Marie was at her desk earlier than usual next day. To take the afternoon off, she would have to get her work completed. The fact it was so early meant there was no phones to delay her sorting of the post. Rachael breezed in just after nine and was soon followed by Liam. Marie saw by his bleary eyes and hangdog expression; this was not to be one of his better days. She had arranged the post on his desk in neat piles and she heard him shuffling through it.
The next few hours passed in a flurry of phone calls and appointments. The usual sad panorama of his clients filed past her desk and disappeared into his office. They reappeared, either looking smug or dejected. None of them paid her any heed, other than giving their name. It was almost noon when a lull came. Cora would be waiting for her at 1 o clock as arranged, and she could not let her down. But just as she was about to rise, Liam came storming from his office.
“I’m going out.”
“I need the afternoon off,” Marie managed to get in.
He stopped and looked at her.
“I have a dental appointment.”
“This morning. I’ve been up with toothache all night.”
“I’m surprised you have any teeth left at your age,” he smirked at Rachael, but she looked away.
“My appointment is for one thirty and it may take a couple of hours.”
“You’ll go when I come back, understand?”
“I’ll go at one.”
“Do that and you can stay away.”
They stood face to face, prize fighters squaring up.
“If that’s what you want, I quite understand.”
He looked across at Rachael who was gaping open mouthed at them. Though he hated to admit it, he needed the old witch.
“Very well,” he gritted his teeth. “Go at one, but don’t make a habit of it. And you,” he turned to Rachael. “Don’t screw anything up.”
He glared at her and slammed the door behind him so hard, they thought the glass would break.
Cora spent much of the morning sitting by the window watching the driveway. The night was uneventful with no unwelcome footsteps or strange sounds. Laura seemed more subdued at breakfast, or was she imagining that? Her mind was in so much turmoil she did not know what to think.
Annie sat opposite her, but Cora was unaware of her presence. The only sounds came from the grandfather clock in the hallway, as it ticked away the minutes. All around them the house sighed and settled. As the morning wore on, Cora became more anguished. She would not rest until she found out the house’s secret.
It was well after noon when she saw his car appear. She ran to the kitchen and stood with her back to the knife block, waiting. He did not come straight in or even call her name. She heard his footsteps on the stairs, and it was a few moments before he came looking for her.
“Ah, there you are.”
Cora gripped the edge of the worktop.
“I want you to change my bed linen.”
“Your bed linen?”
“Yes, wash and dry the same linen that’s on it.”
She stood looking at him for a moment before answering.
“I have other linen.”
“For fuck sake will you do as I ask? Strip off the old linen, wash it and replace it. It’s hardly rocket science.”
“All right,” Cora dodged by him, and Annie followed.
Cora pulled the quilt from its cover and gathered up the sheets and pillowcases. Neither of them realised Liam had crept up behind them. Cora was struggling along the gallery towards the stairs; the linen bundled up in her arms when she heard the noise. She stopped and listened. It sounded like breaking glass, then…
“Cora, help. For God’s sake help me, I’m hurt.”
She dropped the linen and ran towards the stairs. Annie realised too late, what was about to happen. In the seconds it took for her to register the cord pulled taunt across the stairs, Cora’s ankle met it and she fell. Her back, her side, her stomach bounced hard off each step, until she landed on the marble floor. Annie looked down in disbelief at the battered figure. She smelt the blood that was yet to show seeping from between Cora’s legs. Annie heard him speaking but couldn’t see to whom he spoke. She was clutching the banisters so hard her fingerprints scorched and blackened the wood. Once again, she had failed; another child died. The rage within her roared, and she felt herself change as she charged down the stairs.
Liam was looking down at his wife’s still form as Annie came towards him, her blackened hands reaching for his throat. A scream from the doorway stopped her, and she turned to find Laura and Shelly standing there. Shelly ran to her mother sobbing and calling to her, but Laura stood with her hand clasped over her mouth. She saw what the others could not, the burnt skeleton with its tendrils of hair sticking to its bones. The gaping mouth and hollow, cobwebby eyes though sightless, could still see her.
