It's been a long time since I last visited London. The city has changed in many ways, become more American with its new high-rises and franchised chains of stores and cafes. It's still a different world to mine, with its old grey buildings and its polite but oddly stiff people, but it's not as out of sync with the States as it used to be. There was a time when I felt completely alien here. Now it's almost like visiting any city Stateside. Globalization has a lot to answer for.
Having said that, you can't find a chippy like Super Fish on Waterloo Road anywhere in the States. Or a van parked down a side street that serves jellied eels, like Tubby Isaacs in Aldgate. And I've never seen anything like the Hunterian Museum, where you can find the bones of an Irish giant, pickled penises, old surgical instruments that look more like tools of torture, and a whole lot more. They're all places that Joe has introduced me to, steering me clear of the usual tourist hotspots, giving me an insider's taste of the city.
The other thing I've really noticed this time is that London's landscape is smudged with the fingerprints of the dead. I trudge the streets, lined with houses that date back hundreds of years, built on plague sites and Roman burial grounds, their foundations teeming with history, and it's as if I'm taking a stroll through the largest mausoleum in the world, where phantoms jostle for space with the living. The hairs on my arms stand to attention, shapes flicker at the periphery of my vision and the air crackles with the whispered conversations of the dead. Whether they're imagined or real, it's an amazing place to visit, but I wouldn't be able to live here. A few months of this and I'd be fit for Bedlam.
I've been exploring the city, either with Joe - he runs a small electrical repairs shop on a part-time basis, so has plenty of free time on his hands - or by myself. I use cabs, buses and the Tube more often than not, searching for shades of the dead among the detritus of the living.
I didn't always believe in an afterlife. In truth, I'm still not convinced. But I'm open to the possibility of it now, and have been since I attracted my own coterie of other-worldly spirits.
My ghosts follow me everywhere, four men, one woman and a nine-year-old girl, haunting my every waking step, standing guard while I sleep, ever vigilant, spitefully waiting for a chance to catch me unawares and shock me. I know they're probably delusional projections. The six are shades of people I knew, whose deaths darkened the corridors of my mind. The spectral figures are almost certainly products of a guilty subconscious. But I wanted them to be real. I needed them to be real. So I opened myself up to the possibility that there's a life after death, and I've been searching for proof of that ever since. The quest for answers has helped keep me sane. Or as sane as someone who sees ghosts can be!
All of my novels focus on where ghosts come from, how they form, why they exist. In my first three I looked at how souls could be bound to this realm by magical or spiritual forces. This time I want to take a more scientific approach. I've pretty much exhausted the mystical angles, at least for the time being. Time to travel down another route in search of something that might explain how and why my ghosts came to haunt me, that might provide me with the means to banish them from my line of sight, back to whatever dark holes the army of the dead rest up in.
I really am vague about the plot. That wasn't a lie. I know I'm going to focus on spontaneous human combustion - because it lets me explore the concept that ghosts might be the result of a violent, unnatural death - but I'm not sure where I want to go with it. I'm relying heavily on research for inspiration and direction. Right now I have no idea where it's going to lead me.
We meet Pierre Vallance in his local Starbucks. At first we chat about the States. I've noticed that lots of people here like to discuss America with me when they hear my accent. The media keeps telling us that the US has lost its standing as the world's foremost superpower, that China, India and Russia are taking over, but from what I've experienced in my travels, America is still the place that everyone wants to talk about.
When Pierre's had his fix of Stateside tittle-tattle, he tells us about his life as a sceptical medium. Pierre has heard voices all his life. He doesn't believe in ghosts, but became a medium so that he could explore (and exploit) his talent. Over time he came to the conclusion that his brain acted as an amplifier for electromagnetic signals which the people close to him were transmitting.
'When people think, their brains generate waves,' he explains, sipping an espresso. 'I somehow pick up on those signals and convert them into voices.'
'You mean you can read minds?' Joe asks, squinting nervously - I guess we all have dark secrets we want to hide from the world at large.
Pierre shrugs. 'To an extent. I always explain to my clients that I'm using science to help reveal the workings of their subconscious, but many choose to ignore me. They'd rather believe in an afterlife and ghosts whispering through me. And since the customer's always right, I don't argue with them too strenuously.'
