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Authors: Rebecca Stott

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BOOK: Ghostwalk
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Quartz powder, seaweed ash, manganese—the fire would transform it all, release its components, separate out and then reunite them. More fires. More heat inside and outside the glasshouse. But the men did not complain. Without the fire there would be no mystery, no glass, no distillation. God’s hands worked in the brick dome; for the glassmakers the furnace of fire was church, the work their act of worship. As the sun began to slip down into the horizon, the men ladled the powder into the earthenware crucibles and passed them through the work openings in the domed brickwork furnace. Here, invisible to the glassmakers, on brick shelves above a fire of wood and coal burning at 1,500 degrees centigrade, the powder in the earthenware bowls turned slowly to thick, transparent glass-honey as the moon made its way across the sky.
6

From the glassmakers’ chair under the arch near the door, Morelli watched the patterns of the men’s moving bodies radiating out from the central dome of the furnace. The men worked together in their teams of two or three, the master glassmaker and his assistants, each team working around one of the six work openings in the hot brick furnace. One would blow the molten glass up into the air into a perfect sphere, like a freshly cast planet on the end of a blowing iron, or would let it drop and turn as he blew, so that it formed the perfect curve of a goblet. Then the seated master glassmaker would take the wooden handle of the still twisting blowing iron from the glassblower and, placing the twisting iron against the wooden supports of the chair, would prod and nip the glass into drops and curves and tease out a base like a flower from a perfect drop of molten glass, as round and fine and flat as the finest oyster shell.

Inside the glasshouse, for three hundred years, under the mastery of Morelli’s father and grandfather, the men’s bodies worked with the perfect regularity of stars moving in the heavens. Twisting, spinning, and twisting, blowing and twisting, the men dripped sweat, working as close as possible to the furnace so that the fire would keep the glass molten and malleable. Flames from the furnace cast all the irons and the moving bodies into flickering, flattened shadows, radiating outwards from the dome, around which the angles made by the blowing irons shifted and changed perpetually in the thin grey smoke. Between the blackened bodies of the fathers and grandfathers, their sons, some of them no older than Pedro, Morelli’s own grandson, officiated like sweat-smeared altar boys, stoking the fire, carrying coal, wood, and freshly cleaned tools to the men and ferrying trays of the finished glasses away from them, packing the glasses into thick wooden chests filled with dried seaweed.

From the curves and arches and circling labour of his furnace, Morelli’s glassware travelled its routes across the seas to the damask-draped tables of the aristocracy in England, France, the Low Countries, Spain, even the New World. In Antwerp and Utrecht, they said, painters were putting Murano-made roemers into their paintings of feasts and banquets, glasses with twisted stems or flutes, alongside oysters or lemons. It was a paradox, Morelli thought, that though his glassmakers had taken such care to bleed out all the colour from the glass—to make it perfectly transparent
cristallo,
they said—the painters in Antwerp needed scores of expensive oil pigments to capture in their pictures the colours made by the light reflecting off or passing through the miracle of the Murano-forged transparency. The fire haunted his glass, then; it had just been recomposed and reordered in this alchemical art.

The English Duke of Buckingham must only stand here in this glasshouse, Morelli thought, to see why Venetian glass would always be superior to English glass. Even the glass prisms, destined for chandeliers and for the contemplation of light by those concerned with natural magic, must be flawless, Morelli insisted, consigning all of the smaller glass objects, the glass beads, the vials, and the prisms, to the hands of the new apprentice, Castelli’s son, Antonio. Seven prisms, two dozen vials, and fifteen strings of coloured white beads in white filigree. The last items in the order. There were six-inch-long triangular moulds for prisms in the storeroom. There must be no air bubbles, no colour streaks, no chips; they must be perfect triangular-sided tubes of glass to take the light and throw it into scattered rainbows. Let Murano prisms tell the English about light.

