Death of a Ghost

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Death of a Ghost


   CHARLES BUTLER

Death of a Ghost

   Illustrated by David Wyatt


   For Hallie Óg

   Now like Friar Bacon’s Brazen Head I’ve spoken “Time is,” “Time was,” “Time’s past.”

   Byron, Don Juan

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   IT WAS A hot day in August and Jack Purdey was taking the lanes too fast. Jack always drove like that, but today it was worse because the lanes were narrower and he was nervous about Lychfont. Untrimmed hedges flicked the wing mirror and strips of yellow hit the windscreen as a tractor flung back straw. Watching from the passenger seat, Ossian saw his father’s profile turn hooked and mean, like a bird of prey in mid-swoop.

   Will I have ear hairs when I’m fifty? Ossian wondered. He said nothing, but at each corner braced his foot against the floor.

   Jack saw this at last and pointed out in his hurt voice: “We’ll be late if I don’t put a spurt on.”

   “We’ll probably be late if you do, Dad. Kaput. Worm-food.”

   “Huh. Morbid child. We want to make a good impression, you know.”

   A milk tanker pulled out from a gate at this moment and forced them to the edge of a ditch. Jack swore inventively, but he drove with greater caution after that.

   All this for Catherine Frazer! thought Ossian. She won’t even notice.

   Ossian tried to distract himself by reading the book his girlfriend Lizzy had given him. It was a hardback novel with 300 pages of close-set print: Death of a Mayfly. Lizzy had slipped it into his hand at Philadelphia International, just before the departure lounge. “For the trip. It’s the latest Inspector Gordius.”

   Nice thought, reflected Ossian. He’d felt bad because he’d bought her nothing in return. Not that she’d seemed to mind.

   “Just don’t forget me, will you?” she had told him.

   The small print made him queasy though, and the plot – some double-cross, triple-bluff mystery about a spy on the run – was too complicated to read in the car. But the message she had stuck in the flyleaf was sweet. “To my Ill-made Knight. From Your Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Typical Lizzy, quoting poetry at him. He could see her nose wrinkling as she wrote that.

   “There’s a speed limit in this country!

   “Sorry,” said Jack. “For a moment I forgot which side of the road I was meant to be on.”

   Ossian checked his seat belt for the hundredth time and thought again of Lizzy, back in Philadelphia.

   Maybe that quote was just a way of trying to confuse him. Lizzy loved the idea of being beyond his comprehension, a wild and mysterious muse, even if she did have freckles. “You’ll never understand me,” she would say wistfully. She had talked like that a lot in the week up to his leaving. “And I’ll miss you so much, Ossian. Why do you have to follow your dad back to Britain anyway? Just because his residency’s ended. Anyone would think he owned you.”

   “Got no choice, Lizzy. I’m only sixteen, remember. A child in the eyes of the law.”

   “Not from where I’m standing,” smirked Lizzy and wrapped her arms around him.

   Stretched out in his car seat, Ossian remembered just how good that had felt. He let Lizzy’s hands run down his body once again – then caught an accidental glimpse of his face in the sun-visor mirror. A young man’s face, he assured himself. Not a child’s at all.

   More than once he had suggested Lizzy should come to England too. Or come in a year once her course was over and he was settled, and they would move in together and he’d get a job somehow.

   “You really think I’d leave this? It’s my home!” she had said, gesturing to a landscape of river, tower and sky.

   “You could come back to visit,” he said, “whenever you wanted.”

   “That wouldn’t be the same. Like I said—”

   “I’ll never understand you!”

   “Something like that, errant boy,” said Lizzy with a sigh.

   Ossian wanted to find her sigh mysterious, if only to oblige her, but those freckles stood in his way. In any case, Lizzy was better than mysterious: she was truthful and kind, and she didn’t think of him as a famous artist’s son first. And she was fit! Yes, he would miss her badly.

   The sun was high now and he pushed the sun visor back. There, ahead of him on a ridge of low hill, was the Corn Stone. Ossian had contrived to forget all about it, but it started a domino trail of memories – Lychfont memories, of which this stone was the first. The Corn Stone had been a sacred place once. Many years ago – seven, was it? – he and Colin Frazer had made small but bloody sacrifices there. Little yobs! No vole or shrew had been safe. But now the Stone looked disappointingly mellow, a little pearl button sewn on to the corduroy fields. To Ossian’s eye, grown accustomed to life on an American scale, it was as flat as a tiddlywink.

   Travel broadens the mind, he reflected, the way a rolling pin broadens pastry. It had certainly flattened Hampshire. What could Lychfont offer when you’d seen Niagara and the Grand Canyon? Some pleasant ripples of green hill – a ruin or two? A distant prospect of Southampton docks? Perhaps he could have found a way to stay with Lizzy if he’d wanted to. If he’d really tried.

   “We should be there by now,” said Jack. “I wonder if I’ve overshot the road? Easily done.”

   “No, Dad – we’ll get to Marlow’ Farm in a moment. Then it’s less than a mile.”

   Sure enough, the next bend revealed Marlow’s Farm, the tyres on the silage clamp and a field of Friesian cattle.

   Ossian had only been to Lychfont once before – that summer with Colin – but he found he remembered every gate and hedge, every dip in the road. Expected them, in fact. They slotted neatly into his mind like puzzle pieces. It was a strange sensation and he searched for the phrase to describe it. Not déjà vu, though that came close. More like—

   “Bloody cats!” cursed Jack, narrowly avoiding a ginger one as it dragged a twitching pigeon to the ditch. “You’d think they owned the place!”

   It had been the summer after his mum left, the summer of Jack’s first Royal Academy exhibition, the summer Ossian had turned nine. Catherine Frazer, already making a name as a patron of the arts, had taken pity on the abandoned painter and his son and given them the run of Lychfont for two months. It had been kind of her – although had she and Jack been having an affair, Ossian wondered? It hadn’t crossed his mind at the time. If so, it must have ended badly; they hadn’t been asked to Lychfont since. Until this new commission.

