Praise for Twisted Tales Events

'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell

‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill

'Twisted Tales events are wonderful... a great way of promoting 21st century horror fiction. Supported by Waterstone's Liverpool One and really well organised, Twisted Tales brings together established names in the genre as well as new voices and of course readers. Looking forward to much more to come...' - Alison J. Littlewood

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Quiet Houses by Simon Kurt Unsworth [Preview]


Simon Kurt Unsworth reinvents the classic English ghost story with a portmanteau collection that takes the haunted house genre and makes it scream...quietly.

Because the most terrifying screams are the silent ones.

“No-one could be that unhappy and be alive...” A chambermaid’s seemingly innocent request is granted, an act of kindness that has dire consequences for a guest at THE ELMS, MORECAMBE... 

“I wish I had been right; I wish that it had been a man, or death alone, that had found her...” An unearthly light in an abandoned bungalow resolves the mystery of a missing child, but no human force has taken her. An entity that fishes for children is in THE MERRY HOUSE, SCALE HALL...

“Go beyond the graves, and they will come to you.” An invitation to a clifftop graveyard leads to a harrowing chase by things that remain unseen, their hunger unknown and never satisfied, BEYOND ST PATRICK’S CHAPEL.

“The great delight in being part of the Save Our Shit crew was that sometimes they could persuade those designers of the present and the future to save or incorporate the past into their designs.” In THE OCEAN GRAND hotel, work is underway to upgrade the building but something is stalking the workers...

“Something white came out. Something white, screaming and screaming...” Jobs fit for heroes, they were promised after the Great War. They were given something else in THE TEMPLE OF RELIEF AND EASE.

There is a hidden agenda to paranormal researcher Richard Nakata’s investigations into these houses. A commission that witnesses cattle lowing in the cowsheds of STACK’S FARM long after they’ve been slaughtered, and a reckoning in the showhouse of 24 GLASSHOUSE, as he and his colleagues pay the price for creating their own ghost...

