Signal, a Ghost Story
John Lanchester, 2017
Read an interview with John Lanchester regarding this story from the New Yorker…
I tried to give the children an etiquette lesson while we were waiting at King’s Cross on December 30th.
“You aren’t allowed to ask for the Wi-Fi password before you say hello,” I said. “That’s the main thing.”
“Uncle Mike won’t care,” said Toby, who was nine.
“He’s nice,” said Mia, who was seven.
“Both of those things are true,” I said. “Uncle Mike is nice, and he wouldn’t care, but this is a life lesson. It’s just not what you do. You say hello, you chat for a bit, and then you ask for the Wi-Fi password. It’s just one of the rules.”
“Fear? That’s the other guy’s problem,” Toby said. We had recently let him stay up too late to watch “Trading Places,” and this line had made a profound impact.
Michael wasn’t my oldest friend and he wasn’t my closest friend, but he was older than any of the ones who were closer and closer than any of the ones who were older, so he had a special status, as part of the furniture of my life, the kind of friend who when you’re asked how you met you have to think for a while to remember. What he certainly was, though, unequivocally and by a huge margin, was my richest friend. Michael was loaded, seriously and unambiguously loaded. He was the kind of rich that even other people who were rich considered rich. He had made the money himself. It was all the more impressive because Michael seemed barely to have noticed. His peers and friends and rivals and colleagues were all amazed by the fact that Mike was now some kind of gazillionaire, but it didn’t seem to make much impression on Michael himself.
He’d drifted through Cambridge doing something scientific—engineering or maths, I think it was. I’d always thought that, like me, he was going to be an academic, but Michael had got a first and then stumbled into the City, and then shuffled or ambled through an escalating series of jobs in finance before “going off to try something a bit different,” and at that point it became clear that he had ascended to some new stratosphere of international wealth. The first sign was when he invited us to join him on holiday for a week, and that turned out to mean a helicopter pickup in Battersea taking us to a private jet at Northolt, taking us to a yacht the size of a municipal tennis facility, and a week’s cruising in the Med. And still it was never clear how Michael had done what he’d done. This was a characteristic that had been salient from the time we first met, at university, his ambient, all-purpose, omnidirectional vagueness. It was a well-meaning vagueness, but it could also be highly irritating, and there were certain situations in which it more or less guaranteed disaster, such as anything involving social life.
This was shaping up to be another of those occasions. Michael had “bought a little place,” as he put it, which, after he mentioned the address and I did a certain amount of cyberstalking, turned out to mean an estate of several thousand acres in North Yorkshire. The previous owner had suddenly died and the estate had been sold, in the flattering and far from accurate language of the only newspaper report, to a “mystery financier.” Michael had invited us to go up for New Year’s Eve about a month earlier and Kate and I couldn’t resist, despite knowing that, while the setting was guaranteed to be amazing, from the social point of view it was likely to be chaotic, or hard work, or both. On the other hand, we knew that halfway through the alleged holidays we’d be hallucinating with fatigue, and three days with someone else looking after our lovely but exhausting little ones would feel like the kind of thing that should be available on the National Health Service.
The trip up north felt like punishment for our hubristic attempt to change holiday routine. King’s Cross was a maelstrom. The stress was magnified by the fact that Michael had said, by text, only that we’d be met at the station, without saying exactly where or by whom. Network Rail seemed to pride itself on displaying platform information at the last possible moment, so we were quivering like greyhounds as we waited to run to the train. Toby and Mia hadn’t eaten and were holiday-cranky, and were demanding a trip to the Harry Potter Shop and to Platform 9¾. We didn’t know what we’d be doing at the house, or how fancy it would be, and as a result had overpacked. It was a perfect storm of travel stress and bad omens. Kate looked at me.
“This is a look of mute reproach,” she said.
“Yep,” I said. “Sorry. We’ll wait for the platform info, get to our seats, and hope it sorts itself out at the other end.”
“Unless he just forgot.”
“No, he never forgets,” I said, which was true: Michael might mis- or dis-organize things, but he never plain forgot them.
