The ghost collector
This world is full of ghosts; tiny sparks of brief lives lived, or yet to be lived, or never to be lived, fireflies glittering briefly in a dark, infinite world. They are lives that need to be re-lived, over and over, stories that need to be retold; they are traumas that cannot be forgotten and sins that cannot be forgiven; they come from our grief, for those to whom we cannot say goodbye; they come from the grief of others, mourning their own, stillborn lives.
This world is full of ghosts, but we are so caught up in our own lives that we are largely oblivious to them. To us, each ghost is just another commuter, caught up in the swollen tides of rush hour, or a homeless woman, sheltering in a shop doorway. They are blurred shapes in the driving rain, or an inkier darkness in a black night; they are photocopies of photos, pinned to noticeboards; they are the banshee wail of an ambulance that never arrives, or the shrieking brakes of a car that will never stop; they are grey shapes dancing amongst the swirling snowflakes of a blizzard and shadows flitting across the grass on a cloudy day; they are a bodiless laugh, or a crash of glass, or the sudden sharp scent of lemon when sitting crushed between the bodies of other travellers on an overcrowded train.
This world is full of ghosts. You may not be able to see them, but I can. And it’s my job to find them.
The collector came to my office a little after four in the afternoon on a gloomy winter’s day. Night was already falling fast, the sky turned dark blue, the sidewalks treacherous from the day’s snowmelt, now freezing over into sheets of ice. I was glad that I had a home office, in the walkout basement of the small house I shared with various ghosts and my dog, Wilbur. My evening commute home consisted only of walking upstairs. It was too dark, cold and icy to want to go outside.
Wilbur was in agreement with me, curled up fast asleep in his bed, nose to tail-tip. Curled up beside him was the only ghost I had staying with me at the time; a toddler who’d been with me for several weeks (and would be for several more) while I tried to find out who she was and where she was from and who had murdered her, in the hopes of being able to lay her to rest. I’d named her Ellie.
My eyes were tired from staring at a computer screen for much of the day and I was thirsty, a cold cup of untouched coffee sitting beside my keyboard. It was time to take a break. As I pushed back my chair, I could hear the creak of my side gate being opened, the footsteps of someone making their way to the back door. I could hear their feet slipping a little on the flagged path. Then the sharp buzz of the doorbell, that set Wilbur barking ferociously. Ellie gave me a pained look and then burst into tears.
I opened the door, to find a man in his late thirties or early forties, standing on my doorstep. He was pale, smartly dressed in a grey wool overcoat and mustard yellow scarf that seemed inadequate for the cold outside. He looked tired; his skin was dry from the cold and his lips slightly chapped.
“Come in,” I told him, not wanting to let in any more of the cold night air than was necessary.
He hesitated (perhaps because of the chaos behind me, the raucous noise of Wilbur and Ellie combined) then he did as I bade, wiping the damp soles of his leather shoes on my mat. Ellie stopped crying at once, thank goodness, and stared up at him from underneath my desk with a tear-streaked, solemn face. Wilbur stopped barking and went to fetch him a toy, ragged and much chewed, which he presented to the stranger with his whole body wagging in eagerness.
“What a good dog,” the man said, without much conviction, patting Wilbur’s head, tentatively. “And such a, er, such a nice child.”
“She’s a ghost,” I explained. “I’m trying to find her way home for her.”
“Ah, oh. Well. That’s very good of you,” he said, leaning down to gaze at the child with some interest.
We made our introductions. He told me his name was Edwin Hamilton, and that he was a financial analyst. I asked him to sit and we did, in the two comfy armchairs I’ve placed near the large window that looked out onto my snow-covered backyard. I offered him coffee, but he declined. He stared out the window at the winter-bare trees for a moment, as if seeking inspiration for what to say next. Wilbur had given up on getting any attention from him and instead climbed up onto my lap, toy still in mouth. I rubbed his ears, to his delight, while I waited for Edwin Hamilton to speak. Ellie remained under my desk, where I knew she would stay, sitting in Wilbur’s bed. She didn’t care for strangers and given that she’d been strangled before she’d reached three years of age, by a person unknown, I didn’t blame her.
“I have an unusual request,” Edwin said, finally.
“Most of my clients do,” I answered, still rubbing Wilbur’s ears. Edwin (he didn’t look like the kind of man who would shorten his name to Ed) looked around my office. It’s a nice room (in my opinion); quite large, with an open arch leading to the staircase and the rest of the house. There’s my desk and a bookcase filled with paperbacks, plus the small seating area where we were. The walls are painted a sand colour and the floor is light oak, partly covered by a colourful rug.