“What did you do?” She whispered.
“I did nothing,” her father answered. “Your mother had a fall. An ambulance is on its way. Take Shelly and wait in there.”
He ushered them towards the sitting room. As soon as they were inside, he ran to the top of the stairs. Taking the claw hammer from its hiding place, he pulled the nail from the skirting board and tucked it and the wire into his pocket. The scattered bed linen was thrown to the bottom of the stairs.
“Such a silly thing to happen,” he muttered.
From close by he heard the wail of sirens and ran back down to play his role of concerned husband.
They were loading Cora into the ambulance when Marie drove up. Liam rung and asked her to call, saying there had been an accident.
Liam ran his hand through his hair.
“She was coming down the stairs with some sheets. She must have snagged her foot on them. I warned her not to do heavy work in her condition.”
Had she not known of his treatment of his wife and his desire to be rid of the child, she might have believed him. Instead, she looked towards the window and the two tear stained faces framed there.
“I’ll have to follow the ambulance,” Liam said. “Will you take care of the children for me?”
“I have an appointment, but I’ll take them with me. I’ll keep them overnight if need be.”
“Good, yes, do that.”
“We have to hurry,” the paramedic called.
“I’ll be right behind you,” Liam ran to his car.
Marie shivered as the paramedic climbed inside and sat beside the white, still form of Cora.
The house smelt sickly sweet when she entered the hall, like flowers that had lost their bloom. The children were squashed together in one small chair, their fingers entwined.
“Will my Mam be all right,” Laura asked.
“I hope so, dear,” Marie held out her arms and Shelly slipped from her seat and ran to her. Laura remained seated, though her lower lip trembled. They both knew who Marie was, having met her on their rare trips to their father’s office. Laura liked her on sight. She smelled sweet like a baby, and she talked in a funny way.
“Your Dad wants you to stay with me overnight, so we’ll need some things from your rooms.”
“No,” Laura jumped up. “Don’t go upstairs.”
“I’ll only be a moment,” Marie promised. “Just while I get your pyjamas.”
“I’ll show you,” Shelly offered.
“No,” Laura screamed, throwing her arms around her sister.
“Very well; I’ll go up alone. Just tell me where your room is.”
“We can sleep in our undies.”
“I can’t sleep without teddy,” Shelly whimpered, and before Laura could offer any more resistance, Marie walked from the room.
That child is really frightened she thought, but when she saw the pool of blood at the end of the stairs she could understand why.
Annie was sat huddled in a corner of the children’s room; her features normal again, now the hatred had subsided. She watched as the old lady rummaged around, pulling open drawers, and taking clothes from them. Annie sensed the woman’s goodness, and she cried out. Marie froze, as the shuddering, sobbing, pain-filled cry echoed around her. She turned and looked around the room. Her first instinct was to run, but when it came again, its pain touched her.
“I’m lost and I’m frightened,” it cried.
“Oh, dear Lord,” Marie heard the words clearly. Picking up the teddy bear, she ran from the room and bundled the children into her car.
“I have to visit with someone,” Marie explained. “And I need you to come with me. “It’s a nice old lady I promised to call on. It’s not far away.”
“I’d rather go to the hospital,” Laura said.
“This is important. It’s something I’m doing for your mother.”
“Oh, OK.” Laura sat back and watched the bushes on the roadside flash by.
“Why were you home from school so early?” Marie asked.
“The heating broke down and everyone was complaining about the cold, so we were sent home.”
“Disgraceful,” Marie snorted. “And they didn’t have the decency to let your mother know.”
“It’s only down the road,” Laura sighed. “We often walk home.”
“Still in this day and age.”
Marie had no idea if this was a smart answer, but it sounded decidedly so.