The rest of the journey was both better and worse than I had expected. There were as many people standing as sitting, and when I say standing I mean lurching, swaying, listening to music at the perfect volume to irritate everyone within a five-metre radius. Add to that overheating, an unexplained twenty-minute delay after Peterborough, and two motion-sickness-prone children. We got off at York and, in the general mayhem, Kate found a driver carrying a sign with a misspelled version of our surname. The subsequent ninety-minute car trip through the Yorkshire dark, stopping only twice, for children’s pee and vomit breaks, was a week at Jumeirah Dubai by comparison.
The driveway of Michael’s big house was so long that even after we got there it took a while to get there. The four of us came out of the cold into a double-height entrance hallway, to be greeted by no one at all, apart from a very, very tall man, at least six feet five, who was looking at his mobile phone as if he was struggling to get reception, and more interested in that than in any other form of human interaction. His response to a family of four bursting through the door was to do nothing except scowl at us, then drift toward the side hallway. The rudeness was compounded by an air of complete coldness and disconnection, as if he couldn’t have cared less whether we lived or died.
“Hello,” Toby said. “Very nice to meet you. My name is Toby. How do you do? Also, would you mind awfully telling me the Wi-Fi password?”
While Kate and I spluttered and glared at our firstborn, the man continued to walk away and vanished around the corner. Silence settled in the entrance hall of the big house. There was a stag’s head on the far wall. Large portraits of formally dressed people from previous centuries frowned from above the unlit fireplace. Presumably, they were ancestors of the previous owner. The unwelcoming, inhospitable, eerie quiet loomed and grew. It seemed, for a moment, as if we didn’t really exist. It seemed, for a moment, as if coming here for the holiday had been a very bad idea indeed.
Then, as in a farce, from the other side of the hall came four members of the household staff in uniform; a smartly dressed couple in early middle age arguing heatedly in French; and our host, who was carrying a pair of roller skates and a copy of a book called “Option Volatility & Pricing,” by Sheldon Natenberg, thickly interleaved with Post-it notes.
“The four-fifteen,” Michael said. He hadn’t forgotten that we were arriving, but he had forgotten that we would be arriving at that exact moment, so he was too distracted to greet us or smile or say hello. “Pickup at, say, four-thirty,” he said to himself. “Ninety minutes across the moors. A few extra minutes for other journey variables. Six-thirty.” He looked at his watch. “Yes!” And then suddenly there was the sweet smile and the abrupt sense of warmth and intimacy, which was why, after all, people did love him. “Yes!” he said and hugged Mia and then Toby and then Kate and me. He hugged like a natural non-toucher who had taken professional instruction in how to overcome his instincts and hug, and then found, greatly to his own surprise, that he liked it. Which, in fact, was what he was, and the reason I know is that I gave him the course, “I Hate Hugging: Overcoming Your Fear of Intimacy Through Touch,” as a fortieth-birthday present.
After that, everything became better. I don’t mean better from the social point of view, because Michael still didn’t know how to introduce people, and, that evening, as we tried to work out who was who, it became clear that he had done exactly what we suspected, and invited an essentially random group consisting of us, a large selection of work acquaintances who didn’t know one another, and a few people he’d barely met but had asked at the last minute.
Read the story in The New Yorker, free, here…
It seemed that there were roughly two dozen of us. Even the numbers were unclear and appeared to fluctuate from meal to meal, and there was never any seating plan or organization or itinerary or sense that anyone had thought about how to make the whole thing work. Balancing that, making the event feel like a lovely escape from reality, was the wonderfulness of the house itself, and the openhandedness with which it was run. The house looked big from the front, but we quickly realized that it was much bigger still, built like a ship with its narrow end facing the lawn and the drive. The bulk of the building stretched out backward and included, from a tired parent’s point of view, every possible amenity you could think of. There was a video-game room, there was a retro-gaming room, there was a home cinema, there was a bouncy castle in a heated and covered area outdoors. There was a swimming pool; there was a multisized inventory of bicycles. There was a dedicated children’s library, with books ascending in age range from the floor level upward.
Michael gave us the tour, in his habitual style (“Um—pinball machine”).
“I’ve never seen so much stuff for kids—it’s like a kids’ hotel,” I said.
“Previous owner. Mad about them,” Michael said. “I like it, means I don’t have to think about what kids want. I know that sounds a bit selfish, but you know what I mean.”