By the time the glass sellers arrived by carriage at King’s Lynn in mid-August, the
Scardinelli
had sailed, returning to Italy and leaving its precious glassware freight stored safely in the warehouses at the Norfolk quayside. Greene’s agents, riding ahead, had negotiated the customs due and hired local men to move the cases onto the barges which would carry them south to the fair in Cambridge, a journey of several days. If you can’t buy glass from the glassmaker at the furnace door, if you must import it, always carry it by water, he told Measey, who complained about the time this was taking them both and about how much quicker it would have been to travel by road to meet the barge at Cambridge. The bargemaster, Samuel Inchbald, warned them that the journey would most likely be slower than usual because the Dutchman Vermuyden and his men had finished draining the Fens and this had made the water levels unpredictable.
7
Some of the waterways had dried up; others were flooded. Those Dutchmen were a marvel though, he said, turning previously miry and waterlogged land to rich meadows and corn land. He told the gentlemen glass sellers how, from the riverbank, they would see plantations of fruit trees and willows and vegetables, the greatest plenty imaginable: flax, hemp, oats, wheat, cole-seed, and woad. Even the weeds that grew on the banks of the waterways, he said, were as high as a man on his horse.

Nonetheless, for all its marvels and sights, the journey to Cambridge took five days through big skies edged with tall reeds and scattered with ducks and geese flying in formation. A wilderness; an emptiness, the land like a seabed exposed to the sky and here and there ploughed to black soil. Down the fen waterways every kind of boat and barge seemed to be moving, peopled by merchants and watermen speaking languages Greene and Measey could not understand. Barges laid with leather or corn or coal or fleece or silk or stacked with hundreds of barrels of oysters from France. The whole of Europe’s traders seemed to be travelling down the waterways like arteries into the fair, under the arc of sky which played like a symphony, a drama Greene and Measey watched hour by hour. One late afternoon they lay under their midge nets of silk watching a storm break overhead, blackened clouds in shades of black, purple, and slate grey moving like explosions of smoke in the distance and streaks of rain like water poured on dried paint, under which a triple rainbow arched, its stripes of colour seeping into each other. Worth the time, Greene murmured to himself, for the safety of the glass and for the orchestrations of the sky.

Below the deck of the barge where Greene and Measey lay admiring the riches of the fen land and the drama of the fen skies, while the fen midges found their way under the silk gauzes of the English glass sellers, in the cases of glassware, under the stems of twisted
cristallo
and bowls of ruby, seven prisms packed tightly in a box, in a thick wadding of dried seaweed, waited for light.

At Cambridge, Greene and Measey found rooms in an inn in Chesterton, taking the ferry at dawn across to their stall on the common, where servants and dogs slept, guarding the glassware. The fair, depleted by the arrival of plague in the city, still rang at night with the sound of drunken laughter, lewd dancing, and lovemaking. That morning, three days before the fair opened—without, in that plague year, all the usual pomp, ceremony, and parades—Greene and Measey supervised the unpacking of the chests from Venice, watching their servants carefully lift the glassware onto the tables arranged under the cloth awning where the booth faced onto Cheapside.

Somewhere down at the bottom of one of the chests, a servant found the box of glass prisms on which apprentice Antonio Castelli had scrawled his name, in a chest in which all the ruby-coloured roemers had smashed, scattering shards of red glass into the seaweed. John Gresham, apprentice glass seller, severed a small vein in his wrist reaching for that box, which he could see deep in the packing materials. This was how John Greene, hearing the cry of alarm and stepping towards his apprentice, came to have blood on his fresh white linen shirt the morning that a young undergraduate bought the only prism that Greene and Measey sold that plague summer. Newton would have bought a second—he said he thought he would have need for a second prism—if the glass seller had been able to give the young man a special rate for two, but with blood on his shirt and a case of broken ruby glasses to take into account, John Greene was not feeling generous that day.

So that was how in 1665 a Venetian glass prism came into the hands of a young Isaac Newton, natural philosopher, who had wandered that morning among the glass sellers of Cheapside asking for information about glassmaking and lens grinding. While the Murano port and wine glasses found their way from Venice across the sea and onto the gilded dining tables of the colleges, where they would catch light refracted from candles and from the white feathers of roast swans and the opalescent whites of oysters, that prism was to find its way into the darkened and shuttered chambers of a young undergraduate anxious to test a theory of light recently argued by a Frenchman called René Descartes.

