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Episode 5 – The Teacher’s Truth

So, where did we leave St Mary’s? Ah yes, all of the equipment on the ground floor had been deactivated. I was just thankful they hadn’t been destroyed. After looking around again, hoping no one would jump out at me, I reset the equipment and was just about to leave when I swore I saw a pair of eyes staring at me through the darkness from the bottom of the stairs. I could barely make out a silhouette, or any other features, but the eyes were clear, distinct across the distance. I dared not breathe or blink in case it was my imagination. I began to doubt it was a ghost, but when it faded back into the darkness my suspicions were confirmed. Because I’d reset the equipment I couldn’t walk back to investigate, but did note that none of the sensors had gone off at its appearance. I had no choice but to return to the van.

When I arrived I began to rewind the cameras that had been on, but nothing had ascended the stairs to the first or second floor. Without the recordings of the ground floor, it was impossible to tell who’d been there. And I was sure it was a who and not a what. Perhaps the explanation of teenagers breaking in was closer to the truth than I’d given credit for. But then again, why would teenagers take the time to switch the equipment off rather than just steal it? The scream had been so loud that it’d been picked up on the recorders on the second floor. Turning the volume up I listened to the minutes before in the hopes of hearing something that would offer an explanation. It was difficult to make out, but I thought I heard a door opening somewhere, the faint shuffling of footsteps, more like someone dragging their feet, and then the scream. Afterwards there was muttering, indistinct, but definitely human. A few minutes later I heard the door again.

It could’ve been teenagers, but there is someone who makes more sense. There was a back door which used to be a fire exit, but we’d been told it was bolted and practically welded shut. Can you guess who told us that? If Mr Huntingdon hadn’t given me enough reason to be suspicious of him before, then the recording certainly had. But I wasn’t about to storm over and interrogate him.

I sat and waited for our shift to finish, thinking about the scream. It sounded to me like a woman’s, but it was hard to tell. You’d be surprised at some men’s vocal range. I also didn’t know anything about the door whoever it was had used, only that it led to the back of the building, where the Huntingdon’s house was. It would certainly fit that the caretaker had something to do with it. It explained his reluctance to have us there. He also described his wife as highly strung, which to me at the time was just a polite way of saying crazy. Did Mrs Huntingdon have anything to do with the scream?

What was perhaps more important was that I hadn’t seen a ghost, not in the normal way. Yet, the feeling I’d experienced on the stairs lingered, as did the pair of eyes I’d seen staring at me through the gloom. Was it vertigo, or was I missing something? These thoughts kept me awake until Strother and Steph returned to relieve us. I was desperate to go to sleep so when Strother asked Ken if anything had happened, I didn’t pipe in. It was spiteful of me, but he treated me like an incompetent child, assuming I’d be the one to fall asleep, so I wasn’t going to make his life easier.

I got my comeuppance when I returned a few hours later to check-in. Strother had listened to the recordings and viewed the footage, and demanded to know why I hadn’t said anything. For my sins, I told him he hadn’t asked me. I still get a kick from remembering how irritated he was at my petulant answer. It led him to commanding me to tell him everything in future. Something I never did. I also told him that some of the equipment had been disconnected and hadn’t recorded whatever had gone on during the night. He wasn’t happy, but knew we had another night to record.

We spent the rest of the day filing through the documents that Steph had procured from the city council about St Mary’s, the ones which hadn’t been digitised. It was as I was looking through that I came across a small newspaper article about a teacher who’d gone missing in the 80s. She’d worked at the school for a few years, and one morning didn’t appear for work. The poignant detail about the article was the face that stared up at me, possessing the same set of eyes I’d peered through the darkness the night before. Armed with her name, a Lucy Rodgers, I did a quick Google search which came up with very little. I didn’t need to see an obituary to know she was dead. I was convinced that whatever I’d seen the night before was her. The big question now was what happened to her? How was she connected to the scream everyone heard from inside the building?

I had a feeling Mr Huntingdon may provide the answers I wanted, whether about the scream or Lucy Rodgers, I wasn’t sure, but he was hiding something. As if reading my mind, the man himself appeared outside the classroom we were in. His wife had sent him to ask if we wanted anything to eat. The tension between the caretaker and Strother was palpable and made the rest of us deeply uncomfortable. Strother threw some more insults and a firm dismissal. Before Mr Huntingdon could leave, I asked if I could use his bathroom. By the look I received from Strother you’d have thought I suggested we burn the building down. The caretaker begrudgingly gave me his permission and I walked with him to his house.

It was a nice place, if not a little unusual considering the surroundings. It was a bungalow, painted white, with lace curtains covering the windows. Small figurines of Victorian ladies and ballerinas graced the windowsills. Just as the school was, the cottage was stuck in a different time. There was a rough brown welcome mat in front of the door, company for the hedgehog shoe cleaner. As soon as Mr Huntingdon opened the door the smell of fresh baking assaulted me, scrambling up my nose and down my throat. It was pleasant, if not overpowering. The warm air that greeted me was a welcome change from the chill that lingered in St Mary’s.

I followed him past closed doors and into an open plan kitchen where a petite white-haired woman stood in a floral apron rolling out some pastry. I presumed she was his wife. Her husband muttered something about academics not having any manners, to which she replied neither did he making me stand there. He eventually grunted in the direction of the bathroom.

I’ve met a lot of highly-strung people in my life, and Mrs Huntingdon never struck me as one. There was something about the atmosphere that I couldn’t put my finger on. The sweet smell wasn’t inviting, but sickly, as though it were masking something else, something less pleasant. I could’ve been moulding my opinion around what Mr Huntingdon had said about his wife, it’s hard to remain impartial sometimes.

When I returned to the kitchen, I made polite chitchat with the couple, but soon dove straight into the reason I’d actually come to their house. I asked about Lucy Rodgers, more specifically if they’d known her. It happened again, the hesitation I’d observed when I asked Mr Huntingdon if he’d seen anything. Where he looked pained, it was his wife’s turn to stutter and stumble over her words. I swore she’d gone several shades paler, but began to shake her head and frown, as though she were confused. Her husband was visibly unhappy I’d asked. She answered that there had been a lot of teachers through the years, and because they’d been living there for more than twenty, they couldn’t remember every face. What was more interesting was that she added that she didn’t remember one ever going missing. I’d never mentioned anything about that, only her name. Mr Huntingdon caught onto his wife’s blunder and shooed me out of the house rather quickly.

Once we were outside, he confessed to me that his wife had Alzheimers and that her memory was erratic and strange at times. I didn’t know if it was true, or if he was lying to cover something up. I asked him if he’d known Lucy Rodgers, or remembered her, and he nodded solemnly. I felt pity when faced with the look in his eye, melancholic and brimming with regret. He took a deep breath and then admitted to me that he’d been having an affair with Lucy Rodgers before she’d left St Mary’s. His wife had found out and it’d nearly ended their marriage. Not wanting to lose her, he ended his relationship with the young teacher, and she’d disappeared soon after. He surmised she’d been upset by the way she’d been treated and simply vanished so she could start a new life.

