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A NineStar Press Publication


Chasing Ghosts

Copyright © 2017 M.K. Hardy

Cover Art by Natasha Snow ©Copyright 2017

Edited by: Elizabeth Coldwell

Published in 2017 by NineStar Press, New Mexico, USA.

This is a work of fiction. All characters, places and events are from the author’s imagination and should not be confused with fact. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, events or places is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher, NineStar Press, LLC.


This book contains sexually explicit content, which is only suitable for mature readers, and references to alcohol addiction.

Chasing Ghosts

M.K. Hardy

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

About the Author

Chapter One

“Hi, my name is Nicola, and I’m an alcoholic.”

Not much of a way to begin a story, is it? But as James, my agent, always says, “truth is what makes the story.” On the other hand, my sponsor Mary likes to tell me to “be honest with yourself and screw the rest of them.” Either way, you can’t get any more truthful than that, can you?

“It’s been two years since my last drink.”

I was sitting in a dingy church hall on a flimsy folding chair, surrounded by people who looked as if they’ve been chewed up and spat out by Fate like disused pieces of chewing gum on the pavement. Some of them couldn’t even bring their eyes up to meet the gazes of their fellow addicts. Instead, they focused on the streaked wooden floor, following the whorls and gouges with their bloodshot eyes. I didn’t recognize all the faces; for every regular there was a newcomer, who more likely than not would come for one, maybe two weeks before disappearing off the map in a haze of empty vodka bottles, never to be seen again. Sometimes on my weaker days, it made me angry to see them, knowing by looking at them that they wouldn’t be back next week, and hating them for being weak enough to succumb. Just like I wanted to.

You’re supposed to share your story at these meetings, but that wasn’t really why we were here, was it? You don’t want to hear my story. Nobody does. There’s a reason my name never shows up on the front jacket—why if you read between the lines of each tell-all memoir you won’t find me mentioned there. It’s because I’m very good at my job, you see. I can draw out even the most reluctant person, put their words, their life down on paper so that the masses can’t help but want to read it, and the supposed author can’t help but rake in the cash. So I hope you don’t mind if I just give you the bare highlights of my own life—my name might be all over this, but it still really isn’t my story.

The smattering of half-hearted applause at my testimony had stopped now, and I was talking again. I was sharing my experiences of the past week—the times I’d wanted to drink, the times I’d been glad of the clarity I now had… You don’t need the details.

The truth was I could do without the clarity. Clarity, if you ask me, is overrated. I wasn’t sober because it made me clear-headed or better able to deal with my day-to-day life—honestly, I was a high-functioning drunk. That’s the thing about a Calling—you don’t have to be sober to be able to do your job. I could write just as well—maybe better—when I was drunk. I met my deadlines, I made meetings when I had to, my cat never went hungry, and I was never the type to get into fights or wake up in a gutter because, like all good alcoholics, I drank alone, at home.

No, to be brutally honest, I got on the wagon because when I hit thirty I was starting to develop a slight gut, and that’s not attractive on anyone. And believe me, some days I wish I had just switched to gin and slimline, but here I am now and so here I stay. Never let it be said I don’t see a story through till the bitter end.

After the meeting finished, the group disbanded, drifting away from each other like autumn leaves pushed by a capricious breeze. There was a table set up with orange juice, tea, and biscuits; some of the newcomers lingered there, hoping to meet kindred spirits who would reassure them that everything’s okay and it’ll just get easier with time. The regulars knew better.

Me, I picked up my sleek black laptop bag and hoisted it over my shoulder, exchanging curt nods with a few people before heading for the door. I wasn’t in full Bitch Mode, which on a normal day meant I might stop and exchange pleasantries, but I’d got a meeting to get to across town and not a lot of time. Chances were I’d probably be late. Why didn’t I just skip the meeting, go to a later one, you ask. To which I reply: you’ve never been an addict, have you?

I grabbed a taxi as soon as I could, promising the driver a generous tip if he could get me to my destination by four o’clock. That’s the other thing about having a Calling—you can make plenty of money doing it. I have even more now that it doesn’t all go on booze and mixers, but it mainly just sits in my bank account or occasionally serves to entice cab drivers to get me where I’m going on time.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that what I do is necessarily what I saw myself doing when I majored in Creative Writing at college (you don’t really care where, do you?). My starry-eyed teenaged self thought I was going to be the next Kerouac, or the next Tartt, or at worst the next Stephen King. I think my younger self would probably want to knife me in my sleep if she saw me trampling all over her dreams of renown and accolade, making a tidy little profit without my name ever appearing on a single dust jacket.

It’s still writing, though. It scratches that eternal itch. And I’ll tell you what, it’s satisfying, in its own way—getting into someone’s head, finding their voice, putting their life into their own words when they can’t make that transfer from mind to page for themselves. I’m like a conduit—weirdly, I feel connected to them. It’s an addictive sensation in its own right, and I am, after all, an addict.

Some people go from vice to vice, trying to find something that fills in that emptiness. I knew a guy in the early nineties who, after nearly killing himself on a five-year bender, sobered up almost overnight only to begin falling into bed with a different person each evening. What alcohol couldn’t accomplish, AIDS did. When you look at it like that, my way doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

We got to the hotel at five past four—even though we were technically late, I still gave the driver his promised tip. It wasn’t as if he had any control over London traffic, after all. I slid out of the cab, barely looking around to check my surroundings before heading inside. I have a lot of meetings at hotels, so I’m well acquainted with them—the plush beige carpets, the myriad mirrors, the waxy, sunlight-starved pot plants. These initial meetings are always in the bar, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that I ended up the way I did. Liquor is a natural lubricant; it gets peoples’ tongues wagging. Even now, hours before dinner time, the bar was half full, cluttered with businessmen soothing their jetlag with a pint of ale, nervous tourists tittering over a glass of merlot.

