The folks organizing the event had been very courteous, accommodating even, Alison thought, for politicians. The guy who’d been e-mailing, a man named Andrew, apparently an assistant for one of the people behind the whole gig, had apologized profusely several times for this being on such short notice, and he hadn’t burdened Alison and Mike with any extra work that wasn’t in the contract. (Alison, who knew perfectly well that she and Mike did most of their work on short notice and in a state of middling to extreme panic, accepted the apologies very cordially.) Andrew and his little horde of staff had brought on their own caterer and decorators, arrived everywhere on time, and kept their preparations strictly out of the way of where they weren’t supposed to be.
The ghosts, always interested in new living people, had watched them set up for most of the morning, but when no exciting chaos occurred, they’d gradually dispersed. Julian had chewed Alison’s ear off for a while about ‘liberal berks’ invading the house, but had grown bored of even that eventually. All in all, this looked to become your bog-standard, boring political fundraiser, not at all like the excessive parties Julian spoke of in that context. (Of course, that had prompted its own comment from him about ‘the libs’ not knowing how to have a good time.) Alison personally liked the sound of an event where people would stand around in an agreed-upon set of rooms, sip a reasonable amount of champagne and talk about how much money they’d need to make the world a better place, instead of trashing her house in some coke-fuelled orgy. Be that as it may, this was the first such event that Alison and Mike were personally hosting, with more potentially in the future, if this lot ended up recommending Button House to all their parliamentary friends. Everything had to go perfectly.
Alison was wondering if she could somehow convince all the ghosts to pile into a cupboard and stay there for the next two days when Robin entered her field of vision. “Big car come down road, stand in driveway,” he announced. Alison had put him on lookout so that he’d feel useful and not get it in his head to spook the people setting up on the ground floor.
“That must be the MP,” Alison said and headed for the door. When Robin grunted and gestured at Julian, Alison added, “No, no, the other one, the one in charge of the fundraiser.” It occurred to her then that she didn’t actually know that much about the people who’d be coming. Several folks from parliament would be there, cross-party cocktail, their staff and various guests. Alison had only ever spoken to Andrew the assistant of… whoever had organized this in the first place, and had probably just arrived to oversee the final touches to the preparations. Oh well, she’d be meeting that person soon enough, likely any minute now. “I’d best be there to show them around.”
“Right on,” said the Captain, swagger stick at the ready. “Men, that is to say, everybody, you know the protocol.”
“What be the protocol?” Mary asked.
“Cap, I really don’t think you all need to come with me,” Alison tried.
“Nonsense, Alison,” said the Captain, waving his staff, “some standards must be maintained. Visiting government official, can’t be seen slacking.”
“Can’t be seen at all,” Thomas muttered rebelliously. “We didn’t throw a whole parade when Julian first came.”
“Then won’t it be doubly exciting to have one now?” Kitty clapped her hands, vibrating a bit with joyous anticipation. “A parade! It’s a pity we don’t have anything to wave! Like little flags, or even just handkerchiefs…”
“Hardly be worth the effort for some effete leftist so-and-so,” Julian opined, but, as did all other ghosts who were interested, he followed Alison. “Hopeless do-gooders, holier-than-thou, the lot…”
Down in the driveway, the ‘big car’ was actually a fairly reasonably sized, environmentally-conscious vehicle. Just as Alison opened her front door, a woman was exiting the car. She was on the short side, blonde, and dressed in a smart linen pantsuit befitting the summery weather. Every aspect of her, her clothing, hairdo, sensibly-heeled ankle boots, discreet makeup, understated jewellery, down to even the expression on her face seemed to be hand-picked to straddle the line between tasteful, refined, composed and easy-going, approachable. She approached Alison now, winning handshake, winning smile.
(Something about the winning smile seemed… slightly… familiar.)
“Hi, you must be Alison Cooper,” the newcomer said. “My assistant showed me your e-mails. I’m sure he already told you, but can I just say again, I’m so glad you could host us on such short notice.”
