Liam O Brien grinned in satisfaction as he steered the car through the ornate gates. Even the crunching gravel splattered about the car, chipping the paintwork, did not take from his pleasure. It took him years to get to where he now was, and nothing was going to spoil it for him. His eyes darted to the figure in the passenger seat. Cora, his wife, was treading a tissue through her fingers, her mouth drawn back into a tight, nervous smile. The paper was wet from her clammy fingers, and small bits lay like specks of new fallen snow on her black skirt. Why, he wondered, did I ever marry her? She had seemed a good choice at the time, from good stock with the promise of a large inheritance and not unpleasant to look at. She retained her looks, though the birth of their daughters had added kilos to her figure. This, along with her low self-esteem and insecurity, helped excuse his many lapses during the fourteen years of marriage.
“Are we there yet, Dad?”
Six-year-old Shelly clutched at his headrest, bored and anxious to see their new home.
“Hands off,” he brushed at the offending fingers. The last thing he wanted was sticky marks on the cream leather of the car interior.
“She’s just excited,” his wife said.
“How many times have I warned them about touching the seats?”
“We have to touch the seats,” nine-year-old Laura answered from behind. “What do you expect us to do, levitate?”
“I’m getting sick of your smart mouth, miss,” he adjusted the rear-view mirror and glared at his daughter.
“She’s sorry. Aren’t you, darling?” her mother twisted in her seat. Begging silently with the child to agree.
“Of course, I’m sorry,” Laura sighed, but the look she gave her father was one of scorn.
He snapped the mirror back into place. Beside him, his wife pulled the tissue to shreds. Please, she prayed, do not let him work himself into a temper. The bruises on her back still ached from the last time and she could not take any more. Not here, not in front of the children.
“There it is,” Shelly’s shout eased the tension.
The imposing manor house came into view. It was enormous. Two vast turrets framed the great door and trailed skywards, seeming to pierce the overhead clouds. There were hundreds of windows, and that was at the front!
“Cool,” Shelly ran towards the front door.
Laura stood with her arms around her mother’s waist and both had the same, frightened look.
“Well, what’s wrong with it?” Liam did not try to hide his irritation.
“It’s very big,” his wife’s eyes gazed in wonder at the house.
And scary,” Laura added.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” he muttered, before stalking away.
Shelly was hopping about at the front door.
“Hurry Dad. I want to see my room.”
Cora hugged her daughter, as the big key was inserted and with a groan, the door creaked open.
“I don’t like this place,” Laura whispered.
“It will take some getting used to,” her mother said. “After a modern house this will seem strange, but it’s what your father wants.”
“Look at the windows, Mam. They are like eyes, watching. I don’t think it likes us.”
“Now you’re being silly darling,” Cora tried to laugh, but the child was right. It was frightening.
She heard Shelly’s hollow footfalls on bare boards, as she ran from room to room. From somewhere within the house a door banged, and its echo made her jump.
“Are you going to come in?” Liam asked
“Yes,” she stammered. “We want to see the gardens first.”
“Christ,” her husband muttered, as he stormed back inside.
“I don’t want to go in.” Laura whispered and Cora could feel the child trembling.
“Let’s look around the outside until we get used to the idea of such a big house,” her mother suggested, and she led the child back along the drive to get a better look.
It really was a patchwork of time. Centuries mingled one into another, as each owner tried to leave his or her mark on the place. It was Gothic, Georgian, and Edwardian and goodness knows how many other designs. Two huge stone sculptures in the shape of cats flanked the steps leading to the main door. Silent sentinels who had watched throughout time the coming and goings of the house. Weather-beaten shutters, their white paint almost worn away to reveal the light wood beneath, hung from all the windows. Cora imagined the racket they would make on a windy night. She looked towards the roof where a weathervane, scarred by the elements creaked, but she avoided looking directly at any of the windows, afraid she’d see someone other than her husband and daughter, looking back at her. But it was just a house, she reminded herself, and like it or not, it was now their home.
“It’s not so bad really. Is it, darling?” She looked down into Laura’s frightened eyes. “Dad says we’re to have a swimming pool. You’d like that wouldn’t you?”
