‘What’re you looking at now?’ Ray says. He has stopped washing up, and in the quiet I can hear a bird calling somewhere outside the boat. I’m looking at one of the portholes, set low in the cabin wall. The glass seems to be quartered by silvery lines that cross in the centre, scattered with velvet-black dots each about the size of a penny. I bring my face closer. The back of my neck hurts from craning. The bird calls again, two-tone like a swinging gate, and the dots tremble, cluster together and push into each other to build a moorhen, solid and squawking, paddling outside the porthole. It feels my stare and cracks its beak wide to hiss; the inside is a surprisingly human pink. I step back. The glass is clear again.
‘What is it?’ Ray asks, panicky, but irritated too; he doesn’t like not knowing straight away. With a snap he pulls off each marigold glove, ready to hug, or squeeze, an answer out of me.
He wouldn’t like to know that my so-called visions consist of points and crosses, lines and squares. When they began I confused them with the floaters that occasionally drift through anyone’s sight. Then they got sharper, brighter, more frequent. They seem benign. But they’re not what Ray hopes for, or fears. Ghouls aren’t geometric.
‘Not a ghost this time,’ I say. ‘Don’t worry.’
He tugs at his collar, nervously. As if I’ve just read his mind, when it’s so obvious, his skull could be made of glass. I touch his sleeve, smile at him. ‘Kath’ll be at the bus stop soon. Should you go get her?’
‘Your wish is my command,’ he says, putting on a strange voice to show that it is not, even as he reaches for his jacket.
‘I’ll get ready,’ I say.
Once he’s gone I just sit, till it’s dark outside. I like being alone in his boat. If I loosed the blue nylon hawsers it would slip downriver like a seal, through the marshes and out of London, into the Grand Union canal. The boat tugs at its moorings as though it has come to a decision.
But he’ll be back soon, with this woman, Kath. The bus will let her out on the main road that crosses the marshes. No houses on that stretch, just scrappy trees and fields behind. Unlikely to be anyone else at the bus stop, just an advert for MIND so old it’s slipped down behind the glass and crinkled into a concertinaed pile. Londoners aren’t used to darkness – real darkness, not just the dirtiness of the orange sky at four a.m. or the gloom between each puddle of streetlight. She’ll be rattled, nervous. Then Ray comes out of the gloom and says, This way.
So now she’ll be crunching down the gravel path, between high banks of bramble on each side. Exclaiming softly each time she slips in an invisible patch of mud. Ray should be marching ahead, not saying a word, not warning her as he turns sharply and disappears round a corner, so she scuttles after him, between the birch trees. A low bridge over a ditch and they come out at the corner of an open field. On the other side of the field is the river.
I go into the bedroom and look through the starboard porthole. A wink of torchlight. Or a spark on my retina. I open the cupboard by my side of the bed, the one painted with green roses. That’s my cupboard. The rest are his. On top of my rucksack there’s a folded purple pile, which I shake out into a long cheesecloth dress. Circles of blue sequins across the bust. It reaches my ankles.
I pull the studs out of my ears. When I arrived I considered hiding them, or telling Ray they were only glass, but eventually I decided just to wear them and not say a thing. Everyone these days wears costume jewellery, why would anyone think these were different? For now I replace them with two gold-coloured hoops; little blue stones hanging off the bottom of each curve.
This is cheesy, Ray said when I showed him the outfit. Spiritualists don’t look like this anymore, they’re in velour shell suits jumping around on stage, on TV.
Only in the States, I said. They don’t expect that here.
I hear women’s voices – two, not one – scrambling down the slope to the towpath. They’re laughing, which isn’t a good sign, Ray must have cracked and said something friendly. My breastbone feels like it has contracted, forcing my breath short and shallow.
‘This way,’ he says, right outside.
I rush through the galley into the saloon, find the candle stuck in the empty Cognac bottle, and light it. Then I slide round the banquette, so when they come through the double doors, the taller woman ducking her head, I’m behind the table. Ray slides in next to me so they have to sit on the other side, can’t get too close.
‘Ladies,’ he says, ‘this is Morgana.’ We’d agreed not to use my real name. ‘She’s proper magic. Sees ghosts, spirits, everything. She can tell if something’s coming to get you.’
The younger one giggles.
‘Morgana, this is Kath, and Charity. But I bet you knew that already, didn’t you, baby – Morgana.’ His right hand, resting on the table-top, takes hold of a water glass, lets go and picks up a metal spoon. Then puts it down again, seemingly without him noticing. A nervous tic.
‘I can’t tell names,’ I say. ‘Only hearts.’ Best not to oversell.
They pull up chairs. It’s almost dark in the boat, I can see only flickers of their faces, but I hear the smack of the younger one, Charity, chewing gum. She looks about eighteen. Propping her chin in her hands, she stares down at the peeling varnish on the table-top. Kath, maybe twenty years older, has a glossy brown bob, perfect-looking, nicer than her daughter’s strawberry-blonde hair whose split ends sparkle in the candlelight.
