(Rainfall.)

 

FEMALE VOICE:

Let’s catch you up on things.

 

Three weeks ago, I was hired to kill a ghost.

 

That probably sounds strange to you.

 

It’s a new kind of job, I’ll admit. But my clients hire me because they know I’ll take a practical, problem-solving approach to their requests.

 

That begins by accepting their premise.

 

And so before I even meet my employer, I spend some time at a desk on the fourth floor of the British Library, rifling through a stackful of texts on poltergeists, phantom visitors, and historical examples of their exorcism.

 

I don’t think the attendant expected to see someone like me in the paranormal section. I’m sure every other day of the week, it’s muddle-headed widows and white kids in black T-shirts who consider themselves...complicated.

 

In the course of my research, I ended up consuming a certain amount of fictional ghost stories, which were generally the uncredited inspiration for the so-called true events.

 

A lot of it was...amusing. One recurring problem stood out.

 

So many of these so-called paranormal events end with the narrator running in panic out of the house or cellar, hearing a distressing noise or hideous voice, and willing themselves not to look back.

 

Here’s my question. If the ghost wants nothing more than to be witnessed, why would it appear behind you, and not in front of you?

 

The only answer I can think of is this: it appears behind you because it already knows, to an absolute certainty, that you will have no choice but look back.

 

***

 

I can feel you shifting in your seat, waiting for me to get to the point. Impatient man.

 

Just the facts, then.

 

My client is less than well. She’s been like this, her friends tell me, ever since her son vanished.

 

Perhaps ‘vanished’ is the wrong term.

 

She has no memory of a single climactic event, a moment when he was there, another moment when he wasn’t.

 

Just the tired repetition of life in their council flat, her son dumping his rucksack on the floor every night after school, coming to sit at the same little plastic table where I sit and listen to her, for a dinner of cottage pie. Of casserole. Of cheesy omelette, and casserole again.

 

Nights when he was tired, and stressed, and sniping. Nights when she was lonely, and abrupt, and cloying.

 

And then, quite suddenly, a night when he didn’t come home.

 

The chaotic days and nights that followed almost sound like they’re a source of pride to her; she tells me in enthusiastic detail about the detectives in her little kitchen, the unsuccessful attempts to locate the boy’s mobile phone, the tramping community searches through the marshes and derelicts of the neighbourhood.

 

Then, quite suddenly, all these people left again, and I can imagine how the old routine sank back in for her, with a single, silent absence.

 

Her evenings spent cooking enough sludgy casserole for two people, just in case tonight was the night that the pattern shifted and her boy came home.

 

Eating a few mouthfuls; spilling the rest into the bin right before she went to bed.

 

Talking to an empty chair about nothing very important.

 

My client shows me a photo of her son on the missing persons database.

 

A pale, scowling boy with an unattractive haircut. Perhaps seventeen or eighteen.

 

This would have been three years ago now.

 

It’s been five months, my client tells me, since she first observed a presence with her in the apartment.

 

***

 

She takes me to the doorway where she first felt it.

 

‘Just here,’ she says. ‘I was standing at the sink, washing the dishes, when…’

 

She turns, vaguely.

 

‘I didn’t see anything,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to turn around. I just suddenly felt, very clearly...that something was filling the doorway. Staring in at me.’

 

I ask her if she can describe it to me, and she shakes her head.

 

‘Dark,’ she says. ‘Dark and...rapid, if that makes sense? Like static. I didn’t hear anything, but it felt like it was humming. Moving too fast to see, but standing still the entire time.’

 

I glance up at the wooden frame - and into the darkened corridor beyond the threshold.

 

There’s nothing there. A bathroom. Two bedrooms - one door sadly ajar, revealing a floor that’s littered with clothes.

 

The other door tightly shut.

 

It was shortly after this, my client tells me, that she began to hear the voices.

 

***

 

She was hunched over an office desk, she tells me, in the Finance department of her firm. Typing something unimportant, at perhaps 10 or 11 in the morning.

 

The voice, when it came, was so loud and clear that she could have sworn someone was standing over her shoulder.

 

An old children’s poem, or rather, a fragment of a poem.

 

She used to sing it to her son in those early, happy years, when she was putting him to bed or running a bath, and he’d gurgled it back over and over to himself in play, forgetting the rest of the verse, garbling it into joyful nonsense:

 

James, James, he said to his mother,

He said to his mother, said he,

You must never go down

To the end of the town

If you don’t go down with me.

