Sep 20 2013 4:00pm
Ghosts Know (Excerpt)
Check out Ghosts Know by Ramsey Campbell, available October 1st from Tor Books!
Graham Wilde is a contentious, bombastic host of the talk radio program Wilde Card. His job, as he sees it, is to stir the pot, and he is quite good at it, provoking many a heated call with his eccentric and often irrational audience. He invites Frank Jasper, a purported psychic, to come on the program. He firmly believes that the man is a charlatan, albeit a talented one. When Jasper appears on his show, Wilde draws upon personal knowledge about the man to embarrass him on air, using patter similar to that which Jasper utilizes in his act.
Wilde’s attack on Jasper earns him the enmity of his guest and some of the members of his audience. He next encounters Jasper when the psychic is hired by the family of a missing adolescent girl to help them find her. Wilde is stunned and then horrified when Jasper seems to suggest that he might be behind the girl’s disappearance...
On the Air
“And another thing about all these immigrants,” Arthur from Stockport declares. “You won’t want anybody hearing about the factory that’s had to change its name.”
“You’re here to enlighten us, Arthur.”
“Don’t patronise me, Mr Wilde.”
I’ve never had a caller make my name sound so much like an insult, though he’s had plenty of competition. Beyond the soundproof window of the studio Christine twirls one finger in the air. “You’ve got just a minute, Arthur,” I tell him. “We’re nearly at the news.”
“You always put anyone who thinks like me on last, don’t you, Mr Wilde? Bob from Blackley, he’s another. You haven’t let us on for weeks and now I’ve not got time to say what I came on for.”
“You’re using up your minute, Arthur.”
“It was a muslin factory till the lot who took all the jobs said it sounded too much like Muslim. They didn’t fancy the idea you could make those in a factory, so they told the boss they’d get him done for being racist if he didn’t call it a fabric manufacturer.”
“Where did you hear about that, Arthur?”
“It’s well known, Mr Wilde. Just try talking to a few people that live in the real world. And before you ask, the factory’s somewhere in Lancashire. Pakishire, we’ll have to call it if they carry on like this.”
“You mustn’t use words like that on here, Arthur.”
“It’s all right to call us Brits, but they won’t let us call them—”
“That’s all from Wilde Card for another lunchtime,” I say not
quite fast enough to blot out his last word, and flick the switch to cut him off. “Here’s Sammy Baxter with the news at two o’clock.”
I take off my headphones as Christine switches the output to the news studio. I’m leaning back in the swivel chair to wriggle my shoulders and stretch when Rick Till blunders in, combing his unruly reddish hair at the same time as dragging his other arm free of his leather jacket. He’s always this harassed when he’s due on the air, even though he isn’t for five minutes. “All yours, Rick,” I say as he hangs the jacket on the back of my chair.
Samantha’s newscast meets me in the control room. “Kylie Goodchild’s mum made an emotional appeal…” The fifteen-yearold is still missing, but we don’t hear just her mother’s voice; it’s underlaid by the kind of tastefully mournful music that films use to demonstrate they’re serious. I’m so offended by the artificiality that I yank the outer door open and demand “Whose idea was that?”
Christine comes after me and lays a hand on my shoulder. “Graham…”
Some of the reporters and presenters in the large unpartitioned newsroom glance up from their desks, and Trevor Lofthouse lifts his head. He shakes it to flip back a lock of hair and adjusts his flimsy rectangular spectacles but doesn’t otherwise respond. “Do we really think we have to manipulate the listeners like that?” I’m determined to establish. “Do we think they won’t care otherwise?”
“What are you saying is manipulation?” Lofthouse retorts.
“Calling it an emotional appeal. What other kind is she going to make? Who needs to be told?” As the news editor’s spectacles twitch with a frown I say “And calling her the girl’s mum. What’s wrong with mother? It’s supposed to be the news, not somebody gossiping over a fence.”
“You’re off the air now, Graham. No need to start more arguments today.” Before I can retort that I never manufacture them he says “Why are you so bothered?”
“Maybe I hate clichés.” I sense that Christine would like me to leave it at that, but I resent the question too much. “Can’t we even broadcast an appeal without some music under it? We mustn’t think too highly of our audience if we think they need to be told what to feel.”
“It’s from Kylie Goodchild’s favourite film.”