The Elms, Morecambe

Nakata shifted; the cafe’s seats weren’t exactly uncomfortable, but the angle of their upright made his back twinge. Across from him the man, Wisher, reacted to the shift by glancing up from his coffee and then back down again. Nakata waited, letting Wisher find his own timings and securities, suspecting that any pressure would lead to the man closing down into silence.
            “It’s closed,” Wisher said eventually. “I don’t suppose it matters anymore.”
            “Take your time,” said Nakata. Beyond Wisher’s shoulder, the cafe’s large front windows had grown a skin of condensation across their insides, and the world beyond had become a loose morass of grey smears through which darker shapes sometimes passed. In the last week the weather had soured, becoming cold and wet. If he could have seen it, he knew that the sea beyond the wide pavements and strip of beach would be bucking and unsettled. “You know I have to record this? That you need to go on the record for this to be any use to me?”
            “Yes,” said Wisher, his voice thin. “Like I said, it doesn’t matter. Not now.”
            “It might,” said Nakata.
            “No,” said Wisher, and this time Nakata didn’t respond, understanding that Wisher was speaking only to something within himself.
            “There’s a hotel,” said Wisher after a few moments. “Or, at least, there was. It was the best one in town until The Midland reopened, but it shut last year. The building’s still there; they started work on converting it to apartments, but then the money ran out and they stopped. It’s covered in scaffolding. It’s a shame. I mean, it’s not the most attractive of buildings, but still.” He broke off, eyes leaping up to Nakata’s face and then immediately dropping away again. Whatever had happened to this man, it had exhausted him, Nakata saw: the flesh under his eyes was bruised with tiredness, and the expression on his face was one of hopelessness, all the confidence leached out of him.
            “It was a nice place,” he finally said.
            “What was it called?” asked Nakata. “The more information you can give me, the better.”
            “The Elms,” said Wisher after a pause in which the indecision played across his face. “It was nice, old fashioned but kept nicely, you know?”
            “The members of staff were good, attentive without being pushy. The head waiter was Hungarian, Polish, something like that; he’d been there as long as I can remember, always polite, good at his job. He could do that thing when he poured champagne, making it look like he was being careless and making it fizz up but knowing just when to stop so that the bubbles came up past the rim of the glass and looked like they were about to spill over, but they never did. It always made Julie smile when he did that. Funny, the things you remember, isn’t it?”
            “Yes,” said Nakata again. He checked his dictaphone, tiny and black on the table between them. It should be picking up Wisher’s voice easily enough; the sound of the cafe was still low. It was midmorning, midweek, and the other customers were mostly older couples. The air was damp with the exhalations of rain and sweat from their clothes and coats and skin, and was gently poaching in the heat from the small kitchen. Three umbrellas lay by the door, inverted and dripping like wounded crabs.
            “It served good food, which was why we went, mostly. Sunday lunches, good roast dinners. We went for Christmas one year, when Julie didn’t feel like cooking. That was the Christmas before she died,” said Wisher, his voice empty. “But we never stayed there overnight. We’d never needed to; we lived nearby, so it was only a short taxi ride away. It was just a place we liked.
            “Then my daughter decided to get married, and she decided to have the reception in The Elms.” Wisher let out a long, loose sigh that sounded as though it was attached to him with threads that twitched as they emerged, pulling it into a new, uneven shape. “This was a year or so after Julie died, and she only chose the place because I liked it, I’m sure. I told her she shouldn’t pick it because of me, if they wanted to go somewhere else, somewhere more modern. She said no, The Elms was where she wanted her wedding reception to be. I should’ve tried harder.”
            Nakata finished his coffee, waiting for Wisher to continue. The message the man had left on Nakata’s voicemail had been like this, elliptical, unclear, as though he were skirting the real meaning of what he wanted to say, harrying at its edges but refusing to tackle it head on.
            “I decided to stay there, rather than go home, on the night of the wedding. Lots of family and friends were staying, so I thought it’d be nice to spend time over breakfast with them on the Sunday morning. If I’m honest, I wasn’t sure how I’d be if I went home after. Without Julie, I mean. Without her to share it with. Besides, the rumours that The Elms was going to close were pretty strong by that point, and I wanted to say I’d stayed there, even if it was just once. It felt important. Does that make sense?”