Behind her, Alison heard several startled inhalations of breath. Odd for people who didn’t need to breathe.
“What is come over me? What do mine eyes behold?” Thomas sighed dreamily. “Oh, but she shines with the beauty of a thousand suns! I must make her acquaintance! Alison, will you not make introductions?” (This, Alison knew, was just Thomas’s standard reaction to seeing a woman. As soon as this one left, he'd forget she ever existed and focus back on her.)
“She won’t, and you’ll shut up now,” said someone else – Julian? Julian.
Thomas was quickly inflamed. “Thus from you, of all people, sir? You who have taken every opportunity presented thus far to chase skirt?!” The ‘sir’ out of his mouth was practically an insult.
“Not that skirt, heavens,” Julian replied. “What in hell do you think I am?”
Before Thomas could say some choice words about what he thought Julian was, or Mary could finish telling him off for blaspheming, or Pat could get anyone to listen to him at all, the woman in front of Alison, blind and deaf to the ghostly bickering, added, “Oh, sorry, have we been introduced at all? I’m Rachel Fawcett.”
Very abruptly, the ghosts fell silent.
She asked, “Fawcett like Julian Fawcett?”
The winning smile fell. “Ah. You’ve heard of him, then. Yes, he was my father.”
“Huh,” Alison said. She’d never really looked Julian up, mostly for fear of finding more weird sex stuff. She hadn’t known he’d had a family. Had the other ghosts known? “In… the interest of full disclosure,” she said, intending deeply partial disclosure, “you must be aware that… this place, this house…”
Rachel Fawcett’s shoulders rose. “I do know that he died here.” Bravely, the smile tried to materialize. “I refuse to let that ruin our fundraiser. We must live in the present.”
“Huh,” Alison repeated, momentarily speechless. She just gestured towards the house, motioning for Rachel to follow her inside. Ghosts hurriedly scrambled out of their way.
Rachel must have picked up on Alison’s tone, because she added, “That sounds callous to you, doesn’t it?”
Alison shrugged and made a vague noise, which seemed safest. She kept her eyes on Rachel’s face and off the ghosts.
“You seem to already know the story,” Rachel continued. “Obviously, this is your house, an MP dying here in a sex scandal must be bad PR for you too.”
Alison hadn’t considered Julian’s death from that angle before.
“I barely knew my father. He died when I was little more than a toddler, and before that, he was never around. Always out striking deals with oil execs and foreign dictators and cheating on Mother.”
Alison heard a ghost – maybe Pat – clear their throat.
“All I really know him from are old newsreels. And, of course, the circumstances of his death. People don’t really let you forget that you’re the girl whose father died with his trousers down. It’s followed me around like a… well, like a ghost.”
Alison felt her face scrunch up.
“So, yeah. I mean no offense, Ms. Cooper, I’m sure this is a splendid old place with a rich history apart from, well, that, but I wouldn’t have come here if Ashcroft House hadn’t cancelled on us. I don’t wish to associate myself with the… shameful legacy of my father. My hope is honestly that, after nearly thirty years, no one remembers him or the event here anymore. To be frank, if no one ever mentioned the name Julian Fawcett to me again, it’d be too soon.”
It had the tone of a well-practiced little speech, like indeed Rachel Fawcett was being asked about her father’s death a lot more than she would like, or at least like she’d expected it when coming here. Okay. This situation clearly required some tact. “I can see that it’s a sensitive subject,” Alison said. “Of course we don’t have to, um, dwell on any of that. Let’s just focus on managing the weekend, yeah?”
It couldn’t be put off any longer: she had to look at the ghosts. They each looked various shades of perturbed and embarrassed, and none would look directly at Julian. No one here was an adoring fan of Julian, exactly, but hearing a man be summarily condemned by his family member was never a nice place to be in. The ghosts who had had children of their own were looking especially uncomfortable. Alison found she felt similarly, but someone had to do something, so she dragged her eyes, with extreme reluctance, up to Julian’s face.
