The Case of the Living Ghost
A Tale Taken from the Geist Archives
Professor Swann wasn’t particularly keen on coffee. He found it way too coarse, and no matter how many nips of sugar he added to it, he found it left a rather bitter taste in his mouth. It certainly didn’t have the refinement of tea, that’s for sure.
So he found himself in much discomfort, sitting in James’ coffee house, just off Cornhill. The place stank of the vile drink, and all around him people from across the city babbled noisily about whatever petty business they had, trying to hear each other above the whir of the automated grinders. It was a terribly noisy and distracting place for a meeting. And yet, there was a clamour of investors at the next table, chatting about their latest trades from the east and the Americas. Barely a generation old, and already the new Stock Exchange was becoming so overwhelmed by greed, they had to flood to the nearby coffeehouses.
Swann hated it. Yet, he had no choice. The letter writer had requested for him to meet there at three. Swann pulled out his pocket watch and checked the time. Ten past three. It was appeared that his potential client’s timekeeping skills were just as apt as his venue choosing ones.
To pass the time, he started to re-read the letter.
“Dear, Mr. Swann.”
The professor cursed under his breath. Why couldn’t anyone ever get his title right?
“I was writing to you as I find myself in a rather confusing predicament. And with your expertise in the supernatural and uncanny, I thought you may be able to help me.
It is probably best if I explain from the very start. It was back in May of this year that it all began. I had left early from work from the paper press, for an opportunity to see the American Exhibition that had been established in West Brompton. My son had been excited about seeing it for weeks, harassing me constantly to be taken to see the wild animals and vibrant Indians. Yet, I wanted to witness the place for myself first, to ensure it was right for him and my good lady wife.
The site itself was wondrous. Just walking around the outskirts of the showground was a true marvel, with displays of American grandeur, mixed with acrobatics, Indians, and sharp shooting. Stalls had been set up to tempt people in with ball toss and other feats of skill. And a grand tent had been erected with gaudy signs encouraging people to witness the freaks and wonders within. I made my mind up almost instantly, to return in the next few days and enjoy the full experience with my family.
As I walked back towards the city, looking to hail a carriage, I saw a small stand set off to one side. It was so bland that it looked distinct. There was no gaudy signage or hawkers yelling out to tempt in the next passer-by. It barely looked open, and yet I could see a man sat inside as if ready for business. This curious quietness tempted me over, and I stepped into the wooden stand.
The man nodded at me as I entered. It may seem curious to say now, but I cannot remember anything about this man. I cannot say whether he was tall, or short, blonde or brunette, whether he had facial hair, a scar or a wooden leg. For some reason, I cannot recall any detail of him, except that he was a man.
“Are you here for a photograph?” he asked, rather abruptly. Again, I cannot remember his voice, only what he said.
“I’m sorry?” I asked, rather taken aback by his manner.
“You’re here for your photograph. Elsewise, why would you have stepped into my photography stand?” By this point, I wasn’t sure what to say. It didn’t feel right to reject him, as I had trespassed into his realm, and it would be a souvenir at least. Maybe, if good enough, I could return with the family and we could get a joyous memento of us all.
“Yes,” I said, offering a smile. “I would like a photograph.”
“I knew you would,” the man said, and he gestured towards a doorway at the back. I stepped through and was taken aback.
Although I was expecting a small studio with the usual camera set up, I found a massive room. One so big, I couldn’t be sure it was a part of the shack I had stepped into. As I tried to comprehend it, my head swam, and I had to lean against the wall to regain my composure. But surely, I must have been wrong, I thought. Maybe the room had been tucked away around a corner, or something. It was either that or the impossible.
The vast space was filled with many cabinets and shelves. Each lined with row upon row upon row of glass bottles and vials. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands of them in all shapes, sizes, and colours. There was barely space for the loose white cloth that had been hung in the middle of the room as a makeshift backdrop.