            “Yes,” said Nakata. My role here is validation, he thought briefly. To hear him and tell him things are okay, that the story is real even if the facts turn out not to be, no matter what the story is. To let him know that someone believes him.
            “It was a lovely day, even without Julie,” said Wisher after another pause, as though marshalling himself. “Meg, that’s my daughter, she looked so beautiful and Oscar, her husband, he’s a good man and they were so happy. Everyone enjoyed themselves, and The Elms was excellent. The food was cooked just right and served properly, all the tables of guests getting their food at the same time so that no one was waiting for their starters as some people got their main courses. I think that’s important, it shows that the restaurant, caterers, whatever, are taking it seriously, don’t you? I’m glad, even with everything that’s happened since, that I had that day. That Meg had her day, and I could be there with her.
            “Anyway, even though I enjoyed myself, I thought I’d have an early night. The disco was loud, and I was starting to miss Julie more and more, to wish she was there to see Meg so happy, and it was upsetting me. She was always better at that kind of thing than I was, and I didn’t want to sit in the corner and get maudlin and upset, spoil Meg and Oscar’s night, have people see me make a show of myself, so I said my goodbyes and I went to my room.”
            Nakata shifted again. He was wet from the seafront rain, the damp probing around his crotch and his shoulders, warm and uncomfortable in the clinging, moist atmosphere of the cafe.
            “I’d got a twin room,” said Wisher, “and I was just sitting down on one of the beds with a cup of tea and watching the news, trying not to miss Julie, when there was a knock at the door. I was a bit surprised, really. I’d gone to bed early compared to most, but it was still late for visiting, and I didn’t want anyone trying to persuade me to go back downstairs. I was still dressed, except for my shoes and tie and jacket, but I didn’t want to talk to anyone, not then. I just wanted to sit and be quiet and drink my tea and watch what was happening in the world and try to enjoy the last bit of the day, but whoever it was knocked again. I only answered, in the end, because I suddenly thought it might be Meg and that she might need something.
“When I opened the door, there was a young woman, a girl really, standing there. She was very neatly dressed, in a black skirt and a white blouse, and she had her hair tied back off her face. She wasn’t wearing any makeup, and she looked very young. I didn’t recognise her from the wedding, so I said ‘Yes?’ and I must have sounded angry because she took a step back from the door as if she wanted to get out of my reach. I said ‘Yes?’ again, and she said, ‘Can I turn your sheets, sir?’”
This time, Wisher looked Nakata in the eye, hunching his shoulders up as though to protect his neck, the expectation of disbelief clear in his expression. “It sounds stupid, doesn’t it? ‘Can I turn your sheets, sir?’”
“No,” said Nakata. “It doesn’t. What did the girl look like? Her clothes, I mean?”
“Normal. Plain,” said Wisher. “But that’s not what you’re asking is it, not really? You mean, could I tell she was a ghost? No, I couldn’t. She wasn’t see-through, her clothes weren’t old fashioned, and she wasn’t wearing a bonnet that made me think of the Victorians or the Edwardians or whoever. She just looked like a normal girl, woman. I’m not stupid, I know that it’s not usual for hotel staff to offer to turn people’s sheets back these days, but I just thought it was something The Elms did, like, oh I don’t know, like a selling point, you know? ‘Little old-world touches to make your stay more pleasurable’,” he intoned, and then stopped.
“I wasn’t going to let her in,” he said after swallowing the last of his coffee. “It had been such a nice day, but it had been so busy and I’d been so nervous making my speech and then talking to everyone. Most of them hadn’t seen me since Julie had died, except maybe at the funeral, and they were all asking me how I was doing, how I was coping, and I’d been saying ‘Yes, yes, fine, thanks, it’s hard but I’m getting there’ or variations of it all day, even though that wasn’t really true, not really, and I just wanted a little peace and quiet with no people around me before I went to sleep. I even opened my mouth to tell her no, I wasn’t interested, but she looked so small and miserable and I couldn’t do it.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” said Nakata.
“Neither do I!” cried out Wisher suddenly, startling Nakata. The couple at the next table looked around, but Wisher appeared not to have noticed. “She wasn’t doing anything. She was just standing in the corridor, her face white because the light was right above her, just standing there, and she was sad, I could feel it, so sad. It was like there was something hanging around her, something I couldn’t see but I could feel it just by the way she was standing and I don’t know, maybe it was because I’d had such a good day, been with all those happy people, or maybe because her sadness felt a little like my sadness, as though she was missing someone or something too, and I didn’t want to add to it, make her feel worse, so I didn’t say no, I stood back from the door and said, ‘Yes, come in’.” He took another of those loose, twitched breaths and then said loudly, “And she came in.”
