He was used to her being silent. But this silence went on and on and on. She was just staring into the garden. After a time, she said, in her precise conversational tone, ‘The only thing I want, the only thing I want at all in this world, is to see that boy.
’There is something inherently tragic in the plight of the spirit medium – rather, in the situation where one person can see a ghost and the person who longs to see it, can’t. In ‘They’ (1904) Kipling told a tale of a blind woman, Miss Florence, who could see the ghosts of children lost by the parents in the neighbourhood. It is one of his most touching and unsettling stories. I myself was absorbed in the theme as I wrote my television series Afterlife (ITV, 2005-2006) in which a troubled medium formed a fractious relationship with an even more troubled college psychologist whose son had died in a car crash. Both needed the other, both had the potential to mend the other, but the idea of what could not be seen, and what was seen, either by dint of psychic ability or mental illness, was ever present. I hadn’t read Byatt’s story back when I created the series, but I have since, and my memory of it is being remarkably beautiful, tender and poignant. I also liked that my male and female roles were reversed, and the man was the seer. Byatt’s writing is always impeccable, but this dalliance with the alleged paranormal stood out, and I treasure it. Sometimes literary authors can make a fool of themselves stepping into already highly-populated genre waters, but sometimes (as with this, or Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, about a haunted house) they can bring a startling and much-needed freshness to old tropes.
First published in Firebird 1, 1982; collected in Sugar & Other Stories, Chatto & Windus, 1987; The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories 1987; Black Water 2: More Tales of the Fantastic ed. Alberto Manguel, Three Rivers Press 1990, and The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories, Penguin, 1991