I come away from our meeting intrigued. If Pierre can transform brain waves into voices, maybe there are others who can turn them into visions or physical objects. In such a world, almost anything is possible. That gives me a whole universe of ideas to play with.
I breeze through the next week, plot lines clicking together neatly, my muse trilling like a diva. To my surprise, I enjoy working with Joe. Although I willingly took him on as an assistant, I wasn't convinced it was the right move, and I thought I'd have to cut him loose sooner rather than later. But he's been a real asset. Without forcing me, he's got me talking more than I have in years. Usually I grunt when people ask me questions, instinctively cautious around strangers and even warier of those who try to get close to me, but with Joe I've started stringing whole sentences together. I'm not sure what it is about him. I just like the guy. He brings out a lighter, warmer part of me, a part I thought I'd lost a long time ago.
To reward him for helping me connect with my positive vibes, I tell Joe where my story has been leading me. The book is going to be a supernatural thriller. My central character dies of spontaneous human combustion, then returns as a ghost and embarks on a quest to unearth the truth behind his demise.
'A ghost out for revenge,' Joe beams. 'I like it!'
Trying to decide on locations, I check out the infamous Whitechapel area, haunt of Jack the Ripper. It's as eerie now as it must have been back then. I'd love to set my book there, but I'm worried that readers might dismiss it as a Ripper cash-in.
Brixton appeals to me more. You come up out of the Tube to find street preachers set among hawkers and homeless people trying to flog copies of the Big Issue. A dark atmosphere. Brixton Market feels like something out of a horror film, maze-like, roofed-over, claustrophobic. I could have my ghostly hero burst into flames outside the Tube station, in front of a preacher.
I look around and imagine a burning man stumbling through the market, women screaming, men trying to extinguish the fire, the stench of scorched flesh. I grin ghoulishly. Sometimes this job requires me to explore the sickest of scenarios. That's why it's so much fun!
To afford me a different taste of London, Joe has arranged a night out on the river. One of his friends is holding a party on a boat. There'll be a meal and a disco, and the boat will sail up and down the Thames into the early hours of the morning. I'm not keen on parties, and at first I gave Joe the brush-off. But he persisted, said I'd been working hard and that it would be good for me to let my hair down. In the end I agreed just to shut him up.
I'm shaving when my cell phone (they call them mobiles here) rings. It's Joe. 'You're gonna kill me,' he groans. 'I can't make it. My mam took ill. I'm catching the next train to Newcastle.'
'Is it serious?' I ask, concerned.
'Hopefully not. Mam's had a couple of bad turns these last few years and seen them off. She'll probably be fine, but I need to be with her, just in case.'
'Of course. I understand completely. It's not a problem.'
'I don't know when I'll be back,' he says.
'Don't rush on my account,' I tell him.
'Will you still meet up with John Meyher?' Joe asks. Meyher's an expert in the field of spontaneous human combustion. He doesn't give many interviews, but Joe pulled a few strings.
'Of course,' I tell him. 'Unless you'd rather I wait until you're back?'
'No need to do that,' he says, but he sounds pleased that I offered. 'What about tonight? Will you go to the party?'
'I'll probably give it a miss. I don't know any of your friends.'
'So introduce yourself to them.'
'Maybe. I'll see how I feel. I might just pop out for dinner and a walk instead.'
'Don't be a miserable old sod,' Joe growls. 'Go!' He hangs up on me.
I sit on the edge of the bed rubbing the smooth half of my face, considering the night ahead. Missing the party doesn't concern me, but I liked the idea of sailing along the Thames in the dark. I decide to go. Even if I don't mingle, I can have a few drinks, sit on deck, enjoy the fresh air and the sights. I might pick up some ideas.
I finish shaving. Slap on aftershave and deodorant. I sit half-naked by the TV for an hour, flicking through the channels. Then I dress and head out.
I avoid the grander hotels when I travel, but I don't like roughing it either. The Royal Munster is typical of my hotel of choice, old and faded, situated close to Earls Court, anonymous among the scores of other hotels in the area. Dusty doormen and bellboys, family-friendly, favoured by tourists rather than business executives.
The doorman is a white-haired guy in his sixties who tips his hat to customers and addresses them with exaggerated formality. I've told him to call me Ed, but he only nods and smiles, then hits me with a hearty 'Mr Sieveking, sir!' His name's Fred, but he prefers Mr Lloyd.
