What is the one thing, the cardinal rule, which you must follow if you are going to survive a ghostly novel? Avoid isolation, of course. In numbers, you are strong. The stragglers are always the first to go.
The curious dusty academic who ventures out onto the moors at night? Don’t expect to see him again. Lonely islands; empty train carriages; even a secret desire, can isolate you from your friends and family.
Unfortunately for you, and unfortunately for our hero – James – it’s not as easy to know when you’re isolated as you might think. But enough, I see you fidgeting, let us stall no longer and join James as he enters our setting, Brisbane central library.
For those of you who don’t know this magnificent structure, it is located in the centre of the city. Big glass windows encase all four walls and allow streams of light to cascade inside. The rooms themselves, of which there are few, are also made of glass, and offer more light than you could know what to do with, but, also allow for little privacy.
It was for this buildings natural light that the A.A.A.R (Australian Association of Art Restoration) set up their Queensland studios here. James, being team leader for the Brisbane group, had personally chosen the rooms himself. Out of all of the offices the one where he now started the laborious task of laying out his equipment was his favourite. It was stationed at the centre of the third floor, which gave it brilliant views out of the building across the river, but also, and more importantly for James, gave it views across the whole inside of the library itself. He could see people entering through the big rotating doors of the main entrance and perusing along the hundreds of racks of literature.
There was always a low comforting hum; the hubbub from outside, mediated by the thick glass wall. It soothed James while he worked. He loved being able to look up from whatever painting or piece of artwork he was restoring and, from his high vantage point, watch the little people below buzz about their daily lives.
This week James had a new charge. He was so excited about it that he’d come in today, a Saturday, to get a good look start on it straight away. The picture had arrived an hour before him and the security guard had signed for it and installed it into the small vault in the corner of the room.
James’ fingers were shaking in anticipation as his last brush slotted into place on his desk. He turned his attention to the safe. A few quick, well practised twists of the dial and a loud click announced the right sequence. The door swung open with a gentle tug.
James softly grasped the rectangular package wrapped in brown paper and heaved it out, placing it on his easel. He administered two deft swishes of his hands and the brown paper floated down to the floor. And there is was. There IT was.
Even though the canvas was dark with dirt and the central figure was all but obscured from sight, a feeling overwhelmed James. A feeling that was more powerful then any he had felt before. There it was. He sat down and just stared in marvel at the dark silhouette in the painting.
The picture was of Samuel Taylor. Not a famous man by today’s standards, however he was the first governor of the Australian prisons. It was said that, without him, the whole experiment of British prisons in Australia would have failed. He was said to be a stern but benevolent man; respected by guards and prisoners alike. And this painting, this one on James easel, was the only one of him in existence. It had been thought that they all had been lost, but this one had turned up in mysterious circumstance and had finally been commissioned to be restored. The plan had been to send it to Sydney, but James had requested that he personally spearheaded the team, and as he had some influence on the board, his request got approved.
James sat in his chair smiling; staring at the soft curve of what he guessed was Samuel’s eye. “OK great-great-grandfather” he said softly, omitting a fair amount of ‘greats’, “let’s get you cleaned up.”
Without distraction, James worked solidly. Powerful glasses showed his cleaning brush as a huge block, slowly scrapping away the dirt around Samuel’s eyes. James was impressed with the ease that the dirt was disappearing off the painting. It was only just passed two when he looked up for the first time, sliding his glasses off his face, and he could see Samuel’s eyes staring brightly back at him. They were warm eyes. There was no mistaking the fact that the owner, at that moment, was happy, if not overcome by mirth.
James could feel the benevolence of his distant relative shining out towards him. There was something else too. The eyes were asking James, pleading to him to be cleaned, willing him to keep working.
James shook his head, smiling to himself, and thought ‘later granddad, I’ll be back.’ He left the room making sure to lock the door securely, and wandered down to the café. He ate half a sandwich and drank a cup of decaf coffee. The hustle and bustle of the café went on around him. People were dropping spoons on saucers, chairs were scrapping on the floor, but James sat in silence. His mind only on Samuel Taylor and the painting in his room.
He was so excited about it; he felt a connection with Samuel. He was overwhelmed by the thought that he was the first person to look into Samuel’s eyes for hundreds of years.
It wasn’t long before James couldn’t stand waiting much longer and he quickly made his way back to his office. Unlocking the door, he stepped through the threshold. There it was. He shut the door behind himself and sat down in front of the painting once again. He stared at it. It must have been the light, but he swore that he could see more of Samuel’s face now, a square chin, a round portly face, a furrowed brow that seemed at odds with his gleaming eyes, and broad smile – a little too broad. For the first time James felt alone. He looked across the bustling library, that helped to reassure him slightly. He looked back at Samuel but, the feeling didn’t resurface and once again James began to work.
After briefly going over the face, and finding not much dirt on the canvas, he started on the top left corner over Samuel’s right shoulder. It was pitch black there, as it was over his left shoulder too, but as James worked he started to uncover a detailed background. Once again he was gripped by the urge to clean the picture. It wasn’t long before he uncovered a stone archway, a passageway, its destination still obscured by dirt.
James paused, brush poised over the centre of the dark portal, he thought for a second. A further second ticked by, and then James switched sides. He decided to start on the other side before he revealed the delights of the archway. He told himself, muttering out loud, that this was because he wanted to keep something to spur him on, to keep working at the speed he was, but there was no denying the nagging doubt. A fear of what he might see. He looked into Samuel’s eyes for guidance, and he found the eyes gleaming brightly back at him, shadows playing on his face, twisted shadows, emphasising his cheek bones, and the bright eyes.
James, nervously now, began to work on the right side. A wall was all he got at first. A dark, deep, craggy wall that would of looked at home in a medieval castle. Then, finally, something new. It took awhile for James to figure out what it was, but once he finally realised what it was, there was no mistaking it. Half way along the wall behind Samuel Taylor was a hand. A curled, withered hand, with a chain around his wrist.
Dirt was falling off the painting now so quickly that it felt like James’ brush didn’t even have to touch it. A bowed head and thin scarred torso. Arms stretched out like the arms of Christ on the cross. The eyes of Samuel Taylor were staring at James, his smile curling in a demonic laugh as he watched his great grandson uncover the truth.
Hung delicately in Samuel’s left hand was a Roman flagrum, a more brutal version of the British cat of nine tails. Drops of blood were still visible on the tips of the chards of glass embedded in the leather. As James stared in horror he could have sworn that one of the drops of blood swelled up and fell onto the flagstones on which Samuel stood. Around his feet were more instruments of torture, most of them from a more brutal age than the 18th century.
James’ hand shook, he backed away from the painting a little bit. He was going to stand up but, as his arm tensed to lift him out of the chair, a sharp crack sounded and blood swelled from his left biceps. James let out a yelp of pain as his arm became a spring of blood. He stared back at the painting in horror. More blood now adorned the flagrum.
James wanted to run, but was too scared to even attempt to move. He was stuck rigidly to the chair, staring into his long dead relatives eyes. He could hear distant laughter, getting louder, the bellowing of a demonic man. James’ heart was pounding in his throat, his eyes were watering with pain and fear. In the painting, the dark passageway, the only part still encrusted with dirt, was starting to swirl. The painting seemed to be expanding, taking up the whole room in front of him. As James stared at it he could see it slowly form into shape. And there it was.