by Neil Williamson
me tell you about ghosts.
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.
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 séance meetings. 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
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
happened, the day we visited her to announce our engagement, she
was having yet another of her séances.
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.”
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.
please, Bert,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to try this.
Please, let’s stay.”
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.
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.
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
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.”
exclamations of puffed-up, put-on distress made me smile.
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 vi
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,
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.
I really would love to find it again,” she murmured in my ear.
“I mean, what use is a single mitten to anybody?”
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.”
hands went down again.
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.
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.
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
had to give him his due. He made this baffling drivel sound
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.
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
worries,” Gilfillan half-shouted above the din. “We’re just
getting up to speed so that the apparatus can locate the nearest
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.
long the room was filled with cascading showers of the golden
pretty.” I heard Helen murmur, but her voice seemed
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.
then the apparatus ceased. Someone gasped in the vacuum, a sort
of wordless sigh of surprise.
Gilfillan said. “Here we are now.”
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.
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.
are you, spirit?” Gilfillan asked it.
Margaret lean forward in her chair, face lit with wonder,
although she must have known that this was not John.
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.
Helen? Only I called her ‘Nelly’.
by, I heard a muffled sigh, a bump, a thump, and only then
realised that Helen had fallen to the floor.
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!”
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.
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.”
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.
she was killed.
out for messages in a rainstorm. Slipped on loose cobbles on the
Broomielaw and drowned in the Clyde.
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
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.