A fat silver moon and a single bright star hung low in the sky like Christmas baubles. Sugared trees cast long purple shadows over blue snow. Everything was dead, silent; had my unwelcome visitors moved on? It seemed unlikely, since I was here in My World again without meaning to be, stolen from my sleep. It seemed every time I closed my eyes I found myself back in this world, My World. I used to be the one in control but no more it seemed. That scared me.
I huffed out a sigh, watched the moisture in my breath still in a cloud of glistening, frozen dust, watched it dance before my face in the frigid warmth of a misted sunbeam; microscopic shards of ice sent spinning and scattering on the faintest breeze. I thought I heard them tinkling faintly, like far-distant wind chimes as they fell to earth.
My World wasn’t always like this. When I was a child it was a warm, bright place, the air was rich and full with the scent of pines and flowers. Back then, this sky encompassed every shade of blue, from the turquoise of Mediterranean shallows to the deepest violets of a summer’s night.
I don’t remember when this Narniaisation of my world began; it arrived with the slowness of first snowflakes. I don’t know why it happened, either, maybe it was a symptom of what was happening in my life, of the trouble I was blindly making for myself and everyone else? In the early days, after I died, leaving my seven-year old body was easy, practically routine. It got harder as time went on, the punctured membrane that held me to Earth kept repairing itself, but becoming less porous with every trip, and I found, if I focused and pushed, I could still get through. After a while, it got easier – easier, even, than in the earliest days and soon, crossing dimensions was like running downstairs or cycling to the park, something I didn’t even think about, just something I did and did often, far too often. I don’t even know where this is, whether it’s my own private bit of the afterlife, a bubble universe, my own personal dimension – or none of those things.
A string of stars twinkled on the horizon, a peculiar formation I’d never seen before – realising, as I got closer, that they weren’t stars at all but lights from a jumble of tumbledown, tinderbox houses that had sprung up amidst the trees like mushrooms after rain. Impossibly romantic, it looked like a scene from a Brueghel – or something dreamed up by Terry Gilliam.
All was quiet, no sign of life; the only sounds my heavy breath and booted feet crunching through the deep snow. The lights I’d seen were strung above, hanging low through the branches. They marked a way through the woods – a clear path, the snow trampled into silence by many feet. I followed the route till I heard music, deep in the dark of the trees; voices and laughter at the heart of the pines, the path emerging in a clearing where a sweaty-windowed little transport caff called ‘Luigi’s’ had appeared. A Morris Minor, a Bedford van and a line of bikes were parked outside on oil-stained snow. The air smelled of ice, petrol and chips. I pushed through the door and went inside.
It was the sort of place I’d only ever seen in gritty British films from the late fifties; an ugly mess of scuffed, chequered lino and yellow Formica, alive with steam and chatter and the rattling of plates. The air was thick with coffee and vinegar, ‘Johnny Remember Me’ was playing on the juke box and Cliff Strong, aka Alan Henderson, was waiting for me by the shining chrome coffee machine, his leather-coated elbows resting on the counter.
Alan turned and ordered two coffees from a heavily moustachioed man in a dirty apron who smoked avidly as he fried up bread, bacon and eggs. There was a roar of steam as he frothed our milk and slopped it, with a generous slug of tar-black coffee, into two green cups.
‘Ta Luigi,’ Alan said, taking our drinks to a table in the corner, gesturing for me to follow with a twitch of his head.
‘I’ve always hated this song,’ I said, squeezing into the seat opposite Alan.
‘Really?’ he said. ‘I love it, a classic, a groundbreaker in its day.’
‘Your day,’ I said. He nodded. ‘And all this?’
‘A place to get together and scheme, come up with a plan.’ Alan said, wiping back the fringe of lank fair hair that was always in his eyes.
‘Is that why I’ve been dragged back here again?’
He looked surprised. ‘What makes you think it was my doing? I don’t have that kind of power.’
‘We need you,’ he said, ignoring the question. ‘Drink up, it’s good. Luigi makes the best coffee around.’
‘Around where?’ I asked, receiving no answer.
I took a sip from my cup, nodded in approval; it was good coffee, made just how I like it, but then, it would be, wouldn’t it? This was My World – or was, once; I would never have built this greasy-spoon here, or put such bad music on the jukebox. ‘Why a café?’ I asked.
‘Place needed livening up a bit,’ he said. ‘People need somewhere to go.’
‘I rather liked it as it was. Empty, quiet…’
‘Yeah, well, you’re not really here that often these days, are you? And I thought it might help, remind you…’ He left the sentence hanging.
