“Come on, Ems! It’s just a bit of fun! It isn’t as though ghosts are real.”
Emma Grayling would have serious cause later to wonder at her friend Sally’s comment, but at present she just wrinkled her nose and said, “A ghost tour, though? Really?”
“It’s something that one of Edith’s school chums has started doing and Edith says it’s simply brilliant,” Sally said. “Terribly frightening and spine-tingling!”
“I don’t know,” Emma said following Sally out of their shared bedroom.
“I thought you said you wanted to do something a bit different,” Sally said over her shoulder as they walked down the stairs. “This certainly qualifies as something different.”
“It also qualifies as ridiculous,” Emma said. “I hardly think there are any ghosts in Grantley and if there are, there are hardly enough to create a tour around.”
Sally stuck her tongue out at her and Emma had to laugh.
Meeting Sally had been the one good thing that had come from a terrible year at boarding school. They’d been placed together in the dormitory and were polar opposites in appearance as well as personality. Emma was quiet, slim, tall and brunette while Sally was gregarious, petite, curvy and blonde. But something clicked and they kept in touch after Emma had left. When she’d been wondering what to do with herself and terrified of living forever with her parents, Sally had written to her begging Emma to come and share a flat with her in Sally’s home town of Stockworth. Emma had said ‘yes’ immediately and that had been three years ago
They were currently visiting Sally’s cousin Edith in a village on the edge of Brighton on a mini-break and Emma had been enjoying the change of scenery and had indeed mentioned that she’d been wondering if there was something different that she could be doing.
She wasn’t altogether sure about a ghost tour, however, truly counted.
“It’s March, you know. And therefore it’s cold outside,” Emma called after Sally who just threw Emma’s coat at her. “You hate getting cold.”
“Hush and come along,” Sally said wrapping a thick, red scarf around her neck. “Edith is waiting outside.”
Emma put her own scarf and coat on and headed out the door. Sally gave her a bright smile when she emerged while Edith just twitched her lips in what might have been considered a smile if one was extremely generous. With a sigh, Emma steeled herself for a long evening.
The ladies joined a small group of eight or so that had gathered just outside the church steps on the edge of the village square. A tall gentleman with a thick moustache stepped out in front of them.
“Welcome to the Grantley Ghost Tour,” he intoned. “My name is Simon Shadow and I am your spirit guide. The next hour will be filled with stories of intrigue, of death and of course, ghosts!”
Emma blinked and glanced at Sally who was staring at the man with an expectant look on her face. Emma sighed and took a moment to gauge the man’s emotions.
It was as she thought.
He wasn’t a complete swindler, but he certainly didn’t believe there were any actual ghosts on the tour.
Not to mention, his name was Bruce.
She opened her mouth to whisper as such to Sally who stopped her before she could say anything with, “Shatter my illusions later. Just tell me if the bloke over on the side with the grey scarf is a decent enough. Edith wants to know.”
Emma pursed her lips and shook her head. Edith could barely bring herself to speak to Emma in abject fear of Emma’s abilities but had no problem asking her to use said talents. But Emma did as Sally asked. A quick once over the gentleman in question’s thoughts and she said, “Decent enough, but he’s married.”
“Drat,” Sally said before she broke the news to Edith who frowned.
That, of course, had been the other factor in Emma and Sally’s friendship. Sally had found Emma’s odd empathic talents interesting instead of scary while Emma had admired Sally’s ceaseless optimism.
Emma quickly scanned the rest of the group looking out for anyone with particularly strong emotions so she’d know to avoid getting too close to them. People who shouted their feelings, good or bad, tended to hurt her head.
Everyone seemed fairly steady for the most part. A pair of lads were a few pints away from being truly drunk, but they just vibrated easy tipsiness at the moment. A couple was happily wrapped up in each other and were hoping for a moment or two alone in the dark, a thought that made Emma flush and look away. As she did, her eye caught sight of a gentleman wearing thick-rimmed glasses just on the edge of the group. He was attractive in a disordered kind of way, his shirt wasn’t properly tucked in, his tie was crooked and his coat was far too big for him, but something about him made Emma curious. However, she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was.
It wasn’t until they were admiring the front of the courthouse and Simon/Bruce was telling of a gruesome hanging that had taken place in 18-something or other that Emma realised what it was.
The man had a terribly firm grasp on his emotions.
Most people’s thoughts and feeling skittered all over the place, Emma had discovered. They couldn’t help it. Even the most easy-going people she knew often had no control over the thoughts that swirled around them.
But this man, his control…she’d never felt anything like it. It was positively iron-clad and Emma couldn’t believe it. She tried to be as unobtrusive as possible as she studied looked him over. She noticed that he held something in his hand. Something black and metal or possibly plastic. She squinted, trying to make it out.
“You’re staring.” Sally’s voice in her ear made Emma jump.
“What? I’m not. What are you on about?” Emma whispered quickly as the group moved on to stand by the façade of a butcher’s. She grimaced at the story Simon/Bruce had launched into that involved a meat cleaver and someone’s head.
