For the first time Cora did not think of the presence of the workmen as an intrusion. It felt safe having so many men about the place once the children were dropped of at school. They were over their fright. Shelly seemed to have forgotten it altogether. Laura was quiet, but this was not unusual, and she had leaned over from the back seat of the car and whispered. “Don’t worry, Mam. Nothing in the house will hurt you. I promise.”
“I know, darling,” Cora tried to smile, and she shook her head in wonder, as she watched her daughter’s retreating figure. Laura was at times, so much wiser than she was.
Work began on the kitchen. The huge dresser was wrenched from its place in the wall. It took six men to shift it, and she listened to their muffled shouts and curses, as the thing refused to come free. There were loud thuds and splintering of wood, as they broke the shelves apart. She liked the dresser and the blue china on its shelves, but Liam declared it too old fashioned for the ultra modern monstrosity he envisioned in its place. Still, she managed to salvage the china, and it was stored away in the attic and safe from Liam. She was busy ironing when she heard her name being called. John, the foreman, came into the room.
“Missus, you have to come and see what we found.”
Cora followed him back into the kitchen to find the rest of his men struggling to open a door hidden by the dresser.
“It must be a cellar of some kind,” John said.
The door gave way, the lock snapping with the force of the crowbar they used. Dust from centuries past, flew around the kitchen. The men waved their arms around, cursing and running to open windows. Only Cora remained unmoved, staring into the dark tunnel beyond the door. John, spluttering and fanning his face, shone a torch into the gloom.
“Aye, an old wine cellar or storeroom. There’s a stair leading down, but we’ll let the dust settle before we go down.”
Cora nodded and turned to go back to her ironing.
It was easy to tell when lunch time approached. The trucks started up again and roared away, packed to capacity with men eager for a pint. They would be gone for two hours. Liam stressed they were never to take more than an hour, but they were a law unto themselves, and she knew any protest on her part could lead to a downing of tools. Anyway, she smiled, what harm did it do? She liked these men with their simple lives and the way they came back bright eyed and laughing from the pub. Their language reduced her to tears of laughter on many occasions, and they knew she was not a snitch and unlikely to tell on them. Her husband, that bastard, as the men referred to him, was another thing altogether. A beggar on horseback, they sneered behind his back, and there was no mistaking the dark looks they gave him.
She smiled, as she sorted the clothes in the airing cupboard. The telephone rang and she ran down the stairs to answer. The number of Liam’s office showed on the answering system, and she drew her hand back in alarm. Finally, it rang off, and she heard the whirr as it recorded his message. The red light blinked, and she reached out and hit the play button, drawing her hand quickly back as though it would bite.
“I hope you’ve thought long and hard about out conversation of last night. When you are ready to do as you are told ring the office; they’ll arrange flights and accommodation for you.”
That was all he said, one chilling command to kill her child.
“Bastard,” Cora muttered, unaware someone else heard every word.
She went into the kitchen to make a hot drink, to thaw the ice that formed inside her. It was then she remembered the cellar door. John left his torch on one of the worktops. The beam was powerful, when she flicked the switch; it lit the wooden staircase to the bottom. She placed her foot on the first step and pressed down hard. It seemed solid, so she tried the next step. There was a crude banister on one side, so she held onto this. Soon she was at the bottom of the steps, and she swung the light around the room. There were candles set in holders around the walls and she ran back upstairs to fetch a lighter. On her return, she placed the torch on a table and lit each one. The room glowed to life, and she saw she was in an old cottage. The door and windows were bricked up, but there was no mistaking what it was. A large open fire took up most of one wall and it was set for lighting. The kindling turned to dust when she touched it. She walked around the room, stopping now and then to admire the carving on the handles of the chairs. A small dresser held bowls and cups, and she opened the doors on the press beneath it and gasped at the assortment of jars and bottles. Each one was carefully labelled with the name of the herbs inside, although the contents were reduced to powder or slime in their long wait.
