RELUCTANT VISITORS


(A story featuring Frieda Schoenhofer)

If you want to know if life has normalised spend an evening with my mother. In the days and weeks following my death – and I wish there was a way of suggesting quotation marks in speech because the word death sounds so ridiculous – in the days and weeks following my death, mama was quiet, introverted, focussed as a way of distracting herself.

At all other times, like now, she was unfocused and her mouth followed her random thought processes. I say unfocused, she did have a sort of pivotal point around which she danced her demented verbal jig.

“I do understand, Frieda, honestly I do, whatever you did, all the sorcery and what have you, you want to put it behind you. Heaven knows it’s considered passe in a lot of circles, but it’s your father’s shoulder, Frieda. It’s not just any old shoulder. Lotty hasn’t slept for three nights.”

“Serves him right for demolishing his office. Why doesn’t he ask a builder to rebuild it?”

“Because he’s a man, Frieda. Your father is a man.”

“You’ve waited all this time to tell me?”

She stopped talking when the waitress brought the main course. The waitress had the shy stiffness of a college student and wouldn’t look at my steak when she placed the plate on top of my fork. My mother knew what the problem was.

“Is that steak cooked? For goodness sake, it’s almost raw.”

“It’s how I like it these days, mama.” The waitress glanced away from me, sharing her disgust with my mother who poked the back of her fish with a testy little finger. “A little olive oil please,” she said.

“Pardon?”

“To add fluidity to the flesh. It’s a little overdone. Unlike my daughter’s living breathing. . . .” The waitress fled our table.

Truth be told, it took a lot of effort trying to maintain a sense of dignity with a knife and fork the size of gardening tools cutting a steak so undercooked it looked like jelly. Polite conversation was my only strategy. “Your fish must have been sitting in the freezer all day.”

“Obviously.”

“I know the feeling.”

“It’s nothing to joke about, Frieda.”

“No. Sorry. Could have been worse though.”

“Frieda. I’m sure you and your father have had the conversation where one of you says one day we’ll laugh about this, but I’m not there yet. I still remember those horrible moments . . . your father and Oliver fighting on the floor.”

“Do you still speak to him?” I felt a line of blood run down my chin and I think I grabbed my napkin a little too quickly.

“Oliver doesn’t . . . no. Is there a need for him to stay in touch? Apart from helping with the haylage which your father can’t do. Are you sure there’s nothing, a potion. . . .” The waitress timed her return to the table with perfection, catching the word potion and noticing my blood stained napkin. I smiled (with my mouth closed.)

“Should I order another steak?” I said. “I could take it home and rub it on papa’s shoulder.”

“Don’t be disgusting.” She drizzled a wavy line of olive oil across her fish and handed it back to the waitress who clutched the bottle to her chest and rushed away.

“You’re terrifying the staff,” I said.

“I was looking in the medical book today. If it’s anything like a horse injury he needs cold treatment. When I felt it this morning the affected area was quite hot. He’s allergic to ginseng, the only person in the whole of Europe probably, so if you did,” she checked the other diners, all three of them, “concoct something, leave out the ginseng.”

“Echinacea.”

“He’s strained his shoulder, Frieda. He hasn’t got flu. And that reminds me, I need to arrange for the carpet cleaner to give me a price for upholstery, might as well do everything at the same time.”

“Bats at three o’clock,” I said.

“Pardon?”

One of mama’s acquaintances approached us from a table hidden in one of the restaurant alcoves. “I thought I could hear her breathing.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Gabby, it’s so good to see you and Frieda out together. I was saying to Dietee, Frieda doesn’t seem to have the time for socialising these days, what with everything that happened and here you are.”

“Here we are,” I said knowing what Frau Thiessen’s eyes were about to fix on.

“My god, Frieda, you should send that back. No wonder you still look so ill.”

“At least she’s eating something, Marina. I don’t know what she does in her own home. Eat the carpets probably.”

“We were talking about you the other day, Frieda.” Frau Thiessen leaned between mama’s chair and the fish, almost placing her hand in a basket of bread rolls. “You know Alessandra’s uncle died. A long illness claimed him in the end, poor soul, but she’s distraught. I mentioned you rising from the dead, how close you came to catastrophe, but it didn’t seem to comfort her.”