“He’s rather dishy,” Sally said. “In an absent-minded professor sort of way. What’s he thinking about?”
“Don’t be nosy,” Emma said. “And I have no idea.”
Sally looked at her in surprise. “You always have an idea.”
“I know,” Emma said darting a look at the man who was apparently listening with rapt attention to the tale Simon/Bruce was spinning.
“Curious,” Sally said.
“Very,” Emma agreed.
The group moved on to a large Georgian house on the edge of the square.
“This used to be the library of the village before the new one was constructed in the early 1900s,” Simon/Bruce said. “It now houses the county museum and we have been granted access to its inner secrets. So follow me inside, but please! Do not touch anything!”
The group obediently walked inside and Emma happily breathed in that familiar musty smell that museums and libraries seem to possess. She was sorry to realise that Simon/Bruce was rushing them through the museum itself to a spiralling staircase that went all the way up to the attic.
The roof was quite low and some of the gentlemen had to stoop, including Simon/Bruce as he stood in front of a long, low window where a red velvet settee was situated just in front of it.
“Now, our tour has come to the tragic story of Miss Cordelia Wainthrop,” Simon/Bruce said sombrely. “This poor unfortunate young woman, with locks of golden curls, had come to this very room to meet her lover. But the young man was in trade and the match was forbidden. Cordelia had made arrangements to meet him anyway, her love for the young man too strong to ignore. She waited and waited all night, but he never appeared.” Simon/Bruce sighed and shook his head, holding out his hand towards the settee by the window. “She was found the following morning, dead, her arm outstretched, beckoning her fickle lover to her.”
There was a cough from the back of the room and Emma turned to see the man with the thick-rimmed glasses covering his mouth. Her own lips twitched. Finally. An identifiable emotion from him. Apparently Simon/Bruce’s flair for melodramatics had been too much for him and Emma picked up a distinct feeling of amusement from the man.
“We’ll be moving on now,” Simon/Bruce said. “I’ll be taking you to the Grantley Cemetery itself. But please, take a moment to explore the sad, dark place of Cordelia Wainthrop’s last moments.”
Emma thought that he was by now spreading it on quite a bit thick, but she waited her turn to make a circle of the room, pausing by the large low window. She peered out and smiled at the perfect view of the square below. You could see all of the shop fronts and the green in the middle with its wrought-iron benches and a large statue of Queen Victoria directly in the centre.
She looked up and realised she was the last person in the room and turned to leave. She was three footsteps away from the door when it occurred to her that she wasn’t alone. Emma stopped.
The other thing that Emma had learned over the years was that people had a kind of hum to them. Some louder than others, but everyone gave off a sort of hum that alerted her to their presence. And she was feeling one of those hums right now.
“Hello?” she said. “Sally? Is that you?”
There was no answer but the hum remained. She turned around to face the window and the settee slowly.
No one was there.
Emma rolled her eyes. “Of course, there isn’t.”
The deep voice behind her had her gasping sharply and spinning around. The man with the thick-rimmed glasses stood there and immediately held up his hands.
“I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you!” he said, a Scottish accent warming his voice.
Emma pressed a hand to her rapidly beating heart. “No, no, it’s quite all right. I just managed to let myself get a bit spooked.”
He smiled. “Easy to do, what with the story and all.”
“Not that an ounce of it was true,” Emma said.
“Well, in spite of that, yes,” he said his smile deepening.
Emma smiled back, the steadiness of his presence calming her and making her feel quite relaxed. It must have been his hum that she’d felt.
You goose she thought. Then it occurred to her that she was alone with a strange man in the attic of a museum when she was supposed to be touring a cemetery, so she said, “I suppose we should join the rest.”
“Yes, yes, I suppose we should.” He sounded disappointed, but Emma was quite sure it wasn’t because he wanted more of her presence; the disappointment was directed at something else. He was staring hard at the settee in front of the window. Every now and then he’d look down at the black metal box in his hand. Emma was close enough now to see that it was a radio of some sort.
Emma studied it for a moment and looked back at the man, but couldn’t quite pick up what he was doing. Eventually he noticed her staring and flushed.
“Sorry, I’m…” He looked down at the radio and grimaced.
“Is that a radio?” she asked hesitantly. She couldn’t believe that she’d thought his thoughts were well-hidden before, he practically radiated shyness and embarrassment now.
“Oh, uh. Yes. It’s a radio. Of sorts.” He grimaced again. “I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. I was hardly going to find anything. It was a complete fool’s errand in the first place.”
“What was?” Emma asked. “The tour? Were you hoping to see a ghost?”
He laughed a bit derisively and nodded. “Yes, yes I was, in actual fact.”
“Oh,” Emma said. She winced a bit herself thinking of Simon/Bruce and his ridiculous stories. “I can see how this would be rather disappointing. Does it find them for you?”
“What?” He looked confused so Emma nodded at the radio in his hand. “Oh! Yes, it does. Well. It’s supposed to. But it can’t find what’s not there.”
