“She called her home Purgatory and it was an apt name, trapped as she was between heaven and hell.”
I stood in silence and watched as Old Tom drew the back of his shovel over the earth, smoothing the mound and patting the last bit of loose dirt in to place. His thoughts became words, as though he no longer cared that anyone was listening.
“Her hell was him,” he nodded towards the headstones on the other side of the graveyard. “And her heaven,” well,” he gave the earth a final pat. “She’s lying beside her now.”
I watched as he took a grey handkerchief from his trousers pocket and wiped the sheen of sweat from his forehead.
“I’ll just put this away and we’ll be off,” he nodded at the shovel. As an afterthought, he turned and looked at me. “You’re very quiet.”
I shrugged, overcome by the sadness of the day and the small turnout for the funeral.
“It was good of you to come,” he smiled, “And fitting as it turns out. This is the young one who likes a ghost story,” this was addressed to the other mourner who had stayed to watch as the last shovelful of earth was heaped on the grave.
I didn’t recognise the old woman who stood by my side and her soft sigh at Tom’s words carried across the listening graveyard. Despite the brightness of the day its sound was chilling and I felt the familiar unease that warned worse was to come.
I turned, introduced myself and held out my hand to the bent figure.
“I know your people well,” she said. “I’m Kitty Morgan, I was housekeeper to Ruth,” she nodded at the burial mound.
“I only knew her in passing,” I said. “I’ve lost track of people since my grandmother passed away.”
“She was a hard woman to know,” Kitty took my proffered arm and we started to walk down the graveyard’s stony path. “Will you come back to the house? I’ve prepared a lunch, but I imagined that I’d be catering for more than three. I would be a shame for it to go to waste.”
“Of course I will,” I said.
“Good girl,” she nodded, pleased.
We stopped outside the gate and didn’t have long to wait. Tom crossed himself as he passed the new grave and even at a distance I could still smell the rawness of the earth. The mound looked like a dark stain against the green, lush grass.
“Kitty asked us back for lunch,” I informed him.
“Grand,” he pulled the gates closed and the screech of their rusting hinges sounded like a scream in the silence. “I’ll have to oil them.” Tom said.
My car was in the little parking area across the road from the graveyard, but Tom decided that we should walk to the house.
“The lane is overgrown and rutted,” he said. “You might break a spring or something and it’s not far.”
The woman on my arm was tiny, but I was aware of her weight as we walked down the hill and her bony fingers dug deep in to my skin, as though she was terrified of letting go. We turned off in to a laneway and I saw that Tom was right. The old ruts left behind by bygone tractor wheels were carved in to the earth. Grass ran down the centre of the track and on either side the bushes ran riot, their spiky branches and pointed thorns kept us to the centre of the lane. Even though I was wearing flat shoes, I stumbled twice on the uneven ground and it was only Tom’s hand on my elbow that kept me from falling and taking the old woman down with me. The trees above our heads had formed an archway and other than Tom and the old woman’s laboured breathing the only other sound came from the soft chirping of birds in the overhead branches. A wrought iron gate came in to view and a large sign hanging from one of the bars proclaimed, Private Property, No Trespassing. We waited as Tom struggled with the ancient bolt and I have no idea what I was expecting of the house up till then. My thoughts that day were mostly filled with the absence of mourners in a place where a funeral is often seen as a social gathering. Tom pushed the gate back and stood aside to let us pass. We walked into a quadrangle, with the main house to the right of it. I stopped, taken aback by the beauty of the place. The house is a huge two storied affair. Built of limestone and whitened further by the onslaught of countless winters, it gleamed in the ebbing sunlight. There are eight windows on the front, two at either side of an old studded door, its wood scarred and blackened with age. The other four were set in a line overhead and looked down on us with blind eyes.
“It’s a fine house,” Kitty noticed my look of amazement. “It’s mine now, she left everything to me.”
“Let’s get inside,” Tom tapped my shoulder and looked up at the darkening sky. “We’ll have rain before long.”
He was right; the day was becoming grey and overcast. Any hint of summer was an illusion and the morning’s sunshine a tease for those who thirsted for its warmth. The interior of the house was cool and if I expected the welcoming bark of a sheepdog when the door was opened, I was disappointed. The hallway was dark, the flag stoned floor uneven like the lane.
“I was going to serve the food in the dining room, but seeing as it’s just the three of us,” Kitty looked at Tom.
