Wednesday, January 2, 2019

the ghost collector

This world is full of ghosts. They are the tiny sparks of all-too brief lives that were lived, or have yet to be lived, or never will be lived. They are our unfinished business; stories that need to be retold, traumas that should never be forgotten, sins that cannot be forgiven. Our ghosts are born of our griefs; they come from all that we lose over the course of our short lives. For we ourselves are only fireflies, glittering briefly in an infinite dark.

This world is full of ghosts. But you are so caught up in your own lives that you are largely oblivious to them. To you, each ghost is just another commuter, caught up in the swollen tides of rush hour, or a homeless woman sheltering in a doorway, or a blurred shape in the driving rain, or a photocopy of a photo, taped to a lamppost. You ignore the banshee wail of an ambulance that will never arrive, or the shrieking brakes of a car that will never stop. You don’t see the gray shapes dancing amongst the swirling snowflakes of a blizzard, nor the shadows that flit across the ground on a cloudy day. You pay no attention to the bodiless laugh, or the crash of glass, or the sudden sharp scent of lemon when sitting crushed on an overcrowded train.

This world is full ghosts. You ignore them, but I can’t. It’s my job to see them; it’s my job to seek them out, to summon them when they are needed and, when they are ready, to send them home again, back to the infinite dark.


The collector came to my office a little after four in the afternoon on a gloomy winter’s day. The sun had recently set and the sidewalks were treacherous with black ice. I am always glad that I work from home, but never more so than in winter, when my evening commute consists of walking upstairs. Aggie was in agreement with me; she was curled up fast asleep in her dog bed, nose to tail-tip.

Curled up beside her was the only ghost I had staying with me at the time - a toddler who’d been with me for several weeks and who would be for several more. I was trying to find out who she was and where she was from and who had murdered her. She was pre-verbal and so couldn’t tell me such things herself, not even her name. (I called her Ellie). She was also resistant to being exorcised and I was hoping that finding out her real name, or that of her murderer, would help me find a way to end her haunting. For in the long run, hauntings are never a good thing - not for the ghosts, nor for the ones that they haunt.

My eyes were tired from staring at a computer screen for much of the day and I was thirsty, a cold cup of untouched coffee sitting beside my keyboard. It was time to take a break. As I pushed back my chair, I could hear footsteps on the concrete steps that led down to my basement, then the angry buzz of the doorbell, that set Aggie barking ferociously. Ellie gave me a pained look and then burst into tears.

I opened the door. Standing there was a man in his early forties. He was pale, smartly dressed in a gray wool overcoat and mustard yellow scarf that seemed inadequate for the cold outside. He looked tired; his skin was dry from the cold and his lips slightly chapped.

“Come in,” I told him, not wanting to let in any more of the cold night air than was necessary.

He hesitated (perhaps because of the chaos behind me, the raucous noise of Aggie and Ellie combined) then he came in, wiping the damp soles of his leather shoes on my mat. I took him into my office. Ellie stopped crying at once, thank goodness, and stared up at him from underneath my desk with a tear-streaked, solemn face. Aggie stopped barking and went to fetch him a toy, ragged and much chewed, which she presented to the stranger with her whole body wagging in eagerness.

“What a good dog,” the man said without much conviction, patting Aggie’s head tentatively. “And such a, er, such a nice child.”

“She’s a ghost. I’m trying to find her way home for her.”

“Ah, oh. Well. That’s very good of you,” he said, leaning down to gaze at the child with some interest.

We made our introductions. He told me his name was Edwin Hamilton, and that he was a financial analyst. I asked him to sit and we did so. I offered him coffee, but he declined. He stared at the photographs on my wall for a moment. Aggie had given up on getting any attention from him and instead climbed up onto my lap, toy still in mouth. I rubbed her ears, to her delight, while I waited for Edwin Hamilton to speak. Ellie remained under my desk, where I knew she would stay, sitting in Aggie’s bed. She didn’t care for strangers and given that she’d been strangled before she’d reached two years of age, by a person unknown, I didn’t blame her.

“I have an unusual request,” Edwin said finally, returning his attention to me.

“Most of my clients do,” I answered, still rubbing Aggie’s ears.

“I’ve come in search of a ghost. Or rather ghosts, I should say.”

I picked up my notebook and pen, while Aggie settled down in my lap and nestled against me.