‘Remind me of what?’
‘Yours or mine?’
‘Is there a difference?’
He drank his coffee, hiding his eyes in his cup. I leaned back and watched the people laughing, talking, they looked happy. Then I spotted the woman in the yellow dress, the one who told me this was all my fault. She was a ghost, she haunted the living world, what was she doing here amongst the dispossessed? She shared her table with a young, sad-faced man in a filthy coat who had the shell-shocked look of the homeless. I tapped the table to get Alan’s attention and nodded at the woman. ‘Who’s she?’ I asked confidentially, leaning close.
‘The Lady? She was here before me and I was one of the first to arrive. She never speaks to any of us,’ he said. ‘You don’t know her?’
I shook my head. ‘No one’s asked who she is or why she’s here?’
‘Who would dare?’
I knew what he meant, the woman exuded potency and power. I tried again to work my way inside her, but got no lights or echoes, only darkness and silence, an impenetrable wall – like looking into the night sky when it’s overcast and you’re far from city lights, no moon or stars; you know the universe is there but everything’s hidden by the clouds and it’s so dark, you might as well be blind. She was blocking me; a new experience and a puzzling one, it made me wary and distrustful and on my guard. The woman affected not to see me as she sipped at her cup and gazed out at the snow, but I knew she felt me watching; I could sense her on the edges of my mind, like the secret searching fingers of a pervert in the park. She oozed smugness, she’d felt my attempts to read her and enjoyed my irritation when I failed. I wondered how long she’d been in My World. If I couldn’t read her, if she could hide from me as easily as she could block my mind,she might always have been here; perhaps she was here before me? – Not a pleasant thought. Goosebumps nibbled at my spine and, suddenly afraid that my attempts to get inside her mind were giving her a doorway into mine, I severed the link. The woman worried me; I didn’t want her to know how much.
‘It’s getting worse,’ Alan said. ‘Out there.’
‘I know,’ I said.
‘There’s more arriving here every day.’
‘I saw the houses.’
‘Making themselves comfortable, they know they might be in for the long haul,’ he said and I nodded, disconsolate, uncomfortable with these crowds squatting in my private soul-place, itching at my mind like fleas.
‘You have to do something about it and soon,’ Alan said, glaring at me. ‘It’s getting more powerful by the day, soon it’ll be too big to fight and then it’ll have you.’
‘Haven’t you twigged yet? It’s you he’s after, that’s what this is all about.’
The only surprise is that it wasn’t a surprise; I’d sensed it all along.
‘Forster’s using us to get you,’ Alan said. ‘I can feel it, mate, I really can.’
‘Tell me. Tell me how that feels.’
Alan studied the ceiling for a moment. ‘Like background noise, like the neighbour’s radio coming through the wall, you hear it for a bit, then it slips into your subconscious; the sound’s still there, but you don’t hear it anymore.’
‘But whenever you think about it, it’s still there.’
Alan nodded. ‘And getting louder and louder. He’s using us somehow, I can feel it, a weakening, gradual, like slow bleeding. You must be feeling it too?’
I shook my head. ‘No, not at all.’
‘That’s good that means he hasn’t reached through to you yet, but we need you to find out what’s going on.’
‘I’m trying. I’m reading all I can…’
‘That’s no good! You need to get yourself over to that church and see for yourself.’
‘Go into the church?!’
‘We’ve gotta know what he’s up to, we can’t fight him blind.’
I was horrified. ‘Fight him?’
‘How else do you think we’re going to stop him?’
Fight him. Fight Forster. Fight this… thing, whatever it was. Of course, I knew something had to be done; I just didn’t want to be so intimately involved. In truth, I didn’t even want to think about it, I just wanted life to tick on as it always had, quietly and pleasantly. I’m no adrenaline junky, I’ve spent a lifetime running from excitement whenever, wherever, it raised its baleful head, and… Suddenly realised it had gone very quiet: everyone had turned in their chair, everyone was looking at me.
‘The more of us arrive, the stronger he gets,’ Alan said.
‘And the stronger he gets…’ a sickly looking kid in a hoodie said.
‘The more of us arrive,’ said the homeless man at the woman’s table.
‘We think we’re here to help him attack you,’ Alan said. ‘And once he gets you…’ He leaned back, blew out his cheeks, threw up his arms. ‘Kaboom,’ he said, quietly. ‘Goodnight Nagasaki. You’re here and you’re there, you’re the only one with a foot in both worlds, you’re the only one who can do anything.’