Of course, he had no idea I knew she was dead, or that I’d seen her ghost the night before just after the screaming. I was beginning to think the caretaker and his wife were entangled in the fate of Lucy Rodgers in a more sinister way than I’d imagined. Had she killed herself after Mr Huntingdon had ended the relationship? Had his wife killed his mistress out of hatred for stealing her husband? If it was possible, my conversation with the caretaker had only given me more questions and no answers.

I didn’t have long to wait. Secretly, I’d moved one of the cameras so it was facing the Huntingdon’s house. During my watch with Ken, who again snoozed, I saw Mrs Huntingdon stumble from the front door and make her way to the back entrance of the school. I quietly slipped out and went inside after her, ensuring to hide in a classroom at the end of the corridor where she couldn’t see me. I had a clear view of the bottom of the stairs and just as she arrived, I saw the rippling in the air, and the ghostly eyes appear out of the darkness.

The form was blurry, not fully opaque, but as black as coal. The eyes were distinct, the part of her that was most in focus, as though it were in 4K. Mrs Huntingdon stumbled along the corridor and for a moment, I thought she’d stop at the bottom of the stairs and acknowledge the ghost. Instead she spent a few seconds staring up to the landing, before she ascended, out of sight. The ghost of Lucy Rodgers then turned to me, piercing me with a stare that was hollow. A chill ran up my back, and when the blackness where her body should be started to move towards where I hid, I could hear my heartbeat thrumming in my ears. It was the first time I’d been afraid of a ghost, the first time I’d seen one that wasn’t distinct, that was a shell of the person who it used to be. I’d never been harmed by a ghost before, but there’s a first time for everything.

Frozen in fear, I couldn’t move, even when the blackness enveloped me, blocking out my vision. After a few seconds, and a few blinks, my vision cleared, but the scene around me had changed. The classrooms were filled with desks, small lockers, pieces of paper and books in neat piles. Everything was discoloured, as though I were looking through a filter or lens. Glancing back to the bottom of the stairs I saw Lucy Rodgers as she had been in life. She stood with her arms crossed, biting her fingernails viciously, constantly staring at the back door. It was only when Mr Huntingdon, a younger version, opened the door that I realised she was waiting for him.

He approached her looking concerned. Their conversation was indistinct to me, like I was listening underwater. I used their facial expressions and hand gestures to glean the topic of discussion. Lucy kept shaking her head and looking away sadly, whilst the caretaker forced the young woman to look at him, as if he was begging her to do something. Many times, she wriggled from his arms and went to walk away up the stairs, but he caught her and pulled her back. I began to assume this was the break-up that Mr Huntingdon had mentioned earlier. I continued to think that until the caretaker’s actions began to become violent, until he was jerking her rather than pulling her back. The pleading gave way to anger, their voices were raised and I could hear snippets of their conversation.

He’s not good enough for you. How could you do this to me, I loved you. I was going to leave my wife for you.

Lucy Rodgers became more adamant, shaking her head profusely and eventually managed to break free of him and run up the stairs. He followed her, but the glint I saw in his eye before he did sent more chills across my arms. I heard their voices getting louder, words crashing into each other.

Let go of me, let go of me.

I heard the thuds as something bounced down the stairs, cracking as something hard hit the edge of the steps. It felt like it took longer than it no doubt did, but eventually the body of Lucy Rodgers arrived at the bottom. Her neck was twisted in impossible ways until her glassy eyes stared directly at me. I gasped and covered my mouth to stop the sound from escaping. I heard more steps, heavy, lazy, and deliberately slow. Mr Huntingdon stared down at the teacher’s corpse and made no move to help her, to see if she was alive, or to do anything. The man I stared at was a world away from the one I’d spoken to earlier who’d confessed with shallow regret about his affair.

He’d made it seem as though his wife had cause to do something to Lucy Rodgers. And I’d been stupid enough to believe him. He stood there for a long time, glaring down, as if she deserved it. After he’d gathered himself, he grabbed her roughly by the ankles and began to drag her towards the back entrance. Before he reached it, his wife appeared and began to scream.

 I stumbled backwards, taking a camera with me. I was further jolted from the past when the scream stabbed straight through me and I realised it originated in the present. Mrs Huntingdon stood at the top of the stairs, screaming so loudly I thought I’d go deaf. Barely audible over the sound was the clunk of the back door opening and her husband rushing in to silence her. I had an awful thought he’d do the same to her as he had done to Lucy Rodgers. Instead he rushed up to her and began to coax her back down, shuffling slowly until they were out of the building.

I’d begun to shake and couldn’t bring myself to get up off the ground. Thankfully he hadn’t seen me, but I’m sure the cameras had seen him and his wife. I only wished they’d been able to record what I’d witnessed. I don’t know how long I sat there, but I remember feeling the chill settle on my skin like oil. When I gathered my senses, I noticed the shadow that was Lucy Rodgers, the eyes trained on me warily. She didn’t approach me but began to drift in the direction of the door.

Reluctantly, still shivering, either with cold or fear, I followed. She took the same path as the Huntingdons and waited at the end for me to catch up. The door opened with ease and I emerged outside. The caretaker’s house wasn’t far up the path, facing the school. I couldn’t see the couple and assumed they’d already gone back inside. When I glanced to my side, I noticed that Lucy wasn’t there. Her shadowy figure moved around the side of the school. In front of her I began to catch glimpses of the past, as if someone was swiping through photos on their phone. One of her body being dragged along the cobbled path, head bouncing from every stone, of being let go as Mr Huntingdon went to find something and returned with a shovel. At the side of the school, underneath a window to a classroom, he dug a shallow grave and rolled her inside.

In the present there was a rose bush flourishing in the same spot, gorged on the remains of Lucy Rodgers.

I know I’ve made it seem like I’m some sort of saviour of souls, releasing ghosts from their existence by finding their body. But that time I hesitated. It had been easy to call the police in the case of Abigail Greyson because no one had ever seen me go to the field where she was buried. But here, at St Mary’s, if I phoned in a similar anonymous tip then the research team would become suspicious. Lucy Rodger’s life was over, but I still had to live mine. So, I did nothing that night. I returned to the van and rewound the cameras to find that they’d manage to capture Mrs Huntingdon and her husband. Through the grainy image you could see the moment she began to scream. It turned out that the screaming did have a normal explanation, which would please Strother.

It took me a few weeks to return to St Mary’s in the middle of the night, shovel in hand. It was dangerous, I know, if someone had seen me I’d have spent a lot of time at the police station myself. I dug just enough of the soil away to expose the bones. After taking a few pictures I went to an internet café and sent them with all of the information I knew to the police. I hoped rather than believed they’d find anything connecting Lucy to her killer.

I wish I could tell you that every ghost story ends with justice. There wasn’t enough evidence after nearly thirty years to arrest someone for her death, and despite popular supernatural TV dramas, my witness statement wouldn’t be accepted in court. Mr Huntingdon got away with his crime and yet has been forced to watch his wife relive his worst moments. Perhaps it is a justice of sorts, but it still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

Episode 4 – Night School

My time with IPP wasn’t all mediums and ghostly children, although if you’re expecting a lot of diversity, you’ll only be disappointed.