Julian was staring at the back of his daughter’s head, eyes wide and seeing god-knows-what. When met with Alison’s gaze, he visibly tried to compose himself, nodding twice, shrugging exaggeratedly. “Well,” he said. “You know. Fair enough.”
Rachel meanwhile headed deeper into the foyer, up to the bottom of the stairs. “Enough talking about me,” she said, “I should go check in with Andrew and the preparations. Up here?”
Alison wrenched herself back to the land of the living. “Oh, absolutely, yes, sure. Let me give you the tour real quick.”
That evening, Alison fell into bed next to Mike utterly exhausted. The conference – fundraiser, whatever – hadn’t even begun, the guests, apart from Rachel and her assistant, wouldn’t start arriving until tomorrow, but she was already dog-tired. Mike had been busy at work, and hence hadn’t been as involved, besides, he hadn’t had to wrangle ghosts.
“Hard day?” he asked.
“You could say that.”
Rachel had taken over the preparations with a startlingly un-Julian-like competence, firm but friendly with her staff, and of course, unlike Alison, utterly unperturbed by (because ignorant of) the Captain’s attempts at ordering people about who could not see or hear him, or Fanny gliding about the place making very sure that not a single heirloom vase got ever-so-slightly misplaced. And Julian.
Julian, having recovered his usual mood, or a very convincing facsimile thereof, fairly quickly, had spent the day being an utter chaos agent to the utmost of his ability, working as hard that afternoon as usually within a month, swatting things off tables, hiding or even breaking things, all the while manoeuvring around his daughter casting furtive glances. When Alison had finally managed to corner him alone and demanded to know why he’d make himself a nuisance like that, and if it had anything to do with Rachel insulting him earlier, Julian had claimed that his interest wasn’t in petty retribution so much as in getting Rachel out of the house before something happened to her.
“The whole thing smacks of history repeating, does it not?” he’d said with a slight manic glint in his eyes. “I came here for a fundraiser. She’s here for a fundraiser—”
“Green Party fundraiser,” Alison had said. Julian had waved her off.
“The party doesn’t matter. At least, not in the way you think. She’s inviting bad press, staying here, and that is only the beginning. Get a few journos here, they’re going to dredge the whole…” He’d gestured at himself in his entirety. “…back up. Which is the last thing she needs if she wants to keep her seat, she’s just not well enough established to allow for that kind of scandal to be connected to her name. And furthermore, on the twenty-seventh anniversary of my own unfortunate demise—”
Alison had shaken her head. “It’s nowhere near your death day, Julian. You died in spring. It is now summer.”
“Oh, you know what I mean. Look, Robin agrees with me!” Julian had gestured at Robin, who’d been loitering at the back of the room and now appeared at Julian’s left elbow for moral support.
“Bad moonah on rise,” he’d muttered ominously. “Stars tell trouble soon, real soon. You tell Julian’s girl, watch her back.”
Alison was never sure how much credence to give to what Robin claimed he read in the moon and stars. Besides, Julian and Robin had been in each other’s pockets lately even more than usual, often in support of each other’s schemes. Certainly Julian wasn’t the type to believe in portents and omens so Alison, perhaps a bit uncharitably, had maintained that he was probably out for petty revenge. She’d told the two of them to cut it out, but wasn’t too sure how well it had been received.
“You said that Rachel lady seems to have it pretty well together, right?” Mike asked now when Alison told him all this. “It’s not like she’ll bring coke and strippers to the event.”
That made Alison grin. “I haven’t seen any so far.” She reckoned that if Rachel Fawcett saw a stripper, she’d possibly try to drape her blazer over them. “You’re right, she’s very unlikely to do what Julian did. She’s not famous enough to get loads of attention from journalists. I’m not sure what he’s worrying about. Unless he was lying and really does just want to get back at her for what she said.”