There was another door in the wall, and she walked towards it. The handle groaned, but it opened easily enough. The odour of neglect was overpowering, and there was something else. Cora sniffed the air. Flowers, it smelt as though flowers were blooming somewhere in the room. There were more candles on a small cabinet, and she lit these. It was a bedroom. The bed made as though waiting for its owners return. Two dresses lay spread across the patchwork quilt, and she picked each one up and studied it. The first was made for a small child, the second for an older one or a young woman. Beside each one was a pair of beautifully embroidered slippers, yellow now from age, but nonetheless beautiful. What was this strange place, she wondered? It was like some enchanted cottage, suspended in time. She was not aware of the figure standing beside her, wringing its hands.
Annie had no intention of frightening the sad woman who roamed around her old home. It was the sight of Dora’s dress and the slippers. She knew Rose made them, and it rendered her heart allowing a sob to escape.
Cora spun around, her hand to her breast, eyes wide in terror. Annie drew back towards the stairs.
“Oh, God,” Cora asked. “What is it?”
“I am sorry.”
She tried to see where the voice was coming from. The candles made the room as bright as day, but there was nothing visible. Yet the words made something within her stir, and she managed to ask.
“Who are you? What are you?”
Annie stood at the end of the stair, wiping away her tears with her long hair.
“I am lost,” she cried, before drifting up the stairs and out of the house.
Cora tried not to scream, as the voice faded away. She managed to stumble up the stairs and stagger to the kitchen table. Realising she still held one of the slippers, she shuddered and threw it away. Her stomach lurched, more from terror than nausea, as icy fingers ran down her back. The door to the hall was open, but she was too afraid to walk through it. The workmen would be back soon. Once she heard their chatter the terror would abate.
The house groaned and sighed all around her. The rushing of water through the overhead pipes became a torrent. She heard the floorboards expanding and settling. Small scratching of mice behind the walls, made her sob out loud, as she imagined nameless things lurking there trying to pick their way through.
The thundering of the trucks on the gravel outside did not bring with them the respite she hoped for. The loud voices of the workmen set her fragile nerves even more on edge, and she clawed at the table for support as she waited for them to appear.
“What the fuck happened to that?”
She held her breath and listened to the grumbling from the hall.
“Missus,” The foreman came through the door, mouth agape and pointing behind him, but he stopped when he saw her.
“Are you alright, Missus?”
“I’m not well,” she managed to say.
“Let me help you.”
She felt his arm go around her waist as he lifted her to her feet, but she slumped and almost fainted, so he was forced to pick her up.
“Run on ahead and open the bedroom door,” he called to one of the workers.
Cora felt the cool air from the hall door as he swept past it. The other men stood watching as he carried her up the stairs. She thought their looks of dismay were for her condition, until she noticed the wall. The expensive paper Liam had chosen was reefed. Four lines, like nails marks, but scorched on either side, ran the length of the hallway. She fainted then, and was unaware of anything, until a glass was held to her lips and she gagged on the brandy.
She was lying on her bed and covered by the quilt. John, the foreman, was trying to get her to drink, but she pushed his hand away.
“Come on now,” he pushed the glass towards her. “Something gave you a bad fright. A small drop won’t hurt the baby.”
“No, really. I’m all right.”
He put the glass on the bedside table.
“Would you like me to ring your husband?”
“No, really, I just felt faint. I’ll be fine in a moment.”
He nodded and looked around the room, in no hurry to leave. Finally, he asked.
“You saw the cottage?”
“What do you make of it?”
“I don’t know. Have you ever seen anything like it before?”
“No, but I heard stories.”
“What kind of stories?”
“Ah, it’s mostly old drunken ramblings.”
“You mean, in the pub?”
“Yes, there’s not one who doesn’t have some kind of tale to tell about this place.”
“Tell me,” she begged, and motioned for him to sit on the bed.
“I’m not sure your husband would welcome me telling you of such things; not in your condition.”
“Please, I have to know.”
