At the waning of the year I gather my ghosts. This is their time, in that dark pause, when between the bustle of Christmas and the trudge of January the memories return, drifting from familiar walls, pooling under lamps. Like the living, the dead want to be heard, but they are more confused than the living and fainter, thinner – shreds of old love and pain. I try to listen and piece them together. I give them four walls to stop them wandering.
There’s the lost child. “Mother, mother,” he calls, from very long ago. “Here I am, dear,” I say. It’s all he wants. It quiets him for a while. And then there’s the angry ghost who cries “Justice!” and makes his case to me – oh, it’s only jabberings now, and the dream he gives me of the scaffold and the noose – but there is no justice, only time. Some are faded to whispers with the centuries; some have stories I’ve tried to complete, with discreet researches in the newspaper archives. The detective side is fascinating, though I don’t like to travel and go into the city rarely. The poltergeist shook itself into nothing in the pantry when I gave it jars to throw. I swept out the glass and was glad this is such a big house, so far back from the road.
It was in the road I found some of them, chilling the hollows or rattling in the hedges, or rather they found me and followed me back. The ghosts recognize a listener. A sensitive, as some would say, though I’d almost say an insensitive, for they don’t frighten me and never have. I can comb through their pangs and terrors and stay apart. I confer a little order. It is my work now.
It’s often in the last week of December the new ghosts arrive, and the old ones are wakeful, and I put down my books and give them the long dark hours. But this year I had a visitor by day, and he was one of the living. He tramped up the drive, head down, back hunched, wearing a shabby grey anorak and a scarf and hat against the cold. I could see the belligerence in his tread and knew he meant trouble.
I left exactly the right pause before answering the door, not too long, not too short. “Yes?” My tone was politely inquiring, but I kept the chain on, as what older lady wouldn’t, answering the door to a stranger.
“Let me in. Don’t pretend you don’t remember who I am,” he said.
“You do look a little familiar, but I’m sorry…”
“Gary Henderson.” Then, when I didn’t immediately react, “son of Marjorie Henderson. And it’s no good shutting me out, because I have evidence and I know where you live. Let me in.”
He needed to have his say, so I unchained the door and let him in.
Of course I remembered Marjorie Henderson, and Gary too now I thought about it, though it had been so many years – almost thirty. A terrible affair and the end of my old life, so very different from the secluded existence I had now. I had worked in finance. First I had been a banker; then I became a financial adviser and agent. I specialized in working with small investors, finding opportunities for them to profit from the mysterious movements of the stock market. Ordinary people trusted me, especially old people and women, because I was a woman and I looked kind and yet competent, and I listened when they told me about their lives. I wasn’t their idea of a financial wizard, but once they had overcome the initial prejudice they gladly placed their savings in my deft hands.
It all ended with the scandal of the Queriros Fund. This was a fund created to build new hotels in Aruba. It was a little-known fund but there was rapid growth in the sector, and it seemed like a wonderful opportunity for my clients. I encouraged several of them to invest heavily and even purchased some shares myself. Unfortunately, after the price of the stock had gone sharply up, it was revealed that, though the hotels existed, the fund had nothing to do with them. The money had simply been stolen and my clients had lost everything.
I was accused of being in on the scam. The police invaded my office, opening every file, confiscating my computer. They found nothing, but my reputation was gone and I had no will to rebuild it. I retired to the countryside. For Marjorie Henderson it was worse: a widow prematurely crippled by MS, she had lost all hope of independence with the fund. She killed herself, leaving one son.
“She wasn’t the only one,” said Gary, almost hissing. I had made tea, but he wasn’t placated by the ritual; he gripped the china cup so hard I almost thought he would crush it. “Ann Salisbury killed herself too, five years later. I hope she haunts you.”
She didn’t. I was unusually well placed to assure him of that, but there was no point in saying so. Nor did I mention that Ann had always had her troubles, before Queriros as well as after.
“But I’ve got you now. I tracked down Linda Talbot, and she told me about your dealings with George Montgomery.” Linda had been my PA.
“The police questioned Linda at the time. You know, I was cheated too.”
“You did alright for yourself, though, didn’t you? Look at this house. A bloody castle. You’re living on my mum’s money right now. And Ann Salisbury’s. And all the others.”
“So what did Linda say?”
“Linda said there were meetings that weren’t in the diary. Planning, going on late, and a trip she booked you to Switzerland. Which, of course, is where all the anonymous bank accounts are.”
Sometimes with my ghosts I wondered how much of what they remembered was real. They felt pain and rage, but it was all so long ago. They found words that made sense of what was left of them, but sometimes those words reminded me of ballad refrains or stories told to scare children; how much of it had ever happened, I couldn’t know. Stories last better than facts.
“Linda must be very old now,” I said carefully.
“She’s not senile and she can still talk to the police,” said Gary.
“George Montgomery was completely cleared,” I added. “There wasn’t a stain on his name. What’s he doing now?”
“He’s directing a bank. I’ll bring him down too,” said Gary. “But you were the one who destroyed mum. You were the one who sweet-talked her, the one she thought was her friend.”
“So you’ve been looking for evidence all these years,” I said.