“You mean there aren’t any ghosts? None at all?” Emma asked slightly disappointed herself. She’d never really given the matter much thought, but the idea that none existed at all made her slightly sad.
“Well, there’s no conclusive evidence,” he said adjusting his glasses. He held up the radio. “And the most this thing has ever been able to do is pick up stray ham radio broadcasts.”
Emma chuckled. “If you’re ever in the Colchester area, you’ll probably hear my uncle.”
The man grinned, then sighed as he looked about the room. “Well, nothing ventured, I suppose.”
Emma had the sudden urge to touch him. To hold his hand or put her palm to his cheek and smooth his hair. Anything to reassure him that all was well, that somehow, some way, it would get better. The urge startled her and she looked away, her face reddening.
“Ah, we should be catching up with the rest,” he said fumbling the radio in his hand. She could tell he’d taken her awkwardness the wrong way, but didn’t really know how to tell him that it wasn’t him she was withdrawing from, but herself.
“Yes, we should,” Emma said looking at him and half-smiling.
He awkwardly held out his arm in a gesture for her to precede him out of the door.
As Emma took a step forward, a freezing blast of air whipped behind her. She gasped and turned, the hum from before tickling her mind, stronger than previously.
“What was that?” the man asked coming to stand next to her.
“I don’t know,” Emma said breathlessly looking about the room for the other person that was surely nearby. The hum was distinct, different from the man with the glasses’, so she knew it was someone else. Someone close by…
“Is a window open somewhere?” he asked looking about. The radio in his hand started to whine with static and he looked down, frowning. “What the…” He held the radio up and even shook it to stop the sound.
Emma opened her mouth to say something but didn’t get the chance because something white slowly came into view on the settee. Emma and the man froze, simply staring, static on the radio whining away as the white shape turned into a figure.
“Are you seeing this?” the man asked hoarsely.
“Yes,” Emma breathed. The figure was taking on more and more definition.
“Really?” he asked again
“You’re not making fun?” he asked, his voice suddenly harsh.
Emma lost what tenuous grasp she had on her nerves and answered him brusquely. “Of course I’m not! Why would I? She’s really there!”
“She?” the man said squinting at the figure. “She’s a woman?”
Emma didn’t answer, she just watched as the figure came into clear view. They both took a step back when the ghost (Because that’s what she is Emma’s mind yelled. A ghost!) looked over at them.
“Cordelia,” Emma breathed. The ghost tilted her head to the side and long, curling blonde locks tumbled over her shoulder. Well. Simon/Bruce had gotten that part right.
Hello, the ghost said clearly in Emma’s mind.
Emma jolted and sucked in a breath.
“What? What’s wrong?” the man asked her.
“She spoke to me,” Emma said.
“You can hear her?” he asked. “I saw her mouth move but couldn’t…you hear her?”
Emma nodded, afraid that if she spoke it would come out shrill with anxiety.
You can see me, the ghost said. No one ever sees me.
“What’s she saying?” he asked.
Emma swallowed hard. “No one ever sees her. She’s a bit surprised that we can.”
“Understandable.” His tone was dry and thin. “Is she Cordelia Wainthrop?”
“You mean I should…? Okay,” Emma cleared her throat. “Are, are you Cordelia Wainthrop?”
The young woman lifted her head and nodded. Yes, I am Miss Wainthrop. She turned to look out of the window. How strange you should see me. People are always coming and going through here and they never see me. They tell such silly stories about me.
“What’s she saying?” he whispered.
“The stories about her are silly,” Emma said quickly. She raised her voice. “How are they silly, Miss Wainthrop?”
I wasn’t waiting for anyone she said turning her head to face them again. I simply wanted to watch them put up the Christmas decorations in the square. We have such lovely decorations. The tree was always enormous and the bunting was so pretty. She leaned against the arm of the settee. I’d been abed with a terrible cough for days and I only wanted to have a quick look, but I got so tired.
“Oh, my,” Emma said softly.
“What did she say?” he asked, his mouth close to her ear.
“She was only up here to watch them put up decorations,” Emma said. “I think she’d been ill with a bad cough and slipped out of her home. Perhaps it was too cold for her and she just…died.”
He nodded. “Consumption. Or even a bronchitis, possibly.”
I miss my home, Cordelia said sadly. I only want to go home now. Only I’ve forgotten the way. She raised her head and looked Emma directly in the eyes. Do you know where it is? Can you take me home now?
“Oh, I…I don’t know.” Emma worried her lip. How on earth could Emma take someone who’d been dead for well over 150 years home?
“What is it?” he asked.
“She wants me to take her home,” Emma said panicked. “How am I supposed to do that?”
He looked as perplexed as she felt. Eventually he frowned and asked, “What does her home look like?”
Oh, it’s ever so lovely! Cordelia spoke up, her voice infused with energy for the first time. With large windows and a dark brown door with a bell on the side. There’s a row of rhododendrons along the front. It’s always felt so large and warm. Cook always has bread baking in the kitchen.
Emma gasped and grabbed the man’s hand and he squeezed back as a shimmery image of a house appeared just beyond the window in the square.