   “Cathy likes her artists up and coming,” said Jack when the email reached him in Philadelphia. “I’m surprised I still qualify.”

   No wonder he was nervous.

   Falling with the road into a sudden trench of shadow, Ossian saw the Corn Stone disappear below the horizon for a moment. When it rose again it was no nearer, but tangled behind a nearby church wall. Just a wall, no church. A stairway was hacked into air. There was a solitary arch. Grass curled against the pillars where they lay. That was Lychfont Abbey, a gaunt Reformation ruin. And in the distance, still topping its ridge next to a line of birch, sat the Corn Stone.

   Except that now it did not look so pearly or so low. Now it looked like a grey box, blue-grey, almost metallic. And the top of it was smooth. All the better for laying out corpses, Ossian reflected. He should know.

   A series of black-and-white chevrons pointed to a sharp curve ahead. Concealed Entrance. Out of the sun the road seemed smoky-dark and Jack reached up to adjust the visor. Again, Ossian tried to interest himself in Lizzy’s book. Then something made him look up.

   “Dad! Look out!”

   A large animal – too big for a dog – had run in front of them. A pony had wandered on to the road. It had a pony’s shaggy head and fetlocks.

   But ponies do not stand so four-square with flame-red eyes and a mouth all dripping crimson.

   Jack, with one hand on the wheel and two lunchtime ciders in his belly, saw it just too late.

   “Jesus!

   The car flipped off the road, clearing the ditch with a powerful thud on the back axle. Jack and Ossian both lurched forward with the shock. Ossian’s seat belt did not prevent his forehead hitting the windscreen, though the fabric bit savagely into his neck. Immediately, a dampness began to spread down his face and Lizzy’s book was sprayed with red. Jack was stamping at the brake pedal, swearing. Yet the car was still moving, fast enough to take out the wooden gate up ahead. Beyond it, on the yellow grassy mount in the middle of the field, the Corn Stone glinted. The wheels jolted from rut to rut of the baked earth – and when Ossian looked again the Stone was nearer and larger. There was someone lying on it! And they were almost – it was—

   “Look out! Dad! We’re going to—!”

   “I can’t! I can’t!—”


   SULIS AWOKE THAT morning with the sudden knowledge that she was alone. A fire curled in the grate. The sun, flicked by the stiff-fingered trees outside her window, scattered light across her face, lap and feet. But the bed was cold.

   “Husband!” she cried out. She sat up, tense and frightened. Angles of sharp sunlight slid over her skin as the white sheets fell from her. “Husband! Brother!”

   There was no answer. Ossian – her brother, her husband-to-be – was no longer there. Only the forbidding busts of the immortals by the hearth. She rang for Alaris.

   Alaris wafted into the room. A shimmer of rose and sandalwood announced her. “Yes, mistress?”

   “Where is Ossian?” Sulis demanded. Her voice was steady, but the intensity of it made Alaris tremble. “Did he go hunting again?”

   “N-no, mistress. I haven’t seen him since yesterday when he was resting in your ch-chamber.”

   “Don’t lie to me, Alaris! I have to know. Did Ossian leave the house this morning?”

   “I h-have not seen him, mistress. I’ve been in the kitchen since an hour before dawn and have seen nothing.”

   “Then call the head groom! And the chief huntsman! I must know where he is! Saddle my grey mare!”

   “At once, mistress!”

   Sulis panted with the effort of being so afraid. Her heart pounded and, as Alaris left, she fell back on her pillow of swan’s-down. Ossian gone! And today of all days! Someone must surely have abducted him. But the blank walls denied it and the fireplace opposite leered back at her with blackened teeth.

   The head groom and the huntsman came. She heard the grey mare stamping on the flags in the court below, bells jangling on its bridle. No one knew where her husband (as good as) might be. On this, their wedding day! Bridal bells! She threw vases at groom and huntsman, and watched them shatter on the wall above their cringing bodies. Ordinarily, she would have derived some satisfaction from this, but not today.

   “You’re all useless!” she screamed, and leapt across the marble floor to the curtain of her antechamber.

   Sulis stormed from room to room. Servants cowered in doorways as she passed and they muttered low what everyone but Sulis already knew. That Ossian had stolen away by night – stolen himself, for he was Sulis’s property in every way that mattered – and made for the mortal shore. Later, they found her in one of the garden walks, looking through a trellis of vines towards the milky river, weeping.

   “He would never have left me,” she said. “Not Ossian; we were made for each other. He knows that.”

   By the middle of the morning she had gathered herself and a painstaking search of the house was under way. Chimneys were being peered up. Long-sealed cupboards were having their locks levered off. The kennelmaster was sniffing with his dogs around the riverbank and the mudflats were being scoured for Ossian’s prints. Sulis immured herself in her osier tower, scanning the horizon for signs of movement. The tower was built upon a willow island and a willow ladder led to it from the ground. In this floating bower, Sulis sat until Alaris came, out of breath from the climb, some two hours later.

   “There is no sign of Ossian, my lady.”

   Sulis grunted. “Then despair must be my portion!”

   Alaris was tactful enough to wait a good ten seconds before adding: “But I have heard that a seeing-man – a scryer – is lodging near Lychfont.”

   “A mountebank!” Sulis muttered. “What of it?”

   “He has a good reputation, mistress. They say he can set a bridge between the worlds as easily as I can wring a shirt. He has not only knowledge but power too, and… oh, elegant devices! If he is all they claim he might even be able to help you find Ossian.” She hesitated shyly before daring to ask: “Shall I send for him?”

   “And hold up my shame to public scorn?” said Sulis, as if hearing her for the first time. “Certainly not!”

   Sulis had no use for scryers. Most of them were frauds, and even when their talent was genuine they were infuriating, either secretive to a fault or else so garrulous (in a riddling, unhelpful sort of way) that one soon longed for silence. Nor was the whiff they brought with them of other worlds, to her mind, a charming feature. “No,” she repeated thoughtfully. “We must find Ossian ourselves. Make a further search of the cellars.”

