Hazardous Spirits

Anbara Salam

October 19, 2023 
The following is from Anbara Salam's Hazardous Spirits. Salam is half-Palestinian and half-Scottish, and grew up in London. She is the author of Things Bright and Beautiful and Belladonna. She has a PhD in Theology and lives in Oxford, England.

Evelyn watched Robert sleep on the chaise longue, his face buried in the tufting. Suddenly squeamish about getting too close to him, she tossed the silk throw in his direction and withdrew to the hallway, where she stood with her back pressed against the staircase. What was she supposed to do? Telephone for a doctor? A minister? His hair had been cut that morning, and it was a little too short. It made his cheeks seem overly full, lending him the smug air of someone who’d recently placed a winning bet on a horse. But still, he looked normal; he didn’t look like a man who had just announced that he could speak to the spirits of the dead.

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The reflection of her face stared back from the windowpane on the far side of the parlour. Her lips were almost white, a smudge of grease on the collar of her blouse. As she put a finger to the stain, the curtain fluttered, and Evelyn jumped, pressing herself even harder against the staircase. Robert had always been open-minded, the type to chat to a peddler at a tram stop, to accept a leaflet from a street-corner fakir, but this? She pictured Robert’s expression of hectic excitement, the dampness gleaming at his temples.

“And the voices give me messages,” he had said, his eyes jittering. Evelyn was waiting for a joke that hadn’t arrived. “I don’t understand.”

“Well, they aren’t really voices. More like a sort of swirl.”

“A swirl?”

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“A swirl of suggestions, symbols. At first, I thought I was losing my mind!” He laughed, and Evelyn shrank back. “But it’s not so unusual after all. There’s lots of ways spirits communicate—returning lost items, butterflies, special numbers. I’ve been researching.”

“What do you mean, researching?” Evelyn’s voice was strained, the back of her neck prickling.

“Researching my gift.”


“The gift of understanding the spirits.” He turned to stare at the curtains. “The spirits of those who have died.”

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And now there he was, spent and snoring. For Evelyn, it felt like the disorientation after an accident. With a before and an after and no way to go back. Robert was the one who always knew how to make things right, to think practically, to be rational, reasonable. He was an accountant, for heaven’s sake! Evelyn peered across the room. The window on the far side was fixed at the latch, and yet the curtain was moving, the peacock pattern rippling, all by itself. She felt her panic growing, a zeppelin inflating in her throat. Grabbing the first coat that came to her hand in the hallway, she let herself out of the house.

It was dark outside, the streetlamps smudgy baubles of light in the misty evening. Not until she was halfway along the front path, did Evelyn realise the coat she had seized was, in fact, a summer gabardine cloak she’d intended to donate to the Salvation Army. On the other side of the road, Mrs. Wrigley’s housemaid was walking her beagle, and she nodded politely. Evelyn swallowed—what if the housemaid could already sense the peculiarity, pulsing out of her? Now aware she was hatless, Evelyn bunched up her cloak and began to run. Breathless, she arrived at Kitty’s house and pounded on the door.

Jeanie, Kitty’s maid, answered. “Mrs. Hazard, good evening,” she said, her eyes travelling over Evelyn’s attire.

Without waiting for an invitation, Evelyn pushed past her into the hallway. “Where is Kitty? Upstairs?”

“No, Mrs. Hazard.” Jeanie licked her lips. “Mr. and Mrs. Fraser are in the dining room.”

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Evelyn marched along the corridor and stopped at the dining room door. From outside, she heard conversation, and through the gap in the hinge, silver candlesticks glittered. Kitty never used the Mairibank silver unless she was entertaining.

“Who else is here?” she hissed at Jeanie.

“Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler are dining here tonight,” Jeanie said. “Shall I let Mrs. Fraser know you are expecting her?”

“Yes.” Evelyn stepped from foot to foot, and dared to put her face around the door. The wallpaper was red-and-black velvet damask, which Evelyn had always found far too heavy, and in the dim light, it took Evelyn a precious two seconds to locate Kitty at the far end of the table. She was wearing her pink Callot Soeurs evening dress, the pearls around her neck shining in the glow from the polished candlesticks.

Jeanie cleared her throat, and Evelyn pulled back.

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“Mrs. Hazard? The parlour is available, if you like.”

“Fine.” Evelyn hurried next door where a fire was burning in the grate, and a card table and four folding chairs had been pulled into the middle of the room, ready for a game of bridge. She paced the narrow aisle between the sofa and the table.

“Evie?” came Kitty’s voice.

Evelyn flung herself at her sister so violently she almost bowled her over. Kitty patted her on the back, and then gently levered her away. “What’s wrong? Your coat—your shoes!”

