The key slid smoothly into the lock, which opened with a sharp snick. This surprised Mina, although she was not exactly sure why, but it was the final step in the month-long process of taking ownership of the house she had inherited from her great aunt Patty.
Batty Patty: that’s what the family had always called her. No one had seen her in years and Mina had only ever met her once, at the non-wedding. That’s how Mina thought of it now: the wedding that wasn’t. At the ripe age of twenty-three, in the presence of her friends and family, Mina had stood at the altar, waiting for her fiance of three years, Peter, to arrive. After a full hour and many frantic phone calls, it had become mortifyingly obvious that Peter had chickened out and wasn’t going to show. Mina had tugged off her veil, apologized to a church full of embarrassed guests and stomped off to the reception hall across the street. In a room full of white roses, gleaming crystal and gauzy bunting, Mina had gotten well and truly shitfaced for the first time in her life.
Consequently, she had only a vague memory of great aunt Patty. A painfully thin, bird-like old lady with snow white hair had kissed her cheek with shriveled lips, patted her hand arthritically, and said: “Have another drink, girl. You’ll need it.”
So it had come as something of a shock when, two months previously, an unknown solicitor had phoned Mina to inform her that she had been named the sole beneficiary in Patricia Ophelia Moore’s last will and testament. At first, Mina hadn’t even known whom the lawyer was talking about. Perhaps he’d gotten the wrong contact information? No, he informed her, he was quite sure that he’d reached the right person. Then, after a little hesitation, he had muttered weakly, “Batty Patty.”
* * *
The office of Mr. Payne, the solicitor, was small, sterile and airless. Mina was the only family member present, and apart from two strangers who, she was informed, were the executors of the will, she was alone. The testament was simple: it bequeathed everything to Mina. And, as it turned out, everything was quite something: over eight hundred thousand pounds in cash, stocks and bonds, and the property, an old Victorian house in Hampstead.
“There’s a single proviso in the will, and so I must make certain of a few things,” said Mr. Payne, adjusting his glasses and clearing his throat. “Are you married, Ms Moore?”
He shifted in his seat and, again, cleared his throat. Mina throttled the urge to offer him a Polo mint because he was obviously having problems. “Are you likely to be married in the near future?”
Mina furrowed her brow. “I really don’t understand the question.”
“Are you,” he shifted again and coughed, “engaged or romantically attached in anyway?”
“I’m sorry, but what has this to do with my aunt’s will? I mean, no, I’m not going to get married anytime soon, but why does it matter?”
Mr. Payne put down the stiff document and smoothed it with plump, pink fingers. “Well, this will is, for the most part, very straightforward as you are the only beneficiary. But it does have one rather unorthodox condition. In order for you to inherit the estate, you must be unmarried and you must remain that way.”
He allowed the words sink in and then, after glancing at the two executors, turned his opaque gaze back to her. “Obviously, this is quite an unusual condition and you may want to take legal advice on this issue. However, although I represent your departed aunt in these matters, I don’t think it would be indiscreet of me to suggest that, should you desire to get married at some time in the future, it might be possible to contest the restrictions of the will. In times past, these types of conditions were quite common, but they are rare these days. Modern courts will often overturn restrictions they feel unreasonably curtail these sorts of personal freedoms. That being said, contesting this condition would cost both time and money. For the moment, it makes it less complicated if you are presently unmarried and not likely to be so in the near future.”
Mina thought bitterly that it would have been very nice to have that particular dilemma, but in the years following her wedding that wasn’t, Mina had not had much luck in the romance department. The subsequent men in her life had fallen into two categories: either they liked her and were revolting, or she liked them and they didn’t notice she existed.
“Well, I’m not married, I’m not engaged and I’m not involved with anyone. I have a cat, does that count?”
All three men chuckled, but only Mr. Payne spoke. “No, there’s nothing in the will about cats at all.”
He riffled through the papers on his desk and slid a copy of the will and a receipt sheet over to her. “Then if you would just sign where indicated, the transfer of inheritance can be completed.”
Mina sat forward and examined the document. She didn’t know much about the law, but she did know that it was important to read the things you signed. It all seemed very straightforward, but she wanted to make sure.
“What about the taxes?”
“Those have been taken care of by the executors. The money and the house are yours, free and clear. You are, of course, expected to pay any future council tax, property tax and for the upkeep of the house, but that shouldn’t present a problem if you invest the money wisely.”
Mina bent to sign, but stopped. This was happening so fast, and she was still trying to take it all in.
“Is there anything else, Ms Moore?”
She chewed her lip a moment before she got up the courage to ask. “Why? Why did she leave it all to me? Why not to someone closer. I…” Mina hesitated for a second. “I didn’t really know her at all. I only met her once. It feels strange, taking her money. I mean, I didn’t even know she had died.”
The solicitor pushed his glasses up his nose and shrugged. “There is nothing in her papers to explain her decision, Ms Moore. But… well…”
One of the executors, a tall cadaverous man who’d been introduced as Mr. Philip Lanton, stepped over and patted Mina on the shoulder. “Your aunt was a very nice, but exceedingly eccentric woman, Mina. I knew her only slightly, many years ago in her youth. But you should not feel bad about not knowing her. As she got older, she became more and more reclusive. No one saw much of her, but I firmly believe that her solitude was entirely voluntary. She chose to live her life that way.”
* * *
The front door swung open easily and quietly. If Mina were to be perfectly honest, she was unnerved. Although Mr. Lanton had assured her that the cleaners had been through the house and left it spic and span, Mina also knew that her Aunt had died there and, due to her lack of friends or daily contacts, the body had not been discovered for a few days.
“Hello house,” she said aloud across the threshold, stepping through it, “You’re just a house. And now you’re mine. So… I’m coming in, okay?”
With a little hesitation, she sniffed the air fearing her nose would catch the stench of decomposition, but pine cleaner and wood polish were all she could smell.
The front hall was very old-fashioned with a gracefully curved wooden staircase that rose up to the second floor. It had a handsome formality about it. As Mina walked through main floor of the house, the floorboards speaking to her softly from beneath the old wool carpets, she could imagine a Victorian family going about their daily lives.
On the left of the hall was a parlor, neat but crowded with old furniture. A big, lumpy sofa, two huge armchairs and a drinks cabinet, empty but for a single decanter of something Mina guessed might be sherry. Beyond the sofa was a lovely broad fireplace, with a brass fireguard in front and a marble mantelpiece. Above it hung a huge gilt-framed mirror. Catching sight of her own reflection, she saw her face, pale and drawn, almost white against her dark, shoulder-length hair. She looked like a woman who had already seen a ghost.
“Don’t be such a wuss!” she said told herself, and then laughed.
The moment she did–the moment she heard her own laughter ringing off the walls of the room–she knew, for no particular reason, that everything would be all right. It was a lovely, cheerful room. Cool in summer, it would be cozy in winter. It was the sort of room that cheered you up, no matter what season it was. The windows looked out onto the small garden at the front, and a row of hedges at the side.
Across the hall was the dining room, a very formal affair that looked like it hadn’t been used in years. The long dark oval table had been recently polished and the chairs around it stood like sentinels, waiting for someone to pass the port. At the back of the house was a small library with bookcases lining three walls. Such a masculine room, Mina thought. Again, the wood was dark, and a sensibly plain desk sat beneath a window. The lamp on it was brass and shaded with an old-fashioned green glass hood. It would not have surprised her a bit to see a man in a smoking jacket seated at the desk, writing a letter out in a neat cursive hand.
