Hearts in the Hard Ground

Following the death of her mother, Fiona buys a new house in order to start a new chapter of her life, one with fewer reminders of painful memories. Unbeknownst to Fiona, this house has a melancholy history, and slightly more ghosts than she anticipated. In learning to live with her unexpected companions and their losses, Fiona might find a way to make peace with her own.

 

 

I bought a slim Edwardian terrace with the money Mum left me. It declared itself a house of dead things right away. Old houses can’t help doing that. The years accumulate inside them, dense as tree rings. On move-in day, I found a stain darkening the floorboards of the master bedroom — grim expulsions that had soaked through the carpet and underlay — while, downstairs, the handyman extracted a rotting seagull from the flue.

I buried the sad little creature in the frozen soil of my garden. I even made a cross out of two bits of cardboard and marked the date: the second of November.

It rose from the grave a day later, flying through the guest bedroom window and landing smack on the floor. I tried driving the gull out but you forget how big those fuckers are. In the end, I slammed the window shut and locked the door to trap it inside.

A few uneasy days passed. I drank a cup of tea in the garden and wondered if I had the heart to bash my first houseguest over the head with a poker. Wrapped in one of Mum’s lumpy cardigans, I toed the shallow grave I’d dug between the snowdrops. My thumb still bore blisters from the trowel’s handle, the earth had been so solid.

A stray tabby watched from the roof of my shed. I cluck-clucked my tongue — hello, puss-puss — and stretched my fingers, and he deigned to extend his chin for a scratch. The warmth of another living thing: how long since I’d felt that?

Since Mum. Months ago.

 

Have you ever lived on your own, after living almost forty years with someone else? It’s eerie. It’s like sitting alone in your own head for the first time. The free hours stretch on forever when you don’t have someone else to worry over, and you wonder what you could possibly fill them with. What are your interests, your hobbies? You hardly know yourself. I brought someone back to the house one night — a man, because I didn’t dare deviate from the familiar — and when he asked how to make me come, I couldn’t say. I’d forgotten what I liked.

Who was I?

After he’d let himself out, I sat on the dishevelled bed and didn’t move for hours. I couldn’t comprehend this body as me, mine. It had always been a thing, a vehicle to get from one chore to another, one neurologist appointment to the next. I pinched the flab of my thigh but it barely hurt. Lifeless meat.

 

In the garden, the tabby had had enough. He mooched off, taking his warmth with him. I finished my tea and watched the gull throw itself repeatedly against the upstairs window. Its feathers left oily impressions on the inside of the glass.

Bash, bash, crunch.

Why did I have to pick a fossil to live in? I bit my lip, knowing why: a new build wouldn’t suit. Too pristine, too impersonal. I’d craved a broken house.

My new neighbours unlocked their patio door. The guy tutted, said something about hammering, hammering for days on end. He was talking about that bloody bird. I darted inside before he collared me, setting my mug on the counter and grabbing a pair of old rubber gloves. I took the stairs at a run before I lost my nerve.

Bash, bash, crunch.

I turned the lovely cast-iron key in the lock and stepped into the guest bedroom. The gull was tottering about on the floor, one wing set at a sickening angle. Soil smeared the walls. Spreading my hands, I tried to herd the creature into a corner. The webbing of its feet had rotted away, leaving spiny toes that snagged easily in the floorboards. Silent and pathetic, it stumbled. I seized the chance to scoop up its bony little body.

All right, shh, you’re all right.

I was grateful for the rubber gloves. Up close I saw and smelt the unmistakable signs of decay. Joints held together by skin. Eyeless. Tongueless. So fragile it might crumble to dust in my hands. A dead thing, indeed.

Its legs paddled uselessly, exhausted yet too scared to stop.

I did that. I caused that fear.

Okay, I whispered, keeping hold of it. Shh, you’re all right. My vision swam with guilty tears. I thought I felt its heart going like the clappers but it was just the pulse in my own fingers.