“It’s a trick of the light,” the man said, appearing behind me so suddenly that I jumped. “The room I mean. Everyone says it looks bigger inside than out, but it's nowt more than an illusion. Anything else would be impossible.”
“Yes, quite,” I said, already making my mind up to leave the place as soon as possible. And most certainly never return with my family. The place was just too uncanny, and the man himself gave me the creeps.
“Please, take your position by the backdrop,” the man said, so I shuffled my way over, careful not to knock any of the jars. The man turned his back on me, to rummage away whilst setting up his camera, so I took the opportunity to look at the nearest vial. At first, I thought it was empty, but upon closer inspection, I saw it was filled with a faint grey vapour, like a sample of light London smog or the vapour from an opium pipe.
Ah, I thought. That would explain it. The man was obviously an opium dealer on the side. Or maybe the photography was just a front, and the drug trade was his true bread and butter. At least, it confirmed my suspicions of him.
“I wouldn’t play with that,” the man said, peering at me with the vial still in my hand. “They’re quite delicate and I really don’t want any of them broken.”
I smiled and gingerly placed the thing back onto the shelf where I found it.
“Thank you,” he said, watching my every move. “Now, if you’d like to take your pose, I’ll be on with the photo.” I did a quick once over, ensuring my tie was straight and my jacket free from dust, then stood in my most gentlemanly stance. The man stood before the camera, covering himself with a black sheet.
“Smile,” he said, and then the phosphorous flashed. And I was instantly overwhelmed by a feeling of nausea. The flash was a blinding white that filled every element of my vision. It refracted off the jars around the room, bringing bursts of red, green, blue, and any other colour it could catch. And I swear, that I saw the vapours inside move and shape themselves into ghostly faces, so faint and distant it was hard to tell. But I could see them, and each one was screaming one single word. No.
“And we’re done,” the man said. And as soon as the flash had struck, it was blinked away. I assumed at the time it was just the flash messing with my eyes, maybe aided by whatever pharmaceutical the man had been preparing. And yet now I know it was something else.
“Are we done?” I asked, and the man nodded.
“I’ll need a few days to develop it. Come again tomorrow, 3 PM, and it should be ready. You can pay me then.”
I smiled and nodded, and made my way for the door, certain I would never return to this place again, whether he had my image or not. But he appeared at my side, grabbing my arm so I couldn’t escape.
“Remember. Tomorrow,” He said as if he’d read my mind. “No later or I won’t be here for you.”
“Yes,” I said, smiling and nodding. “I’ll be back tomorrow. At three. I promise.” And with that, he seemed satisfied, dropping my arm. I hurried out of that place as fast as I could, not stopping once to look back.
The journey home was most unfortunate. It was starting to get dark, and for my life, I didn’t seem able to hail a carriage. Try as I might, none of them responded to my calls. So, I was instead forced to use the dreaded Underground system to return home.
I’ve never liked it and have barely used it since its opening, as I can’t stand how busy it gets. There are always crowds jostling their way through it, so intent on their destination as to not see their fellow travelers.
That evening it seemed even worse. It was almost as if people couldn’t see me. I was pushed and prodded, stepped on, and at one point bashed around the head by an umbrella. I let out a cry of pain as it happened, and the man looked at me, apologized briefly, and then turned away, almost braining me with the blasted thing a second time.
It was a miserable journey, to say the least. But finally, I made it home and ready to tell my wife of my frightful tale. I called out for her as soon as I entered, and although she didn’t reply, I could hear her busying herself in the kitchen.
Her hearing wasn’t her strongest point, so I thought it would be a great opportunity for a laugh. I walked, almost tiptoed, through the hall and into the kitchen. She was there, her back to me, fussing over a pot of something.
“I’m home,” I called out loudly, expecting her to jump. But she didn’t even react. Her hearing was certainly going, I thought. So I approached and grabbed her around the waist, calling her name as I did so.
“Oh, Jonathan,” she said. “You gave me a fright. I didn’t hear you come in.” We exchanged a kiss, and she smiled.