Considering that, for a very long time, a single woman had been the house’s sole inhabitant, only the small sunroom, with its rubber plants, potted African violets and green striped blinds, seemed the least bit feminine. Here there was a smaller white painted table and a single chair where Mina assumed her aunt must have taken her solitary meals.
The ancient kitchen had big white tiles, a stone sink and a massive Aga range. There was an ancient refrigerator that seemed, against all logic, to be running quite smoothly. When she pulled the heavy metal door open, it made the sound of a vacuum seal being broken. The inside was spotlessly clean and utterly empty. Mina would need to do some food shopping after the delivery van arrived with her bags and her cat.
One bedroom, at the top of the landing, was very large and overlooked the front. Mina was certain it must have been her aunt’s. Here her nose did pick up something, but not the smell of decay. It was perfume, floral and old-ladyish: roses or camellias. The room had a large sleigh bed with a blue quilt on top. A wide, many-doored wardrobe stood against one wall, and on the opposite wall was a dainty, feminine dressing table with a slender oval mirror. A clutch of cosmetic bottles huddled to the left of it. Mina bent down to look them over: calamine lotion, rose water, and a squat little bottle with blue, fan-shaped stopper. The label was gold with black printing: Shalimar.
She carefully twisted the stopper, pulling it free of the bottle, and the heady scent of the perfume wafted up, almost overwhelming her. It was so strong, Mina’s eyes welled up, as if she’d uncorked 40 years worth of volatile oils and the vapor of it had gone straight up her nose. She blinked to clear her vision, and behind her closed lids, caught a riot of strange black and white images. At first it wasn’t clear what she was seeing, but then she closed her eyes again, and the images gained focus. Explicit, obscene–in fact, the images were pornographic, as if someone had set off a slide carousel of erotic pictures in her head. Breasts and buttocks, limbs and clefts, penises and mouths, skin sliding over skin, shudders and twitches. And the sounds, of rasping breaths, demanding moans. It all moved and changed, kaleidoscopic and disjointed, building to a vortex of eroticism.
“Oh my god!” she gasped aloud, fumbling to jam the stopper back into the bottle of perfume. The minute she did, the images faded like ghosts into her memory. “They don’t make perfume like that anymore. And I can see why!”
The bottle filled with gold liquid glinted in her hand. Mina gingerly put it back onto the dressing table with the rest of the cosmetics. She looked back at the big sleigh bed. “Aunt Patty, no wonder you went loony!”
Only then did she realize she had addressed her dead aunt , a woman she had never known, as if she were alive. Mina made a mental note to never open that bottle of scent again.
The rest of the upper floor held few surprises. Her aunt’s bedroom had a small bathroom ensuite that was very run down and much in need of renovation. It didn’t look as if her aunt had been using it. Down the hall, there was a much more modestly sized bedroom that had been used for storage. There were boxes piled up against one of the walls and an ironing board and an old style drying rack had been left in the center of the otherwise empty room. Its window looked out onto the bricked side of the house next door.
Further along the hallway was a more generously sized bathroom. This one had an enormous shower and bathtub with beautiful art-deco glass doors enclosing it and mirrors lined the enclosure.
“Wow, wow, wow!” breathed Mina aloud, looking down at the black and white mosaic tiles on the floor and up the elegant single column of the pedestal sink. “Aren’t you the very model of a modern bathroom!” Then she laughed, and felt the sharp echo of it bounce back at her from the glass surfaces.
The humidity had eaten away at the silvering so that Mina saw herself through a fine mist of black dots, but the chrome on the faucet, the taps and the strange, shell-shaped hand-held shower gleamed flawlessly as if new. Here again there was scent, something familiar and yet Mina could not quite identify it. She picked up the bar of soap by the bath and, mindful of the perfume incident, sniffed gingerly. Lily of the valley.
But scent aside, she was struck again by something–it was hard to put her finger on what. There was a lack of the sort of things that a single woman would normally populate a bathroom with. At the corner of the tub there were bottles of shampoo and conditioner, but where, Mina wondered, was the crocheted cover for a box of tissues or the spare toilet rolls? Where the feminine touches that might tell her something about who her aunt Patty had been?
When Mina’s mother had died, four years earlier, she had offered to save her father the heartache of clearing out his wife’s belongings. The process of packing away her mother’s personal things had given her such insight into her mother as a woman: the old lipsticks abandoned in drawers, the package of hair dye specifically formulated to hide gray that she’d found under the bathroom sink, the little lace doily she put beneath the cup that held her toothbrush. There was nothing like that here, besides the few cosmetic bottles on her aunt’s dressing table.
At the far end of the corridor was a large sunny bedroom. Its broad bay window looked out over the modest back garden with its gnarled, lichen-covered fruit tree set amidst a square of tall, uncut grass. There was a lone, rickety deck chair placed under the tree, with a wrought iron table next to it. Mina could imagine the sparrow-like old lady who had kissed her at her almost-wedding, sitting out there in the summer sun.
This room was smaller than her aunt’s, but it felt free of the lingering presence of the unknown woman. It had a simple bed, a wardrobe painted ivory, and a plainer dressing table with no dangerous bottles on it. This, Mina decided, was going to be her room. She smiled and allowed herself to fall backwards onto the bed. She landed with a satisfying poof of air as her body sank into the thick down quilt. Beneath her the springs gave a sharp orchestral squeal of protest. Well, she thought, nothing’s perfect. It’s just a good thing I’m single.
* * *
An hour later the movers arrived. It wasn’t as if Mina had much to move, but she hadn’t wanted to take her cat on public transport. It was only when she opened the door and saw Brutus glaring out at her from his carrying box that she realized how silly she had been. She could have easily afforded, now, to bring him by taxi. He snarled a wordless accusation and Mina felt suitably guilty.
“You’re going to love this house, Brutus,” she said, taking the case from the moving man. “It’s huge and there are lots of places to hide.”
Putting his cage down on the floor in the kitchen, she knelt down and undid the wire door. Brutus stood paralyzed, the fur on his back standing up in a ridiculous semblance of a mohawk.
“Come on, sweetie. Don’t be like that. It’s a lovely place,” she cooed in her gentlest baby voice. “Come on out and explore.”
For a moment, Mina thought she’d have to reach in and pull him out, but just as she bent forward to do it, the ginger tom streaked out of the cage, out the kitchen door, and disappeared up the stairs with a very nasty howl. Cats never liked being moved. It would take him a while to get used to the new environment, thought Mina.
* * *
After hooking up her small television in the parlor, getting her bags stowed away in her new bedroom, and calling for Brutus to no avail, Mina grabbed her handbag and her keys and let herself out the front door. On her way to the house, she’d spotted a corner shop only a few blocks down. As she walked in that direction, she made a mental list of the essentials she needed.
The little shop was almost as old-fashioned as her aunt’s house. Behind the counter were pyramids of tinned goods and a row of colorful glass sweet jars. The man behind the counter was small, and looked as if all the hair on his head had migrated downwards. He was almost bald, but sported the most luxuriant sideburns and moustache Mina had ever seen.
“Good afternoon, Miss.”
“Good afternoon. I was wondering if you had any eggs?”
“Eggs? Of course we have eggs. How many would you like?”
The shelves of the little shop were so packed with goods, it was almost impossible to find what she was looking for, and it seemed the proprietor liked it this way, because he took a dapper sort of pride it grabbing things from under the counter and putting them on top of it, as if he were performing magic tricks. There really wasn’t very much he didn’t have.