 

You think you’re a kind person, you know? You grow up hearing people, strangers, say aren’t you a nice girl? You drop your change into collection boxes for RICE, say hello to the homeless; you hold doors open for the elderly. It’s kindness at arm’s length, but still, you tell yourself you are kind. Slowly, time and circumstance erode your conviction: you hope you are kind. You’re impatient with your mum when her mind starts to go. She fumbles with buttons, eating utensils, her knitting, and it’s irritating because you know she’s better than this — she was whip-smart not five years earlier, beating you at Countdown. And it’s unfair, too, because you’ve only just started to catch glimpses of what your relationship could become. Lines have been crossed, such as the first swear word that doesn’t earn you a smack; the first dirty joke. The first time sharing a bottle of wine and talking frankly about sex. You have to yank her out of someone’s way in the supermarket because she’s staring into space again, blocking the vegetable aisle, and though she soon forgets, you replay it over and over in your head, more violent each time until you expect to see bruises on her arm where there are none.

Did I pull her so hard she stumbled?

Did she grow as pitiful, as frightened, as this bird when I locked her bedroom door to stop her wandering out at night? If she fretted, if she tried the door or the window or ever cried out in wordless confusion, I didn’t hear her.

I didn’t want to.

There was no use apologising for something she couldn’t remember so I atoned by painting her nails. I seemed to paint her nails every day. In the few rudderless minutes between one layer of varnish and the next, I used to say, Mum? You okay?

What I really needed to ask is: Mum, am I kind? Am I kind anymore?

 

I brought the dead bird up to my bowed forehead. I’m sorry I locked you in, I murmured. With the gull tucked safely under one arm, I opened the window. Frigid sea air rushed in and the gull launched itself out. It didn’t go far; just to the end of the garden. The house was clingy that way.

The gull returned with a beakful of twigs and installed himself in the utility room sink. On laundry day, the little sod liked to hop down and steal my socks. I appreciated the company, however dubious the smell. I hung tree-shaped air fresheners in there and hoped that would be the worst of it, but he turned out to be a harbinger.

A Marley, as I called him.

 

My new home needed caring for. Every old and rare thing does, no matter how well made.

You’d think Mum never died, the way I worked. I black-leaded the fireplaces, had the fanlight restored, and Brasso’d the doorknobs and hinges. I buffed woodwork in tight spirals the same way I’d rubbed lotion on Mum after a bath, and I scrubbed those stained floorboards in the master bedroom over and over until my hands cramped as if I’d been holding her down during one of her fits; and still the stain endured, and the brass dulled, forcing me to start over.

I was being unfair. Mum never asked to become a to-do list.

At least handling Marley prompted me to finally wash Mum’s cardigan, although when I pulled it out of the dryer, it didn’t smell right anymore. I hadn’t thought to save a bottle of her perfume. Meanwhile, the musk of my failed one-night stand refused to go away. I lay in bed thinking, Cheap aerosol and beer — what a miserable haunting. My laugh turned to a wet snort and suddenly I was crying.

That’s another thing about living alone: there’s only a house to comfort you. The creak of wood contracting in the cold, the bang of old pipes in the wall, the secret sounds you only hear when you’re awake in the early hours, soggy with grief.

You realise you know your new house about as well as you know yourself.

So, I dried my face and listened. More than one hundred years jostled within the house’s walls, confined and airless as a bell jar. Early morning frost glittered on the window pane behind my vanity, washing the room in a beryl haze while the night’s last, weak shadows played tricks: the notches in the base of the bedroom door seemed like creeping fingers, eldritch and extra-knuckled, reaching up through the gap.

I turned my reading lamp on. It was no trick.

The fingers scraped down the wood, leaving trails of something black. Whatever owned those fingers pounded on the door, spraying splinters across the bed, and when the door didn’t give, a thick, angry boiling sound started up on the landing. Like a child, I threw the covers over my head. Worse; so much worse. My mind was all too eager to invent what I couldn’t see.

 

In the sober light of day, the scratches on the door looked terrible. That’s what truly unnerved me. If it could mark the house, it could mark me.

Whenever I was scared about Mum, information had been a comfort. Prognosis. Treatment plans. Cause of death. Facts gave me a sense of control. I rang the estate agent far from the house, where reception was better; from the city’s memorial garden, actually. I visited every Sunday. It didn’t matter that Mum’s ashes were scattered in the harbour so there was nothing of her there. You feel like a shitty daughter if you can’t find time to stare at a stone marker once a week. Anyway, the woman who took the call introduced herself as Annika, covering compassionate leave for the guy I’d always dealt with. His mum had passed away too, she sighed, and I felt a stab of sympathy.