“I’ve come in search of a ghost,” Edwin said, with a short laugh, returning his attention to me. “Or rather ghosts, I should say.”
I put Wilbur to one side, where he could nestle against me and not be in the way, and picked up my notebook and pen from the coffee table.
“Any particular ghosts?”
“I don’t know,” Edwin answered, with another short laugh, that seemed almost an apology. “I suppose that seems quite strange to you?”
“Not really,” I answered. “You’re not being haunted, then?”
“No,” he replied, after a short hesitation. “No, it’s not that, it’s just…”
I waited in silence for him to find his way to telling me what he wanted. In the end (though he hemmed and hawed his way through the explanation) it was really very simple.
He was a collector, he said. Had been all his life. He earned a good salary and, being unmarried with no children, had chosen to spend it on collecting experiences, rather than things. He’d travelled the world, as much as he could. He’d visited sites of wonder and antiquity, he’d sailed the seas and climbed mountains, he’d seen rare birds and visited places of breathtaking beauty. I hid my surprise at his account of such an active, adventurous life. From the look of him, with his hesitant manner, I’d have said his idea of excitement would have been spending the night with a good book and a cup of hot chocolate.
But now, he said, for the last few years, he’d started to collect ghosts. Not collect them, as such, of course. But to watch them, to observe them. But it was frustrating, he said. He was psychic enough to see ghosts, but the ones he saw were few and far between. He wanted a guide, he said. To open his eyes, to show him a city that he was certain was teeming with ghosts, if only he could find them.
I questioned him some more, but gently. He seemed shyer than Ellie, guarded and wary and I thought he might run away if I asked anything too probing or pointed. But I established, quite firmly, that there were no particular ghosts he wanted to see, no particular kind of haunting that he had in mind. He only wanted to see at least one ghost and, perhaps, if he liked the experience, more than one. To see if he could collect, as it were, the ghosts - though he supposed there was no way of cataloguing such a collection.
I rightly guessed that the last vague statement was more of a question.
“Well, you could photograph them,” I said, with a wave at the photographs that hung on my walls. They were pictures of the ghosts I’d helped over the years, and even some of those I hadn’t been able to help, or who were beyond help, by the time I found them.
“These are all ghosts?” he asked, with a hint of wonder.
“Why, how marvellous.”
I smiled at his childish delight at the pictures, as he gazed upon each one.
“And of course,” he said, after he’d seen them all, “you have a ghost right here, in this room.”
He crouched down to look at Ellie, still sitting in Wilbur’s bed under the desk.
“But you don’t have a photograph of her?”
“No,” I said, without further explanation.
Edwin returned to his seat and questioned me eagerly about how I went about photographing phantoms - who are notoriously tricky to capture on camera. I explained a few of my techniques to him, and showed him my cameras and the filters that were of my own design that I used with them.
“Perhaps, you could take the photographs for me,” he suggested. “Though I only want photographs of ghosts I’ve seen with my own eyes.”
“I can build you a similar filter, if you want to take the photos yourself,” I suggested.
“No, no, that’s fine. I’m happy for you to do it.”
I was a little surprised at that. I would have thought a hobbyist such as himself would have latched on with interest to the idea of acquiring and learning how to use specialist equipment. But perhaps my old-fashioned camera and its home-made filter wasn’t really specialist enough - too mundane for a collector like himself.
I suggested that the best way to show him ghosts was to take him on various walking tours of the city, primarily at dusk or dawn, in that tricky light when ghosts are most visible. Despite the wintry cold (which I wasn’t relishing the prospect of), he agreed, eagerly. We settled on a fee (I named a high price, expecting to be haggled down, but he promptly agreed to pay it). He signed the standard contract that I kept on my computer and printed out. We agreed to meet the following afternoon, and shook hands.
That was my first encounter with the collector.
The next day we met at a coffee shop near my house, two hours before sunset. I had Wilbur with me, but not Ellie. Wilbur greeted him with a wagging tail, which Edwin politely acknowledged. He made no mention of Ellie’s absence and I realised that his interest in her had, after all, only been that she was a ghost. I had lain awake the previous night wondering about him, and his interest in ghosts, and wondering if he had a connection to Ellie in the living world, and if this was some oblique way of approaching me about her. But I was wrong. As my friend Sam always says: I’ve read too many mystery books and I’m always looking for the twist in the tale.
