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Let me tell you about ghosts. I don't believe in them. In my youth I saw too much fakery where the spirit world was concerned to have any doubts. Even if I choose the supernatural explanation of what we saw that last time, and take as more than coincidence what followed, I still require further evidence. And no matter how hard I have prayed for it over the years since, it has never come.
Séances, in those days, were the talk of the steamie, and Glasgow had a level of spiritualist activity approaching a small industry. It had been three years since the end of the Great War, and the nexts of kin were still groping around in a sort of muddled communal grief for a clue, a hint, an inkling to the whereabouts of all those husbands and fathers and sons who had disappeared in the muddy fields of Europe, turning to whatever means they could find to provide them with something approaching closure. The ones who came back were little use, cold and iron-faced men who preferred to batter their frustrations like bullets into the rivet holes of the great ships or scribble their memories on plate steel in hot, unreadable welds. The kirk offered comfort only for those who knew for certain the fate of their men. So, it was to the spiritualist churches, the travelling mediums on their borough hall tours, and the furtive parlour séances that many turned in search of their ghosts.
My sister was one such lost soul. Her husband, John, was one of the thousands who simply never returned from the Somme, and in the inconclusive limbo that followed, while the rest of the country picked itself up and went forward, Margaret developed an unhealthy addiction to séancemeetings. To begin with I attended a few of these evenings. They were entertaining enough in their own way, but the novelty quickly wore off. I don't know which I found more distasteful: the obvious parlour tricks employed by the various practitioners she invited to the house on Partick Hill, or the sincerity with which she and her cronies professed to believe it all. That they were truly able to converse with their lost ones in the spirit world. A frustratingly vague practice it was, a fog of mystery threaded through with just enough teases and glimpses to feed the needy audience. It was easy to see how the table-knockers and conjurers kept the repeat business coming.
It was no coincidence that I began visiting my sister less often around the time I fell in love with Helen. Helen was the perfect antidote to the post-war depression. She was bright and beautiful, and filled with an optimism for the future that, if others could not quite see yet what she founded it on, they could still not help but be infected by it. By comparison, Margaret's stubborn adherence to the past was dispiriting to say the least.
As it happened, the day we visited her to announce our engagement, she was having yet another of her séances.
"You will stay?" Her face was pale enough against her sombre dress that it occurred to me that her obsession with the spirit world was drawing her nearer to the wraiths than them to her. "This Mr Gilfillan has a new technique that is said to work wonders."
I was disappointed, and perhaps a little angry, that she chose to indulge her obsession than help us celebrate our good news. I was of a mind to curtail our visit, but Helen's eyes brightened at the mention of a séance.
"Oh, please, Bert," she said. "I've always wanted to try this. Please, let's stay."
It was difficult to tell whether Margaret found such vibrant enthusiasm appropriate, but I could see that it was important to her to have me there. After all, I was the only other person that had known John well enough to be able to corroborate his appearance, should such a miracle transpire.
So it was that an hour later we found ourselves sitting around the dining room table. The other guests that had arrived in the interim, Margaret's hard core séance circle, perched among us like a flock of dapper crows, each with a thimble of fino and a funereal air that made me want to scream.
The odd assembly was completed by the figure at the far end of the table. In the unhealthy glow of the low-turned gas lamps, he looked to me like nothing more than a door-stepping tinker. His worsted wool suit may have been his best, but I had observed a flap of unstitched lining, a button dangling on its thread. Not for this Gilfillan the velvet cape or the crass soubriquet. He was not that kind of charlatan at least. Nor had he come with the usual bag of tricks employed by his contemporaries to enliven the business of talking to the dead. No, he sat there, ruddy faced and irritable, like a man wondering where his next pint was coming from.
Despite myself, I admit I was intrigued. In addition to Gilfillan my attention was also taken by the bulky, velvet-draped object that sat in the centre of the table, and I knew that this was not going to be the usual cut-rate son et lumiere.
"Good afternoon," the man said in a slovenly, antipodean drawl. "I sense that many of you have sought communion with the spirit before, and who knows, perhaps a few of you have made some sort of a connection. A few words of comfort from a loved one, a telling fact that convinces you that it's them talking to you from the other side." Around the table a number of heads nodded. "Well, it's a lie," he said. "A charade founded on mumbo-jumbo and wishful thinking."
The exclamations of puffed-up, put-on distress made me smile.
"What we think of as spirits," Gilfillan went on with an erudition belied by his appearance (I was beginning to think of him as perhaps a university professor fallen on hard times), "are simply echoes of personalities trapped in dislocated pockets of time. Usually the result of a sudden, unexpected death--unexpected most of all by the victim--these partials are semi-aware, but no more than a sliver of the person they once were." Margaret and her ladies were nodding sagely, even though the Australian's bunk practically equated to 'there are no such things as ghosts'. To my right, Helen disguised a snigger behind a sneeze.
"To effect a genuine communication with these spirit remnants," Gilfillan droned on, "requires them to be local in both the temporal and the spatial dimensions." His head swivelled as he regarded his audience. "Have any of you suffered a recent loss, I wonder?"
"I lost a good cashmere mitten last week," Helen said sweetly.