Why hadn’t he simply gone to the police, persuadable Linda in tow? Because he needed to be heard. Because he wanted more than a constable taking notes and an indifferent inspector who’d recognize him for the obsessive he was, even if the case was to be reopened – and surely it couldn’t be? To think of that, all over again, the questioning, the publicity… But as for Gary, he wanted to have his triumph and be fully attended to, in person, by me, the one who would understand it, the one who couldn’t help but listen.
“No, I haven’t been looking for evidence all these years,” said Gary. “I’ve been looking for a way out. I’ve tried drink and Buddhism and betting on the horses – you name it, I’ve tried it. But I could never forget. I couldn’t escape like you have – I didn’t have a castle in the country – I had a two-up two-down in Blackburn and a backyard full of fucking bottles. You don’t know what it’s like, you’ve never felt a thing, you’ve never given a toss for what you did, because it’s not like a real crime, is it, moving a few figures around, ruining a few people’s lives along the way…”
“Go back to the start,” I said. “Tell me about the last thirty years.”
So he did, and I listened, as the pale December sun went down. Indeed he’d had a sad life, petty and discontented. There had been a lot of drinking and wasted opportunities. He’d never had much luck with women, it seemed, and never stayed long in a job; though he went into the civil service, supposedly a secure path, he always seemed to be the one who was shifted to a different department, and he’d repeatedly tried to get other jobs that fell through or ended.
“But you kept trying,” I said. “That’s good.”
“Yes, that’s good,” he echoed with a sarcastic glance.
I repeatedly had to take him back a stage and sort out the narrative. He tended to ramble and air his resentments, which weren’t directed only against me. Eventually we reached the previous year, the redundancy at age fifty-three with a minimal payout which he’d used to fund his search for Linda Talbot, and for me.
There was quiet when he’d finished. I glanced at the window. It was completely dark.
“How did you get here?” I asked.
“Train,” he said. “Do you think I can afford a car?”
“There aren’t many trains, especially not at this time of year. I’m pretty sure you’ve missed the last one.” I stood up. “You’d better have something to eat before we find you somewhere to sleep for the night.”
Telling his story had soothed him, I think, but at that moment I saw a gaunt, shadowy face start to manifest behind him, and he gave a great shudder and his own face wrenched into a mask of hostility.
“Don’t think you can buy me off with dinner and a fancy bedroom,” he snarled, and I took an involuntary step back. Perhaps he would actually become violent?
“No question of buying you off,” I said. “I’m being practical. You need to make some arrangements, and it’s the time I normally eat.”
“I couldn’t eat in the same room with you without being sick,” he replied, but it was a melodramatic thing to say, not wholly convincing. The ghostly face had vanished again.
“I will put out some cold food for you, then,” I said. “And you can ring the pub in the village to see if they have a room.” I left him getting out his phone and trying to find a signal, but I knew already he would have no luck even if he could get through to the pub. There was nowhere offering accommodation in the village.
I could feel the restlessness of the ghosts in the walls. They sensed the conflict and the straying of my attention.
“Oh, ghosts,” I said aloud. “Perhaps I’m going to join you. I don’t think so. But I can’t be quite sure. This man has been obsessively hating me for so many years.” But I went into the kitchen and got out sliced ham and brown bread, which I placed in the dining room, and then I climbed the stairs and made up a bed at the opposite end of the house from my own. I went to my bedroom and checked that I still had the key for the door, and that it locked.
In the end he took the bed I’d made up. There was nowhere else nearby, and he was the sort who would never even contemplate taking a taxi for such a long distance. Moreover, he could see the nervousness behind my composure, and like most failed and resentful people he had a bullying strain that made him enjoy invading my space, suppressing his own discomfort. I ushered him to his room and retreated to mine as early as possible. Then there was nothing to do but wait out the hours. The ghosts shifted and sighed through the house. “Mother, mother!” “Justice!” “The cold, the cold, oh, remember…” I didn’t answer. I had nothing to say to them that night.
I thought back to how he’d reacted to that partial manifestation earlier. He had felt it, but not, like me, calm and undisturbed.
The mutterings and the flittings rose. The voices grew louder and louder – “Mother, mother, where are you mother?” “No justice, no justice!” – and then there was a cry, a thump, the stumbling run of feet, half falling down the stairs, and the crash of the front door being flung wide.
He drifted back a few hours later. Perhaps the ghosts had known of the car speeding down the lane. The police who attended the accident did not think to come and question me. But the pale spirit came, questioning, searching, confused. “Mother, mother,” he called. “I’m here, dear,” I answered. “Why don’t you tell me about it?” So he told me about it, in shreds and mumblings. And I looked at the little framed postcard of Bern on the wall, the one George Montgomery had sent me, perfectly blank, to signal that he was ready to pull the plug on the Queriros Fund. I had not expected him to do it in so crude and spectacular a fashion, nor that I would come so near to being his fall guy. But he had kept me in comfort all this time; and, truly, it was the people side of the job I had always enjoyed. I find them just as intriguing a challenge now that they’re dead.
Photo credit: http://greensideup.ie/tag/winter/