“You’ve not been into the shop before, have you?” he asked once she’d accumulated a pile of purchases on his counter.
“No. I just moved in, on Stormont Road.”
The dapper grocer thought for a while. “What number?”
Mina wasn’t sure why he needed to know, but decided that refusing to answer would seem unfriendly. “Number 14.”
“Yes!” It suddenly occurred to Mina that this man might have known her aunt better that anyone else she had met. “Did you know her?”
He gave a chuckle. “Of course I knew her. As did my father.”
“What was she like?” Mina asked without thinking. Then it struck her as a strange question. What would he think of her?
But the grocer colored a little and tugged at his moustache. “Well, I didn’t know her like that. Delivered groceries to her house every Thursday since I was…well…” he closed his eyes, obviously calculating, “just a lad, sixteen or so. She’d been there all my life. I was sad to hear she died. Nice lady. A bit shy, but very nice. Have you bought the house then?”
“No.” It was Mina’s turn to color. “She was my aunt. She left the house to me. But…but I didn’t really know her at all.”
He beamed and offered his hand across the counter. “Alfred Box. Lovely to meet you.”
Mina took it and smiled. “Mina Moore. Nice to meet you, too.”
“You can run an account if you like. Most people around here do. Your aunt did.”
“Oh! Did she owe anything? Because I’d be happy to settle any bills she had.”
“No. A very reliable customer was your auntie. Paid every month, on the first, rain or shine. The last bill was settled by… some tall bloke who came in. He looked a little like an undertaker,” said Mr. Box with a laugh.
“Mr. Lanton!” Mina offered, laughing herself.
“That’s the one.”
“Well, if you’d let me know how much I owe?”
The grocer rang up her purchases on a small, very noisy cash register. Depositing each of the items into a bag as he went. “Eighteen pound fifty.”
Mina handed over a twenty pound note, pulled the two overflowing shopping bags off the counter and rested them on the floor of the shop.
“I could get the boy to bring them round, if you’d like,” he said, holding out her change.
“No. I’ll be fine. Thanks.”
Mina picked up the bags and, before she reached it, the little grocer had nipped out from behind the counter and was opening the door. The little bell above it chimed.
“I am sorry about your aunt, love. My condolences.”
Mina looked up at him with a smile. “You said you used to deliver groceries to my aunt’s house. Was she poorly before she died?”
Mr. Box looked down at his feet. “Well, I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you, Miss.”
“Perhaps the boy could tell me?”
“No, no. I took the groceries around myself.”
“But then…was she quite well the last time you saw her?”
He looked embarrassed and shook his head. “I honestly couldn’t tell you. It’s been ten years or more since I set eyes on her.”
Mina cocked her head, trying to understand, wondering why the conversation seemed so awkward. “But you said she had a delivery every week. How could you not have seen her?”
“She never opened the door.”
Mina looked up at him, utterly shocked.
“Honest to god, Miss. For the last ten years, she just said, ‘leave it on the doorstep, please.’ And when it was time to pay her account, she’d leave an envelope under the plant pot by the door.”
Mr. Box shook his head. “‘fraid not. She was a bit odd, your aunt . But a nice woman, all the same.”
Walking back up the road, Mina looked at the old Victorian houses that lined the street. All of them were very much like her aunt’s. When she reached her front door, she let herself in, went into the kitchen and put the kettle on to make some tea while she stored her purchases away.
The more she learned about her aunt, the more it seemed that no one really knew her at all. And that made Mina even more curious. Perhaps one of the neighbors could tell her something, mused Mina. She couldn’t have been a stranger to everyone.
* * *
It took the smell of grilling bacon to lure Brutus out of hiding. He slunk into the kitchen like an agoraphobic mess. Mina looked down at him with concern.
“Ha! You bacon slut! You’re not getting any. I hope you know that.”
He looked up at her with lime-green eyes and an expression that said: cheat! Despite her pledge, she tore a bit of rind off the bacon and dangled it tantalizingly before his twitching whiskers. He scoffed it down in a single bite.
After a solitary supper eaten in the little sunroom, looking out at the shadowing garden, Mina washed up her dishes and went into the parlor to watch some television.
There was, as far as she could tell, no cable into the house. But no matter how she tried to position the aerial on the set and tune in to terrestrial channels, there was nothing to be had but static and snow. Mina gave up and sat back on the massive over-stuffed sofa. It disturbed her to realize how much television she watched and how the absence of it made her feel tense and jumpy. Was this what her life had come to? An addiction to the evening news and the subsequent parade of bad comedies?
The opulent but kitschy brass peacock that blocked the grate of the fireplace stared back at her, glinting in the lamplight. For a moment she considered lighting the gas fire, just to watch the flames dance, but it was still the middle of summer and far too hot for one. It was only TV withdrawal and she knew it.
Brutus appeared and, after sniffing around a bit, jumped up next to her on the sofa. Before Mina could even react, the cat let out a low, vicious growl and bolted off the couch as if he’d been scalded with boiling water. The reaction was so out of character, so instantaneous, Mina drew back, astonished.
“Brutus! What the hell’s wrong with you?” she snapped with a mixture of anger and concern. The cat made another throaty, dangerous sound and took off out of the room.
He wasn’t being himself at all. Never, in all the time Mina had owned Brutus, had he made a sound like that. It raised the tiny hairs on her forearms. She only hoped he wasn’t so disoriented that he couldn’t find his way to the litter box she’d placed just inside the back door. She was determined not to be one of those strange women whose house constantly stank of cat.
Feeling distinctly unproductive, Mina got up and, grabbing her laptop out of her room, took it down into the small library and set it up on desk that overlooked the back garden. It was fully dark now, and she turned one of the lamps beside the desk. Again she was struck by the masculinity of the room. If there had been any space for pictures, Mina was sure it would have been one of those hunting prints that would have graced it. This was a place a gentleman came to smoke a pipe and dream of worlds as yet unconquered or perhaps indulge in the reading of racy Victorian smut.
“Well, whatever you were before, I think you’ll be my study now,” she said, speaking to the empty room. Her eyes travelled along the bookcases, taking note of all the old bindings. “You wouldn’t sit by and tolerate sloppy grammar, now would you?”
After consulting a financial planner, Mina understood the money she had inherited meant that, if she were careful and didn’t spend too much, there really wasn’t any need for her to work at all. But she liked her job as a proofreader. It was precise and exacting work, but it also meant her hours were quite flexible and she could take on as much or as little work as she wanted. Not that she’d ever earned much, but it was always enough to get by, and from the time she left university, she’d been proud of the fact that she’d always been financially independent. Besides, the magazine publisher she had worked for during the past six years was the only real life she had. She went into the offices on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The rest of the time, she worked at home and sent her finished proofs into the office by email. That would have to change until she could get an internet connection put in. She would either have to bring in the articles herself, or get them couriered over.
The telecoms company had promised her a line by Thursday, but that was three days away. Realizing that it meant an early start tomorrow, to make her way into work, Mina decided to call it a night.
Having put fresh sheets on her bed and found a few towels in a small linen closet next to the bathroom, Mina stood in front of the pedestal sink, brushing her teeth with gusto. Tying her hair back in with a band, she leaned forward, opened the taps, filling the basin with warm water and splashing it over her face. She’d always thought of old houses having problems with plumbing and miserly amounts of hot water, but everything in her aunt’s house seemed to be in perfect working order. Eyes closed, she reached up blindly and turned off the taps, holding onto one of them while she groped for the towel with her free hand. Just before she let the tap go, an odd sensation enveloped her fingers, as if something warm slithered over them.