Eight

S
omething had started. Together we were making a new prism, a new way to see our world, but I had no idea why or what it was for. It was early days yet—our glassmakers had not yet even set out to collect the pebbles from the River Ticino. The river water was still playing over those pebbles. Somewhere in Syria someone was burning seaweed and raking over the ash.

A week later, I was reading the manuscript on the bench outside the big window at dusk, watching the long shadows stretch across the garden, when I heard a car draw up on the other side of the cobbled wall and the sound of the gate being unlocked and pushed open. Someone had come into Elizabeth’s garden. It wasn’t Will—she was away somewhere. For some reason I felt myself to be the trespasser, caught in an orchard that wasn’t my own. Someone was pushing the door back into place in all the ivy. I sat absolutely still, counting the seconds I had calculated it would take for whoever it was to reach me down the path and round the corner of the house—thirty seconds, twenty seconds, ten. It was you. I hadn’t thought of that—that you might have a key and come and go through the walled garden at your pleasure.

“Lydia?” You looked as surprised to see me there as I was to see you. When you reached me in that pool of light beneath the window, the woods had darkened, filled up with unseen scuttling things between us and the river. You crouched down beside me, your boots wet with grass and mud. It must have been the faintest smell of chemicals on your skin that conjured that picture of the grey interiors of animal experimentation labs at Histon, which I had never seen but often imagined: sanitised, men and women in white coats, the eyes of unspecified creatures looking out disoriented and bored through the mesh sides of cages. Pictures I had seen more often on posters in the Underground or on pamphlets slipped under my door. I tried to put you there in that picture in a white coat and failed. A glimpse of you moving in white light opened like a peephole and then closed.

“You look startled,” you said.

“You frightened me. I couldn’t think who you could be.”

“Sorry. I should have called you first.” Our shadows were cast forward onto the grass by the light from inside the house, reaching out for the beginnings of the orchard.

“Lydia, you won’t believe this, but I forgot you were here.”

“Forgot I was here? What’s that?” You were carrying a green canister.

“Petrol. I know, weird isn’t it? Since Elizabeth died I’ve had these memory lapses. I find myself halfway through a sentence or halfway through doing something and then I get lost. Stand there, wondering who or where I am. It’s…”

“Disconcerting? Yes, I know how that feels.”

You sat down next to me. “You get that too?”

“No, not exactly. It’s a bit different. Don’t laugh…I sleepwalk sometimes. It’s a similar kind of sensation. In the dream you’re really focused on doing something or saying something important, even urgent, you know, like saving the world or your grandmother, or catching a train, and then suddenly you just wake up and you don’t know where you are or what you were doing. All that sleep adrenaline and energy suddenly drops away, as if someone has just cut your strings. And you stand there, unstringed, feeling a fool.”

“How long have you been sleepwalking, Dr. Brooke?”

“Well, Mr. Brown, you know, I’m just not sure. It started about the time I went to France, I think. It comes and goes.”

“Have you saved the world often?”

“Yes, I have saved the world precisely fourteen and a half times.”

“The half?”

“Not an entirely successful attempt. Saved half the world population. The other half drowned.”

“Not bad.”

“Yes, and I have also won several medals for my sleepwalking—marathon, long distance, and sprint. Broke the world record for the sleepwalking pentathlon: that’s a combination of sleepwalking, jumping, crossing the road, and typing.”

“Typing?”

“Yes, sorry, that’s a new one. Kit found me typing at my laptop last summer, eyes open but sound asleep.”

“Christ. What did you write?”

“Oh, nothing comprehensible. A whole load of jumbled letters. Shame. It would have been great if it had been some kind of automatic writing. A message from the other side. Kit was most disappointed in me. You know what she’s like.”

“You were in Cambridge last summer?”

“Just passing through.”
Passing through. Passing by. Passed away—Elizabeth. I should be more careful with my words.

“Have you ‘passed through’ often since you left Cambridge?”

I left you, Cameron. I left
you,
not just Cambridge. But you can’t say the words, can you? Go on, say it: “Since you left me. Since you left me. Since you left me.” You see, I did it, didn’t I? Didn’t we always assume that it would be you doing the leaving? Strange how differently things worked out from the way we thought they’d be.