Annika took a steadying breath — she was nervous, a temp; perhaps she felt she’d crossed some professional line, divulging her colleague’s loss. She asked how she could help. I asked who’d died in the house. Besides the previous owner, Claire Dockett, of course; when I made my offer, I was told in the interest of full disclosure that she’d collapsed in the master bedroom. My bedroom.

Sordid murders? She laughed brightly. We’d have to tell you something like that before now.

Oh, yeah, I said — I turned my back on Mum’s stone marker, surprised to find myself smiling. Annika’s laughter spilled out so naturally only to be tucked away again. Sunny patches glowing then quickly fading on an overcast day — Sorry. Yeah, no, I knew that. I’m just interested in the history, really.

Why, have you seen something? A conspiratorial chuckle. The distant zip-zip of a mouse wheel.

The exorcist is due next week, I joked — then gulped, because maybe an exorcism was something I should seriously consider. I mentioned the staining in the master bedroom to cover the awkward pause and she made a sound of sympathetic disgust before finding the relevant file. As it turned out, Claire Dockett had inherited the house from her cousins, the Bryants, who’d done plenty of living during their time there: three generations had had sex, given birth, slept, sickened and died in the house over a span of ninety years. Annika found a record of one child, Charlie Bryant, who fell to his death from the landing in 1967. As she read the newspaper clipping aloud, I pictured the claret-and-grey tiles in the hallway. A perfect match for blood and brain matter. Apparently, the police had suspected his aunt, a spinster who’d been obliged to hang around as companion, nurse and nanny to the family. That part sounded uncomfortably familiar.

I thought you said no sordid murders.

Annika laughed. The aunt was never charged.

Uh-huh…She didn’t die there too, did she?

No. It says here that she relocated to Eastbourne.

I rubbed my face and said, Thanks. That’s really helpful.

Except it wasn’t. I trudged home, hands deep in my pockets and my chin tucked into my scarf, with more questions than before; and as long as the haunting continued, there was no chance of sleep. Zombie birds, I could deal with — Marley, with his penchant for socks, had made himself quite the lovable pest since I chucked him out of the window — but the entity that resided on the landing was different. I didn’t dare take pills. Every time my eyelids grew heavy, the banging would start, once so hard a hairline crack snaked down the door like lightning.

I tried to communicate with it. All those insipid daytime-TV ghost hunts I’d watched with Mum had shown me how to make a spirit board. Marley ‘helped’ by pecking the pen nib as it ran across the card, to my great amusement. However, the upside-down tumbler remained motionless. My Dictaphone recorded nothing but static, broken by my own breathing.

I believed it was the ghost of little Charlie Bryant, the boy who’d fallen from the landing. I was wrong; his manner of haunting would be quite different. Nevertheless, despite my exhaustion, I took special care every morning to greet him by name, and to hop across the hallway floor, hoping not to land, by chance, where his head had.

As if I could possibly know that yet.

 

They say a child’s laughter is a beautiful thing. Well, see how beautiful you find it the first time you hear a giggle outside your bedroom door at three in the morning. You try listening to the patter of little feet followed by the startled cry and crack below, so like the dry pop of Mum’s wrist when she took that fall. I’d finally learnt to bear the assault on my bedroom door, and now I had giggle, shriek, smash, on repeat every fucking night. Can’t you give it a rest? I yelled, whipping open the bedroom door just as a waist-high blur dashed past.

I thought I could stop him at first. I risked the long-fingered ghost on the landing for him, kneeling, arms wide, braced to catch him as if he were mine. He ran through me for two weeks before I realised it made no difference: he was an echo, destined to perish as the original had done in 1967. I bought ear plugs on the way home that day — and a bottle of wine, after a moment’s hesitation. Something to knock me out, I said to the guy at the till, which earned me a smirk. The last time I’d bought myself alcohol, I’d had to show ID. It depressed me a bit that he didn’t even need to look twice to clock my age.

Standing on my doorstep, key rasping in the lock — I remember it was a cold, damp December afternoon; gaudy Christmas lights shimmered and bled across the wet pavements and the canvas bag holding my bottle of wine pulled seductively at my fingers — I heard someone call my name.

Fiona? Fiona Parkman?

I turned, door cracked open. Uh-huh?