I caught sight of myself in the mirror behind the bar. It’s a rule, in writing—you have to tell the reader who they’re looking at. Never mind the picture on the cover, they want to be reminded of the sparkling blue eyes, the crisp white smile, the smooth, even tan. And you won’t be seeing my picture, so I suppose I ought to lubricate my own descriptive skills with a bit of introspection. Not that I’m going to tell you what you want to hear.

See, unsurprisingly I guess, I’m about as ordinary-looking as it gets. I’m about average height, maybe a little over but not enough to be tall. I’m average weight—maybe a bit extra on the hips and thighs from time to time; it comes and goes. My eyes and hair are a mid-brown that’s neither particularly drab nor particularly inspiring—my hair pretty much lives in a perpetually slightly dishevelled ponytail. I’m the kind of pale that you only get by staying indoors most of the time, summer or winter, and only holidaying to northern European cities that don’t require you to wear sunscreen or mosquito repellent. My wardrobe is mostly brown, black, and navy. I don’t wear rings and my ears aren’t pierced. I’m basically the definition of a cipher.

I didn’t start out that way—I am told by reliable though biased sources that I was a very pretty little girl. And I went through all the normal teenage rebellion phases—heavy eyeliner, dyed hair, outrageous clothes (though who could live through the eighties and not claim fashion victimhood?). But somehow, I ended up like this: a plain Jane, nondescript and unmemorable. Maybe it’s the exterior reflecting the interior, since my job is more or less all that defines me these days. Or maybe it’s just that spending so long in a drunken, intensely personal, and yet wholly impersonal haze erased all desire for self-expression. But if that’s the case, why am I writing this? I honestly don’t know. You tell me.

The woman I was there to meet wasn’t hard to find. Unlike me, she was well-known enough to create a bubble of impermeability around her, one which no tipsy tourist or errant waiter was likely to overstep. And even if they didn’t know who she was, she was striking in a way that caused people to stop and stare rather than come too close. And as used to celebrity as I am, I’ll admit I hesitated for a moment before breaching that no man’s land and approaching her table.

“Ms. Dewitt? Nicola Booth. Sorry I’m late.”

“Oh, are you?” she said politely, in that tone where it was obvious she’d noticed and was pretending not to—which I hate, by the way.

Yep,” I said, tamping down the urge to roll my eyes as I took a seat opposite her at the table. Lord, save me from the well-meaning ones—give me a stone-cold bitch any day. They’re so much more fun. “Anyway, I’ve just got a few questions before we get started. I assume your agent told you what I’ll be doing?”

“Well, I know what a ghostwriter does, of course, but I’m sure you all have your own methods…”

“Sure.” I sat back in my chair, nodding. “A lot of writers like to pore through articles, past interviews, watch appearances on Jay Leno, that sort of thing. Really bumps up the research fee.”

She raised an eyebrow—just the one. You know how in books everyone can do that? I’ll tell you what, not everyone can do that. “And you?” she said in this arch tone and I’m not sure whether it’s getting my back up or turning me on.

Not wanting to give her the satisfaction of watching me jump through any of her little hoops, I turned, motioning for the single waiter who’s loitering by the bar. He hurried over, more for her sake than mine, I knew, and I ordered a mineral water with lemon before looking back to Ms. Isobel Dewitt with all her arched eyebrow and perfect lips.

“I like to talk.”

“To talk.”

“Mm. I mean, yes. To talk. You’re supposed to be telling your life story, right? So the best way to do that is to… talk about it. To me. I’ll record it, take notes, ask questions…and then I’ll whisk it all away and transform it into a bestselling account of your life.” Maybe it sounds conceited, but trust me, it’s true. I have never failed to turn out a book that exceeded the publisher’s expectations, and I’ve even helped a few minor celebrities to climb the social ladder to better recognition.

The great Isobel Dewitt pursed her perfect lips and tossed her perfect hair and relaxed back in her chair with a nod. “All right. So when do we start?”

Well. This is it, then. “We can start right now,” I told her, leaning over to pull my recorder out of my bag, then set it on the table between us. No time like the present. “Let’s talk about what you want out of this book.”

Chapter Two

Usually after an afternoon with a client, I would put the Dictaphone away for a couple of days, work on something else, go back to it with a fresh ear, as it were. That evening when I got in, though, I found myself pulling the recorder out and clicking it on. The first thing I heard was a warm, throaty chuckle.

“God, I don’t know. You’d have to ask my agent that…”

Just that laugh, that voice, were enough to make me squirm in my seat, as I had right there in the hotel bar. It was no surprise she had “captured the hearts of millions”—the woman was basically sex on legs. There was a pause on the recording as I sipped my water, letting the sensation pass before I pressed on.

“C’mon, you can tell me. I’m not going to write anything you don’t want published, remember? You have the last say in all of this.”

The corners of Dewitt’s mouth had twisted up, just a little more on one side than the other. “There are no secrets of my life I wouldn’t have published.”

“That’ll make for a good book, then.” Secretly I’d been disappointed—sure, it made my job easier, but I didn’t always like an easy job.

“Oh, I don’t know. People will read anything, right? Isn’t that the principle?”

“So you don’t think your life is worth reading about?”