Lofthouse doesn’t tell me so, and Christine doesn’t either. Paula Harding has opened her door and is watching me across the length of the newsroom. Even though she needs heels to reach five feet, it’s disconcerting that I didn’t notice her until she spoke—I’ve no idea how much she overheard. “Which film?” I suppose I have to ask.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” says Trevor. “Her class are studying the book at school and they were shown the film.”
I’d say it was an unusually worthy favourite for a girl of her age, but Paula calls “Can we talk in my office, Graham? I’ve just heard from one of your listeners.”
Christine gives my arm more of a squeeze than she ordinarily would at work, and I lay my hand over hers for a moment. As I head for Paula’s room everyone grows conspicuously busier at their desks. They’re embarrassed to watch me, but I suspect they’re also glad I’ve been singled out rather than them. Even Christine doesn’t know what I’m thinking, however. If Paula means to lecture me or worse, that may be all the excuse I need.
How to Earn Sweets
As I close the door of Paula’s office Rick Till speaks from the computer on her desk. “Here’s Rick Till Five on Waves in Manchester,” he says in a voice so suavely confident that I can hardly believe it belongs to the discomposed man who ousted me from the studio. He plays the station jingle—“We’re the station that makes waves”— before starting to chat like a cross between a comedian and a chum who’s dropped in. “It’s Friend A Faith Day, so cuddle a Christian or snuggle a Sikh or hug a Hindu, or you could embrace an Evangelical or squeeze a Shintoist or make your own arrangements…”
The name of the day is the reason I’ve had two hours of calls like Arthur’s and a few more moderate. Paula perches on the cushion that adds stature to the chair behind her desk and plants her stubby hands on either side of the screen. “Let me just give you Rick’s Trick for today,” Till is saying. “What was the name of the ship in the Anthony Hopkins film of Mutiny on the Bounty? That’s the Tony Hopkins one, not Charles Laughton or Marlon Brando.” He doesn’t simply say the names but adopts a version of the actor’s voice for each. “Yesterday’s winner was Annie from Salford, and the question was what were Fay Wray’s first words to King Kong…”
I hope Paula doesn’t expect me to learn from his example, and my gaze drifts to the window behind her desk. Beyond the double glazing the canal glitters with sunlit ripples as a barge slips into the shadow of a bridge. The vessel is losing a race with a train on the left side of the canal and an equally elevated tram on the other, a contest that would be silent except for Till. “Time to rock with Rick. Here’s the Gastric Band from Oldham with their new single, ‘Eating Up the World’…”
Paula turns him down at last. “Park your bum, Graham,” she urges.
The low flabby leather chair I sit in gives a nervous fart on my behalf. Paula leans forward, but her straight black hair has been so thoroughly sprayed it doesn’t stir. Chopped off straight at chin level, it lends her pale face the look of an Oriental mask. She’s resting a hand next to a glass bowl of sweets, and perhaps I’m meant to be aware that she hasn’t offered me one. “So what do you think of our Rick?” she says.
“I expect he’s what people want to hear after two hours of me.”
“We need to speak to all our audience.” Paula sucks at a bottle of Frugen (“the trigger of vigour”) and wipes the nipple before saying “Anyway, I heard from Arthur Mason.”
“I don’t think I know him.”
“You were talking to him before you came out to complain about Mrs Goodchild.”
“I wouldn’t have said anything if I’d known it was her idea. You don’t need me to tell you I hope she finds her daughter. I expect the girl’s just gone off somewhere for reasons of her own. Girls that age often do, don’t they?” In case Paula thinks I’m avoiding the reason that she called me in I say “I didn’t know his name was Mason.”
“He says he has to ring up dozens of times to get on the air, and you always put him on at the end. That’ll be Christine’s decision as your producer, will it?”
I don’t want Christine to be blamed for any trouble I’ve stirred up. “Somebody has to be last. He had nearly five minutes.”
“He’s not the only one, he says. Does Bob from Blackley come to mind?”
“He used to be a regular, but we haven’t heard from him for a while as far as I know.”
“Mr Mason says that’s because of how you dealt with him last time. Do you think we should listen to you, Graham?”
I’ve time to wonder if she’s questioning my honesty before she takes hold of the computer mouse to bring up my voice from Learn Another Language Day, weeks ago. It sounds even more detached from me than it always does in my headphones. “And now here’s Bob from Blackley…”
“Get it right. There’s no Blake about it.”
“I believe it’s always been pronounced Blakely, Bob.”
“About time they called it black and have done with it. If that lot
want us learning new words there’s one for them.”
“Which lot would that be, Bob?”