A woman stood by the front gate, cradling a cardboard box. She smiled apologetically with only one side of her mouth. She said her name was Annika, she worked at the estate agent’s? Oh, hi, I said. It had been a while since our phone call. I told her to come in out of the rain and stepped aside to give her room. There followed lots of: Miserable today, isn’t it? And: Got much shopping left to do? Safe small talk. The blood-and-brain-matter hallway glistened with wet tracks. She apologised. It’s fine, it’s fine, I flapped. Tea? Are you here long enough for tea? A stand-in question for: Why on earth have you dropped by? Did I miss a letter or phone call warning me of a follow-up visit? After almost two months of living on my own, I’d got rather used to it — funny how quickly your initial drive for cleanliness tapers off once you realise no one’s watching — and I found myself kicking junk out of her path, moving stuff from one surface to another. She hovered, uncertain where to sit. Sorry, sorry, I laughed. Just sit anywhere. I’ll put the kettle on.

Fill the kettle, flick the switch. And breathe.

Annika was very pretty. She was younger than me by ten years and plump, whereas I was all straight edges. Sharp corners. Her perfume — a sophisticated floral chypre — made me feel horribly gauche. As the tea brewed, I peered at myself in the back of a spoon, cursing the mauve circles under my eyes. In the distorted reflection I spotted Marley lying in the laundry basket, moulting sticky feathers everywhere. He was almost bald. Oi, get out of it, I hissed, disentangling him from a bra strap and returning him to his sink where he belonged. To the rest of the house, I sent a silent warning: Don’t you dare show me up.

I handed Annika her tea and she took the mug with a smile, telling me how great the house looked, how well I was taking care of it. She was lying through her teeth — the sitting room was a bloody state. I hadn’t hoovered or swept out the grate in a while and I’d flung clean jumpers over the armchair instead of folding them; and those were only the bits she could see. I hadn’t bothered to finish pulling up the utility room’s linoleum so it was pitted with ugly holes, and then there was the avocado bathroom suite…I’d grown used to that though, almost fond, the same slow way you resign yourself to your own artlessness.

I cleared my throat.

So, um. I wasn’t expecting you. Was there something you needed me to sign?

She flushed pink and set her mug down. The cardboard box was on the floor. No, she said, everything’s fine. It’s just that we had to clear the house after Mrs Dockett died, you know, and there’s no next-of-kin so it’s just hanging around in our store cupboard…She leaned forwards to gently touch the box’s contents — the movement drew my gaze down, past her cleavage to her feet. Her cotton socks peeked out from below her trouser hems.

There are some really personal things in here, she said. No one’s had the heart to shred any of it yet.

Flustered by my expression, she tried to explain: You said you were interested in the history — I waved it off with cries of no, it’s fine, it’s great! And once I got over the discomfort of going through a deceased woman’s stuff in her own home, I was genuinely moved by what I found. Shopping lists and housekeeping receipts; pocket-sized crossword puzzles; TV guides with certain programmes, presumably favourites, circled in blue biro; pamphlets from the local church; and postcards from Eastbourne.

The time flew by as we pointed things out to one another. Phrases that caught our attention, marginalia from a bygone era. When Mum passed, I missed out on this ritual — this meandering, sentimental sort-out. She’d settled her affairs and cleared everything out herself years ago while she still had a few marbles left, thinking to spare me the trouble. I appreciated the thought but would have welcomed trouble, when the time came; I’d have welcomed having something — anything — to do during the pre-funeral limbo other than needlessly cleaning our empty house. She’d lived there since her own childhood, and it was as bare as if she’d never lived at all.

Maybe that’s why I’d become so messy lately. The need to leave a mark. To take up space, unapologetically.

Thank you for this, I said, wiping my eyes. Really. And then, in a mad fit of daring, I took a deep breath and said, It’s five o’clock somewhere. Do you fancy a glass of wine?

 

The following morning found me with my bum on the coarse doormat and my feet out on the patio, tossing bits of mackerel to the tabby. He folded himself up and ate quietly, licking the stone clean and leaving dark little crescents behind. Hello, puss-puss, I called to him, rubbing my fingers like I had more food. He came forward and head-butted my ankle. Daft cat, I teased, scratching the base of his tail. Where do you live, then? In reply, he stepped right over the threshold, bold as you like.

The taxi had picked Annika up shortly before midnight. We’d finished the bottle between us, the drink loosening our tongues.

