by Katy Darby
The grandfather clock ticks heavily, reluctantly. I put down my teacup, which rattles a little in the saucer, and press my lips together, turning my silence into a rigid smile. I am determined to give nothing away. Let this charlatan work for his guinea.
“And may I enquire when, exactly, you lost your loved one?”
His breath is warm and stale, like bread left too long near the stove. He is a stout and florid gentleman, somewhat below the middle height and, I would guess, the middle class. He is dressed in a loud green check and smells faintly of pomade. Mr. Fritsch, Medium to the Gentry, does not inspire confidence in me; but to whom else can I turn, lost as I am? Lost as George is.
Oh, George. Fourteen months and still no word; no tattered scrap of hope. Dearest George, lost now for as long as I ever knew you. When I recall your face, it has faded to black and white, and floats through my sleep as flat and pale as the only photograph you left me.
Mr. Fritsch’s eyes flick up and down me; he is reading me, I see, like some Strand Magazine detective, gleaning what he can and guessing what he cannot from my clothes, my hair, my jewellery. He won’t find it easy: I have removed my engagement ring and wear it on a thin gold chain beneath my blouse, next to my heart. I look younger than my years, I know—so he will doubtless guess father or brother, given no evidence of a sweetheart.
“He was very close to you, was he not, your . . .” (ah, which will he pick?) “dear brother?”
I suppress my smile; it is unladylike to gloat, though I have sat through the dreary parlour tricks of so many false mediums that it becomes more of a temptation every time.
“I have no brother, Mr. Fritsch.”
But something in my demeanour tells him that he is not far off his mark; his eyes glimmer and he leans forward, his head cocked like a fox’s at the whiff of fowl.
“But it is a young man you have lost, is it not? A young and handsome man—and brave, too! Ah, how dashing he looked in his uniform!” (A truly intuitive guess, this, in the middle of a war). “Your sweetheart, yes—though not your husband.”
Anyone can look for a ring. And with the recent awful losses, half his clients must be girls whose men-friends did not return from France.
“But the bond is strong between you,” Mr. Fritsch speculates. “Though you wear no engagement ring, perhaps you were . . . ah yes!—affianced in secret?”
A hit! Oh, a palpable hit and he knows it. My hand rises to touch the ring at my breast and he smiles smugly.
“Not in secret. It was announced in The Times. But I no longer wear his ring. It is too painful a reminder.”
Mr. Fritsch pours us both more tea, his narrow green eyes not leaving me for a moment.
“And far too obvious a clue for those of my profession, no doubt. I venture that this is not the first time you have consulted one who communicates with the dead, Miss Bedford?”
“I confess it is not.”
“And yet, like an atheist visiting a dozen churches, daring God to be real, you remain unswayed and unsatisfied?”
He has a sophisticated turn of phrase for a confidence trickster; I’ll give him that.
“I remain unconvinced, sir.”
“You do not wish to be convinced, perhaps? You believe, perhaps, that spiritualism is merely smoke and mirrors—a sop to the grieving?”
“Far from it. I should do anything to be convinced. It would allow me to lay down the burden of this terrible uncertainty. To mourn, to move on, perhaps even to love again. Convince me, Mr. Fritsch, and I shall forever be in your debt.”
Mr. Fritsch’s pink and shining nose twitches; he has scented gold, more guineas from the grieving gentlewoman. He smiles so sincerely that I can see his raw-red gums.
“I assure you, Madam, that the dead do speak and that when the circumstances are right, they speak through me. I run a fortnightly séance for those such as yourself who have suffered bereavement. Many of my clients find it extremely . . .”
He inclines his head, tongs sugar into his teacup. “Comforting.”
“But I am not bereaved, Mr. Fritsch.”
At last I have genuinely astonished the gentleman. He half-rises from his seat, suspecting some sort of foul play; a deceit or trick played on him by a rival; perhaps an expose in the yellow press.
“Then why on . . .”
“Or at least,” I continue airily, “I may be—I cannot tell. George was lost to me over a year ago, and I mean lost in the most literal sense. His company went into the Second Battle of Ypres and he did not return. His best friend Harry lost an arm looking for him. But no body was found, and no identification. I continue to hope that he is alive, but in a queer way I should almost rather hear that he is dead. At least then I would know at last. You see my dilemma, I am sure.”
He sees; though what more he sees I cannot tell. He is sharper than many of those who think themselves smarter than I; perhaps he even believes in his own abilities. He steeples his fingers and leans back at the table, looking at me in silence.
“I wander between two worlds, Mr. Fritsch. I do not know whether I should wait at home for George’s return, or bury him in my heart. Is he living or dead? Am I bereaved, or merely deprived of him?”