“It’s going to eat us; you know that, don’t you, Mam?”
“Now you’re being silly. The house can’t harm anyone. Its only people can hurt one another.”
“The way dad hurts you?”
Cora’s heart ached as she steered the child towards the house. Laura had witnessed much in her nine years.
Within a year of their marriage the beatings started. She bored him, she knew this, and there was no going back. He never failed to remind her of what he saw as her failures. Including the fact, she had not borne a son to carry on his great name. The birth of Laura was a let down and afterwards, when it took three years until she fell pregnant and then produced another girl, well!
Tears clouded her vision, as she led Laura up the steps towards the main door. The look he gave her and the words he used the morning in the Labour ward, after she spent hours giving birth, played clear as pictures through her mind.
“Christ, not another one,” he groaned, when she held up the child. “Can’t you get anything right?”
She would never forget his sneer of contempt as he walked from the room, nor his refusal to try for another child.
They were inside now in the dark cavernous hall. An enormous chandelier draped with cobwebs and trailing dust, tinkled as the crystals moved in the breeze from the open door. Mahogany panelling lined the walls on either side, making the place even gloomier. A grand staircase swept upward and parted before a stained-glass window, then continued onwards to the left and right. Cora looked up towards the domed ceiling. It was impossible to see anything on the overhead gallery.
Laura overcame her uneasiness and ran to join her sister in exploring. Liam was nowhere in sight, so she climbed the stairs and became swallowed up in the deepening shadows. Dust rose from the ancient, threadbare carpet. Liam said it had been occupied up to a month before, but this seemed impossible. It could not have fallen into neglect in such a short while.
The stained-glass window sent lights of blue, red, and gold dancing across the numerous doors running the length of the gallery. Cora leant on the banister and tried to figure out what the glass depicted. It seemed to be a struggle between a monster and a human figure. Perhaps it was George and the dragon? A beast of sort, but it was hard to make out in the grime-coated glass.
“So, you managed to come in?”
Her wanderings were interrupted by the appearance of her husband. He was standing on the lower landing beneath the window. Cora looked once more at the monster in the glass, then down at the face of her husband. For a moment, just for a moment, she saw the reflection of evil in both.
“What are you staring at? He was striding up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
“The drawing in the glass,” she pointed upwards.
“Ah, yes, the eternal struggle. What a boring place the world would be if the good always won. Don’t you think?”
“No Liam, I don’t. I am a mother. Like all mothers I pray for peace and goodness.”
“Christ, it serves me right for asking.”
“Liam, please don’t take the name of God in vain.”
“I’ll do whatever the fuck I want in my own house.”
The hand propelling her along the corridor was anything, but gentle. He threw open a door and pushed her into a bare, high ceiled room. Dust particles danced in the light from the curtain-less windows.
“This will be our room,” he informed her. “You can start decorating this first, then the girls’ rooms.”
“Yes, Liam,” she ran her hand along the black iron fireplace, the focal point of the room. She had always wanted a fireplace in her bedroom. Ever since she first saw them in the old Victorian melodramas, but she was no young heroine and Liam, well Liam…
She roamed from room to room and was greeted in each one by the smell of damp and decay. Although the walls seemed dry, the plaster firm, there was something odd, something she could not put her finger on.
“Mam,” Laura called. “Come and see the kitchen it’s huge.”
Cora made her way down, pausing again the look at the image of the dragon in the window.
“Hurry Mam,” Laura beckoned. “You’ll never believe it.”
Cora followed her daughter along the dark passageway. Laura held the heavy oak door open with a flourish, and Cora walked into the biggest room she had ever seen. The kitchen was the size of their old house, and obviously meant to accommodate a small army of staff.
“My goodness,” Cora took in the long wooden table in the centre the room. The old-fashioned Aga on one wall was the only thing that was not over a century old. Stout copper pots and pans, lacking lustre, but nevertheless impressive, hung along a beam. Bunches of herbs and dried flowers cascaded from the ceiling and turned to dust, when she touched them. An old dresser stood in one corner still decked with the cobweb-covered, willow-patterned china, the cups hanging from rusted hooks. Of all the rooms she entered, this was the most welcoming.
