Tuesday, March 25, 2014

what i wrote today: GH Scene 17

GH Tuesday: Day 03 Scene 17


Max Beaumont (m) and Wooster

We complain about the dark winters in England, the penetrating rawness of the damp air, but this New England winter was another beast entirely, a wilder, more primitive animal. Despite wearing more layers than a homeless man, I was exhausted from fighting the bitter chill, the corners of my mouth chapped and bleeding. Before heading to the Campbells I stopped at a cafe in Harvard Square to get a bowl of soup and a toasted cheese sandwich and thaw out a little. Wooster lay at my feet, gazing up at me with calm brown eyes, secure in the knowledge that a little bit of that cheese sandwich was coming his way. I fed him the last crust, with melted cheese still attached, and then struggled back into my winter coat, hat, scarf and gloves. It took so long to go outside in this weather and it was always a race to get outdoors before you were so overheated you felt you might faint.

As I climbed Avon Hill, Wooster sniffing curiously at each snowy garden and gatepost, the houses became larger, though their gardens were comparatively tiny, like Cinderella’s broad-shouldered stepsisters, trying to cram their feet into tiny glass slippers. It was a wealthy neighbourhood, but here, as in England, the rich were not good at doing their civic duties, subconsciously believing, as they do, that the law was for poor people. I made my way along unshovelled pavements, trying not to break an ankle on the deep and frozen footprints. Occasionally a path was grudgingly cleared, no wider than a single foot. Sometimes Wooster and I would walk along the road instead, which was at least clear, but so covered in rock salt that it would make Wooster limp piteously, his paw held up pleadingly and we would return to the icy snow. Every now and then I would catch the faintest hint of the sound of horse’s hooves, the creak of harness and the rumble of a carriage passing, all that was left, it seemed, of the 19th century inhabitants of the area. It seemed like the sort of area that, if the local residents knew they were still being haunted in such a way, they would petition for the ghosts to be preserved and possibly even amplified, delighted to be living in such an ‘historic’ district.

The address in question was a yellow clapboard house, much much smaller than its neighbours, that seemed to have once been the rather large garage of the mansion next door, its garage doors converted into large windows. Now it had its own parking space, a garden you could cover with a single sneeze, and a snowy path leading up to the front door at the side of the house, covered in a thin trail of sand. I rang the bell and it was opened after a time by a blonde woman in her late forties, dressed in the kind of baggy beige that was both expensive and eco-friendly. She was tall for a woman, near enough to my height, and she had that gaunt look some women get as they get older, with a prominent collarbone.

“I’m Max Beaumont,” I told her. “The ghost hunter.”

“Oh thank goodness,” she said. “Please come in. Do you mind if you take your boots off?”

“No, that’s fine,” I said, glad that my socks had no holes in them, and were, for once, a sensible black. I took off my coat, hat, scarf and gloves at the same time and she lay them out on the stairs. We were standing in a small hallway, rather full of coats and boots. The stairs were blue-carpeted, the floor was polished oak.

“I’m Laura Campbell. It’s this way,” the woman told me. I padded after her, Wooster leaving wet pawprints behind him. She led me into the living room, which had the large windows looking out onto the street. It was painted the kind of green that gets called ‘historic’ or ‘heritage’. There were bookcases built in around a fireplace, a couple of round bookcases serving as end tables. The sofa and two armchairs were beige and matched each other. There were colourful throws and cushions, green and yellow, a persian rug and a plain cream rug in front of the fire. Everything was clean. Books were piled up around table lamps on top of the end tables, more covered the espresso-stained coffee table.

A man rose to greet me. He was very tall, over six feet, dressed in blue; a cornflower blue shirt under a periwinkle crew neck sweater, with jeans and brown socks. He was a similar age to his wife, his blonde hair growing silver at the temples.

“You’re English,” he said, after introducing himself as David Campbell.

“Yes,” I said.

“What brings you to Cambridge?”

I thought briefly about unburdening the entire story to him, of my family’s continuing disapproval of what they consider to be my shocking lack of self control. Of the therapists and drugs that were supposed to ‘cure’ me, of my last vitriolic row with my mother in which I’d screamed at her that I didn’t want to be cured, I was happy as I was…

Of course, I would never say any of this to a stranger, why would I? It isn’t any of their business and, mage or cadjin, they could never understand. It just amuses me sometimes to toy with the idea of answering their banal social question with the truth. I react the same way when people ask me how I am.

“Work,” I said with a polite smile. “There was an opportunity for me here, and I’ve always wanted to come and see America close-up.”

They both smiled.

“I have to confess, we’re both anglophiles, aren’t we dear?” Laura Campbell said, with a quick glance at her husband. “We love London.”

“Oh yes,” David agreed. “London’s one of our favourite cities.”