God, even on the tape that chuckle of hers sent a shiver down her spine.

“Well, I was there, it kinda spoils the end.” That accent of hers should’ve been annoying—the Americanized English of a Brit who’s spent too long living in the States, and yet...

“We’ll try to keep them in suspense as long as we can, hm?” I’d sipped my water again, surveying the other woman across the table. She was sitting there as cool and collected as could be, oblivious to the stares she was getting from everyone—men, women…everyone. I hated her a little bit for that, even as I was basking in it.

“Whatever you need. Do you want to start at the beginning, or just ask a question and go from there?”

“Let’s just see where it takes us, shall we?”

And God, where it took us. One thing was for sure, Isobel Dewitt was a fascinating woman. Violin virtuoso by the age of fourteen, she’d toured Europe performing for several years before settling down at Cambridge University at seventeen to pursue English Literature and Philosophy, where she gained a first class degree. She then went on to model for several years for Storm Models before parlaying this into her first acting job, a turn as a down-on-her-luck waitress, which earned her recognition and several more film offers from production companies in both the States and the UK.

The next five years or so were a whirlwind of films both popular and critically acclaimed, awards, praise from all quarters, and in her early thirties, she’d decided to take another turn in her career to try her hand at directing.

“Of course you did.” I couldn’t keep every trace of sarcasm from my tone, no matter how hard I tried.

“I did! I completely failed. It was an utter mess.” Dewitt talked with her hands, and they’d been all over now, describing the catastrophe that was her first directorial effort. “The only reason it wasn’t completely panned was my reputation, and the cast.”

“Oh, come on, it was a solid film,” I found myself arguing. “Just because it wasn’t the same runaway success as everything else in your perfect life…” I’ll admit, I was prodding. Can’t make an omelette, and so on.

Oh, I know. It couldn’t have come at a better time. I was almost out of control, and it brought me screeching to a halt,” Dewitt said with a rueful smile and a shake of her head. “It made me stop and think about what I was doing, and—as wanky as this sounds—it made me think of what I wanted to do with myself and my directing.”

And that was when Hearth and Home happened.”

“Yes. I don’t know exactly how that happened, either—it was mostly pure luck. I mean, Melody Graham was a friend of mine from way back at Cambridge, and when I heard she had a script out, I begged her to be able to read it. And it was, of course, amazing. I knew I had to direct it.”

I paused the tape—well, I say tape, but of course, I use a digital recorder now just like everyone else on the planet—and ran it back a few seconds.

“Melody Graham was a friend of mine from way back at Cambridge, and when I heard she had a script out, I begged her…”

Was it wishful thinking on my part, the slight warmth I heard creeping into Dewitt’s voice there? In this day and age, of course, admission to same-sex collegiate affairs—for women, at least—was hardly front-page news any more. And in honesty, although that sort of thing’s of interest to some, it’s not the kind of book I write. Unless, of course, there was more to it than that. I chose to let it go.

“…begged her to be able to read it. And it was, of course, amazing. I knew I had to direct it.”

There was the sound of me clearing my throat, then, “It was an interesting choice for you. You’d only made one period piece and that was Front Line, and there you were making a film about the Highland Clearances. Did it have some personal resonance for you, or…?”

Something like that, yes,” Dewitt replied thoughtfully. “There were branches of my family affected by the clearances, and beyond that, it’s such a shock to me that more people don’t know about them. I mean, you have thousands of families being displaced from their homes, forced to emigrate from the land of their birth. And all for the sake of money. I thought that Hearth and Home might bring some attention to this, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t trying to draw attention to similar current practices around the world today.”

“So you have some Scottish ancestry?”

God, what an inane question.

From there, the conversation devolved into a combing-over of Dewitt’s ancestry; something that would probably get a page or two in the finished book but lasted a good twenty minutes, during which I finished my mineral water and ordered another. Dewitt was an animated speaker, bright and bubbly and thoroughly engaging. It wasn’t hard to see why she was such a media darling, even as she entered her late thirties, a time when most women were being dropped in favour of younger, less “age-ravaged” specimens.

“But really, my connection was to the emotional truth of the story rather than the historical,” she said as we turned back to the film.

Well, that’s…admirable.” God, she was so good. Interesting without being pedantic, witty without being annoying, righteous without being saccharine. “The critics seemed to agree—you were nominated for Best Director and were a shoo-in to win in ’99.”

“Oh, I don’t know…” I remember that Dewitt shrugged then, and even her shrug was this smooth, graceful gesture. “I wasn’t surprised not to win.”

“A lot of people were surprised for you, then. There was quite a backlash against John Davidson—did you two ever clash over that?”

Ever the pragmatist, it seems, Dewitt shook her head like the very idea confused her slightly. “He’s a very talented director. And you know how the Oscars work anyway; he’d been robbed in ’97.”

Okay, let’s get this straight: I’m not a dirt-digger. That’s not my job, and it’s not something I particularly enjoy. Celebrities are under enough scrutiny as it is, and the last person they need trying to trash them is their ghostwriter. That being said, there was nothing I wanted more right at that instant than to find something damning about Isobel Dewitt. Well, except a drink.

“I suppose you’re right. And so after that, you did a series of films…”

I clicked the Dictaphone off, pulled out the memory card and stuck it into my laptop to transfer the recording across. The rest of our meeting had been more of the same—endlessly interesting from an intellectual point of view, and yet at the same time entirely impersonal. Of course, that was normal for a first meeting—you couldn’t expect to delve into a person’s private life before spending some time together, so I don’t know why it surprised and frustrated me so much. I think maybe because at the time, she made everything feel so personal, so intimate. The way she talked about her own life—she pulled you into it with her, making you feel as though you’d been there, or at least as though she wished you had been.