“I can’t think why, Frau Thiessen.”

“Call me Marina. She keeps talking about visiting mediums and spiritualists, but all I can say is that they see people like her coming. If her uncle wants to talk to her he will. He’ll find a way.”

Mama was chewing her food very slowly. I went to hold her hand, but she chose that moment to cut herself another slice of fish. “I’m sure Alessandra will sort things out,”

“They’re filling her head with all sorts of nonsense, Gabby. They’re like car salesmen.”

“They? Who are?”

“The spiritualists. The mediums. One of them offered to carry out a séance and gave her an enormous list of things to do to prepare the room. No lemon air freshener, a cage with a budgerigar in it, fourteen white lilies, and a crystal bowl.”

Mama sighed. “Frieda,”

“What?”

“Your steak is turning my stomach. Can you cover it with something, please.”

“Is she going to do it?” I placed my bloodstained napkin over the steak and watched a crimson disc spread through the material fibres.

“Do what?” Frau Thiessen was transfixed.

“Host the séance.”

“Yes.”

“When.”

“What?”

“When is the séance?”

“This Friday.”

The seconds before someone vomits are fascinating.

Mama followed Frau Thiessen outside and comforted her when she brought up the first course. The food in the MainHaus wasn’t cheap; unless you vomited your food to eat it again, throwing up could be an expensive and wasteful way to spend an evening.

“What time on Friday, Frau Thiessen?”

She didn’t answer straight away, but an evening breeze and the rushing air battering her from the passing traffic brought the colour back to her skin. “Seven, seven, Frieda. Why, you’re not planning to go are you?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, Frau Thiessen.” I don’t think she had ever seen me smile.

Who was Alessandra? After her uncle died she became a changed woman apparently. Sold her car and started to cycle everywhere as if making contact with nature would help her make contact with her uncle. And what was so special about this uncle, unless he was one of those uncles whose name provokes a knowing look: the old ‘he’s not really her uncle’ look. Father, brother, son!

The house where she lived alone sat within a cluster of gardens full of pert flowers enjoying a new flush of enthusiastic care. The door smelled of fresh paint. And inside there weren’t enough carpets to satisfy a maniacal devotion to housework; the pile in every room showing signs of a vacuum cleaner drilling lines in every direction.

Alessandra was here and for one hilarious moment she followed me through the upstairs rooms hunting for the source of a terrible draught, my personal draught. Eventually, I follow her to a room next to the kitchen decorated with lilies, the table covered with linen, but no budgerigar. The house was silent except for Alessandra’s muffled footsteps on the defeated carpets.

She couldn’t feel what I could feel, a vibration in the air, as if a distant car engine idled, emitting an unseen pulse. A sign of life that the visiting medium would either pick up straight away, or overlook in favour of the nonsense Frau Thiessen warned about.

Mama had nothing to say on the subject. Talk of raising the dead was still too raw for her, too much of a reminder how close she came to losing her only child. I wanted to tell her that she would never have to worry about losing me now, but she was a rational woman in spite of her apparent acceptance of my previous life in the coven. (I don’t think she really believed any of it, to be honest, but I humoured her. The more I joked about the witchcraft, the less seriously she took it.)

To see her at a séance would be quite a spectacle, chatting, questioning, going off at tangents just as the gathering received two knocks for a yes. Instead, the attendees included two of Alessandra’s friends and the medium, a young woman who either admired her mother’s dress sense or had nostalgic leanings towards the 1950s. Her name was Rosa and she had no sensitivity at all to the invisible presence of a vampire.

Everyone settled, Rosa waited for the humdrum chat and catching up to subside. Placing her hands flat on the table she invited the others to join her, fingertip to fingertip, and an upturned crystal bowl resting in the space formed by the coming together of manicured extravagance. I looked at my own nails, they were unpainted and sharp as razors.

“Now that we are gathered in this place of sanctuary I would like to ask if anyone would like to speak to Alessandra.”

“No,” said the woman sat to Rosa’s right.

“I was talking to the spirits.”

“Sorry.”

“That’s quite all right.”