I did. “It’s brilliant!” Kate whispered to me. She was right, it was brilliant. And that was the great thing about the house, the fact that it was so functional, so thought-through, that it seemed to be looking after you of its own accord. Also, a small but crucial detail, the Internet connections were very poor. There was broadband—I mean, it wasn’t Tora Bora—but the walls were thick and the frame of the building had a metal component, which meant that the Wi-Fi was so erratic that it was the same as not working. There was next to no 3G or mobile data. That was luxurious, too—not for the few poor souls who were forced to roam the halls looking for mobile reception, but for us. I gave up on the Wi-Fi and stopped checking my phone. It was a holiday in itself to feel so out of touch, so uncontactable.
As for the children, we could more or less leave them to it. The school holidays had been going on for two and a half weeks already, and we were drained and resourceless from endless days of full-contact parenting. Here, that wasn’t an issue. We sat with them while they ate their tea and then left them to a Disneython in the children’s TV room. Then I wrangled them off to bed, a little hyper from the excitement and novelty—I mean me as well as the children—but still manageable. I needed one of the staff to help me find our room, up two flights of stairs, down two corridors, round a corner and then back again, unexpectedly, after all that twisting and turning, at the front of the house, overlooking the drive. The kids’ very big room had a connecting door to our enormous one. We did faces and teeth, a perfunctory lullaby, I adjusted the lights so that they were low enough for Toby and high enough for Mia, and then I was back downstairs for dinner.
Conversation with this roomful of strangers was easier after the second drink. As the prune-and-Armagnac soufflé was served, Toby came down, announcing that he was worried and couldn’t sleep. He seemed more scared than usual for his mid-sleep waking, but then it was a very big, very strange, very unfamiliar house. I was perhaps too quick to think nothing of it.
I took Toby up to bed. On the way, I complimented him on having managed to find the dining room. He said that one of the other guests, the tall man we’d seen looking for a mobile-phone signal in the entrance hallway, had shown him.
“He was on his mobile the whole time,” Toby said. “It was a bit weird.”
Looking back, all I can say in my defense is that it would have been very inconvenient to pay more attention to my sudden sense of unease. Easier to keep my head down and concentrate on having a good time. I found my way to the bedrooms by turning left at a huge pot of poinsettias, and when Toby fell back onto his bed he was asleep by the second bounce.
The next day started well. The children got themselves up and, after making a determined but mercifully short attempt to get us up, too, went off in search of breakfast—did I mention that there was something called a nursery, which was a separate children’s dining room? We slept in until after nine, an extravagance of unprecedented dimensions. We were woken by the subliminal awareness that somewhere in this huge mansion somebody was cooking bacon.
There was a moment of incongruity when it turned out that, in the middle of all this lavishness, we couldn’t open the curtains. They were soft and thick and hugely heavy, but there was no obvious pulley or cord to get them apart. The very definition of a First World problem: unopenable curtains. Luckily, just as I was about to give up, Toby and Mia returned from breakfast. Toby saw what I was doing and, trying to suppress his manifest sense of triumph, pressed a little button by the side of the bed. The curtains silently glided apart and we were looking out at a vista of lawn, oaks, and cloudy sky, down the driveway on which we’d arrived the day before. The lawns were pristine and stretched into the middle distance.
“I wish you’d been good at maths instead of English,” Kate said.
“How did you know how to do that, darling?” I asked Toby. I had already noticed that one of the defining features of the house was that there were gadgets everywhere. Mostly buttons. The previous owner had evidently been button-mad. Everything from the curtains in the home cinema (oh, yes, forgot to mention, there were curtains) to the reclining mechanism on the seats in the spa (oh, yes, forgot to mention the spa) to the sliding door through to our dressing room (oh, yes, forgot to mention the dressing room) operated by buttons.
“The tall man told me,” said Toby. “He knew how it works.” Again, I felt uneasy, and again I ignored it.
At breakfast, there was that same sense of two dozen strangers thrown together by an indifferent destiny, and I had the impression that people were present who hadn’t been at dinner the night before, and vice versa. No matter: the luxury was what mattered, what counted, what felt real. Toby and Mia had already disappeared off elsewhere. People muttered in desultory conversations and flicked through newspapers. Toward the end of the meal, Michael stood up at one end of the table and tapped a knife against a glass.