Hillcrest Rest Home was not on a hill, neither did it have any hills around it. It stood, quietly decaying behind rusted gates, that creaked and groaned as they drove past. Even the few trees surrounding it appeared jaded. They hunched and stooped; their branches stripped clean by the late autumn wind. Ivy trailed down the walls and dark roots sprung from the earth and grasped at the building, as though the land wanted to reclaim it; to suck it down so it was no longer an eyesore. The Home itself had seen better centuries. The paint was picked clean from the windows, and the door was so damp, the rotten wood showed through. All the front windows were misted over. There was no answer to Marie’s hesitant knock and the door swung open when Laura pushed against it.
“Phew,” the children cried in unison.
Marie had to agree. It smelt of mould, boiled cabbage, and something much more overpowering.
“It smells of pee,” Laura concluded.
“Is that any way for a young lady to speak,” Marie hushed her, but she had to agree it did smell of urine. It emanated from the faded carpet.
“Hello, is there anyone there?” Marie was bristling now. There was not even a reception desk.
“Paging nurse pissy pants.”
“Will you behave?”
But it was no use Laura and Shelly were too caught up in the joke.
“Hello,” they moved towards a door at the bottom of the stairs. The latch no longer worked, and it swung noiselessly open. They stepped into what was once a sitting room. Although it was early afternoon the light was already starting to fade, and only the embers of a fire lit the room. Chairs were arranged to form a circle and a hunched figure sat on each one.
“I’m frightened,” Shelly whispered.
Marie had to admit the scene before them was surreal. No one moved or spoke. She felt along the wall for a light switch. Even the wallpaper felt damp on her fingers, and relief surged through her, when she felt the cold switch and flicked it down. The light in the centre of the ceiling came on, but the bulb was much too low for such a large area and threw the room into shadow. Still no one moved. It was if they were unaware of the change. Marie looked around at the men and women sitting there and her heart ached, because she saw the despair etched in each face. These were the unwanted people, the ones considered no longer useful to society or their family. They had been sent to this place, this elephant’s graveyard to await their death. She saw the neglect they suffered. Dried food clung to the clothes of the feeblest and stained their faces. Hastily spooned by impatient hands into mouths unable for the load, it was allowed to spill over and lie wherever it landed. Her eyes travelled downwards, and she touched the papery dry skin on the hand nearest to her. It felt dry and cold, but her touch sparked something in its owner, and the old woman looked up and smiled. Then, noticing the two girls hiding behind Marie, she whispered, “children.”
Instantly the others came to life. Those who could heaved themselves up from their chairs and came towards them. Others held out their arms in longing for the softness of a child once more. Marie wanted to ask them where their children were, or what they had done to warrant such a sentence in this awful place. Instead, she urged the girls to speak to the old people, whispering they were lonely and needed someone to talk to. Soon Laura and Shelly overcame their reserve and were telling everyone about their school and their friends, and were no longer afraid of the fingers touching their hair or holding them close.
Marie bent down to the old woman, who was still holding on to her hand as though it was a lifeline and asked. “Do you know which of these women is Miss James?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know anybody’s name, my dear.”
“Are you new here?”
“I’ve lost count of the years I’ve been here. I think it’s about ten or more.”
Marie shook her head in disbelief. Ten years and she did not know anyone’s name. This place was surely the nearest thing to Hell.
None of them heard the footsteps on the corridor outside. The door was thrown open and an angry voice asked. “Who turned on the light?”
“I did,” Marie turned to find a grim-faced nurse framed in the doorway.
“Oh, yes, I see,” she became flustered and ran her hands down her stained uniform, trying to brush the filth away. “I don’t like any of the guests to move in case they fall. I’m never far away and they only have to call.”
“I’ve been here for over…” Marie looked at her watch. “Fifteen minutes and I’ve tried to attract someone’s attention a number of times.”