“Well,” he sighed, running a hand through his greying hair. “It’s like this. They say the old woman who lived here was guarding something. That she was, what was it they called her?” He rubbed his forehead, trying to remember. “A sentinel, that’s it, and now she’s gone there’s no one to keep it in check; whatever it is.”
“Whatever scraped the wall,” she whispered. “And whatever it was I heard it crying.”
“I can vouch for the wall,” he got up. “And I hope to God I see nothing else while I’m here.”
Cora pulled the quilt closer as she thought of the tombstone, the two dresses and the ages of the girls. She did not realise he had stopped and was watching her from the open door.
“They say she should never have been made to leave this place; that your husband sent away so he could get his hands on the house.”
“Then she’s still alive.”
“Aye, so they say, and if I were you, I’d find her.”
Marie Walters’ sighed as she picked up the phone. It rang relentlessly all morning and she felt a dull ache at the back of her neck; a sure sign one of her headaches was starting up.
“O Brien and Costello,” she spoke automatically into the receiver and was startled by the urgent voice on the other end of the line.
“Marie, its Cora O Brien. Do not say anything. If my husband is in the office just hang up and ring me later.”
Marie looked towards the open door of Liam’s office.
“Yes, I understand. Thank you for calling,” she said, replacing the receiver and making pretence of writing in the appointments book.
She tried to get back to work, but her mind kept straying to the urgency in Cora’s voice, and she wondered what she could possibly want from her. They were not on friendly terms, far from it. The only time she had met Cora was at one of Gerald’s parties. A sweet, shy woman, who seemed best left to herself. Still, living with Liam was bound to have a bad effect on anyone. She fluffed at her newly coloured, short hair and smiled. For the first time in years she had a date. The dapper gentleman from the pub sought her out. At first, she was outraged by his boldness, but she soon realised he meant no disrespect, and she had eventually agreed to walk out with him. He was, after all, a man with the same old-fashioned values as she was brought up to believe in. They would get along quite nicely.
“When you’re finished preening.”
She looked up at her employer and tried to keep her voice from shaking.
“Sorry, I didn’t hear you.”
“That’s obvious,” he glared at her with contempt. “Is your hearing going along with everything else?”
“What can I do for you?” She asked, refusing to let him upset her.
“I’m going out. You should be able to manage without me.”
Once he was gone, Marie turned to Rachael.
“You said something about needing to do some shopping?”
“Yes, I could do with an hour to get some things I need.”
“Then go now, while he’s away.”
Are you sure?” Rachael asked, already reaching for her bag and coat.
“He’ll be gone for hours,” Marie assured her.
“But what if I should run into him?”
“Tell him I sent you out for some stationery.”
“Thanks, you’re a doll.”
Once Rachael left, Marie picked up the receiver and dialled.
Cora, who was waiting in the study, answered it at once.
“Oh, Marie, thank you for calling back. I’m sorry for sounding so hush hush about this, but I need your help.”
“If there’s anything I can do to help I will,” Marie assured her.
“You’re very kind and I really do…” Cora’s voice became choked with tears, and it took her a moment to steady herself. “I’m sorry; it’s been a trying day.”
“Take your time, dear,” Marie said, feeling sorry for the young woman, who was obviously in distress.
“You know we moved into an old manor house?”
“Well, I was wondering if you could tell me who lived here before us?”
There was silence at the other end of the line.
“Marie, are you still there?”
“Yes, dear, just give me a moment,” Marie answered. Her hand was trembling so much she found it hard to hold the receiver. She remembered the last owner all right. The little old lady Liam had committed to a home, after taking over as her solicitor and making her sign power of attorney to him.
“Marie?” the hesitant question made her take control.
“I’m sorry, my dear. I was trying to recall who had lived in your house. It was an old lady. A Miss. James I think her name was.”
“Do you know what happened to her?”
“She was put in a home.”
“Put in a home, was she insane or something?”
“No, dear, just old.”
“So, who put her there, a relative?”
“No, not a relative.”
“I’m afraid I can’t answer that.”