“Um,” he said. I tried not to catch Kate’s eye. “There isn’t really a plan. For the day. Sort of, um, do whatever you, um, feel like. I thought we might go sort of shooting, you know, pheasants, so I’m going to do that and any of you who’d like to, um, do that can come too, um, at eleven or so, and have some lunch and so on.”
So that’s what we did. First, I went to find our host for a quiet word, which in a house this size was not straightforward. Eventually, I was steered by one of the staff to his office. Michael was sitting at a desk with “Option Volatility & Pricing” propped up in front of him, writing on a Post-it note.
“There’s no futures market for onions,” he said. “Gerald Ford had it banned when he was a congressman for Michigan. The Onion Futures Act was passed in 1958. It’s the main reason onion prices are so volatile. Are you coming shooting?”
I said that I was.
“We have to bury some of them,” he said, then, seeing that I had no idea what he was talking about, went on, “The pheasants. We shoot so many there’s just no market. A market failure of a sort. Market for shooting but not for eating. So they get buried, plowed under by a tractor. I’m trying to find a way of giving them away. Strange thought, a food you literally can’t give away. I forgot to ask: how was the trip up?”
“Fine,” I lied. Then I counted to five, a technique I often employed with Michael, since if I changed the subject too quickly it would end up taking even longer: his face would look like what a rebooting computer’s face would look like, if it had one. Four . . . five.
“Michael,” I asked, “just wondering, who is the very tall man?”
“I thought I’d said,” Michael replied, visibly returning from his reveries about the international onion market and pheasant mass burial. “Hector. He works for me. Well, sort of. He’d probably say he works ‘with’ me. I’ve noticed that that’s a thing now, people say they work ‘with’ you, not ‘for’ you. They must think it sounds . . .” He faded out again.
“Hector,” I said.
“Oh, yes, he’s a data-mining person. Sort of, takes a haystack and digs out the needles.”
“I’d like to have a word with Hector,” I said. “Also, do you know if he has kids? I know he hasn’t got any kids here, but does he have kids in general?”
“Um . . . yes. By a previous marriage. They came on the yacht once. The ex-wife seemed to be extremely cross with him, you sort of wondered why they were married. They’re with her this Christmas. Boy and a girl.” Michael got up and came round his desk.
I felt a sense of relief. Tall Hector was missing his children, so his interest in mine could easily be explained by that, and his wandering around semi-Aspergerishly on his phone when we’d first arrived would be accounted for by the kind of work he did: he was that type of person. Still, I felt that I should meet him. Michael took me on a tour of the public rooms (sitting room, library, salon, reading room, billiard room), and then we knocked on the door of Hector’s suite, all without result.
“Probably gone for a walk. Some of them did. If he doesn’t come shooting, or we don’t bump into him in the course of things, I’ll introduce you at dinner.”
Toby and Mia didn’t want to watch grownups shoot, so Kate gave them her mobile and gave the woman in charge of the house instructions not to allow them out but to let them play video games or watch films or whatever until we got back. We headed off in a convoy of Land Rovers to an exposed patch of high ground a few miles away. I think slightly more than half our fellow-guests came. The beaters and drivers or whatever they’re called were all in place. A reassuringly huge set of picnic baskets was arranged across trestle tables. Some of the party, who had clearly been forewarned, wore spectacularly complete English shooting drag, tweed waistcoats and jackets and caps and trousers and so on. A few of us, Kate and me very much included, were in jeans and trainers. The lugubrious man in charge of the shoot did not look impressed. He held out a bag and said, “Draw a peg.” We did: I was No. 4, Kate No. 9. We set up with shotguns at our appointed spots. I introduced myself to the men on either side of me. One of them was a Hungarian former physicist who worked for Michael in some capacity that he either could not or would not explain, and who spoke what you’d have thought was an unemployably small amount of English. I don’t know who the man on the other side of me was, because he didn’t say anything. The pheasants were driven toward us, and we shot them, with varying degrees of competence. The argumentative Frenchwoman gave a small squeak every time her shotgun went off—and hit more pheasants than anyone else. I’d done this only once before, and set myself the target of hitting a single pheasant, which eventually, some way into the second hour, I did. While we were shooting, the clouds turned dark and threatened rain, but it stayed dry.