People at a number of the other tables were looking at them now, the staff behind the counter peering towards them. Wisher dropped his face into his hands, his elbows on the table. One was in a puddle of spilled coffee, Nakata saw, but he said nothing; Wisher was sobbing, near-silent and hoarse. Nakata rose and went to the counter, purchasing two more coffees then returning to his seat slowly with the drinks, giving Wisher time to recover himself. The cafe was darker, he noticed, as though the lights were struggling against the out-of-season atmosphere. The condensation coating the inside of the windows was thicker, occasionally breaking to roll down the glass in fat, heavy rivulets. Looking around, he saw that one of the people at a nearby table was also crying, her companion stroking her arm gently. Near the door, a young girl was trying to calm a fractious child, bouncing him on her knee. The child refused to be comforted, was red-faced and grizzling, his eyes screwed shut and his glistening tongue emerging from his mouth like some pink worm tasting the air.
“She came in,” said Wisher when his sobs had subsided, “and went to the middle of the room. The bed I’d been sitting on was clear, but the other one had my jacket on it and a bag with my toilet things and a book and clothes for the next day, and when she saw them, her shoulders fell. I was standing behind her, and I saw them, saw her shoulders drop so that they were sloped down, like the bed with things on was the most upsetting thing she’d ever seen. She shuffled, taking these little slow steps like an old woman, went to the other bed and peeled the sheets back from under the pillows, getting one corner out and folding it back so that I could easily pull them back to get in, and then she looked at the other bed again and her shoulders just sort of slumped even further. I can’t even explain it, not properly, but it was so upsetting, like seeing a child cry, and I couldn’t stand it. I think I said something like, ‘I’ll move the bag, don’t worry’. She looked at me, and the look on her face was so grateful, like I’d given her a gift, not just offered to shift my overnight bag.
“I put the bag on the floor and picked my jacket up, then she came and turned the sheets back, just like on the other bed. Afterwards she said, ‘Thank you, sir’, and went to the door. As she went past me, I patted her arm, just to say thank you, to try to cheer her up, and she turned to me and smiled and oh, it was the most awful smile! It was like she was trying not to cry, that a terrible wrong had been done to her and she was putting a brave face on it, but couldn’t really do it and the misery she felt was just there, under the surface of her skin and about to burst out. I didn’t know what to say, whether she wanted something from me, was waiting for something else, but she just said, ‘Thank you, sir,’ and went out. ‘Thank you, sir.’”
Wisher took a mouthful of his coffee; his hands shook as he lifted the cup to his mouth, Nakata saw. He let out another of those disjointed breaths and then said, “By the next morning, I’d persuaded myself that she hadn’t really looked like that. She didn’t like her job, was pissed off with having to work on a Saturday night turning the sheets of fat middle-aged men who patted her on the arm, and I’d misread the expression on her face because of my own confusion; being happy and sad and lonely and not wanting to see anyone getting all mixed up in me, making me see things that weren’t there. I had a nice breakfast with some of my friends and family, made promises to keep in touch, and then went to check out. I wanted to get home by then; I’d had enough of being away. I just wanted to be somewhere that was completely mine, was empty, so that I could relax, where there was no need to smile or pretend or be anything but me.
“As I checked out, I said something about the girl to the man behind the counter, just that she’d done a good job or something, but he looked at me as though he didn’t know what I was talking about. I said it again, that the girl who came to turn my sheets had been very good or something. I don’t know, I thought that if she was told that one of the guests had said something nice about her, she might feel a bit better, be a bit less upset or angry or whatever, but the man behind the counter just looked at me again like I was talking gibberish. The head waiter, the Hungarian, though, he was standing nearby and he must have heard because he said, ‘Oh ho ho, so you have had a midnight visit?’ I remember that he said, ‘oh ho ho’, because I’d never heard anyone else say it before. ‘Oh ho ho’, like some great big Santa, and he’s smiling at me like it’s some sort of joke. I think I said something like, ‘Pardon’, and he said, ‘The mysterious chambermaid! Did you not know? She has been visiting people here for years, knocking on the doors of guests and offering to turn their sheets or clean their shoes.’