There was silence on both ends of the phone for a moment.
“Marie listen,” Cora pleaded. “Strange things are happening here, and I’m frightened.”
“I’m sure if you ask in the village someone will know the house’s history.”
“No,” Cora almost screamed. “I need to speak to the last owner.”
“I’m sorry, my dear, but I can’t help you,” Marie went to replace the receiver, when the sobbing stopped her. She listened, not knowing what to say.
“I’m pregnant and he wants me to kill my baby.”
“Oh, no,” Marie gasped.
“Sometimes I feel as though I’m going mad, and now this thing with the house,” Cora’s voiced trailed off into muted sobs.
Marie thought about Gerald and his fatherless children. Liam O Brien cared nothing for them and even less for his own.
“He keeps papers in the safe in his office,” she said. “I have the key. I’ll try and make copies for you, but you’ll have to meet me.”
“He’s out now and I’m alone, but it’s too risky, as I’m not sure when he will be back. Give me a few hours and I’ll call you back.”
“Thank you, Marie. You don’t know how much this means to me.”
Or what it means to me, Marie thought after she hung up. She had seen the many countless acts of cruelty and corruption instigated by her boss. Now it was time to turn the tables on him. There was the risk of losing her job and in the past, it would have terrified her, but not now. She thought of her date that evening and knew her life was changing for the better.
“I’m back,” Rachael breezed in, loaded down with shopping bags. “Did I miss anything?”
“No, nothing,” Marie said, and watched as the girl hid the bags beneath her desk.
She waited, as Rachael recounted her purchases and nodded and smiled, in what she hoped was the right places, as she heard none of the girl’s words. Her mind was too caught up in what she was about to do.
“Rachael,” she finally asked. “Will you do something for me?”
“Sure,” the girl shrugged, expecting to be asked to make tea.
“I have to get something from the safe in O Brien’s office and I will need to make copies.”
“The thing is. I need you to act as lookout.”
“Sounds serious,” she stuffed a piece of gum in her mouth and waited for an answer.
“It is. It is something I am doing for a friend. Call it righting a wrong.”
“Okay, what do you want me to do?”
“Watch the street. If you see him coming call me.”
Rachael swung round in her chair and propelled herself towards the window. The sound of the chair’s castors on the bare floor sounded like a scream in the quiet of the office, and Marie felt the familiar throb in the back of her neck. Rachael eased the window open and leaned out to get a better look.
“Go on,” she waved at Marie.
The interior of his office seemed darker than usual, and the smell of his cologne hung in the air. Marie eased open the top drawer of his desk and located the bundle of keys inside. She flipped through each one on the ring until she found the one, she needed. The safe was behind an old panel in the wall and she pulled this open. Her hands shook, as she turned the key and the thunk of the lock opening made her jump. There were bundles of letters and documents inside, and she laid these on his desk and started to rifle through them. She was sweating and she wiped her hands on her skirt, afraid she would leave tell-tale finger marks.
“He’s driving up the street,” Rachael called, just as the envelope Marie needed came into view.
She gathered the rest of the papers together and replaced them carefully in the safe and was sitting at her desk writing, when he came into the office. He ignored them and slammed his door shut behind him.
“That was close,” Rachael whispered.
Marie nodded, too winded to speak. It was not until Rachael and Liam left for the day that she picked up the phone and dialled.
“I have the papers you need. Do you know where I live?”
“No,” Cora said.
“Very well,” Marie listed off her address. “I can’t meet you until tomorrow night. I have an engagement tonight.”
That is a pity, but I’ll have to wait.”
“I’m afraid so, my dear.”
Cora stayed looking at the receiver long after Marie had hung up. She could hear the children squabbling upstairs and they would soon be demanding their dinner. Liam would not be home; she was sure of this. If she had money they could go to a hotel, but Liam kept her short and paid for most things. She could not risk asking anyone for help, as he would use this to his advantage in proving her mentally unsound. So, she would be forced to spend another night alone with the children, and praying for her sanity.