By: Cynthia Lloyd
Eleanor frowned as she looked out of the taxi window. She had thought the city would be unrecognisable after twenty years, but it looked just as she remembered it. Most of the shops and restaurants lining the steep main street were new, and the stone of the university looked cleaner, but the streets around it were as rundown as ever. The taxi climbed a narrow hill, and then they were in the city’s most prestigious Georgian quarter. She had never liked it. The teetering terraces had always seemed to her too tall, and they still looked in need of refurbishment.
She had never been back here since that last night after her break with Dan. When Mary had told her she was retiring to Eleanor’s old University town, Eleanor had not intended to visit her there. She had meant to ask her old friend to stay with herself and Tom, some time when the children were away. Mary, though, had got her invitation in first, and Eleanor could not refuse. Mary had taught her everything about the travel agency which Eleanor now ran, and she would never forget the patience this tough but motherly boss had shown to the volatile, muddled, freshly heartbroken trainee that she had been.
She could not even remember the name of the street where she had spent the night after stumbling in tears out of Dan’s flat, carrying a suitcase and three plastic bags and kicking a heavy cardboard box along in front of her. There had been a bus at the end of the road; the conductor had helped her. From her comfortable taxi seat Mrs Eleanor Ross, herself now the sharp and successful director of the Mary Merton Travel Company, reflected that being a student was overrated in almost every respect except the studies. She smiled briefly at the thought of what her student son would say to that.
The streets here all had similar names: Clarence Crescent, Clarence Parade … Clarence Place, where Mary lived, was an elegant terrace of smaller houses in a narrow street. This street, it seemed, had got its refurbishment. There was a glossy front door painted green, and a note attached to the wrought-iron knocker. Mary had been called away for the night. Her sister in Kent was unwell, but she hoped to be back tomorrow. She had left a key under a stone, a casserole in the oven and a bottle of wine on the kitchen table. She did hope Eleanor would forgive her and be comfortable.
The house was indeed comfortable. It was narrow like all such houses, but had been tactfully renovated. She took her overnight bag up and found a guestroom in soothing colours and a bathroom en suite with state of the art fittings. She showered, changed into a caftan and went down to the living room. This was long and narrow and painted a soft opaque green, a Georgian ‘eggshell’ surface like that of the blue in the hallway. It opened into a brand new kitchen-diner, smooth and gleaming.
After the meal she washed up, poured another glass of burgundy and went to sit in the living area. The sofa was solid and welcoming and she relaxed into it, watching for a while as the early autumn sky darkened outside. Then she got up to draw the curtains. Coming back, she heard a sound from the kitchen and went to check that she had turned the oven off.
As soon as she was back in the living area it came again, a soft sound, she thought now, more like a weary footstep than a machine. She turned sharply. A plastic bag floating to the floor? She had put everything away, there was nothing to make a sound. “Is anyone there?” she said, and had to clear her throat to say it again. The back door looked securely bolted and locked. She waited until her heartbeat steadied, then went back to the living area, wondering if Mary had a cat. The note hadn’t asked her to feed one.
She sat down again and found herself thinking consciously, for the first time in years, about Dan. She had seen his name in the paper from time to time; he was now quite a well-known architect. He lived in Devon, in a little place called Combe Flowers. She had remembered it for the pretty name, not because it was of any interest at this stage of her life. Her elder daughter, Martha, was taking her ‘A’ levels this year. What would happen to Martha as a student? Young women today did not fall catastrophically in love just because a young man looked down at them out of half-closed eyes. Young women today thought men on the whole failed to meet their job description; at least that was how they talked … The sofa cushion moved under her, as if the one next to her had sunk. She felt the warmth of someone next to her, and almost turned and said, “Martha?” Then she remembered where she was.
She leapt up and stood for a full minute in the middle of the room, staring down at the empty sofa, her hand over her mouth. She glanced quickly from the sofa to the kitchen and back. Gradually her breathing calmed. She had always had a vivid imagination; it was only being alone in this old house, in this city, that had heightened it.
She abruptly left the room and went upstairs to get a book from her bedroom. Should she stay up there? On the whole she thought not. If this thing was in her own mind she should confront it. And if there really was someone in the house she would be safer downstairs.
Halfway down the stairs she heard a soft footstep behind her.
She fled the rest of the way and slammed the door into the living room. She stared round for a telephone: Mary had left no number and Tom was abroad on business, but there would be someone at home, perhaps even Martha. Or should she call the police? She snatched up the receiver, but the line was dead. The mobile in her bag seemed to be dead too; she had forgotten to charge it before she left.
