I’m thrilled to announce the publication of my brand new historical novel, Paris Green.
Medium Andrew Blakemoor came from nowhere, a soft-voiced, scarecrow country boy with a questionable past. Playing down claims that he exorcised the restless spirit of Tutankamun, Blakemoor comes to New York to evangelise about Spiritualism, and to seek new patronage. While society is divided on the truth of his psychic gifts, in him Caroline sees a new realm of possibilities, a life different from the inevitabilities of marriage, trust funds and the hope of male children.
When Caroline places herself in Andrew’s hands, seeking ‘development’ as a psychic medium, she opens herself up to a world of dark seances and strange, night-time whisperings, of affinities and apports. While her friends drop away and her parents worry, Caroline immerses herself in the search for her own ‘control’ – a spirit who will protect her and guide her in this world and the next.
But on the night when her serenity is shattered by a gunshot, Caroline realises too late that no dream of a smiling ghost can offer protection against the horrors of life and death, against duplicity and hollow promises, and worst of all, herself.
She measured out her day in meals.
First there was toast, two slices. If the butter was thick enough for opacity she would send it back. Tea – no milk, no sugar. Lemon was forbidden, not that she would want it anyway. Then a cup of oatmeal, mashed to near semolina consistency. She ate from a blue pottery bowl with rings on the inside. If the oatmeal reached past the first ring she refused to eat it and there would be a fuss, with her too tearful to explain why the slightest deviation bothered her so much.
It had been the same with the cigarettes. Once the papers of her favorite brand had been soft, translucent, powdery enough to leave a residue on her lips. Then the manufacturer had changed them, adding a thin gold foil band to the filter and a new smooth, glossy paper that felt all wrong in her mouth.
She had sent poor Andrew to hunt out new brands with the right kind of paper, rejecting every one in tears. She had even drafted angry letters to the manufacturer, although luckily she had never sent them. Whenever she looked back at the way she had behaved she was ashamed, and yet deep down she knew that if it happened again she would react in the exact same way.
“You’re a finely balanced instrument, Caroline,” Andrew would say. “Stands to reason that change bothers you more’n regular folk.”
He babied her and she was ashamed of that too, but neither could she deny that these days her upsets came with consequences. If she – or by extension Andrew – were upset then the noises would start again. Doors would swing open on their own. There would be scurryings, whispers, the patter of disembodied feet. Shadows would swell and darken and she had no desire to test their power, not after last time.
She never mentioned this to Nancy, who was said to be smart and was certainly virtuous. Nancy attended a Baptist Church in Harlem and made no secret of her dislike of Andrew.
“The dead go where the Good Lord sends them,” Nancy said. “It’s none of our business and never was.”
“But Andrew’s such a kind man,” Caroline said. “He doesn’t even approve of smoking but he brings me cigarettes because he knows it settles my nerves.”
Nancy arched a finely pencilled eyebrow. “Did I say he wasn’t?” she said, but Nancy had a knack for leaving implications hanging in the air. Once she had said straight out that Caroline’s nerves and Andrew were one and the same thing, and although she’d been clever enough not to say it twice, she had never refuted it. Instead she closed her lips and kept her sharp almond brown eyes on the fancy work she loved to crochet. She settled for radiating disapproval and did it very well – well enough for Caroline to see the distaste shivering around her edges like a heat-haze.
Lately that haze shimmered faster, and Caroline knew why. Her mother left fashion magazines beside her bed and her father brought her print copy for the paper, as if she might want to check it off as if nothing had happened. Sometimes she would look at the pictures in the magazines, but when she got to the gossip columns she would unfocus her eyes and turn the pages quickly, lest she read about Mrs. Henry Smart and her daring new haircut.
This method of avoidance wasn’t foolproof, especially with the larger typefaces; and the type had been getting larger and louder over the previous summer. Little words in big letters.
PSYCHIC. LIES. MONEY.
No wonder Nancy practically vibrated with self-righteousness. The slurs on Andrew’s reputation just kept coming and the words in the headlines got longer, the adverbial hedgings that kept lawsuits at bay.
ALLEGEDLY. REPUTEDLY. SUPPOSEDLY.
He was late and she worried. Without him the house would start howling around her ears again, and worse, much worse, she might have think about the words that had slipped past her guard.
She smoked three cigarettes while she read a book about the problems of psychic research. Nancy counted her stitches under her breath, frowning over the knotted loops that she somehow miraculously turned into lace. The clock ticked on towards lunchtime.
Caroline closed her eyes, feigning tiredness, but really seeking Andrew. This mental telegraphy was just another part of their gift. She pasted his face on the gray behind her eyelids. She pictured his hotel room, pictured the pyramid of lump sugar he would have made on the tea tray, the diamond cufflinks she had given him for his birthday in May. She saw him reading a newspaper, moistening his fingertip to turn the pages. His index finger was black with print; the press got their poison on him every way they could.
Don’t read that, she mentally called to him. Don’t. It’s all lies. We know the truth.
He went on turning the page, as if he hadn’t heard her.