Looking down, Evelyn now saw that she was still wearing her Turkish house slippers. “It’s Robert,” she said, and began to cry. “He’s gone insane.”

Kitty’s hand flew to her pearls, and even through Evelyn’s dis-tress, the primness of the action chimed in a way she would later identify as funny. Kitty glanced over her shoulder to the doorway, where Jeanie was wearing a practised blank expression. “Fetch Dr. Greitzer,” Kitty said.

Jeanie nodded with the indecent haste of someone thrilled to find themselves perpendicular to a drama.

Kitty gestured to the sofa. “Tell me what’s happened. What do you mean, insane?”

Evelyn sniffed into a handkerchief she had recovered from the cloak pocket. “He called me into the parlour, and I thought he was going to complain about the purse I bought for your Christmas present—” Evelyn stopped. “Oh, and now the surprise is ruined.”

“Never mind that. What has he done? Has he . . .” Kitty’s face flushed. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Has he struck you?”

Evelyn bristled. Even insane, her husband wasn’t that insane. “No, it’s nothing like that.” She wiped her face with the handkerchief; now realising it wasn’t at all clean. She swallowed. “He thinks he’s hearing voices, whispers in the house.”

Evelyn could see Kitty was working hard to compose her expression. “Like Mrs. McFlitt?” she said eventually.

Mrs. McFlitt had been their neighbour back in the old days, when they lived at Mairibank, before what Papa referred to, euphemistically, as the “big move.” She had begun knocking on the delivery side door, demanding access to documents in the cellar about the soldiers who were “hounding” her.

“I don’t think so,” Evelyn said. “He doesn’t seem forgetful. He says he’s been performing, performing”—she took a deep breath—“investigations into voices of the dead.” Evelyn sobbed into the handkerchief. Somewhere outside of her body she was both amazed and appalled that she was making such a scene.

“Katherine?” Alistair, Kitty’s husband, was standing in the doorway, his napkin in hand.

Kitty shot him a look that was equal parts warning and promise, and Alistair grimaced. “Ah,” he said. “Right you are then,” and discreetly, he closed the door.

Evelyn’s throat burned. The easy domesticity of Kitty’s house—the candlelit supper, the freshly laid fire, the look of complicity between her and her husband—it was all so cosy it was nearly painful. “I shouldn’t bother you,” she said, standing up. “You’re busy.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Kitty pulled her back down to the sofa. “When Dr. Greitzer gets here, we’ll have Robert all patched up in no time. He likely needs some rest, that’s all. Where is—is he—he’s not in the cellar, is he?” Kitty said, fiddling with her necklace.

“He’s napping.”

“Napping?” Kitty winced, and Evelyn felt a thrill of horror run down her spine. What was he doing napping at seven on a Sunday evening? How was everything so awful when the day had begun so regularly? It was providential revenge—she had been a fool to think normality would last.

“Let me fix you a brandy, shall I?” Kitty crossed to the cabinet in the corner and returned with a tiny, tulip-shaped glass of brandy, so delicate and pretty that the strangeness of the occasion was thrown into terrible relief. Evelyn drank it in one mouthful. Through the wall she heard the scraping of a chair in the dining room.

Evelyn wiped the handkerchief along her face. “What about the Wheelers?”

Kitty wrinkled her nose. “Alistair can bore them silly about the latest fashions in model trains,” she said, and Evelyn gratefully received the mild rebuke, since it was the closest Kitty could come to admitting her own husband’s eccentricities.

Kitty’s expression became serious. “Now tell me, what exactly has he been saying about these voices?”

Cautiously, Evelyn probed the conversation she’d had with Robert. She didn’t want to collect too much information from that hour, so she scraped shallowly across her recall. “He thinks he’s acquired a new talent—a knack of receiving messages. From—” Evelyn paused to listen for Jeanie’s footsteps. “From people who have died.”

Kitty was making a valiant effort at keeping her face still, but nevertheless, her lip twitched. After a moment, she let out a breath. “Well,” she said. “Well. That’s probably nothing to worry about.”

“Really?” Evelyn blinked at her, and the rosy vision of her sister flitted through a prism of tears.

“Yes,” Kitty said doubtfully. “He’s grieving, that’s all.”

“But no one has died,” Evelyn said. Then they exchanged a horrible look, because, of course, everyone had died.

“I mean—nobody has died recently,” Evelyn said.

Kitty looked down at her knees. “Dolores?” she said, quietly. A cold pebble lodged in Evelyn’s windpipe. The room tilted. “Evie!” Kitty was holding her wrist. “Shall I get the salts?” Evelyn shook her head, but the room was listing. The mention of Dolores was almost too much. It was tapping the fracture in a pane of glass. She collected all of her senses into not shattering.

“Let me get you more brandy.”