Late nights weren’t unusual, either were early mornings, or even weekends in some cases. Due to the nature of the research there were times when regular work hours weren’t observed, like in the case of St Mary’s primary school.

Ghosts rarely work to the timetables of the living, and the incidents at St Mary’s were no exception. I found myself waiting outside of the old school building early on a Saturday morning a month or two into my PhD. A bitterly cold wind blew threw me like a bad virus, worming between the strands of my gloves until my fingers were frozen to the bone. The coffee in my hand did little to keep the chill at bay. The school building itself was made of red brick, but as I stood in its shadow there was something ominous about it. Three stories high, with long thin windows covered in dirt and grime, it should’ve been welcoming, friendly, but perhaps because I knew the reason I was waiting outside everything looked worse than it was. The school itself had been closed for a year or two by the time we visited. Enrolment had been low, so the council had decided to relocate the pupils elsewhere and sell off the land.

Beside the school was an explosion of construction work. Where the children’s playground used to be was now a car park for the workers and developers. The church that was across the playground from the school was undergoing renovation to turn it into flats, whilst the remaining land would be underground parking for future residents. From where I stood in front I caught a glimpse of a small house, almost attached to the back of the school itself, but I just assumed it was vacant. It was a weekend and the construction site was empty, which only added to the eerie atmosphere of the place.

Of the requests and reports we’d received about paranormal events Strother had chosen this one, deciding that it would be our first on-site investigation. I was the first to arrive, but Ken appeared soon after. Whilst making polite chitchat and having an informal check-in Strother and Steph appeared in the van that was to be used for outside investigations. It’s just as you imagine it, complete with sliding side door, decked out inside with small TV screens, microphones and headphones. Think of every police drama you’ve ever seen where they sit in a van for hours on end monitoring TVs.

If the rest of the team found St Mary’s as creepy as I did then they didn’t admit it aloud. It was just a building, and not all abandoned ones are haunted. The reason we were there was due to screaming that people had reported coming from inside. On the opposite side of the road, facing the school, were more new flats. The reports to the police of screaming had been going on for years, so long the community newspaper had written a small article about it. But, as was the way, it had been dismissed as teenagers up to no good during the wee hours of the night. Whatever it was, teenagers or something less mundane, I distinctly remember feeling a tingling at the back of my neck when I looked up at the old school building.

Since I was the first one there Strother threw me the keys to unlock the front door. The red wooden door showed its age by the gouges and dents in the grain of the wood, painted numerous times over the years until its current incarnation of post box red. I fumbled with the keys through my gloves before eventually managing to wiggle the right one into the stiff lock.

“What do you think you’re doing?” A voice demanded from my side.

I was already a wee bit on edge by this point so I jumped out of my skin when I heard it. The voice wasn’t one I recognised, and it was laden with hostility. It belonged to a small elderly man with ash grey hair and brown eyes that were narrowed in my direction. I explained that I was there with the team from the university to investigate the screaming and then asked who he was. He answered that he was the caretaker of the school, and that we weren’t welcome.

I reminded him that the building’s owner had given us permission and that we’d informed him of the day and time of our arrival well in advance. He said I was being disrespectful and wished for a word with my employer. He couldn’t have known he’d receive even less respect from Strother. What ensued was what I can only describe as a vicious attack on the old man, later identified as Mr Huntingdon, who lived in the house I’d seen at the back of the school with his wife. It turned out that he’d refused all offers to buy his house, an accusation Strother threw at him during their bickering. Insulted, and red in the face with anger, Mr Huntingdon stormed off.

For some reason I ran after him, and I can’t seem to remember why. I remember apologising for the way I’d spoken, and for what Strother had said, the first of many apologies I’d make over the years on his behalf. The caretaker wasn’t interested in my request for forgiveness and moved to get past me, but stubbornly I blocked his way.

I told him I had some questions he could perhaps answer. Immediately he derided the so-called screaming ghost people had reported. Mr Huntingdon claimed there was no such thing as ghosts, and that if we were allowed to investigate St Mary’s we’d attract phony mediums and psychics from all over the country and he and his wife wouldn’t get a moment’s peace. I pointed out that since ghosts weren’t real our team wouldn’t find anything and nothing like that would happen. He wasn’t convinced but agreed, begrudgingly, to answer my questions.

I asked him where he thought the screaming came from, to which he claimed it was people’s imaginations running away from them, and that he’d never heard anything like it. I inquired if his wife had perhaps heard something. Mrs Huntingdon, according to her husband, was a highly-strung woman whom he wouldn’t trouble with something so silly and superstitious. Noticing that he was evading my questions I decided to change tactics and asked him if he’d ever seen anything. He hesitated. It was just for a moment, between one breath and the next, but I’d seen it, along with the worry that had swept across his face at the question. Of course, the answer was a firm refusal, after which he dismissed me harshly and stalked off back to his house, which I could see from where I stood.

After my encounter with the caretaker I re-joined the rest of the team who were beginning to set up the equipment inside. I don’t know what it was but there was something disturbing about being in an empty school. There were desks littering the hallways and classrooms, pieces of crinkled, discoloured paper masked the yellowing linoleum floor. Bits of children’s work and various announcements still hung from walls and noticeboards as reminders of the past.

We hadn’t come equipped light to St Mary’s. In the back of the van were boxes of cameras, audio recorders, thermometers, laser grids, motion detectors, amongst other things I couldn’t identify. It took hours to set everything up to Strother’s precise specifications. We put cameras, normal and night vision, in every room, along with an audio recorder and thermometer. One laser grid was placed on each floor on the main corridor.

Let me go into the history of St Mary’s, which is an important piece of any ghostly investigation.

St Mary’s was commissioned by the city council in the late 19th century. It was given to a group of nuns who taught at a successful catholic school a few towns over with the hopes that they’d repeat their success. It soon cultivated a good reputation and became a teaching college as well, securing enough money to buy the church that sat across the playground, the one that was being made into flats. Their success lasted until the 60s and 70s when it began to decline, until the year before our visit it had closed. The only articles and pieces of information we could find in our preliminary searches were nothing but announcements that the teachers and pupils had won various awards or been accepted into prestigious universities. There was nothing gruesome, but it was difficult to search for information in the first place as a lot of it hadn’t been digitised, and none of us were volunteering to visit the cities’ archives.

Inside the school wasn’t very modern, as is the case with a lot of educational establishments. It looked very similar to the school I attended with wide corridors, green everywhere, and blackboards on the walls, although some had been replaced with projectors and whiteboards. A single staircase joined all of the floors. Each floor forked in two directions, one went straight ahead, and the other led to an extension that had been built in the 50s. The classrooms were cavernous, with tall windows and even higher ceilings, it would’ve been difficult to get warm. Despite the general feel of abandonment, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. It may be because I was focused on setting up the mountain of equipment we’d brought with us, or perhaps if a ghost was there it was frightened by Strother barking commands at us when we didn’t do something his way.