“Well, I was probably down in the kitchen preparing supper,” she was growing angry now. No one ever answered her back.
“Are there no other members of staff?”
“I really don’t see why it concerns you, or what business you have here.”
“I am here to see an old friend of my family’s, a Miss James, Emily James.”
“Well, you won’t find her in here.”
“That,” Marie said. “Is blatantly obvious. Where is she?”
For a moment she was afraid Miss James was dead until the nurse, deciding she was obviously trouble and it was best to let her have her way, gestured towards the ceiling.
“She’s upstairs. She has become very weak over the past few weeks, so she spends most of her time in bed. If you follow me, I will take you to her room, but I have to say I’m not one bit happy about this intrusion. I do not even know you and have only your word as to who you are. After all, you could be anyone.”
“Yes, your right. I could be anyone; even the health inspector.”
“Are you threatening me? I run this place in accordance with nursing home regulations.”
“Then believe me those so-called regulations need to be revised. But, since I have business elsewhere and have neither the time nor the inclination to bandy words with you, I would appreciate seeing Miss James.”
“Follow me,” she turned, then stopped and glared at the girls. “And another thing. I don’t like children running all over the place.”
“We’re not running,” Laura stood with hands on hips. “We’re just standing here, talking.”
“See that you stay that way. I don’t want you tripping up one of the guests.”
Laura threw her eyes to heaven and answered with the customary, “Whatever.”
Marie put her finger to her lips and Laura shrugged, resigned to having to do as she was told.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Marie said. “Stay here.”
As she followed the nurse outside and closed the door as well as the faulty catch allowed, she became aware of the buzz of conversation inside. In dawned on her, as she climbed the stairs, her feet making squelching noises on the dirty, sticky carpet, there was total silence once the nurse appeared. The old people were afraid of her. Well, she would see about that later. She had made many useful contacts in her years as a legal secretary and the health board would hear about this place.
The upstairs was colder than below, and the low lighting did nothing to dispel the gloom of the long, door lined corridor.
“In here,” the nurse threw open a door and stood aside to allow Marie to pass. “There’s a lamp beside the bed,” was her parting shot, as she slammed the door and the room was plunged into darkness.
For a moment, the only sound was the beating of her heart, then a small voice asked.
“Is someone there?”
“It’s all right, Miss. James,” she started to edge her way across the room. “I’m a friend. I’ve come to visit you.”
The outline of a bed appeared, and she felt her way along it.
“But I haven’t any friends,” the voice had an edge of fear.
“It’s all right. I promise. I have come from your old home. Can you turn on the light for me?”
“I can’t reach that far.”
Marie knew if she did not locate the lamp soon the old woman would start to cry. Her hand knocked against a glass and a couple of things fell from the overcrowded bedside cabinet. Like the rest of the lights in the Home the wattage in the bulb was extremely low, but it was enough for her to see the old woman who lay propped up on a nest of stained pillows. Tiny care worn hands clutched the faded bedclothes and her eyes, like all the other prisoners in this place, had the same hopeless look.
“It’s all right,” Marie whispered. “I just want to ask you a few questions.”
“I’ll help if I can, my dear.”
To her horror Marie realised the woman’s breath made small white clouds as she spoke. The adrenaline rush from the fright of being left in the darkness made her oblivious to the cold, but now she shivered in the damp air.
“It gets very cold here in the evenings,” the old woman noticed her discomfort.
“I expect it’s cold here most of the time?”
Marie looked around the room at the faded carpet, the peeling wallpaper, and the patches of damp on the ceiling.
“Of course, you’re right. This really is the most dreadful place.”
Realising she hadn’t introduced herself; Marie told the woman her name and was rewarded with an outstretched hand so small and delicate that she was afraid it would break at her touch. But the grasp as she folded her fingers over it, was surprisingly strong and the smile the old woman gave her as she insisted, she call her Emily, took the anguish from her face making her appear younger. Marie explained the reason she was there.