And no more a true reflection of England than New York was a reflection of America, I thought, but didn’t say.

“Would you like tea?” Laura asked me.

“No thank you,” I smiled politely. I’d learned quickly that Americans made their tea with tepid water and it was better, if you must drink something, to ask for coffee. “I was told there was a ghost you needed dealing with?”

“Oh yes, of course,” David said. “You must be busy, you’ll be wanting to get on with things.”

I wondered what the two of them did for a living, that neither of them seemed to be busy on a Tuesday afternoon. Most people, when they call for a ghost hunter, are rather desperate, focused only on getting rid of the haunting. The Campbells were much cooler customers.

“It’s in the dining room,” Laura said and she led me there, David on my heels. The room was darker and colder than the living room, linking the living room to the kitchen that I could see through an open doorway. Cherry cabinets and stainless steel appliances, pale grey granite counter tops and a high square table tucked against one wall. The dining room had dark red walls and a large mahogany table on which there were a lot of papers.

“I’m sorry,” David smiled. “I’m a history professor. Laura was uncomfortable being alone in the house with the ghost, so I’m working from home today.”

“Where do you teach?” I asked.

“Lesley University.”

I’d never heard of it, but I was already learning, in the six months I’d been in Boston, that there were more universities and colleges in the city than some countries could boast, many of them quite small, most of them private.

The bright sky outside was obscured by heavy beige curtains, drawn against the windows, and the lights had been switched on. The ghost itself was a shadow, clinging to the heavy base of a standing lamp. If you listened carefully, you could hear that it was softly weeping. Wooster snuffled at it and the weeping stopped, momentarily. Wooster lay down on the dark red Persian rug, in the prayer position that meant it he was ready to play.

“When did the ghost appear?” I asked, bending down more carefully to take a look at it. It really was just a shadow, no human shape to it at all, just a darkness where there should be light and a sense of cold sadness if you got too close to it.

“Oh good, you can see it, that’s a relief,” Laura said.

“You can’t see it?” I looked up, puzzled.

“I can,” she said. “David can’t.”

“But I always believed it was there,” David smiled tensely.

“Even so,” she said, a little sharply.

“You definitely want it exorcised?” I asked.

“Of course. Is that a problem?” Laura sounded brittle, her hand going to the delicate gold chain that hung around her neck.

“No,” I said, as soothingly as I could. “It’s just if it’s causing no harm, then some people elect to keep the ghost. It’s a talking point for guests.”

“Well, I can see how that’s true,” David said, brightening a little. “We could do that dear, after all the house is pretty old…”

“No dear,” Laura said, firm and cold.

Neither David nor I argued with her.

“It would be easier to exorcise the ghost if I knew more about it,” I said, cautiously. It was best to respect a client’s privacy - I had no way of forcing them to confide in me - but it was frustrating how close-mouthed most of them could be in the presence of a ghost. Laura Campbell was no exception.

“I don’t know anything about it,” she protested immediately.

“Well, when did it first appear?” I repeated my earlier question.

“This morning.”

“So it wasn’t part of the storm?”

“No. No, this morning was the first time I noticed it. I was dusting and it was just sitting there, crying.” She made it sound as though the ghost’s weeping was almost as bad as a dog pissing on the rug.

“And you don’t know where it might have come from, why it might have appeared?”

“No.”

“No recent deaths?”

“No.”

“Not even a family pet?”

“No.”

“Or a distant relative or friend, they might live on the other side of the world, but…”

“No one,” Laura said firmly. “No one has died.”

“That we know of,” David said cheerfully. “Perhaps we should check.”

“It might be best,” I said. “As if it’s not the storm that stirred this little fellow up, then that’s the most likely alternative explanation. As only Mrs Campbell can see him, it’s she who’s being haunted, so it’s more likely to be someone close to her.”

“She,” Laura said. She’d gone a little pale at my words, but there was no softening them, really. Ghosts exist because we die, they’re our memories holding on, trying to get the world to remember us for just a little while longer. “The ghost is a she, not a fella.”

“How do you know?” I asked, looking over at the shadow. It was lying still around the base of the lamp, quivering slightly, but otherwise silent. Wooster had his nose almost touching it, his tail wagging hopefully, but the shadow showed no signs of wanting to play with him.

“Do you have an idea of who it might be, Laura?” David asked.

“No,” she said. “But I just… I think… the crying sounds like a woman, don’t you think? But I don’t know who it could be.”

“Well, this might take a little longer if that’s all the information you have for me,” I said, taking my camera, notepad and pen out of my brown leather map bag.

“I’m sorry,” Laura said. “Would you like that tea, after all?”