Before she could stop to think, she was through the door again and out in the hall. There was no one there. She ran up the stairs and searched the house, flinging open wardrobe and cupboard doors, not sparing Mary’s room. It was a small house, no one could have been hiding. Grimly she marched back downstairs and switched on the television
“Get a grip,” she muttered.
She watched a wildlife documentary until the set went dark and silent quite suddenly and nothing she could do would revive it. Without this anchor her mind wandered, and she looked at her watch. Then she felt, rather than heard, a sob near her shoulder.
She froze. Her eyes slid round and there was no one there. Of course not. Yet there was. She could feel the subtle displacement of the cushions, the faint emanation of warmth. Am I losing my mind?” she asked herself. She must leave, but how? She had come by train, but the station or even the nearest hotel were too far to walk. She couldn’t ring for a taxi, her mobile was dead. Besides, how could she have explained herself to Mary without scaring her out of her own house?
She got up abruptly, killed the screen with the remote and went up to bed. In the bathroom she cleaned her teeth, rigid with tension, exhaling so sharply after rinsing that mist appeared on the mirror. She leaned forward and wiped the patch, and then behind her own reflection she saw it: the back of a dark head, the pale outline of a cheek, turning away. She whirled round, her heart banging in her throat.
“Who are you?” she cried hoarsely. But the figure was gone.
No, she wasn’t mad, not yet. The house was haunted. She had never thought that ghosts could exist, but now she knew.
She tried to move, to fling herself down the stairs and out of the house, and walk the streets just as she was, in her nightdress; but she couldn’t. She was rooted where she was. Her skin crawled with horror, yet when the compulsion lifted she found herself drained and incapable of flight.
To walk into the bedroom across the narrow, empty landing was the hardest thing she had ever done. She kept the light on and did not expect to sleep, yet sank into a half dreaming state, roaming through strange cityscapes while all the time aware of where she was, in an unfamiliar bed. When she woke fully she knew that the female presence had been there, sinking softly into the bed beside her, weeping silently in the dark. With fatigue Eleanor’s fear began to fade, but what followed was worse than fear. Her heart was filled with that weeping, as if her mind and soul were bleeding. They were alone, they were one, they were the last human being in a world that had been destroyed before their eyes.
The bleak dawn light freed her. She dressed shakily, threw her things into her bag and started down the stairs. In the hall, glancing through the open door into the living room, she finally recognised in the greyness the bare bones of the house where she had spent her last night in this town.
111 Her twenty-year-old world had ended two days before she left Dan, when she had found him in their flat with Madeleine. Her first reaction had been rage; she had stormed out and rented the room just to give him a fright. But he had greeted the news with obvious relief, despite his excuses. “She came to one of my gigs, you know? Come on Ellie, it didn’t mean a thing. Perks of a rock musician’s life?” And he laughed; they both knew he would never play professionally. She spat back, “Why didn’t you go to a hotel and trash it?” He only drew her towards him, looking down at her in the slow-burning way she could never resist. “Ellie, Ellie. I’m sorry men are so awful,” and he kissed her softly, then harder so that they ended up in bed. Much later, as they lay entwined, came the offhand murmur: “Seriously, you ought to have a place of your own, Ellie. It’s a good idea.” And two days later, “Look, Madeleine’s coming tonight, so could you, you know?” And finally, slamming down the coffin lid, “I thought you’d be gone by now.”
The bedsit had been somewhere around here, she had realised that when she saw Mary’s address, but she had wiped it from her mind. The ground floor had been narrow and musty, with a small damp kitchen at the back. In the living room the dark flower-papered walls had seemed to come an inch closer every time she looked, like the poem about the prisoner whose cell moved slowly in on him until it crushed him. She had spent one night here, aching for Dan. In the morning she had cancelled the rental and made for the station and her parents’ home.
Was it her adolescent emotional state, which she had hardly remembered until now, that had driven her away in panic all those years ago? Or was it this presence that haunted the house?
On the step outside she drew a breath of relief and turned to close the door. And in the dim hallway, the ghost looked back at her.
It was the face of a pale girl, rounded with youth, framed in dark hair, with tear-stains under the eyes. It was her own face of twenty years before.
After a few moments, Eleanor found her voice. “Have you been here all this time?” she asked softly. “But you’re free now.” Then, with more urgency, “It’s over. I’m here. Come now. Come with me.”
She peered into the dark hallway. There was no face there. Then there was a little flutter of warmth around her heart, and then again nothing. She smiled, and set off down the road towards the bus stop.
An hour later the train pulled out of the station. This time Eleanor’s mobile was working. She left a message on her husband’s office number. Then she opened her map, studying the route to Combe Flowers as the train sped towards Devonshire.