“‘Who is she?’ I asked, and he said, ‘We do not know. She comes at night every now and again. She causes no trouble and she leaves when people send her away. Often it is a long time between her visits, or people do not tell us because it is such a silly thing, is it not? She is The Elms’ ghost!’ I thought he was, you know, joking, that it was a practical joke, but even though he was laughing as he said it, I realised he was being serious.
“‘A ghost?’” I asked.
“‘Our very own, the only one we have!’ he said. ‘But harmless. She goes and does not come back, whoever she is. I have been here years, more than I care to remember, and in all that time she has never bothered anyone. She asks, is sent away and comes not again!’ He should have sounded comical, with his funny accent, but somehow he didn’t. ‘I thought everyone knew of her,’ he said, ‘our little sad girl. Tell me, how miserable did she look when you sent her away?’ ‘I didn’t,’ I said. ‘I let her turn the sheets, and she went after she’d done.’
“At that, the Hungarian gave a big grin and said, ‘So our poor girl has done her job, yes? Good girl!’ and then he was shaking my hand and asking me if everything had been good enough and walking with me to my car. He was so good, so careful, even how he walked, you know? Precise. Neat. I wish I could remember his name, just calling him ‘The Hungarian’ sounds so dismissive. It may not even be right; he might have been a Pole or from one of those countries that have been invented these past few years and that keep fighting each other. Eastern Europe, anyway.”
Nakata moved again, rolling the base of his spine forward to stop it knotting. He was sweating with the trapped heat of the cafe now, his sweat mixing with the moisture seeping through his clothes to form a layer that was clammy against his skin. Wisher groaned and lowered his head again, saying something that Nakata missed. “You need to say it louder, please,” he said, “so that the recorder catches it. I have to have it on record.”
“Yes,” said Wisher. “I said ‘It doesn’t matter’. I mean, which country he was from, it doesn’t matter, not now. He’s not important, I never saw him again. I only went back to The Elms one more time.
“About a week later, I saw in the local paper that The Elms had closed a couple of days after Meg’s wedding. The staff members were told first thing one morning and then made to work their shifts that day. There was a 70th birthday held in the hotel that day, if I remember right, which I thought was cruel. It must have been hard for them to work that birthday party, to be cheerful and serve the guests like nothing had happened and all the while knowing that they’d just lost their jobs. After all, whatever problems the hotel had, the service was good, and I wondered what had happened to them. To the Hungarian. I even thought about the girl in the night, but I’d pretty much decided that the Hungarian had been joking. Perhaps he’d just thought of it on the spur on the moment, or maybe it was a regular thing they did. It seemed a bit childish, I suppose, but not harmful. Not harmful.
“And then she came again.
“I was asleep, in my own bed, alone as ever since Julie died, but I think I remember being mostly happy before I went to bed that night. As happy as I got, anyway. I wish I could remember it better, really, say that the night had something to mark it out and make it different, but it didn’t.” He gave a laugh, explosive and bitter, and then said, “After all, it’s not often you find a ghost in your bedroom, is it?”
“No,” said Nakata. “It’s not. What happened?”
“Have you got children?” asked Wisher, suddenly.
“No,” said Nakata, suddenly, strangely, conscious that his wedding ring finger was bare. Wisher was spinning the ring on his own finger.
“When they’re young, sometimes kids will come in and lean over you. They don’t make any sound, they don’t touch: if they’re trying very hard, they’ll even hold their breath so that they don’t disturb you that way. Somehow, though, you know they’re there; it’s like you can sense them without knowing quite how. Maybe it’s the love you can feel, if you’re lucky enough to have kids who love you. Well, that’s what happened at first; I woke up because there was someone standing over me, bending down, their face not far from mine, close enough to kiss me but not breathing, not touching me. I thought I was dreaming, remembering Meg when she was a girl and she’d creep in and see how long it would take for me and her mum to wake up.
“I opened my eyes, and as I did I remembered that Meg was older now, married and living with Oscar, that Julie was gone, had been for over a year, and suddenly I was panicking. If someone was in the room, then they weren’t supposed to be. The room was dark. I’ve never been able to sleep if there was even a bit of light, but I could see that there was someone on the other side of the room, a darker patch in the shadows. They weren’t near me, weren’t bending over me like I’d thought, but there was a definite shape, a person, and even though I couldn’t see, I knew that they were looking at me, staring at me.