Mina jumped back with a little meep, and blinked away the droplets on her lashes. She stared at the tap, then down at her still tingling hand. It hadn’t been an electrical shock–it was too slow and painless. But something… had touched her hand.
She patted her face dry and glanced down around her feet, assuming that Brutus had decided to leap up and be friendly, but the cat was nowhere to be seen. Looking back up at the mirror, Mina burst into laughter. She was white as a sheet again.
“Oh, for god’s sake, woman. Stop being so stupid,” she muttered to herself. It bothered her that she could become so easily spooked. Strange aunt stories and a demonically possessed cat aside, there was nothing wrong with the house. Nothing wrong with anything. She gave herself a mental pinch and went back into her bedroom, which looked cozy and inviting now, with a pile of pillows and the lemon yellow quilt covering the bed.
She climbed in, switched off the light, and snuggled down under the covers, making a concerted effort to ignore the lingering, tingling feeling in her hand.
* * *
There was a rustling, and pressure. Mina cracked open her eyelids, but the room was in darkness. There was no guessing what time it was. Another rustle and some movement, and Mina smiled. Brutus had finally stopped acting like a prat and decided to be friendly. She freed her arm from under the covers and felt down at her side, expecting her fingers to meet his soft fur, but there was nothing. Fickle bastard, she thought groggily.
When she woke in the morning, it was to bright sun streaming through garden windows. Mina stretched lazily and lay still for a while, enjoying the golden warmth on her face.
Remembering that she had yet to make her way into work from her location, she coaxed herself out of bed. That would take some time and she really should get the proofs she’d finished into the office.
Mina pulled on her bathrobe and stood on the landing, whistling for Brutus. A grouchy mrowl echoed from below. She traipsed down the curved staircase, trailing her fingertips lightly along the fine mahogany banister. It had such lovely curves, and the wood felt warm to the touch. Just before she reached the bottom, there was a soft shudder under her hand. The sensation was almost serpentine, so uncanny she stopped dead on the last step and snatched her hand away. For a moment she held her breath, her heart pounding in her chest. Only then did she notice, beneath her bare feet and the soft pad of the carpet, a similar vibration. Mina rested her hand hesitantly back on the banister, but now there was nothing. Beyond the front door, she thought she heard the distant roar of a heavy truck engine passing the house. Perhaps these old houses weren’t as solidly built as everyone assumed they were.
Once again, Mina scolded herself for being so easily spooked. As she pottered around the kitchen, making herself coffee, she spoke casually to Brutus, who had obviously mastered his fear of his new surroundings better than she had. Very much in character, he was smarming himself around her ankles and purring like a freight train. After buttering two pieces of toast, Mina opened the back door and, mug and plate in hand, picked her way along the stone path through the overgrown garden to the weathered chair under the fruit tree. The cat followed a little more cautiously, easing his way through the high grass.
There were birds chirping in the hedges, and insects buzzing. Settling down and eating her breakfast, Mina gave a contented sigh. What a lovely, peaceful place this was. The back of the house rose before her in the morning sun, all weathered red brick and white painted trim. Looking at it from where she sat, the house towered over her. With its high ceilings and its tall, pitched roof, it loomed like a tall, thin professor. There was something both severe and inviting about the house. It said: I’m a little crotchety and perhaps a bit traditional, but I’m kind and generous and welcoming, too.
A wave of emotion swept over Mina, surprising her. She felt a strange sort of tenderness for the place, as if, now that it was hers, she could never imagine letting it go. How odd to feel that way in such a short time.
“I have to stop being so soppy and stupid,” she said aloud to Brutus, blinking away the moisture that was, unexplainably, pricking at her eyes. “Perhaps it’s just that nothing this nice has ever happened to me before.”
The cat, hearing his mistress’s voice, paced over to her and settled lazily against one of her bare feet. She could feel his purr resonating up through the bones in her leg. For one splendid moment, Mina felt the world was perfect. Just perfect.
* * *
“So, how’s your new house? Enjoying Hampstead? You’ll be too posh for us, soon,” said Alice, one of the editors at Gramercy Publishing. She was sitting at her desk, copying the files from Mina’s flash memory stick over onto the company’s network drive.
“What? Oh,” said Mina, blushing a little. “It’s not that posh. But it’s a lovely old place. I should have a party or something, once I get properly settled.”
Alice smirked. Grey-green eyes peered at Mina over trendy, tortoiseshell frames. “You never once invited me over to your flat,” she teased. “Has property acquisition suddenly turned you into a social butterfly?”
Mina felt a red flush creep up her neck. It was true. She’d never invited anyone over. She’d never really thought anyone would come if she had. “Well, the flat was so small, it hardly fit the cat and I. But my aunt’s house is enormous. It has a very nice garden.”
Even as she said it, Mina knew she’d never follow through. It wasn’t that she disliked people. Certain people she liked very much: Alice, for instance. They had often lunched together and, once a month, they would walk down to the pub around the corner from the offices for a celebratory drink after the deadlines were met and the magazines had gone to print. But, if she had to be completely honest, Mina found crowds inhibiting. She had suffered through the ubiquitous Christmas parties and rare, company-wide get-togethers quietly and with an eye on the clock, counting the minutes down until she could, without looking too antisocial, make her excuses and leave.
“Well, if you’re going to throw a party, you’d better invite David Bettelheim–the food writer. He was in here yesterday, demanding your services ‘immediately’. None of the other proofreaders would do, he insisted. In fact, he suggested I should take you on full time as a junior editor,” said Alice. She glanced over at Mina, one eyebrow raised. “Would you be interested?”
If Alice had offered her this a month ago, Mina would have jumped at the chance. Not that she really liked the idea of a nine to five schedule, but the opportunity to do more than just correct grammar and spelling errors or deliberate the finer points of punctuation was something she had dreamed of for quite a while. Now, however, she wasn’t so sure. She liked the freedom that her quasi-freelance status gave her. The thought of joining the great London daily commute didn’t appeal to her at all.
“I’d love to do some editing,” replied Mina. “But I don’t want to work full time. I like working from home.”
Alice shrugged. “Well, perhaps we could come to some compromise.” Pulling the USB memory stick out and handing it across the desk to Mina, she added, “There’s the usual stuff on here and I’ve added a couple of lifestyle articles that are in need of some tweaking. See what you can do with them and we’ll talk again when you come back in.”
Mina nodded, slipping the stick into her purse. “What’s the timing on these?”
“Oh, Friday. Friday for all of it. If you finish sooner, you can email them to me.”
“I don’t have a connection at my new place. But they’ve promised me one by Thursday.”
“Well, as long as I get it all by Friday, I’m happy. But if you came in, we could grab some lunch afterwards, if you like.”
Mina nodded and turned towards Alice’s door. Just as she let herself out, Alice called after her.
“Oh, and the editing? Don’t be timid about it. Smooth those pieces out and give them some punch. They’re both wordy as hell. Show me what you can do.”
On the way home, sitting at the top of the bus, Mina absently fingered the memory stick. An editing job! And perhaps she wouldn’t have to become one of those sleepy grey little people who fell asleep on public transport every morning to do it. Could she have her cake and eat it too? Life was being too kind to her, mused Mina. Something was due to go catastrophically wrong any minute.