“Miss Wainthrop, is that it? Is that your home?” Emma said shakily.
Cordelia smiled brightly and got to her feet, her dress swirling like mist around her. It is! That’s home!
She moved towards the window and before Emma could say or do anything, she walked through the glass and appeared in the square in front of the mirage of the house. Emma and the man walked over to the window and peered down. Cordelia turned and waved at them, then ran up the path to the house.
The large brown door opened to let her in and when it closed, the house disappeared.
“Oh,” Emma said ineffectually as they stood in the empty attic looking down at the empty square.
“Yes,” the man said breathlessly.
“Did that just happen?” Emma asked.
He nodded. “Yes, I believe it did.” He looked at her and smiled. “You sent her home.”
“I did?” she asked. She smiled. “I did! Oh. Oh.” Her knees gave way to wobbliness and she stumbled. The man was there in an instant holding her elbows and keeping her upright.
“Are you well?” he asked worriedly.
She cupped her hand on her forehead. “Such a headache. Never felt this bad before.”
“Come and sit,” he said helping her to sit on the settee. “Take slow and steady breaths. That was absolutely remarkable. What you just did. Could you really hear her?”
“As clear as a bell,” she said smiling despite the headache. “She had a lovely voice. Very young, and so very proper.”
“I can’t believe this,” he said excitedly, waves of disbelief and excitement rolled over Emma and she could only nod her head and grin, while she tried to stop her hands from shaking.
“I never.” He shook his head and stood up. He paced, running his hands through his hair. “I never once…not once expected anything like this. Honestly. I…” He turned to her. “You really could hear her voice? You’re absolutely sure?”
Emma nodded and tucked her hands under her knees. “Yes, I promise. As clear as day inside my head. I know that sounds utterly daft…”
“No, no.” He paused. “Well, yes, actually, it does, I suppose.”
In spite of the pain in her head, she laughed.
He smiled so brightly at her, her knees felt wobbly for an entirely new reason. He started to say something, but was interrupted by the sound of feet clattering up the stairs.
“Emma! Are you still here?” Sally burst into the room, Simon/Bruce right behind her. Sally came to a stop and widened her blue eyes. “Oh. Oh, I see.”
Emma got to her feet quickly and swayed a little. “Sorry!” she said quickly. “I was just….”
“We were only…” The man looked over at her and Emma was saddened to realise that his rigid control over his emotions was back in place.
“I felt a little woozy,” Emma said. “I just needed a moment to rest. And Mr, ah-“ She suddenly realised she didn’t even know the man’s name. She’d held hands with a perfect stranger and didn’t even know his name. She could feel her eyes widening with panic.
“Palmer,” the man supplied.
“Mr Palmer,” Emma said with a sigh of relief, “was kind enough to, um, wait with me.”
She looked at Sally and could tell her friend wasn’t buying any of it, but would wait until later to interrogate. Sally did make a tiny face at Emma that clearly asked if she was all right, and Emma nodded at her. Sally looked between her and Mr Palmer, but nodded back.
“I fully understand,” Simon/Bruce said gently. “Sometimes the stories can make you feel quite overwrought. But” - he glanced at his watch - “we are on a bit of a schedule. I’m afraid you’ve missed the tour of the cemetery. But you’ll still be able to hear about the ghost in the schoolroom.”
Emma just nodded and Mr Palmer gestured once again for her to leave the room ahead of him. She was very aware of his silent and steady presence behind her. While she couldn’t pick up distinct emotions, she could feel his focus on her and she fought the urge to rub the back of her neck where she felt the heat of his gaze.
“You have quite a lot of tell me about later,” Sally whispered when they joined the group at the edge of the cemetery.
“Nothing happened,” Emma whispered back, not quite lying. Nothing that Sally supposed had happened and Emma wasn’t quite sure she’d be able to explain a ghost.
Emma’s mind whirled around that once again. She’d talked to a ghost. An honest-to-goodness ghost. How was it possible? Could she do it again? If Cordelia existed, how many others existed?
She snuck a glance at Mr Palmer, but he was writing furiously in a small leather notebook and didn’t look her way once. She looked away, a sharp pang of something resonating in her mid-section.
What did you expect? she thought to herself as the group wandered past the old school building. That simply because you saw a ghost together, you’d be the best of friends?
Well. Yes, actually, she answered herself. She suppressed a sigh and attempted to pay attention to Simon/Bruce’s monologue and ignore Sally’s curious looks and the fact that Mr Palmer seemed to be looking everywhere but at her.
The tour concluded on the steps of the church and Simon/Bruce gave a deep bow to a small smattering of applause. Sally turned to say something to Emma, but her eyes widened and she just said, “I’ll just be over there talking to Edith.”
Then she darted away and Emma frowned, but then felt Mr Palmer’s presence behind her. She turned.
He gave her a sheepish look. “Hello.”
“Hi,” Emma said faintly.
They stood in an uncomfortable silence for a moment before he stuck out his hand.
“I should have done this earlier,” he said. “Alec Palmer. Professor.”
