Episode 1 – First Encounters

Hopefully it’s recording wouldn’t want to sit here confessing to an empty room. My name is…well, my name’s Sarah, Sarah McIlwraith. Although I make it sound like it’s James Bond. You’re listening to my voice because I have a story to tell – well, it’s more like stories plural.

You’ll never have heard my name, at least I hope not. My name may be new, but Dr Robin Strother’s won’t be. There was a time when everyone knew his name, but I’m sure in the 15 years since he’s probably faded from memory. For those rare listeners who don’t know, he was the man at the centre of one of the biggest scandals in scientific history. Everywhere you went his face was never far away, his name muttered around every office, every panel show, and every dinner table.

In case you did stumble here by accident, intrigued by the title, Dr Robin Strother was the man in the centre of the IPP scandal. IPP was the acronym for the study he was conducting, short for Investigation into paranormal phenomena. According to the popular story he took money, forged the results, and tried to con the entire world into believing them. Except that none of that’s true, and I know because I was there. My name wasn’t in any of the reports, or interviews, or exposes by gossip columns, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have anything to say. So, I’m saying it now, 15 years too late. Just in case you haven’t heard of Robin Strother, he is, or used to be, a parapsychologist. He investigated supernatural phenomena like hauntings, or people claiming to be psychics, and usually proved them to be false. Very few people in the mainstream knew his name before the scandal, but he was respected in the field of psychology for his work.

I’m not a psychologist. I’m a data analyst by profession, but once, quite a long time ago now, I was a PhD student under the supervision of Dr Strother and his study team. I spent almost 3 years with them, and sometimes it felt like not a week went by without something happening.

But let me start at the beginning. It’s important to know that I was never eager to take the position on Strother’s team, for reasons that’ll become clear. I was an average undergraduate student studying at a university in Glasgow, which I’ll keep anonymous, in case they decide to sue me. For my dissertation, I ended up working on a collaboration between my department and Psychology. That’s how I met Dr Kenneth Douglas, another name you’ll probably recognise if you’re familiar with the study. He was a clinical psychologist. I won’t go into details about my dissertation, it would only bore you as much as it did me. I submitted and thought that was the end of it until, a few weeks before graduation, I received an email from Dr Douglas, or Ken as he preferred to be known, inquiring if I had any career plans.

I told him I didn’t. What I didn’t tell him was that I wanted to enjoy one last summer of freedom before inevitably ending up in a soul-destroying graduate job. He told me he’d taken a position on a research team based at another Scottish university, and that a PhD opportunity had arisen. He didn’t say it would suit me, or that I was the first person who came to mind. In hindsight I realise he was uncharacteristically ambiguous about the whole thing. Regardless I agreed to meet and chat about it because I felt I owed him that for being one of my supervisors.

When we met, he told me all about the research team, and when he could say no more about them, he started on what the research actually was. If I could explain his facial expression, I would say it was reluctance, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was about to say. This team had secured a grant, or been given a lot of money. It was as unclear then as it is now, to conduct research into the paranormal like ghosts, poltergeists, ESP, mediumship, everything you can think of was of interest.

Many people would have laughed. Belief in the supernatural was a controversial subject, society, then as now, was deeply divided. My generation were meant to believe in science, in facts and numbers, tangible evidence. I’m sure that would have been the case if I hadn’t spent my entire life seeing ghosts.

You probably think I’m lying, but what use is there for me to lie now, after all this time? I can count on one hand how many people I’ve told, and Strother was one of them, but that wasn’t until later. Sometimes I think I should have spoken out then when Strother was being painted as a conman, his reputation and career in pieces. I could never tell if he was protecting me, or the rest of the world from knowledge it wasn’t ready for. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Don’t think the irony was lost on me. A young woman who can see ghosts being asked to join research investigating people who see ghosts. You see during university I’d become increasingly skilled at ignoring them, the ghosts I mean, pretending they didn’t exist. They’re not shadows, or flashes in the corner of my eye, they’re as clear as day, as if I’m looking at a real human being.

These people who fall into trances, who commune with the dead by shouting out a name until someone in the audience inevitably claims it, those people are fake. When the dead talk, it’s impossible not to hear.

I should’ve refused. How many times I’ve had that thought in the years since. I didn’t, of course. We wouldn’t be here if I had. I acted like a serial killer who’s begging to be caught. They’re so proud with what they’ve done, with what they’ve gotten away with, that they just want to boast about it to anyone who’ll listen. At the time I justified my choice in that if I was close to the research, in the eye of the storm, then they’d never suspect me and I’d never be caught. You’ll see how well that went.

Strother was quite a stereotypical academic. He was unreliable, and constantly late. There are a few other less savoury words I can use but there’ll be plenty of time for that. I remember those first few weeks when he was due to join us. There was a number of times where we all sat around the table in the meeting room, which had no windows and a nauseating smell of plastic, for between 10 and 20 minutes before he graced us with a text making his apologies. I lost count of how many times he did that.