I knew now that she was twenty-seven and had started a BA in History and Anthropology at the university only to drop out when her immigration status became unclear. By the time her visa was reissued, her interest had soured. She barely knew what she wanted to do in life, working here and there in various administrative roles, covering maternity leave and so on. The estate agent had just given her notice, so she’d be adrift again next week. I don’t know if she was technically allowed to remove Claire Dockett’s papers from the premises, and I never asked. But if she was worried about the precariousness of her life, like I would be in her shoes, she masked it brilliantly. I told her about Mum and the little office job I’d taken. A three-month contract with the possibility of a permanent offer. She pushed for more, for my heartwood. What did you do before? Tell me about Fiona Parkman. What sort of person is she? Foggy with wine, I admitted that I…I actually studied nursing. Which was what led me to believe I could care for Mum.

So why didn’t I go back to that? Difficult to answer. I’d thought, I’d hoped, that all I’d need to be a good nurse was kindness. I didn’t know if I had any left. Let’s be honest, I hadn’t had much to start with. Sometimes I imagined my heart as a hard, brown pit; the sixpence you break your teeth on at Christmas, only not as lucky.

Did I say this aloud? Did I make an idiot of myself? Was I overly familiar after my third glass — a press of the knee, a teasing kick? Like the bruises on Mum’s arm, if I went over the scene again and again in my head, I could eventually trick myself into believing an alternate version. I could picture myself leading her upstairs to bed.

Suddenly, I heard yowling from the hallway. The tabby had pounced on Marley. (I was terrified all last night that Annika would hear him. So, she’d asked with her one-sided smirk, are there any ghosts here? I’d hardly known what to say.) I sprang up, knees cracking, and rushed over to separate them. Leave him alone, I snapped at the cat, shoo! And Marley, falling to pieces with each passing day, limped into the sitting room, trailing grave-dirt.

I watched him go, struck by how doddery he seemed all of a sudden. He’d lost his vim and, wrapped up with Annika, I’d hardly noticed it last night. Could dead things die? I hoped not. He’d been a constant presence from the day I moved in, a mud-hook in a shifting tide.

The hallway tiles felt chilly against my bare feet, cold and hard as packed snow. The wine had summoned no sleep last night. Charlie had been at it again, and the elongated hand, too, reaching and scraping and tearing for me. My bedroom door actually bulged inwards, yielding to some uncanny pressure; and out on the landing the boy’s cycle grew frenzied, the laughter short, the fall sure, as if his ghost was consciously flinging itself through the railing to escape whatever else lurked out there with him. I curled my toes and shivered at the thought of the impact.

 

That Sunday, I skipped the memorial garden and browsed the charity shops instead, looking for a rug. I brought a faded oval rose-patterned one home (along with a few daffodil bulbs for the garden) and placed it in the hallway. Luckily, I’m not one for looks because the colours clashed something awful. I visited the memorial garden the following week but by then the damage was done; the spell broken. Guilt dogged my heels for a while. It’s only a stone marker, I told myself. She can’t expect me to stare at it every week. She’d feel sorry for Charlie too, and do what she could to provide a cosier floor, a softer landing — or at least the illusion of one.

 

Claire Dockett had lived in my house since the early noughties. The stain in my bedroom marked where she’d lain, seeping, until the neighbours missed her, and was still livid as the day she died. Odd, then, that it took her so long to pay me a visit. I’d replaced the linoleum in the utility room; the garden had thawed. Her snowdrops had wilted, supplanted by my daffs, by the time she shuffled into the sitting room in late February.

She sat on the sofa with a groan, in a spot I’d never used and now never would. The tabby, curled up asleep on my feet, hissed. I poked him quiet with my toes. The Doors were playing on the turntable. Mum always hated them. Keeping my eye on Claire, I stretched out and lowered the volume.

Hello, I said.

She tilted her head, cataracts shining. I heard her mumble something. Mum had mumbled a lot, too. Like kindness, patience was never one of my virtues. Once, I lost my temper trying to make sense of her slurred speech. I never forgave myself for the things I spat in frustration. I recalled the memory now, with Claire, as a reminder to hold my tongue.