   A little later, though, Sulis’s bell summoned Alaris back to the willow tower. She entered nervously, and breathless again, having run from the far side of the estate. The goddess was staring into her palms as though they were flawed crystal.

   “Y-yes, mistress?”

   “You still haven’t found him,” said Sulis. It was not a question.

   “No, mistress.”

   “I know what you think. You think he has taken off, abandoned me.”

   “I do not think,” said Alaris abjectly. “I obey. But may he not be lost? He may have lost himself and be searching for you even now!”

   “He may,” agreed Sulis with brief interest. But her turquoise eyes were hooded and cast down. “It makes no difference. Without my aid he will never find his way back.” She sighed a lonely sigh. “Do your worst then, Alaris. Summon this scryer of yours. We’ll see what he can do.”

   “At once, mistress.”

   “But remember…”

   “…Yes, mistress?”

   “I submit to this only because my honour compels me. If the scryer fails to please me, I will remember who brought him to my house.”

   “Of course, mistress,” said Alaris, and made herself busy straightening the hanging fronds in the doorway. But her fingers were trembling.

   “You understand, Alaris,” said Sulis grimly. “Excellent. I thought you would.”


   “THERE’S LYCHFONT HOUSE,” said Jack.

   “Remember it?”

   Ossian peered up the drive, where half a dozen Jacobean chimneys were showing just clear of the trees.

   “Never thought we’d get here in one piece,” he said.

   “Humph. Do I detect some slight criticism of my driving technique? Be honest.”

   Ossian looked at his father steadily, remembering that heart-stopping skid back near the Corn Stone. “How long have you got?”

   Lychfont House was large, but Ossian did not feel as if he were entering a stately home, despite the marble stallions rearing at the gates. It was simply an old house with more bedrooms than people, and a driveway long enough for a change up to second gear. Catherine Frazer was just lucky to have inherited something she could never have earned honestly. Luck didn’t make her stately.

   Ossian might not have bothered with these thoughts had it not been for his father’s edginess. Something about Catherine had the power to make Jack nervous. Was it only the dangling prospect of future commissions that unsettled him?

   Here came Catherine now, glancing across the forecourt in a sky-blue sun dress, a hat of Van Gogh straw.

   “So you made it!” she exclaimed, as though that were a wonder. “How marvellous. Are these for me?”

   Jack presented her with the bunch of inadequate carnations he had bought at the service station. Ossian prepared to wince, but Catherine – such good manners! – managed to look as if he had handed her the Golden Fleece. “I’ll put these in water right away. Ossian! You’ve grown up, of course. I wouldn’t have known you!”

   Ossian got through the introductions. Catherine offered her cheek, taking him lightly by the wrist. The smell of peaches and apples engulfed him for a moment, and with it something else that he had forgotten about Catherine, though now he saw it had always been there, and he rather thought it was whisky.

   Colin Frazer was standing at the door. Colin had grown too and his hair (which Ossian remembered as golden and curly) was cut short. He loped down the drive to meet them, with a lazy, bouncing stride. Jack was listening hard to Catherine’s advice about the roadworks on the way down and how he could have avoided them. “But you’re here now,” she concluded, “and I can’t imagine better weather for it. Where’s Sue got to, Colin? She ought to be here.”

   “She’ll appear when she feels like it, I expect. Why are you all standing out here like garden gnomes? It’s cooler inside, and there are jugs of juice and Pimms. Coming, Ossian?”

   Ossian followed. The sun was bright and Colin became all but invisible as he passed into the porch. Ossian did not remember the heraldic lions on either side of the door, nor their mossy yellow tongues, though they must have been standing guard for decades. But the odd smell of must and polish in the hall itself was instantly recognisable. There was the long gilt mirror and Stubbs bay, and the hanging tiger rug that had always looked at him with such fierce resentment.

   Colin led him into the saloon. This was just as Ossian remembered it: the mah-jongg set, the Cluny cushions sewn with unicorns and maidens. Each shelf, sill and tabletop was given over to roses, to irises and orchids, and everywhere hung sprays of fragrant mock orange. Ossian cringed again at the thought of Jack’s carnations. Here too were the paintings Catherine’s family had gathered on their travels: eighteenth-century mythological oils mostly, with a preference for forests, fountains and plump Arcadians.

   “All breasts and blushes,” said Colin in a worldly way, following Ossian’s gaze to a picture of Venus and Adonis. “Have you ever seen so much blubber?”

   “I was just thinking,” said Ossian, “about the painting Dad’s going to do. You know that’s why we’re here?”

   “God!” Colin clapped his hand to his forehead. “Don’t tell me she wants him to produce something like this?”

   “Kind of. It’s supposed to be a picture of a shepherd tending his flock. Green hills and blue skies, but with jet planes and tractors in the background. Old-fashioned but updated, see? A sort of joke. They’re calling it The Golden Age.

   “I should have guessed,” groaned Colin.

   “I’m going to be the shepherd, actually. Dad’s asked me to model.”

   Colin shook his head. “I hope he’s paying you well.”

   “Not bad,” said Ossian. “He’s quite generous like that.”

   The pay can be very good, he thought. He had been modelling in the life class at the college in Philadelphia when he’d first spotted Lizzy. She’d been wearing a loose shirt knotted at the front and an expression of concentration which made her freckled nose wrinkle. He’d known right away she would be special. She’d caught him frighteningly well.

   “I’m only there to make the scenery look good.”

   “Bloody artists, eh?” said Colin cordially. “You hungry, by the way?”

   Ossian followed Colin to the kitchen, wondering where the other guests might be. “I saw several cars in the drive.”

   “Yes, it’s a party,” said Colin, helping himself to an olive. “My mother’s got some of her horsey friends down – she wants advice on a roan she’s had her eye on. There’s you and Jack, of course. Oh, and a bunch of money-men Dad had to invite. Something to do with his marina project, I think.”