So it was all about me after all, and I couldn’t help but wonder why I hadn’t foreseen any of this? Why none of my future visions warned me this might happen? I’d seen so many foolish things, silly things; things that amused me, things that helped me make friends, find lovers, oil the wheels of love and work. How had I seen so much and yet seen nothing?
‘Do you have any advice at all?’ I said. ‘You say you want me to confront Forster, but when I get there, what will I say to him, what should I do?’ I spoke to the room, hoping for help but getting only silence. ‘Really, I’m open to any and all suggestions.’
Alan lit a cigarette, inhaled, blew smoke out with his words. ‘I’ll be honest mate, we really don’t know. I mean, you’re the professor, the one with the smarts; you’ve been messing with this stuff all your life. The Lady reckons you’ve got to go into that church and have a chat with him.’
‘That doesn’t sound very sensible,’ I said, turning to look right at her. ‘If it’s me he’s after, that could be just what he wants; I could be walking right into his trap.’
‘You’re stronger than him,’ the woman said, loud, clear; the room fell silent as she stood and walked over to our table.
‘Stronger than him now, but the longer this thing goes on, the stronger he’s getting. Very soon he’ll be stronger than you, and then everyone’s in trouble, be they livin’ or dead. You opened up one hell of a can of worms, boy, with your meddlin’ an’ all!
‘You go see the man, know your enemy, know what you’ up against. He has power, for sure. You’ll know, you’ll feel it, feel the source of that power, too. It’s all in him. He’s got power alright, but not the knowledge, not the skill. He’s an amateur, a whale in a fishpond, crashing about. He’s chaos, out of his depth and now all these poor souls he took from life are wandering out of time, all that pain on top a’ pain, making new history that never shoulda been made, twisting the future, pulling time all outa shape.’
‘Are you talking about him, or me?’
She smiled – rather smugly.
‘So he needs knowledge, needs skills he doesn’t have?’ I said.
‘Knowledge he doesn’t have yet; plans to steal that from you.’
‘And you want me to go and talk to him, face to face. Isn’t that going to make it easier for him to get what he wants?’
‘You think you’re safe, hiding in that house of yours? You think a creature like Forster can be stopped by shutters and doors? The portal he’s using is the door you opened. It flows through the cracks, no regard for time or space.’
‘Who are you?’ I asked.
‘M’name’s Rosie, that’s all you need to know.’
There was no chatter now, no music on the jukebox; everyone had stopped to listen. I could feel the respect they had for this woman, I felt it too and wondered who she was and how she got here, how she came to be like me, a straddler of worlds.
‘He’s drawing his energy from us through you!’ She stabbed at me with a sharp finger, rage in her bottomless eyes. ‘When you gonna put things right, sonny Jim? All a’ this mess, pain and suffering and killing, you done this, you! You done some bad things, boy. Oh, you might not a’ meant it, might not have known what you was doing, but that’s the trouble, never stopped to think, doing what pleased you, never thinking ‘bout no consequences, but the time has come now, boy, piper’s got to be paid, and soon.’
‘Gonna keep saying it, too, don’t think I won’t. Y’ haven’t heard the last of me, boy.’
‘I believe you.’
She leaned her face down close to mine, her voice low and dangerous. ‘Don’t be mocking me boy; you got no idea what you up against in me.’
She was right, I didn’t, but I meant to find out.
I came to, lying on my face in the road in front of St. Swithun’s, in bare feet and pyjamas in the dark and driving rain. I got to my feet and forced my eyes up to the tower, burning darkly against the moonless sky. The wailing dispossessed clung to the rafters, desperately trying to hold on to the bare beams which were pitted and blackened like Cajun ribs – to no avail, the screaming wind tore at their fingers and whisked them away to who knew where.
My eyes dropped down to the dark oak doors, knowing now that it was all down to that man in there, him and me – together somehow, we were the cause of all this; north and south, yin and yang, two poles of a magnet, two halves of some whole.
I was soaked to the skin and shivering violently, my teeth rattling together, and it dawned on me that this was reality, I was back in my body. I’d never been a sleepwalker, how had I come to be outside in the middle of the night in the midst of a storm? I ran home and kept my hand on the bell till Claude answered, wrapped in a dressing gown, her startled face pale and tired and bed-hair all on end .