“Any particular ghosts?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t really know. I suppose that seems quite strange to you?”

“You’re not being haunted, then?”

“No,” he replied, after a short hesitation. “No, it’s not that, it’s just…”

I waited in silence for him to find his way to telling me what he wanted. In the end (though he hemmed and hawed his way through the explanation) it was really very simple.

He was a collector, he said. Had been all his life. He earned a good salary and was unmarried, with no children to support. At first he’d collected things. He’d collected stamps and coins and action figures as a boy, then progressed onto collecting art and antiques as an adult. But these collections were always unsatisfactory in some way that he couldn’t quite define and in the end, he’d sold them all (for a profit, he pointed out) and started to collect experiences instead.

He’d travelled the world, as much as he could. He’d climbed mountains, sailed seas, dived down into the deeps. He’d visited places of wonder, or beauty or antiquity, or some combination of the three. I hid my surprise at his account of such an active, adventurous life. From the look of him, with his hesitant manner, I’d have said his idea of excitement would have been spending the night with a crossword puzzle and a cup of hot chocolate.

But now he found himself growing tired of travel and was becoming instead far more interested in ghosts. He found himself fascinated by them, though all he ever saw of them were frustrating glimpses and hints of other people’s hauntings. He wanted to observe them, to study them. It would be a new kind of collection, as it were - a catalogue of ghosts. I think he had ambitions to publish his work, if it proved interesting enough - though frankly I think bookshops are already overstuffed with that kind of thing and no one ever buys them, except as gifts for people they don’t particularly know or like.

“But I’m not a psychic,” Edwin said, with a shy smile. “I can’t summon or banish ghosts at will.”

“Well,” I answered. “Even for psychics, it’s not that simple.”

“I need a guide,” he didn’t seem to be listening. “Someone to open up my eyes and show me the ghosts that I’m missing.”

Gently, I questioned him some more. He seemed shyer than Ellie, guarded and wary, and I thought he might run away if I asked anything too probing. But I established, quite firmly, that there were no particular ghosts he wanted to see, no particular kind of haunting that he had in mind. He only wanted to see at least one ghost and, perhaps, if he liked the experience, more than one. To see if he could collect, as it were, the ghosts - though he supposed there was no way of cataloguing such a collection?

“Well, you could photograph them,” I said, with a wave at the pictures hanging on the wall beside my desk. They are photos of some of the ghosts that I’ve summoned or exorcised over the years - these are the cases that have stayed with me, that haunt me - if you’ll pardon the pun.

“These are all ghosts?” Edwin asked.


“Why, how marvellous.”

I smiled at his childish delight as he studied the photographs.

“And of course,” he said, after he’d seen them all, “you have a ghost right here, in this room.”

He crouched down to look at Ellie, still sitting in Aggie’s bed under the desk.

“But you don’t have a photograph of her?”

“No,” I said, without further explanation.

Edwin returned to his seat and questioned me eagerly about how I went about photographing ghosts - who are notoriously tricky to capture on camera. I explained a few of my techniques to him and showed him my camera and the filters that I’d made myself.

“Perhaps, you could take the photographs for me,” he suggested. “Though I only want photographs of ghosts I’ve seen with my own eyes.”

“I can build you a similar filter, if you want to take the photos yourself,” I suggested.

“No, no, that’s fine. I’m happy for you to do it.”

I was a little surprised at that. I would have thought a hobbyist such as himself would have latched on with interest to the idea of acquiring and learning how to use specialist equipment. But perhaps my old-fashioned camera and its home-made filter wasn’t really specialist enough - too mundane for a collector like himself.

I suggested that the best way to show him ghosts was to take him on various walking tours of the city, primarily at dusk or dawn, in that tricky light when ghosts are most visible. Despite the wintry cold (which I wasn’t relishing the prospect of) he eagerly agreed. We settled on a fee and he signed the standard contract that I keep on my computer. We agreed to meet the following afternoon and shook hands.

That was my first encounter with the collector. 


The next day we met at a coffee shop near my house, two hours before sunset. I had Aggie with me, but not Ellie. Aggie greeted him with a wagging tail, which Edwin politely acknowledged. He made no mention of Ellie’s absence and I realised that his interest in her had, after all, only been that she was a ghost. I had lain awake the previous night wondering about him, and his interest in ghosts, and wondering if he had a connection to Ellie in the living world, and if this was some oblique way of approaching me about her. But I was wrong. As my friend Sam always says: I’ve read too many mystery books and I’m always looking for the twist in the tale.