* * *
Only when she let herself in the door did she remember that, other than the proofreading, she had little else to amuse her. She cursed herself for not stopping off in town and picking up a DVD player or something. It wasn’t like she couldn’t afford one. But perhaps it was better this way, she thought. If she got tired of proofreading there was a roomful of books to read and most of them looked at least fifty years old, which guaranteed good grammar.
After fixing herself and Brutus a simple dinner, Mina went into the library and started combing through the shelves for something to read. There was a complete collection of Dickens, but she didn’t feel like coping with his sometimes-overbearing narrative style. Instead, she smiled and pulled a copy of Northanger Abbey off the shelf. It was the only Austen novel she had not read, and the thought a tongue-in-cheek gothic horror about a creepy old house seemed apt, considering she’d just acquired one of her own.
With a mug of cocoa, Mina went into the parlor and stretched out on the huge, lumpy sofa with a brocade pillow stuffed behind her head. The old-fashioned lamp behind her threw shadows of its own tasseled fringes across the open pages.
A dozen pages into the novel, Mina was fading. Perhaps it was language, or the warmth of the cocoa, or the fact that the sofa seemed to cradle her body in the most comforting way, but her eyelids drooped. Wriggling a little into the couch’s embrace, she let the open book rest on her chest and closed her eyes.
It felt like she was at sea; there was an almost imperceptible sensation of being rocked. And then she was lying in the bottom of a small dingy with the sun pouring down onto her skin like hot, thick, syrup. Wavelets lapped and sucked at the hull of the boat. Gradually the sensation grew stronger, as if a wind had come up, but still she could feel the delicious warmth on her face, on her chest, on her belly.
A little tickle ran along one thigh. Not the kind that made you want to scratch but the kind that gave you a delightful little shiver. It moved up the front of her thigh slowly from her knee and then slid sideways, between her legs. Mina did shiver, and her nipples slowly stiffened, pulling the sun’s rays into the tight micro-folds of skin.
She reached up to touch one of them, suddenly lucid and aware that she was dreaming. What, after all, would she be doing lying naked in the bottom of a boat? The shadow tassels cast by the lamplight became fingers that grazed and plucked, rubbed and pulled at her furiously erect nipples. Her legs parted to the pressure of unseen hands that, no longer just a vague tickling, slid their way up her inner thighs and covered the whole of her mound with heat.
In the dream, there was nothing to see, just a faint shimmering of air, like a mirage rising up off her body. But the sensations were unmistakable. Hands and then hips and then a torso covering her own and a burning mouth on the side of her neck. Mina groaned and arched her hips, not wanting the dream to stop and yet knowing, at the same time, that it was the oddest dream she’d ever had.
The first hard thrust into her body took her breath away. Mina’s eyes flew open and her hands, which weren’t anywhere near her crotch as she might have expected, clawed at the space around her. Her return to consciousness, far from putting a stop to the dreamlike sensations, only intensified them. The thing that filled her cunt was so hard, so big, that it almost hurt. The weight on top of her pushed the air from her lungs with each thrust.
She had a moment of panic as her entire body shifted, the force of whatever was on her shoving her into the cushions of the sofa. But the fear faded in the ripples of pleasure that radiated out from her cunt. Mina didn’t know what was happening, but even as her fingers dug into the rough fabric beneath her, the looming swell of an orgasm, bubbling at the base of her spine, rose and spread over her body like an inevitable conflagration.
Her cunt spasmed around the nothing that impaled her, and a flood of moisture poured from between her legs. She arched her body, pushing upwards against the unseen, and she sobbed out hysterical, unintelligible words as she came. The pleasure was so intense Mina felt as if her spine would snap. Her muscles seized, over and over, bowing her body and shaking her like a rag doll.
She collapsed back onto the cushions and, for a moment, she could have sworn a hot, wet puff of breath washed over her cheek. The pressure on top of her suddenly lost its solidity; it quivered and broke, dissipating over her body like a scorching gust of wind. As abruptly as it had come, it was gone.
For several minutes, Mina lay panting, her fingers doggedly clutching at the cushions. Slowly she forced herself upright. A great lethargy overtook her and her head spun.
There was no one, nothing.
Across the hall, in the dining room, the faint chime of a clock striking the hour pulled her out of her trance. She licked her dry lips, and pushed a few strands of hair off her sweat-damp forehead. When she tried to shift, a series of aftershocks made her inner thighs twitch.
Mina carefully slid her legs off the couch and settled her bare feet on the floor. When she looked down at the crotch of her jeans, it looked for all the world like she had wet herself. A dark stain spread down both her inner thighs.
“Jesus Christ,” she muttered aloud. “What the fuck was that?”
Northanger Abbey slid off the cushion and onto the floor with a thud that made her flinch. Then the clock in the dinning room chimed again. Mina glanced at her watch. It was 9:46.
* * *
Whatever had happened to her in the parlor, it left her with a gauzy, unreal feeling. Of course, Mina had had sex dreams like everyone else, but this wasn’t one of them. She was quite sure of that. This had left her shaken and terribly uncomfortable in her damp clothes. She went upstairs and quickly exchanged them for a pair of track pants and a t-shirt.
For two hours, she sat in the library, diligently plowing through her proofreading work. And for a few minutes here and there, the work drew her in and made her forget about what had occurred. Then she’d shift in her chair and feel the ache of her internal muscles, and the dull pain would bring memories of it flooding back into her mind. Finally, at eleven, realizing her concentration was failing, she saved the work she’d done and strolled into the hallway, calling for Brutus. The cat didn’t respond.
Mina hunted for the little wretch in all the places he’d taken to hiding, but there was no sign of him. She even, despite her trepidation, went back into the parlor to see if he’d crawled under the sofa, or behind the fireguard. Finding the room empty, she gave it a last glance, a small shiver sliding down her spine, before turning off the lights and closing the door.
“Brutus? You bastard! Where are you?” she called up the staircase. “If I have to come up and find you, I’m going to strangle your scrawny, furry neck!”
He wasn’t upstairs either. Mina sighed, and turned the bath taps on full. She’d have a nice, hot bath before bedtime, she decided. Back in the kitchen, she looked forlornly at the cat’s food bowl. It was licked clean.
“User,” she huffed under her breath. “Cupboard love, that’s all you show me. You ungrateful wretch.” Then she laughed. “Which pretty well makes you like every other man I’ve known.”
Just then she heard a mew. At first it was impossible to tell what direction it had come from. Mina glanced around and even went so far as to open a few of the lower cupboards, assuming he’d climbed in and become trapped. After another louder and plaintive cry, Mina realized it was coming from the back door. She marched over and, throwing the locks open, pulled the door wide. The fat ginger beast was sitting on the doorstep looking like someone had abandoned him.
“How the hell did you get out?”
Without paying the slightest attention to his mistress’ questions, he sauntered in slowly, with that “what took you so long, bitch” swagger.
Tomorrow, Mina pledged, she’d have to figure out how he’d managed to get out of the house. She was quite sure she hadn’t left any windows open, but if he’d found a way out, then someone or something could, she assumed, find a way in. Bending down and scooping the cat up in her arms, she climbed the stairs, stroking and chiding him as she ascended.
Mina checked on the progress of her bath and, having no gel or bath salts, added a generous dollop of shampoo to the water. There was no point in having a bath without bubbles.
Depositing Brutus on the closed toilet seat, she pulled off her t-shirt and pants. Even though she had changed earlier, the scent of her arousal still lingered on her body. She pressed her cheek to her shoulder and inhaled. There was another strange scent there too: musky and heavy. It didn’t smell like her at all.