In other words, she was a born storyteller. I was beginning to wonder what on earth she needed a ghost for.

Still, it was good for me—her agent and mine had agreed on a tidy fee, and the schedule was relaxed enough that I wasn’t going to have to rush this one through. No, I’d have plenty of time to get to the bottom of Ms. Dewitt.

Now, however, was not the time. I needed to let things sit, percolate. I had another meeting scheduled with Dewitt in two days; I’d review my notes at some point before but needed something to take my mind off of things until then. Which meant of course that I had to come up with something to do with my time that wasn’t writing. These days, that could be a bit of a struggle.

Eventually, I threw on my coat and went out café crawling.

Chapter Three

“Café crawlingis my version of “pub crawling.” Except that I don’t go to bars, I don’t really “hop” so much as sit in one drinking tea, and I’m not trying to pick anyone up or get drunk, which is basically the only reason people actually go pub crawling. Other than that, it’s just the same.

I drink a lot of caffeine nowadays. It’s a stimulant, supposedly, but I don’t feel it any more. It’s not like I need it to wake up or to keep going during the day—it just doesn’t affect me any more. Which is good, otherwise I’d probably be able to walk through walls, or up them, or something.

I had a few coffee houses on rotation to keep things fresh, and that evening I was visiting J+A—a tiny hidden gem of a place with good natural lighting and comfortable seating, as well as a massive wooden table that I’d never sat at. After all, as when I used to go to bars, I was almost always alone.

The light was just beginning to fade as I sat down, and one of the waiters was making his way around with tea lights—which I hate, by the way, because they provide next to no light and I always end up reaching over them and accidentally burning myself, even sober. He caught my eye and smiled, and I gave him a friendly nod as I fished my book out of my bag.

As is probably unsurprising, I spend a lot of time reading. Not fiction, though; I don’t know why, but ever since I quit drinking I have almost a pathological aversion to reading anything that isn’t absolutely, positively, 100 percent non-fiction. I tend to veer between historical accounts of battles or trade routes or religious sects and how-to books, which is great for making really dry dinner conversation. Right then, I was halfway through “The Divorced Dad’s Handbook,” which I had picked up for fifty pence at a charity shop two days before. It’s a surprisingly interesting read. You’d think it would get me funny looks, but for people to look at me funny, they’d have to look at me at all, and, well, like I said before, I’m not much to look at.

Okay, so this evening was very boring, so rather than tell you about my coffee and reading extravaganza, let me tell you about my process. It’s not quite as simple as I make it sound when I sum it up for clients. It’s true I don’t do what a lot of ghostwriters do and pull from past interviews and articles—it might be effective, but frankly, I think it’s lazy and boring. I do read all the past material, obviously, since I need to know everything I can about the person I’m writing about. But I don’t write from them.

Ultimately, every single word that I record on my Dictaphone gets transcribed and pored over—I immerse myself in my client’s words, in their voice, until I almost feel as though I become them on some level. And it’s not until then that I type a single word of my own.

See, it’s not enough to be a good writer; I mean, obviously, you have to be able to turn a phrase, and translate between “casual chat over coffee” into “witty, scintillating prose”. But there’s more to it than that. You have to be able to draw people out, and even more so, you have to know what questions are going to lead to interesting, relevant stories.

On top of all that, of course, I have to make sure that nothing of my voice creeps in. These books aren’t by Nicola Booth. It’s vital that my writing takes on the right personality, and the only way I can do that is to immerse myself in it.

I know I’m really belabouring the whole immersion thing, but go with me. It’s important.

So it won’t be surprising if I tell you that the plan for the next day was an Isobel Dewitt film marathon. What better way to start immersing myself than watching as many samples from the Dewitt oeuvre as I could get my hands on? And for that, I planned to enlist the company of my best and only friend.

It takes a very good friend to stick with someone through many years of binge drinking and drunken mishaps, and an even better friend to stick with someone through two years of bitter sobriety. Julie was that good a friend for me.

She was also a huge film buff, and was always on hand when I was ghosting for someone in film to help me devour and get a handle on their work. And she worked freelance, so I could usually persuade her to take a day off for me, especially if I promised takeaway and first pick of seating on the most comfortable sofa known to man.

She had promised to get to mine as early as she could, but as I had a lot of movies to get through, I didn’t feel like waiting for her to show up before beginning. After an exciting breakfast of yogurt and some grapes, I retired to the sofa and pressed Play on Dewitt’s first film, Victoria Street, which I had actually never seen before.

She wasn’t in a lead role—the film itself was a sort of series of loose character sketches rather than a solid narrative, all taking place over the course of a single day on the eponymous street. Dewitt was the waitress in a café frequented by the lead characters as they went about their lives, the viewer piecing her story slowly together as they caught brief, scattered glances across the day.

Despite my hard-won cynicism, I enjoyed the film; it was well-shot and scripted, and the performances were solid. I could see how Dewitt had earned her acclaim too. Despite being in a minor role, she seemed to steal the scene whenever she was featured, even with a minimum of dialogue on her plate. I mean, sure, I was watching her with a closer scrutiny than most people would’ve, but I’m sure everybody else felt just as relieved as I did when Sophie, her character, threw off her apron at the end of the film and ran out into the lamp-lit street, looking impossibly lithe and gorgeous after a ten-hour shift. In some ways, she was the only character in the film who actually got to escape at the end, making her portrayal, although not in any way pivotal to the plot, a linchpin for the mood, providing a vital counterpoint that only highlighted the vicious circles the rest of the cast had found themselves trapped in.