I took Edwin on a tour of my neighbourhood, as a preliminary ghost-hunting excursion, to give him a taste of what it was like. It was cold, of course, well below freezing and I was muffled up in a down-filled jacket, the hood up over my warm hat and scarf, along with fleece-lined trousers and insulated snow boots. He was wearing the same woollen overcoat and yellow scarf he’d worn the previous day, over thin suit trousers and black leather shoes. His hat was an old-fashioned fedora, that gave him a distinguished air, but surely couldn’t have kept him warm, and his gloves were black leather. I was surprised he wasn’t hypothermic, but he wasn’t even shivering and he assured me that he was fine.
“I’ve never felt the cold,” he smiled at me. “Perhaps because I was born and raised here.”
We trudged along icy streets in the late afternoon sun. The first ghost I had to show him was that of a small farmhouse, which can be seen in certain lights through the walls of the yellow mansion that was built on the site of it. The farmhouse is in flames, and in August you can sometimes even hear the faint screams of the mother whose baby died there.
Then I showed him the ghost of the schoolgirl who hanged herself at the local basketball court after a blazing row with her father over how much trashy TV she was watching, and the ghost of the father, that sits on the nearby swings and watches his daughter kill herself, each and every night. Neither of them are easy to see, but the collector was still surprised at the two well-bundled up children who were playing nearby in the snow, and their parents who were alternating their gaze between their progeny and their phone screens, all of them seeming to be oblivious to the ghosts.
“Not everyone sees ghosts,” I told him. “Most don’t. Not unless they have a psychic to show them, anyhow.”
“But people can be haunted? And then they can see them?”
“Oh yes. If a ghost is strong enough, they can make anyone see them, or hear them, or sense them, at least. But even people who are haunted usually can’t see other ghosts - the ghosts that are always here, in the background, not haunting anyone unless it’s themselves.”
We watched the father and his daughter for awhile and I took photographs, as the collector requested. I’d never photographed these two before, though I walked past them several times a week. They weren’t ghosts I’d been able to help - both were resistant to any attempt at exorcism, and I’d long since given up trying. I hadn’t wanted the reminder of them hanging on my wall, not when I was already reminded of them every time I walked to the grocery store.
We continued our walk, to the local small shopping center, with its grocery store and pharmacy, neighborhood bar and liquor store and its three coffee shops catering to our city’s caffeine addiction (one was a sandwich place, the second a donut shop and the third a bookstore and cafe). There, I showed him the ghosts of the cattle that congregated in the parking lot, milling around aimlessly.
“This was a cattle market once,” I explained. “Sometimes, after a storm, the cattle escape onto Chestnut Avenue, and I get called in to help round them up.”
“Why round them up, if people can’t see them?”
“Most can’t, no. But about three percent of the population are psychic and it only takes one of them to see the cows, not realise they’re ghosts and slam on their brakes, to cause an accident. On the whole, it’s safest to herd them back into the parking lot where, even if someone does realise they’re there, they’re not driving at any speed.”
By the time we’d finished the evening’s walk, the sky was dark and clear overhead, promising more cold to come, but no more snow to refresh the dirty, icy stuff that lined the roads and squeaked beneath our feet. Edwin declared himself well satisfied with the walk, and I promised to send him the photographs I’d taken.
“On the whole,” he said, rather diffidently, as he said goodbye. “I’d rather see human ghosts, I think. And the farmhouse was interesting. But I’m not all that bothered about cows, if it’s all the same to you.”
I assured him that it was indeed all the same to me. We parted company, having arranged to meet again in a few days’ time. I thought, as I watched him make his way up the street towards the subway station, that he’d been a little disappointed with my first tour. Perhaps it had been too quiet for him, to walk around my small, sleepy neighborhood. Perhaps he needed more hustle and bustle, or more ghosts than the few I’d found around here. Or perhaps, I thought, with a rueful smile, it was just the cows. They’d clearly not impressed him.
We met many more times over the next few months, as winter gradually gave way to spring’s advance. The weather warmed up, and grew wetter, and the days grew longer. The city burst into life - first pale pink and yellow and white with blossom, then a sudden, startling green. The birds sang joyfully and the roads were finally swept clean of the grit and trash that had lined their gutters all winter. Then summer came, all in a rush, as is its way, with an early heatwave that had us all complaining, completely forgetting how much we’d longed for the sun’s warmth, only a few weeks ago. I found Ellie’s murderer (who’d also murdered the seven women whose bodies she’d been found next to, in a mass grave amongst the sand dunes of the north coast). I gave my evidence to the police and Ellie faded away a few days after they arrested him.