Lunch was—perhaps a macabre touch, but I appreciated it—pheasant sandwiches. Also blinis with caviar, made to order on a spirit stove, salad of salsify and chopped egg, custard tart, Billecart-Salmon rosé. The small talk continued to be hard work, but the shooting made it easier, because if the person you were talking to was hard going you could always point at the sky, say bang!, mime a pheasant falling to earth, and hold up a single finger. I did this with my Hungarian physicist. He looked at me, nodded slowly, and held up four fingers. I thought, Yeah, right. After lunch, we were given new pegs and shot some more pheasants. I got another one.
Parental guilt, largely dormant while we were on the shoot, began to kick in on the way back, but, when we got to the house, a short unfrantic search found Toby and Mia parked in front of a “Star Wars” film in the TV room. In order to keep the level of digital distraction sufficiently intense, Toby had picked up an iPad—not his, a house iPad—and was playing a side game of Plants vs. Zombies.
“What did you have for lunch?” Kate asked.
“Beans,” they said in unison.
“Did you get bored?” I asked them as they sat side by side in matching reclining chairs, their legs not reaching to the end of the footrests.
“It’s ‘Star Wars,’ ” Toby said, as if to a simpleton. “We’re on the second one now.”
Kate and I exchanged a guilty look. We seemed to be doing a lot of that. We were having a good time, but it would also be possible to construct a case that we were the worst parents in the world.
“It was clever of you to get the new film and set up the screen and everything.”
“The tall man did it.”
Kate and I looked at each other and shrugged. Hector was lonely and missing his children. It made sense. But then Kate noticed something, and that was when the holiday went irrecoverably wrong.
“Your hair is wet,” she said. “You went for a swim?”
“Yup,” Toby said. “The tall man took us.”
“The tall man went swimming with you.”
“Yes. No. He didn’t get in. We went to the pool and wanted to go swimming, but there were no grownups there so we couldn’t, but then the tall man came and he let us in because he could reach the lock thing and then he waited by the side while we swam and then he went away. He was on his phone the whole time. He’s always on his phone.”
“The tall man was on his phone? Was he.” I tried to keep my voice level. “Did he look like he was filming you?”
“Maybe. I dunno. Maybe not. He kept moving his phone about. Even when we were in the changing room he was waving the phone about.”
I felt ill. I suddenly made a connection—the sight of Toby pressing the home button on the iPad was what did it.
“When the tall man told you how to make the curtains open in our bedroom, remember that? Pressing that button thingy? Did he just tell you, or did he come into the room and show you?”
I knew what Toby was going to say.
“We were looking and couldn’t find it, and he came in and showed us. He was on his phone then, too, when he came in our room. Like I said, he’s always on his phone. He never says anything, he just keeps looking at his phone.”
I knew something was wrong. I went at speed to look for Michael. I found him back in his office with his textbook. I told him we needed to find Hector, right away. He got up and came with me and we did the same circuit we had done earlier in the day. The house seemed to have refilled with guests during the afternoon, as people came back from whatever pursuits they’d been pursuing and started looking forward to dinner. Michael did a lot of smiling and nodding as we passed people in the corridors, the salon, the sitting room.
We found Hector in the library. A swarthy man with smooth dark hair was sitting in a red leather armchair with a copy of the Financial Times and a cup of tea. At a single glance, I could tell that he wasn’t the man we had seen in the hallway when we first arrived. “Hector!” Michael said. “Can I introduce my old friend David?”
Hector bounced to his feet. He was, at a generous estimate, five feet seven. I took his hand so distractedly I can’t have failed to seem rude. Then I said, “Excuse me” and dragged Michael out of the room.
“Michael, what the hell? I said the tall man. In fact, I said the very tall man. I was extremely specific. The whole point was how tall he is.”
Michael blinked at me. “Hector is tall. Unusually so. He is Bolivian, and they are the second-shortest people in the world. Average male height is 1.6 metres, or five feet two. Hector is many centimetres taller than that. If he were Dutch and was that much taller than the national average he would be six feet eight. He could be a professional basketball player!”
