This is a modern ghost story that happened a week ago to a friend of mine who works in a nursing home. There was one patient, an old lady in her eighties who she was particularly fond of and would spend hours chatting with her during the night shift. This went on for many years. Each night the old lady would come in to the common room and sit in her favourite chair. Anne, my friend, knew she was on her way, as her arrival was preceded by a racking cough. The old lady suffered from her chest and the cough was a distressing and painful one. One night, last week, the old lady failed to turn up, so Anne went to check on her. Sadly, she had passed away. The following night, Anne sat reading in the common room. Every now and then she glanced over at the old lady’s empty chair and felt her heart ache with sadness. Around 4 a.m., when the wards were all silent, Anne was roused from her reading by a racking cough coming from the empty chair. In that instant her nose started to bleed for no reason. You can imagine her fright, as she rushed from the room. She has never suffered from nose bleeds, her blood pressure is normal and there was no one else around with a cough. Strange, of course, and something that makes one stop and think.
It’s going to be a busy week as I set out to find a literary agent in the U.K and America. I’m hoping to find someone who shares my passion for the Gothic novel rather than the bloody gore one associates with horror. So, fingers crossed I find someone who gets my writing and with whom I can share my vision.
There was nothing beautiful about the house, but it obsessed her from the moment she saw it. Its fascination had nothing to do with anything strange or otherworldly; it was just that she had never had anything of her own before; not a house, a room, not even a bed. Everything had been leant to her; as though the giver warned “this will be yours for a while or for as long as I say.” Well, all that was at an end and she was now the proud owner of Bracken House, a Gothic monstrosity set in a remote location and lacking any of the charm that such buildings can sometimes have. The front of the house was a mismatch of tower rooms and angles, as though the builder, uncaring of where he placed each brick, let the house rise from the foundations of its own accord. This gave it a rather simple, moronic look and were it to vie for place among other buildings of its era, it would, in all honesty, be thought of as the court jester, it’s misshapen limbs a joke among the majesty of finer houses. Still, its new owner saw none of this and after the bare cells and cold stones of the convent; she saw only her new home and the start of a new life.
It had come as quiet a shock to the Mother Superior and her other sisters when she told them she was leaving. The look of outrage and disbelief on each face still sent her in to giggles of delight and she relished the upset she had caused by abandoning what was a depleting calling.
“But, you’re sixty eight years old,” Mother Superior gasped.
“It’s never too late or so they tell me,” Sister Anne, as she was then known, replied.
“Where will you go; what will you do?” The Mother asked.
“As you know, my mother recently died and it seems she has left me her whole estate, “Sister Anne said. “I intend to use the money before it is too late.”
“We are always short of funds, Could you not stay here? It had been your home for over fifty two years after all, and it seems only fair that the other sisters should share in your wealth.”
“I have no intention of sharing one penny with any of you,” Sister Anne replied, before getting to her feet.
The Mother Superior’s face was ashen in the fading light, her lips drawn in to a thin line of anger and Janet; she had reclaimed her old name, wonder if it were not for the large, mahogany desk that divided them, would the woman have struck her? How glad she was to leave the office that day and know that she would never return. The image of that room was imprinted on her retinas and the smell of trapped heat and old books seemed to have lodged itself in her nose. The idea that she would share her new found wealth with others! But then, Janet had never been one to share anything. Truth be known, she would not be missed by those she lived and worked beside and she knew that there was those who had breathe a sigh of relief when she walked out through the gates of the convent. There was nothing wrong with her; she decided many years ago, it was other people who had the problem. She had no time for the fake friendships they offered and the harlots who were placed in her care were a burden to be endured. She was a strong woman with even stronger principles and if they thought of her as cruel in her treatment of others, that just showed their weakness in both morals and spirit. It was time to go anyway, as the years changed and the unmarried mother was no longer an outcast and therefore of no value to her order. The other sister had become fat and lazy from decades of inactivity, while she stayed lean and unbending in all, especially her beliefs.
The rather stupid young man in the estate agents office had tried to dissuade her when she picked out the house from a stack of leaflets. It was very remote; he said and had the audacity to add, for a lady of her age and should she need help it was miles away from a hospital.
“I have never known a day’s sickness in my life,” she snatched the leaflet from his hand. “And I don’t intend to start now, even at my great age,” she added.
He had the grace to blush then and agreed to take her to view the house. Even as they drove, he pointed out, what he believed were more suitable properties, but she had ignored him, refusing to turn her head to look.
She loved the house on sight.
“Your photograph does not do it justice,” she told him.
