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Authors: Rebecca Stott

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BOOK: Ghostwalk
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I texted you that night for the first time, pushing out the letters onto an illuminated screen in the dark of Maria’s bedroom before I had even talked to Kit.

“Yes. I will. Yes. Lydia B.”

Only two minutes later, as if you had been waiting for me, your reply lit up the screen on my phone with a tiny envelope:

“Thank you, Lydia B. Use the key. Make yourself at home. Will call on my return.”

Six

I
remember that beginning as a series of flights and drops, certainties and fallings away. After rising to your challenge, sealing my fate in those few short letters typed into my phone, I had a couple of very bad days, days in which Kit’s questions challenged my motives, in which I found myself doubtful and resolved by turns. I picked up the mobile to text you several times: if a few words typed into a mobile phone had committed me to writing Elizabeth’s book, a few words might also undo that knot. But I didn’t undo it. You were in Berlin; I in Cambridge. I sent no further message. What could I lose, I wondered, now that my direction was so unscripted? I would have liked to talk to you. I didn’t. I walked on in.

I turned myself into Elizabeth’s ghostwriter by a series of small and inconsequential acts over the following week that continued to propel me towards The Studio and tied the knot between Elizabeth, you, and me ever tighter: a long phone call to Peter that started with explanations and ended with raised voices, a phone call in which I sought advice and which ended instead in my telling him I was moving into a house in Cambridge; a deliberately formal e-mail sent to my now ex-lover the following day with a list of things I needed to take with me; a drive to Brighton to pick up the boxes of papers, books, and clothes that Peter had packed up, labelled, and colour-coded; new agreements made over my kitchen table about bills and responsibilities and rent to be paid into my account; an argument with Kit about risk and your manipulations; boxes that stayed unpacked in the back of my car until the morning I took my clean washing from Kit’s laundry cupboard, packed my last things, picked up the key to The Studio, stepped into the car, and drove to your mother’s house. Just keep on walking forward, I said.

The Studio was not as I had remembered it. Quiet roads twisted and turned down by the river, lined with elegant eighteenth-century houses of all different shapes and sizes: gardens filled at this time of the year with hollyhocks that had bloomed; the little pub called the Green Dragon overlooking the river; the parking place by the cobbled wall; the door in the ivy which I had to open by pushing my shoulder against it hard; beyond the door the bright September light falling through trees that were already turning gold and russet. It was only when I pulled the heavy door to behind me, shutting myself away from the sound of the traffic, and when I smelled the river and the apples rotting in the orchard garden, that my ambivalence dropped away. I remember the lawn and the bright flowers and the blue sky blindingly bright above the sharded angles of the roof and the sound of my feet on the gravel path and the clustered treetops over which rooks circled and cawed in the glassy sky.

When I circled the outside of the house looking in, taking my time, Elizabeth’s cat, Pepys, a ginger tom, twisted his way like a skein of wool round my ankles, as he and I followed the path round the woodpile at the back of the house and through the rose arbours and shrubs planted around the skirts of the orchard. I remember noticing that there were no curtains at the windows and that many of the wooden shingles on the roof, which swept all the way down to the ground, needed replacing. Not my responsibility, I said to the cat. I don’t have to mend and paint and repair here. I’m just passing through. I didn’t walk down to the riverbank, down to those reeds, not just yet. No ghosts here, I thought. No ghosts and a room of my own.

         

Two days later a woman dressed in black with short blond hair let herself into The Studio at around midnight and, finding me sitting at Elizabeth’s table in the dark, reading her papers by candlelight, let out a scream. Of course: in that light and at that hour, she thought she’d seen a ghost. Since the front door was still open, the wind blew the candle on my table out, and paralysed by the sudden darkness, she dropped everything she was carrying onto the hallway floor. Switching on the light, I helped her pick her things up: library books, a tobacco tin, and a new bottle of glass cleaner called Shine.

“She’s run out of glass polish,” she said, by way of explanation.

“How come you’ve got a key to this house?” I asked.

“How come
you
have?”

“I’m going to be living here for a bit. Cameron—Elizabeth’s son—has asked me to do some work on her papers. I’m a writer. Lydia Brooke. I was also Elizabeth’s friend.”