I took a breath and wrestled for a moment with the desire to punch my close old friend in the face. Three . . . four . . . five.
“O.K., Michael, here’s the thing. One of your guests has been behaving, let’s just use that all-purpose word ‘inappropriately’ with my children. Going into their room at night, taking them for a swim, coming into the children’s room when they’re watching a film. O.K.? That clear enough for you? The person doing that is the tall guest. The one who is genuinely tall by any sane person’s standards, not your bloody data person who could in some parallel universe be a Dutch basketball player if it weren’t for the fact that in real life he’s actually a fucking Bolivian dwarf.”
Michael was completely still, usually a sign that he was thinking hard.
“Very tall,” he said.
“Jesus, Michael? How clear do you want it to be? Yes, very tall.”
He thought a bit more.
“No,” he eventually said.
“What do you mean, no?”
“There are no guests that could be reasonably described as very tall. Taking that to mean, significantly in excess of six feet. I’m not sure that you yourself aren’t the tallest man here.”
That punch-old-friend-in-face feeling came back over me.
“Look: we saw him. When we arrived, he was right there in the hallway. In fact, we saw him before we saw you. A rude cold tall man. He went out one way just before you came in from the other side.”
“No,” Michael said again. “I’m sorry, but that doesn’t fit my recollection. You were alone when I came in—I mean, except for some of the house people who were there to show you to your room and whatnot.”
“Michael, I know social life and small talk and all that stuff aren’t really your thing, but is it possible you have somebody here you don’t know about? Somebody you accidentally invited in a casual moment and then forgot about? Copied in on an e-mail by mistake? Had a few drinks, blurted out a New Year’s invitation, and they took you up on it without your realizing?”
“No,” he said, yet again. “I’m sorry, but no. There is no possibility that there is a guest here I don’t know about.”
We both fell silent. It was easy to imagine how somebody could be moving around the house without being fully identified, since we were all essentially strangers to one another. The fact that this somebody was not a guest was what I found most disturbing. This meant that there was a man roaming around who wasn’t supposed to be here, and who was taking an unsolicited interest in a nine-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl, especially when there were no adults around. Michael and I came to no conclusion, and I could tell he thought that we had not seen quite what I knew we’d seen when we arrived, and also that the children were exaggerating or lying or had got imaginatively stuck on an inaccurate description of somebody, probably a member of staff. To be fair to him, I might have thought the same thing, if I hadn’t seen the tall man with my own eyes.
That night was New Year’s Eve. A big evening was planned, with dinner and then a huge bonfire, where we were supposed to gather to toast the arrival of January 1st. I decided to skip all of it. After talking to Michael, I went to see Kate and we decided that it was too late to leave, but we would not let the children out of our sight for the rest of the day. Kate sat with them while they ate their supper and then went to dress for dinner while I read them a story and got them settled. Then I took up position in an armchair opposite the doorway, turned off the light, and just sat there. It felt like an expiation, a penance for I don’t quite know what. The leather chair squeaked when I moved, and the children murmured complaints for the first quarter of an hour, but once they’d fallen asleep I was free to wriggle about.
Time passed slowly. Although we were at the opposite end of the house and on the first floor, I could sense the big dinner party, the thrum and vibration of company and cooking and coming and going around a big crowded table. The bedroom was warm, and I alternated between feeling drowsy and anxiously, jerkily awake. Toby and Mia took turns muttering and shifting in their sleep. After a couple of hours, I could hear voices and movement; dinner had finished. Kate came into the room, pantomiming cat-burglarishly as she tiptoed in. She went through into our room, changed into many layers of warm clothing, came back to kiss the children once again, and headed off into Phase II of the celebrations. Noise came and went as doors opened and closed, and there were subtle drafts as guests went through the big doors at the front of the house. Then it grew properly quiet again. I sat and fidgeted and daydreamed, never managing to be either entirely comfortable or uncomfortable. I thought about the identity of the tall man. I thought about Michael and the ways in which he had and hadn’t changed. I thought about the lectures I was giving next term, and how sick of them I was, and whether or not I could be bothered to write another course. I remembered back to the time I’d written these, in the first year of my first job, two decades ago, while Michael and I were sharing a flat, when nothing about the idea of being in my rich old friend’s huge house with my two children asleep in the room, and my wife outside at a bonfire, would have seemed in any way imaginable. I thought about the ways in which I liked my life and the ways in which I was disappointed by it.
