office at Trinity has a CCTV camera. It doesn’t work properly, but the college has insisted on it, even though I’m only there once a week or so.”

I looked at the business card you passed me. “Histon BioSciences?” I said. “You always said you’d never go there. Christ, Cameron. Why?” The Histon lab was notorious. There were whole groups dedicated to bringing that laboratory to a stop.

“For a moment there, Lydia Brooke, I might almost have believed that you were concerned for my welfare. But it’s the thought of the puppies, isn’t it? Contrary to popular belief, we don’t torture puppies at Histon.” Your eyes had flecks of steel in them now. You were not going to explain anything to me, or defend yourself.

“Here’s my mobile number. Would you text me in Berlin with an answer when you’re ready? I’m sorry to hurry you, but I have to make arrangements with the executors of Elizabeth’s will to release the money to pay your salary, and they’re putting pressure on me. If you agree, I’ll ring my lawyers and get them to send you a contract to sign. They’ll ask for your bank details so that your salary can go straight into your account, on the last day of the month, every month until March. Money. Christ, yes money. Sorry, I forgot. The salary. The details are all in this envelope. Someone contacted the Writers’ Guild to find out the upper end of the current rate for ghostwriting.”

“Ghostwriter? Yes, I guess that’s what I’ll be.”

“Sounds good, doesn’t it? Beautiful word. Ghostwriter. Ghost-pale. Ghost-light. Ghost-hour. Ghost…”

“Ghost-ridden…yes, beautiful. And if I say no? What alternative arrangements do you have in place?”

“None. I don’t know what I’ll do if you say no. Frankly. Throw something? Lose my temper…no, not with you.” You laughed and I noticed how your lips still creased like the finest parchment. You were used to getting your way—probably took it for granted now.

“And Sarah?”

“What about her?”

“Won’t it cause problems?”

“She never knew about us.”

“Cameron, she
knew about us.”

“So you say. You’ll just have to believe me; it won’t be a problem. You’re the obvious person to finish the book. She knows that.”

You made your excuses, paid the bill, and left, handing me a sealed envelope containing a key to The Studio and the paperwork at the very last minute so that I couldn’t pass it back. That was presumptuous of you. “Go and look over The Studio if you like,” you said. “It’s empty.”

Empty? The Studio was never empty after Elizabeth died. But you didn’t know that.


After I left Cambridge, you sent me a text message out of the blue, one of several. “The world is no longer beautiful,” it said. It was the tone you had taken that made me want to be cruel in return. Made me want to send vials of poison back to you. It was the artfulness of those occasional texts you sent me, the fact that—after everything—you still had the audacity to assume that the loss and the pain were yours. That you were the suffering one. I didn’t answer. It seemed better that way. Just silence.

And I knew that despite your words of love, in that silence and in my absence you would be purifying yourself again, doing whatever it took to persuade yourself that you could now become an honest man, that you could stop betraying Sarah. And, I guessed, that would mean finding my letters, all those letters I had sent you from Italy and Greece and Istanbul and Syria, envelopes filled with the pressed flowers and the bits and pieces of things I had slipped between the thick sheets of paper, that you would print out all my e-mails, gather all my letters and e-mails together and burn them on that bonfire out in your garden. Once you had seen all those words in flames, I knew, there would be a kind of redemption. Yes, I thought, you would do that, burn my words in exchange for your own redemption.

What was it that made me agree? The prospect of living in Elizabeth’s house, which I loved, the promise of quiet, no company but a cat, a project to finish. Was it the money or the fact that I had just finished my screenplay and for once had nothing else to do for a few months? Or perhaps the thought of going back to Brighton, which made me feel buried alive—I glimpsed for a second Peter’s orderliness, the handles of the saucepans all facing in the same direction in the cupboard, the list of jobs to be done on the fridge door, and it made me shudder. Was it that I already knew I was leaving him? Or was it you? Or the wine we had drunk? You were uncompromising, determined. You wouldn’t have taken no for an answer. You had made up your mind that I was to be Elizabeth’s ghostwriter, discussed it with your lawyers, drawn up a contract with my name on it. You had prepared your ground, asked all the right questions. I just walked straight on in.

BOOK: Ghostwalk
7.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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