“I’ve been back four times,” I said carefully, trimming my untruth, making a note to remember the number if asked again later. “Mostly to see Kit, but also to see Elizabeth.”
Actually, Cameron, I lie. It’s more like eight or ten times. I stayed with your mother at The Studio a couple of times three or so years ago; I stayed with Kit several times; once with Anthony out at Barton. But I carefully avoided all the places where I might run into you. I couldn’t have borne that—glimpsing you across a street or in the market or in the tearoom of the library. I thought I saw you everywhere. I expected to see you, but you never appeared.

“So you’ve started writing messages in your sleep? But I’d guess you still don’t believe in another side?” you said.
You’re thinking too. Right on the edge. Don’t speak. Keep it at bay a little longer.

“I’d like to think I have an open mind. Of course,
you’ve
seen ghosts, haven’t you? You have a stake in ‘the other side.’ Didn’t we used to quarrel about the afterlife? Amazing. I’ve never quarrelled about the afterlife with anyone before or since. Most people aren’t interested. Most people don’t even think about it. But it mattered a lot to you.”

“Yes. I’ve seen things I can’t account for…Don’t know that I would call them ghosts, though. More like presences. A smell, a sensation of something. The smell of tobacco in the big house when I was a child.”

“Since you were a boy?” The boy growing up in the big house near the river with the crazy mother. Seeing ghosts.

“Yes. As long as I can remember.”

“But you don’t see them now that you’ve grown up?”

“Are you saying I’ve grown up, Dr. Brooke? Now, you know, I would never have thought
you
of all people would say that. But then…”

“I believe you do your best to maintain appearances,” I said, smiling, letting you draw me nearer that edge.

“Quite. Oh yes,” you said. “There is always the maintenance of appearances.”

The sound of a sword being resheathed. There was to be a cessation of combat now in the silence that marked the end of something that would have to start again, had already started again.

“Cameron, do you know what you were doing when you came here? Before you woke up, I mean, and remembered that you had forgotten that I was here?”

“Yes, I do remember. I had a bonfire to light.”

“Oh yes, the petrol.”

“When Elizabeth died, Sarah came here and sorted through all her things. We kept most of the precious things in the house, but I told Sarah to pile up all the rubbish Elizabeth had stored in the cupboards down at the riverbank, in the big chicken-wire cage where Elizabeth used to burn things. I was supposed to burn it all weeks ago, but I’ve been putting it off.”

“So you’ve come to make a bonfire on a riverbank? At nine o’clock on a Monday night? Why tonight?”

“Yeah. I know. It’s mad, isn’t it? I was driving back from the airport and I remembered. In fact, it was as if she had suddenly appeared in my car. I stopped on the hard shoulder and remembered her and all the pile of her things. So here I am. I suddenly saw it all—all that stuff of hers was still there under the sky. There was a kind of nakedness about it.”

I heard the rustling of silks in that silence. You put your hands on the edge of the bench and gripped hard, as if to stop yourself from jumping down there into the void.

“Aren’t you expected home?” I asked.

“Sarah’s away with the boys. She wanted to take them away for a bit after what happened.”

“What happened?”

“Don’t you know? It was in the local papers. While I was away in Berlin someone broke into the garden at Over. Killed Leo’s guinea pigs.”

“Shit. That’s awful. How?”

“Slit their throats. Tied their feet together with wire and slit their throats. Cut diagonal slashes across each of their bodies. A kind of ritual slaughter.” You bit your lip.

“Who would have done that?” I said.

“The animal-liberation people who target my lab. They’ve changed their methods and renamed themselves. They had a policy of nonviolence, but it all shifted for some reason this spring. On the night of the spring solstice—they make a big thing about the earth’s seasons—they declared war via an e-mail network I was part of and made this statement about abandoning nonviolence in the war against the animal holocaust. That’s what they call it. To them, I’m one of many Hitlers. It was only a matter of time before they would get the kids’ pets. I should have been more vigilant. There’s been a spate of animal murders in the city since the spring—all in the same way. Haven’t you seen the papers?”