It was only when we moved up the stairs to the first floor that the tingling at the back of my neck began again. The entire building had a chill, but the staircase was colder than the classrooms had been. It was like I’d gone outside rather than up the stairs. My vision began to blur with every step, the world tilting on its axis, as though I were looking through someone else’s glasses, everything became disjointed and fractured. Then it all stopped as soon as I reached the first floor.

The strange episode had me unsettled, but when I turned around to look back down the stairs there was nothing there, not even a shadow. My sight had returned to normal, but I was blind to whatever had caused it. Ken noticed my puzzled stare and asked if anything was wrong. I lied and said I thought I’d forgotten something. Lying would become second nature to me during my time on the study.

We spent the rest of the day setting up the equipment until almost every square inch of St Mary’s was being recorded in some way. I was on my own in one of the third-floor classrooms when my attention was snatched by someone getting into their car across the road. What pulled me was the clear sound of the car door slam as the driver got in. It got me thinking. If I could hear that sound clearly from the third floor and across a road, how did Mr Huntingdon claim not to be able to hear screaming from inside the school when he lived right beside it? I knew he’d kept something from me when we’d spoken before, it was the reason why that made me uneasy.

Strother and Steph took the first watch. By watch I mean stayed up half the night in the van outside the school. When ken had asked why we needed to be there at all when most of the equipment was remotely controlled, Strother had stated us being there was more thorough, and also in case of malfunction. That was the reason I appeared outside the van at 1am with no coffee. Ken and I switched with Strother and Steph, and his parting gift to us was a warning not to fall asleep. I’m pretty sure he aimed it more at me than Ken.

Despite the heaters in the van, the cold still lingered in the air, and not long into our shift my fingers and toes began to lose all feeling. The screens were empty, not even a particle of dust floated past for the first hour. Ken began to snore beside me from 2am onwards. I dared not give Strother an excuse to treat me like an idiot so I was determined to remain awake.

It was during one of the moments when my mind was drifting between consciousness and sleep that I heard it. A single, piercing scream. I’ve only ever heard a sound like that twice in my life. The first was from my mum just after my Dad’s funeral, when she thought no one was around to hear. The second was from St Mary’s. It was a shriek of despair, curdling and loud so it was the only thing I could hear. Frantically I searched the screens in front of us, jumping from one camera to the next, but I couldn’t see anything. None of the laser grids or motion sensor cameras had been activated.

So, I left the van and ran into the school. I’d made sure to memorise where we’d put everything so I wouldn’t set everything off, but being caught on the cameras was something I couldn’t avoid. I’d come up with an excuse later. There was nothing on the ground floor, in any of the classrooms, or on any of the upper floors. I was the only one in that school, in the dark, but the scream lingered like an echo. I could still hear it ringing in my ears. There was no ghost, no anything. Disappointed, I started to leave but accidently crossed one of the laser grids. Holding my breath, expecting it to cast an offensively bright green light everywhere, I was surprised to find it didn’t activate. Bending down I inspected it and found the battery had been disconnected. Following a hunch, I checked all of the equipment we’d set out and found that the ones on the ground floor had either had their batteries disconnected, or had been set to not record. I wasn’t a ghost expert, but even I knew this wasn’t a ghost’s doing.

Present day

I went to the café yesterday, the one Strother had a standing appointment at. I asked the staff and they pointed out the owner. Luck was on my side that day. He’d managed the café back then, and now owned it. I asked him about Strother, even showed him a picture, and he remembered him.

It turns out Strother used to meet a woman there, every week without fail. They reserved the same table, and had the same meal. The owner admitted to me that seeing them made him want to treat his own wife better. I don’t think I need to tell you that Strother wasn’t married. But to be honest the owner’s impression of Strother was a lot different from the one I had. He used words such as friendly, polite, amicable, words which I’d never heard in the same sentence as his name.

Thankfully for me the owner appeared to almost be friends with them, unsurprising since they visited so often. He told me the woman’s name was Katherine Phillips and she worked at the university. He couldn’t remember what department, or even what she did, but all I needed was a name.

It didn’t take me long to find her on the staff pages. She still works there. I won’t divulge what department she’s in, or what she does, as I believe in people’s right to privacy. Katherine Philips isn’t her real name, in case you haven’t guessed.

I’ve already emailed her asking if she’ll meet up to talk with me, but haven’t heard a reply. I’ll need to decide how far I’m going with this, how many people I’m going to drag in. But I need to find out if she knows anything. Considering I spent 3 years not knowing who she was, I’m pretty sure she’ll know more about Strother than I or his family do.

2021

My only meagre aim of 2021 was to read more. I miss reading books, and for the last few years I haven’t had the time (the story of many people’s lives), and I find that listening to audiobooks doesn’t give me the same level of immersion as reading does (a lifetime of consuming physical and kindle books can’t be beaten by only the last few years of listening to audio fiction). I still listen to audiobooks, but to improve my own writing, I thought it was important to at least try to read more. However, I’m not one of those people who forces myself to finish a book that I’m not enjoying. I completed every book on this list unless otherwise stated (with a very handy percent completed on each one). Here is the list of every book (kindle and audiobook) I consumed in 2021, in the order in which they were consumed (links to Goodreads):

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (V.E.Schwab) – The first book I read (in physical copy, sorry Kindle) this year by who is probably my favourite author. It was nice in January to have time to sit and zoom through this book. A criminally short synopsis is a young woman makes a Faustian deal with an “old god” to essentially live forever, with the catch that no one will ever remember her, until one day a young man does. I did have some gripes, which I’m not going to unleash on you, but it is beautifully written and is a really good story that I enjoyed reading, and would thoroughly reccommend.

The Wolf Hall Trilogy (Hilary Mantel) – I got really into the Tudor era at the end of 2020, and ended up re-watching Wolf Hall by the BBC (a programme I thoroughly recommend if historical drama is your thing). If you haven’t heard of this trilogy, it’s essentially historical fiction that follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, a very important player during the reign of King Henry VIII of England, from his rise to his ineveitable downfall. Mantel does a really good job of making Cromwell likeable, which makes his downfall all the more heartbreaking (there’s no such thing as spoilers in history). If you like historical fiction, this is the trilogy for you. Well written with incredibly fleshed out and nuanced characters. The trilogy comes as a pack on Audible, and, obviously, I listened to the audiobooks.

The Starless Sea (Erin Morgenstern) – The second physical book I read this year (I charged my kindle up after this so no more physical books for me), at the beginning of February. I read The Night Circus, Morgenstern’s debut novel that came out in 2011 to critical acclaim. I can’t tell you how profoundly inspired I was by her first novel when I read it in 2014/2015 that I was really happy when I heard after so long a time away she had written another book. I wish I could write stories like this one, where every tale she so deftly weaves is part of a bigger picture. It really is masterfully written. A few minor personal gripes, but they did not detract from the enjoyment I had as I read this novel. I would attempt a synopsis, but it’s just so whimsical and fairy-tale esque I feel it’s better to just read it for yourself.