'Nice night to be heading out, Mr Sieveking,' he wheezes, hailing a cab.
'Care to join me, Mr Lloyd?'
He chuckles. 'I would if I was off duty. I'd take you to see people you could use in your books. I know a man in the Queen's Guard who puts mustard on everything he eats. And there's a . . . '
He rattles on for a few minutes, but I make no move to halt him. I like listening to Fred. He's one of the world's great liars, full of outrageous stories.
He pauses to catch his breath and I make my excuses. 'Have to be loving and leaving you, Mr Lloyd,' I say, slipping him a tip.
'Maybe I'll catch you on the way back,' he says.
'Only if you're a late bird,' I laugh.
The taxi driver heads for the Chelsea Embankment when I tell him where I'm going, then it's a quick journey parallel to the river and we're at the Victoria Embankment about ten minutes later. I stroll down the gangplank to the deck, where a pretty stewardess in a revealing naval uniform welcomes the guests. She asks for my name, checks her list, hands me a whistle, a paper hat and party poppers. She says I can have my picture taken with her kissing my cheek, for a reasonable rate. I refuse politely. I'm a camera-shy guy. I prefer not to be photographed even when giving interviews, which annoys reporters. My agent often argues with me about it, but I don't want shots of me to be freely circulated.
The meal doesn't start for another hour, so I make my way to the bar and order a beer. I don't want to drink too much, not on a boat, or I'll be throwing up all night. Alcohol and boats don't mix. I learnt that lesson the hard way on a cruise of the African coast many years ago.
I'm surrounded by young party animals, all of whom seem to be in select groups. A couple of teenagers waylay me and ask who I am, what I do, how I know the birthday girl. I explain my connection to Joe, but they don't know him. My job description draws more of a response.
'A writer!' they hoot, impressed. One says, 'I always wanted to be a writer. Do you make much money?'
I spend a quarter of an hour trying to convince them that my books don't sell by the millions. They don't accept it. They insist that I must be fabulously well-to-do, on a par with Stephen King, even though they've never heard of me. Finally I concede that yes, I'm stinking rich, and yes, I wrote The Exorcist. With that settled, they roll away to tell their friends about me, with the unexpected result that hours later, long after I've forgotten about them, an irate gentleman jabs an angry finger into my chest and grunts, 'You didn't write The Exorcist. That bloke Blatty did. You're a fraud.'
Dinner's a simple affair - mashed potatoes and sausages, some unsavoury-looking carrots, cheap wine. The other guests go at it with conviction. Maybe I'm fussy because I'm getting on in years. The birthday girl is celebrating her twenty-first, and most of her friends fall into the same age bracket. It's been a long time since I saw twenty-one.
As the paper plates are collected and disposed of, the tables are removed and the dance floor opens up. The DJ hasn't taken up his post yet, but someone sticks on a track and the more avid revellers writhe to the beat. I stand watching the dancers before it strikes me that this is a sign of seedy middle age - enviously ogling scantily clad girls while they strut their funky stuff - and I scuttle away in search of a refill.
I prop up the bar for a couple of hours, eavesdropping on the conversation of strangers. Most people ignore me, but at one point a girl with a blond bob shows interest. She can't be more than twenty, way too young for a man with a receding hairline, but the beers have stripped me of a decade and I'm thinking about what it would be like to take her back to the Royal Munster for a night of merry debauchery.
That's when I'm accused of fraud by the testy William Peter Blatty fan. In the ensuing embarrassing silence, my pretty admirer coughs, says she ought to be mingling more, wishes me well and hastily takes her leave.
Ordering another beer, I decide I've had enough of the bar and head for the deck. The fresh air revives me. I stand alone at the stern and study the trail of churning water we leave in our wake. Leaning across, I peer towards the bow, which is packed.
A couple emerge up the stairs and glare at me. I think they want the stern to themselves. Too bad. I'm not moving. Grumbling softly, they stand with their backs to me, making out. A few more stagger up over the next half-hour, but the area remains relatively clear, emptying when the DJ plays a popular number, slowly half-filling as tired legs force temporary retreats from the action.