Mike sat up in bed, looking thoughtful. “Ali, remember last Christmas? When my mum and dad tried to do all my work again and I got mad? My dad said something to me that helped me understand him a bit better. He said that… parents just like to help their kids out, and that… they’re scared that someday they won’t be able to do it anymore. Really made me think differently about it all.”
“That’s sweet, but… Julian was hindering, not helping.”
“Yeah, well, maybe he’s just… trying to be involved in his daughter’s life in any way he still can. It’s gotta be hard for him, being a ghost and all, not being able to reach out really.”
Alison had to smile. “Julian’s not the fatherly type,” she said. She leaned in to give Mike a kiss. “But it’s very cute of you to think like that.”
In her assigned guest room in the West Wing of the house, Rachel Fawcett was also attempting to retire, unaware that she was keenly watched. Riveted, the ghosts observed her going through her evening ablutions, removing her makeup and combing out her hair. Believing herself completely alone, she peeled out of her shoes and trousers, opened the top-most buttons of her blouse and thus threw herself backwards onto the bed, spreading her legs and groaning in contentment. The inseams of her slacks had left indents on her skin, and the ghosts watched her attempt to rub the soreness out with one hand as the other scrolled through her phone.
“Abhorrent manners,” Fanny said, peering down her nose at Rachel, who let out a long, open-mouthed yawn. “Slouching, baring her unmentionables, scratching herself in unseemly places, my, she truly is her father’s daughter.”
“She truly has her father’s legs,” said Thomas, peering also.
“Thorne, for once, I have no bloody idea how to react to that,” Julian said.
“Nothing wrong with a gel letting her hair down when she’s alone,” Pat said peaceably. “Which she thinks she is, and which she ought to be.”
“Even so, she is beautiful,” Thomas continued. “I shall compose an ode in honour of this moment. Rachel in Repose, is what I’ll call it.”
“I’m not having that yammering you call poetry anywhere near my daughter.”
Across the room from them, Rachel in Repose flopped onto her stomach and streeeetched to reach over the edge of the bed, where her handbag stood, and fished blindly inside it for what turned out to be a bag of candies.
“I think Thomas is right, she’s very pretty,” Kitty said. “She’ll be my second-best friend, after Alison, naturally. We’ll dine on… gummied worms together and chat about boys.”
“Why she be eatin’ worms?” Mary asked, shuffling closer to examine the bag.
Thomas seemed to have come to a decision. “Julian,” he said, one hand pressed to his heart, “friend through many trials and travails, though hard-won our regard may have been. I humbly beg your permission to court and retain the heart of noble Rachel.”
“What the what? Court and ret—my permission?” Julian chortled. “What is this, the dark ages? You know what, since you asked, no you can’t. Beat me in a duel first.”
“Alas that it must come to this again,” Thomas said gravely.
Julian rolled his eyes at him. “Joking! It was a joke. A j-o-k-e, quit fingering that bullet hole. Even if she could see or hear or do anything with you…” He couldn’t resist adding, “…there’s no way my daughter’s dating some namby-pamby little artiste.”
They were all startled from their conversation when Rachel’s phone rang. She picked it up, looked at the screen, let out an explosive sigh and answered.
“Aw, just your luck, Thomas,” Kitty said. “She’s taken!”
“Yeah, I’m spending the night at the place,” Rachel was saying to whoever was on the phone. “Easier than driving out again tomorrow, but I told you that when I left. It’s… yeah, Button House is the name, I told you that too, were you not listening? Oh… mh-hm… yeah, I knew that before. Yeah, I know this is the place where, yes, I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Of course I’m alright. He was a disgusting pig and a Tory and I’m not sad that he is dead. Yeah, no, I get that. Look, some people just don’t get on with their parents, perfectly normal.”
Again, Julian found that all the other ghosts were pointedly avoiding meeting his eyes. Kitty let out a dismayed little noise.