She hurried me to the kitchen and stood me by the Aga, chattering and chiding, turning her back while I stripped to my skin, wrapping me in towels and undeserved love, but nothing could thaw the cold inside. The piper has to be paid; I was starting to understand what that meant. The sliver of time I’d punctured, a wound that should have been left to heal, but like any child with a scab, I’d picked at it and kept it open and unknown dimensions, a myriad of futures had bled – still bled – through that open wound, mixing and melding to form something new, something born of Chaos.
I spent the night in the warmth and light of the kitchen, huddled by the Aga, wrapped in layers of wool and flannel, warming my hands on endless, un-drunk mugs of tea. I couldn’t sleep, every time I closed my eyes, a tornado of frightened thoughts would rise up to strangle me as the whisperers moved ever closer, invading my head, urging me to action, to do something, now! I couldn’t shuck off the unshakeable chill, like a freezing fog that licked and curled round my insides.
Morning found me in an exhausted stupor, staring mindlessly through the windows at the misted world outside, golden leaves on the lawn, everything shrouded in dewy cobwebs like beaded muslin.
Claude took one look at me and called Doctor Hamilton. I was ill for almost a week. I missed the first days of the new term, and was haunted all that time by the ghost of Annalisa Jenkins.
Lisa was painfully thin and soaking wet; track marks on her arms, duck weed in her hair, blood on her body and missing an eye, she visited me every night to replay her murder for me in grisly detail. I went back to work before I was well, hoping to escape her at the university, but she was waiting for me in the staff room when I arrived.
‘Well, the merry wanderer returns! Enjoy our extended break, did we?’ Jolyon Welles’ sluggish drawl smeared me like an oil leak as I walked into the staff common room in search of a cup of stale, bitter coffee.
‘As you see,’ I smiled, knowing no one could mistake my illness for a lie, I looked as bad as I felt, with darkened eyes and a pale, greenish tint. I poured my much-needed caffeine-hit into a chipped and stained mug, stirred in sugar, took a scalding sip, winced.
‘Bad time to take a sicky old man,’ Welles tutted, shaking his fat head. ‘What with appraisals coming up.’
‘More budget cuts,’ Martin Jones (archaeology and anthropology) muttered Welshly, his back to us, staring out of the window at the rain. ‘Under-resourced, under-staffed, over-worked and they want to cut more personnel, madness is what it is.’
‘Poverty is what it is, old boy,’ Welles puffed, all tweed and elbow patches. ‘No money. This sad excuse for a university is a mazoola-free zone.’
‘Aren’t they all?’ said Jason Wainwright (English Lit, published poet, armchair revolutionary, idle bastard). ‘Education? Seat of learning? Don’t make me laugh. Training is what we do here. Bloody government’s forgotten the meaning of education.’
‘Yes, well, the modern student wants a job at the end of it all, Wainwright, not the pretty ability to engage in intellectual debate in the dole queue. Nothing wrong with learning your trade,’ Welles said. ‘Physics, Chemistry, Engineering; more graduates in traditional subjects, that’s what this country needs.’
Jolyon’s a civil engineer, in case you were wondering, and, since I was in the room, he took his obligatory pop at me. ‘Cultural anthropology, Comparative Religion, myth and magic,’ he sneered, as if the very words were dreadlocked and dirty and ‘other’. ‘That’s the sort of airy-fairy fluff…’
‘That brings in the students and the cash,’ Jones snarked, plopping himself down into one of the ancient, war-torn, coffee-stained armchairs that litter the staff room.
I threw Jones a shy smile. Of course he wasn’t defending me, just the department. Jones doesn’t really like me, he doesn’t much like anyone, to be honest, but he really hates Jolyon.
The powers that be at the university were a little schizophrenic about me. They enjoyed the attention that came with my semi-celeb status – My books were considered trashy, but they did sell. I was occasionally to be seen on daytime talk shows, I’d appeared on Richard and Judy, and had one notorious stint on Most Haunted, where they referred to me as a ‘Demonologist’, which caused no end of a stink at the uni. If there’s one thing academia cannot abide, it’s the scholar making money from their discipline. The only thing they dislike more is an academic who can get himself on TV.
‘Whatever happened to your head, Copperwheat?’ Jones asked.
‘Walk into a door did we?’ Welles tittered nastily. ‘Or did you bite off more than you could chew with some filly?’
I fingered the painful lump under the plaster, the purple-yellow bruising. I had no idea how long I’d lain out in the rain; I must have fainted or fallen, because there was mud and moss on my pyjamas and a deep gash on my forehead.
‘I had a dizzy spell,’ I muttered. ‘Passed out, hit my head on the kitchen table.’