“I wanted to scream, but I was frozen. I’m not a brave man; I haven’t ever been one for fighting or even arguments, so screaming seemed like the best bet, trying to frighten them away or startle them, but before I could, they spoke.
“‘Turn your sheets, sir?’”
“It was so stupid that it stopped me from screaming. It was the girl from The Elms. I recognised the voice, and I think that that was worse than a burglar in a funny sort of way. I remembered the Hungarian saying ‘our little sad girl’, and I think I spoke, said something inane like ‘What’ or ‘Pardon,’ and she said again, ‘Turn your sheets, sir?’ and came forward so that I could see her face. She was smiling, but it was a smile like the one she’d given me as she left my room in The Elms, like it was perched on top of a great heap of unhappiness and misery, was slithering around and trying to hold it all in. She looked grey in the darkness, and her eyes were so hopeful, so desperate, and I did scream then, and scrambled back across the bed, the same one I’d shared with Julie. How I wished she was there to tell me it was a dream, that I was being silly, but she wasn’t. There was just me and this girl who I knew was a ghost--not because the Hungarian had told me--but because the unhappiness was coming off her in waves. I could feel it, so thick, and no one could be that unhappy and be alive.”
Nakata watched as Wisher slumped down across the table. It was like watching the air being let out of a balloon, as though Wisher had held it all inside, stiffening in him like souring milk until there was nothing else and now that it was out, he could collapse. The only reason that his head didn’t hit the table was that it was cradled in hands that were shaking badly now, the fingers spread out and pressing into the scalp that glistened pinkly from under the thinning hair.
“I fell out of the bed and onto the floor, and when I did, she came right to the side of the bed and she gripped my duvet and shook it, straightening it then folding  back the top of it so that it was ready to get into. I’d banged my head when I fell and had stopped screaming, and I didn’t start again. I watched as she shook the pillow I’d been lying on, plumping it up and laying it against the headboard, then she smiled at me, the same, awful, thankful smile, and backed away into the corner, and as she went she sort of blended with the shadows and then she was gone.
“I couldn’t move at first, terrified that she might come back as soon as I did, but eventually I started to get cold. I couldn’t get back into the bed, wouldn’t, so instead I went downstairs. I must have looked like a thief, because I didn’t even run, I scurried downstairs, trying to be small and insignificant and not be noticed by anyone. Anything. I sat in my lounge with all the lights on until the sun came up and then I opened the curtains, and even then the room didn’t feel bright enough. I wanted all the shadows gone from the corners so that I could feel normal, but it didn’t work.
“Had I dreamed her? Hallucinated? I didn’t know, but I do know she had felt real, actual, that my memories of her were the memories of something that had actually happened. Maybe that’s how mad people think, I don’t know. A real ghost. Jesus.” Wisher sat up again, looking across at Nakata. Nakata had never actually seen anyone square their shoulders before, but Wisher did so now. “I’m not lying or mad, Mr Nakata. The girl was in my bedroom.”
“I know,” said Nakata. “I believe you. It sounds as though it was terrifying.”
            “Terrifying,” repeated Wisher slowly. “Yes. Yes, it was terrifying, and so was finding her in the kitchen when I went through to make myself a coffee.
“She was at the kitchen, doing my dishes, washing the plates as though it was the most normal thing in the world. I stopped in the doorway, and it was as though some huge hand had grabbed my heart in my chest. It was partly the fear of her, this stranger in my house, but also it was the feelings again, the sense of loss and desperation coming off her. It filled the room, and I suddenly missed Julie again, and wished that I could die, just fall dead there between the kitchen and the hallway so that I could go where she’d gone and join her.”
Nakata nodded, understanding what Wisher meant. An image came to him, unbidden, of Amy, lost to him for almost three years now. The knowledge that he would only ever see her smile in old photographs and in his memory hit him hard, harder than it had in months. He could smell her, taste her memory, and the missing her welled up in him with bitter force. He started to speak, but his voice cracked. Wisher, hearing it, looked across at him, grinning broadly and without humour. “Horrible, isn’t it?” he said.