“Really?” He stared from the leaflet to the house and scratched his head in wonder as she drank in the mottled brickwork, trailing ivy and peeling wood. “It has quite a reputation round here.”
“In what way?” She thought this just another ploy to put her off buying.
He shuffled from foot to foot and kept his eyes on the ground.
“Come along, young man. I have no time for dawdlers.”
“They say it’s haunted,” he mumbled. “That’s why no one wants to buy it.”
“How ridiculous,” Janet huffed. “Haunted indeed!”
One of the former sister’s downfalls was, like all salesmen familiar with a particular product, she knew all its faults and so it was when it came to spirits and religion. She feared nothing and no one and if that young upstart thought he could frighten her away with his tales of hauntings, he had quite another thing coming.
“I would like to see the interior now,” she said, her lips drawn in to their usual line of disapproval, her eyes thin slits in her skeletal face.
There was no arguing with someone like his present client and the young man took a large, rust-stained key from the glove compartment of his car and led her towards the house. Whatever Janet’s beliefs, the house did have a bad reputation. It was well known that it was haunted. In fact, it was the glue that held most ghost stories together. It was included in most tales of terror and one told by the old women of the surrounding area, round winter fires they whispered its name and crossed themselves with fear, to add substance and terror to the telling.
Janet felt a delicious thrill when he opened the creaking front door. The hallway smelt mouldy and clouds of dust rose from the threadbare carpets and muffled their footsteps as they descended further in to the house. She scanned each of the downstairs rooms, making a shrewd assessment of what it would cost to repair and what she might knock off the asking price.
The rustling ivy outside the windows sent darting shadows across the bare walls and their grotesque shapes made her shiver. It was all that young man’s fault; she glared at him for putting such thoughts in to her mind. The noises in the wainscoting were nothing more sinister that the scuttling of mice and the creaking floorboards overhead signalled that other wildlife had made there home within the house. She was right; there was a life of sorts within the house, but it was not one that could be easily explained away.
The air in the attic smelt musty, mould hung from the rafters, trailing green tendrils that touched her face. Nora brushed them aside and shone her torch around the room. The trunk she was looking for was in the farthest corner and she chose her step with care, picking her way across the joists. If she put one foot wrong it meant plunging through the ceiling. Placing the torch on a box, she fumbled with the ancient lock and nodded in satisfaction as the lid groaned open. The smell from the interior was more pungent than the one surrounding her and she wafted her hand in front of her face. She knelt down, the wood as rough as glass on her tender knees, but she had to find the things she needed. They were all there, just as she’d left them many years ago; the herbs and dried roots, the potions still safe in the bottles and most importantly the grimoire, the book of power that would show her what to do. She stuffed the small bottles and herbs in to the pockets of her cardigan and tucked the book under her arm.
Her eyes travelled to the old suitcase beside the trunk, but she willed herself not to look. It held the few baby clothes she kept and she couldn’t bear to view them, not now. Her daughter, like many of the women in her family, had died before her time.
“Six months,” Nora muttered. “That’s all the time we had together, child.”
No, she could not think about it. She tore her eyes away. There was work to be done.
She was panting as she navigated the joists and relieved when she reached the top of the wooden ladder.
“Move, Seth,” she called to the dog, who was standing sentry at the bottom.
He got out of the way just in time, as the huge book flew down and landed with a thump on the floor. Nora didn’t bother to close the attic door. She would put everything back when she was finished. Seth followed at her heels as she made her way down in to the kitchen. She sat at the table and started to leaf through the book’s yellow and brittle pages.
“Yes, this is the one,” she read aloud words written in an ancient language and the dog cocked his ear at the strange sounds.
Nora spent the next few hours grinding and cooking the things she needed for the spells. She had been a child when she last seen the book put to use and her husband had forbid her to practise any of her strange arts, as he referred to them. She was descended from women of power, a power that lay dormant within her until now.
Dusk was falling by the time she was finished. The few streetlights that still had unbroken bulbs came on and a cold mist descended. Nora picked up the animals feeding bowls and scraped food from a tin in to each one. Next she poured some of the potion and mixed it with the food. Before placing it on the floor, she filled a small glass with the same potion and swallowed the lot in one quick gulp. It ran like fire through her body until it reached her stomach where it lay for a moment before spreading its warmth until her senses swam. She gripped the cold sink until the room steadied itself once more.
“It’s all right,” she looked down at the worried faces of the cat and dog.
Placing their bowls on the floor, she urged them to eat.
“Finish it all, my pets,” she smiled as they tucked in.