“Why isn’t he here?” she said aloud.
Nancy sighed, her concentration broken. “I don’t know.”
“I interrupted you. I’m sorry.”
“Well, it’s almost time for lunch anyway. And I was getting a headache.”
She put down the crochet and Caroline envied her work, her brisk business. Nancy had tried to teach her once but Caroline could never get the hang of the tension and so remained an oddity, a useless, pampered spinster who spun only spirits out of thin air.
It was Thursday, so lunch today would be cream of chicken soup, with hard-boiled eggs mashed up fine and a strawberry mousse to follow. Caroline hated eggs. There had been too many of them shoved down her throat when she was reluctant to eat, but hard-boiled was better than soft-boiled, especially if the whites weren’t quite set.
Andrew should have been here by now. A tiny, mean voice in the back of her head whispered that of course she was about to have one of her ‘spells’ – because she was a big spoiled baby who wouldn’t eat her eggs. What better way to get out of it than by trembling and gasping and pretending some form of psychic upset?
She hated that mean, green-eyed gimlet voice. It came back louder every time she thought she’d drowned it out. It snorted and giggled at ugly headlines. It told her she was silly, pretentious, grossly invested in her own importance.
Caroline picked up the magazine that Nancy had left on the bedside table. Stick-figure girls peered down their Nefertiti noses, waist length beads twined in fine-tipped fingers. She tried to avoid the print but the promises danced past her eyes – Fall hairstyles to make him love you! Tattoo Lipstick Never Tells! The Color Everyone’s Talking About – Paris Green.
Her hands shook as she lit up a cigarette. It was too close to lunch and she knew it would give her heartburn, but she didn’t care. She could feel her lungs constricting, her heart racing the way it did on the nights when the shadows in the corner of her room threatened to escape.
She tried once again to reach Andrew but it was as if there was a shutter drawn down between their minds. When she attempted to picture him in his hotel room the mean voice hooted in derision.
Anyone can play at pretend. How do you know he’s even there?
He wouldn’t leave me, she thought. He swore he wouldn’t leave me. He’d stuck with her through all the headlines, the cheap novels and whispered insinuations. People talked a lot of dirt, but he never let that come between them. Their friendship, he said, was sacred.
Nancy brought up lunch. Caroline took one look at the tray and burst into tears.
“I can’t,” she said, and meant it. Her throat was a hard, dry knot.
Nancy said nothing. She didn’t have to.
“Please,” said Caroline. “Can’t you take it back? I’ll eat it later.”
Nancy folded her arms, as if to say they both knew the score here. No laters, no excuses. One skipped meal was enough to let the killing thoughts back into her head, the thoughts that paced constantly behind her mental wall, always seeking an opening.
She shook her head but Nancy stood firm.
“I can’t eat when I’m so worried about Andrew.”
The tears came hot and stinging. It was all snarled up together by now. If she didn’t eat then her mother would threaten the one sanction that kept her in line – no more Andrew. No visits, no letters, no gifts of her favorite cigarettes. It was bad enough that she was too sick to attend sittings, but without Andrew she felt sure her power would desert her completely.
“Do I need to call Mrs. Reid?” said Nancy.
Caroline swallowed. “No,” she said, and took up the soup spoon. “No.” I’ll be good.
But her hand shook too hard. The soup slopped over the edges of the spoon and splashed back into the bowl, where it was already cooling and left little dents in itself.
“Please,” she said, but Nancy was already out of the door.
She stared down at the tray, if only to avoid looking around the room. The sewing basket, the potted plants, the bathroom door – all these things had hidden, shameful meanings to her. The killing thoughts paced, prowled, threatened to snarl. Her tears fell into the soup.
Her mother came up, as threatened.
“I know what you’re going to say,” Caroline said. “So don’t.”
To her surprise her mother took the tray away. “Get dressed,” she said.
“Get dressed. We’re going out.”
“Out?” Caroline stared at her mother, panic beginning to well in her chest and throat. She hadn’t been out of the house since it happened. “I can’t go out.”
Her mother ignored her and went to the closet, picking out a skirt and blouse for her as if she were a child. Oh God – she was serious. Caroline’s bones ached even when she walked as far as the bathroom. How on earth was she supposed to just get up and walk after all this time?
“But Andrew is coming,” she said.
“You’re sure of that?” said her mother, holding back the covers.
“Of course. He would never leave me.”
“Do you need help getting dressed?”
Caroline started to cry again. “I’m not going out. You can’t make me.”
Some days her mother was all sympathy, then other days she was frayed, snappish, as if she could bully Caroline into getting better. And yet it still didn’t feel like one of those days – under her mother’s stiffness was a new, unbreakable resolve.
“Why are you doing this to me?” asked Caroline, feeling like a child in a nightmare – one of those near-forgotten dreams where she would scream for her mother but her dream mother would keep walking and leave her to the monsters.
“I’m not doing a thing to you,” said Mrs. Reid. “You’re doing this to yourself.”