I took Edwin on a tour of my neighbourhood, as a preliminary ghost-hunting excursion, to give him a taste of what it was like. It was cold, of course, well below freezing and I was muffled up in a down-filled jacket and insulated snow boots. He was wearing the same woollen overcoat and yellow scarf he’d worn the previous day, over a thin suit and black leather shoes. His hat was an old-fashioned fedora, that gave him a distinguished air, but surely couldn’t have kept him warm and his gloves were black leather. I was surprised he wasn’t hypothermic, but he wasn’t even shivering and he assured me that he was fine.

“I’ve never felt the cold,” he smiled at me. “Perhaps because I was born and raised here.”

I couldn’t tell if he was commenting on my accent or not. After ten years in the city, I liked to flatter myself that I was starting to sound like a local, but there were still times when baristas and bartenders struggled to understand me.

We trudged along the icy streets in the late afternoon sun. First, I showed him the ghost of a small cottage that burned down to the ground two hundred years ago. It’s barely visible through the walls of the yellow mansion that was built in its place, but you can still smell the smoke and hear the faint screams of the old woman who died there.

After that, I showed him the ghost of a teenage girl who had hanged herself from a basketball hoop in the local park after a blazing row with her father over homework and TV and boys. Then I showed him her father’s ghost, who most nights sits on the nearby swings and watches his daughter kill herself. Neither are any easier to see than the burning cottage, but still Edwin was surprised at the two bundled-up children playing in the snow nearby, while their parents alternated their gaze between their progeny and their phone screens. They seemed oblivious to the gruesome scene.

“Not everyone sees ghosts,” I told him. “Most don’t. Not unless they have a psychic to show them, anyhow.”

“We are only see those that want to haunt us, is that right?”

“Well, sometimes a ghost is strong enough to get anyone’s attention and then everyone’s calling for a ghost hunter to come and exorcise them. But for the most part, it’s not that ghosts can’t be seen unless it’s us personally that they’re haunting. It’s more that unless they’re our own haunting, they’re just so very easy to ignore.”

“Will you take photos of them?” Edwin asked.

“I’ll photograph the father for you, but not the girl.”

“Why not?”

“He’s the ghost of a living man. She’s the ghost of a corpse. I’ll not take photographs of a ghost reliving their own death.”

“All right,” he said, but I couldn’t tell whether or not he understood the distinction I was making.

We continued our walk to the parking lot of a small shopping mall, where the cow-ghosts mill around aimlessly.

“This was a cattle market once,” I explained. “Sometimes, after a storm, the cattle escape onto Chestnut Avenue, and I get called in to help round them up.”

“Why round them up, if people can’t see them, or are only going to ignore them anyway?”

We watched a car run through a cow’s ghost.

“People are used to seeing them in the parking lot, so they ignore them. But as soon as the cows are out on the road, people start slamming on their brakes, not sure whether or not they’re ghosts. It’s safer to bring them back here.”

By the time we’d finished the evening’s walk, the sky was dark and clear overhead, promising more cold to come but no more snow to refresh the dirty, icy stuff that lined the roads and squeaked beneath our feet. Edwin declared himself well satisfied with the walk and I promised to send him the photographs I’d taken.

“On the whole,” he said, “I’d rather see human ghosts, I think. And the farmhouse was interesting. But I’m not all that bothered about cows, if it’s all the same to you.”

I assured him that it was indeed all the same to me. We parted company, having arranged to meet again in a few days’ time. I thought, as I watched him make his way up the street towards the subway station, that he’d been a little disappointed with my first tour. Perhaps it had been too quiet for him, to walk around my small, sleepy neighborhood. Perhaps he needed more hustle and bustle, or more ghosts than the few I’d found around here. Or perhaps, I thought, with a rueful smile, it was just the cows. They’d clearly not impressed him. 


We met many more times over the next few months, as winter gradually gave way to spring’s advance. The weather warmed up and grew wetter and the days grew longer. The city burst into life - first pale pink, yellow and white with blossom, then a sudden, startling green. The birds sang joyfully and the roads were finally swept clean of the grit and trash that had lined their gutters all winter. Then summer came, all in a rush, as was its way, with an early heatwave that had us all complaining, completely forgetting how much we’d longed for the sun’s warmth, only a few weeks before. I found Ellie’s murderer (who’d also murdered the seven women whose bodies she’d been found next to, in a mass grave amongst the sand dunes of the north coast). I gave my evidence to the police and Ellie faded away of her own accord, a few days after they arrested him.