   Colin was already on his way out to the lawn. He was carrying too much weight, Ossian noted. His chin barely existed. Was this really the boy he had idolised that summer – the sacrificer-in-chief? At eighteen he seemed virtually middle-aged.

   Once, these grounds had boasted peacocks. Ossian remembered being frightened of their strangulated cries, the locust-dry rustling of their fans. Now the lawn was bare, except for the pedestals with their Greek statues that arced to the lake. Things had slipped a bit at Lychfont, he concluded. Zeus and the Olympians were mildewed and rather sombre: Athena in her helmet, Hermes alert as a deer, Pan fluting. Silenus had lost half his grapes in the storms the previous autumn. Yet still they hung on in the alien northern air.

   He found Catherine and the other guests listening attentively to Jack.

   “It’s good to be back,” he was telling them. “You can be as cosmopolitan as you like, but you forget how much you’ll miss those little things. Marmite, you know, and the shipping forecast.”

   “Well, you’ve caught the tan but not the accent – much the best combination. How long were you in the States again?”

   “Eighteen months.”

   “Enough to see the place in all its moods then. To be a traveller rather than a tourist.”

   A small, sunburnt man in a checked shirt said: “The difference being what?”

   “Money, I think. Or time.”

   “More a question of where you keep your souvenirs – in your hand luggage or in your head,” said someone sagely.

   “Or on canvas, of course. What do you have to show for your stay there, Jack?”

   Jack cast his gaze modestly to the ground. “Most of the originals are still on exhibition back in Philly, but I have some smaller canvases in the car.”

   “I look forward to seeing those,” said Catherine. “Not a day passes but I find something new to admire in the little watercolours you did when you stayed before. I hung them in the saloon, you know. You never painted better, Jack.”

   Jack acknowledged this with a small, self-mocking bow. Ossian knew he would not care for the suggestion that his best work was seven years behind him. Jack Purdey had once been the enfant terrible of English landscape painting, but somehow he had never quite made it to the farther shore and become a Pillar of the Establishment. These days all compliments were routinely sifted for nuggets of treacherous dispraise.

   As soon as he could, Ossian escaped back to the house. He felt suddenly and deeply tired. It was the effect of the flight, he supposed; he wasn’t used to the time difference. Already he wished he had not come.

   And he knew he ought to write to Lizzy.

   


   THE SCRYER’S NEXT question was a delicate one. “May I take it, my lady, that you loved this boy?”

   “I do. Even now I do,” said Sulis.

   “In the way of chaste desire or are there… other feelings involved?”

   Sulis bridled at the man’s insolence. “Does it make a difference?”

   “In such cases, invariably,” said the scryer with a fatherly smile. “The currents that run between our realm and his can easily be disrupted by such intimate attunements.”

   “I see,” said Sulis coldly. “Well, you may put aside all such worries in this instance. My feelings are vast and profound as any ocean, but they are mine and I control them as I see fit.”

   The scryer, who had not yet been paid, assured her that everything was quite in order.

   “Then we should begin,” she said.

   They were standing in the flagged kitchen at Lychfont: Sulis, the scryer and the scryer’s clerk. The servants’ table had been heaved aside and a dusting of chalk laid down, with heaped ridges of ferrous ash trowelled and footed into shapes appropriate to the scryer’s trade. Sulis recognised them as letters, but could not read them. They were Syriac, she supposed, or Hebrew.

   The scryer felt about in his gourd for the dice and knuckle-bones. The curtains were drawn close and the room was sparkling with the reflected glitter of the ash. At a certain point, Sulis noticed that the scryer had begun to sway slightly back and forth, and that an obscure dribble of language was falling from his lips. Again, the speech was unknown to her. She guessed, though, from certain familiar names studding it, what the scryer was about. It was an invocation, though of what quality she could not yet tell. She suspected the man was a quack.

   The scryer’s clerk was tapping the gourd, across one end of which the belly skin of a pig was stretched tight. It was quite mesmeric, Sulis had to admit. That, however, was something to beware of. Sometimes these scryers claimed to have fetched out spirits with such rhythms as this, when all they had done was plant a dream in fuzzed and puttied imaginations. It was a trick of the trade.

   “Now cast your mind like a net,” said the scryer. “Cast through time and space. Don’t be afraid.”

   “I’m not afraid!” cried Sulis.

   “Don’t be complacent either,” he returned without breaking rhythm. Sulis felt as if her response had been expected, required – almost a ritual phrase. Anything she said would sink into the rhythm of that gourd and the old man’s chant as completely as a stone tossed on to the Lychfont mudflats. Trick of the trade? There was certainly movement on the ash-strewn floor. It was – jiggling, somehow. Then it stood stark and stiff, like filings magnetised but shifted to a new pattern. The ferrous dust no longer spelt out letters. It now formed – what?

   “Is it a map?” asked Sulis.

   “One moment!” said the scryer’s clerk. “Silence now, please. Now my master walks the frayed rope between two worlds.”

   Better than a circus! thought Sulis mutinously. All the same, she admired the way the scryer still held his rhythm clear of their words. It was dextrous, if a little sinister.

   A moment later there was a raucous croak in the rafters overhead. Looking up, Sulis saw a raven.

   Charlatan! she thought. An obvious plant!

   Perhaps, but the raven was her true totem bird and who but she knew that? Thereafter, it could be heard commenting throatily on the whole consultation.

   “Each line shows a way to your man of dust, your Ossian,” said the scryer. “From where he has gone there is no easy return, I think. He has been…” The scryer seemed briefly at a loss. “How can I put it in a way that won’t seem too alarming?”

   “I’m paying you for truth, not tact,” said Sulis. “Are you saying you don’t know where he is?”

   “On the contrary, lady. I know very well. Only he is not all… in one place.”

   “What do you mean by that? Has he been dismembered?”

   “Not exactly. Not physically, that is. But he has been scattered, all the same. Scattered like light through a prism. It is the effect of the flight, the difference in time. To put it bluntly, the boy you seek is no longer a living person.”

   “Oh!” exclaimed Sulis in alarm.