A Gathering of Shadows (V.E.Schwab) – I charged my long neglected kindle up in the second week of February and finally got around to finishing this novel. I think I started it in 2018, but then just…stopped reading. I was enjoying it, but then time became a rare commodity and I found audio fiction, and my kindle was left to gather dust. This is the second in Schwab’s Darker Shade of Magic trilogy (I finished the first one, A Darker Shade of Magic, about a year before I started the second). Due to this being the second in a trilogy, I’m not going to write a synopsis. Although this isn’t my favourite of her series (go and read her Villains series, I can’t tell you how amazing it is), I still enjoy this world she’s created. I do have a confession to make, though. I didn’t finish this book. I have some major issues with the main characters, which I don’t want to go into details about here, to the extent where I got about 70% through the book, then gave up and looked up a synopsis online. It wasn’t only the characters that annoyed me, it was the pacing of the book that began to bug me, which is such a shame because I used to adore anything written by this author. The story spends more time jumping between the main characters, building up a special event, that ends up only starting 70% of the way through the book. That’s a whole lot of pages with nothing plot-wise significant happening. Needless to say, I won’t be reading any of the future instalments in this series, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recommend you try it for yourself. (Completion: 75%).

The Secret Ingredient of Wishes (Susan Bishop Crispell) – Oh, boy, was this not for me. As a fiction podcaster and writer I’m a bit reluctant to completely tear into this book, so I won’t. Let’s just say it was not my cup of tea. It has such an interesting premise. A woman who has the ability to grant other people’s wishes tries to outrun her past and her powers, eventually ending up in small town America where there seem to be a few people just like her. It has so much potential and just fell so unbelievably flat for me. Honestly, it read like bad fan fiction rather than a novel. And that’s as harsh as I’ll be. (Completion: 61%)

The Binding (Bridget Collins) – Another audiobook/book I really wanted to like but ended up finishing it with very mixed feelings. Again, another interesting premise. Set in the 19th century (although there was nothing particularly indicative for me, an amateur social historian, that it was the 19th specifically), Emmett Farmer is sent to be an apprentice at the book binder, an old woman who binds people’s secrets into books. I blamed the poor narrator for my inability to get into this book, but it’s actually just that this book is deathly slow, and so bleak (and that’s coming from me, a horror podcaster). The story itself was good, but it took ages to hook my interest, and I ended up finishing this out of sheer will power. It was so ambling at a lot of points it made me frustrated. Pacing is a big weakness of this book. I also wasn’t convinced by the romance, I don’t understand how one character can go from being so irritated by another that they regularly think about or do actually hit them, to being in love with them. Allosexual people, is this how it works? I couldn’t get past my opinion that they hated each other, and fell in love because plot said so. Overall, very mixed feelings about this book. The writing was beautifully descriptive, I really felt transported at certain paragraphs, but my Gods the pacing is awful, and it’s so depressingly bleak that it was a struggle to finish it. Not my cup of tea, but it could be yours.

Scythe (Neil Shusterman) – Another book that’s been in my Kindle library since 2018, with 0% progress. This is part of a YA series set in a future dystopian/utopian-esque universe where humanity has conquered all foes (death, illness, and politics). I usually avoid YA, due to the tropes and teen drama/angst in the characters I have no wish to relive or be irritated at, but the premise of this one was just too good for me to pass up; 3-years ago me, anyway. And I bought it back then, so I was at least going to try and read it. It’s well-written but kind of…dull. I never felt any connection to the 16 year old characters. And to be honest, I couldn’t escape the fact that it felt like the “Scythe” (a human who is selected to act essentially as a grim reaper and kill people to avoid over population), who is over a century old, was torturing two 16 year old children, and making them accessories in sanctioned murder. All the while claiming that he had superior moral standards. No, pal, just…no. Shusterman also made the mistake of heavily foreshadowing the hetero-romance between the two teenagers. I decided to hop off board pretty quickly after I read the cliche rule of “you can’t fall in love with each other” came up. I am, however, in the minority for this book, according to Goodreads. It just wasn’t for me. (Completion: 21%).

The Once and Future Witches (Alix E. Harrow) – After I hadn’t enjoyed the last few books I read, I decided to retreat into familiar territory. This was the most recent book I’d added on my wishlist, and the reason I chose it instead of scrolling was because I thought it wouldn’t have any romance in it. There is a reason for this. Every book above has romance. Every. Single. One. Even if it’s unecessary, which in my opinion is in a few, if not most, cases. I was fatigued with pointless romance. Set in 1893, it follows the lives of three sisters as they try to mend their relationship with each other, and prevent what is essentially genocide of women labelled as witches. One of my pet peeves, as an avid historical fiction fan, is when the small details are wrong about the period. As someone with quite a lot of knowledge of social history, especially the 19th, it completely brings me out of the story when I read something I know to be wrong. I honestly think this book should ahve been set in 1903 rather than 1893 (and I know, a decade doesn’t make much difference, except it does to me). A lot goes on in these decades, especially around the suffragist movement, which this book features a lot of. I also kind of low-key didn’t like two of the three sisters, or the narrow theme they were fit into. A major theme of this book is the neopagan belief in the Triple Goddess (Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Most recently featured in the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). I’m not a big fan of this belief system as I think it’s very narrow, and I especially didn’t like how much emphasis was put on the sister who essentially emobided the “mother”. I was constantly being told she was the “strong one” but found no actual evidence of this being true. As someone who has no interest in being a mother, I find it very irritating when a lot of value is placed on a woman being a mother, so much so that it apparently elevates her above her childless female counterparts, thereby making women without children less important or valuable. Perhaps I’m just taking this too personally, but I hate this branch of thought, that a woman’s worth or strength or value is dependent on whether she procreates. I wasn’t really off to a good start with this, because the Triple Goddess theme is evident very early on in the story. I also wasn’t particularly fond of the sister who was the “maiden”. She strayed a bit too close to the “I’m not like other girls” trope. Overall, a story with a lot of potential, but for me, because the overall themes clash with my own views on femininity, I just couldn’t enjoy this book that much.