“No, I’m fine,” I said, immediately absorbing myself in my work, taking photos of the shadow from all angles. Wooster helped, nudging the shadow with his nose, so that I could see how it moved. It really was an insubstantial affair, even the sound of its weeping was faint. I started to sketch out ideas for the exorcism, using a standard plainchant as my base.

Magic is done by two means, either through a daiman or a plainchant. A plainchant is the popular view of magic, the only way you see magic being done in films or on TV (and even then, they make it look ridiculously easy). Words have the power to shape magic and mages, being possessed of naturally high magic levels, can use that power. Plainchants are still accompanied by sigils, that we sketch with magic in the air. They’re exhausting to perform, but very direct and flexible, each one can be adapted in a myriad of ways to suit the situation.

A daiman is a different matter. It’s like a pre-recorded spell. It might be made out of metal or rock, or sometimes bone or glass. Certain precious metals and stones - diamonds and titanium - are popular with those mages who can afford them. Some buildings, like the Empire State Building, are daiman, used as lightning rods in magic storms to help direct the wild magic away from the citizens below. The Thames Barrier in London is another such daiman, protecting the city by drawing any surges in magic down the river and out to sea. Other buildings that are daiman, such as the Pentagon, are used to store magic.

Most daiman, though, are on a smaller scale. Sigils drawn onto a gravestone or iron cemetery gates, to prevent the dead from rising. A bone pendant worn as a necklace might grant invisibility or charisma, at least for a short period of time. Sigils are drawn into whatever material is used, the stone or the bone, and then charged with tendrils of magic. As long as the magic lasts, the spell will be cast, but the moment the magic runs out, you are Cinderella at midnight, visible and charmless once more.

I offered to create a daiman for the Campbells to protect them from further spectral visitations.

“Does it cost extra?” David frowned. Laura had left the room and was nowhere to be seen, but he’d been following my every pen stroke and camera shot with a fascination that I found frankly annoying and intrusive, but as I was in his work space, as much as he was in mine, I couldn’t complain.

“Yes.”

Though the city provides certain mage services for free (paid for by your tax dollars), any private visit incurs a cost, or else the city would be employing hundreds of ghost hunters.

“Then no, much as I would like to see you create a daiman, I think not,” David said.

I gave my surroundings another quick glance. I’d assumed, as they lived in Avon Hill and were dressed like wealthy liberals, that the Campbells had money. But if he was quibbling over the cost of a daiman - about a thousand dollars set-up fee and then another $50 a month to maintain the magic charge - perhaps not? After all, presumably university professors, even those working at a private university, didn’t earn all that much? And there was no sign that Laura worked.

I performed the plainchant, feeling ridiculously self-conscious. It worked first time, which was a relief.

“Good job,” David said and I immediately felt patronised, like a child who’d done well at their spelling recitation. “Do we pay you directly?”

“No,” I said, filling out a form from my pad. “I’ll leave you with this by way of a receipt and then the city will bill you.”

“So the money doesn’t go directly to your pockets?” David said, with a feeble attempt at jocularity.

“That’s right,” I smiled politely and got up to hand him the receipt. I tidied up my gear.

“I’ll show you out. Laura? Max is leaving now.”

I still wasn’t used to the way Americans were so free with my first name, on a moment’s acquaintance, as though we were old friends. Laura appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Is it gone?”

“Of course,” David said, heartily.

“Can I see?”

“Please do,” I told her. “Make sure you’re happy.”

“Yes, but bear in mind any extra requests cost extra money,” David said, still with that false jollity. I wondered if perhaps the Campbells didn’t like each other very much, that he felt the need to keep up such a front. As I put on my coat, Laura having disappeared into the living room, my eye was caught by a photograph at the bottom of the stairs. Photographs lined the stairs, of David and Laura and others, sometimes smartly dressed, in black and white, at other times more casually, often surrounded by African American or Hispanic children and youths. This particular photograph showed David in basketball kit, black, with white piping and white number. He was surrounded by seven teenagers, as tall as him, if not taller, all of them grinning while one of them held a trophy, the rest of them crowded around. Only David was white.

“I coach basketball,” he said, seeing me looking at the photo. “Over at the high school.”

“He’s an assistant coach,” Laura said from the doorway to the living room.

“Well, I can’t very well be a full time coach, can I?” David snapped back at her. “I have my job.”

“Yes, dear,” Laura said mildly, seeming pleased to have got a reaction from him. “David’s very good at basketball,” she told me. “All the boys like him.”

She made it sound dirty.

“Everything satisfactory?” I asked her. I was already overheating in my coat and scarf, my boots on, my hat and gloves in my hand.

“Oh yes,” she said. “Yes, it’s gone completely. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I said, and Wooster and I fled to the outside air, which felt cool and fresh, rather than jagged and raw, compared to the stuffy interior of the Campbell house.

© Essie Gilbey, 2014

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