I'm not a dancer. I keep a vigil on the riverbanks instead, casting a curious eye over a variety of buildings, old and new, decrepit and abandoned, or simply closed for the night, trying to find ways to incorporate them into the slowly forming plot of the novel. There are plenty of recognizable landmarks nestled in among the mix, the Tower of London, the Globe, Tate Modern, the Oxo tower, but I don't want to use any of those - too well known.
My ghosts share the deck with me, glittering lightly against the backdrop of the night sky. Two of them are floating over the Thames, treading air as if it was the most natural thing in the world. They ignore the sights, their eyes, as ever, trained on me. The thin bald man with a sharp beard drifts through me, resulting in a momentary chill. I could recall his name if I wanted - I'll never forget their names - but I don't. I try not to dwell on their identities. It reminds me of my past and why they haunt me.
As we pass the London Eye and the historic Houses of Parliament, I glance at the buildings across the way and notice a hospital. I ask a young man for its name. 'St Thomas's,' he says, staring at me as if I'm mad for asking.
The hospital interests me. I could use it in my book. Perhaps my central character rematerializes there. It's a logical spot for a ghost to turn up. I picture the scene as his eyes emerge from an ethereal fog, opening for the first time since his death. He gazes around, wondering where the hell he is. When he realizes it's a hospital, he relaxes. He remembers burning in Brixton and assumes he's been brought here to recover. Digging out my notebook (it goes everywhere with me), I jot down ideas.
Calmly he tries turning - can't - looks down at his body - there's nothing there!!! Tries to scream - can't - no lungs! - fades away again.
I like it. Later he re-forms, and this time he has a body and knows something is seriously wrong, although he doesn't yet accept that he's dead.
While I'm working on plot lines, a woman comes up the stairs and steps to the rail, close to where I'm standing. She perches her wine glass on the rail, fingers lightly cupping the stem, and stares off into space. I study her out of the corner of my eye. Older than most of the guests, mid to late twenties. Light auburn hair, straight cut, pageboy fashion, long at the back. Slender build, tightly clad in a stunning black dress which reveals plenty of leg but little cleavage. Her fingernails have been painted silver and she wears soft silver tights. There's some sort of silver glitter around her eyes too, so the lids sparkle every time she blinks.
I'm paying attention to her because she's the first unaccompanied female I've seen up here. The rest have been with boyfriends. Although I've been concentrating on work, I now remember why Joe pressed me to come to the party - to unwind and have fun - and turn my thoughts to chat-up lines. I was never good at this kind of thing. I'm not a natural charmer. Women are sometimes attracted to me because of the curt, moody front I present to the world, but I usually struggle if I'm the one who has to do the chasing.
While I'm pondering my approach, destiny lends a hand. The woman sighs and rolls her head from side to side. Her hand twitches while she's not looking and she inadvertently knocks her wine glass overboard. She gasps, dives after it, misses. As it sails over the side, I lean across, fingers outstretched. I almost grab it - if I was the hero in one of my books, I'd catch it - but it eludes me, plummets downwards and vanishes into the dark water of the Thames.
'Oh dear,' the woman says as I pull myself back from the rail.
'Sorry,' I smile.
'Not your fault,' she assures me, and glances around semi-guiltily. 'Do you think the crew saw?'
'I doubt it.'
'Maybe I should offer to pay for it just the same.'
I laugh lightly. 'I'm sure it happens all the time. A hazard of river life. Yours won't be the only glass lost to the tide tonight.'
She relaxes and leans against the rail. 'I suppose you're right. I always panic when I break something. It's the way I was brought up.' She speaks in soft, measured tones. 'Are you American?' she asks.
'I've travelled around a lot, but I live in Montana now.'
'I've never been to Montana. It's somewhere I always meant to visit.'
'You should. It's spectacular.' We're standing, elbows to the rail, facing one another. She gives me a speculative once-over. I hold my gaze steady.
'Are you a friend of Shar's?' she asks.
'Shar?' I echo blankly. Then I remember the birthday girl. 'No. I'm a FOAF.'
'A foaf?' She blinks, and her eyelids glitter silver confusion.
'FOAF - friend of a friend.'
'Oh.' She giggles. 'I thought you meant you were in the forces.'
There's a moment of nice silence.
'I'm a friend of Joe's,' I explain, not wanting to let the silence develop. 'Joe Rickard?'
