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There’s a misconception that I don’t like talking about my work, and I don’t think that’s fair. I would talk about it all the time if people asked the right questions.

Your first answer is this: Yes, they are real.

The next question is always the same:

how?

How are they real, Vivienne? This is where people start to lose faith in my abilities. That just because I can’t answer this question, the whole thing must be bogus. The truth is, I don’t know how they’re real. If I did, I would spent a lot more time talking to scientists and a lot less time talking to talk show hosts, tourists and local widows.

This is what I know.

There are two kinds of ghosts. Or, at least, there are two kinds that I have met. I have read about others, but aside from a bit of extra set dressing and pageantry, I tend to think they are all variations on a theme. There are people in the ghoster community who would have me hanged for saying that, but I don’t care: it’s true.

There are Replays and there are Crossovers.

A replay is the most common kind of house ghost. The easiest way to explain it is if you think of a stuck record: the needle reaches a scratch in the recording, and it keeps repeating on that same note over and over again. Most poltergeists are just replays with bad direction. They go over their scratch ad infinitum, regardless of what’s happening to the place the scratch first happened. If there’s a bookcase in the way, well, that’s your problem.

You’d be surprised by what constitutes as a scratch occasion for some people. Births, deaths and marriages, of course – your standard moments of trauma that tend to occur across your average human life. But I’ve come across some replays who scratch on not getting into Cambridge, or getting snubbed at a party. People are always disappointed when I tell them their ghost got bad exam results and never recovered. Embarrassment and shame keeps spirits in this world just as long as heartbreak and sorrow, which doesn’t say a whole lot for the human condition.

A crossover comes along once every five or six years. Even then, I don’t take every case: they take a lot out of you, and I’m getting on a bit now. I wouldn’t have pursued this one if Fred hadn’t been there that afternoon.

I hear a crunching up the driveway minutes before it gets to the door. Gravel is good for knowing what type of person is coming: the stones will mold around soft shoes like trainers, hiss away from anything leather. This is a leather step, and sharply paced. I open the door a few seconds before it rings.

People expect that kind of thing from a ghost lady.

He looks how they always look. There’s a little toothpaste on his sleeve, a few days worth of stubble crawling down his neck and a button joined up to the wrong button hole.

“Vivienne Roscoe?” he says, a little exhausted.

I nod, and Fred peeps his head out of the lounge, his mouth wrapped around a piece of shortbread. The visitor notices him and peers at me again, wondering with precisely zero subtlety if a woman my age can have a son so young. I help him out, even though it’s none of his business.

“My great-nephew, Fred,” I say. “Say hello, Fred.”

“Hello, Fred.”

We both laugh. It’s his favourite joke.

“Mark Friedman. I hear you know a little something about-”

I wave at him to stop. So formal, always. Like they need to explain. Like there’s ever more than one reason that strangers come here unannounced.

“Mark,” I say. “Your bathroom is safe.”

He looks at me, confused.

“People always avoid the bathroom when they have a ghost. They’re afraid something’s going to happen when they’re on the toilet, or in the shower. Like a ghost will come from them at their most vulnerable moment. They don’t.”

He’s relieved, but also curious. “Never in the bathroom?”

“They like a place with a consistent temperature, mostly. The hot water and the condensation would bother them. All the heating and cooling.”

Mark is not the sort of man to doubt confidence, so he agrees to sit down. Fred makes the tea.

“Tell me what you’ve seen, Mark.”

He has a few false starts. I try to be patient. It’s clear he’s a businessman, and so probably hasn’t discussed this with anyone in his circle. It’s amazing he’s made it this far in the first place.

“It started,” he says slowly. “With the bedsheets.”

Last Tuesday, Mark came into his bedroom to find his sheets twisted into ropes, tied to the bedposts and trailing out the window.

“It looked like an escape. A storybook escape. The kind a princess uses to get out of a castle.”

Fred has already trotted back into the room, his head cocked to one side. He always wants to figure it out before I do.

On the second night, Mark came home and went straight to the bedroom. Sure enough, the sheets were twisted into ropes again: only this time, they were wet.


“Wet with what?” I say, sharply. Fred’s head flips around to meet mine, his sandy hair flying.

Mark pauses, alarmed that Fred and I are thinking the same thing, annoyed that he’s not in on the game

“Why does that matter?”

“It just does.”

He closes his eyes, and does his very best to recall exactly.

“There was a clamminess to it,” he says. “Sort of sticky.”