Charity leans forward. ‘You look young. How long’ve you been doing this?’
‘I might look young,’ I say. ‘But I sleep twenty hours a day, I only get up in the evenings, to do this. Takes it out of me.’
‘Do we tell you what we want?’ Kath says. ‘Or do you just know?’ She’s the one to start with, then. Believes me already.
‘I only know what the spirits tell me. Many are flying around here tonight. One of them knows you.’
Kath sits up straight. ‘Who is it?’
‘You’ve been very ill, she tells me.’ Kath touches the ends of her hair. ‘She’s coming through a bit weak, but she says – stress. Maybe.’
‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘Yeah.’
I look away for a moment and when I look back there are nets draped over Kath and Charity, a grey criss-cross of lines.
‘Now she’s telling me about herself,’ I say, keeping my voice steady. ‘She’s a woman who was part of your family not long ago.’
Kath’s hopeful expression doesn’t change.
‘As recently as a few years ago.’
No reaction. The nets tighten over her face and flesh presses up between the strings, like winding thread round your finger. My throat closes in on itself. I swallow and feel sick.
‘As recently as ten years ago,’ I say loudly.
Still blank. Fucksake. Is every woman in her family a hundred years old?
‘She may have had cancer, or some form of –’
‘Marlene, it must be Marlene.’
‘Marlene’s not dead, mum,’ says Charity, picking at the varnish, so that what was transparent lifts from the wood and turns milky white.
‘It could still be Marlene?’ Kath says to me.
‘This woman is older,’ I say. ‘Quite a few years older. Your memories of her may be quite weak. Think back to your childhood.’
‘Who?’ Charity says.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Gramma – great gramma – is telling me about you. She says – you have a lot of photographs at home that need to be sorted out.’ It seems probable that this will be true for most people, though if I do Charity I might have to adjust for digital.
‘Haven’t looked at them for years,’ she says.
‘She’s in some of those photographs,’ I say. ‘If you can find them all, she’ll be there. What else? There is tension. Some tension with a friend or relative at the moment.’
Charity glances at Kath for a second.
‘Someone very close to you. Gramma says you should forgive each other and move on. She says life’s too short. And she tells me about you, Charity, you don’t remember her, but though you put on a front you can be insecure sometimes, especially with people you don’t know.’
She shrugs, picks at the table-top.
‘That’s funny,’ Ray says. He says it very quietly, so only I can hear.
‘What questions do you have for Gramma, Kath?’ I say.
Ray shifts his bulk. His chair creaks. And I remember when we first met, telling him something like what I just told Charity. Something very similar indeed.
My heart starts to beat so fast the paste emerald on my breastbone shivers.
‘Kath?’ I say. ‘What’s your question?’
Ray’s sitting next to me, so I can’t see his face, only his hands resting on the table. Thick pale fingers with tufts of dark hair above the knuckles. I look up, try to concentrate on Kath, on the pink lipstick still colouring her top lip.
‘When’s Nax going to come home?’ she says.
Nax? I don’t even know if that’s a dog or a person.
‘Nax – she’s telling me that Nax is a child –’
‘You could say that.’
I see Ray’s right hand grasp the Cognac bottle, bring it toward him. The candle flame bends and light shifts across the saloon.
‘A grown child, yours or someone close to you –’
‘And he’s in another country,’ I say. Seems like a fair guess.
‘You could say that.’
Sweat prickles my armpits. I wipe my top lip.
‘I mean he’s not all with us,’ I say. She’s nodding. ‘He is quite unwell.’ Nodding. ‘He’s had problems for a long time.’ She frowns. ‘Longer than you know,’ I say. ‘He’s not well in his mind.’ She’s nodding, round-eyed. ‘But he brought it on himself –’
‘Oh my God,’ she says, banging the table with the flat of her hand.
‘Gramma isn’t shocked by that kind of thing anymore. She says –’
‘When’s he going to come home?’ Ray interrupts. ‘They asked when he’s coming home.’
The net tightens round Kath’s face and it bulges like cheese in a string bag.
‘He needs to get his head sorted –’
‘What’s wrong with his head?’ Ray says.
‘Gramma’s not sure what they call it nowadays, but he’s not thinking clearly, he’s not like he used to be, he’s changed a lot.’ In one of the other boats someone has turned on a television, and faintly I hear the opening tune of a popular soap, threatening to puncture the solemnity. I speak faster. ‘You need to help him sort his head out.’
‘She doesn’t know where he is,’ Charity says, folding her arms.
‘Gramma tells me you still love him, don’t you?’ I say to Kath.
‘Course I do.’
‘He can feel the love you have for him – keep having it – keep feeling it. He will call you, in – not too long. When he calls, don’t be angry. Be kind. Tell him you love him. He needs to do the rest.’
She’s crying. She rubs her knuckle into her eye, wiping melting mascara across her cheekbone, gets to her feet. She doesn’t say thank-you.