Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 43e - Talking to Ghosts by Caitlin Flavell - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/02/29 - listen here)
This episode starts the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s 2020 fiction series. This year, I expanded the scope of the series to include historical stories with fantastic elements that fit the setting. Given that, you get to decide whether Caitlin Flavell’s story from Victorian Scotland, “Talking to Ghosts,” fits that category or not. Caitlin is a freelance writer and student, based in Edinburgh. She regularly contributes to the feminist magazine Clitbait. You can find links to that magazine and her social media in the show notes.
Although my ideal narrator for this story would have been Scottish, to match the setting, the tight turn-around after submissions closed means that I’ll be doing the narration. Short fiction narration is an art that is getting a lot of exposure with the popularity of fiction podcasts and I’m always hoping for the perfect narrator for the stories I buy, finding someone who not only is skilled at making the prose and characters come alive, but who is comfortable with the cultural setting--the names and vocabulary--as well as with the language rhythms specific for each tale. That’s a rather high bar to meet, especially given that a professional narrator is also expected to be their own sound engineer and audio editor. (Lest it isn’t clear, I definitely pay narrators, except for myself.) Setting out my ideal goals creates a risk that great potential narrators may self-reject because they don’t nail every single one of the qualifications. If you think you might be a good narrator for one of the upcoming stories, please contact me to discuss. I’m specifically looking for someone comfortable with Yiddish names and vocabulary of late 19th century Russia, and I have a story set in medieval Provence that would be ideal for someone who’s studied Langedoc poetry of the troubadour era. Think about it.
And now, on with the story.
Talking to Ghosts
by Caitlin Flavell
When the news broke that the esteemed Professor Johnathan J. Brownrigg had died, only three of his four daughters cried.
Eloise immediately broke into noisy, dramatic sobs, as was her wont. Maria clutched her younger sister to her chest and wept bitterly, though without the flair and panache of Eloise. Sophia stood still, and silent, but tears streamed freely down her face all the same.
Henrietta did not cry at all.
She felt as though she were oddly outside herself, staring through a window at the grief-stricken scene playing out against the backdrop of their hallway. She noticed little details: the elegant lacing on Eloise’s dress, the late afternoon light peering through the little window in the front door, the sketch that their father had made of their mother that hung on the wall—he would never draw again. The thought hit her like an oncoming steam train, and still, she could not cry.
“Henrietta?” She heard her mother’s voice as if from a great distance.
“I—I have to go.” She mumbled through numb lips, and reached blindly for the coat hanging on the stand. She shoved her way through the small crowd of Brownrigg women gathered in the hallway and out onto the bustling Edinburgh street.
“Harry!” She thought she heard someone cry behind her, but she had built up too much momentum to turn around now, and so she kept walking, her feet propelled by an unfamiliar, desperate force.
She was not sure how long she walked for. Her feet ached, but then, her whole body ached with a ceaseless, gut-deep pain. It was bitterly cold, the January wind biting right through her. What were the Brownriggs going to do now? They had no source of income beyond the salary paid to their father by the Government School of Art. Maybe they could take up sewing, or start a laundry. Did their father own their house? She wasn’t sure—
She looked up, startled, as someone reached out and grabbed her shoulder. The impression of a tall and narrow man with curling blonde hair swam before her eyes before she could focus properly. It was Huw, her childhood friend and a student of her father’s.
“What’s wrong? You’ve gone all white and shaking,”
For a moment she could not remember how to speak, the concern on Huw’s face painting his brow darker and darker, until finally she managed to choke out the words.
“Father has died.”
Huw’s mouth fell open, and he jerked away from her as though she had physically hit him.
All she could do was nod.
“He—he had pneumonia,” she said, her voice hoarse as though she had been crying, even if the tears still would not come.
“I didn’t even know,” Huw said, face pale.
“It was very quick.”
He reached out wordlessly and pulled her into his arms, pressing his face into her shoulder, not caring about the propriety of it. She carefully wrapped her arms around him in return, fisting her hands in his shabby velvet jacket to hide the fact that they were shaking.
“I’m sorry, Harry,” Huw mumbled, in a wet kind of voice. “What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t.”