But Claire didn’t want conversation. She’d been alone much longer than I, and liked to haunt her home the same way in which she’d lived: unassumingly, with handicrafts and a cup of hot malt. Something placid playing on the radio. Not quite Jim Morrison perhaps, but we managed. I noticed her hands plucking at her shawl, pining for an occupation, so I gave her Mum’s knitting needles. God knows I hadn’t used them. She clacked away quite happily with those once or twice a week, at peace with her own mind. That was her lesson to impart, I think. How to sit back and enjoy life’s little comforts and indulgences. Warm pyjamas at the end of a long day. A square of chocolate after dinner. A completed puzzle. The gradual reclaiming of agency that builds to bigger things like lunch away from your desk, a solo day-trip, and searching for nearby nursing vacancies. Even the tabby graduated from my feet to my lap. I suppose you deserve a name if you’re planning to stick around, I muttered. When he kneaded my thighs with his pin-needle claws, I cried with relief at the pain.

I was moved most of all by the sense that Claire was giving me back the evenings I’d lost with Mum — the two of us together, alone. A second chance at making that elusive transition from mother-and-daughter to…I don’t know. Friends? Companions? A shot at knowing her as something besides a mother, anyway.

 

Hey, I said to Claire one weekend, these must be yours.

I’d found a few old Polaroids in her box of things. I liked to go through it occasionally, lying on my belly flipping through snaps, my new log-burner warming my feet; winter was reluctant to loosen its hold, that spring. She turned her head towards my voice. Here’s you on holiday, I said, flipping the photograph over. Someone had written the date on the back. 1974, Eastbourne, I said — Remember that? There had been a postcard too, I was sure…I rifled deeper until I found it. The front boasted a garish painting of the prom with white buildings on the right and sea on the left, and tourists eating ice cream at the railings. Every peep of skin was ivory; everyone wore bright block colours. On the flipside was a brisk salutation, a thank-you-for-coming-to-stay, an anecdote. Just enough to fill the space provided without sacrificing neatness.

Signed, Aunt Patricia.

If this postcard was referencing the same holiday in the Polaroids, that placed it seven years after Charlie’s death. I wagged the postcard, deep in thought. The dates made sense, the address was right — this must be the spinster Annika told me about, the one accused of murdering Charlie. So, a young Claire had kept in touch with her disgraced aunt, had she? I wondered what the Bryants had thought about that.

Do you miss her? I asked Claire gently. Patricia?

Claire never usually reacted to anything. This time, her nostrils flared. The clacking of needles stopped. The house darkened. Pressure, as if I was sinking into deep water.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a body hit the hallway rug.

It was only eight o’clock. Charlie never, ever fell before three. For the first time, I was close enough to hear his mewl of pain, like a half-crushed fox on the roadside, waiting to die.

I forced myself to stare ahead. Don’t turn; you don’t want to see a dead child; you can’t help him. Resentment rolled over me like thick, cloying fog. A shadow moved on the stairs. I heard a scraping of untrimmed fingernails along the wall. A drone like slowed-down static. The ghost from the landing, invoked by a name: Patricia. I glanced just long enough to see her coming — don’t look at the boy; don’t look at the halo of grey mush; don’t feel bad that the rug does nothing, a rug wasn’t there the first time — and when I turned back to the sofa, Claire was gone.

It angered me, sitting there, scared to move in my own house. Charlie and Claire were harmless. They were caught on a loop. In time, they would wear out like cassette tape. But this aunt, refusing to rest, to let go her grudge, scoring my door and floorboards and exacerbating a hundred lonely nights…My house of dead things might have been a home if not for her.

Patricia, I said through gritted teeth, you are not welcome here. Leave me alone.

Fiona?

I said leave me alone!

Fiona? Are you okay?

A metallic clatter. The letterbox! I jumped up to check the window. Annika was at the door. When she saw my face through the glass, her concern faded to relief. She held up a bottle of wine. Are you free?

I pulled the curtains shut and stormed through the hallway to let her in, sparing no attention for the boy or the shadow or the marks in the wallpaper. They’re not there; they don’t exist. Go away, Patricia, I muttered under my breath. Just go away.

When I threw open the door, Annika frowned at the look on my face.

Is it a bad time?

I inhaled the evening air. Petrol fumes; an idling engine. Gently frying oil from the chippy across the road. Car doors slamming; laughter. The chirp of a distant traffic light crossing. It was all so normal. I held my breath. My heart jerked. Nothing stirred behind me.