It was hard to think with Annalisa watching from the corner, battered and bloodied and staring balefully at me. I averted my gaze but my mind was always on her, racing over recent events, hoping nothing I’d done had led to her current condition, wondering why she was here.
‘Swooned! Like a Lady!’ Jolyon laughed to no one but himself.
‘Blood pressure was it?’ Wainwright said darkly. ‘Killed my auntie, did that. You better get yourself checked out, old lad. Ever notice your fingers swelling?’
I shook my head.
I shook my head again, he looked disappointed.
‘I had to cover two of your lectures just this week,’ Jones said, polishing his spectacles on his tie.
‘Yes I know,’ I said guiltily, taking up Jones’s post by the window, sipping gingerly at the vile brew, watching the grey world, turning my back on the mutilated girl. ‘I’ll make it up to you…’
‘Too bloody right you will!’ Jones griped. ‘’You still owe me two from last term. I’ve put you down to cover my next three cultural anthro seminars and my Monday morning Linguistics.’
I nodded in tired resignation. Jones’s anthro class was at four, it would make for a late end to the day, but I owed him several favours. I’d have to wind up my three o’clock ‘welcome to parapsych’ class early, but that was no great hardship; new students were high maintenance creatures, unable to think for themselves; I took sadistic pleasure in making them think.
‘Leaving us early tonight then, Martin?’ Wainwright asked, helping himself to the last burned dregs of coffee. ‘Hot date?’ He grinned lasciviously, mocking poor warty, scurfy, balding Jones. Not that Jason was much to text home about, either; a lover of beer and women so far out of his league that they might as well have been on Ursa Minor, though that didn’t stop him trying.
‘Hot date with a pint,’ Martin sighed, wearily.
‘Ah, yes, well, when we get too old for the laydees, there’s always the compensation of beer, I suppose. Not your problem, eh, Copperwheat? ‘Sex on legs’ our Comparative Myth man; this I know, for yea and verily, I have seen it written on the wall of the Girlie’s lavs.’
‘What were you doing in the Girl’s lavs?’ Jones had to ask.
‘Ask me no questions and I shall tell thee no lies,’ Wainwright had to answer, grinning conspiratorially at me while tapping the side of his nose. Jones rolled his eyes and put his feet on the orange Formica coffee table that I’d heard was meant to be ‘ironic’.
I know I’m supposed to be good looking; it got back to me, what the girls giggled to each other, tweeted and texted and scribbled on toilet walls. Geek-chic, is what I have, apparently. I glanced at my bespectacled reflection in the rain-dark window, glasses dropping down my nose, too-long hair hanging in wet rats-tails – I honestly can’t see it myself. I’m still the same, odd little short-sighted boy, the kid with no mum and dad who lived with his wacko Grandparents. The boy who, when he thought no one was looking, chatted to imaginary friends. The weird little shit that never went out to play, and got beaten up every time he tried. The strange child other kids wouldn’t hang with, whose only friends were books and ghosts.
Of course, that was a long time ago. I’d learned the skills, how to socialise, how to seem relaxed and confident. I got on well with my students and they appeared to like me, but I kept a comfortable distance. I didn’t want to be the professor who thinks he’s still 18, still ‘down with the kids’ and a joke to everyone. I liked my students but they were my students, they weren’t my friends; apart form Claude I didn’t really have any friends.
‘Had a lot of time off lately, Copperwheat,’ Welles said, unwilling to let the subject go. ‘It all adds up you know, old chap.’
‘Old chap’, like he was playing a role written for Jimmy Edwards. No one this side of the Battle of Britain still spoke like Jolyon Welles.
‘I’ve had a nasty bout of the flu, Jolyon, you wouldn’t have wanted me passing it around, now, would you?’
‘I mean it about appraisals,’ Welles hectored on. ‘Vice-Chancellor’s out for heads on pikes, cost-cuts old man, redundancies.’ He threw a sly, grinning wink at Wainwright. I shrugged and stared back out of the window.
‘Ooh, they won’t sack Angel,’ Wainwright said. ‘He’s too popular, a celebrity, he’s mentioned by name in the prospectus.’
Jolyon humphed, made a show of gathering his papers together.
‘Whatever you think about Anthro-Archaeology,’ Jones whined on, becoming more Welsh by the minute. ‘It’s a very popular subject. It brings in the numbers, brings in the cash. It’s not us, not the Social Sciences who’re getting their courses cut.’
‘We,’ Jolyon snapped, snatching up his respectably battered and monogrammed briefcase. ‘Not we who are having our courses cut. If you’re going to bother to speak English might as well do it properly, what?’ He bustled out of the room before Jones could answer back.