Huw escorted her back to the townhouse in Comely Bank, holding her hand tightly in his own. Her mother opened the door and gulped back a sob at seeing the two of them. She grabbed Henrietta, pulling her inside and by extension pulling Huw as well.
“Don’t ever run off like that again,” She scolded, wiping the tears from her face as she dusted imaginary dirt from Henrietta’s shoulders. “Your sisters need you right now.”
“I know,” She said.
The three of them sat at the old wooden table in the kitchen, the one where she had often taken breakfast with her father before he departed for work, where he had sat and sketched in charcoal whilst his wife entertained in the sitting room or his daughters played at his feet. She traced the dark veins in the grey planks and sighed.
“If there is anything I can do to help,” Huw said, as disgustingly earnest as he always was, “please let me know.”
“Oh, my sweet boy,” Jane said, brushing a loose strand of hair back behind his ear. “You are as much a part of this family as Harry is, by now.”
Huw nodded, scrubbing a hand across his face to hide his watery eyes.
“We have been very lucky,” Jane said, and Henrietta scoffed. “Do not make noises like that, Harry, it’s not ladylike. Your father had some money in savings, and he owned this house outright. If the five of us band together, we will continue to support ourselves just fine. I will find work sewing, or perhaps at one of the printing factories—”
“No, Mrs Brownrigg,” Huw said. “Don’t go there, it’s awful work.”
“He’s right, Mama,” Henrietta said. “You’ll kill yourself. I shall find a husband that can support us all.”
Both parties looked up at her, Huw in shock and Jane in pity.
“Harry, I fear you are being naïve,” Jane said gently. “It is a very rare man that will take on such a financial burden.”
“Well, even if he wouldn’t support all of you, it would be one less girl for you to feed,” Henrietta said.
“Your father…didn’t want to rush you,” Jane said, haltingly. “He wanted you to be happy, when you left this house.”
“I know,” Henrietta said, and finally the tears came, and she buried her face in her hands as Jane stood up and moved round the table to embrace her.
“My sweet girl,” she murmured, tears streaming freely down her own face even as she comforted her eldest daughter. “He would not stand for tears, if he were here. We must carry on, with virtue and fortitude.”
“I know,” Harry sobbed.
And so it came to be that the house in Comely Bank was cold and dark for many weeks. Each of the five women resident within were pale-faced and tired, occasionally joined by Huw, who would wring his hands and offer his meagre savings to them any time work was mentioned.
“Stop it, Huw!” Harry finally snapped at him one day. “We are not going to take your money, and Lord knows you need it more than we do!”
He moped at her and left, and Jane indicated to her that she should apologise. She huffed but obliged. Unfortunately the Queen was making a visit to Holyrood that day, and crowds and crowds of people were swarming towards the Royal Mile, and Huw had vanished.
She walked, aimlessly, until she was arrested by a large wooden board that stated in bright purple letters “TALK WITH DEAD LOVED ONES TODAY!” that was hung on the side of a building. Underneath that in smaller script were the words “the Magnificent Medium, Madame Lascaux.”
She looked around and realised she was in a part of town that she didn’t recognise at all. She thought she was in the Old Town, judging from the rundown state of the houses, but neither the castle nor Holyrood Palace could be seen anywhere. The sign, however, was insistent at the edges of her attention, flashing its outrageous message out of the corner of her eye wherever she looked.
Finally, she gave in, and knocked at the stained wooden door that stood underneath it. There was no answer, so she cautiously pressed and the door opened easily before her. Inside, she found herself in a cramped, dark hallway that smelt strongly of spices and wax candles, with strange artwork hung on the walls and strings of beads adorning the doorways.
“Hello?” she called nervously and a young woman pushed her way into the hallway and looked at her, startled.
“What do you want?” she asked. She was shorter than Harry, with dark skin and darker freckles sprinkled delicately across the bridge of her nose. A mass of tightly curled hair was held back from her face in a brightly patterned scarf, and she wore a lace shawl that shimmered with pretty beads.
“I—I’m sorry,” Harry stuttered, thrown violently from the reverie that the purple sign seemed to have put her in. “I have no idea what I’m doing here—I should go—”
“Wait,” The young woman said, sharply. “Do you wish to contact the dead, my dear?”
Harry stared at her, totally undone by the eclectic mishmash of her clothing, and the pleasant smell wafting through the apartment, and merely nodded her head. There was nothing more she wanted in all the world.