“Will Burroughs.” She offered me her hand and I shook it. “Elizabeth was my friend too,” she said proprietarily. “She paid me to do her garden and sometimes I cleaned her house. I stayed here sometimes when she was away—fed Pepys. I’m a graduate student at the university. I’ve just kept on coming since she died. I love this house and I miss her. She let me work in the back room. Some of my papers are still in there.”

“Will?” Even in the dark I could see she wasn’t a boy.

“Short for Willow.”

I lit a match and found the candle. “Willow?” She was tall and thin. Boyish. Yes, she could pass for a boy.

“My parents were hippies. Bastard name. I hate it.”

“Oh. No, you don’t look like a Willow somehow. Will’s much better. Do you want a glass of wine? I have a bottle open.”

“I don’t drink wine. I’ll pour myself some water, though, and then I’ll just get on and clean. Don’t mind me. I’m very good at cleaning quietly. Used to working around Elizabeth. She always worked late. She was always awake when I came.”

It’s only recently that I came to think again about what she said to me that night. I have only recently come to wonder why, if Will had been tending the garden and cleaning the house, it was all so unkempt.

         

That’s how I came to be friends with Will Burroughs. There was something about her I liked from the start. Something enigmatic. So I asked her to come and give the house a thorough clean—it had been standing empty for a while and smelled musty—and to do some late-summer work on the garden. It was an excuse, really. I had been working alone for too long, and apart from Kit and Maria I wasn’t in the mood to be looking up old Cambridge friends. I was just passing through. Will stayed late one evening and we played chess on an old board I found under the sofa. That’s when I told her that if she wanted she could carry on working in the back room. She had a key and could come and go as she liked. So every couple of days she would appear at The Studio—anytime between dawn and midnight—and work for a few hours. She would bring me flowers or a book she thought I should read or vegetables from her garden. We didn’t talk much to start with. She would leave her gifts in the kitchen and disappear into the back room to set up her laptop. After a while, we settled into a pattern. Sometimes I would pay her to clean or mow the grass. One Friday morning she arrived with a bag of spinach from her garden and cooked me a spinach cake after midnight, leaving it in the fridge the following morning with a note that said: “Eat cold with bread and mango chutney.”

The first time I saw Will I knew I had seen her before. But it wasn’t until days later that I realised that she was in the picture in the alcove in The Studio, one of Elizabeth’s oil paintings, signed by the artist, Helen Gould, a friend of Elizabeth’s. It was my favourite picture in The Studio. There are two people in it, each facing in a different direction: a woman, Elizabeth, I think, though it’s difficult to tell from the back alone, and a dwarf in the foreground looking towards us. It’s not clear whether the dwarf is a man or a woman, but his or her face is Will’s. Each of the two figures is standing under an archway that looks as though it is the gate to a medieval city, and beyond is a sweeping vista towards the mountains. The dwarf walks towards us and into the city, out of the light and into the dark, and the woman walks away towards the sunlit hills. The dwarf looks straight at us, warily, dressed in a red coat with harlequin markings, and he has no shoes on his feet. One hand, large and disfigured, is a kind of question mark; the other clasps a three-sided wedge of glass. He has something to ask, but he hesitates. He is not sure whether he trusts the person he is looking at.

But Will was neither a dwarf nor a young man. Will was Willow, and Willow was many things: a young woman with a pretty name who dressed as a boy and called herself Will. The daughter of hippie parents who had grown up travelling from festival to festival and who eventually packed their surprisingly serious and studious daughter off to an experimental boarding school at the age of ten, where she got herself six A-grade A levels and came to Cambridge, where she was now working on a Ph.D. on passive resistance in the writing of Henry Thoreau. She lived in a small terraced house in Chesterton that her parents had bought her from money her grandfather had left her, took in lodgers, was painfully thin, and had started to work for Elizabeth Vogelsang when she’d answered an advert on the graduate noticeboard in her college. That was Will’s story. But Will had other names too, which I didn’t know about then.

A few days later I was still unpacking my suitcases, hanging my winter clothes in the alcoved wardrobe, when I heard Will let herself in downstairs. Sitting at the top of the steep open staircase I could look down on the studio space and watch Will carrying logs from the shed and piling them next to the stove.

“It’s getting cold,” she said.