Over those months, as well as my other work, I showed Edwin the ghosts of the city, meeting with him two or three times a week. I showed him poltergeists and restligeists, revenants and parasites, revenge ghosts and time slips, mirror-haunts and dopplegangers, banshees and ghouls. I showed him the missing and the forgotten, the guilty and the unforgiven. I showed him the ghostly slums of downtown, flickering in and out amongst the glass towers that had replaced them, and let him listen to the cries of invisible children playing tag in the otherwise deserted and sterile streets.
Each time that I took him to somewhere new, Edwin was excited and hopeful. Each time, he professed himself delighted with what I’d shown him, and he paid me well. But each time, it seemed to me that he went away a little disappointed. Though he never claimed to be looking for something specific, I still got the impression that there was something he was searching for, with a quiet urgency. He wasn’t just a collector, or at least not an undiscerning one. There was something he was looking for, and the ghosts I’d shown him weren’t it.
I showed him the ghosts of summer roses, still blooming in the wintry Public Gardens, the horses and carriages that bowled through the shopping district, amongst the buses and the taxis and the tourists. I showed him ghosts that were homeless, ghosts that were dispossessed, and the ghosts of mourners in old-fashioned dress, strolling through the city’s picturesque cemetery on a balmy Sunday afternoon, our shadows and theirs long and spindly against the weather-worn headstones. I showed him the ghost of the river that ran underneath the city’s eastern streets, where once there had been docks and underground canals. I showed him the docks themselves, flickering in the dim light, the curses of the stevedores loud in the gathering twilight. I showed him how the streets around the courthouse, built on reclaimed swamp, flooded with every spring tide with phantom waters. Still, these were not the ghosts he was looking for.
I showed him the ghosts of wooden pleasure boats on the river, painted gaudy red and green, sailing in the early summer nights. Together, we listened to the piteous cries of those who’d drowned, over thirty years ago, when a raucous party boat sank. With me, he felt the heat of the ghost-fires that still rage through the city every June, and heard the air-raid sirens wailing through an unseasonably warm May night. I showed him the disused subway stations, and the commuters in suits and bowler hats that still throng their platforms. I showed him the prostitutes that had once walked the streets of quietly gentrified neighbourhoods, and the young woman who fled, screaming, through the corridors of an old mansion on top of a hill. Still, though he was pleased, and took copious notes, and assiduously catalogued each one alongside the photos I took for him... still, though he paid me well… these were not the ghosts that he was looking for.
Each time, he insisted that there was no specific haunting that he had in mind, no ghost or ghosts that he was particularly searching for, but as time went on, I knew that there was more to his search than he was letting on to me - or perhaps, even to himself. As the city wilted in the summer heat, spring’s fresh bloom replaced by dry dust and sudden thunderstorms, I started to look for Edwin Hamilton, both online and in the real world. I found records of his parents’ marriage - Philip Hamilton had been a wine merchant from a family grown wealthy supplying the rich with their champagne and imported wines. Harriet Hamilton, born Harriet Windermere, had been shunned by most of her social circle upon her marriage to a man so far beneath her in class. But her family had been impoverished and she had been plain and rather dull and Philip Hamilton had been the only man to propose marriage, her only way out from genteel poverty and permanent spinsterhood. The only way to escape the gentle, clinging confines of her family and their insistence on maintaining standards, long after the money to do so existed.
Philip had saved the family from debt and disgrace, and Harriet had gazed gratefully upon him in their wedding photo. He had been fifteen years her senior, balding and plump in a morning suit and top hat that didn’t suit him. Beside him, Harriet had looked - not pretty, exactly - but young, and slim and stylish in an old-fashioned wedding dress that had been her mother’s, according to the gossip columns of the day. Edwin’s birth had been announced in the papers, several years later, with the gossips claiming Harriet and Philip were ecstatic at the final arrival of their long-awaited first-born child, son and heir. As it turned out, he was to be an only child.