She shakes her head. 'I know hardly anyone here. I'm a client of Shar's. She works in a beauty salon.' She drums her fingernails on the rail, then holds them up in the air and waves. 'Ta-da!'
'Did Shar paint those?' I ask.
'No. But she gave me the manicure.' She studies her nails and frowns. 'You don't think I went a bit heavy on the silver, do you? I thought it would look good under disco lights, but out here in the open . . . '
I shrug. I like the way they look, but if I said so it'd sound lame, like I was hitting on her. Which I am, but I don't want to be obvious about it.
'I'm sorry I came,' she says, lowering her voice. 'Shar invited me, but she invited lots of her clients and I'm about the only one who turned up. I think I was supposed to give her a card and a big tip and make my excuses.'
There's another pause, during which we smile awkwardly at each other and try thinking of things to say. This time she breaks it by holding out a hand. 'Deleena Emerson.'
'Ed Sieveking,' I respond, touching my hand to hers. 'Pleased to meet you.' As our hands part I say, 'Deleena? I haven't heard that name before. Where does it come from?'
'It's not a real name,' Deleena says. 'Just something my mother thought up.'
'It's nice. I like it.'
'Me too,' she says, and blushes sweetly. 'Ed Sieveking,' she murmurs, running the backs of her fingernails down her left cheek, as if trying to wipe the rosy glow away. 'Did you know there's a writer called Edward Sieveking?'
I stare at her, momentarily thrown. 'What?'
'A horror writer. Worth checking out if you like that sort of thing.'
I'm caught off guard. I'm not used to strangers recognizing my name, unless it's at a convention. Deleena stares at me uncertainly as I gawp at her. I think about saying nothing, letting the moment pass. For some ridiculous reason I'm almost ashamed to admit to my identity. But then I take a deep breath and squeeze it out. 'I'm Edward Sieveking. The writer.'
'No,' she frowns, suspecting a joke.
'Yes,' I grin, gaining in confidence.
'You wrote Soul Vultures?' The disbelief - as if no mere mortal could have been responsible for such a wonderful book - makes me preen like a peacock.
'Yes,' I drawl. 'And Nights of Fear and Summer's Shades. I used to write under a pseudonym . . . '
' . . . E.S. King!' she finishes, whooping with delight. 'That's how I discovered Summer's Shades. I mistook it for a Stephen King book. When I realized it wasn't, I decided I might as well buy it anyway, since there was nothing else I was interested in.' She covers her mouth with a hand. 'Oh, what an awful thing to say! Like I only bought your book because I was desperate.'
'That's OK,' I laugh. 'I'll take any sale I can get.' Licking my lips, I fish blatantly for a compliment. 'Did you like it?'
'I bought the other two, didn't I?' she replies impishly. 'Actually, I wasn't too keen on Shades - I think it's your weakest - but it interested me enough to make me pick up Nights of Fear, then Soul Vultures when it came out.' She studies me again. 'This is weird. I've met plenty of writers at parties and functions but I've never bumped into one of my favourites by accident. And to think I was regretting coming.'
'You don't regret it any more?' I smile.
'No,' she says. 'I'm only sorry I didn't know in advance that you'd be here. I could have brought my books to be signed.'
'Maybe I can sign them for you another time,' I suggest.
'Maybe,' she agrees, eyes half-slit as she considers that.
We talk about my books and what it's like to be a writer. As much as I love discussing my work, I try steering the conversation on to other topics a couple of times, afraid she'll think I'm in love with myself. But she won't have it. She asks about sales and royalties, how long it takes to write a novel, how I research my stories. She's dismayed when she learns how little I make.
'That's terrible!' she cries, resting a sympathetic hand on mine. The heat almost moulds the flesh of my palm to the rail.
'I knew you weren't on the best-seller lists but I'd no idea your sales were that poor.'
'They're not that bad,' I demur. 'Those are actually pretty good figures. And sales have picked up a lot this last year or two.'
'Still,' she mutters, 'how can you afford to write full-time?'
'My parents left me an inheritance,' I lie, as I always do whenever that question is asked. 'And I was in business - computers - before striking out as an author. I've enough set by to see me through the lean years. Besides, I can live frugally when I have to. Money isn't everything.'
'Nice to see someone dedicated to his craft,' she says.