   “Do not misunderstand me. One might say he is alive several times over. There are many Ossians. I see his face reflected back in the stream of time at myriad angles.”

   Sulis had recovered herself. “Then let us by all means cover every angle,” she said with laboured patience.

   The scryer looked troubled. “You are aware, no doubt, of the difficulty of a retrieval from history in even the most propitious circumstances. When the subject is in a known location and there are plain tokens of his wish to return, when the signs have all been agreed in advance – even then there is no guarantee of success. I have known cases where what was recovered was mad, or terribly deformed—”

   “He’ll have to take the risk. He owes me that. Is this all you have to say against the operation?”

   The scryer gave another of his embarrassed laughs.

   “It’s all right,” said Sulis impatiently. “I realise it will mean more gold. Just tell your clerk to prepare the equipment.”

   The raven fluttered down from the rafter and sat on her shoulder. It croaked – encouragingly, Sulis thought.

   “I cannot do it yet. No, lady, put away your gold, this has nothing to do with money – though the process is expensive and in due course an adjustment of my fee will no doubt be required. But the technical difficulties are formidable. You wish to find Ossian? Then in each of the places where he now dwells you will need to assume an appropriate form. To determine that takes time.”

   Sulis sighed. Why did scryers insist on expressing themselves so elliptically?

   She was sure that money lay at the root of it. A few more minutes and the scryer would go stiff and start speaking gibberish. Then she would be asked to lay out extra on one of those interpreting women, always so gummy and unhygienic, to render him intelligible. Such a racket!

   However, the scryer showed no sign of stiffening just yet. “I can help you to enter Ossian’s sphere of existence, once the proper observances have been made. Your way, however, lies by the path of oblivion. In passing through it you must learn to suppress – partially suppress – your higher nature.”

   Sulis was poised to take offence. “What are you saying? That I should put aside my divinity?”

   “For the noblest of reasons, I assure you! Ossian is located in a particularly impoverished environment, one that will not sustain a person of your great eminence without peril. I can place you there, of course…”

   “But what?” prompted Sulis stonily.

   “But not in your – habitual form.”

   “I don’t care what form I assume. I shall manifest myself, claim Ossian and be gone. If the people yield him up without fuss, I may even plant a shrine among them.” Sulis pondered the idea. “A spring of healing water, perhaps. I’m fond of springs.”

   “A very pretty thought, lady. But it may not be so easy. Should you act in ways that are too obviously divine you will weaken the barriers that separate the worlds, with danger to both. On the other hand,” the scryer added with a dark emphasis, “there is an equal and opposite danger: that you will be absorbed wholly into their world.”

   “Me? Absorbed?” retorted Sulis grandly. “Do you know who you are talking to?”

   The scryer trembled slightly at her tone, but persisted. “When you are there, you will belong to the Ossian’s place and time. You yourself will not know, except in the most shadowy and imperfect manner, who you truly are.”

   The scryer had been reluctant to broach this subject and with good reason. Perfect memory was as much part of Sulis’s divinity as her eternal youth. But Sulis, for once, showed no resentment. She actually smiled and told the scryer condescendingly: “Not know who I am? That might be possible for certain classes of person, I dare say. I don’t think I shall forget myself, gentle scryer. Never worry on that account.”

   The scryer seemed relieved, but was obliged to add: “There remains the problem of temporal dispersal.”

   Sulis clapped for a dish of sherbet. “Explain that part again,” she sighed.


   LYCHFONT HOUSE

   LYCHFONT

   HANTS

   Hi Lizzy

   I said I’d write as soon as I got here, didn’t I, and tell you about the journey. And here I am doing it, just like the dork you’ve always called me. The flight was fine. Soggy chicken but I kind of liked it. I even survived Dad’s driving – just. The only lousy thing was the direction. Away from you. I don’t know much about art, but I know this landscape would look better with you in it. I don’t know much about love either, but I think I’m in it with you. With you but without you. Philosophical, huh? On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelph—

   Ossian put a diagonal line through all that. How come he was suddenly so gushy? He seemed to have got sidetracked into writing exactly the wrong kind of letter. This wasn’t Lizzy’s thing at all. She liked to know about people and music and clothes; she liked to hear the funny things people said and who laughed. She liked – needed – to picture it all, as if she were watching a movie. But Ossian did not notice things in that way, or did not remember them; in any case, he couldn’t shape them into words. And now he had lost the knack of saying easy, natural things. He drew a picture instead, of Catherine and her friends yakking under summer hats and stuffing themselves with smoked-salmon sandwiches. Social satire on the British: Lizzy would laugh at that all right.

   But it wasn’t what he’d wanted to tell her. He’d wanted to tell her that he was in love. Why was that so difficult to say straight out? It wasn’t as if Lizzy wanted him to be witty all the time. That was one of the things that condemned Jack in her eyes. “I only want you for your body, stupid,” she used to say.

   He never could be sure how much of a joke that was.

   He shut the pen and paper in the drawer of the side table. It was too fine a day to spend in his room. The others would think he was sulking. He went down the short corridor to the bathroom and washed his face. He had to pick his way, for the shadows there contained alcoves in which heavy stone busts brooded, Catherine’s collection of noble Greeks and Romans. Julius Caesar’s nose came close to catching him in the ribs.

   Catherine had moved to a hammock seat, twenty metres from the terrace. Six or seven people were gathered there now, and Catherine herself swung under the hammock’s flowery awning, its shadow tasselling the lawn. The sharp sun made the scene unreal. As he stood in the doorway, Ossian tried to sort out which of the guests were Catherine’s horsey types, and which Mr Frazer’s businessmen. Catherine was being inscrutably polite to all.

   “Yes, hardly anyone has heard of it,” she was saying in response to a query from a lugubrious man whose lip was haunted by a wisp of pale moustache. “The Abbey ruins here are not, of course, to be mentioned in the same breath with Rievaulx or Fountains, but in a quiet, backwaterish way Lychfont has its own dignified tale to tell.” Sensing a silence, she added: “Henry VIII always struck me as such a lout, don’t you agree?”