Fred and I stay silent, hoping to coax more out of it. “Something not quite plant sap, but that’s the closest thing I can think of.”

“And did it smell?”

I’m keeping the tone casual, but Fred’s excitement is unnerving our new client.

“It did,” he said. “Bad. Or, no, not bad. Strong. Like mustard seeds.”

Fred’s eyes burn into mine, pleading with me. “Crossover,” he mouths, in that kiddy stage-whisper he seems to genuinely mistake for secrecy.

A crossover isn’t quite as narcissistic as a replay. A replay, if it can think, only thinks about itself. A crossover is a spirit that is making a concentrated effort to help someone else: to deliver a message, or a warning, or occasionally, a very large fortune. The case that made me famous was a crossover: a lady spirit told me the exact location of a very rare painting, the sale of which allowed her daughter the funds to escape an unhappy marriage. I still get Christmas cards from the daughter every year.

I call them crossovers because they have to struggle and fight to come back into the mortal world, whereas replays are just stuck here. Whatever a crossover has to go through to get back here, it isn’t pretty. They stain what they touch, they reek out entire buildings. If you do see one, they’re usually horrifying to look at: all exposed bone and festering flesh. I feel sorry for them. They put themselves through a literal hell to aid their loved ones, and usually their loved ones bolt in the other direction.

It’s not a good idea, but Fred and I get straight into Mark’s car. I shouldn’t allow it. Fred’s only nine, after all, and just because I’ve let him meet a few replays doesn’t mean he’s ready for a crossover. But it can’t be helped: he’s been fascinated with the idea of meeting one since I first mentioned the subject, and he’s going to need to meet one sooner or later. He’s the only one in the family who can do what I do, and it’s my responsibility to teach him what he needs to know.

Besides, I reason as the car rattles on, the next time a crossover comes along, I could be dead. And I can’t rely on crossing over to teach Fred about crossovers.

We take a sleek mirrored elevator to the 14th floor of Mark’s building.

“It smells like swimming pools in here,” says Fred.

“There’s one on the roof,” says Mark, with a certain degree of smugness. “I go there every morning.”

If this man is getting buried treasure from this ghost, I think, there is absolutely not justice in the world.

I don’t make a big show when I go into a new haunting. Some people like that kind of thing. I know one woman in America who takes crystals with her; another Welsh lady brings beeswax candles. There’s a trend among Antipodean ghosters to take a measuring tape with you, I don’t know for what. I take pride in being a low-maintenance ghoster, and I hope Fred will too.

I unfurl the bedsheets, already cracking stiffly from the crossover’s dried residue. Plant sap was a good comparison.

“Go put these in the bath,” I tell Mark. “And fill it up, hot as you can make it.”

I fish out a bottle of rosemary essential oil from my bag and give it to him.

“Will this draw the ghost out?”

“No,” I answer. “But it will save the sheets.”

Fred and I sit in Mark’s bedroom while Mark washes the sheets. He could just as easily be in the room with us, but I only have a certain amount of patience for talking to young men I don’t know. We sit on the floor and sing all the songs we can think of, very loudly, so the ghost knows that we’re here. I think call-and-response songs are the best way to go, because it lets everyone know that you’re good listeners. We do “Jackson” by June Carter and Johnny Cash.

The rattle comes after ten minutes.

“I smell it, Vivi,” he whispers. He is quiet, but he’s not afraid. He knows that I’m proudest of him when he’s not afraid.

“Me too,” I say. “Don’t make a peep, now.”

The hand crashes up through the floorboard, and then claws around to find purchase. The nails have long since fallen out, the fingers turned to calloused stumps. Some are just knuckle. She hoists herself up, all loose chicken skin, and I see she still has a little of her hair: a few strands clumped together at the back and side of her head.

Good for her.

“My name is Vivienne Roscoe,” I say, very clearly. “This is Fred Roscoe.”

One eye has closed completely, dirt crusted over it from wherever it was she came from. But the other eye swivels to take us in. I make sure to talk slowly and clearly.


“I’m helping Mark. I talk to people like you, who have a message they want to pass on. I’ve been doing it for many years and I’m here to help you in any way I can.”

She opens her mouth to speak, but as is often the case, her voice box has deteriorated beyond recognisable sound. She squawks like a small bird, trapped underneath a windshield wiper.

“Can you beat your hand once if you understand me?”