“We’ll be fine in the kitchen,” he assured her.
The kitchen is huge with an enormous open fireplace that harks back to another century. It dominates one wall of the room and the old iron cooking arm stands to one side, its hinge rusted and hanging with cobwebs. It’s obvious from the lack of ash or remnants that the fire has not been lit in ages. An ancient gas heater stands at one side of it and is obviously the only source of heating for the room. Overhead the wall is lined with an assortment of things, two old fiddles, the bows dangling from the broken strings, an old deer’s head stares down with glassy, dead eyes and an old shotgun, its black barrels coated in layers of dust.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” Kitty walked to the old stone sink.
A gas cooker stood against one of the walls and she lit the jet beneath the kettle.
“Sit down, sit down,” she urged us over to the table.
Whatever food she had prepared was covered by a large cloth and made the spread beneath looked like an uneven sandcastle.
“There’s plenty to eat so don’t be shy,” she threw back the cloth with a flourish.
She was right. A large ham took centre stage and set around it like some circling satellites were plates of cakes, sandwiches and sausage rolls. Bowls of cherry tomatoes blushed beside a mound of lettuce its leaves glistening with tiny dew drops of water. Aware of my intolerance to gluten Tom stood, picked up a carving knife and started to slice the ham.
“Don’t start acting finicky,” he whispered, layering a plate with fleshy slices and placing it in front of me.
“Is everything all right?” Kitty put a pot of freshly brewed tea down on the table.
“Lovely, Kitty,” Tom assured her. “It’s just this one is allergic to wheat.”
“No,” she gasped, as though the idea was preposterous.
“Indeed,” Tom said. “And she won’t drink tea either.”
They both stood looking at me for a moment until Kitty broke the silence.
“Would you drink a coke?” She asked.
“Yes, thank you,” I was glad of the release from their searching gaze.
“There’s some in the dining room,” she said to Tom. “There’s whiskey in there as well. You may bring that back with you.”
He was back in seconds with my warm coke and a bottle of whisky. Kitty went to a press and returned with three crystal glass.
“We’ll toast the dead,” she said and took the bottle from Tom.
Half filling the glasses with the amber liquid, she handed one to both of us.
“To past friends,” she held up her glass.
“To past friends,” we echoed her words and sipped.
The whisky burned my throat and I tried not to cough as I swallowed a tiny sip. I had a long drive home later and that gave me an excuse not to have to finish the glass. The ham was delicious and not at all salty as I imagined. For a few minutes we ate in silence and I used this time to look around the room. There were three suitcases standing by the door. I hadn’t noticed them when we passed.
“Are you going somewhere,” I asked the old woman.
“I’m leaving this place tonight,” she said.
“For a holiday?” I asked.
“No child,” she put down her fork and looked at me. “I’m leaving this place for good.”
“Are you selling it?”
“No,” she sighed. “I doubt if anyone would want to buy it and I wouldn’t want to bring misery on anyone unwise enough to do so.”
“You’re better off going,” Tom said. “You couldn’t stay here now anyway.”
“No, you’re right,” Kitty picked up a spoon and started to stir her tea.
I watched the brown whirlpool in silence and listened to the clink, clink the metal made on the side of the china cup.
“Why couldn’t you stay here?” I knew as I asked that it might have been wiser not to know.
“Because of him,” she turned and nodded to an empty chair beside the fire.
I looked at Tom, wondering if he could see something that I couldn’t.
“She means the ghost,” he shovelled another forkful of ham in to his mouth.
“What ghost?” The chill I first felt in the graveyard came rushing back and I felt the familiar fingers of fear crawling up my back.
“I suppose there’s no harm in telling her?” Kitty said to Tom. “They’re both dead now and it’s as well that someone knows the full story.”
“I thought you would feel that way,” he nodded. “She’ll write it down you know, but change the names, so there’s no harm in telling her.”
“Tell me what?” I asked.
“The sort of story you like,” he said. “A true ghost story about how love can turn to hate and anger can cause those who lie uneasy in their graves to return to haunt those left behind.”
“I couldn’t have said it better,” Kitty picked up her whisky glass and sipped.
The watery sunlight disappeared behind a cloud, plunging the room in to shadow. Tom’s knife scratched against the plate as he cut through the ham and the sound made my hackles rise.
“It happened like this,” Kitty began.