“What? Hm, no, the plan is still to leave Sunday evening. I can’t possibly get away before that,” Rachel continued. “I’m sorry, darling. I know, I meant to make it to your gallery opening, I know, darling. But I told you already that we had to reschedule the fundraiser because of the, yeah, because of that termite infestation at the Ashcroft place, and this was the only spot we could get on such short notice. You think I would have picked the place where my gross dad died if I’d had any choice? No, I couldn’t ‘just cancel it’, do you have any idea how soon the by-election is? Yes, I know how important your art is to you, I knowwwww, darlinggggg.”
“Hah! An artist after all,” Thomas said, vindicated. Julian barely paid attention to him. Apart from the repeated insults to his person, he was starting to recognize a very familiar refrain here. Was her inflection even a bit like his own?
“It’s important to me too, of course it is. But my work is also important. Look, I know what you think of parliament, but I can make actual progress here, okay? We can’t all… revolutionize the world through art. Someone has to sit down and take on the issues that exist now. Yes, I’m sorry, darling, but to me it does sound like you’re not taking seriously what I do here. Mh-hm. Uh-huh. Look, we’re both tired right now, we’re both upset… huh?... I’m not ‘doing a politician voice’, what does that even mean? I just… yeah, that’s probably best. Yeah, talk tomorrow. Bye, I love you, Nadia.”
Rachel groaned and tossed the phone onto the bed.
“There’s just no arguing with that woman when she’s like this,” she said into what, to her, was the empty air.
The Captain, thus far silent, chose this moment to clear his throat.
“You have something to say, mate?” Julian snapped at the Captain, only to realize how ridiculous that notion was. The Captain, of all people, would assuredly not have something to say. For the moment, Julian was left staring, unusually contemplative, as Rachel looked at her phone, sighed… and put it away, took a laptop out of her bag, flipped it open and started working. Her father’s daughter, Fanny had said.
It was late. Rachel stared at the speech she’d spent all evening re-working, pulled up on her laptop, and realized that she’d been reading the same sentence over and over for the last five minutes. As much of a speech as it was. “We’re trying to do real good out here, we promise. Please give us some of your money.” She didn’t much like these fundraising events. And, try as she might to pretend otherwise, this place was getting to her. The tiff with Nadia wasn’t helping. Sometimes schedules just didn’t line up, she told herself. Sometimes, people couldn’t help but miss out on things in their loved ones’ lives. She’d make up for it, and it wasn’t becoming a habit. She wasn’t turning into her father.
She woke up screaming, terrified, sometimes, from dreams in which she’d turned into her father.
Here, somewhere in this house, maybe close by, Julian Fawcett had breathed his last, and settled his family with a lifetime of issues. Bowed out early so he didn’t have to face the music, as per usual. Rachel had only a few, faded memories of her father that were real, and not something she’d seen in news-archives. Neither memories nor archives had featured anything… remarkable. Extraordinary. Maybe if her father had been brilliant, or zealously dedicated to a cause, or even amazingly handsome, maybe she would have understood just a little bit more. People forgave geniuses and celebrities who were assholes in private, because they gave something remarkable to the public. But there was nothing. Just your average money-grubbing, philandering crooked politician with a sense of entitlement the size of the Commonwealth. Now, that kind of parentage hadn’t been uncommon in Rachel’s circles growing up. Most of her school friends had been neglected Tory brats. But none of their dads had famously died with their trousers down. As soon as everyone at her school had grown old enough to understand what that meant, it had made Rachel a popular subject for ridicule. Even when she’d started hanging out with the misfits and lefties, she’d been the girl with the scandal. It'd been unfair. She hadn’t done anything. As puberty hit, she’d felt people watching her: students, teachers, her mother. Watching what she would do. Waiting for the first shoe to drop. Waiting for her to, what, skip school, fuck wildly, do coke, stage a student protest? (The last one had happened. But not because of who Rachel’s parents were.)
