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…