She left the clothes in a pile on the floor and, shutting off the taps, stepped into the filled tub. The temperature was just as she liked it–hot to the point where it made her skin prickle. Mina lowered herself carefully into the bed of suds, holding her breath as she immersed.
Just as she settled back into the water, stretching out luxuriously in the midst of the foam, the steam, the glass and the chrome, Brutus jumped down off his perch and, more like a dog than a cat, sauntered over to her pile of clothes and sniffed at them.
The low, nasty growl that made Mina turn her head. The cat was standing next to her garments, back arched, with his fur standing on end.
“What the fuck is wrong now?” Mina said. Her words came out sharp and angry, but they hid an undercurrent of fear. It was the second time in as many days that Brutus had made a noise like that. It was bad enough that she’d had some sort of strange episode herself in the living room, and then that Brutus had managed, somehow to get outside without her knowing it, but now she had a cat making demon sounds on her hands. That was enough.
Mina sat up, water sloshing dangerously close to the lip of the tub, and flicked water at Brutus. “Go on, you bad-tempered beast. Get out of here, if you’re going to make horrid noises like that.”
Growling again, he scrambled out into the corridor before she managed to sprinkle him a second time. She heard him tear down the stairs at top speed. Resettling herself in the tub, Mina sighed. The heat of the bath unknotted her muscles and eroded the tension in her body. Closing her eyes, she reached blindly for the bar of soap and began to wash lazily.
The water’s temperature and the soft lapping sounds brought back memories of what had happened earlier in the evening. Even as the feelings and images returned, Mina found herself wondering why she wasn’t more frightened, more disturbed by the episode. Nothing like that had ever occurred, and yet all she felt was a slow growing sense of arousal. Her soapy hands drifted over her skin, more engaged in sensory exploration than bent on personal hygiene. When the urges became too strong, she let the soap slip from her hand, spread her thighs in the water and languidly stroked two fingers between her splayed labia.
Now it was more than the sounds and images that flooded back into her head. The sense of weight on top of her also returned, of being pushed and thrust against, the sensation of being penetrated. Her mind went in search of someone to attribute all this pleasure to, but the thoughts were as slippery as the soap had been, and would not keep still as she grappled for them mentally. The frustration of it overwhelmed her in the most visceral way. Raising her knees, she pushed her fingers deep into her cunt, reaching for that wonderful feeling again. The walls of her passage clung and sucked. With her other hand, she attended to her clit, stroking as she fucked herself.
The bathwater slopped at the edges. Her breathing grew shallow and fast. Then the first reverberations of her climax were upon her, and she smiled, opening her eyes, and the sharp, hard spasms began. Just as she moaned at the first rush of pleasure, she watched the telephone shower jump from its cradle and sink with a dull thunk to the bottom of the tub. Its snakelike metallic hose unraveled and followed it into the water.
A knife of sheer terror streaked up her body in tandem with the pleasure. Her mouth went instantly dry, her stomach clenched, and still her body jerked with the convulsions of the orgasm. She could not move, she could not stop coming. It wasn’t until she felt the rough, reticulated hose of the shower wrap around her ankle that she sat up and screamed.
Her hands flew to the sides of the bath and she pulled herself up, frantically tugging her leg free of the horrible serpentine thing around it. But there was no resistance and her ankle came free easily. She hauled herself out of the tub, slipping and sliding through the soapy water until she was safe on the cold tile floor. Drawing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them, she huddled, weeping against the far wall.
Her attention darted this way and that, expecting that at any moment, something terrible would happen. But absolutely nothing happened and, as her crying subsided, there was nothing to hear either, but the eerie silence of the big old house and, downstairs, the clock chiming in the dining room.
After a while, Mina realized she was getting cold. She was wet and naked and, as the adrenalin spent itself in her bloodstream, she began to shiver. Getting to her feet, she reached for a towel and wrapped it around her.
What had happened? What had she thought had happened? Mina inched her way over to the tub and looked into the water. The bubbles had disappeared and, although the water was milky with soap, she could easily see through it to the bottom. There, near the drain end, sat the chrome telephone shower with its metal hose attached.
“I’m going fucking mad,” she whispered to herself. “Raving crackers.” She must have gotten her foot tangled up without even noticing. A little laugh emerged from her throat, but it was tinged with an uncertain edge. And as much as she knew she should reach into the bathwater and pull the plug so the water could drain away, she couldn’t make herself do it. Instead she wrapped the towel a little more securely around her body and fled into her bedroom.
Not bothering to dry off, Mina scrambled into bed and pulled the covers over her head, feeling childish even as she did it. There was no way on god’s earth she was going to switch off her light, though. Curled up into a tight fetal ball, she tried to rationalize what had happened, stepping through it event by event. Was it just in her mind? Of course it was! The shower thing slipped and I was masturbating and it got tangled around my foot and… oh, you idiot! She thought. Mina giggled a little, trying to push away the taint of fear.
The thud was so loud and so close, the shock of it sent Mina bolt upright and gasping. Before she could catch her breath there was another. The wall at the head of her bed actually shook with the force of it.
“Jesus!” Mina gasped again. “Jesus fucking Christ!”
She stared at the wall. Then, just as she was looking at it, there was another. It came harder and louder than the two before it. A nice little watercolor of a boat on water jumped off the wall and crashed to the floor beside the bed.
On her knees, with her quilt wrapped around her, every muscle, every sinew taught as a bow, Mina waited. Just as she thought that was the end of it and she prepared to sprint downstairs and grab her purse and phone her father, there was another.
“What? What? What? What?” She screamed the words repeatedly, edging toward the bottom of the bed. The terror seethed inside her and she began to cry.
Because now she was quite sure that none of the things she thought she’d imagined, none of the things she’d reasoned away, were natural. There was something, someone there with her. She could feel it now, a presence, huge and oppressive. And she smelled it in the room, like the smell that had been on her skin before she’d bathed.
Between her soft, staggered sobs, Mina listened, but there was nothing. Carefully, slowly, she eased her legs off the bed, tightening her grasp on the quilt. She was shaking uncontrollably. All she could think of was to get downstairs and phone her father. Her eyes didn’t leave the wall as she inched her way out of the bedroom. When she reached the hallway, she flew down the stairs as fast as she could go, trying not to trip on the trailing ends of the quilt. In the library, next to her laptop, she found her purse. She rummaged for her mobile, sat down in the old-fashioned office chair and flipped open the phone.
Then she stopped.
What the hell would she say. ‘Hello Dad. I know it’s midnight but can you please come and get me? My house has gone…mad? I’m mad?’
An awful feeling of helplessness flooded over her. Her father would tell her not to be silly, take two aspirin and go to sleep. And who else was there to call? Alice? Oh, wonderful. She’d never get another job from her again. Or Meg, her best friend from school? Who had just had her second baby and was probably the most sleep-deprived person in the world?
Still clutching the phone in one hand, Mina brought her knees up and began to cry into the thick down quilt. Her life had been fine until she’d inherited this house. She’d been happy. She had liked her little flat. Now her whole life had been turned upside down, and she felt truly scared and alone for the very first time in her life.
Gently, almost imperceptibly the chair she was huddled up in began to move. It was one of those ancient chairs with a rounded back that swiveled sideways on static legs. Mina looked up. This time she didn’t bother wondering if it was her mind, or a truck running by, or the cat. She knew what it was. Her heart was hammering in her chest.
“Oh, please!” she sobbed. “Leave me alone! You’re scaring me.”
Suddenly it stopped. Mina sniffed and looked around, hardly daring to breathe.