“The lot that has the law on us if we say anything they don’t like,
and it’s the tax we’ve paid that pays for them to do it. It’s getting so you won’t even be able to say you’re white.”
“Why on earth would anybody want to stop me? As it happens I am.”
“Half the time you don’t sound it. It’s the likes of you that want to stop us being proud of it. Where’s White Pride Day with all these other days?”
“It might sound a bit like a kind of sliced bread, do you think?”
“More like you’re scared to say there ought to be one. They wouldn’t like it, the lot that’s driving us out of our own country.”
“Who’s being driven, Bob? Whites are the largest group where you live.” While speaking to him I’d found the statistics for Blackley online. “Less than four per cent black people, and—”
“Never mind your figures. You want to come and walk along the street here. You’d love it. It’s full of the lot of them.”
“You still haven’t said which lot you mean.”
“The Sicks and the Shites and the rest of their sort. You can’t hardly move round here for refugees.”
“It’s Shiite, Bob, and how can you tell by looking? It’s a religion, not a race.”
“Don’t talk to me about religion. That’s their excuse for everything they get up to. I ought to tie a curtain round my head and then I could ride a bike without a helmet. Or I could say I’m an Islam or a Mohammed or whatever they like to be called and then I’d be able to tell the wife and the girl to hide their mugs and shut their gobs because Allah says so. Mind you, that’d be a blessing.”
“Haven’t you any faith of your own, Bob?”
“I’ve got plenty of that and it’s all in myself. And I’ll tell you what else I believe in, this life and that’s your lot. The life these Islams and the rest of them want to rob off us.” He’s interrupted by a screech that puts me in mind of a butcher’s circular blade. “I’m on the fucking radio,” he shouts. “Close that fucking door or I’ll fucking—”
“I’m sorry, you can’t talk like that on the air. Gussy from Prestwich, you’re live on Wilde Card.”
“The things you have to deal with, I think it’s time they had Presenter Awareness Day.”
“I’m not going to argue with you about that.”
“Sometimes what you think shows through, Graham,” Paula says as she stops the playback.
I have the disconcerting sense that my voice has returned to me. “I wouldn’t want to think I’m just controversy for hire.”
“What do you think the new bosses would say if they heard all that?”
If she’s decided I don’t fit in now that Waves has become part of the Frugo empire, I’m glad. I almost retort that I may have had a better offer, but instead I say “What do you?”
“That you could have been sharper with him. You let him get away with those comments about women. Your show isn’t called Gray Area any more. Remember your slogan.”
“It’s a phone-in, not a drone-in.” I’ve played it so often that it starts up like a recording in my head. It was among my more desperate attempts to impress her with a brainstorm, and I barely managed not to laugh when she said it was the one she liked. “You want me to go on the offensive,” I say but don’t necessarily hope.
“If you feel it say it, Graham. Don’t go too far but as far as you can. You know what Frugo tells everyone who works for them.”
“I don’t believe I’ve heard it,” I say without wanting to know.
“Everything you do and say at work should be an ad for where you’re working. Just do everything you can to make certain you’re one, Graham. They’ll be listening to our output before they come to visit. Let’s make sure they know we’re the ones making waves.”
She sits back to end the interview. As I stand up, drawing a sound that might be a sigh of relief or resignation from the chair, she says “It’s about time Bob was on your show again. Tell Christine to put him on next time he calls.” This halts me long enough for her to ask “Was there anything else?”
I won’t mention Hannah Leatherhead until we’ve had more of a word. I’m turning away when Paula says “Aren’t you having your sweet?”
I’m reminded of visiting the doctor’s as a child or of being rewarded with a sweet for some other unpleasant experience. Wrappings rustle as I rummage in the bowl and find a lemon drop. “Thanks,” I say, mostly for the sweet, and hear Paula’s keyboard start to clack as I reach the door.
Nobody in the newsroom seems to know whether they should look at me. I unwrap the sweet into my mouth and drop the cellophane in the bin beside my desk on the way to the control room. Christine spins around in her chair as I ease the door out of its rubbery frame. “Was it bad?” she murmurs.
She’s enough of a reason for me to keep working at Waves—the eternal valentine of her gently heart-shaped face framed by soft spikes of black hair that’s cropped to the nape of her long neck, her slim lithe body in a black polo-neck and matching jeans, her eyes alert for my answer, her pink lips parted in anticipation. “It isn’t going to change my life,” I say, which makes me aware that I’ve yet to mention Hannah Leatherhead.
Ghosts Know © Ramsey Campbell, 2013