She felt better than she had in years, empowered, she thought. The hand that stroked the dog’s head was no longer veined and spotted with age. She held it up to the light and wondered at this. There was only one mirror in the house and that hung in the dark hallway. Nora turned on the light and gazed at her reflection. She was seventy-four-years-old and up to a few minutes ago looked every one of her years. Now, she looked younger, not girl young, but the fire within her had knocked at least twenty years off her age. She brought a hand to her face and felt the smoothness of the skin. She had never been a beauty and no one would call her such now, but she looked better. Turning off all the lights, she picked her way through the dark shapes of the furniture in the sitting room and stood at the window. So far no one had called at her house looking for treats, which was just as well, as the yob had taken her meagre few. She dreaded to think what those who were refused would do if they did call. There were childish screams as a small vampire, witch and mummy ran past her gate. They looked like wraiths scampering through the white mist. She sighed and waited for the night to deepen. It was cold in the house, cold and damp. There was no central heating and other than a coal fire nothing to banish the icy fingers creeping along her skin. It was too early in the year to spend money on fuel, so she put on more layers and went to bed earlier when the nights were longer.
She sat on the threadbare couch and pulled a shawl around her shoulders. The cat came in and leapt up beside her and the dog huddled down at her feet.
“There’s nothing to do but wait for them to come,” she patted the cat. “And they will come. Why wouldn’t they? The street vermin need to have there blood-lust fed and picking on an old women is the easiest way they know.”
The curtains were left open so the blaze from the nearest oil barrel reflected off the glass. Dark shapes circled the flames and cars drew up from time to time, their occupants in need of the poisons that fed their cravings. The chimes on the mantle clocked counted out the hour. It was cold on the stroke of midnight when she heard them outside her door.
“Wait here, my pets,” she stood up straighter than she had in years and went to answer the fist that was beating on the wood.
“Yes,” she was looking straight in to the face of the yob who had scarred her.
He drew back a little, not sure for a moment if it was her. He was with his friend, his right hand man, as she’d heard him referred too and behind him stood his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, a tight top proudly displaying her swollen belly.
Mark Jones, the yob, could not lose face, so rolling his shoulders back; he started his usual tirade of filth. It began in the usual way.
“Your dog nearly bit my little brother,” he jabbed an accusing finger at her. “You better keep the fuckin thing under control, do you hear me, you old witch or I’ll cut its throat.”
I must say I’m surprised,” Nora caught the look between Mark’s girlfriend and his right hand man.
“I’ll give you surprised, you old cow,” he made his fist in to a ball.
Before he could strike, Nora words stopped him.
“I think you words belie your true natural, after all you are willing to raise another man’s child as your own.”
“What?” Spittle flew from his mouth as he struggled to speak.
“Am I the bearer of bad news?” Nora smiled. “So sorry, but the truth must out.”
“Forget her,” his girlfriend pulled at his jacket. “She’s mad, everyone says so.”
“Fuck off,” he shook her off. “What do you mean?” He asked Nora.
“Ask her,” Nora nodded to the girl, who was retreating down the path.
“Hey, come back here,” all thoughts of Nora were forgotten as he took off after her.
She watched as the girl placed both hands beneath her bump and tried to run.
“There’s going to be fuckin murder,” Mark’s right hand man muttered, as he took off after them.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Nora smiled.
Hello to all my friends on WordPress and sorry I haven’t posted for so long. I’m working on my new novel for young adults, Shadow Self and numerous other projects, so it’s been a very busy few months. Just popping in to say that I will be posting a new story for Halloween on Friday next. Well, I couldn’t let the occasions pass without a ghost story. I’m writing it at the moment and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I am enjoying writing it. Until Friday my friends, stay safe.
For all those who died-stripped naked, shaved, shorn.
For all those who screamed in vain to the Great Goddess, only to have their tongues ripped out by the root.
For those who were pricked, racked, broken on the wheel for the sins of their Inquisitors.
For all those whose beauty stirred their torturers to fury; and for those whose ugliness did the same.
For all those who were neither ugly nor beautiful, but only women who would not submit.
For those quick fingers, broken in the vice.
For those soft arms, pulled from their sockets.
For all those budding breasts, ripped with hot pincers.
For all those midwives, killed merely for the sin of delivering man to an imperfect world.
For those witch-women, my sisters, who breathed freer as the flames took them, knowing as they shed their female bodies, the seared flesh falling like fruit in the flames, that death alone would cleanse them of the sin for which they died-the sin of being born a woman who is more than the sum of her parts.