I know that I am babbling, that like every desperate woman he sees, my soul is spilling from my mouth and all he needs do is nod and listen and clutch our money, but I cannot stop myself. I shall make him know how it feels; everyone understands loss, but so few comprehend what I suffer, not knowing—perhaps never to know.
“How long must I wait? If my heart were broken, it might mend again, I hope; but there is no cure for a heart that has itself become a ghost.”
He nods once, buttons his awful jacket, stands wearily and gestures me towards the door of his consulting room.
“Very well, Miss Rose. I am sorry I cannot help you in this matter. Good evening.”
When I return home Mama is feeding Harry scones and attempting to entertain him with her tales of life in Northamptonshire, which is a struggle at the best of times. Her face illuminates like the Tiffany lamp when she sees me at the door.
“Darling! I was just telling Mr. Weaver about the county show, but I’m sure you’ve far more exciting things to talk about. Where have you been all afternoon?”
“Shopping.” I remove my hat and gloves and stoop to kiss Harry on the cheek. He looks even paler than usual, exhausted by Mama’s litany of stories about prize saddlebacks and what the sexton said to the governess in ’94.
“How lovely!” trills Mama, relieved. “Shall I ring for tea?”
I nod. Mama tinkles the bell, then bustles off tactfully to follow it up with a personal visit to the kitchen. I sit, leaning my head against Harry’s shoulder. He puts his good arm around me tentatively and gives me a brief squeeze; it’s all he ever does when I display extremes of emotion. It’s hard for him too, I know.
“What’s up, old thing? Another charlatan, was he?”
I glance into his guileless blue eyes. What is he thinking? What does Harry ever think? I wish that I could read bodies and expressions like the mediums do; surely an infinitely more useful skill than talking to the dead—but the white oval of his face is blank as a fresh page.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. That’s the problem.”
“How so? What did he do?”
I am not sure myself why I am so curious about Mr. Fritsch; perhaps my stock of cynicism has been used up and so I am compelled to believe. But one thing he did stick in my mind and will not leave it. One thing I am sure was not a trick, for he seemed not to know himself that he did it.
“He called me Rose, Harry.”
“I don’t know why; I suspect he wasn’t even aware of it. But Rose was George’s pet name for me.”
Harry looks astounded. “You never told me that, Lil.”
“I never told anyone.”
Harry ponders. I know what he will say; his mind is refreshingly direct.
“Perhaps it was mere association? Lilian—Lily—Lily-Rose . . .”
“I did not tell him my Christian name.”
Harry’s face darkens. I can read him now well enough. “These mediums talk amongst themselves, you know . . .”
“Do they? Many are bitter rivals—there is a glut in the market at the moment.”
“He could have found it out another way.”
My first name, but not my pet name. Not just the way George used to say it, in just that tone when we said goodbye, when he was weary, and fond, and disappointed that I must leave.
“I hardly know why I am so adamant that Mr. Fritsch must know something, nor what, exactly, I expect him to know, but I must find out, Harry. And you must come with me to his next séance.”
He stares at me in surprise, blue eyes round. “I? But what help could I possibly be at a séance?”
I smile and drop a kiss on his smooth forehead. “You may hold my hand.”
I consider myself a connoisseur of séances: I have attended many in my quest for answers, for certainty, and this is a typical event. Dark velvet, shaded lamps, women in widow’s weeds sniffing into lace handkerchiefs, and a charismatic shaman at the centre of it all, exhorting us to conjure the spirits and reach out to the etheric world, or some such nonsense.
Harry’s left hand is warm in my right; Mr. Fritsch, who sits on my other side, holds my left hand in a rough dry grip of iron. Our ringmaster insists that the circle must be unbroken, so the lady to Harry’s right has her hand upon his armless right shoulder, to her evident distaste. As the newcomer, I have been granted the place of honour at his right hand, so that I may have the best view of his parlour trickery, no doubt.
The lamps are dimmed yet further by his servant, who exits and softly closes the door.
“Let us begin,” says Mr. Fritsch, in hushed and reverent tones. “Is there anybody there?”
All I can hear is the sound of stifled sobs from beneath the black lace veils across the table. Harry squeezes my hand; I am grateful for him. If I see or hear anything, I must know that it is no illusion, and he is the most level-headed man I know, now. George and he were—are—twins in many ways, yet radically opposed in so many others. Had George been in love with me for as long as Harry, he should have proposed to me twice over by now. It only took him two months after Harry introduced us for the first time. George always knew—knows—what he wants, and how to get it.