“I’m sorry. That’s outrageous. Can’t the police catch them? I mean, if they are targeting labs and so on, wouldn’t they be able to track them through surveillance cameras? CCTV?”

“Oh, there’s plenty of pictures, but they all look the same: men or women dressed in black with black hoods. Not much to go on.”

“Balaclavas?”

“No, black hoods with slits for the eyes. Scary when you see endless footage of these black figures moving around the perimeters of your house in the dark, fast-forwarded. We have thousands of pounds’ worth of surveillance equipment installed at Over, which the police come and sort through every few weeks. There’s a squad attached to Scotland Yard, and they’ve created a special unit now in Cambridge. But so far there’s not much to distinguish between all the black shapes. The ones who do the attacks are almost all the same build—similar height and weight. Must be chosen for that. They won’t even know each other’s names. It’s all coordinated via e-mail and text messages—all codes, apparently. So after Sarah saw the footage of the three figures opening up the guinea pig hutch and all the rest of the dreadful charade, she decided to take the kids away. They’ve all had enough.”

Hadn’t we all had enough one way or another? Trouble was, no one could find the way out. There were no exit signs. Maybe Sarah had found one finally, after all these years. I envied her. Maybe she’d get away first. There would be a kind of justice in that.

“The bonfire. Would you like some help?”

“I’d love some help.” You headed off through the trees to the river. No hesitation. I was surprised at how tall you were suddenly, now that you had disappeared into the flattened shapes of the woods, the light catching your face. Chiaroscuro. I could only see the shape of you receding.

“Won’t we need some things?” I called out after you. “Like newspapers and matches? Maybe a flashlight?” By the time I’d fetched all those things from the house and stuffed them into the pockets of my long coat, wound a scarf round my neck, pulled some gloves from a drawer, you had climbed onto the pile, rearranging all its strange objects with a pitchfork, dousing petrol over it all. Behind the chicken wire, barely contained by it, wanting to spill out and over, there were bottles, old boots, boxes of papers, cardboard, old clothes. Moonlit, and with the pitchfork in your hand, you looked like a figure from a medieval painting. You had sweat on your brow, cuts on your hands.

“Some of that won’t burn,” I said.

“Whatever doesn’t burn I’ll take up to the dump.”

“Why don’t we just take out everything that won’t burn?”

“It all has to burn.”

“Some of it
won’t
burn,” I said again. “You’ll poison yourself with the fumes from some of this stuff.”

“Since when do you know anything about bonfires? You’re a city girl. How would you know?”

“Antoine was rebuilding Terre Rouge when I moved out there,” I said. “We burned everything. There was no dump for twenty miles.”

“Antoine—the Frenchman?”

“Algerian.”

“Oh,” you said, “I don’t like to think about that.”

I would have answered your questions if you’d asked them. Yes, I was happy most of the time during those first three years, out there in the Pyrenees, in exile, happy enough to write
Cobalt.
There were fig trees and olive trees and when I wasn’t writing I made a garden. There was always something wonderfully temporary about it, as if we were holed up during some war. We had no money and the roof needed fixing and the well kept running dry. No, I have no regrets. Why did I leave? Because a film company offered to buy the rights to
Cobalt
and I came back to England, to Brighton. Why Brighton? Don’t know. Always wanted to live there. Antoine and I never talked about what would happen then, and he got bored with the silence. He went back on the road with the Dutch wife of the local village mayor. He sold the house and land. No, I didn’t have any regrets. Why? Because I’d found success, because I found Elizabeth again and the seventeenth century. Because while I was in France I stopped thinking of you—sometimes. It was possible, you see, for a while.

There you go. You could have asked. But you didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell you. Not then, at least.

“How’s the writing going?” Your turn to veer away from the edge. You climbed back over the chicken wire and I passed you the box of matches, but you did nothing with them. We stood there in the dark in the thick smell of petrol.

“Writing? Give me a chance. I’ve only been in The Studio for a short while. Your mother’s seventeenth-century-history collection is amazing. She’s got every book on the history of alchemy. And I’m still reading
The Alchemist
.”

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