“What’s your name?”
“Come on, Henrietta,” the woman said, grabbing Harry’s pale hand in her own, and dragging her through the doorway into another small room. Harry felt incredibly out of place in her sensible blue dress and little hat pinned firmly to her mousy hair, next to this woman in a mass of bright colours. She wore huge chandelier earrings that sparkled and threw the light whenever she turned her head.
The second room had only a round table in it with a few old chairs and the walls were covered floor to ceiling in photographs. Old and young, happy and sad faces in foggy black and white stared at Harry from every wall as she gaped.
“Where did you get all these?” she asked, voice strangely hoarse.
“People give them to me,” The woman said, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “Stop dawdling about and sit down.”
She lit a few candles before pulling the curtains on the solitary window closed. This threw them into a strange twilight, lit only by the afternoon light that got in around the edges of the curtains and the sparse candles.
“Now, who is it you wish to contact? Have you lost someone recently?”
Harry wasn’t sure if five weeks was recent, actually, but she nodded her head.
“Grandmother? Aunt? Parent? Yes, a parent,” the woman said. “I am the magnificent medium, Madame Lascaux, and I will be your connection to the spirit world, your guide as we journey to find the one you are looking for…?”
“My father,” Harry croaked.
“The late Professor Brownrigg.”
“Yes,” Harry sucked in a shocked breath. “How could you—”
“I see many spirits pass from this world to the next, and they tell me many things,” she said. Her eyes, a deep, warm brown, glinted in the candlelight. “Now, take my hand,”
Harry did, closing her eyes.
“When did you last see your father?”
“I—in the hospital,” Harry said. “The iron lung. He looked small and pale. It was horrible.”
“When did you last see your father as he truly was in life?”
Harry narrowed her eyes at her. “Do any of us know who another truly is?”
“An interesting answer.” Her lips curled in a wry smile. “Before he got sick, then.”
“We had breakfast together before he went to work, as we always do. He kissed each of us goodbye. He left. He didn’t come home again. It was January, it was bitter cold. It was…so fast.”
“Think of him as he was,” Lascaux said, closing her eyes. “Let your memory of him flow through you.”
Harry closed her eyes as well, wrinkling her nose as the smell of the incense seemed to grow stronger. Her head felt…fuzzy.
“Johnathan…” Lascaux murmured, quietly. “If you are there…your daughter wishes to speak with you…”
Henrietta felt a twisting, roiling anticipation in her gut.
“I’m sensing…a special name, a pet name, that he is calling for you by…it’s not quite coming through…”
“Is it—is it Harry?” she asked, hoarsely.
“Yes, Harry…he is speaking to me…my dear Harry…”
Harry gasped as she was struck by a barrage of sensation: her father kissing her on the forehead before he had left, the smell of turpentine, the rough low sound of his voice.
“Is he here?” she gasped, voice thick and wet with repressed emotion. Her eyes remained closed.
“Yes,” Lascaux said. Her voice sounded different; deeper, more distant. Harry felt her hands tighten around her own and the table began to shudder. “Say what you wish to say.”
“Father…” Harry said, and was struck dumb. She had no idea what to say. “Father, I love you. We miss you.”
“He knows,” Lascaux said. Her hands left Harry’s, and Harry, though she felt lost in a fog cloud of memories of her father, thought she heard the faint noise of the table creaking.
She was torn from her reverie as the curtains were thrown open, flooding the room with light. She blinked her eyes open blearily to see Lascaux blowing out the candles and dusting off the table.
“Is—is he gone?”
“Unfortunately, my dear, the connections we make with the spirit are tenuous and fleeting,” Lascaux said, pushing her hair back from her face and tying the coloured scarf tight. “That will be two shillings.”
“What?” Harry said, unsure where she was.
“Two shillings, Miss Brownrigg,” she said. “This is how I make a living, after all.”
Harry reached for her purse, fumbling out a few coins and passed them to her. She was unable to forget what she had felt in the dark, the certainty that she had had that her father was nearby.
“Can—can I come back?” she asked, a sense of desperation creeping over her as she felt the memories of the sensations start to fade.
“I’m sorry?” Lascaux looked up from the candles.