“Is there anybody there?” Mr. Fritsch repeats, somewhat impatiently to my ears. Do the lamps brighten a little, or are my eyes adjusting to the dim light? Does a cool breath stir the fine hairs at the back of my neck, or is it a breeze through a draughty casement?
“There are many of you boys just outside the circle, I know, but you are shy,” coaxes Mr. Fritsch. “Won’t one of you step forward and speak? Won’t one of you dry the tears of your mothers and sisters, your wives and sweethearts?”
If George speaks and I hear him, I shall know at last that he is gone. Otherwise—nothing. Again, nothing. I will give him up—I will consign him to my soul's tomb, for I do not think I can bear another of these sessions. The heavy air stinks of hope. Oh, but if he is alive! If it cannot be proven that he is dead I must wait. I will wait. I made a promise.
The expectant silence is broken by a violent sneeze. It is the woman in the black veil opposite me.
“I’m sorry,” she sniffs, “but I am allergic to certain flowers—that vase on the mantel, could you remove it?”
She is right; there is a giddy-sweet smell suffusing the room; it is the scent of lilies, coming from the tall stems above the fireplace.
“Mrs. Henderson,” says Fritsch, “those are artificial flowers, silk merely. The dust, perhaps, is making you sneeze.”
Mrs. Henderson cannot reply; she is too busy sneezing. Harry leans over and whispers “Can you smell that?”
I can; we all, evidently, can. Mrs. Henderson is in explosive paroxysms, but Mr. Fritsch seems unwilling to help her. And then the lights go out completely. In the absolute blackness, the lily scent changes, twists and dissolves in the air like ink in water, becoming a different, softer aroma, still sweet but not so cloying, like powdered sugar, like Turkish Delight, like –
Mr. Fritsch must have manufactured these effects somehow, to frighten or convince me. The stuttering lights, the silent circle, the scents of Lily and Rose. Somehow he knew George’s name for me; somehow this is happening because of him. Through him. The smell of roses is overpowering now, and the circle is coughing and choking; it is like being drowned in petals.
I want to stand up, to accuse him of playing a cruel trick on me, but I can barely breathe through the thick, syrupy miasma and Harry and Fritsch have tight hold of my hands on both sides. Nonetheless I try to stand to shake them off, to shout, but at that moment I feel a warm finger laid across my lips, and the scream dies in my throat. I sink back down into my chair, and the finger becomes a hand, pressed gently over my mouth. I kiss them and taste the salty warmth of George’s fingers, and I feel his thumb caress my jawline just as he used to.
I cannot believe it. I must believe it. Tears tumble down my cheeks; I am sobbing and crying out like any hysteric; I am desperate to free my hands, tugging uselessly at Harry’s and Fritsch’s iron fists, so that I can hold George’s hand at last, press it to my lips and keep it there. But just as I finally loosen Harry’s grip, the hand over my mouth is snatched away, as though it had never been there.
Harry says he had never seen me in such a state. He said that he and Fritsch had to carry me out to an ambulance-cart, and that for a week I did not stir or speak, but lay with my eyes quite wide, so that the nurses kept having to close them. For a week my life was despaired of, and Harry sat by my bedside talking and reading to me, anything to strengthen the loose thread that connected me to the living world.
And so it was that when I awoke finally, before I opened my eyes, the first thing I heard was him declaring (at last!) his love for me and regretting aloud that he had never had the courage to confess it to me after George’s disappearance. He was holding my hand, and I squeezed it faintly to show that I understood, and he gasped a little, then choked out a sob, and called the nurses to witness the miracle of my resurrection.
After that it was natural enough that we should get married; after all, one cannot mourn forever, and much was laid to rest in that week I spent as a ghost between worlds, neither living nor dead, just as George once was to me. I was unable to find Mr. Fritsch, nor thank him for finally bringing my love back to me, and of course, taking him from me at the same time; but what I am most thankful for is that some part of George still remains with me, and shall do always.
For when I walked down the aisle on my father’s arm, my hand was held by an invisible hand; when I leaned too far over the balcony to wave to Harry on the morning of our Brighton honeymoon, an invisible hand stayed my fall; and when Harry’s arm drapes over my waist in sleep, I lie awake and stare at the cloud-chased moon until the invisible fingers of a second hand lace themselves into mine.
Katy Darby’s work has been read on BBC Radio, and published in magazines including Stand, Mslexia, Slice and the Arvon and Fish anthologies. She has a BA in English from Oxford and an MA in Creative Writing from UEA, where she received the David Higham Award. She teaches Short Story and Novel Writing at City University, co-runs the short story night Liars' League (www.liarsleague.com) and her first novel, The Whores' Asylum, is forthcoming from Fig Tree (Penguin) in February 2012. More info at www.katydarby.com.