“I know—perhaps you’ll show me how to light the stove.”

“I don’t know how to,” she said. “Elizabeth always did that.”

“Perhaps we can work it out together…Is there a reason why there are no curtains here? The house would be much warmer with curtains.”

“Elizabeth said she liked watching the light move round the house. Said the apple trees were like curtains—nobody can see in through them.”

“Are there any curtains we could put up?”

“You could always look through the cupboards in the back room. But then that woman took most of what was in the cupboards.”

“That woman?”

“Cameron’s wife.”

“Will, do you know why she died?” I asked.

“Who?”

“Elizabeth.”

Will didn’t answer for several minutes. She just kept piling up the logs carefully, turning them around so that the grain was visible, making a pattern.

“Why she died?” she repeated, without turning to look up at me, though she let a log fall from her hand onto the hearth. “What do you mean?”

“I mean: I know she drowned in the river here, but—no one seems to want to talk about it. Did she kill herself? Was there a reason why she might have done that?”

“None that I know of. She was busy. She was finishing her book.”

“Didn’t the papers say she had a gash on her head?”

“The coroner said it was probably caused by some sort of collision in the water. Floating debris. After the point of death.”

“Floating debris can’t cause a gash, can it? It would have to be something sharp and fast moving.”

“I know. It’s horrid. I’m just telling you what the coroner said.”

“So what really happened?”

“I don’t know.” Now she looked up at me—wanted me to see her face, or wanted to read mine. “No one knows. I was away and when I came back there was a police cordon around the house. I didn’t go in. The neighbours told me what happened. Then one day when I came, Elizabeth’s daughter-in-law, Sarah, was here with their Volvo and she’d boxed up all Elizabeth’s things—clothes, linen, jewellery, letters—and took them away, leaving only the furniture, books, and papers. I didn’t stay. Couldn’t bear to see that happening. I watched her from the trees. She threw a whole heap of Elizabeth’s stuff onto the cage for bonfires down by the riverbank.”

“I guess that was in preparation for me moving in here.”

“Yes, maybe. I don’t know what she did with all Elizabeth’s clothes. I keep expecting to see one of her coats in a charity-shop window in Burleigh Street, on one of those mannequins with no heads.”

“But there’s so much of Elizabeth still here. The pictures. Her shells and bones. Her books. Sarah can’t have taken that much.”

“I think she got spooked before she’d finished. She seems not to have touched very much down here in the big room.”

“There was a postmortem, wasn’t there?”

“Yes, but they didn’t find anything out. What can you say? She’d drowned. She’d been in the water for two days.”

“Who found her?”

“He did.”

“Cameron?”

“Yes.”

“Christ. I didn’t know that. It explains…So what do you think happened?”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“I can’t ask him. That wouldn’t be right.”

“Look, she just drowned, right? Leave it at that. There was no note and, well, she just wasn’t like that.” She had turned to sit cross-legged on the floor. She had soot from the fireplace on her cream tracksuit trousers. She wouldn’t look at me now.

“Like what?”

“Depressed. Tired of life. I don’t know. She wasn’t any of the things that make people do that…whatever they are. I’ve thought about it a lot.”

It was Ophelia I saw in the water then, not Elizabeth in her red coat. Ophelia lying face upwards among her flowers. An innocent victim in a revenge tragedy. A conduit. She took the blow that others should have taken. It fused and melted her brain cells so she didn’t know who or what she was anymore.

“Elizabeth wasn’t like that. She had a book to finish. All of her life was in that book.”

I changed tack. “What does Cameron think? Have
you
talked to him?”

Will turned away from me, reaching for the dustpan to sweep the bark and soot from the floor and brushing off the soot from her trousers.

“I don’t know what he thinks. We haven’t met. I saw him come here once on a Sunday afternoon. I was working in the garden.”

“You’ve never met him? But you’ve been working for Elizabeth for months. You must have run into him once or twice.”

“He doesn’t come here often, and when he does it’s at weekends. I’m only here during the week. Elizabeth, well, she didn’t want him to know about me, didn’t see the need.” Like mother, like son, I thought. Secrets.

“So if Elizabeth didn’t take her own life, what happened, do you think? Could she have had a heart attack? Fallen into the water by accident?”

BOOK: Ghostwalk
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