It was just as the film was finishing that Julie arrived, using her spare key to let herself in. Leaning my head back, I arched an eyebrow (yes, all right, I can do it too) at her over the back of the sofa, watching as she disengaged various plastic bags and purses from her person like a fungus shedding spores.

“Hope you remembered the kitchen sink.”

“Thought you had one of those,” came the cheery response. Julie shrugged off her coat and then picked up a couple of plastic bags again. She took them through into the kitchen.

My flat is small. I mean, it’s not like I need much space. It’s a one-bedroom, with a decent-sized lounge so I have room for a home office, and that’s about all there is to say about that. It’s usually fanatically tidy—not because I much care about clutter but because I don’t sleep too well and tidying is one of those activities that can be done at any time of day.

You missed Victoria Street,” I called to her then, propping my feet up on the coffee table in front of me. “I liked it.”

“Hah, really? I thought it was wank,” Julie called from the kitchen. I could hear her opening and closing drawers and cupboards looking for whatever she needed, even though she’d been in my kitchen a billion times and really ought to know where everything was by now.

“You think everything’s wank.” One of the many reasons we get along so well. “You have to admit Dewitt was good, at least.”

She was just the central fantasy,” Julie argued, coming over to lean in the kitchen door (well, just turning around, really, it’s not a big kitchen), and looking across the lounge towards me, one of those four-packs of dips in her grasp. “Escaping from work at the end the way none of the rest of the characters can escape from their lives—come on…”

I meant her performance, you hypercritical cow. This isn’t about critiquing the filmmaking, we’re here to watch her. Hey, is that guacamole?”

“Hm? Oh, no, this isn’t, but I did get some—Sainsbury’s finest. So what’s next?”

Well, if we’re going chronologically, Call Me in the Morning. If we’re going thematically, Humble Pie.”

Julie made a face. “You know that there’s really only one Isobel Dewitt film that you of all people need to see, right? You have seen She Talks in Her Sleep?”

“I didn’t really see a lot of films in the nineties, Jules. You know that.” Nor do I now, for that matter. Some people find it amusing. I just don’t understand the appeal of paying ten quid to sit in a dark room that smells like popcorn and the bottoms of people’s shoes with a bunch of strangers. Doing research for my books is one of the few times I actually turn my television on.

“Well, you’ve got it, right? To watch now, I mean?” Julie looked mildly amused that I’d managed to miss this particular film for some reason, and it was irritating me slightly, making me want to lie that I hadn’t. I nodded grumpily in the direction of the pile of DVDs I’d picked up, which did indeed have the film in question in its number.

We’re still watching either Call Me or Humble Pie just now, though. So pick one.”

Okay, okay—let’s be purists. We’ll go with Call Me in the Morning. You get it set up. I’ll get the snacks.”

The film was…well, it wasn’t necessarily to my usual tastes, if I’m brutally honest. It was that sort of slightly indie rom-com fare that basically presses all the same predictable buttons as every other romantic comedy, but the girl’s quirky and the guy’s weedy and they have all the latest bands who can’t play their instruments on the soundtrack. These films are ten-a-penny now, I guess, but in the nineties, as the sleeve tells me, this was fresh and original stuff.

Luckily Julie disliked it as well, and we passed the time making snarky comments and inhaling tortilla chips and guacamole. As soon as it finished, we put on the next film in line, which to Julie’s dismay was not She Talks in Her Sleep but the period film Front Line, in which Dewitt played a glamorous heiress who becomes embroiled in a murder plot against her father-in-law. I liked the Second World War setting; Jules hated the stylized dialogue.

Guess we’ll have to agree to disagree,” I said as I got up to use the loo between films. “Are we going to watch any films tonight that you don’t hate?”

Oh, I didn’t hate it. I just thought that Dewitt was basically the only good thing in it. Besides, you know what’s next…”

“Chicken jalfrezi and popadums?”

Oh baby… I meant that the next film on the list is She Talks.”

“Gosh, I can’t wait. Fine, order us some dinner, and then we’ll watch this cinematic masterpiece or whatever it is. Use my card, okay?”

Okay, so here’s the thing. When someone talks something up to me, I dig in my heels. I really don’t think I’m any different from anyone else in this regard—someone tells you you’re going to love something and you sort of key yourself up to prove them wrong, right?

And there’s very little I dislike more than being proven wrong myself. But, and I hate to admit it, I loved She Talks in Her Sleep.

Firstly, if you didn’t know who Isobel Dewitt was, you wouldn’t recognize her. Not that there’s anything wrong with the way she looked in the first place, and not that physical transformation is the beginning or the end of acting, but with her hair shorn and having gained what looked like a good few extra pounds, mostly in muscle, between her last film and this one, her whole demeanour had changed. I thought perhaps, in her cheeky way, that this was what Julie had been referring to when she said this was the only film I needed to see, but as soon as Dewitt opened her first bottle of whisky, I realized what Julie had meant.

Now, I’m not saying that most portrayals of addiction in the media are particularly accurate, or that I enjoy watching them—in fact, I tend to avoid them, since they annoy the hell out of me. Maybe subconsciously that’s why I hadn’t seen this film before now. But, as we made our way through it over naan and pilau rice, I was blown away by the honest, raw portrayal of a woman battling demons I was all too familiar with.