“Can I come back again? And you can do…that, again?” Harry said, struggling to keep tears from her eyes.
“I—yes. Of course. It will still cost two shillings.” Lascaux said.
“If you come back next week, I should be ready to venture to the spirit world once more. Bring something that represents a connection between yourself and your father,” Lascaux said. She hurried Harry out of the door, called, “Have a pleasant day!” and then firmly shut the door behind her.
Harry stood in the street for a very long time, staring at her reflection in the puddle of water at her feet without really seeing it. She only looked up when she realised it was getting dark, and the street she was in was devoid of streetlights. She trudged home, water seeping into her boots, and when she knocked at the front door her mother answered it with vengeance in her eyes.
“Henrietta Brownrigg, where, in the name of the good Lord, have you been?”
Harry stared, unable to answer her.
“Come inside at once.” Mother grabbed her arm and tugged her inside, where Sophia and Huw were sitting at the kitchen table. “Apologise to Huw.”
“For sending him out searching for you all over Edinburgh, and for worrying us all sick.”
“Sorry,” Harry muttered.
“Goodness me,” Jane said, and then pulled her into a tight hug. “Shame on me for raising such wilful children, I suppose.”
“I’m sorry, Mama,” Harry said again, returning the hug. Huw and Sophia both stood up and joined the two of them. “I’m sorry, everyone. I lost track of time.”
A week could not pass quickly enough. Harry walked around the house as though in a trance; though she tried to read, to draw, she could not get the thought of the séance out of her mind, and she especially could not forget the look of Madame Lascaux’s eyes reflecting the candlelight.
Nobody noticed, of course, for they were all of them wrapped up in their own grief and assumed that Harry was the same. Eloise on occasion attempted to get her to come out walking with her, but Harry turned her down in favour of sitting in the window seat and looking at the sketches she had retrieved from her father’s possessions. Jane began to receive sewing from various ladies in Comely Bank, and Maria helped her, the two of them sitting at the kitchen table and sewing until their fingers bled. Sophia, ever the independent, went and found employment for herself as a maid in one of the big houses on Frederick Street.
On the seventh day, Harry took some pencil drawings that she had done with her father’s supervision and went back to the Old Town.
Madame Lascaux opened the door tentatively, peering out at her.
“Oh. You came back.”
“Yes. Of course I did,” Harry said, holding her bag awkwardly in front of her. “Are you still willing to…contact the dead again?”
“Come in,” Lascaux said, and led Harry back into the séance room. Harry opened her bag and pulled out the drawings; pictures of their house, a few portraits of her sisters.
“Yes, yes, these are good,” Lascaux said. She immediately reached out and grabbed the one portrait of her father. “This is him?”
“You’re actually quite talented, eh?” she muttered, examining every pencil stroke on the thick sketching paper. “This is a good likeness.”
“Father was a good teacher,” was all Harry said.
“Let me lay these out…” Lascaux said, setting the pictures out in an order only she understood. “Now, tell me something about yourself.”
“Not about Father?”
“No, you.” Lascaux said. “The person trying to make the connection is just as important as the spirit we are trying to contact.”
“I don’t know,” Harry said. “I’m just like any woman, really…I went to school at St George’s until I was fourteen, then when I left I took classes with my father, mostly because he was there and he was a teacher.”
“What was that like?”
“Not many of his students were pleased to have a girl in their classes, actually.” Harry said, smirking a little. “But Father didn’t care, and I didn’t care. I was the only one of my sisters to take an interest in the fine arts; the others have their own hobbies.”
“And you are not married?”
Harry looked down at her hands, suddenly uncomfortable with looking her in the eyes. “Forgive my frankness, though I feel I can be frank with you. Men have never been a source of curiosity for me, as they are for my sisters. I prefer books.”
“Books?” Lascaux smiled that wry smile again.
“I imagine I will be married one day, as all women are. But I’m in no hurry.”
“Wise.” Lascaux remarked, moving her hands seemingly at random over each of the portraits on the table.
“Are you married?” Harry asked, and Lascaux looked up in surprise.
“Would you like to be?”
She stared for a moment, as if unsure what Harry meant, and then said “Are you proposing?”
Harry laughed, loudly and freely, for what felt like the first time in weeks. “My father would have liked you.”