“I’m working on some soup for supper,” she said. “It’s chicken if you don’t mind? Although…” She turned to attend the soup and instantly stopped talking.
“Are you OK dear?” I asked. But she didn’t reply. “Darling?” I tried again, but no luck. She just remained focused on the task at hand. I waved my hand before her eyes, but she didn’t react. It was only as I placed my hand on her shoulder, that she jumped.
“Oh, Jonathan,” she said. “You gave me such a fright. I was just making soup for dinner. I hope…”
“Chicken is alright?” I said, finishing her sentence. I had an awful sense of Déjà vu. Had we really just had this conversation, or was my earlier bout of nausea messed with my mind.
“Are you OK?” She said, placing her hand on my forehead. “You feel a little warm. Maybe a glass of water would help.” She headed towards the sink, but as soon as her back was turned, she stopped, frozen in her task. Then she turned back to the stove and continued stirring the soup.
“What is wrong with you woman?” I shouted, grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her, trying to bring her from her daze.
“Oh, Jonathan,” she said. “What’s happening? You’re hurting me. I never heard you come in. Please, don’t do this. Let me go.” I stopped as I saw the fear in her eyes. What was I doing? Attacking my own wife? I was certainly not acting myself. She stared at me for a moment, then turned away, stirring her soup once more as if my outburst hadn’t happened.
I didn’t know what else to say. I was too ashamed at myself to even attempt to communicate again. So I left the kitchen and my wife. I could hear her singing a song to herself as I walked away.
I walked upstairs to the nursery. I could hear my son, Jacob, playing before I could see him. I’d bought him a miniature printing press for him to tinker with, hoping he’d learn to build and repair them just like his dad. Who knows, he may even become the next Senefelder. But I can dream. For now, I watched him from the doorway, printing little lines of writing onto pages no bigger than playing cards, as the device pumped steam into the air. It was hard to tell what he was putting together, but watching his innocent smile warmed my heart. I daren’t speak out, maybe because I loved watching the moment so much. Maybe because I feared he wouldn’t see me.
It was only broken when I heard my wife call from the kitchen.
“Jacob,” she shouted. “Dinner is nearly ready. Come wash up and set the table.”
He switched off the press, and jumped to his feet, charging towards the door with all the energy of youth. I didn’t have time to move, and he collided with me.
“Father,” he cried, half in shock and half in joy. “I didn’t see you, sorry. But I have much to show you. I’ve been working on a book of my own. I’m sure you’ll love it.”
“I’m sure I will,” I said, ruffling his hair. “But you heard your mother. Dinner first, and then you can show me what you’ve been doing.” He laughed, and then scampered off away downstairs, so fast that I couldn’t tell when he no longer knew I was there.
That evening was mightily difficult. I had to keep reminding my wife and child that I was there, even whilst sitting at the table with them. I had to serve myself, as Jacob hadn’t laid a place for me. I had to pour myself tea, as my wife didn’t think to pour me a cup. I had to put up with my conversations being interrupted or ignored, as one or both of them would suddenly forget I was there. It was most confounding and tiring.
By the end of the meal, I gave up even trying to make myself known. They cleared the table, leaving my empty plates where they sat, and then left me alone. Even having the cheek to turn the light out on me.
Whatever malaise I had gathered at the fair, I had brought it home to my family. And it left me in a mighty depression. I had no idea how to shake myself or them out of it, and if I couldn’t, how long it would last like this. There was no way to call anyone, not at that time of night, so I decided maybe sleep would be a good idea. I’d see if I felt better in the morning, and if not, seek out medical advice.
I wandered up to our bedroom, and lay down in bed, the thoughts of the day streaming through my mind. It was some time before my wife came up and joined me. She undressed as if I wasn’t even there, and then climbed in next to me, switching off the light.
It was the first time in nearly ten years of marriage that she didn’t wish me a good night.