‘Fat old git,’ was all Jones could come up with on the spur. Wainwright spurted his coffee with a sudden laugh, spattering the table and floor. I enjoyed it too, grinning to myself as I stared out at the dreary world of flat black leaking roofs and crumbling sixties concrete beyond the racing raindrops.
‘So, pub tonight then, Martino old buddy old pal?’ Wainwright prompted Jones, dabbing coffee from his cheeks and shirt with a tissue.
‘Where else is there to go in this God-forsaken hole?’ Jones sighed.
‘How about you?’ – It took a moment for me to realise Jason was talking to me. I was surprised, no one ever asked me to go out. ‘Fancy a jar or ten with us this evening Copperwhat? Boys night out?’ He gave Jones a sly wink.
For one small moment I almost said yes, just to see the look on their faces. I rarely go out and never to the pub. I’m not at ease with men like Jones and Wainwright and Welles; men who can talk about sport, girls, and cars, confident with themselves, comfortable in their flesh; their happy-slappy mocking good humour and sex-talk frightens me.
‘I don’t think so, Wainwright, not tonight,’ I said.
‘Not tonight, Josephine,’ Jones said.
‘I’m still getting over this flu,’ I said – apologetically, though I don’t know why, the last thing any of us wanted was for me to join them. ‘A quiet night with the telly’s about my lot at the moment, I’m afraid.’
I saw the pair of them exchange a glance; I knew what they thought and I didn’t care. I didn’t want to go out with them, knowing I’d be working until late, because I didn’t want to go home either, terrified of the moment when Claude would go to bed and leave me alone with the night, where the ghost of Annalisa Jenkins was waiting to make me watch her die, over and over again.
I knew what she wanted, she wanted me to go to the police and tell them where her body was so she could rest in peace, the same thing Lucy Naismith wanted, when she haunted me, last year.
Lucy was one of my parapsych students. My classes tend to attract a certain type, Goths, Punks, the self-consciously eccentric, ‘look-at-me!’ attention seekers of every stamp. Lucy was different, she had no tattoos or piercings, she didn’t even wear make-up; she stood out like a budgie in a flock of crows, with her ironed jeans and pink trainers, long brown hair, centre parting, unflattering glasses. She was one of those pre pop-culture kids with over-protective parents, still only half-fledged when they arrive at university, really not ready to go out into the world. There should be some sort of finishing school for kids like Lucy. Academically, she was neither brilliant nor bad, very much a B student, but she was keen, a worker, eager to do well, always up to date with her reading. She attended every seminar, asked lots of questions; her essays were always in on time, so when she missed three classes in a row, of course, I noticed.
I asked the class if she was having problems, was she ill? Had anyone checked on her? No one seemed to know – or care. I thought about going over to her room in halls, see if she was OK, but there were essays to be marked, a paper I was writing coming close to deadline. You know how it is.
Lucy had been absent for five days, when looked up from my work and found her sitting, watching me.
‘Hello,’ I said, surprised; the door was closed and Lucy wasn’t the type to walk in unannounced. ‘We missed you,’ I said. ‘Have you been ill?’
She didn’t answer, but smiled shyly, not quite making eye-contact. She was dead, of course. I realised the moment I put down my pen and really looked at her. The familiar, frigid chill of that other dimension oozed from her like venous blood as she reached across the desk and took my hand and led my spirit from my body to the halls of residence on the other side of campus.
The tiny, ugly room was predictably clean and tidy, with happy-family snaps of parents, a pony and two dogs pinned to the cork board next to a poster of a boy band. A love-battered teddy sat on the desk, next to a red kettle, a box of PG Tips and a Doctor Who mug full of cold, muddied tea.
The body that once housed Lucy Naismith was lying on the bed, face down in a stain of dry vomit. Her corpse was pale and bruised and she’d clearly been dead for days. I was stunned; she was the last person I would have expected to find like this. Poor lonely little girl, gone all this time and no one come to find her.
The only other living being who knew she was dead was her boyfriend. She took me to see him, too, sweating it out in a damp bedsit in a house near the river. Unwashed, unshaven and terrified, he’d been living in daily dread of the news that they’d found her body. In a series of disjointed, juddering pictures and visions, Lucy told her story, how they’d briefly been an item, how he’d egged her on to ‘experiment’ with a wide variety of drugs.