Of course, unlike me, “Ellie” wasn’t lucky enough to have a career where you can get away with such indiscretions. The world of women’s boxing had become a hot topic with the success of Million Dollar Baby, but this film, the best part of a decade ago, had been much lower key.

Dewitt’s performance was, as the box proclaimed, “a tour de force.” She had really come into her own by this point, and with a solid script behind her, she delivered an absolutely knockout (hah!) performance that had me glued to the screen for the entire latter half of the film.

And sure, it didn’t hurt that she was playing a lesbian. Which, in case it wasn’t already clear, I am. Anyway, as the credits rolled Julie turned towards me with an expectant look on her face, which I ignored as I sipped my mineral water and perused the rest of the stack of DVDs.

Predictably, she exploded almost immediately. “Well?

“Well what?” I could barely keep the smile from my voice, but I managed to remain stony-faced as she rounded on me.

Oh come on—of all the films in all the world that should resonate with you…”

Hey, I’ve lived it, who says I want to watch it all over again?” Well, it was my principle about these types of films most of the time…

Yeah, I could tell how not completely hooked in you were there.”

I slumped down and chucked a tortilla chip in Julie’s direction. “How come you never told me that Isobel Dewitt dyked it up?”

“Honestly? I thought you already knew. It’s a well-known film among the lesbian audience,” Julie said with a shrug.

“Jesus…” I shook my head.

Honestly? It worried me. I try to make a point of not taking on clients I have an actual opinion on—whether I like them or hate them. Before I started researching Isobel Dewitt, I had very little opinion either way—she seemed like she probably wasn’t an idiot and that was about as far as it went. Since meeting her, watching her films… I was becoming a fan. And that was a bad thing.

See, the thing about being a ghostwriter is that you have to be unbiased—not just against negative things, but against being too positive. You have to lose your own voice, and if the book sounds too adoring, too self-congratulatory…well, nobody wants to read that. So I’ll admit that I was kind of hoping the next film would be awful.

The next film was Humble Pie, where Dewitt returned to a role similar in some respects to the first she’d played—another harried waitress, although this time as the lead. And, just like the last few films we had watched, it was good. Not exactly my cup of tea, but I could still tell that it was decent enough.

Speaking of which, we moved on from juice and water to tea and biscuits, lounging on separate sides of the sofa as the movie played on. I was beginning to get sleepy, mainly because I had only had about four hours the night before. It looked like we wouldn’t be moving on to Dewitt’s directorial efforts tonight, which was just as well, since if I became any more of a fangirl, I’d have to call my agent tomorrow and recuse myself from the project.

“So, what do you think?” Julie asked as the credits rolled on the last film of the night. “She’s stunning, right?”

“Yeah, no doubt about it. She’s got talent,” I agreed.

Julie gave me a long look. Then she began to smirk and, oh my God does that piss me off when she does that mind-reading thing.

What? What? Oh, just drop it, Jules…” Rolling my eyes, I heaved myself off the sofa. I gathered up stray crisp wrappers and napkins from the table. “Honestly.”

You know, I’m sure I have some ancient nineties copies of FHM and Loaded lying around in the attic somewhere with poster specials in them if you want me to take a look for you…”

I’ll tell you where you can look.” For all of her strengths—and trust me, I love her like a sister—Julie occasionally becomes fixated on my terminal singlehood and on driving me completely and utterly insane with annoyance. “She’s an actress. She’s supposed to be attractive.”

“Oh, absolutely.”

I’ll draw a veil over the rest of the teasing. Rest assured there was much throwing of tortilla chips and a certain amount of name-calling.

Eventually Julie packed up and left, and in spite of my better judgement, I caved and settled back on the sofa with Dewitt’s first film as a director. I’ll admit I drifted in and out—it wasn’t the best film in the world, and I was exhausted. The actual production was good—solid performances, a decent script, and some really quite innovative cinematography. But the plot was lacklustre and it was clearly a somewhat hasty adaptation from the book on which it was based.

Not entirely Dewitt’s fault, to be sure, but all the same, I could understand where the criticism had come from. I really wanted to rewatch Home and Hearth, but this wasn’t the time. As tired as I was, sleep was still elusive, so I settled for listening to my first day’s interview once more, closing my eyes and letting the sound of Isobel Dewitt’s cultured voice and throaty chuckle wash over me.

“God, I don’t know. I suppose I wasn’t camera-shy; people seemed to want to take my picture; I like working with artists, and so it seemed like a natural thing to do…”

“And did that ‘natural’ inclination carry over to the acting process? Don’t worry, we’ll talk more about this later, but give me a flavour—would you consider yourself more of the British or American school?”

That warm laugh again. “Hah, good question. The Dewitt school? Is that too pretentious? If I’m honest, I think probably the American—I do tend to lose myself in the part somewhat…”

“Interesting. And have there been any parts that were especially challenging for you?”

There was a long silence on the recording as she pondered this. Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling in the dark after a day immersed in Isobel Dewitt, I filled that silence with all sorts of answers. The one that I knew was coming, though, was more elusive.

“I’m not sure. I suppose we’ll find out when we get into the nitty-gritty, eh?”

“Let’s hope so.”

Chapter Four

The side effect of not sleeping terribly well at night is that I tend to lie in bed all morning—unless I have a meeting.

If I do have a meeting, well, then I don’t get a lie-in—and I have to say it tends to affect my mood just a little bit. I’m not the most pleasant person at the best of times—I’ll admit it—but my behaviour goes down the politeness scale just a few notches.

This meant I was uncharacteristically chipper that morning as Isobel Dewitt let me into her hotel suite.