I may have fallen asleep. I’m not sure. What happened next was in the margin between dreams and full consciousness. I knew where I was and what I was doing, but my volition seemed to have been dialled down so that I could not move or speak. I saw the handle of the door, directly across from where I was sitting, start to move. It was easy to tell, because it was an irregular wooden handle and the pattern of light shifted on it as it turned. The door began, very gradually, to open. The figure in the doorway was backlit from the light in the hall, and I couldn’t see its face, but I could see that it was a man. A tall man. Slowly and in complete silence, he came into the middle of the room. He was holding a phone in his right hand, and when he got to the middle of the room he lifted it up to his face. For the first time, I could see his eyes. In the reflected light of the phone, they were completely white. There was no pupil and no iris. I ordered myself to stand, but couldn’t. I felt as if there were nothing left of me but a compound of fear and helplessness.
The man walked across to Toby’s bed and stood over my sleeping son. He held the phone out over Toby and moved it up and down. He looked at the phone and shook his head. Then he crossed to Mia’s side of the room. He held the phone out again. There was a faint murmur, as if he was whispering to himself. He kept looking down at the children and then back at his phone. He never looked at me. After standing by Mia’s bed for what felt like a long time, he shook his head again and went back to the middle of the room. Then he bowed his head for a moment, as if in prayer or resignation, and walked out of the bedroom. The door closed smoothly and silently. There was no noise of footsteps, but there was a regular tapping noise that hadn’t been there before. It took me a few seconds to realize that it was my heartbeat, and that I was now, if I hadn’t previously been, fully awake. I got up and ran to the door and opened it. The corridor was empty. Through the window at the far end of the hallway, facing over the back of the house, I could see the distant flames of the New Year’s celebratory bonfire. I ran to the window, from which the corridor forked left and right to the two wings of the house. There was nobody to be seen.
We left before breakfast. There were no trains, so I had asked Michael’s driver, the one who’d picked us up, if he would, as a private arrangement between him and me, take us all the way home. We agreed on a rate of a pound a mile, which at the time I felt was the best two hundred and fifty pounds I would ever spend. I would have said goodbye to Michael if I had seen him, but he wasn’t up yet, so I didn’t. We carried our own bags downstairs at seven o’clock, and the driver was waiting. He helped Kate and me shove our cases into the trunk.
The car set off down the long driveway. It had been cold overnight, and a hard frost had settled on the lawns and on the gravel, so the driver went slowly. When we got a few hundred yards from the house, my phone suddenly blossomed with texts and messages and missed calls. I took it out and looked: nothing important, just the electronic detritus of modern life. The driver laughed.
“That always happens,” he said. “Used to drive the previous owner mad. Did everything he could to get reception inside, and none of it worked. He’d wander about the house, cursing the weak signal. He hated it, because he was mad about his gadgets. We used to say the two loves of his life were his gadgets and his children. And the sad thing was, that was how he died. He was driving up here, tried to send a text to say he was running late. Texting and driving—bad combination. Car turned over, he died. When they cut him out of the car, phone was still in his hand.”
“Stop the car,” I said. We crunched to a halt. I found myself breathing heavily. I undid my seat belt and got out. The grass was stiff with frost. I leaned down to my open door and said, “The previous owner—was he a tall man?” but I didn’t wait for an answer, because I knew what it would be. I stood and turned and looked back at the house. Standing at the window of the children’s bedroom, a familiar shape appeared in silhouette. I couldn’t see him clearly, but there was a sharp flash of light, and then another, and then another. I realized that the light was coming from something in his hands, moving from side to side, catching the early-morning sun and dazzling it back at us, as he turned and moved and shifted, always moving, always adjusting, forever straining for that elusive thing, forever seeking, trapped in a moment that would never end, trying to find a signal. ♦
John Lanchester, the author of “How to Speak Money,” is a contributing editor at The London Review of Books, and has written for The New Yorker since 1995. More