For the most part the research was conducted smoothly by the rest of the team in his absence. Ken I’ve already mentioned, and the final researcher was Dr Stephanie Pearce, a neuropsychologist who was already respected for her research. I always got the impression she didn’t like me very much. I can imagine she’ll like me even less for these recordings.

I could never understand why Ken and Steph joined Strother’s research. My reasoning was sound to me, but what excuse did they have? The subject matter was always a little different, but perhaps they believed the reward would be worth it. I almost wish, for their sakes, it had been.

Regardless of Strother’s presence, or lack of, controls started being seen. Controls is just a fancy term for normal people, but you know what academia’s like. Recruitment was slow in those first few weeks. I’ve mostly forgotten what the experiments entailed, but they were the gold standard at the time. My job was to analyse the data produced from these experiments. It sounds quite boring, but I don’t remember it being like that.

The office they had me in was small, but not claustrophobically so. I do remember it being dark a lot of the time, gloomy almost, like when rain clouds suddenly cover the sun. The lights had a motion sensor, so would turn themselves off if I sat still for too long. It could just be that the time I spent working alone at night in there has tainted my memories somehow. There were 4 computers, one of which was mine. They were all top of the range, installed with the latest software, premium processors and high-resolution screens. It never struck me at the time as being odd, but with experience I know it was. Academia isn’t a place to work if you want to be rich and have the latest software.

When they weren’t busy with subjects, the rest of the team would sit in there with me. There was a large table in the middle made of oak, or plastic made to look the same. It wasn’t round or rectangular, and shaped more like a Venn diagram. You know, the pretentious ones that’re just far enough outside of the box to be interesting. On it were spread relevant articles, book excerpts, and various printed requests from people who were replying to the advertisements we’d sent out for reports of unexplainable phenomena.

The first time I met Strother was when he walked into that office. I was working on my own in there when a stranger waltzed in and began to sift through the papers. Pages were picked up as quickly as they were thrown down. The building was card access only, but that didn’t necessarily mean it was secure, despite the warning emails. I should confess at this point that I had no idea what Strother looked like, we’d never met. Ken had sorted out my position before I started. To me, the man who’d barged into the office and begun rifling through the paperwork was a complete stranger.

I swivelled around in my chair and told him he needed authorisation to be in the building. He replied that he knew with noticeable irritation. His accent was the first thing that struck me. It was very strong, at least to me, someone who’d rarely been over the border. Strother hailed from Yorkshire, and no matter where he’d been since the distinctive accent still shaped his words.

Robin Strother was quite a tall, well-built man. He was in his early forties when the study started, but the years had been kind. He had a square jawline, always cleanly shaven. There were a few grey hairs that shone from his temples, but they were only noticeable if you looked hard enough. In the interest of full disclosure, Strother wasn’t a bad looking man. It’s just a shame his personality wasn’t so pleasant.

Back then you weren’t supposed to confront strangers, but I was young and so of course I did. I stood up from my chair, so I wouldn’t feel so small, and pressed him to show me some identification. He ignored me. As I was in the middle of repeating the demand, he interrupted me, and I’ll never forget his words.

Be quiet, woman.

If a man said that to me these days, I’d be charged for assault, but I was young back then. That’s my favourite excuse, at least, as if it absolves me of all responsibility. I didn’t know what to do about the stranger. Thankfully, I was saved further fretting when Ken walked in. Before I could say anything Strother slapped the papers on the table and rounded impatiently on his colleague.

What kind of thing have you brought with you, he demanded, I could have been anyone and she did nothing to stop me.

I was already riled up by this point and it took all of my restraint not to ram those bits of papers up his arse. Ken began to smile lightly and replied that Strother wouldn’t have liked anything I’d done, as he was always inclined to hate students. It was only through his reply that I was able to identify the stranger as Dr Strother. Our first meeting certainly didn’t endear him to me, but he was never great at first impressions.

He was even reluctant to be introduced to me. He appeared not to care about my name, or even that I was there at all. If it weren’t for my insistence, he’d have spent the entire three years of my PhD not knowing me from Adam.

Needless to say, I made it a priority to avoid Strother after that, more out of fear I’d end up doing or saying something that would see me asked to leave. In the coming weeks various subjects came and went, with Strother playing a greater part than he’d done before. He quickly dismissed all of the self-proclaimed mediums and psychics that came in as fakes, which only served to make my job more difficult since they still had data that needed analysing.

As a result, I ended up working late into the night. As I said before the building was card access only and after a certain time of night no one came in, only out, until I was alone. It was near midnight, when my eyes were stinging from staring too long at the screen that I heard it from the hallway outside the office.

Many people, normal people, think of a reasonable explanation, although I’m interested to hear what it’d be in that situation. It’s true that I didn’t know if I was alone in the building, but people don’t usually stay until midnight at work just to go around laughing in the hallways. Silence breeds silence, that’s why people are reluctant to cough during an exam.