“Everyone likes me,” Lascaux said, shrugging. “Now, take my hand.”
Once again, the room was darkened and the candles lit. Harry closed her eyes, inhaling the now familiar smell of the incense, and waited.
“Johnathan…” Lascaux murmured. “Your daughter is here once more. If you are present, please speak with us.”
Harry felt herself begin to drift; the dark, the firm grip of Lascaux’s hands in hers, it all began to fade away.
“There is someone here…Harry…” Lascaux said. “Do you remember the last thing I said to you?”
“Do you mean—what Mother told me? About getting married?”
“Yes…that…remember it well…” Lascaux’s voice had gone throaty and hoarse again, as if someone else was speaking through her.
“I shall,” Harry said.
“Tell your sisters I love them as well. Tell Eloise that there is more to life than pretty dresses.”
Harry gasped softly, tightening her grip on Lascaux’s hands. She could feel it once more, the sensation of her father close by, the smell of his old tweed coat. She began to cry, silently, as Lascaux rose and opened the curtains once again.
“Here,” Harry said, pulling the money from her purse and shoving it at her as she wiped her eyes. “I’ll come back next week.”
Lascaux’s expression was closed, indeterminable. “You may return. Be warned—spirits will move on eventually.”
“I’ll deal with that when it arrives,” Harry said. Lascaux reached out and took her hand again, squeezing it tight, before leading her to the door again.
“Thank you, Madame Lascaux.”
Lascaux bit her lip, seeming to consider something. “Call me Paola. Please. Madame Lascaux is a silly stage name.”
“Well, if you insist. Paola.”
So Harry visited the medium the next week, and the week after that, and every time she asked if she could come back Paola looked at her in surprise, but acquiesced. By the fourth visit, Harry had stop coming to feel close to her father, and more because she was so utterly fascinated by Paola’s work. And she liked the way she felt when she smiled that wry smile at her. She began to ask questions. “Where did you learn to do this? How do you know which spirit to look for? What does it feel like?”
Paola would answer vaguely, but the more Harry asked, the harsher her responses would become.
On her fifth visit, Paola sat down at the table and paused, staring at one of the photographs on the wall before looking to Harry with a sombre expression.
“Your father is no longer nearby. He has passed on to the other side.”
“Oh,” Harry said, swaying in place. “I see.”
“I’m sorry, Harry.”
“It’s not your fault,” Harry said, automatically. She stood up and walked out without saying anything more, stopping only to throw a couple more coins down on the table—the last of her savings.
“You don’t have to pay—”
Harry walked out without listening, stumbling onto the cobbled Old Town street and looking up and down, uncertain of the direction home was in. Eventually she came back to her senses and trudged home, turning her felt hat over and over in her hands until it became crumpled. When she realised she had ruined it, she simply dropped it by the side of the road.
She lay awake all night, turning over and over, watching Sophia sleeping in the bed next to her, but still never slipping away. The next morning, the doorbell rang, and she opened it with bleary, baggy eyes. It was Huw, wearing his nicest jacket and a silk tie.
“Oh, it’s you. Come in,” she said, stepping aside to let him enter.
“It’s nice to see you too,” he said. “Are you alright?”
“Of course,” she said, a little sharp. “Why do you ask?”
“You look a little…” He gestured in front of his face. “Never mind.”
“It’s not appropriate to comment on a lady’s appearance,” she said, too tired to care about sounding snippy.
Huw took a deep breath, nodding to himself. “Can I speak with you?”
The two of them sat down at the kitchen table, Huw upright and nervous, Harry slumped and grey. Huw took another deep breath.
“I have been…mulling something over, for a while. I know that you would be too proud to ever accept money from me—”
“It is not pride, Huw, you need that money for yourself—” Harry interrupted hotly and he nodded, waving her away.
“I know, I know, but I had an idea.” He had a hand in his jacket pocket, twisting something over and over. “We are close friends, yes?”
“Of course. Always.”
He drew his hand from his pocket, revealing a battered gold signet ring. “I couldn’t afford a new ring, but this was my father’s—I feel that it would make sense, the two of us, nobody else knows me as well as you do—and this way I can support you, I have been talking to someone at Jenner’s about a job as an accountant—”
“Wait,” she said, holding up a hand. “I thought you were going to be an artist?”