Evelyn fixed her vision on a loose thread in the carpet. “No, I’m fine.”

“I’m sure it’s not anything to do with Dolores,” Kitty was saying.

“That could hardly be called recent. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”

“It’s fine,” Evelyn said with some effort. She met Kitty’s eyes. “It can’t be to do with Dolly, can it?” The panic began building again, a more byzantine kind now, an ornate, intricate terror with interlocking elements. “It’s not possible, is it? He’s not, somehow—”

“No,” Kitty said, steadily. “Absolutely not.” She gave Evelyn a long, hard look.

Evelyn came back to herself. “No, of course not.” Kitty was watching her with alarm, and she felt a flush of mortification. She dug her fingers into her palms. Older sisters weren’t supposed to collapse. Some kind of example she was setting. “I’m sorry,” she blurted out.

“Nothing to be sorry about.” Kitty patted Evelyn’s hand. “Now, remember that first month in Edinburgh, when Mama kept losing things?”

Evelyn settled on a memory of her mother plugging a pipe under the scullery sink with a woollen stocking. Papa was back at Mairibank, overseeing the sale of the estate, and the weekend girl had gone home. As the stocking grew swollen with water and transferred the leak in a new direction, Mama had sat on the floor and cried. It wasn’t quite forgetfulness, but it was close enough. “Yes,” she said.

Kitty frowned, unconvinced. “Remember, she put her shoes on the wrong foot, and only noticed on the way back from the park?”

Still, Evelyn had no memory of these events, and her ability to summon up other moments of humiliation was compromised. “Well, after Dr. Halligan prescribed her that vitamin tonic, she was right as rain again.”

Now Evelyn remembered the vitamin drops. The bottle was crafted from thick brown glass, and was deceptively heavy. The tonic had to be dispensed through a special pipette. The fragile instrument, the spidery float of the bubbles of tincture dissolving in a glass of water—the ritual of administering the drops had transfixed her. She held on to the image of the heavy brown bottle. “Do you mean it could be a vitamin deficiency?”

A line of concentration appeared on Kitty’s brow. “Certainly. After all, scurvy is a vitamin deficiency.”

Evelyn nodded seriously.

There was a knock on the door. Jeanie put her head around. “Dr. Greitzer is arrived,” she said, opening the door wider so he could enter. Dr. Greitzer was dressed in a black woollen overcoat, drizzle pearling on his hat. Evelyn stood to shake his hand, and the reassuring sturdiness of his grip, plus the memory of the brown glass bottle of tincture, brought her back to her senses. She became painfully aware she was wearing a stained gabardine cloak and Turkish house slippers.

“Mrs. Fraser, Mrs. Hazard.” Dr. Greitzer stood next to the card table. “How can I be of assistance?”

As he unbuttoned his coat, Evelyn saw he was wearing a dinner jacket, and a fresh wave of shame rolled over her. He had been at supper when she’d rung for him.

“Please.” She put out her hand to stop him from removing his overcoat. “We’ll have to go to my house, it’s my husband.”


“Yes,” Evelyn said, although he hated being called Bobby. “That’s right.” She glanced at Kitty. “He has some kind of vitamin deficiency, I believe.”

Dr. Greitzer looked almost disappointed. “Very well. After you.” He motioned towards the door. Evelyn fastened her cloak and glanced behind her, where Kitty was following. “Please, I’ll be fine now. You should go back to your guests.”

“Absolutely not. Let me get my coat.”

Evelyn kissed her on the cheek. “Really, don’t worry.” She felt much calmer now. How embarrassing that she had made such a fuss! Thank goodness the Wheelers hadn’t witnessed any of it. And Kitty, she had done so well, keeping her head, telephoning the doctor, the brandy. Evelyn felt a surge of pride for both of them; for Kitty for being so level-headed, and for herself as Kitty’s tutor.

Kitty studied Evelyn’s face. “I’ll call over first thing tomorrow.” Evelyn smiled. “Apologise to Alistair for me.”

She followed Dr. Greitzer into the corridor, and Jeanie let them out, wearing a sulky, almost thwarted expression. It had begun raining, and Evelyn’s gabardine was soon spotted with water. Dr. Greitzer offered her his umbrella, and gratefully she took his arm. In silence, they walked along Inverleith Row towards her house. And as she watched puddle water soak into her slippers, Evelyn thought of Dolores, of Granny and Grandpapa, of their neighbour’s son Stevie, of Dugald Grear, of Alistair’s brother, Sydney, of rows of boys in army greatcoats, queuing up in heaven to speak to Robert, like the line for the telephone at the post office.


Excerpted from Hazardous Spirits by Anbara Salam. Reprinted with permission from Tin House. Copyright (c) 2023 by Anbara Salam.

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