She kept herself clean. Wholesome and scandal-free. She rarely drank, never touched drugs, and slid as far left as parliament would let her. When she’d realized she was attracted to women, it had taken her a lot of therapy to recognize that when her eyes lingered on a woman on the bus, she wasn’t predatory, it didn’t have to be exploitative, it wasn’t her father’s voracious skirt-chasing expressing herself in Rachel’s genes somehow, she wasn’t Julian Fawcett.
And now she’d made Nadia sad, had skipped out on her art exhibit opening night, and come to Button House, of all places, for politics. A coincidence, that it was this place. Andrew hadn’t found another venue, he’d assured her. Still…
There was a clicking noise. Then another. Then another.
Rachel rubbed her eyes. There, right in front of her, an invisible hand was slowly typing, adding letters to her document.
“Hello?” Rachel asked.
Even more slowly, as if it was taking someone or something a lot of strain, more words started to appear. W-H-Y, pause for space, D-O…
There had been some to-do recently, Rachel remembered, about this house being haunted. It had been a hoax. Right? She didn’t believe in that sort of thing. A ghost pressing buttons on her keyboard? Impossible. Still, what else could it be? She looked around the room, sufficiently well lit by a reading lamp on the desk opposite the bed. No one else was here. Her laptop might be broken, but… these were legible words, not random gibberish that might result from a keyboard malfunction. And Rachel was by no means a cybersecurity expert, but she was pretty sure this was not how being hacked worked.
While she’d pondered these options, the invisible hand had completed its question.
“’Why don’t you have a speechwriter’?” Rachel read. “I… it’s lazy, I can write them myself, and I don’t like people putting words in my mouth… wait, who am I telling this to? Who’s in here?”
Nothing happened for a lengthy moment, and Rachel could almost convince herself that she’d momentarily fallen asleep and dreamed, or hallucinated, or whatnot, until suddenly keys were being pressed again. I, spacebar, A-M…
“What the fuck,” she whispered. “What the bloody, bollocking fuck?” How had her life turned from, well, just her life, to a horror movie plot within a single minute? It was beginning to sink in that something truly freaky was occurring, and Rachel felt herself break out into a cold sweat. Her leg was bouncing nervously with primordial fight-or-flight impulses. Only her inherent scepticism kept her rooted to the spot. To shriek and run away now when this could all still turn out to be nothing would look… stupid.
Breathless with morbid fascination, still kind of feeling like she was observing herself on a TV screen playing a ghost movie, she peered back at her document.
“I am your father,” the new words said.
“Okay, Darth,” Rachel muttered until it hit her what precisely these letters claimed. “No. This is some sort of prank. Someone somehow is messing with my laptop, and it’s not the ghost of my dead father.”
Again, words appeared by themselves: A-M, space, T-O-O…
Rachel reached out and slammed her laptop shut. “Nope. Enough. This isn’t real. I’ll just… take this thing to the shop tomorrow…”
Across the room, on the little writing desk that Rachel hadn’t used in favour of simply working curled up in bed, a pencil began to move. On and on it rolled, towards the edge…
“Robin, spot of help here, please!” Julian requested through gritted teeth, straining to push the pencil with his fingertip.
“On it,” Robin said, “though still not sure if this right approach…”
…and the desk lamp began to flicker wildly. In the suddenly unsteady light, Rachel watched the pencil fall to the floor, and then the lamp shut off completely, plunging the room into darkness.
“Okay, this is insane,” Rachel whispered. “This is fucking nuts.” Something was here… in the dark with her. She didn’t want to be here in the dark with something. She fumbled for her phone, found it next to her, grabbed it and bolted from the room.
“Great. You scare her now,” Robin said.
Julian raised a hand. “Aht-aht-aht. We scared her. And at least she noticed us now. All according to plan.”
“Plan not work,” Robin deadpanned.