 

Just that. Then silence.

 

And for weeks afterwards, my client tells me, she’d hear that same voice, that single scrap of rhyme, while walking in the park or standing in line at the supermarket.

 

As if it was being whispered into her ear.

 

James, James, he said to his mother,

He said to his mother, said he,

You must never go down

To the end of the town

If you don’t go down with me.

 

I ask her if she recognises the voice, and she nods.

 

‘Of course,’ she tells me, and her eyes shine with excitement. ‘It’s mine.’

 

***

 

I sit at that kitchen table, my coffee cooling and my dictaphone spooling onwards in front of me, and listen to a litany of hauntings.

 

There are certain streets and certain pathways that darken and shift as my client walks down them, taking on shadows and shapes that are, she insists, reflective of another place entirely.

 

There’s a dizzy crackling that fills her ears whenever she tries to listen to soothing music, or a talk show, or the voice of another human being, on her phone.

 

Nobody seems to know how to fix it: as a matter of fact, the man in the shop doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with it.

 

I put it to my ear and hear a clear burst of trilling flute music.

 

She won’t replace it, she tells me fervently. They all want her to get a new model, but she won’t do it.

 

In case David calls.

 

Then there’s the man she’s glimpsed loitering just outside the concrete stairwell when she glances out of her kitchen window.

 

Pale and dishevelled, she tells me, his face set in a peculiar scowl, as if he’s trying to step through but can’t quite bring himself to do it.

 

But he’s never there by the time she opens the front door.

 

When my client is finished talking, she sits back in her chair heavily, gazing at me with an unmistakable look of satisfaction. It’s as if she’s just told me an amusing anecdote.

 

‘My brother said you solved unusual problems,’ she tells me after a moment. ‘Well, I want you to solve this.’

 

The only problem is that I just don’t believe her.

 

She doesn’t want this problem solved. She wants to carry on living with these ghosts, these sudden and inexplicable visitations. Because if she exists in a world where nothing is certain and probability plays no part...then she may yet look up from her casserole one night and see her son, standing in her kitchen doorway again.

 

She called me here to share this with me. She wants to hire someone to join her in this phantom world.

 

‘I have money,’ she says, a moment later. ‘I still have my husband’s pension, and I don’t spend any more. I can pay you.’

 

I begin to suggest that she spend the money on a new apartment, somewhere far away from here where she can leave her poltergeists behind - before I catch myself.

 

She will never leave this place. She will never abandon her post; never stop waiting.

 

She is, I tell myself, more of a ghost than anything I’m likely to encounter.

 

***

 

I open the door, and step into the bedroom.

 

Almost immediately, my foot catches on something white and trailing, and it takes me a second to realise what it is.

 

A web of string, hastily unravelled and dumped on the floor, the ends still attached to bedposts and Blu-tacked to the cupboard doors on the far side of the room.

 

It’s the sort of thing you’d imagine might be erected by a little boy who was afraid of monsters, or who was playing alone in his room and didn’t want the real world to intrude upon him without notice.

 

It feels wrong. Out of place, for a teenager’s room. Too childish and fanciful.

 

As if time has mistepped somewhere in the creation of this room.

 

Stranger yet. The walls are empty.

 

No posters, no calendar. No books or game console. Just plain white walls.

 

The longer I stand in the room, the less it feels like a place that’s been abandoned, and the more it feels like a void waiting to be filled.

 

My lonely silence begins to feel confining. I want to say something. To shout my own name. To cry for help.

 

Instead, I open the cupboard doors and check inside.

 

T-shirts and jeans, neatly hung in rows like empty skins of people.

 

I check under the bed. Nothing but dust.

 

I close the bedroom door, to see if there’s anything hanging behind it.

 

And then I see the word.

 

It’s been carved crudely into the doorframe with a knife or compass, just at my eyeline.

 

Five letters. No meaning. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

 

***

 

Do you remember Roanoke? They taught it to us in our Logic and Reasoning sessions.

 

An entire town of early American colonists vanishes, leaving a single word scratched on a tree.

 

And of course this drove people wild, fixating themselves upon this one meaningless word, guessing at whether it meant a deadly curse or a passage to hell or something else entirely…

 

...when in fact Roanoke was the name of a Native American settlement not too far away, which nobody thought to go and visit.

