After my graduation in 1989 I was introduced to one Professor Joanne Harper. Professor Harper was one of the leading lights in the field of psychical research at the time; a pioneer, if you will. It was her diligent research that led to the exposure of the controversial medium Madame Brass, and her work on a unified theory for all paranormal events has influenced many investigators, myself included.
As my journey into the world of supernatural inquiry began, I found myself fortunate enough to have the professor take me under her wing. I accompanied her on many investigations, and assisted her in numerous experiments she performed in the laboratory. On top of the considerable help and guidance she gave me, I would also like to think that we became firm friends.
Even after I branched out on my own, I would often visit the professor at her home in the Cotswolds, where we would compare notes and share ideas over dinner. She lived in a small townhouse in the village of Bredon, near the River Avon, with her partner Soo, an outrageously talented chef. Although having little time for the supernatural herself, Soo would often join in our discussions with good humour and, by virtue of her scepticism, could be relied upon to rein in the more ‘fantastical’ conclusions the professor and I sometimes reached after a glass of wine too many.
I look back upon those visits with great fondness.
Sadly, sometime in the late nineties, Soo was involved in a serious car crash not two miles from the home she and the professor shared. Although she survived the initial accident, Soo passed away several days later at the local hospital, with the professor at her side.
I attended the funeral, a small yet dignified affair, and resolved to do my best to keep in touch with Professor Harper, and hopefully help her through the difficult times ahead.
Unfortunately, my own investigations began to take up more of my time and send me further afield. I must confess that I became embroiled in my own work, and my contact with the professor dwindled to a visit every couple of years and the odd phone call now and then.
How I wish I had made more of an effort.
Professor Harper had always held a certain fascination with communicating with the afterlife. I am not a fan of séances and the like. I find them crass, but she held no such misgivings on the subject. Indeed, the penultimate time I saw her alive she described to me at great length a new kind of process she had been working on, a process involving sensory deprivation and the manipulation of electromagnetic fields. She had even gone so far as to have a kind of rudimentary ‘electric bath’ installed in her drawing room, in which she would sit, blindfolded and wearing ear plugs to cut her off from external stimuli.
I must add that I never saw this equipment in use.
Our contact with one another dwindled further still, the final time I spoke with her in person being June of 2010. We met at the Fox & Hounds, a pub local to her and one that I knew she used to frequent in happier times.
I found myself more than a little shocked by her appearance; gaunt and pale-skinned, with large dark circles having taken up residence underneath her eyes. But she seemed in good enough spirits, and the locals greeted her warmly. I got the impression that most of them had not seen her in some time.
We sat down at a table in the back room and she spoke animatedly and at length about an imminent breakthrough in her work. She explained that in the next few weeks she would be ‘close to touching the other side’ and that ‘two-way communication with the next world is not only possible, but within our grasp’.
Though always at her most charismatic when pontificating about her work, the enthusiastic manner in which the professor spoke both cheered and worried me. I feared that she may be becoming so concerned with speaking with the dead that she might go so far as to forget the living.
But still, I found immense pleasure in her company.
We chatted for a couple of hours, long enough to finish two bottles of a fine red, after which she began to say her goodbyes. She asked if I should like to visit her the next week, to assist her in her what she assured me would be the experiment that led to ‘the big reveal’, as she put it.
Sadly I was due to travel to Germany the next day and begin an investigation into various historical accounts of occult activity at the end of the Second World War, and I could not spare the time.
After she left, I remained in the pub a little while longer and spoke with the landlord. He told me that Professor Harper used to frequent the Fox & Hounds often, but her visits were now a rare thing, and that evening marked the first time she had been spotted in the pub for at least a couple of years. I expressed my concern for the professor’s health and left the landlord my phone number, asking him to call me should she pop in again.
Even knowing that she was out and about would go some way to assuaging my worry.
The following winter landed bitterly and without respite. The temperature regularly dropped below freezing and brought with it intermittent yet heavy flurries of snowfall.
One particularly chilly day, just after New Year, I received a phone call from the landlord of the Fox & Hounds. He told me that Professor Harper had stopped by the pub the previous afternoon. Although still appearing rather gaunt, apparently she was most talkative, chatting and drinking with the locals, staying until last orders.
This did not surprise me; she was always a gregarious character.
What he told me next, however, came as a shock.
As she went to leave, the professor informed the landlord that she knew about my little arrangement’ with him, and to pass on a message.
‘Tell that young scamp Thomas that I have achieved that which I set out to do.’
And with that she left the pub, out into the winter night.
I thanked the landlord and hung up the phone.
I do not know why, but something about that message troubled me greatly.
The following afternoon, I set out for Bredon in my car. The sky was cloudy, and a heavy snow began to fall as I approached the home that the professor and Soo shared in happier times. As I parked up nearby and exited my vehicle, a knot of apprehension began to twist in my stomach.
I knocked sharply on the door. Receiving no answer I retrieved the spare key that I knew to be nestled under the garden gnome in the porch and let myself in. The door opened with a struggle as a mound of unopened mail lay stacked against it.
The atmosphere inside the house hung heavy, and a metallic yet sweet smell filled the air. Making my way to the drawing room, I found myself confronted with a sight that shall stay with me forever.
Inside the room, blindfolded and perched in the electric bath, sat the desiccated form of Professor Harper.
It was clear from the near mummified condition of her body that she had been dead for at least a fortnight, possibly longer.
I stood and stared for a minute, unwilling or unable to process the scene before me.
Regaining my senses, I phoned the local police station and relayed the situation, after which I stepped outside for some fresh air and a cigarette and to await the arrival of the authorities.
As I pulled my lighter from my pocket I noticed something in the freshly settled snow that lay about the house.
There were hundreds upon hundreds of footprints, criss-crossing the garden, leading up to the windows and back again.
Yet there was not a soul to be seen.
A week later, a funeral was held for the professor. More people attended than I had expected, and I recognised many faces as the regular drinkers from the Fox & Hounds.
I suspect the professor would have been pleased at the turnout.
Six days later, back at my home in Nottingham, my local postman passed me a letter. Full of apology, he explained that it was postmarked the 1st of December, but must have somehow gotten lost in the chaos of the Christmas rush at the sorting office.
I recognised the penmanship of Professor Harper straight away.
The letter read:
My dearest Thomas,
I have reached the other side. There are answers there, but those answers have only led to more questions.
They come to me now, dancing in the garden and peeking through the window. And the voices, there are so many!
As ever, further research is advised.
Yours most faithfully,
I cannot explain Professor Harper’s appearance in the Fox & Hounds that night; she would have been long dead by that time. And the footprints at her house? That snow was fresh, and the tracks were not there when I arrived.
I have passed all this, along with the professor’s notes, to a colleague of mine. I fear I am too close to these events to view them objectively.
My colleague’s conclusion?
‘Further research is advised.’
Dr Thomas Gotobed
– Another of the all too rare insights in to the good doctor’s personal life. I did actually find mention of a Professor Harper who passed away in Breston in 2010 in a reddit chat for paranormal discussion. Oddly enough, that entry now seems to have been deleted. Part of me is tempted to visit the village and see if I can find her grave, but is that too morbid? – C.R.