“Do you have any idea what’s happening? I thought you might know something of the house’s history. Can you remember anything?”
Emily’s eyes seemed to glaze over, and Marie was worried she’d upset her; so reaching out she patted the old woman’s hand.
“So, she is back, is she? Poor child.”
The fine hairs on Marie’s neck prickled.
“Who, who’s back?”
As though she had not heard, Emily asked. “Is it that cur, O Brien that’s living there?”
“Yes, the family name is O Brien. Liam was your solicitor.”
“Yes, I remember him well enough. He cheated me you know. But he will get his comeuppance now, by God he will.”
“Who is she? She asked again. “Why is she here; can you remember?”
Emily answered in a tired, sad voice.
“Many things blur over a lifetime and get forgotten. But there are some tales belong to you. They stand out in your mind and are so powerful they chill the blood and wake you screaming in the darkness.”
With this she started her story. Told Marie the history of the house. How it started out as a humble cottage and was added on to as the family fortunes improved. Marie listened enthralled as Emily told her of Annie’s fate and the curse, she had placed on the O Brien’s.
“We have all heard the legend of the Banshee. There’s not one true Irish man who hasn’t.”
Marie nodded and waited for her to continue.
“Well that’s what O Brien has, his own private Banshee who’s wandered throughout the centuries trying to find peace. The O Brien’s were rogues back then and they are still the same today. I take it he’s without heir?”
“There are two children, girls. They’re downstairs now,” she explained about Cora’s accident and how the children came to be in her care.
“That’s what’s causing her to rise. A son would’ve saved him.”
“My God,” Marie was horrified. “Then she’ll kill him?”
“It’s the only way she’ll ever rest, but in doing so she’ll destroy any hope of salvation. If she takes his life, then she loses her soul. But she’s wise, and I pray that during her long years she’s learned to forgive and will let him live out his allotted time.”
“Was she an ancestor?”
“I’m descended from Rose, her sister.”
“What am I to do?”
“There’s nothing you can do. To warn him would be a waste of time. She is not tied to the house. She can rise in the air and be carried on the breeze. So, you see it is useless, she’ll seek him out.”
A noise at the door made them turn. Laura, who had grown tired of waiting crept up in search of Marie.
“Laura, come here.”
“Were you talking about Annie,” Laura asked.
“Have you seen her, child?” Emily sat up straight in the bed.
“Yes, I’ve seen her when she’s pretty, and I’ve seen her when she’s ugly.”
“She changes? Marie asked.
“Yes, when she gets angry, she looks like a monster. She was like that when Mam fell down the stairs. I saw her and she saw me.”
“Then nothing’s changed,” Emily sighed. “The hatred she felt is still there.”
The clattering of a trolley on the corridor outside announced the arrival of Emily’s supper. A blowsy, hard-faced woman came through the door with a tray. This she dumped on Emily’s lap and without a word to her or her visitors walked away. All three of them stared in disgust at the food on the plate. A cremated sausage, two pale, fat slices of bacon and a half-buttered slice of brown bread, to be washed down with milky tea from a chipped mug.
“Are you very ill?” Laura asked.
“I’m not ill at all, just heartbroken. I took care of the big house you are living in on my own up to a few months ago. You’ve seen the others downstairs?”
“Yes, they’re a bit creepy,” Laura pretended to shiver.
“The walking dead I call them. I pretend I am ill, so I don’t have to sit there and stare into space. I’ve no time for the old.”
“But you are old. You must be a hundred.”
“Laura, please,” Marie scolded.
“Out of the mouths of babes, eh,” Emily laughed.
“I’m sorry,” Laura said. “My teacher says I have the most annoying habit of saying exactly what I think. It gets me in terrible trouble.”
“I should think it does,” Emily smiled. “But I wouldn’t have you any other way.”
Laura hugged her. She liked this small, old woman with the white hair and crinkly smile.