   Everybody did agree; they had no choice. The lugubrious man’s wife had always preferred the Stuarts, she said – much more dashing in those wigs.

   “Nothing like being beheaded to give a man romantic appeal.”

   Ossian, who had been approaching in the shade of the wall, heard the laugh that followed this, a laugh like glasses being chinked, and checked his step. The mention of beheading caused him to grip his own neck and his Adam’s apple rose and fell. Everyone in that group must be at least twice his age. And in that time, what smoothing of rough edges there must have been; how ready the world had made them for this sipping of drinks on the lawn at Lychfont House, and laughing tinkling laughs and chiming with the tinkling laugh of Catherine.

   Fool that he was, he felt afraid – as if he were nine again. Any moment now, Catherine would turn and see him, wave and invite him to be clever too. And he couldn’t – wasn’t. He turned on his heel with his face flushing hot in the shadow. How stupid! And he knew they had seen him after all, for Catherine was saying: “Jack’s boy? Yes, always a quiet one. Hard not to be overshadowed by Jack, of course.”

   “Not that it’s a competition,” said another female voice – but by now Ossian had made the corner of the house and seen the grass bump down in cloddy terraces to the flood meadow.

   Sod Catherine Frazer, comparing him with Jack like that. That was all she saw when she looked at him, then: an after-image of Jack Purdey, much dimmer than the original. Or a muffled echo mouthing things that had already been said more clearly, more cleverly, better. It was humiliating – but oddly enough, it also made him afraid, in a way that had nothing to do with his father. It made him wonder whether he was real at all. In this mood, he became conscious of the bending of the grass beneath his feet, the play of light on the skin of his eye. He was fearful that at any moment he might unravel, be revealed as a random knot of touch and sound, a net of shadows cast from some place far beyond him.

   It was at such times, indeed, that he was most likely to meet with ghosts.

   The meadow was dark and lush, shadowed in part by the house and by its own river border of willow and silver birch. In wet weather, the river could break its banks and spread a sudden lake there. You could find minnows jungled in the long grass, a drowned canopy of gnats and thistledown. Here too, wading to the knee, Ossian had once walked with Colin to fish with shrimping nets and chased an eel across the lawn as far as the drooped willows.

   How long ago was that? Seven years?

   It felt like another life.

   Ossian lolloped at a diagonal from the house towards a fence where the Lychfont grounds ended in a field of sheep. The flood meadow was dry now, but still soft and peaty underfoot. All this time he knew he was being followed. The black mullioned windows of the hall behind him were unoccupied and his view up the sloping lawn gave no chance of cover. In the shadow near the house, where the long grass was uncut, he saw no footprints but his own. It didn’t matter; Ossian knew. A ghost had drifted from the stonework and latched on to him. Its atmosphere of puzzled disappointment had resonated, probably, with his own.

   Ossian decided to be friendly. He stopped. The ghost stopped and watched him staring back up the slope. Its long sickly face quivered like a reflection in a pool. Ossian smiled a little, encouragingly – but his smile shot it to ribbons, sliced its joints like cockcrow. It fell in pieces, then laboriously reassembled itself and followed again, dog-like, without rancour. It tracked him along the fence, where the ground grew flat and tussocked. Ossian had no choice but to let it. It did not mean him harm. It shimmered just behind the grass, a green miasma. He guessed what that green colour meant. This ghost had died violently and young.

   At the edge of the wood he stopped and looked back again. The ghost was still there, dogging him at thirty metres. The body was just as thin but more distinct now; he could see long fingers and a belt of tools that clinked silently at each step. The legs were bare stalks of flesh. And that sickly face? Ossian blinked into the greenness of the river meadow rising up behind. The face was yellowish – brass. It was a metal face! The long, kind, sickly features were gone and Ossian saw jagged mask holes where no light shone, and brass lips rounded as if to speak his name…

   “Ossian!” it shouted. “Ossian! Ossian! Ossian! Ossian!”

   Ossian turned and ran back to the house.

   


   SULIS’S SHERBERT was finished long since, but the scryer was still explaining about temporal dispersal. The intricacies of human history animated him as few other subjects did, and his curl of white beard wagged puppyishly as he talked. Sulis listened with patience at first, until the scryer unwisely returned to his comparison between time and a beam of light. Entering a spiritually impoverished world, he told her, was like shining a light on to polished crystal. The light would be refracted into many colours and directions. “A marvellous sight, but one signifying disintegration…”

   Before long, Sulis was not even pretending to pay attention. Her mind still ran on the humiliation of her abandonment. Every now and then it came back to her and shook her by the throat, in spiteful little sobs. It made all too much sense. Ossian could never have escaped her except by flying to some vulgar place where her own transcendent purity could not easily follow. And he would certainly pay – refracted, dispersed and impoverished as he might be.

   “…so you may find he eludes you merely by shifting to another part of the, er, spectrum as it were.”

   The scryer was waiting for a response. The point of his speech had been clear, at any rate. Following Ossian would be risky, no matter why. And the old man’s concern was genuine, Sulis guessed, for all his ludicrous verbosity.

   She looked around her. Lychfont’s marble reflected in its extreme whiteness the snowy pallor of her own face, and her turquoise eyes were brindled with gold and lapis lazuli. Two colonnades fanned from where she sat, the space between them crossed with walks and pools and fountains. The sky, as always, was kingfisher blue, the earth her own blood red, and rising from its depths a wondrous perfume clothed the air in dark velvet. Sighing, she breathed the smoke of a thousand sacrificial fires.

   It was all very beautiful. And should she give this up, even if only with part of herself, even for Ossian? Although she had laughed it off, the scryer’s warning had shocked her. Might she really forget her own divinity? What if she should become trapped in the tawdry sphere of existence where Ossian had taken refuge? She could not bear the thought of being tawdry.