“What,” she said softly, “do you want?”
Behind her she heard a slithering sound and turning her head, Mina watched a book work its way off the shelf on its own and drop to the floor with a thud. The light was dim and she had to squint to see the cover. It had a lurid cover typical of the 1930’s paperbacks. Gone with the Wind.
“You want me to read to you?”
Another slithering sound and another book, on the opposite case flopped onto the floor. It was large, slim leather-bound volume. She peered over at it. It was Conrad’s Lord Jim.
Then another dropped off the shelf and landed by the chair. It was a plain dark green clothbound edition of Wuthering Heights.
“You want me to read it?” she asked, feeling a strange mixture of fear and foolishness. Reaching down, she picked it up and opened it, bending forward a little until the soft light of the desk lamp illuminated the page clearly enough for her to read.
The chair swiveled left and right, gently.
Mina took a deep breath. “Okay,” she whispered, swallowing to ease her dry mouth. “But no more banging on the walls.”
She felt the seat move sideways, just an inch or so.
“Alright then.” She paged to the first chapter and began to read aloud.
” ‘1801.-I have just returned from a visit to my landlord-the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist’s heaven: and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow! He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up, and when his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still further in his waistcoat, as I announced my name.
‘Mr. Heathcliff?’ I said.
A nod was the answer.’ ”
Mina read for what seemed like hours. Every time she paused, the chair she was sitting in would move a little and so she continued on in fear of angering whatever it was that was listening to her read.
It’s impossible to stay scared forever, and after five chapters, her throat and her eyes felt sore. She stopped again, waiting for the inevitable shimmy that she was sure would come, but it didn’t. Quietly, Mina put the open book down on the desk, lay her head down on her knees, and fell asleep.
* * *
Sometime in the early hours of the morning Mina woke. The position in which she’d slept had left her with a painful crick in the neck, and her left arm flopped about like a dead fish. As she climbed the stairs, she shook it sleepily, trying to force the circulation to return. The bed’s springs groaned as she collapsed onto it and she pulled the quilt closer around herself against the night’s chill. Dawn was just bruising the sky as her eyes slid closed.
It was Brutus who woke her. He stood on her back and meowed loudly until she turned over, squinting against the bright sunlight. The cat chirruped in protest at being displaced. He wanted food.
“My god,” she whispered, catching sight of her watch. It was well past eleven. “Oh, Brutus. I’m sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry…” Her apologies became garbled as she pulled herself out of bed. Only then did she notice the distant sound of the phone ringing. “Fuck!” she muttered under her breath as she started down the stairs. Every muscle in her body protested and it was the pain that brought back the whole of the previous night’s insanity.
It was her father, she registered as she flipped open her phone. “Dad?”
The line was full of static, she could hardly hear his reply, and she glanced at the signal strength indicator and watched it bounce up and down. As she moved through the sunroom and into the kitchen, the hissing on the line died down. “Can you hear me?” she yelled into the mobile.
“No need to shout, Mina. I’m not deaf yet. I can hear you perfectly well, dear.”
“Oh. Good, good,” Mina muttered, her eyes flitting around the room.
“All settled in, then? How do you like your auntie’s house?”
“It’s…” She thought for a moment. Last night she had been ready to scream her head off down the line and beg him to come and take her away from the place. But now, in the daylight, she couldn’t even formulate what had happened into words. “Fine, I guess,” she said vaguely.
“You sure? You sound a little off, dear.”
“Well…” Again she hesitated. “It’s just an odd place. New, you know. And I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. ”
“But that’s normal isn’t it? No one sleeps all that well in a strange bed.” His voice had that patient soothing sound. “It’ll take you a while, I expect, to get used to it.”
“Dad…did you ever spend any time over at Auntie Patty’s place? You know, when she was younger?”
“Oh, I don’t think we were invited more than once or twice. Long, long time ago, darling. You would have been just a kid then.”
“Did you ever…” A wave of crackle swept down the line at such volume that Mina pulled the phone away from her ear in pain. She swore under her breath, and battled with the locks, finally letting herself out the back door and stepping into the garden. “Are you there? Dad?”
“What on earth is the matter? I can hear you perfectly.”
“It’s the reception… it’s spotty in the house, I think.”
“You were asking about the house?” he prompted.
“Oh, yes. Did you ever…”
Once again she heard the hissing clicking static. She looked at the reception indicator. It was showing almost all the bars. In frustration she tapped the phone and gave it a little shake.
“What on earth are you doing?” Her father’s voice squeaked through the tiny speaker. “Look…Mina?”
“I’m due for a few rounds of golf this morning. Perhaps you can call me back again later this afternoon? I was just phoning to make sure everything is okay.” Mina could hear a note of impatience creeping into his voice. She sighed.
“That’s okay. You run along. We’ll talk later.”
“If you’re sure… you sound a little odd.”
“No,” she said, climbing the back stairs into the kitchen again. “I’m fine, Dad. You have fun.”
“Alright, then. Chat later, shall we?”
The line went dead as he rang off. Mina looked at the phone in dismay and then closed it. Really, what would she have said to him anyway? What would she have asked? Did you have any lewd thoughts while you were having dinner? Did the sofa molest you?
Brutus gave desperate meow and rubbed himself against her calves almost violently. It put an end to the internal dialogue. “Yes, I realize you’re malnourished and on the very edge of death,” she said to the cat, picking up his bowl and pulling an open tin of Wiskas from the fridge.
The smell of cat food made her queasy. She forked the chunky sludge into his dish at arm’s length. “I don’t know how you can eat this stuff,” she muttered and shoved the bowl under the fat, desperate cat’s face. Brutus lunged at it as if it were alive.
Mina made a pitiful sound as she stood up. Her back ached terribly. Waiting for the kettle to boil, she rolled her shoulders and arched, trying to ease the stiffness.
“Next time, you might let me read in bed,” she said, almost under her breath. “Otherwise I’m going to end up crippled.”
Walking over to the doorframe that led from the kitchen into the hallway, Mina flattened her back against it and tensed her tummy muscles, pushing her lower back into the wood, feeling her spine protest at the stretch. Just as the bow of it made contact, the frame shuddered once, noticeably. A strangled little gasp leaped from her mouth and she skittered away, her eyes narrowing at the doorjamb.
She chewed her lower lip for a moment and pulled her robe tighter around her body. “Is that you?” she whispered.
The only sound to be heard was Brutus inhaling his breakfast. He did it in a series of greedy, faintly disgusting grunts.
Gingerly, Mina leaned back against the door frame. It was ludicrous, but she couldn’t help it; she looked up at the ceiling and whispered again. “Is that you?”
A slow, steady reverberation travelled down the wood. Although her heart was racing madly and her throat had gone dry again, Mina stood her ground. She waited for the thrumming to stop, but this time it didn’t. Still unable to take in what her senses were telling her, she laid her cheek, very lightly, on the frame. The vibration spread to her skin, into the side of her face.
“God,” she breathed, turning her face and resting her forehead against the jamb. “What are you?”
Without thinking, she placed the flat of her palm on the wall just next to the door. There was a strange shift as the thrumming swelled and then resumed its previous frequency.
“What the hell are you?” she repeated, closing her eyes. The feeling was quite hypnotic. “I’m going mad, aren’t I?” It was nothing but a whisper and, even as the words left her lips, she knew it wasn’t true.
Mina pulled herself away from the wall as the kettle started to whistle. She busied herself making coffee and some toast and took it out into the garden. The cat followed.