 

This word on the doorframe reminds me of that.

 

Both in the sense of a warning, since it’s in our nature to swallow ourselves up in obsessing over something as thrilling as a mystery…

 

...and as an invitation. A smoke signal. An arrow scratched on a tree.

 

I find myself almost wanting to avoid saying it out loud, and breaking the spell.

 

Eskew. I said it.

 

Eskew. Eskew. Eskew.

 

Perhaps we’ll visit it together someday.

 

***

 

I get home late that night. Draw the curtains so I don’t have to watch the headlights roaring through the rain of South London.

 

You’ve never been to my flat, have you?

 

You always said you never felt at home anywhere. It was why you’d chosen our occupation.

 

You liked to drift, to see just enough of one nation to understand it without beginning to despise its food, its people, its prejudices.

 

In my flat, with the curtains drawn and the light dimmed, I think I might be able to make you feel at home.

 

I’m sorry. I won’t get distracted.

 

I pour myself a glass of Merlot. Open up the laptop and type those five letters into Google. Es-kew.

 

Like a sneeze. An expulsion.

 

There are a few surnames that look similar, but aren’t the same. Slavic politicians. American preachers.

 

I dismiss them and continue.

 

I click and click.

 

Then, quite out of nowhere, the strangest thing.

 

A YouTube video.

 

I click, of course.

 

I seem to be looking at a press conference of some kind, or perhaps a board meeting.

 

A young man, stood in front of a projector screen, gesticulating and talking. The sound is too rough and too quiet to make out what he’s saying, even with the volume turned right up.

 

Behind him, slides flick from left to right. From left to right.

 

It’s hypnotic.

 

A series of vivid black-and-white tableaux.

 

A skyscraper of glass. The dark, still surface of a pond.

 

An animal of some kind, shaggy and crude, its glassy eye gazing into the camera, shifting up and down with heavy, frightened breaths.

 

Perhaps it isn’t an animal at all, but a mask.

 

The young man grows more animated, pulling at his tie, tearing off his jacket, jabbing a trembling finger at slide after slide after slide.

 

A widening white circle. A car engine, sputtering and smoking and swelling to fill the frame.

 

A grin that spreads all the way around until the two ends join up with each other.

 

And then the slides finish, leaving only an empty frame behind, and the young man pauses as if for breath.

 

Then the clapping begins.

 

A furious, riotous clapping from just offscreen, so noisy that I start back from the laptop, the sound of hundreds of hands slapping madly against other, an entire auditorium full of spectators applauding and cheering and whistling their approval.

 

The young man does not look pleased.

 

In fact, his eyes goggle and his mouth drops, as if he’s genuinely shocked or even frightened by the crowd of unseen people who are even now cheering him from all sides, and he falls back against the projector screen, his hands reaching out to either side, scrabbling for purchase, screaming silently-

 

-and then the clip ends.

 

I sit back.

 

I have witnessed no violence, no threat. And yet it feels uncomfortably as if I’ve just watched a snuff movie.

 

The video clip is titled, ‘Eskew?’

 

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

 

Once I’ve finished the wine, before I go to bed, I throw the curtains open, and throw myself onto the sofa.

 

After ten minutes or so basking in the brightness, the normalcy, of the London street outside...I begin to feel a little better.

 

***

 

I wake up the next morning feeling more than a little hungover, fumble for the light, and stagger out of bed towards the door.

 

My fingers are on the knob by the time I see it.

 

Right there on the frame, as if it’s been transplanted from another bedroom door halfway across the city. A single word, exactly replicated.

 

Eskew.

 

And I could swear, for an instant, that I am not standing in my room at all, but in another place, with blank white walls and a cot of a bed, and white string drawn like cobwebs from one side to the other, in the hope of keeping something out.

 

And I hear a voice, my own voice in my ear, whispering the words that I’ve never spoken:

 

James, James, he said to his mother,

He said to his mother, said he,

You must never go down

To the end of the town

If you don’t go down with me.

 

In absolute panic, I tear open the door, and see my own living room and my own furniture beyond the threshold, and suddenly I know where I am and everything is certain again.

 

This is when, for the very first time, it occurs to me that my client has perhaps been at least partially successful in drawing me into her madness.

 

It only gets worse from here.

 

I have to catch my flight. I’ll leave you another message when I get out on the other side.

 

I love you. I will be with you again.

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