She was so newly dead she hadn’t yet learned how to speak to my mind, but I felt her urgency, I knew what she wanted, but how could I go to the police? What would I say? That I’d seen Lucy Naismith in a vision, that she was dead of an overdose and her boyfriend supplied the goods? If I told anyone what I’d seen, they’d think I was mad, or perhaps, that I was responsible.
Spirits are the most awful nags. When they want you to listen to them or do something for them, they won’t leave you be. Lucy badgered me in class, in my office, in my home, in the shower, in the lavatory for God’s sake, sitting with my jeans round my ankles, reading New Scientist.
I did my duty and reported her absence to the university, but nothing happened till the girl in the next room complained about the strange smell. The police broke down the door that day; by then she’d been dead for a week.
Her boyfriend – the dealer – was detained and questioned but never charged. Lucy was angry about that, knowing he’d go on using and dealing, luring in fresh innocents who might end up like her. She went on hounding me, but I ignored her; I’m good at ignoring them, I’ve had plenty of practice and, in the end, she got tired and faded away. She moved on and I was glad. I mean, I felt bad about it, of course I did, but no good could have come of going to the police and I just couldn’t take that chance.
Now it was happening all over again,only not; not the same, because this time, this victim, this poor girl Annalisa, had more grit than Lucy Naismith. Annalisa wasn’t going to give up and go away as she made me relive her last moments.
It was horrible; a violent business, full of pain and terror and despair. I was made to watch and be her, too; eyes open or shut made no difference as the hideous scene played on my exhausted retinas, night after night. Such scenes would have made me sick if I’d read them in a book or seen them in a film, but this was real, an actual event that this girl had suffered very recently.
Her murderer was a man I’d know anywhere; Bill Sikes, The Ripper, the man I’d seen outside the Jacaranda a fortnight before and felt him watching me a dozen times since – There was no mistaking his presence, he was made of Cold, as much shadow as man, like a ghost, a thing you only see at the periphery of vision, seeming to disappear when you look it in the eye, and yet, very real and very human. A name came to me through the ether: Charlie Barrow.
Lisa was a prostitute who took her clients to a grimy bedsit near the railway station. That was where Sikes had killed her, taking her by the throat and squeezing till she broke free with a kick, right in the nuts. Yes! Every night, I watched it happen; like a scene from a movie, you know how it ends but still can’t help but egg the victim on, hoping this time it’ll be different. But you’ve seen the film before and you know it’s hopeless as he grabs her by the foot – ‘Bitch!’ Slamming her head against the floor, to lie helpless as he kicks her, then, getting down and shaking her awake, so she’s aware, so she knows what he’s going to do as he presses his hand tight against her mouth and goes to work with the knife on her body and her face, on her eyes, then taking the hammer and bringing it down on her head, again and again and again.
He’d dumped Annalisa’s body at the weir. The currents had carried it a short distance downstream, to a pool of quiet water with a covering carpet of green algae. Her bloating body had lodged in the thick mud there, floating just below the surface, face up, eyes staring, hidden by the weed.
I knew he was a killer when I saw him. Now he’d murdered this poor girl and – who knew how many more? I should have said something, done something at the time, but what? What could I have said, what could I have done?
Annalisa followed me to my seminar where she leaned against the wall and dripped, a puddle growing on the floor under her, her arms crossed tight against her chest, giving me a fixed, undeniable stare so I had to fight not to look at her while I tried to engage Jones’s bored students as they scribbled scant notes and giggled furtively to each other.
‘The ancient stories change.’ I lectured on, wearily. ‘They morph through time and space, adapted and altered by each culture that adopts them. They often acquire religious significance, becoming messages from the Gods.
So,’ I sighed, too tired to fight their indifference, winding up the seminar long before time. ‘Before next time, please, I want to you find me some of the latest research on the spread of Indo-European myths and write me a brief essay…’ I waited for the groans to subside. ‘A minimum one thousand words. Come on, ladies, gentlemen, it’s not much to ask. It’ll count as one of the six essays Doctor Jones is going to want from you this term and this is a short and easy one.’
‘But we’ve barely touched on it in lectures!’ Susannah Perkins whined at me, her candy-glossed mouth gaping open, legs apart and a skirt so short I could see the pink tip of her knickers between her thighs.
‘Yes, Susanna, that’s the point. The essay’s not about Indo-European civilisations per se, it’s about improving your research skills which, I have to say, judging from your scores on the Gnosticism essay…’
I ran a finger down their averages, penned in Jones’s shambolic, smudgy hand; they were shockingly mediocre. How ever did Jones get away with it?