Margaret fired us a look, and I squeezed Helen's hand, both in gentle admonishment and in admiration.
"Well, I really would love to find it again," she murmured in my ear. "I mean, what use is a single mitten to anybody?"
Around the table a number of lace-gloved hands had gone up.
Gilfillan ignored the interruption. "Of course, by recent, I should specify, within the last week or so."
The hands went down again.
"Very well," Gilfillan said. "We shall just have to see what happens. But I will not guarantee the specificity of the results." He leaned across the table and whipped away the cloth.
The apparatus was assembled mostly of a framework of drilled struts fixed together with odd bolts, wing-nuts and washers. Within this framework was cradled a bakelite box with no features apart from the cluster of terminals that connected it to a good sized electrical motor via a ripped knitting of kinked and twisted wires. The remaining space was taken up by a large battery cell.
"What you are about to witness," the Australian declared, "is no Ouija, no ectoplasm, no moving table or any other such tricks. Stripped of mysticism, divorced from religion, this is nothing less than science. The science of temporal co-planar collocation."
You had to give him his due. He made this baffling drivel sound impressive.
From the speed that he went about making his apparatus actually do something, however, I surmised that this must have been the bit of his spiel that patrons usually started asking for their money back. With a shower of fat, acrid-smelling sparks he connected the motor to the battery and it emitted a whirring sound, quickly winding itself up into a whine that vibrated the table and rattled the drops of the chandeliers.
Then I felt a tugging sensation, a lurch similar to that felt on a train that is leaving a station. One of the ladies gave a small cry.
"No worries," Gilfillan half-shouted above the din. "We're just getting up to speed so that the apparatus can locate the nearest available spook."
I felt the lurch again and it seemed to me that I must have been straining my eyesight in the dim light for too long because I began to see gold sparkles, similar to the bright dust motes that get illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. Only, there was no such light in the dining room's brown gloom.
Before long the room was filled with cascading showers of the golden sparks.
"Ooh, pretty." I heard Helen murmur, but her voice seemed disorientatingly distant.
The whine of the motor rose in pitch and I felt that lurch again, stronger than before, a yank to the guts that made me feel dizzy and quite nauseated.
And then the apparatus ceased. Someone gasped in the vacuum, a sort of wordless sigh of surprise.
"Ah," Gilfillan said. "Here we are now."
I suppose, that was the moment that I could have done something. Disconnected the machine, whatever, just made it stop. I was certainly no longer enjoying the experience, and I wish I'd had the presence of mind to take Helen by the hand and leave. If I choose to believe Gilfillan's explanation of the theory of his machine, it would have made no difference to what was to follow, but I can never escape the feeling that I allowed it to happen.
The sparks faded from the air, and in their place a bright figure coalesced above the table: a shining blur, accompanied by a sound that to me, even without the knowledge of hindsight, was like the hiss of heavy rain. The apparition dazzled too much to be able to make out more than that its shape was female, and that it was as frightened as all hell.
"Who are you, spirit?" Gilfillan asked it.
I saw Margaret lean forward in her chair, face lit with wonder, although she must have known that this was not John.
Its voice was a whisper, and even though the rain sound masked it, I recognised it instantly. It was the voice that whispered love in my ear in the flickering darkness of the Salon cinema. The voice that had lit up with delight, and said, 'yes, yes, I will.'
"Nelly," it said.
My Helen? Only I called her 'Nelly'.
Close by, I heard a muffled sigh, a bump, a thump, and only then realised that Helen had fallen to the floor.
I carried her out of the dining room. I knew it was probably unwise to move her, but I wanted her away from that apparatus, and the inexplicable thing it had conjured. Lying her on the settee in the parlour, I feared the worst when I saw how pale, how still, she was ... and I hugged her with relief when she finally responded to my fevered pinching with a spirited, "all, right! I've not passed over yet!"
To Margaret's credit, she cleared the house of guests and spiritualist alike and made Helen comfortable until she recovered sufficiently from her faint for me to take her home. The apparition was mentioned only by Helen, who later miraculously rationalised the whole affair.
"Well he was getting his own back on me, of course," she told me a day or so later as we wandered through a frosty Kelvingrove. "Putting the wind up the unbeliever. Very effective too. That'll teach me to cross swords with a spiritualist. Decent piece of mimicry too, don't you think? Sounded just like me."
It had sounded far too like her. For a horrible minute that piece of mischievous ventriloquism had convinced me of the impossible. But I could feel the heat of her hands through her new cashmere mittens. My Helen was no ghost, and we went home that day to begin planning our wedding.
Then she was killed.
Went out for messages in a rainstorm. Slipped on loose cobbles on the Broomielaw and drowned in the Clyde.
Simple as that. It was ten days since she and I had seen her ghost hovering above Gilfillan's Time Machine. What else would you call that apparatus? A device that searches for the nearest sundered spirit. Nearest in time. Backwards or forwards. Past or future.
I have said that I don't believe in ghosts, but over the years there have been times ... There are times still when I visit the house on Partick Hill, and Margaret lays the board out on that same table, and we dim the lights and place our two paper-thin hands on the planchette. And we take turns asking our questions of the night, but no-one is there to answer.