Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash
This is what I recall:
A country cottage engulfed by the suburbs of a growing city - a doodle of lopsided gables and fanciful chimneys among ruled municipal building lines. A winter evening, fading light. I take a light bulb from the kitchen to the bedroom to continue my work. Everywhere, tumbled stacks of newspapers, magazines, clothes and blankets, and the odour of old times and old age. The night ahead promises to be long and dark, lonely and cold; but no worse than that. Definitely no worse than that.
It had begun that winter afternoon, Tuesday, 13 December 1983, at the Sunny Hope Nursing Home, twelve miles to our north as the old crow flies.
Meet Miss Evadne Haslett, late of Rose Cottage, Sheep Mill Grove, the newest and oldest resident of the home. I am, I learn, “the young man who will help you pack.” For the sake of form and forms, I am to receive a token briefing.
Miss Evadne Haslett has the memory of the very old – distant events as sharply drawn as the rose petals on a china teacup; near ones all grayness and blur; the painter’s chiaroscuro inverted.
“You will look after Rose Cottage, won’t you, young man?”
“I’m just going to bring some things for you.”
“I want it to be nice for when I go back. Are you a married man?”
“Well, you’re very young. I never married either. I had my mother to take care of after my father died so it was just the two of us. Before the new houses. It was all farmers’ fields back then.”
“Must have been very nice.”
“It was lovely in those days. Then they put up the new houses, right on our land. That was our garden, that was, you know, where they’ve built those houses.” She leans towards me confidentially. “We even had a little private cemetery. It was just my grandmother at first, then my grandfather went in with her, and my step-grandmother, and then my father so it was a real little family gathering, but my mother couldn’t go in when she went because of the houses. Anyway, we had to sell that land and de-consecrate it.”
“They re-interred the bones, so they said.”
“I’m sure they’d do what they said.”
“Are you? Well, anyway. Do I know you, young man?”
“I’m called Ivan. I’m here to get your stuff to you.”
“You mean you’ll bring things here?”
“If you like.”
“Can you wind a grandfather clock?”
“I can try.”
“The key’s inside. It’ll be nice to see it still going when I get back. You look a nice young man. Are you a married man?”
“Well, you’re very young. Have you been here before?”
“No. We’ve just met today. I’m here to get your stuff for you, from your house”
“Rose Cottage? I grew up there, you know. Thought I’d be there till the end, like my mother was. Well, I will be, once I get out of here.”
“So if you can just let me know what you’d like me to bring…”
“Well, it’ll all be there for me when I get back.”
“How about some photographs for your bedside table?”
“Photographs? How did you know about those? I do miss my old photographs. It was my grandfather who built Rose cottage, you know. He’s in the bedroom in a big ormolu frame with my grandmother on their wedding day. I never knew my grandmother. Passed away when my mother was born. Well, a lot did back then. He was a master joiner, my grandfather. Married above his class – they were big landowners, my grandparents. They had acres and acres. So it was her family land they built on. But it was a match made in heaven and when she died, they say he never got over it.”
“Course, the land’s all gone now. Don’t know what they did with the money when those houses went up. I never saw any of it.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“He named Rose Cottage after her, you know. Rose was my grandmother’s name. He must have been really miffed that Rose is such a common name for a cottage, but he had to call it that because Rose was her name, you see. He had the cemetery consecrated on the grounds, so he could visit her every day, and he devoted himself to bringing up the little girl she’d given him when she passed away. That was my mother. He married the nanny in the end so my mother would have a proper family, but every day they went praying at Rose’s grave, even the nanny. Now what else can I do for you?"
“Maybe let me know which photographs to bring you.”
“Like your grandparents’ wedding picture.”
“Oh, I know that one. It’s in an ormolu frame in the bedroom. You know the bedroom?”
“I’ve never been to Rose Cottage.”
“What, never? But I saw you there. You were that young man that came the other day. What was his name?”
“It was. It was Owen. Well, isn’t that you? I thought they said you were Mr Owen.”