Oh, you’re still here,” they hadn’t heard the nurse come in.
She looked down at the tray of uneaten food.
“Not hungry Miss. James?” Without waiting for an answer, she scooped up the tray and started to walk away. “Please don’t be much longer,” she said to Marie. “I don’t want you tiring Miss James.”
“What she means is she doesn’t want you poking your nose in here,” Emily whispered. “And supper will be kept for my breakfast.”
“Oh, gross,” Laura pulled a face. “I’d die if I lived here.”
“That is what will happen, I afraid. I’ll fade away and die.”
“No, I won’t allow it,” Marie walked to the wardrobe and started to rifle through it. “Can you walk?”
“Yes, dear, but…”
“Get dressed,” Marie tossed some clothes on the bed,” I’ll pack your things.”
The agility at which Emily sprang from the bed was amazing.
“You’ll come home with me,” Marie told her, as she folded and stacked the woman’s few personal belongings into a suitcase she found on top of the wardrobe. “We’ll figure something out. Come along Laura. Let us leave Miss. James to dress in peace.”
“I’ll go and get Shelly,” Laura ran ahead, and Marie followed carrying the suitcase.
“What have you got in that suitcase?” The nurse stood at the end of the stairs.
“Miss. James’s clothes. She’s coming home with me.”
“Over my dead body.”
“If need be.”
“She was placed in my care because she was unable to look after herself.”
“I’ll be looking after her from now on. Move aside,” Marie nudged her with the suitcase, but she stood firm.
“I mean it. She is not leaving here. I’ll call the police.”
“Marie, dear, “Emily was standing at the top of the stairs. “Perhaps it’s best to leave me here.”
“You’re not staying in this awful place. Do not worry. I have seen the papers that committed you. They won’t stand up in court,” turning back to the nurse she ordered. “Get out of my way.”
“You’re not taking her.”
Marie handed the suitcase to Laura. Though she had never in her life been involved in any physical confrontations, she was ready to do battle with the woman. She walked down the last two steps and stood facing her, so close their noses almost touched.
“Kick her ass,” Laura cheered.
“Not only will I do as the child asked,” Marie warned her adversary. “But when I’m finished, I’ll drag you through every court in the land.”
Shelly, who was drawn out by the argument added. “My Dad’s a solicitor. He’ll put you in jail.”
This weakened the nurse’s resolve.
“Very well,” she stepped away. “But you’ll sign for her. I’ll not be responsible once she steps foot outside.”
“Help Miss James to the car,” Marie told the girls. “I’ll be right out.”
The nurse’s office consisted of a desk and a filing cabinet in the corner of the kitchen. The stench was worse here, a dirty butcher shop smell.
“Sign this and she’s yours,” this was said as though Emily was a piece of lost luggage
Marie filled in the appropriate details and walked away. Out in the hallway an old woman leaning on a Zimmer frame came hobbling towards her.
“Are you taking her home?”
“Yes,” Marie answered. “I’m taking her home.”
“I’m glad,” the woman’s eyes filled with tears. “No one should have to die in a place like this.”
Marie leaned down, stroked her cheek, and watched her eyes light up as she said.
“I’m coming back. I promise you that much. Things are going to change.”
It was pitch black when she stepped outside. The wind whipped up and leaves whirled around her as she ran to the car. It looked as though it was going to be a bad night. She turned the key and the engine sprang to life. Switching the car heater to its highest setting, she leaned across and patted Emily’s hands. “You’ll soon be warm.”
“Thank you, my dear. I was feeling a little cold.”
“And we’re starving to death,” Laura’s voice came from behind.
“My apartment’s nearby. We’ll soon be there, and I’ll fix dinner. A proper dinner,” Marie winked at Emily.
The car headlights cut the dark as Marie guided it over the rumbling cattle grid and out through the gates of Hillcrest. The first splatters of rain hit the windscreen as she turned onto the main road and headed for home.