“Good morning, Ms. Dewitt. You look…well.”

“I thought we’d start from the beginning again. Except in a bit more detail this time,” I told her, glancing up and giving her a reassuring smile. “Time to start fleshing things out.”

“Okay… I, er, made some notes, actually, after last time,” Isobel offered. “I was thinking about what we’d spoken about, my career shifts and the choices I made, and I don’t know if it will help you, but I thought that if you might find a timeline useful, at all…”

You made notes?” Okay, seriously, you won’t have a hard time believing that was a first. Usually I’m lucky if the people I’m interviewing remember they had a childhood. “Uh, yeah, sure, that’d be great.”

“I don’t want to interfere with your process,” Isobel explained as she stood, moving over to what I noticed now was a rather charmingly cluttered writing desk, presumably to fetch said notes. “I mean, obviously, I’m not a writer or I wouldn’t be hiring you, but I just thought, shit, give me a minute…ah!” She waved what looked to be a few sheets of computer printed A4, decorated with highlighter and handwritten notes, before turning to lean back against the desk and continue. “I thought that, well, anything I could do to keep the story straight, let you worry about the telling. Y’know?” As her voice lifted on the ‘y’know?’ the tiniest hint of an American twang crept into her otherwise crisp enunciation.

“Right, well… thanks.” She’d said she wasn’t a writer, but I was pretty sure when I got hold of those notes, they’d be well-organized and well-stated. Was this my easiest job ever? It was too early to tell, but I was betting on yes. “I’m sure they’ll be very useful.”

“I hope so—I’m afraid I typed them all up and then kept thinking of more things,” Isobel said apologetically as she handed them over before taking her seat again. “I highlighted stuff that you’ll maybe want to focus on—I mean, that is, from my point of view, it seems either interesting or significant. You may not agree, but I figured it’d give us a starting point.”

“Mm.” I was already halfway down the page at this point—I’m a fast reader—skimming through the highlighted sections, noting that she had picked out a few things I had wanted to touch on myself. “Well, let’s do that, then. Tell me about your mother. I can see from this that she was an entertainer during the war. That’s interesting.”

“Mhm—she was actually only twelve in ’39, but she was in a singing group with her older sisters—sort of a younger British Andrews Sisters, I suppose. They never went to the front line to entertain the troops, of course, not at that age, but it meant she was in London during the Blitz when most kids were off in the country.”

“Mm. That must’ve made an impact on her, at such a young age. And you—would you say your urge to perform came from her?” It wasn’t the rarest thing in the world for parents in “the biz” to push their children into it as well. It could lead to resentment in the long run; I wondered if there was any sentiment like that between Dewitt and her family.

But Isobel was already shaking her head, even before I’d finished asking the question. “She was long past all that by the time I was born. To me, she was always just…my mum with the lovely singing voice.”

“That’s lovely.” Completely and utterly boring, but certain audiences would lap it up. I gave her a carefully practised smile, making a note of the phrase in my notebook. To my mild surprise, she clocked me immediately, her easy smile turning slightly to a smirk.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Not dramatic enough for you?” Her words might have been cutting but for her amused tone.

What? Oh, no, no, no…” Looking up, I shook my head emphatically, giving her what I hoped was a wide-eyed innocent look. “I think it’s very nice. Everybody likes a happy family.” Just not as much as they like an unhappy one.

“Mm, well, I wouldn’t go that far, necessarily…”

“Oh?” I had perfected that one syllable; I could get people to spill deep, dark secrets with just that and a lift of my eyebrows.

A purse of those full, perfect lips. Was this woman going to bust me every time? “Another day. Ask me about uni or something.”

Okay, so here’s the thing. I really don’t know what I was doing there. Isobel Dewitt had already decided exactly what she wanted to say and how it was going to sound—she fed me sound bite after sound bite, perfectly crafted like lines from one of her films. I dutifully took them down, followed her down the avenues she wanted me to explore, let her guide me past things that “just weren’t that interesting.” And the weirdest part was that I didn’t feel like she was being dishonest—maybe a bit of a spin doctor, but not overly manipulative.

It did leave me feeling spare—more like a transcriptionist than a ghost. I was determined that I would find a way to get past Dewitt’s carefully sculpted picture of herself and into the real story, but for now, I was happy to bask in the warm, deliciously well-enunciated fiction.

Which is exactly what I did when I got home. Lying on the most comfortable sofa known to man, I closed my eyes and let Dewitt’s voice wash over me, listening to amusing tales of her uni days, her forays into student productions, and the colourful characters that filled her past. She’d had a fairly typical university experience, I suppose—well, typical for a pretty rich girl, anyway. She had her share of traumas and heartbreak and chaos, but nothing terribly ruinous. The stories were predictable enough, but the way she told them was engaging and witty and inviting…

Okay, let’s get one thing straight. I’m a lesbian, but back then you might as well have called me a celibate asexual entity for all the sex I’d had in the past two years. Ever since I dried out, my ability to pull women had dried up—not to mention the inclination. I just couldn’t be bothered coming up with stuff to talk about, or dealing with dating…not to mention, avoiding bars made it difficult to meet people at the best of times. So I was sex-starved, and if I began to have impure thoughts while listening to Dewitt’s recording, well, it was understandable. She had a good voice, and if I closed my eyes I could still see her lounging on her love seat, her skirt slit just high enough to show one smooth, perfectly toned thigh.