He paused, looking at her strangely. “That is the part you’re questioning?”
“Well, when have you ever wanted to be an accountant—”
“Henrietta,” he interrupted, placing the ring on the table in front of her. “Would you like to get married?”
She gulped, staring down at the ring. For some reason, she could not stop thinking about Paola.
“I can’t ask that of you,” she said, through numb lips. “To give up on your art. Father always said you were good.”
“It won’t be a great hardship,” Huw said. “And you need money. The rest of your family have found ways to support themselves.”
She nodded, absent-mindedly, then stood up abruptly. “I have to go.”
“Harry!” Huw tried to stop her, but she was already out the front door, running up the road in her old heeled boots—they were falling apart, and she had spent all her money on the medium—until she reached the narrow street in Old Town. Puffing, she hammered on the door of Paola’s apartment.
She answered the door warily, peering out at Henrietta, whose hair had fallen from its updo and was lying loose around her face like she was a child again. “Harry? I thought I told you your father had passed on.”
“I need—some advice,” Harry panted. “You do—fortune telling—don’t you?”
“Maybe,” Paola said, looking at her as though she had gone mad.
“Wait—” Harry said. “I have no money left. Never mind. I’ll go—”
“Oh, for the love of God,” Paola said, grabbing Harry by the wrist and pulling her inside. “Forget about it, you’re the only customer I’ve ever had that came back.”
Harry let herself be dragged into the photograph room, noticing that some of them had been removed and replaced with others. Paola took a pack of cards as if from nowhere and began shuffling them in her hands over and over, turning them round and ruffling the cards like an expert. She fanned them out onto the table and gestured to Harry.
“Pick a card.”
Harry took one and turned it over: a man in red robes standing in front of a table with a hand upraised. The label underneath read “The Magician”.
“What does that mean?” she asked. Paola did not answer for a long time, staring at the card with her fingers steepled in front of her face.
“Harry, I have something I should confess to you.” Paola said, eventually.
“I cannot contact the dead.”
“I have been fooling you.” Paola’s eyes, brown flecked with green and gold, stared guiltily at her. “It’s how I make my living. And it’s why none of my clients ever return.”
Harry stared at her, unable to really process any of what she had said. “You…you knew who my father was, when I came in.”
“I read the obituaries every week.”
“I—I could feel him, when I was here. I sensed him.”
Paola spread her hands apologetically. “It was what you were desperate to feel. When I offered you the opportunity…your mind took it, and gave you what you wanted.”
Harry stared at her a little longer, unsure what to do.
“Can I continue the reading?”
Slowly, she nodded, and turned over another card. It was upside down; a man and a woman, naked, standing in front of a huge winged angel in the sky. The Lovers.
“What was it you wanted advice about?”
“I received a marriage proposal.” Harry said.
“Do you love him?”
“As a brother. Though the match makes sense, I suppose. He wants to help.”
Paola’s eyes crinkled as she smiled her wry smile, enigmatic as always. “I don’t think you should accept. Turn over the last card.”
It was a young man sitting at a workbench, crafting coins with a chisel. The Eight of Coins.
Paola nodded, as if she had expected it. “You should take up drawing again.”
“It is an unconventional career path for a woman, but I believe the cards are telling you to master your skill.”
“How do I know you aren’t lying to me again?” Harry asked, annoyed at how petulant she sounded.
“You don’t. The cards don’t lie, though.”
“Why shouldn’t I accept Huw’s proposal?” Harry said, crossing her arms. “I mean, it makes sense. We’re friends, he’s going to be an accountant, even though I know it’s going to make him miserable. Maybe I need to settle down and—”
Paola stood up, moving around the table, and she took Harry’s face in her hands and she kissed her. Shocked, uncertain, Harry sat frozen for a long second before placing her hands over Paola’s and kissing her back.
She had never kissed anyone before, but it felt irredeemably right; soft lips on hers, the wild dark hair tickling her face as Paola leant over her. Eventually the two of them drew apart, and Harry drew in a soft breath, not wanting to open her eyes again.
“Don’t accept Huw’s proposal.” Paola whispered, leaning her forehead against Harry’s.
Links to Caitlin Flavell Online
If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon: