FICTION (November 2018)
by Sally O’Reilly
YOU can’t see the house from down here in the lane. I’m looking up now, shading my eyes to block out the sun, staring up at the treeline, which is dark green against the stark blue of the sky. And I can’t see any sign of it.
The trees must have grown taller, because I remember seeing the battlements and a domed tower rising above the shifting leaves of the treetops.
Now, standing here by the gate where the taxi dropped me, I can’t see anything. But I know it’s there. I bought a new Ordnance Survey map before I set out, and Veer Lodge is marked clearly, at the top of the hill, where the contour lines run close together.
I’m not confusing it with Veer Hall, either. The Hall is a mile away, and has a lake and parkland. It is much grander, almost a country seat. My grandmother took me there for tea once. We ate cucumber sandwiches and walnut cake in a tall room with two sets of French windows which opened on to a long sloping lawn edged with dark shrubberies.
The lake was at the end of the lawn, and I was not allowed to explore the garden because a little boy had drowned there. My grandmother said it was unsafe, and he must have been poorly supervised. He was paddling, and slipped and got tangled in the submerged roots of the lilies that lay flat on the surface. The lake was a mile deep and they never found him. I remember wondering what it would be like to drown, to be suffocated by water.
There was a secret passage connecting the two buildings, someone told me, but I never knew where it was. The Lodge was smaller, but still grand enough to stand in for a castle, or a Narnian palace, or Dracula’s lair.
The battlements were ancient and the main hall, big enough for a giant, was a Norman keep. You could imagine trolls marching up the creaking oak stairs to the landing above, which formed a gallery. This filled with shadows at night, even when the lights were switched on.
The house had grown around this great hall, mushrooming a Victorian wing with a conservatory, and another set of smaller rooms which they called ‘the servants’ wing’ although there were no servants. This included an upper passage and the bathroom. The bedrooms had square sash windows which overlooked the vegetable gardens and tennis courts on one side and the stable yard on the other. The glass in these windows was always icy to the touch.
The draughty passage had no windows, only doors. This wing was where the ghosts lived, but no one knew who they were, or how many, or why they dragged great weights across the floors, or banged doors at midnight, or sent a chill down the corridor, freezing your hands and face.
Perhaps it’s a shame to go back. I don’t know. I have carried this fragment of my past in my head for so many years, like a tiny medieval icon in a church. The smell of wood smoke and soot in the stone fireplace in the sitting room. Katie and Sue, the two Springer spaniels, slumped together on the faded Turkish rug, snoozing quietly. The worn parquet with its neat, never-ending pattern. A pink enamelled vase full of freshly cut roses on the polished mahogany table, and above it a stuffed fox’s head mounted on the wall, perpetually snarling. Where was the rest of the fox, I used to wonder? Had it stuck its angry, dying head through the great wall so it could see the people who killed it? At night, I thought it might scramble through the aperture, tugging its maimed and bleeding body into the house.
These memories might crumble into the present, and I might never find them again. And it’s hot, too, much hotter than I realised when I was in the back of the taxi and the breeze was blowing through the side window. I reach up and touch my hair. It’s all over the place now, I must look an awful sight. But here I am, and having come this far, it would be silly to give up.
The road to the Lodge is covered with Tarmac now – it was dusty white gravel before. I take off my cardigan and put it in my bag, then set off slowly. It’s not that far – a hundred yards? Two hundred? Something like that. There are barbed wire fences on each side of the road, and pasture all around. It’s a drowsing, tranquil summer scene. Sheep baa-ing, that low, complaining noise. Bees buzzing from buttercup to buttercup – not all gone yet, perhaps they’ll save them.
The sun’s heat bounces up from the hard surface of the road, and sweat trickles down my back. How long has it been since I was here? I mean, how long exactly?
I come to a gate and lean against it, watching a Friesian cow swatting flies from her back with her tail as she grazes, raising her head to look at me from time to time. Swish, swash. I start to walk again but make slow progress. My legs are stiff, my knees ache. I feel so old sometimes. It crept up slowly and for years it seemed as if nothing was changing. But now my body hurts whatever I do, however I sit, and my face is shrivelled beyond recognition. I wonder, what will they say when I get there? Will they let me in? I want to look round, I want to sit by the stone fire place and climb the great stairs. I’ll tell them I lived there once, with my grandmother, when she was the housekeeper to the farmer, and he still hunted, galloping over the rutted land.
Housekeeper. She kept the house, and he kept her, and nothing was said about it. All the surfaces gleamed, and each room smelled of lavender and beeswax as well as stale tobacco smoke. The green baize door kept the cooking odours in their kitchen quarter, the frying bacon and the newly plucked-duck roasting in the oven.
Practicality was all – the lambs that were bottle-fed by the kitchen fire were served up with mint sauce once they were ready for eating. Gentle Katie and Sue were excellent gun-dogs: once Sue caught a grouse in her mouth as it flew through the air, and the hunting party came back in high excitement. Sentiment and morbid imaginings were for townies.