Needless to say, however, this was doing nothing for my ability to dispassionately process all of this information and start getting anything down on paper. Usually by the end of the second meeting, I’d have a reasonably good idea for a structure, for how the narrative would spin. Tonight would be spent typing up sections of recordings, shuffling them around, organising them. Instead, at the end of two long meetings, I had more good audio than I needed, and no idea where to begin. I might as well just be typing up Isobel’s own notes for all the clue I had.

Frustrated, I reached out for a glass that wasn’t there, stopping midway through the motion and flinching just slightly. Old habits die hard, and though I had put a bullet in mine, they were still in their death throes, spasming and kicking me in the gut at the most inopportune times. Time for tea and a fresh look at things.

First, I would go back to her notes. Pot of tea newly made and sitting on my desk, steaming away as it brewed, I picked up the sheaf of paper and began to read it a little more carefully. After our discussions today, I was beginning to think that her highlighted passages were not so much what she thought was most significant but what she would prefer me to see. Perhaps I ought to be homing in on some of the areas that hadn’t been highlighted.

Some of them, I could see why. I mean, there’s only so many stories about primary school that anyone wants to hear, especially in the autobiography of someone who had accomplished so much, and though I had no doubt that there were more anecdotes that could be teased out of her modelling years, there were only so many ways to say “I got paid for being completely gorgeous and walking down a catwalk a few times a night.” We’d still include a few stories, since it was “exciting” and “glamorous” and all that bollocks, but I could understand why most of that was left blank.

But there were some more mysterious gaps. There was almost nothing about her second year at university, and in my experience, uni was a time of constant change and activity, if not necessarily positive. I resolved that we would start there the next time, whether or not Isobel Dewitt wanted us to. If she only wanted to tell the stories that she had picked and chosen specially, then she could write the damn book herself.

Chapter Five

The next day, I woke up late—as was my wont—packed up the laptop and headphones, and headed out for the café. Though it was approaching lunchtime, there was still seating available, and I managed to snag one of my favourite corner tables, spreading out my things in a proprietary way before heading up to get a pot of tea. Once I returned, I got stuck straight in, reviewing my notes and typing up a stream-of-consciousness first chapter while my tea steeped.

I was so engrossed by what I was doing (and by Isobel Dewitt’s voice in my ears) that I almost missed the polite throat-clearing by the shadow that fell over my table. Glancing up, I saw a cute redhead covered in freckles and a paisley sundress standing in front of me.

“Excuse me,” she said with a smile, obviously glad to have gotten my attention. “Is this seat taken?”

“Huh? Oh, no,” I replied, my concentration momentarily broken like a watch that has stopped ticking. “Go ahead and take it away if you like.”

It was surprising, not to mention slightly disconcerting, when rather than simply steal the seat, she just shot me another bright smile and sat in it where it was. I looked up and around, meerkat style, to see that, although the café was far from empty, it wasn’t exactly packed, and there were certainly more comfortable seats free elsewhere.

“Sorry,” I said then, more than a little confused by this point. “Can I help you? I don’t know if you’re supposed to be meeting someone here, but I can guarantee you it’s not me.”

The girl blinked, looking taken aback. “Oh, no, I’m not meeting anyone. Well, I mean—” She went on with another of those smiles, “except that we’re meeting now, of course…”

I was beginning to think she was slow—I mean, talk about stating the obvious. “Uh-huh. I guess that’s true.”

The smile faded slightly. “Sorry, didn’t mean to intrude,” she said, rising to her feet once more. She then lifted her jacket up from where she’d put it over the back of her chair.

“It’s a bit late for leaving now,” I commented wryly, lifting my lukewarm teapot to refill my cup. “I won’t be able to get back to writing until I’ve finished this, at least.”

But it seemed the young woman’s decision was made, apparently not just to find another seat but another café altogether, as she pulled her jacket on. “Well, I’ll let you get back to your tea in peace,” she said, her tone slightly clipped, the first hint of a slight Celtic accent creeping in, and she turned to go without waiting for a response. I watched her leave, wondering what on earth had possessed her to interrupt me like that. It was only much later, as I was packing up to go, that I realized that she might well have been hitting on me—as rare as it was, it did happen. Feeling almost embarrassed, I resolved never to let Julie find out about this—there’d be no end to the mockery if she did.

The whole thing put a strange tilt on the rest of the day for me—it’s funny how little things can do that when you get stuck in your routine, used to your own company with no interruptions. Although I was still able to float away into my own little world at the sound of the lovely Isobel Dewitt’s voice, I couldn’t seem to keep my mind on the draft I was trying to get into.

Which meant that it was a bit shit. Loose, undirected, slightly rambling… I very nearly deleted the whole thing upon rereading it, but I knew it was stupid to throw away a whole day’s work just because it sucked. I might still be able to salvage something from it eventually, though it didn’t look promising. With my laptop slung over my shoulder, I headed home, intent on reheating leftovers and maybe watching another Dewitt film or three until I fell asleep.

I was thrown, then, to receive a text message while en route home, from a number I didn’t recognize.

Screening tonight at the Victoria art house, 2030 if you’d like to attend. -Id

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to figure out who had sent the text; I don’t get a lot of invitations out any more, and it wasn’t like it was a usual thing for me to be invited places by the people I was ghosting for. Much less an insanely talented, rich, well-respected person like Isobel Dewitt. But the proof was there on my crappy mobile—she had invited me to a film screening, and as much as the prospect would normally send me running in the other direction, I was actually tempted.

I texted the one person who’d understand my dilemma. Mary’s response was quick, and simple, and annoying. Exactly what I’d expected.

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