Loveless (Alice Oseman) – This audiobook was a bit of a personal choice for me. I’ve alluded to this in the reviews above, but I recently realised that I’m on the asexual spectrum. And I was really sick of reading allosexual romances, and just romances in general. I’d had this book on my wish list since learning and finding out more about asexuality. It took me until I was 27 to realise that I was asexual. I’d never heard of it before, and I wasn’t really sure what it meant. I assumed, like society does, that everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise. I also assumed, like society expects, that one day I would just find romance, or someone I wanted to be in a relationship with. I ignored the fact that whilst everyone else was dating I didn’t want to, and that whilst everyone else was finding serious relationships, I was happy on my own. I ignored the fact that I’d never wanted to have sex with anyone, and that the idea actually freaked me out. I, like many other people, believed that it was just because I hadn’t “found the right person yet”, and that one day I would. I was a victim of allosexual society for a long time, mostly out of my own nonchalance for that kind of relationship. I just thought I was a prude. I’ve heard asexuality being called the “invisible sexuality”, and its lack of visibility isn’t great. The thing about being asexual, at least for me, is that I don’t care about romantic/sexual relationships like that, and whenever I was told or heard dating horror stories I only felt relief that I wasn’t having to go through that, nor did I have the desire to start (going so far as to wonder why people bothered putting themselves through the torture of dates in the first place, I thought it was insanity). But it is strange being in a world full of allosexuals. People can be very dismissive of asexuality, going so far as to say it doesn’t exist, but my answer to this is if a person can be attracted to anyone of any gender (i.e. pansexual, bisexual, etc.), then why can’t a person not be attracted to anyone? We all like to feel represented in media, but to date I’d not consumed anything with an outright asexual character (I’m aware there are some, but I’ve never personally watched/read anything). Which is why I wanted to read this book. To feel seen. I’d recommend if you are curious about asexuality, whether because of your own personal journey or someone you know. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong affinity to a fictional character, but almost everything about the main protagonist (Georgia) resonated with me. Her asexual journey started a lot younger than mine (18 compared to my ancient 27), but I found myself empathising with a lot of the situations she found herself in and the thoughts she had. A lot of the thoughts she had pertaining to romance and relationships I’ve also had. I, too, have forced myself to try and have romantic feelings for someone just because I thought I was supposed to. I did get frustrated at points, at some of her decisions, and the fact I so clearly knew she was asexual before she even knew what it was, but had to continue to watch her try and force herself into the allosexual bracket, and hurt everyone around her in the process (yeah, the protagonist is an awful, selfish person for at least the first half of the book). It was quite painful to listen to at some points. Also, most of the characters are 18 in the book, and my God are they dramatic. I was 18 once, and I swear I wasn’t as dramatic as they are. Such gems as “I’ll die alone”, and “I’ll never find anyone to be with” come up more than once, and as a 28 year-old woman, I rolled my eyes so much at these phrases I was afraid they wouldn’t come back. This was very much aimed at teenagers, and I don’t know if it’s because of my age, but I felt like there were very little consequences to the horrible things Georgia did to her friends. She used one in the most awful way in an attempt to convince herself she was heterosexual, and then went along with hurting the other one by kissing someone she knew her other friend liked. She was drunk for the second one, but that is never, and will never be, an excuse for terrible and hurtful behaviour. It took at least a month to even try and get them to forgive her, it’s like as soon as Christmas came she just forgot about them until she returned to university and even then her main motivating factor appeared to be appeasing her new friend, subsequently also the one she kissed before Christmas. The used friend gave in too quickly for my liking. I think the second friend’s reaction was a bit more believable, Georgia actually had to put in some effort to gain forgiveness. I also feel like this should have been swapped. I think it’s a lot worse to take advantage of and use someone you think has feelings for you, than to drunkenly kiss a person who your friend has a crush on. Don’t get me wrong, both are shitty things to do, but I definitely feel like the first one’s worse.

Norse Mythology (Neil Gaiman) – A re-telling of some of the stories from Norse Mythology. It’s quite a short audiobook that I managed to get in a 2 for 1 credit sale, and I thought I may as well, I’ve played God of War (2018). I thought I knew a lot more about the Norse Pantheon than I actually did, so this book was not only really interesting, but informative as well. I’d recommend if you have also played God of War (2018) and want to know how much creative licence they took, and also if you have even the slightest interest in the Norse Pantheon.

The Familiars (Stacey Halls) – I have nothing to complain about with this story, which is unusual, as you can tell. Another historical fiction set at the beginning of the 17th century (so not a time period I know that much about). No romance, so another tick from me. It’s quite a sad story, and quite an ambling one. There’s not really a plot, per se, but that’s not actually a bad thing. It’s quite short (the audiobook was about 9 hours long), which makes the whole thing work. I felt really sorry for the protagonist for the first half or so, for understandable reasons. I had a few minor gripes, but nothng worth mentioning here. Otherwise it’s beautifully written, and I could really see the places where the story was set, so very immersive. Would recommend.

Wakenhyrst (Michelle Paver) – I don’t really understand what I’ve listened to with this book. Most of it doesn’t really have a plot, and even the one that’s introduced very early on is pretty weak. It’s not a bad book, by any means, I’m fascinated with the setting of the Fens (which seems to be very Scotland-esque in regards to lasting superstitions), but there were numerous times in the book when I felt uncomfortable. The protagonists father was also an absolute piece of garbage with no apparent motivation (a bad person for bad person’s sake, a bit like a Disney villain with little to no motivation for acting in such an awful way). It was mainly the father’s passages that made me the most uncomfortable. I also never really identified with the protagonist, but I didn’t dislike her. This book was just a bit…meh. So meh, I didn’t finish it. 5/10.5 hours completed.

Anient Greece Second Edition: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic times (Thomas R. Martin) – I played Assasins Creed Odyssey, and if you’ve played the game then you’ll understand. My first non-fiction audiobook of the year.

Delphi: A history of the centre of the ancient world (Michael Scott) – I’ve always been fascinated by the oracle and Delphi and since I was on an ancient Greek binge, I decided to read this too. I bought the actual book.

Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece (Robin Waterfield) – Another physical book. I find textbook-esque books like this one it’s a lot easier to buy the physical book so you can flip between the text and the figures/maps. The last book in my Ancient Greece binge.

Howl’s Moving Castle (Dianna Wynne Jones) – Did you know this was a book before it was a film? I didn’t. I am massively late to the Studio Chibli films (I know, they’re awesome, I don’t know what I was thinking). As I was Googling the film I found out that it was based on a book by a Welsh author and I had to read it. I’m impressed the film got so many details into it, and the overall essence of the book, but obviously there were a lot of details not in the film. I am surprised this is classed as a “children’s” book, as it was quite serious in places, even quite dark and shady in places. A possibly unpopular opinion, but Howl is a lot better in the film, he’s a bit annoying in the book (to me).

The Midnight Library (Matt Haig) – Oh boy, I seem to be in the minority regarding this book. I didn’t like it. I near loathed the main character. It’s definitely a “me” thing, though. I can’t stand whiny people, or people who don’t try and then blame everyone else when things go wrong. I get that the main character has mental health issues (I think it’s meant to be depression and anxiety), but so do I, which is why I feel like I can take my stance. Believe me, I know what it’s like to have a bad day and mental illness to make everything worse, or to feel like your mental illness prevents you from doing things, but I don’t believe it gives you a reason to use it as an excuse not to try. I do understand that’s not how everyone who suffers mental illness sees things, but I’m a firm believer that you have to at least try and help yourself sometimes. I felt the main character, Nora, didn’t. As I said earlier, her life turned to shit because she never took control of things and then blames everyone else in her life. I decided not to finish this book, and as of about halfway through, there has been no internal reflection, which I kind of feel was needed for this character to fully develop. The premise is good, but it’s very predictable and that took even more joy out of it for me. A bad mixture of irritating main character, and predictable (to me) tropey plot made for a very frustrating listen. This book is very highly rated though, so if you’re not like me (in that you have a very wide threshold for what you consider whiny) then give it a go. 4/8 hours completed.