“How?” Caroline heard her own voice rise to an ugly pitch, but she couldn’t stop herself. “How did I end up like this – with a ruined stomach and aching bones? Did I do that to myself too?”
There. She felt she had struck home. Her mother replaced the cover and sat down on the bed beside her. “Caroline,” she said, softly. “What happened to you was a terrible thing – nobody is denying that. And no, none of it was your doing, but this exactly why you must trust me – you’re my only living child and I love you more than anyone else in the whole world. Ask yourself why I would ever wish you harm.”
Her mother’s eyes were shining with unshed tears, but all Caroline could feel was panic, fear of the great, howling emptiness that would come upon her if the little voice was ever vindicated in the foul words it whispered – fraud, charlatan, liar.
“I can’t go out,” she said. If the papers were any indication she knew what kind of things the world out there would say – the same things the voice said. Only much louder.
“You can. It’s time. There’s something you need to see.”
Caroline clenched her fists, unable to believe that her own mother would want to cause her such pain. “But what will people say?”
“A great deal, I expect,” said her mother. “Some true, some not so true – same as always.”
“But Andrew is coming.”
Her mother sighed. “Andrew is not coming, Caroline.”
“What?” This again. Her fears made her monstrous and she hated herself as the threat rose like bile in her throat. “If you don’t let him see me…” She wiped her face with the back of her hand. “You know what will happen. He saved my life. He’s my friend.”
“Your only friend. And you used to have so many.”
“And what wonderful friends they turned out to be. Andrew’s always been there. Even with the…slime the newspapers print about him. He’s stood by me. He’d never leave me.”
The harder she cried the less her mother seemed to care. Nancy came back upstairs and helped to dress her. At first Caroline flopped and thrashed like an angry, tearful scarecrow, but when she caught sight of herself in the mirror she was ashamed of herself and quieted.
Fox came and carried her down the stairs. There was a fall bouquet on the hallway table – late roses and papery discs of honesty – reminding her that the last time she had seen flowers in this hallway was in spring. Not last spring. The one before. How fast the time had slid away from her. The shock of it was so great that she didn’t even flinch at the sight of the wheelchair. Now that the impossible was happening it was as if there was no point in crying any more, no point refusing. She had no power over reality.
The leaves in the park were beautiful – blazing reds and dying golds. The sky was crisp and blue, even though since she last looked a hotel had grown up into it, soaring up where the old White place had stood. Strange that she could describe the hotel rooms from memory – Andrew’s descriptions – but had never even seen the building for herself.
“Please take me home,” she said, one last desperate plea before surrender. She could see the police cars outside the hotel and knew that whatever had happened had already happened, but that didn’t mean she wanted to know.
Her mother, Fox and Nancy pushed her down the block. The police officers tried their best not to stare, but as they entered the hotel Caroline was conscious of the rising rustle of whispers in their wake.
“…it never is. Nobody’s seen her in public since…”
“…still under lock and key in Bellevue – as far as I know…”
“…can’t be her. She must only be about twenty five.”
“…hasn’t left the house in two years…”
“Be brave, baby,” whispered her mother, her hand on Caroline’s shoulder.
Her heart beat faster as they wheeled her into the lobby. Some girls were standing beside the elevator, younger than her, brasher too. A new crop of debutantes. They wore short skirts and short hair, one girl’s dark hair cropped so close that the nape of her neck was blue from the barber’s razor. When she turned Caroline saw that her eyes were hooded with heavy kohl, her mouth a thin, dark twist, like the peeled skin of a plum. She took one look at Caroline, nudged her friend in the ribs and said “Darling…” – a drawled exclamation.
Fox bumped the chair in his haste to get her into the elevator. Caroline caught sight of her face in the mirror before he turned the chair back. Her hair was plastered to her scalp with nervous sweat, her cheeks hollow and her eyes staring. In that moment she could see what she was going to look like when she was old.
The world turned gray around the edges, and she felt herself sink.
When she came back to herself she was inside a hotel room, Nancy bathing her wrists with cologne. The bed was unmade. The closet gaped open, bare except for coathangers and a broken shoebox on the floor. She recognised the monograms on the linen from Andrew’s description, but everything else was different. She had imagined (and you did imagine – let’s be honest here) something else in her astral travels. The wallpaper was a darker yellow and the stripe was all wrong. The bathroom door looked further away than it had on the plan Andrew had drawn for her, and yet she knew she was inside Andrew’s hotel room.
Everything was gone – all the gifts she had given him. The diamond cufflinks, the Astrakhan coat, the dinner suit and handmade boots, the first edition of The Magic Staff – it had all been packed away into the good luggage she had bought to replace his sad little cardboard suitcase. The only thing that remained of him was a pyramid of sugar beside the cups on the tea tray – missing its capstone. She imagined him popping the lump of sugar into his mouth as he looked around the room to see if he had missed anything. She saw him in her mind’s eye, so clearly that she could taste the sugar that dissolved on his tongue as he closed the door behind him and walked away without a backward glance. And she knew, deep down in the place where the little voice whispered, that this was the closest to the truth she had ever come.