Over those months, in addition to my other work, I showed Edwin the ghosts of the city, meeting with him two or three times a week. I showed him poltergeists and restligeists, revenants and parasites, revenge ghosts and time slips, mirror-haunts and dopplegangers, banshees and ghouls. I showed him the missing and the forgotten, the guilty and the unforgiven. I showed him the ghostly slums of downtown, flickering in and out amongst the glass towers that had replaced them, and let him listen to the cries of invisible children playing tag in the otherwise deserted and sterile streets.

Each time that I took him to somewhere new, Edwin was excited and hopeful. Each time, he professed himself delighted with what I’d shown him and he paid me well. But each time, it seemed to me that he went away a little disappointed. Though he never claimed to be looking for something specific, I still got the impression that there was something he was searching for, with a quiet urgency. He wasn’t just a collector, or at least not an undiscerning one. There was something he was looking for, and the ghosts I’d shown him weren’t it.

I showed him the ghosts of summer roses, still blooming in the wintry Public Gardens, and the horse-and-carriages that bowled through the shopping district amongst the taxis and the tourists. I showed him the ghosts of mourners in old-fashioned dress, strolling through the city’s most picturesque cemetery on a balmy Sunday afternoon, our shadows long and spindly against the weather-worn headstones. I showed him the ghostly waters that run underneath the city’s eastern streets, where once there were docks and underground canals. I showed him the docks themselves, the curses of the stevedores loud in the gathering twilight. I showed him how the streets around the courthouse, built on reclaimed swamp, flooded with every spring tide with phantom waters. Still, these were not the ghosts he was looking for.

I showed him the ghosts of wooden pleasure boats on the river, painted gaudy red and green, sailing in the early summer nights. Together, we listened to the piteous cries of those who’d drowned, over thirty years ago, when a raucous party boat sank. With me, he felt the heat of the ghost-fires that still rage through the city every June, and heard the air-raid sirens wailing through an unseasonably warm May night. I showed him the disused subway stations and the commuters in suits and bowler hats that still throng their platforms. I showed him the prostitutes that had once walked the streets of quietly gentrified neighbourhoods and the young woman who fled, screaming, through the corridors of an old mansion on top of Castle Hill. Still, though he was pleased, and took copious notes, and assiduously catalogued each one alongside the photos I took for him... still, though he paid me well… these were not the ghosts that he was looking for.

Each time, he insisted that there was no specific haunting that he had in mind, no ghost or ghosts that he was particularly searching for, but as time went on, I knew that there was more to his search than he was letting on to me - or perhaps, even to himself. As the city wilted in the summer heat, spring’s fresh bloom replaced by dry dust and sudden thunderstorms, I started to look for Edwin Hamilton, both online and in the real world. I found records of his parents’ marriage - Philip Hamilton had been a wine merchant from a family grown wealthy supplying the rich with their champagne and imported wines. Harriet Hamilton, born Harriet Windermere, had been shunned by most of her social circle upon her marriage to a man so far beneath her in class. But her family had been impoverished and she had been plain and rather dull and Philip Hamilton had been the only man to propose marriage, her only way out from genteel poverty and permanent spinsterhood. Reading between the lines of the newspaper articles and old letters that I found, he was her only way to escape the gentle, clinging confines of her family and their insistence on maintaining standards, long after the money to do so existed.

Philip had saved the family from debt and disgrace and Harriet gazed gratefully upon him in their wedding photo. He had been fifteen years her senior, balding and plump in a morning suit and top hat that didn’t suit him. Beside him, Harriet had looked - not pretty, exactly - but young, and slim and stylish in an old-fashioned wedding dress that had been her mother’s, according to the gossip columns of the day. Edwin’s birth had been announced in the papers, several years later, with the gossips claiming Harriet and Philip were ecstatic at the final arrival of their long-awaited first-born child, a son and heir. As it turned out, he was to be their only child.