“Mr Owen introduced us just now. I’m called Ivan.”
“Well, it’s practically the same name. No wonder they all get confused. Can you wind a grandfather clock?”
“The key’s inside. I don’t want it to stop while I’m away.”
“I’ll keep it going for you! So, you were telling me about the bedroom.”
“Well, it’s upstairs, on the right. You’ll find it. I do miss my Rose Cottage. Even little things, like....” She beckons me into her confidence again. “When you go up the stairs, have a good look at the banister rail. At the turn, there’s a new piece been spliced in. It’s very expertly done – he was a master joiner, my grandfather, by the way – but you can still see the grain doesn’t quite match. It’s where they had to remove a piece of banister to get Grandma Rose’s coffin down, you see. My mother and I, we always used to give that bit a special polish, in memory of both her parents. Now there’s only me left that knows about it. And you, so have a look for it. It’s real living history.”
“That’s really interesting.”
“Well, I expect you’re in a hurry to get back to whatever it is you do. Before you go, you must tell me your name.”
“It’s Ivan. So, is there anything else for me to bring you?”
“What do you mean, bring me?”
“Besides your grandparents’ wedding photograph.”
“Hey! How did you know I wanted that?”
“If there’s anything else…”
“I think I’ve got all I want here. Well, all I need. But some photographs would go nicely on this little nightstand.”
“And give the banisters a gentle polish from me.” She beckons me into her confidence again. “There’s an odd piece spliced in at the turn, where they had to take a piece out…”
“I’ll give it a real good polish.” I slip towards the door.
“Hey! You should let me finish. Real family history, this.”
“What was I saying?”
“I’ll take good care of Rose Cottage.”
“Oh! I nearly forgot to say. Could you wind the grandfather clock?”
As I head along the corridor, a voice hails me from behind. “Hey, Terrible!”
It’s Owen. “Terrible” is his nickname for me. He thinks it’s the height of wit. He loves explaining it to his even less educated colleagues.
“Lucky I ran into you, Terrible.”
No, it isn’t. He’s been waiting to ambush me. He continues: “Bletcher’s have been on the old tellingbone. They’re sending the first prospects tomorrow morning. I told them our man Ivan would have it all ship shape and Bristol fashion.”
“Thanks a bunch.”
“Only believe and you can do it, Terrible. Only believe. It’s a pair of young lovers in search of a nest.”
“So I just shove everything into removal cartons?”
“Have you seen the place?”
“Not exactly love nest material. More like the Addams Family.”
“She’s a nice old lady. She thinks she’s going back there.”
“Or Psycho, more like. Nice old lady? She never threw anything away, you know. They all think they’re going home, you know. Home to the Bates Motel.”
“You’ve tried this one before, Owen. I’m rationally immune to haunted houses. It was a happy family house.”
“Happy family? Come in here a minute.” He draws me into an empty office and lowers his voice. “I was left there tidying up after I’d sentenced her to this earthly paradise. Late at night, it was, if you get my meaning. Saw and heard some things that you’d deny, so I … Well, let’s say I don’t waste my breath on you sceptics.”
“She told you about the broken banisters, I suppose?”
“And the bodies buried in the garden?”
“The family cemetery, yes.”
“And her grandmother’s mysterious demise?”
“Who died in childbed, yes.”
“Yes, quite. Well, it looks like you’ve got the whole picture, then.”
“So the best of British luck is all I can offer you, my intrepid friend. Just…” He leans towards me and funnels the words into my ear with his cupped hand. “…keep off the stairs around midnight.” He makes the ululating noise of a pantomime ghost. “Sooner you than me.”
“See you in the morning.”
“If we’re spared, Terrible. If you’re spared, that is!”
You may think from this that Owen is either a moron or a bully, but when you get to know him properly, you learn that he’s generally both at once. I’m not worried by his silly hints at psychic phenomena, but I am offended by the casual aspersions he has cast against a dignified old lady and her family. I can be sure he has spread the same rumors among all the credulous asses in the department.