Fiona? I heard you shouting…

Clutching the front of my jumper, I told her I’d fallen asleep in the armchair — asleep at eight on a Saturday night! I had a nightmare so it serves me right, I said, laughing.

If you’re tired, I can come back another time.

No! I reached for her hand; could she feel my pulse racing? No, I’m awake now. A bit of company is just what I need. I didn’t tell her I was afraid to be alone. I’d felt such dark resentment before and had thought myself free of it, but now it simmered within reach and the only thing keeping it at bay was — Annika. Annika no longer waiting primly for me to pour the drinks, but following me into the kitchen and lounging against the counter, talking about her day. Annika showing me a picture of her new nephew on her phone. Annika rolling a joint with that sideways smile.

Can you believe it’s been almost five months since you moved in? I thought we should celebrate.

Jesus, Annika, I haven’t smoked since school.

Come on, old timer. She slapped my shoulder. I’ll show you how the kids do things nowadays.

Fuck you, I’m not that old.

The cat without a name watched as we got drunk, then mortifyingly high. Like, lead-weights-strapped-to-our-limbs high. We forgot our names and where our bodies ended. We didn’t make it to the bed.

 

At three in the morning, we were still tangled on the sitting room floor. Time for giggle, shriek, smash.

Fiona? What the fuck was that?

 

There comes a time when you have to confess what haunts you. You have to peel back the plaster and show your bare bones to someone — your copper piping and weight-bearing walls, the stains in your floorboards and the dead birds in your chimney — and you have to trust that they won’t scream. When Annika heard Charlie fall for the first time, when she crawled out from under me and saw him crumpled upon the rug, I knew I couldn’t hide my ghosts anymore. She nursed a black coffee while I went to the utility room to fetch what remained of Marley, my Marley; he lay twitching in his nest, the air fresheners brown and crisp with age twirling like cot mobiles, and she got a good look at him before he disintegrated in my hands. I sobbed as we reburied his ashes deep in the pliant spring soil.

Annika stayed to meet Claire that evening, and we were still smoking on the patio when Charlie fell again later that night. She was not squeamish. She went inside immediately to sit with him, wrapped in one of my sofa throws. I hesitated, not wanting to get too close — when Mum fell, I hadn’t been quick enough to catch her; every second she lay there, her wrist broken, must have been torture — but Annika pulled me down with her. She talked the ghost through his last terrified moments the way I’d coaxed Mum to her feet. I doubt Charlie heard her, his death having been set in stone a long, long time ago, but I loved her for trying.

She kissed him as he faded till tomorrow. With blood on her cheek, she asked me, Is that all? With a smile so pitying it hurt. These were nothing, I longed to tell her. Is that all? Oh, if only.

There’s one more, I said.

Who?

I shook my head. I couldn’t stomach it. Annika had seen enough tonight, more than enough. Patricia meant something too raw even for me.

They’re just ghosts, Fiona.

You don’t understand…

Cast them out. This is your house now.

 

Monday dawned, bringing real life with it. Annika left for work: an eight-hour shift in the Natural History Museum café. I didn’t ask her to call in sick to stay with me. She loved that job, though it killed her feet, and as good as she’d been with Marley, Claire and Charlie, she must have been glad to disappear for a while into a world where the biggest concern was whether they had enough clean cups. My permanent offer from the office had never materialised so I had nowhere to be; I watched her go from the doorstep, and when the beat of her loafers on the pavement faded, I turned to look up the dark, shifting stairs.

Did you hear that? This is my house.

The darkness that was Patricia, impervious to the sunlight streaming in through the front door, slyly retreated. I watched her slink all the way up into the loft hatch. So that’s where she’d rooted herself like a snail, her shell’s nub: at the highest point of the house. I brushed my brow, tucking my hair behind my ear. I had to face her, or this place would never be mine.

I grasped the bannister and hauled myself up, fighting the pressure pushing me down. Static blocked my ears, my skin fizzled. The stairs grew feverishly hot underfoot. Finally, I stood beneath the hatch. There was a cord to pull on, but the ladder was rusted and refused to extend. I cleared my vanity — chucking the mirror on my bed and disturbing the cat; Sorry, Puss — and dragged it onto the landing. It took my weight, just, though I had to brace one foot upon the railing in order to pull the ladder down. It was a rickety thing, that railing. A cheap replacement for the one Charlie fell through over fifty years ago. It didn’t take much to imagine it breaking, or for my sweaty sole to slip…I’d install another, I promised the house as I climbed the ladder. I’d install a hardwood railing, strong as bone.