“It’s very cold in here, Alessandra. Is that a sign?”

“It must be. It’s never been so cold. . . . ” Alessandra checked herself when Rosa breathed in, an impatient breath, not a spasm of possession.

I don’t know who was more intrigued, them or me, but I waited and waited for Rosa to see me, sense me, call my name, acknowledge my presence. Even when I stood next to her shoulder, close enough to trim the fibres of stray hair from the bun piled up on her head, she simply shivered. “Would any of you like to come forward and offer some words of comfort to our host.”

Alessandra watched me with a strange expression as if she had noticed something wrong with the wall behind me.

“What would you like to know?” I said.

“Our host would be so grateful for a word, a sentence, a reassurance that you passed on without pain.”

“Well, I can’t really say it was painless-”

“Anything at all.”

When Rosa interrupted me I realised she couldn’t hear a word I said. “Are you deaf?”

“I think we may have to be patient, Alessandra. There seems to be a reluctance to speak. Please be patient.”

“Is it the budgerigar?”

“The budgerigar . . . wait. . . .” Rosa closed her eyes, the women around the table glanced at each other and a sense of expectation rippled through nervous fingertips. “There is someone here, someone stood amongst us.”

“At last,” I said.

“Someone, a man. . . .”

“Uncle Lucien?”

“What?” Papa once described me as being broad-shouldered, but that was when he was teaching me kick boxing. I was sixteen.

“No, I don’t think it is. Can you state your name?”

“Frieda-”

“Paul, I’m sorry, after you.”

Concentrating on Rosa’s understated performance, I hadn’t noticed the faint outline of a short man stepping towards the table. “No, after you . . . whoever you are.”

“Paul Liebenthal.” He shook my hand. “I lived in the house that was here before this one was built.”

“Really? Extraordinary. . . .”

“If you’ll excuse me a moment.” He spoke to Rosa. “What do you want?” And then he turned back to me. “We get a lot of this.”

“Aha.”

“Can you identify yourself? If so, move the bowl.”

Paul sighed. “Move the bowl, do this, do that.” He pushed the bowl a centimetre towards Rosa. She took it in her stride, but Alessandra and her guests gasped collectively and pulled their hands to the edge of the table.

“Thank you. We’ve come here to speak to our loved one, Lucien. If you are Lucien can you move the bowl again?”

“There isn’t really an option for the word no.” Paul folded his arms and waited for the next question.

“I quite like this bowl.” I picked it up. The women scattered like startled birds. Rosa wrestled herself from the table.

“Whoops.”

“Imagine how that must have looked,” said Paul.

“I forgot.” Replacing the bowl slowly (the last thing I wanted to do was break it) only increased the panic. The gathering was reduced to four when one of the guests fled the room. Rosa, stroked the table edge and sat down. Alessandra guarded the perplexed budgerigar, waiting for a consensus that the bowl was safe.

“This is what happens,” Paul said. “They want a sign and then go berserk when you give them too much of a sign. At this age they’re a risk. I don’t expect to go back with one of them.”

“Back? Back where, Paul?”

He tried to identify where ‘there’ might be, but it wasn’t on the map, it was, “Somewhere out there.”

Rosa insisted on the circle coming together again. Reluctant fingers formed a void with the flying bowl at its centre. “Why do you bother with all this, Paul?”

“I can’t help it. Being attached to the place, there’s a feeling, quite a physical feeling as if the floor changes angle and. . . .”

“We’re sorry if we startled you,” said Rosa.

“And gravity pulls you in one direction. There are times I don’t want to do it, but it can be quite irresistible.”

“Can I ask you again to confirm you are Lucien?”

“Is that because you haunt the location and not an individual?”

“Yes. God knows how they cope. Following the same person around all day.”

Between Rosa’s questions and Paul’s nudges of the bowl I explained my role in bringing Rob Wallet and Veronique Dusollier together. “How did you do that?” Paul said. “I’ve never heard of another ghost doing that.”

“I have an unusual book collection.”

Paul nudged the bowl again. “Can you tell me about this collection?”

“It’s quite old. In a previous life I liked to dabble.”

“Oh, yes.”

“It got me into trouble.”