“Oh,” Emma said taking his hand. “Emma Grayling. Um, Miss.”
He smiled and shook her hand and Emma had to stop herself from visibly reacting to the immediate link to his emotions. Physical contact always made everything more intense and this was no exception. He may have a tight grip on his emotions, but when his fingers curled around hers and she felt the warm, dryness of his palm against hers, she felt a flood of conflicting emotions spill over her. There was excitement followed by curiosity followed by disbelief followed by a well of such deep sadness, Emma had to blink to stop tears from forming behind her eyes.
What had happened to cause such pain in one person? And how did he manage to keep it all under such regulation?
She blinked when she realised that he must have been feeling something as well, as his lips had parted and he looked vaguely dumbstruck.
It also occurred to her that they’d just been standing there for some moments and that she should probably let his hand go.
So she did. His feelings vanished from her mind and she felt almost bereft. Which was absurd. She never liked hanging on to anyone’s emotions for too long. It always hurt after a while.
“I, ah, I just wanted to thank you,” he said hesitantly.
“Whatever for?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t precisely know. I…have to think about this. There’s a lot of…data to process.”
He looked at the square and Emma followed his gaze to where Cordelia Wainthrop’s house had appeared and then disappeared.
“I have to rethink a great deal,” he said at last returning his gaze to hers. “I… It was a great pleasure to meet you, Miss Grayling.”
“Likewise, Professor,” Emma said softly.
He nodded slowly and studied her face as though he was committing it to memory.
“Emma?” Sally called from a little way down the pavement. “Are you coming?”
Emma shook herself a little and nodded at Sally. “Be right there.” She glanced at the professor who was nodding himself.
“I should.” She motioned towards Sally.
“Yes, yes, of course. I should, as well.” He made a gesture in the opposite direction.
“Yes, well.” Emma gave him a quick smile and turned to catch up with Sally. But at the last moment she turned to him. “Professor?”
He turned immediately.
“Did that really happen?” she asked suddenly worried that she’d dreamt the whole thing.
But he only gave her a crooked smile and said, “Yes. It really happened, Miss Grayling.”
Emma bit her lip and nodded. Then she turned away to catch up with Sally who simply said, “Well, this was certainly better than a night out in Stockworth. Right, Ems?”
“Yes,” Emma said absently, her mind going over everything that had occurred. “Much better.”
A week later, Emma left her desk in the typing pool of Simon and Graves, LLC at precisely 12.35 in the afternoon to go on her lunch break. The exact same time as she’d left her desk for lunch for the last six months. She did her level best not to sigh at the monotony of it and simply put her coat on and walked the two blocks to the little park on the edge of the city centre, just behind the church. Truth be told, it was a decent job and she was lucky to have it. The pay was adequate and her colleagues were decent enough. Considering that the position helpfully accommodated her own set of…’peculiarities’ as a former employer called them, she really had no cause to complain.
And I’m not complaining, she thought as she walked over to the small bandstand on the outer edge of the park. I’m just…restless.
She’d been over what had happened in Grantley backwards and forwards and came to the same conclusion every time: She had communicated with a ghost. It had been thrilling and incredible and she had absolutely no idea what to do with herself.
Did she just continue on her merry, but terribly boring, way and try to forget what happened? Or did she do something?
Not that she knew what that ‘something’ was. Or how to find the professor. She had a feeling that he was the missing link in the whole thing. If she could find him again, perhaps…
“Perhaps what?” she muttered. “He’ll turn up and take you away from all this? To chase ghosts? Not bloody likely.”
Her shoes sank into the wet grass as she walked. It had been an unseasonably wet March with more rain than frost and she hoped the bench in the bandstand wasn’t too damp.
It wasn’t. Well. It was, but she wasn’t about to go to the café on the corner to have her lunch. The last time had been far too loud and in her current state of melancholy, she didn’t want to chance it.
She pulled out her cheese and tomato roll and nibbled at it, wishing that it was a large piece of chocolate cake, the kind her gran used to bake. Emma closed her eyes and pulled up the image of her gran baking and the smell of the kitchen and the warmth of the old Aga in the corner.
“Ah!” she said, her eyes flew open and she sat up straight. Her eyes met the professor’s cautious ones instantly. Torn between pleasure at seeing him and flustered at, well, seeing him, she said, “Do you know you’re the only person to ever sneak up on me?”
“Sorry?” Professor Palmer said frowning.
“Don’t be. It’s a novel feeling, if I’m honest.” She bit her lip, trying to reconcile her earlier wish to find him and his sudden appearance. “How…?”
“I ran into your friend. The blonde woman? She told me where I could find you,” he said adjusting his glasses and not quite looking at her. He was clad in the same rumpled brown suit and overcoat and while his tie was different, it was still crooked.
“Oh?” Something giddy leapt up into her chest and her palms began to itch. “How did you know where I lived?”
“I didn’t,” he said looking down. “But I overheard your friend say something about Stockworth and I took a chance that you might live here.”
“That’s quite a chance,” she said setting her roll aside. She stood awkwardly and moved towards him. “You should know that I’ve been warned to never take a strange man at his word.”