   “Ossian always was weak-minded,” she said. “He needed me, you see, to keep him steady. That’s why we were so perfectly matched.” She broke down again and a tear snaked down her cheek: “I’ll wring his neck!”

   “He is unworthy of you, lady,” put in the scryer’s clerk.

   He soon regretted it. Sulis was suddenly towering over him, her golden hair scraping the rafters. “Unworthy? Is that how you speak of my consort, little man? Am I a green girl to be soothed with childish comforts? How dare you!”

   “My colleague spoke ill-advisedly,” hastened the scryer, stepping between them. “He meant no harm, lady. Pardon his folly.”

   Sulis moved towards the clerk, whose legs were trembling so that they could scarcely bear him. She pointed one finger at him then, slowly, raised it to the roof. The clerk rose too – ten metres into the air, his feet wriggling. He floated out to the nearest pond, then Sulis closed her fist and let him fall. There was a yelp, a splash.

   “Consider him pardoned. And now, scryer, let us prepare the cauldron and the irons. There has been too much delay.”

   


   “THAT WAS HIS own fault, surely?”

   “Not at all. The poor man just blundered into the wrong part of the forest. Hardly a capital offence.”

   “You can’t expect Diana to see it that way. The Olympians are so touchy.”

   Catherine’s house guests were talking about gods. The walls of the saloon were thick with them. Her great-great-uncle had toured Italy at a time when prices were low and brought back a job lot, packed in crates. Ossian found Catherine and the others examining an oil of the hunter Actaeon, stumbling between green bushes on to the bank of a lake. There, by the light of her own immortal face, the goddess Diana bathed naked with her maidens. The deer Actaeon had been chasing could be seen, its hind flank at least, leaping out of the scene stage right, forgotten. The hunter’s face was all surprised embarrassment, delight and fear. If he guessed what punishment the goddess would ordain for his intrusion – to be turned into a deer, chased and eaten by his own hounds – that handsome and rather stupid face betrayed nothing of his knowledge.

   “The brushwork on his spear is very fine,” said Catherine.

   Ossian turned away and gave a jump as he saw Sue Frazer sitting on the sofa behind him. The truth was, he had quite forgotten her existence. He blushed to think of it.

   Sue was ignoring them all. She was alone on the sofa, trying to concentrate on a book. Between her fingers, Ossian recognised the broken crosier, the mitre in a pool of blood. Murdering Ministers. An Inspector Gordius mystery! It might be a good way to open a conversation. That was hard, though. Sue was not exactly taking up the whole sofa, but her leg was crooked under her thigh, with a knee sticking out horizontally to ward off approach. She did not look as if she wanted to talk.

   What was there to say about Sue Frazer? The moment Ossian wondered this, a neat packet of knowledge fell open in his mind. Sue was Colin’s half-sister: early twenties, bright, sardonic, keen on horses. It was a cause of continual jibing between her and Colin. Horses made Colin sneeze – a shameful allergy for one born to the saddle and he got teased unmercifully for it. It had always been like that. How could Ossian have forgotten?

   Sue had been shielding her face with the book. Now, sensing Ossian’s presence at her side, she lowered it and looked up at him curiously.

   “Ossian? I was wondering what had become of you.”

   Ossian stared back. He had seen girls as beautiful as this one – but not many. Colin’s sister’s long hair was pale, with a lustre as if there were some faint light backing it. Her face was an oval and the corners of her eyes tapered orientally, framing irises that were a greeny sea-blue. But it was her skin that made him gape. Her skin was so perfect as to be almost repellent. She might have been wearing a porcelain mask. Only her eyes were mobile and alive – and they darted back and forth as if looking for somewhere to hide. Ossian felt something irresistibly needy in that glance, something lost and far from home. He wanted to rush and assure her that in him, at least, she had one true friend in the world.

   “Any murders yet?” he asked lightly, indicating the book.

   “Three and counting,” Sue smiled, marking her page with a dog-ear. “Though the first looks like it may be accidental. You’ve read it?”

   “A long time ago.”

   “Oh good!” she smiled, and made room for him on the sofa. “Now, tell me who to suspect.”

   Ossian shook his head. “All a blur. It was ages back, like I said.”

   “At least promise me it isn’t Sergeant Rosie O’Shea,” Sue pouted. “I’ve taken a real liking to her. How does she put up with that pig of a boss?”

   “O’Shea?” Ossian rummaged for the name. “Oh yes, the Irish sergeant. No, she came back in Legal Tender, so you’re probably safe.”

   “Not another Inspector Gordius fan!” said Colin, joining them.

   “My brother has no interest in fiction,” explained Sue.

   Colin acknowledged this with a shrug. “Who needs the extra confusion? Real life’s weird enough already.”

   “But that’s just where you’re missing out,” objected Sue. “With books you can force the universe to make sense. Inspector Gordius always gets his man.”

   “Well, I’m jealous. For me there’s no escape from reality. Is it any wonder my hands are shaking?”

   Sue looked at her watch. “Never mind, you’ll be able to get a drink soon,” she smiled.

   “Yes, people always ask about those,” Catherine was saying, as the party turned to a less mythological wall, where in a line above the piano three small frames were overrun with leaf and bush – souvenirs from the Purdeys’ previous visit. “Aren’t they lovely? Why, thank you. I can never decide which I admire more – the technical virtuosity or Jack’s inspired mangling of his commission. He was asked to paint three views of the house and wilfully chose to misunderstand, the impossible man.”

   “I can’t make out the house at all,” said one of the guests, peering into the watercolour foliage. “In fact, this one’s very much what I see from my room—”

   “That’s the joke, though! These are views that the house has, not views that we have of the house. You see that floating dab of white down there? That’s me, apparently. Looking no more significant than a petal.”

   “Ephemerality then,” observed the guest, “is the theme of this sequence?”

   “Or, in a different way, endurance,” Catherine agreed. “How much these four walls must have witnessed! Yet here they still are, basking comfortably while we scurry around on our little errands. That’s what Jack was trying to say, wasn’t it, Jack?”