My grandmother, elegant and practical in her cultured pearls, was not interested in ghosts. Nor was Bill Creech, the farmer. They would sit up late at night, long after I was in bed, and the last I would see of them would be their cigarettes burning in the semi-darkness.
i would lie in my bedroom, too scared to go to the clanking lavatory at the end of the corridor, which churned the water through its complicated pipes and cisterns in series of groans and gushes. I didn’t want to disturb the freezing spirits in the corridor with their trailing fingers. But is that true? Once I think I left my bed. I can see it now, clear as a dream. I pushed back the bedclothes and tiptoed to the door, and opened it, shivering. Why didn’t I switch the light on? Everything was black. I could hear someone singing, someone laughing, was there a party down below, in the light, where the grownups were?
But the stairwell was black, a yawning emptiness.
I walked towards my grandmother’s room, my hands out in front of me, seeing nothing, but feeling the thick air about my face, the viscous dark. When I got to her door, I couldn’t open it, and behind me and around me I could hear the distant singing, from somewhere unseen.
I did not turn, I dared not, but stepped backward, placing one foot where it had been before in that deep night, and then the other, going back, back, back in time till my bed surrounded me again with its ramparts of blanket and sheet. I lay still, listening to the owls in the elm trees, and the clock ticking on the landing and the branches tapping against the square window that looked over the stable yard.
My grandmother would give me tinned orange juice for breakfast, cool from the larder. She said there was no such thing as ghosts, so it would be foolish not to put me in the servants’ wing. She had no truck with pandering to superstition, and she wouldn’t see the old lady who came to the back door one summer’s day and said she had some stories about the ‘presence’ in the house. The lady said she used to live there, a long time ago, before the War, though she didn’t say which one.
But Mrs Davies, the daily help, didn’t send her away. ‘I could never stay in this house after dark,’ she said. ‘Once the sun goes, that’s me done. In midwinter, I’m off by four. There’s no stopping me, I’m telling you.’ She was basting a chicken with buttery hands.
The old lady was standing on the doorstep. ‘I could do with a cup of tea,’ she said, looking at me. ‘I’ve come a long way.’
So we all three sat outside: the lady and Mrs Davies and me, and my grandmother stayed inside, polishing the brass. The stable yard was filled with sunlight, warm and golden. Katie was lying stretched out on the stone flags, snapping to herself as she slept. An old Land Rover stood rusting in one corner, between the stack of hay bales and the door to the tennis courts.
‘It’s not a good house,’ said the old lady. ‘No place for children.’
I sipped my tea, hoping Mrs Davies wouldn’t shoo me away. A cat jumped off the garden wall and on to the bonnet of the Land Rover. It circled irritably till it found a warm spot, then sat down looking cross. Katie grumbled to herself in her dreams.
Mrs Davies stirred her own tea, frowning. ‘Don’t tell us anything that’ll make things worse,’ she said. ‘Where’s the sense in that? As it stands I’m half scared out of my wits if I’m on my own in the kitchen. There’s something in there, something watching me.’
‘Even in the daytime?’ I asked.
‘Not all ghosts know they are meant to come out at night.’ Mrs Davies blew on her tea and drank it.
‘This is a little sweet for me,’ said the old lady. She gazed into her cup. We sat in silence for a while. She was wearing a blouse and skirt and laced up shoes and I thought she looked uncomfortable. ‘I was hoping I might look round,’ she said. ‘I used to live here when I was young.’
‘Oh, can she?’ I asked.
‘It’s not for me to say,’ said Mrs Davies. She nodded towards me. ‘Her grandmother is in charge. What she says goes, even with Mr Creech.’
The old lady put down her teacup and stroked Katie’s head. ‘What a pretty dog,’ she said. She looked at the house again.
‘I can’t sit here all day,’ said Mrs Davies.
‘I’d better get back,’ said the lady.
‘No!’ I cried, but wasn’t sure what to say next. ‘It’s such a shame! I’m sure you could tell us all kinds of interesting things.’
Mrs Davies sighed. ‘Let’s leave well alone,’ she said. ‘Now, I’m making a lovely Victoria sponge. I need someone to help me scrape the bowl.’ She picked up the teacups and went inside.
The lady got to her feet. ‘Sometimes ghosts haunt places,’ she said. ‘And sometimes they haunt people.’
I stared at her.
‘I’ll come back another time,’ she said. ‘When you’re older.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Then you can see the house.’
She left, walking very slowly back down the hill, and once she looked round and waved at me, and for a moment I thought she had disappeared in the bright sun, but there she was again, still waving.
As I come closer, I see that the Tarmac doesn’t reach all the way to the house. White gravel scrunches under my feet. The sun seems even hotter; there is no wind. I shade my eyes again, confused. Surely something would have changed? How long ago was it?
I can see the back door now, I can see the stable yard and the hay bales stacked against one wall, and the door to the tennis courts, and the old Land Rover with a cat sitting on the bonnet, and everything is exactly the same as it was. Everything is warm and golden. The back door is slightly ajar, and there is a Springer spaniel lying slumped in the afternoon sun. I take a step closer, and look down at the gravel, and my laced up shoes, scuffed by the long climb.