I am still replaying parts of that afternoon conversation now, as I survey the tumbled stacks of newspapers, magazines, clothes and blankets, breathing the odour of old times and old age, and wondering if I can turn this old woman’s hoarding dump into a love nest before morning.
Nothing can be done about Owen. I block him from my mind, and turn my thoughts to the rubbish confronting me. Forty cartons of it at the most. At fifteen minutes a carton, I can easily have it all boxed away by five in the morning, and still have time for cob-webbing and dusting before the young lovers arrive.
I’ll find the photographs first. I fold a small carton into shape, tape the bottom flaps and write “Sunny Hope” on the top flap.
A dusty collection of framed photographs clutters the bedside table. The one in front, with the ormolu frame, must be Evadne Haslett’s grandparents on their wedding day. The man has the strong, roughly chiselled features of a master joiner, and the shrewd level gaze of a practical man. Grandma Rose, though, is incongruously plain. Her eyes are downcast and looking slightly away from the camera, as if to let us know that she is conscious of her plainness. Rose is resigned to the marriage. Rose married below her class, I can see, but not in the way that an impetuous, independent woman might, but of necessity.
For heaven’s sake, Ivan, it was her wedding day and she was nervous, that’s all. I bed the two of them in tissue paper, and lay them in the carton.
The next frame contains the master joiner again, this time with a young child, who could be Evadne Haslett but, from the period, must be her mother. But neither the master joiner nor the daughter holds my eye. Supporting the child is a woman of twenty or so, plainly attired as a nanny and dutifully unsmiling, yet even unposed, she is rather striking. I pause. I unwrap Rose on her wedding day again, and compare. The child looks more like her nanny than her mother.
A gust of wind rattles the windows. I shiver, not from the cold.
That fool Owen! If he hadn’t ambushed me at Sunny Hope, I’d be whistling as I pack away these extinct old photographs. It’s not that I’m suggestible, but there is something about being half asleep in these surroundings that promotes fantasy.
I’ll make a strong coffee. I turn on all the lights I can and, as I go downstairs, I remember to look for the special piece of banister at the turn. It has been expertly spliced in but, as Miss Haslett said, the insert is clearly from a different tree. Why was the original piece not simply reinstated, I wonder? Too much wood lost in the saw-cut, perhaps?
The grandfather clock faces me at the foot of the stairs, its weights and pendulum cocooned in years of cobweb. I try to turn on the kitchen light but remember that I took the light bulb for the bedroom. I make coffee by the light of the gas stove.
When I return to the hall, the lights are glimmering like gaslight. I try the switch. No effect. I try some other switches, up and down, up and down. No effect. The lights continue to glimmer. This can happen, I tell myself, when the cables are old and perished and there are cobwebs in the switches. Or perhaps the flickering stove light in the kitchen has affected my eyes. I climb the stairs.
In the bedroom, the light is steady, but the framed photographs that I wrapped in tissue paper in the carton have been unwrapped and returned to the bedside table.
Well, obviously, I must have placed them back on the bedside table myself when I decided to make the coffee. The master joiner glares at me again as I wrap him in tissue with one wife, then the other, and lay them in the carton.
I wrap the remaining photographs and close the carton. At last, I feel I am beginning to make progress. As I slide another flat-packed carton from the wall, a pile of newspapers topples to the floor. I am about to put them back, when a newly exposed page arrests my attention. Births, Marriages and Deaths. “Rose Haslett” leaps out at me.
“…A beloved wife and daughter, on Thursday 13 December, in childbed. Private funeral.”
I check the year at the top of the page. 1883. Exactly a hundred years ago! Another gust rattles the windows.
Come on, Ivan! Reason to the fore; there is work to be done. I purge my mind of wandering thoughts and set about my task with new determination.
Four hours later, twenty cartons are packed and half the room clear, and it is not even midnight yet. Time for a coffee break? No. I’ll do one more carton before then.
