It visited me in the dead of night. A spectre. Or at least that was my first thought when I saw its pale, drawn face glowing faintly in the yellow light that flickered from my candle stub. It’s features were much less than human; too smooth and even and with features too unpronounced to still be a man, so I guessed that perhaps it was a very ancient ghost and had forgotten what it used to look like. It moved in an ungainly fashion, shuffling it’s feet along the floor as if it found the very act of moving awkward and when it opened it’s mouth to speak it struggled to form the words, spitting them out in a fit of laboured hissing.
“Ze… voissssssss…. isssssss… hersssssss….”
I stared at it in wonder, and I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Carmela, the Spaniard with the deep brown eyes and the wicked smile, had often tried to scare me with stories of ghosts when I was younger. Her accounts were so vivid that I had always been terrified at the thought of ever meeting one, not just for what a spectre might do, but mostly for who it might once have been. Yet the sight before me bore no resemblance to her fearsome tales of sinister hauntings. The pale figure seemed determined, but somehow desperate at the same time. It did not move the walls to swallow me, nor pin me to the bed with invisible knives. It raised it’s arm and I thought it might make a move to strike me, but instead it just held it with great effort in front of it’s face, it’s mouth opening and closing but making only an unintelligible hiss. Finally it raised it’s dark eyes to me again.
“Youuuu…. musssssst…. givvvve…. Hersssss….”
It fumbled closer, and pushed it’s arm towards me until it was almost touching my face. There was some pattern along the pale arm, and I had to stifle a surprised laugh when I realised that the patterns were written words – the exact words that the spectre had been attempting to form into speech. “The voice is hers. You must give.” The hand was shoved nearer and I could feel as it hovered by my cheek that it was cold as ice. It had a sheen too, that made it appear damp and I flinched back from it, simultaneously revolted and puzzled. It was difficult to remain scared of a spectre that had needed it’s message written down.
“Are you…?” I tried to hold it’s gaze, but the eyes of the ghostly figure seemed to faze in and out of focus on me, and it kept swaying it’s head from side to side. “Did the mermaiden send you?”
“Sssss… Hersssss….. Youuuu musssst givvvvvve…”
“I… I’ll…” I tried to think quickly, but the novelty of the situation had the better of me. If the mermaiden had indeed sent this creature, whatever it might be, to claim back her voice then really she had far better claim to it than I, and I was not keen to draw her wrath. And yet, a great reluctance stirred inside my stomach – a reluctance that felt all too familiar. The same reluctance I felt whenever I snapped shut the shell’s lid. The same reluctance I’d felt when some survival instinct had forced my head from the water every time I’d attempted to hear clearly the full words of the mermaiden’s song. The same reluctance I’ve felt everyday since Tamsin died and I decided never to open the shell again. So I couldn’t help it. I tried desperately to stall and find out more. And I told myself that it was for my father’s memory, or because I did not know whether the ghost could be trusted.
“Who are you?” I asked, for it seemed a reasonable fact to try and ascertain while I thought of a plan. But the spectre just swayed, and appeared to breath harder, and repeated again:
“Zzzze… voisssse… issss…. hersssssssss.”
“Whose? Who do you represent?”
“Hersssss! Herssss!! Herssss!!!”
The ghost was becoming agitated now, and it’s whole body rocked precariously. On each iteration of the spat syllable, “Herssss!” it thrust it’s hand out at me, until on the third it brushed against my cheek with an unexpected crackle. I screamed with the sudden pain of it, for the gentle touch felt like I had been slapped across the face with a spiked mace. The spectre recoiled it’s hand gingerly and looked steadily at me. Then it started to shuffle downwards into what looked like a crouch and I realised it was preparing itself to jump.
“No,” I said, my face still smarting from the touch so much that I could barely hold my thoughts together with the exception of the instinctive dread of the creature making any further contact with me. “No!” It was hissing and panting and coiled ready and I screwed my eyes closed and heard myself begin to shout “Please! No! Please she can have it! She can…”
Whang! An almighty clang rang through my head and my eyes snapped open to see Ma Molly standing over the edge of my bed with her giant, black broth pan in one hand and a heavy wooden rolling pin in the other. The ghost now lay in a crippled heap on the floor, almost like it had melted into a pile of pale clothes and slimey limbs. It didn’t seem to glow any more.
“Ma!” I exclaimed in relief. And then I couldn’t go on and had to catch back my breath which all of a sudden I realised I’d been holding.
“Don’t mention it chick,” smiled the tough old matron, and she meant it. “What was it Sapphi, another creep trying his luck with what he can’t have? You still got that knife I gave you right? You know I don’t like when you’re down here alone and all the girls is working.”
“It’s…” I gulped in air to settle myself. “It wasn’t that Ma. I thought it was a ghost at first, because of his pallor, but it seems he was quite solid after all. It was…” I hesitated. No one knew about the shell. No one apart from Tamsin, and she was long in her grave. “He said he wanted… He was something to do with my father.”
Ma frowned and folded her arms, still holding the rolling pin and the cooking pot. Her thick make-up lay on her face like warpaint and she looked fearsome. Queen of her castle. Protector of her girls. We all loved Ma.
“Your father always was bringing trouble round,” she muttered, and she meant that too. “But even from his grave… I guess he was the type to leave a few old spectres around waiting to be unearthed.” I waited in silence as she seemed to consider the situation. “Well child, we ain’t gonna get nothing outta him tonight. They say its gonna start blowing up a gale from the North in the early hours so there’ll be a good lot o’ sailors hanging about this place come morning taking shelter. I daresay we might be able to get a couple o’ them to give us a hand finding out this ugly creep’s business for a favour or two. Right now though, let’s lock him in the cellar. He won’t be doing no harm there.”
We carried him carefully down the stairs between us. I was cautious at first of the touch of his skin, but when Ma placed her leathery hands on his arms to lift him and wasn’t stung I discovered that whatever had happened to my face wasn’t to be repeated for now. He was damp and his clammy skin chilled one’s own, yet he continued to breath shallowly so we knew he was not dead. Or at least, not dead in the traditional sense. What he was was still largely a mystery. We left him on the floor by the wine caskets, bound his ankles and wrists tightly with rope, locked and barred the door and went to our beds. But when we came back to check in the morning, he was gone. There was no sign of him at all – just a dark, sodden patch on the flagstones where we’d left him, and the stinking, shrivelled skin of a rotting eel.
Part Three on Monday 16th August.