After that, the Hamiltons mostly disappeared from the gossip columns and the public gaze, despite all my searching. There were death notices for Harriet’s parents and a discreet mention of the debts they left behind. Windermere Manor was sold to a wealthy foreigner, to the neighbours’ dismay. Then Philip had a fatal heart attack at work, more than twenty years before Harriet, who died in a nursing home. For the last few years of her life, she was visited there by her favourite niece, who I tracked down and who proved to be a fresh source of information not contained in those bare newspaper notices. For example, her niece told me, as her brief obituary hadn’t, that Harriet had died in a ‘confused’ state, thinking she was still a debutante who must get her dress ready for the Black & White Ball.

By the time I’d finished my researches, the leaves had changed color and started to fall, the days had grown crisp and cool with morning frosts. Dusk came earlier, the evenings drawing in, and it was pleasant, cosy even, to walk around the city, looking in the lighted windows of shops and cafes and family homes, watching the people inside, the small snippets of their lives.

I took Edwin to see the site of the concert killings that had happened only a few years ago, and where the ghosts still wander bewildered through the makeshift memorials of flowers and photos, candles and teddy bears. The police keep clearing the memorials away and the locals keep recreating them. They are determined not to let this shooting, amongst all the other shootings, become just another shooting, too soon forgotten, too easily eclipsed by the latest atrocity. Aggie was with us, sniffing at the wilting flowers and rain-sodden teddy bears, eagerly snuffling at the ghosts with her wet, inviting nose, some of whom would squat down to pet her, and perhaps find some small comfort in her.

You may wonder about the motives of someone who wants to see such ghosts, to walk amongst them and ‘collect’ them by recording them in his notebook with meticulous notes. You may even call such a person a ghoul (but only if you’ve never met an actual ghoul). But I would swear that Edwin got no thrill from his collection, no vicarious kick. He watched the ghosts with eyes that shone wetly in the streetlight; he took notes and I took photos. His motive, I believe, was the same as that of the locals who still left their flowers and notes and other mementoes. So that the ghosts would not be forgotten. So as to acknowledge the value of the lives that had been stolen from them. So as to not completely let go.

Afterwards, we went to a coffee shop and I talked to him about the research I’d done on him and his family. I showed him a photograph, the colours fading, cracks appearing in the middle. It was of a woman who was not particularly pretty, but was young and slim and beaming with pride. Beside her was a man fifteen years her senior - balding and portly, dressed in a three-piece pinstripe suit. He too was smiling, a little stiffly, the pride shining from his eyes. In the woman’s arms, she held a baby, wrapped up in an old-fashioned christening dress, the same dress she had worn on her christening day. I’d got the photo from Harriet Hamilton’s niece, the one who’d visited Harriet in her nursing home in her later years, the woman who’d written her scant obituary. Old herself now, with an unsteady, painful gait and swollen feet and hands, she’d kept a few of Harriet’s keepsakes in a shoebox, this photo amongst them. With the help of her son, she’d found the shoebox, and the photo, and had allowed me to borrow it.

It was the only photo of Edwin, taken a few months before he broke his parents’ hearts. Taken before he died of meningitis, just before he turned one years old. I showed Edwin the photo and told him the brief story of his stillborn life, ended almost before it was begun. He was a ghost, haunting the world, trying to live the life that he would have lived, had he lived. But had he lived, he would now be over eighty years old, not the middle-aged man he appeared to be. He’d slipped out of sync with time and hadn’t realised; if he’d lived, he’d not have had much time left by now, if any at all.

Edwin gazed at the photo solemnly and thanked me with a quiet dignity. Then he left the coffee shop, fading away amongst the other pedestrians who were out enjoying a pleasant autumn night, with a few stars visible above the sodium streetlights.

I let him go, knowing I wouldn’t see him again. Knowing that the money he’d paid me was as phantom as he was, disappearing from my bank account that very night. (Fortunately, I was prepared for that. This was not the first time I’d had a ghost for a client.) I returned the photo of him and his loving parents to Harriet’s niece, and told her and her son the story of Edwin and his stillborn, ghostly life. He’d made no friends and had no lovers, made no impact on the world at all, as far as I could tell. His story of his job as a successful financial analyst was just a ghost’s daydream. But I believed that he had indeed explored the world, as he’d said he had. That he’d climbed mountains and sailed seas, that he’d seen rare sights of beauty and of antiquity. He’d been in the world for as long as he could, walking its streets, leaving no footprints, watching the people of the world, and its ghosts. It was as much of a life as any other. But his haunting was over now. He had found the ghost he was looking for.

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