He met her eyes and said firmly, “I quite understand. You have absolutely nothing to fear from me.”
“Oh, I know I don’t,” she said. Then she grimaced and looked away. What was it about this man? She never admitted her thoughts out loud.
“Yes, I imagine you do know,” he said casually. He stepped up into the bandstand. “You’re an empath, then.”
“Yes,” Emma said after taking a deep breath. “Yes, that’s what I am.”
He shook his head. “It’s extraordinary. Your gift-”
“It’s not a gift,” she said quickly.
The smile he gave her was actually sad. “Ah. It’s a gift and a burden. I know how that feels. How do they come to you? The emotions.”
Sensing only pure curiosity and possibly even admiration, Emma didn’t prickle like she normally did when asked about her abilities.
“They feel like waves,” she said matter-of-factly. “Just waves of emotions and thoughts. They vary in strength. If someone is well, worked up, it’s a harder, more painful wave. If it’s someone I already know, I can brace myself for it because I know what to expect.”
“Like being in the ocean and plugging your nose when a wave comes at you?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said chuckling. “Very much like that.”
“You said it could be painful?” he asked suddenly looking down.
“Yes,” she said quietly. “Sometimes it can be very painful.” She paused. “Sometimes people are filled with so much emotion, good or bad, and when it hits me, it can be quite painful. Some people are just strong broadcasters.” She frowned. “I’m mixing my metaphors.”
“I understand what you’re getting at,” he said looking at her with a smile. “Can you block them? The emotions?”
“Not entirely,” she said shaking her head. “I’m better than I used to be, though.” She chanced a glance at him. “I’m not always right, either.”
“I’d be surprised if you were,” he said. “Who makes the strongest broadcasters?”
“Men, usually,” she said. “Especially the quiet ones. They spend so much time repressing everything it just explodes when I’m near.” She noticed that he tensed up. “Not you, though!” she said quickly. “I’m surprised. You’re very quiet and calm. Everything feels almost…muted? I’ve never met anyone with such strong control. It’s quite astonishing. Almost as though you’ve trained yourself out of them…” she trailed off.
The corner of his mouth had started to turn up. “Oh,” she said, understanding dawning. “You did train yourself out of them.”
“Yes, yes, I did. It was during the war,” he said taking off his glasses and polishing them with his sleeve. “I was, ah, I was a POW and I learned quickly on to keep my head down and not let them see anything that could be used against me.”
Emma stared at the side of his head.
He was lying; she could tell that much. However, it wasn’t a complete lie. More like a cover for the truth that he’d told so many times, it had become true for him.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, fighting the urge to place her hand on his arm. She’d never wanted to comfort someone more, but kept a tight lid on it.
He shook his head. “I did my duty. That’s all.”
She wanted to protest that it wasn’t all, that there was more to his story, she could feel it. But she knew better than to dig. People didn’t like it when she went beneath that superficial layer of emotions to their hearts. She’d found that out the hard way. The very hard way.
“Why were you looking for me?” she asked, partly to change the subject, but mostly because she was burning with curiosity.
“Oh, yes, right.” He stared out at the green and then began to pace. “You see, I’m not simply looking for ghosts for my own personal study. I’ve been given orders of a sort from the Ministry of Defence.”
Emma blinked in surprise. She hadn’t been expecting that at all.
“I’ve had to completely revisit my hypothesis and that is…very frustrating,” he said.
“What was your original hypothesis?” she asked.
“That ghosts do not exist as they do in the stories,” he said. “That they are nothing more than energy traces and have no…soul. I suppose I wanted that to be true, for my own purposes.”
He came to a stop in front of the bandstand rail, his back to Emma.
“I’d fully expected to see something, but I expected it to follow the traditional energy signature traces using the standard model,” he said addressing the green lawn. “I hadn’t planned on it being an actual entity with motivations and thought.” He stared hard into the distance. “I’m going to have to keep a terribly open mind from now on.”
Emma kept quiet and just watched him as a sense of urgency began to rise inside her. She didn’t know what it was that she wanted to ask of him, just that she didn’t want to be left alone. She wanted to help. Help others like Cordelia. For heaven’s sake, she wanted to help him. But how on earth could she voice that?
“I’m going to have to go back to headquarters and tell them something,” he was saying. “I don’t dare tell them the truth. They were reluctant to let me out on my own as it was.”
Flashes of his troubled emotions prickled at Emma and she felt compelled to say, “I don’t pry.”
“What?” he asked turning, his eyes wide behind his glasses.
“I don’t pry,” she repeated. “You see, some people have these little walls around some of their emotions. Usually emotions they don’t want anyone to know about. Ones they’ve kept in check for quite some time. They’re quite obvious.” She ducked her head. “Well, they’re obvious once you know what they are. Anyway, yours are flashing like a big red light and I just wanted to say that I don’t pry. I wouldn’t. I promise.”
He stared at her for so long with a blank expression that she started to fidget under his gaze.
Then he said, “I don’t suppose you know shorthand?”