After that, the Hamiltons mostly disappeared from the gossip columns and the public gaze, despite all my searching. There were death notices for Harriet’s parents, and mention of the debts they left behind. Windermere Manor was sold to a wealthy foreigner, to the neighbours’ dismay. Then Philip died, whilst at work, of a heart attack, more than twenty years before Harriet, who died in a nursing home. She was visited there by her favourite niece, who was the source of much of the information I found out about Philip and Harriet. Her niece told me, as her brief obituary hadn’t, that Harriet had died in a ‘confused’ state, thinking she was still a debutante who must get her dress ready for the Black & White Ball.
By the time I’d finished my researches, the leaves had changed colour and started to fall, the days had grown crisp and cool with morning frosts. Dusk came earlier, the evenings drawing in, and it was pleasant, cosy even, to walk around the city, looking in the lighted windows of shops and cafes and family homes, watching the people inside, small snippets of their lives.
I took Edwin to see the site of the concert killings that had happened only a few years ago, and where the ghosts still wander bewildered through the makeshift memorials of flowers and photos, candles and teddy bears that still linger there, the locals determined not to let this shooting, amongst all the other shootings, become just another shooting, too soon forgotten, too easily eclipsed by the latest atrocity. Wilbur was with us, sniffing at the wilting flowers and rain-sodden teddy bears, eagerly snuffling at the ghosts with his wet, inviting nose, some of whom would squat down to pet him, and perhaps find some small comfort in his bright eyes, his soft coat, his floppy ears and his friendly, wagging tail.
You may wonder about the motives of someone who wants to see such ghosts, to walk amongst them, ‘collect’ them by recording them in his notebook with meticulous notes. You may even call such a person a ghoul (but only if you’ve never met an actual ghoul). But Edwin got no thrill from his collection, no vicarious kick. He watched the ghosts with eyes that shone wetly in the streetlight; he took notes and I took photos. His motive, I believe, was the same as that of the locals who still left their flowers and notes and other mementoes. So the ghosts would not be forgotten. So as to acknowledge the value of the lives that had been stolen from them. So as to not completely let go.
Afterwards, we went to a coffee shop and I talked to him about the research I’d done on him and his family. I showed him a photograph, the colours fading, cracks appearing in the middle. It was of a woman who was not particularly pretty, but was young and slim and beaming with pride. Beside her was a man fifteen years her senior - balding and portly, dressed in a three-piece pinstripe suit. He too was smiling, a little stiffly, the pride shining from his eyes. In the woman’s arms, she held a baby, wrapped up in an old-fashioned christening dress, the same dress she had worn on her christening day. I’d got the photo from Harriet Hamilton’s niece, the one who’d visited Harriet in her nursing home in her later years, the woman who’d written her scant obituary. Old herself now, with an unsteady, painful gait and swollen feet and hands, she’d kept a few of Harriet’s keepsakes in a shoebox, this photo amongst them. With the help of her son, she’d found the shoebox, and the photo, and had allowed me to borrow it.
It was the only photo of Edwin, taken a few months before he broke his parents’ hearts. Taken before he died of meningitis, just before he turned one years old. I showed Edwin the photo, and told him the brief story of his stillborn life, ended almost before it was begun. He was a ghost, haunting the world, trying to live the life that he would have lived, had he lived. But had he lived, he would now be over eighty years old, not the middle-aged man he appeared to be. He’d slipped out of sync with time and hadn’t realised; if he’d lived, he’d not have had much time left by now, if any at all.
Edwin gazed at the photo solemnly and thanked me with a quiet dignity. Then he left the coffee shop, fading away amongst the other pedestrians who were out enjoying a pleasant autumn night, with a few stars visible above the sodium streetlights.
I let him go, knowing I wouldn’t see him again. Knowing that the money he’d paid me was as phantom as he, disappearing from my bank account that very night. (Fortunately, I was prepared for that. This was not the first time I’d had a ghost for a client.) I returned the photo of him and his loving parents to Harriet’s niece, and told her and her son the story of Edwin and his stillborn, ghostly life. He’d made no friends and had no lovers, made no impact on the world at all, as far as I could tell. His story of his job as a successful financial analyst was just a ghost’s daydream. But I believed that he had indeed explored the world, as he’d said he had. That he’d climbed mountains and sailed seas, that he’d seen rare sights of beauty and of antiquity. He’d been in the world for as long as he could, walking its streets, leaving no footprints, watching the people of the world, and its ghosts. It was as much of a life as than any other. But his haunting was over now; his story was told and I had told it. He had found the ghost he was looking for.