“She was everywhere with me after that, this girl. All the time, waking me up with offers to turn my sheets, being ahead of me in the rooms I went into even if she had been in the room I’d just left only moments before, asking if I wanted some menial task doing. Sometimes I’d agree, and she’d disappear when she’d done it, but more often I would ignore her, and she’d stand in the corner staring at me, waiting for me to tell her to do something. I tried to tell her to go, to leave me alone, but she wouldn’t; she’d just stand there with a look on her face like I’d kicked her, like I’d betrayed her and that it was exactly what she’d expected.
“At first I was scared, terrified, but soon the fear faded. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? That having a ghost with you all the time could ever not be frightening, but in the end there wasn’t much to be frightened of. She was just always there, always, always trailing after me or being up ahead of me, looking at me as though I was the answer to her problems. Even when I went out, she would appear, standing behind me in shops or next to me in lifts. She once spent the whole of a car journey sitting on the back seat of my car so that I could almost see her in the mirror every time I looked. Nothing I did or said seemed to make a difference, she was just there, whether I wanted her or not.
“Eventually, I went back to The Elms. I’m not sure what I hoped for, maybe that she might see the building and somehow be stuck back into it, but I knew as soon as I got there it wouldn’t work. I could feel the difference as I stood in the car park; whatever had made the building more than just bricks, wood, and glass had gone. It was covered in scaffolding, the windows were boarded up and there were chains through the door handles on the main doors, but it was more than that. The life had gone from it. All the while I was looking at it, I could see her out of the corner of my eye, standing by the car. Even in the shadows of the falling night, I could feel her misery. Her shoulders were down, her head bowed, and I suddenly had the most awful thought: what if I’d brought this on myself? What if, by showing her some kindness, by acknowledging her, I’d somehow given her the power to come with me, that when The Elms closed she’d followed the last person who had been nice to her? Had I given her some hope, however small, and anchored her to me?”
Wisher fell silent. The cafe’s breathing went on around him, the child still squalling and the woman at the nearby table still weeping quietly, her companion comforting her. Nakata took another mouthful of his coffee and found that it had gone cold, the liquid cloying, clinging to his teeth and coating his tongue tastelessly. He wanted to speak, but wasn’t sure what he could say, thinking instead about Amy. She would have known what to do or say, had always been so much better than him at making people feel better. Wisher, his features haggard and his skin the colour of whey, saw Nakata looking across the table at him and said, “I went home. What else could I do?
“I think I could even have got used to my personal ghost, whoever she was, but for the feelings.”
“What feelings?”
“It was all about her, like a cloud,” said Wisher, apparently ignoring the question. Now, he looked at Nakata fully, meeting his gaze and smiling a terrible, rictus smile. “Misery. Unhappiness. Loneliness.  It wasn’t just the look on her face or the way she stood or the sound of her, it was something else. You could feel it, all about her, and it soaked into the walls and the floor of my home, like cigarette smoke will do if there’s a smoker in the house, staining everything. Whoever this girl was, whatever she’d been through when she was alive, it had left her so terribly sad, and her sadness was contagious. I’d never had many visitors, not since Julie died anyway, but even Meg and Oscar stopped coming to my house. Meg told me she thought I should get out more, that the house was full of old memories and it wasn’t healthy for me to be there all the time, but she was wrong, it wasn’t the memories that were unhealthy; they were the only thing keeping me going. If I could remember Julie, remember Meg and Julie together when Meg was little, remember the Christmases we’d had there and the birthdays, and how Julie smelled and felt when we hugged, then the blackness that surrounded the girl never quite overwhelmed me and I could keep it at bay. Even when I went out in public, the girl was there, always hovering at the edges of crowds or just behind me so that I could see her in the reflections in shop windows but never when I turned around to look at her directly. Thank Christ I’d retired after Julie died, I don’t know how I’d have coped at work on top of everything else, having to act as though everything was fine when all the time she’d have been in the corner of the office or standing behind people at meetings and looking at me. And it wasn’t just me; if I went somewhere in public, she’d be in the room with me and I think people would see her but would ignore her, move around her, but after a while you’d see them get caught by it as well. They’d sag, look miserable, stop laughing. Eventually I stopped going out unless I had to.”
