Chapter 1 of Virginia’s Ghost

Few places are quieter than an auction house at night, especially when you’re alone. You’re surrounded only by the clutter of dusty old things once owned by people you’ll never meet from eras you’ll never know. Working with inanimate objects owned by dead people—it doesn’t get much quieter than that. And as you might imagine, it’s not an easy, comfortable silence. You might say it’s the very definition of dead silence.

You’d never think one of those long-gone strangers might reach across time and space to break the silence. At least I never did.

But for most of the twenty years I worked at Gable & Co., the fine art and antiques auction house in Toronto, I didn’t dwell on who might have owned the old things I handled. Mostly, I focused on what I needed to get done each day. I didn’t have time to worry about much else; as the antique ceramics, glass, and silver specialist, I was always up to my bloodshot blue eyes cataloguing old stuff that had come in through estates and consignments, and I was just trying to keep my head above water.

My job sounded interesting enough: I described, measured, and estimated the value of these items, which on lucky days were comparable to the fine objets d’art seen in museums. But more often than not, I saw the most prosaic of decorative objects, dainty but worthless dust collectors you’d find in your grandmother’s curio cabinet. The world has an endless supply of such trinkets, given as “family heirlooms” to the unappreciative by well-meaning parents and grandparents. Part of my job was to sift through the trash to find the treasures. Keeping up with this perpetual deluge of objects necessitated a lot of late nights.

Gable & Co. operated in a pre-WWI warehouse building on Queen Street East. The place was at its most unnerving when I was working late and needed to venture alone into the dark, damp basement—for that was where the kitchen was—to satisfy my caffeine craving. It wasn’t just the silence that put me on edge; it was also hearing my own footsteps echoing dully on the concrete floor. Sometimes, if I was tired enough, I wasn’t even sure they were mine, and a chill would shoot through me as I imagined someone coming up behind me. And then there were the piled-up mounds of furniture casting menacing shadows in the gloom; I wondered what lurked among them.

I was certain that spending too much time in the basement was a sure path to mental illness. Alexis Harrow, who’d once worked in the carpet and textiles department, was ample proof of that. Shortly after I started at Gable & Co., she told me, her black eyes wild with fright, that she’d heard voices emanating from the basement where she’d been working the night before. At the time, people dismissed her experiences as hallucinations precipitated by severe stress. We all knew Alexis was a self-flagellating workaholic, and if being such a person wasn’t stressful in itself, I don’t know what was. Everyone was convinced that the only voices she’d heard were the ones in her head; she’d been driving herself too hard, forcing herself to the breaking point. It took years to discover for myself that there might have been something to Alexis’s claim.

My views began to change about five years ago. It was a blustery late-October night, the sort of night borrowed from wordy Victorian Gothic novels. The wind whistled through the crevices in the building while the rain pelted down madly on the windowpanes. It must have been nearly ten at night, and I’d been upstairs alone in the cataloguing room, a big space with cramped cubicles that provided an “office” for each of the specialists. Lucky me, my cubicle was a more spacious corner one and the envy of my colleagues. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases lined the walls. A giant oak table sat in the centre of the room, its surface crammed with clocks, lamps, toys, dishes, vases, bowls, flatware, and other assorted decorative objects, while larger items were stowed beneath it. Half-empty coffee cups littered the table. The room, which had little ventilation, smelled like every dusty, musty old house I’d ever been in. That night, I was working on a massive collection of Royal Doulton figurines for the Christmas auction. Nearly two hundred little porcelain ladies were crowded onto the table, all with demure, pale faces. Most of them wore enormous plumed hats and poufy Victorian dresses, each with surprisingly revealing décolletage.

I plucked another one randomly from the crowd. The figurine was greasy, as if she were coated with oil. She nearly got away from me, narrowly escaping a plummet to certain death on the concrete floor. I checked her for chips and cracks, inspecting her by eye and running a pin over her surface to detect any irregularities that would indicate repairs. I measured her and scribbled a catalogue description on an index card: Chloe. HN3269. With beribboned blonde bouffant and pink and pale blue floral ball gown. Height 23 cm. (9 in.). Estimated selling price $60/90.

Looking at the figurine, I suddenly felt hostile. “Oh, stop your simpering,” I said. Now that the urge to speak to my tiny porcelain friends had overcome me, I knew it was time for a break. I felt the irresistible pull of chemical stimulation: a strong cup of coffee would be just the thing to get me through another hour or two.

The kitchen’s inconvenient location meant I had to flick on the staircase light and creep down a set of creaky wooden stairs to get there. Hidden at the back of the cupboard was my Edvard Munch The Scream mug, which I always reserved for stressful bouts of overtime; it expressed my mood at such times perfectly. I kept a stash of my favourite blend, Moroccan Mystique, and my own coffee maker in the corner of the counter. I put the coffee on and listened to the reassuring gurgling and sputtering as it trickled into the carafe. Sitting down at the table, I leafed through the tabloids an unknown colleague had generously donated to the Gable & Co. kitchen “library.” But the tawdry headlines failed to arouse me from my exhausted state; I needed coffee.  What happened next, however, would revive my sagging senses far more than any amount of caffeine could.

I got up and stood near the kitchen door. Over the pitter-patter of a now gentle rain I heard a quiet little whimper, followed by silence. I froze. The whimper started again, growing slightly in volume. I couldn’t tell where it came from, and I couldn’t decide whether I needed to know. Confused, I just stood there, twisting this way and that and peering out into the darkness where those piled-up mounds of furniture loomed. A few seconds later, I bolted so quickly up the stairs that anyone watching would have seen a streaky blur, as if I were a cartoon character escaping the jaws of death.

Back in the cataloguing room, the crowd of Royal Doulton ladies quivered from the force of my footsteps as I flew past them, as if they too were trembling in terror. I grabbed my purse and dashed out the door. Cursing and shaking, I dropped my keys twice before I managed to lock up. I ran hard for the streetcar, catching it just as it pulled up to the stop. I sputtered my breathless thanks to the driver, who looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. But I didn’t care what he thought. All that concerned me was putting as much space between Gable & Co. and me as possible. I sighed gratefully as the streetcar whisked me home through the dark autumn night.


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