The day was warm and the garden was alive with sound and scent. It needed some loving care, she thought, as she settled down under the old fruit tree. The grass had to be cut. The climbing roses needed managing. Mina didn’t know much about gardening, but it was clear that Aunt Patty had not been able to attend to it and hadn’t hired anyone to do it either. Perhaps there was a book on it in the library?
She gave herself a mental shake. What the hell was she doing thinking about gardening when, very clearly, she had a serious problem on her hands. There was something, someone–she hesitated to say it, because Mina didn’t believe in the supernatural.
Brutus circled around the old deck chair and then leapt up into her lap. Mina waited for the cat to settle and then took a sip of coffee. It took a concerted effort, but she found it. “There’s a ghost in this house, cat.”
There. It was said.
But what could she do about it? Who would she tell? The council? The police? Who? And, if she did, what would happen? They’d lock her away in a loony bin. Mina tried to think rationally, her gaze drifting over the eaves of the roof, the upper floors, resting on the carved gables and the brickwork. As far as she could see, there were only three options: she got rid of the ghost, she left the house and sold it, or she learned to live with it.
The first option was, she thought, the most problematic. There was no factual basis for the existence of ghosts. How could you get rid of what didn’t exist? Beyond Hollywood horror films, all the ghosts she’d ever run across in literature were metaphors for other things. And no one, she thought grimly, ever managed to get rid of those. Moreover, only in America did they have midget women in evening dresses who you could call to come over and “cleanse” your house.
The second option was the most rational. She could probably get a very decent price for the house and buy herself a flat. But wouldn’t it be unethical to sell a haunted house to unsuspecting owners? And did anyone willingly buy a house that was haunted? She couldn’t, in all good conscience, fail to inform the buyers that there was definitely something in the house. Letting her mind drift back to the feeling of the metal shower hose snaking around her ankle, she shivered. No. That would be unconscionable. Well, she could always just abandon the house and leave it empty. She’d be no worse off than before she’d received the inheritance. Better off, in fact. But the thought of leaving this beautiful place to fall into ruin… the idea of it clutched at her heart and squeezed painfully. That would be a crime.
There was, she considered, the third and last option. The house hadn’t actually done anything truly horrible. Mina reconsidered, that was not strictly true: it had scared her into hysterics, molested her on the couch and forced her to read to it half the night. Any sane person, she thought, would be running from this house, screaming their fucking heads off.
“Well,” she murmured, stroking Brutus’ thick golden fur and eliciting a loud purr, “I guess we know what happened to Batty Patty.”
* * *
After a quick shower, during which Mina eyed the metal hose often and with deep suspicion, she dressed and made her bed. Having slept half the day away, she was determined to get down to some of the editing work she’d been given. As she was on her way down the stairs, the doorbell rang.
She opened it and was startled to see a van and a man carrying equipment and a large roll of wire.
“You’re…” she glanced at the logo on the van, and then beamed with pleasure “early! The telecoms company told me that you couldn’t come until Thursday.”
The service man was middle aged and plump, with a ruddy face. He shrugged and gave her a grin. “I can come back tomorrow if you’d like, luv. But I was doing an installation just up the street. If it’s convenient, I can do it today.”
Knowing full well that if she sent him away, she might get her internet installed tomorrow, or next week, or maybe in time for Christmas. “No, no! Now is perfect. Come in!”
He put down his equipment box, the long line of wire and a battered laptop on the hall floor. “So, where d’you want the connection coming in?”
Mina hadn’t given this any thought at all. She had assumed she’d use the library as her workroom, but after her rather harrowing reading experience the night before, she wasn’t sure anymore. She hesitated.
He smiled again and gave her a patronizing look. “Where’s your computer, luv?”
“In the library,” she said, motioning him to come through. He followed her past the dining room and into the small book-lined room at the back. “It’s a laptop, you see. So really, I could work anywhere.”
“I can bring the cabling ’round the side of the house and have it enter here. Easy peasy.”
Mina hesitated again. “Well, there’s a bit of a problem with that.” She brought her thumbnail up to her mouth and gave it a worried chew.
“What’s that, luv?”
“There’s a ghost in here.”
The man’s smile remained on his mouth, but it had gone from his eyes, and turned wan. “A ghost?” The tone was flat.
The reaction she received from the telecoms man, she realized, would be any sane person’s response. It would have been hers forty-eight hours ago. Mina surprised herself by emitting a pathetic giggle. “Just joking,” she quipped, and grabbed her laptop off the desk. An idea occurred to her.
“I’ve got a room upstairs, at the front. It’s not used anymore and needs a clean-out, but I’ve been thinking I’d like to make it into an office space. Let me show you.”
Leading the way up the winding staircase, Mina glanced back and noticed the man climbing behind her had his hand on the banister. She bit back her desire to tell him not to touch it for fear he’d feel the vibrations running through it. Showing him into her aunt’s room, she said: “Here. Can you put it in here?”
He frowned and crossed his arms, looking around him. He walked over the large bay windows and peered down at the front garden. “I could. Don’t know if my ladder will reach,” he muttered moodily. “Does your laptop have WiFi?”
“Then why don’t we just install the connection downstairs and you can use a wireless router? Then you can work anywhere you want.”
“I’ve noticed that my mobile connection is terrible in this house. Are you sure the WiFi would work?”
It was his turn to look troubled. “These old houses, they built them bloody solid. The walls can sometimes be a problem,” he admitted. He shook his head and shrugged. “Alright. I’ll see what I can do.”
* * *
The installation was effected with ease, as it turned out. And after a little deliberation, Mina opted for the WiFi router anyway. After thinking over her conversation with her father, she had a sneaking suspicion that the problems with her mobile reception might not have been quite as circumstantial as they’d seemed.
Back in her aunt’s bedroom, Mina considered what to do. The closet was full of the woman’s clothes. These, by rights, should go to a charity shop. Finding a number of empty, folded boxes in the spare room, she spent two hours packing everything neatly into them. She phoned a local Oxfam shop and they agreed to come and pick the boxes up the following day. Then she set to clearing out the bedside table drawers. That’s when she found the envelope. It was addressed to her, by her full name.
Mina sat on the big sleigh bed and tore the envelope open, pulled out the sheet of paper and read.
I know we don’t know each other, but if things have gone as I planned, you are in this house and it belongs to you now. I’m not entirely sure whether, once you get to know the place, you will come to think of it as a blessing or a curse. But I saw a strength in you, an independence, on the day of your wedding after that horrid boy stood you up, and I knew. I knew you were the only one in the family who might be able to understand that what I’m leaving you is a gift.
He is a gift, Mina. Yes, HE. I’ve never known his name, or who he was in life and, in all my searching, I’ve never been able to discover how he got here. I think, perhaps, he’s been here for as long as the house has been standing. Don’t do what I did and let his provenance obsess you, dear. Just accept him for what he is.
He has been my constant companion for the last forty years and they have been good years. I’ve never regretted my decision to stay, not for one moment. I hope you won’t either.
My sincerest and best wishes for your future,
Patricia Ophelia Moore
P.S. He likes to be spoken to and is especially fond of romantic novels.
Mina let out a long, shuddering breath and lay back onto the bed, allowing the letter to fall from her grasp. There was a great feeling of relief at the confirmation of her perceptions. She wasn’t going mad. She hadn’t imagined any of it.
“Oh, my god,” she whispered at the ceiling. “What the hell do I do now?”
The bed beneath her hummed, and Mina felt the mattress move.