“Did you talk to anyone about her, tell anyone what was happening?”
“Who? What would I tell them?” asked Wisher, his voice cold. Steam from the coffee maker behind the counter danced above their heads for a moment before dissipating. More condensation broke on the windows, rolling down the glass in long strings like wounds that healed almost as soon as they were opened, scabbing over with more grey, misting skin. Nakata felt tired, emotionally worn, as though he’d been in the cafe for hours or days rather than simply part of the morning. The sounds of the child crying were becoming wearing now, the comforting sounds from its mother irritating; the people at the next table had settled into a routine of tears, conversation, tears, which Nakata found equally hard to hear. Shadows gathered around his feet and under the tables nearby, pools of dirty light through which the floor glimmered, the tiles ill-formed and murky. He looked again at the recorder, at the time counter rolling implacably onwards, and thought again of Amy and the way she had of making the world feel brighter, lighter. “Who would I tell?” asked Wisher again, and Nakata couldn’t answer him. Instead, he asked another question.
“What did you do? To stop it, I mean?”
“What did I do to stop it?” repeated Wisher, grimacing. “What could I do? Nothing.”
“Nothing. I wondered about talking to a priest, but what would I say? That I was being haunted by the ghost of a sad, lonely girl who tried to help me but made me feel terrible? So no, I did nothing.”
“So how did you stop her haunting you?”
“I didn’t. She’s sitting at one of the tables at the back of the cafe now, staring at me.”
Nakata started and began to turn but Wisher lunged across the table and gripped his shoulders, saying, “Don’t!
“That feeling you have, now, of misery? That little wave of sadness you felt before? You remembered someone important to you, yes? Someone who’s died or you don’t see any more, and the memory made you sad? Yes? That’s nothing to how it feels when she’s with you all the time. You cannot acknowledge her, please, because if you turn to her, see her, believe in her, she may come to you when I’m gone.”
Nakata tried to twist again to see her, see the ghost in the cafe that might prove once and for all the things he had argued for so long, but Wisher gripped his shoulder more tightly. “I’ve not told you this because I think you can help,” he said, “or to shift my burden to you, but because I want it said before it’s too late. I don’t see anyone anymore; don’t see Meg or Oscar because I don’t want them exposed to her, don’t want her dogging them like she has me, making everything in their lives cold and miserable the way she has mine.” He lifted his other hand to Nakata’s face, placing it almost tenderly along his cheek so that he couldn’t turn any further around. The child screamed, desolate, and the person at the next table wept openly. Nakata struggled against Wisher’s grip, thinking of Amy, of what seeing the dead girl might mean for Amy and for him, but still couldn’t move.
“I’ll go soon, there’s nothing more to tell. I’ve tried to photograph her and record her, but it doesn’t work, there’s nothing there when I check the pictures or the recording. I’m sure other people can see her, sometimes, but they don’t know what she is, don’t realise, and I’m glad. Wherever I go, she comes along and she brings these feeling with her. I can see it, see people suddenly remember something sad, see their moods drop, watch them as they suddenly think of something that hurts them, and they change in front of me, all around me. Don’t look around, please. Don’t look for her, or at her. Please. Please.
Wisher let go of Nakata and stood, saying, “I have very little time left anyway. Meg and Oscar, they’re happy, and Julie’s waiting for me, I hope. This poor girl, she needs to belong to me. I don’t know why, but maybe when I’m gone, she’ll go on, too. Maybe she’ll realise that she doesn’t have to keep hold of all this unhappiness, all this grief, and she can be free, too. I hope so. I hope this is useful, Mr Nakata, I truly do.”
Nakata watched as Wisher walked to the door. There was a rustle of cloth as someone went past him, and in the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of someone in a dark skirt and white blouse go past. The feelings of loss, of missing Amy, rose sharply in him, hard and taut and painful. Wisher turned briefly and nodded back at him and then left. A moment later Nakata watched a girl’s back as she, too, left. As the door clicked shut behind her, the infant in the corner gave a grizzled burp and stopped squalling. Its mother said, “That’s better, baby,” and there was tired relief in her voice. The child giggled suddenly, high and bright. At the next table, the woman had stopped crying and was smiling across the table at her companion.
Wisher’s blurred shape passed across the front of the cafe windows, indistinct and grey on the far side of the weeping glass, and a step behind him, a smaller, darker shape followed.

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