Emma started. “Yes? Yes, I know shorthand.”
“I need an assistant,” he said. “In fact, I’ve needed one for quite some time and was ordered to get one, but I didn’t want to drag someone around on what might be a fool’s errand.” He glanced at her. “It’s clearly no longer a fool’s errand and I do need the help with the equipment and the research. Do you have any experience?”
“I work in a typing pool,” Emma said scarcely daring to breathe.
“Then you’d be able to help with the reports and the findings. But that’s, that’s all secondary.” He looked at her. “Your abilities are essential, I’m finding. I’ve spent the last week re-thinking my entire approach and I need you, Miss Grayling.”
Emma couldn’t speak. She sensed the complete honesty and sincerity in his voice and so she didn’t doubt his words. It was herself that she felt she couldn’t contain. She wanted to throw her arms out and spin in circles, she felt so happy and dare she think it, hopeful.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I would very much like to be your assistant.”
His corresponding smile was boyish and transformed his face and she nearly lost her breath at how dear she was finding him.
“That’s, that’s… Oh, that’s just excellent,” he said sounding and feeling relieved. “Excellent. Thank you. Ah.” He patted his coat. “I have a card. I need to go back to London and drop off some equipment and pick some extra up. And get you on the payroll, I suppose. Not sure how that works precisely.”
“I can give you my CV if you need. Human resources usually like those kinds of things.”
“Yes, good idea.” He grinned again. “I shouldn’t be longer than a week, but I’ll be back to pick you up.”
“I’ll give my notice this afternoon,” Emma said laughing.
“It won’t be easy,” he warned, his expression turning serious. “It will be a lot of travel and a lot of waiting all for possibly nothing.”
“Sounds ideal,” she said smiling.
He smiled again. “I already have a list of places to research. There’s a manor in south Wales that I’m very keen to explore.”
“I’ve never been to Wales,” she said starting to laugh.
He laughed with her. “Your family? Friends? They won’t think this is odd? Or worry about you?”
“No,” Emma said, mirth leaving her. “No, they won’t. They won’t worry.”
His expression was instantly understanding and he nodded. “Very well, then.” He frowned. “I’m not sure what your salary will be.”
“I don’t really care,” she said starting to laugh again. “I know I should be a bit more discerning, but I’m just not. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I know the feeling,” he said grinning. “I had - no - we had a very big breakthrough the other night. I think more are in store for us.”
The bell on the town hall clock began to chime. Emma cringed. “Blast. I’m late. I have to go.”
“I’ll walk you in to town.”
Later that night, Emma sat in her usual armchair with a book, her legs tucked up under her while she watched Sally sprawled on the floor carefully painting her toenails with bright red varnish. David Bowie was on the radio playing quietly in the background.
Emma looked at Sally and felt apprehensive.
Honestly, if it hadn’t been for Sally and her unwavering confidence in Emma, she wasn’t sure what she would have done the last few years.
Which made telling Sally she was leaving all the harder.
Emma fidgeted and then said, “Sal?”
Emma worried her bottom lip. “I think I have a new job.”
“Oh, have they finally come to their senses and kicked you up upstairs to the senior partners?” Sally asked waving her foot in the air to dry her varnish.
“Not exactly,” Emma said slowly. “This new job…It’s actually not at Simon and Graves.”
“Where is it, then?”
“With Professor Palmer.” Emma braced herself.
“What?” And there it was – a big wave of disbelief, worry and surprise washed over her.
“He’s hiring me to be his assistant,” Emma said. “I apparently have a knack for ghost-hunting.”
“Emma,” Sally breathed as she looked at her, nail varnish in one hand. A drop of red splashed onto her foot. “Damn. Right. What is going on?”
“I’m good at this, Sally,” Emma said. “I helped Cordelia Wainthrop go home the other night.”
“The ghost in the museum,” Emma said. “It really happened. And it was incredible and I’m, I’m going to do this.”
Sally just stared at her. “I can’t believe this. There was really a ghost?”
Emma nodded. “There really was.”
“You’re not taking the mick, are you?” Sally’s eyes narrowed.
“I promise I’m not.”
“But…You don’t even know this man,” Sally said eventually.
“I know enough,” Emma said firmly. “He’s…decent. Good. Terribly intelligent. And…”
“And a little lost, I think,” Emma said staring at the coal fire.
“Oh, no,” Sally said shaking her head. “You are not about to go thinking you can save him or something? Because that is a recipe for disaster.”
“According to whom?” Emma asked.
Emma laughed. “In any case, it isn’t like that.” She leaned forward and hugged her knees. “Sally, this is it. I can actually use this peculiarity for something useful. I can be useful.”
“You’re always useful, Ems,” Sally said smiling at her. She sighed. “Right. So will you be set up in town?”
“I get the impression he moves around a lot,” Emma said. “Apparently we’re off to Wales.”
“What? I know it’s mad. I feel mad, but.” Emma fidgeted and raised her eyes to the ceiling. “I’m doing this, Sally. I think I have to.”
“Do you have to gambol all over the country to do it?”