From somewhere far away, a clock begins to chime. One, two, three, four… I open the bedroom door. The chimes grow louder. Five, six, seven, eight… I close the door. The chimes are soft again. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve. I keep the door closed until the last chime has faded away. Then, slowly, I open it again. All is silent.
Silent, save the steady tick-rock of the grandfather clock in the hall.
I go downstairs, closing the bedroom door behind me. The grandfather clock is shiny and clean. The pendulum is swinging. The dial shows one minute after midnight.
Upstairs, a door slams.
There is nowhere to go but the kitchen, and no light there but the stove.
Above me, a woman’s voice pleads, “No! No! Warford, no! Please!” The voice struggles to be forceful, but years of subservience have left it cracked, reedy and frail.
The door bangs open again. The shrill protestations continue, now incoherent with terror. Something heavy bumps down the stairs. Wood splinters as the body, with a last scream, breaks the balustrade and flops, whimpering yet, on to the floor below. Strong footsteps follow. There is the rending separation of wood from wood, then the sickening thud of a club on flesh and bone.
Silence, save the tick-tock of the grandfather clock.
Fumbling for the key, and barely able to get it into the keyhole, I tumble out of the house by the back kitchen door. But outside, fog has descended, blocking the streetlights and the neighboring houses. Not a light to be seen, nor a sound to be heard. Nothing, save the scrape of a limp and lifeless burden being dragged around the cottage and away, deep into the fog-bound garden.
I clutch at the door for support.
So Warford – that was the master joiner’s name – did murder his rich wife Rose, in order to keep her fortune and marry the beautiful nanny – the nanny who was about to bear his child.
Of course a new piece of banister had to be inserted. The original piece was the murder weapon!
Dear Rose Cottage has tonight confided in me: a hideous confession. Unlike Owen, I will never breathe a word of this. Above all, no word of it must ever reach Miss Haslett. I must finish the job I came here to do. Fear of ghosts is no excuse for leaving it unfinished.
Somehow, I get back to the bedroom. I don’t even notice whether the banister is still broken as I make the turn at the half-landing.
Morning light is glaring through the net curtains when I wake. I fell asleep over the twenty-first carton. I step carefully over the clothes and newspapers and look out of the window. The air is clear, the day fine and bright – a normal suburban morning. People in front doorways wave goodbye, as cars reverse from driveways. Children shriek and bounce balls on their way to school.
That bloody Owen! There was no murder at Rose Cottage. Rose died in childbed, beloved by her husband (who was probably not called Warford), bearing the daughter who became Miss Haslett’s mother.
I hunt for the newspaper bearing Rose’s death notice, but can’t find it. I probably dreamt that as well.
The banister at the turn of the stairs is exactly as Miss Haslett knew it all her life. The weight and pendulum of the grandfather clock are cocooned in years of cobweb. Why, the clock that came to life in the dream didn’t even look like this one!
From the kitchen, I hear a key slide into the front door lock. Bletcher’s man and his prospects are here already. The estate agent is talking to them as they come in.
“It’s a little bit run down,” he is saying, “but it’s a sound building and with a little renovation… Oh! Sorry about the cobwebs. Social Services were supposed to have cleaned it up but, well, Social Services…”
The two men laugh in an eye-rolling way. I decide it’s best if I slip out by the back door.
“All rooms lead off the hall,” the agent’s spiel continues. “Dining room to the right, sitting room to the left, kitchen straight ahead. Cobwebby old clock, I’m afraid, not included in the price.” The two men laugh again.
“Tizzy’s got this old grandfather clock she cherishes, for some reason,” says the man. “Haven’t you, Tiz? Well, there’s where you could put it, if we buy this place.”
“Oh! In the hall?” replies a third, rather frail and reedy voice. “That would be lovely, Warford.”
Peter Marsh, a retired international school teacher, was born in the UK and now lives in Japan. His short stories have been published in The Caribbean Writer, Dark Fire, The Lowestoft Chronicle, The Font and Fabula Argentea. He is a long-time member of the Tokyo Writers’ Workshop and has made several presentations on writing techniques at the Japan Writers' Conference.
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