‘…Are sadly lacking. You’re degree-level students and you still don’t know how to think, that’s why we have seminars, to teach you how to use your minds, to debate and express yourselves. I want a short essay from you so I can see what you’re capable of finding out, and how you express yourself, and no cut and pastes from Wiki, please, I wrote most of what you’ll find there; if you quote Wikipedia to me, I will know and I will fail you. I want to see citation. This essay’s not about current research on mythology web-lines, it’s about your ability to find information and impart it coherently.’
I waved a dismissive hand. ‘And by next week, please, a late essay will get you an automatic F.’
They shuffled out miserably, muttering to each other. I leaned back in my chair, hands behind my head, and watched the girl; still here, still glaring accusingly at me.
‘What do you want? I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me!’ I said, frustrated, and much too loudly. Charlotte Martin, PPE Prof and the best-looking woman in social sciences, glanced in through the open door as she passed. I smiled charmingly, waited till I heard her heels click around the corner before burying my head in my hands. When I looked back up, the murdered girl had gone.
It was already dark when I got home; summer was over, the season of night descending. I was shattered, practically comatose, fumbling to find the catch on the garden gate, letting myself in at the back door.
Claude was dozing in the kitchen; there was ash down her cardi, a smouldering cigarillo in her left hand. I eased the little cigar from her fingers, she opened her eyes.
‘Oh. Hello darling,’ she said sleepily, pushing herself up in the chair, noticing the ash and brushing it away.
‘You’re going to set yourself on fire one day,’ I said, warmly, fondly, full of sudden love for her.
‘Oh tish n’ tush. Ready for a cuppa?’
‘I’ll make it.’
‘You’re rather late,’ she yawned. ‘I was starting to wonder.’
‘Had to cover for someone,’ I said, setting the kettle on the stove. ‘I’m sorry, I should have phoned.’
‘It’s just that there’s so much nastiness in town these days. They still haven’t caught whoever killed that poor girl in the park you know, you shouldn’t cut through in the dark.’
‘I’d rather risk the park than walk past the church.’
We fell into companionable silence as the radio chattered softly in the background and the kettle sang to a boil. I brought the teapot to the table, sat down heavily and warmed my hands on the pot.
‘You look terrible,’ she said. ‘Great rings under your eyes. You shouldn’t have gone back, you’re still not well.’
‘I’m just tired.’
‘Lady of the Lake still making a pest of herself?’ – I’d told Claude about the murdered spirit the day she first appeared.
‘Yes,’ I smiled, crossing my arms across my chest.
‘Want to talk about it?’
Of course I did, I wanted to stay up all night talking with Claude beside me and maybe then the girl wouldn’t come to torment me, but I shook my head and lied.
‘Really Claude, I’m fine.’
‘You need a proper night’s sleep in a proper bed instead of camping out down here.’
I shook my head. The kitchen was the only place I still felt safe when night fell. Upstairs, the atmosphere seemed charged; there was no telling what an angry, murdered soul might do with the energies up there.
‘We could swap rooms,’ she said, perceptive as ever. ‘I rather like that attic space, nice and airy.’
I shook my head. ‘Really Claude, you’re welcome to the attic if you like, but I’m fine down here.’ Down here, with the lights on and the radio on and not sleeping at all, really, not able to hold myself awake the whole time but never allowing myself to fall into anything deeper than a doze because I knew, now, I could be stolen from my dreams as easily as a skilled thief lifts a wallet.
I shut my eyes; felt Claude’s warm hand on mine.
‘I’m fine, Claude.’
‘It’s very obvious that you’re not, you look absolutely knackered if you’ll pardon my French.’
I nodded. She was right, I couldn’t take it anymore. I knew what I was going to do and the thought of it was terrifying, because I knew where it would all lead.
I opened my eyes. ‘Get yourself to bed, Claude.’
But she didn’t. She sat there, looking at me, worried and concerned.
‘Go. Please,’ I said and smiled – unconvincingly. ‘Really, I’ll be alright.’
She knew I wouldn’t, but she stood and yawned.
‘Sleep in a bit tomorrow,’ I said casually. ‘You look like you need it.’
‘Oh, I can’t do that,’ she said and she wouldn’t; I’d never known Claude to sleep late. ‘Goodnight then, sweetheart,’ she said, bending to kiss me on the top of my head.
‘Don’t stay up all night,’ she warned from the door.
I smiled, pulled my jacket close and waited for Annalisa, feeling the air already chilling with the scent of loneliness, the aching anticipation of violence and despair.