“Apparently,” Emma said. “It’s not like people can bring their ghosts to us.”
“I just don’t know about this,” Sally said sadly. “I’m going to miss you.”
“I’ll be back,” Emma said sliding off the armchair to sit next to Sally. “And you don’t need to find another flatmate because I’ll still be paying rent. Besides, I thought you and Roger were getting serious.”
“We are, but… It’s not the same. We’ve shared a flat for forever,” Sally said resting her head on Emma’s shoulder.
A buzz came from the outside door. Emma frowned. “Are you expecting anyone?”
Emma shook her head and got to her feet. She went over to the window and peered down. Professor Palmer stood on the doorstep with some books in his hand. He looked up and gave her a half smile and a tiny wave. Emma couldn’t stop the stupid rush of happiness at seeing him.
“It’s the professor,” Emma said turning quickly and going to the door.
“Oooh! Is he as dishy as he was the other night?” Emma left Sally struggling to her feet and hobbling over to the window with her still-wet toenails.
Emma hurried down the steps and opened the front door.
“Hi,” she said breathlessly in greeting.
“Good evening, Miss Grayling,” he said smiling. He held out the books in his hand. “These are for you.”
“Oh, thank you.” She took the books and looked at the titles.
“There are a few on the paranormal and one on mediums, which I haven’t read yet, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy,” he said. “I’m off to London first thing but I hope to be back next Tuesday. If that’ll suit?”
“Oh, yes,” Emma said nodding. “I gave my notice today. I don’t think they were all that unhappy.”
“Their loss,” he said smiling.
“And your gain?” she asked.
“Something like that,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind all the extra reading.”
“I’ll make a start on all this tonight,” Emma said nodding. “Thank you. Again. For the opportunity.”
“Oh, I have a feeling I’ll be the one thanking you before long,” he said. He stared at her for a moment and Emma felt the tiniest sprinkling of something, before he broke eye contact and stepped down the steps. “I’ll see you Tuesday, then?”
“I’ll be ready,” she said.
He grinned that boyish grin of his and was off down the pavement. Emma basked for a moment in the lingering traces of anticipation before she headed back up to her flat. When she got back inside, Sally was sitting on the couch, obviously having watched the whole exchange.
“I can’t believe you’re about to go cavorting all over the country with flippin’ Richard Burton,” Sally said with narrowed eyes, “Does he have the accent?”
“No. He’s Scottish, not Welsh,” Emma said doing her level best not to look excited. Judging by the grin that appeared on Sally’s face, she wasn’t successful.
“Well, well, well,” Sally said still grinning. “I take it all back. I’m not worried anymore.”
“You’re not worried anymore, just because he’s somewhat attractive?” Emma asked sitting down in her armchair, cradling the books on her lap.
“Yep. And he’s a darn sight more than ‘somewhat’ attractive,” Sally said. “And I’m not worried because I saw how he looked at you.”
“You have your talents and I have mine,” Sally said. “I know men. And that man was looking at you like he couldn’t believe you were real and he wanted to know everything about you. You’re going to be just fine, Emma Grayling.”
“It’s really not like that,” Emma protested.
“You go right on telling yourself that, my girl,” Sally said authoritatively, her tone sadly undermined by her awkward shuffle back to her bottle of nail varnish.
The next week passed so quickly that before she knew it she was standing outside her flat watching Professor Palmer put Emma’s suitcase in the back of the small white transit van that he’d parked just outside.
“I still can’t believe you’re doing this,” Sally said as she stood beside Emma, holding a large red umbrella over the both of them while rain fell steadily downwards. Her statement had become such a familiar refrain over the last few days that Emma simply hooked her arm through Sally’s in comfort.
Sally went on, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m utterly delighted that you’re doing this, but I still can’t quite believe it.”
“I can’t either, to tell you the truth,” Emma said turning to face Sally. “But I need to. I want to.”
Professor Palmer closed the back doors of the van with a bang and smiled at Emma. “Are you ready, Miss Grayling?”
“Ready,” she said.
“And oh so willing,” Sally muttered under her breath, jabbing her elbow gently into Emma’s side.
“Cheeky cow,” Emma said grinning.
“Oh, I’m going to miss you.” Sally threw her arms around Emma, the umbrella slipping to the side, but they ignored the rain that fell on their heads. Emma hugged Sally tightly, absorbing as much of the bright, shiny waves of worry, hope and excitement that poured off of her friend.
“I’m going to miss you, too, Sal,” Emma said.
“Of course you are, I’m terribly missable,” Sally said as they let go of each other. She frowned. “That didn’t sound right.”
Emma laughed as she moved towards the van door that Professor Palmer held open for her. “I’ll call you when I can.”
“Too right! And send me some postcards, for heaven’s sake,” Sally said as Emma got into the van.
“I will, I promise.” Emma slid onto the seat and smiled at the professor, who smiled back as he closed the door. She waved to Sally as he started the car and they headed out of Stockworth. She took a deep breath and did her level best to control the big grin of relief that threatened to take over.
It seemed that life was finally beginning.