The next morning, my plan had been to wake early, and find some resolution. Yet, when I finally awoke, I found it hard to rise. My head was heavy, and my eyes think with the sand of sleep. Worse still, the clock beside my bed said it was already past midday. My alarm had failed to break my slumber, and my wife had failed to wake me.
I dressed in a stupor, rushing to gather my things together, and dashed straight out. As I was to learn later, that was the first mistake of the day. But not the last.
At the time, I was still under the misconception that my ailment was something medical. That it was simply a highly contagious bug that was causing confusion in those around me. I know now, that seems a rather ill-conceived idea, but I have always been a logical man, and my thoughts instantly turned to the rational and natural. Not the supernatural.
And so I found myself at my doctor’s surgery. I was lucky enough to afford regular health care, and since my printers had helped the good doctor produce flyers for his patent pending anti-balding elixir, I received excellent care at a rather more affordable price.
At least, normally I did.
That day, just seeing the good doctor was a chore. I checked in with his assistant, who noted my name, and asked me to take a seat. And I waited. And waited. And as I watched new patients come and go, I realized my mistake. I would have to be more proactive if I was to get this ailment cured.
So I re-approached the desk. The assistant smiled at me as if for the first time.
“If you’d like to take a seat, the doctor will see you soon,” she said, directing me back to my chair.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I need to see him now.” And I grabbed hold of her arm, tight enough to hurt, but hopefully not to leave any permanent damage. She jumped to her feet, crying out in alarm and struggling to get away. I only held on tighter.
“Please,” I said. “I don’t want to hurt you. But I need to see a doctor. Straight away.”
She didn’t heed my words, but luckily her commotion brought the good doctor over. He dashed straight to the woman’s side, but only actually noticed me when I grabbed his arm.
“Jonathan,” he said. “What are you doing to my staff?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, releasing the woman, but only to grip the doctor tighter. “But I need to see you. Urgently. No waiting.”
“Very well,” he said. “Just follow me to the office. And let go of my arm.”
“I. I can’t. You’ll see.”
The man sighed but didn’t object. I think at that time, he would have diagnosed me mad. I may even have agreed with him. He led us both, locked arm in arm, to his room.
“So what is it?” He said, setting me down in a chair. By now, the adrenaline had risen in me, and I was shaking.
“It’s hard to explain,” I said. “I. I seem to be disappearing.”
The man looked at me as if I just confirmed his diagnosis.
“I mean it. It’s hard to explain. But if I don’t keep people aware of me, I disappear from their mind. It’s as if I’m not there. I can’t seem to get my wife or child to pay me any attention.”
“I think that’s pretty common as you get older.”
“This is serious. It’s as if I’m dead to them. Honestly. If I removed my hand from you now, it would be the same. You’d forget I was here.”
“I doubt that would be a concern, what with the commotion you’ve been making.”
“You have to believe me. Look at your hand.”
The doctor looked down at his right hand, where the word help had been clearly written.
“But how did that get there?”
“I wrote it. You have no idea how long I have been here. I’ve explained this numerous times already, and each time I let go of you, you forget. And we start again. This time, I drew that on your hand. And yet you weren’t even aware.”
The man nodded.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” he said. “I can’t think of anything that may cause it. Maybe a hallucinogenic that only affects those around you? But I’ve never read anything of the sort in any journal. I can’t see how it could possibly be. I think some tests may be needed.”
And that’s what he did.
There wasn’t much he could do there and then. He took my temperature, checked my pulse and breathing. Tested my reflexes. Peered inside my ears and throat to search for signs of an infection. Even pricked my hand, to ensure my blood flowed freely.
“It seems there is nothing physically wrong with you,” he said. “There are a few more tests we could run at the hospital, maybe, but I can’t see them discovering anything. I could book you in if you like?”
“It’s pointless,” I said.
“No. Don’t bother. As soon as I let go, you’ll forget me anyway. The appointment would never happen.”
“Then, I don’t know what to recommend. Maybe re-track your steps from before this happened. It might help you find the cause. Was there anything yesterday that could have contaminated you?”