If You Were There: missing people and the marks they leave behind (Francisco Garcia) – A bit of a serious topic. I, along with many, many people, like to dabble in true crime/unsolved mysteries, and this involved missing people. This is a very humanist and realistic way of looking into the circumstances and definitions we use to identify missing people, and often the way they’re generally failed by the wider system. I definitely think that the author’s own estrangement from his missing father served to run a nice narrative thread through all of the stops he made, and ground the story, giving in that heart that stopped it from sounding too textbook-y. It’s a short audiobook, at about 6 hours. If you’re interested in the, arguably growing, missing persons problem we seem to have in the UK, then give this a go.

Episode 3 – False Medium

The case of Abigail Grayson wasn’t the only strange occurrence to happen in my first month as a PhD student. I alluded to this incident in my last statement about Abigail the first night when she’d appeared outside the office wanting me to follow. Before I could reach the door Strother stopped me, a strange woman at his side. They’d both come from the other entrance to the building. It was after midnight, and I’d thought I was alone. I think his sudden appearance frightened me more than the ghosts had. If he thought it was strange to see me there at that time of night his facial expression never gave anything away. He said that he needed my assistance.

Following Strother through the building at nearly 1 in the morning was like a nightmare about purgatory. It was dark, gloomy, and I was still dazed from my encounter with Abigail’s ghost. It was also quite early in the morning, and believe it or not I didn’t make a habit of sleeping at the office. My head began to twinge with fatigue, and it was hard to concentrate when the woman Strother had appeared with started a conversation.

She apologised for the lateness of the hour, but said that Strother had been most insistent on getting her to come to the university. There was nothing special about her. That sounds meaner out loud. All I mean is that there were no giant tattoos, no visible scars, and no chakra bracelets. She had long brown hair that was braided into a loose plait, a heart shaped face, and round green eyes. That’s what I remember, at least. She didn’t look that much different from someone you’d get stuck behind in a supermarket queue doing the weekly shop. She introduced herself as Sandra Oakes, and then paused for a brief second, as if expecting me to recognise her. When I didn’t, she explained, with more than a hint of pride, that she was a medium by profession.

My relationship with self-proclaimed mediums has always been…fraught. You could say its snobbery, but in all my years none of the professional mediums and psychics I’ve ever met have been genuine. The more different you are, the more you pretend to be normal. That’s not to say I’ve never met anyone else like me, but I can count them on one hand. That’s my opinion now, but back then I didn’t have much life experience. I was sceptical of people like Sandra Oakes, but I was more hopeful that they would turn out to be genuine because it’d mean I wasn’t alone.

She began to tell me that she’d been conducting a late-night séance when Strother had approached her and asked her to join his study. They’d both come into the building so she could sign a consent form and book an appointment for when she would do a reading. Just after she had said her goodbyes to Strother she turned to me and said:

“It was nice to meet you, Miss McIlwraith.”

I know, it’s a very benign statement, but what made it weird was that neither I nor Strother had ever told her my surname. It was just a wee niggle, a tiny loose thread. But the thing about loose threads is that they have the potential to cause everything else to unravel. Her wee display had my curiosity piqued.

She came back a few days later for her reading. This wasn’t a reading in the traditional sense, as in someone sits across the table from her and she falls into a trance trying to communicate with the deceased. Oh no, this was science, and there were rules. I don’t remember it all, some of it was complicated, and don’t forget I wasn’t there as a psychologist.

Sandra came in at about 10 in the morning and was shown to one of the interview rooms we had. Strother showed her in and explained to her what was going to happen. The interview rooms all had two-way mirrors so you could observe whoever was inside. Exactly like the kind you see on police dramas. The novelty at being in such a room quickly wore off. It was dark, compact and incredibly stuffy when you spent more than half an hour inside. Strother had invited me to watch Sandra’s first sessions. In his words, I needed to know where the data came from to better understand it. I watched as he began to stick bits of plastic to her scalp, what he called nodes. This was an electroencephalogram or EEG. It was attached to a machine that recorded electrical activity in the brain.

I was struck at how Strother spoke to Sandra. To me, and the rest of our team, he was harsh, brusque to the point of condescending, but with her he was polite. He tempered his accent into what I can only call scientific English until the Yorkshire lilt disappeared completely. He was patient and answered all of her questions calmly. Whenever we asked him anything he’d usually answer, unhelpfully, with another question. When he was finished, he left her in the room and came to join me behind the two-way mirror. Just as he left a young man, in his mid to late twenties, entered. I’d never seen him before, but I just assumed he was one of the sitters. The man gave Sandra a first name, and that was it, he said nothing for the next 30 minutes.

Strother quietly explained to me that the man sitting in with her wasn’t a part of the study, he was a research assistant working for a different team in the department. The generally accepted way to test mediumship is to never have them meet the sitters. Because Strother and I had already met Sandra, we couldn’t meet the sitters who were having a reading with her. Ken and Steph had selected them from the pool of controls they’d recruited in the first few weeks of the study, and they hadn’t been allowed to meet Sandra.

When I asked why, he told me that it negates the results being down to cold reading, fishing, unconscious transfer of information, and even telepathy. You heard that right, telepathy. Because Sandra never met the controls, she couldn’t conduct a cold reading on them to discern information that could be related to the deceased person they wished to contact. Because Strother and I hadn’t met the controls it meant we couldn’t inadvertently let something slip to Sandra about them. The names she was given were the first names of the deceased that the controls had lost.

I can’t go into detail about the EEG. Analysing those were never part of my PhD. I saw them a few times during my time there, but I never understood what they meant. Lord knows what’s happened to them now. They’re not amongst the files I kept.

The entire session was recorded and later transcribed. Statements were extracted and given to the controls on whom Sandra had done the reading. They’d then have to rate how accurate she’d been, and how specific it was to their circumstances. The general theory about mediums was that they said general statements that had a high probability of meaning something to their client. It’s quite similar to the Barnum effect. This is a phenomenon usually connected with horoscopes or fortune tellers, where the practitioner claiming to have a paranormal gift says vague statements that their victim perceives to be about them, but are in fact so general as to be applicable to many others. Exactly like a weekly horoscope. Obviously, it’s a bit different with someone claiming to be a medium receiving messages from deceased loved ones, but the psychology behind them both is very similar. Most of it comes down to the victim placing meaning in vague statements out of a sense of desperation, and how ready they are to believe in the supernatural.

In the case of mediumship, phony mediumship anyway, any more specific statements tend to come from cold readings, which were impossible in the experiments we conducted. Whilst Sandra sat in one room, the controls sat in another at the opposite end of the corridor, listening to music, and supervised by Ken and Steph. They never crossed paths with Sandra.

She contributed a total of 4 readings to the study. There was a break between the first and second where she could relax, have a drink, and gather her thoughts. I was still behind the two-way glass, watching her the same way I would an animal at the zoo, when the glass of water she was drinking stopped halfway to her mouth. She looked directly at the mirror, straight at me, as though she knew I was there.