She doesn’t hear me. Or, she’s not interested. Fred is her main concern. She leans forward, her body still trapped halfway in the floorboards, and reaches a hand out to touch him.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt any fear from ghosts. I’ve worked with them for almost forty years, and nothing surprises me now. I was born with a gift, and I’ve been generous with it: I never tried to run. I got good at talking to them, so they got good at talking to me. Talent will only get you so far in a job like this. You need to put the work in, and part of that work is a sense of empathy. You have to understand their confusion, their shrillness, their jumpy habits. It’s no use judging their behaviour. They’re like animals in that way.

But in that moment, I hated her. I felt the air pressure shift as she went to touch Fred, and I couldn’t stop myself from shrieking and batting her hand fiercely away. He was too young to feel stinking, transparent flesh on his face. His genetics had ruined his chances of being normal, but me taking him here was ruining his chances of being happy. I needed to protect him from whatever it was she needed to say, even though it was unfair of me.

Fred looked at me, horrified. I had just broken a rule I had been drilling into him for years: I had rejected her. I had hurt her feelings, and you could tell. The half of her face she could still operate sank into despair, her squawks turning to long, mewling howls. She had tried so hard to get here, and this was her reception? How was that fair?

 

Fred stood up from his cross-legged position on the floor and moves closer to her. He extends one hand flat, a gentleman asking a lady to dance. She’s feeling too sorry for herself to take it, but he insists, getting more chivalrous with every movement. She places her knuckles into his hand, and clasps his fingers around it.

“My name is Fred. What’s yours?”

A garbled series of vowel sounds escapes the hole that used to be her mouth.

“Anna? Your name is Anna?”

She nods, grateful.

“Anna, I’d like to know why you’re here today. Maybe you could tell me and my aunt?”

The woman who used to be Anna scowls at the mention of me, and leans in closer to Fred. Fred looks at me after a moment, embarrassed.

“She says she wants you to be out of the room.”

“You’re joking.”

“I’m not. Sorry.”

“Are you sure?”

He nods, and I move out of the room, trying not to be insulted. In the bathroom, Mark is still stewing his sheets in rosemary.

“Do you know an Anna?”

I was expecting a dead wife, but I’m wrong: the only Anna he knows is a sister of a friend who died four years ago. “I didn’t even know her,” he says, puzzled, and clearly a little flattered.

“It doesn’t mean she’s in love with you,” I answer, a little irritated.

We wait outside the closed door of the bedroom, but it’s hard to hear anything.

“Does he do this a lot?”

I don’t want to say this is Fred’s first time. It feels like selling him out, somehow.

“He has the gift much stronger than I do,” I say, truthfully.

After ten minutes, Fred leaves the bedroom. He’s still in his school uniform shirt, the sleeves soiled where she touched him. He turns to Mark.

“You need to leave,” he says, firmly. “Today.”

“Why?”

“The sheets were a way of telling you to escape. But don’t go out the front door when you do it.”

“Is that it?”

“That’s it.”

“What else did she say?”

“Nothing.”

Mark wrinkles his nose. “That’s not even interesting.”

“It’s not her job to be interesting,” I say, stepping across and guarding  Fred. “It’s her job to warn you. It’s your job to take the warning.”

Mark isn’t satisfied. He wants to know more: why should he leave? Doesn’t he pay good money to live here? Why now? Why today?

I can see Fred’s lip starting to tremble. He has done his best, performed superbly, and despite his best preparations, is drained from the drama of it. These things never get less exhausting, no matter how old you are.

“If you’re not going to thank us, I think we should leave,” I say, stoutly. Mark insists on ordering us a taxi, I counter-insist that a bus is fine. We have a sour goodbye, Mark only paying half my advertised rate because of “lack of clarity.”

As we sit on the bus together, I try not to probe too much on Fred’s time alone with Anna. After a few minutes, he pipes up anyway.

“Did I mess it up, Vivi?”

I stare at him. “Darling, you go through to her when I couldn’t. How is that messing up?”

“I couldn’t get her to tell me more details. I didn’t want to be rude. It was so hard for her to tell me anything that it felt mean to push her, and now I’ve lost us money.”

I wrap an arm around his shoulder. I tell him he has made me proud. I tell him that ghosters everywhere would be proud. I tell him that he is talented, and kind, and the perfect gentleman. The wrinkle in his forehead starts to ease, and he falls asleep in the crook of my cardigan.

I do not tell him about the fire when it’s reported in the paper, three weeks later. I do not tell him that Mark tried to leave through the front door.

About Work In Prowess

Work in Prowess does not promise to make you thin or improve your sex life or convince you that an avocado-based diet is the most practical form of action. It just wants to make you smile. That’s really as deep as it goes.

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