   “Oh, I’m the last person to ask,” said Jack, rather pompously. “Once the paint dries I disown it. I set it adrift to sink or swim.”

   “Oh, it swims, it swims!”

   “Certainly it does,” said Mr Frazer, on a rare visit from his study. Even in his own house he wore a suit and tie, and his bald forehead glowed with summer heat. “Do you know Gluck’s work at all?”

   Colin took Ossian’s elbow and drew him aside to ask conspiratorially: “Fancy dodging out to the King’s Head later? You could pass for eighteen, easy.”

   “He’s not luring you to the pub already, is he?” asked Sue, whose hearing was excellent. She rose from the sofa and drifted like a mist to stand behind them.

   “Ossian and I are going to relive past times, aren’t we, Ossian? We’ve a lot of catching up to do. Don’t suppose you want to come?”

   “I’d be too embarrassed, the way you drool over that barmaid.”

   Colin shot her an unpleasant look. “What did I say, Ossian? A fantasy world.”

   “Now, children,” said Catherine cheerfully, choosing to notice Colin’s tone. “They’re terribly fond of each other really,” she explained to the guests.

   “We enjoy arguing,” agreed Sue vigorously. “It’s good for the circulation.”

   “But it’s such a waste of time, darling.”

   “Time’s what we have plenty of,” said Sue, taking a pastry from the tray. Ossian didn’t see her eat it, but when he looked a little later it was gone and her lips were innocent of crumbs.

   Ossian was restless. He moved to the French window and stepped on to the terrace beyond. At once he was ambushed by the heat. He waded through it, hugging the wall where the sun had stencilled a stiletto of shade. A brick arch let him into the kitchen yard, where the house’s grandeur lapsed into a random shabbiness, messed with bins and sheds.

   In this large house solitude was strangely hard to find and for a while he cherished the abrupt leeward silence. A windowless height of red brick leaned out against the sky to shelter him and shrank the house guests’ chatter to a querulous hum. Through the frame of the arch, the flowerbeds and lawns sloped down and out of sight. He took a breath and held it, imagined he could hold the moment too. He felt, for that precarious instant, quite content.

   Then the ghosts came for him.

   He smelt them, first of all. First came the scent of freshly-dug earth, the rich steam of black earth newly turned. Out in the garden he heard the slice of a bright clean blade, soil angled out by a booted heel. Instinctively, he grasped his neck and at once the earth smell became stronger, colder, a memorial fugue of growth and decay.

   “Not again!” he murmured. “Can’t you leave me alone?”

   Into that empty space they streamed. From jarred doors, unlatched windows they fell in soft drifts and billowed out of the loose soil where the late roses bloomed. Little by little, they became defined against each other, spiralling through the August heat. Now he saw their faces, some of them, bleached and torn faces with the skin hanging open, loose as unbuttoned shirts. One’s jaw had been smashed in with a hammer. Another was missing the back of its head; a concave scatter of bone showed where the skull should have been. Two had cords about their throats and between them stood a young man who had been run through with a sword. It had entered the small of his back and been thrust upward, its wraith of blade protruding from his mouth like an iron tongue. None had died quietly.

   Ossian shrank from them. They would not harm him, he knew. They were phantoms. But their misery stirred such horror in him that he wished only to sink down and shroud himself in the long grass. They were pressing closer, muffling his face, telling him desperate stories, in whispers thin as water… He gasped for breath and pressed his body up against the wall. When he punched, the faces would swirl to nothing about his fist, then re-form and eddy, settle with infinite patience. Behind him, the door into the kitchen was open a little way. He pushed through neck-high and slipped inside, then turned to heave it shut.

   But there was no need, for the ghosts had already lapsed, folded back into the complex shadows of the yard. He looked around the kitchen, shaking, and barely recognised the place. Stacks of unwashed plates towered there and the hanging knives glittered, and by the open window a set of crystal wind chimes sang in brittle whispers. Otherwise, the room was silent; but its silence was merely stifled noise, hysterical. The grandfather clock two rooms away was ticking like a bomb.

   “Who’s there?” asked Ossian uncertainly, and hoped with all his heart that no one would reply.

   No one did. But something began to move from the Welsh dresser at the far end of the kitchen. It was hardly more than a wash of blue-black colour. Halfway down, it reached the meat knives where they hung from their hooks – a little dusty, but still gleaming – and paused. One of the knives swung a little, as it might in a gentle breeze or if some tentative finger were testing its edge. At that moment, Ossian even saw the hand itself, a hand tanned and calloused, but not so very different from his own, blooming out of nothingness and as suddenly tucked back. Then the ghost hurried on, past Ossian and through the side door to the hall. Ossian felt no breeze, but there was a flexing of the air as the room bulged a little to let it pass. He blurted out: “What is your name? What are you afraid of?”

   The ghost heard him. It bristled. The light in the hall shimmered behind it, tracing patterns of flux, and the skin on Ossian’s arm stood stiff as frosted grass. Then – no, he could not say that he saw anyone there, but he heard as clearly as if the voice had been his own:

   “My name is Ossian!”

   The shadow scuttled from him and was followed along the hall tiles by the clip of nailed dog feet. Ossian launched himself after, almost slipping on the polished floor.

   “Careful!”

   Sue was just coming in by the same door. She carried a tray of empty glasses, which she lifted skilfully as he steadied himself against the door frame. “Where are you off to in such as hurry?”

   “Nowhere!” he said, looking beyond her to the hall. “I’m sorry – I was just – being clumsy.”

   “I see,” Sue smiled, placing the tray with the others on the long counter. Her smile was thoughtful and somehow hungry. “You look like a volunteer for the washing up to me. No, don’t duck out. Our housekeeper’s gone home for the weekend and now the machine’s packed up in sympathy. I’m relying on you.”

   Ossian still hung back. “I only came in for some water.”

   “If you turn up in kitchens, you must expect to be press-ganged. It would be nice to have the company, anyway. We can compare Gordian notes – yes?” She filled the sink with an iridescent froth of bubbles and hot water.

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