And then, I remembered. I finally knew what I had to do to resolve my problem. Or at least, who I needed to see.
“What time is it?” I exclaimed, releasing the doctor’s hand. He reached for his pocket watch, but by the time he opened it in his hand, he’d already forgotten why he’d even gone to look. It didn’t matter. I could see the time. 2:35 PM. I had less than half an hour to get back to the photographer.
I grabbed my things and dashed from the surgery, leaving the good doctor to ponder where his last hour had gone.
This time, getting back to West Brompton was nigh impossible. Hailing a carriage was just as fruitless as before, and so I had to struggle once again on the underground. I waited several minutes trying to get a guard's attention to purchase a ticket, before realizing that I could sneak through quite easily. I squeezed onto a train, and jostled with the other passengers as before, attaining a fair few bruises in the process.
Yet, the journey was wasted. I didn’t arrive back at the fayre until gone 3:15. And when I went to where the stand had been, it had gone. As I walked up and down the streets, checking every booth and stall, I finally came to believe something supernatural had occurred. That the photographer had taken something from me, leaving me but a ghost of a man. I felt unsure and incomplete. I collapsed to the ground, sobbing deeply into my hands. Not one passer-by noticed me.
I roamed there for several hours, hoping I may get a glimpse of that dreaded photographer. Yet it was impossible. I didn’t even know what he looked like. As the skies darkened, I headed home, this time walking the streets instead of risking another dreadful underground trip.
I passed so many people, going about their busy lives. Mothers and children, workers and businessmen. Young lovers hand in hand. And not one of them thought about me. The fear that I may actually have been dead passed over me, until I remembered the doctor had given me a clean bill of health only hours earlier.
But what if I was to die. I could have sliced my throat there in the street, escaped this curse there and then. But still, would anyone have realized? Would my pointless corpse just rot in the street as people ignored it on their way? And if there was a part of me missing, if I really was incomplete, what would happen to me if I died? Would I be able to pass to the other side or roam this earth like some terrible spirit? These thoughts filled me with despair as I made my way back home.
I made it there eventually. And then I realized my mistake of that morning. In my haste, I had left my keys back in my room.
I knocked on the door. There was no answer. I shouted and called with all my might, hammering the thing with my fists, and yet I received no response.
Walking around to the rear of the house, I peered into the kitchen window. My wife and son were in there, laughing together. I banged on the window, but they didn’t hear.
They’d already forgotten me.
My blackened mood overwhelmed me. What was the point? Even if I did manage to get their attention, what sort of half life would I lead? I couldn’t spend every day, fighting to get through to my wife.
“I’m sorry,” I said as if they would hear. “I’ll find a way back.”
And I walked away into the night.
And so, I am now writing to you, Mr. Swann. I have spent the last week, roaming the street, racking my brain for an answer. I’ve found myself getting weaker and weaker as if I am fading from this earth. I can’t even grasp people to get their attention. They now just brush me away, like a stray fly or thought.
I’m just left to sleep in the gutters with the beggars, stealing food as I go just to stay alive. This very pen and paper was taken from a solicitor’s case as he took coffee in this very bar. The bemusement on his face as he searched for it afterwards, almost brought back a smile to my face. Almost.
And so, please Mr. Swann. If you receive this, please help me. If there is any that can truly understand my case, it is you. Meet me at James’ Coffee house off Cornhill. At three. I will be there every day. I beg you.
Yours Sincerely, The Living Ghost”
The professor put down the letter. And checked the time. It was almost four, and his coffee had grown cold.
He sighed. The man had not come. The letter had been a hoax just as Amelia had said. He gathered his coat and then stood, ready to leave, when he saw the word ‘help’ written on his hand. He didn’t remember writing it, and yet he had no idea what it meant. A small nagging thought at the back of his mind said it was important. Yet he couldn’t place why.
He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket, licked it, and wiped the ink away. Then downed his coffee and shivered.
It was foul.