I’d never been in the loft before. When you have barely enough stuff to fill the rooms you use day to day, there’s no need for one. Mine had a proper floor and a grubby dormer window overlooking the back. Annika had warned me about the junk left up here, boxes and furniture the estate agent hadn’t bothered to clear, but I hadn’t expected to see a bedframe and nightstand. This was a garret. Houses like mine had employed maids once, and this was where they must have slept. This was where Patricia had slept, hidden out of the way as if she were staff, not family.

She slid alongside me suddenly, a gelid creature. I grabbed a beam to steady myself. The wood was worn smooth as skin.

How can you be here? I asked. You left.

Deaths, she told me, aren’t the only things that accumulate in old houses. Did you never question why the boy replays his end yet the crone does not? Quiet moments impress themselves upon a house as well as hideous ones. So do years passed in solitude, years in which you’re expected to come running like a dog when the bell chimes. You survive on the goodwill of family who resent having to keep you, and the charge you’re told you’re meant to love often spits in your face, calls you names.

Oh, the names Mum called me…

Did you push him?

Patricia was formless but I sensed her grin, too wide, too sharp. Of course. The little shit had it coming. Why the shocked face — you think you did any better?

Cast her out, Annika had urged, but you can’t cast out a part of yourself. I tipped my head back and let tears trickle out the corners of my eyes. The beams met above my head like a vaulted ceiling.

 

There was a moment, I breathed. There was a moment when the last scrap of Mum was gone and we could do nothing but wait. I sat beside her for days. No sleep, only coffee — too much coffee. Mum had always been proud. Self-sufficient. She would have hated this. She would have said you wouldn’t put a dog through it. It would be kinder if…

I asked her. I stroked her hand and actually asked my mum if she wanted me to end it.

I’ve gone over that moment so many times. It’s a scab I have to pick. In most versions, she doesn’t respond; she’s barely conscious. In others, she gives my finger a little squeeze. There’s a cushion behind me, or on the foot of the bed, or propping her head up. Wherever I find it, I crush it to me like a ratty teddy. Sometimes it’s corduroy. No, she deserves better — it’s pleated satin, or mink. Lately, it’s been embroidered with roses. Only once did I imagine pressing it onto her face, only for a second before my mind jerked away, disgusted with itself. But that’s the image that stays, the phosphene that dances on the inside of my eyelids. And like the quiet moments and the hideous moments, given enough time, it might as well be real.

 

I begged, asked, demanded that she leave, but Patricia wouldn’t be banished so easily. The small hours were her most spiteful, once she knew my secret. She taunted me, almost drove me mad. After a few years, I learned to withstand her barbs. Annika re-applied for university and we cleared out the loft to make room for her studies; only when Patricia’s room was no longer hers did the pain finally begin to fade.

So did Claire. Losing her stung as much as losing Marley, but even the good times must be forgotten in the end.

I plotted flowerbeds in the garden with sticks and twine, filling my hands with the smell of rich loam. I chose begonias, busy Lizzies and cosmos. In summer, my house of dead things burst with life. In between weeding and watering, I would sit back on my haunches to let the sun warm my face and imagine a split in the hard pit of my heart; a green shoot.

Were we kind? To the house, to each other, to ourselves? We tried. Annika and I listened out for Charlie every night. It was the least we could do before he left us forever. I don’t know how you slept through it, Annika would sigh. You must have been a monster.

Tonight, after the crack, I let out the breath I was holding. Slowly, the secret sounds returned. I frowned: they’d changed. My new nurse’s uniform hanging up on the back of the door rustled with starch; by my feet, Puss groomed himself and purred; beside me, Annika breathed; in the guest bedroom, her sister, brother-in-law and nephew, come to stay the fortnight, turned in their sleep.

I’d never known my house so content.

Do you hear that, Annika? I whispered.

She lifted her head, dozy with sleep. Hear what?

I smiled and stroked her lovely cheek. I think they’re finally gone.

 

“Hearts in the Hard Ground” copyright © 2020 by G. V. Anderson
Art copyright © 2020 by Audrey Benjaminsen

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