Look, Mam,” Laura was standing beside the open fire. “You can see the sky.”
Cora ducked down and joined her daughter. Overhead, through the long black chimney funnel, a patch of blue and white could be seen.
“It really is extraordinary,” Cora mumbled. “It’s like stepping back in time.”
“Do you want to see my room next?” Laura asked.
They climbed the stairs hand in hand.
“You’ve grown used to the idea of living here?” Cora asked.
Yes, only because I know it’s not us the house doesn’t like.”
“Tell me,” her mother stopped her climb. “Who doesn’t it like?”
“But how do you know this?”
“The house whispered it to me.”
“Now you are being silly, darling. Houses don’t talk,” Cora’s heart was thudding painfully.
“This one does. It says it’ll take care of us and help make you stronger, so one day you’ll be like her,” she pulled her hand free and pointed up at the image in the window.
“How do you know that’s a woman and not a man?”
“She told me.”
“Who told you?” The question came out as a strangled scream.
“Don’t be frightened,” Laura, standing on a step above her, reached down and stroked her face. “There is nothing here that will hurt you, or me, or Shelly.”
“But Dad, Laura. What about Dad?”
Laura turned from her and ran up the stairs, leaving the question unanswered. Before she could follow her…
“Cora, come down here.”
Her husband stood in the hallway with a bundle of brochures in his hands. He never looked up, and only acknowledging her presence by thrusting books into her hands.
“The decorators will be here first thing tomorrow. I have marked out the designs I want for each room. See they stick to the plans I gave them. You may decorate the girls’ rooms. It won’t matter if you make a mess of them.”
“I have some ideas of my own I’d like to discuss,” she ventured.
“You, ideas? I think not. You’re taste leaves much to be desired.”
Yes, she thought, as he walked away and began closing doors and calling to the girls’, that is very true.
They stood in the driveway and took another look at the house. Cora realised, for the first time, how quiet it was. The only sound the occasional cawing of crows, whose nests dotted the trees.
“We should be able to move in next month,” Liam said. “What do you think of that girls’? You’ll be able to tell your school friends you live in a mansion.”
“Great,” Shelly shouted, jumping up and down. Laura shrugged.
“Well try and look a bit happy,” Liam snarled at his eldest daughter.
“Whatever,” she gave a mock smile, before climbing into the car.
“You have her the way she is,” Liam pointed at his wife. “You and your fucking nonsense.”
“Leave her alone,” Cora’s answer startled even herself.
Inside the car Laura leaned forward and held her breath, as she waited for his reply.
“What did you say?” Liam’s face had grown purple with rage.
“I said leave her alone,” for the first time Cora’s voice held no trace of fear.
“Get in the car,” he spoke through gritted teeth. “I’ll deal with you later.”
Cora was slipping her seatbelt into place when he struck.
“Never answer me back,” he bought his clenched fist down hard on her leg.
She cried out in pain, then reefed her nails across his hand, drawing blood.
“You rotten bitch,” blood splattered his leather upholstery, as he drew back his hand to attack again.
Cora heard Shelly whimpering in the back seat, and Laura whispering to her to be quiet.
“Hit me,” Cora warned. “And by God, I’ll use these on your face.” She unfurled her nails, so the blood-stained points showed. “Try explaining that to your colleagues in Court.”
He was shaking in anger and beads of sweat matted his forehead. There wasn’t a sound within the car as he turned from her. He spun the car round in the drive, and sent gravel spraying everywhere. Beside him his wife picked fragments of his skin from beneath her nails. Her stomach turned, as she hid the bloody tissue in her handkerchief, and her heart raced at what she had done. Never, in all the years of marriage had she retaliated, but today was different. She was tired of his mistreatment and sick of the look of fear in her children’s eyes. She would no longer be his punch bag. New house, new me, she decided. I am tired of being afraid.
In the backseat, Laura stole one last look over her shoulder and smiled. Already the house was working its magic.