Your father, Robert, says he misses you very much, Sarah, she said.

I thought my heart was going to stop. It’s like the feeling you get when you’ve been caught watching a couple fight in public. She couldn’t have known I was there, yet there was such certainty in her gaze as it pierced through the glass.

I rarely spoke about my Dad back then. The wound was still raw, even after four years. He died from cancer when I was in my last year of school. I didn’t talk about it because I didn’t want to be the girl who’d lost her Dad so young. I didn’t want their pity. No one on the research team knew about my loss, so how did Sandra? I just added it to the growing number of questions I had about the medium.

Strother came back in just as the second proxy sitter entered and gave Sandra a name.

Don’t be rattled by what she said, he warned me.

I stared at him, confused. I hadn’t thought he’d heard her for a start, but how could he tell me not to be rattled? A woman I didn’t know was speaking about a Dad who she couldn’t possibly know I’d lost. I told him he wouldn’t be saying that if she’d been speaking to him. He paused a moment, pensive. He asked me if I believed she was genuine. I hesitated. If he’d asked me earlier that week it would have been a firm denial, but after my few encounters with Sandra I was torn. How had she known my surname? I didn’t have any ID on me at the time, and Strother had only addressed me by my first name, which is common as hell. How had she known my Dad was dead? I hadn’t told anyone, and it wasn’t something I went around talking about. She’d even known his name!

Alright, I was rattled, but you’d be too if you were there. Strother’s calm infuriated me as much as his superior attitude did. He told me not to feel too bad that I’d been duped by her since she was a professional con artist. In what would become the first of frequent outbursts, I demanded that he tell me how she knew so much of my personal information. He swivelled around in his chair and gauged me, like a pensioner does the weather when they want to put a wash on.

Figure it out, he said.

I don’t think you know how she did it either, I retorted like a petulant child.

It wasn’t my finest hour, I’ll admit, but everyone’s guilty of impatience. Strother wasn’t one for getting drawn into arguments that he didn’t start himself so we spent the rest of the session in silence.

It must’ve been about a week later when I was cleaning the data that I noticed the results. Everyone involved in the study was given a unique identifier so we wouldn’t know who the results were from when we looked at them. It’s a common practice used to prevent bias affecting the results. I wasn’t supposed to know which result came from Sandra, but it was obvious in the early stages when she was one of the few mediums we’d managed to recruit. She had received high scores for accuracy from the sitters when they’d rated her statements. They weren’t perfect, there was no 100%, but it was enough to surprise me. It occurred to me then that perhaps the way I saw ghosts wasn’t necessarily the only way. I still wanted Sandra to be genuine but I was grasping at straws. As I’ve mentioned before I’d never met anyone else like me, and when I was younger, at that strange age where you’re an adult but don’t feel like one, I was just looking for somewhere to belong. If Sandra could communicate with the dead like I could, then perhaps she could answer all of the questions I had. It’d also meant that Strother had been wrong.

A few days later I arrived at the university a little earlier than normal, so early the cleaners hadn’t finished. Not wishing to disturb them I took a different way to the office. At the bottom of the stairs was a board of staff members and students. There were neat rows of faces, variously frowning and smiling at the camera, names and qualifications on a small label beneath. I must’ve seen it dozens of times, but something caught my eye. Namely, the addition of my own face at the bottom beside the other students in the department. It hadn’t been there the last time I’d walked past. Then I began to think. These stairs were at the back of the building, where Strother and Sandra had come from that night. Could she have seen the board, and then simply matched my face to the name?

On my journey to the office my mind kept churning through the information. You can do a lot with a name. That’s why we’d only given Sandra the first name of the deceased she was supposed to contact. She had my full one. As soon as I logged into my computer, I searched for myself on Google. I kept my social media accounts private so it wouldn’t have been them, I hoped. I scrolled down the page, looking past the profiles of the handful of other Sarah McIlwraith’s in the world, when I came to an obituary archive from a newspaper. It was my Dad’s.

Had what she did in the interview room been a show, and I’d been dragged naively in? Were her words just a shot in the dark, intended to lure me into her lies? I remembered her results; accurate but not perfect. Perhaps there were different levels of clarity with the dead, or perhaps it was all or nothing. Sandra Oakes wouldn’t be the one to tell me because somehow I just knew, like Strother did, that she was a fake.

The disappointment was eclipsed by the realisation I’d have to apologise to Strother for what I’d said. If I was hoping to avoid him then my disappointment only increased when he came into the office an hour later looking for Steph. I told him I’d been wrong about Sandra and asked him if he’d known she was a fake from the beginning. He shrugged, a recurring habit throughout our time working together and said he hadn’t known, but recruitment had been slow and he’d seen an advertisement for her séance. I realised at his answer that unlike me, Strother went into these things assuming none of it existed. He had the luxury of relying on science, and his own experience. That was his faith, his God. It was sometimes strange talking to him, especially about the veracity of mediums, psychics, and other paranormal phenomena. He was so adamant that they didn’t exist, and yet there I was, standing next to him, seeing the things he wanted to disprove. It was always a strange concoction, and I wish I could tell you it got easier, but you know it didn’t.

Present day

I phoned Alice Strother a few days ago. Thankfully she remembered me from the funeral. We arranged for me to visit the house this morning so I could look through what he’d left about his work. What was meant to be a few hours of looking turned into an entire day buried in paperwork, laptops, and files. I had no idea he was involved in so many pieces of research.

I didn’t get through all of it, but did find the files on our study amongst the chaos. They didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already found out. In all of the paperwork he had there was no mention of who funded out study. Alice came in and helped me with the password on his laptop. It certainly made me wish I was a better programmer. I asked her if she remembered anything he might’ve said regarding the study, even just in passing. She repeated that he refused to speak about it, then reluctantly she voiced her own theory. In her view there had been an important reason why Strother had stood back and watched his career burn, especially considering how important his work had been to him.

Alice left me to peruse the laptop after she heard her mother returning from her knitting club at the local church. I’ll give it to Strother, he was meticulous when it came to file organisation, everything was named and dated so there was no confusion or endlessly trying to translate what obscure file names meant. Despite all of that there was nothing of use on either of his laptops.

In a last ditch attempt to find something I began to look through his emails, even his personal account, which proved no more illuminating. Then it occurred to me that he may have met up with them. That’s how funding usually worked, regular updates and outputs to prove you haven’t just spent the money on an expensive coffee machine. There were meetings with the head of the psychology department, with all of us, with Ken and I, with Steph, slots blanked out for testing subjects. There was one thing that caught my eye.

Every week there was an appointment on a Wednesday at 1pm. What was conspicuous was that there was only a set of initials in the heading. Everything else used full names. I looked back 2 years and it was always there. What was better was that there was an address of a café that wasn’t far from the university. It was small, a tiny thread, but you know where I stand on threads.

They’re closed tomorrow but I’ll go at the weekend. I know it’s unlikely anyone who worked there 15 years ago will still be there, but I have to try.

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