“Is that how you came over to this side?”

“You could say that. Road accident.”

“Ah. Pneumonia did me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” I nudged the bowl on his behalf and asked when he died.

“1968.”

Alessandra was growing impatient with the bowl mooching around the table. “We’re not really getting anywhere. Can you ask him to spell his name?”

“We don’t have the letters, sorry. I’ll try to provoke something more tangible.”

“Please be careful.”

“I think this is my call,” I said taking my coat off.

“We don’t wish to cause you any harm, but Alessandra is desperate for a sign that will put her mind at ease.” Rosa hesitated. “Please, Lucien, a sign that Alessandra will understand.”

I stood behind Rosa and made myself visible in the deepest shadow of the room. Alessandra shrieked. Rosa exploded forwards lifting the table, tipping the bowl into another woman’s lap. She screamed. The woman next to her screamed. They all screamed, battling to open the door. The din continued in the hallway.

“Who are you, Frieda?” Paul closed the door.

“I’m not like you, Paul.” I snarled. Paul saw my teeth and understood.

“I had a feeling you were different. You have a solidity the rest of us don’t have. Standing next to you makes my arm tingle.”

“Sorry.”

“No, don’t apologise. You are what you are.”

“You’re not scared of me are you?” He had wandered to the other side of the upturned table. “It’s not as if I can do anything to you. You’re already dead.”

“Yes. Can you help me with this table?”

“Yes. . . .”

Alessandra had opened the door and was peering through the gap. “Oh my god, the table. . . .”

Rosa’s eye appeared above Alessandra’s head. “Who is she?” Rosa whispered.

“I’ve no idea, but she’s in my house. I can’t stay here.”

The petrified group moved away from the door leaving Paul and me alone again. “What does Rosa do that draws you here?”

“I’m not sure.” Paul studied the bowl. “The more of them round the table, the greater the pull. When they move their hands apart the pull diminishes. I’ve never really studied it.”

“Have you asked anyone else . . . oh, of course you can’t leave the house can you?”

“No.” He tidied the mess from the fallen lilies, arranging each one until the flowers had their own space to preen. “It can be a little lonely sometimes. My wife died eight years after me. I tried not to distress her, but I’d make a slight change here and there. Put away a dish, or line up the magazines on the coffee table. Nothing too much, just enough to let her know I was still here, watching her.”

“What was her name?”

Paul had a small photograph in his jacket pocket. “I took it from the album. Just the one.” His wife, Ilsa, had a calm expression, a slight smile as if knowing her husband’s love would persist beyond death, following her as delicately as a feather carried by the gentlest breeze. “And she isn’t with you now?”

“No.”

“And you don’t know where she is?”

“Unfortunately not. I suppose death is as random as life.” I passed the photograph back, Ilsa’s black and white avatar that was now his only companion. “Will you come again, Frieda? It would be nice to talk to someone for a change.”

“Of course I will, Paul. Do I just turn up or do I need to bring a few pairs of hands with me?”

“No, just turn up. I’ll know you’re here.” He began to fade. “I’ll wait for the icy blast to blow through the house.”

“Am I that cold?”

“Perishing,” he said. His face was gone when his voice added, “cold as the grave.”

For all the books, all the spells and incantations, all the numerology and secret alphabets, none of my attempts to raise the dead had come this close to communicating with a corpse. Sure, I reversed the effects of Veronique’s exorcism, but I needed more than that. Lena pulled Micky Redwall out of his grave in England, but when the blood ran out he went straight back into it. I wanted more than that. I wanted Lena back, in the flesh, breathing, eating, reanimated as if she had never plunged off the side of Honister Crag.

Being here amongst the gossiping ladies of Alessandra’s supernatural social circle had given me a clue, and perhaps Paul would have other insights to help. But if Rosa and four pairs of hands could summon the dead, then maybe there was a scientific avenue to be followed, a series of experiments to be tested until solid organic matter could be stolen from the other side.

And who better to communicate with the dead than the undead. Was I in a position to be the perfect medium? I had nothing to lose and all the time in the world to find out. I left the room intact and the bowl in place with a fresh complimentary apple; a parting gift for Alessandra’s troubles.