'I don't know about dedication,' I respond modestly. 'I'm just stubborn. I know I'm not the world's greatest writer - not even its greatest horror writer - but I'm determined to prove that I can make it, even if my books are lacklustre, thrill-free affairs, as one critic cruelly put it.'
'But they're not!' she exclaims, tightening her fingers over my knuckles, which melt with ecstasy at the pressure. 'You're a wonderful writer.'
'Oh stop.' I grimace, and lay my free hand over hers. 'How'd you like to become my agent?'
'What's the starting salary?'
'I'll take it.'
We laugh in chorus and my fingers link with hers. Deleena looks down at our hands and her laughter subsides. I half-unhook my fingers from hers. If she takes her hand away now, the moment will be spoiled and I'm sure she'll find an excuse to leave. But to my delight she lets it lie where it is and gazes up at the underbelly of a bridge as we pass.
We discuss her life. She works in the City for a private banking firm. Not the most interesting of jobs, she says, but the pay's good and so are the perks - trips abroad three or four times a year, regular hours, plenty of promotion opportunities.
Deleena left school at sixteen and 'arsed about for a couple of years' before marrying an older gentleman a week after her eighteenth birthday. 'It was a mistake. I didn't love him, didn't even really like him. But he was a man of the world, he had a good CD collection, he was - '
'You married a man for his CDs?' I interrupt.
'Taste in music is very important,' she asserts. 'I could never get involved with anyone who listens to the Eagles or Rod Stewart.'
'What about Dire Straits and Bob Dylan?' I ask nervously.
'Dylan's a legend. Dire Straits . . . ' She makes a so-so gesture.
'Phew.' I pretend to wipe sweat from my brow.
The marriage lasted eight months. 'I hated him by the end, which was wrong, because I was the one who forced him to get married. I sat down with him a few years ago and we managed to put things straight. We're good friends now.'
After the divorce, she ran home to her parents to sort out her head. Her mother convinced her to finish her education, which she did, earning three A levels at night class, then graduating with honours in business studies at university. She spent a couple of years in Europe brushing up on her languages - she speaks six and is working on Chinese - and fell into banking more by chance than design. Upon her return to London she went to work for one of the major banks, before being headhunted by her current employer four years ago.
Piecing together her chronology as it unfolds, I realize she's older than I thought. When I ask delicately about her age, she laughs, taps her nose and says she won't see thirty again.
I quiz her about current boyfriends. Nobody serious. There was a guy called Mark who she met while travelling across Europe. They were together for a few years. Only brief flings since then.
Then it's my turn to spill the beans. I tell her a bit about my early life, how I was born in Chicago, moved to Seattle when I was six, then to Detroit when I was ten, when my father got a job there, back when they still made cars. I gloss over my pre-writing career, like I do when giving interviews, saying I worked in a variety of job across the States. I move on quickly to my more recent travels, the countries I've visited over the last few years.
Given all the travelling, she's convinced I have a girl in every port. I swear that isn't true and pretend my modest sex life is a choice. 'Sex by itself is nothing special,' I insist. 'It's not enough for bodies to touch - hearts and minds have to touch too.'
She stares at me silently, solemnly, then explodes into laughter. 'Bullshitter!'
'What?' I react with wounded innocence, but my smile gives me away.
'How many girls have you sweet-talked into bed with that one?' she jeers.
'Not as many as I'd like,' I admit.
'No wonder. The sixties are a long time gone, flower boy. Get with the programme.'
'So educate me,' I encourage her. 'What am I saying wrong?'
'Everything. Ditch the lines. You don't need them. Be yourself.'
'OK.' I chance it. 'Despite the gruff front, I'm a quiet, introspective guy. One might even say shy, if one was so inclined. I was married once but that went wrong and it hurt. I haven't committed to anyone since. I often think I'm not meant for love, that I'm destined to be alone.'
'Nobody's destined for loneliness,' she disagrees. 'People choose it or they don't. No one's saddled with it.'
I could argue that one with her, but I shrug diplomatically and mutter, 'Maybe.'
The serious turn in our conversation doesn't drain the night of its pleasure, but it sets us reflecting and we don't say much afterwards, just stand, hands joined, listening to the sounds of the disco, staring out over the flowing water of the darkly entrancing Thames.
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