I ignored the sound, pretended like I couldn’t hear it. Instead, I began to type, forcing myself to be more interested in whatever I’d been doing before. It came again, the laugh, soft and gentle, like that from a delighted bairn. This time it was closer than before. To me it sounded like it was just beyond the closed door to the office.

I stopped typing but didn’t turn around. I couldn’t see what was on the other side of the door but I knew, I’d known from the moment I’d first heard it. Something began to tap on the wood, lightly, succinctly, not in a threatening way but in a way that was asking rather than demanding attention.

Leave me alone, I whispered, begged.

But the tapping continued. Tap, tap, tap, until I thought it would drive me insane. Eventually I stood up and went to the door, hesitating before I grasped the metal handle and swung it open to reveal the corridor. which was empty. The flickering of the lights above made the shadows dance on the wall opposite, but there was nothing there. Gingerly I stepped out into the hallway and looked in one direction and then the other. The air had a grey haze, as though there was a fire somewhere and smoke was billowing out. Squinting down the hallway I thought I saw something, but it was hard to distinguish any detail in the poor, flickering lights. It was a shadow, a mass of blackness that looked like nothing and everything all at the same time. It writhed grotesquely, tendrils of darkness reaching out from the centre before fading to nothing.

By the time it took me to blink the shadowy mass had disappeared and was replaced by an unassuming wee girl. I told you before, ghosts aren’t transparent apparitions to me, they’re as close to flesh and bone that the dead can be. Despite not being able to see through her, there was a strangeness to her, an ethereal distortion that ensured I wouldn’t mistake her for the living. Her chocolate brown hair was in tightly curled ringlets that shimmered even when she stood still. She was wearing a smock of some kind that reminded me of what Victorian dolls used to wear, shapeless, frilly dresses that came down to the knee. Her summery blue eyes pinned me with a stare that I can still picture clearly. They screamed with desperation. It was only for a brief second, between one breath and the next, before she skipped off down the hallway and stopped to look at me, expectantly. It was like she knew I’d follow.

Present Day

There’s another reason I’m recording these statements. I can only tell you the truth from my perspective, but my truth isn’t necessarily fact. I was only a PhD student, and a lot of things happened above my head. I can promise that Strother never forged results. His social skills may have been lacking but his scientific integrity never was. That paper he was supposed to have published, none of us had seen it before. I’ve thought for a long time now that someone set us up, or rather, set Strother up.

I want to find who it was, and my only clue, mostly conspiracy theories, is whoever funded the research. It was never clear where the money came from, even the press couldn’t find out, but they’re conspicuous by their absence, which makes me believe they might have had something to do with it. Why they did it, how they were involved, if they were involved, are all questions I want answers to.

I may have copies of the data for everyone in the study, but I don’t have any information on who we were funded by. The first place I started was the university where we were based.

I emailed them a few days ago to see if they’d release any information. Strother must’ve submitted some paperwork for us to be based there. He’d worked there before, but I can’t imagine they agreed just because of that. Especially considering the subject matter.

The reply I received was reluctant, and didn’t give me much hope. Strother and his study have become so infamous that the university was eager to distance itself. I can’t imagine they’d be too happy when faced with my inquiry.

It took them 2 days to reply, in fact it came in this morning. It’s filled with typical rhetoric about not being responsible or affiliated with the study. They’ve tried their best to wash their hands of the whole thing. I suppose I’m glad they decided to release any information at all. I thought they’d have burned it to ward off further misfortune. I know I’ve been tempted. There were a few documents attached and I’ll admit I’ve not gone through them in fine detail.

The largest file is Strother’s protocol, or study outline, that’s at least 20 pages long which he submitted before the research began. The frustrating thing is it’s so detailed about everything he planned to do, but the part of the form where it asks for funding has been left suspiciously blank. The rest of the documents they sent me only state the funding as private sector.

Even I managed to guess that no research council had funded our study, but I was hoping Strother would have at least had the integrity to write down where it had come from.

You’re probably wondering why I don’t just ask him. Perhaps the sharper of you have already guessed.

Why did I wait 15 years to do this, to record my stories? Why didn’t I step forward when Strother was being torn down? Some of you may know, but most of you won’t. Dr Robin Strother died 2 weeks ago. His modest obituary was buried amongst adverts for car auctions and family days out. I know it may seem as though I didn’t like him, and at the beginning I didn’t, but he grew on me, for some unknown reason. And if it weren’t for him, you and the rest of the world would already know my name.

His funeral’s tomorrow. I don’t know whether to go, if I should go. It’s difficult to explain what my life’s been like since. It’s funny how easily you can forget something, only to realise that it was hiding rather than lost. For some reason I always thought I had time, time to fix things, time to clear our names. Now I don’t. That guilt, it’s been hiding, lurking beneath the surface of my life only to be unleashed when I realised Strother spent the last 15 years of his living in seclusion, his career, his reputation, everything he ever cared about, ruined.

It just goes to show that ghosts aren’t the only things that haunt the living.

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